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Saturday, July 7, 2012

An article which appeared in the Hibbert Journal in April 1910

I am unaware of the original title of the article, but it was reprinted in Christian Faith and Life, volume 12 (January to June 1910) under the title " 'Jesus' or 'Christ'?---The Latest Bubble Punctured"

Interestingly enough, though it was written about twelve to thirteen years before Chesterton entered the Catholic Church, the editor of Christian Faith and Life (which was published by the Bible League of North America) took it for granted that Chesterton was a Catholic. Here is the editors original remarks introducing the article:

[In "The Bible Student and Teacher" for March, 1910, appeared a summary of the discussion in "The Hibbert Journal," for January, 1909, of the newly-raised question, "Jesus or Christ?" There were included, an abridgement of the paper, "Jesus or Christ?—An Appeal for Consistency", by Rev. R. Roberts; and also of the paper entitled, "Jesus or Christ?—A Reply to Mr. Roberts", by Professor Moulton, of the University of Manchester, an avowed Liberal.

We are here carrying out the promise then made to add to the other views that of the brilliant young essayist, Mr. G. K. Chesterton, from a later number of the Journal. While we can not endorse Mr. Chesterton's views of the place of the Roman Church as the final authority and arbiter in the matter—they are those of a pronounced Roman Catholic—we accept his general criticism as thorough, unanswerable and annihilating.—Editor.']

Before remarking on the Rev. Mr. Roberts's article called "Jesus or Christ? it is only fair for me to say that the title affects me personally as would some such title as "Napoleon or Bonaparte"? I can comprehend a nuance of difference between the terms; that one would use the surname in one connection, the imperial name in another. But I could not comprehend a person trying to prove that Napoleon was clever while Bonaparte was stupid, or that Bonaparte was a coward while Napoleon was very brave. If there were no life of General Bonaparte there would (to my narrow and unphilosophic mind) be no legend of Napoleon; his public life may have been more glorious than his private, but it is essential to my sentimental interest that they should both have happened to the same man. In the same way the achievements of Christ as the founder of a Church and the chief deity of a civilisation may be more gigantic and inspiring than His activities in Galilee or Jerusalem. But if the two persons are not one person I lose my existing interest in both of them; one of them is an obscure Rabbi like Hillel, and the other is a myth like Apollo.

But I must make one preliminary explanation, in case I have not understood Mr. Roberts's main design. If Mr. Roberts merely means this: that the Jesus of the Gospels is not enough for all human purposes; that we need more codification and science in our morals than so poetic a vision can give to us,—I agree with him at once. I do not know what deduction he draws; the deduction I draw is that Jesus left on earth not only four lives of Himself, but also a Church and a Catholic tradition. If Jesus means the Gospels and Christ means the Church, and if Mr. Roberts chooses to put it in the form that we need Christ in addition to Jesus, I have no quarrel with him there. But if he means (as I think he certainly does mean) that the Jesus in the Gospel is definitely unreliable and undivine, that He can be convicted of error, that He has been outgrown, then I have a very large and hearty quarrel with Mr. Roberts and it is simply a quarrel about the facts.

I will follow his example and divest myself of any old-world disguises of reverence; and I will speak as he does of the actual Jesus as He appears in the New Testament; not as He appears to a believer, but as He appears to anybody; as He appeared to me when I was an agnostic; as He appeared and still appears to pagans when they first read about Him. If, therefore, in this article I speak of Him with something that even sounds like levity, let it be understood that I am speaking for the sake of argument of a hypothetical human Jesus in the Syrian documents, and not of the divine personality in whom I believe.

Now, the thing that strikes me most about Mr. Roberts is that he is wrong on the facts. He is especially wrong on the primary fact of what sort of person the Jesus of the Gospels appears to be. The whole of Mr. Roberts's contention is ultimately this: that when we look, so to speak, through the four windows of the Evangelists at this mysterious figure, we see there a recognisable Jew of the first century, with the traceable limitations of such a man. Now, this is exactly what we do not see. If we must put the thing profanely and without sympathy, what we see is this: an extraordinary being, who would certainly have seemed as mad in one century as another, who makes a vague and vast claim to divinity, who constantly contradicts himself, who imposes impossible commands, who where he seems wrong to us would certainly have seemed quite as wrong to anybody else, who where he seems specially right to us is often in tune with matters not ancient but modern, such, for instance, as the adoration of children. For some of his utterances men might fairly call him a maniac; for others, men long centuries afterwards might justly call him a prophet. But what nobody can possibly call him is Galilean of the time of Tiberius. That was not how he appeared to his own family, who tried to lock him up as a lunatic. That is not how he appeared to his nation, who lynched him, still shuddering at his earth-shaking blasphemies. The impression produced on sceptics, ancient and modern, is not that of limits, but rather of a dangerous absence of limits; a certain shapelessness and mystery of which one cannot say how far it will go. Those of his contemporaries who said that he was possessed by devils seem to me much better critics of biography than Mr. Roberts.

I deny, therefore, Mr. Roberts's facts; but it would hardly be courteous to leave such a statement as mere assertion, therefore I will briefly give my proofs. There are at least three practical and final reasons why the Gospels cannot be used for this purpose of catching Jesus out in ignorances or mistakes.

1. The first is the scope and style of the Gospels. There is here a very queer confusion of thought which Mr. Roberts has not foreseen or avoided. He says, very truly, that the materials are meagre, or in other words that the New Testament is a very little book. He then goes on to say, as if it were part of the same argument, that we can see in this book the small contemporary prejudices of the Jew. But if these two things are true they must be true in spite of each other. So far as they go they destroy each other: the less there is about Jesus the less it is possible to belittle Him. The limitation of the book prevents the limitation of the hero. It would be much harder to find out a man's limitations from a short post-card than from a long letter. If a man talks for fifteen minutes you may possibly find that he is a fool; if he talks for two hours it is barely possible that you may learn that he is a bore. But if he only says, "A fine morning"! he may be Shakespeare or Socrates for all you know. But Mr. Roberts actually quotes, in order to limit Jesus, that biographical brevity which in fact makes it impossible to limit Jesus.

For instance the mere fact of the size and plain purpose of the Gospels makes nonsense of the whole of Mr. Roberts's laments about things being absent from them. One might as well complain of some subjects being left out of a telegram or a triolet. Mr. Roberts's complaint that Jesus does not mention debtors and creditors or the slave system, is utterly absurd when taken in connection with the nature of the books. He might as well object that the Lord's Prayer is entirely silent on the subject of a Second Chamber, the duty of doctors in time of plague, the art of Botticelli, the advisability of reading novels, and the use of tobacco. The Lord's Prayer is, in shape and purpose, a short prayer. The Gospel of St. Luke is, in shape and purpose, a short account of such sayings and doings of Jesus as a particular person happened to remember. As I have already said, I agree that this leaves the Gospel Jesus too shadowy to be all-sufficient; that is the argument for a Church. But the same brevity and obscurity which make it a little difficult to define His doctrines make it mere impudent nonsense to talk of His limitations.

But Mr. Roberts does something worse than complain of the omissions of Jesus: he supplies them. It is borne in upon me that he has pursued a course not uncommon among cultivated modern persons—a course which I pursued myself for many years of my life; I mean that he has read all the books about the New Testament and forgotten to read the book itself. His memories of it, at any rate, are singularly hazy and exaggerative. Before I leave this first objection, that the limit of space limits the limitation of Jesus, let me give one truly extraordinary example. Let me show how huge and systematic are the unconscious fictions built up in Mr. Roberts's brain; and let me show (what is more to the point) how utterly and obviously unfitted are the curt texts of the Evangelists to be the basis of such structures.

Speaking still of Jesus, Mr. Roberts writes as follows:

"His teaching on divorce recognizes the husband's right to accuse, judge, condemn, and dismiss the wife; while the wife, having no such rights as against her husband or even over her own children, is left the helpless victim of the husband's caprice. There is no recognition of adultery on the part of the husband as a ground for divorce which the wife might urge, while the right of the husband to decide these matters himself without reference to any constituted law courts strikes the modern mind as callous and iniquitous to the last degree. The teaching is governed throughout by an admission of the iniquitous principle of sex-inferiority as against woman, and let it be remembered this principle has inflicted infinite suffering on half the human race".

Any one would imagine from this that Jesus Christ read out an Act of Parliament, with twenty-five clauses and fifteen schedules. I was puzzled by this, because, as far as I could remember, He only answered a casual question in the street. I do not profess to be any more verbally irreproachable than Mr. Roberts in my memories of Scripture; still, I could not recall anything in the Gospels about any of these things, about the custody of the children, about not having any law courts, or about the iniquitous principle of sex-inferiority. But in a note at the bottom of the page referring to the above paragraph, Mr. Roberts has written the following undecorated but highly misleading statement: "Matt. xix. 3-9; Mark x. 11, 12; Luke xv. 18".

This made the matter simpler; so I looked up Matt., etc., and found nothing even resembling the above immense system for getting rid of wives. I found a hasty and somewhat disdainful statement in answer to a few hecklers; the statement was entirely concerned with telling people that marriage was a final and sacred state, and that therefore, except on one parenthetical supposition, men ought to cleave to their wives. There was nothing about the husband having the children or anybody having the children; there were no law courts or absence of law courts or remote mention of law courts; there was nothing whatever about anybody being inferior to anybody. This is the whole text of Matthew:

"The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery".

I quote verbatim lest I should seem unfair if I summarized. But would any human being think me unfair if I summarised the above thus?—A man asked Jesus if wives should be divorced. Jesus replied, No; a man should leave everything for his wife and cleave to her, unless she practically left him. The custom of divorcing wives was a bad custom only permitted in a brutal society. The normal ideal was absolute fidelity. If it does not mean that, I can offer no conjecture as to what it means.

The exact words of Mark follow:

"And the Pharisees came to him and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him. And he answered and said unto them, ' What did Moses command you? And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter. And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery".

I request any rational person to look at the last sentence and ask himself what has become of Mr. Roberts's Oriental vision of the shuddering, inferior woman, and the husband sitting like a sultan on a cushion to judge her. The very phrase "put away" which is the basis of the whole business is here assumed in both sexes and condemned in both. In Mark the sexes are told to cleave to each other. In Matthew only the man is told to cleave to the woman; and in Matthew an exception is mentioned. That is all. Henceforth I shall make a point of looking out the references given in rationalist articles.

The third reference is to Luke xv. 18. I have looked this out also, and it runs, "I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father I have sinned against heaven and before thee". Here I confess my brain gives out: I can no more. I cannot conceive what this text has to do with it, unless the iniquitous principle of sex inferiority prevented the Prodigal Son from arising and going to his mother.

I have thought it worth while to dwell on this excellent specimen of the Higher Criticism, because I think it is time that this sort of thing should stop. But I mentioned it originally not so much to show the unreasonableness of Mr. Roberts's deduction as to show the unreasonableness of making any detailed deduction. The short, swordlike sentences used by Jesus Christ in combat are not elaborate enough for this purpose. Here, for instance, He struck unmistakably one sentiment so that it rang—that marriage is sacred and divorce bad; as for the remote inferences Mr. Roberts's or anyone else's, one would not hang a dog on them. In short, the sharp incidental style of Jesus is against Mr. Roberts in his amiable attempt to find limits. The sayings, whether convincing or not, are not of the literary type which reveal a man's mental boundaries. They are mostly abrupt, generally symbolic, and often ironical. If we are to find a man's mental limitations we must have a long sample of his connected thought; thus I do not think it difficult, after reading his article, to find the limitations of Mr. Roberts. But it is impossible with utterances that are partly epigrams, partly oracles, and often something like songs. The thing to say about Jesus if you do not like Him is that He was a megalomaniac like Nero or a deliberate mystagogue like Cagliostro. But whether or no He was small, it is plain that the Gospels are too small for Him. Whether or no He is large, He is too large for the stage.

2. There is a second more emphatic reason for refusing to find these limitations in the Gospel figure. It is the moral nature of most of the sayings, which are intrinsically defiant, visionary, and even paradoxical. Here Mr. Roberts has been horribly unfortunate. The examples he gives prove exactly the opposite of what he is trying to prove.

For instance, he quotes the old "Take no thought for the morrow". It is indeed a very extraordinary utterance; but for that very reason it is not the ordinary utterance of a first-century Jew. Does Mr. Roberts believe that it was ever a customary thing for a Jew to take no thought for the morrow? Does he suppose that Zebedee never mended his nets, that Nicodemus never counted his money, that people in Palestine did not sow or reap? Surely it is as plain as a pike-staff that such a saying would have been a paradox if uttered in any age or country; as much a paradox to Jews under Tiberius as to Englishmen under Edward VII. As to its true meaning, I am not discussing that now. It may have been a special counsel to certain illuminati; it may have been a mystical joke; it may have been a perfection we shall one day reach; it may have been irony; it may have been insanity. All that we agree to leave open. But whatever it was, it was not a current convention. So far from showing Jesus surrendering to the limit of his age, it shows Jesus apparently breaking out of the limits of all ages. It shows Him gigantic, in an incredible attitude, defying the limits of human life.

Mr. Roberts mixes up these two opposite ideas for several pages. Sometimes he reproaches Jesus with saying what everybody thought and sometimes what nobody could ever think. But surely every paradox of Jesus obliterates a limitation of Jesus. Take this, for instance: "On non-resistance and oath-taking the rule attributed to Jesus is absolute. Yet, as a whole, Christendom has openly violated it throughout its history. His most distinguished followers, popes and bishops, have waged wars and consecrated battleships; and the existence of Christian armies proves that Jesus has been unable to get His own followers to obey His rule".

The command about the other cheek is highly startling; but it would certainly have startled people in the Roman Empire as much as ourselves, if not more. I can see how it might be maintained that this phrase of Jesus proves His unlimited extravagance, but I cannot see how it proves His Syrian limitations. Were the Maccabees or the Zealots nonresisters? Did the Romans turn the other cheek? Here also I am discussing not the theory, but the facts. Christ's command about giving the coat as well as the cloak was, very possibly, a humorous suggestion of embarrassing the enemy. "If a man knocks your hat off, offer him your umbrella; and it is he who will look the fool". But my interpretations are not in question, but Mr. Roberts's; and by no conceivable means can Mr. Roberts make this paradox a current or local prejudice. That "popes and bishops have waged wars and consecrated battleships" is a very fortunate fact for Mr. Roberts and for other Western Europeans. For certainly, if the Pope had not launched a fleet and hurled back the Turks at Lepanto, Mr. Roberts and the rest of us would be living under a Turkish civilization, in which he might find the view of woman even less satisfactory than that expressed (so obscurely) in the parable of the Prodigal Son. But if human conventions have contradicted Jesus on this matter, it may prove that Jesus was wrong, but it can hardly prove that He was conventional. So it is with the matter of marriage on which I have already touched. The substance of the speech of Jesus is simply that divorce is wrong because sacramental marriage is right. I could understand a person calling this quixotic or idealistic or too cruel a strain on human nature. But to say that Jesus got it from the Jews or the Roman Empire is absurd. We come back to the same fact: if Jesus is impossible, it is because He is individual and idealistic, not because He was like His land or age. If He is outside practical politics, it is not because He is limited to his age, but because He is quite astonishingly in advance of ours.

3. Thirdly, there is one element in the thoughts of Jesus which again may make a man conclude that they are worthless, but which can not possibly make him conclude that they are limited. I mean the element of apparent contradiction. If I meet a man who says he is an atheist, I may consider him a limited man; I generally do. If ten minutes afterwards I overhear him praying passionately to God, I may conclude that he is mad, or a humorist, or has some singular synthesis. But exactly the thing I can not say is that I know his limits. Now, Jesus told men to turn the other cheek; He also told them to buy swords to fight people; He also set them a healthy example by thrashing the money-changers in the open Temple. This may be madness, but it is not limitation. Jesus said, "He that is not for us is against us." He also said, "He that is not against us is for us." This may be illogicality, but it is not limitation.

4. Lastly, one other argument of Mr. Roberts's is put in this simple form: "If Jesus was God He knew that the people's belief in diabolic obsession was an error." He does not seem to see that this rather transfers the discussion from the question of whether Jesus was God to the question of whether Mr. Roberts is God—a question into which I have far too much delicacy to enter. But I think a man might be a little more modest than to begin two or three sentences with, "If he was God he knew that—" and then add all his own private opinions or all the most ephemeral prejudices of his season and his set . How, may I ask, does Mr. Roberts know exactly what God thinks about diabolic possession?

To understand men or the most ordinary life is mystery enough for most of us; and here is an enlightened gentleman who not only knows about God, but knows God's private opinion upon the mystery of evil. One would think that the meditations of the Omniscient upon the subject of devils might reasonably be left undisturbed. But since the indiscretion has already been committed, and Mr. Roberts is in possession of the Divine view of the relations between moral evil and animal torture, I suggest that he should tell us at once what they are, instead of taking, with this mistaken shyness, the indirect method of attacking Jesus of Nazareth. Who hath laid the measure thereof, declare since thou knowest? or, who hath stretched the line upon it? Have the gates of death been open to thee, or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death? What is pain? What are devils? What is the relation between the body and the soul, between the soul and the other souls outside it? Do Mr. Roberts and I know so much about any of these things that we should say that there is no such thing as diabolic possession? Is there any particular logic in denying that the Son of God might cast our devils out, merely because most modern doctors are obliged to leave them in? But Mr. Roberts is hardly enough of a Catholic to be an agnostic; and it may be that this sort of intellectual humility appears to him merely hazy and remote. I will appeal to him upon a side on which I am sure he is sensitive. I will point out to him that he is decidedly behind the times. He is by no means modern. Psychological science in our time has come uncomfortably near to a belief in the casting out of devils. Dual personality is surely something uncommonly like diabolic possession; it seems only to resolve itself into a delicate problem of which person should be thrown out. Moreover (and this is yet more important), if you had asked any of the manly old freethinkers, Tom Paine or Diderot to believe in dual personality, they would have told you that they would just as soon, while they were about it, believe in diabolical possession. In the very issue of the Hibbert Journal, in which Mr. Roberts takes it for granted that God Almighty is an early Victorian rationalist, there are no less than three articles dealing with psychical marvels which all the early Victorian rationalists would have classed with the Cock-Lane ghost. And America is already roaring with a new religion which maintains not only that this or that disease might be a devil, but that all disease is one vast devil — a universal diabolic possession. Surely Mr. Roberts might be induced to wait a little while before he deprives his Christ of the only body and the only biography which that being ever possessed.

In conclusion, it is my business, I suppose, to put very briefly my sentiment on the whole subject. I will put it thus. If I take it for granted (as most modern people do) that Jesus of Nazareth was one of the ordinary teachers of men, then I find Him splendid and suggestive indeed, but full of riddles and outrageous demands, by no means so workable an every day an adviser as many heathens and many Jesuits. But if I put myself hypothetically into the other attitude, the case becomes curiously arresting and even thrilling. If I say, "Suppose the Divine did really walk and talk upon the earth, what should we be likely to think of it?" then the foundations of my mind are moved. So far as I can form any conjecture, I think we should see in such a being exactly the perplexities that we see in the central figure of the Gospels: I think he would seem to us extreme and violent; because he would see some further development in virtue which would be for us untried. I think he would seem to us to contradict himself; because looking down on life like a map he would see a connection between things which to us are disconnected. I think, however, that he would always ring true to our own sense of right, but ring (so to speak) too loud and too clear. He would be too good, but never too bad for us: "Be ye perfect."

I think there would be, in the nature of things, some tragic collision between him and the humanity he had created, culminating in something that would be at once a crime and an expiation. I think he would be blamed as a hard prophet for dragging down the haughty, and blamed also as a weak sentimentalist for loving the things that cling in corners, children or beggars. I think, in short, that he would give us a sensation that he was turning all our standards upside down, and yet also a sensation that he had undeniably put them the right way up. So, if I had been a Greek sage or an Arab poet before Christ, I should have figured to myself, in a dream, what would actually happen if this earth bore secretly somewhere the father of gods and men. In the abstract, it may be that it is still only a dream. Between those who think it a dream and those who do not, is to be waged the great war of our future in which all these frivolities will be forgotten. But among those who call it a dream I have not met many who call it a small dream; and very few indeed who in reading its tremendous record have been chiefly struck by its limitations.

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