In this connection it is interesting to note that Huxley has pointed out a startling parallelism between the fetishism of the nineteenth-century Polynesian and the old Israelitish theology.
In considering some of the fundamental characteristics of the religious mode of thinking, the mind naturally reverts to the chapter of miracles. The miracle is the most beloved child of faith; the assertion that Christianity must stand or fall with its miracles runs through the entire history of the Church. The Christian Church has no hesitation in rejecting pagan thaumaturgy or miracle-working. It considers the repudiation of faith in extra-Christian miracles as laudable, but if the miracles outside the Christian realm are spurious, the assumption that Christian miracles must be true is a reductio ad absurdum.
I am now going to give an historically indisputable example of the manner in which miracles are recorded. We have in the life of St. Francis Xavier a valuable object-lesson of the origin of miracle belief and a demonstration how miracles fatten on time. Andrew D. White, in his study of St. Francis Xavier, the “Apostle of the Indies,” tells us that St. Francis has left a minute record of his life as a missionary in his own writing, and in the writings of his missionary associates. In none of these manuscripts is there any allusion to Franciscan miracles. On the contrary, St. Francis and his contemporaries explicitly deplore his human limitations. Jose de Acosta, the Jesuit spokesman of his time, the highest contemporary authority on the subject, plainly states that St. Xavier worked no miracles. St. Francis, it will be remembered, lived in the first half of the sixteenth century. Shortly after his death the first stories of miracles wrought by him began to appear. In 1622, seventy years after his death, he was canonized at Rome, and credited with three resurrections of the dead. In 1682, one hundred and thirty years after his death, he is credited with fourteen resurrections. If these legends could originate in the centuries of Shakespeare, when the art of printing had long outgrown its infancy, how fertile must have been the soil of thaumaturgic myth in the early centuries, when manuscripts circulated only among the initiated, who could juggle with traditions as their fancy dictated, and who considered every contribution to the wonders of Christian performance a pious act.
These observations lead us to a vital issue. As the holiest traditions of the Christian Church cluster about the personality of Jesus, the Christian world will be slow to accept the corrosive results of historic research into his life and time. Our information concerning the personality of Jesus is, according to all reliable sources, based entirely on tradition. The first writings we have describing his life are by Paul, who never saw him. The four gospels were written about forty, fifty, sixty, and one hundred years after his death. Even though our information came at first-hand, which it does not, we should be justified in entertaining the most serious doubts of the reliability of witnesses. We all know that the Gospels were elaborated centuries after the beginning of the Christian era by anonymous writers, who added their flights of fancy to the earliest records. History teaches us that during the period of the first Roman Emperors there was a general expectancy of the arrival of the Messiah. Polytheism was bankrupt. It no longer fitted the intellectual and moral needs of men. Into this Graeco-Roman world of discredited polytheism there came a new preachment of succor to the poor, justice to the oppressed, liberty to the slave, hope to the despondent, regeneration to the wicked, resurrection to the dying. And the people rose to what was subsequently used as a bait.
We are told that during this period there were several men of the name of Jesus, who laid claim to a Messianic vocation, and the conclusion is inevitable that the scriptural Jesus is a composite figure. The very name of Jesus, which, to the uninitiated seems something distinctive, is an Hellenization of the Hebrew Joshua. We can thus see in his apotheosis an ecstatic expression, both subjective and objective, of that religious fervor which is so characteristic of the frenzy of races to find the sublimest expression for their form of worship and their hope in redemption. If historic criticism can go so far, however, as to assert the gravest reason for doubting whether the Sermon on the Mount was ever preached, and whether the so-called Lord’s Prayer was ever prayed by Jesus of Nazareth, a thorough revision of Christian tradition is long overdue. But however much our conception of the personality of Jesus is open to revision, his ethics is the voice of the human soul, has an almost universal application, and is in many instances the culmination of the doctrine of righteousness.
The sins of the Church are not the sins of a pure Christianity, for if Jesus had never lived, the doctrines of which he is the incarnation did find, and would have found, utterance in the universal voice. One might justly ponder over the sorrow of the spirit of Jesus could it realize what the priesthood has done to him; how it has desecrated his memory in crime; how it has perverted his simplicity in the trappings of ceremonial, of pomp and of violence. We can see his bewilderment at the adulteration of his purity and gentleness with brazen power. We can see him lost in the sumptuous cathedrals erected in his honor. We can see him shudder at the toll of human suffering exacted as the price of his glorification. And if he were reincarnated, stripped of the legendary attributes with which the Church has invested him, we can imagine him an object of scorn and ridicule by those same priests who have transformed him into a divinity.
As a very respectable and intelligent body of Christians, the Unitarian sect, does not subscribe to the faith in the divinity of Jesus, it may be contended that the apotheosis of the Redeemer is not an essential tenet of the Christian creed. There then remains a restricted creed, the skeleton of which is the monotheistic conception, with Jesus as the great teacher.
Let us inquire into the development of Monotheism. Huxley contends that the evolution of theology is a study in anthropology. In following the origin, growth, decline and fall of those speculations respecting the existence, the powers and the dispositions of beings analogous to men, but more or less devoid of corporeal qualities, which may be broadly included under the head of theology, he cites the ghost belief as an integral part of the old Israelitish faith. The name of Elohim was applied to a ghost or disembodied soul, conceived as the image of a body in which it once dwelt. The difference which was supposed to exist between the different Elohim was one of degree, not of kind. Elohim was, in logical terminology, the genus of which the ghosts, Chemosh, Dagon, Baal and Yahveh, were species. The ancient Israelite conceived Yahveh not only in the image of a man, but in that of a changeable, irritable and occasionally violent man. Yahveh-Elohim was represented as a being of the same substantially human nature as the rest, only immeasurably more powerful for good or evil. Hence the Yahveh conception is the direct outcome of fetishism, ancestor-worship, hero-worship and demonology of primitive thought. In the Mosaic tradition this man-god was elaborated into the omniscient, omnipotent God of Jew. Christian and Mohammedan. This conception of the divinity could never have originated in a modern brain, and still it is demanded of our generation that we twist our interpretation of the great cosmic mystery into, that we concentrate our reverence on, a God, the conception of whom entirely antedates our scientific trend of thought.
For this is the scientific age. During the last four or five centuries human inquiry has swung into new channels. The art of printing, the Reformation, the science of astronomy and new ventures in navigation were the trumpet blasts announcing the modern era. The art of printing dispelled the pall of darkness which for fifteen centuries brooded over Europe. During all this time, and extending over the period of the Reformation, the birth pangs of Christianity filled the earth with its wails. It was a protracted labor. The first-born happened to suffer from that abnormity which, in the language of pathology, is characterized as bicephalus — or a two-headed monstrosity, the one head representing the Greek, the other the Roman type. The second brother, launched into the world some centuries later, a lusty chap, who was born protesting violently against his elder brother, seemed a healthy babe, but subsequently developed so many excrescences or tumors that it has become difficult to determine where the patient ends and the tumors begin. These two battered children of Mosaic ancestry, whose father, Jesus, would have difficulty in recognizing them and who, to put it mildly, have been guilty of considerable rudeness toward one another, have been beset by enemies other than themselves. Draper points out the fact that during the first fifteen hundred years of the Christian era there were no Christian astronomers. In the eyes of the Church, with its primitive conception of genesis, astronomy was the most hostile of all the sciences. If a Christian, therefore, wished to enjoy the luxury of dying in his bed, he found it safer to relegate astronomic research to the Arabians. But early in the sixteenth century Copernicus wrote a treatise based on mathematic calculation, which he called the “Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies.” He did not dare to have it printed for thirty-six years. On his deathbed he enjoyed the sad solace of having a printed copy of the book presented to him by friends.
One century later, Galileo looked through a tube provided with a system of lenses and gave ocular demonstrations of the Copernican doctrine. During this same period the three great mariners, Columbus, Da Gama and Magellan, demonstrated the scriptural fallacy of the flatness of the earth. Then came discovery after discovery, martyrdom after martyrdom. The sorrowing face of genius peers through the centuries. One should never tire of the story of Galileo. Even though the stamping of the foot and the “eppur si muove” are legendary, they are too good to be forgotten. The historic recantation, “I, Galileo, being in my seventieth year, being a prisoner and on my knees, and before your Eminences, having before my eyes the Holy Gospel, which I touch with my hands, abjure, curse and detest the error and the heresy of the movement of the earth,” was delivered under threat of torture, and was followed by theologic refutations of the Copernican system which Galileo was not permitted to answer.
I am going to quote the work of Chiaramonti, written under the auspices of the Church, as a characteristic specimen of the ecclesiastical repartee of that day. “Animals,” Chiaramonti says, “which move, have limbs and muscles; the earth has no limbs and muscles; therefore, it does not move. It is angels who make Saturn, Jupiter, the sun, etc., turn around. If the earth revolved, it must also have an angel in the center to set it in motion; but only devils live there; it would, therefore, be a devil who would impart motion to the earth.” In the face of such and other defense was the cosmic theory of Bible and Church finally annihilated, the earth dethroned from its centricity. Rampart after rampart has been deserted and the Church has ceased to be the dominant militant power. It has been reduced to a form of masterly inactivity, reaching, when it is hard-pressed, a faltering hand to science triumphant, willing to waive the literal interpretation and receding into the quicksands of symbolism.
Scientific truth, however, is a grim mistress, offering no compromise, and when the heavy philosopher with his jargon, or the pseudo-scientist steps in as mediator, attempting to bridge the chasm with an acrobatic display of dialectic finesse, we can witness the curious performance, according to our disposition, either with amusement or disgust. It has become quite the fashion in recent times to let the Church down easy; to find a common meeting-ground; to hold out the hand of fellowship; to clasp the bloody hand of the butcher or the oily hand of the time-server. To those who would tolerate the embrace of a snake I do not begrudge the bed-fellowship of priestcraft.
Theology has taught false doctrines and has become a discredited teacher. If ever there will come a solution of the Great Mystery, it will come not through theology, but through the sciences. The priest, with leaden feet, will continue to follow in the wake of research. We shall turn to the mathematician, the astronomer, the geologist, the experts in paleontology, physics, chemistry, botany, biology, anatomy and physiology, seeking knowledge of heaven and earth, life and death. Just what modification the priestly function will ultimately undergo it is difficult to say. It is probable that the ranks of the clergy will be considerably thinned. It is more than probable that the seeker after truth will not be hounded and ostracised by the discredited priest. It is more than probable that when reason sits on the throne of tradition, the human race will breathe a sigh of relief at its emancipation from the slavery of fettered thought and at the extinction of a tribe of men who have been false teachers.