THE WORD MADE FLESH
I WILL now tell you of the Logos, or Word that was made flesh.
As not from without but from within the human consciousness, came the necessity for a Being who should constitute the solution of the problem of existence, that is, for God; so, not from without but from within the human consciousness, only further developed, came the necessity for a solution of the problem how God could produce the world; the problem, that is, how the infinite could become transmuted into the finite, the ideal into the real, perfection into imperfection.
For ages had metaphysicians pondered it. Brahminism, rejecting the previously received doctrine of the eternity of matter, introduced a Trinity personifying Absolute Existence, Composition, and Decomposition. Late in the history of this religion, namely about B.C. 1000 to 600, came Buddhism, a system derived from Sakya Muni, a sage and philanthropist, who sought to spiritualise Brahminism in much the same
way that Jesus sought to spiritualise Judaism. Under the name of Buddha this reformer was widely worshipped as the Word of Divine Wisdom made flesh.
Simplifying the teaching of the Indian theologians, and breaking down the partition wall of Caste between the priests and people, Buddha called on all alike to receive the Word and its spiritual benefits.
Passing from India to Persia, and thence to Greece, where in the hands of Plato it was made much of, the doctrine of the Logos became the prominent feature of the famous Neoplatonic school of Alexandria. For some time the doctrine was here restricted to the region of philosophy, and was devoid of any personal element. But to mere intellect the chasm between the finite and the infinite was impassable; it was for religion to accomplish what philosophy had only attempted.
Where intellect sees an idea, an abstraction, religion sees a person. This involves a superior development of the consciousness; inasmuch as, while intellect of itself, having neither motive nor force, could not have created, personality includes intellect and all else that is indispensable to action, namely feeling and energy. Aristotle, as I have already mentioned, was here surpassed by Plato, who spoke of emotion and intellect as the two wings on which we rise towards God. It was by their aid
that man discovered that God is Love, – Love and therefore Creator; Love and therefore Redeemer.
Yes, Redeemer. For the growth of consciousness had brought with it yet another problem, and one whose solution was as necessary to the repose of the human soul as that of the others had been for the satisfaction of the human mind. The infinite had become transmuted into the finite, the ideal into the real, and thus had brought about the world. But with the growth of consciousness came the growth of conscience; and under its influence man perceived that the real fell so far short of the ideal as necessarily to be displeasing to its Creator, the absolute ideal. How was a reconciliation to be effected, and the real be re-united to the ideal, the world to God? Surely, only by the same method as was employed in the original creation; even by an incarnation of the Divine Wisdom or ‘Word’ in the nature of those who were to be redeemed, even God manifest in the flesh. Only by a new birth or creation through the Divine Word, the High Priest, the Anointed, the Christ incapable of sin, first begotten of God, born of a wholly pure mother; the Word who was before all things and by whom all things were made, who stands between the living and the dead, and by whom God will raise up man perfect and place him near himself.
Be not dismayed. I am not quoting Scripture
to prove itself. The keys wherewith we are to open the Creeds are not taken thence. These phrases are all borrowed from a writer who lived and wrote not only long before the time of the New Testament, but before the commencement of the ministry of Jesus. And he did not use them; as if he had originated l them, and was eager to propagate his own fame by their means. He used them as being already in vogue; for they were already in the air, soon to be precipitated in a concrete form to the earth. The sense in which he used them, however, was less spiritual than philosophical. They constituted for him the solution of a mental problem.
Once more, then, I say, Redeemer; for the love that creates must also save. But love is of the feelings, not of the intellect. Wherefore a religion that appeals to the intellect only, fails in the essential element of religion. The founders of religions have not been intellectual men; at least it was in virtue of their spiritual and emotional characteristics, rather than of their intellectual ones, that they have been qualified for their mission. Pure intellect would be content with an impersonal unconditioned Unity, occupying space in such a way as to admit of nought beside itself. And neither intellect nor feeling can conceive of Unity as productive.
All this was obvious to thinkers thousands of years ago. Hence the Trinities of the Vedas and
the later Hindus; of the Scandinavians and Egyptians; of Zoroaster, of Plato, and many others, all of which had their basis in a philosophy that was purely human. Hence also the various incarnations springing from those Trinities. For, thousands of years ago it was obvious to all, except the Jews, that the fact of the divine personality involved the necessity of a Trinity, and that the doctrine of incarnation alone solved the problems of creation and redemption. The Jews, to some extent, learnt it at last; but it took a long course of study in the philosophy of Persia, Greece, and Egypt, to bring them up to the level of this catholic doctrine. A long course of study and of suffering also; for only by suffering was Israel at length to be made perfect. This should not tell against them. It was only through the extraordinary fibre of the race that it required so much working up, and that it was capable of being worked up to so high a pitch. True, Israel’s crossgrainedness often brought its own troubles upon it; but a less hardy stock would long since have perished utterly.
So far, then, from ministering to the moral degradation of the Jews, their hopelessness of a physical deliverance bore fruit in the production of the idea of a spiritual deliverer, through whom their race should achieve a triumph surpassing any imaginable by their enemies.
‘OUT OF EGYPT HAVE I CALLED MY SON’
WHILE Israel was thus developing its faith in the advent of a Messiah who should redeem him from all his sins, instead of one who should rescue him from his political woes, there arose in Alexandria a school of philosophy that seemed to be a revival of the departed glories of Greece. The language of this School was Greek, and its .philosophy that of Plato, only Plato still further spiritualised and speaking of one God as creator and ruler of the world, without deference to the popular predilection for a multiplicity of deities.
The School of Alexandria added a new Trinity to those already received in Egypt, which were derived, as I have shown you, from the phenomena of the solar system and of sex. This new Trinity was based on an analysis of the functions of the individual man. Every living being consists of a trinity; the individual self; the mind; and the life.
Well, following our rule, and projecting the individual man into the ideal, and divesting him of limitations,
the Neoplatonists presented their Trinity as consisting of three Persons, of whom the first was Unity, infinite and perfect, but capable of generating existence. How it could do so, this philosophy could not say, because as yet it was only a philosophy, and not a religion. The second person was subordinate to the first, but was the most perfect of all generated beings. It was called the Intelligence, Wisdom, or Word, – Logos, a Greek term, by a happy coincidence signifying both reason and speech. The third person was the universal Spirit, Soul, or Life. It was only through the Word that God the Father could be known, as a man’s mind can only be known through his speech. The Word was thus the interpreter or mediator between God and man.
The leading apostle of this philosophy was a Jew, named Philo, who was born about B.C. 30. From his writings were quoted the passages that sounded so much like Scripture. He was at once an enthusiastic disciple of Plato, and an ardent Jew after the pattern of the later and more spiritual type. His countrymen, growing in spiritual graces since the captivity, had long been familiar with the idea of the Logos, whom they personified under the name of Wisdom. The Apocrypha, a collection of writings retained in the Catholic Canon of Scripture, but excluded from the Protestant, affords us a clear insight into the progress of Jewish thought between the
times of the Old and New Testaments. Constantly in the book of Wisdom, is Wisdom spoken of as a personified emanation of Deity, in every function identical with the Logos of Philo.
In Jerusalem itself thought approximated more or less to that in Alexandria. The early advent of a deliverer was the object of belief and prayer with all earnest Jews. Their differences were mainly respecting his nature. Should the expected Messiah appear as a great Jewish warrior to redeem their country from the Roman yoke, and lead them to the enjoyment of all the glories and delights of the world of sense; or should he be a teacher of righteousness to lead them to God and to the worship of an ideal of spiritual perfection?
These aspirations found an echo in the mind of Philo. But living in a philosophical atmosphere and being of a religious temperament, and withal a liberal in politics, his aim was to win Jew and Gentile alike to a religion derived equally from Moses, and Plato, and one which he believed himself able to construct on a sufficiently catholic, or as he called it encyclic, basis; a religion at once so rational and so spiritual as to be able to win acceptance from the human heart and human mind without divine interference. Besides, for him the Logos was already an actual person; existing, not indeed in a gross material form, but as the idea subsisting in the mind of
the Creator, and taking form in speech, even the Word whereby all things were created, yet at the same time a distinct personality.
We have, thus, at this time in the most influential centre of thought, and closely connected with Palestine, geographically, commercially, and intellectually, a religion which consisted in the worship of a divine being, incarnated in human form in order to redeem fallen man, born of a virgin, teaching immortality, working wonders of benevolence, dying through the hostile machinations of the Spirit of Evil, rising from death, re-ascending into heaven, and becoming judge of the dead. As representative of the sun, the festivals appointed in his honour were fixed in accordance with the seasons; his birth being at the end of the winter solstice; his death at the spring equinox; his rising soon afterwards, and then his ascension into heaven, whence he showers down benefits on men. And, mingled with the worship of this being, we have moral and theological teaching of the utmost purity and nobility.
We have, also, at the same time and in the same country a philosophy counting many adherents among the learned and pious, and seeking to become general, of which the main doctrines were a Trinity of spiritual beings, consisting of Father, Son, and Soul or Life, the second person being distinguished as the Logos or divine Word, by whom all things were made,
and without whom nothing was or could be made; and who was also man’s redeemer and mediator with God.
And, shifting the scene but a short distance to a country adjoining and in intimate intercourse with Egypt, we have a people of the intensest religious temperament, all of them ardently longing for deliverance from the yoke of a conqueror, and many of them regarding the deliverance from spiritual and ceremonial bondage as of still greater importance; familiar, too, with the preaching of a new era which should constitute the kingdom of God on earth, when under the chieftainship of a heaven-descended Messiah, Israel should become the head of the nations in moral if not in political power.
Still possessed as were the Jews by the tendency to personify principles and ideas which had made them so liable to idolatry, it was inevitable that the desires which had accumulated until too oppressive to be borne, should take visible form, and the massive cloud of the general hopes and feelings burst and discharge its pent up contents in solid form on the earth. The passionateness of their character finds ample demonstration in the history of the sect of the Essenes. These were a people who first appeared in the country of the Dead Sea about 200 B.C. Deriving their tenets from the East, they believed in the Persian dualism, regarded the sun
as the impersonation of the Supreme Light, and worshipped it in a modified way. Forsaking civilisation for the wilderness, they renounced all the pleasures of sense, and devoted themselves to the culture of repentance and pious mysticism, in furtherance of the ‘kingdom of God’ on a broader basis than that contemplated by the Law. They had all property in common, and refused the ordinary sacrifices, deeming themselves the only acceptable sacrifice they could offer to God.
The Essenes also took vows of poverty and chastity, attached vast importance to baptism, and, in virtue of the solar basis of their faith, practised the Mithraic rite of the Eucharist. Perhaps it has not occurred to you that the sacrament of bread and wine is traceable to such a source? Yet how naturally does the eternal work of the sun, daily renewed, express itself in such lines as, –
Into bread his heat is turned,
Into generous wine his light.
And imagining the sun as a person, the change to ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’ becomes inevitable; while the fact that the solar forces are actually changed into food without forfeiting their solar character, finds expression in the doctrines of transubstantiation and the real presence. To the sect of the Essenes the originals of John the Baptist and Jesus himself must have belonged; and it is not difficult to imagine an
extraordinary development of the religious genius in the youthful Jesus as calling forth the prophetic utterances of John.
The passionateness of the Jewish character finds illustration also in another and more influential party, whereof the writer of the Pauline epistles was an enthusiastic member. These could not conceive of a law so holy, just and good, and inculcating a standard of perfection so transcendent as that of Moses, or of the sacrifices enjoined by it, as coming to an end except by being so absolutely fulfilled as to be no longer necessary: or of the high and sanguine anticipations of their prophets passing fruitless away.
The absolute hopelessness of restoring the old régime would prompt this class of thinkers to accept any solution that promised to save the credit of their cherished system. It was true the prophets had not held the Law in such high estimation as to consider its perpetuity desirable. Nay, one of the most highly inspired of them had drawn a touching picture of Israel personified as a man of sorrows, and blameless life, and so far from requiring sacrifice for himself, dying for the sins of others. What if the obscure itinerant enthusiast, whose violent death and the outcries of whose followers, had brought into notice his simple life of benevolence and his moral, though withal revolutionary teaching, – could be
taken as foreshadowed in such a prophecy, and exalted as the redeemer and moral Messiah of Israel?
The Law, the decay of whose authority they were lamenting, had failed, it is true, to exalt Israel to the first place among mankind. But that was through no fault of the law. It postulated an ideal perfection, now proved by experience to be unattainable in the real, so far as men, and even Israelites, in general were concerned.
But what if it could be shown that a single individual of their race had attained the perfection prescribed by the Law, and in pursuit of that perfection had come to a violent death? Why, in that case the Law could be superseded as fulfilled in every respect, and could without dishonour give place to a new dispensation.
But who could thus accomplish all the divine commands and supersede a law given by God? None, surely, save God himself. Perfection such as this appertained not to the finite. The new moral Messiah must therefore be God himself, incarnate in the seed of Abraham and David, even the familiar Logos by whom all things were created and redeemed. But if God, there must be discernible in him elements of infinity, moral spiritual and physical, altogether incompatible with the limitations of humanity.
In accordance with this train of Jewish thought, we are now brought to enquire what was the life and rule, what the secret and method, whereby he on whom the choice fell to fill this high office, demonstrated his superiority to ordinary flesh and blood, and reconciled a doctrine essentially Catholic with one exclusively Jewish.
THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN
TO BE accounted divine by his fellows, a man must exhibit the element of infinity in one or more directions.
The special distinguishing characteristic of the Jesus presented to us by the gospels, consisted in his dealing with all moral and spiritual questions from the standpoint of the ideal. His rules were rules of absolute perfection, to be followed implicitly without reference to consequences or to the possibility of carrying them out in their entirety. Thus far they were identical in spirit with the law of Moses. But there was an essential difference between them and that law. The law did not concern itself with the attitude of men’s minds, or set forth the Deity as an object of affection. It was essentially outward and ceremonial, regulating conduct and appearances, and its ruling motive was fear.
Jesus, on the contrary, cared nought for externals, but made the spirit all in all, and love for God the sole motive. For him the essential element of
the perfect life was the cultivation of the soul; the means employed being the contemplation and practice of absolute perfection. This alone being of consequence, he accounted nothing that befalls the individual thus occupied as worthy of consideration. The end and aim of his followers must not be the happiness either of themselves or of others, but such perfection of spirit as will of itself produce the most perfect behaviour under all circumstances. To those who seek first the ideal perfection in their minds and hearts – ‘the kingdom of God’ as he called it – whatever else is desirable will be added spontaneously. Being good will produce doing good. And a life in the ideal will, by being indifferent to the life of sense, seem to have all good things.
It was not the rich only whom he admonished to hold their real as of no account, if they would cultivate their ideal, and to whom he promised ‘treasure in heaven’ on condition of their following him the perfect ideal. The poor also would be gainers, in that their poverty in respect of the things of sense would be less felt by them when absorbed in the pursuit of the things of the spirit. In declaring it to be hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven, he signified that wealth provides so many delights for the senses, that those who possess it are apt to neglect the culture and fruits of the spirit, and to cherish the real rather than the ideal.
Similarly must we interpret the saying that whosoever is born of God overcometh the world. Products of the ideal, the things of sense have no power to affect them. And so absolute was his requirement in respect of spiritual perfection, that he denounced even the possession of the natural appetites necessary for the continuance of the race as incompatible with perfect purity of soul.
To be able to devote oneself wholly to the ideal, there must be complete trust and confidence in it. The name given by Jesus to this sentiment is faith. The ideal itself he personifies under the name of God, and the state of ideal perfection he makes concrete under the term kingdom of God or of heaven. Thus, to have entered into the kingdom of heaven, or to ‘be one with God,’ means to be so penetrated and suffused by a sense of ideal perfection, as to be altogether lost to things of sense, and alive in the spirit alone. Being thus, we have the faith that moves mountains, for to such enthusiastic love of the ideal, material obstacles count for nothing, or operate but as means of attaining further grace.
In virtue of his supreme genius for religion the soul of Jesus readily and spontaneously ascended into these sublime regions of feeling. The ‘inspired’ everywhere are those whom the possession of the instinct of perfection provides with the wings necessary for such flight into the ideal. As ideal and
representative man, it was fitting that Jesus should have this sense of perfection in the highest degree, especially in respect of things appertaining to religion, things affecting the welfare of the soul. Absolute perfection as imagined by religious genius necessarily becomes personified. That is, the soul creates God, in man’s image, but the image of man spiritualised, purified, sanctified, and glorified.
Making allowances for the imperfection of the reports of his teaching and conduct which have come down to us, it would seem that Jesus was himself so utterly penetrated by the enthusiasm – not of humanity, that was but secondary – but of spiritual perfection, as to identify himself personally with the supreme ideal of perfection or God. Only thus, supposing the fourth Gospel to represent him accurately in this respect, can we account for his frequent declarations that no man cometh to the Father but by him, and that whoso hath seen him hath seen the Father also. No other teacher has thus exalted himself. So that either he regarded the spirit which animated him as identical with the supreme spirit of the moral universe; (and who can say it is not so with all pure human spirits?) or the sentiment was afterwards ascribed to him to give colour and support to the doctrine which identified him with the Logos or Divine Word made flesh, and therefore with God the Father himself. For both the fourth
Gospel and the Epistle to the Hebrews show unmistakably a Neoplatonic inspiration.
The ascription to him of physical infinity followed of necessity that of moral infinity. And when subsequent ages had removed him altogether from the category of the real into that of the ideal, and he was regarded no longer as ‘the man Christ Jesus’ but as a being wholly devoid of limitations, his disciples, following the universal custom in such cases, eagerly vied with each other in ascribing to him every attribute which struck them as befitting a deity. We have in this a further illustration of our doctrine that it is by regarding humanity, on its best side, as divested of limitations, that men ever seek to make God. Thus the life as well as the teaching of Christ assumed in the eyes of his followers the element of infinity, and appeared as free from the limitations which restrain the action of other men. Seen through such glasses his acts of sympathy became miracles of healing, and he was made lord over disease and the elements, and even over death itself, and this in the persons of others as well as in his own.
This universal tendency of religionists to represent the objects of their veneration as superior to the limitations of humanity, makes it necessary to distrust all accounts professing to give details of their lives and conversation. Their dispositions and characteristics,
though not incapable of distortion, can hardly be so completely misrepresented as to seriously mislead. So that we may possess a trustworthy account of the spirit that was in Jesus, and yet be altogether in the dark respecting his precise sayings and doings.
The condition of the world at this period being such as I have described, it was inevitable that any impressive personality, whose career enabled such things, with however small a modicum of truth, to be predicated of it as were predicated of Jesus, should be seized upon and appropriated to the purposes of a new religion. Religion and philosophy alike were at a standstill for a solution of the new feelings and ideas which had long been growing up. A fallow time as to outward and visible products though the ages immediately preceding Christ may have been, they were not inactive. The soil of humanity, whether pagan or Jewish, had undergone decomposition, and in the process had set free the element of spirituality in quantity and quality hitherto unequalled.
But though the soil had been thus preparing for centuries, generations had yet to pass before the acceptance of the Jewish teacher as an adequate basis for a new religion, became in any great degree general. In the meanwhile, such acceptance as was accorded was due in great measure to the mental exigencies of the times, and to the desire of the popular
imagination to fill up the vacuum caused by the failing prestige of the old religious systems. For the masses, too, the spectacle of an heroic crusade against the authority, respectability, and pharisaism of an established ecclesiasticism, combined with complete self-devotion, with teaching of the most absolute perfection in morals – a perfection readily recognisable by the intuitive perceptions of all – and with a confident mysticism that seemed to imply unbounded supernatural knowledge – all characteristics of the sect of Essenes to which he and the Baptist manifestly belonged – these were amply sufficient to win belief in Jesus as a divine personage. And especially so when they found him persistently reported, not only as having performed miracles in his life, but as having shown that traditional superiority to all the limitations of humanity which was ascribed to their previous divinities, by rising from the dead and ascending into heaven. Familiar as they were with the notion of incarnations in which the sun played the principal part, and accustomed to associate such events with virgin mothers impregnated by deities, births in stables or caves, hazardous careers in the exercise of benevolence, violent deaths, and descents into the kingdom of darkness, resurrections and ascensions into heaven, to be followed by the descent of blessings upon mankind, – it required but the suggestion that Jesus of Nazareth was a new and nobler incarnation of the
deity who had so often before been incarnate and put to death for man’s salvation, to transfer to him the whole paraphernalia of doctrine and rite deemed appropriate to the office.
Add to these deeply-rooted beliefs the fact that Christianity as then preached contained characteristics universal to man, blended with the element of infinity as to God, and it becomes impossible that the Christian system could have been rejected from any religion claiming to be catholic in character, or seeking to become catholic in extent. Calculated, moreover, as such a system was to satisfy the longing of mankind for some palpable horizon to limit the excursions of barren speculation; and at the same time to formulate their desire for perfection in things moral and spiritual – a desire fostered by their natural recoil from the fast accumulating abominations of the imperial régime of Rome: – it constituted the sole scheme available whereon to construct a catholic Church, – a Church that should at once resume and succeed to all that was of value in the systems which were ceasing to be.