SOME MODERN OPINIONS ABOUT JESUS. _Christianity "dwells with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus."_--Emerson.
Christmas is the season in the year when pulpit and press dwell, with what Emerson calls "noxious exaggeration," about the work and life, as well as the person of Jesus. We have, lying before us, the Christmas sermon of so progressive a teacher as the Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones. [Footnote: Unitarian-Independent preacher of All Souls Church, Chicago.] Here is his text: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father."--John 1:14. How our educated neighbor can find food for sober reflection in so mystical and metaphysical an effusion, is more than we can tell. Who is the _Word_ that became flesh? And when did the event take place? What does it mean to be the "only begotten from the Father?" We know what it means in the orthodox sense, but what does it mean from the Unitarian standpoint of Mr. Jones? But the text faithfully reflects the discourse which follows. It is replete with unlimited compliments to this _Word_ which became flesh and assumed the name of Jesus. The following is a fair sample: "I am compelled to think of Jesus of Nazareth as an epoch-making soul, an era-forming spirit, a character in whom the light of an illustrious race and a holy ancestry was focalized, a personality from which radiated that subtle, creative power of the spirit which defies all analysis, which baffles definition, which overflows all words." Goodness! this is strong rhetoric, and we regret that the evidence justifying so sweeping an appreciation has been withheld from us. Although the doctor says that Jesus "defies all analysis, baffles definition and overflows all words," he nevertheless proceeds to devote fifteen pages to the impossible task. "I am compelled to think of him as one who won the right of preeminence in the world's history," continues Mr. Jones, as if he had not said enough. That is a definite claim, and personally, we would be glad to see it made good. But truth compels us to state that the claim is unjust. Without entering into the question of the authenticity of the gospels, a question which we have discussed at some length in our pamphlet on the "Worship of Jesus," we beg to submit that there is nothing in the gospels,--the only records which speak of him,--to entitle him to the "right of preeminence in the world's history." No one knows better than Mr. Jones that the sayings attributed to Jesus--the finest of them--are to be found in the writings of Jewish and Pagan teachers antedating the birth of Jesus by many centuries. Was it, then, for his "works," if not for his "words," that Jesus "won the right of preeminence in the world's history"? What did he do that was not done by his predecessors? Was he the only one who worked miracles? Had the dead never been raised before? Had the blind, and the lame, and the deaf, remained altogether neglected before Jesus took compassion upon them? Moreover, what credit is there in opening the eyes of the blind or in raising the dead by miracle? Did it cost Jesus any effort to perform miracles? Did it imply a sacrifice on his part to utilize a small measure of his _infinite_ power for the good of man? Who, if he could by miracle feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give light and sound to the blind and deaf, would be selfish enough not to do so? If Mr. Jones does not believe in miracles, then Jesus contributed even less than many a doctor contributes today to the welfare of the world. More poor and diseased people are visited and medicined gratuitously by a modern physician in one month, than Jesus cured miraculously in the two or three years of his career. Jesus, if he was "the only begotten of God," as Mr. Jones' text states, was not in any danger of contracting disease himself, which is not the case with the doctors and nurses who extend their services to people afflicted with contagious and abhorrent diseases. Moreover, Jesus' power must have come to him divinely, while we have to study, labor, and conquer with the sweat of our brow any power for good that we may possess. If Jesus as a God opened the eyes of the blind, would it not have been kinder if he had prevented blindness altogether? If Jesus can open the eyes of the blind, then, why is there blindness in the world? How many of the world's multitude of sufferers did Jesus help? Which of us, if he had the divine power, would not have extended it unto every suffering child of man? Of what benefit is it to open the eyes of a few blind people, two thousand years ago, in one country, when he could, by his unique divinity, have done so much more? Mr. Jones falls into the orthodox habit of not applying to Jesus the same canons of criticism by which _human_ beings are judged. But perhaps the "preeminence of Jesus" lay in his willingness to give his life for us. Noble is every soul who prefers truth and duty to life. But was Jesus the only one, or even the first to offer himself as a sacrifice upon the altar of humanity? If Jesus died for us, how many thousands have died for him--and by infinitely more cruel deaths? It is easier for an "only begotten" of God, himself a God--who knows death can have no power over him--who sees a throne prepared for him in heaven--who is sure of rising from the dead on the third day--to face death, than for an ordinary mortal. Yet Jesus showed less courage, if his reporters are reliable, than almost any martyr whose name shines upon memory's golden page. The European churches are full of pictures showing Jesus suffering indescribable agonies as the critical hour draws nigh. We saw, in Paris, a painting called "The Holy Face," _La Sainte Face_, which was, truly, too horrible to look upon; big tears of blood trickling down his cheeks, his head almost drooping over his chest, an expression of excruciating pain upon his features, his eyes fairly imploring for help,--he is really breaking down under the weight of his cross. Compare this picture with the serenity of Socrates drinking the hemlock in prison! Nor would it do to say that this is only the Catholic way of representing Jesus in his passion. The picture is in the gospels, it may be seen in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross with all its realism. Far be it from us to withhold from Jesus, if he really suffered as the gospels report, one iota of the love and sympathy he deserves, but why convert the whole world into a black canvas upon which to throw the sole figure of Jesus? Which of us, poor, weak, sinful though we are, would not be glad to give his life, if thereby he could save a world? Do you think we would mourn and groan and weep tears of blood, or collapse, just when we should be the bravest, if we thought that by our death we would become the divine Savior of all mankind? Would we stammer, "Let this cup pass from me, if it be possible," or tear our hearts with a cry of despair: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me," if we knew that the eternal welfare of the human race depended upon our death? If the Russian or Japanese soldier can take his home and wife and children,--his hopes and loves, his life,--his all,--and throw them into the mouth of the cannon, dying with a shout upon his lips,--who would hesitate to do the same, when not the salvation of one country alone, but of the whole world, depended upon it? There are examples of heroism in the annals of man which would bring the blush to the cheeks of Jesus, if his biographers have not abused his memory. Wherein, then, was the "preeminence" of Jesus? Upon what grounds does Mr. Jones claim, with "unlimited rhetoric," to use his own expression, for Jesus "the right of preeminence in the world's history?" While there is neither a commendable saying nor an act attributed to Jesus in our gospels which teachers older than himself had not already said or done, there are some things in which his seniors clearly outshine him. King Asoka, for instance, the Buddhist sovereign of India, 250 years before Jesus, in one of his edicts chiseled on the rocks of India, declared against human slavery and offered the sweet gift of liberty to all in captivity. Jesus used the word slave in one of his parables (improperly translated servant), without expressing himself on the subject, except to intimate that when a slave does all his duty faithfully, even then he is only an "unprofitable slave," unworthy of the thanks of his master. There was slavery of the worst kind in the world of Jesus, and yet he never opened his mouth to denounce the awful curse. It is claimed that Jesus' doctrine of love was indirectly a condemnation of slavery. Even then, inasmuch as other and earlier teachers did more than strike only indirectly at the ancient evil,--for they not only taught the brotherhood of man, too, but expressed themselves, besides, positively on the subject of slavery,--they have a prior claim to the "right of preeminence" in the world's history, if they cared anything about ranks and titles. The doctrine of humanity to animals, our dumb neighbors, is a positive tenet in Buddhism; is it in Christianity? Two and a half centuries before Jesus, under the influence of Buddha's teaching, King Asoka convened a religious Parliament, offering to each and every representative of other religions, absolute religious liberty. Is there any trace of such tolerance in any of the sayings of Jesus? On the contrary, the claim of Jesus that he is the light, the way, the truth, and that no man can come to the father except through him, leaves no room for the greatest of all boons--liberty, without which every promise of religion is only a mockery and a cheat. Not even heaven and eternal life can be accepted as a consideration for the loss of liberty. The liberty of teaching is alien to a teacher who claims, as Jesus did, that he alone is infallible, and that all who came before him were "thieves and robbers." Of course, Mr. Jones will deny that Jesus ever said any of the things ascribed to him which spoil his ideal picture of him. But he finds his ideal Jesus, whose personality "defies analysis, baffles definition and overflows all words," in the gospels; if these are not reliable, what becomes of his argument? If the writers of our gospels bear false witness against Jesus when they represent him as "cursing the fig tree," as calling his enemies liars and devils, as calling the Gentiles dogs, as claiming equality with God, as menacing with damnation all who disagree with him,--what security have we that they speak truthfully when they put the beatitudes in his mouth? We have no more reliable authority for attributing to Jesus the beatitudes than we have for holding him responsible for the curses attributed to him in the gospels. To return to our comparison between Jesus and his illustrious colleagues. It is with cheerful praise and generous pleasure that we express our admiration for many of the sayings, parables, and precepts attributed to Jesus. The fact that they are much older than Jesus, more universal than Christianity, only enhances their value and reflects glory upon the human race, a glory of which Jesus, too, as a brother, if he ever existed, has his share. We love and admire every teacher who has a message for humanity; we feel our indebtedness to them and would deem ourselves fortunate if we could contribute to the advancement of their noble influence; but we have no idols, and in our pantheon, truth is above all. We have no hesitation to sacrifice even Jesus to the Truth. If we were in India, and some Hindoo preacher spoke of Buddha, as Mr. Jones does of Jesus, as a "personality defying all analysis, baffling definition and overflowing all words"--one who has "won the right to preeminence in the world's history,"--we would protest against it, in the interest of Jesus and other teachers, as we now protest against Mr. Jones' Jesus, in the interest of truth. We have a suspicion, however, that if Mr. Jones, or preachers of his style, were Hindoos, they would speak of Buddha, as they now, being Christians, speak of Jesus--echoing in both instances the _popular_ opinion. The best way to illustrate Mr. Jones' style of reasoning is to quote a few examples from his sermon: "The story of the Good Samaritan has had a power beyond the story of the senseless blighting of the fig tree; the ages have loved to think of Jesus talking with the woman at the well more than they have loved to think of him as manufacturing wine at Cana. No man is so orthodox but that he reads more often the Sermon on the Mount than he does the story of the drowning of the pigs." But if he did not "drown the pigs," the reporter who says he did might have also collected from ancient sources the texts in the Sermon on the Mount and put them in Jesus' mouth. Again: "The dauntless crusaders who now in physical armament and again in the more invulnerable armament of the spirit, went forth, reckless of danger, regardless of cost, to rescue the world from heathen hands or to gather souls into the fold of Christ." We can hardly believe Mr. Jones speaking of "rescuing the world from _heathen_ hands," etc. Who were the heathen? And think of countenancing the craze of the crusades, which cost a million lives to possess the empty sepulchre of a mythical Savior! Is it one of the merits of Christianity that it calls other people "heathen," or that it kills them and lays waste their lands for an empty grave? Once more: "Jesus had tremendous expectations....He believed mightily in the future, not as some glory-rimmed heaven after death, but as a conquering kingdom of love and justice. Jesus took large stock in tomorrow; he laughed at the prudence that never dares, the mock righteousness of the ledger that presumes to balance the books and pay all accounts up to date. He knew that the prudence of commerce, the thrift of trade, the exclusive pride of the synagogue, must be broken through with a larger hope and a diviner enterprise. He believed there was to be a day after today and recognized his obligation to it; he acknowledged the debt which can never be paid to the past and which is paid only by enlarging the resources of the future. Life, to Jesus, was an open account; he was a forward looker; he was honest enough to recognize his obligations to the unborn. Perhaps this adventurous spirit in the realms of morals, even more than his heart of love, has made him the superlative leader of men." We sincerely wish all this were true, and would be glad to have Mr. Jones furnish us with the texts or evidences which have led him to his conclusions. Would not his adjectives be equally appropriate in describing any other teacher he admires? "Jesus had tremendous expectations." Well, though this is somewhat vague as a tribute to Jesus, we presume the preacher means that Jesus was an optimist. The reports, unfortunately, flatly contradict Mr. Jones. Jesus was a "man of sorrows." He expressly declared that this earth belonged to the devil, that the road which led to destruction was crowded, while few would enter the narrow gates of life. He said: "Many are called but few are chosen;" he told his disciples to confine their good work to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, and intimated that it were not wise to take the bread of children (his people) and give it to the dogs (other people). The "Go ye into all the world" is a post- resurrection interpolation, and Mr. Jones does not believe in the miracle of the resurrection. Jesus looked forward to the speedy ending and destruction of the world, "when the sun and moon would turn black, and the stars would fall;" and he doubted whether he would find any faith in the world when "the son of man cometh"; and it was Jesus who expected to say to the people on his left, "depart from me, ye cursed, into _everlasting_ punishment." This is the teacher, whose pessimism is generally admitted, of whom Mr. Jones says that, he had "tremendous expectations." "He believed there was to be a day after today, and recognized his obligation to it," writes Mr. Jones in his indiscriminate laudation of Jesus. Is that why he said "Take no thought of the morrow," and predicted the speedy destruction of the world? "He acknowledged the debt which can never be paid to the past." A sentence like this has all the ear-marks of a glittering generality. Did Jesus show gratitude to the past when he denounced all who had preceded him in the field of love and labor as "thieves and robbers?" Equally uncertain is the following: "He was honest enough to recognize his obligations to the unborn." How does our clerical neighbor arrive at such a conclusion? From what teaching or saying of Jesus does he infer his respect for the rights of posterity? Indeed, how could a teacher who said, "He that believeth not shall be damned," he described as recognizing the rights of future generations? To menace with damnation the future inquirer or doubter is to seek to enslave as well as to insult the generations yet to be born, instead of "recognizing his obligations" to them. The Jesus Mr. Jones is writing about is not in the gospels. "Do you ask me if I am a 'Christian'?" writes Mr. Jones, and he answers the question thus: "I do not know. Are you? If anyone is inclined to give me that high name, with the spiritual and ethical connotation in mind, I am complimented and will try to merit it." As our excellent neighbor is still in the dark, and does not know whether or not, or in what sense he is a Christian--unless he is allowed to define the word himself,--and as he also intimates that he would like to be a _Jesus_ Christian, but not a Church Christian, we humbly beg to express this opinion: The American churches of today, notwithstanding all their shortcomings, are, on every question of ethics and science, of charity and the humanities, far in advance of Jesus, and that in these churches there are men and women who in breadth of mind and nobility of spirit are as good, and even better than Jesus. Does our neighbor grasp our meaning? Charging all the bad in a religion to the account of man, and attributing all the good to God, or to a demi-god, is, after all, only a dodge. Had not the disciples of Jesus been braver than their master, his religion would not have come down to us. And had the Christian church lived up to the letter of this Semitic teacher, Europe would never have embraced Christianity. By modernizing Jesus, by selecting his more essential teachings, and relegating his eccentricities to the background, by making his name synonymous with the best aspirations of humanity, by idealizing his character and enclosing it with a human halo, the churches have saved Jesus from oblivion. Jesus was a tribal teacher, the church universalized him; Jesus had no gospel for women, the church has after much hesitation and wavering converted him to the European attitude toward women; Jesus was silent on the question of slavery, the churches have urged him with success to champion the cause of the bondsman; Jesus denounced liberty of conscience when he threatened with hell-fire the unbeliever; but the churches have won him over to the modern secular principle of religious tolerance; Jesus believed only in the salvation of the elect, but the church to a certain extent has succeeded in reconciling him to the larger hope; Jesus was an ascetic, preferring the single life to the joys of the home, and fasting and praying to the duty and privilege of labor, but the church in America and Protestant Europe at least has made Jesus a lover and a seeker of wealth and knowledge, the two great forces of civilization. No longer does Jesus say, "hate your father and mother;" no longer does he cry in our great thoroughfares, "blessed are the poor;" no longer is his voice heard denouncing this world as belonging to the devil. The modern church, modernized by science, has in turn modernized the gospels. And yet Mr. Jones prefers to be a Christian such as Jesus was. He is repeating one of those phrases which apologists use when they give God all the praise and man all the blame. In conclusion: Mr. Jones admits that Christianity is not unique, that Buddha conquered greater tyrannies than Christ; that "humility and self-sacrifice...have world-wide foundations;" but he draws no conclusions from these important facts, but returns in a hurry to say that Jesus is the "finest and dearest stream swelling the mighty tide of history." The only objection we have to Mr. Jones' Jesus is that he is not real.