Chapter 14

His Grasp Upon Mankind

So far we have been studying the character and work of Jesus as he is presented in the evangelists, just as we might study any other character of that period. We have not yet considered Jesus as he now affects the world—a presence and force of our own times.

When the scientists proved the indestructibility of matter, when they discovered the doctrine of the conservation of energy, showing us how the coal measures, that warm millions of homes and drive the machinery of land and sea, are but stored-up sunbeams of untold ages gone, they showed us that through all her wonderful changes Nature loses none of her substance. In this splendid formulation of natural law the scientists have done a secondary but more important service; they have given us a symbol from things material, an illustration of a law of the higher sphere. Nothing is ever lost in the spiritual world.

A thought with life and truth in it, once set going, can no more be lost than a drop of water falling on the fields can be lost. Professor Harrison, of England, is right in his doctrine of posthumous immortality, as far as it goes. He sees part of a truth and states it well. Whatever force there may be in any human life abides in human life. We may not be able to trace it, as we may not trace the identical dew-drop that glittered on the grass this morning and that, exhaled by the rising sun, has now disappeared from our view, but not from existence.

It may well be that the influences that have conspired in shaping our lives—in making us what we are today—have in some way come to us from many thousands of lives. In a true sense Moses, David, Paul, Socrates, Plato, Augustine, Shakespeare, Bacon, Milton, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, with many others—our parents and teachers above all—all these, and, it may be, myriads more unnameable, live in us today. This is what Froude meant when he wrote of Martin Luther, "No man of our times is what he would have been but for Luther." This is true because Luther's life so enters into the influences of our times that no man ever brought into relations with him could escape that influence.

And few have escaped it; none of the European nations, none of the nations that have been brought into any sort of relations with Christianity and the civilizations that have grown out of it; few, if any, of what we call heathen nations; for the influences of Luther's life and doctrines are in the missionary movement of our times, that now promises to do for these nations what the coming of Christianity did for Europe, Eastern Asia, and Northern Africa in the first centuries of our era—so changed them as to make a new epoch in history; we might say, a new world.

What is true of such a man as Luther is true in a measure—less extensive it may be, less real it cannot be—of every life that has gone before us, and that has, in any way, entered into our own.

It would be easy to offer illustrations. Consider Francis Bacon—perhaps Roger Bacon still more—in relation to the scientific methods of our times. Think of Shakespeare, not in poetry only, but in all literature; or of Kant, Spinoza, Locke, in philosophy; Calvin, Wesley, and the rest, in theology and moral reforms. Or think of the artists and inventors, the great soldiers and statesmen. You may easily make out a very long list of names of human lives that, going before us, now live in us. The list will show names that stand for diverse and antagonistic elements; but all these enter into our lives, just as, to return to our illustration from the world of waters, the water pure from the clouds, sparkling in mountain springs, foul and reeking from swamps and all manner of ugly places, enters, it well may be, into the consistent elements of the dew-drop that reflects the sun upon each grass-blade in the fields.

It is nothing peculiar to the life of Jesus of Nazareth that his influence should abide in human history. Every human life, the humblest and unworthiest, so abides. But the influence of Jesus is different from that of other men. I am not now speaking of degree, but kind. As this method of thinking, of teaching; as the work he proposed to do and as the plans he adopted difference him from mere men, so does the history of the influence that flowed out from him into life and so made modern civilization, so does the character of his influence now difference him from men.

It would carry us too far for the design of these discussions to enter now into the subject of the relation of Jesus to the history of his era. Our calendar intimates the extent and power of that influence; we count time from his birth; this is 1889, A.D. That influence has entered into whatever has made the world of our times. The history of this influence is the history of the Christian era.
We will consider the influence of Jesus, as it may be a matter of observation and consciousness.

Consider the power of the teachings of Jesus upon the human conscience. This is to me a growing wonder. Other men's words stimulate the conscience to a degree, but only when they echo his or approach harmony with them. This is so strangely true that no words of any teacher stir the conscience—except to protest—that antagonize and contradict Jesus. There is no risk of exaggeration or dogmatism here; it is perfectly safe and perfectly fair to say no doctrine of God or man, of rights and wrongs, that repudiates or denies what Jesus teaches, has any power over the human conscience. Other words and doctrines may quicken the intellect and dominate it; may excite the imagination and stir the emotions; but if they are contrary to his doctrines and his life they have no grasp upon the moral side of man.

It is easy to make the experiment and to make it conclusively. Read books that contradict his doctrines—that seek to overthrow them. If you read with candor I am not afraid for you to read what his fiercest enemies say. Take Voltaire, where he ridicules the Bible; Paine, in that very misnamed pamphlet, The Age of Reason; Hume, in his speculations concerning providence, miracles, inspiration, and the whole agnostic literature of our day. These writings do not take hold upon the conscience except as they may weaken or paralyze it; they do not strengthen any purpose to do right, confirm any sense of personal obligation, invigorate any will for right doing. Make the experiment with any words of men that contradict or repudiate Jesus, the lightest and weightiest, the silliest and subtlest; mere platform declamations or the sober scientific worship of materialism that knows no spirit—man, angel, or God. Do any of them stir our sense of obligation to high duty? Do any of them make our perception of duty clearer? Our love of virtue stronger? Our hatred of evil intenser? All who have made the experiment may answer for themselves.

I do not say that only the words of Jesus take hold upon the conscience; this would not be true. There are passages in Seneca, in Epictetus, in Socrates, in Plato, in Confucius, in the words of many ancient sages and modern teachers, that do stir the conscience. Your Shakespeare will furnish many illustrations. So will George Eliot, Hawthorne, and very many other writers. But these things I do say with perfect assurance:

1. No words or teachings of any writer or teacher, of any age, that antagonize or repudiate the words of Jesus have power over the conscience.

2. Those words and teachings of men who never knew Jesus—as Socrates, Confucius, and other such men—that most affect the conscience are those words and teachings of theirs most in harmony with the doctrines and character of Jesus. All light is good, but that which is nearest sunlight is best.

3. The words and teachings of those who do know Jesus, that most powerfully affect the conscience, are those that most perfectly echo his words.

Furthermore, this is true: The words and teachings of Jesus not only stir the conscience as no others do; they illuminate the conscience. Others may affect the sensibility of conscience to a degree, but leave it in the shadows as to the very rights and wrongs of things. The words of Jesus—once their meaning is understood—as they apply to any concrete case of rights and wrongs, not only awaken the sensibility of conscience so that the feeling of obligation to do right and avoid wrong is most pronounced and unmistakable, but this also is true: the light which his words pour on the question in consideration makes transparent what the right thing is and what the wrong thing is.

There is something here that defies analysis, something that will not be held in logic forms. Take any doctrine Jesus taught and exemplified. It may be about truth, honesty, chastity, charity. Read it, see what it means, apply it to your case, and conscience says, "Amen" to it, and upon the instant. Conscience receives it as the reason receives an axiom. Given the facts, you need only to apply his tests, and that instant you not only suppose, not only think, you know what is your right and your wrong in the case. If there were no other reason, herein there is reason enough to follow the Man of Galilee wherever he leads.

I urge upon you for your use in the tests that await you, as a method of finding out rights and wrongs and determining duty, what I have tried under many conditions of life and action; a most simple principle of action—one that has never for one moment failed me or left me in doubt. It is worth more than all reasonings, than all books of casuistry, than all advices of friends; nay, it is better than mere praying as if for some new light or other revelation than that which has come to enlighten every man that cometh into the world. It is to ask, "What does Jesus teach here? What would he say if he were here to speak? What would he do if this were his case?"

Blunders of judgment, many and grievous; failures in living up to the light that the Master gives, more grievous than any blunders of judgment—these things I confess to sorrowfully and with bitter shame; but for the truth's sake, my conscience' sake, and my Lord's sake, this much I must say, and I cannot say less: never have I asked, "What would he do?" but that the light has shined resplendent and all-revealing, and the right and the wrong stood out clear, sharp, as when electric lights shine about us, and I knew what I ought or ought not to do.

At this point we may recur a moment to what was, in part, considered heretofore: the fullness, the completeness of his teachings difference him from all others.

There is not in any other teacher such a statement of principles that you cannot find outside their teachings one single ethical principle that they have not taught. Other teachers give us many principles of ethics; does any of them give all? Jesus does, though he wrote no book and elaborated no system; though we have but few of his words recorded. What I ask is this: Is there in any teacher of any nation one single principle of rights and wrongs that the suffrage of the race could approve, that Jesus does not teach? Is there one single principle of Jesus as to rights and wrongs that the suffrage of good men can condemn as false? Men may, indeed, reject his teachings, and oppose them with bitterest hate, but which one of them—the least or the greatest—can they show to be immoral, wrong?

As all colors are potentially contained in the pure white light, and as the composition of all colors produces the pure white light, so the teachings of Jesus contain in principle all the forms of ethical truth that were ever in the minds of men. But here the analogy fails. All the ethical truth that all others have taught when brought together fails to make the sum total of his teachings; some colors are lacking in them; together they do not make the pure white light of the gospels.


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