Chapter 16

Jesus the One Universal Character

In considering Jesus as he is now in the world, not in the story of the evangelists and in books simply, but in human life, there are other views to be taken. We can take views only; we cannot see all that they indicate.

We must consider more carefully now what we looked at for a moment in the argument that compels us to believe that this character could not have been invented, and that such a personality could not have been a normal outgrowth of Hebrew life: Jesus is a universal character—the one and only universal character that has ever appeared in history, that has ever been described, that has ever had a place in human thought.

There are great differences in men. Some are so narrow and meager of soul as scarcely to have a thought or sympathy beyond the little circle in which they are born, in which they live, and out of which they go utterly when they die. There are lives so localized that men out of their sphere they cannot understand, and that men out of their sphere cannot understand them. For every limited dialect in human speech there are limited thoughts and lives back of it. What do we mean by "provincialism" as applied to a man, or to the people of a State or country? It means limitation. Illustrations are everywhere. Take a Scotch Highlander, an Irishman of some seldom-visited farming region, or, in our own country, a New Englander born and bred, never from home; or a village Georgian, a thorough-going old time Southerner. These men are provincial. They may have admirable and indeed noble qualities, but they are limited in their views, narrow in their sympathies, and by so much they are cut off from the sympathies of their fellow-men of other conditions in life. Savage people show us the extremes of provincialism.

But let us take now our illustration from the loftiest ranges of life. Among the ancients take Plato—broad-minded as any. What is he? Grecian to the core. There was no greater Roman than Julius Caesar. But he was essentially Roman; he was localized by race and country; there was much in him that only a Roman could understand, and therefore much that limited him in his knowledge of the men of other nations.

Come to more modern times. Only a few years ago the Protestant world celebrated the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther. There was enough in Luther to perpetuate his influence through many generations. In every nation where the effect of the Lutheran reformation is felt there was real interest in the celebration of the anniversary of the great German's birth. There was less sympathy with Luther; moreover, more or less understanding of him. There was enough forceful life in Luther to overflow Germany and enrich other lands; yet he was a German, and so not a universal, but a limited, character. And so it is that he means more to Germany than to England, or France, or America. It is not simply that Germans are more interested in him as a patriotic sentiment growing out of national pride in their greatest man; they understand him better than other people can. If he could come back to the world he would understand Germans better than he would other people.

Among great men in civil life take American Washington. Great man though he was, and having in him qualities that all true men recognize and approve, he was yet essentially American. He was also essentially Virginian, and plantation-aristocratic Virginian of his time, and no other.

Take English Gladstone, of living men. Broadminded, well-informed, ripe in wisdom, rich in learning, all-accomplished, he is, it may well be supposed, second to no man of our times in greatness of heart and range of sympathies. But he is English; there is much in him that no foreigner can fully understand, and there is much in any foreigner that Gladstone cannot understand.

Take one more illustration—the man we call "myriad-minded"—the prince of poets, the king of dramatists, William Shakespeare. He could, I think, put himself into the consciousness of a man of a different nation as fully as any man who ever wrote. He is as nearly as one can be "poet of the human race." But it is a mere commonplace of literature to say that many of the best thoughts in his great dramas cannot bear translation into foreign tongues; just as the finest oranges that grow, as travelers tell us, a variety grown in Brazil, cannot bear transportation to other countries. If it be said this is a language difficulty, this itself implies the limitation that goes with mere men. But this does not explain the difficulty of translation altogether; it is in the limitations that characterize men. No foreigner can rightly understand Shakespeare, who was English.

It has been said by some writer: "Shakespeare dramatized the sixteenth century Englishman." He wrote of others; he dramatized the Englishman of his time. He knew him. He did not dramatize the sixteenth century man. There is no character who can be at home in every country; who can stand for the race. Still less did he dramatize the nineteenth century man; genius is not equal to such a forecast. For mere men are not only localized in thought, sympathy, and character, by place, they are, if possible, still more limited by time, the influences that went before them and shut them in while they lived.

But what do we find when we consider Jesus of Nazareth in respect to time and place, blood and country, education and language? This: we do not at all think of him, though we use the words, as Jesus of Nazareth. We do not think of him as a Jew—as an Asiatic even. The Galilean, the Jew, the Asiatic is lost in the man. Circumstances left no such impress upon Jesus as to localize him—as to limit his sympathy—as to mar in the least his all-around, harmonious, perfect humanity.

If translators have thorough language-knowledge the words of Jesus bear translation as no words of men bear it. I do not believe that his thoughts lose any thing, any flavor, any color, by being translated. Where they are properly translated his thoughts mean to an American what they meant to the people who first heard him speak. They produce in men of different races and tongues the same thoughts, excite the same convictions, stir the same sympathies, and lead to the same conclusions about rights, and wrongs, and duties, in every language that has ever repeated them. When these words of Jesus are obeyed they produce the same essential characteristics alike in men of every nation, the most enlightened and the most savage. It does not depend on race, or heredity, or environment; the results in character of receiving and living the Gospel are the same always and everywhere. Whether Greek, or Roman, or Scythian, or Hebrew in the early days of Christianity; whether Caucasian, Asiatic, African today, the man who follows the Christ is transformed into his likeness. No soil, no climate, no time changes the fruit of this tree.

Above all, and least like any mere man, not only do his words mean to us what they meant to his first disciples; he means as much to us. He is to a sinful and penitent woman of our times just what he was to that Mary who kissed his feet in the house of the proud Pharisee. He is to any vile wretch who needs and wants him just what he was to the man full of leprosy, or to him of Gadara. To Marys and Marthas weeping their dead today he means just as much as to the sisters of Bethany. All this agrees with what he said of himself as "the Son of man." Did any other ever have such a conception of himself, of the human race, and of his relation to it? Not one word, not one act of his is shut up to his time or race. Jesus is "the Son of man;" the ideal and universal man, the representative man of the entire race, the brother of every man, woman, and child in the world; loving all and adoringly lovable by all.

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