ND   Christ in the Church / by Robert Hugh Benson




The charge brought most commonly in these days against Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, is that it claims in an unique and exclusive degree to contain the whole of truth. Surely, it is said, considering the religious history of the world -- the numerous bodies that have flourished in East and West alike, in all the centuries of man's existence -- such a claim is arrogant and impossible. We must find the truth, it is said, in the Least Common Multiple of the religious experiences of all men if we are intellectually democratic; or, if we have aristocratic leanings, in the unanimous conclusions (if any such can be found) of the best independent religious thinkers. Above all, we must be pliant and undogmatic; we must be willing to see the conclusions of this generation overthrown by the next; we must believe in progress even though we are not sure in what direction progress lies. For there is no absolute truth, no final revelation: creeds are no more than forms and symbols of the One Truth as held by various groups of minds and temperaments.

A second charge brought against Catholicism in particular is that it is actually untrue to the spirit of its Founder. Christianity, it is claimed, consisted, in the beginning, of a life founded upon devotion to a Person: Catholicism consists of devotion to a System, to an organized body that is called a Church. The simplest Protestant sect, it is asserted, with its free spirit, its lack of restriction and dogma and ceremony and self-consciousness, and its consequent insistence upon the union of the individual with Jesus Christ, is far more true to the Spirit of the Gospels than is the elaborate organization of the Catholic Church. There is always hope, we are told, in a devotion to a Person; for, as centuries go by, we may perhaps learn to understand the Person better; we may find that He has sympathies -- or at any rate that we are capable of attributing to Him sympathies -- with the most diverse temperaments, for a Person can be made into a symbol of almost any set of ideas. We may find that Christ is as capable of being interpreted in terms of Lutheran evangelicalism as of Neapolitan fervor; of being treated as the Patron of working men's societies as well as of corrupt monarchies. But there is no hope for worshipers of a dogmatic system, and the less hope as the system is the more elaborate. On all accounts, therefore, Catholicism will not do.

Now in a few unphilosophical pages it is obviously impossible to answer, as they deserve, these extremely deep and far-reaching criticisms; for they go down to the very foundations of all ideas about truth and God. But it will be my object to attempt to answer them rather by a statement of the Catholic position as a whole, than by actually meeting them directly. It will be my endeavor so to describe the life of Catholicism, with certain extraordinary phenomena and coincidences of that life, as to create a presumption at any rate that these two charges are untrue -- to point out, in other words, first, that the Catholic Church is productive of results so startling and so unique as to warrant her equally startling and unique claims; and, secondly, that, so far from her having misrepresented the intentions of her Founder, she has actually fulfilled and illustrated them to a degree in which no Protestant body even claims to have attempted their fulfillment. It will not be my intention in these pages to attack even indirectly any positive affirmations of any other religious bodies; for, after all, men are usually more or less right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny. And it is so great a relief in these days of negation and agnosticism to find any affirmations at all, that no well-meaning person, Catholic or otherwise, will be tempted to do anything except welcome them. Every zealot for truth prefers the affirmations of Mahomet or of Mrs. Eddy to the negations of Sir Oliver Lodge, and the affirmations of Sir Oliver Lodge to the negations of Mrs. Eddy. I shall, then, only attempt to describe a life which I see in the history of the past as well as of the present, so amazing in its beauty, so pregnant of affirmations, so consistent with itself, so steady in its development, and so vital and so undying, as to have at least a right to claim an authority as unique and exclusive as are the phenomena which it produces. And I shall make but one assumption, viz., that the records of the Gospels contain an adequate and accurate transcription of the Life which they portray. First, it is necessary, however, to give a very brief account of what may be called the orthodox interpretation of those Gospels as held by all Christian bodies in the past. I am not assuming that that interpretation is the right one: it will be my endeavor to create in the following chapters a presumption that it is so. It is first, however, necessary to state it.

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