“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness to me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” John 5:39, 40
Why do you search the Scriptures? For what other reason can it be but to know truth? Yet if this is so, then Truth must be the final end towards which the searching of the scriptures labors. All tools we use, all arguments, all authorities, all commentaries, yea all thinking itself, exist but for the sake of attaining the pure and simple truth: to have it dwell in our hearts and rule our lives and saturate our spirits. How easily the minds of us are distracted from this goal. How easily we turn aside from journeying towards the land of Truth herself to rest content in the cave of what-someone-thought-was-truth. How could we, if we were true lovers of truth, ever be satisfied with such?
What good is it, to know what another thinks of truth? It is a mere historical fact, a trifle, a question of secondary – infinitely secondary – importance. Why then do we labor to prove what this or that person believed to be true? No doubt because we feel a kinship – a love even – towards the person. But this love for our brother or sister ought never to replace our love for what is true. The more noble minded and pure hearted the one we are inquiring about, the more surely he would cast aside all false opinion and beclouded conclusion to lay hold of what is true. Would not St. Paul himself, if he were shown some obscurity in his argument or some erroneous deduction that could be made from his words, not, upon being told by a fellow truth seeker of truth and lover of humanity and follower of Jesus Christ, would not St. Paul, I say, join hands with his interlocutor and seek to purify his own understanding, his own appreciation of, his own arguments for, God’s sweet truth? And if he would not, would he be a true man seeking truth, in all its profundity and loveliness? We use other men’s thoughts best, not when we adopt them thoughtlessly, worse still when we defend them blindly without ourselves feeling them true, but when we assimilate them into ourselves and our own true-knowing, and then look at the world through both their and our now blended, interpenetrated vision.
“Do you then put yourself on the same authority as Paul? As Christ himself? Is there no room for you to bow your mind to truths too high for you to comprehend? Are you saying that unless you can comprehend it, a thing cannot be true?”
I am saying that if a person cannot see a thing to be true, he cannot really – that is, truly – think it true. How then could he bow to it in honest submission, since he does not know the nature of the thing he is bowing to? And, supposing he blindly bowed anyway, what would be the good in such a thing?
If one cannot see the truth in something, there is no way that he can believe it true. Unless he lies to himself, but then he sins, both against himself and against his God. Did not Paul himself say this when he charged Timothy: “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience“? Why hold a good conscience? Because, Paul says, “by rejecting it, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith.” Shipwreck of faith! By denying conscience! Friend, how backward that theology is, stuck in the crusted pages of history, which supposes conscience has no place in growing faith, plays no part in free inquiry, and is a voice to be muted when it cries against tradition! Rejecting conscience is that which leads to a damaged faith, a faith poor, weak, and low. A faith kept alive – starving and crouched and afraid – by fear: not a faith fed by the nourishment of wonder, mystery and freedom.
Faith therefore can only be strong to the degree that conscience is alive and heard and constantly responsive to every truth that comes spontaneously into one’s mind. Insofar as one is bound to have faith in God, therefore, he is bound to follow conscience, and assent to nothing which seems to him false or unworthy of belief, nor to believe a thing merely out of fear.
But that is very different from saying that all that one may believe in is that which he can comprehend. God shall no one ever comprehend. I do not say that one shall never rest, yea even find joy, in his incomprehension. In the highest union of the soul with God, the fact that the divine beauty is infinitely surpassing even the all glorious and unspeakably loving bliss that the soul is bathed in, this very fact must itself cause the soul a unique rapturous delight. The ineffable, unimaginable grandeur of God’s being must fill the soul with an ecstasy beyond description. But this sort of incomprehension – an incomprehension of quantity, as it were – is very different from the incomprehension attending the submission of one’s intellect to what one cannot see as true. Such an incomprehension comes not because one cannot see a thing as true, but because he sees a thing as untrue. In the former case, an incomprehensibility is set before the mind to gaze and wonder at: a mystery, a sphere with no beginning, a space with no boundary. In the latter, what meets the mind is a contradiction, a clashing of assertions: as if two opposite poles of a magnet were being forced to make contact. Here the mind does not breathe in mystery, but chokes on impossibility. The mutual togetherness that is being presented to it is unthinkable; it simply cannot be. The two things presented to it exclude each other from the very nature of what they individually proclaim.
“You then set yourself up over Christ.”
I set myself alongside Christ – or rather my understanding of him, for my understanding of the man may be very far from the thought of the man himself, as he himself thought. I know, sorrowfully, that I cannot ask Christ my questions and then see what he says. But do you suppose he would be angry with me for wanting to ask them? He would either answer them, or rebuke me. If he answered them, I would be the better, assuming I understood him, which, if I did not, I would, I hope, continue to ask more questions until I was satisfied. On the other hand, if he rebuked me, this would be either for my benefit and to deepen my understanding, or it would not be. If it would not be, Christ cannot be a lover of men who seek truth. He cannot himself be the truth, cannot be the one who tells us to ask so that it may be given to us, or seek so that we shall find. Christ cannot then be the one who tells us to knock on the door of life and truth so that it will be opened to us, nor can he be a real seeker after things true. Is this seeking not the very thing which, he tells his followers, shall set them free? How then could he mean it, if he would be angry with you and me, friend, for asking our questions – whatever they be? Is there a question – a mental quest – that would be too small, too insignificant for the Real Man Jesus? I will not believe it, else you take the humanity out of Christ himself.
Yet, if Christ would rebuke me, and if the rebuke was for my benefit, is it not all the better still that I ask my questions, seeing as the sooner I am rebuked, the sooner I am on the way to a better understanding?
In any case, a lover of truth must ask the questions that burn in his bosom.
Therefore I ask again. What purpose is there in studying Church history, in reading Biblical commentaries, in memorizing Scripture? What good is it to ponder over the words of Jesus or know the theology of this or that thinker or recite the Creeds? Again I answer. These things exist but to serve a unified and mighty end: to know the truth. But are we to know truth simply for truth’s sake? No. We are to know it for the sake of becoming true. That is, we are to know it so to become beings altogether lovely, strong, perfectly good and pure.
Have you ever thought, friend, that the whole purpose for us in knowing Jesus, is not so that we could quote his words, but so that we could become True, Beautiful, and Good human beings? In this respect – and mind what I say closely – in this respect, it does not even matter if we know what Christ said. If Christ could look upon a man or woman and see a true man, a good woman, an absolutely loving and lovely man or woman, yea a pure human being, would it bother him if that person had never known that Christ himself had lived? Would not the Lord rejoice simply in the goodness of the human, in the fact that the one was and was a noble son or daughter of God? Would Jesus not be unspeakably glad in the perfect childhood of the Father that had blossomed into the mighty spring radiance that was the person’s soul?
I do not say that anyone can be good without Christ working in him. I take that to be a metaphysical impossibility. But it is not difficult to believe – is it not impossible to doubt? – that Christ can work in one without that one knowing it. Or do you not think that the Spirit of Christ, that is, the Spirit of the ideal humanity born out of infinite love’s heart, is working in you all the time, even when you know it not, yea that perhaps it works most when you know it least? If you believe in a God of love, how could you ever suppose that you were ever anywhere other than in a universe bathed in a human love unspeakably tender, omnipotently fierce, unfathomably compassionate?
Long before the dawn of what you call yourself peeped over the brim of your out-looking soul, the spirit of Christ was working in you. What moves the embryo in the womb, what knits together its limbs and body, what draws it into its humanity and makes it grow, what unifies the spiritual nature of the form that is there taking shape – what anchors all these things, if not almighty God, working through and with the essentially human? That essentially human is Jesus Christ. Before you uttered your first word, before you thought your first thought, before your heart beat its first beat while you slumbered in your mother’s womb, the spirit of Christ was already working in you, friend. The divine maker was already, with his invisible and love driven hands, molding the depths of thy deepest self, through the ideal humanity of his Son.
Let us, however, return to the question, because it does present a difficulty. How are we to know Christ? We cannot speak to him, we cannot audibly hear his voice. We do not even have words he himself has written. And though we have words written by those who knew him best, even those men very often misunderstood him.
I ask, would not Jesus, if his goal was to bring men and women to a truer and better understanding of the divine purpose of their lives – which is, to look upon themselves as the offspring of a God altogether perfect and lovely – if this was Jesus’ primary goal, would he not be bound to talk at the level of his hearers? To teach a man, that man must be met where he is. There must be accommodation made for him. His mind must be stretched, not broken. To anyone who doubts that this way the way of Christ, or who doubts that such a thing has occurred, I ask him to but honestly and diligently compare the Synoptics to the Gospel of John. I do not say they contradict one another. But I doubt very much one would disagree with me if I said that in John we find a deeper revelation of the Son of Man. Therefore, a writer stands behind that historical document who could better appreciate the truths that Jesus spoke.
“You cast doubt upon the inspiration of the Bible!”
I do not grant it. But what does it matter if it were true? How can the casting of doubt ever trouble us, friends? We seek after truth, do we not? What would it matter if in the whole world not a soul knew or had ever heard of the Bible, if the whole world were nothing but true and altogether good men and women? We must never forget that the Bible exists, as does the New Testament, as do the writings of Paul and Peter and James and John, as do the words – yea the very deeds – of Christ himself, to make us like Jesus. That is, into perfectly good, true, lovely human beings.
But how does one become such a thing? And how does one know what such a thing looks like, opened up and living and thinking in the world? We must be our very best selves, must become better than what we fear we cannot be. But how to do it? If we are to be like Christ, what does that mean? How do we know him, so that we can be like him? What we have of him written in the New Testament shows us much of him. But is there no closer we can press into him, to know him better?
The one who loves the words of Jesus in the New Testament best will want most more than those words alone. He knows that the letter exists for the deeper realm of spirit and life. To the degree that the letter leads us deeper into our essential humanity and therefore brotherhood with Christ, to that degree it serves its divine, life giving purpose. To the degree it leads away from this, it brings forth death.
To the one who would rule his life by the text alone, and who claims to go neither beyond it nor against it, his individual life – yea his whole thinking and doing and being in the world – must be an unspeakable enigma. How could one take a single step if he supposed his every action must, before he could do or think it, be found in the historical record of Jesus, as either commanded or permitted by him?
What we want, friends, and what the soul yearns for with unutterable longing, is to know, not the words of the man Jesus, but to know the man himself. It wants not to know the record of him, but to know him. What does it matter if we knew the very words that came forth from his lips – yea if we sat at his feet night and day, and heard the very tone and richness of his human voice – if we did not know the person himself? We want to push past the appearances -which is merely the person as he appears through the matter that he is forced to use to convey himself – and enter into communion with his soul, his very self.
Who does not long for such a union with every soul that he loves? Who is not dissatisfied with the fact that he must always be separated from, since he is not in absolute union with, his friends, his family his lover? How often I have looked into the eyes of another and felt them so marvelous, so unique, so full of someone within! Are eyes not portals to the soul; do they not speak to us of the deeper thing inside: the person they express?
Is it not easy to believe – it takes tremendous conscious effort to doubt – that, when we look into another’s eyes, those eyes show us, somehow, someone? And yet who does not wish to push deeper into them, to lay hold of and intermix with and utterly dwell in the one they are giving us glimpses of? I imagine such a union ineffable, a mutual indwelling so interpenetrated and fulfilling and overflowing with loving warmth and joy, is what lay at the heart of the God.
And yet, if the eyes show us something of the man which his words do not, and indeed cannot show us, how can we be satisfied in our knowing of Christ if our only way of knowing him lay in the reading of the words of the New Testament? Mark, I do not say such reading does not show us the Lord. It does indeed. But I do say it cannot show us all that can be known of him, all the yearning heart wants and therefore must know of him.
The sabbath was made for man; not man for the sabbath. Likewise the letter exists for the spirit, never the spirit for the letter.
How then are we to know Christ in the deep way that we wish? There is no other way save this. It is a way you have been doing all your life, a way you do every day, maybe every waking moment that you have ever thought of Christ. You must know him by imagining him.
“What? Imagine him! Then what is preventing me from simply making up my own version of him and doing what I please?”
Friend, have you not – have all people not – been doing this from the very beginning? One cannot think about, cannot interpret, cannot know the personality of any person at all without using one’s imagination. Christ you know spoke in parables. What is a parable, but the setting before the imagination some situation in which the mind goes on to draw out some conclusion: some deeper truth? You have surely read books about Christ, heard sermons on him, and thought a great deal about what he said and what he meant when he spoke certain things you could not understand. What is this, but you using your imagination to get at the man?
Tell me you wish to know the spirit of someone without using your imagination, and I will tell you it cannot be done. For the imagination is an indispensable organ of thought. The mind can form no meaning whatsoever without running on its fuel. No doubt there is a very great danger that lie in imagining the spirit and message of Christ. But that danger is present from the sheer fact that we are not ourselves perfectly good and true and lovely people: not because, when we try to know Jesus, we do so the only way it is possible to know anything.
Christ is either the essential humanity which binds all human beings together, and therefore the perfect instance of Ideal Man, or he is one more man like the rest of us who are seeking for such a principle of unity. If he were the latter he would still be, by being himself, and doing what he thought was good and true, a great help for us in reaching our own ideal humanity, our true self. All souls who are true, all who strive to open themselves up to their fellow humans, all who lay bare the chamber of their heart and try to speak the secret that lay at the root of their being and so be good, all such souls are mighty helpers of the race. With their unquenchable spirit they inject humanity with life, and with their fiery souls they make the veins of us all pulse with a vitality strong and intoxicating.
On the other hand, if Christ is the Ideal Man, he does this same thing, but in a higher, more exemplary way. Where then is the difference in kind? Do not say that Christ was a different kind of man than all men. How then could he have been true man? How could he have been compassionate, could he have known our hearts and identified with the race, if he did not understand, had never experienced, was totally alien to some part of our humanity?
In any case, in order to know the man, we must imagine him. But how? By taking what we already know of goodness, love, compassion and truth, and applying it in our here and now. To ask “what would Jesus do?” is the same as to ask “what would the idealized man, the most true, compassionate, good and loving man, the best version of myself, do? Or what would this figure at least wish he could do?” Thus the image of the perfect man which we must model ourselves by is one discovered by continually thinking and imagining, molding and comparing ourselves to our Ideal.
We must simply do the best we can with what we already know and have. This is necessarily different from taking a given passage of the Bible which, taken at face value, contradicts notions we know to be true and good, and submitting to the passage, and therefore abandoning what we already know and have. For what we already know and have is nothing else than our true humanity, our true Christ alive and working in us, giving birth to our true individuality and our own Sonship with the divine. This is the only real contact we have made with the Good and True. All else is simply the remnants of contact made by another. To therefore abandon our own would be to doom ourselves to a universe in which we never could make direct contact with the good and the true. For we could never trust our own hearts: we could never set about becoming more than what we were, by being more truly what we know we ought.
But as of yet, are we not speaking of a sheer generality? The very question is to know the man, and yet, by following this path of idealized imagining, we shall not know the man at all, but know simply an imagined version of him.
If Jesus Christ really is an infinitely true human being, then, since we too are human, he must be like us. Or rather, if he is Perfect Man – the Son of Man – then we must be like him. How therefore can we know him, but to know ourselves?
To know Christ, is to know thyself, for in knowing thyself, thou knowest humanity. Thou knowest not only humanity, brothers and sisters: in knowing thyself thou knowest the essentially human. Christ as true man, is truly human. Therefore in knowing thyself, who are human, thou knowest Christ, for his essential humanity lives in you.
How then are we to become more and more like Jesus? How therefore but to be more and more our true, our purestly human selves?
To know Christ, is to have Christ dwell in you, and to have Christ dwell in you, is to become yourself like him. But to do this, is to become more truly – more fully – yourself than before. For this is and was the very way of Christ: to be fully human is to fully imitate Jesus.
“You teach a strange, not to say dangerous doctrine. Be yourself and be truly human? Why not then may a man do anything he wants? Be a murderer, a thief, a bigot, a self-centered and violent egoist? You offer us no protection from what is evil in ourselves! You offer us no protection from our fallen nature! Do you not know the inherent wickedness of the human race?”
What can save humanity, but that humans become fully, truly, and altogether good human beings? The protection from our fallen nature comes from the perfection of our current one. Christ was fully man. Therefore it is not the humanity itself which is evil. It is the fear and selfishness and lowness that plague it.
In God’s great universe, can a thing be fully itself without also being fully good, fully beautiful, fully lovely, fully true? It cannot be, else God made that which finds its fulfillment in its own destruction. Therefore for a thing to grow most truly into itself, is for it to reach its divinely appointed beatitude.
What is it to be fully human? It is to go on being as good, as true, as honest, as fair, as compassionate as you can. It is to continually look at the world as that which you can love and enter into and enjoy. It is to have a cosmic, eternal, undefeatable optimism It is to shun fear, and all things mean and low, and to hold existence as a treasure unspeakable, a mystery all-glorious. This is what Christ taught us. To be like him, which is to be essentially human, is to believe that there is a great Father – an all encompassing, absolutely lovely and beautiful principle – at the heart of all life, and to believe that this principle knits all humans into a single body, a united organism, every piece impossible to separate from every other. This is the first great light we must use to guide our steps as we come to understand Jesus Christ: this, I take, is his central message, the electricity that generates his beating heart, the atmosphere in which his spirit is saturated, the foundation on which his soul stands. It is the pillow that he lays his head down upon at night, and the sun which enlightens his eyes every morning. It is his meaning and his reason for being. To live in a universe sprung from his Father’s hand must be the way of things: to think such is the only way to live.
Thus we as imitators of Christ believe that the world ought to be looked at as the work of a Father who loves all infinitely and higher and deeper than we can ever imagine. And that the human soul ought to interpret reality as that which flows from not just a father, but our Father, as a gesture of omnipotent and tender love, as a gift to enjoy, and to help others enjoy.
The second great light Christ gave us for living is this: that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. To truly love a man as oneself is to recognize that each man is in us and that we are in each man. Every individual is in every other individual. This is so – yea it must be so – because we all share a fundamental humanity. Our fulfillment as humans, and therefore the fulfillment of our human nature, lies in our entering into the lives of our fellow brothers and sisters so deeply that we consider our very selves as if we were they. Note I do not say we are to consider our neighbor as if they were us: we are to consider us as if we were they. We must break down the wall of separation, the wall of self defense, the wall of thinking it impossible for there to be anything in common between human beings. We must enter into the heart, the mind, the feeling, the person of our fellow brother or sister. We must consider them as ourselves, for we must love them as ourselves. Their moods, their thoughts, their failures: they must become ours, and we must think of them as if they really were our own. How often do we do this? How often do we allow our neighbor’s feelings become our feelings? Not enough, friend. Not near enough.
Do we think we are above such things? It cannot be, for we are all human beings. We must strive for our compassion – our entering into – to reign so mightily in our hearts that there becomes no human alive – no human that ever existed – that we do not share a reality-binding, essentially inextricable connection with. It matters not how far away they are, how different their life may be, how foreign their feelings, fears, or beliefs, how apparently holy, how evidently selfish. No man is an island to any other man. If a man is a human like ourselves – no matter how different they may seem to be – we share the same fundamental consciousness, the same range of emotions, the same data of experience, the same hopes, the same desires. Yea we share the same image of God. All humans, therefore, are in some sense too deep for words and too big for explanation, one.
All other things Christ said and did must be interpreted in the light of these two truths: the eternal and all lovely fatherhood that surrounds us every moment, and the eternal, divine brother and sisterhood of humanity. The first ushers in a universal optimism, though it may take at times a mighty strength of will to hold on to. The second, an unbreakable bond in the hearts of all humans for each other. On these two truths hang all the law and the prophets. And this is what Christ came to teach us. Or else, there is some greater message, some deeper undercurrent, that could underlie Jesus’ teachings that would stand behind them and give them life. To this source then we must turn, Christ himself being but the pointer to it, the messenger of it, rather than the thing itself. Since this principle explained the unity of humanity and pointed with hope to the ends towards which the race is moving, it must supersede and envelope all notions that taught or terminated in lesser truths. But if Christ is True Humanity in the flesh, if he is indeed the Son of Man, and that in which all men and women are rooted and interpenetrated, that cannot be. He must show us the way, for he, being himself Man, is the way. Therefore in looking within ourselves, we see our manhood and therefore Christ himself. We see both our universal brotherhood to one another, and our childhood of the Father.
I will be misunderstood if what I have written leads any to believe that I hold that Paul or the writers of the New Testament spoke falsehoods about God or misunderstood Christ’s teaching or that Christ himself was anything less than the perfect God-man. With all my heart I believe that the New Testament reveals to us Jesus Christ himself and gives us his very words, which are life. Do you agree? And if you do, is it not that, even with you, it is the thought, the preeminence, the person of Christ holds your heart in his hands; yea, who is for you the authority, the author of your faith? The perfecter of our faith, its pioneer, its life-giver, is Jesus Christ, the man who lived and who now sits on the right hand of the throne of God. The words of the New Testament approximate and approach him. But he, the perfect divine humanity, is the center point. There can be no created thing higher than he to which he must bow, for he is the very Word of God become flesh. It is this God “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.”