Philosophy or Christ: Two Letters.
by Stuart Edmund McNair
I fear you have listened to the common cant talk, that religious people are unintelligent, afraid of progress, etc., and are, in a word, hopelessly behind the times. If you were to, at least, get in touch with the current Christian literature, you would see how very different the facts are.
At the same time, there will always be an evident difference between those who have and those who lack. The rich may seem very reprehensibly easy-going to the struggling poor. He has, and is at ease and quiet, while the poor, endeavour and work just because they as yet have not all they want.
So with those who know—they are necessarily quieter folk, more restful, than those who are still searching. As the poet put it—
Oh Christian! the world has forgotten its youth.
And the light in its eyes groweth grey;
But its passioned unrest, and its quest after truth
Are not charmed by the ages away.
It knoweth the day of its doom draweth nigh.
And the smile on its lips is the child of a sigh.
I also quote from memory, an unknown author, but can assure you he was not Oscar Wilde!
Your quotation from that poet of rather unsavoury reputation is a significant comment on his own shipwrecked life. In youth, he felt in harmony with nature—presumably because he had not yet broken with Nature's God and defied His laws. Afterwards, he wrote with the bitterness of one whose memory reminded him of all that he had lost.
I notice you say, "I felt somewhat that the balm I needed, grew in lands that your minds had never explored," but you do not describe to us the promised land.
Now, let us be quite definite about things, especially about spiritual interests, for, like medicines, it is not the talk on the label that we want, but the healing virtue within.
If your nature is anything like that of other human beings, there are just three things you most need: pardon, power and a prospect. No creature gifted with an average amount of common sense should be ignorant of these needs, and surely at this time of day, a person of fair intelligence should know where they can be found.
The mistake so many people make, is to fancy that Christianity is still in the experimental stage, and that we have had to wait for the twentieth century to find out if it is any good.
The fact is, that for nineteen centuries, it has been proved that Christianity is the only power for righteousness that the world has ever known. It has been that from the beginning and is so to-day. This is not a mere theory. It is a fact of personal experience that any intelligent person can verify by observation and experiment.
But if you have something better for us, some system that offers us pardon on a better basis than the atonement effected by the blood of Christ; that gives us greater power for right living than His present grace can afford, or a brighter prospect than His truth sets before us—why, let us have it at once.
Have I written too much? I hasten to close. Always glad to hear from you.
Yours, etc., S. E. McN.
You wish to take a more practical interest in my work. Well, pray for it. That will be the most acceptable sort.
I wish I could help you to get something that would be of real use to you now and hereafter. So far as I know, only Christianity—that is, Christ—even professes to be that, so of course I cannot offer you anything better.
From your letter, your mind seems to be in a rather nebulous state, as you say you do not understand any religion or even your own philosophy. As you are sufficiently educated to know that Christianity has been an unspeakable blessing for two thousand years to all sorts of people in all parts of the world (and that no other religion has been that) would it not be worth your while to ascertain (a) What are the distinctive features that make it so? and (b) How you may obtain the personal experience of its benefits?
The need of pardon seems to you an injustice. Very well, let us eliminate it. No hope of it shall be offered to the naughty child, however sorry he may become. No possibility of it shall be contemplated by the sovereign, whatever extenuating circumstances may arise.
No doubt, the social fabric would suffer grievously from the improvement, and the world become hardened and hopeless by the demands of our inexorable philosophy, but pardon shall be wiped out of the world.
But I anticipate the objection, that it is only from religion that forgiveness must be eliminated, as society simply cannot do without it. And there I must object (using mere common sense) that it is most unphilosophical to deny to God a capacity and a disposition that is essential amongst men.
A truer philosophy, that distinguishes between "right" and "wrong," finds in the possibility of forgiveness a welcome refuge from the consequences of failure.
Power, at least you admit the need of, but if sincerely, why not turn to the One in Whom alone it can be found? Would this be unphilosophical? Everything in Christianity is to be put to the test of personal experience. The pity is that so many discuss it or reason round it or explain it away—-as they might reason and. argue about a loaf of bread, instead of eating it, and so knowing that it gives strength.
Nor is it philosophical to ignore progress altogether. If there is anything in the world that uniformly tends to elevate, to improve and to strengthen, it is not philosophy (or common sense either) to ignore it or assume it does not exist.
We may assume that there is no knowledge of electricity available in the physical world and go on groping our way uncertainly with the light of a tallow dip, but a sensible person will drop theories and switch on the electric light.
I should gather from your letter that from the years of association with merely average Britishers—who are usually profoundly ignorant of Christianity—you have been perhaps unconsciously influenced by your environment and imbibed their ignorance!
But perhaps I misjudge them, which I have no wish to do. It is easily tested. Ask your friends what they know of (a) the past influence and achievements of Christianity; (b) its present power and importance to society; (c) the reason for such remarkable and unique results; (d) the name of the religion or philosophy that comes next best as a moral power, and (e) what it has done and is doing throughout the world? I should not be surprised to find they could not write down a single fact under any of the heads—and they might even assume that what they know nothing about has no existence!
In all discussion, we have to watch carefully the common tendency to use terms of depreciation, either unnecessarily or unjustifiably.
You speak of Christianity (Christ) as a "prop," and the word, though a derogatory one, contains a truth. It is a support, indeed, the only one known to history. And our present state of moral weakness needs exactly the support that can be found in Christ alone—otherwise we shall never realize our highest ideals or learn higher ones.
You think that Christianity is beginning to be shelved. Not shelved only, but systematically attacked, from the times of Celsus and Julian until now. And yet surviving in spite of all, and still, as ever, a blessing to all who care to prove its power.
If it is shelved to-day, it is by those who know nothing whatever by personal experience of its worth; just as a baby shelves (or sucks?) a sovereign. But since your philosophy includes a search for truth, why not get the truth about Christianity? If it has been and is a blessing to so many millions in every time and clime, why not give time and thought to an experimental study of its wonders? A "something" that makes bad men good, and good men better, that gives an inspiration and power for right living that can be found nowhere else, that ever elevates and ennobles, that sustains and consoles in every trying circumstance, that banishes from the heart the possibility of despair, that makes the hereafter radiant with a prospect far better than even the blessed "now"—is surely worth investigation.
At least spend a few shillings in books that will help you. I think we sent you The Fact of Christ, but read it again, and consider what He signifies to you. Read Broken Earthenware, by Harold Begbie, and The Philosophy of the Plan of Salvation, as a sort of preliminary.
Yours, etc., S. E. McN.
“The Faith and the Flock” 1915