Natural Religion

In the New Testament as a whole of we find an absence of the kind of sentiment which we desire, say, on a day of harvest thanksgiving, to create and to express. It is surely a religious exercise to yield for a little while to an instinct as old as our human nature, and to lift up our song to of the mysterious Goodness by whose grace and at whose table we live. And yet on a fair reading of the New Testament we should be bound to admit that this particular point of view is not made much of. It is not altogether absent. We feel that the happy souls of the New Testament lived regularly in the attitude of thanksgiving, that they saw everything, even the dark things, within the love of God. Nevertheless, seldom if ever do they approach God by the way of human nature; seldom if ever do they come at religious ideas or religious feelings from the starting-point of the general goodness of God the present world.

The Christian propaganda failed or prospered in proportion as the fresh data for religion present in Jesus were studiously concealed or openly proclaimed. A striking instance is St. Paul's address at Athens. Doubtless it sheds light on problems which had baffled heathen wisdom. The Apostle speaks of the transcendent spirituality to be ascribed to the only true God; a God afar off he replaces by One had whom we live and move and have are being; primal chaos yields to Divine creation; history read as a confused rise and fall of information by chance or fate takes the aspect of Providence guiding each race and people to its goal; instead of the proud distinction of Greek in barbarian is set the vast compassionate truth that all men are one in nature and blood. But at no point is publicity given to the distinctive Christian message; and [if the speech be authentic] it is neither priggish nor fanciful to find in this studied omission of the Cross an explanation alike of St. Paul's comparative failure in Athens and his subsequent change and front at Corinth. It was only when the Apostle moved on to his proper ground and declared that this great God was no mere general sunshine lying all over things, but a Living Being who was now come right into the midst of them---God in Action---it was only then that they turned away. In short, the moment he unveiled Christ and declared God personal, the Athenians turn to go. The Apostle had touched them. Now this aversion from the preaching of mere nature has from time to time seized the Church. It is as though the Church, having tried to bring her supernatural language and habits into harmony with the speech and ideas of ordinary mankind, so that she might penetrate that speech and elevate those ideas, discovered one day that the world which he was hoping to affect for God was entangling her, and taking the supernatural quality out of her testimony; that, instead of her annexing the world for God, the world was annexing her and accommodating and her to itself. It is then that a mood of severity has passed over the Church, leading faithful people to separate themselves even violently from the ordinary ways of human living. And so we have such great reactions as asceticism and monasticism and puritanism, with their buffetings of the body, with their suspicion of mere natural beauty and adornment, with their severity of speech, with their of worldliness, and, in the days of their birth, of the wonder and cleanness of the souls they produce.

This tendency to react against the merely natural way, and against their merely natural way of interpreting life, is a tendency which masters the Church as such regular intervals, and in such similar circumstances that we may safely say that it is an inevitable thing. And, if so, we must believe that all this happens at the time in obedience to something in the Christian soul which is crying out for such a discipline; beginning for some reason to be afraid for itself, afraid of its surroundings, afraid that it was about to lose its hold on God. And so it could not be reassured until it had put a distance between itself and the things which were making it afraid.

How do we account, then, for the suspicion of nature which was part of the piety of our fathers, which manifest itself in personal severity and plainness and in the rejection of a mere natural beauty or form from the things of God? It is simply stupid to put it down to ignorance, or to any idea which a clever young person can point out. Rather it is something in the human soul which hungers and thirsts for the very thing which it repudiates. In this rejection of any alliance with nature, which has been an invincible mood of the Christian soul, it is possible to see two great fears, two great precautions. When the early Church rejected that style of teaching which St. Paul tried for once in Athens; when the Church denounced all complicity with natural law or natural beauty---the instinct was, we must hold, a right instinct, and it arose as a protest against two things, as a safeguard against to possibilities. It was in each case a precaution against, first, immorality, and, second, against an easy acquiescence in things as they are. These, indeed, are two real dangers which threaten us while we leave our proper ground, which is the God of the Holy Scriptures, the Christ of the New Testament and of history, and think to find guidance for our lives in the processes of the natural world.

Anything approaching the worship of God in nature has always been accompanied by a slackening of those moral restraints which are necessary for man's true life. The danger of talking much about the nature is that the idea gains upon us that nature and human nature are alike, which, according to Christianity, is the very opposite of the truth. Nature-worship has always become degraded. The world was full of it when Christ came. And it was not a thing to be expected that the first preachers of the gospel should even appear to have anything in common with rights and ceremonies which were only ministering to the license and naturalism of mankind. The symbol for of a nature-worship was always something in sensuous and overflowing; the symbol of Christianity is a Cross.

And it is the same instinct of fear which has operated through the ages in the Church. Human nature is something altogether different from mere nature; and the true God comes to us not as we consider idly the general fruitfulness of the world, but as we listen to our own that private misgivings, and then lift our eyes to Him who gave Himself for our redemption. The danger of all nature-teaching is that it puts away the Cross, and no way is really safe for man that is not marked with a sign of the Cross. That was one thing that put the Christian Church in an attitude of carefulness and suspicion; it was genuinely afraid that it might be caught, might lose its edge, its love of hard things and of the Cross, in the worship of God.

How numbingly it is to all our heroic faculties to be told that all is well; to be told that there is nothing to work for, if need be to die for. How untrue to have some one tell us that things as they are are well when we know that they are not well, when we know that we ourselves are wrong, and hold that, if we were never to become better than we are, we should have failed. Christianity is not optimism, nor is it pessimism; if it is faith in God---in the good in things, and a protest against the evil in things. It is because much talking about nature and her bountifulness is apt to produce this idle acquiescence in things as they are, because if it is apt to lower the Cross as the one flag of this life of ours, that, from time to time, the Church took another course in adopted another form of speech.

We believe today that Christ does permit to us acts of public thanksgiving for the bountifulness of nature, without endangering our souls. We believe that we can keep the portion of faith. We know that though we thank God for the harvest and for the natural goods of life, we do not talk of seeing God in the harvest. We see God in the passion of love of His Son. If it is only when we see God in Christ, it is only when we know the heart of things to be a cross, that we can see God in the world, and yet not slacken in our protest against the evil in our own hearts and against the ancient evils of the world.

In Christ, timothy. maranatha