[Letter of James Martineau to Francis William Newman.]
Nov. 2, 1847
My dear Newman,
. . . . .
If my recent volume[*] speaks any truth to you, I shall try to quiet the misgivings which now and then visit me respecting it. I know it indeed to be true to my own mind; but there seems a peculiar presumption in a man's putting forth his personal confessions, as if they could have value for the world. If one has knowledge to communicate, or new combinations of reasoning to present, these may be fairly estimated beforehand by the possessor; but the contents of the moral and spiritual life cannot be judged by like standards of comparison, and must be thrown out to take their chance among the sympathies of other minds. When they meet with a real welcome there, it relieves an inevitable fear lest the urgency with which they pressed for utterance should have been a mere delusion.
Your remark about the High Church preaching in comparison with that of the Reformers is so manifestly correct that it staggered me a good deal at first. And it certainly shows that my antithesis was not well chosen for the purposes of illustration. Perhaps, however, the historical fact, when referred to its proper causes, is not so much against me as it appears. The events of the seventeenth century occasioned a kind of crossing of influences, I think, so far as this particular matter is concerned. The Evangelical system, with its new reliance on the Scriptures, its great doctrine of Justification by Faith, and the necessity under which it lay of shaping its subjective and enthusiastic religion into a structure competing in distinctness with the external Christianity of the old Church, was indeed driven to methods of Argument; the Intellect had to create at a stroke a Theology to rival the compacted formation of centuries. It was a game of life or death for the new enthusiasm, which musteither bring over the Reason to its side, or else die out itself. Was there not, therefore, a temporary coalescence of the "lyrical" spirit with argumentative forms, enabling the Puritans—so long as this concurrence lasted—to satisfy the devout wants of their people with extemporaneous address? And had not the use of the book by High Church Divines something to do with the obligation on all Conformists to read the "Book of Homilies" published by Authority? Was not the habit a remnant of this outward mark of submission? The practice of written composition once established would itself determine such minds as Taylor's to a deeply religious style of preaching. The French examples—as Massillon—are as far as possible from my notion of what preaching ought to be;—full of Rhetoric, without a tone of Poetry. Looking beyond our own country, we surely find that the Roman Catholic Church employs extempore preachers; while the Reformed Churches, in proportion as their religious life has detached itself from the procedure of systematic divinity, have resorted more and more to written compositions, though disguised under a memoriter delivery.—I confess, however, that you may well condemn an illustration which stands in need of all this questionable exposition to save some remnant of its credit.
Your remark as to the character of my Christian theology—that it is not a permanent structure, but a bridge to aid the timid—affects me with a certain sadness, which is perhaps an augury of its truth. And I am too well aware of the severe cost of parting with an object of deep trust and reverence not to be awake to the temptations from this source which may endanger one's perfect fidelity. Yet I cannot but think your view of Christ as a spiritual guide more severe than the highest standard compatible with the conditions of historical existence would require. I do not attempt to explain away any of the erroneous promises and precepts which you enumerate (with the exception of the proposal to build the temple in three days, which appears to me to have a very noble symbolical meaning). I have long been convinced that these expectations held out to the first disciples must be taken literally; and, if truly reported (which we have no right, perhaps, to question), must be dealt with as mistakes. They do not, however, strike me as very material in the estimate of Christ's character. I grant you that, if such claims and promises were to be put forth by anyone in Europe now, they would prove him to be too much tinctured with fanaticism to be safely followed. But under the conditions of society in Palestine, with a universal prevalence of theocratical ideas and Messianic anticipations, drawing into their vortex the whole religious genius of the nation, the case is surely very different. The mistake, in the one case, would be the special assumption, or rather creation, of an exceptional fanaticism; in the other, it was simply a failure to escape from an all-pervading delusion. I do not see how any degree of sanctity of mind could have afforded security against such a speculative error. The moment it came in contact with the practical life of Jesus, and invited him to set in action the coarse conventional methods for erecting the Messiah's Kingdom, he shrunk, with infallible moral feeling, from the touch of such things, and after a temporary retirement, resumed his spiritual course; and so his will evaded what his understanding could not discard. That, with the expectations he held, he should esteem it the duty of himself and those who sympathised with him to resign everything in order to proclaim the "Kingdom," appears to me no derogation from his moral perfection. In fact, to a people possessed with these ideas, it would really become a duty to take this very course; nor would any career short of this be up to the mark of conscience, with such a one as the rich young man. Perhaps, too, it makes a little difference if the summons was given, not to follow him as the Messiah, but to join him in proclaiming the approach of the Messiah; and it seems from the three first Gospels very doubtful whether Jesus really identified himself with the Messiah at all. No doubt there are passages which imply that he did; but so are there which affirm his circumstantial fore-announcement of his death. On the strength of other and counter indications I do not hesitate to believe that both these statements are retrospective interpretations and imaginations of the disciples, anxious to find in his mind beforehand all that they discerned in his life afterwards.
You will perhaps tell me that my large concessions leave little that is worth defending. I do not, however, feel it to be so; and with all its imperfections, I find nothing still, in history or nature, so divine as that old Gospel. Jesus appears to me the highest of realities. It is easy, in mere imagination now, to improve upon that reality, by withdrawing the intellectual limitations and reproducing the conception he has left us in the latitude and under the conditions of modern thought. But every departure from him as the essential Type of spiritual perfections seems to me a declension to something lower. I am far, however, from supposing that the rejection of this standard by others implies contentment with an inferior one. It doubtless arises in good minds from the clear discernment of something beyond it,—something hid from me at present, I confess, but which, whenever revealed, I would humbly welcome, not only without fear of profaneness, but with joyful trust in God's good light.
. . . . .
Ever my dear Newman, yours affectionately,
[*Endeavours after the Christian Life: Discourses, 2nd Series. (Preface dated September 2, 1847.)—FWNRC.]