[Letter of John James Taylor to Francis William Newman.]
June 10th, 1850
. . . From the unreserved communication we have often had with each other on subjects of this description, you will be prepared to expect that to a large extent I go heartily along with you in the views expressed in your Phases of Faith; and from the same remembrances you will no doubt suspect what are the points whereon our feelings and convictions diverge. In the great eternal principles that constitute the vitality of all religion—in the conception of God and of the soul's relation to Him, and the conditions of its peace and blessedness—I rejoice, dear friend, to feel that here as in your former work, there is no substantial difference between my own belief and that of one whom I so truly honour and love. It is in the construction of the facts of the history, and in the significance of a certain life and character as the living embodiment of principles, that I feel we are most at variance: and though there is some pain in the consciousness of the want of entire sympathy with a valued friend in a matter deeply interesting to both, yet strange to say—a condition, I suppose, of the highest exercise of that delightful feeling which enters into the true communion of saints, and which even inferior natures have some perceptions of, like glimpses of the future heaven—the happy tranquillising sense of agreement of the many points where we do sympathize, seems in a manner brought out and enhanced by the few where sympathy fails. I think this must ever be so, where men love truth, and honour sincerity, above any homage to their individual convictions.—I have not time at this moment to enter into a detailed examination of the many interesting and suggestive views put forth in your book; I hope they will receive one from a far abler pen than mine. Suffice it to say for myself, in relation to the particular matters where I am unable to embrace your conclusion, that in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ—abstraction being made of the local and secular incidents which are inseparable from every historical phenomenon—the principles of pure and true religion seem to me expressed and embodied in a form, and under circumstances, and at a turning-point in the progress of our race, which mark him out for the prophet of humanity—exercising a function and an influence, in relation to the future development of the most advanced portions of our race, in which, as I read history, I hope not with a prejudiced eye, I most clearly recognize the appointment of the Being whom I rejoice with you to worship as the Universal Father. I will not raise any question about perfection. Perfection is a transcendental idea, which it is very difficult to measure and define. I will only say in general, that in purity, refinement, tenderness, and spirituality, the mind of Christ seems to me far above the standard of worldly character, and to throw its influence even when, taken literally, it may appear to be exaggerated, precisely in that direction where the world's passions and tendencies most strongly need counteraction. It is the overwhelming presence and influence of the Unseen and Infinite on the life of Christ, that makes its presentment in the Gospels so solemn and impressive—so unlike what we meet with in the world and in ordinary history. Immanuel—God with us—is what I perpetually think of when I read of that holy and beautiful life; and it is only as an expression of the religious element of our being, that a prophet's life is commended to our reverence at all. Are not those who have renounced the high standard of orthodoxy, sometimes unconsciously guilty of the unfairness of continuing still to apply it to Scripture and to Christ, and by exacting too much, at length do not leave them what, on a broader view, they might justly claim? I entirely agree with you that there can be no faith at second hand; and yet a life of pure and genuine religion, standing forth in its holy and gentle light, amidst the dark and bloody records of history, when it is not tried by an artificial standard, but left to our own free and unpreoccupied acceptance, may be, as I believe it perpetually has been, a means, not of imposing on us a faith from without (for that cannot be), but of awakening in us through sympathy a new strength and freshness and amplitude in that of which the seeds are already in our breast. History, again, I do not believe to be any part of religion; yet it is a most effectual vehicle for the transmission of its ideas and influences, and for investing its living spirit with the traditional and symbolical form, by which only it has ever hitherto taken firm hold of the heart and the imagination and the daily life of extensive communities. The mischief has been (as in Germany) that where such historical forms have existed, while the cold light of science has been shed on them, the freshening breath of popular sympathy and intelligence has not been allowed to play freely round them.—I saw a remark of yours in a recent communication to the Leader, to which I cordially responded—that all living systems of constitutional freedom must have their roots in history. Nothing, I thought, could be more seasonable and wise than such advice to our theoretical reformers. Yet there are principles contained in these historical results which must never be lost sight of, and which are necessary to preserve them in integrity and health. I should be disposed to apply a similar remark to religion. Church and State, in this respect, seem to me to have much affinity with each other. All religions that have exercised extensive sway in the earth have had a personal head and generated a tradition. There are religious developments, it is true, but these have sprung from preceding ones, and taken up and perpetuated their best elements. It has surely a deep providential significance, that in the pure religion of Christ all the elements are so spiritual, so capable of progressive expansion and adaptation, offering in marvellous combination the means of intellectual advancement and popular impression.—Is it not one cause of the incurable restlessness of France, that the roots which bound her religion to the Past, were killed by the intolerance of Louis XIV., and that from that day she has never been able to send up any healthy growth into the Present, with any promise for the Future? I know, dear friend, you will not agree with me in many of these views; but I wish you to see in what direction it is that my mind wanders away from your conclusion.