The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Imperative Demand.
The Sermons of Eugene Bersier
We have already considered our Lord Jesus Christ's claims to be our King, as supported by (a) the manner in which he teaches the understanding, and (b) the manner in which he judges the conscience. The parents of little children can hardly do a better thing for their children than to make these arguments their own, become imbued with like passionate conviction and read the Gospel history (with a note-book) in order to establish every point, with many examples. All of us who have to do with children should be able to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and such a reason as will satisfy the keen and critical young mind. Where only little children are concerned, it may be enough to fill ourselves with convictions which will inevitably flow from the full heart in the most simple talks about Christ the King, which the little ones can understand. But where parents have young people growing up about them, would it not be well to make these articles the bases of a careful study of the Gospels? A young person fortified with this kind of teaching, having such arguments by heart (in the best sense), will not be carried away by every wind of doctrine. The shame of having nothing to say for the faith they profess is the real cause of the falling away of many an ardent young soul. We absolutely must face the questions that are in the air. However much we elders choose to shut our eyes and say we see no danger, it is certain that no young person of education and intelligence will long escape the necessity of having to contend for or deny the faith. Surely education should make some provision for this exigency.
Let us now consider M. Bersier's teaching as to (c ) the manner in which Christ presents himself as the Master of hearts, and (d) in the exercise of the supernatural power which he claims to possess:--
This royalty of Jesus Christ, which manifests itself in the manner in which it reveals the truth, in which it judges the conscience, appears to me (M. Bersier), in the third place, and with still greater force, when I consider the place which he vindicates for himself in the love and in the life of those who come to him. We must give to this fact its full importance. It is, no doubt, natural that he who said to men "Love you one another" ought himself to be beloved. We learn in the school of Jesus Christ two things--the love of man, and that which is called in religious language detachment from the creature. How reconcile the two duties? The contradiction between them is only apparent. Christianity would establish its hierarchy in the affections, in the world of the heart, as elsewhere it establishes the reign of law. It renders to God His place and relegates man to his. Yes, it is love which should bind all creatures, but in binding them to God. God--behold the only Being who can possess our love in its plenitude. To created beings we give a part; and if one of these absorb the whole there ensue disorder and idolatry; so the more holy the creature, the more elevated in the moral scale of things, the more it fears to attract to itself the homage which belongs to God alone; it humbles itself, it effaces itself, it cries "Not to me, not to me, Lord, but to Thy name give the glory." Thus is realised that hierarchy of beings of which Pythagoras of old had a glimpse when he said, that harmony is the law of the world. Of this fugitive vision of genius Jesus Christ has made the religion of humanity.
In this hierarchy of beings, what is the place which Jesus Christ vindicates for himself? What pretends he to be among men? I interrogate the Gospels, and they respond: Jesus Christ pretends to nothing less than to be the supreme end of all love, and the profound source of all life. From his first public words, he declares that it is for the love of him that his disciples shall suffer persecution. Little by little, he reveals to them all the grandeur of his office and of his person. By that slow method of education which is his own, and which consists, not in imposing the truth by means of formulas, but in giving it birth in the hearts and the minds of his followers, he prepares them to comprehend that which he is. It is only after a year and a half of teaching that he poses them with this decisive question, "Whom way ye that I am?" He directs upon his own person the regards, the attention, the faith of his disciples; it is to him they must come, it is in him they must believe, it is him they must love. All affection must be subordinated to this dominant affection; all bonds of flesh and blood must be broken if they oppose themselves to it; and, as if to make this truth live in men's hearts, Jesus did not recoil before that most formidable of paradoxes: "Whosoever hate not his father and his mother, whosoever hate not his own life, cannot be my disciple."
And even as Jesus lays claim to all love, he reveals himself as the source of all life. From his person flows henceforth an inexhaustible stream of life and of holiness. Think what there is in these simple words, "Come unto Me," addressed to all the afflicted of the earth, and in that promise, as magnificent as superhuman, "You shall find the rest of your souls." It is in the same spirit that he founds the holy Sacrament, inviting through it all believers of the future to contemplate his flesh broken and his blood shed for the sins of the world, and making of his sacrifice the eternal object of their faith. It is in the same spirit that, when about to leave his disciples, in that supreme moment when, having achieved his work, he should, had he been no more than the greatest of the prophets, have effaced himself, and directed their regards to God alone, he addresses to them those words which will, throughout the ages, sustain all the believers of the future, "Behold, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world."
It is not only by his words that Jesus affirms his spiritual royalty; it is yet more in his acts; it is in the order of facts. He acts as much as he teaches, and, in the action, as in the teaching, he displays a sovereign power to which we must give the only name which belongs to it; it is supernatural. Here we touch on an actual and burning question. The more it is to-day the subject of controversy, the more I feel bound to approach it freely and without reticence.
That Jesus Christ pretended to supernatural power is the teaching of all the evangelical texts, without any exception, and I have no need to stop in order to prove this. It is not only the letters of St. Paul which affirm it; it is those most ancient and most authentic documents in which the most prejudiced critic is compelled to recognise the faithful echo of his ministry. Let us admit, as many think to-day, that the narrative of St. Mark constitutes what may be called the primitive evangel; we all know that from the beginning to the end it recounts to us the miraculous activity of Jesus Christ. We shall be told, no doubt, that all these marvellous incidents are the spontaneous creation of the popular Jewish imagination, which is unable to represent to itself a religious hero without crowning him with the aureole of the thaumaturgist. But one fact gives to this assertion a peremptory denial, and proves that the evangelists knew how to resist this tendency. There existed in the first century of our era a prophet who enjoyed an enormous popularity, a man of such eminence that the historian Josephus, who seems hardly to have know Jesus Christ, gives him, on the contrary, a prominent place. This man is John the Baptist, whom Jews and Christians venerate equally. Now we see that the evangelist attribute no miraculous acts to him. They retrace for us, in a manner precise and striking, his ministry, his preaching, his death, without the introduction of a single supernatural circumstance, which fact proves that they were able to conceive of a mission divinely authenticated, without accompanying prodigies.* When they come to Jesus it is quite otherwise; and on each of these pages we find ourselves in presence of acts which suppose a power absolutely superhuman. That is to say, that their language changes, that their narrations become from that point less precise, more vague, more legendary, and that one feels less in them the mark of witnesses who have seen, who have heard, that which they recount? On the contrary, these same evangelists give us of Jesus, of his character, of his attitude, of his teaching, a picture so living, so original, so powerful, that it has traversed the centuries; they have preserved to us his words, of such grandeur that their authenticity imposes itself on every intelligence which is not blinded by miserable prejudices. Each one feels that these maxims, so profound and so penetrating, that these answers which reach to the bottom of things, that these parables of a style so pure and so marvellously original, that these discourses, have been really pronounced and faithfully reproduced. Now, many of these words are interlaced so closely with the acts of Jesus, with his healings, with what we call his miracles, that it is impossible to imagine a texture more close and more compact.
I cannot restrain myself from making here an historical parallel. The earliest biographers of Mahomet filled his life with the marvellous: now, it is a tree which, before him, advances or retires; now water, which at his touch, throws up citrons; now, apparitions of legions of harnessed angels come to take his part in his battles. Now you may suppress all these marvels, and the personality of Mahomet is not the least in the world altered, the Souras of the Koran lose nothing of their sombre and monotonous originality; and this observation which I apply to Mahomet touches equally many others of the heroes of religion. Very little critical sagacity suffices to separate in their lives the primitive source from the later accretions. This separation between the supernatural and the real cannot, I maintain, be carried out in the history of Christ without disfiguring his personality and making of him a being incomprehensible and monstrous. Of two things we must, in fact, choose one; either the acts which he accomplished are real, or they are purely imaginary. If they are real, and if we deny their supernatural character, one is reduced to see in them only the tours de force of a thaumaturgist able to impose on a credulous crowd; miserable explanation which the critic can apply only by having recourse himself to very tours de force of subtlety, and which is in such contrast with the moral sublimity of Christ that it can never satisfy the instructed conscience, nor even the simple good sense of the uneducated. If these acts are imaginary the difficulty still remains insoluble, for then it is necessary to admit this: that his biographers--who have transmitted to us with a scrupulous fidelity so many of his words, so many lengthy discourses even, which they could not have invented, because the teaching there collected is absolutely beyond their range--that they are deceived all at once, become the victims of their own imbecility, or of the most fantastic hallucinations, when, in the same pages, they recount the acts of Jesus. And this, though these acts were infinitely more easy to verify than the words, because they fell under the senses of those who were the witnesses of them.
The problem, you see, is inextricable and desperate. So we have a right to conclude on this point that those who refuse to admit the miracles of Jesus Christ, do so not only because the historic testimony appears to them defective, but, in the first place, for reasons preconceived; it is because they have erected into a dogma the impossibility of the supernatural. Let us examine for a moment this pretended axiom and see what we think of it.
The notion of the supernatural suffers at this moment such discredit that many minds believe it to be exploited. "One can foresee the day," writes recently M. Renan, "when belief in facts supernatural will be in the world a thing as little considerable as is to-day the faith in sorceries and ghosts." The cause of this discredit is complex. It holds, above all, to the method to which Auguste Comte has given the name of positive, and which consists in excluding from science all explanation, metaphysical and religious, in order to hold only to facts rigorously observed. Thanks to its apparent simplicity, this method is to-day triumphant, but it remains to be seen how far it suffices to explain our destiny, moral and religious; now, it is that which we deny energetically.
There is a system, as old as Epicurus, which consists in maintaining that nature is sufficient to explain herself, and that all in nature is reducible to matter and its properties. This system, very logical and very familiar, is materialism. It is evident that those who accept it have nothing to do with the supernatural, nor with God, nor with first cause, nor with moral liberty, nor with a future life, nor with religion. All is, for them, gathered into a single substance, matter; into a single principle, force, which, in its successive evolutions, has produced the world such as it appears to us.
I do not discuss this system; I state simply the immense popularity which it enjoys to-day. But it is not to materialists that I address myself; it is to men who admit that thought is not the result of a displacement of molecules, that spirit is of an other order than matter, that moral liberty is a reality, that the world was not conceived without a supreme Cause, intelligent and perfect. It seems that men, in virtue of even these premises, should be logically conducted to accept the notion of the supernatural. It is, however, amongst these that I meet some of its most resolute adversaries. It is not that they deny the theoretical possibility. The idea which even they have formed of the liberty and of the omnipotence of God will not permit them to render the Creator the slave of the laws which he has made, but this simple possibility, empty and bare, cannot struggle against the repugnance which their reason, formed by our positive methods, experiences against admitting the reality of miraculous facts. Will they permit me to say to them that this repugnance is not worthy of the philosophic mind, and that they alone are truly independent who are able to resist the current of their age!
Consider the favourite argument which they allege. They appeal to the general impression which the religious history of humanity makes upon us; they tell us that all religions, whatever they be, have their origins shrouded in the marvellous, that this pretension is null, even because it is universal, that it simply proves one thing--the aberration of the human imagination overexcited by the religious ideal; they demand of us, why even we who oppose ourselves instinctively to the reception of the legends of all the mythologies, why we pretend to make an exception in favour of the evangelical legends, why we claim for Christ that which we refuse to all the soi-disant thaumaturgists of ancient and of modern times. The objection is specious. Let us see if it is as peremptory as they pretend.
It is incontestable that always and everywhere man has believed that, if the divinity intervened in his destinies, such intervention should manifest itself by acts which, behind all second causes, allow the first and sovereign cause to be perceived. This presumption has, it is equally certain, given birth to an innumerable multitude of absurdities and legendary marvels. Does it necessarily follow that it is false? That is the true question For me, I confess that this presumption has great weight, not only because it is universal, and because there is always a strong philosophic tendency to recognise an aspiration of the human conscience which is produced always and everywhere, but still more because it is justifiable in reason; because if there is a God, if this God wills to make himself known and to establish his reign, it seems impossible that he should not reveal himself as the Master of nature, as the sovereign and all-powerful Being. To take away the supernatural from religion because of the aberrations which it has produced, is unworthy of a thoughtful mind. As well might you remove prayer, adoration, the hope of a future life--religion, in a word, for the sole reason that these manifestations of the human soul have been often extra-ordinary, fantastic, even monstrous. Now, here as elsewhere, we must distinguish the true from the false and the ideal from its gross perversions; even so, in face of the supernatural facts of the Gospel, so clearly attested by the first witnesses, our duty is, not to proceed by arbitrary negations, but to ascertain if these facts do not reveal an intervention of God in the history of humanity.
To this consideration, already so strong, let us add another. The study of nature reveals to us in the whole creation what may be called an ascending series. At the foot is chaotic matter ruled by laws purely mechanical; then, above, life, at first vegetative, afterwards endowed with movement, with instinct and a confused conscience which is elevated little by little towards intelligence, morality. They tell us now that this ascending progression is the simple result of an evolution pursued through millions of years or of ages. I leave this hypothesis on one side, as I have no call to discuss it, and I simply state that at each of these stages we may observe a new manifestation of life, which is supernatural in regard to the preceding, because it is affirmed by phenomena which the preceding would not have been able to produce. It is evident, for example, that when life appears where, until then, simple mechanism had reigned, life brings with it phenomena of the biological order; life in the animal would have manifestations superior to those one sees in vegetation.
Suppose now that man should appear where the animal only had preceded him, he would exercise there immediately a power of a new order; he would modify the effects of the laws of nature; he would make brute force serve a pre-determined and intelligent end. He would suspend the laws of gravitation; he would graft on a tree a branch which that tree would never produce; he would create in the animal series, by the crossing of species, a type unknown until then. The human reign, then, is manifested by phenomena which would be supernatural for him who was acquainted only with mechanical forces, only with the manifestations of animal or vegetable life. Suppose now we elevate ourselves to a sphere higher still; that, above the human reign, we admit that reality which the Gospel calls the reign of God amongst men. I say that the advent of this reign would draw with it, by an irresistible analogy, phenomena attesting the sovereignty of spirit over matter and of holiness over evil.
To this reason let us add a third, still more powerful and, in our eyes, decisive. Only the most superficial optimist can pretend that nature, such as we contemplate it in man, is in its true and normal condition; disorder is everywhere, in the domain of the intelligence under the form of error sometimes monstrous, in the domain of the conscience under the form of falsehood, in the domain of the heart under the form of egotism or of lawless affections; in the physical domain under the form of sensuality, of deformity, or of sorrow. To the wilful sophists who say that all is well, humanity responds by the cry of its sufferings. To those who affirm that evil must needs be, it responds by the clamorous protestations of its conscience and by the sorrowful confession of its misery, for the human soul has, like the ocean, its ebb and its flow, and to the rising tide of its crimes corresponds the sinking tide of its remorse. If evil were with us only the simple heritage of a primitive animal nature, we should commit it naturally; but man is not a brute; so, when he becomes brutal, he descends lower than the brute itself. He is false to his nature; he perverts it; his tendency is sub-natural, so to speak, contra-natural. If then the redemption of humanity is to be accomplished, it must be by the re-establishment of the true nature created in the image of God. The sub-natural calls invincibly for the supernatural.
Now, that which we call the supernatural in the work of Jesus Christ, what is it if it is not, before all, the restoration of human nature to its normal state, such as it is according to the will of God? It is this character, so profoundly moral, which ever distinguishes the miracles of the Christ from the multitude of legendary feats, born of the love of the marvellous. This desire for the marvellous has been by no one so severely condemned as by Christ himself; no one has said more clearly that the prodigy alone is utterly useless, and it is because he thinks thus that he always refuses to make parade of his divine power. Nothing, absolutely nothing, in him awakens the idea of a thaumaturgist; his acts are simple and sublime as his words, and in the one as in the other, it is, before all, the Redeemer who manifests himself. But the redemption he would accomplish has for its object the entire human nature, corporeal, for Christianity, in opposition to all the religions of the East, and to the ancient philosophies, has never placed in the body the principle of evil; and Christianity alone proposes to sanctify and to save the entire man.
How should this restoration of the integral nature have been accomplished by the Christ if he had been limited to teach, if he had not acted, if he had not touched with his divine hands the born-blind, the demoniacs, and the lepers? What! you find it good that, in his discourses, Jesus Christ protests against the insolent triumph of violence, against the perversions of justice and of right, against moral evil in its triple manifestations--sensuality, selfishness, and pride; you are moved when in the face of the ruins of the divine handiwork, so profoundly altered, he traces before you the grand outlines of the kingdom of God; in this language you recognise the revealer of religious truth: now, by what right, or in virtue of what preconceived idea, do you interdict him from realising in facts that which he proclaims in his words? Is it necessary then that he remain powerless before physical suffering, and that he limit himself to contemplate with a sterile sympathy the hideous malady which decays the leper, the extinguished sight of the blind, or the overthrown reason which betrays the terror and the anguish of the miserable possessed? Is it necessary that he stand, disarmed, face to face with death? Is it necessary that he, in his turn, submit to it, vanquished by it, as all the children of men, throwing to the world, by way of last adieu, a theoretic protest to which responds the implacable irony of a nature immutable, subject to the eternal fatality of evil?
It is not thus that Christianity understands the work of the redemption. It shows us in Jesus Christ a being who is truly the Son of man, subject to all the conditions of humanity; a being who grows, struggles, and sanctifies himself; but, at the same time, a being who, by his acts as by his words, reveals to us the intervention of God in humanity; a being who, always and everywhere, affirms the sovereignty of spirit over matter, of holiness over evil, of life over death.
One can explain Caesar, Mahomet, Buddha, Confucius; one cannot explain Jesus Christ. Do you desire the proof of it? It is that the attempts at such explanation recommence without ceasing; it is that you are satisfied by none of them; it is that every epoch in turn exercises itself upon this problem without ever resolving it. "What hast thou to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" cried, one day, a possessed of Capernaum. It is the cry of the human conscience, and each generation repeats it, transported in turn by admiration and by revolt from adoration to blasphemy, before this figure whose perfection attracts it and repulses it, and understanding by an infallible instinct stronger than all sophisms that Jesus Christ can be nothing if he be not the Master and the King. **
*"John did no miracle."--John x. 41.
Typed by Sonia, October 2013
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