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ORTHODOXY: WHAT IS IT?
THE famous lecture upon "Snakes in Ireland," which began, "There are no snakes in Ireland," furnishes me with an admirable model for my discourse this morning. There is no orthodoxy, no standard of belief, to which we can appeal, and say, "This is the orthos doxa,”—i.e., the straight, the right, the correct opinion, from which any divergence is heresy. If there is any, it is the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church; and all Protestant churches are equally heretics in comparison with that, for they all alike deny that which constitutes its essential character, its assumption of infallibility, and its identification of the seat of this infalli bility with the papal throne. Whether there is any virtue in this "If," we shall see as we go on with our discussion. In the mean time, the actuality and possibility of orthodoxy have both a theoretical and an historical aspect; and in either they are equally unreal. The theoretical aspect is not an isolated one in modern life. It is of a piece with the whole tendency of modern thought, of which nothing is more characteristic than its doctrine of the relativity of human knowledge and the relativity of all natural organisms, human relations, morals, characters, and arts. The former tendency was to the absolute in everything, to absolute distinctions in everything. Everything was set off from everything else as absolutely different from it. We had God and man, matter and spirit, good men and bad, heaven and hell, truth and error, true religions and false, natural and revealed; while in politics it must be a monarchy or a republic, and one party must be wholly right, the other wholly wrong, our side the cream of cream, the other knaves and
fools; and in art, between the Classic and Romantic, there must be no half-way: it must be realistic or idealistic, one thing or the other; and so on through the whole range of natural and human life.
Nothing is clearer in the range of modern thought than that it has completely broken with these hard and fast divisions, separations, and antagonisms. In the duels of the arts, the sciences, the religions, and the men of force and genius who have shaped all these, Hamlet and Laertes are continually changing swords. There is nothing fixed and permanent. The old Greek philosophers, who said that everything is flux, seem to have had the right of it. Down among the natural forces there is a new reading of them all, which substitutes a relative for an absolute interpretation. The old cosmology said that the world was made and finished in six days; the new cosmology, that it has been nearer six million years a-making, and that it is not finished yet. Even the children in the Sunday-schools are beginning to question whether God" can make a mountain all to once"; and Tyndall, asking who chiselled these mighty and picturesque masses, finds the real sculptor in the all-conquering sun. “And it is he who, acting through the ages, will finally lay low these mighty monuments, rolling them gradually seaward, 'sowing the seeds of continents to be,' so that the people of an older earth may see mould spread and corn wave over the hidden rocks which at this moment bear up the weight of the Jungfrau"; so that there is not the least exaggeration in Tennyson's stanza where he sings
"The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
Like clouds they shape themselves and go."
Pass from the geological to the biological world, and we have the same substitution of a relative for an absolute idea: the transmutation of species, form flowing into form, instead of the old idea that God made each separate kind outright; 'the
creation of man not an event, but a process involving ages measured by hundreds of millenniums. And man once made, or at least fairly on his feet and "going to be created,”– like the dramatic Adam in the mediaval play,- how relative are the distinctions in his character and in the matters that concern his life and are the fruits of his activity! For the two kinds of men the old thinking gave us, one kind ordained to heaven and the other kind to hell, we have about some 1,400,000,000 kinds at any given time,— as many kinds as there are people in the world. The worst have something good in them, the best are not all good. And what is best, and what is worst, and what are good and bad? The difference is a relative difference. The bad is an excess of good, the exaggeration of something which is not intrinsically bad. Conscience tells men that they must do the right. It does not tell them what it is. And, in truth, it is not the same yesterday and to-day and forever. Time was when slavery was better than butchery, and so relatively good; when polygamy was better than the rage of indiscriminate lust; and so on. Or take the great religions of the world: they are no longer good or bad, one good and all the others bad. They are all good and bad, each mixed of various yarn. And so, too, with the politics. There is no system absolutely good for every time and place. The divine right of kings is certainly an anachronism in our time; and in the Imperial German play we seem to see the young emperor, far crazier than Hamlet, addressing the headless ghost of Charles I. of England, and saying, "I'll follow thee." But the divine right of kings was not always an absurdity. As against rival chiefs and barons, it signalized the necessity of central power. And in the comparative politics of modern times we must not be the dupes of words. England is monarchical, and America is republican; but our government is more conservative than that of England, in the judgment of Sir Henry Maine, the first political student of his time. But there are other relative considerations less soothing to our self-esteem. Good Queen Victoria may be Queen Log,
and we may depreciate the assiduity with which her sure decay and general uselessness are overlaid with gold. But is such a gubernatorial or senatorial Stork as we sometimes have on our side of the puddle so much better? and, in view of such gigantic appropriations of the people's money to the benefit of private corporations, and the giving away of great franchises of travel which could be sold for enormous sums, as we have seen of late, is it certain that the gilded log is more expensive than our monumental brass?
But these random illustrations of the relativity of modern thought, its substitution of modification and gradation for the hard and fast, may easily be multiplied too far. They are so numerous that it would be strange if the province of theology constituted an exception to their rule. The history of thought has furnished no more gross example of the absolute method than the general conception of orthodoxy as something believed everywhere and always and by all who have any claim to be regarded as members of the Christian Church. And it may seem to some of you that the disintegration of this conception is out of all proportion with the knowledge of the course of Christian thought as it has developed from its beginning on the steep hillside of Nazareth to the present time. And, indeed, it is so. It is so because of that law which Lecky elaborated in his " History of Rationalism in Europe "; namely, that, while conscious opposition may confirm the old opinion, the general enlargement of the mind by processes of thought allows, compels, the old opinion to drop out of it. One need never have attended to the course of Christian history, and noted what a history of orthodoxy becoming heresy and heresy becoming orthodoxy it has been, while, if he has been profoundly affected by the stream of modern thought and its general transition from the absolute to the relative, it is hardly possible that the absolutism of orthodoxy should have remained for him unaffected, that he should not come to feel that here also we have no definite finality, but a sliding scale, marking one height at one time or place and another at another, so
that the pride of orthodoxy is much abashed, if it be not humbled to the ground.
And now if any one, so minded to include the absolutism of orthodoxy with that of all the other absolutisms which have abdicated in favor of the relative principle, should resolutely go to work to study Christian history, he would find at every stage of its advance or retrogression the amplest confirmation of his anticipatory intuition, would "see what he foresaw as clear as winter stars.
It was to be expected that the province of theology would be the last to keep itself uninvaded by the relative spirit, so industriously had it deceived itself with the conviction that it was "a garden sealed," a province differing not in degree only, but in kind, from every other in the realm of thought. But, while theology was musing, the fire of criticism burned, at first tended by Niebuhr and Arnold in the field of history, from which it caught in time the palings of the theological enclosure; and we may now say that the whole field has been pretty much burned over, and that everywhere, in the place of the old absolute growths that stood so thick together, the principles of relativity, of variation, transmutation, adaptation to environment, and so on, are springing up into a fresh and vigorous life.
The assumption of orthodoxy is that it has always been the creed of Christendom. But the truth is that the New Testament exhibits the infant Church torn by conflicting doctrines to a degree which has not been surpassed at any subsequent time. Odium theologicum is not an extinct variety; but not even the New York Observer often attains to such a genial latitude of abuse as the New Testament conservatives and radicals. That the heresy of one century is the orthodoxy of the next is a commonplace with students of these things. For orthodoxy to become heresy is a less common or less obvious experience. Yet nothing can be surer than that the New Testament orthodoxy, the orthodoxy of the Jerusalem apostles, headed by James, the brother of Jesus, though it seemed to be impregnably intrenched against the