Meditations on the Essence of Christianity and on the Religious Questions of the Day
Library of Alexandria
During the last nineteen centuries, Christianity has been often assailed, and has successfully resisted every attack. Of these attacks, some have been more violent, but none more serious than that of which it is, in these days, the object. For eighteen hundred years Christians were in turn persecutors and persecuted; Christians persecuted as Christians, Christians persecutors of every one who was not Christian—Christians mutually persecuting each other. This persecution varied, it is true, in degree of cruelty with the age and the country, as it also did in the degree of inflexibility evinced and success attained in the prosecution of its object; but whatever the diversity of state, church, or punishment, whatever the degree of severity or laxity in the application of the principle, this principle was ever the same. After having had to endure proscription and martyrdom under the imperial government of Paganism, the Christian religion lived, in its turn, under the guard of the civil law, defended by the arms of secular power. In these days it exists in the very presence of Liberty. It has to deal with free thought,—with free discussion. It is called upon to defend, to guard itself, to prove incessantly and against every comer its moral and historical veracity, to vindicate its claims upon man's intelligence and man's soul. Roman Catholics, Protestants, or Jews, Christians or philosophers, all, at least in our country, are sheltered from every persecution; for no one without incurring the risk of ridicule could characterise as persecution the sacrifices or the inconveniences to which the expression of his opinion may occasionally subject him. To every man such expression of opinion is permitted, and can never lead to the forfeiture, on the part of any single individual, of any of his political rights or privileges. Religious Liberty—that is to say, the liberty of believing; of believing differently or of disbelieving—may be but imperfectly accepted and guaranteed as a principle in certain states; but it still is evident that it is becoming so every day more and more, and that it will eventually become the Common Law of the civilised world. One of the circumstances that render this fact pregnant with importance is that it does not stand isolated; but holds its place in the great Intellectual and Social Revolution, which, after the fermentation and the preparation of centuries, has broken out and is in course of accomplishment in our own days. The scientific spirit, the preponderance of the democratic principle, and that of political liberty, are the essential characteristics and invincible tendencies of this revolution. These new forces may fall into enormous errors and commit enormous faults, the penalty for which they will ever dearly pay; still they are definitively installed in modern society; the sciences will continue to develop themselves in its bosom in the full independence of their methods and of their results; the democracy will establish itself in the positions which it has conquered, and on the ground which has been opened to it; political liberty in the midst of its storms and its disappointments will still, sooner or later, cause itself to be accepted as the necessary guarantee for all the acquisitions and all the progress possible in society. These are the grand predominant facts to which all public institutions will now have to adapt themselves, and with which all authority whose action is upon the mind requires to live at peace. Christianity also must submit to the same tests and trials. As it has surmounted all others, so also will it surmount this; its essence and origin would not be divine did they not permit it to adapt itself to all the different forms of human institutions, to serve them now as a guide, now as a support in their vicissitudes whether of adversity or prosperity.