Ecce Homo: A Survey of the Life and Work of Jesus Christ

REVIEWS AND LITERARY NOTICES.
Ecce Homo : a Survey of the Life and Work of Jesus Christ. Boston : Roberts Brothers.
THE merits of this book are popular and obvious, consisting in a strain of liberal, enlightened sentiment, an ingenious and original cast of thought, and a painstaking lucidity of style which leaves the writer’s meaning even prosaically plain. There is a good deal of absurd and even puerile exegesis in its pages, which makes you wonder how so much sentimentality can coexist with so much ability ; but the book is vitiated for all purposes beyond mere literary entertainment by one grand defect, which is the guarded theologic obscurity the writer keeps up, or the attempt he makes to estimate Christianity apart from all question of the truth or falsity of Christ’s personal pretensions towards God. The author may have reached in his own mind the most definite theologic convictions, but he sedulously withholds them from his reader ; and the consequence is, that the book awakens and satisfies no intellectual interest in the latter, but remains at best a curious literary speculation. For what men have always been moved by in Christianity is not so much the superiority of its moral inculcations to those of other faiths, as its uncompromising pretension to be a final or absolute religion. If Christ be only the eminently good and wise and philanthropic man the author describes him to be, deliberating, legislating, for the improvement of man’s morals, he may be very admirable, but nothing can be inferred from that circumstance to the deeper inquiry. If he claim no essentially different significance to our regard, on God’s part, than that claimed by Zoroaster, Confucius, Mahomet, Hildebrand, Luther, Wesley, he is to be sure still entitled to all the respect inherent in such an office ; but then there is no a priori reason why his teaching and influence should not be superseded in process of time by that of any at present unmentionable Anne Lee, Joanna Southcote, or Joe Smith. And what the human mind craves, above all things else, is repose towards God, — is not to remain a helpless sport to every fanatic sot that comes up from the abyss of human vanity, and claims to hold it captive by the assumption of a new Divine mission.
The objection to the mythic view of Christ’s significance, which is that maintained by Strauss, is, that it violates men’s faith in the integrity of history as a veracious outcome of the providential love and wisdom which are extant and operative in human affairs. And the objection to what has been called the Troubadour view of the same subject, which is that represented by M. Renan, is, that it outrages men’s faith in human character, regarded, if not as habitually, still as occasionally capable of heroic or consistent veracity. We may safely argue, then, that neither Strauss nor Renan will possess any long vitality to human thought. They are both fascinating reading ; — the one for his profound sincerity, or his conviction of a worth in Christianity so broadly human and impersonal as to exempt it from the obligations of a literal historic doctrine ; the other for his profound insincerity, so to speak, or an egotism so subtile, so capacious and frank, as permits him to take up the grandest character in history into the hollow of his hand, and turn him about there for critical inspection and definite adjustment to the race, with absolutely no more reverence nor reticence than a buyer of grain shows to a handful of wheat, as he pours it dexterously from hand to hand, and blows the chaff in the seller’s face.1 But both writers alike are left behind us in the library, and are not subsequently brought to mind by anything we encounter in the fields or the streets.
The author of Ecce Homo does no dishonor to the Christian history as history, however foolishly he expatiates at times upon its incidents and implications ; much less to the simple and perfect integrity of Christ as a man, but no more than Strauss or Renan does he meet the supreme want of the popular understanding, which is to know wherein Christianity has the right it claims to be regarded as a final or complete revelation of the Divine name upon the earth. We think, moreover, that the reason of the omission is the same in every case, being the sheer and contented indifference which each of the writers feels to the question of a revelation in the abstract or general, regarded as a sine qua non of any sympathetic or rational intercourse which may be considered as possible between God and man. We should not be so presumptuous as to invite our readers’ attention to the discussion of so grave a philosophic topic as the one here referred to, in the limited space at our command; but surely it may be said, without any danger of misunderstanding from the most cursory reader, that if creation were the absolute or unconditioned verity which thoughtless people deem it, there could be no ratio between Creator and creature, hence no intercourse or intimacy, inasmuch as the one is being itself, and the other does not even exist or seem to be but by him. In order that creation should be a rational product of Divine power, in order that the creature should be a being of reason, endowed with the responsibility of his own actions, it is imperative that the Creator disown his essential infinitude and diminish himself to the creature’s dimensions; that he hide or obscure his own perfection in the creature’s imperfection, to the extent even of rendering it fairly problematic whether or not an infinite being really exist, so putting man, as it were, upon the spontaneous search and demand for such a being, and in that measure developing his rational possibilities. And if this be so, — if creation philosophically involve a descending movement on the Creator’s part proportionate to the ascending one contemplated on the creature’s part, — then it follows that creation is not a simple, but a complex process, involving equally a Divine action and a human reaction, or the due adjustment of means and ends ; and that no writer, consequently, can long satisfy the intellect in the sphere of religious thought, who either jauntily or ignorantly overlooks this philosophic necessity. This, however, is what Messrs. Strauss and Renan and the author of Ecce Homo agree to do ; and this is what makes their several books, whatever subjective differences characterize them to a literary regard, alike objectively unprofitable as instruments of intellectual progress.
  1. Of course we have no disposition to deny M. Renan’s right to reduce Christ and every other historic figure to the standard of the most modern critical art. We merely mean to say that this is all M. Renan dues, and that the all is not much.