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An essay by George William Curtis

Christendom vs. Christianity

Title:     Christendom vs. Christianity
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

IT is remarkable that what is called the practical sense of Christendom virtually rejects the Christian ideals as impracticable. Its highest ideal is obedience to the Divine will, and its instinct, therefore, should represent the religious man as the perfection of vigorous manhood. The more manly, the finer the bloom of health, the sounder the body for the sound and purified mind, the truer and more satisfactory the type, the more symmetrically revealed the Christian man. This is the simple and natural ideal among living men of unthwarted and normal Christian excellence.

But so little is this the fact that the oldest traditions of Christian art depict the founder of Christianity Himself not as a blooming man, not as a figure of the inward and outward health that proceeds inevitably from complete and absolute conformity to the Divine will, but as a wan and wasted personality plainly worsted by the world. This conception extends to the constant and organized control of the Church, and the general feeling of Christendom regards the ministers of its religion either as official personages or as excluded from actual knowledge of life; not masters of the arena, but professionally unfit to cope with the world.

It may, indeed, be said that the traditions of Christian art show a misapprehension of the essential character of the Christian faith. But however that may be, it is certainly true that these traditions do not misrepresent the general conception of Christianity which is professed by those who practically reject its ideals. Here goes Solomon Gunnybags to Christian worship on Sunday morning. He "abashiates" himself in his pew, and his confession that he is a miserable sinner is so sonorous and impressive that the hearer sighs sympathetically with Solomon's consciousness of the enormous burden of wrong-doing that he carries.

Now what is Solomon doing in his pew? He is solemnly professing confidence in and reverence for certain principles of faith and conduct, not only as lofty in themselves, but as absolutely essential to his soul's salvation. Then, unless the whole universe is a farce, and religion and the soul impostures, they are the most practical and practicable of all possible principles, because otherwise the soul's salvation could not be made by beneficent Omnipotence dependent upon fidelity to them. But if some attendant spirit should say to Solomon Gunnybags, as he walks home with the happy consciousness of duty done, "Solomon, the golden rule and the Christian religion forbid you to 'unload' upon David the stock that you believe to be very shaky," he would unquestionably feel, if he did not say: "Stuff! Every man for himself. Of course Christianity is an excellent thing, but it doesn't mean that." Gunnybags does not expressly repudiate Christian principle as unpractical; he only believes it to be so.

The fundamental doctrine of the Christian life is love. The Christian millennium is peace. But it is Christendom that maintains the vast standing armies; and when the International Peace Congress meets in London and proposes disarmament, the good-natured reply of Christendom is, "Well--yes--perhaps--some time," with a smile of amused incredulity, as when a child seriously asks for the moon. Yet this is Christendom, and the Christian principles are entirely familiar, and every Sunday and saint's day in all the Christian churches we protest that the practice of them is essential to our soul's salvation. Then we wipe our eyes, and smile kindly upon any one who really insists that we should offer the other cheek, and forgive seventy times seven. Oh no, we say; that is an eccentric view. No man in this world--that is, in Christendom--can afford to allow himself to be imposed upon. If we don't look out for number one, who will take charge of that precious numeral?

So it is that on some bright July day, looking in imagination upon the respectable Universal Peace Congress in the Hôtel Métropole in London, and hearing the Bishop of Durham offer a resolution for international arbitration, and denouncing the folly, the waste, the woe and wickedness and wrong of war, we hear also, not the immediate and instinctive assent of Christendom, but its wistful prayer and half-despairing hope that some time Christianity may be found to be practicable, and something more than a pretty dream. Yet is there anything more certain than that the Christendom which actually rejects the Christian ideals and principles as impracticable, denounces most savagely those who practically illustrate them, even if they theoretically reject them?

The moral of this little sermon is altogether Christian, for it is charity. Since Christendom is in practice so universally unchristian, and holds its own fundamental principles in such practical contempt, every member of that vast fraternity should be very modest in judging others. Could there be a more radically unchristian figure in human history than Torquemada? If Christianity be what it declares itself to be, the least throb of sound Christian feeling in his bosom would have held his hand. The Inquisition, the fierceness of sects, the religious wars, offensive wars of any kind, are possible only among Christians who hold Christianity to be impracticable.

Yet when the Easy Chair saw a gentle lady going to morning prayers on a happy saint's day, and heard through the open window the murmuring music of the promise when two or three are gathered together, and marked during all the day and in daily conduct the unselfishness, the sympathy, the courtesy, the kindly care of old and young, the faithful doing of duty, the nameless charm of lofty character, the Christian ideal was no longer the mirage of an unreached and unattainable oasis in the desert; it was already come down to earth; it was here, a little heaven below.

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George William Curtis's essay: Christendom Vs. Christianity