Jesus, it is seen, never went out of the Jewish circle. Although his sympathy for all those despised by the orthodoxy led him to admit the heathen into the kingdom of God, although he had more than once resided in a pagan country, and once or twice he is found in kindly relations with unbelievers, it may be said that his life was spent entirely in the little world, close and narrow as it was, in which he was born. The Greek and Roman countries heard nothing of him; his name does not figure in profane authors until a hundred years later, and then only indirectly, in connection with seditious movements provoked by his doctrine, or with persecutions of which his disciples were the object. The essential work of Jesus was the creation around him of a circle of disciples in whom he inspired a boundless attachment, and in whose breast he implanted the germ of his doctrine. Jesus is not a founder of dogmas, a maker of symbols; he is the world’s initiator into a new spirit. The least Christian of men were, on the one hand, the doctors of the Greek Church, who from the fourth century involved Christianity in a series of puerile metaphysical discussions, and, on the other hand, the scholastics of the Latin middle ages, who attempted to draw from the Gospel the thousands of articles of a colossal “Summation.” To adhere to Jesus in view of the kingdom of God was what it was originally to be a Christian.
Thus we comprehend how, by an exceptional destiny, pure Christianity still presents itself, at the end of twenty centuries, with the character of a universal and eternal religion. It is because in fact the religion of Jesus is, in some respects, the final religion. The kingdom of God, as we conceive it, is widely different from the supernatural apparition which the first Christians expected to see burst forth in the clouds. But the sentiment which Jesus introduced into the world is really ours. His perfect idealism is the highest rule of unworldly and virtuous life. He has created that heaven of free souls, in which is found what we ask in vain on earth, the perfect nobility of the children of God, absolute purity, total abstraction from the contamination of the world, that freedom, in short, which material society shuts out as an impossibility, and which finds all its amplitude only in the domain of thought. The great master of those who take refuge in this ideal kingdom of God, is Jesus still. He first proclaimed the kingliness of the spirit; he first said, at least by his acts: “My kingdom is not of this world.” The foundation of the true religion is indeed his work. After him, there is nothing more but to develop and fructify.
“Christianity” has thus become almost synonymous with “religion.” Jesus founded religion on humanity, as Socrates founded philosophy, as Aristotle founded science. There had been philosophy before Socrates and science before Aristotle. Since Socrates and Aristotle, philosophy and science have made immense progress; but all has been built upon the foundation which they laid. And so, before Jesus, religious thought had passed through many revolutions; since Jesus it has made great conquests; nevertheless it has not departed, it will not depart from the essential condition which Jesus created; he has fixed for eternity the idea of the pure worship. The religion of Jesus, in this sense, is not limited. The Church has had its epochs and its phases; it has shut itself up in symbols which have had or will have their day. Jesus founded the absolute religion, excluding nothing, determining nothing, save its essence. His symbols are not fixed dogmas, but images susceptible of indefinite interpretations. Whatever may be the transformations of dogma, Jesus will remain in religion the creator of its pure sentiment: the Sermon on the Mount will never be surpassed. No revolution will lead us not to join in religion the grand intellectual and moral line at the head of which beams the name of Jesus. In this sense, we are Christians, even though we separate upon almost all points from the Christian tradition which has preceded us.
As for us, eternal children, condemned to weakness, we who labour without harvesting, and shall never see the fruit of what we have sown, let us bow before these demigods. They knew what we do not know: to create, to affirm, to act. Shall originality be born anew, or shall the world henceforth be content to follow the paths opened by the bold creators of the ancient ages? We know not. But whatever may be the surprises of the future, Jesus will never be surpassed. His worship will grow young without ceasing; his legend will call forth tears without end; his sufferings will melt the noblest hearts; all ages will proclaim that among the sons of men there is none born greater than Jesus…
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