Such is M. Renan’s explanation of the great march and triumph of the Christian Church. The Roman Empire, which we had supposed was the natural enemy of the Church, was really the founder of all that made the Church strong, and bequeathed to the Church its prerogatives and its spirit, and partly its machinery. We should hardly gather from this picture that there was, besides, a widespread Catholic Church, with its numerous centres of life and thought and teaching, and with very slight connection, in the early times, with the Church of the capital. And, in the next place, we should gather from it that there was little more in the Church than a powerful and strongly built system of centralised organisation and control; we should hardly suspect the existence of the real questions which interested or disturbed it; we should hardly suspect the existence of a living and all-engrossing theology, or the growth and energy in it of moral forces, or that the minds of Christians about the world were much more busy with the discipline of life, the teaching and meaning of the inspired words of Scripture, and the ever-recurring conflict with perverseness and error, than with their dependent connection on the Imperial Primacy of Rome, and the lessons they were to learn from it.
Disguised as it may be, M. Renan’s lectures represent not history, but scepticism as to all possibility of history. Pictures of a Jewish Ghetto, with its ragged mendicants smelling of garlic, in places where Christians have been wont to think of the Saints; ingenious explanations as to the way in which the “club” of the Christian Church surrendered its rights to a bureau of its officers; exhortations to liberty and tolerance; side-glances at the contrasts of national gifts and destinies and futures in the first century and in the nineteenth; felicitous parallels and cunning epigrams, subtle combinations of the pathetic, the egotistical, and the cynical, all presented with calm self-reliance and in the most finished and distinguished of styles, may veil for the moment from the audience which such things amuse, and even interest, the hollowness which lies beneath. But the only meaning of the lectures is to point out more forcibly than ever that besides the obvious riddles of man’s life there is one stranger and more appalling still—that a religion which M. Renan can never speak of without admiration and enthusiasm is based on a self-contradiction and deluding falsehood, more dreadful in its moral inconsistencies than the grave.
We cannot help feeling that M. Renan himself is a true representative of that highly cultivated society of the Empire which would have crushed Christianity, and which Christianity, vanquished. He still owes something, and owns it, to what he has abandoned—“I am often tempted to say, as Job said, in our Latin version, Etiam si occident me, in ipso sperabo. But the next moment all is gone—all is but a symbol and a dream.” There is no possibility