Christianity & Science
A Series of Ten Lectures
by Andrew P. Peabody, D.D., LL.D.
Professor of Christian Morals in Harvard University · 1875
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Experiment as a Test of Scientific Truth
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I SAID in my first Lecture that science and Chris-tianity alike depend for their evidence on testimony, experiment, and intuition. I have compared them as regards testimony. We will pass now to experiment. This bears a most important part in the ascertainment and verification of scientific truth. In some of the sciences, as in chemistry, for instance, it is at once guide, discoverer, and test. The ultimate reason why such and such results take place no mortal can know; yet no one hesitates to infer from these results universal laws of nature, and in many instances a single experiment has been sufficient to establish a principle of large scope and profound significance. It is by experiment alone that the sciences of heat, light, electricity, and magnetism have been created, and what are called their principles or laws are but the outcome of individual experiments generalized. A large part of the science of human and animal physiology has been built solely on experiment.

Christianity claims to be tested by experiment. Its Founder repeatedly proposed this test to his disciples, and gave them clearly to understand that the growth and honor of his religion would be contingent on the manifestation of its efficacy in their lives and characters. Experiment of Christianity has been made for more than eighteen centuries. Its claims have been put to the test. Men have resorted to it for the fulfilment of its promises. The correspondence of its working with its professions has been tried at every point. Has it succeeded? Or has it failed? This is a fundamental question, even if the evidence of testimony be unimpeached. Testimony might, indeed, establish the authenticity of the Gospels, and thus prove that Christianity was of divine origin. But so, we believe, was Judaism. So, the Mohammedans say, were both Judaism and Christianity, no less than the doctrine of their own prophet. What we Christians would fain prove, if we can, is not merely that Christianity is a divinely given religion, but that it holds the foremost place among all religions; and that place it can make good only by what it does. Its paramount worth can be tested by experiment alone. The experimental test of Christianity may be considered, first, as regards the influence of this religion on individual character; and, secondly, in its action on society, civilization, government, and the collective character and history of nations. The former of these divisions will suffice for the present, the latter will be the subject of the next Lecture.

Christianity purports to be a guide to virtue, a fountain of inward strength, an unfailing support and solace in trial and grief, a beatific influence under the shadow of death; and in these particulars it claims pre-eminence over all other forms of belief and culture. Its Founder urges in his own behalf these paramount claims in such terms as their truth alone cart justify. "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." " I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist." " Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you : not as the world giveth, give I unto you." " Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." " I give unto them [my sheep, or followers] eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any pluck them out of my hand." " He that heareth my word ... hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life."

It is of no small evidential value that these words have for so many centuries been familiarly read by wise and discreet men; that they are read to-day by thousands upon thousands of sensible men and women all over the civilized world, without surprise or repugnancy, without their being regarded as misplaced or extravagant, - as indicating audacity or insane self-exaltation. I doubt whether there has lived any other man, in whose saying these things persons of superior intelligence and culture would acquiesce. I do not find that the founders of other religions - not even Mohammed - have ever professed in their own persons to stand in such direct beneficent relations to their disciples. Certainly we read nothing like this in Moses or the prophets, nor yet in the words of comfort and strength addressed by the Christian apostles to their converts. Had Socrates talked in this way about himself, the hemlock would have been brewed for him when he first began to teach, and his best friends would have forced the cup upon him, unless they had given him hellebore instead, as to a madman. Even the sages of our own time, whose oracular utterances profess to comprehend and exceed the wisdom of all antecedent centuries, have never yet said such great things about themselves as Christ said; and were they to say them, it would completely disenchant their disciples. We are not surprised that Jesus Christ should have spoken thus, simply because many know, or think they know, that he uttered no more than they have themselves experienced in their relation to him, and many more think that they have witnessed in their friends and neighbors phenomena corresponding with such experience. Let us look at these claims in detail.

There can be no doubt that Christ claims the ability to form the very highest style of moral character, the most symmetrical grouping of virtues and graces, the most consummate spiritual beauty of which the soul of man is capable. This claim certainly seems to justify itself on a superficial view of the moral history of our race. If we compare good men before Christ with good men in and through Christ, there can be no possible doubt that the latter are by far the better. Of patriarchs and prophets under the Mosaic dispensation, those whose lives are described with any degree of fulness have, indeed, single traits of devotion, fidelity, or patriotism, which make their memory illustrious; yet they manifest decidedly sub-Christian characters, and even of Abraham, Jacob, Samuel, David, Nehe-miah, it might be said, " The least really in and thoroughly of the kingdom of heaven (or Christ) is greater than he." Still more can we say the same of nearly all the best men of classic antiquity; for in them we generally see splendid merits allied with equally conspicuous faults. Thus, above all the ancients outside of Judaea who preceded Christ, Cicero makes himself the object of sincere, almost affectionate admiration to his diligent reader; yet his portrait is sadly defaced by a vanity of which a single sitting at the feet of Jesus would have cured him, and by a lack of sincerity and consistency which showed how sadly he needed the tonic power of the Gospel. It is worthy of notice that the two illustrious men of classic fame who seem most Christianlike, Plutarch and Epictetus, both flourished after the Gospel had been extensively diffused. I do not imagine that they knew any thing definite about Christianity: if they had, they would have been Christians. But the spirit was in the air; the tone of Christian sentiment had penetrated farther than any fact or dogma of the new religion; and there were receptive souls that caught it, without knowing whence or how. To return from this digression, if digression it be : John and Paul not only represent higher types of character than we find in the entire Jewish and Gentile world before Christ, - types, too, which had no antetype except the Master whom they called divine; but they stand before us still as unsurpassed, if equalled. The only account that they could give of themselves was that through contemplation of the image of God in Christ they had grown into the same image; and, if they were and still are pre-eminent, we have no way of accounting for it but that they were proof-impressions of that image before it had become dimmed by time, or had suffered the partial obscuration inevitable on its being transferred from a living form to an uttered story,* and then from an uttered story to a written book.

The post-Christian history of human virtue presents precisely the same contrast between Christian and extra-Christian excellence, which we have already traced. Let any impartial person draw up a list of the eminently good men and women who have left their enduring record within the last eighteen centuries, or are writing it now, and then divide the names on the list into Christian and non-Christian, - the muster-roll of the latter would be exceedingly meagre, and would probably include none of the preeminent; and I doubt whether, even in this lesser catalogue, we should find any whose characters had not been formed under Christian influences. Among those who in our own time and land are understood to be non-believers in historical Christianity, there are not a few whose characters cannot but win abounding reverence and love; but of these I know not one who had not his nurture in a Christian family, and some of the more distinguished among them were in early life members of the Christian Church, and were then certainly as pure, amiable, and philanthropic as they are now. I doubt whether you can point to a single person that has grown up under the discipline of a sceptical philosophy, whom you would designate as a fit example for those whose characters are now in the process of formation.

Christian virtue is a peculiar type, and peculiar for its comprehensiveness. The title over the cross was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; and it is an index of the broad spiritual culture of those who have become what they were or are under the nurture of Him who was then termed in derision the King of the Jews. The Hebrew spirit was distinctively religious; but, because divorced from refining influences and from large opportunities for secular activity, it had been narrowed and etiolated into a stupid and superstitious ritualism. The Grecian mind was in the closest sympathy with material beauty, art, poetry, and song; it bore the imprint of the most thorough aesthetic discipline; but, destitute of religious ideas on which faith and reverence could repose, and at the same time feeble and capricious, it had degenerated into gross sensualism. The early Roman state was pervaded by the spirit of law, and thence of force; but, for lack of religious discipline and elegant culture, it had become rapacious, despotic, sanguinary. It is the glory of Christianity to have restored these effete elements of character, and blended them in its nurture. The developed Christian character has the intense religiousness of the Hebrew psalmists and seers; however destitute of the wonted means of culture, it takes on, or rather in, a culture of its own, sweet, gentle, kind, spiritual; and it submits itself to law, not, indeed, as to a hard yoke, but as to a loving service, while law gives it a forceful energy, which pervades the whole life-work, and makes it constant, loyal, noble. These elements are blended, unified in the Christian, because they were, each and all, perfect in the Master whom he owns and follows, who was "King of the Jews," - the love and worship of God, his purple robe and diadem; more than Grecian in the grace and amenity of his spirit and his walk among men; more than Roman in the entireness with which he made himself the incarnate law of God, and alone, among those born of woman, finished the whole work which God gave him to do. You can trace these elements in all the exemplars of Christian excellence, - not only in those who fill high places and wield an extended influence, but equally in the most lowly and unprivileged spheres. Wherever in humble and obscure life you find one of untaught grace in speech and mien, and rigidly faithful in the least requirements of duty, - when you look farther, you trace also the Hebrew religiousness, only of the Zion rather than the Sinai type, and you may " take knowledge " of such a one that he has been with Jesus.

In experimental philosophy there are various ways of testing the properties of a substance under trial. One question is, Does it show its identity and hold its own, when "combined with various substances, in different proportions, and under altered conditions? Thus the presence of iron is detected by infallible tokens alike in unnumbered compound mineral substances, in the sap of various plants, in the human blood, in the rays of the spectrum, - in all unchanged in its essential characteristics. In like manner Christian culture has been associated with every other conceivable element of culture, and in all these combinations it preserves the same essential properties of piety, sweetness, and strength, - not, indeed, in the perfect equipoise which we behold in the one great Exemplar, but in a sufficient measure to indicate their source, and to discriminate them from traits elsewhere derived and otherwise nourished.

The experimental philosopher, again, simplifies his experiments, - tests the substance in hand with a single other substance, carefully eliminating all foreign elements. We have had abundant opportunity to subject Christianity to this test also. It has been applied to the human rasa tabula, the unpreoccupied mind, the moral nature that has had no previous culture, the little child, the ignorant adult, the untutored savage: it has been, in such cases, the only training, subduing, intenerating, energizing force; and in unnum- bered instances it has shown its adequacy to mould the spirit in sanctity, beauty, and power.

Moreover, the Christian consciousness not only betrays, but acknowledges its source. While an infinitesimal proportion who have at some time seemed the disciples of Jesus, retaining much that they derived from him, have disclaimed him and " walk no more with him," the overwhelming majority of those who have manifested the type of character of which I have spoken hesitate not to ascribe all that they have and are to Christ. They will tell you : " This virtue 1 have cherished, because I see it in my Master. That sinful propensity I have subdued, because his word and spirit rebuke it. I have been uplifted in prayer on the wings of his devotion. I have been furnished for duty by the instructions that fell from his lips. I have been armed against temptation by the panoply with which he girded me. The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me."

I am fully aware of the objection which may be urged against this argument, on the ground of the very imperfect moral development to be witnessed in the vast majority of those who profess to have learned of Jesus how to live. The argument is not, indeed, so strong as it might be,- not so strong as it will be in the better time to come. Were Christians in general all that they profess to be and ought to be, I doubt whether there would be need of offering any other evidence for Christianity than the lives of its disciples. But we are willing, as the case stands, to base our argument on the following statement. The best men that the world has seen have been Christians, and have professed to derive their virtues from Christ. Among men of a less excellent type of character, yet belonging on the whole, to the class of virtuous men, we have reason to believe that the greater part have derived whatever of goodness they possess from Christ; while we find that immorality and vice are never to be traced to the presence, but are, in unnumbered instances, obviously due to the absence or deficiency of Christian training and influence. Were Christ and his religion to be eliminated from among the factors that constitute the moral character of modern Christendom, all the highest forms of excellence would be eliminated also; the next highest would be nearly extinguished, and all lower grades sadly depleted. Nor have we within our experimental knowledge any moral force, agency, or influence, which could begin to do for human character what Christ and his religion have done. As much as this has been proved, and is at the same time so patent and manifest as hardly to need proof; and up to this point Christianity sustains the test of experiment, by having done what it promises and purports to do for the formation of character. Christianity claims, in the next place, to be regarded as pre-eminently a source of strength, a motive power for whatever man is bound to do or needs to have done. There are, indeed, many Christians who are not distinguished as workers. Yet you will find that the two characters coincide much more frequently than they exist apart, and that it is under the undoubted impulse of expressly Christian motives that the most and best work has been done and is doing throughout the civilized world.

The working force of Jesus himself has been kept too much in the background, in the glowing admiration called forth by the peculiarly lovable traits of his character. But we have reason to place as transcendent an estimate on his energy as on his gentleness. His public ministry was but from a year and a half to three years in duration; and in that period what a wide diversity and frequent change of scene, - in Judaea, Galilee, Samaria, Peræa ! What successions and varieties of stubborn soil to be broken up, and made penetrable by the seeds of evangelic teaching ! What constant and urgent appeals for his services to the suffering and afflicted! Some of his days, of which we can trace the record, are so crowded with ever-changing claims upon his energy, that they might seem to have required the sun to linger on his course to make them adequate to their work. Then after those weary days he seeks new strength for the morrow, not in sleep, but more effectively in prayer; for as the touch of his mother earth renovates the vigor of the fabled demigod, so from communion with his own mother-land flows fresh might into the soul of the heaven-born.

Closest among his standard-bearers, St. Paul exemplifies the energizing efficacy of Christianity. How intense his activity! How broadly comprehensive his plans of labor ! A pastorate embracing all the habitable regions of the earth would now be scarcely greater, considering the present facilities for locomotion, than was for him the care of all the churches in the diocese erected by his toil. No navigator could tell more than he of the perils of the deep; nor was it without the utmost hardship and hazard that he made his way, often where there was no thoroughfare for ordinary intercourse, in the rugged interior of Asia Minor, or on the inhospitable coast of Macedonia. Ubiquitous in his oversight and presence, where he has once been, he makes himself felt ever onward as an efficient force. And it is with his whole being that he labors, - with mind, and heart, and soul, - so that the imprint of his massive spirit and his burning zeal has still remained on the life of the Christian Church, and is renewed with pristine vividness whenever there is a fresh impulse toward spiritual growth, or an access of earnest endeavor in behalf of the un-evangelized. Moreover, we have from him the clear exhibition of the convictions and motives under which he wrought his life-work, - a profound sense of the love and sacrifice of Christ, of the claims of his brother-men on him for the sake of the common Father, and of his own instrumentality as an agent for the accomplishment of God's purposes of love.

It is in these exclusively Christian elements that the great workers of the last eighteen centuries have been of one mind and heart. No matter what their sphere of labor,- whether it is Ambrose, with his own unaided prowess keeping at bay the forces of the empire; or Luther, with the " words that shook the world;" or Oberlin, gathering in the Lord's lost sheep among the mountains; or Howard, sounding the lowest depths of misery in prisons and pest-houses all over Europe; or Wesley, pouring fresh life-blood from Calvary into the desiccated veins of ecclesiastical formalism and indifferentism; or Judson, sacrificing the aims of a towering ambition for toil amidst a thousand deaths, with no forecast glimmering of earthly fame; or Arnold, inaugurating a new era for liberal Christian culture wherever his life-record shall be read; or Florence Nightingale, restoring the order of nobility founded when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, and carrying off, with her sisterhood of mercy, all the laurels of the last great wars, - wherever we see pre-eminent ability and success in a life-work worth performing, we find but the reproduction of the specifically Christian elements of St. Paul's energy, - a spirit profoundly moved in grateful sympathy with a loving, suffering Redeemer, a strong emotional recognition of human brotherhood, and a merging of self in the sense of a mission and a charge from God. The absence of either of these injures the work, mars its staple, or scants its quantity, and without the first of the three the others are wanting or deficient; for Christ by his sufferings, so far as they are laid hold on with loving faith, reconciles man to man no less than man to God, while it is only in view of his transcendent excellence and his paramount claims upon us that our own selfhood is humbled, our suit for wages cancelled, and we are endowed with the true spirit of service. Accordingly you will find that, when divorced from Christ, even philanthropy grows sour or bitter, or narrow and exclusive, runs in veins, makes distinctions of persons, or else becomes feeble and inane, the heart-work lapsing into mere handwork or tongue-work.

We could ask for no more decisive experimental test of Christianity than this. We would apply it chiefly to such labors as inure to the benefit of humanity. Of reforms which have marked stages of actual and irreversible progress; of institutions for the promotion of human health, comfort, happiness, intelligence, virtue; of propagandisms that have had a single view to the improvement of mankind; of new forms of charity such as spring up with the fresh needs of every age; of lives devoted, in the whole or in great part, to specific labors of love, - how many can you find in the world's history anterior to Christianity? How many can you find since, or now, that may not be placed, without controversy, to the credit of Christianity; that is, of Christians who would disclaim the praise for themselves, and demand it for the Master whom they serve and follow?

I cannot see that infidelity, so far as it has prevailed, has even profited by the example of the magicians of Egypt in the time of Moses, who endeavored to copy the works which they could not rival. It has had its fair opportunity. When it had free scope in France, it left, I think, no vestiges of philanthropy, or even of humanity. Nor in Protestant countries are they who reject Christianity distinguishing themselves by any services that will have their witness on earth and their enduring record in heaven. You have in this city an infidel organization that has its own press, its festivals, its saints' days. There are names which its members love to keep ever green, however remote their fragrance may be from the odor of sanctity. They observe the birthday of Thomas Paine, as you do Christmas. Are they doing any great works in his name? Are they beginning to show, or do they promise to show even in the remote future when they shall have crushed out Christianity, that Antichrist can do more for man than Christ has ever done?

In fine, Christianity has so far manifested its superiority in beneficent action to all the other working forces of the world combined, that the experimental evidence for it under this head is oppressive and unmanageable from its multiplicity and fulness. If you were to take away Christian work and workers from the world, and destroy the vestiges of what has been wrought in Christ's name, I doubt whether those who now reject or despise the Gospel would think the world any longer worth living in.

Christianity claims, also, to afford such support, solace, and peace under trial and grief as can be derived from no other religion or philosophy. We cannot, indeed, ignore the fact that there has been no little brave endurance in which Christianity has borne no part. We cannot forget that Stoicism professed to account calamity, loss, and pain as not in any sense evils, and that among its disciples were illustrious men whose lofty serenity no misfortune could cloud, whose stern courage no suffering could daunt. I will yield to no one in my admiration of the Stoics. Were I parted from Christ, I certainly should fall back into their ranks; for the man-born philosophy of life and duty has not advanced a single step since the era signalized by their most illustrious names. Yet there was in their resignation something grim, fierce, defiant. They yielded to Fate, not to Providence. They had not the alchemy by which to extract good from seeming evil, which, therefore, was only endured by them, not transfigured for and in them. For them, too, there was a limit of endurance, and from evils beyond earthly remedy or hope their philosophy opened for them a lawful escape through suicide. They were, indeed, calm, self-possessed, strong, but not happy, under severe affliction. There is, therefore, in the Christian's joy in tribulation, in the peace clear to his consciousness, yet passing all understanding, during seasons of straitness, grief, and suffering, an element peculiarly his own. The happiest person I ever knew was a widow, who had survived all of a large family of children of beautiful promise, had sunk from an easy competence into utter penury, and had been through declining years of growing infirmity sustained solely by the loving ministry of friends, not one of them of her own kindred. Her last audible words were of gratitude to God for the thick-sown mercies of that widowed, desolate life; and our funeral service for her was one of thanksgiving to. God, not that he had taken her out of a world of trial, but that in it he had made her so radiantly happy. This is not a solitary case; were it so, it would have no place here. Every Christian minister has been conversant with like experiences, and we have traced them to their source. It is through the felt sympathy and fellowship of a suffering Saviour, by entering into the spirit of his cross, by making his prayer of resignation their own, and by taking into their hearts the power of his resurrection, that his disciples attain this perfect peace, this consummate gladness of soul. An aged mother once met me with a smile when I went to condole with her on the death of her only son, and her first words were, " I have been like the women at the sepulchre, who said, Who will roll the stone away for us? but when they came to the spot, an angel had removed it for them." Was there not an angel, nay, the Lord of angels, at her side, to strengthen her?

Another contrast presents itself between Stoicism and Christianity. Stoicism Was a philosophy in the highest import of the word, attainable only by prolonged mental culture and self-discipline; and it was one of its fundamental tenets that the virtues of ordinary life were only an imperfect semblance of virtue. On the other hand, Christianity proffers its support where there is no other culture than its own mere rudiments, where there is not sufficient grasp of mind to take in its more recondite dogmas, to interpret its more obscure texts, or to comprehend any thing whatever " save Jesus Christ and him crucified." We have witnessed, times without number, the experiment in the simplest form, - the contact of the dying, risen Saviour with the mind that had no other resource; and we have seen that this alone was sufficient for the child, for the slave, for the unlettered and unprivileged, for those who, but for their faith in Christ, would have been among the refuse of society. Such souls it has transformed into kingly spirits that can encounter penury, bereavement, suffering, a life with no sunny side or hopeful aspect, and rise more than conquerors over all. If there be any other religion, philosophy, or culture that can show such trophies, we will then take our stand with those who term Christianity one of the great religions, and name Christ in the same category with the sages of Greece and Rome, Europe and America.

Finally, Christianity claims as its prerogative the victory over death. This, however, it may seem to share; for there have been many calm and brave deaths on which the light of Christian faith has not shone. Yet here there is not so much a resemblance as a contrast. The closing hours of Socrates present, perhaps, the most Christianlike instance of a conscious approach to the margin of the separating stream. Far be it from me to say a word in depreciation of the solemn grandeur of those last communings of the venerable sage with the friends that stood with him on the brink of eternity. Rather let us believe that there were about his soul foregleamings of the Light that was coming into the world, - yet but the dim day-clawn, not the risen or rising sun. Compare his doubtful utterances, as quoted in a former Lecture, his express disclaiming of certainty in a matter necessarily so obscure, with the words of the Christian apostle, " I am now ready to be offered; the time of my departure is at hand; ... there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me;" "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him."

Then, too, the assurance of Socrates, such as it was, was the result of a life devoted to thought and reasoning, and to daily offices of philosophical teaching. The immeasurably fuller and more elastic assurance of Paul has belonged to multitudes, in every age, of the illiterate, of imperfectly developed minds, of persons who, but for their Christian faith, would have been confessedly among the feeblest members of society. We all know that in death Christ gives the victory to spirits else frail and timid,- that they pass out of the world in the undoubting confidence that they are going but from room to room in their Father's house, - that their only consciousness is that of an eternal life already begun, over which death has no power. In these cases we have again the experiment in its simplest form, - Christ and the soul of man, with no other possible ground of support, source of strength, or object of hope,-with no hoarded resources of philosophical reflection, with no capacity of reasoning on immortality, of throwing out a bridge of speculation and theory over the abyss that yawns before them.

Let us now sum up our argument. Christianity has nurtured every type of goodness,-the tender, the heroic, the philanthropy that has ministered to all forms of social wrong and evil, the compassion that has relieved all descriptions of want and misery, the intrepid courage which has counted life of no worth in comparison with loyalty to the true and the right It has given peace and gladness to unnumbered souls in every form of distress, suffering, bereavement, and desolation. It has inspired an elastic and immortal hope in those who have watched by the death-bed of their best beloved. Its notes of triumph have been rehearsed and echoed by believing souls over the open grave. It has filled the hearts of the dying with solemn joy, and merged the agony of dissolution in the clear vision of an open heaven. These are the highest, the most benignant ministries that have ever been or ever can be rendered to humanity. Christianity has rendered them and is rendering them to thousands upon thousands. It stands alone. No other (so-called) religion, no other type of belief or unbelief, can be brought into momentary comparison with it. Those who have made these experiments testify with one heart and voice to the source of their virtue, their peace, their joy. The greatly good, if crowned, will cast down their crowns before Christ, saying, " Thou alone art worthy." The heavily afflicted have found consolation, because they have trodden the wine-press, not alone, but leaning on the sufferer of Calvary. The dying have looked so steadfastly with the inward eye on the countenance of their risen Lord, that the vision has not infrequently seemed phototyped on the fleshly orb. Are all these successful experiments to pass for nothing, while the commingling of an acid and an alkali shall be vaunted as proclaiming a fundamental law of nature? I believe in the teaching of the acid and the alkali, even though the experiment be but once performed. Shall I, can I, doubt the thousand upon thousand-fold experiment of the commingling - with gracious and glorious issues, indicating eternal laws of the spiritual world - of the life and soul of Jesus Christ with the life and soul of his disciple?

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