The Almighty and Everlasting God
[Note: This is taken from Albert Parker Fitch’s Preaching and Paganism.]
If the transcendent element in man which endows him with the proud if tragic sense of personality is the first message of the preacher to a chattering and volatile world, and the second is the setting forth of what this endowment demands and how pitiably man fails to meet it, then the third message is of the Rock that is higher than he, even inclusive of his all, in whose composed and comprehensive Being his baffled and divided person may be gathered up, brought to its own consummation of self. The rivers that pour tumultuously to their ocean bed, the ascending fire ever falling backward but leaping upward to the sun, are poor figures to express the depth and irresistible urge of the passion in man for completeness, for repose, for power, for self-perception in self-expression, for victory and the attainment of the end. Conscious and divided spirit that he is, man turns away, sooner or later, with utter weariness and self-disgust from the nature which pleases him by betraying him, which maims his person that he may enjoy his senses, and reaches out after the other-worldly, the supernatural, the invisible and eternal Hope and Home of the Soul.
Humanism which bids men sufficiently find God within themselves, if they think they need to find Him at all, seems not to comprehend this passion of pride and humility, this inner perception of the futility and the blunder of the self-contained life. Life is so obviously not worth its brevity, its suffering, its withheld conclusions, its relative insignificance, if it must thus stand alone. All that can save it, preserve to it worth and dignity, maintain its self-respect and mastery, is to find that abundant power without which confesses, certifies and seals the divinity within.
How foredoomed to failure, then, especially in an age when men are surmounting life by placating it, enjoying it by being easy with themselves—how foredoomed to failure is the preaching which continues in the world of religion this exaltation of human sufficiency and natural values, domesticating them within the church. It is to laugh to see them there! It means so transparent a surrender, so pitiable a confession of defeat. If anything can bring the natural man into the sanctuary it is that there he has to bring his naturalness to the bar of a more-than-natural standard. If he comes at all, it will not be for entertainment and expansion but because there we insist on reverence and restraint. If church and preacher offer only a pietized and decorous naturalism, when he can get the real thing in naked and unashamed brutality without; if they offer him only another form of humanistic living, he will stay away. Such preaching is as boresome as it is unnecessary. Such exercise of devotion is essentially superfluous and a rather humorous imposition upon the world. The only thing that will ever bring the natural man to listen to preaching is when it insists upon something more-than-the-natural and calls him to account regarding it; when it speaks of something different and better for him than this world and what it can offer. “Take my yoke upon you” is the attractive invitation, “make inner obeisance and outward obedience to something higher than thy poor self.”
It is clear, then, that these observations have a bearing upon our preaching of the doctrine of God. There is a certain illogicality, something humorous, in going into a church, of all places in the world, to be told how like we are to Him. The dull and average personality, the ordinary and not very valuable man, can probably listen indifferently and with a slow-growing hardness and dim resentment to that sort of preaching for a number of years. But the valuable, the highly personalized people, the saints and the sinners, the great rebels and the great disciples, who are the very folk for whom the church exists, would hate it, and they would know the final bitterness of despair if they thought that this was so. Either saint or sinner would consider it the supreme insult, the last pitch of insolence, for the church to be telling them that it is true.
For they know within themselves that it is a lie. Their one hope hangs on God because His thoughts are not their thoughts, nor His ways their ways; because He seeth the end from the beginning; because in Him there is no variableness, neither shadow that is caused by turning; because no man shall see His face and live. They, the sinners and the saints, do not want to be told that they, within themselves, can heal themselves and that sin has no real sinfulness. That is tempting them to the final denial, the last depth of betrayal, the blurring of moral values, the calling of evil good and the saying that good is evil. They know that this is the unpardonable madness. In the hours when they, the saints and sinners, wipe their mouths and say, “We have done no harm”; in the days when what they love is ugliness because it is ugly and shameless, and reckless expression because it is so terrible, so secretly appalling, so bittersweet with the sweetness of death, they know that it is the last affront to have the church—the one place where men expect they will be made to face the facts—bow these facts out of doors.
No, we readily grant that the religious approach to the whole truth and to final reality is like any other one, either scientific, economic, political, a partial approach. It sets forth for the most part only a group of facts. When it does not emphasize other facts, it does not thereby deny them. But it insists that the truth of man’s differences, man’s helplessness which the differences reveal, and man’s fate hanging therefore upon a transcendent God, are the key truths for the religious life. It is with that aspect of life the preacher deals, and if he fails to grapple with these problems and considerations, ignores these facts, his candlestick has been removed.
The argument for a God, then, within His world, but also distinct from it, above its evil custom and in some sense untouched by its all-leveling life, is essential to the preservation of human personality, and personality is essential to dignity, to decency, to hope. The clearest and simplest thing to be said about the Hebrew God, lofty and inaccessible Being, with whom nevertheless His purified and obedient children might have relationships, or about the “living God” of Greek theology, far removed from us but with whose deathless goodness, beauty and truth our mortality by some mediator may be endowed, is that the argument that supports such transcendence is the argument from necessity. It is the facts of experience, the very stuff of human life, coming down alike from Hebraic and Hellenic civilization, which demand Him. Immanence and transcendence are merely theistic terms for identity and difference. Through them is revealed and discovered personality, the “I” which is the ultimate fact of my consciousness. I can but reckon from the known to the unknown. The world which produced me is also, then, a cosmic identity and difference. In that double fact is found divine personality. But that aspect of His Person, that portion of the fact which feeds the imaginative and volitional life, is the glorious and saving unlikeness of God—His unthinkable and inexpressible glory; His utter comprehension and unbelievable compassion; His justice which knows no flaw and brooks no evasion and cannot be swerved; His power which may not be withstood and hence is a sure and certain tenderness; His hatred of sin, terrible and flaming, a hatred which will send sinful men through a thousand hells, if they will have them, and can only be saved thereby; His love for men, which is what makes Him hate their sin and leads Him by His very nature as God to walk into hell with the sinner, suffering with him a thousand times more than the sinner is able to understand or know,—like the Paul who could not wish himself, for himself, in hell, but who did wish himself accursed of God for his brethren’s sake; like Jesus, who, in Gethsemane, would for Himself avoid His cross, but who accepted it and was willing to hang, forsaken of God, upon it, for the lives of men, identifying Himself to the uttermost with their fate. Yes; it is such a supernal God—that God who is apart, incredible, awful—that the soul of humanity craves and needs.
Of course, here again, as throughout these discussions, we are returning to a form of the old dualism. We cannot seem to help it. We may construct philosophies like Hegel’s in which thesis and antithesis merge in a higher synthesis; we may use the dual view of the world as representing only a stage, a present achievement in cosmic progress or human understanding. But that does not alter the incontestable witness of present experience that the religious consciousness is based upon, interwoven with, the sense of the cosmic division without, and the unresolved moral dualism within the individual life. It is important enough to remember, however, that we have rejected, at least for this generation, the old scholastic theologies founded on this general experience. Fashions of thought change with significant facility; there is not much of the Absolute about them! Nevertheless we cannot think with forgotten terms. Therefore ours is no mechanically divided world where man and God, nature and supernature, soul and body, belong to mutually exclusive territories. We do not deny the principle of identity. Hence we have discarded that old view of the world and all the elder doctrines of an absentee creator, a worthless and totally depraved humanity, a legalistic or substitutionary atonement, a magical and non-understandable Incarnation which flowed from it. But we are not discarding with them that other aspect of the truth, the principle of separateness, nor those value judgments, that perpetual vision of another nature, behind and beneath phenomena, from which the old dualism took its rise. It is the form which it assumed, the interpretation of experience which it gave, not the facts themselves, obscure but stubborn as they are, which it confessed, that we have dropped. Identity and difference are still here; man is a part of his world, but he is also apart from it. God is in nature and in us; God is without and other than nature and most awfully something other than us.
Indeed, the precise problem of the preacher today is to keep the old supernatural values and drop the old vocabulary with the philosophy which induced it. We must acknowledge the universe as one, and yet be able to show that the He or the It, beyond and without the world, is its only conceivable beginning, its only conceivable end, the chief hope of its brevity, the only stay of its idealism. It was the arbitrary and mechanical completeness of the old division, not the reality that underlay the distinction itself, which parted company with truth and hence lost the allegiance of the mind. It was that the old dualism tried to lock up this, the most baffling of all realities, in a formula,—that was what undid it. But we shall be equally foolish if now, in the interests of a new artificial clearness, we deny another portion of experience just as our fathers ignored certain other facts in the interests of their too well-defined systems. We cannot hold to the old world view which would bend the modern mind to the support of an inherited interpretation of experience and therefore would not any longer really explain or confirm it. Neither can we hold new views which mutilate the experience and leave out some of the most precious elements in it, even if in so doing we should simplify the problem for the mind. It would be an unreal simplification; it would darken, not illumine, the understanding; we should never rest in it. Nor do we need to be concerned if the intellect cannot perfectly order or easily demonstrate the whole of the religious life, fit each element with a self-verifying defense and explanation. No man of the world, to say nothing of a man of faith or imagination, has ever yet trusted to a purely intellectual judgment.
So we reject the old dualism, its dichotomized universe, its two sorts of authority, its prodigious and arbitrary supernaturalism. But we do not reject what lay behind it. Still we wrestle with the angel, lamed though we are by the contest, and we cannot let him go until the day breaks and the shadows flee away. It would be easier perhaps to give up the religious point of view, but for that ease we should pay with our life. For that swift answer, achieved by leaving out prime factors in the problem, we should be betraying the self for whose sake alone any answer is valuable. It does not pay to cut such Gordian knots! Our task, then, is to preach transcendence again, not in terms of the old absolutist philosophy, but in terms of the perceptions, the needs, the experience of the human heart and mind and will which produced that philosophy.
Nor is this so hard to do. Now, as always for the genuinely religious temperament, there are abundant riches of material lying ready to its hand. It is not difficult to make transcendence real and to reveal to men their consummate need of it when we speak of it in the language of experience and perception. What preaching should avoid is the abstractions of an archaic system of thought with all their provocative and contentious elements, the mingled dogmatism and incompleteness which any worked-out system contains. It is so foolish in the preacher to turn himself into a lay philosopher. Let him keep his insight clear, through moral discipline keep his intuitions high, his spirit pure, and then he can furnish the materials for philosophy.
Thus an almost universal trait of the religious temperament is in its delight in beauty. Sometimes it is repressed by an irreligious asceticism or narrowed and stunted by a literal and external faith. But when the religious man is left free, it is appropriate to his genius that he finds the world full of a high pleasure crowded with sound, color, fragrance, form, in which he takes exquisite delight. There is, in short, a serene and poetic naturalism, loosely called “nature-worship,” which is keenly felt by both saints and sinners. All it needs for its consecration and perfection is to help men to see that this naturalism is vital and precious because, as a matter of fact, it is something more than naturalism, and more than pleasure objectified.
Recall, for instance, the splendors of the external world and that best season of our climate, the long, slow-breathing autumn. What high pleasure we take in those hushed days of mid-November in the soft brown turf of the uplands, the fragrant smell of mellow earth and burning leaves, the purple haze that dims and magnifies the quiescent hills. Who is not strangely moved by that profound and brooding peace into which Nature then gathers up the multitudinous strivings, the myriad activities of her life? Who does not love to lie, in those slow-waning days upon the sands which hold within their golden cup the murmuring and dreaming sea? The very amplitude of the natural world, its far-flung grace and loveliness, spread out in rolling moor and winding stream and stately forest marching up the mountain-side, subdues and elevates the spirit of a man.
Now, so it has always been and so men have always longed to be the worshipers of beauty. Therefore they have believed in a conscious and eternal Spirit behind it. Because again we know that personality is the only thing we have of absolute worth. A man cannot, therefore, worship beauty, wholly relinquish himself to its high delights, if he conceives of this majestic grace as impersonal and inanimate. For that which we worship must be greater than we. Behind it, therefore, just because it seems to us so beautiful, must be something that calls to the hidden deeps of the soul, something intimately akin to our own spirits. So man worships not nature, but the God of nature; senses an Eternal Presence behind all gracious form. For that interprets beauty and consecrates the spell of beauty over us. This gives a final meaning to what the soul perceives is an utter loveliness. This gives to beauty an eternal and cosmic significance commensurate to its charm and power. As long as men’s hearts surge, too, when the tide yearns up the beach; as long as their souls become articulate when the birds sing in the dawn, and the flowers lift themselves to the sun; so long will men believe that only from a supreme and conscious Loveliness, a joyous and a gracious Spirit could have come the beauty which is so intimately related to the spirit of a man.
But not all saints and sinners are endowed with this joy and insight, this quick sensitiveness to beauty. Some of them cannot find the eternal and transcendent God in a loveliness which, by temperament, they either underrate or do not really see. There are a great many good people who cannot take beauty seriously. They become wooden and suspicious and uncomfortable whenever they are asked to perceive or enjoy a lovely object. Incredible though it seems, it appears to them to be unworthy of any final allegiance, any complete surrender, any unquestioning joy. But there are other ways in which they, too, may come to this sense of transcendence, other aspects of experience which also demand it. Most often it is just such folk who cannot perceive beauty, because they are practical or scientific or condemned to mean surroundings, who do feel to the full the grim force and terror of the external world. Prudence, caution, hard sense are to the fore with them! Very well; there, too, in these perceptions is an open door for the human spirit to transcend its environment, get out of its physical shell. The postulate of the absolute worth of beauty may be an argument for God drawn from subjective necessity. But the postulate of sovereign moral Being behind the tyranny and brutality of nature is an argument of objective necessity as well; here we all need God to explain the world.
For we deal with what certainly appear to be objective aspects of the truth, when we regard ourselves in our relation to the might of the physical universe. For even as men feed upon its beauty, so they have found it necessary to discover something which should enable them to live above and unafraid of its material and gigantic power. We have already seen how there appears to be a cosmic hostility to human life which sobers indeed those who are intelligent enough to perceive it. It is only the fool or the brute or the sentimentalist who is unterrified by nature. The man of reflection and imagination sees his race crawling ant-like over its tiny speck of slowly cooling earth and surrounded by titanic and ruthless forces which threaten at any moment to engulf it. The religious man knows that he is infinitely greater than the beasts of the field or the clods of the highway. Yet Vesuvius belches forth its liquid fire and in one day of stark terror the great city which was full of men is become mute and desolate. The proud liner scrapes along the surface of the frozen berg and crumples like a ship of cards. There is a splash, a cry, a white face, a lifted arm, and then all the pride and splendor, all the hopes and fears, the gorgeous dreams, the daring thoughts are gone. But the ice floats on unscarred and undeterred and the ocean tosses and heaves just as it did before.
Now, if this is all, if there is for us only the physical might of nature and the world is only what it seems to be; if there is no other God except such as can be found within this sort of cosmic process, then human life is a sardonic mockery, and self-respect a silly farce, and all the heroism of the heart and the valor of the mind the unmeaning activities of an insignificant atom. The very men who will naturally enter your churches are the ones who have always found that theory of life intolerable. It doesn’t take in all the facts. They could not live by it and the soul of the race, looking out upon this universe of immeasurable material bulk, has challenged it and dared to assert its own superiority.
So by this road these men come back to the transcendent God without whom they cannot guard that integrity of personality which we are all set to keep. For here there is no way of believing in oneself, no way of enduring this world or our place in it and no tolerable way of understanding it except we look beneath this cosmic hostility and find our self-respect and a satisfying cosmic meaning in perceiving spiritual force, a conscious ethical purpose, which interpenetrates the thunder and the lightning, which lies behind the stars as they move in their perpetual courses. “Through it the most ancient heavens are fresh and strong.” Integrity of personality in such a world as this, belief in self, without which life is dust and ashes in the mouth, rest on the sublime assumption that suffusing material force is ethical spirit, more like unto us than it, controlling force in the interest of moral and eternal purposes. In these purposes living, not mechanical, forces play a major part.
Of course, to all such reasoning the Kantians and humanists reply that these notions of an objective and eternal beauty, of a transcendent and actual Cosmic Being exist within the mind. They are purely subjective ideas, they are bounded by the inexorable circle of our experience, hence they offer no proof of any objective reality which may in greater or less degree correspond to them.
However, there must be a “source” of these ideas. To which the philosophers reply, Yes, they are “primitive and necessary,” produced by reason only, without borrowing anything from the senses or the understanding. Yet there is no sufficient evidence that the idea of God is thus produced by any faculty of mind acting in entire freedom from external influence. On the contrary, the idea appears to owe much to the operation of external things upon the mind; it is not then the wholly unaffected product of reason. It is a response no less than an intuition. Like all knowledge a discovery, but the discovery of something there which could be discovered, hence, in that sense, a revelation.
It is not necessary, then, for men to meet their situation in the cosmos by saying with Kant: We will act as though there were a God, although we are always conscious that we have no real knowledge of Him as an external being. In the light of the tragic circumstances of humanity, this is demanding the impossible. No sane body of men will ever get sufficient inspiration for life or find an adequate solution for the problem of life by resting upon mere value judgments which they propose, by an effort of will, to put in the place of genuine reality judgments. Indeed, there is a truly scholastic naïveté, a sort of solemn and unconscious humor, in seriously proposing that men should vitalize and consecrate their deepest purposes and most difficult experiences by hypothesizing mere appearances and illusions.
Nor are we willing either to say with Santayana that all our sense of the beauty of the world is merely pleasure objectified and that we can infer no eternal Beauty from it. We are aware that there cannot be an immediate knowledge of a reality distinct from ourselves, that all our knowledge must be, in the nature of the case, an idea, a mental representation, that we can never know the Thing Itself. But if we believe, as we logically and reasonably may, that our subjective ideas are formed under the influence of objects unknown but without us, produced by stimuli, real, if not perceived apart from our own consciousness, then we may say that what we have is a mediate or representative knowledge not only of an Eternal Being but formed under the influence of that Being. Nor does the believer ask for more. He does not expect to see the King in His beauty; he only needs to know that He is, that He is there.
How self-verifying and moving, then, are the appeals ready to our hands. As long as man with the power to question, to strive, to aspire, to endure, to suffer, lives in a universe of ruthless and overwhelming might, so long, if he is to understand it or maintain his reason and his dignity, he will believe it to be controlled by a Spirit beyond no less than within, from whom his spirit is derived. It is out of the struggle to revere and conserve human personality, out of the belief in the indefectible worth and honor of selfhood that our race has fronted a universe in arms, and pitting its soul against nature has cried, “God is my refuge: underneath me, at the very moment when I am engulfed in earthquake shock or shattered in the battle’s roar, there are everlasting arms!” There is something which is too deep for tears in the unconquerable idealism, the utter magnanimity of the faith of the human spirit in that which will answer to itself, as evidenced in this forlorn and glorious adventure of the soul. Sometimes we are constrained to ask ourselves, How can the heart of man go so undismayed through the waste places of the world?
But, of course, the preacher’s main task is to interpret man’s moral experience, which drives him out to search for the eternal in the terms of the “other” and redeeming God. We have spoken of the depersonalizing of religion which paganism and humanism alike have brought upon the world. One evidence of that has been the way in which we have confounded the social expressions of religion with its individual source. We are so concerned with the effect of our religion upon the community that we have forgotten that the heart of religion is found in the solitary soul. All of which means that we have here again yielded to the time spirit that enfolds us and have come to think of man as religious if he be humane. But that is not true. No man is ever religious until he becomes devout. And indeed no man of our sort—the saint and sinner sort—is ever long and truly humane unless the springs of his tenderness for men are found in his ever widening and deepening gratitude to God! Hence no man was ever yet able to preach the living God until he understood that the central need in human life is to reconcile the individual conscience to itself, compose the anarchy of the spiritual life. Men want to be happy and be fed; but men must have inward peace.
We swing back, therefore, to the native ground of preaching, approach the religious problem, now, not from the aesthetic or the scientific, but from the moral angle. Here we are dealing with the most poignant of all human experiences. For it is in this intensely personal world of moral failure and divided will that men are most acutely aware of themselves and hence of their need of that other-than-self beyond. The sentimental idealizing of contemporary life, the declension of the humanist’s optimism into that superficial complacency which will not see what it does not like or what it is not expedient to see, makes one’s mind to chuckle while one’s heart doth ache. There is a brief heyday, its continuance dependent upon the uncontrollable factors of outward prosperity, physical and nervous vigor, capacity for preoccupation with the successive novelties of a diversified and complicated civilization, in which even men of religious temperament can minimize or ignore, perhaps sincerely disbelieve in, their divided life. Sometimes we think we may sin and be done with it. But always in the end man must come back to this moral tragedy of the soul. Because sin will not be done with us when we are done with it. Every evil is evil to him that does it and sooner or later we are compelled to understand that to be a sinner is the sorest and most certain punishment for sinning.
Then the awakening begins. Then can preaching stir the heart until deep answereth unto deep. It can talk of the struggle with moral temptation and weakness; of the unstable temperament which oscillates between the gutter and the stars; of the perversion or abuse of impulses good in themselves; of the dreadful dualism of the soul. For these are inheritances which have made life tragic in every generation for innumerable human beings. Whoever needed to explain to a company of grown men and women what the cry of the soul for its release from passion is? Every generation has its secret pessimists, brooding over the anarchy of the spirit, the issues of a distracted life. We need not ask with Faust, “Where is that place which men call ‘Hell’?” nor wait for Mephistopheles to answer,
“Hell is in no set place, nor is it circumscribed,
For where we are—is Hell!”
It is out of the shame and passion, the utter need of the human heart, which such considerations show to be real that men have built up their redemptive faiths. For all moral victory is conditioned upon help from without. To be sure each will and soul must strive desperately, even unto death, yet all that strife shall be in vain unless One stoops down from above and wrestles with us in the conflict. For the sinner must have two things, both of them beyond his unaided getting, or he will die. He must be released from his captivity. Who does not know the terrible restlessness, that grows and feeds upon itself and then does grow some more, of the man bound by evil and wanting to get out? The torture of sin is that it deprives us of the power to express ourselves. The cry of moral misery, therefore, is always the groaning of the prisoner. Oh, for help to break the bars of my intolerable and delicious sin that I may be myself once more! Oh, for some power greater than I which, being greater, can set me free!
But more than the sinner wants to be free does he want to be kept. Along with the passion for liberty is the desire for surrender. Again, then, he wants something outside himself, some Being so far above the world he lives in that it can take him, the whole of him, break his life, shake it to its foundations, then pacify, compose it, make it anew. He is so tired of his sin; he is so weary with striving; he wants to relinquish it all; get far away from what he is; flee like a bird to the mountain; lay down his life before the One like whom he would be. So he wants power, he wants peace. He would be himself, he would lose himself. He prays for freedom, he longs for captivity.
Now, out of these depths of human life, these vast antinomies of the spirit, has arisen man’s belief in a Saviour-God. Sublime and awful are the sanctions upon which it rests. Out of the extremity and definiteness of our need we know that He must be and we know what He must be like. He is the One to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, from whom no secrets are hid. Who could state the mingling of desire and dread with which men strive after, and hide from, such a God? We want Him, yet until we have Him how we fear Him. For that inclusive knowledge of us which is God, if only we can bear to come to it, endows us with freedom. For then all the barriers are down, there is nothing to conceal, nothing to explain, nothing to hold back. Then reality and appearance coincide, character and condition correspond. I am what I am before Him. Supreme reality from without answers and completes my own, and makes me real, and my reality makes me free.
But if He thus knows me, and through that knowledge every inner inhibition melts in His presence and every damning secret’s out, and all my life is spread like an open palm before His gaze, and I am come at last, through many weary roads, unto my very self, why then I can let go, I can relinquish myself. The dreadful tension’s gone and in utter surrender the soul is poured out, until, spent and expressed, rest and peace flood back into the satisfied life. So the life is free; so the life is bound. So a man stands upon his feet; so he clings to the Rock that is higher than he. So the life is cleansed in burning light; so the soul is hid in the secret of God’s presence. So men come to themselves; so men lose themselves in the Eternal. There is perfect freedom at last because we have attained to complete captivity. There is power accompanied by peace. That is the gift which the vision of a God, morally separate from, morally other than we, brings to the inward strife, the spiritual agony of the world. This is the need which that faith satisfies. It is, I suppose, in this exulting experience of moral freedom and spiritual peace which comes to those men who make the experiment of faith that they, for the most part, find their sufficient proof of the divine reality. Who ever doubted His existence who could cry with all that innumerable company of many kindreds and peoples and tongues:
“He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay;
And he set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings.
And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God.”
Here, then, is the preaching which is religious. How foolish are we not to preach it more! How trivial and impertinent it is to question the permanence of the religious interpretation of the world! What a revelation of personal insignificance it is to fail to revere the majesty of the devout and aspiring life! That which a starved and restless and giddy world has lost is this pool of quietness, this tower of strength, this cleansing grace of salvation, this haven of the Spirit. Belief in a transcendent deity is as natural as hunger and thirst, as necessary as sleep and breathing. It was the inner and essential needs of our fathers’ lives which drove them out to search for Him. It will be the inner and essential needs of the lives of our children that shall bring them to the altar where their fathers and their fathers’ fathers bowed down before them. Are we going to be afraid to keep its fires burning?
And so we come to our final and most difficult aspect of this transcendent problem. We have talked of the man who is separate from nature, and who knows himself as man because behind nature he sees the God from whom he is separate, too. We have seen how he needs that “otherness” in God to maintain his personality and how the gulf between him and that God induces that sense of helplessness which makes the humility and penitence of the religious life. We must come now to our final question. How is he to bridge the gulf? By what power can he go through with this experience we have just been relating and find his whole self in a whole world? How can he dare to try it? How can he gain power to achieve it?
Perhaps this is the central difficulty of all religion. It is certainly the one which the old Greeks felt. Plato, the father of Christian theology, and all neo-platonists, knew that the gulf is here between man and God and they knew that something or someone must bridge it for us. They perceived that man, unaided, cannot leap it at a stride. We proceed, driven by the facts of life, to the point where the soul looks up to the Eternal and confesses the kinship, and knows that only in His light shall it see light, and that it only shall be satisfied when it awakes in His likeness. But how shall the connection be made? What shall enable us to do that mystic thing, come back to God? We have frightful handicaps in the attempt. How shall the distrust that sin creates, the hardness that sin forms, the despair and helplessness that sin induces, the dreadful indifference which is its expression,—how shall they be removed? How shall the unfaith which the mystery, the suffering, the evil of the world induce be overcome? Being a sinner I do not dare, and being ignorant I do not believe, to come. God is there and God wants us; like as a father pitieth his children so He pitieth us. He knoweth our frame, He remembereth that we are dust. We know that is true; again we do not know it is true. All the sin that is in us and all which that sin has done to us insists and insists that it is not true. And the mind wonders—and wonders. What shall break that distrust; and melt away the hardness so that we have an open mind; and send hope into despair, hope with its accompanying confidence to act; change unfaith to belief, until, in having faith, we thereby have that which faith believes in? How amazing is life! We look out into the heavenly country, we long to walk therein, we have so little power to stir hand or foot to gain our entrance. We know it is there but all the facts of our rebellious or self-centered life, individual and associated alike, are against it and therefore we do not know that it is there.
Philosophy and reason and proofs of logic cannot greatly help us here. No man was ever yet argued into the kingdom of God. We cannot convince ourselves of our souls. For we are creatures, not minds; lives, not ideas. Only life can convince life; only a Person but, of course, a transcendent person that is more like Him than like us, can make that Other-who-lives certain and sure for us. This necessity for some intermediary who shall be a human yet more-than-human proof that God is and that man may be one with Him; this reinforcing of the old argument from subjective necessity by its verification in the actual stuff of objective life, has been everywhere sought by men.
Saviours, redeemers, mediators, then, are not theological manikins. They are not superfluous figures born of a mistaken notion of the universe. They are not secondary gods, concessions to our childishness. They, too, are called for in the nature of things. But to really mediate they must have the qualities of both that which they transmit and of those who receive the transmission. Most of all they must have that “other” quality, so triumphant and self-verifying that seeing it constrains belief. A mediator wholly unlike ourselves would be a meaningless and mocking figure. But a mediator who was chiefly like ourselves would be a contradiction in terms!
So we come back again to the old problem. Man needs some proof that he who knows that he is more than dust can meet with that other life from whose star his speck has been derived. Something has got to give him powerful reinforcement for this supreme effort of will, of faith. If only he could know that he and it ever have met in the fields of time and space, then he would be saved. For that would give him the will to believe; that would prove the ultimate; give him the blessed assurance which heals the wounds of the heart. Then he would have power to surrender. Then he would no longer fear the gulf, he would walk out onto it and know that as he walked he was with God.
Some such reasoning as this ought to make clear the place that Jesus holds in Christian preaching and why we call Him Saviour and why salvation comes for us who are of His spiritual lineage, through Him. Of course it is true that Jesus shows to all discerning eyes what man may be. But that is not the chief secret of His power; that is not why churches are built to Him and His cross still fronts, defeated but unconquerable, our pagan world. Jesus was more-than-nature and more-than-human. It is this “other” quality, operative and objectified in His experience within our world, which gives Him the absoluteness which makes Him indispensable and precious. The mystery is deepest here. For here we transfer the antinomy from thought to conduct; from inner perception to one Being’s actual experience. Here, in Him, we say we see it resolved into its higher synthesis in actual operation.
Here, then, we can almost look into it. Yet when we do gaze, our eyes dazzle, our minds swerve, it is too much. It is not easy, indeed, at the present time it seems to be impossible to reconcile the Christ of history with the Christ of experience. Yet there would be neither right nor reason in saying that the former was more of a reality than the latter. And all the time the heart from which great thoughts arise, “the heart which has its reasons of which the mind knows nothing,” says, Here in Him is the consummate quality, the absolute note of life. Here the impossible has been accomplished. Here the opposites meet and the contradictions blend. Here is something so incredible that it is true.
Of course, Jesus is of us and He is ours. That is true and it is inexpressibly sweet to remember it. Again, to use our old solecism, that is the lesser part of the truth; the greater part, for men of religion, is that Jesus is of God, that He belongs to Him. His chief office for our world has not been to show us what men can be like; it has been to give us the vision of the Eternal in a human face. For if He does reveal God to man then He must hold, as President Tucker says, the quality and substance of the life which He reveals.
Here is where He differs immeasurably from even a Socrates. What men want most to believe about Jesus is this, that when we commune with Him, we are with the infinite; that man’s just perception of the Eternal Spirit, his desire to escape from time into reality, may be fulfilled in Jesus. That is the Gospel: Come unto Him, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, for He will give you rest. Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again. But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.
Now, if all this is true, what is the religious preaching of Jesus, what aspect of His person meets the spiritual need? Clearly, it is His transcendence. It is not worthy of us to evade it because we cannot explain it. Surely what has hastened our present paganism has been the removal from the forefront of our consciousness of Jesus the Saviour, the divine Redeemer, the absolute Meeter of an absolute need. Of such preaching of Jesus we have today very little. The pendulum has swung far to the left, to the other exclusive emphasis, too obviously influenced by the currents of the day. It was perhaps inevitable that He should for a time drop out of His former place in Christian preaching under this combined humanistic and naturalistic movement. But it means that again we have relinquished those values which have made Jesus the heart of humanity.
Of course, He was a perfected human character inspired above all men by the spirit of God, showing the capacity of humanity to hold Divinity. This is what Mary celebrates in her paean, “He that is mighty has magnified me and holy is his name.” But is this what men have passionately adored in Jesus? Has love of Him been self-love? Is this why He has become the sanctuary of humanity? I think not. We have for the moment no good language for the other conception of Him. He is indeed the pledge of what we may be, but how many of us would ever believe that pledge unless there was something else in Him, more than we, that guaranteed it? What, as President Tucker asks, is this power which shall make “maybe” into “is” for us? “Without doubt the trend of modern thought and faith is toward the more perfect identification of Christ with humanity. We cannot overestimate the advantage to Christianity of this tendency. The world must know and feel the humanity of Jesus. But it makes the greatest difference in result whether the ground of the common humanity is in Him or in us. To borrow the expressive language of Paul, was He ‘created’ in us? Or are we ‘created’ in Him? Grant the right of the affirmation that ‘there is no difference in kind between the divine and the human’; allow the interchange of terms so that one may speak of the humanity of God and the divinity of man; appropriate the motive which lies in these attempts to bring God and man together and thus to explain the personality of Jesus Christ, it is still a matter of infinite concern whether His home is in the higher or the lower regions of divinity. After all, very little is gained by the transfer of terms. Humanity is in no way satisfied with its degree of divinity. We are still as anxious as ever to rise above ourselves and in this anxiety we want to know concerning our great helper, whether He has in Himself anything more than the possible increase of a common humanity. What is His power to lift and how long may it last? Shall we ever reach His level, become as divine as He, or does He have part in the absolute and infinite? This question may seem remote in result but it is everything in principle. The immanence of Christ has its present meaning and value because of His transcendence.”
Preaching today is not moving on the level of this discussion, is neither asking nor attempting to answer its questions. Great preaching in some way makes men see the end of the road, not merely the direction in which it travels. The power to do that we have lost if we have lost the more-than-us in Jesus. Humanity, unaided, cannot look to that end which shall explain the beginning. And does Jesus mean very much to us if He is only “Jesus”? Why do we answer the great invitation, “Come unto me”? Because He is something other than us? Because He calls us away from ourselves? back to home? Most of us no longer know how to preach on that plane of experience or from the point of view where such questions are serious and real. Our fathers had a world view and a philosophy which made such preaching easy. But their power did not lie in that world view; it lay in this vision of Jesus which produced the view. Is not this the vision which we need?