Grace, Knowledge, Virtue
[Note: This is taken from Albert Parker Fitch’s Preaching and Paganism.]
I hope the reader is in that sort of mood in which the reality of the struggle for character, the craving of the human spirit to give and to receive compassion, the cry of the lonely soul for the love of God, were made manifest. These are the real goods of life to religious natures; they need this meat which the world knoweth not of; there is a continuing resolve in them to say, “Good-by, proud world, I’m going home!” The genuinely religious man must, and should indeed, live in this world, but he cannot live of it.
Merely to create such an atmosphere then, to induce this sort of mood, to shift for men their perspectives, until these needs and values rise once more compelling before their eyes, is a chief end of preaching. Its object is not so much moralizing or instructing as it is interpreting and revealing; not the plotting out of the landscape at our feet, but the lifting of our eyes to the hills, to the fixed stars. Then we really do see things that are large as large and things that are small as small. We need that vision today from religious leaders more than we need any other one thing.
For humanism and naturalism between them have brought us to an almost complete secularization of preaching, in which its characteristic elements, its distinctive contribution, have largely faded from liberal speaking and from the consciousness of its hearers. We have emphasized man’s kinship with nature until now we can see him again declining to the brute; we have proclaimed the divine Immanence until we think to compass the Eternal within a facile and finite comprehension. By thus dwelling on the physical and rational elements of human experience, religion has come to concern itself to an extraordinary degree with the local and temporal reaches of faith. We have lost the sense of communion with Absolute Being and of the obligation to standards higher than those of the world, which that communion brings. Out of this identification of man with nature has come the preaching which ignores the fact of sin; which reduces free will and the moral responsibility of the individual to the vanishing point; which stresses the control of the forces of inheritance and environment to the edge of fatalistic determinism; which leads man to regard himself as unfortunate rather than reprehensible when moral disaster overtakes him; which induces that condoning of the moral rebel which is born not of love for the sinner but of indifference to his sin; which issues in that last degeneration of self-pity in which individuals and societies alike indulge; and in that repellent sentimentality over vice and crime which beflowers the murderer while it forgets its victim, which turns to ouija boards and levitated tables to obscure the solemn finality of death and to gloze over the guilty secrets of the battlefield.
Thus it has come about that we preach of God in terms of the drawing-room, as though he were some vast St. Nicholas, sitting up there in the sky or amiably informing our present world, regarding with easy benevolence His minute and multifarious creations, winking at our pride, our cruelty, our self-love, our lust, not greatly caring if we break His laws, tossing out His indiscriminate gifts, and vaguely trusting in our automatic arrival at virtue. Even as in philosophy, it is psychologists, experts in empirical science and methods, and sociologists, experts in practical ethics, who may be found, while the historian and the metaphysician are increasingly rare, so in preaching we are amiable and pious and ethical and practical and informative, but the vision and the absolutism of religion are a departing glory.
What complicates the danger and difficulty of such a position, with its confusion of natural and human values, and its rationalizing and secularizing of theistic thinking, is that it has its measure of reality. All these observations of naturalist and humanist are half truths, and for that very reason more perilous than utter falsehoods. For the mind tends to rest contented within their areas, and so the partial becomes the worst enemy of the whole. What we have been doing is stressing the indubitable identity between man and nature and between the Creator and His creatures to the point of unreality, forgetting the equally important fact of the difference, the distinction between the two. But sound knowledge and normal feeling rest upon observing and reckoning with both aspects of this law of kinship and contrast. All human experience becomes known to us through the interplay of what appear to be contradictory needs and opposing truths within our being. Thus, man is a social animal and can only find himself in a series of relationships as producer, lover, husband, father and friend. He is a part of and like unto his kind, his spirit immanent in his race. But man is also a solitary creature, and in that very solitariness, which he knows as he contrasts it with his social interests, he finds identity of self, the something which makes us “us,” which separates us from all others in the world. A Crusoe, marooned on a South Sea island, without even a black man Friday for companionship, would soon cease to be a man; personality would forsake him. But the same Crusoe is equally in need of solitude. The hell of the barracks, no matter how well conducted, is their hideous lack of privacy; men condemned by shipwreck or imprisonment to an unbroken and intimate companionship kill their comrade or themselves. We are all alike and hence gregarious; we are all different and hence flee as a bird to the mountain. The reality of human personality lies in neither one aspect of the truth nor the other, but in both. The truth is found as we hold the balance between identity and difference. Hence we are not able to think of personality in the Godhead unless we conceive of God as being, within Himself, a social no less than a solitary Being.
Again, this law that the truth is found in the balance of the antinomies appears in man’s equal passion for continuity and permanency and for variety and change. The book of Revelation tells us that the redeemed, before the great white throne, standing upon the sea of glass, sing the song of Moses and the Lamb. What has the one to do with the other? Here is the savage, triumphant chant of the far dawn of Israel’s history, joined with the furthest and latest possible events and words. Well, it at least suggests the continuity of the ageless struggle of mankind, showing that the past has its place in the present, relieving man’s horror of the impermanence, the disjointed character of existence. He wants something orderly and static. But, like the jet of water in the fountain, his life is forever collapsing and collapsing, falling in upon itself, its apparent permanence nothing but a rapid and glittering succession of impermanences. The dread of growing old is chiefly that, as years come on, life changes more and faster, becomes a continual process of readjustment. Therefore we want something fixed; like the sailor with his compass, we must have some needle, even if a tremulous one, always pointing toward a changeless star. Yet this is but one half of the picture. Does man desire continuity?—quite as much does he wish for variety, cessation of old ways, change and fresh beginnings. The most terrible figure which the subtle imagination of the Middle Ages conjured up was that of the Wandering Jew, the man who could not die! Here, then, we arrive at knowledge, the genuine values of experience, by this same balancing of opposites. Continuity alone kills; perpetual change strips life of significance; man must have both.
Now, it is in the religious field that this interests us most. We have seen that what we have been doing there of late has been to ignore the fact that reality is found only through this balancing of the law of difference and identity, contrast and likeness. We have been absorbed in one half of reality, identifying man with nature, prating of his self-sufficiency, seeing divinity almost exclusively as immanent in the phenomenal world. Thus we have not merely been dealing with only one half of the truth, but that, to use a solecism, the lesser half.
For doubtless men do desire in religion a recognition of the real values of their physical nature. And they want rules of conduct, a guide for practical affairs, a scale of values for this world. This satisfies the craving for temporal adjustment, the sense of the goodness and worth of what our instinct transmits to us. But it does nothing to meet that profound dissatisfaction with this world and that sense of the encumbrances of the flesh which is also a part of reality and, to the religious man, perhaps the greater part. He wants to turn away from all these present things and be kept secretly in a pavilion from the strife of tongues. Here he has no continuing city. Always while we dwell here we have a dim and restless sense that we are in an unreal country and we know, in our still moments, that we shall only come to ourselves when we return to the house of our Father. Hence men have never been satisfied with religious leaders who chiefly interpreted this world to them.
And indeed, since July, 1914, and down to and including this very hour, this idealizing of time, which we had almost accepted as our office, has had a ghastly exposure. Because there has come upon us all one of these irrevocable and irremediable disasters, for which time has no word of hope, to which Nature is totally indifferent, for which the God of the outgoings and incomings of the morning is too small. For millions of living and suffering men and women all temporal and mortal values have been wiped out. They have been caught in a catastrophe so ruthless and dreadful that it has strewed their bodies in heaps over the fields and valleys of many nations. Today central and south and northeastern Europe and western Asia are filled with idle and hungry and desperate men and women. They have been deprived of peace, of security, of bread, of enlightenment alike. Something more than temporal salvation and human words of hope are needed here. Something more than ethical reform and social readjustment and economic alleviation, admirable though these are! Something there must be in human nature that eclipses human nature, if it is to endure so much! What has the God of this world to give for youth, deprived of their physical immortality and all their sweet and inalienable human rights, who are lying now beneath the acre upon acre of tottering wooden crosses in their soldier’s graves? Is there anything in this world sufficient now for the widow, the orphan, the cripple, the starving, the disillusioned and the desperate? What Europe wants to know is why and for what purpose this holocaust—is there anything beyond, was there anything before it? A civilization dedicated to speed and power and utility and mere intelligence cannot answer these questions. Neither can a religion resolved into naught but the ethics of Jesus answer them. “If in this world only,” cries today the voice of our humanity, “we have hope, then we are of all men the most miserable!” When one sees our American society of this moment returning so easily to the physical and the obvious and the practical things of life; when one sees the church immersed in programs, and moralizing, and hospitals, and campaigns, and membership drives, and statistics, and money getting, one is constrained to ask, “What shall be said of the human spirit that it can forget so soon?”
Is it not obvious, then, that our task for a pagan society and a self-contained humanity is to restore the balance of the religious consciousness and to dwell, not on man’s identity with Nature, but on his far-flung difference; not on his self-sufficiency, but on his tragic helplessness; not on the God of the market place, the office and the street, an immanent and relative deity, but on the Absolute, that high and lofty One who inhabiteth eternity? Indeed, we are being solemnly reminded today that the other-worldliness of religion, its concern with future, supertemporal things, is its characteristic and most precious contribution to the world. We are seeing how every human problem when pressed to its ultimate issue becomes theological. Here is where the fertile field for contemporary preaching lies. It is found, not in remaining with those elements in the religious consciousness which it shares in common with naturalism and humanism, but in passing over to those which are distinctive to itself alone. It has always been true, but it is especially true at this moment, that effective preaching has to do chiefly with transcendent values.
Our task is to assert, first, then, the “otherness” of man, his difference from Nature, to point out the illusoriness of her phenomena for him, the derived reality and secondary value of her facts. These are things that need religious elucidation. The phrase “other-worldliness” has come, not without reason, to have an evil connotation among us, but there is nevertheless a genuine disdain of this world, a sense of high superiority to it and profound indifference toward it, which is of the essence of the religious attitude. He who knows that here he is a stranger, sojourning in tabernacles; that he belongs by his nature, not to this world, but that he seeks a better, that is to say, a heavenly country, will for the joy that is set before him, endure a cross and will despise the shame. He will have a conscious superiority to hostile facts of whatever sort or magnitude, for he knows that they deceive in so far as they pretend to finality. When religion has thus acquired a clear-sighted and thoroughgoing indifference to the natural order, then, and then only, it begins to be potent within that order. Then, as Professor Hocking says, it rises superior to the world of facts and becomes irresistible.
The time is ripe, then, first, for the preacher to emphasize the inward and essential difference between man and nature which exists under the outward likeness, to remind him of this more-than-nature, this “otherness” of man, without which he would lose his most precious possession, the sense of personality. Faith begins by recognizing this transcendent element in man and the acceptance of it is the foundation of religious preaching. What was the worst thing about the war? Not its destruction nor its horrors nor its futilities, but its shames; the dreadful indignities which it inflicted upon man; it treated men as though they were not souls! No such moral catastrophe could have overwhelmed us if we had not for long let the brute lie too near the values and practices of our lives, depersonalizing thus, in politics and industry and morals and religion, our civilization. It all proceeded from the irreligious interpretation of human existence, and the fruits of that interpretation are before us.
The first task of the preacher, then, is to combat the naturalistic interpretation of humanity with every insight and every conviction that is within his power. If we are to restore religious values, rebuild a world of transcendent ends and more-than-natural beauty, we must begin here with man. In the popular understanding of the phrase all life is not essentially one in kind; physical self-preservation and reproduction are not the be-all and the end-all of existence. There is something more to be expressed in man without which these are but dust and ashes in the mouth. There is another kind of life mixed in with this, the obvious. If we cannot express the other world, we shall not long tolerate this one. To think that this world is all, leans toward madness; such a picture of man is a travesty, not a portrait of his nature. Only on some such basic truths as these can we build character in our young people. Paganism tells them that it is neither natural nor possible to keep themselves unspotted from the world. Over against it we must reiterate, You can and you must! for the man that sinneth wrongeth his own soul. You are something more than physical hunger and reproductive instinct; you are of spirit no less than dust. How, then, can you do this great sin against God!
How abundant here are the data with which religious preaching may deal. Indeed, as Huxley and scores of others have pointed out, it is only the religious view of man that builds up civilization. A great community is the record of man’s supernaturalism, his uniqueness. It is built on the “higher-than-self” principle which is involved in the moral sense itself. And this higher-than-self is not just a collective naturalism, a social consciousness, as Durkheim and Overstreet and Miss Harrison would say. The simplest introspective act will prove that. For a man cannot ignore self-condemnation as if it were only a natural difficulty, nor disparage it as though it were merely humanly imposed. We think it comes from that which is above and without, because it speaks to the solitary and the unique, not the social and the common part of us. Hence conscience is not chiefly a tribal product, for it is what separates us from the group and in our isolation unites us with something other than the group. “Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight.” So religious preaching perpetually holds us up above our natural selves and the natural order.
Thus man must live by an other-than-natural law if he is to preserve the family, which is the social unit of civilization. Its very existence depends upon modifying and transforming natural hunger by a diviner instinct, by making voluntary repressions, willing sacrifices of the lower to the higher, the subordinating of the law of self and might to the law of sacrifice and love—this is what preserves family life. Animals indeed rear and cherish their young and for the mating season remain true to one another, but no animality per se ever yet built a home. There must be a more-than-natural law in the state. Our national life and honor rest upon the stability of the democracy and we can only maintain that by walking a very straight and narrow path. For the peace of freedom as distinguished from precarious license is a more-than-natural attainment, born of self-repression and social discipline, the voluntary relinquishment of lesser rights for higher rights, of personal privileges for the sake of the common good. Government by the broad and easy path, following the lines of least resistance, like the natural order, saying might is right, means either tyranny or anarchy. Circumspice! One of the glories of western civilization is its hospitals. They stand for the supernatural doctrine of the survival of the unfit, the conviction of the community that, to take the easy path of casting out the aged and infirm, the sick and the suffering, would mean incalculable degeneration of national character, and that the difficult and costly path of protection and ministering service is both necessary and right. And why is the reformatory replacing the prison? Because we have learned that the obvious, natural way of dealing with the criminal certainly destroys him and threatens to destroy us; and that the hard, difficult path of reeducating and reforming a vicious life is the one which the state for her own safety must follow.
Genuine preaching, then, first of all, calls men to repentance, bids them turn away from their natural selves, and, to find that other and realer self, enter the straight and narrow gate. The call is not an arbitrary command, born of a negative and repressive spirit. It is a profound exhortation based upon a fundamental law of human progress, having behind it the inviolable sanction of the truth. Such preaching would have the authentic note. It is self-verifying. It stirs to answer that quality—both moral and imaginative—in the spirit of man which craves the pain and difficulty and satisfaction of separation from the natural order. It appeals to a timeless worth in man which transcends any values of mere intelligence which vary with the ages, or any material prosperity which perishes with the using, or any volitional activity that dies in its own expenditure. Much of the philosophy of Socrates was long ago outmoded, but Socrates himself, as depicted in the Phaedo, confronting death with the cup of hemlock in his hand, saying with a smile, “There is no evil which can happen to a good man living or dead,” has a more-than-natural, an enduring and transcendent quality. Whenever we preach to the element in mankind which produces such attitudes toward life and bid it assert itself, then we are doing religious preaching, and then we speak with power. Jesus lived within the inexorable circle of the ideas of His time; He staked much on the coming of the new kingdom which did not appear either when or as He had first expected it. He had to adjust, as do we all, His life to His experience, His destiny to His fate. But when He was hanging on His cross, forgotten of men and apparently deserted by His God, something in Him that had nothing to do with nature or the brute rose to a final expression and by its more-than-natural reality, sealed and authenticated His life. Looking down upon His torturers, understanding them far better than they understood themselves, He cried, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” That cry has no place in nature; it has no application and no meaning outside the human heart and that which is above, not beneath, the human heart, from which it is derived. There, then, again was the supernatural law; there was the more-than-nature in man which makes nature into human nature; and there is the thing to whose discovery, cultivation, expression, real preaching is addressed. Every time a man truly preaches he so portrays what men ought to be, must be, and can be if they will, that they know there is something here
“that leaps life’s narrow bars
To claim its birthright with the hosts of heaven!
A seed of sunshine that doth leaven
Our earthly dullness with the beams of stars,
And glorify our clay
With light from fountains elder than the Day.”
Such preaching is a perpetual refutation of and rebuke to the naturalism and imperialism of our present society. It is the call to the absolute in man, to a clear issue with evil. It would not cry peace, peace, when there is no peace. It would be living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing of both joints and marrow, quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.
Following this insistence upon the difference from nature, the more-than-natural in man, the second thing in religious preaching will have to be, obviously, the message of salvation. That is to say, reducing the statement to its lowest terms, if man is to live by such a law, the law of more-than-nature, then he must have something also more-than-human to help him in his task. He will need strength from outside. Indeed, because religion declares that there is such divine assistance, and that faith can command it, is the chief cause and reason for our existence. When we cease to preach salvation in some form or other, we deny our own selves; we efface our own existence. For no one can preach the more-than-human in mankind without emphasizing those elements of free will, moral responsibility, the need and capacity for struggle and holiness in human life which it indicates, and which in every age have been a part of the message of Him who said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father, which is in heaven, is perfect.”
Therefore, as we have previously corrected the half truth of the naturalist who makes a caricature, not a portrait of man, we must now in the same way turn to the correcting of the humanist’s emphasis upon man’s native capacity and insist upon the complementary truth which fulfills this moral heroism of mankind, namely, the divine rescue which answers to its inadequacy. Man must struggle for his victory; he can win; he cannot win alone. We must then insist upon the doctrine of salvation, turning ourselves to the other side of the humanist’s picture. Man cannot live by this more-than-natural law unaided. For not only has he the power to rise above Nature; the same thing gives him equal capacity to sink beneath her, and, when left to himself, he generally does so. The preacher does not dare deny the sovereignty of sin. Humanism hates the very name of sin; it has never made any serious attempt to explain the consciousness of guilt. Neither naturalist nor humanist can afford to admit sin, for sin takes man, as holiness does, outside the iron chain of cause and effect; it breaks the law; it is not strictly natural. It makes clear enough that man is outside the natural order in two ways. He is both inferior and superior to it. He falls beneath, he rises above it. When he acts like a beast, he is not clean and beastly, but unclean and bestial. When he lifts his head in moral anguish, bathes all his spirit in the flood of awe and repentance, is transfigured with the glorious madness of self-sacrifice, he is so many worlds higher than the beast that their relationship becomes irrelevant. So we must deal more completely than humanists do with the central mystery of our experience; man’s impotent idealism, his insight not matched with consummation; the fact that what he dares to dream of he is not able alone to do.
For the humanist exalts man, which is good; but then he makes him self-sufficient for the struggle which such exaltation demands, which is bad. In that partial understanding he departs from truth. And what is it that makes the futility of so much present preaching? It is the acceptance of this doctrine of man’s moral adequacy and consequently the almost total lack either of the assurance of grace or of the appeal to the will. No wonder such exhortations cannot stem the tide of an ever increasing worldliness. Such preaching stimulates the mind; in both the better and the worse preachers, it moves the emotions but it gives men little power to act on what they hear and feel to the transformation of their daily existence. Thus the humanistic sense of man’s sufficiency, coupled with the inherent distrust of any notion of help from beyond and above, any belief in a reinforcing power which a critical rationalism cannot dissect and explain, has gradually ruled out of court the doctrine of salvation until the preacher’s power, both to experience and to transmit it, has atrophied through disuse.
Who can doubt that one large reason why crude and indefensible concepts of the Christian faith have such a disconcerting vitality today is because they carry, in their outmoded, unethical, discredited forms, the truth of man’s insufficiency in himself and the confident assurance of that something coming from without which will abundantly complete the struggling life within? They offer the assurance of that peace and moral victory which man so ardently desires, because they declare that it is both a discovery and a revelation, an achievement and a rescue. There are vigorous and rapidly growing popular movements of the day which rest their summation of faith on the quadrilateral of an inerrant and verbally inspired Scripture, the full deity of Jesus Christ, the efficacy of His substitutionary atonement, the speedy second coming of the Lord. No sane person can suppose that these cults succeed because of the ethical insight, the spiritual sensitiveness, the intellectual integrity of such a message. It does not possess these things. They succeed, in spite of their obscurantism, because they do confess and meet man’s central need, his need to be saved. The power of that fact is what is able to carry so narrow and so indefensible a doctrine.
So the second problem of the preacher is clear. Man asserts his potential independence of the natural law. But to realize that, he must bridge the gulf between himself and the supernatural lawgiver to whose dictates he confesses he is subject. He is not free from the bondage of the lower, except through the bondage to the higher. Nor can he live by that higher law unaided and alone. Here we strike at the root of humanism. Its kindly tolerance of the church is built up on the proud conviction that we, with our distinctive doctrine of salvation, are superfluous, hence sometimes disingenuous and always negligible. The humanist believes that understanding takes the place of faith. What men need is not to be redeemed from their sins, but to be educated out of their follies.
But does right knowing in itself suffice to insure right doing? Socrates and Plato, with their indentification of knowledge and virtue, would appear to think so; the church has gone a long way, under humanistic pressure, in tacit acquiescence with their doctrine. Yet most of us, judging alike from internal and personal evidence and from external and social observation, would say that there was no sadder or more universal experience than that of the failure of right knowledge to secure right performance. Right knowledge is not in itself right living. We have striking testimony on that point from one of the greatest of all humanists, no less a person than Confucius. “At seventy,” he says, “I could follow what my heart desired without transgressing the law of measure.” The implication of such testimony makes no very good humanistic apologetic! Most of us, when desire has failed, can manage to attain, unaided, the identification of understanding and conduct, can climb to the poor heights of a worn-out and withered continence. But one wonders a little whether, then, the climbing seems to be worth while.
But the doctrine usually begins by minimizing the free agency of the individual, playing up the factors of compulsion, either of circumstance or inheritance or of ignorance, as being in themselves chiefly responsible for blameful acts. These are therefore considered involuntary and certain to be reformed when man knows better and has the corresponding strength of his knowledge. But Aristotle, who deals with this Socratic doctrine in the third book of the Ethics, very sensibly remarks, “It is ridiculous to lay the blame of our wrong actions upon external causes rather than upon the facility with which we ourselves are caught by such causes, and, while we take credit for our noble actions to ourselves, lay the blame of our shameful actions upon pleasure.” “The facility with which we are caught”—there is the religious understanding there is that perversion of will which conspires with the perils and chances of the world so that together they may undo the soul.
Of course, as Aristotle admits, there is this half truth lying at the root of the Socratic identification of virtue and knowledge that every vicious person is ignorant of what he ought to do and what he ought to abstain from doing in the sense that what he is about to do could not be defended upon any ground of enlightened self-interest. And so, while he finds sin sweet and evil pleasant, these are delusive experiences, which, if he saw life steadily and whole, he would know as such. But one reason for this ignorance is unwillingness to know. Good men do evil, and understanding men sin, partly because they are misled by false ideas, partly, also, because, knowing them false, they cannot or will not give them up. This is what Goethe very well understood when he said, “Most men prefer error to truth, because truth imposes limitations and error does not.”
And another reason is that when men do know, they find a deadly and mysterious, a sort of perverted joy—a sweet and terrible and secret delight,—in denying their own understanding. Thus right living calls for a repeated and difficult exercise of the will, what Professor Babbitt calls “a pulling back of the impulse to the track that knowledge indicates.” Such moral mastery is not identical with moral perception and most frequently is not its accompaniment, unless observation and experience are alike fallacious. Thus the whole argument falls to the ground when we confess that possession of knowledge does not guarantee the application of it. Therefore the two things, knowledge and virtue, according to universal experience, are not identical. Humanists indeed use the word “knowledge” for the most part in an esoteric sense. Knowledge is virtue in the sense that it enables us to see virtue as excellent and desirable; it is not virtue in the sense that it alone enables us to acquire it.
Who, indeed, that has ever lived in the far country does not know that one factor in its fascination was a bittersweet awareness of the folly, the inevitable disaster, of such alien surroundings. Who also does not know that often when the whole will is set to identify conduct with conviction, it may be, for all its passionate and bitter sincerity, set in vain. In every hour of every day there are hundreds of lives that battle honestly, but with decreasing spiritual forces, with passion and temptation. Sometimes a life is driven by the fierce gales of enticement, the swift currents of desire, right upon the jagged rock of some great sin. Lives that have seemed strong and fair go down every day, do they not, and shock us for a moment with their irremediable catastrophe? And we must not forget that before they went down, for many a month or even year they have been hard beset lives. Before that final and complete ruin, they have been drifting and struggling, driven and fighting, sin drawing nearer and nearer, their fated lives urged on, the mind growing darker, the stars in their souls going out, the steering of their own lives taken from their hands. Then there has been the sense of the coming danger, the dark presentiment of how it all must end when the “powers that tend the soul to help it from the death that cannot die, and save it even in extremes, begin to vex and plague it.” There has been the dreadful sense of life drifting toward a great crash, nearer and nearer to what must be the wreck of all things. What does the humanist have to offer to these men and women who know perfectly well where they are, and what they are about, and where they would like to be, but who can’t get there and who are, today and every day, putting forth their last and somber efforts, trying in vain to just keep clear of ruin until the darkness and the helplessness shall lift and something or someone shall give them peace!
Now, it is this defect in the will which automatically limits the power of the intellect. It is this which the Socratic identification ignores. So while we might readily grant that it is in the essential nature of things that virtue and truth, wisdom and character, understanding and goodness, are but two aspects of one thing, is it not trifling with one of the most serious facts of human destiny to interpret the truism to mean that, when a man knows that a contemplated act is wrong or foolish or ugly, he is thereby restrained from accomplishing it? Knowledge is not virtue in the sense that mere reason or mere perception can control the will. And this is the conclusion that Aristotle also comes to when he says: “Some people say that incontinence is impossible, if one has knowledge. It seems to them strange, as it did to Socrates, that where knowledge exists in man, something else should master it and drag it about like a slave. Socrates was wholly opposed to this idea; he denied the existence of incontinence, arguing that nobody with a conception of what was best could act against it, and therefore, if he did so act, his action must be due to ignorance.” And then Aristotle adds, “The theory is evidently at variance with the facts of experience.” Plato himself exposes the theoretical nature of the assertion, its inhuman demand upon the will, the superreasonableness which it expects but offers no way of obtaining, when he says, “Every one will admit that a nature having in perfection all the qualities which are required in a philosopher is a rare plant seldom seen among men.”
It would be well if those people who are going about the world today teaching social hygiene to adolescents (on the whole an admirable thing to do) but proceeding on the assumption that when youth knows what is right and what is wrong, and why it is right and why it is wrong, and what are the consequences of right and wrong, that then, ipso facto, youth will become chaste,—well if they would acquaint themselves either with the ethics of Aristotle or with the Christian doctrine of salvation. For if men think that knowledge by itself ever yet produced virtue in eager and unsated lives, they are either knaves or fools. They will find that knowledge uncontrolled by a purified spirit and a reinforced will is already teaching men not how to be good, but how to sin the more boldly with the better chance of physical impunity. “Philosophy,” says Black, “is a feeble antagonist before passion, because it does not supply an adequate motive for the conflict.” There were few men in the nineteenth century in whom knowledge and virtue were more profoundly and completely joined than in John Henry Newman. But did that subtle intellect suffice? could it make the scholar into the saint? Hear his own words:
“O Holy Lord, who with the children three
Didst walk the piercing flame;
Help, in those trial hours which, save to Thee,
I dare not name;
Nor let these quivering eyes and sickening heart
Crumble to dust beneath the tempter’s dart.
“Thou who didst once Thy life from Mary’s breast
Renew from day to day;
O might her smile, severely sweet, but rest
On this frail clay!
Till I am Thine with my whole soul, and fear
Not feel, a secret joy, that Hell is near.”
So, only when we include in the term “knowledge” understanding plus good will, is the humanist position true, and this, I suppose, is what Aristotle meant when he finally says, “Vice is consistent with knowledge of some kind, but it excludes knowledge in the full and proper sense of the word.”
Now, so finespun a discussion of intricate and psychological subtleties is mildly interesting presumably to middle-aged scholars, but I submit that a half truth that needs so much explanation and so many admissions before it can be made safe or actual, is a rather dangerous thing to offer to adolescence or to a congregation of average men and women. It cannot sound to them very much like the good news of Jesus. Culture is a precious thing, but no culture, without the help of divine grace and the responsive affection on our part which that grace induces, will ever knit men together in a kingdom of God, a spiritual society. As long ago as the second century Celsus understood that. He says in his polemic against Christianity, as quoted by Origen, “If any one suppose that it is possible that the people of Asia and Europe and Africa, Greeks and barbarians, should agree to follow one law, he is hopelessly ignorant.” Now, Celsus was proceeding on the assumption that Christianity was only another philosophy, a new intellectual system, and he was merely exposing the futility of all such unaided intellectualism.
It is, therefore, of prime importance for the preacher to remember that humanism, or any other doctrine which approaches the problem of life and conduct other than by moral and spiritual means, can never take the place of the religious appeal, because it does not touch the springs of action where motives are born and from which convictions arise. You do not make a man moral by enlightening him; it is nearer the truth to say that you enlighten him when you make him moral. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” said Jesus, “for they shall see God. If any man wills to do the will, he shall know the doctrine.” Education does not wipe out crime nor an understanding mind make a holy will. The last half of the nineteenth century made it terribly clear that the learning and science of mankind, where they are divorced from piety, unconsecrated by a spiritual passion, and largely directed by selfish motives, can neither benefit nor redeem the race. Consider for a moment the enormous expansion of knowledge which the world has witnessed since the year 1859. What prodigious accessions to the sum of our common understanding have we seen in the natural and the humane sciences; and what marvelous uses of scientific knowledge for practical purposes have we discovered! We have mastered in these latter days a thousand secrets of nature. We have freed the mind from old ignorance and ancient superstition. We have penetrated the secrets of the body, and can almost conquer death and indefinitely prolong the span of human days. We face the facts and know the world as our fathers could never do. We understand the past and foresee the future. But the most significant thing about our present situation is this: how little has this wisdom, in and of itself, done for us! It has made men more cunning rather than more noble. Still the body is ravaged and consumed by passion. Still men toil for others against their will, and the strong spill the blood of the weak for their ambition and the sweat of the children for their greed. Never was learning so diffused nor the content of scholarship so large as now. Yet the great cities are as Babylon and Rome of old, where human wreckage multiplies, and hideous vices flourish, and men toil without expectancy, and live without hope, and millions exist—not live at all—from hand to mouth. As we survey the universal unrest of the world today and see the horrors of war between nation and nation, and between class and class, it would not be difficult to make out a case for the thesis that the scientific and intellectual advances of the nineteenth century have largely worked to make men keener and more capacious in their suffering. And at least this is true; just so far as the achievement of the mind has been divorced from the consecration of the spirit, in just so far knowledge has had no beneficent potency for the human race.
Is it not clear, then, that preaching must deal again, never more indeed than now, with the religion which offers a redemption from sin? This is still foolishness to the Greeks, but to those who believe it is still the power of God unto salvation. Culture is not religion. When the preacher substitutes the one for the other, he gives stones for bread, and the hungry sheep go elsewhere or are not fed. It is this emasculated preaching, mulcted of its spiritual forces, which awakes the bitterest distrust and deepest indignation that human beings know. They are fighting the foes of the flesh and the enemies of the spirit, enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, standing by the open graves of their friends and kindred, saying there, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” And then, with all this mystery and oppression of life upon them they enter the doors of the house of God and listen to a polite essay, are told of the consolations of art, reminded of the stupidity of evil, assured of the unreality of sin, offered the subtle satisfactions of a cultivated intelligence. In just so far as they are genuine men and women, they resent such preaching as an insult, a mockery and an offense. No, no; something more is needed than the humanist can offer for those who are hard-pressed participants in the stricken fields of life.
Religious preaching, then, begins with these two things: man’s solitary place in nature, man’s inability to hold that place alone. Hence two more things are necessary as essentials of great preaching in a pagan day. The clear proclamation of the superhuman God, the transcendent spirit who is able to control and reinforce the spirit of man, and the setting forth of some way or some mediator, through whom man may meet and touch that Spirit so far removed yet so infinitely near and dear to him. It is with these matters that we shall be occupied in the next chapter.