The Learner, the Doer and the Seer
[This is taken from Albert Parker Fitch’s Preaching and Paganism.]
The first difficulty which confronts the incumbent of the Lyman Beecher Foundation, after he has accepted the appalling fact that he must hitch his modest wagon, not merely to a star, but rather to an entire constellation, is the delimitation of his subject. There are many inquiries, none of them without significance, with which he might appropriately concern himself. For not only is the profession of the Christian ministry a many-sided one, but scales of value change and emphases shift, within the calling itself, with our changing civilization. The medieval world brought forth, out of its need, the robed and mitered ecclesiastic; a more recent world, pursuant to its genius, demanded the ethical idealist. Drink-sodden Georgian England responded to the open-air evangelism of Whitefield and Wesley; the next century found the Established Church divided against itself by the learning and culture of the Oxford Movement. Sometimes a philosopher and theologian, like Edwards, initiates the Great Awakening; sometimes an emotional mystic like Bernard can arouse all Europe and carry men, tens of thousands strong, over the Danube and over the Hellespont to die for the Cross upon the burning sands of Syria; sometimes it is the George Herberts, in a hundred rural parishes, who make grace to abound through the intimate and precious ministrations of the country parson. Let us, therefore, devote this chapter to a review of the several aspects of the Christian ministry, in order to set in its just perspective the one which we have chosen for these discussions and to see why it seems to stand, for the moment, in the forefront of importance. Our immediate question is, Who, on the whole, is the most needed figure in the ministry today? Is it the professional ecclesiastic, backed with the authority and prestige of a venerable organization? Is it the curate of souls, patient shepherd of the silly sheep? Is it the theologian, the administrator, the prophet—who?
One might think profitably on that first question in these very informal days. We are witnessing a breakdown of all external forms of authority which, while salutary and necessary, is also perilous. Not many of us err, just now, by over-magnifying our official status. Many of us instead are terribly at ease in Zion and might become less assured and more significant by undertaking the subjective task of a study in ministerial personality. “What we are,” to paraphrase Emerson, “speaks so loud that men cannot hear what we say.” Every great calling has its characteristic mental attitude, the unwritten code of honor of the group, without a knowledge of which one could scarcely be an efficient or honorable practitioner within it. One of the perplexing and irritating problems of the personal life of the preacher today has to do with the collision between the secular standards of his time, this traditional code of his class, and the requirements of his faith. Shall he acquiesce in the smug conformities, the externalized procedures of average society, somewhat pietized, and join that large company of good and ordinary people, of whom Samuel Butler remarks, in The Way of All Flesh, that they would be “equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, or at seeing it practised?” There are ministers who do thus content themselves with being merely superrespectable. Shall he exalt the standards of his calling, accentuate the speech and dress, the code and manners of his group, the historic statements of his faith, at the risk of becoming an official, a “professional”? Or does he possess the insight, and can he acquire the courage, to follow men like Francis of Assisi or Father Damien and adopt the Christian ethic and thus join that company of the apostles and martyrs whose blood is the seed of the church? A good deal might be said today on the need of this sort of personal culture in the ministerial candidate. But, provocative and significant though the question is, it is too limited in scope, too purely subjective in nature, to suit the character and the urgency of the needs of this moment.
Again, every profession has the prized inheritance of its own particular and gradually perfected human skill. An interesting study, then, would be the analysis of that rich content of human insights, the result of generations of pastoral experience, which form the background of all great preaching. No man, whether learned or pious, or both, is equipped for the pulpit without the addition of that intuitive discernment, that quick and varied appreciation, that sane and tolerant knowledge of life and the world, which is the reward given to the friends and lovers of mankind. For the preacher deals not with the shallows but the depths of life. Like his Master he must be a great humanist. To make real sermons he has to look, without dismay or evasion, far into the heart’s impenetrable recesses. He must have had some experience with the absolutism of both good and evil. I think preachers who regard sermons on salvation as superfluous have not had much experience with either. They belong to that large world of the intermediates, neither positively good nor bad, who compose the mass of the prosperous and respectable in our genteel civilization. Since they belong to it they cannot lead it. And certainly they who do not know the absolutism of evil cannot very well understand sinners. Genuine satans, as Milton knew, are not weaklings and traitors who have declined from the standards of a respectable civilization. They are positive and impressive figures pursuing and acting up to their own ideal of conduct, not fleeing from self-accepted retribution or falling away from a confessed morality of ours. Evil is a force even more than a folly; it is a positive agent busily building away at the City of Dreadful Night, constructing its insolent and scoffing society within the very precincts of the City of God.
He must know, then, that evil and suffering are not temporary elements of man’s evolution, just about to be eliminated by the new reform, the last formula, the fresh panacea. To those who have tasted grief and smelt the fire such easy preaching and such confident solutions are a grave offense. They know that evil is an integral part of our universe; suffering an enduring element of the whole. So he must preach upon the chances and changes of this mortal world, or go to the house of shame or the place of mourning, knowing that there is something past finding out in evil, something incommunicable about true sorrow. They are not external things, alien to our natures, that happen one day from without, and may perhaps be avoided, and by and by are gone. No; that which makes sorrow, sorrow, and evil, evil, is their naturalness; they well up from within, part of the very texture of our consciousness. He knows you can never express them, for truly to do that you would have to express and explain the entire world. It is not easy then to interpret the evil and suffering which are not external and temporary, but enduring and a part of the whole.
So the preacher is never dealing with plain or uncomplicated matters. It is his business to perceive the mystery of iniquity in the saint and to recognize the mystery of godliness in the sinner. It is his business to revere the child and yet watch him that he may make a man of him. He must say, so as to be understood, to those who balk at discipline, and rail at self-repression, and resent pain: you have not yet begun to live nor made the first step toward understanding the universe and yourselves. To avoid discipline and to blench at pain is to evade life. There are limitations, occasioned by the evil and the suffering of the world, in whose repressions men find fulfillment. When you are honest with yourself you will know what Dante meant when he said:
“And thou shalt see those who
Contented are within the fire;
Because they hope to come,
When e’er it may be, to the blessed people.”
It is his business, also, to be the comrade of his peers, and yet speak to them the truth in love; his task to understand the bitterness and assuage the sorrows of old age. I suppose the greatest influence a preacher ever exercises, and a chief source of the material and insight of his preaching, is found in this intimate contact with living and suffering, divided and distracted men and women. When strong men blench with pain and exquisite grief stirs within us at the sight and we can endure naught else but to suffer with them, when youth is blurred with sin, and gray heads are sick with shame and we, then, want to die and cry, O God! forgive and save them or else blot me out of Thy book of life—for who could bear to live in a world where such things are the end!—then, through the society of sorrow, and the holy comradeship in shame, we begin to find the Lord and to understand both the kindness and the justice of His world. In the moment when sympathy takes the bitterness out of another’s sorrow and my suffering breaks the captivity of my neighbor’s sin—then, when because “together,” with sinner and sufferer, we come out into the quiet land of freedom and of peace, we perceive how the very heart of God, upon which there we know we rest, may be found in the vicarious suffering and sacrifice called forth by the sorrow and the evil of mankind. Then we can preach the Gospel. Because then we dimly understand why men have hung their God upon the Cross of Christ!
Is it not ludicrous, then, to suppose that a man merely equipped with professional scholarship, or contented with moral conformities, can minister to the sorrow and the mystery, the mingled shame and glory of a human being? This is why the average theologue, in his first parish, is like the well-meaning but meddling engineer endeavoring with clumsy tools and insensitive fingers to adjust the delicate and complicated mechanism of a Genevan watch. And here is one of the real reasons why we deprecate men entering our calling, without both the culture of a liberal education and the learning of a graduate school. Clearly, therefore, one real task of such schools and their lectureships is to offer men wide and gracious training in the art of human contacts, so that their lives may be lifted above Pharisaism and moral self-consciousness, made acquainted with the higher and comprehensive interpretations of the heart and mind of our race. For only thus can they approach life reverently and humbly. Only thus will they revere the integrity of the human spirit; only thus can they regard it with a magnanimous and catholic understanding and measure it not by the standards of temperamental or sectarian convictions, but by what is best and highest, deepest and holiest in the race. No one needs more than the young preacher to be drawn out of the range of narrow judgments, of exclusive standards and ecclesiastical traditions and to be flung out among free and sensitive spirits, that he may watch their workings, master their perceptions, catch their scale of values.
A discussion, then, dealing with this aspect of our problem, would raise many and genuine questions for us. There is the more room for it in this time of increasing emphasis upon machinery when even ministers are being measured in the terms of power, speed and utility. These are not real ends of life; real ends are unity, repose, the imaginative and spiritual values which make for the release of self, with its by-product of happiness. In such days, then, when the old-time pastor-preacher is becoming as rare as the former general practitioner; when the lines of division between speaker, educator, expert in social hygiene, are being sharply drawn—as though new methods insured of themselves fresh inspiration, and technical knowledge was identical with spiritual understanding—it would be worth while to dwell upon the culture of the pastoral office and to show that ingenuity is not yet synonymous with insight, and that, in our profession at least, card-catalogues cannot take the place of the personal study of the human heart. But many discussions on this Foundation, and recently those of Dr. Jowett, have already dealt with this sort of analysis. Besides, today, when not merely the preacher, but the very view of the world that produced him, is being threatened with temporary extinction, such a theme, poetic and rewarding though it is, becomes irrelevant and parochial.
Or we might turn to the problem of technique, that professional equipment for his task as a sermonizer and public speaker which is partly a native endowment and partly a laborious acquisition on the preacher’s part. Such was President Tucker’s course on The Making and Unmaking of the Preacher. Certainly observations on professional technique, especially if they should include, like his, acute discussion of the speaker’s obligation to honesty of thinking, no less than integrity of conduct; of the immorality of the pragmatic standard of mere effectiveness or immediate efficiency in the selection of material; of the aesthetic folly and ethical dubiety of simulated extempore speaking and genuinely impromptu prayers, would not be superfluous. But, on the other hand, we may hope to accomplish much of this indirectly today. Because there is no way of handling specifically either the content of the Christian message or the problem of the immediate needs and temper of those to whom it is to be addressed, without reference to the kind of personality, and the nature of the tools at his disposal, which is best suited to commend the one and to interpret the other.
Hence such a discussion as this ought, by its very scale of values—by the motives that inform it and the ends that determine it—to condemn thereby the insincere and artificial speaker, or that pseudo-sermon which is neither as exposition, an argument nor a meditation but a mosaic, a compilation of other men’s thoughts, eked out by impossibly impressive or piously sentimental anecdotes, the whole glued together by platitudes of the Martin Tupper or Samuel Smiles variety. It is certainly an obvious but greatly neglected truth that simplicity and candor in public speaking, largeness of mental movement, what Phillips Brooks called direct utterance of comprehensive truths, are indispensable prerequisites for any significant ethical or spiritual leadership. But, taken as a main theme, this third topic, like the others, seems to me insufficiently inclusive to meet our present exigencies. It deals more with the externals than with the heart of our subject.
Again we might address ourselves to the ethical and practical aspects of preaching and the ministry. Taking largely for granted our understanding of the Gospel, we might concern ourselves with its relations to society, the detailed implications for the moral and economic problems of our social and industrial order. Dean Brown, in The Social Message of the Modern Pulpit, and Dr. Coffin in In a Day of Social Rebuilding, have so enriched this Foundation. Moreover, this is, at the moment, an almost universally popular treatment of the preacher’s opportunity and obligation. One reason, therefore, for not choosing this approach to our task is that the preacher’s attention, partly because of the excellence of these and other books and lectures, and partly because of the acuteness of the political-industrial crisis which is now upon us, is already focused upon it.
Besides, our present moment is changing with an ominous rapidity. And one is not sure whether the immediate situation, as distinguished from that of even a few years ago, calls us to be concerned chiefly with the practical and ethical aspects of our mission, urgent though the need and critical the pass, to which the abuses of the capitalistic system have brought both European and American society. In this day of those shifting standards which mark the gradual transference of power from one group to another in the community, and the merging of a spent epoch in a new order, neither the chief opportunity nor the most serious peril of religious leadership is met by fresh and energetic programs of religion in action. In such days, our chief gift to the world cannot be the support of any particular reforms or the alliance with any immediate ethical or economic movement. For these things at best would be merely the effects of religion. And it is not religion in its relations, nor even in its expression in character—it is the thing in itself that this age most needs. What men are chiefly asking of life at this moment is not, What ought we to do? but the deeper question, What is there we can believe? For they know that the answer to this question would show us what we ought to do.
Nor do our reform alliances and successive programs and crusades always seem to me to proceed from any careful estimate of the situation as a whole or to be conceived in the light of comprehensive Christian principle. Instead, they sometimes seem to draw their inspiration more from the sense of the urgent need of presenting to an indifferent or disillusioned world some quick and tangible evidence of a continuing moral vigor and spiritual passion to which the deeper and more potent witnesses are absent. It is as though we thought the machinery of the church would revolve with more energy if geared into the wheels of the working world. But that world and we do not draw our power from the same dynamo. And surely in a day of profound and widespread mental ferment and moral restlessness, some more fundamental gift than this is asked of us.
If, therefore, these chapters pay only an incidental attention to the church’s social and ethical message, it is partly because our attention is, at this very moment, largely centered upon this important, yet secondary matter, and more because there lies beneath it a yet more urgent and inclusive task which confronts the spokesman of organized religion.
You will expect me then to say that we are to turn to some speculative and philosophic study, such as the analysis of the Christian idea in its world relationships, some fresh statement of the Gospel, either by way of apologia for inherited concepts, or as attempting to make a new receptacle for the living wine, which has indeed burst the most of its ancient bottles. Such was Principal Fairbairn’s monumental task in The Place of Christ in Modern Theology and also Dr. Gordon’s in his distinguished discussions in The Ultimate Conceptions of Faith.
Here, certainly, is an endeavor which is always of primary importance. There is an abiding peril, forever crouching at the door of ancient organizations, that they shall seek refuge from the difficulties of thought in the opportunities of action. They need to be continually reminded that reforms begin in the same place where abuses do, namely, in the notion of things; that only just ideas can, in the long run, purify conduct; that clear thinking is the source of all high and sustained feeling. I wish that we might essay the philosopher-theologian’s task. This generation is hungry for understanding; it perishes for lack of knowledge. One reason for the indubitable decline of the preacher’s power is that we have been culpably indifferent in maintaining close and friendly alliances between the science and the art, the teachers and the practitioners of religion. Few things would be more ominous than to permit any further widening of the gulf which already exists between these two. Never more than now does the preacher need to be reminded of what Marcus Aurelius said: “Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also shall be thyself; for the soul is dyed by its thoughts.”
But such an undertaking, calling for wide and exact scholarship, large reserves of extra-professional learning, does not primarily belong to a discussion within the department of practical theology. Besides which there is a task, closely allied to it, but creative rather than critical, prophetic rather than philosophic, which does fall within the precise area of this field. I mean the endeavor to describe the mind and heart of our generation, appraise the significant thought-currents of our time. This would be an attempt to give some description of the chief impulses fermenting in contemporary society, to ask what relation they hold to the Christian principle, and to inquire what attitude toward them our preaching should adopt. If it be true that what is most revealing in any age is its regulative ideas, then what is more valuable for the preacher than to attempt the understanding of his generation through the defining of its ruling concepts? And it is this audacious task which, for two reasons, we shall presume to undertake.
The first reason is that it is appropriate both to the temperament and the training of the preacher. There are three grand divisions, or rather determining emphases, by which men may be separated into vocational groups. To begin with, there is the man of the scientific or intellectual type. He has a passion for facts and a strong sense of their reality. He moves with natural ease among abstract propositions, is both critical of, and fertile in, theories; indicates his essential distinction in his love of the truth for the truth’s sake. He looks first to the intrinsic reasonableness of any proposition; tends to judge both men and movements not by traditional or personal values, but by a detached and disinterested appraisal of their inherent worth. He is often a dogmatist, but this fault is not peculiar to him, he shares it with the rest of mankind. He is sometimes a literalist and sometimes a slave to logic, more concerned with combating the crude or untenable form of a proposition than inquiring with sympathetic insight into the worth of its substance. But these things are perversions of his excellencies, defects of his virtues. His characteristic qualities are mental integrity, accuracy of statement, sanity of judgment, capacity for sustained intellectual toil. Such men are investigators, scholars; when properly blended with the imaginative type they become inventors and teachers. They make good theologians and bad preachers.
Then there are the practical men, beloved of our American life. Both their feet are firmly fixed upon the solid ground. They generally know just where they are, which is not surprising, for they do not, for the most part, either in the world of mind or spirit, frequent unusual places. The finespun speculations of the philosophers and the impractical dreams of the artist make small appeal to them; the world they live in is a sharply defined and clearly lighted and rather limited place. They like to say to this man come and he cometh, and to that man go and he goeth. They are enamored of offices, typewriters, telegrams, long-distance messages, secretaries, programs, conferences and drives. Getting results is their goal; everything is judged by the criterion of effective action; they are instinctive and unconscious pragmatists. They make good cheer leaders at football games in their youth and impressive captains of industry in their old age. Their virtues are wholesome, if obvious; they are good mixers, have shrewd judgment, immense physical and volitional energy. They understand that two and two make four. They are rarely saints but, unlike many of us who once had the capacity for sainthood, they are not dreadful sinners. They are the tribe of which politicians are born but, when they are blended with imaginative and spiritual gifts, they become philanthropists and statesmen, practical servants of mankind. They make good, if conservative, citizens; kind, if uninspiring, husbands and deplorable preachers.
Then there are those fascinating men of feeling and imagination, those who look into their own hearts and write, those to whom the inner dominions which the spirit conquers for itself become a thousand-fold more real than the earth whereon they stamp their feet. These are the literary or the creative folk. Their passion is not so much to know life as to enjoy it; not to direct it, but to experience it; not even to make understanding of it an end, but only a means to interpreting it. They do not, as a rule, thirst for erudition, and they are indifferent to those manipulations of the externals of life which are dear to the lovers of executive power. They know less but they understand more than their scholastic brethren. As a class they are sometimes disreputable but nearly always unworldly; more distinguished by an intuitive and childlike than by an ingenious or sophisticated quality of mind. Ideas and facts are perceived by them not abstractly nor practically, but in their typical or symbolic, hence their pictorial and transmissible, aspects. They read dogma, whether theological or other, in the terms of a living process, unconsciously translating it, as they go along, out of its cold propositions into its appropriate forms of feeling and needs and satisfactions.
The scientist, then, is a critic, a learner who wants to analyze and dissect; the man of affairs is a director and builder and wants to command and construct; the man of this group is a seer. He is a lover and a dreamer; he watches and broods over life, profoundly feeling it, enamored both of its shame and of its glory. The intolerable poignancy of existence is bittersweet to his mouth; he craves to incarnate, to interpret its entire human process, always striving to pierce to its center, to capture and express its inexpressible ultimate. He is an egotist but a valuable one, acutely aware of the depths and immensities of his own spirit and of its significant relations to this seething world without. Thus it is both himself and a new vision of life, in terms of himself, that he desires to project for his community.
The form of that vision will vary according to the nature of the tools, the selection of material, the particular sort of native endowment which are given to him. Some such men reveal their understanding of the soul and the world in the detached serenity, the too well-defined harmonies of a Parthenon; others in the dim and intricate richness, the confused and tortured aspiration of the long-limbed saints and grotesque devils of a Gothic cathedral. Others incarnate it in gleaming bronze; or spread it in subtle play of light and shade and tones of color on a canvas; or write it in great plays which open the dark chambers of the soul and make the heart stand still; or sing it in sweet and terrible verse, full-throated utterance of man’s pride and hope and passion. Some act it before the altar or beneath the proscenium arch; some speak it, now in Cassandra-tones, now comfortably like shepherds of frail sheep. These folk are the brothers-in-blood, the fellow craftsmen of the preacher. By a silly convention, he is almost forbidden to consult with them, and to betake himself to the learned, the respectable and the dull. But it is with these that naturally he sees eye to eye.
In short, in calling the preacher a prophet we mean that preaching is an art and the preacher is an artist; for all great art has the prophetic quality. Many men object to this definition of the preacher as being profane. It appears to make secular or mechanicalize their profession, to rob preaching of its sacrosanctity, leave it less authority by making it more intelligible, remove it from the realm of the mystical and unique. This objection seems to me sometimes an expression of spiritual arrogance and sometimes a subtle form of skepticism. It assumes a special privilege for our profession or a not-get-at-able defense and sanction by insisting that it differs in origin and hence in kind from similar expressions of the human spirit. It hesitates to rely on the normal and the intelligible sources of ministerial power, to confess the relatively definable origin and understandable methods of our work. It fears to trust to these alone.
But all these must be trusted. We may safely assert that the preacher deals with absolute values, for all art does that. But we may not assert that he is the only person that does so or that his is the only or the unapproachable way. No; he, too, is an artist. Hence, a sermon is not a contribution to, but an interpretation of, knowledge, made in terms of the religious experience. It is taking truth out of its compressed and abstract form, its impersonal and scientific language, and returning it to life in the terms of the ethical and spiritual experience of mankind, thus giving it such concrete and pictorial expression that it stimulates the imagination and moves the will.
It will be clear then why I have said that the task of appraising the heart and mind of our generation, to which we address ourselves, is appropriate to the preaching genius. For only they could attempt such a task who possess an informed and disciplined yet essentially intuitive spirit with its scale of values; who by instinct can see their age as a whole and indicate its chief emphases, its controlling tendencies, its significant expressions. It is not the scientist but the seer who thus attempts the precious but perilous task of making the great generalizations. This is what Aristotle means when he says, “The poet ranks higher than the historian because he achieves a more general truth.” This is, I suppose, what Houston Stewart Chamberlain means when he says, in the introduction to the Foundations of the Nineteenth Century: “our modern world represents an immeasurable array of facts. The mastery of such a task as recording and interpreting them scientifically is impossible. It is only the genius of the artist, which feels the secret parallels that exist between the world of vision and of thought, that can, if fortune be favorable, reveal the unity beneath the immeasurable complexities and diversities of the present order.” Or as Professor Hocking says: “The prophet must find in the current of history a unity corresponding to the unity of the physical universe, or else he must create it. It is this conscious unification of history that the religious will spontaneously tends to bring about.”
It is then precisely the preacher’s task, his peculiar office, to attempt these vast and perilous summations. What he is set here for is to bring the immeasurable within the scope of vision. He deals with the far-flung outposts, no man knows how distant, and the boundless interspaces of human consciousness; he deals with the beginning, the middle, the end—the origin, the meaning and the destiny—of human life. How can anyone give unity to such a prospect? Like any other artist he gives it the only unity possible, the unity revealed in his own personality. The theologian should not attempt to evaluate his age; the preacher may. Because the theologian, like any other scientist, analyzes and dissects; he breaks up the world. The preacher in his disciplined imagination, his spiritual intuitiveness,—what we call the “religious temperament,”—unites it again and makes men see it whole. This quality of purified and enlightened imagination is of the very essence of the preacher’s power and art. Hence he may attempt to set forth a just understanding of his generation.
This brings us to the second reason for our topic namely, its timeliness. All religious values are not at all times equal in importance. As generations come and go, first one, then another looms in the foreground. But I sincerely believe that the most fateful undertaking for the preacher at this moment is that of analyzing his own generation. Because he has been flung into one of the world’s transition epochs, he speaks in an hour which is radical in changes, perplexing in its multifarious cross-currents, prolific of new forms and expressions. What the world most needs at such a moment of expansion and rebellion, is a redefining of its ideals. It needs to have some eternal scale of values set before it once more. It needs to stop long enough to find out just what and where it is, and toward what it is going. It needs another Sheridan to write a new School for Scandal, another Swift, with his Gulliver’s Travels, a continuing Shaw with his satiric comedies, a Mrs. Wharton with her House of Mirth, a Thorstein Veblen with his Higher Learning in America, a Savonarola with his call to repentance and indictment of worldly and unfaithful living. It is a difficult and dangerous office, this of the prophet; it calls for a considerate and honest mind as well as a flashing insight and an eager heart. The false prophet exposes that he may exploit his age; the true prophet portrays that he may purge it. Like Jeremiah we may well dread to undertake the task, yet its day and hour are upon us!
I have already spoken to this point at length, in a little book recently published. I merely add here that in a day of obvious political disillusionment and industrial revolt, of intellectual rebellion against an outworn order of ideas and of moral restlessness and doubt, an indispensable duty for the preacher is this comprehensive study and understanding of his own epoch. Else, without realizing it,—and how true this often is,—he proclaims a universal truth in the unintelligible language of a forgotten order, and applies a timeless experience to the faded conditions of yesterday.
Indeed, I am convinced that a chief reason why preaching is temporarily obscured in power, is because most of our expertness in it is in terms of local problems, of partial significances, rather than in the wider tendencies that produce and carry them, or in the ultimate laws of conduct which should govern them. We ought to be troubled, I think, in our present ecclesiastical situation, with its taint of an almost frantic immediacy. Not only are we not sufficiently dealing with the Gospel as a universal code, but, as both cause and effect of this, we are not applying it to the inclusive life of our generation. We are tinkering here and patching there, but attempting no grand evaluation. We have already granted that sweeping generalizations, inclusive estimates, are as difficult as they are audacious. Yet we have also seen that these grand evaluations are of the very essence of religion and hence are characteristic of the preacher’s task. And, finally, it appears that ours is an age which calls for such redefining of its values, some fresh and inclusive moral and religious estimates. Hence we undertake the task.
There remains but one thing more to be accomplished in this chapter. The problem of the selection and arrangement of the material for such a summary is not an easy one. Out of several possible devices I have taken as the framework on which to hang these discussions three familiar divisions of thought and feeling, with their accompanying laws of conduct, and value judgments. They are the humanistic or classic; the naturalistic or primitive; and the religious or transcendent interpretation of the world and life. One sets up a social, one an individual, and one a universal standard. Under the movements which these headings represent we can most easily and clearly order and appraise the chief influences of the Protestant centuries. The first two are largely preëmpting between them, at this moment, the field of human thought and conduct and a brief analysis of them, contrasting their general attitudes, may serve as a fit introduction to the ensuing chapter.
We begin, then, with the humanist. He is the man who ignores, as unnecessary, any direct reference to, or connection with, ultimate or supernatural values. He lives in a high but self-contained world. His is man’s universe. His law is the law of reasonable self-discipline, founded on observation of nature and a respect for social values, and buttressed by high human pride. He accepts the authority of the collective experience of his generation or his race. He believes, centrally, in the trustworthiness of human nature, in its group capacity. Men, as a race, have intelligently observed and experimented with both themselves and the world about them. Out of centuries of critical reflection and sad and wise endeavor, they have evolved certain criteria of experience. These summations could hardly be called eternal laws but they are standards; they are the permits and prohibitions for human life. Some of them affect personal conduct and are moral standards; some of them affect civil government and are political axioms; some of them affect production and distribution and are economic laws; some of them affect social relationships. But in every case the humanist has what is, in a sense, an objective because a formal standard; he looks without himself as an individual, yet to himself as a part of the composite experience and wisdom of his race, for understanding and for guides. Thus the individual conforms to the needs and wisdom of the group. Humanism, at its best, has something heroic, unselfish, noble about it. Its votaries do not eat to their liking nor drink to their thirst. They learn deep lessons almost unconsciously; to conquer their desires, to make light of toil and pain and discomfort; the true humanist is well aware that Spartan discipline is incomparably superior to Greek accidence. This is what one of the greatest of them, Goethe, meant when he said: “Anything which emancipates the spirit without a corresponding growth in self-mastery is pernicious.”
All humanists then have two characteristics in common: first, they assume that man is his own arbiter, has both the requisite intelligence and the moral ability to control his own destiny; secondly, they place the source and criterion of this power in collective wisdom, not in individual vagary and not in divine revelation. They assert, therefore, that the law of the group, the perfected and wrought out code of human experience, is all that is binding and all that is essential. To be sure, and most significantly, this authority is not rigid, complete, fixed. There is nothing complete in the humanist’s world. Experience accumulates and man’s knowledge grows; the expectation and joy in progress is a part of it; man’s code changes, emends, expands with his onward marching. But the humanistic point of view assumes something relatively stable in life. Hence our phrase that humanism gives us a classic, that is to say, a simple and established standard.
It is to be observed that there is nothing in humanism thus defined which need be incompatible with religion. It is not with its content but its incompleteness that we quarrel. Indeed, in its assertion of the trustworthiness of human experience, its faith in the dignity and significance of man, its respect for the interests of the group, and its conviction that man finds his true self only outside his immediate physical person, beyond his material wants and desires, it is quite genuinely a part of the religious understanding. But we shall have occasion to observe that while much of this may be religious this is not the whole of religion. For the note of universality is absent. Humanism is essentially aristocratic. It is for a selected group that it is practicable and it is a selected experience upon which it rests. Its standards are esoteric rather than democratic. Yet it is hardly necessary to point out the immense part which humanism, as thus defined, is playing in present life.
But there is another law which, from remotest times, man has followed whenever he dared. It is not the law of the group but of the individual, not the law of civilization but of the jungle. “Most men,” says Aristotle, “would rather live in a disorderly than a sober manner.” He means that most men would rather consult and gratify their immediate will, their nearest choices, their instantaneous desires, than conform the moment to some regulated and considerate, some comprehensive scheme of life and action. The life of unreason is their desire; the experience whose bent is determined by every whim, the expression which has no rational connection with the past and no serious consideration for the future. This is of the very essence of lawlessness because it is revolt against the normal sequence of law and effect, in mind and conduct, in favor of untrammeled adventure.
Now this is naturalism or paganism as we often call it. Naturalism is a perversion of that high instinct in mankind which issues in the old concept of supernaturalism. The supernaturalist, of a former and discredited type, believed that God violates the order of nature for sublime ends; that He “breaks into” His own world, so to speak, “revealing” Himself in prodigious, inexplicable, arbitrary ways. By a sort of degradation of this notion, a perversion of this instinct, the naturalist assumes that he can violate both the human and the divine law for personal ends, and express himself in fantastic or indecent or impious ways. The older supernaturalism exalts the individualism of the Creator; naturalism the egotism of the creature. I make the contrast not merely to excoriate naturalism, but to point out the interdependence between man’s apparently far-separated expressions of his spirit, and how subtly misleading are our highly prized distinctions, how dangerous sometimes that secondary mental power which multiplies them. It sobers and clarifies human thinking a little, perhaps, to reflect on how thin a line separates the sublime and the ridiculous, the saint and the sensualist, the martyr and the fool, the genius and the freak.
Now, with this selfish individualism which we call naturalism we shall have much to do, for it plays an increasing rôle in the modern world; it is the neo-paganism which we may see spreading about us. Sophistries of all kinds become the powerful allies of this sort of moral and aesthetic anarchy. Its votaries are those sorts of rebels who invariably make their minds not their friends but their accomplices. They are ingenious in the art of letting themselves go and at the same time thinking themselves controlled and praiseworthy. The naturalist, then, ignores the group; he flaunts impartially both the classic and the religious law. He is equally unwilling to submit to a power imposed from above and without, or to accept those restrictions of society, self-imposed by man’s own codified and corrected observations of the natural world and his own impulses. He jeers at the one as hypocrisy and superstition and at the other as mere “middle-class respectability.” He himself is the perpetual Ajax standing defiant upon the headland of his own inflamed desires, and scoffing at the lightnings either of heaven or society. Neither devoutness nor progress but mere personal expansion is his goal. The humanist curbs both the flesh and the imagination by a high doctrine of expediency. Natural values are always critically appraised in the light of humane values, which is nearly, if not quite, the same as saying that the individual desires and delights must be conformed to the standards of the group. There can be no anarchy of the imagination, no license of the mind, no unbridled will. Humanism, no less than religion, is nobly, though not so deeply, traditional. But there is no tradition to the naturalist; not the normal and representative, but the unique and spectacular is his goal. Novelty and expansion, not form and proportion, are his goddesses. Not truth and duty, but instinct and appetite, are in the saddle. He will try any horrid experiment from which he may derive a new sensation.
Over against them both stands the man of religion with his vision of the whole and his consequent law of proud humility. The next three chapters will try to discuss in detail these several attitudes toward life and their respective manifestations in contemporary society.