The Unmeasured Gulf
[Note: This is taken from Albert Parker Fitch’s Preaching and Paganism.]
You may remember that when Daniel Webster made his reply to Hayne in the Senate he began the argument by a return to first principles. “When the mariner,” said he, “has been tossed for many days in thick weather and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun, to take his latitude, and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course. Let us imitate this prudence and before we float further on the waves of this debate, refer to the point from which we departed.” He then asked for the reading of the resolution.
It is to some such rehearsing of our original message, a restatement of the thesis which we, as preachers, are set to commend, that we turn ourselves in these pages. The brutal dislocations of the war, and the long and confused course of disintegrating life that lay behind it, have driven civilization from its true course and deflected the church from her normal path, her natural undertakings. Let us try, then, to get back to our charter; define once more what we really stand for; view our human life, not as captain of industry, or international politician, or pagan worldling, or even classic hero, would regard it, but see it through the eyes of a Paul, an Augustine, a Bernard, a Luther, the Lord Jesus. We have already remarked how timely and necessary is this redefining of our religious values. If, as Lessing said, it is the end of education to make men to see things that are large as large and things that are small as small, it is even more truly the end of Christian preaching. What we are most in need of today is a corrected perspective of our faith; without it we darken counsel as we talk in confusion. So, while we may not attempt here a detailed and reasoned statement of religious belief, we may try to say what is the fundamental attitude, both toward nature and toward man, that lies underneath the religious experience. We have seen that we are not stating that attitude very clearly nowadays in our pulpits; hence we are often dealing there with sentimental or stereotyped or humane or even pagan interpretations. Yet nothing is more fatal for us; if we peddle other men’s wares they will be very sure that we despise our own.
We approach, then, the third and final level of experience to which we referred in the first lecture. We have seen that the humanist accepts the law of measure; he rests back upon the selected and certified experience of his race; from within himself, as the noblest inhabitant of the planet, and by the further critical observation of nature he proposes to interpret and guide his life. He is convinced that this combined authority of reason and observation will lead to the summum bonum of the golden mean in which unbridled self-expression will be seen as equally unwise and indecent and ascetic repression as both unworthy and unnecessary. It is important to again remind ourselves that confidence in the human spirit as the master of its own fate, and in reason and natural observation as offering it the means of this self-control and understanding, are essential humanistic principles. The humanist world is rational, social, ethical.
Over against this reasonable and disciplined view of man and of his world stands naturalism. It exploits the defects of the classic “virtue”; it is, so to speak, humanism run to seed. Just as religion so often sinks into bigotry, cruelty and superstition, so humanism, in lesser souls, declines to egotism, license and sentimentality. Naturalism, either by a shallow and insincere use of the materialistic view of the universe, or by the exalting of wanton feeling and whimsical fancy as ends in themselves, attempts the identification of man with the natural order, permits him to conceive of each desire, instinct, impulse, as, being natural, thereby defensible and valuable. Hence it permits him to disregard the imposed laws of civilization—those fixed points of a humane order—and to return in principle, and so far as he dares in action, to the unlimited and irresponsible individualism of the horde. Inevitably the law of the jungle is deliberately exalted, or unconsciously adopted, over against the humanist law of moderation and discipline.
The humanist, then, critically studies nature and mankind, finding in her matrix and in his own spirit data for the guidance of the race, improving upon it by a cultivated and collective experience. The naturalist uncritically exalts nature, seeks identification with it so that he may freely exploit both himself and it. The faith of the one is in the self-sufficiency of the disciplined spirit of mankind; the unfaith of the other is in its glorification of the natural world and in its allegiance to the momentary devices and desires of the separate heart. It will be borne in mind that these definitions are too clear-cut; that these divisions appear in the complexities of human experience, blurred and modified by the welter of cross currents, subsidiary conflicting movements, which obscure all human problems. They represent genuine and significant divisions of thought and conduct. But they appear in actual experience as controlling emphases rather than mutually exclusive territories.
Now, the clearest way to get before us the religious view of the world and the law which issues from it is to contrast it with the other two. In the first place, the religious temperament takes a very different view of nature than either romantic, or to a less degree scientific, naturalism. Naturalism is subrational on the one hand or non-imaginative on the other, in that it emphasizes the continuity between man and the physical universe. The religious man is superrational and nobly imaginative as he emphasizes the difference between man and nature. He does not forget man’s biological kinship to the brute, his intimate structural and even psychological relation to the primates, but he is aware that it is not in dwelling upon these facts that his spirit discovers what is distinctive to man as man. That he believes will be found by accenting the chasm between man and nature. He does not know how to conceive of a personal being except by thinking of him as proceeding by other, though not conflicting, laws and by moving toward different secondary ends from those laws and ends which govern the impersonal external world. This sense of the difference between man and nature he shares with the humanist, only the humanist does not carry it as far as he does and hence may not draw from it his ultimate conclusions.
The religious view, then, begins with the perception of man’s isolation in the natural order; his difference from his surroundings. That sense of separateness is fundamental to the religious nature. The false sentiment and partial science of the pagan which stresses the identification of man and beast is the first quarrel that religionist and humanist alike have with him. Neither of them sanctions this perversion of thought and feeling which either projects the impressionistic self so absurdly and perilously into the natural order, or else minimizes man’s imaginative and intellectual power, leveling him down to the amoral instinct of the brute. “How much more,” said Jesus, “is a man better than a sheep!” One of the greatest of English humanists was Matthew Arnold. You remember his sonnet, entitled, alas! “To a Preacher,” which runs as follows:
Who with such heat doth preach what were to thee,
When true, the last impossibility—
To be like Nature strong, like Nature cool!
Know, man hath all which Nature hath, but more,
And in that more lie all his hopes of good,
Nature is cruel, man is sick of blood;
Nature is stubborn, man would fain adore;
Nature is fickle, man hath need of rest;
Nature forgives no debt and fears no grave;
Man would be mild, and with safe conscience blest.
Man must begin; know this, where Nature ends;
Nature and man can never be fast friends.
Fool, if thou canst not pass her, rest her slave!”
Religionist and humanist alike share this clear sense of separateness. Literature is full of the expression of it. Religion, in especial, has little to do with the natural world as such. It is that other and inner one, which can make a hell of heaven, a heaven of hell, with which it is chiefly concerned. Who can forget Othello’s soliloquy as he prepares to darken his marriage chamber before the murder of his wife?
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat,
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It needs must wither.”
Indeed, how vivid to us all is this difference between man and nature. “I would to heaven,” Byron traced on the back of the manuscript of Don Juan,
“I would to heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am bone, blood, marrow, passion, feeling.”
Ah me! So at many times would most of us. And in that sense that we are not is where the religious consciousness takes its beginning.
Here is the sense of the gap between man and the natural world felt because man has no power over it. He cannot swerve nor modify its laws, nor do his laws acknowledge its ascendency over them. But what makes the gulf deeper is the sense of the immeasurable moral difference between a thinking, feeling, self-estimating being and all this unheeding world about him. Whatever it is that looks out from the windows of our eyes something not merely of wonder and desire but also of fear and repulsion must be there as it gazes into so cruel as well as so alien an environment. For a moral being to glorify nature as such is pure folly or sheer sentimentality. For he knows that her apparent repose and beauty is built up on the ruthless and unending warfare of matched forces, it represents a dreadful equilibrium of pain. He knows, too, that that in him which allies him with this natural world is his baser, not his better part. This nobly pessimistic attitude toward the natural universe and toward man so far as he shares in its characteristics, is found in all classic systems of theology and has dominated the greater part of Christian thinking. If it is ignored today by the pseudo-religionists and the sentimentalists; it is clearly enough perceived by contemporary science and contemporary art. The biologist understands it. “I know of no study,” wrote Thomas Huxley, “which is so unutterably saddening as that of the evolution of humanity as set forth in the annals of history. Out of the darkness of prehistoric ages man emerges with the marks of his lowly origin strong upon him. He is a brute, only more intelligent than the other brutes; a blind prey to impulses which as often as not lead him to destruction; a victim to endless illusions which make his mental existence a terror and a burden, and fill his physical life with barren toil and battle. He attains a certain degree of comfort, and develops a more or less workable theory of life in such favorable situations as the plains of Mesopotamia or of Egypt, and then, for thousands and thousands of years struggles with various fortunes, attended by infinite wickedness, bloodshed and misery, to maintain himself at this point against the greed and ambition of his fellow men. He makes a point of killing and otherwise persecuting all those who first try to get him to move on; and when he has moved a step farther he foolishly confers post-mortem deification on his victims. He exactly repeats the process with all who want to move a step yet farther.”
And no less does the artist, the man of high and correct feeling, perceive the immeasurable distance between uncaring nature and suffering men and women. There is, for instance, the passage in The Education of Henry Adams, in which Adams speaks of the death of his sister at Bagni di Lucca. “In the singular color of the Tuscan atmosphere, the hills and vineyards of the Apennines seemed bursting with midsummer blood. The sick room itself glowed with the Italian joy of life; friends filled it; no harsh northern lights pierced the soft shadows; even the dying woman shared the sense of the Italian summer, the soft velvet air, the humor, the courage, the sensual fullness of Nature and man. She faced death, as women mostly do, bravely and even gayly, racked slowly to unconsciousness but yielding only to violence, as a soldier sabred in battle. For many thousands of years, on these hills and plains, Nature had gone on sabring men and women with the same air of sensual pleasure.
“Impressions like these are not reasoned or catalogued in the mind; they are felt as a part of violent emotion; and the mind that feels them is a different one from that which reasons; it is thought of a different power and a different person. The first serious consciousness of Nature’s gesture—her attitude toward life—took form then as a phantasm, a nightmare, an insanity of force. For the first time the stage scenery of the senses collapsed; the human mind felt itself stripped naked, vibrating in a void of shapeless energies, with resistless mass, colliding, crushing, wasting and destroying what these same energies had created and labored from eternity to perfect.”
Here is a vivid interpretation of a universal human experience. Might not any one of us who had endured it turn upon the pagan and sentimentalist, crying in the mood of a Swift or a Voltaire, “Ca vous amuse, la vie“? The abstract natural rights of the eighteenth century smack of academic complacency before this. The indignation we feel against the insolent individualism of a Louis XIV who cried “L’état c’est moi!” or against the industrial overlord who spills the tears of women for his ambition, the sweat of the children for his greed, is as nothing beside the indignation with the natural order which any biological study would arouse except as the scientist perceives that indignation is, for him, beside the point and the religionist believes that it proceeds from not seeing far enough into the process. This is why there is an essential absurdity in any naturalistic system of ethics. Even the clown can say,
“Here’s a night that pities
Neither wise men nor fools.”
This common attitude of the religionist toward nature as a remote and cruel world, alien to our spirits, is abundantly reflected in literature. It finds a sort of final consummation in the intuitive insight, the bright understanding of the creative spirits of our race. What Aristotle defines as the tragic emotions, the sense of the terror and the pity of human life, arise partly from this perception of the isolation always and keenly felt by dramatist and prophet and poet. They know well that Nature does not exist by our law; that we neither control nor understand it; is it not our friend?
There is, then, the law of identity between man and nature, found in their common physical origin; there is also the law of difference. It is on that aspect of reality that religion places its emphasis. It is with this approach to understanding ourselves that preachers, as distinguished from scientists, deal. Our present society is traveling farther and farther away from reality in so far as it turns either to the outside world of fact, or to the domain of natural law, expecting to find in these the elements of insight for the fresh guidance of the human spirit. Not there resides the secret of the beings of whom Shelley said,
“We look before and after
And pine for what is not,
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught.”
Instinct is a base, a prime factor, part of the matrix of personality. But personality is not instinct; it is instinct plus a different force; instinct transformed by spiritual insight and controlled by moral discipline. The man of religion, therefore, finds himself not in one but two worlds, not indeed mutually exclusive, having a common origin, but nevertheless significantly distinct. Each is incomplete without the other, each in a true sense non-existent without the other. But that which is most vital to man’s world is unknown in the domain of nature. Already the perception of a dualism is here.
But now a third element comes into it. There is something spiritually common to nature and man behind the one, within the other. This Something is the origin, the responsible agent for man’s and nature’s physical identity. This Something binds the separates into a sort of whole. This, I suppose, is what Professor Hocking refers to when he says, “the original source of the knowledge of God is an experience which might be described as of not being alone in knowing the world, and especially the world of nature.” Thus the religious man recognizes beyond the gulf, behind the chasm, something more like himself than it. When he contemplates nature, he sees something other than nature; not a world which is what it seems to be, but a world whose chief significance is that it is more than it seems to be. It is a world where appearance and reality are inextricably mingled and yet sublimely and significantly separate. In short, the naturalist, the pagan, takes the world as it stands; it is just what it appears; the essence of his irreligion is that he perceives nothing in it that needs to be explained. But the religionist knows that the world which lies before our mortal vision so splendid and so ruthless, so beautiful and so dreadful, does really gain both its substance and significance from immaterial and unseen powers. It is significant not in itself but because it hides the truth. It points forever to a beyond. It is the vague and insubstantial pageant of a dream. Behind it, within the impenetrable shadows, stands the Infinite Watcher of the sons of men.
In every age religious souls have voiced this unearthliness of reality, the noble other-worldliness of the goals of the natural order. “Heard melodies are sweet, but unheard melodies are sweeter.” Poet, philosopher and mystic have sung their song or proclaimed their message knowing that they were moving about in worlds not realized, clearly perceiving the incompleteness of the phenomenal world and the delusive nature of sense perceptions. They have known a Reality which they could not comprehend; felt a Presence which they could not grasp. They have found strength for the battle and peace for the pain by regarding nature as a dim projection, a tantalizing intimation of that other, conscious and creative life, that originating and directive force, which is not nature any more than the copper wire is the electric fluid which it carries—a force which was before it, which moves within it, which shall be after it.
So poet and believer and mystic find the key to nature, the interpretation of that alien and cruel world, not by sinking to its indifferent level, not by sentimental exaltation of its specious peace, its amoral cruelty and beauty, but by regarding it as the expression, the intimation rather, of a purposive Intelligence, a silent and infinite Force, beyond it all. So the pagan effuses over nature, gilding with his sentimentality the puddles that the beasts would cough at. And the scientist is interested in efficient causes, seeing nature as an unbroken sequence, an endless uniformity of cause and effect, against whose iron chain the spirit of mankind wages a foredoomed but never ending revolt. But the religionist, confessing the ruthless indifference, the amorality which he distrusts and fears, and not denying the majestic uniformity of order, nevertheless declares that these are not self-made, that the amorality is but one half and that the confusing half of the tale. The whole creation indeed groaneth and travaileth in pain, but for a final cause, which alone interprets or justifies it, and which eventually shall set it free. As a matter of fact, nearly all poets and artists thus view nature in the light of final causes, though often instinctively and unconsciously so. For what they sing or paint or mould is not the landscape that we see, the flesh we touch, but the life behind it, the light that never was on land or sea. What they give us is not a photograph or an inventory—it is worlds away from such naïve and lying realism. But they hint at the inexpressible behind expression; paint the beauty which is indistinguishable from nature but not identical with Nature. They make us see that not she, red in tooth and claw, but that intangible and supernal something-more, is what gives her the cleansing bath of loveliness. No reflective or imaginative person needs to be greatly troubled, therefore, by any purely mechanical or materialistic conception of the universe. They who would commend that view of the cosmos have not only to reckon with philosophical and religious idealism, but also with all the bright band of poets and artists and seers. Such an issue once resolutely forced would therewith collapse, for it would pit the qualitative standards against the quantitative, the imagination against literalism, the creative spirit in man against the machine in him.
Here, then, is the difference between the naturalist’s and the religionist’s attitude toward Nature. The believer judges Nature, well aware of the gulf between himself and her, hating with inexpressible depth of indignation and repudiating with profound contempt the sybarite’s identification of human and natural law. But also he comes back to her, not to accept in wonder her variable outward form, but to worship in awe before her invariable inner meaning. Sometimes, like so many of the humanists, he rises only to a vague sense of the mystic unity that fills up the interspaces of the world, and cries with Wordsworth:
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.”
Sometimes he dares to personalize this ultimate and then ascends to the supreme poetry of the religious experience and feels the cosmic consciousness, the eternal “I” of this strange world, which fills it with observant majesty. And then he chants,
“The heavens declare the glory of God,
The firmament showeth his handiwork.”
Or he whispers,
Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there,
If I make my bed in hell, behold Thou art there,
If I take the wings of the morning
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the earth,
Even there shall Thy hand lead me
And Thy right hand shall hold me.”
Indeed, the devout religionist almost never thinks of nature as such. She is always the bush which flames and is not consumed. Therefore he walks softly all his days, conscious that God is near.
And the heavens are the work of Thy hands.
They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure;
Yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment;
As a vesture shalt Thou change them, and they shall be changed;
But Thou art the same,
And Thy years shall have no end.”
To him nature is the glass through which he sees darkly and often with a darkling mind, the all-pervasive Presence; it is the veil—the veil that covers the face of God.
Here, then, we have the contrasting attitude of worldling and believer toward nature, the outward universe. Now we come to the contrasting attitude of humanist and believer toward man, the world within. For why are we so sure, first, of the chasm between ourselves and Nature and, second, that we can bridge that chasm by reaching out to something behind and beyond her which is more like us than her? What gives us the key to her dualism? Why do we think that there is Something which perpetually beckons to us through her, makes awful signs of an intimate and significant relationship? Because we feel a similar chasm, an equal cleft in our own hearts, a division in the moral nature of mankind. We know that gulf between us and the outward world because we know the greater gulf between flesh and spirit, between the natural man and the real man, between the “I” and the “other I.”
Here is where the humanist bids us good-by and we must go forward on our road alone. For he will not acknowledge that there is anything essential or permanent in that divided inner world; he would minimize it or explain it away. But we know it is there and the reason we know there is Something without which can bridge the outer chasm is because we also know there is Something-Else within which might bridge this one. For we who are religious know that within the depths and the immensities of this inner world, where there is no space but where there is infinite largeness, where there is no time but where there is perpetual strife, there is Something-Else as well as the “I” and the “other I,” and it is that He who is the Something-Else who alone can close the gap in that divided kingdom and make us one with ourselves, hence with Himself and hence with His world.
You ask how we can say, “He’s there; He knows.” We answer that this “other,” this “He” is a constant figure in the experience; always in the vision; an integral part of the perception. What is He like? “He” is purity and compassion and inexorableness. Something fixed, immutable, not to be tricked, not to be evaded and oh! all-comprehending. He sees, his eyes run to and fro in all the dark and wide, the light and high dominions of the soul. If we will not come to terms with “Him,” that eternal and changeless life will be the cliff against which the tumultuous waves of the divided spirit shall shatter and dissipate into soundless foam; if we will come to terms, relinquish, accept, surrender, then that purity and that compassion will be the cleansing tide, the healing and restoring flood in which we sink in the ecstasy of self-loss to arise refreshed, radiant, and made whole.
So we reckon from within out. The religious view of the world is based upon the religious experience of the soul. We have no other means of getting at reality. I know that there is Something-more than me and Something-more than the nature outside of me, because we know that there is Something which is not me and is not nature, inside of me. So the man of religion, like any other poet, artist, seer, looks in his own heart and writes. What he finds there is real, or else, as far as he is concerned, there is no reality. He does not assert that this reality is the final and utter truth. But he knows it is his trustworthy mediator of that truth.
Here, then, is an immense separation between religionist and both humanist and naturalist; a separation so complete as to come full circle. We are convinced of the secondary value, both of natural appearances and of the mortal, temporal consciousness. So we substitute for impertinent familiarity with Nature, a reverent regard for what she half reveals, half hides. We interpret her by ourselves. We are the same compound of identity and difference. We acknowledge our continuity with the natural world, our intimate and tragic alliance with the dust, but we also know that we, within ourselves, are Something-Else as well. And it is that Something-Else in us which makes the significant part of us, which sets our value and place in the scale of being.
In short, the dualism of nature is revealed in the dualism of the soul. There is a gulf within, and if only man can span the inner chasm, he will know how to bridge the outer. He must begin by finding God within himself, or he will never find Him anywhere. Now, it is out of this sense of a separation within himself, from himself and from the Author of himself, that there arises that awful sense of helplessness, of dependence, of bewilderment, which is the second great element in the religious life. Man is alone in the world; man is helpless in the world; man ought not to be alone in the world; man is therefore under scrutiny and condemnation; he must find reconciliation, harmony, companionship, somehow, somewhere. Hence the religious man is not arrogant like the pagan, nor proud like the humanist; he is humble. It is Burke, I think, who says that the whole ethical life of man has its roots in this humility. The religious man cannot help but be humble. He has an awful pride in his kinship with heaven, but, standing before the Lord of heaven, he feels human nature’s proper place, its confusion and division and helplessness; its dependence upon the higher Power.
It is at this point that humanism and religion definitely part company. The former does not feel this absolute and judging Presence, hence cannot understand the spiritual solicitude of the latter. St. Paul was not quite at home on Mars Hill; it was hard to make those who were always hearing and seeing some new thing understand; the shame and humility of the cross were an unnecessary foolishness to them. So they have always been. The humanist cannot take seriously this sense of a transcendent reality. When Cicero, to escape the vengeance of Clodius, withdrew from Rome, he passed over into Greece and dwelt for a while in Thessalonica. One day he saw Mount Olympus, the lofty and eternal home of the deities of ancient Greece. “But I,” said the bland eclectic philosopher, “saw nothing but snow and ice.”
How inadequate, then, as a substitute for religion, is even the noblest humanism. True and fine as far as it goes, it does not go far enough for us. It takes too little account of the divided life. It appears not to understand it. On the whole it refuses to acknowledge that it really exists, or, if it does, it is convinced of man’s unaided ability to efface it. It isn’t something inevitable. Hence the pride which is an essential quality of the humanistic attitude.
But the religious man knows that it does exist and that while he is not wholly responsible for it, yet he is essentially so and that, alas, in spite of that fact, he alone cannot bridge it. So he cries, “Wretched man that I am, what shall I do to be saved?” Here is the feeling of uneasiness, the sense of something being wrong about us as we naturally stand, of which James speaks. In that sense of responsibility is the confession of sin and in the confession of sin is the acknowledgment of the impotence of the sinner.
“The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on
Nor all your wit nor all your tears, can wash a line of it.”
Man cannot, unaided, make his connection with this higher power. The world is at fault, yes, but we are at fault, something both within and without dreadfully needs explaining. So man is subdued and troubled by the infinite mystery; and he cannot accept the place in which he finds himself in that mystery; he is ashamed of it.
Vivid, then, is his sense of helplessness! It makes him resent the humanist, who bids him, unaided, solve his fate and be a man. That is giving him stones when he asks for bread. He knows that advice makes an inhuman demand upon the will; it assumes a reasonableness, an insight and a moral power, which for him do not exist; it ignores or it denies the reality and the meaning of this inner gulf. It is important to note that even as philosophy and art and literature soon parted company with the naturalist, so, to a large degree, they part company with the humanist, too. They do not know very much of an harmonious and triumphant universe. Few of the world’s creative spirits have ever denied that inner chasm or minimized its tragic consequences to mankind. Isaiah and Paul and John and Augustine and Luther are wrung with the consciousness of it. Indeed, the antithesis between flesh and spirit is too familiar in religious literature to need any recounting. It is more vividly brought home to us from the nonprofessional, the disinterested and involuntary testimony of secular writing. Was there ever such a cry of revolt on the part of the trapped spirit against the net and slough of natural values and natural desires as runs through the sonnets of William Shakespeare? We remember the 104th:
Foiled by these rebel powers that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within, and suffer dearth,
Painting thine outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant’s loss
And let that pine to aggravate thy store,
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross
Within be fed, without be rich no more—”
Or turn to our contemporary poet, James Stephens:
But I cannot tell to you
For they never are apart
Which is the better of the two.
I am this: I am the other
And the devil is my brother
And my father he is God
And my mother is the sod,
Therefore I am safe, you see
Owing to my pedigree.
So I cherish love and hate
Like twin brothers in a nest
Lest I find when it’s too late
That the other was the best.”
Here, then, we find the next thing which grows out of man’s sense of separation both from nature and from his own best self. It is his moral judgment on himself as well as on the world outside, and that power to judge shows that he is greater than either. As Dr. Gordon says, “Every honest man lives under the shadow of his own rebuke.” We can go far with the humanist in acknowledging the failures that are due to environment, to incompleteness, to ignorance; we do not forget the helpless multitude who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death; and we agree with the scientist that their helplessness foredooms them and that their fate cannot be laid to their charge. But we go far beyond where scientist and humanist stop. For we know that the deepest cause of human misery is not inheritance, is not environment, is not ignorance, is not incompleteness; it is the informed but the perverse human will. Just as unhappiness is the consciousness of the divided mind, so guilt is this sense of the deliberately divided will. Jonathan Swift knew that; on every yearly recurrence of the hour in which he came into the world, he cried lamentably, “Let the day perish wherein I was born.”
The Lord Jesus knew it, too. His teaching, unlike that of Paul, does not throw into the foreground the divided will and its accompanying sense of sin and guilt. But he does not ignore it. He brought it out with infinite tenderness but inexorable clearness in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost boy. The sheep were but young and silly, they did not wish to be lost on the mountain-side; they knew no better; inexperience, ignorance were theirs, and for their sad estate they were not held responsible. For them the compassionate shepherd sought until he found them in the wilds, took them, involuntary burdens, on his heart, brought them back to safety and the fold. The coin had no native affinity with the dirt and grime of the careless woman’s house. It was only a coin, attached to anklet or bracelet, having no power, no independence of its own; where it fell, there must it lie. So with the lives set by fate in the refuse and grime of our industrial civilization, the pure minted gold effectually concealed by the obscurity and filth around. For such lives, victims of environment, the Father will search, too, until they are found, taken up, and somewhere, in this world or another, restored to their native worth. But the chief of the parables, and the one that has captured the imagination and subdued the heart of mankind, because it so true to the greater part of life, is the story of the lost boy. For he was the real sinner and he was such because, knowing what he was about and able to choose, he desired to do wrong. It was not ignorance, nor environment, nor inheritance, that led him into the far country. It was its alien delights and their alien nature, for which as such he craved. How subtle and certain is the word of Jesus here. No shepherd seeks this wandering sheep; no householder searches for this lost coin. The boy who willed to do wrong must stay with the swine among the husks until he wills to do right. Then, when he desires to return, return is made possible and easy, but the responsibility is forever his. The source of his misery is his own will.
So the disposition of mankind is at the bottom of the suffering and the division. There is rebellion and perverseness mingled with the helplessness and ignorance and sorrow. No man ever understands or can speak to the religious life unless he has the consciousness of this inner moral cleft. No man will ever be able to preach with power about God unless he does it chiefly in terms of God’s difference from man and man’s perilous estate and desperate need of Him. Indeed, God is not like us, not like this inner life of ours; this is what we want to hear. God is different; that is why we want to be able to love Him. And being thus different, we are separated from Him, both by the inner chasm of the divided soul and the outer chasm of remote and hostile nature. Then comes the final question: How are we, being helpless, to reach Him? How are we, being guilty, to find Him?
When men deal with these queries, with this range of experience, this set of inward perceptions, then they are preaching religiously. And then, I venture to say, they do not fail either of hearers or of followers. Then there is what Catherine Booth used to call “liberty of speech”; then there is power because then we talk of realities. For what is it that looks out from the eyes of religious humanity? Rebellion, pride? no! Humility, loneliness, something of a just and deserved fear; but most of all, desire, insatiable, unwavering, an intense desire. This passion of the race, its never satisfied hunger, its incredible intensity and persistency of striving and longing, is at once the tragedy and glory, the witness to the helplessness, the revelation of the capacity of the race. The mainspring of human activity, the creative impulse from which in devious ways all the thousand-hued motives of our lives arise, is revealed in the ancient cry, “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God!” That unquenched thirst for Him underlies all human life, as the solemn stillness of the ocean underlies the restless upper waves. The dynamic of the world is the sense of the divine reality. The woe of the world is man’s inability to discover and appropriate that reality. Who that has entered truly into life does not perceive beneath all the glitter of its brilliance, the roar of its energy and achievement, the note of melancholy? The great undertone of life is solemn in its pathetic uniformity. The poets and prophets of the world have seized unerringly upon that melancholy undertone. Who ever better understood the futility and helplessness of unaided man, the certain doom that tracks down his pride of insolence, or his sin, than the Greek tragedians? Sophocles, divided spirit that he was, heard that note of melancholy long ago by the Ægean, wrote it into his somber dramas, with their turbid ebb and flow of human misery. Sometimes the voices of our humanity as they rise blend and compose into one great cry that is lifted, shivering and tingling, to the stars, “Oh, that I knew where I might find Him!” Sometimes and more often they sink into a subdued and minor plaint, infinitely touching in its human solicitude, perplexity and pain. Again, James Stephens has phrased it for us in his verse The Nodding Stars.
What is it ye try to say
That so earnestly ye lean
From the spirit to the clay.
Here and sunny Paradise,
Brothers! What is it ye mean
That ye search with burning eyes,
Clamped in sullen, earthy mould,
Battened down and fogged and bogged,
Where the clay is seven-fold.”
Now we understand the tragic aspect of nature and of the human soul caught in this cosmic dualism without which corresponds to the ethical dualism within. This perception of the One behind the many in nature, of the thing-in-itself, as distinguished from the many expressions of that thing, is the chief theme for preaching. This is what brings men to themselves. Herein, as Dr. Newman Smyth has pointed out, appears the unique marvel of personality. “It becomes conscious of itself as individual and it individualizes the world; it is the one discovering itself among the many. In the midst of uniformities of nature, moving at will on the plane of natural necessities, weaving the pattern of its ideas through the warp of natural laws, runs the personal life. On the same plane and amid these uniformities, yet itself a sphere of being of another order; in it, yet disentangled from it, and having its center in itself, it lives and moves and has its being, breaking no thread of nature’s weaving, subject to its own law, and manifesting a dynamic of its own.”
The source, then, as we see it, of all human hopes and human dignity, the urge that lies behind all metaphysics and much of literature and art, the thing that makes men eager to live, yet nobly curious to die, is this conviction that One like unto ourselves but from whom we have made ourselves unlike, akin to our real, if buried, person, walketh with us in the fiery furnace of our life. There is a Spirit in man and the breath of the Almighty giveth him understanding. Starting from this interpretation, we can begin to order the baffling and teasing aspects, the illusive nature of the world. Why this ever failing, but never ending struggle against unseen odds to grasp and understand and live with the Divine? Why, between the two, the absolute and the changeless spirit, unseen but felt, and the hesitant and timid spirit of a man, would there seem to be a great gulf fixed? Because we are wrong. Because man finds the gulf within himself. He chafes at the limitations of time and space? Yes; but he chafes more at the mystery and weakness, the mingled deceitfulness and cunning and splendor of the human heart. Because there is no one of us who can say, I have made my life pure, I am free from my sin. He knows that the gulf is there between the fallible and human, and the more than human; he does not know how to cross it; he says,
Something I can never find
Something lying on the ground
In the bottom of my mind.”
Here, then, can we not understand that mingling of mystic dignity and profound humility, of awe-struck pride and utter self-abnegation, wherewith the man of religion regards his race and himself? He is the child of the Eternal; he, being man, alone knows that God is. “When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained, what is man that Thou art mindful of him, or the son of man that Thou visitest him?” Here is the humility: “Why so hot, little man!” Then comes the awe-struck pride: “Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor.” “Alone with the gods, alone!” God is the high and lofty one which inhabiteth eternity, but He is also nigh unto them who are of a broken and a contrite heart.
Here we are come to the very heart of religion. Man’s proud separateness in the universe; yet man’s moral defection and his responsibility for it which makes him know that separateness; man’s shame and helplessness under it. Over against the denial or evasion of moral values by the naturalist and the dullness to the sense of moral helplessness by the humanist, there stands the sense of moral difference, the sense of sin, of penitence and confession. No preaching not founded on these things can ever be called religious or can ever stir those ranges of the human life for which alone preaching is supposed to exist.
What is the religious law, then? It is the law of humility. And what is the religious consciousness? The sense of man’s difference from nature and from God. The sense of his difference from himself within himself and the longing for an inner harmony which shall unite him with himself and with the beauty and the spirit without. So what is the religious passion? Is it to exalt human nature? It would be more true to say it is to lose it. What is the end for us? Not identification with nature and the natural self, but pursuit of the other than nature, the more than natural self. Our humility is not like that of Uriah Heep, a mean opinion of ourselves in comparison with other men. It is the profound consciousness of the weakness and the nothingness of our kind, and of the poor ends human nature sets its heart upon, in comparison with that Other One above and beyond and without us, to whom we are kin, from whom we are different, to whom we aspire, to reach whom we know not how.
This, then, is what we mean when we turn back from the language of experience to the vocabulary of philosophy and theology and talk about the absolute values of religion. We mean by “absolute values” that behind the multifarious and ever changing nature, is a single and a steadfast cause—a great rock in a weary land. We have lost the old absolute philosophies and dogmatic theologies and that is good and right, for they were outworn. But we are never going to lose the central experience that produced them, and our task is to find a new philosophy to express these inner things for which the words “supernatural,” “absolute,” are no longer intelligible. For we still know that behind man’s partial and relative knowledge, feeling, willing, is an utter knowledge, a perfect feeling, a serene and unswerving will; that beneath man’s moral anarchy there is moral sovereignty; that behind his helplessness there is abundant power to save. Perhaps this Other is always changing, but, if so, it is a Oneness which is changing. In short, the thing that is characteristic of religion is that it dwells, not on man’s likenesses, but on his awful differences from nature and from God; sees him not as little counterparts of deity, but as broken fragments only to be made whole within the perfect life. It sees relativity as the law of our being, yes, but relativity, not of the sort that excludes, but is included in, a higher absolute, even as the planet swings in infinite space.
The trouble with much preaching is that it lacks the essentially religious insight; in dwelling on man’s identities it confuses or drugs, not clarifies and purges, the spirit. Thus, it obscures the gulf. Sometimes it evades it, or bridges it by minimizing it, and genuinely religious people, and those who want to be religious, and those who might be, know that such preaching is not real and that it does not move them and, worst of all, the hungry sheep look up and are not fed. For in such preaching there is no call to humility, no plea for grace, no sense that the achievement of self-unity is as much a rescue as it is a reformation. But this sense of the need of salvation is integral to religion; this is where it has parted company with humanism. Humanism makes no organic relations between man and the Eternal. It is as though it thought these would take care of themselves! In the place of grace it puts pride; pride of caste, of family, of character, of intellect. But high self-discipline and pride in the human spirit are not the deepest or the highest notes man strikes. The cry, not of pride in self, but for fellowship with the Infinite, is the superlative expression of man. Augustine sounded the highest note of feeling when he wrote, “O God, Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The words of the Lord Jesus gave the clearest insight of the human mind when He said, “And when he came to himself, he said, I will arise and go to my Father.”