The Church's Opportunity
( Originally Published 1912 )
And Jesus said: I have compassion on the multitude because they continue with me these days and have nothing to eat.
Lift up your eyes and look on the fields; they are white already for the harvest. New Testament.
We have all become familiar with the statement that we are living in an age of transition. Doubtless the same thing might be as truly said of any era. There is always some passing over from one condition of affairs to another. With more or less of haste the old order of things is always giving way to the new. In the noble poem called, The Passing of Arthur, Sir Bedivere thus speaks:
"Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?
Thus it is indicated, not only that change is perpetual, but that it is necessary and beneficent.
But, whatever may have occurred in the past, it is doubtful if, within the period of human history, there have been seen anywhere more or greater changes than have appeared in the last half hundred years. The whole face of affairs has undergone a transformation. Within that time the human race has probably increased four or five hundred millions. The production of food has increased in still greater proportion; for notwithstanding its amazing growth in numbers, the race was never so well fed before. The same may be said of its house and clothing and education and means of enjoyment.
Archaeologists tell us that, long before Europeans came across the Atlantic, this continent had been discovered and partly subdued and civilized. There are remains of what were once populous cities, but which, from some cause, fell into ruins and left the land to be rediscovered by the Norseman and other hardy navigators from beyond the sea. But the greatest feat was not the discovery of America by Leif or Thorwald. It is that which has been discovered and accomplished since their time. More marvelous than the aboriginal continent, with its mountains and rivers and forests and prairies, is the continent now, with its cities and railroads and telegraphs and universities and schools and libraries and laws. The Spaniard sought for rivers of gold, Eldorados, Fountains of Youth. They are all here, but not in the form those adventurers expected to find them.
Its boundaries cannot be definitely marked, but it would seem that, if we are not already, we shall soon be well within the confines of a new era. It is plain that man is in possession of powers and opportunities that are simply amazing. Better than in any other known period of his history he seems fitted to solve the problem of existence. Many of his ancient foes have been vanquished and slain. Others have been so weakened and disarmed that the former dread of their invasion is gone. Some forms of pestilence that formerly, at intervals, were accustomed to sweep across earth with awful, unchecked power, leaving thousands of dead in their path, have been rendered almost harm-less. Improved methods of agriculture and improved methods of transportation, moved by an increased regard for the value of human life, have robbed famine of its former power to destroy. The vast increase of population indicates that the conditions are more favorable to human existence. The average duration of life is lengthened. Improvement in quantity suggests an equal improvement in quality. If the race is longer-lived it is because it is better-lived. All things considered, man was never before so well equipped to carry civilization forward to victory. The fields are whitening for the harvest.
The part which the Christian church is to play in the new and great era becomes an interesting question. In this, as in other things, the past may be asked to furnish the data for judging the future.
It is sometimes said that the ideals of Christianity are too unworldly in their tendency. They lay too much stress upon heaven and not enough upon earth. They are impractical because they are unrelated to the actual and necessary life of mankind. There have doubtless been times in the history of the eighteen Christian centuries when there was some force to this objection. But, strange as it may seem, the things which have most benefitted earth have nearly all arisen among those nations in which Christianity has been present and has furnished the ideals of conduct. Those who have been charged with spending too much time thinking of heaven are those who have actually done most for earth. When we look for the steam engine that can do the work which once a hundred horses or slaves must do, it is seen taking shape in a Christian land. The same is true of the telegraph, of the best farming implements, the best clocks and watches, of all the thousand instruments in use in all occupations, and in the application of power to nature in such way as to produce most favorable results. Looking for the noblest literature and art in its many forms, for the greatest liberty for man, woman and child, for the purest .homes, for all the humanities manifesting themselves in hospitals and asylums for the suffering and unfortunate, for the best and most wide-spread education, they are found in those nations which, nominally at least, are Christian. Either Christianity is not unfavorable to man's earthly welfare and progress, or they have been attained in spite of Christianity.
Comparing this with the first century of our era, a great change is at once apparent. Doubtless it would be an error to attribute all the change to the Christian religion. Many other forces have been at work. All that need be said is, that this religion has been one of the forces that have ameliorated the condition of the world.. The early Christians went forth with a great spiritual idea. If it did not include all the practical details, it included much of the philosophy and all the inspiration of a complete civilization. The Disciples may have only intended to establish a spiritual kingdom with their great Friend on the throne. But they could not do that without doing more. The greater includes the less. They could not exalt Jesus except as they exalted the ideas which commanded him. To give them power, gave power to all that they included. To teach the gospel of the Fatherhood of God, included the teaching of the related gospel of the brotherhood of man. If man is a son of God, he must live as be-comes such relationship. If all men are brothers, then they must live in a brotherly manner.
Thus, in the central ideas of the newer religion of Palestine, there is something that does for civilization what the sun does for earth. The sun is not the only cause of earth's fruits and flowers; but, without its light and heat, no fruits and flowers could appear. So religion is not the only cause of civilization; but it is one of the essential causes. Many sunbeams are lost in transition ; or they fall upon a rock or a desert and no fruit appears. It is not the fault of the sun, but of the frowning mountains and deep chasms that, in places, snow and ice linger all through the summer weeks. So there have been deserts and rocks and dark abysses in the heart of humanity that have withstood every effort of the genial gospel to penetrate. Who can estimate what would have been accomplished had all its energy been utilized? The world has moved toward some forms of goodness. But had the simple principles of religion been applied to life in all its phases, who can doubt that the progress would have been much greater? The moral world has often crept when it might have run. Instead of finding islands we should now find continents of goodness.
The reason for the partial failure of religion to bless the world must be sought, not so much in the quality of religion itself, as in the lack of its application to life. When, in the fourth century, Christianity became united with political and military power, it lost much of its moral and spiritual meaning and beauty. Comparing its divine principles with its practical application, Paul once said : " We have this treasure in earthen vessels." Even those who were animated by the best of motives saw the discrepancy between their religion as a pure spiritual philosophy and their religion as an actual regenerator of society. But, when the motives of those who held it became mixed with personal ambitions and the desire for national supremacy, its principles were almost wholly lost. The apostles lamented that the treasure of gold could not have golden vessels to contain it. But they were much better off than many who succeeded them. They, at least had the treasure; but some of the political potentates and church dignitaries who came after them had nothing but the earthen vessels. The treasure was not in them. Religion became the slave of ambition and despotism. The church said its prayers while it taxed and robbed the multitude or led them to slaughter in wars of conquest. Christian kings fought for their own power and glory careless of what be-came of the principles of Christ. Some of the popes were atheists; many of them were immoral. The world was made unhappy, multitudes were oppressed and impoverished in the name of one Whose supreme joy was to bless all mankind and to clothe and feed even an enemy. This went on with but little interruption from the fourth to the sixteenth century. It is not surprising that the organization which was responsible for such a monstrous social condition should at last incur the hatred of mankind. Voltaire appropriately named it "The Infamy."
But the past of the church is of much less concern to us than its present and future. That it has largely separated itself from political power, is doubt-less a gain. The question now of far more moment to us is as to what new alliances it may be forming. A church dominated by political power, as embodied in kings and popes, may not be any farther from the ideals of Christ than is a church dominated by power embodied in wealth and social standing. Once the church delighted in processions, in the rich robes of its dignitaries, in all brilliant pageantry. Meanwhile, the souls of the multitude were starved from lack of spiritual food. This is lamentable. But wealth and pride and worldliness in Protestant churches, in the present, are as poor spiritual food as were brilliant spectacles in the Catholic churches in the past. Souls hungering and thirsting for righteousness will not find satisfaction in coming to either of them.
No one would claim that the church in this country has much influence over the multitude. The authority, once exercised, is nearly all gone. This might have been expected in the Protestant denominations. Protestantism is a form of individualism; and individualism tends toward the rejection of centralized authority. But the edicts and decisions of popes and councils in the Catholic church do not possess the authority of former times. The actions of a company of churchmen, either Catholic or Protestant, are freely criticised in public prints. Thus, as an organized authority, the church has no control of the community at large.
If, with the decline of official authority, there were a rise of moral and spiritual authority, the condition would be one of thankfulness. It is to be feared that this condition is not present. In any city only a small proportion of its population habitually attend church. The same is true in the country. In an article printed not long since a writer gives the result of his observations in certain parts of New England. It may be said that the writer is an orthodox churchman and he writes more in sorrow than in anger. These are some of his sentences:
"One rarely sees on a bright June or October Sunday morning, as many as fifty persons in a church,—the women always outnumbering the men in all kinds of weather. The fact cannot be disputed that in these districts the people have lost the habit of going to church. It is also evident that those assembled have little idea of any purpose of personal worship. Perhaps this is not to he thought strange when the character of the service is considered. For praise there is sung the doggerel stuff which has taken the place of the psalms and hymns which were once the grand liturgy of the church. The people get the minister as cheaply as they can and, paying low, in general get their money's worth. A large majority of the sermons which the traveler hears preached are devoid of theological significance and are utter trash. Many of them are below the intellectual level of the people to whom they are, preached. Had I space to report a score of sermons I have heard within the past year or two in the pulpits of orthodox churches, my readers would appreciate the temptation I am under to use very severe words."
If these are specimens of his mild words in describing the church condition in rural New England, one is led to wonder what the writer would have said had he yielded to temptation and used very severe words.
How much of the falling away of the great majorities from the places of worship may be traced, for its cause, to the conditions outlined by the writer and how much to other sources, we have not time to inquire. However, at first sight, it would seem to be a sufficient reason for the multitude to remain away from church by assuming that something else was more interesting. If the choice lies between a June Sunday morning, with its flowers and humming bees and sunshine or an October morning with its mellow haze, under which the fields are lying in peace and through which the many colored forest is seen, and a church in which, to the heart seeking inspiration, "doggerel" is offered and to the intellect seeking for truth, "trash" is furnished, it ought not long remain a mystery if most persons incline to the former. It is not a natural thing for one to be indifferent to that which is interesting in itself nor to neglect that which seems necessary to human welfare. It was once the fashion to account for non-attendance at church to assume the natural and total depravity of the human heart. The facts fail to make good that assumption, for many of the most ardent lovers of God and man are found among the absentees. We go where we wish to go; and we wish to go where we think it is worth while. It would then seem to be at least a partial solution of the problem to conclude that the inadequacy of its services explains the feeble hold the church has upon the public mind and heart.
It would be easy to sink into despair over the present condition of the church were it not for the lessons furnished by history. When things can get no worse they begin to get better. It is just when night seems longest and darkest that day begins to break, It was so in the first century; it was so in the fifteenth century. Let us trust it will be so in the twentieth century. In the direction the churches have been going they cannot go much farther. For many years they tried to substitute form for spirit and a belief in theology for faith in God. Then came a movement that endeavored to make scholarship, the denial of dogma, and intellectual independence take the place of religion. These were both mistakes. Neither theology nor the denial of theology is large enough foundation upon which to build a church. The best theory of botany or agriculture ever made will not furnish food for a single hungry child. No theory of sentences will make a poet. The best system of rhetoric ever devised will not make man an orator. But the denial of these things is just as powerless to attain any worthy results. So the best theology ever formed and a denial of the worst theology ever formed are alike powerless to feed a soul hungering for spiritual food; powerless to inspire a life with religious fervor making it more beautiful than any written poem; powerless to fill it with that persuasive eloquence which charms and exalts. Only religion can do this.
The church need not carry forward its great bur-den of inherited doctrines. The world is weary of its debates and metaphysical speculations concerning Trinity and Atonement and Sacraments. It needs to have more belief in some actual God that will power-fully influence conduct. Weary of the debate about the quality and amount of inspiration found in the composition of some ancient writing, it needs some spiritual power to sweep through all things belonging to these modern days. The church can well afford to cease speculating about the presence of Christ in a sacrament and devote its attention to the awakening of Christ-like virtues in society. In the fifth century Synesius, a Christian bishop, tired of the quarrels of churchmen concerning the nature and office of Christ wrote some lines that contain meaning for our time.
"The soul wherein God dwells, what church can holier be?
These lines make ridiculous many of the doctrines and rites, of Christianity in the past and make wicked the theological quarrels, the sectarian pride, the worldliness and commercialism of Christianity in the present. Let us hope that the poem of the far off saint is prophetic of a church that will lead the coming generations grandly forward in paths of truth and goodness and love.
What kind of church will emerge from the new conditions it is impossible to foretell in detail. How much of ritual, what form of government, what kind of liturgy, and what kind of sermon there may be the future will reveal. But that there will be a church based on a few great spiritual principles seems almost certain. To meet the demand of the new era it will be compelled to combine a broad and calm reason with a deep spirituality. Meeting the intellect in its appeals for truth, the conscience in its appeal for right, it will also meet the heart with its hopes and aspirations. Upon material things alone man cannot live. The enduring value and the true glory of an age depend, not upon its wealth or its commerce or its armies, but upon its intelligence and justice and love. The highest destiny of the race can only be attained by following the path marked out by the moral and spiritual laws. To recognize this and lead mankind to recognize it, to place the emphasis of life upon the enduring principle instead of changing events, to keep the soul alive, and make right the only object worthy of thought and toil,—this is the office of the church. If it does not do these things it is not needed in the world. But if it is willing to do them never was it more needed than at this very time. It may do more than this, but this it must do. Its pulpit may cheer all honorable pursuits. It may rebuke all forms of sin. It may become the champion of the oppressed. It may be interested in every stage of human life, sympathizing with the helplessness of child-hood, the ambitions of ardent youth, the toil of manhood and womanhood and the serene hours of age. It may be as stern as a judge toward each wilful transgressor, but as forgiving as a mother toward every penitent. With those of serious thought it may meditate over the mysterious universe, whence it came and whither it goes. It will rejoice in man's work and will utter its most eloquent and hopeful words over his grave. But it will do more than this. It will kindle a sacred passion within the heart. It will see Deity in the ethical laws of the world. It will sublime the soul, filling it with heroism and magnanimity and faith in the great Creator.
Christ had compassion on the multitude because of their hunger. The parable must be repeated in our age. The multitudes are in a spiritual desert and are ready to perish. The church must stand for Christ. It must be filled with a d vine compassion. It must give the bread of life. It must see that civilization is penetrated by justice and :love and peace. It must be Wisdom to guide, beauty to inspire, tears to pity, hope to impel, making our world one of goodness and splendor, of spirituality and happiness.
Never was there a better opportunity for the church to justify its existence and achieve a glorious victory. May its wisdom and power equal its opportunity! The fields are white for the harvest. Where are the reapers to gather in the golden sheaves?