Belief Through Believing
( Originally Published 1912 )
"Lord, I believe; help though my unbelief." —New Testament.
According to the record these words were uttered by a man in great perplexity and mental anguish. His child was sorely afflicted. A victim of convulsions and having lost his reason and power of speech, in harmony with the prevalent ideas of the time, it was thought he was possessed of an evil spirit. Rumor had reached the father that there was one who could cure that kind of malady. As a last resort he brought his afflicted boy to Jesus and he was cured. When he came his faith was very weak. There was barely enough of belief upon which to base a single action. When he left it was much more abundant. From a temporary impulse it grew in strength and constancy until it became the prevailing habit of his life. His twilight was changed into a day.
Whether historical or legendary, the incident is interesting and instructive. It stands for a wide-reaching principle.
It is well known that by doing, one learns to do. It is practice that makes perfection. Each thing learned furnishes a vantage ground for more learning. The first is as necessary as the last step of a journey. No one knows what he can do until he has tried ; and if he never tries he will never know. No great poet or artist or orator ever did his best work first. His first attempt, by comparison, was very imperfect. Every worker must first serve an apprenticeship. All work is cumulative. Each experience opens the gates upon a larger experience. To him that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance.
The New Testament incident is an illustration of this general law. Interpreted in terms of religion it is that belief grows with believing. Faith makes faith easier. Acting upon a spiritual impulse, . however weak it may be, prepares the way for another, stronger spiritual impulse. As we learn to write by writing, learn to read by reading, learn to sing by singing, learn to love by loving, so we learn to believe by believing. Faith may become a habit of life.
It would be well for our restless and doubting era to ponder this principle. There can be no doubt as to the value of the critical examination which religion has been compelled to undergo. While this was in progress it was perhaps impossible to prevent a partial suspense of religious faith and fervor. It was also unavoidable that many should change their opinions and that many doctrines should decline in importance. The intention of the examination was at once reason-able and benevolent. It was not hostile to truth. It was to discover what part of our inherited religion is merely transient and what pari is eternal.
This work ought to be nearing its completion. The critical attitude, too long maintained, unfits one for sympathetic appreciation of many of the finer influences of religion. One can rob himself of much happiness and much usefulness if he allows the critical to over-ride the creative faculty or it the habit of fault-finding with defects silences his praise of all excellence. All products of the human mind contain some defective qualities, but the excellent qualities are far in excess of the imperfect, Emerson' s grammar is sometimes incorrect. In some of his sublime passages Shakespeare mixes his metaphors. Dante is sometimes dismal and Homer sometimes dull. But he would be a foolish person who would make it his life business to detect and expose these trifling facts. Looking on a June wheatfield, no one need be long troubled over the thought that a few weeds are growing there or that some heads of wheat contain little or no grain. The noble mind gives to all things the highest possible interpretation consistent with truth.
If this be the rule, no exception should be made when religion passes under judgment. We ought to be approaching an era in which all thoughtful minds would assume a somewhat different attitude toward the great fact of religion. The army of destroyers having passed over the field, the army of builders should now appear. The critics of the old should give way to the creators of a new order of things. The doubters should be succeeded by the believers.
We are greatly indebted to those teachers who have introduced the method of reason in all things pertaining to the religious sentiment. They have made us much more careful and modest. Former teachers assumed entirely too much knowledge of God and His plan of dealing with the world. Not very long since everything pertaining to the creation of the universe, the origin of the race, its fall and redemption and des-tiny, the location and temperature of the two widely separated homes of the future of the soul, was fully known. Now there is a confession of much ignorance of these things and a corresponding modesty. But some have run into the opposite extreme. In their fear of affirming too much, they are affirming too little. From knowing everything about God they have passed to the opposite error of saying that nothing can be known about any Supreme Being. Having found that the Bible contains errors. they have ceased to seek and care for its sublime truths. Thinking that formerly it was read with too much credulity, many have ended by not reading it at all. Doubtless belief was once too easily satisfied, but unbelief may become too exacting in its demands for evidence. The skeptic at his perpetual denials is as unlovely and as useless as the zealot amid his superstitions. We do not wish to live in a wilderness, a wild tangled growth of tree and bush and vine, where the blithe, wholesome air cannot freely roam, into which the sunshine cannot come by day, and through which the stars cannot look down at night. But, leaving that, neither do we wish to fly to a desert, a vast sand plain, where no tree throws its protecting shadow and no flower sheds its fragrance, —a barren waste of death.
That a constructive period will come there cannot be any question. The laws of the mind itself, the methods of progress, the example of history, and the perpetual needs of the human heart take away all uncertainty as to what will occur. If reconstruction does not come in our day it will come in some future day. There will be a statement of the religious sentiment that will do ample justice to man thinking and man worshiping. Neither intellect nor emotion will be neglected. Whatever of despondency, whatever of sadness belongs to our period is because it is one of transition. We have seen more of destruction than of building. Some of us were born too late to get much happiness out of the departing forms and too early to get it out of those which are to come. We are like emigrants in mid-ocean. The old familiar shores have faded from sight and the new shores have not yet risen above the horizon. All around there is the turbulent ocean.
But the youth are not thus hovering between the old and the new. Nor need any free soul wait for the future with its general reconstruction, It is the privilege of everyone to run on in advance of the slower moving age and construct a belief of his own. It is not asked that any one hinder the course of free thought nor conceal convictions for the purpose of making his confession of faith. Everyone should think freely. But there is no reason, in the nature of things, why free thought should be fatal to the religious sentiment. In as far as religion contains the idea of a God, the sovereignty of the ethical laws, and the progressive and continuous life of mankind, clear thought is its friend rather than its enemy. When all the known facts of existence have been made to pass through the thinking mind, there is a certain belief in the infinite and divine seems to spring up spontaneously. Faith may not be very great, but what there is seems genuine. In quantity and quality it is sufficient to become a good basis of action, It may become a working basis for life. In the Testament story the man acted upon a mere rumor. A faint hope was sufficient to form a point of departure to find Jesus. Acting upon what he had, more trust was given him. Thus each may have faith enough for a temporary use. Acting upon it, when more is needed, more will be furnished.
The men of science found it necessary to invent the expression: "A working Hypothesis. It is used to express a theory whose demonstration is not complete. There may be some question as to its truth. There is enough of reason in it to account for many facts that cannot be accounted for upon any other theory. The doctrine of evolution was such an hypothesis. So was Newton's law of gravitation. So was Kepler's theory of the orbits of the planets. In each of these cases, by employing the working hypothesis, the sum of man's definite knowledge was greatly increased. Uncertainty gave way to certainty. The The same method might with equal reason and equal profit be employed in religion. The assumption of God and the divineness of duty makes a good working hypothesis for a life. Using it, many uncertainties vanish; many fears are dimmed; many burdens are lightened; many hopes are brightened.
In pleading for a partial faith it may be recalled that whatever lack of completeness there is in it might be said against many other things. When we have it, nothing seems quite perfect. The term finite, as applied to man, suggests that there is much that lies beyond his comprehension and power of enjoyment. Coming to the educated mind upon any of its many sides, it will be found unsatisfied, There is always a half melancholy attached to the possession of every-thing because it always seems to fall a little short of what was desired and expected. Riches do not being perfect happiness, but no one abandons the desire for riches on that account. Neither does learning being perfect happiness, yet all like a little learning. At a distance fame seems very desirable, but many of the famous children of earth have carried heavy hearts. To be able to speak like Wendell Phillips, to paint like Angelo, or write like Victor Hugo would seem to fill the cup of satisfaction to overflowing, yet many of the actual orators and artists and poets were often unhappy. It must be remembered that such is the world and such is man that comparative happiness is all that can be expected. Repose is always disturbed by the higher ideal. At times it is deep and sweet, but it is not perfect and unbroken.
Being what he is and living in such a world, man need not think it strange if his religious beliefs are subject to limitations. They do not secure immunity from all anxieties, nor keep the heart always buoyant, nor solve all of life's deep mysteries. So long as our learning only awakens an insatiable hunger for more learning, so long as fame only points to greater heights yet to be attained, so long as painting and sculpture fail to fully express the ideal beauty, so long as music suggests the vanishing and unattainable, so long as human love is partly pain, so long will faith be incomplete. While the heart goes through the world saying: I have some wisdom but much folly; I have some appreciation of beauty, but much insensibility; I have some truth, but much error, it need not be thought strange if, overcome by anxiety or overwhelmed by mystery, it may say: I have some trust but much uncertainty. Like him of the miracle story many times man must say: "Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief!"
Our knowledge of God is not very great. The cry of the ancient poet: "0 that I knew where I might find Him!" may still be uttered. But if there is not complete information, neither is their complete ignorance on the subject. If confident affirmation of the being of Deity is sometimes hindered by doubt, so is confident denial hindered. If the argument is not sufficient to make belief perfect, it is sufficient to make doubt imperfect. If sometime we should find ourselves judged because of our indifference or lack of belief in a Supreme Being, we could not plead complete ignorance as an excuse. We should all have to confess that we knew much more than we practiced. In that hour many things would array themselves as witnesses against us. All the amazing phenomena of heaven and earth would appear with their eloquent evidence. Man himself with his marvelous history; all the temples of worship; the wonders and hopes of countless millions would rise against the plea of ignorance and silence it. The world's inspiration has never come from atheism. It has always come from faith.
Emerging from the long reign of debate and suspense of belief things are found very much as they were before. Many have changed their opinions about God, but that does not alter the fact of His existence. Many have revised their conceptions of man's origin and destiny, but man still had an origin and still has a destiny. There is as much mystery in the scientific, as ever there was in the theological theory of the universe. Until this mystery is solved, until it is found out that there is nothing in the world corresponding to the word God, until it is demonstrated that all things, including man with his thinking mind and loving heart, came from dust and to dust returns, until every thing in earth and sky is fully known, surely there will be a reason for faith and wonder. Until then man should not only believe in the best, but he should act upon his belief. His noblest convictions should be his strongest reasons for his actions. He should ex-press life in its highest possible terms.
Is there anything man more needs than a belief in spiritual realities? Money he needs; but there come a time when money will fail him. Learning he needs; but there will come a time when learning is powerless to bring satisfaction. Taste he needs; but there are times in which his soul will ask for something besides appreciation of the merely beautiful. Fame is desirable; but there are solemn hours in life when one would gladly exchange the applause of a nation for a still small voice from beyond the clouds whispering a divine approval.
Great is the misfortune of an age if it lose conscious relation to the Over Powers of the world! Then the calls of duty are unheard. Unmoved by sacred impulses, life becomes mechanical. Science becomes pedantic and lifeless. Literature and all the arts, uninspired, descend to the low level of the market place. Poets and prophets no more appear on earth. Denied a welcome, the Holy Spirit hastens away to other planets. Youth passes through its years with indifference; middle-life bends, uncheered, beneath its many burdens; old age sinks into a hopeless grave.
Everything admonishes us to guard with care all our best spiritual instincts. The soul should lie open toward the sky. Conditioned in sense, by nature, surrounded by many things unfavorable to spiritual growth, living in an age that is restless and is hurriedly intent upon material triumphs, our faith may be feeble. But we are wise to keep and nourish the little we have and, as far as possible, make it one of our life motives. Acting upon the belief one may have, often breaks down barriers and permits other and larger beliefs to enter the soul. If we have faith enough to take one step, we should take that one. Thus the second and the tenth and the hundredth and every succeeding step of the journey will be taken with ever increasing confidence.
It is a law of our life that what we most think we most become. Fixing the mind upon the beautiful, itself becomes beautiful. Dwelling upon great scenes in nature, upon great events in history, or upon great principles in the realm of philosophy, the soul becomes great. Thinking of God, man becomes God-like. Thus it may be that faith in the divine is sometimes weak or entirely absent from the soul because there is little or no thought of the divine. An hour of reverent meditation will sometimes work wonders in clearing the mind of indifference and unbelief. Thus meditating among the Alps, a poet, at last, heard all things uttering the one word, "God." Without being poets or journeying to Switzerland others may have a similar experience. In like manner reading or repeating from memory some of the great sentences from literature will aid belief. When God seems remote and concealed let one repeat:
"O Lord my God thou art very great! Thou walkest upon the wings of the wind; thou clothest thyself with light as with a garment; thou makest the clouds thy chariot; thou makest thine angels spirits, thy ministers a flaming fire. Whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there; if I make my bed in the grave, behold, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say: Surely the darkness will cover me, even the night shall be light above me."
When fear and a feeling of alienation come repeat:
"For I am persuaded that neither life nor death nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth nor any creature will be able to separate me from the love of God.
I know not what the future hath
I know not where His islands lift
When depressed by weakness and overborne by toil repeat:
"Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
When saddened and perplexed over the slow movement of things repeat:
"For the earnest expectation of creation waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God; and we know that all things work together for good to them that love God. I will not doubt thee, O Providence, though sometimes thy footsteps seem to halt and even turn backward. All I have seen leads me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen."
When the current of existence runs slowly and the shadows of life's late afternoon are falling across our pathway, repeat:
"There is a natural body and there is a spiritual body. We know that if this earthly tabernacle were dissolved we have a building of God eternal in-the heavens. When this mortal shall have put on immortality then shall be brought to pass the saying: Death is swallowed up in victory. Even in your old age I am God; and even to hoar hairs I will carry you. I have made and will bear you to the end.
Sunset and evening star
Thus by meditating upon the larger meanings of existence and storing the memory with noble thoughts and sentiments gathered from reading, many a doubt will be dispelled and a faith that begins in weakness will end in power.
There is nothing that can surpass the satisfaction of a soul fully committed to the ways of Providence. It is its genial sunshine, its life sustaining air, its song of joy in the morning, its vesper of peace in the evening of existence. If, for any reason, this perfect trust is denied us to-day, we may have some regret, but we need not yield to despair. By using what we have, more will be given us. Treasuring whatever faith in God, whatever love for man, and whatever hope in eternal life we may now have and making them motive of all our actions, we shall find our experience enlarging and ascending. We shall become more and more fit to perform well our part on earth and more and more prepared to enjoy the blessedness of heaven.