Devotion And Doubt
( Originally Published 1912 )
O come, let us bow down, let us worship before the Lord—Hebrew Poet. The spirit, I, which evermore denies.—Goethe.
Selected from literature belonging to ages far removed from each other, these sentences invite us to a study of two sides of human life which may be called devotion and doubt or reverence and scepticism.
Whether the first expressed the prevailing spiritual attitude of the time in which it was written and the second characterizes that of these more modern days, is is useless to inquire. Each age must be judged by itself and by that which it ought to be, because all other ages are absent and are partly concealed from the observer. It is possible that there have been periods in which there was more reverence than that in which the Hebrew poet lived and wrote. There may have been those in his day who lamented the decline of faith. Perhaps there has been a time in the world's history when there was greater doubt than in that of Goethe. Doubtless there were persons in his day who thought there was too little use of reason and too much unquestioning credulity. We do well if we have a fair understanding of the excellences and defects of our own age.
Confining observation to our period, it cannot be otherwise than an important inquiry as to whether the sentiment of reverence, the inner spirit of religion has been suffered to pass into partial decline. Regard for whatever is lofty or profound, the feeling of awe for for all that transcends the measurement of sense or of logic is to forms of religion as life is to the body. It is the one source of their strength and use and beauty. Life has other harvests to sow and reap besides those which grow in the fields of sense or the understanding; and, if these are not grown and garnered, a partial famine is inevitable. No age can be entirely great if it has lost power to believe in spiritual realities. This ability may be partially destroyed by too much criticism or by too much frivolity or lightness of heart to-ward sacred things. It may suffer from neglect on the part of those who are wholly preoccupied with the affairs of street and shop and society. Its claims may be pushed to one side by the struggle for material rewards. If to any degree, this has occurred in our day, it can only be regarded as a misfortune. Without reverence for that which transcends measurement the soul is only partly a soul. It is only using a part of its power and it is depriving itself of a high form of pleasure. The same is true of an age or a nation. With this spiritual element omitted it is very imperfect. All who wish our age to become truly glorious should invite this exiled virtue to return to the hearts and homes and temples of these fast flying years.
Doubtless the awakened intellect of our period has had much influence in banishing belief. Liberated by the political revolutions of the eighteenth century, the mind moved rapidly over the whole realm of thought. No flight was too daring for it to attempt. By this freedom the field of knowledge has been greatly enlarged. New theories of almost everything have been suggested. The scientific method largely displaced the old method of philosophic speculation. A critical habit of mind became established. With an increased perception of the true and beautiful, came a keener eye to detect whatever is not beautiful or true. Like Iago, our age is nothing if not critical.
As a result of this we have become familiar with the spectacle of destruction of things once regarded as indestructible. The axe which the last generation laid at the root of the tree, this generation has seen flashing through the air. We have heard its keen well guided strokes and have seen whole forests of inherited theories falling. Not only was the fan in the hand of the winnowing Time Spirit, but a blast was sent across the threshing floor where was gathered all the harvest of the past and clouds of dust and chaff were swept away before it.
Nowhere has there been more destruction than among theological doctrines. The immense fabric reared by the scholastics of the middle ages has been gradually falling into ruins. One hundred years ago theology was an impregnable dungeon, a spiritual Bastille in which the soul was hopelessly imprisoned. Now there is a great change. Its walls are broken and the soul is free. Nearly all the churches hold very lightly doctrines once considered necessary to their existence. Conclusions which, formerly, clergy-men did not dare question are now passed carelessly by or denied outright by their successors. In proportion to the number of heretics there are very few prosecutions for heresy. These trials were once a tragedy; now they partake more of the nature of a comedy. Often the judge and jury before which such cases are tried more nearly agree with the accused than with the statute under which he is being prosecuted. But for ecclesiastical reasons, they would acquit the criminal and pass sentence on the law. Once the heretic was burned for the sake of the creed; now the tendency is to burn the creed for the sake of the heretic. Everywhere the old order is changing, giving place to the new.
It would be folly to deny that in many ways, these changes are beneficial. But it is one of the strange laws of our world that nearly all good is attended by some evil. Each gain implies some loss. Thus, fully admitting the value of the intellectual test of all things and the high office of reason in human affairs, it must not be forgotten that life is not all intellect and there are some things that surpass the power of reason. Perhaps the triumph of reason is the partial defeat of something else that life cannot spare.
The problem is, how to maintain the right proportion between reason and belief. Unbalanced, either results in evil. Too much belief ends in superstition; too much reason ends in indifference. It is better that belief and logic divide the field between them. In nature there is alternation of storm and sunshine. So, in life, there may be alternation of criticism and devotion. After the tempest of debate has swept along, overturning all doctrines that are unreasonable and cleansing the spiritual air, then the calm of trust should follow. New altars should arise on better foundations, and, for a time, the heart should be left undisturbed in its natural wonder and adoration.
Scepticism, that makes truth its object, is praise-worthy. But there is a form of scepticism that is not noble. Sometimes it is only an impertinent curiosity. A person was once heard to maintain that the express-ion of resignation and divine motherhood on the face of Raphael's Madonna was all the result of a trick on the part of the artist. The discovery caused him to indulge in much conceit and noisy mirth. He seemed to think that his discovery proved that there is no such thing in the world as resignation and holy motherhood. In matters of religion there are some like this shallow art critic. Because they have discovered some error in religion, they hastily conclude that religion is an error. Because faith has sometimes been allied with absurdities, it is hardly fair to say that faith itself is an absurdity. Sometimes scepticism is simply a low habit of mind which delights in finding imperfections. To point out the things we do not believe should be the smallest part of our work. We only clear the ground of weeds that the harvest may grow. It is not enough to avoid poison in order to live; it is necessary to have food. So we may deny the false, but we should affirm the true in religion. If in teaching us to distinguish between the true and false criticism should suggest that all holy aspirations are vain and there is no cause for reverence, we should pass out of that school and sit for a time at the feet of piety. In spite of triumphs of reason, our life is still embosomed in mystery. Around us is a shoreless and fathomless ocean, and, in our life voyage, for much of the time, we must sail, not under a flag of knowledge, but under a flag of trust. It was the false structure of superstition, not the true temple of religion that scepticism was commissioned to destroy. It was the tares, not the wheat we wished to have uprooted.
As touching spiritual things, an attitude of in-difference has become prevalent. It is to be found among partly educated persons. Some regard it as an indication of superior learning to be able to make many denials, Seeming to think they have gone over the whole field of knowledge and sounded every question to its profoundest depths, they assume a superiority over those common mortals who still have some belief in spiritual things. It is reported that, at one of the universities, it has become a proverb among the students that "people who know anything don't believe anything." A certain levity is everywhere apparent and lack of serious purpose. Sacred things are turned into a jest. The laugh which Rabelais started against pope and church and kept up by Voltaire against superstition in his day may have been necessary.
But a question worthy of consideration now is whether there is any call for a continuance of that laughter in our days. The follies of religion have largely disappeared and much of our ridicule against it is misdirected. While the critics were pointing out some of the absurdities involved in the story of Noah and the ark or Jonah and the whale, regarded as literal history, we could all join in the merriment that followed. Perhaps the time has come for us to look deeper and see if there is not something beneath these stories that. cannot be ridiculed. Cervantes set Europe to laughing at the absurdities of knight-errantry. With Don Quixote the nonsense of chivalry passed away; but true chivalry still stayed. So after the follies of religion have been laughed away, religion remains.
To one looking for nothing else many defects will appear. The finest marble has some flaws. There are spots on the sun. The art critic can find some-thing imperfect in every picture. There is no poetry in which some defect cannot be detected. There may be faulty rhythm, a strained accent, an unpoetic word, or a confused imagery. The finest day that ever graced the earth is not without some blemish to those whose mood is not in harmony with it. But, while one is searching for imperfections in days or pictures or poems, he misses their real meaning. The day should remind one of what his life should be, and be-come an arena for the performance of noble deeds. A picture is to suggest the absolute, the uncontained Beauty which transcends all art. A poem is to awaken the soul to high endeavors and become an inlet to that universal Genius which sphered the planets and paints the rose. Thus a critic of religion may find defects in its history and in its present form; but if his whole energy is consumed in this employment, he will surely miss its true meaning and be deprived of its gracious benefits.
There is nothing so high that it may not be dragged down and made common; nothing so sacred that it may not be made profane. We may think of marriage as holy or base, as a sacrament of love or a partnership of selfishness. With the anchorites of the desert we may regard earth as evil and all objects of sense as common and unclean; or, with the modern Poetess, we may see
"Earth crammed with Heaven,
Like Haeckel we may think of all natural forms only as manifestations of unintelligent force; or, like Agassiz, we may find "every physical fact as sacred as a moral principle," and bow the head in prayer to fit us to solve the mysteries hidden in insect and flower. Honor, self-denial, motherhood, Marquette in the wilderness, Cranmer in the flames and Christ on the cross may all be reduced to the low level of prudent calculation and selfishness. On the other hand they may be exalted; seen all ablaze with sacred meaning; beacons kindled on the mountain peaks of history guiding humanity ever upward.
The same two-fold treatment may be afforded religion. It may seem low or high as the mental mood of the observer is low or high. If we try to place the best construction on everything else, why not upon religion? We can find its mistakes and follies, be sorry over its oppressions of the intellect and indignant over its cruelties. But when we have done all this our task is not ended. We should then move forward and seek out its noble qualities. It should be seen in its power to inspire mankind; to cheer the despondent; comfort the sorrowful; crowd back the horizon of the future and fling beams of light into the darkness hovering over the border of earthly existence.
It can only be a misfortune for an age or a heart to lose sight of its moral ideals. Without the sun in the sky the planets would fall. No less does the soul need a moral sun. There is nothing that can take the place of veneration for that law of righteousness whose home is the bosom of Deity and whose out-goings made the saints and reformers of all ages. Our generation has wit, prudence, criticism and scepticism in great abundance. If anything is lacking it is reverence for the morally beautiful, the spiritual realities. There is much discussion, much marshaling of authorities and appeal to external argument, but not much spiritual worship, not many sweet and gracious motions of the soul toward God. With many, life is pensive and sad at times because it is uncheered by the conscious presence of an infinite Friend. Some are haunted by the dread that, so long in partnership with material things, the soul will not be able to maintain itself alone, but, trying to take flight away from this headland of earth, will sink into the deep sea of eternal oblivion.
That there are unsolved mysteries, no one can deny. Darkness, long and dreary as an Arctic night, may at times descend upon the soul. The presence of these mysteries demands trust. The darkness calls, not for anger and denial, but for patience and faith. Some lines taken from Ruckert serve to illustrate how the soul should behave when overtaken by spiritual night. The poet says:
"At dead of night
At dead of night
At dead of night
Our rational churches have conic in vain unless they carry with them a great reverence for high and holy principles. By this we shall know whether they are worthy to be called churches,—in that they awaken and guide the religious instinct. There must be freedom within them for the intellect to reason and the heart to adore. An eastern sage once said: "Two things I cannot endure,—the fool at his devotions and the learned at his infidelities." In these days we should be able to escape the disgust of the wise man. There has been ample opportunity for us to cure our-selves of that ignorance which mistakes superstition for religion and fear of punishment for reverence for the the good. There has also been opportunity to discover that, while superficial learning tends to vanity and flippant doubts, the fully instructed are humble and the wisest are the least critical. Seeking to overcome an adversary in an argument or to draw attention to his own adroitness and wit one may lose sight of the greatness of the universe and the immensity of the Power and Wisdom involved in its origin and destiny. But let a soul unreservedly commit itself to meditation over the world and its amazing history and it can hardly avoid being overtaken by wonder and reverence.
There is as much warrant for worship as ever there was. The latest conclusions of science are not unfavorable to the religious sentiment. If ever the race had an infinite Friend it has Him yet. If ever the soul was worthy of an immortal destiny, it is still worthy. The sanctions for right are as full of divine authority as ever they were. The blessed old ideals still beckon us onward. The sky with its thousand worlds is as unmeasureless and mysterious to us as it was to our ancestors. Still is heard the solemn plaint of the soul over dreams unrealized. The sweet hope that the best is always in the future has not forsaken mankind, but allures him forward through all the years of earth.
Coming hither when the atmosphere was chilled by doubt we should begin to seek those places where the sunbeams of faith are falling. Many of the problems of life find their best solution by assuming the truthfulness of the heart's holy emotions. It is well to measure all things on their superior side and accept the noblest convictions as the truest. To all there may come times of perplexity and doubt. The meaning of the universe may baffle and its greatness may terrify.
There may be times when God seems to withdraw Himself and we are left alone to work and weep and die. But these hours should not be suffered to grow into years. Doubt should not become a settled habit of life. It should be nothing but the passing of a cloud over the sun. It should not be the sinking of the sun itself leaving the soul in a long and lonesome night. We may be, at times, overborne by questions we cannot answer; we may be harassed by anxieties and be stunned by griefs. But let us be well assured that for all these ills the only remedies are trust and patience. Building on the indestructible nature of the human soul the Christian ages made no mistake when they placed the emphasis of life on Belief and Love.
"Our little systems have their day;
We have but faith: we cannot know;
Let knowledge grow from more to more,