The Church Actual
( Originally Published 1912 )
" Ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty as an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. "—New Testament.
Last Sunday some of the most prominent reasons were cited to account for the existence of the church. Four of these reasons are as follows:—The spiritual sentiment is natural in mankind; every idea seeks to clothe itself in some external form; man loves companionship; and the vast and ideal possess an undying attraction for the soul. Its origin is found among the same causes that produced arts, states, and homes. But, as justice existed before government, architecture before cathedrals, music before the staff, and love before the home, so the church must have existed potentially in the soul before it took visible form. The altar, which in time, was built on the earth, was first erected within the human spirit. Long before the bells, which now sweetly disturb the Sunday morning or evening air, were heard calling to praise and prayer, they were ringing within the temple of the soul. Calling our minds away from its origin and history, we may turn them toward the church actual and the relation it holds to these present days.
If it is a part of the general order of things it must have the quality of endurance. The oak and the mountain are not easily overthrown. Man is as little likely to cease worshiping as to cease to love music or pictures or poetry or a beautiful landscape. As long as persons meet in groups to enjoy music or listen to eloquence or study literature, so long they will probably assemble to ponder the problem of life and and happiness and destiny and set their hopes and aspirations to prayers and hymns. Not until human nature changes will the church perish.
Every instructed person knows that the church has undergone many changes. In this there is nothing to occasion surprise. It simply follows the law of all human institutions. Assyria and Egypt, in the dawn, and England and France in the noon of history are governments, but there is great difference among them.
" Time makes ancient good uncouth."
Perhaps the Free Masons were once only a company of workmen engaged in building some temple or palace. They were associated by virtue of having similar toil and a similar purpose. Gradually customs and rites were introduced among them. By usage these hardened into habit. That which was at first only an alliance in the way of friendship and kindred occupation, finally became an institution with exact laws and a multitude of ornate and exact ceremonies. The church has passed through similar gradations. The church of to-day is not that of the Puritans. The English is different from the Catholic church. The Catholic church is different from that of the early Christian Fathers. The church of the Christian Fathers was different from that of the Apostles.
So many changes occurring in the historic church should forbid all surprise at similar changes taking place in the church of the present. If the Reformers could not agree with the Popes, it is not strange that there are many now who cannot agree with the Reformers. Any change that seems for the better should escape all protest. When the monster was displaced by man, when granite was pulverized into soil bearing forests and harvest fields, the change was beneficent. Nature's method is always thus. Whether clearing the ground for a new race of plants and animals or sweeping away old philosophies and institutions to make room for new, her way is beneficent.
The test of vitality in any organization is its willingness to dispense with the old when its usefulness has ceased. Life makes the organ; but it refuses to be imprisoned by that which it has made. The builder is superior to the building. The soul manifests itself through events, but it does not congeal and solidify nor, like the fossil in the rock, make its tomb in events. It only uses them as a point from which to flow into larger things. With not more joy does the butterfly,—Greek image of the soul,—forsake its chrysalis, when warm sunbeams come gently tapping on the shell with tidings that summer has dawned, than does thought hurry away from its old symbols when it is summoned to ascend to higher forms.
No omen is more threatening than for a church to maintain doctrines or ceremonies after they have lost their significance. How foreign to all use or beauty to see men armed with swords and helmets in times of peace; to see them parading mystic signs when there is no reason for secrecy; to see the manners and etiquette of oriental despotisms grafted into the life of western nations! But it is no more foolish than to see a church preserving forms of thought, ceremonies, and styles of speech after they have become obsolete. They are as much out of place as a ship drawn through the country on wheels. They are as melancholy in their uselessness as a bird's nest in December. To know when a thing has served its purpose shows wisdom; to be willing to cast it away when the discovery is made shows bravery. The modern church needs such wisdom and courage.
The true method of life is that of exchanging the good for the better, of faithfully pursuing the ideal in all its emigrations. To stop, is to be overwhelmed.
Even morals, become stationary, demoralize. The manna became tainted after the second day and must be cast out. It is so with forms and rites; they cannot be kept too long without losing their virtue. Tennyson makes Arthur, dying, speak thus to Bedivere:
" The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
Thought knows no permanence of form. What today are miracles, to-morrow will be only common deeds. Greek sculpture, Italian painting, Gothic minsters, Reformed religion, and Elizabethan literature seemed final; but, as soon as they were done, the soul cast them behind it and moved forward to new tasks. How quickly sinks the thing done in the ocean of things to be done! The song soon loses itself in the universal melody it suggests and the singer strikes the opening notes of another song. Strange, unfathomable soul of humanity? From every victory it goes toward another battle-field. It would rather be defeated attacking an invincible foe than stay forever in its camp. It would rather attempt impossible tasks than be satiated with praise and receive heaped up reward for tasks already done.
' I say that man was made to grow, not stop;
This imports solely,—man should mount on each
Every church should learn this lesson. There can be no permanence of form or doctrine. The only established church is a dead one. To find all its glory in history, is to advertise its uselessness. Praise of what it has done is its epitaph. Why boast of great things done by Catholicism or Presbyterianism or Methodism or Unitarianism ? The sole thing which imports now is, what can these organizations do in the future? Trees drop their fruit and shed their leaves freely, because they know that, at the right time, new leaves and blossoms and fruit will appear.
With sad or bitter protests against all change, distrust of new truths of science, clinging to names after their meaning is lost churches sometimes announce that they are out of harmony with the method of nature and confess that, than they, the trees have more faith in the ways of Divine Providence. A genuine church of the spirit is brave, affirmative, advancing. It levies upon all the present and the boundless future as an arena for its exploits. Never posing as a completed good, it stands forth as a perpetual promise of what may be attained. Step by step it scales the mysterious heights of Truth and Love and Duty and draws the huge world after it.
In some such words our demands upon the church may be stated. But we cannot afford to spend all our time in pointing out its short-comings. The claims of the individual on the institution have been conscientious and reasonable. The church did attempt to become stationary and refused to take the course of events. Sometimes it has been retrospective, proscriptive, tyrannical. But this attitude could not be maintained forever. Even a rock is not so hard that it may not be pulverized and resolved into gas. The English Poet has pointed out the changing nature of all objects:
"There rolls the deep where grew the tree,
The hills are shadows, and they flow
In such a changing world no human work is permanent. No institution is so rigid that it will not yield to revolution and become soluble in thought.
In our day there has been a revolt away from ecclesiasticism. The individual soul has gained a victory. It is free to shape its beliefs. Every one is now as free to follow his own religious convictions as the star to follow its own orbit. In religion, persons pass as freely from old to new opinions as, in former years, emigrants removed from an old, eastern state to a new, western territory.
The .inquiry now is: What will result from this changed condition? Having gained liberty, how shall it be used? Will it be used as an excuse for indifference or be hailed as a great opportunity to advance human welfare? By the victory over ecclesiasticism nobler views of God and man are possible. The need now is that these views be formed and become affirmative. Having fallen away from the old standard, society now needs to hear a voice, strong and authoritative, commanding it to rally around some new flag. Upon all sides the complaint is heard that the old leaders are unfit, but, as yet, the new leaders have not appeared. We need a church that will become the organ of the world's new thoughts and hopes. When it comes it will have stern rebukes for all wrong doing and sanctions for rectitude. Having the virtues, but not the vices of the old, teaching man how he may bow at the altar in worship without doing violence to the intellect, and step by step leading him into the land of Truth, of Beauty, of Love, among all human institutions it will be the best beloved.
But while we are hoping for the advent of an ideal, we must not neglect the actual church. It is imperfect, indeed, but it is not wholly defective. With all its failings, it is necessary. If its aims are not all noble, they are not all ignoble. Having repeated his objections to it, no one treats it fairly unless he then sets forth those qualities which rise above fault-finding. Is it some times narrow in its opinions? Then it is often broad in its love. Did it give Loyala and Calvin? It also gave Pascal and Fenelon. Did it found the inquisition? It also founded Oxford and Harvard and Yale. Has it written creeds that were unreasonable and horrible? It has also written psalms of trust and aspiration that are wings to the spirit. In its darkest day there was much sunshine. In passing judgment upon it, all this should be remembered.
We may admire those great, original souls which, at intervals, come to earth. Self-poised and superior to common, human limitations, they were able to dwell apart from all institutions. Nourishing themselves on their inborn convictions, they could make lonely pilgrimages to the shrine of truth. It is Elijah on Mount Horeb; it is Gotama in the forests of Uruvela; it is Mahomet in the cave of Hara; it is Carlyle at Craigenputtock; it is Emerson at Concord. Yet these solitary heroes forsook the institutions for the good of humanity. Having in soltitude filled their minds with great thoughts and their hearts with noble dreams, they returned to the haunts of man with healing in their words. It is no wonder that, in after years, the place of their hermitage becomes sacred and their lonely pathway is worn into a highway by the multitudes going to pay reverence to their memory.
Is that which keeps so many persons away from the churches or causes them to yield only a half sympathy traceable to similar motives? If their absence is the result of a deeper soltitude for human welfare; if, after a temporary absence, they intend to return with increased zeal, their conduct would escape all criticism. To the casual observer their absence or their languid interest is not caused by such high motives. It is more easily traceable to indifference. Individualism may overestimate its claims. It may become merely a complacent self-satisfaction. It may become a refined selfishness. It is delightful to sit apart from the toiling and sorrowful multitudes and spin fine webs of philosophy concerning life; but one good, helpful deed is worth more than whole volumes of philosophy. Having seen what ought to be, he is the noblest who most quickly descends from the heights and turns his vision into practice. In the Bible story, after the transfiguration, the companions of Jesus wished to make their home on the mountain top. They forgot that, after the vision, descent must be made to the valley where the multitudes were waiting. It should always be thus.
Though we climb Fame's proudest height;
The rights of each soul must, indeed, be respected. No intellectual conviction should he sacrificed to some act of conformity. But a prejudice is sometimes mistaken for a conviction. There must be toleration; but there is a difference between toleration and indifference. If we meet, we must concede something. Emerson said if he went out of church every time he heard something he did not believe he would not stay in one five minutes at a time. But no thoughtful person could stay in a political meeting or a literary club or a parlor among his friends if he ran away every time he heard something he could not fully endorse. If private opinions and prejudices, instead of concessions, were permitted to control life, society would be broken into an infinite number of particles with only negatives poles. Thus, in the church, as elsewhere, we must yield the small for the sake of the large. The partial and personal must fade in presence of the universal and impersonal,----as, it is said, the angels veil their faces in presence of the Almighty.
It is a law of wide application that increase of power creates new duties. Opportunity is the measure of obligation. In the bird we expecl flight; in the deer, speed; in the rose fragrance; in the child innocence. Not finding these qualities we should be disappointed. So, all the hearts which have gained freedom are under obligation to free others. Freely ye have received, freely give, is a command not limited to loaves and dollars. He who has received truth or liberty or beauty or goodness should communicate in kind.
" God wills that in a ring
The church may often speak unwisely. Its doctrines may not all conform to reason. Its worship may sometimes seem forced and artificial. Yet, when we think of what it might be, the treasure that is held in this earthen vessel, of what blessings might flow through it to the world, our objections vanish. We would do well to confess shame for our coldness and indifference and resolve that, henceforth, a part of our duty and our delight will be found in advancing its power in the world.
The regret is often expressed that there is so much diversity of belief and ritual among the churches. The complaint is not unreasonable. Yet, beneath the differences, there is a certain unity. At heart they all wish holiness and happiness for mankind. To one in the distance, all the clangor made by many bells of diverse tone, in the many church towers, is softened into sweet sounds. So, perhaps, all the many different forms of creed and worship, coming from hearts tender and devout, reaching heaven, are merged into one faith and one liturgy. Each mortal would be wise to seek out one of the many churches with whose methods he is most in harmony and lend it the aid of his sympathy and work. If the church is one of the agents chosen to uplift the world, it should find the support of all good persons. Thither should be carried the clearest thought, the holiest emotions. There, we may repair to see how lofty are the aims set before man. There, the eyes of the spirit may be opened to perceive the mystery of existence and find the never-failing Source of power and faith and beauty.
Two stanzas of a simple little poem are as follows:
" In many a village window burns
Afar the wanderer sees them glow;
Thus may we think of the churches. Their light may not be great, but it is friendly, and, in a world in which there is much darkness and there are many wanderers, it is very welcome. May it guide many benighted children to their Father's house.