The Bible And Personal Culture
( Originally Published 1906 )
The new appreciation of the. Bible which has been portrayed in the preceding chapters may fitly culminate in a fresh estimate of this great literature as a means of personal culture. How is it related to life in its broadest and best development? Is it archaic, anachronistic, out of touch with the real interests of the modern world? Or, on the contrary, has it a message, a spirit, a power of enduring charm and vitality? If so, how may the individual avail himself of the secret which it waits to yield for the enrichment and glorification of his soul?
It all comes to this issue at last. We are personal beings, and the personal factor in the equation is determinative here as elsewhere. What you and I care about the Bible, what we propose to do with it, and what it will do for us if we cherish it and seek its blessing—this is the pivotal question in the whole study which we have been pursuing. Like all other treasures, whether of learning or of wealth, the spiritual riches of the Bible can neither become ours nor be given by us to others until we resolve, each for himself, to lay hold of them and acquire them by rightful conquest. We must pay a price for them in honest effort, study, assimilative appropriation. It is the value of the Bible to you and me that most concerns you and me; and it is what you and I need to do in order to extract that value that ought to command our keenest attention.
I shall speak of culture in a comprehensive way, as implying generally what we mean by the enlightenment, refinement, and discipline of the human spirit. Matthew Arnold's definition of culture as "knowing the best that has been thought and said in the world," though a liberal one, seems to me inadequate ; while his other re-mark, that "culture is reading, but reading with a purpose to guide it, and with system," 1 appears to give a still narrower conception, although he does well to insist upon the specific idea that "true culture implies not only knowledge, but right tact and justness of judgment, forming themselves by and with knowledge." 2 A better account of culture is contained in the words of Principal J. C. Shairp :
When applied to the human being, it means, I suppose, the "educing or drawing forth all that is potentially in a man," the training all the energies and capacities of his being to the highest pitch, and directing them to their true ends. But culture is not a product of mere study. Learning may be got from books, but not culture. It is a more living process, and requires that the student shall at times close his books, Ieave his solitary room, and mingle with his fellow-men. He must seek the intercourse of living hearts as well as of dead books-especially the companionship of those of his own contemporaries whose minds and characters are fitted to instruct, elevate and sweeten his own. Another thing required is the discipline which must be carried on by each man in himself, the learning of self-control, the forming of habits, the effort to overcome what is evil and to strengthen what is good in his own nature.
I like this view of culture because it presents the two aspects which I conceive that real culture must always exhibit—influence from others, and self-exertion; the essential result of which is character, formed upon the material afforded by nature, and consisting of intelligence, beauty, virtue, and strength.
Now if this conception is a just one, as I think it is, there ought to be no difficulty in showing how the Bible contributes to personal culture, that is, to the enlightenment, refinement and discipline of the human spirit.
I. It contributes to the intellectual element in culture in several important ways.
I. It gives the reader who familiarizes him-self with its pages an increase of knowledge and an enlargement of thought. Taking up the Bible simply as literature, and perusing it, not for purposes of study or criticism, but for instruction and enjoyment, just as one might read Homer or Shakespeare—naturally, receptively, sympathetically—one cannot fail to acquire, in the course of years, a very considerable amount of valuable information; not merely that curious information about the land, climate, plants and animals of Palestine which some minds like to gather, but rather a knowledge of the history of nations and of ancient civilizations, of the character of different peoples, of the dominant ideas and the distinctive achievements of those great races that filled the world with power and glory in the long ago. This, assuredly, is a part of true culture; it makes one intelligent respecting some of the chief events of the past, and it broadens one's thought of human nature and the vast stage on which the conspicuous figures of antiquity played their various roles. Thus Egypt, Chaldea, Assyria, Babylonia, Media, Persia, Syria, Phoenicia, Macedonia, Greece, and Rome, along with Israel and Arabia, come before the reader, grow distinct, and present many a chapter of thrilling interest in the early history of mankind. Nor can a thoughtful person stop here. Because the Bible makes him know something of the beginnings of Christianity, he is led on to learn something of its subsequent fortunes; and so he is inevitably brought to acquaint himself, at least in outline, with the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of European nations, and those stupendous struggles of western Christendom which make up the fascinating, impressive story of the last sixteen hundred years. Surely, if the Bible student gets even a glimpse of such a grand panorama, he obtains a wider view than any other literature can afford; and no one can read understandingly any other literature that deals with it if he be wholly ignorant of the Bible. The Bible lies at the heart of history, and the life-blood of nations has surged through it. Therefore to know the Bible is to know, or to be led to know, the inmost meaning of history.
2. The Bible also imparts a degree of elevation to the mind which gives dignity to culture, and a degree of insight which interprets knowledge and makes culture a joy. The loftiness of the themes with which it is occupied, the stateliness of its language, and the penetration of the views of life and character which it presents con-spire to lift the thought of the reader to a high plane, and to reveal the inner significance of human conduct and national developments. "I must confess to you," said Rousseau, "that the majesty of the Scriptures astonishes me; the holiness of the Evangelists speaks to my heart and has such striking characters of truth, and is, more-over, so perfectly inimitable, that if it had been the invention of men, the inventors would be greater than the greatest heroes." 4 And Goethe wrote : "When, in my youth, my imagination, ever active, bore me away, now hither, now thither, and when all this blending of history and fable, of mythology and religion, threatened to unsettle my mind, gladly then did I flee toward those eastern countries. I buried myself in the first books of Moses, and there, amidst those wandering tribes, I found myself at once in the grandest of solitudes and in the grandest of societies." Likewise Heinrich Heine exclaimed : "What a book ! Vast and wide as the world ! rooted in the abysses of creation, and towering up beyond the blue secrets of heaven ! Sunrise and sunset, birth and death, promise and fulfilment, the whole drama of Humanity are all in this book !" 8 Surely, a literature that can so exalt the mind, and so clarify and deepen its in-sight, as to draw forth such judgments from such men is of sufficient grandeur and value to be most highly esteemed merely as a means of intellectual culture.
II. Not less important is the contribution of the Bible to the moral side of culture.
I. The strongly ethical quality that pervades the Scriptures pours a tide of moral influence over the mind and heart of the reader which awakens, vivifies, and purifies all his moral impulses. Because the writers of the Bible were so powerfully possessed by the ethical spirit, their works appeal to the deepest moral instincts in us; their portrayal of character in the various personages of whom they make mention, and their interpretation of the fortunes of their nation, are nearly always profoundly ethical; and we cannot read their words, whether of narrative or of prophecy or of poetry, without experiencing a stir of conscience, a quickening of the sense of right and wrong, which brings us to a clearer moral consciousness than we had before, and makes us feel that righteousness and wickedness are great, solemn realities in human life. Consequently everywhere the Bible goes among men it produces, if they be led to read it, a tremendous moral impression,—an awakenment, vivification, and purification of the moral sense that is the most rectifying influence which has ever been exerted upon individuals or nations. What Mr. Walter L. Sheldon says of the value of the Bible in this respect, with reference to the moral education of children, is applicable to all childlike races and to mankind in general:
The beauty of the Bible tales for little ones is that the moral points are so pronounced. The lessons come out in large letters or heavy type and can be seen almost without comment . . . . These tales emphasize on a large scale the awfulness of the vices or of the evil passions. It is the evil of pride, for instance, which is brought out over and over again; or the iniquity of stealing; or the baseness of being untrue to one's home or family. In this way at the very outset, before we have gone into any subtle analysis, we can make the little ones feel the horror of evil conduct, turning their minds with a revulsion against stealing or murder, against jealousy, envy, pride, wilfulness and disobedience. Respect for life and property, regard for parents, loyalty to the family, submission to the law of the State—these are the virtues which stand out so boldly in the Old Testament.
2. But not only does the Bible thus impress and awaken the soul morally, it also moves the will and leads to action. Nature gives every one of us the moral sense, but in many men it is feeble, and in all it is a long time in coming to its rightful supremacy; the will is not easily brought into submission to the august authority of conscience. Now the Bible not only educates the conscience by quickening, developing, and strengthening it; it also educates the will by touching the motives, inspiring self-exertion, guiding action, and training the powers of body and mind to be in subjection to the law of righteousness engraved upon the tablets of the soul. The Bible has been called a literature of power. It is such because it moves us, sways us, prompts, restrains, urges, checks, guides, and sustains us in our efforts to realize an ideal excellence which it keeps before us. It shows us the way of duty, it reinforces our instinctive apprehension of its solemn mandate, and it presents the highest considerations which may incite us to noble endeavor after worthy ends. And, surely, there can be no true culture that does not go beyond mere contemplation, and issue in con-duct and character. I cannot regard him as justly entitled to be called a cultivated man in whom one whole side of his nature is barren. Unless the energies of one's being produce, in some degree, the fair fruits of good deeds, the noblest of all qualities, virtue, I think enlightenment and refinement fall very far short of having their perfect work. And whoever allows this element its due place in culture will easily agree with Matthew Arnold in putting a high estimate upon the Bible as a means of moral education. "As well imagine a man," says he, "with a sense for sculpture not cultivating it by the help of the remains of Greek art, and a man with a sense for poetry not cultivating it by the help of Homer and Shakespeare, as a man with a sense for conduct not cultivating it by the help of the Bible."
III. Another element in culture to which the Bible renders a potent ministry is the distinctively religious. We are in the habit of separating morality and religion, and in a measure this is permissible and perhaps needful. Yet the Bible does not divorce them, but rather unites them; and the result is that it gives the world an ethical religion or a religious morality, to the enormous advantage of all the interests concerned. But, speaking here of religion distinctively, emphasizing its God-ward side, I affirm, and probably no one would deny, that the Bible brings us the greatest help in this respect to be found in all literature.
I. It stimulates and arouses the religious instinct that is native to every human soul. It is so full of the religious spirit—deep, strong, exalted—that no man can read its pages for an hour without awakening the religious sentiment from its too constant slumber, and taking new thought for divine things, and feeling that he is a subject in the kingdom of God, whose holy laws it is his business to obey. It quickens and develops, in at least some slight degree, in every soul that receives its great teachings, the beautiful qualities of reverence, aspiration, trust, hope, courage, along with humility, conviction of sin, penitence, a yearning for pardon and inner peace, and a gracious resignation to the will of Heaven that means, not a weak surrender or a Stoic fortitude, but a calm patience, a brave confidence, and an unshaken strength in the heart. Who can point to any other writings which pro-duce such an effect to so great an extent? The whole world of literature does not contain them; and were this "river of the water of life" with-drawn, our souls would be quickly parched and the religious beauty of our civilization would soon vanish.
2. The Bible also spiritualizes religion. Be-ginning with crude, anthropomorphic ideas of God, in the midst of polytheistic teachings, the stream of this literature flows along with the course of national development, and purifies it-self by dropping its sediment of gross materialism, until in the New Testament—yes, even quite early in the Old Testament—it presents us with a pure monotheism, and inculcates a worship that is mainly of the heart and life. To be sure, rites and ceremonies, temples and sacrifices, laws and ordinances are conspicuous, and at first may seem to be all-important; yet as one reads attentively and becomes familiar with the ruling ideas in this great literature, he finds that, beneath and behind all ceremonial requirements, the one thing demanded of the individual and the nation is purity of heart and uprightness of life. Oblations are vain without this, even in the Old Testament; and in the New Testament external forms fall into complete subordination, and religion is lifted into a region of wonderful vitality, freedom, and inspiring power. Nowhere among all the shrines, cults, and sacred scriptures of mankind can we find loftier spiritual conceptions of the Divine Government, or stronger influences making for righteousness and true holiness, or a sweeter spirit of grace and truth, of majesty and love, than we see and feel emanating from this Book of books. It is the most potent instrument we possess for the spiritualization of religion, the spiritualization of civilization, and the ultimate spiritualization of the world.
IV. There is still one other element of culture to which I must allude as benefiting by the influence of the Bible. I refer to what I may call self-discipline and social service. The Bible teaches the great, twofold lesson of self-control and altruism. It makes a man ashamed of his sins; brings him to his knees in penitence and prayer; and then lifts him up and starts him out to try to be more worthy of himself by curbing his evil propensities, by compelling his conduct, speech, and thoughts into the way of God's commandments, and by showing him the highest ideal of character he has ever seen. Then it drives home into his moral consciousness the duty of consideration for others—the truth that "no man liveth to himself and no man dieth to himself;" that the claims of society upon every man are solemn and divine claims, not to be put aside; that justice, mercy, and peace are obligations as holy as those of worship—that, in short, "all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
By inculcating such ideas and principles the Bible tends to help men to self-government, self-direction, self-attainment, and at the same time helps them to devote themselves to every noble interest or enterprise concerning the betterment of the world. As a result strong characters are produced, and society is continually improved. Men who are free, and yet obedient to the divine behest, spring up; and they, living in the world yet above it, promote every effort to lift the world to a higher plane. Thus education, philanthropy, reform, missions, and all other humanitarian works are legitimate fruits of the disciplining, altruistic influence of the Bible upon men's hearts. Assuredly this is culture for the individual and culture for society.
No thought has been more frequently or forcibly expressed in college commencement sermons and orations, in recent years, than that of the duty of educated men to engage in social service. They have been urged to devote their talents and learning to the improvement of politics, the better administration of the civil service, municipal reform, the wise relief of the poor, and the uplift of the lowly in general. Such an unselfish ministry is but a proper return to society at large for the advantages which educated young people have received; and the fate of many of the highest interests of our present civilization depends upon the response which the intelligent, disciplined, favored classes in American society shall make to this great demand. But how shall such classes find adequate motive for all this? What shall keep culture from be-coming selfish? Enlightenment and refinement alone will not do this; as witness the experience of Greece. It is doubtful, too, whether modern sociology, with all its economic and political implications and considerations, will suffice for so exalted an aim as must be cherished by those who would redeem the world from its bondage to evil. At any rate, it is certain that all other inducements and promptings in this direction are powerfully reinforced by the noble moral, religious, and humanitarian appeals which the Bible makes to the souls of men. Its supreme teaching that God is not only righteous but merciful, and requires both righteousness and mercy of his children, glows upon almost every page; and when it culminates in the two great commandments given by Jesus, love to God and love to man, as the sum and substance of all true morality and all vital religion, we begin to get a new conception of the social ought, and can under-stand Paul's word : "We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves." 9 Thus the sense of social sympathy and the spirit of kindness, which are rooted in the very nature of the soul, are supplemented and strengthened by the highest ethical and religious injunctions, so that a man feels himself called of God to spend and be spent in the helpful service of his needy fellow-men. Here, therefore, is motive, ample and strong, for the most unselfish, heroic, consecrated labor that any man, however gifted, can perform. Who can measure the value of such high sanctions, reinforcing all other claims, appeals, and considerations, prompting talented people to throw themselves into the vast enterprise of a world's true salvation? And how shall we give social effect to all the learning of these days, to all the favors enjoyed by the educated classes, unless each individual thus blessed shall be moved to give himself somehow in voice and loving minis-try to human need? If the Bible did nothing else but to inspire to such a ministry, it would be well worth all it has cost the world. And what nobler element of culture can come to any man than the strength of character, the breadth of view, the depth of feeling, and the richness of spiritual experience which must inevitably result from such energetic, altruistic, and reverent social service as the Holy Scriptures thus lead him to render?
V. In conclusion, we must not forget that the culture which the Bible imparts—the enlightenment, refinement, and discipline of the human spirit—is, if the hope of immortality be valid, the best preparation we can have for the Great Beyond. One does not need to preach here, in order to enforce this truth; and although the interest in the question of a future life may not be so keen today as it has sometimes been, partly because this present world is more comfortable than it used to be, it is nevertheless far from being "a negligible quantity" for thoughtful minds. And the point here insisted upon is simply that, if we are to live hereafter, the culture which the Bible furnishes is truly the culture of eternal life. "We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out" except ourselves and our most vital, most personal acquisitions. "The fruit of the spirit" is the only fruit which we shall bear away from the fields of our earthly experience. The riches of the soul are the only enduring riches. The moment comes, soon or late, when every man begins to think about these. Jesus Christ sought to confer his greatest benefit upon the individual heart by helping it to attain to "eternal life"—the life of the eternal part of human nature. His teaching and ministry in this respect are full of solemn significance to one who tries to appreciate the true greatness of life, who desires to realize the blessings of true personal culture. The cultivation of the heart, the enrichment of the soul "toward God," the development of the love of God, including the love of all goodness, all beauty, all holiness—this is a kind of culture that not only crowns our present existence with glory and honor, but involves (if anything does) "the power of an endless life." So the Bible, by helping us to gain this supreme wealth, this finest, purest spiritual discipline, not only fits us for our best usefulness here, but (so far as we can see) gives us the best preparation we can have for the unknown privileges and possibilities of the great, wonderful spirit world. For it is written, "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love him."