Religion - Change And Permanence
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE form which the Hudson River assumes is determined by the contour of the country through which it flows. The stream is now broader, now narrower; now it holds a straight course as from Fort Edward to Newburgh, and again from Stony Point to New York Bay, now it winds about as from the Adirondacks to Glens Falls and through the Highlands; now its channel is deeper, now more shallow; now its banks rise precipitously as in the Palisades, or on Breakneck and Storm King mountains, or in the Stony Creek gorge, now there is a gradual slope up the sides of the valley. Photograph it at a number of points, and when the photographs are ranged side by side a stranger might not recognize them as pictures of the same river.
Geologists reconstruct for us the Hudson as it appeared in bygone ages. The depth of the rock channel in the Tertiary Period can still be measured in the Highlands some two thousand feet below the present bottom. In the pre-glacial age instead of flowing south through the Stony Creek gorge to Corinth, the river ran southeast from Warrensburg to Glens Falls. There have been periods when the ocean came up to the Adirondacks, and periods when the land stretched several hundred miles further out to sea than at present. When one traces the course of the Hudson on these various maps, it is a very different stream from the familiar river of today.
The Christian religion has flowed in the river-bed available for it in each generation. Now the faith has been embodied in small groups of humble folk awaiting a speedy return of the Lord to set up His kingdom; now in a much larger community, conscious of a spiritually present Christ and interpreting its earlier gospels to make Him intelligible to the people of the Mediterranean world; now in a persecuted Church, living a hunted life in catacombs and obscure meeting places; now in a triumphant Church, well-organized, wealthy, in alliance with government, and attempting to embody its principles in the law of the Empire ; now in companies of earnest men and women, fleeing from a worldly Church to live alone in the deserts in austere communion with the Invisible; now in an imperial Church, authoritatively declaring the will of God to kings and peoples, controlling education, art, charity and regulating public and private morals; now in various bodies of proscribed Protestants, seeking to recover the primitive religious experiences of the New Testament ; now in nations warring on behalf of freedom; now in nations attempting to outlaw war altogether and to substitute the reign of reason and of Christian conscience for that of brute force; now in a Church devoting itself to save individuals out of an evil world, and now in a Church striving to let the Spirit of Christ rule the world's entire life. Pictures of the stream of Christianity at various epochs in history or in its various forms to-day seem not to be representations of the same river.
There is a similarly changing appearance when one takes the course of the river of the Spirit in the life of any individual. Think of the God of our own childhood, and of the feelings with which we regarded Him; then of the God of our developing youth, if a God remained distinctly in our minds during those years when our out-look on life was changing with kaleidoscopic rapidity; then of the God of our young manhood, before whose presence momentous decisions were reached, and of the personal relationship with Him into which we entered ; then of the God of our maturer years, sometimes lost when youth's idealism vanished, sometimes regained with firmer assurance as observation and experience convinced us of His necessity and He seemed the reasonable and indispensable interpretation of an otherwise irrational world. Think of the varying aspects of God and our own altering attitudes toward Him which the circumstances of life have brought :—the God of shame, the God of comfort, the God of personal intimacy, the God of social obligation, the God of judgment revealed in a world-catastrophe, the God of hope who alone offered the power of repair and the assurance of stability, the God who hideth Himself, the God whose hidings prove His ways of Self-disclosure. John Fiske gave us a graphic description of "a tall slender man, of aquiline features, wearing spectacles, with a pen in his hand, and another behind his ear," who stood at a desk overlooking the world, and, assisted by a recording angel, entered the deeds of every mortal in a ledger. That was his child-hood view of Deity. Frederick William Faber addressed the God of his first recollections in the lines
I could not sleep unless Thy Hand
And quite alone I never felt,--
But while notions of God may be recalled, it is impossible to summon back childhood's religion. That in its simplicity and imaginativeness and physical realism is gone as irrevocably as the water that was in the Hudson when you and I were under ten. The maps which geological historians make of the Hudson Valley in the divers epochs of the past are not more varied than the spiritual charts we should be obliged to construct, were we to undertake to show the flow of religion in our souls at different stages in our development.
From of old a river has been the metaphor of fleeting change. The stream is never the same for two consecutive minutes. The water is constantly moving. Attempt to stop the current in order to examine it, and the river itself is completely altered. You have a reservoir or a lake, not a flowing stream. This makes a river so apt a simile of religious experience. For what is our sense of God but a series of flitting impressions, of emotions that rise and subside in waves, of moments of confidence alternating with moments of scepticism, of intense enthusiasms changing to placid indifference, of broad expanses of heart which reflect the sunny skies and narrow, pent-in currents that take their dark course with power ?
This is true of the experience of the race as we trace the line of the river of religion through the centuries. Browning-'s Bishop soliloquizes:
Had I been born three hundred years ago,
In one of Shirley's plays, written in the time of Charles the First, a character says : "Praying's forgot"; to which a companion remarks : "'Tis out of fashion." We can never expect the identical theology or religious habits or modes of devout expression in successive generations. Dr. Lyman Beecher's godly life reappeared in his distinguished children, but not his religious opinions and methods.
There is the same continual flux in the personal religious experience. Jeremiah asks : "O Thou Hope of Israel, the Saviour thereof in the time of trouble, why shouldest Thou be as a sojourner in the land, and as a wayfaring man that turneth aside to tarry for a night ?" There is your stream always passing. In the old story of Jacob at the Jabbok, the patriarch is represented as trying to hold the mysterious Visitant, who wrestles with him in the darkness, and as asking His name, but the Divine never abides man's questions, as a river never stops to let itself be examined. In her account of Savonarola, George Eliot observes that a man "must often speak in virtue of yesterday's faith, hoping it will come back tomorrow." Luther confessed that at times he believed and at times he doubted.. There is an interesting letter of the sturdy Protestant champion, Hugh Latimer, to his fellow-martyr, Nicholas Ridley, in which he writes : "Pray for me, I say. For I am sometimes so fearful, that I would creep into a mouse-hole; sometimes God doth visit me again with His comfort. So He cometh and goeth." Thomas Arnold, a vigorous believer, declares : "There are whole days in which all the feelings or principles of belief or of religion altogether are in utter abeyance; when one goes on very comfortably, pleased with external and worldly comforts, and yet would find it difficult, if told to inquire, to find a particle of Christian principle in one's whole mind" In Victor Hugo's Quatre-Vingt-Treize Boisberthelot asks La Vieuville "Do you believe in God, chevalier ?" and the reply comes : "Yes. No. Sometimes." And this flux of faith, which is discovered when men look in and search for God within their souls, is found also by those who scan the outer world for tokens of His presence. The Duke of Argyll reports a conversation with Charles Darwin during the last year of that scientist's life : "I said to Mr. Darwin with reference to some of his own remarkable works on `Fertilization of Orchids' and on 'The Earth-worms,' `It was impossible to look at these without seeing that they were the effect and expression of mind.' I shall never forget Mr. Darwin's answer. He looked at me hard and said : `Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force; but at other times,' and he shook his head vaguely, adding, 'it seems to go away.' '
The Spirit of God in us, like the Hudson in the country through which it flows, is given His channel by our physical conditions, our temperaments, our mental training. The river of the water of life has to take its way through the available watershed. And a stream is in its very nature ceaselessly changing. This is often a sore distress to devout souls. John Wesley, thinking both of himself and his adherents, enters in his Diary the question: "Oh, why should we not be always what we were once ?" But the very attempt to examine ourselves and test the flow of the Spirit within is like the effort to stop a river in order to investigate it. A river is not a river except as it moves. Obstruct it with a dam, and the stream below runs away, while the waters above pile up in a pool. The act of self-examination for the moment destroys the river of the water of life. William Cowper, the hymn-writer, when dying was asked by the physician how he felt, and replied : "I feel unutterable despair." We explain his feelings by his mental and physical condition, and we see the abundant stream of the Spirit in his life, which still flows on through the heritage of his poetry. We hear Jesus on the cross crying : "Forsaken !" and in the same breath clinging in faith: "My God." There are the changing emotions and the abiding relationship.
For a river is not only an appropriate symbol of constant change ; but it is also a picture of permanence. Its water is forever flowing away, but the stream remains exhaustlessly replenished. For millions of years there has been some sort of watershed from the peaks of the Adirondacks southward to the ocean. Its course has been affected by many changes in the earth's surface. The sea has been nearer and farther; the land has risen and subsided; the mountain-tops have been higher and the river-bed much lower; the path taken by the water has varied somewhat; but from the Mesozoic Period, at least, there has been a watercourse from their summits to the Atlantic in the direction where we locate the Hudson on our maps.
So far back as our explorations of mankind can take us, and all down the line of human history, we discover religion the flow of inspirations which men connect with something beyond and above them. In a recent text-book of European archaeology, covering the Palaeolithic period, Professor Macalister finds indications of religion in the life of these ancient people, whose skeletons or skulls he examines ; and he comments : "It is now believed that just as there is no race of people, however low in the scale of civilization, without language or without social order, so there is no tribe or race, however low, without some form of religion. A completely religionless community does not exist, and probably never has existed." The flow of man's nature towards the Unseen appears as inevitable as the flow of moisture towards the great deep. When we survey the Christian centuries, and study the stream of the life of God in man in its purest and most copious flow from those loftiest moral heights—Bethlehem and Galilee and Calvary—we note more than one period when men expected this river to cease altogether. There was this or that circumstance in the condition of the times, some obstruction in the thought or some absorbing dryness in the life of the day, which portended its cessation. But it is still sweeping on, a majestic Hudson, when one views its breadth and volume throughout our world; and there is no sign of any diminution of its abundance. The more it changes in appearance, the more it remains the same river. Plutarch, the
Greek historian, wrote: "The divine—religion—is something imperishable; but its forms are subject to decay. God bestows many good things on men; but nothing imperishable; for, as Socrates says, even what has reference to the gods is subject to death." But a Christian con-temporary of Plutarch's, writing to people who had witnessed revolutionary changes in their religion, who had seen the Temple at Jerusalem destroyed, its ritual become obsolete, and the whole face of Judaism transfigured in the new hope which had become theirs through One whom they revered as the Pioneer and Perfecter of faith, while he agrees with him as to the passing forms of religion, insists that God has given man one abiding element: "Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, and to-day, yea and forever." The permanent factor for him in religion is to be found in Christ, and in the Christlike Spirit, discovered as the moving current amid all the changing appearances of the river's course.
When one tries to define Christianity—a very difficult undertaking because the instant you try to examine it you interfere with its flow and it loses its essential character —one gets at its essence most clearly in the Christlike movements in the thoughts and conduct of individuals and social groups. A river is found not in the water which you may be able to bail out in a pail and so investigate. The water ceases to be a river the moment you capture it in your bucket. A river is found in the continuous stream moving towards the sea-level. Christianity is not the religious opinions or the modes of worship or the customs of life or the forms of activity of any particular generation of believers in Jesus, which one can take and examine, very much as one hauls up a bucket of water from a running stream. The water of a river is ceaselessly flowing and the doctrines and ritual and usages and methods of Christians are forever in flux. Again and again men have taken Christianity at some point in its course—in the New Testament period, or in the undivided Church of the first three centuries, or in the epoch of the Protestant Reformation-and insisted that the beliefs or the forms of Church government or the usages in worship were fixed then for all time. But subsequent centuries can no more think with the minds of the apostles or of the Greek creed-makers, or organize the Church after the pattern of the early Fathers, than they can call back the first or the fourth or the sixteenth century in the stream of time.
And how fortunate it is that one cannot stabilize religion ! Fronde very cleverly criticized the attempt of Anglicanism to establish by law an unalterable form of religious institution in the Church of England :
"If medicine had been regulated three hundred years ago by Act of Parliament; if there had been Thirty-nine Articles of Physic, and every licensed practitioner had been compelled under pains and penalties to compound his drugs by the prescriptions of Henry the Eighth's physician, Doctor Butts, it is easy to conjecture in what state of health the people of this country would at present be found."
There cannot be a river without water; and there cannot be a flow of the Spirit of God without beliefs and institutions and activities. But the water at any moment rolling by is not the river; and the ideas and institutions and activities even of the New Testament are not the Christian religion. They form merely the stream of the Spirit of Jesus at one moment in its long sweep through the ages.
One must watch the river as it flows to describe it accurately; one must watch the Christian Spirit in motion to get at the essence of the Christian faith. See a Paul counting all things but loss that he may be found in Christ and present others perfect in Him ; an Augustine putting off his sensual life and becoming an wholly renewed man in the service of Christ; a Francis of Assisi espousing poverty and claiming glad kinship as a child of God with sun and moon, beasts and birds, and every man to whom he can minister happiness by obedience to Jesus; a Luther discovering that a Christian man is the most free lord of all and subject to none, and the servant of all, bound to be to them what Christ has been to him, and standing for that freedom and that servitude at the risk of death; a Lincoln with malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gave him to see the right, setting free the bondmen, and preserving the unity of a nation; an Edith Cavell discovering that patriotism is not enough and that she must die without hatred or bitterness towards any one;—this is Christianity, this is the permanent current of the Christian Spirit, flowing on while beliefs and institutions and prayers and ways of doing everything change.
An essential need in men which drives them to religion is the desire to find the abiding amid the transient, and thus attain a sense of being at home in an estranging world. A brilliant contemporary Jewish writer, Ludwig
Lewisohn, who has recently unveiled his soul in an auto-biography which bitterly indicts our American life, says of his early religious impressions in a southern city and
of that which drew him to churches, Protestant and Roman Catholic:
"I had a sense, shadowy and inarticulate, but deep enough, of our homelessness in the universe, of our terrible helplessness before it. I had seen something of misfortune and uncertainty and change, and my mind de-sired then, as, with frugal hope, it does now, a point of permanence in the `vast driftings of the cosmic weather,' a power in which there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning."
He concludes his bitter narrative with a total rejection of Theistic belief, to which he attributes all manner of social evil, and with a violent repudiation of Christian ethics as he sees them embodied in the current industrial and international order; but his soul still cleaves with religious devotion to truth and beauty and human brotherhood—which are the chief expressions for others of the presence of the Deity whom he so scornfully denies. His interpretation of the universe robs him of that point of permanence which Christian believers find in God, to whom they pray:
Change and decay in all around I see;
But it is perhaps not so much "a point of permanence" as an abiding flow of the Spirit which they discover, a stream which continues despite the constant passing of its water. Up in the Adirondacks, where the Hudson's headwaters form, there are brooks which during part of the year disappear from sight; one sees in their channels a dry bed of stones. One may notice similar totally arid watercourses in men's spirits. Tormented by doubts, August Hermann Franke, the future Pietist professor of Halle, resolved to call upon God in whom he did not think that he believed, and uttered the remarkable prayer t "Thou art the cause of my suffering, O non-existing God, for if Thou didst exist, then should I also really exist." But while the beds of our Adirondack brooks may be dry in summer, the moisture is seeping along through the gravel underneath. So, concealed from their own sight and out of view of those who know them best, the spiritual stream still makes its way in the souls of those who fancy it has ceased in them altogether. We spoke of the impossibility of recalling the religion of our childhood; but while that has gone irretrievably, as yesterday's water in any brook has flowed away, the stream may re-emerge. In the Autobiography of Henry M. Stanley, he tells us how in Africa the river of an early piety, for years out of sight, suddenly surprised him by re-appearing. Cut off from newspapers and unable to carry other books along, he had with him a Bible which he began to read :
"When I laid down the book, the mind commenced to feed upon what memory suggested. Then rose the ghosts of bygone yearnings, haunting every cranny of the brain with numbers of baffled hopes and unfulfilled aspirations.
Here was I, only a poor journalist, with no friends, and yet possessed by a feeling of power to achieve ! How could it ever be? Then verses of Scripture rang iteratingly through my mind as applicable to my own being, sometimes full of promise, often of solemn warning.
Alone in my tent, my mind labored and worked upon itself, and nothing was so soothing and sustaining as when I remembered the long-neglected comfort and sup-port of lonely childhood and boyhood. I flung myself on my knees, and poured out my soul utterly in secret prayer to Him from whom I had been so long estranged, to Him who had led me mysteriously into Africa, there to reveal Himself, and His will. I became then inspired with fresh desire to serve Him to the utmost, that same desire which in early days in New Orleans filled me each morning, and sent me joyfully skipping to my work."
Many persons go through several transformations in their religious views, and may alter their church affiliations two or three times, and they frequently think these changes involve complete breaks with their previous spiritual life; but those who watch the course of their careers are aware of the continuity of the stream of inspiration within them. Amid the alterations in our ideas
and fluctuations in our feelings, we can say with a New Testament writer: "They shall pass; but Thou continuest." They belong to the outward man which perisheth, while the inward man is renewed day by day. And even where the interruptions in religious experience are not so marked, and there are no decided breaks with the past, there are differences which make a man seem a stranger to his former emotions and inspirations. Our religious associations change with everything else in the world; new teachers take the place of old ones; old texts acquire new meanings; fresh voices bring their messages when long-known tones no longer fall upon our ears; but there is familiarity amid difference in the set of the soul Godward. McLeod Campbell writes : "I felt this morning in reading an Epistle which I had not read for some time, all its living truth and divine love freshly affecting me, and yet as whathad felt before." Father Faber goes on in the poem to the God of his childhood, from which we have already quoted :
Thou broadenest out with every year,
Changed and not changed, Thy present charms
These novelties of love !—when will
And this brings us to another connection between a river and permanence. The constantly flowing stream is bound somewhither. One can scarcely look at the moving current without having his thought carried to its destination : "Into what does this river empty?" So is it with the life in which there is a religious current. There are men and women who give the impression of belonging to this world. They are at home in its ways, take it as they find it, have an eye to its main chances, are untroubled by the level of its standards, enjoy its pleasures, put up with its discomforts, and east no wistful glances towards ideals beyond its horizons. Pontius Pilate seems to belong in the Roman Empire. He has no purposes which are too large for its confines, no longings past its capacities to gratify, no yearning towards something beyond and afar from it. Jesus of Nazareth seems a stranger moving through it, with both the sources and goals of His being outside it. His purposes require eternity for their fulfillment, His longings only God and the fellowship of innumerable brethren in God can satisfy. Jeremy Taylor in a funeral sermon said of the Lady Carbery : "In all her religion, she had a strange evenness and untroubled passage, sliding towards her ocean of God and of infinity with a certain and silent motion." Men and women of genuine Christian con-science appear, like a river, to be always en route. They crave a diviner order for the world and more Christlike spirits for themselves, and these cravings of their souls, like the pull of gravitation on water drawing it towards sea-level, create in them a flow setting forth towards love, towards God who is love, towards the vast deep of love's full life for all. In their company one catches "murmurs and scents of the infinite sea." They feel with the hymn-writer:
Rivers to the ocean run,
A second life has no attraction for those who are bored with this. Those who "kill time" here, are not allured by the prospect of an eternity "to kill" yonder. But they whose aims for themselves, for their beloved, for man kind, are as far-reaching as those of Jesus need limitless scope for their achievement. And as the river in its steady movement bears witness to the existence of the ocean towards which it glides, so men and women moving towards divine purposes testify to the existence of a spiritual sea-level in the universe—to God and life eternal in and with Him. The river is always moving out from the land which has formed its banks, but its waters are not lost. "The world passeth away and the lust thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever."
We began our discussion with the somewhat impatient and cynical question : "What is there in religion any-how?" We have used the Hudson River as a parable of the various benefits which the stream of the Spirit of faith renders to believers. Many think that there is nothing but self-hypnosis in religious belief. Men fancy a God, driven to this imagination by their sex impulse, or by some other unsatisfied element in their natures ; and then they derive comforts and incentives from the contemplation of this imagined Lover, Father and Friend. But does that explanation really account for the facts ? One need not deny that the religious impulse is closely related with those of sex and of hunger. Indeed it belongs with the most primitive and strongest impulses in man's make-up it is an essential component of his being. But is it conceivable that from an illusion men and women through many generations have derived refreshment, cleansing, power, illumination, fruitfulness, buoyancy, adventure, beauty, unity, a sense of permanence? It is no imaginary Hudson which affords corresponding benefits to those who live in its neighborhood. Why should the stream of religion, conferring these vastly more valuable spiritual benefits, be any more illusory ? In response to a Questionnaire sent out by Professor Pratt, now of Williams College, William James wrote that he believed in God because "the whole line of testimony on this point is so strong that I cannot pooh-pooh it away. No doubt there is a germ in me of something similar that makes response."
If the religious impulse in man be intimately allied with that of sex, why is it not an evidence of an equally objective reality? Do not organisms develop in response to external stimuli-plants evolving chlorophyll in answer to light, bodies the haemoglobin in red corpuscles in answer to oxygen? Is not faith a response in the soul to as real a God? As chlorophyll appropriates the sun-light and builds up the plant, as haemoglobin in blood corpuscles appropriates oxygen and aerates the system, producing combustion and supplying physical energy, faith appropriates the Spirit of God and brings His life to strengthen and energize ours. Why should God be more illusory than the mate to whom the sex impulse points, or the light to which chlorophyll responds, or the oxygen to which haemoglobin answers ?
And were this stream of the Spirit, were the living God, an illusion, would He have retained His permanent place in human trust through all the ages ? Would not the illusion have been found out-as time and again some Skeptical thinker has declared the fraud unmasked-and would not the notion of a companionable God have remained discredited ? Had nature made a misstep when She built up chlorophyll in plants, it would never have become the very common element which it is. Had man made a mistake when his spirit reached forth in trust, religion could not have become the almost universal and enduring component in human nature which it is. Chlorophyll is itself a witness to the existence of sunlight, the sex impulse a witness to the existence of mates, religion a witness to the reality of God.
We have been stressing the permanency of the Hudson River, despite the constant flowing away of the water which composes it. That permanency is due to its connection with the fabric of the world, the scheme of nature. The sun in the heavens drawing up moisture and forming clouds, the showers which fill the springs and keep moist the slopes of the mountains, the snows which pile up on those uplands every winter, the lie of the land furnishing a watershed down the valley towards the Atlantic-all combine to assure the continued existence of the Hudson River which is constantly gliding away. Is not the only reasonable interpretation of the abiding presence of religion in the life of men that it, too, is connected with the spiritual basis of the universe, that God is as 'actual as sun and showers and mountains and valley and ocean?
It is one thing to know of the Hudson River, because you happen to have learned of it from a geography, and to have seen its line on a map; it is quite another thing to spend your life beside it, to find your recreation in the summits where it rises and do your work in a city which it cleanses and provides with harbor, to know from experience its refreshment and loveliness and utility. It is one thing to be convinced that the God and Father of Jesus Christ exists, because He seems the reasonable ex-planation of the faith of those who claim to know Him, and to accord Him a place on your map of being; it is quite another thing to pass your life in His companionship, and know for yourself "the fullness of God."