Religion - Power
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A LONG part of the course of the Hudson River mills are built and the stream is employed as a source of power. Human force is multiplied many times by the force of the current, and what would be impossible for the physical strength of man is done easily with the assistance of the river. The commonest of all religious experiences is the discovery that power results from faith in God.
The Bible is full of acknowledgments by believers of this reinforcement. An early warrior sings: "By Thee I run upon a troop, and by my God do I leap over a wall." Another psalmist gives as a repeatedly verified experience: "Twice have I heard this : that power belongeth unto God." A shrinking prophet faces single-handed a whole people with the divine Voice ringing in his soul : "I have made thee a fortified city, and an iron pillar, and brazen walls." A Christian apostle, who to spread the sway of Jesus has inured himself to hardship and loss, and learned self-control when success smiled upon him, declares : "I can do all things in Him that strengtheneth me." Old Testament believers heard the challenge "Is anything too hard for the Lord ?" Jesus premised His prayer with the confession of confidence "Abba, Father, all things are possible unto Thee"; and He passed on to His followers an assurance which made them say again and again : "God is able—able to guard you from stumbling, able to make all grace abound, able to do exceeding abundantly." The biographers of Jesus repeatedly call attention to His extraordinary force: His word is with power; He does mighty works ; He is aware of limitless resources—"the Father abiding in Me doeth His works." The God of Christian faith is not sheer might; He is love; but His love is wise, and has all the forces of the universe at its disposal. The supreme instance of the might of God is the triumph of Jesus over the combination of forces which massed themselves to end His career and succeeded in crucifying and burying Him, only to find Him a more potent living Factor both in their own and succeeding centuries. When Paul wants a measure for the force of God, he speaks of "the exceeding greatness of His power to usward who believe, according to that working of the strength of His might which He wrought in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead." Christian faith establishes a connection with One whose love is incalculably capable.
Man is pitted against three antagonists which seem too strong for him the physical universe, the mass of his fellow-mortals, and himself.
(1) The physical universe. He has to sustain himself in the midst of, by, and against the world of nature. He must fight to keep alive—fight against heat and cold, disease and danger. He must subdue beasts and soil, and make them support him. He must investigate and try to conquer such forces as electricity and bacilli. He wages a losing battle, for in three score years and ten more or less the physical universe appears to win and to reduce his body to dust. Instinctively he reaches out for an invisible Ally; and, from the most primitive believer, who fortified himself with a magical charm, to Jesus of Nazareth commending His spirit to a Father's hands, he has felt himself strengthened.
Psychologists have investigated the latent force in man's instinctive emotions, and have taught us how these are made dangerous by repression or paralyzed by inhibiting notions. There is no more emancipating idea than that on which Jesus Iaid such constant stress—that this physical universe is God's world, that its forces are not foes but friends of His sons and daughters, that man can use every one of them for his advantage. Paul summed up the
Master's teaching in the statement: "All things are yours: the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours." Those who possess this faith are freed from fear—the most serious of inhibitions. In their religious life they are daily renewed with the suggestion of power. Physiologists tell us that the mind be-comes fatigued much sooner than the body, so that a faith which strengthens our confidence enables us to put forth much more physical energy. A British neurologist re-ports an experiment on three men under hypnosis, in which a suggestion of weakness lowered their strength to almost one-fourth of their normal average, while a suggestion of power increased it by more than a third. Christian faith enables its possessors to become whole men physically, to release as much as in them is. And Christian believers would not be willing to limit their available powers by those which any physicist could list as within them. They refuse to draw a sharp line between the Within and the Beyond; for them there is a door between,. which they believe can be opened. The resources in themselves are not merely human, for God is within; and God to whom be-longs the universe can replenish and supplement the avail-able stock out of an exhaustless store. Pitted against the odds of the physical universe, they are confident that all that God asks of them they can rely on Him to supply.
In the note-books of Henry M. Stanley there are striking testimonials to the worth of religion to a man con-fronting the perilous forces of a savage continent:
"On all my expeditions, prayer made me stronger, morally and mentally, than my non-praying companions. It did not blind my eyes, or dull my mind, or close my ears but, on the contrary, it gave me confidence. It did more, it gave me joy and pride in my work, and lifted me hope-fully over the one thousand five hundred miles of forest tracks, eager to face the day's perils and fatigues. . . Civilized society rejoices in the protection afforded it by strong-armed law. Those in whom faith in God is strong feel the same sense of security in the deepest wilds. An invisible Good Influence surrounds them, to whom they appeal in distress, an Influence which inspires noble thoughts, comfort in grief, and resolution when weakened by misfortune. I imperfectly understand this myself, but I have faith and believe. . . By prayer, the road sought for has become visible, and the danger immediately lessened, not once or twice or thrice, but repeatedly, until the cold unbelieving heart was impressed."
But the physical universe sooner or later presents man with the inevitable. He may face it in one of five ways :—He may revolt, and be sent to his grave "like a quarry slave at night scourged to his dungeon." He may try to cheat the universe by taking his own life, finding a pose of power in substituting for its mode of execution one which he chooses for himself. He may attempt a fractional suicide by dulling his sensibilities with drink or drugs. He may face it with the grim effort of will of the Stoic or the Red Indian. Or he may accept it as the will of a wise and loving Father. Christian faith condemns revolt and suicide, whether total or partial. One evangelist tells us that Jesus declined the drugged drink which humane custom provided for victims en route to crucifixion. He seemed to say :
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes and forbore, And bade me creep past. No! let me taste the whole of it.
Christianity is altogether different from Stoicism in its attitude to the universe, but many a Christian tends to stop with Stoicism. There are few more heroic figures in the annals of English literature than that of Sir Walter Scott, when suddenly upon his career of uninterrupted prosperity came, through no fault of his, the failure of the publishing house in which he was financially involved, the death of a dearly loved grandson and the death of his wife. Scott left the house he loved, saw his cherished be-longings taken away for sale, sat down day after day and forced himself to write in order to pay off his creditors, and battled manfully with his own depression. Here is a typical entry in his diary :
"Worked in the morning as usual, and sent off the proofs and copy. Something of the black dog still hanging about me; but I will shake him off. I generally affect good spirits in company of my family, whether I am enjoying them or not. It is too severe to sadden the harmless mirth of others by suffering your own causeless melancholy to be seen; and this species of exertion is, like virtue, its own reward; for the good spirits, which are at first simulated, become at length real."
God forbid that one should speak slightingly of a struggle so honorably fought; but it is singular that one as punctiliously religious in outward observances should have fought it apparently alone. When Lady Scott lies slowly dying, he enters :
"The same scene of hopeless (almost) and unavailing anxiety. Still welcoming me with a smile, and asserting she is better. I fear the disease is too deeply entwined with the principles of life. Still laboring at this Review, without heart or spirits to finish it. I am a tolerable Stoic, but preach to myself in vain."
And he transcribes two lines from Shakespeare's King Henry the Fourth:
Are these things then necessities? Then let us meet them like necessities.
Possibly Scott's reticence made him diffident in expressing religious faith even in his diary; but he seems to be forcing himself to bear up by sheer power of will, and pathetically he owns that the struggle leaves him "hardened." It is a long way from the acquiescence of Gethsemane : "The cup which the Father giveth Me, shall I not drink it ?"
Henri Amiel, professor in the Academy of Geneva, acute student of art, literature and philosophy, consults his physician and is told that an incurable malady is upon him, that he must look forward to rapidly waning strength, and after some months or years to death. Next morning he writes in his Journal:
"On waking it seemed to me that I was staring into the future with startled eyes. Is it indeed to me that these things apply ? Incessant and growing humiliation, my slavery becoming heavier, my circle of action steadily narrower! . . . It is difficult for the natural man to escape from a dumb rage against inevitable agony.'
He asks himself the possible explanations of the universe an indifferent nature? a Satanic principle of things? a good and just God? As he thinks them over, the Christion interpretation grips his mind :
"Righteousness consists in willingly accepting one's lot, in submitting to and espousing the destiny assigned us, in willing what God commands, in renouncing what He forbids us, in consenting to what He takes from us or refuses us."
And the entry in the journal concludes:
"Health cut off means marriage, travel, study and work forbidden or endangered. It means life reduced in attractiveness and utility by five-sixths. Thy will be done!"
In a previous chapter we quoted Mr. Birrell's remark on the religion of Charlotte Brontë. It may be true that she had not enough faith to give her enjoyment ; but she had enough to give her splendid power. After her sister Emily's death, and with Anne dying of the same incurable disease, this brilliant woman, condemned to the loneliest of existences with her old father in Haworth rectory on the bleak Yorkshire moors, writes to her closest friend:
"I avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward. This is not the time to regret, dread, or weep. What I have and ought to do is very distinctly laid out for me ; what I want, and pray for, is strength to perform it. The days pass in a slow, dark march; the nights are the test; the sudden wakings from restless sleep, the revived knowledge that one lies in her grave, and an-other not at my side, but in a separate and sick bed. However, God is over all."
An even more triumphant instance of the power which Christian faith supplies in the face of an overwhelming blow from the physical universe is given in Dr. John Brown's account of the way in which his sainted father took his wife's death :
"On the morning of the 28th May 1816, my eldest sister, Janet, and I were sleeping in the kitchen-bed with Tibbie Meek, our only servant. We were all three awakened by a cry of pain—sharp, insufferable, as if one were stung. . We all knew whose voice it was, and, in our night-clothes, we ran into the passage, and into the little parlor to the left hand, in which was a closet-bed. We found my father standing before us, erect, his hands clenched in his black hair, his eyes full of misery and amazement, his face white as that of the dead. He frightened us. He saw this, or else his intense will had mastered his agony, for, taking his hands from his head, he said, slowly and gently, `Let us give thanks,' and turned to a little sofa in the room; there lay our mother, dead."
In these instances we have men and women confronting the universe in its most menacing and hostile aspects, and finding in religion force to face circumstances bravely, and to acquiesce with thankfulness in that which at the time is breaking their hearts.
(2) The mass of our fellow-mortals. Every earnest man has to follow a lonely way in face of the criticism of many and the opposition of some, and with the drag of the uncaring ignorance of the majority of those about him. Here and there stalwart spirits fall back on them-selves and hold their course in resolute solitude. But in such isolation almost invariably they are driven, even despite their own reluctant unbelief, to feel after invisible Comradeship. And then the power of faith is manifested.
For years Louis Pasteur strove in the interest of truth and humanity, against the medical profession and the overwhelming majority of his fellow-scientists, to have his theory of the spread of infection by germs applied practically. It was a long and almost solitary struggle against stupidity, pride and professional jealousy. When at the close of his career he was elected to the Academy, at a time when expressions of personal religion were most uncommon in such circles, he took occasion in his inaugural address to pay homage to the sense of a Power beyond man's :
"Blessed is he who carries within himself a God, an ideal, and who obeys it ; ideal of art, ideal of science, ideal of the gospel virtues, therein lie the springs of great thoughts and great actions; they all reflect light from the Infinite."
Pasteur had an English contemporary who would have regretted that his faith was not more explicitly evangelical and orthodox, but whose own battle through a lifetime on behalf of the oppressed-factory-operatives, chimney-sweeps, lunatics, children enslaved in industry—was akin to the struggle of the French man of science. Lord Ash-ley (more familiarly known by his later title as Earl of Shaftesbury) confided to a diary such reflections as these:
"Engaged more than ever: small works compared with the political and financial movements of the day—a Lodging-House, a Ragged School, a Vagrant Bill, a Thieves' Refuge ! No wonder that people think me as small as my work; and yet I would not change it. Surely God has called me to the career.
" `With all your experience' (I imagine some young man saying to me) `would you counsel me to follow the career that you have chosen and pursued ?' In the first place, I reply that, in spite of all vexations, disappointments, rebuffs, insults, toil, self-denial, expense, weariness, sickness, all loss of political position, and considerable loss of estimation—in spite of being always secretly despised and often publicly ignored—in spite of having your `evil' most maliciously and ingeniously exaggerated, and your `good' `evil spoken of,' I would for myself say, `Yes.' "
Throughout the diary after some speech which he had anticipated with dread and which went off better than he had dared to hope, after some unexpected support for his measures from leaders in Parliament, after a vote which set forward the cause even if for the time being the bill he wanted was not passed, he inserts : "Non nobis, Do-mine."
Here are men who found their religion a reinforcement against the pressure of fellow-mortals indifferent or hostile to their cherished ideals.
There are dozens of men and women, younger and older, in our commercial enterprises asking themselves whether Christian principles can be made to work in modern business. They may need to be reminded that no sentiment, however lofty, can be expected to act as a substitute for sound judgment and unflagging industry. They may also be told that the current acquisitive motives are not working in such fashion that present business conditions can be viewed with complacency. But they must recall that the Gospel does not offer mere principles which men must put into operation, but the Spirit of love which is the Spirit of power. The Christian religion stands or falls with the practicability of this Spirit. It asserts that the mind of Jesus is the mind of the Lord of earth and heaven, that to work by methods at variance with that mind is to court certain disaster and to impoverish one's soul, that to be ruled by His mind is to encounter criticism, mockery, enmity—a repetition in some sort of Calvary—and inevitably to know the power of His victory.
There are hundreds of wistful spirits the world over looking for a readjustment of international relations on a basis of brotherhood which will render impossible a recurrence of the tragedy of war. They feel the pressure of the opposition which invariably develops when even the most moderate steps towards an organization for world-friendship are undertaken. They know the cynicism which has succeeded the eager idealism of a few years ago. They see the same factors alive and aggressive which brought on the terrible catastrophe. They confront the dilemma of pessimism or religious faith. Those who choose the latter are the spirits with force enough to bring to the birth the new era, with which the world is now travailing.
(3) Man fights with himself. Each one knows himself a house divided. It is not merely a conflict of the physical and the spiritual, but a civil war in the spirit itself. The most placid of saints confess their consciousness of an in-ward warfare, and the vast majority of believers tell of a battle to the death. The struggle seems usually more acute in religious than in irreligious natures; for in the latter the spiritual nature is itself dormant; but the former speak of conquest. They have opened their hearts in trust and let in reinforcements against their baser, selves. In the conclusion of his study of The Varieties of Religious Experience, Professor William James says that "higher energies filter in." The combat between the good that a man would and the .evil that he would not do, wringing the anguished exclamation : "Wretched man that I am ! who shall deliver me ?" ends successfully with those who can say : "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord."
Not to dwell upon the grosser passions and hideous selfishness from which believers look to God to wash them white, take the timidity which inhibits usefulness. When young John Calvin was a student in Paris, and just beginning to break with the traditional Roman interpretation of Christianity, he suddenly discovered fellow-students and other inquiring folk turning to him for guidance:
"I was quite surprised to find that before a year elapsed all who had any desire after purer doctrines were continually coming to me to learn, although I myself was but a novice and a tyro. Being of a disposition somewhat unpolished and bashful which led me to love retirement, I then began to seek some corner where I might be with-drawn from public view; but so far from being able to accomplish the object of my desire, all retreats were like public schools. In short, whilst my one great object was to live in seclusion without being known, God so led me out through different turnings and changes that He never permitted me to rest in one place, until in spite of my natural disposition He brought me forth into public notice."
And there is a tradition that this shy and hesitant scholar, apprehensive of the conflict ahead, scarcely knowing whither his thoughts were taking him, used to conclude these early addresses on religious themes with the words: "If God be for us, who can be against us?" Religion was his reliance to down the inhibitions of bashfulness.
Many discover a worse inward enemy in worry, which robs them of sleep, darkens their days, and more than halves their efficiency. On March 3rd, 1843, after a long effort which had left him with less than a dollar in his packet, Samuel F. B. Morse sat in the gallery of the Senate Chamber in Washington anxiously waiting for the passage of a Telegraph Bill, which would insure the putting into operation of his invention for the transmission of messages by wire. As the hands of the clock drew towards midnight on that last evening of an expiring Congress, he consulted two senatorial friends on the probability of the bill's being reached before the close of the session, and they could only bid him prepare to be disappointed. "In this state of mind," he writes to a friend, "I retired to my chamber and made all my arrangements for leaving Washington the next day. Painful as was this prospect of renewed disappointment, you, my dear sir, will understand me when I say that, knowing from experience whence my help must come in any difficulty, I soon disposed of my cares, and slept as quietly as a child." Next morning at breakfast he was called out of the hotel dining-room, and to his extreme astonishment told that the bill had passed.' But if it had not been reached, with a good night's rest behind him, Morse would have been ready for the next effort. Christian faith equipped him with the valuable power of disposing of care.
Students of psychology have been opening up for us the abysses of human personality, and pointing out the dangers that lurk in repressed or misdirected impulses, notably the sex-impulse. A certain school of psycho-analysts carry back almost all mental and moral ills to some faulty treatment of this primary instinct. Whether their diagnosis be altogether correct or not, Christian faith and consecration can sublimate the impulse and transmute it into a creative force for the highest social well-being. The conversion of the instincts sets free the reservoir of latent power in man's subconscious life, and opens up his personality to fresh inspirations from the life of God. To revert to our metaphor of the Hudson, religion changes the nature of a man from a stagnant pool, in which all manner of noxious infections breed, into a river flowing out in acts of ministry and replenished with new supplies from the lofty mountains of God. It is not without significance that the health-commissioner of one of our largest cities recently called together a group of religious leaders and asked their cooperation in dealing with drug addicts. He brought with him a number of physicians who had specialized in the treatment of these cases, and the burden of their speech was that apart from religious renewal they were unable to point to permanent cures. Here is a pathetic class of men and women, who long to be delivered from their own craving, for whom the only certain relief and rescue seems to lie in the power of faith.
In this discussion of religion as a source of power, it is well to remind ourselves that there are two types of strength : there is the strength of the steel bridge over which a heavy train pounds its way, while the girders resist the shock and strain ; there is the strength of the locomotive which draws the train at a steady speed. There is the strength of the river which bears up a. heavy vessel, and the strength of its cur-rent which sweeps such a vessel towards the sea. Believing men find both forms of strength in religion—the power of patience by which they endure the intolerable, and the power of perpetual moral motion. They find in God both the passive and the active strength. Isaiah possessed and tried to give his contemporaries in Judah quietness and confidence. Paul said of a tottering weak brother : "The Lord hath power to make him stand." Jesus, "when He was reviled, reviled not again." Water has a stalwart resistance to pressure, and faith beareth and endureth all things. Another prophet pictures the believing exiles on their march across the desert to their homeland mounting upon wings, running, walking—always moving towards their goal. New Testament Christians found the energizing Spirit of Christ within them an unfailing inspiration to tireless effort. Steadfastness and energy-the power to keep still and the power to keep going--these men discover in religion.
In a sense, as was suggested in a previous chapter, religion makes life much harder, because it faces believers with the impossible-with the Christlike. Many people manage to get along without the reinforcements of religion because for themselves and for their community they aim at goals well within their powers. To them the message that force is to be found from contact with the Unseen is without interest. They may even think it a sign of weakness, unworthy of self-respecting men, to go begging for assistance from any one. But the Christian is haunted with a tantalizing ideal to which he cannot attain. He must stand as much, and bear it as acquiescently, as Jesus. He must spend himself as ungrudgingly and with a like outgo of love. The more seriously he takes the ideal of Jesus, the more painfully aware he is that he comes no-where near its achievement. He must either give up in desperation or turn for aid to One who is able unto the uttermost. We were speaking a moment ago of Calvin. When he first established the reformed faith in Geneva, a certain offender against Biblical moral standards, who was cited to appear before the Council, sent the naïve message that he was prepared to agree to the articles of the Confession of Faith, but that he could not take any oath about the Ten Commandments of God "because they are very difficult to keep." It is the difficulty of the New Testament interpretation of what God requires of us and our community which compels us to go to Him for reinforcement.
And what a picture a river, like our Hudson, is of Divine power! A dam might be erected which would check that flow of water for a brief space, but no matter how high the obstruction might be built, the water would continue to pile up behind it, until at length it poured over the top, or forced a way around it, or by its sheer weight broke through the dam. A loving God may be delayed. Men may set up barriers against His purpose in our world ; they may hold fast the entrances of their own hearts. But sooner or later, over, or around, or through, He comes. Have we not seen it in human affairs? Have we not known it in our own experiences ?
When a river is employed to supply power, men rarely set their water-wheels in the broad stream. The current is contracted into a mill-race. Has not God done some-thing analogous to that in His Self-expression in Jesus ?, Has He not focussed and made available His power? Jesus used the metaphor of contraction when He said of His death: "How am I straitened till it be accomplished!" The figure of Jesus, and especially of Jesus as crucified, is in every generation the point where men are connected with the flow of Divine might. George Tyrrell wrote : "Again and again I have been tempted to give up the struggle, but always the figure of that strange Man hang ing on the cross sends me back to my task again." Samuel Butler, who delighted in sneering at Christianity, once set down in a note-book : "There will be no comfortable and safe development of our social arrangements—I mean we .hall not get infanticide and the permission to suicide, nor cheap and easy divorce—till Jesus Christ's ghost has been laid." He added sarcastically: "And the best way to lay it is to be a moderate churchman." Christ sets the ideal and has power to force men to try to attain it.
And when He lays hold of a life, He narrows it into a mill-race. Like Himself, His disciples are wonderfully broadened in the range of their sympathies, but they are restricted to a single purpose. Paul used the word which a Greek would have employed for the confining of water in a sluice : "The love of Christ constraineth me." His followers feel themselves hemmed in. Every activity of their lives has to be in line with the aim for which Jesus lived and died, as the mill-race parallels the course of the stream. And through a man's life so narrowed and set power flows. The concentrated man accomplishes what nobody fancied he had it in him to do. And they were quite right : he hadn't it in him. ":I labored more abundantly (our English word is derived from the flow of water wave on wave—ab unda), yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me."
Here and there along the Hudson one comes upon a disused mill-race. Usually there is water in it, and a superficial glance might not disclose that the race was not in operation. But closer inspection shows that the water is stagnant; the mill-race has become a standing ditch. And there are not a few lives of which it is a picture. A New Testament writer speaks of some in his day as "holding the form of godliness, but having denied the power thereof." They are often members of the Church; they are apparently interested in good things; their lives seem to be parallel with the purpose of God in the world; they are not empty of inspirations. But those inspirations are not flowing out and in. They are the remainders of the water of life from past connections through an inherited faith or an earlier devoutness. Their parents had first-hand contact with God, or in their own childhood there was an open passageway into their souls from Him. The mill-wheel may still be in place and an old factory standing beside the stream; but the wheel is not turning, and nothing is produced in that factory for the spiritual enrichment of mankind. The upper-end of the mill-race is clogged. Preoccupation with many things has put God out of mind; prayer is forgotten, or has become a perfunctory routine; there is no commitment of self to God day by day in trustful dependence. Theirs is a form of religion without its power. The bed of the mill-race attests what it has been. The pathos of an impotent Christian is a reminder of what was once planned;—yes, and of what may still be, if the connection be reopened; for that gives power: "I labor, striving according to His working which worketh in me mightily,"