Religion - Fertility
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IN the valley through which the Hudson River flows the countryside is more fertile—meadows are richer, foliage more luxuriant, orchards more fruitful, crops more abundant-because of the presence of this body of running water with its unfailing supply of moisture.
There is a like result in human life from the stream of inspirations in man's intercourse with the living God.
This picture of a river with fruitful trees along its banks meets us repeatedly in the Bible. `Blessed is the man that trusteth in the lord, and whose trust the Lord is," says Jeremiah. "For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, that spreadeth out its roots by the river, and shall not fear when heat cometh, but its leaf shall be green, and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit." The First Psalm borrows this simile in describing the godly as "a tree planted by the streams of water, that bringeth forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also doth not wither." When Ezekiel portrays a river emerging from the temple-symbol of the spiritual influence of the center of worship —he writes : "By the river upon the bank thereof, on this side and on that side, shall grow every tree for food, whose leaf shall not wither, neither shall the fruit thereof fail; it shall bring forth new fruit every month, because the waters thereof issue out of the sanctuary; and the fruit thereof shall be for food, and the leaf thereof for healing."
The seer on Patmos incorporated that description into his vision of the holy city, where beside the crystal clear water grows the tree of life, with its twelve crops of fruit and its leaves for the healing of the nations. Another psalmist sings the flourishing lives of those planted in the fertile courts of the house of God: "They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and green."
Jesus stresses fruitfulness as a result of true faith, but, instead of the metaphor of a river which moistens the soil, He prefers that of seed. Is it fanciful to suggest that He felt that human nature needed not only watering, but the introduction of new elements, if it were to bear a divine harvest ? He speaks of Himself as the Vine and His disciples as grafted branches, of His word as falling on various soils with various results, of Himself as planted seed, dying in the ground and certain to be not without much fruit. St. Paul lists the crops to be expected where the Spirit of Jesus is sown in human hearts. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control."
The early exponents of the Christian faith did not hesitate to point to its results in character and conduct as the chief evidence of its value. Typical of many similar statements is that made by the converted Athenian philosopher, Athenagoras, to the Emperors Aurelius and Commodus, about 177 A.D.: "Among us you will find uneducated per-sons, and artisans, and old women, who if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth : they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works." Both friendly and unfriendly historians of the spread of Christianity ascribe a large measure of its suecess to the good and useful people it produced. Readers of Walter Pater will put beside the statement of Athenagoras his imaginative account of the first Christian ceremony at which Marius was present in the Lararium of the Cecilian Villa at Rome, and saw "the wonderful spectacle of those who believed."
"The people here collected might have figured as the earliest handsel or pattern of a new world, from the very face of which discontent had passed away. . . . Was some credible message from beyond `the flaming rampart of the world'— a message of hope regarding the place of men's souls and their interest in the sum, of things—already moulding anew their very bodies, and looks, and voices, now and here? At least there was a cleansing and a kindling flame at work in them, which seemed to make everything else Marius had ever known look vulgar and mean."
Nor need we turn our eyes backwards across many centuries to catch sight of the fruits of the Spirit of Christ. Robert Louis Stevenson, in his volume on the South Seas, paints a portrait of a native Christian in whom faith had been "highly fructifying." He speaks of Maka, an Hawaiian evangelist in the Gilbert Islands, as "the best specimen of the Christian hero that I have ever met."
"He had saved two lives at the risk of his own; like Nathan, he had bearded a tyrant in the hour of blood ; when a whole white population fled, he alone stood to his duty; and his behavior under domestic sorrow with which the public has no concern filled the beholder with sympathy and admiration. A poor little smiling laborious man he looked; and you would have thought he had nothing in him but that of which he had too much-facile good nature."
And not only in transfigured individuals, but in the family-life, the social customs, the public spirit, of trans-formed communities, the stream of the Christian faith evidences its fertilizing presence.
It may be worth our while to dwell a moment upon the distinction between religion as something useful and as something fruitful. In our day almost everything is appraised by what it can do, and do forthwith. The value of a church is apt to be computed by the number of helpful services which the organization renders to the neighborhood. Sunday School teaching and sermons are measured by their immediate effects by what they induce younger and older hearers to go out and attempt. But the Bible does not apply this utilitarian standard to religion. Men do not at once notice the connection between the fertility of the Hudson Valley and the river which flows through it. The moisture which enriches fields and gardens comes circuitously through the atmosphere from the water in the stream. The work of the church does not consist to any great extent in the activities which can be listed as its ministry to the community; they are never more than a small fraction of its contribution. Its main output is in men, women and chil dren, whose thoughts, sympathies and consciences it has helped to grow towards Christlikeness, and in the results of their lives through many years in homes and schools and business, as friends and citizens, and through eternity in the city of God. Faith touches the soil with the fructifying Spirit of God, and all manner of crops are harvested upon it.
With our impatience for instantaneous and measurable returns, men often ask of what good is church-going and family worship and personal prayer and Bible study ? Occasionally there are immediate consequences—flashes of insight, kindlings of enthusiasm, awakenings of the soul; but these are rare. The dew which forms on the ground or the mist which covers a valley or the drops which seep into the soil from a shower seldom produce striking effects; but any chemist can tell us of marvelous processes that begin when water touches the earth, and statisticians with their figures of crops per acre can show an impressive difference to be credited to the presence of a steady stream like the Hudson. The many who so lightly discard the habit of regular attendance at church, and put aside family prayers as an antiquated custom, and think a Sunday in the country more beneficial for their children than uninterrupted Sunday School-going, scarcely realize that they are cutting themselves and their boys and girls off from fructifying contacts with the stream of spiritual influences which rolls through the ages in the Christian Church. The loss is not at once apparent; but there are many families where there are signs of pitiable spiritual drought.
It is not only the meadows upon the banks of a river which are enriched by it. The moisture in the stream affects the entire valley, and fields several miles away from the water bear larger harvests because the stream is there.
It is not those aloane who are themselves in conscious fellowship with 'God who are benefited by religion. Many persons who never open a Bible or darken a church-door are influenced in their thinking, their motives, their ideals, by the presence of a flow of Christ's Spirit in their neighborhood. Those who maintain religious institutions per-form a far-reaching service to the community. The number present at worship on any Sunday is no accurate criterion of the result upon a city of holding up publicly the faith and purpose of Jesus. One cannot calculate the influence of Christianity in a nation by the figures of Church membership. The relatively small Christian Church in Japan exercises an effect upon the moral standards of that people out of all proportion to its size. The Spirit of Jesus in a company of disciples in any land penetrates the press, education, business-life, amusements, government ; it is as pervasive as the atmosphere which it charges with moisture. To be sure a tiny brook cannot affect as extensive an area as the mighty volume of water in the Hudson River. We are vitally concerned with the number of those who have direct dealing with the living God, and whose lives form the river-bed through which the stream of His Spirit takes its course. But it is heartening to recall that a river's fructifying influence extends far beyond the fields along its banks. No Sunday School teacher seated in the midst of a circle of children can tell how wide is the area of fruitfulness from the lessons ha parted in a morning's lesson. No company of faithful churchmen who keep a congregation's organization alive and active can measure the extent of its fertilizing touch upon a town's or a nation's life. A prophet, addressing a remnant of religiously susceptible persons, spoke through them to an entire people when he said : "Thou shalt be like a watered garden."
It is fair to remember that moisture in enriching the soil increases the crop of weeds as well as the harvest of useful vegetation. Religious movements always show mixed results; but that is not to be blamed upon the spiritual inspirations which they bring. There are variouS seeds present in every community, and the moisture accelerates the growth of tares along with that of wheat. George Eliot put this inimitably in her account of the religious interest which the preaching of the Reverend Mr. Tryan brought to the village of Milby :
"Religious ideas," she wrote, "have the fate of melodies, which, once set afloat in the world, are taken up by all sorts of instruments, some of them woefully coarse, feeble, or out of tune, until people are in danger of crying out that the melody itself is detestable. It may be that some of Mr. Tryan's hearers had gained a religious vocabulary rather than religious experience; that here and there a weaver's wife, who, a few months before, had been simply a silly slattern, was converted into that more complex nuisance, a silly and sanctimonious slattern; that the old Adam, with the pertinacity of middle age, continued to tell fibs behind the counter, notwithstanding the new Adam's addiction to Bible-reading and family prayer; that the children in the Paddiford Sunday School had their memories crammed with phrases about the blood of cleansing, imputed righteousness, and justification by faith alone, which an experience lying principally in chuck-farthing, hop-scotch, parental slappings, and longings after unattainable lollypop, served rather to darken than to illustrate ; and that at Milby, in those distant days, as in all other times and places where the atmosphere is changing, and men are inhaling the stimulus of new ideas, folly often mistook itself for wisdom, ignorance gave itself airs of knowledge, and selfishness, turning its eyes upward, called itself religion. Nevertheless Evangelicalism had brought into palpable existence and operation in Milby society that idea of duty, that recognition of something to be lived for beyond the mere satisfaction of self, which is to the moral life what the addition of a great central ganglion is to animal life... . Miss Rebecca Linnet, in quiet attire, with a somewhat excessive solemnity of countenance, teaching at the Sun-day School, visiting the poor, and striving after a standard of purity and goodness, has surely more moral loveliness than in those flaunting peony-days, when she had no other model than the costumes of the heroines in the circulating library. Miss Eliza Pratt, listening in rapt attention to Mr. Tryan's evening lecture, no doubt found evangelical channels for vanity and egoism; but she was clearly in moral advance of Miss Phipps giggling under her feathers at old Mr. Crewe's peculiarities of enunciation. And even elderly fathers and mothers, with minds, like Mrs. Lin-net's too tough to imbibe much doctrine, were the better for having their hearts inclined towards the new preacher as a messenger from God. They became ashamed, perhaps, of their trivial, futile past."
This is admirably said, and describes not inaccurately what occurs in many communities among ourselves. And it is the strange assortment of effects, more and less desirable, which makes the fruitfulness of religion some-times open to question. The same stimulus which produces genuinely saintly qualities often intensifies ugly traits, enthusiasm for righteousness appears commingled with bigoted intolerance, sympathy with the down-trodden may have at its side an unfeeling disregard of the well-to-do, a passion to enlighten souls in the ends of the earth may coexist with a shocking obtuseness to social injustices at one's own door. But the number and strength of the weeds are evidence of a very fructifying factor, and the intense results of religious awakenings are proof of the fertilizing touch of the Divine Spirit. We need to supplement our simile of a river with Jesus' metaphor of seed. We must take pains that the Spirit we bring is the authentic Spirit of Jesus: the Christlike God within us will produce fruits akin to those of Jesus' own character and work.
In both Ezekiel's and John's descriptions of the trees beside the river of life the leaves are said to be for healing. Health is one result of religion, and a very important result. But no one grows fruit-trees for their leaves; leaves are incidental. The growth fertilized by religion is not primarily physical health; and the instant health becomes the main preoccupation of the devout, you have a debased fruitfulness—trees running to leaves. Examine the votive tablets on the walls of some church where physical miracles are expected, as in the Basilica at Lourdes or in the large church at Sainte Anne-de Beaupre, and one is struck by the absence of expressions of gratitude for divine assistance to become more self-controlled, more considerate, more responsible, more consecrated. Go to the testimony meetings of cults which stress religious healing apart from medical and surgical means, and while speaker after speaker will regale the company with tales of floating kidneys marvelously anchored, or an appendix miraculously made innocuous, which some surgeon is alleged to have predicted would burst fatally within twenty-four hours (and there are unfortunately accredited physicians who tell patients luridly terrifying narratives of possible or probable disasters in the mysterious inner regions of their bodily organism) while speaker after speaker will describe maladies cured and accidents averted and even financial prosperity attained from "demonstrating" with religious formule, there will scarcely be heard a syllable of advances in patience, in fidelity to duty, in tender sympathy with those whose hearts ache, in sense of social obligation—in short of advances in justice and mercy and faithfulness, which Jesus called the weightier matters. Leaves are being given the attention which should be devoted to fruits.
But among ourselves we have often forgotten that our fruit-trees possess leaves, and that these are for healing. Genuine Christian faith undoubtedly affects physical health; how could it be otherwise? The trust in a fatherly God which supplies serenity and banishes worry, the pre-occupation with the interests of Christ's cause in the world which takes the mind off self and leaves no time for fancying ills, the consecration of one's body to His service which compels one to keep healthy that which is God's, and not harm it by dissipation, over-eating, bad hours, lack of exercise, and any neglect of the known laws of well-being, the dedication of means to Christ's kingdom forbidding us to squander them on self-indulgence (a productive cause of much sickness), above all the vitalization of the spirit daily with supplies of God's life, the feeling of adequacy for one's work because His strength and wisdom are at one's call, the cleansing of the heart from the sickening presence of envy, greed, bitterness, revenge and covetousness, by the inflow of Christ's love, surely all these are most potent forces for health of body and of mind. The average church has paid too little attention to training its people to employ their spiritual resources to overcome the fears which inhibit their happiness and to sublimate the passions which misdirect their mental life. Happily neurologists now recognize the ally which they may find in religion, and the religious leader must avail himself of the knowledge which psychotherapy places at his disposal. Explicit education in the use of faith to assist wholesome physical living ought to be part of the program of every Sunday School and church. But we must not forget that our most successful orchards are conducted by men who devote their attention to making the trees bear fruit, and think only incidentally of their foliage. The healthiest Christians will concentrate on the work which is given them to do, and the manner of men they must show themselves, and let their physical condition be a subordinate, and usually unthought-of detail, in keeping themselves fit to be partners of their Father in His business.
And what marvelous fruits are grown on soil enriched by religious faith ! Professor Hocking has drawn attention to the fact that the great ages of religion have pre-ceded the great ages of art and of science, "for they were attending to the fertilization of the ground." Where a vital spiritual movement has swept over a people, it has often prepared the soil for a development in music, in literature, in industrial expansion, and above all in humanitarian progress. The streams set flowing by the preaching of the Evangelicals, Wesley and Whitefield and their contemporaries, a century and a half ago in. Britain and America, had vast consequences in creating a new social conscience. The preachers themselves laid little stress on social changes: their one concern was to link men's souls to God in Christ. But Christ-touched men begin to feel, to think and to purpose more fraternally. A Howard takes the prisons of his own country and of Europe on his conscience; a Wilberforce is burdened with the miseries of the traffic in African slaves; a Shaftesbury is made wretched by the plight of children in factories, of little boys and girls inhumanly used as chimney-sweeps, of lunatics handled with brutality, of operatives in mines and workshops doomed to overlong hours of monotonous toil. Societies for the correction of abuses, for the protection of some oppressed group, for the care of a neglected class in the community, for the spread of the Bible, of good literature, of the sway of Christ the world over, spring up in the wake of the evangelical preaching. It is frequently not the harvests directly intended which are the most important results of the work of those who in-spire men with the Spirit of God. Religion fertilizes the soil, and makes possible crops not foreseen even by those who cherished the largest expectations. These preachers of an intensely individualistic piety hoped to link men one by one with the living God; they succeeded, and in addition they changed the face of human society.
Our own age is eager to produce harvests of friendship in international relations, of responsible and ministering comradeship in our industries and commerce, of earnestness and public consecration in the pursuit of knowledge in our schools and colleges, of loyalty in family relations restoring permanency to the shockingly temporary and casual ties which now hold lives together in homes. We discover that we lack the soil upon which these may be grown—the soil of sensitive and inclusive consciences. There is a widespread recognition that only new supplies of the fructifying stream of the Spirit of Christ can furnish the moisture required. It will not do to talk wistfully of the crops, nor to draw plans of the barns into which they may be garnered ; our main concern must be with the condition of the soil. And, if history assures us of anything, it is that once the river of vital religion flows broadly through our time, not only the harvests for which we look, but others even more glorious, now beyond our power to conceive, will be gathered.
The symbol of a tree planted by a stream, bearing fruit every month and full of sap and green in old age, is a fascinating symbol of the religious ideal for life. One of the early New England divines, when dying, was seen to be moving his lips to frame some word, and his son, leaning over to catch it, heard him whisper : 'True tuosus." It is the Christian aspiration, here and forever. Do you remember Victor Hugo's description of Mademoiselle Baptistine, the sister of Bishop Bienvenu : "Nature had made her only a lamb, and religion had made her an angel" ? Christian faith had taken the gentleness of her womanhood and infused her with the tireless energy of a ministering spirit. Such is the enhancement of the gifts and graces of a life accessible to religious inspirations. There is a fruitfulness which surprises by its Ault—dance and its frequency, "because the waters of the river issue out of the sanctuary."