Religion - Buoyancy
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
UPON the waters of the Hudson tons of freight are carried in vessels and in long tows of canal-barges, and thousands of passengers are trans-ported up and down stream in steamers and across the river on ferries. The Hudson is a bearer of burdens; and that generations of believers discover in the living God.
The men of the Bible do not employ the simile of a river for the discovery of the sustaining power of religion, for the streams of Palestine were not big enough to carry ships, and the Hebrews rarely became navigators on the sea; but they compare God to an eagle, swooping under her young in their first attempts at flight, and catching and upholding them on outstretched wings : "He spread abroad His wings. He took them, He bare them on His pinions." They represent Him as a grown-up Companion walking beside an unsteady little child: "When I said, My foot slippeth, Thy loving-kindness, O Lord, held me up"; or as a considerate warrior assisting a fellow-struggler on the battle-field to keep on his feet: "Thy right hand bath holden me up"; or as a stalwart Comrade who places His arm around an over-weighted man and enables him to stand up under his pack : "Cast thy burden on the Lord, and He will sustain thee." They use an even more touching figure of speech and describe God as a father carrying His people as babes in arms: "The Lord thy God bare thee as a man doth bear his son," "In His love and in His pity He bare them and carried them all the days of old," "I taught Ephraim to walk : I took them on My arms." A New Testament writer gives an added touch of tenderness to the picture by using a phrase employed of a widower who must try to be both father and mother to motherless children : "For about the time of forty years as a nursing-father bare He them in the wilderness." A prophet contrasts the heavy images of the Babylonian deities, carried on the straining backs of their devotees in a religious procession, with the living God of Israel, who carries His people all their days : "Their idols the things that ye carried about are made a load, a burden to the weary.... O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, that have been borne by Me from their birth, that have been carried from the womb; and even to old age I am He, and even to hoar hairs will I carry you." And possibly the phrase which has come to mean most to those who prize the support of religion is the line from an early poem: "Underneath are the éverlasting arms."
Among outsiders it is not a common idea that faith confers buoyancy. To a great many persons all thought about religion appears saddening. You recall what the tavern hostess said of Sir John Falstaff: "A' cried out, `Gods God, God!' three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a' should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with such thoughts yet." Religious beliefs are regarded as straining weights which the devout must force his intelligence to accept and carry, as one straps a pack upon an unwilling donkey; and there are not a few who add sarcastically that it is only donkeys who can be turned into such credulous beasts of burden. Certain types of unbelievers represent themselves as emancipated from an earlier burdening Christian creed, and walk about the world with an air of superior liberty. Religious usages are considered oppressive. Stevenson begins a letter with the sentence: "I've been to church, and I am not depressed." Church-going interferes with week-end outings, and is discarded as a hampering nuisance; prayer is viewed as the repetition of certain phrases, often childish in form—the luggage accumulated in the past; the Bible is classed as heavy reading, and when the mind is already under considerable pressure, other literature is resorted to. Above all, religion is thought of as afflicting its devotees with a troublesome conscientiousness. The ordinary man of the world has obligations upon him which he dare not disavow, but the unfortunate believer, who takes his Christianity seriously, must load himself with numberless additional responsibilities—responsibilities as wide as the human race—and: hold himself particularly sensitive to the appeals of the most backward and ne'er-do-well at hand and afar off. His conscience forces upon him an admittedly impossible standard—likeness to Jesus Christ ; and he must task himself with every secret thought, every personal ambition, every acquiescence in social conventions, every expressed opinion, which discords with the heart of the Master. To them that are without it seems preposterous that any sane man should assume an obligation which he knows he cannot fulfill, and place upon his conscience an ideal which no human being ever has attained. Their own consciences give them trouble enough without letting religion break their moral backs by piling upon them infinitely more.
We must frankly grant that religious beliefs are often presented in forms which make them an intolerable load upon intelligence. It has been a great relief to many when they could set aside certain statements in the Bible and certain doctrines preached and taught in the churches. Christianity has carried along through the centuries and frequently published as of the essence of its message opinions which thinking folk find incredible, which tender-hearted folk find unloving, and which honorable folk find immoral. Their minds and hearts are eased when they reach the point where they fling these views away as outworn superstitions, even though at the same time they feel constrained to part with all religious faith whatsoever. We must also own that devout customs are at times made onerous. Jesus clashed with the church leaders of His age oftenest over their insistence upon an observance of the sabbath which was to Him inhuman, and He was denounced as a desecrator of God's hallowed day. People forget that forms and habits which are uplifting to them may seem to another generation weights instead of wings. And we must also admit that time and again the teaching of the Christian Church unduly loads the consciences of her members by placing an overemphasis upon certain classes of duty. How many persons reared in Christian homes have gained the impression that the chief evidences of loyalty to Jesus are faithfulness in church-attendance, Bible-reading and prayers, and scrupulous' abstinence from a number of harmless and possibly very delightful amusements ! The stress on relatively sub-ordinate matters took attention of more momentous human obligations; and when the inherited convictions began to be questioned and thrown aside, the mass of petty scruples which went with them often lightened earnest people and gave them a sense of freedom.
Men whose experiences have been in the least like those recorded in the Bible passages quoted a moment ago would protest that a burdensome religion was no true communion with the living God. A Christian's beliefs are not ideas which he compels his mind to accept : they are truths which grip him. They seem to approach him with hands and arms, to lay hold of his intelligence, and to lift him. They are not notions which he tries to make himself believe: they are convictions which he finds he cannot disbelieve. His faith takes him off his feet, and he is conscious of resting upon it, and of being borne along by it. Recall how religious convictions come to men. Coventry Patmore tells us that when he was a boy of eleven, he was reading a book, when "it struck me what an exceedingly fine thing it would be if there really was a God." He had been taught from childhood that there was; but that had remained a dormant assumption without interest for him. Dr. John Brown, the Edinburgh physician and man of letters, in describing the process by which his father became a contagious preacher, says : "The truth of the words of God had shone out upon him with an immediateness and infinity of meaning and power, which made them, though the same words he had looked upon from childhood, other and greater and deeper words." Principal Shairp recounts of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen :
"He spoke of the awful silence of God, how it some times became oppressive, and the heart longed to hear an answer to its cry, some audible voice. And then he added, `But it has not always been silence to me. I have had one revelation: it is now, I am sorry to say, a matter of memory with me. It was not a revelation of anything that was new to me. After it, I did not know anything which I did not know before. But it was a joy for which one might bear any sorrow. I felt the power of love—that God is love, that He loved me, that He had spoken to me, and'-then after a long pause—'that He had broken silence to me.' "
Events, books, friends, mysterious leadings, our own thoughts, bring home certain religious ideas—that God really is, that the outlook of Jesus upon life is true, that at the center of the universe is a Heart, that life linked with God in Christ goes on through death and forever; and these ideas, up till then mere commonplaces, perhaps traditional notions scoffed at as obsolete, lay hold of us, and we find ourselves upraised, and surveying all things from a higher elevation, and resting upon a new medium which buoys our spirits. Ezekiel was describing this experience of being carried to a loftier outlook, when he said : "The Spirit lifted me up . . and behold, I saw."
Devout men would insist that there is something the matter with methods of devotion which weary those who employ them. Take the Sunday question, as an instance. Any sensible community may well enact laws, not for religious but for humanitarian reasons, to safeguard one day in Seven from gain-seeking labor, so far as that is pos.-sibs.; The individual believer can then take the free day and use it for the enrichment of his life and the life of the community, as he finds best for him. When one reads the biographies of men who have been outstanding forces for Christian righteousness, one is impressed with the number of them who felt deeply indebted to Sundays kept free from business and devoted primarily to the culture of their own and other men's spiritual natures. Few persons in the London of a century ago were more incessantly busy than William Wilberforce—member of Parliament, sought-after guest at dinners, active on countless committees, with throngs of people on all sorts of errands crowding in to see him daily. In the thick of his struggle for the abolition of the trade in slaves, he gave up a Sun-day to presenting his cause in a letter to the Emperor of Russia, stayed home from church, and rested himself, saying: "God desires mercy rather than sacrifice." The following Sunday he enters in his diary:
"I will not quit the peculiar duties of the day for my Abolition labors. Though last Sunday I set about them with a real desire to please' God, yet it did not answer; my mind felt a weight on it, a constraint which impeded the free and unfettered movements of the imagination or intellect ; and I am sure that this last week I might have saved for that work four times as much time as I assigned to it on Sunday. Therefore though knowing that God prefers mercy to sacrifice, yet let me in faith give up this day to religious exercises, to strengthening the impression of invisible and divine things, by the worship of God, meditation and reading."
Here was a man to whom it seemed all-important that weights be removed and his spirit enfranchised, and he found a devoutly thoughtful Sunday setting him at liberty.
Or take the Bible. Not long since, a young man of culture, religiously reared, but who had scarcely opened the covers of a Bible in years, was convalescing from an illness which had brought him and his little daughter very low, and he startled a kinswoman, who came in to inquire if there was anything he would care to have her read to him, by asking her to read him something from the Bible. She asked, "What ?" He replied : "I remember some passage about armor and a shield; I don't know just where it is." A concordance was consulted, the Sixth Chapter of Ephesians found, and after the reading, he remarked : "Well, there's nothing quite like the Bible, is there ?"
Or take prayer. Psychologists and physicians have written much recently of the value of prayer as relaxing nervous tension, and quieting and invigorating the mind, as deep breath does the body. At a medical congress not long ago, a well-known nerve-specialist made the statement: "As an alienist, and one whose whole life has been concerned with the sufferings of the mind, I would state that of all the hygienic measures to counteract disturbed sleep, depression of spirits, and all the miserable sequels of a distressed mind, I would undoubtedly give the first place to the simple habit of prayer." Coleridge justified his custom of praying every night before going to sleep by giving the tested effect upon himself in the lines:
A sense o'er all my soul imprest
Is not that akin to the picture with which we began of a freighted vessel upborne by the encompassing flow of a river ? Lowell voiced a similar sense of relaxation and buoyancy, when he characterized the essense of prayer as "that perfect disenthralment which is God." Here are spirits aware of the lift which is theirs through intercourse with the Most High. None dare prescribe methods of communion to another; each must explore for himself and discover the mode of fellowship which upraises him; but the witness of all men and women of prayer is that God so found is an Upholder; and they bid us: "Rest in the Lord."
As for the burdens which religion places on conscience when it touches it with the new sensitiveness and comprehensiveness of Christian responsibility, we cheerfully admit that vastly more is put upon the hearts and minds of followers of Jesus than on those of any other human beings ; but that is by no means the whole story. A semi-pagan, like Goethe, made the discovery that "must is hard, but it is only when a man must that his real inner nature is revealed." Ordinary folk are aware that when they have to keep up under some pressure, there is that within which appears to upbear them. Christians explain this as the unlocking of spiritual resources, the releasing of a pent-up stream, which so soon as it is allowed to flow is augmented by the waters of the vasty Deep. They do not resent their enormously increased obligations, because their necessities bring with them the sustaining river. The more heavy the strain, the more buoyancy they seem to possess :
Ah, the key of our life that passes all wards, opens all locks,
It is when a Luther reaches the point where he declares : "1 cannot do otherwise," that he spontaneously adds : "So help me, God," and is most conscious of Divine support.
In the sinking experiences of life, what does one possess to buoy him up ? Few are unfamiliar with the situation where sorrow seems about to drown the spirit. "All Thy waves and Thy billows are gone over me"; "I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me." One sees brave spirits under such circumstances keeping themselves afloat by various devices. None would withhold his respect from any who, without religious faith, manage to remain unsubmerged. But Christian faith would be false to its own long experience through the centuries, if it did not testify to the steadfast underpropping believers have discovered in the Father of Jesus Christ. In the correspondence of John Calvin, there is a letter to his friend, William Farel, in which Calvin writes of his wife's death. After describing an affecting scene at the bedside, he says: "Then I went to a secret place to pray" After a sentence or two the letter continues : "Before eight she breathed her last so gently that those who were with her could not tell whether she were dead or still alive. I at present control my grief so that my duties are not interfered with. May the Lord Jesus strengthen you by His Spirit, and may He support me also under this heavy affliction, which would certainly have overcome me had not He, who raises up the prostrate, strengthens the weak, and refreshes the weary, stretched forth His hand from heaven to me." There was something beneath him to lean his weight upon and be splendidly upborne.
And there are experiences far more depressing than grief. Men find themselves in situations where physical hardships, apparently hopeless prospects, surroundings that appal them, combine to render their plight intolerable. There could be scarcely a more hideous fate than to be banished to the mines, as these were operated in the Roman Empire by condemned criminals, given a bare subsistence, locked in filthily unsanitary and damp pens underground at night, and worked for long hours by taskmasters who had no interest in prolonging their victims' lives ; and one of the most thrilling documents in early Christian literature is a letter, written by Cyprian, himself probably in exile, to Nemesianus and his comrades in martyrdom in the mines:
"The body is not cherished in the mines with couch and cushions, but it is cherished with the refreshment and solace of Christ. The frame wearied with labors lies prostrate on the ground, but it is no punishment to lie down with Christ. There the bread is scarce; but a man lives not by bread alone, but by the word of God. Shivering, you want clothing; but he who puts on Christ is both abundantly clad and adorned. The hair of your half-shorn head seems repulsive; but since Christ is the head of the man, anything whatever must needs become the head which is illustrious on account of Christ's name. . A manifold portion of the people, following your example, have confessed alike with you, and alike have been crowned. Even in boys a courage greater than their age has surpassed their years in the praise of their confession, so that every sex and every age should adorn the blessed flock of your witnessing. What must be the vigor, beloved brethren) of your victorious conscience, that every one of you walk in the mines with a body captive indeed, but with a heart reigning, that you know Christ is present with you, rejoicing in the endurance of His servants, who are ascending by His footsteps and in His paths to the eternal kingdoms !"
Beside this page from the Third Century, we may place another from the Seventeenth, on which Governor Brad-ford, in his History of Plymouth Plantation, describes the condition of the sick and imperiled band of exiles for con-science' sake, after they had landed and were in the midst of a New England December :
"They that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men ? and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not. Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah, to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes; for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have little solace or content in respect of any outward objects. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weather-beaten face ; and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world. If it be said they had a ship to succor them, it is true; but what heard they daily from the master and company? That victuals consumed apace. Yea, it was muttered by some that if they got not a place in time, they would turn them and their goods ashore and leave them. Let it also be considered what weak hopes of supply and succor they left behind them, that might bear up their minds in this sad condition and trials they were under; and they could not but be very small. What could now sustain them but the Spirit of God and His grace?"
The Pilgrims rested upon that, and kept up and kept on.
It is the fashion in certain circles to jeer at religion as a surviving childish weakness in modern man. We begin life helpless and are carried in parental arms; in maturity when these are no longer about us, our orphaned minds fancy an unseen Father still upbearing us. God is the projection upon the skies of an unsatisfied craving in our natures, and He is nothing more. It is a tempting ex-planation, because there come times when believers do not feel anything stable in the invisible to buoy them. Augustine confesses that at one period in his life "Thou wort not any solid or substantial thing unto me, when in those days I thought upon Thee. If I offered to discharge my burden, to give it some easement, it fell as it were through the empty air, and came tumbling again upon me." And in His supreme need, Jesus Himself cried : "Why hast Thou forsaken Me ?" But such experiences of non-support are not final with believers. Augustine was holding on to his self-confidence and his sins, "the bag-gage of the world," as he calls them. When he put them away and committed himself utterly to the will of Christ, he speaks of resting in God. Through the darkness, Jesus' trust still prayed : "My God," and the glorious issue of His career is witness that the hands into which He commended His spirit upheld and still carry Him triumphantly through the ages. There must be as complete a venture of faith in God as that of a ship launched upon a stream, and with nothing beneath it but the water, before buoyancy is realized.
For is it true that religion with its message of relaxation and dependence keeps men childish. Surely the men and women we have instanced are not puerile. The buoyancy of the river does not relieve tugs and steamers from the necessity of using their own power, if they would transport cargoes and passengers. Its upbearing renders possible the full output of their powers. The sense of a sustaining God enables a Calvin in his lonely sorrow not to let his work be interfered with, fortifies a mixed company of Captive Christians to endure with contagious courage the' exhausting and sickening toil in the mines, and puts heat and hope into the pilgrims in the face of overwhelming discouragements to go forward with their enterprise. The world's commerce must be carried in vessels that can stay afloat. It is men and women buoyed up with confidence, saved from sinkings of heart and depression of spirits, responsive to the tiller of conscience and capable of employing all the energy they possess, who vigorously carry their own loads and the burdens of others, and bring both themselves and their brethren to the haven where they would be.