Religion - Serenity And Adventure
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE Hudson River is part of New York harbor, or T perhaps we should say that New York Bay is part of the Hudson River, for geologists tell us that at one time the Atlantic Coast Plain stretched much farther out towards the East, and the ancient bed of the Hudson can still be traced beneath the floor of the ocean making its way to a mouth a hundred miles beyond its present outlet. The river front on Manhattan Island and the Jersey shore is to-day occupied by wharves where vessels dock, and it is not unusual to see a large fleet anchored below the Palisades in mid-stream. The river is a haven for ships. A New Yorker, enjoying a calm day on a trans-Atlantic voyage, remarks: ' "It's as quiet as the Hudson River."
The steady, even flow of a river as contrasted with the choppy waves of the sea is used in the Bible as a symbol for the peace which comes in obedience to God : "Oh that thou hadst hearkened to My commandments ! then had thy peace been as a river"; "Behold I will extend peace to her like a river"; "Great (that is `abundant,' `flowing') peace have they that love Thy law." An early prophet compares the cities on the Tigris, the Euphrates or the Nile, where the river formed a powerful military protection in time of siege, with riverless Jerusalem which Jehovah encompassed with His defence "There the Lord will be with us in majesty, in place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby." Christian literature is full of expressions of the shelter men find in God. One may put beside the prophecy just quoted the words of Paul "The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus." When men reach trust in God, they feel themselves like warriors safely lodged within a moated citadel, or like billow-tossed ships which have been faring on the high seas and are now in a placid stream. Listen to Dante, voyaging on the windy ocean of Fourteenth Century Italian polities, singing : "In His will is our peace" ; to Luther, with a nature that swirled in storms of intense feeling, writing to a brother-monk at Erfurt : "I know from my own experience, as well as from that of all troubled souls, that it is solely our own self-conceit which is at the root of all our disquietude," and pointing him for peace to "union with Christ's loving heart and divine will"; and to Charles Wesley, whose lines
While the nearer waters roll,
have so accurately voiced the longing and the answer of thousands of English-speaking Christians, that no hymn in our language is better known or more widely used. Finding through Christ a quiet anchorage as in a river while life's vast ocean is storm-swept, is an experience which believers have known from the earliest days of our faith, and expressed in words placed by one evangelist on the lips of Jesus Himself : "These things have I spoken unto you that in Me ye may have peace. In the world ye have tribulation." "In the world"—there is the ship at sea; "in Me"—there is the ship in the protected stream.
Those believers who lack serenity of spirit are failing to get out of their religion what is undoubtedly there. They have problems, public and personal, which harass their minds, obligations which keep them anxious lest they prove wanting, feelings and passions to be held in check and turned into an outflow of love, "fightings and fears, within, without" to be controlled, work to be got through without failing those who count on them, men, women and little children to be lived with, worked with, played with, worshiped with, harmoniously. "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee." "Whose mind is stayed" serenity is lost by letting God drop out of mind. When perturbed, successful believers have employed the grace of recollection, reminding them-selves that God is, and what He is.
I smiled to think God's greatness flowed around our incompleteness,- Round our restlessness His rest.
In a tense moment in the Reformation movement Mar-tin Luther received a frightened and despondent letter from his friend, Spalatin, to which he replied : "Great heavens, Spalatin, how excited you are ! If this thing be of God, it will come to pass contrary to, in spite of, over or under, your or my way of bringing it about."
The Modernist, Father Tyrrell, tells a correspondent
"God `takes up the islands as a very little thing, and measures out the ocean in the hollow of His hand,' and I do think we ought to try hard to look at these matters with His eyes to take up the whole wriggling mass of squabbling humanity in our hand as a very little thing—a matter for quiet and not unkindly curiosity more than for volcanic, self-hurting, useless indignation." The recollection of God enables us to do our work as "toil unsevered from tranquillity" ; it cushions our nerves with bits of His own heart in our contacts with frequently angular and irritating fellow-humans; it restores and maintains poise as we try to think through bewildering questions; it renders the earnestness of men who must care as intensely as Jesus how it goes with the whole world and with every least mortal in it "an impassioned quietude." God is harbor and anchorage; and a faith which does not give the peace of mind of the navigator who has safely brought in his vessel is not the faith which generations of Christians have found in Christ.
Some of the finest results of religion may seem beyond the reach of many believers, but peace appears to be the invariable effect of cordial self-commitment to God. Professor Robertson Smith, the eminent Semitic scholar and - editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica, once threw aside his usual reticence and wrote to a younger brother dying of tuberculosis a tender letter, in the course of which he said;
"You have had a sore share of trials, and yet perhaps one easier to bear than a long life of prosperity and worldly cares which make it very hard to keep near to God. At all events we know that He who orders all things wisely has dealt with you and with us all according to His will, which is the same as His purpose of love; and He will not forsake you, even in the valley of the shadow of death, if you lean on Him. Do not look inwards and vex your-self with self-questionings about faith and assurance and such like things. God gives a joyous assurance to some of His servants, but He gives peace to all who simply throw themselves on Him, humbly accepting His will, looking to Him as children to a father, and beseeching Him to be with them and carry all their burdens."
The Britain of 1887, when that letter was penned, contained few more acute or original minds, but in these simple sentences, with shadows about his loved ones and himself, this Christian scholar stated the religious commonplace that whole-hearted trust brings quietness.
But the Hudson River flows out into the Atlantic. Stand near its source on the slope of Mt. Marcy and one sees moisture in the moss forming a tiny trickle and be-ginning to feel its way down to the distant ocean : the river is born a venturer. Geographers call attention to the nearly straight course of the Hudson from Fort Edward to the sea, despite the fact that at some points, particularly in the Highlands, the river pursues a way out of harmony with the structure of the country through which it passes. It flows at a considerable angle across the Taconic folds of rock above the Highlands, and when it reaches these mountains it passes through a deep gorge which it has cut athwart the hard granites and other stone of which this section is formed. What is more enterprising than water, ceaselessly finding or forcing a path through soil and rock, around obstacles, gradually wearing a channel, until it reaches the sea ? So rivers have always lured those who dwelt near them to attempt the great deep. The only stream in Palestine, the Jordan, empties into the Dead Sea, and one need not look in the Bible for metaphors which link a river with daring. The Hebrews, just because no streams or arms of the sea broke their coastline, were never tempted out on the Mediterranean, and unlike Egyptians and Greeks and Phoenicians they never became seafarers. But their religion is represented by a long roster of venturesome spirits—Abraham setting out from Ur of the Chaldees on a lonely quest for a better country; Moses leading an Exodus of slaves. out of Egypt to found a holy nation; Elijah facing single-handed king and queen, priests and people, who worshiped inferior gods, and recalling them to the just and jealous Jehovah; John the Baptist aflame for the kingdom of God and driving the people to its more exacting conscience; Jesus with no place to lay His head in the convictions and ideals of those about Him, and bidding them follow Him as the Way to lifer; Paul taking the faith of Jesus out of its confining limits as the religion of a handful of Jews and carrying it, ,an adapted and appealing message, throughout the Roman world—such are they in whose experiences flows the stream of the outgoing and outbearing Spirit of God. The very essence of their conception of Deity had in it this indefinite advance into an unbounded future. Our version makes God disclose Himself to Moses under the mysterious title : "I am that I am," which suggests a static Deity. But scholars seem agreed that the better translation of the Hebrew verbs reads them as futures "I will be that I will be." Moses and his contemporaries are represented as led forth by One who will disclose Him-self to them more and more with each experience which they share with Him. He cannot tell them what He is; He can only bid them trust themselves to Him, and discover what He will be. The language suggests a mutual venture upon which God and His people stake themselves, and in which they find out what they can mean to each other.
The God of Christian faith has not often been pictured as a Venturer. His sufficiency in wisdom and power has been portrayed by a Figure in majestic repose. He speaks, and it is done; He thinks, and the entire course of events from start to finish is thought out. Theologians have stressed His foreknowledge. He sees the end from the beginning and all the intervening steps ; He prearranges whatsoever comes to pass; He causes all things to work together in unerring accord to accomplish His purpose.
That is not the conception of the Creator of our world to which present scientific thinking points. He seems One who makes many trial-starts : He has undertaken numerous species of plants and creatures which have not survived changing conditions on the surface of the earth, and remain only in fossils. He seems one who equips organisms with elastic powers of adaptation, and lets them make themselves, and go on perfecting themselves: —a Mesozoic reptile has capacities for developing its scales into feathers or fur, and of becoming the progenitor of birds or of beasts, or its kind disappears from among the living; a prehistoric man has capacities for becoming an artist, a scientist, a man of conscience and faith, and he makes use of these capacities or he remains akin to the brutes and is exterminated by the advancing types of the human race; historic man for ages and to-day has capacities of growing a social conscience, commensurate with the material forces at his command, and of developing a finer spiritual nature by fellowship with the Invisible, or he will be wiped out by the weapons and gases which his own inventiveness has furnished him, and his spirit will be crushed out of him under the pressure of the things with which he surrounds and overlays it. The only idea of God which can be fitted into our present out-look upon the universe is that of One who is all the time risking ventures.
That conception of Him, while it may not agree with sonne proof-texts on which theologians of the past have based their doctrine, is certainly more in accord with the general thought of God in the Bible than was theirs. Their conception was rather Greek than Hebrew. AEschylus writes : "Secure it falls, not prostrate on its back, whate'er is decreed to fulfillment by the nod of Zeus.
God knows not toil: seated above upon His holy throne He worketh His will from thence by ways unknown." But the prophets of Israel do not hesitate to picture Jehovah as taken by surprise; they hear Him saying of some iniquity of His people: "Neither came it into My mind." They represent Him as winning a reputation, getting to Himself "a name." And Jesus contended for a view of Him as a living Contemporary-a Father who "worketh even until now." One who was baffled and had to try again : "How often would I have gathered Thy children together, and ye would not"; One who took risks and was sometimes disappointed : "He had yet One, a beloved Son : He sent Him last unto them, saying : They will reverence My Son. But those husbandmen said, Let us kill Him."
To be sure the Deity suggested by our study of the universe is One who cannot be permanently thwarted. How amazingly resourceful nature is ! How promptly the unfit are replaced by the more fit ! How life seems to crowd upon the stage, eagerly awaiting a chance ! What powers of repair nature posseses, so that one season's damages the next begins to make good ! What an undefeated impression she leaves upon us with her reserves constantly arriving upon the scene ! When one studies any detail of the complex web of existence there is a fineness of adjustment which it is hard to fancy as unplanned. Mr. Huxley, describing ovarian evolution as seen through a microscope, comments : "After watching the process hour by hour one is almost involuntarily pursued by the notion that some more subtle aid to the vision than the microscope would show the hidden artist, with his plan before him, striving with skillful manipulation to perfect his work." Charles Darwin, towards the close of his life, said in a letter: "If we consider the whole universe, the mind refuses to look at it as the outcome of chance—that is, without design or purpose." And the God of Christian faith is both One who plans and is adequate for any emergency which may arise in the execution of His design. He uses disasters as disciplines for triumphs; He discards a nation which is blind in the day of her visitation, and carries out His purpose through a cosmopolitan group of every kindred and tongue; He makes the cross, reared by the sins of men, the means of His most far-reaching victory. But the point is that He forever confronts emergencies. Walt Whitman made the acute observation : "It is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary." That appears to be as true for God as for His children. He must continually hazard Himself in Self-giving love, pouring forth His fullness in life in His creatures, and in thought and conscience and sacrifice in the sons and daughters of men.
Fellowship with such a God must be an adventure. The Son who fully shared His mind and heart impressed His first followers, and impresses every succeeding generation of those who try to accord with His Spirit, as an innovator. New Testament writers speak of Him as "the Pioneer of life," "the Explorer of faith." Was there ever adventure comparable. to Calvary? Jesus staked every thing upon the hazard of His sacrificial death. He deliberately courted it, when He went up from Galilee to the capital. Throughout His career He so far outdistanced others in His trust, His hope, His love, that twenty centuries of religious and moral advance have not brought the leaders of mankind abreast of Him. One of His interpreters in the Second Century wrote: "Our limit is the cross of Christ," and each successive century which sets the spirit of that cross as its goal finds itself embarked on a quest which carries its pursuers out beyond all known boundaries. The early Hebrew designation for God appears to fit the Deity who speaks to us through the cosmic processes as we understand them and through our ethical ideals : "I will be that I will be."
In its essence faith, like water, is a venturer. How mysterious is the outreach of a man's trust beyond the terra firma of things tangible and visible to rest on and be borne forth by the unseen God ! What an exploration when the mind relates the happenings of life's common day with the will of the Most Highest! What a far country the heart visits when in loving memory it follows the dear dead off into the presence of a most near Father, Lord of earth and heaven ! "It is an enterprise of noble daring," wrote Clement of Alexandria, "to take our way to God." And the modern Scandinavian thinker, Kierkegaard, calls the Christian faith a desperate sortie. We have to fare out beyond the shore-line of common-sense, of the accepted maxims of prudence, of the standards which men of this world commend as the frontiers of wisdom, and cast ourselves upon One whose appeal is to our sense of what-ought-to-be, but never yet has been. "Faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen." It is the deep in man, a deep which may appear as shallow and tiny as the drop of moisture glistening in the moss on the mountain-side, moving to-wards the great deep in the universe—the heart and con-science of God. In faith the affections and thoughts gather themselves, like the trickles on the hill-slope, and make their venturesome start for the mighty ocean.
Believers stress the deliverance from conventionality which religion confers. They feel themselves swept out by the current of the stream to what William Vaughan Moody calls "the spirit reaches of the strenuous vast," as the Hudson bears a ship out into the Atlantic. Men who come close to God know their minds unfolding for fresh views and their natures opening for new departures. It is so all down the Christian ages. The seer on Patmos hears Him who sitteth upon the throne declaring : "Be-hold, I make all things new" ; and he is ready for a very different city to come down out of heaven and take the place of the Ephesus and the Rome with which he is all too familiar. Tertullian, the Carthaginian lawyer, a century later, writes : "Christ, our Master, calls Himself Truth, not Convention" ; and insists in His name upon far finer standards of purity than the respectable of his day deemed necessary. John Hus pens a letter from his prison at Constance, in which he says : "We ought not to follow custom, but Christ's example and truth"; and he becomes the harbinger of a reformation in the life and thinking of Christendom. In no generation, past or present, will you discover men alive unto God who do not break with the current opinions and usages and move forward towards a vaster ideal. In the inscription upon the cenotaph, in St. Paul's Cathedral, of John Howard, whose evangelical faith was his incentive and support in his fearless investigation of prisons and hospitals in Britain and on the Continent of Europe, is the sentence : "He followed an open but unfrequented pathway to immortality." Pasteur, whose biography reveals a religious devotion, when people remonstrated with him upon the risks of infection which he took in pursuing his researches, replied: "What does it matter? Life in the midst of dangers is the life, the real life, the life of sacrifice, of example, of fruitfulness." In fellowship with God men are borne afar from the boundaries of the usual. The seer on Patmos voiced the experience of many fellow-believers in the phrase : "I was carried away in the Spirit." Genuine touch with the living God always comes as an awakening which makes its possessors feel themselves loosed and launched on a larger enterprise. A. minor singer has put this experience in autobiographic verse :
I was quick in the flesh, was warm, and the live heart shook my breast ;
But at last, when the hour was ripe was it sudden-remembered word?
And the dream I had called my life was a garment about my feet,
I had glimpse of the Secret, flashed through the symbols obscure and mean,
Such spirits throw off all that holds them fast, as the ropes which secure a ship are pulled aboard or flung to the wharf as she sets out on her voyage. The cords of the proprieties, the many-stranded ropes of custom, the hawsers of tradition, the wire-cables of habit, no longer tie up the man who has been caught by the flood of a religious experience. William James in his study of saintliness concludes : "That whole raft of cowardly obstructions, which in tame persons and dull moods are sovereign impediments to action, sinks away at once. Our conventionality, our shyness, laziness and stinginess, our de-molds for precedent and permission, for guarantee and surety, our small suspicions, timidities, despairs, where are they now? Severed like cobwebs, broken like bubbles in the sun. The flood we are borne on rolls them so lightly under that their very contact is unfelt." There is the river of faith sweeping a man out in fellowship with the creative God towards His own boundless life. His far-reaching purposes, His infinite ideals, like a vast ocean, are before us luring us away to the divine adventure. Necessity is said to be the mother of invention; religion is the mother of creation. Necessity sharpens the wits ; religion releases heart and mind and conscience, and sends the whole man forth "to unpath'd waters, undream'd shores."
A river flowing out into the sea—is it not a suggestive symbol of the life with God ?
Take the course of man's three score years and ten, more or less, and blot out the Christian hope of life beyond, his mortal days become a small pond, and all their activities trifling affairs, not the momentous business of a navigable stream which opens to the mighty ocean. How impoverished death appears when it ceases to be a passage through which we take our way on a thrilling quest, with our creative skill and impulse broad awake and expectant! A proposed epitaph for a Christian poetess closes with the lines :
Then the sails of faith she spread, And faring out for regions unexplored, Went singing down the River of the Dead.
A creative God, who for long eons has been evolving earth, again and again essaying yet better things, surely promises no stagnant existence to those who bear Him company in the fulfillment yonder of the beginnings here. There need be no fear of a static perfection which would pall upon us with its lack of incentive to enterprise. We dread no "torment of all-things-compassed, the plague of naught-to-desire." We shall still see goals shining before us, inviting and promising and divinely provocative. We do not place over the entrance of heaven the inscription Dante saw over the portals of hell : "All hope abandon ye who enter here." Goethe, protesting against just such an inference in the popular conception of the life after death, said: "I could begin nothing with an eternal happiness before me, unless new tasks and new difficulties were given me to overcome." But in St. Paul's outlook hope abides as certainly as faith and love. Emerson put it: "In God, every end is converted into a new means." We look forward to no home without a horizon, but to expectant companionship with One who remains there as here "the God of hope."
The tides of the Atlantic send the salt water of the ocean many miles up the Hudson to mingle with the fresh stream which pours down from far inland. Men who live in Christian faith taste in this life the powers of the age to come. And many miles further up the river than the salt of the sea is perceptible the flow of the Hudson is affected by the rise and fall of the ocean's tide. So believers are aware of the power of an endless life. In-deed there is no sharp separation between the Atlantic and the Hudson; and those in whom is the Spirit of Christ feel themselves already in possession of life eternal.
Take the immediate prospect before our generation. Men and women of Christian heart, whether or not their heads are convinced of the feasibility of the Christian program, look wistfully for advances in racial comrade-ship, in international friendliness, and in commercial and industrial brotherhood. We talk glibly of democracy —of government of the people, for the people, by the people, extended to include every race and nation, and bring all into a commonwealth of friendly peoples, and applied. to industrial organizations to embrace all who participate in business enterprises into a partnership of responsibility, labor and reward. What a huge demand democracy makes upon faith faith in the capacities of ordinary, and sometimes much less than ordinary, men and women; faith in the self-evidencing power of truth and right to convince their reasons and command their consciences, even when reason and conscience are only rudimentary; faith in the fabric of the universe, seemingly so indifferent to man's aspirations, as responsive to brotherhood. There is no short-cut to success in this democratic experiment, any more than there seems to have been a short-cut to the creation of the physical and moral world in which you and I live. There are likely to be many trial-starts in the forms of fraternal political and business organization, as there have been many discarded, because improved-on, forms in the structures of plants and animals in the course of the long evolution of our planet. There are not a few among us without confidence in the practicability of this attempted fraternity; and unbelief fills them with fears and drives them to compromises and makeshifts out of line with the endeavor altogether. Faith is assurance of things hoped for, and where there is no wish for the advent of such a day, there is no likelihood of faith in its coming. Prepossession is always nine-tenths of belief. But where the heart hopes for it, what a difference when the head consents, because the whole man is convinced of the living God, the Father of Jesus Christ, who Himself is the great Venturer. He stakes everything upon the capacities of His children, least, last and lowest: He offers His fullness in Christ to every human being. He hazards His entire enterprise upon the inherent might of truth and justice to win and hold His children's allegiance. If these fail, He has no other resources. His love shown to the uttermost in the cross is His wisdom and His power. He risks His cause in a world where physical conditions apparently are only in process as yet of attaining His mind for them, and He trusts that sons of His will master the groaning creation, and shape it with Him to be a congenial home for love. Whole-hearted belief in brotherhood, the assurance of the feasibility of this hoped-for consummation, is born in those who are comrades of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. Such believingly venturesome spirits will constantly put out towards it, as the Hudson moves towards the broad Atlantic.
Take the subjugation of nature to human purposes the conquest and utilization of matter by the Spirit of God in man. The Bible, from its first scene in the Garden of Eden, where man is bid subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing, down to the Christ of the Gospels exercising a lordly command over wind and wave, and mastering disease and want for man's strength and nourishment, presents nature as a sphere to be invaded. By faith we not only "understand that the worlds have been framed by the word of God," but that they can be laid hold on by man and remade to fulfill his desires. This faith is the underlying assumption of our science, our agriculture, our engineering. One looks in a museum at the history of the evolution of the horse, from the small four-toed creature about the size of a terrier in the Eocene Period to the hoofed wild horse of the Pleistocene, and then places beside that history of many hundred-thousand years the varied breeds of domestic horses, heavier and lighter, swifter and stronger, for all sorts of work and play, which man in a few thousand years has developed from the primitive stock. Nature is marvelously responsive to human wishes and adaptable to human needs. Deserts yield to irrigation and become gardens and or-chards; pestilential regions are turned into healthful dwelling-places; plants are transformed by cultivation and made to bear immeasurably fairer blossoms and richer fruit; the forces of wind and water and steam and electricity, and now of radio-activity, are made to do man's bidding. Scientists, like Professor Soddy, tell us that we are in sight of a vast new realm of achievement when we learn to release the incalculable energy stored in the radio-active materials present in our earth. But they are frank to say that they trust that the discovery will not be made until man has evolved in fraternity; for a pound weight of such substance will not only do the work of 150 tons of coal, but is capable of doing the damage of 150 tons of dynamite. It is to be hoped that no more truth will spring out of the earth save as additional righteousness looketh down from heaven, that there will be no scientific advances without commensurate and even greater gains in character. But what a prospect of the joint partnership of man and God in marching forth on a conquest of the physical universe and making it throughout the servant of love ! How inspiring to view its forces, still so largely beyond man's control and often bringing him suffering and hardship and disaster, as waiting his coming as son of God to bring in the sway of the spiritual, and of God Himself as waiting for us to be His comrades in this creative completion of earth to minister to righteousness!
Or take the personal ideal before every individual—the realization of his complete self. Our world urgently needs bigger and better men and women, creative spirits in art, in music, in literature, in science, in our educational system, our politics, our commercial undertakings, our church organizations. The earnest expectation of our age, where the whole social order groaneth together in pain, waiteth for the revealing of creative sons and daughters of the creative God. The very word "God" stands to us for that venturesome constructive Impulse behind and in the universe, manifest as life, as Thought, as Conscience, as Love, manifest supremely in that recreating Person, Jesus of Nazareth, who has done more to alter the whole face of our world of men than any other single factor, and who acts recreatively every time He is brought in contact with an individual or with a nation. Religion, vital union with the God of Jesus Christ, sets free the creative forces within ourselves and brings to us added forces from His own abounding vitality.
And in connection with self-development our picture of the Hudson emptying itself into the Atlantic is not without special appropriateness. We wish to attain complete selves; and Jesus insists that he who would save his life shall lose it, while he who loses his life for the sake of the cause finds it. God, as Jesus revealed Him, is always losing Himself, hazarding Himself in ventures of love, outpouring His thought and heart and energy for the enrichment of His creatures and His children, and finding His life in them, as the Atlantic sends its tides up the Hudson twice every twenty-four hours. And reciprocally, faith, genuine Christian faith, opens up before us, now and forever, an outlet for the soul into the unbounded purposes of our Father God, as the Hudson continually empties its waters into the sea. Religion's inspiration is always to adventure.