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Broadening Of Life

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE moralist and the religious teacher of our time, as they study the problems the world offers to their thought, are met at every turn by a new difficulty. It is the difficulty arising from the growing complexity of life. Their fathers, in both their thinking and their acting, moved within definitely-drawn boundary lines. The lines limited the view, but in other respects were very convenient. To know exactly the right and wrong of everything ; what to accept and what to avoid ; to have a formula for every circumstance, a text for each contingency—all this wonderfully simplified matters. Let anyone read the sermons and religious treatises of a generation ago, with their clear-cut distinctions between the Church and the world, between the sacred and the profane, between godliness and secularity, and compare all this with the mental attitude of today, and he will understand what we mean. For to-day the boundaries are down, and the community, intoxicated with a sense of freedom and of a new country to be explored, is wandering at large, in imminent danger of getting lost.

An urgent need of the hour is of some fresh definitions which shall include all the new know-ledge, and correctly relate it to the business of living. And in no direction is such a reconstruction needed more than in the conceptions of " broad " and " narrow," in religion and life. Both as to the principles involved here and as to their applications one sees a strange confusion of thinking which is reacting disastrously on both communities and individuals. People are making the greatest mistakes, both about breadth and narrowness. They praise or blame the one and the other without any proper reason. It is time we saw the real significance of these terms, and the part they fill in the economy of life.

To begin with, let us be sure of our ground when we condemn, as we are apt to do, the " narrowness " of our neighbour. We talk continually of " narrow " views in religion or in conduct. There are such, undoubtedly, of which we may speak presently ; but what we have first to learn an this question is that narrowness is not in itself necessarily an evil. If it were, be sure we should not find it so continually and so deeply wrought into the innermost processes of living. " Here," the observer is compelled to say, after running up against a thousand instances, " here assuredly is nature herself, and she is always wiser than we are." Nature, we find, is narrow as well as broad, and her narrowness is as needful as her breadth. In order to get her results she is perpetually limiting things, shutting them behind her barriers. She wraps her seed up close till its time comes to unfold.

She is continually purchasing intensity at the cost of expansion. If our electric force is to deliver itself, undiminished, at yonder far extremity, we have to insulate it. There must be no talk of breadth here. We cannot have it both ways. When we come to human life we see nature working on the same lines. The genius of a given nation has been nursed by a process of shutting off. The variety which gives the world half its charm has been reached by what we may call a cellular arrangement, in which, safe from outside interference, the separate result has been worked out.

Yet, with this said, and its truth fully taken into account, we find on interrogation that nature, using thus her tools of narrowness, works incessantly towards breadth as a result. Beginning at simple combinations, her tendency is always to a greater complexity. She widens her conception. As we track her up the ascending scale of life, we find in the higher organisms a repetition of the lower, but ever with some subtle twist added. The central directing agency has to take over a larger area of control. The mollusc's simple business of opening and shutting its shell is succeeded in the mammal by a thousand complicated movements. And as the complexity grows there is accompanying it a constantly enlarged freedom. The limpet sticks to its rock ; the man roams the world at his will.

When from such studies as these we come to the problems of morals and religion we find a similarity of phenomena which shows us, on a higher plane, the working of the self-same process, under the self-same guidance. Religion, to secure its results has used, and effectively used, the narrowing instincts, and has therein followed strictly the order of nature. It is the order which tells us that certain blooms, fit for expansion in May, must not show themselves before, on peril of frostbite and destruction. Nature for some of her work makes use of human ignorance just as much as of human know-ledge. For a child of months, ignorance is a condition of health. To fill its brain with a man's intelligence, were that possible, would be to kill it right off. Precisely the same thing is witnessed in religious development, both of communities and of individuals.

Christianity, for instance, would not, humanly speaking, have won its victories and gained its position in the world, apart from the employment at certain periods, of nature's method of narrowness. The early Christians concentrated on one side of life. They lost view of some others, but what they gained thereby, for themselves and the future, was worth the sacrifice. A certain insulation was required in the making of a martyr. The feeling which led Ignatius, in view of his approaching doom, to exclaim, " The wild beasts are the road to God " ; or which enabled Thomas Hawker, the Marian martyr, when burned at Canterbury, to raise his hands in the flames as a token to his friends that his soul was at peace, required a special cult which had a certain exclusiveness about it. And the faith of the Church, as a whole, was for a long while of too naive a kind to bear sudden expansions. It followed a true instinct in looking askance at new elements. It was by slow degrees, amid much misgiving, and after hard fighting, that art and literature, and science last of all, found a place in it. As with the community, so with individuals. A convert in his first rapture asks for nothing beyond what feeds his exalted feeling. Ignatius Loyola tells how, in his early sainthood, he found secular studies almost intolerable. They were the wilderness after paradise. There is, too, the story of a Methodist preacher returning an English grammar offered him by a friend with the remark, that " he could find nothing about Christ in it " !

And all this, we repeat, is, for a certain stage of development, entirely natural, and because natural, wholesome. Remember, too, it is not religion only that has followed this route. All the special experiences, all the expert knowledge by which the world is enriched, have been reached in the same way. Every specialist is a disciple of the narrow. When Sir Joshua Reynolds, asked how long it had taken him to paint a certain picture, replied, " All my life," he was a witness to this doctrine. The curious materialism of the scientists of the Victorian era—a materialism now breaking down at all points—was the narrowing effect of that devotion to the purely physical aspect of things which secured them such signal gains in that department, but at the price of colour blindness to another, even more important.

But nature, so slow, so careful, so conservative in her operations, yet never stands still. The May-time comes, and then her blooms, hitherto so carefully shut up from the wintry blast, must unclose and dare the open. In humanity as a whole, and in the development of the individual mind in particular, a point is at length reached when the simpler form has to blend with the new elements. Its life is to be enriched by a new complexity. The soul discovers in itself an irresistible instinct to prove all things, to know life in its fulness, in its wholeness. In Professor Royce's phrase, we begin to " look for the whole of ourselves." Outside the circle of the creeds life spreads before us in its wonder and its mystery, and we say with Fra Lippo Lippi :

This world's no blot for us,
Nor blank ; it means intensely and means good ;
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

It is when we have reached this point of growth that we are faced with a question which may be said to constitute the peculiar problem of our day. It is that of combining the wider interest with the older fervour. We cannot escape this, for it is part of the inevitable movement of things. A pressing form of this difficulty today, which we touch here both for its own sake and as an illustration of the general theme, is the question of the Church in relation to amusements. If we correctly apprehend the doctrine that has here been set forth, there should be room for a settlement of this matter, without the bitterness and heartburning which some sections of the Church just now are exhibiting.

What is the position ? Some Christian communities are for extending their operations over new areas of interest. The people, they find, want relaxation and amusement—" a natural want," they say ; " why should we not help to provide it ? Why should provision for this side of life be left entirely in the hands of the irreligious, who exploit it purely for their own gain, not scrupling to pander to the lowest passions, not recking of the ruin of men ? If billiards is a good exercise, why not provide a billiard-table ? If the drama has supplied the noblest extant literature in the world, why should there not be room for a drama in the Christian conception of life ? "

To all which comes a reply, and from men of whose worth and absolute sincerity there can be no question. " No," say they; " this thing has been tried and found wanting. To tamper with these things means a direct loss of spirituality to the Church. Your cannot have your billiard-tables and the Holy Spirit. You must choose between one and the other. They are not compatible."

The dilemma here stated is today a terribly serious one to many earnest souls. But if we have correctly stated the doctrine of this question there should be no difficulty about its solution. It is all a matter of the stage of development. If individuals or if Churches are at the level where the new complexity is proved harmful, they are better without it, and are right in rejecting it. The flowers must not appear in March that are meant for May. Let each man, each community, judge of their own condition, of what is safe for their highest interests, and act accordingly. With the conservative attitude here we have all sympathy, realising with Goethe that " everything which frees our spirit without giving us the mastery over ourselves is pernicious." Till a thing can be safely done it were better not done. Not the less certain is it, however, that in the spiritual development of humanity the point will be reached when these diverse elements will be included. They will be included in the consciousness of the spiritual man because they are included in the consciousness of God. And that stage has already been reached by many souls. They have learned the spiritual life as at once an unfathomed depth, and as an illimitable breadth. They pass from one phase to another without loss, but with a conscious enrichment. And the point they have attained will be attained in the end by all. To the common humanity will come at last the experience and the conviction which Browning has expressed for us :

You've seen the world,
The beauty and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colours, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises—and God made it all !

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