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Religion Of Calamity

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

PERHAPS the most immediate effect of the San Francisco disaster was the shock it gave to men's religious convictions. Good Christian people asked the most startling questions. The event indeed seemed to have no ascertainable connection with orthodoxy. Nature was here acting with a savagery more brutal than that of the greatest savage we know. The Hottentot, the Australian bushman, has a heart and conscience of some sort, but people see no heart or conscience in this wreckage. Could there be any approximation to feeling, to love as we know it, in a Power which murdered and destroyed in such fashion ? Moreover, could men continue to regard themselves as of any serious account in a universe which treated them thus ; which paid seemingly as much attention to their tears and prayers as to the buzz of summer flies ? In those hours of horror man rushed everywhere to help his brother, but there seemed no help outside man.

The sky which noticed all makes no disclosure,
And the earth keeps up her terrible composure.

This apparent cosmic indifference to human welfare is the feature of life which, perhaps, more than any other, has impressed itself on the modem consciousness. There is no justice in the outside universe," says a modern writer ; " justice exists only in the soul." A German poet of to-day echoes the sentiment :

Das gauze Weltall zeigt nur Leid and Pein ;
Jedoch das Mitleid fühlt der Mensal allein

" The whole world shows but sorrow and pain, but compassion is felt by man alone."

The questions that are here raised are of course not new. They are as old as the world. Man's earliest experiences were not of a nature to teach him an easy optimism. What happened to himself and his neighbour was, indeed, at times, of a character to excite his worst fears. As soon as he began to think he seems to have framed two hypotheses about his position ; one, that he was the sport of blind chance or fate ; the other, that he was in the hands of invisible beings as cruel as himself, but a great deal more powerful, and whom he must propitiate by all available means. The latter is evidently the older of the two beliefs. Primitive man personalised everything. Thunder and lightning, earthquake, flood, were the signs of some-body's anger. Early world religion was accordingly largely a religion of calamity. Its grand stimulant was fear. "Timor fecit deos." Livy's remark that it is more natural for man to be impressed by his catastrophes than by his prosperities is here strictly appropriate. Terror goes deeper than joy, and it was terror that reared the altars. Plutarch seems to mean this in his remark that man's attention, especially in what concerns the worship of the gods, is seldom fixed but by a sort of violence and constraint." And it is the great argument of Lucretius, in his attack upon the current beliefs, that in ridding themselves of religion men would be freed from the terrors which made cowards of them all.

The other view, that does away with personality and declares the world to be the product of blind, unconscious forces, is, we say, a later one. It seems to spring naturally out of the decay of a civilisation. It fits that mood of hopelessness which comes from a surfeit of unhealthy living. It is to a Rome decayed from its pristine vigour and sunk in gross sensuality, that Propertius, in elegant elegiacs, preaches the doctrine of devil-may-careism as the only true philosophy. " While the Fates permit let us satiate our eyes with lust, seeing the long night hastens to which there will be no succeeding day." Out of a like temper, though with a less cynical note, Sulpieius writes to Cicero, on the death of his daughter : " Why," he asks, " bemoan the death of a girl, when she and all of us, together with cities and empires, are passing down the throat of everlasting oblivion ? " In some well-known lines Ennius argues away the idea of a Providence. If, says he, " the gods cared anything about man it would be well with the good and ill with the wicked. But that, we see, is not the case." The mood here has, indeed, age after age, been a literary fashion. Omar Khayyam voices it, in lines which are the laughter of despair :

Drink, for we know not whence we came, nor why,
Drink, for we know not why we go, nor where !

The old Persian was never more relished than today. There is a multitude now of his denomination.

What, then, with all this in view, has religion to say for itself ? Assuredly this attitude of humanity, and the things that have occasioned it, are not to be passed over lightly. The truth-seeker will give to every one of these considerations its due weight. But when the utmost has been urged on that side, how does the account stand ? Dismissing, as we may easily do, the notion of an unseen malevolence as the cause of our human calamities, what evidence do these disasters offer against the contrary Christian view of a benign Providence as directing our affairs ? How far do they support a doctrine of chance medley ? The first thing hcre to be said is that the Universe, regarded as a whole, obstinately refuses to be taken at this valuation. Earthquakes, and the whole line of destructions for which they stand, are, we perceive, not the only things in it. They are, in fact, only an insignificant part of all we see. Just as clear to us as the brutality of these forces, is the spirituality of other forces. When you have loaded one scale you have to begin to load the other. Nature's wholesale murders are a part of life. True, and so are art and science, beauty and happiness, the death of Christ. and the soul's aspirations. We cannot work out our sum without taking in these factors. If the other side means something so does this, and the question is, Which means most ?

It is, indeed, curious, when we come to think of it, that our accusation against Nature on such occasions as the present seems to rest entirely on her mode of action instead of on the action itself. It is when she kills or destroys suddenly and whole-sale that we exclaim and despair. As a matter of fact, in these operations she is only doing what she is always doing, in another way. She kills a thou-sand people in an earthquake, but she will kill the fifteen hundred million of us now alive on this planet just as certainly, and all the generations that are to follow. Every birth carries with it a sentence of death. " Nascentes morimur, finisque ab origin pendet." Faith has long ago accustomed itself to death, has indeed flourished upon it. The best thought of Greece and Rome refused to regard it as an evil. " No one," says Socrates, in his Apology, " knows whether death, which men in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good." AEschylus calls it the healer, the curer of all ills.

Indeed, we of these later ages are in greater danger than were the men of the earlier ones, of taking our comfort-theory as the ground for judging the cosmic morals. We make the blunder of regarding the physical consciousness as our one scale of measurement. Whereas, as the deeper philosophy of our time has so abundantly shown, the physical consciousness offers only the outermost edge of reality. Its verdicts are full of illusions, full of contradictions, which it is for philosophy, in its search for the core of things, to exhibit and to think away. It is the business of catastrophe and of calamity to rid our thought about God, the Supreme Reality, of the provincialism which we permit to cling about it. Our human analogies are no measure at all of His meaning about us. If we try to bring His working to that scale, the scheme breaks down at once. We know the argument. " We do not kill the man we love. We do not, if we can help it, let our little children fall into the fire and burn to death. Can He be love who does slay, who does let the fire kindle on these innocents ? The answer is simple. Our love expresses itself according to the limitations of our knowledge. It is in that limitation a true and natural expression. But let us remember it is a limitation. What do we know ultimately about burning and about slaying ? We see one side of them, whereas there are a thousand sides. We judge as though we have here a completed transaction, whereas what happens is only the beginning of an endless series. Could we see the whole process as God sees it, the thousand sides of it at present to us invisible, the whole infinite series of after results, - our feeling concerning it would be entirely changed. Our feeling would then be like His.

And let us remember that the shock to our consciousness occasioned by physical catastrophe, the sense it creates of an utter indifference in nature, as though the shaking down of our cities were to it as the disturbance of an anthill, may be susceptible of an interpretation quite the opposite of the ordinary one. That man can lose so much shows how rich he is. But that is not all. His revolt against the physical universe here, his sense of injury under its blows, is in itself the most significant feature of the situation. His attitude is inexplicable on the supposition that he is a mere part of this physical nature. That he can lose so much, that he has a range of consciousness capable of being struck at in this tremendous way is the opposite of an argument against the vanity of life. It is, on the contrary, man's disasters, his catastrophes, that give the cachet to his rank and his destiny.

To this is to be added that the common interpretation of these calamities—that they are entirely indiscriminate in their dealing with men, striking down with the same indifference innocent and guilty, saint and sinner—is equally wide of the mark. Here again we see how the surface view, the appeal to the physical consciousness, blinds us to the ultimate fact. Ennius, whom we have quoted, is quite wrong. For the most striking feature of these events is the entire and delicate discrimination with which they distribute their effects. Nature, even in her earthquake moods, grades her dealings with the nicest exactness. The one event may smite us all, but each will take it in a different way. And our separate way will be in strict accord with our entire inner state and training How different the same pain to the weakling who howls under it, and to a Posidonius, who in his torture says to Pompey, " Pain do what thou wilt, I shall never be drawn to say thou art an evil ! " It is a sense of this which leads Plato to his great declaration in the " Republic," that " the just man, though stretched on the rack, though his eyes are dug out, will be happy," and to that even more wonderful word of his, in which he anticipates St. Paul, where, speaking again of the just man, he says, " Even when he is in poverty and sickness, or any other seeming misfortune, all things in the end will work together for good to him in life and death." The outer edge of an event is, in fact, always the least part of it. The essential is its relation to our mental and spiritual state.

Man has lived with catastrophes through all his history, and his faith has survived them. No number of them in the future will persuade him that the scheme of things under which he finds himself is a farrago of nonsense. He will persist rather in believing with Bourget, that " this obscure universe has a mysterious and kindly signification." The people of San Francisco, we read, reared altars in the midst of their ruins, and on the first Sunday after they had lost all joined their voices in the worship of God. And many of them, we dare say, felt His presence as they had never felt it before. A " Deus absconditus," a God that hideth Himself truly, and yet One who in secret marvellous ways discloses Himself to the human spirit.

Christianity is, in the best sense, a " Religion of Calamity." Goethe called it the religion of sorrow. Assuredly, as none other, it has sounded the depths of sorrow and exhibited to us their meaning. One who had sounded those deeps as few have asks, " Is not He who made misery wiser than thou art ? " Deepest of all interpretations of calamity is the interpretation of Christ. In His Cross we have a religion built on catastrophe. It is a defiance of it and a victory over it. In Jesus, who, while enduring there the worst that nature and the world could inflict, breathes the name of " Father," we have the clearest, divinest ray of light that, from the darkened heavens, has ever shot athwart the deep mystery of life.



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