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The Divine Indifference

THEE are times in history when a mortal chill seems to fall upon the human soul. A deadly suspicion spreads abroad that man is, after all, in a universe that is deaf and dumb to his prayer. The impression gains that morality and spirituality ; faith, hope, love all the things that make life precious and holy are phenomena simply of our owi consciousness, and that there is no evidence of there being anything corresponding to them outside. Men argue that our moral code is provincial, that its writ does not run beyond given boundaries. It is valid for certain spheres of human conduct. It is, for instance, correct to say that industry produces prosperity, that sobriety and frugality promote health, while dissipation induces disease; that love and self-sacrifice have what seems an ennobling effect upon our sensibilities. But how far does this carry as related to the immeasurable realm outside P Nature appears to know nothing of our morality. She slays wholesale, and in her slaying takes no heed of ethical distinction. When the ship goes down, or the earthquake engulfs the city, the pious and prayerful are swept away just as remorselessly as the murderer and the thief. People living sheltered lives may dream of love as at the heart of things ; but the man on a raft in the pitiless Atlantic, or staggering, lost and hopeless, to his death in the Australian bush, finds no suggestion of this friendliness.

There are times, we say, when such considerstions come upon men with crushing force. The earthquake at Lisbon, it is said, made multitudes of people atheists. It is strange, by the way, to remember that the call to faith in view of that catastrophe was given in Europe by no other than Voltaire, who wrote a poem counselling silent and trustful resignation in face of an inscrutable Providence. In events of this kind Nature seems to outrage our best instincts. We should not wonder if the survivors of the tidal wave at Galveston found their faith as well as their property submerged. At such times men echo Carlyle's outburst, "God sits in heaven and does nothing ! " And history often staggers us as much as Nature. We picture to ourselves what happens in a single twenty-four hours on this planet hideous massacres in China, the kidnapping of slaves in Central Africa, the brutal orgies repeated every night in the great cities, with their engulfinents of virtue, their defiance of God; these things happen, and there seems no outside response, no faintest sign that any moral sensitiveness beyond our own has thereby been touched.

Brooding of this kind is very rife to-day, and it has produced the singular result of a religious scepticism that has morality for its chief support. Man has become conscientious, but cannot find a conscience in the universe. He thinks himself better than his world, and is ready to propose an evangelistic mission amongst the unseen powers. The modern mind shows us in every direction the bewilderment into which it has fallen. It serves us up afresh the denials of Lucretius, and the despair of Omar Khayym. It repeats Heine's scoff at the world as " an age-long riddle which only fools expect to solve." It lowers its conception of God to the "Fortuna omnipotens et ineluctabile fatum " of Virgil, or declares with the messenger in the Antigone that "it is but chance that raiseth up, and chance that bringeth low, . . . and none foretells a man's appointed lot." The heavens offer to it the grim spectacle of Innumerable, pitiless, passionless eyes, Cold fires, yet with power to burn and brand His nothingness into man.

A Nietsche treats man as a mere passing phase of existence, a Watson as Nature's chance child :

Through untold aeons vast
She let him lurk and cower ;
'Twould seem he climbed at last
In mere fortuitous hour,
Child of a thousand chances 'neath the indifferent sky.

And yet in all this the chief puzzle to us lies not in the world-problems that are presented, but in the fact that men in such numbers, and often of such conspicuous ability, should so misconceive the whole question. For, when everything is said, what does this supposed evidence about "the Divine indifference " amount to P Looked at narrowly, it resolves itself into a series of surface appearances of really no weight as against the other side. We will not linger here in the region of the too obvious, otherwise we might point out that to grumble because the good man as well as the evil perishes in a shipwreck or falls from a precipice is to impeach one of our best friends and safeguards. The unvarying action. of the laws of Nature may drown a man here and there, or break him in pieces at the bottom of a cliff, but what kind of a world should we have if this uniformity ceased, and gravitation pulled up or down at any man's whim or need ? Our navigation, our building, our engineering, the whole of our mechanical arts, the whole progress of the sciences ; more than that, the whole education of the mind, its forethought, its calculation, its coolness, its courage, depend upon the faith we have in Nature's guarantee that she will keep to her course and not deviate at random from her established line of things.

But what of those who get the rough side of this uniformity, whom it buffets or crushes? Why is Nature in places so horribly fierce, so utterly cruel? As a rule the men who know most of that fierceness, the mariners buffeted in Bay of Biscay gales, the explorers of Antarctic wastes, are just the people who do not complain. Roughness is one thing to a nincompoop, another thing to a man. "What," such men are inclined to say, " would you have us cockered up and kept all our days in cotton-wool ? God thinks too well of us to leave us to such a fate." Nature's wild and remorseless energy is the field on which they reach their strength. And when things have come to the worst, and some disaster which no courage or skill can &vert crashes down and leaves ruin behind, can we argue as though the world's moral laws have here been defied or annulled ? If we will only look below the surface we shall see that it is precisely here, on the contrary, they get their most decisive vindication. There is no such thing as " one event happening to all." Each man's event happens according to what he is and not otherwise. The shipwreck which carries fifty men to the bottom varies in its aspect to every one of them by the whole range of his moral and spiritual constitution. When the three were crucified at Golgotha there was, to the outer eye, no difference in the fortune of the sufferers. The indifferent soldiers performed their functions, and indifferent Nature performed hers. There were equally for all crosses, nails, tortures, thirsts, death. And yet this one event to the three who suffered it stood separate as to its personal significances by the whole diameter of the universe. Even that old pagan Montaigne had the grace given him to see this, and remarks somewhere that " external occasions take both flavour and colour from the internal constitution." Whatever happens in the region of men's physical and material fates, not a hair's breadth of deviation shows in the operation there of the moral and spiritual laws.

But what to the modern conscience is, perhaps, the greatest stumbling-block of all remains yet to be dealt with. This lies in what seems " the Divine indifference" to man's moral and religious aspirations. Earnest men watch with dismay the immoralities around them, the orgies of lust and crime, the prosperity of villains, the grinding of the poor, and in their struggle against it they seem to get no help. They read of earlier revelations and interpositions, but the events of to-day appear to carry "no revelation except that nobody cares." At times the dumb silence of that outside universe to which we turn our eyes seems almost maddening. But here again we are out of our reckoning simply because our observations are faulty. There is nothing wrong with the heavens; it is our sextant and compass that need adjustment. For how do we expect God to interfere in the world's moral history ? Shall He visit the wicked with fiery cataclysms? That would be history in the sphere of phenomena and sensation, but it would in no sense be moral history. If we will only look deep enough we may see that God, conceived as moral and spiritual, is acting precisely in the way we should expect. So far from being indifferent, He offers an ever-growing revelation of His moral care. His universe is not silent on this point. The mistake men make is in looking for speech in the wrong direction. Schelling long ago indicated the law of the Divine working here in the aphorism,

Only the personal can help the personal, and God must become man in order that man may come again to God." His entire approach to us is by immanence and incarnation. The developing sentiment of the moral community, the sentiment which protests against injustice and works for a better order, is simply His voice in the world. He speaks to man through man and no other way. Our very impatience with the oppositions and the slow progress is but the rush of the stream of His life in the too narrow channels of our limited nature The revolt of our conscience against the low moral order is His battle-cry for a better one.

To sum up. " The Divine Indifference " is apparent, and not real. The universe, despite surface appearances to the contrary, discloses a Divine moral order and a Divine moral passion, the revelation of which is in the human consciousness. God can only make Himself known morally in the sphere of the soul, and there He does make Himself known. Any man to-day, if he chooses, can have the consciousness of God in his own spirit. In view of this it is well for us " to bear without resentment the Divine reserve." With a modern French writer we realise that " the sincere acceptance of the inevitable supposes a love for the inevitable, the consciousness that this obscure universe has a mysterious and kindly significance." We go farther. Those who penetrate to its centre find there clear sky and angels' food. To him that overcometh is given to eat of the hidden manna.

( Originally Published 1903 )

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