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Of Divine Leading

AFTER some thousands of years of conscious life on this planet our race continues to exhibit a strange confusion of opinion concerning the terms on which we inhabit it. Across the gulfs of time one generation calls to another as to what cheer, and gets only dubious replies. Watchers' eyes are turned night and day to the heavens, but the report is often of nothing but the incessant drift of impenetrable cloud. Some of the acutest minds have made of the Universe only a chance medley. The messenger in the Antigone, who declares " it is but chance that raiseth up and chance that bringeth low," represents a mental habit strangely fashionable both in the old and modern world. People in both periods have fallen back upon this theory with positive relief as a refuge from current theologies. Lucretius proclaimed his doctrine of materialistic no-religion as a real gospel. He thought men would become happy by ridding themselves of the notion of a Providence and a hereafter ! Nietzsche, in our day, reappears with the same notion. He apostrophises the idea of God in the language of Charles the Bold when combating Louis XL, "Je combats l'universelle araignée."

But the old atheist had an excuse which we cannot allege for our modern one. The gods the former was asked to worship were, assuredly, not worth the trouble. They have gone since, and are not missed. Think of a " divine guidance" under which an Agamemnon must see his loved Iphigenia, the delight of his eyes, in the bloom of her virgin youth, lifted on the fatal altar, "face downwards," as AEsehylus describes, and a knife drawn across her throat ! Well might the Latin poet, thinking on these horrors wrought in the name of piety, conceive of religion as a kind of Medusa head displayed from the clouds, " threatening mortals with her terrible aspect."

Spite of these outbursts, however, the main stream of human thinking has set broad and deep in the direction of an overruling Providence as at once the ground and the explanation of life. The "Fate" of Stoic doctrine, when examined, comes mainly to this. We are in a world that was arranged for us and not by us. The thinking out of the business was done before we arrived. Our own mental exercises are at best a very subordinate affair. They are something like our perambulations on board a vessel. As we move about on the deck our steps may take by turn a northerly or southerly or westerly direction, but they do not alter in the least the course of the ship, nor the ultimate point to which it will bring us. As to whether this providential supervision regarded the world only as a whole or extended to the concerns of individuals the early thinkers seem divided. Homer puts his heroes under the special protection of this or that divinity, but lets the mass take care of them-selves. Cicero, with his doctrine of the vir magnus inspired afflatu divino, seems of the same opinion. Victor Hugo has somewhere expressed himself similarly. Geniuses (like himself) were certainly looked after in this world and the next. As to the rest, it didn't much matter. Epictetus, who in this seems very likely to have been in contact with Jewish, if not even with primitive Christian sources, strikes a far more certain note. He proclaims a divine leading for us all. "There is no movement of which He is not conscious. To Him all hearts are open. . . . As we walk, or talk, or eat, He Himself is within us, so that we are His shrines, living temples and incarnations of Him."

Of the Christian doctrine on this subject, as recorded in the original documents, there can be no doubt. The religion of the Sermon on the Mount is above all things a democratic religion. " The hairs of your head are all numbered " applied not only to patrician locks but to the unkempt polls of the cobblers and fishers who heard first the Divine words. It was, indeed, the eager acceptance and handing--m((((PAGE READY)))) of the doctrine by the " dim common populations " that so excited the wrath of its " superior " opponents. Libanius, like Sydney Smith with the Methodists, could not away with teachers who "had left their tongs, mallets and anvils to preach about the things of heaven." His sneer reminds us of that later one by Cornelius Agrippa : "Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are illiterate people like the apostles; blessed is the ass."

Yet this doctrine of the highest guidance for every mother's son of us is really the only one this side atheism. As a modern writer has bluntly put it, "Unless the hairs of our head are all numbered there is no God." The doctrine is so logical. Any one who, under good scientific guidance, has examined the structure of a human hair, has to say whether this marvel is a product of blind chance or of a high intelligence. If it is intelligence which made it and is still looking after it, then, a fortiori, intelligence is looking also after its wearer. It is amazing we do not more definitely settle this matter with our-selves. It would resolve so many questions. We should go on working, but leave off worrying. As it is, we imagine the world is on our shoulders. We groan over the condition of the Church, and the back ebb in which religion finds itself. If we believe in the sermon our own hair teaches us as we brush it of mornings we shall stop this lamentation. As if religion began when we took up its business and will end when me retire! Of the amazing tricks men resort to, in the notion that thereby they are keeping religion going, there will also be a final end. Orthodoxy will cease to be alarmed about Biblical criticism, under the assured persuasion that God knew its conclusions and results long before Wellhausen.

It is, however, in the bearing of this doctrine on our personal life that it gains its weightiest import. If a man can only get some reasonable assurance that in this welter of a world he is not left to fight his own battle, or to muddle his way through as best he can, unhelped or unguided ! What for the twentieth century is the assurance on this point P Apart from the consideration just urged the evidence is of two sorts, an external and an internal. In that first, outward sphere there is to be noted what strikes us as a feature most significant and affecting. It is that the evidence is usually reserved to the period when it is most needed. In early life, when the blood leaps in the veins, when the sensation is of an inward vigour that can crash through everything, when parents and friends are at hand for what aid is needed, the notion of a providential guidance is little thought of. But when that other half of our life opens, that old-age half which Bishop Warburton characterised so truly as " a losing game," the half which will contain our suffering, our decaying, our dying, then is it that for the loyal and disciplined soul there arises the steadily accumulating demonstration of a wonderful and beneficent leading. And, as Ritschl has here observed, "the belief arises not from the study of the fortunes of others, but in each case from the study of our own fortunes and experience." Nor is it the least tried people who get the deepest assurance. It is Robert Louis Stevenson, in his youth such an outrecuidant sceptic, who in his later, broken invalid years writes : "If you are sure that God, in the long run, means kindness to you, you should be happy." He had become sure of that himself.

The evidence we go upon is often such as we cannot talk about, and which would appear by itself quite inadequate in a law court. It was not meant for the law court, but for our-selves. It is its mysterious inner appeal to us that counts. A conjunction of circumstances, which has no special meaning to others, seems to whisper a message in our private ear. It is to us in that moment as though Nature had broken her long habit of silence, and told our heart that we are known, and cared for, and loved. There are innumerable stories abroad of what are called special Providences. Some of them, doubtless, need to be received with caution. People are apt to put a large quantity of subjectivity into narratives about themselves. The demand for the wonderful creates a supply. We do not forget the speech reported by Henry Wilberforce of a certain Archdeacon : " It is remarkable that all the most spiritually-minded men I have known were in their youth extraordinary liars." The sphere of religion, because it is the sphere of - the marvellous, has suffered more than any other from the lack of simple accuracy. Yet when all deduction has been made, the evidence is overwhelming that testifies to the visible footprints of the Guide. It comes from every age and quarter. Paul's story of his experience outside Damascus, and Augustine's of the " tone, lege," which converted him at Milan, are not more wonderful than histories poured into our own ear by people who are walking about today.

But the satisfying evidence for this belief will be, for each of us, an internal one. The conviction of a guidance of our outward life will grow in proportion as we realise a guidance of the inward life. Barclay, in his "Apology," has put the principle of all this in language that can hardly be bettered : "That Christians are now to be led inwardly and immediately by the Spirit of God even in the same manner, though it befall not many to be led in the same measure, as the saints were of old. The higher spiritual life is just as much a reality as the higher intellectual life. Precisely as a man who devotes himself to the culture of his intellect will rise to a plane superior to that of the mass and bring to the decision of questions a faculty of which they are scarcely conscious, so in the most central sphere a similar devotion will yield a like result, only a higher. To those who lodge in the soul's uppermost chambers there opens a prospect unseen by those below, unbelieved in by these latter, may be, but none the less real. " What," says Bagehot somewhere, " will ever be the idea of the cities of the plain concerning those who live among the mountains ? "

This inner discipline, wherever it is pursued, brings sure conviction, amidst all vicissitudes, of a Divine and most gracious leading. And thereby does it disestablish personal pessimism. It recognises the present circumstance, how-ever gruesome seeming, as the best for it. It greets each event as a spiritual messenger. It welcomes the hardship that makes for progress, It recognises to the full that

Nor for thy neighbours, nor for thee,
Be sure was life designed to be
A draught of dull complacency.

And it moves to the final scene with the calm certitude that the Guidance which through the earthly career has become ever more manifest will not, at that hour, quit its gracious function.

( Originally Published 1903 )

Ourselves And The Universe:
Our Moral Variability

The Escape From Commonplace

Of Spiritual Detachment

Life's Present Tense.

A Doctrine Of Echoes

Of Divine Leading

Amusement

Dream Mysteries

The Spiritual Sense

Our Thought World

Read More Articles About: Ourselves And The Universe



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