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Morals And Eternity

THE conception of eternity is a differentia of humanity. Apart from any question of a future life, the mere fact that man is capable of this immense idea, that it lies there as part of his permanent brain furniture, places him in a class apart. Said an English farm labourer once to the present writer : " There are two things that press upon my mind; one is the thought of boundless space, and the other the idea of time without end." It was pleasant to hear the words. The humble toiler, unassisted, had come upon the two things that have gone most to the making of man, considered as a thinking being. " The capacity of becoming conscious of the Infinite," says Lotze, "is the distinguishing endowment of the human mind."

But the study of infinity, especially in its aspect of eternity, has had some curious results. The effect on the human consciousness and on human conduct has not been by any means uniform. There have been, in fact, the widest divergencies in the mode of conceiving eternity, with all manner of strange corresponding effects on morals and life. Nowhere than on this theme has religious thinking been more confused ; nowhere has religious action blundered at times more pitifully. A glance over some of the diverse paths along which thought has stumbled here may help us in our quest for the proper track.

There is, for instance, a view of eternity which, followed to its logical issue, would leave us simply with a morality of "go as you please." In this scheme the only eternity is an eternity of matter and force. Matter is eternal, force is persistent. The universe discloses no such thing as final causes, no such thing as pre-determined ends. We must dismiss all idea of progression, of dramatic dénouement. A complete universe can, by the very terms, make no advance. The changes which science records are, as an American advocate of this view puts it, to be considered simply as " variations of cosmical weather." This odd combination of Spinoza and Buchner, of an outworn idealistic determinism, with an equally outworn materialism, is not likely to keep any lengthened hold on modern thinking. Science, for one thing, is too dead against it. An a priori philosophy which denies progression because it contradicts an unproved abstract idea, has little chance against an ever accumulating body of facts which spell progression and nothing else. Evolution becomes here, as against contradictors of this order, the modern basis of faith. It sweeps magnificently into line with the New Testament doctrine of great consummations, of the

One far off divine event
To which the whole creation moves.

But the concept of eternity which pictures for us a changeless universe, an eternity of endless and aimless rearrangements of matter and force, is not only unscientific it is unmoral. Were it accepted the only morality could be one of convenience. To the extent it is believed in, human life becomes a jest or a pessimist tragedy.

Quum tamen incolumis videatur
Summa manere,

cries Lucretius. Despite all surface appearances, "the great sum of things is seen to remain unchanged." And the conclusion is, as it must be of all thinking along that line, "Eat and drink, for to-morrow we die." Religious aspiration in a brute universe, in which by some strange chance man's fevered consciousness figures for one brief moment, must be a joke for the stars. The only logical life course should be Omar Khayyàm's :

Drink, for we know net whence we came nor why ;
Drink, for we know not why we go, nor where.

Sanctity is absurd in a cosmos of indifference. The foundation for what morality were left us would lie in Voltaire's answer to the man who wanted to know why, on such principles, he might not commit robbery or murder. "Because, my friend, if you do, you will probably get hanged."

It is not, however, solely in outside speculations of this order that we find a misuse of the idea of eternity. In quarters nearer home misconceptions about it have brought strange and sinister results. Religious thought on this theme has been continually stumbling upon two mistakes. One is the identification of eternity with the idea of cataclysm and catastrophe. Successive generations of Christian people have gone on dividing their world system into two parts one the time in which they lived, which was about to come to an end, and the other, " eternity," which was to be ushered in by an overwhelming cosmic outburst. This idea, borrowed in the first instance from the Jewish apocalyptic systems which flourished so abundantly in the post exilic and pre-Christian eras, had full possession of the Early Church, and has, since then, continually been renewed. The Christian Fathers, age after age, see in the circumstances of their time exactly the prophetically declared conditions which are to usher in the final scene. Under this idea great panics have at different epochs swept over society. One can hardly imagine a more terrible state of affairs than that which prevailed in Western Europe when Christendom reached the eve of its thousandth year. Prophets everywhere declared that this was the end of the age. The people believed them and shut up their shops, left the crops to rot in the fields, broke off from family relationship, and gathered in famine-stricken bands to await the dread Appearing. The sensation of sheer terror probably never reached such a height in this world as when the ebbing moments of the fated year ran out to the close.

The lesson of these delusions has, however, not even yet been universally learned. In a recently published "History of the Plymouth Brethren " the author, a competent and cultured observer who has studied the movement from within, declares that "if any one had told the first Brethren that three-quarters of a century might elapse and the Church be still on earth, the answer would probably have been a smile, partly of pity, partly of disapproval, wholly of incredulity." The - moral result of such a view, as pointed out by the same writer, is instructive. The men and women who have held this persuasion have systematically withdrawn themselves from large and important parts of human interests and responsibilities. They have left it to others to fight the battles of reform and of freedom. The early Brethren stigmatised the movement of Clarkson, Macaulay and Wilberforce for the abolition of the slave trade as " unholy." They discouraged philanthropy and even missions. Had the world been left to them it would have had no art, no science and no literature. It is surely time that this view of eternity, as of a kind of approaching tidal wave that will by-and-by roll in and submerge every-thing that is, should be recognised by sensible men as provedly false and provedly immoral, and as such to be henceforth dropped and done with.

And with this must go another idea that has prevailed even more widely. It is that view which has regarded eternity as a kind of infinite Topsy-turvydom, in which all the principles of Divine government which we recognise in the present state are to be neutralised and reversed. The idea that the God we know could be also the God of the torturing hell of mediaeval theology is to a really serious mind simply unthinkable. That because a man dies God's whole character should change towards him and become wholly dreadful, is a notion possible only to a barbarous and illogical age. It is as if a mother should love and cherish her child so long as it keeps awake, but, the moment it falls asleep, should change to a monster and devour it. There is only one consolation in studying the long reign of this theological nightmare, and that is, that the laws of the human mind have always declined to deal with it seriously. The imagination refused to grasp it. Conscience would not be governed by it. In the ages when its reign as a dogma was most complete, character and morals were, in fact, at the lowest ebb. Humour made havoc among its terrors. The fourteenth century bards laughed at the priests and. their stories. The human reaction reached its culmination in Rabelais, who treated hell in the manner of Lucian, and made Europe roar at the jocosities of the under-world.

It is time we reached that nobler concept of eternity which is at once the essence both of true religion and of true morals. The more we study it, both in the New Testament and in

other revelation given in the ever-growing human consciousness, the more we shall realise the inadequacy and the falseness of the travesties we have been sketching. In this clearer light we shall recognise the Apocalyptic thunderings and trumpetings as poetic representations of a something that in itself is entirely spiritual. The true eternity which Christ taught has, it is true, duration in it death also and the Beyond in it ; but are the smallest pert of the idea.

For, essentially, His eternity is not only then, but now ; not only there, beyond the stare, but here, in the conscious soul. The eternal life He offers is not a mere uncountable sum of years. Its chief element is a conscious relation to, reception of, and fellowship with, that immutable spiritual Order which exists behind the veil. It is the sharing of that Divine reality of which the soul's most ardent aspirations are the faint adumbration; to taste of which is to know at once life's meaning, and its inmost satisfaction. To the man who inhabits this region, time and eternity are not two things, they are one. He sees the visible in the light of the invisible, sub specie ceternitatis. The world is to him like one of those dissolving views, in which the scene we watch is already transfused by the gleam of the one that is behind.

It is eternity under this aspect that gives morality its one vital and efficacious motive, and to human life its true value and perspective. It is a view which inspires the whole man. Citizenship,. science, art, politics, social law, become ennobled as part of a world-order which rests on an immutable spiritual scheme. The truth of all this carries its evidence in the fact that our fellow becomes only entirely human to us, truly dear and valuable, as we discern in him something of this eternity. The man who gives clearest proof to his brethren that his habitual dwelling is in that region, who can bring to them largest spoil of this sacred Invisible, will be always recognised by them in the end as of all benefactors the highest.

( Originally Published 1903 )

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