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The World's Surprises

MAX MÜLLER says of the early Aryans that they seem never to have got over their first surprise at the world, their sense of its utter strangeness, and of themselves as strangers in it. It is a refreshing utterance. We have not sufficiently appraised our sense of wonder as a spiritual asset. In fact, not to wonder has been in more than one age lauded as a virtue. We remember how Aristotle, in the " Ethics," speaking of his " Magnanimous Man," says that "he is not apt to admire, for nothing is great to him." And the tendency of modern research seems, at first sight, all in favour of nil admirari. Science has swept the universe clean of the old elements on which wonder fed. The gods and goddesses have ceased from Olympus ; dryads and genii no longer haunt the woods and streams. The world's poetry seems in danger of extinction under the empire of universal law. Where is romance when everything has been explained? Long ago Keats protested at science's dry-as-dust pro-gramme

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy ?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven :
We know her woof, her texture : she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.

But our poets need not be afraid. It is not in the power of science to extinguish the soul's wonder at itself and the world. Busied for awhile with the new explanations, it discovers in the end that the problem has been thrown only one step further back. The primal mystery looms out behind more unfathomable than ever. There are people who talk about the improbability, almost the inconceivability, of a future state of existence. Has it ever occurred to them to speculate on the antecedent improbability, inconceivability even, of such a state as the one we actually find ourselves in ? After it has been made certain to us that such impossible beings as we are actually inhabiting so impossible a world, the d priori objections against another life for us in another world become in comparison ridiculously small. It is worth while to catch this view sometimes in its full force. We get it now and then when, in waking slowly from a dream state, after lying for a while in semi-consciousness, the reality gradually dawns upon us. " Is it actually true, then," we say, " that I am what I am, and where I am, and that things around me are as they are ? " We taste to the full in that moment the world's strangeness. To have waked up in another sphere had been hardly less startling than to have waked up in this.

No scientific explanations, no cosmic theories, can take away the essential marvel of things as they are. When we explain the motion of suns and planets by a law of gravitation, which acts, we say, "as the square of the distance," we simply run up against another question that we are powerless to resolve : Why should there be a law of gravitation P and why should it act as the square rather than, say, as the cube of the distance? When we account for the world by tracing all back to an original revolving fire mist, condensing into planets and evolving in succession atmosphere, rocks, soil, water, plants, animals, and finally man, " why," we must ask, "did the original motion work along these, out of all possible, lines, and what was there in the first impulsion that could produce such effects P " How, along this line of thinking, did the original blind force contrive to endow us, at this far end, with souls, and sympathy and religion ? To reach this actual, what inconceivable hosts of improbabilities have been trampled over ! The miracle of man, as conceived by the Hebrew cosmogonists, is nothing as compared with the miracle of man as conceived by the scientists.

To thoughtful minds the world's greatest surprise lies in its two-sidedness. To gaze in one direction gives us a fit of pessimism. We cannot look five minutes in another direction without being swept on the tide of a glorious optimism. It is this mixture of the divine and the sordid that makes the riddle. On the one side we have a sense of the splendour of life which makes even such a scoffer as Nietzsche break into rapture : " And truly," says he, "divine spectators are necessary in order to appreciate the spectacle which is here inaugurated, and of which the outcome can not as yet be imagined, a spectacle too fine, too wonderful, too paradoxical for its possibly being a mere meaningless side-show upon some ridiculous star." But then that other side, the side of darkness, failure, pain and evil ! How it has racked the human brain to find here something that is intelligible ! We turn the pages of Plato, with his idea that the Creator, having to mix together necessity and thought, made the Universe as like to Himself as He could; of Aristotle, with his distinction between the inner form of the Universe and the outer matter identifying the Divine perfection with the form and the imperfection with the matter; of a Leibnitz holding this to be the best world possible, the best solution of the problem in maxima and minima, of the union of the infinite with the finite. Every age has, in fact, had its solution, and ended by leaving the matter very much where it was. But it is this darkest side which leaves us most certain that we form part in no commonplace scheme, and that a world which offers us such surprises to-day has yet greater ones in store.

This conclusion, which the general outlook suggests, is greatly strengthened when we come to the study of history. A modern view has disparaged history as "dealing, not like philosophy and science, with ideas and concepions, but only with endless particulars, with things that happened once and then ceased to exist." This conception by Schopenhauer of history, as a jumble without laws underneath it or purposes running through it, is matched in fatuity by that of another non-Christian thinker, Buckle, who, going to the opposite extreme, makes all history an affair of natural law, and reduces the difference between men and races into an affair simply of climate, soil and food. One might ask here why on this hypothesis a Germany, having the same climate, soil and food as Luther knew, does not continuously produce Lathers ? Neither of these teachers offers a satisfying answer to the problem of history. As against Schopenhauer, we see in its events and persons the sequences of an ordered movement; we see its back-ground crammed with purpose. As against Buckle, we discover it to be full of the unexpected, of the incalculable. It is because the universe exists not for the sake of laws, but of persons; because its, to us, invisible spheres are full of them, that we may expect continually vast births of time, the appearance of great natures, whose solitary thought and volition change the destinies of generations.

Unpredictable indeed and unimaginable are the turning-points of history. Imagine a Buckle in the year 1 A.D. studying Palestinian Judaism, and from what was there to see in the present, and from a past that for long centuries had been so arid, foretelling its probable future ! What was there in the circumstances, and the outlook, to make possible the New Testament and the history of Christendom? And yet all this came. "Unto us a Child is born," and the key is turned in the door of destiny. On a minor scale the same thing is continually happening. At the end of the eighteenth century poetry seemed dead in England. Who remembers the names of the laureates of that time P Decades of barrenness succeeded each other, and then suddenly arose a whole galaxy, and the firmament shone with a Wordsworth, a Coleridge, a Byron, a Shelley, a Keats. To-day the literary drought is sore, but a new Shakespeare may be in the cradle. The world indeed, both of thought and action, is prepared for immense surprises in the immediate future. Those of us who are middleaged have seen within our lifetime a change in ideas in the mode of conceiving the Universe, greater than any that has taken place before through thousands of years. And the rate of movement now promises to be cumulative. We may be on the eve of discoveries, or coming within the sweep of influences, that will alter the whole face of humanity.

But the theme, treated thus far on general lines, has some personal applications. At the beginning we spoke of wonder as a, spiritual asset, and we can now return to that. Men think a good deal to-day of their surprise faculty, and pay large sums to feed it withal. The Roman Emperor who offered a fortune to the man who could procure him a new sensation would find sympathisers to-day. People travel round the globe in search of its big things, the views that will startle and astonish. But this is, after all, a worn-out way of seeking the wonderful. The true way of travel here is not the lateral, but the vertical. The secret is not so much that of roaming as of mounting. A man who has seen the prospect, every day of his life, from his native village would scarce know it as viewed from a balloon: If as individuals we would seek the world's surprises it must be by the inner way. When we change a habit, when we start a fresh study, when we take on a new service, when we open a hitherto untouched side of our nature to the free play of God's Spirit, we shall find our-selves hi a new world. Life, as Madame Swetchine says, consists mainly of what we put into it. Natures that by constant endeavour and aspiration preserve their freshness, find an intoxication in every fresh dawn. To them, happy souls, is it given

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower ;
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

They have learned Emerson's lesson, that every day is the best day in the year.

That, too, is a poor life which, in the retrospect, does not abound in reverent wonder at the Divine goodness in the whole ordering of it. It is a fine observation of Ritschl that each man's belief in a personal Providence arises out of his own experience of God's leading. Stevenson found it hard to forgive God for the sufferings of others, but melted at the thought of His fatherly dealing with himself. And yet what a sufferer was he ! It is the marvellous history of that hidden Love toward us in the past that heartens us for the future. When we steer towards some menacing fate that fronts us we may meet it without fear. Its utmost shock will be a surprise of grace.

That is what will happen to us in death. Dying will not hurt us. Sir James Paget said that he had scarce known a patient who, when the end came, regarded it with fear, or with aversion. He believed, indeed, that it had its own pleasure, as has every other physical function. It was said of Bushnell that, "Even his dying was play to him." And why not? We agree with Erasmus that " no man can die badly who has lived well." And all that we have experienced in this world, the wonder of it, its deliverances, its trainings, its thousand gracious interpositions, lead us in our turn to the saint's trust of every age, that our passing hence will be to encounter the grandest and most blessed surprise of all.

( Originally Published 1903 )

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