All attempts to demonstrate the nature and attributes of God, all effort to prove by argument that the universe is administered by righteousness and benevolence, are aside from the main road. The real task for man is to order his own life, as an individual and in society. To do that, he needs to understand his own life as a practical matter; he needs to study the procedure of the world in which he stands; he needs to rally every force of knowledge, resolution, sympathy, reverence, aspiration, upon this high business of personal and social living. As he achieves such life, there develop in him the faculties which read sublime meanings in the universe of which he is a part. As he becomes divine, he finds divinity everywhere.
The heart of religion is joy, peace, energy, support under suffering, inward harmony, true relation with fellow creatures, grateful sense of the past, full fruition of the present, glad out-reach to a beckoning future. The way to that life is wholly independent of doubtful argumentation. It lies simply in a whole-hearted conformity to what are known beyond all question as the worthy aims, the just requirements, the righteous laws.
Let us consider somewhat at large the unfolding of this philosophy of life. Let us seek to sympathetically interpret the deepest, most significant working of the human spirit in our time.
Is it not the distinctive note of the thoughtful and honest mind of to-day, as compared with a like mind some centuries ago, that it contemplates more directly the actual procedure of the universe, is less concerned with supernatural personages and transactions, and more attentive to what has happened and is happening in this mundane sphere? The piety of our ancestors contemplated the justice and mercy of God as manifested in the counsels of eternity, -- his righteous condemnation of the wicked, and the love-inspired sacrifice of Christ. The philosophy of our ancestors was largely an attempt to map out a world-scheme from man's inner consciousness. The modern thinker, whether he calls himself Christian or not, is inclined to make his essay toward the Supreme Power by way of the observed workings of the universe. And certain general impressions which he thus receives we may distinguish.
That aspect of things which now engages us with the fascination of a new and vast discovery is what we term "Evolution." Its spectacle, on the one hand, prompts a sure and soaring hope. In the sum of things we see a movement upward and still upward, -- from unorganized to organized matter, from unconscious to sentient existence, from beast to man, from savage to saint, -- and who can say to what height in the coming ages? But on the other hand we see that thus far at least the progress of the favored is at deadly cost to the losers. And we see that parallel with the ascending white line of humanity runs an ascending black line, -- the bad man of civilization is in some ways worse than the bad man of savagery. And this complexity of good and evil is recognized at a time when a higher sensibility has made the old familiar pain and sin of humanity seem more than ever intolerable.
Yet the spectacle of creation and of the world, as we see and know it, makes upon us an impression far beyond that of mere perplexity or dismay. It produces a sentiment which we may best call awe. All the great aspects of nature wake in us this reverential emotion. A familiar instance is the effect upon us of the starry heavens. The Psalmist thrilled at that sight, -- how much more deeply are we moved, knowing what we know of the vastness and the order! Some like effect on us has the unfolding revelation of the whole process of nature. "I think the thoughts of God after him," said Kepler. Let any man study in some clear exposition the development of the human race from the animal; and the wonder of the process, the unity of design, the unforeseen goals reached one by one, the irresistible impression that the harmony which man's little faculties can discern is but a fraction of some sublimer harmony, -- these emotions have in them a surpassing power to humble, purify, and exalt the spirit.
The modern mind addresses itself to the highest reality through the actualities of existence, and of those actualities one most significant phase is the procedure and laws of nature. But there is another and more impressive aspect: it is the inner life of humanity; it is man's own conscious existence, with its struggles, victories, defeats, its agonies and raptures, its mirth, its play, its sweetness and bitterness. This to us is the realm of real existence. In this we are at home. The march of the planets, the evolution of a world, the whole process of nature, is like the view from a window; and, gazing upon it, sits feeling, thinking, aspiring man. His consciousness is environed and conditioned by the surrounding world, but is utterly unexplained by it, wholly untranslatable in its terms. Definite and precise is the language of mathematics, of chemistry, of physical procedure. Mystery of mysteries is the human spirit, -- mystery of mysteries and holy of holies. A new sense of the sacredness of human life has been born in this later age. It is our most precious acquisition. Better could we have waited for modern science than for modern humanity. Better could we spare the telegraph and the steam-engine and anaesthesia than that quickened sense of the value of man as man which inspires the deepest political and social movements of to-day. In all sober minds, in all lofty effort, -- whatever there may be of despair of God or hopelessness of a personal future, -- we see a profound recognition of the solemnity and sacredness of human existence. Through the sad pages of George Eliot, through Emerson's exultant psalm, through the reformer's battle, the socialist's scheme, runs this golden link, -- the value of simple humanity.
This, then, we may say is the characteristic attitude of the man of to-day, -- before the processes of nature, awe and reverence; before the life of humanity, sympathy and tenderness.
But now rises a heart-moving question. The dearest article of religious faith has been a Divine Power, governing the universe and holding to man an intimate relation involving issues of supreme significance to humanity. At this point modern thought falters. The long-familiar expression of that belief is the assertion of a personal, providential, all-just, and all-loving God. What reason have men assigned to themselves for belief in such a God, while confronted all the time by the fearful spectacle of a world in which sin and misery perpetually mingle with goodness and happiness? What has been the resource of the Christian intellect against that mystery of evil which baffled the questioner in the book of Job, and drove Lucretius to virtual atheism, and left Marcus Aurelius in doubt whether there be gods or not? The resource of the Christian thinker has been his belief that Jesus Christ was God incarnate. Here was a soul which was sinless and holy, which loved sinners so as to die for them; and this was God himself. That belief has been the foundation of Christian theology. It left the mysteries of earth's sorrow and sin unexplained; but it offered the assurance, under a most living figure, that the author and final disposer of the whole was one whose nature was love itself.
When it ceases to be believed that Jesus was God, the corner-stone of this whole structure of belief, as an intellectual conception, is gone. The void is concealed for a while by intermediate theories, -- that Jesus was a kind of inferior deity, that he was at least a supernatural messenger. Frankly say that he was a man only, and we have really given up that intellectual ground of confidence in a God on which for many centuries men have stood. And, in that involuntary and most regretful surrender, and in the first impression following it, that the only discernible order is a mechanical order, with no room for worship, no hope of immortality, lies the tragedy of the thinking world to-day. For a multitude of minds, God is eclipsed, and the earth lies in shadow. In shadow, but not in despair. For still there is
"The prophetic soul
Slowly emerges a new conception. In the lowest depth of his spirit man has found that, in Robertson's words, "it is better to be true than to be false, better to be pure than to be sensual, better to be brave than to be a coward." By that sure and simple creed man lives through his darkest day. When the tree seems dead, that root lives. And presently there grows from it a nobler tree.
The turning-point from the old thought to the new is this: We see that the imperative task set to every man is not to understand the universe plan, but to live his own life successfully. It will quite suffice for most of us if we can each one do justice to the possibilities of his own existence. Those possibilities are something more than breathing and eating, sleeping and waking, toil and rest. Among his possibilities each man hopes are included contentment, joy, peace. At least there must be possible for him some right conformity to the conditions in which he is placed, some noble and spiritual satisfaction, some imparting of good to his fellow creatures. There is for him some best way of life, which it is his business to find and to follow.
And as he finds and follows it, -- as he fills out the best possibilities of his own being, -- so he must come into the truest relation possible for him with this whole mysterious frame of things we call the universe. As he is himself at his best, so he will get the best, the widest, the truest impression of the whole in which he is a part.
This, then, is the rational and hopeful way of addressing the supreme problem, -- the problem, for the individual and for mankind, of a happiness and a success which shall be rooted in the true nature of things and the real order of the universe. We are not to start with any supposed comprehension of the general plan, whether as revealed by miracle or thought out by wise men. We are simply to live our own lives according to the best knowledge we have, the highest examples we know, the most satisfying results of our own experience. And, with whatever discipline and enrichment this process of right living may bring us, we are to hold our whole natures open, attentive, percipient to the world about us, and accept whatever shall disclose itself.
The two processes -- right living and clear vision -- blend constantly and intimately. We may distinguish them in our thoughts, but there is constant interplay between life and sight.
The business of living, -- how infinitely complex it is, how endlessly laborious, yet how simple and how sure! Its central principle, we may say, is the right fitting of one's self to his surroundings. Modern science has learned that for every creature the condition of success is adaptation to its environment. We may use that way of speaking to express the prime necessity of man. His environment is a vast complexity of material, social, and spiritual realities.
There is for him a true way of adapting himself to these surrounding facts. He has somehow found it out in the long existence of the race; he has seen it more and more clearly. This true way is expressed by what we call right principles of conduct. It is such traits as we name courage, truth, justice, purity, love, aspiration, reverence. It includes the study of natural laws and conformity to them. It includes the search for knowledge, both for its use and for its own joy. It includes the delighted gaze upon beauty of every kind.
Whoever follows this ideal -- and just as far as he follows it intelligently and earnestly -- finds certain results. Whenever he acts, he finds set before him a right way to follow rather than a wrong. So from every situation he may draw strength. So he may continually find peace, -- often peace won through struggle, but the deeper for the struggle. The love of beauty finds beauty everywhere. The love of living creatures finds objects everywhere, and love given brings love in response. This higher life gives joy, -- not constant, alternating with sorrow; but the joy is incomparably sweeter and purer and higher than any other course of life yields, and the sorrow has such nobility that we dare not wish it absent from the mingled cup we drain. And always through joy or sorrow may come moral growth -- development of character.
There is no exemption to be won from suffering, none from fear. Pain, weakness, bereavement, death, -- these things must come, and we must sometimes tremble before them, -- no divine hand will pluck them away. But in our fear we learn a deeper strength.
These are the gifts with which Life answers our faithful service. The brave, the gentle, the peace-makers, the pure in heart, the forgiving, the patient, the heroic, are blessed, -- incomparably enriched.
This is what we know of the relation of the One Power to ourselves, -- that it asks the very highest and best we can give, and returns our service with the best and highest we can receive. This is what that power we name God is to us.
This is the same reality which has been apprehended under the figure of a personal God, a Heavenly Father, or a Christ. To many, those figures still express it. But those to whom the Deity is not thus personified may no less fully and vividly apprehend the divine Reality.
And further, this whole conception stands no less in stead the persons and the hours when the conscious sense of Deity fails altogether. This conception makes the essence of religion to be conformity to the homely facts about us, in the relations of fidelity, sympathy, and service. When one has no conscious thought of God, or cannot reach such thought if he tries, he can always exercise love, sympathy, admiration, self-control, -- and that is enough.
The limitations of our knowledge imply everywhere a background of mystery. But that mystery is at once a stimulus to our inquiry and a prize set before our longing. In some respects it is only a challenge to search, and the horizons of knowledge forever widen before the explorer. At other points the veil never lifts, but all longing, aspiration, unsatisfied hunger, inarticulate yearning, "groanings which cannot be uttered," reach out to and lay hold on this realm of mystery. It is not an adamantine wall that encircles us, it is the tender mystery of the sunset or the starry heavens.
So of the mystery of death. The veil is not lifted, but it stirs before the breath of our prayers and hopes. The deepest fear in man is the fear of death, and that fear is conquered in him by something greater than itself. Even on the natural plane man is seldom afraid of death when it comes; it is rather the distant image that appalls him. Before the reality some instinct seems to bid him not to fear. Every noble sentiment lifts men above the dread of death. For their country on the battlefield, for other men in sudden accidents and perils, men give their lives instinctively or deliberately.
It is personal love to which death seems to menace irretrievable and final disaster. But it is personal love to which comes the divinest presage. Some voice says to our yearning heart, "Fear nothing, doubt nothing, only live!"
From our birth to our death we are encompassed by mystery, but it is a mystery which may, if we will have it so, grow warm, luminous, divine.
So, by simple fidelity, man may find within himself harmony, victory, and peace. When now, from this standpoint, he looks out on the universe, -- and from no other standpoint can he hope for any clear vision, -- what does he most clearly discern? These three aspects, -- Order, Beauty, Life.
As he opens himself to these three aspects and actively conforms himself to them, -- as he studies, obeys, and reveres the Order, as he perceives and rejoices in the Beauty, as in sympathy and service he merges his personal life in the multiform Life, -- so he grows in the impression of a divine harmony and unity pervading all things. So he becomes aware of a Cosmos, -- a universal order of beauty and of love. He becomes aware of it only as he becomes voluntarily and consciously a part of it. Only through the fidelity of his moral life does he feel beneath his feet a sure foundation. Only as his soul glows a spark of love does it recognize the celestial ether in which it is an atom.
At every moment and on every side we are in touch with the realities of being.
We live and move in a world of orderly procedure, to which we may adapt ourselves with growing intelligence and purpose.
Both the animate and inanimate creation is clothed in forms which minister to the sense of beauty; and the more that sense is cultivated in us, the more universally do we recognize beauty, and the more profound is its appeal to our consciousness.
In our social existence we come in touch with other souls, each with its actual or potential wealth of being, and each inviting our sympathetic response.
These -- order, beauty, conscious existence -- are the impact on us of the universe. The right apprehension of these and the active response to them constitute the true exercise of our own nature; and it is through that exercise that we know Life, -- the one Life, -- and know it to be divine.
These three aspects, -- order, beauty, our fellow-lives, -- let us dwell for a moment on each in turn.
An amazing stimulus to man's powers has come in the discovery that he may penetrate and follow to an indefinite extent the actual procedure of the Universe. We are only on the threshold of our discoveries. We are just beginning to see where they have their highest application. We have been harnessing the steeds of power to the service of our physical wants. We are just beginning to understand that they are to be made the ministers of building up a complete manhood. The theologian has sought to demonstrate that all natural processes work in the service of a divine righteousness. In place of any such demonstration, we are finding the true exercise of knowledge in applying for ourselves the processes of nature to the fulfillment of our noblest purposes.
We are just now at the transition point between the old and the new conception of divine Power. The old conception was: "The Almighty is a merciful father. If his children ask anything, he will give it: the weapon of desire is prayer." The new perception is: "The Almighty moves in lines which we can partly discern. By putting ourselves in line with that Power, we make it helpful: the weapon of desire is intelligent effort. Through our wills works the divine Will."
"With the great girdle of God, go and encompass the earth!"
It is moral fidelity which apprehends the true application and significance for man of that regular procedure of nature which environs and conditions him. And this Natural Order, in turn, requires the moral sense to humbly and obediently go to school to it. "You want to be good?" says Nature. "You dare to believe that even I in my mightiness am set to help you to be good? Then study my processes, and conform to them!" A new set of commandments is being written in the sight of men, -- commandments learned but slowly and often transgressed, even by those whose wills are pure and whose hearts are loving. Thou shalt sufficiently rest! How perpetually in these days is that commandment broken, and with what woeful penalty! The practical basis of all religion is the religion of the body. The body politic, too, the social organism, has its code of natural laws, intelligible, imperative. And every new discovery yields guidance and utters command. "Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened!"
Only through moral fidelity is the higher meaning of Beauty won. It is the pure in heart who see God. The beauty of the human form is, on the one side, uplifting to the soul, sacramental, as if it were the shrine of a divinity. On the other side, it blends with the instincts which when unchecked in their play degrade humanity. Plato pictures the two mingled elements as two steeds yoked together, the one black, unruly, down-plunging, the other white, celestial, up-mounting, while Reason, the charioteer, strives to rule them. The nobler interpretation is slowly acquired by mankind. There are great, sometimes catastrophic, lapses; there are periods when art and literature become the servants of the earthly instead of the heavenly Venus. We still look far forward to
"The world's great bridals, chaste and calm."
Yet, little by little, the ennobling aspect of human beauty becomes a familiar perception, is wrought into a habit, is transmitted as an inheritance. Whoever achieves in himself the victory of personal purity is helping to open the eyes of mankind.
The material world becomes instinct with majesty and with sweetness to the eyes that can see. It is a revelation of which Wordsworth and Emerson are the prophets in literature, but which is written no less in many a heart quite untaught of books. The face of Mother Earth is the book in which many a man and woman and child read lessons of delight, spelled in letters of rock and fern, of brook and cowslip, of maple leaf and goldenrod. Such lessons mean little save to the pure and humble.
The distinctive voice of nature's gospel is a voice of joy. Mixing freely with humanity, we encounter the almost perpetual presence of trouble. But turning to forest and mountain and sea and sky, we are confronted with gladness ineffable. Still "the morning stars sing together and the sons of God shout for joy." Can our religion find no other emblem than the cross, -- the instrument of torture? Mankind has pondered long the lesson of sorrow: dare it enter the whole inheritance of sonship, and taste the fullness of joy? Reality which thought and word cannot convey is bodied forth to us in music and in natural beauty. Music is the deepest voice of humanity, and beauty is the answering smile of God. When the poet-philosopher has crowded into verse all that he can express of life's meaning, -- of the subservience of evil to good, the "deep love lying under these pictures of time," -- he invokes at the last the very look of earth and sea and sky as the best answer: --
"Uprose the merry Sphinx,
"Thorough a thousand voices
Yet is the chief exercise of our life through relation with our fellow-lives. If the sublime joy of nature's companionship could be made constant, at the price of isolation from our kind, the price were a thousand-fold too great. And it is through true and sympathetic relation with other lives that we chiefly come into conscious harmony with the universe. It is in a right interplay with mankind that we get closest to the heart of things.
"God is love." So I am told: how shall I interpret it in my experience? Is it a proposition to be believed about some being throned above my sight? If I exercise my mind in that direction, if I weigh and balance and sift the intellectual evidence, I may toil to a doubtful conclusion. But let me, issuing forth from my ponderings, put myself into kindly relations with my fellow beings, -- let me so much as pat affectionately the head of the honest dog who meets me on the street, -- and a thrill like the warmth of spring touches my chilled intellect. Let me, for a day only, make each human contact, though but of a passing moment, a true recognition of some other soul, and I feel myself somehow in right relation with the world. "He that loveth knoweth God, and is born of God."
At the heart of all love is an instinct of reciprocity. It may or may not get a return from its immediate object, but somehow it opens the fountains of the universe. The heart that loves finds itself, it scarce knows how, beloved.
Such, then, is the process, and such the revelation. The first step, the constant requirement, the unsparing hourly need, is obedience to the known right. The sequence is an ever-widening sense of a sweet and celestial encompassment.
The man rightly practiced in all noble exercises of life -- in moral fidelity, in reverence and sympathy, in observation and conformity to the actual conditions of the world about him -- will find pouring in upon him a beauty, a love, a divinity, which fill the soul with a heavenly vision. And that soul, in whatever of extremity may come to it, has under its feet the eternal rock.
Through the serious literature of to-day runs a bitter wail, -- the cry that life is sad and dark and cruel. Sad and dark and cruel it is, until one meets it sword in hand. The great Mother will have her children to be heroes. She tests them, frightens them, masks herself sometimes in terror. Face the terror, drive straight at the danger, and the mask dissolves to show the celestial smile, the "all-repaying eyes."
The road is an arduous one. The aged philosopher, you remember, was asked by a youthful monarch, "Tell me if you please in a few words what is the final fruit and outcome of philosophy?" The philosopher answered him, "Cultivate yourself diligently in all virtue and wisdom for thirty years, and then you may be able to partly understand the answer to your question."
It is an arduous road, but it leads to reality. All short and easy answers to the supreme question dissatisfy after the first flush. The confidence of the dogmatic answer, we soon discover, has no sufficient authority to back it. The glib theoretical answer leads us, after all, to a Balance of Probabilities. That is the best God that theoretic philosophy can give us. It may be better than nothing. But who can love a Balance of Probabilities? Who can feel the hand of such a deity as that when his hand gropes for support in face of temptation, disaster, heartbreak?
We are told, "It may suffice for the strong and saintly to bid them 'Prove for yourself that the universe is good;' but what kind of gospel is this for the weak, for the child, for the average man and woman?" The answer is: The vast majority of mankind always have lived and always will live largely by reliance on some person or some body of persons or some social atmosphere of opinion. That authority of the church which has availed so much is just the confidence of a crowd in the leadership of certain men to whom they are accustomed to look up. In the order of nature, always the leaders will lead. What the strong and saintly receive with vivid impression and profound assurance, the mass who feel their influence will accept a good deal on their authority. The child will catch the faith of its father and mother. But, further, in its very nature, that method of approach to the highest reality which requires only goodness and open-heartedness and love is available to the little child and to the simplest mind. When Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek, the merciful, the peace-makers, the pure in heart, they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness," every one understood him.
But it may be asked, Does this attitude bring man face to face with a personal God? Personal he will be to some: to many the only solid and adequate expression of a real being is a personal being. Nay, to many only a human personality means anything. A great preacher and poet of our day once said that he never thought of God except under the figure of Christ, -- a human figure in some human occupation and attitude. Let Divinity body itself as Christ to minds so constituted. Let others invoke "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." But impose no constraint and lay no ban on those to whom, as Carlyle says, "the Highest cannot be spoken of in words. Personal! Impersonal! One! Three! What meaning can any mortal, after all, attach to them in reference to such an object?" It is not these forms of thought that are essential. What is essential is a way of living access to the Highest.
The adequate conception -- the keynote -- must be one that is sufficient alike for the every-day mood, for the exalted hours, and for the emergencies. That keynote is given in this truth: that there is no moment so dull or so hard but one can ask himself, What is the best the situation allows? and conform to that; can open his eyes to some beauty close at hand; can enter sympathetically into some neighboring life.
We prescribe to ourselves certain attitudes, and strive toward certain ideals. But the supreme hours are those in which there flow in upon our consciousness the inshinings and the upholdings of some unfathomed Power. We are led, we are carried. We feel, we know not whence nor how, a peace that passeth understanding and a love that casteth out fear.
This is the substance of that religious experience in which throughout the ages the heart of man has found its deepest support and encouragement. The experience has clothed itself to the imagination in the garb of this or that creed or climate. It is liable to debasements and counterfeits, but no more liable than all other noble emotions and experiences. Sometimes there is the culmination of a moral struggle, and the whole course of life receives a new direction. Sometimes there is an illumination and joy and peace. It is an exaltation of the soul in which gladness blends with moral energy. No chapter of human life is written in deeper letters than those which tell of victory over temptation, strength out of weakness, radiance beside the grave, through this divine uplift.
There is another experience, more common, less dependent on individual constitution, which bears an inward message of soberer tone but of like import. It is the peace which attends the consciousness of right-doing. Wordsworth personifies it as the approval of Duty, "stern daughter of the voice of God:" --
"Stern Lawgiver! Yet thou dost wear
The faithful child of duty, whatever his creed, whatever his temperament, is naturally the possessor of a steady, calm assurance. Somehow, he feels, it is well.
Reasonings about immortality lead to little result. Convinced or unconvinced, we profit little by a mere opinion. We speculate, doubt, reject, or hope; and in either case the moral conduct of life is, perhaps, not much affected. But there come hours when to love and aspiration the heavenly vision opens, and the sense of its own eternity thrills the soul.
The crying need of the heart is always a present need. No promise of a far-away satisfaction is sufficient for it. And answering to just that need is the experience, sometimes given, that the human love once ours is ours still in its fullness, -- some richer fullness even than that of days gone by. There are hours in which the heart's voice is,
"Though mixed with God and Nature thou,
The highest state of consciousness to which we attain is expressed by the old phrase that man feels himself a child of God. His energy feels back of it an infinite energy. His desires rest peacefully in some all-sufficing good. All that is highest and purest in him mingles with its divine source. He sees new and higher interpretations of his own life and other lives. All the human love he has ever experienced he holds as an abiding possession. There comes to him not so much the premonition of a future state as the consciousness of some state in which past, present, and future blend. He is free from illusions, and serene. It does not disturb him even to know that the vision will pass, and he will return to earth's level. He sees the truth, he feels the divine reality; and the certainty and the gladness are such that not even the prevision of his own relapse into dimmer perception can depress him. The hour speaks with command to the hours that are to follow; it bids them to fidelity, to love, to highest courage.
When turning from contemplation we throw ourselves into the work and the battle, a pulse of divine energy blends with our noblest effort, touches our joy with an ineffable sweetness, and hushes our sorrow like a child folded in its mother's arms.
The key of the world is given into our hands when we throw ourselves unreservedly into the service of the highest truth we know, "with fidelity to the right as God gives us to see the right." So it is that we may find ourselves
"Wedded to this goodly universe