Is God Good?
A TENDENCY to ask irreverent questions is no sign of strength. It is wholesome for us, in this day of facile defiance and hard acceptance, to remember this. In an age which fails in deference, it is a healthful thing to do, to summon our spiritual instincts to order. The bust of young Augustus in the shop window wears a lung protector ; Clytie serves to advertise the “ Boston battery ; ” and positivist writers go out of their way to address Jehovah by the familiar pronoun “ you.” We have not passed the period when skepticism is more apt than not to be regarded as a proof of superior intelligence, but we have reached the stage at which no intelligent mind can thus regard it, without severe and honest study of its own motives. It is a lesson as old as Aristotle that philosophy is not the art of doubting, but the art of doubting well.
While the inclination to irreverence, let us repeat, is no indication of mental robustness, the courage to question accepted doctrine may be not only a proof of devoutness, but the condition of the profoundest submission to truth.
This recognition of the inherent right of every man to have the reasons for what he believes, and to shake his destiny by the shoulders till he gets such reasons, is postulated to-day, in educated thought.
It is hardly necessary to say that it will not be the presumptuous object of this paper to try to settle in half a dozen magazine pages that problem which is now the acknowledged centre of philosophical divergence : Given the universe, to find a Creator. “ It takes me forty lectures,” said a professional metaphysician, “to prove the personality of God.” Such things must be, God is none the worse for it, or man, either, perhaps. The pulse will go throbbing; the blood will have its bound, through the cut flesh its escape. But even for the terrible protest of the wound there is the reply of the ligature ; and behind the beat and heat and fever the magnificent action of the hidden heart goes on to save the mutilated life. We do not make a gloomy prognosis of the case, but, meanwhile, prefer to surrender ourselves to the profound and sublime argument of hope. We desire to be understood as intelligently contented to observe that design does not exist without a designer ; that moral nature implies moral government ; that moral government means a moral governor ; that human conscience bespeaks a greater than human regulator ; that aspiration involves an ideal, purity a model, the child a father, man God. We desire to be ranked among those simple souls who believe that this world never got where it is without somebody to put it here. In short, we find it, of the two difficulties, so much harder to explain the nature of things without God than with him that we decline at present to perceive that he is no longer needed in our affairs. Just before the American civil war, a new religion, it is said, arose among the negro slaves, founded upon the theory that God was dead. Much of our haste to dispense with him can boast no sounder premises. “ I am a priest,” said Victor Hugo’s Cimourdain ; “ no matter, I believe in God.” “ God has gone out of date,” said Danton. “ I believe in God,” said Cimourdain, unmoved.
So much being understood, we may proceed to remind ourselves that the mere fact of having a God is of slight value to us unless we know what kind of a God he is.
The benevolence of the Creator, it is safe to assert, was never so thoughtfully questioned by such numbers of human beings as it is to-day. Openly or tacitly, this is done on every side of us. Falsely or fairly, many types of mind spring easily to this attitude. In hope or in despair, the awful query works out its fixed reply, and life freezes or melts to the mould of it. We should remember that this is so. The piercing cry of the people in Richter’s Dream reechoes about us : " O Christ ! Are we all orphans ? ” Spiritual tragedies are enacting among us, to which none but an unimaginative, unobservant, or untender eye can be blind. Spiritual forms and forces which our fathers knew not, pursue us like unlaid ghosts. They start in the glamour of the drawing-room ; they skulk behind the study chair; they hold the Prayer Book with trembling fingers ; they kneel with the worshiper ; they cry in the hymn ; they stare above our bridals ; they look at us in the eyes of our children ; they regard us in the last recognition of our dying; they huddle over our graves. To ignore them gives them a fatal fertility ; to foster them is death ; to feel out a true course among them is a “ strait and narrow way.” He who does this with intelligence and candor has to the respect of the unbeliever a right as clear as the right of the chemist to be followed in the results of his experiment. He who does this with humility and prayer has to the confidence of untroubled believers a right as clear as the ecstasy of an aged saint at the communion table.
There is no reason, in the nature of things, why a man should not question the benevolence of God. This may be done as honestly (I do not say as intelligently), and it may be done as honorably, as to question the good-nature of the Czar, or the poetic rank of Milton, or the disposition of any other being superior to the questioner.
God is an unknown force. He is expressed to us through facts. It is our right to interpret the nature of that force through these facts. It is our duty to exercise this right in a manner worthy of a right so solemn, of facts so grave, of a force so vast.
Human impressions are of a singularly limited reliability, but if there is one which can be said to be trustworthy, it is that people know when they suffer. In the infinitely complicated system of pain and pleasure that governs this world we find, I premise, the emphatic predominance of pain. Did we not remember that there have been great teachers who deny (as there are those who admit) this, and that they have found important and noble disciples, we might presume that none but a shallow or selfish nature could fail to be aware of this predominance.
There are two ways of viewing such a system. It is natural to be chiefly struck with the sadness of it. It is possible to be chiefly moved by the error in it. It is thought by many people — the world contains no better — that the latter is the natural, as it should be the habitual, avenue by which an upright intelligence ought to approach the facts of life. This I profoundly doubt. It seems to me rather that it is mainly by its perception of pain that a limited or created nature can constitute itself the appraiser of blame ; and that precisely in proportion to the purity of a soul must the misery of a sight appeal in advance of the guilt of it. “ I want,” said the villain, in a thoughtful story, to the unsuccessful clergyman, who was opening his Testament upon him, — “ I want to talk with a man whose first impulses are always warm towards the worst of men. Your best thoughts seem to be your second thoughts.” “ Do you know what keeps the gin palaces open ? ” cried the pure and consecrated Robertson, “ Misery ! The miserable go there to forget.”
I should wish, however, to add that I believe so thoroughly in the reality of what we call sin, that I shall have nothing to say of it here as a disconnected fact in the human economy, but, in speaking of the miseries of life, shall class it, first and finally, as the greatest human misery that I know anything about.
There will be readers of a paper like this to whom it will seem that the uncandidness of unnecessary gloom pervades it, and that the distresses of life, upon which it is always possible to look from at least two sides, are presented with unfair emphasis. Be it said, once for all, that the writer is not unaware of the absence from this discussion of certain genial aspects of the world’s mystery, nor of the slightness with which others are brought forward. It is my intention, at this time, to leave the task of urging these aspects to other hands. We are perhaps all of us more familiar with their force than with that of argument wrested from the reluctance of fate. Let it be ours, just now, to see what can be said for human life upon its darkest side. Let us look, for once, at the divine, as we often do at the human problem, and, taking things at their worst, see what our chances are. We do this, in the one case, for good cheer’s sake. For good cheer’s sake I ask to be trusted in saying we may do it in the other, too.
Further, I urge, especially, that we owe it to our faith to make it less easy than it is for shrewd atheists to say, " Those who believe in a God of love must close their eyes to the phenomena of life, or garble the universe to suit their theory.”
It not being the object of this article to furnish a full index, or even a concordance, to the miseries of mankind, I have selected only three avenues, from which, with merciful brevity, to approach our problem.
Let us review for a moment our impressions of the Creator, as received through the manifestations of natural law.
Nature is orderly, wise, beautiful, mysterious, terrible, remorseless, cruel. Surrender yourself to her awful moods. Test her at her tenderest. Try her at her strongest. Shall we bask in her midsummer sun ? It is a fire from which we must guard ourselves as if from the very glory of an offended God. Would we have the iron of her snows in our blood ? It is at our peril that they do not pierce our hearts. If the eternal resurrection of her spring does not pour freshets on our homes and mildew on our seeds, we kneel to thank her. If the red flags of her autumn wave no signals of disease or death about our firesides, we draw our held breath for another cycle of her seasons, and trust her still. She bestows the harvest at the chances of the famine. She gives her shine on condition of her storm. She blazons with beauty the heavens in which the bolt lurks to strike us down. She stimulates our courage by her seas. She forms our fortitude by her deserts. She creates our nations by her mountains. The avalanche, the shipwreck, and the sirocco are the cost. Behind every blessing she hides its penalty. Beneath every faculty of mind and body she secures its denial. Every bestowal is a danger. Acceptance measures bereavement. Possession is the gauge of loss.
“ Life,” says a “scientific” historian, “ is one long tragedy ; creation is one great crime.”
The holder of happier faiths must at least confess that the mass of evidence, in the great trial of Nature before the bar of man, is voluminous and stern. Forever the temperament and the type will select for itself, and certain points in the case will intensify the prœjudicia with which each of us comes to the hearing. There are some minds for which the gentlest caprice of the accused can never blot the memory of sternly isolated facts in her history. There are nicely poised perceptions to which the dark corners of her past are always unveiled. There are tenderly balanced sympathies for which no personal immunity from infliction can muffle the wail of recorded anguish. It is probably through a small, finely varied, and strictly characteristic collection of illustrations that each of us practically views a subject like this. Is Nature merciful ? It may be natural for you to give the historic answer, — to turn to ages when the world existed only for the propagation of monstrous animal growths, that breed, attack, rend each other, die, and give place to the next phase of apparently purposeless suffering. You recall primitive man, who dwelt in caves, like cubs ; who was without intelligible speech or human sympathy, or the decency of any wild beast known to the observation of science. Or you think of the highly developed savage, whose language resembled the hissing of serpents ; or of him, still ascending in the type, who fed upon the quivering flesh of live elephants, cultivated what is known as tribal marriage, and buried his dead with awful laughter ; or of him whose war-phrase, being interpreted, signifies, “ Let us go and eat that nation.” Or you point to cities that confide in a crater, and in an hour are seething into lava, like the inorganic rock ; or to those waste places where famine has preceded the traveler, and where the starved corpses of entirely vanished communities offer him their gaunt hospitality.
Is Nature merciful ? It may be that your impulse gives the poetic answer. You turn the query over to the tiger in the jungles, the death within the fruit, the venom in the thicket, the poison in the flower, the wreck beneath the sea, the plague upon the air. To many readers and lovers of Frederick Robertson his awful illustration of the ichneumon fly will stand apart in their minds, and reply for them with the convincing vividness by which single images fasten themselves upon a sensitive absorption of truth too painful to be endured in full.
The celebrated arraignment of the “ great mother ” by Stuart Mill will be well remembered : —
“ Nature impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones like the first Christian martyrs, starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve, such as the ingenious cruelty of a Nabis or a Domitian never surpassed. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice, emptying her shafts upon the best and noblest indifferently with the meanest and the worst ; . . . often as the direct consequences of the noblest acts, and it might almost be imagined as a punishment for them.”
Is Nature merciful ? It may be easy for you to proffer the judicial reply. You remember her immense and kindly recuperative force : that the grass grows over her extinct volcano, that the harvest follows the furrow of her freshet, that the agitation of her oceans creates her temperature, that gorgeous beauty crowns the terrors of her tropics, that the snow protects the seed, that time restores the ruin of her cyclones, that flowers seek her graves, that death itself preserves her from the disintegration of her superfluous life. You recall the exquisite system of development by which she is manifested to human knowledge ; you observe that ages of animal pleasure and pain went to the preparation of the globe for the habitation of rudimentary races, that in their turn peopled the earth and perished from it to make way for men who could master it, who also yielded to others who had the mastery of them, who have themselves vanished before our blossoming civilization, as ours shall vanish before the symmetry of the future form. You have been taught by faith, as you are taught over again today by science, that the world is steadily becoming a better place to live in ; that the sum of its happiness absolutely increases ; and that the “sacrifice consumed,” the cost at which the glory of the future shall be reached, has been what we are accustomed to call “ worth while.”
Nevertheless, is Nature merciful ? Let us be just to her ; but for myself, whenever I hear those three words, three things present themselves to my imagination, — the pant of a hunted hare, the look in the eye of a lost dog, and the heart of a woman towards a man who would betray her.
Is Nature merciful ? The intellect of a child can accuse her. Goethe at an infant age did as much. The subtlety of a seer cannot defend her. Wordsworth would have done it, if any man could. The abyss of her harshness is deeper than Rydal Lake.
Take, again, — it is not an abrupt transition, — our views of the Great Designer as affected by the relation of the sexes. This is a subject upon which words must be few, but impressions deep. It is a commonplace to say that nothing contributes so far to either the happiness or the misery of the race as this sole incident in its development.
From the Abyssinian bride sold by her husband for a weapon, an ornament, a dinner, to the last victim of a mariage de convenance in civilized life, what a sealed and awful book ! From the heart of Dante, of Abelard, of Vittoria Colonna, to the blush of the little lass betrothed in a country lane last week, what a range of capacity for what is called joy ! I scarcely hesitate before saying that the attraction between man and woman cannot be presumed to have added to the delight, in proportion as it has intensified the denial, of existence.
We may be quite willing to intrust this assertion to the happiest lover in the world, provided his happiness be of that sensitive sort which does not shut out the apprehension of other people’s deprivation. Since, were he not the most sensitive, he could not be the happiest ; and were he the most sensitive, he would be the most sympathetic. It would be almost enough, in this connection, to suggest the inherent vagrancy of the affectional instinct in man, and the historic constancy of woman. What ingenuity could surpass that involved in this one exquisite invention of actual or possible anguish ?
It would be almost enough to take one absolute look at the heart of an honorable man who, in an hour of beautiful delusion, has wedded an insincere woman.
It would be almost enough to shut the eyes before the conflicts of a pure heart, to which the supreme attraction occurs, when every law of God or man has welded it to the claim of the less.
It would be almost enough to look into the face of a drunkard’s wife.
It would be more than enough to hear the cry of the deserted girl, who leaped to a death more merciful at its worst than life at its best to her.
It would be unjust not to recall the heavy pressure of happiness against the scale of the question, involved in pure betrothals, bridal hours, assured domestic content, the experience of tried and calm affections, the bliss of young parents, the rejuvenation of age in its offspring, and the repose of those for whom the prayer of Tobit has been answered : “ Mercifully grant that we may grow aged together.”
But it would be illogical not to observe the intricate insecurity of the happiest hour that history could be shown to have given to the most fortunate affections of the race. It would be almost enough to watch the countenance of the radiant young mother, who, her children leaning about her, at her fireside, hears suddenly grating upon their laughter the discordant sound of a croupy cough.
It would be almost enough to stand with the father of motherless babes by the first gash life has ever cut in the church-yard turf for him.
It would be almost enough to avert the face from a meeting between pure parents and a ruined son.
It would be almost enough to remember the mystery of womanhood, so “ heavily weighted, in the race of life,” as a great scientist of our day expresses it, by maternity.
It would be almost enough to follow the red feet of war to the obscure life of one widowed girl.
It would be enough to watch the process of descent by which a betrothal ever reaches a divorce.
Look once more at our impressions of their First Cause as received from the sufferings of the lower classes of society. These are “ facts ” before which the wisest, the temlerest, the healthiest, the most joyous, and the most devout among us may well wish for the wings of the seraphim in the sacred story ; of whom it is said that “ with twain they covered their faces, and with twain they covered their feet, and with twain they did fly.”
A miniature bust of Michael Angelo’s Slave stands as a paper-weight upon the MS. which this pen is tracing. The pose of the mutilated head, the droop of the swollen eyelids, the quiver of the pitiful mouth, the protest of the thoughtful brow, present themselves, so many mute arguments, appealing to be used. The bit of plaster is an unanswered accusation. It bewails the mystery of human captivity, of which the enslaving of man by man was the rudest form, as the ministrations of one portion of the race to-day to the leisure of the other is the most lenient. From the first captive mother condemned to murder her own child, to the last poor wretch who sold her soul to buy bread for her family ; from the slave at the galley-oar, in the seraglio, under the lash, facing the bloodhound, on the auction-block ; to the factory-girl with the “ cotton-cough,” the miner in the fire-damp, the poisoned “ band ” in the lead-works, or the child of four years rolling cigars for a passionate or drunken overseer, — there is a range of sheer human fear, which it is not easy to contemplate either with or without an explanation of its existence.
From the filthy shiverers who shared the straw of the feudal hovel with their donkey or their goat, to the Irish laborer evicted at midwinter from the home of his life-time ; from the temperate and diligent American family found to have lived for three months on bread and water, to the all too real “ little Joe ” of Dickens, or the “ abused child ” in any of our Christian cities, habituated to sufferings which it would blot this page to repeat ; from the poor woman who told Octavia Hill that she chose her deadly cellar because “ it lay between ninepence and the sun ” to the six hundred and twenty-three descendants of an ignorant girl, now famous and infamous to social science as " Pauper Margaret ; ” from the great causes of the English corn-law resistance, or the Reign of Terror, to the Nihilist passion fermenting beneath the Winter Palace, or the New York tenement house (sinister forerunner of revolution !), where four families occupy one room, and wherein, by mathematical estimate, there belongs to each living being under the roof a space on the floor’s surface measuring eight feet by four, — there is a margin for simple human endurance, upon which it is not agreeable, either with or without its obverse relief, to dwell.
On this obverse, it were uncandid not to remember, are pale and pleasant compensations to benignant thought. Beyond a certain point, deprivation unquestionably dulls susceptibility, denial teaches endurance, obscurity preserves from responsibility, the transient pleasure is more emphatic, the finer foreboding perhaps less acute, aspiration cools into acceptance, and ignorance stratifies into repose.
It is not a grateful task to remind people how unfortunate they are. One who seems to undertake it must expect to be accused of pessimism (chiefly by those persons who do not accurately know what a pessimist is), and of “ morbidness,” — a word which apparently has been made to cover whatever form of viewing fact differs from one’s own. “ Of course,” said a great writer of his own sad, honest look at life, — “ of course it is exaggerated to those who feel feebly.” “ Let no man counsel me,” said Sophocles, “ but who has felt sorrow like mine.” Nevertheless, it must be repeated that no consistent philosophy, no trained imagination, no instructed memory, no sensitive sympathy, and no intelligent religious trust can deny this to be a state of manifold, mysterious, and unmeasured suffering. It is a doctrine no newer than Plato that all our pleasure consists in an escape from pain.
The very failure of the pen in a space so small, before a subject so enormous, writes deeper and darker than its fluency could mark. The very sinking of the heart before a strain so tense upon its nerve ; the very impulse which leads two kinds of people, the dull and the fortunate, — or, we might add a third, the cold, — into their clamor about the beauty and happiness of the world, itself accentuates the great onrolling sound of the truth, like the voices of children on the shore, which increase while they defy the roar of the breaker.
It will be remembered that we have, touched with a reticent and sparing finger upon what might be called three key-notes in the great discords of life : the cruelty of nature, the mystery of sex, and the misery of the poor. It will be seen that these present but a portion of the lost harmonies around which the chords of human suffering clash. It will be observed that of the great facts of heredity we have said nothing at all ; that to the immense influence of physical disease on happiness we have scarcely alluded ; that we have passed by all those finer phases of our question which have led metaphysicians to maintain that life is a continual vacillation between displeasure and ennui ; that we have omitted the acute historical illustrations of human woe ; that we have avoided the whole train of thought suggested by institutions of charity, penalty, and mental healing; that we have not dwelt upon the obstinate argument of suicide ; that we have not considered the terrible phenomena of remorse ; that we have not brooded upon the pitiless and inexorable sentence of death which has gone out against every breathing creature on the earth. It will be acknowledged that we have spared ourselves in the task of “ looking the worst in the face.”
The most irrecoverable “ blue ” in philosophy could not venture to overlook the sum of the world’s enjoyment, if only for the mathematical reason that a given amount of it represents so much less weight than the same amount of misery. The color of Italian lakes, the scents of blush roses, — who could forget ? — are ever with us. The radiance of lovers’ eyes and the laughter of children we may not miss. The comforts of ease and the vagaries of wealth are present to us, and though the invalid poor die for lack of beef tea, it is a fixed fact that a velvet suit for a doll can be purchased to-day for fifteen dollars. But it should not be forgotten that, so far as we are able judicially to estimate questions affecting our emotions, pain “ goes farther,” as our idiom has it, in this world than pleasure. This the great inductive philosopher, experience, teaches, at least to the more sensitive of the species, early in life.
Up to a certain degree, pain passes over the suffering cells of the rain without disintegrating them ; but there comes a limit, as clear to the individual consciousness as it is difficult to make over to that of another, beyond which the best that fate could offer could not atone for the worst she has inflicted. Wise men may dispute this nice point to the world’s end. It would be possible to select one bereaved mother, who might call them all as scholars to her feet, A great sufferer knows that he can set single hours of his life against the accumulated happiness of its years, He knows that the one, considered in its cold, intellectual character as a fact of consciousness, outweighs the other, sinking as far below it as the sod is from the stars. This knowledge is no more to be taken from him than his soul. He would go to the bar of God with it.
There is yet another thing, which the gayest optimist of us all would do well, in a discussion like this, to bear in mind. The charm of nature, the glory of love, and the pride of life are facts of which a Creator, presumably not kindly inclined towards his creatures, would be presumptively sure to avail himself, He would not be a very shrewd Deity who, with malevolent intentions, should create a world of ugliness, hate, and unmitigated deprivation.
Such a God would be too wise to construct a system of unrelieved woe. He would exultantly deepen pain by a background of pleasure. He would fiendishly emphasize loss by experience of possession. He would create hope as a foil against despair. The color of the lily, the kiss of a child, the delirium of love, it might be his horrible ingenuity to hold as what artists call “ values ” against the tornado, and the tooth of famine and the grave.
Conceptions like these, almost enough to congest imagination, might be true, though not in the same measure, of the moral nature of man. It is conceivable that up to a certain extent, at least, good impulses might have been created for evil ends. There is a large border-land of moral conflict, wherein our worst assaults seem to come on the wings of angels of light. It is conceivable that a maleficent God would bestow upon us aspiration to create in us remorse, and allow us to strive for purity that he might the more exquisitely gloat over our surrender to guilt.
It is not easy for a reverent mind to glance into this pit, even to heighten by contrast the dazzle of the ether up to which the devout heart looks.
But it seems to me that if there is any being of whom we need to know the worst that could be said, our Creator is that Being. A faith that will not bear for once firmly to regard the blackest possibilities of our destiny, does not deserve their brightest.
For the reasons given, as well as for those which must be omitted from a fragment of this kind, the reader will follow me in saying that the miseries and mysteries of human life being what they are, and our conceptions of the Creator being, as they must be, drawn to so large an extent through misery and mystery, the simple fact of the faith of mankind in his fair intentions is in and of itself as powerful a proof of his goodwill as we are likely to obtain, — a far more powerful one than all the limp religious impulse that could be wrung out of a system in which ease and pleasure predominated. It does not seem to me that we are in the habit of giving to this aspect of the question anything like the dignity or the force which, as an argument, it deserves.
I do not refer to what is known as the intuitive argument for God, which lies quite behind us in the discussion. Let us call this rather the argument of acquired trust. It would seem to be the consequence of experience rather than its prelude. The child, in the first blow from a father’s hand, perceives nothing but an evidence of cruelty. Youth, hot-headed and high-hearted, upon the first important occasion when its wishes are crossed, flashes out its protest against Providence. Maturity only builds up confidence, and old age alone knows peace.
We find it to be the law of divine denial that it not only does not obliterate, it creates, the phenomenon of human belief. The final test of love is trust under apparent desertion. This absolute trial it has been God’s mysterious purpose to impose upon man. Man has stood the test. Deep as he wades in the tide of error, wide as he gropes in the gloom of doubt, low as he sinks in the mud of sin, nevertheless, man has stood the test.
There are lives of which we say, in the unconscious bitterness of common speech, that they are " pursued by Providence.” The religious resignation of such lives partakes of the nature of miracle. Our wildest outcry against fate goes down before the patience of the deaf-mute or the cheerfulness of the blind, or the trust of an invalid, buried alive for forty years in a “ mattress grave,” in the tenderness of the Power that fixed him there.
When life selects a sensitive and silent and untaught woman, whose whole being beyond its affectional side is rudimentary, of whom we should say that it were a severity to expect her to breast a snow-storm alone, — when fate selects such a woman, and bruises her stroke by stroke, leaving her widowed, leaving her childless, dragging her through the extremes of poverty, adding sickness, inventing friendlessness, threatening insanity, and denying death, and we find her peacefully and affectionately on her knees before a Being whom she never saw, whom she never heard, whom she never touched, but to whom alone she can attribute the inquisition of her life, — let us get upon our own, beside her ; there is no higher place that our nicest logic is fit for, before the argument of such a fact as she.
Life presents too many illustrations of this miracle of human trust for us to be able to set them aside as exceptions. They form a serried rank, advancing upon our doubts like the armed angels whom the prophet saw in the golden air. It is not to our purpose now to dwell upon the extent to which Christianity has cultivated this trust.1 It is enough at present that, from whatever origin and by whatever support, it exists. The fact that one sane mind, under the extremity of fate, developed the habit of joyous confidence known to the higher forms of religious culture were something before which a doubter with a fine eye must ponder long.
It would seem that the fact that life abounds, has always abounded, with this confidence, rises, as I have said, to the region of the supernatural. It is less human than divine. It assures us of the divine in our Maker by the divine in ourselves. It is the fire of heaven — Prometheus never knew it — given at last to man.
What merely human friendship (I ask it reverently) could stand the strain which God has seen fit to put upon our friendship for himself ?
What human affection increases under the infliction by its object of unexplained and lifelong pain ?
True, we know instances in which our little loves for one another seem to have survived every attack upon them, — that of the wife for a brutal husband, that of a mother for a heartless child ; but such is not the law of our natures.
Faith requires faith. Tenderness demands the tender. Truth claims the true ; and ought to claim it, and will. Even in the rarest forms of self-abnegation known to human fondness, repeated signs of coldness or unkindness wear out trust. Trust is the last and highest manifestation of the divine. Even our conceivable malignant Deity would pause before the creation of a state of character in which trust — trust in purity, trust in beauty, trust in love, trust in himself as the essence of these holy things — had become the all-pervading and the all-powerful element ; immediate as the light, and strong as the wind, and tender as tears, and firm as the eternal rock, He would have created a character mightier than himself. He would have created his own God. The hells, whether of time or eternity, could work no death upon such a character. It would pass out of them like the three men in the old story from the furnace of living fire.
The ultimate religious tenderness of man towards God is a thing too high, too pure, too reasonable, to have sprung from any source less than himself. It must not be forgotten that this trust involves a state of feeling in man which puts the fact that he has hurt God to the front of his consciousness that God has hurt him. Even supposing it to be true that mere human longing for happiness, in itself considered, should not philosophically offer the promise of satisfaction, it is not rational that the panting human thirst for holiness, implied in the whole scheme by which the confidence of mankind in the mercy of its Creator has been developed, should be the offshoot of anything other than a God who deserved it.
Is it not conceivable that the creation of precisely such a type of character as this exact kind of trust signifies were worth the cost at which it has been built up ?
Is it not altogether possible that the rounded development of such a character demands a far more straightforward look at the painful facts of life than we are taught to give them by that pseudophilosophy which substitutes superficial cheerfulness for searching truthfulness ? We are not asked to writhe ourselves into the belief that this is a happy world.
We are asked peacefully to admit that it was not meant to be a happy one. We are not lured, like girls, to love our Creator because he treats us indulgently. We are expected, like soldiers, to love him, although he treats us sternly. We are required to discover the characteristics of a loving and faithful parent in the appearance of a severe and mysterious ruler.
To find the father’s smile
Behind the monarch’s mask.
Regarded carefully, this is a fine tribute of respect to the race.
It must not be forgotten that the entire scientific basis of human trust in the Creator is one of belief in a life to succeed this.
This is as much as to say that pain is more formative than pleasure of spiritual character, and of faith which is the distinct resultant of such character.
On the whole, for most of us this is practically true. They are rare people who can bear great good-fortune. Sustained happiness, as our phrase goes, spoils us ; only the select natures sweeten, strengthen, and mature under it. There seems to be a law, not unlike certain analogies in nature, by which the human plant requires a winter.
Philosophically, too, it is easy to see that pain rather than joy leads to that desire for another life which might underlie the capacity for one. “ A soul sodden with pleasures ” does not soar. A continuance of limited happiness is no spur towards the attainment of the unlimited. All social history proves this. Man unstung by deprivation saunters through his little possibility. The ascetic conqueror succumbs to the luxurious vices of the conquered. He who lives under a bread-fruit tree invents no grain-elevators. Very near the surface lies at least one sound reason why the race finds itself in what Kant called a “ never-ceasing pain.” This opens close upon all the ancient and great discussions clustering about the value of force and activity. It is enough for our purposes to say that it is natural to accept pleasure ; it is natural to escape pain. If this world had been made for the many what it is for the few, given to the deprived as it is to the fortunate ; if life for any of us had been what its ideals are, what but a miracle could have given us a compelling interest in a world beyond ? In short, if we had been provided with the materials of content, where should we have found the materials of aspiration ?
Modern science has itself unwittingly invented one of the best of testimonies to the benevolence, if not the beneficence, of the Creator, in acknowledging the compulsion which it has found laid upon itself of evolving human happiness out of human suffering. Somewhere, keen eyes have perceived, a keen intellect must meet this demand. Somehow, it must be done. Whatever this globe was put here for, it was not for failure. Whatever the unit was made for, the race was not made for hopelessness. However black the past, however blind the present, a bright future is a philosophical necessity.
The individual, we are told, withers and dies. The type roots and renews. The blood-red pages of history, closed, sealed, and forgotten, give way to the fair hieroglyphs of prophecy, cold, golden, and calm. Let us be content to suffer, that our posterity may enjoy. Let us be satisfied with our dulled capacity, our imperfect faculty, our little knowledge, our lost ideal, our pitiful hope, our puny achievement, since they who come after us shall grow like grass from our decay. Let us endure, enjoy, strive, sing, bleed, smile, and go to our graves gratefully. Over our dumb and witless ashes a select and proud race, with the beauty of pagan gods, shall walk haughtily, and with the scorn of the gods shall remember us as we remember the savage, whose war-shouts assisted in developing the fine, human larynx, to contribute to the modulations in the voice of Malibran.
It is significant that temperaments easily appeased by the best that unbelieving science has to offer, have been compelled to devise what, for want of a better term, we may call a humane purpose in the creation of this world. Clumsily as they have succeeded, it is not we who should overlook the fact that they have tried. It is memorable that they have been forced to tender even this pitiful substitute for personal immortality ; nay, they have added the “ invention of immortality,” whatever that may mean, to the list of attractions held out to the disciples of their meagre faith. It is important that even so awkward a contrivance is presented to us in place of the perfect mechanism of eternal hope. Natural selection has not yet eliminated the quiver from the human lip, which makes it hard to frame the imaginary answer that Strauss makes to Frederick the Great : “ Pardon, sire, but I have no desire to go to heaven at all.”
A God, indeed, as Hamilton has finely said, is to us only of practical importance inasmuch as he is the condition of our immortality.
Human trust, we observed, in divine mercy is postulated on belief in a life to come. This is also to say that the disadvantages of this life are so many arguments for the evolution from it of another ; properly presented, an unassailable position, which this is no place to elaborate.
The mourner smiles, because she looks forward to comfort. The sufferer endures, because he expects relief. The imperfectly happy yearns for the maturity of joy. The guilty hopes, because he anticipates purity. Each confides in a Being who is both able and willing to bestow these sequels on pleasure, pain, and sin.
It is the aim of the believer to cultivate this confidence as the most important fact of his life. It is more real to him than his sorrow ; it is more near to him than his remorse. Familiarity cannot wrest it from him. Unlooked-for anguish cannot shock it out of him. The hurling of temptation upon temptation cannot weaken it in him. Death cannot bury it with him. Eternity shall justify it for him.
Is God good ? If this sublime trust, itself a marvel only less than himself, be the fond and fatal delusion of a pitiful ignorance, a phantasm of the emotions, a movement of the blood, a secretion of the brain, no. No, if the bravest delights this earth can muster are all that men can confidently call their own. No, if the sum of our misery is the sum of our days. No, if the tale of earth’s error is “ the end of the song.”
If joy has no permanence, if anguish no comfort, if sin no cure, no, and a thousand times no !
If aspiration has no perfect blossom, if power no mellow fruit, if hope no sound justification ; if denial never becomes delight ; if despair never turns to ecstasy ; if love knows no resurrection, and purity no assured vitality, and faith no throne, no, — to the last breath, no !
Is there Love at the heart of the world? Is there law in this Love ? Is there joy in this law ? Yes, if the blighted seed of our experience be sown to the blessed harvest of another. Yes, if time be a cipher to which eternity gives the key. Yes, if the virile hope of a life without an end be the measure of the mystery of the splendor of the truth. Yes, if he who permitted this world has promised the other. Yes, at the strain of extremity, in the blackness of darkness, to the last outcry of endurance and the last throb of belief, — yes !
O you who have given us a counterfeit of human hope, who have stuffed an effigy of human happiness, who have composed a parody on human dignity, we suffer you, without fear, to set these against the gold, the heart-beat, and the song ! What is the best your first can offer, beside the least our lowest can command ? What has the king, the priest, or the prophet of your dreary creed to look to, compared with the promise open to the obscurest human soul that knows itself a deathless thing ? “ A cripple in the right way,” Bacon has reminded us, “ may beat a racer in the wrong.” A believing pauper would be insane to change places with him who may be your “ advanced ” Herbert Spencer of two thousand years to come, though that highly-developed being were to be all that you expect, if he is to cease where you anticipate. A slave with a heaven were happier than Shakespeare without.
We suffer you, without disturbance, to explain to us how the physiology of the future is to extend the realm of matter, till it is coextensive with knowledge, with feeling, and with action ; to tell us of the prospect of that heavenly commune, “ in which men will reserve for themselves not even a hope, not even the shadow of a joy,” — in which “ all is at an end for the speck of flesh and blood with the little spark of instinct which it calls mind ; ” to call our attention to the growth of the “ great unit,” man, the sacrifice of generation for generation, of the species for the type, of the fraction for the whole.
One hour’s hope of the believer’s Paradise is worth it all.
It is a well-mannered comfort that you offer us, like the smile of a woman in evening dress on a man who has an appointment with the surgeon. We recognize your courtesy, but we choose the warm clasp of a living human hand.
Your cold voices have a hollow echo. They sound afar off, to us, and thin. Their clamor faints about our imperious human need. Who would exchange even the delusion of eternal life for the apotheosis of death ?
If to expectance we add assurance, how can we pause for your bleak interruption ?
Hope is not proof, but it is argument. Conviction is not demonstration, but it is enlightenment. “ He had learned,” it is said of Goethe, “ that faith goes farther than knowledge.”
How naturally the compass swings on its pivot to the pole ! How joyously the heart which has cultivated the spiritual faculty of faith turns, from the obstacles thrust between the love of God and the love of man, to the region where these two elemental facts of the universe become one mighty current !
Astronomy tells us of systems lighted by colored suns, — green, sapphire, and ruby. From the lurid airs of such a crimson world we seem to ourselves to return to the peace and the power of absolute and homelike light.
“ The love of God,” said Ecclesiasticus, in a profound moment, “ passeth all things for illumination.” We recall, with a stir at the heart which transforms the severe philosophical language, what a great thinker has told us of “ the absurdity of the passions and the littleness of all that is not God.” We can understand Spinoza, of whom it is said that he was “ intoxicated with God.” The whole being bounds like the cripple at the Gate Beautiful, whom the apostle healed. Our eternal liberty draws its value from the prospect of acquaintance with him who is behind our mutilated life. Here is the secret of the high reticence of knowledge, never to be conquered, always to be sought. Here is the essence of all the solemn ideals of love, never overtaken, never possessed, forever to be won. Here is the source of the white waters of purity, an eternal thirst for which demands, deserves, and shall receive an eternal supply.
If everlasting hope be the possibility and the promise to the race, anything that the maker of an ephemeral system chooses to insert in it cannot philosophically be made a ground of complaint. “ There can no evil befall a good man either in life or death,” said Socrates, going to the root of the matter. “ If I believed as you do,” cried a doubter, looking at me with the uncomforted eyes of her class, “ nothing would daunt me ! ”
She was right, if only as a matter of pure algebra. “ Omit eternity in your estimate of area,” urged a mathematician, “ and your conclusion is wrong.” No equation can be constructed out of this and the eternal life. Limited pain cannot be set against illimitable happiness, nor transient stain against permanent purity. If heaven follows earth, man is dumb before God.
How gentle thought grows in the climate of hope ! Seen in the atmosphere of trust, the countenance of life is changed. Re-read in the light of love, the story of the world flashes into an illuminated text.
The imagination learns to stir reticently about the details of the dreariest fate. The sympathy yearns more and more peacefully towards the woe which it cannot forget or relieve. The heart surrenders to mystery, and cultivates content. We wrest the habit of cheer from the teeth of denial. We educate the impulse of happiness, and fling challenges to grief. We dwell upon the little joys of life. We count the forgotten ease. We seek the “ hid treasure.” We remember the temperaments that grief passes by upon the other side, the lives which acute temptation shuns, memories that naturally do not absorb the unpleasant, hearts that are easily light. We recall the grave delights of a consciously forming character, the strength and fineness of the military quality that conflict only cultivates, the stern beauty of endurance, the high glow of selfsacrifice, the peace and power of prayer, the grandeur of hardly acquired holiness. We find ourselves unable to think of these things apart from their embryonic character. We remember that they develop deathless forces. We remember that they go to constitute undying spirits. Pain viewed in the loftiness of its purpose does not seem to be the worst thing in the world. Idealized by heaven, earth stands transfigured. Life becomes a privilege, glorious in proportion as it is a test of trust-capacity and enduring-power. That mysterious quality which in its physical form physicians call vitality, and for which they cherish an almost religious respect, has a spiritual counterpart, which we learn to recognize as the proudest possession that a man can own. All that he hath though he give for it, he will not count the cost. It is like one of those Chinese crystals, rounded by attrition with grains of sand, of which we are told that it takes the life-time of one workman to make a perfect specimen.
An eye-witness of a peculiarly heartrending shipwreck once stood depicting to a circle of friends, with vitriolic vividness, the struggles of men who clung, in an icy sea, on a midwinter day, five hours and a half to a glazed rock, at which the surf was tearing like the teeth of hate. A listener, lifting the half-melancholy, half-scornful look of one who has weighed life and found it wanting, interrupted, “ Fools to cling ! Fools to cling ! ” “ No ! ” flashed another, turning upon him with a movement which I know not how to describe as other than radiant ; it was like the sweep of light on darkness. “ No; while there was hope of life, PHILOSOPHERS to cling ! ”
Fools, then, or philosophers, — we are content to leave the choice of terms to the great heart and sound sense of humanity, — we cling to the sane, strong, reasonable hope of everlasting life.
The wave will have its roar. The breaker will overwhelm the sinking face. The hands may slip, bleed, freeze ; but they will cling.
It is human to cling ; it is divine to cling ; it is instinct ; it is reason ; it is the blind brute motion of nature ; it is the last fine finish of knowledge.
If there is a rock, though all but sunk beneath the surf, a drowning hand will find it. Before the argument of life the negation of death sweeps on and seethes away, like a thwarted wave.
Upon this rock, at the ebb of the tide, in the calm of the day, we leave the exigencies of fate. To it we bring the worst of dread, the dreariest of doubt, the climax of pain, the fever of sin. To it we take the promise of our imperfect joys, the blight of our unripe content, the recoil of our rebuffed aspiration, the disturbance of our broken repose. From it we regard the unknown Author of mystery with the high beat of trustful hearts. Earth is a student in what the great Frenchwoman called “ the science of God. ” Life is like the Tamil grammar, which reached the ideal of scholarship in its solemn preface : “ To God, the eternal, almighty Jehovah and author of speech, be glory forever and ever.”
It is hardly possible to close a paper like this without reminding ourselves once again, quite clearly, that with the remarkable conformations of the Christian Scriptures towards our subject, it has not been our purpose to deal. But it can scarcely be overlooked that to believers in revealed truth it is difficult to perfect the separation of thought which we have selected.
There is a powerful protest of the heart, which in asking, “ Does my friend love me ? ” insensibly slides into “ What will he do for me ? ” or even into “ What has he done for me ? ” Man, in his extremity, exerts his solemn right to carry this appeal of his nature reverently up. What will God do for him ? Everlasting life leans down to answer. What has God done for him ? A Carpenter from Nazareth can reply.
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.
- It will be remembered that this discussion has nothing to do with the bearings of what is called revealed truth upon our case.↩