On the Side Lines


ONE cannot wander from room to room in an art gallery without noticing again at least one obvious difference between the work of the earliest painters and that of the moderns. The older pictures are bold in line and wonderful in color, but they are entirely lacking in perspective. In modern work we often miss the bold line and the tender color, yet this loss is more than covered by the gain in perspective.

We must suppose that the development of this technical device has not proceeded apart from the whole art of living, but is one of the pledges of man’s maturing insight and judgment. A world where life is relatively simple and where its primal concerns are few and obvious can express itself in an art which commands only two dimensions. But when the scene becomes overcrowded and confused some suggestion of a third dimension is required to bring order out of chaos.

Sometimes the world becomes so complex and apparently irrational that it defies interpretation and evaluation. Then men revert again to a life and an art of two dimensions. So it is that certain canvases by soldier painters which were hung in the Tate Gallery after the War have a strange flatness and archaic style. Guns, rats, sandbags, men, mud, wire, poppies — all are presented as on the same plane. The soldier found himself in a world which baffled all attempt at perspective, so he simply suggested that hard flat world of two stern and meagre dimensions as he knew it.

Precisely these distinctions hold in religion. In the earlier religions of authority, truth and duty are portrayed — and fitly portrayed — by two dimensions. All that is sacred is to be found on a single plane. The simple finality of those systems gives them their strange flatness and their arresting suggestions of sufficiency and strength.

The free religious spirit of the last hundred years has been unable to content itself with the technique of the older exemplars and has been struggling to achieve moral and intellectual perspective. Religion has become the quest for what is most worthwhile in life. And if the most worthwhile cannot be affirmed without thrusting into the middle distance and the farther background the tithes of mint and anise and cumin, then we plead guilty to that fine irreverence. In order to suggest what is really important in religion we must have the courage to commit sacrilege against what is relatively unimportant.

We are now confronted, however, by a horde of religionists who are very like the soldier painters of the trenches. The world is out of hand and they are wearied of the cursed spite which condemns them to bring order out of chaos by the exercise of perspective. They find the very principle of religion frustrated and imperiled by the characteristic modern technique. Their quarrel is not so much with the detailed findings of the free spirit as with its method. And they propose to restore and to reaffirm the case for religion by reverting to a religious art of two dimensions only.

All that is implied in the flat, hard, archaic art of Fundamentalism is as normal and inevitable — given this confused world at hand — as those soldier pictures in the Tate. The wonder is not that Fundamentalists have appeared in their thousands. The wonder would have been their nonappearance. Only the man who goes doggedly on with the task of the religious artist to achieve order and a scale of values by a yet more accurate perspective can appreciate the seduction of an art of two dimensions only, and the seeming simple solution which it offers to the perennial ‘problem of religion.’

It is, at best, a dreary prospect that is before us. We shall have to take the field and fight all over again the terrain which was the battleground of the third quarter of the last century. Other Huxleys, without the prophetic zest of their predecessor, must resume the grim business of ‘smiting the Amalekite’ and the gory offices of ‘episcopophagy.’ The ghostly presences of Henry Drummond and John Fiske will be conjured up as the angels at our Mons. The whole sad business is so unreal as to be a nightmare. Teachers who ought to be better employed in schools and colleges will have to begin again with the alphabet of the rocks. Ministers who ought to be preaching peace on earth will have to waste precious days and years attempting to show once more why ‘the credibility of Judges and the edibility of Jonah’ are not as central in religion as the Beatitudes. Meanwhile, the earth will continue to revolve around the sun and astronomers will announce new nebulæ at unthinkable distances. Creationists to the contrary, Luther Burbank will continue to evolve new species. Fundamentalism may attempt to hold up the human mind, but — Eppur si muove.

We ‘modernists’ who are now threatened with arrest, have a moment’s breathing-spell in which to review our position and to find the range. Perhaps our first salvo in the direction of the Fundamentalist is our demand for a greater consistency. He is attacking the scientific method. What half amuses and half perplexes us about him is his cultural inconsistency. Apart from theology his whole life is a frank appropriation of this method. In nine tenths of his living he makes constant use of the findings of the method which he so violently repudiates in religion. There is something pathetically incongruous in the sight and sound of the preacher broadcasting by radio his denunciations and warnings against the deadly peril of science. It ought to be a matter of conscience with the man who holds such doctrines to have no truck with the radio. Unless, indeed, there is in this scheme of things some ancient moral alchemy whereby the works of darkness may be turned to the glory of God!


Meanwhile, what of our own point of view? Obviously we have not made good the case for the art of religion which uses the characteristically modern technique. Why has not this temper which, for the want of any better word we call ‘liberalism,’ concluded its conquest of the land? It has had a full century in which to prove its case. We believe its findings to be far truer and more significant than the previous pronouncements upon religion made by the elder orthodoxies. If the method is valid, why are the results so patently meagre? What is there in human nature by way of a religious need and a capacity for religion which is not satisfied by the method?

One cannot repudiate one’s whole intellectual and moral history. One must reaffirm one’s conviction that as between the ecclesiastic and the dogmatist on the one hand and the pure scientist on the other hand the authentic religious spirit, in its simpler manifestations, seems to have inspired the latter even more fully than the former. The passion for veracity, the adventurous and unmercenary love of truth, the faith that more light is yet to break, devotion to God’s ways not only made known but to be made known, the high impersonality which must correct all arrogant and inadequate individualism, the indubitable catholicity of scientific knowledge as against provincial sectarianism, the wistful humility which knows that ‘the first wonder is the child of ignorance and the last wonder is the parent of adoration’ — all these are indubitable signs of religion and are to be found in modern science perhaps more clearly than in modern ecclesiasticism.

Whatever the conclusions as to man and nature and God, tentative or assured, now advanced by the sciences, there is in the quality of scientific thinking at its best a strong strain of real saintliness. If religion be a way as well as a conclusion, the religious way leads quite as often through a laboratory to-day as through a narrowly sectarian church. The impression left upon our minds by the Life and Letters of Thomas Huxley is precisely the impression made upon an earlier century by the Theologia Germanica, that of a selfless love of truth. The suggestion given by the Life and Letters of Charles Darwin is the selfsame suggestion of the Little Flowers of Saint Francis — that of an almost childlike humility. We cannot turn state’s evidence against these high natures for the sake of arbitrary dogmatism.

But we are far from self-righteousness and much farther from self-satisfaction in the defense of the scientific method in religion. No single method in religion, of the many which have been tried in history, has ever quite plucked the heart out of the mystery. So this latest method, whatever its central tempers and its distinguished achievements, has and in the very nature of the case must have its own distinctive liability. It is with this inherent limitation of the method that the ‘liberal’ is really concerned.

The situation may be best approached, perhaps, by way of a parable. For, obviously, this is not a problem in dogmatic theology alone. It must be one statement of the whole riddle of life, and, as such, a cultural problem of the first magnitude.

On any Saturday afternoon in any college town you may go out to the stadium or the bowl to see the game. You will find there five thousand, ten thousand, fifty thousand, seventy-five thousand persons like yourself sitting on the side lines watching twenty-two men play the game. Most of the spectators are flabby and soft and out of training. They could not stand the punishment of the playing-field for five consecutive minutes. But from their benches they are loud in praise or blame. For all that they aspire to be and are not, is — for the moment — there on the gridiron. And by their criticism they achieve a certain vicarious fitness, which enhances their self-esteem.

But the ages of the stadium have never been the greatest ages of human civilization. The contrast between the few in action and the many who are spectators is a portent. The times when the many have been so divided from the few have been, more often than otherwise, the times of social decadence. We go to a Polo Ground to see a World Series. But every thoughtful man knows that, so far as the physical fitness and the spirit of sport in a nation are concerned, it would be far better for us to scatter to back lots and play three-old-cat for ourselves. A great arena for sports is made possible, not merely by the perfecting of the game, but by the whole cultural situation, of which the arena is but one significant symbol.

There is in human nature an ineradicable capacity for creative work. Its origins are deep down among the primal instincts. But as life is organized to-day the plain man finds little occasion and less opportunity to be a creator. His necessary bread-labor in the world has become, in most cases, a monotonous and mechanical business of collating other men’s ideas and peddling other men’s wares. He is essentially a translator and a middleman.

The great game of American business does offer a certain outlet to the creative instincts. But its conduct appeals rather to a mechanical ingenuity than to the genius of an artist. Then, for one professional man who is doing pioneer work in his field, there are ninety-nine who move in lock step on a treadmill. And as for the vast majority of working men and working women, they tend machines which so divide the task that the joy of the creator is frustrated, or they keep books and write letters which concern everyone’s life except their own.

Thus baffled, we live in a world where our vocations offer little or no outlet for the creative urge within us, and we devise for our relief whimsical and artificial avocations. There is a carpenter’s bench in the attic, or a plumber’s shop in the cellar. We try our hand at writing or fooling with paints. All of us, out-of-hours and offthe-job, potter at something or other which serves to express the creator in us. We become collectors. The psychologist tells us that no man who finds full occasion for the expression of his instincts in his vocation ever turns collector. ‘Collections’ are a pathetic comment upon frustrated powers. But as this world now goes we must agree with the novelist that ‘men should not be too curious in analyzing and condemning any means which nature devises to save them from themselves, whether it be coins, old books, curiosities, butterflies, or fossils.’

In the main, and in the end, however, we find our solace from another quarter. We weary of our creative avocations and our odd collections. They are confessions that the battle is a losing battles Life relentlessly forces us to the side lines and in the end we accept our lot there. Once comfortably settled there, we find in frank candid criticism of life a vicarious substitute for creation. It does not matter, culturally, whether we sit in the seats of the intelligentsia criticizing Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard or in the seats of the unwashed criticizing Babe Ruth’s batting average; whether in praise we throw kisses to the prima donna or in blame throw bottles at the umpire — the premise is common to all these gestures and judgments: it is the premise of the side lines of life and all that they imply.

Our criticism is intended to suggest, as Carlyle has it of heroes, that ‘there is nothing but what we, the little critic, might have done too.’ But this is the lie in the soul of the bleachers and the orchestra stalls. Chesterton in his study of Dickens says that the critics of Dickens complain that there never were such persons as the preposterous Tony Weller and the incredible Stiggins. But, he goes on to say, criticizing Dickens is like criticizing the universe.

One may object, but the objections are vitiated by the sobering knowledge that whatever one thinks of it all, one could not have done as much one’s self. Oh, perhaps one of the Dickens critics, by a superhuman travail of imagination, could have brought forth after long gestation one of this glorious galaxy of Dickens characters; but, concludes Chesterton, he would have had to spend the rest of his life being wheeled around in a Bath chair at Bournemouth!


Now the cultural gravamen against science is to be found in the fact that it has absolved, relieved, deprived the average man of the occasion for creative effort. We must not appraise the achievements of the scientific method merely in the terms of the life of the pure scientist. He is a very rare person. He does first-hand and creative work. And for one such man in the present order there are nine hundred and ninety-nine on the side lines. The electricians who have lived ‘detached days,’keeping vigil in the seclusion of a General Electric or a Westinghouse laboratory, still know the joy of the creator. But wiring and tuning a set in your own home, following the book of instructions, is a second-rate substitute for creative work. And, so far as the cultural consequences are concerned, a home in which a family idles inertly for a whole evening before the loud speaker, listening to a dance-orchestra in Havana, is not as healthy a home as the raucous house of yesterday where a daughter banged out jazz for herself upon the piano and a son trailed in her zigzag wake upon a cacophonous cornet. Our cultural dilemma to-day is this: that far too much is done for us by the pioneers in the natural sciences and far too little is asked of us by way of coöperative creation.

Translate this homely situation into its fuller and more abstract terms and the religious dilemma becomes apparent. The time was when, to his own thinking, man was the centre of created values and mattered in his own eyes. We were at the core of creation, God was in his heaven, and all was right in heaven and on earth. But to-day we are cowed by ‘astronomical intimidation.’ ‘The heaven,’says George Tyrrell, ‘that lay behind the blue curtain of the sky, whence night by night God hung out His silver lamps to shine upon the earth, was a far deeper symbol of the eternal home than the cold, shelterless deserts of astronomical space.’ Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie. Pascal found a certain resolute comfort in the assurance that the mind of man which can contemplate these immensities must be greater than that which it knows. This rather bleak and characteristically modern argument has in it an indubitable truth of life: that when you have objectified your trouble you have in some measure transcended it. It is good psychology. But such considerations are not the characteristic affirmations of religion.

For one does not have to know very much about religion to know that its voice is a voice which says variously, ‘ I must be about my Father’s business,’‘My Father worketh hitherto, and I work,’‘We then, as workers together with him,’‘ I would fain be to the Eternal Goodness what his own hand is to a man.’ It is not enough for religion merely ‘to watch the Master work’; we too must know ‘ tricks of the tool’s true play.’

The religious man, whether rightly or wrongly, has always conceived himself to share with God in a creative partnership. That is why no seat of external authority, whatever its claims to finality, has ever escaped the need of interpreters and translators. And once the inherent necessity for interpretation is allowed, the occasion for creation is present and the joy of the creator is known. Modem religion certainly calls a man to a fearless and candid appraisal of fact, but no religion has ever contented itself with an objective account of fact; it has always demanded an imaginative effort to enter into the essence of the fact, and this subjective temper makes the religious man a perpetual re-creator of past fact and a constant creator of new fact. In the end the saint is an artist as well as a scientist.

Pondering these matters, we go to church. In the formulæ of worship and in the pronouncements of the preacher we are made immediately aware of the critical method at work upon the conventional body of usage and doctrine. We are invited to recite as the substance of our immediate belief some ancient and familiar creed upon which the liberal theologian has been at work. Hallowed but now incredible and unwelcome articles have been deleted from the creed or radically altered by a major theological operation. What is the result? The creed now conforms more accurately to present opinion, but we are put out of sorts with the initial temper of a true Credo. For a confession of faith is the work of an artist and not a scientist. We are invited to sing a hymn, but the trail of the modernist editor is all over its stanzas, and he inspires us not to song, but to further detached criticism of the text. The preacher talks to us with undoubted learning about, say, Paul’s conversion. We are given a faithful account of the general historical setting and the successive states of the Apostle’s soul. It is all accurate and indubitable. But there is this difference; we are left in doubt as to whether God works through the subliminal self and whether men whose unstable equilibrium is thus altered are the effectual makers of history. It is an interesting question to ponder, but prophets have not spent their lives attempting to decide it.

The deeper pathos of it all is this cultural curse of the side lines which follows us to church. I had gone with the multitude to keep holy day in the Lord’s house. Some faint stirrings of the artist in me had prompted me to hope that on this day and in this place and company I might find some humble occasion to express the creator in me. But no, we talk about religion, we criticize its past achievements and bring them abreast of contemporary science, but we do not find a way for religion to talk for itself. The zest of the great game is not for us. We have been settled for so long shivering on the chilly bleachers of religion that we wonder shall we ever know again what it is to have the blood run hot and fast on the field of action. The Fundamentalist has this advantage over us — he is committed to what the Russian revolutionists of a generation ago called ‘the propaganda of the deed.’ Whereas we of the other party have been content with cultural criticism, scientific, dispassionate, and for the most part wanting in the joy of the creator and the redeemer.

The most obvious solution of our dilemma is to recant our errors and to revert to an uncriticized religion, an art of two dimensions. But this solution of our problem is too easy, and it has no valid precedent in history. For every true prophet and reformer was, after the manner of his day, a scientific critic of his own age. He achieved a better religious perspective than his predecessors and his contemporaries had achieved. We shall not be much moved by the trite platitude of those who tell us, ‘We have had enough destructive criticism; what is now wanted is constructive thinking.’ When Micah put into the foreground three matters, — doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, — he passed disparaging criticism upon all else. When Isaiah thrust new moons and Sabbaths into the background of the scene that he might exalt righteousness, he was undoubtedly attacked as a dangerous ‘higher critic.’ And as for that Sabbath walk which Jesus took through the cornfields with his disciples, it was the most destructively critical act in the whole history of religion. We cannot give up the eternal struggle for a truer perspective. And any specious plea for constructive religious thinking apart from criticism is simply the cloak which hides a coward and his fears or a conventionalist and his comforts.


What we are seeking in religion today is a capacity for what a modern man of letters has called ‘creative criticism.’ Here is the great body of religion in history. No man begins his spiritual life de novo. Here, if anywhere, he strives to share the life of the race. But his critical apparatus is not a device for alienating him from his concern, rather it is merely a more effectual way for letting him into the central truth and reality of religion. ‘The critic,’ says Mr. J. Middleton Murry, ‘unless he is that very rare and valuable thing, a technical critic, must be to some extent a creative artist in his criticism. The first part of his work is to convey the effect, the whole intellectual and emotional impression made by the work he is criticizing; without this foundation his criticism will be jejune and unsubstantial. In this respect his task is strictly analogous to that of the creative writer. . . . He has become in all but name a creative artist himself.’

We have and we shall continue to have in the several sciences, natural, historical, psychological, which now concern themselves with the field of religion, that very rare and valuable thing, a technical critic. But this office is for ihe few highly trained scholars. For the bulk of us, nurtured in the scientific method in religion, our task is to use both the method and the findings of criticism as occasions for creation. The approved stuff for a better world is now at hand. The tested and indubitable content of a credible religion now appears after a century’s effort for perspective. But the world’s extremity can no longer be met merely by seeing life steadily and whole and in perspective. There has been too much detachment in that temper. Liberalism must grapple with the cultural menace of life forever on the side lines before it finally finds itself.

Rejoice we are allied
To That which doth provide
And not partake, effect and not receive!
A spark disturbs our clod;
Nearer we hold of God
Who gives, than of his tribes that take, I must believe.