The Challenge of Death




IN a certain factory where food products are prepared and exported to all parts of the world there may be seen an instance of that monotonous labor which is so marked and terrible a feature of mass production under modern industrial methods. It consists in knocking the top off an egg. The eggs are delivered by machinery on to a table behind which stands a row of women knocking off the tops. One woman has done it for thirty years.

This is an image of human life at the extreme stage of futility. It gives the beholder thoughts that are far from consoling. He may remember, for example, that food products from that factory are sometimes to be found on his own table, making him an accomplice to the monotony of that woman’s life, a party to its futility, and to that extent responsible for it.

Dickens has drawn a similar picture on another plane. In Our Mutual Friend a person is introduced named Mr. Podsnap. Mr. Podsnap is the caricature of a purse-proud and pompous Englishman — perhaps Dickens’s finest caricature, enormously exaggerated, of course, but yet true in the groundwork of it. He has an office in the city and a fine house in the West End of London; and his whole life resolves itself into a simple movement, like that of a pendulum, endlessly repeated, between his house and his office. Here is the ultimate formula of Podsnap’s existence as Dickens presents it: rise at eight; close shave at a quarter past; breakfast at nine; to the city at ten; home again at half-past five; dinner at seven. That is the programme for the day; and the programme for the year is to repeat it so many hundred times. As with the egg-breaker so here the total impression is of sheer futility. Getting down to fundamentals there is not much to choose between thirty years of Podsnap’s programme and thirty years of the egg-breaker’s.

There is an American novel which yields the same impression, whether designedly or not I do not know. No American novel of recent times has been more widely read in England than Babbitt. It has interested us for many reasons, not least because it deals with certain moral conditions which are common to both sides of the Atlantic. The background of that story, it will be remembered, is the life of a large and prosperous city of rapid growth, where all the mechanical apparatus of civilization is running at high pressure. If you look at that life in detail, if you take the personalities and the actions one by one, you would say that nothing could be less monotonous. It is like a kaleidoscope where all is restless change and shifting scenery, no two moments alike, no person the copy of another. But if you look at it all, not in detail, but in the grand outlines of it, in the totality of what it is, then it strikes you as always the same, not moving to any assignable goal, but endlessly repeating itself, endlessly revolving round the same centre, a completely vicious circle, which, when once you get into, you can never get out of, try as you may. There is poor Babbitt himself, a most pathetic figure. You see him caught in the revolution, vainly struggling from time to time to strike out an independent course, but always falling back into the senseless round from nowhere to nowhere. All that happens in the way of change is the continual acceleration of the pace; the whirl goes faster and faster, which only renders the people who are in it the more powerless to get out of it. This is a very truthful picture of hundreds of cities all over the world and perhaps of industrial civilization in general — the life of the egg-breaker writ large, the life of Podsnap expanded to a social phenomenon.

A similar thought crosses the mind when watching the innumerable motorcars which throng the streets. Each separate car is clearly going somewhere, but the totality of the cars appears to be going nowhere — just moving, as a fermentation moves. You can assign a definite destination to the single car — but not to the totality.

So too in a great assembly when three or four hundred people are talking all at once. Each separate speaker is saying something significant to his neighbor, but the totality of the voices is a meaningless roar, a big noise in which the very form of human language is lost. The parts mean something, the whole— nothing.

The same phenomenon on a still larger scale is presented by human progress in general, or at least by a wellknown version of it. There is a way of presenting human progress which reduces it to the endless self-repetition, under different terms, of the same identical formula, a movement from nothing to nothing, a Podsnap-programme writ large over the face of the centuries. Mr. Bertrand Russell is not so far as I know a believer in that doctrine, but there are chapters in the Prospects of Industrial Civilization which leave the impression of an appalling monotony in the history of mankind. In one of his chapters he speculates, with his usual brilliance, on the various regroupings of the nations, the readjustments of political and economic power that the future is likely to bring forth — a chapter that should interest Americans because, in Mr. Russell’s vision of the future, they invariably get the best of it.

But from the point of view of mankind it makes no difference who gets the best of it, the Americans or anybody else, because the new situation, created by these apparent changes, is nothing but the old situation with the factors of it transposed. It is like an equation in algebra in which the quantities on either side can be put on the other side by simply changing plus into minus and minus into plus, but without making any difference to the significance of the equation as a whole, which always yields the same result, namely, that x = 0. According to Mr. Russell the two main forces which determine the distribution of power among nations are cupidity and fear; in every rearrangement of power this formula repeats itself; the final arrangement, like the present one, being only the last thing which cupidity and fear have been able to accomplish. The changes that go on are kaleidoscopic in their detail, but viewed synoptically the whole operation is perfectly meaningless, like the egg-breaker’s life, like Podsnap’s programme, like Babbitt’s environment. In a world ruled permanently by cupidity and fear it makes no atom of difference whether we live now, or whether we live a thousand years from now; whether the Americans get the best of it, or the Chinese. At all stages of the process the total values are the same. The equation grows ever more complicated, until no sheet is big enough to contain all the terms of it. But beneath this vast complication of terms and figures a truth lies hidden that is exactly the same as it was when the equation stood in its simplest form,— the truth, namely, that x = 0, — the equation of the egg-breaker, of Podsnap, and of Babbitt, of the motorcars, and of the roar of voices.


We have followed this idea into a wide field — from the egg-breaker to the history of civilization. But a further extension awaits us. We can expand the theme to the cosmic scale. There are philosophies both ancient and modern which regard the evolution of the entire universe as a meaningless process of self-repetition, — a vicious circle that moves from nothing to nothing and embraces all created things, — the doom of the whole creation groaning and travailing together in the boredom of endless monotony. ‘Alike among the pessimistic religions of India, the teachings of Heraclitus and Plato concerning the shadow side of our existence, the ideas of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche about the eternal cycles, we encounter the same theme over and over again: the entire secular process is an everlasting repetition — the totality of which yields nothing new.’ So writes the late Prince Eugene Troubetzkoy: it is a line of thought that seems to have a peculiar attraction for the Russian mind. Troubetzkoy goes on to quote an instance from Dostoievsky’s great novel, The Brothers. The Devil is speaking to one of the brothers. ‘You are always thinking of the earth as it exists to-day,’ says the Devil. ‘Well, let me tell you that the earth as it exists to-day has been repeated millions of times in the past; each time it perished, disintegrated, turned into dust, and decomposed; after that a fresh nebula was formed, then a comet, a new solar system, a new earth. The whole of this evolution has been repeated times without end, always precisely in the same manner down to the minutest details. One is bored to death to think of it.’

In these words, which arc rightly placed in the mouth of the Devil, we sound the lowest depths of pessimism. The entire cosmic process has now reduced itself to the everlasting equation that x = 0. When all has been accomplished that can be undertaken, when the system of nature has exhausted its possibilities, when evolution has reached its goal, when all conceivable perfectibilities have been attained, when the dream of an Earthly Paradise has been fulfilled, when the causes have triumphed for which heroes fight and martyrs suffer and lovers break their hearts — all must perish and begin again, repeating the process to the minutest detail, only to perish in like manner when its course is run, and so on forever and ever. Not a tear has been shed but must be shed again, not a drop of blood has been spilt but must be spilt again, not a heart broken but must break again, and again, and again, through endless eternity, whenever the remorseless cycle returns to the point where that drop of blood was spilt, where that tear was shed, where that heart was broken before. Well may the Devil say it bores one to death to think of it.

For Death is the keynote of the entire process, as well as of the reactions it provokes in us. In contemplating a futility so dreadful our very souls seem to expire. It is not only we that die but the whole cosmos of which we are the infinitesimal parts — and for no end save that it may live and die again. Death has dominion over it all. The equation of our life is the equation of all existence. Disguised under the immense complexity of the phenomena that confront us, hidden by phraseology which has perhaps been contrived for the express purpose of hiding it, lies the formula, embedded in the very structure of things, that x= 0.

A Moment’s Halt — a momentary taste
Of Being from the Well amid the Waste —
And Lo! the phantom Caravan has reached
The Nothing it set out from. Oh, make haste!

It will rightly be said that this intolerable philosophy, familiar as it was in the ancient world, and still is in the East, is not and never can be the creed of the energetic Western nations. And yet I venture to think that even in these ‘practical’ times, with their discoveries, adventures, exploitations, and noisy successes, there docs arise in us from time to time a dim but disturbing suspicion, a haunting half-thought, that the whole enterprise on which we are engaged is futile. It is the inarticulate voice of that ‘deeper self which lives in the presence of Death.’ Mr. Bertrand Bussell, for example, who is an eager reformer, keenly conscious of certain ends that are worth striving for, has his moments of profound depression when, as he himself confesses, he would welcome the advent of a kindly comet to put an end to the antics of man on the planet. I do not know how the mind of America stands in this matter; but in England I observe this: that while very few people will acknow ledge themselves pessimists, most people will listen with interest to the philosophy of pessimism as though they found in it an echo of something in their own minds, an echo, perhaps, of that ‘deeper self which lives in the presence of Death.'

We believe, as I suppose Americans do, that civilization is moving to an end that is really worth while, accepting it pretty much as a matter of faith. But when we are asked to define the end, to say what it is, most of us are at a loss; and our inability to define the end sometimes causes a passing doubt as to whether there is any end at all. With us, as with Americans, life is full of excitements and distractions; and our misgivings, if we have any, are easily drowned. Like the Americans, we have little time for meditating on Death and Eternity and little inclination to do so. Besides all which, we live in an atmosphere deeply influenced by Christian tradition. And that makes a great difference even to those persons who have ceased to be conscious adherents of any form of Christianity. In all Christian countries there is a rumor abroad that Death, and all the frustrations from Death, have been overcome; that the vicious circle of existence has somehow been broken at that point; that a way of deliverance has been found from the meaningless whirlpool of self-repetition; and that men therefore may go on living their lives as though Death did n’t count. I say there is a vague rumor to that effect; not a positive solution of the problem consciously grasped, but a reminiscence of the fact that Someone, somewhere, has broken the circle. It belongs to the atmosphere we are breathing, this tradition that the Challenge of Death has been successfully met and answered. What grounds are there for such a belief?

In the first place I must explain that the Challenge of Death presents itself to my mind as the summary challenge which the Higher Powers lay at the feet of man. It is the spear-point of the Challenge of Life, not to be evaded on any terms, as the fashion now is with many to evade it. To find a good in life which is worth achieving in spite of the fact, consciously realized, that this visible scene on which we operate, and we, the visible agents who operate within it, will presently be gathered to the dark death-kingdoms and enfolded in the bosom of the everlasting Silence — that is the spear-point of the Challenge, the acid test of philosophy, the point where philosophy must either pass into religion or retire, beaten, from the field. ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed,’ says Saint Paul, ‘is death.’ The last — and the most formidable. All other enemies may have been overcome: poverty, misery, crime, injustice, whatever ills beset the path of man from the cradle to the grave; but so long as there is nothing but a grave at the end, not for the individual alone but for the whole system to which it belongs, what does it all amount to? This raising of richer harvests for Death to reap, which is all your secular progress can boast of, this fattening of victims for the universal sacrifice, which is all your philanthropy can achieve — is that the triumph of man? Does the victim feel his doom the lighter because, up to the moment of his immolation, he has been well fed? And what difference does it make if you feed his mind as well as his body? Take Socrates at the moment of his final extinction, and what is the difference between him and the vilest of mankind, except it be that the death of the villain is a good riddance and the death of Socrates an irreparable loss? And so with the human race as a whole. Whatever satisfaction may be felt as we watch the ascent of man on one side of the mountain, through all the stages of rising value, to the apex of the Earthly Paradise, is it not all wiped out as we contemplate the inevitable return-journey which brings him back stage by stage to the starting-point and then engulfs him in Universal Death? For every plus on the one side there is a minus on the other, and the end of the equation, as before, is that x = 0.

If this were the conclusion of the whole matter the blackest pessimism would be left in possession of the field of thought and the human race might curse the day when it was born.


To what purpose, the reader will be asking, has a line of inquiry been pursued which leads to a result so disastrous? I have pursued it for this reason: it is only by frankly facing the disaster, by measuring it to the full extent, by extenuating nothing of its significance, that we are able to grasp the scope and the majesty of the means which religion brings to the rescue.

Religion is being presented to the world to-day in forms which are quite inadequate to the problem it has to solve, which belittle religion into a mere reënforcement, often a slight reënforcement, of the powers of man in fighting the battle of his temporal interests; as, for example, when we define it as morality touched with emotion, the emotion being the slight reenforcement brought on to the battlefield. Religion is infinitely greater than that. It is the power that faces the Challenge of Life when it comes to its spear-point in the Challenge of Universal Death, and, by winning the victory there, wins it everywhere else. The last enemy to be destroyed is Death, the summary frustration— not alone as it affects the individual, but as the doom of the visible system to which he belongs — of societies, of civilizations, of planets, of suns, and of stars; so that not man only but the whole creation, groaning and travailing together in pain until now, shall be delivered from the vicious circle of meaningless self-repetition, from the bondage of corruption, into the glorious liberty of the children of God. A complete transfiguration of the meaning of life — such is the victory that religion wins by facing the Challenge of her last enemy and by destroying it. All frustrations come to a head in Death. Destroy that and you destroy them all. They sink into insignificance. They become light afflictions not worthy to be compared to the glory that is revealed. A religion which overcomes all other enemies, but yet turns tail or puts its head in the sand when the last enemy sounds his challenge from the great deep, is a vanquished religion.

Such is the scope and majesty of religion, as it was conceived by the original genius of Christianity, and by the great teachers of India. That vision has passed away from the modern world. It must be restored if the churches are to live. The old terminology indeed may never come back, and need not. But the power must be recovered which can meet the Challenge of Life in that immensely expanded form which includes the Challenge of Death.

I know not how that can be done except by boldly confronting the very worst that pessimism has to say to us. Beyond the need of accommodating religion to science, of reconciling it with democratic aspirations, of using it as a motive for social and political reform, all of which needs, if pressed too hard, belittle religion into a mere reënforcement of our moral powers, a serviceable handmaid of our secular interests, and leave us overthrown when the spearhead of life’s tragedy is pointed at our breasts — beyond all that there is a deeper need. We must grasp the nettle. In all these accommodations and reconciliations there is no answer to that sense of an overarching futility which haunts the background of our minds in these days, the deeper self that stands in the presence of Death and is not to be silenced by loudtongued doctrines of progress, which seem to have been invented for the vain purpose of shouting it down.

Nor is the Challenge of Life, brought thus to its point in the Challenge of Death, to be met by the doctrine of Personal Immortality — certainly not by that alone. The answer lies in a far deeper and more comprehensive thought, from which our personal immortality may follow as a sequence, but of which it is not the whole nor even the beginning.

The answer lies in the thought that the history of this visible universe, the whole presentation of it in space and time, is no more than a fragment, perhaps no more than a shadow, of its reality. As revealed to our senses, as apprehended by our faculties of perception, the universe is a mere thing, a lifeless object, infinite in extent and duration, but as dead as any stone. Death has dominion over the whole of it. Save in the spots where life has exceptionally appeared for a season in its nooks and crevices, the universe is all one vast empire of Death. Thought of in that way, as an immensity of dead matter and blind force, the impression it makes upon the mind is dreadful. One’s heart breaks in the presence of it. To be alive in such a universe is to be alive in a tomb. Look up to the firmament on a clear night, stretch your imagination to the immensities it reveals to you, then think of it as all dead mechanism — and you will encounter the Challenge of Death in its most poignant and tremendous form.

But what if it is not all dead? What if all is alive — alive as we are, but with richness and fullness of life which compare with ours as the ocean compares with a drop of water? Well, there is a spiritual insight which has seen just that. There is a way of thought that meets the Challenge of Death by affirming just that. We call it the doctrine of Divine Immanence, which is the philosopher’s way of saying that the whole universe is alive — not a dead thing to be exploited, but a living Being to be loved.

The Divine Immanence — a weak thing, surely, if you approach it as a mere theme for controversy, but a power stronger than Death to those who have felt it in the calmer moments of their lives — and there are many such even in the noisy years that are passing over us. ‘There shall be a depth of silence in thee deeper than this sea, which is but ten miles deep: a Silence unsoundable, known to God only.’ ‘The great Empire of Silence: higher than the stars; deeper than the Kingdoms of Death. It alone is great; all else is small.’ Not in the atmosphere of our controversial interests, not on the field where vociferous theologies are striving with one another as to which shall be greatest, but in the depth of that unsoundable Silence will the secret be found which makes us victors over the last enemy — the religion whose scope and majesty are more than a match for Death. Entering through the Silence into conscious fellowship with the life of the Living Universe, we ask no further question about our personal immortality, for eternal life is already won. There is no aspect of our experience but will have its part in that great transfiguration, no form of Life’s Challenge but will be met with a bolder courage, the bright hours growing brighter, the dark hours growing bright. The Immanence of God! Not a new form of theological contention, but the silent answer of the soul to the Challenge of Death, which is the spearpoint of the Challenge of Life.

Religion is universal; not in the superficial sense that every man has some of it, but in the far deeper sense that it transfigures the meaning of the entire universe in which we live and die, and of which we are living and dying parts. Under the touch of religion every phenomenon in the universe changes the fashion of its countenance: the corruptible puts on incorruption; the mortal puts on immortality; every atom in the structure of things rises from death to life in a general resurrection, its face shining as the sun, its garments becoming whiter than the light. Death hath no more dominion over it, for it is spiritual through and through.

Religion is no ‘beneficent extra.’ Nor can you say of it, as Matthew Arnold said of immortality, that it constitutes three fourths of life; nor the ninety-nine hundredths of life; nor any larger fraction you choose to name. It is the principle of a universal transvaluation, which makes all things new, pain becoming joy, law becoming love, Death becoming Life.