Our Spiritual Destitution

I

IT is remarkable to see how many college professors in the United States are writing protocols for a new religion. It may be a healthy sign, as solicitude for souls always is. Or it may be an academic episode without any significance at all, as it is bound to be if it is only another exercise in the millennialism which is so extraordinary a feature of the humane sciences in America. These sciences one might fairly interpret as being jealous of the achievements of physical science and bent upon matching its discoveries with revolutionary inventions of their own; and, since they cannot point to results so tangible and practical as physical science is forever producing, they appeal to futurity in vindication of the value of their finds.

There are psychologists, pedagogists, and sociologists among us who seem to aspire to the office of fortune teller. They promise us everything, from a transfigured nursery in which the child shall be almost as wise as its parents to a supersociety in which the parents shall be quite as happy as the child. Messiahism does not live any longer in the prosaic house of religion; it has deserted that for a lyric habitation in the senates of the learned. How far this disposition to mediumship has gone we may see from a recent prediction of a champion of behaviorism, who says that in fifty years philosophy will be dead and buried, leaving the unencumbered earth to behaviorism and its dominion. Now before so stupendous a happening the most brilliant performance and the most exultant hope of physical science sink to triviality. The extinguishing of the lords of thought, from Socrates to Hegel and Bradley, and the waving of the banner of behaviorism over their forgotten ashes, is a spectacle and consummation that, we should say, only the Day of Judgment can surpass.

We are bound to observe that if it is in this temper, so frequent in their fraternity, that our professors are formulating a new religion; if in substance they announce, ‘We have provided for the rearing of the child-paragon; we have arranged for the adjustments, responses, reactions, and habituations that will assure such a society as the sun never shone on; we have destroyed philosophy; we have given an outline of schools that will offset the incompetence of parents and redeem the blunders of the ages; we have driven through the wilderness of politics a highway to the perfect State; so now, while we are about it, let us complete our apocalypse with a religion as flawless as all the rest’ — if in such a spirit they assume the prophet’s mantle, we may dismiss them at once. And this, not because they tell fortunes, but because they tell nothing. The building of a millennium without first building souls that are fit to possess one is the primary and radical romantic disease. It is the idlest exercise of any individual mind, and the most ruinous possible to the collective mind. And when a scholar descends to it he cannot expect that mature people will take him seriously at all, or that even the light-minded will take him seriously very long.

There are pitfalls, then, in the way of a founder or a reformer of religion, and especially dangerous ones in the way of a learned doctor who aspires to that dignity. So perhaps our present adventurers in that path may allow us of the laity respectfully to address them, and even bear with us if we admonish them. It is, I know, more formidable to offer suggestions to the professionally learned than to a synod of theologians. For these latter believe that we have souls to save, and this invests us with a mysterious and wistful dignity. To the doctors of the chair, however, we are given credit for no such secret habitation of possible wisdom. For them we have no souls to save, but only raw minds to instruct. There may be in them, consequently, a tendency to resentment when the petitioner for information turns into a dispenser of counsel. Yet there is something to be said for us if we stand on our feet before them without having raised the hand for permission in a Fascist gesture of subjection. For one thing, if these eminent men, by the administering of whatever oxygen the laboratory holds, succeed in making their religion live, it is we who shall have to practise it. Surely, then, it is not unreasonable that we should have something to say about it.

And for another thing, we ordinary persons walking the streets meet with needs and occasions pertinent to religion which seem to be seldom encountered in the cloister. We do not know so much of history as our learned guides, but we experience more of it. When facts hit us, they hit us with bare knuckles. We have not the art of padding these knuckles with the cushions of theory so that we cannot tell whether it is a fact that hits us or an aerial abstraction that caresses us. We are not the x’s, y’s, and z's which are the mummified representatives of us in the formulas of the schools. We are not the abstractions with which thinkers have traffic in the respectable witchcraft that is so often called scholarship. We are not the mournful ghosts that haunt the museum of philosophical or psychological hypotheses, that unsung sanctuary of the ever so dead. We are, in immortal phrase, the people. We are Tom, Dick, and Harry, flesh and blood, heads and hearts, with care and remorse, mirth and sorrow, and unfathomable experiences for which we hardly have names inside these hearts and heads. We are centres of life immersed in vast transactions and expectations, every one of them a prodigious mystery — like the innocence of the child, the shame of the sinner, the darkness of pain, the resurgence of aspiration, the joy of birth, the dread suspense of death.

In a word, we are homespun human nature, the thing precisely which has sustained so many religions and wrecked so many philosophies. For the religions understood it, the wrecked philosophies did not. The unlearned have often profoundly known it, the learned as often profoundly perverted it. The man who only analyzes us passes away and is forgotten. The man who, in Dante’s mighty saying, eternalizes us lives for our perpetual inspiration. This, in large phrasing, is what we are. And since religion has usually enriched us and the schools have frequently impoverished us; since, too, we take crushing revenges for the impoverishment; and since in consequence of all this we are to the learned not only a necessary subject but a terrible risk, we may presume to address our present instructors, and in terms as plain-spoken as they use in speaking to us.

II

We shall begin by setting forth two specimens of religious reconstruction lately offered for our healing by scholarly men. The first is from a professor in the State of New York. He has been impressed, he says, by the desolate condition of many students who lose their faith while in college. There are professors, he goes on, who take no interest in them, give them no help, and care nothing at all what becomes of them. This, he feels, is a mistake. For these students are not only in misery; they may be in danger. In illustration he mentions one student known to him who, from having lost God in the lecture room, lost, as it were, his soul also. The unfortunate youth announced that since the eternal ground of right had vanished he did not see how any weaker ground could logically support right as an authority valid against the claims of passion. So he pitched into immorality. And the final outcome was that he committed suicide. Our professor, stirred by so painful an event, recommends that his fellow teachers hold out a hand to the young derelicts of faith around them. For himself, he cannot resist the call of charity, and declares that he has found a satisfactory religion, or substitute for one, and bestows it upon many confused and anxious minds.

It is this: First of all, there must be no nonsense or evasion; God must go, and when gone no time need be spent in the effort to bring Him back. We must turn to something that will strengthen and inspire the character as the thought of God once did. And this we shall find, he assures us, in ‘biosocial relationships.’ Once a man gets hold of these, he will feel himself refreshed and at peace, or at least protected from despair. Bio-social relationships seem to mean our connections with the boundless unity of living things, and especially such of these living things as are human. The sense of our contact with them, of our sharing in their common lot, and of our place as a unit contributing to the whole, will save us from dismay at the loss of Deity and repair any disaster that may be caused by this denial. There are sharpwitted students, he concludes, who now and then object that bio-social relationships are all very fine in their way, but, after all, what obligation can they impose, and what right have they to impose one? On what logical basis can bio-social relationships demand, as they often presume to do, that I sacrifice my inclinations and forgo my opportunities? To this the professor answers that our own self-interest requires this; for at the last self-interest is the foundation of our moral as well as other actions.

Comment deferred, we pass to the other example. It is given us by a professor teaching in Pennsylvania. He does not display the pastoral solicitude of his colleague in New York. He is harder; if possible, more assured; and he sweeps toward more extended horizons. He asks why people suffer in surrendering belief in God, implying that he cannot understand so curious a form of anguish. A great many learned professors have cast away God, and do not suffer. They get on, indeed, very well, and remain respectable citizens. Why should persons of lesser minds, with these models before them, fall into grief and pain? Since, however, they evidently do so, they must be informed of the satisfactions that will make life, though Godless, as splendid as before. These satisfactions will come from the sciences. Physical science will increasingly relieve us of labor and surround us with comfort; psychology will guide us to the work we are most fit for, and make us happy in it; sociology will purify the organism of society; pedagogy will train us ever more usefully; and other wise disciplines now in the process of perfection will lift our earthly life to the peak of our desires. With the planet we live on swinging on to these goals of expectation, why should we indulge in useless sorrow because in the heights above it is emptiness, and in the depths beneath it death?

III

These, not unfairly summarized, we think, are two of the religious ideals offered to us from the academies. What is the matter with them? We ask the question at once, because it hardly seems possible that any other question should come to our minds ahead of it. Believers or unbelievers, we shall acknowledge, provided we have ever known religion or ever had an imagination, that something is the matter with them.

We see straightway, for instance, that everything affirmative in these proposals is very old indeed. Everybody wants and has always wanted the gates of Eden to reopen upon earth wide enough to let us all in. Though a man be illiterate and living in the woods, he desires an earthly paradise as fervently as any doctor living in a campus. And our bio-social relationships, also, the whole mass of mankind would no more speak ill of than they would of the aurora borealis. These things are venerable, not new — and, indeed, are nobler in their ancient than in this their modern form; for, as they have been presented by religion to the motives and hopes of men, they are coherently rationalized, they are part of an organic system, they have the firm structure of inherent authority because spoken from Soul to souls, calling for will as well as wish, a high obedience as well as the emotional salutation of a benevolent temperament. As we have them here, however, they are not systematic, but sentimental. Pleasantly and desirably sentimental, it is true; nevertheless, not coördinated with anything universal, not rooted in a principle, destitute of intrinsically moral sanctions, and helpless against, a skepticism that should reject their naïve credulity concerning progress and the value of a comfortable human life. They are, in fact, a weak reproduction of something that was sinewy when it was old.

In the second place, these proposals do not pretend to release the full energy that religion sets free. Religion is rapture, because it is the union of the partial with its kindred universal. It catches up in its fiery car every faculty of man — reason, imagination, and will. Its creative resource is inexhaustible, its hope deathless, its world of imaginative forms spacious and magnificent. It is the complete soul realized in a Perfection which ignores no power or splendor of aspiring man. It gives the illimitable to our limitation; it extends to eternity the hour that we lease from death.

No such discourse of power is possible to the meagre schemes of our two professors. These learned men do not presume to say that they will re-create the glory that for them is vanished. They state or imply that they cannot recreate it, but only enable us to forget it. And this is the poorest possible foundation for a religion. Religion is not a refuge from despair. It is a fulfillment adequate to a nature that, not by mere wish or any other sentimentality, but by the inherent structure of reason and conscience, demands the universal and the perfect. A religion that is devised in order to be a shelter for disillusion, a place of forgetfulness for a forfeited sublimity, is like a code of morals based on the principle that we must not get caught. It misunderstands the whole essence of a spiritual ideal. It substitutes a furtive excursion for a glorious adventure, opportunism for obligation, contraction for expansion, and the uneasy apprehension that somebody may ask us embarrassing questions, or recall heroic memories, for the joyous confidence and health of a spirit as rich in hope as it is in patrimony.

If grandeur is to be given up, is it too much to ask that it be given up, if not with sorrow, then at least with candor? If the shining universe of spirit in which the ages have found life; if an everlasting Perfection to which the constellations are a threshold and the heart of man an adoring habitation; if a Right eternally to be worshiped and a Beauty eternally to be loved; if the fellowship of those who seek, and obey, and aspire, and its final end that makes death trivial and the pure service of a deathless glory alone significant forever — if these are to be swallowed up in the black waters of a great doom, let us stand for our mortal instant on the bleak shore, confessing that we shall be visited by the former splendor no more. That would be rational, and by the rigor of its veracity might be majestic. But it is frivolous to say that we shall be compensated for the supreme sublimity by bio-social relationships, by a morality of self-interest, and by a millennium in which our expropriated souls and our silenced aspirations shall be guided by a pedantocracy to a politique du ventre.

I am not, it will be observed, maintaining, just now, that those faiths and truths of the ages are valid. I am only saying that they are glorious, and that when something commonplace in imagination and emaciated in thought is offered us as a fair exchange we are being put upon when we should be treated most seriously. I should not wish to use words too harsh for the proprieties of serious discussion, but it is impossible for me not to feel that in surrendering magnificence with such levity these men are surrendering something that they have never known. It is impossible, also, to repress a question prompted by the spectacle of what is proposed in compensation for what is rejected, and it is whether the first curse of the Eternal on those who deny Him is not to destroy in them the sense of humor.

IV

There is, however, another defect in these devices for a new religion, upon which I suggest that we especially reflect, for it seems to be the most serious of all. It is that they ignore man as having an inner life, a moral will, an aspiration, and a responsibility to a Right that holds him answerable. This is serious, I repeat, for it brings before us an infection that is seated deep in our education, literature, morals, and religion. All these, as their own representatives are copiously informing us, are unhealthy. They are missing something. They are bewildered, making false starts, and blindly experimenting. Our philosophy is lean and desolate; our learning spiritually sterile; our morality threatened with anarchy; our literature trying to be serious with the inconsequential, lurching now to the sty and now to the formless and insane; our education trying hard to keep the swarming traffic of pedagogical theories head to tail, yet confused as to where the whole procession is going and why it is there; our religion timorous, unimaginative, quick with comment upon the contemporaneous, but unable in the authentic manner of its great tradition to judge the contemporaneous by categories that are eternal. In all these we are struck by the appearance of intense effort and uncertain purpose; of energy without peace; of fevered occupation with details unguided by any sense of the whole; of how rich we are in earnest men and women and how destitute in great ideas; of heaped sensations and experiences without a principle that would order them to the service of our nobler happiness.

For a bewilderment so extensive it is, I know, hazardous to suggest a cause, for to do so is to suggest a cure, and one cannot lightly wish to add one more to the empirics now displaying their nostrums outside the sick room of civilization. Still, one is impelled to do something, even though he will be damned for doing it.

After all, there is a reason for this condition of things, and why should not moderately intelligent persons seek it out and set it forth according to their light? It is not an accident that our higher thought is spotted with pessimism and, still worse, broken out with sentimentality intended to disguise the pessimism. It is not by chance that our schools are doing little or nothing to prepare young Americans for the cynicism and other moral dangers that await them in the world, or that our philosophy is impotent profoundly to interpret or even straightforwardly to see these dangers. It is not without cause that corruption never had so many clever apologists as now, nor despotism so many advocates. It is not an isolated and miraculous phenomenon that we have lawbreaking that terrifies us by its prevalence and lawmaking that staggers us by its levity. It is not a detached visitation like a witch’s curse that we may come out of college illiterates in the spiritual history of mankind, though that is the energy which drives the blood through the body of civilization; nor that we may wear the laureate honors of academic degrees and yet be hopeless of finding any worthy aim in life or any principle that places ideals beyond the reach of disillusion. It is not an unconnected and lonely prodigy that the American home, that ancient subject of our pride, should wear, as it were, a placard giving notice that a fatal disease is within; and that thoughtful men and women are wondering how long loyalty to the soil — that is, to country — can survive the wreck of the primary loyalty to the hearth. And, finally, it is not a thing rootless and past finding out that liberalism, in learning, in politics, and in religion, is barren, unable to check eccentricity, ready to compromise with opportunism, and near to the anarchy which is the foredoomed fate of liberalism whenever it deserts a spiritual principle.

There is a reason for these desolations, and until somebody gives a better one I make bold to offer for reflection what is implied in the criticism just passed upon our two professors — namely, that we have nowhere an adequate teacher of man’s inner life as primarily a moral will as austere in its responsibility as it is exalted in its aspiration. A moral will implies that even more important than a universe of matter, given with its binding laws to the mind, is a universe of Right, given with its binding laws to the conscience. It means that as moral beings we are under the law of perfection and its correlative, retribution. It sees the chief dooms of history in individuals and societies as examples of that retribution. It requires that when we have outgrown a spiritual ideal we create a new one at least as great, or perish in recreance and decadence. It denies fate, that refuge of the weak, and sees liberty lost because those who inherited it were too feeble to sustain it. It regards every philosophy that debilitates resolution, hope, and vigor less as an intellectual error than as an exhaustion of spiritual understanding and resource. It never cultivates the wish without cultivating still more carefully the will. It never propounds a right without a duty, a privilege without a responsibility. It judges of education chiefly by this question: What, after you have finished it, do you find luminous, beautiful, and austere when you look within? It considers history as a stern testing and probation, and life as a joyous loyalty to the transcendent manifested in the transient.

That is something of what a moral will is, and what we say of it is that without it man is wrecked. Without it none of the great literatures in the world is intelligible, for it is central to every one of them. Without it history loses the warning which is its message, thought the action which should be its issue, and States the inward vigor which is their one security.

V

This is no homiletic extravagance. It is the teaching of the first geniuses of the world everywhere. Consider an Æschylus, a Sophocles, a Dante, a Milton, a Shakespeare of the tragedies. What is the story that they tell but of responsibility and retribution? The tragic moment in their action is man’s rebellion; their solution is the vindication of the Right, which is the order of the universe, in one of two ways — either by inexorable penalty to the utmost, or by reconciliations won from despair by the expiations of a recovered fidelity. The Orestean plays portray under what dread sanctions man’s lapses fall and by how hard a path his restoration is achieved. The Divine Comedy extends to eternal consummations the good and evil begun on earth. The Paradise Lost reveals that the rival standards on the field of our moral warfare are held in unearthly hands and are symbols of everlasting causes. A Macbeth or a Richard III recites that iniquity succeeds until the eternal voices speak, and then in a crash of ruin falls forever. Every one of them makes the lips of unseen justice utter the last word in the discourse of existence. Every one of them enlarges the text of human life into the tremendous context of overruling Right. None of them plays with man as a bio-social curiosity. None of them enchants a wondering animal full of wishes with a millennium in which the wishes will be automatically fulfilled. None of them regards him as a weird psychological mystery or as a moral neutral to be led to a wooden perfection by mechanical habituations. The brightest glow of the genius of their authors would have been extinguished if such nonsense had entered their heads as, under the prestige of resounding names, has entered ours. They are sublime because they teach come l’uom s’eterna, how man in his moment of time has awful and glorious transactions with the Timeless.

It is so with genius in all its expressions. What are a Parthenon, a Pantheon, a Chartres, a Burgos, a Salisbury, and fifty more, but sanctuaries as fit as our most marvelous minds can make them for the solemnity of man’s contrition and the exaltation of his triumphant hope? What are a Last Judgment, a Descent from the Cross, and all their kindred in immortal canvas, but the moral will furnishing to Beauty its conviction of the supremacy of Right, the costliness of our service of it, and the glory of the sacrifices made that we might know how to love it?

Furthermore, by the most remarkable confluence of genius that exists, the monarchs of thought are one in this with the monarchs of art. The thinkers of first rank from Socrates down make spirit the key to existence, and the discipline of the spirit the first privilege and obligation of man. And when they falter it is because they lose for a time their grasp upon that highest subject of thought and surest guide to truth, a moral personality fitted to a moral universe, the only kind of universe that could possibly produce or contain it.

This it is, though thundered from the ages, upon which our two professors have nothing at all to say. They are dumb upon man’s inner life. They do not explore our moral nature, though there is nothing else for religion to explore. They seem never to have heard of aspiration. They are unseeing when they confront responsibility and judgment. They shrink from the austere as if it were haunted, as indeed, in a majestic sense, it is. The last feeling that could enter one’s mind as one studies their synthetic religion is awe. They universalize nothing but a wish; they eternalize nothing but defeat and extinction. On their principles, we should never have had a Saint Francis, a Savonarola, a Huss, or a Pascal, nor any of the noblest works, from the Furies to Macbeth. If we accept their view of man’s nature, we must find unintelligible every genius that has meditated upon it, every literature that interprets it, all the history that exalts it, and the whole company of spiritual masters that transfigure it. And this is too high a price to pay. We cannot give up genius for something conspicuously lower. Its testimony is too massive a reality to run away from. It is in itself too splendid and strikes in us too deep a chord to be dropped into oblivion in exchange for so exiguous a counterfeit.

But, as a preceding paragraph implied, our two doctors are not alone in their poverty and confusion. The disregard of inner life and moral will is everywhere, and often there is not only disregard for it, but contempt. Our specialists in corruption select for their scorn every chivalry, every loyalty, that has ever guided man in his precarious excursions from the sty, as they select for morose contemplation every animality that has kept him in it. An aggressive naturalism is prompt with ridicule for anybody that speaks of a soul. There are becoming manifest round us a decadence that exercises the terrorism of an infallible sect and a cynicism grown into the haughtiness of a superior fashion. The kind of person presented to us as emancipated is one utterly useless for man’s nobler life, and a type from which none of the stateliest achievements of civilization could possibly have come.

And much of the same quality that is not so manifest is but little better in its results when we fetch it into the light. One fears that our education, for example, is in a flight from moral reality. One observes in it a dread of the austere and a disposition to conceal it. Yet it must teach the great literatures, though many curriculum experts and other formidable persons of that persuasion are trying to expel them from the schools. It must teach history also, although again there are symptoms of a movement to put it into an insignificant place. While, however, we have them, how can we but devitalize them without a moral sense and a spiritual emphasis in the instruction? What can we understand of liberty unless we are taught how often it has perished and how many times it has been democracies that have destroyed it? What appreciation can we have of the constant menace to democratic societies, including our own, the gratification of immediate impulse to the neglect of principle, without insight into the moral nature down to the darkest depths of it?

We do not get these lessons, however — for the reason, it seems, that they are too stern for us. They are too charged with responsibility. They are too close to the will, a faculty that we have conspired to neglect. They imply more of a soul, and a soul upon whose rise or fall the last determinations of history depend, to suit the secularity in which we have agreed to nullify in education the profoundest human experience. As for our higher learning, it is not without evidence that it conceives a scholar to be a dilettante of opinions, not a being with a will that resolves and aspires. Our intellectual life all around passes into the hands of the will-less. We are to have ideals without obligations, duty without sanctions, a law eloquently celebrated for its rigor in material processes but nonexistent in the field of Right which is the universe of souls. The will-less rise to control, the critical symptom of a society endangered, and with them the fortune tellers, the millennialists, the apostles of the wish. Led by them, we covet enrichment, but not at the cost of sacrifice, and gratification, but not burdened with responsibility. To such a mind history is not a process by which humanity puts the stamp of a progressively elevated inner life upon outer circumstance. It is a mass of aimless and incoherent episodes. And the individual life becomes, not a responsible realization of perfection, but a forlorn mystery whose worst delusions come from its highest faculties.

The results are inevitable, and they are already evident enough for half an eye to see. We are destitute of great teachers; we bestow remarkable cleverness upon mediocre conceptions in philosophy and letters; we are incurring the danger of having a grin of mockery become the face-mark of a culture that has nothing to revere; and we see religion stripped of majesty, staggering from inveracity, and revealing nothing more glorious than the extremely questionable views of its inadequately educated spokesmen. Yet that there is anything profound to be done we have not one impressive voice in church or state or academy to tell us.

VI

We conclude, therefore, that this is not a happy time in which to expect a new religion which should be beautiful and rich. Our thought is yet too thin, our culture too jaunty. Our psychological and philosophical theories are too bent upon thinking man away, not thinking him out. We have too great a fancy for millennial raptures to comprehend the pure joy of the realistic spirit. We give the universal to the intellect; we dare not give it to the soul. We exalt reason in its operation; we are afraid to exalt it in its nature, its origin, and its end. We do not know liberty, because we do not know the terrible beauty of a free man’s obedience. We speak of socializing our sympathies, yet have no rational, but only a sentimental, ground for not imperializing our passions. We are broken in two. We are caught in contradictions. Man is wonderful, we say; and yet we destroy him when he is most wonderful. We would give him the earth; yet when he asks why a terrestrial episode should satisfy aspirations that go beyond it, we have no answer but to attack these aspirations. We would make him happy; yet when he says that our doomed solaces are but a mockery of the central happiness he craves, we can but call him a superstitious fool.

We are at war with man, and most at war when we would bring him peace. In his invincible aspirations, in his passion for the Transcendent, in his search for the sun that will make life and eternity and the inmost chambers of his soul luminous, he is a scandal to us. He will not listen to us, therefore. He has heard other voices, and he cannot forget them. These voices stir the centuries. They have transformed history. They have done something to souls for which we have no words. Remembering them, he regards our parochial apocalypses and our bio-social paradises and is stupefied at our hebetude. He turns away wondering how we can play such frivolous music in the hope that iron Destiny will march to it. Certainly his spirit cannot sing to it.

Nevertheless, no people are richer in resource than we. Our hope, therefore, is that we shall one day ask seriously why our public and private standards are not higher; why we are tossed between the growing coerciveness of law and the mounting anarchy of habit; why, with so many dangers at their threshold, our schools do so little to prepare young Americans against them; why we have captains of industry, but none of the spirit. When we ask these questions we shall be momentously tested as to whether, despite seductions this long time acting on us, we have kept that foremost energy of all existence, a moral will. For it will require a moral will at the utmost of its resolution to do what has got to be done if the soul of America is not to be lost.