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Lecture XX. The Future Life

“FOR this cause,” says the Apostle Paul, “I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.” It is as impossible for us, as it was for St. Paul, to realize the unity in which all men are bound together by the Fatherhood of God, and yet to think that the life we share is limited to the compass of a few quickly passing years. If the kingdom of God is already set up on earth, we can hardly imagine that it is subject to time and change. If man is made a “partaker in the divine nature,” it is difficult to believe that he is not reserved for a higher than earthly or finite destiny.

But can we find any reason for this faith outside of the sphere of Christian doctrine? Does the grandeur of that future, which Christianity represents as God's design for man, find any confirmation in what observation discloses of the inherent capabilities of our nature? If we are destined to rise hereafter above the sphere of the things that are seen and temporal; if a career of boundless attainment in knowledge, goodness, happiness, is possible for us; there must be in the very structure of our being indications of such a career, something that transcends the sphere of time and allies us in essence to the things unseen and eternal. Are any such indications to be found in our nature? I answer that there is an aspect or element of our being—that element which constitutes the principle of our spiritual life and is the source of all knowledge, morality, religion—to which in the truest sense the predicate “eternal” may be applied. Of this element it is no exaggeration to say that it rises above the limits and conditions of time, and that we can think of it, not simply as created by the Author of our being, but as a reflexion or reproduction of His own eternal nature.

For, let us reflect, there are two aspects in which man's nature can be contemplated, in one of which he is like, in the other unlike, all merely finite and temporal existences. On the one hand, he is simply one individual finite object amidst a world of innumerable finite objects, subject to the same conditions, sharing in the same limitations, occupying but a limited portion of space and a brief section of time, changeful, transient, mortal, determined by relations that are independent of his will, by laws that are common to him with material nature, by appetites, desires, impulses which he shares with the lower animals. But, as I have shown,1 in so contemplating him, we leave out one all-important aspect of his being, namely, that he is not simply one object amidst an infinite multiplicity of objects, but that he has in him the principle to which all finite objects in the universe are relative, and in and through which all things and beings, himself included, have any meaning and reality. In our ordinary observation of the world, in dealing with its facts and phenomena, we seem to be confronted by a world of realities, which exist in themselves just as we perceive them, and of which we are simply the passive spectators. But the existence of such a world is to us a possible conception, only because in our ordinary observation of nature, we abstract for the moment from one essential factor of the process, namely, the mind of the observer, and deal with facts and relations of facts as if they were purely objective realities. But it is a truism to say that the least and lowest fact is not fact stript of all relation to thought, but it is fact observed, perceived, thought about, fact as it is for a thinking intelligence. In one sense, therefore, it is true that, “it is understanding which creates the world.” And even when it is man himself that is the object of observation, the whole materials of a science of body and mind exist only in relation to the principle of self-consciousness which apprehends and transcends them.

Now, if we reflect on what is involved in this principle, I think we may see that, in two respects, it raises man above the sphere of time and of the things that are seen and temporal, and renders him essentially akin to that Intelligence which is infinite and eternal. For in the first place—as I showed in a former lecture2—the intelligence which perceives and observes things in time cannot be itself a thing of time. The standard by which we measure cannot itself be one of the things measured. When we apprehend events in their co-existence and succession, the intelligence that performs this function must itself stand above the succession or stream of events. In being able to discern their flux and transiency, it cannot be flowing and changing with them. There could not be, for it, any such thing as time, if it did not itself belong to an order which is above time, which is or has in it an element that is eternal. Our knowledge is, indeed, a thing of time, in the sense that it is progressive, acquired by successive steps, not by the all-comprehensive flash of a divine intuition—in the sense, in other words, that it takes time to think. But, as taken up into thought, succession itself is not successive, events in time are simultaneously grasped, they enter into a region where they are stript of the form of time, and are apprehended in purely ideal relations. Even when it is our own individual life, with all its incessant changes, its never-ending flow of ideas and feelings, that is the object of observation, the principle, by which we know ourselves as individuals, cannot pertain to us as this particular individuality. When we think of our temporal existence, we are lifted above it to a point of view that is not conditioned by its transiency, but yet in virtue of which alone we can pronounce it to be transitory. It is not too much to say that in this point of view intelligence proves itself to belong essentially to an order of things which is superior to change and death, and which in its immortal stillness is unaffected and unperturbed by the fluctuation and evanescence that condition all finite things.

But, in the second place, there is another respect in which the capacity for an eternal life pertains to the nature of man. A future of illimitable knowledge and goodness is possible to it, because by its very structure it has the power to realize itself in all that seems to limit it. In one point of view, the realm of knowledge is a realm which stretches far and for ever beyond even the highest human intelligence; yet, in another, we can claim it, in all its illimitableness, as not a foreign territory, but a realm that is virtually our own. In advancing into the unknown, we are not conquering what belongs to an alien or hostile power, but we are reclaiming, entering into possession of an inheritance which from the first is not merely ours, but, in one sense, identified with our very selves. For mind or spirit is the form of an infinite content. As containing in it the principle to which all existence is relative, every advance it makes is not merely an increment to its knowledge, but a disclosure to it of its own latent wealth. And however long we may imagine the process to continue, we can never conceive any impassable barrier set up, any region into which thought may not and cannot enter. To be capable of the life of thought, is to be capable of a life that is eternal, capable of participation in the life of that Intelligence, for and in which all things have their being.

And the same principle holds good of our moral life. Here, too, we can discern in our nature capabilities which transcend all temporal limits, and which contain in them at least the potentiality of a career of moral progress, which no conceivable future can exhaust. It is, indeed, possible for us, not only to suppress or thwart our moral capabilities till they are far less than commensurate with even the brief term of our earthly existence, but to lead a life having its beginning and end in motives and satisfactions which belong to our transient earthly existence, and even to the passing moments of that existence. For of the appetites, desires, impulses, which have their origin in our sensitive nature, this is the essential characteristic, that their satisfaction has in it nothing permanent. It passes away and is gone with the feeling of the moment, and a thousand such experiences render the subject of them no richer for the future, and imply in him no capacity more lasting than that of the beasts that perish. On the other hand, it is possible for man to lead a life which is on the scale of an immeasurable futurity, nay, with which no temporal existence, however protracted, is commensurate. For in the moral as in the intellectual life, we rise out of the sphere of time and above the things that are seen and temporal, into a life that is, in spirit and essence, one with the life that is eternal. Practically this is brought home to us by the fact that, even for the best of men, perfect moral satisfaction is a thing impossible. In their own eyes, so far from having ever attained or being already perfect, they forget and ignore the things that are behind, and are ever reaching forth to a moral elevation that is still and ever above and beyond them. And the reason of their dissatisfaction lies in this, that the moral ideal with which, by faith, they have identified themselves dwarfs in their eyes all actual, nay, all possible attainments. With every advance in the spiritual life, the criterion by which we measure it expands and enlarges; and the light of the saintliest virtue or heroism grows dim in comparison with it.

The argument, then, to which these considerations are held to lead is simply this, that man's intellectual and moral endowments are on a scale immeasurably larger than the needs of this brief life demand, or than is required for any attainments in knowledge and goodness which even the noblest and best of men reach in their earthly existence; and, therefore, that we can only account for the disproportion by the conception of a future life in which these endowments shall find adequate scope and employment. On any other supposition, there would be involved in the very constitution of the spiritual world an enormous waste of faculty, an unaccountable disparity between the nature of the agent and the function it is set to fulfil. Moreover, there would be a like inexplicable disproportion between the elaborate process of discipline and development to which, in the present life, we are subjected, and the result to which, at the best, it leads. What strange irony of fate would there be in the cultivation and training of the human intelligence, in the hived up fruits of long study and research, in the manifold struggles and self-denials by which a noble and beautiful nature is chastened and refined, if it is to disappear and drop out of existence just when it has become fitted for great and beneficent service in God's universe. If there be any truth in what I have said as to the infinite capabilities of human nature, the loss which such a catastrophe would involve would amount to the loss, not merely of a few further years to which life might have been prolonged, but of an illimitable future with all its unknown treasure of knowledge and goodness. In no other way, it would seem, can this meaningless squandering of priceless spiritual wealth be obviated than by the conception, that the present life is only the initial stage of human existence, and that elsewhere the unfinished history will be resumed, and the unexhausted endowments find fitting occupation and fulfilment.

And yet, when all this has been said, there are many to whom the argument seems far from conclusive. To them, it seems to be an appeal from fact and experience to conjecture and unsupported theory. What we seem to see and know is, not simply the interruption, but the extinction, of life and thought in the myriads of the human race without exception. What we do not know and only vaguely vaticinate, is a resumption of the interrupted life in that other world which we imagine beyond the grave. Unnumbered as are the generations that have passed away into this supposed region, not one has ever returned to assure us of its reality; nor has even a single voice ever reached us to break the awful secret or to convince us that the notion of a life to come is other than a dream.

Nor, again—it has been urged—does the argument from the alleged waste and squandering of human faculty receive any confirmation from the analogy of the present life. For, however we may account for or explain it, the order of the world in which we live is not inconsistent with, and does include, much apparent waste of resource and frustration of purpose and capacity. Not to speak of the myriads of marred and arrested organisms—blighted plants, spoiled and prematurely extinguished specimens of animal life, on behalf of which no theorist puts forth any claim to survival in another world—there are innumerable instances of blighted, broken human lives, of the fair promise of youth belied by early death or overshadowed by moral failure or disaster, of talents suppressed for lack of culture and an appropriate sphere, of fine moral natures dwarfed and distorted by evil surroundings. When, again, we think of the vast multitudes of human beings, sharers with ourselves in all the latent capabilities of the nature of men, who pass their lives in the darkness and degradation of barbarism, of others amidst the environment of civilization whose pleasures are scarcely one remove from those of the lower animals, and yet others whose highest ideal is decorous respectability or slavish conformity to the accidental social standard of their time and place,—can we lay any stress on the argument that the career of man must be adequate to the inherent capabilities of his nature?

Finally, it may be urged that we cannot separate the material or physical from the spiritual element of man's nature, so as to conceive of a life pertaining to the one in which the other has ceased to have any part. Could the soul be what it is apart from the body? Must we not rather say that man is not a mere combination of two essentially different substances, for a time artificially connected and existing side by side; but that the spiritual and the corporeal are inwardly related elements, implicated with each other in the unity of man's nature and life? You cannot divide or abstract his intellectual and moral from his sensitive or corporeal life, or from the desires and passions that spring out of the latter. Without the material supplied by sense to spirit, human intelligence would be reduced at best to a blank potentiality of intellectual life. Our moral life takes its special complexion from the inseparable relation between what we term, our higher and our lower nature. Moral action is not the pursuit by a purely spiritual or immaterial nature of an abstract ideal. Without the impulses and passions the moral ideal would exist in a vacuum. In so far as virtue consists in the ordering or subjugation of the lower impulses, they must be there to be ordered or subdued; and the attempt to reach moral perfection by holding ourselves aloof from the natural desires, would be the attempt to attain goodness by abstraction from that without which no moral life, good or bad, is possible.

How, then, can we speak of a future life of intelligence and moral perfection as attainable by a spirit that has been severed from that bodily nature which is essential to the very existence of a moral and spiritual agent? Moreover, though we may refuse to define thought with the materialist as a function of matter, we cannot deny the apparent dependence of mind and mental action on bodily organization. There is good reason to hold that there is a physical process which corresponds to every mental process; and, especially, that there is a certain cerebral movement or change which is the condition or concomitant of every mental act. The inseparable connection between mind and its organ is manifested by the phenomena of weakened or frustrated, as well as of positive or normal, mental activity. What the normal action of the subtle material organ creates, its morbid or weakened action can dissipate or uncreate. Let partial exhaustion, or slow decay, or sudden injury, affect the organ, and the capacity of sustained intellectual effort is undermined, the insight of clear intelligence is blurred, and the highest genius is reduced to the level of dulness. Let the physical disorganization go further, and mental activity is wholly annulled, and the lucidity of reason gives place to the vagaries of madness or the babblings of imbecility. And, finally, with the cessation of the organic or functional activity of the brain, utter night and darkness descend over the horizon of consciousness. Instead, therefore, of regarding death as the precursor of a more exalted life, is there not good reason for regarding it as the final extinction of all mental life, inasmuch as it is the disintegration of that physical organization on which mental life invariably depends?

I shall defer to the next lecture the consideration of these objections to the argument for immortality which is drawn from the inherent greatness of human nature. Meanwhile, I shall conclude the present lecture by a few brief remarks on a view of human progress, which has been held to supersede the notion of an individual immortality. Suppose we were constrained to admit the force of the foregoing or other objections to the immortality of the individual, there is another immortality which remains unaffected. According to this theory, the disproportion between the greatness of man's nature and the brevity, poverty, and incompleteness of his earthly life, is to find its solution, not so much in a future life of the individual in another world, as in the ever-advancing life of the race and the greatness to which it is destined in the world in which we now live. It is not in a heaven beyond the skies that we are to look for the sequel or complement of the wise or good man's existence on earth, but in that undying moral and spiritual existence of mankind to which every wise and good man's life is a contribution. The individual life whose capabilities are the silent prophecy of a splendid future is, indeed, abruptly terminated. But the promise is not thus left unfulfilled. It is taken up into a wider movement that is never for a moment arrested; its results pass into that universal life of humanity which is ever growing, deepening, developing, ever through the ages advancing to its consummation. Nothing good or great in any human life ever dies, but neither does it remain as an isolated, individual thing. It remains as absorbed, incorporated, merged in a grander life, into which the best that is in the lives of the innumerable members of the race is ever passing. With this life in its perpetuity and undisclosed glory and splendour, our highest capabilities, our most boundless aspirations, our most devoted efforts and sacrifices are not disproportioned or incompatible.3

Now it cannot, I think, be questioned that this theory of corporate, as distinguished from individual immortality, contains in it an element of truth; and, further, that the main objection to it, though a fatal one, is not that with which at first blush it seems to be chargeable. It is not, it may be said, the immortality of the race but his own, that is the all-important one for each individual: not whether the progress of mankind shall go on in a world he is soon to quit, but whether there is a world beyond the grave, and whether death, when it comes, shall be the transition to it. Even if it be true that the ideal of a perfect society is in some far distant day to be realized in this world, what personal interest can I have in a perfection and happiness of which I shall never know, and in which I shall never participate? Is not this theory, even if it were established, to all intents and purposes the denial of immortality, in the sense in which all men but the theorists understand it? Can the majority of men be induced to care much for the state of the world ages after they have left it, or to regard the thought of its progressive welfare as a compensation for the blotting-out of personal consciousness in the inevitable hour that is approaching to each of us?

To this objection one obvious answer is, that experience proves such care for the world's future to be no impracticable or fantastic motive. The objects which appeal to the best and noblest natures, and which actually do call forth the most enthusiastic zeal and self-devotion, are not those which are limited by the horizon of our brief individual life, but those which transcend that life; and they call forth the intensest interest just in proportion as they do transcend it. It is not exclusive regard to our own day and generation that is the sole or principal motive in the labours of the philanthropist, the statesman, the legislator; in the houses we build, the trees we plant, the books we write, the schemes of social amelioration we devise, the educational institutions we found, in our plans and endeavours for the subversion of pauperism, ignorance, crime, for the promotion of the physical and spiritual welfare of mankind. It is for such ends as these, and not for the pleasures and pains, the gains and losses that extend no further than their own individual lives, that men recognize it to be good and noble to live; and it is these which actually call forth their highest aspiration and effort, and bring to them a happiness far transcending in depth and intensity all merely private and personal interests.

But the main objection to this theory is, that it is propounded as a substitute for that of individual immortality, and not as its concomitant or complement. To some of those who espouse the notion of an exclusively corporate immortality, it seems to add a certain touch of sublimity to the self-sacrifice of the men who live and labour for the good of the race, that it is a good they shall never see or share. Unselfishness seems to reach its maximum, when even the gratitude and homage of men can never reach the ears of the benefactor whose life has been offered up for their good. But is there, it may be answered, any ingredient of selfishness, any abatement of disinterestedness, in the delight which the benefactor feels in beholding the welfare and happiness of others as the result of his own efforts? Is it not a reward of the purest and most elevated character which a lover of his kind receives, when he contemplates the success of his labours for the extirpation of ignorance, vice, and crime, and for the diffusion of light and liberty over the world? Would not the Quixotic disinterestedness which rejects such a reward, become still greater, if the benefactor not only did not know of the success of his labours, but knew that they would fail?

What gives rise to this ascription of selfishness to the desire of individual immortality, is, perhaps, an unspiritual conception of heaven and the future life, which is too common even among religious men. But this conception, against which the charge of “other-worldliness” has often been justly urged, has no necessary relation to the true idea of immortality. Nor, if heaven be the expression for the immortality that awaits the pure, the unselfish, the loving, can we conceive a higher climax of its blessedness than in watching or learning of the progress of mankind in knowledge and goodness, or in contemplating the nearer realization of that ideal of human perfection, which has been through the ages the secret impulse to all noble effort, and will prove its richest and sweetest reward?

  • 1.

    Vol. I., p. 183.

  • 2.

    Vol. I., p. 185.

  • 3.

    This idea is further developed in the Sermon on “Corporate Immortality,” University Sermons, p. 176.