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Lecture 9: Providence in the Individual Life

THE reality of a providential order ought to be more easily verifiable in the lives of individuals than in the corporate life of nations. The subject of study is much less complex, and the range of time is greatly restricted. From a few years of a nation's life there is little to be learned. One providential day there, may be equal to a thousand common years. It is only when the long history of a people lies before our eye, a completed drama, that we can read its lessons perceive a vocation, recognise a service rendered, detect evil tendencies which in due season meet with appropriate retribution. In the life of a man we have to do with a short, manageable story of three score years and ten, whose moral import ought to lie on the surface. It is true indeed that the very brevity of the period may appear a drawback. If Providence move with slow, leisurely step, how, it may be asked, can its action be observed within such narrow time limits? Might not one as well expect to observe an appreciable advance in a glacier within the compass of an hour? But in the physical world there are two kinds of motion: quick motion in the molecule, slower motion in the mass. There may be something analogous in the moral world.

Whatever may be the fact as to relative verifiableness, we may believe even when we cannot see. Faith in the presence of the providential order in individual life is reasonable. It is a natural inference from our doctrine of the value of man for God. It is also a corollary from the omnipresence of the providential order, by all means to be insisted on. For we are not to think of the providential order and the physical order as dividing the universe between them, the one here at certain critical points in the world's history, the other there where things run in accustomed grooves. They are different aspects of the same universe. All is mechanism, and all is purpose. The Rabbis said, ‘There is not a thing in the world, not even a tiny blade of grass, over which there is not an angel set.’ In their theory of the universe, angelic agency occupied the same place as physical causation in ours. But there is no need to displace physical causation to make room for Providence. Leaving to the former its full sphere and function, we can still accept the consolatory doctrine of Christ: ‘A sparrow shall not fall on the ground without your Father.’1

Sometimes it is very easy to see the providential order in individual life, as in the case of great historical characters like Moses, Paul, Luther, Alexander, Cæsar. Without being suspected of religious fanaticism, one might say of such men that God made them, furnishing them with endowments suited for a definite task, and providing in their experience the needful training, and in their environment the fit opportunity. In their history, providential action exhibits itself in an accelerated form which is complementary to the more usual slow movement. For the full law of providential movement is: slow for a long period, then sudden and catastrophic at the last. The sojourn of Israel in Egypt continues through generations of bitter bondage, during which Providence seems to be wholly indifferent, like a man standing aloof, and looking on with folded arms, while some tragedy is being enacted. But at length the crisis comes. The grain which slowly grew and ripened has reached its harvest-time; the husband-man, listless before, is now astir, getting together his reapers, and sending them with their sickles into the wheat-field. Moses comes at the critical moment, God's chief reaper in that harvest day of judgment for Egypt, and of deliverance for Israel. He comes suddenly with great gifts and marvellous experiences, a kind of providential miracle. But, even in his case, slow secular action in a long period of preparation has been at work. Who can tell how far back the process of making Moses began, and what various influences of heredity and environment co-operated to produce the result? The marvel is that he at last came just when he was needed, and his work was ready for him.

The lives of common men are too obscure to find a place in the pages of history, and we are tempted to think that they are also too minute objects for the eye of Providence to rest on. Yet the gracious care of the Divine Father may be there also, unknown to the world, possibly even to the subjects of the experiences in which providential action reveals itself. Ignorance of the fact, on either hand, does not cancel the fact. This remark is specially apposite in reference to the ignorance of bystanders. The outside world is not the final court of appeal in regard to the question, Does the life of any ordinary man possess providential significance? Still less in regard to the question, What is the precise nature of that significance? Speaking broadly, Providence is of private interpretation. The vision is for him whom it concerns. The humblest artisan may have good reason to believe that in his little life the saying has been verified, ‘Trust in the Lord and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and thou shalt be fed,’2 though neighbours, even if well inclined, may fail to see the grounds for such a faith. The devout artisan may find it necessary to keep his faith to himself, in order to escape ridicule. ‘How could the life of so mean a person verify the reality of a moral order? How could any modest man in lowly state dare to cherish so presumptuous a thought?‘

Outside judgment as to the quality of providential significance is still more precarious than as to the fact. What the world sees is the external event, and no man can tell what that means till he knows the man to whom it has happened. In the providential order, events are relative to moral ends, and are to be interpreted in their bearing on these. The interpretation is a delicate problem in which not merely the outside world but even the subjects of the experiences to be interpreted may easily err. The perplexing nature of the question is instructively exemplified in Hebrew literature. About the time of the prophet Jeremiah, the providential significance of individual experience became the subject of reflective thought. Till then attention had been preoccupied with the traces of Divine purpose in the corporate life of the nation, the experience of the individual being left out of account, except in so far as it participated in the fortunes of the entire people. But from that time forth it began to be seen that individual experience raised new questions, or lent new emphasis to old ones. The prophet Jeremiah was a puzzle to himself. He had but one aim in life, that God's will might be done, and yet he was a sorrow-laden man. Whence this glaring contradiction between character and lot? Unable to unriddle the mystery, in his hours of depression the prophet cursed his birth, and gloomily asked, Wherefore came I forth out of the womb to see labour and sorrow, that my days should be consumed with shame?3 In the book of Job, supposed with some probability to belong to the period of the Babylonish exile, the problem thus set is taken up and discussed, in a dramatic form, the literary product presenting a combination of poetic genius with moral intensity that has never been surpassed or equalled. But while the effort awakens our admiration and even our amazement, it does not satisfy us. The problem remains unsolved, the last word has not been spoken. Yet one great step in advance has been taken. The writer, whoever he may have been, sees clearly that the old, simple, traditional theory, that the good man prospers and the bad man suffers, is not true. That theory, advocated by Eliphaz, is completely demolished by the hero of the work, not merely by his triumphant argument, but by his very existence as a good man undergoing sore adversity. Whether job was a historical personage or not does not matter. The creation of such a character as a basis for discussion implies that such cases were known to exist. And the value of the book which bears job's name lies, not in its solutions, but in its broad, emphatic assertion that an experience like his is possible in the life of a good man; or in other words, in its protest against cut-and-dried, superficial, premature theorising as to the cause and meaning of suffering in human life, and by implication as to the cause and meaning of prosperity.

The Eliphaz theory, from an a priori point of view, is very plausible. Looking from the outside, what more natural than to regard prosperity as the smile of Providence on a good life, and adversity as the frown of Providence on a bad life? Yet, viewed in the light of experience, no judgment could be more superficial, and, it may be added, more heartless and cruel. It is the easiest thing in the world to put cases in which this comfortable theory will not work. In the first place, there is that large region of human experience in which both good and evil come to men in common, irrespective of character. The boons of sunshine and shower are bestowed on evil and good alike. When a Nineveh is destroyed, destruction overtakes not merely the adult population, for the most part, presumably, ripe for judgment, but ‘sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle.’4 Then take success in business. Is every millionaire a good man: just, humane, able to say with job, ‘I delivered the poor that cried, the fatherless also, that had none to help him. The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness and it clothed me, my justice was as a robe and a diadem’?5 Is it uniformly or usually the case that every man who is strictly upright in business, scorning all tricks of trade, gets on? Is not such a man too apt to be pushed to the wall by unscrupulous traders who, by cunning devices and plausible lies, impose on a public desiring, doubtless, to get an honest article, but still more bent on getting all things cheap? How many people would sincerely sympathise with the unprosperous upright trader, and abstain from pronouncing him a simpleton and an incapable? Yet his one fault and misfortune is that he has a conscience too sensitive to accommodate itself easily to commercial morality. And in that very conscientiousness lies the best evidence that this man's life, failure though it may appear, possesses providential significance; for the moral order of the world cares more for the making of character than for the making of money. It would help our faith in that order if there were a good many more ‘failures’ proceeding from the same cause. ‘Is the purpose of the Maker of this world to increase the number of noble lives, or to fill the world with mere comfort? Is it His aim to produce a condition of material life or a temper of the soul?’6 Or, again, look at Jeremiah. At a dire political crisis he says to his countrymen, ‘Resist not the Chaldæan; better to submit at once, it is the least of two evils.’ They call him a traitor and threaten his life. Is he really a traitor? Is it not rather a case of extremes meeting: the noble man mistaken for an ignoble man, the true friend of his country treated as one in league with its enemies?

Accepting the underlying assumption of the Eliphaz theory, viz., that there is a connection between suffering and sin, the precise nature of the connection remains to be determined. The suffering, e.g., may seem to be, to a certain extent may really be, punitive, and yet in a deeper sense it may be salutary. Consider the prodigal: he is, it is true, only a character in a parable, but it is a character frequently exemplified in actual life. He has been a waster, he is now a beggared, starved, ragged wretch. His present state, you say, is the direct effect and penalty of past folly, and as such is an exemplification of the judicial aspect of Divine Providence. This is true, and this is all that can be seen from the outside, and all that hard-natured men would expect or care to see. Yet how much more is possible? What if the acute stage of misery reached should prove the turning-point in the prodigal's career, the point at which the thoughtless man turns thoughtful, ‘comes to himself,’ in the expressive phrase of the parable? In that case, the truest formula for that man's whole career may be: A benignant Providence leading him by a very long, roundabout way to goodness and bliss; through folly to wisdom, through misery to joy. To how many cases this formula may apply, including not merely a motley collection of brands plucked from the burning, of whom history takes no note, but not a few of the illustrious ones, like Saul of Tarsus, Augustine, and Bunyan! And what reflections radiant with hope the formula suggests in reference to the whole history of our sin and sorrow-laden world! That history, not a mere depressing, monotonous spectacle of men sinning and God punishing sin; the Power making for righteousness engaged in the futile work of judgment, destroying the race with a deluge, and at the end obliged to confess that it was all to no purpose!7 That history, rather, a grand redemptive process, in which even sin is compelled to serve the aim of a beneficent Providence, so that just where sin breaks out most lawlessly and abounds most disastrously, there ultimate superabounding in grace and goodness and sanctity may be looked for! It may seem to prudent moralists a dangerous thesis, but it is the thesis of Jesus Christ and of the apostle Paul. ‘The last shall be first,’ said Jesus; ‘Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound,’ said Paul.

Another case still is conceivable. The sin supposed to be punished may lie outside the person suffering. A man may suffer, not because he is unrighteous, but because others are unrighteous. Not to speak of the highest instance under this category, there have been innumerable instances of this type in the history of the world. Suffering for righteousness’ sake is almost as common a phenomenon as suffering for sin's sake. The two phenomena are bracketed together in the sombre teaching of Ecclesiastes as equally familiar and equally deplorable. ‘Be not righteous overmuch; neither make thyself over-wise; why shouldest thou destroy thyself? Be not over-much wicked; neither be thou foolish; why shouldest thou die before thy time?’8 Poor advice, but important testimony to the effect that there are those who suffer because they are righteous, as well as those who perish through folly. There are, indeed, and they are those who have redeemed the life of mankind from vulgar mediocrity, and thrown on the page of history the divine light of heroism and moral sublimity.

It is in the experience of the so-called ‘righteous over-much,’ when properly understood, that the providential order of the world is seen to receive its most conspicuous verification. But, misunderstood by on-lookers, it may readily lead either to cruelly unjust judgments on the subjects thereof, or to an eclipse of faith in a providential order. Misunderstanding on the part of the subjects of the experience is very possible, and maybe detrimental. It brings an alternative temptation either to self-distrust or to distrust in God. The tried one has to choose between two unwelcome conclusions: either, I am not in singleness of heart devoted to the good; or, God is not good, does not care for the right. Safety lies in bold rejection of both alternatives, and in holding fast at once faith in personal integrity and faith in God. On the hypothesis that, under a real moral order, lot ought to be the unfailing, universally recognisable index of character, these two faiths present a hard antinomy, but it is in its power to surmount such antinomies that faith shows its heroic quality. The job-like man can say at once, ‘Till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me,’9 and, ‘I know that my Vindicator liveth.’10 With his back to the wall, he says to friend and foe among his fellow-men, I am not going to give the lie to my good conscience to please you, or to verify shallow theories; and towards the Power above he assumes the attitude of one who trusts and waits.

Trusting and waiting occupy a large place in the experience of the men who are generously interested in the progress of good in this world. They cannot but believe that the Divine Being is on the same side, and they commonly have to wait a weary while for practical evidence of the fact, the pace of Providence being slow. This is no rare or exceptional situation. It is the regular experience of those who are identified with the noblest causes in the incipient stage. At that stage such causes are purest in the motives of their promoters, and the characters of their adherents. But just when they are most divine in moral quality, they are least divine so far as apparent providential backing is concerned. The forces of custom, prejudice, worldly interest are arrayed against them, and the Power over all seems merely to look on, if He even do so much; and they are constrained to cry, Why standest thou afar off?11 O Lord, how long?12

Such outcries are prayers, prayers of faith struggling with unbelief. It is in connection with such crises in the individual life that the nature, the need, and the use of prayer are most clearly seen. To pray is a natural impulse acted on instinctively in time of need by men of all religions. In the crude religions of primitive or pagan men, prayer has comparatively little moral significance, because the things desired are for the most part material goods. It rises to its true dignity on the lips of a man whose supreme desire is for all that is comprehended under the title, ‘The Kingdom of God.’ Whatever views may be entertained by particular persons as to the objective validity or efficacy of prayer, the matter of the petition, ‘Thy Kingdom come,’ must command the respect of all. And when the coming is intensely desired, and, in the form contemplated, long delayed, any one can further understand how natural, nay how inevitable, it is to put the longing of the soul into the shape of a prayer. The heart unburdens itself in this way. As when deep thoughts have been stirring in our minds we eagerly communicate them to a bosom friend, so with equal eagerness and no less legitimacy we utter our moral and spiritual aspirations in the ear of God. We cannot help doing so if we believe in God at all. It is but speaking to the great, Atman, the other Self. To many, I own, this urgency and inevitableness will appear a mystery. There are not a few whose lives are not pitched sufficiently high to supply material for prayers of the noblest type, or to make intelligible an intensity of longing comparable to that of a parched land in a famine-stricken country, for refreshing rain.13 Such pray also, but too often in compliance mainly with pious custom, and in a spirit of routine, forcing themselves, rather than inwardly constrained, to assume the attitude of suppliants. But our present concern is not to sit in judgment on the prayers of any man, but rather to suggest that, if the legitimacy or value of prayer is to be discussed, it should be in connection with prayer at its best, prayer for the highest moral and spiritual ends, for the furtherance of Divine interests, expressing in struggling, inadequate language desires of unutterable vehemence.

But do even such prayers prevail? Science and philosophy, by the mouth of some representatives, may pronounce them without effect, except perchance in the form of reflex influence, soothing the heart's pain and reanimating languid hope. The grounds on which this verdict rests may appear so conclusive as to justify the inference that prayer is possible and allowable only for the weak and the ignorant, impossible in any real sincere sense, for those who know how rigidly all events are concatenated by the iron chains of physical law. Perhaps the truth is that here, as so often elsewhere, extremes meet, and that prayer is not only for children but for the wisest; for those, that is, who sink below the perplexities of reason, and also for those who rise above them, treating them as unanswerable and at the same time as not needing answer, unhesitatingly and habitually asserting the claims of the moral order as against monopoly on the part of the physical order. For Kant, God was an imperious postulate of the practical reason, though He had been previously pronounced inaccessible to pure, theoretic reason. Even so for the devout wise man, prayer may be an imperious postulate of the spiritual nature, though science may seem to have supplied a triumphant demonstration of its futility. He may think it best to leave the demonstration on one side, and go on his way, saying in effect, ‘For a believer in God, the only consistent course is to pray without ceasing, and to pray with full assurance to be heard.’ This position is certainly unassailable. It is idle for a man who really believes in God to waste his time over scientific puzzles concerning the utility of prayer. The previous question, Is there a God? is the point on which all depends. ‘Between freedom and fate,’ it has been truly said, ‘between a personal God and blind chance, between faith in prayer and trust to luck, we must choose. It is only the short-sighted and superficial mind that can find a resting-place between these two opinions.’14

This, however, is an appeal to theory, which, while legitimate, cannot take the place of an argument from experience. It would give satisfaction to devout hearts if it could be shown that the fervent prayer of a righteous man indeed availeth much. For some it would suffice to point to the case of Elijah praying, not in vain, for rain after a three years’ famine, and to similar remarkable instances of fulfilment recorded in history. But there are others whom such cases would not satisfy, because they savour of the miraculous, and because the alleged fulfilments lie outside the moral sphere. They would prefer evidence of prayer answered within the moral sphere and by the action of the immanent laws of the moral world. Is such evidence forthcoming? I believe it is. There is nothing more certain than that fervent desire for the coming of the Divine Kingdom, under some definite form, is followed sooner or later by its advent. The fact is so both in the individual and in the community. He who supremely desires to be good becomes good. Such desires issue eventually in the ripe fruit of the Spirit: ‘Love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.’ Fulfilment comes likewise in the community. Elijahs do not live in vain or alone. They propagate their kind. Their prayer, and that of which it is the index, a consuming passion for the right and the rational and the humane, tend to bring about fulfilment. Moral enthusiasm is infectious. Tribulation increases its infective power, deepening sympathy in friends, conquering enmity in foes. As natural fire kindles dry fuel, so the Divine passion for righteousness, even in a single man, sets prepared hearts burning all around. These are sure laws of the moral world, through which God works as the Hearer of prayer.

As the devout wise man may disregard the cloud of speculative difficulties that has been raised around the subject of prayer, so he may treat as of secondary importance the distinction sometimes taken between two spheres—the material and the spiritual—in reference to the legitimacy of petitionary prayer. The man we have in view is concerned above all about the spiritual, the kingdom of God and its sovereign interests; only in a very subordinate way for the lower interests represented by food and raiment. Yet he need not, ordinarily he does not, trouble himself with scrupulous endeavours to confine his prayers strictly within the spiritual sphere. The theory which dictates such endeavours may appear an ingenious compromise,15 but in practical life it will turn out to be an unworkable pedantry. The two spheres cannot be kept apart, they will, run together. Then, be the spheres two or twenty, they are parts or aspects of the one universe of God, the pliable instrument of His sovereign will. Therefore the prayers of the cultured saint, like the prayers of children, are simple, spontaneous, realistic, unembarrassed by subtle distinctions between natural and spiritual, foreordination and freedom, physical law and miracle. His first petition is, ‘Hallowed be Thy name,’ his second, ‘Thy Kingdom come,’ his third, ‘Thy will be done’: all meaning the same thing, iteration revealing intensity of desire; but his fourth may be a prayer for daily bread, or for some other form of temporal good, though he full well knows what a vast network of physical law is involved in the answering of it.

The answer to prayer by which the Divine interest is conclusively demonstrated may be long deferred; it may not come till faith and hope have almost died out of the hearts even of the elect. But it is not in the far-off event alone that traces of the providential order are to be found. These may be discovered in the mere existence of men cherishing desires to which the far-off event is the Divine response. The rising up, in any generation, of a band of men endowed with clear spiritual intuition, fresh inspiration, moral enthusiasm, is the best possible evidence to that generation that God has not forsaken the world. God is in these men; they are His instruments, by whom He means to achieve a work fraught with blessing to humanity. The hardships they undergo, so far from being evidence that He is indifferent, are really shared by Him. When they suffer, He suffers in them. The sorrows they endure are tragic enough; they have been described as ‘the tragedy of the brute chance, to which everything spiritual seems to be subject amongst us, the tragedy of the diabolic irrationality of so many among the foes of whatever is significant.’16 There is comfort in the thought that the tragedy exists for God as well as for men, and that we may conceive of Him as saying, ‘O ye who despair, I grieve with you. Yes, it is I who grieve in you. Your sorrow is mine. No pang of your finitude but is mine too. I suffer it all, for all things are mine; I bear it, and yet I triumph.’17

The real trial of faith in the providential order does not lie in delayed fulfilment of devout aspirations, or in the hardships which befall moral pioneers, but in the degeneracy which overtakes good causes when at length they have won for themselves not merely reluctant toleration but friendly recognition. That which was divine in the primitive epoch of frustration, then becomes undivine, vulgarised, secularised. So it happened in the case of Christianity, so it happens more or less in the case of all great movements. What are we to make of this? Is God to be found only among the persecuted, the battling, buffeted minority, the men who are ‘made as the filth of the earth and the offscouring of all things’? There especially, emphatically, but not there alone. God is also in the secularised community, as salt is in a mass of flesh, as an antidote to corruption, or as leaven hid in a lump of dough. For the salting and leavening processes ample time is allowed, possibly a millennium. If the result be failure, the salt losing its savour, the mass becoming utterly corrupt, a fresh departure is made. New prophets arise, heralds of a new era, mouthpieces of the Eternal Spirit of Goodness, with a message of hope for future generations. So the world goes on, alternating between two providential phases, one in which the Beneficent Presence reveals itself conspicuously in the chosen few, followed by another in which it is latent in the many.

In the foregoing paragraphs I have had occasion to touch on the important subject of prayer. I must now allude, however briefly, to another topic, if possible still more momentous, the future life. Our theme is the providential order in this present world, but it seems most natural that, in connection with those with whom that order is most intimately connected, the soldiers of righteousness, we should ask, Is Divine Providence done with them here, or does it follow them, to beneficent intent, beyond the tomb? Do the righteous survive, and in a life of pure bliss enjoy the reward of their heroic conduct in this mortal state? It is in connection with this question that the faith in immortality seems to reach the highest degree of probability, viewed in the light of natural reason. If any are to live on, surely it will be earth's noblest ones, those whose one concern in this world is to promote the higher interests of humanity! One could imagine them surviving death while other men perished, as unworthy of the life eternal. If even they cease to exist when the last breath is exhaled, then the life beyond must be indeed an idle dream. And if that be the fate appointed them, how hard, one naturally reflects, their lot! Their life here, a constant fight with evil, with little to sustain courage and patience save perchance just the hope of heaven's rest by and by; and it turns out to be a delusion. Had not one of their number, and speaking as it were in their name, good right to say, ‘If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable’?18 And what is to be said of the Providence that lets them drop out of existence in this way, using them as its instruments for a while, appointing to them arduous tasks, and suffering them to undergo many harsh experiences, then throwing them aside when their powers of work and endurance are exhausted? Can such a Providence be said to be paternal? Can it even be believed to be real? Does not the whole idea of Providence, in the case supposed, fall to pieces in our hands? And, finally, in that case, why waste one's threescore years and ten in fruitless, unrecognised, unrecompensed heroisms? Heroism does not pay: it has no proper place in the social order: it is not even sane; it is simply the morbid excrescence of a scrupulous conscience. Let us lower our tone, and be happy, acting on the maxim:dum vivimus vivamus.

I have stated the case strongly, as it might present itself to one having no clew to guide him save the groping surmises of his own reason. To some it will appear an overstatement, to others it will seem to keep within the limits of strict truth; for the thoughts of men in our time, on this solemn theme, are diverse. Traditional faith in the future life has to a large extent lost its hold, and earnest minds are thrown on their own resources, and compelled to think out the question de novo; and it is neither surprising nor to be regretted that all inquirers do not arrive at identical conclusions. To some it seems obvious that not only religion but morality hangs on the answer to the question, Is there a life beyond? Thus a recent American writer remarks, ‘If into that sleep no dreams can come, then I, for one, am ready to justify suicide, and to declare that the greatest fools are those who deny themselves any pleasures that will not in this life give them pain.’19 Others again, while sincerely believing in the life to come, adopt a more moderate tone. Thus another very thoughtful American author, in a work recently published, expresses himself in these terms, ‘Immortality is not necessary as a foundation for religion. There have been and are to-day profoundly religious spirits of whose faith this larger hope forms no certain part. Even if this little life be all, the life of love is better than the life of selfishness; the life of service is nobler than the life of sensual pleasure; God is a more worthy object even for our short-lived devotion than appetite and passion.’20 In this statement most thoughtful men will acquiesce. They cannot well do anything else in view of the fact that in the religion of ancient Israel the hope of immortality had only a very subordinate place, if any place at all, among the motives determining conduct. Their hope was to see the goodness of God in the land of the living,21 i.e. in this present life, and it was in the same sphere that they sought for traces of the moral order in general. The very core of prophetic teaching was this, that there is a providential order in this present world, and in this present life of individual men, and of communities. And however far beyond the prophets Christians may have advanced on the subject of the life to come, they ought to hold fast the prophetic creed. It will not do, because of our faith in an eternal recompense, to be indifferent to what happens in this world, and to regard human life on earth, even in the case of the good, as a chaotic scene in which few traces of a providential order can be discerned. This dwarfing and eclipsing of time by eternity is not conducive to the interests either of religion or of morality. If there be no moral order here, what reason have we for believing in a moral order anywhere? If the two worlds are divorced from each other as wholly dissimilar in character—God in evidence there, not visible here—is that not likely to end in a disastrous separation between the secular and the religious aspects of life—the one becoming an atheistic, inhuman, unprincipled struggle to make the most of this world, the other a ghostly, artificial contrivance for making the most of the next? Let these be fundamentals in our creed: that the right at all hazards and in all departments must be done, that God is evermore and in all worlds on the side of right, and that if there be another life in store for man, it will be but the natural sequel to the present life, wherein men shall reap what they have here sown.

These remarks do not tend, as they are not intended, to encourage underestimating views as to the value of faith in a life hereafter. On the contrary, they recommend a habit of thought and a way of life whose direct tendency is to strengthen that faith. They certainly give no countenance to the idea that we are under no obligation to live well, and that we need not even take the first step in right conduct till we have been assured of the life beyond. But they teach in effect that the best way to reach such assurance is to pitch life on the highest level possible. Live nobly, and it will begin to appear to you credible that you will live for ever. In the words of an author already quoted, ‘While immortality is not a demonstrable fact of science which we can hold up in advance as an inducement for beginning the religious life, it is a confident assurance which grows brighter and brighter with each new experience of the blessedness of love and each fresh revelation of the goodness of God.’22

It is only when the assurance in question rests on such grounds that it possesses ethical value. That the soul is by its inherent nature indefeasibly immortal, is, if true, which may reasonably be disputed,23 simply a proposition belonging to the physical world. It amounts to this, that the thinking principle continues after death, presumably remaining the same as before. Primitive man as represented by anthropologists believed as much. In his crude creed the ghost of a dead man lives on, and continues the pursuits of the man before he died. The theory, even if true, would possess little more significance than the messages from the dead reported and believed in by modern spiritualism. It is when it is made to rest on moral and religious grounds that faith in immortality becomes ethically important. It means something when you say, Let those be immortal who are ‘worthy to obtain that world.’24 It means still more when you say, Let man be immortal because of the worth which man has for God, as evinced by the place assigned to him in the universe, and the care bestowed upon him in providence. That implies that immortality is not merely the prerogative of the distinguished few, but the common destiny of mankind. It is a vast thought, and raises momentous questions which must here remain unanswered. On the whole subject ‘we see through a glass, darkly.’ In absence of a sure, authoritative word of God, we must, with Socrates and his companions, sail through life on the frail raft of the most probable opinion. Even when we have got this raft, it is difficult to trust without misgiving to its guidance. In the quaint words of one of the interlocutors in the Phaedo, we ‘are haunted with a fear that when the soul leaves the body, the wind may really blow her away and scatter her, especially if a man should happen to die in stormy weather and not when the sky is calm.’25 The construction of our raft out of materials supplied by natural theology, is an affair of much dubitating reflection. For one engaged in a study of the providential order, the question is, What inferences or surmises naturally arise out of the general position: man a chief end for God? The answer may be tentatively stated in the form of presumptions as follows:—

1. There is a life beyond the tomb.

2. This life, however conditioned, is for all men.

3. It will be a blessed life for as many as possible.

4. Human freedom introduces uncertainty: eternal miscarriage is possible.

5. Yet, on the other hand, if human freedom were the determining factor, the result might be total failure, universal bankruptcy in regard to eternal life.

6. A power of God is needed to ensure eternal bliss for any, a power which, with adequate good-will, ought, we are apt to think, to ensure the same boon for all.

7. Yet that power, however strong, must not be so applied as to cancel freedom and the moral nature of man.

8. Between the two theses last enunciated we are landed in an antinomy which seems insurmountable by reason.

9. Heaven is for man, not for all sentient creatures, as Theodore Parker extravagantly taught. God cares for beasts, even for plants; yet the flowers of the field which He clothes with beauty are tomorrow cast, as common grass, into the oven.

  • 1.

    Matthew x. 29.

  • 2.

    Psalm xxxvii. 3.

  • 3.

    Jeremiah xx. 18.

  • 4.

    Jonah iv. II.

  • 5.

    Job xxiv, 12-14.

  • 6.

    The Life of William Denny, p, 355. From a lecture by Mr. Denny on Success.

  • 7.

    Genesis viii. 21.

  • 8.

    Ecclesiastes vii. 16, 17.

  • 9.

    Job xxvii. 5.

  • 10.

    Ibid. xix. 25.

  • 11.

    Psalm x. 1.

  • 12.

    Ibid. vi. 3.

  • 13.

    Psalm cxliii. 6.

  • 14.

    Hyde, Outlines of Social Theology, p. 123.

  • 15.

    For this theory vide Miss Cobbe's Broken Lights.

  • 16.

    Royce, The Spirit of Modern Philosophy, p. 465.

  • 17.

    Ibid. p. 470.

  • 18.

    I Corinthians xv. 19.

  • 19.

    Bradford, Heredity and Christian Problems, p. 238.

  • 20.

    De Witt Hyde, Outlines of Social Theology, p. 258.

  • 21.

    Psalm xxvii. 13.

  • 22.

    De Witt Hyde, Outlines of Social Theology, p. 259.

  • 23.

    Mr. Gladstone discusses the question of ‘natural immortality’ in his Studies Subsidiary to the Works of Bishop Butler. His position is that the tenet has no right to the place which it holds in the religious mind of our generation, and that it is not a doctrine of religion, but only a matter of philosophical speculation, on which we are neither bound nor able to come to any certain conclusion.—Vide p. 256.

  • 24.

    Luke xx. 35.

  • 25.

    Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato, vol. i. p. 453.