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“We look not at the things which are seen,
but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are
but the things which are not seen are eternal.”—2 COR. iv. 18.
“Everything that is, is double.”—Hermes Trismegistus.
“LOOK not at the things which are seen.” How can we look not at the things which are seen? If they are seen, how can we help looking at them? “Look at the things which are not seen.” How can we look at things which are not seen? Has religion some magic wishing-cap, making the solid world invisible, or does it supply some strange clairvoyance power to see that which is unseen?
This is one of those alluring paradoxes which all great books delight in, which baffle thought while courting it, but which disclose to whoever picks the lock the rarest and profoundest truth. The surface meaning of a paradox is either nonsense, or it is false. In this case it is false. One would gather, at first sight, that we had here another of those attacks upon the world, of which the Bible is supposed to be so fond. It reads as a withering contrast between the things of time and the things of eternity—as an unqualified disparagement of this present world. The things which are seen are temporal—not worth a moment’s thought, not even to be looked at.
In reality, this is neither the judgment of the Bible nor of reason.
There are four reasons why we should look at the things which are seen—
1. First, because God made them. Anything that God makes is worth looking at. We live in no chance world. It has been all thought out. Everywhere work has been spent on it lavishly —thought and work—loving thought and exquisite work. All its parts together, and every part separately, are stamped with skill, beauty, and purpose. As the mere work of a Great Master we are driven to look—deliberately and long—at the things which are seen.
2. But, second, God made us to look at them. He who made light made the eye. It is a gift of the Creator on purpose that we may look at the things which are seen. The whole mechanism of man is made with reference to the temporal world—the eye for seeing it, the ear for hearing it, the nerve for feeling it, the muscle for moving about on it and getting more of it. He acts contrary to his own nature who harbours even a suspicion of the things that are seen.
3. But again, thirdly, God has not merely made the world, but He has made it conspicuous. So far from lying in the shade, so far from being constituted to escape observation, the whole temporal world clamours for it. Nature is never and nowhere silent. If you are apathetic, if you will not look at the things which are seen, they will summon you. The bird will call to you from the tree-top, the sea will change her mood for you, the flower looks up appealingly from the wayside, and the sun, before he sets with irresistible colouring, will startle you into attention. The Creator has determined that, whether He be seen or no, no living soul shall tread His earth without being spoken to by these works of His hands. God has secured that. And even those things which have no speech nor language, whose voice is not heard, have their appeal going out to all the world, and their word to the end of the earth. Had God feared that the visible world had been a mere temptation to us, He would have made it less conspicuous. Certainly He has warned us not to love it, but nowhere not to look at it.
4. The last reason, fourthly, is the greatest of all. Hitherto we have been simply dealing with facts. Now we come to a principle. Look at the things that are seen, because it is only by looking at the things that are seen that we can have any idea of the things that are unseen. Our whole conception of the eternal is derived from the temporal.
Take any unseen truth, or fact, or law. The proposition is that it can be apprehended by us only by means of the seen and temporal. Take the word eternal itself. What do we know of Eternity? Nothing that we have not learned from the temporal. When we try to realize that word there rises up before us the spaceless sea. We glide swiftly over it day after day, but the illimitable waste recedes before us, knowing no end. On and on, week and month, and there stretches the same horizon vague and infinite, the far-off circle we can never reach. We stop. We are far enough. This is Eternity!
In reality, this is not Eternity; it is mere water, the temporal, liquid and tangible. But by looking at this thing which is seen we have beheld the unseen. Here is a river. It is also water. But its different shape mirrors a different truth. As we look, the opposite of Eternity rises up before us. There is Time, swift and silent; or Life, fleeting and irrevocable. So one might run over all the material of his thoughts, all the groundwork of his ideas, and trace them back to things that are temporal. They are really material, made up of matter, and in order to think at all, one must first of all see.
Nothing could illustrate this better, perhaps, than the literary form of our English Bible. Leaving out for the present the language of symbol and illustration which Christ spoke, there is no great eternal truth that is not borne to us upon some material image. Look, for instance, at its teaching about human life. To describe that, it does not even use the words derived from the temporal world. It brings us face to face with the temporal world, and lets us abstract them for ourselves. It never uses the word “fleeting” or “transitory.” It says life is a vapour that appeareth for a little and vanisheth away. It likens it to a swift post, a swift ship, a tale that is told.
It never uses the word “irrevocable.” It speaks of water spilt on the ground that cannot be gathered up again—a thread cut by the weaver. Nor does it tell us that life is “evanescent.” It suggests evanescent things—a dream, a sleep, a shadow, a shepherd’s tent removed. And even to convey the simpler truth that life is short, we find only references to short things that are seen—a handbreadth, a pilgrimage, a flower, a weaver’s shuttle. The Bible in these instances is not trying to be poetical: it is simply trying to be true. And it distinctly, unconsciously, recognises the fact that truth can be borne into the soul only through the medium of things. We must refuse to believe, therefore, that we are not to look at the things which are seen. It is a necessity; for the temporal is the husk and framework of the eternal. And the things which are not seen are made of the things which do appear. “All visible things,” said Carlyle, “are emblems. What thou seest is not there on its own account; strictly speaking, is not there at all. Matter exists only spiritually, and to represent some idea and body it forth.” And so John Ruskin:—“The more I think of it, I find this conclusion more impressed upon me—that the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think; but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion —all in one.”
From this point we can now go on from the negative of the paradox to the second and positive term—“Look at the things which are not seen.” We now understand how to do this. Where is the eternal? Where are the unseen things, that we may look at them? And the answer is—in the temporal. Look then at the temporal, but do not pause there. You must penetrate it. Go through it, and see its shadow, its spiritual shadow, on the further side. Look upon this shadow long and earnestly, till that which you look through becomes the shadow, and the shadow merges into the reality. Look through till the thing you look through becomes dim, then transparent, and then invisible, and the unseen beyond grows into form and strength. For, truly, the first thing seen is the shadow, the thing on the other side the reality. The thing you see is only a solid, and men mistake solidity for reality. But that alone is the reality—the eternal which lies behind. Look, then, not at the things which are seen, but look through them to the things that are unseen.
The great lesson which emerges from all this is as to the religious use of the temporal world. Heaven lies behind earth. This earth is not merely a place to live in, but to see in. We are to pass through it as clairvoyants, holding the whole temporal world as a vast transparency, through which the eternal shines.
Let us now apply this principle briefly to daily life. To most of us, the most practical division of life is threefold: the Working life, the Home life, and the Religious life. What do these yield us of the eternal, and how?
1. The Working Life. To most men, work is just work—manual work, professional work, office work, household work, public work, intellectual work. A yellow primrose is just a yellow primrose; a spade is a spade; a ledger is a ledger; a lexicon is a lexicon. To a worker with this mind, so far as spiritual uses are concerned therefore, work is vanity—an unaccountable squandering of precious time. He must earn his success by the sweat of his brow; that is all he knows about it. It is a curse, lying from the beginning upon man as man. So, six days each week, he bends his neck to it doggedly; the seventh God allows him to think about the unseen and eternal.
Now God would never unspiritualise three-fourths of man’s active life by work, if work were work, and nothing more.
A second workman sees a little further. His work is not a curse exactly; it is his appointed life, his destiny. It is God’s will for him, and he must go through with it. No doubt its trials are good for him; at all events, God has appointed him this sphere, and he must accept it with Christian resignation.
It is a poor compliment to the Divine arrangements if they are simply to be acquiesced in. The all-wise God surely intends some higher outcome from three-fourths of life than bread and butter and resignation.
To the spiritual man, next, there lies behind this temporal a something which explains all. He sees more to come out of it than the year’s income, or the employment of his allotted time, or the benefiting of his species. If violins were to be the only product, there is no reason why Stradivarius should spend his life in making them. But work is an incarnation of the unseen. In this loom man’s soul is made. There is a subtle machinery behind it all, working while he is working, making or unmaking the unseen in him. Integrity, thoroughness, honesty, accuracy, conscientiousness, faithfulness, patience—these unseen things which complete a soul are woven into it in work. Apart from work, these things are not. As the conductor leads into our nerves the invisible electric force, so work conducts into our spirit all high forces of character, all essential qualities of life, truth in the inward parts. Ledgers and lexicons, business letters, domestic duties, striking of bargains, writing of examinations, handling of tools—these are the conductors of the eternal. So much the conductors of the eternal, that without them there is no eternal. No man dreams integrity, accuracy, and so on. He cannot learn them by reading about them. These things require their wire as much as electricity. The spiritual fluids and the electric fluids are under the same law; and messages of grace come along the lines of honest work to the soul like the invisible message along the telegraph wires. Patience, spiritually, will travel along a conductor as really as electricity.
A workshop, therefore, or an office, or a school of learning, is a gigantic conductor. An office is not a place for making money—it is a place for making character. A workshop is not a place for making machinery—it is a place for making men: not for turning wood, for fitting engines, for founding cylinders —to God’s eye, it is a place for founding character; it is a place for fitting in the virtues to one’s life, for turning out honest, modest-tempered God-fearing men. A school of learning is not so much a place for making scholars, as a place for making souls. And he who would ripen and perfect the eternal element in his being will do this by attending to the religious uses of his daily task, recognising the unseen in its seen, and so turning three-fourths of each day’s life into an ever-acting means of grace.
We say some kinds of work are immoral. A man who is turning out careless, imperfect work, is turning out a careless imperfect character for himself. He is touching deceit every moment; and this unseen thing rises up from his work like a subtle essence, and enters and poisons his soul. We say piece-work is immoral—it makes a man only a piece of a man, shuts him out from variety, and originality, and adaptation, narrowing and belittling his soul. But we forget the counter-truth, that honest and good work makes honesty and goodness, integrity and thoroughness—nay that it alone makes them. And the man who would ripen and perfect his soul must attend to the religious uses of his daily work—seeing the unseen in its seen—heeding it, not with a dry punctiliousness, but lovingly, recognising its dignity, not as a mere making of money, but as an elaborate means of grace, occupying three-fourths of life.
2. The Family Life. Next, life is so ordered that another large part of it is spent in the family. This also, therefore, has its part to play in the completing of the soul. The working life could never teach a man all the lessons of the unseen. A whole set of additional messages from the eternal have to be conducted into his soul at home. This is why it is not good for a man to be alone. A lonely man is insulated from the eternal—inaccessible to the subtle currents which ought to be flowing hourly into his soul.
Here, too, is a higher source of spirituality than work. It is here that life dawns, and the first mould is given to the plastic substance. Home is the cradle of Eternity. It has been secured, therefore, that the first laws stamped here, the first lines laid down, the permanent way for the future soul, should be at once the lines of the eternal. Why do all men say that the family is a divine institution? Because God instituted it? But what guided Him in constituting it as it is? Eternity. Home is a preliminary Heaven. Its arrangements are purely the arrangements of Heaven. Heaven is a Father with His children. The parts we shall play in that great home are just the parts we have learned in the family here. We shall go through the same life there—only without the matter. This matter is a mere temporary quality to practise the eternal on—as wooden balls are hung up in a schoolroom to teach the children numbers till they can think them for themselves.
When a parent wishes to teach his child form and harmony, the properties of matter, beauty, and symmetry—all these unseen things—what does he do but give his child things that are seen, through which he can see them? He gives him a box of matter, bricks of wood, as playthings, and the child, in forming and transforming these, in building with them lines and squares, arches and pillars, has borne into his soul regularity and stability, form and symmetry. So God deals with us. The material universe is a mere box of bricks. We exercise our growing minds upon it for a space, till in the hereafter we become men, and childish things are put away. The temporal is but the scaffolding of the eternal; and when the last immaterial souls have climbed through this material to God, the scaffolding shall be taken down, and the earth dissolved with fervent heat—not because it is evil, but because its work is done.
The mind of Christ is to be learned in the family. Strength of character may be acquired at work, but beauty of character is learned at home. There the affections are trained—that love especially which is to abide when tongues have ceased and knowledge fails. There the gentle life reaches us, the true heaven-life. In one word, the family circle is the supreme conductor of Christianity. Tenderness, humbleness, courtesy, self-forgetfulness, faith, sympathy; these ornaments of a meek and quiet spirit are learned at the fireside, round the table, in common-place houses, in city streets. We are each of us daily embodying these principles in our soul, or trampling them out of it, in the ordinary intercourse of life. As actors in a charade, each member of the house each day, consciously or unconsciously, acts a word. The character is the seen, the word the unseen, and whether he thinks of the word at night or not, the souls of all around have guessed it silently; and when the material mask and costume are put away, and their circumstances long years forgotten, that word of eternity lives on to make or mar the player, and all the players with him, in that day’s game of life.
To waken a man to all that is involved in each day’s life, in even its insignificant circumstance and casual word and look, surely you have but to tell him all this—that in these temporals lie eternals; that in life, not in church, lies religion; that all that is done or undone, said or unsaid, of right or wrong, has its part, by an unalterable law, in the eternal life of all.
3. We now come to Religion. And we shall see further how God has put even that for us into the temporal. Reflect for a moment upon the teaching of Christ. All that He had to say of the eternal He put up in images of the temporal world. What are all His parables, His allusions to nature, His illustrations from real life, His metaphors and similes, but disclosures to our blind eyes of the unseen in the seen? In reality, the eternal is never nearer us than in a material image. Reason cannot bring religion near us, only things can. So Christ never demonstrated anything. He did not appeal to the reasoning power in man, but to the seeing power—that power of imagination which deals with images of things.
That is the key to all Christ’s teaching—that He spoke not to the reason but to the imagination. Incessantly he held up things before our eyes—things which in a few days or years would moulder into dust—and told us to look there at the eternal. He held up bread. “I am the bread,” He said. And if you think over that for a lifetime, you will never get nearer to the truth than through that thing, bread. That temporal is so perfect an image of the eternal, that no reading, or thinking, or arguing, or sermonizing, can get us closer to Christ.
Hence the triumphant way in which he ransacked the temporal world, and—what we, with our false views of spirituality, had never dared—marked off for us all its common and familiar things as mirrors of the eternal. So light, life, vine, bread, water, physician, shepherd, and a hundred others, have all become transformed with a light from the other world. Observe, Christ doe not say he is like these things, He is these things. Look through these things, right through, and you will see Him. We disappoint our souls continually in trying, by some other way than through these homely temporals, to learn the spiritual life.
It is the danger of those who pursue the intellectual life as a specialty to miss this tender and gracious influence. The student of the family, by a generous though perilous homage paid to learning is allowed to be an exception to family life. He dwells apart, goes his own way, lives his own life; and unconsciously, and to his pain, he finds himself, perhaps, gradually looking down on its homelier tasks and less transcendent interests. In society, it is for the scholar we make allowances; but the eccentricities which we condone on account of their high compensations often mark an arrested development of what is really higher. And there is nothing so much to fear in oneself, and to check with more resolute will, than the unconscious tendency in all who pursue culture to get out of step with humanity, and be not at home at home.
A very remarkable instance of Christ’s use of this principle is the Sacraments. His design there was to perpetuate in the most luminous and arresting way, the two grandest facts of the spiritual world. How did He proceed? He made them visible. He associated these facts with the two commonest things in the world, water and bread and wine—the every-day diet at every peasant’s board. By these Sacraments, the souls of men are tied down at the most sacred moments of life to the homeliest temporal things; so that the highest spirituality, by Christ’s own showing, comes to God’s children through lowly forms of the material world. Transcendentalism in religion is a real mistake. True spirituality is to see the divinity in common things.
But, yet again, there is a more wonderful exhibition of this law than the Sacraments. God furnished the world with a temporal thing for every eternal thing save one. Every eternal truth had its material image in the world, every eternal law had its working-model among the laws of nature. But there was one thing wanting. There was no temporal for the Eternal God Himself. And man missed it. He wished to see even this unseen in something seen. In the sea, he saw eternity; in space, infinity; in the hills, sublimity; in the family, love; in the state, law. But there was no image of God. One speaks of what follows with bated breath. God gave it! God actually gave it! God made a seen image of Himself—not a vision, not a metaphor—an express image of His person. He laid aside His invisibility, He clothed Himself with the temporal, He took flesh and dwelt among us. The Incarnation was the eternal become temporal for a little time, that we might look at it.
It was our only way of beholding it, for we can only see the unseen in the seen. The word “God” conveyed no meaning; there was no seen thing to correspond to that word, and no word is intelligible till there is an image for it. So God gave religion its new word in the intelligible form—a Word in flesh —that, henceforth, all men might behold God’s glory, not in itself, for that is impossible, but in the face of Jesus. This is the crowning proof of the religious use of the temporal world.
Three classes of men, finally, have taken up their position in recent years with reference to this principle of the eternal uses of the temporal world.
One will not look at the unseen at all—the materialist. He is utterly blind to the eternal. The second is utterly blind to the temporal—the mystic. He does not look for the unseen in the seen, but apart from the seen. He works, or tries to work, by direct vision. The third is neither blind to the unseen nor to the seen, but short-sighted to both. The ritualist selects some half-dozen things from the temporal world, and tries to see the unseen in them. As if there were only some half-dozen things—crosses and vestments, music and stained glass—through which the eternal shone! The whole world is a ritual—that is the answer. If a man means to evade God, let him look for Him in some half-dozen forms; he will evade Him, he will not see Him anywhere else. But let him who wishes to get near God, and be with God always, move in a religious atmosphere always; let him take up his position beside this truth. Worldliness has been defined as a looking at the things that are seen, but only closely enough to see their market value. Spirituality is that further look which sees their eternal value, which realizes that
“Earth’s crammed with Heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.”
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