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DEGENERATION

I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding; and lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down. Then I saw and considered it well; I looked upon it and received instruction.— SOLOMON.

“How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” —Hebrews.

“We have as possibilities either Balance, or Elaboration, or Degeneration.”—E. Ray Lankester.

IN one of his best known books, Mr. Darwin brings out a fact which may be illustrated in some such way as this: Suppose a bird fancier collects a flock of tame pigeons distinguished by all the infinite ornamentations of their race. They are of all kinds, of every shade of colour, and adorned with every variety of marking. He takes them to an uninhabited island and allows them to fly off wild into the woods. They found a colony there, and after the lapse of many years the owner returns to the spot. He will find that a remarkable change has taken place in the interval. The birds, or their descendants rather, have all become changed into the same colour. The black, the white and the dun, the striped, the spotted, and the ringed, are all metamorphosed into one—a dark slaty blue. Two plain black bands monotonously repeat themselves upon the wings of each, and the loins beneath are white; but all the variety, all the beautiful colours, all the old graces of form it may be, have disappeared. These improvements were the result of care and nurture, of domestication, of civilization; and now that these influences are removed, the birds themselves undo the past and lose what they had gained. The attempt to elevate the race has been mysteriously thwarted. It is as if the original bird, the far remote ancestor of all doves, had been blue, and these had been compelled by some strange law to discard the badges of their civilization and conform to the ruder image of the first. The natural law by which such a change occurs is called The Principle of Reversion to Type.

It is a proof of the universality of this law that the same thing will happen with a plant. A garden is planted, let us say, with strawberries and roses, and for a number of years is left alone. In process of time it will run to waste. But this does not mean that the plants will really waste away, but that they will change into something else, and, as it invariably appears, into something worse; in the one case, namely, into the small, wild strawberry of the woods, and in the other into the primitive dog-rose of the hedges.

If we neglect a garden plant, then, a natural principle of deterioration comes in, and changes it into a worse plant. And if we neglect a bird, by the same imperious law it will be gradually changed into an uglier bird. Or if we neglect almost any of the domestic animals, they will rapidly revert to wild and worthless forms again.

Now the same thing exactly would happen in the case of you or me. Why should Man be an exception to any of the laws of Nature? Nature knows him simply as an animal—Sub-kingdom Vertebrata, Class Mammalia, Order Bimana. And the law of Reversion to Type runs through all creation. If a man neglect himself for a few years he will change into a worse man and a lower man. If it is his body that he neglects, he will deteriorate into a wild and bestial savage—like the de-humanized men who are discovered sometimes upon desert islands. If it is his mind, it will degenerate into imbecility and madness—solitary confinement has the power to unmake men’s minds and leave them idiots. If he neglect his conscience, it will run off into lawlessness and vice. Or, lastly, if it is his soul, it must inevitably atrophy, drop off in ruin and decay.

We have here, then, a thoroughly natural basis for the question before us. If we neglect, with this universal principle staring us in the face, how shall we escape? If we neglect the ordinary means of keeping a garden in order, how shall it escape running to weeds and waste? Or, if we neglect the opportunities for cultivating the mind, how shall it escape ignorance and feebleness? So, if we neglect the soul, how shall it escape the natural retrograde movement, the inevitable relapse into barrenness and death?

It is not necessary, surely, to pause for proof that there is such a retrograde principle in the being of every man. It is demonstrated by facts, and by the analogy of all Nature. Three possibilities of life, according to Science, are open to all living organisms—Balance, Evolution, and Degeneration. The first denotes the precarious persistence of a life along what looks like a level path, a character which seems to hold its own alike against the attacks of evil and the appeals of good. It implies a set of circumstances so balanced by choice or fortune that they neither influence for better nor for worse. But except in theory this state of equilibrium, normal in the inorganic kingdom, is really foreign to the world of life; and what seems inertia may be a true Evolution unnoticed from its slowness, or likelier still a movement of Degeneration subtly obliterating as it falls the very traces of its former height. From this state of apparent Balance, Evolution is the escape in the upward direction, Degeneration in the lower. But Degeneration, rather than Balance or Elaboration, is the possibility of life embraced by the majority of mankind. And the choice is determined by man’s own nature. The life of Balance is difficult. It lies on the verge of continual temptation, its perpetual adjustments become fatiguing, its measured virtue is monotonous and uninspiring. More difficult still, apparently, is the life of ever upward growth. Most men attempt it for a time, but growth is slow; and despair overtakes them while the goal is far away. Yet none of these reasons fully explains the fact that the alternative which remains is adopted by the majority of men. That Degeneration is easy only half accounts for it. Why is it easy? Why but that already in each man’s very nature this principle is supreme? He feels within his soul a silent drifting motion impelling him downward with irresistible force. Instead of aspiring to Conversion to a higher Type he submits by a law of his nature to Reversion to a lower. This is Degeneration—that principle by which the organism, failing to develop itself, failing even to keep what it has got, deteriorates, and becomes more and more adapted to a degraded form of life.

All men who know themselves are conscious that this tendency, deep-rooted and active, exists within their nature. Theologically it is described as a gravitation, a bias toward evil. The Bible view is that man is conceived in sin and shapen in iniquity. And experience tells him that he will shape himself into further sin and ever deepening iniquity without the smallest effort, without in the least intending it, and in the most natural way in the world if he simply let his life run. It is on this principle that, completing the conception, the wicked are said further in the Bible to be lost. They are not really lost as yet, but they are on the sure way to it. The bias of their lives is in full action. There is no drag on anywhere. The natural tendencies are having it all their own way; and although the victims may be quite unconscious that all this is going on, it is patent to every one who considers even the natural bearings of the case that “the end of these things is Death.” When we see a man fall from the top of a five-storey house, we say the man is lost. We say that before he has fallen a foot; for the same principle that made him fall the one foot will undoubtedly make him complete the descent by falling other eighty or ninety feet. So that he is a dead man, or a lost man from the very first. The gravitation of sin in a human soul acts precisely in the same way. Gradually, with gathering momentum it sinks a man further and further from God and righteousness, and lands him, by the sheer action of a natural law, in the hell of a neglected life.

But the lesson is not less clear from analogy. Apart even from the law of Degeneration, apart from Reversion to Type, there is in every living organism a law of Death. We are wont to imagine that Nature is full of Life. In reality it is full of Death. One cannot say it is natural for a plant to live. Examine its nature fully, and you have to admit that its natural tendency is to die. It is kept from dying by a mere temporary endowment, which gives it an ephemeral dominion over the elements—gives it power to utilize for a brief span the rain, the sunshine, and the air. Withdraw this temporary endowment for a moment and its true nature is revealed. Instead of overcoming Nature it is overcome. The very things which appeared to minister to its growth and beauty now turn against it and make it decay and die. The sun which warmed it, withers it; the air and rain which nourished it, rot it. It is the very forces which we associate with life which, when their true nature appears, are discovered to be really the ministers of death.

This law, which is true for the whole plant-world, is also valid for the animal and for man. Air is not life, but corruption—so literally corruption that the only way to keep out corruption, when life has ebbed, is to keep out air. Life is merely a temporary suspension of these destructive powers; and this is truly one of the most accurate definitions of life we have yet received—“the sum total of the functions which resist death.”

Spiritual life, in like manner, is the sum total of the functions which resist sin. The soul’s atmosphere is the daily trial, circumstance, and temptation of the world. And as it is life alone which gives the plant power to utilize the elements, and as, without it, they utilize it, so it is the spiritual life alone which gives the soul power to utilize temptation and trial; and without it they destroy the soul. How shall we escape if we refuse to exercise these functions—in other words, if we neglect?

This destroying process, observe, goes on quite independently of God’s judgment on sin. God’s judgment on sin is another and a more awful fact of which this may be a part. But it is a distinct fact by itself, which we can hold and examine separately, that on purely natural principles the soul that is left to itself unwatched, uncultivated, unredeemed, must fall away into death by its own nature. The soul that sinneth “it shall die.” It shall die, not necessarily because God passes sentence of death upon it, but because it cannot help dying. It has neglected “the functions which resist death,” and has always been dying. The punishment is in its very nature, and the sentence is being gradually carried out all along the path of life by ordinary processes which enforce the verdict with the appalling faithfulness of law.

There is an affectation that religious truths lie beyond the sphere of the comprehension which serves men in ordinary things. This question at least must be an exception. It lies as near the natural as the spiritual. If it makes no impression on a man to know that God will visit his iniquities upon him, he cannot blind himself to the fact that Nature will. Do we not all know what it is to be punished by Nature for disobeying her? We have looked round the wards of a hospital, a prison, or a madhouse, and seen there Nature at work squaring her accounts with sin. And we knew as we looked that if no Judge sat on the throne of heaven at all there was a Judgment there, where an inexorable Nature was crying aloud for justice, and carrying out her heavy sentences for violated laws.

When God gave Nature the law into her own hands in this way, He seems to have given her two rules upon which her sentences were to be based. The one is formally enunciated in this sentence, “WHATSOEVER A MAN SOWETH THAT SHALL HE ALSO REAP.” The other is informally expressed in this, “IF WE NEGLECT HOW SHALL WE ESCAPE?”

The first is the positive law, and deals with sins of commission. The other, which we are now discussing, is the negative, and deals with sins of omission. It does not say anything about sowing, but about not sowing. It takes up the case of souls which are lying fallow. It does not say, if we sow corruption we shall reap corruption. Perhaps we would not be so unwise, so regardless of ourselves, of public opinion, as to sow corruption. It does not say, if we sow tares we shall reap tares. We might never do anything so foolish as sow tares. But if we sow nothing, it says, we shall reap nothing. If we put nothing into the field, we shall take nothing out. If we neglect to cultivate in summer, now shall we escape starving in winter?

Now the Bible raises this question, but does not answer it—because it is too obvious to need answering. How shall we escape if we neglect? The answer is, we cannot. In the nature of things we cannot. We cannot escape any more than a man can escape drowning who falls into the sea and has neglected to learn to swim. In the nature of things he cannot escape—nor can he escape who has neglected the great salvation.

Now why should such fatal consequences follow a simple process like neglect? The popular impression is that a man, to be what is called lost, must be an open and notorious sinner. He must be one who has abandoned all that is good and pure in life, and sown to the flesh with all his might and main. But this principle goes further. It says simply, “If we neglect.” Any one may see the reason why a notoriously wicked person should not escape; but why should not all the rest of us escape? What is to hinder people who are not notoriously wicked escaping—people who never sowed anything in particular? Why is it such a sin to sow nothing in particular?

There must be some hidden and vital relation between these three words, Salvation, Neglect, and Escape—some reasonable, essential, and indissoluble connection. Why are these words so linked together as to weight this clause with all the authority and solemnity of a sentence of death?

The explanation has partly been given already. It lies still further, however, in the meaning of the word Salvation. And this, of course, is not at all Salvation in the ordinary sense of forgiveness of sin. This is one great meaning of Salvation, the first and the greatest. But this is spoken to people who are supposed to have had this. It is the broader word, therefore, and includes not only forgiveness of sin but salvation or deliverance from the downward bias of the soul. It takes in that whole process of rescue from the power of sin and selfishness that should be going on from day to day in every human life We have seen that there is a natural principle in man lowering him, deadening him, pulling him down by inches to the mere animal plane, blinding reason, searing conscience, paralysing will. This is the active destroying principle, or Sin. Now to counteract this, God has discovered to us another principle which will stop this drifting process in the soul, steer it round, and make it drift the other way. This is the active saving principle, or Salvation. If a man find the first of these powers furiously at work within him, dragging his whole life downward to destruction, there is only one way to escape his fate—to take resolute hold of the upward power, and be borne by it to the opposite goal. And as this second power is the only one in the universe which has the slightest real effect upon the first, how shall a man escape if he neglect it? To neglect it is to cut off the only possible chance of escape. In declining this he is simply abandoning himself with his eyes open to that other and terrible energy which is already there, and which, in the natural course of things, is bearing him every moment further and further from escape.

From the very nature of Salvation, therefore, it is plain that the only thing necessary to make it of no effect is neglect. Hence the Bible could not fail to lay strong emphasis on a word so vital. It was not necessary for it to say, how shall we escape if we trample upon the great salvation, or doubt, or despise, or reject it. A man who has been poisoned only need neglect the antidote and he will die. It makes no difference whether he dashes it on the ground, or pours it out of the window, or sets it down by his bedside, and stares at it all the time he is dying. He will die just the same, whether he destroys it in a passion, or coolly refuses to have anything to do with it. And as a matter of fact probably most deaths, spiritually, are gradual dissolutions of the last class rather than rash suicides of the first.

This, then, is the effect of neglecting salvation from the side of salvation itself; and the conclusion is that from the very nature of salvation escape is out of the question. Salvation is a definite process. If a man refuse to submit himself to that process, clearly he cannot have the benefits of it. As many as received Him to them he gave power to become the sons of God. He does not avail himself of this power. It may be mere carelessness or apathy. Nevertheless the neglect is fatal. He cannot escape because he will not.

Turn now to another aspect of the case—to the effect upon the soul itself. Neglect does more for the soul than make it miss salvation. It despoils it of its capacity for salvation. Degeneration in the spiritual sphere involves primarily the impairing of the faculties of salvation and ultimately the loss of them. It really means that the very soul itself becomes piecemeal destroyed until the very capacity for God and righteousness is gone.

The soul, in its highest sense, is a vast capacity for God. It is like a curious chamber added on to being, and somehow involving being, a chamber with elastic and contractile walls, which can be expanded, with God as its guest, illimitably, but which without God shrinks and shrivels until every vestige of the Divine is gone, and God’s image is left without God’s Spirit. One cannot call what is left a soul; it is a shrunken, useless organ, a capacity sentenced to death by disease, which droops as a withered hand by the side, and cumbers nature like a rotted branch. Nature has her revenge upon neglect as well as upon extravagance. Misuse, with her, is as mortal a sin as abuse.

There are certain burrowing animals—the mole for instance—which have taken to spending their lives beneath the surface of the ground. And Nature has taken her revenge upon them in a thoroughly natural way—she has closed up their eyes. If they mean to live in darkness, she argues, eyes are obviously a superfluous function. By neglecting them these animals made it clear they do not want them. And as one of Nature’s fixed principles is that nothing shall exist in vain, the eyes are presently taken away, or reduced to a rudimentary state. There are fishes also which have had to pay the same terrible forfeit for having made their abode in dark caverns where eyes can never be required. And in exactly the same way the spiritual eye must die and lose its power by purely natural law if the soul choose to walk in darkness rather than in light.

This is the meaning of the favourite paradox of Christ, “From him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath;” “take therefore the talent from him.” The religious faculty is a talent, the most splendid and sacred talent we possess. Yet it is subject to the natural conditions and laws. If any man take his talent and hide it in a napkin, although it is doing him neither harm nor good apparently, God will not allow him to have it. Although it is lying there rolled up in the darkness, not conspicuously affecting any one, still God will not allow him to keep it. He will not allow him to keep it any more than Nature would allow the fish to keep their eyes. Therefore, He says, “take the talent from him.” And Nature does it.

This man’s crime was simply neglect—“thou wicked and slothful servant.” It was a wasted life— a life which failed in the holy stewardship of itself. Such a life is a peril to all who cross its path. Degeneration compasses Degeneration. It is only a character which is itself developing that can aid the Evolution of the world and so fulfil the end of life. For this high usury each of our lives, however small may seem our capital, was given us by God. And it is just the men whose capital seems small who need to choose the best investments. It is significant that it was the man who had only one talent who was guilty of neglecting it. Men with ten talents, men of large gifts and burning energies, either direct their powers nobly and usefully, or misdirect them irretrievably. It is those who belong to the rank and file of life who need this warning most. Others have an abundant store and sow to the spirit or the flesh with a lavish hand. But we, with our small gift, what boots our sowing? Our temptation as ordinary men is to neglect to sow at all. The interest on our talent would be so small that we excuse ourselves with the reflection that it is not worth while.

It is no objection to all this to say that we are unconscious of this neglect or misdirection of our powers. That is the darkest feature in the case. If there were uneasiness there might be hope. If there were, somewhere about our soul, a something which was not gone to sleep like all the rest; if there were a contending force anywhere; if we would let even that work instead of neglecting it, it would gain strength from hour to hour, and waken up one at a time each torpid and dishonoured faculty till our whole nature became alive with strivings against self, and every avenue was open wide for God. But the apathy, the numbness of the soul, what can be said of such a symptom but that it means the creeping on of death? There are accidents in which the victims feel no pain. They are well and strong they think. But they are dying. And if you ask the surgeon by their side what makes him give this verdict, he will say it is this numbness over the frame which tells how some of the parts have lost already the very capacity for life.

Nor is it the least tragic accompaniment of this process that its effects may even be concealed from others. The soul undergoing Degeneration, surely by some arrangement with Temptation planned in the uttermost hell, possesses the power of absolute secrecy. When all within is festering decay and rottenness, a Judas, without anomaly, may kiss his Lord. This invisible consumption, like its fell analogue in the natural world, may even keep its victim beautiful while slowly slaying it. When one examines the little Crustacea which have inhabited for centuries the lakes of the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, one is at first astonished to find these animals apparently endowed with perfect eyes. The pallor of the head is broken by two black pigment specks, conspicuous indeed as the only bits of colour on the whole blanched body; and these, even to the casual observer, certainly represent well-defined organs of vision. But what do they with eyes in these Stygian waters? There reigns an everlasting night. Is the law for once at fault? A swift incision with the scalpel, a glance with a lens, and their secret is betrayed. The eyes are a mockery. Externally they are organs of vision—the front of the eye is perfect; behind, there is nothing but a mass of ruins. The optic nerve is a shrunken, atrophied and insensate thread. These animals have organs of vision, and yet they have no vision. They have eyes, but they see not.

Exactly what Christ said of men: They had eyes, but no vision. And the reason is the same. It is the simplest problem of natural history. The Crustacea of the Mammoth Cave have chosen to abide in darkness. Therefore they have become fitted for it. By refusing to see they have waived the right to see. And Nature has grimly humoured them. Nature had to do it by her very constitution. It is her defence against waste that decay of faculty should immediately follow disuse of function. He that hath ears to hear, he whose ears have not degenerated, let him hear.

Men tell us sometimes there is no such thing as an atheist. There must be. There are some men to whom it is true that there is no God. They cannot see God because they have no eye. They have only an abortive organ, atrophied by neglect.

All this, it is commonplace again to insist, is not the effect of neglect when we die, but while we live. The process is in full career and operation now. It is useless projecting consequences into the future when the effects may be measured now. We are always practising these little deceptions upon ourselves, postponing the consequences of our misdeeds as if they were to culminate some other day about the time of death. It makes us sin with a lighter hand to run an account with retribution, as it were, and delay the reckoning time with God. But every day is a reckoning day. Every soul is a Book of Judgment, and Nature, as a recording angel, marks there every sin. As all will be judged by the great Judge some day, all are judged by Nature now. The sin of yesterday, as part of its penalty, has the sin of to-day. All follow us in silent retribution on our past, and go with us to the grave. We cannot cheat Nature. No sleight-of-heart can rob religion of a present, the immortal nature of a now. The poet sings—

“I looked behind to find my past,

And lo, it had gone before.”

But no, not all. The unforgiven sins are not away in keeping somewhere to be let loose upon us when we die; they are here, within us, now. To-day brings the resurrection of their past, to-morrow of to-day. And the powers of sin, to the exact strength that we have developed them, nearing their dreadful culmination with every breath we draw, are here, within us, now. The souls of some men are already honey-combed through and through with the eternal consequences of neglect, so that taking the natural and rational view of their case just now, it is simply inconceivable that there is any escape just now. What a fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God! A fearful thing even if, as the philosopher tells us, “the hands of the Living God are the Laws of Nature.”

Whatever hopes of a “heaven” a neglected soul may have, can be shown to be an ignorant and delusive dream. How is the soul to escape to heaven if it has neglected for a lifetime the means of escape from the world and self? And where is the capacity for heaven to come from if it be not developed on earth? Where, indeed, is even the smallest spiritual appreciation of God and heaven to come from when so little of spirituality has ever been known or manifested here? If every Godward aspiration of the soul has been allowed to become extinct, and every inlet that was open to heaven to be choked, and every talent for religious love and trust to have been persistently neglected and ignored, where are the faculties to come from that would even find the faintest relish in such things as God and heaven give?

These three words, Salvation, Escape, and Neglect, then, are not casually, but organically and necessarily connected. Their doctrine is scientific, not arbitrary. Escape means nothing more than the gradual emergence of the higher being from the lower, and nothing less. It means the gradual putting off of all that cannot enter the higher state, or heaven, and simultaneously the putting on of Christ. It involves the slow completing of the soul and the development of the capacity for God.

Should any one object that from this scientific standpoint the opposite of salvation is annihilation, the answer is at hand. From this standpoint there is no such word.

If, then, escape is to be open to us, it is not to come to us somehow, vaguely. We are not to hope for anything startling or mysterious. It is a definite opening along certain lines which are definitely marked by God, which begin at the Cross of Christ and lead direct to Him. Each man in the silence of his own soul must work out this salvation for himself with fear and trembling—with fear, realizing the momentous issues of his task; with trembling, lest before the tardy work be done the voice of Death should summon him to stop.

What these lines are may, in closing, be indicated in a word. The true problem of the spiritual life may be said to be, do the opposite of Neglect. Whatever this is, do it, and you shall escape. It will just mean that you are so to cultivate the soul that all its powers will open out to God, and in beholding God be drawn away from sin. The idea really is to develop among the ruins of the old a new “creature”—a new creature which, while the old is suffering Degeneration from Neglect, is gradually to unfold, to escape away and develop on spiritual lines to spiritual beauty and strength. And as our conception of spiritual being must be taken simply from natural being, our ideas of the lines along which the new religious nature is to run must be borrowed from the known lines of the old.

There is, for example, a Sense of Sight in the religious nature. Neglect this, leave it undeveloped, and you never miss it. You simply see nothing. But develop it and you see God. And the line along which to develop it is known to us. Become pure in heart. The pure in heart shall see God. Here, then, is one opening for soul-culture—the avenue through purity of heart to the spiritual seeing of God.

Then there is a Sense of Sound. Neglect this, leave it undeveloped, and you never miss it. You simply hear nothing. Develop it, and you hear God. And the line along which to develop it is known to us. Obey Christ. Become one of Christ’s flock. “The sheep hear His voice, and He calleth them by name.” Here, then, is another opportunity for the culture of the soul—a gateway through the Shepherd’s fold to hear the Shepherd’s voice.

And there is a Sense of Touch to be acquired— such a sense as the woman had who touched the hem of Christ’s garment, that wonderful electric touch called faith, which moves the very heart of God.

And there is a Sense of Taste—a spiritual hunger after God; a something within which tastes and sees that He is good. And there is the Talent for Inspiration. Neglect that, and all the scenery of the spiritual world is flat and frozen. But cultivate it, and it penetrates the whole soul with sacred fire, and illuminates creation with God. And last of all there is the great capacity for Love, even for the love of God—the expanding capacity for feeling more and more its height and depth, its length and breadth. Till that is felt no man can really understand that word, “so great salvation,” for what is its measure but that other “so” of Christ—God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son? Verily, how shall we escape if we neglect that?5252   For the scientific basis of thls spiritual law the following works may be consulted:—
   “The Origin of Species.” By Charles Darwin, F.R.S. London: John Murray. 1872.

   “Degeneration.” By E. Ray Lankester, F.R.S. London: Macmillan. 1880.

   “Der Ursprung der Wirbelthiere und das Princip des Functions-Wechsels.” Dr. A. Dorhn. Leipzig: 1875.

   “Lessons from Nature.” By St. George Mivart, F.R.S. London: John Murray. 1876.

   “The Natural Conditions of Existence as they Affect Animal Life.” Karl Semper London: C. Kegan Paul & Co. 1881


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