« Prev Death Next »

DEATH

What could be easier than to form a catena of the most philosophical defenders of Christianity, who have exhausted language in declaring the impotence of the unassisted intellect? Comte has not more explicitly enounced the incapacity of man to deal with the Absolute and the Infinite than the whole series of orthodox writers. Trust your reason, we have been told till we are tired of the phrase, and you will become Atheists or Agnostics. We take you at your word; we become Agnostics.

LESLIE STEPHEN.

“To be carnally minded is Death.”—Paul.

“I do not wonder at what men suffer, but I wonder often at what they lose.”—Ruskin.

“DEATH,” wrote Paber, “is an unsurveyed land, an unarranged Science.” Poetry draws near Death only to hover over it for a moment and withdraw in terror. History knows it simply as a universal fact. Philosophy finds it among the mysteries of being, the one great mystery of being not. All contributions to this dread theme are marked by an essential vagueness, and every avenue of approach seems darkened by impenetrable shadow.

But modern Biology has found it part of its work to push its way into this silent land, and at last the world is confronted with a scientific treatment of Death. Not that much is added to the old conception, or much taken from it. What it is, this certain Death with its uncertain issues, we know as little as before. But we can define more clearly and attach a narrower meaning to the momentous symbol.

The interest of the investigation here lies in the fact that Death is one of the outstanding things in Nature which has an acknowledged spiritual equivalent. The prominence of the word in the vocabulary of Revelation cannot be exaggerated. Next to Life the most pregnant symbol in religion is its antithesis, Death. And from the time that “If thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” was heard in Paradise, this solemn word has been linked with human interests of eternal moment.

Notwithstanding the unparalleled emphasis upon this term in the Christian system, there is none more feebly expressive to the ordinary mind. That mystery which surrounds the word in the natural world shrouds only too completely its spiritual import. The reluctance which prevents men from investigating the secrets of the King of Terrors is for a certain length entitled to respect. But it has left theology with only the vaguest materials to construct a doctrine which, intelligently enforced, ought to appeal to all men with convincing power and lend the most effective argument to Christianity. Whatever may have been its influence in the past, its threat is gone for the modern world. The word has grown weak. Ignorance has robbed the Grave of all its terror, and platitude despoilt Death of its sting. Death itself is ethically dead. Which of us, for example, enters fully into the meaning of words like these: “She that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth”? Who allows adequate weight to the metaphor in the Pauline phrase, “To be carnally minded is Death;” or in this, “The wages of sin is Death”? Or what theology has translated into the language of human life the terrific practical import of “Dead in trespasses and sins”? To seek to make these phrases once more real and burning; to clothe time-worn formulae with living truth; to put the deepest ethical meaning into the gravest symbol of Nature, and fill up with its full consequence the darkest threat of Revelation—these are the objects before us now.

What, then, is Death? Is it possible to define it and embody its essential meaning in an intelligible proposition?

The most recent and the most scientific attempt to investigate Death we owe to the biological studies of Mr. Herbert Spencer. In his search for the meaning of Life the word Death crosses his path, and he turns aside for a moment to define it. Of course what Death is depends upon what Life is. Mr. Herbert Spencer’s definition of Life, it is well known, has been subjected to serious criticism. While it has shed much light on many of the phenomena of Life, it cannot be affirmed that it has taken its place in science as the final solution of the fundamental problem of biology. No definition of Life, indeed, that has yet appeared can be said to be even approximately correct. Its mysterious quality evades us; and we have to be content with outward characteristics and accompaniments, leaving the thing itself an unsolved riddle. At the same time Mr. Herbert Spencer’s masterly elucidation of the chief phenomena of Life has placed philosophy and science under many obligations, and in the paragraphs which follow we shall have to incur a further debt on behalf of religion.

The meaning of Death depending, as has been said, on the meaning of life, we must first set ourselves to grasp the leading characteristics which distinguish living things. To a physiologist the living organism is distinguished from the not-living by the performance of certain functions. These functions are four in number—Assimilation, Waste, Reproduction, and Growth. Nothing could be a more interesting task than to point out the co-relatives of these in the spiritual sphere, to show in what ways the discharge of these functions represent the true manifestations of spiritual life, and how the failure to perform them constitutes spiritual Death. But it will bring us more directly to the specific subject before us if we follow rather the newer biological lines of Mr. Herbert Spencer. According to his definition, Life is “The definite combination of heterogeneous changes, both simultaneous and successive, in correspondence with external co-existences and sequences,”5555“Principles of Biology,” vol. I. p. 74. or more shortly “The continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations.”5656Ibid. An example or two will render these important statements at once intelligible.

The essential characteristic of a living organism, according to these definitions, is that it is in vital connection with its general surroundings. A human being, for instance, is in direct contact with the earth and air, with all surrounding things, with the warmth of the sun, with the music of birds, with the countless influences and activities of nature and of his fellow-men. In biological language he is said thus to be “in correspondence with his environment.” He is, that is to say, in active and vital connection with them, influencing them possibly, but especially being influenced by them. Now it is in virtue of this correspondence that he is entitled to be called alive. So long as he is in correspondence with any given point of his environment, he lives. To keep up this correspondence is to keep up life. If his environment changes he must instantly adjust himself to the change. And he continues living only as long as he succeeds in adjusting himself to the “ simultaneous and successive changes in his environment” as these occur. What is meant by a change in his environment may be understood from an example, which will at the same time define more clearly the intimacy of the relation between environment and organism. Let us take the case of a civil-servant whose environment is a district in India. It is a region subject to occasional and prolonged droughts resulting in periodical famines. When such a period of scarcity arises, he proceeds immediately to adjust himself to this external change. Having the power of locomotion, he may remove himself to a more fertile district, or, possessing the means of purchase, he may add to his old environment by importation the “external relations” necessary to continued life. But if from any cause he fails to adjust himself to the altered circumstances, his body is thrown out of correspondence with his environment, his “internal relations” are no longer adjusted to his “external relations,” and his life must cease.

In ordinary circumstances, and in health, the human organism is in thorough correspondence with its surroundings; but when any part of the organism by disease or accident is thrown out of correspondence, it is in that relation dead.

This Death, this want of correspondence, may be either partial or complete. Part of the organism may be dead to a part of the environment, or the whole to the whole. Thus the victim of famine may have a certain number of his correspondences arrested by the change in his environment, but not all. Luxuries which he once enjoyed no longer enter the country; animals which once furnished his table are driven from it. These still exist, but they are beyond the limit of his correspondence. In relation to these things therefore he is dead. In one sense it might be said that it was the environment which played him false; in another, that it was his own organization—that he was unable to adjust himself, or did not. But, however caused, he pays the penalty with partial Death.

Suppose next the case of a man who is thrown out of correspondence with a part of his environment by some physical infirmity. Let it be that by disease or accident he has been deprived of the use of his ears. The deaf man, in virtue of this imperfection, is thrown out of rapport with a large and well-defined part of the environment, namely, its sounds. With regard to that “external relation,” therefore, he is no longer living. Part of him may truly be held to be insensible or “Dead.” A man who is also blind is thrown out of correspondence with another large part of his environment. The beauty of sea and sky, the forms of cloud and mountain, the features and gestures of friends, are to him as if they were not. They are there, solid and real, but not to him; he is still further “Dead.” Next, let it be conceived, the subtle finger of cerebral disease lays hold of him. His whole brain is affected, and the sensory nerves, the medium of communication with the environment, cease altogether to acquaint him with what is doing in the outside world. The outside world is still there, but not to him; he is still further “Dead.” And so the death of parts goes on. He becomes less and less alive. “Were the animal frame not the complicated machine we have seen it to be, death might come as a simple and gradual dissolution, the ‘sans everything’ being the last stage of the successive loss of fundamental powers.”5757Foster’s “Physiology,” p. 642. But finally some important part of the mere animal framework that remains breaks down. The correlation with the other parts is very intimate, and the stoppage of correspondence with one means an interference with the work of the rest. Something central has snapped, and all are thrown out of work. The lungs refuse to correspond with the air, the heart with the blood. There is now no correspondence whatever with environment—the thing, for it is now a thing, is Dead.

This then is Death; “part of the framework breaks down,” “something has snapped”—these phrases by which we describe the phases of death yield their full meaning. They are different ways of saying that “correspondence” has ceased. And the scientific meaning of Death now becomes clearly intelligible. Dying is that breakdown in an organism which throws it out of correspondence with some necessary part of the environment. Death is the result produced, the want of correspondence. We do not say that this is all that is involved. But this is the root idea of Death—Failure to adjust internal relations to external relations, failure to repair the broken inward connection sufficiently to enable it to correspond again with the old surroundings. These preliminary statements may be fitly closed with the words of Mr. Herbert Spencer: “Death by natural decay occurs because in old age the relations between assimilation, oxidation, and genesis of force going on in the organism gradually fall out of correspondence with the relations between oxygen and food and absorption of heat by the environment. Death from disease arises either when the organism is congenitally defective in its power to balance the ordinary external actions by the ordinary internal actions, or when there has taken place some unusual external action to which there was no answering internal action. Death by accident implies some neighbouring mechanical changes of which the causes are either unnoticed from inattention, or are so intricate that their results cannot be foreseen, and consequently certain relations in the organism are not adjusted to the relations in the environment.”5858Op. cit., pp. 88, 89.

With the help of these plain biological terms we may now proceed to examine the parallel phenomenon of Death in the spiritual world. The factors with which we have to deal are two in number as before—Organism and Environment. The relation between them may once more be denominated by “correspondence.” And the truth to be emphasised resolves itself into this, that Spiritual Death is a want of correspondence between the organism and the spiritual environment.

What is the spiritual environment? This term obviously demands some further definition. For Death is a relative term. And before we can define Death in the spiritual world we must first apprehend the particular relation with reference to which the expression is to be employed. we shall best reach the nature of this relation by considering for a moment the subject of environment generally. By the natural environment we mean the entire surroundings of the natural man, the entire external world in which he lives and moves and has his being. It is not involved in the idea that either with all or part of this environment he is in immediate correspondence. Whether he correspond with it or not, it is there. There is in fact a conscious environment and an environment of which he is not conscious; and it must be borne in mind that the conscious environment is not all the environment that is. All that surrounds him, all that environs him, conscious or unconscious, is environment. The moon and stars are part of it, though in the daytime he may not see them. The polar regions are parts of it, though he is seldom aware of their influence. In its widest sense environment simply means all else that is.

Now it will next be manifest that different organisms correspond with this environment in varying degrees of completeness or incompleteness. At the bottom of the biological scale we find organisms which have only the most limited correspondence with their surroundings. A tree, for example, corresponds with the soil about its stem, with the sunlight, and with the air in contact with its leaves. But it is shut off by its comparatively low development from a whole world to which higher forms of life have additional access. The want of locomotion alone circumscribes most seriously its area of correspondence, so that to a large part of surrounding nature it may truly be said to be dead. So far as consciousness is concerned, we should be justified indeed in saying that it was not alive at all. The murmur of the stream which bathes its roots affects it not. The marvellous insect-life beneath its shadow excites in it no wonder. The tender maternity of the bird which has its nest among its leaves stirs no responsive sympathy. It cannot correspond with those things. To stream and insect and bird it is insensible, torpid, dead. For this is Death, this irresponsiveness.

The bird, again, which is higher in the scale of life, corresponds with a wider environment. The stream is real to it, and the insect. It knows what lies behind the hill; it listens to the love-song of its mate. And to much besides beyond the simple world of the tree this higher organism is alive. The bird we should say is more living than the tree; it has a correspondence with a larger area of environment. But this bird-life is not yet the highest life. Even within the immediate bird-environment there is much to which the bird must still be held to be dead. Introduce a higher organism, place man himself within this same environment, and see how much more living he is. A hundred things which the bird never saw in insect, stream, and tree appeal to him. Each single sense has something to correspond with. Each faculty finds an appropriate exercise. Man is a mass of correspondences, and because of these, because he is alive to countless objects and influences to which lower organisms are dead, he is the most living of all creatures.

The relativity of Death will now have become sufficiently obvious. Man being left out of account, all organisms are seen as it were to be partly living and partly dead. The tree, in correspondence with a narrow area of environment, is to that extent alive; to all beyond, to the all but infinite area beyond, it is dead. A still wider portion of this vast area is the possession of the insect and the bird. Their’s also, nevertheless, is but a little world, and to an immense further area insect and bird are dead. All organisms likewise are living and dead—living to all within the circumference of their correspondences, dead to all beyond. As we rise in the scale of life, however, it will be observed that the sway of Death is gradually weakened. More and more of the environment becomes accessible as we ascend, and the domain of life in this way slowly extends in ever-widening circles. But until man appears there is no organism to correspond with the whole environment. Till then the outermost circles have no correspondents. To the inhabitants of the innermost spheres they are as if they were not.

Now follows a momentous question. Is man in correspondence with the whole environment? When we reach the highest living organism, is the final blow dealt to the kingdom of Death? Has the last acre of the infinite area been taken in by his finite faculties?. Is his conscious environment the whole environment? Or is there, among these outermost circles, one which with his multitudinous correspondences he fails to reach? If so, this is Death. The question of Life or Death to him is the question of the amount of remaining environment he is able to compass. If there be one circle or one segment of a circle which he yet fails to reach, to correspond with, to know, to be influenced by, he is, with regard to that circle or segment, dead.

What then, practically, is the state of the case? Is man in correspondence with the whole environment or is he not? There is but one answer. He is not. Of men generally it cannot be said that they are in living contact with that part of the environment which is called the spiritual world. In introducing this new term spiritual world, observe, we are not interpolating a new factor. This is an essential part of the old idea. We have been following out an ever-widening environment from point to point, and now we reach the outermost zones. The spiritual world is simply the outermost segment, circle, or circles, of the natural world. for purposes of convenience we separate the two just as we separate the animal world from the plant. But the animal world and the plant world are the same world. They are different parts of one environment. And the natural and spiritual are likewise one. The inner circles are called the natural, the outer the spiritual. And we call them spiritual simply because they are beyond us or beyond a part of us. What we have correspondence with, that we call natural; what we have little or no correspondence with, that we call spiritual. But when the appropriate corresponding organism appears, the organism, that is, which can freely communicate with these outer circles, the distinction necessarily disappears. The spiritual to it becomes the outer circle of the natural.

Now of the great mass of living organisms, of the great mass of men, is it not to be affirmed that they are out of correspondence with this outer circle? Suppose, to make the final issue more real, we give this outermost circle of environment a name. Suppose we call it God. Suppose also we substitute a word for “correspondence” to express more intimately the personal relation. Let us call it Communion. We can now determine accurately the spiritual relation of different sections of mankind. Those who are in communion with God live, those who are not are dead.

The extent or depth of this communion, the varying degrees of correspondence in different individuals, and the less or more abundant life which these result in, need not concern us for the present. The task we have set ourselves is to investigate the essential nature of Spiritual Death. And we have found it to consist in a want of communion with God. The unspiritual man is he who lives in the circumscribed environment of this present world. “She that liveth in pleasure is Dead while she liveth.” “To be carnally minded is Death.” To be carnally minded, translated into the language of science, is to be limited in one’s correspondences to the environment of the natural man. It is no necessary part of the conception that the mind should be either purposely irreligious, or directly vicious. The mind of the flesh, , by its very nature, limited capacity, and time-ward tendency, is Death. This earthly mind may be of noble calibre, enriched by culture, high toned, virtuous and pure. But if it know not God? What though its correspondences reach to the stars of heaven or grasp the magnitudes of Time and Space? The stars of heaven are not heaven. Space is not God. This mind, certainly, has life, life up to its level. There is no trace of Death. Possibly too, it carries its deprivation lightly, and, up to its level, lives content. We do not picture the possessor of this carnal mind as in any sense a monster. We have said he may be high-toned, virtuous, and pure. The plant is not a monster because it is dead to the voice of the bird; nor is he a monster who is dead to the voice of God. The contention at present simply is that he is Dead.

We do not need to go to Revelation for the proof of this. That has been rendered unnecessary by the testimony of the Dead themselves. Thousands have uttered themselves upon their relation to the Spiritual World, and from their own lips we have the proclamation of their Death. The language of theology in describing the state of the natural man is often regarded as severe. The Pauline anthropology has been challenged as an insult to human nature. Culture has opposed the doctrine that “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” And even some modern theologies have refused to accept the most plain of the aphorisms of Jesus, that “Except a man be born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” But this stern doctrine of the spiritual deadness of humanity is no mere dogma of a past theology. The history of thought during the present century proves that the world has come round spontaneously to the position of the first. One of the ablest philosophical schools of the day erects a whole antichristian system on this very doctrine. Seeking by means of it to sap the foundation of spiritual religion, it stands unconsciously as the most significant witness for its truth. What is the creed of the Agnostic, but the confession of the spiritual numbness of humanity? The negative doctrine which it reiterates with such sad persistency, what is it but the echo of the oldest of scientific and religious truths? And what are all these gloomy and rebellious infidelities, these touching, and too sincere confessions of universal nescience, but a protest against this ancient law of Death?

The Christian apologist never further misses the mark than when he refuses the testimony of the Agnostic to himself. When the Agnostic tells me he is blind and deaf, dumb, torpid and dead to the spiritual world, I must believe him. Jesus tells me that. Paul tells me that. Science tells me that. He knows nothing of this outermost circle; and we are compelled to trust his sincerity as readily when he deplores it as if, being a man without an ear, he professed to know nothing of a musical world, or being without taste, of a world of art. The nescience of the Agnostic philosophy is the proof from experience that to be carnally minded is Death. Let the theological value of the concession be duly recognised. It brings no solace to the unspiritual man to be told he is mistaken. To say he is self-deceived is neither to compliment him nor Christianity. He builds in all sincerity who raises his altar to the Unknown God. He does not know God. With all his marvellous and complex correspondences, he is still one correspondence short.

It is a point worthy of special note that the proclamation of this truth has always come from science rather than from religion. Its general acceptance by thinkers is based upon the universal failure of a universal experiment. The statement, therefore, that the natural man discerneth not the things of the spirit, is never to be charged against the intolerance of theology. There is no point at which theology has been more modest than here. It has left the preaching of a great fundamental truth almost entirely to philosophy and science. And so very moderate has been its tone, so slight has been the emphasis placed upon the paralysis of the natural with regard to the spiritual, that it may seem to some to have been intolerantly tolerant. No harm certainly could come now, no offence could be given to science, if religion asserted more clearly its right to the spiritual world. Science has paved the way for the reception of one of the most revolutionary doctrines of Christianity; and if Christianity refuses to take advantage of the opening it will manifest a culpable want of confidence in itself. There never was a time when its fundamental doctrines could more boldly be proclaimed, or when they could better secure the respect and arrest the interest of Science.

To all this, and apparently with force, it may, however, be objected that to every man who truly studies Nature there is a God. Call Him by whatever name—a Creator, a Supreme Being, a Great First Cause, a Power that makes for Righteousness—Science has a God; and he who believes in this, in spite of all protest, possesses a theology. “If we will look at things, and not merely at words, we shall soon see that the scientific man has a theology and a God, a most impressive theology, a most awful and glorious God. I say that man believes in a God, who feels himself in the presence of a Power which is not himself, and is immeasurably above himself, a Power in the contemplation of which he is absorbed, in the knowledge of which he finds safety and happiness. And such now is Nature to the scientific man.”5959“Natural Religion” p. 19. Such now, we humbly submit, is Nature to very few. Their own confession is against it. That they are “absorbed” in the contemplation we can well believe. That they might “find safety and happiness” in the knowledge of Him is also possible—if they had it. But this is just what they tell us they have not. What they deny is not a God. It is the correspondence. The very confession of the Unknowable is itself the dull recognition of an Environment beyond themselves, and for which they feel they lack the correspondence. It is this want that makes their God the Unknown God. And it is this that makes them dead.

We have not said, or implied, that there is not a God of Nature. We have not affirmed that there is no Natural Religion. We are assured there is. We are even assured that without a Religion of Nature Religion is only half complete; that without a God of Nature the God of Revelation is only half intelligible and only partially known. God is not confined to the outermost circle of environment, He lives and moves and has His being in the whole. Those who only seek Him in the further zone can only find a part. The Christian who knows not God in Nature, who does not, that is to say, correspond with the whole environment, most certainly is partially dead. The author of “Ecce Homo” may be partially right when he says: “I think a bystander would say that though Christianity had in it something far higher and deeper and more ennobling, yet the average scientific man worships just at present a more awful, and, as it were, a greater Deity than the average Christian. In so many Christians the idea of God has been degraded by childish and little-minded teaching; the Eternal and the Infinite and the All-embracing has been represented as the head of the clerical interest, as a sort of clergyman, as a sort of schoolmaster, as a sort of philanthropist. But the scientific man knows Him to be eternal; in astronomy, in geology, he becomes familiar with the countless millenniums of His lifetime. The scientific man strains his mind actually to realize God’s infinity. As far off as the fixed stars he traces Him, ‘distance inexpressible by numbers that have name.’ Meanwhile, to the theologian, infinity and eternity are very much of empty words when applied to the Object of his worship. He does not realize them in actual facts and definite computations.”6060“Natural Religion,” p. 20. Let us accept this rebuke. The principle that want of correspondence is Death applies all round. He who knows not God in Nature only partially lives. The converse of this, however is not true; and that is the point we are insisting on. He who knows God only in Nature lives not. There is no “correspondence” with an Unknown God, no “continuous adjustment” to a fixed First Cause. There is no “assimilation” of Natural Law; no growth in the Image of “the All-embracing.” To correspond with the God of Science assuredly is not to live. “This is Life Eternal, to know Thee, the true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent.”

From the service we have tried to make natural science render to our religion, we might be expected possibly to take up the position that the absolute contribution of Science to Revelation was very great. On the contrary, it is very small. The absolute contribution, that is, is very small. The contribution on the whole is immense, vaster than we have yet any idea of. But without the aid of the higher Revelation this many-toned and far-reaching voice had been for ever dumb. The light of Nature, say the most for it, is dim—how dim we ourselves, with the glare of other Light upon the modern world, can only realize when we seek among the pagan records of the past for the gropings after truth of those whose only light was this. Powerfully significant and touching as these efforts were in their success, they are far more significant and touching in their failure. For they did fail. It requires no philosophy now to speculate on the adequacy or inadequacy of the Religion of Nature. For us who could never weigh it rightly in the scales of Truth it has been tried in the balance of experience and found wanting. Theism is the easiest of all religions to get, but the most difficult to keep. Individuals have kept it, but nations never. Socrates and Aristotle, Cicero and Epictetus had a theistic religion; Greece and Rome had none. And even after getting what seems like a firm place in the minds of men, its unstable equilibrium sooner or later betrays itself. On the one hand theism has always fallen into the wildest polytheism, or on the other into the blankest atheism. “It is an indubitable historical fact that, outside of the sphere of special revelation, man has never obtained such a knowledge of God as a responsible and religious being plainly requires. The wisdom of the heathen world, at its very best, was utterly inadequate to the accomplishment of such a task as creating a due abhorrence of sin, controlling the passions, purifying the heart, and ennobling the conduct.”6161Prof. Flint, “Theism”, p. 305.

What is the inference? That this poor rush-light itself was never meant to lend the ray by which man should read the riddle of the universe. The mystery is too impenetrable and remote for its uncertain flicker to more than make the darkness deeper. What indeed if this were not a light at all, but only part of a light—the carbon point, the fragment of calcium, the reflector in the great Lantern which contains the Light of the World?

This is one inference. But the most important is that the absence of the true Light means moral Death. The darkness of the natural world to the intellect is not all. What history testifies to is, first the partial, and then the total eclipse of virtue that always follows the abandonment of belief in a personal God. It is not, as has been pointed out a hundred times, that morality in the abstract disappears, but the motive and sanction are gone. There is nothing to raise it from the dead. Man’s attitude to it is left to himself. Grant that morals have their own base in human life; grant that Nature has a Religion whose creed is Science; there is yet nothing apart from God to save the world from moral Death. Morality has the power to dictate but none to move. Nature directs but cannot control. As was wisely expressed in one of many pregnant utterances during a recent Symposium, “Though the decay of religion may leave the institutes of morality intact, it drains off their inward power. The devout faith of men expresses and measures the intensity of their moral nature, and it cannot be lost without a remission of enthusiasm, and under this low pressure, the successful re-entrance of importunate desires and clamorous passions which had been driven back. To believe in an ever-living and perfect Mind, supreme over the universe, is to invest moral distinctions with immensity and eternity, and lift them from the provincial stage of human society to the imperishable theatre of all being. When planted thus in the very substance of things, they justify and support the ideal estimates of the conscience; they deepen every guilty shame; they guarantee every righteous hope; and they help the will with a Divine casting-vote in every balance of temptation.”6262Martineau. Vide the whole Symposium on “Influences upon Morality of a Decline in Religious Belief.”—Nineteenth Century, vol i. pp. 331, 531. That morality has a basis in human society, that Nature has a Religion, surely makes the Death of the soul when left to itself all the more appalling. It means that, between them, Nature and morality provide all for virtue—except the Life to live it

It is at this point accordingly that our subject comes into intimate contact with Religion. The proposition that “to be carnally minded is Death” even the moralist will assent to. But when it is further announced that “the carnal mind is enmity against God” we find ourselves in a different region. And when we find it also stated that “the wages of sin is Death,” we are in the heart of the profoundest questions of theology. What before was merely “enmity against society” becomes “enmity against God;” and what was “vice” is “sin.” The conception of a God gives an altogether new colour to worldliness and vice. Worldliness it changes into heathenism, vice into blasphemy. The carnal mind, the mind which is turned away from God, which will not correspond with God—this is not moral only but spiritual Death. And Sin, that which separates from God, which disobeys God, which can not in that state correspond with God—this is hell.

To the estrangement of the soul from God the best of theology traces the ultimate cause of sin. Sin is simply apostasy from God, unbelief in God. “Sin is manifest in its true character when the demand of holiness in the conscience, presenting itself to the man as one of loving submission to God, is put from him with aversion. Here sin appears as it really is, a turning away from God; and while the man’s guilt is enhanced, there ensues a benumbing of the heart resulting from the crushing of those higher impulses. This is what is meant by the reprobate state of those who reject Christ and will not believe the Gospel, so often spoken of in the New Testament; this unbelief is just the closing of the heart against the highest love.”6363Muller: “Christian Doctrine of Sin.” 2nd Ed. vol. i. p. 131. The other view of sin, probably the more popular at present, that sin consists in selfishness, is merely this from another aspect. Obviously if the mind turns away from one part of the environment it will only do so under some temptation to correspond with another. This temptation, at bottom, can only come from one source—the love of self. The irreligious man’s correspondences are concentrated upon himself. He worships himself. Self-gratification rather than self-denial; independence rather than submission—these are the rules of life. And this is at once the poorest and the commonest form of idolatry.

But whichever of these views of sin we emphasize, we find both equally connected with Death. If sin is estrangement from God, this very estrangement is Death. It is a want of correspondence. If sin is selfishness, it is conducted at the expense of life. Its wages are Death—“he that loveth his life,” said Christ, “shall lose it.”

Yet the paralysis of the moral nature apart from God does not only depend for its evidence upon theology or even upon history. From the analogies of Nature one would expect this result as a necessary consequence. The development of any organism in my direction is dependent on its environment. A living cell cut off from air will die. A seed-germ apart from moisture and an appropriate temperature will make the ground its grave for centuries. Human nature, likewise, is subject to similar conditions. It can only develop in presence of its environment. No matter what its possibilities may be, no matter what seeds of thought or virtue, what germs of genius or of art, lie latent in its breast, until the appropriate environment present itself the correspondence is denied, the development discouraged, the most splendid possibilities of life remain unrealized, and thought and virtue, genius and art, are dead. The true environment of the moral life is God. Here conscience wakes. Here kindles love. Duty here becomes heroic; and that righteousness begins to Live which alone is to live for ever. But if this Atmosphere is not, the dwarfed soul must perish for mere want of its native air. And its Death is a strictly natural Death. It is not an exceptional judgment upon Atheism. In the same circumstances, in the same averted relation to their environment, the poet, the musician, the artist, would alike perish to poetry, to music, and to art. Every environment is a cause. Its effect upon me is exactly proportionate to my correspondence with it. If I correspond with part of it, part of myself is influenced. If I correspond with more, more of myself is influenced; if with all, all is influenced. If I correspond with the world, I become worldly; if with God, I become Divine. As without correspondence of the scientific man with the natural environment there could be no Science and no action founded on the knowledge of Nature, so without communion with the spiritual Environment there can be no Religion. To refuse to cultivate the religious relation is to deny to the soul its highest right—the right to a further evolution.6464It would not be difficult to show, were this the immediate subject, that it is not only a right but a duty to exercise the spiritual faculties, a duty demanded not by religion merely, but by science. Upon biological principles man owes his full development to himself, to nature, and to his fellow-men. Thus Mr. Herbert Spencer affirms, “The performance of every function is, in a sense, a moral obligation. It is usually thought that morality requires us only to restrain such vital activities as, in our present state, are often pushed to excess, or such as conflict with average welfares special or general; but it also requires us to carry on these vital activities up to their normal limits. All the animal functions, in common with all the higher functions, have, as thus understood, their imperativeness”— “The Data of Ethics,” 2nd Ed., p. 76.

We have already admitted that he who knows not God may not be a monster; we cannot say he will not be a dwarf. This precisely, and on perfectly natural principles, is what he must be. You can dwarf a soul just as you can dwarf a plant, by depriving it of a full environment. Such a soul for a time may have “a name to live.” Its character may betray no sign of atrophy. But its very virtue somehow has the pallor of a flower that is grown in darkness, or as the herb which has never seen the sun, no fragrance breathes from its spirit. To morality, possibly, this organism offers the example of an irreproachable life; but to science it is an instance of arrested development; and to religion it presents the spectacle of a corpse—a living Death. With Ruskin, “I do not wonder at what men suffer, but I wonder often at what they lose.”


« Prev Death Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version





Advertisements



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |