The Conquest of Fear by Basil King
Chapter VII. The False God of Fear and the Fear of Death
The fear of death was greatly diminished for me on grasping the principle of everlasting Growth.
This principle we gather from whatever we know of life. Our observation of life is, of course, limited to this planet; but as far as it goes it shows us a persistent and perpetual system of development. We have only to let our imaginations go back to the first feeble stirrings of life in the ooze of the primeval seas, contrasting that with what it became in Plato, Sophocles, St. Peter, St. Paul, Raphael, Shakespeare, and Darwin, to see how high the climb upward has reached. Jesus of Nazareth I put on a plane to which we have not yet attained, though in sight as the great objective.
That the same law operates in the individual life is a matter of everyone's experience. Such knowledge as each man has of himself is that of a growing entity. Each year, each day, expands him a little further, with increased fulness of character. At thirty he is more than he was at twenty; at fifty more than he was at thirty; at eighty more than he was at fifty. Nothing but a perverted mortal point of view stands in the way of further expansion still.
The perverted mortal point of view is one of the impulses we have to struggle with. The mortal tendency, which means the deadly tendency, always seeks to kill whatever has the principle of life. This tendency is in every one of us; but in some of us more than in others.
You can see it at work in the morbid mind, in the mind that is easily depressed, and in the mind that easily closes.
Perhaps it is in this last that it becomes our most pernicious enemy. The closing mind is found in all our ranks; the closed mind is the deadwood of all our professions. It is not only deadwood; it is death-in-life, the foe of the developing life-principle, the enemy of the Holy Ghost.
That the dead mind should be found among people who have had few intellectual advantages is not surprising. On them it is forced from without, by sheer pressure of circumstance. Where it is most painful is precisely where it does most harm, among the classes we call professional. There, too, it seems commonest. Lawyers, doctors, clergymen, teachers, writers, politicians, business men with dead minds choke all the highways of life. To the extent that they have influence they are obstacles to progress; but sooner or later the time comes when they no longer have influence. Life shelves them on the plea that they are old; but that is not the reason. They are shelved because they have killed their minds, becoming living dead men.
As a matter of fact, one of the most valuable of our social and national assets is the old man who has kept his mind open. Found all too rarely, he is never shelved, for the reason that life cannot do without him. Having the habit of expansion he continues to expand, keeping abreast of youth and even a little in advance of it. The exception rather than the rule, there is no reason why he should not be the racial type.
He is not the racial type because so many of us begin to die almost as soon as we have begun to live. Our very fear of the death-principle admits it into our consciousness. Admitted into our consciousness it starts its work of killing us. It wrinkles the face, it turns the hair grey, it enfeebles the limbs, it stupefies the brain. One of its most deadly weapons is fatigue, or the simulation of fatigue. The tired business man, who rules American life, is oftener than not a dead business man. If he looked ahead he would see what we idiomatically know as his "finish." He is not only dying but he infuses death into manners, literature, and art, since he so largely sets the standard which becomes the rule.
War on the death-principle should be, it seems to me, one of the aims to which the individual gives his strength; and once more he can do it on his own account.
In the first place, he can watch himself, that he does not mentally begin to grow old. To begin mentally to grow old is to begin mentally to die. He must think of himself as an expanding being, not as a contracting one. He must keep in sympathetic touch with the new, damning the know-it-all frame of mind. He must keep in sympathetic touch with youth, knowing that youth is the next generation in advance. The secrets of one generation are not those of another; but if he who possesses the earlier masters also the later he is that much the richer and wiser. The gulf which separates parents and children is one which the parents must cross. They can work onward, while the children cannot work backward. Up to a certain point the older teach the younger; beyond a certain point the younger teach the older. He who would go on living and not begin to die must be willing to be taught, reaping the harvest of both youth and age.
In the second place, he who would live must not kill anyone else. The deadly tendency in ourselves is forever at work on those about us, chiefly on those we love. We watch, tabulate, and recount their symptoms of decay. Making notes of them for ourselves we discourse of them to others. "He begins to look old," is a commonplace. The response will probably emphasise the fact. By response to response we spin round a friend the age-web which lengthens into the death-web. In our expressive American vernacular we speak of "wishing" conditions on others, an instinctive folk-recognition of the force of mentality. We do it in a sinister sense more often than by way of helpfulness. We "wish" by thinking, by talking, by creating an atmosphere, by forcing things into the general consciousness. Old age and decay, bad enough in themselves, we intensify by our habits of mind. Death, which in any case awaits our friends, we woo to them by anticipations of demise. It is not ill-intentioned. It comes out of a subconsciousness in which death and not life is the base.
For most of us the fear of death is a subconscious rather than an active fear. It becomes active for those who through illness, or in some other way, see a sentence of death hanging over them; but during the greater part of the life-span we are able to beat it off.
As to the life-span itself there is reason to suppose that it is meant to be more regular than man allows it to become. There may easily be an "appointed time" to which we do not suffer ourselves, or each other, to attain. Those strange, inequalities by which one human being is left to pass over the century mark, another is cut off just when he is most needed, while a third does no more than touch this plane for an hour or two, may be the results of our misreadings of God's Will, and not the decrees of that Will itself.
We are here on ground which may be termed that of speculation; and yet speculation is not quite the right word. I dare to think that we have reached a stage of our development at which we are entitled to make with regard to death certain inferences which were hardly possible before our time. We may make them timidly, with all hesitation and reserve, aware that we cannot propound them as facts; and yet we may make them. The human mind is no longer where it was a hundred years ago, still less where it was five hundred years ago. Though we make little progress we make some. We are not always marking time on the same spot of ignorance and helplessness. What is mystery for one age is not of necessity mystery for another. Even when mysteries remain, they do not of necessity remain without some hint of a dawn which may broaden into day. Many of our most precious illuminations have come in just this way; a faint light--which slowly, feebly, through centuries perhaps, waxes till it becomes a radiance.
I talked some time ago to an orthodox Christian lady whose brother had recently died, and who was speaking of death.
"The one mystery," she called it, "on which no single ray of light has been vouchsafed in all the ages man has been on earth."
I did not agree with her, but knowing her to be an orthodox Christian lady I did not venture to express my opinion.
But hers is the position which many, perhaps most, of us take. "No one has ever come back," we say, "to tell us what his experience has been," and we drop the subject there. Not only do we drop the subject there, but we resent it if everyone else does not drop the subject there. "God has hidden it from us," we declare, "and what He has hidden from us it is presumption for us to pry into." It is useless to urge the fact that this way of reasoning would have kept us still in the Stone Age; we are not to be reached by argument.
Let me say at once that I am not taking up the question of the psychic, or entering into it at all. I shall keep myself to the two points of view which have helped me, as an individual, to overcome, to some degree, the fear of death, considering them in reverse order from that in which I have mentioned them. Those two points of view are:
A. That, according to God's Will, we come into this phase of being for an "appointed time" which we do not always reach;
B. That we pass out of this phase of being as we came into it, for Growth.
A. The question of an appointed time seems important chiefly to the right understanding of God's love. Between us and the understanding of that love bereavement is often a great obstacle. Oftener still it is a great puzzle. I do not have to catalogue the conditions in which the taking away of men, women, and children, sorely needed here if for no other purpose than to love, has moved us to deep perplexity, or to something like a doubt of God. We have probably all known cases where such tragedy has driven sufferers to renounce God altogether, and to curse Him. Some of us who have been smitten may have come near to doing this ourselves, or may have done it.
I have already spoken of the Caucasian's habit of shuffling off on God those ills for which he will not face the responsibility himself, and I am inclined to think that this is one of them. In my own experience the explanation of "God's Will" made to the mother of a little family left fatherless, or to the parents of a dead baby, or to a young man with a young wife in her coffin, has always been revolting. I have made it; I have tried, on the faith of others, to think it must be so. I have long since ceased to think it, and feel happier for not crediting the Universal Father with any such futile tricks.
I should not go so far as to say that we human beings have misapplied the laws of life in such a way as to kill those who are dear to us; rather, I think, we have never learned those laws except in their merest rudiments. We are not yet prepared to do more than bungle the good things offered us on earth, and more or less misuse them. We misuse them ourselves; we teach others to misuse them; we create systems of which the pressure is so terrible that under it the weak can do nothing but die. We give them no chance. We squeeze the life out of them. And then we say piously, "The blessed Will of God!"
As an illustration of what I mean let me cite the two following cases among people I have known:
A young lady belonging to a family of means was found to be suffering from incipient tuberculosis. The doctors ordered her to Saranac. To Saranac she went, with two nurses. Within eighteen months she was home again, quite restored to health. This was as it should have been.
At the same time I knew a car-conductor, married some six or seven years, and the father of three children. He, too, was found to be suffering from incipient tuberculosis. He, too, was ordered to Saranac. But having a wife and three children to support, Saranac was out of the question. He went on conducting his car till his cough became distressing, whereupon he was "fired." A minimum allowance from his church kept the family from starvation, while the nearest approach to Saranac that could be contrived was an arrangement by which he slept with his head out the window. In course of time he died, and his widow was exhorted to submit to the Will of God.
I cite the latter case as typical of millions and millions of deaths of the kind at which we stand aghast at God's extraordinary rulings. Why is it, we ask, that He snatches away those who are needed, leaving those who might be spared? As to the latter part of the question I have nothing to say; but when it comes to "snatching away" I feel it important to "absolve God" of the blame for it.
In the instance I have quoted the blame for it is clear. Falling on no one individual, it does fall on an organisation of life which gives all the chances to some, denying them to others. So long as we feel unable to improve on this organisation we shall have these inequalities. But let us face honestly the consequences they bring. Let us not confuse all the issues of life and death as we do, by saddling the good and beautiful Will of God with the ills we make for ourselves.
All untimely bereavement is, of course, not of the nature of the above illustration. And yet I venture to believe that in all untimely bereavement some similar explanation could be found. For example, in the intervals of writing these lines I have been reading a recent biography of Madame de Maintenon. In it is a chapter describing the series of catastrophes which fell on Louis the Fourteenth, and the French kingdom, within little more than a twelvemonth. His son and heir, his grandson, the second heir, his great-grandson, the third heir, the second heir's wife, and still another grandson were all carried off by smallpox. In the apartments of Madame de Maintenon, his wife, the aged monarch was counselled to submit to the awful Will of God which saw fit thus to smite him. What no one perceived was that by crowding round the bed of each sufferer in turn the survivors courted contagion.
But, there again, it is not much more than a century since this fact became known to anyone. Easily within living memory is the discovery that disease is due to bacteria. Our whole system of sanitation is of recent development, and obtains only among the English and the Americans even now. In many parts of Europe and America, to say nothing of Asia and Africa, people still live as in the Middle Ages, and infant mortality is appalling. Those of us who pay most attention to sanitary laws live unhealthily, diminishing our powers to resist attack. I mention these facts, not as making a list of them, but to indicate the many causes through which we bring bereavement on ourselves, when the Will of God would naturally make for survival and happiness.
It must never be forgotten that in this phase of our existence we never carry out that Will except to a remote degree. We only struggle towards doing it. When great sorrows come it is because in the struggle we have not been successful. Either we ourselves have failed; or the failure of others affects us indirectly. While God's Will may be for our happiness, we can attain to neither the happiness nor the Will--as yet.
Nevertheless, we would not have it otherwise. In our more thoughtless or more agonised minutes we are likely to cry out for a life in which the conditions ensuring our happiness could not so easily miscarry; but that would mean a static life, and a static life, above all things, we will not endure. As already seen, we ask for difficulties to conquer, successes to achieve. To contend is our instinct, not to be passive and enjoy.
Difficulties to conquer can only exist side by side with the possibility of not conquering them. The victory which is merely a walk-over is scarcely a victory. Achievement counts only when something has been overcome. Even then the overcoming of one thing merely spurs us on to overcome another. To rest on our laurels is doom. For a race which has the infinite as its goal the word must be on and on. The static heaven of bearing palms and playing harps and bliss, which the naive interpretation of our fathers drew from the imagery of the Apocalypse, has long since made us rebellious. Something to strive for we demand, even at the risk of bereavement.
It is at once the disadvantage and the glory of our own generation that it is only on the fourth or fifth step of the stairway by which we are climbing. But at least it is heir to the conquests which go to its stage of advance. Untimely bereavement is less common to-day than it was a few centuries ago; it is more common to-day than it will be a few centuries hence. Such storms of affliction as in 1712 swept over the house of Louis Quatorze occur less frequently now. But they still occur. We have not got beyond them. They are only bound to occur less and less frequently, till they become no more than matters of scarcely credible record.
In the meanwhile it may be a comfort to others, as it is to me, to be able to "absolve God" from the charge of capricious and intolerable thwarting of our love. To me, at least, the blow is easier to bear when I know that His beloved hand didn't strike it. I cannot understand being tortured out of sheer love, while patience with what leaves me with my whole life maimed is only the patience of the vanquished.
On the other hand, I can bear with my mistakes, I can bear with the mistakes of others, I can bear with the failures which are the fruit of our lack of race-development, so long as I know that God is on my side. The affliction which would be too poignant as coming directly from Him is half soothed already when I know that He is soothing it. I may have lost what He gave; but far from snatching it from me He would have had me keep it. Of all my comforts that assurance is the first.
In addition, I have the satisfaction--a meagre satisfaction you may call it, but a satisfaction all the same--of knowing that by the ploughing and harrowing of my heart a step is taken toward that future in which hearts shall be less harrowed and ploughed. "It must never happen again." That is what we keep saying with regard to the Great War. Well, it may happen again. We have as yet no trustworthy pledge to the contrary. But of this we may be sure, that it will not happen again very often. It is less likely to happen again for the very reason that it has happened. If the Great War does not prove to be the last war it is the more probable that the next war will. I mean that we do learn our lessons, though we learn them only as feeble-minded children learn theirs. Agony by agony, something is gained, and my personal agony counts with the rest. The fact may give me no more than the faintest consolation, and possibly none at all; and still in the long, slow stages of our upward climb my agony counts, whether its counting consoles me or not.
The inference that we come into the life of this planet for an "appointed time" we draw from what we see of God's system of order. All other things do so, as far as we observe. The plant springs, to grow and bloom, to bear fruit and seed, and so renew itself. Fish, bird, and animal have their appointed round varying only in detail from that of the plant. Man's appointed round would seem to vary only in detail from that of the animal, except that he himself interferes with it.
To the best of my knowledge the plant, from the blade of grass to the oak or the orchid, always fulfils its life-span, unless some act or accident cripples or destroys it. I mean that we never see God bringing the shoot above the soil just to nip it before it unfolds. We never see Him bring the bud to the eve of blossoming just to wither it. Having given it its mission He supplies it with rain, sun, and sustenance to bring that mission to its end. True, the plant has enemies, like everything else, enemies which it may not escape. But generally speaking, it does escape them, and lives to finish its task.
So, too, with the more active living thing. It, too, has its enemies. It, too, may not escape them. But assuming that it does, God allows it, to the best of our observation, to work out its full development. The only "bereavement" he brings to the lion, the thrush, or the elephant, or any other creature capable of grief is, apparently, from those hostile sources of which the hostility is more or less gratuitous. A man shoots a lion, or the lion kills an antelope; but they do so through misreading of God's Will, not through fulfilling it.
For the lower ranks of creation misread that Will in their way as much as the higher in theirs. All ferocity must be misinterpretation of the divine law of harmony and mutual help. Internecine destruction probably has a meaning we can only guess at. Guessing at it we are at liberty to surmise that what God sees as loving contention for excellence, each gaining by the other's gain, we understand as bitter strife, and consumption of the flesh and blood. The rivalry we can best appreciate is that of brutality; the chief benefit the stronger creature seeks from the weaker is in killing and eating him. Why this should be part of our struggle I do not know; but part of our struggle it seems to be--from the humblest organism up to man--the mistaking of God's Will before learning to understand it.
And lest I should seem to assume too much, in saying this, let me add that our progress out of this state of preying on each other has long been foreseen by the pioneers of truth. The vision is at least as ancient as Isaiah, when he descried from afar the accomplished rule of the Son of David:
"With righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth.... And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins. The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together.... And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the seas."
If I am correct in thinking that our passage across the life of this planet is meant to last for an "appointed time," I presume that that time would be measured by experience rather than by years. There exists what we vaguely call the round of life. We are born; we grow; we know family interests; we learn; we work; we love; we marry; we beget children; we train them to take our places; we pass beyond. There are variations on this routine, some of us having more, some of us having less; but in general it may be taken as typical. It is our mission, as the plants and the lower living things have theirs.
It seems reasonable, then, to think that each baby born is meant by the Father's Will to reap this experience before it proceeds to further experience. It must be a stage in its growth or it would not come into it. When it is balked of it something is amiss. The child who dies in infancy has lost something. The lad or the girl whom our organised life drives from this plane before reaching fruition has lost something. The parent whom our conditions force onward before he has brought his task to a stage at which he can peacefully lay it down has lost something. I am not saying that God does not control resources by which that loss can be abundantly made up, but only that the loss would seem to be there. It is loss for the one who departs as well as for those who remain behind.
That is what I gather from the instances in the Old and New Testament in which those who had gone on before their time were called back again. There are six of these instances in all: one in the Old Testament, and five in the New. Of four of them we are expressly told that those restored were young; of the other two nothing is said as to age, but one at least was probably young, while the other was greatly needed.
The child called back by Elisha was still a little boy. The daughter of Jairus was still a little girl. The son of the widow of Nain was a young man, as was also Eutychus raised by St. Paul. Though we are not told the age of Lazarus we judge that he was at most no more than in man's maturity. Dorcas of Lydda may have been of any age, but, judging by the circumstances, she had not completed her task.
My point is this, that if these things happened, they seem to bear out my suggestion that our own inducement of premature death cuts us off from fulfilling our appointed time and getting our appointed experience. Only on some such ground can we believe that any would be permitted to return.
Should this be so we would be in a position to assume that all who go over ahead of time would be allowed to come back, if we had sufficient spiritual power to recall them. But that power is of the rarest. Our Lord, apparently, was in control of it only at times, and on at least one occasion, that of the raising of Lazarus, its exercise was not what we should call easy. But that He believed it to be at human command to some extent is clear from the fact that its use became one of His four basic principles. "Raise the dead," was the second of the commands with which He sent out his first seventy disciples.
I dwell on the subject only because of its bearing on the love of God. If it becomes plain to us that by the understanding of God's Will we gain a richer experience, with less fear of being cut off before our work is done, that Will makes a stronger appeal for being understood. That we have not understood it earlier, that we have not particularly cared to understand it, is due, I think, to our assumption of its capriciousness. It has been so underscored as inscrutable--the word generally applied to it--that the man in the street has felt mystified by it from the start. Being mystified he has settled down to think as little about it as he could.
But a great force striving with man to put common sense into his methods is worth comprehending. It does not compel us to common-sense methods for the reason that we value only that which we work out for ourselves. We work nothing out but through suffering. We learn nothing, we take no forward step, except as we are whipped to it by anguish. That is why there is so much mourning in the world. God does not cause it; we bring it on ourselves; but each time we bring it on ourselves we creep one tiny step nearer that race-conclusion which is now coming to us about war, and will one day come to us about death, that "It must never happen again."
In other words, death will be abolished by race-unanimity not to submit to it. We shall have travelled far in this direction when the average mind begins to perceive that God did not send death into His creation, but that we ourselves developed it. Having developed it ourselves we must get rid of it ourselves, and already some of that work has been done. "For seeing that death came through man," are the words of St. Paul, "through man comes also the resurrection of the dead." When he speaks of "Jesus Christ who hath abolished death," his words are stronger still. "He has put an end to death and has brought Life and Immortality to light by the Good News, of which I have been appointed a preacher, apostle, and teacher."
This Life and Immortality are not to be relegated to other ages and worlds; they are for us to work out now.
The degree to which we work them out depends on our own efforts. Death will be our doom for many generations to come, because so few of us have the energy to strive against it. Release can come only when the race at large is willing to cast the evil thing off. One would suppose that we would be willing now; but we are far from being willing. We shall go on forcing our dear ones to die before their time, falling sick ourselves, enduring agonies, and rotting in graves, till we have suffered to the point at which we cry out that we have had enough. There will be a day when in presence of the useless thing we shall say, with something amounting to one accord, "It must stop." That day will be the beginning of the end of the age-long curse to which we still submit ourselves. In the language of St. Paul, "The last enemy to be destroyed is death," leaving us with the belief that, when we have progressed to the overthrow of other forces opposed to us, we shall go on to the overthrow of this one--and that it will be overthrown.
From one kind of fear this reasoning has almost entirely delivered me--that of being taken away in the midst of my responsibilities, and before my work is done. I am not so audacious as to say that it may not happen; but only that, reasoning as I do, I am no longer a prey to apprehensions on the point. They used to come to me, not like the money-fear, an abiding visitant, but in spells of intense dread.
I suppose that most men with families, and much unfinished business, know this dread, and have suffered from it. You think of the home you have built up, and of what it would be without you. You think of your wife, grappling with a kind of difficulty to which she is unaccustomed. You think of your children who turn to you as their central point, and who would be left without your guidance. You think of other duties you have undertaken, and wonder who will carry them through. You seem to be so essential to everyone and everything; and yet, you have been told, it may be the Will of God to remove you from them, and either let your plans collapse, or put their execution on the shoulders of someone else.
I am not so presumptuous as to say that for me this may not happen. I only say that I do not think it will. I do not think so because, according to my judgment, He having helped me to go as far as I have gone, will help me to finish my task before giving me another one.
My task, I think, He must estimate as I do. That is, my duties to others being not wholly of my choosing, but having come to me according to what I may call His weighing and measuring, I take them to be the duties He would have me perform. If so, He would naturally have me perform them till I come to the place where I can reasonably lay them down.
Therefore, I dismiss the fear of untimely separation from my appointed work. Such a separation may come; but if it does, it will probably come by some such means as I have briefly tried to sketch; my own mistakes; the mistakes of others; the effect of race-pressure. In any case, my personal resistance, it seems to me, is made the stouter by feeling that my tasks are His tasks, and so that so long as I am needful to their accomplishment, I remain. If I go, it will be because He has the succession of events so planned as to reduce collapse, failure, or suffering to a minimum.
B. The thought that the minute after death will only be another little step in Growth, to be followed by another and then another, as we are used to growing here, greatly diminishes one's shrinking at the change.
It is entirely a modern thought. The past, even of a few centuries ago, never entertained it. It is doubtful if it was mentally prepared to entertain it, or evolve the idea.
This is not to depreciate our fathers' mental powers. Different generations have different gifts. One age works along one line, another along another. The past had a certain revelation of truth; but the revelation of truth did not end with the past. Our ancestors received as much as they could take. What, it seems, they were unable to take was anything which made death less horrible. We may say, in fact, that they didn't want it. They liked having death made horrible. Many people like it still. The mitigation of that horror they condemn, resent, and often ascribe to the devil.
And yet there is a tendency to see light through this gloom, and to seek views of death more in the line of common sense than those which have come down to us. It is not a strong tendency, but it exists. It exists in the face of opposition on the part of those religious conservatives who think conservatism and orthodoxy the same thing; and it runs the gauntlet of the sneers and jeers of the materially minded who make common cause with the old guard of the churches; but it exists. It exists, and goes forward, becoming a factor in the thought-life of our time.
It is not yet two hundred years since the plea was put forth on behalf of mankind that, in the administration of divine justice, no one suffers less than he deserves, but also that no one suffers more.
The hostility to this seemingly harmless teaching was of the most intense. There is hostility to it still, but mild as compared with that felt by our great-great-grandfathers. That no one should suffer less than he deserves went without saying; but that no one should suffer more was declared a black heresy. As there are those who declare it a black heresy to-day, it may be worth while, in the interests of the conquest of fear, to say a word as to the relation of God and punishment.
To my mind it is chiefly verbal.
It is permissible to say that there is no such thing as punishment; there are only wrong results. It depends upon your way of putting it. The wrong method produces wrong results in proportion as it is wrong. Wrong results mean wrong conditions; and wrong conditions mean suffering. You may call this the law of God, but it is the law of anything. It is not positive law, it is negative. As a matter of fact, God does not need to put forth a law on the point since everything works that way.
What we call sin is simply a wrong method. It may be a wrong method meant to produce wrong; or it may be a wrong method in the hope of producing right. In any case it brings its consequence in pain.
That consequence may be corrected in this phase of our being, or it may be carried over into the next. Carried over into the next the individual, according to our ancestral teaching, comes under the sentence in which our fathers delighted as "damnation." Not only did damnation involve the most fiendish torture the Almighty could invent, but the torture was inflicted, without an instant of relief, throughout the eons of eternity.
I recall a sermon to which I listened as a boy of nine. It was on a summer's evening, when the windows of the church were open. A moth fluttered about a light. The church stood at the foot of a mountain. The preacher was trying to explain to us the eternal duration of God's punishment. "Think of that moth," he said, "carrying away one grain of sand from that mountain, and going off for a million years, after which it would return and take away another grain. And think of it keeping this up, one grain every million years, till the whole mountain was removed. Well, that would be only a moment as compared with the time you would be in hell."
On the generations comforted and fortified by this sort of teaching I have no comment to make; but we of another generation should surely not be reproved for moving away from it. We move away from it in the direction of common sense, since common sense must be an attribute of the Universal Father as it is of the wiser among mankind.
I revert, then, to my statement that God's relation to punishment is chiefly verbal. His "wrath against sin" is a way of "putting it." If you can best express the suffering which springs from wrong methods as "God's wrath" you are at liberty so to express yourself; but we should not lose sight of the fact that the wrong methods produce the suffering, and not an outburst of fury on the part of One who is put before us as Love.
The fact that the Hebrew writers often used a vivid form of warning and invective is not a reason why we should keep on doing it. The Hebrew writer was a primitive speaking to primitives. Meaning what we mean, he required a stronger, fiercer vocabulary than we ever need. In saying this I am not dodging the issue; I am stating a fact which rules in all historical interpretation. To make the phraseology of two thousand years before Christ the literal expression of the thought of two thousand years after Him is to be archaic beyond reason. Having grasped a principle, we phrase it in the language of our time.
The language of our time makes, on the whole, for restraint, sobriety, and exactitude of statement. Few of our habits modify themselves more constantly and more rapidly than our forms of speech. Not only does each generation find something special to itself, but each year and each season. To me it seems that much of our misunderstanding of God springs from the effort to fix on Him forevermore the peculiarities we infer from the idiom of five thousand years ago. Only to a degree does that idiom convey to us what is conveyed to those who heard it as a living tongue; and of that degree much is lost when it percolates through translation. To cling to words when all we need is to know principles, clothing them in our own way, seems to me not only absurd in fact but lamentable in result. I venture to think that more people have been alienated from God by a pious but misapplied verbal use than were ever estranged from Him by sin.
Our ancient Hebrew predecessors understood God in their own way. We understand Him in the same way, but with the clarification wrought by the intervening years of progress. In other words, they bequeath us a treasure which we are free to enrich with our own discoveries.
Among our own discoveries is a clearer comprehension of pain as resulting from wrong methods, and of God's detachment from pain. More and more, punishment becomes a concept we reject. Even in our penal institutions, which have been for so many centuries a barbarous token of our incompetence, we begin to substitute for punishment something more nearly akin to cure. If we find mere vengeance unworthy of ourselves we must find it unworthy of the Universal Father. If we concede to the criminal the right to a further chance we concede it to ourselves. If we recognise the fact that the sinner on earth may redeem himself, working from error towards righteousness, the same principle should rule in the whole range of existence. There is nothing about the earth-life to make it the only phase of effort and probation. Effort and probation are probably conditions of eternity. They will be in our next experience as they have been in this, leading us on from strength to strength.
One main difference between the mind of the past and the modern mind is that the mind of the past tended to be static, while the mind of to-day is more and more attuned to a dynamic universe. Civilisation before the nineteenth century was accustomed to long periods with relatively little change. Most people spent their entire lives in the same town or the same countryside. In the class in which they were born they lived and died, with little thought of getting out of it. This being so they looked for the same static conditions after death as they saw before it. A changeless heaven appalled them with no sense of monotony, nor did a changeless hell do anything to shake their nerves. Their nerves were not easily shaken. They were a phlegmatic race, placid, unimaginative, reposeful.
Because we of to-day are more restless it does not follow that our views should be truer. We only know they are truer because we are so much nearer the truth than they had the opportunity to come. We prove that we are nearer the truth by our greater command of the Father's resources. If our whole horizon of truth were not broadened, we could not possess this command.
Changing our static conception of life to that of a dynamic will to unfold, we see the climax we commonly call death as only a new step in unfoldment. Whatever I have been, the step must be one in advance. It would not be in accord with creative energy that I should go backward. The advance may entail suffering, since it is probable that it will give me a heightened perception of the wrong in my methods; but there are conditions in which suffering signifies advance.
And yet if I suffer it can only be with what I may call a curative suffering. It will be suffering that comes from the recognition of mistake; not the hopeless anguish of the damned. Having learned "how not to do it," I perceive "how to do it"--and go on.
But the perception of "how to do it" is precisely what most of us have been acquiring. I venture to think that few of us will come face to face with death without being more or less prepared for it. Life is so organised that, at its worst, all but the rare exceptions make progress daily, through obedience to the laws of righteousness.
In saying this we must count as righteousness not merely the carrying out of a rule of thumb laid down by man's so-called morality, or the technical regulations prescribed by the churches for the use of their adherents; we must include every response to every high call. We must remember that all a man does in the way of effort to be a good son, a good brother, a good husband, a good father, a good workman, a good citizen, is of the nature of slowly creeping forward. Above every other form of training of the self this endeavour determines a man's spiritual standing, and his state of worthiness. He may know some failure in each of these details; and yet the fact that in the main he is set--as I am convinced the great majority are set--toward fulfilling his responsibilities helps him to be ready when the time comes to put the material away.
The great common sense of the nations brought us to this perception during the years when the young men of the world were going down like wheat before the reaping machine. For the most part, doubtless, they were young men in whom the ladies who attend our churches would have seen much to reprimand. The moral customs of their countries were possibly held by them lightly. The two points which constitute pretty nearly all of American morality they may have disregarded. And yet we felt that their answer to the summons, which to them at least was a summons to sacrifice, showed them as men who had largely worked out their redemption. Whatever our traditions, we were sure that those who were ready to do anything so great could go to the Father without fear.
But war calls for no more than a summing up and distillation of the qualities we cultivate in peace. These men were ready because homes, offices, banks, shops, factories, and farms had trained them to be ready. So they are training all of us. Traditions help; the churches help; but when it comes to the directing of the life toward righteousness--the effort to do everything rightly--no one thing has the monopoly.
Going to the Father without fear! All the joy of life seems to me to hang on that little phrase. I used it just now of the young men who passed over from the battlefield; but I used it there with limitations. Going to the Father without fear is a privilege for every minute of the day. More and more knowledge of the Father is the progress for which we crave, since more knowledge of the Father means a fuller view of all that makes up the spiritual universe. Into that knowledge we are advancing every hour we live; into that knowledge we shall still be advancing at the hour when we die. The Father will still be showing us something new; the something new will still be showing us the Father.
It will be something new, as we can receive it. He who can receive little will be given little; he who can receive much will be given much. In growth all is adjusted to capacity; it is not meant to shock, force, or frighten. The next step in growth being always an easy step, I can feel sure of moving onwards easily--"from strength to strength," in the words of one of the Songs for the Sons of Korah, "until unto the God of gods appeareth everyone of them in Zion."
 The Book of Psalms.