A Sermon Delivered by D. ELTON TRUEBLOOD at Stanford University, ca. 1959.
G. Paul Butler, ed. Best Sermons Vol VII: 1959-1960 Protestant Edition. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1960, pages 150-154.
This is The Quaker Homiletics Online Anthology, Part 4: The 20th Century.
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[P. 150] "Hold fast what is good," I Thessalonians 5:21, R.S.V.
One of the most striking facts of the world is the fact of moral difference. Men differ from one another in a thousand ways, but all other differences fade into relative insignificance in comparison with differences in goodness. Though goodness is difficult to define, it is wonderfully easy to recognize. Often the difference is observable on first contact with another person, so radically do selfishness and greed, as well as their opposites, influence the whole man, even affecting his external appearance in many ways. This does not mean that the understanding of ethical problems is easy or simple, but it does mean that we know goodness when we see it, and to see it is a thrilling experience.
The paramount importance of goodness in human life becomes evident when we ask ourselves what kind of people we are willing to have as companions for long periods. For steady companionship it is sheer goodness that we prize most, providing we mean by goodness genuine excellence of character and not some trivial standard of conduct. The one whose companionship we prize is not the person who puts on a show of virtue for the sake of private gain, the self-centered man, or the man who would seek to use us for his [P. 151] own ends. Mere cleverness would finally become tiresome, dominating personalities are ridiculous after a time, humor we want in small doses, but goodness is permanently satisfying. Sometimes, indeed, we hear of people who are accused of being too good, but that merely indicates that these persons are superficially pious or are marked by an affectation of gentleness or generosity. When we think of the best people we know, we realize that they have something which cannot be overdone. The heart of goodness is trustworthiness, and there cannot be too much trustworthiness in the world.
In view of the fact that goodness is of paramount importance in the life of human beings, it is obvious that we should do all we can to learn how it is achieved or produced. There could be no more worthy task than that of discovering the conditions under which moral excellence arises, since the deliberate cultivation of these conditions might facilitate the development of the goodness we so greatly prize. Weare tempted to conclude that goodness is born and that effort is therefore futile, but it is a fact that character can be changed. It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the best thought of great and good men has been devoted to this problem since the rise of civilization.
Before attempting a positive answer it is worthwhile to note some of the conditions which are not sufficient, either separately or together, to produce moral excellence. Perhaps the most obvious one of these is wealth. Money does not make men good and neither does poverty, inasmuch as we find all degrees of goodness combined with all degrees of economic standing. Rare beauty of character sometimes flourishes in city slums, but it is also found in homes of millionaires.
Socrates was a poor man of Athens, and Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome with vast resources at his command, but both lived beautiful lives. In some sections of New York City the slum and the avenue are separated by only a few feet, but they are no closer geographically than they are morally. This is not to say that economic conditions have no bearing on the problem, but it does mean that they are not sufficient conditions. Certainly some conditions make goodness unusually difficult and these are chiefly the extreme conditions. The economic condition which presents the fewest hindrances to the development of goodness is one removed as far as possible from great wealth on the one hand and from dire poverty on the other.
Another condition which cannot account for goodness is education. [P. 152] As in the case of wealth, it can be truly said that all degrees of goodness are actually combined with all degrees of training. Some moral giants have been rude, unlettered persons. The conspicuous example is that of the first apostles, Galilean fishermen. Almost everyone is acquainted with some genuine saint, usually of restricted circumstances, who may have read only a few books in his life. The best person I have ever known never went to college. On the other hand, there sometimes develops in educated circles a spirit of jealousy and struggle for personal power that makes us profoundly discouraged. Goodness is clearly much deeper than mere learning.
This holds in moral education as well as in strictly secular education. It is possible to study the moral standards of different peoples and argue endlessly about competing ethical theories without being made one whit better. Ethical scholarship and personal goodness are two different things.
In the same way we can say that a man's profession is not a sufficient condition of moral excellence. There seem to be good men in every kind of work and disgusting men in every kind of work. It is possible that some tasks make goodness easier, especially those which involve contact with the soil or which provide some physical work without the labor which exhausts. For example, gardeners often seem to have a high degree of what we most prize in men. At the same time there are tasks which are not consistent with moral dignity at all, particularly those by means of which some men are parasites. How nearly independent goodness is of profession is especially clear when we realize that participation in the ministry is no guarantee of goodness. In spite of pious words, and an unctuous manner, there are clergymen who, by a realistic test, are evil men. Churches are often scenes of bickering and bitterness. We can say, then, that occupation bears on the question, but is a minor consideration.
Another possible condition is that of beautiful physical surroundings. Some men live their entire lives in the presence of physical ugliness and filth, whereas others are in the presence of mountain lakes or carefully tended parks and lawns. It is very hard to see how goodness can ever come to flower in the sordidness of the average mining village, where flimsy houses are crowded together on a narrow street and where the only view is obstructed by a pile of slag. But the miracle does happen. At the same time persons surrounded by great beauty may be far from good men.
[P.152] When I began my teaching career I lived in North Carolina in a section which commanded a fine view of some mountains which were the first outposts of the Appalachian Range. It became my habit to look at these mountains daily, and I often thought how fine it would be to live among them. The people on those slopes, I said to myself, could hardly fail to be grand people, considering their surroundings. Later I visited the people who lived there and found that, for the most part, they were quite unaffected by the beauty about them. Indeed, most of them seemed unaware of the beauty, and there were evidences on every hand of moral decay. I went home knowing that physical beauty of surroundings, while it may help, is certainly not enough.
What, then, is enough? There is no perfect recipe in the sense that we can be completely sure of our results, but there is a great deal of accumulated wisdom on the subject, and, according to this wisdom, the prime conditions are two: contagion and discipline.
The contagion of goodness is well demonstrated in the experience of the apostles who, in spite of conspicuous limitations in other ways, became good men chiefly as a result of their acquaintance with Christ. We often use the word contagion only for what is evil, but the truth is that goodness is like a disease which must be caught from another who has it. Fortunately, however, the contact need not be direct in order to be efficacious. Thus goodness can be contagious at long range, and the life of Christ may have an effect on men today much like the effect it had on Peter and John. Goodness has about it an inherent attractiveness that is far more effective than all the arguments in the world. One example may be worth a thousand commands. This is another way of saying that goodness is really unique and that goodness is the only thing which will produce goodness.
If this is true we should act accordingly and try to provide for ourselves the constant opportunity of contagion. You cannot make yourself catch a germ, but you can at least place yourself where the germs are. Professor Whitehead has put this point in a memorable sentence by saying, "Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness." So act that you bring yourself in steady contact with the highest excellence you know, for the soul grows by what it touches.
The discipline of goodness is only a special application of the principles of contagion and, suggests the steady control which is necessary. When men do not respond to goodness it is because they [P. 154] are not sufficiently sensitive themselves to be helped by it. We need discipline to break down the barriers which hinder contagion. Back of anything that is really well done there is usually a long period of self-mastery which has so refined the powers that they seem to act spontaneously. It is well known that good "extempore" speaker are men who have made the most painstaking preparation. Perhaps they have not prepared the individual speech, but they have prepared the long background of the speech. Is it reasonable to suppose that excellence in character needs no discipline, when excellence in speaking needs so much?
The discipline for each task must be one appropriate to it. The appropriate discipline for the opening of our lives to the contagion of goodness is that which comes from times of personal quietness when we refuse to let our minds run hither and yon in a lazy fashion and hold them steadily to high things. The habitual practice of public as well as private prayer, not when we feel like it but with complete regularity, is comparable to the discipline of the musician who forces himself to practice in season and out.
Logan Pearsall Smith has put us in his debt by telling how Whistler learned to paint. The final painting in each case took an incredibly brief time, but before the final painting, literally hundreds of others, of the same subject, were made and discarded. He painted with speed, but it was long discipline that made the speed possible. We see the successful last effort and tend to forget what preceded it. It doesn't take much effort or time to do anything if you know how, but it usually takes a long time to learn. It doesn't take long to throw a javelin, but days of training are what make the throw good.
By the same token, goodness is difficult, and there is no royal road to character. But there is a road, and a road which men are at liberty to choose. That road is one in which we place our lives in contact with contagious goodness and so discipline our spirits that we are able to profit by the experience.