A Sermon Delivered by JOHN WILHELM ROWNTREE, at the Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, 10th Month 27, 1901, from notes taken by George B. Cock.
Friends' Intelligencer, Vol. 58 No. 45 (11th Month 9, 1901) and Vol. 58 No. 46 (11th Month 1601, 1901.)
This is The Quaker Homiletics Online Anthology, Part 4: The 20th Century.
I remember once, on a brilliant morning in May, aside at the direction of my guide from the barren valley of the Tombs of the Kings, running up the Nile at Luxor into the boundary of the It was such a day as I suppose one could find outside of Italy--a brilliant deep blue sky, sunshine that seemed to cut like a knife--so sharp the shadows, so clearly defined even distant objects. As we turned aside from that brilliant sunshine, from that deep blue of the skies which spread like a curtain over the desert, into a narrow rock-hewn passage running into the cliff, we walked for some time upon a carpet of dust which had taken to centuries form,--as silent a carpet as ever decorated the floor of a rich man's house; upon either side upon the walls were multitudes of carvings, gradually less distinct, as they penetrated deep into gloom of the rock-hewn passage. At last we ourselves in a small chamber, thick with dust; in the middle the magnesian wire revealed to us the sarcophagus of an old king who lived 1200 years before Christ; and even as we looked, the light startled a creature in that rock-hewn chamber, and we felt the fluttering of a bat in our faces. Our feet had disturbed the carpet of dust, and the air was thick and choking with the fine, impalpable sand of the desert, as it had drifted in through all these years.
Among the writings of the Assyrians there is an account of the goddess Ishtar descending into Hades; and the account, which is in the form of an epic, describes how she went down into the nether regions of the world; and though I cannot quote the exact words, I give you them nearly: "But the house of darkness" (as the ancient scribe proceeds), "the house of darkness--the house men enter but do not depart from," where "the souls of the dead lie as fluttering wings."
As I remember the experience of that day in Egypt there comes to me some dim sense of the horror of this pall over the future life for those people who knew not the larger hope. Many years afterward another sovereign wrote upon the tomb of her dead husband, "Here at last I shall rest with thee--with thee in Christ to rise again." That is what Queen Victoria wrote upon the mausoleum of the Prince Consort at Throgmore; and that inscription marks the different measures of progress between the Old Testament and the New, between King Hezekiah and his gloominess, and the hope which is to be, of England to-day.
I do not think it is possible, from whatever standpoint we study the Bible, to ignore this difference, which is so strikingly illustrated, between what is known as the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament the note of immortality is uncertain and hesitating: there is no clear and definite teaching running through its pages; but when we turn from the Old to the New we find ourselves in an atmosphere altogether different: the whole New Testament rings with the certainty of a new hope; the very language of that New Testament is the language of great expectation--how he that liveth and was dead shall have life forevermore. No matter what interpretation we place upon this account which describes the event of the Resurrection, one thing is perfectly clear to the students that something occurred to introduce a new hope in a group of people who became afterwards the Christian Church--that a new dynamic entered the world with the Christian faith, and that it carried with it the larger hope.
Now it is not at all impossible that we, studying the lives of men and of women who have lived without that larger hope~without the certainty of the future life--it is not impossible, I say, that we should feel some measure of respect and admiration for their fortitude. It is impossible not to feel admiration for Marcus Aurelius; it is impossible not to feel admiration of a different kind for King Hezekiah. Men have lived bravely this life with the uncertainty of the future before them; they have bent themselves with their whole energy to the immediate concerns of the present, and have steeled their hearts, strung their nerves, to bear with fortitude the uncertainty that lies in the very mystery of being. Perhaps it is possible for us to say, Is that not really the finer qualification? Is there not a higher nobility in a life which can be lived with such discouragement that it rings so pure and high? We may shape the argument in a more positive form: we may even say of those who live perfect lives for the sake of future reward, "What merit it is in them, any more than those who would shun evil for the sake of punishment Which would follow, can be reckoned among the just ?"
I remember the story which is sometimes told of an old woman who was found one day setting forth with a brazier of coals in one hand and a pail of water in the other. She was going, she said, to burn up heaven with the coals, and to put out the flames of hell with the water, in order that men might learn to love God for his own sake and to hate sin for its own sake. Surely we may sympathize with the moral of that story, even though it is somewhat quaintly framed. We can sympathize with the thought that lies behind the story. We recognize that virtue which is not pursued for its own sake is but a starveling thing at the best; we can recognize those who shun evil simply for the fear of consequences are contemptible and mean; and yet does it follow that in the admiration that all naturally feel for men liked Marcus Aurelius we are right in accepting their position and their view of life ? That is a question to I which there is more than one answer; but I know that in speaking from my own experience my answer 'must be: "No; it does not follow."
There is a passage in the writings of the Apostle Paul which, I think, has a directly remarkable application to us to-day, though written without any thought of a twentieth century audience: "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."
Let us try and see by examination what the modern application of those words is for us. I want to call your attention to what I conceive to be the most serious development of our modern life. I think if I were to suggest a gospel which, it would seem, the majority of the world accept as all sufficient, it would be found in the words, "Eat, drink, and be merry; for to-morrow we die." That, perhaps, puts it somewhat forcibly; and yet it is not possible to look out upon life and not to recognize that paganism, under a very thin disguise of conventional Christianity, flourishes upon every hand; it is impossible no, to recognize that selfishness in all its subtle and varied forms gangrenes society; the love of pleasure has gained added means of satisfying pleasure; the moral and spiritual fibre of this generation has been unstrung by .the developments of luxury seducing men from the sterner hands of duty and of honor. Life has become so rich and so many-colored that men refuse to look beyond the present; they decline to lift their eyes from the dust to the angel who stands there with the crown: they epitomize the allegory of John Bunyan; they persist in stirring up the dust upon the highway of life that it may hide from their eyes the white precipices upon the hill. They live in a fever of excitement; not one, not two, but many newspapers in a day; they are drowned in a sea of ephemeral literature, with morphine injections to drown the conscience. The world is becoming one great maelstrom, whose roar drowns the still, small voice of God. My friends, this is a moment of peril, and of trial for the Christian Church. We are confronted with an atheism far more terrible than the barren, negative atheism of the cynic who denies God logically and defies the Christian Church with his logic. We are face to face with an atheism that laughs at the earnestness of the old atheist; that cares not whether there be a God or no. It does not trouble to deny him--it passes by and ignores him. "Eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die; "--on the other side those words of the Apostle Paul coming to us across the centuries, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we of all men most miserable."
Years ago, long before the deductions of the morality of civilization had been introduced British Isles, when many savage people been brought up in the love of nature and who had the spell of nature which charms, were brought face to face with Christian missionaries,--hearing the message of those missionaries they said that it gave a new view to life. Life had seemed to them, until that message came, like the flight of a bird from the cold darkness of a winter night into the warmth of a fire-lit room, and then into the darkness beyond--a momentary gleam of warmth and light, but darkness before and darkness behind. When we are thrown back upon ourselves--we modern pagans, with so much left of the true fibre of those old pagans who knew not the advantage of the Divine authentication, when we modern pagans are thrown back upon our selves by some sharp buffet of misfortune, when the gay toys with which we have amused are suddenly destroyed by a blow from the iron fate, then, too, there may come to us a sense of the dreariness which came over King Hezekiah; then, too, we may realize that we have living but on the surface of things, and that there is no real thought to our life; then, as we look up, there will be no longer the cruder blessings of our life: the sky will have no star, and the sigh of the wind from the desert will bring the loneliness of despair. In such moments as those (and they come to some of us) it is not sufficient to admire Marcus Aurelius. Is there not something in the heart which asks for sustenance which it cannot define? Do we out reach out with hand of prayer, longing for the unseen God to be made manifest in some in some shape that it may appeal to us and support us?
I have quoted from King Hezekiah: let me quote from one very different. In Hezekiah there is
hardly any profound philosophy. He represented perhaps simply the current ideas of his day and
generation. Let us turn to Plato, the supremest of all the pagans. We find there that same longing
which I believe lies at the root of every human heart of a certainty of a true knowledge of God--of
a knowledge which shall interpret life, and give it its final and its fullest meaning. Plato longed for
some sure, some definite word, that might bear him across the sea of life's uncertainty. Yet to
Plato there came no certain word, and he had to satisfy himself with the shadow and the best of
human words. Are we to stop with Plato, and with Marcus Aurelius; is there no other significance
for the larger hope than the mere selfish longing for eternal ease (which is utterly ignoble) or the
mere selfish dread of eternal pain (which is no less ignoble)? Or, is there something in those words
of Paul full of deep meaning: "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most
miserable"? Is there not something in that larger hope which is essential to the best welfare of the
human race? Is it not necessary for us that our life shall be taken out of its self containedness and
brought into unity with some eternal whole? Is it not necessary for us, if our human life is to be
lived as it can be lived, and should be lived, that it should be pierced through and through with
Surely we need some key to our lives ! Surely we need that "sure and certain word" upon which we may rely; surely we need some conception which interprets our life to us, and gives it a complete purpose and adds to it a dignity which may fire our hearts with divine consciousness and fill our veins with a passion that may not be withstood; and how is that to come to us? From the mere thought of the immanent God? The Greek had that thought of an immanent God; he saw God in nature everywhere about him; and yet the finest ethics of Greek philosophers is based in that cry of Plato: "O, for some sure, some certain word!"
What are you in the eye of nature? Contradict her law, and you are a man torn by machinery into which he has got involved. The machine goes on relentlessly and you are dust; you have got in the way of the law; the law annihilates you. The hope there? Surely not, if we probe deep enough.
This human experience,--is that all so clear that he who runs may read? Is there no difficulty,--nothing to conflict with our thought of the universal love? Ah! we have but to think a moment of the inconsistencies, and explain the sufferings, sometimes apparently so undeserved, with which humanity is afflicted, and it becomes surely possible for us, regarding that field alone as our evidence, to rise up here without the knowledge that God is love. No; if we are honest, and take life as it really is, we are bound to see its difficulties and its problems upon every hand; we are bound to cry with Plato for that divine, that surer word, which shall carry us across this sea of difficulty. And more than that; in our heart of hearts we know it; deep down there is a craving which cannot be quenched, which we cannot extinguish,--a craving for a personal: knowledge of God, a groping in the darkness with hands of prayer feeling for Him we love, that through all this tangle of difficulty that surrounds us he reach down to us the divine hand, that we may grasp like children,--we may be lifted up out of that which threatens to overwhelm us, to feel and know the love of it. It is not a question of creeds; it is not a question of theology, of orthodoxy or heterodoxy; it is a question of reality of healing; in a word, of knowing that God is love,--to be so conscious of our relationship with him that it can sustain us, no matter what we think, or believe. Such a relationship presses right down below words into the very centre of our being, and tides us over and bears us on and lifts us above all the trials and drag and friction of our every-day life. There is not a man, there is not a woman, that in his or her heart of hearts has not known that longing to know God.
Now, friends, I want to speak what is real to me (if it be not real to you), and I want to be understood as speaking not as a demagogist but as talking out of a precious experience to myself, and a longing to have it shared by others. That consciousness has come to me through Jesus Christ; it has come to me after darkness which it seemed to me at one time was i never to be pierced.
I have known what it was almost to give up the belief in God; I have certainly known what it was not to believe God in my heart, but only to believe in him with my head. I have known what it is to believe that there was no reality in the Bible--certainly no reality in Jesus Christ. These things have come back again to me along unexpected paths, in ways which I had not discerned,--but they have come back and they are clear to me. The Bible has come back to me, through difficulty, in modern theology. Jesus Christ has come back to me ill ways which I cannot express in speech. This I do know--even that light from out of darkness comes at times--a heavenly light. I know what it means when the poet says that the heart has felt; I know. what it means to feel in my heart the active presence of the love of God that has come to me through Jesus Christ. I am fully aware that to very many the authority--ordinary teaching--of Jesus Christ seems a limitation. In the first place, the evidence rests upon a superficial basis--upon, for instance, the verbal, the absolute, inspiration of Scripture; upon the argument from miracle, and from such evidence. These are matters which do not concern me at all. I am fully prepared to admit that there are historical questions in the New Testament, even, which are yet to be solved by closer and higher scholarship; I am fully alive to all the difficulty which has been raised in that connection; but to me these things have ceased to possess any essential interest, because my own evidence lies deeper than that, even though it is an evidence which I cannot communicate to others. From that knowledge it seems to me that there are certain cases of the teachings in relation to Jesus Christ which had not received emphasis by the Christian Church, and which, if they were in future more generally emphasized, would very much reduce the intellectual difficulties which so many of us have felt and still feel in regard to such teachings.
In the first place emphasis has been laid upon the teaching, "No man cometh to the Father but by me;" and to a few that imposes a restriction of the witness of God, the narrowing down of the evidence of God, to one personality. To me it appeals with a totally different light; it does not, mean in that way at all. God witnesseth essentially for man. He is the immanent God, closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet, who witnesses in another which is but the garment of God.
But to me, without Jesus Christ all that thought have remained unvitalized and indefinite. I would have nothing sure and certain which, in the tangled maze of things, speaks to me clearly of the love of God. I need that human agent of communication between the human and the divine; need that interpretation of life, that interpretation of its that interpretation of my own being, which revelation of the heart of God. To me not a theological figure, not a factor divine mathematics, not an element in external scheme of salvation, but the unveiling of the:.Father's face, the audible beat of the heart of the "word made flesh," as John has expressed--God himself made flesh, in order that man, with finite mind, might grasp it through nature and the and the true character and true purposes and the true will of God; in order that in the first course of evolution there might be introduced that vivid spiritual ideal which alone can lift the human race, which can draw men up from the brute to the spirit--lifting them by a language which will not be denied by the great world to the very Father's house itself. It is to me a curtain drawn aside, so that man has looked through into the ineffable glory of heaven and beheld the only begotten son--beheld in him the very glory of God himself.
That is not limitation. If we look upon Jesus Christ-in that light, not as coming to contradict whatever evidence in whatever religion may have been already been given of the love of God, but as coming to confirm everything, coming to illuminate everything, coming to focus everything, then it is no limitation, but simply divine sanction; the seal is set upon all that which man had hesitatingly identified with God himself. It is the sanction of all that is true in Buddha, all that is true in the Egyptian cult of the day, all that is true in the teachings of Confucius; all that is true in the teachings of Zoroaster; it is the binding together from every point in the world of all the little fragments of light,--gathering together into one great shaft broadcast that should pierce the selfishness and darkness of the world.
In the twelfth century there lived in France a man called Henry de Suso--a mystic, whose faith found its highest expression in the writings of John Tauler. "Friends of God" they called themselves; and in many ways they were forerunners of George Fox. Henry de Suso, a Spaniard by birth, was found one day kneeling before the image of the Virgin Mary, and as he prayed he fell into a trance, and he cried out in his prayer to the Virgin; the Child she held in her arms was manifested as a reality by stooping down and kissing him; and even as he prayed the Child took life and form, and the Virgin smiled down on the kneeling mystic; even as he prayed, the heavenly kiss was imprinted upon his forehead, and for one brief moment Henry de Suso was permitted to enjoy such ecstasy. Then the dream passed. This is simply a crude, childish Roman Catholic story? I think we have misread its meaning if we so account it. Of course, it was a dream, and of course it was not actual; but Henry de Suso was experiencing that deepest longing of the human race: he was longing for a view of the face of God; he was longing that the hand might be stretched out which should touch his heart strings, and set those chords in motion which respond only to the deepest passion--the passion of personal devotion, and personal obedience, and personal knowledge; and, friends, believe me! our faith will remain diffuse and impotent; our power as a religious church must remain short of what it might be, unless our faith and our love and our devotion, all the deepest energy of our human nature, can find a personal focus, a personal living thought of God.
And, as we advance, that thought of God revealed in Jesus Christ--does it not mean that life acquires a new significance? The ideals then no longer misty, but vivid. The grandeur of God as it is born to us, so to speak, and upon its human side, is unfolded to us; and we know the meaning of the Divine sympathy, and the divine redemption, and the divine passion. We see that t overfloods our life, and carries us beyond the gates of death--that there is no end, but all seems one with the eternal love of God. It does not explain for us in scientific terms all the difficulty and the conundrums, of life; it does not tell us why the stars are made or where they are made it does not explain for us the conservation of energy; it does not explain for us the force of gravity; it does not read for us the riddle' of protoplasm: it leaves these questions still to solve--but it gives us assurance, in spite of life's difficulties, in spite of life's problems; in spite, of the shadow and the darkness, that God is love. Love not cold, not passionless; it reaches out of itself, seeking to save. Our life is lifted by it out of the uncertainty which ruled the Hebrew king. We are made to feel our lives are part of the great divine plan if we see but, a momentary glimpse, and therefore may read it wrong; through the eon God is working out his great purpose,--working it through us if, we are willing to put ourselves in line with him;--if we are willing to stand up and say to him, "Take my hands and use them; take my lips and speak with them; take my heart and use it as a lamp of love by which the light may shine in this dark world of selfishness!"
Life is then no longer a flash in the pan; it is no longer a mockery, something at which Fate laughs
with a hollow laugh as we struggle and strive. It is something with a divine meaning, with a
personal tongue. Even as we believe this, and as we yield to the belief, and as we go on winning
victory after victory over our selfishness by the help of God's help, even so does God's face,
which seemed like darkness before us, become transparent. They are no longer brazen gates;
death hath no sting, and grave no victory. "I am he that liveth and was dead, and behold! I am
alive forevermore." Physical death may come to us; but immortality remains, and God remains,
and his love remains, as shown to us in Jesus Christ; and our work remains, no matter where, and
we go on working with him, through the eons of day, seeking to find and to realize that prayer
which he taught us, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."