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lected in the past.

B. I mean conventional in the sense that countless
swarms of good-hearted men and women nowadays throw
themselves into social service, to avoid the pain of thinking
whether it is really what they were sent into the world
to do. You may have chosen a comparatively new sphere,
but none the less it is characterized, as all the others are,
by being engrossing first, then by aiming at the material
betterment of our secular life, in other words, at peace
founded on material self-interest, and so far it shares



162 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

with other social aims a grievous uncertainty whether
it will ultimately do more good than harm. Yet for the
nonce it has all the appearance of offering an unassailably
sound line of effort.

F. Good gracious ! you say the work is chosen for
being safe, and yet is profoundly uncertain in its results.
What do you mean ?

B (after a pause). I find it difficult to put this shortly,
and am afraid of taxing your patience. First, in what
sense do I speak of your work as safe ? I mean that its
professed object is certain to be approved of by all safe
and respectable people of the day. It is thought a tho-
roughly worthy object, so worthy and so difficult that it
sets many pulses beating quicker as soon as they hear of
it. Unusual though it be, it is not an inch beyond the
average opinion of the age in which we live. Thus any
one can choose it without patiently facing for himself
what the issues of his life really are. He finds an ideal
ready to hand.

F. Very well. And now about the uncertainty.

B. Have you ever asked yourself how many of the
great changes or conscious efforts towards progress, that
have been made in history, have accomplished the thing
at which they were aimed ? Certainly the reverse of
the question would give some strange answers. You and
I would agree that, considering what Christianity is, any-
thing that prepared the way for it must be considered a
mighty blessing among mankind. But many of these
preparations were calamities at the time, borne, it is true,
mainly by one nation, the Jews. For instance, if one
thinks over the crisis of the young Church in Jerusalem,
described in Acts xv., it becomes clear that had the Jewish
party been much stronger or much narrower than it was,



A YEAR AFTER 163

Christianity would have been throttled in its cradle. But
what chiefly prevented it from being stronger was the
influence of the Diaspora. Now the Diaspora was largely
due to the harrying of the Israelites by the Assyrians, and
the Captivity ; events which must have worn the appear-
ance of unmitigated calamities. Broadly speaking, also,
I would say that where mankind has accomplished an
object which has had beneficent results, those results
were not the ones intended. For instance, the spreading
of the Greek language was a mighty assistance to St.
Paul ; but in so far as it was caused by the efforts of
Alexander, we may say it was brought about by a man who
in accomplishing it, was aiming at the spread of the Greek
spirit, not at the spread of Christianity. The Romans,
too, established the Pax Romana ; but they were aiming,
not at helping Christianity by free intercourse between
peoples round the Mediterranean, but because they de-
sired a quiet life. So in the general hurly-burly of civi-
lization, the condition of affairs is far too complex for any
one to foresee the exact effects of great movements.
Yet many of them have been wildly applauded when they
were first undertaken because they seemed to be in accord
with what we call the spirit of the age ; in other words,
to be the kind of effort most in favour with the thought-
less majority of living people.

F. Possibly you are right in the matter of great poli-
tical changes and the like. But what about the philan-
thropies of the day ?

B. It is almost more of a commonplace that the " best
laid plans " of kindly hearted men and women do harm
more often than good. For instance, there are theories,
not easily disproved, in vogue among modern Darwinians,
that even the great increase in temperance among English



164 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

people will be found to be productive of terrible harm, in
the sense that it prevents Nature from eliminating from
the stock the deleterious elements of alcohol-fever ;
because there is only one way of preventing alcoholism
from being transmitted, that is, by its unmarried victims
drinking themselves to death. Hence the increase of
sobriety on which we plume ourselves to-day may be
merely the storing up of vicious tendencies, which after a
few generations have passed will break out with refreshed
malignity and work havoc. 1 Now, for my part, I can .
hardly believe that any one is in a position to prove, or
even to believe, this theory ; but its very promulgation
is an indication that we are coming to believe in our most
successful efforts either bringing about some unexpected
good results, or some equally unexpected bad ones.

F. I must interpose here. You indict social effort on
two grounds, first for being in accordance with public
opinion, secondly for being incalculable in its effects. Of
course, the second is a profoundly dangerous doctrine ; for
if it gets about, it must paralyse all effort whatever. But I
will recur to that presently. As to the first, I don't see
the objection that because a man's career is approved by
contemporary public opinion therefore it is wrong, especi-
ally if your second count is allowed. If all careers, pro-
grammes, plans and organizations are incalculable, why
not let a young man be guided by public opinion ? Parmi
les aveugles, etc. To go back to Scripture, do you find
much warrant for this particular view ?

B. Of course the Gospels are full of warnings against
the guidance of public opinion. But I would like you to

1 This depressing theory is ] advocated by J Mr . and Mrs.
Whetham in the Hibbert Journal, Oct. 191 1.



A YEAR AFTER 165

consider exactly the epithet " safe " and what it means
in this connexion. When a man lays his plans for life
they seem to him safe in proportion as they are approved
by public opinion ; and public opinion always approves
of those that seem likely not to end in failure, but in estab-
lishing some result thought to be desirable. Others that
demand original thought, and are out of the fashion of
the time, are held to be insecure and risky. Now with-
out affirming that quite all those that are held to be risky
are in reality the safest, I find that the converse is true,
viz. that those held to be safe, ultimately lead to results
neither desired nor expected. The others have this that
is good in them : they depend not on the approval of the
unthinking majority, but on their congruity to something
ideal, or anyhow not common. They reach out into mys-
tery ; they demand a venture, and they seem to exercise
continually the noblest faculties of a man's being. And
in their results — well, I will recur to them later. But
first tell me if this description does not remind you of a
tremendous passage in the Gospel ?

F. I am afraid not. Do tell me.

B. In the Parable of the Talents, the man who buried
his one talent in the earth is the type of the safe man, i.e.
one who starting with certain premisses into which he
does not inquire, suits his conduct to them quite consist-
ently, but yet is condemned with a terrible severity at the
end of the story. Now in giving you what I conceive to
be the right explanation of the parable, I hope you will not
mind my drawing the condemned character in colours
suggested by the lives of men who try to live on a creed
which consists wholly of Duty, but banishes what they
call mysticism or dogma.

F. Nevermind that. The picture seems paradoxical



166 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

enough, as of all people the duty-doing man is least like
the man who shirked his duty altogether. At least, so one
would suppose.

B. To begin with, then, this person behaves in an
unaccountably stupid manner. The coin he receives is
only valuable if it is used boldly, or (if it is artfully worked)
if it be stored in a glass case to be looked at. Now the
man knew one thing about it, and apparently nothing else.
He was aware that it was precious. But the condemnation
would not have been added, if he had been merely ignor-
ant or stupid, or both together, neither would those very
common qualities have induced him to act with such
uncommon ineptitude. There was a deep principle on
which he acted, and which explains all. He took a wrong
view of his master, conceiving of him as a hard man set
on demanding more than could be given, whereas he
ought to have known that he was just and gracious. That,
consistently acted on, is the key to his conduct. Any
trading with the coin seemed to involve a certain risk ;
and risk is just what he could not face, when there was
the master's return to be waited for. So he treated
the coin in accordance with the general idea that it was
precious, but in a way to contradict its very nature.

F. Well, that is interesting and may be right ; what
about the application ?

B. We Christians have received something precious,
viz. the Holy Spirit of God. It is a gift about which
many know nothing, except that it is vaguely precious,
and they conceive of God as a taskmaster who has given
them far too little for them to venture with and reach forth
and use, so as to make something glorious out of life ;
they persuade themselves they have not the resources for
anything higher than abstaining from squandering their



A YEAR AFTER 167

gift on evil-living. So they bury it, or as St. Paul puts it,
they " quench " it. 1 They fashion their lives on some
humdrum routine principle, forgetting that the beautiful
living thing given to them, if not constantly exercised,
dies within them, and all the time they flatter themselves
on their consistency and uprightness, little knowing how
unutterable is their loss, or how grievously wrong their
starting-point. For their starting-point is the tremendous
lie propagated sedulously and with devilish skill by the
father of h'es, that God is a hard Taskmaster who has pro-
vided His own with too little for that which He requires.
In proportion as your duty religionist, so to call him (I
mean the man who restricts his allegiance to his conscience
and the demands of the moral law), succeeds in banishing
from his creed and his thoughts and preoccupations the
idea of a living, loving God, in so far he is assimilated to
this poor fellow who thought he was doing the one sensi-
ble thing open to him by burying the bright gold coin in
the soil. He is striving to live the loveless life, after the life
of venture for the love of God has been revealed to him
by the example of others and by the story of Jesus. Of
course, many men rise above their professed creed, and
wherever you find in the work of people who cannot say
a word about their fundamental convictions, that spring
of energy and hopefulness and humility, which bespeaks
the Christian saint, it is because they have been enabled
to substitute, perhaps unconsciously, the life of faith for
the life of works ; that is to say, they will speak to you
only of duty and her stern decrees, but in their hearts there
is glowing the personal love of God Himself ; because their
single-mindedness makes them apt learners and quick
recipients. Only, they are lame and hesitating as teachers

1 1 Thess. v.



168 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

in that they cannot readily pass on to their children what
has been to them

the fountain- light of all their day,

or even indicate its Source. Thus some are saved from
the starved and barren life ; but otherwise, if they are
consistent with their intellectual beliefs, they cannot trade
with the talent ; they lack all element of venture and
living confidence, and when they are bidden to rise out of
the rut of fashion they fail to hear the appeal, and one
more opportunity of fruitfulness passes by for ever, be-
cause they think they will be able to say to God the Bator
Munerum, " Lo ! there Thou hast what is Thine," when
they try to return the unused, unexercised gift of divine
life, and it has perished into the semblance of a gold coin
covered with mould.

F. And what would you say, then, about the two " good
and faithful" servants who brought back the ten and
five talents to their lord ?

B. They are those who start with the unalterable con-
viction that their God-given resources are enough for
the demands that will be made upon them ; because the
Gospel story has taught them that they can securely trust
their Heavenly Father. So, instead of letting themselves
believe that religion is for a minority of people of a pecu-
liar temperament, they " press forward " ; they hear of
holy men and heroes who are not afraid to venture their
heavenly treasure, especially as they find at once that,
every time they use it, it grows, and no matter what claim
is made upon it there is always abundance to go on with.

F. Yet, I gather, in such a case as my own, for instance,
you wouldn't say that my career was mistaken, and ought
to be changed for something more definitely ministerial ?



A YEAR AFTER 169

B. No, not at present, anyhow. But if you can bear
in mind more constantly and with a deeper sincerity and
vividness, Whose are the resources with which you are
equipped, and to Whom the returns will some day be
made, there will be vastly more life in your work and,
above all, you will be prepared against failure.

F. Failure ! But why think of such a thing ? Surely,
if the definite Christian is anything he is hopeful ; that
is to say, he refuses to contemplate his life's work as fail-
ing.

B. Woe to him, then, if he sets his hope on what we call
success. That is one of the awful facts in the policy of
burying the talent : it never brings a man up short
against the fact of failure. Now think of the solemn
words in the Parable of the Sower : " And when the sun
was up they were scorched." They indicate the kind of
experience against which we can only be prepared by
having the roots of our lives planted deep. I mean the
experience of finding all human maxims inapplicable, all
the sympathy of friends either a hollow pretence or quite
unavailing to heal. Then it is that the religion of duty is
like a husk for a hungry man to eat.

F. But only a minority, I should say, undergo any such
trial.

B. It is not uncommon to see the smooth, quiet life
broken in upon by sickness or loss or bereavement. Sun
scorchings of one sort or another seem to be the rule in
every case where work of real durable value has been done;
that is to say, some grievous obstacle has been overcome.
The youth starts with his heart aflame and his hopes high,
but before long he finds himself praised and blamed just
for the wrong things, and whenever he is vitally eager
and sees a little further than other people, the Titanic



iyo CHARACTER AND RELIGION

bulk of human stupidity rears itself against him, and he
is derided and misunderstood. Or in his home affections
he is thwarted most dismally, or his health, without
breaking down, makes it extremely difficult for him to
exert himself beyond the point of a jog-trot performance
of routine. But beyond all these, is the corroding scepti-
cism which threatens to invade all modern work : cut
bono ? Now tell me, against such blighting influences as
these what has your duty-lover to set ?

F. It is not easy for one like me to say ; but surely you
do see cases of men triumphantly surviving all these
bufferings, and keeping the spring of their energy active
to the last, far on into old age.

B. Again, I say, by their fruits the trees show when
they are deeply rooted. It is impossible for any one to
take up his cross and follow Christ, without a deep feeling
for His love, though they may not be able to express it.

F. I must admit that there is something in what you
say, and if only I met more men who obviously gain life
and strength from giving their minds to the great mystic
fact of God's Love, I should feel quite decidedly that my
own life had been impoverished by far too little of such
elements as Prayer, Meditation and Communion. But
now let me put plainly to you the grand difficulty on
which you have touched once or twice, as to hopefulness
in spite of scepticism and failure, because I am come to
the time of life when hope, to be worth much, must have
something to feed on, and I long to know if your way of
looking at things will enrich my resources at all.

B. The subject is vastly important, so pray explain
yourself.

F. Well, you see, after knocking about as I have for
many years, working for something like Imperial Feder-



A YEAR AFTER 171

ation in our Empire, one gains a pretty good knowledge of
certain things : the vast importance of the question, and
the equally vast difficulties in the way of effecting any-
thing really adequate to the emergency with which we are
confronted. It is apparent to me that the Dominions
are drifting either to complete independence of England,
or to some form of Federal Union ; but various ob-
stacles in the way of the latter are so formidable that I
am coming to the conclusion that it will never be brought
about. But complete independence means the end of the
Empire, and very possibly the absorption of vast tracts of
territory, over which the British flag now waves, into the
hands of alien powers. This prospect disheartens me
altogether, and I have often wished that I had the kind of
temperament men call optimistic, so that I might interpret
these facts in a somewhat less dismal fashion. Now, to
come to the point, would you say that a change of the
religious point of view in the direction which you are
advocating would afford any hope of such a " lift " in
my mental horizon ? One hears that a thorough believer
in Christianity is sure to be a hopeful man. Is this so ?

B. If you mean that a thoroughly Christian spirit
would enable a man to ignore the difficulties, and to
anticipate a more successful end to your particular
labours, the answer is a decided negative. I mean, of
course, " successful " in the usual sense.

F. Then in what way is it true that the Christian re-
ligion brings hopefulness with it ? If it is not optimistic
in that ordinary sense, it might be compatible with pessi-
mism.

B. No. It ought not to be difficult to draw a distinc-
tion between being ready to anticipate failure, and being
prepared to see failure work for good. For instance,



172 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

suppose all attempts at Imperial Federation seem likely
to fail ; the duty-religionist is likely to despair unless he
has principles in the back of his mind, which he has
borrowed from some creed other than what he professes^
But a true Christian temper would encourage the hope
that this failure would work for good by strengthening the
fibre of the people : making each country rely more than
ever on itself, and so forth. Also, previously to failure it
would be unwilling to abandon hope, because it would
see and probably evoke sympathies in needful quarters,
where the more prosaic and less ardent spirit would not
descry them.

F. Then you mean that in two ways, hopefulness is
shown by those who enter into the Christian temper as
some certainly do : first by refusing to abandon belief in
the good feeling of those who must co-operate ; secondly,
by falling back on a theory that if all else fails, the very
discipline of failure will do good. But is the first of these
two a matter of religious belief ? I should have thought
it was a purely temperamental quality of sympathy.

B. Undoubtedly the inclination to believe that others
are sympathetic differs in individuals according to their
temperament ; but that is not the same thing as saying
that religion has nothing to do with it. Whatever supply
of such inclination religion may find, it will quicken and
invigorate it. But it is a very obscure question.

F. No doubt, and less important for our discussion
than the other which concerns the power of hope outlast-
ing failure. But it is still a mystery to me how any reli-
gious belief or emotional susceptibility can be proof
against failure which depresses beyond a certain point ;
and I can't help thinking that many men would agree
with me if the}' spoke their minds freely. Let me put the



A YEAR AFTER 173

case to you without disguise — the melancholy case of this
great country of ours. Supposing any one like myself
on cool reflection convinced himself that all this splendid
accumulation of wealth, splendour, manliness and beauty,
and qualities which have conquered the world is to " dis-
solve " under the long, slow corrosion of internal decay
" and like the baseless fabric of a vision, leave not a rack
behind," the question is not whether he can just fend off
from himself utter despair and " wretchlessness," but
whether this fending off does not become impossible to
him in proportion as he has devoted himself whole-
heartedly to his duty. Who are they who do good work
in the world ? Are they not just those whose hopes, as
well as energy, are wholly set on the task in hand ? Real,
eager self-dedication to a great cause, a conviction even
if exaggerated, of the overwhelming importance of the
undertaking ; these are the ingredients which go to the
building up of a firm fabric, instead of the showy tinsel of
wood, hay and straw, so often the best to be expected from
the workman who is afraid of being narrow and who ends
by losing all his force. Now do let us face this question
fairly and squarely, aye, and candidly too. For I will
admit, and have admitted what is lacking in my own posi-
tion, and I know you too well to be afraid that you will
fob me off with " eristic " subtleties.

I say, then, that when you tell me of your conviction
that the very essence of a virtuous, attractive, and fruit-
ful character is a forgetfulness of self in something higher,
and that that something higher is the life of God, revealed
and imparted to man as he sinks himself into it as a
recipient — for this I take to be your meaning — I have
before me the picture of a character more contemplative
than active ;j more of the Mary than the Martha in it ;



174 CHARACTER AND RELIGION

and without disputing the Gospel verdict that it is the
" better part " to choose, I yet affirm that to many men
it is a sealed book. Further, that to those very men the
finest, most single-minded, most self-forgetful of all types
of life is the life of unselfish activity, be it in a small
domestic circle, or in the larger world of public affairs ;
and that, looked at impartially, the real work of the world
is done by such men more than by others. Again, that
if these men made a conscientious attempt to change
themselves from Marthas into Marys, they would be, in
reality, spoiling themselves ; not living the life which to
them is truly natural ; that is God-prescribed ; and in so
doing they become actors or " hypocrites," that is to say,
they lose the genuineness, the driving force and effective-
ness which belong to simplicity ; in short they are born
for one thing and aim at another.

B. You interest me profoundly. Will you go on to st ate
the practical difference between the two ? I mean that,
granting your premisses there will be a difference, of
course, in those matters where the active passes into the
contemplative life, or vice versa.

F. To be sure. Let us then be frank. A man of
strenuous activity cannot be what is called a man of
prayer. Prayer is not his metier ; he is constituted to
give himself to his profession, and in proportion as he
does so wholeheartedly, he works to some purpose. It is
right for him to say his prayers, and if he has time, let
him read the Bible ; but if you demand more of him, you
will be urging him to spoil his nature by trying to be what
he is not ; and to go through life pacing in time to some
one else's tune, like a horse decked out in fine trappings
for a royal funeral. So much for the loss involved
if the wrong man tries to be too religious. But if this



A YEAR AFTER 175

summary is to be complete, I will not conceal what I
have already admitted : there is a huge defect in the
active non-contemplative life, which, it may be, though I
am not sure, the other life escapes, viz. that when pain
and disappointments, thwartings and annoyances reach
a certain pitch of intensity and frequency and permanence,
there are no resources to meet them which do not dwindle
away as youth and buoyancy fail. On the one hand, then,
I find myself unable to feel quite content about the Gos-


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Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 13 of 19)