Copyright
George Albert Coe.

The spiritual life : studies in the science of religion online

. (page 4 of 16)
Online LibraryGeorge Albert CoeThe spiritual life : studies in the science of religion → online text (page 4 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Those who take the former view are content, as a
general rule, to exhort the young not to allow any-
thing to loosen their grasp upon that which was de-
livered to them in childhood. Those who take the
more favorable view of doubts, on the other hand,
exhort the young to keep their eyes ever open to the

1 American Journal of Psychology^ ix, 92.
58



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

rising sun of truth and not to fear any possible ef-
fect upon their religious condition. From both sides
there sometimes proceed arguments intended to set-
tle the views of the doubter in one way or the other.
Thus the everyday treatment of doubts consists
chiefly in a very general appeal to the sense of loy-
alty or to the feeling of independence, together with
more or less use of specifically intellectual means.

The defect in most of this procedure lies in the
tendency to ignore the depth and extent of the causes
of intellectual unrest. What is needed is the psycho-
logical point of view in addition to the merely logical
and what may be called the merely spiritual. It is
necessary to see in the doubt period of youth not
merely a perplexed process of reasoning, not merely
a weakening of trust or of obedience, but rather a
symptom of the entire psychical, yes, and physical,
condition at the time. Some sort of intellectual
movement and ferment is the natural correlate of the
new birth of the physical organism. To see with the
eyes of childhood is no longer possible, even if it were
desirable. Reconstruction must come in one form or
another the world and life and eternity must all be
clothed in new ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual
forms. Whether this transformation shall involve
the clouding of religious feelings or the relaxing of
religious activities depends partly upon childhood
instruction, partly upon present conditions and in-
fluences.

59



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

i

It is clear, of course, that a child should not be

taught anything that he is likely to regard as false
as soon as he grows up. The amount of mental
agony, not to say religious havoc, wrought by trying
to forestall in childhood instruction the questionings
that must come to every adult before he has a right
to call his opinions his own cannot be measured, but
only guessed. "O, why, why," said a young profes-
sional man, "did my parents try to equip me with a
doctrinal system in childhood ? I supposed that the
whole system must be believed on pain of losing my
religion altogether. And so, when I began to doubt
some points, I felt obliged to throw all overboard.
I have found my way back to positive religion, but
by what a long and bitter struggle !" It requires very
little knowledge of the child mind to enable one to
perceive that children are simply not yet competent
to consider the problems that systems of belief un-
dertake to settle. What appeals as a profound prob-
lem to the adolescent, with his wider intimations of
the meanings of life, is a mere form of words, or
little more, up to that time. In other words, it is
simply impossible to provide a child with real solu-
tions of the problems of life. The attempt to do so
is doomed to failure in one or more of these direc-
tions : either the child is impervious to the attempted
instruction, or too early dogmatizing causes an arrest
of intellectual development in matters of religion, or

the instruction is so misunderstood, and so inade-

60



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

quately understood or so inherently inadequate, that
the work will have to be all done over again pos-
sibly with the sweating of blood.

But neither is the adolescent, in the earlier years
of this period, quite ready to settle these problems.
The moment of taking a plunge into cold water is
hardly favorable for making even a guess as to its
temperature. Then, too, the tendency to conceit re-
ferred to in the last chapter brings in its train a new
and peculiar religious difficulty. In most matters
the conceit of youth is finally rubbed away by the
normal frictions of life. But if that conceit attaches
itself to a knowledge of religious dogmas, or a sup-
posed knowledge of them, then the youth assumes
the authority of the Almighty in support of his intel-
lectual narrowness and stubbornness. And what is
more pitiful in the whole theological world than the
imitations of thought that proceed from men thus
shut up to prematurity ?

It is a recognized pedagogical principle that each
branch of instruction should be introduced at just
the point where the child's mind has a natural in-
stinct for it. The presence of such an instinct is
known by the child's taking an interest in the sub-
ject from its intrinsic qualities and not because of
extrinsic incitements, and also by a concretely vital
as distinguished from merely mechanical or me-
moriter grasp of the subject-matter. Applying this

principle to the religious training of children, wel
5 61



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

should include a great deal of religious activity, but
very little religious theory. The cultivation of re-
ligious habits is perfectly feasible, and so is the cul-
tivation of some of the simpler religious emotions.
Facts of religious history will be abundantly assimi-
lated in so far as they are presented in the form of
the story. Thus the whole world of the child may
be rilled with what a child can grasp of the divine.
The religious life may be made a natural and joyous
outpouring of his energy, and all without communi-
cating to him the logical basis upon which, possibly,
the parent believes such a life can be justified or de-
manded. This is, in fact, but another application of
one of the most important truths that dominate the
generation in which we live the truth that in all
the profoundest practical interests the application of
logic comes ex post facto; we do not first discover
the true life by rational processes and then proceed
to live it, but we somehow manage to live the life
that expresses our deepest selves and afterward pro-
ceed to see why it is reasonable.

The same principles hold for the adolescent years,
but with a change of application growing out of the
new instincts and points of view that now emerge.
To the child it is possible to say, when difficult theo-
retical questions come up, "I am not certain," or
"There are differences of opinion on that point ;" but
even in the earlier part of adolescence there cannot

be such easy postponement, for the questions are now

62



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

becoming real expressions of a budding instinct.
Nevertheless, the youth is almost sure to ask for
more than he can possibly assimilate, and so he is
likely to be contented with much less than he de-
mands. Much of his fever will be allayed if he be-
comes convinced that his advisers are withholding
nothing from him and yet insisting upon nothing.
What he most wants, after all, is room.

The psychological root of this state of mind is
nothing less than a thirst for the absolute. We shall
presently see that this same thirst manifests itself in
the conscience as a desire for absolute rectitude, ab-
solute self-sacrifice, and all else that belongs to an
absolute ideal. In the sphere of thought its mani-
festation is a consuming appetite to know the deepest
truth. With this, as a natural corollary, comes a
tendency to dissent and nonconformity. The adoles-
cent feels that no temporizing will d9, that authority
is out of place, that uncertainty is torture. Of course,
this attitude marks an immature mind ; yet, in the
culture of the religious nature much depends upon
our perceiving that that which seeks to satisfy itself
in this imperious manner is a divine thirst.

Incidentally, it may be worth remarking that
youth's mental aspirations are the very sap of the
tree of knowledge. It is of the utmost value to the
whole cause of truth that the mind, before attaining
the relative fixity of maturity, should for a time as-
sume an utterly free and questioning attitude toward

63



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

everything-. Without this, religious thought would
speedily petrify. Indeed, as soon as thought be-
comes organized into a system its future growth
depends upon its facing henceforth the continuous
procession of uncompromising youthful eyes.

We are not, then, to expect intellectual rest and
contentment in youth. It is not to be assumed that
we can satisfy all the questionings that arise. These
questions are life-questions; their solution cannot be
put into a formula, but can only be approximated
through developing experience. Much most that
the youth demands to have settled at once can only
be lived into as life unfolds its joys and sorrows and
aspirations. What, then, can be done for the doubt-
ing youth? We can correct the plain misappre-
hensions under,, which he is laboring as to what
Christians actually believe; we can replace foolish
questions with wiser ones ; we can guide his reading in
the treasuries of the world's thought ; we can frankly
admit our inability to answer all his questions, and
we can tell him that we ourselves have passed
through similar difficulties. 'And we can add to this
intellectual food something not less needful ; for the
trouble of his mind is not merely that he does not
know this or that, but rather that he fancies that his
uncertainty involves some disloyalty or other fault
of heart or of will. He must therefore learn, in a
practical way, that knowing Christian doctrine is not

the same as being grounded in the Christian life. He

64



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

v y

should by all means be induced to be active in those
forms of religious living that still appeal to him at
all. There is, in fact, a fallacy in his reasoning. He
fancies that the practical religious life stands or falls
according as we accept or reject certain explanations
of and reasons for it. But, as before remarked, just
the reverse of this is true ; the life comes first because
it answers to our inarticulate needs, and the fact that
it does so answer is sufficient practical justification
for its continuance. Hence, religious activity and
religious comforts may abide at the same time that
the intellect is uncertain of how all this fits into any
logical structure. Thus it comes to pass that the
greatest thing we can do for the doubting youth is
to induce him to give free exercise to the religious
instinct. Let him not say what he does not actually
believe ; let him not compromise himself in any way ;
but it is always certain that he still believes; feels,
and aspires enough to give him a place among reli-
gious people.

Furthermore, whenever theoretical doubts become
an occasion for pronouncedly morbid states, such as
deep worry, melancholy, needless self-condemnation,
or fanaticism of any sort, diligent inquiry should be
made into the physical condition. When such states
are found in young persons of good moral character
it is safe to assume that they are less a product of
logic than of nerves. Of course, the youth can give
what is to him cogent proof why he should worry or

65



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

fear or be sad, but such reasoning is really little more
than a false description of a mere mood. The occa-
sion for it is almost certain to be either some dis-
turbed function, as of digestion, or a general state of
nerve fatigue. What is meant by nerve fatigue, how
it is commonly induced, and how it is to be treated
will demand a section for itself after certain other
difficulties have been traced to the same source.

From what has been said it may be concluded that,
in order to prescribe for the religious difficulties of
the adolescent intellect, one should first respect them
because of their deep source and significance. Per-
haps the worst calamity that can befall the doubter
is not to be understood by those to whom he looks
for guidance. What would we say of a doctor of
medicine who authoritatively prescribed for a dis-
ease that he did not understand ? That ought we to
think of the unskilled spiritual guide. No process of
repression, no mere evasion, not even rigorous logic,
will generally suffice. Indeed, it is not unlikely that
your callow doubter has hit upon the ultimate mys-
teries of existence which no theologian or philoso-
pher claims fully to solve. Very likely he has pene-
trated to real doctrinal difficulties which theologians
dispute about among themselves. In any case, that
which makes the matter so serious to the doubting
youth is a divine discontent with incompleteness
which proclaims that we are not mere creatures of

time. That he should be strenuous to "know what

66



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

man and God is" is an advantage and a privilege.
His demands cannot be met, of course, but it is pos-
sible to give him something greater and better than
the most closely woven syllogisms the sympathy of
a sincere soul that has nothing to conceal from him.
"Show me the Father," says the youth, "and it will
suffice me." The wise friend will reply, as Jesus did,
by showing a human self.

The Adolescent Conscience.

We have seen how, when the appetite for the abso-
lute awakens, youth begins to scorn all artificiality
and all compromise, and how it turns critic of itself
and ofttimes indulges in severe self-condemnation
for not attaining the ideal at a bound. Self-exalta-
tion and self-abasement may go hand in hand, the
same person* being stiff-necked and dictatorial in his
relations to others, but a cowering, timid creature in
the presence of his own conscience. But the two
phenomena have a common root, since he practices
toward himself the same intolerance that he shows
toward others. He becomes solicitous for both the
general principles of a good life and the details of
his conduct. Many youths are so fearful of commit-
ting the slightest untruthfulness that they studiously
preface their statements concerning even the most
ordinary matters of fact with some such qualifier as
"I suppose," or "I think that." They long to be ex-
actly right, and to know that they are right.

67



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

A common form of adolescent casuistry is to as-
sume a major premise expressing some aspect of
duty or of the ideal, and then inquire whether a given
act can, in perfect strictness, be included under it.
There is no end to the self-torment that results. A
girl of twelve had it so impressed upon her mind that
one should never say anything bad about another
that she became afraid to speak of anyone in any way
for fear her words might be wrongly interpreted.
At times, however, she felt called upon to say good
things, even though she knew that they were not
true! The major premise is frequently some ac-
cepted maxim, as, "Whatever is worth doing at all
is worth doing well." This is now carried into con-
duct with absurd intemperance. Thus, a farmer's
son who was running a reaping machine got into the
way of stopping his team and going slavishly back to
pull up every wisp of grain that the machine had
missed. This he did, not for the sake of saving the
grain, but only to preserve intact a certain abstract
ideal of completeness. A girl took a vow, shortly
after her conversion, to pray for the unconverted at
ten o'clock each forenoon. Believing that kneeling
was essential to the fulfillment of her vow, and being
in school at that hour, she ha'd to face the problem of
how to kneel in prayer in the schoolroom among her
fellow-pupils. This is the expedient she adopted:
At ten o'clock each morning she would drop her pen-
cil on the floor underneath her desk, and while in the

68



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

act of picking it up would manage to touch her knees
to the floor in a momentary prayer !

To us these are trivialities, yet to the youth they
seem to contain the very issues of life. And certainly
they do express his reverence for some vast and daz-
zling ideal that has appeared upon his horizon. Not
infrequently self-sacrifice or self-annihilation be-
comes the most beautiful and commanding thing in
the world, and so, perhaps, there comes a resolution
to be an ascetic or a martyr. I have had young men
tell me that when the fact of the brotherhood of men
first dawned upon them their warm beds tortured
them into sleeplessness thfough the thought that
some of their brothers were cold. Here the trivial
and the sublime mingle together; for, though the
young man's sleeplessness avails not to solve the
ancient problem of the rich and the poor, yet it is
precisely because there are always coming to adult-
hood those who are capable of such feelings that we
can hope for progress toward the righting of in-
trenched wrong.

It is evident that the moral training of youth is a
decidedly delicate matter. In the nature of the case,
what sufficed for childhood is inadequate. Mere
rules, traditions, habits, must be supplemented or
even supplanted by personally accepted ideals.
Nevertheless, we must not expect mature ideals in
those who are in every other way immature. The
physical stature of manhood does not imply even



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

physical maturity ; much less is it ground for expec-
tation of mature conduct. The very long period of
immaturity in the members of the human species is
precisely the opportunity which renders possible a
superior development of the highest faculties. Awk-
wardness in conduct must be expected and allowed
for. Furthermore, unless immaturity in moral judg-
ment were understood, tolerated, and sympathized
with, how could maturity ever be reached? There
must be room for free exercise if the muscle is ever
to become firm and symmetrical. Try to force upon
conduct what the judgment has not approved and
you will probably produce revolt toward some ex-
treme that would otherwise be avoided ; and even if
you succeed, the forcing process may result in a pre-
mature stoppage of growth. In the last case you
produce the man who never quite makes himself fit
into life, however great may be his moral earnest-
ness.

One of the worst faults found in the moral culture
of youth is that of treating questions of right and
wrong in such a way as to heighten the youthful
tendency to hyperconscientiousness. The adolescent
conscience can easily be made finical, but how to
make it more robust is the real problem. Ofttimes
a word is enough to produce a needlessly troubled
conscience, to plunge it into the depths of perplexed
and unnatural self-examination; but to develop

health, which includes at once sensitiveness and equi-

70



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

librium and vigor, this calls for moral art. For
youth does not easily understand or appreciate that
something in childhood which it is the endeavor of
our ripest years to win back. It is well expressed in
an old motto :

" Look up and not down ;
Look out and not in ;
Look forward and not back,
And lend a hand."

It is not self-involution, introspection, self-examina-
tion that is needed, but a healthy outward glance,
and external interests that call out the best powers.
The aim, therefore, should be not so much stimula-
tion as guidance; not so much increased feeling as
healthful and absorbing activities; not subjective
brooding, but rather a fitting outlet for the mysteri-
ous longings that already oppress the heart.

This brings us to the subject of the morbid or
hypersensitive conscience in youth, its causes, symp-
toms, and treatment. Some of its causes, such as
wrong advice regarding the point of view, have just
been mentioned. But outweighing all others is a
physical cause, nerve fatigue. So large a role, in-
deed, does this cause play in the whole spiritual
development of youth that it must have a special
section.

Religious and Moral Effects of Nerve Fatigue.
Even under the most favorable circumstances the

profound character of the a^loje^cent_change puts a

"



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

heavy burden upon the nervous system. This bur-
den may be abnormally increased in many ways, as,
for example, too much study, too much indoor life,
improper food, too much excitement, irregular
habits, private sexual vice, nagging on the part of
parents or of teachers, rasping relations at any point.
There is ground for a suspicion that the conditions
under which a vast majority of adolescents are placed
in our modern ArnericanJife tend to produce a state
of habitual fatigue. Among these grounds may be
named the tendency to overload the common school
and high school curriculum; the amount of social
life involving late hours, excitement, and unwhole-
some eating and drinking permitted to young adoles-
cents, and even expected of them ; the_multiplicity of
interests that crowd out simplicity and repose, and,
finally, the almost feverish intensity with which
American youth, at least, enter into their too varied
occupations. It would scarcely be an exaggeration
to assert that sixteen-year-old girls and eighteen-
year-old boys are expected to live two lives in one
the life of students and the life of men and women
of the world. We all know what this leads to in
those whose powers of resistance are under the aver-
age, or whose scholarly or social ambitions lead them
into more than the ordinary expenditure of vital en-
ergy. But the results of this set of conditions do not
stop with the young persons who break down. The
others also meet the nemesis of nature just as surely,



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

though not so obviously. The consequences enter
into the whole life, and may end only with the life.
Let us notice briefly how moral and religious inter-
ests are affected.

For our purposes the essential characteristic of a <
fatigued nerve is its increased irri^abi)ii;v: it reacts ^
to less than the normal stimulus, and hence more or
less spasmodically. For example, in a state of fa-
tigue one is more likely to start at small noises;
furthermore, one's reaction is likely to be ill-directed,
uncertain, prolonged. Let the same cause produce
its natural effects in the workings of the intellect, the
feelings, and the will, and we shall have, among other
things, an important group of morbid moral and
religious states. The following may be enumerated
as examples : worry, despondency, bad temper, emo-
tionalism of various kinds, oversensitiveness, lack of
decision in small matters, morbid introspection,
hyperconscientiousness, increased susceptibility to
temptations of appetite and of sex. The discussion
of what are called temptations will be postponed to
the next section. Our present interest is to notice
the influence of fatigue in producing morbid or
hyperconscientiousness.

Just where normal sensitiveness of conscience
leaves off and abnormal begins cannot always be
stated with certainty in particular cases, but in gen-
eral when the sense of right and wrong is so intense
as to defeat instead of promote proper conduct we

73



THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

are safe in calling the conscience morbid. Con-
science is morbid when trifles are magnified into
monsters, when debate with one's self as to what is
right is carried to the point of self-blinding or of
paralysis of decision, and, in general, when anxiety
about right-doing exhausts the energy that ought to
go into moral action. Then

" the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action."

Here are a few examples that have come directly
under my notice:

A girl is so tortured by uncertainty as to what she
was created for that she lays aside her usual occupa-
tions and refuses for months to see her friends.
Others feel so keenly the demand for absolute ac-
curacy and completeness that the main purpose of
action is defeated by their slavish attention to pre-
liminaries or to details. Thus the youth already re-
ferred to as being too particular in running his
father's reaper adds the following items from his ex-
perience: "If, in plowing corn, I missed a weed, I
could not bear to leave it, and so, often got off the
plow and, going back, pulled it up. Sometimes I
became angry instead of going back, and then vented
my rage on the horses, thinking that they had not
walked as they should. Likewise in running a self-

74



SOME ADOLESCENT DIFFICULTIES

binder. I worked myself nearly to death changing
the machine for 'up' and 'down' grain in order that
every scrap should be gotten, and that every bundle
should be bound just a trifle nearer the 'butts' than
the heads. [Italics are in every case his own.] If
the horses went into the grain, thus causing the ma-
chine to run over some and leave it, I often went back


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryGeorge Albert CoeThe spiritual life : studies in the science of religion → online text (page 4 of 16)