Friday, August 14, 2015

The Wisdom of Faith by Ralph Birdsall

If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead. — S. Luke, 16:31.

It is related of Charles Kingsley, that, as he lay dying, when one who stood by bent over the bed and asked what feeling he experienced, he replied, almost with his last breath, ' ' I feel — the most intense curiosity ! ' ' No stranger death-bed words, perhaps, were ever spoken. The man lay at the point of death, but no fear of death possessed him, nor terror of judgment, nor anxiety concerning the state of his soul. He was consumed with an intense curiosity, as he neared the dark valley, to see what lay on the other side ; to be transferred, with the wrench of dissolution, from the region of faith to the realm of sight ; to be at one moment gasping for breath upon a sick-bed, with the muffled sounds of earthly life beating upon his consciousness — the ticking of a clock, the cry of grief, the voice of commendatory prayer with its insistence upon the Christian faith of ages — and suddenly, in a flash, to float away into a new consciousness, really to see how near to truth are the dreams of men, and their visions of angels and archangels, Christ, God, eternity! The incident symbolizes a great human yearning, a desire for exact knowledge touching the unseen. Gazing out over the sands of Egypt for thousands of years the Sphinx symbolizes the same. It is the desire of all ages. Every one of you, at one time or an other, has felt this intense curiosity.

Many an earnest man has wished that he might receive from the unseen world beyond the grave some definite message from a relative, from a friend, who has passed on there, dwells there. We wonder sometimes if they do not desire to send back to us such messages. Are they so oblivious, in their new state of existence, that they would not, if they could, send us a word to console us, to warn us, to correct our misapprehensions of the world beyond! There are those who claim to have received such messages. But, for the most part, these messages are not sufficiently illuminating or uplifting to warrant the belief that they come from a state of existence superior to our own.

It is not strange that the Parable of Dives and Lazarus, with its reference to conditions of a future life, should have been made the basis of definite beliefs concerning what has not been otherwise revealed. For surely there are no words to which Christians should pay greater heed than those of our Lord and Master. But before we venture to build beliefs upon isolated parts of this parable, we must ascertain, if we can, what is the drift of its teaching as a whole. And when we have done so, is it not true that so far from being intended to give definite information concerning a future state, the very climax of the parable signifies that such information is not really desirable, and would fail to effect the object for which it is so earnestly sought!

For Dives has found his place in the un seen world. It is a world, by the way, quite Jewish in its setting, as though our Lord had employed the prevailing Jewish conception to point His moral. And Dives finds him self grievously disappointed. He is altogether surprised at what he finds when he awakes in the place of departed spirits. He begs permission to send back to the living a message of warning from the dead. But his request is refused. Not that such communication is impossible. Not that such a message would lack an eager welcome, or profound attention. But it would not finally accomplish any moral result. It might satisfy curiosity, but it would not convert; it would not change moral purpose in the land of the living. "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."

The man's amazement at the contrast between life, as he measured it, and life, as God measures it, brings to a climax a series of contrasts in which the parable abounds. The story begins by creating a contrast which throws into bold relief the two extremest types of life in this world. There is one man who embodies the worldly idea of success.

Inexhaustible wealth, a luxurious home, perfect health, and a coterie of boon companions. He seems to have no care in the world; he wears the purple of kings; every day he pre sides at a sumptuous banquet. The world knowss not whether the heart that beats beneath the purple is the noblest, or the meanest ; or whether the hand that lifts the goblet is the cleanest, or the most contaminated. The world sees only the purple and the banquet. The eyes glitter and the mouths water at the thought of these things, and thousands of men bend closer at thousands of tasks all the way down the line which presses toward the golden goal.

Then there is the other man who embodies the world's idea of failure. Ordinarily he would be hidden from sight in a dingy garret in some far off part of town. But, by way of contrast, he is flung all in a heap at the very gateway of the house of the many banquets. He is penniless, homeless, sick and friendless. The street dogs are the friends who gather about him and nurse the wounds of his half- naked body. The crumbs that fall from the banquet table are his daily bread. The world knows not whether the heart that throbs beneath the poor man's rags is true or false; or whether the hand that reaches for the crumbs is weak because of dissipation, or because it would never touch dishonor. The world sees only the rags and the starvation. The eyes grow cold at the sight, and the lines about the mouth harden at the thought of these things, and men shudder as they bend close at their thousand tasks, saying, "Heaven save us from that!"

But the day arrives when Lazarus comes no more to beg for crumbs at the gate of the great house. The dogs miss their old companion. Lazarus is dead. The banqueters miss the presence at the gate of the odd, familiar character. They do not see the angels who have carried him to Paradise, with tender care. And in the course of time the prince of good fellows lies dead in his banquet hall. The lights are extinguished. His banquet is over forever. They march from the great house to the last resting place, in magnificent array, with pompous dirges.

Here is the last chapter of all ordinary stories of life. But of this story it is only the first. The next begins with the great awakening in the world of departed spirits. The Ever Successful One lifts up his eyes to take in his new surroundings in the world be yond. Not one of the things is there upon which he has learned to depend as essential to success and happiness. What is an eternal oratorio to one who has no ear for music! Others might delight in it, but for him it is torment. And there is Lazarus, transported with ecstasy, resting in the very bosom of the Father of the Faithful!

 It seems an abominable injustice that one man should be cap able of such utter misery, while an old neighbor should be so blissfully happy, and in the same world! But Abraham says, "Son, remember how it was in the other world, that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things : but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented." Then Dives remembered the daily banquets at which he had presided. How thoughtless and careless he had been of eternal consequences! But then, how could he have known ? He had not been sufficiently warned. If God had really desired his salvation why had He made it possible for him to doubt? Why had the Almighty not faced him with some absolute, compelling conviction of the existence of a future life and eternal judgment? There are those five brothers of his, still living on in the same ignorance and carelessness, measuring out to themselves the same miserable destiny. The lights are by this time flaming again in the banquet hall.
The boon companions are there. The empty seat has been filled, and the old revel is going on. But he will warn them if God will not.

"I pray thee, Father Abraham," he cries," send Lazarus to my father's house; for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Let him suddenly appear as a terrible specter at their feast, a messenger from the dead, clothed in the rags which he wore when he lay starving at the gate; let him freeze them with terror; let him describe to them the misery of my fate ! ' ' But Abraham says unto him, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."

The vast human ignorance of the life be yond does not deny us the ground for right belief and right living here. Nay, if the un seen were all revealed, if we were enabled now actually to see that toward which we grope with such intense curiosity, it would not effect a genuine moral reformation, or make better lives, where our present knowledge has failed.

There is a striking historic instance of the kind of morality produced by a certainty concerning what God has left unrevealed. At the close of the Tenth century there swept over Europe a strange conviction that with the year 1000 A. D. the world would come to an end. The belief seems to have been based upon a literal interpretation of a passage in the Book of Revelation. Many Christians of that time believed that for every man life would come to an end upon a definitely known date. It might have seemed that such knowledge was desirable, and would bring to pass a great moral reform. But it proved to be undesirable, and it did not bring about any genuine improvement.

While the prediction was false, so many believed it to be true, so many acted upon it, that it enables us to measure by its results the practical value of this kind of knowledge, supposing it could be obtained. In the Tenth century it produced an entirely artificial morality. Useful pur suits of life were abandoned. Commerce was neglected. People gave all their wealth to the Church by way of driving a bargain with God. They fought for places to sleep on the porches of churches that they might be saved by being near the bones of saints, and spared by clinging to other people's virtues. The more reckless of them determined that life should be as gay as it was short. All government and restraint had been abandoned.
Those who chose went about fighting, roistering, burning and pillaging. The logical result of the belief, apparently, was to reduce human society to a mob, some sniveling, others cursing, a spectacle dishonor able both to God and men.

In our own day, a somewhat similar phase of religion appears. Not, in our case, that religion has exchanged an uncertainty for definite and reliable information, as the Tenth century believed. The Twentieth century views the whole situation from a different angle. The modern plea is to abandon mystery altogether, and to reduce the dogmas of religion to the least common denominator of what can be intellectually ascertained, and proved, and demonstrated. While nothing could be more reactionary from the religion of the Tenth Century, the underlying thought is the same. It is regarded as desirable that the truths of religion should be removed from the realm of faith, and brought within the reach of mathematical certainty.

There are many advocates of this program who do not realize all that such an intellectual position involves. One man objects to the dogma of the Virgin Birth as being incapable of logical proof, but says he believes in the Incarnation.
Another cannot intellectually accept the Incarnation, but believes the doctrine of personal immortality. Another rejects everything usually bearing the name of dogma, but believes in the Love and Fatherhood of God. In these arbitrary choices of belief it is not generally perceived that the same intellectual grounds for rejection of the dogma disliked would argue with equal force against the dogma accepted and preferred. If the Incarnation be a dogma, so is the Brotherhood of Man ; if immortality be a dogma, so is the Love of God. And when you come to measure any or all of these dogmas by a standard of intellectual, logical demonstration, not one of them can be so established beyond a doubt. While many converging lines of evidence appear that convince the Christian believer of the logic of Christian dogmas, not one of these doctrines is capable of the kind of proof that amounts to scientific certainty. You cannot scientifically prove the Divinity of Christ, or the immortality of the soul, not even the existence of a personal God.

The reason that the very skeptics who reject one doctrine upon intellectual grounds, yet cling firmly to some other doctrine, is that there is a human hunger for belief in truths that are quite beyond the range of logical demonstration, and are established upon other and higher ground than mathematical.

A living, human soul is never quite able to make of himself such a logic-machine that he does not, in things that concern him most deeply, believe where he cannot prove, and where the ultimate truths are incapable of demonstration. In mathematical problems perfect proof is always possible, because man himself has formulated the rules, and created the symbols and defined the conditions with which he works.1 But there are deeper truths that lie beyond the range of demonstration. And wonderful as the logical faculty is, it is not the highest and supremest intellectual quality. The human mind possesses a quality of intuition and insight and vision that leaps beyond the range of scientific demonstration to grasp the deepest and most vital truths concerning the soul and God. This is the quality of faith. It would be sad indeed for the world if religion were based alone upon logical demonstration, and if its vital truths could be grasped only by a mental aristocracy.
Then would there be religion for the polished gentleman in his well-furnished library, but none for the ignorant old woman dying in her gar ret. There would be religion for Dives, but none for Lazarus. Boston, and not Jerusalem, would be the Holy City. And the apostles of religion would not be Galilean peasants, but the prize scholars of modern universities. If you go to the type of man who represents, in intellectual capacity, the low average of the great majority, and present to him a religion of cosmic forces and ethical culture, what will he make of it? But go to him with the gospel of Jesus Christ the God-Man, dying for him upon the Cross, and you have the basis of a genuine appeal that may reach the simplest intelligence, and yet a doctrine that intellectual genius finds unfathomable. It is this quality of the Christian religion over which the Founder rejoiced. "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes." The power of the Christian faith lies in its profound simplicity. It is universal because it is human. It reaches the mighty because it touches the lowly.

A conception of religion that reaches no higher than logical demonstration will carry is weakest in its moral distinctions between right and wrong. From the purely scientific plane, actions that we call right and deeds that we call wrong are so considered by reason of the evolution of inherited prejudices, and many moral values are more or less arbitrary and fictitious. From the scientific plane, they have no ultimate imperative sanction behind them. When desire and present advantage are on the side of wrong, and when right is supported by nothing more than an inherited prejudice, how easily shall the necessary wrong become the possible right! The whole moral system of civilization would be shaken to its foundations. The power that saves is that men's Christian instincts are stronger than their arguments. Their morality is Christian. The atmosphere in which they fly their newly invented theological aeroplanes is Christian. There is no place to show how powerless are their religious inventions to stand alone.

But the religious answer to the question why the future must be shrouded in uncertainty is this: the Faith which guides a man's life in his journey toward the unseen is not merely intellectual, it is moral. That a straight line is the shortest distance between two points is a purely intellectual proposition. You can see that it must be true. The evidence for it is absolutely compulsory, either for the most exalted saint or the most hardened sinner. Morals do not enter into the question. But that the way of the Cross is the certain road to eternal life, that is a moral proposition. The evidence for that proposition cannot be intellectually compulsory.

The man who insists that he be intellectually compelled to have faith in Jesus Christ would as reasonably insist that he be physically compelled by a force of police to live the life of Christ. You believe in a good man by virtue of the goodness in you which corresponds to the goodness in him. You believe in a good cause by reason of the qualities in yourself which find expression in the righteousness of the cause. And to follow the impulse of this highest goodness in us to believe, even where we cannot see the end of the way to which it leads, is just as much a part of the moral test of character, as the choice between deeds and actions good and bad. Lazarus coming back from the dead to compel the trembling belief of the five banqueters is just as futile, from the moral point of view, as a police raid which should confiscate the purple and fine linen, and compel the diners to close the banquet hall. "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."

For a life which neglects the opportunity that lies day by day at the very door, there can never be the excuse that you had not sufficient warning, or divine assurance of the out come. You have more than Moses and the prophets : you have the life and example and power of Jesus Christ, and the means of grace which He ordained ; you have the daily testimony of conscience illuminated by the gift of the Holy Ghost. You have the same spiritual opportunities which have enabled men for nineteen centuries to testify by their lives to the supreme power of Jesus Christ, the same opportunities to which the best men you know today, if you could learn their story, owe whatever power they have to resist the temptations that beset them, and to live in some degree as God meant them to live.

The things that we are sure of are sufficient to live by, even if they seem to lead us out into the dark. Dwell not so much on the things that you doubt. Be not faint hearted because the things which revelation has not revealed baffle all speculation. Begin with what you do believe, and make that count. Live up to that light. Faith, like a grain of mustard seed, may be small in the beginning. But it grows, if you are faithful to that little. It thrusts its roots deep into the earth, and lifts its branches higher and higher toward heaven, until it becomes the mightiest of all living, growing things.

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