Christian Worldliness

Robert Dale, 1884
 

The title of this paper is a paradox. Between Christianity and "Worldliness" there is perpetual conflict even a temporary truce is impossible. The ideal Christian life is a life in God a life under the absolute control of the laws of an invisible, eternal, and Divine kingdom. But there are two wholly different conceptions of the relations between the kingdom of God into which, if we are in Christ, we have already passed and the interests, pleasures, and pursuits of the earthly life.

According to one conception, our environment in this present world ought to have no attraction or charm when once we have seen the face of God and have learned that we are to inherit immortal righteousness, wisdom, and glory. The light should fade which once shone on the mountains and the sea. Flowers should lose their grace; winds and running streams and the rustling leaves their music; stars their luster. Delight in literature and in art should become languid. The passion for scientific discovery should be quenched. Interest in the political affairs of nations should be suppressed. All pleasures except those which flow direct from the springs of eternal joy, should cease to afford even transient satisfaction. The right temper to cultivate in relation to all that once seemed fairest, purest, noblest in this present life is a temper of indifference or even of discontent.

This conception of the true place of the world in Christian thought is sanctioned by great traditions, by many manuals for the conduct of the Christian life; and there are certain morbid moods of religious feeling in which it appears to be the necessary result of a real and habitual faith in God and in immortality.

But "for everything there is a season." At present, and until our mortal years are spent our place is among these visible and transitory things. We are here "by the will of God." Our feet are in the dust though our eyes may be made glad by the shining heavens. We are surrounded by an infinite and eternal universe; our relations to it are real, intimate, and enduring; the springs of our life and strength are there; and yet we cannot dissolve our relations to another and inferior order. And according to the Christian faith, this inferior order is also Divine. The fires of the sun are to burn themselves out and we shall see them sink and disappear, but God kindled them.

This wonderful world, with its beauty its green pastures and still waters, its deserts and its stormy seas, its luxuriant and fertile plains, its wide wastes of snow and ice is to pass away; but God made it. It was He who created what Paul describes as "our outward man," which is "decaying," as well as "our inward man," which is "renewed day by day;" and all our physical necessities, instincts, and sensibilities, on the one hand, with the boundless provision for their gratification on the other, are the expressions of the Divine thought, and the effect of Divine volition. The loftier powers and finer capacities which find their exercise and their satisfaction in the discovery of truth, and in the vision or creation of all forms of beauty, also came from Him.

"Discontent" with conditions of life which God has appointed can hardly be the legitimate and necessary result of the supreme revelation of God's righteousness and love.

"Indifference" to the pleasant things which are the gifts of the Divine goodness can hardly be the right temper for those to cherish who have been "made partakers of the Divine nature." What God thought worth giving should be received gratefully and heartily enjoyed.

The revolution of thought concerning this present life produced by an intelligent and devout acceptance of the Christian revelation, corresponds to that which was produced by the discovery of the true theory of the physical universe. The earth has ceased to be the center around which suns and stars revolve, but it retains its place among the hosts of God. Its relative magnitude has been reduced, but the actual height of its mountains, and the actual breadth of its continents and oceans have not been diminished. And although we are environed by immensity, and know that many of the stars which shine in its solemn depths are burning suns each one of them, perhaps the center of vast and undiscovered worlds the earth is still our home, and the laws which govern the most august of the principalities and powers among the luminaries of Heaven are the laws which govern the motions of this inferior orb.

To the Christian, this earth is not an outlying waste, forsaken and unblessed by God; it is one of the provinces of the Divine kingdom; and the most trivial of our occupations, the most transient of our joys and sorrows ought to find their place in the Divine order. It must be possible for us, with a clear vision of eternity and of the great glory of God, to stand in friendly and kindly relations to this present world. This is what I mean by "Christian Worldliness."

Renan's account of the Galilean ministry of our Lord is fiction; but there are elements of truth in it, which had disappeared from the traditional conception of our Lord's earthly life.

The four Gospels give us the impression that Jesus of Nazareth had a great personal charm which was felt by all sorts of people. I think that they also give us the impression that, at least in the earlier years of His ministry, this charm was partly derived from His buoyancy of spirit, His animation, His innocent delight in pleasant things, in trees and flowers and birds, in the ripening corn, in the fresh air of the hills, and in the shining waters of the lake. The charm was increased by His frank and alert interest in the common affairs of common people, in their sowing and reaping, in their building and fishing, as well as in what we should call their "religious life." No one that wanted a wedding to pass off cheerfully would have invited John the Baptist but our Lord was a welcome guest. Sometimes He went into mountain solitudes to pray, and His home was always with God.

Even in the early months of His ministry, the shadow of His final sorrows seems to have fallen on Him; but He did not remain on remote heights, apart from the ordinary interests of men; nor did the premonitions which came to Him of His supreme agony prevent Him from sympathizing deeply with the common troubles of mankind or from rejoicing in their gladness.

There is a kind of spiritual detachment which, even when a man is surrounded by crowds, separates him as completely from the interests of the rest of the race as though he were surrounded by thick monastic walls through which no sound of the stormy winds and restless waves of the outside world could penetrate; but this seclusion is not illustrated and enforced by the example of Christ, and it is plainly condemned by the congenial, generous, cordial spirit of His teaching.

It may be alleged that in all ages noble and devout men have come to regard the world with dissatisfaction and discontent, and that this temper is formally sanctioned, not by a few scattered texts' in Holy Scripture, but by a whole Book; the twelve chapters of the Book of Ecclesiastes being successive variations on one theme, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!"

But is it quite clear that the Book of Ecclesiastes contains the Christian theory of human life? Does it illustrate the spirit with which a Christian man should regard the pleasant things of this world? Whoever the writer may have been, and whether or not he has given us the record of his own experience, the Book is to be read as containing the confessions of a man whose life had been a mournful failure and disappointment. He had become weary of everything weary of knowledge, weary of greatness, weary of wealth; weary of his palaces, his parks, his gardens, and his vineyards; weary of his men-singers and his women-singers; weary of observing the sorrows of men; weary of observing their joys. He was weary of the moral order of the world, for he had seen folly set in great dignity and the poor man's wisdom despised; all things came alike to all; there was one event to the righteous and to the wicked, to the religious man that offered sacrifice and to the irreligious man that offered none; "as is the good so is the sinner;" the just man perished in his righteousness and the life of the wicked man was prolonged.

He was weary of the earth itself, which lasted on while one generation came and another passed away. He was weary of the regularity of the rising and the setting of the sun, weary of the waywardness of the changing winds, weary of the monotony of the rivers which were always running into the sea. The dead, so he thought, were better off than the living, for they had done with life; it would have been better still if they had never lived at all, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!"

This was how the world looked to the writer of this Book; whether this was how God meant it to look to him is another question. This is how the world looks to many of us in some moods. And if we are to believe very much that appears in our current literature, this bitter melancholy, this profound discontent with all things in Heaven above and on the earth beneath, is becoming more common than it used to be.

This brilliant age of ours, like the real or imaginary subject of the Book of Ecclesiastes, has made great works, has built houses, has gathered silver and gold, even the property of princes; it has also given its heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under Heaven; it has come to great estate, and it has gotten wisdom above all the ages that have been before it; yes, has seen much of wisdom and knowledge. And the end of it all seems to be this the question is asked, whether life is worth living. The confessions of the ancient Jew are being translated into our modern English speech. There is less of poetic grace, of pathos, and of sadness in the English translation than in the Jewish original, but the substance is the same.

A man may be sure that sooner or later the Bible will find him somewhere. Let him refuse to believe what it tells him about God and he will be startled at discovering how much truth it will tell him about himself.

But that this bitter and humiliating theory of human life should have found its way into the Christian Church, that this restless dissatisfaction with the world and all that is in it a dissatisfaction which was plainly the penalty of self-indulgence and irreligion should be sought and cherished as though it were one of the elements of Christian perfection, is almost unintelligible.

I deny altogether the legitimacy of this appeal to the Book of Ecclesiastes, as though it contained the Christian theory of human life. Are we also required to write this melancholy epitaph over all our wisdom strength, honor, and joy, over our libraries, over our galleries of art, over the laboratories of science, "All is vanity and vexation of spirit vanity of vanities, all is vanity." And if we are not in the mood to write it, it is half suspected that we are not as devout as we should be!

But our false conception of the relations of the Christian man to the world is not really derived from this ancient Jewish book; it is part of that miserable inheritance which has descended to us from the worst days of Christendom. It is quite time that we Protestants got rid of the traditional Romish saint the saint that we see on the walls of every picture-gallery in Europe, the saint that still haunts the imagination of hundreds of thousands of devout men who regard the Romish apostasy with horror. Every one knows the kind of figure I mean the thin, pale face, the eyes red with tears or weary with watching, the thin hands, the wasted form. That was the Roman Catholic saint, the saint of the Middle Ages, the saint, too, of those early Christian centuries, when the Christian faith was colored by the dark superstitions and philosophical speculations of races that were just emerging from heathenism.

We have given up the theology of Rome but we have forgotten to revise the Romish conception of the religious life. The Romish ideal of saintliness was the creation of Romish theology; all that was true and noble in it and there was much that was true and noble in it came from those eternal principles of the Christian faith which were not altogether suppressed or forgotten even in the darkest and most evil times; all that was artificial, ignoble, and unlovely came from those Romish errors which we renounced at the Reformation. Between belief and character, theory and conduct, theology and the ideal of spiritual perfection there is a vital connection. It was the theology of Rome that developed the characteristic type of holiness in the Roman Church and now that we have parted with the theology, we ought to have a different type of sanctity!

But we are still mastered by the spell of the ancient tradition. We can hardly think of a man as a saint unless he is very quiet, placid, and subdued; and if there is a touch of melancholy in him, we are better pleased. He must not be too strong; he must be a little pale; and must not have too much flesh on him. A man of another sort, with plenty of muscle in his arms and plenty of color in his face; with a ringing voice, a broad chest, sound lungs, a vigorous pulse, and a firm step; with a healthy appetite and a good digestion; with a cheerful satisfaction in the pleasures of life, and a buoyancy of spirit that rises above most of its troubles; with an elasticity of temper that refuses to be chained to gloomy memories and to be vexed by common cares, that prefers the glad open sunshine to the shadows of solemn cloisters such a man hardly satisfies us as a godly man. Without knowing exactly why, we find it hard to think of a man like this, as a saint. A keen delight in common work and common pleasures, seems to most of us inconsistent with the great life of Faith and with unbroken communion with God.

The principal cause of the difference between Protestant type of the religious life, and the Catholic type of the religious life is to be found in that central truth concerning the infinite love of God and the freedom of God's salvation, which Luther preached under the name of Justification by Faith. It has been said that Luther rediscovered God with God, he rediscovered the gospel. He came to men fresh from the presence of Christ, whose mission it was, not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance, and who is the propitiation for the sin of the world. He declared that neither by fasting, nor by painful self-discipline, nor by protracted and successful struggle with temptation are men to obtain God's forgiveness and to pass out of darkness into the clear light of the Divine presence, but by Faith. Redemption is God's free gift conferred on every man that consents to receive it.

It was a wonderful gospel. Men listened to it with the agitation of a great joy and with immeasurable hope. Luther said to them: You are troubled by the consciousness of guilt; you look back upon years stained with sin; you are sinful still; your conscience tortures you and refuses to give you peace; you are sure that God must regard your sin with a deeper abhorrence than that with which you regard it yourself and you are right. You look forward with terror to the hour when you will appear before His judgment seat. How are you to obtain forgiveness, and with forgiveness deliverance from the pains of eternal death?

The Catholic Church tells you to confess to a priest, to do penance, to fast, to pray, to mortify the flesh. To make your salvation the surer, it encourages you to shut yourself up in a cell, that through years of unbroken solitude you may meditate on your crimes, and with tears and groans implore the Divine pardon; it puts a scourge into your hands to chastise your sinful body. You will be still safer if you wear a hair shirt and a belt with iron points in it next your skin. By physical discipline, by mental torture, and by the devout use of the sacraments you may hope to escape the eternal fires. This is the gospel of the Catholic Church.

But I, exclaimed Luther, have a nobler gospel. Christ suffered for your sins; God is ready to forgive them. Away with all these miserable inventions of superstition and slavish unbelief! Listen to the parable of the Prodigal Son. His father saw him "while he was yet afar off," and "was moved with compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him." He forgave him at once and brought him home. Was there a hair shirt for him, an iron belt, a cruel scourge, long fasting? That is not God's way of receiving a penitent child. "Bring forth quickly the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet;" kill the fatted calf; and fill the house with music and dancing.

That is the Christian gospel, and you see the joyousness of it. Catholicism keeps the penitent in painful suspense. Having forfeited the complete remission of sins granted him in baptism he can never be certain that he has recovered it. As long as life lasts, he is in trouble; he must still be clearing off old scores; when this life is over he may have to pass through fierce purgatorial fires.

But for the Christian, as soon as he saw the righteousness and power and infinite love of God which were revealed in Christ, the guilt of past years vanished and left the blue Heaven without a cloud!

Nor was this all. Christianity was happy in the present and confident about the future, as well as at rest about the past. Its temper was a temper of unmeasured faith in God. It caught the triumphant spirit of its favorite apostle, and said with him, "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." Romans 5:1-5. We are now filled with the light of God's love for us as the heavens on a summer morning are filled with the glowing light of a cloudless sun.

"If God is for us, who is against us? He who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all how shall He not also with Him freely give us all things?" This was the Protestant spirit, a spirit of exulting thanksgiving and of exulting hope. It was the antithesis of the despondency which had prevailed in Catholicism for many centuries. It taught every man to have unmeasured confidence in the Divine mercy for the forgiveness of his past sins, and unmeasured confidence in the Divine inspiration for the strength he needed in the future to live devoutly and righteously.

The second element of confidence, had as great a place as the first in the creation of a new type of the religious life.

For the Catholic, the ideal saint is the monk, and monasticism in its best times and its highest moods sprang from a noble despair. The world was so full of evil, that for a man who wanted to live in God the only safety seemed to be in flight; to master it completely seemed impossible. Its pleasures were very pleasant so pleasant that the monk was afraid that while he was within their reach he would be unable to resist their charm and therefore he fled from them.

It is always hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven; and the monk thought it so hard that he stripped himself of everything and accepted a voluntary poverty. Wife and children they may become our chief care and our chief delight, and the monk, being afraid that if he had wife and children to love, they might lessen the passion of his love for God, took vows of perpetual celibacy. Robust physical vigor and the physical enjoyments of life sometimes refuse the control of the Divine will, and therefore the monk wasted his strength by fasting, watching, and prayer. It all came from a vehement desire to please God perfectly but the desire was not associated with a confident faith in the power of God to enable us to please Him perfectly in the common paths of men.

Protestantism, with its clear, strong, happy consciousness of alliance with God, gave men courage to face the world to fight its evils instead of flying from them. It believed in the great idea of the noble prayer, "May Your will be done" not in the Church merely, not in the monastery merely but "May Your will be done on earth" in the family, on the farm, in the workshop, in the counting-house, in the courts of kings, in parliaments, in the army, in the painting-room, in the college, in the school, "May Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."

The world, with its complex social order, its intellectual activities, its material wealth is not to be given over to the devil. God made it, and Christian men have to win it back to God again.

This element of Protestantism was, no doubt, greatly invigorated by the influence of the Renaissance. Something of the old pagan delight in physical strength and beauty was associated with the fresh enthusiasm with which the intellect of Europe recovered the immortal monuments of the genius of Greece; and to the Catholic conception of human life the movement was fatal. Reconciliation was impossible. But the healthier and nobler forces of the Renaissance found their natural home and received religious sanction in Protestantism; and in its turn the new learning contributed to the triumph of the new faith.

Luther himself was a fine example. He had a fiery and passionate hatred of falsehood and of sin; a dauntless courage in the assertion of the claims of truth and righteousness. He had a boundless faith and a boundless joy in God. His joy was of a masculine kind, and made him stronger for his work. His faith was of a masculine kind, and relieved him from worrying doubts and fears about his soul's affairs. He had his gloomy times, his conflicts with principalities and powers in dismal and solitary places; but he had no morbid dreams about the sanctity of misery, nor did he suppose that the ever-blessed God finds any satisfaction in the self-inflicted suflferings of His children.

His massive face and robust form were the outward and visible signs of the vigor and massiveness of his moral and religious character. He was a man, and did not try to be anything else. God made him a man, what was he who he should quarrel with God's work? He had flesh and blood he could not help it he did not desire to help it. He ate heartily and enjoyed seeing his friends at dinner. He married a wife and loved her; and he loved God none the less. He liked music and songs, as well as psalms and sermons. He could laugh, as well as preach. He had a congenial humor, as well as deep devoutness. He was a brave man, strong and resolute, with abounding life of all kinds. He was a saint of a type with which, for many evil centuries, Catholicism had been unfamiliar.

Not yet do Protestants thoroughly understand the immense revolution which Protestantism must ultimately bring about in the whole sphere of the moral and religious life of man. What is there, some godly men persist in asking what is there to satisfy the immortal soul, in music, in painting, in literature, in travel, in the mystery and peace of lonely glens, in the majesty of mountains, in the shining sea? That is all very true, but nothing to the purpose. I might as well ask a poor ill-clothed wretch, shivering in the snow, what there would be to satisfy his immortal soul in a great-coat or a blazing fire. Or I might ask the questioner himself, as he sat down to breakfast, what there is to satisfy his immortal soul in coffee and broiled ham.

We are not merely immortal souls at present. To relieve the physical necessities of men is an act of Divine charity. The cup of cold water will not do much for "the immortal soul," but it will not miss the Divine reward.

I decline to follow the example of some over-refined commentators who spiritualize the petition in which Christ taught His disciples to ask for their daily bread. He who wrought a miracle to satisfy the physical hunger of men will not think that I am forgetting my "immortal soul" if I offer the prayer in its plain sense. But my physical wants are the poorest and meanest of all the cravings of that wonderful nature which God has given me. The intellect has higher necessities. These, too, I may ask God to remember and to satisfy.

It is a morbid form of the religious life, which induces a man to turn away with disgust from the pleasant things of this world. There is a worldliness which is Christian and a distaste for the world which is very un-Christian. With a healthy body and a healthy faith in God eye and ear will find a thousand delights. The morning light will be beautiful and also the perfume of flowers and the songs of birds. The verses of poets will have an infinite charm; and the voices of noble singers and the pictures of great artists will be to us among the dear gifts of God dear for their own sakes and dear for the sake of Him from whom they came. We shall value the wisdom of ancient centuries, and shall watch with keen and sympathetic excitement the brilliant intellectual achievements of our own times. We shall be thankful if we are able to visit famous cities, and the rivers and mountains of remote lands; we shall be still more thankful for the dearer joys of home. The music of our children's voices will be sweet to us, and the light in the eyes we love.

And yet we shall not be Pagans finding our rest in visible and transitory things. They will satisfy the powers and capacities to which they are related, and we shall not in a spirit of querulous discontent refuse to enjoy the satisfactions they are intended to bring. We shall take them for what they are, rejoicing in them, being thankful for them, acknowledging them as proofs of the Divine love and care.

But over the common earth, will bend the Heaven of God. The streams of earthly joy, beautiful in themselves, will carry us onward to the ocean of eternal blessedness.

Sometimes there may be in us a certain discontent, a momentary impatience for the more regal powers and the diviner peace of the infinite future; but this will not be because we find no satisfaction in the pleasant things of this world, but because having found the present life so lovely and so fair we are filled with vague wonder and boundless hope by the assurance that the next life is to be lovelier and fairer still! The discontent will be checked and the impatience repressed, for we shall remember that already we dwell in God.

There are, no doubt, other aspects of human life and the Christian faith has words for those who mourn and that have a right to mourn as well as for those who ought to be happy. Sometimes our homes are desolate, we are worn down with care, the brain is too weary, the heart too troubled, to find any joy in the delights of other years. It is not always possible, even for those whose faith is strongest, to "rejoice in tribulations."

"Christian worldliness" is inconsistent with the fanaticism which bids us be indifferent to the calamities of life, as well as with the fanaticism which bids us be indifferent to its pleasures. The gospel does not require us to dull our sensibility to transitory pain, any more than it requires us to dull our sensibility to transitory happiness. It recognizes the reality of the suffering, but tells us that "our light affliction, which is for the moment, works for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory."

For the miseries which we make for ourselves, there is little comfort to be found in God. For the miseries which we cannot escape, the Divine love affords infinite consolation.