271. Nevertheless, in spite of the treachery of our conceptions and language, and in just conclusion even from our narrow experience, the conviction is fastened in our hearts that the habits or laws of Nature are more constant than our own and sustained by a firmer Intelligence: so that, without in the least claiming the faculty of recognition of miracle, we may securely define its essence. The phenomena of the universe with which we are acquainted are assumed to be, under general conditions, constant, but to be maintained in that constancy by a supreme personal Mind; and it is farther supposed that, under particular conditions, this ruling Person interrupts the constancy of these phenomena, in order to establish a particular relation with inferior creatures.
272. It is, indeed, singular how ready the inferior creatures are to imagine such a relation, without any very decisive evidence of its establishment. The entire question of miracle is involved with that of the special providences which are supposed, in some theories of religion, sometimes to confound the enemies, and always to protect the darlings of God: and in the minds of amiable persons, the natural and very justifiable sense of their own importance to the well-being of the world may often encourage the pleasant supposition that the Deity, however improvident for others, will be provident for them. I recollect a paper on this subject by Dr. Guthrie, published not long ago in some religious periodical, in which the writer mentioned, as a strikingly Providential circumstance, the catching of his foot on a ledge of rock which averted what might otherwise have been a fatal fall. Under the sense of the loss to the cause of religion and the society of Edinburgh, which might have been the consequence of the accident, it is natural that Dr. Guthrie should refer to it with strongly excited devotional feelings: yet, perhaps, with better reason, a junior member of the Alpine Club, less secure of the value of his life, would have been likely on the same occasion rather to be provoked by his own awkwardness, than impressed by the providential structure of the rock. At the root of every error on these subjects we may trace either an imperfect conception of the universality of Deity, or an exaggerated sense of individual importance: and yet it is no less certain that every train of thought likely to lead us in a right direction must be founded on the acknowledgment that the personality of a Deity who has commanded the doing of Justice and the showing of Mercy can be no otherwise manifested than in the signal support of causes which are just, and favor of persons who are kind. The beautiful tradition of the deaths of Cleobis and Bito, indeed, expresses the sense proper to the wisest men, that we are unable either to discern or decide for ourselves in what the favor of God consists: but the promises of the Christian religion imply that its true disciples will be enabled to ask with prudence what is to be infallibly granted.
273. And, indeed, the relations between God and His creatures which it is the function of miracle to establish, depend far more on the correspondence of events with human volition than on the marvelous character of the events themselves. These relations are, in the main, twofold. Miracles are either to convince, or to assist. We are apt to think of them as meant only to establish faith, but many are for mere convenience of life. Elisha's making the ax-head swim, and the poisoned soup wholesome, were not to convince anybody, but merely to give help in the quickest way. Conviction is, indeed, in many of the most interesting miracles, quite a secondary end, and often an unattained one. The hungry multitude are fed, the ship in danger relieved by sudden calm. The disciples disregard the multiplying of the loaves, yet are strongly affected by the change in the weather.
But whether for conviction, aid (or aid in the terrific form of punishment), the essence of miracle is as the manifestation of a Power which can direct or modify the otherwise constant phenomena of Nature; and it is, I think, by attaching too great importance to what may be termed the missionary work of miracle, instead of what may in distinction be called its pastoral work, that many pious persons, no less than infidels, are apt to despise, and therefore to deny, miraculous power altogether.
274. "We do not need to be convinced," they say, "of the existence of God by the capricious exertion of His power. We are satisfied in the normal exertion of it; and it is contrary to the idea of His Excellent Majesty that there should be any other."
But all arguments and feelings must be distrusted which are founded on our own ideas of what it is proper for Deity to do. Nor can I, even according to our human modes of judgment, find any impropriety in the thought that an energy may be natural without being normal, and Divine without being constant. The wise missionary may indeed require no miracle to confirm his authority; but the despised pastor may need miracle to enforce it, or the compassionate governor to make it beneficial. And it is quite possible to conceive of Pastoral Miracle as resulting from a power as natural as any other, though not as perpetual. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and some of the energies granted to men born of the Spirit may be manifested only on certain conditions and on rare occasions; and therefore be always wonderful or miraculous, though neither disorderly nor unnatural.
Thus St. Paul's argument to Agrippa, "Why should it be thought with you a thing impossible that God should raise the dead?" would be suicidal, if he meant to appeal to the miracle as a proof of the authority of his mission. But, claiming no authority, he announces as a probable and acceptable fact the opening of a dispensation in which it was as natural for the dead to be raised as for the Gospel to be preached to the poor, though both the one and the other were miraculous signs that the Master of Nature had come down to be Emmanuel among men, and that no prophet was in future to look for another.
We have indeed fallen into a careless habit of using the words supernatural and superhuman, as if equivalent. A human act may be super-doggish, and a Divine act superhuman, yet all three acts absolutely Natural. It is, perhaps, as much the virtue of a Spirit to be inconstant as of a poison to be sure, and therefore always impossible to weigh the elements of moral force in the balance of an apothecary.
275. It is true that, in any abstract reflection on these things, one is instantly brought to pause by questions of the reasonableness, the necessity, or the expedient degree of miracle. Christ walks on the water, overcoming gravity to that extent. Why not have flown, and overcome it altogether? He feeds the multitude by breaking existent loaves; why not have commanded the stones into bread? Or, instead of miraculously feeding either an assembly or a nation, why not enable them, like Himself, miraculously to fast, for the needful time? And in generally admitting the theories of pastoral miracle the instant question submits itself,—Supposing a nation wisely obedient to divinely appointed ministers of a sensible Theocracy, how much would its government be miraculously assisted, and how many of its affairs brought to miraculous prosperity of issue? Would its enemies be destroyed by angels, and its food poured down upon it from the skies, or would the supernatural aid be limited to diminishing the numbers of its slain in battle, or to conducting its merchant ships safely, or instantaneously, to the land whither they would go?
But no progress can be made, and much may be prevented, in the examination of any really difficult human problem, by thus approaching it on the hypothetical side. Such approach is easy to the foolish, pleasant to the proud, and convenient to the malicious, but absolutely fruitless of practical result. Our modesty and wisdom consist alike in the simple registry of the facts cognizable by us, and our duty, in making active use of them for the present, without concerning ourselves as to the possibilities of the future. And the two main facts we have to deal with are that the historical record of miracle is always of inconstant power, and that our own actual energies are inconstant almost in exact proportion to their worthiness.
276. First, I say, the history of miracle is of inconstant power. St. Paul raises Eutychus from death, and his garments effect miraculous cure; yet he leaves Trophimus sick at Miletum, recognizes only the mercy of God in the recovery of Epaphroditus, and, like any uninspired physician, recommends Timothy wine for his infirmities. And in the second place, our own energies are inconstant almost in proportion to their nobleness. We breathe with regularity, and can calculate upon the strength necessary for common tasks. But the record of our best work, and of our happiest moments, is always one of success which we did not expect, and of enthusiasm which we could not prolong.
277. And therefore we can only look for an imperfect and interrupted, but may surely insist on an occasional, manifestation of miraculous credentials by every minister of religion. There is no practical difficulty in the discernment of marvel properly to be held superhuman. It is indeed frequently alleged by the admirers of scientific discovery that many things which were wonderful fifty years ago, have ceased to be so now; and I am perfectly ready to concede to them that what they now themselves imagine to be admirable, will not in the future be admired. But the petty sign, said to have been wrought by the augur Attus before Tarquin, would be as impressive at this instant as it was then; while the utmost achievements of recent scientific miracle have scarcely yet achieved the feeding of Lazarus their beggar, still less the resurrection of Lazarus their friend. Our Christian faith, at all events, stands or falls by this test. "These signs shall follow them that believe," are words which admit neither of qualification nor misunderstanding; and it is far less arrogant in any man to look for such Divine attestation of his authority as a teacher, than to claim, without it, any authority to teach. And assuredly it is no proof of any unfitness or unwisdom in such expectations, that, for the last thousand years, miraculous powers seem to have been withdrawn from, or at least indemonstrably possessed, by a Church which, having been again and again warned by its Master that Riches were deadly to Religion, and Love essential to it, has nevertheless made wealth the reward of Theological learning, and controversy its occupation. There are states of moral death no less amazing than physical resurrection; and a church which permits its clergy to preach what they have ceased to believe, and its people to trust what they refuse to obey, is perhaps more truly miraculous in impotence, than it would be miraculous in power, if it could move the fatal rocks of California to the Pole, and plant the sycamore and the vine between the ridges of the sea.
[Footnote 174: Contemporary Review, March, 1873.]
[Footnote 175: Read at the November meeting of the Metaphysical Society.]
[Footnote 176: I quote from memory but am sure of the purport of the sentence, though not of its expression.]
[Footnote 177: "And be it death proclaimed through our host to boast of this."—Henry V.]
* * * * *
AN OXFORD LECTURE.
(Nineteenth Century, January 1878.)
* * * * *
AN OXFORD LECTURE.
278. I am sure that all in this audience who were present yesterday at Dr. Acland's earnest and impressive lecture must have felt how deeply I should be moved by his closing reference to the friendship begun in our undergraduate days;—of which I will but say that, if it alone were all I owed to Oxford, the most gracious kindness of the Alma Mater would in that gift have been fulfilled to me.
But his affectionate words, in their very modesty, as if even standing on the defense of his profession, the noblest of human occupations! and of his science—the most wonderful and awful of human intelligences! showed me that I had yet not wholly made clear to you the exactly limited measure in which I have ventured to dispute the fitness of method of study now assigned to you in this University.
279. Of the dignity of physical science, and of the happiness of those who are devoted to it for the healing and the help of mankind, I never have meant to utter, and I do not think I have uttered, one irreverent word. But against the curiosity of science, leading us to call virtually nothing gained but what is new discovery, and to despise every use of our knowledge in its acquisition; of the insolence of science, in claiming for itself a separate function of that human mind which in its perfection is one and indivisible, in the image of its Creator; and of the perversion of science, in hoping to discover by the analysis of death, what can only be discovered by the worship of life,—of these I have spoken, not only with sorrow, but with a fear which every day I perceive to be more surely grounded, that such labor, in effacing from within you the sense of the presence of God in the garden of the earth, may awaken within you the prevailing echo of the first voice of its Destroyer, "Ye shall be as gods."
280. To-day I have little enough time to conclude,—none to review—what I have endeavored thus to say; but one instance, given me directly in conversation after lecture, by one of yourselves, will enable me to explain to you precisely what I mean.
After last lecture, in which you remember I challenged our physiologists to tell me how a bird flies, one of you, whose pardon, if he thinks it needful, I ask for this use of his most timely and illustrative statement, came to me, saying, "You know the way in which we are shown how a bird flies, is, that any one, a dove for instance, is given to us, plucked, and partly skinned, and incised at the insertion of the wing bone; and then, with a steel point, the ligament of the muscle at the shoulder is pulled up, and out, and made distinct from other ligaments, and we are told 'that is the way a bird flies,' and on that matter it is thought we have been told enough."
I say that this instance given me was timely; I will say more—in the choice of this particular bird, providential. Let me take, in their order, the two subjects of inquiry and instruction, which are indeed offered to us in the aspect and form of that one living creature.
281. Of the splendor of your own true life, you are told, in the words which, to-day, let me call, as your Fathers did, words of inspiration—"Yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove, that is covered with silver wings and her feathers with gold." Of the manifold iris of color in the dove's plumage, watched carefully in sunshine as the bird moves, I cannot hope to give you any conception by words; but that it is the most exquisite, in the modesty of its light, and in the myriad mingling of its hue, of all plumage, I may partly prove to you in this one fact, that out of all studies of color, the one which I would desire most to place within your reach in these schools, is Turner's drawing of a dove, done when he was in happy youth at Farnley. But of the causes of this color, and of the peculiar subtlety in its iridescence, nothing is told you in any scientific book I have ever seen on ornithology.
282. Of the power of flight in these wings, and the tender purpose of their flight, you hear also in your Fathers' book. To the Church, flying from her enemies into desolate wilderness, there were indeed given two wings as of a great eagle. But the weary saint of God, looking forward to his home in calm of eternal peace, prays rather—"Oh that I had wings like a dove, for then should I flee away, and be at rest." And of these wings, and this mind of hers, this is what reverent science should teach you: first, with what parting of plume, and what soft pressure and rhythmic beating of divided air, she reaches that miraculous swiftness of undubious motion, compared with which the tempest is slow, and the arrow uncertain; and secondly, what clew there is, visible, or conceivable to thought of man, by which, to her living conscience and errorless pointing of magnetic soul, her distant home is felt afar beyond the horizon, and the straight path, through concealing clouds, and over trackless lands, made plain to her desire, and her duty, by the finger of God.
283. And lastly, since in the tradition of the Old Covenant she was made the messenger of forgiveness to those eight souls saved through the baptism unto death, and in the Gospel of the New Covenant, under her image, was manifested the well-pleasing of God, in the fulfillment of all righteousness by His Son in the Baptism unto life,—surely alike all Christian people, old and young, should be taught to be gladdened by her sweet presence; and in every city and village in Christendom she should have such home as in Venice she has had for ages, and be, among the sculptured marbles of the temple, the sweetest sculpture; and, fluttering at your children's feet, their never-angered friend. And surely also, therefore, of the thousand evidences which any carefully thoughtful person may see, not only of the ministration of good, but of the deceiving and deadly power of the evil angels, there is no one more distinct in its gratuitous, and unreconcilable sin, than that this—of all the living creatures between earth and sky—should be the one chosen to amuse the apathy of our murderous idleness, with skill-less, effortless, merciless slaughter.
284. I pass to the direct subject on which I have to speak finally to-day;—the reality of that ministration of the good angels, and of that real adversity of the principalities and powers of Satan, in which, without exception, all earnest Christians have believed, and the appearance of which, to the imagination of the greatest and holiest of them, has been the root, without exception, of all the greatest art produced by the human mind or hand in this world.
That you have at present no art properly so called in England at all—whether of painting, sculpture, or architecture—I, for one, do not care. In midst of Scottish Lothians, in the days of Scott, there was, by how much less art, by so much purer life, than in the midst of Italy in the days of Raphael. But that you should have lost, not only the skill of Art, but the simplicity of Faith and life, all in one, and not only here deface your ancient streets by the Ford of the waters of sacred learning, but also deface your ancient hills with guilt of mercenary desolation, driving their ancient shepherd life into exile, and diverting the waves of their streamlets into the cities which are the very centers of pollution, of avarice, and impiety: for this I do care,—for this you have blamed me for caring, instead of merely trying to teach you drawing. I have nevertheless yet done my best to show you what real drawing is; and must yet again bear your blame for trying to show you, through that, somewhat more.
285. I was asked, as we came out of chapel this morning, by one of the Fellows of my college, to say a word to the Undergraduates, about Thirlmere. His request, being that of a faithful friend, came to enforce on me the connection between this form of spoliation of our native land of its running waters, and the gaining disbelief in the power of prayer over the distribution of the elements of our bread and water, in rain, and sunshine,—seedtime, and harvest. Respecting which, I must ask you to think with me to-day what is the meaning of the myth, if you call it so, of the great prophet of the Old Testament, who is to be again sent before the coming of the day of the Lord. For truly, you will find that if any part of your ancient faith be true, it is needful for every soul which is to take up its cross, with Christ, to be also first transfigured in the light of Christ,—talking with Moses and with Elias.
The contest of Moses is with the temporal servitude,—of Elijah, with the spiritual servitude, of the people; and the war of Elijah is with their servitude essentially to two Gods, Baal, or the Sun God, in whose hand they thought was their life, and Baalzebub—the Fly God,—of Corruption, in whose hand they thought was the arbitration of death.
The entire contest is summed in the first assertion by Elijah, of his authority as the Servant of God, over those elemental powers by which the heart of Man, whether Jew or heathen, was filled with food and gladness.
And Elijah the Tishbite; who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, "As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word."
286. Your modern philosophers have explained to you the absurdity of all that: you think? Of all the shallow follies of this age, that proclamation of the vanity of prayer for the sunshine and rain; and the cowardly equivocations, to meet it, of the clergy who never in their lives really prayed for anything, I think, excel. Do these modern scientific gentlemen fancy that nobody, before they were born, knew the laws of cloud and storm, or that the mighty human souls of former ages, who every one of them lived and died by prayer, and in it, did not know that in every petition framed on their lips they were asking for what was not only fore-ordained, but just as probably fore-done? or that the mother pausing to pray before she opens the letter from Alma or Balaclava, does not know that already he is saved for whom she prays, or already lies festering in his shroud? The whole confidence and glory of prayer is in its appeal to a Father who knows our necessities before we ask, who knows our thoughts before they rise in our hearts, and whose decrees, as unalterable in the eternal future as in the eternal past, yet in the close verity of visible fact, bend, like reeds, before the fore-ordained and faithful prayers of His children.
287. Of Elijah's contest on Carmel with that Sun-power in which, literally, you again now are seeking your life, you know the story, however little you believe it. But of his contest with the Death-power, on the Hill of Samaria, you read less frequently, and more doubtfully.
"Oh, thou Man of God, the King hath said, Come down. And Elijah answered and said, If I be a man of God, let fire come down from Heaven, and consume thee, and thy fifty."
How monstrous, how revolting, cries your modern religionist, that a prophet of the Lord should invoke death on fifty men. And he sits himself, enjoying his muffin and Times, and contentedly allows the slaughter of fifty thousand men, so it be in the interests of England, and of his own stock on Exchange.
But note Elijah's message. "Because thou hast sent to inquire of Baalzebub the God of Ekron, therefore, thou shalt not go down from the bed on which thou art gone up, but shalt surely die."
"Because thou hast sent to inquire:" he had not sent to pray to the God of Ekron, only to ask of him. The priests of Baal prayed to Baal, but Ahaziah only questions the fly-god.
He does not pray "Let me recover," but he asks "Shall I recover of this disease?"
The scientific mind again, you perceive,—Sanitary investigation; by oracle of the God of Death. Whatever can be produced of disease, by flies, by aphides, by lice, by communication of corruption, shall not we moderns also wisely inquire, and so recover of our diseases?
All which may, for aught I know, be well; and when I hear of the vine disease or potato disease being stayed, I will hope also that plague may be, or diphtheria, or aught else of human plague, by due sanitary measures.
288. In the meantime, I see that the common cleanliness of the earth and its water is despised, as if it were a plague; and after myself laboring for three years to purify and protect the source of the loveliest stream in the English midlands, the Wandel, I am finally beaten, because the road commissioners insist on carrying the road washings into it, at its source. But that's nothing. Two years ago, I went, for the first time since early youth, to see Scott's country by the shores of Yarrow, Teviot, and Gala waters. I will read you once again, though you will remember it, his description of one of those pools which you are about sanitarily to draw off into your engine-boilers, and then I will tell you what I saw myself in that sacred country.
Oft in my mind such thoughts awake, By lone Saint Mary's silent lake; Thou know'st it well,—nor fen, nor sedge, Pollute the pure lake's crystal edge; Abrupt and sheer, the mountains sink At once upon the level brink; And just a trace of silver sand Marks where the water meets the land.
Far in the mirror, bright and blue, Each hill's huge outline you may view; Shaggy with heath, but lonely, bare, Nor tree, nor bush, nor brake, is there, Save where, of land, yon slender line Bears thwart the lake the scatter'd pine.
* * * * *
And silence aids—though the steep hills Send to the lake a thousand rills In summer tide, so soft they weep, The sound but lulls the ear asleep; Your horse's hoof-tread sounds too rude, So stilly is the solitude.
Nought living meets the eye or ear, But well I ween the dead are near; For though, in feudal strife, a foe Hath laid Our Lady's chapel low, Yet still beneath the hallow'd soil, The peasant rests him from his toil, And, dying, bids his bones be laid, Where erst his simple fathers pray'd.
289. What I saw myself, in that fair country, of which the sight remains with me, I will next tell you. I saw the Teviot oozing, not flowing, between its wooded banks, a mere sluggish injection, among the filthy stones, of poisonous pools of scum-covered ink; and in front of Jedburgh Abbey, where the foaming river used to dash round the sweet ruins as if the rod of Moses had freshly cleft the rock for it, bare and foul nakedness of its bed, the whole stream carried to work in the mills, the dry stones and crags of it festering unseemly in the evening sun, and the carcass of a sheep, brought down in the last flood, lying there in the midst of the children at their play, literal and ghastly symbol, in the sweetest pastoral country in the world, of the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
That is your symbol to-day, of the Lamb as it had been slain; and that the work of your prayerless science;—the issues, these, of your enlightened teaching, and of all the toils and the deaths of the Covenanters on those barren hills, of the prophetic martyrs here in your crossing streets, and of the highest, sincerest, simplest patriot of Catholic England, Sir Thomas More, within the walls of England's central Tower. So is ended, with prayer for the bread of this life, also the hope of the life that is to come. Yet I will take leave to show you the light of that hope, as it shone on, and guided, the children of the ages of faith.
290. Of that legend of St. Ursula which I read to you so lately, you remember, I doubt not, that the one great meaning is the victory of her faith over all fears of death. It is the laying down of all the joy, of all the hope, nay of all the Love, of this life, in the eager apprehension of the rejoicing and the love of Eternity. What truth there was in such faith I dare not say that I know; but what manner of human souls it made, you may for yourselves see. Here are enough brought to you, of the thoughts of a believing people. This maid in her purity is no fable; this is a Venetian maid, as she was seen in the earthly dawn, and breathed on by the breeze of her native sea. And here she is in her womanhood, in her courage and perfect peace, waiting for her death.
I have sent for this drawing for you, from Sheffield, where it is to stay, they needing it more than you. It is the best of all that my friend did with me at Venice, for St. George, and with St. George's help and St. Ursula's. It shows you only a piece of the great picture of the martyrdom—nearly all have fallen around the maid, and she kneels with her two servant princesses, waiting for her own death. Faithful behind their mistress, they wait with her,—not feebler, but less raised in thought, as less conceiving their immortal destiny; the one, a gentle girl, conceiving not in her quiet heart any horror of death, bows her fair head towards the earth, almost with a smile; the other, fearful lest her faith should for an instant fail, bursts into passion of prayer through burning tears. St. Ursula kneels, as daily she knelt, before the altar, giving herself up to God forever.
And so you see her, here in the days of childhood, and here in her sacred youth, and here in her perfect womanhood, and here borne to her grave.
Such creatures as these have lived—do live yet, thank God, in the faith of Christ.
291. You hear it openly said that this, their faith, was a foolish dream. Do you choose to find out whether it was or not? You may if you will, but you can find it out in one way only.
Take the dilemma in perfect simplicity. Either Christianity is true or not. Let us suppose it first one, then the other, and see what follows.
Let it first be supposed untrue. Then rational investigation will in all probability discover that untruth; while, on the other hand, irrational submission to what we are told may lead us into any form of absurdity or insanity; and, as we read history, we shall find that this insanity has perverted, as in the Crusades, half the strength of Europe to its ruin, and been the source of manifold dissension and misery to society.
Start with the supposition that Christianity is untrue, much more with the desire that it should be, and that is the conclusion at which you will certainly arrive.
But, on the other hand, let us suppose that it is, or may be, true. Then, in order to find out whether it is or not, we must attend to what it says of itself. And its first saying is an order to adopt a certain line of conduct. Do that first, and you shall know more. Its promise is of blessing and of teaching, more than tongue can utter, or mind conceive, if you choose to do this; and it refuses to teach or help you on any other terms than these.
292. You may think it strange that such a trial is required of you. Surely the evidences of our future state might have been granted on other terms—nay, a plain account might have been given, with all mystery explained away in the clearest language. Then, we should have believed at once.
Yes, but, as you see and hear, that, if it be our way, is not God's. He has chosen to grant knowledge of His truth to us on one condition and no other. If we refuse that condition, the rational evidence around us is all in proof of our death, and that proof is true, for God also tells us that in such refusal we shall die.
You see, therefore, that in either case, be Christianity true or false, death is demonstrably certain to us in refusing it. As philosophers, we can expect only death, and as unbelievers, we are condemned to it.
There is but one chance of life—in admitting so far the possibility of the Christian verity as to try it on its own terms. There is not the slightest possibility of finding out whether it be true, or not, first.
"Show me a sign first and I will come," you say. "No," answers God. "Come first, then you shall see a sign."
Hard, you think? You will find it is not so, on thinking more. For this, which you are commanded, is not a thing unreasonable in itself. So far from that, it is merely the wisest thing you could do for your own and for others' happiness, if there were no eternal truth to be discovered.
You are called simply to be the servant of Christ, and of other men for His sake; that is to say, to hold your life and all its faculties as a means of service to your fellows. All you have to do is to be sure it is the service you are doing them, and not the service you do yourself, which is uppermost in your minds.
293. Now you continually hear appeals to you made in a vague way, which you don't know how far you can follow. You shall not say that, to-day; I both can and will tell you what Christianity requires of you in simplest terms.
Read your Bible as you would any other book—with strictest criticism, frankly determining what you think beautiful, and what you think false or foolish. But be sure that you try accurately to understand it, and transfer its teaching to modern need by putting other names for those which have become superseded by time. For instance, in such a passage as that which follows and supports the "Lie not one to another" of Colossians iii.—"seeing that ye have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the spirit of Him that created him, where" (meaning in that great creation where) "there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free." In applying that verse to the conduct and speech of modern policy, it falls nearly dead, because we suffer ourselves to remain under a vague impression—vague, but practically paralyzing,—that though it was very necessary to speak the truth in the countries of Scythians and Jews, there is no objection to any quantity of lying in managing the affairs of Christendom. But now merely substitute modern for ancient names, and see what a difference it will make in the force and appeal of the passage, "Lie not one to another, brethren, seeing that ye have put off the old man, with his deeds, and have put on the new man, which is renewed to knowledge," [Greek: eis epignosin], according to the knowledge of Him that created him, in that great creation where there is neither Englishman nor German, baptism nor want of baptism, Turk nor Russian, slave nor free, but Christ is all, and in all.
294. Read your Bible, then, making it the first morning business of your life to understand some piece of it clearly, and your daily business to obey of it all that you understand, beginning first with the most human and most dear obedience—to your father and mother. Doing all things as they would have you do, for the present: if they want you to be lawyers—be lawyers; if soldiers—soldiers; if to get on in the world—even to get money—do as they wish, and that cheerfully, after distinctly explaining to them in what points you wish otherwise. Theirs is for the present the voice of God to you.
But, at the same time, be quite clear about your own purpose, and the carrying out of that so far as under the conditions of your life you can. And any of you who are happy enough to have wise parents will find them contented in seeing you do as I now tell you.
295. First cultivate all your personal powers, not competitively, but patiently and usefully. You have no business to read in the long vacation. Come here to make scholars of yourselves, and go to the mountains or the sea to make men of yourselves. Give at least a month in each year to rough sailor's work and sea fishing. Don't lounge and flirt on the beach, but make yourselves good seamen. Then, on the mountains, go and help the shepherd at his work, the wood-men at theirs, and learn to know the hills by night and day. If you are staying in level country, learn to plow, and whatever else you can that is useful. Then here in Oxford, read to the utmost of your power, and practice singing, fencing, wrestling, and riding. No rifle practice, and no racing—boat or other. Leave the river quiet for the naturalist, the angler, and the weary student like me.
You may think all these matters of no consequence to your studies of art and divinity; and that I am merely crotchety and absurd. Well, that is the way the devil deceives you. It is not the sins which we feel sinful, by which he catches us; but the apparently healthy ones,—those which nevertheless waste the time, harden the heart, concentrate the passions on mean objects, and prevent the course of gentle and fruitful thought.
296. Having thus cultivated, in the time of your studentship, your powers truly to the utmost, then, in your manhood, be resolved they shall be spent in the true service of men—not in being ministered unto, but in ministering. Begin with the simplest of all ministries—breaking of bread to the poor. Think first of that, not of your own pride, learning, comfort, prospects in life: nay, not now, once come to manhood, may even the obedience to parents check your own conscience of what is your Master's work. "Whoso loveth father and mother more than me is not worthy of me." Take the perfectly simple words of the Judgment, "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, ye did it unto me:" but you must do it, not preach it. And you must not be resolved that it shall be done only in a gentlemanly manner. Your pride must be laid down, as your avarice, and your fear. Whether as fishermen on the sea, plowmen on the earth, laborers at the forge, or merchants at the shop-counter, you must break and distribute bread to the poor, set down in companies—for that also is literally told you—upon the green grass, not crushed in heaps under the pavement of cities. Take Christ at His literal word, and, so sure as His word is true, He will be known of you in breaking of bread. Refuse that servant's duty because it is plain,—seek either to serve God, or know Him, in any other way: your service will become mockery of Him, and your knowledge darkness. Every day your virtues will be used by the evil spirits to conceal, or to make respectable, national crime; every day your felicities will become baits for the iniquity of others; your heroisms, wreckers' beacons, betraying them to destruction; and before your own deceived eyes and wandering hearts every false meteor of knowledge will flash, and every perishing pleasure glow, to lure you into the gulf of your grave.
297. But obey the word in its simplicity, in wholeness of purpose and with serenity of sacrifice, like this of the Venetian maids', and truly you shall receive sevenfold into your bosom in this present life, as in the world to come, life everlasting. All your knowledge will become to you clear and sure, all your footsteps safe; in the present brightness of domestic life you will foretaste the joy of Paradise, and to your children's children bequeath, not only noble fame, but endless virtue. "He shall give his angels charge over you to keep you in all your ways; and the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus."
[Footnote 178: Left, at the Editor's request, with only some absolutely needful clearing of unintelligible sentences, as it was written for free delivery. It was the last of a course of twelve given this autumn;—refers partly to things already said, partly to drawings on the walls; and needs the reader's pardon throughout, for faults and abruptness incurable but by re-writing the whole as an essay instead of a lecture.—(Nineteenth Century, January, 1878.)]
[Footnote 179: Of course, this statement is merely a generalization of many made in the preceding lectures, the tenor of which any readers acquainted with my recent writings may easily conceive.]
[Footnote 180: The references were to the series of drawings lately made, in Venice, for the Oxford and Sheffield schools, from the works of Carpaccio, by Mr. Fairfax Murray.]