WE think of the Hudson River as a dividing barrier, cutting off Manhattan Island from the mainland, and separating the states of New York and New Jersey. Religion has always been a divisive factor, compelling believers to draw sharp lines. Their faith enjoins certain things and forbids others. It presents them with alternatives of righteousness and sin, and insists upon clean-cut decisions. It resolves Abram to emigrate from Ur of the Chaldees, Moses to choose “rather to suffer ill treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season,” Nehemiah to refuse the easy ways of his official predecessors: “So did not I, because of the fear of God.” It places an “I must” on the lips of Jesus, lays necessity on the conscience of St. Paul, and sets Martin Luther in protest against the ecclesiastical authorities with an “I can do no other.” A river has well defined banks, and religion covers the moral landscape with as plain boundaries. Whoso has felt the Spirit of the Highest takes an unequivocal position :
Yea, with one voice, O world, though thou deniest,
Stand thou on that side, for on this am I.
Even those whose religion is theologically vague, and who show scant regard for the conventional usages of worship, insist that God demands clean, kind, industrious living. George Meredith writes to his boy : “Beep pure in mind, unselfish in heart and diligent in study. This is the right way of worshiping God, and is better than hymns and sermons and incense. We find it doubtful whether God blesses the latter, but cultivate the former, and you arc sure of Him. Heed me well, when I say this. And may God bless you forever, I pray it nightly.” The religion of the Bible is uncompromising in its exaction that men of God distinguish plainly between His will and what-ever opposes or lies outside it, and that they make it their moral frontier “Ye that love the Lord hate evil.”
This divisiveness has often been carried to absurd extremes. It has led believers to cultivate singularity for its own sake; witness the ascetics of all the centuries, for whom the supreme command has been : “Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate.” It has frequently fostered wretched sectarian narrowness, where the orthodox would scarcely associate with those whose beliefs were deemed unsound. An elderly New Yorker recalls how her Presbyterian parents did not like to have her play with the children of a Unitarian neighbor, and Ohio Methodists, themselves life-long Republicans, questioned whether they might conscientiously vote for a fellow-Ohioan of Unitarian faith for the presidency of the Republic. Irenaeus reports the story of the aged apostle John running out of a house at Ephesus, when he heard that the heretic, Cerinthus, was under the same roof. The tipsy Falstaff cries: “If I be drunk, I’ll be drunk with those that have the fear of God.” It has sundered Christians in hostile ecclesiastical camps, while all professed supreme allegiance to the unifying Spirit of love. Bernard Shaw says of his native Ireland : “If religion is that which binds men to one another, and irreligion that which sunders, then must I testify that I found the religion of my country in its musical genius, and its irreligion in its churches and drawing-rooms.” Shaw is right in Christian eyes when he declares that religion is that which binds men to one another : ours is the worship of Christlike love in heaven and earth; but it is none the less a separating stream. It does not divide men as correct and mistaken thinkers, or as strict and lax worshipers, or even as believers and infidels, but it classes them as loving and selfish. Inasmuch as ye did it, or did it not, unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye did it, or did it not, unto Meso runs a sentence of judgment which erects an eternal partition. “Every one that loveth is begotten of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love.”
Yes, this river of God divides. Religious conviction sharpens the conscience to “distinguish things that differ.” We are obliged to adopt the godlike course as the way of life, and to shun all others as leading to death.
But the Hudson River is a unifier. Across its waters hundreds of ferries ply, and up and down stream steamers and barges convey passengers and freight. Navigable rivers are connecting arteries establishing easy intercourse between towns miles apart. Religion unifies; indeed religion furnishes the only ultimate basis of unity.
Look at the differences that divide. To begin with, take the difference between ourselves and the physical universe. Mrs. Browning is evidently uttering a bit of autobiography in the lines:
You who keep account
Of crisis and transition in this life,
Set down the first time Nature says plain “no”
To some “yes” in you, and walks over you
In gorgeous sweeps of scorn. We all begin
By singing with the birds, and running fast
With June days, hand in hand; but, once for all,
The birds must sing against us, and the sun
Strike down upon us like a friend’s sword caught
By an enemy to slay us, while we read
The dear name on the blade which bites at us
That’s bitter and convincing; after that
We seldom doubt that something in the large
Smooth order of creation . . . has gone wrong.
We are at one with the physical world, bone of its bone, flesh of its flesh, life of its life, dust of its dust; but it is not at one with us. There is nothing in it akin to our mind and heart. If both it and we had one Maker, we are tempted to fancy that He made man with His right hand and all things else with His left, and did not let His right hand know what His left was doing. Carlyle in old age, walking with a friend beside the Thames, exclaimed : “There is healing in the air and sunshine but the sun and air and water care nothing for man’s dreams or desires; they have no part nor lot wi’ us.” Whittier voices the impression of the impersonality of natural forces in the lines in Snow-Bound:
The shrieking of the mindless wind,
The moaning tree-boughs swaying blind,
And on the glass the unmeaning beat
Of ghostly finger-tips of sleet.
We, with our affections and ideals of duty, are constantly at odds with a scheme of things in which there is suffering, decay and death. Earth sometimes in its beauty seems a playroom, and sometimes in its law-abidingness a school room, and sometimes in its painfulness a torture-chamber. What can reconcile us with the physical universe ?
Science proposes to investigate everything, and gain ing control over all forces to harness them to man’s will a unity of complete knowledge and mastery. Art at-tempts to select and combine the delightful and bar =onions elements in sound or color, and even to present the disagreeable and jarring elements beautifully, as Shakespeare portrays the tragedy of a Hamlet or a Lear -a unity of pleased feeling. Biblical religion goes deeper and asserts that there is genuine unity”one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Our metaphor of the river fits that saying of St. Paul’s: the Divine Spirit flows from above through and in everything, linking all in a oneness of life. To be sure there is by no means as much of the Hudson in the noisy brook which runs down the slope of Mt. Marcy as in the stately stream which sweeps past Tarrytown and Nyack. In impersonal existencessun and air and waterthere is as much of the Spirit of God as they can containGod as energy, law, adaptability to human service. In living creatures there is moreGod as instinct, feeling, rudimentary conscience, capacity for higher development. In mankind there is more stillGod as reason, conscience, affection. Religion agrees with science that man is to study and master forces; and it pictures these forces as awaiting his mastery: “The earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God.” But it goes farther, and declares that where we cannot understand, much less control, the forces pitted against usinevitable death for examplewe can still view them fearlessly, as known and ruled by our wise and kind Father, and go down before them triumphantly, as Jesus on the cross. Religion agrees with art that there is a way of viewing existence which renders it delightful ; but this is not by merely selecting some elements in life, while closing our eyes to others. All, harmonious and incongruous, pleasant and heart-breaking, fair and ugly, are to be cordially accepted, moulded if possible to the soul’s desire, and where they prove intractable, still accepted confidently as being moulded for us by the Hand of God. “To them that love God all things work together for good.”
Let us take some instances of the Christian’s neon-ciliation with unwelcome things. Milton’s sonnet On His Blindness is familiar; fewer know the letter which he wrote to Leonard Philaras, which concludes :
“And so whatever ray of hope there may be for me from your famous physician, all the same, as in a ease quite incurable, I prepare and compose myself accordingly. . My darkness hitherto, by the singular kindness of God, amid rest and studies, and the voices and greetings of friends, has been much easier to bear.
If, as is written, `Man shall not live by bread alone,’ what should prevent one from resting like ‘se in the belief that his eyesight lies not in his eyes lone, but enough for all purposes in God’s leading and providence ? Verily, while only He looks out for me . . . leading me forth with His hand through my whole life, I shall willingly, since it has seemed good to Him, have given my eyes their long holiday. And to you, dear Philaras, whatever may befall, I now bid farewell, with a mind not less brave and steadfast than if I were Lynceus himself for keenness of sight.”
Milton is willing to profit by the skill of any physician, but facing what seems incurable blindness, his faith unites him with it courageously. Religion is a river connecting in friendship an eager spirit and a grim physical limitation.
When General William Booth was a very old man, his eyesight failed him, and the treatment given him proved ineffective. It fell to his son, Bramwell, to break the news to the veteran leader that he must abandon hope of seeing again. He received the statement calmly, and after a little silence said : “Bramwell, I have done what I could for God and for the people with my eyes. Now I shall do what I can for God and for the people without my eyes.” This is the same faith which led Paul to acquiesce in his “stake in the flesh.” He prayed earnestly to be freed from that impediment to service; but when this was denied, he not only still persevered, but persevered with good grace: “Most glady therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Or take the difference between a Man and his fellow mortals. All our dealings with other people stand on the assumption that there is a spiritual kinship between us and them. We take for granted that what is truth for us, is truth for Esquimaux and Chinese and Patagonians; so we work for the spread of education all over the world. We assume that what is beautiful to us is also beautiful to all races, red and yellow and black. There may be differences of taste in many matters, but an autumn sun-set, or the sound of rippling water, or a lark’s song, is lovely to all. What is best in the literature or in the art of any people, even a primitive people, has an appeal for all mankind. We assume that ideals of justice, of goodwill, of brotherhood, command the assent of savage, barbarian and civilized men. Conscience may need awakening, but there is a dormant responsiveness to right in every one; and there is no “East of Suez, where the best is like the worst” on the map of our world. So we plan international agreements and talk of international law. The universal appeal of truth, of beauty, of right, is taken for granted by religious and irreligious, and. this river of spiritual kinship makes possible intercourse between all groups of human beings.
But it is one thing to know that a river which flows by your town also flows by others many miles distant, and quite another thing to be drawn to embark on its waters and travel to them. To Christians, Truth, Beauty, Right, are names for the one living God. We view our Father encompassing every life with His love, and calling us out towards them in sympathy and service. When men interpret the river of their spiritual kinship as Jesus interpreted it, then it becomes a matter of obligation to revere, trust and serve them as Christ has served us.
Look at the distances which separate groups of men in races, in nations, in economic classes, to-day; and what can unite them ? Some are convinced that they never will be linked in friendship. They admit that a spiritual likeness connects them, but they regard this as affording the chance for hostile contacts, as a river provides the meeting-place for battling war-canoes from encampments of savages who dwell on its shores. What quantities of books our presses have turned out upon racial conflicts, and rival nationalistic interests, and the strife of classes ! But those for whom the connecting river is the Spirit of the God and Father of Jesus Christ are assured that this stream carries us to friendship. We do not think that the towns along the river must lose their separate identity, and form one unbroken chain of monotonous city water-front the whole length of the stream. We do not believe that religion demands the obliteration of racial divisions, or the fusing of nations, or even economic equality. The landscape formed by a river lined by a continuous series of city streets on a flat level would have little charm. It is the towns, smaller and larger, with their distinctive characteristics and marked differences, on higher and lower land, all joined by the one band of blue water, on which boats come and go in happy and helpful commerce, which gives the picture its attraction. Let Christlike convictions concerning God and man, and the consequent Christlike conscientiousness, govern the contacts of races and nations, and of the various groups in industry and commerce, and the unity required is achieved.
This is not mere theory; it is confirmed by abundant experience where such Christian intercourse has been tried. Witness the record of William Penn’s relations with the Indians, of the dealings of sincere missionaries with peoples of many lands, of our own country’s handling of the Boxer indemnity with China and our treatment of Cuba after the Spanish War, of Britain’s attitude to South Africa under the ministry of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman at the close of the contest with the Boer Republics, of the relations between employers and operatives in factories where cooperative efforts have been undertaken and carried on with genuine mutual confidence.
At a Post-Communion Service at Bandawe in Central Africa an elder told how he had been a slave and had been sold and re-sold some half-dozen times. Then hearing of the settlement of the Livingstonia Mission, he fled from his owner and reached the Station, where he heard that great pioneer, Dr. Robert Laws, preaching on Isaiah lxv : 25, and urging the people to open their hearts to the love of God, which would put an end to war among the tribes.
” `Put your faith in God,’” the Sing’anga said, ” `obey His word, and the leopard shall yet lie down with the lamb and the kid in the same kraal in peace.’ In my heart I said, `White man, you lie!’ And yet, what do I see now? The leopard and the lamb together at peace, indeed. Ngoni and Tonga here at the same Communion Table!”
The satisfactory contacts between races and nations and industrial groups, where the Spirit of Jesus has been seriously followed, are beyond dispute. It demanded courageous faith in primitive man to venture himself in his crude dug-out on the surface of a stream and risk intercourse with strangers; but that faith was the beginning of a new era of social progress. It demands courageous faith still in racial leaders and statesmen, in employers and employees to trust themselves in experimental plans of comradeship to the river of the Spirit of Christ and to move out towards those whose differences from themselves are patent, but that faith will mark a new epoch in the history of mankind.
And inside the groups of human beings religion is the ultimate unifier. The first of such groups is the family. It is bound together by physical and economic and sentimental attachments; but we see these ties snapping, and husbands and wives, parents and children, parting, and parting with appalling frequency in our American life. The conventional reasons, which in the past have kept them from separating, have grown weaker so swiftly in recent years, that the statistics of broken homes in the United States become more and more terrifying to all who regard permanent family-life as the basis of a healthy commonwealth. Divorces in our country have more than doubled in twenty yearsfrom 61,000 in 1901 to 132,000 in 1920, and in several states there is one divorce recorded for every four or five marriages.
Physicians, lawyers, ministers, friends, who are called on to try to hold together lives pulling apart, know how fragile the marriage-tie is to-day. The New Testament speaks of marrying “in the Lord”that is, under Christ’s control. In the wedding service the solemn phrase is used: “Those whom God hath joined together,” which surely does not mean merely that this couple have taken pledges to each other in a religious ceremony. God can-not join lives, save as both allow Him to form their con-sciences, rule their instincts, and inspire their purposes. It is romantic love hallowed with religious conscience, of which Mr. Lowell writes in lines concerning his wife, where he uses the metaphor of our parable:
I love her with a love as still
As a broad river’s peaceful might,
Which by high tower and lowly mill,
Goes wandering at its own sweet will,
And yet doth ever flow aright.
And on its full, deep breast serene,
Like quiet isles my duties lie;
It flows around them and between,
And makes them fresh, and fair, and green,
Sweet homes wherein to live and die.
Or take the religious groupthe Christian Churchfor whose unification we so often pray and arrange conferences. It may seem a truism to say that we shall get no further towards Church unity until there is more of the Christian religion in the churches. But that is the plain fact. Some of our divisions rest upon interpretations of history, and we need more faith in the God of truth to bring an honest facing of history. In 1864 Newman wrote to Father Coleridge :
“Nothing would be better than an Historical Review for Roman Catholicsbut who would bear it? -Unless one doctored all one’s facts, one would be thought a bad Catholic.”
And the same can be said of many Protestants in their attitude towards historical investigations of the Bible. Woe to the scholar who frankly reports what he finds! He will fare hardly in the educational institutions of many of our communions. More of our divisions rest at present upon differences of taste, of temperament, of social status. We need a more moving apprehension of God as love to carry us out in an inclusive fellowship, which shall allow within its communion fullest freedom for all these inevitable differences. Henry Ward Beecher recounts an experience which emancipated his spirit from denominationalism
“I remember riding through the woods for long, dreary days, and I recollect at one time coming out into an open place where the sun shone down through the bank of the river, and where I had such a sense of the love of Christ, of the nature of His work on earth, of its beauty and grandeur, and such a sense of the miserableness of Christian men quarreling and seeking to build up antagonistic churchesin other words the Kingdom of Christ rose up before my mind with such supreme loveliness and majestythat I sat in my saddle I do not know how long (many, many minutes, perhaps half an hour), and there all alone, in a great forest of Indians, probably twenty miles from any house, I prayed for that Kingdom, saying audibly : ‘I will never be a sectary.’”
It is such a full stream of appreciation of Christ and of the urgency of His cause on which fellow-Christians of widest differences of opinion and tradition and temperament can be borne into closest comradeship with one another.
Groupsfamilies, churches, communities, nations are fused by a common passion and kept together by a common obligation. The Christian faith furnishes the most kindling enthusiasm and the most sensitive conscientiousness. “The love of God is shed abroad,” wrote Paul, using our metaphor, “The love of God is pouring as a stream to flow in our hearts.”
And the most serious disunity exists within a man’s self. There is the glaring contradiction between what he should have been and what he is. Phaedra, who has calumniated Hippolytus and brought on his death, cries, in Euripides’ drama:
Oh, I am sick with shame !
Aye, but it hath a sting ! …
Could I but die in one swift flame
Augustine, commenting on the Thirty-third Psalm, interjects a personal experience: “Whither fly I? Whithersoever I go my self followeth me” Religion brings its message of forgiveness to whoever repents, turning resolutely from his past, however awful. Forgiveness does not wipe out that past. It remains part of ourselves, and just because it remains, we can remold it. The flaws of our past are the river-bed down which the stream of the divine mercy is poured. We are reconnected with our former self, only connected by the stream of God’s life, which supplies us with power to repair whatever is reparable, and which transforms the ugly landscape by His presence, enabling us to live with our else loathed self, as a river, flooding an arid and cracked bottom, suffuses it with beauty.
There is the divergence between a man’s aspirations and his inclinations. Every one knows himself a bundle of contradictions. Sir James Stephen has sketched the character of Henry Martyn, the future missionary, in his student days:
“A man born to love with ardor and to hate with vehemence ; amorous, irascible, ambitious, and vain; without one torpid nerve about him; aiming at universal excellence in science, in literature, in conversation, in horsemanship, and even in dress ; not without some gay fancies, but more prone to austere and melancholy thoughts ; patient of the most toilsome inquiries, though not wooing philosophy for her own sake; animated by the poetical temperament, though unvisited by any poetical inspiration; eager for enterprise, though thinking meanly of the rewards to which the adventurous aspire; uniting in himself, though as yet unable to concentrate or to harmonize them, many keen desires, many high powers, and much constitutional dejection the chaotic materials of a great character.”
And he describes how, under the preaching of Charles Simeon at Cambridge, Henry Martyn came to “an unlimited affiance in the holiness and wisdom of Him, in whose person the divine nature had been allied to the human, that so, in the persons of His followers, the human might be allied to the divine.” And in picturing to what this pioneer of the Kingdom in India attained, he falls into the simile of our parable:
“He rose to the sublime in character … by the copiousness and the force of the living fountains by which his spiritual life was nourished. . The ill-disciplined desires of youth, now confined within one deep channel, flowed quickly onward towards one great consummation; nor was there any faculty of his soul, or any treasure of his accumulated knowledge, for which appropriate exercise was not found in the high enterprise to which he was devoted.”
The man was united within himself by the inflowing river of God, and all the dissevered miscellaneous elements of his nature bound in one divine purpose, as the towns and villages along a navigable stream form a single business community.