The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
The Power of Goodness
The Power of Goodness.
Men admire in God what they admire in themselves. It is so unavoidably. You may see three periods in man's history. In the first bodily force is most highly prized. Here the hero is the strongest man; he who can run the swiftest, and strike the hardest; is fearless and cruel. In that state, men conceive mostly of a God of Force. He is a man of war. He thunders and lightens. He rides on the wind; is painted with thunderbolts in his hand. He sends the plague and famine. The wheels of his chariot rattle in war. What represents Force is a type of Him. In some primitive nations their name of God meant only the Strong—the Powerful.
Then as men advance a little, there comes a period in which intellectual power, or wisdom, is prized above bodily force. Men esteem its superiority, for they see that one wise head is a match for many strong bodies. It can command ten weak men to overcome a strong one, whom singly they dared not touch; but no aggregation of foolish men, however numerous, can ever outwit a single wise man, for no combination of many little follies can ever produce wisdom. In this stage he is the hero who has the most intellectual power; knows the secrets of nature; has skill to rule men; speaks wise sayings : Saul, the tallest man, has given place to Solomon, the wisest man. The popular conception of God changes to suit this stage of growth. Men see His Wisdom; they see it in the birth of a child, in the course of the sun and moon; in the return of the seasons; in page 272 the instinct of the emmet or the ostrich: God works the wonders of nature. Wisdom is the chief attribute in this age ascribed to God. Who shall teach Him? says the contemplative man of this age—where the sage of a former day would have asked, Who can overcome Him?
There comes yet another period, in which moral power is appreciated. He is the hero who sees moral truth, walks uprightly, subordinates his private will to the universal law, tells the truth, is reverent and pious, loves goodness, and lives it. The saint has become the hero; he rules not by superior power of hand, or superior power of head, but by superior power of heart—by justice, truth, and love; in one word, by righteousness. "The Queen of Sheba came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon," said Jesus, "but behold a greater than Solomon is here." In this period, men form a higher conception of God. Men believe that He is not only wise, but good; He loves men : He loves justice, goodness, truth; demands mercy and not sacrifice; He keeps His word, and is an upright God. He is no longer regarded as the God of the Mosaic law, jealous, revengeful, exacting; but as a Father of infinite goodness. In one word, God is Love.
Now we do not always appreciate the excellence of Goodness. We seldom believe in its power. Mankind has been struggling here on the earth six thousand years—perhaps much longer,—who knows? Yet even now, few men see more than signs of God's Power and Wisdom in the world. Most men stop at the first. The force of muscles they understand better than the force of mind, and that better than the excellence of justice, uprightness, truth, and love. So it has become a political maxim to trust a man of able intellect, sooner than a just and good man of humbler mind. Most men, perhaps, tremble before a God who can destroy the world to-morrow, and send babes new-born to endless hell, far more than they rejoice in a God who rules by perfect justice, truth, and love, who to-day blesses whatever He has made, and will at last bless them all more abundantly than thought can fancy or heart can wish.
We bow before the man of great capabilities of thought, of energetic mind, of deep creative genius. Yet is the good man greater than the wise man—taking wisdom in its common sense of intellectual power, capacity of thought;—greater and nobler far! He rests on a greater idea. He lives in a larger and loftier sentiment. And men come at length to see that a single good man, who conforms with God, yields to no temptation, harbours no revenge,—not railing when mocked at, not paying back scorn for scorn; who is able to stand alone amid the desertion of friends, and the ribald mockery of the public mind, serenely lifting up a forehead blameless and unabashed to men and God; who lives in the law of the Just, the Good, the Holy, and the page 273 True,—is greater than all Cæsars, all Cromwells, all Napoleons. His power is real, not depending on the accident of a throne or an army, and as the most ancient Heaven, is permanent and strong, resting on the same foundation with them—the law of God. He lives in his undying powers.
Ask yourself what is it that makes you admire this or that great man? Is it what is highest in you, or what is lowest? Is it your best quality? If not, then is your admiration not of the best things in man, for the quality you admire in him is only an enlargement of the same quality in yourself. Your little honours his much, and if your little is not of your best, no more is his much. It is dangerous to admire what it is not safe to love.
When a good man commences his career of Goodness, sceptics will doubt and bigots will oppose him. These men have no faith in Goodness, only in cunning or in force. But the great heart of mankind will beat with him. Even men indebted to sin will forsake their old tyrants, and welcome him to their arms, confessing their former life a mistake and a grievous curse. By-and-by the world rolls round to his side, and the longer it stands the more will his ideas prevail, for the world is going a pilgrimage towards the Truth.
The secret history of the world is a contest between ideas of Goodness and Badness. We sometimes think it is all over with Goodness; but it gets the better continually. What is bad dies out, perishing slowly in the ages. What is good lives for ever. A truth is never obsolete. All nature is really leagued against selfishness; for God is the author of nature, and there is no devil. A selfish nation digs its own grave; if strong it digs it all the deeper, and the more secure. That is the lesson which Home teaches the world. A selfish party in the nation does the same thing. A selfish man in society seems to succeed, but his success is ruin. He has poisoned his own bread. For all that is ill got he must pay back tenfold. God is not mocked. The man laughs that he has escaped a duty. Poor, blind man! a curse has fallen on him; it cleaves to his bones. Justice has feet like wool, so noiseless you hear not her steps; but her hands are hands of iron, and where God lays them down it is not in man to lift them up.
Goodness is the service of God. The good heart, the good life are the best, the only sacrifice that He demands. When men saw mainly the power of God, trembling thereat, they made sacrifice of things dearest to them, to bribe their God, as to appease a cruel king. "Come not empty-handed before thy God," said the priest. Even now, many a man who sees also the wisdom of God, and bows before Him as the soul of thought, will sacrifice reason, conscience, and good sense, as Abraham would offer Isaac, and as Solomon slew sheep and goats. They think God loves tears and hates smiles; so they pay him with page 274 gloom, gloomy Sundays and gloomy weeks, and most despairing and melancholy prayers. How many think religion to consist of this. Belief is the sign of their Christianity and its only proof! No doubt there are, practically speaking, two parts of religion: Piety the sentiment, Morality the expression, a revelation of that sentiment, as the world is a revelation of God. Piety is the in-ness of Morality, as Morality is the out-ness of Piety. No doubt there are two parts of service to God, namely, Faith and Love within the man, Works and Goodness without the man. If faithful Love be in the man, works of Goodness must needs appear in his manifested life. If not, who shall assure us that Faith and Love exist within? a good tree is known by its good fruit. It is of more importance that the tree be good, than it be called by a good name.
Now one of the sacramental sins of the Christian Churches has been to lay the main stress on expressions of Faith, on Devotion, or Belief. If they laid the main stress on real Piety that were well, for it would be making the tree good, when, of course, its fruit would be also good. Piety is love of God with the mind and heart; he who has this must conform to God in his self-government, so far as he knows God's will. But Piety cannot be forced. It eludes the eye. It will not be commanded nor obey the voice of the charmer. So the Churches early insisted that Belief and Devotion were the main things of Christianity. They told men what to believe—how to be devout. They gave men a creed for their belief, and a form or a rite for their devotion. The whole thing was brought into the outer court—placed under the eye of the priest. Behold Christianity made easy; the Power of God and the Wisdom of God, and God's Goodness too, become a stumbling-block and foolishness to the Christians themselves! None was accounted a Christian but a conformist to the ways of man. He only was a Christian who believed the popular creed and complied with the popular form. The absolute Religion of Christ had passed away from the Churches; the sectarianism of the priesthood had usurped its place. Goodness was cheated of its due. In the name of Christ was it taught that a good man might be damned; he had kept the Law of God, as reason and conscience make it known; he had been faithful to God and true and loving to man; he had believed all things that to him were credible, and done prayerfully the duty of a man. "What of that? "said the priest, "he has not believed nor worshipped with the rest of men. Hell waiteth for such." Would to God I could say that these things only were, that they are not. It has for many a hundred years been a heresy in the Christian Churches to believe that a man goes to heaven on account of his goodness, his righteousness, or is acceptable to God because he walks manfully by the light God gives him! Has been did I say? Far worse, it is so now! It is a heresy to believe it now in all popular and recognised page 275 Churches of Christendom! A creed and a rite are of course but external—only the gold of the altar—not the altar sanctifying the gold. Once they were symbols, perhaps, and signs of all good things to some pious man. They helped him to commune with God. They aided him to grow. Losing their first estate, to many they become not stimulants of Goodness, but substitutes for it. The mail rests at the symbol and learns no more!
It was so in Judea when Christ came into the world. No nation of old time surpassed the Jews in their concern for external rites of devotion. No modern nation has equalled them in this. But they were not a moral nation. Christ found that in the popular faith Goodness and Religion were quite different things. Men thought that God was to be served by rites and beliefs. So the priests had taught, making Religion consist in what was useless to God and man;—a wretched science with the few, a paltry ceremony with the mass. Not so did the prophets teach, for priests and prophets are never agreed. Christ fell back on Goodness. He demanded this, he set forth its greatness, its power, in his words and in his life. He encumbered no man with creeds, nor rites. He said, "He that doeth the will of my Father shall know of the doctrine." He summed up the essentials of Religion in a few things, a right heart, and a right life, in Piety and Goodness. He knew they would extend, and that swiftly, to many things. Moses and the Law might go their way; they had authority to bind no man. His words were their own evidence and proof; moral truth is its own witness. He had authority. Whence came it? From the scribes and the priests? They hated him. From tradition, Moses, the Old Testament? Quite as little. He puts them behind him. He had authority because he conformed to God's Law, in his mind and in his heart, and in his life. So God spoke through him; inspiration came, and though his friends forsook him, and Churches and State rose in tumult, clamorous for his overthrow; though the better than against him, and he stood alone, he was not alone—world turned friends, and Church, and State, and world, better than twelve legions of angels, the Father was with him, and he fell not!
Even publicans and harlots welcomed him. They did not love sin. They had been deluded into its service; they found it a hard master. Joyfully they deserted that hopeless Armada, to sail the seas with God, soon as one came who put the heart, conscience, reason, on Religion's side, speaking with an authority they felt before they saw, showing that Religion was real and dear. Humble men saw the mystery of Godliness, they felt the power of Goodness which streamed forth from their brother's heart of fire. They started to found a Church on Goodness, on absolute Religion, little knowing what they did. Alas! it was a poor Church which men founded in that great name, though the best the world ever saw; it was little compared with the ideas of page 276 Jesus; little and poor compared with the excellence of Goodness and the power of real. Religion.
Some day there will be churches built in which it shall be taught that the only outward service God asks is Goodness, and Truth the only creed; that a Divine life—piety in the heart, morality in the hand—is the only real worship. Men will use symbols or not, as they like; perhaps will still cling to such as have helped us hitherto; perhaps leave them all behind, and have communion with man in work, and word, and joyful sympathy, with God through the elements of earth, and air, and water, and the sky; or in a serener hour, without these elements, come nearer yet to him. But in that day will men forget Jesus—the son of Joseph, the carpenter, whom the priests slew, as a madman and an infidel, but whom the world has worshipped as a God? Will his thought, his sentiments, his influence pass away? no, oh! no. What rests on the ideas of God, lasts with those ideas. Power shall vanish; glory shall pass away; England and America may become as Nineveh and Babylon. Yes, the incessant hand of Time may smooth down the ruggedness of the Alleghany and the Andes, but so long as man is man must these truths of Jesus live; Religion be the love of man, the love of God. Men will not name Jesus, God; they may not call him master, but the world's teacher. They will love him as their great brother, who taught the truth, and lived the life of heaven here; who broke the fetters of the oppressed, and healed the bruises of the sick, and blessed the souls of all. Then will Goodness appear nore transcendent, and he will be deemed the best Christian who is most like Christ; most excelling in Truth, Piety, and Goodness. They will not be the preachers who bind, but they who loose mankind; who are full of truth; who live great noble lives, and walk with Goodness and with God. Worship will be fresh and natural as the rising sun—beautiful like that, and full of promise too. Truth for the creed; Goodness for the form; Love for the baptism—shall we wait for that, with folded arms? No, brothers, no. Let us live as if it were so now. Earth shall be blessed and heaven ours.—Theodore Parker.