War and the Christian Faith/The Great Adventure

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The Great Adventure

It is agreed, I suppose, that there is no compulsion in the region of the arts. I mean, that you cannot take hold of a man and drag him in front of a Turner or a Claude and force him, by irresistible argument, to confess that this picture and that are admirable masterpieces which he cannot help gazing on with delight. He may listen to you—if you keep a strong grip on his buttonhole—but when you have done, he may well say: "Very likely; but I don't care for those pictures, and it bores me to look at them." And you have nothing more to say. You know you were right, but you can't prove it. The matter is outside the world of scientific proof.

So with literature. Your man may say to you at the end of your fine speeches: "I don't agree with you. I think the plots of 'Hamlet' and 'Œdipus Tyrannus' are horrible, morbid plots; as for 'Œdipus,' it's a beastly plot, and the play ought to be suppressed by the police. And they're silly as well as horrible. One turns on a nonsensical oracle. The parents of Œdipus are told by the oracle that their new born child will live to murder his father and marry his mother. So, believing in the oracle and the fate, the parents expose the infant on a mountain to die. But if they believed in the oracle, where was the sense of trying to alter its decree? Hamlet? The man who saw his father's ghost, and then talked of death as a bourne from which no traveller returns!"

The fellow is wildly wrong, no doubt; but how are you to make him confess that he is wrong? Nay; leaving the arts, a whole council of wranglers could not convince me of the simplest proposition connected with sines, cosines, and tangents. Here is the mistress of all the sciences; the nearest approximation to necessary and absolute truth which the human mind can conceive; yet you must spend years of hard study and strong effort before you can begin to understand what its simplest statements signify. And those sines and things apart; there are statements on the first page of Euclid that seem to me as difficult as anything in the creed of St. Athanasius. It is written that no man hath seen God at any time; but has any man seen a Point or a Line or a Plane Surface at any time? A Point has neither parts nor magnitude—I seem to remember—but only position. Here is some thing existing in space which yet has no spatial measurement: credo quia impossibile. A Line is length without breadth; which is a thing utterly inconceivable. And so forth; the definitions seem contradictions, and yet we believe in them.

Now it is possible to look the universe in the face, to contemplate the mysteries and enigmas of life and death, of faith and belief, and say frankly, "I give it up. All I can say is that it seems to me a most infernal muddle, a sort of practical joke of a puzzle without any answer." This is the easiest way, but, somehow, men will not have it. A command that will not be denied compels them to reason about this life and the (presumed) life of the world to come. And it is probable that if the whole race of men "gave it up," came to believe that the puzzle was all nonsense, that the apparent language was not merely obscure, but unmeaning gibberish; then, I suppose, we should turn into sheep and goats that nourish a blind life within the brain. But if we are to reason, to ask, to speculate; then, so far as I can see, we can only proceed by the guidance of analogy, proceeding from the known to the unknown. And this being so, it seems clear that we have no right to say: "If there were a God, if there were a true faith, if religion were anything but a sham and a delusion; then, all would be clear, easy, and self-evident. It would be no more possible for a man to doubt of God than to doubt of the nose on his face. Is it likely that the master-truth, the great word of the enigma of the universe would be difficult, hard to understand, full of apparent contradictions?" It is not rational, I say, to talk like that; since we have seen that undoubted truth and pure beauty are hard to be understood, full of apparent contradictions, and, so far as beauty or art is concerned, unprovable. Let us not forget that the absolutely true thing is by no means also, and ex vi termini, the absolutely obvious thing. The answer to the question, "Three times four?" is not obvious to a little child; the answer to the question: "Thirteen times nine?" is not obvious to me; the answer to the question "137½ times 193786439¾?" is, perhaps, not obvious to any one. Yet the answer to the most difficult question is as certain and as true as the answer to the easiest. The true things and the precious things of the life of this world are by no means easy or obvious; why should we expect the true things and the precious things of the life of the world to come to be easy and obvious?

The only solution of the problem which is at all tolerable is to be found by making the adventure of faith. In spite of our difficulties about that mysterious Point of Euclid's, let us believe in it and see where that belief leads us. Let us make the great experiment; even though we make it with quaking hearts. It is probable that the hearts of Columbus and his men were faint within them as the shores of Europe grew dim and vanished in the mist. We are so made, I think, that our destiny is to voyage into the unknown, so made that we only find our true joys and our veritable treasures when we see the familiar peaks and headlands fade behind us. We are not born, as I have shown, to have certitude and scientific assurance exhibited to us at the beginning of the voyage. When the future mathematical prizeman learns his multiplication table, he knows even less of the end of the adventure that he thus begins than does the boy who unwillingly admits that his name is "N. or M." as he answers the catechist.

We are born to sail through unknown seas, born, as the Flemish saint said, vastissimum pelagus Divinitatis navigare, to navigate the great deep of God. But it is only faith that can lift up our hearts, when the shore is no more to be seen. And, this is strange. We all know what it is to see a familiar landscape, a familiar street in the unfamiliar light of dawn. The halls, the towers, and the walls are the same; and yet they are changed, sometimes, it appears, to an awful beauty. So when the great voyage draws to an end, we may be amazed to find that the new haven is in fact the old, though it has been wonderfully transmuted. The walls, the heights, the gardens, and the spires are well remembered; but they shine in a new light.

And the roses; they sway over the hedgerows as of old; but they are roses of paradise.