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A Reasonable Easter

Ulysses G. B. Pierce

Washington, DC

 

"Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you that God should raise the dead?" ACTS xxvi. 8.

PAUL was before Agrippa permitted to speak for himself and plead his own cause. So stands Faith before the bar of Reason, defending her own hopes. Like Paul our line of defence may be that our faith is not incredible, but is in the line of probability. Leaving aside any direct evidence and ignoring all testimony for the moment, it is no small thing to establish the probability of our hopes and to see that it is not incredible that God should raise the dead. Of two propositions we are bound to accept the less improbable. If it can be shown that it is more probable that our life should continue forever than that once begun it should suddenly  come to an end it may confirm our own faith, even if it fails to convince Agrippa. This morning let us apply to our hope of the eternal life this theory of probability that the great Laplace used to call "good sense reduced to calculation." For the sake of brevity and clearness let me put the matter in the form of a few simple propositions.

I. In the first place it is no more improbable that we should continue to live than that we should have begun to live. To one contemplating the idea from a distance of time and space it would seem quite incredible that from the mass of organic matter God should raise a man. If such a one had estimated the chances of such future development, it might well have seemed improbable. But such incredulity is rebuked by the life that is. Like Paul we are here permitted to speak for ourselves, and the miracle of the life that now is makes it seem less miraculous that we should continue to live. Here, as elsewhere, possession is nine points of the  law. Of course, if there were direct evidence that with the decay of the body man ceased to be, the probabilities in the case would count for nothing; but there is no such evidence. For if, on the one hand, immortality is not proven, neither on the other hand is it disproven. "That the life of man ceases with the death of the body" said the late John Fiske, "is the most colossal instance of baseless assumption known to the history of philosophy." It is not to be expected that all scientists would accept that statement of the case. Yet the so-called objections of science are less serious than is sometimes supposed. For the most part science is non-committal. If some scientists disbelieve, others say with Dr. Coues, "There are no facts known to modern science which make it difficult to believe in the survival of individual consciousness after the death of the body." This should at least assure us that no man need apologize for believing in his own eternity.

Suppose for the moment that there was no direct evidence one way or the other on the subject yet it would be altogether rational to accept that interpretation of life which is most congenial to our hearts and our hopes.

 

II. In the second place it is more probable that in the world there are beings superior to physical man than it is to suppose that we exhaust the possibilities of the universe. We know no bounds to the universe, nor any limits to its possibilities. It is a colossal conceit to suppose that man is the acme of all creation, and that in its boundless ranges no higher type of life is reached. That we know of no higher being than man is not in point. Doubtless the dog questions the possibility of higher forms of life than his own, and to him probably his master is only a larger and more kindly quadruped. It is not incredible that this is our own situation. But a moment's consideration reveals the absurdity of the assumption. We are related upward as well as downward. We have a future no less than a past. The present life with all its richness may well enclose and conceal a form of being compared with which the physical life of man is crude and elemental.

There are many forms of life invisible to us. There may be higher as well as lower. In that category what for the lack of a better name we call "angels" may be as well entitled to a place as are microbes. Life ascends to the infinite as well as descends to the infinitesimal. It is only of comparatively recent date that these tiny forms of life have been made to show themselves or were even known to exist. If this moment we were encompassed with higher beings, we might be complacently unconscious of it. It may be as Milton fancied that

"Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth

Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep."

It is not for me to say that such is the case; but it is no more unreasonable that there should be forms of life superior to ours than that there should be types of life above the brute. In fact, the probabilities point in this upward direction. Man is not the Ultima Thule of organic life. It seems to me that this is the logic of the case; and, as we stand on the shore of life's boundless ocean, it is unreasonable to say to its swelling tides, "Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further; and here shall thy proud waves be stayed."

The late Dr. Bruce, who certainly was not prejudiced in favor of this line of thought, said, "One who believes in evolution as a law of the universe in all stages of its history is bound to admit that the presumption is in favor of its operation continuing in the state after death."

 

III. This suggests the third proposition: If there are higher forms of life than physical man, it is more probable that their ranks are recruited from human beings than that such beings should be created de novo. At least this is the method of procedure elsewhere. If evolution means anything, it means that all life is a continuous chain, highest and lowest being in-separately connected. And man may well be included in this "Subtle chain of countless rings, The next unto the farthest flings." It is more probable that we are in the line of promotion to higher capacities and activities than that we are to drop out of the line of march. That there are latent in man powers that might well connect him with a higher type of life is more than an assumption. Man feels within himself the stirrings of a higher life. Something pecks at the imprisoning shell. On his horizon there is the first pink blush as of the new day. It is true, as Tennyson sings,

"Here sits he shaping wings to fly;

His heart forebodes a mystery;

He names the name Eternity."

You will at once think of that notable passage from "Through Nature to God." Words like these from such a man as John Fiske are not without deep significance. "So far as our knowledge of nature goes," says he, "the whole momentum of it carries us onward to the conclusion that the Unseen World, as the objective term in a relation of fundamental importance that has coexisted with the whole career of mankind, has a real existence; and it is but following out the analogy to regard that Unseen World as the theatre where the ethical process is destined to reach its full consummation."

I may not have quoted his words exactly, but I think I have correctly expressed the thought of this great scientist; and, as almost the last utterance of that profound thinker, the words are of great weight. They hint that beyond the physical life of man there is a form of life which is its logical sequence and fulfillment. And it is interesting to see how another great soul contemplating the subject from another point of view says practically the same thing, though in different words: "It is possible that the distance of Heaven lies wholly in the veil of flesh which we now want power to penetrate. A new sense, a new eye, might show the spiritual world compassing us on every side."

These words of the great and good Channing stand out on the page of his sermon like a marked passage. They are none the less important because written more than a half century before those of Fiske. These words prove nothing, I am not trying to "prove" anything; but it is certainly worthy of consideration that two minds of such different training and of opposite temperament, viewing the subject at a distance of nearly seventy years, should agree that the physical life of man bears relations to a higher type. They certainly did not deem it "a thing incredible that God should raise the dead"

 

IV. In the fourth place note this: Given a theory that fits and supplements our present knowledge and which is not disproved by known facts, the probability is that the theory is true. This is no new test of an hypothesis. Devise a position of the arms that will perfectly fit the poise and posture of the Venus de Milo, and it was probable that such was the original form of the sculpture. Fifty years ago Bessel advanced the theory that Sirius, from certain strange behavior noted in the star, must have a companion, whose time of revolution he computed to be about fifty years. It was a mere theory with no facts to "prove" it. But Clark with his telescope sixteen years later saw what Bessel foresaw. With Neptune, history repeats itself. From certain variations from an assumed regularity it was suggested in 1821 that beyond the limits of the planets as then known there must be another planet, whose pull was felt by Uranus, though the body was not seen by man. Adams and Leverrier located the distant body - on paper, and in 1846 Galle observed the planet. So it is. Some hypotheses are so reasonable, they explain known facts so clearly and perfectly, that we unhesitatingly accept them. And it is on this principle: Given a theory that supplements our knowledge and is contradicted by no known facts, the probability is that it is true.

Now why should the working of this principle be confined to the physical plane of life? Our life is incomplete where we assume ultimate completeness to be the goal. Our sense of justice finds no room for  its full orbit. Certain observed variations of life justify the postulate that the present is not the bounds of life, that beyond this and a part of it is the life dreamed of by saints, sung by poets, and to be entered - by all!

From the life that now is, with all its incompleteness, its moral insufficiencies, with no free scope for the sweep of its spiritual laws, we are justified in deeming that the life of man has larger orbits and other relations than our star charts show. Man's incompleteness prophesies his perfection. Time points to eternity.

You remember that passage in the Autobiography of Goethe, where he speaks of the Strasburg Cathedral? "To me," he says, "it seems quite as great a pity that this one tower is not completed, for the four volutes end much too abruptly. Four light spires should be added to them as well as a higher one in the middle, where the clumsy cross now stands." When asked who told him that such additions should be made, Goethe's reply was that the unfinished structure argued its own completion. And not in vain such prophecy. Soon the superintendent of the building replied, "In our archives we still have the original design, which says precisely the same, and which I can show you."

Change "man" for "cathedral," and the prophecy is no less true. The tower of life ends quite too abruptly; and how the cross does thwart our purposes and crown our insufficiency! We are not yet finished. In the archives of God the design calls for a fuller and richer life even than this. The present is promise and assurance of the future, and the word of Scripture is true, "I will not leave thee nor forsake thee till I have done that which I have promised unto thee."

I do not need to be reminded that these propositions leave much to be said, that they raise more questions than they answer. I know well enough that the line of thought we have been following does not constitute a "demonstration." Now, I want to say why it falls short of proof. I think few of us have ever read an argument for immortality that did not fail to satisfy us. Such is the fact. Our interpretation of that fact has usually been that our dissatisfaction arose from some flaw or weakness in the argument. I accept the fact of dissatisfaction, but the interpretation of it, I think, is quite wrong. We are unconvinced not because of the weakness of the argument of the insufficiency of the evidence, but because of the constitution of our own minds.

Note these two characteristics of our minds and see how inevitable it is that any argument or any kind or amount of evidence should fail to satisfy us. If a spirit should come back to us this moment, we should forthwith ask certain questions that would weaken the evidential effect of the experience. Why is this? Is it the fault of the evidence, or are there certain traits of our minds which make it impossible for us to rest unquestioning? "The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves."

In the first place man is a forward-looking being. It is his nature always to crave more. It is impossible to satisfy us. If we were satisfied, we should at once become dissatisfied with our own satisfaction. This is no play on words. Man is restless and chafes and frets behind any imprisoning bars, though they be bars of logic. If, by the most irrefutable logic and the most direct evidence, it were shown to us that at death man simply sheds his body and glides and ascends into a higher life, as I believe is the case, what then? We would accept the logic, and then ask, What after that? Our present life doubtless once appeared to us as a future: that future life being gained, we at once speculate about a next. And so it is ever. The question is shifted, not settled. We will not, we cannot, rest contented. Life itself makes us restless. The expanding soul will not be bound with the cords of logic. It is in our very constitution, then, that any kind of argument or evidence should fail to content us.

"To vision profounder

Man's spirit must dive;

His aye-rolling orb

At no goal will arrive;

The heavens that now draw him

 

With sweetness untold,

Once found-for new heavens

He spurneth the old."

In the second place it is a law of our being that we can know only as we live. We can be assured of the future, and we can speculate about it; but we can know only the life that is here and is now. Life is a scroll which we can read only as Time unrolls the mystic parchment. The path of life has many sharp turns, hiding alike our heretofore and our hereafter. Only the short, straight section of today can be really known. No amount of evidence can make plain to the boy what it is to be a man. He is perfectly justified in the assurance that manhood awaits him, he may reasonably enough speculate about the nature of that coming estate; but the boy knows only as he lives. We may assure ourselves that after our threescore years and ten life still awaits us. It is altogether rational to question as to the nature of this higher manhood, but no amount of argument or any kind of evidence can make us know more than we live. It is the way we are constituted.

"Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no,

Not yet that thou art mortal, - nay, my son,

For nothing worthy proving can be proven,

Not yet disproven. Wherefore thou be wise,

Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt."

These two characteristics ought to make it plain, then, that it is not wicked for us to "doubt" even here. Doubt is simply uncertainty. To think is to be uncertain. Uncertainty should set us thinking.

But it should not be forgotten that certitude is an article that most of us carry a very small stock of. And fortunately we need little of it. There are few things of which we are absolutely certain, yet this in no wise mars our happiness or curtails our usefulness. We act on probability. No one knows that the sun will rise tomorrow. No one needs to know. It is enough for us that, as the sun rose yesterday, the probability is that it will not fail to-morrow. On that simple probability we live and act.

Why should we not be as wise and trusting about the Great Tomorrow? If our minds are so constituted that we cannot rest unquestioning, if from our very nature we cannot see both sides of a globe at once, we may at least assure ourselves that there is another side which we shall see and understandwhen we reach it.

That there is, however, awaiting us something better than dust and ashes ought not seriously to be questioned. That those we loved and lost are not gone far or forever, that ought not to seem a thing incredible to one who all his life long has been living not by certainty, but by probability who has walked "not by sight, but by faith."

I have utterly failed of my purpose, however, if on this Easter day our hope appears simply as a great probability. It is a probability, but the probability is so strong that it amounts to moral certainty. With that we can reckon with the confidence of the astronomer who weighs an undiscovered star and of the chemist who describes and names the element before he has found it. It was Professor Ramsay who, speaking before the Chemical Section of the British Association in 1897, opened his address with these words: "The subject of my remarks today is a new gas. I shall describe to you later its 'curious properties,' but it would be unfair not to put you at once in possession of the knowledge of its most remarkable property - it has not yet been discovered."

We are justified not only in affirming our eternity. Though it has not yet been discovered,that is, uncovered,we, too, may speak of its "curious properties." There are three of these "properties" that we associate with all forms of life, and we cannot think of our Easter life without them. We can imagine no soul so chastened and purified that these properties will cease to be its native air.

Life without motion and activity would be but another name for death. It is impossible to think of the human soul in contented idleness. This, I take it, was what prompted the saying about Jesus, that "he descended into hell." His associates could not think of him as indifferent and inactive even in the higher world. The life that found its heaven in helpfulness here naturally took up similar occupations there. Preaching to "the spirits in prison" must have been as congenial to the Master as it was helpful to the hearers. Quite in accord with this, Lowell says of Channing:

"Thou art not idle: in thy higher sphere

Thy spirit bonds itself to loving tasks,

And strength, to perfect what it dreamed of here

Is all the crown and glory that it asks.

 

"For sure, in Heaven's wide chambers there is room

For love and pity and for helpful deeds;

Else were our summons thither but a doom,

To life more vain than this in clayey weeds."

Nor is this all. Nothing is good for and by itself. The stones in quarries, the trees in forests, the cattle in herds, men in families,this formulates for us the law of association which we cannot imagine annulled in the higher life. To be released from artificial associations and freely to gravitate to our "own place,"that would seem to be the element of truth in the popular doctrine of heaven and hell. The world is wide, but not wide enough to keep the loving and the loved apart. Jesus will "descend into hell," and forthwith hell is transformed into heaven. Such an alchemist is love!

The third "curious property" is the law of growth. Work, Companionship, Growth, are not these "the three graces" of life? No soul so sinful but its closely folded petals will one day feel the expanding life. None so pure as to be self-satisfied. Development will be the best expiation, and the continuous chastening of the soul a beautiful purgatory. Was not this Longfellow's inner meaning when he wrote:

"Day after day we think what she is doing

In those bright realms of air;

Year after year, her tender steps pursuing,

Behold her grown more fair.

 

"Not as a child shall we again behold her;

For when with raptures wild

In our embrace we again enfold her,

She will not be a child;

 

"But a fair maiden, in her Father's mansion,

Clothed with celestial grace;

And beautiful with all the soul's expansion

Shall we behold her face."

We sometimes speak of things as too good to be true. It is a curious inversion. If we could only make things good enough, they would already have become true. Rest assured that the fondest Easter hope is only a hint of the inheritance that awaits the children of God.

 


2004 American Unitarian Conference