Page images
PDF
EPUB

kind; that God had mechanically created man, as the Genesis writer said, from the dust of the earth, and then breathed into the frame of flesh the breath of life; and that, all along, the divine guidance of Israel was miraculously attested. But, though doubtless holding these theological beliefs, they do not appear in this song of confidence and hope. Nothing appears there that, considered as poetry, is at all inconsistent with the most rational belief in. the natural order and unfolding of the universe as explained by the most recent science. Like all great poets, the Psalmist was a seer as well as poet. He had an insight into deeper truths than those which the theologies express,— into truths which underlie all forms of statement and abide, though the verbal forms may change and disappear. The important thing for us to note in respect to this verse is that the poet here expressed a sublime faith in the Eternal as the power that from its own nature and life produces and sustains life in individual human beings and in nations, and is guiding life on to moral consciousness and moral deeds. This is the great and abiding truth which this verse has brought down to us; and this truth is of infinitely greater moment to us than to know what kind of theological explanation the writer might have given of it. And it is of infinitely more consequence to us to-day to grasp this truth of vital relation between man and the Eternal,- to grasp it not merely in its intellectual but in its practical bearings, – than it is to hold this or

that philosophical theory concerning the mode of the relation. And should any one still object that the poetical imagery of the verse is anthropomorphic, pointing to an external relation between God and man rather than to an inward organic relation, I should answer that a similar objection might be made to Emerson's “Song of Nature,” whose motive is to depict the creative process according to the philosophy of evolution.

That is, he personifies, as the Hebrew poet did.

“ I sit by the shining Fount of Life

And pour the deluge still ”

suggests a venerable personal figure, mixing the creative elements which are finally to result in man. These are matters to be settled by the canons, not of logic nor metaphysics, but of poetry.

But there is another point where the underlying truth of this verse comes into wonderful accord with the rational and scientific thought of the present day. It is one of the recently discovered principles of the science of ethics, which may now be regarded as established, that the law for distinguishing between right and wrong had its origin in the instinct of self-preservation or of physical safety. I do not mean that it is settled that the entire moral sentiment thus originated. There is a part of the moral sentiment, and a most important part, - as the intuitive sense of justice, for instance, which I do not think can be thus accounted for. That part of the ethical faculty I

should define as an intuitive perception of the equation of rights between human beings in their relations to each other. At first a man said to his neighbor, You have no right to kill me, you have no right to take away my food. But by and by there dawned a day when he saw that, if his neighbor had no right to rob or kill him, he for the same reason had no right to rob or kill his neighbor. That is, what was good for him was equally good for his neighbor. Then dawned the idea of justice and the Golden Rule.

And this is a perception that was as sure to come with a certain stage of mental development as was the perception of the mathematical relations between numbers. But, long before this stage of development was reached, there came to primitive man from the instinct of self-preservation the first crude perception of a division of things or acts into those that were right and those that were wrong.

Actions and things which favored life were regarded as right: they were to be sought as good and fitting. But actions and things which were hostile to life, threatening or assailing it, were regarded as wrong: they were to be shunned.

And they were instinctively shunned, in fact, as their opposites were instinctively sought. And this primitive attempt at moral classification of things on the line of the separation between things according as they favored or did not favor the instinct of safety for one's own life remains to this day the bottom line of the distinction between good and evil. Only

[ocr errors]

the definition of life has now become for man so enriched and heightened that that original dividing line is mostly concealed or obliterated. Still, to-day it is the things which favor life that are right, and the things which oppose life that are wrong

But for civilized and enlightened mankind life means vastly more than it could mean for the primitive savage, who was simply bent on finding supplies for his physical instincts. Above the physical life are now whole realms, another order of life,- intellectual, moral, affectional, philanthropic, spiritual,- of which our barbarian ancestors were wholly ignorant. Yet it remains true that things which favor these higher and highest phases of life are the things which we are to seek as right, and that things opposing are to be shunned as wrong; so that now it happens that the mere physical instincts, even the instinct for saving one's own bodily life, must often be denied and sacrificed for the sake of holding to the things demanded by the higher life. There are many things which a highly moral man will die rather than do. He will let go his physical life in order to keep untarnished his moral integrity, his honor, his convictions of truth.

66

Though Love repine, and Reason chafe,

There came a voice without reply,-
'Tis man's perdition to be safe,
When for the truth he ought to die."

Emerson.

Now, whence has come all this varied and won

derful development of the function of life, ascending in man from the lowest grade of fleshly instincts, through realms of intellectual sagacity and enjoyment, and of affectional activities, and through all the grades of moral perception and deed, up to the hero's self-sacrificing action in defence of the right, and to the beauty of holiness shining in some woman's character and face, whom you may find unhonored and little known on your own street ? Whence comes it all? all this abounding richness, power, and beauty of moral life? Whence but from the mystery of that "Infinite and Eternal Energy, from which all things proceed?” Whence but from that Power Eternal which the Hebrew conceived as breathing into man the breath of life, as ever invigorating that life from his own nature, and continually leading mankind on in ways of righteousness to higher and nobler life? If the Hebrew conceived the action of the Eternal as outward and miraculous, while modern science regards it as inward and organic, the difference is not as to the substance of the fact, but as to the method of explaining it.

Life itself, then, under the impulsion of the Eternal Power, develops and advances in the human race on the lines of righteousness. In other words, the paths of righteousness are the paths of preservation, safety, increasing vitality, and growth. The right is organic, organific, lifesustaining, and life refining and greatening. Evil is inorganic, disorganizing, disintegrating, nox

« PreviousContinue »