"The Theology of Civilization”[1]

Charles Fletcher Dole, Jamaica Plain, MA

Berry Street Essay, 1899

 

Read before the Ministerial Conference

May, 1899

[The original manuscript has not been recovered, but Dole’s autobiography indicates that he expanded his Berry Street Essay into this book of the same title; the final chapter, reproduced here, seems to best carry out the promise of the title of the Essay and the book.]

It has been common, according to the terms of the old-fashioned dualism, to conceive of life as a battle. There was doubtless something to be gained and learned in this conception. There are soldierly virtues; there is a soldierly spirit; the heroic lessons, the figures, the illustrations of warfare, have entered into our language and our literature, and into our very souls, beyond recall. We are glad that we have them, as we are solemnly glad of the terrible stories of the martyrs, as we are glad of the cross, as we are glad of our childhood, with its bruises and falls. So we are glad of the childhood of our race, of its wild days and wild men, of its shipwrecks and sieges, its ruined cities and gloomy dungeons, its fierce conquerors, its lurid tragedies offsetting its stormy joys, its feasting., and its love songs, its grand Iliads and Odysseys, its mighty Psalms of Hope. How could we be what we are if we were cut adrift from the wonderful childhood of our race?

This does not mean that we wish to live our childhood over again. It does not mean that fighting must go on in the twentieth century, any more than it means that slavery and persecution must go on. The conception of our earth as a battleground is not a permanent truth. In fact, the conception of life as a battle was as childish as Homer’s quarrelsome pantheon on Mount Olympus.

See now the new conception of life which befits the religion of grown men and constitutes true civilization. This new conception is of a vast constructive enterprise which all men are set to accomplish together. Think of the greatest human undertaking; think of such works as the Suez and Panama Canals. There is the need of all possible ingenuity, of courage, of patience, of hazardous experiments, of forethought, of the expense of lives and treasure. There are enormous obstacles to be overcome; there are vast engineering problems; there is need of every new economy and labor-saving invention. Yet every effort, every stroke of work, every bright thought, yes, every useless plan set aside in favor of a better plan, every life lost in the initial processes of the work, has its place in the grand result. Nowhere does the great engineer recognize any real enemies to his work. There is no hate in the universe pitted against him. Even the forces of nature wait to be harnessed to assist man’s endeavor. Thousands of laborers willingly do their share in overcoming actual obstacles and bringing the work to its victorious completion. So with the labor of human civilization. The plan is from God; the power is his; the work is through the hands of his children. To do this work is life and gladness.

Is there no fight or antagonism, some one asks, in man’s own nature? Is there not a battle between selfishness and altruism? Must there not be a battle likewise between the altruists and selfish men? Such questions as these show how hard it is for the old dualism to die!

The conflict between self-love and the larger love is only in appearance, it is not real. What is best for the hive, that is also best as a rule for the bee. The good emperor saw this. It is clearly seen to be true even in child-life. It becomes the law of happiness for the grown man. If any act or practice hurts mankind, then it hurts the man who does it. If he is intelligent and his sympathy is keen, such action becomes impossible for him. Only that kind of conduct which is just, truthful, beneficial, of the universal order, seems desirable to the man who has attained his growth. He loves righteousness; he chooses to do good; he loves to take the high ventures that Good Will commands. The conflict lasted only so long as he did not see the facts of life. But now the energy which once went into the struggle with his lower self goes where energy effects something — into positive and orderly work.

The conception of life as constructive rather than antagonistic effort finds beautiful illustration in every approach that we make toward true civilization. You measure the quality and the value of the civilization of individuals or peoples, not by the houses which they live in or the clothes which they wear, but by the width and power of their sympathy. The savage life is full of all manner of antagonisms, jealousies, feuds, and hates. Tribe is separate from tribe; men spy on their fellows in wearisome suspicion. The backward communities of America, such as the mountain region of Kentucky, display these Old World divisions and prevalent hates. The duller the mind, the narrower the education, the slower the sympathies, the quicker men always are to take up quarrels, to find food for hatred, to split up into parties and sects.

You can trace the progress of civilization through thousands of years in the pages of the Old and New Testaments. The primitive Hebrew life begins in tribal war. The savage life survives even in the Psalms. How many times do we find the use of the word "enemy” in them? More than half of them are marred by the expressions of men’s hate. Many verses have become impossible for the uses of civilized men’s devotion.

As the early Hebrews were themselves, so was their God. He hated as they hated. Was he not a "jealous” God? Contrast the story of Samuel hewing Agag in pieces with the wonderful teaching of the book of Jonah! To the higher thought there is a God of the Ninevites as well as of the Hebrews. Here dawns the vision of "the Father of infinite mercies.”

The New Testament gathers to a focus in certain illuminating passages time whole net experience of the leaders of the race in the way of civilization. Take Jesus’ words, "Love your enemies.” Here is a new law for the world; here is an end to all barbarism and strife. No wonder that men could not believe it, or take Jesus seriously. They could not yet conceive the possibility of a man facing, without a thought of bitterness, such a mob of sneering foes as Jesus met in Pilate's hall. Their minds were still in the toils of barbarous habits. The world had still a devil in it to lie hated and feared. Were there not "children of the wicked one” whom the good must fight and hate? How then could the early Christians help hating heretics, infidels, persecutors? How could later generations help hating Turks, Jews, Pagans? Were not all these the enemies of their master? Hating outsiders, they hated one another also. All dualism involves hatred and war.

The great teaching of Jesus needed to be retranslated. Let it read, "Have no enemies!” This is what it means. If you love any one he straightway ceases to be an enemy. Love all men; have therefore no enemies.

This law grows immediately out of the nature of God. If God’s truest name is Love, there can be no enmity in him toward any. "Not toward a Satan,” you ask, "such as Milton imagined?”  Suppose for a moment that Milton’s Satan existed. How could such a being exist? Would he be independent of God? Then God would not be God. Satan must exist, then, if at all, because of some faint expression of God’s life in him. If God’s life then shines in him, there is left something to admire, to love, to save. How could Satan defeat God, change his nature, and turn his love to hate?

If God, then, has no enemies, and if in a real sense we are his children, we must be like him in having no enemies. There is no way in which we can be so like God as in our good will. This is the meaning of Jesus’ great word in the Sermon on the Mount: "Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Jesus is not speaking of absolute perfectness. He is speaking of the practical treatment of men. God, he says, is perfect, that is, all-round in his love. His sun shines on the evil and the good. Be ye like him, all-round in your love. Let your goodness, like God’s goodness, shine on all men, not merely on those who are good to you. Turn your good side on men; never turn hatred upon them. There is surely nothing impracticable in this.

We meet now a serious question. Can men altogether respect a kind of life from which the element of antagonism, warfare, and indignation has disappeared? This objection is overwhelming if it points to any lack of the fullness of life in our new civilization. We must readily grant that there was a picturesqueness, which modern and civilized men at least see in the retrospect, in the feudal castles, the narrow walled towns with their fever-haunted streets, the bows and arrows and mailed armor of our forefathers. Perhaps we lose something in sweeping away these hoary symbols of the past. Perhaps our ancestors had a certain use and enjoyment in their poetical conceptions of the warring powers of the air, and even in their picture of a literal devil, going about like "a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.” We should be sorry if they did not have the compensations that belonged to their life; as Jesus, says of even the Pharisees and the hypocrites, "Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.” We are none the less sure, upon the whole, that the world does well to put off barbarous things, as the man does well to put off childish things. Each new stage of life will bring its own interests, its delights, its picturesqueness also.

The truth is, that what men demand in life, and miss if they do not find it, is not antagonism and warfare, but struggle, effort, cost, strenuousness. It is not hate and enmity that have ennobled warfare. It is not killing that has made the life of the soldier fruitful in moral lessons. It is the nerve, endurance, hardihood, and courage that we love to see. Of these superb qualities there is likely to be a demand to the end of the human course; for it is out of these things that life is forever being wrought.  The grown man conceives the universe, not as two impossible opposites in conflict, but as one harmonious structure; out of his soul, brought into unison with God, all hate has vanished; he holds himself in glad and willing obedience to every prompting of the universal Good Will. I maintain that this is precisely the man in whom eager intelligence, fearless vigor, and constructive energy are consummated. Shall we call Nelson or Dewey a hero, and not call Francis Parkman even more conspicuously a hero, who with never an enemy, yet conquering seemingly insuperable obstacles in cool, painstaking patience through the labors of a lifetime, at last gave the world an enduring memorial of a great episode in human history? Shall we call Wellington a hero, and not call his countrymen Moffat and Livingstone even more complete heroes, who, though alone, feared nothing in all the wild continent of Africa? Their love, growing strong, had cast out hate, bitterness, wrath, and all fear. Does any one think that such love lacks manly power? Little does he know the nature of a grown man’s love if he thinks this.

"Yes,” some one may say, "it is a great teaching, to bid men have no enemies. But is such a rule practicable in this age of the world?” The beauty of it is that it is altogether practicable; it binds men together; it puts an end to enmity; it converts supposed enemies to friends. It works to civilize the world. See in how many ways this new law is actually at work to-day.

There is one profession at least in every modern nation in which the law of which we speak is recognized. Ministers of the Christian religion must have no enemies. The minister or priest must be the friend of every one whom he meets. What of the evil-minded, the dissolute men and women outside the pale of society or the church? The minister has not caught the idea of his profession if he is not specially the friend of these. This is not a mere counsel of perfection. The ideal is realized by an increasing number of faithful and humane men. A story told of the anti-slavery leader, Rev. Samuel J. May, illustrates this. He was at one time traveling by carriage alone in a desolate region where acts of violence had been recently perpetrated. Early in the day a rough-looking man appeared before him on the road with a club in his hand. The friendly minister drove up to the man and asked him if he would not like to ride. The two rode and talked all the morning, and after dinner the unknown man again joined Mr. May and accompanied him through the afternoon. At evening, when they separated, the man intimated that he had stood in the way that morning with evil design, and that he was more indebted than he could tell for the friendly treatment which had recalled his manhood. What power in the world is so mighty as fearless kindliness?

If the minister should have no enemies, it is not because he belongs to a separate class. His law of life is only the broad human law. The medical profession furnishes perhaps as many instances of this as the ministry. The whole business of the physician is to befriend men, cure and save them. The good doctor may be called to attend the worst man in the town; he may have the care of the sick in the county jail. It makes no difference what the character of the patient is. The physician tries to do his best for him. Even when he expects never to get pay or thanks, he still tries to save life. What enemy has he in all the town? But ought he not to oppose the quack and impostor? If he opposes impostors, this is no reason why he should ever hate them. Is there any way so effective to put down imposture as to do skilled and trained work such as no impostor can do?

The teachers are another great class who must absolutely have no enemies. Show us the teacher who has favorites in his school, while he is hard on the dull and backward boys; show us the teacher of whom any of his pupils can say, "He hates us,” and we have found a teacher who has no place in a modern school. What is the teacher for, except to help and befriend his pupils? The more refractory the human material in them, the greater call for his patience, energy, intelligence, good will, in order to make men of them. The power of wise love is actually working miracles every day in behalf of the blind, the deaf and dumb, the epileptic, and the feeble-minded. The motto of the true teacher is nil desperandum, "to despair of none.”

We shall dare now to touch the most difficult class of all, and to say that the men in business ought to have no enemies. We shall here fly in the face of certain strange popular interpretations of the Golden Rule. It means, some believe, that "one must find out what the other man wants to do, and must do it first.” Must not business men plan and act as if in the presence of rivals and cutthroats? Must they not entertain jealousies and suspicions of their competitors?

Let us ask a more radical question. What is business? Is it an ugly process of industrial warfare whereby some may get more than their share of the costly product of the world? Grant, if you like, that thousands of men believe something like this. It is nevertheless a false idea, and is doomed, with other falsehoods, to die. Business, whether in the manufacture or the distribution of the good things of the world, is a form of social or human service. No kind or method of business is legitimate unless it meets this true test of the universe

Is it beneficent? Does your business in some way serve the convenience or enrichment of mankind? If it does this, you are God’s servant in it, as truly as any minister who preaches in a pulpit. If it injures men, or if it does men no good in return for what you draw out of it, how is it better than stealing?

Suppose now a business man who conceives, as a grown man ought, what his business is for; who practices it precisely as a violinist plays his part in the orchestra. Why should this man have any enemies? His customers are his friends whom he is seeking to serve; every honest man in trade is his friend, who is doing also a part in a common work. But, you say, the dishonest men must be his enemies. Why? They are not God’s enemies. They are men to be pitied. What true man envies them, least of all, when they seem to succeed? You are sorry for them; they and their children, most likely, are on the way to grief. Moreover, of all foolish, weak, and childish emotions, enmity toward the dishonest is the most futile. When did it ever make the dishonest man honest?

All this will be even plainer when we observe how the law "Have no enemies” works in the solution of certain great problems now before the nation. Here is the problem, for instance, of how to treat "the criminal class.” The old idea was that they were enemies to human society, to be punished accordingly. The new idea forbids us to recognize "a criminal class.” All men are of one blood. All men, at their worst, and on their selfish or animal side, are close to the danger line of crime, whether subtle or coarse. There is no salvation or health, except in the life of good will.

But there are those who are habitual criminals, dangerous to society, who certainly cannot be allowed at liberty to rob and murder. What shall we do with them? The late Mrs. Johnson, the noble superintendent of the Sherborn Reformatory for Women, in Massachusetts, told us what to do with them. The most depraved women, immodest, violent, hardened, came to her. Did she hate them? Never! She treated them as a physician treats his patients. She pitied them, loved them, and searched for the spark of true womanhood hid in their souls. She found what she looked for. Wonderful stories are told of the victories of this energetic and unresting woman’s love over her most violent patients. No enmity, threats, punishments, torture, ever saved such women as she saved and redeemed to the uses of society and citizenship.

We have another formidable problem in the political corruption and vulgar partisanship, rampant in every State, plundering rich cities, holding the balance of power in the Senate Chamber at Washington. We are tempted to hate our bosses, to despise our party leaders, to denounce them in public and private as the modern enemies of mankind. How can we help being hostile to the Quays and Crokers? How shall we ever escape their rule, unless we make war on them and their minions?

This would have been plausible to say a hundred years ago. We ought to know better than to say it to-day. It is not even intelligent to hate "the wicked bosses,’ much less to despise them, as the Pharisees once despised the publicans. Are they not men like us? In them we see what selfishness does to degrade men. Are we free of selfishness? Do we "virtuous” citizens, with our grand opportunities, do such generous public service as to boast over our neighbors as if we were men of a finer clay? Nay; the best public men never boast, never despise, and never hate. Abraham Lincoln teaches the world the same lesson that Jesus taught.

This is not to say that we shall let the Quays and the Crokers govern our nation. This is not to say that we may not do well to use party organization. I mean that we must allow no "enemies” in our politics. I mean that ill will, contempt, and denunciation separate men and tempt men to be what you denounce and despise them for. I mean that there is no man so corrupt that you can afford to treat him without sympathy. You praise the worst boy in the school when he tells the truth or does a kind act. You build upon good to erect more good. It is with men as with boys. Why shall we not then be glad if the opposite party proposes a just or patriotic measure? Let us help them carry it through. Even when we firmly vote the "boodle aldermen” out of office, why should we give them cause to suspect us of being their personal enemies? Why should we seem to say, "I am holier than thou”? Surely there is too much positive work that waits to be done in this world to permit any intelligent man to waste his energy in useless and petty antagonisms.

The same great law works to solve the threatening labor troubles in our country. The real issue between labor and capital is not a question of wages, or an eight-hour day, or the right to join unions. There is a deeper difficulty, of which these questions are only the symptoms. The real trouble is that the capitalists and the working-people think of each other as natural enemies. Jealousy, suspicion, and fears alienate men who ought to work together. Strikes and lockouts would hardly occur if men who call themselves Christians were real Christians, in the practical sense of having no enemies. Study the story of any particular strike and you will discover the point where men, very likely employers, who ought to have been more intelligent, lost their patience or lost their temper; you will find that there were moments when a ray of good humor or genuine humanity would have been enough to dispel the darkness from men’s faces, and to prevent waste and disaster.

The same law applies to international relations. The old rule was to hold foreign powers as enemies. The law of civilization is to have no enemies. Imagine the United States adopting this law. Surely it befits the great Republic among whose people now flows the blood of all races.  Imagine the United States using this mighty law when, at the outbreak of the Cuban war, the barbarous temptation arose of fighting the Spaniards. "Are not the Spaniards,” men cried, "our hereditary enemies? Did they not practice the Inquisition? Have they not been the enemies of the human race? Did they not blow up our warship?” So spoke the animal, savage, and revengeful spirit in all of us. Suppose then, before we plunged into war, that we had listened for the words of the religion of Good Will. The millions of Spanish people were men like us. There were wives and mothers over the sea, like our wives and mothers; to weep at the death of husbands and sons. Could we possibly hate these suffering and oppressed people, victims themselves of centuries of ignorance and misrule? If we had neither hated nor despised them, but held them to be our friends, it is almost certain that we could have devised some other method than fighting to adjust our grievances against their government.

Suppose, again, that the American people and their President had also judged with one consent that they had no enemies in the Philippine Islands; suppose that no American commissioner had breathed his selfish desire to exploit those islands for ourselves; that no American soldier had written home his contempt for the brown men whom he was sent out to save from oppression. Could there have been any war, when sympathy, friendliness, humanity, directed our dealings with a needy and childish people? No! It takes arrogance, pride, selfishness, contempt, to make war. War stands for the moral conditions of barbarism.

I am not laying down an abstract principle. I do not say that force should never be used. I say that there never should be hate, enmity, or unfriendliness between peoples. You are still barbarous while you hate or despise men. It is not a Christian or a civilized nation which willingly rushes into war. I say that as soon as you are a Christian, that is, a civilized people, you will find civilized means far mightier than war, with which to attain the ends for which men still ignorantly excuse the waste, cruelty, and folly of fighting.

The work of civilization, whether on a small scale in the family, the neighborhood, and the village, or on the vast scale of international relations, can never be successfully carried on by a "superior class” of wise and good people who set themselves over against the ignorant and the bad; it must be carried on by men and women who shall be the genuine friends and helpers, the comrades as well as the leaders, of those less wise, able, or advanced than themselves. It must never be carried on in the spirit of antagonism and opposition, hut in the far mightier spirit of sympathy. The power of its thinkers and leader will be measured by the breadth and sincerity of their good will.

There ought to be no need of further illustration. Is it not plain that the law of good will has a universal application? There is no event, no act, no word, no supreme crisis of life in which man may let the good will go, and turn on the forces of ill will, egotism, and selfishness. Letting the good will go out of him, he lapses straightway into the child or the savage. Keeping the flow of the serene good will in his soul, he walks the earth, fearless, erect, with God’s sunshine on his face. To live thus is the essence of civilization; the individual and the social welfare are thus secured and harmonized. To live thus is practical religion; the more thoroughly we try, test, and experience it, the more completely it will be found to grow out of, and to illustrate, a Theology, that is, a divine plan of the universe. This Theology matches the needs of civilized men in a civilized world. As Coleridge says:

"He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small,
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”


 

[1] Charles Fletcher Dole, The Theology of Civilization, New York: T. Y. Crowell, 1899, Chapter XII, "The Process of Civilization,” pp. 231-256.
In his autobiography, My Eighty Years, Dole says the following about the essay and the book :
"The Unitarian ministers have an old custom of asking some one of their number each year to give an address on some great subject in Anniversary Week in May, after the delivery of which they call on one another for discussion. This is known as the ‘Berry Street Conference,’ though no one except a successor of Channing perhaps now knows where Berry Street was. The men did me the kindness of entrusting me with the address in 1899, and it grew into a book with perhaps too dry a subject for these days of "new thought," or no thought at all, namely, ‘The Theology of Civilization.’ My aim was to set forth the noble substratum of thought upon which civilization develops. In other words, we live in a divine and orderly universe, the whole motion of which goes, along with vast and costly yet necessary effort, pain and sacrifice, to build a happy and friendly society; in short, a spiritual civilization, towards the service of which every effort of art and science and all excellent material products are alike contributory. Perhaps I should have done better to call the work, ‘The Spiritual Nature of Civilization.’”