"The Breaking of Nations” (published as "After Thirty Years”)[1]


John Haynes Holmes, Community Church of New York

Berry Street Essay, 1934


Read before the Ministerial Conference

May, 1934


I cannot begin what I have to say to you this morning, my beloved colleagues, without expressing the gratitude I feel for the honor which you have so graciously conferred upon me in asking me to speak on this occasion.

I am moved, if you will pardon me, by the thought that this year, 1934, marks the thirtieth anniversary of my graduation from the Divinity School, my ordination to the ministry, my installation in my first parish, and my marriage to my adored and adorable wife. In every outward and ceremonial sense, and perhaps also in every inner and spiritual sense, my life may be said to have begun a generation ago in 1904. Such coincidence sorely tempted me to make this an autobiographical occasion—to tell you the tale of my poor career, to recite the catalogue of those ships of mine that set sail, a goodly fleet, on that thirtieth year ago—some, like my marriage, to enjoy a prosperous voyage, to gather a rich cargo, and to reach a quiet haven; some, like my ministry, to be swept by many a storm, to be beaten upon by many a dreadful sea, and yet somehow to keep afloat; and some, like the expectations which brightened all my early days, to be wrecked and broken, and at last sunk into the deeps of impenetrable darkness. But propriety has taught me what prudence might have ignored. I know that it would be a betrayal of my trust did I use this opportunity to indulge in personalities—even my own!

How simple and attractive was that world of 1904, into which with unbounded confidence I moved to establish my home and to serve the altars of my faith. That confidence, of course, was a confidence in myself, for such is the way of youth. But it was a confidence, also, in far greater things, in

The world which was ere I was born,

The world which lasts when I am dead.

Confidence in my inheritance, deep-rooted in the traditions of my New England forbears! Confidence in my training, which had been conducted by the best scholars in the first university in the land! Confidence in my church, which had reconciled religion with reason, and thus preserved the sanctity of truth! Confidence in my country, which had established in democracy the true order of society! Confidence in my class, the great multitude of the middle class, which was the saving substance of any people! Confidence in our civilization, which had found in the discoveries of science, the advancement of learning, the production of wealth, and manifold institutions of justice and liberty, the fulfillment of man’s promise upon this earth! How happy it was to step out into that world which tempted ambition, rewarded virtue, and promised security! How easy it was to live in that world.

It is true we had our worries in those days—the corruption of politics, the growing power of "big business,” the waxing burden of armaments. Ominous, had we known it, were the violent struggles between capital and labor, and the presence of an ever-increasing area of poverty as the base of a towering pyramid of wealth. It was a consciousness of these ills which took me back to Theodore Parker, and Savonarola, and the Hebrew prophets, who quickened me to indignation and protest. It was a curiosity about these ills which led me to Karl Marx, Henry George, and Walter Rauschenbusch. I became impatient, but only because it was so unnecessary that such evils should exist, and so easy to remove them. But at bottom nothing could disturb our equanimity. Wrathful as we might be against child labor, prostitution, or the liquor traffic, we were not afraid. Fundamentally and inescapably we were optimistic in those serenely opening years of the new century.

I can best sum up this attitude of confidence by saying that, thirty years ago, we all believed in the law of progress, even as we did in the law of gravitation. This law, or idea, may I say, was not known to the ancients. It does not appear in the philosophy of Christendom. It is very definitely a product of modern times, and more particularly of the Victorian Age. There have been other triumphant eras of human history—the Periclean Age, the Augustan, the Elizabethan—but none so solid, so substantial, so stupendous, as that which reached its zenith of immortal splendor in nineteenth-century Britain. The Dark Ages had come to an end; mankind had awakened in the fresh dawn of the Renaissance; the mind had been freed by science, and the soul by the Reformation. For four hundred years the race had been moving from achievement to achievement, mounting from glory to glory, and at last in this unprecedented century was come in sight of the Promised Land. What wonder that into the best minds of that age there entered the concept of progress, the idea that man was in the hands of a happy fate, a shining doom, which sooner or later "leads on to fortune.” It was no accident that evolution was the central and universal thought of that amazing time—evolution interpreted as a cosmic sweep, a primal law, which destines man not to be damned but to be saved. The net result was the optimism of which Robert Browning was the prophet—a two-fold conviction, on the one hand that man would not be defeated, and on the other hand that man’s work today, this western nineteenth-century civilization, was already the fruits of victory. The structure of this our world, deep laid in the foundation of reality, high reared in the reason and the right of men, must rise surely, and not slowly, to completion, and stand at last star-crowned above the years.

This was the faith of 1904! Exactly ten years later, almost without warning, came the crash of 1914—and we look today upon such a spectacle of ruin as history has not seen since the wreck of the Roman Empire. In a period of two decades, we have endured the greatest war of which the annals of time have any record—a war which killed ten million men, wounded or maimed fifty million more, and consumed wealth in such incalculable amount that it cannot be restored in more than a hundred years. We have seen pestilence and famine stalking the earth, as in the days of the Black Death, and slaying more millions than the battlefield itself. We have beheld the fall of the three oldest royal houses in Europe—the Hapsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, and the Romanoffs; the disappearance of three historic empires—the German, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Turkish; and the rise in their stead of numerous proud and petty nationalities, which vex anew the currents of international accord. We have witnessed the world convulsed by revolutions as by earthquakes. We have discerned democracies discredited and destroyed, and in country after country displaced by dictatorships. We have watched, with mingled terror and admiration, the stirring of the East, with hundreds of millions of Asiatics resolved to claim their own in the great assize of the peoples. We have experienced a hectic period of feverish and ignoble prosperity, which debased our standards, debauched our lives, and vulgarized every value of morals and good taste. We have plunged into the black pit of economic and social collapse, which has threatened, and still threatens, to engulf all of beauty and of worth that we have known. We have made feeble attempts to stay the menace of war, now waxing to ever greater potency in the massed arms of nations; and equally feeble attempts to restore a structure of society which is cracking and crashing all about us. Slowly, year after year, we approach that dread point where we must abandon the endeavor after wealth, luxury, even the graces and arts of life, and struggle desperately for security and bare survival. And we speak no more of progress! On the contrary, we discuss soberly the possible return to the Dark Ages; and, as though in anticipation, contemplate without surprise the reappearance of barbarian hordes.

The World War and its aftermath are so terrible a phenomenon in itself that the generation which encountered it can see nothing beyond or beneath its horror. But posterity, with its perspectives, will see something yet more terrible in this disaster—namely, the sign and symbol of an era’s end. In this vast catastrophe of 1914, historians will record not the conflict of two contending imperial systems, but the crash of worlds. That whole great age of thought and life into which I was born, and in which, with a trust as unquestioning as a virgin’s innocence, I began my work—that age is gone. It has tumbled to dust, like the garden of Klingsor before the guileless gesture of Parsifal. In the names of four men, the consummate geniuses of this our day, who will endure as immortally out of this time as St. Augustine endures out of the time of the fall of classic Rome, I seem to see the personification, or dramatization, of that cataclysmic convulsion which has shaken our firmament to ruin.

The first of these four men is Albert Einstein. It is not enough to say that his is the greatest intellect of the present day. We come nearer to the truth when we confess that only Aristotle in the ancient world and Sir Isaac Newton in the modern world can match him. He has not worked alone; he is but one of a great company of workers in the field of contemporary science. But his towering genius has isolated him, like Mt. Everest among the Himalayas, and thus made him the scientific symbol of this age. What Einstein has done to the knowledge of our time is to disrupt it. With unerring insight he penetrated to the law of gravitation, which held together the structure of our world, and, in discrediting this, hurled at one stroke our cosmos into chaos. In the poems of Richard Watson Gilder there is a quatrain on a Sun Dial, which reads:

On the sun dial in the garden
The great sun keeps the time;

A faint, small moving shadow,
And we know the worlds are in rhyme.


And if once that shadow should falter,
By the space of a child’s eye-lash,

The seas would devour the mountains,
And the stars together crash.

But Einstein moved the shadow on this dial not "by the space of a child’s eye-lash” but by the vast sweep of a celestial orbit. What wonder that the stars that shone upon my youth "together crashed”! As I look upon this Einsteinian universe, I see the science of three centuries swept away as so much rubbish. The knowledge which I acquired as a college student in astronomy, chemistry, physics, has no more reality today than the theological pattern of the Middle Ages. In its place has come not new knowledge but only confusions, contradictions, conflicts. In one and the same breath we are told that the universe is expanding and contracting. The cosmos is pictured as at once finite and infinite. The concept of law is dissolved into the vagaries of indeterminate atoms, and time merged into space, as space into time. The world in which our minds were trained to function is suddenly lost. We know not where we are, nor what we think. In this chaos of ideas, we find reassurance in what seems to be the return of science to religion—the concept of the universe as a mathematical equation, a symphony of music, a divine creative thought. But it might be well for us to remember that theology flourishes only when science decays; and that Christian theology became the language of men’s minds only when those minds saw the torch of knowledge extinguished in the black midnight of the Dark Ages. It seems incredible, as one meets and talks with Albert Einstein, that so gentle a spirit could work such havoc on so vast a scale. But not since the days of Copernicus has the universe been so disrupted.

The second of our four immortals is Sigmund Freud. The work of this man is variously regarded. The intimacy of his inquiries has touched so much that is sacred and therefore reserved—laid hands so boldly upon the Ark—that outraged emotions have inevitably disordered judgment. It is going to take years, perhaps generations, to place this Viennese psychologist in his true perspective. Meanwhile, I believe that H. G. Wells comes close to the truth, as he so often does, when he declares in his "The Science of Life” that "Sigmund Freud’s name is as cardinal in the history of human thought as Charles Darwin’s.” What Freud has done is to discover vast continents of inner life, hitherto never seen nor even suspected, as Columbus discovered similar continents in the outer world. With his psychic vision he has penetrated into the substance of mind, as many a physicist with his microscope has penetrated into the substance of matter. Our conception of human nature, as transmitted in our liberal tradition, can never again be the same, now that Freud has pursued his explorations. This conception, to be sure, was never the naive and trusting thing that the critics of liberalism are denouncing at this time. Not John Calvin himself ever recognized the evil in the souls of men more clearly than William Ellery Channing. "I know (the) history (of human nature),” said the great preacher. "I shut my eyes on none of its weaknesses and crimes. I understand the proofs by which despotism demonstrates that man is a wild beast.” Again, he said, almost anticipating Freud, "The true greatness of man is almost wholly out of sight. . . . The soul is an immortal germ which may be said to contain now within itself what endless ages are to unfold.” What Freud did was to uncover and reveal not the depravity of man—his psychology is no reaffirmation of Calvinism! He disclosed rather the complexity of man, that unfathomable and immeasurable intricacy of experience, fold on fold beneath the threshold of consciousness, which makes up as much of the whole man as the submerged nine-tenths of an iceberg makes up the whole mountain. There is nothing in Freud to teach us to despair of humanity, but everything to make us stand in awe before it, even as we stand in awe before the impenetrable reaches of the heavens. Deep unto deep within and below, as deep unto deep without and above! I look in vain in this yawning gulf of mystery for anything of man I ever knew.

The third immortal name of our time in Nicolai Lenin. We may like or dislike, welcome or fear, the work of this Russian Communist, but we cannot disagree as to the colossal character of his mind and the titanic dimensions of his deeds. We are too near Lenin to see his height and range and grandeur, as we are likewise too near to discern his significance. What we behold in him is the revolutionist who seized and used the terrific moment which fate flung at him, whereas posterity will behold the shadow, as it were, of fate itself. This man, through thirty years unknown, moved as an impending doom upon our world. His shrewd and sinister countenance loomed as the face of Mephistopheles, the spirit which denies—denies the integrity and permanency of what man hath wrought. Lenin is more than a historical figure—he is the eternal symbol of a civilization decayed and toppling to its fall. Ordinarily we speak of the plight of our society as produced by the War, whereas we should speak of the War as produced by the plight of our society. It is Lenin who reminds us that, had the War never come, the world would still have fallen in collapse. Capitalism had come to its end, as feudalism in its time came to its end. Nothing could save it. In my early days the existing economic system seemed staunch and strong. It functioned in a process of apparent health. But already the seeds of death were sown within it, and the awful events of two decades have been the travail of its dissolution. When I gazed upon the smile on Lenin’s face in the red tomb beneath the Kremlin wall in Moscow, I seemed to see the scorn of that mighty man who knew our world was dead while it throbbed with what looked like the energies of life. I thought of that passage in Bailey’s forgotten "Festus,” where he proclaims that

earth shall leade destruction . . . . and shall end,


As though an earthquake smacked its mumbling lips

O’er some thick-peopled city.

The fourth immortal name of those who incarnate the cataclysm of this age is Mahatma Gandhi. Of this Indian may be said more truly what R. H. Green, in his "Short History of the English People,” said of George Washington, that he is "the noblest figure that ever stood in the forefront of a nation’s life.” The nobility of Gandhi, as of Washington, is rooted in the purity and elevation of his character. His sheer ability as a political leader makes him the most formidable foe ever encountered by the British Empire, and ranks him among the greatest statesmen of all time. But his true stature is not discovered until he is seen as a saint and seer, a teacher of the way of life, which gives him immortal place with Confucius, Buddha, and Jesus. It is as a prophet of the spirit that the Mahatma judges our age as the Hebrew prophets judged theirs. Not only the government of Britain but the civilization of all the West he calls "satanic.” He condemns our machinery which devours men as the Minotaur devoured the youth of Athens. He denounces our materialism which subdues whole populations to exploitation and plunder. He abhors our militarism which dooms great nations to the waste and woe of war. He fears above all the uses of force and violence which outlaw reason, poison good will, and lead through hate to death. He would deliver his people from alien rule not only that they may have liberty, but also that their civilization and culture, the precious heritage of unnumbered centuries of creative life, may be spared the contagion of that disease which is destroying the West. He would rescue India from contact with a world already perishing, and thus save her before it is too late. It is not easy to associate these inexorable judgments with so gentle and sweet a spirit. As one looks on Gandhi one is conscious only of the radiance of his smile, and of his eyes illumined with that light which never was on sea or land. But I remember sitting with him in the early evening of September, 1931, on the terrace of a London house overlooking the miles of roofs beneath which teemed the myriad people of the largest city in the world, and there came a moment when I seemed to catch the living counterpart of that scene when Jesus beheld Jerusalem, "and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes. (And) the days shall come upon thee, that . . . . they shall not leave in them one stone upon another, because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.”

These are the four men, the unique immortals of this age, who have swept away the landscape of our world. Einstein has erased, as from a blackboard, the compact design of the outer cosmos. Freud has torn to shreds the simple pattern of the inner life. Lenin has wrecked the structure of our social home. Gandhi has exposed the sham and shame of our futile faith. It is a sobering thought that, while all of these men were alive in 1904, the name of no one of them was known. In the short span of my ministerial life they have arisen, like storms upon an unclouded horizon, to sweep the former world with ruin. I look about me after these thirty years, and I see nothing but the wreckage of what was once to me secure and fair.

Without and within, above me and around, I seek in vain for anything familiar to my memory. If I behold, still standing, some archways of my experience, some pillars of my hope, I know them to be but relics of a world shattered beyond recall. What may one think? What can one do? Perhaps only what another great intellect of our time has suggested       Oswald Spengler, in his "Decline of the West,” who sees upon us the same doom that has befallen all civilizations preceding our own. In the concluding paragraph of his "Man and Technics,” he writes:

We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on . . . . without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. . . . The honorable end is the one thing that cannot be taken from a man.

So this is our doom --nothing left to us but the solemn and august dignity of "an honorable end!” It may be so; I can believe things today, not in defeat but in disillusionment, at which I would have hooted three decades ago. Our world is not safe, our destiny no longer sure. There is no certainty that men’s minds can match the challenge of their fate. Yet am I constrained to go on. There echoes still within my mind, from the far distance of old and happier days, the trumpet-call of Browning—”Fight on! Fare ever!” The very parable of Spengler, with its heroic but dreadful picture of the dead soldier at his post, stirs my imagination and my hope. For I remember that, in that awful eruption of Vesuvius which consumed whole cities in the fires of death, there was another who deserted not his post. At Misenum, as commander of the Roman fleet, was the Elder Pliny, the greatest naturalist of his day. As the sky darkened to the north, and rumors of the catastrophe drifted to his ears, Pliny made haste to reach the scene. Organizing the work of rescue, so far as this was possible, he insisted upon climbing the slopes of the flaming mountain. He must see this stupendous phenomenon at close-range—study, and if possible understand, the nature of so incredible a disaster. So up he went into the black clouds of ashes which had turned the day into midnight, and, like the soldier at his post, was overwhelmed.

But Pliny’s, it seems to me, while a no less heroic, was a more intelligent death. His end was "honorable” in the higher sense that he not only endured, but tried to overcome. The great naturalist was not willing merely to stand and be destroyed by the dreadful forces released against him. He must meet these forces, match their might with his intelligence, delve to their source and reveal their secret, and thus in the end subdue them to man’s use. In Pliny was a spirit of inquiry, to the end of mastering nature in relation to human affairs, which was at once a projection of the clear consciousness of the Greeks, and a prophecy of the clearer consciousness and more potent faculties of the moderns. The Roman soldier, in spite of his bravery, was defeated—but not Pliny! This naturalist was unconquerable. He had that within him which survived the Vesuvian eruption, germinated like a hidden seed in the dark winter of the Middle Ages, and lived again in the returning spring of the Renaissance and Reformation. Rome is gone, but Pliny endures in the scientific temper of this age. We also would know, and through our knowledge conquer, the very forces which now threaten to destroy us. We also would front our doom, and, though we perish, wrest from it the secret which may save the world. What is this but the characteristic spirit of our contemporaries, who refuse simply "to hold on,” as Spengler advises, "without hope, without rescue,” but prefer rather to strive desperately to understand, before it is too late, what has overwhelmed mankind? Such at least are those immortals—Einstein, Freud, Lenin, and Gandhi. Like Pliny, they are observers and recorders of a cosmic disaster. If in addition they seem to be the symbols, or even the agents, of destruction, it is because they are more than Pliny in their possession of creative minds which have discovered a chaos unseen of other and lesser men, which by their own genius they would now mould anew to forms of order and of beauty. Let me reread their stories!

Albert Einstein, with a gesture as terrible as that of the deity who rolls up the heavens like a scroll, has annihilated the fixed stars of the firmament. The laws established, the equations written, in three hundred years of scientific endeavor, he has swept away. But in their place he has set new laws. The wider ranges of his vision, the profounder depths of his thought, have revealed relations undreamed of by other men. These relations this genius is now expressing in figures and formulas which experts tell us represent the farthest attainment of intellectual conception, and therefore the greatest single achievement of human thought in man’s history upon this planet. Few men have the knowledge, even the ability, to follow Einstein in his mathematical reconstruction of the cosmos. Einstein himself does not know, or pretend to know, the ultimate implications of his theories, and is the first to confess the undemonstrated and perhaps undemonstrable nature of his conclusions. A student of the great master has told me that it may take fifty years to work out the answers to those equations which Einstein has already submitted to the inquiry and judgment of his fellow-scientists. But already the dim outlines of another universe appear. Einstein’s equations, to the discerning eye, present the image of a greater cosmos than Copernicus ever dreamed or Newton ever saw. In this giant of the intellect we discover the first promise of that day, foretold by Wells, when "life, forever dying to be born afresh, forever young and eager, will presently stand upon this earth as upon a footstool, and stretch out its realm amidst the stars.”

Sigmund Freud cast confusion into the world of human nature, as Einstein into the world of physical nature. His discovery of new continents within the soul destroyed as neat and compact a world as Columbus’s discovery of new continents upon the globe. But these continents were themselves another world; and Freud not only revealed the existence of this world, but made his way into its mysteries. Penetrating an unknown wilderness, he charted its area, and made paths into its fastnesses. Uncovering dark treasures of the mine, he thrust deep shafts into the impenetrable depths of man’s buried life, and ran along galleries, and illumined them, for the exploration of what was hidden. Plunging into the veritable horrors of a Dantesque Inferno, he fought his way through to Purgatory, and seems now to gaze upon the radiant heights of Paradiso. Now that Freud has done his work, human nature is not changed. The Viennese genius has created nothing that did not exist before. But he has disclosed the unknown and unimagined roots of this human nature, and therewith given control of its upward growth. What was in all too many cases a withered plant, sprung from a sterile soil, shall now in time be made to blossom like the rose. Freud’s supreme achievement is the development of a technique for the mastery and direction of man’s inner life. He has taught us how we may heal our ills, discipline our passions, release our powers, and finally fulfill our promise. His methods and instruments may be crude, and in time be greatly changed; but it is my conviction that they are laying permanently the basis of an art of life to match the arts of literature and music. What the poet does with words, and the composer with tones, the psychiatrist will do with instincts, desires and ambitions, and therewith redeem the soul. Not a new human nature, but a transformed, a transfigured human nature, is now within our grasp. After long centuries of waiting, Sigmund Freud has answered the challenge of the ancient Greeks, to "know thyself.” So does this scientist of the soul bring to the inner world, as Einstein to the outer world, the reign of order, and justify the encomium pronounced by Dr. Martin W. Peck, of Boston, "on one of the great minds of all time.”

Nicolai Lenin has shaken our world as by the convulsion of some cosmic catastrophe. But he has fashioned as well out of the wreck of chaos the fabric of an enduring society. Already great in his own right, before 1914, he was snatched by the enormous events of the War from obscurity into the glare of fame. His writings in those years of nameless exile reveal a colossal intellect engaged upon the task of recreating the thought of Karl Marx into the fashion of a new philosophy, and projecting it afresh as the program of a workers’ state. Suddenly, without warning, came revolution, and the entrance of Lenin upon his destiny. When, in October, 1917, he seized the rule of Russia, destruction was already wrought, and death abroad, in that distracted land. Instantly the thought of the philosopher became the action of the greatest statesman since Cromwell. Rarely has such intellectual capacity been matched by such resolution of spirit. With iron hands Lenin grasped the tottering structure of the state, and lifted it above collapse. Like the Lincoln in Edwin Markham’s poem, in the hour of earthquake,

He held the ridgepole up, and spiked again

The rafters of the home.

By this one man was a nation of 160,000,000 folk, occupying one-sixth the territory of the globe, saved from swift reversion to savagery—the horror of desperate populations turned into hungry hordes wandering the land for food. Rent and torn by inward violence, beaten and battered by outward storm, civilization in Russia was still saved, and the ordered life of its people held intact. But this was not enough. There must be no restoration of the old society. Russia, the world, must be made anew. A fresh fabric of civilization must be reared above the ruin of the old. To this task, like Hercules, the great Lenin bent his strength. Amid war, and famine, and pestilence, and death, he did his work.

"Wrenching the rafters from their ancient hold,”

he raised them on a fresh pattern and to a strange design. Not the old relationship of personal property, private profit, commercial rivalry, industrial exploitation, imperial struggle, wealth, luxury, poverty, disease, wretchedness, and the enslavement of the many to the few, but a new order, dreamed of since Plato but never seen, of common ownership, common work, common wealth, and common life! Workers in farm and factory were made the citizens of the realm. Labor, by hand or brain, became the service of the state. Production became the test of worth, distribution the reward of toil. In abundance was a new freedom, and in shared abundance a new equality. There was a democracy of economics to match and fulfill the democracy of politics. Not since the age of the Great Peter had Russia seen a day like this and here was a greater than Peter. A man who stooped down to lift up the masses of the proletariat, and reached up to tear down the ranks of the aristocracy! In what Lenin thought, there must be many changes; to what he did, there will be many amendments. Already Stalin, the "man of steel,” has fashioned and framed anew the master’s policy. But deep down he laid the cornerstone of the planned society, and high up lifted the fabric of the commonwealth. Lenin is the maker of the new Russia, and through Russia of the new world. He belongs to a people, but more truly to mankind. For in the time when "the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind,” it will still be remembered of him that, out of the chaos of a shattered world, when darkness was upon us all, he created, if not a new heaven, then a new earth, where "the voice of weeping shall be no more heard, nor the voice of crying; (for) they shall build houses, and inhabit them, and . . . . plant vineyards, and eat the fruit of them. They shall not labor in vain, nor bring forth for calamity, (but) shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”

Of Gandhi, how can I speak? It was at the moment when I was as though perishing, in 1919, that I found this sainted man. My discovery of him I can only record in the words used by John Keats to record his discovery of Chapman’s "Homer”:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

 Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific—and his men

Looked at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

In the midst of the fall of nations, out of the horror of war and revolution, of bloodshed, fire, and fury, there suddenly arose this simple, serene, and lovely figure. To a world of violence, he brought the gospel of Satyagraha, or non-resistance; to an age of hate, he spoke the old and almost forgotten word of love; to a generation caught in the snares of death, he offered release into the peaceful ways of life. In the darkest hours of my experience, Mahatma Gandhi brought into my soul what I have always felt that Jesus must have brought into the souls of his disciples. And if there is any one thing out of all my years that brings me comfort, it is that I have lived to see humanity swing to Gandhi, as a planet swings in its celestial orbit to the sun.

Such are the four immortals of our age—Einstein, who has recharted the pathways of the stars; Freud, who has redesigned the patterns of the soul; Lenin, who has remade the structure of society; Gandhi, who has restored the sanctities of religion! Have these men renewed my hope? Have they revived my faith? Have they reconciled me to my world? Let me redraw in a brief series of propositions, or theses, the outlines of those convictions to which I cling—the shadow of that grim and stern reality which, like a dark-bound shore seen through a rift of storm, may save me ere I sink.

First, I am convinced that the world into which I was born is gone. Already it has been caught in the resistless tide of man’s recurring doom, and is being swept away. Like every preceding civilization, this civilization is moving to its fall. The ways of life in which I was bred, the ideas which I was taught, the faith which I espoused, the dreams which I cherished, all are passing, never to return. It is true that new deals are promising the continuance of an old game; fascist rebellions are injecting the stimulus of fevered life into a dying organism; a machine of enormous weight and power may move on indefinitely under the impulse of its own momentum. But nothing can save it in the end. Capitalism must disappear like feudalism before it, and imperialism before that. How it will perish, this world of mine, I do not know. A "next war” would rend and ruin it, as Wells has prophesied in his last book. Failing a final conflict of arms, our civilization will slowly die, as Rome died through more than three hundred years. Already the barbarians are appearing, like the vultures gathered together "wheresoever the carcass is.” But swift or slow, in the twinkling of an eye, or in an age’s dire decline, the end is certain. This civilization will not live because it is not fit to live.

Secondly, I am convinced there is no fate nor destiny which guarantees to man his ultimate salvation. He has been defeated before; he is being defeated again; he may be defeated in the end. I do not believe, in other words, in a law of progress in human affairs, the supreme superstition of the nineteenth century. I cannot believe in God as an absentee deity in the Carlylean sense, who has started the universe going, and now watches it go round; nor yet as a divine slot-machine into which we drop our coin of prayer, and out of which we expect to draw some prize. I cannot longer trust in a Providence which guides man’s steps and guards his ways. I can believe with the Lilith of Bernard Shaw, in the last act of his "Back to Methuselah,” that "of Life there is no end.” I can stretch out this vital concept of Life to the cosmos, and see it become God as the infinite source, the eternal spring, from which has flowed reality, including man. I can sublimate this concept to the realm of spirit, and see Life’s power become transfigured into purpose. But I cannot see the stream of Life diverted, nor yet stayed, in its course to rescue man from the whirling eddies of his stupidity and sin. There is no "destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them as we may.”

Thirdly, I am convinced that man’s only hope lies within himself. It is a faint hope, and may be far; but it is man’s freedom charged with the high privilege of choice for salvation or for damnation. Not that man’s strength is merely his own! All around him flow the tides of Life, the stream of Being, "the river of Time.” If he ignores or defies this cosmic flood, it will sweep him to ruin, like some unleashed torrent of the mountains. Moral, like physical, law will brook no challenge. The stars in their courses fought against Sisera! If man yields to this flood of Life, as the swimmer to the stream, it will lift him up and bear him to his goal. But the goal must be his, and the desire for it, and the will toward it. He must lift the canvas and steer the ship, if he would "sail with God the seas.”

Lastly, I am convinced that, in this age of wreck and ruin, of despair and death, man himself is still undefeated. If he is baffled, it is to fight better; if he has fallen, it is to rise. The fabric of one more dream has crashed to ruin—this civilization has seen, or must soon see, its end. But the travail of this hour is the travail at once of birth as well as of death. Even as it perishes, it produces Einstein, Freud, Lenin, Gandhi—four geniuses of mind and spirit greater than any four who have yet appeared in any single age. They read the signs of the times; they point the farther way. In their words and deeds we see as it were the seeds of undying life sprouting like the grain of wheat in the crumbling hand of the Egyptian mummy. In their ideas and labors we hear as it were the tones of prophecy that not only proclaim but promise the time to come. What awaits us we cannot know. But if another world declines and falls, and another thousand years of the Dark Ages intervene, we need not fear. Here in this creative thought and sacrificial spirit, there is Life at work. It is Lilith who speaks again: "Of Life only is there no end; and though of its million starry mansions many are empty and many still unbuilt, and though its vast domain is as yet unbearably desert, my seed shall one day fill it and master its matter to its uttermost confines. And for what may be beyond, the eyesight of Lilith is too short. It is enough that there is a beyond.”

Enough—that there is a beyond! Yes, enough, enough! But I shall not live to see it. I think of that young "theolog” who came striding so confidently into the ministry just thirty years ago next month. Is it possible for me to recognize this youth today? I see him, lean, lithe, tall, and straight in stature. His eyes were weak, and already he wore glasses. He was inwardly a good deal frightened, but outwardly was eager, confident, ambitious, arrogant, and self-centered. Like most men of his years he had little patience, less forbearance, no reverence at all for the ripe wisdom of experience. On the other hand he had some qualities, the dower of birth and training, which balanced to some extent, perhaps, these intolerable faults. His Puritan stock gave him hatred of evil and love of good. His Yankee blood was pure of prejudice. His church and college combined to equip him with an open mind and a love of truth and freedom.

The years have fashioned him. They have curbed his zeal and disciplined his temper. They have taught him humility, and a desperately needed sense of proportion in time and space. They have smashed his ideas, dissolved his illusions, acquainted him with horror and touched him with death. That young man of thirty years ago is no longer the man he was. His hair is thin and grey. His figure is no longer erect, but stooped. His body is tired, and his heart heavy. He has been inexpressibly happy in his family and friends and fortunes. He has steadily grown more radical in his opinions, and remains as idealistic as ever in his sentiments. His fire, I trust, is unabated—like a flame flaring the brighter for the blackness ‘round! But he has lost his world, which was pleasant to him—and his dreams, which were still more pleasant. He is sober and sad, compassionate because pitiful, and bereft of all hope for his remaining days. But the faith of this young man has not yet failed. He believes, as in his earliest years, in man’s ultimate high destiny. If not today, nor tomorrow, nor yet the day after tomorrow, then in some more remote but certain time, man will solve his problem and secure his life. And meanwhile we must fight on undaunted for the right, trusting that final victory which we may surely serve but ourselves shall scarcely see.

In an older time, there was a day like this. The empire of all the world had fallen. Into Rome itself had entered the hordes of the barbarians. Across the seas, in Hippo, there sat the immortal bishop of that African city. As darkness lowered ever blacker upon his day, he lifted up his eyes, and saw in vision the City of God. While the destroyers of the empire were drawing near, he wrote the voluminous pages of that treatise wherein he designed the plan and pattern of that Eternal City. And he believed that that City would be built, and built upon, until the dreams of all men’s hearts should be at last fulfilled. And even as the invaders hammered upon the gates of Hippo, to break them to the ground, St. Augustine wrote his closing word—”How great shall that felicity be, where shall be no evil thing, where no good thing shall lie hidden, and where we shall have leisure to utter forth the praises of God, which shall be all in all!”


[1] Published in The Christian Register, July 19, 1934, 459-462 & August 2, 1934, 476-479.