The Genius Of The Age And Some Suggestions Toward An Imaginative Liberal Faith
Frank O. Holmes
Berry Street Lecture 1968
Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly
May 23, 1968
The genius of the present age is evident in the very magnitude of its energy; that energy which is awe-inspiring to any perceptive person among us as he contemplates the immensities of men’s exertions today, thinks of all the things they are making and doing, and follows the range of their curiosity as they ask all questions, challenge all assumptions, and explore every available avenue of experience and expression. Using a literary metaphor, we may say that the audacious aim of the age is to get into "the story” every kind of experience, person, attitude and language. Or, to quote the refrain a popular song of a few years ago, "Don’t fence me in” has become an ideal to which the spirit today is committed.
This outreaching genius of the age manifests itself in at least three ways. There is the area of scientific research and technological invention. I need not take your time to detail what all of us know so well: the almost unbelievably rapid expansion of men’s knowledge of, and power over, the physical world. Men today are, indeed, weighing the Pleiades, splitting the atom, flying faster than sound, communicating events with the speed of light, preparing for landings on the moon, and synthesizing in the laboratory the protein molecules which characterize living tissue.
A second way in which the genius of our age is manifesting itself is in the investigating and describing of men’s inner, subjective experience. In former ages, the reporting of human experience was almost entirely behavioristic: descriptions of what men did or said, acts seen, words heard. In contrast, in our time, there has appeared the ‘stream of consciousness’ novel, which seeks to disclose the inner feelings motivations, impulses, and imaginative fancies of the characters. With the development of introspective, analytic psychology this changed focus of attention has entered into – we might say has taken over – more and more of our art, fiction, biography, drama, the systematic study of psychology, and even theology. It is essential, I believe, that we should appreciate the affirmative significance of this achievement. We have become far more aware than our fathers were of the richness, intensity, and diversity, of what goes on within the consciousness, and even within the unconsciousness, of persons.
A third way in which the genius and energy of our age manifests itself is that of moral concern. There is today a far-reaching moral passion which shows itself even when men try to deny or hide it. This moral concern is expressed in the age’s demand for comprehensiveness in the experience and enjoyment of values. Certainly, there is still a great deal of provincialism; but I believe that in our age the majority of men are reaching toward a truly inclusive society. This hunger for inclusiveness shows itself in the ideal of world community; and also in the demand that justice, in the smaller community (of the nation, of the city) shall mean the sharing of all persons of that community in its opportunities, decisions and rewards.
Recognizing that our age shows this vitality in scientific accomplishment, in psychological curiosity, in comprehensive moral concern – and in many other ways- we ask. "What then is the religious problem? Why is there, in our time, so much confusion, frustration, and anxiety? Why is it, as Dean Miller asked at the Harvard Divinity School institute last winter, that in our libraries the shelves labeled Hope are so largely empty?”
We must face the fact, I believe, that the very virtues of our age have made it vulnerable to excesses. Our almost incredible energy, impelling us to action and experimentation, has invited us to lose ourselves in an acceleration, in all directions, of the number of things we do, the speed with which we do them, the uncritical idealization and manipulates of power, and the promotion of rapid change for its own sake. There is among us an increasing, at times arrogant, impatience with any suggestion toward restraint in action, an unwillingness to bother to make careful judgment of what we are doing in terms of meaning and quality. This absorption in action is intensified by the acceleration of events on the world scene today and our almost instantaneous awareness of them. No human mind can digest the amount of news being reported every day. And so, it is easy for us to become submerged within the avalanche of events and actions, to be so carried along by the energy of our time that we lose all sense of position and perspective.
Again, in the subjectivity of our age, along with the richer awareness and sensitivity it nurtures, is carried to such extremes that here, too, it is easy for us to lose our footing, and to flounder about in a slough of psychological solipsism. In spite of all we say about ‘togetherness’, we are finding ourselves increasingly without any convincing awareness of significant relationship; we forget that we are situated in a substantial and enduring world of which we are only part; values tend to become for us flitting shadows of our impulsive, individual and enthusiasms; other persons diminish into projections and instruments of our appetites and ambitions; we try to interpret science itself as a construction of our imaginations, a system of patterns and symbols with which we play as in a kind of game, but in our use of which we need not have any sobering sense of responsibility to a real world, and to a truth by which we and all we do will be held to account.
And perhaps most costly of all, the very liturgy of our churches is in danger of becoming another exercise in stifling introversion, instead of helping us - in Hocking's figure – ‘to break, through’ the ceilings of the little rooms in which we live, praising not ourselves but God for the life and world given to us, and committing ourselves to a good, both of, and also far beyond, our making.
These tendencies toward uncritical activism and extreme subjectivity are accompanied by a weakening of the religious imagination. I believe that we are in danger, today, of losing the very power to grasp or to affirm what some of life's larger dimensions are, what the intimations of experience point to, what the character of the Whole and of our relationship to it may well be. And, therefore, however energetic our action, however intense our feeling, however comprehensive our moral idealism, we find ourselves without the perspective and morale we need. The age-old religious questions about ultimate worth and destiny are still asked: "What shall we live for? Why should we bother?”, and too often we are without profound, fruitful answers to those questions. Or, to put it another way, we are falling to appreciate and use the farther reaching ideas, the imaginative language and symbols, the poetry, the mythos if you will, which - I believe - are available to us in this great age of ours, and through which alone we can adequately glimpse, affirm, celebrate, and respond to, the mystery, challenge and hope, of life.
John Wain, in a winter issue of The New Republic, reviewed a current French novel. What I have in mind is indicated in the very title of the review, Doing Away With Man. Wain writes that there are intellectuals today whose atheism impels them to a complete anti-humanism, a denial that there is any character or hope in the world or ultimately in men. He quotes another writer, Andre Malrais, as saying of the present mood:
There is in the human heart a feeling of ultimate powerlessness. What I mean is, whether you like it or not you are going to die. Whether you like it or not you are going to grow old and fall ill and so on. Everything in the human situation which does not depend on human beings is what I call this feeling of powerlessness, but it refuses to drown, even in whisky. It is much stronger than civilization, and we cannot face going on like this indefinitely. (1)
And Mr. Wain then comments:
There, in this mood of hopelessness speaks the modern mind, the mind that has finally accepted a life set against a background of death rather than against a background of eternity. If your basic feeling about life is that it is temporary, a stage on the way to something else, then you can face ‘going on like this indefinitely.’ If you even allow for a reverberating agnosticism, then human life remains, at least, an interesting mystery. If, on the other hand, you belong to a generation that has grown up with atheism, and never known anything else even imaginatively, then you will be” (with Besson, a character in the novel as the author describes him) "facing the fact of death with ‘a soft and agonized whimpering, the hoarse unhappy cry of gibbon, screaming without rhyme or reason at the onset of darkness. (1)
Our situation is also burdened with the presence of those whom I would call the wolves of our time.
For civilized, or semi-civilized men, the wolf has long been the symbolic predator, the untamed and untamable destroyer who accepts no responsibility for ordered life, but is always waiting – just outside the fenced field, the locked door, the tree lined road – to leap upon the shepherd’s flock, the peaceful ox, the unwary child, or the lonely traveler. Some are wolves in the reckless fury of their protest. In Scandinavian legend, we hear of the werewolves, who were originally human but have been so degraded and maddened by their poverty and despair that they have joined the wolf pack to pillage and destroy. There are those who are wolves in their exaggerated egotism: psychopaths who hit out in rage, against anything and anybody standing in their way; there are the wolves who exult in the sense of power which comes with their destroying of whatever others build and care about; there are the arrested juveniles out for kicks; there are the lightweight intellectuals who find it fun to play around with nihilistic ideas. Perhaps most numerous of all are the wolves who are, quite simply, intent upon exploiting financially, in our affluent society, the hypnotic fascination of the morbid, the violent, the obscene and the blasphemous.
I mention the wolves because I believe we need to be aware of them. Sometimes we sympathize with their snarling attacks upon the hypocrisies of our society. However, it is important that we should not make the mistake of thinking of them as our allies. The wolves I have in mind are quite as eager to destroy us as anyone else; their fury is directed against the most enlightened churches and social organizations as surely as against the Ku Klux Klan, the Communist – or the Republican Party, or the Pentagon! As liberals we cannot hope to be as exciting or as shocking as they can be. And there is a basic difference between them and us. We, too, are dissatisfied with life as it is.
However, we are dissatisfied not because, with the wolves, we see life and society as entirely evil; rather, we have found in life so much of good, of beauty, of promise, that – in contrast – we are indignant at all that is unjust and ugly. In men’s accumulating knowledge, developing skills of communication and organization, and in their latent capacities of empathy and goodwill, we see the means of dealing with evil. And we accept responsibility. Our slogan is not, "Let us, in hopelessness, devour each other," but, "Come, in hope, let us reason together.”
At this point, there is one fact about myself which, perhaps, I ought to let you know. I think that I have, imaginatively, a respectable endowment in the way of skeptical capacity. My father was a music teacher, and every Monday morning he left our St. Paul home for the Wisconsin towns where he taught three days of every week through more than thirty years. I can still remember how, as a boy of five or six years, watching through the window as my father took the street car for the railroad station, it occurred to me that perhaps he was not really going to Wisconsin at all; perhaps he, and the rest of the world, were engaged in some clever undertaking to deceive me; perhaps my father was getting off at the next corner and engaging in a business which, however respectable, did not really require him to deprive me of his much valued company for half the week. There is a passage in the writings of William James where he tells us how, standing one afternoon on the sidewalk at Harvard Square, Cambridge, there came over him a powerful feeling of the possibly unreality of it all; buildings, horses and carriages, street cars, people, the Square itself – all might be illusory fancies of his imagination. When I first read that passage I found myself entering sympathetically into Professor James’s feeling. However, while all this is true, I have never been able to ‘believe in’ these excursions of the skeptical imagination to the point where I have seriously doubted the essential trustworthiness of my physical senses, of the means of human communication, or of the larger world of which I am part. Even as I was wondering if my father were really taking the train on Monday mornings, my serious judgment said to me, "Of course he is.” I can imagine Harvard Square to be only a dream but the proposal is immediately thrown out of court by what is, for me, a basic common sense. You can now anticipate what this ‘given’ within my mind leads to religiously. Intellectually, I find myself quite able to ask the questions, "Is there meaning in life?” I can enter with a good deal of interest into theological arguments pro and con. I am quite prepared to admit, with Camus, that many aspects of experience appear absurd. However, all the time, something more powerful than my intellect keeps saying to me, "Of course there is meaning in life, and you know there is.” And under the judgment of that insistence I find myself compelled, at last, to be serious, and to accept religious even theological r4esponsibility. Most of you will remember that charming poem by Archibald MacLeish entitled The End of the World. When the top of the circus tent blows off, the performers and audience alike involuntarily look up toward the open sky. What do they see?
"There is the sudden blackness of the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing – nothing at all.”
Intellectually I am intrigued with the poem’s idea. "Does that idea, then, speak an ultimate truth about the world and life?” That seems to me as unpersuasive a question as it would be to ask if William James’s doubting of the reality of Harvard Square were valid. For me, truth begins with the basic affirmation of that 16th verse of the 21st Sura of the Islamic Koran:
"Not for idle sport did
We create the heaven and the earth
And all that is between!”
I am not claiming that this ‘given’ seriousness makes me in any sense superior to anyone. I am referring to it as a fact about myself, and, I believe, about the great majority of ordinary people, which it is important for us to keep in mind as we try to deal with the religious situation of our time, or any time. It is, indeed, difficult to glimpse what the meaning of life is; as men, we are always in some measure painfully mistaken in what we think that meaning is; and we find ourselves always falling short in our effort to live in accordance with that meaning. All the time, however, for most of us, the meaning is there; it is part of our human calling to try to glimpse it, and to try, as best we can, to muster the courage and wisdom to serve it.
There are many areas of experience and reflection to which I might refer as indicating that larger religious perspective from which we should be able to glimpse something of the meaning and hope of our age. Out of these many possibilities, let me select two which seem to me important and yet too commonly avoided by us.
The first of these examples has to do with those facts of experience which are indicated in our use of the words ‘person’ and ‘personal’: our assumption of that conscious, reflecting, initiating, changing and continuing center of awareness and identity in each of us which a child begins to have in mind when he learns to say "I” and "you”. The ministry of a church, we say, is in part a ministry to persons.
I wish to protest against what seems to me an intellectual, even theological, error of our time: our tendency to disparage the word ‘person’ and the ideas associated with it. We say that we do not believe in a personal God; we mean, I take it, that we cannot conceive of the Ultimate Creativity of life as characterized by all the oddities and limitations we associate with our own and other people’s human personalities. Certainly there is an egotistical attempt at chumminess with the Universe which the latter rebukes; there is a reticence in life’s response to our energy and curiosity, and even to our moral concern, which it is an obligation of an honest religion to help us recognize and respect.
I also wish, however, that we would more often reach beyond these obvious points to deal adequately with the astounding fact that life comes to us and to all men in such impressively personal fashion. This personal quality of experience is present even in many of those areas which we superficially assume to be most impersonal: for example, in the working of what we call natural laws. Every one of those ‘laws’, in that working, touches each of us directly. It is the universal operation of the force of gravitation which enables you and me to stand and walk. If a medicine helps an individual in a distant part of the world to recover from a certain illness, in all probability that medicine will help me recover from that same kind of illness here where I am. Life has come to an almost infinite number and variety of creatures, but that fact does not lessen the reality and mystery of its coming to you. There have been millions of human parents before me, yet the birth of my child is for me a unique and wonderful event.
There is this same personal quality about the moral experience. The call to honesty and compassion does not float about in the atmosphere as kind of sky-writing. No, the demand comes to each of us as an individual. Said Nathan to David, "Thou art the man.” So the moral appeal always speaks in the second person: "You, John Jones, have the obligation and ability to do justly and to love mercy.”
It is clear that, historically, great religions have shown an increasing appreciation of the personal quality of human life. Athene, as the ancient goddess of Athens, drew its citizens into a self-forgetting service of the city-state; however, there also arose the Eleusinian mysteries which assured to the individual Athenian his dignity and destiny as a person. The New Testament reverberates with its appeal for the Church; and also with the question, "What shall I do to be saved?” There is not only a social challenge, but also a theological challenge, in the affirmation on the sign carried by the poor man in his march, "I am somebody.”
What are you and I, as liberals, going to do with this personal aspect of experience? Like consciousness, it constitutes a good deal of headache for all those who try to describe and explain human life on a lesser, impersonal level. I feel that it is part of our responsibility – and opportunity- to resist all such reductionism; to insist that, in our thinking about the human situation, in our hoping about it, we shall take fully into account, and always do justice to, its personal aspect. To affirm the dignity of man must involve a persuasive and adequate affirmation of the dignity, responsibility, and destiny, of individual men.
In this personal quality of experience there is, I believe, an indication of an important part of what life is about; one of the things life does is to afford opportunity for persons to be, and to grow in the quality of their being. The great classics have asserted that life is, in part, a search for that aspect of quality in being which we call wisdom. In Sophocles’ Antigone, King Creon’s suffering is required for his enlightenment as a man in relationship with a divine world. The final words of the chorus are:
"Great blows, great speeches, avenging,
Teach men wisdom, in age, at last.” (2)
There is an intimation of the significance of persons and personal growth in Alfred North Whitehead’s writings. I am not a scholar in the understanding of Whitehead’s philosophy, but I do wish to refer to the one occasion when I came directly under his influence. It was in the 1920s, while I was minister of the Harvard Street Church in Cambridge. Professor Whitehead accepted an invitation of the Phillips Brooks House Association to speak on a Sunday afternoon; if I remember correctly it was either Easter or a Sunday near Easter. The modes-sized auditorium was filled to the last seat; I watched and listened from one of the back rows. What did Professor Whitehead do? He read to us sections from the least chapter of his not-yet published major philosophical work, Process and Reality; sections, in the chapter on "God and the World”, concerned with the consequent nature of God: an aspect of Whitehead’s philosophy not always accorded much attention. That Whitehead regarded these sections as important was indicated by both his selection of them for the occasion, and also by the impressive, unforgettable care with which he read them. Let me remind you of a Few sentences:
"The perfection of God’s subjective aim, derived from the completeness of his primordial nature, issues into the character of his consequent nature. In it there is no loss, no obstruction……
"The wisdom of subjective aim prehends every actuality for what it can be in such a perfected system – its sufferings, its sorrows, its failures, its triumphs, its immediacies of joy – woven by rightness of feeling into the harmony of the universal feeling, which is always immediate, always many, always one, always with novel advance, moving onward and never perishing. The revolts of destructive evil, purely, self-regarding, are dismissed into their triviality of merely individual facts; and yet the good they did achieve in individual joy, in individual sorrow, in the introduction of needed contrast, is yet saved by its relation to the completed whole. The image- and it is but an image – the image, under which this operative growth of God’s nature is best conceived, is that of a tender care that nothing be lost.
"The consequent nature of God is his judgment on the world. He saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of hi own life. It is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved. It is also the judgment of a wisdom which uses what in the temporal world is mere wreckage.
"… (God) is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty and goodness.” (3)
It seems to me that, in these passages, there is an affirmation of the meaningful relationship of every particular actuality with the Whole; the intimation, therefore, that the individual person, as one instance of such actuality, shares in the subjective aim, the concern and meaning, of that Whole.
Thinking now, not of Whitehead primarily, but of all our experience, in so many ways and directions, of the importance of personal being and growth, we may ask: Does this emphasis appear to call, in agreement with the older religious tradition, for some notion of immortality? It seems to me that it does. I believe that it calls for some notion of personal immortality. Nor am I willing to have this suggestion carelessly shunted aside as merely an expression of an egotistical and reprehensible hankering after survival. I would suggest, to the contrary, that it can be a temptation of egotism to accept uncritically the idea of extinction with its comfortable release from all further involvement and responsibility. Perhaps you saw the cartoon showing a man, awakened by his alarm clock, drowsily pulling himself out of bed, looking through the window, and saying with a deep sigh? "Darn it! It looks like it’s going to be another day.” One of the devil’s allies is boredom, weariness. "Stop the world; I want to get off.” As though the nature of ultimate reality is determined either by our wishful thinking or by our indolence. In this highly speculative area I am not proposing any detailed definition. What I am urging is that, in our imaginative interpretation of reality you and I ought not to shut any door until we are confident that there is nothing beyond it; we must be very careful not to sell life short. I feel that our profoundest insights point toward some such notion as this: that, in our living, you and I, and other men, are participating in a venture not less but greater in its reach than our imaginations are able to grasp; that the Judeo-Christian and many other religious traditions are adumbrating something important and true when they affirm that, even in the fact of death, the call of the spirit is to look ahead; that the setting of the stage on which we act our parts is nothing less than what we try to symbolize as The External, involving both quality in the present moment, and the aspect of value which William Ernest Hocking calls duration.
Now I wish to turn our attention to another area of fact and thought, familiar enough to all of us, but which again, it seems to me, should be more influential among us and in our time than it is. What I have in mind is the idea of Evolution.
This idea surely has connections with older Jewish and Christian ideology. The Hebrew prophets spoke of a Kingdom of Heaven in the future. Christians anticipated a Second Coming fulfilling the hope of the First. John wrote, "I saw a new heaven and a new earth.”
What occurred in the 19th century? The discovery, in the fields of the geological and biological sciences, of the significance of time in the natural world, as having provided opportunity for meaningful chance in the past, and as providing opportunity for further meaningful chance in the future. Evolution came to us as the story of the development of life forms from the simple, single protoplasmic cell to the complicated organisms of the higher animals and man.
What has happened to this idea in our century? It has been broadened, by physics and chemistry and astronomy, into the story, not only of life, but of all matter: the story of the development of the simplest of all atoms- hydrogen, with its one nucleus and one electron, changing into the more complicated atomic elements having properties as different from hydrogen, and from each other, as oxygen and iron and sulphur and sodium and gold. The story is the story of how these atoms combined into an almost inconceivable variety of molecules into crystals, others into the complex proteins which opened the way for the appearance of life. Today, when you and I try to envision our inheritance, we find ourselves thinking back, not only to the first living cell, but, far beyond that, to the first hydrogen atom in space itself. The journey traveled is now seen to have been much longer, and more mysterious, than the 19th century scientists grasped. And more clearly than ever we see it as one story.
What disturbs me is a tendency, in many intellectual and theological circles today, to disparage and even ignore this idea of evolution as religiously irrelevant. I would urge that this idea, reporting ways in which the Larger Creativity has operated and is operating, should be of great moment to us as religious persons. In his theological courses at the Harvard Divinity School, Professor William Wallace Fenn laid unforgettable emphasis upon that perspective which is made possible by the concept of evolution. "We think of humanity”, he said, "as a growing, developing organism, at a certain stage of which we, as individuals exist.” (4)
Of course the idea of evolution can be misinterpreted. It can be pictured as a process of automatic escalation upon which you and I are being lifted onward and upward without our effort. It can serve as an excuse for moral laziness. "Yes”, we may say, "there are horrible injustices in the world; but eventually they will be remedied. Meanwhile, we can feel free to enjoy our good fortune in being among the more privileged members of society as it is now…. Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow justice will come.”
It was Whitehead, was it no, who warned of the ever present danger that religion will serve as the pleasant embellishment of a comfortable life?
Actually, I do not see that the idea of evolution necessarily suggests either ease or passivity. To quote Professor Fenn again, evolution discloses man as "spiritually… the fruit of the cosmic striving.” (4)
Have we any reason to assume that it was easy for the hydrogen atom to become the protein molecule? Nature did take billions of years to lift the amoeba to man. The impression made upon many of us by the story of evolution is that of astounding energy, perseverance, and will. Who, then, suggest that it is going to be easy for us in the 20th and 21st centuries to realize the higher levels of human relationship which evolution proposes as possible? There is, indeed, the danger that we shall not respond to the invitation and opportunity. A Dutch Catholic theologian, who takes evolution into account, asserts that here is that original sin to which we are all of us heirs, and which threatens us and our society with damnation: the sin, not of Adam’s past transgression in the Garden of Eden, but of our present betrayal of the future, our resistance to that rational and moral effort through which alone the spirit can realize its aims and hopes.
There is, however, another danger that we shall succumb, not to pride or over-optimism, but to boredom or, more terribly, to cynicism and despair. What the wolves are continually shouting is that there is no far-reaching opportunity before us at all. They insist that, as men, we are caught in a dead-end, like rats in a cage; from within we are driven by blind instincts and illusory fancies; surrounding us are the insurmountable walls of frustration, futility and death. From this dead-end, there is no exit, no escape. Thus doomed, there is nothing really worth our doing, nothing meriting our serious concern. So, our cry of desperation reverts to its older, original form, "Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
The idea of evolution challenges this despair. Denying the analogy of the dead-end, it discloses the world about us as a stage upon which is most impressive drama has been and is being played. Already matter and life have changed significantly. Nor is the drama ended. "We are in the making still.” The intimation of the past is that further realization lies ahead, the character of which we, when we are at our best, are able in some measure to envision, and the anticipated glory of which adds incalculably to the worth of our present choosing and effort. It is notable how stimulating upon the forward-looking imagination the evolutionary idea can be. In his autobiography, And Gladly Teach, the late Professor Bliss Perry, of Harvard, tells us that one of the most eloquent addresses he heard during his life was, "a monologue by Bergson” (addressed to an astounded luncheon table in Washington) "on the ultimate goal of evolution.” (5)
One deeply serious threat of our time, before which it is easy to become pessimistic, is that of the deeply-rooted aggressiveness which shows itself in the recurring hostility of men toward each other: most frighteningly evident today in racism, in the nationalism which still exalts war, and in other forms of personal and group violence. There beats upon our ears the refrain: "This aggressiveness is part of human nature, and human nature does not change.” The clearest of all rebukes to this pessimism comes in the evolutionary story with its overwhelming evidence that life has already changed and the Nature itself is a process of change.
Therefore, it seems to me, such a writer a Konrad Lorenz performs an important service when he helps us see the facts of aggression in evolutionary perspective. Species – and so, too tribes, races, cities, nations – in order to survive, have had to be capable of unhesitating, united effective action against any external enemy. What has happened in our time, is that racial and national aggressiveness has gotten out-of-hand; has become, in the forms of its expression a threat to the very survival of human life. It is essential, then, that aggression shall be restrained, channeled, deflected, sublimated, if you will. The evolutionary perspective encourages a confidence that this can be done. It encourages the understanding that significant change is possible in human nature. And it encourages an awareness of the fact that such change is not a matter of our pulling ourselves up entirely by our own bootstraps. The larger Process of which we are part is also concerned. Dr. Lorenz, out of his acquaintance with the past story of life, is able to affirm his confidence that what he calls "the great constructors of evolution, in the not too distant future, will endow our descendants with the faculty of fulfilling the greatest and most beautiful of all commandments” (6) that is, with the ability to transmute aggressive energy into life-sustaining and society-building cooperation.
You can understand why I am among the many who are grateful today to the French paleontologist and mystic, Teilhard de Chardin. He is, for me, the religious teacher of our time who incorporates most effectively into his thinking and writing the evolutionary perspective and hope. He is, in this sense, a worthy successor to Bergson and an important addition to Whitehead. With his basic understanding of science and his remarkable power of language, he enables even the ordinary reader like myself to see more accurately what the story of evolution really tells us; practiced in research yet not lost in its details, he helps such a reader recognize certain especially significant facts: that there has been change in matter, in the world, in life; that, in this change, there has appeared an order of development in relation to time; that this order or direction of change has moved toward more and more elaborate physical, chemical, and biological units, increasingly capable, through that elaboration – or, as he would say, complexification – of an ever broader range of activity, reaching now to men’s capacity for reflective thought, sympathetic feeling, purposeful choice and organization. De Chardin believes that our knowledge of what has taken place in the past enables us to anticipate something of the direction of further possible development. Let me quote two brief passages:
(From The Vision of the Past). "Continue to consider man an accidental outgrowth or toy in the world of things, and you drive him to disgust. Recognize, on the other hand, that in the realm of our experience, man, because he is the advancing front of one of the two most enormous waves into which tangible reality is for us divided, holds the fate of the universe in his hands; and you turn his face towards the great rising sun.” (7)
(From The Future of Man). "Let us look with open minds at the new world being born around us. Disregarding the superficial chaos which prevents us from seeing clearly, probing beneath the shapeless disorder that so, dismays us, let us try to take the pulse and temperature of Earth. If we have any power of vision we are bound to recognize that the ills which so afflict us are above all growing pains. What looks like no more than a hope for material well-being is in reality a hunger for higher being: it is the spirit of Mankind suddenly alive with the sense of all that remains to be done if it is to achieve the fulfillment of its powers and possibilities.” (8)
In conclusion, I would reinforce these suggestions of what are, for me, important intimations of life’s meaning, by referring to the older Norse mythology, set forth in those medieval Icelandic classics which, I would maintain, are part of the world’s significant religious literature. My interest in these writings is not merely a result of my Scandinavian blood! Njal’s Saga, for example, presents a vivid account of the painfully slow, repeatedly frustrated efforts of sensitive men in the Icelandic community of the 10th to 12th centuries, to break away from a society of private vengeance and prolonged family feuds, and establish a higher culture of reason and order. One such man was Njal, whose persevering efforts ended apparently fruitlessly in the senseless violence of his sons and the tragedy of his own death. Over and over again Njal had repeated to the people that ancient Scandinavian motto which, centuries later, Dag Hammarskjöld read over the portal of the Swedish University at which he studied: "By lawlessness our nation shall be destroyed; by law it will be built up.” (9)
Actually, those efforts of Njal and of others like him were not fruitless. Today, only some seven centuries after that age of the marauding Vikings, Iceland and the other Scandinavian countries are among the most rational and law-abiding of nations. Here is an example of what evolution, in terms of human effort and progress, can mean.
Another Icelandic classic is the medieval poem Voluspo in the Poetic Edda. An Icelandic Unitarian minister once told me that, in his youth, it was considered important for a child to become acquainted first with the Eddas, and then with the Gospels. We are reminded of Maude Royden, the British preacher, who advised that a man should learn to be a good pagan before setting out on the demanding enterprise of becoming a Christian. In Voluspo, Odin, chief of the gods, calls a wise-woman from the grave to tell him the destiny of all things including both men and gods. First, the woman recounts the story of what has already happened: how the gods came to occupy Valhalla, and how men were created, Odin is much interested in this account, but is not satisfied with it. He presses the woman to go on; so she foretells what is to come: nothing less than the Gotterdammerung, the destruction of the whole world and the heavens.
We can, I think, relate this myth to the medieval Norse experience. For men of that time, human life and culture were obviously fragile. Each settlement of farmers, or fisher folk, was but a small circle or islet surrounded, both from without – and from within – by untamed chaos ever threatening to engulf and destroy it. The human venture was the attempt to survive, to create and enlarge a holm or home of security, an island of order where men could grow their crops, raise their herds, live from generation to generation.
It is important to note that, in the myth, in this unceasing struggle against chaos, men are not depicted as alone; the gods are with them, fighting on their side. Why has the name, Thor, been for centuries a favorite among Scandinavians? Because, in the old mythology, Thor is the ever dependable friend of man, ceaselessly holding back with his thunderbolts the giants of chaos ever straining to break out of their prison. In one place we are told of how Odin relinquished his divine dignity for a time, and even endangered his existence. Why? In order to discover for men the secret of language; to gain for them the advantage of a mastery over words, the ability to write and read, to create and carry on a literature and a recorded history.
The darker, apprehensive realism of the Norse mind showed itself in an acceptance of the precariousness of life and civilization. Will men, even with the help of the gods, always be able to hold back those giants of unreason and destruction? The wise-woman in Voluspo corroborates Odin’s worst fears. Yes, the day of destruction will come.
Now Garm howls loud before Gnipahellir,
The fetters will burst and the wolf run free;
Brothers shall fight and fell each other;
And sisters’ sons shall kinship stain,
Hard is it on earth, with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword time, shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, are the world falls;
The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea,
The hot stars down from heaven are whirled;
Fierce grows the steam and the life-feeding flame,
Till fire leaps high about heaven itself. (10)
Still, however, Odin – terrified as he is by what has been foretold – finds his curiosity getting the better of his fear. "And what”, he asks, "will come after that?” The wise-woman feels that she has already really earned her pay. Nevertheless, at last she gives in to Odin’s plea and discloses to him a further vision – that vision of ultimate hope without which neither men nor gods can live. A new heaven and a new earth will be born.
Now do I see the earth anew
Rise all green from the waves again;
The cataracts fall, and the eagle flies,
And the fish he catches beneath the cliffs.
In wondrous beauty once again
Shall the golden tables stand amid the grass,
Which the gods had owned in the days of old;
Then fields unsowed bear ripened fruit,
All ills grow better and Baldur comes back;
And the mighty gods: would you know yet more?
More fair than the sun a hall I see,
Roofed with gold, on Gimle it stands;
There shall the righteous rulers dwell,
And happiness ever there shall they have. (10)
There is one considerable difference between the old Norse thought and ours. We do not believe that the future is predetermined. And so, for us, the Gotterdammerung threatens, but is not inevitable. It is not fated that the hydrogen bomb shall fall.
In other respects, the Norse mythology seems to me relevant for us and even susceptible to association with the idea of evolution. For us, too, the venture of life involves risk; civilization is precarious; the dangers are great; the stakes are high. Also, the challenge to us as men is direct and demanding. We are called to deal, heroically, compassionately, perseveringly, with all that is irrational and destructive; we are called to grow, as persons and as society, in the Norse virtues of wisdom, courage and justice. And, finally the challenge is more than a fancy of our creating; it comes to us: comes to us from a world which is itself concerned. The evidence of that larger concern is, in part, in evolution: in all that evolution has brought forth, in the energy, order richness, and beauty of the Creation; and in all that it voices in the consciousness, curiosity and longing of our own natures at their best. What religion means, in our age – in every age – is awareness of that challenge, and response to it.
Or, to move on to the still more profound Jewish and Christian symbolism and language. You and I are not flotsam and jetsam tossed about in a meaningless storm. We are children called to enter into a noble inheritance, and to share in a great hope; invited to become fellow-workers, fellow-builders, with our brothers, with Martineau’s ‘summit minds’, Isaiah and the Buddha and Jesus, and with God, the Father of us all.
Sources of Quotations
1. Review by John Wain of "The Flood”, (a novel by J.M.G. LeClezio) in The New Republic, January 27, 1968.
2. Sophocles, translation by Lewis Campbell, The world Classics CXVI, Oxford University Press, 1906.
3. Process and Reality by A.N. Whitehead, MacMillan Company, 1929.
4. From manuscript notes, of lectures on Theism by W.W. Fenn, courtesy of Dan Huntington Fenn.
5. And Gladly Teach by Bliss Perry, Houghton, Mifflin Company, 1935.
6. On Aggression by Konrad Lorenz, English translation, Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966.
7. The Vision of the Past by Teilhard de Chardin, English translation, Harper and Row, 1966.
8. The Future of Man by de Chardin, Harper and Row, 1964.
9. Njal’s Saga, English translation by Bayerschmidt and Hollander, New York University Press, 1955.
10.The Poetic Edda, translation by H.A. Bellows, American Scandinavian Foundation, 1957.