Face to face with death, all our argument `about it and about' seems curiously beside the point.
The mode of any future life we can only think of in metaphor-and no metaphor is likely to suggest a picture of that life even approximately correct. Yet the alternative--extinction or continued life-is a real one; and, however difficult it may be to make a decision in regard to it, such decision concerns a matter of fact.
The fact is important, not merely on account of human shrinking from an unknown future or the bitterness of bereavement, but mainly for its bearing on the eternal reality of ideal values.
The traditional mythology of the future life is obsolete; but unless the whole argument of this book is fallacious, life is of the enduring substance of Reality.
The life of the future to be conceived in terms of quality, not locality, as a continuation in enhanced form of the highest life known on earth.
The fact that life is essentially a principle of individuation favours the hypothesis that life endures, not merely in its universal, but also in its individual, manifestation.
Criticism of the idea that there is no loss of value if the individual perishes, so long as the Infinite Life goes on. It is not a question of man's desire for immortality; God-if He be really our Father, indeed unless He is actually morally inferior to man-cannot permit His children to perish.
A decision as to the moral quality of ultimate Reality is involved. Therefore the question must be considered from the standpoint of God's greatness, not from that of human littleness or doubt.
1 Reprinted by permission (with some amplification) from the Nineteenth Century and After.
To stand looking at a human frame from which life has just departed is to feel the futility . of those elaborate arguments about the Immortality of the Soul-for and against it-in which most of us some time or other have taken part. Face to face with the fact of death, they seem quite curiously beside the point. We are up against an Unknown which baffles our accustomed method of analysis and exploration. We have thought, we have listened, and we have talked about this thingbut when the thing itself is before our eyes, if anything at all of this comes back to us, it will be one or other of the old familiar metaphors.
According to our mood, or even, it may be, according to the expression on the features of the dead, these rise before our fancy. That loving, living, enchanting something that has gone, what is its connexion with this other cold, still, decaying mass that is left behind ? Is it the melody of the lute, gone for ever when the strings are broken ? Or are we gazing on the empty cover of a chrysalis, whose tenant, transformed into some new and glorious mode, is enjoying even now, unseen by us, ` a larger nether, a sublimer air' ? Was that lively something, which seems to have departed, nothing but the visible manifestation of some material process which has now ceased-the flame of a candle that has been blown out ? Or has our brother `fallen asleep 'a sleep the more refreshing because so deep-to wake again to welcoming faces of the dear ones who have gone before, in that far country where the great and good of all the ages dwell in eternal bliss ?
Metaphors these-guesses, if you like-but the alternatives which they present to the mind are real. No mental picture we can frame of any life beyond the present is likely to be even approximately a correct image of the reality. But, under whatever metaphor or symbol we may envisage it, the alternative between extinction and continued existence is one which belongs to the realm of fact. The fact, like many other matters of fact, may be difficult to determine, but fact there must be. Suppose a man brought up for trial for murder. The evidence of the witnesses may be conflicting; the arguments of the opposing counsel may seem of nearly equal weight; but the man either did or did not commit the crime. Fact is none the less fact because it happens to be hard to ascertain. And, difficult as it may be to strike the balance of argument on either side, the continuance or the reverse of life beyond the grave is in the last resort not a matter of opinion, but of fact.
And it is a fact the knowledge of which is of more practical importance to man than any other one thing.
And ah, to know not, while with friends I sit,
And while the purple joy is passed about,
Whether 'tis ampler day divinelier lit,
Or homeless night without;
And whether, stepping forth, my soul shall see
New prospects, or fall sheer-a blinded thing
There is, 0 grave, thy hourly victory,
And there, 0 death, thy sting.
But it is not merely the apprehension of an unknown future voiced in these well-known lines ; it is not even though that counts for much more-the bitterness of bereavement and the passionate desire for reunion with our beloved that makes the question of a future life the one all-important fact. It is the feeling that if this life is really all, then the best and noblest things in life are not really what they seem-they, too, become matters of opinion. Most of us instinctively approve a decent, honourable way of life. Most of us also prefer clean linen to dirty. But, when clean linen cannot conveniently be got, some will put themselves about a good deal, others not so much, to overcome the difficulty. This, we allow, is a matter of individual taste. But is our preference for high and honourable living no more than that ? Is the rightness of the right, the nobility of heroic effort, just a thing like clean linen, about which some people are perhaps a shade too faddy, others a good deal too slack ? Is that perfect harmony of mutual love, sympathy and help, which is sometimes realised between human souls, to be valued merely as a source of pleasure more invigorating than champagne, and as a means of comfort and convenience more comprehensive and more soothing than a good arm-chair ? Or are we to say that duty, heroism, love, are windows through which from time to time we glimpse something of eternal value something which is not a matter of opinion, but is deeply rooted in the ultimate Reality, something which makes worth while the sacrifice, the toil and moil, the constant stumbling and the never-ending struggle to arise ?
This question is quite fundamental; but it is not one of those which can be settled by argument. If any one chooses to say that the answer we give to it is a ` matter of taste ', all that can be done in reply is to insist that the taste involved is different in kind from that which decides on the question of clean linen or between the comparative merits of two French dishes. In the language of everyday life the distinction is expressed by saying that it is a matter, not of taste, but of character. In argument it is difficult to put it that way without either seeming pharisaical or being guilty of discourtesy. Hence it is a point on which argument is best avoided; but every student of human nature knows that the fundamental difference of quality between people consists, not so much in what they do that is largely a matter of environment and circumstance-but in whether, at the bottom of their hearts, they consider things like honour, love and duty to be a `matter of taste' or something more. But-and here is the vital consideration-is it easy, either to account for this difference of outlook or to justify the nobler choice, if this life is all ?
No doubt at the present day many of those whose whole heart, mind and life goes out to an emphatic affirmation of the worthwhileness and the supremacy of these higher things, question or deny a future life. But it will, I think, be found with most of these that their very denial is a result of the passionate character of their idealism-a false deduction, I would submit, from premises that are high and true.
To some the affirmation of a future life means an association with the nobler choice of the idea of reward and punishment; and this seems to detract from its moral value. Antigone defying the tyrant with no hope of immortality, is surely, they say, a nobler figure than St. Perpetua doing the same thing, convinced that she is meriting thereby eternal bliss. This may be conceded; but the question, as it seems to me, is not how best to form a kind of ' class list' of heroic spirits, but how we are to `make sense ' of a Universe capable of producing such, and then letting them perish out of existence for evermore.
There are others who, having been brought up in a more or less literal acceptance of the traditional ideas of heaven and hell, scornfully reject them, as not only trivial but immoral.
The mind of man [wrote Clutton-Brock] is at the present day suffering from a nervous shock caused by his past failures to conceive of a future state. A burnt child dreads the fire ; and the mind of man has been burnt by the fires of his own imagined Hell. So he flinches from the peril of any more conceiving.
That is the real difficulty. The old mythology of a future state is grotesquely unconvincing; and men hesitate to frame a new one. Yet unless the whole argument of this book is off the track, life is of the enduring substance of Reality. Matter is, as it were, a precipitate of life. Life is the artist ; matter is the clay. But life is essentially that which eludes the method of scientific knowledge ; its nature can only be expressed by the methods of art-by metaphor or myth. It is, then, a myth that we lack, a way of conceiving of life in the Beyond; for believing that life endures, we have good grounds.
I have attempted elsewhere 1( In two essays in Immortality. (Macmillan, 1917.) to frame a new' myth', or, perhaps I should say, to present a mental picture congruous with modern thought of the mode and character of life in the Beyond. I do not propose to reproduce this here ; I would, however, recall that close connexion between the idea of quality and that of life which has so often recurred in the foregoing chapters. It may well be that place, as well as time, has a meaning in the life of the Beyond; nevertheless the essential feature in any ` myth ' which aspires to be a valid representation of a future life, must be the conceiving of that life in terms of quality rather than of locality. This idea is already found, implicitly, in the Fourth Gospel. At any rate its author is at pains to criticise the picture thinking of contemporary religion in regard to its conception of the Judgement as a Great Assize ; again he always speaks of Eternal Life as something which at least in part can be enjoyed here and now. Clearly he thinks of the Beyond in terms, not of place (or not mainly of place), but of quality of life. I have argued above that life of the quality manifested in the soul of Christ, that is, the highest life we know, is for us in this world a mirror of the creative life of God ; if so, all human life as it approximates to that same quality must be a mirror of the life of Heaven. What we know here as love, joy, peace, constructive work, the vision of beauty-humour, too, I would add-are the pattern by which to frame our conception of that other richer life. But if the highest life we know on earth is no mere shadow, but is of the very substance of that which is to come, yet it is still only an earnest and a foretaste. There must remain heights and possibilities yet unexplored. ` Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.'
But, some one will say, it is the Infinite Life that endures ; you and I are but the waves which, after a moment of seemingly individual existence, sink back into the boundless sea-the wave is but a ripple, it is the ocean that endures. Of course the individual life is bound up with, and is part of, the larger Life ; but that Life is not to be envisaged as an ocean, as a sort of pool of vital fluid-that fallacy I have already dealt with (p. 90). Life is alive; and whenever it manifests itself it is as an individualising principle. If we must think in metaphors-or rather because we inevitably so think-let us be careful to choose the least misleading. Let us not liken life to something lifeless a pool or a fluid-but to something creative and alive. We may, perhaps, picture the individual life as a youthful musician, the body as his first violin-good enough to learn to play on, but to be discarded for something better later on.
There (1-1 The next two paragraphs are transcribed from one of my essays in Immortality.) are who urge that what we love is only that element in our friends which is Divine and eternal, and that, therefore, it will suffice if we think of this element only in them as destined to survive-and that only as part of the infinite Divine life to be manifested again in higher achievements of personal existence.
Whether [writes Mr. H. G. Wells in God the Invisible King] we live for ever or die to-morrow does not affect righteousness. Many people seem to find the prospect of a final personal death unendurable. This impresses me as egotism. I have no such appetite for a separate immortality; what, of me, is identified with God, is God; what is not, is of no more permanent value than the snows of yester-year.
There is a note of idealism here ; but is it really true to say that `it does not affect righteousness' whether we live for ever or die tomorrow ? For, if the Divine righteousness may lightly ` scrap ' the individual, human righteousness may do the same. The most conspicuous mark of the moral level of any community is the value it sets on human personality. Readiness to sacrifice his own life for others may be a measure of the moral achievement of the individual, but the moral height of a society is shown by its reluctance to sacrifice even its least worthy members. The disinterestedness which is content with a Universe in which his own ego will soon cease to be, is much to the credit of Mr. Wells; it would not be to God's credit were He equally content.
That seems to me to be the point. In the last resort, it is not a question of what we personally would be content with for ourselves, or what opinions we entertain as to our own individual value. It is what the Universe is worth. What can we say of It, or the Power behind It, if It treats the individuality of heroic souls like oystershells at a banquet, whisked from the table to make room for the next course ? It is all very well to talk of love and right and eternal values as things worth while for their own sake. These things are not self-subsistent; they are only names we give to qualities and experiences apprehended by conscious mindsour minds at any rate, and, if there be a God, by His. But if there be no God, and if we who see and feel these values are only creatures of a day, somehow they shrink into pathetic aspirations. Values shrivel unless they are recognised as such by some Immortal Being.
Christ taught man to think of God as the All-Father. But He has done something else. By His life and character Christ has compelled us to make the choice between a practical atheism and a thought of God as being at least as good as Christ Himself. If the Universe is the product of blind mechanical energy, or even of some half-conscious Life-force, then the heart and mind of Jesus is just a happy accident; it is merely the most remarkable of all the unexpected by-products cast up by the evolutionary process in its age-long aimless track. But if there is a purpose behind it all, then that life and character are not to be explained as accidents. They are an evidence of what the Creative Mind that wills it all is on occasion capable of producing. But no creative mind can produce something higher and nobler than itself. Therefore the emergence on the plane of history of the man Jesus forces thought to a decision. Either no purpose controls the universe at all and there is no God, or else that purpose is as noble, that mind has thoughts as high, as the purpose and the mind of Christ.
I must make my choice. There are things which make it hard to believe in a living, loving God. But reflection shows that it is harder still to accept the paradox that all is accident. I make my choice. What follows ? ` If ye then being evil know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more your heavenly Father.' If a human parent would not allow the extinction of a cherished child, is God likely to consent to such a thing ? If a reasonably good employer hates to regard his workmen simply as ` hands ', as mere instruments for working out his purpose, are God's thoughts less than his ? If a general loves the men whom at times he is compelled to treat as ' cannon-fodder' incidental to the attainment of a larger end, will God care less ? Will He be content to treat a living personality like a rocket which, once its cascade of stars has been displayed, has fulfilled its function and falls back unregarded into the surrounding gloom ?
In the belief in immortality the rationality of the Universe is at stake. By our decision as to this the quality of Reality is finally appraised. If there is a God at all, we are His children, and He must care for us. If we believe in God at all, it is not sentiment, nor self-deluded hope, it is the coldest logic, that compels us to approach the question of a future life from the standpoint of His greatness, not from that of our littleness and weariness, our doubts and our despair. ` The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God ',-and we may be content to leave them there.
Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.
There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void
Thou-Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.
|Chapter 9||Table of Contents||List of Books|