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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Malady of Modern Doubt
By Henry van Dyke (1852–1933)
 
From ‘The Gospel for an Age of Doubt’

BUT why despair, unless indeed because man, in his very nature and inmost essence, is framed for an immortal hope? No other creature is filled with disgust and anger by the mere recognition of its own environment, and the realization of its own destiny. This strange issue of a purely physical evolution in a profound revolt against itself is incredibly miraculous. Can a vast universe of atoms and ether, unfolding out of darkness into darkness, produce at some point in its progress, and that point apparently the highest, a feeling of profound disappointment with its partially discovered processes, and resentful grief at its dimly foreseen end? To believe this would require a monstrous credulity. Agnosticism evades it. There are but two solutions which really face the facts. One is the black, unspeakable creed, that the source of all things is an unknown, mocking, malignant power, whose last and most cruel jest is the misery of disenchanted man. The other is the hopeful creed, that the very pain which man suffers when his spiritual nature is denied is proof that it exists, and part of the discipline by which a truthful, loving God would lead man to Himself. Let the world judge which is the more reasonable faith. But for our part, while we cling to the creed of hope, let us not fail to “cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt,” and see in the very shadow that it casts, the evidence of a light behind and above it. Let us learn the meaning of that noble word of St. Augustine: “Thou hast made us for thyself; and unquiet is our heart until it rests in thee.”  1
  Yes, the inquietude of the heart which doubt has robbed of its faith in God is an evidence that skepticism is a malady, not a normal state. The sadness of our times under the pressure of positive disbelief and negative uncertainty has in it the “promise and potency” of a return to health and happiness. Already we can see, if we look with clear eyes, the signs of what I have dared to call “the reaction out of the heart of a doubting age towards the Christianity of Christ, and the faith in Immortal Love.”  2
  Pagan poets, full of melancholy beauty and vague regret for lost ideals, poets of decadence and despondence, the age has borne to sing its grief and gloom. But its two great singers, Tennyson and Browning, strike a clearer note of returning faith and hope. “They resume the quest; and do not pause until they find Him whom they seek.” Pessimists like Hartmann work back unconsciously, from the vague remoteness of pantheism, far in the direction, at least, of a theistic view of the universe. His later books—‘Religionsphilosophie’ and ‘Selbstersetzung des Christenthums’—breathe a different spirit from his ‘Philosophie des Unbewussten.’ One of the most cautious of our younger students of philosophy has noted with care, in a recent article, the indications that “the era of doubt is drawing to a close.” A statesman like Signor Crispi does not hesitate to cut loose from his former atheistic connections, and declare that “The belief in God is the fundamental basis of the healthy life of the people; while atheism puts in it the germ of an irreparable decay.” The French critic, M. Édouard Rod, declares that “Only religion can regulate at the same time human thought and human action.” Mr. Benjamin Kidd, from the side of English sociology, assures us that “Since man became a social creature, the development of his intellectual character has become subordinate to the development of his religious character;” and concludes that religion affords the only permanent sanction for progress. A famous biologist, Romanes, who once professed the most absolute rejection of revealed, and the most unqualified skepticism of natural, religion, thinks his way soberly back from the painful void to a position where he confesses that “it is reasonable to be a Christian believer,” and dies in the full communion of the church of Jesus.  3
  All along the line, we see men who once thought it necessary or desirable to abandon forever the soul’s abode of faith in the unseen, returning by many and devious ways from the far country of doubt, driven by homesickness and hunger to seek some path which shall at least bring them in sight of a Father’s house.  4
  And meanwhile we hear the conscience, the ethical instinct of mankind, asserting itself with splendid courage and patience, even in those who have as yet found no sure ground for it to stand upon. There is a sublime contradiction between the positivist’s view of man as “the hero of a lamentable drama played in an obscure corner of the universe, in virtue of blind laws, before an indifferent nature, and with annihilation for its dénouement,” and the doctrine that it is his supreme duty to sacrifice himself for the good of humanity. Yet many of the skeptical thinkers of the age do not stumble at the contradiction. They hold fast to love and justice and moral enthusiasm, even though they suspect that they themselves are the products of a nature which is blind and dumb and heartless and stupid. Never have the obligations of self-restraint, and helpfulness, and equity, and universal brotherhood been preached more fervently than by some of the English agnostics.  5
  In France a new crusade has risen; a crusade which seeks to gather into its hosts men of all creeds, and men of none, and which proclaims as its object the recovery of the sacred places of man’s spiritual life, the holy land in which virtue shines forever by its own light, and the higher impulses of our nature are inspired, invincible, and immortal. On its banner M. Paul Desjardins writes the word of Tolstoy, “Il faut avoir une âme” (It is necessary to have a soul), and declares that the crusaders will follow it wherever it leads them. “For my part,” he cries, “I shall not blush certainly to acknowledge as sole master the Christ preached by the doctors. I shall not recoil if my premises force me to believe, at last, as Pascal believed.”  6
  In our own land such a crusade does not yet appear to be necessary. The disintegration of faith under the secret processes of general skepticism has not yet gone far enough to make the peril of religion evident, or to cause a new marshaling of hosts to recover and defend the forsaken shrines of man’s spiritual life. When the process which is now subtly working in so many departments of our literature has gone farther, it may be needful to call for such a crusade. If so, I believe it will come. I believe that the leaders of thought,—the artists, the poets of the future,—when they stand face to face with the manifest results of negation and disillusion, which really destroy the very sphere in which alone art and poetry can live, will rise to meet the peril, and proclaim anew with one voice the watchword, “It is necessary to have a soul.” And “though a man gain the whole world, if his soul is lost, it shall profit him nothing.” But meanwhile, before the following of the errors of France in literature and art has led us to that point of spiritual impoverishment where we must imitate the organized and avowed effort to recover that which has been lost, we see a new crusade of another kind: a powerful movement of moral enthusiasm, of self-sacrifice, of altruism,—even among those who profess to be out of sympathy with Christianity,—which is a sign of promise, because it reveals a force that cries out for faith to guide and direct it. Never was there a time when the fine aspirations of the young manhood and young womanhood of our country needed a more inspiring and direct Christian leadership. The indications of this need lie open to our sight on every side. Here is a company of refined and educated people going down to make a college settlement among the poor and ignorant, to help them and lift them up. They declare that it is not a religious movement, that there is to be no preaching connected with it, that the only faith which it is to embody is faith in humanity. They choose a leader who has only that faith. But they find, under his guidance, that the movement will not move, that the work cannot be done, that it faints and fails because it lacks the spring of moral inspiration which can come only from a divine and spiritual faith. And they are forced to seek a new leader, who, although he is not a preacher, yet carries within his heart that power of religious conviction, that force of devotion to the will of God, that faith in the living and supreme Christ, which is in fact the centre of Christianity. All around the circle of human doubt and despair, where men and women are going out to enlighten and uplift and comfort and strengthen their fellow-men under the perplexities and burdens of life, we hear the cry for a gospel which shall be divine, and therefore sovereign and unquestionable and sure and victorious. All through the noblest aspirations and efforts and hopes of our age of doubt, we feel the longing, and we hear the demand, for a new inspiration of Christian faith.  7
 
 
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