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The Crown Of Thorns by E. H. Chapin


|For we walk by faith, not by sight.| II Corinthians v.7.

It needs only common experience, and but little of that, to convince us that this life is full of mystery, and at every step we take demands of us faith. For at every step we take we literally walk by faith; in every work we do we must have confidence in something which is not by sight, in something which is not yet demonstrated. Skepticism carried to its ultimate consequences is the negation of everything. It closes up the issues of all knowledge, and sunders every ligament that binds us to practical life. We must have faith in something or we stand on no promises; we can predicate nothing. It may be said that in the experience of the past we have a guide for the future; but then, must we not have faith in experience? Do we not trust something which is not yet demonstrated when we say |This cause which produced that effect yesterday will produce a similar effect today or tomorrow?| How do we know -- positively know, that it will produce that effect, and what are the grounds of our knowledge? This boasted |cause and effect,| this |experience,| what right have we to rely upon it for one moment of the future? Not for that moment has it demonstrated anything; -- it demonstrated for the time being, and the time being only; and our confidence that it will do so again is faith, not sight -- faith in cause and effect, faith in experience, but faith after all. Hume, the philosopher, has illustrated the positions which have now been taken. |As to past experience,| says he, |it can be allowed to give direct and certain information of those precise objects only, and that precise period of time which fell under its cognizance; but why this experience should be extended to future times, and to other objects, which for aught we know may be only in appearance similar; this is the main question on which I would insist. The bread which I formerly ate nourished me; that is, a body of such sensible qualities was, at that time, endued with such secret powers; but does it follow that other bread must also nourish me at another time, and that like sensible qualities must also be attended with like secret powers? The consequence seems nowise necessary.| And yet we eat our bread, day by day, without a doubt or a fear. We sow the grain and we reap the wheat, but for all the work is done in faith, and the whole process is steeped in mystery. In that scattering of the golden seed, what confidence is expressed in elements that we cannot see, in beneficent agencies that we cannot control, in results that are beyond our power, and that in their growth and development are full of wonder exceeding our wisdom. Give up faith; say that we will act only upon that which is demonstrated and known, say that we will walk only so far as sight reaches, and we completely separate the present from the future, and stop all the mechanism of practical life.

But if we take a wider view of things, and consider this material universe in which we live, the great fact of mystery and the need of faith will be urged upon us by a larger and more impressive teaching. The more we learn of nature the more clearly is revealed to us this fact -- that we know less than we thought we did; positively, we know more, but relatively we know less, because as we have advanced nature has stretched out into wider and wider relations. The department that was unknown to us yesterday is explored to-day. Yesterday, we thought it was all that remained to be explored, but the torch of investigation that guided us through it now flares out upon new regions we did not see before. Like one who goes with a candle into some immense cavern, presently a little circle becomes clear, the shadows vanish before him, and undefined forms grow distinct, he thinks he is near the end, when lo! what seemed a solid boundary of rock dissolves and floats away into a depth of darkness, the path opens into an immense void, new shapes of mystery start out, and he learns this much that he did not know before, that instead of being near the end, he is only upon the threshold. We do not mean to imply by this that we have no positive knowledge, or that we do not increase in knowledge. With every new discovery we positively know more and more. But the new discovery reveals the fact that more is yet to be known; it lays open new regions, it unfolds new relations that we had not before suspected.

We follow some tiny thread a little way, and hold it secure, but it is connected with another ligament, and this branches out into a third; and instead of exhausting the matter, we find ourselves at the root of an infinite series, of an immense relationship, upon which we have only just opened; and yet what we have is positive knowledge, is something more added to our stock. The circle of the known has positively widened, but the horizon of the unknown has widened also, and, instead of being to us now, as it seemed some time ago, a solid and ultimate limit, it is only an ethereal wall, only to us a relative boundary, and behind are infinite depths and mystery. Our scientific knowledge at the present day reaches this grand result -- it clears up the deception that the system of nature is mere flat, dead materiality, a few mechanical laws, a few rigid forms. It shows that these are only the husks, the outer garments of mighty forces of subtile, far-reaching agencies; and the most common, every-day truths, that seemed stale and exhausted, become illuminated with infinite meaning, and are the blossoms of an infinite life.

The wider our circle of discovery, the wider our wonder; the more startling our conclusions, the more perplexing our questions. We have not exhausted the universe; -- we have just begun to see its harmony of proportion and of relations, without penetrating a fathom into its real life. How and what is that power that works in the shooting of a crystal, and binds the obedience of a star; that shimmers in the northern Aurora, and connects by its attraction the aggregated universe; that by its unseen forces, its all-prevalent jurisdiction, holds the little compass to the north, blooms in the nebula and the flower, weaves the garment of earth and the veil of heaven, darts out in lightning, spins the calm motion of the planets, and presides mysteriously over all motion and all life? And what is life, and what is death, and what a thousand things that we touch, and experience, and think we know all about? O! as science, as nature opens upon us, we find mystery after mystery, and the demand upon the human soul if for faith, faith in high, yes, in spiritual realities; and this materialism that would shut us in to death and sense, that denies all spirit and all miracle, is shattered like a crystal sphere, and the soul rushes out into wide orbits and infinite revolutions, into life, and light, and power, that are of eternity, -- that are of God!

Thus the scale is prepared for us to rise from things of sense to things of spirit, to rise from faith in nature to faith in Revelation, from the faith of LaPlace to the faith of Paul. No one who has studied nature will reject Christianity because it reveals truths that he cannot see with his naked eye, -- because it speaks of things that he cannot comprehend. No one who has considered the shooting of a green blade will dogmatically deny its miracles. No one who has found in the natural world the intelligent wisdom that pervades all things, will wonder that he discovers a revelation of perfect love in Jesus Christ. |We walk by faith, not by sight,| said Paul. So says every Christian; and it is of all things the most rational. Faith in something higher and greater than we can see, faith in something above this narrow scene, faith in something beyond this present life, faith in realities that are not of time or sense; from all that we have now considered we claim such faith to be most rational, most natural. God, spirit, immortality, instead of being inconsistent with what we know, are what we most legitimately deduce from it, -- what we might expect from the light that trembles behind the curtain of mystery which bounds all our sensuous knowledge. We do believe, the veriest skeptic believes in something behind that curtain of mystery; nor can he withhold his faith because it attaches to that which is unseen and incomprehensible, without, as has already been shown, cutting every nerve that binds us to practical life, and smothering every suggestion that speaks from outward nature. If he do not believe in a God, then, or in Christ, or in immortality, let him not sneer at others because they walk by faith and not by sight; for he also must do so, though his faith be not in such high truths, such spiritual realities.

The Christian's faith is an Infinite Father and an immortal life, and though he cannot see them, cannot come in material contact with them, he believes them to be the greatest of all realities, and he sees them by faith, a medium as legitimate as that of sight. They are mysteries, but everything contains a mystery; they demand of him what every day's, every hour's events demand of him -- faith. Let us understand, however, that faith is not the surrendering of our minds to that which is irrational and inconsistent. These terms should not be confounded with the mysterious and the incomprehensible. That the earth moves and yet stands still is not a proposition that demands faith. It is in the province of reason to say that it cannot move and stand still at the same time. It is an inconsistency. But how the earth moves on its axis, what is that law that makes it move, is an incomprehensibility. An incomprehensibility is one thing, an inconsistency is another thing. The one conflicts with our reason, the other is beyond it. In that which conflicts with our reason we cannot have faith, but as to that which is beyond it we exercise faith every day; for we literally walk by faith and not by sight.

Who shall say, then, that God, immortality, and those high truths revealed by Jesus, are inconsistent? Do they not conform to the highest reason? Do not our deepest intuitions demand that these revelations should be true? Consult your nature, examine your own heart, consider what you are, what you want, what you feel, deeply want, keenly feel, and then say whether the Revelation of a God, a Father, and an immortal life, satisfies you as nothing else can. Take them away, and would there not be a dreary and overwhelming void? And because you have not seen God, because you have not realized immortality, because they reach beyond your present vision, because the grave shuts you in, because they are high and transcendent truths, will you reject them? Do so, and try to walk by sight alone. With that nature of yours, so full of love, with that intellect of yours so limitless in capacity, you are apparently a child of the elements, a thing of physical nature, born of the dust, and returning to it. With desires that reach out beyond the stars, with faculties that in this life just begin to bud, with affections whose bleeding tendrils cling around the departed, wrestle with death, and say to the grave, |Give up the dead! they are not thine, but mine; I feel they must be mine forever,| with all these desires, capacities, affections, you walk -- so far as mere sight helps you -- among graves and decay, with nothing more enduring, nothing better, than three-score years and ten, the clods of the valley, the crumbling bone, and the dissolving dust! Because God and immortality are mysterious, incomprehensible, reject them, and walk only by sight? The humblest outpouring of human affection rebukes thy skepticism; the most narrow degree of human intellect prophesies beyond all this; the darkest heart, with that spark of eternal life, the yearning that moves beneath all its sensualities, and speaks for better, for more enduring things, -- that rebukes thee; and in man's moral nature, in his heart and his mind, there is that which only can be satisfied, only can be explained by God and immortality. They alone, then, are rational, they alone have comprehensive vision, who walk by faith, and not by sight.

Mystery and faith, then; let what we have said concerning these be not alone for the skeptic, but for the Christian who has faith but cannot fully justify and confirm it, or who feels it faltering under some heavy burden, or who is overwhelmed by the magnitude of the truths to which it attaches, or who wishes, with a kind of half-doubt, that these things might be seen and felt. They are great, they are incomprehensibly great; but are they therefore untrue? Does not your heart of hearts tell you they are true? Does not that Revelation of Christ steal into your soul and feed it, satisfy it, as nothing else can, with a warm, benignant power, that makes you know its truth?

Mysteries are all about us, but faith sees light beyond and around them all. Have you recently laid down the dead in their place of rest? Cold and crushing, then, is that feeling of vacancy, that dreary sense of loss, that rushes upon you, as you look through the desolate chambers without, -- through the desolate chambers of the heart within. But will not He who calls out from the very dust where yon sleepers lie the flowers of summer, and who, in the snows that enwrap their bed, cherishes the germs of the glorious springtime, will not He who works out this beautiful mystery in nature bring life back from the tomb, and light out of darkness? It is truly a great mystery; but everything within us responds to it as reasonable; and though it demands our faith, who, who, in this limited and changing world, can walk by sight alone?

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