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Mornings In The College Chapel by Francis Greenwood Peabody

LXXVI THE DIFFICULTIES OF UNBELIEF

Matthew xxiii.24.

We are often very much impressed by the difficulties of religious belief. It seems hard to attain any absolute, convinced faith. There are doubts and obscurities which every one feels, and these questionings are often stirred into activity by the mistaken efforts of the defenders of the faith. There is even a special department in theological teaching known as Apologetics, or the defense of faith; as though religion had to be always on the defensive, and as if the easiest attitude of mind, even of the least philosophical, were the attitude of denial. But did you ever consider the alternative position and the difficulties which present themselves when one undertakes absolutely and continuously to deny himself the relations of the religious life? Did you ever fairly face the conception of a logically completed unbelief, a world stripped of its ideals, with no region of spiritual hopes or of worship, a {190} world absolutely without God, a permanently faithless world? What is the difficulty here? The difficulty is that these aspects of life, though they are often hard to maintain, are harder still to abandon. Faith has its perplexities, but no sooner do you eliminate the spiritual world than you are confronted with a series of experiences, emotions, and intimations which are simply inexplicable. That was perhaps partly what Jesus had in mind when he met the Pharisees. |You find it hard to believe in me,| he said. |Ah, yes, but is it not still harder altogether to refuse me? You are quite alive to the smaller difficulties of my position, but you seem to be quite unaware of the difficulties of your own position. You busy yourself with straining out the gnat which floats on the surface of your glass, but you do not seem to observe the residuary camel.|

So with his splendid satire Jesus turns the critical temper back upon itself. Difficulties enough, God knows, there are in every intellectual position, and intellectual certainty usually means the abnegation of the thinking faculty.

But many persons strain out the little difficulties and swallow the great ones. What is, {191} on the whole, the best working theory of life? -- that is the only practical question. Under which view of life do the facts, on the whole, best fall? Especially, what conception of life holds the highest facts, the great irresistible spring-tides, which sometimes rise within the soul, of hope and love and desire? So Browning's Bishop, turning on his critic, says: --

|And now what are we? unbelievers both,
Calm and complete, determinately fixed
To-day, to-morrow, and forever, pray?
You'll guarantee me that? Not so, I think.
In nowise! All we've gained is, that belief,
As unbelief before, shakes us by fits,
Confounds us like its predecessor. Where's
The gain? How can we guard our unbelief,
Make it bear fruit to us? The problem's here.
Just when we are safest, there's a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides, --
And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as nature's self,
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
Take hands and dance there, a fantastic ring,
Round the ancient idol, on his base again, --
* * * * * * *
What have we gained then by our unbelief
But a life of doubt diversified by faith,
For one of faith diversified by doubt.
We called the chessboard white, -- we call it black.|

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