Project Canterbury

The Good News

By Bernard Iddings Bell, D.D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing, [1921]

Chapter I. The Unknowable God

THIS book is to be about religion. Therefore we must, first of all, define religion. Some people know what religion is well enough; but I am as sure as I am of anything in this world that most people do not know what religion is at all. A very large number of them think that religion is but another name for being good, that being religious is just the same as loving your fellow men. "I do not go to Church, it is true", you hear people say, "but my religion is the Golden Rule." It would, of course, be foolish to deny that the Golden Rule has something to do with religion, for it has. Living according to that Rule ought to be a result of religion; but it is not in itself religion.

Morality and religion have the relation of consequent and antecedent, result and cause. An electric light and a dynamo are not the same, although one is produced by the other. Indigestion and green apples are not two names for the same thing, although they are related to one another. Falling in love is the parent of parenthood, but who claims that parenthood and falling in love are the same thing?

Religion is not a set of ethical rules for you and me to live by. Religion is a means of uniting us human beings firmly to the supernatural power which men call God, binding us so close that we get strength of will with which to live up to moral standards. In my early ministry I did a good deal of religious work in the Bridewell in Chicago. In that great jail I frequently met prisoners who had had the best of educations; some of them masters of the science of ethics. Almost every prisoner I knew realized quite well what was right and what was wrong. The trouble with them was that they did not have power, grit, backbone enough to live up to their own standards for themselves. They almost always intended to do so while they were in confinement. When they got loose, they found themselves lacking in will-power. In lesser degree, it may be, or in ways less scandalous than theirs, that is what is the matter with all of us, with you who read these words and with me who pen them. We know what we ought to be; but we are not it. We know what we should leave undone; but we do it anyway. All men are like that. Even the holy St. Paul said that he was forever doing the things he willed not to do and leaving undone the things he willed to do, and so he prayed God to relieve him sometime from the struggle and to give him peace. You have standards for your own life, prescribed by your own self, which you never have met. There is an ideal you that you really wish to be, and never have been. You do not desire to be vicious, selfish, or even petty. You long to be good, unselfish, big-hearted, self-controlled. You do not need much moral teaching. It would be foolish for you to read this book, or any other book, merely to learn what you ought to do. You know. So do I, about myself. Only--we do not make good. We need a power and a help from out beyond, a confidence of strength given us from the Eternal. We need God--and we have forgotten God. We need religion, for religion is just that which binds us close to God.

Have we not forgotten God, you and I? God is merely a vague idea in the back of the heads of most of us. Of course we believe that there is a Deity who made all things. Certainly. Very few people will not say they recognize that there is a God. But day follows day and we do not think of Him, or entrust ourselves to Him. We forget to pray, and when we do pray it is more a matter of form than a natural going out of our heart to His heart. Often on Sunday, that great day set apart by our fathers for touching God and resting in the thought of Him, we do not go to public worship, or even have extra private devotions. We are so tired, we say, on Sundays. The humdrum weariness of the week's labor in the home, in the shop, in the office, has exhausted us. We have forgotten that there is One who calls to us, "Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you." We seek not the peace that comes from resting our tired souls and bodies in the care of great everlasting arms that soothe and comfort us, the everlasting arms of God. We merely amuse ourselves on Sundays--and our Mondays reveal how small our rest has been.

Let us then, in this chapter, do what perhaps we have not done for some time. Let us contemplate God.

Let us think of Him in the past. Before our towns were built, when the woodland was dotted with the little clearings of lonely pioneers, God was here, present in the lazy warmth of the summer, abiding in the cold of wintertime. When all America was quite unpopulated, save for the wandering Indian hunter, God was here. The seas and the lakes splashed against their shores and no one heard, but God. Before the great ice came down and carved our northern continent into its present contour, God was here. He saw the ice come slowly--grinding, crushing--and as slowly melt away. Before there was the ice, when this planet of ours was a great ball of semi-molten matter, with great gas spurts exploding miles into the air, God saw it all. When there came that greatest of all earthly rendings, and a large piece of the planet flew off into space to form the moon, leaving behind it what seems to have become the Pacific Ocean, God was not shaken. And before there was an earth at all, or a sun, or planets and stars in the splashed heavens above us, before matter came into being, for endless eternities before, as Genesis puts it in four great words, the simplest and most momentous of all truths, "In the beginning, God." Think you it is wonderful, therefore, that He sits serene between the Cherubim, be the earth never so unquiet? He has seen kingdoms and civilizations and earths and solar systems rise and wane. He knows the heart of the whole universe. Shall He not know the hearts of us men and women?

Again, let us contemplate God in His immensity. Outside your roof at night, above you are the stars. Men do not see them in the city. Our little lights hide the greater ones. Most of us, however, have sometime seen them in their glory,--from a mountain top, it may be, or on an ocean voyage. An officer in the navy once said to me, "Chaplain, I never cared a hang about religion or God until I got to sea. There, walking the bridge, with more stars above me than I ever thought a sky could hold, with great leagues of tossing gray waters on all four sides of me, smelling the salt breeze that came froth God knows where and was going to God knows where, understanding what a tiny cockleshell my ship was, which had looked so big in dock, and how insignificant I was, a bit of a thing walking her bridge,--there I came to understand what folks mean when they talk of the greatness of God, and His mercy, and His mystery." David felt it too, when he wrote, looking on the Palestinian night, "O Lord, what is man that thou carest for Him, or the son of man that thou regardest him? Man is like a smoke and a vapor, a thing of naught."

If David felt that, with his limited knowledge, what ought we to feel? Up and up and up we may go, as we now realize, and never come to the end of the universe. For if there is an end, what lies beyond? One must not think of it too long, or one's brain reels. Infinity! Forever, worlds on worlds! And all moving, in great sweeping orbits! An astronomer once told me that it was commonly felt that all the orbits revolved in the last analysis about one central pole, the very heart of the universe. I asked him what he thought that place was like. He said, "You must not think me foolish or unscientific when I say what I do. No one can tell what that pole must be like; but I do not think it is a place at all, as we understand place. It transcends the material, my dear sir. I suppose you theologians would call the center God."

Who are we that we should hope to comprehend and dissect the Spirit which is immanent within these unthinkable immensities? In this infinite universe is a little star which we call the Sun. It is not of great magnitude. People on the North Star, they tell me, if equipped with telescopes as big as we have on earth, might not even know that the Sun existed, so small it is in the Heavens, so faint is that light which seems to us so blazing bright. Around this by no means great star go planets, and this earth of ours is not the largest even of these. On this tiny bit of star dust whirling around this star of mean magnitude are we human beings, so small as to be unnoticeable to an aviator a mile or more in the air. And shall we think that with our tiny brains we can unravel the mysteries of Him who made the infinite universe? God must smile in great pity when He hears men talking about some day finding out with material science the secrets of the cosmos, and of life, and of death.

At the center of it all, and permeating it all, is the great creating Spirit whom men call God. He is a self-conscious, spiritual Being, not limited with a body such as we have, everywhere present, all-knowing, all-powerful, everlasting. He was in the beginning, and is now.

Then let us contemplate God as He shall be. Our short earthly lives will have been lived and our bodies wi'1 have been buried with all our little loving pomps and ceremony, in the earth from which they came, and our souls will have gone out on the great adventure, if so be we have shown ourselves worthy of eternal life--and God will still be here. Our children's children will have forgotten us, and the homes we loved will have crumbled to stone-dust;--and God will still be here. Our petty achievements will have ceased to be remembered, the fortunes we tried to accumulate will have been dissipated, the fame we fought for will be naught, America will be one with Nineveh and Tyre;--and God will still be here. Around the sun the old planet, now growing frigid, will move on, and men will cease to be, and even life itself can no longer withstand the terrific cold, and the earth will be as the moon is now;--and God will still be. And the material universe will be snuffed out, even as it was made, by the will of God;--and God will still be. Only God will remain, and that which He has created which is spiritual like Himself, our souls. He was in the beginning, He is now, He ever shall be. Even so.

This God loves you and me. To Him our bodily insignificance is nothing. What does size matter to the creator of infinity? He has made us, and millions of others, on this earth and possibly in thousands of other planets: We are spirits, under education, housed in earthly bodies for this kindergarten training which we call earthly life. He loves each one of us. He says, "I care for you beyond human understanding. Love me and in that love and trust find peace, to fill you with power, that you may become, and act here and now, not as sons of beasts, but as My Sons. I ask your love."

But you say, "How can I love a God whom I cannot see, who is a great, un-understanding spirit? I am a man, a woman. God is far away, vague, impersonal. How can I love this God? Without loving Him you say I can have no peace worth having,--no strength sufficient for real character. Without trusting Him you say I can find no satisfying rest in the midst of this hard old world. It may be so. But how can I love God? Can I love that I have not known? And how can I know Him as He is, when He is ever so vast and I am ever so limited and hampered here? I long for peace and power. My soul is athirst for God, even the living God. When shall I come to abide in the Presence of God? You have prescribed an impossible thing. I must know God, and yet I cannot know God. He is not real. He is not real to me. Master, show us the Father and it will suffice us."

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