PREACHED BEFORE THE
Seabury Divinity School
THE RT. REV. CHARLES FRANKLIN ROBERTSON, D.D.
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
EPHESIANS IV. 13.
Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God,
unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
GENTLEMEN OF THE GRADUATING CLASS:
The lowest forms of animate nature are marked by an extreme simplicity in their structure. One organ serves all the purposes of nutrition, digestion and respiration. There is a mere sac, which has faculties for absorption and sensibility and motion; and all the operations of rudimental life go on in this animated bag. As life rises in dignity, and multiplies its worth and capacities, the organism becomes more complex, and the different functions are appropriated by different organs, which attend to their own duty, and are unfit for anything else. Much more is done; but in order to this we must have hand, and brain, and nerves. It is so in animal life. It is just so in the Church. The most elementary form of religious life is that of ignorance absorbing spiritual knowledge; the entire activity is devoted to the gathering and assimilation of facts and doctrine. The itching ear, the pulpit, the discourse, these are the prominent characteristics of this stage of development. Not activity but receptivity, this is the dominant condition now. We have come back to [3/4] the rudimentary sac, which has an insatiate rage for absorption, but which gives forth as its result only the low form of life of a spiritual mollusc.
Now, however sturdy a religious life may be formed and maintained by settling down to a reading of God's word, or to a listening to its truths, yet it must be conceded that such a life must be both narrow and selfish. It is the proof therefore and illustration of a higher and better religious life, when there is an evident consciousness of more and wider interests entering into it, and when there are other functions developed besides absorption, and when, for each of these functions, there are appropriate forms of activity provided. It is only to say that we have come up to a more fully developed form of life in the church, when we see charities abounding, and beneficent activities blossoming out on all sides.
And so to come to a still wider range of realities. It is one of the features and necessities of our modern life, that all its lines of business are becoming indefinitely subdivided, and that in thought as well as in trade we are all getting to be specialists. Of course, the degree to which this is carried differs in various communities. But, as a rule, the day when we could go into a single shop and get everything, from a yard of silk to a saw buck, has passed. The joiner parcels off a large part of his work to the stair builder, the sash maker, and other trades. The physician hands over special [4/5] forms of disorder to the oculist, or to the aurist, or the person who has made lung diseases his peculiar study. And so it is too in the law, and in all the pares of our complex social life. The demand is for precise knowledge and minute skill in all departments; and as this cannot be realized in this day, with the present high average of the lay mind, by any one person, it is a mere matter of necessity that special departments should be chosen in which persons may become thoroughly proficient. A person is an admiral conveyancer, but would utterly fail as a pleader. Another can follow to their subtlest recesses the disorders of the mind, and yet know but little of the materia medica. Another is a prodigy of learning in the departments of comparative anatomy, and still is entirely unaware of the realities, and the processes of thought appropriate to moral and spiritual subjects. We seem to be able to possess and enjoy our diversified and advancing conditions of life only as we assent to this narrowing and specializing of the individual. By means of all this we are becoming all the while not more and more perfect men, but perfect parts, fractions, sections of men. The unit can hardly be said any more to be the individual, but the community, into and contributing to the perfection of which the individual enters. Singly he is a deformity; the lack of symmetry in his attainments may offend. But like the several parts which enter into a piece of mosaic, while separately misshapen, together they [5/6] form a magnificent design. And the standard of excellence of the person is not the roundness and completeness on all sides of the individual, as much as it is the success with which he fits into and fills out a certain, it may be narrow, place.
But then how much better than a rabble of even mediocrities, is this trained, special, exceptional excellence which is the outcome of the competitions of our intense life! How fair an exchange, on the whole, are the exploits of those who quietly and persistently put aside the allurements which invite to many sided study, and who, having become aware of their own tastes and predilections, take up one line of research, and press the outposts of acquisition from point to point, until we are dazzled at our nearer approach to the centre and reality of things! How marvelous the familiarity with which, by the aid of the spectrum analysis, we can discuss the atmosphere of the sun, as though we were leisurely studying it close to its confines! How great the persistence with which the ever retreating principle of life has been tracked back to its lurking places in the simplest forms of matter! How lucidly the seminal principles of common human action have been disentangled from the confused masses of tradition in ancient history! Of course any part of this had only been possible as certain persons had dared the charge of being specialists, and had consecrated their lives to some one department of knowledge, and while doing so had [6/7] enkindled an enthusiasm which swept up every power and faculty into its embrace.
All this, and so much more which might be named, has been the result of the minute subdivision of labor, and the rare perfection of training, induced by the competitions of modern life. And yet, to all this there is an offset, and it is to this that I would wish mainly to draw your attention; to apply some of the correctives required by this contracting of individual effort and thought. While we must recognize this intensifying of labor in a narrow line as largely a necessity of the present time, we must also guard against a danger which goes hand in hand with this, of contracting the thoughts, of narrowing the conception of the many and varied interests which make up the sum total of life, of the disposition created to measure all things by the arbitrary and insufficient standards which hold for the subjects which particularly engage our affections.
You all are aware of the crabbedness, and the bigotry, and the unphilosophic narrowness into which quickly and unconsciously all class living and thinking falls. That which we are engaged in, the interests on which we are embarked, these are the only things which are real to us. In them we live, and think, and breathe; beyond them we can only carry our thoughts reluctantly forth. You all know what a keen zest marks all the life and employment about which we are [7/8] day by day engaged. All knowledge becomes tributary to it, every new fact and circumstance ranges itself instantly so as to promote it. We become filled with it; we take up a part of what we so love into ourselves; we make it the idol of our lives; we demand that all things else shall fall down before it in worship.
The illustrations and the results of this universal principle meet us on every hand. We hear many complaints of the materialism which prevails all around us, as this affects worship, philosophy, and morals. And the facts bearing out the complaints are evident and abounding. And how could it be otherwise? We are largely what our business and surroundings make us. And with a country so mighty and fertile, wooing us with its assurances of profit, presenting numberless openings for every kind and degree of aptitude, how can it be wonderful that trade should have its votaries enthusiastic and devoted? And here the work and the prizes are, tangible, solid, and such as appeal to the senses and passions of all in common. As compared with these, how vague, and shadowy are the inducements and the prizes which spiritual and intellectual pursuits offer. If the country was more sterile, and the returns less certain and profuse, the chance would be a more even one that matters of higher and wider reach should secure the suffrages of men. With the conditions around us supplied as they are, any other result than this [8/9] intense absorption in trade, and then, as the reaction from this, the equally intense immersion in sensuous pleasures, would be almost impossible. And in the urgent strain for these palpable things all counter tendencies are crowded largely to the wall. I do not think that the too current neglect of religious realities and duties comes so largely in the first instance, from a determined and premeditated hostility to the Christian faith in itself, as much as it does from the fact that it can never, because of the crowding solicitations of present, palpable interests, get the attention of men. The consolation coming from this conclusion, supposing it to be true, may be but thin and shadowy in the face of the vast acknowledged indifference; and yet it may perhaps influence us in the manner of our treatment of the evil. That which we deal so familiarly with becomes at length a part of ourselves, and like the shirt of Nessus can hardly be separated from us without destroying the life which had become so penetrated with it.
You must have noticed how in our Western life the same principle holds; that which we are daily touching and dealing with is taken up into ourselves. You see families accustomed to the courtesies and elegancies of life so that these had become an unconscious part of their existence, thrust out on the prairies, where the rudest labor is required, where food must be the coarsest, where all the amenities of life [9/10] must be suspended, where in the constant contact with roughness and dullness, brightness and vivacity and the higher tastes expire from sheer want of materials to feed upon. You see in all this how quickly thus life reverts to its lower forms. The Boers in South Africa left the Netherlands when that country, two hundred years ago, was at the summit of its prosperity. They brought with them all the arts and culture of their native land. They tried for a while to maintain, amid the adverse surroundings of their new country the amenities of their old home. But travelers who visited them after the lapse of a hundred years found they had yielded to the inevitable law, and had sunken almost to the level of those about them.
Of course we all know that there are apparent exceptions to this law, of those throughout our new communities who are still endeavoring to maintain their stand, and preserve the gentleness, the suavities, the accomplishments, which abounded for them under happier circumstances. After weary days of travel in which we have encountered rudeness and untidiness, we have come suddenly upon a home of quiet refinement and delicacy, in which all the habits of the older time are preserved. And yet even here, there would be seen, whenever a comparison could be made, a confessed deterioration of tone, a compelled leveling down to the tastes abounding on all sides, in spite of all efforts to the contrary.
 The illustrations which I have named, and others which may occur to your minds, tend to this point, that, while the circumstances of our modern life almost compel a restrictedness of training and acquaintance, and while this has its advantages in the intenseness and the proficiency thereby made possible, there are unhappy results in the narrowness of sympathy engendered, in the fact that only what we deal constantly with is real to us, in the bigotry and lack of candor in judging of other interests just as real and important, but which may not lie in the direct line of the person's business or knowledge.
Now I am addressing myself to cultivated men, and to those who recognize the due place in all true character and culture of Christian faith and Christian duty. And therefore I shall have a hearing as I endeavor to name and to rally the forces which may hope to cope with this narrowness, and promote a generous and symmetrical culture. We want to contend against the corroding, aggressive materialism which is creeping over us, which is binding down our thoughts and affections to what we can feel and see, which is making clever men out of us, but which is paralyzing all enthusiasm, reducing all our deepest maxims of right living to bits of prudential advice, basing morals on expediency, cultivating the activities, but repressing the sensibilities of religion.
There are other forces which I will indicate later, but that [11/12] which you will anticipate me in thinking that I should place first is a well-balanced Christian faith, anchored well in the past, just in all its proportions, putting forth its activities through institutions which are vindicating their worth by their evident usefulness.
The king on his throne can look at all the interests of his realm evenly. While others are filled with the petty things nearest themselves, all things are present to him. He has consequent justness of view; the most remote interests are real to him, and he is the vindicator of the absent. And so, those who may be permitted to stand nearer to the King of the whole earth, to share somewhat of His spirit, who, after Him, sink the present and its solicitations, in behalf of right principle, and the realities not seen as yet, but made real and potent by faith—they may have a portion of that far-reaching wisdom which is derived from the Master. They, too, live over a vast range; they are not cajoled by the gauds and trinkets displayed in the present; their thoughts take in a host of considerations before forming an estimate or a judgment. In them is found an illustration of Dr. Johnson's remark that anything which tends to sink the present, and make the future more real raises men in the scale of being.
And this principle holds true especially as regards the effects upon the character of that historic faith, incarnated and made operative in a living Church, on which your institutions here are founded. [12/13] We here live over and appeal for the vindication of the truth of the faith to a wide range of history. We have no particular epoch which we have taken under our protection, that we dote upon or date from. The whole expanse of the Christian ages is ours, is before us in the establishing of our practice for the illustration of any principles. The whole range of the Christian faith is lived over, too, and vindicated with an even hand. We have no pet tenets to uphold, and no partial view of the truth called us into being. Now all this tends to give that width, and comprehensiveness, and culture which have ever been marked features in the characters of those in whom Church principles could work themselves legitimately out.
I can very well understand how the charge of feebleness and timid eclecticism, and want of definiteness of faith and action may lie against the Church in respect of this intelligent comprehensiveness which is its greatest glory, on the part of those who are accustomed to a more partial holding to some narrow phase of the truth. I can see how, for immediate result and strong demonstration, for aggressive, pugnacious, opinionated action, the championship of a few texts of Scripture may have the greater success. The river runs more swiftly and more noisily through the narrow gorge, than when it widens out into its broad and quiet reaches. It would appear that the terse, sharp, trip-hammer cries of John the Baptist, [13/14] “Repent, repent, repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” had a greater immediate effect than the message of our Lord, which was freighted with so much else which it was necessary for men to do. And yet, of course, we have long since learned the lesson that what is gained in immediate effect at the cost of ultimate result, is dearly bought.
As the Church in its principles inclines us to consider the general analogy of the faith rather than to become specialists in settling down upon one or two favorite texts or doctrines of Holy Scripture; as it inclines us to cultivate the historical faculty, and make far distant times and places real and present to us; as it clearly marks the distinction between belief and opinion as it depends for its maintenance upon nurture and spiritual growth; as it appeals rather to intelligent, developed, matured Christian principle than to raw, undisciplined feeling; as it makes more of gentle unobtrusive practice than of declamatory profession: for all these and so many other reasons, I am sure that you will all say that, among its many other, and vastly greater uses, the Church in its calm, even holding of the old historic faith is to be placed foremost among the agencies adapted to cope with the narrowing, materializing tendencies of the present day.
Of this matter I do not, however, speak in a homiletic way, but simply as it lies in the path of the considerations [14/15] which I am now urging. Therefore, leaving this aspect of the subject to the treatment which it can at other times more worthily receive, I pass on to speak of another of the forces which is able to lift us up to a higher and wider level of life.
And for this I have my reminder in the purpose of the Institutions which cluster here about us in this town. The culture here gained, both by the positive knowledge acquired, as also by the passive impressions received is one of the most potent forces which is recalling life back from the lower forms to which it is constantly inclined to revert, and is causing it to put on a more generous type. Think but for a moment of the nature of the life which alone many of those who are passing through your halls had known before coming hither. The reading had been almost as restricted as the experience. The greater things of the world's life were wholly unknown, or, at any rate, but dimly apprehended. The petty concerns which had been crowding themselves upon the attention, the little round of daily duties and economies, had been making up the warp and woof of life. That person enters here; he has his part in the routine tasks which are developing his powers of analysis and comparison. He comes into communion with the great minds of the past. He is ushered into the clear sharp presence of the hinging periods of the world's history. He sees now for the first time the broad relations and connections of religious facts and beliefs before held [15/16] singly. The little tent in which he has before been contented to dwell has to lengthen on all sides its cords, and strengthen its stakes. Little by little he warms to the new strange life; but after a time he gets into the full, strong swing of the world's life. Not one lesson has done it; nor one day accomplished the task; but a growth and a change has been wrought, after which the judgment and estimate of things is totally different.
What wonder then that in the first surgings of this new swelling life we should have the tumidity and cloudiness of sophomoric thought? It is only the ecstacy felt at seeing the horizon of thought and life recede off into the distance, and at ending that life includes so much more than had been dreamt of. It is only the yeasty working which will clear off the dross and clarify the mind.
But even here we are to use caution that in securing this culture we do not fall into narrow grooves. Here too, you must avoid pedantry and narrowness, and the provincialism which comes from browsing over a restricted range. The reach of learning is so vast that you must needs, of course, for many reasons, while maintaining a general acquaintance. with all the parts, seek to qualify yourself especially in that direction along which your future life shall lie. But while doing so you must be ready to do full justice to all the other domains of learning; and though you may be accustomed to [16/17] your own methods of study, you must be candid to those methods required in other departments of knowledge. Induction is as legitimate and necessary in its place as deduction is in its. Theology must not scout at natural science; and natural science must deal fairly with the realities and processes of theology. They must not look askance at each other as enemies, but must recognize the relation, and that they are by different roads striving to reach the same end--Truth. Doubtless, it was the habit much more than it is now, for theology and the religious teacher to rail emptily at the atheistic studies and aims of scientific men; as now the current is largely changed, and we hear the contemptuous utterances of the votaries of science against the realities and the aspirations of religion. This is unjust alike to both sides and scientific men, as such, have no more right to insist that religious questions shall submit themselves to the criteria which may hold good in their studies, any more than theologians can demand that scientific statements can only be allowed to be true as they pass the tests which hold for religious verities. It is unwise, useless, and irrational, for religious teachers to deplore the advances which scientific investigation is making, as though the result was going to be that God was thus about to be eliminated out of the universe. Science will not stop for all this railing; we have got to find a place for all its ultimate results; and we may be sure that no truth will [17/18] overturn any other truth. Only let science apply its own methods to the subjects which belong property to it. Let it not go, in an unscientific spirit, out of its way to throw gratuitous flings, and to impugn matters about which it can really make no declaration in one way or the other. For religion concerns itself about interests as real, essential and universal as those which science is working among.
Thus it will be well to you to be on the alert against the danger of regarding the life and the subjects about which you are statedly engaged as the only ones which are of importance. Freshen yourselves from time to time with a study of other matters and other interests. In this way you will secure a side light which will reveal new beauties and depths in your own pursuits, increase your interest in your own work, and enlarge greatly your efficiency. It is well for you to know how many ways there are of looking at things. It is better for you to have a judicial than a forensic mind, in order that you may understand and sympathize with all the complex difficulties around you.
There is, of course, a temptation to consort only with one's own opinions; to be with and to read only that which agrees with your own ideas. But you know into what narrowness and selfishness this would soon lead you. Not that I would advise you to cultivate a mere critical nil admirari, supercilious spirit, which thinks of all things as equally true and equally [18/19] false. Give full, honest consideration to any matter; when you have availed yourself of all possible light, then decide; while this is good judgment, act definitely and sharply on it. Still, keep your conclusion so far open as to admit the full force of new truth, and do not be ashamed to revise your opinions and change your practice according to the new light had.
You will, some of you, no doubt, find yourselves living in retired places, where the interests are few and the range of thought contracted. Keep yourself from sinking and growing petty, first of all by constant reference to the first principles and the reasons for being of your life and work, and then by reading and thought, and so far as you can, by observation and travel. If for all this your time and means seem to be inadequate, surely you have motive enough in the issues involved, to keep yourselves back from selfish indulgences, and from the loss of time in the inconsequent reading of newspapers and the vapid personal conversations, that you may give more and have more to give in time and means in a simple priestly life, to the sacred purposes for which your lives are to be devoted. How will all attainable knowledge be needed to commend the truths which you will desire to make effectual! How will all the pores of your nature need to be kept open in a fresh, sweet, healthy simplicity, so that you may be keenly sensitive to all the ebb and flow of that [19/20] life whose springs you are to cleanse and purify! Use all the opportunities which God places within your reach to make operative the forces which will prevent you from becoming narrow, bigoted and selfish. Be humble men, Godly men. Do not be great in small things, at the cost of being small in great things. Do not be party men, nor merely parts of men. And the counsel which I would leave with you for the widening experiences of life, to furnish the applications of, is not to rest, until you have come by God's grace, “unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”