THE BACCALAUREATE SERMON
PREACHED BEFORE THE CANDIDATES
FOR DEGREES IN
THE VERY REV. WILFORD LASH ROBBINS, D.D.
DEAN OF THE GENERAL THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY OF THE PROTESTANT
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITYJUNE 5, 1904
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
"Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, if ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed, and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." St. John VIII: 31, 32.
Truth and Freedom, these are the watch-words of progress. No higher ideal can lure men onward. To know the truth, and be master of one's fate,—what more can the heart of man desire?
Yet although the words stir our enthusiasm, and we profess ourselves devoted to the pursuit of truth and freedom, the very meaning of the terms is often left in doubt. Unless we know what truth is, we may pursue a phantom all our days. And to mistake the true nature of freedom is to run the risk of basest servitude.
The words of the text contain a wonderful promise. Like all the sayings of Jesus Christ, which bear on the fundamental verities of life, the language is simple and direct, almost to baldness. "If ye continue in my word ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." We may well pause and ask ourselves, what is the truth, which faithful discipleship assures to us as a lasting possession? What is the freedom, wherewith the truth shall make us free?
Amidst the baffled, half-hopeless truth-seekings of the world,—amidst the restless, unsatisfied strivings after freedom,—I know of no questions better worth our attention. If we can answer them, there is hope that we shall find rest for our souls.
I. What is Truth?
 It is an irksome task to turn from the words of Jesus Christ, instinct with life, driving home to the heart with convincing power, to a dry and somewhat abstract statement of what we mean by truth. But we shall be rewarded if we succeed in clearing our minds of some popular misapprehensions. And we may thus avoid certain strange aberrations which have characterised the search for truth and freedom in these latter days.
i. Facts.—Facts and truth are sometimes identified. I suppose that the child's notion of truth is of this sort. And truth-telling is narrowed down to a literal statement of facts.
Of course, this does not lead us far. What, indeed, would happen, if the attempt were made to define "facts," is another matter. But in popular argument words are used with no fine discrimination, as to their exact significance. The word "fact," pregnant though it be with mystery, is commonly regarded as perfectly clear, and level with any man's understanding. If pressed, the plain man will answer, "a fact is that which exists";—but this is to define one unknown by another. It is tantamount to saying, "a fact is a fact, and there is an end on't." Whatever appearance of common-sense there may be in this tautology, it is, from a speculative point of view, somewhat shallow and uninteresting.
The whole truth, in this construction, would be all facts. But it is difficult to see how knowledge of the truth, thus conceived, should either follow upon faithfulness to Christ's word, or lead men to perfect freedom.
And yet in criticising the popular notion of truth, it were a pity to lose sight of the wholesome elements which it contains. There is a kind of Anglo-Saxon bluntness about it which is refreshing. It avoids hair-splitting subtleties and evasions. It does mean something, however crudeness of [4/5] statement may tempt one to expose its philosophical fallacies. A fact is sacred, whether we are able to define clearly what we mean by the word or not. Our rough apprehension has in it a certain solidity of conviction which cannot be shaken. And it would be seriously detrimental to our moral estate were we to allow metaphysical quips and quiddities to blur for us the line of demarcation between facts and the baseless fancies of credulous and superstitious dreamers. Facts must enter into the truth; they are an essential part of it. Loyalty to facts is a kind of propaedeutic in honesty,—a kindergarten for the training of the soul. And woe to the institution or the individual which loses reverence for facts, and plays fast and loose with them for private ends, or to satisfy selfish desire.
ii. Law.—When we push a step beyond the popular notion of fact, we come to law. A fact in isolation is a mere abstraction, and in the strict sense unthinkable. We can know it only in space and time, and leaving on one side all the vexed questions which these terms immediately suggest, they are, at least, manifestly terms of relationship, binding facts into a whole. The deeper that we probe into the nature of a fact, the more fundamental do we find this conception of relationship. A fact is not a self-contained entity; it is what it is by reason of the modifying influence of all else with which it comes into contact. Its nature is essentially bound up with what it gives and takes. And this network of relationships is subject to law, else the world were not knowable. A rational principle in the world without, must answer to the demands of our reason within, or there were no common ground on which to stand.
Truth, then, does not consist in mere facts, but in facts bound inextricably together into a wonderful whole. To apprehend this means a vast broadening of the intellectual horizon; it is the birth of the conception of a Universe, a Cosmos, as over against chaos and confusion. Truth-telling now rises [5/6] from the plane of mere literal statement of facts, to the far more difficult and delicate duty of conveying a just impression of the true harmony and proportion of things.
Truth consists in the eternal principles which underlie and coordinate the world of outward phenomena. And law would far more accurately express its substance than the word, fact.
Law is one of the master-words of modern thought. But it is not new as entering into the conception of truth. The mystic seer of the Apocalypse was in this at one with the latest exponent of science. "And immediately I was in the spirit; and behold, a throne was set in heaven." At the heart of things, in Heaven itself, in the Holy of Holies, the first vision of truth which burst upon the eye of St. John was the symbol of eternal law, of the correlation of all the powers and forces of the Universe in a sweetly-ordered whole.
iii. Personality.—But we cannot stop here. As a fact cannot be conceived in isolation, no more can we isolate law. To attempt to do so is to be guilty of a process of false abstraction, which leads us further and further from reality.
Facts, and the laws which control facts, are conceivable only in relation to the intellect, the feeling, and the will of him who apprehends them.
Relationship, as entering into the very essence of reality, leads us inevitably to one goal. The deepest and most fundamental relationship of all is between the object and the person who apprehends the object. For us nothing can conceivably exist save as the object of thought. And what does not exist for us is but the baseless fabric of a dream, however clever the word-play indulged in to prove its existence.
This is true because self-consciousness is of necessity the basal fact of all experience. It is the pin-point of vantage requisite for the construction of any reality. We can think nothing save from this starting-point. To attempt to conceive [6/7] a thing, utterly out of relation with consciousness, equals the irrationality of assuming an outer with no corresponding inner, or a circle with circumference but no centre.
Spirit is the prior of the Universe, of any universe that we can conceivably know. Climb from the finite spirit, with its limited apprehensions and its imperfect self-consciousness, to the vision of the infinite and eternal spirit, by what path you will. But climb you must, or else in consistency submit to some theory of subjective idealism, with its strangely fantastic notions of a world centered in the individual self, and drawing its reality from the arbitrary dicta of individual experience.
For myself, I believe that God-consciousness lies implicit in self-consciousness,—that our very knowledge of limitation bears witness to a virtual transcendence of that limit, and knowledge of the infinite and the eternal.
But certain it is that the eye of St. John did not rest with the throne, glorious as Law, and Order, and Righteous Judgment are in themselves, close as they are to the living centre of the Truth. "A throne was set in heaven, and One sat on the throne."
Any conception of the truth, which stops short of free, self-conscious Spirit,—Personality, in its fullest, highest sense,—fails to satisfy not only the deepest cravings of the heart, but also the most insistent demands of the reason.
When Jesus Christ said, " I am the Truth," He made the most tremendous assertion of His own essential Deity recorded in the Gospels. Moreover, He was defining truth in the only way in which it can be defined, so as to satisfy the requirements of our speculative nature, as well as our practical needs. All other conceptions of truth are hard, dry, abstract, remote from reality. Only in God, Who is Spirit, can truth in its wholeness dwell.
Truth, therefore, is not a mere object of the intellect, it [7/8] makes its appeal to the whole complex nature with which God has endowed us. Being in its ultimate essence spiritual, it must be spiritually discerned. When we live the life of the spirit,—when as men we enter into the fulness of life,—then first does the vision of the truth steal upon us. And as the revelation grows in clearness, the conviction takes ever deeper root, that living, in the largest, highest sense, is the one only path to the knowledge of the truth.
II. Knowing the Truth.
Coming to a knowledge of the truth;—this is evidently a far more complicated process than popular theories of education are wont to assume. Am I wrong in thinking that here in America danger threatens along just this line? There is wide-spread enthusiasm for education. We are justly proud of the common-school, free to rich and poor alike. Colleges and Universities are enlarging their borders and increasing their wealth. The number of men and women seeking the so-called higher education is growing year by year. Yet the suspicion will intrude, whether the educational ideal is broad enough,—whether it is thorough-going in its attempt to develop well-rounded manhood. Amidst the complications of a divided religious life, is there not danger that the moral and spiritual side of education shall suffer detriment? We are desirous not to offend anyone's susceptibilities, but, in this praise-worthy attempt, do we not run the risk of eliminating essential factors of any education worthy of the name?
i. The Intellect.—The intellect has its own task in the pursuit of truth. The value of pure intellectual training is manifestly great. The arousing of intellectual interest, of the eager desire to know what men have thought concerning the myriad-sided mystery of the world and life,—is the first step in developing intelligent manhood. The severest mental discipline is requisite that a man may become expert in the use of his [8/9] intellectual tools. Never was there more urgent demand for clear thinking, amidst the clash of opposing opinions, the riot of half-thought-out theories, the ferment of revolutionary notions, in almost every department of life. The triumph of the inductive method demands a more accurate observation, and an ever-increasing accumulation of facts, upon which to base our reasoning. But when the intellect has been most perfectly trained, this is but small part of the equipment demanded for a successful search after truth.
ii. The Heart.—The heart has equal share with the head in this high enterprise,—and we neglect this truth at our peril. Natural instincts, and the play of emotions, chastened and controlled, may guide us in the path which leads to truth quite as effectually as the logical faculties.
The development of a pure sympathy, which unlocks for us the secret of others' lives, can teach us truth concerning man, which does not come within the purview of any scientific theory. The man all head and no heart is barred out from half the meaning of life.
The power of the synthetic imagination, whereby the poet drives home, some aspect of the world, which, in formal and literal statement, leaves us unmoved, is a truth-revealer. We are all potential poets, though the outward form of rhythmic utterance may be denied us,—that is, we are poets, unless critical and analytic training has drained the spring of poetry within our hearts. Dare you say that the world as seen in the hard outline and the gray tone of a purely scientific description, is truer than the same world illumined by the grace and glory of genuine poetic insight? This would be parallel with the pedantic claim, that this great hall, filled with men and women, were more truly apprehended, if resolved into terms of motion,—than when the report of the senses as to form, and colour, and sound, is accepted as substantially true for the practical ends of life.
 For, after all, what other test of truth remains but relative value. The world, as the heart reports it, is a driving-force. It makes life worth the living, and stirs to noble accomplishment. And if this is so, then the training of the heart in pure emotions, the kindling of the imagination, the refinement of taste in aesthetic appreciation, are as important factors in education as the development of the more distinctively intellectual powers.
"I will run the way of Thy commandments, when Thou hast set my heart at liberty."
iii. The Will.—At the root of character lies the will. In the last analysis I am what I will. This statement needs no emphasis by enlargement, for if there be such a thing as moral accountability, it is self-evident.
But perhaps we are not always equally aware of the part which character plays in knowledge,—of the extent to which what a man is affects his capacity to know.
That two and two make four, can be known with equal clearness and assurance by a bad man and a good. The abstract knowledge of a physical science is not greatly influenced by a man's moral character. A good man and a bad man may equally appreciate the purely literary qualities of a great book. Though, in this last instance, where matters of taste are concerned, subtle influences may flow from the deep moral spring of life materially affecting judgment. But the moment that we pass to the wider implications of any definite series of facts, the case changes. In the larger correlations of knowledge, in the attempt to build up a philosophy, in the subtle apprehension of just harmony and proportion between facts, the bias toward true or false will depend largely on character.
And there are whole realms of truth absolutely shut to those who are morally perverted or disingenuous. We have but to think far enough in any direction and we are confronted with [10/11] mystery. What shall the mystery yield us? Shall it be dark with inscrutable terror, or instinct with hope and high inspiration? Some will perhaps deny that such problems lie within the scope of knowledge, in any fair use of the term. Yet there are men who do push further into the realms of this mystery than others, and arrive at convictions which in certitude surpass conclusions of the understanding. Upon these convictions they build up a philosophy of life which is practically consistent and successful. But such are men of moral and spiritual integrity. They live their lives sanely and soberly. Their will has been disciplined into accord with the divine will. Call it faith, or call it spiritual experience,—they know that of which others are ignorant. "If any man willeth to do His will, he shall know of the doctrine."
Knowledge of the truth tasks the whole man. It is not solely an intellectual activity, but heart and will have share in it. Only when we realise this does the relation between knowledge and freedom become evident.
In so far as I can grasp truth with the mind only, and hold it as a mere intellectual possession, it does not necessarily make me free. My emotions may run riot, my heart be the slave of passion. My will may be subservient to every passing whim of impulse, the mere creature of environment.
But knowledge of the truth, in the larger construction, is indeed the door of freedom. The vision of the truth which wins the heart's allegiance by its own intrinsic beauty, masters the vagrant impulses of the will. And action in accord with the vision is freedom,—not freedom to follow every caprice, liberty confounded with license,—but freedom to develop all the powers and capacities of manhood, the only freedom worthy of the name.
The key-note of this freedom is obedience. Only as we submit [11/12] mind, heart, and will absolutely to the dictate of the truth, can we be free. This it is that makes one tremble at certain features of modern life. If it be true that the spirit of reverence is waning, that scorn of authority prevails, that humility and meekness are despised virtues, in this latter day, it augurs ill for the cause of liberty. The insignia of freedom are the yoke and the burden of Christ. One must bend the neck to receive what seems the symbol of servitude. And then he shall discover that the yoke is easy and the burden light,—and that only thus can man enter on his heritage of freedom as a child of God.
i. Obedience to Physical Law.—When we come to consider it, this truth receives illustration in the commonest affairs of life. Health is the freedom of the body,—and health is attainable only along the path of obedience. If the law be broken, the body pays the penalty in decreased vigour and effectiveness. When we know the law, and abide by its dictates, the body develops normally and healthfully.
Obedience to physical law is the only means whereby mastery over the material world is won. Obedience means power. All the marvels of mechanical invention illustrate this. The mighty engine, with its complex inter-relation of parts and its delicate adjustments, is strong to perform its work for man only because the maker knew the laws of mechanics, and obeyed them. If, through ignorance, one law has been neglected, then the engine is but a piece of wasted ingenuity, it has the semblance of power without the substance, it will not work. Thus obedience to physical law means the freedom of mastery; through obedience we conquer nature to our uses, and become, in our measure, creators under God. As scientific knowledge has been enlarged, this freedom has grown apace. The savage, because he knows little, is the slave of fear,—well-grounded fear, for nature is awful in her judgment if the [12/13] law be broken. Slowly and painfully man has wrested nature's secrets from her, and come to know the truth,—one little segment of the truth, concerning the world in which he lives,—and the truth has made him free. It is not the highest kind of freedom, it is a freedom easily abused,—unless transfigured by the freedom of the spirit, in itself alone, it is not worthy the name of civilization. But it illustrates the relation of power to obedience, and is faint adumbration of the meaning of Jesus Christ, when He declares that knowledge of the truth shall make us free.
ii. Obedience to the Moral Law.—This brings us nearer to the heart of the matter. This is an obedience leading to a nobler freedom. In the conquest of nature, sharp limitations are set to the mastery attainable by man. But in the realm of morals there is no limit to the possible self-conquest of him who is bidden to be perfect as his Father in heaven is perfect.
And yet righteousness seems to many the very antithesis of freedom, it curtails liberty at every step. The "thou shalt not" of the moral law threatens to rob life of all charm and naturalness, it seems the foe not the friend of liberty.
An obvious analogy suggests itself here, namely, that of the free citizen in the free state. Just because he obeys the law he is free, and never feels the restrictions of the statute-book. Nay, he forgets that there are laws, until some flagrant breach of their provisions reminds him that the hand of the state is heavy in discipline upon offenders.
So with the whole experience of the moral life. When we behold the Right, and try to conform ourselves to its laws, it may be that at first its behests seem hard and stern,—we feel hampered in our liberty. But he who faithfully and patiently obeys the law shall discover unlooked-for compensations. The face of duty begins to grow beautiful; the habit of doing the right becomes established; the friction of conflicting desires [13/14] grows less and less. Righteousness no longer frets him, appearing in the guise of a series of petty demands. It is an ideal drawing him irresistibly onward by its own intrinsic attractiveness. He embodies it instinctively in all ordinary words and acts; and, at the great crises of life, it is an inspiration giving strength to high resolve and noble action.
And the righteous man has God behind him. He is no longer striving against the forces of the Universe, but in accord with them. His little power is supplemented by the power of the Almighty. He is free with the freedom of God.
Oh, for the clearer vision of righteousness,—that our "love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment," and that we "may approve the things that are more excellent." The vista of Moral Truth is boundless,—from the broad distinctions between good and bad, patent to all men, on and up to ever finer and finer discernments of harmony and proportion, and the vision of the more splendid heroisms of character. And as our knowledge increases, knowledge intimately enwrought with fervent zeal and firm intention, the more do we taste the air of freedom. By obedience to law, the law as law ceases to make its appeal,—all is life and love. We tread the forecourts of the heavenly city,—"Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all."
iii. Obedience to the Law of the Spirit.—Any definition of freedom were meagre indeed,—its loftiest reach and its most intimate joys would escape us,—if we failed to sum up the obligation of the moral law in the new commandment of the Gospel.
The great law of the spirit is love. Spirit comes to the birth, realises itself, only as it loses itself in another. The spirit is starved and straitened, nay it exists but as a potentiality, until it has found an object upon which it can lavish itself in the abandon of self-sacrifice. Therefore the path of freedom for the spirit is love like unto Jesus Christ's. The spirit of man [14/15] serves its apprenticeship amidst the exclusiveness and mixed passions of earthly affection,—it wins its freedom when it loves all men as Christ loved them, fired with the one eager desire to serve them for Christ's sake.
It would be easy to illustrate this freedom in homely ways. It is not the mystical possession of a select few, it is the prerogative of the humblest among the saints. Any plain man, who has begun to walk in the way of love, can testify to the blessed escape from the prison-house of egotism by honest interest in the welfare of others. Is life full of ennui, does the burden seem too heavy, are you handicapped by disappointment and ill-fortune? There is always a door of freedom. It does not lie along the sentimental road of selfish and jealous affections, the travesty of love. But it opens wide before you if you will but enter honestly into the life of another, making his interest yours, his good your good. There is a lightness of heart, an enthusiastic zest of life, in unselfish service, which are the sure marks of the free man. Love is not a bit of inflamed self-consciousness; when we love we do not count the gain to self. Love is not a sublimated kind of life-insurance. But when with humble and honest endeavour we seek to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, then bye-and-bye love is born within us, the horizon of interest has broadened, we draw in new draughts of life. Then according to His promise we know the truth, and the truth has made us free.
Jesus Christ said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." When we walk in the way we attain the vision. The Power which strengthened us to rise to our feet, and gird up our loins like men, reveals Himself as the perfect embodiment of the Truth. And, lo, the Truth upon which we gaze begins to spell itself out in terms of Life. And as the divine power moves within us we live the life of God, and breathe the air of perfect freedom, being made one with Him through Jesus Christ our Lord.