WATSON

OPTIMISM


BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

John Watson, widely known under his pen name of "Ian Maclaren," was born at Manningtree, Essex, England, in 1850. For many years he was pastor of Free St. Matthew's Church, Glasgow. He died at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, in 1907. He enjoyed unusual popularity, both as a preacher and as a lecturer. In 1896 he gave a course of lectures to the students of Yale. "The Bonnie Brier Bush" is his best-known book. Another volume of his, "The Cure of Souls," is full of splendid practical suggestions for the minister and divinity student. Here is a sample of his satire directed toward certain speakers: "It is said that there are ingenious books which contain extracts—very familiar as a rule—on every religious subject, so that the minister, having finished his sermon on faith or hope, has only to take down this pepper-caster and flavor his somewhat bare sentences with literature. If this ignominious tale be founded on fact, and be not a scandal of the enemy, then the Protestant Church ought also to have an 'Index Expurgatorius,' and its central authorities insert therein books which it is inexpedient for ministers to possess. In this class should be included 'The Garland of Quotations' and 'The Reservoir of Illustrations.'"

Lewis O. Brastow, D. D.


WATSON

1850-1907

OPTIMISM

Go ye therefore and teach all nations.—Matthew xxviii., 19.

Among the characteristics of Jesus' teaching which have passed into the higher consciousness of Christianity is an inextinguishable optimism. When He was only a village prophet, Jesus declared that the social Utopia of Isaiah was already being fulfilled; when He gave the Sermon on the Mount He spoke as a greater Moses, legislating not for a nation but for a race. If He called apostles, they were to disciple every creature, and if He died it was for a world. His generation might condemn Him, but they would see Him again on the clouds of heaven. His death would be celebrated in a sacrament unto every generation, and being lifted on a cross He would draw all men to Him. The apostles who failed in His lifetime would afterward do greater works than Himself, and He who departed from their sight would return in the Holy Ghost and be with them forever. He looks beyond His own land, and embraces a race in His plans. He ignores the defeats of His own ministry, and discounts the victory of His disciples. He teaches, commands, arranges, prophesies with a universal and eternal accent. This was not because he made light of His task or of His enemies; no one ever had such a sense of the hideous tyranny of sin or passed through such a Gehenna, but Jesus believed with all His heart and mind in the kingdom of God, that it was coming and must come. He held that the age of gold was not behind, but before humanity.

The high spirit has passed into the souls of Christ's chief servants. The directors and pioneers, the martyrs and exemplars of our faith have had no misgivings; the light of hope has ever been shining on their faces. St. Paul boasted that he was a free-born Roman, but he was prouder to be a member of Christ's commonwealth, whose capital was in heaven and in which all nations were one. He was loyal subject of Cæsar, but he owned a more magnificent emperor at God's right hand. Above the forces of this present world he saw the principalities and powers in the heavenly places fighting for his faith. Scourged and imprisoned he burst into psalms, and he looked beyond his martyrdom to the crown of righteousness. Shackled to a soldier he wrote letters brimming over with joy, and confined to a barrack room he caught through a narrow window the gleam of the eternal city. Never did he flinch before a hostile world, never was he browbeaten by numbers, never was he discouraged by failure or reverse. He knew that he was on the winning side, and that he was laying the foundation of an everlasting state. You catch the same grand note in St. Augustine with all his horror of prevailing iniquity; in the medieval hymn writers celebrating Jerusalem the Golden, when clouds of judgment hung over their heads; and in the missionaries of the faith who toiled their life through without a convert, and yet died in faith. They might be losing, but their commander was winning. The cross might be surrounded with the smoke of battle, it was being carried forward to victory.

They were right in this conviction, but do not let us make any mistake about the nature of this triumph, else we shall be caught by delusions, and in the end be discouraged. It will not be ecclesiastical, and by that one means that no single church, either the Church of Rome, or the Church of England, or the Church of Scotland will ever embrace the whole human race, or even its English-speaking province. One can not study church history since the Reformation, or examine the condition of the various religious denominations to-day without being convinced that there will always be diversity of organization, and any person who imagines the Church of the East making her humble submission to Rome, or the various Protestant bodies of the Anglo-Saxon race trooping in their multitude to surrender their orders to the Anglican Church has really lost touch with the possibilities of life. Nor will the triumph be theological in the sense that all men will come to hold the same dogma whether it be that of Rome or Geneva. There will always be many schools of thought within the kingdom of God just as there will be many nations. Neither one Church nor one creed will swallow up the others and dominate the world. He who cherishes that idea is the victim of an optimism which is unreasonable and undesirable. The kingdom of God will come not through organization but through inspiration. Its sign will not be the domination of a Church, but the regeneration of humanity. When man shall be brother to man the world over, and war shall no longer drench cornfields with blood: when women are everywhere honored, and children are protected: when cities are full of health and holiness, and when the burden of misery has been lifted from the poor, then the world shall know Christ has not died in vain, and His vision shall be fulfilled.

A fond imagination which only tantalizes and disheartens! It is natural to say so, but magnificent dreams have come true. Suppose you had been on the sorrowful way whenJesus was being led to His doom, and women were pitying this innocent prophet whose hopes had been so rudely dashed, and whose life had been so piteously wasted. "Ah!" they cry, "His illusions have been scattered, and His brief day is going down in darkness." It appeared so, but was it so?

Suppose while the kind-hearted people were talking, some one had prophesied the career of Jesus. They would have laughed and called him a visionary, yet which would have been right, the people who judged by Jesus' figure beneath the cross, or the man who judged Jesus' power through that cross? The people who looked at the mob of Jerusalem, or the man who saw the coming generations? There are two ideas of Christ's crucifixion in art, and each has its own place. There is the realistic scene with the cross raised only a few feet from the ground, a Jewish peasant hanging on it, a Roman guard keeping order, and a rabble of fanatical priests as spectators. That is a fact, if you please, down to the color of the people's garments and the shape of the Roman spears. Very likely that is how it looked and happened. There is also the idealistic scene with a cross high and majestic on which Christ is hanging with His face hidden. Behind there is an Italian landscape with a river running through a valley, trees against the sky, and the campanile of a village church. At the foot of the cross kneels St. Mary Magdalene, on the right at a little distance are the Blest Virgin and St. Francis, on the left St. John and St. Jerome. The Roman soldiers and the Jewish crowd and that poor cross of Roman making have disappeared as a shadow. The great cross of the divine Passion is planted in the heart of the Church and of the race forever. Facts? Certainly, but which is the fact, that or this? Which is nearer to the truth, the Christ of the sorrowful way or the Christ at God's right hand?

Have there been no grounds for optimism? Has the splendid hope of Christ been falsified? One may complain that the centuries have gone slowly, and that the chariot of righteousness has dragged upon the road. But Christ has been coming and conquering. There is some difference between the statistics of the Upper Room, and the Christian Church to-day; between slavery in the Roman Empire and to-day; between the experience of women in the pre-Christian period and to-day; between the reward of labor in Elizabeth's England and to-day; between the use of riches in the eighteenth century, and the beginning of the twentieth; between pity for animals in the Georgian period and to-day. If we are not uplifted by this beneficent progress, it is because we have grown accustomed to the reign of Christianity, and are impatient for greater things. We are apt to be pessimists, not because the kingdom of God is halting, but because it has not raced; not because the gospel has failed to build up native churches in the ends of the earth with their own forms, literature, martyrs, but because all men have not yet believed the joyful sound.

There are two grounds for the unbounded optimism of our faith, and the first is God. How did such ideas come into the human mind? Where did the imagination of the prophets and apostles catch fire? Where is the spring of the prayers and aspirations of the saints? Whence do all light and all love come? Surely from God. Can we imagine better than God can do? Can we demand a fairer world than God will make? Were not the Greek philosophers right in thinking that our ideals are eternal, and are kept with God? It is not a question of our imagining too much, but too little, of being too soon satisfied.

So soon made happy? Hadst thou learned
What God accounteth happiness
Thou wouldst not find it hard to guess
What hell may be his punishment
For those who doubt if God invent
Better than they.

The other ground for optimism is Jesus Christ. Does it seem that the perfect life for the individual, and for the race, is too sublime, that it is a distant and unattainable ideal? It is well enough to give the Sermon on the Mount, and true enough that if it were lived the world would be like heaven, but then has it ever been lived? Yes, once at least, and beyond all question. Christ lived as He taught. He bade men lose their lives and He lost His; He bade men trample the world underfoot and He trampled it; He commanded men to love, and He loved even unto death. This He did as the forerunner of the race. Why not again with Christ as Captain? Why not always, why not everywhere? Is not He the standard of humanity now, and is not He its Redeemer? Has He not been working in the saints who have reminded the world of God? Will He not continue to work till all men come to the stature of perfection?

Only one institution in human society carries the dew of its youth, and through the conflict of the centuries still chants its morning song. It is the religion of Jesus. I do not mean the Christianity which exhausts its energy in the criticism of documents or the discussion of ritual—the Christianity of scholasticism or ecclesiasticism, for there is no life in that pedantry. I do not mean the Christianity which busies itself with questions of labor and capital, meat and drink, votes and politics, for there is no lift in that machinery. I mean the Christianity which centers in the person of the Son of God, with His revelation of the Father, and His gospel of salvation, with His hope of immortality and His victory of soul. This Christianity endures while civilizations exhaust themselves and pass away, and the face of the world changes. Its hymns, its prayers, its heroism, its virtues, are ever fresh and radiant. If a man desires to be young in his soul let him receive the spirit of Jesus, and bathe his soul in the Christian hope. Ah, pessimism is a heartless, helpless spirit. If one despairs of the future for himself and for his fellows, then he had better die at once. It is despair which cuts the sinews of a man's strength and leaves him at the mercy of temptation. Do you say, What can I do, because the light round me is like unto darkness? Climb the mast till you are above the fog which lies on the surface of the water, and you will see the sun shining on the spiritual world, and near at hand the harbor of sweet content. True, we must descend again to the travail of life, but we return assured that the sun is above the mist. Do you say, What is the use of fighting, for where I stand we have barely held our own? Courage! It was all you were expected to do, and while you stood fast the center has been won, and the issue of the battle has been decided. It was a poet who had his own experience of adversity, and was cut down in the midst of his days, who bade his comrades be of good cheer.

Say not, the struggle naught availeth,
The labor and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars.
It may be in yon smoke concealed,
Your comrades chase e'en now the fliers,
And, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only,
When daylight comes, comes in the light,
In front, the sun climbs slow, how slowly,
But westward look, the land is bright.