VAN DYKE

THE MEANING OF MANHOOD


BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Henry Van Dyke was born in Germantown, Pa., in 1852. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and of Berlin University. From 1882 to 1900 he was pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church, New York, since which time he has been Professor of English Literature in Princeton University. As a preacher he is generally regarded as a model, and as the author of many books he enjoys the highest literary reputation. Doctor Brastow calls him "the pulpit artist of his school," and adds: "In skilful handling of the manuscript, in clearness, force, chasteness, and felicity of diction, and in a directness and cogency of moral appeal which seemingly his later literary interests have not enhanced, he stands in the front line of American preachers."

Lewis O. Brastow, D. D.


VAN DYKE

Born in 1852

THE MEANING OF MANHOOD

How much, then, is a man better than a sheep!—Matt. xii., 12.

On the lips of Christ these noble words were an exclamation. He knew, as no one else has ever known, "what was in man." But to us who repeat them they often seem like a question. We are so ignorant of the deepest meaning of manhood, that we find ourselves at the point to ask in perplexity, how much, after all, is a man better than a sheep?

It is evident that the answer to this question must depend upon our general view of life. There are two very common ways of looking at existence that settle our judgment of the comparative value of a man and a sheep at once and inevitably.

Suppose, in the first place, that we take a materialistic view of life. Looking at the world from this standpoint, we shall see in it a great mass of matter, curiously regulated by laws which have results, but no purposes, and agitated into various modes of motion by a secret force whose origin is, and forever must be, unknown. Life, in man as in other animals, is but one form of this force. Rising through many subtle gradations, from the first tremor that passes through the gastric nerve of a jellyfish to the most delicate vibration of gray matter in the brain of a Plato or a Shakespeare, it is really the same from the beginning to the end—physical in its birth among the kindred forces of heat and electricity, physical in its death in cold ashes and dust. The only difference between man and other animals is a difference of degree. The ape takes his place in our ancestral tree, and the sheep becomes our distant cousin.

It is true that we have somewhat the advantage of these poor relations. We belong to the more fortunate branch of the family, and have entered upon an inheritance considerably enlarged by the extinction of collateral branches. But, after all, it is the same inheritance, and there is nothing in humanity which is not derived from and destined to our mother earth.

If, then, we accept this view of life, what answer can we give to the question, how much is a man better than a sheep? We must say: He is a little better, but not much. In some things he has the advantage. He lives longer, and has more powers of action and capacities of pleasure. He is more clever, and has succeeded in making the sheep subject to his domination. But the balance is not all on one side. The sheep has fewer pains as well as fewer pleasures, less care as well as less power. If it does not know how to make a coat, at least it succeeds in growing its own natural wool clothing, and that without taxation. Above all, the sheep is not troubled with any of those vain dreams of moral responsibility and future life which are the cause of such great and needless trouble to humanity. The flocks that fed in the pastures of Bethlehem got just as much physical happiness out of existence as the shepherd, David, who watched them, and, being natural agnostics, they were free from David's delusions in regard to religion. They could give all their attention to eating, drinking, and sleeping, which is the chief end of life. From the materialistic standpoint, a man may be a little better than a sheep, but not much.

Or suppose, in the second place, that we take the commercial view of life. We shall then say that all things must be measured by their money value, and that it is neither profitable nor necessary to inquire into their real nature or their essential worth. Men and sheep are worth what they will bring in the open market, and this depends upon the supply and demand. Sheep of a very rare breed have been sold for as much as five or six thousand dollars. But men of common stock, in places where men are plenty and cheap (as, for example, in Central Africa), may be purchased for the price of a rusty musket or a piece of cotton cloth. According to this principle, we must admit that the comparative value of a man and a sheep fluctuates with the market, and that there are times when the dumb animal is much the more valuable of the two.

This view, carried out to its logical conclusion, led to slavery, and put up men and sheep at auction on the same block, to be disposed of to the highest bidder. We have gotten rid of the logical conclusion. But have we gotten rid entirely of the premise on which it rested? Does not the commercial view of life still prevail in civilized society?

There is a certain friend of mine who often entertains me with an account of the banquets which he has attended. On one occasion he told me that two great railroads and the major part of all the sugar and oil in the United States sat down at the same table with three gold-mines and a line of steamships.

"How much is that man worth?" asks the curious inquirer. "That man," answers some walking business directory, "is worth a million dollars; and the man sitting next to him is not worth a penny." What other answer can be given by one who judges everything by a money standard? If wealth is really the measure of value, if the end of life is the production or the acquisition of riches, then humanity must take its place in the sliding scale of commodities. Its value is not fixt and certain. It depends upon accidents of trade. We must learn to look upon ourselves and our fellow men purely from a business point of view and to ask only: What can this man make? how much has that man made? how much can I get out of this man's labor? how much will that man pay for my services? Those little children that play in the squalid city streets—they are nothing to me or to the world; there are too many of them; they are worthless. Those long-fleeced, high-bred sheep that feed upon my pastures—they are among my most costly possessions; they will bring an enormous price; they are immensely valuable. How much is a man better than a sheep? What a foolish question! Sometimes the man is better; sometimes the sheep is better. It all depends upon the supply and demand.

Now these two views of life, the materialistic and the commercial, always have prevailed in the world. Men have held them consciously and unconsciously. At this very day there are some who profess them, and there are many who act upon them, altho they may not be willing to acknowledge them. They have been the parents of countless errors in philosophy and sociology; they have bred innumerable and loathsome vices and shames and cruelties and oppressions in the human race. It was to shatter and destroy these falsehoods, to sweep them away from the mind and heart of humanity, that Jesus came into the world. We can not receive His gospel in any sense, we can not begin to understand its scope and purpose, unless we fully, freely, and sincerely accept His great revelation of the true meaning and value of man as man.

We say this was His revelation. Undoubtedly it is true that Christ came to reveal God to man. But undoubtedly it is just as true that He came to reveal man to himself. He called Himself the Son of God, but He called Himself also the Son of man. His nature was truly divine, but His nature was no less truly human. He became man. And what is the meaning of that lowly birth, in the most helpless form of infancy, if it be not to teach us that humanity is so related to Deity that it is capable of receiving and embodying God Himself? He died for man. And what is the meaning of that sacrifice, if it be not to teach us that God counts no price too great to pay for the redemption of the human soul? This gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ contains the highest, grandest, most ennobling doctrine of humanity that ever has been proclaimed on earth. It is the only certain cure for low and debasing views of life. It is the only doctrine from which we can learn to think of ourselves and our fellow men as we ought to think. I ask you to consider for a little while the teachings of Jesus Christ in regard to what it means to be a man.

Suppose, then, that we come to Him with this question: How much is a man better than a sheep? He will tell us that a man is infinitely better, because he is the child of God, because he is capable of fellowship with God, and because he is made for an immortal life. And this threefold answer will shine out for us not only in the words, but also in the deeds, and above all in the death, of the Son of God and the Son of man.

1. Think, first of all, of the meaning of manhood in the light of the truth that man is the offspring and likeness of God. This was not a new doctrine first proclaimed by Christ. It was clearly taught in the magnificent imagery of the book of Genesis. The chief design of that great picture of the beginnings is to show that a personal Creator is the source and author of all things that are made. But next to that, and of equal importance, is the design to show that man is incalculably superior to all the other works of God—that the distance between him and the lower animals is not a difference in degree, but a difference in kind. Yes, the difference is so great that we must use a new word to describe the origin of humanity, and if we speak of the stars and the earth, the trees and the flowers, the fishes, the birds, and the beasts, as "the works" of God, when man appears we must find a nobler name and say, "This is more than God's work; he is God's child."

Our human consciousness confirms this testimony and answers to it. We know that there is something in us which raises us infinitely above the things that we see and hear and touch, and the creatures that appear to spend their brief life in the automatic workings of sense and instinct. These powers of reason and affection and conscience, and above all this wonderful power of free will, the faculty of swift, sovereign, voluntary choice, belong to a higher being. We say not to corruption, "Thou art my father," nor to the worm, "Thou art my mother"; but to God, "Thou art my father," and to the great Spirit, "In thee was my life born."

Not only cunning casts in clay:
Let science prove we are, and then
What matters science unto men,
At least to me? I would not stay.
Let him, the wiser man who springs
Hereafter, up from childhood shape
His action like the greater ape;
But I was born to other things.

Frail as our physical existence may be, in some respects the most frail, the most defenseless among animals, we are yet conscious of something that lifts us up and makes us supreme. "Man," says Pascal, "is but a reed, the feeblest thing in nature; but he is a reed that thinks. It needs not that the universe arm itself to crush him. An exhalation, a drop of water, suffice to destroy him. But were the universe to crush him, man is yet nobler than the universe; for he knows that he dies, and the universe, even in prevailing against him, knows not its power."

Now the beauty and strength of Christ's doctrine of man lie, not in the fact that He was at pains to explain and defend and justify this view of human nature, but in the fact that He assumed it with an unshaken conviction of its truth, and acted upon it always and everywhere. He spoke to man, not as the product of nature, but as the child of God. He took it for granted that we are different from plants and animals, and that we are conscious of the difference. "Consider the lilies," He says to us; "the lilies can not consider themselves: they know not what they are, nor what their life means; but you know, and you can draw the lesson of their lower beauty into your higher life. Regard the birds of the air; they are dumb and unconscious dependents upon the divine bounty, but you are conscious objects of the divine care. Are you not of more value than many sparrows?" Through all His words we feel the thrilling power of this high doctrine of humanity. He is always appealing to reason, to conscience, to the power of choice between good and evil, to the noble and godlike faculties in man.

And now think for a moment of the fact that His life was voluntarily, and of set purpose, spent among the poorest and humblest of mankind. Remember that He spoke, not to philosophers and scholars, but to peasants and fishermen and the little children of the world. What did He mean by that? Surely it was to teach us that this doctrine of the meaning of manhood applies to man as man. It is not based upon considerations of wealth or learning or culture or eloquence. Those are the things of which the world takes account, and without which it refuses to pay any attention to us. A mere man, in the eyes of the world, is a nobody. But Christ comes to humanity in its poverty, in its ignorance, stript of all outward signs of power, destitute of all save that which belongs in common to mankind; to this lowly child, this very beggar-maid of human nature, comes the king, and speaks to her as a princess in disguise, and lifts her up and sets a crown upon her head. I ask you if this simple fact ought not to teach us how much a man is better than a sheep.

2. But Christ reveals to us another and a still higher element of the meaning of manhood by speaking to us as beings who are capable of holding communion with God and reflecting the divine holiness in our hearts and lives. And here also His doctrine gains clearness and force when we bring it into close connection with His conduct. I suppose that there are few of us who would not be ready to admit at once that there are some men and women who have high spiritual capacities. For them, we say, religion is a possible thing. They can attain to the knowledge of God and fellowship with Him. They can pray, and sing praises, and do holy work. It is easy for them to be good. They are born good. They are saints by nature. But for the great mass of the human race this is out of the question, absurd, impossible. They must dwell in ignorance, in wickedness, in impiety.

But to all this Christ says, "No!" No, to our theory of perfection for the few. No, to our theory of hopeless degradation for the many. He takes His way straight to the outcasts of the world, the publicans and the harlots and sinners, and to them He speaks of the mercy and the love of God and the beauty of the heavenly life; not to cast them into black despair, not because it was impossible for them to be good and to find God, but because it was divinely possible. God was waiting for them, and something in them was waiting for God. They were lost. But surely they never could have been lost unless they had first of all belonged to God, and this made it possible for them to be found again. They were prodigals. But surely the prodigal is also a child, and there is a place for him in the Father's house. He may dwell among the swine, but he is not one of them. He is capable of remembering his Father's love. He is capable of answering his Father's embrace. He is capable of dwelling in his Father's house in filial love and obedience.

This is the doctrine of Christ in regard to fallen and disordered and guilty human nature. It is fallen, it is disordered, it is guilty; but the capacity of reconciliation, of holiness, of love to God, still dwells in it, and may be quickened into a new life. That is God's work, but God Himself could not do it if man were not capable of it.

Do you remember the story of the portrait of Dante which is painted upon the walls of Bargello, at Florence? For many years it was supposed that the picture had utterly perished. Men had heard of it, but no one living had seen it. But presently came an artist who was determined to find it again. He went into the place where tradition said that it had been painted. The room was used as a storehouse for lumber and straw. The walls were covered with dirty whitewash. He had the heaps of rubbish carried away. Patiently and carefully he removed the whitewash from the wall. Lines and colors long hidden began to appear; and at last the grave, lofty, noble face of the poet looked out again upon the world of light.

"That was wonderful," you say, "that was beautiful!" Not half so wonderful as the work which Christ came to do in the heart of man—to restore the forgotten likeness of God and bring the divine image to the light. He comes to us with the knowledge that God's image is there, tho concealed; He touches us with the faith that the likeness can be restored. To have upon our hearts the impress of the divine nature, to know that there is no human being in whom that treasure is not hidden and from whose stained and dusty soul Christ can not bring out that reflection of God's face—that, indeed, is to know the meaning of manhood, and to be sure that a man is better than a sheep!

3. There is yet one more element in Christ's teaching in regard to the meaning of manhood, and that is His doctrine of immortality. This truth springs inevitably out of His teaching in regard to the origin and capacity of human nature. A being formed in the divine image, a being capable of reflecting the divine holiness, is a being so lofty that he must have also the capacity of entering into a life which is spiritual and eternal, and which leads onward to perfection. All that Christ teaches about man, all that Christ offers to do for man, opens before him a vast and boundless future.

The idea of immortality runs through everything that Jesus says and does. Never for a moment does He speak to man as a creature who is bound to this present world. Never for a moment does He forget, or suffer us to forget, that our largest and most precious treasures may be laid up in the world to come. He would arouse our souls to perceive and contemplate the immense issues of life.

The perils that beset us here through sin are not brief and momentary dangers, possibilities of disgrace in the eyes of men, of suffering such limited pain as our bodies can endure in the disintegrating process of disease, of dying a temporal death, which at the worst can only cause us a few hours of anguish. A man might bear these things, and take the risk of this world's shame and sickness and death, for the sake of some darling sin. But the truth that flashes on us like lightning from the word of Christ is that the consequence of sin is the peril of losing our immortality. "Fear not them which kill the body," said he, "but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell."

On the other hand, the opportunities that come to us here through the grace of God are not merely opportunities of temporal peace and happiness. They are chances of securing endless and immeasurable felicity, wealth that can never be counted or lost, peace that the world can neither give nor take away. We must understand that now the kingdom of God has come near unto us. It is a time when the doors of heaven are open. We may gain an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away. We may lay hold not only on a present joy of holiness, but on an everlasting life with God.

It is thus that Christ looks upon the children of men: not as herds of dumb, driven cattle, but as living souls moving onward to eternity. It is thus that He dies for men: not to deliver them from brief sorrows, but to save them from final loss and to bring them into bliss that knows no end. It is thus that He speaks to us, in solemn words before which our dreams of earthly pleasure and power and fame and wealth are dissipated like unsubstantial vapors: "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?"

There never was a time in which Christ's doctrine of the meaning of manhood was more needed than it is to-day. There is no truth more important and necessary for us to take into our hearts, and hold fast, and carry out in our lives. For here we stand in an age when the very throng and pressure and superfluity of human life lead us to set a low estimate upon its value. The air we breathe is heavy with materialism and commercialism. The lowest and most debasing views of human nature are freely proclaimed and unconsciously accepted. There is no escape, no safety for us, save in coming back to Christ and learning from Him that man is the child of God, made in the divine image, capable of the divine fellowship, and destined to an immortal life. I want to tell you just three of the practical reasons why we must learn this.

(1) We need to learn it in order to understand the real meaning, and guilt, and danger, and hatefulness of sin.

Men are telling us nowadays that there is no such thing as sin. It is a dream, a delusion. It must be left out of account. All the evils in the world are natural and inevitable. They are simply the secretions of human nature. There is no more shame or guilt connected with them than with the malaria of the swamp or the poison of the nightshade.

But Christ tells us that sin is real, and that it is the enemy, the curse, the destroyer of mankind. It is not a part of man as God made him; it is a part of man as he has unmade and degraded himself. It is the marring of the divine image, the ruin of the glorious temple, the self-mutilation and suicide of the immortal soul. It is sin that casts man down into the mire. It is sin that drags him from the fellowship of God into the company of beasts. It is sin that leads him into the far country of famine, and leaves him among the swine, and makes him fain to fill his belly with the husks that the swine do eat. Therefore we must hate sin, and fear it, and abhor it, always and everywhere. When we look into our own heart and find sin there, we must humble ourselves before God and repent in sackcloth and ashes. Every sin that whispers in our heart is an echo of the world's despair and misery. Every selfish desire that lies in our soul is a seed of that which has brought forth strife, and cruelty, and murder, and horrible torture, and bloody war among the children of men. Every lustful thought that defiles our imagination is an image of that which has begotten loathsome vices and crawling shames throughout the world. My brother-men, God hates sin because it ruins man. And when we know what that means, when we feel that same poison of evil within us, we must hate sin as He does, and bow in penitence before Him, crying, "God, be merciful to me a sinner."

(2) We need to learn Christ's doctrine of the meaning of manhood in order to help us to love our fellow men.

This is a thing that is easy to profess, but hard, bitterly hard, to do. The faults and follies of human nature are apparent. The unlovely and contemptible and offensive qualities of many people thrust themselves sharply upon our notice and repel us. We are tempted to shrink back, wounded and disappointed, and to relapse into a life that is governed by disgusts. If we dwell in the atmosphere of a Christless world, if we read only those newspapers which chronicle the crimes and meannesses of men, or those realistic novels which deal with the secret vices and corruptions of humanity, and fill our souls with the unspoken conviction that virtue is an old-fashioned dream, and that there is no man good, no woman pure, I do not see how we can help despising and hating mankind. Who shall deliver us from this spirit of bitterness? Who shall lead us out of this heavy, fetid air of the lazar-house and the morgue?

None but Christ. If we will go with Him, He will teach us not to hate our fellow men for what they are, but to love them for what they may become. He will teach us to look, not for the evil which is manifest, but for the good which is hidden. He will teach us not to despair, but to hope, even for the most degraded of mankind. And so, perchance, as we keep company with Him, we shall learn the secret of that divine charity which fills the heart with peace and joy and quiet strength. We shall learn to do good unto all men as we have opportunity, not for the sake of gratitude or reward, but because they are the children of our Father and the brethren of our Savior. We shall learn the meaning of that blest death on Calvary, and be willing to give ourselves as a sacrifice for others, knowing that he that turneth a sinner from the error of his ways shall save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.

(3) Finally, we need to accept and believe Christ's doctrine of the meaning of manhood in order that it may lead us personally to God and a higher life.

You are infinitely better and more precious than the dumb beasts. You know it, you feel it; you are conscious that you belong to another world. And yet it may be that there are times when you forget it and live as if there was no God, no soul, no future life. Your ambitions are fixt upon the wealth that corrodes, the fame that fades. Your desires are toward the pleasures that pall upon the senses. You are bartering immortal treasure for the things which perish in the using. You are ignoring and despising the high meaning of your manhood. Who shall remind you of it, who shall bring you back to yourself, who shall lift you up to the level of your true being, unless it be the Teacher who spake as never man spake, the Master who brought life and immortality to light.

Come, then, to Christ, who can alone save you from the sin that defiles and destroys your manhood. Come, then, to Christ, who alone can make you good men and true, living in the power of an endless life. Come, then, to Christ, that you may have fellowship with Him and realize all it means to be a man.