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Westminster Sermons, 17 - LIFE

By Charles Kingsley

      PSALM CIV. 24, 28-30.

      O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! in wisdom hast Thou made them all: the earth is full of Thy riches.

      That Thou givest them they gather. Thou openest Thine hand, they are filled with good. Thou hidest Thy face, they are troubled. Thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth Thy Spirit, they are created: and Thou renewest the face of the earth.

      What is the most important thing to you, and me, and every man?

      I suppose that most, if they answered honestly, would say--Life. I will give anything I have for my life.

      And if some among you answered--as I doubt not some would--No: not life: but honour and duty. There is many a thing which I would rather die than do--then you would answer like valiant and righteous folk; and may God give you grace to keep in the same mind, and to hold your good resolution to the last. But you, too, will agree that, except doing your duty, life is the most important thing you have. The mother, when she sacrifices her life to save her child, shews thereby how valuable she holds the child's life to be; so valuable that she will give up even her own to save it.

      But did you never consider, again--and a very solemn and awful thought it is--that this so important thing called life is the thing, above all other earthly things, of which we know least--ay, of which we know nothing?

      We do not know what death is. We send a shot through a bird, and it falls dead--that is, lies still, and after a while decays again into the dust of the earth, and the gases of the air. But what has happened to it? How does it die? How does it decay? What is this life which is gone out of it? No man knows. Men of science, by dissecting and making experiments, which they do with a skill and patience which deserve not only our belief, but our admiration, will describe to us the phenomena, or outward appearances, which accompany death, and follow death. But death itself--for want of what the animal has died--what has gone out of it--they cannot tell. No man can tell; for that is invisible, and not to be discovered by the senses. They are therefore forced to explain death by theories, which may be true, or false: but which are after all not death itself, but their own thoughts about death put into their own words. Death no man can see: but only the phenomena and effects of death; and still more, life no man can see: but only the phenomena and effects of life.

      For if we cannot tell what death is, still more we cannot tell what life is. How life begins; how it organizes each living thing according to its kind; and makes it grow; how it gives it the power of feeding on other things, and keeping up its own body thereby: of this all experiments tell us as yet nothing. Experiment gives us, here again, the phenomena--the visible effects. But the causes it sees not, and cannot see.

      This is not a matter to be discussed here. But this I say, that scientific men, in the last generation or two, have learnt, to their great honour, and to the great good of mankind--everything, or almost everything, about it--except the thing itself; and that, below all facts, below all experiments, below all that the eye or brain of man can discover, lies always a something nameless, invisible, imponderable, yet seemingly omnipresent and omnipotent; retreating before the man of science deeper and deeper, the deeper he delves: namely, the life, which shapes and makes all phenomena, and all facts. Scientific men are becoming more and more aware of this unknown force, I had almost said, ready to worship it. More and more the noblest minded of them are becoming engrossed with that truly miraculous element in nature which is always escaping them, though they cannot escape it. How should they escape it? Was it not written of old--Whither shall I go from Thy presence? and whither shall I flee from Thy Spirit?

      What then can we know of this same life, which is so precious in most men's eyes?

      My friends, it was once said--That man's instinct was in all unknown matters to take refuge in God. The words were meant as a sneer. I, as a Christian, glory in them; and ask, Where else should man take refuge, save in God? When man sees anything--as he must see hundreds of things--which he cannot account for; things mysterious, and seemingly beyond the power of his mind to explain: what safer, what wiser word can he say than--This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? God understands it: though I do not. Be it what it may, it is a work of God. From God it comes: by God it is ruled and ordered. That at least I know: and let that be enough for me. And so we may say of life. When we are awed, and all but terrified, by the unfathomable mystery of life, we can at least take refuge in God. And if we be wise, we shall take refuge in God. Whatever we can or cannot know about it, this we know; that it is the gift of God. So thought the old Jewish Prophets and Psalmists; and spoke of a breath of God, a vapour, a Spirit of God, which breathed life into all things. It was but a figure of speech, of course: but if a better one has yet been found, let the words in which it has been written or spoken be shewn to me. For to me, at least, they are yet unknown. I have read, as yet, no wiser words about the matter than those of the old Jewish sages, who told how, at the making of the world, the Spirit, or breath, of God moved on the face of the waters, quickening all things to life; or how God breathed into man's nostrils the breath or spirit of life, and man became a living soul.

      And in the same temper does that true philosopher and truly inspired Psalmist, who wrote the 139th Psalm, speak of the Spirit or breath of God. He considers his own body: how fearfully and wonderfully it is made; how God did see his substance, yet being imperfect; and in God's book were all his members written, which day by day were fashioned, while as yet there was none of them. "Thou," he says, "O God, hast fashioned me behind and before, and laid Thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful and excellent for me; I cannot attain to it." "But," he says to himself, "there is One Who has attained to it; Who does know; for He has done it all, and is doing it still: and that is God and the Spirit of God. Whither"--he asks--"shall I go then from God's Spirit? Whither shall I flee from God's presence?" And so he sees by faith--and by the highest reason likewise--The Spirit of God, as a living, thinking, acting being, who quickens and shapes, and orders, not his mortal body merely, but all things; giving life, law, and form to all created things, from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell; and ready to lead him and hold him, if he took the wings of the morning and fled into the uttermost parts of the sea.

      And so speaks again he who wrote the 104th Psalm, and the text which I have chosen. To him, too, the mystery of death, and still more the mystery of life, could be explained only by faith in God, and in the Spirit of God. If things died, it was because God took away their breath, and therefore they returned to their dust. And if things lived, it was because the Spirit of God, breathed forth, and proceeding, from God, gave them life. He pictured to himself, I dare to fancy, what we may picture to ourselves--for such places have often been, and are now, in this world--some new and barren land, even as the very gravel on which we stand was once, just risen from the icy sea, all waste and lifeless, without a growing weed, an insect, even a moss. Then, gradually, seeds float thither across the sea, or are wafted by the winds, and grow; and after them come insects; then birds; then trees grow up; and larger animals arrive to feed beneath their shade; till the once barren land has become fertile and rich with life, and the face of the earth is renewed. But by what? "God," says the Psalmist, "has renewed the face of the earth." True, the seeds, the animals came by natural causes: but who was the Cause of those causes? Who sent the things thither, save God? And who gave them life? Who kept the life in floating seeds, in flying spores? Who made that life, when they reached the barren shore, grow and thrive in each after their kind? Who, but the Spirit of God, the Lord and Giver of life? God let His Spirit proceed and go forth from Himself upon them; and they were made; and so He renewed the face of the earth.

      That, my good friends, is not only according to Scripture, but according to true philosophy. Men are slow to believe it now: and no wonder. They have been always slow to believe in the living God; and have made themselves instead dead gods--if not of wood and stone, still out of their own thoughts and imaginations; and talk of laws of nature, and long abstractions ending in ation and ality, like that "Evolution" with which so many are in love just now; and worship them as gods; mere words, the work of their own brains, though not of their own hands--even though they be--as many of them are--Evolution, I hold, among the rest--true and fair approximations to actual laws of God. But before them, and behind them, and above them and below them, lives the Author of Evolution, and of everything else. For God lives, and reigns, and works for ever. The Spirit of God proceedeth from the Father and the Son, giving, evolving, and ruling the life of all created things; and what we call nature, and this world, and the whole universe, is an unfathomable mystery, and a perpetual miracle, The one Author and Ruler of which is the ever-blessed Trinity, of whom it is written--"The glorious majesty of the Lord shall endure for ever: the Lord shall rejoice in His works."

      I believe, therefore, that the Psalmist in the text is speaking, not merely sound doctrine but sound philosophy. I believe that the simplest and the most rational account of the mystery of life is that which is given by the Christian faith; and that the Nicene Creed speaks truth and fact, when it bids us call the Holy Spirit of God the Lord and Giver of life.

      That this is according to the orthodox Catholic Faith there is no doubt. Many mistakes were made on this matter, in the early times of the Church, even by most learned and holy divines; as was to be expected, considering the mysteriousness of the subject. They were inclined, often, to what is called Pantheism--that is, to fancy that all living things are parts of God; that God's Spirit is in them, as our soul is in our body, or as heat is in a heated matter; and to speak of God's Spirit as the soul and life of the world.

      But this is exactly what the Nicene Creed does not do. It does not say that the Holy Spirit is life: but that He is the Lord and Giver of life--a seemingly small difference in words: but a most vast and important difference in meaning and in truth.

      The true doctrine, it seems to me, is laid down most clearly by the famous bishop, Cyril of Alexandria; who, whatever personal faults he had--and they were many--had doubtless dialectic intellect enough for this, and even deeper questions. And he says--"The Holy Spirit moves all things that are moved; and holds together, and animates, and makes alive, the whole universe. Nor is He another Nature different from the Father and the Son: but as He is in us; of the same nature and the same essence as they." And so says another divine, Eneas of Gaza--"The Father, with the Son, sends forth the Holy Spirit; and inspiring with this Spirit all things, beyond sense and of sense--invisible and visible--fills them with power, and holds them together, and draws them to Himself." And he prays thus to the Holy Spirit a prayer which is to my mind as noble as it is true--"O Holy Spirit, by whom God inspires, and holds together, and preserves all things, and leads them to perfection." I quote such words to shew you that I am not giving you new fancies of my own: but simply what I believe to be the ancient, orthodox and honest meaning of that same Nicene Creed, which you just new heard; where it says that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life; and the meaning of the 104th Psalm also, where it says--"Thou lettest Thy breath--Thy Spirit--go forth, and they shall be made, and Thou shall renew the face of the earth."

      And now--if anyone shall say--This may be all very true. But what is it to me? You are talking about nature; about animals and plants, and lands and seas. What I come to church to hear of, is about my own soul--

      I should answer such a man--My good friend, you come to church to hear about God as well as about what you call your soul. And any sound knowledge which you can learn about God, must be--believe me--of use to your immortal soul. For if you have wrong notions concerning God: how can you avoid having wrong notions concerning your soul, which lives and moves and has its being in God?

      But look at it thus. At least I have been speaking of the works of God. And are not you, too, a work of God? The Lord shall rejoice in His works, even to the tiniest gnat that dances in the sun. Is the Lord rejoicing in you? I have said--Whither shall a man go from God's presence? Are you forgetting or remembering God's presence? And--Whither shall a man flee from God's Spirit? Are you, O man, fleeing from God's Spirit, and forgetting His gracious inspirations; all pure and holy, and noble, and just and lovely and truly human, thoughts, in the whirl of pleasure, or covetousness, or ambition, or actual sin? If so, look at the tiniest gnat which dances in the air, the meanest flower beneath your feet; and be ashamed, and fear, and tremble before the Living God, and before His Spirit. For the gnat and the flower are doing their duty, and pleasing the Holy Spirit of God; and you are not doing your duty, and are grieving the Holy Spirit of God. For simply: because that Spirit is the Spirit of God, He is a Holy Spirit, who tries to make you--O man and not animal--holy; a moral, and spiritual, and good being. Because you are a moral and spiritual being, God's Spirit exercises over you a moral power which He does not exercise over the plants and animals. He works not merely on your body and your brain: but on your heart and immortal soul. But if you choose to be immoral, when He is trying to keep you moral; if you choose to be carnal like the brutes, while He is trying to make you spiritual, like Jesus Christ, from whom He proceeds: then, oh then, tremble, and beware, and be ashamed before the very flowers which grow in your own garden-bed; for they fulfil the law which God has given them. They are what they ought to be, each after its kind. But you are not what you ought to be, after your kind; which is a good man, or a good woman, or a good child.

      Oh beware lest the Lord should fulfil in you the awful words of this Psalm; lest He should hide His face from you, and you be troubled; and lest when He takes away your breath you should die, and turn again to your dust; and find, too late, that the wages of sin are death--death not merely of the body, but of the soul. Rather repent, and amend, and remember that most blessed, and yet most awful fact--that God's Spirit is with you from your baptism until now, putting into your heart good desires, and ready to enable you--if you will--to bring those good desires to good effect: instead of leaving them only as good intentions, with which, says the too true proverb, hell is paved.

      So will be fulfilled in you the blessed words of the next verse--When Thou lettest Thy Spirit go forth, they shall be made; and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth--words which St Augustine of old applied to the work of God's Spirit on the souls of men.

      For well it is with us--as St Augustine says--when God takes away from us our own spirit, the spirit of pride and self-will and self-righteousness; and we see that we are but dust and ashes; worse than the animals, in that we have sinned, and they have not. Confess--he says--thy weakness and thy dust: and then listen to what follows:--Thou shalt take away from them their own spirit; but Thou shalt send forth Thy Spirit on them, and they shall be made and created anew. As the Apostle says, "We are God's own workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works." And so--he says--God will indeed renew the face of the earth with converted and renewed men, who confess that they are not righteous in themselves, but made righteous by the grace of the Spirit of God; and so the Lord shall rejoice in His works; you will be indeed His work, and He will rejoice in you.

      Yes. God will indeed rejoice in us, if we obey the godly inspirations of His Spirit. But again, we shall rejoice in God; if we be but led by His Spirit into all truth, and thence into all righteousness. Then we shall be in harmony with God, and with the whole universe of God. We shall have our share in that perpetual worship which is celebrated throughout the universe by all creatures, rational and irrational, who are obeying the laws of their being; the laws of the Spirit of God, the Lord and Giver of life. We shall take our part in that perpetual Hymn which calls on all the works of the Lord, from angels and powers, sun and stars, winds and seasons, seas and floods, trees and flowers, beasts and cattle, to the children of men, and the servants of the Lord, and the spirits and souls of the righteous, and the holy and humble men of heart--"O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him for ever."

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