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Westminster Sermons, 25 - THE SILENCE OF FAITH

By Charles Kingsley


      Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child. Let Israel hope in the Lord from henceforth and for ever.

      We know not at what period of David's life this psalm was written. We know not what matters they were which were too high for him to meddle with; matters about which he had to refrain his soul; to quiet his feelings; to suspend his judgment; to check his curiosity, and say about them simply--Trust in the Lord.

      We do not know, I say, what these great matters, these mysteries were. But that concerns us little. Human life, human fortune, human history, human agony--nay, the whole universe, the more we know of it, is full of such mysteries. Only the shallow and the conceited are unaware of their presence. Only the shallow and the conceited pretend to explain them, and have a Why ready for every How. David was not like them. His was too great a mind to be high-minded; too deep a heart to have proud looks, and to pretend, to himself or to others, that he knew the whole counsel of God.

      Solomon his son had the same experience. For him, too, in spite of all his wisdom, the mystery of Providence was too dark. Though a man laboured to seek it, yet should he not find it out. All things seemed, at least, to come alike to all. There was one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the clean and to the unclean. Vanity of vanity; all was vanity. Of making books there was no end, and much study was a weariness to the flesh. And the conclusion of the whole matter was--Fear God, and keep His commandments. That--and not to pry into the unfathomable will of God--was the whole duty of man.

      Job, too: what is the moral of the whole book of Job, save that God's ways are unsearchable, and His paths past finding out? The Lord, be it remembered, in the closing scene of the book, vouchsafes to Job no explanation whatsoever of his affliction. Instead of telling him why he has been so sorely smitten; instead of bidding him even look up and trust, He silences Job by the mere plea of His own power. Where wast thou when I laid the foundation of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. When the morning stars sang together; and all the sons of God shouted for joy. Shall he that contendeth with The Almighty instruct Him? He that reproveth God, let him answer.

      But, it may be said, these are Old Testament sayings. The Patriarchs and Prophets had not that full light of knowledge of the mind of God which the Evangelists and Apostles had. What do the latter, the writers of the New Testament, say, with that fuller knowledge of God, which they gained through Jesus Christ our Lord?

      My friends--This is not, I trust, by God's great goodness, the last time that I am to preach in this Abbey. What the Evangelists and Apostles taught, which the Prophets and Psalmists did not teach, I hope to tell you, as far as I know, hereafter.

      But this I am bound to tell you beforehand--That there are no truer words in the Articles of the Church of England than those in the VIIth Article--that the Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and man.

      Yes. That the Old Testament is not contrary to the New, I believe with my whole heart and soul. And therefore to those who say that the Apostles had solved the whole mystery of human life, its sins, its sorrows, its destinies, I must reply that such is not the case, at least with the most gifted of all the writers of the New Testament. We may think fit to claim omniscience for St Paul: but he certainly does not claim it for himself.

      When he is vouchsafed a glimpse of the high counsels of God, he exclaims, as one dazzled--"Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been His counsellor?"--While of himself he speaks in a very different tone--"Even though he have been," as he says, "caught up into the third heaven, and heard words unspeakable, which it is not lawful for a man to utter," yet "he knows," he says, "in part; he prophesies in part; but when that which is perfect comes, that which is partial shall be done away." He is as the child to the full-grown man, into which he hopes to develop in the future life. He "sees as in a glass darkly, but then face to face." He "knows now in part." Then--but not till then--will he "know even as he is known." Nay, more. In the ninth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, he does not hesitate to push to the utmost that plea of God's absolute sovereignty which we found in the book of Job.

      "He has mercy on whom He will have mercy; and whom He will He hardeneth." And if any say, "Why doth He then find fault? For who hath resisted His will?" "Who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel to honour, and another to dishonour?"

      What those words may mean, or may not mean, I do not intend to argue now. I only quote them to shew you that St Paul, just as much as any Old Testament thinker, believed that there were often mysteries, ay, tragedies, in the lives, not only of individuals, nor of families, but of whole races, to which we shortsighted mortals could assign no rational or moral final cause, but must simply do that which Spinoza forbade us to do, namely--"In every unknown case, flee unto God;" and say--"It is the Lord, let Him do what seemeth Him good;"--certain of this, which the Cross and Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ shewed forth as nothing else in heaven or earth could shew--that the will of God toward man is an utterly good will; and that therefore what seemeth good to Him, will be good in act and fact.

      It is this faith, and I believe this faith alone, which can enable truly feeling spirits to keep anything like equanimity, if they dwell long and earnestly on the miseries of mankind; on sorrow, pain, bereavement; on the fate of many a widow and orphan; on sudden, premature, and often agonizing death--but why pain you with a catalogue of ills, which all, save--thank God--the youngest, know too well?

      And it is that want of faith in the will and character of a living God, which makes, and will always make, infidelity a sad state of mind--a theory of man and the universe, which contains no gospel or good news for man.

      I do not speak now of atheism, dogmatic, self-satisfied, insolent cynic. I speak especially to-night of a form of unbelief far more attractive, which is spreading, I believe, among people often of high intellect, often of virtuous life, often of great attainments in art, science, or literature. Such repudiate, and justly, the name of theists: but they decline, and justly, the name of atheists. They would--the finest and purest spirits among them--accept only too heartily the whole of the Psalm which I have chosen for my text, save its ascription and the last verse. We too--they would say--do not wish to be high-minded, and dogmatize, and assert, and condemn. We too do not wish to meddle with matters too high for us, or for any human intellect. We too wish to refrain ourselves from asserting what--however pleasant--we cannot prove; and to wean ourselves--however really painful the process--from the milk, the mere child's food, on which Mother Church has brought up the nations of Europe for the last 1500 years. But for that very reason, as for asking us to trust in The Lord, either for this life, or an eternal life to come, do not ask that of us.

      We do not say that there is no God; no Providence of God; no life beyond the grave: only we say, that we cannot find them. They may exist: or they may not. But to us; and as we believe to all mankind if they used their reason aright, they are unthinkable, and therefore unknowable. God we see not: but this we see--Man, tortured by a thousand ills; and then, alas, perishing just as the dumb beasts perish. We see death, decay, pain, sorrow, bereavement, weakness; and these produced, not merely by laws of nature, in which, however terrible, we could stoically acquiesce; but worse still, by accident--the sports of seeming chances--and those often so slight and mean. Man in his fullest power, woman in her highest usefulness, the victim not merely of the tempest or the thunderstroke, but of a fallen match, a stumbling horse.

      Therefore the sight of so much human woe, without a purpose, and without a cause, is too much for them: as, without faith in God, it ought to be too much for us.

      And therefore in their poetry and in their prose--and they are masters, some of them, both of poetry and of prose--there is a weary sadness, a tender despair, which one must not praise: yet which one cannot watch without sympathy and affection. For the mystery of human vanity and vexation of spirit; the mystery which weighed down the soul of David, and of Solomon, and of him who sang the song of Job, and of St Paul, and of St Augustine, and all the great Theologians of old time, is to them nought but utter darkness. For they see not yet, as our great modern poet says,

      Athwart the darkness, shaping man.

      They see not yet athwart the darkness a face, most human yet divine, of utter sympathy and love; and hear not yet--oh let me say once more not yet of such fine souls--the only words which can bring true comfort to one who feels for his fellow-men, amid the terrible chances and changes of this mortal life--

      "Let not your heart be troubled. Believe in God, and believe also in Me."

      "All power is given to Me in heaven and in earth." "Lo I am with you even to the end of the world." Oh let us, to whom God has given that most undeserved grace, by the confession of a true faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the Unity--Let us, I say, beseech God that He would give to them, as well as to us, that comfortable and wholesome faith; and evermore defend them and us--if it seem good in His gracious sight--from all adversity.

      And surely we need that faith--those of us at least who know what we have lost--in the face of such a catastrophe as was announced in this Abbey on this day week; which thrilled this congregation with the awful news--That one of the most gifted men in Europe; the most eloquent of all our preachers--the most energetic of all our prelates; the delight of so many of the most refined and cultivated; the comforter of so many pious souls, not only by his sermons, not only by his secret counsels, but by those exquisite Confirmation addresses, to have lost which is a spiritual loss incalculable--those Confirmation addresses which touched and ennobled the hearts alike of children and of parents, and made so many spirits, young and old, indebted to him from thenceforth for ever--That this man, with his enormous capacity and will for doing his duty like a valiant man, and doing each duty better than any of us his clergy had ever seen it done before--with his genius too, now so rare, and yet so needed, for governing his fellow-men--That he, in the fulness of his power, his health, his practical example, his practical success, should vanish in a moment: and that immense natural vitality, that organism of forces so various and so delicate, just as it was developing to perfection under long and careful self-education, should be lost for ever to this earth: leaving England, and her colonies, and indeed all Christendom, so much the poorer, so much the more weak; and inflicting--forget not that--a bitter pang on hundreds of loving hearts: and all by reason of the stumbling of a horse.

      And why? Our reason, our conscience, our moral sense; that, by virtue of which we are not brutes, but men, forces us to ask that question: even if no answer be found to it in earth or heaven. What was the important why which lay hid behind that little how?--The means were so paltry: the effect was so vast--There must have been a final cause, a purpose, for that death: or the fact would be altogether hideous--a scribble without a meaning--a skeleton without a soul. Why did he die?

      "I became dumb and opened not my mouth; for it was Thy doing."

      So says the Burial psalm. So let us say likewise.

      "I became dumb:" not with rage, not with despair; but because it was Thy doing; and therefore it was done well. It was the deed, not of chance, not of necessity: for had it been, then those who loved him might have been excused had they cursed chance, cursed necessity, cursed the day in which they entered a universe so cruel, so capricious. Not so. For it was the deed of The Father, without whom a sparrow falls not to the ground; of The Son, who died upon the Cross in the utterness of His desire to save; of The Holy Ghost, who is the Lord and Giver of life to all created things.

      It was the deed of One who delights in life and not in death; in bliss and not in woe; in light and not in darkness; in order and not in anarchy; in good and not in evil. It had a final cause, a meaning, a purpose: and that purpose is very good. What it is, we know not: and we need not know. To guess at it would be indeed to meddle with matters too high for us. So let us be dumb: but dumb not from despair, but from faith; dumb not like a wretch weary with calling for help which does not come, but dumb like a child sitting at its mother's feet; and looking up into her face, and watching her doings; understanding none of them as yet, but certain that they all are done in Love.

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