There are three questions which every religion must answer in order to live: (1) What brought us here? (2) Why are we here? (3) Where do we go from here? And of these, the last one is the more important by far to all but a very few.
Thanks to modern science, our beginnings are becoming telescoped into the past, and as the chain of life lengthens, that first question is pushed farther and farther back in time and space. The second is more or less implied in the other two. But the third one remains unchanged and unmoved . . . a stark, staring, inexorable point of interrogation.
No discovery hitherto made has managed to abate by one whit the abruptness or definiteness of our ending. Many tempting surmises and alluring claims to certainty are offered us, but not one of them remains undisputed. Death still is the gate at which reason stops, baffled and dismayed, to leave whatever faith we possess to guide us beyond it.
Toward that gate our gaze is directed more frequently and more anxiously than we generally realize. The day's toil and the night's play appear to engross our minds totally. Yet so little is needed . . . the swerving of a car, some message concerning a friend, a quick inner pain . . . to tear the momentary veil of preoccupation and reveal the skeleton never missing at our feasts.
My own contacts with death have been comparatively slight. Dear ones have died for me as for others, but in every case under circumstances that softened the sense of loss. The supreme sorrow of seeing some one dearer than my own existence cruelly snatched out of my arms has been spared me. Once, while still in the clutches of a fever that had brought me within a hair's breadth of death, I heard another patient die by degrees behind a white screen raised only a few feet from my own bed. I listened with morbidly sharpened attention to every sound by which that invisible struggle was registered, and I actually heard the so-called death rattle. On my own state of mind that incident had no depressing or frightening effect whatsoever. I have known acute fear of pain, of mental suffering, of distress and failure, but never of death itself . . . not even in three or four situations when its immanence seemed quite possible. And while the thought of a continuation at the end of my present existence has stirred me intellectually, the idea that death might mean the total extinction of my identity has never aroused in me any serious resentment or regret. Other men and women feel like me in this respect, I know. But I know also that they are of the minority, while the great majority, particularly in our western world, look forward to the death sentence suspended over every human being with a shrinking, bordering on despair, that calls for relief in any way, at any price.
It is here religion steps in with its promises of a larger and better life beyond, and its display of a knowledge said to transcend and supersede anything rooted in mere human reason. Unlike science, religion never hesitates or doubts. Where science ventures a theory hedged in by a thousand ifs, religion utters one sweeping assertion, and hurls at whoever dares to question it a threat of something worse than death.
There was a time when man's fear combined with his ignorance to make the voice of religion supremely decisive. Faith was strong enough then to make man believe in spite of his reason, and the dread figure with its hollow eye sockets took on new flesh more beautiful than any that ever clothed human bones on this earth. Yet man cried at the biers of his loved ones as if the parting were eternal, and toward his own exit he looked at the best with a resignation little worthy of the heaven bespoken on the other side the grave.
In those days the universe was small by comparison and governed by one Omnipotent and Omniscient Will. To-day it is infinitely large, and Law reigns impersonally and immutably where autocratic caprice used to hold sway. But in growing beyond all imaginable bounds, the universe seems mysteriously to have lost its former capacity for housing the ever multiplying hosts of departed spirits. This immense expanse, that reaches thousands of light-years beyond the gravitational confines of our own sun, has no place left over for either heaven or hell. These were stopping places, arranged for eternity, and of such points the new kinetic universe is irascibly impatient.
Orthodox religion still reiterates the ancient promises and assertions. Orthodox believers still proclaim their faith in bodily resurrection. Tradition and habit are forces not easily discountenanced. And ignorance still stalks the earth like a titan of old, with fear as his progeny and page. Yet I cannot but wonder how many men and women in these Christian lands of ours have preserved a genuine faith in the kind of beyond that held the overwhelming majority of our forefathers with unquestioning conviction. Hypocrisy in such matters has become so firmly established that even the bravest hesitate to tell the truth. The old taboos still have power, though the creeds they were meant to guard may long be dead.
As I see it, that third and final question is to-day more imperative and more disturbing than ever. The answer furnished by orthodox Christianity gets little but lip credence even from those openly professing a belief in its validity. Liberal Christianity has scrapped the heaven-and-hell part of it, but maintains the existence of a hereafter of some kind, thus leaving the perennial query more wide-open than ever. To say that we go "somewhere" is like saying nothing at all.
The body has been sacrificed once for all. Whatever faith in survival still exists has no hope for anything but the disembodied soul. Mediumistic as well as religious "revelations" now administer to this hope, and for some time to come they may captivate the unthinking mass or the emotionally unbalanced few. While it seems probable that a Christian Spiritualism may prove the next phase of our general religious development, the Spiritualists themselves have caught the fever of scientific thinking and strive for proofs that can be measured and weighed. In the continued absence of these, the new faith must dwindle sooner or later. And if, after all, they should be forthcoming, that would spell a finish of death as a doorway to the supernatural, and automatically raise the question of a farther removed beyond.
This dilemma threatens Christianity as a religion with bankruptcy, thus producing a situation which, I fear, may involve our entire western civilization. For, on one hand, Christianity has become more than a religion . . . an integral part of our racial mentality as well as a basis of action and attitude shared by vast human groups having little if anything else in common. And, on the other hand, I doubt whether any race can live and thrive and grow without carrying in its heart an answer to the ever recurring question that can stand the scrutiny of reason and yet not wholly disappoint certain instinctive cravings common to all mankind.
Similar apprehensions are felt by many people holding opinions like mine, and by many more to whom these are anathema. It lies undoubtedly at the bottom of numerous strange phenomena now disturbing our country. The tendency of the mass at such junctures is to turn back . . . to apply once more, in still stronger doses, the remedies already proved impotent. But life, as far as we know, never retraces the route once covered. And notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary, it is the observing, studying, thinking, growing minority that determines the progress of a race in the long run. Dayton may hope to stop the sun in its course, but only because Dayton itself has stopped without being aware of it. Therefore, the old faith is doomed unless amended and adjusted so as to meet the needs of minds bent on reaching out toward new and wider spiritual horizons.
The idea of individual immortality for everybody is only about two thousand years old. Before that time it was reserved for heroes and rulers, who were deified to save them from the common lot. Some sort of survival after death was imagined at times, but it was either vague and shadowy, as among the Greeks, or, as in the old Norse mind, it lasted only with the lifetime of the gods that had decreed it . . . gods that themselves had to perish in a world-consuming Ragnarok. Mostly, as with the Jews, the only immortality contemplated as possible was tribal or racial.
With the crop of religions out of Asia Minor that ultimately crystallized into Christianity, modern individualism appeared on the scene . . . a recognition of the single human being as having existence, past, present, and future, apart from the group or state to which he belonged. As always when a radically new idea leaps forth, this one pushed at once to the utmost conceivable extreme. So complete was the new demand for a separate identity that it extended from time into eternity. On that apocalyptic dream mankind has lived two thousand years, at first in fervent, buoyant confidence, and then with increasing misgivings and scepticism. It is that dream we are now striving to modify in keeping with our modern knowledge without bringing down the whole ethical and spiritual structure of which it has so long formed an essential support.
"Life is death," said Claude Bernard, the great physiologist who inspired Zola. Death is the one indisputable fact of life as conceived through our senses and analyzed by our reason. It is an inescapable part of destinies so divergent as those of a cuttlefish and a genius. It marks the limit of man's achievement, and as long as it retains its character of his worst enemy, there must be bitterness in all human living. For a while Christianity seemed to have conquered the unconquerable. To renounce that conquest as wholly chimerical means a wrench severe enough to shake our racial existence to its foundations.
There are two ways of conquering death. One is material and direct. The other is spiritual and indirect. And, of course, to earthbound spirits like ours, the former way is the only real one. To abolish death as a physical fact, that would be victory indeed for a creature of such brief duration that stars frozen or shattered long before his birth may be shedding their light on him when he is no longer capable of perceiving it. Poets and thinkers of all ages have fancied such a conquest, and modern science has begun to dream of making it come true in some measure at least. But prolongation of life on earth, even when carried to a Shavian extent, falls far short of immortality, and we know besides that it cannot be won for us who are living to-day. And it is our own hearts, still beating with the fullness of our limited existence, that ache for some sort of escape from the utter oblivion that holds its humiliating menace over our bowed heads.
Remains then the other way, the spiritual and indirect, of which so many great religions have offered us forms that we can no longer accept. To the fanatic Mohammedan, the enraged Norseman, the drugged Druse, or the self-hypnotized Christian martyr, dying gloriously for faith or fame in sure expectation of a paradise suited to their ideas of enjoyment, death must have seemed far less intimidating than to men who hope for nothing out of it but peace. The Buddhist, to be sure, tries to cheat us into longing for the inevitable by making life seem undesirable. But the very suggestion of such a view is incompatible with our western mentality. Not only has life its bright moments that make it worth living at times, but it is a fact even at its worst, and to seek escape from any one of its implications by a mere denial has to us the quality of a nightmare rather than a dream. Reincarnation, which the Buddhist cherishes in company with the Brahmanist and the Theosophist, must be held a punishment rather than a promise . . . a series of, in all respects but one, isolated stations on the road to Nirvana, and not a form of immortality in our sense.
More reasonable seems the Chinese and Japanese idea of a survival in and through the love of one's children and more remote offspring. It takes on a new aspect in the light of our recent understanding of heredity. There is, no doubt, a partial continuation of identity through successive generations. Our muscles and nerves and cells carry memories of impressions received far back in the line of descent. But of such memories our brains have no records, and so the chain seems broken to that part of our consciousness which is most peculiarly our own. Nor have all people children, and too often, especially in our occidental regions, there is a tension between parent and offspring that seems to sunder rather than unite. Furthermore, ancestor worship, which is the consequence, tends to social stagnation, and so we face death unassuaged in preference to an antidote so costly.
There is, however, a valuable hint in all those oriental faiths, Christianity included. The racial wisdom buried in them suggests, not only as an evasion, but as a deep truth, that the manner in which we regard a certain fact may change its very nature in relation to ourselves. Even now there exists among us one form of belief based on this truth . . . a belief in what we, in our magniloquent human way, call the "immortality" of achievement. With or without warrant, many of us are building a compensatory illusion on the hope that our works may outlive our bodies by some years or centuries. Obstructed and opposed as we are by forces stronger than ourselves, we cannot live without illusions. That they age and pass away like ourselves need not worry us so long as new ones appear and we do not let them turn into delusions, competing in mastery with the outside forces they were created to hold at bay. Along this line must be sought the only immediately available amelioration of our fears and regrets, I am sure. The difficulty lies in our increased comprehension of what actually happens in and around ourselves. We are no longer quite so gullible as we used to be.
To the men of old, faith came easily because its degree of rationality concerned them but little. We have advanced in this respect, and, as usual, we have had to sacrifice something in payment for our gains. Primitive man lived in a constant confusion of fact and fancy, of imagination and intellect, and from this confusion he drew both terror and consolation. We realize often only too well the field in which our consciousness happens to be operating at any given moment. Faith, now as ever, goes beyond reason, but if it break too sharply from the course indicated by the latter, a conflict ensues in which faith sooner or later must suffer defeat. No other explanation is needed for the failure of the Christian doctrine regarding a life hereafter. The picture it gives us of such a life no longer squares with our rational conception of the universe, and so the picture is discarded because it has ceased to convince. Faith along that particular line has had the ground taken from under its feet, and with its intellectual premises gone, sinks into an outlived myth like many others that now repose, properly labeled, in our historical collections of antiquated mental costumery.
To recover its lost prestige, faith must start over again from the new point of vantage attained by our reasons. It must build up a new picture of beyond-life fraught with sufficient probability to leave our greater scepticism slumbering. This picture must spring naturally and gracefully out of what we know, or think we know, about the character, methods, and aims of the power back of all life. It must, so to speak, be in tune with the rhythm of universal being as we sense it in these days of ever more startling macrocosmic and microcosmic discoveries. The hymning hosts of the old heaven have no more place than the soul-hunting demons of yore in a new world full of wireless messages and invisible rays. Work is the only form of worship recognized by a Supreme Power that is part and cause and guiding principle of the ever renewed miracle we call life.
Frontal attacks on death may then be disregarded for the present as dealing too much in futures . . . though, of course, all dreams of conquest along that line have in them a certain element of possible truth. Physical life as it exists may be prolonged by ten or a thousand years, and it may also be rendered fuller and more serene, so that we approach its bourne at last with a longing for rest like that felt toward the end of an overly long day. A new race may leap into being with a span of life so extended that by comparison with us they will appear immortal. Men may develop a consciousness so intense and inclusive that it carries some or all of them past the moment of physical dissolution into a form of existence hardly more improbable to us than communication by radio was to our grandfathers. Finally, such a survival may exist to-day, and may have existed ever since the race assumed manhood.
Of absolute denial there can be no talk where all evidence must remain circumstantial on the negative as well as on the positive side. But, I must repeat, all these promising possibilities linger as yet within the realm of speculation. To proclaim any one of them a certainty would be to presume beyond the limits set for faith by our reasons as presently developed and equipped. Certainty is just what man wants, however. Christianity could give it as long as its tenets did not clash with man's aggregate store of knowledge and insight. We of to-day, gainers in one sense and losers in another, must find a new certainty equally satisfactory to our greater understanding of life and its ways . . . a certainty amounting to a conviction that enables us to look ahead with equanimity to our own departures and to witness the closing of loved eyes without a sense of utter and arbitrarily inflicted loss.
What we need for that purpose, I believe, is not only a new outlook upon death, but upon life itself and our own relations to it. In the past, whether talking of God, Fate, or Nature, our view always implied a certain antagonism, a struggle between contending and more or less hostile forces. On one side stood we, pitifully small or tragically great, and on the other whatever ruled the universe, be it a brute force, an impersonal spirit, or a supernatural personality. The temporary setting, a part of our own puny identity, was the one momentous fact that overshadowed and belittled all the rest of an immeasurable universal existence. Life was bounded by our personal being to such an extent that our philosophies even cast a doubt on its reality apart from our own hemmed and hampered stabs at comprehension.
That sort of megalomania still survives, though chiefly in an inverted form, and at its fable-ridden threshold must be laid much of the pessimism that sears the soul of to-day's humanity. We have learned of our relative littleness without also learning in a new way of our relative greatness. Because we cannot be the hubs of a midget world, we choose to be nothing at all in an infinite universe. Death, always a terror, has acquired a new sting from the increased restrictions on our own selves. That state of mind must cease, or mankind, haunted as Tolstoy was through a lifetime by the spectre of the inevitable, will lose its mind and plunge back into the chaos out of which it rose to become life's highest known point of realized consciousness. Instead we must return into the bosom of the life that never ceases, of the life that is seen and felt everywhere, as parts and partners of it in a new, more intimate, and more real sense. On the basis of such a reunion with the true source of our existence, our reasons and imaginations must combine to produce a picture of survival not through our own works only, but through what, in concert with life in its entirety, we help to achieve of progress that can never more be lost. Thus, and thus only, can we hope to find a cure for that ever haunting dread, not some time in a future indefinitely distant, or in some foreign, far-off point of space, but here and now.
It is this view on life, on death, on ourselves, which the most far-sighted and broad-minded leaders of modern science are trying to formulate to-day. It is for the purpose of making its general acceptance possible that they are turning all they have of new light on old dreams and fables and superstitions. They are no iconoclasts except in so far as the vanguards of every rising faith have always been forced to use their hammers against the idols of the passing one. They are no materialists except in so far as they hold matter inseparable from spirit, and spirit from matter. They are no pagans except in so far as they hold it a question of only relative importance whether we grovel before one man-modelled god or many. They are no atheists except in so far as they believe in their right and duty to expose any divinity with palpable feet of clay.
What will this new faith be . . . this new picture of life and death and life beyond that may give man back his ebbing courage and a joy of living raised above mere anesthetic pleasure hunting?
It is still shaping, and for that reason hard to express. But this much we seem to know about it already . . . that it will not place death between life and God, or between matter and spirit, but between the seed and the flower, between autumnal decay and vernal resurrection, as the twin brother and foremost helper of a life growing ever more perfect, ever more harmoniously conscious of itself.