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Challenges


ISSUE:  Winter 1926

The Challenge of Life. By L. P. Jacks. New York: George H. Doran & Company. $1.25.

The Soul’s Sincere Desire. By Glenn Clark. Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press. $2.00.

These two books, though wholly separate in origin and in intent, may well be reviewed together, for one of them has to do with some of the needs of life, and the other points the way to a resource in which the needs of fife may find their satisfaction.

Dr. Jacks’ volume is made up of three lectures delivered in England and afterwards at various places in America, upon the Challenge to the Individual, the Challenge to Society, and the Challenge to Labour. To this age of ours, with its prosperity and its pleasure hunting, he sounds a trumpet of moral strenuousness not unmixed with moral scorn. “The more we learn,” he writes, “of the nature of man and of the universe which gives him lodging, the more evident it becomes that man’s business on this planet, his part as an actor in the scheme of things, is difficult * * * This is no game that man is playing. The words of Cromwell, written on the day before the battle of Dunbar, when he was hemmed in by superior forces and in a precarious position, might be taken as a motto for human life in general, for the whole business of man on this planet—’We are upon an engagement very difficult.’” Nor is there any likelihood, says Professor Jacks, that this difficulty of human living will ever be altered. Man’s “doom, or rather his splendid destiny, is to be forever attempting the seemingly impossible.” It is therefore a false clue to the meaning of life, which leads only to the slough of moral degradation and disaster, to imagine that human progress ought to consist in the gradual easing of the lot of man or in the gradual lightening of his task. Through all right social philosophy must be woven the scarlet thread of that religious conception of man’s soul and of his destiny which shall keep his living valorous. In literature we need again the heroic note that “Life is offered as the certain reward, but always a life of hard fighting, strenuous labour, cross-bearing, and pain.” We need in theology, and especially in our conception of God, a deliberate willingness to follow intuitions which are not easy intellectually, or practically either, but which summon the full hardihood of the human personality to dare the hazard of high faith. Such is the challenge which Dr. Jacks presents to the individual—a challenge which might have been summed up in the well-known words of Phillips Brooks: “Do not pray for easier lives. Pray to be made stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks.”

In the second lecture Dr. Jacks applies this same Gospel of moral earnestness to the social aspects of our civilization. “Believing, then,” he writes, “that the Challenge of Life to our generation is primarily for group action on the heroic level—impossible, of course, if the individuals composing the group are unheroic—I have to confess that the signs of the times, so far as I can read them, do not indicate that the Challenge is being met, or even that the willingness to meet it exists. * * * Governments, Trades Unions, Industrial Trusts are there to protect their own interests, vested for the most part, or the interests of those they represent, to protect them if need be at the expense of other interests, but to protect them first and foremost. Nor can it be claimed that the Churches form an exception.”

Against these tendencies which lead, as Dr. Jacks believes, to the extinction of the heroic spirit in society and to the certain vengeance which follows, is there a promise of some saving principle? The answer is his last chapter “The Challenge to Labour,” or as its sub-title reads, “The Ethic of Workmanship.” It cannot be said that here the book reaches a satisfying climax. Its ideal is right enough, and clearly phrased. There must be a new honour and pride in the daily task if our everyday life is to be sound at its heart. “If ‘truth, beauty, and goodness,’ or whatever else be the names of the eternal values, are to be effectively at home in a working world, they must be lodged in its Work. If that is false, little else can be true; if that is ugly, little else can be beautiful; if that is evil, little else can be good.” As distress signals, these words have value. And like an answering rocket, flaring for a moment, are the few pages in which Dr. Jacks makes plain those points in our social order where the “ethic of workmanship” is already present. But his treatment is too brief to seem more than a burst of momentary stars; and one is left wishing for some larger and more sturdily developed suggestion of a way in which men and women in the midst of the monotony and mechanical unhumanness of modern industry may be enabled to work under conditions which will give them some chance for pride in what they do.

This social problem which Dr. Jacks’ book leaves largely unilluminated is not in the least met by Glenn Clark’s book either. It lies indeed quite outside its compass. But the point at which the second book may well expand the interest of the first is this: that it undertakes to demonstrate with the confidence of personal experience how a man may win by means of prayer that ampler and prevailing spirit which Dr. Jacks has called for in the face of the challenge of fife.

Published originally in The Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Clark’s message gained wide attention, and it is an instance of the remarkable eagerness of people today to receive any testimony, which they believe to be genuine, to a religious experience which is not theory merely but productive fact. As a piece of literature, the book is a queer medley. It contains passages which are forceful through their fine, straightforward simplicity; and other parts of the book, on the other hand, are woven of such jejune imagery, solemnly paraded as spiritual parables, that one’s aesthetic flesh crawls at the very reading of them. There is an entire long chapter in which Mr. Chirk tries to draw an analogy between prayer and a game of golf, and a more inappropriate and fantastic conglomerate it would be hard to find. But the significant fact is that, in spite of its crudities, the book as a whole possesses the distinct and positive power which comes from a testimony which is sure of itself and which, notwithstanding partial failures, nevertheless communicates a large measure of thoroughly practical guidance to others. Men and women who do not want to meet the challenge of life, who do sincerely want not to be distraught and feeble and ineffective but spiritually ready for the demands which daily living makes upon them, will listen when they hear a man speak thus: “Let me stand in the market place with the physical culturists and demand, as they demand, fifteen minutes of your time every day for two months. And while I hesitate to promise, as they promise, that at the end of that time you will find yourself a new man, this I can say: at the end of that time you will find yourself in a new world. You will find yourself in a friendly universe, where religion will no longer be a thing to be believed or disbelieved, a thing to be worn or cast off, but where religion will be a part of life as blood is a part of the body. You will find yourself in a new world where your God no longer dwells in churches and meeting-places and forms and days, but where He governs every minute of every day of every year. You will find yourself in a new world where immortality will no longer be sought as something far away, to be found at some far distant time, for you will know that you are immortal now, and that the entire universe with all its good and with all its beauty he-longs to you now and forever.”

In short, Mr. Clark himself has learned that prayer may be “an opening of doors and windows through which man’s soul may find liberation from the confinement of the things which bind, and expand a bit to meet the ever-expanding love of God,” and the strength of his book is that he not only says this in general terms, but that here and there he gives most definite and reasonable guidance as to how the practice of prayer may be developed to reach this wide result.

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