12 AUGUST 1905, Page 9

" Wisdom. That becoming wise meant making slow and sure


From a knowledge proved in error to acknowledged ignorance." IAll popular ideas of heaven and hell are just now fading away. The conventional heavens fail to satisfy the aspirations of man, and all conceptions of the everlasting tortures of the damned fade before a new consistency of thought which cannot reconcile eternal punishment with "the knowledge and love of God."

Our forefathers looked forward in some moods to everlasting rest and never-ending worship, in others to a happy and prosperous life in a perfectly governed and perfectly healthy city. At times, inspired by the love of Nature, they Christianised the classic picture of the Elysian Fields. To-day the normal man does not desire rest when he asks himself what life he would choose. Rest suggests death, and we desire more abundant life. To most healthy bodies and healthy minds effort is in itself delightful. If men do not need to make an effort for their living, they will do it for their pleasure. Successful effort brings more happiness than anything else, taking life as a whole. The thought of everlasting worship satisfies fewer and fewer people to-day. It belongs to an age when men thought of God as a kind of King who took perpetual pleasure in homage. We still sing of "sweet fields beyond the swelling flood," and find refresh- ment in the thought, but no one desires to live for ever wandering amid the beauties of Nature. The thought of an ideal civic life is still attractive, but the heavenly Jerusalem brings thoughts of Utopia now rather than of the life ever- lasting. We still pray against "everlasting damnation," and desire to get rid of the worm of remorse that dieth not, but our prayers, however earnest, no longer bring visions of the burning pit. Such visions would be called up nowadays rather by the Divine Comedy than by the Church Service. Other hopes charm us to-day, and other fears restrain. These, again, will change their form in the next generation. The conditions of this life alter, and consequently the Conceptions of that life to which we instinctively look for consolation and explanation, reward and retribution, change also. Neverthe- less, these pious opinions of the past, the outcome as they are of a spiritual preoccupation more concentrated than anything of which the present age is capable, are not without their value. Imaginary they may have been, but-

" God is also in sleep, and dreams advise,

Which He hath sent propitious, some great good presaging." We smile reverently as we look back. Crowns and cities, feasts and sweet fields, all melt away together. Still, the words of Christ, which cannot pass away while human nature remains, sound in our hearts. "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing." But how shall these things be ? Again ihere comes back upon us the baffling realisation of our ignorance. Why, why, have we been told so little P Yet if we cease to strive, and begin to think the matter out, are we very sure what it is for which we are asking ? How could any revelation have come to us ? In what words, by what similitudes, could the continued life of the spirit have been described ? "Heaven is not a place, but a state of mind," we say. The sentence has become a commonplace. If such be the case, we find that state of mind well described in the Gospels, with principles laid down for its attainment, principles to whose truth the spirit within " beareth witness." "If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death," said Christ ; and who can deny that the life of the spirit is nourished by all goodness, or assert dogmatically that it cannot survive the flesh ? It is easy enough to prove that hell is not a place of torment beneath our feet, easy enough to prove that heaven is not a cloudland over our heads; but it is impossible to prove that soul and body cannot exist apart, otherwise there would be no difference between a man and a corpse. However truly Christ, or our own reason, or our own divine intuitions have convinced us of the possibility of a disembodied or a re-embodied life, we still cannot conceive, or at any rate cannot put into words, the mode of such an existence. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that the exact nature of the eternal life of the spirit could be revealed to us, so that we could believe in it exactly as we believe in this present world. What would be the effect of this know- ledge upon the human mind ? It would mean, we believe, the death of religion. What place would remain for faith in God? We should calculate upon heaven as we calculate upon old age. The man who did not do his best to secure a comfortable situation in the land to which illness or accident might any

day, and the years must some day, take him would be an im- provident fool, that would be all. There would be no such thing as repentance. The moral sense would die. A man might curse his folly in forgetting his interest, he would not hate the act which set him wrong with God. The innate desire to go on living would no longer act as a moral and religious spur. Men would not try to deepen their spiritual lives, to increase, that is, their spiritual vitality by the understanding and keeping of Christ's two commandments. The effort to obtain life by contact with the source of life would be meaningless. The whole spiritual horizon would close in. Aspiration hemmed in by certainty would lose all power to soar. Men would no longer try to purify their hearts that they might recognise the presence of God everywhere. Such certainty as we are supposing would be a prelude to the descent of man. Hitherto his road has always led upwards. As we look back we can trace it by the light of learning more or less clearly right down into an abyss. In front we can see nothing tangible, nothing but those ideals which belong to a kingdom "not from hence." Forward, upward, we can only move by faith. If the knowledge we crave were granted, men would surely become more material, more earthy, more secular. We should indeed be "drowned in security." There is a terrible verse in the Psalms which would, we believe, soon describe our condition : "And he gave them their desire : and sent leanness withal into their soul."

That men will cease to dream of what they cannot know, we do not for a moment suppose. Every age will embody its hopes in a new description of heaven. Every description will be worth study, in order- " That in these masques and shadows we may see Thy sacred way, And by those hid ascents climb to that day, Which breaks from Thee,