Chapter 15 Is It Possible?

Chapter 15

Is It Possible?

The Attitude of Parents toward Social Questions

A Moral Crisis––The economic aspects of the great philanthropic scheme which brought timely relief to the national conscience before the setting in of the hard winter of 1891, are, perhaps, outside our province; but it has educational aspects which we are, in some measure, bound to discuss. In the first place, the children in many homes hear 'I do not believe that' it is possible for the leopard to change his spots. General Booth's scheme brought this issue before us with startling directness; and what the children hear said to-day at the table and by the fireside about all such philanthropic efforts will probably influence for their lives their attitude towards all philanthropic and all missionary endeavour. Not only so, but we ourselves, who stand in some measure in loco parentis to the distressed in mind, body, or estate, are compelled to examine our own position. How far do we give, and work, for the ease of our own conscience, and how far do we believe in the possibility of the instant and utter restoration of the morally degraded, questions which, to-day, force themselves upon us. We must be ready with a yea or a nay; we must take sides, for or against such possibilities as should exalt philanthropic effort into a burning passion. The fact is, that great scheme forced a sort of moral crisis upon us whose effects are continually in evidence.

We, too, Love our Brother––Whether or no the scheme commends itself to us for its fitness, seasonableness, and promise, one thing it assuredly did: it revealed us to ourselves, and that in an agreeable light. It discovered to us that we, too, love our brother; that we, too, yearn over 'the bruised' with something, however little, of the tenderness of Christ. The brotherhood of man is no fancy bred in the brain; and we have loved our brother all the time––the sick, the poor, the captive, and the sinner, too; but the fearful, and unbelieving, and slothful amongst us––that is, the most of us––have turned away our eyes from beholding evils for which we saw no help. But when a promise of deliverance was offered, more adequate, conceivably, than any heretofore proposed, why, the solidarity of humanity asserts itself; our brother who is bruised is not merely near and dear; he is our very self, and whoso will ease and revive him is our deliverer too.

The 'Idol of Size.'––The first flush of enthusiasm subsided, we ask, Are we not, after all, led away by what Coleridge calls the 'Idol of Size'?

Wherein does this scheme differ from ten thousand others, except in the colossal scale on which the experiment is to be tried? And perhaps we should concede at the outset that this hope of deliverance is 'the same, only more so,' as is being already worked out effectually in many an otherwise sunless corner of the great vineyard. Indeed, the great project has its great risks––risks which the quieter work escapes. All the same, there are aspects in which the remedy, because of its vastness and inclusiveness, is new.

Hitherto we have helped the wretched in impossible circumstances, not out of them. Our help has been as a drop in the bucket, reaching to hundreds or thousands only of the lost millions. Even so, we cannot keep it up; we give to-day, and withhold to-morrow; worse than all, our very giving is an injury, reducing the power and the inclination for self-help. Or, do we start some small amateur industry by way of making our people independent? This pet industry may sometimes be a transparent mask for almsgiving, and an encroachment upon regular industries and the rights of other workers.

Cui Bono?––Now and then is a gleam of hope, now and then a soul and body snatched into safety; but the hardest workers are glad of the noise of the wheels to keep the eternal Cui bono? out of their ears. There is so much to be done, and so little means of doing it. But this scheme––what with the amplitude of its provisions, what with the organisation and regimentation it promises, the strong and righteous government, the moral compulsion to well-doing––considering these, and the enormous staff of workers already prepared to carry it out, the dreariest pessimist amongst us concedes that General Booth's scheme may be worth trying. 'But,' he says, 'but––                  

DO WE BELIEVE IN CONVERSION?'

Can Character be Changed?––Everything turns on the condition the originator wisely puts first. There is the crux. Given money enough, land enough, men enough, fully equip and officer this teeming horde of incapables, and some sort of mechanical drill may be got through somehow. But, 'when a man's own character and defects constitute the reasons for his fall, that character must be changed and that conduct altered if any permanent beneficial results are to be obtained.' The drunkard must be made sober; the criminal, honest; the impure, clean. Can this be done? is the crucial question.

The Question of the Age––Is it possible that a man can emerge altogether out of his old self and become a new creature, with new aims, new thoughts, even new habits? That such renovation is possible is the old contention of Christianity. Here, and not on the ground of the inspiration of the sacred text, must the battle be fought out. The answer to the one urgent question of the age, What think ye of Christ? depends upon the power of the idea of Christ to attract and compel attention, and of the indwelling of Christ to vivify and elevate a single debased and torpid human soul.

Many of us believe exultingly that the 'all power' which is given into the hands of our Master includes the power of upright standing, strength, and beauty, for every bruised human reed. That this is so, we have evidence in plenty, beginning with ourselves. But many others of us, and those not the less noble, consider, with Robert Elsmere that 'miracles do not happen.'

The Essential Miracle––The recorded miracles serve as pegs for the discussion; the essential miracle is the utter and immediate renovation of a human being. Upon this possibility the saving of the world must hang; and this many cannot receive, not because they are stiff-necked and perverse, but because it is dead against natural law as they know it. Proofs? Cases without end? The whole history of the Christian Church in evidence? Yes; but the history of the Church is a chequered one; and for individual cases, we do not doubt the veracity of the details; only, nobody knows the whole truth; some preparation in the past, some motive in the present inadvertently kept out of sight, may alter the bearing of any such case.

The Honest Sceptic––This is, roughly, the position of the honest sceptic, who would, if he could believe heartily in General Booth's scheme, and by consequence, in the convertibility of the entire race. To improve the circumstances, even of millions is only a question of the magnitude of the measures taken, the wisdom of the administration. But human nature itself, depraved human nature, is, to him the impossible quantity. Can the leopard change his spots?

                  THE LAW AGAINST US––HEREDITY.

The Vicious by Inheritance––Who are these whom General Booth cheerfully undertakes to fashion and make amenable to the conditions of godly and righteous and sober living? Let us hear the life history of many of them in his own words:––

     'The rakings of the human cesspool.' 'Little ones, whose parents are habitually drunk.
. . . Whose ideas of merriment are gained from the familiar spectacle of the nightly debauch.'
'The obscenity of the talk of many of the children of some of our public schools could hardly be outdone even in Sodom and Gomorrah.'

And the childhood––save the word!––of the children of today reproduces the childhood of their parents, their grandparents, who knows? their great grand parents. These are, no doubt, the worst; but the worst must be reckoned with first, for if these slip through the meshes of the remedial net, the masses more inert than vicious slide out through the breaks. In the first place, then, the scheme embraces the vicious by inheritance; proposes to mix up with the rest a class whose sole heritage is an inconceivable and incalculable accumulation of vicious inclinations and propensities. And this, in the face of that conception of heredity which is quietly taking possession of the public mind, and causing many thoughtful parents to abstain from very active efforts to mould the characters of their children.

Those of us whose attention has been fixed upon the working of the law of heredity until it appears to us to run its course, unmodified and unlimited by other laws, may well be pardoned for regarding with doubtful eye a scheme which has, for its very first condition, the regeneration of the vicious; of the Vicious by inherited propensity.

                  THE LAW AGAINST US––HABIT.

The Vicious by Inveterate Habit––Use is second nature, we say. Habit is ten natures; habit begins as a cobweb, and ends as a cable. 'Oh, you'll get used to it,' whatever it is. Dare we face the habits in which these people have their being? It is not only the obscene speech, the unholy acts; that which signifies is the manner of thoughts we think; speech, act, are the mere outcome; it is the habitual thought of a man which shapes that which we call his character. And these, can we reasonably doubt that every imagination of their heart is only evil continually? We say, use is second nature, but let us consider what we mean by the phrase; what is the philosophy of habit so far as it has been discovered to us. The seat of habit is the brain; the actual grey nervous matter of the cerebrum. And the history of a habit is shortly this: 'The cerebrum of man grows to those modes of thought in which it is habitually exercised.' That 'immaterial' thought should mould the 'material' brain need not surprise nor scandalise us, for do we not see with our eyes that immaterial thought moulds the face, forms what we call countenance, lovely or loathsome according to the manner of thought it registers? The how of this brain growth is not yet in evidence, nor is this the time and place to discuss it; but, bearing in mind this structural adaptation to confirmed habit, what chance, again, we say, has a scheme which has for its first condition the regeneration of the vicious, vicious not only by inherited propensity, but by unbroken inveterate habit?

                  THE LAW AGAINST US––UNCONSCIOUS CEREBRATION.

Thoughts Think Themselves––Those who are accustomed to write know what it is to sit down and 'reel off' sheet after sheet of matter without plan or premeditation, clear, coherent, ready for press, hardly needing revision. We are told of a lawyer who wrote in his sleep a lucid opinion throwing light on a most difficult case; of a mathematician who worked out in his sleep a computation which baffled him when awake. We know that Coleridge dreamed 'Kubla Khan' in an after-dinner nap, line by line, and wrote it down when he awoke. What do these cases and a thousand like them point to? To no less than this: that, though the all-important ego must, no doubt, 'assist' at the thinking of the initial thought on a given subject, yet, after that first thought or two, 'brain' and 'mind' manage the matter between them, and the thoughts, so to speak, think themselves; not after the fashion of a pendulum which moves to and fro, to and fro, in the same interval of space, but in that of a carriage rolling along the same road, but into ever new developments of the landscape. An amazing thought––but have we not abundant internal evidence of the fact? We all know that there are times when we cannot get rid of the thoughts that will think themselves within us, though they drive away sleep and peace and joy. In the face of this law, benign as it eases us of the labour of original thought and decision about the everyday affairs of life, terrible when it gets beyond our power of control and diversion, what hope for those in whose debauched brain vile thoughts, involuntary, automatic, are for ever running with frightful rapidity in the one well-worn track? Truly, the in-look is appalling. What hope for these?

Vicious Imaginations––And what of a scheme whose first condition is the regeneration of the vicious––vicious, not only by inherited propensity, and by unbroken inveterate habit, but reduced to that state of, shall we say, inevitable viciousness––when 'unconscious cerebration,' with untiring activity, goes to the emanation of vicious imaginations? All these things are against us.

                  THE LAW FOR US––LIMITATIONS TO THE DOCTRINE OF HEREDITY.

But the last word of Science, and she has more and better words in store, is full of hope. The fathers have eaten sour grapes, but it is not inevitable that the children's teeth be set on edge. The soul that sinneth it shall die, said the prophet of old and Science is hurrying up with her 'Even so.'

Acquired Modification not Transmitted––The necessary corollary to the latest presentation of the theory of evolution is––acquired modifications of structure are not transmitted. All hail to the good news; to realise it, is like waking up from a hideous nightmare. This, definitely, is our gain; the man who by the continuous thinking of criminal thoughts has modified the structure of his brain so as to adapt it to the current of such thoughts, does not necessarily pass on this modification to his child. There is no necessary adaptation in the cerebrum of the new-born child to make place for evil thoughts. In a word, the child of the vicious may be born as fit and able for good living as the child of the righteous. Inherent modifications are, it is true transmitted, and the line between inherent and acquired modifications may not be easy to define. But anyway, there is hope to go on with. The child of the wicked may have as good a start in life, so far as his birthright goes, as the child of the just.

Education Stronger than Nature––The child's future depends not upon his lineage so much as upon his bringing-up, for education is stronger than nature, and no human being need be given over to despair. We need not abate our hope of the regeneration of the vicious for the bugbear of an inheritance of irresistible propensity to evil.

                  THE LAW FOR US––'ONE CUSTOM OVERCOMETH ANOTHER.'

But habit! It is bad enough to know that use is second nature, and that man is a bundle of habits; but how much more hopeless to look into the rationale of habit, and perceive that the enormous strength of the habit that binds us connotes a structural modification, a shaping of the brain tissues to the thought of which the habit is the outward and visible sign and expression. Once such growth has taken place, is not the thing done, so that it can't be undone––has not the man taken shape for life when his ways of thinking are registered in the substance of his brain?

Not so; because one habit has been formed and registered in the brain is no reason at all why another and contrary habit should not be formed and registered in its turn. To-day is the day of salvation, physically speaking, because a habit is a thing of now; it may be begun in a moment, formed in a month, confirmed in three months, become the character, the very man, in a year.

Natural Preparation for Salvation––There is growth to the new thoughts in a new tract of the brain, and, 'One custom overcometh another'; here is the natural preparation for salvation. The words are very old, the words of Thomas a' Kempis, but the perception that they have a literal physical meaning has been reserved for us to-day. Only one train of ideas can be active at one time; the old cell connections are broken, and benign Nature is busy building up the waste places, even be they the waste places of many generations. NO ROAD is set up in the track where unholy thoughts carried on their busy traffic. New tissue is formed; the wound is healed, and, save, perhaps, for a scar, some little tenderness, that place is whole and sound as the rest.

This is how one custom overcometh another: there is no conflict, no contention, no persuasion. Secure for the new idea a weighty introduction, and it will accomplish all the rest for itself. It will feed and grow; it will increase and multiply; it will run its course of its own accord; will issue in that current of automatic unconscious involuntary thought of the man which shapes his character. Behold, a new man! Ye must be born again, we are told; and we say, with a sense of superior knowledge of the laws of Nature, How can a man be born again? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb and be born? This would be a miracle, and we have satisfied ourselves that 'miracles do not happen.'

Conversion no Miracle––And now, at last, the miracle of conversion is made plain to our dull understanding. We perceive that conversion, however sudden, is no miracle at all––using the word miracle to describe that which takes place in opposition to natural law. On the contrary, we find that every man carries in his physical substance the gospel of perpetual, or of always possible, renovation; and we find how, from the beginning, Nature was prepared with her response to the demand of Grace. Is conversion possible? we ask; and the answer is, that it is, so to speak, a function for which there is latent provision in our physical constitution, to be called forth by the touch of a potent idea. Truly His commandment is exceeding broad, and grows broader day by day with each new revelation of Science.

Many Conversions in a Lifetime––A man may, most men do, undergo this process of renovation many times in their lives; whenever an idea strong enough to divert his thoughts (as we most correctly say) from all that went before is introduced, the man becomes a new creature; when he is 'in love,' for example; when the fascinations of art or of nature take hold of him; an access of responsibility may bring about a sudden and complete conversion:––

     The breath no sooner left his father's body
     But that his wildness, mortified in him,
     Seem'd to die too; yea, at that very moment,
     Consideration, like an angel came
     And whipped the offending Adam out of him;
     Leaving his body as a paradise
     To envelop and contain celestial spirits.

Here is a picture––psychologically true, anyway; Shakespeare makes no mistakes in psychology––of an immediate absolute conversion. The conversion may be to the worse, alas, and not to the better, and the value of the conversion must depend upon the intrinsic worthiness of the idea by whose instrumentality it is brought about. The point worth securing is, that man carries in his physical structure the conditions of renovation; conditions, so far as we can conceive, always in working order, always ready to be put in force.

'Conversion' is not Contrary to Natural Law––Wherefore 'conversion' in the Biblical sense, in the sense in which the promoters of this scheme depend upon its efficacy, though a miracle of divine grace in so far as it is a sign and a marvel, is no miracle in the popular sense of that which is outside of and opposed to the workings of 'natural law.' Conversion is entirely within the divine scheme of things, even if we choose to limit our vision of that scheme to the 'few, faint, and feeble' flashes which Science is as yet able to throw upon the mysteries of being. But is this all? Ah, no; this is no more than the dim vestibule of Nature to the temple of grace; we are not concerned, however, to say one word here of how 'great is the mystery of godliness'; of the cherishing of the Father, the saving and the indwelling of the Son, the sanctifying of the Spirit; neither need we speak of 'spiritual wickedness in high places.' The aim of this slight essay is to examine the assertion that what we call conversion is contrary to natural law; and we do this with a view, not to General Booth's scheme only, but to all efforts of help.

Hope shows an ever stronger case for the regeneration of the vicious. Not only need we be no more oppressed by the fear of an inheritance of invincible propensities to evil, but the strength of lifelong habit may be vanquished by the power of an idea, new habits of thought may be set up on the instant, and these may be fostered and encouraged until that habit which is ten natures is the habit of the new life, and the thoughts which, so to speak, think themselves all day long are thoughts of purity and goodness.

THE LAW FOR US––POTENCY OF AN IDEA

'Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?'

Conditions of the Potency of an Idea––In effecting the renovation of a man the external agent is ever an idea, of such potency as to be seized upon with avidity by the mind, and, therefore, to make an impression upon the nervous substance of the cerebrum. The potency of an idea depends upon the fact of its being complementary to some desire or affection within the man. Man wants knowledge, for example, and power, and esteem, and love, and company; also he has within him capacities for love, esteem, gratitude, reverence, kindness. He has an unrecognised craving for an object on which to spend the good that is in him.

Fitness of the Ideas included in Christianity––The idea which makes a strong appeal to any one of his primal desires and affections must needs meet with a response. Such idea and such capacity are made for one another; apart, they are meaningless as ball and socket; together, they are a joint, effective in a thousand ways. But the man who is utterly depraved has no capacity for gratitude, for example? Yes, he has; depravity is a disease, a morbid condition; beneath is the man, capable of recovery. This is hardly the place to consider them, but think for a moment of the fitness of the ideas which are summed up in the thought of Christ to be presented to the poor degraded soul: divine aid and compassion for his neglected body; divine love for his loneliness; divine forgiveness in lieu of the shame of his sin; divine esteem for his self-contempt; divine goodness and beauty to call forth the passion of love and loyalty that is in him; the Story of the Cross, the lifting up, which perhaps no human soul is able to resist if it be fitly done. The divine idea once received, the divine life is imparted also, grows, is fostered and cherished by the Holy Ghost. The man is a new creature, with other aims, and other thoughts, and a life out of himself. The old things have passed away, and all things have become new––the physical being embodying, so to speak, the new life of the spirit.

We may well believe, indeed, that 'conversion' is so proper to the physical and spiritual constitution of man that it is inevitable to all of us if only the ideas summed up in Christ be fitly introduced to the soul.

The question then turns, not upon the possibility of converting the most depraved, nor upon the potency of the ideas to be presented, but altogether upon the power of putting these ideas so that a man shall recognise and seize upon the fulness of Christ as the necessary complement to the emptiness of which he is aware.

                  THE HABITS OF THE GOOD LIFE.

Curative Treatment Necessary––The man converted, the work is not done. These sinners exceedingly are not only sinful, but diseased; morbid conditions of brain have been set up, and every one of them needs individual treatment, like any other sick man, for disease slow of cure. For a month, three months, six months, it will not do to let one of them alone. Curative treatment is an absolute condition of success, and here is where human co-operation is invited in what is primarily and ultimately the work of God. There are places in the brain where ill thoughts have of old run their course; and these sore places must have time, blessed time, wherein to heal. That is to say, all traffic in the old thoughts must be absolutely stopped at whatever cost.

Think of the Army of Vigilance which must be ever on the alert to turn away the eyes of the patients from beholding evil; for, a single suggestion, of drink, of uncleanness, and, presto, the old thoughts run riot, and the work of healing must begin anew. There is no way to keep out the old, but by administering the thoughts of the new life watchfully, one by one, as they are needed, and can be taken; offering them with engaging freshness, with comforting fitness, until at last the period of anxious nursing is over, the habits of the good life are set up, and the patient is able to stand on his own feet and labour for his own meat. This is no work to be undertaken wholesale. The spiritual care of a multitude diseased, even physically diseased, of sin, is no light thing. And if it be not undertaken systematically, and carried out efficiently, the whole scheme must of necessity fall through. Who is sufficient for these things? No one perhaps; but a following of a great corps of nurses trained to minister to minds diseased, and with the experience and the method belonging to a professional calling, is surely a fitting qualification for the Herculean task.

                  THE EASE OF DISCIPLINE.

How readily we can understand how, in the days when monarchs were more despotic than they are now, one and another would take refuge in a convent for the ease of doing the will of another rather than his own! Is not this the attraction of conventual life to-day, and is not this why the idea of the Salvation Army is powerfully attractive to some of us who know, all the same, that we (individually) should be wrong to lay down our proper function of ordering and acting out our own lives?

The Relief of Inclusion In a Strong Organisation––But for these, strong of impulse and weak of will, who have no power at all to do the good they vaguely and feebly desire, oh, the ease of being taken up into a strong and beneficent organisation, of having their comings and goings, their doings and havings, ordered for them! Organisation, regimentation, we are reminded, make a hero of Tommy Atkins. And these all have it in them to be heroes, because restlessness, rebellion, once subdued, they will rejoice more than any others in the ease of simply doing as they are bidden. Here is a great secret of power, to treat these, lapsed and restored, like children; for what is the object of family discipline, of that obedience which has been described as the whole duty of a child? Is it not to ease the way of the child, while will is weak and conscience immature, by getting it on the habits of the good life where it is as easy to go right as for a locomotive to run on its lines? Just such present relief from responsibility, such an interval for development, do these poor children of larger growth demand for their needs; and any existing possibility of ordering and disciplining this mixed multitude must needs appear to us a surpassing adaptation of 'supply' to 'demand.'

Work and Fresh Air are Powerful Agents––The saving grace of work, and the healing power of the fresh air, again, should do their part in the restoration of the 'submerged.' But it is not our part to examine the methods proposed by General Booth, or to adumbrate his chances of success. Our concern is solely with the children. The attitude of thought towards all good work which children will henceforth take may depend very much upon how far the underlying principles are made clear to them in one typical instance. Whatever the agency, let children be assured that the work is the work of God, to be accomplished in the strength of God, according to the laws of God that it is our part to make ourselves acquainted with the laws we would work out, and that, having done all, we wait for the inspiration of the divine life, even as the diligent farmer waits upon sunshine and shower. 


1Issue of Darkest England