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Where No Fear Was By Arthur Christopher Benson Characters: 9940

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

There have been many attempts in the history of mankind to escape from the dominion of fear; the essence of fear, that which prompts it, is the consciousness of our vulnerability. What we all dread is the disease or the accident that may disable us, the loss of money or credit, the death of those whom we love and whose love makes the sunshine of our life, the anger and hostility and displeasure and scorn and ill-usage of those about us. These are the definite things which the anxious mind forecasts, and upon which it mournfully dwells.

The object then in the minds of the philosophers or teachers who would fain relieve the unhappiness of the world, has been always to suggest ways in which this vulnerability may be lessened; and thus their object has been to disengage as far as possible the hopes and affections of men from things which must always be fleeting. That is the principle which lies behind all asceticism, that, if one can be indifferent to wealth and comfort and popularity, one has a better chance of serenity. The essence of that teaching is not that pleasant things are not desirable, but that one is more miserable if one loses them than if one never cares for them at all. The ascetic trains himself to be indifferent about food and drink and the apparatus of life; he aims at celibacy partly because love itself is an overmastering passion, and partly because he cannot bear to engage himself with human affections, the loss of which may give him pain. There is, of course, a deeper strain in asceticism than this, which is a suspicious mistrust of all physical joys and a sense of their baseness; but that is in itself an artistic preference of mental and spiritual joys, and a defiance to everything which may impair or invade them.

The Stoic imperturbability is an attempt to take a further step; not to fly from life, but to mingle with it, and yet to grow to be not dependent on it. The Stoic ideal was a high one, to cultivate a firmness of mind that was on the one hand not to be dismayed by pain or suffering, and on the other to use life so temperately and judiciously as not to form habits of indulgence which it would be painful to discontinue. The weakness of Stoicism was that it despised human relations; and the strength of primitive Christianity was that, while it recommended a Stoical simplicity of life, it taught men not to be afraid of love, but to use and lavish love freely, as being the one thing which would survive death and not be cut short by it. The Christian teaching came to this, that the world was meant to be a school of love, and that love was to be an outward-rippling ring of affection extending from the family outwards to the tribe, the nation, the world, and on to God Himself. It laid all its emphasis on the truth that love is the one immortal thing, that all the joys and triumphs of the world pass away with the decay of its material framework, but that love passes boldly on, with linked hands, into the darkness of the unknown.

The one loss that Christianity recognised was the loss of love; the one punishment it dreaded was the withholding of love.

As Christianity soaked into the world, it became vitiated, and drew into itself many elements of human weakness. It became a social force, it learned to depend on property, it fulminated a code of criminality, and accepted human standards of prosperity and wealth. It lost its simplicity and became sophisticated. It is hard to say that men of the world should not, if they wish, claim to be Christians, but the whole essence of Christianity is obscured if it is forgotten that its vital attributes are its indifference to material conveniences, and its emphatic acceptance of sympathy as the one supreme virtue.

This is but another way of expressing that our troubles and our terrors alike are based on selfishness, and that if we are really concerned with the welfare of others we shall not be much concerned with our own.

The difficulty in adopting the Christian theory is that God does not apparently intend to cure the world by creating all men unselfish. People are born selfish, and the laws of nature and heredity seem to ordain that it shall be so. Indeed a certain selfishness seems to be inseparable from any desire to live. The force of asceticism and of Stoicism is that they both appeal to selfishness as a motive. They frankly say, "Happiness is your aim, personal happiness; but instead of grasping at pleasure whenever it offers, you will find it more prudent in the end not to care too much about such things." It is true that popular Christianity makes the same sort of appeal. It says, or seems to say, "If you grasp at happiness in this world, you may secure a great deal of it successfully; but it will be worse for you eventually."

The theory of life as taught and enforced, for instance, in such a work as Dante's great poem is based upon this crudity of thought. Dante, by his Hell and his Purgatory

, expressed plainly that the chief motive of man to practise morality must be his fear of ultimate punishment. His was an attempt to draw away the curtain which hides this world from the next, and to horrify men into living purely and kindly. But the mind only revolts against the dastardly injustice of a God, who allows men to be born into the world so corrupt, with so many incentives to sin, and deliberately hides from them the ghastly sight of the eternal torments, which might have saved them from recklessness of life. No one who had trod the dark caverns of Hell or the flinty ridges of Purgatory, as Dante represented himself doing, who had seen the awful sights and heard the heart-broken words of the place, could have returned to the world as a light-hearted sinner! Whatever we may believe of God, we must not for an instant allow ourselves to believe that life can be so brief and finite, so small and hampered an opportunity, and that punishment could be so demoniacal and so infinite. A God who could design such a scheme must be essentially evil and malignant. We may menace wicked men with punishment for wanton misdeeds, but it must be with just punishment. What could we say of a human father who exposed a child to temptation without explaining the consequences, and then condemned him to lifelong penalties for failing to make the right choice? We must firmly believe that if offences are finite, punishment must be finite too; that it must be remedial and not mechanical. We must believe that if we deserve punishment, it will be because we can hope for restoration. Hell is a monstrous and insupportable fiction, and the idea of it is simply inconsistent with any belief in the goodness of God. It is easy to quote texts to support it, but we must not allow any text, any record in the world, however sacred, to shatter our belief in the Love and Justice of God. And I say as frankly and directly as I can that until we can get rid of this intolerable terror, we can make no advance at all.

The old, fierce Saints, who went into the darkness exulting in the thought of the eternal damnation of the wicked, had not spelt the first letter of the Christian creed, and I doubt not have discovered their mistake long ago! Yet there are pious people in the world who will neither think nor speak frankly of the subject, for fear of weakening the motives for human virtue. I will at least speak frankly, and though I believe with all my heart in a life beyond the grave, in which suffering enough may exist for the cure of those who by wilful sin have sunk into sloth and hopelessness and despair, and even into cruelty and brutality, I do not for an instant believe that the conduct of the vilest human being who ever set foot on the earth can deserve more than a term of punishment, or that such punishment will have anything that is vindictive about it.

It may be said that I am here only combating an old-fashioned idea, and that no one believes in the old theory of eternal punishment, or that if they believe that the possibility exists, they do not believe that any human being can incur it. But I feel little doubt that the belief does exist, and that it is more widespread than one cares to believe. To believe it is to yield to the darkest and basest temptation of fear, and keeps all who hold it back from the truth of God.

What then are we to believe about the punishment of our sins? I look back upon my own life, and I see numberless occasions-they rise up before me, a long perspective of failures-when I have acted cruelly, selfishly, self-indulgently, basely, knowing perfectly well that I was so behaving. What was wrong with me? Why did I so behave? Because I preferred the baser course, and thought at the time that it gave me pleasure.

Well then, what do I wish about all that? I wish it had not happened so, I wish I had been kinder, more just, more self-restrained, more strong. I am ashamed, because I condemn myself, and because I know that those whom I love and honour would condemn me, if they knew all. But I do not, therefore, lose all hope of myself, nor do I think that God will not show me how to be different. If it can only be done by suffering, I dread the suffering, but I am ready to suffer if I can become what I should wish to be. But I do not for a moment think that God will cast me off or turn His face away from me because I have sinned; and I can pray that He will lead me into light and strength.

And thus it is not my vulnerability that I dread; I rather welcome it as a sign that I may learn the truth so. And I will not look upon my desire for pleasant things as a proof that I am evil, but rather as a proof that God is showing me where happiness lies, and teaching me by my mistakes to discern and value it. He could make me perfect if He would, in a single instant. But the fact that He does not, is a sign that He has something better in store for me than a mere mechanical perfection.

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