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The Ascent of the Soul By Amory H. Bradford Characters: 25000

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

In the ascent of the soul do light and power come to its assistance from outside and from above? Is evolution alone a sufficient guarantee that it will some time reach its goal? These are not so much questions of theory as of fact, and as such will be treated in this chapter.

Light and power have come to the race in its struggles upward from one source as from no other. In history one figure appears colossal and unique. Whether we classify Jesus Christ with men, or regard Him as a special divine manifestation is of little consequence in our inquiry. If He is the consummate flower of the evolutionary process, then, because of some unexplained influence, that process reached a degree of perfection in Him that it has reached in no other. If it pleased God in a single instance to hasten the process, the result is not less inspiring and illuminating than it would have been if the divine purpose had been directly and instantly accomplished. The teachers and leaders have ever been helpers of their fellow-men. In evolution, as in the race of life, some always move more swiftly than others; and those who are far in advance may, if they choose, become the servants of those who move more slowly. One Being has appeared in the midst of the ages who is so far superior to all others that He may be regarded as the revelation of the soul's true goal, but who is, at the same time, so unlike others as to convince many, at least, that He is also the revelation in humanity of a higher power which is cooperating with the soul in its ascent.

In this chapter no attempt will be made to meet the various questions that the formal theologians have raised. I cannot feel that such subjects as "satisfaction," "expiation," "plan of salvation" are of any practical importance, and I leave them to those who care for them. In the meantime let us ask, What aid does the soul need in its passage through its life on the earth? It needs light and power. We do not meditate long on the soul's advance without realizing that it has been constantly reinforced from outside itself. This phase of our subject will be considered in the chapter on "The Inseparable Companion."

It may, I think, be said that what the soul needs more than anything else is light, and that all necessary light has been furnished. Jesus said, "I am the Light of the World." That statement is literally true. There may be room for perplexity as to the credibility of parts of the New Testament, and as to what is called the miraculous element in history. There is also room for difference of opinion as to the nature of the person of Jesus, and as to His supernatural mission; but few would deny that, if they could feel sure that He was actually from above, they would accept His message because it contains all the ethical and spiritual knowledge that men need in their earthly lives.

A single assumption is made at the beginning of our study. It is as follows: What satisfies our minds and hearts, in their hours of deepest need and brightest illumination, should always be accepted as true until it is proven to be false.

The profoundest subjects of thought and life are illuminated by the ministry and the teaching of Jesus Christ. The last word concerning these subjects has not yet been spoken. Even our Bible is but a collection of scattered rays of the true light. What vaster revelations may come to men in future ages no one can predict. As growth goes on, the soul will be fitted to receive messages which it could not now understand; but all that men need to know in their present stage of development is clearly revealed in the teaching, and the example, of the Man of Nazareth and Calvary. He is the brightest light on the deepest and darkest problems.

Let us try to understand and define the place of Jesus Christ in the ascent of the soul.

Jesus Christ has given the world a rational and satisfying doctrine of God. Other teachers have tried to answer the inquiry, Does God exist? Jesus treated that question as an astronomer treats the sun. No sane scientist would fill his pages with speculations as to the reality of the sun. It moves and shines in the heavens; beginning with that fact, the astronomer asks concerning the function which the sun performs in the solar system and in the universe.

Jesus discarded speculation and found the key to the doctrine of God in the family, the simplest and most elemental of human institutions. There may be wide differences concerning the nature of government, the sanctions of law, etc., but there is no room for debate concerning the meaning of the parental relation. It interprets itself. Tell a child that a man is his father, and he can be told no more. The name interprets the relation. In earlier times the vastness of the creation was but dimly appreciated, and then the idea of God was equally contracted. Jesus taught that the Deity, whether the conception of Him was small or large, was to be interpreted in terms of fatherhood. What an ideal father is to his family God is to the race and to the universe. That meant one thing when the father was little more than the protector of a tribe; it means something greater, but not essentially different now. The conception of the universe is one of the most revolutionary that ever entered the human mind. The conception of a tribe is larger than that of a family; of a nation larger than that of a tribe; of the race larger than that of the nation; but the conception of the universe, with its myriads of worlds and possible multiplicity of races, is the amazing contribution which science has made to the thought of to-day. While the conception of the Deity has been enlarged the principle of interpretation remains unchanged. Are we thinking of Jehovah the God of Israel? He is the Father of the tribe. Has our idea expanded so as to include all the nations? God is the Father not of a limited number but of all that dwell upon the earth. Has the horizon been lifted to take in heavenly heights? Are we now thinking of immensities, eternities, and the cosmic process? The teaching of Jesus is not transcended; we still continue to interpret in terms of fatherhood, and say all time, all space, all men, all purposes and processes in the infinities and eternities are in the hands of the Father. But when we have ascended to such a height what does the word Father mean? Exactly the same in essence that it meant in the humblest of Judean households among which Jesus moved. The father there was the one who made the home, sustained it, defended it, watched over it by day and by night; in exactly the same way the followers of Jesus think of the Spirit who pervades all things. He creates, He cares for, He defends, He provides, He loves, He causes all processes to work for blessing to the intelligent beings who are His children.

Jesus in a peculiar way identified himself with the Deity. That does not mean that all the divine omnipotence and glory were in that Man of Nazareth, but it does mean that all of the Deity that could be expressed in terms of humanity were visible in Him, so that those who saw Jesus saw God as far as He could be manifested in the flesh. Beyond that veil were abysses and heights of being which could not be expressed in human terms; but in all the spaces we may dare to believe that there is nothing essentially different from what was revealed in that unique Man. A bay makes a curve in the Atlantic seaboard; its shallow waters are all from the deeps of the sea. Tides that move along all the seas, and forces which reach to the stars, fill that basin among the hills. The bay is the ocean, but not all of it; for if we were to sail around the earth we should find the same body of water reaching out to vaster spaces.

Even so the person of Jesus included all of God that humanity can contain, but Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Gethsemane and Calvary were to the Deity as some land-locked harbor to the immensities of the universe. In Him love reached to enemies, to the outcast, to those who had been called refuse and rubbish, to men of all classes in all the ages, to lepers, beggars, criminals, lunatics, harlots, thieves, little children; those who appreciated and those who hated alike were all included in the infinite purpose of blessing.

Those who have seen the love of Jesus, and its ministries, have seen the Father; but beyond the love of Galilee and Calvary reach depths of love which even the cross is powerless to express. Divine sympathy and divine affection bind all men in a universal family; this we know, and this is all we know.

That teaching is so simple that a child can understand it; so profound that no philosopher has ever transcended it; and so satisfying that neither child nor philosopher would have it changed either as to its simplicity or its fullness.

Jesus furnishes the light which the soul needs on the nature of man. Wonderfully has Holman Hunt elaborated this truth in his picture "The Light of the World." The ideal humanity never had more beautiful expression than in that great sermon in color. The poise of the figure of Jesus indicates strength and self-control; the thorns on the brow tell their story of sorrow and pain; the hand at the door shows that one man at least is mindful of the welfare of His brother; the radiance on the face and the inspiration in the eyes are the outshining of the goodness which dwells within; while the light from the whole person, which reaches far into the gloom, shows that the more nearly perfect the being the more beneficent and beautiful his influence must be. Is Jesus Christ the brightness of the Father's glory? He reveals also the beauty and helpfulness, the love and the service of the ideal man. He is the pattern of our common humanity. Are we in the midst of a process of evolution? And is the man that is to be still far in the distance? When he shall walk this earth he will be the spiritual reproduction of Jesus, changed only to meet the requirements of other times and new conditions.

The revelation of the ideal humanity was hardly less revolutionary than that of the enlarged universe. Formerly men were regarded as things, commodities to be bought and sold, creatures without souls, objects to be used. But Jesus taught that all men are children of God; therefore that they have the very life of God; therefore that they are created for His eternity, and will forever approach His perfection. This vision of the perfected race has been at work changing national boundaries, destroying hoary institutions, undermining thrones, and making a new world. A glance shows the revolutionary quality of His teaching. Slavery was the curse of every land. With force on the one side and weakness on the other oppression was inevitable. Jesus taught that even weakness may be divine, and lo! from every civilized land slavery has already gone, and from the world it is fast disappearing.

According to the orthodox economic doctrine, supply and demand was the law that should govern the relation between employer and employee. The largest profit and the smallest wages was the watchword. As the teaching of Jesus has penetrated further into the dealings of man with man employers are beginning to realize that labor has to do with human beings; that manhood is enduring and that conditions are ephemeral; and that whosoever oppresses his brother, even in the name of economic law, at last will have to reckon with the Almighty. Thus a new and more beneficent social order is slowly but surely emerging.

The doctrine of the survival of the fittest is, even now, applied to men where the teaching of Jesus that Providence has made a way for the survival of the unfit is unknown or ignored. In all lands the revelation in Jesus of the ideal manhood, and of the destiny toward which all men are moving is changing and glorifying human society. He is the one whom "the low-browed beggar," and the criminal with a vicious heredity, are some time to approach. Is it difficult to select the one phrase of all human utterances which has exerted the largest influence in ameliorating the human condition? Would it not be,-"Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these, ye did it unto Me." The identification of humanity with Deity, the revelation of the divine in the human, the solemn truth that no one can injure or neglect his brother without, at the same time, violating all that is sacred and holy in the universe is the culminating point in the

revelation of man to himself. In the light which Jesus sheds on humanity all men appear in their enduring rather than their transitory relations.

The life and teaching of Jesus make the awful and insoluble mystery of suffering endurable. He satisfies no curiosity on this subject. Why suffering is permitted He does not tell us. He never allowed himself to be diverted from His one purpose, which was not to solve problems but to improve conditions. If any one approaches the New Testament expecting to find an answer to his speculative questions he will be disappointed; but if he asks, How may I so use the conditions in which I am placed that they will minister to my spiritual purification and power? he will receive a definite and satisfying reply. Why need sorrow, suffering, sin, and death invade the fair realm into which man has been born? Other teachers seek to answer this question but Jesus is silent. How may sorrow, suffering, and even moral evil be made ministers of an upward movement? On this subject Jesus speaks with a tone of authority. Among the world's teachers He was the first to declare that while austere experiences are not good in themselves they may, uniformly, become means of moral and spiritual progress. The sweet may always be found in the bitter. Sorrow may always be made a blessing. Tears never need be wasted. Struggle always adds to strength; and sympathy is multiplied when one bears the grief and carries the burden of another.

Do not brood over what you are called to endure, but seek for the secret of spiritual help which is hidden within, and you will find that on every grief and every pain you may rise, as on stepping-stones, to higher things.

Jesus was the supreme optimist. Those who study life and history in the light which shines from Him see that no human being walks with aimless feet. They do not think of men as unrelated units, but as bound by love to one another, and as living under the eye and in the strength of God. In that light sorrow and pain may be justified, even though in themselves they are hateful. The poison which destroys life, if rightly used, will save life.

Apart from God and His purpose of love, nothing is more to be dreaded than pain; but in His hands pain becomes the servant and not the master of men.

I can think of nothing more dreary than the study of human life and history apart from the interpretations put upon them by Jesus. Then one generation seems to follow another, and the long procession, even though the character of those composing it steadily improves, always ends at the same goal,-the grave. Millions live and die like the beasts that perish. They aspire, struggle, and are determined to rise, but just when they are fitted to endure, and to enter upon ampler spheres of service, the curtain falls on the tragedy, the stage scenery is changed, a new company of players takes their places, and the farce, for it is a farce as well as a tragedy, goes on from century to century, and there is no meaning in anything. If that were the true interpretation of life, on earth's loftiest mountain there might well be raised a temple in honor of death; and around it all the races of men be invited to join in the chorus, "Happy is the next one who dies!"

But a better interpretation of human life's mystery has been given. Jesus looked over its apparent desolation and confusion and poured upon it divine light. He taught that it is not the Father's will that even one should perish. Men are not being ground in an infinite mill, but they are being refined and purified by the only processes which will develop in them both strength and beauty. Out of confusion harmony will come, and out of the battle of the elements peace will dawn at last.

To those who know that pain and sorrow are ministers of strength and sympathy, that by them narrow horizons are widened and deserts made to blossom, human life does not seem so confused and terrible as it has sometimes been pictured. Jesus makes evident the upward movement of the race, and shows, let me repeat, that it is "under the eye and in the strength of God." He was made perfect through suffering. The thorns on His brow tell their own pathetic story. The passion vine above His head, and beneath His feet, indicate that even His sufferings are not without a purpose of blessing, and therefore are fully justified.

And now we approach the saddest of all the dark experiences through which the soul passes,-the mystery of sin. Of its enormity I have already spoken; but what about its origin, its uses, and its continuance? The question of its origin Jesus does not even mention. It is not recognized as having any uses. It may be made an occasion of good, but it is never ordained in order that good may come. Hardly any other subject occupies so large a place in the teachings of Jesus. It was said of Him, "His name shall be called Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins;" and of Him Paul wrote, "God commendeth His love toward us in that when we were yet sinners Christ died for us."

The terrible blight of moral evil, whatever its genesis, cannot be explained away. Jesus passed by all other questions and devoted the largest part of His ministry, as a teacher, to showing how the soul may escape from the power, and be delivered from the bondage, of sin. This is the practical problem. As one surveys the race the imperative inquiry concerns deliverance. What light does Jesus shed upon this mystery? He shows that sin is an incident in the ascent of the soul, and not an end; that it is hateful and unnatural; and that all the strength and goodness of God are pledged to its removal. The soul will be allowed to be in bondage only so long as is necessary for its complete emancipation. Moral evil is tolerated at all not because it is a good in itself, but in order that the soul may learn that its safety and strength are to be found only in conformity to the will of God.

Jesus reveals the way of escape and thus confers upon the race the greatest of possible blessings. This he does by the revelation of the Fatherhood of God, which is not only compassionate but also holy. Because God is the Father of all souls, when any one ceases to do evil and begins to do well, or in other words repents, he finds a welcome and help waiting for him. And Jesus clearly indicates, also, that in the constitution of the soul, and in the inexorableness of moral law, there is a deep remedial agency which is ever active, giving no individual rest until it finds it in God. The tragedy of the cross was preeminently a revelation. The cross is the manifestation, in terms of human life, of the passion of the universe and of God. There must be suffering in all who are good, until sin disappears.

The cross is the revelation of the Eternal God in sacrifice for the redemption of souls in bondage to selfishness and animalism. Jesus taught that sin is to be abolished. By means of the revelations of holiness, the sacrifices of love, the remedial agency in the universe, and by His own new life the forces of evil are to be broken, and the soul allowed to enter into its freedom as a child of God. This is not a subject for definition and dogmatism. The greatest things cannot be defined, but they may be appropriated. The light, the air, gravitation and all elemental forces transcend definition. The love of God revealed on the cross is too holy and too transcendent for "scheme and plan." It may be accepted in a spirit of worship, but it can be comprehended no more than the process by which rain and soil are transmuted into nourishment, and light into physical strength and beauty. The cross is the pledge of the redemption of the soul through the love and power of God; and beyond that we have no knowledge except that wherever that cross has been lifted up men have been drawn unto truth and virtue, love and brotherhood.

More than poetry and sentiment has found expression in a popular hymn which thrills with a power which has been verified again and again in human history:

"In the cross of Christ I glory,

Towering o'er the wrecks of time

All the light of sacred story

Gathers round its head sublime."

Jesus has furnished no clew to the origin of moral evil, but He has given to the hope that it is to be overcome in the individual, the race, and the universe, the testimony of His teaching and the emphasis of His death.

Which is the greater mystery, life or death? A satisfying answer is impossible, since we cannot think of one without thinking of its opposite. What is life? Whence is it? Why is it? Such are some of the questions which arise and elicit no response when one meditates upon the mystery of living. What is death? What purpose does it serve? Is it an end or a beginning? Such are some of the inquiries which cannot be escaped when one, for even a few moments, looks, as all some time must look, on the still and peaceful face of one who has ceased to breathe. Who shall answer our questions? Of all who have attempted to fathom these depths One alone has brought a message which is satisfying both to the minds and hearts of those who think. Does any light from Jesus penetrate the mystery of death? What others have groped after he has declared. He taught that the universe is like a house of many rooms, and that dying is but passing from one room to another. In His own experience He illustrated His teachings. He ministered to His disciples; He communed with those whom He loved until their hearts burned within them. Then He disappeared and has been seen no more. But why did He appear at all after death? Was it not to confirm the message of the Transfiguration that those who seem to die only change the mode of their existence, and continue their companionships and ministries even after they have laid aside their bodies?

In the passage in the Gospel of Matthew, which may be called the parable of the judgment, Jesus taught that the moral order is not changed by the transition from bodily to disembodied existence. The thoughts which men think, and the actions which they perform, affect the substance of the soul. Evil works misery and virtue leads to happiness beyond the grave as well as here. Seed sown on the earth may grow to its harvest in the ages that lie beyond.

This is all the light on this subject that we need now. Death removes no one beyond the watch and care of the infinite love. In the home of the Heavenly Father His children pass from place to place, as He calls. Jesus appeared to those who loved Him, and was recognized by them, and that indicates that, whatever the changes of the future, the spiritual body will be recognized by all who love.

The moral order is universal, and no change will touch the everlasting distinctions between right and wrong, or diminish the obligation to choose the right and refuse the wrong.

These are some of the lessons which are impressed upon us as we meditate upon the life and teachings of Jesus and their relation to the ascent of the soul.

He is the light of all souls. Into the darkness His glory has been extending and expanding from His own time until now. If we may judge the future from the past, it is easy to believe that this radiance will not fail from among men until all realize that life and death, time and eternity, humanity and history, are beset behind and before by the Divine Fatherhood; that the goal of the race is the fullness of Christ; that the severest experiences sometimes achieve the best results; that sin will not forever darken the history of humanity; that death is a passage not an abyss; an opening not a closing; a beginning not an ending; and that beyond stretch opportunities of limitless life and immortal growth.

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The prayers I make will then be sweet indeed,

If Thou the Spirit give by which I pray:

My unassisted heart is barren clay,

Which of its native self can nothing feed:

Of good and pious works Thou art the seed,

Which quickens only where Thou say'st it may

Unless Thou show to us Thine own true way,

No man can find it: Father! Thou must lead.

Do Thou, then, breathe those thoughts into my mind

By which such virtue may in me be bred

That in Thy holy footsteps I may tread;

The fetters of my tongue do Thou unbind,

That I may have the power to sing of Thee,

And sound Thy praises everlastingly.

-Sonnet from Michael Angelo. Wordsworth.

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