Unresponsive to Religion

Acts 28:27.---' The heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.'

This quotation from the sixth chapter of Isaiah appears no fewer than five times in the New Testament. In every case it is a complaint of a messenger of God that his message is not received. We should all be familiar with Isaiah's impressive description of the circumstances under which he received his call to preach: 'In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.' This vision produces in the beholder a sense of his own sinfulness and unworthiness---'I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.' Then follows the symbolic purification with the live coal taken off the altar. Then from the throne proceeds the interrogation, 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' Isaiah at once replies, 'here am I; send me.' Immediately and from then on he was told to go and speak the truth of God to a people who would refuse to hear. The language of the commission is that of rhetorical hyperbole: 'Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; least they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.'

The meaning of this saying is plain enough. It was a time in which trouble and disaster were impending. People were frivolous, luxurious, selfish, pleasure-loving. Their good old king lay dead, and wise and earnest minds were filled with foreboding as to the evils which were likely to follow under the new regime. It was brooding over this which brought Isaiah to the conviction that he was Divinely chosen to recall his countrymen to a more spiritual mode of life. The prophet seems to have expected from the first that people would be indisposed to hear. The mood of the time was against him. Those to whom his appeal was directed were too sunken in materialism to be willing to respond to it. For a time this did indeed prove to be the case, for it was not until King Hezekiah ascended the throne, and Jerusalem was in the greatest danger from a foreign foe, that the word of God obtained access to the national consciousness and the springs of the national life were cleansed.

Turn now to the New Testament. It seems a remarkable thing that Jesus should use the words of Isaiah as expressing His own experience. He had no lack of a hearing, surely. We read that crowds followed Him everywhere---at least for a time. There was one moment in particular when they would have taken Him by force to make Him a king had He not withdrawn into solitude. We are told that the common people heard Him gladly. How then are we to understand His statement that they did not really hear at all? Well, it was then very much as it is now; the many were restless and unhappy, but it was only the few who were deeply in earnest about spiritual things. Crowds came to Jesus, because they were attracted by the spiritual power of His personality, but they could not continue to live on His level, nor were they prepared to comply with his drastic demand for self-surrender as an antecedent condition to entering upon the higher life He had come to reveal to them.

The Decline of Religion and its Causes.---We cannot ignore the fact that throughout the world just now there is, or seems to be, a decline in religious susceptibility, a decay of religious desire. Why is it that so large a proportion of the people of this country, and practically every other civilized country, seems to have lost that sense of the eternal which we usually associate with religious life? That is, perhaps, how we should put it, for in some ways what deserves to be called spiritual life is as strong as it ever was, if not stronger. We are more humane than our immediate forbears; we have a keener sense of social justice; we are developing a social conscience; we have considerable faith in the better future of mankind, and so on. But the assurance of the eternal is certainly absent from our common consciousness, though we find it here and there in individuals. Society as a whole has not got it, and, what is more, it feels itself able to get on quite well without it. Men live in the present, the material, the mundane. They will not listen to anything that places stress upon the unseen, the purely spiritual. Why is this so?

Partly it is due to the craving for pleasure. Most people's lives are so toilsome, so monotonous, and their tasks so uninspiring that through sheer reaction they seek for whatever distractions they can find. People who are cooped up in factories and offices for the greater part of their waking hours are sure to try to secure the utmost relaxation for their tired systems when they can. Hence the mad rush for pleasure, change, excitement, novelty. The football field and the dance hall are more attractive to such people than gratifications of the more elevated kind. These delights minister to overworked and jaded faculties, the pressure upon which has necessitated the neglect of other and higher faculties of man's complex nature. Before we make haste to condemn the widespread craving for crude modes of enjoyment, let us not forget what has principally caused it.

A further cause of the present comparative atrophy of spiritual desire is a accompaniment of the one just mentioned; it is our utilitarian habit of mind. There is no fault to be found with this in itself; it had to come and the world is all the richer for knowing more about its own resources. But let us understand what we are doing. We are making minds of a certain type, minds which think in terms of balance-sheets, joint-stock business enterprises, economic legislation, new markets, income tax, implements of war, compulsory insurance, and the like. It is impossible to avoid thinking about these things; but when they tend to absorb most of our attention, as they can do, the result is that they produce a certain quality of mind which feels little susceptibility towards the spiritual. Men are what their pursuits make them, and our pursuits today are tending to force us into a merely utilitarian groove of thought and feeling, and to disincline us to listen to appeals which relate to any other kind of life.

There are other reasons why the religious motive does not operate so strongly as it used to do. Briefly, we may class them under such headings as chronic poverty and the degradation which follows in its train, unfitting men and women for anything higher than a brute existence; luxury, which is a similar evil; the inability of the Church to address herself to the needs of the time, owning to the hampering effect of antiquated creeds, and so on. But none of these, taken singly, is so responsible for the prevailing indifference to religion as the fact that the kind of mind our daily habits, tasks, and toils are making is a mind that cannot readily respond to the call of the unseen. We have ransacked Nature, torn her treasures from her, made her minister to our delight, but perhaps it is at the cost of spiritual vision.

The modern indifferentism is due, not so much to any philosophic theory as to the material triumphs of modern civilization and man's conquest of Nature; this has reacted upon man himself. The realm of mystery, before which he feels himself humble and weak, has withdrawn its frontiers; he can know his world now without falling back, or so he thinks, upon revelation. He can live his life without feeling his utter dependence upon supernatural powers. Yet if man so limits himself to a satisfied animal existence, and asks from life only what such an existence can give, the higher values of life at once disappear. It is from this very element of the eternal and unlimited which the materialist in practice seeks to deny that the true progress of the human race has sprung.

The time is near at hand for all of us when we must forsake these external interests in obedience to the command of death and go elsewhere. Then, if all our lives we have been rushing hard after one kind of good, how are we going to adjust ourselves to another? What shall we do in a world where money means nothing, where fashion means nothing, where material possessions are unobtainable? If our habit of mind has been molded by such considerations as these, how poor we shall be when we are withdrawn from them! So is he that lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.

The Remedy.---What is wanted at the present day is a reawakening of desire for and susceptibility to the eternal. To some extent it is already here, but it must become more intense, and the Holy Spirit must fall upon us with new life and power. We want a Divine illumination of our common consciousness, a deeper awareness of sacred meanings in our common life.

That spiritual illumination will come if only we can lift our thoughts towards it, and pray God to grant it. This is not the first time in the history of the world that it has been sorely needed; the stage we are passing through just now is not new. Again and again Christendom has passed through a similar phase or mood. How gross was the twelfth century before Bernard arose! How secular was the early thirteenth before the friars came! It was an England in which infidelity was cynically avowed, even by persons who held high ecclesiastical office, when Wesley and Whitfield began their mission. Though we personally may not be so sunken today, we sadly need the restoration of our spiritual perspective. But the day will come when it will be just as impossible to deny the immortality of the soul as it is now impossible to deny that the world is round. The day will come when we shall see that the only value of the material is that it is the sacrament of the spiritual, a temporal symbol of an eternal good. And when that day comes we shall enthrone Christ as Lord of the commonwealth of nations as well as Master and Savior of every individual human being who has discovered the nothingness of life without God.

In Christ, timothy. maranatha