The Hope of Civilization

Message Rom. 15:13.---' The God of hope.' The author of this phrase was not one who was naturally disposed to take an excessively cheerful or optimistic view of life. He did not conceal from himself or his disciples that without him were troubles, within him were fears. He was intimately acquainted with the world and its ways, and never for a moment was he duped into imagining that the world-spirit was the Spirit of God, or that the splendid materialities of contemporary Roman civilization were the visible tokens of the advent of the celestial kingdom.

And yet, in spite of all, St Paul was a decided optimist. Perhaps his idea may be stated in this way. Happen what may, the forces of God must infallibly triumph in the long run. Then, just in so far as men are prepared to join their human forces with the superhuman forces, just in so far as they are prepared to work with God along the lines that His all-wise Providence has marked out for them---why, they can no more fail than God Himself can fail.

The tendency of the modern world is to place its hope in man---in human thought, human will, human effort, and in the vast and complex result of human ideas and human strivings which we roughly sum up in the term "modern civilization." The antithesis, thus badly put, is rather startling, is it not? Here is the Pauline outlook, and there is the modern---trust in God, hope based on God, upon the one hand; trust in man, hope based on man, upon the other. Let us think what is meant by this civilization in which so many put their trust, and what is the justification of the hope that is based upon it.

There are many who still interpret civilization mainly in material terms. Civilization, according to the popular conception of it, stands for something like this---houses all heated and lit by electricity; automobiles in myriads; Cruise liners like monster hotels; huge aircraft, plying with passengers between London, Paris and New York; telephones everywhere, elevators everywhere, entertainment at each street corner. Do these material accomplishments in themselves and by themselves sufficiently justify our hope for the society which has accomplished them? Surely we are forgetting, in our pride at our own successes, that other societies have flourished in the past with a wealth of material resource, of mechanical contrivance and of artistic skill, different from ours, but not unequal to that of any modern people. And what has happened to them now? What has become of the civilization of ancient Rome or of ancient Greece or of ancient Egypt?

But the word civilization, we may say, stands for something deeper---for the modern development of the human mind and spirit, for the diffusion of knowledge, the quickening of intelligence, the growth of liberty embodied in the new democracy, the expansion of humanitarian sentiment, and the like. Well, be it so. No one denies that their have been changes in these directions. Yet it is open to question whether any or all of these changes, by themselves, can afford an adequate basis for optimism.

But let us go to the root of the matter. After all, the only thing that can justify our hope for civilization is the character of the people. Is the individual, is society, is the world becoming better? He would be a bold man who would answer unhesitatingly in the affirmative. Leigh Hunt, referring to Napoleon in his latter days, remarks that "no great principles stood by him." And would it be wholly unfair to apply the observation to contemporary society? Our views of right and wrong have become indistinct and blurred. We have one opinion one day, and another opinion another day. We have no great principles, no commanding moral standards. This does not mean to say, of course, that we are desperately bad; on the whole we do pretty much what all good people are expected to do by all other good people. But our standards are sadly defective. And, as some one has justly said, "The worst sign of an age is not evil living, but low standards."

Can we seriously believe, then, that this modern civilization guarantees the complete fulfillment of our bright hopes about the future? Why, even now there are many observers who discern in this civilized order fewer promises of progress than symptoms of decline; who tell us that we are on the road, not to any earthly paradise, but to an overwhelming world-catastrophe.

This is what I see for example [struck not so much by the levity, as by the sordid greediness of the age], looking forward into the coming years, and this is the vision that is seen. The cities grow vaster and vaster. People are piled up storey upon storey , and the ground below is honeycombed with a network of tunnels and subways. Men will breathe this artificial air of progress. The wealth is enormous. Immense trusts, run by multi-billionaires, control the capital and dominate the State. The old aristocracy is abolished, and society is reconstituted on the cash foundation. And for a while the new social structure seems to be practically unassailable. But when all appears most secure, then suddenly the end comes. Gigantic strikes, anarchist outrages, all kinds of social shocks follow each other in quick succession, and at last there is world-revolution from which society cannot recover. Then the wealth disappears; commerce and industry vanish away; and the great centers themselves gradually cease to be inhabited.

It is not civilization by itself that gives us encouragement to hope. Civilization apart from God is dismally disappointing. It offers us no hope. If we really want that, we must seek it where St Paul sought it and where alone it can be found---in 'the God of hope.' It is only when we have settled into a right relationship with God, only when we are striving sincerely and intelligently to discover and perform His Will, that we can be assured that our affairs are going right and will work out right. God deals with societies as He deals with individuals. He calls each people to do a certain definite work, and He equips them with strength to do it, and He means that they shall do it. And if contumaciously they refuse to do it, then God rejects that people, and finds an instrument somewhere else. But for those who obey there is solid ground for hope. The end of the game cannot, by any possibility, be checkmate for them. The whole movement of things is with them. All the forces of God are behind them.

The only real hope for human society lies in the progressive conformation of the social will to the Will of God. But there is this further truth, which we so easily lose sight of, that this progressive transformation of the social will cannot otherwise come about than by the progressive transformation of the wills of individuals. Every reform has been conceived and carried through individuals. Take, for instance, such a reform as the suppression of dueling in England. Dueling was still common in the reign of George the Third, and even as late as the year 1829 a man so great as Wellington thought himself bound to fight a duel. Why, then, is the practice obsolete? It is because a few individuals---at first a very few---saw the criminal stupidity of the whole proceeding, and were brave enough, when challenged, to refuse to fight. Of course they suffered for their conviction. They were turned out of the army; they were blackballed at the clubs; they were thrown over by the women whom they had hoped to marry. But their opinion made its way, and at last even the dull-witted public was impressed.

Now, as it was with dueling, so it is with all reform. It begins with individuals. What, then, are we doing about it? Are we showing ourselves alive to our great responsibility? Are we really exhausting all our powers and possibilities in the cause of God's Kingdom and righteousness? If we truly care, most of us can do much for the elevation and Christianization and regeneration of human society. But even if we can do but little, is that a reason why we should do nothing?

So it is only as we surrender ourselves to God, and allow Him to have His way with us, that we can reasonably harbor optimism. But when once God takes command, then there is nothing that we need be anxious about or afraid of any longer. The future is ours, and the promises are ours, and all the blessings which are prepared for those that love the Lord are ours. For, though empires fall, and nations perish, and civilizations decay, still the Kingdom of God, to which we belong, goes forward.

In Christ, timothy. maranatha