From these inherited difficulties, which affect both religious thinking and living, we turn to another class of misconceptions particularly affecting concrete religious living, and which arise from mistaking the nature of the spiritual life itself, as a life of strain, or a life of imitation or repetition of others' experiences, or a life of magical inheritance, or, finally, a life of rules laid on from without. These misconceptions follow plainly from ignoring the great fundamental psychical conditions already reviewed; but they influence so powerfully the spiritual life, and end so inevitably in a sense of its unreality, that they deserve to be thus brought together, and definitely set aside.
And, first, the spiritual life is not a life of strain, either in the sense of putting pressure upon the mind to hold certain beliefs, or in the sense of keeping up a certain continuous stress of attention. It is a real struggle, a continuing conflict, a life of steady facing of duty; but still it should not be, in any hysterical sense, a life of strain.
This means, in the first place, that the man who wishes to have the spiritual life a reality to him, will not bring any pressure upon his mind to hold certain beliefs. He will rather see clearly that his sole responsibility is simply to put himself face to face with the great realities, and to make an honest response to them. He is honestly to give them their opportunity with him, through earnest attention to the truth; but that is all; he can make no great convictions to order. It should need no argument to cause us to admit, with Dr. Bushnell, that to put pressure on the mind, for whatever end, is, to begin with, dishonest; and we cannot rationally hope that dishonesty will help to the sense of the reality of a spiritual life, that must be from the bottom ethical. Dishonesty, in any form, is itself hollow and false; it is impossible that it should give finally any genuine reality. Moreover, for this very reason, even when through mere effort of the will a temporary sense of reality is given, a reaction is certain to follow, that leaves the spiritual life less assured than at first. In a word, in every such putting of pressure upon the mind to believe certain things, there is always some latent sense pretense and unreality, that can never give a solid foundation for spiritual living. The
spiritual life calls for no such straining to believe, and only suffers by it.
The general Protestant procedure of requiring, as the initial step in the religious life, acceptance of a whole system of doctrines, has been misleading, and has tended distinctly to the deadening of the spiritual life. Some creed, doubtless, is implied in all true living; but the beliefs that can free us and give us strength and courage are not the product of simple resolution, but those that grow out of our own deepest experience, those that life constantly verifies and justifies. For the very health of the spiritual life itself, therefore, there is to be no straining to believe in certain doctrines, or to accept certain miracles, no trying to believe anything. There is to be rather only that alert and open-minded spirit, that believes what one must in view of honest attention to the facts. It is not yours to make free the truth; rather "the truth shall make you free."
Nor, in the second place, does the spiritual life call for the keeping up of a certain stress of feeling, or of attention. There is need of clear discrimination at this point. The spiritual life does look, of course, to a persistent, dominant purpose of righteousness, a real surrender to the will of God; but this does not and cannot mean the unchanged continuance of some particular psychological state, the constant keeping of some particular thought or object fixed in the attention, or the steady maintenance of some special state of feeling. The attempt to do everything always with God in mind may be taken as an illustration.
This kind of strained and false substitute for a broad, natural, rational, open-minded spiritual life seems to be widely prevalent just now, not only among very earnest and conscientious people within ordinary Christian lines, but particularly among all sorts of dealers in so-called "mental science." Now, it cannot be denied that a hearty conviction of the possibility of self-control was greatly needed by very many people, who had been practically letting themselves go, and consequently had been making no honest, earnest fight for character, and for some real steadiness of life. Perhaps most men need to know and to fulfil the conditions of self-control to a much greater degree than they do—to come to see that character and peace of mind and even health of body are much more subject to their control than they had thought. And, in this multitudinous discussion of our time, some real psychological conditions have, no doubt, been pointed out, and some legitimate help given to many, in which all may rejoice.
But it is to be feared that along with this legitimate help that is scientifically grounded, there has been a much larger amount of mere faddism, that has prescribed some fixed mental state—sometimes stated in very religious terms, and sometimes not—as the one effectual panacea for all ills. So far as this is true—and it is quite too true—this means that multitudes are put into an abnormal attitude of mental strain, that is reflected even in the cast of their countenances, and particularly in their eyes, which have something in them quite akin to the hunted look of the insane. Whatever achievements may for the time lie back of this attitude of strain, you are not able to escape the conviction that there is here something, in truth, not wholly normal, not quite wholesome, something allied to the hysterical, that inevitably suggests that the true solution has not yet been found.
That this should be the impression is quite natural, for this whole conception of the spiritual life as a life of strain, in the first place, requires a psychological impossibility. Neither in body nor in mind are we fitted to maintain a fixed state of feeling or a fixed attitude of attention. The persistent attempt, therefore, is likely to
result in a speedy and pretty complete nervous breakdown—cases by no means uncommon—or to bring about something very like the "insistent ideas" of the insane. And in either case, where a radical conscientiousness has pervaded the attempt, when the mood has once passed, it is likely to end in a still more baffled sense of unreality. It is the least conscientious here, who suffer least.
But, probably, most of those whose theory of the religious life involves a life of strain, the psychological impossibility of their theory will not deter. They cannot allow themselves to be so daunted. But it may weigh with them to consider that such a conception of religion reduces it to a thoroughly man-made affair. No doubt, in most cases, this would seem to them the very antithesis of their intention. But it remains true that, however religious the phraseology in which the view is set forth, any theory of the religious life that calls for this sort of psychological tension really leaves God quite out of account. For if God is real at all, and our relation to him is a reality, the conviction of that reality is not to be simply our product, a thing up to which we must strain. There are, no doubt, conditions upon our part to be fulfilled normally and rationally. But the sense of reality of the spiritual world which we are seeking cannot come simply as forced by us but only as the result of interaction with the great realities themselves. It is wholly true, as has been already insisted upon, that there can be no mere passivity on our part; we do actively cooperate. But it is also true that the activity is never merely, nor even chiefly, ours, if we are dealing with reality here at all. Let us never forget that, in Herrmann's words, "the certainty of God is not the product of human strivings." That must be primarily God's work, done upon certain plain conditions plainly allowed by our normal life. One cannot wisely attempt, either for himself or for others, to do God's work.
One may appeal here confidently to the life of Jesus. Is there the slightest suggestion in his spirit, that his clear sense of the reality of the spiritual world is in any way hysterical? On the contrary, is not the whole temper of his life that of a confident trust, as of one walking in the very presence of God, to whom it were absurd to suggest that the sense of the reality of God depended upon some strained attitude of attention or painfully maintained mood of feeling, and so might vanish at any moment when the tension became too great?
The whole meaning of his life seems rather to say, "God can be counted upon. The life in relation to him is no mere imaginary one, which you are forced to make; it is a real life in which he is constantly at work. I am come to give you the most positive assurance upon that point."