Character vs. Destiny
Horace J. BridgesFrom Horace J. Bridges, "CHARACTER VERSUS DESTINY," in "The Emerging Faith"
"I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live." So spoke Socrates to those who had falsely accused and unjustly condemned him. What lies behind this preference? The conviction of Socrates, as of every great spirit, that our character is in our own hands, though our destiny be not; the conviction that our business is to look to the quality of our life, which we can affect, and leave its quantity or its duration, which we cannot affect, to the inscrutable power that animates the world.In all that has here been said, I have no desire to impose upon any reader my own particular views concerning either immortality or God. The point I am concerned with is that, whatever may be the truth regarding these matters, still the only way for us to attain a personal triumph over death is by the method of Socrates. Unless we ourselves, in the pure autonomy of our own consciences, elect some supreme value that commands our soul's allegiance, and by our own will and deep affirm it as supreme, then though there be a triumph over death, it will not be of our winning. For if it happens, it will be, so far as concerns us, destiny and not achievement; and from the standpoint of the spiritual universe our having lived will have signified not at all.
The triumph of Jesus and of Socrates lies clearly in this: that for the sake of the right and the truth they had embraced they freely surrendered their lives. This is the ultimate and indisputable proof that in them the spiritual had mastered the physical and animal, that they had wholly purged themselves of fear and of the lust of life, and steered by the light of nobler values than the sub-human nature in us can discern.
Herein they, and all who have done as they did, won a victory not only for themselves but for the evolving universe; for they furthered the process of its evolution, the emergence of its latent splendors. They extended the dominion of the highest of its elements over the lower and mindless ones. But if, as our Church friends say, we are to owe our salvation wholly to Jesus Christ, this is only to say in other words that we ourselves are to mean nothing to the world and the world's achievement; that spiritually we have been and are to be but parasitic burdens upon it.
Thus, then, if I read it aright, the victory won by Jesus and by Socrates is the true and worthy challenge to our spiritual ambition. If, when our time for entering the silence comes, we are to go, as the poet says, "not like the quarry slave at night, scourged to his dungeon," it must be through the consciousness that we have, in our infinitesimal degree, added to the achievement of the universe. Some touch of lasting good must be there that without us would not have been. He of whom this can be truly affirmed when he leaves the realm of time, has reached the end and goal of life. For he has responded to the call which ennobles man by bidding him, the creature, become in his measure a creator--a factor of the creative force of the world.
The response to this challenge, which resounds in the soul of all of us, can be made by every man and every woman; for it depends not on the intellect, not on any special talent or anything out of our power, but on the quality of the moral will. And this, which Kant declared the only thing absolutely and always good, is in the power of us all. When this challenge is met, then comes in every life its Easter moment. Then is to be said what Dante wrote at the beginning of his story, "Incipit vita nova": "Here begins a new life." For then the man or woman concerned has contributed to the world an element truly new, one that enriches it for ever and is carried forward independently of him or her who originated it.
The real resurrection of Jesus was the change he made in the lives of his friends and followers, who in turn, by virtue of the power they had drawn from him, changed the history of the world. It is clearly a materialistic delusion to think that he did this, or could have done it, by means of a physical miracle. This holds true whether the physical miracle occurred or not. For this transformation depended wholly upon his character, his quality, the spirit and the life in his words; not on any extrinsic event. And the one way of truly honoring him, and all great spirits, is to do in our tiny measure what he and they have done in their great measure; to be, each of us, an original fountain of spiritual life pouring into others and quickening in them the responding spiritual life that is latent in them. Herein has lain the grandeur of the pilgrimage of man over the long, rough road of time. Here and there, the high potentialities that are latent in all have been actualized in the few. When this happens, we behold a miracle; For then we see what Bergson called the deepest fire from the heart of the world streaming from the crater of the lofty volcano; and the active volcanoes show us the possibilities of those that seem to be extinct, but are not, since they, too, have their access to the central fuel. We in our measure are to be to others what Socrates was to Plato and the young men of Athens; what Jesus was to Paul and his followers. Thereby shall be achieve the true end of our life, which alone can give it worth and dignity, and fulfill the sublime purpose of humanity's existence: which is to carry to new heights of spiritual attainment the ascending process of the universe.
This document is part of a larger document, Understanding Ethical Religion edited by Howard B. Radest.
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