Perhaps no non-creedal concept of Christian belief so clearly sets Christianity apart from all humanistic or naturalistic philosophies as its conviction that man, without salvation, is a homeless wanderer in an alien waste, or, with salvation, a citizen of another kingdom on pilgrimage through enemy-held territory. The concept cuts fundamentally between two views because it goes to the heart of the question, What is man? Is he a marvelous achievement of self-driven progress from mud to modern society, or is he a tragic and fallen creature, haunted by memories of a Garden at evening and of a Creator who walked with him there? Is he the master of his fate and the captain of his soul, or does he labor, like Samson, “eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves … in bonds under Philistian yoke”? If he is the former, then this life and this planet, no matter how unsatisfactory they may appear, are “home,” and the pressure of much modern education to “adjust” the student to his environment is only common sense. If he is the latter, then “adjustment” becomes folly and the only valid question is the one Christian put to Evangelist: “Whither must I fly?”

Then said Evangelist, pointing with his finger over a very wide field, Do you see yonder wicket-gate? The man said, No. Then said the other, Do you see yonder shining light? He said, I think I do. Then said Evangelist, Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto: so shalt thou see the gate; at which when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.

As Chesterton phrases it:

For men are homesick in their homes

And strangers under the sun,

And they lay their heads in a foreign land

Whenever the day is done.

Whether one is ready to acknowledge the homelessness of man as a fact of his being or not, he must acknowledge that there is no theme in literature so universal as that of a Fall (or a disinheritance) and of a Journey. Tragedy, the noblest form of drama and the most universal, is the symphony, in a minor key, of man’s fall; epic poetry, the noblest form of verse, is most frequently concerned with a symbolic journey. Almost every folklore has its dim memory of some kind of existence better than the present one, and of having been, in the words of Cardinal Newman, “implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity.” Through the millennia, man has listened to this melody of loss and separation, like the song of the nightingale “… that found a path through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, she stood in tears amid the alien corn.”

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It is difficult on any reasonable ground to explain this almost universal conviction if it be not in some way related to the truth. If man is merely the product of random properties inhering in primal atoms, if he represents the highest mode of life which has yet erupted, whence arises his dissatisfaction? What property of random atoms teaches man to affirm that certain things “ought” to be? Why is it so hard to accept Alexander Pope’s dictum that “everything that is is right?” “Man’s unhappiness, as I construe it,” says Carlyle, “comes of his Greatness.” “There is surely a piece of divinity in us,” writes Sir Thomas Browne, “something that was before the elements and owes no homage unto the sun, Nature tells me I am the image of God, as well as Scripture; he that understands not thus much, hath not his introduction or first lesson, and is yet to begin the alphabet of man.” And in another place, Browne puts man’s homelessness in a memorable image: “For the world, I count it not an inn, but an hospital; and a place not to live, but to die in.” (I once had a student in a course in 17th-century literature who was told by his psychiatrist that he must be excused from reading the old divines because they were too morbid and melancholy!)

Universal Nostalgia

But my topic at this Christmas season is not the intellectual aspect of man’s homelessness, but the way in which the Nativity story illuminates certain dramatic and emotional values of humanity’s universal nostalgia.

The Christian faith, unique among religions in many ways (notably, of course, in that for the believer it is the only totally true religion), is strikingly different in its satisfaction of every dimension of man’s being and nature. It satisfies his need for knowledge, for hope, for guidance, for strength, for confidence, for security, for serenity, for beauty, for happiness. And those needs which relate most nearly to man’s emotional and aesthetic nature are met in the one fact that Christianity restores man to his eternal home. How many metaphors, images, parables, and historical episodes in the Bible exhibit this theme—the wanderings of the Jews in the wilderness, the story of Ruth, the Good Shepherd theme (above all, that), the parable of the prodigal son, of the marriage feast, the metaphor of the opened door and Christ coming in to dwell, the companionship of the upper room—the list is endless. And all breathe the comfort of an inheritance regained, a relationship re-established, a home restored. Like the lines of light radiating from a strange star in the East two thousand years ago, these bright strands of promise and home emanate from a single spot in time and space: the stable in Bethlehem where, again to quote Chesterton, “God was homeless and all men are at home.”

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The English word “home” is too rich for definition—it is practically all connotation—but in simple analysis it may be said to involve two concepts: a place (or inheritance) and a relationship. To the mystic, the former seems of secondary importance, relating to nothing fundamental. But man is a finite creature, frightened by the limitless, for he has no intellectual or emotional apparatus with which to comprehend it. One of the favorite themes of the superbly gifted and saintly poet of the 17th century, George Herbert, is man’s need to feel localized, to know the boundaries of his habitation, to feel secure, as it were, from the danger of falling. After thinking of the incredible vastness of God and of the universe, he writes:

O rack me not to such a vast extent;

Those distances belong to thee.

The world’s too little for thy tent,

A grave too big for me.

O let me, when thy roof my soul hath hid,

O let me roost and nestle there;

Then of a sinner thou art rid,

And I of hope and fear.

Whether I fly with angels, fall with dust,

Thy hands made both, and I am there.

Thy power and love, my love and trust,

Make one place everywhere.

And as Milton conceives it, one of the most potent terrors for the rebel angels in Paradise Lost as Messiah, terrible in his mighty chariot and dark-browed with divine wrath, hurls them to the edge of heaven and the vasty deep is the dimensionlessness of the chaos into which they are cast. Indeed, in the “Great Consult” which later takes place in hell, Mammon and Belial both agree that any place, no matter how grim and dreadful, is preferable to the total absence of normal dimensions, threatening loss of being, which they had experienced as, for nine days, they fell from their bright home. Satan’s right to supremacy in hell is demonstrated by his willingness to enter once again the dark vacuity of things uncreated, to hear perhaps once again Chaos open his cavernous mouth in limitless dismay and roar. Even modern man, protected by his lesser intellect from seeing total reality as clearly as did the fallen angels, grows uncomfortable as he contemplates the mysteries of time and space. The solidity of the chair he sits in, the comfort of the four walls about him are sought to give him once again a sense of being and of locality.

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Emotional Needs

It is true that some religions, notably the various forms of Hinduism, have sought to assuage man’s homesickness by assuring him that his nostalgia is a symptom of his finiteness and that the infinite will cure it, not by giving him a home but by absorbing him. Anything which is less than everything is inadequate, or evil, so that man’s hope is that his yearning will vanish as his personality blends into totality. The belief is strikingly unsatisfying to the emotions, since emotional needs can scarcely be said to be satisfied by the eradication of the thing which needs the satisfaction and to the intellect, since intellect cannot be conceived to exist without individuality and personality. To conceive that self-consciousness can rightly operate only to condemn itself for existing is to throw into total confusion any attempt to explain how self-consciousness came to exist in the first place.

Equally futile is the effort of materialism to comfort man in his homesickness by telling him that, granted things are pretty bad right now, he is, in each generation, the necessary stepping stone for an endless future of evolutionary advance. At the emotional level, as Rossetti points out, this is remarkably depressing:

Canst thou, who hast but plagues, presume to be

Glad in his gladness that comes after thee?

Will his strength slay thy worm in Hell? Go to:

Cover thy countenance, and watch, and fear.

But, some reply, it is “noble” or “good” to be content to be the stepping stones of the future. Unfortunately, however, within the very materialistic framework which demands this rationalization there is no basis for believing that the terms “noble” or “good” mean anything—and we can scarcely borrow ethical values from one philosophy (in this case, Christianity) to bolster an antithetical philosophy.

Intellectual Frustration

Intellectually, in short, the materialistic effort is even more frustrating than the mystic, because with an “open-ended” concept of progress, moving from nothing to an unpredictable something, the term “progress” itself is impossible to define. The question has often been asked, but never answered by materialism, what makes man think that he is “better” than a stone or a single-celled animal? Why should the complexity of an organism be considered a criterion of its value? Why should it not be exactly the reverse? In a universe without thought or values, what is meant when one says that man is “better” than an animal? Better for what?

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Huston Smith, writing in The Saturday Review a year or two back, summarizes this problem as it was discussed by scientists at “A Conference on Science and Human Responsibility” at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.

Three considerations … prevented the conferees from passing from recognition of this “advance” to any easy faith in progress. First, there seem to be certain areas of life, pre-eminently the value areas, where progress seems very difficult to define.… Second, comparable difficulties arise if we try to specify progress with regard to man’s life as a whole.… It is difficult to find a yardstick in terms of which overall progress could be measured. Third, each step in human advance seems to introduce new problems and perils along with its benefits. We are constantly finding that even where advance is unmistakable it does not result in the elimination or even provable diminution of human evils.

In short, if a man does not know where he is going, much less where he is supposed to go, it is a little difficult to tell if he is on the right track. All of this is not, of course, to deny the obvious and wonderful advances in knowledge and in man’s mastery over his environment, nor is it to take away one jot of honor from the great minds which have produced this advance. It is to say that “time improves only things,” and things have very little to do with the “place” and nothing to do with the “relationship” which makes home.

For the Christian, all questions and all longings reach the focus of a single point and come to perfect rest, for he hears a Voice: “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” Marvelous words, the most marvelous ever spoken on the subject of home—if he who spoke them had a right to do so. And this doubt once again directs our gaze to Bethlehem, the answer, so far as the earthly scene is concerned, to Pilate’s brooding query: “Whence art thou?” To Pilate, we read, “Jesus gave no answer.” But to us, the whole of Scripture is an anthem: He who inhabits eternity, who was before all world, by whom all things were made, came at a certain moment of time and dwelt with man. And with him is man’s dwelling place and home. Indeed, while he walked the earth, those who walked with him in faith were at home; for the relationship is more important than the place. One can have an environment without a relationship, but one cannot have a relationship without an environment.

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Nature’S Response

It is an ancient tradition that when the Creator visited his rebellious planet, Nature, though infected by man’s sin, responded to his presence with reverence and awe. Says Marcellus in Hamlet:

Some say that ever, ’gainst that season comes

Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,

The bird of dawning singeth all night long;

And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,

The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,

No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,

So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Just as man had a little respite from homesickness when God walked the earth in disguise, so nature, in this old story, ceased its travailing and groaning as its Creator soothed its sin-caused anguish. Even the oceans forgot to roar, says Milton, so that the halcyon birds might in peace and safety bring forth their young and “sit brooding on the charmed wave.”

This is a very pretty old story, but the scriptural reality is far more wonderful. When he came to this earth, God was not protected by an aura of heavenly environment; rather, he underwent a homelessness far more acute than man can ever know. Man, by reason of sin, does, in one sense, belong here; he is at home in an environment of darkness and fear, for that is the condition of evil. On this point, incidentally, one often reads or hears it said that Medieval Christianity exhibited extravagant pride in assuming that this earth occupied the center of the universe, but such an interpretation of the Medieval point of view is violently at odds with the facts. The conviction was, rather, that this earth lay at the “bottom” of the universe, farthest removed from the region of light, the empyrean, where God dwelt. All sublunary regions had suffered from the curse, and, as a 16th-century French writer put it, “the earth is so depraved and broken in all kinds of vices and abominations that it seemeth to be a place that hath received all the filthiness and purgings of all other worlds and ages.”

Only a few times since Adam have mortal senses had a hint of the sort of place we were intended to inhabit, in each instance through a theophany. And it is inevitable that it should be through this means, for to the Christian the final home is God. He is the environment and the relationship. He satisfies for finite creatures both their need for a local habitation and a name, and their yearning for the infinite dimension of immortality.

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“No human relations,” says T. S. Eliot, “are adequate to human desires.” To many, this truth is a matter of infinite poignance, a poignance which Housman (though his purpose is not to comment on this specific point) communicates movingly:

Into my heart an air that kills

From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain:

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

The same haunting loneliness is caught in the last stanza of a Medieval ballad which laments “a new slain knight,” deserted now by hawk, hounds and lady:

Many a one for him makes moan,

But none shall ken where he is gone;

O’er his white bones when they are bare,

The wind shall blow for evermair.

But for the Christian, the statement of Eliot merely expresses neatly a truth which holds no sadness, for he knows that man fulfills his human relationships only as he returns to dwell in God, the source of all values. He knows, with Walter de la Mare:

This is not the place for thee;

Never doubt it, thou hast come

By some dark catastrophe

Far, far from home.

The Christian does not search for his home either here or now; instead, he turns his inward eyes back to that place where, two thousand years ago, there “clashed and thundered unthinkable wings round an incredible star.” And he turns them forward to an event as sure as the unalterable fact of the Incarnation: “Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.”

Calvin D. Linton, A.M., Ph.D., is associate dean of Columbian College and professor of English Literature at George Washington University in the District of Columbia. He has written numerous articles, particularly in the area of Elizabethan drama.

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