In one of those contemplative moments which the dog and his need for a matutinal walk has brought to harrassed man, I sat this morning on the hilltop over the broad, bright sweep of the Manukau and reflected that next year is my fortieth as a teacher. And how wrong is the school song which alleges that, “forty years on” we look back “and forgetfully wonder what we were like at our work and our play.” How well I remember the back gate of the noisy wooden school, the gravel path to the headmaster’s study where I was to report, the leaden stomach of that first day’s duty.
But that is no theme. It was a verse of Edith Lovejoy Pierce passing through my mind which determined me to put some thoughts in writing. The lines were:
The Season of Questions is over,
The winter of asking is done.
Now is the hour for the answer,
The spring of the world has begun.…
Of the last line I can say naught. I am not even certain whether the middle fifties are anything but autumn. I am, however, sure that many of life’s questions are answered. These answers may interest some.
In A Shattered World
I should have been glad, I know, when I first became a Christian in my first year at the University, had someone convincingly assured me that the faith I had embraced would not narrow my mind and cabin my life. In 1921 faith was not easy. The old world of confidence lay shattered by the war. Authority of all sorts tottered. Cynicism was rampant. A liberal religion which served the Church so ill was reducing Christianity to the Golden Rule, Christ to a bright Apollo or a mistaken martyr, and the Bible to a sorry farrago of mere poetry and myth.
I found my faith in a traditional medium. Scotland and New York, as well as New Zealand, remember Joseph Kemp, and there was no surrender in his manly preaching to the rationalism which was seeking in the Church to salvage some pathetic remnants of a discredited Christianity. But it was difficult for a young man, who had felt the warm appeal of Kemp’s simple uncomplicated faith, to go back on Monday to a world which appeared less and less Christian, and to an academic society which took it for granted that religion was played out.
The world since that lamentable decade has learned some lessons. A vigorous Christianity has come to terms with learning, and has demonstrated that faith need not be obscurantist. The Bible has been most richly vindicated. A vigorous Christian witness in the universities is not confined to those who fail in their examinations. But it took the ’thirties, the challenge of communism, a second global conflict, much patient thinking, and much discovery to reveal the follies of the ’twenties. To become a Christian in those years felt like stepping out of the joyous stream of life, shutting the mind, and abandoning culture.
I had a deep conviction that such could not be the case, but it was a conviction against which doubt hammered daily. It was in 1948 that Herbert Butterfield remarked that belief in God actually gives “greater elasticity of mind.” I should have been glad of such assurance as an undergraduate. Now, rising forty years on, I know that a Christian faith has opened vistas and illumined understanding. When I see in the class before me some intelligent face light up with new insight as I show what Vergil meant in Rome or means today, I know that any touch of life that I can give to ancient poetry has its spring in those deep apprehensions of truth which faith in Christ can alone open in the mind. It was Ramsay who stressed the unerring accuracy and certainty of touch with which the simple men who first followed Christ turned to face and solve the problems of the world, and questions which had baffled all philosophy. We may share the same source of understanding.
“They put a lot of their own ideas on paper, and think they have discovered something,” said a colleague of mine. I smiled, because I think he was thrusting a little at my book on Euripedes. It is, of course, difficult to imagine what sort of book could be divorced from the writer’s own ideas, unless it be the sort of literary criticism some folk are lately endeavouring to extract from computing machines. Literary criticism must always reveal the impact of another on the critic’s mind, and to be effective it must find echo there and resilience. I frankly admit that I could not have written on Euripedes save from a Christian point of view. The Alcestis and the Bacchae, the first play and the last, make sense when seen from that angle which a Christian faith has made common and clear. And who can understand Aeschylus without the Christian insights on sin and grace?
But this rides a hobby horse rather off the path. I set out to make clear my conviction that Christian thinking is straight thinking. It is, on the other hand, “bent” thinking, to borrow Hopkins’ and Lewis’ adjective, which has produced the frustration of modern philosophy, the distortion of modern art, the jangle of today’s music and poetry, and the sheer folly of much which passes around us for psychology and sociology. No young Christian need fear that his faith will cramp him as a student or teacher of the humanities, of literature or thought, in any form or fashion. Nor will it spoil him as a scientist, or baffle any search for truth. But, one against the crowd, for so it seemed, I should have been glad of that assurance when the ’twenties began their foolish decade.
Yes, as Mrs. Pierce continues in the poem which haunted me today:
The Questions were searching and painful,
Ruthless and bitter and hard,
The answer is very costly,
And it has the scent of nard.
One of the rewards of life’s summit is the backward look. Struggling up the lower slope one is tempted to find no meaning in the road, no engineering in the frustrating steep. I should have been glad of the calm assurance of a plan. One of the strongest and most sustaining convictions which have emerged and taken shape on the surface of middle life is the certainty that Perfect Love and Perfect Wisdom can jointly integrate a life, however timidly surrendered. The pattern becomes clear as the years pass, those puzzles of unanswered prayer find solution, meaningless disappointment, burning injustice, loss and suffering, are shown to have been permitted in ultimate wisdom. God never “sends” ill or evil on a life. Let that horrible thought be forever put aside. We are tangled with a world where ill and evil swarm. God, after the eternal fashion mirrored in the life of Christ, permits his children to suffer, but out of all suffering brings good, and by some alchemy transforms all pain.
I have seen so far, over this span of life, that the many darker threads have meaning in the tapestry, and that what I thought was evil has turned mightily to good. I am slowly learning to wait with confidence when ill befalls. I write those words with hesitation, for the lesson is slow in learning, but I could wish I had found the conviction in tense days of the past when I lacked such assurance, and was tempted to the private exercise of a species of Christian Stoicism, which contained little comfort. I prayed in those days only for endurance. I have since found a simpler faith, and in serener hours wait for the answer to prayer with fascination knowing that God seldom answers according to expectation but infinitely more subtly, wisely, and well.
A Sturdy Faith
Of all my teaching years more than thirty have been spent in the university. More than thirty times I have seen the corridors fill with new, eager, impatient life, and have perennially wondered at how little youth changes. Each year new life talks its drastic nonsense and stages fresh rebellion, sums up its teachers, recognizes sincerity, merit, wisdom, and derides the lesser breed which struts and shams. Each passing year I see some find fulfillment in a sturdy faith. And if there is difference between today and yesterday it lies in this. It is easier and less lonely now to be a Christian than when I took my fresh decision stumblingly back to the classroom. Faith and scholarship have found their union. That dichotomy between religion and culture, between faith and learning which I sought to disregard because I felt it must be an illusion, no longer presents a problem to faith. Christian students seem more easily to hold their life as one, without compartments, tensions, and inhibitions … as easily as I who find no incongruity on Thursdays when I address a roomful of students, curious or Christian, on Paul, the Old Testament, Christian ethics, or theology, in the same place where, all through the week, I carry Catullus, Horace, Vergil, or Homer to the desk and talk of literature, history, and philology.
O Thou who givest food and stars
In daily fare
Of bread and beauty, touch our lives
That we may share
Thy gifts with one whose board or heart
LESLIE SAVAGE CLARK
E. M. Blaiklock has been Professor of Classics in University of Auckland, New Zealand, since 1942. He is author of many books, among them The Decline and Fall of Athenian Democracy, The Christian in Pagan Society, and most recently, Historical Commentary on Acts. He has been an editorial writer for the daily and weekly press in New Zealand since 1935, and is also a former president of Inter-Varsity Fellowship.
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