Read THE AGE OF FAITH : CHAPTER XIII of The Seeker, free online book, by Harry Leon Wilson, on ReadCentral.com.

THE WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS OF THE GREAT MACHINE

For three days the brothers were inseparable.  There were so many ancient matters to bring forward of which each could remember but a half; so many new ones, of which each must tell his own story.  And there was a matter of finance between them that had been brought forward by Allan without any foolish delay.  Each of them spoke to Nancy about it.

“Bernal has pleased me greatly,” said her husband.  “He agrees that Grandfather Delcher could not have been himself when he made that will ­being made as it was directly after he sent Bernal off.  He finds it absurd that the old man, so firm a Christian, should have disinherited a Christian, one devoted to the ministry of Jesus, for an unbeliever like Bernal.  It is true, I talked to him in this strain myself, and I cannot deny that I wield even a greater influence over men than over women.  I dare say I could have brought Bernal around even had he been selfish and stubborn.  By putting a proposition forward as a matter of course, one may often induce another to accept it as such, whereas he might dispute it if it were put forward as at all debatable.  But as a matter of fact he required no talking to; he accepted my views readily.  The boy doesn’t seem to know the value of money.  I really believe he may decide to make over the whole of the property to me.  That is what I call a beautiful unselfishness.  But I shall do handsomely by him ­probably he can use some money in that cattle business.  I had thought first of ten thousand dollars, but doubtless half that will be wiser.  I shall insist upon his taking at least half that.  He will find that unselfishness is a game two can play at.”

Nancy had listened to this absently, without comment.  Nor had Bernal moved her to speech when he said, “You know, Allan is such a sensitive old chap ­you wouldn’t guess how sensitive.  His feelings were actually hurt because I’d kept him out of grandad’s money all these years.  He’d forgotten that I didn’t know I was doing it.  Of course the old boy was thinking what he’d have done in my place ­but I think I can make it right with him ­I’m sure now he knows I didn’t mean to wrong him.”

Yet during this speech he had shot furtive little questioning looks at her face, as if to read those thoughts he knew she would not put into words.

But she only smiled at Bernal.  Her husband, however, found her more difficult than ever after communicating his news to her.  He tried once to imagine her being dissatisfied with him for some reason.  But this attempt he abandoned.  Thereafter he attributed her coldness, aloofness, silence, and moodiness to some nervous malady peculiar to the modern woman.  Bernal’s presence kept him from noting how really pronounced and unwavering her aversion had become.

Nor did Bernal note her attitude.  Whatever he may have read in Allan at those times when the look of cold appraisement was turned full upon him, he had come to know of his brother’s wife only that she was Nancy of the old days, strangely surviving to greet him and be silent with him, or to wonder with him when he came in out of that preposterous machine of many wheels that they called the town.  No one but Nancy saw anything about it to wonder at.

To Bernal, after his years in the big empty places, it was a part of all the world and of all times compacted in a small space.  One might see in it ancient Jerusalem, Syria, Persia, Rome and modern Babylon ­with something still peculiar and unclassifiable that one would at length have to call New York.  And to make it more absorbing, the figures were always moving.  Where so many were pressed together each was weighted by a thousand others ­the rich not less than the poor; each was stirred to quick life and each was being visibly worn down by the ceaseless friction.

When he had walked the streets for a week, he saw the city as a huge machine, a machine to which one might not even deliver a message without becoming a part of it ­a wheel of it.  It was a machine always readjusting, always perfecting, always repairing itself ­casting out worn or weak parts and taking in others ­ever replacing old wheels with new ones, and never disdaining any new wheel that found its place ­that could give its cogs to the general efficiency, consenting to be worn down by the unceasing friction.

Looking down Broadway early one evening ­a shining avenue of joy ­he thought of the times when he had gazed across a certain valley of his West and dreamed of bringing a message to this spot.

Against the sky many electric signs flamed garishly.  Beneath them were the little grinding wheels of the machine ­satisfied, joyous, wisely sufficient unto themselves, needing no message ­least of all the simple old truth he had to give.  He tried to picture his message blazing against the sky among the other legends:  from where he stood the three most salient were the names of a popular pugilist, a malt beverage and a theatre.  The need of another message was not apparent.

So he laughed at himself and went down into the crowd foregathered in ways of pleasure, and there he drank of the beer whose name was flaunted to the simple stars.  Truly a message to this people must be put into a sign of electric bulbs; into a phonograph to be listened to for a coin, with an automatic banjo accompaniment; or it must be put upon the stage to be acted or sung or danced!  Otherwise he would be a wheel rejected ­a wheel ground up in striving to become a part of the machine at a place where no wheel was needed.

For another experience cooling to his once warm hopes, the second day of his visit Allan had taken him to his weekly Ministers’ Meeting ­an affair less formidable than its title might imply.

A dozen or so good fellows of the cloth had luncheon together each Tuesday at the house of one or another, or at a restaurant; and here they talked shop or not as they chose, the thing insisted upon being congeniality ­that for once in the week they should be secure from bores.

Here Presbyterian and Unitarian met on common ground; Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Methodist ­all became brothers over the soup.  Weekly they found what was common and helpful to all in discussing details of church administration, matters of faith, methods of handling their charitable funds; or the latest heresy trial.  They talked of these things amiably, often lightly.  They were choice spirits relaxed, who might be grave or gay, as they listed.

Their vein was not too serious the day Bernal was his brother’s guest, sitting between the very delightful Father Riley and the exciting Unitarian, one Whittaker.  With tensest interest he listened to their talk.

At first there was a little of Delitzsch and his Babel-Bible addresses, brought up by Selmour, an amiable Presbyterian of shining bare pate and cheerful red beard, a man whom scandal had filliped ever so coyly with a repute of leanings toward Universalism.

This led to a brief discussion of the old and new theology ­Princeton standing for the old with its definition of Christianity as “a piece of information given supernaturally and miraculously”; Andover standing for the new ­so alleged Whittaker ­with many polite and ingenious evasions of this proposition without actually repudiating it.

The Unitarian, however, was held to be the least bit too literal in his treatment of propositions not his own.

Then came Pleydell, another high-church Episcopalian who, over his chop and a modest glass of claret, declared earnest war upon the whole Hegel-Darwinian-Wellhausen school.  His method of attack was to state baldly the destructive conclusions of that school ­that most of the books of the Old Testament are literary frauds, intentionally misrepresenting the development of religion in Israel; that the whole Mosaic code is a later fabrication and its claim to have been given in the wilderness an historical falsehood.  From this he deduced that a mere glance at the Bible, as the higher critics explain it, must convince the earnest Christian that he can have no share in their views.  “Deprive Christianity of its supernatural basis,” he said, “and you would have a mere speculative philosophy.  Deny the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, and the Atonement becomes meaningless.  If we have not incurred God’s wrath through Adam’s disobedience, we need no Saviour.  That is the way to meet the higher criticism,” he concluded earnestly.

As the only rule of the association was that no man should talk long upon any matter, Floud, the fiery and aggressive little Baptist, hereupon savagely reviewed a late treatise on the ethnic Trinities, put out by a professor of ecclesiastical history in a New England theological seminary.  Floud marvelled that this author could retain his orthodox standing, for he viewed the Bible as a purely human collection of imperfect writings, the wonder-stories concerning the birth and death of Jesus as deserving no credence, and denied to Christianity any supernatural foundation.  Polytheism was shown to be the soil from which all trinitarian conceptions naturally spring ­the Brahmanic, Zoroastrian, Homeric, Plotinian, as well as the Christian trinity ­the latter being a Greek idea engrafted on a Jewish stalk.  The author’s conclusion, by which he reached “an undogmatic gospel of the spirit, independent of all creeds and forms ­a gospel of love to God and man, with another Trinity of Love, Truth and Freedom,” was particularly irritating to the disturbed Baptist, who spoke bitterly of the day having dawned when the Church’s most dangerous enemies were those critical vipers whom she had warmed in her own bosom.

Suffield, the gaunt, dark, but twinkling-eyed Methodist, also sniffed at the conclusion of the ethnic-trinities person.  “We have an age of substitutes,” he remarked.  “We have had substitutes for silk and sealskin ­very creditable substitutes, so I have been assured by a lady in whom I have every confidence ­substitutes for coffee, for diamonds ­substitutes for breakfast which are widely advertised ­substitutes for medicine ­and now we are coming to have substitutes for religion ­even a substitute for hell!”

Hereupon he told of a book he had read, also written by an orthodox professor of theology, in which the argument, advanced upon scriptural evidence, was that the wicked do not go into endless torment, but ultimately shrivel and sink into a state of practical unconsciousness.  Yet the author had been unable to find any foundation for universalism.  This writer, Suffield explained, holds that the curtain falls after the judgment on a lost world.  Nor is there probation for the soul after the body dies.  The Scriptures teach the ruin of the final rejecters of Christ; Christ teaches plainly that they who reject the Gospel will perish in the endless darkness of night.  But eternal punishment does not necessarily mean eternal suffering; hence the hypothesis of the soul gradually shrivelling for the sin of its unbelief.

The amiable Presbyterian sniffed at this as a sentimental quibble.  Punishment ceases to be punishment when it is not felt ­one cannot punish a tree or an unconscious soul.  But this was the spirit of the age.  With the fires out in hell, no wonder we have an age of sugar-candy morality and cheap sentimentalism.

But here the Unitarian wickedly interrupted, to remind his Presbyterian brother that his own church had quenched those very certain fires that once burned under the pit in which lay the souls of infants unbaptised.

The amiable Presbyterian, not relishing this, still amiably threw the gauntlet down to Father Riley, demanding the Catholic view of the future of unbaptised children.

The speech of the latter was a mellow joy ­a south breeze of liquid consonants and lilting vowels finely articulated.  Perhaps it was not a little owing to the good man’s love for what he called “oiling the rusty hinges of the King’s English with a wee drop of the brogue”; but, if so, the oil was so deftly spread that no one word betrayed its presence.  Rather was his whole speech pervaded by this soft delight, especially when his cherubic face, his pink cheeks glistening in certain lights with a faint silvery stubble of beard, mellowed with his gentle smile.  It was so now, even when he spoke of God’s penalties for the souls of reprobate infants.

“All theologians of the Mother Church are agreed,” replied the gracious father, “first, that infants dying unbaptised are excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven.  Second, that they will not enjoy the beatific vision outside of heaven.  Third, that they will arise with adults and be assembled for judgment on the last day.  And, fourth, that after the last day there will be but two states, namely:  a state of supernatural and supreme felicity and a state of what, in a wide sense, we may call damnation.”

Purlingly the good man went on to explain that damnation is a state admitting of many degrees; and that the unbaptised infant would not suffer in that state the same punishment as the adult reprobate.  While the latter would suffer positive pains of mind and body for his sins, the unfortunate infant would doubtless suffer no pain of sense whatever.  As to their being exempt from the pain of loss, grieving over their exclusion from the sight of God and the glories of His Kingdom, it is more commonly held that they do not suffer even this; that even if they know others are happier than themselves, they are perfectly resigned to God’s will and suffer no pain of loss in regard to happiness not suited to their condition.

The Presbyterian called upon them to witness that his church was thus not unique in attaining this sentimentality regarding reprobate infants.

Then little Floud cited the case of still another heretic within the church, a professor in a western Methodist university, who declared that biblical infallibility is a superstitious and hurtful tradition; that all the miracles are mere poetic fancies, incredible and untrue ­even irreverent; and that all spiritual truth comes to man through his brain and conscience.  Modern preaching, according to the book of this heretic, lacks power because so many churches cling to the tradition that the Bible is infallible.  It is the golden calf of their worship; the palpable lie that gives the ring of insincerity to all their moral exhortations.

So the talk flowed on until the good men agreed that a peculiarity of the time lay in this:  that large numbers of ministers within the church were publishing the most revolutionary hérésies while still clinging to some shred of their tattered orthodoxy.

Also they decided that it would not be without interest to know what belief is held by the man of common education and intelligence ­the man who behaves correctly but will not go to church.

Here Father Riley sweetly reminded them ­“No questions are asked in the Mother Church, gentlemen, that may not be answered with authority.  In your churches, without an authority superior to mere reason, destructive questions will be asked more and more frequently.”

Gravely they agreed that the church was losing its hold on the people.  That but for its social and charitable activities, its state would be alarming.

“Your churches!” Father Riley corrected with suave persistence.  “No church can endure without an infallible head.”

Again and again during the meal Bernal had been tempted to speak.  But each time he had been restrained by a sense of his aloofness.  These men, too, were wheels within the machine, each revolving as he must.  They would simply pity him, or be amused.

More and more acutely was he coming to feel the futility, the crass, absurd presumption of what he had come back to undertake.  From the lucid quiet of his mountain haunts he had descended into a vale where antiquated cymbals clashed in wild discordance above the confusing clatter of an intricate machinery ­machinery too complicated to be readjusted by a passing dreamer.  In his years of solitude he had grown to believe that the teachers of the world were no longer dominated by that ancient superstition of a superhumanly malignant God.  He had been prepared to find that the world-ideal had grown more lofty in his absence, been purified by many eliminations into a God who, as he had once said to Nance, could no more spare the soul of a Hottentot than the soul of a pope.  Yet here was a high type of the priest of the Mother Church, gentle, Godly, learned, who gravely and as one having authority told how God would blight forever the soul of a child unbaptised, thus imputing to Deity a regard for mechanical rites that would constitute even a poor human father an incredible monster.

Yet the marvel of it seemed to him to lie in this:  that the priest himself lived actually a life of loving devotion and sacrifice in marked opposition to this doctrine of formal cruelty; that his church, more successfully than any other in Christendom, had met the needs of humanity, coming closer to men in their sin and sickness, ministering to them with a deeper knowledge, a more affectionate intimacy, than any other.  That all these men of God should hold formally to dogmas belying the humaneness of their actual practise ­here was the puzzling anomaly that might well give pause to any casual message-bringer.  Struggle as he might, it was like a tangling mesh cast over him ­this growing sense of his own futility.

Along with this conviction of his powerlessness there came to him a new sense of reliance upon Nancy.  Unconsciously at first he turned to her for sunlight, big views and quiet power, for the very stimulus he had been wont to draw from the wide, high reaches of his far-off valley.  Later, came a conscious turning, an open-eyed bringing of all his needs, to lay them in her waiting lap.  Then it was he saw that on that first night at Edom her confidence and enthusiasm had been things he leaned upon quite naturally, though unwittingly.  The knowledge brought him a vague unrest.  Furtive, elusive impulses, borne to him on the wings of certain old memories ­memories once resolutely put away in the face of his one, big world-desire ­now came to trouble him.

It seemed that one must forever go in circles.  With fine courage he had made straight off to toil up the high difficult paths of the ideal.  Never had he consciously turned, nor even swerved.  Yet here he was at length upon his old tracks, come again to the wondering girl.

Did it mean, then, that his soul was baffled ­or did it mean that his soul would not suffer him to baffle it, try as he might?  Was that girl of the old days to greet him with her wondering eyes at the end of every high path?  These and many other questions he asked himself.

At the close of this day he sought her, eager for the light of her understanding eyes ­for a certain waiting sympathy she never withheld.  As she looked up now with a kind of composed gladness, it seemed to him that they two alone, out of all the world, were sanely quiet.  Silently he sank into a chair near her and they sat long thus, feeling no need of words.  At last she spoke.

“Are you coming nearer to it, Bernal?”

He laughed.

“I’m farther away than ever, Nance.  Probably there’s but one creature in this city to-day as out of place as I am.  He’s a big, awkward, country-looking dog, and he was lost on Broadway.  Did you ever see a lost dog in a city street?  This fellow was actually in a panic, wholly demoralised, and yet he seemed to know that he must conceal it for his own safety.  So he affected a fine air of confidence, of being very busy about an engagement for which he feared he might be late.  He would trot swiftly along for half a block, then pause as if trying to recall the street number; then trot a little farther, and stop to look back as if the other party to his engagement might happen along from that direction.  It was a splendid bit of acting, and it deceived them all, in that street of mutterers and hard faces.  He was like one of them, busy and hurried, but apparently cool, capable, and ominously alert.  Only, in his moments of indecision, his eyes shifted the least bit nervously, as if to note whether the real fear he felt were detected, and then I could read all his secret consternation.

“I’m the same lost dog, Nance.  I feel as he felt every time I go into that street where the poor creatures hurry and talk to themselves from sheer nervous fatigue.”

He ceased speaking, but she remained silent, fearing lest she say too little or too much.

“Nance,” he said presently with a slow, whimsical glance, “I’m beginning to suspect that I’m even more of a fool than Hoover thought me ­and he was rather enthusiastic about it, I assure you!”

To which she at length answered musingly: 

“If God makes us fools, doubtless he likes to have us thorough.  Be a great fool, Bernal.  Don’t be a small one.”