From the Future Comes a Cry
By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
December 30, 1945
From time immemorial, it has been the custom of the human race to commemorate the turning of the year. Measured by the longevity of a star or the life-span of a planet, such an interval, of course, has only trivial significance. But as a measure of the hurrying days and nights of man’s mortality upon the circling earth, each annual cycle is a notable dimension. It invites reflection, a moment’s pause in which to make a reckoning. Year after year, in homes and churches, in streets and marketplaces, in magazines and newspapers, in public utterance and private conversation–in every way, in fact, that opportunity provides–such annual reckonings have been made.
This year, however, events have so exceeded all previous lengths and breadths of computation that the scale of reckoning itself has been eclipsed. We are at the end not merely of an annual cycle but of an epoch. We are uncertain, indeed, whether even the word “epoch” is sufficient to the circumstances; it may have been surpassed. Nowhere within the period known as history can we find a reference point coordinate with our present situation. We have to go beyond historic time to what we only know through myth and folklore: the pains and perils of the dawn of human consciousness, the fabled threat of universal flood and other prophesies of dissolution; or, as most of the commentators seem to prefer, to the audacious moment when man first began to subdue to his own uses the furious majesty of fire.
If we go back that far, we recognize that former men have had to contemplate, as we do, the certainty of great and strenuous transformations accompanied by alternatives of general ruin and destruction. No matter what the chances of the latter were in actual fact, to those who faced them they seemed extremely real. The gods might well despair of man and suddenly decide to end him. This, apparently, was often prophesied. To those who looked upon the region in which they lived as all the human world there was, suspecting nothing of other areas of human habitation, a volcanic eruption, a widespread inundation, or any other natural catastrophe would seem to threaten total demolition and, for man, extermination. But for these comparisons we have to go back beyond history.
Those who entertained the possibility of a general catastrophe during the historic period seem always to have predicted it as a supernatural intervention–like the coming of Christ on the clouds of heaven. In this case, the existing world was being ended only to transform it by miraculous means into something much superior. It was a calamity for the wicked, or for those who were thought to be such; but for the elite or the elect, the ones, that is to say, who made the forecast, a very blissful future was expected. No matter how much they tried to impress other people with the idea of a cataclysm, to themselves, certainly, the expectation of so much happiness to follow must have made it seem a very limited catastrophe.
But even when we have considered both history and the prehistoric, there was never a time quite like this. We ourselves are not contemplating events which might be brought about by gods or demons; we are not thinking in restricted terms of earthquakes, floods or natural calamities; we are not even reflecting upon the ultimate exhaustion of the earth we live upon, as scientists have sometimes done, or upon its destruction through some cosmic accident; we are not thinking at all of something which might happen to us, but of something which we ourselves might cause to happen. In the past, we could ask what God would do, or natural events, and usually feel a relaxing sense of partial unreality, of distance in time, of hopeful obscurity and remoteness; but now we wonder how we ourselves can cope with overwhelming problems, with dangers close at hand, unparalleled in terrifying urgency, and there is no sense whatever of remoteness. We know that the scientific event that has taken place is irreversible: we have unlocked the secret of nature’s own immense and awful energy, and even if we would, we could not find a way to lock it up again.
It comes inevitably, does this discovery, from the science and technology which are now essential to the human world and without which it would be impossible to support our populations. It is not an isolated event, unrelated to what has gone before; it is the culmination of a process sure to lead just where it has. Bound up with this process is the whole fabric of modern life, the entire method of modern knowledge. The same approach which has made us masters of the soil and sea and air, which has given us increasing command of the elements, which shows us how to cure disease and banish famine–this same approach, the scientific approach, leads inescapably to vast powers and ultimate discoveries. To end this process we would need to destroy the civilized world. For discovery cannot be made to stand still. Madame Curie and her husband had no idea when they were working on radium that what they had found would lead to further steps, first in theory, then in experiment, which would contribute at last to the military use of atomic explosives. Einstein had very little notion when he wrote down the equation e=mc(exp2), that he had provided the basic principle which would make possible atomic bombs within his own lifetime….This total process cannot be dispersed or separated–without the sacrifice of civilization itself.
Indeed, we must go even further. It is not a matter of this civilization, but of any civilization. It is a matter of man’s own composition, his own intelligence, his growing intellect, his urge to mastery–the things that make him man. We could go back to Anaximander and Thales seeking the primal substance of the universe; or Pythagoras, Anaxagoras and Democritus, struggling with early mathematics and the first atomic theories. That would take us back more than 2500 years, and, no doubt, we could go back a great deal farther. It is one of the great culminations of this entire human quest–the greatest of all down to know– that has been reached in our own time; indeed, to be specific, in the year now ending, the year of the Christian era, 1945. It is clear, therefore, that what has come to pass cannot be revoked, nor its consequences evaded. We must go on to master our discoveries, even the greatest, or suffer the ruinous penalties of failure.
Yet, as the most eventful year in history passes, we who have lived through that year are filled with fears. What are we afraid of? We can answer the question in a single word: ourselves. We are afraid of ourselves. Not of natural forces, uncontrollable or hostile to us. Not of gods and supernatural beings. Not of anything that lies outside us; but of ourselves. We are not even, in the last analysis, afraid of other men, other kinds of men. We know at last how very much all other men are like us. We are not afraid of their acting as we, ourselves, could never act. We are afraid that they may do just exactly what we might do in provoking circumstances, or when we are irresponsible, prejudiced, greedy, stupid, stubborn, or impelled by our lower motives away from our best and towards our worst. It is useless our saying that we would never use an atomic bomb; we did–twice. To us it seemed justified–that is, to some of us–to those who had that fearful question to decide. And so we fear that it may seem justified to other people–some of them–who also may have to decide. We have more confidence in our own restraint than in other people’s, just as we do when we are willing to travel 60 miles an hour in an automobile–provided we happen to be holding the wheel. But we want nothing more than 40 miles an hour if someone else happens to be driving, and not even that, perhaps, if the driver happens to be our own dear wife! ….Deep down, we know that it is human nature itself, our own, of which we are distrustful. Will it prove sufficient to the opportunities and dangers of this new age?
We find it more difficult than we used to do to trust our leaders. We feel that we no longer have any great men. In these recent months I have come increasingly to believe that even if we did have recognizably great leaders our situation would be much the same. In fact, I am not sure but that our leaders in any other period would seem a good deal greater than they do today. They are overshadowed by events. Some kinds of greatness seem no longer very great, and men today are not in awe of what the past called greatness. All men, of whatever eminence, are shrunken in apparent stature by the greatness of the times. I do not believe that Pericles would be any better able to cope with the international problems of the moment than those who are attempting it. I doubt whether Socrates would have found it easy to meet the intellectual challenge. He could ask extremely searching questions, but answering them is another matter. Rather than agonize his way through an international conference, Socrates might very well have preferred to go a little sooner to the hemlock!….What I am suggesting by all this is not that we do not need leaders, but that we know today that all men, leaders included, are coping with destinies which all but overwhelm them.
We shall continue to cope with these destinies. I shall not be surprised if we grow more hopeful. Just as individual men of lesser quality–to all appearances, of lesser quality–rise to great heights at times, when given momentous duties and responsibilities, so may the people of this generation. It is not impossible, far from it, that we shall transcend our mediocrity, our narrow vision, our cowardly habits and indulgences, and meet each crisis as it comes, if not triumphantly then earnestly and bravely. And if we do that we may save the present while preparing for the happier future.
And it is about that future that I chiefly wish to speak this morning. I do not believe for one moment that the perils and frustrations of the present hour are accidental, that all its pains and miseries have no significance, that such a time as this is meaningless. I do not believe this earth with all its life revolves to no good purpose, or that it is a thing of chance and spinning to destruction. I know the arguments for such opinions. I have read and listened to them all. I know the scientist’s approach and find it natural to share his caution and humility. I know how little we can prove by logic, how impossible it is to demonstrate in words a meaning hidden in obscurities which mostly lie beyond our understanding. But I also know with every breath I breathe that truth is greater than our comprehension. I know just as I know my existence that there is purpose in this human life of ours, greater purpose than any of us has ever found the means of making manifest. There may be purpose beyond it, too. I would be willing to say after Abraham Lincoln, “The Almighty has his own purposes.” If you wish to change the language, do so, but hesitate a long while before you change the meaning. In the vastness of the universe there is room for far more than man can center in his own affairs; there may be that which now requires of us a place within the scheme of things which no man has conjectured or supposed. We do not know: we speculate. But when we try to understand the larger mystery of the times we live in, it is natural to say, as Lincoln did: “The Almighty has his own purposes.”
Yes, but within human life, unfolding from the earlier life of earth, and growing, little by little, by constant struggle and unremitting effort towards a heightened, broadened, nobler level of fulfillment, it seems to me that purpose and significance, no matter how difficult to express, are so evident as to be beyond all reasonable doubt. If it be otherwise, the human mind itself is nothing but a means to madness; and all knowledge, no matter how objective in its outreach, or however cautious and austere, is just a suicidal fantasy. I can follow Lincoln in a second affirmation. I believe in “the power in the life”–“the spirit in the life.” God beyond man, God outside of man, may be entirely speculation. I do not say that this is so; but I am willing for the moment to leave it as an undetermined question. But God within man, “Life immense in passion, pulse and power,”, life militantly seeking the conquest of all that is less than life, life with meaning rising to moral meaning, life with purpose rising to spiritual purpose–this, it seems to me, is undeniable, except by those who do less living than debating. And certainly I speak this morning, not as one who comes from the study of a philosopher or a theologian–though I have neglected neither philosophy nor theology–but as one who lives, and thinks as he lives. I find my God not in my books but in my living, and his purpose not in my arguments but in experience and perception. Mankind has not come all this way–millions and millions of years of struggling pilgrimage–from empty causes and to no avail, to no sufficient purpose. Whatever may happen to this particular generation–and we, ourselves, shall largely decide it–the end is still in view and the purpose is invincible.
The thing that has happened is that human life itself has reached a crisis: the total life of man throughout the planet and the life of every individual human being within that larger life. If I may say so, this is no new thought to me: I must ask pardon for almost quoting myself, for I have said it many times for many years. The present culmination was predictable. Anyone who cannot grasp the larger truth of what the present crisis means–the truth that man is required to raise the level of his life to the point of actual transformation–will prove incapable of understanding the situation of which he is a part, and incapable of all decisions which are demanded of him. it is a simple truth, but like all simple truths, extremely large. To people accustomed to truth dispensed in retail sizes, it will seem too wholesale to be credible. But then, these are the same people who have refused to believe in anything which has happened in the last ten years until it actually did happen. They refused to accept the dimensions of the world struggle until it could no longer be avoided. They refused to see that the world must be governed as a unity, a community, until terror made them see the truth that wishful thinking had obscured….I say again, this is a total crisis in human life itself demanding that we rise to a new level, not only of belief and affirmation, but of performance. All older, easier ways of life are ending; their course is nearly finished. An age is ending not only for the outer world but for the inner world: the world of motive and conscience, of mind and spirit.
Let no one suppose that the critical days which have come to us are just a hateful residue from the past–that no meaning for the future lies within them. There is a hateful residue from the past–that is what we have to overcome. It is the old world’s ancient evil–and we must end it. But of equal or greater significance is the challenge from the future–the unmade future which is nonetheless molding the present and deciding the paths that we must take. It will be a higher humanity than our own which will inherit that future : it will be and it should be. Like Moses viewing the Promised Land, we are able to see such a future and prepare for it; but we are not able to enter it. The ways of the past are too much with us. Or like David, who longed to build for his God a glorious temple, we can prepare the materials and plan the outlines, but we cannot build. “There is too much blood on your hands,” said Jehovah to David. And the old story is full of meaning. To us, too, it must be said, “There is too much blood on your hands.” We are too full of prejudice, of blindness, of greed, of hate and superstition–yet we can prepare the way. WE must. To survive, we must. To that level we must rise.
For “from the future comes a cry”–a cry of challenge, a cry of entreaty. It is for the future we must live–to live at all–though it be a future we ourselves shall never see. There is nothing else to live for–and in the last analysis, there never was. It is what we aim towards that gives our lives their meaning; their meaning and their true fulfillment. Evolution is not the blind pushing of life forward so much as the purposive pulling of it onward. There is no interpretation of life at all except as growth; and growth can only be explained in terms of what it moves towards. Mankind may fulfill the laws of its growth, or–any given generation of it–perish. What we cannot do is to ignore or change the laws, the purpose, the requirement. For man can no more refuse this claim and still survive than an acorn can become a cactus. Just as an oak in all its growth is always moving towards fulfillment as an oak, and not as anything else, so is man. The refusal of a fuller human stature when the moment which requires it has arrived is an invitation to death. We must begin to be altogether human, building a fully human world, or return–as to ourselves–self-defeated and unfulfilled, to the dust from which we came. For the future is molding the present; the word of challenge and requirement has gone out. “From the future comes a cry.”
Let no one suppose that this is a time to lose or lessen his faith. It is a time to lose the worthless creeds which men have formerly too much believed in. The greater truths remain more true than ever. Yes, and great faith is not, as some have said, a meager candle in the dark, but a thousand, thousand torches soon to be flaming in the night-time; and in the distance a gathering brightness where horizons presently will glow.
It was for times like these and faith like this that man was made: man with his fears and doubts, his insufficiencies and contradictions; man with his loves and hates, his joys and pain; man that was never altogether man–but shall be. For “the spirit in the life” is in him.
In his immaturity, man needed contradictions: errors that taught the painful way to truth, hate that bolstered courage, even superstitious terror to fill the blankness of the awful dark. And because the beauty that he sought lay always just beyond his reach, because the longing in his heart was thwarted, his resentments turned to malice and sometimes to savagery. The mark of Cain was upon his brow: it was and it is. He would not be “his brother’s keeper”ach, because the longing in his heart was thwarted, his resentments turned to malice and sometimes to savagery. The mark of Cain was upon his brow: it was and it is. He would not be “his brother’s keeper”ach, because the longing in his heart was thwarted, his resentments turned to malice and sometimes to savagery. The mark of Cain was upon his brow: it was and it is. He would not be “his brother’s keeper” and so he became his brother’s slayer. And he made his gods in his own tormented image. Yet in his secret heart, he always had a fragment of the truth–the truth that was eventually to save him. And to find the other fragments and fit them all together, he had to find a way to every other human heart. Then the truth would be entire, the many fragments fitted into wholeness; and the image of God, the only perfect likeness, would be complete and perfect: mirrored in the brotherhood of man.
That is what it was to be–even from the beginning. Do you remember Swinburne’s verses, from Atalanta in Calydon:
Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time, with a gift of tears;
Grief, with a glass that ran;
Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
Summer, with flowers that fell;
Remembrance fallen from heaven;
And madness risen from hell;
Strength without hands to smite;
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And life, the shadow of death.
And the high gods took in hand
Fire, and the falling of tears,
And a measure of sliding sand
From under the feet of the years;
And froth and drift of the sea;
And dust of the laboring earth;
And bodies of things to be
In the houses of death and of birth;
And wrought with weeping and laughter,
And fashion’d with loathing and love,
With life before and after
And death beneath and above,
For a day and a night and a morrow,
That his strength might endure for a span
With travail and heavy sorrow,
The holy spirit of man.
That is what it was to be–always: the holy spirit of man. And be it soon or late, that is what it shall be.
Prayer: O God, by the truth we have dimmed and are able to dim no more, persuade us; and by the love we have quenched and robbed our hearts in quenching, save us. Amen.