AVERAGE AND ABSOLUTE VIRTUE

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye and a 
tooth for a tooth : But I say unto you, Resist not evil." MATTHEW 
v. 38 (R. V.). 

IT is not of the special injunction of Christ in 
these words that I want to speak, but of the general 
spirit which inspires this and a great many others of 
our Lord s commandments. Christ found a host of 
men who had simply accepted the standards of their 
time. They found a certain type and degree of con- 
scientiousness current around them. Jerusalem ex- 
pected them to be as good as this standard, and 
asked of them no more. Moses and David, in the 
course of centuries, pressed flat by the hard, unsym- 
pathetic hands of commentators, pared down and 
explained away by the necessities of practical liv- 
ing, had degenerated from great spiritual inspirations 
into sets of rules. Everything had become formal. 
The world had fixed its standard of how good a man 
should be, and no man was expected to be better 
than his world. 

We can well imagine with what spirit Christ must 
have faced that state of things. With His informal 
soul, with His spontaneous freedom, with His sense 
of God and man, with His firm conviction that man 
was the child of God, and that there was no limit to 
the degree of nearness to his Father into which 
every man might come, the whole system of hard 
limitations must have been odious to Him. His 
soul desired the sky, and men had built a roof 
against which every man just grazed his head, and 
which shut the sky out from their aspiration alto- 
gether. Therefore came His protests fast and warm. 
Men say, "You shall not kill"; I say, "You shall 
not hate." Men say, "You shall not commit 
adultery " ; I say, "You shall not lust." Men say, 
"You shall not swear falsely"; I say, "You shall 
not swear at all." Men say, "You shall love your 
friends " ; I say, "You shall love everybody." 

Can we not picture to ourselves how words like 
these of Jesus must have come to many a generous 
young spirit in Jerusalem as the Master spoke? 
"Lo, then, it is not wrong, or foolish, or conceited, 
this sense of which my heart has been full that 
men have got the whole thing too hard and small. 
It is, then, right, this desire, this struggle to be 
better than my world. Listen, my heart, and hear, 
oh, hear what He is saying now: Be ye therefore 
perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect. 

No picture of Christ is clearer in the Gospels than 
that in which He is seen standing face to face with 
human life, and uttering His call to men. "Be better 
than your world," He cries. He opened the great 
door of a completer life, and said to all His hearers, 
"Go in there." Some, the few, heard and obeyed. 

Many, the most, drew back. What call was there 
for them to be more holy than their fellows? But 
how often, to the best of them, as afterwards all 
through their life they went their way, quenching 
their higher impulses and drilling themselves into 
conformity with the world s standards, the call 
which they once heard must have come back as the 
memory of the morning comes back to the hot and 
dusty noon, and they must have stopped a moment, 
and dreamed of how, if they had listened to that 
voice, they might have lived different lives, might 
have been better than their world. 

I wish that I could make you hear that voice to- 
day. You need to hear it ; for everywhere around 
us, when a man aspires after a life in any way larger 
or better than the average of the life by which he is 
surrounded, there come two results ; first a misgiving 
in himself, and secondly an outcry from his neigh- 
bors. It is so in all departments. You are moved 
to believe some richer doctrine than the special creed 
which you have been taught contains. And then 
your own heart rises up and you say, "Who am I 
that I should find out truth which my fathers did 
not know?" Or you are moved to question some- 
thing which has been long and widely held for true ; 
and again your heart is ready with its cry, "Has not 
this dogma held mankind for generations? Why 
should I stir myself? Let me quietly accept it." 
Or there comes some moan into your ears out of the 
mass of misery which we call poverty ; and you start 
up to go out and help it; and all the selfishness 
around you lifts up its voice in wonder. You set 
yourself against some commonly accepted business 
fraud, or blunder; and all the business world, ac- 
cording as it thinks your protest dangerous or simply 
silly, calls you knave or fool. You remonstrate 
against the action of your political party, and your 
party is only troubled to know whether you are a 
hypocrite or a Pharisee. You plead for purer social 
life, and society gazes at you with a stony stare. 
You cannot hide so carefully the effort to make your 
own soul purer and holier but that the world feels 
this strange thing which is going on in it, and with 
something almost like indignation wonders why you 
need be so scrupulous and fine. So it is everywhere. 

I would not seem to think that this is the only 
feeling which the effort of any man to be better than 
his world excites. I do not ignore, I am sure, 
either that enthusiastic hope which springs up in 
the struggling soul itself, or that instinctive homage 
and respect which, under all contempt and opposi- 
tion, still exists to greet the man who is not satis- 
fied to live merely in the average of his brethren. 
Those are real things. But also real is that dislike, 
that disposition to recall and repress his endeavor, 
which welcomes the adventurous man. Partly it is 
because he rebukes the self-satisfied lethargy of 
other men. That is not all the reason. But, be 
the reason what it may, the fact exists. Each brave 
man meets and has to face it. And so I ask you to 
study it with me a little while. 

The first thing which we wish to understand, if 
we can, is what is the meaning of the fact we have 
to deal with, and whence it comes. What is this 
general standard of morality and life, below which 
a man cannot fall without disgrace, but above which 
it is not wholly safe for a man to try to rise? It is 
a strange phenomenon. It is not uniform. It 
varies most unaccountably in different times and 
places. It is, no doubt, in a rude way, the expres- 
sion of the height which the average virtue, in any 
given place or time, has attained, the tide-mark of 
the morality of this especial time and place. 

But there is more account than that to give of it. 
The public standard is very apt to bear the mark of 
three causes which are very temporary and local, 
but which must make themselves felt where they 
exist. The first of these is the especial need of 
the especial time. Certain virtues are particularly 
valued, and certain vices are made light of, because 
of the peculiar condition which society has reached. 
The vices which seem most dangerous are most con- 
demned and hated. Thus, in our newer Western 
communities, theft is punished with summary se- 
verity, while baser crimes are made but little of. 
To steal a horse has sometimes been thought worse 
than to kill a man. The second of these influences 
is the power of reaction. Some long-neglected 
virtue by and by gets its chance, and wins for itself 
an excessive prominence. Thus, after a long period 
of bigotry, toleration for a time appears to be the 
one excellence worth cultivating. Thirdly, there is 
the power of some dominant character, or some 
great public teacher, who for the time makes the 
form of goodness which he most admires shine be- 
fore the eyes of the community which has its eyes 
fixed on him. So Dr. Channing once in Boston, so 
Thomas Carlyle in England, gave utterance to types 
of character which, both in their excellencies and 
their limitations, became almost the fixed laws of 
their people and their times. 

The peculiar need of a special place in a special 
stage of development, the reaction from some pre- 
vious standard, and the force of some strong char- 
acter, these, I think, are the elements which unite 
to make that strange thing which we call the standard 
of the time. When it is once made, how strange 
and strong it is ! It is tyrannical. For the time it 
seems to have embodied the absolute and eternal 
goodness. It is intangible, but very real. The 
strongest and the weakest feel it. He who suggests 
that there is much about it which is temporary, and 
which the next generation will see altered, is counted 
an enemy of goodness, a traitor to morality. This, 
which, underneath the immediate and superficial ex- 
planations of it, is really the stage in the great on- 
ward movement of human life that has been reached 
at any point of time, is the phenomenon which 
every man encounters in the present life in which 
he lives ; and it is the sight which every student of 
history sets himself to study as he looks back into 
the past. Just as, when you look across a stretch 
of ocean, you see the different colors in the water 
which show how various are the degrees of depth; 
so, as you look across the centuries, you see how 
every age has its own hue, which reveals to you what 
virtues it most valued and what vices it most dreaded, 
and whether the standard of its public and its private 
life were deep or shallow, high or low. 

And now the question is : what ought to be the 
relation of any one man, living in a particular age, 
to this moral standard of his age? He evidently 
cannot be independent of it. He cannot live in a 
base age just as he would have lived in one of those 
finer and more spiritual ages which certainly occur, 
and in which it often seems as if it would be so very 
easy to be good and brave and pure. On the other 
hand, he certainly cannot be the slave and puppet 
of his time, losing his responsibility in its responsi- 
bility, and counting it either hopeless or disloyal to 
think of being better than the world he lives in. 
What then? What shall he do? 

In the first place, he who considers the explana- 
tions which we gave of the origin of the general 
standard of any time must be struck by their tem- 
porariness. They certainly are not absolute and 
eternal. They do not pretend to be. The special 
need of a particular time, the power of reaction 
from something which has already been, the acci- 
dental presence of some powerful man, all these 
concurring do not have any necessary coincidence 
with the eternal standards which are in the mind of 
God. The man who most accepts them as his 
present rule must certainly be ready to say, "They 
are not final. They may all disappear. Another 
age may come, must come, with different, it may 
be with better, loftier exactions." 

There is freedom in a consciousness like that. 
He who is aware of the temporariness of the stand- 
ards under which he lives, is at liberty to look above 
those standards. He may accept the unborn future, 
as well as the already embodied present, for his 
home. He belongs not merely to the temporary 
which already is, and lies upon the surface, but also 
to the eternal, which is underneath now, and shall 
come forth visibly in some completer day. 

Again, we must remember that our public standard 
is an average ; and the very idea of average involves 
the absence of uniformity. To make an average you 
must have some parts lower and some other parts 
higher than the level at which you finally settle. 
The common public standards of any age, therefore, 
are the result of the upward and the downward forces 
pulling upon one another. As there are multitudes 
of degraded lives, lives always dragging downward 
the standard of their time, lives worse than their 
world ; so there must be other lives better than their 
world, always drawing the standard upward against 
this base resistance. There must be men better than 
their time, or the time could not be as good as it is. 

Let us remember this when the exceptional and 
shining lives seem to be wasted in a hopeless world. 
Some man who dares believe in the absolute truth, 
and to anticipate the judgment seat of God ; some 
woman like a sunbeam in her purity and unworldli- 
ness, what shall we say of them? They do not 
make the world to be like themselves ; but there is 
not one of them whose life does not tell upon the 
world, to keep it from being completely what it 
would be if only the brutal and false and foul men 
and women had their way in it. Not one of their 
lives is wasted, though it may end upon a scaffold 
or a cross. Was the life of Jesus Christ wasted? 

Here too is freedom. If in the very substance of 
this average itself are mingled purer forces ; if these 
common standards, unaspiring as they appear, can- 
not be maintained unless there be some souls better 
than these standards, some uncontent, aspiring 
souls forever tugging at the current standards to 
draw them up, or at least to keep them from falling 
lower; then why should I not be among these 
souls? Here there is surely room for aspiration. 
That the world may not be worse than it is, I will 
be better than my world. 

And yet, once more, we always ought to remem- 
ber, when we talk about the standards of the world, 
that we are of necessity talking very loosely. There 
are many worlds of many standards, all lying close 
together in this one, great, strange world of ours. 
The world is not one evenly kneaded uniformity of 
moral judgment. Close by the side of the little 
world in which your birth or business places you, 
there is, very likely, another world of different stand- 
ards, of higher hopes and aspirations, into which 
world perhaps your life may be tranf erred, by the 
very knowledge of which world s existence your life 
may be rebuked and purified. That other world 
may or may not be at once distinguishable, but it 
exists. And the very knowledge of that world gives 
freedom. 

Here is the Christian Church, the never-dying 
testimony of the higher possibility in man. I know 
how ready we are to say that the Church shares the 
moral fortunes of the world. I know that there is 
truth in what we say, when we declare that in a base 
age the Christian Church grows base. But all the 
time there is in man a deeper consciousness about 
the Church than that. The world hungers after, 
and is not satisfied unless it finds, a Church that is 
better than the times it lives in, a Church which is a 
power of God, forever protesting against the evil by 
which it is surrounded, forever insisting on the lofty 
moral standards which a base age calls hopeless. 

What is a holy Church, unless she awes 

The times down from their sins ? Did Christ select 

Such amiable times to come and teach 
Love to, and mercy ? 

It is this ideal of the Church, always demanded, 
never lost wholly out of the hearts of men, some- 
times beheld in more or less worthy realization in 
this poor, blundering, struggling, hoping Church of 
history, an ideal that is sure, men believe, to come 
and reveal itself, at last, this it is which has stood 
for courage and freedom to multitudes of souls 
which, without her testimony, would have despaired 
of rising up above the standards of their age. For 
the sake of such souls everywhere, in all the ages 
which are yet to come, may Christ make His Church 
more and more what she ought to be! may He 
make us who are in His Church more earnest to 
maintain her holiness ! 

Thus I have mentioned, one by one, some of the 
helps and provocations which offer themselves to 
every man who grows discontented with just accept- 
ing the standards of his time, to every man who 
wants to be better than his world. But I know full 
well that I have not yet touched that which must 
be, sooner or later, the real strength and freedom of 
all aspiring men. These things of which I have 
spoken are but the opening of the prison doors. 
The real liberty, the real going-forth of the prisoner 
into freedom, can only come by an intensifying of 
personal life. That is the great, necessary thing. 
You may convince a man that the elements which 
make up the average standards of the world he lives 
in are local and temporary, and so have no right to 
hold him in submission. You may make him know 
that some men are all the time outgoing their gen- 
eration, and that there is no reason why he should 
not be one of those men. You may point him to 
the worlds of higher life, the Church and all its 
meanings, which lie close beside his lower world all 
the time. And when you have done this there he 
sits ! With his prison doors wide open, there he sits 
still! What can make him rise up upon his feet, 
and go forth in enterprising goodness to be better 
than his world? Nothing except a personal call, a 
personal responsibility, a sense of himself which 
makes him for the time forget his brethren and all 
their standards, and, just as if he were the one soul 
to whom such a call ever came, follow the voice 
which summons him wherever it may lead. 

Is there a voice which can speak to the souls of 
men like that? "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all 
men unto me," said Jesus Christ. The whole soul 
of the Christian Gospel is the enforcement of per- 
sonal responsibility, of personal accountability. 
"You are God s child," it says to every soul. 

"God loves you. He has given you your own life 
to live. He has prepared a judgment seat for you. 
And then there comes in that wonderful personal 
appropriation of redemption, which has filled all the 
history of Christianity and made countless souls feel 
that they had the right to say, as they looked upon 
the Cross of Calvary, "The Saviour who is dying 
there is my Saviour and is dying for me." 

Here we get at the heart and soul of the whole 
matter. The power of Christ is thoroughly per- 
sonal. He fills the single soul with its own inspira- 
tions, its own hopes, its own consciousness of 
responsibility and opportunity. He lifts a world 
or an age by lifting the individuals of which it is 
composed. Every power of Christ on the masses 
is but the consequence and aggregate of His power 
on individuals. Some forces might try to lift the 
world as a derrick lifts a rock, with a strong, stiff 
chain bound fast about the whole, so that no par- 
ticle must lag behind, and no particle must outstrip 
another particle. But the power of Christ lifts the 
world, lifts society, as the spirit of flight lifts a flock 
of birds which fly together towards the sun. They 
rise together, but only because the same upward 
impulse tells on each. No doubt they fly the better 
because they fly in company ; but any bird that can 
outstrip the others may do it. There is a certain 
general speed with which they fly ; but no aspiring 
wing is bound to fly no faster. The general stand- 
ard of speed, which is, no doubt, an inspiration to 
the slower, is no restraint upon the bravest and the 
strongest as he presses onward towards the sun. 

Is not that what we want? I look at Christ Him- 
self, and is not that just what I see? He felt His 
age and race about Him. He was a Jew in the time 
of Herod. And yet how freely He outwent His age ! 
And why? Because He had to do directly and most 
intimately with God. He was the Son of God ; and 
whatever may be the closeness with which the chil- 
dren of a family are bound to one another, the first 
relation of each is to the father of them all. That 
is what keeps the freedom and openness of family 
life. So Christ was free to outgo Judaism, because 
He knew Himself the child of God. 

What Christ was, He tried to make His disciples 
be, free by the direct personal relation of each to 
Himself and to the Father. There was, no doubt, a 
general average of life and character and knowledge 
in the twelve apostles; but John or Philip was per- 
fectly at liberty to rise to higher knowledge of the 
Master, to enter deeper into His Spirit, to win com- 
pleter consecration to His work. And the charter 
and assurance of their liberty was their Master s 
perpetual exhortation to them to follow Him, and 
to be perfect even as their Father in Heaven was 
perfect. 

In that same injunction must be the charter and 
assurance of our liberty to reach forth after the 
highest, and to be better than our world. We live 
here in the midst of a certain average of faith. The 
men about us believe so much, and no more. Won- 
derful is the quickness and the positiveness with 
which the least belief beyond the average is hailed 
as superstition over-belief, as the word seems to 
mean. And yet the soul of every man is claimed 
by God s own revelations to that soul. The reser- 
voirs of truth God s world, God s Word, the hu- 
man soul, the human history, the life and light of 
Christ, they are open like the sky above the head 
of every man. Not unhelped by his brethren s 
faith, yet making every article of faith his own and 
following it out as God shall lead him by a special 
guidance; so every man must press forward into 
more and more belief. 

My dear friends, be sure that you let no man, nor 
all the tone of all the age you live in which is 
nothing but the colossal man of this especial time 
dominate over your right and power of believing. 
The only hope of escape from the contagion and 
tyranny of unbelief lies in this claiming of the rights 
and privileges of the individual soul, the right and 
privilege of the individual soul to seek after truth 
and to hold immediate converse with God. It is 
not by going back to borrow the faith of the twelfth 
century, or of the second, that you can resist the un- 
belief of the nineteenth. Every true man, while he 
lives in his century, must live free from his century, 
must try, at least, to live the timeless and eternal 
life with Truth, and so to be open to his own unin- 
terrupted, undistorted voice of God speaking di- 
rectly to him. This is the only hope of escape either 
from narrow skepticism or from narrow superstition. 

And as of faith, so too of life and conduct. How 
shall you and I, rowing up and down this little 
land-locked harbor of our class or party standards, 
gather strength and courage to run up our sails and
put out into the broad sea which lies beyond? We 
cannot do it unless some voice comes out of that 
sea, distinctly calling us to sail upon a course that 
leads to some special harbor which we are meant 
to reach, which the God who built our natures built 
us for. To undertake a life more self-sacrificing 
than your friends think it best to live, so that you 
can aid the poor ; to take deliberately on your back 
the burden of some brother s life which men think 
worthless, and only fit just to be left to die ; to de 
clare, without uncharitable judgment of your fellow- 
men, that some well-recognized indulgence of society 
is hurtful to your purity or conscientiousness, and 
so you will have no part in it ; to set yourself against 
some popular iniquity or in favor of some unpopular 
reform ; all of these are acts which can be done 
quietly, firmly, humbly, only as there comes to your 
soul a certain sense that you were made by God to 
do them ; that, however it may be for other men, 
for you God s word is clear, and there is nothing 
for you to do but obey it. That was the conviction 
which came into the hearts of the first apostles when 
the fiery tongues of the Pentecost were still burning 
over their heads. "Whether it be right in the sight 
of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, 
judge ye! " said Peter and John to the Council in 
Jerusalem. They turned, you see, and appealed 
directly to their world, and said, "Behold we cannot 
live in your standards, for God is calling us." And 
even the hard-souled Council must have felt in its 
heart the power of the appeal. 

Only in this truth, that the escape from the 
tyranny of local and temporary standards must lie 
in personal obedience to a call of God, only here is 
found the safeguard of humility. I know full well 
that in what I have said there must have seemed to 
lurk the peril of the Pharisee. "We know him," I 
have almost seemed to hear you say; "we know the 
man who sets out to be better than his world. We 
know him and we hate him ! We have had enough 
of his self-righteous ways. May we be saved from 
ever being men like him ! " The only way in which 
you can be saved from being men like him, and yet 
not sink back into the slavery of average life, is by 
daring to believe that God meant something when 
He made you ; and that the true humility and the 
true progress will be found in struggling with all 
your soul after that Divine design. That is the 
glorious liberty of the children of God. 

And so this is our truth ! You must go out of the 
merely temporary and local to meet the absolute 
and the eternal. To him who sits indoors it may 
often seem as if the sun were gone out and the 
winds no longer blew. To him who listens only to 
what is said by the men about him, or to the men 
of old time, it must often seem as if there were no 
absolute righteousness, no voice of God. Arise! 
Go forth under the open sky ; God is still there, and 
the soul that really listens must hear His voice, and 
the soul that hears His voice must know that He is 
King. 

I would not have you think that this truth is only 
for great men, with remarkable things to do in the 
world. It is for all men. It is for the schoolboy in 
his school, tempted to swear or cheat because the 
other boys do. It is for the young man or woman 
in the boarding-house, crowded upon by the low 
atmosphere of gossip and frivolity which is hot and 
heavy there. It is for the shopkeeper shut in by 
the bad tricks and habits of his trade. It is for the 
politician, forever encountering the sneers of those 
who say that politics must be corrupt. It is for the 
men and women of society; for the students and 
the lawyers and the ministers; for the mechanics 
and the laborers ; for every human creature who is 
tempted to slight his work and not to do and be his 
best. To all such comes the call, " Be better than 
your world ! Break through the slavery of your 
class and time and set. Enjoy the glorious liberty 
of the children of God." 

And then, what more? Nothing but this: Of 
Christ the Saviour and the Master it is written that 
"To as many as received Him, to them gave He 
power to become the sons of God." And no won- 
der, then, that He said of Himself, "If the Son shall 
make you free, ye shall be free indeed." That is 
the whole history. Christ makes us know that we 
are, and so makes us be the sons of God. Being 
God s sons, we strike directly for God and for His 
standards. So we are set at liberty to use, but not 
to be bound by, the standards of our class and time. 
In the great phrase of the apostle, we "live unto the 
Lord." This is the real redemption of the Lord 
Jesus Christ. Into the very richest heart of that 
redemption may all of us enter, and there may we 
find liberty and life.