Dean Sperry was born in 1882 at Peabody, Mass., whence his parents moved to Michigan, where he began his education in Olivet College, finishing it as Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and in Yale University. Ordained to the Congregational ministry in 1908, he became first assistant and then pastor of the First Church of Fall River in 1913; and the following year he entered upon a notable ministry in the Central Church of Boston.
Since 1922, Dr. Sperry has been Dean of the Theological School in Harvard University, and Bartlet professor of Sacred Rhetoric on the Andover Foundation. Some of us are deeply in debt to his volume of essays, The Disciplines of Liberty—one of the most rewarding books of recent times; and our obligation is further increased by his recent searching study of Reality in Worship. If only he had added a chapter on architecture, it would have been well-nigh complete; but on that subject, if he has made up his mind, he keeps it to himself.
The study of the Great Temptation, in which all other temptations are summed up, finding its secret not in cynicism, but in the moral peril of yielding to the lure of magic to obtain Divine power to use for our own ends, instead of yielding ourselves to God to be used for His ends, must be reckoned a searching, impressive and timely sermon.
Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Luke 4:12.
One of the moderns who professes to be in search of a religion says that Christianity does not attract him. He has the usual difficulty with churches and creeds, but his real trouble goes back of all that to the gospel picture of Jesus. Our Lord, he says, is too flawless, too perfect, a little too good to be true. He must have some one to follow, whether god or man, who is nearer to our human frailties.
This criticism may be leveled fairly against certain highly speculative accounts of the nature of the second person of the Godhead. It may not be leveled against Jesus of Nazareth, whose story is told in the synoptic gospels, since it ignores certain significant passages in those gospels which bring their hero very near to our common humanity. The prayer in Gethsemane and the cry of dereliction from the Cross are evidence in point. But in particular there is this story of the temptation in the wilderness. This is not the kind of story which the early church would have invented, and plainly the narrative must have had its origin with Jesus himself. Unless we are to dismiss the whole incident as an empty pose and a hollow play-acting, it seems quite clear that at the beginning of his work Jesus put through a time of uncertainty in which the religiousness of his mission was gravely imperiled. He was not sustained in that hour by any certainty of native immunity to evil, and he was faced by the somber prospect that he might prove traitor to his cause.
There have been various interpretations of the probable precise nature of this inner emergency. Tolstoi thought that the temptation was a final wholesale assault of the flesh upon the spirit. In this reading Tolstoi seems to have been consulting his own stormy history, not the text before him. A clear-sighted American historian, reading the record in the light of the insight furnished by the fortunes of the great prophets and saints, thinks that this time of moral proving concerned the method of Jesus’ ministry. Religious leaders, he says, at the outset of their mission are always tempted to make the popular appeal in an effort to gain direct control of the course of events. This direct control always fails. The spiritually great have stooped to conquer, they have gone the long way round. Our historian thinks that Jesus, facing his task, felt the seduction of the moral short cut, resisted it, and left the wilderness having delivered himself from a possible bad moral bargain with himself and his world.
A third interpretation seems to come still nearer the probable fact. The temptation had been preceded by the baptism. What the baptism meant to Jesus we do not know. But with that event he seems to have known himself, in some new way, God’s Son. The wonder of this self-knowledge is followed at once by a doubt as to its truth. The voice of the tempter assails him as a skeptical, conditional clause, “If thou be the Son of God.” The temptation, so construed, becomes part of our common human doubt as to the validity and worth of our own best moments. Are these moments pledges of our part in reality, or are they the tissue of illusion and self-deception? Are we to doubt, to deny, and to repudiate the best that life gives us, or are we to trust it, to heed it, and to live by it? Jesus seems to have been no stranger to this deeply human concern, and he issued from his ordeal ready to pledge away his life to the reality of the baptism conviction that he was the Son of God.
There follows, logically, one other interpretation of the temptation. With his baptism Jesus must have become conscious of a new access of power. Whenever the delegated powers of a vocation, a tradition, a society are vested in an individual he is a stronger man than he was before. Once he is formally inducted into his office or profession he has at his command certain energizing considerations and contacts which previously have been withheld. And with this consciousness of added power comes instantly the moral problem of the uses to which he may turn that power. Is he to use that power for his own ends, or be used by it for ends which lie beyond the limits of his life and work?
The pictorial account of the struggle in the wilderness through which Jesus passed seems to suggest some such momentous option. Here were these stones. The temptation was to use his new power to turn them into bread to break his fast. There were the kingdoms of this world. The temptation was to glorify himself upon an imperial throne. There was the temple to which he was carried in imagination. He might throw himself down from one of its pinnacles and force his God to save him by a miracle. And in the moment when this seduction to self-aggrandizement was hardest upon him there reverberated through his whole being the stern grave words of that ancient prohibition of the Deuteronomy, “Thou shall not tempt the Lord thy God.”
These words may be a platitude. But they are neither obscure nor unintelligible, ahd they become for us, as we discern the ultimate spiritual issues of life, the storm center and the resolution of all temptation. For each man of us there are two realities, the self which we call our own at any moment of time, and all that is other and more than that self. Religion, in Newman’s noble phrase, is “the thought of two and two only absolute luminously self-evident beings, myself and my Creator.” As soon as this consciousness of the self and its universe, the soul and its God begins to be translated into conduct, the first and last of all moral problems appears. What is to be the reference and relation of these two? Which of these selves, the private self bent upon its own desire, or the larger self manifest in nature, in society, in God, is to be given ascendancy?
The native uncorrected tendency of the natural man is to assert the individual self, and to make trial of all that is apart from that self to see whether its powers can be broken and tamed as the servants of his self-will. To put your universe to this drastic test, to seek to make it serve your private ends, that is the meaning of the classic phrase, “to tempt the Lord thy God.” And that, if we are to trust the issue of Jesus’ struggle in the wilderness, is what we may not do, since that is not religion, that is magic. For magic is the coercive determination to get God to do your will, while religion is the humble and unselfish desire to do the will of God. This age-old, age-long contest between the magician and the religionist in every one of us, is the true moral issue at stake in all temptation.
Back in the Book of Samuel there is a story of a man who yielded to this temptation. It is to be found in the grim record of Saul’s visit to the cave of the witch of Endor. In other and happier years Samuel had called Saul to be king, and Saul’s strength had been fortified by the prophet’s friendship. But as the love of power grew upon the king the two had drawn apart. Now Samuel is dead and Saul is in extremity. Saul determines to make one last bold effort to regain the help of the prophet, and in the cave of the witch woman Samuel is conjured up from the dead. The dark figure of the prophet moves reluctant and uncommunicative across the scene, protesting that it should be thus disquieted. Any one can feel what is wrong in that situation. Even a child can get it. The two protagonists are not in their true moral relation. The values are reversed. Samuel dead and gone has, if he lives again, other concerns than those which in self-will Saul has mismanaged. Saul has no moral right to make trial of Samuel, and as the story plainly hints, has no power over him. He finds that the world of the spirits evades and escapes him.
We have here a clew as to religion’s reluctance to have too much to do with modern necromancy. Religion does not challenge the findings of psychical research, it questions the initial attitude. For psychical research the reference is from other worlds to this world. For religion the reference as between the living and the dead, is from this world to the unseen world. Psychical research hopes and believes that our dead may return to us, in response to our seance. Religion says of the spirits of just men made perfect, “They shall not return to us, but we shall go to them.”
So it is with the final reference of life, its reference to God. There are those who hold quite soberly, both in theory and in practice, that we human beings have or may acquire a coercive power over the Wisdom and Spirit of the Universe, and that we can compel this spirit to do what we personally desire. This is an attitude which appears in all primitive attempts to define the relationship of man to God, and which persists in highly refined forms even in the most mature thought. It bears in the history and literature of this subject the name of magic. All who practice its arts, whether white or black, are magicians. Magic is an unbounded and egoistic confidence in our power to make the universe serve our wills.
The record of magic in history is reasonably plain. When the gods do not obey, we say they are asleep or on a journey. Finally, failing of our magical intention, we say, There is no God. Magical religion is, thus, a story of defeat, disillusionment, and ultimately of atheism. For our universe seems not to be constructed after this pattern. No man ever brought it to heel or succeeded in making it stand and deliver. There is something in the universe which finally escapes even the most relentless self-will in man. But it takes the race a long time to discover this truth, and it takes the average individual half a life time to discover and then to cast out the primitive magician in himself.
We are living at a time when it is absolutely essential to make a clean cut distinction between the magical attitude and the religious attitude in life. We have today as men never dreamed of having in other days, coercive control over tremendous forces in the natural world. We make daily trial of these forces, we “tempt” them, and they obey. We press the button, and throw the switch, and spin the dial, and step on the accelerator and the gods of all mythology touch their caps in deferential obedience to our slightest whim. The applied sciences of the twentieth century do make magicians of us all.
It should be said at once that the pure scientist stands absolutely free of the charge of practicing magic. The affinities of pure science are with religion, in that its reference is not from the universe to man’s uses, but from man to the realities of his universe. But the pure scientist is as rare a creature in our world as the pure saint. The vulgar modern heresy that society is made up of a large number of very pure scientists and an equally large number of very impure Christians is simply grotesque. Once in a while this world sees men like Saint Francis, John Woolman, Charles Darwin, and Michael Faraday; once in a great while. But the pure scientist is as much an exception in a university laboratory as the pure saint is an exception in a sectarian meeting house. For the most part we have at hand a society of persons practicing variously in the names of religion and science a self-willed, uncritical, and arrogant attempt to make the ultimate forces give them what they severally desire. And this temptation of the Lord their God is neither science nor religion in the noblest meaning of those words.
It is, you see, the attitude that is wrong. Sir Gilbert Murray tells us that even while the religion of Greece was in its pastoral infancy, men dimly felt the moral peril of the magical reference. Each newborn year was thought to wax great in spring, to commit in high summer the unpardonable sin of “hubris,” of insolence, and then to be sentenced to autumnal and wintry death. So with the life of man. Through the great Greek tragedies there runs the menace of guilt for the sin of insolence, of arrogant egoism, and the revenge which a fate stronger than all the gods metes out to presumptuous and self-willed man. Even the early Greeks saw what was wrong with magic. It was essentially irreligious in its attitude and reference.
This perpetual struggle between the magician and the religionist goes on in the mind and heart and will of every man of us. It goes on until it is rightly resolved, until man reborn into a mature religion ceases to try to coerce his God, and says humbly with Dante, “In thy will is our peace.” Religion, then, is not a matter of turning God to account in the realization of our own desires. Religion is trying to discover what God is about and then offering oneself to the Eternal Goodness, “as a man’s hand is to a man.” “It is not in man,” says a modern thinker, “to make religion what he will have her be, but only to become what religion is making him.”
Perhaps, then, it is to save a man from the defeat and disillusionment of childish magic that there stands in our Bible that old story of the temptation of Jesus. Its ramifications and restatements are legion. Thou shalt not use thy God to get thy way. Thou shalt not coerce the Infinite to further the headstrong passing whim of the finite. Thou shalt not break the laws of health and then cajole thy God into working thee a miracle of healing. Thou shalt not let thy mind rot in idleness and then look for a sudden inspiration given by reality. Thou shalt not spend thine all upon the world that passes away and ask thy God at thy latter end to give thee the sudden boon of a credible immortality. Thou shalt not take this attitude at all, using the Most High as an amplifier and emergency device for realizing thy solitary and selfish will. “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”
We are being told on all sides that religion is now breaking down, that its beliefs are an outworn delusion, and that all thoughtful men are being liberated into a perfect skepticism. That is not what is happening. What is happening is this, men are discovering again what they have discovered often before and then have forgotten, that magic will not work. But religion as a final attitude and reference of the finite human spirit towards its infinite universe remains and always must remain. It is the disposition of those disciplined natures of whom we say that they are pure in mind and heart and will.
The true alternative to the outworn magic of primitive peoples is not the modern magic of persons disciplined in the applied sciences or the “new thought.” It is no solution of the ultimate moral and intellectual problem to trade self-will from the left hand of primitive magic to the right hand of applied science. What matters is a changed disposition and reference in this whole final commerce of man with his universe. Call it pure religion or pure science, the name does not matter. The one thing needful is that temper and disposition towards the will of God which we find in Jesus, Bernard, Pascal and Lister alike.
The men who returned from the third attempt to climb Mount Everest, made in the summer of 1924, have told us that from now on the character of the endeavor is clearly defined in advance. One of them has recently said that the higher altitudes, from 22,000 to 28,000 feet, reached by the last party, were attained not by sportsmen and scientists breaking the mountain to their intention, but by men who had come to feel towards the mountain an almost mystical relationship. He said that the mountain itself, with its tremendous appeal, must take men to the top, and that only a spirit, which for the want of any other accurate word must be called religion, would ever carry men the last exacting two thousand feet.
What he seems to mean is that, in the presence of that imperious and majestic reality, the cheap coercive attempt to conquer the world must always break down, and that only something like the spirit of worship can draw and lift men at the last. The climbing of Mount Everest has ceased to be purely a geographical, political, and physiological problem. It has passed, as every great human endeavor must finally pass, into the realm of religion. And only the man whose peace is found in the imperious will of that terrific reality will ever stand upon its summit.
After he had dragged the blankets out of the empty tent at Camp VI, high up on the shoulder of Everest, and had laid them in a “T” on the snow to tell the watchers below that there was no trace of Mallory and Irvine, Odell closed the flap of the tent and began the third retreat to India. “I glanced up,” he says, “at the mighty summit above me, which ever and anon deigned to reveal its cloud-wreathed features. It seemed to look down with cold indifference on me, mere puny man, and to howl derision in wind gusts at my petition to yield up its secret—the mystery of my friends. What right had we to venture thus far into the holy presence of the Supreme Goddess, or much more to sling at her our blasphemous challenges. If it were indeed the sacred ground of Chomo Lungma—the Goddess Mother of the Mountain Snows—had we violated it, was I now violating it? Had we approached her with due reverence and singleness of heart and purpose?”
That, in modern parable, is the crux of the temptation in the wilderness. Magic in us dies and religion is born with that question which, if rightly answered, prefaces the true reference of the soul to God. What right have I to make trial of my God? Have I violated his holy being with my self-will? Have I approached him with due reverence and singleness of mind and heart?