This is an excerpt from J. Gresham Machen's Things Unseen: A Systematic Introduction to the Christian Faith and Reformed Theology, a recent release from Westminster Seminary Press.
At the very beginning, I may as well tell you plainly that I am not going to talk about the topics that are usually regarded as most timely just now; I am not going to talk to you about the gold standard or about unemployment or about the NRA or about the Brain Trust. Possibly some of you may discover that certain things I may say have a bearing upon those topics, but those topics are not the topics about which I am going to talk. Instead, I am going to talk to you about God and about an unseen world. May I reasonably expect you to be interested in such very intangible topics as these?
There are many persons who say “No.” We are living, say these persons, in the midst of a serious emergency. One economic system, they say, seems to have broken down, and another is not quite ready to be put into its place. Everywhere are to be found unemployment and distress, almost everywhere there are wars or rumors of wars. In the midst of such distresses, who, these persons say, could be so heartless as to spend his efforts upon doubtful speculations regarding a life beyond the grave? Time enough to deal with that other world when we have set this world in order! Let us deal bravely—so the argument runs—first with the problems that we can see; and then, when we have done that, we may possibly find opportunity afterward to deal with the unseen and intangible things.
I have much sympathy with persons who speak in that way. I do not mean that I agree with them. On the contrary, I disagree with them with all my soul. But I do say that I can sympathize with them, and I think I can recognize the element of truth in what they say. It is certainly true that circumstances do alter a man’s choice of the things to which he shall turn his attention. If you were living at Little America along with Byrd, I could hardly advise you to go in to any great extent for landscape gardening. What is true, moreover, of different positions on the earth’s surface is true also of different times. There are times of emergency when work that is needed in ordinary times is no longer in place. The World War, of course, gave us a stock example. In time of war, people turned their attention to things very different from the things that they did at ordinary times. If I may use the very humblest of all examples, the example of myself, I may say that in the time of peace before the war, I taught Greek; in the time of war, I made what I am afraid was the world’s worst effort at running a small delicatessen store. Other persons did things that were more useful but were even more remote from their ordinary occupations. It was a time of emergency, and things that were ordinarily needed were no longer in place.
I am perfectly ready to admit, moreover, that although the World War is now over, the emergency remains with us to the full. Indeed, the emergency is far more serious than we could ever have imagined it would be. Little did I think, for example, as I walked through the little town of Zingem on the Scheldt River in Belgium on the morning of November 11, 1918, and saw the dead lying beside the road and went out into the positions across the river so recently occupied by the enemy, and as I gloried in the strange peace of that November morning when the noise of war that had so long seemed to be an inevitable part of human existence gave place to a strange, eloquent, unbelievable silence—little did I think, and little did men far wiser than I think, that the peace then vouchsafed to humanity would result after sixteen years in a condition like that which faces us today. Little did I think that a war supposed to make the world safe for democracy would be followed by an era in which, in Italy and in Germany, as well as in Russia, democracy and liberty would be openly despised and would be replaced by a tyranny far more crushing and soul-killing, in many respects, than the cruder tyrannies of the past. Little did I think that even in America the civil and religious liberty which was our dearest possession and which was won by our fathers at such cost would be threatened as it is being threatened today.
No thoughtful man can possibly look out upon the world today without observing that we are in the midst of a tremendous emergency. It does seem perfectly clear to thoughtful people, whether they are Christians or not, that humanity is standing over an abyss. At such a time, is it any wonder that this world with its pressing problems would seem to many persons quite sufficient to occupy all our thoughts? Is it any wonder that the pressing problems that are before our very eyes should crowd out attention to God and to an unseen world?
Persons who adopt that attitude may, with some plausibility, argue that the most important thing that you have to do for a man is not always the first thing that you must do for him. If a man is in the water, drowning, the most important thing to do for him is to preach the gospel to him for the saving of his soul. But that is not the first thing to do for him. The first thing to do for him is to pull him out of the water. He cannot even attend to the gospel for the saving of his soul when his ears are full of salt water. The first thing that you have to do for him—even though it be not the most important thing—is to pull him out of the water and give him artificial respiration. Then and then only can you preach the gospel to him for the saving of his soul.
It might seem to be the same way with humanity as a whole. Humanity is drowning in the water, or, to change the figure slightly, is sinking in the mire. The first thing to do might seem to be to pull it out, in order that after it has been pulled out we may ask it to deal with the unseen things. Let the church show what it can do with the plain emergency as it actually exists in this world—the argument might run—and then, if it proves able to do that, the world may think it worth listening to if it talks about God.
Plausible reasoning this is—plausible, but utterly untrue. In the first place, the program that this reasoning proposes will not work. It proposes that we shall first deal with the political and social emergency and then afterward deal with the unseen things. But what was it that brought the emergency upon us in the first place? Was it something in the realm of that which can be seen? Not at all. The physical resources of the world were amply sufficient for the world’s needs. No, the thing that brought the emergency upon us was something in the realm of the unseen things. It was an evil that was found within the soul of man.
That evil was not quite so simple as was at first supposed. Not many of us, I think, would now hold that the war was due solely to the sins of the Kaiser or the German military machine. The evil, alas, was considerably more widespread than that, but at least it clearly lay within the realm of those intangible unseen things. It lay within the soul of man and within the sphere of the relations between man and the unseen world. Moreover, if it was something within that realm that brought the emergency to us in the first place, it is also something in that realm that keeps the emergency with us today. The distress of the world is due clearly to an evil that is within the soul of man.
Hence these so-called practical men who would neglect the realm of the soul and of the soul’s relations to God in order to deal with the economic problems of the day are the most impractical people that could possibly be imagined. They always remind me of a man who tries to run a gasoline engine that is not producing a spark. You may have your engine in fine working order; there may be a good flow of gasoline; there may be the most perfect lubrication: but if there is something wrong with the ignition system, your engine will not run. I think I remember trying the experiment inadvertently sometimes in those heroic days before the invention of self-starters when a Ford was still a Ford. I cranked my engine until I was very red in the face and until my temper suffered considerable strain. I imagined that I needed an expert capable of discoursing on the most intricate principles of dynamics. But despite all my efforts and despite all my search for mechanical learning, the miserable engine would not start. Why? Because there was anything wrong with the engine? Not at all. Henry Ford had done his work well. But because I had forgotten to turn on the switch, it would not start. So it is with these practical men who are not interested in the human soul or in God. They are cranking the engine of society furiously; they are proposing all sorts of radical changes in the machinery. But there is one little thing that they have forgotten. They have forgotten to turn on the switch. The engine is not producing a spark; and until it produces a spark, it will not run.
The truth is that the analogy of the drowning man does not apply to the evils of society. To pull a drowning man out of the water is a simple physical effort. But to pull society out of the mire into which it has fallen today is not a simple physical effort at all, but a highly complex matter; and at the very heart of it is that mysterious portion of the mechanism known as the soul of man. It is impossible, therefore, to deal first with the social and political evils of the day and then deal afterward with the unseen things for the simple reason that without dealing with the unseen things you cannot deal successfully with those social and political problems at all.
In that point I am particularly anxious to avoid any misunderstanding of what I am saying. I certainly do not mean by what I have been saying that religion is to be regarded merely as a means to a higher end. I certainly do not mean that God is to be dragged in merely to help us out in the troubles that face us at the present emergency. If I meant that, I should be rejecting the central things of the Christian religion and should be saying something quite contrary to the Bible.
We ought to be perfectly clear about this point. If you regard religion merely as a means to attain worldly ends, even the highest and noblest of worldly ends—if you regard religion, for example, merely as a means of meeting the present emergency in this world—then you have never begun to have even the slightest inkling of what the Christian religion means. God, as he is known to the Christian, is never content to be thus a mere instrument in the hands of those who care nothing about him. The relation to God is the all-important thing. It is not a mere means to an end. Everything else is secondary to it.
But what I do mean is that God has so ordered the course of this world that in this case—unlike that case of the drowning man—it is impossible to attain the lower end until the higher end has been attained. It is impossible to deal successfully even with these political and social problems until we have come to be right with God. No emergency can possibly be so pressing as to permit us to postpone attention to the unseen things.
Indeed, the emergency ought to have exactly the opposite effect; the evils of the time, instead of leading us away from God, ought to lead us to him. There was a time not so very long ago when this world might have seemed to a superficial observer to be a fairly satisfactory place. Even then the evil was there, but it was covered up; the abyss over which we were standing was concealed by the amenities of modern life. When I was a student in Germany in the years 1905–1906, the world might have seemed to a superficial observer to be getting along fairly well without God. It was a fine, comfortable world, that godless, European world before 1914. And as for another European war, that seemed to be about as far beyond the bounds of possibility as that the knights should don their armor and set their lances again in rest. The international bankers, we supposed, obviously would prevent an anachronism so absurd. But we have since discovered our mistake. That godless European and American world proved to be not so comfortable after all.
Today the world is in a state far more disquieting than that which prevailed in 1918. Europe is armed to the teeth. Russia stands under the most systematic and soul-crushing tyranny that the world has ever seen. In Germany, fiendish wickedness is being practiced in the name of science, and in that country as well as in Italy, even the form of liberty—to say nothing of the reality of it—has been abandoned. Civil and religious liberty are being treated openly as though they have been merely a passing phase in human life, well enough in their day but now out-of-date. In America, the same tendencies are mightily at work. Everywhere there rises before our eyes the specter of a society where security, if it is attained at all, will be attained at the expense of freedom, where the security that is attained will be the security of fed beasts in a stable, and where all the high aspirations of humanity will have been crushed by an all-powerful state.
Is this a time when we ought to be contented with things as they are? Is it not rather a time when we ought seriously to ask ourselves whether there is not some lost secret which must be regained if humanity is to be saved from the abyss? What is true about humanity as a whole is also true, I venture to think, about you. The world is weary and perplexed today. Well, how is it with you? Are you contented with your lives as they are now? I suppose that many of you are. But some of you, I know, are discontented and looking for something entirely different from that which you now possess. That is true of rich as well as of poor; it has little to do with your particular situation in this world. To such hungry souls I think I have something to say in this little series of talks; and there are many hungry souls today.
But why is it that I have something to say to you? Is it because I am an expert in religion and because I can draw upon great resources of wisdom and experience in order to help you deal with the problems of your lives? Is it because I am a skillful soul-physician who can point you to hidden resources in your own souls upon which you yourselves can then draw? I may as well say at once that if that is the program of these addresses, I cannot expect you to attend to them anymore. There are many persons in the world, there are many persons speaking “over the air,” who are far wiser and more learned and in every way more gifted than I. No, I certainly cannot expect you to listen to me because of any wisdom of mine, for I have none. I cannot expect you to be particularly interested in any opinions of mine that I may be bold enough to present.
There is just one reason why I may possibly expect you to listen to me. I may expect you to listen to me if I can bring to you a message from God. If I can do that, then the very insignificance of the speaker may in a certain sense be an added inducement to you to listen to him, since it may help you to forget the speaker and attend only to the message. It is just this that I am trying to do. I am asking you to turn away from me and my opinions; I am asking you to turn away from yourself and your opinions and your troubles; and I am asking you to turn instead that you may listen to a word from God.
Where can I find that word? I am going to try to tell you in the next one of these little talks. Not in myself and not in you, but in an old book that has been sealed by the seals of prejudice and unbelief but that will, if it is rediscovered, again set the world aflame and show you, be you wise or unwise, rich or poor, the way by which you can come into communion with the living God.
1. The National Recovery Administration was a controversial Great Depression-era federal agency. The “Brain Trust” was a popular term for President Roosevelt’s advisors.
2. Little America was a series of Antarctic exploration bases, the first of which was established by Richard Byrd in 1929.
3. These talks have been reprinted in Hart, D.G, J. Gresham Machen: Selected Shorter Writings (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2004).