Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.
In the older sections of this country may be seen old buildings which have housed the same family for three or four generations. When our great grandsires, in some instances our grand sires as lads played around the old building, nowhere in the world a R.R., telephone, no matches, no gas or coal ranges, no electric lights, no sewing machines. Letters were written with quills and dried with sand because there were no blotters and of course there were no typewriters, radios, victrolas, bicycles, autos or airplanes.
It is amazing when we think about how absorbed the past three or four generations have been in inventing and producing the external paraphernalia of civilization. To phrase the situation in convenient terms used by the sociologist, “Man’s life can be divided into two distinguishable – the closely interrelated areas – civilization and culture.”
Civilization is the complex of devices by means of which we live. Culture is the realm of spiritual ends, expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion for which at our best, we live. Civilization is made up of things which we utilize to get something else. Culture is made up of values which we desire for their own sake. Civilization is what we use. Culture is what we are.
For three or four lifetimes, we have been busily engaged in building a civilization. This is a vast complex of implements by means of which to live, but we have not with any similar intelligence and care been engaged in creating a culture of spiritual ends, personal and social, for which to live.
Mankind stands, it hands full of devices, but as bewildered and unhappy as mankind has been for centuries. In the words of G. L. Dickinson, “We have spurned spiritual values but in love with devices.”
Listen to Jesus, then, though he did live 2000 years ago, speaking as if to us, “A man’s life consists not in the abundance of things which he possesses.” What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul.
The meaning of those words constitutes a searching diagnosis of our social ills. Though mankind amasses things without end, achieving even the marvelous apparatus of modern civilization, that by without worthwhile ends to live for – a material civilization without a soul to guide it. It is like a magnificently furnished ship without an idea of what port it is headed for. This situation underlies every lesser problem of mankind today. Here lies the explanation of the optimism which characterized our American fathers but which among us has collapsed into disillusionment. Whatever else our fathers were – they were optimistic.
Progress was the real religion. They as well as ourselves lived in a time of the first of so many marvelous and astonishing devices that life became eager, standing on tiptoe, wondering what new marvel would arrive tomorrow.
We believed Herbert Spencer when he told us that man’s progress toward perfection was an inevitable necessity. And because this multiplication of means by which to live was our serious aim, we thought we were successfully headed toward a great end, and our lives were pitched on an optimistic key.
Now however, we have plunged headlong against a stubborn fact – all this boasted civilization we have gloried in is nothing but means, only implements to be utilized, and the more powerful the implements become, the more insistently the question rises on the answer to which man’s destiny hangs. “To what end will mankind use them?” To that question civilization does not possess the answer. The answer to the question is found not in a nation’s civilization, but in its spiritual culture. For civilization is what we use; culture is what we are.
Some in those old days foresaw the danger in which the trend of things was leading. Thoreau said, “with all America busily engaged in producing the paraphernalia of living improved means to an unimproved end.” He was referring especially to the new and marvelous Atlantic cable, concerning which he said, “The first news that will leak through the American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”
Now many improved means to unimproved ends we have today! The phrase suggests to create the device and degrade morals with it. Create the radio and give nonsense a wider hearing with it. Create the automobile and implement gangster with it, and the countless ways in which the old Bulgarian and the old barbarian reach out controlling hands for the new devices. The phrase suggest also that society can as a whole use the amazing devices so as to plunge millions into unemployment and poverty, or furnished with world-wide intercommunication, can make of them world wars, armed with techniques that would cause the very devils of Milton’s hell to blush with shame. ‘Improved’ means? No doubt. But to an unimproved end.
For three or four lifetimes, we have been busily engaged in building civilization, as though man’s life could consist in the abundance of things. But the other realm where man’s real life lives, the spiritual culture, the profound faith that alone gives life meaning, the great goal that gives life direction has so often been treated as a decoration, an afterthought.
And now the God of judgment speaks – the end of the road on which you travel is perdition. If you love your children, recenter your attention.
One thing supremely matters to mankind today. The quality of spiritual life which will use these amazing implements. “What shall It profit a man or a nation, or the race, to gain the whole word and lose his soul.”
There is one clear difference existing between civilization and culture. Civilization is easily handed down. Devices invented in one generation are taken for granted in the next. They are improved, expanded and they go marching on. But profound spiritual culture is not so. It must be re-experienced by every soul. Its insights, devotions must be individually produced. Values inwardly possessed and assimilated. No one can love great music for me. There are no proxies for the soul.
While the apparatus of civilization piles up and moves on, there is an appalling lag in spiritual culture. Mankind stands with vast new implements to use and the old barbarian using them.
The houses in which we live come from civilization, but the homes for which we ought to live are the fruit of spiritual culture. And as one sees some houses and some homes within them the description holds good, “Improved means to an unimproved end.”
For happiness and for peace we yearn. But such not found in the means by which we live, but in by the ends for which we live.
The church will accomplish its mission in the world not by the means – organization – theology – creeds – and opinion, but in that for which it exists. Not by might – but by His spirit.
Christ is still waiting and still saying, “For a man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses.” And what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul.
The problem of salvation lies here – in our spiritual culture.
The chief purpose of man is to know God and enjoy him. We were made for God and not satisfied until we find him. He has set eternity in our hearts.
From Grandpa’s Whit and Wisdom, Devotions compiled by Liza Weidle / January 2023