Chapter 4: Seeing the Invisible

Twelve Tests of Character
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 4: Seeing the Invisible

Anyone who is to live finely must have the ability to see in life something more than its prosaic elements. Riding on a New York bus recently I watched a girl with a brand-new diamond ring on the third finger of her left hand. Altogether unconscious of anybody or anything except her own happiness, she sat quietly looking at it. Now, I know what a diamond is in prosaic, scientific terms, because I went home and looked it up. A diamond is a form of crystallized carbon in which every carbon atom is "symmetrically surrounded by four other carbon atoms, arranged at the corners of a tetrahedron in such manner that the whole crystal is one continuous molecule." That is a diamond. But I should not consider it particularly worth while to disturb that young girl’s thoughts by telling her that. She was seeing in that diamond something that all the scientists who ever drew diagrams of carbon atoms well might envy. She was seeing the invisible. The diamond was to her a sacrament and symbol of unseen reality.

No man is the whole of himself until he has developed this capacity to see something in life besides its prose. We can, to be sure, put into prose our business letters, the daily news, the round of family gossip, the quotations of the stock exchange; the details of factual experience can be set in bare, plain prose. But no one should suppose that this represents the full truth about anything. If one would know the truth about an eagle, he may consult a scientific textbook and learn the ornithological details. They will be correct, but they will not be adequate to describe an eagle. Let Tennyson, for example, supply some of the lack:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.

That is an eagle!

Any man’s life has been a failure when its whole story can be told in prosaic, indicative sentences. The deepest and finest experiences of humankind have always been expressed in poetry, bodied forth in pictures, symbolized in imagination, set to music and sung. All of Christmas could not be expressed without evergreen trees, holly, mistletoe, angels, carols and Santa Claus. Most of us love great music because it says things which we feel but cannot tell. Gabrilowitch and Hofmann, Elman and Kreisler make articulate what we experience but cannot say. The florists’ windows tell the truth: some things must be said with flowers.

People doubtless differ temperamentally in their sensitiveness to these nonprosaic elements in experience. But for all that, the degree to which a man is sensitive to them is one of the tests of his character. Indeed, in an age when strenuousness seems to many a sufficient solution of man’s problems, few things need much more to be stressed. Even our modern Christianity, instead of being an endeavor after the pure heart that sees God, has become largely a gospel of "Wake up and go to work!"-- which is doubtless a needed emphasis, but which alone is pitiably inadequate. There is such a thing as being overstrenuous, so restlessly wakeful that one loses vision.

If ever a man has had insomnia, has courted relaxation as a lover courts a maiden and has been unable to win it, has chased a quiet mind as boys chase thistledown upon the wind just beyond their straining reach, has sought for the grace of an hour’s sleep as men pray for victory when they fight, he knows that, while strenuousness may be the foreground of life, rest is the background, and that, lacking it, nothing else matters. As one watches the throngs of our never-quiet cities, one can see that the trouble with many of us is spiritual insomnia. Like the first dove from Noah’s ark, we keep flying above the turbulent and swirling waters because there is no place to stop. We have overdeveloped our practical strenuousness; we have underdeveloped our responsiveness to life’s healing, cleansing, redeeming spiritualities.


The gist of the matter lies in man’s ability to turn his thoughts in three directions -- down, out, and up. He can look down on things and animals beneath him in the scale of life; he can look out at comrades of his own humankind, upon a level with him; but he has also this other faculty from which the finest elements in human life have sprung -- he can look up. Man’s distinction is that he can admire, adore; that he is aware of something or Someone above him, possessing the right to his devout allegiance; that he can know reverence, which Shakespeare rightly called "that Angell of the world."

As every minister knows, into whose confessional come endless stories from real life, the trouble with multitudes of people is that they try to live upon the first two capacities without the third. They try to master the elements which lie below them; they try to live reasonably with the companions who are about them. They forget that the glory of life comes not from the things which we command, but from the things which we reverence; not from the lowest elements which serve us, but from the Highest whom we serve.

One reads the popular books about success and continually misses this primary matter, without the recognition of which all success is cheap and vulgar. We are told to grit our teeth and tackle the mastery of life’s raw materials; we are told to learn coöperation with our fellows; but we are not told what many of us need most to learn, that responsiveness to what is above us is the soul of the whole business. You can always tell a man’s quality by noting the things to which he is alive; people constantly reveal their spiritual rank by their responsiveness. Real music does not stir them; some cheap and tinsel tune does. The glories of God’s out-of-doors awaken no response, but they are keen for the hectic excitement of a gambler’s chances around tables undeserted all day long. The benedictions of a pure heart seem tame to them; they love the perversions of a vicious life. Speak to them of great books, and they are dull; tell them the last unwholesome jest, and they are all animation. They are alive to the low; they are dead to the high.

Now, the capacity of response is not alone the test of our quality; it is the innermost secret of spiritual wealth. When a man responds to a great book he has not simply revealed himself; he has enriched himself. Only responsiveness can open the door of the heart to anything. This is the reason why an unresponsive child is the despair of a home. We can get along with almost anything except that. Passionate temper in a child is trying, but it is promising; what may not be done with a tempestuous boy when his energy has been harnessed and controlled? Lying in a child is dangerous; yet what may not be done with an imaginative lad who with difficulty distinguishes fact from fancy? Selfishness is a root of evil; but a child ambitious to possess and to surpass is raw material for strong living. All such faults are perversions of powers fundamentally good; but unresponsive sullenness -- not a redeeming word can be said for that; it shuts the doors against everything. Dante, that most acute and penetrating analyzer of sin, did not put in the pit of his hell folk whose iniquity had sprung from passion. The pit of his hell was filled with sullen, ungrateful men, frozen in ice.

No one intelligently can evade this question of man’s power responsively to look up to the Highest, by calling it an impractical matter. The most powerful living in history has been associated with it. It was a strange thing to hear the Americans in France during the war singing "Joan of Arc, they are calling you." Joan of Arc lived five hundred years ago. She was only sixteen years old when she began her great career; she knew nothing about our powerful engines of battle, but rode a horse and wielded a single sword. Yet, half a millennium afterward, our American men were singing "Joan of Arc, they are calling you." The reason is not far to seek: Joan of Arc lived with the invisible; she had angels so real that she gave names to them -- St. Catherine and St. Margaret -- angels that bodied forth for her the reality and nearness and guidance of the spiritual world; and they carried her a long, long way and made her name a flame of fire until this day.

Nobody has ever counted in this world without "angels." Responsiveness to the Unseen is the great driving power for strong living. The most matter-of-fact man among us may well recall that we number our years from the birth of One from the gravitation of whose life we no more can escape than the tides from the moon, because the Invisible was real to him and he knew God.


This hunger for assurance about the reality and friendliness of the Unseen is the explanation of the strange custom of going to church. The question why folk do not go to church has been often discussed. There is nothing modern in the query. In 1572, at the opening of Parliament, Sir Nicholas Bacon raised the inquiry "why the common people in this country universally come so seldom to Common Prayer and Divine Service." The real question, however, is the opposite of that: why does anybody ever go to church at all? Few customs are more widespread and more persistent than church-going, and it seldom has been more common than in the days since religion became voluntary. There must be something ingrained in human nature to which so strange a habit makes appeal. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that there was in the corner of his heart a plant called reverence which needed watering about once a week.

Religious worship rests back upon this fact that man, just because he is man, cannot help looking up. "The soul can never rest in things beneath itself." It is not theology that folk come to seek; it is satisfaction for the upreach of their lives. Theology, with its endless subdivisions of fine points, makes much less difference than some folk think.

Said the guide at the Sorbonne in Paris: "This is the hall where the doctors of divinity have disputed for four hundred years."

"Indeed!" said the visitor. "And pray, what have they settled?"

Theology, like a telescope, is made simply to help people see, and like a telescope it is meant to be looked through and not looked at. An old-fashioned preacher goes into the pulpit with an old-fashioned theology. Well, Copernicus and Galileo and Kepler had old-fashioned telescopes; this modern universe was first opened up by men with instruments now out of date. If that preacher, instead of talking about his theology, really uses it, if he says "Look with me for a few moments at the Eternal," the people will get what they came for, will thank God, take courage, and go out to live with a new sense of the reality of the Unseen. Moreover, the next Sunday a liberal preacher with a new theology can preach in the same pulpit with the same result.

Only, we liberal preachers are too often tempted to go into our pulpits with our new-fashioned instruments, saying: "See my telescope. It is the latest model. There is no new-fangled device that is not on it -- or if you can suggest one I will get it."

One can almost hear the people in the pews reacting to that sort of preaching. "In heaven’s name," they say, "why advertise so loudly the date of your telescope? We are plain people, very busy. We have little time to spend going to church. But if, through any telescope you chance to have, you could give us a reassuring glimpse of the Eternal before we go into another week, that would help. ‘Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us."’

This does not mean that theological clarity and reasonableness are not important -- they are as important as good telescopes -- but it does mean that the elemental hunger which keeps driving people to religion, no matter in what intellectual terms it is served, is not theological passion at all, but spiritual need to be reassured about the reality and good will of the Unseen.

For materialism is doing its best to convince mankind that the Unseen is not real. Yet one might as well take a fresco of Michelangelo and let the physical sciences explain it all, reducing every glorious effect to physical atoms. It seems a simple matter thus to reduce the qualitative to the quantitative, to analyze the quantitative into its constituent elements and to state their laws, until a fresco in the presence of which multitudes have prayed is presented in a chemical formula. It is simple -- but it is too simple. One listens in the end to a man like Sir Edward Burne-Jones. "There’s a lump of greasy pigment," says he, "at the end of Michelangelo’s hog-bristle brush, and by the time it has been laid on the stucco there is something there that all men with eyes recognize as divine." Greasy pigment, hog-bristle brush, and stucco -- nobody doubts that they are involved in the picture, but they do not make the picture. Something else is there, even if it cannot be caught in test tubes or weighed in scales. Creative mind may be mysterious, but it is real.

According to a fable said to have come from Denmark, a spider once slid down a single filament of web from the lofty rafters of a barn and established himself upon a lower level. There he spread his web, caught flies, grew sleek and prospered. One day, wandering about his premises, he saw the thread that stretched up into the unseen above him. "What is that for?" he said, and snapped it -- and all his web collapsed.

A good deal of man’s spiritual history is condensed into that fable. Unless we can keep our modern materialists from breaking our connections with the Unseen above us, some more of man’s spiritual history will prove the fable true.


The only way in which many impatient minds among us can maintain respect for the Church and willingness to support it is by constantly remembering that behind all her foibles and failures she does strive to meet this central need of human life. Say "church" to some people, and they think at once of Baptist, Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian churches, with their competitions, inadequacies, and faults. "Church" has no other significance to some, and often to such the church is a butt of ridicule. But suppose that any other organized form of human activity were treated so. If every time a man thought of repre- sentative government he had nothing in his mind except the exhibitions of it which many of our cities, states and nations are presenting, would he not ridicule that too?

It is said that Thomas Carlyle once endeavored to persuade Ralph Waldo Emerson on a visit to England that there really is a personal devil and, as a last resort, having exhausted all the arguments that he could lay his mind to, he took Emerson to a session of the British House of Commons as proof positive that the devil does exist.

Most citizens have plenty of excuse for such Carlylean moods about democratic assemblies. Yet that attitude does not do justice to representative government. One of the great hours in history struck when mankind ran into the idea that all the people should unite in making laws, which then all the people would obey. Behind our pitifully fallible experiments with representative government stands the Ideal, worth everything our fathers gave for it and all that we can give the democratic state.

So, behind the churches stands the Church, and the Church is not Anglican nor Methodist nor Baptist nor Presbyterian. The Church is the fellowship of souls who in the spirit have found God. Sometimes one discovers its members inside the visible churches and sometimes out. The visible churches are the fallible endeavor to express in an institution, limited by human frailty, the need of man for God and the approach of God to man. One sometimes goes home from hearing a great symphony and with his fingers on the window pane drums a melody that he remembers, knowing that it is a poor imitation of orchestral richness and variety. So inadequate the visible churches often are when they try to reproduce the meaning of the Church Invisible. One may turn his back upon the churches, but the Church is another matter.

All who speak truth to me commissioned are;

All who love God are in my church embraced.

Not that I have no sense of preference,

None deeper, but I rather love to draw,

Even here on earth, on toward that perfect law,

And Heaven’s fine etiquette, where Who and Whence

May not be asked, but at the Wedding Feast

North may sit down with South, and West with East.

If any man supposes that this exaltation of the Church Invisible dispenses him from thinking that the visible churches matter, he should see that what we have been saying is the one thing that most of all makes them matter. The institutions that matter most on earth, like law courts and parliaments and families and churches, are those which are endeavoring amid frailty and difficulty to express something spiritual and eternal -- justice or democracy or love or faith -- without which man cannot live. No one has any business to despise a sincere attempt to put into expression, however faulty, something indispensable to man -- and saving relationship with the Divine is indispensable to man. Point out to some of us, therefore, the humblest, narrowest, most struggling church to be found, and, while we may deplore it, we shall not despise it. We shall keep thinking of what it is trying to say. Insist, if one will, that it stammers and stutters. Yet consider what it is trying to say. That the Unseen is real, that around our spiritual lives, like the physical universe about our bodies, is the Spiritual Life from whom we came, by whom we are sustained, to whom we go -- the Church is trying to say that through the churches. The fatherhood of God, the nearness and availability of the Spirit, the saviorhood of the Divine outpoured in Christ, the purposefulness of creation, the coming victory of righteousness, the fulfillment of life through love and service, the hope of life eternal -- such things the Church struggles to say through the churches.

Indeed, most of us who gratefully count ourselves members of the Church have some visible and local church to thank. A little meeting house still is standing in a country town to which my memory makes frequent pilgrimage. It was a small, dilapidated structure when I was a boy; it never has been rich or prosperous; it preached a theology which I do not now believe, and insisted on denominational peculiarities in which I have not now the slightest interest. But one day in a pew of that church, I as a boy caught a glimpse of the vision glorious. Every man has shrines to which his thankful recollection turns, and that old brick meeting house is one of mine, for there I moved up through the church visible into the Church Invisible.


The perennial need of human life for fresh invasions of reverence and spiritual insight seems clear. No character ever comes to its fulfillment without that. "I was common clay" says a Persian proverb, "until roses were planted in me" As for our social problem, a cynical materialism is our most deadly foe. During the war a European paper published a poem praising the four elements of the universe: earth, water, fire and air. It praised the earth because we can dig trenches in it, the water because we can use submarines in it, fire because it belches from the cannon’s mouth, air because from it bombs can fall. Spirituality is a much maligned and caricatured word; it often is made to mean, even by those who claim it, a vapid and sentimental piety, but that war poem is a picture of what this world without real spirituality would be.

As for a man’s total attitude toward life and its meaning, the Easter time is a reminder of the ultimate barrenness of existence if one cannot live with the Invisible, for everything that is visible is transient. Our individual lives in all their outward aspects pass away. The great groupings of individuals in nations rise and fall. America, France, Britain -- how solid and secure they seem! But so seemed Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome, until, like sand houses built by children on the shore, rising tides erased them.

So, too, the successive generations of humanity come and go. They fall like gigantic snowstorms, multitudinous in flakes, only to melt and disappear. At least forty million people die on this earth every year. Every three years more inhabitants of the planet pass away than would make up the population of the United States. If someone eighty years old is reading this article, over three billion people have died since he was born. In the light of such facts, the beginning of Martineau’s great prayer becomes meaningful: "O God, . . . before whose face the generations rise and pass away."

Even the solar system and the stars are transient, and to talk of the eternal hills is folly. Some stars are in embryo, being born out of whirling nebulæ; some are in their fierce and fiery youth; some, like our own sun, are past middle age; some are old and soon will die. Everything visible is temporal -- our bodies, our nations, the generations of mankind, the very stars blown like bubbles in the sky.

One need not be surprised then to find many people agreeing with the naturalist who said: "In the visible world the Milky Way is a tiny fragment. Within this fragment the solar system is an infinitesimal speck, and of this speck our planet is a microscopic dot. On this dot tiny lumps of impure carbon and water crawl about for a few years, until they dissolve into the elements of which they are compounded."

Is that really all?

No one believes any more that the physical world is chaos; for all its mysteries, we know that it is an orderly system. But must we think that the moral universe is a chaos, arising without cause, continuing without purpose, making us without meaning to, lacking any use for us now that we are here, and snuffing us all out like guttering candles in the end? That is not simply undesirable; it is irrational. There is no sense in it. One does not get sense into his life until he gets spiritual insight.

Some kinds of religion do not matter much. But to be sure that something more is here than accidental collocations of atoms, that mind is the maker of the universe, purpose at the heart of it, love underneath it, Providence in control of it, victory ahead of it -- to be sure that

What is excellent,

As God lives, is permanent --

that does matter. To say with Robert Louis Stevenson, "I believe in an ultimate decency of things; ay, and if I woke in hell, should still believe it" -- that matters very much !