Chapter 8: Above the Average

Twelve Tests of Character
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 8: Above the Average

Democracy is not all clear gain. For one thing, its method of reaching decisions by voting creates the general impression that the majority is right. From a ladies’ sewing circle to the assembly of the League of Nations we count heads when we wish a matter settled. The result is that we modern democrats, who would scorn to truckle to an autocrat, truckle to the majority with all the obsequiousness of a courtier before his sovereign. Once the fashions were set by a monarch the king could do no wrong. If he wore a beard, beards were fashionable; if he wore a ruff to cover a scar, ruffs were the order of the day. Democracy, however, which has largely abolished this mimicry of kings, has for many folk only substituted mimicry of the mob. We do not go through the outward ritual of kneeling to Their Majesties, but in fact we continually bow before the two great sovereigns of the democratic state -- The General Average and The Majority Vote.

In political procedure it doubtless is true that the best way yet discovered to run a government is to elect public servants by popular suffrage. But to grant the wisdom of political democracy is a very different thing from saying that in any decision which calls for spiritual fineness the majority is likely to be right. Upon the contrary, the majority is almost certain to be wrong. Put to popular vote the query, which they enjoy the better, ragtime and jazz on the one side or Chopin’s Nocturnes on the other, and where would the majority be? Put to popular vote the query, which interests them more, the movies or Hamlet and King Lear, and where would the majority be? Which are more popular, novels written by animated fountain pens that turn out love stories by the gross, or the great classics of our English speech? The idea that the voice of the people is the voice of God is mostly nonsense.

The fact is that in any realm where judgment calls for spiritual fineness only the minority who are above the average are ever right. And because a man is always tempted to live down to the average of his social group, a searching test of character is involved in one’s relationship with this dead level of public opinion and practice. A professor in one of our leading universities, questioned as to the peril which most threatens our young men, answered, "Law-morality." He meant that they are content with the legal standard as their ideal. They desire to be no worse than the enforced average, but they feel no call to be any better. They are as good as is necessary to "get by." They cannot meet that searching test which every democratic state presents to its members: courage to live above the average and ahead of the time. In the last article we pleaded for obedience to law; in this one we insist that that is not enough.


The kind of courage involved in living above the average is indispensable to great character. Every organized form of human life acts on us in two ways: it levels up our worst, and it levels down our best. Government, for example, is simply the organization of a general human average into a machinery of power. The benefits of this are obvious: government forces those who are below the average to live up to it or else suffer the consequences. But it also tends to force those who are above the average to live down to it or else suffer the consequences. For this reason the prisons of history have been filled with two kinds of people, the worst and the best. The death cell in Athens had in it the scum of Attica, but also Socrates, the wisest soul in Greece. The jail in Philippi had in it the scoundrels of the countryside, but Paul as well, the apostle of the Christ. Bedford Jail was filled with debauchees, but there, too, John Bunyan dreamed "The Pilgrim’s Progress." And Worcester Jail contained the riffraff of the country, but George Fox, too, father of the Quakers and a man of peace.

Even in our own day it has not always been easy for governments to be sure when they were locking up our saints and when our sinners. For always there have been two ways of falling foul of a human government: one by being a rogue and the other by being a prophet. The governmental standard is like a Procrustean bed: it does call for the stretching out of those that are too short, but it also calls for the lopping off of those that are too long.

This double activity of human averages should be impressed upon Christians every time they think of Calvary. Three crosses stood on Calvary -- on two of them hung robbers; on the third hung Christ. The Roman government, like all organized forms of human life, disliked two kinds of people outlaws, who were below the level and would not live up to it, and saviors, who were above the level and would not live down to it. We may well ask ourselves where we would have stood with reference to Calvary -- below the average, with the outlaws, condemned by the general body of public opinion; on the average with the multitude, whose organized public opinion slew alike robbers and Christ; or above the average, with Christ himself. Only, if we had been with him, it would have meant then, as now, living above the level and ahead of the time.

Being a Christian on this basis is serious business. It ought to be serious business. "Christian" is too fine a word to be misrepresented as it often is. For here, as elsewhere, many different meanings can be put into a single phrase. We say "I am hungry and thirsty," and we say it cheerily, thinking of the dinner soon to come. But when a man who had lain two days and nights in No Man’s Land crawled into the first-line trench, he also said "hungry and thirsty." Same words -- different thing! We speak of "sacrifice," and by it we generally mean the surrender of some minor convenience for another’s comfort. But a missionary in Central China, living year after year amid the pressure of an alien civilization on a frontier post where he hardly hears his mother tongue, is also sacrificing. Same word -- different thing!

So folk call themselves Christians and often mean by it no more than the dead level of average respectability. Such discipleship could hardly have contented him who said "What do ye more than others?" "except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees," and who, himself, rather than live down to the level, went to the cross. In the intention of Jesus, to be a Christian obviously involved being above the average and ahead of the time.


When, therefore, we have recognized that lawlessness is a rampant peril, we must also see close alongside it the multitudes of people who are merely law-abiding, who accept the dead level of general mediocrity as standard, who are no better than the enforced average, and who in consequence are living alike for themselves and for the social welfare utterly unsatisfactory lives.

In organized business, for example, it is not enough thus to be leveled up to the average; if that is all, one may be sure that he is being leveled down to the average. For business tends to work both ways on everyone whom it touches. That business levels up men’s worst seems plain. Japan needs a dominant merchant class to improve her ethics, and for a simple reason. All people copy the virtues of their most admired class, and for generations warriors have occupied that position in Japan. The virtues of war are loyalty and valor, and in those qualities no nation today surpasses the Japanese. But the virtues of war are not truthfulness and straightforwardness; wars are largely run by stratagem and subtlety and subterfuge. While, therefore, truthfulness is honored in Japan, it is not honored so highly as valor and loyalty are, nor so highly as it will be when the business group has become dominant and commercial virtues rise correspondingly in the scale. For when the sins against honesty and truthfulness which run through our business life have been properly appraised and condemned, it still remains true that business cannot be done on a large scale without an immense amount of honesty and truthfulness to do business with. Business unquestionably levels up.

Like every other organized form of human life, however, it also levels down. It often makes men hard, selfish, avaricious even cruel. It often sanctions a double standard of morality by which we run our lives in home and neighborhood on one set of principles and change gear entirely when we reach the office or the factory. It continually causes men to withstand public movements of reform essential to the common weal, because they threaten for a time to disturb the interests of property. It makes men content with conditions, like the twelve-hour shift in industry, that are evil, because they themselves succeed in profiting by them. The down-drag of the competitive and profiteering spirit in business on the best in men and women is one of the most obvious facts in the modern world.

Millet, the French artist, who gave us The Angelus, was addressed at his wedding dinner by his grandmother, who said to him: "Remember, my Francois, that you are a Christian before you are a painter. . . . Never sacrifice on the altar of Baal." And Millet in his answer said: "Even if they cover the canvas with gold and ask me to paint a ‘St. Francis possessed by the devil,’ I will promise you never to consent!"

Everybody needs to take that vow -- that he will not sell out. We ministers need to take it. Men in politics and women in society, and those who live under the terrific pressure of self-interest in the business world need to make that vow their own, that they will not sell out. What is finer in history than a soul that is not for sale?

As for our industrial and business problems in their social aspects, no mere suppression of lawlessness will solve them. Probably most readers of this article desire, as the writer does, the retention of the capitalistic system until we can get something plainly better to put in its place, and nothing plainly better appears on the horizon just now. Certainly, no experiments being tried with socialism make it look in the least alluring. But this serious truth also faces us, that, whether we have anything better to replace it or not, the capitalistic system will not easily maintain itself unless it can be so organized and directed as to serve better than it has been serving the whole body of the people.

A lay leader of a men’s class in a metropolitan church recently refused to allow industrial problems to be discussed before his group because, said he, "the situation in the United States is all right -- ninety-eight per cent right."

What absurdity! With gigantic conflicts between capital and labor catching the general body of the public like victims between two millstones and grinding the life out of them; with the most intimate concerns of the people’s life, such as coal, transportation, and food, settled not by the people’s elected representatives but in private conference of labor leaders and captains of industry; with the fear of unemployment constantly haunting millions of our families like a ghost, and the fact of unemployment periodically leaping upon them like a devil -- ninety-eight per cent right? In this situation, to repress lawlessness is necessary, but it is not enough. Nothing will prove sufficient except an increasing body of men and women who refuse to content themselves with the accepted standards, who see possibilities which the multitude have not yet seen, who dare to believe in them, experiment with them, work for them, who count it one of the tests of their character to be above the average and ahead of the time.


St. Martin of Tours, so runs the legend, was seated in his cell when a knock came at the door and a lordly presence entered. "Who are you?" said the saint, and the figure answered, "I am the Savior." But the saint was suspicious, as saints must be in this wicked world, and said: "Where, then, are the prints of the nails?" And the devil vanished.

This much truth lies on the surface of the legend: saviorhood, which is the highest form of character, is always so associated with being above the average that it never yet has been able to avoid sacrifice. Even to live above the average of organized religion itself is costly. For organized religion, like organized government and organized business, while it continually levels up our worst, also levels down our best. That it levels up our worst seems clear. Some folks suspect that people inside the churches and people outside are entirely alike. One who during the war spoke before all sorts of audiences about the Allied cause and associated measures of relief, must question that. An audience in a moving the human average in America. If one notes the appeals that catch on there, the arguments that convince, the illustrations that are liked, the opinions that are applauded, and then goes to a church to speak, he sees the difference. The church has unquestionably leveled up.

But it also levels down. Organized religion did to death the prophets of Israel, slew Socrates, helped to put the cross on Calvary, and all through the centuries has fought with vehement hatred against its own pathfinders and seers. Today, as always happens when a supreme ideal endeavors to get itself expressed in human institutions, the general average of organized religion is lower than the best. A great deal of popular religion represented in the church is a halfway affair.

Men find their life made up of many disparate and unrelated elements. They work and eat and sleep; they play golf and read books and go to the theater; they travel and visit -- and just as they pass from one of these to another with no thought that one should control all the rest, so sometimes they add one more element and go to church. There is a sense of mystery in them which the church satisfies, an esthetic response to the dignity of an historic faith. But out of this experience also they pass with no more idea that it is meant to control all life than they feel when they pass from reading books to playing tennis. Religion is one of life’s after-thoughts, an extra, like cuttings from which dressmakers make fancy additions after the general body of the cloth has been used for warmth and protection.

Anyone, therefore, who is in earnest about his religion has always to struggle against the down-drag of this halfway, mediocre kind of religion. To a man in earnest God can never be a halfway matter; he will be nothing at all or else he will be the regulative center of life. For every man does have a regulative center. With many it is self-interest. Friendships are formed because they serve self-interest; marriage is contracted for the sake of self-interest; vocation is chosen, not for service but for self-interest; even when war breaks out and millions of men pour out their blood like water in sacrifice, some see the whole situation in terms of their self-interest. Such folk are not always thinking of themselves; they think of all sorts of things as other people do: but whenever there is a decision to be made, an attitude to be taken, instinctively, often unconsciously, the whole matter is referred to the arbitrament of self-interest.

To be a religious man in earnest means that the regulative center of life is not self-interest, but fellowship with the Highest and a sense of responsibility to him. That is one of the inner meanings of prayer. A fine English Christian has said that his prayer more and more reduces itself to two words -- "Now, Lord." He means that in the pressure of the day’s work he can make swift reference to the supreme court of his life.

That kind of experience is too familiar to be called unreal. A young man falls in love with a high-minded girl; marries her; the children come; the home becomes the center of his life. He does not think of it all the time, but it is always there. Nothing in his life escapes its influence; it permeates his plans; it is the nucleus of his ambitions and hopes; and, as for his character, it is the strongest protection that he has, so powerful and controlling are the influences that flow from it against all that is shameful and unclean. So central and controlling also is a genuine, first-rate, religious fellowship with God -- what a sextant is to the sailor, the keynote to the singer, the color tone to the painter, sun time to our uncertain watches. But a man who is to possess that experience must make it one of the first items in his determination that he will not think down and will not live down to the general average of organized religion.

Indeed, when such vital religion meets formalism and obscurantism in the church, the cost is sometimes heavy. The peril most to be feared about the ministry in this generation lies here. Our innermost temptation is to reduce ourselves to some denomination’s lowest common denominator, to sink to the ecclesiastical average, to help to put down the worst in men, but at the same time to miss the best, lacking vision to see what the Most High would reveal to us, and then lacking courage to say what we see, until, like other ministers of organized religion in history, we help to put three crosses on Calvary. The hope of the church lies in leadership above the average and ahead of the time.

One cannot think long about such courageous nonconformity without remembering Jesus. In our imaginations of him we have smoothed him out, tamed him down, conveniently forgotten what manner of man he really was, until his tremendous figure has grown pallid, pacific, and undisturbing. We are always doing that with the great figures of the past. We have mental stencils of respectability, and we paint over the great personalities of the race, leaving nothing visible save our conventionalities.

Renan described Jesus as a "lovely character" with a "transporting countenance." Apparently no one who actually knew Jesus would have thought such terms adequate -- certainly not the Pharisees facing his fearless indignation or the moneychangers fleeing alike his scourge and his stinging words. One finds it difficult to imagine the mob in Pilate’s court crying "Crucify him!" that they might be rid of a lovely character with a transporting countenance. Rather they were trying to get rid of the leading nonconformist of his day, who had said that he would not put his new wine into their old wine-skins nor sew his Gospel as a new patch on their old garments. Whatever else one may find in the Master, one surely cannot miss his courageous nonconformity.

This does not mean that anyone who follows him should join the first minority he sees and become a nonconformist for the sake of being one. Minorities are not right just because they are minorities. Some minorities are intolerable nuisances. Joining a minority and becoming a nonconformist requires spiritual discrimination. If a man lacks it he would better join the majority; he is far safer there. Joining the minority is like being married. It is not to be entered into "unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God."

This, however, is also true, that no man need ever expect to remind the world of the Master unless he is prepared courageously to live above the average and ahead of the time.


It is not, however, in these organized forms of the general average of which we have been speaking -- government, business, and church -- that this test presses most intimately on some of us. The immediate social group in the midst of which our daily life is carried on also has its average, and, while we may not have evolved from chameleons, a strong family likeness is suggested by our most almost uncanny tendency to adapt our color to our background.

The hardest task assigned to anyone on earth is living above the average of his own home. Sometimes that is necessary. Some family groups are like canal boats that have to be pulled if they are to get anywhere. Left alone they stand still; there is no inward, spiritual driving power; they have to be hauled, and it is weary work hauling them.

The difficulty involved here lies in the fact that in all our more intimate relationships with family and friends we feel tremendously the pressure of the herd instinct. Psychoanalysts tell us that together with the preservation of life and the attraction of sex this instinct to follow with the herd is the most powerful force in our subconscious life. Certainly we know without the help of psychoanalysis that it is immensely powerful.

When we care for any group of people, as we do for our family and friends, we have put into their hands an almost irresistible influence over us. We respond with telepathic swiftness to their words and emotions. What happens to them happens to us; what they think and feel we contagiously receive; when their opinions and practices are concerned, we are infinitely sensitive and impressionable. Because, above all else, we instinctively wish to please them, the most stinging cut we can receive is their disapproval. The criticism of a stranger is easily borne, but not the censure of a friend. When, therefore, conflict comes between our best conscience and the general average of our inner social group, we face the need for courage in its acutest form. We know then that to possess the strength of will to live above the average is one of the primary and most searching tests of character.


This sort of courage in all the applications we have made of it is represented on Calvary. The organized government of Jesus’ day, the organized business life which he disturbed when he cleared the temple of the moneychangers, the organized religion, and the general level of his family and friends all represented an average with which he refused to be content. Discipleship to him never can be adequately understood without involving his insistence on superior standards and on superior courage. We sing about the cross today,

In the cross of Christ I glory,

Towering o’er the wrecks of time.

When, however, Jesus first bore the cross, no one had ever thought of singing about it. When first they put the cross upon his back and he stumbled down the narrow, ill-smelling lanes of Jerusalem amid the gaping, mocking crowds out toward Golgotha, to have sung about the cross would have been unheard-of madness. Cicero uses three words about it in which, even if one does not understand the Latin, he can feel the weight of agony: "crudelissimum deterrimumque supplicium" -- "the most cruel and terrific punishment." That was the cross when Jesus bore it.

Moreover, we never have seen crucifixion; with us it is an imagined agony; but Jesus had often seen it. Again and again by the roadsides he had seen crosses and their victims, the long-drawn-out and pitiless agony that crucifixion involved. That last evening, therefore, when Judas stole away to betray him, that night when under the olive trees he wrestled with his own soul, that morning in Pilate’s court when he heard the crowd cry "Crucify him!" he knew what it meant down to its last unutterable detail. Yet, rather than live down to the average and not up toward God, he went through with it.

In a day when there is no hope for our civilization except in superior character, Christians should recall that the cross of which they sing means something besides singing -- sheer courage to live above the average and ahead of the time.