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A MONTHLY MAGAZINE
the Extension of the Religious Parliament Idea
Vol. XXXVIII (No. 6) JUNE, 1924
(No. 817) Copyright by The OPEN Court PUBLISHING COMPANY, 1924
THE MESSAGE OF BJORNSON
BY GEORGE BURMAN FOSTER
son of a clergyman. The date of his birth was 1832. His childhood home was in the highlands of northwest Norway, and he was educated in the University of Christiania.
At first, his interest was in science, but later he turned to literature. The men who influenced his life most profoundly were Darwin, Mill, Taine, and Herbert Spencer; the woman was Ellen Key. They were alike republicans in politics; freethinkers in religion.
Yet it would be more in line with my purpose to place Björnson alongside of Ibsen. Ibsen was only four years the senior of Björnson. Their friendship began early and, in spite of the breach which came later, the development of their inner life was the same, pari passu, on the whole.
Like Ibsen's, Björnson's life falls into two periods: his northern youth and his European manhood. The problem of a new era and a new science overtook both of them at about the same time—1870; later in Björnson's case than in Ibsen's perhaps. Yet the inner work was finished more quickly in the case of Björnson than in that of Ibsen, so that by 1875 he had published the first of his vision and thought in two dramas-A Bankruptcy, and The Editor.
Yet despite all this similarity in the outer and inner life of the two men—these two competitors for first place in the hearts of their countrymen-how different they were! We see Ibsen, the solitary delver into the subterranean recesses of life; the ceaseless doubter whose doubts deepened as life went on; later, we see him the resolute individualist, always striving to mount above himself but seeing nothing to mount on; with a bitter laugh upon his lips, more and more-laughing at God, at man, at his own works, his skeptical pessimism growing deeper and darker to the end. We find Björnson, however, a glowing wholesome man, full of faith ; irradiating light and warmth, awakening love.
1 Edited by J. V. Nash, late Head of Department of Comparative Religion, the University of Chicago, from unpublished manuscript notes left by Doctor Foster at his death.
Such a man as Björnson may seem to us less profound than those gloomy men who are always peering into the night side and the seamy side of life, as was Ibsen! And, indeed, they are less at home in all the nooks and corners of human doubt and human misery.
Perhaps one must be decadent in order to be able to reach the ultimate depths in psychology, perhaps consummate finesse in unraveling human feelings is given to men with pale, thin, transparent hands. Saint Augustine and Saintless Friedrich Nietzsche, the greatest psychologists, were such men.
Still the healthy are not, on that account, less profound—the rectangular men whom Plato loved, because they saw truth without being consumed. One does not get the impression that Björnson shunned the problems of life because he was too healthy and normal. Another factor to be considered is that Björnson was the child of a pastor's home, and he never forgot the strength and healthiness and fullness that so often come from the privation of these homes. His pastors are not the caricatures that Ibsen sketched. Björnson knew them better than Ibsen did. Björnson never wholly condemned ecclesiastical Christianity, but only excrescences, using as criterion what Ibsen used--truthfulness and personal freedom.
With Ibsen, he stood for individualism, but he also stood for the two-fold content of Christian morality-love of man and faith in man. A reform of ecclesiastical Christianity, in the sense of inwardness, freedom, and truthfulness, found a champion in Björnson and a program in his works.
Yet Björnson knew pietism better than Ibsen did. Ibsen could only delineate in Einar that smooth self-deceiver, while Björnson has delineated in Ole Tuft (auf Gottes Wegen) a quite different nature, profound and truthful, showing its conflict, its losses in life, until Tuft penetrated to the new knowledge: “Life is supreme. After this day I will not seek God or God's will in a formula, in a sacrament, or in a book of any kind, or in a place, as if He were there especially: No, I will seek God in life-in life which is rescued from the depths of the anxiety of death, in the triumph of light, in the bliss of resignation, in the fellowship of life. God's best word to uis is life; and the love of life is the supreme worship of God.
"Never again shall words become the supreme things to mejust as little shall science. Never again will I evaluate men as to dogmas which arose from the feeling of righteousness of a vanished age, unless that dogma satisfies the standard of love of my own age. Never, by God! And never, because I believe in Him, the God of life, in His incessant revelations in life.”
And this pietist, Ole Tuft, became a reformer of church doctrine that rose from the righteous feeling of ancient times. What is the consistency of our faith that war and oppression shall end, while we teach the doctrine of hell, with all its cruel revenge and barbarity, in all schools and churches, as God's righteousness and love?
This criticism of traditional Christianity by Björnson is of great importance. Ritschlian theology in Germany joined this criticism of dogma and church, but from the point of view of Weltanschauung and history. The criticism of ancient institutions must be made from the point of view of morality and of the spirit of Christianity. The moral peril of the old dogma and the old church must be summoned before the judgment seat of love and truth.
Perhaps Björnson is not too bold when he thinks that many a bishop could uncover his Christian heart and be surpassed by a Leonardo. In fact, Leonardo, in his great conversation with the bishop, represented Christianity as against Church, Jesus' love as against the "consideration” and “caution" of a clergyman. And it was a triumph of Christianity over Church when the bishop confessed that he had condemned too soon and too severely, that he had been a respecter of persons, that he had possessed too little love that could give him the courage to do right.
"And the congregation that I led but did not trust would have followed my example--for their hearts were good—if I had had
courage to go before in ways of love. But I was too poor in love to be able to do this.”
All this is not weakly meant—it is strong and great, like the real love of a disciple of Jesus. This conversation between the bishop and his nephew ends wonderfully. After the penitence of the old man there comes the sacrifice of the new-for now and then love is given thus, that it may teach us to make sacrifices.
Few men have succeeded as this northern poet has in finding such words full of tenderness and strength, for the highest in the religion of Jesus, for faith even on the part of him who does not feel God's love, but will go through life without God.
How full of quietness and greatness does his novel close: "Where brave men go, there are God's ways.” And how wonderful that other word, worthy of a place in the New Testament: "God's love is no prerogative of a believer. To feel His love, to rejoice in it, and in its name to make the impossible possible!"
Therefore, the traits of this Christianity are manliness and freedom; also kindness and tenderness and love and fineness. Therefore, the great northern poet is one of the most valuable forces for the reconstitution of the church, so that the church shall be redeemed from its hollowness, its insensibility, its narrowness—so that the church shall not encroach upon the tenderest possessions of the inner life, and man's faith, and man's conscience, with the means of the law, like the State; or of discipline, like a father; or of mere custom, like society. Through his positive contribution, which transcends mere criticism, Björnson offers the best that the individualistic movement at the close of the nineteenth century has given to Christianity.
Now, may all this be said of the double drama in which Björnson has spoken most powerfully to his times? Is “Ueber die Kraft" meant only as a refutation of a degenerate Christianity-or as a refutation of Christianity itself? And, no matter how the poet meant it, does it strike a blow at Christianity, or only at a malformation of Christianity ?
It is not easy to decide this question, especially not if we ask it as to Björnson himself, because Björnson has sketched in Pastor Adolf Sang’ a figure so full of luminous strength and wealth, so full of tender and kind Christianity, that it must be immensely difficult to separate between his personal characteristics and his religion.
A wonderful word shows us how he knew the definitive love of a disciple of Jesus. He really did not need to assure us: "By God, I am no pietist; I do not speak here as a parson,” because he was something different, something that brings springtime into a sick room, something beaming and glorious, something victorious, in whose presence all bow.
And yet, he was one who did not require, but did the impossible, because it welled up from his innermost being. No word of censure and scolding passed his lips. When he saw, as Ibsen's Brand saw, that Christianity was half-hearted and time-serving and weak, he did not punish and coerce others with wild exactions, but spoke a word to his own soul : “If only one man dared, then would not thousands immediately dare, too? And so it grew clear to me that I must try to be this one man. And I think that every one ought to try. If he does not try, then he is no believer, for to believe is to have the conviction that nothing is impossible to faith—and then to show this faith."
The woman who shared his life, from an old nervous family of skeptics, bore witness, full of love and gratitude, that he had never tried to persuade or force her to his faith. “That I must believe or be damned—that,” said Sang, according to the woman, “that is God's affair. Our affair is to be true. Then we will believe, here or hereafter.” The woman's sister asked her: “Yet he works for the spread of the faith?" "Yes,” she answered, “in his way. Never, no never, with compulsion. He is against every kind of compulsion, do you hear? Against all, of any kind. Ah, there is none like him.”
2 In the drama, Beyond Human Power, First Part, 1883.
And this man's power of believing and loving was inexhaustible. He said to his wife, the only unbeliever he knew: “Everything passes before my mind that we have experienced together. Do you know, I believe I love you better because you do not share my faith? On this account you are incessantly in my thoughts. Your devotion to me springs entirely from your own will and nature, and has no other origin, and you maintain your own truth at my side-of that I am proud.”
He even valued her faith higher than his own. To Sang, the virtues of unbelievers were not splendid vices, as Augustine called them. “We change,” Sang said, “we give our faith, but you give your life. What confidence you must have in me. How I love you!" When his children came to him, confessing that they had lost their faith, this deepest pain of his life did not make him harsh or bitter-did not unsettle his faith. With full love and firm confidence, he said to his son: “You have always been honorable ; if you have done it, you had to do it." This suffering was doubly heavy, because he would heal his wife with the help of the children. Yet his faith was brave: "Have I not doubted and waited for the help of others? Therefore, God took this help away from me. It has failed in the presence of the impossible. I see better what faith is now."
Adolf Sang is a transfigured Brand. We find nothing more of the Old Testament, nothing of zeal, hate, and censure in Sang, as there was in Brand. Björnson understands that true Christians are children of God, who are like their Father in heaven, causing His sun to shine on evil and good, and sending His rain on just and unjust alike.
Yet it is precisely this Pastor Adolf Sang who plunged himself and his family in misery, with his faith in the impossible, and with his requirement of an unconditional surrender for man. The sick wife, so long on a bed of pain, the wife that he loved so passionately, was a victim of his faith. It was an impressive, heart-stirring speech she made about Sang as he gave up his property — “It must be so; it is !" Again, as he risked his life in a tiny boat on a stormy sea, with one of the little children with him, she cried: "If I had not held out