Professor George D. Herron delivered a lecture in the Fogg Art Museum last evening, taking as his subject "Individual Failure and Social Progress." The address was one of the most thoughtful and deeply impressive which has been heard at Harvard for some time. The substance of the lecture is as follows:
It is agreed by all students that the personality of Jesus has been the most important factor in social life. He died as a criminal, in disgrace, despised by men of his own nation. But the life of Jesus was the greatest moral venture ever undertaken. If we were to measure the life of Jesus from first to last, from the present business and political standpoints, it would seem to be a monumental failure. His own nation rejected his teaching with malignant scorn. He had to go among sinners to get a following. To men of reasonable minds and methods his opposition to the order of things then existing seemed outrageous. It seemed as if nothing were safe while this man lived.
Jesus had the freest spirit and the gladdest heart which has ever rejoiced the world. In his character were blended two rare gifts-the great power for men and service, and the repose shot through with the fire of divine and religious zeal.
The world is coming to believe in Jesus as a social ideal because it believes in him as a man. He was through and through a man, imbued with the common life. He submitted to every conceivable injustice and finally to an ignominious death. During the first part of his ministry he had dreams of a national revival. His career was as truly political as that of Wendell Phillips. His sermon on the Mount was a political document.
Jesus's nature was such that he had either to make an organized crusade against wrong, or an organized sacrifice. It was the only possible expression of his life that he should urge endless war against the forces of evil. Civilization was a vast Roman empire, making one great slave-power of the earth. Suicide was the only escape for fettered and despairing humanity. If a man dared to act there was Rome to punish him. Had Jesus been a fanatic, he might have gathered followers and overthrown the political and religious despotism, for with fanatics all things are possible.
In spite of failures Jesus saw that an idea of humble service was dominant in all social evolution. He stood for the kingdom of Heaven, which meant the communion of all human lives and interests. He had to loose the world before he could save it. He could only lodge his idea in the world through individual failure. It was absolutely necessary that he should choose either the cross or the sword, by which to get his idea into the world. Jesus gave himself up to sacrifice, believing that his idea, once in the universe, would become the most powerful factor in human life. So, as he stood in the shadow of the cross, he declared his work accomplished.
Our problem is not different from that which confronted Jesus. No man is right, moral or ethical, whose life has not been a sacrifice whereby the world may attain to perfection. The Christian is the man who makes the problem of his life the bearing away of the sin of the world. This is not the denial of life, but the denial of self. The things of life are made sacred by being consecrated to the common good. By sacrifice the life is saved, and made morally whole. Human progress has tracked its every step in the blood of those who have been outlawed and put to shame in the world's behalf.
If we believe at all that Jesus's idea of sacrifice was true, we must make a radical change in our modern order of things. If the religious leaders of our day were willing to become failures in the eyes of the world, that they might invest their life in a moral idea, we should reach what the apostles called the Thousand Years of Peace.
We are nearing the social crisis of the world. It is becoming more corrupted and vile every day. The present state of affairs cannot be mended. It must give place to a new order. Either there must come a religion such as the prophets never dreamed of, or rivers of blood must flow-the result of the competition which is grinding and crushing men to death. Sooner or later they who stand for a nobler social order will meet the existing order of things in clearly defined conflict.
As Jesus, on the night of His death taught His disciples something of the sacrifice life, and then said "Arise, let us go hence," so the life of Christ today points us all to the cross of divine renunciation in the service of man, and says, "Arise, let us go hence!" The question for us to settle is whether we will hear and obey the call.