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The Romance of the Invisible

From earliest times man has speculated upon the nature of the universe. We smile at many of the crude superstitions of the ancients regarding the origin of things and the general framework of creation. And how wild seem the conclusions reached by even the greatest thinkers of the past.

The average person has but the faintest conception of what matter really is. The jargon of science means little or nothing to him. What he sees and hears and tastes and smells and feels constitute for him the sum and substance of physical reality. And it is not to be denied that through our five senses we do learn enough about our material environment for the ordinary pursuits of life.

And yet our physical senses are not to be trusted too far. They often deceive us. They fool us with all sorts of illusions. We need continually to guard against being tricked by them. But not only do our senses give us distorted and erroneous views of things if they are relied upon too implicitly; they are also too weak to do much more than skim the surface of physical reality. The senses of many of the lower animals are much sharper than ours. Compare our keenness of vision, for example, with that of an eagle; or our smelling powers with those of ely we do not need to be reminded that there are gradations in tangible, audible, and visible reality too exquisitely refined for our senses to detect.

But the genius of man has invented the most wonderful kinds of instruments to reenforce his weak physical senses. The telescope that sweeps the heavens and brings into view millions of stars invisible to the naked eye, the microscope that enables us to look at the infinitesimal, the audiphone that makes it possible to hear the roaring rustle of the fuzz on the wings of a butterfly, the bolometer that records heat to the millionth of a degree, the spectroscope that detects a quantity of matter a million times smaller than the amount of lead used in writing the word “cat,” the electroscope that is a million times more sensitive than the spectroscope—these are but a few of the amazingly delicate instruments used in scientific research. The trained scientist works with physical senses made a billionfold more sensitive by all kinds of remarkable mechanical devices.

But the infinitesimals brought to light by all these wonderful instruments are immensities in comparison with the molecules, atoms and electrons that the modern man of science deals with as familiarly as you and I finger the loose change in our pockets, when we are not in financially straitened circumstances. For years it was thought that the atom was the smallest possible particle of matter—the irreducible minimum. The atom is infinitely too small to be seen through any instrument that ever has been, or ever will be invented. A molecule consists of a number of atoms of different kinds that combine to form the irreducible and indivisible unit of a given substance. So inconceivably tiny is a molecule that in comparison with a grain of rice it is like an orange compared to the size of the earth. For decades no one dreamed there could possibly be anything in the universe more minute than an atom. But now science has found that the atom is made up of electrons revolving around a central nucleus like planets around the sun. In fact, physicists speak familiarly of “the solar system of the atom.” The same laws that control the swinging of the planets and the courses of the stars operate with mathematical exactness in the orbit of the electron. And yet there are fools who say there is no God!

But let us penetrate yet farther into this fairy land of science. Electrons are shooting out from some elements, possibly from all elements, at a speed approximating that of light and are attaching themselves to atoms in other elements. That is what we mean by radioactivity. Electricity is really a stream of electrons flowing in one direction. According to R. A. Millikan, America’s greatest physicist, and the discoverer of the electron, there are so many electrons passing in one second through the filament of a 16-candle power lamp that it would take two and a half million people twenty thousand years to count them all.

Many scientists think that all matter is radioactive, or can be made so. The physicist has been unable to find any other character than electricity in the electron. The characters of the so-called primary elements depend upon their electronic and nucleus construction, of the configuration or arrangement of the particles of which atoms are composed, and upon the energy manifestations of each atom. There is not a single stationary object in the universe. All is change. And now we seem to be reaching the answer to the question, “What is matter”?—a question that for ages has baffled the mightiest philosophical minds. It is now commonly held by scientists that all matter is the physical manifestations of energy and the store house of energy. It would seem that all matter is but the varied manifestations of electricity.

We have seen that the scientist is ever seeking to strip aside appearances in order to get at the inmost heart of physical reality. Far more than we shall probably ever realize do we depend upon the patient investigations of men who, not misled by things as they seem, seek to know them as they really are. Their studies make possible all sorts of practical inventions and improvements that are in everyday use. Were it not for these intrepid explorers lured ever onward by the romance of the invisible, where would be our boasted superiority to our ancestors in all that goes to make ours such a wonderful age? Dazzlingly brilliant, practical achievements are rooted in, woven of, and built upon the resultant materials of theoretical research into the realm of the invisible.

Scientists are ever working with what cannot be apprehended by the unaided physical senses. They realize that electrical energy is indestructible and eternal; matter may change, energy abides. Matter may be converted into energy; energy cannot be destroyed. Scientists might well sum up their work in words like these: “We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” In the mouth of the scientist these words have reference to invisibilities in the realm of the material; on the lips of the Christian, they refer to invisibilities in the realm of the spiritual. And may we not from a consideration of the ways of regarding and handling invisibilities in science find that floods of light are thrown upon an exceedingly vital Christian truth too often ruthlessly and scornfully trampled upon in this materialistic age?

The Scripture text that I have just quoted is found in 2 Cor. 4:18. Paul was no recluse. He knew and loved men. He was an eager student of life in its many varied phases. He enjoyed living. But he realized that this life was not all. He did not let the temporal crowd out the spiritual. Like engineers who harness the forces of nature to human service and use them in the conquest of all manner of obstacles in the material realm, so from invisible reservoirs the Apostle drew power that enabled him to achieve mightily for God and man, and to master the well-nigh insuperable obstacles that blocked the way to the spread of Christianity. Paul was a specialist in the unseen. He was a supremely great spiritual engineer whose monumental achievements will command the admiration of the Christian church as long as time endures.

No warrant can be found in Scripture for the monastic ideal of life. God would not have us draw apart from our fellowmen. He wants us to get all we can out of life. The varied and wholesome interests that are interwoven with our everyday life are by no means to be ignored and despised any more than the objects that go to make up our physical environment. The beauties of nature and the delights of life—God means that we shall enjoy both to the full and use them to His glory.

But the trouble is, altogether too many people are satisfied with very superficial views of life. They are interested only in the things of time. The realm of the unseen means little or nothing to them. It apparently never occurs to them that life may be susceptible of a spiritual interpretation. Their ideas as to the real essence of life are as crude and naive as many of the ancient conceptions regarding the nature of matter and the structure of the universe. The shining stars of God’s eternal verities they think of as pretty little lamps swinging around this all-important temporal life. They would make God subject to man rather than have man subject to God, just as the ancients thought the sun revolved around the earth. While accepting the Copernican theory in astronomy, they adopt the Ptolemaic philosophy of life. We are all of us, in one way or another, constantly confusing the transitory and temporal with the immutable and eternal—and this is the master illusion of all those that trick the minds of men.

As the scientist is ever at work seeking to strip aside deceptive appearances in order to get at the inmost heart of physical reality, so ought we to labor continually to strip life of its illusions in order to get at the inmost heart of spiritual reality. We live amid thronging hosts of spiritual invisibilities far mightier in their potentialities than the material invisibilities handled so familiarly in the laboratories of science; and until we reckon with their existence and learn how to manipulate them skillfully, we are bound to live blunderingly and fruitlessly in the sight of God.

Our unaided mental frailties can no more unveil the true spiritual meanings of life than the unaided physical senses of the scientist can unveil the inscrutable secrets of nature. Are we as eagerly bent upon enlarging our spiritual equipment for looking into the very heart of life and its possibilities as is the scientist upon inventing ever new devices for investigating scientific realities? The facts and glories and wonders revealed by the instruments used in scientific research are not for a moment to be compared with the treasures that are brought to light when we study life through the spiritual insight given by the Holy Spirit to those who ask for it.

As scientists have reached the conclusion that electrical energy is the key to the riddle of the universe, so we have not discovered the real meaning of life until we have in our hearts found it to be filled and charged with the dynamic presence of God. The omnipresent power of Christ is the spiritual electricity of life. And until we learn this, we do not know what life is.

Unquenchable curiosity has been the driving force behind many a priceless discovery in the field of science. Scientists have ever been pressing forward in search of new facts. They have yielded to the romance of the invisible in the realm of the material. Would that we Christians were as powerfully thrilled by the romance of the invisible in the realm of the spiritual. Many of us make the Christian life drab and flat and stale for the simple reason that we have ceased to be thrilled by the shimmering splendor of a fairyland of unrealized possibilities in Christ. The glamor of the romance of Christian living has faded from our vision. We are supinely satisfied with mediocrity in Christian attainment. We seem to be not in the least bit interested to try new experiments with the power of Christ in the great laboratories of life. We need to have our souls rekindled by the luring romance of the invisible.

Because the scientist is ever looking at the things which are not seen—that is, incapable of being apprehended by the physical senses—he wins one victory after another in the conquest of nature. Let Christians do likewise in the realm of the spirit. And it is a far greater feat to master the forces of life than to harness the powers of nature. As the material progress of the world rests upon the researches of scientists who, not misled by things as they seem, seek to know them as they are; so the moral and religious welfare of this and coming generations is overwhelmingly dependent upon a steadily growing number of Christians who, not deceived by the worldly superficialities and temporal illusions of life, will seek to know and harness the eternal verities of life as they are to be found in the limitless power of the omnipresent Christ. All the discovered and undiscovered forces and possibilities in the material universe, inconceivably wonderful as they are, are not to be compared with the marvelous resources in Christ available to meet every possible need that may ever arise in the hearts and lives of men. Dare we say that we have exhausted all the rich possibilities of a life lived through Christ any more than a true scientist would claim that we had reached the limit of the discoverable in the harnessing of electric power to human service? What amazing progress would be made in all that is good and true and fine if millions of Christians were to explore the riches of Christ as persistently and sacrificially and heroically as scientists seek to unlock the profoundest secrets of nature!

One of the most remarkable discoveries of all time is the discovery of atomic energy. The energy of the atom is something terrific. It would take 1,340,000 barrels of powder to give a bullet the speed of an electron shot out by 1/70 grain of radium. A small copper coin contains atomic energy equal to 80,000,000 horse power. There is more energy in a few pounds of matter than can be extracted from millions of tons of coal. What may not be wrought when scientists once learn to harness the energy of the atom. It would seem as if we were on the threshold of an era in applied science blindingly more brilliant than any of the world has ever known. The marvels of tomorrow bid fair completely to eclipse the wonders of to-day. God alone knows what the future may bring forth. And what a symbol is this atomic energy of the power of the omnipresent Christ that the Christian Church has as yet hardly begun to lay hold of in all its wondrous fullness. I say to you that all the miracles that may be wrought through atomic energy in days to come will pale in the dazzling splendors of the miracles wrought by a church that really learns how to harness through faith the tremendous resources that are in Jesus Christ her Saviour!

Amazing as are the ever-multiplying wonders in the field of applied science, they are completely overshadowed by the things that may be done through a Christ of boundless power and love. The divine energy that Jesus has for us to use is of limitless adaptability. We have barely touched the fringe of its possibilities. There is an urging call for us to become spiritual engineers, specialists in the unseen, experts in handling the verities of God. The need is great, and the rewards are priceless. Let us never, amid all the swirling activities and feverish pursuits of modern life, lose sight of the fact that the greatness of our outward achievements for the glory of God and the good of man will depend upon how thoroughly we master the heavenly science of handling spiritual invisibilities. May we respond with sparkling eye and eager hand and leaping heart to the romance of the invisible.

Bartlett, C. N. (1927). The Romance of the Invisible. Bibliotheca Sacra, 84(333), 33–49. (Public Domain)

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