Christianity and Modern Thought online

. (page 1 of 20)
Online LibraryVariousChristianity and Modern Thought → online text (page 1 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Jana Srna, Michael Seow and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at (This
file was produced from images generously made available
by The Internet Archive/Canadian Libraries)





Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1872, by


In the Office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington.



The following discourses were delivered in Boston, at Hollis-Street
Church, on successive Sunday evenings, and repeated at King's Chapel on
Monday afternoons, during the winter of 1871-72, in response to an
invitation of the Executive Committee of the American Unitarian
Association, whose purpose was thus declared in the letter of
invitation: -

"It is not proposed that the course shall be a merely popular one,
to awaken the indifferent and interest them in familiar religious
truths; but rather to meet the need of thoughtful people perplexed
amid materialistic and sceptical tendencies of the time. Nor is it
desired simply to retrace in controversial method the beaten paths
of sectarian or theological debate; but rather, in the interest of
a free and enlightened Christianity, to present freshly the
positive affirmations of faith."

The several discourses were prepared independently, without conference
or concerted plan; and for their statements and opinions the
responsibility rests solely with their respective authors.



Introduction v

Break between Modern Thought and Ancient Faith
and Worship 3

By Henry W. Bellows.

A True Theology the Basis of Human Progress 35

By James Freeman Clarke.

The Rise and Decline of the Romish Church 61

By Athanase Coquerel, Fils.

Selfhood and Sacrifice 101

By Orville Dewey.

The Relation of Jesus to the Present Age 129

By Charles Carroll Everett.

The Mythical Element in the New Testament 157

By Frederic Henry Hedge.

The Place of Mind in Nature and Intuition in Man 179

By James Martineau.

The Relations of Ethics and Theology 209

By Andrew P. Peabody.

Christianity: What it is not, and what it is 231

By G. Vance Smith.

The Aim and Hope of Jesus 273

By Oliver Stearns.





There is evidently a growing disrelish, in an important portion of the
people of our time, for professional religion, technical piety, and
theological faith. These were always unpopular with youth, and people in
the flush of life and spirits; but this was because they called
attention to grave and serious things; and youth, as a rule, does not
like even the shadow of truth and duty to fall too early or too steadily
upon it. Restraint, care, thoughtfulness, it resists as long as it can;
and none who recall their own eager love of pleasure and gayety, in the
spring-time of life, can find much difficulty in understanding or
excusing it. Of course, too, careless, self-indulgent, sensual, and
frivolous people have always disliked the gravity, and the faith and
customs, of people professing religion, and exhibiting special
seriousness. They were a reproach and a painful reminder to them, and
must be partially stripped of their reproving sanctity, by ridicule,
charges of hypocrisy, and hints of contempt. But, all the while this was
going on, the youth and frivolity of previous generations expected the
time to come when they must surrender their carelessness, and be
converted; and even the worldly and scoffing shook in their secret
hearts at the very doctrines and the very piety they caricatured. The
old relations of master and pupil describe almost exactly the feeling
which youth and levity held toward instituted faith and piety, a
generation or two since. The schoolboy, indeed, still thinks himself at
liberty to call his master nick-names, to play tricks upon him, and to
treat with great levity, among his fellow-pupils, all the teaching and
all the rules of the school. But he nevertheless sincerely respects his
teacher; believes in him and in his teachings, and expects to derive an
indispensable benefit from them, in preparing himself for his coming
career. So it was with the religion and piety of our fathers. The people
profoundly respected the creed, the elders in piety, and the eminent
saints in profession and practice, although the young had their jibes
and jests, their resistance to church-going, their laugh at sanctimony;
and the majority of people then, as now, were not fond of the restraints
of piety, or the exercises of devotion.

But the alienation to which I wish to draw your attention now is
something quite different from the natural opposition of the young to
serious thoughts; or the gay, to grave matters; or those absorbed in the
present, to what belongs to the future; or of those charmed with the use
of their lower or more superficial faculties and feelings, to the
suggestions and demands of their deeper and nobler nature. That the body
should not readily and without a struggle submit to the mind; that
thoughtlessness should not easily be turned into thoughtfulness; that
youth should not readily consent to wear the moral costume of maturity,
or the feelings and habits of riper years; that the active, fresh,
curious creature, who has just got this world with its gay colors in
his eye, should not be much attracted by spiritual visions, and should
find his earthly loves and companions more fascinating than the
communion of saints or the sacred intercourse of prayer, - all this, to
say the least of it, is very explicable, and belongs to all generations,
and hardly discourages the experienced mind, more than the faults and
follies of the nursery the wise mother who has successfully carried many
older children through them all.

It is quite another kind of antipathy and disrelish which marks our
time. It is not confined to youth, nor traceable to levity and
thoughtlessness. The Church and its creed on one side, the world and its
practical faith on the other, seem now no longer to stand in the
relation of revered teachers and dull or reluctant pupils; of
seriousness, avoided by levity; of authoritative truth, questioned by
bold error; of established and instituted faith, provoking the
criticisms of impatience, caprice, ignorance, or folly. An antagonism
has arisen between them as of oil and water, - a separation which is
neither due to period of life, nor stage of intelligence, nor even to
worth of character; which does not separate youth from maturity, the
thoughtless from the thinking, the bad from the good, but divides the
creeds, observances, and professions of Christians, from a large body of
people who insist that after a certain fashion they are Christians too,
and yet will have little or nothing to do with professions of faith, or
pious pretensions, or religious ways of feeling, talking, or acting.

Clearly, it would not do any longer to say that the worth and virtue and
influence of society, in this country, could be estimated by the number
of communicants in the churches, by the degree of credit still given to
any of the long-believed theological dogmas, deemed in the last
generation the sheet-anchors of the State. We all know hundreds of
people, who could sign no creed, and give no theological account of
their faith, whom we do not count as necessarily less worthy in the
sight of God or man than many who have no difficulty in saying the whole
Athanasian Creed. Nay, there are some millions of people in this
country, not the least intelligent or useful citizens in all cases, who
never enter a church-door. A generation or two back, you would safely
have pronounced all these absentees to be worldly, careless people,
infidels, atheists, scoffers. Do you expect to find them so now? Some,
of course, but not the majority. Indeed, you would find a great many of
these people supporting churches, to which their families go, and not
themselves; or to which others go, for whom they are glad to provide the
opportunity. They would tell you, if they could discriminate their own
thoughts, something like this: "Public worship and church organizations,
and creeds and catechisms, and sermons and ceremonies, and public
prayers and praises, are doubtless very good things, and very useful up
to a certain stage of intelligence, and for a certain kind of character.
But we have discovered that the real truth and the real virtue of what
people have been misnaming religion is a much larger, freer, and more
interesting thing than churches, creeds, ministers, and saints seem to
think it. Here is this present life, full of occupations and earnest
struggles and great instructions. Here is this planet, not a thousandth
part known, and yet intensely provoking to intelligent curiosity; and
science is now every day taking a fresh and an ever bolder look into it;
and we want our Sundays to follow these things up. That is our idea of
worship. Then, again, the greatest philosophers are now writing out
their freest, finest thoughts about our nature; and, if we go to church,
we are likely to find some fanatical and narrow-minded minister warning
us against reading or heeding what these great men say; and it is a
thousand times fresher and grander and more credible than what he says
himself! Why, the very newspapers, the earnest and well-edited ones,
contain more instruction, more warning, more to interest the thoughtful
mind, than the best sermons; and why should a thinking man, who needs to
keep up with the times, and means to have his own thoughts free, go
where duty or custom makes it common to frown upon inquiry, doubt, and
speculation, - to shut out knowledge and testimony, and stamp a man with
a special type of thinking or professing?"

For there are, you observe, - in justice to these thoughts, - these two
instructors to choose between in our generation. Here is the Church,
with its ecclesiastical usages and its pious exhortations; its Sunday
school for the children; its devotional meeting in the week, and its
Sunday teaching and worship, - all acknowledged as good for those that
like them, and are willing to accept what people thought or believed was
true a hundred or five hundred years ago; and here is the modern press,
with the wonderful profusion of earnest and able books, cheap and
attractive, and treating boldly all subjects of immediate and of
permanent interest; and here are the reviews, quarterly and monthly,
that now compress into themselves and popularize all that these books
contain, and furnish critical notices of them; and then, again, here are
the newspapers, wonderful in variety and ability, that hint at, suggest,
and bring home all the new and fresh thoughts of the time. And the
marvel is, that most of these books, reviews, papers, are in the
interest of, and seem inspired by, something larger, freer, fresher,
truer, than what the churches and the creeds are urging. Thus church
religion and general culture do not play any longer into each other's
hands. If you believe what the men of science, the philosophers, the
poets and critics, believe, you cannot believe, except in a very general
way, in what the creeds and churches commonly profess. Accordingly, the
professors in college, the physicians, the teachers, the scientists, the
reformers, the politicians, the newspaper men, the reviewers, the
authors, are seldom professing Christians, or even church-goers; and if
they do go to church from motives of interest or example, they are free
enough to confess in private that they do not much believe what they

Assuming that this is a tolerably correct account - although doubtless
exaggerated for pictorial effect - of the existing state of things among
the reading and thinking class of this country, what is the real
significance of it? Is it as new as it seems? Is it as threatening to
the cause of religious faith as it seems? Reduced to its most general
terms, is it any thing more or other than this? The faith and worship of
this generation, and the experience and culture of a portion of this
generation, have temporarily fallen out; and, as in all similar
quarrels, there is, for the time, helpless misunderstanding, mutual
jealousy and misrepresentation. The faith and piety of the time
pronounce the culture, the science, the progressive philanthropy, the
politics, the higher education and advanced literature, to be godless
and Christless; and the culture of the age retaliates, perhaps, with
still greater sincerity, in pronouncing the faith and worship of the
time to be superstitious, antiquated, sentimental, and specially fitted
only to people willing to be led by priests and hireling ministers.

Now, if this were a quarrel between experience and inexperience, between
good and bad, between truth and falsehood, it would be easy to take
sides. But faith and knowledge have both equal rights in humanity.
People who are sincerely in love with knowledge and science and
philosophy are not thereby made enemies of God or man; certainly are not
to be discouraged and abused for their devotion to practical and
scientific truth, their search for facts, their interest in the works of
the Creator, even if they are not possessed of what the church properly
calls faith and piety. And, on the other hand, however shocked
established faith and piety may naturally be by the handling which
religion and its creeds and worship receive from modern inquisitors,
ought the deeper believers to be seriously alarmed for the safety of its
root or its healing leaves, on account of the shaking which the tree of
life is now receiving? However slow science and culture may often show
themselves to be in recognizing the fact, can any reasonable and
impartial mind, acquainted with history or human nature, believe that
faith itself is an inconstant or perishable factor in our nature? prayer
a childish impulse, which clear-seeing manhood must put away? the
conscience, not the representative of a holiness enthroned over the
moral universe, but an artificial organ, which social convenience has
developed, much like the overgrown liver in the Strasburg goose? In
short, who that considers the part that faith and worship have played in
the history of the race, can doubt their essential and permanent place
in human fortunes? The question of _some_ religion, of _some_ worship,
for the people, does not seem debatable. The only alternative among
nations has been a religion in which mystery, awe, and fear prevailed,
clothing themselves in dread and bloody sacrifices, or else a religion
in which more knowledge, more reason, more love, embodied themselves in
a simpler and gentler ritual. The nations have had only a choice - not
always a wholly voluntary one - between terrific superstitions and more
or less reasonable religions. Christianity has prevailed in civilized
nations, since Constantine, by accommodating its theological dogmas and
external ritual to the needs of successive eras; beginning with coarser
and more heathenish symbols, and running itself clearer and more clear,
as the mind and taste and experience of the race have developed
"sweetness and light." But does this make Christianity only a human
growth, and so predict a coming decay, which many seem to think has
already begun? On the contrary, the decisive fact about Christianity is,
that, while its intellectual history is changing, its early records are
in form fixed and permanent, and that its real progress has been
uniformly a return towards its original simplicity. Other faiths
develop. It is we who develop under Christianity, and are slowly changed
unto the original likeness of Christ. Christ's statements, Christ's
character, Christ's words, do not become antiquated. We are not called
upon to explain away, as superstitions of the time, any of the _certain_
words he said, or thoughts he had, or commandments he left. True, there
are critical embarrassments about the record, and room enough to
question how it was made up; and we cannot always trust the reporters of
that age, or our own. But when we get, as we certainly do get in
hundreds of cases, at Christ's own words; or when we really see - as by a
hundred vistas, through all the _débris_ and rubbish of the age, we may
see - the true person and bearing and spirit of Jesus, we behold, we
recognize, we know, a Being who, transferred to this age, and placed in
the centre of the choicest circle of saints and sages whom culture and
science and wisdom could collect, would bear just the same exalted
relation of superiority to them that he did to the fishermen and
publicans and kings and high-priests and noble women and learned rabbis
of his own day. We should not hesitate, any more than they did, to call
him Master and Lord; to say, "To whom else shall we go? Thou hast the
words of eternal life."

Those, then, who fear that true culture, that science or philosophy
boldly pushed, that learning and logic impartially applied, - whether in
studying God's method in creation, or his method in revelation, - can
injure permanently faith and piety, or endanger Christianity, as a
whole, must either think the religious wants of man very shallow or very
artificial, or the providence of God very easily baffled, and the
harmony of his word and works very badly matched. If there be in nature
or in man, in earth or in our dust, in chemistry, astronomy,
anthropology; in geology, the language of dead eras; or in language, the
geology of buried races, any thing that disproves the existence and
providence of a living God, the holiness and goodness and
trustworthiness of his character; the moral and religious nature of man,
his accountableness, his immortality; the divine beauty and sinless
superiority of Jesus Christ, and the essential truth of his
religion, - by all means let us know it! Why should we allow ourselves
to be beguiled by fables and false hopes and make-believes? But the
faith of religious experience, the confidence of those who know and love
and have become spiritually intimate with the gospel of Jesus Christ, is
usually such that they would sooner mistrust their senses than their
souls. They have found a moral and spiritual guidance, a food and
medicine in their Christian faith, which enables them calmly to say to
criticism, to science, to culture, "We do not hold our faith, or
practise our worship, by your leave, or at your mercy." Faith leans
first on the spiritual nature of man, and not on demonstrable science.
It would not be faith, if it were only a sharper sight. It is insight,
not sight. It springs from its own root, not primarily from the
intellect. As we love our wives and children with something besides the
judgment, or the logical faculty, so we love God with the heart, and not
with the understanding. We stand erect, with open eyes, when we are
seeking truth; we fall on our knees with closed eyelids, when we are
seeking God! Religion is not the rule of three, but the golden rule; it
is not the major and minor premises and copula of logic, but the sacred
instinct of the soul, which Jesus Christ has satisfied, and guided, and
owned, and directed, in an inestimable way.

But when faith and worship have taken this true and independent tone,
let them not join the foolish bigots, who think that because faith rests
on other foundations than science, therefore it owes nothing to science
and culture, and can wholly separate its fortunes and future from them.
True, _faith_ and _culture_, religion and science, in spite of their
general and permanent agreement and connection, when they cannot get on
honestly together, had better for the time separate; for they embarrass
each other, and it is in their insulation that they sometimes ripen and
prepare in separate crucible elements that are ultimately to blend in a
finer compound than either ever knew before. Thus faith, driving science
and culture out of her cell, and closing the doors on fact and
observation, wrapt in devotion, has sometimes caught visions of God
through her purely spiritual atmosphere, which sages in their
laboratories have never seen. The great religious inspirations have not
come from scholars, but from seers; from men of soul, not men of sense.
"How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?" said his
contemporaries of Christ. Well, he knew no letters, but he had what
letters never teach, - divine wisdom! He knew God, that end of knowledge;
he knew man, that last of philosophy. Faith therefore often recruits
itself in a temporary divorce from science, just as Romanism profitably
drives her priests into periodical retreats for prayer and exclusive
meditations on God and Christ. It is beautiful to study even those
humble and uninstructed Christian sects, whose simple and implicit faith
is protected, yes, and exalted, by their providential indifference to
science or unacquaintance with speculative difficulties. It is not their
ignorance that kindles their devotion, but it is faith's vitality, which
in certain exceptional natures and times beams and glows most purely,
fed only on its own sacred substance. When you have reached the inner
kernel of a true Moravian, or even a true Catholic heart, and found a
solid core of faith, unsupported by any other evidence than that which
the Scripture described in the words, "Faith is the substance of things
hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," you have gone far towards
fathoming the holiest secret in our nature, the well of living water.
And, on the other hand, how much better, both for faith and science,
that science should, at a time like this, go without religious ends into
physical or metaphysical pursuits, investigate, inquire, test, question,
in absolute independence of theological or spiritual results. It is only
when thus free and bold and uncommitted that her testimony is worth any
thing. Think of Newton, meditating and exploring the solar system, in
the simple love of truth, without let or hindrance from ecclesiastical
intermeddlers, and compare him with Galileo, lifting his telescope under
the malediction of the priesthood of Rome.

No: let science be as free as light, as brave as sunbeams, as honest as
photography! Encourage her to chronicle her conclusions with fearless
and unreproached fidelity. She will doubtless make many things which
have been long associated with religion look foolish and incredible. But
it is only so religion can shed some husks, and get rid of some
embarrassments. It is, in short, only just such assaults and criticisms
from science and experience that ever induces religion to strain out the
flies from her honey; to dissociate what is accidental in faith from
what is essential and permanent. And, when science and culture have
gathered in the full harvest of this wonderful season of discovery and
speculation, we may expect to find faith stripped of many garments, now
worshipped, which ignorance and fear put upon her for protection and
defence; but really strengthened in substance, by the free movements
allowed her lungs, and the dropping of the useless load upon her back.
Then, too, science and philosophy will again resume their places at the
feet of the master-principle in our nature, until again driven away, by
new disagreements, to return again by the discovery of a finer harmony.

Self-culture will never supersede worship, more than golden lamps
burning fragrant oils will ever supersede the sun; more than digging and
hoeing and planting will supersede sunshine and rain from heaven.
Self-culture? Yes: by all means, and in any amount, but not as an end.
When people look to ornamental gardening for the crops that are to feed
the famine-smitten world, and not to the pastures and prairies, as they
lie in the light of the common sun, they will look to self-culture for
the characters, the hearts, the souls that glorify God and lift and
bless the world. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
and thy neighbor as thyself." That is the irrepealable law of growth.

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryVariousChristianity and Modern Thought → online text (page 1 of 20)