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"Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all other
things shall be added unto you." Worship, faith, duty, devotion to God,
Christ, humanity, to justice, freedom, truth, - these, and not
self-culture, have lifted the race and the world. Learn, acquire,
cultivate, improve, develop yourselves, by art, music, reading,
languages, study, science, experience, but do it all in seeking to know
and love and serve God and man. Seek to know Christ, and you will learn
more, indirectly, than though you sought all knowledge without this
thirst. Seek to know God, and you shall find all science and culture
healthful, sacred, harmonious, satisfying, and devout.

The break between modern thought and ancient creeds and worship, thus
considered, though serious, and worth the utmost pains to heal, by all
arts that do not conceal or salve over, without curing the wound, is not
permanently discouraging to earnest and well-considered Christian
faith. Nor are all the signs of the times one way. For - after all that
has been said about the restless and dissatisfied condition of the
critical and conscious thought of the time, and the scepticism of the
learned, or the speculative class, or of the new thinkers born of the
physical progress of the age, and the decay of worship in the literary
and artistic, the editorial and poetical circles - it remains to be said,
that, leaving this important and valuable body of people aside, - not
badly employed, and not without personal warrant for their doubts and
withdrawal from positive institutions, - there remains a mighty majority,
on whom the Christian religion and historical faith and the external
church have a vigorous and unyielding hold; whose practical instincts
and grand common-sense and hereditary experience anchor them safely in
positive faith, while the scepticism raves without and blows itself
clear, and passes over. Christianity first addressed itself to common
people, not to avoid criticism, but to secure the attention of the moral
affections and the spiritual powers, instead of the meaner
understanding. It has lived on the heart and conscience and needs and
yearnings of the masses, from and to whom practical wisdom and fixed
institutions and simple faith always come and always return. Common
sense is not the sense that is common, but the sense that is _in_
common. And popular faith is not the faith of private ignorance massed,
but of that wisdom which alone enables ignorant people to find a basis
for feelings and actions that all feel to be beyond and above their
private ignorance or self-will. The common people were the first to hear
Christ gladly: they will be the last to hear any who deny him.

It is easy to exaggerate the decline of modern faith, and to misread the
tendencies of the time on which we have been dwelling. Thus, paradox
though it seem, it were just as true to say that more people are
deliberately interested in Christian faith and worship to-day than at
any previous era in the history of our religion, as to asseverate that
more people doubt and regret it than ever before. Both statements are
true; and they are reconciled only by the fact that it is only in this
century that the claims of faith and worship have been popularly
debated, or that the people were expected or allowed to have any
independent opinion about them. The general soil of our humanity is for
the first time surveyed and sown; and it is found that, with more
_wheat_ than ever, there are also more _tares_. With more intelligent
and convinced worshippers, there are more wilful or logical neglecters
of worship; with more genuine believers, more sceptics; with more
religious activity, more worldliness. Without an army in the field,
there will be no deserters; without a common currency of genuine coin,
no counterfeits; without a formidable body of affirmers, few deniers.

The positive institutions of Christianity decline in one form, to spring
into new life in other and better forms. Doubtless, fourfold more money
is expended to-day upon temples of worship than in what have been
falsely called the ages of faith, - rather the ages of acquiescence.
Religion does not decline as a costly interest of humanity with the
progress of doubt, freedom, intelligence, science, and economic
development. It is a permanent and eternal want of man, and is always
present, either as a vast, overshadowing superstition, or as a more or
less intelligent faith. Nowhere has it a stronger hold on society than
in free America, which false prophets, with their faces to the past,
muttered was about to become its grave. This busy, delving, utilitarian
country, without a past, denied the influence of ruins and the memory of
mythic founders, a land without mystery or poetry, - how could so tender
and venerable a sentiment as reverence live in its garish day? how so
sweet a nymph as Piety kneel in its muddy marts of trade, or chant her
prayers in its monotonous wilderness, ringing with the woodman's axe or
the screeching saw? But now delegates of all the great religious bodies
in the Old World are visiting America, for religious instruction and
inspiration. Nowhere, it is confessed, is there to be found a people so
generally interested in religion, ready to make so great sacrifices for
it, or so deeply convinced that its principles and inspirations are at
the root of all national prosperity. Nowhere do churches and chapels
spring up with such rapidity, and in such numbers; nowhere is the
ministry as well supported, or its ministers as influential members of
society; nowhere do plain men of business and intelligence, I do not say
of science and philosophy, participate so freely in religious worship.
And since all political compulsion has been taken off from the support
of religion, and it has been made purely voluntary, its interests have
received even more care. There is little doubt that the decline of
religious establishments, the decay of priestly authority, the complete
withdrawal of governmental patronage, the discrediting of the principle
of irrational fear, the dispersion of false dogmas, the clearing up of
superstition, the growth of toleration and charity, instead of weakening
true faith or lessening public worship, will greatly increase and
strengthen both. For it is not man's ignorance, weakness, and fears,
that lead him most certainly to Christian worship and faith. There is a
worship and a faith of blindness and dread; but they have no tendency to
develop a moral and spiritual sense of the character of God, or the
character becoming man, or to survive the spread of general intelligence
and mental courage. If thought, if courage of mind, if inquiry and
investigation, if experience and learning and comprehensive grasp, if
light and sound reason, and acquaintance with human nature, tended to
abolish a living God from the heart and faith of man, to disprove the
essential truths of Christianity, or to make life and the human soul
less sacred, aspiring, and religious, the world would be on its rapid
way to atheism. But I maintain that science itself, philosophy and free
inquiry, however divorced from religious institutions and dogmas, were
never so humble, reverential, and Christian as since they partly
emancipated themselves from theological or ecclesiastical censure and
suspicion. For ages science knelt to religion as she went to her
crucible or laboratory, like the sexton passing the altar in a Catholic
cathedral, and with as little thought or feeling as he, simply to avert
censure, while she pursued inquiries she knew would banish the
superstition she pretended to honor. Faith and knowledge were at
opposite poles; religious truth and scientific truth, finally and
permanently amenable to different standards. How dishonoring to religion
was this distrust of light and knowledge! how faithless in God, this
faith in him which could not bear investigation! how compromising to
Christianity, the sort of trust which refuses as blasphemous the
application of all the tests and proofs which are required in the
certification of every other important conviction! Religious faith rests
on the spiritual nature; but its basis is not less real for being
undemonstrable, like the axioms of mathematics. That is not real faith
which dares not investigate the grounds of its own being. It is
irreverent to God, to affirm that he does not allow us to try his ways;
to demand proofs of his existence and righteous government; to ask for
the credentials of his alleged messengers; to doubt until we are
rationally convinced. If the artificial feeling that faith is opposed to
reason; religious truth to universal truth; that belief in unseen things
is less rational or less capable of verification than the radical
beliefs of the senses, - if these prejudices were sound, or not the
reverse of true, the world would be on its inevitable way to universal
infidelity and godless materialism. But is that the tendency of things?
Is it that religion is growing _less_ mystic? or only science more so?
Have not real and affecting mysteries been very much transferred for the
time from theology to philosophy, from the priest to the professor? I
doubt very much whether men of science are not more truly on their knees
than men of superstition, in our days. Never did such candor, such
confessions of baffled insight, such a sense of inscrutable wisdom and
power, such a feeling of awe and dependence, seem to prevail in science
as now, when so many theologians are raising the eyebrow, and seeking to
alarm the world at what they call the atheism of the most truth-loving,
earnest, and noble men. I would sooner have the scepticism - reverent and
honest and fearless - of these solemn and awed inquisitors in the inner
shrines of nature, than the faith of self-bandaged priests, who are
thinking to light the way to heaven with candles on the mid-day altar,
or to keep faith in God alive only by processions in vestments of purple
and gold.

Nor has Christianity any thing permanently to fear from the disposition
which now so largely prevails, to separate it from its accidents, its
accretions, and its misrepresentations. The days have not long gone by
when men were counted as entitled to little respect, if they did not
wear side-swords and bag-wigs. You recollect how our Benjamin Franklin
surprised, shocked, and then delighted all Europe, by appearing at the
court of France in plain citizen's clothes? Religion, too, has had her
court-dress, and her sounding court-titles, and official robes, and
circuitous ceremonies. The world has felt horror-stricken whenever any
brave and more believing spirit has ventured to ask the meaning of one
of these theological tags and titles. But how much less wholesome is
living water, if drunk out of a leaf, or the palm of one's hand, than if
presented on a salver, in a curiously jewelled flagon, by a priest in
livery? How much has theological ingenuity of statement and systematic
divinity, which it takes the study of a life to understand, added to the
power of the simplicity of Christ as he unfolds himself in the Sermon on
the Mount? Yet, if any one has dared to be as simple as Christ himself
was in his own faith, he has been said to deny the Lord that bought him.
It has been called infidelity, to think Christ meant only just what he
said, and was understood to say, in his simple parables. You must
believe something not less incredible and abstruse than the church
Trinity; something not less contrary to natural justice and common sense
than the church vicarious atonement; something not less cruel and
vindictive than the eternal misery of all who through ignorance, birth,
or accident, or even perversity and pride, do not hear of, or do not
accept, the blood of Christ as their only hope of God's mercy and
forgiveness, or you are no Christian. Now I hold these dogmas themselves
to be unchristian in origin and influence, although held by many
excellent Christian men. I believe that they are the main obstacles with
many honest, brave, and enlightened men in our day, to their interest in
public worship; and that millions repudiate the Church, and
Christianity, which is a different thing, simply because they suppose
her to be responsible for these barnacles upon the sacred ship. It would
be just as reasonable to hold the Hudson River responsible for the filth
the sewers of the city empty into it; or to hold the sun answerable for
the changes in its beams, caused by the colored glass in church-windows.

Christianity, the Christianity of Christ, is simple, rational,
intelligible, independent of, yet in perfect harmony, - if it be often an
unknown harmony, - with philosophy, ethics, science; true, because from
God, the God of nature as well as grace; true, because the transcript of
self-evident and self-proving principles; true, because guaranteed by
our nature; true, because of universal application, unimpeached by time
or experience. It affirms the being and authority of a righteous, holy,
and all-loving God, whom man can serve and love and worship because he
is made in his image; can know, by studying himself; and to whom man is
directly related by reason, conscience, and affections. It affirms
divine science and worship to consist in obedience to God's laws,
written on man's heart, and for ever urged by God's Spirit. It affirms
the present and persistent penalty, the inevitable consequences, of all
moral and spiritual wrong-doing and disobedience; the present and future
blessedness of well-doing and holiness. It sets forth Jesus Christ as
the Son of God and Son of Man, - appellations that, deeply considered,
really mean the same thing, - the direct messenger, representative, and
plenipotentiary of God, - his perfect moral image. It insists upon men's
putting themselves to school to Christ, honoring, loving, and following
him; forming themselves into classes, - another name for churches, - and
by prayer, meditation, and study of his life, informing their minds and
hearts, and shaping their wills in his likeness, which is the ideal of
humanity. Its clear object is to dignify and ennoble man, by presenting
God as his father; to show him what his nature is capable of, by
exhibiting Christ in the loveliness, sanctity, and power of his awful
yet winning beauty; to make him ashamed of his own sins, and afraid of
sin, by arousing moral sensibility in his heart; safely to fence in his
path by beautiful and sacred customs, - the tender, simple rites of
baptism and communion; the duty of daily prayer, the use of the
Scriptures, and respect for the Lord's Day.

Here is a Christianity without dogmatic entanglement; plain, direct,
earnest, simple, defensible, intelligible to a child, yet deep enough to
exhaust a life's study. For it is the simplicities of religion that are
the permanent and glorious mysteries that never tire. They draw our
childhood's wonder, our manly reverence, and age's unquenched curiosity
and awe. Do we ever tire of the stars, or the horizon, or the blue sky,
or the dawn, or the sunset, or running water, or natural gems? Do we
ever tire of the thought of a holy, all-wise, all-good Spirit of
spirits, our God and our Father, or of hearing of the reverence and
trust, the obedience and the love, due to him? Do we ever tire of Jesus
Christ, considered as the sinless image, within human limitations, of
God's love and truth and mercy and purity? Do we ever tire of hearing
the wondrous story of his obedient, disinterested, and exalted life and
sacrifice? or of the call to follow his graces and copy his perfections
into our own hearts and lives? Are we ever weary of hearing of the
blessed hope of immortality, with the comfortable expectation of
throwing off the burden of our flesh, and winging our way in spiritual
freedom nearer to God and the light of our Master's face? Who can
exhaust, who can add to, the real force and attraction and fulness of
those truths and promises? Truly received, they grow with every day's
contemplation and use; they fill the soul with an increasing awe and
joy; they prove only less common-place as they are more nearly
approached, more copious as they are more drawn upon, and more sacred as
they are more familiar.

It is the common, simple, universal truths that are the great,
inexhaustible, powerful, and never-wearying truths. But doubtless it
requires courage, personal conviction, and self-watchfulness, to
maintain personal piety or religious institutions under free and
enlightened conditions, when they are just beginning. When sacramental
mysteries are exploded, when the official sanctity of the ministry is
disowned, when the technical and dogmatic conditions of acceptance with
God are abandoned, when every man's right of private judgment is
confessed, when common sense is invited into the inner court of faith,
when every man is confessed to be a king and a priest in that temple of
God which he finds in his own body and soul, when real, genuine goodness
is owned as the equivalent of religion, then it is evident that the
support of religious institutions, of public worship, of the church and
the ordinances, must appeal to something besides the ignorance, the
fears, the superstitions, the traditions of the Christian world. They
must fall back on the practical convictions men entertain of their
intrinsic importance. They must commend themselves to the sober, plain,
and rational judgment of men of courage, reflection, and observation.
They fall into the same category with a government based not on the
divine right of kings, or the usages of past generations, the artificial
distinctions of ranks and classes, owing fealty each to that which is
socially above itself, but resting on the consent of the governed, and
deriving its authority and its support from the sense of its usefulness
and necessity. We have not yet achieved fully, in this country, the
passage of the people over from the Old World status of _subjects_ to
the New World status of _citizens_. We are in the midst of the glorious
struggle for a State, a national government, which rests securely on the
love and service of hearts that have created it, and maintain and defend
it on purely rational and intelligible grounds. It is so new, so
advanced, so sublime an undertaking, that we often falter and faint, as
if man were not good enough, nor reasonable enough, to be entitled to
such a government. We often doubt if we can bear the dilution which the
public virtue and good sense in our native community suffers from the
flood of ignorance and political superstition coming with emigrants from
other and coarser states of society and civil organizations. We are not
half alive to the glory and grandeur of the experiment of free political
institutions, and do not press with the zeal we ought the general
education, the political training, the moral discipline, which can alone
save the State, when it has no foundation but the good-will, the
respect, and the practical valuation of the people. But is the State or
the nation ever so truly divine as when it is owned as the voice of God,
calling all the people to maintain equal justice, to recognize universal
interests, to embody Christian ethics in public law? And despite our
local mortifications and occasional misgivings, what nation is now so
strong and firm, what government so confident and so promising, as our
own? What but freedom, fidelity to rational principles and ideal
justice, give it this strength? What is it, on the other hand, but
traditions that represent the ignorance and accidents and injustice of
former ages, - what is it but authority usurped and then consecrated,
social superstitions hardened into political creeds, - that is now
proving the weakness and peril of European nationalities, and imperial
or monarchical governments? Knowledge, science, literature, progress,
truth, liberty, become sooner or later the enemies of all governments,
and all social institutions, not founded in abstract justice and equal
rights. Yet how fearful the transition! Who can contemplate the downfall
of the French empire, and then look at the architects of the new
republic, working in the crude material of a priest-ridden or unschooled
populace, without dismay? Yet the process is inevitable. Democratic
ideas are abroad: they are in the air. They corrode all the base metal
they touch; and thrones and titles, and legalized classes, and
exceptional prerogatives, are predestined to a rapid disintegration. How
blessed the nation that has transferred its political homage from
traditions to principles; from men or families, to rights and duties;
from a compromise with ancient inequality and wrong, to an affirmation
of universal justice and right! Yet never had a people so grave and so
constant and so serious duties as we have. And there is nothing in our
principles or government that _must_ save our country, in spite of the
failure of political virtue, intelligence, and devotion, in our private
citizens. God has buried many republics, because the people were
unworthy of them. Their failure was no disproof of the principle
involved, but only an evidence that the people fell wholly below their
privileges and ideas. America may add another to this list of failures,
but can do nothing to discredit the truth and glory and final triumph of
the democratic idea. I do not believe we shall fail; on the contrary, I
have an increasing faith in the sense and virtue and ability of the
people of this country. But the success of American political
institutions depends very much on the success of the Christian and
religious institutions that match them, and are alone adapted to them.
We cannot long guarantee religious institutions, in a country of free
schools, public lyceums, unlicensed newspapers, unimpeded inquiry, and
absolute religious equality, if they do not rest on grounds of reason
and experience and sober truth. Mere authority, mere ecclesiasticism,
mere sacred usages, mere mystery, or mere dogmatism, will not long
protect the creeds and formularies of the church. They are undergoing a
species of dry-rot, like to that which the rafters of my own church
lately suffered from the confinement and unventilated bondage in iron
boxes in which their ends had been placed for greater security. They
wanted air and light, and more confidence in their inherent soundness;
and, if they had been permitted it, they would have lasted a hundred
years. It is precisely so with the Christian religion, boxed up in
creeds. It grows musty, worm-eaten, and finally loses its life and hold.
A certain timid and constitutionally religious portion of the community
will cherish any creed or usage which is time-honored; and the less
robust and decisive minds of the time will rally about what is
established and venerable, however out of date, incredible, or
irrational. But it is what is going on in the independent and free mind
of the common people, that should have our most serious regard. What is
the faith of the fairly educated young men and women who are now
springing up in America? Certainly, it is not, in the more gifted or the
most thoughtful part of it, in sympathy with any form of sacramental or
dogmatic Christianity. It is not Trinitarian; it is not biblical; it is
not technical. It is hardly Christian! It is bold, independent,
inquisitive, questioning every thing, and resolute in its rights of
opinion. It is alienated from church and worship to a great degree. It
suspects the importance of religious institutions, and reads and thinks
and worships in books of poetry and philosophy. A timid heart might
easily grow alarmed at the symptoms, and think that irreligion, and
decay of worship and fellowship in the Christian Church, were upon us.
But sad and discouraging as the present symptoms are to many, I see more
to hope than fear in these tendencies. They are a rebuke to formal and
technical theology, - to mere ecclesiasticism, to outworn ways. They are
bringing a violent assault upon the hard crust of a stifling belief, of
which the world must get rid before the gospel of Christ can emerge, and
be received in its primitive simplicity. It is the only way in which
faith is ever purified, - by doubt and denial. The gospel requires a new
statement. It must come out of its ecclesiastical bulwarks. It must
abandon its claim to any other kind of judgment than all other truth
claims and allows. It must place itself by the side of science,
experience, and philosophy, and defy their tests. It must invite the
most rigid investigation. It must claim its foundations in eternal
truth. It must prove its efficiency, not with the weak, but the strong;
not with the ignorant, but the learned; not with the bound, but the

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Online LibraryVariousChristianity and Modern Thought → online text (page 2 of 20)