Christianity and Modern Thought online

. (page 4 of 20)
Online LibraryVariousChristianity and Modern Thought → online text (page 4 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

declared that the fossil shells were made in the rocks just as they are,
or were dropped by pilgrims returning from the Holy Land. Because the
book of Psalms said that "God hath established the earth so that it
shall not be moved for ever," the letter-theology denied its daily and
yearly revolution. Because Noah said, "Cursed be Canaan," the
letter-theology defended the slavery of the negro. Because Noah also
said, "He who sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed," the
letter-theology has defended capital punishment as a religious duty.
Because the Jews were commanded to rest on the seventh day, the
letter-theology forbids the Boston Public Library to be open on the
first. Becoming ever more timid and more narrow, it clings to the letter
of the common English translation, and the received text. It even
shrinks from alterations which would give us the true letter of the
Bible, instead of the false one.

Some years ago the American Bible Society appointed a committee of the
most learned scholars, from all Orthodox denominations, to correct the
text and the translation of our common English Bible, so as to make it
conform to the true Hebrew and Greek text. They were not to make a new
translation, but merely to correct palpable, undoubted errors in the old
one. They did their work; printed their corrected Bible; laid it before
the Bible Society, - _and that Society refused to adopt it_. They had not
the slightest doubt of its superior correctness; but they feared to make
any change, lest others might be called for, and lest the faith of the
community might be disturbed in the integrity of the Scriptures. Jesus
had promised them the Holy Spirit to lead them into all truth, to take
of his truth and show it to them; but they did not believe him. They
preferred to anchor themselves to the words chosen by King James's
translators than to be led by the Spirit into any new truth. So it is
that "the letter killeth." It stands in the way of progress. It keeps us
from trusting in that ever-present Spirit which is ready to inspire us
all to-day, as it inspired prophets and apostles of old. It is an
evidence not of faith, but of unbelief.

Thus, this false idea in Theology, that inspiration rests in the letter
of a book or a creed rather than in its spirit, is seen to be opposed to
human progress.

And then there is another Theology which is opposed to human progress.
It is the Theology of Fear. It speaks of hell rather than of heaven; it
seeks to terrify rather than to encourage; it drives men by dread of
danger rather than leads them by hope. Its ruling idea is of stern,
implacable justice; its God is a God of vengeance, who cannot pardon
unless the full penalty of sin has been borne by some victim; whose
mercy ceases at death; who can only forgive sin during our short human
life, not after we have passed into the other world. To assuage his
anger, or appease his justice, there must be devised some scheme of
salvation, or plan of redemption. He cannot forgive of pure, free grace,
and out of his boundless love.

Now those who hold such a Theology as this will apply its spirit in
human affairs. It will go into penal legislation, into the treatment of
criminals. It will make punishment the chief idea, not reformation.
Jesus taught a boundless compassion, an infinite tenderness toward the
sinful, the weak, the forlorn people of the world. He taught that the
strong are to bear the burdens of the weak, the righteous to help the
wicked, and that we are to overcome evil with good. When this principle
is applied in human affairs, the great plague spots of society will
disappear: intemperance, licentiousness, pauperism, crime, will be cured
radically. Society, purified from these poisons, will go forward to
nobler achievements than have ever yet been dreamed of. But this
principle will not be applied while the fear-theology prevails, and is
thought more of than that of love. The progress of human society depends
on the radical cure of these social evils, not their mere restraint. And
they can only be cured by such a view of the divine holiness and the
divine compassion as is taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and
the Parable of the Prodigal Son; showing the root of crime in sin, and
inspiring a profound faith in God's saving love.

It may seem to some persons that I go too far in asserting that a true
Theology is at the basis of human progress. They may ascribe human
progress to other causes, - to the advance of knowledge, to scientific
discovery, to such inventions as printing, the steam-engine, the
railroad, and the like. But I believe that spiritual ideas are at the
root of all others. That which one thinks of God, duty, and
immortality, - in short, his Theology, - quickens or deadens his interest
in every thing else. Whatever arouses conscience, faith, and love, also
awakens intellect, invention, science, and art. If there is nothing
above this world or beyond this life; if we came from nothing and are
going nowhere, what interest is there in the world? "Let us eat and
drink, for to-morrow we die." But if the world is full of God, - if we
come from him and are going to him, - then it becomes everywhere
intensely interesting, and we wish to know all about it. Science has
followed always in the steps of religion, and not the reverse. The Vedas
went before Hindoo civilization; the Zend-Avesta led the way to that of
Persia; the oldest monuments of Egypt attest the presence of religious
ideas; the Laws of Moses preceded the reign of Solomon; and that
civilization which joined Greeks, Romans, Goths, Vandals, Franks, and
Saxons in a common civilization, derived its cohesive power from the
life of Him whose idea was that love to man was another form of love to
God. "The very word _humanity_," says Max Müller, "dates from
Christianity." No such idea, and therefore no such term, was found among
men before Christ came.

But it may be said that these instances are from such obscure epochs
that it is uncertain how far it was religion which acted on
civilization. Let us, then, take one or two instances, concerning which
there is less uncertainty.

In the deserts, and among the vast plains of the Arabian Peninsula, a
race had slumbered inactive for twenty centuries. Those nomad-Semitic
tribes had wandered to and fro, engaged in perpetual internecine
warfare, fulfilling the prediction concerning Ishmael, "He will be a
wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand
against him." No history, no civilization, no progress, no nationality,
no unity, could be said to exist during that long period among these
tribes. At length a man comes with a religious idea, a living, powerful
conviction. He utters it, whether man will bear or forbear. He proclaims
the unity and spirituality of God in spite of all opposition and
persecution. At last his idea takes hold of the soul of this people.
What is the result? They flame up into a mighty power; they are united
into an irresistible force; they sweep over the world in a few decades
of years; they develop a civilization superior to any other then extant.
Suddenly there springs up in their midst a new art, literature, and
science. Christendom, emasculated by an ecclesiastical and monastic
Theology, went to Islam for freedom of thought, and found its best
culture in the Mohammedan universities of Spain. Bagdad, Cairo,
Damascus, Seville, Cordova, became centres of light to the world. The
German conquerors darkened the regions they overran: the Mohammedans
enlightened them. The caliphs and viziers patronized learning and
endowed colleges, and some of their donations amounted to millions of
dollars. Libraries were collected. That of a single doctor was a load
for four hundred camels. That of Cairo contained a hundred thousand
manuscripts, which were lent as freely as those in the Boston Public
Library. The College Library of Cordova had four hundred thousand. In
these places grammar, logic, jurisprudence, the natural sciences, the
philosophy of Aristotle, were taught to students who flocked to them
from all parts of Christendom. Many of the professors taught from
memory: one man is reported to have been able to repeat three thousand
poems. The Saracens wrote treatises on geography, numismatics, medicine,
chemistry, astronomy, mathematics. Some, like Avicenna, went through the
whole circle of the sciences. The Saracens invented pharmacy, surgery,
chemistry. Geber, in the eighth century, could prepare alcohol,
sulphuric acid, nitric acid, corrosive sublimate, potash, and soda.
Their astronomers measured a degree of the earth's meridian near Bagdad,
and determined its circumference as twenty-four thousand miles. They
found the length of the year, and calculated the obliquity of the
ecliptic. Roger Bacon quotes their treatises on optics. Trigonometry
retains the form given it by the Arabs, and they greatly improved
Algebra. We received from them our numerical characters. We all know the
beauty and permanence of their architecture, and much of our musical
knowledge is derived from them. They also made great progress in
scientific agriculture and horticulture, in mining and the working of
metals, in tanning and dying leather. Damascus blades, morocco,
enamelled steel, the manufacture and use of paper, the use of the
pendulum, the manufacture of cotton, public libraries, a national
police, rhyme in verse, and our arithmetic, all came to us from the

All this fruitful intellectual life must be traced directly back to the
theological impulse given by Mohammed to the Arab mind; for it can be
derived from no other source.

It is not quite so easy to define the precise influence on human
progress given by the doctrines of the Reformation; for, before Luther,
these were in the air. But no one can reasonably doubt that the demand
for freedom of conscience and the right of private judgment in religion
has led to liberty of thought, speech, action, in all other directions.
To the war against papal and ecclesiastical authority in concerns of the
soul we owe, how much no one can say, of civil freedom, popular
sovereignty, the emancipation of man, the progress of the human mind.
The theses of Luther were the source of the Declaration of Independence.
And modern science, with the great names of Bacon and Newton, Descartes
and Leibnitz, Goethe and Humboldt, is the legitimate child of Protestant

It is true that printing and maritime discoveries preceded Luther. But
these inventions came from the same ideas which took form in the
Lutheran Reformation. The discovery of printing was a result, no less
than a cause. It came because it was wanted; because men were wishing to
communicate their thoughts more freely and widely than could be done by
writing. If it had been discovered five hundred years before, it would
have fallen dead, a sterile invention, leading to nothing. And so the
steam-engine and the railroad did not come before, because they were not
wanted: as soon as they were wanted they came. That which lies at the
root of all these inventions is the wish of man to communicate easily
and rapidly and widely with his brother-man; in other words, the sense
of human brotherhood. Material civilization, in all its parts and in all
times, grows out of a spiritual root; and only faith leads to sight,
only the things unseen and eternal create those which are seen and

The two Theologies at the present time which stand opposed to each other
here are not Calvinism and Armenianism, not Trinitarianism and
Unitarianism, not Naturalism and Supernaturalism. But they are the
Theology of discouragement and fear on one side, that of courage and
hope on the other. The one thinks men must be driven to God by terror:
the other seeks to attract them by love. The one has no faith in man,
believes him wholly evil, believes sin to be the essential part of him.
The other believes reason a divine light in the soul, and encourages it
to act freely; trusts in his conscience enlightened by truth, and
appeals to it confidently; relies on his heart, and seeks to inspire it
with generous affections and disinterested love. That this Theology of
faith is to triumph over that of fear who can doubt? All the best
thought, the deepest religion, the noblest aspiration of the age, flows
in this direction. Whether our handful of Unitarian Churches is ever to
become a great multitude or not, I do not know; but I am sure that the
spirit which inspired the soul of Channing is to lead the future age,
and make the churches which are to be. It is not now a question of Unity
or Trinity, but something far deeper and much more important. While
endeavoring to settle the logical terms of Christ's divinity and
humanity, we have been led up higher to the sight of the Divine Father
and the Human Brotherhood. Like Saul, the son of Kish, we went out to
seek our father's asses, and have found a kingdom.

We have recently been told about a Boston Theology. If there is any
thing which deserves to be called a Boston Theology it is this doctrine
of courage and hope. For it is shared by all the leading minds of all
Protestant denominations in this city. Whatever eminent man comes here,
no matter what he was when he came, finds himself, ere long, moving in
this direction. The shackles of tradition and formality fall from his
limbs, his eyes open to a new light; and he also becomes the happy
herald of a new and better day.

But a better word still, if one is wanted by which to localize these
ideas, would be "The New England Theology." For in every part of New
England, from the beginning; in every one of the multiform sects, whose
little spires and baby-house churches have spotted our barren and rocky
hills, there have never failed men of this true Apostolic succession;
men believing in truth, and brave to utter it; believing that God loves
truth better than falsehood; that he desires no one to tell a lie for
his glory, or to speak words of wind in his behalf. With all our
narrowness, our bigotry, our controversial bitterness, our persecuting
zeal, - of which, God knows, we have had enough in New England, - the
heart of New England has been always free, manly, and rational. Yes: all
the way from Moses Stuart to William Ellery Channing, all along the road
from the lecture-rooms on the hills of Andover to the tribune of
Theodore Parker standing silent in the Music Hall, we have had this same
brave element of a manly Theology. This has been the handful of salt
which has saved New England. Hence it is that from the days of the early
Puritans, men and women, of Harry Vane, Mrs. Hutchinson, and Roger
Williams, who stood up for the rights of the human soul against priestly
tyranny, down through the ministers of the Revolution who went with
their people to the camp of Washington at Cambridge; down to the days of
the Beechers, - there has never failed a man in the New England pulpit to
stand up for justice, freedom, and humanity. From our bare hill-tops New
England men and women have looked up to the sky and seen it not always
nor wholly black with superstitious clouds, but its infinite depths of
blue interpenetrated evermore with the warm living light of a God of
Love. And therefore has New England been the fountain of Progress, the
fruitful parent of Reforms, "the lovely mother of yet more lovely

I have quoted several striking passages from the Apostle Paul. One
expresses his longing for greater excellence, and declares that he
forgets every thing already attained, and is reaching out for better
things, for more truth and more love. Another passage calls on his
disciples to think for themselves, and be rational Christians, not
children in understanding. A third asserts that he is the minister of
the spirit of the gospel, not its letter; a fourth that his religion is
not one of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind; a fifth says,
Stand fast in freedom, and be liberal Christians; and in other places he
exhorts his brethren not to be narrow, nor bigoted; but to look at every
thing beautiful, lovely, true, and good, no matter where they find it.
But a little while before he said these things Paul himself was one of
the most narrow, and intolerant of men, opposed to progress wholly. What
made this great change in his soul? It was that he had found a true
Theology. He learned from Christ to trust simply in the divine love for
pardon and salvation. He learned that God was the God of Heathen and
Pagans as well as of Jews. He learned that no ritual, ceremony,
sacraments nor forms, but only the sight of God as a Father and Friend,
can really save the soul from its diseases, and fill it with immortal
life. A true Theology was the secret of Paul's immense progress, and of
his wonderful power to awaken and convert others. There are many who
suppose his Theology obscure and severe. But when we penetrate the veil
of Jewish language, we find it one of Freedom, of Reason, of Love, manly
and tender, generous and intelligent. And this same Theology passing in
its essence from Paul to Augustine, to Luther, to Wesley, has always
been the motive power of human civilization and human development. It
has been the friend of free thought, liberty of conscience, and
universal progress.

I mean then by a true Theology what Paul meant when he said that God
"has not given to us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of
a sound mind." I mean what he said when he declared that God had made
him a minister of the New Testament, not of the letter but of the
spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

I mean the Theology which places the substance above the form; the thing
before the name; which looks at the fact, not at the label.

Let us then, brethren, who call ourselves Unitarians, be glad and
grateful for the gospel of faith and hope which we enjoy. And let us
give to others what we have ourselves received. If it be true, as we
have tried to show, that human progress depends largely on a true
Theology we cannot help mankind more than by diffusing widely that which
God has given us of his truth. Freely you have received, freely give.
You who have always lived in this community, surrounded by this mellow
warm light of peace and freedom, do not know, cannot tell, what those
suffer who have been taught from early childhood to fear God, and to
distrust his light in their soul. Do your part in spreading abroad the
beams of a better day. Give to the world that religion which is not a
spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.





We live in a time of great and manifold changes. There is one church
that for centuries has had her principal glory in asserting that she
never has changed, - that she has at all times been exactly the same; but
now she can hardly deny that either in accordance with her own will, or
by the force of circumstances, very great changes have been wrought in
her during the last few years. This, if it is true, must change also the
nature, the system, the course of our controversy with her. The
controversy between the two churches has not always, perhaps, been quite
fair; and I should not like to be unfair to any adversary, whoever he
may be. I should not be at ease in my conscience if I thought I had been
unfair to any thing, especially to any thing religious, of whatever kind
that religion may be; because in any religion, even the most imperfect,
there is some aspiration from this earth to the sky; at least, from
human souls to what they hope or believe to be God. And especially I
could not pardon myself for being in any way unjust to that great church
which has for centuries comforted and sustained a multitude of souls,
and made them better and happier by her teachings. It is a Christian
church; and though I think that Romish Christianity has been in a very
great degree alloyed, and mixed with grave errors, - and that is exactly
what I wish to show, - yet, even under that veil of human errors, I
recognize, I acknowledge, religion, Christianity; and therefore I bow
before it.

I think, however, the changes that have taken place have not altered the
essential character of the Roman Church. I think the changes that have
happened are in conformity with the nature of that church; really were
to be expected, and have nothing absolutely new in them. We might,
perhaps, for a long time have seen them coming; and, if we had had
foresight enough, we might have seen them from the very first times of
that church. Let us try to understand exactly what she is, what she
means; let us try to see what there is under that name, "Roman Catholic
Church." She calls herself _catholic_, which means _universal_, and at
the same time she has a local name. She is for the whole world; but at
the same time she belongs to one city, and she bears the name of that
city. Why? This is the question; and though it seems only a question of
name, I think we shall find by other ways that it is a question of
facts. A second advance requires a change in our polemics with Roman
authority. A new science has been created in our time, which gives us
better means of judging and studying other churches than our own; that
science is called the comparative history of religions. In England Max
Müller, in France Burnouf, and in this country James Freeman Clarke,
have compared the history of several religions. According to that
comparative history, there are rules to be understood, to be
acknowledged, in the development of religion. One of the rules which I
think we can deduce from any comparative history of religion may be a
startling one; and I will use a very homely comparison, to make myself
perfectly understood. Have you ever seen over a shop door a sign-board,
where the name of the old shop-keeper was painted; and, when his
successor came in, he had the same board covered with a new color, and
his own name painted over the old one? But in time the new paint wore
off, so that the old name reappeared under the new, in such a way that
it became perhaps difficult to distinguish clearly which letters or
lines belonged to the old, and which to the new. If this image appears
somewhat too familiar, let me ask you if you remember what scholars call
a palimpsest. Sometimes in the Middle Ages it was difficult to find
well-prepared parchment on which to write, and there were a great many
monks who had nothing else to do - and it was the best use they could
make of their time - but write or copy the Bible or other religious
books. When they found parchments where were copied the comedies and
tragedies or other works of the heathen, they thought those were of very
little use, and they could very easily have the writing on those
parchments washed out, or covered over with white paint, in such a way
that what had been written there was no more visible. Then on those
parchments they would write the Bible, or sermons, or any document they
thought useful. But the same thing happened then that happened with the
sign-board, - the old writing reappeared after a time; the white covering
spread over the page disappeared. And thus it happens that scholars are
sometimes pondering for a long time over a page from a sermon of Saint
Augustine, or John Chrysostom, in which they find a verse from some
comedy of Terence or Aristophanes; then they have perhaps some trouble
in making out which is comedy and which is sermon, in distinguishing
exactly what of the writing is old and what is new; and they have not
always perfectly succeeded in that effort.

Now what we see in the sign-board we see also in the religion of the
different churches, when a whole multitude, at one time, pass from one
worship to another. Then, against their will, and perhaps without their
knowing it, they never come into the pale of their new church
empty-handed: they carry with them a number of ideas, and habits, and
turns of thought, which they had found in their old worship. And thus,
after a time, when the fervor of the early days is over, you find in the
new religion, or new worship, a real palimpsest: the old one is
reappearing under the new. That makes itself manifest in a good many
ways; sometimes in ways the most strange and unexpected.

If you ask me, now, remembering this rule, what means the name, "Roman
Catholic Church," I answer: Christianity absorbed into itself the Roman
empire; the Roman empire became Christian in a very few years, with a
most rapid, with a most admirable sway; souls became conquered in large
numbers; they became Christian. But afterwards it appeared that they

1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

Online LibraryVariousChristianity and Modern Thought → online text (page 4 of 20)