William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

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to have been no way for its diffusion but this
appointment of the most enlightened dis-
ciples to the work of instruction. But the
New Testament nowhere intimates that these
men were to monopolize the privilege of
studying their religion or of teaching it to
others. Not a single man can claim under
Christianity the right to interpret it exclu-
sively or to impose his interpretation on his
brethren. The Christian minister enjoys no
nearer access to God, and no promise of more
immediate illumination, than other men. He
is not entrusted with the Christian records
more than they, and by these records it is
both their right and duty to tiy his instrue*

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tion?. I have hero pointed out a noble pecu-
liarity of Chrisiianiiy. It is the relii;lon of
liberty. It is in no deffree tainted with the
pn'i'^ion for spiritual power. " Call no man
master, for ye are all brethren," is its free and
generous inculcation, and to every form of
freedom it is a friend and defence.

We have seen that Christianity is not to ht
traced to the love of power, that master pas-
sion in the authors of false religions. I add,
that no other object of a selfish nature could
have led to its invention. The Gospel is not
of this world. At the time of its origin no
ingenuity could have brought it to bear on
any private or worldly interest. Its spirit is
self-denial. Wealth, eai.e, and honour it
counts among the chief perils of life, and it
insists on no duty more earnestly than on that
of putting them to hazard and casting them
from us if the cause of truth and humanity
so require. And tlu^e maxims were not mere
speculations or rhetorical commonplaces in
the times of Christ and his Apostles. The
first propagators of Christianity were called
upon to jiractise w hat they preached, to forego
every interest on its account. They could not
but foreknow that a religion so uncompro-
mising and pure would array against them
the world. They did not merely take the
chance of suffi'-ring, but were sure that the
whole weight of scorn, pain, and worldly
L>ersecuti()n would descend on their heads.
How Inexplicable, then, is Christianity by
anv selfish object or any low aim?

rhe (Jospel has but one object, and that
too plain to be mistaken. In reading the
New Testament, we see the greatest simpli-
city of aim. Tlicre is no lurking purpose,
no by-end. betraying itself through attempts
to disguise it. A perfect singleness of design
runs through the records of the religion, and
is no mean evidence of their truth. This end
of Christianity is the moral perfection of the
human souL It aims and it tends, in all its
doctrines, precepts, and promises, to rescue
men from the power of moral evil ; to unite
them to God by filial love, and to one another
In the bonds of brotherhood ; to inspire them
with a phiUuithropy as meek and unconquer-
able as that of Christ ; and to kindle intense
desire, hope, and pursuit of celestial and im-
mortal virtue.

/\nd now, I ask, what is the plain inference
ft"om the^ views ? If Christianity can be traced
to no selfish or worldly motive — if it was
framed, not for dominion, not to compass
any privaie purpose, but to raise men above
themselves, and to conform them to God —
can we help pronouncing it worthy of God ?
And to whom but to God can we refer its
origin ? Ought we not to rtcognjze in the
111 t piuj)uiJal"i ^ (>t such a faiih the hulicot
r nicn, til'- fi lends of their rAce, and the

messengers of Heaven? Christianity, fr^.m
its very nature, repels the chaige of impos-
ture. It carries in itself the proof of pure
intention. Bad men couW not have con-
ceived it, much less have adopted it as the
great object of their lives. The supposition
of selfish men giving up every private interest
to spread a svstem which condemned them-
selves, and which tended only to purify man-
kind, is an absurdity as gross as can be found
in the most irrational faith. Christianity,
therefore, when tried by its Motives, ap-
proves itself to be of God.

III. I now proceed to another and very
important ground of my behef in the divine
origin of Christianity. Its truth was attested
by miracles. Its first teachers proved them-
selves the ministers of God by supernatural
w orks. They did what man cannot do. what
bore the impress of a di\ine power, and what
thus sealed the divinity of their mission. A
religion so attested must be true. This topic
is a great one, and I ask your patient atten-
tion to it.

I am aware that a strong prejudice exists
in some minds against the kind of evidence
which I have now adduced. Miracles seem
to them to carry a confutation in themselves.
The presumption against them seems next to
infinite. In this respect, the present tinx^
differ from the past. There have been ages
when men believed anything and every thiug;
and the more monstrous the story, the more
eagerly was it received by the credulous mul-
titude. In the progress of knowledge, men
have come to see that most of the prodigies
and supernatural events in which their fore-
fathers believed were fictions of fancy, or
fear, or imposture. The light of knowledge
has put to night the ghosts and witches which
struck terror into earher times. We now know
that not a few of the appearances in the hea-
vens which appalled nations, and were inter-
preted as precursors of divine vengeance, were
natural effects. We have learned, too, that
a highly excited imagination can work some
of the cures once ascribed to niagic ; and the
lesson taught us by these natural solutions of
apparent miracles is, that accounts of super-
natural events are to be sifted with great
jealousy, and received with peculiar care.

But the result of this new light thrown ou
nature and history is, that some are disposed
to discredit all miracles indiscriminately. So
many having proved groundless, a sweeping
sentence of condemnation is passed on alh
The human mind, by a natural reaction, has
passed from extreme credulousness to the ex-
cess of incredulity. Some persons .'ire even
hardy enough to deride the very idea of a
miracle. They pronounce the order of na-
ture somethiujg fixed and immutRble. and all
suspcusioiis of it incitdible. This prejuiice.

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for such it is, setiiixs to deserve particular
attention; for, until it is removed, the evi-
dences of Christian miracles will have little
weight. Let us examine it patiently and

ITie sceptic tells me that the order of na-
ture is fixed. I ask him, By whom or by
what is it fixed? By an iron fate? — by an
inflexible necessity? Does not nature bear
the signatures of an intelligent Cause? Does
TiQk the very idea of its order imply an or-
daining or disposing Mind? Does not the
universe, the more it is explored, bear in-
creasing testimony to a Being superior to
itself? Then the order of nature is fixed by
a Will which can reverse it. Then a power
equal to miracles exists. Then miracles arc
not incredible.

It may be replied, that God indeed can
work miracles, but that He will not. He
will Qot? And how does the sceptic know
this? Has God so told him? This language
does not become a being of our hmitcd facul-
ties; and the presumptuousness which thus
makes laws for the Creator, and restricts his
agency to particular modes, is as little the
spirit of true philosophy as of religion.

The sceptic sees nothing in miracles but
ground of offence. To me, they seem to in-
volve in their very nature a truth so great, so
vital, that I am not only reconciled to them,
but am disposed to receive joyfully any suffi-
cient proofs of their having been performed.
To the sceptic, no principle is so important
as the uniformity of nature, the constancy of
its laws. To me, there is a vastly higher
truth, to which miraclei bear witness, and to
which I welcome their aid. What I wish
chiefly to know is, that Mind is the supreme
power in the universe ; that matter is its in-
strument and slave; that there is a Will to
which nature can offer no obstruction ; that
God is unshackled by the laws of the uni-
verse, and controls them at his pleasure.
This absolute sovereignty of the Divine Mind
over the universe is the only foundation of
hope for the triumph of the human mind
over matter, over physical influences, over
imperfection and death. Now, it is plain
that the strong impressions which we receive
through the senses from the material crea-
tion, joined to our experience of its regu-
larity, and to our instinctive trust in its future
uniformity, do obscure this supremacy of
God, do tempt us to ascribe a kind of omni-
t)otence to nature's laws, and to limit our
hopes to the good %Nhich is promised by
these. There is a strong tendency in men
to attach the idea of necessity to an un-
changing regularity of opeiation, and to
imagine bounds to a being who keeps one
undcviating path, or who repeats himself
I>erpetuaUy. i fence I say that I rejoice in

miracles. They show and assert the supre-
macy of Mind in the universe. They mani-
fest a spiritual power which is in no degree
enthralled by the laws of matter. I rejoice
in these witnesses to so great a truth. I re-
joice in whatever proves that this order of
nature, which so often weighs on me as a
chain, and which contains no promise of my
perfection, is not supreme and immutable,
and that the Creator is not restricted to the
narrow modes of operation with which I am
most £uniliar.

Perhaps the form in which the objection to
miracles is most frequently expressed, is the
following: "It is derogatory," savs the
sceptic, " to the perfect wisdom of God, to
suppose Him to break in upon the order of
his own works. It is only the unskilful artist
who is obhged to thrust his hand into the
machine for the purpose of supplying its
defects, and of giving it a new impulse by
an immediate agency." To this objection I
reply that it proceeds on false ideas of God
and of the creation. God is not an artist,
but a Moral Parent and Governor ; nor is
the creation a machine. If it were, it might
be urged with greater speciousness that
miracles caimot be needed or required. One
of the most striking views of the creation is
the contrast or opposition of the elements of
which it consists. It includes not only
matter but mind — not only lifeless and un-
conscious masses, but rational beings, free
agents; and these are its noblest parts and
ultimate objects. The material universe was
framed not for itself, but for these. Its order
was not appointed for its own sake, but to
instruct and improve a higher rank of beings,
the intelligent oflfepring of God ; and when-
ever a departure from this order — that is,
whenever miraculous agency can contribute
to the growth and perfection of his intelligent
creatures — it is demanded by bis wisdom,
goodness, and all his Attributes. If the
Supreme Being proposed only such ends as
mechanism can produce, then He miglil
have framed a machinery so perfect and sure
as to need no suspension of its ordinary
movements. But He has an incomparably
nobler end. His great purpose is to educate,
to rescue from evil, to carry forward for ever,
the free rational mind or soul ; and who that
understands what a free mind is, and what a
variety of teaching and discipline it requires,
will presume to affirm that no lights or aids
but such as come to it through an invariable
order of nature, are necessary to unfold it?

Much of the difficultv in regard to miracles,
as I apprehend, would be removed if wc
were to consider more particularly thiit the
chief distinction of intelligent beings is Moial
Freedom, the power of determining them-
selves to evil as well as good, and conse-

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qucntly the power of involving themselves in
great misery. Wlien God made man, He
framed not a machine, but a free being, who
was to rise or fall according to his use or
abuse of his powers. This capacity, at once
the most glorious and the most fearful which
we can conceive, shows us how the human
race may have come into a condition to
which the illumination of nature was in-
adequate. In truth, the more we consider
the freedom of intelligent beings, the more
we shall question the possibility of establish-
ing an unchangeable order which will meet
fully all their wants ; for such beings, having
of necessity a wide range of action, may
bring themselves into a vast variety of con-
ditions, and of course may come to need a
relief not contained in the resources of
nature. The history of the human race
illustrates these truths. At the introduction
of Christianity, the human family were
plunged into jjoss and debasing error, and
the light of nature had not served for ages
to guide them back to truth. Philosophy
had done its best, and failed. A new ele-
ment, a new power, seems to have been
wanting to the progress of the race. That
in such an exigence miraculous aid should
be imparted accords with our best views of
God. I repeat it —were men mechanical
beings, an undeviating order of nature might
meet all their wants. They arc free beings,
who bear a moral relation to God, and as
such may need, and are worthy of, a more
various and special care than is extended over
the irrational creation.

When I examine nature, I see reasons for be-
lieving that it was not intended by God to be
the only method of instructing and improving
mankind. I see reasons, as I think, why its
oraer or regular course should be occasionally
suspended, and why revclntion should be
joined to it in the work of carrying forward
the race. I can offer only a few considerations
on this point, but they seem to me worthy of
serious attention. The first is, that a lixed
invariable order of nature does not give us
some views of God which are of great interest
and importance, or at least it does not give
them with that distinctness which we all
desire. It reveals Him as the Universal
Sovereign who provides for the whole or for
the general weal, but not with sufficient clear-
ness as a lender Father, interested in the
Individual. I see, in this fixed order, his care
of the race, but not his constant boundless
concern for myself. Nature .speaks of a
general Divinity, not of the Friend and Bene-
factor of each living soul . This is a necessary
defect attending an inflexible unvarying ad-
ministration by general laws ; and it seems to
require that God, to carry fon^ard the race,
should reveal Himself by some other manner

than by general laws. No conviction is more
important to human improvement than that
of God's paternal interest in every human
being; and how can He communicate this
persu^ision so effectually as by suspending
nature s order, to teach, through an inspired
messenger, his paternal love ?

My [second remark is, that, whilst nature
teaches many important lessons, it is not a
direct urgent teacher. Its truths are not pro-
minent, and consequently men may neglect it,
and place themselves beyond its influence.
For example, nature holds out the doctrine of
One God, but does not compel attention to it.
God's name is not written in the sky in letters
of light which all nations must read, nor
sounded abroad in a voice deep and awful as
thunders, so that all must hear. Nature is a
gentle— I had almost said a reserved — teacher,
demanding patient thought in the learner,
and may therefore be unheeded. Men may
easily shut their ears and harden their hearts
against its testimony to God. Accordingly we
learn that, at Christ's coming, almost all nations
had lost the knowledge of the true glory of the
Creator, and given themselves up to gross
superstitions. To such a condition of the
world nature's indirect and unimposing mode
of instruction is not fitted, and thus it fur-
nishes a reason for a more immediate and
impressive teaching. In such a season of
moral darkness, was it not worthy of God to
kindle another and more quickening beam ?
When the long repeated and almost monoton-
ous language of creation was not heard, was
it unworthy of God to speak with a new and
more startling voice? What fitter method
was there for rousing those whom natures
quiet regularity con Id not teach, than to inter-
rupt its usual course ?

I proceed to another reason for expecting
revelation to be added to the light of nature.
Nature, I have said, is not a direct or urgent ^
teacher, and men may place themselves be-
yond its voice. I say, thirdly, that there is
one great point, on which we are deeply
concerned to know the truth, and which is
yet taught so indistinctly by nature, that men,
nowever disposed to learn, cannot by that
light alone obtain full conviction. What, let
me ask, is the question in which each man
has the deepest interest ? It is this : Are we
to Uve again ; or is this life all ? Docs the
principle of thought perish with the body, or
does it survive ? And if it survive, where —
how — in what condition — ^under what law?
There is an inward voice which speaks of
judgment to come. Will judgment indeed
come ? and if so, what award may we hoF>e
or fear ? The Future state of man — this is the
great question forced on us by our changing
Ufe and by approaching death. I will not
say that on this topic nature throws no light.

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I tbiiik it does ; and this light continually
growi brighter to them whose eyes revelation
has couched and made strong to see. But
nature alone does not meet our wants. I
might prove this by referring you to the ages
preceding Christ, when the anxious spirit of
man constantly sought to penetrate the gloom
beyond the grave — when imagination and
philosophy alike plunged into the future, but
found no rcstmg-ploce. But everv man must
feel that, left to nature as his only guide, he
must wander in doubt as to the life to come.
Where but from God Himself can I learn my
destination? I ask at the mouth of the tomb
for intelligence of the departed, and the tomb
gives me no reply. I examine the various
regions of nature, but I can discover no pro-
cess for restoring the mouldering body, and
no sign or track of the spirit's ascent to
another sphere. I sec the need of a power
above nature to restore or perpetuate life
after death; and if God intended to give
assurance of this life, I see not how He can
do it but by supernatural teaching — by a mi-
raculous revelation. Miracles are the appro-
priate, and would seem to be the only, mod
of placing beyond doubt man's future and
immortal being; and no miracles can be
conceived so peculiarly adapted to this end
as the very ones which hold the highest place
in Christianity — I mean the resurrection of
Lazarus, and, still more, the resurrection of
Jesus. No man will deny that, of all truths, a
future state is most strengthening to virtue and
consoling to humanity. Is it, then, imworthy
of God to employ miracles for the awakening
or the confirmation of this hope? May they not
even be expected if nature, as we have seen,
sheds but a faint light on this most interest-
ing^ of all verities ?

1 add one more consideration in support of
the position that nature was not intended to
be God's only method of teaching mankind.
In surveying the human mind, we discover a
principle which singularly fits it to be wrought
upon and benefited by miraculous agency,
and which might therefore lead us to expect
such interposition. I refer to that principle
of our nature by which we become in a
measure insensible or indifferent to what is
ikmiliar, but are roused to attention and deep
interest by what is singular, strange, super-
naturaL This principle of wonder is an im-
portant part of our constitution; and that
God should employ it in the work of our
education is what reason might anticipate.
1 sec, then, a foundation for miracles in the
human mind ; and. when I consider that the
mind is God's noblest work, I ought to look
to this as the interpreter of his designs. We
are plainly so constituted that the order of
nature, the more it is fixed, excites us the
less. Our interest is blunted by its ceaseless

tmiformity. On the contrary, departures from ■
this order powerfully stir the soul, break up
its old and slumbering habits of thought,
turn it with a new solicitude to the Almighty
Interposer, and prepare it to receive with
awe the communications of his will. Was
it unworthy of God, who gave us this sensi-
bility to the wonderful, to appeal to it for the
recovery of his creatures to Himself ?

I here close my remarks on the great objec-
tion of scepticism, that miracles are inconsis-
tent with the divine perfections; that the
Supreme Being, having established an order
of operation, cannot be expected to depart
from it. To me such reasoning, if reasoning
it may be called, is of no weight. When I
consider God's paternal and moral relation to
mankind, and his interest in their progress;
when I consider how accordant it is with his
character that He should make Himself
known to them by methods most fitted to
awaken the mind and heart to his goodness;
when I consider the need we have of illu-
mination in regard to the futiwe hfe, more
distinct and full than the creation affords;
when I consider the constitution and condition
of man, his free agency, and the corruption
into which- he had fallen ; when I consider
how little benefit a being so depraved was
likely to derive from an order of nature to
which he had grown familiar, and how plainly
the mind is fitted to be quickened by miracu-
lous interposition; — I say, when I take all
these things into view, i see, as I think, a
foundation in nature for supernatural light
and aid, and I discern in a miraculous revela-
tion sudi as Christianity a provision suited at
once to the frame and wants of the human
soul, and to the perfections of its Author.

There are other objections to miracles,
though less avowed, than that which I have
now considered, yet perhaps not less influen-
tial, and probably operating on many minds
so secretly as to be unperceived. At two of
these I will just glance. Not a few, I am
confident, have doubts of the Christian
miracles, because they sec none now. Were
their scepticism to clothe itself in language,
it would say, " Show us miracles, and we will
believe them. We suspect them, because they
are confined to the past." Now this objection
is a childish one. It may be resolved into
the principle, that nothing in the past is
worthy of belief, which is not repeated in the
present. Admit this, and where will in-
credulity stop ? How many forms and insti-
tutions of society, recorded m ancient history,
have passed away? Has history, then, no
title to respect ? If indeed the human race
were standing still, if one age were merely a
copy of preceding ones, if each had precisely
the same wants, then the miracles required
at one period would be reproduced in all.

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But who does not know that there is a pro-
gress in human afEiirs? that formerly mankind
were in a difftjrent stage from that through
which they are now passing? that of course
the education of the race must be varied ? and
that miracles, important once, may be super-
fluous now? Shall we bind the Creator to
invariable modes of teaching and training a
race whose capacities and wants are under-
going a perpetual change? Because in periods
of thick darkness God introduced a new reli-
gion by supernatural works, shall we expect
these works to be repeated, when the dark-
ness is scattered and their end attained? Who
does not see that miracles, from their very
nature, must be rare, occasional, limited?
Would not their power be impaired by fre-
quency ? and would it not wholly cease, were
they so far multiplied as to seem a part of
the order of nature ?

The objection I am now considering shows
us the true character of scepticism. Scep>-
ticism is essentially a narrowness of mind,
which makes the present moment the mea-
sure of the past and future. It is the
creature of sense. In the midst of a bound-
less universe, it can conceive no mode of
operation but what falls under its immediate
observation. The visible, the present, is
everything to the unbeliever. Let him but
enlarge bis views ; let him look round on the
immensity of the universe ; let him consider
the infinity of resources which are compre-
hended in omnipotence ; let him represent to
himself the manifold stages through which
the human race is appointed to pass ; let him

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 48 of 169)