William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 50 of 169)
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This I dread no more than I should fear the
efforts of men to pluck the sun from Ium
sphere, or to storm the skies with the artillery
of the earth. We were made for religion;
and imlcss the enemies of our fiiith can
cliange our nature, ihcy will leave the foun-
dation of religion unshaken. The human
soul was created to look above material
nature. It wants a Deity for its love aiul
trust, an Immortality for its hope. It wujus
consolations not found in philosophy, wants
strength in temptation, sorrow, and death,
which human wisdom cannot minister ; and
knowing, as I do. that Christianity meets
these deep wants of men, I have no fear or
doubt as to its triumphs. Men cannot long
live without religion. In France there is a
spreading dissatisfaction with the sceptical
spirit of the past generation. A philosopher
in that country would now blush to quote
Voltaire as an authority in religion. Already
Atheism is dumb where once it seemed to
bear sway. The greatest minds in France
are working back their way to the light of
truth. Many of them, indeed, cannot yet be
called Christians; but their path, Uke that of
the wise men of old, who came star-guided
from the East, is towards Christ. I am not
ashamed of the Gospel of Christ It has an
immortal Ufe, and will gather strength from
the violence of its foes. It is equal to all the
wants of men. The greatest minds have
found in it the hght which they most
anxiously desired. The most sorrowful and
broken spirits liave found in it a healing
balm for their woes. It has inspired tlie
sublimest virtues and the loftiest hopes, lor
the corruptions of such a religion I wei j),
and I should blush to be their advocate ; but
of the GosptI itself I can never be ashamed.



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ROMAN* u tfii "I am iMt^ftBhwed of the G<Mp«i of but a mcans, and is desiifned to concur with

nature, providence, and God's spirit in
Such was the language of Paul ; and every carrying forward reason to its perfection. I
man will respond to it who comprehends the glory in Christianity because it enlarges,
character and has felt the mfluence of invigorates, exalts my rational nature. If 1
Christianity. In a former discourse, 1 pro- could not be a Christian without ceasing to
posed to state to you some reasons for be rational, I should not hesitate as to my
adopting as our own the words of the choice. I feel myself bound to sacrifice to
Apostle, for joining in this open and resolute Christianity property, reputation, life ; but I
testimony to the Gospel ot Christ. 1 ob- ought not to sacrifice to any religion that
ser\'cd that I was not asliamed of the Gospel, reason which lifts me above the brute and
first, because it is True, and to this topic the constitutes me a man. I can conceive no
discotirse was devoted. 1 wish now to con- sacrilege greater than to prostrate or renounce
tinue the subject, and to state another ground the highest faculty which we have derived
of undisguised and unshaken adherence to from God. In so doing we should offer
Christianity. I say, then, I am not ashamed violence to the divinity within us. Christian-
of the Gospel of Christ, because it is a ity wages no war with reason, but is one with
rational rehgion. It agrees with reason ; it, and is given to be its helper and friend,
therefore I count it worthy of acceptation— 1 wish, in the present discourse, to illustrate
therefore I do not blush to enrol myself and confirm the views now given. My re-
among its friends and advocates. The marks will be arranged under two heads. I
object of the present discourse will be the propose, first, to show that Christianity is
illustration of this claim of Christianity. I founded on and supposes the authority of
wish to show you the harmony which sub- reason, and cannot therefore oppose it with-
.sists between the light of God's word and out subverting itself My object in this part
that primitive light of reason which He has of the discourse will be to expose the error of
kindled within us to be our perpetual guide, those who hope to serve revelation by dis-
If, in treating this subject, I shall come into paraging reason. I shall then, in the second
conflict with any class of Christians, I trust I place, compare Christianity and the light of
shall not be considered as imputing to them reason, to show their accordance; and shall
any moral or intellectual defect. I judge prove, by descending to particulars, that
men by their motives, dispositions, and lives, Christianity is eminently a rational religion,
and not by their speculations or peculiar My aim, under this head, will be to vindicate
opinions ; and I esteem piety and virtue the Gospel from the reproaches of the unbe-
cqually venerable whether found in friend or liever, and to strengthen the faith and attach-
foe. meat of its friends. Before I begin, let me

Christianity is a rational religion. Were observe that this discussion, from the nature
it not so, I should be ashamed to profess it. of the subject, must .issunie occasionally an
I am aware that it is the fashion with some abstract form, and will demand serious atten-
to decry reason, and to set up revelation as tion. I am to speak of reason, the chief
an opposite authority. This error, though faculty of the mind; and no simplicity of
countenanced by good men, and honestly language in treating such a topic can exempt
maintamed for the defence of the Christian the hearer from the necessity of patient effort
cause, ought to be earnestly withstood ; for of thought.

it virtually surrenders our religion into the I am to begin with showing that the Chris-
hands of the unbeliever. It saps the founda- tian revelation is founded on the authority of
tion to strengthen the building. It places reason, and consequently cannot oppose it ;
our religion in hostility to human nature, and here it may be proper to settle the mean-
and gives to its adversaries the credit of vin- ing of the word Reason. One of the most
dicating the rights and noblest powers of the important steps towards the truth is to deter-
mind. mine the import of terms. Very often fierce

We must never forget that our rational controversies have spnmg from obscurity of
nature is the greatest gift of God. For this language, and the parties, on explaining
we owe Him our chief gratitude. It is a themselves, have discovered that they have
greater gift than any outw.ud aid or bcncfac- been spending their strength in a war of words,
tion, and no doctrine which degrades it can What, then, is reason ?
come from its Author. ITie development The term reason is used with so much lati-
of it is the end of our being. Revelation is tude that to fix its precise limits is not an easy



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220 CHRISTIANITY A RATIONAL RELIGION.

task. In this respect it agrees with the other conformitv to this principle, it prompts tne

word which express the intellectual faculties, to seek the particular causes of the endless

One idea, however, is always attached to it. changes and appearances which fall under my

All men understand by reason the highest observation. Thus reason is perpetually at

faculty or enei^ of the mind. Without work on the ideas furnished us by the senses

labouring for a philosophical definition that — by consciousness, by memory-— associating

will comprehend all its exercises, I shall satisfy them with its own great truths, or investing

myself with pointing out two of its principal them with its own universality,

characteristics or functions. I now proceed to the second function of

First, it belongs to reason to comprehend reason, which is indeed akin to the first,

universal truths. This is among its most im- Reason is the power which tends and is

portant offices. There are particular and there perpetually striving to reduce our various

are universal truths. The last are the noblest, thoughts to unity or consistency. Perhaps

and the capacity of perceiving them is the dis- the most fundamental conviction of reason is,

tinction of intelligent beings; and these be- that all truths agree together; that incon-

long to reason. Let me give my meaning by sistency is the mark of error. Its intenscst,

some illustrations. I see a stone falling to most earnest effort is to bring concord into

the ground. This is a particular truth ; but the intellect, to reconcile what seem to be

I do not stop here. I beheve that not only clashing views. On the observation of a new

this particular stone falls towards the earth, fact, reason strives to incorporate it with

but that every particle of matter, in whatever former knowledge. It can allow nothing to

world, tends, or, as is sometimes said, is at- stand separate in Uie mind. It labours to

tracted, towards all other matter. Here is a bring together scattered truths, and to give

universal truth, a principle extending to the them the strength and beauty of a vital order,

whole material creation, and essential to its Its end and delight is harmony. It is shocked

existence. This truth belongs to reason, by an inconsistency in belief, just as a fine ear

Again, I see a man producing some effect — is wounded by a discord. It carries within
a manufacture, a house. Here is a particular itself an instmctive consciousness that all
truth. But I am not only capable of seeing things which exist are intimately bound toge-
porticular causes and effects ; I am sure that thcr; and it cannot rest until it has connected
everything which begins to exist, no matter whatever we witness with the infinite whole,
when or where, must have a cause ; that no Reason, according to this view, is the most
change ever has taken place or ever will take glorious form or exercise of the intellectual
place without a cause. Here is a universal nature. It corresponds to the unity of God
truth, something true here and everywhere, and the universe, and seeks to make the soul
true now and through eternity ; and this truth the image and mirror of this subUme unity,
belongs to reason. Again, I see with my eyes, I have thus given my views of reason ; but,
I traverse with my hands, a limited space; to prevent all perversion, before I proceed to
but this is not alL I am sure that, beyond the main discussion, let me offer a word or
the hmits which my Hmbs or senses reach, two more of explanation. In this discourse,
there is an unbounded space ; that, go where when I sp)eak of the accordance of revelation
I will, an infinity will spread around me. with reason, I suppose this faculty to he used
Here is another universal truth, and this be- deliberately, conscientiously, and with the
longs to reason. Theideaof infinity is indeed love of truth. Men often baptize with the
one of the noblest conceptions of this faculty, name of reason their prejudices, imexamined
Again, 1 see a man conferring a good on an- notions, or opinions adopted through interest,
other. Here is a particular truth or perccp- pride, or other unworthy biases. It is not
tion. But my mind is not confined to this, uncommon to hear those who sacrifice the
I see and feel that it is right for all intelligent plainest dictates of the rational nature to im-
beings, exist when or where they may, to do pulse and passion, setting themselves up as
good, and wrong for them to seek the misery oracles of reason. Now, when I say revelation
of others. Here is a universal truth— a law must accord with reason, I do not mean by
extending from God to the lowest human the term the corrupt and superficial opinions
being ; and this belongs to reason. I trust I of men who have betrayed and debased their
have conveyed to you my views in regard to rational powers. I mean reason calmly,
the first characteristic of this highest power honestly exercised for the acquisition of truth
of the soul. Its office is to discern univei-sal and the invigoration of virtue,
truths, great and eternal principles. But it After these explanations, I proceed to the
does not stop here. Reason is also exorcised discussion of the two leading principles to
in applying these universal truths to partr ular which this discourse is devoted,
cases, beings, events. For example, reason First, I am to show that revelation is
teaches mc, as we have seen, that all changes founded on the authority of reason, and can-
without exception require a cause ; and, in not therefore oppose or disparage it without

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subverting itself. Let me state a few of the
coiisiderations which convince me of the truth
of this position. The first is, that reason
alone makes us capable of receiving a revela-
tion. It most previously exist and operate,
or »*e should be wholly unprepared for the
commtinications of Christ. Revelation, then,
is built on reason. You will see the truth of
these remarks if you will consider to whom
revelation is sent. Why is it given to men
rather than to brutes? Why have not God's
messengers gone to the fields to proclaim his
glad tidings to bird and beast ? The answer
is obvious. These want reason ; and wanting
this, they have no capacity or preparation for
re>'ealed truth. And not only would revela-
tion be lost on the brute ; let it speak to the
child, before his rational faculties have been
awakened, and before some ideas of duty
and his own nature have been developed,
and it might as well speak to a stone. Reason
is the preparation and ground of revelation.

This truth will be still more obvious if we
consider not only to whom, but in what way,
the Christian revelation is communicated.
How is it conve5red? In words. Did it make
these words? No. They were in use ages
before its birth. Again I ask, Did it make
the ideas or thoughts which these words ex-
press? No. If the hearers of Jesus had
not previously attached ideas to the terms
which he employed, they could not have
received his meaning. He might as well
have spoken to them in a foreign tongue.
Tlius. the ideas which enter into Christianity
subsisted before. They were ideas of reason ;
so that to this faculty revelation owes the
materials of which it is composed.

Revelation, we must remember, is not our
earliest teacher. Man is not bom with the
Single power of reading God's word, and
sent immediately to that guide. His eyes
open first on another volume, that of the
creation. Long before he can read the Bible
he looks roimd on the earth and sky. He
reads the countenances of his friends, and
hears and understands their voices. He
looks, too, by degrees, within himself, and
acquires some ideas of his own soul. Thus,
his first school is that of nature and reason,
and this is necessary to prepare him for a
communication from Heaven. Revelation
docs not find the mind a blank, a void, pre-
pared to receive unresistingly whatever may
be offered; but finds it in possession of
various knowledge from nature and experi-
ence, and, still more, in possession of great
principles, fundamental truths, moral ideas,
which are derived from itself, and which are
the germs of all its future improvement.
This last view is peculiarly important. The
mind docs not receive everything from
abroad. Its great ideas arise from itself,



and by those native lights it reads and com-
prehends the volumes of nature and revela-
tion. We speak, indeed, of nature and re-
velation as making known to us an intelligent
First Cause ; but the ideas of intelligence
and causation we derive originally from our
own nature. The elements of the idea of
God we gather from ourselves. Power, wis-
dom, love, virtue, beauty, and happiness,
words which contain all that is glorious in the
universe and interesting in our existence, ex-
press attributes of the mind, and are under-
stood by us only through consciousness. It
is true, these ideas or principles of reason are
often obscured by thick clouds and mingled
with many and deplorable errors. Still th^y
are never lost. Christianity recognizes them,
is built on them, and needs them as its inter-
preters. If an illustration of these views be
required, I would point you to what may be
called the most fundamental idea of religion.
I mean the idea of right, of duty. Do we
derive this originally and wholly from sacred
books ? Has not every human being, whether
bom within or beyond the bounds of revela-
tion, a sense of the distinction between right
and wrong? Is there not an earlier voice
than reveHition appioving or rebuking men
according to their deeds ? In barbarous ages
is not conscience heard? And does it not
grow more articulate with the progress of
society? Christianity does not create, but
presupposes the idea of duty ; and the same
may be said of other great convictions. Reve-
lation, then, does not stand alone, nor is it
addressed to a blank and passive mind. It
was meant to be a joint worker with other
teachers, with nature, with Providence, with
conscience, with our rational powers ; and
as these all are given us by God, they cannot
differ from each other. God must agree with
Himself. He has but one voice. It is man
who. speaks with jarring tongues. Nothing
but harmony can come from the Creator;
and, accordingly, a religion claiming to be
from God can give no surer j>roof of false-
hood than by contradicting those previous
truths which God is teaching by our very
nature. W^e have thus seen that reason pre-
pares us for a divine communication, and
that it furnishes the ideas or materials of
which revelation consists. This is my first
consideration.

I proceed to a second. I affirm, then, that
revelation rests on the authority of reason,
because to this faculty it submits the evi-
dences of its tmlh, and nothing but the
approving sentence of reason binds us to
receive and obey it. This is a very weighty
consideration. Christianity, in placing itself
before the tribunal of reason, and in resting
its claims on the sanction of this faculty, is
one 'A the chief witnesses to the authority



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and dignity of our rational nature. That I
have ascribed to this faculty its true and

f roper otiice may be easily made to appear.
taJce the New Testament in hand, and on
what groimd do I receive its truths as divine?
I see notliing on its pages but the same letters
in which other books are written. No mira-
culous voice from heaven assures me that it
is God's word, nor does any mysterious voice
within my soul command me to believe the
supernatural works of Christ. How, then,
shall I settle the question of the origin of
this religion ? I must examine it by the same
rational faculties by which other subjects are
tried. I must ask what are its evidences, and
I miuk lay them before reason, the only power
by which evidence can be weighed. I have
not a distinct faculty given me for judging a
revelation. I have not two understandings,
one for inquiring into God's word and ano-
ther into his works. As with the -same
bodily eye I now look on the earth, now on
the heavens, so with the same power of
reason I examine now nature, now revelation.
Reason must collect and weigh the sarious
proofs of Christianity. It nmst especially
compare this system with those great mor^U
convictions which are written by the finger of
God on the heart, and which make man a
law to himself. A religion subverting these
it must not hesitate to reject, be its evidences
what they may. A religion, for example,
commanding us to hate and injure society,
reason must instantly discard, without even
waiting to examine its proofs. From these
views we learn, not only that it is the province
of reason to judge of the trutli of Christianity,
but. what is still more important, that the
rules or tests by which it judges are of its
own dictation. The laws which it applies in
this case have their origin in itself. No one
vrill pretend that revelalion can prescribe the
principles by which the question of its own
truth should be settled; for, until proved to
be true, it has no authority. Reason must
prescribe the tests or standards to which a
professed communication from God should be
referred; and among these none are more
important than that moral law which belongs
to the very essence and is the deepest con-
viction of the rational nature. Revelation,
then, rests on reason, and in opposing it would
act for its own destruction.

I have given two views, I have shown that
revelation draws its ideas or materials from
reason, and that it appeals to this power as
the judge of its trutli, I now assert, thirdly,
that it rests on the authority of reason,
because it needs and expects this faculty to
be its interpreter, and without this aid would
be worse than useless. How is the right of
interpretation, the real meaning, of Scriptures

he ascertained? I answer, By reason. I



know of no process by which the true sense
of the New Testament is to pass from tbo
page into mv mind without tne use of my
rational faculties. It will not be pretended
that this book is so exceedingly plain, its
words so easy, its sentences so short, its
meaning so exposed on the surface, that the
whole truth may be received in a moment and
without any intellectual effort. There is no
such miraculous simplicity in the Scriptures.
In truth, no book can be written so simply as
to need no exercise of reason. Almost every
word has more than one meaning, and judg-
ment is required to select the particular sense
intended by the writer. Of all books, perhaps
the Scriptures need most the use of reason
for their just interpretation; and this, not
from any imperfection, but from the strength,
boldness, and figurative character of their
style, and from the distance of the time when
they were written. I open the New Testa-
ment and my eye lights on this passage : "If
thy band offend thee, cut it off and cast it
from thee. " Is t his language to be interpreted
in its plainest and most obvious sense? Then
I must mutilate my body, and become a
suicide. I look again, and I find Jesus using
these words to tl^ Jews : ' ' Fill ye up the
measure of your iuiquities." Am I to inter-
pret this according to the letter or the first
ideas which it suggests? Then Jesus com-
manded his hearers to steep themselves in
crime, and was himself a minister of sin. It
is only by a deliberate use of reason that
we can penetrate beneath the figurative,
hyperbolical, and often obscure style of the
New Testament, to the real meaning. Let
me go to the Bible, dismissing my reason and
taking the first impression which the words
convey, and there is no absurdity, however
gross, into which I shall not fall. I shall
ascribe a Umited body to God, and unbounded
knowledge to man, for I read of God having
limbs, and of man knowing all things.
Nothing is plainer than that I must compare
passage with passage, and limit one by
another, and especially limit all by those
plain and universal principles of reason which
are called common sense, or I shall mako
revelation the patron of every folly and vice.
So essential is reason to the interpretation of
the Christian records. Revelation rests upon
its authority. Can it then oppose it, or teach
us to hold it in light esteem ?

I have now furnished the proofs of my first
position, that revelation is founded on reason;
and in discussing this, I have wished not only
to support the main doctrine, but to teach
you to reverence, more perhaps than you
have done, your rational nature. 'I'his has
been decried by theologians, until men liave
ceased to feel its sacrecSiess and dignity. It
ought to be regarded as Gods gieatest gift.



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CHRISTIANITY A RATIONAL RELIGION.



223



It \& his image witbio us. To renounce it
would be to offer a cruel violence to ourselves,
to take our place among the brutes. Better
pluck out the eye, better quench the %ht of
the body than the light within us. We all
feel that the loss of reason, when produced
^ disease, is the most terrible calamity of
hfe : and we look on a hospital for the insane
as the receptacle for the most pitiable of our
race. But, in one view, insanity is not so
great an evil as the prostration of reason to
a religious sect or a religious chief; for the
first is a visitation of Providence, the last is
a voluntary act, the work of our own hands.

f am aware that those who have spoken
most contemptuously of human reason have
acted from a good motive — their aim has
been to exalt revelation. They have thought
that by magnifying this as the only means of
divine teaching, they were adding to its dig-
nity. But truth gains nothing by exaggera-
tion; and Christianity, as we have seen, is



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 50 of 169)