William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 51 of 169)
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undennined by nothing more effectually than
by the sophistry which would bring discredit
on our rational powers. Revelation needs no
&uch support. For myself, I do not find that
to esteem Christianity, I must think it the
only source of instruction to which I must
repair. I need not make nature dumb to
give power or attraction to the teaching of
C'hrist. The last derives new interest and
confirmation from its harmony with the first.
Christianity would furnish a weapon against
itself not easily repelled, should it claim the
distinction of being the only light vouchsafed
by God to men ; for, in that case, it would
represent a vast majority of the human race
as left by their Creator without guidance or
hope. I believe, and rejoice to believe, that
a ray from heaven descends on the path of
every fellow-creature. Tlie heathen, though
in darkness when compared with the Chris-
tian, has still his light; and it comes from
the same source as our own, just as the same
sun dispenses, now the faint dawn, and now
the perfect day. Let not nature's teaching
be disparaged. It is from God as truly as
his word. It is sacred, as truly as revelation.
Both are nuanilestations of one infinite mind,
and harmonious manifestations; and without
tliis agreement the claims of Christianity
could not be sustained.

In oAering these remarks, I have not for^
gotten that tSey will expose me to the reproach
of ministering to "the pride of reason ; " and
1 may be told that there is no worse form of
pride than this. The charge is so common
us to deserve a moment's attetition. It will
api>ear at once to be groundless, if you con-
sider that pride finds its chief nourishment
and delight in the idea of our own superiority.
It is built on something peculiar and distinc-
tive, on something which separates us from



others and raises us above them, and not on
powers which we share with all around us.
Now, in speaking as I have done of the
worth and dignity of reason, I have con-
stantly regarded and represented this faculty
as the common property of all human beings.
1 have spoken of its most important truths as
universal and unconfined, such as no indi-
vidual can monopolize or make the grounds
of personal distinction or elevation. I have
given, then, no occasion and furnished no
nutriment to pride. I know. Indeed, that
the pride of reason or of intellect exists ; but
how does it chiefly manifest itself? Not in
revering that rational nature which all men
have derived from God ; but in exaggerating
our particular acquisitions or powers, in mag-
nifying our distinctive views, in looking
contemptuously on other minds, in making
ourselves standards for our brethren, in re-
fusing new lights, and in attempting to esta-
blish dominion over the understandings of
those who are placed within our influence.
Such is the most common form of the pride
of intellect. It is a vice confined to no sect,
and perhaps will be found to prevail most
where it is most disclaimed.

I doubt not that they who insist so con-
tinually on the duty of exalting Scripture
above reason, consider themselves as par-
ticularly secured against the pride of reason.
Vet none, I apprehend, are more open to the
cliai;ge. Such persons are singularly prone
to enforce their own interpretations of Scrip-
ture on others, and to see peril and crime in
the adoption of different views from their
own. Now, let me ask, by what power do
these men interpret revelation ? Is it not by
their reason ? Have thev any faculties but
the rational ones by whicn to compare scrip-
tiu-e with scripture, to explain figurative
language, to form conclusions as to the will
of Cod? Do they not employ on God's
word the same intellect as on his works ? And
are not their interpretations of both equally
results of reason? It follows that in im-
posing on others their explications of the
Scriptures, they as truly arrogate to them-
selves a superiority of reason as if they should
require conformity to their explanations of
nature. Nature and Scriptiure agree in this,
that they cannot be understood at a glance.
Both volumes demand patient investigation,
and task all our powers of thought Accord-
ingly, it is well known that as much intellec-
tual toil has been spent on theological systems
as on the natural sciences ; and unhappily it is
not less known that as much intellectual
pride has been manifested in framing and
defending the first as the last. I fear, in-
deed, that this vice has clung with peculiar
obstinacy to the students of revelation. No-
where, I fear, have men manifested such



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CHRISTIANITY A RATIONAL RELIGION



infatuated trust in their own infallibility, such
overweening fondness for their own conclu-
sions, such positiveness, such impatience of
contradiction, such arrogance towards the
advocates of different opinions, as in the
interpretation of the Scriptures ; and yet these
very men, who so idolize their own intellec-
tual powers, profess to humble reason, and
consider a criminal reliance on it as almost
exclusively chargeable on others. The true
defence against the pride of reason is, not to
speak of it contemptuously, but to reverence
it as God's inestimable gift to every human
being, and as given to all for never-ceasing
improvements, of which we see but the dawn
in the present acquisitions of the noblest
mind

I have now completed my views of the first
principle which I laid down in this discourse,
namely, that the Christian revelation rests on
the authority of reason. Of course, it cannot
oppose reason without undermining and de-
stroying itself. I maintain, however, that it
does not oppose — that it perfectly accords
with reason. It is a rational religion. This is
my second great position, and to this I ask
your continued attention. This topic might
easily be extended to a great length. I might
state in succession all the principles of Chris-
tianity, and show their accordance with reason.
But I believe that more general views will be
more useful, and such only can be given within
the compass of a discourse.

In the account which I gave you of reason
in the beginning of this discourse, I confined
myself to two of its functions, namely, its
comprehension of universal truths, and the
effort it constantly makes to reduce the
thoughts to harmony or consistency. Uni-
versality and consistency are among the chief
attributes of reason. Do we find these in
Christianity ? If so, its claim to the character
of a rational religion will be established.
These tests I will therefore apply to it, and I
will begin with Consistency.

That a religion be rational, nothing more
is necessary than that its truths should con-
sist or agree with one another and with
all other truths, whether derived from out-
ward nature or our own souls. Now I affirm
that the Christian doctrines have this agree-
ment ; and the more we examine, the more
brightly this mark of truth will appear. I go
to the Gospel, and I first compare its various
parts with one another. Among these I find
perfect harmony ; and what makes this more
remarkable is, that Christianity is not taught
systematically or like a science. Jesus threw
out, if I may so speak, his precepts and doc-
trines incidentally, or as they were required by
the occasion, and yet, when they are brought
together, they form a harmonious whole. I
do not think it necessary to enlarge on this



topic, because I believe it is not questioned
by infidelity. I will name but one exah^ole of
this harmony in Christianity. All its lioc-
trines and all its precepts have that speqps of
unity which is most essential in a n^tigioo,
that is, they all tend to one object They all
agree in a single aim or purpose, and that is
to exalt the human character to a height of
virtue never known betore. Let the sceptic
name, if he can, one Christian principle whidi
has not a bearing on this end. A consistency
of this kind is the strongest mark of a rational
religion which can be conceived. Let me
obser\'e, in passing, that, besides this har-
monv of the Christian doctrines with one
another, there is a striking and beautiful
agreement between the teachings of Jesus and
his character, which gives confirmation to
both. Whatever Jesus taught, you may see
embodied in himself. There is perfect unity
between the system and its Founder. His life
republished what fell from his Ups. With his
lips he enjoined earnestly, constantly, a strong
and disinterested philanthropy ; and how har-
moniously and sublimely did his cross join
with his word in enforcing this exalted virtue 1
With his lips he taught the mercy of God to
sinners ; and of this attribute he gave a beau-
tiful illustration in his own deep interest in the
sinful, in his free intercourse with the most
fallen, and in his patient efforts to recover
them to virtue and to filial reliance on their
Father in heaven. So, his preaching turned
much on the importance of raising the mind
above the world ; and his own life was a con-
stant renunciation of wordly interests, a cheer-
ful endurance of poverty that he might make
many truly rich. So, his discourses con-
tinually revealed to man the doctrine of im-
mortality ; and in his own p>erson he brought
down this truth to men's senses, by rising from
the dead and ascending to another state of
being. I have only glanced at the unity which
subsists between Jesus and his religion. Chris-
tianity, from every point of view, will be found
a harmonious system. It breathes tlirough-
out one spirit and one purpose. Its doctrines,
precepts, and examples have the consistency
of reason.

But this is not enough. A rational religion
must agree not only with itself, but with all
other truths, whether revealed by the outward
creation or our own souls. I take, then,
Christianity into the creation, I place it by
the side of nature. Do they agree? 1 say,
Perfectly. I can discover nothing, in what
claims to be God's word, at variance with his
works. This is a bright proof of the reason-
ableness of Christianity. When I consult
nature with the lights modem science afiords,
I see continually multiplying traces of the
doctrine of One God. The more I extend
my researches into nature, the more I Bee that



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it Is a whole, the product of one wisdom,
power, and goodness. It bears witness to
one Amhor ; nor "has its testimony been with-
out effect ; for, although the human mind has
often multiplied its objects of worship, still it
has always tended towards the doctrine of the
cfi% ine unity, and has embraced it more and
more firmly in the course of human improve-
ment. The heathen, while he erected many
^tars, generally believed in one Supreme
Divinity, to whom the inferior deities were
subjected and from whom they sprang. Need
I tell you of the harmony which subsists
between nattue and revelation in this parti-
cular ? To Christianity belongs the glory of
having proclaimed this primitive truth with
new power, and of having spread it over the
whole civilized world. Again : Nature gives
intimation of another truth, I mean of the
imiversal, impartial goodness of God. When
I look round on the creation, I see nothing to
lead me to suspect that its Author confines
his love to a few. The sun sends no brighter
beam into the palace of the proudest king
than into the hut of the meanest peasant.
"The clouds select not one man's fields rather
than his neighbour's, but shed down their
blessings on rich and poor, and, still more, on
the just and the unjust. True, there is a
variety of conditions among men; but this
takes place, not by any interposition of God,
but by fixed and general laws of nature. Im-
partial, universal goodness is the character in
which God is revealed by his works, when
fhey are properly understood; and need I tell
you how brightly this truth shines in the
pages of Christianity, and how this religion
has been the great means of establishing it
among men ? Again : When 1 look through
nature, nothing strikes me more than the
union which subsists among all its works.
Nothing stands alone in the creation. The
humblest plant has intimate connections with
the air, the clouds, the sun. Harmony is the
great law of nature; and how strikingly does
Christianity coincide here with God's works 1
for what is the design of this religion but to
bring the human race, the intelligent creation
of God, into a harmony, union, i)eace, like
that which knits together the outward uni-
verse? I will give another illustration. It is
one of the great laws of nature that good
shall come to us through agents of God's
appointment; that bemgs shall receive life,
support, knowledge, and safety through the
interposition and labours and sufferings of
others. Sometimes whole communities are
rescued from oppression and ruin chiefly by
the efforts and sacrifices of a wise, disin-
terested, and resolute individual. How ac-
cordant with this ordination of nature is the
doctrine of Christianity, that our Heavenly
Father, having purposed oiu* recovery from



sin and death, has instituted for this end the
agency and mediation of his Son; that He
has given an illustrious deliverer to the world,
through whose toils and sufferings we may "
rise to purity and immortal life. I say, then,
that revelation is consistent with nature, when
nature is truly interpreted by reason. I see it
bringing out with noonday brightness the
truths which dawn in nature; so that it is
reason in its most perfect form.

I have thus carried Christianity abroad
into nature. I now cany it within, and com-
pare it with the human soul ; and is it con-
sistent with the great truths of reason which
I discover there ? I affirm that it is. When
I look into the soul, I am at once struck with
its immeasurable superiority to the body. I
am struck with the contrast between these
different elements of my nature— between this
active soaring mind, and these limbs and ma-
terial organs which tend perpetually to the
earth, and are soon to be resolved into dust.
How consistent is Christianity with this in-
ward teaching ! In Christianity, with what
strength, with what bold relief, is the supre-
macy of the spiritual nature brought out I
What contempt does Jesus cast on the body
and its interests, when compared with the
redemption of the soul ! Another great truth
dawns on me when T look within. I learn
more and more that the great springs of hap-
piness and misery are in the mind, and that
the efforts of men to secure peace by other
processes than by inward purification are vain
strivings; and Christianity is not only consis-
tent with, but founded on, this great truth ;
teaching us that the kingdom of heaven is
within us, and proposing, as its great end,
to rescue the mind from evil, and to endue it
with strength and dignity worthy its divine
origin. Again : When I look into the soul
I meet intimations of another great truth.
I discern in it capacities which arc not fully
unfolded here. I see desires which find no
adequate good on earth. I see a principle of
hope always pressing forward into futurity.
Here are marks of a nature not made wholly
for this world; and how does Christianity
agree with this teaching of our own souls ?
Its great doctrine is that of a higher life,
where the spiritual germ within us will open ,
for ever, and where the immortal good after
which the mind aspires will prove a reality.
Had I time, I might survey distinctly the
various principles of the soul— the intellectual,
moral, social, and active— and might show
you how Christianity accords with them all,
enlarging their scope and energy, proposing
to them nobler objects, and aiding their
development by the impulse of a boundless
hope. But, commending these topics to your
private meditation, I will take but one more
view of the soul. When I look within, I see



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CHRISTIANITY A RATIONAL RELIGION.



stains of sin, and fears and forebodings of
giiilt ; and how adapted to such a nature is
^ Christianity, a religion which contains blood-
•* sealed promises of forgiveness to the peni-
tent, and which proffers heavenly strength to
fortify us in our conflict with moral evil ! I
say, then, Christianity consists with the nature
within us as well as with nature around us.
The highest truths in respect to the soul are
not only responded to, but are carried out by
Christianity, so that it deserves to be called
the perfection of reason.

I have now shown, in a variety of particu-
lars, that Christianity has the character of
consistency, and thus satisfies the first demand
of reason. It does not divide the mind
against itself— does not introduce discord into
the intellect, by proposing doctrines which
our consciousness and experience repel. But
these views do not exhaust the present topic.
It is not enough to speak of Christianity as
furnishing views which harmonize with one
another, and with all known truth. It gives
a new and cheering consistency to the view s
with which we are furnished by the universe.
Nature and providence, with fdl their beauty,
regularity, and beneficence, have yet perplex-
ing aspects. Their elements are often seen in
conflict with one another. Sunshine and
storms, pleasure and pain, success and disas-
ter, abundance and want, health and sickness,
life and death, seem to ordinary si)cctators to
be mixed together confusedly and without aim.
Reason desires nothing so earnestly, so an.v-
iously, as to solve the^ discordant appear-
ances, as to discover some great, central,
reconciling truth, around which they may be
arranged, and from which they may borrow
light and harmony. This deep want of the
rational nature, Christianity has supplied. It
has disclosed a unity of purpose in the seem-
ingly hostile dispensations of providence, and
opened to the mind a new world of order,
beauty, and benevolent design. Christianity,
revealing, as it does, the unbounded mercy ojf
God to his sinful creatures ; revealing an end-
less futurity, in which the inequalities of the
present state are to be redressed, and which
reduces by its immensity the sorest pains of
life to light and momentary evils ; revealing a
" moral perfection which is worth all pain and
conflicts, and which is most effecttially and
gloriously won amidst suffering and tempta-
tion ; revealing in Jesus Christ the sublimity
and rewards of tried and all-enduring virtue ;
revealing in him the Founder of a new moral
kingdom or power, which is destined to sub-
due the world to God ; and proffering the
Holy Spirit to all who strive to build up in
themselves and others the reign of truth and
virtue; Christianity, I say, by these revelations,
as p)oured a flood of light over nature and
-vidence, and harmonized the infinite com-



plexity of the works and ways of God. Thus
it meets the first want of the rational nature,
the craving for consistency of views. It is
re*\son's most effectual minister and friend.
Is it not, then, eminently a rational faith ?

Having shown that Christianity has the
character of consistency, I proceed to the
second mark or stamp of reason on a re-
ligion, that is. Universality; and this I claim
for Christianity. This indeed is one of the
most distinguishing features of our religion,
and so obvious and striking as to need little
illustration. When I examine the doctrines,

f)recepts, and spirit of Christianity, I discover,
n them all, this character of universality. I
discover nothing narrow, temporary, local.
The Gospel bears the stamp of no particular
age or country. It does not concern itself
with the perishable interests of communities
or individuals ; but appeals to the spiritual,
immortal, imbounded principle in human
nature. Its aim is to direct the mind to the
Infinite Being, and to an infinite good. It is
not made up, like other religions, of precise
forms and details ; but it inculcates immu-
table and all-comprehendmg principles of
duly, leaving every man to apply them for
himself to the endless variety of human con-
ditions. It separates from God the partial
limited views of Judaism and heathenism,
and holds Him forth in the sublime attributes
of the Universal Father. In Uke manner, it
inculcates philanthropy without exceptions
or bounds ; a love to man as man, a love
founded on that immortal nature of which
all men partake, and which binds us to recog-
nize in each a child of God and a brother.
The spirit of bigotry, which confines its
charity to a sect, and the spirit of aristocracy,
whicli looks on the multitude as an inferior
race, are alike rebuked by Christianity;
which, eighteen hundred years ago, in a
narrow and superstitious age, taught, what
the present age is beginning to understand,
that all men are essentially equal, and that
all are to be honoured, because made for
immortahty and endued with capacities of
ceaseless improvement. The more I examine
Christianity, the more I am struck with its
imiversality. I see in it a religion made for
all regions and all times, for all classes and
all stages of society. It is fitted, not to the
Asiatic or the European, but to the essential
principles of human nature — to man under
the tropical or polar skies, to all descriptions
of intellect anci condition. It speaks a lan-
guage which all men need and all can under-
stand ; enjoins a virtue which is man's hap-
piness and glory in every age and clime ;
and ministers consolations and hopes which
answer to man's universal lot — to the suffer-
ings, the fear, and the self-rebuke which
cleave to our natuie in every outward change.



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CHKIST/ANITY A RA 7 ZONAL RELIGION.



227



I ice in It ihe light, not of one nation, but of
t tie world; and a light reaching beyond the
world, beyond time, to higher modes of
existence and to an interminable futurity.
Other religions have been intended to meet
the exigencies of particular countries or
times, and therefore society in its progress
has outgrown them; but Christianity meets
more and more the wants of the soul in pro-
portion to the advancement of our race, and
thus proves itself to be eternal truth. After
these remarks, may I not claim for Chris-
tianity that character of universality which is
I lie liigbest distinction of reason ? To under-
stand fully the confirmation which these
views give to the Gospel, you must compare
it with the religions prevalent in the age <rf
Christ, all of which bore the marks of narrow,
local, temporary institutions. How striking
the contrast I And how smgulur the fact,
that amid this darkness there spning up a
religion so consistent and universal as to
deserve to be called the perfection of reason I

I do and must feel, my friends, that the
claim of Christianity to the honour of being
a rational religion is fully established. As
such I commend il to you. As such it will
more and more approve itself in proportion
as you study and practise it. You will never
find cause to complain that by adopting it
you have enslaved or degraded your highest
powers. Here, then, I might stop, and
fuight consider m^ work as done. But I am
aware that otijeclions have been made to the
rational character of our religion which may
still linger in the minds of some of my hearers.
A brief notice of these may aid the purpose,
and will form a proper conclusion, of this
discourse.

I imagine that were some who are present
to speak, tlicy would tell me that if Chris-
tianity be judged by its fruits, it deserves any
cliaracter but that of rational. I should be
told that no reUgion has borne a more abun-
dant harvest of extravagance and fanaticism.
[ shoukl be told that reason is a calm, re-
Hecting, sotxir principle, and I should be
asked whether such is the character of the
Christianity which has overspread the world.
Perhaps some of you will remind me of the
fe%-erish, wild, passionate religion which is
now systcmati<»llv dispersed through our
country, and I shall be asked whether a
iv^em under Hhich such delusions prevail
can bo a rational one ?

To tlie-iC objections I answer, You say
much thnt is true. I grant that reason is a
tulni and rcflc»cting principle, and I see little
c^Umness or reflection among many who take
cKcJuiivnly the name of Christ, liut I say,
yuu iiavc no right to confound Christ lanky
^.iih it-s profeiiSurs. This relipiou, as you
Li.*'*-, l;a> come do»va to us through many



ages of darkness, during which it must have
been corrupted and obscured. Common
candour retjuires that you should Judge of it



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 51 of 169)