William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 67 of 169)
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weak argument in support of the truth of our complicated, so peculiariy combined |l the

views; for the chief purpose of Christianity case of every individual, and so modififed by

undoubtedly is to promote piety, to bring us the original susceptibilities and constivioa

to God, to fill our souls with that Great of every mind, that on no subject is ttere

Being, to make us aUve to Him ; and a reli- greater uncertainty than on the formatuAoC

gious ^tem can carry no more authentic character. To determine the precipe op^r?

marie of a divine original, than its obvious, tion of a rehgious opinion amidst thisfliost c^

direct, and peculiar adaptation to quicken influences, surpasses human power. A ^reat

and raise the mind to its Creator. In speak- truth may be completely neutralised by the

iag Uius of Unitarian Christianity as pro- countless impressions and excitements which

moting piety, I ought to observe that I use the mind receives from other sources ; apd scf

tkis word in its proper and highest sense. I a great error may be disarmed of much of it^

mean not everything which b^rsthe name of power by the superior energy of other anC

piety, for under this title superstition, fanati- better views, of early habits, and of virtuoutt

cism, and formahty are walking abroad and examples. Nothing is more common than \3

c kuming respect. I mean not an anxious see a doctrine believed without swaying the

fname of mind, not abject and slavish fear, wilL Its efficacy depends, not on the assc&r'

not a dread of hell, not a repetition of forms, of the intellect, but on the place which it*

not church-going, not loud profession, not occupies in the thoughts, on the distinctness v

severe censure of others' irreligion; but fiUal and vividness with which it is concdved, on

love and reverence towards God, habitual its association with our common ideas, on its

gratitude, cheerful trust, ready obedience, frequency of recurrence, and on its command

and, though last not least, an imitation of of the attention, without which it has no life,

the ever-active and unbounded benevolence Accordingly, pernicious opinions are not sel*

of the Creator. dom held by men of the most illustrious

The object of this discourse requires me to virtue. I mean not, then, in oommendini^ ^^

- we^eak with great freedom of diflierent systems conde4nning systems, to pass sentence on their

^Uim' rcUgion. Butletmenotbemisimderstood. professors. I know the power of the mind

". Sneet not the uncharitableness which I con- to select from a multifarious system, for its

Vbf ^mn be lightly laid to my charge. Let it habitual use, those features or principles

^^pit remembered that I speak only of systems, which are generous, pure, and eimobling, and

"Sitot of those who embrace them. In setting by these to sustain its spiritual life amidst

y'^irath with all simpUcity what seem to me the the nominal profession of many errors. I ^

' 'Wiiod or bad tendencies of doctrines, I have know that a creed is one thing as written h

- Vaat a thought of giving standards or measures a book, and aiK>ther as it exists in the mHb

'• Jir which to estimate the virtue or vice of of its advocates. In the book, all the ac-

'^,)s eir professors. Nothing would be more trines appear in equally strong and Icj^

^ '^oiust than to decide on men's characters Unes. In the mind, many are faintly trdbd

H(e their peculiarities of faith; and the and seldom recurred to. whilst others «f^ in*

'^^nis^* *"*• ^"*^^ peculiarities are not scribed as with sunbeams, and are the tflosen,

! onlv cavj^SJ^^****^^ impress and determine constant lights of the soul. Hence, ^ good

lit mind Ourn9ftei!H£ ^ exposed to innumer- men of opposiiig denominations, a real ^tSKtL

leotherinfluencesTr^/indeedamanwereto ment may subsist as to their vital principled

ow nothing but his c?s>eed, were to meet of faith; and amidst the division of tongues.

t^Ano human beings bul^. those who adopt there may be unity of soul, and the same^

or that it

; nis crecw »»w.w . - , - . tendencies ara^/

- d to exclude every other objectV of thought— always bad. But I mean that these tendencies

\\. his character might be e.'^xpected to exert themselves amidst so many countcract-

iwer to it with great precision.*?, But our ing influences, and that injiuious opinions so

i isator has not shut us up in so>» narrow a often lie dead throtigh the want of mixture

«;< hool. The mind is exposed to i.in infinite with the common thoughts, through the

Variety of influences, and these are Multiply- mind s not absorbing them, and changing

\^^ * With the progress of society. Ec^ucation, them into its own substance, that the highest

I' '^tndship, neighbourhood, public Ojpinion, respect may and ought to be cherished fjor

tl \ state of society, ** the genius of the^iace " men in whose creed we find much to disj^J

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MOST FAVOURABLE TO PIETY. 309

pfove^ In this discourse I shall speak freely, gains strength for ever. It enriches itself by

and some may say severely, of Trinitarianism; every new view of God's word and works;

but I love and honour not a few of its advo- gathers tribute from all regions and all ages ;

cates; and in opposing what I deem their and attracts into itself all the rays of beauty,

error, I would on no account detract from glory, and joy, in the material and spiritual

their worth. After these remarks, I hope creation.

that the language of earnest discussion and My hearers, as you would feel the full in-
strong conviction will not be construed into fluence of God upon your souls, guard sacredly,
the want of that charity which I acknowledge keep unobscined and xmsuUied, that funda-
as the first grace of our religion. mental and glorious truth, that there is one,
I now proceed to illustrate and prove the and onlvone. Almighty Agent in the universe,
superiority of Unitarian Christianity, as a one Infinite Father. Let this truth dwell in
^^ means of promoting a deep and noble pietv. me in its uncorrupted simplicity, and I have
I. Unitarianism is a system most favourable the spring and nutriment of an ever-growing
to piety, because it presents to the mind one, piety. I have an object for my mind towards
and only one, Infinite Person to whom supreme which all things bear me. I know whither to
^ homage is to be paid. It does not weaken go in all trial, whom to bless in all joy, whom
Che energy of religious sentiment by dividing to adore in all I behold. But let three per-
it among various objects. It collects and con- sons claim from me supreme homage, and
centxates the soul on one Father of im- claim it on diiferent grounds, one for sending
bounded, undivided, unrivalled glory. To and another for coming to my relief, and I
Him it teaches the mind to rise through all am divided, distracted, perplexed. My frail
beings. Around Him it gathers all the splen- intellect is overborne. Instead of one Father,
dours of the universe. To Him it teaches us on whose arm I can rest, my mind is torn
to ascribe whatever good we receive or behold, from object to object, and I tremble lest,
the t>eauty and magnificence of nature, the among so manv claimants of supreme love, I
litieral gilts of Providence, the capacities of should withhold from one or another his due.
the soul, the bonds of society, and especially II. Unitarianism is the system most favour-
the liches of grace and redemption, the mis- able to piety, because it holds forth and pre-
sion, axxi poveis, and beneficent influences of serves inviolate the spirituality of God. " God
Jesus Chnst. All happiness it traces up to is a spirit, and they that worship Him must
the Father, as the sole source ; and the mind, worship Him in spirit and in truth." It is of
which these riews have penetrated, through great importance to the progress and elevation
tlUs intiniate association of everythin|^ excit- of the religious principle that we should refine
faig and exalting in the universe with one more and more our conceptions of God ; that
Infinite Parent, can and does offer itself up to we should separate from Him all material
Him with the intensest and profoundest love properties, and whatever is limited or imper-
of which human nature is susceptible. The feet in our own nature; that we should regard
Trinitarian indeed professes to believe in Him as a pure intelligence, an unmixed and
one God, and means to hold fast this truth, infinite Mind. When it pleased God to
3ut three persons, having distinctive quali- select the Jewish people and place them
ties and relatk>ns, of whom one is sent and under miraculous interpositions, one of the
another the sender, one is given and another first precepts given them was, that they should
the giwcr, of whom one intercedes and another not represent God under any bodily form, any
hears the intercession, of whom one takes flesh graven image, or the likeness of any creature.
and another never becomes incarnate,— three Next came Christianity, which had this as
persons, thus discriminated, are as truly three one of its great objects, to render religion still
objects of the mind as if they were acknow- more spiritual, by abolishing the ceremonial
leered to be separate divinities; and, from the and outward worship of former times, and by
principles of our nature, they cannot act on the discarding those grosser modes of describing
niad as deeply and powerfully as one Infinite God through which the ancient prophets had
l^non, to whose sole goodness all happiness sought to impress an unrefined people.
B as c ribed. To multiply infinite objects for Now, Unitarianism concxus with this sab-
tfae heart is to distract it. To scatter the fime moral purpose of God. It asserts his
stttentioa among three equal persons is to im- spirituality. It approaches Him under no
pBtr the power of each. The more strict and Ixxlily form, but as a pure spirit, as the
absolnte the unity of God, the more easily and infinite and the universal Mind. On the
intimatety all the impressions and emotions other hand, it is the direct influence of Trini-
of piety flow together, and are condensed into tarianism to materialize men's conceptions of
one f^onnng thought, one thrilling love. No God ; and, in truth, this system is a relapse
laflguage can express the absorbing ener^ of into the error of the rudest and earliest ages,
tfie thought of one Infinite Father. When into the worship of a corporeal God. Its
vUnttf implanted in the soul, it grows and leading feature is the doctrine of a God



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3XO



UNITARIAN CHRISTIANITY



clothed with a body, and acting and speaking
through a material frame,— of the Infinite
Divinity d3dng on a cross ; a doctrine which
in earthliness reminds us of the mythology of
the rudest pagans, and which a pious Jew, in
the twilight of the Mosaic religion, would
have shrunk from with horror. It seems to
me no small objection to the Trinity, that it
supposes God to take a body in the later and
more improved ages of the world, when it is
plain that such a manifestation, if needed at
all, was peculiarly required in the infancy of
the race. The effect of such a system in
debasing the idea of God. in associating with
the Divinity human passions and infirmities,
is too obvious to need much elucidation. On
the supposition that the second person of the
Trinity became incarnate. God may be said
to be a material being, on the same general
ground on which this is affirmed of man ; for
man is material only by the tmion of the
mind with the body; and the very meaning
of incarnation is that God took a body,
through which He acted and spoke, as the
human soul operates through its corporeal
organs. Every bodily affection may thus be
ascribed to God. Accordingly the Trinitarian,
in his most solemn act of aidoration, is heard
to pray in these appalling words : " Good
Lord, deliver us ; bv the mystery of thy holy
incarnation, by thy noly nativity and circum-
cision, by thy baptism, fasting, and tempta-
tion, by thine agony and bloody sweat, by
thy cross and passion, good Lord, deliver
us." Now I ask you to judge, from the
principles of human nature, whether to wor-
shippers, who adore their God for his wounds
and tears, his agony, and blood, and sweat,
the ideas of corporeal existence and human
suffering will not predominate over the con-
ceptions of a purely spiritual essence; whether
the mind, in clinging to the man, will not
lose the God ; whether a surer method for
depressing and adulterating the pure thought
of the Divinity could have been devised.
That the Trinitarian is unconscious of this in-
fluence of his faith, I know, nor do I charge
it on him as a crime. Still it exists, and can-
not be too much deplored.

The Roman Catholics, true to human
nature and their creed, have sought by
paintinff and statuary to bring their ima-
gined God before their e^es ; and have thus
obtained almost as vivid impressions of Him
as if they had lived with Him on the earth.
The Protestant condemns them for usinjf
these similitudes and representations in their
worship: but, if a Trinitarian, he does so to
his own condenonation. For if. as he believes,
it was once a duty to bow in adoration before
the living body of his incarnate God, what
possible guilt can there be in worshipping
before the pictured or sculptured memorial of



the same being ? Christ's body may as truly
be represented by the artist as any other
human form ; ana its image may be used as
effectually and properly as that of an ancient
sage or hero, to recall him with vividness
to the mind.'— Is it said that God has
expressly forbidden the use of images in
our worship ? But why was that prohibition
laid on the Jews? For this express reason,
that God had not presented Himself to them
in any form which admitted of representation.
Hear the language of Moses : "Take good
heed lest ye make you a graven image, for
ye saw no manner of similitude on the day
that the Lord spoke unto you in Horeb out
of the midst of the fire."* If, since that
period, God has taken a body, then the
reason of the prohibition has ceased ; and if
He took a body, among other purposes, that
He might assist the wesJcness w the intellect,
which needs a material form, then a statue,
which lends so great an aid to the conception
of an absent friend, is not only justified; but
seems to be required.

This materializing and embodying of the
Supreme Being, which is the essence of
Trinitarianism, cannot but be adverse to a
growing and exalted piety. Human and
divine properties, being confounded in one
being, lose their distinctness. The^endouis
of the Godhead are dimmed. The wor-
shippers of an incarnate Deity, through the
frailty of their nature, are strongly tempted
to CEtsten chiefly on bis human attributes;
and their devotion, instead of rising to tb*
Infinite God, and taking the peculiar cha-
racter which infinity inspires, becomes rather
a human affection, borrowing much of its
fervour from the ideas of sunenng, blood,
and death. It is indeed possible that this
God-man (to use the strange phraseology oC
Trinitarians) may excite the mind more
easily than a pm^y spiritual divinity ; just
as a tragedy, addressed to the eye and ear,
will interest the multitude more than the ooQ-
templation of the most exalted character.
But the emotions which are the most easil]r
roused are not the profoundest or mo6t
enduring. This human love, inspired by a
human God, though at first more fcrvxi.
cannot grow and spread through the soq1«
like the reverential attachment which oa
infinite, spiritual Father awakens. Refined
conceptions of God, though more dow^
attained, have a more quickening and ftS*
pervading enersy. and admit of pcipebaal
accessions of bnghtness, life, and streagtb.

True, we shall be told that Trinitariannca
has converted only one of its three pcfSfiOb
into a human Ddty, and that the other t«o

• Deut. tv. 1$, ifl.— The •rrangMnent of tbe
Uttle duneed. to pvt ttercftdcr uoatcdteldi^toi
of the meaning;.



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3"



remain purely spiritual beings. But who
does not know that man will attach himself
most strongly to the God who has become a
man ? Is not this even a duty, if the Divinity
has taken a body to place himself within the
reach of human comprehension and sympathy?
That the Trinitarian's views of the Divimty
will be coloured more by his visible, tangible,
coiporeal God, than by those persons of the
Trinity who remain comparatively hidden
in then: invisible and spiritual essence, is so
accordant with the principles of our nature
as to need no laboured proof.

My friends, hold fast the doctrine of a
purely ^iritual Divinity. It is one of the
great supports and instruments of a vital piety.
It brings God near as no other doctrine can.
One of the leading purposes of Christianity is
to give us an ever-growing sense of God's
immediate presence, a consciousness of Him
in our souls. Now, just as far as corporeal or
limited attributes enter into our conception of
Him, we remove Him from us. He becomes
an outward, distant being, instead of beinff
viewed and felt as dwelling in the soul itself
It is an unspeakable benefit of the doctrine
of a purely spiritual God, that He can be
r^urded as inhabiting, filling our spiritual
nature; and, through this union with our
minds. He can and does become the object of
an intimacy and friendship such as no em-
bodied being can call forth.

III. Unitarianism is the system most favour-
able to piety, because it presents a distinct and
intelligible object of worship, a being whose
nature, whilst inexpressibly sublime, is yet
simple and suited to human apprehension.
An infinite Father is the most exalted of ail
conceptionf» and yet the least perplexing. It
involves ao incongruous ideas. It is illus-
trated by analogies from our own nature. It
ooinddes with that fundamental law of the
intellect Uurongh which we demand a cause
proportksDed to effects. It is also as interest-
ing as it is rational ; so that it is peculiarly
congemal with the improved mind. The
subUme simplicity of God as He is taught in
Unitarianism, by relieving the understanding
lirom perplexity, and by placing Him within
the reach of thought and affection, gives Him
peculiar power over the soul. Trinitarianisnii
on the other-hand, is a riddle. Men call it a
niysteiy; but it is mysterious, not Uke the
great truths of religion, by its vastness and
grandeur, but by the irreconcilable ideas
which it involves. One God, consisting of
three persons or agents, is so strange a being,
so unUke our own minds and all others with
which we hold intercouise — is so misty, so
ii2coagnio«s,lK> contradictory, that He cannot
be apprehended vdth that distinctness and
thaX feeing of reality which belong to the
opposite system. Such a heterogeneous being,



who is at the same moment one and many ;
who includes in his own nature the relations
of Father and Son, or, in other words, is
Father and Son to Himself; who, in one of
his persons, is at the same moment the
Supreme God and a mortal man, omniscient
and ignorant, almighhr and impotent; suc^
a being is certainly the most puzzling and
distracting object ever presented to human
thoujght. Trinitarianism, inst^d of teaching
an intelligible God, offers to the mind a
strange compound of hostile attributes, bear-
ing plain marks of those ages of darkness
when Christianity shed but a faint ray, and
the diseased fancy teemed with prodigies and
unnatural creations. In contemplating a being
who presents such different and inconsistent
aspects, the mind finds nothing to rest upon ;
and, instead of receiving distinct and har-
monious impressions, is disturbed by shifting,
unsettled images. To commime with such a
being must be as hard as to convene with a
man of three different countenances, speaking
with three different tongues. The beUever in
this system must forget it when he prays, or
he could find no repose in devotion. Who
can compare it in distincmess, r^ity, and
power with the simple doctrine of One In-
finite Father?

IV. Unitarianism promotes a fervent and
enlightened piety by asserting the absolute and
unbounded perfection of God's character. This
is the hi|;hest service which can be rendered
to mankmd. Just and generous conceptions
of the Divinity are the soul's true wealth.
To spread these is to contribute more effec-
tually than by any other agency to the pro-
gress and happiness of the intelligent crea-
tion. To obscure God's glory is to do greater
wrong than to blot out the sun. The cha-
racter and influence of a religion must answer
to the views which it gives of the Divinity ;
and there is a plain tendency in that system
which manifests the divine perfections most
resplendendy to awaken the sublimest and
most blessed piety.

Now Trinitarianism has a fatal tendency to
degrade the character of the Supreme Being,
though its advocates, I am sure, intend no
such wrong. By multiplying divine persons,
it takes from each the glory of independent,
all-sufficient, absolute perfection. This may
be shown in various particulars. And, in the
first place, the very idea that three persons
in the Divinity are in any degree important,
implies and involves the imperfection of each ;
for it is plain that if one divine person pos-
sesses all possible power, wisdom, love, and
happiness, nothing will be gained to Himself
or to the creation by joining with Him two,
or two hundred other persons. To say that
He needs others for any purpose or in any
degree, is to strip Him of independent and



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312 UNITARIAN CHRISTIANITY

all-sufficient majesty. Ifotir Father in heaven, sphere of operation. No man will admit

the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, three persons into his creed, without finding

is not of Himself sufficient to all the wants a use for them. Now, it is an obrious re-

of his creation ; if, by his union with other mark, that a s)rstem of the univeree which

persons, He can accomplish any good to involves and demands more than one Infinite

which He is not of Himself equiu ; or if He Agent, must be wild, extravagant, and un-

thus acmiires a claim to the least degree of worthy the perfect God ; because there is no

trust or hope, to which He is not of Himself possible or conceivable good to which such

entitled by his own independent attributes ; an Agent is hot adequate. Accordingly we

then it is plain He is not a being of infinite find Trinitarianism connecting itself with a

and absolute perfection. Now Trinitarianism scheme of administration exceedingly dero-

teaches that the highest good accrues to the gatory to the Divine character. It teaches

human race from the existence of three that the Infinite Father saw fit to put into

divine persons, sustaining different offices and the hands of our first parents the character

relations to the world ; and it regards the and condition of their whole progeny; and

Unitarian as subverting the foundation of that, through one act of disobedience, the

human hope, by asserting that the God and whole race bring with them into being a co^

Father of our Lord Jesus is alone and singly nipt nature, or are bom depraved. It teaches

God. Thus it derogates from his infinite that the offences of a short life, though begun

glory. and spent under this disastrous influence.

In the next place, Trinitarianism degrades merit endless punishment, and that God's

the character of the Supreme Being, by laving law threatens this infinite penalty ; and that

its disciples under the necessity of making man is thus burdened with a guilt which no

such a distribution of offices and relations sufferings of the created universe can expiate,

among the three persons, as will serve to which nothing but the sufferings of an Infinite

desigpate and distinguish them ; for in this Being can piirge away. In this condition of

way it interferes with the sublime conceptions human nature, Trinitarianism finds a sphere

of One Infinite Person, in whom all glories of action for its different persons. I am

are concentred. If we are required to worship aware that some Trinitarians, on hearing this

three persons, we must view them in different statement of their system, may reproach roc

lights, or they will be mere repetitions of with ascribing to them the errors of Calvinism,

each other, mere names and sounds, present- a system which they abhor as much as ou^

ing no objects, conveying no meaning to the selves. But none of the peculiarities of

mind. Some appropriate character, some Calvinism enter into this exposition. I hate



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 67 of 169)