Front Page Titles (by Subject) ESSAY ON NATURAL RELIGION - Essays on The Epistles of St. Paul
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
ESSAY ON NATURAL RELIGION - Benjamin Jowett, Essays on The Epistles of St. Paul 
The Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, Galatians and Romans. Vol. 2 Essays and Dissertations by the late Benjamin Jowett, M.A. (3rd edition, edited and condensed by Lewis Campbell) (London: John Murray, 1894). Vol. 2.
About Liberty Fund:
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
ESSAY ON NATURAL RELIGION
The revelation of righteousness by faith in the Epistle to the Romans is relative to a prior condemnation of Jew and Gentile, who are alike convicted of sin. If the world had not been sitting in darkness and the shadow of death, there would have been no need of the light. And yet this very darkness is a sort of contradiction, for it is the darkness of the soul, which, nevertheless, sees itself and God. Such ‘darkness visible’ St. Paul had felt in himself, and, passing from the individual to the world, he lifts up the veil partially, and lets the light of God’s wrath shine upon the corruption of man. What he himself in the searchings of his own spirit had become conscious of war ‘written in large letters’ on the scene around. To all Israelites at least, the law stood in the same relation as it had once done to himself; it placed them in a state of reprobation. Without law ‘they had not had sin,’ and now, the only way to do away with sin is to do away the law itself.
But, if ‘sin is not imputed where there is no law,’ it might seem as though the heathen could not be brought within the sphere of the same condemnation. Could we suppose men to be like animals, ‘nourishing a blind life within the brain,’ ‘the seed that is not quickened except it die’ would have no existence in them. Common sense tells us that all evil implies a knowledge of good, and that no man can be responsible for the worship of a false God who has no means of approach to the true. But this was not altogether the case of the Gentile; ‘without the law sin was in the world;’ as the Jew had the law, so the Gentile had the witness of God in creation. Nature was the Gentile’s law, witnessing against his immoral and degraded state, leading him upward through the visible things to the unseen power of God. He knew God, as the Apostle four times repeats, and magnified Him not as God; so that he was without excuse, not only for his idolatry, but because he worshipped idols in the presence of God himself.
Such is the train of thought which we perceive to be working in the Apostle’s mind, and which leads him, in accordance with the general scope of the Epistle to the Romans, to speak of natural religion. In two passages in the Acts he dwells on the same subject. It was one that found a ready response in the age to which St. Paul preached. Reflections of a similar kind were not uncommon among the heathen themselves. If at any time in the history of mankind natural religion can be said to have had a real and independent existence, it was in the twilight of heathenism and Christianity. ‘Seeking after God, if haply they might feel after him and find him,’ is a touching description of the efforts of philosophy in its later period. That there were principles in Nature higher and purer than the creations of mythology was a reflection made by those who would have deemed ‘the cross of Christ foolishness,’ who ‘mocked at the resurrection of the dead.’ The Olympic heaven was no longer the air which men breathed, or the sky over their heads. The better mind of the world was turning from ‘dumb idols.’ Ideas about God and man were taking the place of the old heathen rites. Religions, like nations, met and mingled. East and West were learning of each other, giving and receiving spiritual and political elements; the objects of Gentile worship fading into a more distant and universal God; the Jew also travelling in thought into regions which his fathers knew not, and beginning to form just conceptions of the earth and its inhabitants.
While we remain within the circle of Scripture language, or think of St. Paul as speaking only to the men of his own age in words that were striking and appropriate to them, there is no difficulty in understanding his meaning. The Old Testament denounced idolatry as hateful to God. It was away from Him, out of His sight; except where it touched the fortunes of the Jewish people, hardly within the range either of His judgements or of His mercies. No Israelite, in the elder days of Jewish history, supposed the tribes round about, or the individuals who composed them, to be equally with himself the objects of God’s care. The Apostle brings the heathen back before the judgement seat of God. He sees them sinking into the condition of the old Canaanitish nations. He regards this corruption of Nature as a consequence of their idolatry. They knew, or might have known, God, for creation witnesses of Him. This is the hinge of the Apostle’s argument: ‘If they had not known God they had not had sin;’ but now they know Him, and sin in the light of knowledge. Without this consciousness of sin there would be no condemnation of the heathen, and therefore no need of justification for him—no parallelism or coherence between the previous states of Jew and Gentile, or between the two parts of the scheme of redemption.
But here philosophy, bringing into contrast the Scriptural view of things and the merely historical or human one, asks the question, ‘How far was it possible for the heathen to have seen God in Nature?’ Could a man anticipate the true religion any more than he could anticipate discoveries in science or in art? Could he pierce the clouds of mythology, or lay aside language as it were a garment? Three or four in different ages, who have been the heralds of great religious revolutions, may have risen above their natural state under the influence of some divine impulse. But men in general do as others do; single persons in India or China do not dislocate themselves from the customs, traditions, prejudices, rites, in which they have been brought up. The mind of a nation has its own structure, which receives and also idealizes in various degrees the forms of outward Nature. Religions, like languages, conform to this mental structure; they are prior to the thoughts of individuals; no one is responsible for them. Homer is not to blame for his conception of the Grecian gods; it is natural and adequate to his age. For no one in primitive times could disengage himself from that world of sense which grew to him and enveloped him; we might as well imagine that he could invent a new language, or change the form which he inherited from his race into some other type of humanity.
The question here raised is one of the most important, as it is perhaps one that has been least considered, out of the many questions in which reason and faith, historical fact and religious belief, come into real or apparent conflict with each other. Volumes have been written on the connexion of geology with the Mosaic account of the creation—a question which is on the outskirts of the great difficulty—a sort of advanced post, at which theologians go out to meet the enemy. But we cannot refuse seriously to consider the other difficulty, which affects us much more nearly, and in the present day almost forces itself upon us, as the spirit of the ancient religions is more understood, and the forms of religion still existing among men become better known.
It sometimes seems as if we lived in two, or rather many distinct worlds—the world of faith and the world of experience—the world of sacred and the world of profane history. Between them there is a gulf; it is not easy to pass from one to the other. They have a different set of words and ideas, which it would be bad taste to intermingle; and of how much is this significant? They present themselves to us at different times, and call up a different train of associations. When reading Scripture we think only of the heavens ‘which are made by the word of God,’ of ‘the winds and waves obeying his will,’ of the accomplishment of events in history by the interposition of His hand. But in the study of ethnology or geology, in the records of our own or past times, a curtain drops over the Divine presence; human motives take the place of spiritual agencies; effects are not without causes; interruptions of Nature repose in the idea of law. Race, climate, physical influences, states of the human intellect and of society, are among the chief subjects of ordinary history; in the Bible there is no allusion to them; to the inspired writer they have no existence. Were men different, then, in early ages, or does the sacred narrative show them to us under a different point of view? The being of whom Scripture gives one account, philosophy another—who has a share in Nature and a place in history, who partakes also of a hidden life, and is the subject of an unseen power—is he not the same? This is the difficulty of our times, which presses upon us more and more, both in speculation and practice, as different classes of ideas come into comparison with each other. The day has passed in which we could look upon man in one aspect only, without interruption or confusion from any other. And Scripture, which uses the language and ideas of the age in which it was written, is inevitably at variance with the new modes of speech, as well as with the real discoveries of later knowledge.
Yet the Scriptures lead the way in subjecting the purely supernatural and spiritual view of human things to the laws of experience. The revocation in Ezekiel of the ‘old proverb in the house of Israel,’ is the assertion of a moral principle, and a return to fact and Nature. The words of our Saviour—‘Think ye that those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell, were sinners above all the men who dwelt in Jerusalem?’ and the parallel passage respecting the one born blind—‘Neither this man did sin, nor his parents,’ are an enlargement of the religious belief of the time in accordance with experience. When it is said that faith is not to look for wonders; or ‘the kingdom of God cometh not with observation,’ and ‘neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead,’ here, too, is an elevation of the order of Nature over the miraculous and uncommon. The preference of charity to extraordinary gifts is another instance, in which the Spirit of Christ speaks by the lips of Paul, of a like tendency. And St. Paul himself, in recognizing a world without the Jewish, as responsible to God, and subject to His laws, is but carrying out, according to the knowledge of his age, the same principle which a wider experience of the world and of antiquity compels us to extend yet further to all time and to all mankind.
It has been asked: ‘How far, in forming a moral estimate of an individual, are we to consider his actions simply as good or evil; or how far are we to include in our estimate education, country, rank in life, physical constitution, and so forth?’ Morality is rightly jealous of our resolving evil into the influence of circumstances: it will no more listen to the plea of temptation as the excuse for vice, than the law will hear of the same plea in mitigation of the penalty for crime. It requires that we should place ourselves within certain conditions before we pass judgement. Yet we cannot deny a higher point of view also—of ‘him that judged not as a man judgeth,’ in which we fear to follow only because of the limitation of our faculties. And in the case of a murderer or other great criminal, if we were suddenly made aware, when dwelling on the enormity of his crime, that he had been educated in vice and misery, that his act had not been unprovoked, perhaps that his physical constitution was such as made it nearly impossible for him to resist the provocation which was offered to him, the knowledge of these and similar circumstances would alter our estimate of the complexion of his guilt. We might think him guilty, but we should also think him unfortunate. Stern necessity might still require that the law should take its course, but we should feel pity as well as anger. We should view his conduct in a larger and more comprehensive way, and acknowledge that, had we been placed in the same circumstances, we might have been guilty of the same act.
Now the difference between these two views of morality is analogous to the difference between the way in which St. Paul regards the heathen religions, and the way in which we ourselves regard them, in proportion as we become better acquainted with their true nature. St. Paul conceives idolatry separate from all the circumstances of time, of country, of physical or mental states by which it is accompanied, and in which it may be almost said to consist. He implies a deliberate knowledge of the good, and choice of the evil. He supposes each individual to contrast the truth of God with the error of false religions, and deliberately to reject God. He conceives all mankind, ‘creatures as they are one of another,’ and
‘Moving all together if they move at all,’
to be suddenly freed from the bond of nationality, from the customs and habits of thought of ages. The moral life which is proper to the individual, he breathes into the world collectively. Speaking not of the agents and their circumstances, but of their acts, and seeing these reflected in what may be termed in a figure the conscience, not of an individual but of mankind in general, he passes on all men everywhere the sentence of condemnation. We can hardly venture to say what would have been his judgement on the great names of Greek and Roman history, had he familiarly known them. He might have felt as we feel, that there is a certain impropriety in attempting to determine, with a Jesuit writer, or even in the spirit of love and admiration which the great Italian poet shows for them, the places of the philosophers and heroes of antiquity in the world to come. More in his own spirit, he would have spoken of them as a part of ‘the mystery which was not then revealed as it now is.’ But neither can we imagine how he could have become familiar with them at all without ceasing to be St. Paul.
Acquainted as we are with Greek and Roman literature from within, lovers of its old heroic story, it is impossible for us to regard the religions of the heathen world in the single point of view which they presented to the first believers. It would be a vain attempt to try and divest ourselves of the feelings towards the great names of Greek and Roman history which a classical education has implanted in us; as little can we think of the deities of the heathen mythology in the spirit of a Christian of the first two centuries. Looking back from the vantage ground of ages, we see more clearly the proportions of heathenism and Christianity, as of other great forms or events of history, than was possible for contemporaries. Ancient authors are like the inhabitants of a valley who know nothing of the countries beyond: they have a narrow idea either of their own or other times; many notions are entertained by them respecting the past history of mankind which a wider prospect would have dispelled. The horizon of the sacred writers too is limited; they do not embrace the historical or other aspects of the state of man to which modern reflection has given rise; they are in the valley still, though with the ‘light of the world’ above. The Apostle sees the Athenians from Mars’ Hill ‘wholly given to idolatry:’ to us, the same scene would have revealed wonders of art and beauty, the loss of which the civilized nations of Europe still seem with a degree of seriousness to lament. He thinks of the heathen religions in the spirit of one of the old prophets; to us they are subjects of philosophy also. He makes no distinction between their origin and their decline, the dreams of the childhood of the human race and the fierce and brutal lusts with which they afterwards became polluted; we note many differences between Homer and the corruption of later Greek life, between the rustic simplicity of the old Roman religion and the impurities of the age of Clodius or Tiberius. More and more, as they become better known to us, the original forms of all religions are seen to fall under the category of nature and less under that of mind, or free will. There is nothing to which they are so much akin as language, of which they are a sort of after-growth—in their fantastic creations the play or sport of the same faculty of speech; they seem to be also based on a spiritual affection, which is characteristic of man equally with the social ones. Religions, like languages, are inherent in all men everywhere, having a close sympathy or connexion with political and family life. It would be a shallow and imaginary explanation of them that they are corruptions of some primaeval revelation, or impostures framed by the persuasive arts of magicians or priests. There are many other respects in which our first impressions respecting the heathen world are changed by study and experience. There was more of true greatness in the conceptions of heathen legislators and philosophers than we readily admit, and more of nobility and disinterestedness in their character. The founders of the Eastern religions especially, although indistinctly seen by us, appear to be raised above the ordinary level of mortality. The laws of our own country are an inheritance partly bequeathed to us by a heathen nation; many of our philosophical and most of our political ideas are derived from a like source. What shall we say to these things? Are we not undergoing, on a wider scale and in a new way, the same change which the Fathers of Alexandria underwent, when they became aware that heathenism was not wholly evil, and that there was as much in Plato and Aristotle which was in harmony with the Gospel as of what was antagonistic to it.
Among the many causes at present in existence which will influence ‘the Church of the future,’ none is likely to have greater power than our increasing knowledge of the religions of mankind. The study of them is the first step in the philosophical study of revelation itself. For Christianity or the Mosaic religion, standing alone, is hardly a subject for scientific inquiry: only when compared with other forms of faith do we perceive its true place in history, or its true relation to human nature. The glory of Christianity is not to be as unlike other religions as possible, but to be their perfection and fulfilment. Those religions are so many steps in the education of the human race. One above another, they rise or grow side by side, each nation, in many ages, contributing some partial ray of a divine light, some element of morality, some principle of social life, to the common stock of mankind. The thoughts of men, like the productions of Nature, do not endlessly diversify; they work themselves out in a few simple forms. In the fullness of time, philosophy appears, shaking off, yet partly retaining, the nationality and particularity of its heathen origin. Its top ‘reaches to heaven,’ but it has no root in the common life of man. At last, the crown of all, the chief corner-stone of the building, when the impressions of Nature and the reflections of the mind upon itself have been exhausted, Christianity arises in the world, seeming to stand in the same relation to the inferior religions that man does to the inferior animals.
When, instead of painting harsh contrasts between Christianity and other religions, we rather draw them together as nearly as truth will allow, many thoughts come into our minds about their relation to each other which are of great speculative interest as well as of practical importance. The joyful words of the Apostle: ‘Is he the God of the Jews only, is he not also of the Gentiles?’ have a new meaning for us. And this new application the Apostle himself may be regarded as having taught us, where he says: ‘When the Gentiles which know not the law do by nature the things contained in the law, these not having the law are a law unto themselves.’ There have been many schoolmasters to bring men to Christ, and not the law of Moses only. Ecclesiastical history enlarges its borders to take in the preparations for the Gospel, the anticipations of it, the parallels with it; collecting the scattered gleams of truth which may have revealed themselves even to single individuals in remote ages and countries. We are no longer interested in making out a case against the heathen religions in the spirit of party—the superiority of Christianity will appear sufficiently without that—we rather rejoice that, at sundry times and in divers manners, by ways more or less akin to the methods of human knowledge, ‘God spake in time past to the fathers,’ and that in the darkest ages, amid the most fanciful aberrations of mythology, He left not himself wholly without a witness between good and evil in the natural affections of mankind.
Some facts also begin to appear, which have hitherto been unknown or concealed. They are of two kinds, relating partly to the origin or development of the Jewish or Christian religion; partly also independent of them, yet affording remarkable parallels both to their outward form and to their inner life. Christianity is seen to have partaken much more of the better mind of the Gentile world than the study of Scripture only would have led us to conjecture: it has received, too, many of its doctrinal terms from the language of philosophy. The Jewish religion is proved to have incorporated with itself some elements which were not of Jewish origin; and the Jewish history begins to be explained by the analogy of other nations. The most striking fact of the second kind is found in a part of the world which Christianity can be scarcely said to have touched, and is of a date some centuries anterior to it. That there is a faith1 which has a greater number of worshippers than all sects of Christians put together, which originated in a reformation of society, tyrannized over by tradition, spoiled by philosophy, torn asunder by caste—which might be described, in the words of Scripture, as a ‘preaching of the Gospel to the poor;’ that this faith, besides its more general resemblance to Christianity, has its incarnation, its monks, its saints, its hierarchy, its canonical books, its miracles, its councils, the whole system being ‘full blown’ before the Christian era; that the founder of this religion descended from a throne to teach the lesson of equality among men—(‘there is no distinction of’ Chinese or Hindoo, Brahmin or Sudra, such at least was the indirect consequence of his doctrine)—that, himself contented with nothing, he preached to his followers the virtues of poverty, self-denial; chastity, temperance, and that once, at least, he is described as ‘taking upon himself the sins of mankind:’—these are facts which, when once known, are not easily forgotten; they seem to open an undiscovered world to us, and to cast a new light on Christianity itself. And it ‘harrows us with fear and wonder,’ to learn that this vast system, numerically the most universal or catholic of all religions, and, in many of its leading features, most like Christianity, is based, not on the hope of eternal life, but of complete annihilation.
The Greek world presents another parallel with the Gospel, which is also independent of it; less striking, yet coming nearer home, and sometimes overlooked because it is general and obvious. That the political virtues of courage, patriotism, and the like, have been received by Christian nations from a classical source is commonly admitted. Let us ask now the question, Whence is the love of knowledge? who first taught men that the pursuit of truth was a religious duty? Doubtless the words of one greater than Socrates come into our minds: ‘For this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that they might know the truth.’ But the truth here spoken of is of another and more mysterious kind; not truth in the logical or speculative sense of the word, nor even in its ordinary use. The earnest inquiry after the nature of things, the devotion of a life to such an inquiry, the forsaking all other good in the hope of acquiring some fragment of true knowledge,—this is an instance of human virtue not to be found among the Jews, but among the Greeks. It is a phenomenon of religion, as well as of philosophy, that among the Greeks too there should have been those who, like the Jewish prophets, stood out from the world around them, who taught a lesson, like them, too exalted for the practice of mankind in general; who anticipated out of the order of nature the knowledge of future ages; whose very chance words and misunderstood modes of speech have moulded the minds of men in remote times and countries. And that these teachers of mankind, ‘as they were finishing their course’ in the decline of Paganism, like Jewish prophets, though unacquainted with Christianity, should have become almost Christian, preaching the truths which we sometimes hold to be ‘foolishness to the Greek,’ as when Epictetus spoke of humility, or Seneca told of a God who had made of one blood all nations of the earth,—is a sad and touching fact.
But it is not only the better mind of heathenism in East or West that affords parallels with the Christian religion: the corruptions of Christianity, its debasement by secular influences, its temporary decay at particular times or places, receive many illustrations from similar phenomena in ancient times and heathen countries. The manner in which the Old Testament has taken the place of the New; the tendency to absorb the individual life in the outward church; the personification of the principle of separation from the world in monastic orders; the accumulation of wealth with the profession of poverty; the spiritualism, or childlike faith, of one age, and the rationalism or formalism of another; many of the minute controversial disputes which exist between Christians respecting doctrines both of natural and revealed religion;—all these errors or corruptions of Christianity admit of being compared with similar appearances either in Buddhism or Mahomedanism. Is not the half-believing half-sceptical attitude in which Socrates and others stood to the ‘orthodox’ pagan faith very similar to that in which philosophers, and in some countries educated men, generally have stood to established forms of Christianity? Is it only in Christian times that men have sought to consecrate art in the service of religion? Did not Paganism do so far more completely? or was it Plato only to whom moral ideas represented themselves in sensual forms? Has not the whole vocabulary of art, in modern times, become confused with that of morality? The modern historian of Greece and Rome draws our attention to other religious features in the ancient world, which are not without their counterpart in the modern,—‘old friends with new faces,’—which a few words are enough to suggest. The aristocratic character of Paganism, the influence which it exerted over women, its galvanic efforts to restore the past, the ridicule with which the sceptic assails its errors, and the manner in which the antiquarians Pausanias and Dionysius contemptuously reply; also the imperfect attempts at reconcilement of old and new, found in such writers as Plutarch, and the obscure sense of the real connexion of the Pagan worship with political and social life, the popularity of its temporary hierophants; its panics, wonders, oracles, mysteries,—these features makes us aware that however unlike the true life of Christianity may have been even to the better mind of heathenism, the corruptions and weaknesses of Christianity have never been without a parallel under the sun.
Those religions which possess sacred books furnish some other curious, though exaggerated, likenesses of the use which has been sometimes made of the Jewish or Christian Scriptures. No believer in organic or verbal inspiration has applied more high-sounding titles to the Bible than the Brahmin or Mussulman to the Koran or the Vedas. They have been loaded with commentaries—buried under the accumulations of tradition; no care has been thought too great of their words and letters, while the original meaning has been lost, and even the language in which they were written ceased to be understood. Every method of interpretation has been practised upon them; logic and mysticism have elicited every possible sense; the aid of miracles has been called in to resolve difficulties and reconcile contradictions. And still, notwithstanding the perverseness with which they are interpreted, these half-understood books exercise a mighty spell; single verses, misapplied words, disputed texts, have affected the social and political state of millions of mankind during a thousand or many thousand years. Even without reference to their contents, the mere name of these books has been a power in the Eastern world. Facts like these would be greatly misunderstood if they were supposed to reduce the Old and New Testament to the level of other sacred books, or Christianity to the level of other religions. But they may guard us against some forms of superstition which insensibly, almost innocently, spring up among Christians; and they reveal weaknesses of human nature, from which we can scarcely hope that our own age or country is exempt.
Let us conclude this digression by summing up the use of such inquiries; as a touchstone and witness of Christian truth; as bearing on our relations with the heathens themselves.
Christianity, in its way through the world, is ever taking up and incorporating with itself Jewish, secular, or even Gentile elements. And the use of the study of the heathen religions is just this: it teaches us to separate the externals or accidents of Christianity from its essence; its local, temporary type from its true spirit and life. These externals, which Christianity has in common with other religions of the East, may be useful, may be necessary, but they are not the truths which Christ came on earth to reveal. The fact of the possession of sacred books, and the claim which is made for them, that they are free from all error or imperfection, if admitted, would not distinguish the Christian from the Mahomedan faith. Most of the Eastern religions, again, have had vast hierarchies and dogmatic systems; neither is this a note of divinity. Also, they are witnessed to by signs and wonders; we are compelled to go further to find the characteristics of the Gospel of Christ. As the Apostle says: ‘And yet I show you a more excellent way,’—not in the Scriptures, nor in the church, nor in a system of doctrines, nor in miracles, does Christianity consist, though some of these may be its necessary accompaniments or instruments, but in the life and teaching of Christ.
The study of ‘comparative theology’ not only helps to distinguish the accidents from the essence of Christianity; it also affords a new kind of testimony to its truth; it shows what the world was aiming at through many cycles of human history—what the Gospel alone fulfilled. The Gentile religions, from being enemies, became witnesses of the Christian faith. They are no longer adverse positions held by the powers of evil, but outworks or buttresses, like the courts of the Temple on Mount Sion, covering the holy place. Granting that some of the doctrines and teachers of the heathen world were nearer the truth than we once supposed, such resemblances cause no alarm or uneasiness; we have no reason to fable that they are the fragments of some primaeval revelation. We look forwards, not backwards; to the end, not to the beginning; not to the garden of Eden, but to the life of Christ. There is no longer any need to maintain a thesis; we have the perfect freedom and real peace which is attained by the certainty that we know all, and that nothing is kept back. Such was the position of Christianity in former ages; it was on a level with the knowledge of mankind. But in later years unworthy fear has too often paralyzed its teachers: instead of seeking to readjust its relations to the present state of history and science, they have clung in agony to the past. For the Gospel is the child of light; it lives in the light of this world; it has no shifts or concealments; there is no kind of knowledge which it needs to suppress; it allows us to see the good in all things; it does not forbid us to observe also the evil which has incrusted upon itself. It is willing that we should look calmly and steadily at all the facts of the history of religion. It takes no offence at the remark, that it has drawn into itself the good of other religions; that the laws and institutions of the Roman Empire have supplied the outer form, and heathen philosophy some of the inner mechanism which was necessary to its growth in the world. No violence is done to its spirit by the enumeration of the causes which have led to its success. It permits us also to note, that while it has purified the civilization of the West, there are soils of earth on which it seems hardly capable of living without becoming corrupt or degenerate. Such knowledge is innocent and a ‘creature of God.’ And considering how much of the bitterness of Christians against one another arises from ignorance and a false conception of the nature of religion, it is not chimerical to imagine that the historical study of religions may be a help to Christian charity. The least differences seem often to be the greatest; the perception of the greater differences makes the lesser insignificant. Living within the sphere of Christianity, it is good for us sometimes to place ourselves without; to turn away from ‘the weak and beggarly elements’ of worn-out controversies to contemplate the great phases of human existence. Looking at the religions of mankind, succeeding one another in a wonderful order, it is hard to narrow our minds to party or sectarian views in our own age or country. Had it been known that a dispute about faith and works existed among Buddhists, would not this knowledge have modified the great question of the Reformation? Such studies have also a philosophical value as well as a Christian use. They may, perhaps, open to us a new page in the history of our own minds, as well as in the history of the human race. Mankind, in primitive times, seem at first sight very unlike ourselves: as we look upon them with sympathy and interest, a likeness begins to appear; in us too there is a piece of the primitive man; many of his wayward fancies are the caricatures of our errors or perplexities. If a clearer light is ever to be thrown either on the nature of religion or of the human mind, it will come, not from analyses of the individual or from inward experience, but from a study of the mental history of mankind, and especially of those ages in which human nature was fusile, still not yet cast in a mould, and rendered incapable of receiving new creations or impressions.
The study of the religions of the world has also a bearing on the present condition of the heathen. We cannot act upon men unless we understand them; we cannot raise or elevate their moral character unless we are able to draw from its concealment the seed of good which they already contain. It is a remarkable fact, that Christianity, springing up in the East, should have conquered the whole western world, and that in the East itself it should have scarcely extended its border, or even retained its original hold. ‘Westward the course of Christianity has taken its way;’ and now it seems as if the two ends of the world would no longer meet; as if differences of degree had extended to differences of kind in human nature, and that we cannot pass from one species to another. Whichever way we look, difficulties appear such as had no existence in the first ages: either barbarism, paling in the presence of a superior race, so that it can hardly be kept alive to receive Christianity, or the mummy-like civilization of China, which seems as though it could never become instinct with a new life, or Brahminism, outlasting in its pride many conquerors of the soil, or the nobler form of Mahomedanism; the religion of the patriarchs, as it were, overliving itself, preaching to the sons of Ishmael the God of Abraham, who had not yet revealed himself as man. These great systems of religious belief have been subject to some internal changes in a shifting world: the effect produced upon them from without is as yet scarcely perceptible. The attempt to move them is like a conflict between man and nature. And in some places it seems as if the wave had receded again after its advance, and some conversions have been dearly bought, either by the violence of persecution or the corruption or accommodation of the truth. Each sect of Christians has been apt to lend itself to the illusion that the great organic differences of human nature might be bridged over, could the Gospel of Christ be preached to the heathen in that precise form in which it is received by themselves; ‘if we could but land in remote countries, full armed in that particular system or way after which we in England worship the God of our Fathers.’ And often the words have been repeated, sometimes in the spirit of delusion, sometimes in that of faith and love: ‘Lift up your eyes, and behold the fields, that they are already white for harvest,’ when it was but a small corner of the field that was beginning to whiten, a few ears only which were ready for the reapers to gather.
And yet the command remains: ‘Go forth and preach the Gospel to every creature.’ Nor can any blessing be conceived greater than the spread of Christianity among heathen nations, nor any calling nobler or higher to which Christians can devote themselves. Why are we unable to fulfil this command in any effectual manner? Is it that the Gospel has had barriers set to it, and that the stream no longer overflows on the surrounding territory; that we have enough of this water for ourselves, but not enough for us and them? or that the example of nominal Christians, who are bent on their own trade or interest, destroys the lesson which has been preached by the ministers of religion? Yet the lives of believers did not prevent the spread of Christianity at Corinth and Ephesus. And it is hard to suppose that the religion which is true for ourselves has lost its vital power in the world.
The truth seems to be, not that Christianity has lost its power, but that we are seeking to propagate Christianity under circumstances which, during the eighteen centuries of its existence, it has never yet encountered. Perhaps there may have been a want of zeal, or discretion, or education in the preachers; sometimes there may have been too great a desire to impress on the mind of the heathen some peculiar doctrine, instead of the more general lesson of ‘righteousness, temperance, judgement to come.’ But however this may be, there is no reason to believe that even if a saint or apostle could rise from the dead, he would produce by his preaching alone, without the use of other means, any wide or deep impression on India or China. To restore life to those countries is a vast and complex work, in which many agencies have to co-operate—political, industrial, social; and missionary efforts, though a blessed, are but a small part; and the Government is not the less Christian because it seeks to rule a heathen nation on principles of truth and justice only. Let us not measure this great work by the number of communicants or converts. Even when wholly detached from Christianity, the true spirit of Christianity may animate it. The extirpation of crime, the administration of justice, the punishment of falsehood, may be regarded, without a figure of speech, as ‘the word of the Lord’ to a weak and deceitful people. Lessons of purity and love too flow insensibly out of improvement in the relations of social life. It is the disciple of Christ, not Christ himself, who would forbid us to give these to the many, because we can only give the Gospel to a very few. For it is of the millions, not of the thousands, in India that we must first give an account. Our relations to the heathen are different from those of Christians in former ages, and our progress in their conversion slower. The success which attends our efforts may be disparagingly compared with that of Boniface or Augustine; but if we look a little closer, we shall see no reason to regret that Providence has placed in our hands other instruments for the spread of Christianity besides the zeal of heroes and martyrs. The power to convert multitudes by a look or a word has passed away; but God has given us another means of ameliorating the condition of mankind, by acting on their circumstances, which works extensively rather than intensively, and is in some respects safer and less liable to abuse. The mission is one of governments rather than of churches or individuals. And if, in carrying it out, we seem to lose sight of some of the distinctive marks of Christianity, let us not doubt that the increase of justice and mercy, the growing sense of truth, even the progress of industry, are in themselves so many steps towards the kingdom of heaven.
In the direct preaching of the Gospel, no help can be greater than that which is gained from a knowledge of the heathen religions. The resident in heathen countries readily observes the surface of the world; he has no difficulty in learning the habits of the natives; he avoids irritating their fears or jealousies. It requires a greater effort to understand the mind of a people; to be able to rouse or calm them; to sympathize with them, and yet to rule them. But it is a higher and more commanding knowledge still to comprehend their religion, not only in its decline and corruption, but in its origin and idea,—to understand that which they misunderstand, to appeal to that which they reverence against themselves, to turn back the currents of thought and opinion which have flowed in their veins for thousands of years. Such is the kind of knowledge which St. Paul had when to the Jews he became as a Jew, that he might win some; which led him while placing the new and old in irreconcilable opposition, to bring forth the new out of the treasure-house of the old. No religion, at present existing in the world, stands in the same relation to Christianity that Judaism once did; there is no other religion which is prophetic or anticipatory of it. But neither is there any religion which does not contain some idea of truth, some notion of duty or obligation, some sense of dependence on God and brotherly love to man, some human feeling of home or country. As in the vast series of the animal creation, with its many omissions and interruptions, the eye of the naturalist sees a kind of continuity—some elements of the higher descending into the lower, rudiments of the lower appearing in the higher also—so the Christian philosopher, gazing on the different races and religions of mankind, seems to see in them a spiritual continuity, not without the thought crossing him that the God who has made of one blood all the nations of the earth may yet renew in them a common life, and that our increasing knowledge of the present and past history of the world, and the progress of civilization itself, may be the means which He has provided, working not always in the way which we expect—‘that his banished ones be not expelled from him.’
Natural religion, in the sense in which St. Paul appeals to its witness, is confined within narrower limits. It is a feeling rather than a philosophy; and rests not on arguments, but on impressions of God in nature. The Apostle, in the first chapter of the Romans, does not reason from first causes or from final causes; abstractions like these would not have been understood by him. Neither is he taking an historical survey of the religions of mankind; he touches, in a word only, on those who changed the glory of God into the ‘likeness of man, and birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things’ (Rom. i. 23), as on the differences of nations, in Acts xviii. 26. More truly may we describe him in the language of the Psalmist, the very vacancy of which has a peculiar meaning: ‘He lifts up his eyes to the hills from whence cometh his salvation.’ He wishes to inspire other men with that consciousness of God in all things which he himself feels: ‘in a dry and thirsty land where no water is,’ he would raise their minds to think of Him ‘who gave them rain from heaven and fruitful seasons;’ in the city of Pericles and Phidias he bids them turn from gilded statues and temples formed with hands, to the God who made of one blood all the nations of the earth, ‘who is not far from every one of us.’ Yet it is observable that he also begins by connecting his own thoughts with theirs, quoting ‘their own poets,’ and taking occasion, from an inscription which he found in their streets, to declare ‘the mystery which was once hidden, but now revealed.’
The appeal to the witness of God in nature has passed from the Old Testament into the New; it is one of the many points which the Epistles of St. Paul and the Psalms and Prophets have in common. ‘The invisible things from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made,’ is another way of saying, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handywork.’ Yet the conception of the Old Testament is not the same with that of the New: in the latter we seem to be more disengaged from the things of sense; the utterance of the former is more that of feeling, and less of reflection. One is the poetry of a primitive age, full of vivid immediate impressions; in the other nature is more distant—the freshness of the first vision of earth has passed away. The Deity himself, in the Hebrew Scriptures, has a visible form: as He appeared ‘with the body of heaven in his clearness;’ as He was seen by the prophet Ezekiel out of the midst of the fire and the whirlwind, ‘full of eyes within and without, and the spirit of the living creature in the wheels.’ But in the New Testament, ‘No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.’ And this difference leads to a further difference in His relation to His works. In what we term nature, the prophet beheld only the covering cherubim that veil the face of God: as He moves, earth moves to meet Him; ‘He maketh the winds his angels,’ ‘the heavens also bow before him.’ His voice, as the Psalmist says, is heard in the storm: ‘The Highest gives his thunder; at thy chiding, O Lord, the foundations of the round world are discovered.’ The wonders of creation are not ornaments or poetical figures, strewed over the pages of the Old Testament by the hand of the artist, but the frame in which it consists. And yet in this material garb the moral and spiritual nature of God is never lost sight of: in the conflict of the elements He is the free Lord over them; at His breath—the least exertion of His power—‘they come and flee away.’ He is spirit, not light—a person, not an element or principle; though creating all things by His word, and existing without reference to them, yet also, in His condescension, the God of the Jewish nation, and of individuals who serve Him. The terrible imagery in which the Psalmist delights to array His power is not inconsistent with the gentlest feelings of love and trust, such as are also expressed in the passage just now quoted: ‘I will love thee, O Lord, my strength.’ God is in nature because He is near also to the cry of His servants. The heart of man expands in His presence; he fears to die lest he should be taken from it. There is nothing like this in any other religion in the world. No Greek or Roman ever had the consciousness of love towards his God. No other sacred books can show a passage displaying such a range of feeling as the eighteenth or twenty-ninth Psalm—so awful a conception of the majesty of God, so true and tender a sense of His righteousness and lovingkindness. It is the same God who wields nature, who also brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt; who, even though the mother desert ‘her sucking child,’ will not ‘forget the work of his hands.’
But the God of nature in the Old Testament is not the God of storms or of battles only, but of peace and repose. Sometimes a sort of confidence fills the breast of the Psalmist, even in that land of natural convulsions: ‘He hath set the round world so fast that it cannot be moved.’ At other times the same peace seems to diffuse itself over the scenes of daily life: ‘The hills stand round about Jerusalem, even so is the Lord round about them that fear him.’ ‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.’ Then again the Psalmist wonders at the contrast between man and the other glories of creation: ‘When I consider the heavens, the work of thy hands, the moon and the stars, that thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him?’ Yet these ‘glories’ are the images also of a higher glory: Jerusalem itself is transfigured into a city in the clouds, and the tabernacle and temple become the pavilion of God on high. And the dawn of day in the prophecies, as well as in the Epistles, is the light which is to shine ‘for the healing of the nations.’ There are other passages in which the thought of the relation of God to nature calls forth a sort of exulting irony, and the prophet speaks of God, not so much as governing the world, as looking down upon it and taking His pastime in it: ‘It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the heavens, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers;’ or ‘he measureth the waters in the hollow of his hand;’ or ‘he taketh up the isles as a very little thing:’ the feeling of which may be compared with the more general language of St. Paul: ‘We are the clay and he the potter.’ The highest things on earth reach no farther than to suggest the reflection of their inferiority: ‘Behold even the sun, and it shineth not; and the moon is not pure in his sight.’
It is hard to say how far such meditations belong only to particular ages, or to particular temperaments in our own. Doubtless, the influence of natural scenery differs with difference of climate, pursuits, education. ‘The God of the hills is not the God of the valleys also;’ that is to say, the aspirations of the human heart are roused more by the singular and uncommon, than by the quiet landscape which presents itself in our own neighbourhood. The sailor has a different sense of the vastness of the great deep and the infinity of the heaven above, from what is possible to another. Dwellers in cities, no less than the inhabitants of the desert, gaze upon the stars with different feelings from those who see the ever-varying forms of the seasons. What impression is gathered, or what lesson conveyed, seems like matter of chance or fancy. The power of these sweet influences often passes away when language comes between us and them. Yet they are not mere dreams of our own creation. He who has lost, or has failed to acquire, this interest in the beauty of the world around, is without one of the greatest of earthly blessings. The voice of God in nature calls us away from selfish cares into the free air and the light of day. There, as in a world the face of which is not marred by human passion, we seem to feel ‘that the wicked cease from troubling, and the weary are at rest.’
It is impossible that our own feeling towards nature in the present day can be the same with that of the Psalmist; neither is that of the Psalmist the same with that of the Apostle; while, in the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes we seem to catch the echo of a strain different from either. To us, God is not in the whirlwind nor in the storm, nor in the earthquake, but in the still small voice. Is it not for the attempt to bring God nearer to us in the works of nature that we can truly conceive Him to be, that a poet of our own age has been subject to the charge of pantheism? God has removed himself out of our sight, that He may give us a greater idea of the immensity of His power. Perhaps it is impossible for us to have the wider and the narrower conception of God at the same time. We cannot see Him equally in the accidents of the world, when we think of Him as identified with its laws. But there is another way into His presence through our own hearts. He has given us the more circuitous path of knowledge; He has not closed against us the door of faith. He has enabled us, not merely to gaze with the eye on the forms and colours of Nature, but in a measure also to understand its laws, to wander over space and time in the contemplation of its mechanism, and yet to return again to ‘the meanest flower that breathes,’ for thoughts such as the other wonders of earth and sky are unable to impart.
It is a simpler, not a lower, lesson which we gather from the Apostle. First, he teaches that in Nature there is something to draw us from the visible to the invisible. The world to the Gentiles also had seemed full of innumerable deities; it is really full of the presence of Him who made it. Secondly, the Apostle teaches the universality of God’s providence over the whole earth. He covered it with inhabitants, to whom He gave their times and places of abode, ‘that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him.’ They are one family, ‘his offspring,’ notwithstanding the varieties of race, language, religion. As God is one, even so man is one in a common human nature—in the universality of sin, no less than the universality of redemption. A third lesson is the connexion of immorality and idolatry. They who lower the nature of God lower the nature of man also. Greek philosophy fell short of these lessons. Often as Plato speaks of the myths and legends of the gods, he failed to perceive the immorality of a religion of sense. Still less had any Greek imagined a brotherhood of all mankind, or a dispensation of God reaching backwards and forwards over all time. Its limitation was an essential principle of Greek life; it was confined to a narrow spot of earth, and to small cities; it could not include others besides Greeks; its gods were not gods of the world, but of Greece.
Aspects of Nature in different ages have changed before the eye of man; at times fruitful of many thoughts; at other times either unheeded or fading into insignificance in comparison of the inner world. When the Apostle spoke of the visible things which ‘witness of the divine power and glory,’ it was not the beauty of particular spots which he recalled; his eye was not satisfied with seeing the fairness of the country any more than the majesty of cities. He did not study the flittings of shadows on the hills, or even the movements of the stars in their courses. The plainest passages of the book of nature were, equally with the sublimest, the writing of a Divine hand. Neither was it upon scenes of earth that he was looking when he spoke of the ‘whole creation groaning together until now.’ Whatever associations of melancholy or pity may attach to places or states of the heavens, or to the condition of the inferior animals who seem to suffer for our sakes; it is not in these that the Apostle traces the indications of a ruined world, but in the misery and distraction of the heart of man. And the prospect on which he loves to dwell is not that of the promised land, as Moses surveyed it far and wide from the top of Pisgah, but the human race itself, the great family in heaven and earth, of which Christ is the head, reunited to the God who made it, when ‘there shall be neither barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but all one in Christ,’ the Apostle himself also waiting for the fuller manifestation of the sons of God, and sometimes carrying his thoughts yet further to that mysterious hour, when ‘the Son shall be subject to him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.’
When thoughts like these fill the mind, there is little room for reflection on the world without. Even the missionary in modern times hardly cares to go out of his way to visit a picturesque country or the monuments of former ages. He is ‘determined to know one thing only, Christ crucified.’ Of the beauties of creation, his chief thought is that they are the work of God. He does not analyze them by rules of taste, or devise material out of them for literary discourse. The Apostle, too, in the abundance of his revelations, has an eye turned inward on another world. It is not that he is dead to Nature, but that it is out of his way; not as in the Old Testament, the veil or frame of the Divine presence, but only the background of human nature and of revelation. When speaking of the heathen, it comes readily into his thoughts; it never seems to occur to him in connexion with the work of Christ. He does not read mysteries in the leaves of the forest, or see the image of the cross in the forms of the tree, or find miracles of design in the complex structures of animal life. His thoughts respecting the works of God are simpler, and also deeper. The child and the philosopher alike hear a witness in the first chapter of the Romans, or in the discourse of the Apostle on Mars’ Hill, or at Lystra, which the mystic fancies of Neoplatonism, and the modern evidences of natural theology, fail to convey to them.
In the common use of language natural religion is opposed to revealed. That which men know, or seem to know, of themselves, which if the written word were to be destroyed would still remain, which existed prior to revelation, and which might be imagined to survive it, which may be described as general rather than special religion, as Christianity rationalized into morality, which speaks of God, but not of Christ—of nature, but not of grace—has been termed natural religion. Philosophical arguments for the being of a God are comprehended under the same term. It is also used to denote a supposed primitive or patriarchal religion, whether based on a primaeval revelation or not, from which the mythologies or idolatries of the heathen world are conceived to be offshoots.
The line has been sometimes sharply drawn between natural and revealed religion; in other ages of the world, the two have been allowed to approximate, or be almost identified with each other. Natural religion has been often depressed with a view to the exaltation of revealed; the feebleness of the one seeming to involve a necessity for the other. Natural religion has sometimes been regarded as the invention of human reason; at other times, as the decaying sense of a primaeval revelation. Yet natural and revealed religion, in the sense in which it is attempted to oppose them, are contrasts rather of words than of ideas. For who can say where the one begins and the other ends? Who will determine how many elements of Scriptural truth enter into modern philosophy or the opinions of the world in general? Who can analyze how much, even in a Christian country, is really of heathen origin? Revealed religion is ever taking the form of the voice of Nature within; experience is ever modifying our application of the truths of Scripture. The ideal of Christian life is more easily distinguishable from the ideal of Greek and Roman, than the elements of opinion and belief which have come from a Christian source are from those which come from a secular or heathen one. Education itself tends to obliterate the distinction. The customs, laws, principles of a Christian nation may be regarded either as a compromise between the two, or as a harmony of them. We cannot separate the truths of Christianity from Jewish or heathen anticipations of them; nor can we say how far the common sense or morality of the present day is indirectly dependent on the Christian religion.
And if, turning away from the complexity of human life in our own age to the beginning of things, we try to conceive revelation in its purity before it came into contact with other influences, or mingled in the great tide of political and social existence, we are still unable to distinguish between natural and revealed religion. Our difficulty is like the old Aristotelian question, how to draw the line between the moral and intellectual faculties. Let us imagine a first moment at which revelation came into the world; there must still have been some prior state which made revelation possible: in other words, revealed religion presupposes natural. The mind was not a tabula rasa, on which the characters of truth had to be inscribed; that is a mischievous notion, which only perplexes our knowledge of the origin of things, whether in individuals or in the race. If we say that this prior state is a Divine preparation for the giving of the Law of Moses, or the spread of Christianity, the difference becomes one of degree which admits of no sharp contrast. Revealed religion has already taken the place of natural, and natural religion extended itself into the province of revealed. Many persons who are fond of discovering traces of revelation in the religions of the Gentile world, resent the intrusion of natural elements into Scripture or Christianity. Natural religion they are willing to see identified with revealed, but not revealed with natural; all Nature may be a miracle, but miracles are not reducible to the course of Nature. But here is only a play between words which derive their meaning from contrast; the phenomena are the same, but we read them by a different light. And sometimes it may not be without advantage to lay aside the two modes of expression, and think only of that ‘increasing purpose which through the ages ran.’ Religious faith strikes its roots deeper into the past, and wider over the world, when it acknowledges Nature as well as Scripture.
But although the opposition of natural and revealed religion is an opposition of abstractions, to which no facts really correspond, the term natural religion may be conveniently used to describe that aspect or point of view in which religion appears when separated from Judaism or Christianity. It will embrace all conceptions of religion or morality which are not consciously derived from the Old or New Testament. The favourite notion of a common or patriarchal religion need not be excluded. Natural religion, in this comprehensive sense, may be divided into two heads, which the ambiguity of the word nature has sometimes helped to confuse. First, (i.) the religion of nature before revelation, such as may be supposed to have existed among the patriarchs, or to exist still among primitive peoples, who have not yet been enlightened by Christianity, or debased by idolatry; such (ii.) more truly, as the religions of the Gentile world were and are. Secondly, the religion of nature in a Christian country; either the evidences of religion which are derived from a source independent of the written word, or the common sense of religion and morality, which affords a rule of life to those who are not the subjects of special Christian influences.
i. Natural religion in the first sense is an idea and not a fact. The same tendency in man which has made him look fondly on a golden age, has made him look back also to a religion of nature. Like the memory of childhood, the thought of the past has a strange power over us; imagination lends it a glory which is not its own. What can be more natural than that the shepherd, wandering over the earth beneath the wide heavens, should ascend in thought to the throne of the Invisible? There is a refreshment to the fancy in thinking of the morning of the world’s day, when the sun arose pure and bright, ere the clouds of error darkened the earth. Everywhere, as a fact, the first inhabitants of earth of whom history has left a memorial are sunk in helpless ignorance. Yet there must have been a time, it is conceived, of which there are no memorials, earlier still; when the Divine image was not yet lost, when men’s wants were few and their hearts innocent, ere cities had taken the place of fields, or art of nature. The revelation of God to the first father of the human race must have spread itself in an ever-widening circle to his posterity. We pierce through one layer of superstition to another, in the hope of catching the light beyond, like children digging to find the sun in the bosom of the earth.
The origin of an error so often illustrates the truth, that it is worth while to pause for an instant and consider the source of this fallacy, which in all ages has exerted a great influence on mankind, reproducing itself in many different forms among heathen as well as Christian writers. In technical language, it might be described as the fallacy of putting what is intelligible in the place of what is true. It is easy to draw an imaginary picture of a golden or pastoral age, such as poetry has always described it. The mode of thought is habitual and familiar, the phrases which delineate it are traditional, handed on from one set of poets to another, repeated by one school of theologians to the next. It is a different task to imagine the old world as it truly was, that is, as it appears to us, dimly yet certainly, by the unmistakable indications of language and of mythology. It is hard to picture scenes of external nature unlike what we have ever beheld: but it is harder far so to lay aside ourselves as to imagine an inner world unlike our own, forms of belief, not simply absurd, but indescribable and unintelligible to us. No one, probably, who has not realized the differences of the human mind in different ages and countries, either by contact with heathen nations or the study of old language and mythology, with the help of such a parallel as childhood offers to the infancy of the world, will be willing to admit them in their full extent.
Instead of this difficult and laborious process, we readily conceive of man in the earliest stages of society as not different, but only less than we are. We suppose him deprived of the arts, unacquainted with the truths of Christianity, without the knowledge obtained from books, and yet only unlike us in the simplicity of his tastes and habitudes. We generalize what we are ourselves, and drop out the particular circumstances and details of our lives, and then suppose ourselves to have before us the dweller in Mesopotamia in the days of Abraham, or the patriarchs going down to gather corn in Egypt. This imaginary picture of a patriarchal religion has had such charms for some minds, that they have hoped to see it realized on the wreck of Christianity itself. They did not perceive that they were deluding themselves with a vacant dream which has never yet filled the heart of man.
Philosophers have illustrated the origin of government by a picture of mankind meeting together in a large plain, to determine the rights of governors and subjects; in like manner we may assist imagination, by conceiving the multitude of men with their tribes, races, features, languages, convoked in the plains of the East, to hear from some inspired legislator as Moses, or from the voice of God himself, a revelation about God and nature, and their future destiny; such a revelation in the first day of the world’s history as the day of judgement will be at the last. Let us fix our minds, not on the Giver of the revelation, but on the receivers of it. Must there not have been in them some common sense, or faculty, or feeling, which made them capable of receiving it? Must there not have been an apprehension which made it a revelation to them? Must they not all first have been of one language and one speech? And, what is implied by this, must they not all have had one mental structure, and received the same impressions from external objects, the same lesson from nature? Or, to put the hypothesis in another form, suppose that by some electric power the same truth could have been made to sound in the ears and flash before the eyes of all, would they not have gone their ways, one to tents, another to cities; one to be a tiller of the ground, another to be a feeder of sheep; one to be a huntsman, another to be a warrior; one to dwell in woods and forests, another in boundless plains; one in valleys, one on mountains, one beneath the liquid heaven of Greece and Asia, another in the murky regions of the north? And amid all this diversity of habits, occupations, scenes, climates, what common truth of religion could we expect to remain while man was man, the creature in a great degree of outward circumstances? Still less reason would there be to expect the preservation of a primaeval truth throughout the world, if we imagine the revelation made, not to the multitude of men, but to a single individual, and not committed to writing for above two thousand years.
ii. The theory of a primitive tradition, common to all mankind, has only to be placed distinctly before the mind, to make us aware that it is the fabric of a vision. But, even if it were conceivable, it would be inconsistent with facts. Ancient history says nothing of a general religion, but of particular national ones; of received beliefs about places and persons, about animal life, about the sun, moon, and stars, about the Divine essence permeating the world, about gods in the likeness of men appearing in battles and directing the course of states, about the shades below, about sacrifices, purifications, initiations, magic, mysteries. These were the religions of nature, which in historical times have received from custom also a second nature. Early poetry shows us the same religions in a previous stage, while they are still growing, and fancy is freely playing around the gods of its own creation. Language and mythology carry us a step further back, into a mental world yet more distant and more unlike our own. That world is a prison of sense, in which outward objects take the place of ideas; in which morality is a fact of nature, and ‘wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.’ Human beings in that pre-historic age seem to have had only a kind of limited intelligence; they were the slaves, as we should say, of association. They were rooted in particular spots, or wandered up and down upon the earth, confusing themselves and God and nature, gazing timidly on the world around, starting at their very shadows, and seeing in all things a superhuman power at the mercy of which they were. They had no distinction of body and soul, mind and matter, physical and moral. Their conceptions were neither here nor there; neither sensible objects, nor symbols of the unseen. Their gods were very near; the neighbouring hill or passing stream, brute matter as we regard it, to them a divinity, because it seemed inspired with a life like their own. They could not have formed an idea of the whole earth, much less of the God who made it. Their mixed modes of thought, their figures of speech, which are not figures, their personifications of nature, their reflections of the individual upon the world, and of the world upon the individual, the omnipresence to them of the sensuous and visible, indicate an intellectual state which it is impossible for us, with our regular divisions of thought, even to conceive. We must raze from the table of the mind their language, ere they could become capable of a universal religion.
But although we find no vestiges of a primaeval revelation, and cannot imagine how such a revelation could have been possible consistently with those indications of the state of man which language and mythology supply, it is true, nevertheless, that the primitive peoples of mankind have a religious principle common to all. Religion, rather than reason, is the faculty of man in the earliest stage of his existence. Reverence for powers above him is the first principle which raises the individual out of himself; the germ of political order, and probably also of social life. It is the higher necessity of nature, as hunger and the animal passions are the lower. ‘The clay’ falls before the rising dawn; it may stumble over stocks and stones; but it is struggling upwards into a higher day. The worshipper is drawn as by a magnet to some object out of himself. He is weak and must have a god; he has the feeling of a slave towards his master, of a child towards its parents, of the lower animals towards himself. The being whom he serves is, like himself, passionate and capricious; he sees him starting up everywhere in the unmeaning accidents of life. The good which he values himself he attributes to him; there is no proportion in his ideas; the great power of nature is the lord also of sheep and oxen. Sometimes, with childish joy, he invites the god to drink of his beverage or eat of his food; at other times, the orgies which he enacts before him, lead us seriously to ask the question ‘whether religion may not in truth have been a kind of madness.’ He propitiates him and is himself soothed and comforted; again he is at his mercy, and propitiates him again. So the dream of life is rounded to the poor human creature: incapable as he is of seeing his true Father, religion seems to exercise over him a fatal overpowering influence; the religion of nature we cannot call it, for that would of itself lead to a misconception, but the religion of the place in which he lives, of the objects which he sees, of the tribe to which he belongs, of the animal forms which range in the wilds around him, mingling strangely with the witness of his own spirit that there is in the world a being above him.
Out of this troubled and perplexed state of the human fancy the great religions of the world arose, all of them in different degrees affording a rest to the mind, and reducing to rule and measure the wayward impulses of human nature. All of them had a history in antecedent ages; there is no stage in which they do not offer indications of an earlier religion which preceded them. Whether they came into being, like some geological formations, by slow deposits, or, like others, by the shock of an earthquake, that is, by some convulsion and settlement of the human mind, is a question which may be suggested, but cannot be answered. The Hindoo Pantheon, even in the antique form in which the world of deities is presented in the Vedas, implies a growth of fancy and ceremonial which may have continued for thousands of years. Probably at a much earlier period than we are able to trace them, religions, like languages, had their distinctive characters with corresponding differences in the first rude constitution of society. As in the case of languages, it is a fair subject of inquiry, whether they do not all mount up to some elementary type in which they were more nearly allied to sense; a primaeval religion, in which we may imagine the influence of nature was analogous to the first impressions of the outward world on the infant’s wandering eyesight, and the earliest worship may be compared with the first use of signs or stammering of speech. Such a religion we may conceive as springing from simple instinct; yet an instinct higher, even in its lowest degree, than the instinct of the animal creation; in which the fear of nature combined with the assertion of sway over it, which had already a law of progress, and was beginning to set bounds to the spiritual chaos. Of this aboriginal state we only ‘entertain conjecture;’ it is beyond the horizon, even when the eye is strained to the uttermost.
But if the first origin of the heathen religions is in the clouds, their decline, though a phenomenon with which we are familiar in history, of which in some parts of the world we are living witnesses, is also obscure to us. The kind of knowledge that we have of them is like our knowledge of the ways of animals; we see and observe, but we cannot get inside them; we cannot think or feel with their worshippers. Most or all of them are in a state of decay; they have lost their life or creative power; once adequate to the wants of man, they have ceased to be so for ages. Naturally we should imagine that the religion itself would pass away when its meaning was no longer understood; that with the spirit, the letter too would die; that when the circumstances of a nation changed, the rites of worship to which they had given birth would be forgotten. The reverse is the fact. Old age affords examples of habits which become insane and inveterate at a time when they have no longer an object; that is an image of the antiquity of religions. Modes of worship, rules of purification, set forms of words, cling with a greater tenacity when they have no meaning or purpose. The habit of a week or a month may be thrown off; not the habit of a thousand years. The hand of the past lies heavily on the present in all religions; in the East it is a yoke which has never been shaken off. Empire, freedom, among the educated classes belief may pass away, and yet the routine of ceremonial continues; the political glory of a religion may be set at the time when its power over the minds of men is most ineradicable.
One of our first inquiries in reference to the elder religions of the world is how we may adjust them to our own moral and religious ideas. Moral elements seem at first sight to be wholly wanting in them. In the modern sense of the term, they are neither moral nor immoral, but natural; they have no idea of right and wrong, as distinct from the common opinion or feeling of their age and country. No action in Homer, however dishonourable or treacherous, calls forth moral reprobation. Neither gods nor men are expected to present any ideal of justice or virtue; their power or splendour may be the theme of the poet’s verse, not their truth or goodness. The only principle on which the Homeric deities reward mortals, is in return for gifts and sacrifices, or from personal attachment. A later age made a step forwards in morality and backwards at the same time; it acquired clearer ideas of right and wrong, but found itself encumbered with conceptions of fate and destiny. The vengeance of the Eumenides has but a rude analogy with justice; the personal innocence of the victim whom the gods pursued is a part of the interest, in some instances, of Greek tragedy. Higher and holier thoughts of the Divine nature appear in Pindar and Sophocles, and philosophy sought to make religion and mythology the vehicles of moral truth. But it was no part of their original meaning.
Yet, in a lower sense, it is true that the heathen religions, even in their primitive form, are not destitute of morality. Their morality is unconscious morality, not ‘man a law to himself,’ but ‘man bound by the will of a superior being.’ Ideas of right and wrong have no place in them, yet the first step has been made from sense and appetite into the ideal world. He who denies himself something, who offers up a prayer, who practises a penance, performs an act, not of necessity, nor of choice, but of duty; he does not simply follow the dictates of passion, though he may not be able to give a reason for the performance of his act. He whose God comes first in his mind has an element within him which in a certain degree sanctifies his life by raising him above himself. He has some common interest with other men, some unity in which he is comprehended with them. There is a preparation for thoughts yet higher; he contrasts the permanence of divine and the fleeting nature of human things; while the generations of men pass away ‘like leaves,’ the form of his God is unchanging, and grows not old.
Differences in modes of thought render it difficult for us to appreciate what spiritual elements lurked in disguise among the primitive peoples of mankind. Many allowances must be made before we judge them by our own categories. They are not to be censured for indecency because they had symbols which to after ages became indecent and obscene. Neither were they mere fetish worshippers because they use sensuous expressions. Religion, like language, in early ages takes the form of sense, but that form of sense is also the embodiment of thought. The stream and the animal are not adored by man in heathen countries because they are destitute of life or reason, but because they seem to him full of mystery and power. It was with another feeling than that of a worshipper of matter that the native of the East first prostrated himself before the rising sun, in whose beams his nature seemed to revive, and his soul to be absorbed. The most childish superstitions are often nothing more than misunderstood relics of antiquity. There are the remains of fetishism in the charms and cures of Christian countries; no one regards the peasant who uses them as a fetish worshipper. Many other confusions have their parallel among ourselves; if we only knew it. For indeed our own ideas in religion, as in everything else, seem clearer to us than they really are, because they are our own. To expect the heathen religions to conform to other modes of thought, is as if the inhabitant of one country were to complain of the inhabitant of another for not speaking the same language with him. Our whole attitude towards nature is different from theirs: to us all is ‘law;’ to them it was all life and fancy, inconsecutive as a dream. Nothing is more deeply fixed to us than the dualism of body and soul, mind and matter; they knew of no such distinction. But we cannot infer from this a denial of the existence of mind or soul; because they use material images, it would be ridiculous to describe the Psalmist or the prophet Isaiah as materialists; whether in heathen poets or in the Jewish Scriptures, such language belongs to an intermediate state, which has not yet distinguished the spheres of the spiritual and the sensuous. Childhood has been often used as the figure of such a state, but the figure is only partially true, for the childhood of the human race is the childhood of grown up men, and in the child of the nineteenth century there is a piece also of the man of the nineteenth century. Less obvious differences in speech and thought are more fallacious. The word ‘God’ means something as dissimilar among ourselves and the Greeks as can possibly be imagined; even in Greek alone the difference of meaning can hardly be exaggerated. It includes beings as unlike each other as the muscular, eating and drinking deities of Homer, and the abstract Being of Parmenides, or the Platonic idea of good. All religions of the world use it, however different their conceptions of God may be—polytheistic, pantheistic, monotheistic: it is universal, and also individual; or rather, from being universal, it has become individual, a logical process which has quickened and helped to develop the theological one. Other words, such as prayer, sacrifice, expiation, in like manner vary in meaning with the religion of which they are the expression. The Homeric sacrifice is but a feast of gods and men, destitute of any sacrificial import. Under expiations for sin are included two things which to us are distinct, atonement for moral guilt and accidental pollution. Similar ambiguities occur in the ideas of a future life. The sapless ghosts in Homer are neither souls nor bodies, but a sort of shadowy beings. A like uncertainty extends in the Eastern religions to some of the first principles of thought and being: whether the negative is not also a positive; whether the mind of man is not also God; whether this world is not another; whether privation of existence may not in some sense be existence still.
These are a few of the differences for which we have to allow in a comparison of our own and other times and countries. We must say to ourselves, at every step, human nature in that age was unlike the human nature with which we are acquainted, in language, in modes of thought, in morality, in its conception of the world. Yet it was more like than these differences alone would lead us to suppose. The feelings of men draw nearer than their thoughts; their natural affections are more uniform than their religious systems. Marriage, burial, worship, are at least common to all nations. There never has been a time in which the human race was absolutely without social laws; in which there was no memory of the past; no reverence for a higher power. More defined religious ideas, where the understanding comes into play, grow more different; it is by comparison they are best explained; like natural phenomena, they derive their chief light from analogy with each other. Travelling in thought from China, by way of India, Persia, and Egypt, to the northern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, we distinguish a succession of stages in which the worship of nature is developed; in China as the rule or form of political life, almost grovelling on the level of sense; in India rising into regions of thought and fancy, and allowing a corresponding play in the institutions and character of the people; in Egypt wrapping itself in the mystery of antiquity, becoming the religion of death and of the past; in Persia divided between light and darkness, good and evil, the upper and the under world; in Phoenicia, fierce and licentious, imbued with the spirit of conquest and colonization. These are the primary strata of the religions of mankind, often shifting their position, and sometimes overlapping each other; they are distinguished from the secondary strata, as the religions of nations from the inspirations of individuals. Thrown into the form of abstraction, they express the various degrees of distinctness with which man realizes his own existence or that of a Divine Being and the relations between them. But they are also powers which have shaped the course of events in the world. The secret is contained in them, why one nation has been free, another a slave; why one nation has dwelt like ants upon a hillock, another has swept over the earth; why one nation has given up its life almost without a struggle, while another has been hewn limb from limb in the conflict with its conquerors. All these religions contributed to the polytheism of Greece; some elements derived from them being absorbed in the first origin of the Greek religion and language, others acting by later contact, some also by contrast.
We may conclude this portion of our subject with a few remarks on the Greek and Roman religions, which have a peculiar interest to us for several reasons: first, because they have exercised a vast influence on modern Europe, the one through philosophy, the other through law, and both through literature and poetry; secondly, because, almost alone of the heathen religions, they came into contact with early Christianity; thirdly, because they are the religions of ancient, as Christianity is of modern civilization.
The religion of Greece is remarkable for being a literature as well as a religion. Its deities are ‘nameless’ to us before Homer; to the Greek himself it began with the Olympic family. Whatever dim notions existed of chaos and primaeval night—of struggles for ascendency between the elder and younger gods, these fables are buried out of sight before Greek mythology begins. The Greek came forth at the dawn of day, himself a youth in the youth of the world, drinking in the life of nature at every pore. The form which his religion took was fixed by the Homeric poems, which may be regarded as standing in the same relation to the religion of Greece as sacred books to other forms of religion. It cannot be said that they aroused the conscience of men; the more the Homeric poems are considered, the more evident it becomes that they have no inner life of morality like Hebrew prophecy, no Divine presence of good slowly purging away the mist that fills the heart of man. What they implanted, what they preserved in the Greek nation, was not the sense of truth or right, but the power of conception and expression—harmonies of language and thought which enabled man to clothe his ideas in forms of everlasting beauty. They stamped the Greek world as the world of art; its religion became the genius of art. And more and more in successive generations, with the co-operation of some political causes, the hand of art impressed itself on religion; in poetry, in sculpture, in architecture, in festivals and dramatic contests, until in the artistic phase of human life the religious is absorbed. And the form of man, and the intellect of man, as if in sympathy with this artistic development, attained a symmetry and power of which the world has never seen the like.
And yet the great riddle of existence was not answered: its deeper mysteries were not explored. The strife of man with himself was healed only superficially; there was beauty and proportion everywhere, but no ‘true being.’ The Jupiter Olympius of Phidias might seem worthy to preside over the Greek world which he summoned before him; the Olympic victor might stand godlike in the fullness of manly vigour; but where could the weak and mean appear? what place was found for the slave or captive? Could bereaved parents acquiesce in the ‘sapless shades’ of Homer, or the moral reflections of Thucydides? Was there not some deeper intellectual or spiritual want which man felt, some taste of immortality which he had sometimes experienced, which made him dissatisfied with his earthly state?
No religion that failed to satisfy these cries of nature could become the religion of mankind. Greek art and Greek literature, losing something of their original refinement, spread themselves over the Roman world; except Christianity, they have become the richest treasure of modern Europe. But the religion of Greece never really grew in another soil, or beneath another heaven; it was local and national: dependent on the fine and subtle perceptions of the Greek race; though it amalgamated its deities with those of Egypt and Rome, its spirit never swayed mankind. It has a truer title to permanence and universality in the circumstance that it gave birth to philosophy.
The Greek mind passed, almost unconsciously to itself, from polytheism to monotheism. While offering up worship to the Dorian Apollo, performing vows to Esculapius, panic-stricken about the mutilation of the Hermae, the Greek was also able to think of God as an idea, Θεός not Ζεύς. In this generalized or abstract form the Deity presided over daily life. Not a century after Anaxagoras had introduced the distinction of mind and matter, it was the belief of all philosophic inquirers that God was mind, or the object of mind. The Homeric gods were beginning to be out of place; philosophy could not distinguish Apollo from Athene, or Leto from Here. Unlike the saints of the middle ages, they suggested no food for meditation; they were only beautiful forms, without individual character. By the side of religion and art, speculation had arisen and waxed strong, or rather it might be described as the inner life which sprang from their decay. The clouds of mythology hung around it; its youth was veiled in forms of sense; it was itself a new sort of poetry or religion. Gradually it threw off the garment of sense; it revealed a world of ideas. It is impossible for us to conceive the intensity of these ideas in their first freshness; they were not ideas, but gods, penetrating into the soul of the disciple, sinking into the mind of the human race; objects, not of speculation only, but of faith and love. To the old Greek religion, philosophy might be said to stand in a relation not wholly different from that which the New Testament bears to the Old; the one putting a spiritual world in the place of a temporal, the other an intellectual in the place of a sensuous; and to mankind in general it taught an everlasting lesson, not indeed that of the Gospel of Christ, but one in a lower degree necessary for man, enlarging the limits of the human mind itself, and providing the instruments of every kind of knowledge.
What the religion of Greece was to philosophy and art, that the Roman religion may be said to have been to political and social life. It was the religion of the family; the religion also of the empire of the world. Beginning in rustic simplicity, the traces of which it ever afterwards retained, it grew with the power of the Roman state, and became one with its laws. No fancy or poetry moulded the forms of the Roman gods; they are wanting in character and hardly distinguishable from one another. Not what they were, but their worship, is the point of interest about them. Those inanimate beings occasionally said a patriotic word at some critical juncture of the Roman affairs, but they had no attributes or qualities; they are the mere impersonation of the needs of the state. They were easily identified in civilized and literary times with the Olympic deities, but the transformation was only superficial. Greece never conquered the religion of its masters. Great as was the readiness in later times to admit the worship of foreign deities, endless as were the forms of private superstition, these intrusions never weakened or broke the legal hold of the Roman religion. It was truly the ‘established’ religion. It represented the greatness and power of Rome. The deification of the Emperor, though disagreeable to the more spiritual and intellectual feelings of that age of the world, was its natural development. While Rome lasted the Roman religion lasted; like some vast fabric which the destroyers of a great city are unable wholly to demolish, it continued, though in ruins, after the irruption of the Goths, and has exercised, through the medium of the civil law, a power over modern Europe.
More interesting for us than the pursuit of this subject into further details is the inquiry, in what light the philosopher regarded the religious system within the circle of which he lived; the spirit of which animated Greek and Roman poetry, the observance of which was the bond of states. In the age of the Antonines, more than six hundred years had passed away since the Athenian people first became conscious of the contrariety of the two elements; and yet the wedge which philosophy had inserted in the world seemed to have made no impression on the deeply rooted customs of mankind. The ever-flowing stream of ideas as too feeble to overthrow the intrenchments of antiquity. The course of individuals might be turned by philosophy; it was not intended to reconstruct the world. It looked on and watched, seeming, in the absence of any real progress, to lose its original force. Paganism tolerated; it had nothing to fear. Socrates and Plato in an earlier, Seneca and Epictetus in a later age, acquiesced in this heathen world, unlike as it was to their own intellectual conceptions of a divine religion. No Greek or Roman philosopher was also a great reformer of religion. Some, like Socrates, were punctual in the observance of religious rites, paying their vows to the gods, fearful of offending against the letter as well as the spirit of divine commands; they thought it was hardly worth while to rationalize the Greek mythology, when there were so many things nearer home to do. Others, like the Epicureans, transferred the gods into a distant heaven, where they were no more heard of; some, like the Stoics, sought to awaken a deeper sense of moral responsibility. There were devout men, such as Plutarch, who thought with reverence of the past, seeking to improve the old heathen faith, and also lamenting its decline; there were scoffers, too, like Lucian, who found inexhaustible amusement in the religious follies of mankind. Others, like Herodotus in earlier ages, accepted with childlike faith the more serious aspect of heathenism, or contented themselves, like Thucydides, with ignoring it. The world, ‘wholly given to idolatry,’ was a strange inconsistent spectacle to those who were able to reflect, which was seen in many points of view. The various feelings with which different classes of men regarded the statues, temples, sacrifices, oracles, and festivals of the gods, with which they looked upon the conflict of religions meeting on the banks of the Tiber, are not exhausted in the epigrammatic formula of the modern historian: ‘All the heathen religions were looked upon by the vulgar as equally true, by the philosopher as equally false, by the magistrate as equally useful.’
Such was the later phase of the religion of nature, with which Christianity came into conflict. It had supplied some of the needs of men by assisting to build up the fabric of society and law. It had left room for others to find expression in philosophy or art. But it was a world divided against itself. It contained two nations or opinions ‘struggling in its womb;’ the nation or opinion of the many, and the nation or opinion of the few. It was bound together in the framework of law or custom, yet its morality fell below the natural feelings of mankind, and its religious spirit was confused and weakened by the admixture of foreign superstitions. It was a world of which it is not difficult to find traces that it was self-condemned. It might be compared to a fruit, the rind of which was hard and firm, while within it was soft and decaying Within this outer rind or circle, for two centuries and a half, Christianity was working; at last it appeared without, itself the seed or kernel of a new organization. That when the conflict was over, and the world found itself Christian, many elements of the old religion still remained, and reasserted themselves in Christian forms; that the ‘ghost of the dead Roman Empire’ lingered ‘about the grave thereof;’ that Christianity accomplished only imperfectly what heathenism failed to do at all, is a result unlike pictures that are sometimes drawn, but sadly in accordance with what history teaches of mankind and of human nature.
Natural religion is not only concerned with the history of the religions of nature, nor does it only reflect that ‘light of the Gentiles’ which philosophy imparted; it has to do with the present as well as with the past, with Christian as well as heathen countries. Revealed religion passes into natural, and natural religion exists side by side with revealed; there is a truth independent of Christianity; and the daily life of Christian men is very different from the life of Christ. This general or natural religion may be compared to a wide-spread lake, shallow and motionless, rather than to a living water—the overflowing of the Christian faith over a professing Christian world, the level of which may be at one time higher or lower; it is the religion of custom or prescription, or rather the unconscious influence of religion on the minds of men in general; it includes also the speculative idea of religion when taken off the Christian foundation. Natural religion, in this modern sense, has a relation both to philosophy and life. That is to say (1), it is a theory of religion which appeals to particular evidences for the being of a God, though resting, perhaps more safely, on the general conviction that ‘this universal frame cannot want a mind.’ But it has also a relation to life and practice (2), for it is the religion of the many; the average, as it may be termed, of religious feeling in a Christian land, the leaven of the Gospel hidden in the world. St. Paul speaks of those ‘who knowing not the law are a law unto themselves.’ Experience seems to show that something of the same kind must be acknowledged in Christian as well as in heathen countries; which may be conveniently considered under the head of natural religion.
Arguments for the being of a God are of many kinds. There are arguments from final causes, and arguments from first causes, and arguments from ideas; logical forms, as they appear to be, in which different metaphysical schools mould their faith. Of the first sort the following may be taken as an instance:—A person walking on the seashore finds a watch or other piece of mechanism; he observes its parts, and their adaptation to each other; he sees the watch in motion, and comprehends the aim of the whole. In the formation of that senseless material he perceives that which satisfies him that it is the work of intelligence, or, in other words, the marks of design. And looking from the watch to the world around him, he seems to perceive innumerable ends, and innumerable actions tending to them, in the composition of the world itself, and in the structure of plants and animals. Advancing a step further, he asks himself the question, why he should not acknowledge the like marks of design in the moral world also; in passions and actions, and in the great end of life. Of all there is the same account to be given—‘the machine of the world,’ of which God is the Maker.
This is the celebrated argument from final causes for the being of a God, the most popular of the arguments of natural religion, partly because it admits of much ingenious illustration, and also because it is tangible and intelligible. Ideas of a Supreme Being must be given through something, for it is impossible that we should know Him as He is. And the truest representation that we can form of God is, in one sense, that which sets forth His nature most vividly; yet another condition must also be remembered, viz. that this representation ought not only to be the most distinct, but the highest and holiest possible. Because we cannot see Him as He is, that is no reason for attributing to Him the accidents of human personality. And, in using figures of speech, we are bound to explain to all who are capable of understanding, that we speak in a figure only, and to remind them that names by which we describe the being or attributes of God need a correction in the silence of thought. Even logical categories may give as false a nation of the Divine nature in our own age, as graven images in the days of the patriarchs. However legitimate or perhaps necessary the employment of them may be, we must place ourselves not below, but above them.
(α) In the argument from final causes, the work of the Creator is compared to a work of art. Art is a poor figure of nature; it has no freedom or luxuriance. Between the highest work of art and the lowest animal or vegetable production, there is an interval which will never be spanned. The miracle of life derives no illustration from the handicraftsman putting his hand to the chisel, or anticipating in idea the form which he is about to carve. More truly might we reason, that what the artist is, the God of nature is not. For all the processes of nature are unlike the processes of art. If, instead of a watch, or some other piece of curious and exquisite workmanship, we think of a carpenter and a table, the force of the argument seems to vanish, and the illustration becomes inappropriate and unpleasing. The ingenuity and complexity of the structure, and not the mere appearance of design, makes the watch a natural image of the creation of the world.
(β) But not only does the conception of the artist supply no worthy image of the Creator and His work; the idea of design which is given by it requires a further correction before it can be transferred to nature. The complication of the world around us is quite different from the complexity of the watch. It is not a regular and finite structure, but rather infinite in irregularity; which instead of design often exhibits absence of design, such as we cannot imagine any architect of the world contriving; the construction of which is far from appearing, even to our feeble intelligence, the best possible, though it, and all things in it, are very good. If we fix our minds on this very phrase ‘the machine of the world,’ we become aware that it is unmeaning to us. The watch is separated and isolated from other matter; dependent indeed on one or two general laws of nature, but otherwise cut off from things around. But nature, the more we consider it, the more does one part appear to be linked with another; there is no isolation here; the plants grow in the soil which has been preparing for them through a succession of geological eras, they are fed by the rain and nourished by light and air; the animals depend for their life on all inferior existences.
(γ) This difference between art and nature leads us to observe another defect in the argument from final causes—that, instead of putting the world together, it takes it to pieces. It fixes our minds on those parts of the world which exhibit marks of design, and withdraws us from those in which marks of design seem to fail. There are formations in nature, such as the hand, which have a kind of mechanical beauty, and show in a striking way, even to an uneducated person, the wonder and complexity of creation. In like manner we feel a momentary surprise in finding out, through the agency of a microscope, that the minutest creatures have their fibres, tissues, vessels. And yet the knowledge of this is but the most fragmentary and superficial knowledge of nature; it is the wonder in which philosophy begins, very different from the comprehension of this universal frame in all its complexity and in all its minuteness. And from this elementary notion of nature, we seek to form an idea of the Author of nature. As though God were in the animal frame and not also in the dust to which it turns; in the parts, and not equally in the whole; in the present world, and not also in the antecedent ages which have prepared for its existence.
(δ) Again, this teleological argument for the being of God gives an erroneous idea of the moral government of the world. For it leads us to suppose that all things are tending to some end; that there is no prodigality or waste, but that all things are, and are made, in the best way possible. Our faith must be tried to find a use for barren deserts, for venomous reptiles, for fierce wild beasts, nay, for the sins and miseries of mankind. Nor does ‘there seem to be any resting place,’ until the world and all things in it are admitted to have some end impressed upon them by the hand of God, but unseen to us. Experience is cast aside while our meditations lead us to conceive the world under this great form of a final cause. All that is in nature is best; all that is in human life is best. And yet every one knows instances in which nature seems to fail of its end—in which life has been cut down like a flower, and trampled under foot of man.
(ε) There is another way in which the argument from final causes is suggestive of an imperfect conception of the Divine Being. It presents God to us exclusively in one aspect, not as a man, much less as a spirit holding communion with our spirit, but only as an artist. We conceive of Him, as in the description of the poet, standing with compasses over sea and land, and designing the wondrous work. Does not the image tend to make the spiritual creation an accident of the material? For although it is possible, as Bishop Butler has shown, to apply the argument from final causes, as a figure of speech, to the habits and feelings, this adaptation is unnatural, and open even to greater objections than its application to the physical world. For how can we distinguish true final causes from false ones? how can we avoid confusing what ought to be with what is—the fact with the law?
(ζ) If we look to the origin of the notion of a final cause, we shall feel still further indisposed to make it the category under which we sum up the working of the Divine Being in creation. As Aristotle, who probably first made a philosophical use of the term, says, it is transferred from mind to matter; in other words, it clothes facts in our ideas. Lord Bacon offers another warning against the employment of final causes in the service of religion: ‘they are like the vestals consecrated to God, and are barren.’ They are a figure of speech which adds nothing to our knowledge. When applied to the Creator, they are a figure of a figure; that is to say, the figurative conception of the artist embodied or idealized in his work, is made the image of the Divine Being. And no one really thinks of God in nature under this figure of human skill. As certainly as the man who found a watch or piece of mechanism on the seashore would conclude, ‘here are marks of design, indications of an intelligent artist,’ so certainly, if he came across the meanest or the highest of the works of nature, would he infer, ‘this was not made by man, nor by any human art.’ He sees in a moment that the seaweed beneath his feet is something different in kind from the productions of man. What should lead him to say, that in the same sense that man made the watch, God made the seaweed? For the seaweed grows by some power of life, and is subject to certain physiological laws, like all other vegetable or animal substances. But if we say that God created this life, or that where this life ends there His creative power begins, our analogy again fails, for God stands in a different relation to animal and vegetable life from what the artist does to the work of His hands. And, when we think further of God, as a Spirit without body, creating all things by His word, or rather by His thought, in an instant of time, to whom the plan and execution are all one, we become absolutely bewildered in the attempt to apply the image of the artist to the Creator of the world.
These are some of the points in respect of which the argument from final causes falls short of that conception of the Divine nature which reason is adequate to form. It is the beginning of our knowledge of God, not the end. It is suited to the faculties of children rather than of those who are of full age. It belongs to a stage of metaphysical philosophy, in which abstract ideas were not made the subject of analysis; to a time when physical science had hardly learnt to conceive the world as a whole. It is a devout thought which may well arise in the grateful heart when contemplating the works of creation, but must not be allowed to impair that higher intellectual conception which we are able to form of a Creator, any more than it should be put in the place of the witness of God within.
Another argument of the same nature for the being of a God is derived from first causes, and may be stated as follows:—All things that we see are the results or effects of causes, and these again the effects of other causes, and so on through an immense series. But somewhere or other this series must have a stop or limit; we cannot go back from cause to cause without end. Otherwise the series will have no basis on which to rest. Therefore there must be a first cause, that is, God. This argument is sometimes strengthened by the further supposition that the world must have had a beginning, whence it seems to follow, that it must have a cause external to itself which made it begin; a principle of rest, which is the source of motion to all other things, as ancient philosophy would have expressed it—hovering in this as in other speculations intermediate between the physical and metaphysical world.
The difficulty about this argument is much the same as that respecting the preceding. So long as we conceive the world under the form of cause and effect, and suppose the first link in the chain to be the same with those that succeed it, the argument is necessary and natural; we cannot escape from it without violence to our reason. Our only doubt will probably be, whether we can pass from the notion of a first cause to that of an intelligent Creator. But when, instead of resting in the word ‘cause,’ we go on to the idea, or rather the variety of ideas which are signified by the word ‘cause,’ the argument begins to dissolve. When we say, ‘God is the cause of the world,’ in what sense of the word cause is this? Is it as life or mind is a cause, or the hammer or hand of the workman, or light or air, or any natural substance? Is it in that sense of the word cause, in which it is almost identified with the effect? or in that sense in which it is wholly external to it? Or when we endeavour to imagine or conceive a common cause of the world and all things in it, do we not perceive that we are using the word in none of these senses; but in a new one, to which life, or mind, or many other words, would be at least equally applicable? ‘God is the life of the world.’ That is a poor and somewhat unmeaning expression to indicate the relation of God to the world; yet life is a subtle and wonderful power, pervading all things, and in various degrees animating all things. ‘God is the mind of the world.’ That is still inadequate as an expression, even though mind can act where it is not, and its ways are past finding out. But when we say, ‘God is the cause of the world,’ that can be scarcely said to express more than that God stands in some relation to the world touching which we are unable to determine whether He is in the world or out of it, ‘immanent’ in the language of philosophy, or ‘transcendent.’
There are two sources from which these and similar proofs of the being of a God are derived: first, analogy; secondly, the logical necessity of the human mind. Analogy supplies an image, an illustration. It wins for us an imaginary world from the void and formless infinite. But whether it does more than this must depend wholly on the nature of the analogy. We cannot argue from the seen to the unseen, unless we previously know their relation to each other. We cannot say at random that another life is the double or parallel of this, and also the development of it; we cannot urge the temporary inequality of this world as a presumption of the final injustice of another. Who would think of arguing from the vegetable to the animal world, except in those points where he had already discovered a common principle? Who would reason that animal life must follow the laws of vegetation in those points which were peculiar to it? Yet many theological arguments have this fundamental weakness; they lean on faith for their own support; they lower the heavenly to the earthly, and may be used to prove anything.
The other source of these and similar arguments is the logical necessity of the human mind. A first cause, a beginning, an infinite Being limiting our finite natures, is necessary to our conceptions. ‘We have an idea of God, there must be something to correspond to our idea,’ and so on. The flaw here is equally real, though not so apparent. While we dwell within the forms of the understanding and acknowledge their necessity, such arguments seem unanswerable. But once ask the question, Whence this necessity? was there not a time when the human mind felt no such necessity? is the necessity really satisfied? or is there not some further logical sequence in which I am involved which still remains unanswerable? the whole argument vanishes at once, as the chimera of a metaphysical age. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have been peculiarly fertile in such arguments; the belief in which, whether they have any value or not, must not be imposed upon us as an article of faith.
If we say again, ‘that our highest conception must have a true existence,’ which is the well-known argument of Anselm and Des Cartes for the being of God, still this is no more than saying, in a technical or dialectical form, that we cannot imagine God without imagining that He is. Of no other conception can it be said that it involves existence; and hence no additional force is gained by such a mode of statement. The simple faith in a Divine Being is cumbered, not supported, by evidences derived from a metaphysical system which has passed away. It is a barren logic that elicits the more meagre conception of existence from the higher one of Divinity. Better for philosophy, as well as faith, to think of God at once and immediately as ‘Perfect Being.’
Arguments from first and final causes may be regarded as a kind of poetry of natural religion. There are some minds to whom it would be impossible to conceive of the relation of God to the world under any more abstract form. They, as well as all of us, may ponder in amazement on the infinite contrivances of creation. We are all agreed that none but a Divine power framed them. We differ only as to whether the Divine power is to be regarded as the hand that fashioned, or the intelligence that designed them, or an operation inconceivable to us which we dimly trace and feebly express in words.
That which seems to underlie our conception both of first and final causes, is the idea of law which we see not broken or intercepted, or appearing only in particular spots of nature, but everywhere and in all things. All things do not equally exhibit marks of design, but all things are equally subject to the operation of law. The highest mark of intelligence pervades the whole; no one part is better than another; it is all ‘very good.’ The absence of design, if we like so to turn the phrase, is a part of the design. Even the less comely parts, like the plain spaces in a building, have elements of use and beauty. He who has ever thought in the most imperfect manner of the universe which modern science unveils, needs no evidence that the details of it are incapable of being framed by anything short of a Divine power. Art, and nature, and science, these three—the first giving us the conception of the relation of parts to a whole; the second, of endless variety and intricacy, such as no art has ever attained; the third, of uniform laws which amid all the changes of created things remain fixed as at the first, reaching even to the heavens—are the witnesses of the Creator in the external world.
Nor can it weaken our belief in a Supreme Being, to observe that the same harmony and uniformity extend also to the actions of men. Why should it be thought a thing incredible that God should give law and order to the spiritual, no less than the natural creation? That human beings do not ‘thrust or break their ranks;’ that the life of nations, like that of plants or animals, has a regular growth; that the same strata or stages are observable in the religions, no less than the languages of mankind, as in the structure of the earth, are strange reasons for doubting the Providence of God. Perhaps it is even stranger, that those who do not doubt should eye with jealousy the accumulation of such facts. Do we really wish that our conceptions of God should only be on the level of the ignorant; adequate to the passing emotions of human feeling, but to reason inadequate? That Christianity is the confluence of many channels of human thought does not interfere with its Divine origin. It is not the less immediately the word of God because there have been preparations for it in all ages, and in many countries.
The more we take out of the category of chance in the world either of nature or of mind, the more present evidence we have of the faithfulness of God. We do not need to have a chapter of accidents in life to enable us to realize the existence of a personal God, as though events which we can account for were not equally His work. Let not use or custom so prevail in our minds as to make this higher notion of God cheerless or uncomfortable to us. The rays of His presence may still warm us, as well as enlighten us. Surely He, in whom we live and move and have our being, is nearer to us than He would be if He interfered occasionally for our benefit.
‘The curtain of the physical world is closing in upon us:’ What does this mean but that the arms of His intelligence are embracing us on every side? We have no more fear of nature; for our knowledge of the laws of nature has cast out fear. We know Him as He shows himself in them, even as we are known of Him. Do we think to draw near to God by returning to that state in which nature seemed to be without law, when man cowered like the animals before the storm, and in the meteors of the skies and the motions of the heavenly bodies sought to read the purposes of God respecting himself? Or shall we rest in that stage of the knowledge of nature which was common to the heathen philosophers and to the Fathers of the Christian Church? or in that of two hundred years ago, ere the laws of the heavenly bodies were discovered? or of fifty years ago, before geology had established its truths on sure foundations? or of thirty years ago, ere the investigation of old language had revealed the earlier stages of the history of the human mind. At which of these resting-places shall we pause to renew the covenant between Reason and Faith? Rather at none of them, if the first condition of a true faith be the belief in all true knowledge.
To trace our belief up to some primitive revelation, to entangle it in a labyrinth of proofs or analogies, will not infix it deeper or elevate its character. Why should we be willing to trust the convictions of the father of the human race rather than our own, the faith of primitive rather than of civilized times? Or why should we use arguments about the Infinite Being, which, in proportion as they have force, reduce him to the level of the finite; and which seem to lose their force in proportion as we admit that God’s ways are not as our ways, nor His thoughts as our thoughts? The belief is strong enough without those fictitious supports: it cannot be made stronger with them. While nature still presents to us its world of unexhausted wonders; while sin and sorrow lead us to walk by faith, and not by sight; while the soul of man departs this life not knowing whither it goes; so long will the belief endure of an Almighty Creator, from whom we came, to whom we return.
Why, again, should we argue for the immortality of the soul from the analogy of the seed and the tree, or the state of human beings before and after birth, when the ground of proof in the one case is wanting in the other, namely, experience? Because the dead acorn may a century hence become a spreading oak, no one would infer that the corrupted remains of animals will rise to life in new forms. The error is not in the use of such illustrations as figures of speech, but in the allegation of them as proofs or evidences after the failure of the analogy is perceived. Perhaps it may be said that in popular discourse they pass unchallenged; it may be a point of honour that they should be maintained, because they are in Paley or Butler. But evidences for the many which are not evidences for the few are treacherous props to Christianity. They are always liable to come back to us detected, and to need some other fallacy for their support.
Let it be considered, whether the evidences of religion should be separated from religion itself. The Gospel has a truth perfectly adapted to human nature; its origin and diffusion in the world have a history like any other history. But truth does not need evidences of the truth, nor does history separate the proof of facts from the facts themselves. It was only in the decline of philosophy the Greeks began to ask about the criterion of knowledge. What would be thought of an historian who should collect all the testimonies on one side of some disputed question, and insist on their reception as a political creed? Such evidences do not require the hand of some giant infidel to pull them down; they fall the moment they are touched. But the Christian faith is in its holy place, uninjured by the fall; the truths of the existence of God, or of the immortality of the soul, are not periled by the observation that some analogies on which they have been supposed to rest are no longer tenable. There is no use in attempting to prove by the misapplication of the methods of human knowledge, what we ought never to doubt.
‘There are two things,’ says a philosopher of the last century; ‘of which it may be said, that the more we think of them, the more they fill the soul with awe and wonder—the starry heaven above, and the moral law within. I may not regard either as shrouded in darkness, or look for or guess at either in what is beyond, out of my sight. I see them right before me, and link them at once with the consciousness of my own existence. The former of the two begins with place, which I inhabit as a member of the outward world, and extends the connexion in which I stand with it into immeasurable space; in which are worlds upon worlds, and systems upon systems; and so on into the endless times of their revolutions, their beginning and continuance. The second begins with my invisible self; that is to say, my personality, and presents me in a world which has true infinity, but which the lower faculty of the soul can hardly scan; with which I know myself to be not only as in the world of sight, in an accidental connexion, but in a necessary and universal one. The first glance at innumerable worlds annihilates any importance which I may attach to myself as an animal structure; whilst the matter out of which it is made must again return to the earth (itself a mere point in the universe), after it has been endued, one knows not how, with the power of life for a little season. The second glance exalts me infinitely as an intelligent being, whose personality involves a moral law, which reveals in me a life distinct from that of the animals, independent of the world of sense. So much at least I may infer from the regular determination of my being by this law, which is itself infinite, free from the limitations and conditions of this present life.’
So, in language somewhat technical, has Kant described two great principles of natural religion. ‘There are two witnesses,’ we may add in a later strain of reflection, ‘of the being of God; the order of nature in the world, and the progress of the mind of man. He is not the order of nature, nor the progress of mind, nor both together; but that which is above and beyond them; of which they, even if conceived in a single instant, are but the external sign, the highest evidences of God which we can conceive, but not God himself. The first to the ancient world seemed to be the work of chance, or the personal operation of one or many Divine beings. We know it to be the result of laws endless in their complexity, and yet not the less admirable for their simplicity also. The second has been regarded, even in our own day, as a series of errors capriciously invented by the ingenuity of individual men. We know it to have a law of its own, a continuous order which cannot be inverted; not to be confounded with, yet not wholly separate from, the law of nature and the will of God. Shall we doubt the world to be the creation of a Divine power, only because it is more wonderful than could have been conceived by “them of old time;” or human reason to be in the image of God, because it too bears the marks of an overruling law or intelligence?’
Natural religion, in the last sense in which we are to consider it, carries us into a region of thought more practical, and therefore more important, than any of the preceding; it comes home to us; it takes in those who are near and dear to us; even ourselves are not excluded from it. Under this name, or some other, we cannot refuse to consider a subject which involves the religious state of the greater portion of mankind, even in a Christian country. Every Sunday the ministers of religion set before us the ideal of Christian life; they repeat and expand the words of Christ and his Apostles; they speak of the approach of death, and of this world as a preparation for a better. It is good to be reminded of these things. But there is another aspect of Christianity which we must not ignore, the aspect under which experience shows it, in our homes and among our acquaintance, on the level of human things; the level of education, habit, and circumstances on which men are, and on which they will probably remain while they live. This latter phase of religion it is our duty to consider, and not narrow ourselves to the former only.
It is characteristic of this subject that it is full of contradictions; we say one thing at one time about it, another thing at another. Our feelings respecting individuals are different in their lifetime, and after their death, as they are nearly related to us, or have no claims on our affections. Our acknowledgement of sin in the abstract is more willing and hearty than the recognition of particular sins in ourselves, or even in others. We readily admit that ‘the world lieth in wickedness;’ where the world is, or of whom it is made up, we are unable to define. Great men seem to be exempt from the religious judgement which we pass on our fellows; it does not occur to persons of taste to regard them under this aspect; we deal tenderly with them, and leave them to themselves and God. And sometimes we rest on outward signs of religion; at other times we guard ourselves and others against trusting to such signs. And commonly we are ready to acquiesce in the standard of those around us, thinking it a sort of impertinence to interfere with their religious concerns; at other times we go about the world as with a lantern, seeking for the image of Christ among men, and are zealous for the good of others, out of season or in season. We need not unravel further this tangled web of thoughts and feelings, which religion, and affection, and habit, and opinion weave. A few words will describe the fact out of which these contradictions arise. It is a side of the world from which we are apt to turn away, perhaps hoping to make things better by fancying them so, instead of looking at them as they really are.
It is impossible not to observe that innumerable persons—shall we say the majority of mankind?—who have a belief in God and immortality, have nevertheless hardly any consciousness of the peculiar doctrines of the Gospel. They seem to live away from them in the routine of business or of society, ‘the common life of all men,’ not without a sense of right, and a rule of truth and honesty, yet insensible to what our Saviour meant by taking up the cross and following Him, or what St. Paul meant by ‘being one with Christ.’ They die without any great fear or lively faith; to the last more interested about concerns of this world than about the hope of another. In the Christian sense they are neither proud nor humble; they have seldom experienced the sense of sin, they have never felt keenly the need of forgiveness. Neither on the other hand do they value themselves on their good deeds, or expect to be saved by their own merits. Often they are men of high moral character; many of them have strong and disinterested attachments, and quick human sympathies; sometimes a stoical feeling of uprightness, or a peculiar sensitiveness to dishonour. It would be a mistake to say they are without religion. They join in its public acts; they are offended at profaneness or impiety; they are thankful for the blessings of life, and do not rebel against its misfortunes. Such persons meet us at every turn. They are those whom we know and associate with; honest in their dealings, respectable in their lives, decent in their conversation. The Scripture speaks to us of two classes represented by the Church and the world, the wheat and the tares, the sheep and the goats, the friends and enemies of God. We cannot say in which of these two divisions we should find a place for them.
The picture is a true one, and, if we turn the light round, some of us may find in it a resemblance of ourselves no less than of other men. Others will include us in the same circle in which we are including them. What shall we say to such a state, common as it is to both us and them? The fact that we are considering is not the evil of the world, but the neutrality of the world, the indifference of the world, the inertness of the world. There are multitudes of men and women everywhere, who have no peculiarly Christian feelings, to whom, except for the indirect influence of Christian institutions, the life and death of Christ would have made no difference, and who have, nevertheless, the common sense of truth and right almost equally with true Christians. You cannot say of them ‘there is none that doeth good; no, not one.’ The other tone of St. Paul is more suitable, ‘When the Gentiles that know not the law do by nature the things contained in the law, these not knowing the law are a law unto themselves.’ So of what we commonly term the world, as opposed to those who make a profession of Christianity, we must not shrink from saying, ‘When men of the world do by nature whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, these not being conscious of the grace of God, do by nature what can only be done by His grace.’ Why should we make them out worse than they are? We must cease to speak evil of them, ere they will judge fairly of the characters of religious men. That, with so little recognition of His personal relation to them, God does not cast them off, is a ground of hope rather than of fear—of thankfulness, not of regret.
Many strange thoughts arise at the contemplation of this intermediate world, which some blindness, or hardness, or distance in nature, separates from the love of Christ. We ask ourselves ‘what will become of them after death?’ ‘For what state of existence can this present life be a preparation?’ Perhaps they will turn the question upon us; and we may answer for ourselves and them, ‘that we throw ourselves on the mercy of God.’ We cannot deny that in the sight of God they may condemn us; their moral worth may be more acceptable to Him than our Christian feeling. For we know that God is not like some earthly sovereign, who may be offended at the want of attention which we show to him. He can only estimate us always by our fulfilment of moral and Christian duties. When the balance is struck, it is most probable, nay, it is quite certain, that many who are first will be last, and the last first. And this transfer will take place, not only among those who are within the gates of the Christian Church, but from the world also into the Church. There may be some among us who have given the cup of cold water to a brother, ‘not knowing it was the Lord.’ Some again may be leading a life in their own family which is ‘not far from the kingdom of heaven.’ We do not say that for ourselves there is more than one way; that way is Christ. But, in the case of others, it is right that we should take into account their occupation, character, circumstances, the manner in which Christianity may have been presented to them, the intellectual or other difficulties which may have crossed their path. We shall think more of the unconscious Christianity of their lives, than of the profession of it on their lips. So that we seem almost compelled to be Christian and Unchristian at once: Christian in reference to the obligations of Christianity upon ourselves; Unchristian—if indeed it be not a higher kind of Christianity—in not judging those who are unlike ourselves by our own standard.
Other oppositions have found their way into statements of Christian truth, which we shall sometimes do well to forget. Mankind are not simply divided into two classes; they pass insensibly from one to the other. The term world is itself ambiguous, meaning the world very near to us, and yet a long way off from us; which we contrast with the Church, and which we nevertheless feel to be one with the Church, and incapable of being separated. Sometimes the Church bears a high and noble witness against the world, and at other times, even to the religious mind, the balance seems to be even, and the world in its turn begins to bear witness against the Church. There are periods of history in which they both grow together. Little cause as there may be for congratulation in our present state, yet we cannot help tracing, in the last half-century, a striking amelioration in our own and some other countries, testified to by changes in laws and manners. Many reasons have been given for this change: the efforts of a few devoted men in the last, or the beginning of the present, century; a long peace; diffusion of education; increase of national wealth; changes in the principles of government; improvement in the lives of the ministers of religion. No one who has considered this problem will feel that he is altogether able to solve it. He cannot venture to say that the change springs from any bold aggression which the Church has made upon the vices of mankind; nor is it certain that any such effort would have produced the result. In the Apostle’s language it must still remain a mystery ‘why mankind collectively often become better;’ and not less so, ‘why, when deprived of all the means and influences of virtue and religion, they do not always become worse.’ Even for evil, Nature, that is, the God of nature, has set limits; men do not corrupt themselves endlessly. Here, too, it is, ‘Hitherto shalt thou go, but no further.’
Reflections of this kind are not a mere speculation; they have a practical use. They show us the world as it is, neither lighted up with the aspirations of hope and faith, nor darkened beneath the shadow of God’s wrath. They teach us to regard human nature in a larger and more kindly way, which is the first step towards amending and strengthening it. They make us think of the many as well as of the few; as ministers of the Gospel, warning us against preaching to the elect only, instead of seeking to do good to all men. They take us out of the straits and narrownesses of religion, into wider fields in which the analogy of faith is still our guide. They help us to reconcile nature with grace; they prevent our thinking that Christ came into the world for our sakes only, or that His words have no meaning when they are scattered beyond the limits of the Christian Church. They remind us that the moral state of mankind here, and their eternal state hereafter, are not wholly dependent on our poor efforts for their religious improvement; and that the average of men who seem often to be so careless about their own highest interest, are not when they pass away uncared for in His sight.
Doubtless, the lives of individuals that rise above this average are the salt of the earth. They are not to be confounded with the many, because for these latter a place may be found in the counsels of Providence. Those who add the love of their fellow-creatures to the love of God, who make the love of truth the rule of both, bear the image of Christ until His coming again. And yet, probably, they would be the last persons to wish to distinguish themselves from their fellow-creatures. The Christian life makes all things kin; it does not stand out ‘angular’ against any part of mankind. And that humble spirit which the best of men have ever shown in reference to their brethren, is also the true spirit of the Church towards the world. If a tone of dogmatism and exclusiveness is unbecoming in individual Christians, is it not equally so in Christian communities? There is no need, because men will not listen to one motive, that we should not present them with another; there is no reason, because they will not hear the voice of the preacher, that they should be refused the blessings of education; or that we should cease to act upon their circumstances, because we cannot awaken the heart and conscience. We are too apt to view as hostile to religion that which only takes a form different from religion, as trade, or politics, or professional life. More truly may religious men regard the world, in its various phases, as in many points a witness against themselves. The exact appreciation of the good as well as the evil of the world is a link of communion with our fellow-men; may it not also be, too, with the body of Christ? There are lessons of which the world is the keeper no less than the Church. Especially have earnest and sincere Christians reason to reflect, if ever they see the moral sentiments of mankind directed against them.
The God of peace rest upon you, is the concluding benediction of most of the Epistles. How can He rest upon us, who draw so many hard lines of demarcation between ourselves and other men; who oppose the Church and the world, Sundays and working days, revelation and science, the past and present, the life and state of which religion speaks and the life which we ordinarily lead? It is well that we should consider these lines of demarcation rather as representing aspects of our life than as corresponding to classes of mankind. It is well that we should acknowledge that one aspect of life or knowledge is as true as the other. Science and revelation touch one another: the past floats down in the present. We are all members of the same Christian world; we are all members of the same Christian Church. Who can bear to doubt this of themselves or of their family? What parent would think otherwise of his child?—what child of his parent? Religion holds before us an ideal which we are far from reaching; natural affection softens and relieves the characters of those we love; experience alone shows men what they truly are. All these three must so meet as to do violence to none. If, in the age of the Apostles, it seemed to be the duty of the believers to separate themselves from the world and take up a hostile position, not less marked in the present age is the duty of abolishing in a Christian country what has now become an artificial distinction, and seeking by every means in our power, by fairness, by truthfulness, by knowledge, by love unfeigned, by the absence of party and prejudice, by acknowledging the good in all things, to reconcile the Church to the world, the one half of our nature to the other; drawing the mind off from speculative difficulties, or matters of party and opinion, to that which almost all equally acknowledge and almost equally rest short of—the life of Christ.