Rights, Claims, and Duties of Opinion
Berry Street Essay, 1845
delivered before the Berry Street Ministerial Conference
May 28, 1845
The relations into which men are brought by their opinions; the rights, claims, and duties of opinion; the rights personal, the claims reciprocal, the duties absolute; this is the subject, or class of subjects rather, on which I propose now to address you.
I suppose it is evident that we were made to think; that thinking in its very nature implies freedom of thought; and that from freedom of thought proceed inevitable differences of opinion. I suppose it is equally evident that opinion, the offspring of our thought, must be dear to us; that we cannot value our own opinion without disliking an adverse one, and that the expression of this disapprobation, if it is not inevitable, is at least a thing of simple sincerity. I suppose it to be undeniable moreover, whether we consult reason or Scripture, our own imperfection or the Divine commandment, that we are bound to entertain our own opinion with modesty, and to regard that of others with consideration and forbearance. Amidst these conflicting claims what is the just rule to walk by? What is charity? What is intolerance? What is persecution?
On these points there appears to be no little confusion of thought in the world. Persecution of opinion, for instance, is confounded with rejection of it; intolerance, with simple dislike; and charity, with good-natured indifference; so that you hear a man represented as a miracle of charity because he never spoke a word in his life against any sect, creed, faith or opinion whatever. Thus again, freedom of thought is sometimes held to be an immunity from all serious question; the right to think, to justify recklessness of thought; and the answerableness of a man to his own conscience, to exonerate him from all proper regard for the judgment of others. Thus the lawful tie to the past is nearly broken; the new-born thought of today, instead of careful and patient self-examination, has nothing to do but to get published; it is a piece of nature, let it come out; publication, ubiquitous publication of all that is in a man, — vagary, dream, nonsense,—is held to be the very simplicity of wisdom. And thus opinion, the very lever that moves the world, is cast about as if it were a shuttle-cock for idle sport.
Let us attempt then, first of all, to clear up the ground of the proposed discussion and see what it is. And I think this may be in good part effected by a single distinction, which as a ray of light penetrates the cloud; the distinction, that is to say, between abstract right, claim or duty, and the use of that right, the actual deference to that claim, the performance of the duty. This is perhaps the most puzzling point, in morals and religion. The abstract law that requires us to love God or to love Man is very plain; but there is an almost boundless diversity in the actual modes of obedience; and the obedience is sometimes worst rendered where the bond is most felt. Men have dishonored God under the plea of love to man, and they have persecuted and killed one another for the love of God. But to come to the field of inquiry before us: — I have an abstract right to form an opinion, and in doing this I am necessarily governed by such considerations as present themselves to my mind; but does it follow that, freed from all moral bonds of self-distrust, faithful endeavor mid love of truth, every exercise of the right to think is just and good, lawful and innocent? Much is said to this effect; but is it not said in disregard of a manifest distinction between the abstract and the actual? Abstractly I have a claim for my opinion upon the candor and forbearance of others; but suppose that my opinion were formed rashly, carelessly, under the influence of bad passions, from a desire to escape from moral restraints; would my claim suffer no abatement then? And if I were condemned, as I should deserve to be in such case, ought I to cry out, "intolerance! persecution!” It is my duty abstractly to value my own judgment on weighty subjects, and by consequence to regard with disfavor that of another which is opposed to mine; but upon this ground may I proceed to brow-beat his opinion, to lift up my hands in horror, and thus to cast a spell over all minds around me that shall lock up their faculties in bondage; to say, "anathema! maranatha!” as if I were an inspired Apostle; to act the Pope though I have rejected him, or having accepted him, to be myself still more a Pope? And if I do all this, am I to shelter myself under the plea that it is my duty to oppose error? It was the very plea of the Inquisition. Doubtless I have a right to judge of the faith, the creed of another. Let not this be weakly denied; it is involved in the right to think at all. Nay more; I have a right to judge of the character, the disposition, ay, of the heart, the very piety of my neighbor. I must be a fool and certainly must act like one, if I do not. If I am to make no discrimination, how am I to conduct my affairs with any prudence? How am I to have any friendship or reserve of my friendship? No; I am to be lenient, but not blind. I am to be tolerant, but not indifferent. It is not judging that is forbidden, but a certain manner, feeling, spirit in my judging. When our Saviour says "Condemn not that ye be not condemned,” it is a hasty, censorious, cruel judgment that he forbids.
Thus much with regard to the distinction between the abstract right to judge, whether of things or men, and the actual use of that right. It may serve still further to define the ground of our inquiry, to observe more distinctly that it relates to opinion, to a mere judgment of the mind. Opinion cannot be infallible. It cannot properly be legislative. It has no right to legislate for another's mind. When I go beyond absolute intuitions, I do not know that I am right or that another is wrong. I do not know that the infidel or the rationalist or the Calvinist or the Romanist in his theory is wrong. I may have the firmest conviction, but it is not absolute knowledge, This is a powerful argument for modesty and forbearance; but it is no argument for indifference. I judge as well us I am able. I obtain all the assurance of which the subject admits, all that God permits to my imperfect mind. I may well be in earnest then for my opinion; but I have no business to pronounce, to dictate, to speak with lofty authority, as if the mailer lay in my mind in the form of absolute certainty.
From all this it results, in the third place, that in any just rule that can be laid down for the treatment whether of opinions or persons there must be a certain vagueness. It is so with all moral rules. If a man knew precisely what he ought to do in every moral emergency that arises, —precisely how much he should eat or drink, or how much he should give in charity, or what exactly he should render to his neighbor in any question that arises between them, — the task of virtue would be comparatively easy. But there is no mathematical line for him to walk by, in relation either to honesty, or neighborly kindness, or charity, or candor. The spirit of every moral precept may be clearly enough ascertained; love, justice are capable of clear definition; but when it comes to their application to actual life, the case is not so clear. Now the principal errors in inter-sectarian law, so to speak, have arisen from an attempt to give it a precision that does not belong to it. As if opinions were fixed quantities, and the treatment of them an ascertainable ratio, men have proceeded to lay down creeds and to fulminate excommunications. If creed-makers and churches had simply said — which is all they were entitled to say —"we are of opinion that such and such things are true, though we cannot lay claim to absolute and intuitive certainty of it; and we must regard and treat with disapprobation all opposing opinions,” then the minds of men had been left to a fair and useful conflict, without the establishment of absolute lusts or the interposition of brute force.
We are now prepared, perhaps, to examine certain questions of great practical interest, that are either always arising between different sects, or that have recently arisen among ourselves.
In the first place, let us ask in general, does Christianity require us to look at this subject from a point of view different from that of reason and common sense? For instance, does the reason of things say that we may and must treat opinions, differing from our own in a certain way, with a certain disfavor, and does Christianity say that we shall not? I must answer in the negative. If Christianity does take any such ground, it should be made distinctly to appear. Chapter and verse should be quoted for it. Somewhere in the record should be found a passage that speaks after this manner: —"no matter what a man thinks about Christ or the doctrines of Christ; no matter what he thinks about anything; all such considerations shall sink completely out of sight, in the relations that obtain between Christian men.” It cannot be necessary to say a word, I think, to free Christianity from the imputation of such manifest and monstrous absurdity.
In the next place, have Christian sects a right to condemn one another's opinions? Have Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Arminians, Orthodox and Liberal Christians, interchangeably such a right? Undoubtedly they have. Their very relation implies it. Nay, they have a perfect right to hold each others’ systems to be a complete and even a fatal departure from Christianity. However much they may err in this, yet many of them doubtless, in sober seriousness and with the best lights that they can obtain, do come to such a conclusion; and they have a perfect right to come to it and to express it. If instead of the words, "condemning and judging”— words which bear a severe or a legislative aspect— we simply said "disapproving,” or even "disapproving in the highest degree,” the difficulty would be removed. Here is the fault; not in judging of doctrines and men -- a thing inevitable — but in judging them. If any church or sect or man condemns another in a severe and haughty spirit; if their argument is the strong argument of the majority, and they are willing to make the most of mere numbers; if they endeavor to awaken horror towards their adversaries with a view to crush down all freedom of inquiry; if they subject them to pains and penalties; — then all is wrong on their part. These have been the great offences and evils of Christian intolerance. A simple, calm, modest, though solemn disapprobation, would have awakened no anger, and would have promoted inquiry.
Can there be any doubt that there is such a right? If a man may not decide what is not Christianity, then he may not decide what it is; then he is called upon to embrace as his religion, he knows not what. Even if it could be proved that Christianity proposes nothing to be believed, makes nothing of opinion, severs feeling from conviction, demands emotion without any regard to the views on which it is naturally and necessarily based—a supposition surely most irrational and incredible—yet even then the same question would arise, —what is Christianity? That is to say, what is the feeling which constitutes a man a Christian? And every man must be allowed to judge what it is, and therefore to judge what it is not. I do not see that the difficulty is relieved by removing it from the department of speculation into that of feeling. There is naturally perhaps, and there is really, just as much difference about the latter as the former. Nay, and all Christian controversy is always brought ultimately to bear upon the latter point. Always the allegation is, —"your faith is so bad that you cannot entertain the true Christian feeling.” No doubt too much stress has been laid upon speculative faith. No doubt it has been a great, a monstrous evil in the Church. But really I do not see how we are, for that reason, or far any good reason, to foreclose opinion from judging what Christianity is, and what it is not.
And I think it is worth considering, whether in arguing against the abuse of this right, we have not been led incautiously and unreasonably to argue against the right itself. We have contended, and justly, that Christians should be left to perfect freedom of thought, that Christian virtue is compatible with a great diversity of theological tenets. But we have not been ourselves very lenient judges of the systems around us. We have maintained that Christianity is overlaid and defaced by enormous, by dreadful errors. Nay I have heard more than one man say that he would rather be an infidel than a Calvinist, a strict Calvinist-of the old school; and I must confess that is my judgment. That is to say, I can better get along with the difficulties of the infidel system — which, observe, is not atheism, nor universal unbelief, not a rejection of natural religion, but only of a revelation —I say, I can better get along in my own mind with the difficulties of this system, than I can with that of Calvin; embracing the damnation of infants, actual or deserved, and the just exposure from Adam's sin, of all men to that doom. I may be wrong, but this is my opinion. And if any one says I have no right to entertain such an opinion, I answer that I think I have; but that at any rate I cannot help it.
The truth is, all difficulty about such cases arises from a misapprehension of the nature of this judgment. Any judgment which one forms of another’s faith is, and can be, I repeat, nothing else but an opinion. A creed is nothing but a collection and statement of opinions. If it is anything else, I should like to know what else it is. If it is not simply a thought, a judgment, a conclusion of men’s minds, what is it? There is a notion prevailing, that what is agreed upon in a conclave of clergy, is invested with some peculiar character; that it becomes something different from thoughts, beliefs, convictions; but what else can it be? "Ay,” it may be said, "but suppose that to differ from that opinion be made penal; what then is it? What is the law, but an opinion, with a penalty annexed for disobedience?” I answer, the law legitimately has to do with nothing but actions, including of course the intent of the doer. But suppose the law should propose to determine what men should think about matters of speculation or taste, about philosophy or art; what men should think about their neighbors, friends, and families; then we should have a case analogous to that of legislation in regard to systems of theology. And then should we see that legislation has properly no more to do with theology than it has with metaphysics or chemistry.
Separating then the incongruous and injurious element, what have we left? Still I say, nothing but an opinion. With whatever solemnity, with whatever air of authority it may be invested, it is properly, purely, only that. A bull of the Pope, though half the world bow down before it, is nothing but an opinion. It did not drop from heaven; it was considered, revolved, excogitated in the mind of his Holiness before it was uttered; and it is worth just as much as his judgment or that of his cardinals is worth, and no more. The tenets of the Synod of Dort or of the Augsburg Confession, the Catechism of the Presbyterian Church, the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, are nothing else but opinions.
If the subject had been regarded in this light, and then if opinion had been what it ought, to be in imperfect minds, modest and forbearing, however firm and decided, all the terrible evils that have flowed in the train of religious speculations would have been arrested. Orthodoxy and heresy would have been comparatively harmless words; they would not have sown dragons’ teeth in the field of the Gospel. Intolerance, persecution, the fire and the rack would have had no more to do with Christianity than with philosophy. Extract the false legislative element from opinion, and you would extract "the root of bitterness” from the bosom of the Church.
The questions which I have raised thus far, and attempted briefly to answer, belong to the general circumstances of all religious bodies or to the past condition of our own. But a crisis in opinion is now arising, which demands a more particular consideration.
A great question has presented itself, —the greatest that Christianity ever met;— is the record of it to be received as substantially hue, or is it to be regarded as mainly a collection of fables and legends?
It is not to be regarded as matter of surprise, nor of regret perhaps, that this German question has come among us. It finds its place in the actual progress of thought; and I have no doubt, that among minds accustomed to theological investigation many have encountered this question, and in the quietness and retirement of their studios have examined it, and have come to the stable ground of faith in the New Testament. And it was due to such a question, as it seems to me — it was due to one's own mind in such a case, to have paused some time, to have waited with some patience and self-distrust, and not to have been in haste to rush into the arena of publication; not to have disturbed men's minds, till it was thoroughly prepared to satisfy and settle them. But the thing is done; and I confess I am looking with great interest to see what treatment this question is to receive from Saxon hands. It is awakening some attention both in this country and in England; and I trust it is to receive a more satisfactory solution in these countries, than it has found in Germany.
I propose to offer some thoughts upon this question, because it is the question of the time, and in a meeting of clergy at this moment seems to have imperative claims upon attention. All former assailants of Christianity, or of what we have considered as Christianity, are mere pigmies, compared with Dr. Strauss. I think indeed that his arguments are capable of a most satisfactory refutation; in fact, he begs the question at the outset. But to grapple with such an antagonist, or to enter deeply and in detail into the merits of the question, is of course impossible in the brief discourse of an hour. What I have now to offer is indeed mainly on the practical side of the question. But I think that something may he properly and sufficiently said on the nature of the question, or the principles of reasoning which are applicable to it, on the views which are likely to decide it, and on the spirit and conduct with which it is to be met.
Let me further observe, for the sake of keeping up the continuity and coherency of this discourse, that it is simply of opinion that we are to speak, and that in doing so we are to be governed by the natural laws of opinion. Opinion is not legislative, is not infallible, I have said; but it is nevertheless a right and every man's right, though it may be misused, and it is a Christian as truly as it is a natural right.
To proceed then, I ask in the third place, are we entitled to say what Christianity is or what it is not; what it is or is not to be a Christian believer, a Christian man. For I confess that I can make no essential distinction here. A good man one may be without being a Christian; many in the old time, both Jews and Gentiles, have been such. But for a man to call himself a Christian man, while he holds all the doctrines and facts associated with the Christ to be fabulous or nugatory, while he professes in his criticism of the Christ to look over him and beyond him and to see something better, seems to me as great a misuse of terms, as if a Chinese, while rejecting Confucius both as teacher and model, should still call himself a Confucian good man.
But to the question; I say, either we are entitled to have an opinion as to what Christianity is, or we are not. If we say we are not, then I do not see what further we have to do with the matter. Then every man is a Christian, who claims to be such. Infidelity, pantheism, atheism, may be Christianity; and nobody upon this principle can gainsay it. If we may not decide, if it is not perfectly proper for us to decide in our own minds, whether this or that be Christianity, or whether it be or be not something else claiming the title, I do not see why it was published, or how it can be the subject of any rational contemplation whatever.
But if we say that we can distinguish between the true and the false in this matter, then what do we say? Nothing lofty nor arrogant, I conceive, but simply that we are capable of forming an opinion, and that we have an opinion. Have we not a right to form an opinion and to act upon it; no right to be either rational or sincere? Why, the veriest ultraist has an opinion as decided as anybody else, and he acts upon it. He says that the greater part of what we call Christianity is a mass of erroneous impressions and of absurd and incredible fables. He freely writes books and preaches lectures to show that. And when he has done all this, does he turn round upon the conservative, and cry "intolerance, persecution, fire and fagot!” because someone pronounces what he holds to be Christianity, to be a mere bodiless dream and fancy! Are all the rights of opinion then reserved for those who set all previous opinion, and almost all other opinion, at naught?
But it may be said, "whatever the abstract right be, yet ordinarily, when Christian sects pronounce one another to be no Christians,— the Romanist, the Protestant, the English Churchman, the Dissenter, the Calvinist, the Arminian, the Trinitarian, the Unitarian, — do you not hold that this is very unreasonable?” I answer that I do; and why? Because they all alike acknowledge the authority of Jesus Christ, and all sincerely profess to stand upon the same basis; that is to say, the New Testament record. The fundamental criterion of faith and practice with them all is the same. But what is the case that has arisen in these latter days — in Germany, in England and America? It is a case in which the authority and the record, by which we have been wont to decide questions, are completely rejected. "No,” it may be replied, "not completely rejected. The authority of the absolute truth in Jesus is admitted.” Did anybody ever reject the authority of absolute truth? Did any one ever deny the extraordinary virtue of the Christ, or his inspiration, in the sense in which Socrates and Cicero received that gift? Did ever any infidel or Mahometan deny anything of all this? How are we to distinguish the believer in Christianity from the unbeliever, if our definition or the Christian disciple includes the infidel and the Mahometan? I do not or need not now speak as a partisan of one theory or another. I might speak as a mere looker-on, not caring which is right. I might even admit that Dr. Strauss is right, and all the rest of the world wrong. But I do not see how they can profess to stand together on the same basis; except as all religions stand upon the same basis. It may be said that God, the absolute religion, humanity are greater bonds than any other, and I need not deny it. They are the foundation ideas on which the superstructure of Christianity is built. But they are not the Christian bonds. The foundation is not the superstructure. And he who had swept away an entire house from its foundations, might as well say, "I still live in this house,” as he who has swept the entire, substantive, historic truth of Christianity, can say, "I dwell in the Christian economy.” In Christendom he does dwell; and from the universal air around he may have drawn in some blessed inspirations of Christian virtue; something of reverence, gentleness, meekness, love, he may have learned from Jesus himself; the very infidel may; the very Mahometan might; and Almighty God, lenient to human errings, may accept such an one; I pretend to judge nothing of his future condition. But still, if I believe that it hath pleased God on the basis of natural religion to erect the superstructure of Christianity, to add, in great mercy, something to that natural light; if I believe that he bath raised up Jesus Christ to be a perfect model and authority to me, and hath surrounded him for confirmation of my faith with the majesty of miracle, I do not see how it is possible for me to regard him as a Christian believer or Christian disciple, who rejects all this. When therefore the Wurtemberg Council of Education made the formal inquiry of Dr. Strauss, what claim he had with his sentiments to hold a Christian professorship, although he made a labored attempt to defend the consistency of his position with his book, I deem that the Council could do no less than pronounce his defense unsatisfactory and dismiss him from his office.
And yet Strauss has been represented by one who knew him, as an amiable, and in manner a modest young man. And doubtless there may be, of those who believe so little, better men than some who believe much more. Why then, it may be asked, shall they not be accounted better Christians? In this question, it seems to me, there is an entire confusion of thought. A Homeopathic physician may be a better man than some Allopathic doctor. Is he therefore an Allopathic doctor? A man who rejects all Government and refuses to obey it, may be a more quiet and inoffensive citizen than many who acknowledge it. Is he therefore a subject of that Government ? Suppose that a man accounts the Constitution of this country to be a mass of useless and indefensible provisions, rejects the authority of the State, and holds only to sonic abstract idea of moral authority; — can he then be regarded as a supporter of that Constitution? Can he consistently hold office in such a State? Obedience under the ancient Covenant was better than sacrifice; could sacrifice therefore be dispensed with? Could he be a Jewish believer or a Jewish practiser who rejected it? "Righteousness before Doctrine” is a good motto; and it has been well illustrated by one of our Brethren, whom nobody can respect more than I do; but I would ask hint, is doctrine therefore to be held as of no account in the Christian system? And suppose it be proved that many doctrines have been unwisely and injuriously contended about, to the neglect of good deeds, of holy enterprises for the regeneration of the world, and that this has been a grievous and deplorable evil in the Church; yet when doctrinal beliefs are reduced to their minimum, is there no residuum, no result of the last analysis, no ultimate basis of belief or fact, on which Christianity reposes? Is Christianity nothing but a dream of goodness? — the solid, matter-of-fact, miraculous Christianity, that cleaved the heart of the world? Was it but a vague and vanishing idea, almost lost in the shadows of antiquity, that has come forth moulded into a mythic form by the hands of twelve illiterate Apostles, or of persons far less responsible than they; and with more than the power of twelve empires, has swept with majestic march through eighteen centuries of progress and has changed the face of an hundred nations?
In the fourth place, let me ask, what are the views by which this question is likely to be decided? I answer;— as a man thinks of God, as he thinks of the order of the creation, its law, its spirit, so is he likely to decide.
It is not for want of evidence in support of the supernatural claim of Christianity that it is rejected. No such claim can have more evidence than this. If the views entertained by any mind lead it to anticipate some special interposition for human help, it would doubtless fix upon Christianity as fulfilling its prophetic hope. Or, to take lower and perhaps juster ground, if a man did not deem such miraculous interposition absolutely incredible, the Christian evidences would probably be found strong enough to overcome the natural reluctance to believe. There is such a reluctance; the order of nature irresistibly disposes us to look with distrust upon every fact that claims to be a departure from it. This reluctance, this natural distrust, Christianity is prepared to meet. But a previous and invincible decision in the mind, that a miracle is a thing incredible, neither Christianity nor anything else can encounter with the least chance of producing conviction. God himself, though he should work a hundred miracles clear as the sun before the skeptic’s eyes, could not produce conviction, except by previously removing that obstinate prejudice. That is the fatal bar in the mind of Strauss. That, I believe, is the fatal bar in the minds of all who agree with him. Any one who will read his work, will see that he constantly goes on this presumption. The thing related is a miracle, he is continually saying; therefore it cannot be true. It would seem scarce worth while to have written a book against any particular miracles, after laying down the proposition that all miracles are things incredible.
Again, our views of the Supreme Being will naturally influence our decision on the point before us. I do not say now what are the right views. Nor do I claim all piety for the believing, nor deny it all to the skeptical. But it is evident that a filial, loving, confiding view of God will more incline the mind to receive Christianity as a special interposition, than a distant, cold and merely reverential view of him. The spirit which pervades a late work, entitled "Vestiges of the Natural History of the Creation;” a spirit wedded to order, to the extent that the whole book is a kind of special pleading for it ; a spirit that apparently, instead of recognizing a paternal presence and care in the creation, looks far back upon the Supreme Power as having impressed upon all the elements of existence those laws which hold on their course like fate, and work out all possible results, even to the formation of man; such a spirit, I say, though religious and reverential, must be unfriendly to the reception of Christianity as a special revelation.
Now here are principles of reasoning in the case. Which are the right principles? The presumption, on the part of a creature so ignorant of the Divine plan and will, that a miracle is impossible,— that any departure, not from the ultimate laws of the Divine wisdom, (which is not maintained,) but from the visible order of things on earth, is essentially incredible; the assertion that no case can possibly arise, in which God may so interpose; is it philosophical? Is it reasonable? Is it tolerable? Is this being omniscient? Does he know every case, every emergency, that can possibly present itself in a free moral creation? If he does not, then in that emergency may be found place for a miracle. And he who pronounces it incredible, seems to me guilty of a rashness, of a presumption, to say the least of it, wholly unwarrantable and unbecoming.
The author of "Vestiges of the Creation” asks, which supposition better comports with the dignity of a human artificer; that he had made a machine which should go on without interposition to the end, fulfilling all its purposes, or one which should require to be touched and regulated from time to time? And then, misled by analogies, he applies this to the Infinite Being. And yet he complains of anthropomorphism in the reasonings of other men! I cannot account this to be true philosophy. The writer, though a bold, seems not to me a sturdy, inductive reasoner. Nay, his analogy, his favorite principle, fails him here. Man is not a machine; his will, by its very nature perhaps, is, to a certain extent, a disturbing principle in the creation; and it may create emergencies requiring interposition. Neither are we to think of God as if he were altogether such an one as ourselves.
But how, let us inquire a moment further, are we to think of Him? What especially are the moral emotions, the spiritual affections, that we are justified in feeling towards him? — for these too are among the principles of our reasoning. Suppose that our spirit is in perfect sympathy with nature; what will it be? What does nature teach? An infinite, paternal, minute direction and care seem to preside over it. Earth, air, sunshine, nay more, almost a visible love and joy breathing over the world, seem to demand of every creature a sympathizing confidence. Very instinct yields to it: shall not reason then? Nothing is neglected. The cry of the young ravens is heard; the insect in the hedge is a vocal, a singing wonder of goodness; the motes in every drop of water bathe in an ocean of beneficence. Is it not a filial feeling then that man may entertain towards that Infinite Goodness? I may be wrong, but so it is that nature speaks to me. I cannot go out into this summer world without feeling that a care, a love, a pity, a thoughtful and provident love and care are all around me; that help is near to every creature; that a bountiful hand is opened to every want, and a strong arm is stretched out for all weakness. And if for every creature there is help, is there none — are we obliged to presume there is none— for man? Majestical in faculties, solemn in musings upon things great and wonderful, but humbled too, and almost overwhelmed beneath their grandeur; broken in spirit oftentimes, blind and erring, sinning and sorrowing, and almost instinctively asking, who shall deliver; - I am trying to make no strong case, I am but feebly saying what we all feel; - and I ask, is it an offense, in such an one – an offense to nature, to reason, to heaven, to life his eye to the Infinite Being in hope that he will send some great salvation from his presence? This is the question; and I cannot but think that the true principles of the strictest reasoning put no obstacle in the way of that hope, but leave the path perfectly open to the ground of the great Christian argument.
In the last place, what are the spirit and conduct with which this great question of the day is to be met?
On this subject there is a difference of opinion among ourselves; and no little reproach is cast upon us, or upon the most of us, by others.
To notice in the first place the reproach from others; it is said that we are acting in total inconsistency with our former professions; and I suppose that the doctrines of this discourse will be accused of the same thing. I am not particularly anxious to deny this charge. All progress is likely to be made at some expense of consistency. I am much more concerned to be right today, than to show that I was right last year, or ten years ago. Very likely there are some things in our writings as a denomination, which are not entirely reconcilable with our present position. But after all and in the main, is this charge of inconsistency just? Can it be fairly made out? Because we said that we as a religious body had not departed from the ground of Christianity, does it follow that nobody can? We surely never said, that, let a man think what he would about Christ and Christianity, he was to be accounted a Christian believer and disciple. This should be proved, before the charge of inconsistency can be sustained. Then again, it is said that we have discarded all creeds, that we have no creed and never had any, and have no business to act if we had. No creed! What is the trouble now but that we have a creed, that we have a faith and hold it so dear that we submit to the exceeding pain of refusing to hold ministerial fellowship with that system of speculation which denies it? No creed! Is any one so simple in his unreasonableness, as not to see that the rejection of any one system, of any one doctrine, implies the acceptance of its opposite? This old, stale, self-refuting charge have recent events given it any color? "Yes, but you said that all men should be left to judge of Christianity for themselves?” Do we say anything else now? And suppose a man, in judging of Christianity, should arrive at the complete rejection of it and should profess himself in terms to be an infidel; did we ever say that we should account him to be a Christian?
But this, it will be said, is not the case in hand. The case that now presses itself upon our attention, is one in which the party rejected wishes to be called a Christian believer and to be received as a Christian teacher. This raises the question on which there is same difference of opinion among ourselves.
I must speak of this question frankly, but I approach it with modesty; I may be wrong; I have no ex-cathedral judgment to pronounce, no consistorial decision to promulgate; I have only an humble opinion to offer. This is all, I am persuaded, that any one has thought himself entitled to contribute to the decision of this painful question. There is an idea abroad, that there have been certain consistorial meetings among us, to pronounce sentence upon a dissenting brother. But in truth there have only been certain informal meetings for mutual enlightenment. And I am willing, I wish, that the very heart of those conferences, every thought and feeling could be laid open; for I know that they would vindicate our old claim to candor and charity. There has been no authority assumed in the case, no invasion proposed or desired of another's freedom; nothing but respect for another's right of opinion; nothing but tenderness of conscience seeking to know what is right. Nothing in language or manner or spirit has resembled that assumption, common in religious bodies, of being undoubtedly right, and having nothing to do but to reclaim an erring brother. More large, more liberal, more modest andkindly has been the thought that has prevailed among us. And I confess for myself, that there is a picture of charityand forbearance, that, strongly inclines and almost wins me to a judgment different from that to which I have come. We are all erring creatures. When the cloud of life shall be lifted up and shall open the vision of eternity, we may all find that we have contended for things unnecessary. "Why shall we not, then, bear with one for a while, and mingle together in the offices of religious instruction, no matter what our differences about Christ and Christianity?” I wish with all my heart that I could take this view of the case.
But there is something higher than mere kindly feeling, by which we must be guided. And I would beseech the most aggrieved person in the case, to tell us what with our views we can do to satisfy him. Controversialists seldom look at a subject from each other's point of view. Let this justice be done to our position, and we ask what other wet can take? We preach an authoritative and miracle-sanctioned Christianity. How can we unite in teaching with him who abjures all this, razes the very ground on which we stand, and preaches only Natural Religion? Suppose a lectureship were established for the explanation and defense of the American Constitution;—could two men give alternate lectures there, the one of whom regarded it as a binding instrument, and the other, discarding that view, proposed to speak only of the primary and absolute idea of Government? How could such dissentients with regard to the Christian bond, meet together to enforce it? What would become of Christian congregations, when taught such distracting theories? What would be their chance of edification and establishment? Why, upon these theories we cannot even read the Scriptures in each other's churches. If I were to read the New Testament in a meeting of the disciples of Strauss, must they not look upon me as a weak brother, smile at my credulity, and wonder that I should gravely read such things to them? And if their teacher should read that book in my pulpit, would not the people look upon him with surprise and feel as if it were scarcely proper or honest to do this? Can we then preach the Gospel together, who cannot even read it together in our congregations?
Those among us who advocate ministerial intercourse with a denier of Christ's authority and miracles, still hold the same views as their brethren of the denial in question. They hold it to be a complete departure from the substantial ground of Christianity as a system of religion. They regard it as theoretical infidelity. But they say that the denier does not so regard it. But by whose judgment of the matter are they to be governed? By theirs, or by his? By whose judgment ought he to ask them to be governed? On what ground, I say, shall they stand? On the ground of their opinion, or of his opinion? If he looked upon his disbelief as they do, I think he would not ask for participation in the teaching of Christianity. And can they consistently do what he could not consistently ask? I will make nothing of mere numbers in the case. I will suppose myself, and not my brother, to stand alone. And I say, if I and others had agreed upon a certain text-book as the basis of our teaching, and then if one or all of them had rejected that book, I could not unite with them in teaching or if all of them held it as of authority and I did not, I could not unite with them. There could be no union obtained but by sacrificing the book, or by holding it to be of little importance, or by merging it in some more general teaching. And in truth this is the question before us. Shall we merge Christianity in Natural Religion? This is what ministerial exchanges in the case would say; this would be the public significance of the act, on the part of those who believe in the Christian records; that, although believing in them, they hold them to he of little comparative importance, and are willing to merge the whole of what they consider to be the Christian peculiarity in the general sentiments of religion.
Besides, can it well be expected of me, that I should welcome into my pulpit a person who holds in something very like contempt so much that I revere? For it is vain to deny that this is the tendency, and must be the result of the late anti-supernatural speculations. Fable is never very respectable; but fable when raised to the character of solemn faith becomes, by necessary contrast of ideas, absurd and ridiculous. There is another respect in which my reverence is yet more deeply wounded. There are differences of which I can think lightly. But he who lifts his finger to the great and venerable ideal before which I bow down, and speaks of the divine and anointed Christ as a remarkable genius, an extraordinary Jewish youth, who yet erred sometimes in doctrine and practice, who is subject to criticism and censure, who was tinged with Jewish prejudices— thought himself the Messiah perhaps, or was willing to assume the character, (a fault venial in a young man;) can he be welcome to take part with me in the holy ministrations of the pulpit? If I were wrong and he were right, yet I do not see how it is possible for us to stand together. If a man but assailed the good name of my dearest friend, I should deeply feel it; and at any rate too deeply, to be willing to take part with him in a eulogy over that friend's grave.
Alas! here is a difference that the opponent will not see, and perhaps cannot appreciate. He has passed into another hemisphere of thought and feeling with regard to Christianity, and he does not know what is thought and felt in ours. But the difference is immense. And it is no new thought of today that makes it so; at least with me. I have long meditated in former days the question that is now propounded among us; it was the meditation and the painful struggle of years; and at length I came to the conviction— from the largest views I could take, from the lowliest prayers and the deepest searchings of which I was capable—that God, who speaks through the realm of nature and humanity, hath yet more especially, hath miraculously "spoken to the world by his Son.” From that hour, next to a belief in God and in his goodness, this has been the most precious conviction of my life.
Can any one fail to perceive how momentous this conviction must be to him who holds it? We lift our eyes to the universe of worlds. Eternal laws penetrate through the infinite realm. Wisdom, goodness, beauty, grandeur are around us; but as it all exists to us in the mind's conception, so its interest to us all centres in the soul’s hope. Shall we live hereafter to behold this glory? Or are we to be swept down to silence and death, only to give place to other successions of being? —for that is the visible course of things. From the infinite order, from the infinite silence, bath God in mercy spoken to us? This terrible bond of fate— may we believe that it is broken by an articulate voice? This awful sovereignty — may we believe that it condescends to our weakness and listens to our cry? May we believe, not merely that God hath sent all elements and powers upon eternal, say rather inexorable errands, but that as a Father he presides and is present in all worlds, and graciously interposes in the moral fortunes of each one according to its needs? And is Christianity such an interposition? Is Christ the anointed and blessed messenger to this world? Is he only some imperfect, ordinary Jewish Socrates? Or is he, in some far higher sense, our Saviour? Is he this, or is he not?
Nor is this question momentous to individual minds only, but to the moral interests of all mankind. Opinion lies at the bottom of the world. All action is its result. The world is but the bodying forth of opinion. All history, empire, literature, society, life, is but the incarnation of it. But of all opinions I knew of none more important than those which relate to Christ and Christianity, and most especially important are they in the present crisis of human progress. The world is about entering upon a new career. The bold speculations, the struggling passions of men are about to be let loose in a new and fearful manner. What is to control them? If Christianity is to be merged in that Natural Religion whose defects it came to remedy; if it is the mere scaffolding to the temple of truth, now to be taken away and to disappear; then the world must go on without that guidance that has been necessary to keep it in less perilous times. Science too is presenting aspects and tendencies that increase the need of this guidance, this instruction from on high. Under the name of order, it is bringing back a fate into the universe. It is threatening men with a new orphanage; it is bereaving them of the Father in heaven. It is not true, I conceive, that Christianity was only or especially needed in an earlier and ruder age. It is needed now, and never more than now. The world, in some quarters, in some departments of thought at least; in the young especially, in the young America, the young England, the young Germany —for this is the sort of phrase that is used to describe a phasis in modern humanity; the world, I say, is growing skeptical, infidel, pantheistic, bold, indocile, rebellious to authority and estranged from trust. And the word Father — Father in heaven —that which was so familiar on the lips of Jesus — that is the great word that needs to be uttered now!
In fine, let opinions fairly unfurl their banners, and not fold them into cloaking veils about the momentous points of difference. Reformers—as they consider themselves —must somewhat sturdily take their ground. They must not wonder at resistance nor rejection. They must let other people think too, and say what they think. They must expect opposition and learn calmly to meet it. They must not construe opposition into unkindness. Let there be no unkindness. Let the trial of this great question come; and let it be sustained patiently, gently, charitably: and may God, the Infinite Wisdom, the Solemn Judge, graciously guide his creatures right!