Basis and Superstructure
Rev. Orville Dewey, D.D.
Berry Street Essay, 1867
Read before the Ministerial Conference at Berry Street,
May 29, 1867
BRETHREN OF THE CONFERENCE—
I shall venture to speak to you in this discourse on subjects that belong to the time. This opens, doubtless, too large a field to enter, without some definite path to pursue, or some distinct points of view being taken from which to survey it; and I hasten to say at once, that the few thoughts I have to offer will come chiefly under the heads of Basis and Superstructure, -- of the foundation in religion and the upbuilding. These themes present a framework of thought too vast, indeed, for discussion, and designed only to limit it. But I desire to look at this great edifice of religion, -- to "go round about Zion, and to mark well her bulwarks;” both because of the dangers that seem to assail it, and because I am sure of its stability. Never, certainly, was every thing in religion called in question, from the lowest foundation to the topmost stone, as it is now; and yet never, I firmly believe, was there so much true religious faith in the world as now. If this seems to be a contradiction, I do not understand it to be so: because the foundation-truths of
religion, though they are questioned, are questioned by very few; while the general faith is gravitating towards them more and more, is taking deeper hold of the very roots of religion, and is, therefore, becoming stronger and more vital. Very skepticism to-day is often more vitally religious, than was the old Orthodox believing of the Middle Ages; whose stability is so much vaunted by some, and whose decadence is so unnecessarily lamented over by others. I think that I see the general mind sinking deeper and deeper into the truest religious convictions, through the rents of controversial theology, through the chinks of Biblical historic evidence, and the breaking-up of ecclesiastical authority.
I have known well enough what it is to doubt; and to doubt concerning the whole dogmatic creed in which I was brought up. I once gave a year to retirement and study to examine this creed. I examined it; I gave it up, point by point: but never for one moment did I lose my peace of mind. I knew, or thought at least, that my earthly prospects were endangered by my inquiries; but my inmost tranquility and deepest joy were never for a moment disturbed by all my doubts and difficulties. And why? Because I felt something within me – an assurance, a certainty – that lay beneath all doubts, beneath all dogmatic creeds. Nay, I say it firmly, beneath not only all dogmatic creeds, but beneath all writings, beneath all Scriptures, beneath all church ordinance and authority, beneath Christianity, beneath the mission of the Christ himself, there is, in the solemn recesses of every human soul, a foundation of religion and religious truth. Jesus himself spoke to that inner, that diviner sense of things; else as a religious teacher he could not have spoken at all. And if I reminded that Paul says, "Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ,” I answer, this is true of the Christian system. Jesus Christ is the foundation of that. But that system reposes on a foundation beneath it, -- the everlasting truth that underlies all religions. When it is said that an architect lays the foundation of a building, -- temple, tower, or pyramid, -- it is forgotten, perhaps, that this rests on a deeper and broader foundation, the foundation and basis of the world.
I hardly know why I should insist upon this position with any special strength of statement. It is the simple and acknowledged truth, I think, in our religious philosophy. Certainly it is in every other. All knowledge, all science, rests upon an original basis in human nature. All art, all perception and culture of the beautiful, is referred to an original sense of beauty in the human development; when we speak of the most remarkable instances of human development; when we speak of Shakspeare, we are thinking of the wonder of his genius more than of his culture, or means of culture. And even if we were, with the utilitarian philosophers, -- not all deadyet, -- to refer all moral and religious sentiments to sensation connected with the love of happiness, low as the basis would be compared with the grand primal intuitions of humanity, we should still point to the original constitution of human nature. I am not denying, by any means, the importance of culture, of the upbuilding: of this I shall come to speak. I am not denying that the capacity would be created in vain, unless it were filled with something; but I am insisting, first, upon this point, -- the capacity, the foundation.
But now what, more precisely, is this foundation? It is intuition. It is an intuitive sense of moral obligation. It is an intuition of right, of justice, of goodness, and the beauty of goodness. It is also an intuitive idea of God, and comes so near to an absolute proof of his existence, that all mankind have, in one form or another, received it. And, again, the doctrine of immortality comes, if not from a positive intuition, yet from a notable instinct of humanity; proved to be such, says Guizot, by its having existed among all people, from the rudest to the most civilized. Human degradation may sometimes appear to lend but poor countenance to that faith. "Such poor creatures as men are, -- many of them at least, -- can they be immortal?” Some one, reporting of Coleridge’s conversation, says that "he talked one day of the sense of immortality in man, and of its universality, which, in his opinion, caused it to partake of the nature of instinct in animals. The only time I ever saw Lord Byron, he added, he pointed to a man in a state of brutal intoxication, and asked if I thought that a proof of an immortal nature. ‘Your inquiry, my lord, is,’ I answered.” – "And so it was.” Adds the reporter; "for it was the natural instinct shrinking with abhorrence from that degradation, -- that apparent death of the soul.” These, then, are the foundations of religion; of natural religion, of all religion, laid and imbedded, I believe, in the human soul by the hand that made it.
I wish now to single out from this grand, original category of faith, one point as the subject of some further argument upon the foundations of religion. I mean the belief in God, and especially in him as a righteous Being, a good Being.
Why it is, that our nature, our whole mind, demands this Being as the object of its faith and adoration; why every thing within us "cries out for God, for the living God,” – I will not understand to say or explain. It may be because a boundless capacity and reach of thought naturally demand a boundless object, that a love such as we are capable of, naturally soars to an infinitude of love, and cannot stop short of it. It is not – of this I am sure – a mere desire of infinite favor and protection. There is a deeper element, a diviner passion, in our being, that seeks its great Original. And certain it is, that, if that central Light be extinguished, all in us is dark and desolate. Strike out moral intuition from our religion, and the corner-stone is gone. Strike away the doctrine of immorality, and its loftiest pinnacle falls. But strike at filial faith in God, -- break that down, and every thing tumbles into ruins.
It cannot be without the profoundest concern, therefore, that every thoughtful man must look into those questions concerning the Supreme Nature, which our minds naturally raise, and especially under the guidance of modern science. It is not the "germ” doctrine of Professor Darwin that troubles me. But when we think of the extent of the universe; when we carry our views beyond our own sidereal system, so inconceivably vast, and embrace thousands of other systems, of perhaps equal extent; and when we reflect that all this may be but one section of the unbounded creation, -- what are we to think of the Being, who made, who sustains, and who governs, the infinite whole? Our minds sink overwhelmed in that boundless abysm of existence; and we feel as if we knew, and could know, nothing concerning it, -- nothing but that it is."I am,” seems to be all that it can tell us. Jonathan Edwards argues, that if any, the least event, thought, or motion in the universe were unknown to God, or uncontrolled by him, all would go to ruin. But what is that omnipotence, what that omniscience, which comprehends every event, every mind, every prayer, every thought, every act, every animalcule, and every animalcular motion, that takes place, at every moment, in the universe? Can any intelligence conceivable by us, can any moral attribute conceivable by us, belong to such a Nature? Is not such a Being, as has been contended, strictly and utterly "unknowable,” "unthinkable,” by us? If utterly unknowable, if in every respect so, then we are orphans; we are, to all spiritual intents and purposes, atheists, "without God and without hope.”
But I do not yield to such a conclusion. The argument for it is grounded on the essential imperfection of all our ideas of intelligence and goodness. These we must not ascribe to God; therefore, it is said, we can ascribe nothing to him but bare existence; nothing, i.e.,of an intellectual or moral nature. But I make here a broad, and what seems to me, a very material distinction. Our mental processes, embracing succession, reasoning, comparison, steps of thought, and necessarily implying limitation, are one thing; quite another is our intuition of truth and right, which does not involve any reasoning nor imply any limitation. Intuition, grand in every way, is grandest of all in this. It is the archetype of the Divinity stamped on the soul. It is the symbol of eternal truth and right. It is the image of God.
If it were not so; did the Infinite Intuition of the true and right, differ essentially from ours; did the Infinite Intelligence differ entirely from what we understand by intelligence; did the Infinite Goodness, or what we call such, differ altogether from all we understand by goodness; might what we worship as infinite Goodness, be Infinite Malignity for aught we know; then there would be nothing left for us to revere or love; and all inward, true religion would be struck to death by such fatal skepticism.
The question, broadly and abstractly stated, is this: Does a thing’s being incomprehensible make it altogether unintelligible? On the contrary, I say that the very correlative of incomprehensibility is a certain degree of intelligibleness. We do not say, that of which we knownothing is incomprehensible, but that of which we know something. And it would seem to be an obvious distinction, that the nature of an object is one thing, and the extent of it another: but this distinction some late reasoners, if I understand them, do not seem to recognize. We do not know how far a thing extends; and, if it extends beyond the grasp of our conception, we don’t know what it is, in that condition of inconceivable extension.
Is this true? Matter spreads to an inconceivable extent. Does it follow that it loses its nature in that extension? Are we not sure, on the contrary, that it continues the same? Mind rises, even in some human beings, -- certainly it may in superior beings, -- to a point that we cannot comprehend. Do we not, therefore, know what its nature is? Does intelligence, or does goodness, by extension, by infinite extension, cease to be intelligence or goodness? Numbers are capable of indefinite, of infinite multiplication. The infinite multiplication we cannot comprehend. Does it follow that we know nothing of the nature of numbers? Nay, do we not know, that the nature of numbers, though infinitely multiplied, must continue the same? As to comprehending, we do not comprehend any thing perfectly; and, if comprehending is the condition of knowing, we do not know any thing. It has been said that we cannot distinctly comprehend the number 20. Certain it is, that, as we go on counting from one, our ideas grow indistinct at every step; and we can no more comprehend a million of units than we can comprehend an infinity of them. Nay, not so much perhaps; for we have a distinct idea of infinitude, but we have not, of a million of units. But is it not a strange thing for a philosopher to say, You cannot comprehend a million of numbers, therefore you do not know what the nature of numbers is; or, when carried to an infinite multiplication, you do not know what their nature is in that infinite multiplication?
It strikes at the validity of all knowledge to say, that we can have no just idea of that, in its nature, which we do not comprehend in its entirety. The astronomer understands something of the systems of the stars, though he does not understand their whole extent. I stand before the spectacle of nature: a soul in me meets and perceives an Intelligence and a Goodness manifest in the objects around me, manifested as plainly as if they were endowed with speech, and uttered the thoughts that are breathing and shining through them. And am I to be told, that, because they are the expression of an Infinite Mind, I know nothing of what they mean, or of what that mind reveals of itself through them? Does the phrase, "God in nature,” blot out all life and light from nature? As well might I be told that I understand nothing of what a human being says to me, of what his meaning is when he speaks to me; for his meaning derives its character from an Infinite Mind, as truly as the meaning of nature does. And surely, if I could go on studying mind and matter for ages, or for ever, I cannot help believing that they would express the same things. And yet if I could go on till I comprehended all created matter and all created mind, came nearest to the Infinite, comprehended the universe, in fact; yet, according to these reasonings, I should still know nothing of God, but as some unknown force. Who can yield to such reasonings? Alas! For the scientific tendency that is taking that direction; that, merged in material objects, sees not the light shining through them! No: mind going out to an Infinite Mind, brings back to us some intelligible conceptions, however inadequate. From that boundless deep of Being – the illimitable extension of our own being – come some solemn intimations of its nature. But now we are told, that from that infinite rebound comes – nothing! Pardon me, my brethren, if I dwell upon this subject with something of indignant earnestness. It is as vital to me as my existence. Without God, my being is a miserable wreck, amidst the wrecks of things around me.
But I maintain, in opposition to this philosophizing, that we cannot help thinking of intelligence and goodness, as attributes of the Supreme Nature. We cannot help thinking of an Infinite Intelligence and Goodness, any more than we can help thinking of an Infinite Cause. The Infinite, as truly as the Finite, lies in the very categories of thought; and, if we do not think of an infinite nothing, we must think of an infinite something. Mr. Herbert Spencer does think of an infinite something, and he calls it Force or cause; he falls back upon that; he considers that, I suppose, as "thinkable.” But an infinite Cause he can no more comprehend, than an infinite Goodness? And if he claims, in strict philosophy, the right to think of an infinite Cause, why should he deny the right to think of an infinite Goodness? In fact, to be all the while writing, thinking of infinitude, and yet to deny that it is thinkable, seems a strange thing. Or, if we contemplate the Supreme Nature under the aspect of a personal Will, is a will any less a will, because it is almighty? It is completely unauthorized, and in fact an unintelligible, conclusion. As James Martineau aptly says (in a private letter), "It is as conceivable to me that a Will should make a solar system, as that it should make a dew-drop; or a forest, as that it should make a tree.”
I feel, brethren, the awfulness of this theme. I think I understand how it is, that the contemplation of such a stupendous Existence, should tend to whelm all distinctions. But I believe it is simple the tendency of our weakness. Still, I believe, -- after the perpetual formula of all creeds, -- I believe in God; I believe in a Father in heaven. And I cling to this faith, not alone because of my weakness, but because I find that it is founded in a just philosophy. I do not accept it, as Mr. Spencer does Anthropomorphism, as a simply needful, provisional faith, which is yet to pass away. I believe it is never to pass away.
I have thus spoken of the foundations of religion as laid in certain original ideas of Right, of God, and of Immortality.
But a foundation is of no value, unless something is built upon it. "Thou believest in God: the devils also believe, and tremble.” Thou believest in the right, and in the immortality of right; but transient and unsubstantial as dreams or reveries, may be thy virtue. It is but a revery, perhaps: how shall it be formed into a character? It is, possibly, but a professional assumption, or something taken at second-hand: how shall it be thoroughly thought out and felt, rooted in the soul, and so become a deep and all-absorbing reality?
How, -- this is the question now before us, -- by what means, in what way, through what agencies and influences, and most of all, by what working out of the great problem in ourselves? For it is a personal, and sometimes it appears as if it were a fearful, problem? Why is it so fearful? Why is it so difficult to solve it? Why must we be so anxious and troubled for ourselves, and for all men, upon this one point? It seems so easy in theory, it is so difficult in practice; so easy and beautiful simply to feel the Great Presence all around as the very light; and to breathe all pure and gentle affections as the very atmosphere; and to make the very ground we tread upon, as the measured lists of those who run a race, with progress at every step and certain victory at the goal. Why is it so far otherwise with the common experience of men? Does it not seem, at times, as if there were some obstinate and intractable lump of depravity in our nature, some radical or inherited defect in our humanity, to account for its disheartening failures? Such, I am well assured, is not the true philosophy of our condition. Flesh and sense, with their dangerous tendencies, are appointed as the scaffolding of the building within; interests, our own or others’, urging on the work, yet through our blindness, interfere with it; ignorance of what the right is, often perplexes us; and the work is to go on amidst doubt and struggle and difficulty. It is difficulty, and not facility, in all human endeavors, in knowledge as well as in virtue, that produces the noblest results.
But, amidst it all, can we do any thing for ourselves or others? I answer, that we can do every thing, God helping us, "to will and to do.” To will: I place that in the foreground of the whole work. The true Christian is a self-made man. The concentrated will to do right, and to be right, is the first step in conversion; carried out, it is conversion. This every man can put forth, if no other way, in these three: By abstaining from the wrong actions to which the passions impel him; by turning away the mind’s attention from the wrong to the right; and by the diligent use of all proper means. He cannot, perhaps, will virtue, will right affections, into existence. In this sense, I should admit the old doctrine of human inability. God creates those affections, not man. He has created the germs of those affections within us: it is ours to cultivate them. Just as, in geometry, we do not, create the axioms: they are created within us; but we build upon them.
But this opens to us the broad field of our inquiry, What is to be done to bring men to this will and endeavor? In other words, what are the influences and agencies that are to come into our contemplation, as means of building up religion in the world?
Let us take account, then, first of the breadth of these influences; and next of their place and power in the Christian religion, church, and ministry.
In their breadth, they embrace all that forms the character. Christianity takes a leading part; but there are many things beside, to be considered. External means have their place; but there are far deeper and stronger powers within. Conscience, the sense of right, stands first; that which is truly the spirit of God within us. Fear, doubtless, drives many to religion; a very questionable influence, and producing a very questionable result. For more profound, is the sense of an infinite need, which nothing but religion can supply. And I believe, if we examine our own minds, we shall find that what has earliest drawn us to the highest things, is the example of excellent persons, -- of our parents and friends; example, whether in real life or in biography. This opens to us the whole sphere of society, and indeed of good literature (which is the life of souls), as the field of religious growth.
The field is wide, as wide as the world; nay, it is the world. Religion, it has been justly said, is an "earth-made thing;” and that was said by our Orthodox missionary brother, Mr. Nott, of Wareham, in his preface to an excellent little volume of sermons, entitled the "Birds and Lilies.” It is an earth-made thing, as truly as it is a heavenly breath. And all things should conspire to its upbuilding. It is not the Bible alone, nor the Church alone, nor preaching alone; but it is Nature, it is life, it is society, it is daily toil, that should be engaged in this great ministration.
And all this, I conceive, should be shown and taught to the people. In particular, I cannot help thinking, that we should preach more than we do, from the teachings of nature. That was the manner of the Great Teacher. What is the view that most men have of the world they live in, -- of the material world? The old desecration of it, is only somewhat modified. It is, indeed, no longer regarded as directly the work of Demi-urge or Devil; but, to men generally, what is the material world? It is a mere clod to work upon, a hard taskmaster, or a place to build cities in, or to open roads and to do business, or to make a prosperous career; and its divine laws and ministrations do not come into their thoughts, once in a hundred times that they think of it. And they never will learn any spiritual lessons from it till they are taught something of what it means; something of the philosophy of their condition; something to make them understand that their daily labor is good for them, -- is essential, in fact, both to their virtue and happiness. To make this disparaged world, then, a religious sphere; to show how full of wonderful wisdom are its laws and ordinances; to make daily life a scene of honest, faithful, and pious task-work, -- this is to build up religion: and prayer and preaching are of little avail, if this is not accomplished.
And the social sphere, -- that, first, which is technically called society; so dull and vapid often for want of thought and the free play of thought; so chilled and crippled by envy and ambition; so awkward under the bondage of self-consciousness and the miserable fear of one another, -- what freedom, what fresh life and joy, would be poured into it by the highest religion, by the sense and love of a heavenly Presence all around, which would make "the whole world kin”! Then next, the social problems, -- all that concerns men’s social rights and duties, -- freedom, suffrage, obedience to law, all that helps humanity, must come into the large and just view of building up religion. "For if a man love not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”
The love of God is, doubtless, the highest sentiment: it is the first and great commandment. But I have sometimes thought that there may be a superstitious exaggeration of it, as compared with the love of man; and that not alone with mystics and pietists. "If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother has aught against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.” Wonderful words! And especially for the age in which they were delivered. Not that I would derogate any thing from the supreme claim. No: I join with the mystics and pietists, with Thomas a Kempis and Tauler, in that. One Power, that binds the universe to perfect order; one Justice, that sustains the right, and will tread down all wrong; one Wisdom, that guides the stars in their courses, and the footsteps of men; one Love, that embraces all creatures, through infinitude and eternity, in its fullness, -- this is the soul’s sufficiency and beautitude and rest. But we may love and venerate in men the same excellence in its nature, that we love and venerate in God. "The second,” said the Master, after having laid down the first commandment, -- "the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
But it is time that I come to what especially belongs to this second branch of my discourse, -- to Christianity, to the Church and its ministrations.
The Church has its theology. Of what weight and importance is this, in promoting virtue and piety among the people, or in moulding their character? Something, doubtless, is in this respect to be attributed to it, but not every thing, nor even the principal influence. Still, what a man believes, must have some influence upon what he feels. In fact, what he really believes, constitutes a part of what he is. But so has religion been severed from all rational connection with every thing else, that it has been possible for the most beautiful forms of character to grow up amidst every variety of belief, and of the most monstrous belief. The result is not logical; but men are not logical. The result, too, is somewhat exceptional; and, with the body of mankind, what they think must have a great deal to do with what they are. Mr. Lecky has drawn a terrible picture of what the doctrines of exclusive salvation and eternal perdition, for the mass of men, did, to produce a general inhumanity and the most relentless persecutions; and it is not more terrible than true.
Within the last twenty or thirty years, there has been a remarkable decadence of controversial theology, and especially perhaps, among ourselves. The older men among us, who took part in the controversy with the Orthodox faith, became thoroughly tired of it; and mostly in their preaching turned away from it. This tendency, I believe, has gone full far, and ought to be checked. The day of creeds, it is said, has gone; but I do not think so. The day of dogmatic creeds, if you please, but not of vital beliefs. And I conceive that it is our duty again to spread before the people, in books and tracts, the views we hold of religious truth and of religion. I believe they are of the utmost importance in building up a rational, cheerful, and earnest faith and piety.
But there is a controversy which has arisen among ourselves, and is of more interest to us than any we have with others; andthat relates to the character of the claim which Christianity itself has upon our reverence. Has it a supernatural claim? Does it bear upon it the stamp of miracle, either in the character or in the works of its Founder?
This question turns upon the view we take of the Christian records? Are they reliable? Are they to be taken mainly as they stand? Or do they consist, in considerable part, of legendary accretions that grow up about the original story? Are they in part, of the same unreliable character as the spurious Gospels? We have a body of such Gospels. They contain internal evidence enough of being spurious. No one can read them without feeling it. With the exception of the Gospel of Nicodemus, or Acts of Pilate, which is evidently a constructed fiction, all these writings are full of improbable, or absurd and idle stories. But the genuine Gospels bear all the marks of sobriety and honesty together; and are, indeed, every way of such a moral tone, that it is impossible to believe that the writers intentionally inserted what they knew to be mere fables, to embellish their narratives. And, if they had given simply and only an account of Jesus as a pure and sublime Teacher, we should have credited them without hesitation.
It must be, then, a distrust of all miracles, that leads us to distrust the Evangelists. It is the assumption that a miracle is in itself and altogether, an impossible and an incredible thing. Are we entitled to take this ground? Is the system of the universe such a system of "evolutions,” rolling up every thing into their folds, that it is not left to God himself, to change or re-enforce any power in matter or mind? If we say this, upon what grounds can we say it? Certainly not that we intuitively know it. And if upon any other ground, it must be that we know all the facts and possibilities in the universe; which we do not know.
The truth is, I suppose, that the rejection of miracles does not depend on argument, but upon a general state of mind. It is that state of mind which Mr. Lecky has described in his admirable book on the history of Rationalism in Europe. We all know – know by experience – what it is; and we all welcome in general the progress of Rationalism. But all progress goes by swayings back and forth; and the question is, whether the rationalistic tendency may not, on this subject, go too far; just as every other tendency – liberty, quality, democracy – may at times go too far. It certainly may be so; and it would not surprise me to see a re-action in favor of miracles.
But, however this shall be, I desire for myself to touch ground amidst the swayings of the great rationalistic tide, and not to be carried too far. If there is one state of mind that is unfavorable to miracles, there is another that is favorable to them; and it may be the most philosophical of the two. Is the Supreme Nature an infinitely loving Nature, or is it a mere impersonal Force? When I am most impressed with God’s tender mercy to every creature, and dismiss the childish thought that it cares less for this world because it is one of an infinite number; when I see what a world it is, and feel the mighty burden upon its heart, of sorrows and strugglings and perils; and when I behold that immaculate Wonder which rose in the world, eighteen centuries ago, to shine with healing power upon all the ages, -- it does not seem to me irrational to believe, that this grandest intervention for human help, was marked by the finger of God, with some special emphasis and attestation. I cannot say that I know it, -- this is not a matter for dogmatic and unquestionable statement; but that my mind inclines me to believe it.
The question here, belongs to the philosophy of Christianity, and not to its essence; and ought not to alienate or separate its true friends. I see as good men on one side of it as the other. And for good and thoughtful men to hold one another under any religious or social proscription for their honest opinions, ought to belong to the accursed intolerance of the past.
The truth is, the vitality of the Christian religion, lies deeper than miracles. The mission of Christ is the same in its object, whether attested by miracles or not, -- to lead us out of darkness into light; out of distrust and despair to filial faith; out of sin and sorrow to holiness and blessedness. Men may be so led, are so led, without ever thinking of miracles or the miraculous. There are miracles in the human soul, -- at least there are direct and divine imprints upon it, -- that are of deeper import than any that are external or exceptional. Christianity itself, is based upon something deeper than its visible form or claim. I accept it as the best of religions, but not as the whole of religion. "The Christian consciousness,” though that phrase is constantly pronounced as the final word, is not the final word. The final and great word – Jesus himself being witness – is God; and the spirit of God breathing in the human soul. Nothing offends me more than the extravagant claims of the Christian dogmatists, saying "Nothing but Christ, nothing but Christ,” – as if God were not; and the presence of God were nothing. No: it is not true that all religion lies within the compass, even of Christian dogma and institution. It comes also from the wayside of still meditation. It comes from the midnight stars. It comes from the clouds of eventide. It came so to Antoninus and Boethius, and many another, who, without written law, were a law to themselves. It comes from converse with good men’s presence and example and heroic deeds. It comes from the biographic page, from poetic inspiration, from pictures of saints and martyrs, from the deeps of music; from wherever the spirit of God, like the unseen wind, breathes holy refreshment and healing life through the hearts of the children of men.
But I am dwelling too long upon this topic; and I have something yet to say of the Church and its ministrations, as the means of awakening and kindling a religious life in the people. I must limit myself to a few words upon the Church as a working institution (so to speak); upon preaching and the manner of the Great Preacher; and upon the Ordinance that commemorates him.
With regard to the Church as a working institution, I have often thought, that if I were the pastor of a church, in town or country, but especially in the latter, I should want a building of hardly less capacity than the Church itself, for various purposes. I should want a library-room, and a reading-room, and a lecture-room; which should also be a chapel for conference and other religious services; and also one or two rooms for charitable work. I would make this a rallying-place for the congregation, where they might find "books and work and healthful play” – of the intellect. Here I should like to talk to them, from time to time, of the works of Nature, of the world they live in, and try to make them understand something of it. I should like, too, to have lectures from the more intelligent members of the congregation, and discussions, conference, questions and answers upon these subjects; and also at times, deeper religious conference. And it seems as if something might be done here, to make the people acquainted with the intellectual world they live in. That grand outcome of the world’s thought which we call Literature, -- what a sad default to reason, to common sense, for persons who can read, to pass through this life-sphere, and to know nothing of its sublimest oracles! Men read, read much perhaps; but what? Ephemeral trash, the last sensation novel, or the newspaper; and they know little or nothing of Plato or Epictetus, of Hooker or Addison, or Milton or Burke, hardly of Shakespeare, but that such persons have lived. And I firmly believe, that, if any pastor would take up this plan; if he did not preach so much; if instead of wearing himself out with making formal visits, and writing so many sermons, -- Dr. Chauncey said two hundred were as many as any man should write; if, I say, he would meet the people in this way, they would know him better, and he them; and altogether they might build themselves up in a culture, both of knowledge and religion, that, for a religious congregation, would be a new thing in the world.
Such gatherings of the people might be on one or two evenings of the week, or on Sunday afternoons. It would be better, I think, than to listen to a second sermon, which drives out the first, -- a custom, too, which muddles the people’s ideas about sermons altogether, so that they can tell less about them than of any thing else they hear or know. There is too much preaching. There is too much preaching for the preacher. There is too much preaching for the people.
But, preaching, -- this is the second point I am to notice. There is a sigh through all the land, over dull preaching. And when a man comes along, who touches and melts the heart of the people, it is an era to them: they remember it long after. I am speaking in the general. I know that we have interesting preachers among us, and a good many of them, -- more, I believe, than any other people have. Still, there is a sad deficiency; and the question is, -- and it is the greatest practical question I know, -- How are we to pour a new and quickening life into the pulpit?
But, first, what would that quickening life be? I answer, simple earnestness, a profound impression and religious tenderness in the preacher, that would touch all hearts around him. I know what is said of gifts, of genius, of enthusiasm, as not belonging to everybody; and I admit all their value and charm. But I maintain, that there may be a deep feeling of religion without them. And he who should speak to me with that feeling, -- he even who should so read a hymn, or a psalm of David, as to touch my heart, -- would do more for me, of that for which I come to church, than the most splendid discourse without it. The splendid discourse I can read at home; but what I go to church for is impression, -- to feel the power of religion. I recall now an aged man of the humblest ability and culture, -- yet, when he stood up and prayed in the meeting, his slender frame and white locks trembling with emotion, like a holocaust of love and thanksgiving, -- who made upon me more of that impression, than any other religious ministration that I remember in my youth. Mrs. Kemble, in her "Georgian Journal,” relates of her reading the words of Jesus to the slaves. She said afterwards, speaking of it, "As I read those words, I wondered how anybody ever dared to make a commentary upon them.” I do not doubt, that, for showing what those words meant, her reading was better than any commentary. I remember a simple woman teaching in a Sunday school, who so pronounced the word GOD, -- I do not recall any thing else she said, -- but who with such a tender awe pronounced that word, that it was a sermon to me, such as few could equal. That was forty years ago; but it has been a blessed impression upon my mind ever since.
But how is this sense of things divine, this religious fervor, to be obtained; which makes the weak strong, and the simple-hearted more than eloquent? For answer, I think we must go to our religious nurture, and to the very roots of it. It has been superstitious; it has been based on false ideas; it has lacked a genial and inspiring warmth. All this must be changed. Religious nurture must be as simple and natural as that which awakens the love of knowledge, of art, of beauty, of all things lovely and beautiful. Then, if the education of our youth in school and college could be what it should be! Alas, it is not! But this being so, I will venture to say, that the object of our theological schools, should be, more than it has been, the nurture of a religious spirit. The learning obtained in them is well. But if our Theological Instructors – I speak it with all respect for them – could gather their pupils together weekly in earnest religious conference, and pour an enkindling warmth into those meetings, so that all hearts should be touched by it, so that the latent and slumbering sensibility should be nursed into a holy fervor and joy, I believe it would be worth more than all the learning.
There has been one teacher – the great Teacher – at whose feet we sit; and his words, at which our hearts leap for joy or tremble with awe, were not delivered in the style of what is ordinarily called eloquence. How sober and quiet they were! But what great words, and of what immense, of what unequalled power! Gather the wisest men of all ages, and not one of them, nor all of them together, could do for us what he has done. A power lies in the simple record of what he said and did and suffered, which no criticism can shake, -- which even Renan’s does not propose to disturb. It has not only pervaded, it has presided over, the civilization of nearly eighteen centuries; and if any thing on earth is of heaven, of the very providence of God, it is this.
A word now, in close, upon the Ordinances of the church, which, to complete the view of church influences, I ought to speak of.
Baptism has its fitness, -- the birth-time rite, the celebration of most momentous event, the thankful recognition, with prayer and consecration, of the most solemn trust that can be committed to mortals, - this is naturally fit and beautiful; though there be no express Christian warrant for it, except when applied to converts from heathenism. And why shall not the great Eucharistic Rite be regarded as naturally fit and beautiful, -- the affectionate commemoration of the ever-revered and beloved master, -- such visible homage to that wonderful being who stands alone in the world, in the thoughts of all who have ever read or known of him? It is natural to do this. Great men have often been so commemorated after death, -- are now; for a few years the memory of them has been so kept alive. But this memorial has stood through all the Christian centuries. It seems to me a serious thing to lower it from its place, and lay it aside. Much difficulty as I feel about the too commonly mournful, constrained, and superstitious observance of it, I cannot do that. It may be said, that the Quakers have laid it aside, without any ill consequences. I doubt that. Quakerism is going out into intellectual dispersion, for want of fixtures. A solemn memorial alter, standing in the world, may serve to bind men to the great Christian allegiance. I am sensible as any one can be, of the mistaken ideas and manners with which the Lord’s Supper has been surrounded: they have troubled me all my life. The notions of the communion, as a test or a profession of goodness, rather than a help to it; as a mark on the sheep of the fold; or as something to be partaken in with preternatural awe, are as injurious as they are wrong. Cannot something be done to correct them? Cannot we as pastors, by a manner in this service free from all superstition, by a manner simple, natural, cheerful, affectionate, and earnest, do something to invest it with a new character? If I should hear of a company of disciples that came together in a cheerful heartiness and voluntariness, to spend an hour or an evening in the remembrance of Jesus; to sing hymns to him, perhaps, as of old; to sing anthems, to speak of him, to admire and to glorify the divinest man, -- I should want to be there. But it is not so with our ordinary celebrations: the spirit, I mean, is not such. We are too literal. We fix our thoughts upon the symbols, when it were better that the symbols were lost sight of, in the feeling of what they mean. The letter killeth; the form killeth: but the spirit maketh alive.
But the spirit maketh alive, -- this would be my final word, if I had any to offer. The letter killeth: in dogma, in form, in institution, the letter killeth. But the spirit, -- the breath divine in our souls, the deep and living sense of religion in our hearts, underlying and quickening every thing else, -- this alone can make us men; this alone can make us preachers to men.