The New Religion
Berry Street Lecture, 1879
read before the Ministerial Conference
Had any one asked a generation ago, What is the bestattainable book for the culture of personal religion? the well-nigh unanimous reply of intelligent Unitarians would have been, Ware's Formation of Christian Character. No devotional work ever obtained like credence among us. It was our book of Christian culture; first to occur to the mind when something was needed to supplement the public word of preaching or the private word of counsel. Ministers recommended it to the young men and women of their parishes. Parents gave it to their children, teachers to their pupils. Nor was it a mere gift-book to be put in good binding, and to occupy, along with the old-fashioned Annual, a prominent place on the centre-table. It was rather thereligious "vademecum” of our fathers, their book of daily bread, devoutly read by thousands of persons, and applied by them with religious simplicity to the conduct of life. It was a book, too, full of good fruits. Many a noble man and saintly woman, now looking towards the sunset of life, could trace the origin of their nobility or their sainthood to the influence of this little work. It furnished, and has handed down to us, the pattern by which was shaped that plain, calm, reasonable, practical, and perhaps somewhatformal piety, more full of rectitude and all good works than of fervor, which characterized the first confessors of the liberal faith in New England, and which made them, if not efficient builders of a sect, very mighty for the pulling down of the strongholds of sin, and very accurate translators of the piety of the heart into the homely language of good behavior and steady beneficence. I have thus spoken ofWare's Formation of the Christian Character because it is a typical book. At its appearance, it was based upon the ideas of personal religion which werethen at the heart of the Unitarian movement. It shows what our fathers forty years ago thought personal religion to be, and by what processes they supposed that personal religion could best be won and kept.
Twelve months ago the question of the expediency ofreprinting in an attractive form Ware's Formation of Christian Character was submitted to a dozen persons, men and women. They were intelligent, thoughtful, devout people; representing, too, fairly enough all shades of opinion among us, conservative or otherwise. Their prejudices, so far as they had any, were probably for rather than against the book. The reply was, "Better not. The book has had its day. It does not run in the current of the thought and feeling of our times. Few would buy it. Fewer yet read it.” The grounds of this decision may not have been thoroughly tested, or even definitely marked out. Probably not. Possibly not one could have stated what in the book was out grown. Whether style, or methods, or ideas. Still the change of sentiment cannot be overlooked. The instincts of a dozen candid people decided that what once furnished spiritual nourishment and trustworthy moral direction no longer answers these ends. For our purpose it hardlymatters whether in this special case the instincts were sound or not. The law all the same is true. What is spiritual wheat for one generation is often but chaff for the next; orelse bread so hard and sour that it sets the children's teeth on edge. Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ is a classic, but it is a classic not many read, or will. Baxter's Saints' Rest was once nourishing pill for babes. But not all the publication societies in the world can make it sweet andpalatable to the taste of the nineteenth century. Cotton Mather felt that he must always roll a sweet morsel of John Calvin under his tongue before he sought his couch. But it is questionable whether such a flavor in the mouth would bring today deeper sleep or pleasanter dreams to the least heretical soul. So there are books on our library shelves, unread and uncared for, which once shaped the faith and hope of generations of living men.
Is it simply the old literature of religious culture which men are putting aside? Is it merely that our religious taste has altered, and that the language of these old books of devotion, and their ways of stating truth and duty, look archaic? The change is deeper. In all communions, not only the old books, but the old methods of religious culture, are becoming obsolete. In the by-gone time, saints who truly served God and adorned human nature found their sainthood in the solitude of monastic seclusion, and the best way out of their lower up to their higher selves through bodily maceration. But today, even in the most Catholic countries, such flinty paths to the celestial city are notcrowded. We boast that our fathers were godly men. They were. But how many lineal descendants of the fathers stand ready to accept their religious methods in all their fullness? Good men and women have certainly found the true and higher way amid the fierce excitements of the revival. Yet the revival system is doomed in the house of its friends. It makes its way with difficulty against an ever-swifter current of adverse thought and feeling. It is manifest that the same tendency to change in methods of religious culture is observable in our own communion. It may not be altogether pleasant to make this admission. To many of us the old religious home in which we were born, with all its homely, formal ways, looks more beautiful than any new and statelier mansion can. Recalling the men andwomen who have attained to the noblest patterns of life through what has sometimes been scornfully called "mechanical piety,” and who seem, as we remember them, to have been the best men and women, the most wholesome, the most liberal, the most full of integrity, of any by whom aState was ever blessed, we see clearly that in the past at any rate the ways of methodical self-culture, so well described in Ware's Formation, have been the steps of a ladder, by which precious souls have climbed to heaven. But we live in an atmosphere of changed sentiment. The sacraments, as our church friends call them, are held in less regard. Attendance upon church services is ceasing to be classed among duties. Family worship is disappearing. In the hurry of our times and ways the set hour of meditation at morn or even has disappeared from most men's plan of life. Even the book of devotion is being replaced by the journal of science or the treatise of philosophy. Much of this change may be, and no doubt is, transient in character. Rites, worship, meditation, serious reading must to the end, in some shape, take their place in all healthy personal religion. But not all this change is transient. And so far as the old is to pass away, let us have faith to believe that a better new will come, as in God's providence it always has come.
New books of devout culture! New methods of seekingreligion! Do these words state the whole case? Is the change, patent to the most careless observer, simply a thing of literature or of ritual? We think not; but an equal alteration in the shape in which religion appears to the soul, and especially an alteration in the conception of what is a living bond to unite the human and the divine: that is, religion — always the same in essence, in direction, in aspiration, and in work — is seeking a new representation in the human heart and life,— no doubt in the end a higher, a more adequate, a more inclusive, and so a more saving representation. The soul's way to God is never precisely the same in any two generations. From age to age men's conceptions of religion do undergo change. Luther thought only to strike at the corruptions of the Romish Church. He did bring in the reign of a new idea of religion. To the Catholic, practical religion was penance, fasts, vigils, observances, to keep the body under. To the Protestant, it was faith, to lift the soul up. Our first Unitarian confessors believed, no doubt, that they divided upon a few dogmas. They really divided upon religion. Practical religion to the Calvinist of half a century ago was acceptance of a creed, and a passage through a special and often painful spiritual experience. To the Unitarian it was spiritual condition and character. The process of change has not ceased. But if liberal Christianity be true to itself, if it be Christian as well as liberal and devout as truly as reasonable, when the discussions of our day are over it will find itself possessed not of less religion but more; and wider, more simple, more rational, more compatible with the conditions and needs of our daily life. At any rate, if it be right to say "the New Theology” and "the New Ethics,” we shall be obliged to say "the New Religion,”—the new religion which the new theology creates, the new religion which the new ethics exhibits and adorns.
We say the new religion! Of course we admit, we assert, that religion, in the heart of it, in its direction and aspiration, is old; in all forms and representations essentially the same; old as man, old at any rate as anything about him except the craving for food and the instinct of self-preservation. For what is religion? Not your creed or mine; though the creed may anchor us to our highest conception of religion. Not your mode of worship or mine; though the devout service may help us to develop religion. These things are all external to religion; at best, what describes or what nourishes religion. And there has been true religion under all dogmas and all rituals; and, we may add, without any dogmas and without any rituals.
Religion is that fundamental sentiment or principle in the soul which seems to make it impossible that any human being should feel that there is no above; which assures usthat at the core of things there is a stronger, wiser, better than we; which comforts us with a sense of its presence and support; which binds us in bands of moral obligation to it. Religion, in fine, is the lifting power in the universe. While true materialism carries us out of ourselves down, true religion carries us out of ourselves up. Now in this sense religion is always old. All races, high or low, savage or civilized, pagan or Christian, have striven for some outlook into a life higher than this material life, and to know a power mightier than themselves, and to come into some real relations with that power. And in this sense it seemsimpossible that religion should be anything other than old. If religion had to wait for her coining till a wise philosophy had explained all things human and divine, she might wait long. If she could exist only through a logical demonstration of divine mysteries, she would be still-born. But the foundation of religion is in spiritual necessity. We have none of us minds capacious enough to take in all the wondrous problems of that great life of which we are parts. We have none of us hearts stout enough to bear the burdens which must come, and yet believe that there is no greatgood-will and no all-embracing wisdom behind. We are all forced to have faith in what, for lack of a more adequate word, we call God; to believe that, outside us, above us, above all we ordinarily understand by material forces, there is a power, just, good, and able, equal to the government of this universe, and glad to govern it in equity and love; that the course of events is not an unmeaning muddle; that we are not drifting by chance —nowhere: but that this great procession of life which comes upon the earth and goes from it, and enjoys and suffers unspeakable things, and has high hopes and plans, is all the while accomplishing a great, wise, and beneficent purpose. You may call this wise and good force with the essayist "the power which makes for righteousness,” or with the philosopher "the unknowable,” or with Jesus "God and Father”: alike you mean the same thing,— the highest and best to which your mind and heart have climbed or soared; as much of the perfection of the Almighty as your soul by searching has been able to find out. And this — this vision, this instinct; this spiritual faculty, or this thirst, this craving, this deep necessity (call it what you will), which brings you into union with the highest and best, which assures you that it or he is above all, and in all, and through all, "path, motive, guide, original, and end”—is the old religion, the faculty which lifts you out of yourself. So we have to assert the venerableness of religion. For it is its antiquity, its universality; that, so far as we can discern, it is a contemporary of human nature itself; that everywhere and at all times man is compelled by an irresistible instinct to strive to rise above the seen and sensible to the unseen and super-sensible, above himself to something greater than himself,—which assures us of the sanctity and verity of religion. This world must be strangely awry, if this almost constant instinct and craving of souls does not answer to a real good.
Religion is always old in its essence, in its direction, in its power to carry man beyond and above his present andmaterial interests. Equally it is always new and always in flux. As men's vision of that beyond and above grows clearer, as their conception of God changes, lifts, enlarges, gets deliverance from material limitations and freedom from human alloy, religion becomes a better gift, with nobler vision, nobler influence. We trace this growth and enlargement of religion;— equally we trace the growth and enlargement of the conception of the Christian religion in human history,— as we trace germ from acorn, and sapling from germ, and broad-armed giant of the forest from sapling. Nay; revelation does not come to destroy the law and the prophets, nor does it come to crush any pale flower of piety which ever blossomed in the arid soil of paganism. It comes to fulfill. It comes to enrich. It comes to add truth to whatever was true from aforetime. The old pagan was seeking after the highest as much as we. But he saw God mainly as superhuman force, passion, appetite, and cunning. Naturally his religion partook of the quality of his vision and enlisted most his lower nature. Still I am optimistenough to believe that it was a blessing. At any rate it lifted him out of selfhood, and put into his heart the idea of duty. To the Jews, God was superhuman sovereign,— theysubjects. Acts of obedience, gifts, the just revenue of monarchs human or divine, tithes of orchards, flocks, and days, characterized their piety. To the old Calvinist, God was the inexorable judge. Did not a religion of fear rather than of hope, a religion of penitence, often gloomy and despairing and not of aspiration,—a religion which painfully sought the way of expiation and the terms of pardon and salvation rather than led its possessor with glad confidence into the Father's presence,— fitly answer to such a conception of the divine nature? To the early Unitarian, God was infinite Fatherhood. His religion was cast in the mould of this conviction. It was a child's trust, love, and obedience kept clear and bright by devout meditation, by daily self-searching and sacred service of praise and prayer. Who can doubt that into its vision of God this age also has received new elements? What in the old was true it keeps. With Abraham, it sees God as one; with Moses, as the I am, the unchangeable amid all changes; with David, as the pitiful one, knowing our frailties; with Calvin, as theall-pure, hating iniquity; with Channing, as the Infinite Father, whose children we are, and of whose moral dignity we are heirs. The old truth it keeps, but adds the new.Order, method, law, are elements of the divine nature and ways of the divine action. Not only is God the central force, the eternal existence, the loving heart of the universe: he is the law-abiding one. Deeply viewed, this is really but the enlargement and perfection of the idea of InfiniteFather. The crude conception of father is of a being of mere affection, one who overlooks, one who would make life here and life beyond pleasant. And no doubt in their reaction from the sternness of Calvinism, early Unitarianism and Universalism fell no little into this crudeness. But the true father is he who from his very love holds his children up to the highest, he who puts method and certainty into the order of his household, he who lets wrong bring its proper penalty. Under this ideal, God is not less a father, but more, and more wise and more helpful. And life is not less truly a good gift, but more wholesome and invigorating. We see now that it is not of accident that the old books of piety and culture cease quite to satisfy, and the old methods and views quite to meet the incoming want. For not only is our interpretation of Scripture changing, but our view of God and his relations to his creatures. As has happened in the long history of man, a hundred, perhaps a thousand times, the vision of religion is altering, enlarging, taking fresh elements of influence, and piercing deeper to the secrets of things.
The special duty of the hour for the Liberal Church is to get possession of the new religion; its special privilege and glory to find out what fairer vision of God the vast sweep of modern knowledge, the wondrous explorations of science, and the ceaseless investigations of the critics have brought us, and what sweet and natural piety they have made possible to replace a devoutness oftentimes, perhaps, tooharsh and artificial. To dissent from false opinions, to send the light of truth through the darkness of old superstitions, to cut up pernicious errors by the roots, to assert intellectual and spiritual freedom, are constantly recurring duties; duties, perhaps, which the liberal body for the last half-century has performed with reasonable fidelity. These aregreat duties; but never final obligations. They are duties which always look beyond themselves. They pull down that they may build up. They dispel darkness that the light may shine. In other words, the object of all destruction of old theology and all construction of new theology is better religion; that men's faith in God may be simpler and truer; that men's relations to God may be wholesome and renovating; and that the power of the higher life may come down to men's appointed lot and create good character and conduct. It may be well to pull down the picturesque ruin, moss-grown, ivy-wreathed, if you build commodioushomes where life and joy may be. But if you propose to leave only unsightly heaps of mortar and stone, better let the ruin be. It may touch the imagination. It may feed the sense of beauty. The time comes when you wisely hew down the old forest, and clear up the thickets, and banish all the pleasant wild flowers; that is, if you plant in their place the thick-springing grass and the nourishing grains. If not, better the wild than the waste! It is justifiable to attack the theology, it is our duty to attack the theology, which has grand truths in it as well as errors, which has nourished in its bosom true saints,— if so be the errors stand in the way of yet higher truth. But surely it is our duty also to show a better road to a better sainthood. Nor will I deny, nor do I doubt, that into our own body, and into other religious bodies possibly quite as much, we have brought a sweeter, more reasonable, more healthy, and therefore more thoroughly redeeming type of religion. If so, we have done a good work. We have no more sufficient excuse for being.
One consideration should not be overlooked. In all things of human interest there are two steady requirements. To go on, to improve, to win the most and the best we can; and then to consolidate what we have won. Not to run over the new country, but to hold and improve it. This antithesis of duty is stamped upon our very language. Enterprise and thrift, conquest and government, conception and statement, sight and possession,— these couplets express the divergent quality of true success on all fields. I took down a little while ago the first volume of the old colonial records of Massachusetts. I read there an enactment forbidding any person to leave the towns of Concord, Sudbury, or Dedham without permission of the selectmen, These towns were the frontier settlements of that day. Now there were richer fields, better pastures, broader prairies westward. Yet was it wise, better for the present, better for the future, that our fathers, having advanced three thousand milesacross the Atlantic, should stop awhile and lay deep the foundations of prosperous and civilized life, and build up institutions of learning and religion. No doubt the country has grown with a healthier growth, andstrengthened with a more abiding strength, that its western frontier thus rested on the banks of the humble Charles and Concord; then paused by the deep flow of the Connecticut; and that population and wealth moved by successive stages to the Genesee Valley, to the Mississippi, to the Rocky Mountains, until today civilization builds her cities by the shores of the broad Pacific. It was but following the natural law. For fifty years it is no figure to say that we have been advancing; leaving the old and seeking the new; attacking error, winning truth, proclaiming spiritual freedom,— a work which needed to be done,— a work for which all the future shall bless us. But have we been as wise to administer the truth as courageous to win it? Having removed all toll-gates from the spiritual road, and filled up the pitfalls, and driven away the theological gorgons, have we been as earnest and successful in leading souls to walk the purified way?
It does look as though the great duty of the liberal Christian today was more thoroughly to possess the land; toplant the seed and garner a harvest of new hope and faith, where lately the thorns of creed and dogma grew. And all this, for a religious body, means more than building newchurches or having a more centralized organization; even the getting out of its intellectual convictions a sweeter faith in God, a higher sense of higher duties, and a full-orbed fidelity of life. And that means permitting the best theology to have its proper blossoming and fruitage in the bestreligion. This is progress as much as the other; only it is up and not out; concentrated and not discursive. It is progress in which we take all the wheat, which we have separated from the tares; on with us. It is the progress, not of an army forced to desolate that it may conquer, but the sure advance of the colonist, bringing all household charities with him, and filling the land with a blessedness and life before unknown. And it is progress which stands not at all in the way of farther intellectual advancement. Only, while we wait for new truth which God shall send, it adds to mental vision spiritual discernment. We but voice our times. I recall the parting words of Mr. Frothingham. Here is one, who, if any, is radical of radicals; who, if any,is free from all chains of old traditions; who all these years has been fighting manfully the battle with what he held to be false opinions and pernicious customs, and seeming tofind sufficient joy in standing in the forefront of the army. And what do his words express? If we interpret them rightly, a deep unsatisfied longing for greater moral and spiritual results. The utterance is significant. In all quarters is there not a little weariness with the discussion, and a great craving for the moral and spiritual results of it? A desire more to conform our feelings to our thoughts, our religion to our theology, our formation of Christian character to our Christian convictions? Having bought with greatdivisions new bottles, we look and pray for more of the new wine of the spirit to put into them.
The question naturally arises, What shall be the nature of that religion for which the intellectual changes through which we have passed have prepared us? Well enough the answer might be, "We do not know.” No man and no body of men ever with malice aforethought shaped the religion of their times. Scarcely can they prophesy it. To each generation the ever-new way of religion is revealed when, the intellectual difficulties of the hour settled, the old craving for a more real relation with God comes back again. When our religious body shall feel less the pressure of mental doubts, and more the pressure of spiritual needs, thehigher way to God will open. So we shall have to watch and pray and wait, as did the early disciples, for the descent of the Holy Ghost.
Still some of the broad features of the incoming religious faith and feeling seem clearly enough visible: there will be a surer faith in God as the one trustworthy being in the universe, all of whose great counsel steadily purposes the highest good and progress of everything which he has made. Some people fear that the wonderful revelations of order, method, sure-working law, in the material world will lead men to dispense with the idea of a God. There may be and probably is a tendency in that direction. But it will have a brief life. The direct and proper tendency of the revelation of order, method, and law is, not to banish from the universe the central wisdom from which order, method, and law do come, but to take out of our conception of that central wisdom all ideas of partiality or fluctuation; to make real to the human soul that singularly clear statement of James, "Every good gift, and every perfect gift, is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” And the practical result will be, that men will come to see that God is the one being to be depended upon, and with cheerful hearts and elastic step will tread the path of duty, and for the rest trust. I read the diaries of good men of the past,— men who feared God and wrought righteousness,— and I see how their souls for weary days and months wrestled with doubts and fears as to their acceptance with God; how they seemed, with all their honest purpose and all their steadfast fidelity, to feel themselves to be enveloped by the thick clouds of the divine wrath. What an idea of God must have been at the base of their religion! As having something with which he was better pleased than with an honest intent to obey his law! Sometimes it appears as though some shreds and fragments of the old conception had clung all along to our Unitarianism; as if its early traditions were too much for its present faith; as if it felt God to be kinder far, yet partial, placated by something besides noble purpose and persistent fidelity. One distinct result of the revelation oforder and law will be to sweep away all such ideas. The new religion, looking Godward, will declare that God is the trustworthy one; that his rule is just and steady; that we shall be trusted citizens in his kingdom just to the degree that we are loyal and law abiding. Everywhere it willbring back Christianity to its old ideals, and teach the world to see again that Jesus was here, not to relieve us from the necessity of obeying the law, but to put into ourhearts a divine patriotism by which it will be our joy to do it.
This same revelation of order and law, looking manward, will demand that human piety too shall be trustworthy, taking up all life and all its interests into its guidance. Much of the piety of the past has been even in conception hardly more than a spiritual spasm, a phenomenal experience. The extreme result of this conception of piety isstrikingly depicted in that fanatic Puritan soldier in Scott's Woodstock, who, having become a saint, was delivered from ordinances, prohibitions, commands, restraints, and could enjoy pleasures which to the unprivileged were sinful. The extreme! But only the extreme. Many a man has seemed religious whose religion has been vain; not because he was a hypocrite, but because his conception of religion was something narrower than an all-pervasive piety. Most of the thought in the past, no little of the thought, as it seems to me, in our own ranks, has found essential religion in the solemn experience with which goodlife may begin, or in the other-world moods which come occasionally into the busiest heart, rather than in the steady glow of devotion by which ALL that life is lighted on itsupward way. Mark the change that has come or is coming; coming not only into our little section of the Christian Church, but coming everywhere. In the near future, religion is to be the full spiritual history of a life, and not an episode in it. It will be the sweet perfume which exhales from every part of it, the bright heavenly hue which makes all of it beautiful, the divine order which shall shape all of it to the noblest ends. Any conception of devout life less inclusive will not meet the requirement of that religion which is to be,—which even now is knocking at the door of every sect.
And the new religion will value works, not less but more. As we shall see God more and more through his wise,beneficent, orderly working in the universe, we shall see more clearly too that the strong nexus binding us to Godmust be, that man works as God works, according to the divine patterns, to achieve divine ends; that in its little space the human life is a purifying and invigorating influence as in this great universe God's life is. It used often to be said of Unitarians, as though it involved a terrible stigma, "that they exalted mere morality.” And often they appeared to feel called upon to apologize, and to make desperate efforts to remand poor, earnest, faithful works to the back seats in our synagogue. The time has passed when that can happen. The best, perhaps, that we know about God, the best certainly which is written on the leaves of the great book of nature, is that he works with a silent fidelity, with an unspeaking beneficence, with a mute loyalty to the wise and helpful law which he has framed. And in the book of life no names shall be inscribed in brightercharacters than of those who on earth work with silent fidelity, with unspeaking beneficence, with mute loyalty, to make themselves truer and the world happier.
It does not seem, therefore, that the new theology or the new science is to change much the conception of religion which was prophetically in early Unitarianism. Many of the externals of religion may alter. There may be new interpretations both of the Old and New Testaments. Some doctrinal strongholds may be abandoned. Some of the titles of Jesus may pass away. But the way to God will be the same of which the seers of our faith caught glimpses amid the smoke of the theological battle. More emphatically in the future, and not less so, will God's wise and unchanging love be affirmed, and that it extends to all and not to a few of his children. More widely will it be believed that true holiness of heart and life, and true obedience to the laws of being, are salvation. What is happening is, that we are getting more consistent possession of our own religious ideals; that we are clearing away from our mountain ofholiness the old errors and superstitions which still cling to it, as last year's snow-wreaths clung beneath a June sun to the slopes of the White Hills; that we are feeling our need of a religion which shall accord with our intellectual convictions, which shall offer no violence to conscience, andwhich at the same time shall bring us into a close walk with God, and enable us to furnish a new and better way Godward to the souls to whom the old avenues are closed. Toget this new religion, devout as well as rational, earnest as well as humane, both free and Christian, is to get more power to do good in a world full of doubts, and yet not content with doubting, than the fullest treasury and the compactest organization could give us.
I hold it to be a good omen, that our religious body, whileit will not sacrifice one jot of its dearly-bought charter of spiritual freedom, while in the future as in the past it will look with unveiled eye at the truth, is learning that other lesson, that freedom and truth itself are but ways to life. For what the world craves, and to the end will crave, is not simply intellectual statements, however grand and reasonable, but truth which ultimates in better religion, in moresatisfying, more ennobling, and more loyal relations to the great source of being. Forever the soul of man strives to find its way out of isolation, and out of its burden, and out of its sins up to God. Religion it will have. The only practical question is, whether that religion shall come as to those in bonds or free, whether it shall be darkened by error or irradiated by the truth. The responsibility for the answer which shall be made to that question rests largely with us of the Liberal Church, here and elsewhere.