The Honest Theologian

If newspaper space is any measure of public interest, there has been evidence enough during the past year that questions of religious belief hold their own as vital questions with a multitude of readers. Or is it rather that the public is intensely concerned with personal exhibitions and tests of honesty — not the honesty of the counting-room, but that of the mind and heart ?

We have all been witnessing the spectacle presented by a gentleman whose outward and inward life have given him every claim to his reverend title, placed within a church with definite boundaries of public teaching, if not of private belief, and straining so violently the resistance of those boundaries as to cause his fellows to decide that the pressure had better cease. It has not been altogether an edifying spectacle: that seems to be precluded by the very fact of an ecclesiastical trial —a procedure which seldom reveals the ministers of a gospel of peace at their best. That the keen public interest in the whole affair has been primarily theological is too much to assume. The tenets and discipline of a body of Christians vastly outnumbered by other bodies in America are not of such general importance as to account for the columns and columns of news reports, editorial articles, and correspondence, which have flooded the secular journals.

The issue of personal intellectual honesty must surely be reckoned with in any accounting for the phenomenon as a whole. The unchurched have been asking as eagerly as the devout laity of various folds whether a man believing thus and so is justified in holding to ancient forms upon which he has come to place interpretations not yet sanctioned by authority; whether a church which charges its ministers “to teach nothing, as necessary to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture,” is warranted in limiting too strictly those conclusions and proofs. Here indeed is a pretty matter for argument. Far be it from the present writer to embark upon that perilous sea. All that he wishes to suggest is that the whole secular public makes a rather reassuring exhibition of itself when it warrants the press in providing it so fully with the points at issue that it can arrive at a judgment of its own.

It is just as well to remind ourselves, however, that the whole tendency of a period is not summed up in a single case. Sixty years ago Theodore Parker was galloping far ahead of his Unitarian brethren, and frightening many of them out of their wits. Fifty years ago another Unitarian minister was pursuing precisely the opposite course. The newly published life of the late Bishop of Central New York 1 recalls an ecclesiastical episode in striking contrast to the case of Parker — and to that of the past year. The Reverend Frederic Dan Huntington, Plummer Professor at Harvard, chaplain to the college, one of the most popular and influential preachers in the Unitarian body, with every prospect of advancement in the region where Unitarianism then had everything its own way, deliberately turned his back upon it all, and took upon himself the very restraints from which others have been willingly or unwillingly freed. There was no possible foreseeing at the time that an important city parish and later an important bishopric, with a long career of conspicuous usefulness, were in store for him. When he made his decision that he could not honestly go on preaching within his fellowship what that fellowship had a right to expect of him, and must therefore place himself in other surroundings, the decision seemed associated, in its temporal aspect, only with sacrifice. A remarkable inheritance and cultivation of the spiritual sense enabled him always to give to his temporal concerns the subordinate place ideally proper to the ministerial life. Happily his change of association involved no ecclesiastical trial. It is the man who believes a little less, not a little more, than his fellows, who is put on the rack. The sincerity and dignity of Bishop Huntington’s course won nothing but respect — even from those who could not in the least sympathize with it.

After all, this holding of respect is the important thing. One man finds his liberty too extensive, and seeks its abridgment; another finds it insufficient, and would enlarge it. Each of them knows that his associates will look upon him as abnormal, and wonder why, with suppressing a few mere fragments of the whole truth as he sees it, he could not have been content to continue where he was — speaking comfortably to Jerusalem. Now, who shall arbitrate ? Certainly not the non-theological spectator. There are refinements of theological definition about which he cares no more than about the number of angels who can dance upon the point of a needle. He does, however, care greatly to see the members of a profession which has the spirit for its chief concern deal honestly with their own consciences and with one another. He may not go to church as often as his fathers did; but he cannot be thought indifferent to religion so long as he demands of its ministers an adherence to standards which he knows are the highest. Whether his attention happens to be fixed upon an unfrocked priest or upon a convert raised to the purple, he looks for absolute honesty, and when he finds it he is ready to appreciate and to applaud. Let those who are prone to despair of our too material civilization take heart.

  1. Memoir and Letters of Frederic Dan Huntington. By ARRIA S. HONTINGTON. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1906.