IN Plato’s version of the Greek mythology there were three Fates, Lachesis singing the events of the past, Clotho chanting the deeds of the present, and Atropos forecasting in her weird music the mysteries of the future; in each case the verdict was sure, because these three sisters were the daughters of Necessity. There are three ways in which religion may be viewed. The Achilles of the war-camp of educators has spoken for the religion of the future with the valor and vigor of the Greek hero, and with none of his wrath; an American man of letters in foreign residence has written with insight and sympathy of the religion of the past; in this paper I purpose to say something about the religion of the present. Lachesis and Atropos should not be allowed to sing alone; however hoarse her voice may be, Clotho should be added to the choir. Would that the resulting harmony might be as of old, what indeed it can never hope to be, the song of Necessity.
It is no doubt an audacious task for one to undertake to speak worthily of the religion of to-day. Pure religion and undefiled is the chief glory of human existence; it is of infinite worth and beauty; it shines in the intellect with a steady light; it beats in the heart with a pulse of fire; it utters itself in the sacrament of loving service; it builds the character into permanent conquest over evil and pain and fear Even when religion is mixed, as it usually is, with the alloy of ignorance and passion, it is still great. In the darkness it is the impulse to seek the light, the furnace, often seven times heated, in which love and being are refined, the supreme consolation in struggle and defeat, the Eternal Spirit of renewal, fulfillment, and hope in our human world. One may well hesitate to discuss this wonder of a humanity aflame with the Deity, burning but unconsumed; he may well shrink from the attempt to translate the mystery into words. No wise man will allow himself to speak here till he has seen for himself the unutterable glory of the soul of true religion, till he has done penance and has received absolution for his audacities and mistakes, till he has confessed himself unworthy to represent a reality so divine.
At the very outset the duty of limitation meets us. A general view of the subject is alone possible, and that must always be a limited view; the mountain-top outlook is wide, includes large things, but gives no special features, no details. Then, too, limitation must here be made to the Christian religion, and to the Christian religion in free communities, where alone the present differs from the past.
If the first duty was one of limitation of the subject to be discussed, the second is the definition or description of it. What is the religion of the present, thus limited? It is, I dare believe, essentially the religion of Jesus Christ, conceived by the minds of men to-day and reproduced in their souls. For example, there is the Lord’s Prayer with its incomparable union of belief and emotion. That Prayer carries its religious feeling in a scheme of belief as truly as the electric current is carried on the live wire. “Our Father”: here we have the one humanity in its appeal to the Eternal Father who is the object of its trust and adoration. “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done”: here we have the summum bonum of the race, the eternal good and its ground in the primal will. “Give us our daily bread”: here is the belief that the temporal life of man is of concern to God. “Lead us not into temptation”: lead us through it; here is the vision of the universal moral trial and the possibility of victory. “Forgive us our debts”: here is the recognition of moral servitude, and the chance of moral freedom. The scheme of belief in the Lord’s Prayer, in union with the emotion in it, in union also with the Lord himself, the Holy Spirit added thereto, and the logic of the Prayer as to the worth of man and his world, may be said to represent the essential working faith in the free churches of America.
If we may be allowed to assume that the religion of the present is content to be represented by the Lord’s Prayer, we may proceed to distinguish two aspects of that religion. There is the experimental aspect, containing a fusion of thought and feeling and conduct; an experiment in which no special analysis is made, a content of life, a consciousness of new moral worth and power. In the second aspect we have the emphasis laid upon the intellectual implications of the experience; these implications are the meanings of the new life rendered in terms of the intelligence; as such they are regarded as the truth. This truth expresses itself in a series of beliefs about the soul, society, the Church, the Bible, Christ, and God. Religion, thus regarded, contains a vital and a formal element, an experiencewith its fusion of intellect and heart and will, and an intellectual account of this experience as the objective and eternal truth.
There is a third form of discipline in sound religion. As religion lives and moves and has its being in ideas, it seeks to greaten itself by expressing itself in a more adequate order of ideas. Hence exact scholarship is a religious discipline, the work of thought a servant of the soul, enlightenment a means of grace, a true philosophy of religion the hope of glory. For the free spirit, religion is not at its best in its state of fusion; for the genuine Protestant religion comes to its highest through the reason. For this type of believer nothing kills religion so quickly as the attempt to confine it to feeling, to declare that it is forbidden ground for the intellect, to limit its meaning to the subject of it, to call it poetry in contrast with fact, to hint that it is a mystery of loveliness unanswerable to reason and without foundation in the rational order of the world. These three forms or aspects of religion must now be considered in detail.
In religion as an experience there are four great notes, — the quest for personal worth, the concern for social righteousness, the triumph over death, and the mood of reconciliation to the universe, the beatitude of peace toward God. These are the four voices— the soprano, the contralto, the tenor, and the bass—of the richest humanity, that have sung, now with one voice leading and again another, now with this measure of depth and purity and again with that, in the religious soul of the world in all past time; and these are the great voices in the religion of the present. Here at least past and present blend in one vast harmony; here the ages reveal their inmost heart in a noble identity. The disciples of Moses and the Prophets, the apostles of Christ, devout souls in the Church of the East and the Church of the West, Buddhist and mediæval mystic, Catholic and Protestant, unite in a great fellowship here. So far as they are religiously alive, their quest is for personal worth, social righteousness, triumph over death, and reconciliation to the will of the Most High. This is the mystic, unfathomable song of the ages of faith; and to its great notes we must listen if we would understand anything of the sources of the strength, pathos, dignity, and beauty of our human world.
Real religion would seem to begin in the quest for personal worth. The initial thing is perhaps the vision of the Infinite worth: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come. Worthy art thou, our Lord and our God, to receive the glory and the honour and the power.” In the vision of the Infinite worth the worthlessness of the mere natural man is revealed, in all deep souls, in a tremendous way. Then we hear coming to us from the four winds of heaven the great confession: “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; But now mine eye seeth thee, Wherefore I abhor myself, And repent in dust and ashes.” In the Temple Isaiah has his vision of the Infinite worth, and at once breaks out in the lamentation: “ Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
These examples from the past point to the origin of true religion to-day. Ethical triumph in the stress of the personal life is the primal fountain of all great religion. Indeed there is not in existence a religion worthy of the name that does not reveal its strength first of all in this personal ethical triumph. Convictions of sin, repentances, prostrations before God, are all prevenient; they are the outriders, religion itself is King.
Religion now, as of old, begins in the vision of the moral ideal, in the faith that the moral ideal is a true intimation of the purpose of God concerning the soul, in the confidence that God is somehow in that heavenly vision, in the daring resolution to begin, with the help of the Highest, to order this tumultuous human existence by the light and authority of the ideal. Sorrows there are, misgivings many and deep, obstacles that seem insurmountable, discouragements that deplete strength, despondencies that terrify one like nightmare. Nevertheless these are no part of religion; they are not even the impedimenta; they are part of the host of Satan that must be fought and overcome. Religion lives in the ethical triumph of the personal soul; religion in its aboriginal nature is moral triumph through the vision and grace of the moral Deity. Jesus meets the Devil in the wilderness of Judæa, defeats him, keeps his moral nature entire, and thus, as personal moral victor, returns in the power of the Infinite to begin his public ministry. His vision — “I saw Satan fall from heaven as lightning ” — is from his own soul where the Infinite worth is on the throne; his confidence in his cause — “ the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” — has its first and deepest fountain in his own absolute moral victory; his assurance to his few fearful disciples — “Fear not, little flock; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom ” — is won through the victorious insight of his own conscience.
Concern for the social ideal is another great note of contemporary religion. Never, since Jesus preached in the fields of Galilee and the hillsides of Judæa the good news of the kingdom, has the social ideal as inseparable from true religion been advanced to the eminence and authority which it everywhere holds to-day. The nominal Christian, and the genuine, are here set apart as far as the east is from the west. The man whose interest begins and ends in himself cannot by any possibility be counted on the side of religion: his soul is still in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity. No matter what his standing in intellect or society or church may be, if his conscious concerns are limited to himself and his family, he is in a state of excommunication from the kingdom of love. Doubtless industrious and decent lives are public utilities; but they are so by the constitution of the world, and not by the virtue of the selfish human being who cannot attain his ends without them. Men of humor, good fellows, persons who can tell and appreciate a good joke, doubtless have their social uses; but we are not so hard pressed for recruits as to be compelled to draft them into the army of social idealists. Soundness in the faith can no longer atone for cruelty in the life; we have no religious use for those whose creed is this:—
No matter — stick to sound believing.
Religion to-day, as in all other days, has many professors but few confessors. In the presence of the moving beauty of the social ideal the hearts of the multitude are dead; their religion, if religion it can be called, is little more than a branch of their selfish concern for existence. As in the Master’s parable, when the robbers are left out of the count, the priests and the Levites in the religious community are two to one compared with the good Samaritan. No reduction of the stern demands of moral law, no generous bestowment of sweet compliments upon active and productive men who yet care nothing for the human soul, no hauling down of the ensign of a rigorous and glorious social idealism, can in the least add to the essential strength of the religious community. If social idealism, if intense and constant public concern, is not in the hearts of men, it is the bitterest mockery to call them Christians, the utmost vanity to look for religious issues from them. The warning is still wrought in all the solemnity of truth: “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” The Master was the incomparable soldier of the social ideal, and only they who march under that banner can with truth be called his.
Soldiers of the social ideal, religious men to-day are, in great numbers and with unwonted enthusiasm and hope. The horrible theological masks under which in other days the love of good men for bad, righteous men for unrighteous, men in the ethical triumph of the religious life for men still in their sins, concealed itself, are now torn off and cast aside. “Freely ye have received, freely give”; there is the essential impulse for example in the soul of the foreign missionary. For the missionary himself Christianity is the highest moral ideal in process of realization; his heart is on fire over the advent of personal worth and joy. His experience justifies the Christian ideal for the world, and for the universal conquest of that ideal he goes forth to lay down his life.
Here our analysis of the religion of the present meets a new wonder. The social ideal, when truly served, refines and exalts the human nature of the servant. Domestic affections become purer and more tenacious. Moral idealism discovers unsuspected depths in the human heart; Christian faith brings into existence a new humanity. Life in the inner centres of home, and in the outer circles of friendship, becomes increasingly precious and more and more dependent upon the well-being of those to whom it is thus attached. What happens? Death is clothed with new terror. It now threatens the world that love has created, that love inhabits and delights in, with total and ruthless extinction. It raises a new question. How can men keep the humanity that lifts itself into finer forms and dearer attachments, and yet be able to face death as the final end? If men are to regain calm, must they not surrender or quench the finer and intenser humanities? Does not this question issue in a dilemma? Reduce your affections to indifference, and face death without fear; or retain the burden of a great Christian heart, and break down in moral despair?
Thus it is that the Christian faith is to-day what it has always been, the triumph over death. The incomparable servant of the social ideal who was the Founder of Christian faith triumphed over death. The social idealist does not, at this stage of his evolution, reason about immortality; he believes that as the sovereign social idealist could not be held under the dominion of death so his disciples shall not see death. The idealist in time is created by the Idealist in eternity; the temporal idealist is the servant of the Eternal Idealist. Man in his social vision and service has the Highest in him and behind him. Therefore he fears no evil for himself or his cause, even in the valley of the shadow of death. This sanction of human worth out of the Infinite, this deliverance from the fear of death, this translation into a great confidence and a vast hope, is the fruit of the Spirit in the new Christian humanity.
The final note in the religion of today, as in all other great days, is reconciliation to the will of God. Here the ideal, personal and social, is seen with purer eyes and served with a more energetic will; here the process of the refinement and exaltation of the human heart goes on with an intenser and surer movement; and the horror of death as the destroyer of man’s fair world of love grows greater and not less. Now, however, things are accepted as they are. The bird no longer dashes itself against the bars of its cage; the world beyond is no longer the object of wistful or indignant gaze; it now inspires deep and calm reflection and content. Then men come to utter in their own name the supreme wisdom of the past: “No evil can happen to a good man, whether he be alive or dead”; “all things work together for good to him who is dear to God”; “all things work together for good to them that love God”; “in life and in death we are the Lord’s”; “Thou hast made us for Thyself and we are restless till we rest in Thee”; “His will is our peace”; “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done!” Reconciliation has begun; we make no plans; we live in the circle of the Eternal good-will; we do not choose our lot, we accept with content what is given. Here begins the peace that flows like a river, the peace of God that passeth all understanding.
The fusion of thought and feeling and action found in religion as an experience does not seem to be a final satisfaction. When this experience is at the flood, it carries in its tides the immediate sense of the Eternal; then it looks upon reflective thought with impatience, if not with disdain. In few men, however, does the religious consciousness remain at the flood, and while the depths of the soul may never be deserted, the volume of life is reduced by these great recessions. Then come the reflective hours, the questions and the work of the intellect, the analysis and the synthesis that are the serious criticism of religious experience. Are not the meanings and assurance of the life of the spirit to be found in ideas? What is the intellectual content of the Christian consciousness? What think ye of Christ, ye who have become under him the soldiers of the ideal? Is there an infinite reality answering to the thought of the God and Father of Jesus Christ? What is to be said for the kingdom of God, when looked at as an idea, in the presence of the organized selfishness of society and in the centres of this wild and terrible cosmos? What is the deepest nature of man? Is he essentially physical and incidentally spiritual, or essentially spiritual and incidentally physical? In spite of his brute inheritance, is man’s vocation in the kingdom of love? What value shall we attach to the burdens of the Bible old? Does the fellowship of believers gain anything beyond comfort and efficiency when it calls itself a church, or the church? Has man’s soul a merely temporal value, or is its worth essential to the eternal worth?
It is universally felt among us that, sooner or later, the question of truth emerges; that in religion, as in everything else, this is the sovereign question. Theology, or the philosophy of religion, is the endeavor to find the truth in which religion lives. While it is clear that a true theology or philosophy is no substitute for genuine religion, and cannot by any possibility atone for a shabby religion, as it so often tries to do, it is likewise clear that good religion would become better were it grounded in the sound understanding of itself. This, at all events, is the conviction that has animated the theological movement of all the Christian centuries; the aim has been to find and declare the truth of religion, and the declaration has been made in an order or system of ideas. Heart and flesh fail; the subjective in religion is apt to have a fugitive character; the great objective ideas that have risen like stars out of the depths of the religious mind, and that assemble in its heights in splendor and majesty, become the refuge of all the weary; there they shine forever and ever. The love of doctrine is no delusion; even when men have sworn to have nothing more to do with it, they turn up in unexpected quarters and with strange requests, like Abraham Lincoln’s friend who had signed the pledge and who under stress of thirst appeared in the drug-store with the supplication, “ Give me a drink unbeknown to me.”
The traditional philosophy of the Christian religion came into being as a servant, and a noble servant it has been. Remade in the light of to-day, a noble servant it remains. In its old form, however, it has fallen to the ground, and that from the operation of two causes. It has been seen to be untenable by men outside its pale, who have found and declared, in ideas, the truth of other sections of human experience; and it has been found, as a whole, as a system, to be inadequate and unworthy by men inside the circle of faith who have considered well the fullness and majesty of the Christian heart, and, above all, who have looked into the unfathomable depth and glory of the mind of Christ. The Origin of Species, and The Descent of Man, by Darwin, raised questions and created doubts that were new. Here was an able and a devoted man of science, with certain sections of human experience before him, doing his best to give a rational account of them. He may not have been entirely successful in his attempt; where he did succeed, errors may have crept in to mar the greatness of his achievement. Nothing done by any individual, however extraordinary his genius may be, is ever complete as it leaves his hands or entirely free from mistake. To this statement no one would be readier to assent than the modest man of science, Charles Darwin. Still, incomplete as his work was, it wrought a revolution in ideas concerning the origin of man, and thereby did much to make untenable the dogma on which, from Tertullian onward, ecclesiastical theology was built.
Simultaneously there was going on inside the circle of faith the great movement of scientific research as applied to the Bible. Here again it is not necessary, nor would it be safe, to claim even for such scholars as Ewald, Wellhausen, Keunen, Robertson Smith, and their successors in Europe and America, entire and unmixed success. The final chapter of this movement is not yet written, because the movement itself is still in progress. But the results, long ago obvious to common sense, and clear as axioms to men of the spirit, have acquired the certainty of scientific determinations that all parts of the Bible are not of equal value, that errors of fact are of frequent occurrence, that many instances of barbaric custom may be cited within its compass, that everywhere with its divine content human fallibility mixes, that where the Bible is supreme and incomparable as the revelation of God to man, it is still true that we have this treasure in earthen vessels.
This immense relief from the slavery of the Christian spirit to even the greatest Book, this vast introduction to the interior splendor and preciousness of the Bible, began at once to work changes in belief. From radical thinking upon the basis of Christian experience the intellect had been prohibited. The supreme Book had been used to browbeat and intimidate the reason. Now the reason could be both reverent and free. It was no longer enough, in order to prove the truth of a given contention, to cite a text in its favor from any corner of the Bible. A vast structure of belief had been built up with no deference to Christian experience at its best, upon an indiscriminate use of Scripture, upon isolated texts, educed as proofs from a practically infallible Book; when the proof-texts were discredited the structure fell to the ground.
Inquiry into the origins and growth of the literature gathered in the Bible was accompanied by investigation of the intellectual conditions under which the doctrines of the Church arose. This revealed the fact that many of the elements in the Church’s philosophy of religion were extra-Biblical in their origin. The classic philosophers of Greece contributed much; the Stoics contributed something; Roman law exercised considerable influence over the formation of opinion concerning man; while as an institution, the Christian Church was openly developed on imperial lines.
This analysis did not mean necessarily the destruction of the reigning order of ideas. Nothing lives, nothing dies, simply on account of the region where it was born. In the realm of the spirit it is the question of worth that determines the life and death of ideas. Therefore a far greater movement has now to be named than the scientific treatment of natural history, or the critical consideration of the Bible, or the analysis of theological belief into its elements and origins. The greatest thing in the Christian thought of the present is the judgment of religion, in all its forms and phases, by the might of the free Christian conscience. All that men have thought and done, all that God has done as expressed in the order of nature and in the constitution of the race, is brought to the bar of the Christian conscience for judgment. Never hitherto, perhaps, has a critical power so tremendous been introduced to religious belief; never has the conscientious Christian been allowed such entire freedom as he possesses to-day.
This conscience is itself the product, the sublimest product, of the Christian religion; its imperiousness constitutes a new and deeper basis for faith. On the assumption of the existence of the God and Father of Christ, nothing can be true that does not accord with that assumption; and this means that nothing can be true that does not win the favorable verdict of the moral reason of Christian freemen. Against this rock the ship of traditional theology struck and foundered. No man living in any civilized centre has heard in twenty years a sermon, true to the ancient tradition, on the decrees of God, election, reprobation, expiatory atonement, and eternal punishment, such as Emmons, and many another less eminent than he, preached in Massachusetts seventy-five years ago. What would the most conservative men of to-day think if they were addressed in these words, which Dr. Griffin, the first minister of Park Street Church, Boston, spoke to his congregation: “To his own dear people he [Christ] will be a refuge from the hail that shall eternally lash the howling millions of the damned.” The revolt against such teaching has been coming for two generations. Occasionally these moral symptoms have appeared in strange places and in strange words. A certain minister of the Church of Scotland, being hard pressed by the arguments of members of his Bible class concerning the justice of God in decreeing man’s fall, his sin and all its consequences, and then in sending the non-elect to eternal hell for doing what their Maker had decreed that they should do, is reported to have replied as follows: “ My friends, you must understand that the Almichty in his public and judicial capacity is obleeged to do many things which in a personal and private capacity he would be ashamed to do.” Here is the symptom of moral awakening and the tentative application of moral reason to religious belief. Within a generation there has been a resurgence, in the field of religious opinion, of the buried Christian conscience.
Two great characteristics of the religious thought of to-day we have found: the intellect working with scientific method as the judge of the records of faith, and the conscience as the final judge of the worth of the order of ideas in which religious experience expresses itself. The Christian intellect operates in the field of fact, is content with nothing less or other than fact; the Christian conscience proceeds upon the aboriginal assumption of the Gospel, the moral perfection of the God and Father of Jesus Christ, and brings all the ideas of faith into that court of final assize. The method in the field of fact is inductive; in the field of ideas it is deductive. The great premise of the Christian religion is an assumption, namely, the perfect goodness of God. While that premise remains valid, inconsistent ideas or inconsequential inferences are ruled out; fidelity to that premise means a new heaven and a new earth wherein the perfect moral being of God dwells. The premise itself, the perfect love of God for men, is of faith. An induction of facts, human and cosmic, may precede the adoption of the premise; facts appear that seem to call for it with the voice of necessity; other facts arise that seem to contradict it; it is adopted because it is believed to be the truth, and it remains a fundamental position of faith because it is not held as given in complete logical form. It is of faith because the rational attestation of it is incomplete. The point is that this fundamental position of faith becomes the determining principle over the entire order of religious belief. Hence it is that, owing to this principle and its free use, a new day has dawned in the judgment of the ideas of faith. It is now felt, as perhaps never before, that Christian experience has hitherto failed in getting itself expressed in an order of ideas equal to its own moral worth. It is felt that the heart of Christendom is to-day what it has always been since apostolic times, immeasurably greater than its head. The God of love in the universe, the Lord of love in time, the life of love in the community of religious men, the idealisms, personal and social, that constitute the soul of Christianity and the grace of the Eternal in human hearts, have never been adequately or even worthily represented in any accredited system of theology.
The work of the scholar in the records of religion and the demands of the Christian heart have made the present an age of transition. To those unable to survey the whole movement, who have not seen into the faith from which it springs, who are lost in the dust and smoke of local engagements, the battle seems to be a form of civil war, in no sense a wise attempt to greaten the forces of the Christian spirit or to advance its sway. The unrest of the time seems to many to be needless, the fruitless toil of militant and audacious men, the sign of a degenerate Christianity bent on the sacrifice of its historic dignity to the wayward and pagan notions of the age. All this and much more of a similar import is in the air. It is the inevitable accompaniment of a Christianity dissatisfied with itself on the side of history and on the side of ideas, and bound to declare its worth for the soul in a worthier philosophy. For the patient under this sort of surgery there is no anæsthetic; pain must be inflicted upon good men; the great consolation lies in the swifter coming of the kingdom of Truth.
There are many who raise the question, Why not abandon theology altogether? On its historical side it throws up great mounds of dogmatic débris; on its critical side it runs riot in every kind of excess, and obscures the records of faith with the dust and confusion of its issueless toil; on its philosophic side its procedure is so tentative and inconclusive as to make it worthless elsewhere than in “ the heaven-and-hell amalgamation society.” What value can there be in all this for the soul triumphant in its visions and rejoicing in the visible transformations wrought by its services ? The old earth does not need either astronomy or geology in order to circle its orbit and run its course; these are the occupations of men of leisure who are borne on the back of the flying planet. The religious soul needs neither theology nor anthropology, neither a systematic doctrine of God nor a philosophic doctrine of man; it goes in the strength of its vision and passion, and keeps the world habitable and beautiful for the lazy and strange class of human beings who take pleasure in the compulsions of the intellect, and who glory in every new brood of uncertainties that they have been able to hatch.
These wild words fairly represent the attitude of many Christian men and women to-day. They find an order of ideas implicit in the courses of religious experience; they discover there the sense of Christ, the consciousness of the God and Father of Christ, the reality of the kingdom of Love; they know the Bible as the indispensable nourisher of faith; and beyond this order of thought implicit in life these persons do not care to go. The truth of religion, so these persons hold, is given in experience; the certitudes of the spirit are immediate; when the Christian soul turns from these to the domain of criticism and of philosophy, it exchanges clearness for confusion, confidence for doubt, the light and joy of the heart for the gloom and foreboding of the intellect unconscious of its incompetence.
There are other voices still that cry out in this day of trouble. These voices tell us that philosophy can have no influence upon life because life is lived before philosophy begins. Life is the object to be understood; but to be understood it must first of all be lived. Perfect understanding of man’s world implies that man’s world is alreadydone to completeness. These prophets quote Hegel’s famous and beautiful comparison of philosophy to the Owl of Minerva, that takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.
In this lamentation there is doubtless some truth. It is true that we give thanks for the years that bring the philosophic mind, that we grieve that the wisdom of one generation cannot be made over to another, that the compound of instincts, impulses, visions, deeds, and experiences is the great propulsive power of existence, that reflection and wisdom are less strictly life than about life. Yet when all this is admitted, it must be added, that it is in the highest degree unreasonable to hold that a man’s veritable belief about the meaning of his existence and the universe in which he finds himself does not influence in potent ways his character and behavior. There is something wrong with the philosophy that thus empties itself of vital meaning, and then detaches itself from the sovereign struggles of men. If knowledge is no help to morality — then the character of God owes nothing to his omniscience; in that case the perfect intellect might well be the most destitute of religious worth. Such inversions of the thought of wise men are +o be disregarded. We must recall the obvious fact that men are practical beings from the inmost centre to the outermost circle of their nature, that all ideation is but the prophecy of action; it is either the instantaneous decision of the gun to fire, or the longer or shorter run of the fuse before the explosion that blasts the rock. Nor must it be forgotten that philosophy is the love of wisdom, that the great figure who inaugurated its vast course in European history sought and loved it wholly for its divine influence upon man’s existence. In Plato and Aristotle, the incomparable masters of philosophy, this discipline never outran its original meaning; it remained a way for the refinement and exaltation of life, and in the case of both thinkers, it terminated in the vision of God. Life is not first lived and then understood; it is poorly lived till understood; when well understood,life begins a new career of achievement and worth. Hegel’s comparison is, therefore, beautiful but utterly fallacious. When the divine bird begins its flight, even if it should be near sunset, at once another and more glorious day dawns, the day in which upon the discovered purpose of existence, the new creation in answer to that purpose appears. Knowledge of the truth is not a luxury, it is a necessity; it is not an æsthetic delight at the end of the day, but the blast of the bugler calling the soldier of the ideal to arms and to the fresh conquests of the new prophetic morning.
It is, therefore, worthy of note that the men who are in any true sense helping to determine the character of Christianity in the free churches of this nation believe, with practical unanimity, that the philosophy of religion is an essential part of religion; that, independent of expression in an order of ideas, religion cannot attain its highest maturity and power. Nor do these leaders intend to break with history in this invigorating search for the truth of faith. The traditional theology fails chiefly for two reasons: first, on account of its crudities; and second, on account of its negations. When the crude thinking has become mature and the negations have been removed, the great ideas that have held sway through Christian history emerge in unspent power. God is still sovereign; his will is now on the side of humanity; it is the infinite good-will, and as such the source of moral freedom and the assurance of victory to all souls; resistance to this will, whether through ignorance or perversity, remains the supreme calamity; forgiveness and moral hope continue to have their ground in the love of God perfectly disclosed in the sacrificial career of the Divine man, whose words have gained new meaning with the lapse of the centuries:— “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father”; the kingdom of God in time and beyond, as the sphere of man’s vocation and the increasing realization of the Holy Spirit, abides; even the Trinity, which carries associations offensive to many, is felt to be of permanent worth, as the witness that social humanity is grounded on an eternally and ineffably social Deity.
The forms of historic thought no wise contemporary thinker will lightly disregard; especially the evolution of Christianity from the person of its Founder. A Christless Christianity is no part of the programme of the truly representative prophet of to-day; with him personality is the key to the world of man, the key to the universe of God, and here the personality of Jesus Christ is of inexpressible moment. Moral personality in man had its first universal accentuation, and moral personality in God its supreme revelation, in the Master of the Christian world. Besides, he so epitomizes in himself our world of faith, transfigures it in the glow of his moral victory, translates it from the abstract into the concrete, and wins for it the loving devotion and service of his disciples that to attempt to separate the Gospel of love from the Lord of love would be to do violence to the method and spirit of Christianity, and at the same time would outrage the heart of the Christian community.
Let no one say that these words are intended either as a censure upon liberalism or as a sop to the Cerberus of a complaisant, callous, and often demented orthodoxy. No doubt religious liberalism is in danger of forgetting the deeper meanings of the person of Christ; no doubt it is exposed to the temptation of a too easy reduction of Jesus to the levels of men of the Spirit in all ages and among all peoples; no doubt it is in peril of failing to note his unique vocation in the kingdom of God, of falling a prey to a hard and impatient rationalism, of taking him and his Gospel more through the understanding and less through the totality of human life. While this is obviously true, it is felt by many that the dangers of orthodoxy are far greater. Its closed mind and conceit in the presence of an infinite interest are bad omens. One must experience a severe shock in going from the elaborate and exclusive forms of modern Christianity into the presence of the Lord whom it professes to adore and follow. It is at first sight hard to discover the connection between its multiplied machinery and His sublime simplicity, its emphasis upon ritual and His sole reliance upon the prophetic gift, its confidence in apostolical succession and His glorious trust in truth, its redundant and exclusive ecclesiasticism and the Master’s absolute immunity from this disease. When one considers this Divine preacher either in the humble meeting-houses of his people, or in the fields of Galilee and the hillsides of Judæa, notes the pure spirituality of his message and the interior splendor of his soul, one is ready to assert that the only hope of the proudly orthodox churches of the world is in ever deeper association with him. In no other way would it seem to be possible that they should ever catch a glimpse of the things for which he had a divine concern, awake to the awful contrast that exists between the spirituality and simplicity of His cause and the mixed and multitudinous character of their own, and subordinate their idiosyncrasies to the universality and freedom of His kingdom.
It is seen by many representative thinkers among us that the radicalism and the conservatism of to-day are both suggested in the Sadducee and the Pharisee of that age; it is recalled, with many significant reflections upon the fact, that while Jesus met strong opposition from the heterodox Sadducee he encountered a more subtle and deadly enmity in the orthodox Pharisee. The Christian Church has never laid this truth to heart; indeed it may be said that the Church has never seen it. It was against a flippant heterodoxy that Jesus vindicated faith in the endless life of the human soul: God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. It was against an exclusive and callous orthodoxy that Jesus spoke his parable of the Good Samaritan; it was against the pride and inhumanity of the same class that the Master made his defense of his interest in publicans and sinners, in the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Drachma, and the Lost Son. The peril of current liberalism is great; the peril is vastly greater of a morally obtuse and consequential conservatism, confident that it holds the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. These obvious dangers of the time suggest many reasons why there should be an association infinitely closer and profounder than has ever yet existed between the evolution of Christianity and the Founder of Christianity.
The task which the new generation of Christian thinkers puts before itself is, first, to discover the truly representative experience, and then to take the ideas on which the soul lives in the courses of experience, clear them of confusion, lift them to maturity, authenticate and set them in a great majestic order. And in this constructive endeavor two ideals, or two aspects of one ideal, are the guiding forces. There is the ideal that everything in the universe is amenable to reason, that final unintelligibility nowhere exists. Mystery, as the sign forbidding reason to trespass in this domain or that, or as signifying that inscrutability is the essence of any section of existence, is expelled; mystery, as the symbol of the unexplored, the token of the immeasurable task that the reason has on its hands, is everywhere present. Little is yet understood; all may be understood; for the reason that the universe is an endless opportunity, an open door that no man can shut. The universe, as it lives in the senses and in the soul of man, answers the questions and falls into the order of reason. This is the ideal that animates and supports the scientific activity of the world; and while individuals grow weary at an immeasurable task, break out in lamentation over the slightness of the progress made and in despair of attaining the goal, no such paralysis ever takes permanent possession of the race. It is ever young, ever buoyant, ever sure of the ideal of complete intelligibility, ever undiscouraged and full of hope in the vast and exhilarating pursuit.
That in the world of faith everything must answer at last to the moral reason of man is the second ideal. According to this ideal, the universe justifies essential Christian faith; the universe does this because its final character is just. Subjective substitutes for objective validities are no part of the normal triumphant faith of to-day; consolations drawn exclusively from the religious life in time are deemed insufficient; the shout is now what it has ever been — the Eternal God is thy refuge. Theology confined to the temporal shares the same fate with philosophy confined to phenomena; both are doomed to confusion in the presence of an outstanding universe unresponsive to reason. Ethics limited to man’s world in time must become a chapter in the black book of despair. What are all our causes, our human idealisms, personal and social, if the swell of the Eternal is against them ? The moral reason, with its inherent and boundless idealism, claims for its field the universe; to disallow its claim is to reduce it to vanity, to deny it the friendship of the Infinite is to decorate it with folly in time. Socrates drinking the hemlock, and Jesus on his cross, are justified not only out of the limited and brief world of man, but also out of the Eternal. Were it otherwise, who would care to work at the Sisyphus stone of the kingdom of Love not because its worth would vanish, but because all hope of its actual sovereignty would forever perish.
Here is the moral problem involved in the question of immortality. If death means annihilation, it means eventually the utter destruction of man’s world. The economic, æsthetic, scientific, and philosophic phases of that world might well enough vanish utterly, thus damned for the glory of God; but if man as a servant of the moral ideal, as victor over brute worlds in the name of the ideal, as a creator of intrinsic moral values, as a lover and doer of the behest of the Eternal, is to cease to be at death, the moral character of God is henceforth a fiction, his pity for man at his worst and his sympathy with man at his best become wholly incredible. In such a connection to say that like as a Father pitieth his children so the Lord pitieth them that fear him, or to repeat the opening sentence of the Lord’s Prayer, or any words from the Gospels that declare the infinite worth of the soul to God, is an exercise in self-delusion. If the world that comes out of the moral reason of man is not of permanent worth to God, it can only be because in God moral reason does not exist. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing; and one of them doth not fall to the ground without your Father. Fear not, therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.
The obligation that demands from man life for the moral ideal, and that denies him the privilege of endless service of the same, contains an unconscious but obvious insult to the Deity. Is there no obligation resting upon the Being who has put man under moral bonds? Has he no sense of fairness who calls upon men for that supreme quality? Is God justified in throwing man into the boiling stream of time, in calling upon him to learn to swim, or to rescue those who have not yet learned, and finally in drowning this valiant swimmer as the best way of getting rid of him? According to what conception of justice is man under duty to surrender his soul in service while God stands absolved? I can imagine duty from man to man to stand fast, were there no God; but I cannot imagine a moral Deity absolved from accountability to the conscience which is his sovereign gift to man. On this ground Jesus would not be the apostle of God, but his immeasurable moral superior. If we hold our moral world and all its precious treasures without the concern of the Eternal, by all means let us hold and increase it, but let us cease to worship God or to pay him the compliment of the homage that he does not deserve.
The Christian religion to-day, as in the earliest day, identifies man’s fortune with God’s character, man’s cause with God’s purpose. In the Gospel the union of the Divine and the human that in Christ was perfect is by anticipation perfect in mankind. Identity of moral being between God and man, broken by sin, seeks through the Gospel of reconciliation the reëstablishment and the endless duration of the aboriginal fellowship. Christianity is the religion of the Infinite; it first fills human life with God, and then it fills the universe with the will of the God who lives in man. All reductions of religion in deference to the gloom of the temporal order, or through fear in the presence of the cosmos; all selective devices whereby a human idealism sweet and fair is founded on the brute necessity that disowns it, and that is frowned upon by the black mysteries above it; all forms of rainbow-colored sentiment that derive their sole value from the retina of man’s spirit; all limitations of the scope of religion that it may become more and more manageable to an impatient rationalism, are against the genius of the Gospel of Christ and equally against, the Christianity that reigns to-day in the free, progressive communities of the land. Christian men are forward to declare that their idealism is the image of the Eternal realism. They want no delusions and no pigmy faiths; they want a religion that fills the universe with light, that gives to the moral ideal the final sovereignty, that guards in a great way the treasures of human love, that opens before the soldiers of the ideal in the day of their distress vistas of endless hope, that calls them to do battle in a campaign that cannot fail, that makes faith an act of trust in the supremacy of conscience in man and in God.