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THE APPEAL OF RELIGION
TO HUMAN NATURE.
Proverbs viii. 4: "Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of men."
The appeal of religion to human nature, the deep wisdom of its instructions to the human heart, the language of power and of cheering, with which it is fitted to address the inmost soul of man, is never to be understood, perhaps, till our nature is exalted far beyond its present measure. When the voice of wisdom and purity shall find an inward wisdom and purity to which it can speak, it will be received with a welcome and gladness, with a joy beyond all other joy, such as no tongue of eloquence has ever expressed, nor the heart of worldly sensibility ever yet conceived. It is, therefore, with the most unfeigned diffidence, with the most distinct consciousness that my present labour must be incipient and imperfect, that I enter upon this great themethe appeal of religion to human uature.
What ought it to be? What has it been? These are the inquiries which I shall pursue. Nor shall I attempt to keep them altogether separate in the discussion; since both the defects and the duties of religious instruction may often be best exhibited under the same head of discourse. Neither shall I labour to speak of religion under that abstract and figurative character with which wisdom is personified in the context, though that may be occasionally convenient: but whether it be the language of individual reason or conscience; whether it be the voice of the parent or of the preacher; whether it be the language of forms or of institutions, I would consider how religion has appealed, and how it ought to have appealed, to human nature.
The topics of discourse under which I shall pursue these inquiries, are the following:-In what character should religion address us?—to what in us should it speak?—and how should it deliver its message?
That is to say—the substance, the subject, and the spirit of the appeal, are the topics of our inquiry. I cannot, of course, pursue these inquiries beyond the point to which the immediate object of my discourse will carry them; and I am willing to designate that point at once, by saying that the questions are, whether the character in which religion is to appeal to us be moral or not; whether that in us to which it chiefly appeals should be the noblest or the basest part of our nature; and finally, whether the manner and spirit of its appeal should be that of confidence or distrust, of friendship or hatred.
I. And with regard to the first question, the answer, of course, is, that the character in which religion should address us is purely moral,
As a moral principle, as a principle of rectitude, it must speak to us. Institutions, rites, commands, threatenings, promises — all forms of appeal must contain this essence; they must be moral; they must be holy.
It may be thought strange that I should insist upon a point so obvious, but let me crave your patience. What is the centre, the first principle, the essence of all that is moral, of all that is holy? I answer, it is goodness. This is the primary element of all virtue. Excellence, rectitude, righteousness, every virtue, every grace, is but a modification of the one essential, all-embracing principle of love. This is strictly, metaphysically true: it is the result of the most severe philosophical analysis. It is also the truth of Scripture. The character of supreme perfection is summed up in this one attribute, “God is love." This is the very glory of God. For when an ancient servant desired to see his glory," the answer to the prayer was, that “he caused all his goodness to pass before him.”
The character, then, in which religion should appeal to human nature, is that of simple and essential goodness. This, the moral nature of man is made to understand and to feel; and nothing else but this. This character, doubtless, has various expressions. Sometimes it takes the forms of command and threatening; but still these must speak in the name of goodness. If command and threatening stand up to speak for themselves_alone_dissociated from that love which gives them all their moral character—then, I say that the moral nature of man cannot receive their message. A brute can receive that; a dog or a horse can yield to mere command
But the moral nature can yield to nothing which is not moral; and that which gives morality to every precept and warning, is the goodness which is breathed into them. Divest them of this, and they are not even religious. Nor are those persons religious who pay obedience to command, as command, and without any consideration of its moral nature, of the intrinsic and essential sanction which goodness bestows on the command.
The voice of religion, then, must be as the voice of goodness. Conceive of everything good and lovely, of everything morally excellent and admirable, of everything glorious and godlike, and when these speak to you, know that religion speaks to you. Whether that voice comes from the page of genius, or from the record of heroic and heavenly virtue, or from its living presence and example, or from the bosom of silent reverie, the innermost sanctuary of meditation-whatever of holy and beautiful speaks to you, and through what medium soever it comes, it is the voice of religion. All excellence, in other words, is religion.
But here we meet with what seems to me and so must I denominate it, in justice to my own apprehensions—a stupendous error; an error, prevalent, I believe, and yet fatal, so far as it goes, to all religious emotion. All excellence, I said, is religion. But the great error is, that in the popular apprehension these things are not identified. In other words, religion and goodness are not identified in the general mind: they are not held by most men to be the same thing. This error, I say, if it exist, is fatal to genuine religious emotion, because men cannot heartily love, as a moral quality, anything which is not, to them, goodness. Or to state this position as a simple truism, they cannot love anything which is not, to them, loveliness.
Now I am willing, nay, I earnestly wish, that with regard to the real nature of religion there should be the utmost discrimination; and I will soon speak to that point. But, I say, for the present-I say, again, that religion is made, intrinsically and altogether, a different thing from what is commonly regarded as loveliness of character, and therefore that it speaks to men, speaks to human nature, not as goodness, but as some other thing.
For proof of this, I ask you, first, to look at that phraseology by which religion is commonly described, and to compare it with the language by which men express those lovely qualities that they most admire. See, then, how they express their admiration. You hear them speak of one who is amiable, lovely, fascinating; of one who is honourable, upright, generous. You hear them speak of a good parent, of an affectionate child, of a worthy citizen, of an obliging neighbour, of a kind and faithful friend, of a man whom they emphatically call “ noble man;" and you observe a fervour of language and a glow of pleasure while these things are said; a kindling animation in the tone and the countenance, which inspires you with a kindred sympathy and delight. But mark, now, with how different a language and manner the qualities of religion are described. The votary of religion is said to be very “serious,” perhaps, but with a look and tone as if a much worse thing were stated; or you hear it said of him that he is a “pious man,” or, he is “a very experienced person,” or, he is “a Christian if ever there was one:” but it seems, even when the religious themselves say all this, as if it were an extorted and cold homage; as if religion were something very proper, indeed, very safe, perhaps, but not very agreeable, certainly; there is no glow, there is no animation, and there is generally no sympathy.
În further proof that religion is not indentified with the beautiful and admirable in character, I might turn from the language in common use to actual experience. Is religion, I ask—not the religion of poetry, but that which exists in the actual conceptions of men, the religion of professors, the religion that is commonly taught from our pulpits—is it usually regarded as the loveliest attribute of the human character? When your minds glow with the love of excellence, when you weep over the examples of goodness, is this excellence, is this goodness which you admire, religion? Consult the books of fiction, open the pages of history, resort to the stores of our classical literature, and say, if the religious man of our times appears in them at all; or if, when he does appear in them, it is he that chiefly draws your affection? Say, rather, if it is not some personage, whether of a real or fictitious tale, that is destitute of every distinctive quality of the popular religion, who kindles your enthusiasm? So true is this, that many who have held the prevailing ideas of religion, have regarded, and on their principles have justly regarded, the literature of taste and of fiction, as one of the most insidious temptations that could befall them. No, I repeat, the images of loveliness that dwell in the general mind, whether of writers or readers, have not been the images of religion. And thus it has happened, that the men of taste, and of a lively and ardent sensibility, have by no means yielded their proportion of votaries to religion. The dull, the gloomy, the sick, the aged, have been religious; not-i. e. not to the same extent—the young and the joyous in their first admiration
and their first love; not the intellectual and refined in the enthusiasm of their feelings, and in the glory of their imaginations.
But let me appeal once more to experience. I ask, then-do you love religion? I ask you, I ask any one who will entertain the question -do you love religion? Does the very word carry a sound that is agreeable, delightful to you? Does it stand for something attractive and lovely? Are the terms that describe religion-grace, holiness, repentance, faith, godliness—are they invested with a charm to your heart, to your imagination, to your whole mind? Now, to this question I am sure that many would answer freely and decidedly, “No, religion is not a thing that we love. We cannot say that we take that sort of interest in it. We do not profess to be religious, and
-honestly, we do not wish to be.” What! I might answer in return-do you love nothing that is good? Is there nothing in character, nothing in attribute, no abstract charm, that you love? otherwise," would be the reply." There are many persons that we love: there are many characters in history, in biography, in romance, that are delightful to us; they are so noble, so beautiful.
How different then, do we not see, are the ideas of religion from the images of loveliness that dwell in many minds! They are actually the same in principle. All excellence has the same foundation. There are not, and cannot be, two different and opposite kinds of rectitude. The moral nature of man, deranged though it be, is not deranged so far as to admit this; and yet how evident is it, that religion is not identified with the excellence that men love!
But I hear it said, “ The images of loveliness which dwell in the general mind are not indeed the images of religion, and ought not to be; for they are false, and would utterly mislead us.” Grant, now, for the sake of argument, that this were true, and whom would the admission benefit? What would follow from the admission? Why, this clearly; that of being religious, no power or possibility is within human reach. For men must love that which seems to them to be lovely. If that which seems to them to be lovely is not religion—if religion is something else, and something altogether different, -religion, it is clear, they cannot love: that is to say, on this hypothesis, they cannot be religious ; they cannot, by any possibility, but that in which all things are possible with God; they cannot by any possibility that comes within the range of the powers and affections that God has given them.
But it is not true that men's prevailing and constitutional perceptions of moral beauty are false. It is not true, that is to say, that their sense of right and wrong is false; that their conscience is a treacherous and deceitful guide. It is not true; and yet, doubtless, there is a discrimination to be made. Their perceptions may be, and undoubtedly often are, low and inadequate, and marred with error. And therefore when we use the words, excellent, admirable, lovely, there is danger that, to many, they will not mean all that they ought to mean, that men's ideas of these qualities will not be as deep, and thorough, and strict, as they ought to be; while, if we confine ourselves to such terms for religious qualities as serious, holy, godly, the danger is that they will be just as erroneous, besides being technical, barren, and uninteresting
There is a difficulty, on this account, attending the language of the pulpit, which every reflecting man, in the use of it, must have feit. But the truth, amidst all these discriminations, I hold to be this; that the universal and constitutional perceptions of moral loveliness which mankind entertain, are radically just. And therefore the only right doctrine and the only rational direction to be addressed to men on this subject is to the following effect :-“ Whatever your conscience dictates; whatever your mind clothes with moral beauty; that to you is right; be that to you religion. Nothing else can be, if you think rationally ; and therefore let that be to you the religion that you
love; and let it be your endeavour continually to elevate and purify your conceptions of all virtue and goodness.” Nay, if I knew a man whose ideas of excellence were ever so low, I should still say to him, Revere those ideas; they are all that you can revere. The very apprehensions you entertain of the glory of God cannot go beyond your ideas of excellence. All that you can worship, then, is the most perfect excellence you can conceive of. Be that, therefore, the object of your reverence. However low, however imperfect it is, still be that to you the image of the Divinity. On that scale of your actual ideas, however humble, let your thoughts rise to higher and higher perfection.
I say, however low. And grant now that the moral conceptions of a man are very low; yet if they are the highest he has, is there anything higher that he can follow? Will it be said there are the Scriptures? But the aid of the Scriptures is already presupposed in the case. They contribute to form the very perceptions in question. They are a light to man only as they kindle a light within him. They do not, and they cannot, mean more to any man than he understands, than he perceives them to mean.
His perceptions of their intent, then, he must follow. He cannot follow the light any farther than he sees it.
But it may be said that many of the ignorant and debased see very little light; that their perceptions are very low; that they admire qualities and actions of a very questionable character. What then? You must begin with them where they are? But let us not grant too much of this. Go to the most degraded being you know, and tell him some story of noble disinterestedness, or touching charity; tell him the story of Howard, or Swartz, or Oberlin; and will he not approve—will he not admire? Then tell him, I say—as the summing up of this head of my discourse—tell him that this is religion. Tell him that this is a faint shadow to the infinite brightness of Divine love—a feeble and marred image compared with the infinite benignity and goodness of God.
II. My next observation is, on the principles to be addressed. And, on this point, I say in general, that religion should appeal to the good in man, against the bad. That there is good in man—not fixed goodness—but that there is something good in man, is evident from the fact that he has an idea of goodness. For if the matter be strictly and philosophically traced, it will be found that the idea of goodness can spring from nothing else but experience—from the inward sense of it.
But not to dwell on this: my principal object under this head of discourse is to maintain, that religion should appeal chiefly, not to the lowest, but to the highest of our moral sentiments.
There are sentiments in our nature to which powerful appeal can be