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ON RELIGIOUS SENSIBILITY.
EZEKIEL Xxxvi. 26: “And I will give you a heart of flesh.”
My object in the present discourse is to offer some remarks upon the remedies for the want of religious insensibility, or upon the means and principles of its culture.
And in entering upon this subject, I would say, that much is to be done by a correction of those mistakes which have been already mentioned. Let then something, I would venture to say, of this vehement demand for feeling be abated. Let not the feelings of religion be subjected to perpetual importunity, any more than the feelings of friendship, or of family affection. Let not feeling be made to occupy a place in religion that does not belong to it, as if it were the only thing and everything—thus drawing away attention from the principles that are necessary to give it permanency, from the soil that must nourish, and the basis that must support it. Let not religious feeling be appealed to in a way to impair its simplicity, disinterestedness, and purity.
In the next place, let the common mistakes about the nature and signs of religious sensibility be corrected. Let all excess and extravagance be checked as much as possible ; and especially let those who would cultivate a fervent piety, make the necessary discrimination between religion and fanaticism. Let them not conclude that abuses are the only forms under which the religious principle can appear; that, in order to be zealous Christians, it is necessary to part with their modesty, or their taste. In fine, let religion become so familiar that it shall cease to be, in their minds, or in their thoughts of it, anything extraordinary; and then, let its manifestations be, like the expressions of all other high and pure feeling, unforced, natural, manly, strong, graceful, beautiful, and winning. Thus let our light sline before men, not as the glaring meteor, but as the common light of day, attractive, and cheering, and constant.
And once more, let an honest and persevering endeavour be made to correct those mistakes that prevail about the Supreme Object to which religious sensibility is chiefly directed. Let not God be regarded as some unintelligible abstraction, or inaccessible majesty. Let the Christian teaching be welcomed, which instructs us to believe and to feel that He is our Father. Let an effort be made by every mind to break through the clouds of superstition and sin, and to perceive what the divine perfection is. Let not God's command that we should love him be mistaken for anything more arbitrary or importunate or personal, than is the claim of disinterested human excellence to be loved. Let not the divine demand for our love be so construed as to chill or repel our love. In fine, let no thought be suffered to enter our minds that shall detract from the infinite generosity, the infinite dignity, the infinite beauty, of the divine perfection. How shall God be truly loved, if he is not rightly known! Let him be rightly known, and love will as certainly follow as it will follow the knowledge of any other-of any human or angelic excellence. I do not say that it will certainly follow, but as certainly. Nay, why, if we rightly understood the subject, should it not be easier to love God than to love man? For man is full of imperfection that offends us, and with him too we are liable to have questions and competitions. But God is all-perfect; and with him our affections have nothing to do—but to love him.
Let me now proceed to offer a few suggestions more directly, upon the remedy for religious insensibility. And here let me say at once, that I have no specific to offer in the shape of a remedy; no new,
and before unheard of method to propose. I have no set of rules to lay down, a mere formal observance of which will certainly bring about the desired result. Religious sensibility is to be cultivated like all other sensibility-i. e. rationally. And since it is impossible within my present limits to discuss the subject in all its parts and bearings, I shall confine myself to the defence and application of the rational method. And the rational method is the method of attention in the forms of meditation, reading, hearing, prayer; the method of association, which pays regard to the indirect influences of places, times, and moods of mind; and, finally, it is the method of consistency, by which no feeling is expected to be strong and satisfactory, but as the result of the whole character.
My remedy, then, for religious insensibility, under the blessing of heaven—it might sound strangely in the ears of some—but I boldly say that my remedy is reason. It is thought; it is reflection; it is attention ; it is exercise of reason in every legitimate way. The true method, I say, is purely and strictly rational. And I say, moreover, that it is not that Christians have used their reason so much, but so little, that they have been so deficient in real feeling.
Reason and feeling, if they be not the same thing in different degrees of strength are yet so intimately connected, that no man may ever ex. pect, on any subject, to feel deeply and habitually, who does not feel rationally. The slight sometimes thrown upon reason in religion is an invasion of the first law of the mind, the first law of heaven. This law is "elder scripture," and no more designed to be abrogated by the written word, than the law of gravitation is designed to be abrogated by the written word. The word proceeds upon the assumption that the intellect is to be addressed : it actually, and everywhere addresses it. The whole theory of human affections proceeds upon it. The grandest theoretical mistake of all in religion, is that by which feeling is separated from the intellect.
Nor am I at all sure, my brethren, little liable as it may be thought we are to the mistake, that we have altogether escaped it. When it is said, as it sometimes is said, that certain preaching is too intellectual for a plain congregation, or too rational for an humble congregation, I must think either that the meaning is false, or that the terms are used in a false sense. There never was too much intellect—there never was too much reason yet put into a sermon. There may have been too
little feeling; but it does not follow that there was too much reason. There may have been too much barren and useless speculation, but not too much intellect. Some of the most practical and devotional books in the world—such as Law's Serious Call, Baxter's Saint's Rest, the Sermons of Bishop Butler and of Dr. Paley, and the Works of Leighton-are specimens of the closest reasoning. A genuine, just, and powerful moral discourse, has need to be one of the keenest, closest, and most discriminating compositions in the world. Such were the discourses of our Saviour. Nothing could be farther from loose, rambling, common-place exhortations. Nothing could be farther from that style, which says, “Oh! my hearers, you must be good ; you must be pious men; and you must feel on this great subject." No, the hearers, by close, cogent, home-put argument, were made to feel; and they said, Never man spake like this man.'
I may be thought singular, but I verily believe, that, in most moral discourses at this day, the grand defect is not so much a defect of feeling, as it is a defect of close and discriminating argument: and that higher powers of argumentation are precisely what are wanted in such sermons, to make them more weighty, practical, and impressive. And it is not the intellectual hearer, who can perhaps supply the deficiency, that most needs this; but the plain hearer, who is mystified, misled, and stupified by the want of clear and piercing discrimination. I have that respect for human nature in its humblest forms, as to think that the highest powers of man or angel would not be thrown away upon it; and I cannot believe that nothing but truisms and common-places, vague generalities and unstudied exhortations, are required in teaching religion to such a nature.
It is required of a man, to be sure, according to what he hath, and not according to what he hath not. But if it be thought that the utmost, and far more than the utmost measure of human talent may not be well employed in religious discussion, how, let me ask, is that opinion to be defended against the charge of doing dishonour to religion? There is no other interest which is not held to be worthy of the profoundest discussion. He who is to plead the cause of some earthly right or property before the judges of the land or its legislators, will by deep study prepare himself to give the most able and elaborate views of the subject, be it of a title or a tariff, a bond or a bank. It is a great occasion, and must task all the powers of the mind to do it justice. But "a little plain sense,"—is not this the thought of some ?—"a little plain sense, a little common-place thought, is good enough for religion!"
There are tasks for the religious teacher, and to name no other, that of disembarrassing religious experience from the many mistakes in which it is involved, is one that must carry the preacher far enough beyond the range of common-place truths, valuable as they may be, and one that is very necessary to the promotion of a just and healthful religious sensibility. And this only amounts to saying, that there are new things to be said, new views to be given in religion; that not plain and obvious things only are to be said, but that there is something to be told to many which they did not think of before. And what though the preacher feel his subject, and the people be impressed; yet, after all, the impression, the feeling may have much in it that is wrong. The whole subject of religious sensibility, its sources and the method of its
culture, may be very ill understood; and there is no little evidence that it is ill understood, from the fact, that most religious feeling is so artificial, so mechanical, so periodical, and fluctuating, and uncertain, instead of being habitual, and healthful, and strong. A man may feel very much within a very narrow compass of thought. Who has not often observed it? But who that has observed it would not think it desirable to carry him beyond this little mechanism, by which he continues from time to time (if I may speak so) to grind out a certain amount of feeling; to carry him beyond, I say, to those wide and generous views of religion, to that intelligent culture of his nature, from which religious feeling will spring naturally and freely, and flow abundantly, and in a full and living stream. There is all the difference here, and only of infinitely greater importance, that there is between the slavish machinist, governed by rules, and the intelligent artisan, discovering principles, constantly inventing and improving, and ever going on to perfection.
But it is time that I should proceed from the defence to the more particular application of my proposition. And this is, that feeling in religion to be deep and thorough, to be habitual, to be relied on to spring up with unvarying promptitude at every call of religion, must be rational, perfectly rational; rational in its nature, its methods of culture, its ends. You ask how you shall learn to feel on the subject of religion—with spontaneous freedom, with unaffected delight, and with true-hearted earnestness,—how you shall learn to feel in religion as you do in friendship, and in the family relations, and I answer, rationally. And I say, moreover, that provided a man really and honestly desires and strives to feel, the reason why he fails is, that there is something irrational in his views, irrational in his seeking, irrational in the whole method of his procedure. He has irrational views of the nature of religious feelingHe expects it to be some strange sensation or something supernatural, or some hallucination, or something he knows not what. Or he has wrong views of God. He does not see the glory and loveliness of his perfection. Or he has wrong ideas of the methods of obtaining religious feeling. He is indolently waiting for it, or irrationally expecting it to come upon him in some indescribable manner, or unreasonably looking for an influence from above which God has never promised. For, although he has promised help, he has not proffered in that help anything to be substituted for our own efforts : and our efforts are to be every way just as rational as if he had promised nothing. Or the seeker of religion has irrational views of the end. He does not distinctly see that his perfection, his happiness, is the end. If he did, he would be drawn on to seek it with a more willing and hearty earnestness. No, but he feels as if the demand for his heart in this matter were a mere arbitrary requisition, as if it were the bare will of some superior being, without any reason for it. He seeks religion, because he vaguely and blindly apprehends that it is something —that it is the prominent idea of thousands--something which he must have.
I say, that the process of obtaining a high and delightful religious sensibility, that sensibility which makes prayer always fervent, and meditation fruitful and satisfying, must be rational, and nothing but rational. And I do not say this in any spirit of defiance towards that prevailing opinion which has fastened on this word, rational, the idea of coldness and indifference. I say it, because in sober truth and earnestness I know of no other way to feel the deep sense of religion, but to feel it rationally. It is out of my power—is it within any man's power?-to conceive of any other way to awaken emotion, but to fix the mind on those objects that are to awaken it. If I would feel the sentiment of gratitude and love to my Creator, I can conceive of no way of doing so, but to think of his goodness, his perfection; to spread before my mind all the images and evidences of his majesty, his perfection, his love. If I would feel the charms of virtue, I must contemplate her-I must see “virtue in her shape, how lovely." If I would love good men—which is a part of religion—I must know them, and mingle with them; I must talk with them, or read of them, and spread the story of their generous and blessed deeds before me. And thus also, and for the same reason, if I would love God I must not only contemplate him as has been already said, but I must be familiar with the contemplation of his being and perfection. Earth through all her fair and glorious scenes must speak to me of him. The sacred page, with all its gracious words of teaching and promise, must speak to me of him. And I must listen with gladness, with a sense of my high privilege, and with joy must I commune with all the teachings of God to me, as I would commune with the words of a friend. This is the rational process.
But this, my friends, is not to say that “we hope we shall some time or other attain to the love of God,” or that “we desire it,” or that “it is difficult,” or that “we fear we never shall reach it”-it is not saying, and saying this or that, in a sort of ideal or idlo speculation ; but it is doing something It is seeking to feel the power of religion, as we seek to feel the power of other things—of the arts, of philosophy, of science, of astronomy, or of music-attentively, sedulously, with a careful use of opportunities, with a heedful regard to circumstances. The rational method, then, is the method of attention.
But, in the next place, the rational method is the method of association ; or, in other words, it is a method which regards that great law of the mind the law of association. It pays regard to places, and times, and seasons, and moods of mind. It is partly an indirect method. It is putting ourselves in the way of obtaining a sense of religion.
The direct effort is to be valued for all that it is worth. And its value, indeed, is such that it is indispensable. Certainly, where the religious character is to be formed after our arrival at the period of adult years, periodical and private meditation and prayer seem to be essential aids. There is much to learn and much to overcome, and there should be definite seasons and direct efforts for these purposes. But it would be irrational to make these seasons and efforts the only means. If we should attempt to form a friendship for a human being by such a series of fixed and direct contemplations alone, it is easy to see that they would be very likely to be injurious, to create in our minds a set of repulsive or irksome associations with the human being in question, however amiable and excellent he might be. It would require the effect of many indirect influences to blend with these, and give them their proper character. So in the cultivation of a devotional spirit, it is not safe to trust to prayers and meditations alone.