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- Theological Essays and Other Papers v1 - 1/43 -
















FORCES, which are illimitable in their compass of effect, are often, for the same reason, obscure and untraceable in the steps of their movement. Growth, for instance, animal or vegetable, what eye can arrest its eternal increments? The hour-hand of a watch, who can detect the separate fluxions of its advance? Judging by the past, and the change which is registered between that and the present, we know that it must be awake; judging by the immediate appearances, we should say that it was always asleep. Gravitation, again, that works without holiday for ever, and searches every corner of the universe, what intellect can follow it to its fountains? And yet, shyer than gravitation, less to be counted than the fluxions of sun-dials, stealthier than the growth of a forest, are the footsteps of Christianity amongst the political workings of man. Nothing, that the heart of man values, is so secret; nothing is so potent.

It is _because_ Christianity works so secretly, that it works so potently; it is _because_ Christianity burrows and hides itself, that it towers above the clouds; and hence partly it is that its working comes to be misapprehended, or even lost out of sight. It is dark to eyes touched with the films of human frailty: but it is 'dark with excessive bright.'[Footnote: 'Dark with excessive bright.' _Paradise Lost_. Book III.] Hence it has happened sometimes that minds of the highest order have entered into enmity with the Christian faith, have arraigned it as a curse to man, and have fought against it even upon Christian impulses, (impulses of benignity that could not have had a birth except in Christianity.) All comes from the labyrinthine intricacy in which the _social_ action of Christianity involves itself to the eye of a contemporary. Simplicity the most absolute is reconcilable with intricacy the most elaborate. The weather--how simple would appear the laws of its oscillations, if we stood at their centre! and yet, because we do _not_, to this hour the weather is a mystery. Human health--how transparent is its economy under ordinary circumstances! abstinence and cleanliness, labor and rest, these simple laws, observed in just proportions, laws that may be engrossed upon a finger nail, are sufficient, on the whole, to maintain the equilibrium of pleasurable existence. Yet, if once that equilibrium is disturbed, where is the science oftentimes deep enough to rectify the unfathomable watch-work? Even the simplicities of planetary motions do not escape distortion: nor is it easy to be convinced that the distortion is in the eye which beholds, not in the object beheld. Let a planet be wheeling with heavenly science, upon arches of divine geometry: suddenly, to us, it shall appear unaccountably retrograde; flying when none pursues; and unweaving its own work. Let this planet in its utmost elongations travel out of sight, and for _us_ its course will become incoherent: because _our_ sight is feeble, the beautiful curve of the planet shall be dislocated into segments, by a parenthesis of darkness; because our earth is in no true centre, the disorder of parallax shall trouble the laws of light; and, because we ourselves are wandering, the heavens shall seem fickle.

Exactly in the predicament of such a planet is Christianity: its motions are intermingled with other motions; crossed and thwarted, eclipsed and disguised, by counter-motions in man himself, and by disturbances that man cannot overrule. Upon lines that are direct, upon curves that are circuitous, Christianity is advancing for ever; but from our imperfect vision, or from our imperfect opportunities for applying even such a vision, we cannot trace it continuously. We lose it, we regain it; we see it doubtfully, we see it interruptedly; we see it in collision, we see it in combination; in collision with darkness that confounds, in combination with cross lights that perplex. And this in part is irremediable; so that no finite intellect will ever retrace the total curve upon which Christianity has moved, any more than eyes that are incarnate will ever see God.

But part of this difficulty in unweaving the maze, has its source in a misconception of the original machinery by which Christianity moved, and of the initial principle which constituted its differential power. In books, at least, I have observed one capital blunder upon the relations which Christianity bears to Paganism: and out of that one mistake, grows a liability to others, upon the possible relations of Christianity to the total drama of this world. I will endeavor to explain my views. And the reader, who takes any interest in the subject, will not need to fear that the explanation should prove tedious; for the mere want of space, will put me under a coercion to move rapidly over the ground; I cannot be diffuse; and, as regards quality, he will find in this paper little of what is scattered over the surface of books.

I begin with this question:--What do people mean in a Christian land by the word _'religion?'_ My purpose is not to propound any metaphysical problem; I wish only, in the plainest possible sense, to ask, and to have an answer, upon this one point--how much is understood by that obscure term,* _'religion,'_ when used by a Christian? Only I am punctilious upon one demand, viz., that the answer shall be comprehensive. We are apt in such cases to answer elliptically, omitting, because silently presuming as understood between us, whatever _seems_ obvious. To prevent _that_, we will suppose the question to be proposed by an emissary from some remote planet,--who, knowing as yet absolutely nothing of us and our intellectual differences, must insist (as _I_ insist) upon absolute precision, so that nothing essential shall be wanting, and nothing shall be redundant.

*[Footnote: '_That obscure term;_'--i. e. not obscure as regards the use of the term, or its present value, but as regards its original _genesis_, or what in civil law is called the _deductio_. Under what angle, under what aspect, or relation, to the field which it concerns did the term _religion_ originally come forward? The general field, overlooked by religion, is the ground which lies between the spirit of man and the supernatural world. At present, under the humblest conception of religion, the human spirit is supposed to be interested in such a field by the conscience and the nobler affections, But I suspect that originally these great faculties were absolutely excluded from the point of view. Probably the relation between spiritual _terrors_ and man's power of propitiation, was the problem to which the word _religion_ formed the answer. Religion meant apparently, in the infancies of the various idolatries, that _latreia_, or service of sycophantic fear, by which, as the most approved method of approach, man was able to conciliate the favor, or to buy off the malice of supernatural powers. In all Pagan nations, it is probable that religion would, an the whole, be a degrading influence; although I see, even for such nations, two cases, at the least, where the uses of a religion would be indispensable; viz. for the sanction of _oaths_, and as a channel for gratitude not pointing to a human object. If so, the answer is easy: religion _was_ degrading: but heavier degradations would have arisen from irreligion. The noblest of all idolatrous peoples, viz. the Romans, have left deeply scored in their very use of their word _religlo_, their testimony to the degradation wrought by any religion that Paganism could yield. Rarely indeed is this word employed, by a Latin author, in speaking of an individual, without more or less of sneer. Reading that word, in a Latin book, we all try it and ring it, as a petty shopkeeper rings a half-crown, before we venture to receive it as offered in good faith and loyalty. Even the Greeks are nearly in the same άπορια, when they wish to speak of religiosity in a spirit of serious praise. Some circuitous form, commending the correctness of a man, περι τα θεια, _in respect of divine things_, becomes requisite; for all the direct terms, expressing the religious temper, are preoccupied by a taint of scorn. The word όσιος, means _pious_,--not as regards the gods, but as regards the dead; and even είσεβης, though not used sneeringly, is a world short of our word 'religious.' This condition of language we need not wonder at: the language of life must naturally receive, as in a mirror, the realities of life. Difficult it is to maintain a just equipoise in any moral habits, but in none so much as in habits of religious demeanor under a Pagan [that is, a degrading] religion. To be a coward, is base: to be a sycophant, is base: but to be a sycophant in the service of cowardice, is the perfection of baseness: and yet this was the brief analysis of a devotee amongst the ancient Romans. Now, considering that the word _religion_ is originally Roman, [probably from the Etruscan,] it seems probable that it presented the idea of religion under some one of its bad aspects. Coleridge must quite have forgotten this Paganism of the word, when he suggested as a plausible idea, that originally it had presented religion under the aspect of a coercion or restraint. Morality having been viewed as the prime restraint or obligation resting upon man, then Coleridge thought that religion might have been viewed as a _religatio_, a reiterated restraint, or secondary obligation. This is ingenious, but it will not do. It is cracked in the ring. Perhaps as many as three objections might be mustered to such a derivation: but the last of the three is conclusive. The ancients never _did_ view morality as a mode of obligation: I affirm this peremptorily; and with the more emphasis, because there are great consequences suspended upon that question.]

What, then, is religion? Decomposed into its elements, as they are

Theological Essays and Other Papers v1 - 1/43

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