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Reason In Religion

( Originally Published 1912 )



I lead in the way of righteousness in the midst of the paths of judgment.-Hebrew Proverb.

There is a statement of religion possible which shall make all skepticism absurd.-Emerson.

Geologists can write a history of the earth, botanists of plants, and astronomers can make a map of the sky ; but who can discover and interpret the laws of the soul, find the origin of its budding powers, or give the position and rank of all the bright worlds that rise and shine in its mysterious firmament? One star differs from another star in glory, but not one of them could be spared without loss to the universe. The splendid city of God, which night unveils to our astonished gaze, would be marred if one of its palaces were ruined. So it is impossible to draw comparisons between the powers of the mind and decide that one is more useful or more beautiful than an-other. Knowledge is good, but so is love. Memory is precious, but no more so than hope. The search for truth is a noble pursuit, but so is the search for goodness and beauty. To find truth is not enough; it must be put to use. Kept over night, the manna gathered by the wandering Israelites became stale and corrupt. It is thus with knowledge. Unapplied, it loses its value.

Doubtless specialists have their uses, but they should not mistake their field for the whole world. Every truth sustains a necessary relation to every other truth. Wholly detached, it becomes partly false. However good, when combined with the whole plan of things, it is idle to think society can be regenerated by adopting and emphasizing one special theory. If we listen to the specialists we would think that idealism in philosophy, or evolution in science, or protection or free trade or prohibition or socialism or public ownership or single tax or educational or property test for the ballot in politics, or woman's rights or osteopathy or Christian science or going barefoot or vegetable diet is all that is needed to bring in the millennium. Perhaps there is truth in every one of these things, but there is much more outside of each one of them. In the myth, Phaeton, in his self confidence, thought he could drive the chariot of the sun. But he lost the sense of proportion. He neglected to keep the grand curve of the sky and his attempt ended in disaster. Thus those who overdrive one truth sometimes more harm than help the world. Unchecked, imagination becomes insanity. Untempered, will becomes tyrannous. Superstition is faith running into excess. A mystic says : "In heaven the cherubim know most; the seraphim love most." But every soul has its native cherubim and seraphim who know and love, and it is better that they keep within their own boundaries and not interfere with each other.

In religion there is a large place granted to be-lief; but there is also a large place for reason. A religious life should not tarry perpetually at either extreme. Like a pendulum, it should move freely from one wall of existence to the other. When tides sweep with all their force away from one shore they go without fear or regret, because they are assured that, having risen as high on the shores of another hemisphere, they will return whence they came. In the soul is a similar law of compensation. As we have learned to trust the law of nature which brings winter and summer, an equal confidence should be reposed in those spiritual laws which in turn give us reason and faith. Victor Hugo's hero says: "God knows what He is doing up among his great stars." Doubtless he knows just as well what he is doing down here upon earth. Thus we may be as free in our thought as we are in our faith, assured that between them there is no permanent contradiction, and in granting freedom to them there will come a better religion and a nobler life.

"Let knowledge grow from more to more,
And more of reverence in us dwell;
That mind and soul according well
May make one music as before
But vaster."

Assuming that reason is a natural and necessary endowment of mankind, it should be freely admitted to every department of human activity. It should be welcomed in religion no less than in agriculture. Wherever it goes it bears the royal seal and does not need to sue for right of way. Outside the walls of Canossa, Pope Hildebrand compelled Henry IV. of Germany to remain barefoot and in coarse garments standing in the snow. But no ecclesiastic can deny the right of the monarch called Reason to enter the gates of the church. Unlike Henry it comes, not supplicating for mercy, but demanding justice.

It seems strange that the church was ever afraid of common sense. Yet this is true. We can all remember when the pulpit and the religious press were full of denunciations or lamentations over the spread of rationalism. The impression was made that if reason came religion would go. Without doubt there are mysteries that the human mind cannot solve. But some of those things which were so jealously guarded against investigation were not too high or too deep for reason to solve. They were not super-reasonable. They were simply unreasonable.

Once there was a good excuse for religion to be irrational. It was in perfect harmony with its surroundings. It was only when its surroundings became more reasonable that its absurdities be-came so noticeable. When the early sacred books were composed many childish things were included in them. But they do not contain any more or greater absurdities than other literature of the same period. Their ideas of creation and the shape of earth were no more imperfect than those entertained by other nations on the same subject. The worship of the ancient Hebrews was no more puerile than their farming. They pictured God only as a greater man. He had all human passions. When he was offended he might be placated by making him presents. He made bargains in which he guarded his own interests with all the thrift and shrewdness which were characteristic of themselves. They believed in a God who was often cruel, who delighted in blood, and who changed his purpose if the inducement were strong enough. They believed that walking sticks could be turned into snakes ; that a staff instantly blossomed; and that the most sacred and awful of all mysteries was enclosed in a box which they carried with them from place to place. But while they were believing this of their God and their religion, they also believed that earth was flat; that the sky covered it like the roof of a tent, and that by going far enough its end would be reached. If their God was small it was because their world was small. A small kingdom did not require a great king. A God only a little greater than Saul or Solomon would be sufficient to govern a world that was not much larger than Judea.

Surrounding nations showed similar limitations. Their religion was as rational as their science. Greek priests were no more mistaken in their ideas about God than was Herodotus in his ideas about the source of the Nile and its annual over-flow. We can excuse the priests for their views of heaven when it is so necessary to excuse the philosophers for their views of earth. The men of science, equally with the men of religion, believed that far to the northward was a race of people who lived in perfect happiness. There was no sickness, no old age, no toil, no war, no sorrow. This blessed region was not in heaven, but on earth. Yet those learned men were as powerless or as careless to verify their beliefs concerning the happy Hyperboreans as were the men of religion to demonstrate the truth of their views concerning Olympus with its gods and goddesses. It would be useless to talk of the absurdities of religion in an age that accounted for the apparent southward movement of the sun in autumn by assuming the prevalence of a strong wind blowing from the north, believed earth ended at the pillars of Hercules, that insanity is caused by the moon, or that, when the sun is eclipsed, a monster is trying to eat it. The absurd in religion only appears when its surroundings are sensible.

Over all secular affairs a change has gradually come. For ages a court of reason has been in session. Before it nearly all the theories and practices of man have been summoned to appear. It sent out explorers and, returning, they have testified that there is no Hyperborean people, that there are no Fortunate Islands, no Hesperian Gar-dens, no Atlantis, no Sea of Darkness. Others have testified that earth is not a plain over which sun and moon pass, but a globe itself rolling through space. Some have declared that cruelty is not a necessary assistant in education. Others gave evidence that a despotism is not the best kind of government. Still others have testified against slavery and witchcraft and intemperance and all the follies and vices of the race.

Before this court traditional theology was brought. Thus much that was unreasonable has fallen away. With some wisdom in every thing else, there are many who disliked foolishness in their religion. Having given up belief in slavery and the sacrifice of animals, many can see no wrong in distrusting, as an infallible guide to con-duct, a book which recognizes the validity of such things. In everything recognizing the reign of law, it is necessary to conclude that the report of the sun having stopped in its course, or that the sea was instantly calmed by a word, or that the dead were brought back to life must be a mistake. As no human judge has a right to punish the innocent for the guilty, the inference is unavoidable that God has no right thus to do. Finding that in human affairs guilt and righteousness are never imputed, doubt was entertained concerning a plan of salvation based upon the imputation of man's guilt to Christ and Christ's righteousness to man.

Much has been said concerning the irreligion of the educated. The question is worthy of 'consideration as to what part of this assumed indifference is due to some inherent wickedness of the heart and what part is due to the refusal of religious teachers to rationalize their doctrines. Faith has not been represented as a noble attitude of the soul, a reposing in confidence upon the sanity and benevolence of the Creator resulting in the final well-being of the world. It has rather been reduced to a belief in the difficult and improbable. It was thought that to make a doctrine reasonable was to take away all its divineness. It was to re-duce it to human understanding, and no such con-cession to the natural man could be allowed. As much stress has been laid upon the stories of Moses and Daniel and Jonah as upon the Sermon on the Mount. He who doubted those stories was an unbeliever, an infidel deserving and certain to incur the wrath of God in this life and eternal pain in the life to come. When we consider the doctrine that God will damn one whose heart is good, but whose belief in an incredible thing is weak; the doctrine of total depravity ; the doctrine that Jesus was a sacrifice to satisfy the justice of God and divert his vengeance from the race; the doctrine that man was created to glorify God and that out of his sovereign will and to in-crease his glory he chose a few for heaven and permitted all the rest to suffer in an endless hell; when these doctrines are recalled and the urgency with which they have been presented is remembered, the wonder is not that so many, but that more thoughtful persons were not absent from the churches. Nothing but the recognition of a certain divine and necessary quality in religion itself could make them forgive the many errors committed in its name.

The invasion of reason in the sixteenth century was a great boon to the world. It transformed human knowledge. It called the mind away from abstract speculation and brought it into contact with the actual world. Its presence was felt in theology, and yet its triumph was only partial. Luther held that, compared with belief, reason is darkness. He said:

"We must not judge the Scriptures by reason; we must seek their meaning by prayer. When we find ourselves as-sailed by temptation we should lay hold of some text which the Bible extends to us. All natural faculties, such as reason and understanding, are pernicious when used by persons not pious."

These sentences sound trustful and religious, yet a little thought reveals that they are only partial statements of the real case. When the astronomers of that period reached their conclusions concerning the movement of earth, they did it without consulting the Scriptures. Their inferences were directly opposed to what the Scriptures were supposed to teach. These men were not pious as judged by the church authorities, but no one now thinks their use of reason was pernicious in its results. Franklin and Paine and Jefferson reasoned over the rights of mankind. Their theology was not in harmony with that of the church, but the results of their reasoning were beneficent. As-sailed by temptation, a heart might find some help in a text which the Scriptures would extend to it. But reason teaches the heart to make distinctions in seeking for texts of Scripture. The same book that furnishes texts to comfort the despondent and sustain the tempted is just as ready to furnish texts that favor slavery, permit polygamy and endorse the annihilation of enemies. The Bible still reaches out many gifts to us, but reason selects those that are valuable from those that are worth-less. It was by applied reason that Galileo and Kepler and Newton found the forces and laws of the stellar universe. Thus Watt found the use of steam. Thus Darwin found the principle of growth and expansion among plants and animals. It was thus republics were founded; and thus the rights of man were established. It is under similar guidance that religion becomes worthy of acceptance. The church may possess spiritual inspiration, but it must possess rational principles. Its old power of supremacy over the intellect and conscience is gone for many and will go for more. It can only gain assent by guiding man along the ways of noblest thinking. No longer can it meet his rational doubts with rack or flame as in more distant, nor with proscription nor with ridicule as in more recent times. If it gain his respect and his support, it will be by making its principles so rational and its promises so assuring that he will be glad to believe them. The popes were power-less to check thought about the movement of earth. English bishops and American doctors of divinity could not banish evolution as being the best method of accounting for the present condition of affairs. So no church can compel reason to re-treat. As from alchemy came chemistry, from astrology came astronomy, from sorcery came the science of therapeutics, so from an unreasonable, there is coming a reasonable theology. Superstition having gone it must stay away. Banished to Elba, Napoleon eluded his guards and returned to the empire. He remained a hundred days. Then his power all forsook him and he was banished perpetually. Thus there may be some temporary re-turns of superstition from exile. But finally it will go and return not. Reason will banish it to some St. Helena where it will find a grave.

The office of reason in religion is to exalt a few great principles found in the nature of things and to bring the soul in contact with the realities of truth and goodness. It is indifferent concerning the fate of the chariots and soldiers of Pharoah ; indifferent as to whether the sun and moon halted in their course at the command of Joshua; indifferent as to how the city of Jericho was captured. It cares nothing for sectarian quarrels, for modes of baptism, and whether prayers are read from a book or spoken from the heart. It only asks that man shall worship in great earnestness and sincerity; that he shall lay the foundations of character in truth and integrity; that he shall line his earthly pathway with good deeds and treasure hopes of a heaven farther along in the way he is going.

It is not expected that the intellect will solve all life's intricate problems. There are great solemn mysteries before which the strongest minds stand powerless. Reason does not ask permission to reduce the universe to a soulless machine; nor to explain thought and reverence by calling them a chemical process; nor to destroy a single hope in the tremulous heart of mankind. Its sole aim is to distinguish between the true and the false. It is not an enemy, but a friend to the thinking and worshiping race.

A reasonable Religion ! In its magnificent out-line and rich drapery it is beyond description. It is not founded upon a few texts taken from the scriptures of a single nation, but upon the broad and deep experience of humanity. Beneath it are the meditations of philosophers; the dreams of poets; the aspirations of saints; the untainted instincts of childhood; the love of motherhood; all the mystery and pathos of human life through its long and thrilling history. Its salvation is not an arbitrary reward for a certain form of belief, but a natural result following right action. Its hell is the pain that attends all wrong doing—the degradation, the inevitable sinking of the soul into lower and still lower conditions of being. Its heaven is the joy of right doing—the ascent, the enlarging of the soul making it worthy of communion with high and pure intelligences. The Being whom it worships is not the God of a local province alone, but of the universe—a Being filling the measureless immensities, and yet in every snow flake of winter and every blossom of spring; higher than the heights, deeper than the depths, farther than the farthest yet nearer than the nearest and the hum-blest may touch the hem of his flowing robe. It gathers to itself all truth, all good, all beauty; and whoso takes such a religion to his mind and heart already possesses the best that earth can give, and shall possess the best that any higher world may hold in store.

Might there not be such a religion? As of old still broods the Holy Spirit over the chaos into which the churches have fallen. May it not descend and call forth a new order and beauty? A church is fully possible in which there shall be lofty aspiration and profound thought. There the strongest intellect might find food and the fainting heart be sustained and cheered. Beholding the sovereignty of the ethical laws, of spiritual ideals, its preachers would be true prophets conveying messages from the Highest to the heart of man-kind. Taking counsel neither of tradition, nor of creed, nor of bishop, nor of book, they would follow the leadings of their own genius. Putting far from them all desire for praise, for fame, for popularity, they would be humble and reverent, sinking personality out of sight and glad to be nothing more than a voice if thereby hearts can be bet-ter won to righteousness. To them would come luminous moments. They would catch glimpses of things ineffable, indescribable. The walls of their churches would retreat until they became commensurate with the horizon; the ceilings would lift until, having taken the curve of the blue vault, nothing could shut out their view from the heaven of heavens.

Church of reason and reverence, of thought and love ! True temple of man and God ! When it comes its arguments will be unanswerable because they are founded upon the logic of necessity. Its prayers will be all the more divine because they are the natural outgoings of the soul toward the source of life and light and joy. It will gather to itself whatever is most needed for the highest welfare of man; and all who come within the sphere of its influence shall be attracted toward the All-Good as unerringly as flowers are drawn toward the sun and birds are won by the voice of spring.

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