The Practical In Religion
( Originally Published 1912 )
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified.-New Testament.
Religion relates to life, and the life of religion is to do good. Swedenborg.
In nature dualism is universal. The globe and the atom alike have their north and south poles, one of which attracts the other repels. Tides flow and ebb. The heart contracts and dilates. Wind is air in motion. All movement is force in action, and force is a new form of heat. Toil is only an-other shape of thought. Flowers are earth and sunshine becoming alive. Coal is imprisoned sun-beams and diamonds are a superfine coal—a prison with transparent walls through which the prisoners can come and go at will. Like a coin, every-thing has two faces, each with a different stamp, but indicating an equal value and each incomplete without the other.
Entering the arena of human thought and activity we are confronted by a similar dualism. There are equal parts of knowing and doing. Literally, theory is seeing what may be done and practice is doing what has been seen. Gold leaf can be made very thin; but, in the life of man, there is nothing so thin that these two sides do not appear. Always there is the side of thought, always the side of action. Whether it is in building a Parthenon or paving a street, making an Apollo or making a horseshoe, knowledge and action are both necessary. Surveying, navigation, medicine, law, government, exists as a theory and a practice. The first may be learned from books; the second can only be learned from personal experience.
In order of time, doubtless theory comes first. But it is no less true that it is completed by practice. There are now certain definite rules of art; but a glance at the imperfect pictures and statues of the more remote nations shows that a part of these rules have been evolved by the efforts of many succeeding generations before the finished art of Greece could appear. The power to give such enchantment to a mere plain surface, the law of perspective, the lines portraying the perfect human form—painting flowers and fruits so naturally that birds and bees hover over the picture, like Quentin Matsys, drawing and coloring a butterfly so accurately that a beholder tried to brush it from the canvas,—all this perfection of art must have come through a long series of attempts whose origin is concealed by distance.
The practical is the final test of the doctrinal. It is of no avail that we have a better formula for making steel unless we can actually produce better steel than is now on the market. You have a doctrine of perpetual motion; but can you construct a machine that will supply its own energy and run until it wears out ? How many have been hypothetically rich by investing in gold mines, on paper, who have been left actually poorer by the mine in the ground! Darius Green and his flying machine are a standing illustration of the discrepancy between doctrine and deed. The final question concerning everything that comes forward as a candidate for public favor is: "Of what use is it?" The answer to this irrevocably decides its fate. Never was inquisitor more relentless in decreeing a heretic to destruction, than is experience when passing judgment upon an impossible doctrine. To be useless is the unpardonable sin.
To theorize about life is not difficult. But will the theory account for all the rugged and persistent facts of life itself? Among his books, a student can learn the principles of navigation. He can sail a ship over an imaginary ocean. But, having found the latitude and longitude of his study, could he find his place as confidently on the bridge of a plunging ship with a tempestuous sky above; a weltering waste around, and the safety of a thousand persons depending upon the results of his calculations? With their hypothetical cases books and schools of medicine are valuable; but the bed-side of actual suffering reveals whether or not the student has become a physician. Law may be learned in an office; but the court room is a good instructor. Theology can be acquired in a seminary; but the world tries its value. Many a young preacher discovers that, if he would become useful to actual human beings, he must either abjure of remain silent concerning many doctrines that once were dear to him as containing the solution of all things. They no longer meet the exigencies and difficulties of real life. He casts them out of his mind because they have become useless.
Like individuals, nations have certain characteristics and tendencies. In the far east and in remote times India was theoretical and speculative. China was practical and prosaic. The one was nearly all mind; the other hands and feet. Later, a similar diversity appeared between Greece and Rome. One was the home of philosophy; the other of power applied to things. One conquered by thought, the other by armies. Inheriting from both of them, the Christian empire sometimes displayed the genius of one, sometimes of the other. Its theology was Greek, its organization was Roman. As a result, a colossal creed and a complex government were substituted for the religion of Christ with its simple trust and tender humanities. On the theological side everything became an object of speculation. The being of God was reduced to a formula. With great exactness the nature and office of each of the three persons composing the Trinity were described. Heaven and hell were accurately surveyed by these philosophers. Those who could tell nothing of an actual western hemisphere knew all about an assumed region above the clouds and one beneath the surface of the earth. Doctrines of creation, of Divine decrees and foreknowledge, of the origin and nature and punishment of sin, of the changing of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ were formed and taught with unbounded confidence. That speculative age knew whether Christ possessed one or two wills; it knew that he was eternally begotten and how a son could be as old as his father; it knew whether the halo around his head was made of created or uncreated light; it knew whether angels could appear at widely separated places without passing through the intermediate distance ; it knew whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father or the Son or from both Father and Son.
Thus came an age of darkness. A dense cloud of useless doctrines obscured the whole sky of religion. The pure morals, the self-denials, the devotion to duty, and the trust and patience and helpfulness which distinguished Christ and endeared him to mankind were hidden behind the cloud. Many, who, otherwise, might have crossed earth cheered by sight of a resplendent sky were saddened by the overhanging gloom.
Finally the scene changed. The scientific method was applied to nature. The mind was turned away from the remote and abstract to the near and concrete. Vague theories declined and the practical began to rise. Out of that new method of investigation came many and great advances. The borders of actual knowledge were enlarged. Continents, hitherto unknown, were discovered and explored. A new route was found to India and the world was circumnavigated. Thence came the art of printing and the steam engine. From it emerged a new literature and a reformed religion. Out of the collision between the old theories and the awakened intellect came Puritanism, Presbyterianism, trans-Atlantic Emigrations, and, finally, an American Republic. For four hundred years the' work of destroying the useless has gone forward.
Religion has shared in this general process. A close inspection of the churches might reveal the fact that they are still encumbered with some things which could be spared. But, by comparison with former ages, the number of useless things is very small. They are as an ant-hill to a mountain. Not only many of the foolish speculations of the middle-ages, but some theorizing of later date has been quietly dropped by the way. As illustration of the subject and the style of theorizing indulged in by one theologian let us read this page from an old book: "Let us see, then, thou soul of man, whether present time can be long, for to thee it is given to measure length of time. What wilt thou answer me? Are a hundred years when present a long time? See first whether a hundred years can be present. For if the first of these years be now passing it is present, but the other ninety and nine are yet to come; therefore they are not in existence. But if the second year is now present their beginning is now past and ninety-eight have not yet come. And so if we assume that this is the middle year of the hundred, then all before it are past, and all the others are yet to come. Wherefore, O soul, a whole hundred years cannot be present at one time."
Not only have modern theologians abandoned such subjects and such useless speculations over them, but they have abandoned some things once considered of importance by those who lived much nearer than St. Augustine. There are very few Calvinistic churches in which Calvinism is preached. Jonathan Edwards was the greatest theologian the Congregational churches of this country ever produced. He was a man of great power in the pulpit. But if he were to reappear with his doctrines unchanged, with all his logical power and nobility of character and fervid eloquence he could not get a call to any Congregational Church in the United States. The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that at death "the souls of the wicked are cast into hell where they remain in torments and darkness." But this use-loving age has compelled the churches founded upon the Confession of Faith to modify their views of future punishment. Nearly all worshipers in these churches hold to some form of punishment that will finally restore the erring to ways of righteousness. Similar treatment has been accorded to all the inherited doctrines. An eastern sage says:
"The reason I hate holding to one point alone is the harm it does to principle. Taking up one point it disregards a hundred others."
That is one reason why our times are forsaking some of those doctrines which former times held with so much firmness. In holding to one useless theory, the church has often disregarded a hundred useful practices.
It is not against creeds in themselves that hostility is directed. It is against the quality of their contents and the fact that their quantity is out of all proportion to their use that our times are maintaining an unfriendly attitude. Nature is not asked to produce a floral world regardless of rain and sun and soil. So it is not expected that religion will act independently of the law of its being. Religious doctrines sustain the same relation to religious living that mechanical doctrines sustain to the building of a bridge. We do not expect an engineer to bridge a river by emotion or by random joining of materials without regard to the creed of mechanical construction. Neither can religion throw its graceful arch across life without any regard to method. But the difficulty with the theologians has been that the method was often so abstract or complex that the actual building never was done. Religion is so essentially a life that any speculation over the unknown or the non-essential which delays this result should be cast to one side.
The demand of the whole earth in religion can be expressed in a few plain words,—an upright and holy life. For us the best illustration of this kind of religion is Jesus Christ. With such a piety as example and then inwrought in his own being man's present and future can only be one wide field of usefulness and blessedness. To accomplish this, only a few plain rules and an earnest heart are needed. There may be perplexity over many questions, but no one need be long in doubt as to the kind of life he should live during his earthly sojourn. It may be a question for debate as to how much of it came by original insight and how much of it came by the long tortuous path of experience, but the sense of duty has so stamped itself upon the heart that its actual presence has long since ceased to be a thing for discussion. Excellent persons may differ in their opinions concerning the being of Deity or inspiration or atonement, but all are agreed as to the practical value of temperance and honesty and purity. There may be diverse theories concerning the personality of Jesus, but there is harmony of belief concerning the beauty of his moral teaching. Nearly all the so-called skeptics, from Voltaire onward, have confessed that, however irrational the theology and however cruel the deeds of the Christian church may have been, its Founder was above all reproach. Voltaire called the church a "great infamy; but of Christ he said: His example is holy, his precepts divine." Mr. Ingersoll said: "My quarrel is with the theologians, not with Christ." Whether knowledge or faith is man's best friend may awaken debate. But, while a few philosophers are discussing that question, the multitude may simply go on their way gaining all possible knowledge, exercising all possible confidence in the method of Providence, and reaping all the blessings that grow from that way of living. Once it was thought a matter of great importance to know whether, in the plan of salvation, belief or regeneration came first in order of time. The Calvinist asked: How can a soul believe unless it is first regenerated?" The Arminian asked: 'How can a soul be regenerated unless it first believes?" Volume after volume has been written to answer these questions. The disciples of a practical religion regard it as a matter of not the slightest importance in what order belief and regeneration come to life. They are content if they can have some hours of trust mingled with their hours of misgiving and, at times, are conscious of a power stronger and sweeter than their own inspiring and guiding them. Once we were told that there are several kinds of inspiration and there was perplexity concerning which one was best. Na person need be troubled concerning any of them. That which is of far more importance is that every soul receive some form of actual inspiration that will sustain it and prevent life from sinking to the low level of expediency and becoming the slave of circumstances. The same thing may be said of the different doctrines of atonement. To see that the final lesson of all love is the giving of self for others, that there is no nobler music than the soul's chant of renunciation of all private aims for a universal good, and that the divine pity flows through human hearts,—seeing this, and making it into our own actual lives, is worth more than speculation over the truthfulness or falsity of any elaborate scheme of historic atonement. A practical religion cares no more for the mere authorship of the Pentateuch than for the authorship of the Letters of Junius or the poems of Ossian. Hundreds of volumes have been written concerning the origin and nature of sin. A real religion has nothing to do with this age-long debate. He who places a noble life above a disputed creed need only say: "How this moral defection came into the human race, I know not. But this I know,—that I must obey the sense of right doing found within my own soul. Upon me a divine obligation is placed. I shall not try to evade it. In a universe where suns and seasons are loyal, I will not be rebel and outlaw." While theologians are debating about future re-wards and penalties, the wisest are they who are every day trying to march away from all present evil toward present goodness and they are most religious who are doing most to make earth less like hell and more like heaven.
When Jesus said: "By their fruits ye shall know them" he was thinking of religious teachers. But the same test may be applied to creeds. If all who accepted one set of doctrines concerning the unknown were good people and all who accepted another set were bad, the question would be instantly settled. But such is not the case. When Macaulay was writing his essay on Barre he set forth the fact that there was scarcely any vice of which the Frenchman was not guilty. Near the close of the article the writer says :
"As we think that whatever brings dishonor on religion is a serious evil we had, We own, indulged a hope that Barére was an atheist. We now learn however that he was at no time even a sceptic, that he adhered to his faith throughout the whole Revolution, and that he has left several manuscript works on divinity."
Thus an orthodox creed and an ignoble life met in the same person.
The best religion is not necessarily that one with the greatest number of doctrines to be believed, but with the greatest number of duties to be done. It was said in praise of Christ that he went about doing good. When the young man came asking how he might merit eternal life, Jesus did not tell him what doctrines to believe, but what duties to perform. When we are seeking for the meaning of his religion shall we go to the theologians or to Christ himself?
As illustrating the practical in religion these simple verses may be recalled:
"His charity was like the snow,
He put his trust in heaven, and he
What was his creed
In religion there is room for the intellect to expand and ascend. There are truths which, clear and cold like the Alps, rise far into the upper air and challenge every adventurous traveler to scale their summits. Lying between these great mountain ranges are rich valleys. But reaching far away from mountain and valley is a vast plain. A few of earth's millions may ascend the mountains. A few more may tarry in the valleys. But it is upon the great. common plain the multitudes are found. Here is the moral battle field where victories are won and defeats are suffered. Here is where the real problems of life are encountered and here they must be solved. Here wealth and want, glory and shame, kindness and cruelty, learning and ignorance, virtue and vice grow side by side. It is here, therefore, that whatever of helpfulness and courage and hope there is in religion must manifest itself.
Thus to breadth and reasonableness there is joined the practical in religion. It is related to the life that now is. For us its central figure and example is Jesus of Nazareth. Its duties are many and valuable to mankind. Its aim is personal righteousness; its motive is admiration for moral ideals; its reward is the happiness that follows the consciousness of right doing. Such a religion cannot fail to make better mankind on earth nor be a good preparation for whatever opportunities may be offered when earth is left behind.