A Religion Of Principles
( Originally Published 1912 )
Till we all come into the unity of faith, that we be no longer children tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine. -PAUL.
The writer of this sentence was not only an ardent reformer, but he was also in part a philosopher. Beneath all variations, he saw a fundamental unity. That which he saw in religion, nearly five centuries earlier, Xenophanes had seen in nature. He was the first to maintain the oneness of the universe. As he saw that all the many forms of things are manifestations of one Being, so Paul traces all forms of religious activity to a central source. Coming from one cause, they tend to one end,—the perfection of character. There may be many leaders, but there is one Lord; many beliefs, but one faith; many worshippers, but me God; many rituals, but one righteousness. Making his life correspond with his philosophy, he became broad and all-inclusive in his interpretation of Christianity. His writings abound with admonitions to Christians to forsake the partial for the universal; to abandon those mere rites and opinions which separated them into warring parties and espouse the central and essential principle of religion which would unite them.
To show how just were his methods and conclusions it is only necessary to compare them with those employed by thinkers in our period in every department of knowledge. Everywhere the course is from many facts and phenomena to one law that explains them. One of the most important steps in forming a science is that of classification. It is the grouping of many details and covering them by one principle.
Our modern botany came in this manner. In all ages of man's history there were those who saw the myriad plants of earth growing many formed, many colored and many perfumed, all the way from the humblest mosses and grasses to the cedars of Lebanon and the pines of Norway. Names were given them in part describing their qualities and uses. But this knowledge was imperfect and confusing until Linnaeus and others came and divided all the thousands of plants into genera and species. Many of the diversities that had been so perplexing to the observer were all explained. They were only variations of one principle. Thus a science was formed of that which before had been scattered and unrelated information.
Chemistry has a similar history. The ancients could only find four elements. These were earth, air, fire, and water. Observation and analysis went on until more than sixty substances were discovered. Yet these are all related to each other and are largely traceable to a common source. Not very long since it was discovered that earth and sun and stars are composed of the same kind of material and one cause produced them. Thus their differences are apparent and superficial; their identity is real and fundamental, Astronomy has followed the same course. At one time earth was regarded as a plain. The sky was the lower side of a glass-like dome across which sun and stars traveled. Homer speaks of a golden chain by which worlds are suspended. Gradually these views were found inadequate. Homer's golden chain could not be seen and some other support must be found for the worlds. Finally Newton came and, rising far above all his predecessors, discovered the laws of gravitation which accounted for all the confusing phenomena. These laws were rightly named "Principia" because their efficiency seemed to be undoubted. They are first principles because they are at the foundation of the whole science of astonomy and beyond them the mind cannot go in its search for the truths of gravitation.
Herbert Spencer calls the great work, to which he has devoted his life, Synthetic Philosophy. It is the effort to arrange all the known facts of the universe under one law of evolution. In tracing all the streams of power he finds them emerging from one source which he calls the Infinite and Eternal Energy. Beneath all the myriad appearance of things he places one substance, as under all forms of plant life there rests a common soil out of which they grow. Entering the domain of thought and conduct he affirms that the different forms of moral action emanate from one kind of source. The reasons of moral actions are named "abstract ethical necessities."
These illustrations lead us back to the place of starting. They compel us to agree with the Apostle that, lying under all forms of belief, there is one original, indivisible, indestructible faith. They also awaken the inquiry as to why this does not meet with more general and more hospitable recognition on the part of those having in charge the administration of religion. If government has been gradually detaching itself from many small enactments, freeing itself from the changeable will of some weak or despotic ruler, and has reached an era in which it is the expression of a few great permanent truths, as science has flung away many imperfect and useless opinions concerning the shape of the earth and its place in the universe, so it would seem nothing more than reasonable for religion to act in a similar manner. It would surely be a gainer if it should consent to throw off many of its unimportant rites and dogmas that it might more rapidly journey toward the place where a few great and eternal principles hold sway. In the story of the Day of Pentecost each group of strangers heard its own language spoken. Jews, Greeks, Romans and Arabians were taught in their mother-tongue. The diversity was only in the form and sound of the words. The same meaning came to all the listeners, for the speakers all had the same message to declare and all were informed by the same spirit.
Thus if all the divergent parties of Christianity would pause for a while and listen that ancient miracle would be repeated. Each one might, indeed, hear its own language spoken, but to all the message would be the same.
There are many baptisms, but only one true Baptism. It is a baptism of which water in any form is, at best, only a symbol. It is the submerging, the penetrating of life by a holy Influence that exalts and purifies. There aire many articles of belief, but only one essential Faith. It is nothing less than a surrender of the soul to the benign, all-enfolding, all-sustaining laws that uphold and guide the worlds, bringing the seasons in their order, giving greenness to the grass, redness to the rose, and planting such marvelous thoughts and emotions in the brain and heart of every mortal. There are gods many; but over all the small deities made by the hand or mind of man is one God. It is the superpersonal, the indescribable Power which, acting through ages and through moments, steadily uplifts all things and carries them toward a destiny that is divine.
Taking up any one of the church doctrines and it will be seen, as generally held, that the principle out of which it springs is much larger and much more useful than the doctrine itself. Granting that there is something real in the world that corresponds with the term inspiration and that, in a peculiar way, it belongs to religion, the singular admission must be made that it has been and still is more a hindrance than a help to the race in its religious unfolding. Ordained to be a source of life, it became a source of , death. As a source of life it seemed to be the streaming into the soul, as if from some superior source, of a kind of sacred warmth and light, awakening lofty thoughts and emotions and revealing things that otherwise would have remained concealed. It became cause of stagnation and death when it was assumed by theologians that the sacred influence was all confined to one land, one time, and one class of men. To assume that inspiration is limited by time or place is as great an error as to assume that the sunshine falling upon Palestine in the far past alone possessed any light and warmth. Human thought, human love and human aspiration are universal. Thus it is absurd to regard that which was devised and decreed at Jerusalem as having any value above the conclusions reached by men of equal mental and moral and spiritual power in other places. It seems strange that what the former decided to be true should be regarded as sacred and the decisions of the latter should be regarded as profane; that the one was given absolute authority over intellect and conscience and whatever discoveries were made by living men must conform to the discoveries made by men who had long been in their graves.
Galileo was arrested and condemned for teaching that the earth and not the sun moves, This was not because his teaching was not true, but because the inspired record did not thus teach. It was because the truth concerning the stars he had discovered in his lonely tower on the Tuscan hill did not fully harmonize with that which the church believed. It did not occur to the churchmen that it would be a good thing to examine into the truth of their own beliefs before condemning those held by others. That they were different was enough to condemn them. Witches were put to death because the Bible says that they should not be suffered to live. Even as wise and good a man as John Wesley could not free himself from such superstition. These sentences are copied from his published works:
"It is true that most of the learned men of Europe have given up all account of witches as old wives' fables. I am sorry for it. And I enter my solemn protest against this violent compliment which so many that believe the Bible pay to those who do not believe it. They well know that the giving up of witch-craft is in effect giving up the Bible."
To the same effect Sir Thomas Brown wrote thus:
"I have ever believed in witches and now believe in them, and those who deny them are infidels and atheists."
Neither of these men would have held such beliefs but for the extraordinary authority given to the Bible above all other writings. Many have been put to death as heretics, often, not because either the persecutors or the persecuted had any absolute knowledge of the truth in dispute, but simply because the former had the weight of authority on their side. When Servetus was in the flames he cried out: "Jesus, Son of the eternal God, have mercy upon me!" Thereupon one of his theological executioners called out to him: "Mend thy last word. If thou wouldst save thyself, call on Jesus the eternal Son of God. Thus a noble man was made to suffer torture and death because according to the theory held by Calvin and his fellow executioners he misplaced an adjective. It was a matter over which there could not be absolute certainty. No one knew then, no one knows now whether Jesus is more accurately described by calling him the eternal Son of God or Son of the eternal God, Hence there should have been then, and there should be now, silence and humility over the whole subject. A discussion of the subject now leading to separations and bitter alienations, to say nothing of persecution and murder in former times, is far remote from religion itself. It has no more to do with worship and holy living than has any disputed theory of light or sound or the connection between matter and mind. Servetus was just as learned and noble as those who burned him. Nor is it possible, from their moral character, in any modern community to separate those persons whose views of the Trinity are more nearly in harmony with his from those whose views more nearly coincide with the views of Calvin his theological opponent and executioner. The main difference between them is one of authority. In our days those who have been expelled from their denominations for heretical beliefs were often as deeply religious as those who expelled them. Some of them have been earnest apostles of righteousness and love and hope. Not long since a great denomination suspended a teacher in one of its colleges because he was teaching his pupils that the world was created by a long process of evolution instead of by an instaneous act. Those who dismissed him of course knew no more upon the subject than the professor himself. The only difference was that their opinions were old and established and possessed the power of authority. His were recent, unorganized and had nothing but human reason to recommend them. The silenced professor was a good man ; he was a scholar; he was a competent instructor; he believed in God and Christ. The fatal defect was, he was an evolutionist. He could not be left to teach science with truth for his authority. He had to consult the theologians before he could know what was lawful to be taught. Thus the theory of a merely historic inspiration, as held by the church, has not only arrested its own development, but it has partially barred the progress of many other things. Instead of being wings to waft man upward, it has sometimes been a prison to confine him.
One of the strange things attending the entire history of the church is that the bitterest conflicts have not been waged over great moral and spiritual principles, but over small, unessential rites and opinions. The Sermon on the Mount has not separated the religious multitude into hostile camps. There is no difference among good people as to whether nations and individuals should incorporate justice in all their acts. There is as substantial agreement in that as there is concerning the law of gravitation. Such is the construction of the world and the human mind that belief in a creator is almost universal. No one denies the moral and spiritual excellence of Christ. The hope of eternal existence has been treasured by nearly all hearts. Thus there is a great common field in which all religious persons may assemble in perfect peace.
But, in addition to these universal beliefs, each sect holds many opinions peculiar to itself, and commits the error of making them seem as important as the principles of religion. All mathematicians agree that the three angles of every triangle are equal to two right angles. What should we think of one who came forward with the statement that the three angles equal one right angle and endowed a school for the sole purpose of teaching his opinion? He would either awaken pity or laughter. Yet this is a partial illustration of what has been done in religion. The denominations are founded upon differences of opinion, many of which opinions, if not as absurd, are as poorly founded in reason and as useless as that of the dissenting mathematician concerning the properties of a triangle. There have been no quarrels over the golden rule as enunciated by Christ or the sovereignty of love as enunciated by Paul. They have all been over the five points of Calvinism; or the form and meaning of a sacrament; or church government; or the time of keeping Easter; or whether prayers should be read from a book or extemporized by the heart; or apostolic succession; or the real presence of God in a sacramental wafer. These differences nearly all belong to the past. It will be a blessed day for religion when they all be-long there.
A glance at the origins of Christianity fully reveals the sovereignty of principle over opinion and character over creed. Jesus reduced all that the prophets had uttered and all the rites of the ceremonial law to the one sentiment of love for God and man. Paul constantly exhorted the early Christians to place little stress upon customs and much upon spiritual convictions. It would be well for the churches all to return to the genius and teaching of the founders of their religion. Permitting many of their small dogmas to pass out of sight, the great principles of God as Creator of the universe and friend of man, the principle of human brotherhood, of duty, of a Christ-like devotion to the noblest interests of the world might appear in their true form and color upon the mighty arena of human history.
Doubtless there are many things in life to awaken debate. There are problems admitting of different answers. Hence there is always need for toleration and kindness and patience. But we should not for-get that many of the questions over which theologians wrangle have nothing to do with the essentials of religion. It would be a satisfaction to know which theory of light transmission is nearest the truth; but ignorance of the absolutely correct theory causes no serious embarassment. Every one rejoices that, by some unerring law, light does actually fly across all vast space, reaches our earth and leaves nothing uncheered by its presence. Thus there are many theories about inspiration and God and Christ and immortality. No one can be sure that his opinion of these things is absolutely correct. But this need not make lasting enmity among those who hold divergent views. Each mortal should be left in peace. He should be permitted to go forward gaining for himself all the inspiration possible, thinking his greatest thoughts about God, endeavoring to reach the spiritual stature of Christ and rejoicing in his hope of a never ending life.
Looking upon the world, how amazing the out-spread scene! Behold more than a thousand million of human beings moving across the earth. Behind them lies the same impressive past; before them lies the same mysterious future. Many things separate them. Race, government, education, temperament, color and wealth have divided them into classes. But above these differences we need to hear a voice as if from heaven proclaiming that these hosts are one. They walk on the same earth, under the same sky and are warmed by the same sun. One are their hopes, one their fears. For all there is one faith; for all one God; for all one death; for all one hope of something beyond the grave. Hearing this voice, all barriers of sect should crumble, all enmities cease, and peace declared in the name of a triumph of principles.
Detaching religion from all small things it be-comes worthy of profoundest regard. It may be seen as a reaching out toward the light in the early races of the old fore-world. It may be seen bursting into poetry in the hymns of the Aryans and the psalms of the Hebrews. Later it flamed forth as spirituality in a Christ, broke into eloquence in Paul and became a heroism and devotion in millions of nameless saints and martyrs. It is an upward impulse; a noble life philosophy; an interpreter of existence; an incentive to duty; a source of courage and imperishable hope.
Leaving behind the mere accidents of religion and carrying forward only its principles, may the Christian world soon reach the condition which the far off Apostle called the unity of faith. May it cast out of its heart all prejudices, all hatreds and all small alienating opinions and treasure only those principles that are wide as earth, high as heaven and old as time. It is belief in them that gives strength through the day of life, drives away all dread of the night, and predicts the supreme felicity of the radiant Tomorrow.