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The Aim Of Religion

( Originally Published 1912 )

A highway shall be there and it shall be called the way of holiness. Isaiah.

The philosophers tell us that, in order to produce anything, four distinct influences are necessary. In making a world or in making a flower four causes are present. The first of these is the efficient cause; or that which is the principal force in the production of an object. The second is the formal cause; or the shape which the object may take. The third is the material cause; or that out of which the object is made. The fourth is the final cause; or the aim intended in its construction.

This necessity is present, not only in the material, but it is found in the moral world. Religion is produced by some influence residing in the human soul. It is made out of the thoughts and emotions which arise in the soul when it contemplates the universe and its creator. It always appears in some more or less definite form. It also exists for a purpose.

Let us select the last of these causes for our morning study.

In the world of nature there seems to be such adaptation between the eye and light, the ear and sound, the wing and air, and the fin and water that it has been inferred they were expressly created for each other. Yet there are those who insist that this arrangement was temporary and progressive. The fin which, at best, could only beat the water was on the way to become a hand which, guided by a finer brain, would be put to higher uses. It would at last become an instrument that could sweep the strings of a harp, chisel an Apollo, paint a Madonna, write an Iliad, build an engine, and, in thousand ways, minis-ter to use and beauty and goodness. The eye was not made at one cast. It grew. Through many ages it developed until, from being a mere organ of sight to guide its possessor, it at last allied itself with a soul that can rejoice in the marvelous beauty of the universe and can find the most common things replete with sacred omens. The ear was, at first, only a sensory nerve by which the vibratory shocks of disturbed air reached the brain. In time it became so highly developed, so sensitive, and so exact that it was able to select some sounds from others and weave them into harmonies for its delight.

Perhaps the end has not yet been reached; for the eye and ear are still incomplete. It is said that the eye is only able to utilize one third of all the rays of light that reach it and the ear is powerless to detect vibrations of the air when they reach a high degree of rapidity. The suggestion comes to us of a condition in which eye and ear might possibly see and hear a world of beauty and harmony of which now only occasional glimpses are beheld and wandering strains are heard. Progression may be without limit.

But, while all things may be rudimentary and on their way to a higher use, they subserve some end in whatever stage they are found. By the attrition of frost and rain and air, the rocks are on their way to pulverization and the formation of soil; but the builder is glad that all have not yet reached that condition. In their present form they are very useful. The vast vegetable growths of the age preceding the carboniferous era became the coal deposits of the world. That seemed to be the object of their growth; and yet those gigantic ferns and cone bearing trees served a present purpose. They influenced the atmosphere and helped determine the rainfall while they were growing in dense and tangled luxuriance. The same is true of all things. A reason for their existence may be found in the fact that they do exist.

In thinking about religion the conclusion is reached that, whatever its origin may have been, it exists for use. Through all its many forms a purpose seems to run. Its doctrines have changed many times; but beneath all its mutable forms there is an enduring quality. Its aim is nothing less than the welfare of mankind.

That theories of religion undergo many changes is nothing against religion itself. The forms of philosophy and science have been attended by as many and as great variations. Theology has changed no more than chemistry or geology or astronomy, As all the world has modified its views concerning the composition of air and water and the nature of fire, modified its views concerning the structure of the earth and the movement of the stars without loosing faith in the constancy of natural law, so it ought to be able to modify its views concerning the character of God or the soul or the bible or sin or the future without losing faith in the power and constancy of moral and spiritual laws. Chemistry does not exist for the sake of the theory. It exists for the sake of the world. So it may be emphasized that religion does not exist for the sake of what man may think about it. It exists for the sake of man himself. In these days of changing opinions, dissolving doctrines, and perplexity in belief, it is well to keep the near and practical aim of religion in plain view. There are some things which awaken no debate and no doubt. Long before New-ton discovered the true principle of gravitation its practical meaning was fully understood. No one built his mill above the spring; or tried to erect his house in the air; or thought it safe to leap over a precipice. The world learned practical, long before it learned philosophical gravitation. Long before chemistry became a science, man had learned to distinguish between food and poison. Long before the laws of astronomy were discovered, before science had mapped out the sky, located the track of each star and published a time-table of the universe, man had adjusted his life in accordance with the movements of sun and star. He slept at night, sheltered himself from heat and cold, arranged his work with reference to the seasons, and knew the time for sowing and reaping. He had learned the inconvenience of hunger, of over-crowded population, of poverty, of disease, although no books had ever been printed upon those subjects and no academy of science had ever debated them. Experience had been their sufficient teacher.

It is not otherwise in religion. Duty comes first; afterward comes the doctrine. As no law of water or fire or steam was violated with impunity, even though there was ignorance of their philosophy, so the religious sentiment should be obeyed though there may be doubt as to its origin. While the mind may be in much perplexity over the nature of God, the philosophy of prayer, and the doctrine of the future life, there can be no doubt that man's attitude toward God should be reverent; there should be hours of spiritual exaltation; and the present life should be pure and honest. There may be honest difference of opinion among the Presbyterians as to what ought to be done with their creed, but there should be great unanimity of opinion among them as to the quality of their actual lives. Theology may be something to be debated; religion is something to be lived. The one is a philosophy; the other is a life.

Those who have religion in their formal keeping should never loose sight of this distinction. The main emphasis should be placed upon its power to influence life. Its commanding purpose should be always prominent. However wonderful may be its past records, however intense the joys of its historic saints, however virtuous and brave its former saviors and heroes will not avail unless equally beneficial results appear in the present. That it transformed character in the past is not enough. It must be able to transform it in these days. We distrust all reports of what it did for Paul and Augustine unless it can be repeated in our generation. The best proof of the divinity of Christ would the divineness of Christians.

If religion expects to command the loyalty of these and the coming years it must have a high purpose and an unslumbering enthusiasm to realize it in actual life. Its results should appear in civilization as something real and tangible. The kingdom of God must be as visible as a political kingdom. The high-way of holiness ought to be as distinct as was the old Appian way over which Rome's legions thundered on their way to conquest. If its claims can be indefinitely postponed without damage to life, if a list of virtues is of less importance than a list of stock quotations, if its aim is so unrelated to life that it is something distant and shadowy as the dream of a dream, if it could wholly disappear from human society without being missed, then religion is either belated in the world and should be dismissed to the world of shades or there is something wrong with the age to which it thus appears.

In its true meaning, however, there is nothing more necessary to the highest welfare of society than this sentiment. It can only be a misfortune when it comes to be regarded of little importance. Perhaps the churches are to blame, in part, for the indifference of the many toward religion. They, themselves, have partly lost sight of that for which they exist. But as we do not estimate the world wide beauty by what the conventional schools of art or music may hold concerning it nor measure the capacity of the soul by what a college may confer, so we should not estimate the world wide, the unfathomable sense of right by what a church may hold concerning it. The churches are only incidents in the great case. Some are only fossil remains of the religious spirit showing what it once was, but not what it is. It cannot be denied that a certain interest attaches to them, but it is the interest of the cabinet and the library, not that of real life. A certain beauty, too, is theirs; but it is the beauty of the seashell, where life once was, and not that of the rose where life now is.

We should think of religion as something vital, organic, and indispensable to life. It is to be feared that the tendency is to regard it as something accidental, external, and optional. It should be regarded as a powerful inner impulse awakening the soul to a sense of its responsibility, revealing its sacred endowments, rebuking its lower aims and winning or driving it toward the Perfect. Is it so regarded ? It is to be feared that it is more regarded as a form to be decorously observed upon stated-occasions and as at once a means and an endorsement of social standing. It is patronized by some just as they patronize art. If the art gallery and the public library were burned, some would feel a temporary sense of loss and inconvenience, but they would recover from it. Many would not miss them at all. Something similar would occur if the churches were destroyed. There are thousands of our population who would not be lo THE AIM OF RELIGION.

conscious of any loss. All except a few would soon reconcile themselves to the change, so slight a hold do the churches have upon the lives of people at large. As popularly esteemed, religion is one of the fine arts preserved in the churches; and the price of admission is so high that not many can afford to enjoy it.

This is all wrong. Religion is not an accident of life; it is an essential. We cannot too quickly learn that it is not a luxury to be enjoyed by the few, but a necessity which must be the common possession of all. As bread, as fire, as shelter is to the body, so is it to the soul. If, in a low sense, we have made it a commercial thing, now, in a high sense, we should make it one of the valuable commodities of life. The work of the churches is not to perpetuate their theology and their ceremonials. It is not to determine social caste in the community nor confer respectability. Neither is it to maintain a system of exchange between things secular and things sacred and become a clearing house for preaching and pew-rents.

In its true meaning and adjustment, religion has a power over life which can hardly be measured. Its value cannot be overestimated. Could its true meaning be fully realized, could it come in direct and vital contact with society, what changes would appear! Life would become more real, more earnest, more up-ward striving. Indifference, scepticism concerning the things of the spirit would gradually disappear. Moral cowardice would retreat before moral heroism. Humanity would wheel into line and advance in a new direction, keeping step to a nobler music,— to that by which the seasons march, rivers flow in their channels, and the planets roll in their orbits.

Living in the midst of much mental turmoil concerning church doctrines we may steady our minds and quiet the tumult in our hearts by conceiving the aim of religion. It is to enable man to complete his existence. By it he fulfills his destiny ;—cleansing his nature, refining his desires, and giving a noble direction to all his impulses, he first fulfills his earthly destiny, well assured that thus he is on his way to whatever higher destiny the boundless future may hold in store.

It is the actual realization of religion in conduct which sometimes exalts those of little belief above those who think they have great belief. The Antonines, the Franklins, the Jeffersons, the Lincoln on one side and, on the other side, Phillip II, Henry VIII, Catherine De Medici, and thousands belonging to each class whose names never appeared in history, show how vain it is to accept a form of religion and omit its real meaning. One would better be an unbeliever, and be a good character, than be a great believer and be selfish and cruel and dishonest. Perhaps God loves a noble atheist more than He does a mean Christian.

Encountering an angel, in his journey to Paradise, Dante asked him if one who had never been baptized nor believed in Christ, but who had lived a pure life, would be excluded from heaven. This is the form of the question:

"A man
Is born on Indus-bank and none is there
Who speaks of Christ, nor who doth read or write,
Yet all his inclinations and his acts,
As far as human reason sees, are good,
And he offendeth not in word or deed,
But, unbaptized he dies, and void of faith:
Where is the justice that condemns him ?
Where his blame if he believeth not?"

Thus the angel answers:

"Of those who say Christ! Christ!
There shall be many found,
In judgment, farther off from him by far
Than such to whom his name was never known. "

The answer possesses a two fold merit: It ac-cords well with human reason and the sense of justice; and it is an almost exact reproduction of the ideas of Christ himself. Thus reason and the bible unite to enforce the lesson that, not what we profess, but what we are, opens or closes the gates of Paradise.

What is the enemy the church has most need to fear ? We know what it is not. It is not that science which has destroyed the old beliefs about the method of creation. It is not that scholarship which has sifted the true from the false in the Hebrew Scriptures. Neither is it that rationalism which has made impossible the old views concerning prayer and prophecy. Not any of these, but the distance between its profession and its practice is its greatest foe. Every year there are able defences of Christianity. Perhaps they have their use, but they always leave something to be de-sired. It is not difficult to recall a Christianity that needs no defence. Its statement would refute all objections. No one would oppose a religion whose sole aim is to make human beings better and happier while they live on earth and give them the hope of still more goodness and happiness in heaven. Truth that becomes life is alone valuable. Churches and doctrines are neccessary, but they are only a means to end. Sad is that time when they themselves become the end and when support of them and conformity to their doctrines and rites is the test of a religious life! When this occurs there is only one thing the devout soul can do;-It must retreat for refuge. and inspiration upon the old revelation written on the tablets of its own convictions. When churches become time-serving, when they adopt the low aims of the world, when they have lost the source of inspiration the soul must turn away from them and find within the motive and the aim of religion.

A righteous Humanity! Is that not the purpose for which all things exist? Bibles, temples, schools, art, science, commerce, earth and sky, time and eternity conspire for that end. Here is the

"One far-off, divine event
To which the whole creation moves."

Inspiration has a part to play. Coming of their own motion freely as the June flowers or the mist rising toward the sun, prayer and ecstacy of the spirit have their uses. Unquestioning reliance upon the infinite order of the world; those delights which border on pain; the hopes and expectations and the strange homesickness which sometimes overtakes the soul, all have a place in a religious life. Only their use is not final. They do not exist for themselves. They are to assist the soul in completing its existence. They are only man's cheerful and beautiful companions in his upward march the highway the prophet saw is in full view. From every heart a private path leads to that great road. Whoever fully resolves upon personal integrity, whoever retreats from no duty, whoever purifies his heart is already upon that highway. From what-ever quarter of earth he may have come, by whatever name he may be called, whatever relation he may sustain to church or creed he has the right to walk there. His character is his passport.

Oh! ye who have been perplexed by the din of warring sects, ye who have been saddened by doubt and lament the loss of early faith, ye who are tempted by sin find the highway of holiness! Have no fear it will lead you astray. There earth's noblest mortals have walked. Its dust is marked by the footprints of the Palestine Savior, and where he has gone no one need fear to follow. As this sacred highway winds across the plains and amid the solemn hills all may tread it with delight nor need they have misgivings when, at last, it conducts them down into that valley where the mists hang heavy. Following it bravely, it will be seen again bending upward; as it ascends it will grow in splendor; it will finally merge into the street paved with gold in the marvelous City of the Sky.

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