Morality Versus Religion
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
In all ages of the world and among all nations the fundamental principles of moral truth have received great attention. There is no nation which has not had its moral teachers and reformers. Some of them have been most remarkable and noble men. Even in Pagan darkness they have probed deeply into the great questions of moral ethics, and some of them have reached results marvelously near the true standard of divine revelation. Among the Chinese, Confucius was such a prophet and law-giver. Descended from an ancient line of kings in one of the feudal states in China, this great man turned his back upon high official station and the honors of his native state, and became a wandering teacher of morals. Despised, rejected, forsaken by the men of his own time, he has been a light to his countrymen for three and twenty centuries. Dying in utter dejection that neither princes nor people would receive his doctrines, he was no sooner gone than China was thrilled from end to end with the spirit of his high teachings, The man they would not listen to in life, they most nobly honored in death, and the name of Confucius is the greatest name in the annals of the Celestial Empire.
Among the people of India, Ram Mohan Rai has been a great leader of religious thought and religious teachings. Impressed in early life with the fallacy of the religious ceremonies practiced by his countrymen, he impartially investigated the Shastras of the Brahmans, the Koran of Mohammed and the Christian Bible. After long study he repudiated the polytheistic worship of Shastras and taught the reformed principles of Monotheism as found in the Vedas, the Koran and the Bible. Since 1816 the reform movement has been gaining ground rapidly. A death blow has been struck at the tyrannies of Caste, the senseless idolatries of the old Brahmanism have been given up and something like Christian prayer has been adopted in the homes of the people. It is perhaps too soon to discover what the result of this great religious reform will be upon India and her people, but it has gained such a foot-hold already, that the utter abolition of idolatry from India seems to be well assured. The recent death of Mohan Rai and the notoriety given to his teachings by that event, seem to have given the reform a new impulse, and the time cannot be far distant when Hindoostan shall be freed from the shackles that have, for untold ages, bound her people to a hideous idolatry and a tyrannical system of caste.
Among the Athenians, Socrates was the greatest moral teacher. With a rare genius for deep meditations, he developed the theory of one God, in a nation whose religious mythology swarmed with deities. Among a people devoted to polytheism, Socrates was an avowed monotheist. In a city where Saul of Tarsus many years afterwards found altars to the gods of Olympus, the great master of Plato and Xenophon taught that one divine spirit created all, ruled over all, sustained all in this probationary life which, to his mind, was only a preparation for a grand immortality beyond. Condemned by his countrymen for corrupting the youth of Athens with his false religion, he took the dose of poison with equanimity and died conversing with his disciples about that immortality upon which he felt himself so surely entering. The disciples wept and mourned for their great leader ; but no regrets for the past and no misgivings for the future cast a shadow upon the last hours of the Athenian moralist. Socrates lacked only a knowledge of the lowly Nazarene to have set him on solid ground as a Christian Philosopher. In lacking this he may have lacked everything; but we believe, with St. Paul, that he was one of those who was "seeking the Lord if haply he might feel after Him and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us." And who shall say that he did not find his Messiah in the daimon of his religious philosophy ? Who shall say that he did not enter into that immortality which spread such lustre over his life and death ? Who shall say that he did not walk, on pagan shores, in the light of the White Throne, whose splendors penetrated feebly into the darkened land of Greece ?
Among the Romans, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were the expounders of moral truth and doctrine. In their writings the light of truth shines brightly and with lustre undimmed, even by a comparison with Christian ethics. Their teachings were good even if their lives were not. Their moral precepts are as sound as those of Solomon, and Mr. Mill regarded the Meditations of Aurelius as almost equal in ethical elevation to the Sermon on the Mount.
What we have said of the nations of the Eastern World is true of all the nations. They have had their moral and religious teachers, who have taught the people virtue and truth according to the light which it was permitted them to behold. As they have under-stood the truth, so have they imparted it to others, with the one hope of benefiting man by a better law of life. The great world has never been at a loss for instruction in moral ethics. But an intellectual assent to the truth of moral maxims does not constitute religion nor religious worship. Neither the gift of genius nor the knowledge of Christianity, of them-selves, ennoble the human heart. Indeed it is believed that the grace of God does not flow through the channels of surpassing intellect or even of orthodox belief. Men have lived in pagan climes, far removed from any possible knowledge of the Christian scriptures, who, with their feeble light and humble intellectual abilities, have yet lived holy and noble lives. So have there been men in Christian climes, with great knowledge and great intellectual power who have "disgraced some of the noblest words that were ever uttered by the meanest lives that were ever lived." Confucius and Socrates and Mohan Rai, and a host of others in heathendom lived remarkably pure and noble lives. But Cicero, Seneca and Abelard were subject to the degradations of their times, and the further degradations of corrupted character. None of these men lived so well as they taught. Even the great Bacon, says Canon Farrar, could flatter a tyrant and betray a friend, and receive a bribe, and be the last of English judges to enforce confession by the brutal expedient of torture. Yes, he could even defame the character of the noble Essex. Much as we may admire the patience, the silent faith, the brilliant mind and fervid eloquence of Abelard, still we cannot forget that his life was a most unworthy one. Much as our sympathies are drawn out to the neglected, broken-hearted, forgotten Bacon, we cannot forget the meanness of his private life, which cannot be justified even by the loose morals of the age in which he lived. Much as we may admire Cicero the consul and Cicero the writer, we cannot forget his inordinate vanity and the cringing cowardice of his exile. Much as we may admire the terse epigram, the brilliant sentiment and keen truth of Seneca's words, we cannot forget Nero and Agrippina and the apology for matricide. Much as we may admire the Emperor Aurelius, much as we may be thrilled by the Meditations "of the noblest of Pagans," we cannot forget that Christians were sacrificed by his order, and that he was utterly intolerant of the Christian religion. No, the knowledge of moral truth, even the knowledge of Him who "spoke as never man spake," nay more, an intellectual assent to all the teachings of the Christian Scriptures, does not constitute religious worship, and morality is, in no sense, religion. It is at best only a miserable counterfeit of religion.
It is easy to reason in a circle in regard to morality and religion. True religion inculcates moral duty; it fires the heart, and conforms the life to the practice of moral virtue ; it builds up the deeds of a life around the law of moral rectitude. It is easy, there-fore, to leap to the conclusion, that the practice of virtue is, in itself, religion; that the outward marks of a religious life are a proof that the true spirit of worship exists in the heart. This is not the fact. The mere statement of moral doctrine, and intellectual assent to it, may not stir the life nor correct the evil tendencies of the soul. A moralist seeks to lay his life to the line of a moral maxim the religionist seeks to lay his life beside the divine ideal set forth in the teachings and sufferings of the Nazarene. The application of a moral maxim to one's life-deeds, in so far as it has a tendency to develop correct habit, may become a force to lead the man to virtue and truth. But the danger is, that it will begin and end in an intellectual assent to the truth of the given maxim. When the religionist sets before himself, the Ideal Christ, he places his life under the control of an inspiration that is bound to lift him out of himself, out of the follies of his past life, into better living and better manhood. A change is wrought in the very fountain of his activities, and henceforth he must become a wiser and a better man. Moral maxims have no power to satisfy the longings of the soul for immortality, while the religion of Christ has that power. Confucius, one of the most hopeful, perhaps, of the world's moralists, lived and died with no belief in immortality, and no expectation that he should share its happiness. And even the views of Mohan Rai on the subject of the immortality of the, soul were much obscured by the doctrines of annihilation so tenaciously held by the Brahmins. All systems of morality, outside that of the Christian Scriptures, break down at the vital point ; they can fill the mind but they cannot fill the heart ; they satisfy the intellect ; but they do not satisfy the conscience. Hence moral codes and systems of moral teaching have had little influence toward developing virtue in the lives of individuals or in the composite life of the state. Some of the, moralists themselves have lived ignoble lives, and, some nations with the best of moral codes have been sunk in hopeless depravity and inhuman idolatry and vice. The moral code of Brahmanism equals that of the Hebrew Scriptures ; but its truths are universally disregarded even by the priests of India. The work of Confucius had no visible effect upon the age in which he lived. His high moral teachings fell away before the glance of beauty and the pomp of power. His ideal system of government, as well as his ideal system of morals, was wholly disregarded by both princes and people, and it was only after the Sage's death, and legend and romance had grown up around his name, that his teachings came to have force in China. But there is little evidence to show that the condition of public morals of China has grown equally with the spread of the moral precepts of the great Confucius. And the Greeks, far from accepting the moral axioms of Socrates condemned him to death for corrupting the public morals. The teachings of Seneca and Aurelius were equally lost upon the corruptions of their degenerate age. It is only when we turn to the onward march of christian truth that we find a force that has permanently moved the civilization of the world.
The immortality of the soul is the most stupendous fact connected with our earthly life. We must goĽ hence, and we know that we must go. "We live in the future," says Holland. Much of the happiness of the present is made up of bright anticipations for the future. There is, in every ambitious life, a discontent of past and present attainment and happiness. We are always reaching forth to something that is beyond us. We strive and hope and labor because we believe we shall receive the reward of such activity in the future. No man can believe in annihilation and be a happy man. It is contrary to the instincts of human reason. Reason tells us that we shall live to morrow and next day and through the eternal ages. Hope fills us with bright anticipations for that immortality. Mere morality does little to clothe that immortality in robes of light. Religion does much, does everything to gild that immortality with a bow of promise, does everything to surround it with ineffable peace and glory. Take out of life the hope of the future and you make it a sad world indeed. The disappointments of the past, the consuming labors, and fearful anxieties of the present fill the mind with. gloom and the heart with misanthropy. The present condition of our life must be more or less unsatisfactory. Few men can be satisfied with what they have done or what they have enjoyed in this world. We surely need a future in which the past and the present may be redeemed. The deepest profundities of our. thought would seem to convince us that there must be somewhere, somehow, sometime, a culmination of this present life. Where shall attainment and progress,. intellect and moral growth end ? What shall be the result, final and permanent, of deep studies in the intellectual life or the practice of virtue upon the moral life, if the hour of death is the end of human activities. Such a culmination of hope is repugnant to our better thought and contrary to the best light of reason. But as the future holds bright hopes for us, so it holds our fears and apprehensions, except to a man of very hopeful cast of mind. The future is clad in doubt as well as hope ; hence this human dread of what is in store for us in the years to come, "which rather makes us bear the ills we have than fly to others that we know not of" Hence, as Hamlet says, Conscience and the fear of the future do make cowards of us all. With the bright vision of our future hope and the dread vision of future ill, the mind is forever on the outlook for that upon which it can rely, to avoid the end which it dreads and secure the hope which it desires. The mind reaches forth in all directions. It seeks for solid ground upon which to base a solid calculation in regard to future joy and sorrow. God has wisely hidden the future from our view ; we know it only in hope or apprehension. But the restless soul ponders lessons of experience, looks into the nature and tendency of life, erects grand theories and institutes schemes of good. It bends its energies to the achievement of security in the future. There is a voice within us that tells us that we shall live forever, and it is this sense of the innate feeling of immortality that gives us our greatest joys and our keenest sot., rows. Moral teaching, as a scheme of intellectual truth, has no power soever to affect that immortality for good or ill. But the religion of Christ, accepted or rejected, fills that immortality with peace or eternal sorrow. Hence religion supplies a most necessary link in the chain of human happiness. It gives the mind peace for the future, it removes apprehension and takes the element of fear out of physical death.
We have just said that the future is inscrutable. Between this life and the future life a great gulf is fixed. No human eye has seen into the life beyond. No man knows, except through revelation, what shall be in that future life. God in his infinite wisdom has shut it out from our knowledge and vision. Unless He tells us or delegates some one to tell us, we can-not know the employments, the conditions of mind and soul in that state of happiness which we call heaven. The most truthful system of morality ever deduced by the brain and experience of man sheds no light upon this question. The only revelation of that future state which has ever been made to the race is found in the Christian Bible. Hence, the religion taught and formulated in the Hebrew scriptures has the greatest possible claim upon our mind and thought. No man who has a hope for the future can afford to disregard the story of Mount Sinai, the history of the Jewish people, the Sermon on the Mount, the letters of Paul, and the revelation made at Patmos.
Again, between the evils and vices of humanity and the holiness of God, an infinite gulf is fixed. The revelations of Mount Sinai, Mount Olivet and the island of Patmos can only add sorrow to sorrow, fear to fear, as the poor child of humanity looks into the future, unless there be some guiding hand to lead him from nature's darkness to the light of truth. Man has no power, in and of himself, to change the current of his life from sin to holiness. Unless there be a power outside of man, capable of lifting .him out of the apprehension of the present into the hope of the future, that future will be dark with the muttering thunders of divine justice. Such a hand, such a power is found in the lowly Nazarene. What the lifeless moral codes of Confucius, the Brahmins, Socrates and Aurelius did not do, and cannot do, the religion of Christ does. It inspires the life, it thrills the heart, it gives peace and hope and permanent joy in the present life and in the future life. Shall we say that the man who trusts his eternal happiness to the practice of a few moral virtues is no. better than the pagan Confucius and the heathen emperor ? Shall we say that the practice of morality alone furnishes, no solid ground of hope ? Shall we say that the moral systems of the world have all been utterly powerless to give satisfaction and peace to the restless soul of man? Are these priceless benefits found only in the religion of Christ? Is morality a failure and religion the only chance of hope ?