Religion And Character
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
It is unfortunate that the idea of religion was ever associated with austerity and asceticism. It is unfortunate for any, and especially the young, to associate religion with dull prayer meetings, long faces, unmusical psalm singing, reproof and stupidity. It is unfortunate that the outward forms of christian worship ever assumed the character of joyless, passionless, uninteresting exercises. The idea of religion should be one of joy. To the young, especially, life is gay and glad and hopeful, and the austerities that men have thrown around religious worship are especially repulsive to young people. Faith in God, hope. for the future, surely ought to add joy to joy and fit most naturally upon the lives of the joyous-hearted young. The young man or the old man who makes a jest of religion, its solemn-faced exercises, and austere practices, knows that this is not treating religion fairly. Such a man knows there is something in it for him, something to add to the sum total of his joy in this life and the life to come. Such a man knows, as every other man knows, that there will come a time when he especially needs the consolations of religious hope. But the depravity of the human heart inspires him with a desire to put off the religious question and seek the enjoyment of life first. We believe that this repugnance to religion which is more or less felt by all classes is due, in a large measure, to the doleful character of most public preaching. , We have been taught, since our earliest memories, that there is nothing good in human life; that its desires, its ambitions, its enjoyments are all vanity of vanities. We were taught in youth that those things which gave us such keen delight were not healthful and abiding pleasures. We were taught that if we were what we ought to be, such frivolities would have no charm for us. The preacher has sounded in our ears from earliest childhood that the great business of our life is to be saved from the wrath to come, and he has taught us that we can be saved only by despising the things that we love, with all the energy of the ardent heart of youth. He has reproached us, humiliated us, grieved us. He has taught us that we must love the things which his austere behavior has led us to loathe. Every young person, with young life and the ardent enthusiasm of youth, feels that this is an outrage upon his better nature. Why cannot religion, which brings into life so much joy and hope and peace, be made to appear so to the young who are in such a restless search for joy and happiness ? Religion might be made the buttress of a young man's hope, and the reason why such is not almost universally the case is due to some blunder in the presentation of the claims of religion upon a young man's heart and life. Divest practical religion of its senseless hypocrisies, make a religious man a joyful man, as he ought to be, let that joy flash from his eye, beam from his face, be shadowed forth in his words and deeds, and religion would soon lose its offending aspect and unlovely character. Our Sunday schools with their joyful singing, short interesting religious exercises are doing marvelous good to the children and youth of our land. In the Sunday school religion is presented in a joyful aspect. What a pity that the preacher cannot catch the spirit from the Sunday school teacher. Why is it that the children are flocking into our churches and seeking, earnestly, for salvation in Christ, but that the joyful songs of the Sunday school and the devoted work of sensible men and women have wrought a revolution in the ideas of religion that prevailed a generation ago, and which still prevail in the pulpit ? The religion of Christ, no doubt, has an element of sternness in it.
Some words of the great teacher were charged with the thunder of avenging justice, but they were only for willful and unrepentant sinners. What has the happy thoughtlessness and bright spirit of youth to do with these ? We somehow feel that if the religion of Christ were properly presented as a thing of joy, a means of happiness, a source of peace, that the young would be eager to receive it and that it would not lose its charm even for the middle-aged and the old. Would it not be well sometimes to turn from the thunder of Sinai and the stern preaching of the Sermon on the Mount, to the gospel of John that presents the religion of Christ in an aspect so joyous that it is impossible to reject it. We believe the Christian World has done great injury to the cause of religion by the ill-advised manner in which they have presented the main truth to unbelievers. We are glad that the cloister, the monastery, and the fanaticism of the early days are in history. We hope that the last vestiges of those barbarisms shall speedily be banished from the lives of christians and the public utterances of the pulpit. We hope that the religion of Christ will soon be looked upon as the very culmination of earthly hope and joy.
We have said that the religion of Christ has power to change the heart and life of the believer. It thus becomes a power to move the will, to change the current of habit and reform the life of the individual. Christianity does not come to men as a system of morals alone, but as an incarnation of power to move the life and character. The moral systems of the world present truth as cold, bare logic. They present to the mind of man an impersonal ideal of goodness and moral duty. The religion of Christ presents a living person, whom we may love, reverence and obey, It is one thing to follow the truth of a moral maxim ; it is quite another to become attached to a person, whose spotless life embodies the incarnation of all virtues. In Christianity everything clusters around the life of Jesus. All the coldness, and remoteness, and powerlessness of the instructions of Confucius or Aurelius are changed into their very opposites. Christ is himself the way, the truth and the life. His life of absolute perfection is a living inspiration to mankind, the inspiration of an actual living person whose life we may study, whose deeds we may admire, whose shining example we may imitate, whose commandment to love one another we may obey. Men, therefore, who never found any attraction in tables of stone; nor any constraining authority in the voice of conscience ; nor sufficient motive in systems of ethics, yield glad obedience to a personal Christ. The feeble hands of humanity are strengthened to do the worthy deeds of virtue by the divine power that is breathed into them. The hope of reward in the future is set free from the intense selfishness of the ancient moralists and their followers. Thus religion becomes the natural foundation of good character. A moralist may bring himself, by force of will and strength of habit, to a high standard of virtuous living, but he cannot be sure that the well-spring of his thought and desire shall be purged from innate selfishness and the weakness of humanity. It is here that morality breaks down and Christianity begins. The personal life of Jesus, added to his matchless teachings, with the attending influence of the Holy Spirit, becomes more than a systematic theory of morals. It is an actual living power in the soul of the believer. The experience of mankind proves it ; the testimony of Christian believers of twenty centuries places the proposition beyond the shadow of a doubt.
The Christian religion, therefore, reaches farther and extends deeper than any system of moral truth. It has all the excellencies of the Zoroaster and the writings of the sages, and adds to them the incarnation of a crucified and risen Saviour. The Christian religion, then, becomes the natural basis of the highest and best moral character. It is this fact that has raised Christian civilization above pagan superstition. It is this that accounts for the moral advancement of the nations of modern Europe. It is this fact that has given the Christian religion its hold upon the race. It is this that has carried the name of the Son of Joseph from the lowly hut in Nazareth across the sea and over the ocean to the world's end. It is this power of Christianity upon the heart and life of man that has changed the world's civilization from the excesses and unspeakable degeneracy of the Roman empire to the enlightenment and freedom and moral elevation of the nineteenth century. It was the work of. Christ upon human character that made Luther and the Protestant Reformation.