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THE PUBLIC SERVICE OF RELIGION.
IT cannot be inappropriate for us, coming together as we do to-day after a period of separation, and about to enter on another year of common thought and work, to seriously consider why we are here, what business we have in hand, what justification there is for this religious institution, and for the more general institution of which this church of ours is an infinitesimal part. Mr. Balfour may be fully justified in his persuasion that men generally think and speak and act from habit and tradition and authority; but, when he adds “and not on reasonable grounds," we say: "Hold there! Are you quite sure of that?" May it not be that habit and tradition and authority hold a good deal of reason, as it were in solution; that they are to a considerable extent reason gone into structure; that reason is the kobold of Scandinavian folk-lore which cannot be shaken off, but mounts the cart of household goods, and goes with them wherever they go? They reckon ill who leave him out. When him they fly, he is the wings. There is no reason here for our abdication of the rights of reason and their habitual exercise. However much of reason is implicated in habit and tradition and authority, there is plenty of unreason, too, which demands the exercise of reason for its elimination. And though, doubtless, the days would not be long enough for the reasoning out of every principle or persuasion upon which we act, and we may well be thankful for the fund of traditional principles and persuasions which we each inherit, yet does it behoove us to be adding something to this stock by the application of our own minds to many things. If all our predecessors had been content "to take, and give not on again," the fund of rational authority would have been much smaller than it is
now,- a mole-hill, not a mountain for us to mine and quarry in at will. And then, too, there are many traditional conceptions which are of reason all compact, but it is other men's reason; and it makes a world of difference whether we open our mouths and shut our eyes in the hope of something to make us wise, or re-think what has been thought before, and make it ours as it was theirs who thought it out before us. We all of us believe that the earth is round, and that it is flattened at the poles, and that it revolves around the sun. But what a difference it makes if we know these things by hearsay or have followed up the lines of thought that lead to them! There are a thousand similar things, and one of them is going to church. The great majority go to church because other people go, or because their fathers and mothers went before them. But there is a better way. It is that of the New Testament writer when he said, "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.". I will not say that men had better cease from "the assembling of themselves together" than not be able to give a reasonable account of their assembling; but I will say that, by so much as a man can give a reasonable account of his conduct, by so much is he more a man, entitled to his self-respect and to the respect of other rational beings.
And then, too, of this particular we are bound to take some earnest heed,— that the public ministration of religion is subjected in our time to such a challenge as it has not been subjected to for many a day, if ever in the world before. For it is not the challenge of the fool, who has said in his heart there is no God; of the brutal sensualist, who is resolved to make sure of the only pleasures that appeal to him as worth pursuing; or the prudent epicure, who proposes to make sure of the good things of the present in fit measure and proportion, so that, if nothing at all or nothing better should materialize beyond the veil, he shall have had his day; or the sordid money-getter, who conceives that getting money is the chief end of man, the top and crown of all his possible success. If the religious institution and observance
of our time were subjected to no more serious challenge than is sounded by these several instruments, there would be much less occasion than there is now for those who are heartily persuaded of the importance and reality of this institution and observance to consider their position, and ask themselves if they can justify it to their perfect satisfaction at the bar of reason, or even in that lower court where common sense holds its serene assize. No: the most serious challenge of our religious institution and observance is the tacit one that comes from an increasing multitude of men and women of good intellectual and moral standing who find themselves refraining more and more habitually from the public ministration of religion. It is the existence of a large and steadily enlarging body of earnest, thoughtful people whom we respect and admire who seem to get along without religion, at least without its public recognition and support. That the two things are widely different I am well enough aware. There are not many towns or villages, or even cities, where a man cannot get better spiritual food than is served upon the tables of the churches in his immediate vicinity. If it is sermons that they want, they can get those of Channing and Parker and Martineau and Brooks; and there is many a preacher whom it would be an impiety to go and hear when one might stay at home and read such words of strength and peace. And we have, especially on the part of religious liberals, too much complacency rather than too little sympathy in the treatment of religious institutions which we cannot approve. The Unitarian in partibus infidelium is too ready to unloose his purse-strings for the local church as such. If there is a man in the pulpit preaching from week to week good tidings of sincerity and hope and cheer, that is another matter. But, when it comes to aiding and abetting a ministration of religion in which you do not believe or trust, there is something to be said for common honesty and self-respect as well as for good-nature and the desire to please one's neighbors or one's friends. With so many worthy objects crying for sympathy and help, money is
not the stuff that one should scatter with a careless hand, and, least of all, to fertilize a field of noisome weeds. Moreover, it is not as if all the resources of the non-church-going multitude were exhausted when they have read the best words of the best preachers of religion. Especially
"To one who has been long in city pent
'Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven,- to breathe a prayer
It was never bluer than at the very moment when I was writing that a week ago, and the church bell was tolling with a sweet and lingering invitation which I did not heed. More worshipful for me to lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help, to see the great white clouds trailing their dusky shadows over them. And yet, again, the non-church-goer has the mighty poets, "in their misery dead," it may be, but in their power and grace and helpfulness alive forevermore, and the great thinkers of the ages, the good books of many kinds,-one, very little known, called the New Testament, which contains "the story of a "that is very helpful and inspiring, and as little like "the old, old story" of our traditional Christianity as one story can be like another.
You will think I have forgotten what I would be at, and that I am entering an earnest plea for total abstinence from church-going and the cultivation of home worship and individualism in religion; but I am doing nothing of the kind. Only I would not willingly believe that non-church-going is coextensive with indifference to religion and with failure to respond to its peculiar influence and charm; and I am glad that, without any wilfulness or perversion of the facts, I am encouraged to believe that it is not; that it may be, that it often is, the preference of a higher to a lower way, of good thoughts to bad, of something helpful and inspiring to something hindering and depressing. At the same time I cannot, without wilful blindness, fail to see that indifference to the