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The Latest Form of Infidelity

Andrews Norton

The following address was delivered at the request of the Association of the Alumni of the Cambridge Theological School on the 19th of July, 1839, one year after Ralph Waldo Emerson's controversial Divinity School Address. In this talk, Norton attacks the new theology propounded by Emerson, in particular the claim that belief in the miracles of Jesus is irrelevant to Christianity. Norton expresses concern that the new Transcendentalist way of thinking is at odds with the use of reason in religion. Although his argument, that miracles are the only proof of Christianity, is ably refuted by George Ripley, Norton's prediction, that emphasis on an inner moral sense over and above revelation would ultimately lead to pantheism and the rejection of Christianity altogether, proves to be true for many Unitarians in the future, including Emerson himself. 

I address you, Gentlemen, and our friends who are assembled with us, on an occasion of more than common interest, as it is your first meeting since joining together in a society as former pupils of the Theological School in this place. Many of you may look back over a considerable portion of time that has elapsed since your residence here. In thus meeting with those in whose society we have spent some of the earlier years of life, recollections are naturally called up of pleasures that are gone, of ties that have been broken, of hopes that have perished, and of bright imaginations that have faded away. Such recollections produce those serious views of our present existence with which religious sentiment is connected. They make us feel the value of a Christian's faith; of that faith, which, where decay was before written on all most dear to us, stamps immortality instead.

I see among you many, who, I know, will recall our former connection with the same interest as I do, and whom I am privileged to regard as friends. As for those of you, Gentlemen, to whom I have not stood in the relation of an instructor, we also have an intimate connection with each other. Your office is to defend, explain, and enforce the truths of Christianity; and with the importance of those truths no one can be more deeply impressed than myself. So far as you are faithful to your duty, the strong sympathy of all good men is with you.

But we meet in a revolutionary and uncertain state of religious opinion, existing throughout what is called the Christian world. Our religion is very imperfectly understood and received by comparatively a small number with intelligent faith. In proportion as our view is more extended, and we are better acquainted with what is and what has been, we shall become more sensible of the great changes that have long been in preparation, but which of late have been rapidly developed. The present state of things imposes new responsibilities upon all who know the value of our faith and have ability to maintain it. Let us then employ this occasion in considering some of the characteristics of the times and some of those opinions now prevalent, which are at war with a belief in Christianity.

By a belief in Christianity, we mean the belief that Christianity is a revelation by God of the truths of religion; and that the divine authority of him whom God commissioned to speak to us in his name was attested in the only mode in which it could be, by miraculous displays of his power. Religious truths are those truths, and those alone, which concern the relations of man to God and eternity. It is only as an immortal being and a creature of God that man is capable of religion. Now those truths which concern our higher nature, and all that can with reason deeply interest us in our existence, we Christians receive, as we trust, on the testimony of God. He who rejects Christianity must admit them, if he admit them at all, upon some other evidence.

But the fundamental truths of religion taught by Christianity became very early connected with human speculations, to which the same importance was gradually attached, and for the proof of which the same divine authority was claimed. These speculations spread out and consolidated into systems of theology, presenting aspects equally hostile to reason and to our faith; so hostile, that, for many centuries, a true Christian in belief and heart, earnest to communicate to others the blessings of his faith, would have experienced, anywhere in Christendom, a fate similar to that which his Master suffered among the Jews. It would be taking a different subject from what I have proposed to attempt to explain and trace the causes of this monstrous phenomenon. The false representations of Christianity that have come down to us from less enlightened times have ceased to retain their power over far the larger portion of those individuals who form, for good or evil, the character of the age in which they live. But the reaction of the human intellect and heart against their imposition has as yet had but little tendency to procure the reception of more correct notions of Christianity.    On the contrary, the inveterate and enormous errors that have prevailed have so perverted men's conceptions, have so obscured and perplexed the whole subject, have so stood in the   way of all correct knowledge of facts and all just reasoning—there are so few works in Christian theology not at least colored and tainted by them, and they still present such obstacles at every step to a rational investigation of the truth—that the degree of learning, reflection, judgment, freedom from worldly influences, and independence of thought necessary to ascertain for one's self the true character of Christianity is to be expected from but few. The greater number, consequently, confound the systems that have been substituted for it with Christianity itself and receive them in its stead, or, in rejecting them, reject our faith. The tendency of the age is to the latter result.

This tendency is strengthened by the political action of the times, especially in the Old World. Ancient institutions and traditionary power are there struggling to maintain themselves against the vast amount of new energy that has been brought into action. Long-existing forms of society are giving way. The old prejudices by which they were propped up are decaying. Wise men look with awe at the spectacle as if they saw in some vast tower, hanging over a populous city, rents opening, and its sides crumbling and inclining. But in the contest between the new and the old, which has spread over Europe, erroneous representations of Christianity are in alliance with established power. They have long been so. The institutions connected with them have long been principal sources of rank and emolument. What passes for Christianity is thus placed in opposition to the demands of the mass of men and is regarded by them as inimical to their rights, while, on the other hand, those to whom false Christianity affords aid repel all examination into the genuineness of its claims.

The commotion of men's minds in the rest of the civilized world produces a sympathetic action in our own country. We have indeed but little to guard us against the influence of the depraving literature and noxious speculations which flow in among us from Europe. We have not yet any considerable body of intellectual men devoted to the higher departments of thought and capable of informing and guiding others in attaining the truth. There is no controlling power of intellect among us.

Christianity, then, has been grossly misrepresented, is very imperfectly understood, and powerful causes are in operation to obstruct all correct knowledge of it and to withdraw men's thoughts and affections from it. But at the present day there is little of that avowed and zealous infidelity, the infidelity of highly popular authors, acknowledged enemies of our faith, which characterized the latter half of the last century. Their writings, often disfigured by gross immoralities, are now falling into disrepute. But the effects of those writings, and of the deeply seated causes by which they were produced, are still widely diffused. There is now no bitter warfare against Christianity, because such men as then waged it would now consider our religion as but a name, a pretence, the obsolete religion of the state, the superstition of the vulgar. But infidelity has but assumed another form, and in Europe, and especially in Germany, has made its way among a very large portion of nominally Christian theologians. Among them are now to be found those whose writings are most hostile to all that characterizes our faith. Christianity is undermined by them with the pretence of settling its foundations anew. Phantoms are substituted for the realities of revelation.

It is asserted, apparently on good authority, that the celebrated atheist Spinoza composed the work in which his opinions are most fully unfolded in the Dutch language and committed it to his friend, the physician Mayer, to translate into Latin; that, where the name God now appears, Spinoza had written Nature; but that Mayer induced him to substitute the former word for the latter, in order partially to screen himself from the odium to which he might be exposed.[1] Whether this anecdote be true or not, a similar abuse of language appears in many of the works to which I refer. The holiest names are there—a superficial or ignorant reader may be imposed upon by their occurrence—but they are there as words of show, devoid of their essential meaning and perverted to express some formless and powerless conception. In Germany the theology of which I speak has allied itself with atheism, with pantheism, and with the other irreligious speculations that have appeared in those metaphysical systems from which the God of Christianity is excluded.

There is no subject of historical inquiry of more interest than the history of opinions; there is none of more immediate concern than the state of opinions, for opinions govern the world. Except in cases of strong temptation, men's evil passions must coincide with or must pervert their opinions before they can obtain the mastery. It is, therefore, not a light question what men think of Christianity. It is a question on which, in the judgment of an intelligent believer, the condition of the civilized world depends. With these views we will consider the aspect that infidelity has taken in our times.

The latest form of infidelity is distinguished by assuming the Christian name, while it strikes directly at the root of faith in Christianity, and indirectly of all religion, by denying the miracles attesting the divine mission of Christ. The first writer, so far as I know, who maintained the impossibility of a miracle was Spinoza, whose argument, disengaged from the use of language foreign from his opinions, is simply this, that the laws of nature are the laws by which God is bound, Nature and God being the same, and therefore laws from which Nature or God can never depart.[2] The argument is founded on atheism. The denial of the possibility of miracles must involve the denial of the existence of God, since, if there be a God in the proper sense of the word, there can be no room for doubt that he may act in a manner different from that in which he displays his power in the ordinary operations of nature. It deserves notice, however, that in Spinoza's discussion of this subject we find that affectation of religious language, and of religious reverence and concern, which is so striking a characteristic of many of the irreligious speculations of our day, and of which he, perhaps, furnished the prototype; for he has been regarded as a profound teacher, a patriarch of truth, by some of the most noted among the infidel philosophers and theologians of Germany. “I will show from Scripture,” he says, “that the decrees and commands of God, and consequently his providence, are nothing but the order of nature.” — “If any thing should take place in nature which does not follow from its laws, that would necessarily be repugnant to the order which God has established in nature by its universal laws, and, therefore, contrary to nature and its laws; and consequently the belief of such an event would cause universal doubt and lead to atheism.”[3] So strong a hold has religion upon the inmost nature of man that even its enemies, in order to delude their followers, thus assume its aspect and mock its tones.

What has been stated is the great argument of Spinoza, to which every thing in his discussion of the subject refers; but this discussion may appear like the textbook of much that has been written in modern times concerning it. There is one, however, among the writings against the miracles of Christianity, of a different kind, the famous Essay of Hume. None has drawn more attention, or has more served as a groundwork for infidelity. Yet, considering the sagacity of the author and the celebrity of his work, it is remarkable that, in his main argument, the whole point to be proved is broadly assumed in the premises. “It is a miracle,” he says, “that a dead man should come to life, because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event; otherwise the event would not merit that appellation.” The conclusion, if conclusion it may be called, is easily made. If a miracle has never been observed in any age or country, if uniform experience shows that no miracle ever occurred, then it follows that all accounts of past miracles are undeserving of credit. But if there be an attempt to stretch this easy conclusion, and to represent it as involving the intrinsic incredibility of a miracle, the argument immediately gives way. “Experience,” says Hume, “is our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact.” Experience is the foundation of such reasoning, but we may draw inferences from our experience. We may conclude from it the existence of a power capable of works which we have never known it to perform; and no one, it may be presumed, who believes that there is a God, will say that he is convinced by his experience that God can manifest his power only in conformity to the laws which he has imposed upon nature.

Hume cannot be charged with affecting religion, but in the conclusion of his Essay, he says in mockery: “I am the better pleased with the method of reasoning here delivered, as I think it may serve to confound those dangerous friends, or disguised enemies, to the Christian religion, who have undertaken to defend it by the principles of human reason. Our most holy religion is founded on faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing it to put it to such a trial as it is by no means fitted to endure.” What Hume said in derision has been virtually repeated, apparently in earnest, by some of the modern disbelievers of miracles, who still choose to profess a belief in Christianity.

To deny that a miracle is capable of proof, or to deny that it may be proved by evidence of the same nature as establishes the truth of other events, is, in effect, as I have said, to deny the existence of God. A miracle can be incapable of proof only because it is physically or morally impossible, since what is possible may be proved. To deny that the truth of a miracle may be established involves the denial of creation, for there can be no greater miracle than creation. It equally implies that no species of being that propagates its kind ever had a commencement, for if there was a first plant that grew without seed, or a first man without parents, or if of any series of events there was a first without such antecedents as the laws of nature require, then there was a miracle. So far is a miracle from being incapable of proof that you can escape from the necessity of believing innumerable miracles only by believing that man, and all other animals and all plants, have existed from eternity upon this earth without commencement of propagation, there never having been a first of any species. No one, at the present day, will maintain with Lucretius that they were generated from inanimate matter by the fermentation of heat and moisture. Nothing can seem more simple or conclusive than the view we have taken; but we may render it more familiar by an appeal to fact. The science of geology has shown us that man is but a late inhabitant of the earth. The first individuals of our race, then, were not produced as all others have been. They were formed by a miracle, or, in other words, by an act of God's power, exerted in a different manner from that in which it operates according to the established laws of nature. Creation, the most conspicuous, is at the same time the most undeniable, of miracles.

By anyone who admits that God exists, in the proper sense of the words, his power to effect a miracle cannot be doubted; and it would be the excess of human presumption and folly to affirm that it would be inconsistent with his wisdom and goodness ever to exert his power except in those modes of action which he has prescribed to himself in what we call the laws of nature.

On the contrary, a religious philosopher may regard the uniformity of the manifestations of God's power in the course of nature as solely intended by him to afford a stable ground for calculation and action to his rational creatures, which could not exist if the antecedents that we call causes were not, in all ordinary cases, the signs of consequent effects. This uniformity is necessary to enable created beings to be rational agents. The Deity has imposed upon himself no arbitrary and mechanical laws. It is solely, so far as we can perceive, for the sake of his creatures that he preserves the uniformity of action that exists in his works. Beyond the sphere of their observation, where this cause ceases, we have no ground for the belief of its continuance. There is nothing to warrant the opinion that the Deity still restrains his power by an adherence to laws, the observance of which his creatures cannot recognise. We have strong reasons for believing that such an apparently causeless uniformity of operation would produce, not good, but evil. We have no ground for supposing that the operation of the laws of nature, with which we are acquainted, extends beyond the ken of human observation, or that these laws are anything more than a superficial manifestation of God's power, the mere exterior phenomena of the universe. We have no reason to doubt that the creation may be full of hidden miracles.

But, if the uniformity of the laws of nature, so far as they fall within our cognizance, is ordained by God for the good of his creatures, then, should a case occur in which a great blessing is to be bestowed upon them, the dispensing of which requires that he should act in other modes, no presumption would exist against his so acting. So far as we are able to discern, there would be no reason to doubt that he would so act. A miracle is improbable when we can perceive no sufficient cause in reference to his creatures why the Deity should vary his modes of operation; it ceases to be so, when such a cause is assigned. But Christianity claims to reveal facts, a knowledge of which is essential to the moral and spiritual regeneration of men, and to offer, in attestation of the truth of those facts, the only satisfactory proof: the authority of God, evidenced by miraculous displays of his power. The supposed interposition of God corresponds to the weighty purpose which it is represented as effecting. If Christianity profess to teach truths of infinite moment, if we perceive that such is the character of its teachings, if, indeed, they are true, and if we are satisfied, from the exercise of our own reason and the history of the world, that they relate to facts concerning our relations and destiny, of which we could otherwise obtain no assurance, then this character of our religion removes all presumption against its claims to a miraculous origin.

But incredulity respecting the miracles of Christianity rarely has its source in any process of reasoning. It is commonly produced by the gross misrepresentations which have been made of Christianity. It has also another cause, deeply seated in our nature: the inaptitude and reluctance of men to extend their view beyond the present and sensible, to raise themselves above the interests, the vexations, the pleasures, innocent or criminal, that lie within the horizon of a year or a week and to open their minds to those thoughts and feelings that rush in with the clear apprehension of the fact, that the barrier between the eternal and the finite world has been thrown open. A religious horror may come over us, so that 

"We fain would skulk beneath our wonted covering,

Mean as it is." 

Man, indeed, in his low estate, loves the supernatural; but it is the supernatural addressed to the imagination, not in all its naked distinctness to the soul; it is the supernatural as belonging to some form of faith more connected with this world than the future, or regarded as the operation of limited beings, presenting a semblance of human nature, on whom man can react in his turn. But let us imagine, if we can, what would be the feelings of an enlightened philosopher were he to witness an unquestionable miracle, a work breaking through the secondary agency, behind which the Deity ordinarily veils himself, and bringing us into immediate connection with him. We can hardly conceive of the awe, the almost appalling feeling, with which it would be contemplated by one fully capable of comprehending its character and alive to all its relations. The miracles of Christianity, when they are brought home to the mind as realities, have somewhat of the same power, dimmed as they are by distance, and clouded over by all the errors that false Christianity has gathered   round them. If they be true, if Christianity be true, if its doctrines be certain, it is the most solemn fact we can comprehend, as well as the most joyful. It requires that our whole character should be conformed to the new relations which it makes known. All things   around us change their aspect. Life and death are not what they were. We are walking on the confines of an unknown and eternal world, where none of those earthly passions that now agitate men so strongly can find entrance. They bear upon them the mark of their doom, soon to perish. But from the revulsion of feeling that must take place, when the character of all that surrounds us is thus changed, and the objects of eternity appear before the mind's eye, it is natural that many should shrink, and endeavour to escape from the view, and to forget it amid the familiar things of life, clinging to a vain conception, vain as regards each individual, of an unchanging stability in the order of nature.

Vain, I say, as regards each individual. Whatever we may fancy respecting the unchangeableness of the present order of things, to us it is not permanent. If we are to exist as individuals after death, then we shall soon be called, not to witness, but to be the subjects, of a miracle of unspeakable interest to us. Death will be to us an incontrovertible miracle. For us the present order of things will cease, and the unseen world, from which we may have held back our imagination, our feelings, and our belief, will be around us in all its reality.

If it were not for the abuse of language that has prevailed, it would be idle to say that, in denying the miracles of Christianity, the truth of Christianity is denied. It has been vaguely alleged that the internal evidences of our religion are sufficient, and that miraculous proof is not wanted; but this can be said by no one who understands what Christianity is, and what its internal evidences are. On this ground, however, the miracles of Christ were not indeed expressly denied, but were represented by some of the founders of the modern school of German infidelity as only prodigies, adapted to rouse the attention of a rude people, like the Jews, but not required for the conviction of men of more enlightened  minds. By others, the accounts of them in the Gospels have been admitted as in the main true, but explained as only exaggerated and discolored relations of natural events. But now, without taking the trouble to go through this tedious and hopeless process of misinterpretation, there are many who avow their disbelief of all that is miraculous in Christianity, and still affect to call themselves Christians. But Christianity was a revelation from God; and, in being so, it was itself a miracle. Christ was commissioned by God to speak to us in his name; and this is a miracle.    No proof of his divine commission could be afforded, but through miraculous displays of God's power. Nothing is left that can be called Christianity if its miraculous character be denied. Its essence is gone; its evidence is annihilated. Its truths, involving the highest interests of man, the facts which it makes known, and which are implied in its very existence as a divine revelation, rest no longer on the authority of God. All the evidence, if evidence it can be called, which it affords of its doctrines, consists in the real or pretended assertions of an individual, of whom we know very little, except that his history must have been most grossly misrepresented.

It is indeed difficult to conjecture what anyone can fancy himself to believe of the history of Christ, who rejects the belief of his divine commission and miraculous powers. What conception can such a one form of his character? His whole history, as recorded in the Gospels, is miraculous. It is vain to attempt to strike out what relates directly or indirectly to his miraculous authority and works, with the expectation that anything consistent or coherent will remain. It is as if one were to undertake to cut out from a precious agate the figure which nature has inwrought, and to pretend that, by the removal of this accidental blemish, the stone might be left in its original form. If the accounts of Christ's miracles are mere fictions, then no credit can be due to works so fabulous as the pretended histories of his life. But these supposed miracles, it has been contended, may be explained, consistently with the veracity of the reporters, as natural events, the character of which was mistaken by the beholders. At first glance it is obvious that such a statement supposes mistakes committed by those beholders, the disciples and apostles of Jesus, hardly consistent with any exercise of intellect, and, at the same time, renders it very difficult to free his character from the suspicion of intentional fraud. A little further consideration may satisfy us that if Jesus really performed no miracles, the accounts of his life that have been handed down from his disciples give evidence of utter folly, or the grossest deception, or rather of both.

But let us suppose that the account of some one or more of the miracles of Christ, especially if detached from its connection and from all that determines its meaning, admits of being explained as having its origin in some natural event. Take any case one will, however, it must be admitted that the explanation is not obvious, that it is conjectural, and, in a great majority of cases, it must be allowed that it is merely possible, and that to render it deserving of notice, the principle is to be assumed that whatever is supernatural must be expunged from his history. We will suppose ourselves, then, to have tried this mode of interpretation on one narrative and to have found it improbable. But, suspending our opinion, let us pass on to another solution of a similar character. A new improbability arises, and after that a new one. These improbabilities consequently multiply upon us in a geometrical ratio, and very soon become altogether overwhelming. Yet I speak not of what may be done, but of what has been done. This process of misinterpretation has been laboriously pursued through the Gospels;[4] and the result has been a mass of monstrous conjectures and abortive solutions, on which, as we proceed, there falls no glimmering of probability and which continually shock and grate against all our most cherished sentiments of the inestimable value of Christianity, of admiration and love for its Founder on earth, and of reverence for its divine Author.

The proposition that the history of Jesus is miraculous throughout is to be understood in all its comprehensiveness. It is not merely that his history is full of accounts of his miracles; it is that everything in his history, what relates to himself and what relates to others, is conformed to this fact and to the conception of him as speaking with authority from God. This is what constitutes the internal evidence of Christianity, a term, as I have said, often used of late with a very indistinct notion of any meaning attached to it. The consistency in the representations given by the different evangelists of the actions and words of Christ as a messenger from God to men, their consistency in the representation of a character which it is impossible they should have conceived of if it had not been exhibited before them, gives us an assurance of their truth that becomes clearer in proportion as their writings are more studied and better understood; and in connection with this is the consistency of their whole narrative, the coherence and naturalness with which all the words and actions of others bear upon events and upon a character so marvellous, and imply their existence.

The words of Christ, equally with his miracles, imply his mission from God. They are accordant only with the conception of him as speaking with authority from God. They would be altogether unsuitable to a merely human teacher of religious truth. So considered, if not the language of an impostor, they become the language of the most daring and crazy fanaticism. I speak of the general character of his discourses, a character of the most striking peculiarity. In ascribing them to one not miraculously commissioned by God, they must be utterly changed and degraded. What is most solemn and sublime must either be rejected as never having been spoken by him, or its meaning must be thoroughly perverted; it must be diluted into folly, that it may not be blasphemy.

“I am the good shepherd,” said Jesus, “and lay down my life for my sheep.” “For this the Father loves me; for I lay down my life to receive it again. None takes it from me; but I lay it down of my own accord. I have a commission to lay it down, and I have a commission to receive it again. This charge I received from my Father.” There are but two aspects under which such words can be regarded, if you suppose it true that they were uttered by Jesus. You must say, in effect, with the unbelieving Jews who heard him, “He is possessed by a demon and is mad. Why listen to him?” Or the view which we take must be essentially that of others who were present: “Can a demoniac open the eyes of the blind?”

Let us look at another passage. To a Christian it appears of unspeakable grandeur and of infinite moment. It presents before him the Founder of his religion as contemplating the immeasurable extent of blessings of which God had made him the minister, as announcing man's immortality amid the sufferings of humanity, on the threshold of the tomb.

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who has faith in me, though he die, shall live; and he who lives as a believer in me shall never die. Hast thou faith in this?”

Let us go on to the sepulchre of Lazarus.

“I thank thee, Father, that thou hast heard me; and I know that thou hearest me always; but I have thus spoken for the sake of the multitude who are standing round, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.”

We must, then, believe that Jesus Christ was sent by God, commissioned to speak to us in his name; or we cannot reasonably pretend to know anything concerning him. We may think it probable that he was a reformer of the religion of his nation, who preached for some short time, principally in Galilee, but, having very soon made himself an object of general odium, was put to death as a malefactor amid the execrations of his countrymen, who then strove, though ineffectually, to suppress his followers. Or, we may fancy him an untaught but enlightened philosopher, whose character, words and deeds, whatever they were, have been absurdly and fraudulently misrepresented by his disciples. Or, as the Gospels cannot be regarded as true histories, we may go on to the conclusion at which infidelity, in its folly and ignorance, arrived within the memory of some of us, that no such individual existed, and that Christ is but an allegorical personage. But to whatever conclusion we may come, if the representation of him in the Gospels be not conformed to his real character and office, no foundation is left, on which any one can with reason pretend to regard him as an object of veneration, or to consider his teachings, whatever effect they may have had upon the world, as of any importance to himself.

To an infidel, whether he openly profess himself to be so, or whether he call himself a Christian, the history in the Gospels must present an insolvable problem. In the former case, he may turn from it and say that he is riot called upon to solve it; but in the latter, he is, by his profession, bound to do so. He has taken upon himself the task of explaining away the history as it stands and substituting another in its stead, and of so fabricating the new history that it may afford him ground for professing admiration and love for the real character of Christ.[5]

The rejection of Christianity, in any proper sense of the word, the denial that God revealed himself by Christ, the denial of the truth of the Gospel history, or, as it is called in the language of the sect, the rejection of historical Christianity, is, of course, accompanied by the rejection of all that mass of evidence, which, in the view of a Christian, establishes the truth of his religion. This evidence, it is said, consists only of probabilities. We want certainty. The dwellers in the region of shadows complain that the solid earth is not stable enough for them to rest on. They have firm footing on the clouds.

To the demand for certainty, let it come from whom it may, I answer that I know of no absolute certainty beyond the limit of momentary consciousness, a certainty that vanishes the instant it exists and is lost in the region of metaphysical doubt. Beyond this limit, absolute certainty, so far as human reason may judge, cannot be the privilege of any finite being. When we talk of certainty, a wise man will remember what he is and the narrow bounds of his wisdom and of his powers. A few years ago he was not. A few years ago he was an infant in his mother's arms and could but express his wants, and move himself, and smile and cry. He has been introduced into a boundless universe, boundless to human thought in extent and past duration. An eternity had preceded his existence. Whence came the minute particle of life that he now enjoys? Why is he here? Is he only with other beings like himself that are continually rising up and sinking in the shoreless ocean of existence; or is there a Creator, Father, and Disposer of all? Is he to continue a conscious being after this life and undergo new changes; or is death, which he sees everywhere around him, to be the real, as it is the apparent, end of what would then seem to be a purposeless and incomprehensible existence? He feels happiness and misery, and would understand how he may avoid the one and secure the other. He is restlessly urged on in pursuit of one object after another, many of them hurtful, most of them such, as the changes of life, or possession itself, or disease, or age, will   deprive of their power of gratifying; while, at the same time, if he be unenlightened by revelation, the darkness of the future is rapidly closing round him. What objects should he pursue? How, if that be possible, is happiness to be secured? A creature of a day, just   endued with the capacity of thought, at first receiving all his opinions from those who have preceded him, entangled among numberless prejudices, confused by his passions, perceiving, if the eyes of his understanding are opened, that the sphere of his knowledge is hemmed in by an infinity of which he is ignorant, from which unknown region clouds are often passing over and darkening what seemed clearest to his view, — such a being cannot pretend to attain, by his unassisted powers, any assurance concerning the unseen and the eternal, the great objects of religion. If men had been capable of comprehending their weakness and ignorance, and of reflecting deeply on their condition here, a universal cry would have risen from their hearts, imploring their God, if there were one, to reveal himself and to make known to them their destiny. Their wants have been answered by God before they were uttered. Such is the belief of a Christian; and there is no question more worthy of consideration than whether this belief be well founded. It can be determined only by the exercise of that reason which God has given us for our guidance in all that concerns us. There can be no intuition, no direct perception, of the truth of Christianity, no metaphysical certainty. But it would be folly, indeed, to reject the testimony of God concerning all our higher relations and interests, because we can have no assurance that he has spoken through Christ, except such as the condition of our nature admits of.

It is important for us to understand that, in all things of practical import, in the exercise of all our affections, in the whole formation of our characters, we are acting, and must act, on probabilities alone. Certainty, in the metaphysical sense of the word, has nothing to do with the concerns of men as respects this life or the future. We must discuss the subject of religion as we do all other subjects, when men talk with men about matters in which they are in earnest. It would be considered rather as insanity, than folly, were anyone to introduce metaphysical skepticism concerning causality or identity or the existence of the external world or the foundation of human knowledge into a discussion concerning the affairs of this life, the establishment of a manufactory, for example, or the building of a railroad, or if he should bring it forward to shake our confidence in the facts, of which human testimony and our own experience assure us, or to invalidate the conclusions so far as they relate to this world, which we found on those facts. But we must use the same faculties and adopt the same rules in judging concerning the facts of the world which we have not seen as concerning those of the world of which we have seen a very little. If it can be shown, according to the common and established principles of reasoning among men, that Christianity is true, if it can be shown that, to suppose it not true, is to suppose a moral impossibility, we need no further evidence. When we have arrived at this conclusion, our ears will be opened to the accordant voice from the earth and from the skies, which bears testimony to a beneficent Creator. We shall find in the immortality assured to us by Christianity a solution of the problem of our present life, a solution, which the very existence of that problem confirms. We shall perceive that all which has been taught us by God's revelation corresponds with all that our reason, in its highest exercise, had before been striving to establish. Religion will become to us a conviction. And what conviction, I do not say more probable, but what conviction, of any comparative weight, can be opposed to it? We plan for the future; we propose to ourselves some object to be attained within a short period, or during a course of years. But we proceed throughout upon probabilities, upon a probable judgment of its value, of our power to secure it, of the means at our command, and of the accidents by which we may be favored; and, among all these uncertainties, enters one far graver, the uncertainty of life itself. Yet we go on. But, if Christianity be true, there is no doubt about our ability to attain those objects which a religious man proposes to himself; there is no doubt of their inestimable value; and the uncertainty or the shortness of life at once ceases to enter into our calculations.[6]

Of the facts on which religion is founded, we can pretend to no assurance, except that derived from the testimony of God, from the Christian revelation. He who has received this testimony is a Christian; and we may ask now, as was asked by an apostle: “Who is he that overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus was the Son of God?” Christian faith alone affords such consolation and support as the heart needs amid the deprivations and sufferings of life; it alone gives action and strength to all that is noblest in our nature; it alone furnishes a permanent and effectual motive for growing virtue; it alone enables man to act conformably to his nature and destiny. This is always true. But we may have a deeper sense of the value of our faith, if we look abroad on the present state of the world and see, all around, the waves heaving and the tempest rising. Everywhere is instability and uncertainty. But from the blind conflict between men exasperated and degraded by injustice and suffering, and men corrupted and hardened by the abuse of power, from the mutual outrages of angry political parties, in which the most unprincipled and violent become the leaders, from the fierce collision of mere earthly passions and cravings, whatever changes may result, no good is to be hoped. All improvement in the civilized world, all advance in human happiness, is identified with the spread of Christian principles, of Christian truth, of that faith, resting on reason, which connects man with God, makes him feel that the good of others is his personal good, assures him of a future life of retribution, and, by revealing his immortality, calms his passions.

Gentlemen, I have addressed your understandings, not your feelings. But the subject of Christianity is one which cannot be rightly apprehended without the strongest feeling—not the transient excitement existing for an hour and then forgotten, but a feeling possessing the whole heart and governing our lives. Of the form of infidelity, which we have been considering, there can be but one opinion among honest men. Great moral offences in individuals are, indeed, commonly connected with the peculiar character of their age and with a prevailing want of moral sentiment in regard to such offences in the community in which they are committed. This may be pleaded in excuse for the individual; but the essential nature of the offence remains. It is a truth, which few among us will question, that for any one to pretend to be a Christian teacher, who disbelieves the divine origin and authority of Christianity, and would undermine the belief of others, is treachery towards God and man. If I were to address such a one, I would implore him by all his remaining self-respect, by his sense of common honesty, by his regard to the well-being of his fellow-men, by his fear of God, if he believe that there is a God, and by the awful realities of the future world, to stop short in his course; and, if he cannot become a Christian, to cease to be a pretended Christian teacher and to assume his proper character.

If we have taken a correct view of the state of opinion throughout the world, you will perceive that it is a subject of very serious consideration, and of individual action, to all of us who have faith in Christianity, and especially to you, Gentlemen, who have devoted yourselves to the Christian ministry. Every motive that addresses the better part of our nature urges you to be faithful in your office. A sincere moral purpose will strengthen your judgment and ability; for he who has no other object but to do right will not find it difficult to ascertain his duty and the means of performing it. He who earnestly desires to serve his fellowmen is so strongly drawn toward the truth, as the essential means of human happiness, that he is not likely to be turned aside by any dangerous error. Our Saviour referred to no supernatural illumination when he said: If anyone will do the will of him who sent me, he shall know concerning my doctrine, whether it be from God, or whether I speak from myself.    What you believe and feel, it is the business of your lives, and this is a great privilege, to make others believe and feel. In the view of the worldly, the sphere of your duties may often appear humble; but you will not on that account break through it to seek for notoriety beyond.    Deep and permanent feeling is very quiet and persevering. It cannot fail in its purposes. It cannot but communicate itself in some degree to others, and it is secure of the approbation of God.


Note I:  

some further remarks on the characteristics of the modern german school of infidelity

That infidelity should take for a disguise the name of Christianity, is a remarkable phenomenon of our times. It may be explained in part by the fact that the principal leaders of the new Antichristian school have been placed in circumstances in which the profession of Christianity was required, either by the nature of their offices as professedly Christian teachers, or by a regard to decorum and their worldly interests. But they were surrounded by unbelief. It had thoroughly pervaded the metaphysical philosophy of their country. It had been at work throughout the literature of continental Europe; and they had neither deep piety, nor moral strength, nor power of comprehension and reasoning to resist its influence. Christianity they abandoned to its enemies. They joined those enemies. But it was necessary to have something that might be called Christianity; and they accordingly have given that name to multiform and unstable speculations of their own, unconnected with any established facts or principles, and in framing which, it seems to have been forgotten, that what is proposed for belief requires some evidence of its truth.

These speculations have been favored by existing modes of thinking and writing. In rude times, when the  mind is struggling  with  half-formed  ideas, those claiming superior wisdom have usually affected an obscure, enigmatic, paradoxical style, full of words and figures remote from the apprehension of the vulgar. Dark sayings are characteristic of one stage in the progress of the human intellect. The meaning which is not clearly understood by its propounder is thus sheltered from investigation, and his oracles are enabled to escape from confutation in the darkness. His teachings are magnified by mystery, and the disciple thinks himself initiated in some esoteric doctrine, too profound for common minds. Instead of the care with which a true philosopher endeavours to express real knowledge in the most perspicuous manner, there is a constant striving to disguise trivial, erroneous, and extravagant conceptions, in unusual forms of language. 

In our own age, by a sort of anachronism, if I may so speak, we have had much of this style of writing, particularly in the irreligious speculations we are considering. And this has served partially to obscure, I doubt not from the writers themselves, the real character of what could not have borne the light of day. I will quote a single sentence, which I happen lately to have met with, that may especially serve to illustrate what has been said, as it is  a professed   exposition of the purpose of the “New Theology,” and of the object of his own theological life, by one of the most able leaders of the school. “The greatest and most pregnant idea of the New Theology,” says De Wette, “the establishment of which has been the main business of my theological life, is that what is proposed for religious faith must contain nothing metaphysical, or only so much as is necessary for a clear understanding of the faith, that its essence is not in propositions which are objects of knowledge, but in a pious apprehension of things, purified and enlightened by knowledge;”[7] and he proceeds to argue against its being founded on an historical acquaintance with Christianity. The shadowy meaning of the sentence I have quoted, escapes in any attempt to grasp it. Yet this fact may not be universally admitted. He who does not think clearly himself, whose conceptions are vague and inconsistent, is not sensible of the want of definiteness or meaning in what he reads. He attaches some unformed notions to words that in fact convey no coherent ideas and may regard himself, in consequence, as a profound thinker, able to comprehend what even wise men cannot. 

I will give one other extract from the article by De Wette, just quoted, in which he describes what the “new rational theology” has yet to do. 

“The new rational theology must accomplish the solution of the problem of producing a living recognition of faith in its independence of metaphysical and historical knowledge, so that finally, without resolving the events in the history of Jesus into what is merely ideal, it may cause them to be received in their ideal significance, as conveying ideas of faith, not resting the truth of Christian faith, as if it were a duty so to do, upon common, naked, historical truth, but confining the historical proof to the few essential events, leaving the rest open to free inquiry. Especially let it renounce what has hitherto been customary, the poor and unscientific appeal to miraculous evidence. …Its last office is to make the might of the community of Christians again effective, and to plant faith in living power in the living life.”[8]

The profession of belief in what one does not believe, on a subject so momentous as Christianity, if it do not benumb and gradually destroy the moral feelings, necessarily produces a bewilderment of mind that renders all objects of religious faith indistinct and uncertain, that mistakes and misnames them and gives occasion to dreamy speculations that appear as much out of place amid the reasonings of clear-minded men as would the spectres of a diseased imagination, were they to become visible in the living world around us. Thus it has been with the teachers of the new school of infidelity that calls itself Christian. An intelligent believer can read but a little way in their writings without finding that they do not mean what he means by Christianity, though it may be more difficult to ascertain what is intended, or with what pretence the word is used, as significant of their belief. Sometimes it may seem that the writer receives the essential doctrines taught by Christ, though not upon his authority, sometimes that he regards Christian morality and Christian feelings as right and to be applauded. Sometimes he may appear to be affected by a single aspect of our faith, to view it, for example, as a system that enlarges men's charity and vindicates the claims of the poor and oppressed, though this conception of it is perhaps oftener adopted for popular declamation than with any operative sense of the obligations it imposes. And sometimes the notion seems to be that the religious sentiment is natural and universal, that it has manifested itself under different forms, always, however, enveloped in mythology, fable, and superstition, that Christianity is the best form in which it has appeared, and that, therefore, it is to be respected, it being, at the same time, understood that Christianity is no permanent thing, but must, with the advance of men, go on improving and divesting itself more and more of its historical relations. 

But, sometimes, we find a system drawn out by one of the professed Christians of whom I speak, and it may be worth while to look at a single example, one of the most elaborate, to see what resemblance it has to Christianity. It is just forty years since Schleiermacher, one of the most noted of the modern German school, published his work On Religion. In a tone of pretension very foreign from the common character of intelligent men, he professes to have written it, not “through any determination of his judgment,” but through “a divine call,” a “heavenly impulse.” It is a system of pantheism, wrought up in a highly declamatory style, in which the language often soars beyond meaning, and in which there is scarcely an attempt at what may be called reasoning. Religion, according to him, is the sense of the union of the individual with the universe, with Nature, or, in the language of the sect, with the One and All.[9] It is a feeling; it has nothing to do with belief or action; [10] it is unconnected with morality; their provinces are different;[11] it is independent of the idea of a personal God.[12] The idea of a personal God is pure mythology.[13] And the belief and desire of personal immortality are “wholly irreligious,” as being opposed to that which is the aim of religion, “the annihilation of one's own personality,” “the living in the One and All,” “the becoming, as far as possible, one with the universe.”[14] The writer, whom I have quoted, partook of the sacrament on his deathbed, as a Christian. We may have a striking apprehension of the relation in which his system stands to Christianity, if we imagine the words of Jesus struck out from the Gospels and his teachings substituted in their stead. 

Schleiermacher, in his treatise,[15] introduces a glowing eulogy on Spinoza, commencing with an apostrophe: “Offer with me a lock of hair to the manes of the holy, the wronged Spinoza;” and, in this eulogy, he pronounces him to have stood “alone and unapproached, because he was full of religion and of a holy spirit.” About the same time, Paulus, another German theologian of about equal note, published the first edition of the collected works of Spinoza, in his preface to which he says that “the superstitious and ridiculous horror of the atheism, so called, of Spinoza, was shaken off by his countrymen earlier than by the intelligent elsewhere.” To deny the atheism of Spinoza is merely to contend that the word is not to be used in its common and established sense; and such being the case, it may strike us as a marked expression of character, in a pretended Christian divine, to talk of a superstitious and ridiculous horror of atheism. 

The disciples of the new school are in Germany called Rationalists or Naturalists. In the last edition of the Conversations-Lexicon, a work extensively circulated in that country, there is an article on “Rationalism and Supernaturalism,” in which the writer, after having asserted the victories of Rationalism over “the authority of revelation,” and predicted its final complete triumph, thus concludes: 

“But, notwithstanding that Rationalism has obtained a decided victory over Supernaturalism on scientific ground, yet, on the other hand, it wants much of having attained its full scientific development. Especially, it is still deficient, though much has been done, in a well-grounded psychological proof of the religious nature of the human spirit, and in clearly establishing the psychological powers on which religion in man is dependent.” 

It follows, that what religion is, and especially what that is for which the name of Christianity is assumed, must be wholly undefined. 

The writer adds one more sentence: “The work of David Frederic Strauss, entitled, The Life of Jesus Critically Treated (2 vols. 1835, 1836), must give rise to a sharp contest between Rationalism and Supernaturalism, as it has already called forth many writings in opposition to it.” 

Few products of the new German theology have excited so much attention as this work of Strauss, the object of which is to show that the account of Jesus in the Gospels is destitute of historical truth. I will quote at some length what I suppose to be the last exposition that the author has given of his notions of Christianity, as it appears toward the end of the third edition of the second volume of his work (p. 767), published during the present year. It may serve as an example of the style of thinking and writing that characterizes the school to which he belongs: 

“The key of the whole Christology is this, that the subject of those predicates which the Church ascribes to Christ is not to be regarded as an individual, but as an Idea, a real idea, however, not as, according to Kant, an imaginary one. Considered as existing in an individual, in a God-man, the attributes and offices which the doctrine of the Church ascribes to Christ are inconsistent with each other; in the idea of the species, they agree together. Humanity is the union of the two natures; it is God become man, the infinite renouncing its infinity and becoming finite, and the finite spirit conscious of its infinity.[16] It is the child of a visible mother and an invisible father, of Spirit and of Nature. It is the worker of miracles, inasmuch as, in the progress of man's history, the spirit is continually obtaining more full mastery over nature as it exists in man and around him, nature being subjected to its activity as a powerless material. It is the sinless, inasmuch as the process of its development is blameless; pollution cleaves only to the individual, but in the species and in its history is thrown off. It is the being who dies and rises from the dead and ascends to heaven, inasmuch as, through the negation of its naturality [what in its composition belongs to nature], it is continually attaining a higher spiritual life, and by throwing off its finiteness as a personal, national spirit, a spirit of this world, its unity with the infinite spirit of heaven is brought out. Through faith in this Christ, particularly in his death and resurrection, is man justified before God, that is, through the quickening power of the idea of man's essential nature; for conformably to the view that the negation of naturality and sinfulness, which is but the negation of a negation, seeing that they are but the negation of the spiritual, is the only way for men to attain the true spiritual life, will the individual partake of the divinely-human life of the species. 

“This alone is the absolute purport of the Christology. That this appears connected with the person and history of an individual belongs merely to its historical form.” 

Such a passage is adapted to give a strong impression of the present state of intellectual action in Germany, where writing of this kind, instead of being received with universal wonder and derision, is regarded as matter of grave discussion, and as belonging to the highest department of philosophy. 

With the vague notions of a Christianity, which is not that of Christ and God, has been connected, as I have said, the doctrine of a Christianity that is to develop itself and conform to the progress of the human mind, and in which men are continually to make new discoveries; and this mode of speaking seems to have been adopted by some without any distinct conception of what it implies. True Christianity is always the same. The facts which God made known by Christ, the facts of his existence and paternal character, and of our immortality and responsibility, admit of no change and of no adaptation to the progress of men; arid human speculations upon them, however far they may be carried, can have no claim to be considered as parts of Christianity. If indeed such language be used without any other meaning than that men, as they grow wiser, will understand more correctly the true character of Christianity, and that as they grow better, they will feel its influence more deeply, then the thought is unobjectionable, and we have only to regret the incorrect use of language intended for its expression. 

In considering the view which we have taken of the state of opinion among many who still call themselves Christians, a question naturally arises, upon what ground they have erected the systems which they have substituted for Christianity. It has been in some measure already answered. The writers of the school of which I speak are more occupied in undermining Christianity than in providing a stable foundation for anything proposed by them in its stead. Their objections and difficulties concerning our faith coincide with those which acknowledged infidels have heretofore urged; but they seldom, like those infidels, retreat upon the evidences of Natural Religion. On the contrary, it is a prevalent doctrine with these speculatists that the argument from final causes, as it is technically expressed, is of no worth; or, in popular language, that there are no marks of design, wisdom, and goodness in the universe, from which we may infer the existence and perfections of God. At the same time there is among them a very common, if not a prevalent, rejection of the belief of the personal immortality of man. 

The most generally received notion seems to be that religion arises out of the nature of man, that it is a feeling, a sentiment, an apprehension of something, it is hard to say what, that is intuitive or spontaneous, though admitting of cultivation. It is not necessary to inquire how this doctrine, this new creed that is to supersede all others, may be reconciled with the profession of the Christian faith. It is necessary to attend to only one consideration. Feelings and sentiments cannot be excited unless their proper objects are believed or imagined to exist. We can have no religious sentiment of the Infinite, unless we have faith in the one Infinite Being, the God of Christianity. We can have no religious love of the beautiful and true, or, in common language, of beauty and truth, if we do not recognise something beautiful and true beyond the limits of this world. We can have no feeling of our blessedness as formed in the image of God and made in the likeness of his eternity, if we do not believe in our immortality. We can have no strong sense of moral responsibility, if we regard all responsibility as terminating with the very uncertain period that may remain to us of life. All feeling, I do not say all rational, but all real feeling, must have respect to supposed realities and be founded on the belief of their existence. However great may be any one's tendency to mysticism, his affections cannot be wrought upon by what he regards as nonentities. He who has any religious sentiment must have a religious creed, right or wrong, briefer or more comprehensive. Religious feeling must be founded on religious belief; and, in proportion as any one's belief is clear and firm and true, so will his feelings be strong and permanent and operative of good. But all rational belief must be founded on reason.



on the objection to faith in christianity, as resting on historical facts and critical learning 

In the attempts of the German theologians of the New School to separate what they call Christianity from its historical relations and its connection with the New Testament, very much has been imperfectly and obscurely said upon the impossibility of resting religious faith on such foundations. What is said, though often not altogether intelligible, evidently refers to a view of the subject which it is important to consider, and to objections that may arise in an intelligent mind. I will endeavour to state them distinctly in my own words. 

It may be objected, then, to Christianity, that religion is a universal want and should be founded on some universal principle of our nature; but that Christianity, on the contrary, rests on something extrinsic to our nature, on testimony, that not only does this testimony in itself admit of doubt, but that it requires investigation, that the capacity and the means of a proper investigation of it are far from being common to all, and that many, or rather a large majority, must therefore receive Christianity, if they do receive it, without any satisfactory evidence of its truth. Nor is this all; it may be further objected that the history of this supposed miraculous revelation is contained in certain books. In them are to be found the doctrines supposed to be made known. But a question immediately arises respecting the genuineness of those books. It cannot be certainly proved; for certainty is inconsistent with the nature of the only evidence that can be produced. This evidence is, furthermore, such as requires much learning and study to enable anyone, by himself, to estimate its force. And, supposing the genuineness of the books to be rendered probable, they are in ancient languages understood by few; and even when the language is mastered, still much various knowledge is further necessary to give them a probable explanation. By the generality, therefore, the historical fact of a revelation, the genuineness of its supposed records, and the purport of its supposed doctrines must all be received on trust; and the few who have the capacity and means of investigation, can, at best, attain to nothing more than probable, not certain, conclusions, whereas religion, to be universal, should have an assured foundation in the very nature of man. It can rest upon nothing extrinsic to it. 

I have endeavoured to state these considerations, which well deserve attention, with clearness and force, avoiding those loose assertions and that indefinite language which some have fallen into from want of a distinct apprehension of what it was their purpose to urge. Let us now see what other view can be taken of the subject. 

In one sense, and an obvious sense of the words, religion is a universal want of man. It is required for the development of his moral and spiritual powers. He is suffering, tempted, and imperfect, and he needs it for consolation, for strength to resist, and for encouragement to make progress. It is connected, not with any particular faculty or faculties, but with the whole nature of man as a moral and immortal being, a creature of God. But religious principle and feeling, however important, are necessarily founded on the belief of certain facts, of the existence and providence of God, and of man's immortality. Now the evidence of these facts is not intuitive; and whatever ground for  the belief of them may be afforded by the phenomena of nature, or the ordinary course of events, it is certain that the generality of men have never been able by their unassisted reason to obtain assurance concerning them. Out of the sphere of those enlightened by divine revelation, neither the belief nor the imagination of them has operated with any considerable effect to produce the religious character. The belief of these facts, if it exist independently of Christian faith, must either be a mere prejudice, or must be a deduction of reason. But the process of reasoning required to attain the assurance of a Christian, if it might have been successfully pursued by a very wise, enlightened, and virtuous heathen, never was thus pursued; and it is scarcely necessary to say that, to the generality of the heathen world before Christianity, the facts that there is a God, in the Christian sense of that name, that man is immortal, and that the present life is a state of preparation for the future, were not matters of religious faith. Nor was there any likelihood that without Christianity they would ever become so. In rejecting Christianity, because it requires a process of reasoning to establish its truth, if we attempt to provide any other foundation for religion, it can only be by having recourse to a different process of reasoning, which experience has shown to be inefficacious, as respects a great majority of men. 

But the rejection of Christianity on the ground just stated and the pretence that the only true, universal source of religion is to be found in the common nature of man have been connected by many with the rejection of all the reasoning by which those facts that are the basis of religion may be otherwise rendered probable, and often with the rejection of all belief in the facts themselves. The religion of which they speak, therefore, exists merely, if it exist at all, in undefined and unintelligible feelings, having reference perhaps to certain imaginations, the result of impressions communicated in childhood, or produced by the visible signs of religious belief existing around us, or awakened by the beautiful and magnificent spectacles which nature presents. Sometimes, as we have elsewhere seen, they are represented as being excited by a system of pantheism—a doctrine that rejects all proper religious belief and does not admit of being stated in words expressing a rational meaning. In this case, whatever feelings may exist, they can have no claim to be called religious. 

There is, then, no other mode of establishing religious belief, but by the exercise of reason, by investigation, by forming a probable judgment upon facts. Christianity, in requiring this process, requires nothing more than any other form of religion must do. He who on this account rejects it cannot have recourse to Natural Religion. This can offer him no relief from the necessity of reasoning, and still less can it pretend to give him any higher assurance than Christianity affords. If its voice be listened to, it will only direct him back to Christianity. If he will not refrain from using the name of religion, his only resource to escape the difficulty and uncertainty of reasoning is to take refuge in some cloud of mysticism that belies the form of religion. 

From those who reject Christianity on account of the labor necessary in fully ascertaining its evidences and character, it may reasonably be required that, whatever be the new form of religion which they propose, it should be generally intelligible and established by proofs not requiring an effort of thought to be expected only from disciplined minds, and proofs, at the same time, as satisfactory as they are easy to be understood. But the contrast is very great between this reasonable requirement and the character of the writings of those by whom the objection is urged. On the one hand, these writings are evidently not adapted to common comprehension; and, on the other, in proportion as anyone is accustomed to think clearly and reason consecutively, so will he be the more struck with their uncertain meaning, or the absence of meaning, the inconsistency of thought, and the want, or the inconsequence, of reasoning. It has even been made a matter of boasting by the disciples of the school that these speculations are to be understood only by minds of a peculiar cast, prepared for their reception. 

But we have not, it may be said, yet removed the difficulty that the evidence and character of Christianity, in order to be properly understood, require investigations which are beyond the capacity or the opportunities of a great majority of men. Let us then consider to what this difficulty amounts. 

In the first place, it is founded merely on the fact that religious knowledge has the character common to all our higher knowledge, that it requires labor, thought, and learning to attain it. This is a fact; and it is a fact likewise that its attainment is attended with peculiar difficulties, such as do not commonly embarrass men in the pursuit of mere worldly sciences, since all vices and moral defects, all bad passions, sinister motives, low affections, and selfish aims, everything contrary to perfect sincerity of purpose, operates to draw us away from the truth. But these facts are true of the study of religion in general, not of that of Christianity alone, and therefore form no special objection to the character of Christianity. 

All the truths of philosophy, all those belonging to the higher departments of knowledge, all those connected with the intellectual and moral progress of mankind, all those most important to our worldly comfort and enjoyments, so far as their recognition has depended on man alone, have required strenuous and long-continued efforts of intellect to effect their gradual development, their clear exposition, and their general reception. These efforts have been made by a few individuals, the instructors of their race. The processes of reasoning by which these truths are established are now gone over and fully comprehended by only a comparatively small portion of men. But the benefit of these truths, the practical result of those investigations, are now a common property and a common blessing. We are wise through the wisdom of others. Human knowledge is the aggregate wealth of civilized man, not the peculiar possession of individuals; and all may share its advantages, whether or not they have contributed to it, or even understand the means of its accumulation. To take one example: — Throughout the enlightened portion of the world, the facts which astronomy has made known are generally received. These facts are applied to most important purposes, as regards our worldly concerns. By affording such facilities, as could not have been imagined before they existed, to the intercourse between nations, they have rendered incalculable service in promoting civilization, knowledge, and the social virtues. They have made the heavens teach us religion, converting them into a natural revelation of God. But astronomy is a science which it has been the labor of more than two thousand years to bring to its present state.    This science, its proofs and its relations, are now the study of a life. If, then, because what it teaches is not obvious, but requires long investigation, or because its proofs can be fully understood but by few, or because it is not the result of the unfolding of any faculty or tendency common to all men, anyone should conclude that the truths which it makes known are to be rejected and the benefits flowing from them disregarded, he would reason as wisely as he who reasons in a similar manner concerning Christianity.

In the one case, and in the other, and throughout the whole sphere of our higher knowledge, the results of the intellectual efforts of a few become the common benefit of many. None has made himself master of all the departments of knowledge; none has followed out anyone of them into all its ramifications and verified for himself every step in the evidence necessary to establish his belief. He who fancies he may have done so can have little comprehension of the relations of any important subject. However far one may have carried his own investigations, there is much that he receives because it is generally admitted as true, or because it is stated by writers on whom he is satisfied that he may rely. We are not insulated individuals, independent thinkers, whose business it is, each to build up a little system of his own out of the poor materials that he has gathered with the labor of his own hands. We are sharers in the wisdom of our race. The masses of knowledge, which enlightened men are continually bringing into the treasury of human improvement, are soon converted into common currency. Each individual is not obliged to dig the ore from the mine for himself. Those who think most wisely are instructors of each other. They receive much upon each other's authority. The foundation of their wisdom is the aggregate wisdom of the age in which they live. Linked together, as we are, intellectually as well as morally, the individual makes progress with those about him. Whatever truths he may hold, he has not attained them by the unaided efforts of his own mind; he has commenced with some share, great or small, in the common stock of knowledge. It cannot, therefore, be an objection to any truth whatever, and, consequently, not to the truth of Christianity, that the full comprehension of its character and evidence is the result of studies which are pursued only by few and that the many want capacity or opportunity to satisfy themselves on the subject by their independent, unassisted exertions. 

But it may be said that no direct answer has yet been given to the question: — On what ground is the truth of Christianity to be received by those who are unable to give themselves to a full study of its evidences? The reply is that it is to be received on the same ground as we receive all other truths, of which we have not ourselves mastered the evidences, for the same reason that we do not reject all that vast amount of knowledge which is not the result of our own deductions. Our belief in those truths, the evidence of which we cannot fully examine for ourselves, is founded in a greater or less degree on the testimony of others, who have examined their evidence, and whom we regard as intelligent and trustworthy. This is a ground of belief which is universal and which, if we relinquish, far the greater part of human knowledge must be relinquished with it. The likeness in the essential powers of men's minds gives them a common property in each other's acquisitions. What wise and honest men, who have devoted themselves to the examination of a subject, are satisfied is true, we may conclude, unless we can discern some special reason to the contrary, that we also should perceive to be true after similar investigation. This reliance on the knowledge of others may be called belief on trust, or belief on authority; but perhaps a more proper name for it would be belief on testimony, the testimony of those who have examined a subject to their conviction of the truth of certain facts. The reasonableness of such belief is constantly implied. In their opinions and practical concerns, men are continually deferring to the judgment of those whom they think better informed than themselves. We commit our health and lives into the hands of a physician, relying implicitly on his opinions concerning our disease and its cure, while of the correctness of those opinions we may have no means of forming a judgment, other than our belief in his information and good sense. To take an example from the science to which we have before referred,— very few individuals, scarcely one in a million  throughout  the civilized world, have gone through the whole body of evidence by which it is demonstrated that all the motions of the bodies of the solar system in relation to each other are to be referred to the one law of gravity; yet he would be thought unwise, who, because he had not studied this evidence, nor any part of it, should therefore doubt the testimony of those who have. In the application of this universal principle of belief to the evidences and character of Christianity, all that is required of an intelligent man is that he should admit it as an element in his reasoning, that he should rely to a certain extent on the trustworthiness of others who have made the subject their particular study, that he should allow the truth of facts which they affirm, and which he sees no cause for doubting. Of the reasoning upon those facts he may judge for himself; and he will also judge to what extent he should thus receive information on trust. But it is no objection to Christianity that a knowledge of its evidences and its character must rest in a certain degree on what is a universal condition of human knowledge, trust in the capacity and honesty of others. The admission of this principle does not weaken the force of its evidences in the mind of any man of correct judgment. In maintaining, therefore, that the thorough investigation of the evidences and character of our religion requires much knowledge and much thought, and the combined and continued labor of different minds, we maintain nothing that gives to Christianity a different character from what belongs to all the higher and more important branches of knowledge, and nothing inconsistent with its being in its nature a universal religion. 

We have seen the reasonableness of believing, to a certain extent, on trust, or, if I may so use the term, on testimony. In considering the subject, the reasonableness of this principle of belief is not to be confounded with a very important fact concerning it: the fact that it is the actual foundation of belief in a great majority of mankind on almost all subjects lying beyond the sphere of personal experience. There are those, who, in treating of man, seem to consider themselves as types of the human race in its actual condition, and, overestimating perhaps their own powers of investigation, indulge in declamation concerning independence of thought, in which what is true is applicable only to a comparatively small number. Our first impressions, the belief of childhood, are the result of our trust in the testimony of others; and a similar trust, whether it be recognised by them or not, continues to be with a majority of men a main source of their opinions. Without any reasoning on the subject, we expect the operation of this principle of belief. We suppose, as a general fact, that one educated as a Roman Catholic will identify that form of faith with Christianity, however wide the difference may appear to us. We should regard it as a marvel, and as indicating extraordinary intellectual energy in the individual, should one brought up as a Mahometan become a sincere and intelligent Christian. The opinions of the majority of men are determined by the intellectual influences acting upon them, which have their origin in a few minds. 

The principle, then, of believing on testimony, however necessary and universal, may lead, and has led, to great errors; but this characteristic it has in common with every other principle of belief, except personal experience or mathematical demonstration. It is further to be observed that all wrong opinions, though they may be propagated by it, must have had their origin in some other source. To whatever errors this form of belief may lead, it is an inevitable concomitant of our nature. The generality of men can be no wiser than their instructors. 

This view of human belief, as resting in so great a degree upon what may be called testimony, serves to show strongly the responsibility that lies on all those who undertake to influence the opinions of their fellow men, on any subject, by their belief concerning which their moral principles or their happiness may be affected. Whoever may do so should have natural capacity for the office; he should have the requisite knowledge of which extensive learning commonly makes a part, and he should be influenced by no motives inconsistent with a love of truth and goodness, by no craving for notoriety, no restless desire to be the talk of the day, no party spirit, and no selfish purpose of maintaining doctrines, the profession of which he cannot renounce without the loss of some worldly advantage. Before he inculcates any peculiar opinions, he should have thoroughly studied them, have clearly defined them to his own mind, have traced out their relations, and have become persuaded that future investigation will not lead him to change them. And further, he should believe himself to see clearly that their promulgation will tend to good, since, if there be a God who rules all things in infinite wisdom and goodness, no general law or fact in the universe can ultimately tend to evil, and consequently no general truth, or affirmation of such law or fact, can be ultimately mischievous. In proportion, therefore, as the beneficial effect of any doctrine is doubtful, so far is its truth doubtful on the supposition that there is a God. And if there be not a God, on which supposition truth might be mischievous, the moral offence of publishing a mischievous truth would still remain. 

Judging from the practice of the day, the responsibility of which I speak is not greatly regarded; and we may conclude from the language which is freely used that it is not generally understood. Men throw out their opinions rashly, reserving to themselves the liberty of correcting them if they are wrong. If you would know for what doctrines they hold themselves responsible, you must look to their last publication. It deserves praise, we are told, for one to confess himself to have been in error. It does, without doubt, as it also deserves praise for one to repent of a crime and to make reparation; but a wise and good man, as he will avoid committing crimes, so, according to his ability, he will avoid promulgating errors on important, or unimportant, subjects. Another loose notion is that there should be no discouragement, by the expression of moral disapprobation, to the  promulgation of any doctrine, whatever may be its character, or whatever may be the moral or intellectual qualifications of the teacher, for that this would be putting a check upon  freedom of discussion. The doctrine may be confuted, it is said, if it is erroneous.    But it should be recollected  that many errors are in alliance with men's passions, vices, and follies, and that, when  plausibly affirmed, they may be readily admitted by those who will not listen to, or perhaps could not comprehend, a series of explanations and arguments. It should likewise be recollected that a writer careless of facts, bold in his  assertions, and confused and illogical in his conceptions, may commit more errors in a page than an able man can confute in twenty, that these errors may be so gross, that one conversant with the subject may regard the task of exposing them as unworthy of him, and that it is hard to condemn such as are capable of informing others to the poor employment of rooting out errors, the growth of which is encouraged by those who assign them the task. But it is only necessary to attend to the general principle that, dependent as we all are upon the information and the opinions of others, no one has a right to assume the office of our instructor who has not labored to qualify himself morally and intellectually for its proper performance. 

But to recur to our general subject: —I have endeavoured to state the objection, or the difficulty, we have been considering in the plainest manner, and, admitting it in its whole extent, have limited myself to a direct reply. It is said that a great majority of men are not capable of investigating for themselves the evidences and character of Christianity, and therefore can have no reasonable foundation for their belief in Christianity. The direct answer to which alone we have attended is that trust in the information, judgment, and integrity of others, to a greater or less extent, as it is a universal and necessary, is also a rational principle of belief. If this be true, any further answer is not required; but very much more might be said to show the false view of the subject implied in that objection and to make it evident that everyone accustomed to thought and reasoning may, without any theological learning strictly so called, be able to satisfy himself of the truth of Christianity by the exercise of his mind upon facts that cannot reasonably be doubted. But this subject involves the whole evidence of our religion; and it has been my purpose merely to show that this evidence is not to be rejected, because it is analogous in its character to that by which every other important truth is established among men. 

The objection we have been considering goes directly against the possibility of any miraculous revelation from God as a foundation of our religious belief. It would condemn us, as a matter of necessity, to the desolation of our ignorance. It would darken its shades; for if Christianity be a delusion, if that religion, which the most civilized portion of the world has professed and the wisest men have believed, be founded in error, if that religion, which has seemed to bring us near to God and to confirm all our best hopes and has given vigor to every right motive, be false, then a deeper and more chilling shade falls upon the world, and all human reasoning becomes more uncertain. By the rejection of Christianity, man is not left in the state in which he was before its promulgation. A new and gloomy marvel appears in the history of our race. 

But, in truth, the mere fact that God has made a miraculous communication to men for their good, considered independently of any truths which he may have made known, is one of inexpressible interest. It introduces him within the sphere of human experience and makes his existence a reality to our minds. It gives a definiteness to our ideas of him that nothing else could afford. It presents him distinctly to our conceptions and feelings in his paternal character. It establishes a relation between God and man that could not otherwise exist and immeasurably elevates our race in the scale of being. Christianity, simply as a revelation from God, rises on the history of man like the sun on the natural world. We may doubt, we may disbelieve it; but it is vain to contend that there cannot be plenary evidence of its truth, or that this plenary evidence existing, it cannot be made satisfactory to the generality of men. 

Read George Ripley's famous response to this discourse: 

"'The Latest Form of Infidelity' Examined"


See also a brief review of this discourse from The Western Messenger

"Review of 'The Latest Form of Infidelity'"


[1] See Le Clerc's "Bibliotheque Ancienne et Moderne;" Tom. xv. p. 433 ; Torn. xxn. p. 135.

[2] See his “Tractatus Theologico-Politicus,” particularly Cap. vi.

[3] Ibid., Cap. vi.


[4] See, for example, Paulus’s “Commentary on the Gospels” and his “Life of Jesus.”

[5] See Note I. at the end of the Discourse, for "Some further Remarks on the Characteristics of the Modern German School of Infidelity."

[6] See Note II. “Qn the Objection to Faith in Christianity, as resting on Historical Facts and Critical Learning."

[7]Es ist die grösste und fruchtbarste Idee der neuern Theologie (und deren Geltendmachung ist die Hauptaufgabe meines theologischen Lebens), dass die Glaubenslehre keine Metaphysik, oder doch nur soviel davon enthalten darf, als zur klaren Verständigung des Glaubens nöthig ist; dass ihr Wesen nicht in wissenschaftlichen Sätzen, sondern in dem wissenschaftlich gereinigten und erleuchteten frommen Bewusstseyn besteht.” See an article by De Wette on a work of Olshausen in the first number, for 1834, of Ulmann and Umbreit's “Theologische Studien und Kritiken,” p. 137.

[8]Die neuere rationale Theologie muss die Lösung der Angabe vollbringen, den Glauben in seiner Unabhängigkeit von metaphysischer und historischer Wissenschaft zur lebendigen Anerkennung zu bringen, und zwar in letzterer Hinsicht so, dass sie die Thatsachen der Geschicte Jesu, ohne sie ideal zu verflüchtigen, in ihrer idealen Bedeutung, als Träger von Glaubensideen, geltend macht; die Wahrheit des christlichen Glaubens nicht (etwa wie ein Recht) auf die gemeine, nackte, historische Wahrheit gründen, und den historischen Beweis auf die wenigen wesentlichen Thatsachen einschrankt, während sie die Untersuchung der übrigen frei gibt. Insbesondere verzichte sie auf die bisher  gewöhnlicher so kleinliche und unwissenschaftliche Führung des Wunderbeweises. …Sie mache endlich wieder die

Wichtigkeit der christlichen Gemeinshaft geltend, und pflanze den Glauben in lebendiger Kraft in das lebendige Leben.” Ibid., pp. 151,152.

[9] See particularly pp. 48, seqq., 4th ed. 1831.

[10] pp. 53, 54.

[11] pp. 21, seqq.

[12] pp. 110, seqq.

[13] p. 59.

[14] pp. 118, seqq.

[15] pp, 47, 48.

[16] This language refers to the doctrines of Hegel, whose metaphysical system is of the latest fashion in Germany, and who maintains the unity of Spirit, human and divine, as the element of the universe; or, in the words of Strauss, (Vol. II. p. 766,) which cannot be rendered into English so as to give a show of meaning: “dass der göttliche Geist in seiner Entäusserung und Erniedrigung der menschliche, und der menschliche in seiner Einkehr in sich und Erhebung über sich der göttliche ist;” “that the Divine Spirit in its renunciation and abasement is the human, and the human in its withdrawal into itself, and its elevation above itself, is the Divine;” or, as he elsewhere (p. 762) expresses it, that “God and man are in themselves [essentially] one:” “Gott und Mensch an sich sind Eins.”

© 2005 American Unitarian Conference