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A Rational Faith

Jabez T. Sunderland

"Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you."—1 peter 3:15.

Unitarians have no creed. We do have, however, a central principle, and all our distinctive beliefs spring immediately from this principle. What is this principle? Probably ninety-nine persons in every hundred will declare at once that it is our notion of the Unity of God as opposed to the Trinity. By no means. That is not the fontal idea from which the stream of our Unitarianism has flowed. It is true that that has given us our name, "Unitarians." But there is something a good deal deeper than that, in which our existence as a body or movement roots itself. That deepest, central, fontal thing with us is our belief in the eternal and essential harmony between religion and reason, or, perhaps better, in the necessity of always interpreting religion in the light of reason, or, possibly best of all, in the application of the scientific method to religion. This fixed and ineradicable belief of ours is the key, and the only key that unlocks Unitarianism.

It is true that we believe, as a body, in the unity as opposed to the trinity of God. But we believe this because our principle of interpreting religion in the light of reason, or of applying the scientific method to religion, compels us thus to believe. The Bible, studied in the light of this principle, we do not find to teach any trinity, but always and everywhere, one God, and only one.

Turning from this great book which comes down to us from the Jews, and which we call The Bible, to that other great bible of God, the Book of Nature, which science is so fast reading, we find there no trace of more than one God. Everywhere in nature is unity, correlation, harmony of design and of action, which tells of one supreme, undivided Wisdom and Power which is over all, under all, through all. And there is no trace anywhere of a second or a third Being.

When we go into heathen mythologies, and to the speculations and crude notions of men who lived in the old, dark, unscientific ages, then we find at once traces of a plurality of gods—two, three, a dozen, any number. In Persia we find two gods; in Egypt and India we find trinities; in Greece, of the great gods of Olympus, we find twelve; in Scandinavia we find also twelve principal gods; while among some peoples of the earth we find thousands and millions. But these mythologies do not stand at all the application of the scientific methods of investigation to them. Examined with the care and thoroughness and impartiality with which science investigates all things, these mythologies melt into thin air; and all trace of the million gods, or the dozen gods, or the trinity of gods, or the duality of gods, passes away, and there is left only the one God, whom the Bible teaches, whom nature in all her wonderful unities proclaims, whom Jesus worshiped.

Here, then, you see why it is that we believe in one God, and only one, and find ourselves compelled to reject all such mythological notions as pluralities of gods, whether the pluralities take the form of a trinity or any other number. We must believe as we do, or else give up our fundamental principle—our distinguishing principle—viz., that religion is a thing of light, and not of darkness; a thing to be investigated, judged of, interpreted in the light of reason.

Again, another doctrine held by an increasingly large proportion of Unitarians is the doctrine that Jesus was not God, nor a being half God and half man, but that He was a man simply—a great, providential man, raised up to do a work for the world in religion, some such as Homer did for the world in poetry, or Plato in philosophy, or Bacon in science. A continental man, a Mont Blanc among men, but a man still. Why do we believe this? Is this a doctrine which Unitarianism in the beginning set out from as a postulate, saying, "I will make this one of my corner-stones, which nothing is to be allowed to move?" Not at all. Nothing of this kind was done. On the contrary, this doctrine, like the one mentioned before, of the unity of God, resulted from the principle that true religion must be reasonable, and that the scientific method is to be applied as much to religion as to anything else. Applying this principle, the result was reached inevitably, though reluctantly. At first very many Unitarians stopped at the halfway house, and said that Jesus, though not God, was yet superhuman — an angelic or super-angelic being. Indeed, many hold that doctrine concerning him still. But to me at least it seems illogical; our principle dooms it to pass away. All that class of persons in the world who would as soon believe an irrational religion as a rational, and who say that religion is something to which you must apply no scientific methods of investigation, will almost certainly continue to hold that Jesus Christ was God; but those who cannot consent to the divorce of religion from reason, and who hold that true religion only shows itself more clearly true the more thoroughly it is examined, I do not think can stop short of the position which I have stated to be the legitimate Unitarian position, that Jesus was a man—a great providential man, who came in God's time to lead a large part of the race forward and upward into a religion purer and better than the world had known before.

The far past of the Old World, as we are learning from the researches of scholars in philosophy and ancient history, and the literatures and religions of the ancient peoples of Europe and Asia, is full of accounts of incarnations, miraculous conceptions, gods dwelling on earth, men descended from the gods, beings half men and half gods, and such like things. But there is no one of them all that for a moment stands the touchstone of careful, scientific investigation. They are found to be mere myths and fancies of a credulous, unscientific age. No more do the theological notions of Christendom that Jesus was miraculously conceived, descended from God through no human father, and himself a combination of the infinite God and a finite man, stand the test of sound criticism. There are very few passages indeed, in the New Testament which, under any sound interpretation, can be said to give the least support to any such notion concerning Jesus. And the few there are can certainly much more easily be supposed to be erroneous, than we can suppose things to have occurred so abnormal, so utterly contrary to all human experience. It certainly is not scientific or reasonable to dismiss at once as not even worthy of careful investigation, the stories of Hindoo incarnations, and of Grecian personages half gods and half men, and at the same time, on the slight evidence that we have (which so much of the best scholarship and criticism of the age declares to be no evidence at all), go on affirming that there was a veritable incarnation of the Great Jehovah among the Jews of Palestine, and that Jesus was God and man.

But I will not dwell longer upon this point. My simple thought is, that the idea which we Unitarians have about Jesus is not any idea which we have set out with, as a part of a Procrustean creed which we have constructed for ourselves, or anything of that kind. It is simply the idea which our principle, that religion and reason must in all things go hand in hand, and that the scientific method must be applied to religion the same as to anything else, has irresistibly led us to. In other words our Jesus, as we claim, is the Jesus of verified history, the Jesus of investigation, the Jesus of reason, the loving, wise, devout, heroic, grandly-inspired man Jesus, that remains after the clouds which superstition, and myth, and theological speculation have wrapped about him, have been blown away—and he himself, in his real self, appears.

Another doctrine which Unitarians hold in common is the doctrine of the dignity of human nature—the doctrine that man is not by nature corrupt, depraved, incapable of doing anything pleasing to heaven—but that he has in him naturally a great deal of good. Why do we thus hold? Because the facts compel us to. We look abroad in our own land, not only inside churches but outside, not only among professing Christians, but among those who make no religious professions at all; nay, we look away beyond our own land, even into countries where Christianity, as such, is unknown, and everywhere we see men and women doing kind, loving, beautiful, noble deeds—just such deeds as Jesus always commended, just such deeds as we call Christian when we see them done by professing Christian people. We Unitarians take it, therefore, that they are in essence Christian deeds, and that pure religion and true Christianity are something native to the heart of man. Hence mankind cannot be by nature—as the Confession of Faith of at least two of the leading orthodox denominations of the country affirms—"dead in sin, wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body," "made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil." To say that is to contradict not only the best teachings of the Bible, but also the facts as they appear everywhere up and down the earth to every unprejudiced man's eye.

Another doctrine that we Unitarians hold is that the Bible is not one homogeneous book, with all its parts of equal value, but that it is a collection of a great many books, written at widely different times, and by different men, and for different purposes, and of different degrees of accuracy and authenticity, and that in the course of ages these books have drifted together in their present form, nobody knows just how; some of the books being taken up mainly with Hebrew genealogies and such things as could not possibly be of much value outside of the Jewish people; others of the books containing accounts and statements which our modern science tells us cannot possibly be correct, and which we are therefore obliged to cast out; while others again, like the Psalms, the Book of Job, Isaiah, the Gospels, and some of the Epistles of Paul, are full of the very grandest and highest religious truths and inspirations which God has given to the race. So that we are to go to the Bible as to a gold-mine—not to declare that everything we find is alike gold, but to admit freely, as honest, candid investigation compels us to, that some of what we find is stone, and some earth, and some the quartz that holds the gold, while some—and a very large amount—is gold itself, precious and indestructible. This is what we, as Unitarians, hold about the Bible.

And why do we hold this, instead of the prevailing "orthodox" theory of the perfect infallibility of every part and word of the Bible? Simply because there is no alternative for us. We are obliged to hold this, or else shut our eyes and refuse to receive the light which science and scholarship are bringing to us.

Unitarians hold also a different doctrine about Revelation from what is generally held among other denominations. We hold that God has not revealed Himself simply once, and that in the distant past, but that He has been revealing Himself all the while since the beginning of human history, and is revealing Himself still—in the Bible, in other grand books of the ages, in human history, in all nature from blazing sun down to tiniest insect, in the mind and heart of man, and that as the ages go on, and science enlarges, and men reach higher and higher attainments in civilization and spiritual culture, He will reveal Himself more and more.

Another of our doctrines as Unitarians is that inspiration is not something which can be locked up in a book, or confined to any age or people, but that it is a perpetual, ever-living thing, belonging to all times and all peoples, that now, today, and here in America, just as truly as two thousand or three thousand years ago, or in Palestine, the Infinite Spirit of Wisdom, and Love, and Peace waits to come with its inspiration into every devout and earnest soul.

Another doctrine of ours is that salvation is not something which can be transferred from one person to another, or that can be bought for us by any being outside of ourselves. Rather it is a thing of character and life, which every man must work out for himself. Virtue is salvation; vice is perdition. Every man is accountable for himself, and his guilt cannot be transferred to another. God cannot hold the whole human race guilty because of what Adam did—it is incredible. Nor if Jesus kept the laws of God never so perfectly, could it avail for any but himself. To be saved is not to accept some bargain, but to obey all the laws of one's being—physical, mental, moral, spiritual. Nor does such obedience ensure a salvation in a far-off heaven merely. It is salvation here and now.

Another of our beliefs is, that "God is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever," and therefore that if He is kind to all His human children now, in this world, He will be not less kind to us in the next world. If He is the Father of us all here, He will be the Father of us all there, and nothing can ever pluck us out of His hand or His heart.

Other doctrines we hold differing to a greater or less extent from those of the sects about us, but these that I have mentioned are the principal ones. These give perhaps as good an idea as it is possible for me to give of what it is that we stand for as a body. As I have said, our central principle is that the same God made our minds and commanded them to think, that made our hearts, and commanded them to love and adore, and that no religion can possibly be true that does not stand the test of investigation, and whose divineness does not become all the more apparent by the pouring on it of all the light we can get. Science we believe to be as much the friend of true religion, as it is the enemy of false religion or superstition. Reason we believe to be of God, and not of the devil, and something not simply that we may, but that we must, exercise with reference to religion, or else be swamped in superstitions false as hell—calling themselves religion. And I have endeavored to show that all our doctrines about God, and Jesus, and the Bible, and revelation, and inspiration, and salvation, and the rewards and punishments of the next life, and every other subject of religious thought, grow directly out of this one great central principle of ours—of, as Paul puts it, "proving all things, and holding fast that which is good," or, as I have stated it in this discourse, "applying the scientific method" to all things, religion included.

So then we see that, though Unitarianism has no creed, and labors little for mere denominational aggrandizement, and did not set out in the beginning to be a sect or do the work of a sect at all, but rather to do a work of purification and reform which should reach all the sects, and draw them all alike away from their sectarianism toward what was larger, and finer, and more enduring, because more natural than any sectarianisms can ever be, still, because it set out upon its reforms animated and governed by a central principle, it arrived very soon at an essential unity of theological views—a unity which it has always kept, and must always keep, because religion interpreted by reason, or religion submitted to the scientific method, leads necessarily, as we believe, to what are essentially these doctrines that I have set forth today.

Do you doubt that it does thus lead? Behold the proof of it right among the orthodox denominations themselves. Tell me, is the orthodoxy which we hear about us today the same thing as the orthodoxy which you and I used to hear, say even twenty years ago? Has there been no change? Have no doctrines been softened? Have none been allowed to fall into the background? Has there been no theological advance made? We all very well know that there has been a marked change, a marked theological advance made, within the past twenty years, and this, in spite of the most determined and persistent opposing efforts of the theologians, of the more narrow-minded and ultra "evangelical" preachers and editors of the various orthodox sects, and especially of the revivalists. In what direction has been the advance? It has been, every part of it, exactly in the direction of Unitarianism. However great the advance, by so much is the orthodoxy of this country today nearer Unitarianism than it was twenty years ago.

And why should it not be? Isn't this a scientific age? Isn't it an age of investigation? Isn't it an age that is unchaining reason, as no age before has ever done? Why, then, expect that any theological changes that might take place would be in any other direction than toward that particular theology which has come into existence as a rational theology—that particular theology which has grown out of the one great central idea of reason in religion?

And so, friends, as Unitarianism today looks forward into the future, do you wonder that it is filled with a great hope?

Not that our name, Unitarian, is something that must necessarily always last. I am disposed to think that it will not always last. For, really, that name is not adequate—it is too narrow properly to designate the great movement and principles that we stand for. Correct so far as it goes: it does not go far enough; it is not broad enough, has too much of a sectarian look. That is the reason why we so often designate ourselves by that other somewhat broader name, Liberal Christians. The name which I myself prefer, because I think it describes us better than any other, is the name Rational Christians. However, names amount to very little in this world. The thing is what we want. And the thing which the name Unitarian, or Universalist, or Liberal Christian, or Rational Christian, or whatever other name may be employed means, the thing will not pass away; that, as knowledge increases, and science gets larger dominion, and civilization advances, and reason comes to be more and more the guide of men's lives, must become the inheritor of the future.

chicago, July, 1876.


© 2005 American Unitarian Conference