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1. With a view, then, at once to explain and further our purpose, us offer it as a preliminary observation, and the first we have to make, that doubts and anxieties, so far from being designed to be removed from all points of religious inquiry, do themselves belong to a sound and healthful state of improvement and progress.
Inquiry does itself imply uncertainty about what is true. But inquiry belongs to the very condition of an imperfect creature. There is but one Being in the universe, who beholds truth with that perfect vision, that admits of no uncertainty. The man who has no doubts, has no thoughts that deserve the name. He may vaunt his assurance; but he could not fix upon himself a more certain mark of intellectual dulness.
Obvious and indisputable as these positions may seem to be, it is against these, we apprehend, that the tide of general feeling, in every Christian country, sets most full and strong. The reign of a church assuming to be infallible, is not yet over ; and for a man to say, I doubt,' is still for him to make the most unpopular of all declarations. We know that there are discriminations to be made; but the evil is, that this feeling, of which we speak, makes very little discrimination. It is a general feeling ;-- the general and immediate presumption is against the doubter; and being thus, we hold it to be utterly wrong, - unfriendly to reason, unfriendly to freedom, unfriendly to progress and improvement, unfriendly to truth.
Let it not be said by way of reply, that we have an infallible Bible, so long as we are fallible interpreters of it. Let it not be said, that the church has always believed thus and thus ; when it is well known, that the history of the church, to a considerable extent, is a history of now exploded errors. Let it not be alleged, that light has come into the world, when it is written also that the darkness comprehended it not, and when it may be inferred, that so far as darkness still prevails, it doth not yet comprehend it.
No; we are fully persuaded,' to use the language of the noble-minded pastor of the Pilgrim church, 'that more light is yet to break forth from God's word.' We do not deny, that of many things we may be certain. Neither do we forget, that it will be admitted by intelligent men of all creeds, that there are some things about which we may lawfully doubt. But we contend for more than admissions. We contend for a principle — for the principle, that honest doubts are to be treated with candor, with respect, with forbearance, that they are not to be overruled, nor beaten down, nor awed down; that they are not to be overwhelmed with obloquy, nor to be conjured out of men by looks, or tones of horror. We would resist, in short, this universal and violent presumption against doubt. It is closing up the very path by which imperfect beings must find the way to truth. It would, if unresisted, have left us all to be at this moment Papists. Nay, but for overwhelming miracles of power, it would have left us all to be at this moment Pagans. Not to inquire, is not to advance; to learn nothing, is to know nothing
Neither is the world ever too old to improve, neither is an individual. The world was made, and human life was given for this very purpose. There is a singular idea prevailing on this subject, which shows how limited are the conceptions entertained of it, — that persons advancing in life should rest in their religious belief, whatever it is. I am too old to change now,' is a sort of accredited answer to every suggestion of reasonable doubt. And this is said by a being, whose hope is to live and to improve for ever, and said by him in the very infancy of his existence, in the earliest dim twilight of the endless day before him. We use but the feeblest comparison, when we say, that this is as if a child should say, concerning the wisdom and prudence of this life, 'I am too old to improve.' The truth is, that no man, no angel has lived too long to learn. Existence is given, and is to be lengthened out to future ages for this very end. From those bright and boundless paths of knowledge, we hear no such plea as this for an indolent faith ; and he who uses it here, because he is forty or sixty years of age, might just as properly have used it in his cradle.
It is by such considerations, we think, (and they might be easily extended,) that men are to be relieved from the solicitude they feel, we do not say about their doubts, but about the bare fact of doubting. We are to be solicitous indeed to know the truth, but this solicitude is nct to be a cause of anxiety; for the absence of it would be a more just ground for uneasiness. We are not to be established in assurance, but in something better in pursuit, inquiry, progress, in candor, fairness of mind, modesty, a reasonable self-distrust, and a profound humility. We are to see clearly that these are the qualities, that become and belong to a fallible, imperfect, improving, rational being.
2. Still less, in the second place, are we to be settled in any bondage of mind. That is the way in which multitudes are settled. They are established in their convictions, because they never had the freedom of mind to examine them. They never doubt, for they never dare to doubt.
First, then, in the propriety of reasonable doubts, and next in perfect freedom of inind to examine them, are we to be established. There is no stability but this, that is worth possessing. There is no other stability in fact, that is firm and unwavering. The only principle of stability is freedom. All fixedness of opinion that is founded on any thing else, is circumstantial. It is one thing to-day, but to-morrow circumstances may change, and it will be another thing. He who yields his faith to authority, or holds it subject to the voice of the multitude, must be turned about with every wind of doctrine. It is he only who freely proves all things, that is not moved by any wind of doctrine, that is moved only by a principle within him, — moved only by a self-controlling power, and by the will of God signified to that inward power. That will is indeed signified in nature, in the human mind, and in the Scriptures of truth ; but the perfect law of liberty, written in the human heart, written by the free light of heaven upon the volume of nature, written upon every holy page, - that perfect law of liberty, we say, is not to be interpreted by the slave, but by the spirit that is, like itself, free.
We speak of a lofty principle; not of a restless passion for novelty or change, not of vanity, recklessness, or licentiousness, but of a sober, calm, and sacred freedom of the mind; and we know, both because it is mistaken, and because it is believed, that there will be many who can hardly think of this, as a principle of stability. Alas!' they say, all is uncertainty if you depart from the fixed standards of doctrine. All is afloat upon this ocean of modern religious speculation. All is instability, fluctuation, change. All, does the timid objector say ? No; there is one thing, and only one, that is not subject to the unstable element. It is freedom,- it is the free mind, - it is the pilot, with pierc
ing eye, and ready hand, and self-governed and self-determined will, that steers his course surely and safely amidst the world of waters. All else is indeed fluctuation. All that yields to the pressure of the elements will wander without aim and without end upon the uncertain waves. It is that which the free will of man directs, and it is that alone, which will make any progress, or reach any haven of rest.
We repeat it,- for the prevailing impressions on this point are so wrong, that it needs reiterated statements to set them right,- - we say again, therefore, that true freedom is stability,
that true inquiry, true candor is stability, progress is the only stability for a reasonable mind. The only real strength is increasing strength. This quality is not a fixture, but an energy in the soul, and there is no energy in implicit faith. There
be at times a convulsive struggle to hold to that faith, but there is no independent energy. Still less does this lofty attribute of stability attach to a creed, which every generation changes, or to a council, in which every generation presents new actors and new judges. No; next to its perfection in that God who is immutable, it exists only in that which alone bears the image of God, in the enduring mind, in the everlasting spirit of God manifested in the human mind.
3. In the statement of our third observation on the means of relief from the anxieties of religious inquiry, let us resume the figure by which we have just attempted to illustrate our previous remark.
We would say, then, that it must contribute much to the calmness and satisfaction of the navigator, for him to direct his course upon waters where his chart and compass may avail him, and not upon tracts of ocean, that are unknown, undefined, covered with impenetrable mists, and offering unintelligible phenomena at every step.
There is such a distinction to be made in regard to the subjects of religious investigation. Some of them are to be pressed upon the examination and submitted to the decision of the most ordinary inquirers. They come within the defined and beaten track of human investigations. Such are the being of a God, the doctrine of an inspired communication from heaven, and the most material truths, whether in the form of facts, precepts, or doctrines, that are contained in that communication. The messiahship of Jesus, his living, teaching, and dying, for our salvation, the full and affecting dis
closure of God's paternal love and interest for his human offspring, the doctrine of a future life, with glorious promises to the good, and fearful threatenings to the bad, the precepts and prohibitions that lay their stress upon the actions and consciences of men, these are matters upon
every man among us is qualified, and is bound to judge. But modern theology, and especially in this country, has spread before the people an ocean of metaphysical disquisitions, as strange and inaccessible to them, as the wildest regions of nautical romance. Or to make the comparison without a figure, the metaphysical disquisitions of modern theology are just as unfit for the mass of the people, as the most abstruse problems of philosophy, or of the mathematics.
This distinction often obtains, with regard to different views of the same doctrine. For an instance of this observation, let us refer to the doctrine of the atonement. That Christ died for us,
died for sinners, is a doctrine that all Christians can admit. And there are some obvious respects, in which they can perceive not only that the fact is so stated, but that the moral bearings of this fact are very interesting. They can perceive in his death an affecting and sublime example of patience, forbearance, forgiveness, fortitude, and humility. And in the death of a being so exalted, and cherished by heaven, and falling a sacrifice in the cause of human virtue,
they can see an evidence of God's love and pity for · his offending creatures, and of his willingness to forgive
them. But when the doctrine goes beyond this, — when it enters into the councils of heaven, and undertakes to say what God could, and what he could not consistently do; or when it goes into a critical and profound discussion of the subject of Jewish sacrifices, and of the question, whether the language of the New Testament, bearing reference to those sacrifices, is the language of general analogy, or of particular and exact explanation ; when, we say, all this is done, though persons not studious of these questions, — the body of the people, we mean, — may look very grave, and may say it is very learned, and may be gratified that their minister has seemed to discourse so ably, we shall not hesitate to aver, that they know nothing about it! And the same remark applies to the more abstruse discussions and statements of the doctrines of original sin, election, decrees, &c.
And this is what we could wish our communities would