« PreviousContinue »
thing which, being offered to them, they would reject. The intellectual pride of the philosopher relished it as little as the carnal pride of the Jew; for it flattered human wit no more than it gratified human grandeur. The pride of great acquirements, and of great wealth, equally obstructs the reception of divine truth into the heart; and whether the natural man be called upon to part either from“ great possessions,” or “high imagina tions," he equally goes away sorrowing.
CHAPTER V. The negligent conduct of Christians no real objection against Christianity. The reason why
its effects are not more manifest to worldly men, is, because Believers do not lend Christian lives.—Professors differ but little in their practice from unbelievers.—Even real Christians are too diffident and timid, and afraid of acting up to their principles.—The absurdity of the charge commonly brought against religious people, that they are too strict.
It is an objection frequently brought against Christianity, that if it exhibited so perfect a scheme, if its influences were as strong, if its effects were as powerful, as its friends pretend, it must have produced more visible consequences in the reformation of mankind. This is not the place fully to answer this objection, which (like all the other cavils against our religion) continues to be urged just as if it never had been answered.
That vice and immorality prevail in no small degree in countries professing Christianity, we need not go out of our own to be convinced. But that this is the case only because this benign principle is not suffered to operate in its full power, will be no less obvious to all who are sincere in their inquiries : for if we allow (and who that examines impartially can help allowing ?) that it is the natural tendency of Christianity to make men better, then it must be the aversion from receiving it, and not the fault of the principle, which prevents them from becoming so.
Those who are acquainted with the effects which Christianity actually produced in the first ages of the church, when it was received in its genuine purity, and when it did operate without obstruction, from its professors at least, will want no other proof of its inherent power and efficacy. At that period, its most decided and industrious enemy, the emperor Julian, could recommend the manners of the Galileans to the imitation of his pagan high-priest ; though he himself, at the same time, was doing everything which the most inveterate malice, sharpened by the acutest wit, and backed by the most absolute power, could devise, to discredit their doctrines.
Nor would the efficacy of Christianity be less visible now, in influencing the conduct of its professors, if its principles were heartily and sincerely received. They would, were they of the true genuine cast, operate on the conduct so effectually, that we should see morals and manners growing out of principles, as we see other consequences grow out of their proper and natural causes. Let but this great spring have its unobstructed play, and there would be little occasion to declaim against this excess, or that enormity. If the same skill and care which are employed in curing symptoms, were vigorously levelled at the internal principle of the disease, the moral health would feel the benefit. If that attention, which is bestowed in lopping the redundant and unsightly branches, were
devoted to the cultivation of a sound and uncorrupt root, the effect of this labour would soon be discovered by the excellence of the fruits.
For though, even in the highest possible exertion of religious principle, and the most diligent practice of all its consequential train of virtues, man would still find evil propensities enough, in his fallen nature, to make it necessary that he should counteract them, by keeping alive his diligence after higher attainments, and to quicken his aspirations after a better state; yet the prevailing temper would be in general right, the will would be in a great measure rectified ; and the heart, feeling and acknowledging its disease, would apply itself diligently to the only remedy. Thus, though even the best men have infirmities enough to deplore, commit sins enough to keep them deeply humble, and feel more sensibly than others the imperfections of that vessel in which their heavenly treasure is hid, they, however, have the internal consolation of knowing that they shall have to do with a merciful Father, who “despiseth not the sighing of the contrite heart, nor the desire of such as be sorrowful ;" who has been witness to all their struggles against sin, and to whom they can appeal with Peter for the sincerity of their desires—“Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.”
All the heavy charges which have been brought against religion, have been taken from the abuses of it. In every other instance, the injustice of this proceeding would be notorious : but there is a general want of candour in the judgment of men on this subject, which we do not find them exercise on other occasions that of throwing the fault of the erring or ignorant professor on the profession itself.
It does not derogate from the honourable profession of arms, that there are cowards and braggarts in the army. If any man lose his estate by the chicanery of an attorney, or his health by the blunder of a physician, it is commonly said that the one was a disgrace to his business, and the other was ignorant of it; but no one therefore concludes that law and physic are contemptible professions.
Christianity alone is obliged to bear all the obloquy incurred by the misconduct of its followers ; to sustain all the reproach excited by ignorant, by fanatical, by superstitious, or hypocritical professors. But whoever accuses it of a tendency to produce the errors of these professors, must have picked up his opinion anywhere rather than in the New Testament; which book, being the only authentic history of Christianity, is that which candour would naturally consult for information.
But as worldly and irreligious men do not draw their notions from that pure fountain, but from the polluted stream of human practice ; as they form their judgment of divine truth from the conduct of those who pretend to be enlightened by it; some charitable allowance must be made for the contempt which they entertain for Christianity, when they see what poor effects it produces in the lives of the generality of professing Christians. What do they observe there which can lead them to entertain very high ideas of the principles which give birth to such practices ?
Do men of the world discover any marked, any decided difference between the conduct of nominal Christians and that of the rest of their neighbours, who pretend to no religion at all? Do they see, in the daily lives of such, any great abundance of those fruits by which they have
heard believers are to be known? On the contrary, do they not discern in them the same anxious and unwearied pursuit after the things of earth, as in those who do not profess to have any thought of heaven? Do not they see them labour as sedulously in the interests of a debasing and frivolous dissipation, as those who do not pretend to have any nobler object in view? Is there not the same eagerness to plunge into all sorts of follies themselves, and the same unrighteous speed in introducing their children to them, as if they had never entered into a solemn engagement to renounce them? Is there not the same self-indulgence, the same luxury, and the same passionate attachment to the things of this world in them, as is visible in those who do not look for another?
Do not thoughtless neglect and habitual dissipation answer, as to society, all the ends of the most decided infidelity? Between the barely decent and the openly profane there is indeed this difference,—that the one, by making no profession, deceives neither the world nor his own heart; while the other, by intrenching himself in forms, fancies that he does something, and thanks God that “he is not like this publican.” The one only shuts bis eyes upon the danger which the other despises.
But these unfruitful professors would do well to recollect that, by a conduct so little worthy of their high calling, they not only violate the law to which they have vowed obedience, but occasion many to disbelieve or to despise it ; that they are thus in a great measure accountable for the infidelity of others, and of course will have to answer for more than their own personal offences : for did they, in any respect, live up to the principles they profess; did they adorn the doctrines of Christianity by a life in any degree consonant to their faith ; did they exhibit anything of the “beauty of holiness” in their daily conversation; they would then give such a demonstrative proof, not only of the sincerity of their own obedience, but of the brightness of that divine light by which they profess to walk, that the most determined unbeliever would at last begin to think there must be something in a religion of which the effects were so visible, and the fruits so amiable; and might in time be led to “glorify,” not them, not the imperfect doers of these works, but their “Father which is in heaven.” Whereas, as things are at present carried on, the obvious conclusion must be, either that Christians do not believe in the religion they profess, or that there is no truth in the religion itself.
For, will he not naturally say, that if its influences were so predominant, its consequences must be more evident ? that, if the prize held out were really so bright, those who truly believed so, would surely do something, and sacrifice something to obtain it?
This effect of the careless conduct of believers on the hearts of others, will probably be a heavy aggravation of their own guilt at the final reckoning :-and there is no negligent Christian can guess where the infection of his example may stop; or how remotely it may be pleaded as a palliation of the sins of others, who either may think themselves safe while they are only doing what Christians allow themselves to do; or who may adduce a Christian's habitual violation of the divine law, as a presumptive evidence that there is no truth in Christianity.
This swells the amount of the actual mischief beyond calculation ; and there is something terrible in the idea of this sort of indefinite evil, that the
careless Christian can never know the extent of the contagion he spreads, nor the multiplied infection which they may communicate in their turn, whom his disorders first corrupted.
And there is this farther aggravation of his offence, that he will not only be answerable for all the positive evil of which his example is the cause ; but for the omission of all the probable good which might have been called forth in others, had his actions been consistent with his profession. What a strong, what an almost irresistible conviction would it carry to the hearts of unbelievers, if they beheld that characteristic difference in the manners of Christians, which their profession gives one a right to expect; if they saw that disinterestedness, that humility, sobermindedness, temperance, simplicity, and sincerity, which are the unavoidable fruits of a genuine faith! and which the Bible has taught them to expect in every Christian.
But, while a man talks like a saint, and yet lives like a sinner; while he professes to believe like an apostle, and yet leads the life of a sensualist ; talks of an ardent faith, and yet exhibits a cold and low practice; boasts himself the disciple of a meek Master, and yet is as much a slave to his passions as they who acknowledge no such authority ; while he appears the proud professor of an humble religion, or the intemperate champion of a self-denying one ;—such a man brings Christianity into disrepute, confirms those in error who might have been awakened to conviction, strengthens doubt into disbelief, and hardens indifference into contempt.
Even among those of a better cast and a purer principle, the excessive restraints of timidity, caution, and that “ fear of man, which bringeth a snare,” confine, and almost stifle the generous spirit of an ardent exertion in the cause of religion. Christianity may pathetically expostulate, that it is not always “an open enemy which dishonours her," but her “familiar friend.” And, “What dost thou more than others ?" is a question which even the good and worthy should often ask themselves, in order to quicken their zeal; to prevent the total stagnation of unexerted principles, on the one hand; or the danger, on the other, of their being driven down the gulf of ruin by the unresisted and confluent tides of temptation, fashion, and example.
In a very strict and mortified age, of which a scrupulous severity was the predominant character, precautions against an excessive zeal might, and doubtless would, be a wholesome and prudent measure. But, in these times of relaxed principle and frigid indifference, to see people so vigilantly on their guard against the imaginary mischiefs of enthusiasm, while they run headlong into the real opposite perils of a destructive licentiousness, reminds us of the one-eyed animal in the fable; who, living on the banks of the ocean, never fancied he could be destroyed any way but by drowning: but, while he kept that one eye constantly fixed on the sea, on which side he concluded all the peril lay, he was devoured by an enemy on the dry land, from which quarter he never suspected any danger.
Are not the mischiefs of an enthusiastic piety insisted on with as much earnestness as if an extravagant devotion were the prevailing propensity? Is pot the necessity of moderation as vehemently urged as if an intemperate zeal were the epidemic distemper of the great world ? as if all our apparent anger and natural bias lay on the side of a too rigid austerity, which
required the discreet and constant counteraction of an opposite principle ? Would not a stranger be almost tempted to imagine, from the frequent invectives against extreme strictness, that abstraction from the world, and a monastic
rage for retreat, were the ruling temper? that we were in some danger of seeing our places of diversion abandoned, and the enthusiastic scenes of the holy fathers of the desert acted over again by the frantic and uncontrollable devotion of our young persons of fashion ?
It is not to be denied, that enthusiasm is an evil to which the more religious of the lower class are peculiarly exposed ; and this from a variety of causes, upon which this is not the place to enlarge. But who will be hardy enough to assert that the class we are now addressing, commonly fall into the same error? In order to establish, or to overthrow this assertion, let each fashionable reader confess whether, within the sphere of his own observation, the fact be realised. Let each bring this charge specifically home to his own acquaintance. Let him honestly declare what proportion of noble enthusiasts, what number of honourable fanatics his own personal knowledge of the great world supplies. Let him compare the list of his enthusiastic with that of his luxurious friends, of his fanatical with his irreligious acquaintance, of “the righteous over-much” with such as care for none of these things ;' of the strict and precise with that of the loose and irregular ; of those who beggar themselves by their pious alms with those who injure their fortune by extravagance ; of those who “are lovers of God” with those who are lovers of pleasure. Let him declare whether he sees more of his associates swallowed up in gloomy meditation, or immersed in sensuality; whether more are the slaves of superstitious observances, or of ambition. Surely those who address the rich and great in the way of exhortation and reproof, would do particularly well to define exactly what is indeed the prevailing character; lest, for want of such discrimination, they should heighten the disease they might wish to cure, and increase the bias they would desire to counteract, by addressing to the voluptuary cautions which belong to the hermit, and thus aggravate his already inflámed appetites by invectives against an evil of which he is in little danger.
If, however, superstition, where it really does exist, injures religion, and we grant that it greatly injures it, yet we insist that scepticism injures it no less ; for to deride or to omit any of the component parts of Christian faith, is surely not a less fatal evil than making uncommanded additions to it.
It is seriously to be regretted in an age like the present, remarkable for indifference in religion and levity in manners, and which stands so much in need of lively patterns of firm and resolute piety, that many who really are Christians on the soberest conviction, should not appear more openly and decidedly on the side they have espoused ; that they assimilate so very much with the manners of those about them (which manners they yet scruple not to disapprove); and, instead of an avowed but prudent steadfastness, which might draw over the others, appear evidently fearful of being thought precise and over-scrupulous; and actually seem to disavow their right principles, by concessions and accommodations not strictly consistent with them. They often seem cautiously afraid of doing too much, and going too far; and the dangerous plea, the necessity of living like other people, of being like the rest of the world, and the propriety of not being