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Heaven would be the most acceptable, and also the most probable,—the most adapted to meet his wishes and his wants. And thus are men predisposed, both by their feelings, and their antecedent conjectures, towards the admission of such pretensions as have been above alluded to.
And it may be added, that any one who is thus induced to give himself up implicitly to the guidance of such a supposed infallible authority, without presuming thenceforth to exercise his own judgment on any point relative to religion, or to think for himself at all on such matters,—such a one will be likely to regard this procedure as the very perfection of pious humility, —as a most reverent observance of the rule of 'lean not to thine own understanding;' though in reality it is the very error of improperly leaning to our own understanding. For, to resolve to believe that God must have dealt with mankind just in the way that we could wish as the most desirable, and in the way that to us seems the most probable,—this is, in fact, to set up ourselves as Sis judges. It is to dictate to Him, in the spirit of Naaman, who thought that the prophet would recover him by a touch; and who chose to be healed by the waters of Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, which he deemed better than all the waters of Israel.
But anything that falls in at once with men's wishes, and with their conjectures, and which also presents itself to them in the guise of a virtuous humility,—this they are often found readily and firmly to believe, not only without evidence, but against all evidence.
And thus it is in the present case. The principle that every revelation from Heaven necessarily requires, as an indispensable accompaniment, an infallible interpreter always at hand,—this principle clings so strongly to the minds of many men, that they are even found still to maintain it after they have ceased to believe in any revelation at all, or even in the existence of a God.
There can be no doubt of the fact, that very great numbers of men are to be found,—they are much more numerous in some parts of the Continent than among us ;—men not deficient in intelligence, nor altogether strangers to reflection—who, while they, for the most part, conform externally to the prevailing religion, are inwardly utter unbelievers in Christianity; yet still hold to the principle,—which, in fact, has had the chief share in making them unbelievers,—that the idea of a Divine ReveLation implies that of a universally accessible, Infallible Interpreter; and that the one without the other is an absurdity and contradiction.
And this principle it is that has mainly contributed to make these men unbelievers. For, when a tolerably intelligent and reflective man has fully satisfied himself that in point of fact no such provision has been made,—that no infallible and universally accessible interpreter does exist on earth (and this is a conclusion which even the very words of Paul, in his discourse at Miletus [Acts xx.]'would be alone fully sufficient to establish) —when he has satisfied himself of the non-existence of this interpreter, yet still adheres to the principle of its supposed necessity, the consequence is inevitable, that he will at once reject all belief of Christianity. The ideas of a Revelation*, and of an unerring Interpreter, being, in his mind, inseparably conjoined, the overthrow of the one belief cannot but carry the other along with it. Such a person, therefore, will be apt to think it not worth while to examine the reasons in favour of any other form of Christianity, not pretending to furnish an infallible interpreter. This—which, he is fully convinced, is essential to a Revelation from Heaven—is, by some Churches, claimed, but not establislu'd; while the rest do not even claim it. The pretensions of the one he has listened to, and deliberately rejected; those of the other he regards as not even worth listening to. ,
The system, then, of reasoning from our own conjectures as to the necessity of the Most High doing so and so, tends to bad a man to proceed from the rejection of his own form of Christianity, to a rejection of revelation altogether. But does it stop here? Does not the same system lead naturally to Atheism also? Experience shows that that consequence, which reason might have anticipated, does often actually take place. He who gives the reins to his own conjectures as to what is necessary, and thence draws bis conclusions, will be likely to find a necessity for such divine interference in the affairs of the world as does not in fact take place. He will deem it no less than necessary, that an omnipotent and all-wise and beneficent Being should interfere to rescue the oppressed from the oppressor, —the corrupted from the corrupter,—to deliver men from such temptations* to evil as it is morally impossible they should withstand;—antl, in short, to banish evil from the universe. And, since this is not done, he draws the inference that there cannot possibly be a God, and that to believe otherwise is a gross absurdity. Such a belief, he may, indeed, consider as useful for keeping up a wholesome awe in the minds of the vulgar; and for their sakes he may outwardly profess Christianity also; even as the heathen philosophers of old endeavoured to keep up the popular superstitions; but a real belief he will regard as something impossible to an intelligent and reflective mind.
It is not meant that all, or the greater part, of those who maintain the principle here spoken of, are Atheists. We all know how common it is for men to fail of carrying out some principle (whether good or bad) which they have adopted;—how common, to maintain the premises, and not perceive the conelusion to which they lead. But the tendency of the principle itself Ls what is here pointed out: and the danger is anything but imaginary, of its leading, in fact, as it does naturally and consistently, to Atheism as its ultimate result.
But surely, the Atheist is not hereby excused. To reject or undervalue the revelation God has bestowed, urging that it is no revelation to us, or an insufficient one, because unerring certainty is not bestowed also,—because we are required to exercise patient diligence, and watchfulness, and candour, and humble self-distrust,—this would be as unreasonable as to disparage and reject the bountiful gift of eyesight, because men's eves have sometimes deceived them—because men have mistaken a picture for the object imitated, or a mirage of the desert for a lake; and have fancied they had the evidence of sight for the sun's motion; and to infer from all this that we ought to blindfold ourselves, and be led henceforth by some guide who pretends to be himself not liable to such deceptions.
Let no one fear that by forbearing to forestall the judgment of the last day,—by not presuming to dictate to the Most High, and boldly to pronounce in what way He must have imparted a revelation to Man,—by renouncing all pretensions to infallibility, whether an immediate and personal, or a derived infallibility,— by owning themselves to be neither impeccable nor infallible (both claims are alike groundless), and by consenting to undergo those trials of vigilance and of patience which God has appointed for them,—let them not fear that by this they will forfeit all cheerful hope of final salvation,—all 'joy and peace in believing.' The reverse of all this is the reality. While such Christians as have sought rather for peace,—for mental tranquillity and satisfaction,—than for truth, will often fail both of truth and peace, those of the opposite disposition are more likely to attain both from their gracious Master. He has taught us to 'take heed that we be not deceived,' and to 'beware of false prophets;' and He has promised us his own peace and heavenly comfort. He has bid us watch and pray; He has taught us, through his blessed Apostle, to 'take heed to ourselves,' and to 'work out our salvation with fear and trembling;' and He has declared, through the same Apostle, that 'He worketh in us;' He has bid us rejoice in hope; He has promised that He 'will not suffer us to be tempted above what we are able to bear;' and He has taught us to look forward to the time when we shall no longer 'see as by means of a mirror, darkly, but face to face ;'—when we shall know,'not in part, but even as we are known;'—when faith shall be succeeded by certainty, and hope be ripened into enjoyment . His precepts and His promises go together. His support and comfort are given to those who seek for them in the way He has Himself appointed.
ESSAY XVII. OF SUPERSTITION.
IT were better to have no opinion of God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of Him; for the one is unbelief, the other is contumely: and certainly superstition is the reproach of the Deity. Plutarch saith well to that purpose: 'Surely,' saith he, 'I had rather a great deal, men should say there was no such a man at all as Plutarch, than that they should say there was one Plutarch, that would eat his children as soon as they were born ;M as the poets speak of Saturn: and as the contumely is greater towards God, so the danger is greater towards men. Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation—all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not,— but superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy in the minds of men; therefore atheism did never perturb2 States; for it makes men weary of themselves, as looking no further; and we see the times inclined to atheism, as the time of Augustus Caesar, were civil3 times; but superstition hath been the confusion of many States, and bringeth in a new primum mobile,4 that ravisheth all the spheres of government.
The master of superstition is the people, and in all superstition wise men follow fools; and arguments are fitted to practice in a reversed order. It was gravely said, by some of the prelates in the Council of Trent, where the doctrine of the schoolmen hare great sway, that the schoolmen were like astronomers, which did feign eccentrics and epicycles, and such engines of orbs, to save the phenomena, though they knew there were no such things; and, in like manner, that the schoolmen had framed a number of subtle and intricate axioms and theorems, to save the practice of the Church.
1 Plut . De Supenstit. X.
3 Perturb. To disturb. 'They are content to suffer the penalties annexed, rather than perturb the public peace.'—King Charles I.
J Civil. Orderly; tranquil; civilized.
'For rudest minds by harmony were caught.
4 Primum mobile. Sec page 153.