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In religion, as in every other subject of human reasoning, mạch depends upon the order in which we dispose our inquiries. A man who takes up a system of divinity with a previous opinion that either every part must be true, or the whole false, ap. proaches the discussion with great disadvan, tage. No other system, which is founded upon moral evidence, would bear to be treated in the same manner. Nevertheless, in a certain degree, we are all introduced to our religious studies under this prejudi, cation. And it cannot be avoided. The weakness of the human judgement in the early part of youth, yet its extreme susceptibility of impression, readers it necessary to furnish it with some opinions, and with some principles, or other. Or indeed, without much express carę, or much endeavour for this purpose, the tendency of the mind of man to assimilate itself to the habits of thinking and speaking which prevail around him, produces the same effect. That indifferency and suspense, that waiting and equilibrium of the judgement, which some require in religious matters, and which some would wish to be aimed at in the conduct of education, are impossible to be preserved. They are not given to the condition of human life.
It is a consequence of this institution that the doctrines of religion come to us before the proofs; and come to us with that mixture of explications and inferences from which no public creed is, or can be, free. And the effect which too frequently follows, from Christianity being presented to the understanding in this form, is, that when
any articles, which appear as parts of it, contradict the apprehension of the whom it is proposed, men of rash and confident tempers hastily and indiscriminately reject the whole. But is this to do justice, either to themselves, or to the religion? The rational way of treating a subject of
such acknowledged importance is to attend, in the first place, to the general and substantial truth of its principles, and to that alone. When we once feel a foundation, when we once perceive a ground of credibility in its history, we shall proceed with safety to inquire into the interpretation of its records, and into the doctrines which have been deduced from them. Nor will it either endanger our faith, or diminish or alter our motives for obedience, if we should discover that these conclusions are formed with very different degrees of probability, and possess very different degrees of importance,
This conduct of the understanding, dictated by every rule of right reasoning, will uphold personal Christianity, even in those countries in which it is established under forms the most liable to difficulty and objection. It will also have the further effect of guarding us against the prejudices which are wont to arise in our minds to the disadvantage of religion, from observing the numerous controversies which are carried on amongst its professors; and likewise of in
ducing a spirit of lenity and moderation in our judgement, as well as in our treatment of those who stand, in such controversies, upon sides opposite to ours. What is clear in Christianity, we shall find to be sufficient, and to be infinitely valuable; what is dubious, unnecessary to be decided, or of very. subordinate importance; and what is most obscure, will teach us to bear with the opinions which others may have formed hupon the same subject. We shall say to those who the most widely dissent from us, what Augustine said to the worst heretios of his age: “Illi in vos sæviant, qui nesciunt, cum quo labore verum inveniatur, et quàm difficilè caveantur errores ;-qui nesciunt, cum quantâ difficultate sanetur oculus interioris hominis ;-qui nesciunt, quibus suspiriis et gemitibus fiat ut ex quantulâcunque parte possit intelligi Deus*."
A judgement, moreover, which is onde pretty well satisfied of the general truth of the religion, will not only thus discriminate in its doctrines, but will possess sufficient
• Aug. contra Ep. Fund. cap. ii. n. 2, 3.
strength to overcome the reluctance of the imagination to admit articles of faith which are attended with difficulty of apprehension, if such articles of faith appear to be truly parts of the revelation. It was to be expected beforehand, that what related to the economy, and to the persons, of the invisible world, which revelation professes to do, and which, if true, it actually does, should contain some points remote from our analogies, and from the comprehension of a mind which hath acquired all its ideas from sense and from experience.
It hath been my care, in the preceding work, to preserve the separation between evidences and doctrines as inviolable as I could; to remove from the primary question all considerations which have been unnecessarily joined with it; and to offer a defence to Christianity, which tian might read, without seeing the tenets in which he had been brought up attacked or decided : and it always afforded a satisfaction to my mind to observe that this was practicable; that few or none of our many controversies with one another affect or re