Unity Pulpit. Boston.Vol. 5. No. 9.
George H. Ellis, Boston: 141 Franklin Street.1883.
The Goal of the Reformation.
"Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons : but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him."—Acts X., 34, 35.
It is probably true of nearly all great historic movements that they tend ultimately toward some goal unforeseen by those men who were most largely associated with the original impulse. Not only are these results unforeseen, but often, had they been seen, they would not have been desired.
It is a serious question, for instance, in my mind, whether, if Martin Luther could have seen the results which have been attained during the last four hundred years of Protestantism, he would not have hesitated before laying his hand to the work. I am not quite sure that he would not have preferred to have left certain things as they were, rather than to have been an instrument in the production of such results as have, even so far, flowed from this great reformation movement. Most certainly, Luther would have stood aghast, had he seen with clear and open eye what we can see to-day as the direction in which these forces are moving and what is to be their probable goal.
We claim ourselves to be one of the legitimate, logical fruits of the Reformation. But there is hardly anything in our church polity or church creed that would not have horrified Martin Luther, could he have foreseen it. Yet, when we study this universe a little deeply concerning the relation in which we stand to it, when we study through the long reaches of the past development of religious life and the unfolding of religious ideas, we see how naturally all these re- page 3 suits have come about. We see how inevitable it is that men who start great movements of reform should not be able either to control their direction or their ultimate results. I am one of those who believe so thoroughly in the great power that controls and guides the affairs of men that, however things may seem to be going, I should count it irreverent, I should count it practical infidelity, to question as to the ultimate outcome. I believe that the soul, the essence of religion, always has been healthy and right, is healthy and right to-day, and always must be healthy and right. Not only that: I believe that this essence, this soul of religion, is the same in all ages, all nations, under all names, through all forms, in every phase of religious development.
Let us consider for a moment what it is that men are after, when they are engaging in what they call the religious life? What is the thing they are seeking? Is it not this,—reconciliation with God, to use a religious phrase? To translate it into scientific terms, without at all changing its meaning, is it not an effort on the part of man to attain a right adjustment between his spiritual life and his moral and spiritual environment? To get into right relations with the power that lives in and works through the universe,—that is what men are after in all religion. But it is of course perfectly plain and apparent that, while the soul of religion remains the same, the body, in which it successively reincarnates itself, age after age, must be continually developing and changing, provided the intellectual life of man makes any advance.
If man is seeking reconciliation with God, he is seeking to get into right relations with this power that he recognizes as above and beneath and all around him. This is the soul, the essence of religion; this is the object of man's search; but the precise form that this search will take on, the intellectual creed in which it will embody itself, will depend entirely upon man's enlightenment, the degree of his thinking, the truth of his thinking concerning this great universe page 4 in the midst of which he moves and of which he is a part. So that, while the soul of religion remains the same, we must expect the body of it to change and change forever. We should have a very poor conception of this infinite universe, if we supposed that we, or that even the most advanced thinkers of the world,—those who are advanced in the true sense of the word,—have attained that which is to be ultimate and final.
Consider for a moment how true this is, when we put it into concrete illustrations. Take a man who worships a fetich, a senseless stick or stone; or take one who worships a frog or snake; or one who has arrived at some higher religious thought,—who worships a tree, a cloud, the wind, the sun, any external object of nature. What is he doing? He only recognizes these things as the outward manifestation of some spirit or life, some power that is above him, beyond him, that in some way controls his destiny, that can work him good or evil. The object of his worship, his sacrifices, his ceremonials and rituals, is simply to get into right relations with this invisible spiritual power. That is the one thing he is after.
Rising above these nature-worshippers or idolaters, come to the old Jewish high-priest in the temple; or let us come to Jesus himself, the highest and finest development of the past religion of the world,—and we find that they are also seeking right relations with God, seeking a perfect adjustment between the spiritual life and the life of the universe. We find that the body of religion is perpetually changing, taking on new forms, according to the advancing intellectual conception of the time.
It does not make any difference how far you carry the illustration. Bring it down to ourselves to-day. Consider it in relation to the finest scientific minds of the world. What are they after? Although they call it science, though they may doubt the existence of a personal God and have no faith in a future life, yet they are after essentially the same thing that we are. They are seeking after the re page 5 lation in which they stand to this infinite power outside and above and beneath them; and they are seeking to get into right relations to this power. Of course, then, there must be perpetual change in the external conceptions of the creeds, the rituals, the ceremonials, the whole body of the religious life, if men advance in the knowledge of the world, if they get a newer, wider, broader, deeper conception of the universe.
This leads me to notice the next step along this line of the movement which Martin Luther led. Luther, as I have had occasion to say in preceding sermons, broke down the authority of the Church. That is, in the light of a larger knowledge of the world, in the light of a grander conception of the universe, in the light of a truer thought of God, a truer thought of human nature, a truer conception of the right relation existing between man and God, he broke down that exclusive claim of the Church to be the only foundation of the religious life of man. He declared that there was at least one other, and that a better one; and so he substituted for the Church the Bible. He did not go so far as we must to-day; but he went far enough to set the human soul free,—free, at least, within certain grand limits. And the human soul, having learned this freedom, having tasted the sweets of thinking for itself, was not going to stop when Martin Luther became tired. And so, in order to take one step more toward the ultimate goal of the Reformation, we need,—not we here in this church simply, but we as united Christendom,—we need, I say, to take the step of declaring that, as the Church is not the eternal foundation of religion, so neither is the Bible the eternal foundation of religion.
I have intimated to you how natural it is for men to hold religious conceptions which are in accord with their scientific conception of the universe. You will find a certain grand, general parallelism running all through the ages, if you look carefully for it; and you will see that these scientific conceptions of the universe are really the external framework of religious thought and life. In the ages before page 6 Luther, the world was supposed to have material foundations that held it up. It was the centre of everything; the sky was a dome over it; the sun, moon, and stars existed to give light to it. We find the writer of the 104th Psalm speaking of God's having laid its foundations, so that they should not be removed forever. Go back far enough, and you find that people supposed that a tortoise supported the earth, and that under the tortoise was something else, and under that again something else, and so on all the way down to the inconceivable bottom. There must be, they thought, a solid foundation before the world could rest in safety. And just as they believed that there must be a fixed foundation for the world, so they thought there must be a fixed foundation for their religion.
After deposing the Church, Luther put the Bible in its place. We have found out that our earth does not need any foundation, or, if it does, it does not possess it. It is only one orb of a grand system, and this system is only one of a galaxy, and this galaxy only one of a system of galaxies,—all in eternal movement under the impulse of some infinite power; and they are held in their places by their mutual relationship to each other, by their mutual bulk and attraction, and are moving through space that has neither sides nor bottom nor top,—infinite movement under the influence of an infinite life.
This is the truth concerning the material system of things of which we are a part; and we need to declare the complementary truth, that religion needs no infallible, fixed foundation either of church or book. Religion is a part of the eternal life of God and of men, a part of the nature of things; and, poised in its own orb, it can sweep and swing through space forever, held in its position by the mutual bulk and attraction of the infinite God and the soul of man, and the other parts of the great system of things. It needs no foundation.
This attempt to find a foundation is shown to be futile and foolish, when we consider one fact more : neither Church nor page 7 Bible created religion. On the contrary, religion created both the Bible and the Church. Were both Church and Bible blotted out of existence to-day, the eternal power and life of religion would simply go on, and create a new Church and new Bibles without end.
We have reversed the truth of things in our conception; and, when we tremble for the life of religion because the Church and the Bible are touched or criticised, we are no wiser than we should be if we should fear on behalf of the trees and shrubs and flowers and grasses, because, forsooth, somebody should declare that Gray's Botany is not infallible. It is not a book on botany that creates flowers and grasses and shrubs and trees. The botany simply tells us about them, so far as the author of the book has learned. There will be new works on botany just as often as there is new knowledge concerning the flora of the earth.
So, precisely, the Bible did not create religion; and criticising the Bible cannot destroy religion. The Bible simply tell us about religion up to the point to which its authority had advanced. But there will be new religious writings just as fast and as far as there are new conceptions of the religious life.
There is one other reason which I must notice, why, for the interest of religion itself, this idea of the Bible being the infallible foundation needs to be taken away. Infallibility assumed in any department of thought is of course death to progress in that department. If, for example, there was some master organ-builder in America who should declare that organs must be built in a certain way, in accordance with certain ideas, and that that was the only infallible way, and should threaten to punish anyone who should depart from it, of course there never could be any better organs, so long as that law was enforced. Since the days of Luther, the Bible has lain right across the path of every attempt to make new intellectual advance in any direction.
When men attempted to teach the truth about the constitution of this globe, the Church said, "No, it is not true; and page 8 to say it is a sin." Why? Because the writers of this Bible declared that the world was made so and so; and, no matter what telescopes or astronomical investigations might demonstrate, no one might find out any truth that was inconsistent with the Bible. And so, if they have attempted to teach any new idea about God or about man, the infallibility of the Bible has been placed as a bar across the path of human progress.
This is simply because they have gone on the assumption that the Bible was the infallible, final, ultimate declaration of God to the world; that is really declaring that God is dead, that he has nothing further to say to man, that man can make no further progress, that nothing higher or grander can be found than was discovered two thousand years ago. We need then, as our next step toward the goal of the Reformation, to declare that this substitute for the Church which Luther posited for religion is not needed; that religion is God's child and can take care of itself.
Does this preclude the use of the Bible? By no means. We will study it, read it, reverently, tenderly, lovingly. We will make it our servant, our helper; but we will not have it for a master. Neither Church nor Bible shall be despots, but handmaids and servants of the religious life of man. This is the goal of the Reformation in this direction.
But one or two more steps must be taken. Just as we have revised our intellectual conception of the relationship between religion and the Bible, so we need to go to work and reverse the ordinary conception of the relation between the externals of religion and the religious life itself. We need, in other words, a new idea of what salvation means.
What is it to be saved? You know the old conception has been that the man who had partaken of the sacraments, and thus become a member of the Church, who had declared his submission to the hierarchy of priests, the man who had had certain emotions and feelings, who had passed through certain experiences, the man who was faithful to the observances of times and seasons, the man who prayed,—the man who did page 9 all these things was thereby proved to be a saved man. We need to reverse all that. Let us first go to the man himself, and find out whether he is saved or not. Then, we will find out the process by which he became saved, whether through Church or ritual or sacrament or the Bible or what not. Then, we will value this means of salvation just precisely in accordance with its practical power for working good in the human heart and life.
When is a man saved? Let us take a very simple illustration by which to approach this subject.
We have a word, "health," indicating a certain condition of the physical being. This word "health" is derived from the same word as "whole"; so that, when the New Testament speaks of one who had been sick as being made whole, it means that he has been made complete and whole in his physical relations. If we take another step, we see that the word "holy" is derived from the same word; and we stand face to face with the grand truth, so simple, so sensible, and yet so rarely recognized, that holiness is nothing more nor less than spiritual health. When a man is well in body, he is in health. When he is holy in soul, he is in spiritual health. That is the root and eternal idea underlying the word.
Now, then, a man is healthy physically when all the functions and powers of the system are right,—when they are, as they ought to be, in right relations to each other, and when the whole physical system is in right relations to the world outside. Sickness means maladjustment of some parts of the body, or the maladjustment of the whole body to the external conditions of life. Sickness of soul is maladjustment of the spiritual or religious nature. It is out of right relations to other religious natures, out of right relations to the personal duties which it owes to its fellows, out of right relations to the infinite life out of which we have come and of which we are a part. A man is saved, then, when he is righteous, when he is right, when he is well, when he is in health of soul,—holy; and it does not make any difference page 10 how he became so. You do not decide whether a man is in physical health by asking him who his doctor is, or what school of medicine he believes in,—homœopathy, allopathy, hydropathy, or any other. You do not find out the external physical creed and ritual of his life, and then decide whether he has lived according to that creed or not. You find out whether he is healthy or not by an examination of his person, his real condition of body. You do not care how he became healthy, through what process, under the guidance of what doctor, in the belief of what school of medicine.
So, precisely, we need to reverse our ideas of whether a man is saved or not. He only is saved who is in spiritual health, when, in the words of the text, he fears God and works righteousness. Fearing God means no slavish subjection, no trembling in his presence, but a serious regard for the right and the true, a reverent, devout recognition of the great laws and forces of the universe, and an attempt to be in right relations with these. A man is saved when he is all that; and it does not make any difference,—Peter said so, although the Church called after Peter very soon forgot his lesson—it does not make any difference, I repeat, whether a man is called a Jew, a Christian, a Unitarian, a Free Religionist, a Baptist, a Buddhist, or a Mohammedan, in all nations, in every religion, in every sect, it is he that feareth God and worketh righteousness that is saved, and nobody else. There is no heaven, just as there is no happiness, for you personally, except on this condition. You enjoy physical happiness just in so far as you are well, happiness accruing from the natural play of these functions that are in health. So there is no heaven for you in this world or in any other, except as you have the happiness, the peace, the rest, the joy which result from this spiritual right relationship, this health of the whole man. We need, then, to learn this lesson, and to learn it completely : not to question whether a man agrees with us, holds the same ideas that we do, but to find out whether he is devout, earnest, sincere, truth-seeking, page 11 trying to do God's will. If so, we count him saved and a brother, whatever name he bears.
Just one step more we need to take before we reach the ultimate and final goal. When we have found out that religion does not need a fixed foundation, and when we have learned that it is the righteous, and they only, that are saved, then we need to reconstruct all our ideas of the Church, and look for the true Church in the direction indicated by these two steps.
There has been on the part of all men everywhere an instinctive search for unity, for the oneness of things, for some sort of principle that should bind all apparently heterogeneous elements and movements together. Men believed in the unity of the universe before they could demonstrate it; and so men everywhere have believed in a unity of religion, and have looked forward to the time when all the world would be of one faith and one baptism,—worshippers of one God. Just before the time of Luther especially, they thought they had almost realized this conception of unity; and it was in their frantic endeavors to realize it that they perpetrated many of their cruelties and a large part of the injustice which they inflicted on men. There was first the great Roman Empire,—the unity of public affairs; and then there was the Holy Catholic Church,—the unity of religious and spiritual affairs. Luther broke this unity; and, from that day to this, we have apparently been breaking up into a wider and wider diversity in every direction, until men have wondered whether there could be any possible unity after all. But the one unity we need to seek, the one unity that we ought to seek and look for everywhere, underneath the surface of apparent diversity, is this unity indicated in our text. Who is a member of the one Church of God on the whole round earth? Why, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness. We must get over the idea, for it is petty, it is unscholarly, it is out of accord with the lessons of history, that we shall ever be able to convert the world to just our peculiar ways of thinking and doing. We ought not even to desire it. We page 12 must cease looking for the one universal Church of God under any name.
If you today are reverent, serious, and earnest in trying to find the truth, and are doing the best you can to work that truth out into practical living in the way of righteousness,—living in right relations to your fellow-men and to God,—then you are one of this eternal universal Church. And not only you: over beyond the fence that some sect outside of us is building around itself are men, sometimes by the dozens, or the hundreds or the thousands, we will hope, who are trying to find out God's truth and to work it out in their lives. They also are brother members with us, whether you are willing to own it so far as they are concerned, or whether they are willing to own it so far as you are concerned. Here is this grand underlying unity, and all are children of God. We must not expect to find unity even in Christendom. I do not believe that the whole world is going to be called by any one existing religious name. At any rate, if that day is to come, it is so far away that it is impossible for us to conceive of it. But there is to be made daily, hourly, yearly progress along the line of its development; and men are to recognize that, under whatever name or of whatever religion he may be, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of Him, and so is a member of this one world-wide, universal Church.