Hor. Lib. I. Ep.4.1.5.
-- What benefits the wise and good. Creech.
RELIGION may be considered under two general heads. The first comprehends what we are to believe, the other what we are to practise. By those things which we are to believe, I mean whatever is revealed to us in the holy writings, and which we could not have obtained the knowledge of by the light of nature; by the things which we are to practise, I mean all those duties to which we are directed by reason or natural religion. The first of these I shall distinguish by the name of faith, the second by that of morality.
If we look into the mere serious part of mankind we find many who lay so great a stress upon faith, that they neglect morality; and many who build so much upon morality, that they do not pay a due regard to faith. The perfect man should be defective in neither of these particulars, as will be very evident to those who consider the benefits which arise from each of them, and which I shall make the subject of this day's paper.
Notwithstanding this general division of Christian duty into morality and faith, and that they have both their peculiar excellencies, the first has the preeminence in several respects.
First, Because the greatest part of morality (as I have stated the notion of it) is of a fixed eternal nature, and will endure when faith shall fail, and be lost in conviction.
Secondly, Because a person may be qualified to do greater good to mankind, and become more beneficial to the world, by morality without faith, than by faith without morality.
Thirdly, Because morality gives a greater perfection to human nature, by quieting the mind, moderating the passions, and advancing the happiness of every man in his private capacity.
Fourthly, Because the rule of morality is much more certain than that of faith: all the civilized nations in the world agreeing in the great points of morality as much as they differ in those of faith.
Fifthly, Because infidelity is not of so malignant a nature as immorality; or, to put the same reason in another light, because it is generally owned there may be salvation for a virtuous infidel, (particularly in the case of invincible ignorance,) but none for a vicious believer.
Sixthly, because faith seems to draw its principle, if not all its excellency, from the influence it has upon morality; as we shall see more at large, if we consider wherein consists the excellency of faith, or the belief of revealed religion; and this I think is,
First, In explaining and carrying to greater heights several points of morality.
Secondly, In furnishing new and stronger motives to enforce the practice of morality.
Thirdly, In giving us more amiable ideas of the Supreme Being, more endearing notions of one another, and a truer state of ourselves, both in regard to the grandeur and vileness of our natures.
Fourthly, By shewing us the blackness and deformity of vice, which, in the Christian system, is so very great, that he who is possessed of all perfection, and the sovereign judge of it, is represented by several of our divines, as having sin to the same degree that he loves the sacred person who was made the propitiation of it.
Fifthly, In being the ordinary and prescribed method of making morality effectual to salvation.
I have only touched on these several heads, which every one who is conversant in discourses of this nature will easily enlarge upon in his own thoughts, and draw conclusions from them which may be useful to him in the conduct of his life. One, I am sure, is so obvious that he cannot miss it, namely, that a man cannot be perfect in his scheme of morality who does not strengthen and support it with that of the Christian faith.
Besides this, I shall lay down two or three other maxims, which, I think, we may deduce from what has been said.
First, That we should be particularly cautious of making any thing an article of faith which does not contribute to the confirmation or improvement of morality.
Secondly, That no article of faith can be true and authentic which weakens or subverts the practical part of religion, or what I have hitherto called morality.
Thirdly, That the greatest friend of morality, or natural religion, cannot possibly apprehend any danger from embracing Christianity, as it is preserved pure and uncorrupt in the doctrines of our national church.
There is likewise another maxim, which I think may be drawn from the foregoing considerations, which is this, that we should in all dubious points, consider any ill consequences that may arise from them, supposing they should be erroneous, before we give up our assent to them.
For example, in that disputable point of persecuting men for conscience sake, besides the embittering their minds with hatred, indignation, and all the vehemence of resentment, and ensnaring them to profess what they do not believe, we cut them off from the pleasures and advantages of society, afflict their bodies, distress their fortunes, hurt their reputations, ruin their families, make their lives painful, or put an end to them. Sure when I see such dreadful consequences rising from a principle, I would be as fully convinced of the truth of it as of a mathematical demonstration, before I would venture to act upon it, or make it a part of my religion.
In this case the injury done our neighbour is plain and evident; the principle that puts us upon doing it of a dubious and disputable nature. Morality seems highly violated by the one; and whether or no a zeal for what a man thinks the true system of faith may justify it, is very uncertain. I cannot but think, if our religion produce charity, as well as zeal, it will not be for shewing itself by such cruel instances. But to conclude with the words of an excellent author, "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another."
The fewer things we want the more we resemble God.
IT was the common boast of the Heathen philosophers, that by the efficacy of their several doctrines they made human nature resemble the divine. How much mistaken soever they might be in the several means they proposed for this end, it must be owned that the design was great and glorious. The finest works of invention and imagination are of very little weight when put in the balance with what refines and exalts the rational mind. Longinus excuses Homer very handsomely, when he says, the poet made his gods like men, that he might make his men appear like the gods. But it must be allowed that several of the ancient philosophers acted as Cicero wishes Homer had done: they endeavoured rather to make men like gods than gods like men.
According to this general maxim in philosophy, some of them have endeavoured to place men in such a state of pleasure, or indolence at least, as they vainly imagined the happiness of the Supreme Being to consist in. On the other hand, the most virtuous sect of philosophers have created a chimerical wise man, whom they made exempt from passion and pain, and thought it enough to pronounce him all-sufficient.
This last character, when divested of the glare of human philosophy that surrounds it, signifies no more than that a good and wise man should so arm himself with patience as not to yield tamely to the violence of passion and pain; that he should learn so to suppress and contract his desires as to have few wants; and that he should cherish so many virtues in his soul as to have a perpetual force of pleasure in himself.
The Christian religion requires, that after having framed the best idea we are able of the divine nature, it should be our next care to conform ourselves to it as far as our imperfections will permit. I might mention several passages in the sacred writings on this head, to which I might add many maxims and wise sayings of moral authors among the Greeks and Romans.
I shall only instance a remarkable passage to this purpose out of Julian's Cæsars. The emperor having represented all the Roman emperors, with Alexander, the Great, as passing in review before the gods, and striving for the superiority, lets them all drop, excepting Alexander, Cæsar, Augustus Cæsar, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Constantine. Each of these great heroes of antiquity lays in his claim for the upper place: and, in order to it, sets forth his actions after the most advantageous manner. But the gods, instead of being dazzled with the lustre of their actions, enquire, by Mercury, into the proper motive and governing principle that influenced them throughout the whole series of their lives and exploits. Alexander tells them that his aim was to conquer; Julius Cæsar, that his was to gain the highest post in his country; Augustus, to govern well; Trajan, that his was the same as that of Alexander, namely, to conquer. The question at length was put to Marcus Aurelius, who replied with great modesty, that it bad always been his care to imitate the gods. This conduct seems to have gained him the most votes, and best place in the whole assembly. Marcus Aurelius being afterwards asked to explain himself, declares, that by imitating the gods, he endeavoured to imitate them in the use of his understanding, and of all other faculties; and in particular, that it was always his study to have as few wants as possible in himself, and to do all the good he could to others.
Among the many methods by which revealed religion has advanced morality, this is one, that it has given us a more just and perfect idea of that Being whom every reasonable creature ought to imitate. The young man in a Heathen comedy might justify his lewdness by the example of Jupiter: as indeed there was scarce any crime that might not be countenanced by those notions of the Deity which prevailed among the common people in the Heathen world. Revealed religion sets forth a proper object for imitation, in that Being who is the pattern, as well as the source, of all spiritual perfection.
While we remain in this life we are subject to innumerable temptations, which, if listened to, will make us deviate from reason and goodness, the only things wherein we can imitate the Supreme Being. In the next life we meet with nothing to excite our inclinations that doth not deserve them. I shall therefore dismiss my reader with this maxim, viz. "Our happiness in this world proceeds from the suppression of our desires, but in the next world from the gratification of them."
-- Quis enim virtutem amplectitur ipsam,
Juv. Sat. x. I.141.
For who wound virtue, for herself, regard,
Or wed, without the portion of reward?
IT is usual with polemical writers to object ill designs to their adversaries. This turns their argument into satire, which, instead of shewing an error in the understanding, tends only to expose the morals of those they write against. I shall not act after this manner with respect to the freethinkers. Virtue, and the happiness of society, are the great ends which all men ought to promote, and some of that sect would be thought to have at heart above the rest of mankind. But supposing those who make that profession to carry on a good design in the simplicity of their hearts, and according to their best knowledge, yet it is much to be feared those well-meaning souls, while they endeavoured to recommend virtue, have in reality been advancing the interests of vice, which, as I take to proceed from their ignorance of human nature, we may hope, when they become sensible of their mistake, they will, in consequence of that beneficent principle they pretend to act upon, reform their practice for the future.
The sages, whom I have in my eye, speak of virtue as the most amiable thing in the world; but at the same time that they extol her beauty, they take care to lessen her portion. Such innocent creatures are they, and so great strangers to the world, that they think this a likely method to increase the number of her admirers.
Virtue has in herself the most engaging charms; and Christianity, as it places her in the strongest light, and adorned with all her native attractions, so it kindles a new fire in the soul, by adding to them the unutterable rewards which attend her votaries in an eternal state. Or, if there are men of a saturnine and heavy complexion, who are not easily lifted up by hope, there is the prospect of everlasting punishment to agitate their souls, and frighten them into the practice of virtue, and an aversion from vice.
Whereas your sober freethinkers tell you that virtue indeed is beautiful, and vice deformed; the former deserves your love, and the latter your abhorrence: but then it is for their own sake, or on account of the good and evil which immediately attend them, and are inseparable from their respective natures. As for the immortality of the soul, or eternal punishments and rewards, those are openly ridiculed, or rendered suspicious by the most sly and laboured artifice.
I will not say these men act treacherously in the cause of virtue: but will any one deny that they act foolishly who pretend to advance the interests of it by destroying or weakening the strongest motives to it, which are accommodated to all capacities, and fitted to work on all dispositions, and enforcing those alone which can affect only a generous and exalted mind?
Surely they must be destitute of passion themselves, and unacquainted with the force it hath on the minds of others, who can imagine that the mere beauty of fortitude, temperance, and justice, is sufficient to sustain the mind of man in a severe course of self-denial against all the temptations of present profit and sensuality.
It is my opinion, the free-thinkers should be treated as a set of poor ignorant creatures, that have not sense to discover the excellency of religion: it being evident those men are no witches; nor likely to be guilty of any deep deign, who proclaim aloud to the world that they have less motives of honesty than the rest of their fellow subjects; who have all the inducements to the exercise of any virtue which a free-thinker can possibly have and besides, the expectation of never-ending happiness or misery, as the consequence of their choice.
Are not men actuated by their passions? and are not hope and fear the most powerful of our passions? and are there any objects which can arouse and awaken our hopes and fears like those prospects that warm and penetrate the heart of a Christian, but are not regarded by a free-thinker?
It is not only a clear point, that a Christian breaks through stronger engagements whenever he surrenders himself to commit a criminal action, and is stung with a sharper remorse after it, than a free-thinker: but it should even seem that a man who believes no future state would act a foolish part in being thoroughly honest. For what reason is there why such a one should postpone his own private interest or pleasure to the doing his duty? If a Christian foregoes some present advantage for the sake of his conscience, he acts accountably, because it is with the view of gaining some greater future good. But he that, having no such view, should yet conscientiously deny himself a present good, in any incident where he may save appearance, is altogether as stupid as he that would trust him at such a juncture.
It will perhaps be said, that virtue is her own reward; that a natural gratification attends good actions, which is alone sufficient to excite men to the performance of them. But although there is nothing more lovely than virtue, and the practice of it is the surest way to solid natural happiness even in this life: yet titles, estates, and fantastical pleasures are more ardently sought after by most men than the natural gratifications of a reasonable mind; and it cannot be denied that virtue and innocence are not always the readiest methods to attain that sort of happiness. Besides, the fumes of passion must be allayed, and reason must burn brighter than ordinary, to enable men to see and relish all the native beauties and delights of a virtuous life. And though we should grant our free-thinkers to be a set of refined spirits capable only of being enamoured of virtue, yet what would become of the bulk of mankind, who have gross understandings, but lively senses and strong passions? What a deluge of lust, and fraud, and violence, would, in a little time, overflow the whole nation, if these wise advocates for morality were universally hearkened to? Lastly, opportunities do sometimes offer, in which a man may wickedly make his fortune, or indulge a pleasure, without fear of temporal damage, either in reputation, health, or fortune. In such cases, what restraint do they lie under who have no regards beyond the grave? the inward compunctions of a wicked, as well as the joys of an upright mind, being grafted on the sense of another state.
The thought that our existence terminates with this life doth naturally check the soul in any generous pursuit, contract her views, and fix them on temporary and selfish ends. It dethrones the reason, extinguishes all noble and heroic sentiments, and subjects the mind to the slavery of every present passion. The wise Heathens of antiquity were not ignorant of this; hence they endeavoured, by fables and conjectures, and the glimmerings of nature, to possess the minds of men with the belief of a future state, which has been since brought to light by the gospel, and is now most inconsistently decried by a few weak men, who would have us believe that they promote virtue by turning religion into ridicule.
Mens agitat molem . -- Virg. Æn. vi. I.727.
God actuates this universal frame.
TO one who regards things with a philosophical eye, and hath a soul capable of being delighted with the sense that truth and knowledge prevail among men, it must be a grateful reflection to think that the sublimest truths which among the Heathens, only here and there, one of brighter parts, and more leisure than ordinary, could attain to, are now grown familiar to the meaner inhabitants of these nations.
Whence came this surprising change, that regions formerly inhabited by ignorant and savage people should now outshine ancient Greece, and the other eastern countries, so renowned of old, in the most elevated notions of theology and morality? Is it the effect of our own parts and industry? Have our common mechanics more refined understanding than the ancient philosophers? It is owing to the God of truth, who came down from heaven, and condescended to be himself our teacher. It is as we are Christians, that we profess more excellent and divine truths than the rest of mankind.
If there be any of the free-thinkers who are not direct Atheists, charity would incline one to believe them ignorant of what is here advanced. And it is for their information that I write this paper; the design of which is to compare the ideas that Christians entertain of the being and attributes of a God, with the gross notions of the Heathen world. Is it possible for the mind of man to conceive a more august idea of the Deity than is set forth in the holy scriptures? I shall throw together some passages relating to this subject, which I propose only, as philosophical sentiments, to be considered by a free-thinker.
"Though there be that are called gods, yet to us there is but one God. He made the heaven, and heaven of heavens, with all their host; the earth, and all things that are therein; the seas, and all that is therein. He said, let them be, and it was so. He had stretched forth the heavens. He hath founded the earth, and hung it upon nothing. He hath shut up the sea with doors, and said hitherto shalt thou come, and no further; and here shall thy proud waves be stayed. The Lord, is an invisible spirit, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. He is the fountain of life. He preserveth man and beast. He giveth food to all flesh. In his hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind. The Lord tnaketh poor, and maketh rich. He bringeth low, and lifteth up. He killeth, and maketh alive. He woundeth, and healeth. By him kings reign, and princes decree justice; and not a sparrow falleth to the ground without him. All angels, authorities, and powers, are subject to him. He appointeth the moon for seasons, and the sun knoweth his going down. He thundereth with his voice, and directeth it under the whole heaven, and his lightnings unto the end of the earth. Fire and hail, snow and vapour, wind and storm, fulfil his word. The Lord is King for ever and ever, and his dominion is an everlasting dominion. The earth and the heavens shall perish; but thou, O Lord! remainest. They all shall wax old as doth a garment, and as a vellum shalt thou fold them up and they shall be changed; but thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end. God is perfect in knowledge; his understanding is infinite. He is the Father of lights. He looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven. The Lord beholdeth all the children of men from the place of his habitation, and considereth all their works. He knoweth our down-sitting and up-rising. He compasseth our path, and counteth our steps. He is acquainted with all our ways; and when we enter our closet, and shut our door, he seeth us. He knoweth the things that come into our mind, every one of them: and no thought can be withholden from him. The Lord is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works. He is a Father of the fatherless, and a Judge of the widow. He is the God of peace, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort and consolation. The Lord is great, and we know him not; his greatness is unsearchable. Who but he hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out the heavens with a span? Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty. Thou art very great, thou art clothed with honour. Heaven is thy throne, and the earth is thy footstool."
Can the mind of a philosopher rise to a more just and magnificent, and at the same time, a more amiable idea of the Deity, than is here set forth in the strongest images and most emphatical language? and yet this is the language of shepherds and fishermen. The illiterate Jews and poor persecuted Christians retained these noble sentiments, while the polite and powerful nations of the earth were given up to that sottish sort of worship of which the following elegant description is extracted from one of the inspired writers.
"Who hath formed a god, or molten an image that is profitable for nothing? The smith with the tongs both worketh in the coals, and fashioneth it with hammers, and worketh it with the strength of his arms; yea he is hungry and his strength faileth. He drinketh no water and is faint. A man planteth an ash, and the rain cloth nourish it. He burneth part thereof in the fire. He roasteth roast. He warmeth himself. And the residue thereof he maketh a god. He falleth down unto it, and worshippeth it, and prayeth unto it, and faith, Deliver me; for thou art my god. None considereth in his heart, I have burned part of it in the fire, yea also, I have baked bread upon the coals thereof: I have roasted flesh and eaten it: and than I make the residue thereof an abomination? shall I fall down to the stock of a tree?"
In such circumstances as these, for a man to declare for free-thinking, and disengage himself from the yoke of idolatry, were doing honour to human nature, and a work well becoming the great asserters of reason. But in a church, where our adoration is directed to the Supreme Being, and (to say the least) where is nothing either in the object or manner of worship that contradicts the light of nature, there, under the pretence of free-thinking, to rail at the religious institutions of their country, sheweth an undistinguishing genius that mistakes opposition for freedom of thought. And, indeed, notwithstanding the pretences of some few among our free-thinkers, I can hardly think there are men so and inconsistent with themselves as to have a serious regard for natural religion, and at the same time use their utmost endeavours to destroy the credit of those sacred writings, which as they have been the means of bringing these parts of the world to the knowledge of natural religion, so in case they lose their authority over the minds of men, we should of course sink into the same idolatry which we see practised by other unenlightened nations.
If a person, who exerts himself in the modern way of free-thinking, be not a stupid idolater, it is undeniable, that he contributes all he can to the making other men so, either by ignorance or design; which lays him under the dilemma, I will not say of being a fool or knave, but of incurring the contempt or detestation of mankind.