Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Limits of Liberality in Religious Belief
By Mark Hopkins (18021887)
[Born in Stockbridge, Mass., 1802. Died at Williamstown, Mass., 1887. Teachings and Counsels. 1884.]
WE have thus three spheres and standards of liberality. In the first the relation of man and of nature to supernatural agency is immediately in question; in the second it is the relation of a belief in truth to practice that is in question; and in the third it is the relation of the practical life to the spirit of Christianity and to the moral government of God. But while the questions are thus apparently different, their central point is the same. They all find their unity and interest in the relation of the human will to supernatural control. Eliminate but this one idea, and the crested waves of these controversies will subside to the merest ripple; and the terms that may be used, however intense in form, will be charged with no divisive elements. The real questions are, the existence of a holy God claiming control over the human will, and the extent of the control thus claimed.
And first, what is our criterion in the sphere of belief respecting supernatural agency, involving a belief in efficient causation and in final causes or ends intelligently proposed and pursued in nature? If we begin with Fetishism and pass up, resolving phenomena that had been attributed to spiritual agency into general laws, where shall we stop?
We must stop at the point where negation begins to affect the sum and grandeur of being. This is the criterion. In passing up from Fetishism we do indeed constantly deny, but we also constantly affirm. As we diminish the number of supernatural agents we increase their greatness, till we resolve all natural laws and forces directly or indirectly into the will of the one infinite God. If now we clothe him in our conceptions with perfect moral attributes, we have the highest conceivable sum and mode of being. This is the condition, and the only condition, of the perfect working and indefinite progress of the human faculties. Here we reach the point of the liberality without narrowness and without laxness. Beyond this we pass into negation and tenuity.
The criterion is one not merely to be seen by the intellect, but to be felt as a condition of growth. The condition of indefinite growth in intellect is thoughts of God still unfathomed; and the condition of growth in the moral nature is a recognized goodness in God that transcends ours. Man cannot live in negations. If he could reach a point where the imagination even could transcend the possibilities of being he would begin to be dwarfed. As in passing upwards we reach a point where breathing becomes less effective from the thinness of the atmosphere, so the moment we begin to deny intelligent will to God, or to impair his moral attributes, or to limit his control over the universe by anything but the conditions which He has himself imposed, we come into a mental atmosphere of less vitality. All history shows that from that point constructive power wanes, and moral torpor begins.
What we say then is, that our criterion here must be the condition of highest activity and fullest growth for the human powers; that that condition is the complement and perfection of being as recognized in an infinite and personal God; and that for man to apply terms of commendation to virtual negations that must stifle his own life and dwarf his own growth is to call evil good.
It is here virtually the same as before. Truth is of importance only as it ministers to life, and as it is the only thing that can thus minister. What we claim for truth in the religious sphere is the same that we claim for it elsewherejust that and no more. Everywhere it is the basis of all rational action, the very light in which man must walk if he would not stumble. Men hold truth that is not acted upon. There is much that cannot be the basis of action, and that which may, and should be, is often held, or rather imprisoned, in indolence and unrighteousness. Be its adaptions what they may, let any truth lie in the mind undigested, unassimilated, giving no impulse or guidance, and it might as well not be there. Still, whatever rational action there may be, is, and must be, based on the belief of something as true. Men do something because they believe something; and in religion no less than in other things they must believe in order to do, unless, indeed, we resolve the religious life into that mere muddle of unintelligent feeling called mysticism. Men may believe in God and not worship him, but they cannot worship him unless they believe in him. Unless they believe that Christ has come in the flesh, they cannot follow him. Unless they believe in a moral government, they cannot fear to sin; nor can they flee from the wrath to come, unless they believe that there is a coming wrath. A man may conduct his secular business with a degree of success under some misapprehension of the facts on which it is based, but if he misconceive them wholly he must fail; and a man who wholly denies or perverts the facts on which a religious life is based, must fail in that. But in either case the more perfectly the truth is seen, that is, all truth that can bear upon results, the more the man acts in his true element as a man, and the more sure he is of success.
We believe then in no weak liberality, or pretence of breadth that would ignore the vital connection of truth with life; and our criterion here, the point of liberality without narrowness and without laxity, is such a belief in all religious truth as shall be the condition of the highest life .
If we suppose a being morally perfect, the standard of his conduct must be a perfect moral law. Such a law is required both as an expression of the moral character of God and as a condition of the moral perfection of his creatures. It is the fountain of order, the guardian of rights, the only impregnable basis of security for the universe. Can it then be asked in the interest of anything claiming to be liberality, that the perfection of such a law shall be impaired? Ask rather that the brightness of the sun should be dimmed. Ask that God should abdicate his throne. If, as we have seen, liberality can have nothing to do in impairing the rights and prerogatives of intellect in its relation to truth, much less may it obliterate moral distinctions and lower the standard of moral action.
But the real question respects conduct under a law transgressed, with a possibility still remaining of forgiveness and restoration to full obedience. The question for every man, the one question on which his destiny turns, is whether he shall ever be brought into full harmony with a perfect moral law.
The law remaining, this must be so; and being so, the principle here is obvious. It is that nothing can be allowed in conduct, whether in principle or in outward form, that would prevent the speediest possible restoration of ourselves or others to a full obedience.