But religion may also be defined from the objective side. In this aspect, it is man's relation with what is ultimate and supreme in the world. The truest religion would be that one in which the supreme interest gathers about that which is really supreme and ultimate in the world. Now, morality, truly interpreted, does bring man into contact with the final nature of things. Whatever else I may doubt about, I cannot doubt the law of duty, — that there is a right and a wrong; that the right obliges me, that I ought to do it. It makes no difference that I have learned this law, that others have learned it before, that I know little more about it than I have received or been taught; it makes no difference that I do not know it now perfectly, that I may err sometimes in my judgments about it. Still, I am sure, as Dorothea in the story was,1 that there is a perfect right if I could only find it. Sometimes I wish to do the right; and sometimes, again, it seems hard, forbidding, and I do not wish to do it. But the right itself does not change with my wishes and wants. I might unlearn it; I might, under the solicitations of some desire or passion, juggle myself into the belief that it no longer existed. Yet the right would not itself cease because my thought of it ceased. I might die and others take my place, yet the right would exist for them as truly as it had existed for me. Whenever, wherever, two persons arise and look into each other's faces, the law of mutual reverence and respect — the law of justice we call it — obtains. If they do not own it, it is the law all the same ; if they act contrary to it, and defy every prescription of it, it is the law all the same. Plainly, men do not make this law, but simply find it. If there are other rational beings than men, it applies to them just as truly ; the law is a universal law for all rational intelligence. As little do the earth and the stars make the law of gravitation which they obey, as does man or the combined host of rational beings throughout the universe make the law of duty. And though no God were, as God is ordinarily conceived, the law would not cease to be. It is not made, and cannot be changed by God or man ; it belongs to the nature of things. Yes, more truly than the law of gravitation does it belong there. I can see no necessity in the law of gravitation; I can conceive that there might be a different law than this according to which bodies attract one another directly as their mass and inversely as the square of their distance from one another. But no other law is conceivable for rational beings than that of justice, of mutual reverence and respect; never conceivably could it become right to think lightly of another human or any rational being. And yet men have failed in reverence, in respect, for others; have unblushingly used others, are so failing and using them to-day. How rarely has the law been obeyed ! The law is over all, though it were never obeyed.
In this way morality becomes religion. He alone does a genuinely moral act who does it because he must, because the nature of things bears down upon him to do it. For the crystal, religion would be to become a crystal; to own the pressure that would yield the perfect form. For man, it can only be to be a man, to perform the human part of the universal task. Morality is simply one form of the universal law; and in the yielding to its demands man is lifted out of himself, and as the tides of ocean throb " respondent to the far-off orbs," so do his pulses beat in unison with the movement of the universe. Yet how little is the transcendent significance of morality realized in these days ! How often are divine and eternal things contrasted with it! Ethics cover simply the equities and amenities of this world, it is sometimes said. But there is no equity of this world: there is only equity, as good, as commanding on any other shining planet as on this. " Beyond and above the moral virtues the soul needs a religious life, fed from above," — so reads a Unitarian tract. Whence come then the moral virtues ? From below, from prudence, from the sense of decency, from long-sighted selfishness ? They who think so never breathed the climate of morality. Channing, when a youth of nineteen, wrote: "All my sentiments and affections have lately changed.
I once considered mere moral attainments as the only object I had to pursue. I have now solemnly given myself up to God." This is an unmeaning antithesis, a part of the falsehood of the old religious culture, which he afterward himself detected; for twenty years later he wrote: " The love of God is but another name for the love of essential benevolence and justice," and the object of religion is, not to " raise us to something higher than morality, for that would be to raise us above God himself, but to give us sublime ideas of morality." Ethics is a pure concern of man with man, it is often said; it is religion that binds us to a higher order of things. Yet ethics is nothing but the response which man and man make to the higher order of things; for the reason of justice is, not that another wants it and I choose to give it, but that he ought to have it and I ought to give it. The duty is absolute, not conditioned on our will or thought, but given to us in and by the nature of things. Ethics realized in its meaning is religion; it is the only religion for the rational man. In my humblest human service, I may be conscious of owning the call which a higher — nay, the highest — makes upon me. Aspiration, reverence, awe, all those sentiments so often contrasted with morality, are but uncompleted morality ; and when the moral act is done, ecstasy is its sign, — ecstasy, which is the grace heaven sets upon the moment in which the soul weds itself to the perfect good.
In speaking of an ethical, an essentially practical religion, I have not in mind simply a few superficial improvements on the old religions. I mean not simply a little more " practical work," a little more attention to the necessities of the poor, a little better education of the young among them, a making of their life a little cleaner, neater, healthier, more respectable. An ethical religion would mean this, but because it meant vastly more. It is nothing else than a changed thought of the nature of religion which I have in mind; namely, that it can be no longer for rational men to-day to worship or pray, but to have the sense of a task, the sense of somewhat limitless to accomplish, and to accomplish it. The Christian Church sings in one of its hymns: