Suppose that the theistic members of the body should say, "Our theism has become so precious to us that we cannot hold out any longer the fraternal hand to materialists or agnostics." Suppose that agnostics or materialists should say, " We cannot have patience with theism ; it is an antiquated, exploded doctrine, and we must refuse to fraternize with those who cling to it." Suppose a socialistic group should say, " Individualists must necessarily be without heart or conscience ; " or that individualists1 should retort that socialists must be bad men. In any of these cases, the fundamental bond of union of the religious body would be assailed; each and every group which thus withdrew and formed a new body would be, in the literal sense of the word, heretical. Instead of standing for freedom, heresy would thus stand for the spirit of intolerance. The heretic would be one who refused to concede to others the same rights he claimed for himself; who said in effect, " I am determined that all others shall think as I do, and if they do not, I will have no part or lot with them".
No one has argued more finely against the sectarian, dissenting spirit than the late Matthew Arnold. " The dissidence of dissent and the protestantism of the Protestant religion" was the object of his delicate and yet merciless satire. The various dissenting bodies in England were for the most part " hole-and-corner" churches, out of relation to the great common religious life of the English nation. His argument was only vitiated by the assumption that the Church of England was representative of that nation's common religious life. He called it "a national association for the promotion of goodness." It is in truth not only that, but an association equally well for the promotion of the ideas embodied in the Apostles' and Nicene, not to say the Athanasian, creeds. But though in judgment he was wrong, his ideal was right. There should be an association in every nation for the promotion of goodness, — one that would gather to itself all the elements in the nation ready to work for that high end : whether it should have any official connection with the political organization of the nation is another matter; I think not. And when a genuine and all-inclusive society of this nature does arise, whether in England or elsewhere, then all that Mr. Arnold so eloquently said of the spirit of dissent will hold good. Then the separate churches that may be set up by the theistic or agnostic or socialistic or individualistic sects will be justly called "hole-and-corner" churches; but, I must add, not till that day. Almost all the dissenting churches in England, and almost all the separate denominations in this country, have had an excuse for being; they have arisen, because freedom in the mother-churches from which they separated was not allowed. Better disorder and confusion and an infinite number of "hole-and-corner" churches than despotism and iron law. When a better day shall dawn, however, and a religious order with liberty — making, indeed, a principle of liberty — shall arise on the earth, then only could narrowness and bigotry, the very spirit of schism and odious heresy, lead to separation from it.
1 I am aware that all these minor classifications are somewhat arbitrary, and beg that they shall be taken simply as attempts to illustrate the principle I am seeking to elucidate, not as necessary implications of it.
Fourthly, it would follow that through the entire body, and in all its groups and local branches, more should be made of the common aims and ideals of the body than of anything else. A theistic branch which made more of theism than of the love and practice of goodness, would be forgetting its function as a branch of the general body, and in danger of becoming sectarian. A materialistic group which gave itself up to expositions of materialistic philosophy, would be in similar danger. Varying philosophical views or economic aims could only make a kind of atmosphere in each group or branch, but could not take the form of a creed or binding statement. The basis of local fellowship should be the same as the basis of the general fellowship; nothing should be required anywhere which was not required everywhere. In other words, the questions of personal and social morality should have the first (I do not say, the only) claim on the attention of every branch or local organization. If from any meeting some one should not go away with clearer light as to duty, or with some fresh impulse toward the ideal life, the holding of that meeting would be well-nigh vain. Duty is not a formula, it is a life; it is as full, as many-sided, as exhaustless as life, — yes, it is often as perplexing as are many of the situations of life. There are few men who do not sometimes crave light, or help and inspiration to follow the light they already have. Right living is in one sense the most natural thing to man; in another, it is at times a most difficult and arduous thing, and seems to require almost superhuman watchfulness and strength. Those most honest with themselves are the aptest to feel that the better part of them is not what they are, but what they aspire to be. As for our actual selves, some of us know we are self-conscious, anxious for notice, tickled with applause, without seriousness, and good only by impulse. Others know they are proud, glorying in mastery and in having others obedient to them. Others still are full of irrational aversions and prejudices, and scarcely try to let the calm, purifying light of reason penetrate their minds. Some are sensual, and others are close and ungenerous. Then in the realm of social morality, how we flounder ! We know that selfishness as a principle is disorganizing and anarchic, and yet our industrial order is to a great extent founded on it, and we think it is all right! We call it in the abstract a devilish maxim, that every one should look out for himself, and woe betide the hindmost; yet in our business relations we are apt to act upon it, and there are those who can scarcely imagine business being conducted on any other basis. Ethics, the principles of justice and love, are pooh-poohed, when they are sought to be applied in this realm ; to advocate them is thought to be sentimentalism or, at best, philanthropy. The religious world is divided into theological camps, when it ought to be a unit in devising a plan of peace and brotherhood for the industrial life of society. It is not enough to preach the Golden Rule; it is necessary to say what the Golden Rule means. To hold up more elevated ideals of personal and social life, to create and to sustain an enthusiasm for them, to lift life actually to higher levels, — this would be the sovereign and the central mission of a true religious body.
But is all this religion, it may be asked? Is it not morality ? I answer, that for my own part it is impossible to distinguish between them. Morality is only true morality when it is given religious consecration, and religion is first a truly sacred thing when it becomes an exalted moral enthusiasm. I am aware that, historically, religion arose independently of morality, — as, happily, morality arose independently of religion. But the deepest thing, the root-thing in religion was not so much any peculiar object to which the religious sentiment went out, as the feeling that the object was sacred. It is reverence and awe that make the heart of religion. Whoever holds to something as sacred, has a religion or the elements of one. It is a mistake to bind up religion with any special theory of the universe; he who consciously has no theory may yet be religious, if, as he turns his mind this way and that, it falls sooner or later on something that strikes him with indescribable awe and reverence. Duty — the thought of the laws under which we live, of their inviolable nature, of their supreme authority, in obedience to which is safety and life and joy, and in departing from which we stray into darkness and the night — may as truly excite awe as did the phenomena of Nature, the powers of earth and sky, which first enchained the attention of the forefathers of the race. The religion of morality may be as real and as sacred as the religion of Nature, of which almost all historical religions are varied forms. The most perfect religion, to my own mind, would be a blending of the religion of morality and the religion of Nature into an ideal unity.
But whether such a fellowship as I have sketched the ideal of, would be called religious or not is a comparatively unimportant matter. It might not call itself religious, conscious of the uncertainty and ambiguity in the current use of that term; and there would be no harm in this. But what it should be, whether it was faithful to its ideal or not, — on this everything would depend.
University Press : John Wilson & Son, Cambridge.