THE Ethical movement has a serious aim. It is not a literary movement; nor is it primarily a philosophical movement. It does not aim at culture, in the ordinary sense of the word. A wider knowledge of man and of the best products of the human spirit, — that is very desirable, but it does not make our central aim. We want to touch the springs of man's moral life, to influence character and conduct. Our aim is moral culture; and it is natural that I should try to answer the question, On what basis does such a movement rest; what is our starting-point, what is the unmovable rock on which we plant our feet?
First, I must frankly say that the Ethical movement does not find a sure basis in the great religions that have come down to us, nor even in the rationalized forms of them that are becoming more or less current. There is no occasion for jeers and gibes at Judaism and Christianity. They are not aliens, but in the order of history, — the ancestry from which we have sprung, the mother of us all. Taunts are sometimes directed against them as if the human mind were not responsible for them, as if they were imported from without or had descended ready-made from heaven. But this is a shallow view, and really proceeds from the standpoint of the religions themselves. The truth is, that mankind has developed its own religious beliefs ; that neither God nor Devil revealed them; and hence that to ridicule them in a wholesale way is to ridicule the human mind itself. None the less are the old beliefs inadequate to our present light and knowledge. Though it is simply one stage of human culture succeeding another and lower stage, the transition is so great as to amount to a revolution. To go straight to the heart of the matter, men have heretofore conceived of the Supreme Power of the world as a personal being like themselves ; and they have had so slight a notion of the order of Nature and the fixity of Nature's laws, that they have thought they might pray to him and ask him to do for them what they could not do for themselves. Many to-day, on the other hand, owing partially to the influence of philosophical criticism and partly to that of positive science, are constrained to regard the personality of Deity as an open question, and prayer as a useless expenditure of human energy. Personality is a conception borrowed from our experience in connection with human beings; it may be questioned whether we have a right to apply it to what is beyond all experience, unless it be by way of metaphor or figure of speech, — as we may speak of the unknown mystery as a sun, or as light or life. Theology is simply turning poetry into prose. That unseen Power by which we live is greater than all our figures of speech, outshines our most brilliant metaphor, — is indeed light unapproachable, unthinkable. Prayer seems almost a belittling of that solemn mystery in the bosom of which we and this wide world rest. For it is not, let me distinctly say, in the name of materialism or phenomenalism, but because of a deeper sense of that mystery, that I abandon prayer. At the same time that we are less able to make dogmatic assertions respecting the unknown, we are learning, and are able to assert, more and more in the field of the known. A vision of law and order is dawning upon us; the sphere of caprice is diminishing and vanishing before our eyes ; a conception of the universe is developing which if it has less fascination for a childish mind, has infinitely more and is unspeakably grander to the thoughtful and mature. Arbitrary will, purposes that change and bend, these may be in man, but they are not in Nature; they are not in that ultimate and total order of things of which man and Nature are parts. We may pray to our fellow-men, we may appeal to one another to respond to our varying wishes and wants ; but prayer to the Unknown God involves a double vice, — first, distrust of the beneficence of that order through which he is already manifested, and which holds fast whether we pray or not; second, a despair of our ability to act as proximate causes, and to bring about the results we wish ourselves.
Such, very hastily expressed, are the results to which modern thought is leading some reflecting and earnest men at the present time. It is because the rationalized forms of the old religions do not make room for those who fearlessly and frankly accept these results, that their fellowship is too narrow for me. For with much of the work of Liberal Christianity and reformed Judaism it is impossible not to sympathize. They have battled with and left behind many old and outworn notions and forms; they have tried to reconcile reason with religion, and freedom with a spiritual faith. But they have not gone far enough with their rationalism. I find fault with them, not for what they have done, but for what they now seem unwilling to do. Liberal Christians, for example, no longer believe in the three persons of the old theology, but they seem to cling with no less energy to the doctrine of one person. Judaism has from the beginning tenaciously held to this doctrine. Do we now and then, perhaps, hear that this must not be taken literally and dogmatically ; that it is only poetic personification that is had in mind; that the term " God," as ordinarily used, is but a metaphor ? But how much seriousness are we to attribute to such explanations when the old forms, that have their meaning only in connection with the old ideas, are persisted in ? Is it child's play which I am witnessing, when after the concession that " God" may be but a metaphor, I hear a solemn address to him, or a solemn benediction invoked from him upon the people ? Which word, indeed, of the preacher or rabbi shall I believe, which does he really mean ? Or is it possible that religion — which is, one would suppose, the sincere, the utterly truthful attitude of the soul before what is highest and best to it — is ceasing to be, and men are contenting themselves with shifts and compromises and the use of words with double meanings ? Hear, too, what is said and then done in regard to prayer. He would be a foolish man nowadays who would ignore or deny the reign of law in the world; and the Liberal pulpit recognizes and teaches it. The bearing of it upon prayer is also shown, and we are told that prayer cannot change or suspend the Divine laws, but only bring us into conformity with them; and straightway we hear not only an address to Deity, but an appeal that he will bless our community and our families, that he will heal the sick and defend the poor, — all which involve a practical denial of the view presented in the discourse. Meanwhile the community continues unblessed, and the sick are not healed, and the poor are defenceless ; and in the name of truth, I ask would it not be better for the pulpit to address its entreaties to the men and women in the pews, and say that to them is trusted the care of the community and the guardianship of their families; to them is the sacred task committed of going out and healing the sick and raising up the unfortunate; to them, in their laws and in their business, is the work given of establishing justice for the poor? Oh for a wave of seriousness to sweep through the churches !