WHEN all else that the religious world holds dear falls or becomes uncertain, confidence in duty may remain unshaken. One may doubt all the articles of the Christian creed, and have much pain in doing so, yet never be confused, never have shame ; but to doubt that love and truth and honor are binding upon us is so unnatural that it can only be accounted for on the supposition of some moral obliquity. These moral laws of our being are so close and constitutional to us, that the very existence of virtue is bound up with a recognition of them. A man is virtuous on principle, or he is not virtuous at all, though he may conform to all the external requirements of virtue; and if there is no principle, no sovereign ought, constraining, commanding, and forbidding, there is no morality. Morality is not a matter of taste, of personal preference, or of temperament ; it is obedience to a command, it is self-surrender to the ought that sounds within us, it is the free choice of what we cannot avoid choosing without shame and dishonor.
"If that fail, The pillared firmament is rottenness, And earth's base built on stubble".
The Ethical Movement, as I understand it, plants itself on this ultimate crowning fact of man's nature. We start with a certainty. Human beings do not choose the sovereign laws of duty and make them laws those laws would be over us, did we not choose them; they rather choose us. Man no more creates the moral world of obligation than he does the physical one of fact; he has only to fit himself into it, and let its sublimity make him sublime. Man is not the summit of things: as the heavens bend over his body and the stars unalterably shine, so the moral law arches over the soul of man, and he is greatest as he bends in lowly worship to it. Nobleness, magnanimity, great-hearted love, unswerving truth, these are not ours, but we are theirs, bound to them as the iron to the magnet, as the needle to the star, as the tides to the " far-off orb " of heaven ; bound to them, that is, in idea, and should be in fact.
Great and reassuring are the lessons of the moral sentiment. It gives us a place whereon to plant our feet. It casts out fear. See how it deals with the fear of so many anxious minds that in face of modern conditions not only Christianity, but religion itself will pass away from the world. We live in an age of transition, and all the way from the Catholic to the Unitarian there are mutterings and tremblings, as if in case this or that or the other creed loses its hold on man the stays and consolations of human life will be gone. Idle fears! Religion, so far as it has not been the outgrowth and blossoming of the moral sentiment, has been at best an expensive luxury to the race, and has come near to being a curse. That man's peace and happiness and safety depend upon beings whose favor must be gained by costly sacrifices and prayers, this belief, that made the basis of primitive religion, and survives in all the great branches of the Christian Church, has caused more distress of mind, more false torments of conscience, more waste of energy, moral and material, than we can ever calculate or dream of. Religion the thought of it in the past, I mean is only endurable to the free man and earnest lover of his kind as moral elements have been taken up into it and an end has been made of sacrifices ; as the prayers have come to be prayers for righteousness, or else have ceased altogether before the stern determination to be righteous at whatever cost; as religion has come to mean righteousness, and the will of God has been identified with the good of man. But the moral sentiment that has played such a transforming and revolutionary part in the field of religion in the past is still with us; it was never more alive than to-day. It is born into the world with every child; it is as fresh as if this were creation's morn. It is that from which we cannot get away, in regard to which scepticism is absurd, and out of which, in conjunction with modern culture, shall come, I believe, a nobler religion than the world has ever known before.
The depths, not of fear, but of awe, were never stirred in man till he felt the sublime promptings of the ought within him. The ancient gods or goddesses were never truly reverend and august till they were regarded as the authors of the pure and high commands that give the law to man's life and conduct; and so far as they were interpreted in this way, they must always be revered. The moral sentiment blossoms as naturally into a religious faith as the buds of spring open out into leaf or flower. A man may give up all that passes current as religion, give up God and Immortality and Prayer (in the customary senses), as well as the claims of the Church or of Jesus, yet if he keep his hold on morality, if he bend before Truth and Justice and Love, if he feel there is something sovereign within him which it were better to die than to forget, he is on the open highway that leads to those grand confidences and trusts that are the imperishable part of religion.
For the sense of morality is the sense of somewhat sacred, holy; it is the sense of a law above all other laws. There is not a law of Nature that may not conceivably be altered or suspended, or that we may not violate or defy, should duty command. We use Nature every day, her forces, her laws, we are forever turning to account. We cannot worship Nature or the sum of Nature's powers. That sovereign allegiance and fealty we owe to what is absolutely inviolable, to what we dare not use, to what exists for its own sake, and we for it,to Goodness, to Love, to eternal Truth. The moral sentiment dwarfs Nature, it goes out to that which is beyond Nature. What is regnant in the universe is no fact, nor sum of facts; no law in the actual sense, nor sum of laws, but a commandment. And the deepest, the bottom thing in the universe must be that which is capable of giving a commandment: not matter, then, nor force, nor will, but reason, or that ineffable reality of which human reason is a poor and shadowy suggestion. Matter is phenomenal; our thoughts come and go, our acts are ill-matched even with our thoughts; but that to which our thoughts aspire, and from which alas they so often wander, does not change with our changing, does not rise when we rise, or fall when we fall, but though we die, though the wide earth and the everlasting hills fade away into insubstantial mist and the heavens are rolled together as a scroll, lives forever ! Without morality and the infinite suggestions it makes, worship could not find an object, and the word "adorable" would have to pass out of literature, and this, though so-called religious men at the present day have such partial conceptions of morality that they contrast religion with it, and speak of something above morality, and in addition to ethics plead for devotional truths as well. Something above justice and goodness! there is nothing above. Devotional truth in addition to ethics! 't is the merest sentimentality. Religion has had connected with it much besides ethics in the past; it has been weighted with blood and with lust, and to-day it is weighted with unreality and maudlin sentiment and cant. But so far as it has had more, it has been a disturber and full of harm to men ; and so far as it has more to-day, being no longer taken seriously, it is at best a superfluity, which self-respecting men and women are apt to do without. Duty is ordinarily divided into duties to man and duties to God. But there are no duties to God in the sense implied, nor have we reason to suppose that God as so conceived exists. " God " is the infinite element in all duty, its eternal basis, without which duty and man and the world would alike disappear.