Does ethics, then, give us no great thoughts ? That man can respond to a universal good ; that he can connect himself with the fortune of those whom he has never seen nor shall see; that he can bless in spirit unborn generations, and reach out to the world to heal it and to lift it up, — is there nothing mystical, nothing wondrous, nothing strange in all that ? In truth, there is something limitless in human nature, as there is in the good of which it conceives. Our souls crave a perfect good, we feel the pull thitherward, we own the law that points in that direction. Does this stir no awe, nor love, nor hope, nor fear ? I know of but one thing in this world that may well excite awe : it is not any spectacle of Nature, not any show of power or of beauty, but the thought of the supreme law under which we live, of the ideals that are unalterably set for us, of the perfect goal to which our inmost being tends. We are, indeed, strangers here amid these scenes, where so much meets the eye that afflicts the soul ; we cannot avoid picturing our home and proper country as far away, and ourselves as travelling thitherward. What longings seize us as we think of this ! — what love, what hope, what fear, lest by any chance or carelessness we should lose our way!
What does religion add, then, to ethics ; what greater thought does it give us than this of a law that forever encompasses us ? Nothing that I can see ; and what it attempts to add is, generally at least, Aberglaube, superstition. Religion conceives the good in the form of a person, and asserts that he is ruling in the world. But this is an illusion, and really a harmful one. A true, sound, and wholly rational religion, — so, because containing no premises that could reasonably be doubted, — would be simply a perfected ethics. Morality as custom, as public opinion, as law, has, I well know, to be continually revised and enlarged ; and as morality may have been identified with these things, the larger ideas may refuse the name morality as tame and commonplace. But morality is in truth a principle, and the enlargement mentioned has always been on the basis of the principles of morality, and has always issued in a larger, fuller moral ideal. Religion seems also to add to morality the thought of heaven ; but this, when purely conceived, is not something apart from goodness, but the triumph of goodness. We too, as believers in the good, look for its triumph. Not yet is the end and issue of things, but far away; though we know not whether these earthly selves shall ever see the triumph, though we can only think of it and know that there will be an outcome of our struggles and pains there.
Religion in the future must not only disengage itself from the mythical elements of the old religions, it must present a higher type of religion. The religions of the past have generally had a taint of selfishness about them. They have held out the hope of recompense; they have not commanded and summoned men in the name of the good and for its sake alone ; they have not taken men out of themselves. I see a new religion arising, basing itself on trust in man ; calling to the hitherto unstirred depths of loyalty in him, — believing that he can love the good without thought of a reward, that he can rise superior to the motives that ordinarily determine men, that the heaven of principle can rule in the human breast. Man's ignorance as to what will become of him after he dies never disturbed a noble, a truly religious soul. It may drive the timid, the fearful, — those so anxious to know whether their poor self-centred selves are going to live again, — to despair, or to the comfort, as they call it, of the gospel and the church. Poor souls ! let them have the comfort while they may. But they might live on forever and never know what true blessedness is. This they will not know till they cease to think of themselves, — whether they are to live or die, — and give themselves over to the good, and live now in the supreme eternal moments. For religion, if it means anything, binds us to a law above us and raps us out of ourselves. The religious men and women of the future will give themselves to all their dreams of the perfect without questioning or concern; they will know that they are in higher, stronger keeping than any they can themselves devise, — that the blessed Powers, which no man can name, contain them and enfold them ; that if there is anything of worth in them, that will live, and all else they will themselves willingly let die. An ideal perfection is the only ultimate reason for existence. If we do not turn our faces thitherward, our lives, however full of shows and business and plans and works they may be, are without rational significance ; and if we do, there are at bottom no more puzzles or cares or anxieties for us, — in our heart of hearts there is a peace and joy that no reverses or disappointments can disturb or mar.