There is a similar lack of seriousness in the Unitarian attitude toward Jesus. As they pray without any deep belief in prayer, so they own Jesus as Master with scant sense of that supreme devotion, that passionate love, which has inspired earnest Christian men and women the world over. It is a venerable and beautiful form of words, " our Lord and Master," and Unitarians often seem to use it because they can, rather than because they must Sometimes their claim has been to represent primitive Christianity; but in simple truth it must be said they have made little effort to understand primitive Christianity: they have generally looked at it from nineteenth century and not from first century eyes ; they have been anxious to see what interpretation the Gospels would bear, rather than what they really teach.1 And at best, granting whatever formal resemblance there may be in Unitarianism to primitive Christianity, it is as much really like it as the framework of a building that is falling to pieces is like a similar framework around which a noble structure is going up. The framework in both cases may be the same; but in the case of early Christianity the house was building, and to-day it is falling in ruins. One cannot, I venture to say, be a genuine, whole-hearted Christian after the primitive type without being caught up by the spirit of the movement, and becoming something more.
1 Rev. Dr. James Martineau an English Unitarian who combines in a remarkable manner ideal philosophy with the historical.
And even those Unitarians who do not own Jesus as Master or claim to represent primitive Christianity, incline to play fast and loose with the Christian name. They rarely treat Christianity in a generous way as a great historical movement, and only by an ungracious minimizing of its essentials do they make out that they have a right to be called Christians at all. Sometimes their* Christian faith is at so low an ebb, that they claim the Christian name only because they are of Christian descent or live under a Christian civilization ; and if they actually give up the Christian name, it is with so little heartiness that they bring no enthusiasm to the cause of a new religion.
Yes, in the conception of religion itself Unitarians sometimes manifest a lack of deep seriousness. Is spirit says: " No one who has once become familiar with the definite images and ideas of the Messianic Christianity in any of its forms can ever again give to its language the loose and large interpretation which alone renders it available for the voice of living piety. He knows it really means what he cannot mean; and if constrained to adopt it, he feels that his ' Kingdom of heaven suffereth violence.'" it not something to give oneself over to the right in a covenant never to be broken ? Is that an easy thing, a light thing ? Is the mood in which one does it a mood that comports with the use of such adjectives as " welcome, delicate, rare, and exquisite "1 to describe it ? Yet there is a great deal of this " delicate, rare, and exquisite " religion among Unitarians. Another writer says that "there is a grace of sentiment, a tenderness of feeling, that is as beautiful as it is rare, which is more truthfully represented by this word ' religion' than by any other in our language." 2 Did any great religious movement ever start with such conceptions as these ? Does not real religion try men, and set before them arduous tasks ? Hear the words of the old prophets : " Wash you and make you clean, and put away the evil of your doings !" Hear the words of Jesus : " Let the dead bury their dead, but go thou and preach the Kingdom of God !" Hear Luther, hear Channing, and you will not fail to realize that religion means higher and grander thoughts of duty, stricter rules of life; and that it must be a religion out of which strenuous convictions are gone, and wherein only a few pretty flowers of sentiment remain, that can bear to be described in these "rare, delicate, and exquisite" terms. I said in the early part of my discourse, that religion with Unitarians was a sentiment to cover and refine the daily life ; but religion must be more than this. A new religion must call for a new daily life; its influence must be not to make us pass our days serenely as our fathers passed theirs, but to stir a divine unrest for a higher life. The religion of Unitarians is too near this world, it offers too few contrasts with it; it does not rap our souls away into the vision of an eternal beauty that lies beyond it. I have in mind a picture, I cannot tell whether I ever saw it, or whether it is made up in imagination from hints that I have somewhere found in reading, of Saint Augustine and his mother, sitting together, with eyes turned upward and seeming to rest on some distant transcendent glory. It is this attitude which I miss in Unitarianism, and which I seem to find in the touching song of a glorified humanity which I have already quoted. To look away from this present order of human life to an ideal order, to feel that our true life and home are there, this, whether the ideal is conceived as another species of reality, only separated from us in space and time, or the image and form after which we are to shape and recreate present reality, as I hold, this is indeed the meaning of Ethics, and must be the supreme attitude of an Ethical religion.
1 Rev. Dr. H. W. Bellows, Boston Unitarian Anniversary, 1881.
2 Unity, Nov. 16, 1881, p. 342.
I am aware that I have considered Unitarianism in its actual character and history rather than in those higher inspirations that have now and then visited it. They were mostly before Unitarianism began an organized existence. Then were heard grand assertions of the rights of the mind as over against external authority, vindications of the moral and rational nature of man; then it was said that religion was not in name or form or creed, but in lifting the soul to the love and practice of goodness : almost prophetic strains they were, which redeemed, and still redeem, as we read them, the dreary Biblical and theological controversies of those early times. And the only reason why Unitarianism cannot become the religion of the future, is that when it came to publish its word to the world it was not willing to take its stand on that high ground, but felt it must, before all, keep its standing in the Christian Church, and cling to its small half-believed remnant of the Christian creed. May the brave little company of "Ethical" Unitarians in the West,1 and other earnest individuals here and there, yet reclaim the larger body to which they belong, and lift it to the level of its highest inspirations!
1 See note to p. 269.