« AnteriorContinuar »
But it is not so much my intention now to remark upon such aspersions, as to enforce on the readers of the Christian Disciple the necessity of that piety in practice, which the professors of their faith are accused of neglecting in theory. For it must be confessed, that the substitution of morality for religion is a danger more incident to those who believe as we do, than to those who make it our reproach; although the fault of substituting religious fervour for good principles, we think, is not one of less magnitude and peril. Such as our danger is, however, and by whomsoever and with whatever feelings we are warned of it, we must do all in our power to avoid it.
Piety is as necessary as morality to that perfection of the human character to which the Christian should aspire. This is very commonly said, but not so commonly attended to; for we often see men of good moral characters, which they owe directly or indirectly to religion, neglecting or laying aside that religion as if it had done its perfect work. They think that if they are moral men, and perform with punctuality and strictness the duties of life, religion is no longer necessary to them, however suitable it may be to keep up in others a sense of duty. They are convinced that the whole course of life commanded by the Christian faith is rational and suited to their nature and condition; and this appears to them so evident, that if they could not have discovered it themselves by unassisted philosophy, yet being once taught a thing so natural and undeniable, they no longer need the sanctions or the excitements of the Gospel to preserve them in the practice of it. They go on paying all decent respect to religion, because they feel its utility, and would not by their example impair its authority with those who need it more than they do. They discharge all their duties to society with exactness, avoid all immorality, and are proof against all the ordinary temptations of life; but they hardly think it a duty to keep up a communion with God, and a sense of their dependence on him. The worst of this error is, that it befals the best of those who are not wholly in the right; for it is one that may deceive even a good man, while what I have spoken of above as the opposite fault, can only be the sin of a hypocrite or a fool. There may be morality without piety, and it is even then of some value; but piety without morality is impossible. To pretend to love God, and yet to be unjust and uncharitable to man, is a wicked mockery. But the same reason which makes this so dangerous an error, gives some hope of correcting it; because those who are most liable to it, are those, to whom exhortation is most successfully addressed.
In the first place then, if it were true that a perfect morality were the sole object of Christianity, still no morality can be sufficient without piety, because none can be secure without it. I know that honorable feeling is a high motive in many men's minds, and has produced acts of singular heroism and virtue; but yet without religion it is necessarily imperfect for want of an unvarying standard. The opinion of the world enters far more than is generally thought into the best man's notion of honour. Though we may look on it in ourselves as an independent and internal sense of what is right, and will do no wrong because we should despise ourselves if we did; yet I believe all this is conventional, and has its foundation originally in the opinions of others, and must finally look to them for its measure and rule. What profitable sense of honour would a man have in a desolate island? What security has he in society, that his own sense of honour would carry him through what would make him dishonored in the world? The custom of taking life for a trivial affront has been, nay, still is, thought honorable; but will any one pretend that his own heart and conscience approve it? yet the best of men not governed by religious feelings, have been driven to it by the fear of disgrace when their feelings recoiled in horror. And in what does this sense of honour differ from that, which it is pretended is sufficient for virtue? Can there be a stronger example than this of the necessity of piety, and the utter futility of all other sanctions of moral conduct? We may see by this how loosely that conscience swings, which is anchored on any thing but the positive command of God: there is no limit to the latitude to which a dependence on our own feelings of right or sense of honour will leave us. And let no man think that in time of temptation the positive command of God will be obeyed, unless he has been made the object of habitual contemplation and reverence.
It has been said, that every man has his price; and I believe it may be said with perfect truth of every one, who acts from any but religious motives. The purest worldly morality cannot withstand the highest worldly temptation. There is no reason why it should; for if a man reasons only as a being of this world, the greatest earthly good must be the strongest motive; and though he may be convinced that virtue is generally, even on earth, worth more than any thing for which it can be sacrificed; yet extreme cases may always be supposed, and will sometimes occur, when this rule will not, nay ought not to prevail. But when the motive is placed as much above all earthly things as a Christian's hope, what can be a sufficient temptation to lead one from duty? It is almost impossible to suppose a case when
a Christian, if he had time to reflect, could be expected to fall. Besides, there are many minute and secret thoughts and actions, which a worldly morality disregards, but which go far to make up the character, although they appear little in action. Man has always such false confidence in his own principles and resolutions, that the mere moralist would indulge many danger ous habits of mind, secure of restraining them before they should break out into actions which he disapproved; while the Christian, perhaps equally vain-glorious in his own powers, would yet purify his thoughts, because he believes and feels that they are as subject to the view of God as his most open acts.
Another reason why we should add piety to our morality is, that it is the most noble feeling in which a human being can indulge. Much as we may love our fellow creatures, and labour from feeling and principle to do them good, we cannot but look on them always with pity and sometimes with contempt. I believe even the frailest of us sometimes feels the frailty of our common nature with something like disgust. And if we raise our views no higher than earth, if we are content to hold communion with man only, we give up the highest privilege of our mortal nature-that of sometimes soaring above it. Life, with all its labours and duties and pleasures, is so far below what we at times feel we were made for; so much beneath what we hope is our destiny; our conceptions of what might be, so far outrun any thing it is given us here to see or feel; that it is hardly to be conceived, that any one should voluntarily give up the contemplation of that Divine Nature which thus seems to draw us to itself. I should think the ambition of man would make him pious; that he would glory in holding communion with that Being who made him and all things, and who alone can fill his thoughts and satisfy his imagination. What can gratify the aspiring heart of man so much, as to make God his daily companion and guide, to do every act with reference to the will of the Almighty; to be able in doubt and difficulty to look to him for counsel and aid, and by this constant fear and obedience to feel, that, humble as he is, he is yet connected in some measure with the Greatest of all Beings? I know this feeling has been abused, and that enthusiasts have thought themselves so much the peculiar care of God, that he concerned himself about things relating to them, which ought to have been almost beneath their own notice. But there is little danger of this perversion; the mind must be miserably feeble, which thinks to approach the Supreme, not by raising its own views, but by bringing Him down to earth. This has been more often the trick of fanatics, than the honest mistake even of the weakest.
I will mention one other reason for cultivating a pious habit of mind; it is the most common one, and perhaps therefore the best. Piety is the greatest and often the only solace in distress. There are situations occurring every day, in which all human reasoning and philosophy fall powerless before the hopelessness of misery, but there is not and cannot be imagined one, in which habitual piety is not almost a perfect relief. Compared with the prosperity of life, there are scenes of suffering that pass all names of difference; but what can be imagined to happen on earth that can depress the heart of one, who has been in the daily habit of walking with God; and looking forward with joyful hope to the happiness of eternity as the great object of existence? What affliction will not such a one think light in comparison? We can hardly look abroad and see one unhappy man, whom piety would not make contented and even happy. Is he poor? He trusts in God that he shall not be permitted either to perish, or to suffer more than he can bear. Is he sick? It cannot be long; God will raise him up, or take him away to a better world. Has he lost friends and family? They are not lost to him; he resigns them for a little while, and thinks of death only as a temporary absence from those he loved. These are feelings which triumph over the evils of life, and which no one can enjoy, who has not made God the object of his contemplation in his hours of health and happiness.
Piety is also the true and only secret of content. Is any one disappointed by the world? weary of its objects and pursuits? Is he one of those whom we sometimes hear complaining of the worthlessness of all things; who thinks his soul needs higher objects than any that are here presented to it, and looks with discontent on his own situation; and yet sees no other in the world for which he will labour or cares to exchange it? So miserable a state of mind is incompatible with piety. If such a man would learn what it is that cheers the weary christian, who knows as well as he, what is the worth of life, let him study the Bible. If he looks on this world as an end, instead of the means of reaching a nobler and better state, no wonder he finds it insufficient to his desire. It is man's nature to look forward to the future, and when all before him is within his reach, to find it of little value; it is so here for wise and great purposes; whether it will be so hereafter, we know not. It may be that we shall be changed in this respect when we are withdrawn from the low pursuits of earth, and shall be content with what we possess without needing the stimulus of hope. But it is more probable that this is an inherent and unchangeable property of the soul, and that in the future world we shall forever enjoy the pleasures
of a hope that never disappoints and is never exhausted by possession. Space enough may be imagined to exist in that boundless world, for the human soul to be forever finding every thing as happy as it expected, and yet seeing a happier beyond. How vain is it then for an inhabitant of earth to look for content, without that hope, which probably will be a necessary part even of heavenly happiness? The objects of life have just value enough to lead us on from childhood to that age when we at once see their vanity, and can discover and understand how boundless is the prospect which opens beyond them. Here they should be no longer objects of pursuit for themselves, but only as necessary steps to reach what lies beyond; means of exercising those virtues and duties, which will prepare us for better things. When this hope is once firmly established, how cheerily will man go through the labours of life-disappointment can never reach him if this hope does not fail, because his real object does not depend on his success in life, but only on his endeavours; what seems to others a fruitless undertaking, he may feel to have been more useful and profitable to him, than the most triumphant success. Every human hope will sometimes desert us; the strongest passions of our mortal nature will sometimes fail, and leave us languid and inactive; avarice may be tired of accumulating, and ambition may loathe applause: but this cannot be exhausted in life, because its objeet and developement are beyond it. And this reason would be good, even if the infidel could make us doubt whether there be a heaven; for until we know there is not, this hope, even if it were in vain, would be better than any thing life has to offer. And I repeat that this hope is one that will never rise to comfort us in an emergency; but it must be cultivated by constant and daily piety, and a habit of measuring every action of life by God's commandments.
THE VALUE AND INFLUENCE OF TRUTH.
THE value of correct principles is not sufficiently understood. Truth itself is not duly estimated. With many persons practice is understood to comprehend the whole of duty; a good temper and a blameless and beneficent deportment are thought to be all that is required. It is maintained that opinions are of little importance; that the decisions of the mind are not under our control; that we cannot but believe according to the evidence presented to us; and consequently are not responsible for our religious faith. Two remarks suggest themselves New-Series-vol. IV.