Orestes Brownson,
REFORM AND CONSERVATISM
January 1842

1
WE do not introduce this sermon [James Freeman Clarke, The Well-Instructed Scribe; or Reform and Conservatism (Boston, 1841)] to our readers in consequence of its intrinsic merit, for it is but a common-place performance, altogether beneath the talents and genius of its author,--a most estimable man, and a successful preacher;--but for the purpose of saying something on the very important and deeply interesting subject it broaches.
2
The man who helps us to detect our errors we always hold to be our friend, for he renders us an essential service, the most essential that one man can render another. We, therefore, feel that we are not a little indebted to the author of this sermon; for we had no conception of the impotence of the doctrine we had all along been insisting upon till we found him reproducing it. We cannot reflect on our advocacy of the doctrine, here drawn out at length, without taking shame to ourselves, confessing our sins, and promising an endeavor at amendment.
3
The leading doctrine of this sermon is, that the well-instructed scribe is one who retains a firm hold on the past, while exerting himself to conquer the future; that reform is progress; and that the true reformer labors ever to fulfill the old, never to destroy it. This is a doctrine which our readers know that we have insisted on from the first; it is a doctrine which covers a great and vital truth; but as we have often brought it out and as it is brought out in this sermon, its effect must be worse than that of falsehood itself. By its light Mr. Clarke proceeds to read a lecture of conservatism to reformers, and of radicalism to conservatives. To the first he says, virtually though not consciously, "My dear friends, you are too hot;" to the second, "You are too cold. Let me beseech you, therefore, reformers, to cool off a little, and you conservatives, to warm up a little; and then we may all come peaceably together, in a state of most perfect and blessed lukewarmness." [80]
4
This is not Mr. Clarke's language, nor does it express the effect he aims to produce; but the effect the doctrine in question, as set forth, must produce, so far as it produces any effect at all. But is it necessary to labor to produce lukewarmness? Is it not more acceptable to the great Head of the church to be either too cold or too hot, than it is to be neither cold nor hot? Nothing is, or can be more nauseating than to be lukewarm. Give us, we say, open, energetic, uncompromising enemies, or firm, staunch friends, who will take their stand for the truth, for weal or for woe, to live with it or die with it; and not your half and half men, blowing hot out of one side of the mouth, and cold out of the other; neutralizing always their own exertions, and producing only a state of absolute indifferency.
5
Mr. Clarke must pardon the strength of our expression. We are censuring ourselves more than we are him; for we are an older sinner, and with less excuse for our sins. We, like him, have been for years blowing hot and cold with the same breath, though unwittingly and unintentionally; and like him have mistaken an imbecile eclecticism, for a powerful and living synthesis. We are both wrong. Reformers unquestionably often mistake their means and fail in their ends; but they are never too hot, too much in earnest. The true man, he who feels the great heart of humanity beat under his breast, is always terribly in earnest. He speaks out from a soul full of love, as if life and death hung on the issue, burning words which fall like coals of fire on the naked heart of the sinner, and make him shriek out in the agonies of hell, "What shall I do to be saved?" He can make no compromise with sin and iniquity, whether in church or state, in the individual or in society; but, armed with the word of God and the terrors of God's law, pursues them through all their windings, fearless of the hosts of enemies he may rouse up, the blows he must give or receive; resolved to save the soul or die in the attempt. There is his work, right before him; and he can eat not, slumber not, pause not, till he has done it. Wo to the anointed preacher that calls out from the height of the Christian pulpit, "Stop, my good friend, you are running too fast, you are too hot; cool off a little, let me pray you." How the fiends must laugh to hear him!
6
Man was made for progress. The race, nay, the entire universe is in motion, flowing onward with all its waves of [81] worlds and beings, as the current of a mighty river, and will flow on forever; for it flows out from the inexhaustible Infinite,--is the unremitted effort of the infinite God to realize out of himself his own infinite ideal. But progress is effected by growth, by accretion, by assimilation, not by abstraction and waste. The race advances by assimilating to its own life and being the truths which God successively reveals to it, and those which its own generations, by constant striving, successively discern and promulgate. We, of to-day, are enlarged by all the past accumulations of the race. Into us flows all that has been, which swollen by our contributions, flows on through us, and will flow on, ever enlarging by new contributions, into the unknown ocean of eternity. Here is the significance of the doctrine we and others have been striving after. Here is wherefore the true reformer retains ever a hold on the past, while he labors for the future. He retains the past, because it has flowed into him, been assimilated to his actual life; because he is the past as well as the presentiment of the future, and can no more divest himself of it than he can divest himself of himself.
7
There is no question that it is idle to war against the past. No man can be a reformer who has no tradition. Divest us of all tradition, of all that we have derived from the past, or which the race has assimilated of past labors, as the body assimilates food, and we were mere naked savages, without industry, science, or art, wandering the earth forlorn, with no shelter but the eaves or the inclement skies, and no means of subsistence but the scanty pittance doled out, with a grudging hand, by step-dame nature. They who would so divest us, so cut us loose from all tradition, must ever be as impotent as they are mistaken. They are mere false meteoric lights, that rise and deceive for a moment, it may be, the simple; but instantly melting into nothing, leaving the glorious vault brilliant as ever, studded, as of old, with all its "sapphire flames," which shine on in their mysterious beauty, all unconscious of the mimic stars that collect and dissolve at infinite depths below. There is no need to exhort the reformer to venerate the past. If he really be a reformer he carries all the past in his soul; and to tell him that he must retain it, is like telling the child that, if it do not retain from day to day the accessions it is constantly receiving, it will not grow.
8
The folly we are guilty of on this subject arises from our [82] not having fixed in our minds, what past it is we should retain. We have supposed that it must needs be the past that subsists in monuments, doctrines recorded in books, or engraved on tablets, moral precepts, lessons of experience, forms of faith or practice existing out of the soul, the essence of which has not as yet been assimilated to the life of the race. But these, so far as they are true and unassimilated, forming as yet no integral part of the life of humanity, belong to the ideal and not the actual, and therefore to the future and not to the past. The past is only that which has been realized, and become an integral part of the life which the race is now living. This is the only real past. This is what we term tradition, and this we cannot throw off, if we would; for it is a part of the very life with which we who are now living were born. It constitutes our past progress, the growth to which we have already attained; and is the point of departure for new progress, for further and nobler growth. So much is gained, and can never be lost. We need, then, give ourselves no concern about retaining it; but turn our whole attention, and exert all our zeal and energy in behalf of new acquisitions
9
The mistake of preachers, and even philosophers, is in overlooking the true principle of progress, and in supposing that it consists only in the accumulation of monuments. Moses and the prophets, it is thought, live for us only in the Old Testament; Jesus and the apostles only in the New; Grecian art and philosophy and Roman jurisprudence only in the few fragments which all-devouring time has spared. Poets, prophets, philosophers, who sung, inspired, taught, lived, toiled, suffered, and died, of whom there are no external monuments remaining, are to us as if they had never been. But this is false. As the warm life-blood that flowed in the veins of Adam in the garden, still circulates in ours, so lives in us the life of all that have gone before us. Not alone in the Old Testament, or New, not in the fathers nor in ecclesiastical historians, live Moses, and David, and Isaiah, and Jesus, and Paul, and James, and John, but in that new life they have given to the world, into which, through them, the race has been initiated; and which we should live, and could not but live, were all exterior monuments of them destroyed. In order to slay Jesus and the apostles, you must annihilate the race. Their moral life circulates in the soul of him who attempts to revile them, and gives force to his attacks on their pretended representatives. Lycurgus, [83] Solon, Socrates, Plato, speak in your pettiest village politician, and debate through your least significant disputant in your least significant lyceum.
10
We must remember that there is a progress of Man, as well as of men, and that this progress consists not merely nor chiefly in external monuments, whether industrial, scientific, or artistical, but in the enlargement, the actual growth of human nature itself. We say growth, by which we do not mean the creation of new faculties, or new elements of our being, but an enlargement of those with which man was originally constituted. These original elements are perpetually growing, and in their growth consists the progress of the race. Man to-day is a larger being, has more being, if one may so speak, than he had three thousand years ago. He can do unaided, to-day, what formerly surpassed the combined powers of the race. In the age of Moses no man, without a special revelation from God himself, could rise to the conception of one pure and spiritual Divinity. And no community could then take in the idea, though God through Moses proclaimed it. Now we need no supernatural assistance to possess ourselves of the conception of one God. We read his being and unity in all nature, in our souls, in all the events of history. When Jesus came no man was equal to the great conception of the universal brotherhood of the race. It required a positive revelation from God to place the doctrine in the world; and though so placed, the apostles themselves very imperfectly comprehended it; none of our sectarians even now comprehend it; yet the more advanced portion of the race see it, as it were naturally, and embrace it as a truth self-evident. All that theologians to-day call natural religion, which they distinguish from revealed religion, and suppose man by nature may attain unto, surpassed the natural powers of the race in its infancy, and needed to be revealed specially from heaven. We find no such natural religion among the savages of antiquity, nor among the New Zealanders of to-day. Now it is natural religion with the more advanced Christian nations, because by the aid of Providence, always acting the part of an educator, their natural powers have become equal to it. Natural religion is always that amount of revealed religion, which the race has assimilated, and for which no positive divine authority is any longer needed.
11
The school-boy of to-day, it is often said, knows more [84] than the wisest of the Greeks. He is in advance of the wisest of the Greeks, not because he can in a few months learn all that Plato could teach, or the great and wise of the race have since been able to teach; but because there circulates within him a life far above the highest life of which Plato dreamed. The child born of civilized parents, carried at the most tender age and left in the cabin of the savage, other things being equal, will grow up with a nature superior to that of his savage associates. He will adopt, but refine, their manners. He will have thoughts surpassing their comprehension, dreams which visit not them. They will marvel at his words and deeds, and bow to him as their chief. Catch, on the other hand, young as you please, the savage infant, and bring him into the bosom of your civilized life, and surround him with all that is most advanced. in your social state, he will, in spite of all your efforts grow up with an untamed soul; the wild Manitou will speak to his heart, and he will pine for his native forests and the wandering life of his forefathers. Our missionaries repeat to us ever the exceeding difficulty they find in making the children of the heathen comprehend the most familiar conceptions of Christian civilization; not dreaming that ages of growth are needed to bring the heathen races up to the level of the advanced life of Christendom.
12
Proofs of this doctrine may be found in families. Nature has her aristocracy, and the more advanced races are always the ruling races. Family pride, nobility founded on birth, is not altogether without reason in fact and experience. It is not absurd to ask of one, Who was his father? What was his mother? Find a man really distinguished, and you may be sure he comes of an improved stock; that he has, as we say, good blood running in his veins. A man who has no ancestors is nobody. Patricians and plebeians intermarry, before they become equal in the state.
13
This comes not from the fact that God did not make all men of one blood, but from the fact that your patrician stock, your real nobility, have had for ages, superior means of culture, and their children inherit the growth thus effected. It takes many generations to wash out the churl's blood. The novus homo betrays himself at a glance. The doctrine of hereditary descent plays a more important part in the affairs of the race than we democrats admit. Nay, we all feel it; we all are proud of our ancestry, if they were at all distinguished. We inherit the features, the diseases, the [85] moral and mental qualities of our parents. The child of truly noble parents brought up in the family of the churl will be no churl. How many tales and romances have been founded on this fact! They are not mere fictions; they must contain a vein of truth, or the race would not, could not, relish them as it does.
14
We repeat it, this comes not from the fact that God made originally men of different bloods; for he made all of one and the same blood. But some families and nations, being more favorably situated for improvement than others, have obtained the lead, and retained it unless corrupted and exhausted by vice and luxury. By continued superior moral, intellectual, and physical culture, they have improved, if we may say so, the blood. They have become really superior, and their children are born with more enlarged capacities than the children of those whose ancestors, for countless, ages, have had no advantages of education. When by a fixed regimen of the state, you separate these families from the community at large, the fact becomes striking, and productive of the greatest evils. But in a society like ours, where wealth makes up for the want of birth, there is a general intermixture, which produces comparative equality and the gradual elevation of all. There are, in consequence of the perpetual whirl of our society, of its ups and downs, few families with us that cannot boast as good blood, in some of its branches, as flows in the veins of the proudest aristocrats. Democracy, therefore, needs not shriek at our doctrine. Nay, it may accept it; for it shows strongly the necessity of laboring for the universal culture of the race, and keeps alive its hopes, by making it appear that the progress effected in one generation is so much capital in advance for the succeeding.
15
Unquestionably all men are born with the same nature, but with that nature in different stages of development or growth. A Leibnitz has nothing of which the New Zealander has not the germs; but between the New Zealander and Leibnitz there intervene a hundred centuries of growth. Leibnitz thinks without effort, and assumes as self-evident axioms, what surpasses the utmost conception of the New Zealander, and would, were the New Zealander educated from his earliest infancy in the bosom of our own social state. Yet the New Zealander may one day be to a Leibnitz, what a Leibnitz now is to him.
16a
With this view of progress, that it consists not in the [86] accumulation of exterior monuments only, but in the moral assimilation of truth, in the continued growth of our being, and enlargement of our actual life, there is no danger that the past will be unduly depressed, that it will be forgotten, or that men will cut themselves loose from tradition. The thing, we repeat over and over again, is impossible, for we are the past as well as the presentiment of the future. We are the synthesis of what has been, and of what is to come; and while the humanity that was, the humanity that is, and the humanity that is to be, all beat in our hearts, circulate in our veins, think in our thoughts, and love in our love, we should give ourselves no further concern with the monuments of the past than is necessary to decipher its lessons, so far as they can instruct or warm us for new efforts to advance the race. What we want, then, is not, as we have heretofore carelessly contended,--though the doctrine we have now advanced has been for years our faith,--and as Mr. Clarke contends, a moulding of conservatism and reform into a sort of systematic eclecticism, compelling its disciples to keep perpetually turning from the past to the future, and from the future to the past, in endless gyration, and therefore making no progress; but a real synthesis. Mere eclecticism, taken strictly, is impotent. So far as it is at all influential, it is mischievous, by withdrawing our attention from the ideal, damping the ardor of hope, quenching philanthropic zeal, and rendering us indifferent and imbecile. Alas! we have felt this.
16b
We have labored long and hard; no man more zealously, and with scarcely a perceptible effect. The world has felt that we contradicted in one breath what we had asserted in another. We felt that this was unjust, for we knew that we were consistent. We knew we were right so far as concerned our own thought, and marvelled that, with tolerable powers of expression, we could never make the public perceive the precise position we chose to occupy. The amalgamation of conservatism and reform, as existing in our own mind, was well enough; but no form of expression we could devise would enable us, when we undertook to speak to others, to escape apparent contradiction. The moment that we had awakened them to efforts for progress, we struck them all aback by telling them they must not run away from the past. Our progress doctrines offended conservatives, and our conservative doctrines offended reformers; and we received little except, as we perhaps deserved, the execrations of both. [87] We trust we have shown the cause of this failure. The fault was not in the public, but in ourselves, in a certain confusion in our own mind. The public must judge whether that confusion is still there or not. We have felt that the past was venerable, and should be retained, and that there still should be efforts to conquer the future. But, in stating this, we so stated it that our readers, and especially those who listened to our public discourses, could not see how the past could be retained and venerated, while by our efforts to conquer the future, we were running away from it as fast as we could. This came from mistaking eclecticism for synthesis, a system composed of shreds for an entire new garment woven without seam from top to bottom. Eclecticism wants life, power to quicken men's souls, to make their hearts beat, pulses throb, and prompt bold and energetic and continued efforts for humanity; but a synthesis, which binds the past and the future into a living unity, obviates the difficulty, and gives us an effective system. By our doctrine we retain the past, because we live it, live what has been, as well as fore-feel what is to be. Here is a genuine synthesis. Not a speculative synthesis, existing only in a system, only in the abstract; but in actual life,--in the actual life of the race, and in that of the individual.
16c
Every man in his degree, is this living synthesis; and, therefore, every man in his degree, struggles for progress. There is, then, no real foundation for this distinction, harped upon so much, between conservatives and reformers. In our civilization the question at issue is never, Shall there, or shall there not be progress? but simply, What is, or what is not, progress? Every man has an ideal, and admits that it is his duty to labor for the perfectibility of man and men, and only asks you to show that what you propose will tend to realize that perfectibility. They in whom the past is most living, and the future most present, are they who can best tell what is or what is not most favorable to progress.
17
There is no foundation for the distinction between the movement party and the stationary party, when one looks a little below the surface. Men are not so radically different in their tendencies as this distinction supposes. All men aspire, some with more energy than others, but all in a degree. They differ, not in their tendencies, but in their Judgment, and their faith. One believes in more progress than; another; and one believes that that is progress, which another regards [88] as a retrogression. At bottom all men are the same, else what means the great doctrine of fraternity? These distinctions we make, convenient and true enough under a certain point of view, are after all mischievous, and sunder men instead of bringing them together, make men feel to each other as strangers, not as brothers. The less we insist on them the better. Are we not all of one family? Hath not one God made us? Are we not bound up together in one common lot?
18a
Nor is there even a class of men who really deserve the name of destructives. The human race goes forward by a series of transformations. All things change their forms. Nothing is stable but truth itself, but God; and of truth, of God, our views undergo, whether we will or not, a ceaseless metamorphosis. Old forms must be modified to new conceptions; the garments of childhood must be thrown aside as we approach manhood, and others fitting our new size must be obtained. The modification of old forms of society, of faith and practice, is after all by no means a destruction, any more than the pruning of a fruit tree, to improve its beauty and advance its growth, is a destruction. Jesus and his apostles were not destructives; and yet they destroyed the old form of the Jewish and pagan religions. They were not destructives, for there came forth from their labors new dogmas, a new temple, a new worship, a new and a higher life for the world. In no country, in no age of the world, have the men called destructives deserved the name. These men, at all epochs, demand a reform, a progress of man, of men, or of institutions. They are men who have an ideal they would realize. They are believers in perfectibility, and, therefore, in some sense religious. The much decried French philosophers of the last century, belong to the great brotherhood of believers. They were not irreligious, nor merely destructive in their aims, nor in their tendencies. They were not sceptics, as we sometimes foolishly imagine, but men of strong faith, full of zeal and enthusiasm; and faith, however small the quantity, when once at work in a man's soul, redeems him from sin, and brings him into harmony with God. But these men, it is said, were atheists, they denied God and Christ, and reviled the Holy Scriptures. All a mistake. Just as if a man who has faith and love enough to do valiant battle for humanity, could possibly want faith in God, or be a denier of Christ, or a reviler of the Bible!
18b
Voltaire, Condorcet, Helvetius, and [89] Rousseau, are of the same fraternity with Luther, and Calvin, and Zuinglius, and Knox. And they labored in the same cause with them, and for all that appears, with motives as pure and as Christian. No doubt they said many foolish things, many absurd things, which no wise or good man will repeat; but from their labors and those of their age, the Christian ideal has come forth enlarged. A grand, a Christian idea, eminently so, has been brought out and placed in the common faith of mankind by these same philosophers, whom we and others have been foolish enough to call infidels, atheists, and destructives;--the grand and brilliant idea of the Perfectibility of the Race. This idea was in the mind of Christ, and may be found in the monuments we have remaining of him; but it was not embraced by the church. The church had embraced only the ideal of the perfectibility of individuals. The philosophers did not war against the church because she labored to perfect men, but because she refused to labor to perfect man and society. The church was right in what she asserted, but wrong in the point of view from which the philosophers attacked her. They were right in their attacks. They destroyed nothing. The idea embraced by the church is as firm as ever; but they have added to it another idea, even broader and more powerful, which the church may embrace, if she will; and if she will not, she will find it exceedingly difficult to retain her hold on the race. The two ideas are perfectly compatible; and now we can see that the adherents of the one have no occasion to make war on the defenders of the other. Tell us not, then, that these men who have enlarged our ideal, given a positive dogma to the faith, a second table to the law of the race, were mere destructives. They did their work, as most men do, imperfectly, with a due mixture of human passion and weakness, but they did it as time and circumstances permitted; and it were more fitting for us to make sure of our own faith than to be questioning theirs. They have labored to advance the religion of the race, and why shall we undertake to separate them from the great brotherhood of religious men? The professed believers in Christ must go and study yet longer the meaning of the Christian dogma of Equality, if they find it difficult to embrace them as brothers.
19
What these French philosophers say of Jesus, of Paul, of the Bible, and the fathers, is all very foolish, very absurd, and very saddening withal; and cannot fail to make us [90] regret that men cannot be found to advocate truth without a mischievous admixture of error. But we can see the error of these philosophers, their folly and absurdity, and therefore need not imitate them. We are under no necessity of denying what they denied, nor of reviling what they reviled. We can do, what they could not, separate their truth from their error. Both they and the church, in their respective denials, were pitiable enough; but both were grand, kindling, and Christian, in their positive faith, in what they asserted and really sought to establish. Mole-eyed sectarianism will, no doubt, shriek with horror at these remarks; but her shrieks have no great power to touch a wise man's heart, who will rarely think her end untimely should she even shriek herself to death. She would, no doubt, take it very unkindly in our heavenly Father, should he suffer Voltaire, Condorcet, and Diderot to escape being damned; but we have never been able to persuade ourselves that of all his numerous offspring, God loves none but a few Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. What mighty thing have they done, or are they doing, for religion or morals, that they should rise up and arrogate a monopoly of Heaven's favors? They are, doubtless, passable people enough, as the world goes, and we shall be happy to renew our acquaintance with them in a fairer and better world than this; where, we trust, we shall find their views somewhat enlarged, their tempers sweetened, and their charity not diminished. Equally happy shall we be to meet in company with Calvin, and Edwards, and Gill, and Wesley, Voltaire, Turgot d'Alembert, Diderot, Condorcet, and d'Holbach. Sure Heaven is large enough to contain these as well as those; and God's love is broad enough to cover them, and rich enough to bless them. It is time to leave off this nonsense about infidels and destructives, and to remember that all men are brethren. No man is an infidel who believes a greater good can be obtained for the human race, and who exerts himself according to the measure of his strength and light to obtain it. We heartily repent us of the charge of infidelity, which we have so often thrown out against greater and better men than ourselves. God is no respecter of persons; but in every nation, he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted with him, whether he embrace our creed or not. Thank God! we are not the wielders of his judgments, nor the distributors of his bounty. If we were so, alas for our brethren! [91]
20
Nevertheless, we are not among those who believe all opinions alike good; and that every man does all he can, or all he ought, for the progress of man and of men. We deny utterly all such radical difference among men in regard to religion and infidelity, or reform and conservatism, as is commonly contended for; but we recognize a wide difference among men in the justness or sagacity of their practical views, and in the energy and fidelity with which they labor for human perfectibility. Some mistake entirely the means of realizing a greater good for the race; and others neglect almost entirely to use the means they do not mistake. Men are fallible in their judgments, and they come short in their actions. They err and they sin; and hence the slow progress of individuals, and of the race. History records man's weakness not less than his grandeur; his crimes, sins, misdeeds, as well as his virtues. Over her scroll we must blush and weep, as well as tremble and hope. There is darkness no less than light in our past doings. And men now, in seeking to do what they believe to be right, often war against the best interests of the race. Ever does Satan delude them, by coming to them in the guise of an angel of light. And not this alone. Indolence, like an incubus, rests upon thousands to whom God has given intellect and means, and paralyzes their souls; selfishness and sensuality drive thousands and thousand of others in a direction their better feelings and soberer judgments assure them is false and wicked. We believe neither in the infallibility nor the sinlessness of the race. We believe only in its capacity for progress, in its perfectibility; not in its perfection, nor power to become perfect, but merely to approach perfection.
21
Errors are peculiar to no one class of men. They who are called reformers and they who are called conservatives err, not because they advocate or oppose progress, but in their adoption and application of means to obtain the end common to them all. They are all brethren, their faces are really all the same way; but they all, in no small degree, mistake the most effectual means for setting humanity forward. Our transcendental theologians, saving so far as they are animated by an intenser zeal than their opponents, are no more the party of the future, no more reformers than the others. They err by mistaking, in no small degree, both the end and the means. Their merit consists in their assertion of the inspiration of all men, and thereby declaring [92] all men to stand in intimate relation with their Maker. This is a great and glorious truth; but it is not the whole truth. Their opponents, in rejecting this truth, are wrong, and mischievous in their influence. But these opponents contend for another truth equally great and equally, if not more, essential, the special inspiration of individual messengers, as the providential agents of the progress of the race.
22
The tendency of the transcendental theologians is to overlook the agency of these special messengers, these providential men; and to assert the sufficiency of the inspiration common to all men. Hence Bibles and Messiahs to them are but natural occurrences, and entitled to no special reverence or authority. Through the aid of Bibles and Messiahs they have grown so large, that they fancy Bibles and Messiahs are no longer necessary; nay, that they were never necessary.  We have no sympathy with this tendency. Undoubtedly, all men stand in intimate relation with their Maker; undoubtedly all men are inspired, for all men love; undoubtedly many of the great essential elements of religious faith have been so far assimilated to the life of humanity, as to be now natural religion; and therefore no longer needing, with the more advanced nations of the earth, a positive supernatural revelation either to assert them, or to confirm their authority; but, after all, it is mainly through the agency of specially inspired and extraordinarily endowed individuals that the race is itself improved; and through Bibles, prophets, Messiahs, revelators that it has attained its present growth. God is nearer to us than transcendental theology teaches. He is near us, not merely in the fixed and uniform laws of nature, but with us in his providence, taking free and voluntary care of us, and tempering all events to our strength and condition. God is not a resistless fate, an iron necessity, inaccessible to human prayer, which no tears, no entreaties, no contrition can move; but a kind and merciful Father, who hears when his children cry, and is ready, able, and willing to supply all their wants. True, we see him not, know him not, save in his manifestations, in the effects be produces, and so far as he enters, by his power and love, into his creatures. But this we know, that we have never sought help of him in vain; and have never gone to him with a broken and contrite spirit without finding relief. We see a special as well as a general providence in the history of individuals and of the race. All is [93] not the result of natural tendencies. Moses, no doubt, embodies in himself all the tendencies of his people, but how much more! These tendencies did not produce him and his legislation; for ages on ages were requisite for his people to come up to his level, to reach the point where his legislation must cease to be an ideal for humanity. The absurdest of all theories is that which would make Moses the natural production of his age and people; and that people utterly incapable of comprehending him, so sunk in ignorance as, the moment his presence was withdrawn, to fall down and worship a calf of gold!
23
We have indeed no sympathy with Jewish exclusiveness, none with the doctrine that teaches God had disinherited all nations but the Jewish; and, we may add, just as little with the modern doctrine that,
"Out of the heart of Nature roll'd
The burdens of the Bible old;
The Litanies of nations came,
Like the volcano's tongue of flame,
Up from the burning core below,
The canticles of love and woe."
24
This is to mistake the effect for the cause. These litanies came not from "the burning core below;" but they came from God, and they kindled that "burning core." They originated not in the human heart, sprung not from the effort of the soul to utter or to satisfy its own inherent wants; but they came from abroad, to create in the soul a deep want for God, and to make the heart and flesh cry out for the living God. Tell us not that nature has produced the Bible. Man has not degenerated; he lives in as close communion with nature as ever, has the same senses, the same soul, the same " burning core," and yet out from his heart no Bible rolls its "burdens."
25
Christianity is no natural production. It had, no doubt, its reason in the age in which it was born; it was, no doubt, that to which all preceding progress pointed, which all the previous tendencies of the race demanded as their fulfilment; but, if it was the mere natural and inevitable result of the natural development of the human race, why appeared it not first where that development was most manifest? Why was not its first appearance in Athens, Rome, or Alexandria, and in the Temples, the Mysteries, or the Schools, instead of a by-corner of the world, in an obscure hamlet, and in the person of an obscure peasant, followed [94] by humble fishermen and despised publicans? Had the tendencies of the age reached furthest, become most manifest, the development of the race most advanced with the fishermen and boatmen of the Lake of Genesareth? Undoubtedly Christianity was the last word of oriental and Grecian philosophies; a word for the utterance of which all previous providences had been preparing the way; but a word none but God could utter; and not till he had uttered it in thunder tones from his dwelling in the heavens, and his well-beloved Son had echoed it from the cross and the tomb, could the nations hear it and leap at the sound.
26
For ourselves, we confess our utter inability to explain the past history of the race on the theory of natural development, or even on that of the supernatural inspiration which we believe to be common to all men. That history is all bristling with prodigies which are inexplicable to us, save on the hypothesis of the constant intervention, in a special manner, of our ever-watchful Father. It is through the agency of prophets, and messengers, and Messiahs, specially and supernaturally endowed by God's spirit, coming when they should come, that the race is initiated into higher and higher degrees of moral and social life. It is our profound belief in this agency that sustains us in the darkest days and enables us to hope in the midst of despair. It is because there is a God, a great and good God, who never deserts his child, humanity, but is always near and able to succor, that we look forward to a higher moral and social state; and have the courage and the strength, though single-handed and alone, to demand progress, and to labor for it. We have thought differently in our day; but let this confession, written while tears of contrition and joy are falling fast, plead our pardon.
27
Nor let it be supposed that, in clinging to the Bible and Jesus, men are mere conservatives, that they have no aspirations. Some of the truths of the Bible have been assimilated; a portion, if we may so speak, of the divine life of Jesus has become the life of Christendom. Some portion of the Christian ideal has been realized. But not all. There are depths in that old Hebrew Book which no human plummet has sounded; heights in the life of Jesus which no human imagination has scaled. In contending for the Christianity of the Bible and of Jesus, we are not looking back, but forward; for we are contending for truths far, far in advance of our age. Here is the truth of those who war [95] against what is called transcendental theology. They see, as well they may, in the rich store-houses of the Gospel, of the Bible, of Christ, enough for the warmest heart, the profoundest intellect, the loftiest aspiration. Their error, if error they have, is in misinterpreting Christianity, in not being true to the law they acknowledge, in not laboring with sufficient faith and energy to realize the ideal of Christ. They are hearers and not doers of the word. They are as the man who seeth his face in a glass, and then goeth away and forgetteth what manner of man he was. Let them really bring out the Christian ideal, and labor with zeal and energy to form Christ, the hope of glory, in the individual and in the race, and they will be true and efficient reformers. Their works will live after them.
28
Nor, again, let it be supposed that they who cling to the authority of revelation, are necessarily inimical to the rights of the mind, or to progress in the knowledge of truth. The Christian ideal, so far as realized, needs no foreign authority. The human mind is equal to it. But what is the authority for that ideal, so far as yet unrealized? The individual reason? Alas! we have seen enough of mere individual reason. It is impotent when it has not, for its guide and support, the reason of God, speaking not only to the heart, but through revelation and the traditions of the race. The great doctrines we are laboring to establish, the reforms we would effect, we confess our inability to demonstrate by mere individual reason. We ask for them, both on our own account, and on account of others, a higher authority. That reason may be sufficient for here and there one. But how can it suffice for the ignorant, the bigoted, the superstitious, the incredulous, the sensual, the wicked; the men in whom conscience slumbers, love sleeps, and only the world with its impurities is awake! Alas! man's word is impotent to arouse them; man's authority too weak to command even their attention. They may speculate with us, or debate with us, but not act with us, not live with us, for God or for man. You must go to them with a higher authority than your own; speak to them in a Name above all names which they dare not resist, or your preaching and efforts will be fruitless. Deprive the preacher of the authority of God, let him go in his own name, not as the messenger of God, and men will laugh at his truth, and mock at his most earnest expostulations. No. They are sorry reformers who would reduce God to nature, and the authority of his word [96] to that of the individual reason varying with every individual and with every age.
29
Nor can we sympathize with the doctrine that makes "religion a matter wholly inward and spiritual." Does Mr. Clarke call this a new doctrine, or an old? It is as old as the oldest records of the race, excepting the Bible, and its legitimate results may be seen in the Indian Fakir, who sits all day with his eyes turned downward, contemplating the celestial light playing upon the end of his nose. It may be seen in the sublime indifferency and refined sensuality of the great Goethe, the modern transcendental saint, who cared not how the world went, providing he succeeded in cultivating all sides of his "many-sided" being. Whenever we make religion a matter wholly inward and spiritual, we either make sanctity consist in the calm, quiet contemplation of the beauty and excellence of truth, or we run into a vague, dreamy sentimentalism, which is never slow to lose itself in sensuality. In either case the result is to be deprecated.
30
Mr. Clarke tells us that, prior to the rise of transcendental theology, our community was divided into two classes, "both of which sought to be justified by works rather than by faith; the one by religious works, the other by moral works. According to both systems the free soul of man was bound beneath the yoke of opinions and outward practices. Christianity was not enough regarded as lying in the state of the soul, and in its inward union with God." This account of our religious community does not state the precise evil that existed. Assuredly we shall not here advocate a round of rites and ceremonies, but we utterly deny that those who sought to be justified by "religious works" were wrong in principle. The doctrine which led our Orthodox Christians to seek the favor of heaven by works of piety and love, which led them to maintain what they believed to be the truth, to build churches and assemble for worship, to form Bible, missionary, and tract societies, and to contribute liberally of their wealth for evangelizing the world, was no false doctrine. It led them out of themselves, to seek heaven by doing good; and in this it was right. Their error was not one of principle, but merely mistaking the most direct method of doing the greatest amount of good for their brethren. Nor did our Unitarian community err in principle. We should like to know how a man is to be justified, if not by the performance of moral works. The "baptized [97] atheism," with which we sometime since charged Unitarianism, belonged to its neglect of tradition, to its excessive rationalism, and its want of a broad and comprehensive faith in the progress of man and society; in a word, to its coldness and want of power to inspire love and prompt its believers to bold, earnest, and successful efforts for human salvation, and to its contending for a philosophy, the logical results of which could not fail to end in speculative atheism. We never thought of charging Unitarians, as such, with being atheists, or of censuring them for making religion too outward and formal. Either the orthodox principle or the Unitarian is altogether preferable to the antinomianism of the transcendentalist. So far as the transcendentalists have recognized in man the power to perceive truths which transcend the outward senses, so far they have been of service and have aided progress; but so far as they have represented these transcendental truths to exist in the soul, and taught us it is in ourselves that we see them, and led us to suppose them to be mere developments of the soul itself, they have falsified the truth, and retarded progress instead of aiding it. No, these transcendental truths are no more in the soul, no more the patrimony, as somebody calls them, of the race, than are the objects of external nature. They are objects of the soul's intelligence, and therefore are out of it, exterior to it, and possessed by it only when it beholds them. It is always out of us we are to look for the truth; never in us; for it is only as we are reflected from what we are not, as in a glass, that we learn what we are, or even that we are.
31
It is making religion consist in the frame of the soul, not in the intensity and direction of its activity, that leads the author of this sermon, when speaking of the duty of the Christian minister, to say that he has "a work to do on the hearts of his hearers." This is the highest conception of the duty of the minister of Jesus that he can take with his mysticism and quietism. According to him the question is not what we do, but what we are; just as if what we are is not the result of what we do; as if our being is not in our doing. We exist not for ourselves any further than we act; and all consciousness of our very existence ceases the moment we cease acting. The great end of life is not to be, but to do; and in doing being is developed and enlarged. This cant of the followers of our transcendentalists about being, and cultivating one's being, is quite nauseating. Assuredly we do not regard the frame of the mind and [98] heart a matter of indifference; assuredly we do not object to self-culture, nor the cultivation of one's whole nature, but there is for us no sadder image than that of a man who sets out "with malice aforethought" to cultivate himself. Sad, sad is it to see a man engrossed wholly with himself, and thinking only of the effect this or that act may have in cultivating the barren soil of his own puny being. The great question the apostles made their hearers ask was, What shall we do? and Jesus bids us do the works he commands, if one would know whether he be of God or not. The preacher must not aim at doing a work on the hearts of his hearers,--although, if true and faithful to his mission, a great and glorious work he will do,--but he must aim to make his hearers do something, to point them to a work out of themselves, which they must do in order to be saved, and inspire them by bold words and warm love with zeal and energy to do it. In doing this work, in being drawn away from themselves, forgetting their own salvation even, and laboring to realize a good for humanity, they will cultivate their souls, improve their hearts, and advance in the internal life of Christ. We do not cultivate love to God by trying to look into ourselves, by calm contemplation of his commands, nor by internal, isolated strivings to love him; but by active efforts to do his will, which is to love and serve our brethren; that is by "moral works." Nor do we come to love mankind by efforts carried on by ourselves alone, but by going forth among them, into active life, and striving to do them good. No man loves his race till he has served it. If we waited for faith and love, before acting, we should never act. Faith and love are born in the effort to do. The love to God, or to man, that comes in any other way, is no true love, but a vague, dreamy sentimentalism, weak and effeminate, weeping and sighing at the recital of wrong and outrage, fainting at sight of human suffering, but unable to lift a finger to lighten the load of misery that weighs man down in the dust.
32
No; your Christian minister is not one who contents himself with, or thinks of, the work he may do on the hearts of his hearers. He comes from God to man, and points to a work the sinner must do. On that work he fixes the attention of his hearers. He speaks with authority, and infuses a new and higher life into the world by awakening it to the performance of nobler deeds. He carries every man's thoughts away from himself, and instead of concentrating [99] them on his own self-culture, he fixes them on God, on duty, on humanity, and warms and kindles, enlightens and directs, every one to bold and vigorous efforts for truth and progress. Self-culture, the redemption and sanctification of the individual heart, will follow as a natural and necessary result.
33
But we have extended our remarks beyond what we proposed, because the subject is one of vital importance, and on some points of which, we are fully satisfied that we have often spoken too hastily, without due deliberation, and on which we have been still more mistaken by others. We trust we have now expressed ourselves so clearly and distinctly that we shall not be again misapprehended on these points. It will be seen that for the foundation of our faith and our general tendencies, we take our stand with those who do not accept the transcendental theology. We go for progress; not in truth, for truth is immutable, but in the knowledge of the truth; and that truth is no innate property of our souls. We are not born in possession of it. We obtain a knowledge of it only by a sincere and earnest study of man and the universe, the Bible and the life of Jesus. We have no wish to separate ourselves from common humanity. We go with our brethren. Their traditions are ours; their God is our God; their faith is our faith; and all we ask of them is to permit us to labor in common with them for a more perfect understanding of the Gospel, and a more complete realization of the great truths, in both man and men, in the individual and society, in church and state, in industry, science, and art, in the whole sphere of man's life and activity.

Source:The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, vol. IV, edited by Henry F. Brownson (Detroit, 1901), 79-99. Originally published in The Boston Quarterly Review V (Jan. 1842). Paragraph numbers have been added, and the original pagination appears in brackets.

History Tools Home Historical Sources Handout Library About Search