Andrews Norton,
A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity

Delivered at the Request of the "Association of the Alumni of the Cambridge Theological School," on the 19th of July, 1839.

1
I ADDRESS you, Gentlemen, and our friends who are assembled with us, on an occasion of more than common interest; as it is your first meeting since joining together in a society as former pupils of the Theological School in this place. Many of you may look back over a considerable portion of time that has elapsed since your residence here. In thus meeting with those in whose society we have spent some of the earlier years of life, recollections are naturally called up of pleasures that are gone, of ties that have been broken, of hopes that have perished, and of bright imaginations that have faded away. Such recollections produce those serious views of our present existence with which religious sentiment is connected. They make us feel the value of a Christian's faith; of that faith, which, where [4] decay was before written on all most dear to us, stamps immortality instead.
2
I see among you many, who, I know, will recall our former connexion with the same interest as I do, and whom I am privileged to regard as friends. As for those of you, Gentlemen, to whom I have not stood in the relation of an instructer, we also have an intimate connexion with each other. Your office is to defend, explain, and enforce the truths of Christianity; and with the importance of those truths no one can be more deeply impressed than myself. So far as you are faithful to your duty, the strong sympathy of all good men is with you.
3
But we meet in a revolutionary and uncertain state of religious opinion, existing throughout what is called the Christian world. Our religion is very imperfectly understood, and received by comparatively a small number with intelligent faith. In proportion as our view is more extended, and we are better acquainted with what is and what has been, we shall become more sensible of the great changes that have long been in preparation, but which of late have been rapidly developed. The present state of things imposes new responsibilities upon all, who know the value of our faith [5] and have ability to maintain it. Let us then employ this occasion in considering some of the characteristics of the times and some of those opinions now prevalent, which are at war with a belief in Christianity.
4
By a belief in Christianity, we mean the belief that Christianity is a revelation by God of the truths of religion; and that the divine authority of him whom God commissioned to speak to us in his name was attested, in the only mode in which it could be, by miraculous displays of his power. Religious truths are those truths, and those alone, which concern the relations of man to God and eternity. It is only as an immortal being and a creature of God, that man is capable of religion. Now those truths which concern our higher nature, and all that can with reason deeply interest us in our existence, we Christians receive, as we trust, on the testimony of God. He who rejects Christianity must admit them, if he admit them at all, upon some other evidence.
5a
But the fundamental truths of religion taught by Christianity became very early connected with human speculations, to which the same importance was gradually attached, and for the proof of which the same divine authority was claimed. These speculations spread out and [6] consolidated into systems of theology, presenting aspects equally hostile to reason and to our faith; so hostile, that, for many centuries, a true Christian in belief and heart, earnest to communicate to others the blessings of his faith, would have experienced, anywhere in Christendom, a fate similar to that which his Master suffered among the Jews. It would be taking a different subject from what I have proposed, to attempt to explain and trace the causes of this monstrous phenomenon. The false representations of Christianity, that have come down to us from less enlightened times, have ceased to retain their power over far the larger portion of those individuals who form, for good or evil, the character of the age in which they live. But the reaction of the human intellect and heart against their imposition has as yet had but little tendency to procure the reception of more correct notions of Christianity.
5b
On the contrary, the inveterate and enormous errors, that have prevailed, have so perverted men's conceptions, have so obscured and perplexed the whole subject, have so stood in the way of all correct knowledge of facts, and all just reasoning; there are so few works in Christian theology not at least colored and tainted by them; and they still [7] present such obstacles at every step to a rational, investigation of the truth; that the degree of learning, reflection, judgment, freedom from worldly influences, and independence of thought, necessary to ascertain for one's self the true character of Christianity, is to be expected from but few. The greater number, consequently, confound the systems that have been substituted for it with Christianity itself, and receive them in its stead, or, in rejecting them, reject our faith. The tendency of the age is to the latter result.
6
This tendency is strengthened by the political action of the times, especially in the Old World. Ancient institutions and traditionary power are there struggling to maintain themselves against the vast amount of new energy that has been brought into action. Long existing forms of society are giving way. The old prejudices by which they were propped up are decaying. Wise men look with awe at the spectacle; as if they saw in some vast tower, hanging over a populous city, rents opening, and its sides crumbling and inclining. But in the contest between the new and the old, which has spread over Europe, erroneous representations of Christianity are in alliance with established power. They have long been [8] so. The institutions connected with them have long been principal sources of rank and emolument. What passes for Christianity is thus placed in opposition to the demands of the mass of men, and is regarded by them as inimical to their rights; while, on the other hand, those, to whom false Christianity affords aid, repel all examination into the genuineness of its claims.
7
The commotion of men's minds in the rest of the civilized world, produces a sympathetic action in our own country. We have indeed but little to guard us against the influence of the depraving literature and noxious speculations which flow in among us from Europe. We have not yet any considerable body of intellectual men, devoted to the higher departments of thought, and capable of informing and guiding others in attaining the truth. There is no controlling power of intellect among us.
8
Christianity, then, has been grossly misrepresented, is very imperfectly understood, and powerful causes are in operation to obstruct all correct knowledge of it, and to withdraw men's thoughts and affections from it. But at the present day there is little of that avowed and zealous infidelity, the infidelity of highly popular authors, acknowledged enemies of our [9] faith, which characterized the latter half of the last century. Their writings, often disfigured by gross immoralities, are now falling into disrepute. But the effects of those writings, and of the deeply seated causes by which they were produced, are still widely diffused. There is now no bitter warfare against Christianity, because such men as then waged it would now consider our religion as but a name, a pretence, the obsolete religion of the state, the superstition of the vulgar. But infidelity has but assumed another form, and in Europe, and especially in Germany, has made its way among a very large portion of nominally Christian theologians. Among them are now to be found those whose writings are most hostile to all that characterizes our faith. Christianity is undermined by them with the pretence of settling its foundations anew. Phantoms are substituted for the realities of revelation.
9
It is asserted, apparently on good authority, that the celebrated atheist Spinoza composed the work in which his opinions are most fully unfolded, in the Dutch language, and committed it to his friend, the physician Mayer, to translate into Latin; that, where the name God now appears, Spinoza had written Nature; but that Mayer induced him to substitute the [10] former word for the latter, in order partially to screen himself from the odium to which he might be exposed. {*1} Whether this anecdote be true or not, a similar abuse of language appears in many of the works to which I refer. The holiest names are there; a superficial or ignorant reader may be imposed upon by their occurrence; but they are there as words of show, devoid of their essential meaning, and perverted to express some formless and powerless conception. In Germany the theology of which I speak has allied itself with atheism, with pantheism, and with the other irreligious speculations, that have appeared in those metaphysical systems from which the God of Christianity is excluded.
10
There is no subject of historical inquiry of more interest than the history of opinions; there is none of more immediate concern than the state of opinions; for opinions govern the world. Except in cases of strong temptation, men's evil passions must coincide with or must pervert their opinions, before they can obtain the mastery. It is, therefore, not a light question, what men think of Christianity. It is a question on which, in the judgment of an intelligent [11] believer, the condition of the civilized world depends. With these views we will consider the aspect that infidelity has taken in our times.
11a
The latest form of infidelity is distinguished by assuming the Christian name, while it strikes directly at the root of faith in Christianity, and indirectly of all religion, by denying the miracles attesting the divine mission of Christ. The first writer, so far as I know, who maintained the impossibility of a miracle was Spinoza, whose argument, disengaged from the use of language foreign from his opinions, is simply this, that the laws of nature are the laws by which God is bound, Nature and God being the same, and therefore laws from which Nature or God can never depart. {*2} The argument is founded on atheism. The denial of the possibility of miracles must involve the denial of the existence of God; since, if there be a God, in the proper sense of the word, there can be no room for doubt, that he may act in a manner different from that in which he displays his power in the ordinary operations of nature.
11b
It deserves notice, however, that in Spinoza's discussion of this subject we find that affectation of religious language, and of religious [12] reverence and concern, which is so striking a characteristic of many of the irreligious speculations of our day, and of which he, perhaps, furnished the prototype; for he has been regarded as a profound teacher, a patriarch of truth, by some of the most noted among the infidel philosophers and theologians of Germany. "I will show from Scripture," he says, "that the decrees and commands of God, and consequently his providence, are nothing but the order of nature."--"If any thing should take place in nature which does not follow from its laws, that would necessarily be repugnant to the order which God has established in nature by its universal laws, and, therefore, contrary to nature and its laws; and, consequently the belief of such an event would cause universal doubt and lead to atheism." {*3} So strong a hold has religion upon the inmost nature of man, that even its enemies, in order to delude their followers, thus assume its aspect and mock its tones.
12a
What has been stated is the great argument of Spinoza, to which every thing in his discussion of the subject refers; but this discussion may appear like the text-book of much that has been written in modern times concerning [13] it. There is one, however, among the writings against the miracles of Christianity, of a diffierent kind, the famous Essay of Hume. None has drawn more attention, or has more served as a groundwork for infidelity. Yet, considering the sagacity of the author, and the celebrity of his work, it is remarkable, that, in his main argument, the whole point to be proved is broadly assumed in the premises. "It is a miracle," he says, "that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed, in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event; otherwise the event would not merit that appellation." The conclusion, if conclusion it may be called, is easily made. If a miracle has never been observed in any age or country, if uniform experience shows that no miracle ever occurred, then it follows that all accounts of past miracles are undeserving of credit.
12b
But if there be an attempt to stretch this easy conclusion, and to represent it as involving the intrinsic incredibility of a miracle, the argument immediately gives way. "Experience," says Hume, "is our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact." Experience is the foundation of such reasoning, but we may draw inferences from our experience. [14] We may conclude from it the existence of a power capable of works which we have never known it to perform; and no one, it may be presumed, who believes that there is a God, will say, that he is convinced by his experience, that God can manifest his power only in conformity to the laws which he has imposed upon nature.
13
Hume cannot be charged with affecting religion; but in the conclusion of his Essay, he says, in mockery; "I am the better pleased with the method of reasoning here delivered, as I think it may serve to confound those dangerous friends, or disguised enemies, to the Christian religion, who have undertaken to defend it by the principles of human reason. Our most holy religion is founded on faith, not on reason; and it is a sure method of exposing it, to put it to such a trial as it is by no means fitted to endure." What Hume said in derision has been virtually repeated, apparently in earnest, by some of the modern disbelievers of miracles, who still choose to profess a belief in Christianity.
14a
To deny that a miracle is capable of proof, or to deny that it may be proved by evidence of the same nature as establishes the truth of other events, is, in effect, as I have said, to [15] deny the existence of God. A miracle can be incapable of proof only because it is physically or morally impossible; since what is possible may be proved. To deny that the truth of a miracle may be established, involves the denial of creation; for there can be no greater miracle than creation. It equally implies, that no species of being that propagates its kind ever had a commencement; for if there was a first plant that grew without seed, or a first man without parents, or if of any series of events there was a first without such antecedents as the laws of nature require, then there was a miracle. So far is a miracle from being incapable of proof, that you can escape from the necessity of believing innumerable miracles, only by believing that man, and all other animals, and all plants, have existed from eternity upon this earth, without commencement of propagation, there never having been a first of any species.
14b
No one, at the present day, will maintain with Lucretius, that they were generated from inanimate matter, by the fermentation of heat and moisture. Nothing can seem more simple or conclusive than the view we have taken; but we may render it more familiar by an appeal to fact. The science of geology has shown us, that man is but a late inhabitant of the earth. [16] The first individuals of our race, then, were not produced as all others have been. They were formed by a miracle, or, in other words, by an act of God's power, exerted in a different manner from that in which it operates according to the established laws of nature. Creation, the most conspicuous, is at the same time the most undeniable, of miracles.
15
By any one who admits that God exists, in the proper sense of the words, his power to effect a miracle cannot be doubted; and it would be the excess of human presumption and folly to affirm, that it would be inconsistent with his wisdom and goodness ever to exert his power except in those modes of action which he has prescribed to himself in what we call the laws of nature.
16
On the contrary, a religious philosopher may regard the uniformity of the manifestations of God's power in the course of nature, as solely intended by him to afford a stable ground for calculation and action to his rational creatures; which could not exist, if the antecedents that we call causes, were not, in all ordinary cases, the signs of consequent effects. This uniformity is necessary to enable created beings to be rational agents. The Deity has imposed upon himself no arbitrary and mechanical laws. [17] It is solely, so far as we can perceive, for the sake of his creatures, that he preserves the uniformity of action that exists in his works. Beyond the sphere of their observation, where this cause ceases, we have no ground for the belief of its continuance. There is nothing to warrant the opinion, that the Deity still restrains his power by an adherence to laws, the observance of which his creatures cannot recognise. We have strong reasons for believing that such an apparently causeless uniformity of operation would produce, not good, but evil. We have no ground for supposing, that the operation of the laws of nature, with which we are acquainted, extends beyond the ken of human observation; or that these laws are any thing more than a superficial manifestation of God's power, the mere exterior phenomena of the universe. We have no reason to doubt that the creation may be full of hidden miracles.
17
But, if the uniformity of the laws of nature, so far as they fall within our cognizance, is ordained by God for the good of his creatures, then, should a case occur in which a great blessing is to be bestowed upon them, the dispensing of which requires that he should act in other modes, no presumption would exist [18] against his so acting. So far as we are able to discern, there would be no reason to doubt that he would so act. A miracle is improbable, when we can perceive no sufficient cause in reference to his creatures, why the Deity should vary his modes of operation; it ceases to be so, when such a cause is assigned. But Christianity claims to reveal facts, a knowledge of which is essential to the moral and spiritual regeneration of men; and to offer, in attestation of the truth of those facts, the only satisfactory proof, the authority of God, evidenced by miraculous displays of his power. The supposed interposition of God corresponds to the weighty purpose which it is represented as effecting. If Christianity profess to teach truths of infinite moment; if we perceive, that such is the character of its teachings, if, indeed, they are true; and if we are satisfied, from the exercise of our own reason and the history of the world, that they relate to facts concerning our relations and destiny, of which we could otherwise obtain no assurance, then this character of our religion removes all presumption against its claims to a miraculous origin.
18a
But incredulity respecting the miracles of Christianity rarely has its source in any process of reasoning. It is commonly produced by the [19] gross misrepresentations which have been made of Christianity. It has also another cause, deeply seated in our nature; --the inaptitude and reluctance of men to extend their view beyond the present and sensible, to raise themselves above the interests, the vexations, the pleasures, innocent or criminal, that lie within the horizon of a year or a week; and to open their minds to those thoughts and feelings, that rush in with the clear apprehension of the fact, that the barrier between the eternal and the finite world has been thrown open. A religious horror may come over us, so that
"We fain would skulk beneath our wonted covering,
Mean as it is."
18b
Man, indeed, in his low estate, loves the supernatural; but it is the supernatural addressed to the imagination, not in all its naked distinctness to the soul; it is the supernatural as belonging to some form of faith more connected with this world than the future; or regarded as the operation of limited beings, presenting a semblance of human nature, on whom man can react in his turn. But let us imagine, if we can, what would be the feelings of an enlighteried philosopher, were he to witness an unquestionable miracle, a work breaking through the secondary agency, behind which the Deity [20] ordinarily veils himself, and bringing us into immediate connexion with him. We can hardly conceive of the awe, the almost appalling feeling, with which it would be contemplated by one fully capable of comprehending its character, and alive to all its relations.
18c
The miracles of Christianity, when they are brought home to the mind as realities, have somewhat of the same power; dimmed as they are by distance, and clouded over by all the errors that false Christianity has gathered round them. If they be true, if Christianity be true, if its doctrines be certain; it is the most solemn fact we can comprehend, as well as the most joyful. It requires, that our whole character should be conformed to the new relations which it makes known. All things around us change their aspect. Life and death are not what they were. We are walking on the confines of an unknown and eternal world, where none of those earthly passions, that now agitate men so strongly, can find entrance. They bear upon them the mark of their doom, soon to perish. But from the revulsion of feeling, that must take place, when the character of all that surrounds us is thus changed, and the objects of eternity appear before the mind's eye, it is natural that many should shrink, and endeavour to [21] escape from the view, and to forget it amid the familiar things of life; clinging to a vain conception, vain as regards each individual, of an unchanging stability in the order of nature.
19
Vain, I say, as regards each individual. Whatever we may fancy respecting the unchangeableness of the present order of things, to us it is not permanent. If we are to exist as individuals after death, then we shall soon be called, not to witness, but to be the subjects, of a miracle of unspeakable interest to us. Death will be to us an incontrovertible miracle. For us the present order of things will cease, and the unseen world, from which we may have held back our imagination, our feelings, and our belief, will be around us in all its reality.
20a
If it were not for the abuse of language that has prevailed, it would be idle to say, that, in denying the miracles of Christianity, the truth of Christianity is denied. It has been vaguely alleged, that the internal evidences of our religion are sufficient, and that miraculous proof is not wanted; but this can be said by no one who understands what Christianity is, and what its internal evidences are. On this ground, however, the miracles of Christ were not indeed expressly denied, but were represented by some of the founders of the modern school [22] of German infidelity, as only prodigies, adapted to rouse the attention of a rude people, like the Jews; but not required for the conviction of men of more enlightened minds. By others, the accounts of them in the Gospels have been admitted as in the main true, but explained as only exaggerated and discolored relations of natural events.
20b
But now, without taking the trouble to go through this tedious and hopeless process of misinterpretation, there are many who avow their disbelief of all that is miraculous in Christianity, and still affect to call themselves Christians. But Christianity was a revelation from God; and, in being so, it was itself a miracle. Christ was commissioned by God to speak to us in his name; and this is a miracle. No proof of his divine commission could be afforded, but through miraculous displays of God's power. Nothing is left that can be called Christianity, if its miraculous character be denied. Its essence is gone; its evidence is annihilated. Its truths, involving the highest interests of man, the facts which it makes known, and which are implied in its very existence as a divine revelation, rest no longer on the authority of God. All the evidence, if evidence it can be called, which it affords of its doctrines, consists in the real or [23] pretended assertions of an individual, of whom we know very little, except that his history must have been most grossly misrepresented.
21
It is indeed difficult to conjecture what any one can fancy himself to believe of the history of Christ, who rejects the belief of his divine commission and miraculous powers. What conception can such a one form of his character? His whole history, as recorded in the Gospels, is miraculous. It is vain to attempt to strike out what relates directly or indirectly to his miraculous authority and works, with the expectation that any thing consistent or coherent will remain. It is as if one were to undertake to cut out from a precious agate the figure which nature has inwrought, and to pretend, that, by the removal of this accidental blemish, the stone might be left in its original form. If the accounts of Christ's miracles are mere fictions, then no credit can be due to works so fabulous as the pretended histories of his life. But these supposed miracles, it has been contended, may be explained, consistently with the veracity of the reporters, as natural events, the character of which was mistaken by the beholders. At first glance it is obvious, that such a statement supposes mistakes committed by those beholders, the disciples [24] and apostles of Jesus, hardly consistent with any exercise of intellect; and, at the same time, renders it very difficult to free his character from the suspicion of intentional fraud. A little further consideration may satisfy us, that, if Jesus really performed no miracles, the accounts of his life, that have been handed down from his disciples, give evidence of utter folly, or the grossest deception, or rather of both.
22
But let us suppose, that the account of some one or more of the miracles of Christ, especially if detached from its connexion, and from all that determines its meaning, admits of being explained as having its origin in some natural event. Take any case one will, however, it must be admitted, that the explanation is not obvious, that it is conjectural; and, in a great majority of cases, it must be allowed, that it is merely possible; and that, to render it deserving of notice, the principle is to be assumed, that whatever is supernatural must be expunged from his history. We will suppose ourselves, then, to have tried this mode of interpretation on one narrative, and to have found it improbable. But, suspending our opinion, let us pass on to another solution of a similar character. A new improbability arises, and after [25] that a new one. These improbabilities consequently multiply upon us in a geometrical ratio, and very soon become altogether overwhelming. Yet I speak not of what may be done, but of what has been done. This process of misinterpretation has been laboriously pursued through the Gospels; {*4} and the result has been a mass of monstrous conjectures, and abortive solutions, on which, as we proceed, there falls no glimmering of probability; and which continually shock and grate against all our most cherished sentiments of the inestimable value of Christianity, of admiration and love for its Founder on earth, and of reverence for its divine Author.
23
The proposition, that the history of Jesus is miraculous throughout, is to be understood in all its comprehensiveness. It is not merely that his history is full of accounts of his miracles; it is, that every thing in his history, what relates to himself and what relates to others, is conformed to this fact, and to the conception of him as speaking with authority from God. This is what constitutes the internal evidence of Christianity, a term, as I have said, often [26] used of late with a very indistinct notion of any meaning attached to it. The consistency in the representations given by the different evangelists of the actions and words of Christ, as a messenger from God to men; their consistency in the representation of a character which it is impossible they should have conceived of, if it had not been exhibited before them, gives us an assurance of their truth, that becomes clearer in proportion as their writings are more studied and better understood; and in connexion with this is the consistency of their whole narrative; the coherence and naturalness with which all the words and actions of others bear upon events and upon a character so marvellous, and imply their existence.
24
The words of Christ, equally with his miracles, imply his mission from God. They are accordant only with the conception of him as speaking with authority from God. They would be altogether unsuitable to a merely human teacher of religious truth. So considered, if not the language of an impostor, they become the language of the most daring and crazy fanaticism. I speak of the general character of his discourses, a character of the most striking peculiarity. In ascribing them to one not miraculously commissioned by God, they [27] must be utterly changed and degraded. What is most solemn and sublime must either be rejected as, never having been spoken by him, or its meaning must be thoroughly perverted; it must be diluted into folly, that it may not be blasphemy.
25
"I am the good shepherd," said Jesus, "and lay down my life for my sheep." "For this, the Father loves me; for I lay down my life, to receive it again. None takes it from me; but I lay it down of my own accord. I have a commission to lay it down, and I have a commission to receive it again. This charge I received from my Father." There are but two aspects under which such words can be regarded, if you suppose it true that they were uttered by Jesus. You must say, in effect, with the unbelieving Jews who heard him, "He is possessed by a demon and is mad. Why listen to him?" Or the view which we take must be essentially that of others who were present; "Can a demoniac open the eyes of the blind?"
26
Let us look at another passage. To a Christian it appears of unspeakable grandeur and of infinite moment. It presents before him the Founder of his religion as contemplating the immeasurable extent of blessings of which God had made him the minister, as announcing man's [28] immortality amid the sufferings of humanity, on the threshold of the tomb.
27
"I am the resurrection and the life. He who has faith in me, though he die, shall live and he who lives as a believer in me shall never die. Hast thou faith in this?"
28
Let us go on to the sepulchre of Lazarus.
29
"I thank thee, Father, that thou hast heard me; and I know that thou hearest me always; but I have thus spoken, for the sake of the multitude who are standing round, that they may believe that thou hast sent me."
30
We must, then, believe that Jesus Christ was sent by God, commissioned to speak to us in his name; or we cannot reasonably pretend to know any thing concerning him. We may think it probable, that he was a reformer of the religion of his nation, who preached for some short time, principally in Galilee; but, having very soon made himself an object of general odium, was put to death as a malefactor amid the execrations of his countrymen, who then strove, though ineffectually, to suppress his followers. Or, we may fancy him an untaught but enlightened philosopher, whose character, words, and deeds, whatever they were, have been absurdly and fraudulently misrepresented by his disciples. Or, as the Gospels cannot be [29] regarded as true histories, we may go on to the conclusion at which infidelity, in its folly and ignorance, arrived within the memory of some of us, that no such individual existed, and that Christ is but an allegorical personage. But to whatever conclusion we may come, if the representation of him in the Gospels be not conformed to his real character and office, no foundation is left, on which any one can with reason pretend to regard him as an object of veneration, or to consider his teachings, whatever effect they may have had upon the world, as of any importance to himself.
31
To an infidel, whether he openly profess himself to be so, or whether he call himself a Christian, the history in the Gospels must present an insolvable problem. In the former case, he may turn from it, and say that he is not called upon to solve it; but in the latter, he is, by his profession, bound to do so. He has taken upon himself the task of explaining away the history as it stands, and substituting another in its stead; and of so fabricating the new history, that it may afford him ground for professing admiration and love for the real character of Christ. {*5} [30]
32
THE rejection of Christianity, in any proper sense of the word, the denial that God revealed himself by Christ, the denial of the truth of the Gospel history, or, as it is called in the language of the sect, the rejection of historical Christianity, is, of course, accompanied by the rejection of all that mass of evidence, which, in the view of a Christian, establishes the truth of his religion. This evidence, it is said, consists only of probabilities. We want certainty. The dwellers in the region of shadows complain, that the solid earth is not stable enough for them to rest on. They have firm footing on the clouds.
33a
To the demand for certainty, let it come from whom it may, I answer, that I know of no absolute certainty, beyond the limit of momentary consciousness, a certainty that vanishes the instant it exists, and is lost in the region of metaphysical doubt. Beyond this limit, absolute certainty, so far as human reason may judge, cannot be the privilege of any finite being. When we talk of certainty, a wise man will remember what he is, and the narrow bounds of his wisdom and of his powers. A few years ago he was not. A few years ago he was an infant in his mother's arms, and could but express his wants, and move himself, and smile and cry. He has been introduced into a [31] boundless universe, boundless to human thought in extent and past duration. An eternity had preceded his existence. Whence came the minute particle of life that be now enjoys? Why is he here? Is he only with other beings like himself, that are continually rising up and sinking in the shoreless ocean of existence; or is there a Creator, Father, and Disposer of all? Is he to continue a conscious being after this life, and undergo, new changes; or is death, which he sees everywhere around him, to be the real, as it is the apparent end of what would then seem to be a purposeless and incomprehensible existence? He feels happiness and misery; and would understand how be may avoid the one and secure the other. He is restlessly urged on in pursuit of one object after another; many of them hurtful; most of them such, as the changes of life, or possession itself, or disease, or age, will deprive of their power of gratifying; while, at the same time, if he be unenlightened by revelation, the darkness of the future is rapidly closing round him.
33b
What objects should he pursue? How, if that be possible, is happiness to be secured? A creature of a day, just endued with the capacity of thought, at first receiving all his opinions from those who have preceded him, entangled among [32] numberless prejudices, confused by his passions, perceiving, if the eyes of his understanding are opened, that the sphere of his knowledge is hemmed in by an infinity of which he is ignorant, from which unknown region, clouds are often passing over, and darkening what seemed clearest to his view,--such a being cannot pretend to attain, by his unassisted powers, any assurance concerning the unseen and the eternal, the great objects of religion.
33c
If men had been capable of comprehending their weakness and ignorance, and of reflecting deeply on their condition here, a universal cry would have risen from their hearts, imploring their God, if there were one, to reveal himself, and to make known to them their destiny. Their wants have been answered by God before they were uttered. Such is the belief of a Christian; and there is no question more worthy of consideration than whether this belief be well founded. It can be determined only by the exercise of that reason which God has given us for our guidance in all that concerns us. There can be no intuition, no direct perception, of the truth of Christianity, no metaphysical certainty. But it would be folly, indeed, to reject the testimony of God concerning all our higher relations and interests, because we can have no assurance, that he has [33] spoken through Christ, except such as the condition of our nature admits of.
34a
It is important for us to understand, that, in all things of practical import, in the exercise of all our affections, in the whole formation of our characters, we are acting, and must act, on probabilities alone. Certainty, in the metaphysical sense of the word, has nothing to do with the concerns of men, as respects this life or the future. We must discuss the subject of religion as we do all other subjects, when men talk with men about matters in which they are in earnest. It would be considered rather as insanity, than folly, were any one to introduce metaphysical skepticism, concerning causality, or identity, or the existence of the external world, or the foundation of human knowledge, into a discussion concerning the affairs of this life, the establishment of a manufactory, for example, or the building of a railroad; or if he should bring it forward to shake our confidence in the facts, of which human testimony and our own experience assure us; or to invalidate the conclusions, so far as they relate to this world, which we found on those facts.
34b
But we must use the same faculties, and adopt the same rules, in judging concerning the facts of the world which we have not seen, as concerning those of the [34] world of which we have seen a very little. If it can be shown, according to the common and established principles of reasoning among men, that Christianity is true; if it can be shown, that, to suppose it not true, is to suppose a moral impossibility, we need no further evidence. When we have arrived at this conclusion, our ears will be opened to the accordant voice from the earth and from the skies, which bears testimony to a beneficent Creator. We shall find in the immortality assured to us by Christianity, a solution of the problem of our present life; a solution, which the very existence of that problem confirms. We shall perceive, that all which has been taught us by God's revelation, corresponds with all that our reason, in its highest exercise, had before been striving to establish. Religion will become to us a conviction. And what conviction, I do not say more probable, but what conviction, of any comparative weight, can be opposed to it? We plan for the future; we propose to ourselves some object to be attained within a short period, or during a course of years. But we proceed throughout upon probabilities; upon a probable judgment of its value, of our power to secure it, of the means at our command, and of the accidents by which we may be favored; and, among [35] all these uncertainties, enters one far graver, the uncertainty of life itself. Yet we go on. But, if Christianity be true, there is no doubt about our ability to attain those objects which a religious man proposes to himself; there is no doubt of their inestimable value; and the uncertainty or the shortness of life at once ceases to enter into our calculations. {*6}
35
Of the facts on which religion is founded, we can pretend to no assurance, except that derived from the testimony of God, from the Christian revelation. He who has received this testimony is a Christian; and we may ask now, as was asked by an apostle; "Who is he that overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus was the Son of God." Christain faith alone affords such consolation and support as the heart needs amid the deprivations and sufferings of life; it alone gives action and strength to all that is noblest in our nature; it alone furnishes a permanent and effectual motive for growing virtue; it alone enables man to act conformably to his nature and destiny. This is always true. But we may have a deeper sense of the value of our faith if we look abroad on the present [36] state of the world, and see, all around, the waves heaving and the tempest rising. Everywhere is instability and uncertainty. But from the blind conflict between men exasperated and degraded by injustice and suffering, and men corrupted and hardened by the abuse of power, from the mutual outrages of angry political parties, in which the most unprincipled and violent become the leaders, from the fierce collision of mere earthly passions and cravings, whatever changes may result, no good is to be hoped. All improvement in the civilized world, all advance in human happiness, is identified with the spread of Christian principles, of Christian truth, of that faith, resting on reason, which connects man with God, makes him feel, that the good of others is his personal good, assures him of a future life of retribution, and, by revealing his immortality, calms his passions.
36
Gentlemen, I have addressed your understandings, not your feelings. But the subject of Christianity is one which cannot be rightly apprehended without the strongest feeling; not the transient excitement existing for an hour, and then forgotten, but a feeling possessing the whole heart, and governing our lives. Of the form of infidelity, which we have been considering, [37] there can be but one opinion among honest men. Great moral offences in individuals are, indeed, commonly connected with the peculiar character of their age, and with a prevailing want of moral sentiment in regard to such offences, in the community in which they are committed. This may be pleaded in excuse for the individual; but the essential nature of the offence remains. It is a truth, which few among us will question, that, for any one to pretend to be a Christian teacher, who disbelieves the divine origin and authority of Christianity, and would undermine the belief of others, is treachery towards God and man. If I were to address such a one, I would implore him by all his remaining self-respect, by his sense of common honesty, by his regard to the well-being of his fellow-men, by his fear of God, if he believe that there is a God, and by the awful realities of the future world, to stop short in his course; and, if he cannot become a Christian, to cease to be a pretended Christian teacher, and to assume his proper character.
37
If we have taken a correct view of the state of opinion throughout the world, you will perceive, that it is a subject of very serious consideration, and of individual action, to all of us who have faith in Christianity, and especially to [38] you, Gentlemen, who have devoted yourselves to the Christian ministry. Every motive, that addresses the better part of our nature, urges you to be faithful in your office. A sincere moral purpose will strengthen your judgment and ability; for he who has no other object but to do right, will not find it difficult to ascertain his duty, and the means of performing it. He who earnestly desires to serve his fellow-men is so strongly drawn toward the truth, as the essential means of human happiness, that he is not likely to be turned aside by any dangerous error. Our Saviour referred to no supernatural illumination when he said; If any one will do the will of him who sent me, he shall know concerning my doctrine, whether it be from God, or whether I speak from myself. What you believe and feel, it is the business of your lives, and this is a great privilege, to make others believe and feel. In the view of the worldly, the sphere of your duties may often appear humble; but you will not on that account break through it to seek for notoriety beyond. Deep and permanent feeling is very quiet and persevering. It cannot fail in its purposes. It cannot but communicate itself in some degree to others, and it is secure of the approbation of God.

Footnotes;
{*1} See Le Clerc's "Bibliothèque Ancienne et Moderne;" Tom. XV. p. 433; Tom. XXII. p. 135.

{*2} See his "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus," particularly Cap. VI.

{*3} Ibid., Cap. VI.

{*4} See for example Paulus's "Commentary on the Gospels" and his "Life of Jesus."

{*5} See Note I. at the end of the Discourse, for "Some further Remarks on the Characteristics of the Modern German School of Infidelity."

{*6} See Note II. "On the Objection to Faith in Christianity, as resting on Historical Facts and Critical Learning."

Source: A Discourse on the Latest Form of Infidelity (Cambridge, 1839). Paragraph numbers have been added, with long paragraphs divided and indicated with a letter following the number. The original pagination appears in brackets, and footnote numbers appear in braces. The original version includes two appendices not reprinted here: "Some Further Remarks on the Characteristics of the Modern German School of Infidelity" and "On the Objection to Faith in Christianity, as Resting on Historical Facts and Critical Learning."

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