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CHAPTER I.


The Absolute Religion considered in connection with the Doctrines of the Bible, especially the Teachings of Christ.


1. It is not difficult for the reflecting mind to see, in the currents of thought which characterize the present period, a tendency to bring into notice, and to give emphasis to what is called the Absolute Religion. Many persons, who would not willingly be regarded as irreligious, have expressed a desire for a religion founded upon the exercise of reason and upon philosophical principles, and not exclusively or chiefly upon authority. The utterance which is heard in this direction, is every day growing louder and more imperative. It is the expression of the views and feelings of persons whose sincerity cannot well be doubted; and who, at least, have a claim upon our respect for the intellectual ability which they have often manifested. It is an utterance, therefore, whether addressed to us as Christians, or merely as men of thought and philosophic inquiry, which cannot wisely be allowed to go unheeded.

2. The first inquiry which claims our attention, is, What are we to understand by the Absolute Religion? It is perhaps proper to say, that the answer to this question will be likely to develop itself more fully and satisfactorily in the course of the discussions which are to follow. And yet a few words on the subject may properly be said here. In the first place it may be remarked in general terms and without going minutely into reasons, that the Absolute Religion is that religion which, harmonizing with the truths and requisitions of God on the one hand, and with the nature of man as related to God on the other, is necessarily as wide in its extent and its application as humanity itself;—a religion which neither limited by geographical boundaries, nor dependent for its existence on civil and political enactments, is the inheritance of all men equally, whatever their name or place or condition, by virtue of their common nature. In other words, it is a religion which is universal.

In the second place, it is that religion which finding its subjective expression in ideas rather than in sensations, and in those ideas which are fundamental in themselves and in their relations, vindicates its claim to Absoluteness, because it is unchangeable; and is therefore the religion, not only of all men and all nations but of all time and all ages. That religion, which is found to be merely an incident of a nation’s or people’s history, and which passes away with the transition of the temporary circumstances on which it is founded, fails to present any just claim to this character of immutableness and universality. The Absolute Religion is something very different from this. Founded in the nature and constitution of things, but harmonizing with the thought and sustained by the power of the highest Intelligence in the universe, and being revealed to human apprehension by means of fundamental and universal ideas, which speak inwardly and intuitionally and with a voice of authority, it is necessarily a religion which exists everywhere, and exists forever. No antagonisms of the changeable and the finite, no chance nor change, which mars the face of human affairs, nor hardness of heart, nor slowness of belief, can triumph over the truth and supremacy which are its basis.

3. Characterized by universality in its extent and application, and by permanency in duration, it has also this distinctive and paramount feature, that it carries with it a binding and controlling obligation upon the thoughts, feelings and actions of all men and of all moral beings, by a virtue or power which is lodged in itself, and not by means or in virtue of any power, authority or command outside of itself. It may be aided by such outside influences but is not necessarily dependent upon them. Its authority is its own; its word is law. It may not be out of place to make the explanatory remark here, that there is a great difference between a thing considered in its own nature, and its announcement or revelation. The thing or object in question presents itself in one aspect; the announcement of it in another. For instance, the announcement of the Absolute Religion may have occurred at a particular period or in a particular country, in the era of Moses, or in the era of Christ, at Sinai or at Jerusalem, at Rome or Athens, or in other periods and in other countries; but the thing itself, the religious truth, involved by a sort of eternal, generation in the great facts of the universe, has no time or place, no beginning or end.

4. Such, in general terms is the Absolute Religion. This religion has had its interpreters in all ages of the world; men who, with different degrees of mental illumination, have attempted to give expression to the great religious thought, written in the hieroglyphics of universal nature;—Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Seneca, Confucius, Zoroaster, Sakya-Mouni, and many others, who have seen something of the great interior light, which is destined in the progress of its rising to illuminate all lands, and to harmonize all moral and religious separations. I allude to these men who seem to me to have been to some extent the subjects of a divine guidance, in no lightness of spirit, but with a sincere reverence and gratitude. Each in his degree and place, and in reference to his age and country, may be regarded as having a divine mission, and as being in some important sense the minister of God. Nevertheless there came in the fullness of time a Man who was greater than these. If I have studied him aright in what has been left us of his life and doctrines, the great teacher of the Absolute Religion, and standing far above all others in the measurement of his insight, is Jesus of Nazareth. The highest and most reliable expression of the Absolute Religion is found as it seems to me in his wonderful words.

5. The object of the present work, undertaken with much mistrust of myself but in the hope that it will be found to harmonize with the truth, is not only to announce some of the leading doctrines of the Absolute Religion, but to show their identity with the doctrines of Christ. The religion of Christ, which is only another name for the principles involved in the teachings of Christ, is the Absolute Religion; because having incarnated itself in Christ and thus shown its divine beauty in the human form, it henceforth belongs to man, not perhaps in the temporary and changing incidents of his history, but to man in his essential and universal nature, and therefore is the religion of humanity. The religion of Christ is the Absolute Religion because, though it may be said in its personal applications to grow up and to put forth the buds and flowers of feeling, the rich and beautiful experiences of emotions and affections, it nevertheless has its root in the deepest thought, and is both grounded in, and harmonizes with, unchangeable intuitions. The religion of Christ is the Absolute Religion, though man is its object, and is also, in the exercise of his powers of perception and reasoning, the appointed and necessary instrument of its development, yet being founded in the nature and constitution of things, and thus being beyond measurements of time, it synchronizes with God himself in its origin and continuance, and goes step by step with the divine authority in the assertion of its universal empire.

6. I am aware, that the high claims now put forth in favor of the religion of Christ, considered in its relation to the absolute truth, are not always allowed by that class of thinkers and inquirers to whom allusion was made in the beginning of the chapter. And what is more, they are not always, and perhaps not generally insisted on by those who are distinctively and truly known as Christians. Not unfrequently the Christian says, as if conscious of his inability to stand firm in the great battle of thought, and willing to find the first refuge that presents itself, that the religion of Christ, standing on a basis peculiar to itself, may be regarded as above and beyond reason. I confess that I hesitate in the acceptance of such expressions. So far from this being the correct view, there is a sense undoubtedly, in which it may be affirmed without presumption, that there is nothing above reason; neither God nor the creatures of God; neither men nor angels; neither finite nor Infinite. If it be admitted that God exists, it is still true, that he is not available to us as an existence, and is not known to us as an existence, and his existence cannot be logically affirmed and accepted, except through the instrumentality of perception and reasoning. If indeed by reason be meant that sad semblance of reason, which by its own action is separated from, and is not enlightened and aided by contact with the everlasting truth; in other words, that form of reason or semblance of reason, which in being separated from the great Source and Guide of all our faculties is perverted by ignorance, prejudice, and passion, then the matter presents itself in another aspect, and is entitled to another answer. But reason in the true sense, reason in the greatness of its intuitional, as well as its relational and inductive movement, reason such as God is able to incarnate inspirationally in the thought and intellect of man, has nothing above it. True reason is God’s highest thought; it holds a position which it cannot change; it sustains an office which it cannot abnegate; and the whole universe is not only dependent upon it for its revelation as an object of knowledge, but in all its coming progress accepts its aid, and marches in harmony with it.

7.— Let it be understood furthermore, that we have no controversy with much of that which is known in the history of human knowledge under the name of philosophy. The philosophers have had their time of affirmation; and undoubtedly they have said instructive things on a great variety of subjects. They have felt at liberty to speak with boldness on the subject now before us; and sometimes with a smile of incredulity and even of opposition on their lips, as if it were a thing impossible, that the peasant of Nazareth, the man who was crucified, could hold up a light in the presence of the world’s philosophic thought and culture. Nevertheless the child of the humble Judean mother made the attempt. We read that when he was only twelve years of age, the inspiration from the heavens was so strong upon him and his heart was so full, that he entered into this great controversy. And even then his understanding and answers were matters of astonishment. But the hand of the mother, who was chosen to bring him within the sphere of humanity, withdrew him from the contest. Her heart had prophetic intimations of the future; but the time had not yet come. He dwelt in Nazareth, and with his heart open to the influx of the truth, he “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” And when in the maturity of manhood he came again into the field, his opponents met him with all the appliances and aids of human learning and wisdom; but ignorant of that divine philosophy which is baptized from the heavens, and therefore greatly disordered and defeated in the argument, they stopped the discussion by nailing Him to the Cross. But there is something in the man of truth which can never die. He passed on. In the language of the Scriptures, he went up on high. And philosophy, not understanding the things which are seen by faith and not by sight, looked here and there but could not find Him.

The teacher of Nazareth, dead but living, no longer a child but clothed with heavenly manhood, and who teaches by means of inspirations and influences wrought in the great school of the human heart, still claims his right to be heard. He is still a teacher of the Absolute Religion.

8.— It remains to be added, which I think will naturally occur to the reader, that the doctrine of the Absolute Religion pertains to essentials and not to the mere incidents of things; to the principles rather than the form; and not so much to institutions and ceremonies, as to that which underlies them.

It deals with those things, as we have already seen, which from their nature bear the stamp of permanency; things which
are because they cannot fail to be; things which exist because non-existence is an impossibility; whereas ceremonies, outward forms, institutions which have beginnings, changes and end, and mere outward arrangements and incidents of any kind, which are the result of specific and positive enactment, are temporary and unsettled in their nature and are short in their duration. And therefore, it will not be surprising, if there are many things which will not be noticed in what follows; and simply because they fall out of the natural line of our remarks, and receive their appropriate attention in other connections and with other methods of treatment.

9.— The work which I have undertaken is designed to be pacific in its spirit, and is not necessarily controversial. It does not at all follow, because a writer deals with a controverted subject, that his discussion of such a subject must necessarily be harsh and controversial in its spirit or aspect. In what I have to say, I shall make but little reference to names and persons, and parties. I deal with principles rather than with men. And it is not beyond my hope that the truth will be found, and that charity will be unbroken.