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Henry Whitney Bellows

This article first appeared in The Christian Examiner 87.3 (Nov 1869), pp. 309-319.

The minds of most thoughtful and inquiring men are usually vibrating between extremes of opinion. It is only those who trust mainly to their moral and spiritual instincts, who are found in the moderate or middle way, where truth commonly resides. At any given time, it is likely to be a safe assumption that the most active and earnest thinkers, whether in politics or religion, in social speculation, in scientific and literary pursuits, are not safe guides. They are admirable and quite indispensable propellers of thought, and invaluable for their stimulating and tonic properties. They throw flashes of light over an unknown territory, and make brilliant reconnaissances into the enemy's country. But they are rarely sober and sensible engineers and graders of the road over which Humanity is to make its progressive way. Here and there, in the very highest class of minds, you’ll have genius balanced with common sense; intellect married with affection, courage, and prudence; the love of what is new without the hatred of what is old; hope toward the future without irreverence for the past; the use of logic with the consciousness of what superior value belongs to intuition and common instincts; aspiration and humility; an equal sense of the worth of the abstract and the concrete, the universal and the particular. And it is only in this rare combination that you find men who lead reforms without making revolutions; advance society without disturbing its foundations; and purge, requicken, and simplify the theology of the Church without imperiling the faith and piety of Christian believers. We are not on this account, however, to disparage the services of that inferior class who gain their motion, not by the equal flapping of their wings, but, like a millwheel, by a continued fall of water on one side. The want of balance is the cause of most motion, and therefore the minds that stir the stagnant pool of common thought are usually out of equilibrium, and propelled by this very cause, like a pith figure loaded with a leaden foot, to spring with impatient, yet effective, force, in some providentially prescribed direction. The superstitions, the social errors, the political defects, the outgrown or outworn usages of Humanity, are assailed and removed commonly by a class of persons whose qualifications are the preponderance of special qualities, tastes, or passions, which, though deformities in themselves, are weapons and tools in the hands of Divine Providence. It is not wisdom or truth or charity or piety by which, in ordinary cases, the world is scourged or ridiculed or piqued into progress. But audacity, or conceit, or impudence, or ill-nature, or an excited imagination, or a morbidly intensified will, or a cold heart united with a clear head, or a sagacious guess running for luck, and hitting the gateway of new truth, —it is these that are seized upon by Him who maketh the wrath of man to praise him, and who out of evil is constantly educing good, to effect the changes or qualifications or improvements which the balanced and modest, the humble and true, rarely undertake, except when they chance to be of the very highest grade of genius: the rare products of centuries, not the growth of every generation.

Upon no subject has the human mind swung to and fro between extremes, in a more instructive manner, than in regard to man's possible acquaintance with his Creator, its sources and its kind and degree. These two extremes are— 1. The utter impossibility of any knowledge of God, excepting that derived from Revelation; and, 2. The perfect adequacy of our moral and spiritual intuitions as grounds of faith and worship. To begin with the first, it is asserted that it is in the very nature of things impossible for the finite, which is man, to understand the infinite, which is God, and that all our conceptions and ideas of our Creator, partaking of the infirmity and ignorance of our limited faculties, are essentially worthless and untrue! “What,” says this seemingly humble and reverential spirit, “can man know or understand of Him, ‘whose ways are not as our ways, whose thoughts are not as our thoughts’?” Is not the meanest insect better acquainted with the human being, who in passing unconsciously crushes it out of existence, than man, a worm himself, with the Creator of this vast, unexplored, and various universe, —the possible and probable home of angels and archangels, of rational, moral, and spiritual creatures, with faculties or senses as far transcending ours as ours transcend the intelligence of birds and beasts, or even fishes and insects? What does it become man to do, but in lowly fear and prostrate homage to bow his bead in unreasoning adoration and unquestioning submission before this awful, unknowable Power called God?

The only resort which minds, with too much instructive piety to abandon faith and worship altogether, have under the pressure of this thought is to magnify Revelation and accept on pure miraculous authority what they concede they have no intellectual, moral, or spiritual apparatus to discover, or even to test. Revelation, thus resting on purely super-human authority and not claiming, or even allowing, any foundation in human nature, or any amenableness to human judgment, becomes its own unchecked interpreter. The Church comes in and claims to be, by miraculous endowment, the infallible interpreter of this infallible Revelation. With this immense endorsement, the Church can describe the divine character, the conditions of salvation, the whole relations of man to God, or God to man, as it pleases; and no matter how irrational, contradictory, mysterious, or cruel its representations, it has this argument wherewith to close every human mouth: “You, a mere finite intelligence, have no standard, no measuring-rod, no test, wherewith to judge the doctrines taught you by the Church on the sole ground of positive and supernatural authority. What you call absurdities are mysteries! What your reason refuses to receive is addressed to your submission, your ignorance, weakness, and helplessness, —not to your understanding, your moral insight, your human affections! Your objections are futile, irreverent, blasphemous. You must believe without understanding and against understanding, or your faith is not genuine, is not faith at all, but only sight, is not submission at all, but only intelligent self-will, not God-worship, but will-worship.”

Notwithstanding the rigid and irresistible logic of this position, of course it never could and never did gain a perfect acquiescence from any considerable class of believers. Because, in proportion as minds, even under the influence of bare authority, come truly to accept religion in the Christian form (even when most misrepresented and caricatured by ambition or ignorance), they find in it so much that liberates and enlarges their hearts and heads, —so much that harmonizes with their moral and spiritual nature, —that they gradually substitute the self-proving, axiomatic authority of their own direct perceptions of God and divine truth, —of Christ and Christianity, —for the purely extrinsic authority of the Church or the Word. As the human mind-and-heart is the vessel into which faith has to be received, it inevitably shapes the contents poured into it. The Church has not been able long to teach what man could not believe. There have, therefore, been constant restrictions and limitations to its assumptions and dogmatic statements. And, on the whole, Infallibility itself has been very careful not to assert what it could not furnish some plausible and convincing evidence or reason for outside of its supernatural witness. There has been, accordingly, even in the Catholic Church, a constant anthropomorphic tendency. God has finally passed wholly into the man Christ Jesus, who is known and worshipped by man, because in him the divine has become human. The Word made flesh becomes a subject of human sympathy and human affections; and the very God, whose infinity the finite mind could not apprehend, is finally brought home to the simplest, feeblest human intelligence through the fellowship and communion of this incarnate Christ, the Son of God and the Son of man, this divine-human Saviour. Thus have the rights of Humanity to know God vindicated themselves under the theory of man’s utter inability to know him on account of the finiteness of his faculties. God has himself become finite or human, and so man’s moral and spiritual instincts and affections have their play in sympathetically understanding Christ! Thus has the old extreme theory of God’s infinite removal and unintelligibleness to man revenged itself in this most affectionate, familiar, domestic idea, whose great danger is that of letting down what is really above the height and compass of human thoughts to a complete level with Humanity.

But now let is turn to the other extreme that asserts that man, being made in the image of God, has a perfect clue to the divine character in his own intellectual, moral and spiritual nature, that mind is mind throughout the universe, right always right, wrong always wrong, that accordingly we cannot know ourselves and not know God, nor can we know God except as we know ourselves! Moral authority is the authority which inherently dwells in justice, truth, and goodness. You cannot make truth anymore true by sealing it with a miracle, nor goodness any more divine by calling it superhuman. No revelation can tell any more than man can receive; and man can receive only what is fitted to his nature; and what is fitted to his nature he will, of course, discover by studying that nature. Revelation, then, in any ordinary sense of a message ab extra, verified by miracle, is a thing not possible, since the only language God can speak to a moral being is a moral language, and you might just as well send a mathematician the multiplication table verified by a miraculous endorsement, and profess that it was more true than when left to prove itself, as address a revelation to a moral and spiritual being and think that essential, self-evident truths—the only ones he can receive and which are warranted by his nature—are going to be modified by aught that denies them, added to by aught that transcends them, or guarantee by aught that endorses them! You cannot make truth more true, right more binding, goodness better, than they all are in themselves and in the verdict of the human soul.

It might seem that the end of this conception of man’s relation to God was to shut man up in himself and say to him, “Your universe is your own soul. You cannot get out of it! Make the most of it! Explore it, read the inscriptions on its inner chambers, and so learn who and what you are, and as much of your Maker as you may! For what you do not learn, so you cannot know at all.” But this would not be doing full justice to the idea, because it is, particularly of late, connected with the idea of God as immanent as ever, communicating himself to man. Man is not, then, complete in himself or shut up in himself. God dwells in him. He need not go out of himself to find God, for God comes to him and dwells in him and with him. There is, in California, a curious little fungus found at the bottom of a certain well, which is more like a bit of manna than anything besides. The least grain of this put into a bottle of water soon converts it into a kind of beer, potable and refreshing; but the most curious thing is that the little substance, which works this miracle of effervescence, reproduces itself almost indefinitely, so that in a month a spoonful of fungus is precipitated in the vessel, and each particle of it is capable of producing the same effect, and of reproducing its own image in an indefinite manner. It is a homely image of the power of that heavenly leaven which is God’s presence in the human soul. It grows with its own working. It converts the water of humanity into the wine of heaven; it is indefinitely divisible and transferable and cannot be exhausted, nor any limit put to its working.

There is a great truth and a great fascination in this extreme view of man’s knowledge of God through the sympathetic interpretation of his own nature. But it has one enormous danger in it, which makes it hardly less perilous than the other extreme, and indeed soon drives those that attempt to rest in it back to the first position. The error is this: it makes man the starting-point and center of the universe, around whom turns the panorama of existence: God himself being only the greatest, and alas! the most distant, object that sweeps into his view. Man is the fixture, the solid staple, in the rock; God, angels, moral and religious opinions, Christ, Christianity, are mere links hanging by this hook, and if they do not match it, or if they more than match it, they are to be hammered into shape, clipped of their superfluous matter, and allowed to come into the chain only as far as they will lie easily and harmoniously in its coil. God comes thus to owe his very existence to man’s consent. His dealings with his creature are regulated by that creature himself,—who presently, unless largely endowed with natural piety, loses alike his awe and his obedience towards a speculative Deity,—a gigantic reflection of his own image on the misty horizon. It is as when the earth was deemed the center of the planetary and stellar universe, all the motions of stars and celestial orbs being supposed tributary to her ruling sphere. What but pride, conceit, narrowness, and irreverence can come from such a swollen sense of man’s place and importance? And how shallow are likely to be the swift, precipitate conclusions in regard to the ever open questions which, in our finite ignorance, it is only a presumption in us to shut! Such a question is the existence of moral evil. Because man, judging by his own nature and feelings, cannot see how he could justly create a moral being who should have liberty to sin, and bring such consequences of sin upon himself as to convert his existence into sorrow and a curse, he straightway concludes that God cannot do it. It is a logical conclusion from his assumption that his own nature is the perfect image of God’s; and having arrived at this point, he proceeds in the face and eyes of the most solemn facts and the most instinctive protests, to deny the very existence of evil, nay, the very existence of liberty. There is no moral evil. It is an hallucination of the senses, a mere earthly shadow passing over the unclouded stars! God has no knowledge of it, does not even know what we mean by it, or sympathize with our feelings about it. Our remorse, so far as he is concerned, is all superfluous, our solicitude thrown away! Conscience is a human convenience, sin an earth-born, conventional inconvenience, which is checked by a sentiment of disapprobation highly useful to society. Liberty of action is a fiction which Divine Necessity permits us to indulge ourselves in the conceit of enjoying, but there is no such thing in reality.

To talk of revelation in its historical and ordinary sense to such proud philosophers is merely to excite their scorn and ridicule. A revelation to a being who has God in his own nature, in the only form in which he can ever know anything of him, and probably in the only form in which he exists at all (if indeed his existence is not, radically viewed, simply our existence, God coming to consciousness, as some German thinkers have it, in man alone!), Christ, a living Saviour, still animating his disciples from his heavenly throne, comforting and guarding them with actual and direct communications according to his promises,—how absurd and incredible the thought! And thus every plain and intelligible idea, every instinctive, spontaneous thought and feeling, level to human wants and weaknesses,—all that for thousands of years has passed for reverence and piety toward God, all that for eighteen hundred years has passed for Christianity, is brushed away like the cobwebs of a June morning, and a grand, impersonal, transcendental human impertinence, which patronizes Christianity and humors the idea of a personal God and a heavenly Father, are offered us in the place of a holy, tender, solemn, and awful faith communicated by the inspired and crucified Son of God. We should be ashamed to express, or to feel, any fear of the spread of such folly. It is too flat a denial of the very nature it professes to derive itself from. Our nature is the image of God, but our logical reasonings and deductions from parts of it are not entitled to any such name as the reflections of his being. If there be one thing which is true of human nature, it is the impossibility of bringing its parts, its witness, its testimony (at the present stage of its development) into a congruous and complete harmony. It is full of seeming inconsistencies and incoherencies. Like external nature about it, it is in process of building. We know no more what it shall be than the gigantic and amorphous inhabitants of the cooling globe knew, when the deep covered the whole earth, what this planet was to become. Our nature is full of open questions; it has within it experiences, all of which are real and indisputable and which seem to contradict each other. Shall we say they do contradict each other because they seem to? Shall we say, because moral evil, of which we are as certain as of our being, seems to contradict the goodness of God, of which we are equally certain, that it does contradict it? Or shall we modestly affirm both facts and humbly wait a later and higher intelligence to reconcile what is beyond our present powers?

If there be any thing tedious, insufferable, and humiliating, it is the affectation of an absolute and final solution here below of the whole problem of our being and God’s being! All that vast and tender mystery in which we float is drained away as by some malign spirit, and we are left stranded on the barren sands of logic and positive, finite knowledge! Safe in the vast, fathomless ocean of God’s love and care, we sail by faith and not by sight until some pilot, who insists on hugging the shore of reality, steers us into soundings, and we feel our keel scraping the sands, or, more probably, bumping on the rocks. Does the bird feel more at home in his iron cage than in the treetop, swinging and swaying with the breeze? Is man any more content with a creed which he has put together with his reasoning faculties than with one that envelops him as the horizon that encloses his childhood’s home? Gracious and blessed are the holy mysteries of the Christian faith. The unstatable nature of Christ, the ministry of the Comforter, the presence above us and yet with us, independent of us and yet native to us, of God’s spirit, the mystery of sin and pardon and redemption, the profound and awful mystery of evil, the authority of the Church, the unity and fellowship of believers with each other and with their Saviour,—these are mysteries, not absurdities, simply above reason, not against it. For our part, they are dearer to us than life itself: they are our life. Without them the world would be a prison and existence a burden. They are the inspiration, support, and consolation, and they always have been, of the great body of Christian believers; and they will continue to be so. The pendulum of opinion will oscillate between an absolute dependence on revelation for all our knowledge of God and an absolute dependence on intuition. We are, in truth, dependent exclusively on neither; we need both, and we can allow each only such possession of us as is compatible with the presence of the other. Man is in the image of God, but God is still making him, and his chief instrument in the work is his divine Son. God’s ways are known by us only so far as it is necessary to us to know them, but all that we do know are but parts of his ways. How faint is the whisper we have heard of him! Who can stand before the thunder of his power? To pretend to understand even his moral being to perfection—to put our moral and spiritual nature into his throne and reason from it as from absolute and complete knowledge—is blasphemous presumption or silly conceit. Beyond the point of our limited faculties, “his ways are not as our ways, nor his thoughts as our thoughts.” Let us adore what we cannot comprehend! Let us bow down and worship our Creator in the name of his holy child Jesus! Let us cling to the glorious, tender, humane revelation, which is the ladder let down from the gate of heaven to lift us when our own wings would weary and give out ere we could reach it! The Church is at the very foot of this ladder; and all the sweet and holy associations, suggestions, and inspirations of an historic Christianity—all the mystic truths and gleams of celestial light and love that break out of our symbols and creeds, the precious inheritance from the Christian past—are the angels ascending and descending to assist our upward journey. This more than Jacob’s ladder—this ladder of which Christ’s cross and Christ’s crook formed the beams and ties—is our glorious heritage! Let us not despise it, nor neglect it, nor suffer it to be hidden away or stolen away! Let us use it ourselves with tender gratitude and fidelity, and do our part towards leading to it (for it can never perish nor move away) the feet of our children and our children’s children. 


©2004 American Unitarian Conference