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The Religious Principle in Human Nature


William Ellery Channing

A sermon delivered sometime during the last ten years of Channing’s life (1832-42), published posthumously in The Perfect Life (1872).


The Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. —mark 12:29-30.

The command thus given to love God with all the heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, is in harmony with our whole nature. We are made for God; all our affections, sensibilities, faculties, and energies are designed to be directed towards God; the end of our existence is fellowship with God. He could not require us to devote our entire being to Himself if He had not endowed it with powers which fit us for such devotion. Religion then has its germs in our Nature, and its development is entrusted to our own care. Such is the truth that I would now illustrate.


I. —The Principle in Human Nature, from which religion springs, is the desire to establish relations with a being more perfect than itself. The fact is as remarkable, as it is incontrovertible, that the race, all but universally, has conceived of some Existence more exalted than man. If there is one principle, indeed, that may be declared to be essential in human nature, it is this unwillingness to shut itself up within its own limits, this tendency to aspire after intercourse with some Divinity. It is true that men at various periods have formed most unworthy conceptions of their objects of worship. Still, by selecting the qualities which they esteemed most highly in themselves, and by enlarging and exalting them without bounds, they have showed, as plainly as have more enlightened ages, the spontaneous longing of the human spirit to rise above itself, and to ally its destiny with a Supreme Power.

This simple view is sufficient to prove the grandeur of the Religious Principle. Without doubt, it is the noblest working of Human Nature. In the most immature manifestation of this principle, we behold the budding of those spiritual powers, by which, in the progress of the race, men have attained to the conception of Unbounded Goodness. We see this principle in the creations of genius, in forms of ideal beauty to which poetry and the arts give immortality, in fictions where characters are portrayed surpassing the attainments of real life. We see this principle in the admiration with which stupendous intellect and heroic virtue are hailed, and in the delight with which we follow in history the career of men who in energy and disinterestedness have outstripped their fellows. The desire for an excellence never actually reached by humanity, the aspiration toward that Ideal which we express by the word perfection, this is the seminal principle religion. And this is the root of all progress in the human race. Religion is not an exclusive impulse. It does not grow from an emotion that is centered wholly upon God and seeks no other object. It springs from the same desire for whatever is more Perfect than our own nature and our present life, which has impelled man towards all his great spiritual acquisitions and to all great improvements of society. This principle, as we have seen, prompts the mind to create imaginary beings, and to attach itself with delight to human agents of surpassing power and goodness. But in these objects it can find no rest. These are too frail a support for so sublime an emotion. This principle God implanted for Himself. Through this the human mind corresponds to the Supreme Divinity. This principle, being in its very essence insatiable, partakes of the nature of infinity; no Being but the Infinite One can supply its wants.

This view conducts us to an important standard, by which to judge of the Truth and Purity of any form of religion. A religion is true, in proportion the clearness with which it makes manifest the Perfection of God. The purity of a particular system is to be measured by the conception which it inspires of God. Does it raise our thoughts to a Perfect Being? Does it exalt us far above our own nature? Does it introduce us to a grand and glorious Intelligence? Does it expand our minds with venerable and generous conceptions of the Author of existence? I know no other test of a true and pure religion but this. Religion has no excellence, but as it lifts us up into communion with a Nature higher and holier than our own. It is the office of religion to offer the soul an Object for its noblest faculties and affections, a Being through whom it may more surely and vigorously be carried forward to its own perfection. In proportion then as a religion casts clouds around the glory of God, or detracts from the loveliness and grandeur of His character, it is devoid of dignity, and tends to depress the mind.

All human systems are necessarily defective. They partake of the limits of the human mind. The purest religion which man ever has adopted, or ever will adopt, must fall very far below the glory of its Object. Our best conceptions of God are undoubtedly mixed with much error. We talk indeed of Truth, as if we held it in its fullness; but in religion, as elsewhere, we make approaches only to the Truth. We see God in the mirror of our own minds; but these are narrow and in many ways darkened. We see Him in His works; but of these we comprehend a minute portion only. He speaks to us by His spirit in scripture and in the heart; but He speaks to us in human language, and adapts Himself to our weak capacities, so that we catch mere glimpses of His perfection. The Religious Principle itself, by which we perceive and love God, is as limited at birth as are our other faculties, and is gradually unfolded. It embraces error at first by necessity. The earliest idea of God in the child is as faint as are its conceptions of all other objects. Necessarily it invests the Creator with a human form, places Him in the heavens, and clothes Him with an undefined power superior only to that possessed by those around it. This idea, however, of some Being higher than man takes root, and from this religion grows up. As we advance, we throw off more and more our childish notions, purify our thought of God, divest Him of matter, conceive of Him as mind, refine away from Him our passions, and especially assign to Him the attributes which our growing consciences recognize as righteous and holy. Still we are making approaches only, and slow approaches, towards God. Much of earth, much of our own incompleteness, still clings to our conception of the Divinity whom we worship. And the wise man is distinguished by detecting continually whatever is low in his apprehension of God, and by casting it away for more exalted views.


II. —I now proceed to show more directly that religion is natural to man and is his great end. And for this purpose I go to Human Nature. Time will permit but few illustrations of this great theme; for when we survey man's various faculties, affections, and powers, all concur in bearing testimony to the truth now advanced. All are but so many elements of religion.

1. Look first at the Reason, that divine germ within. I ask you to consider what are the primitive, profoundest, and clearest ideas of Reason. They are the very ideas which lead to God. The earliest inquiry of Reason is into Causes. Even the child breaks his toys to discover the spring of their motion. Reason cannot satisfy itself with observing what exists, but seeks to explore its origin. It asks by instinct, whence comes the order of the universe, and cannot rest until it has ascended to a First Cause. The idea of God is thus involved in the primitive and most universal idea of Reason, and is one of its central principles.

Among other tendencies in the Reason to God, one is especially noteworthy. I refer to its desire for comprehensive and connected views. The Reason is never satisfied with beholding objects separately. By its very nature it is impelled to compare them with one another, to discover their similar or diverse properties, to trace their relations, their respective fitnesses, and their common bearing. And it never rejoices more than when it attains to some great Law, which all things obey, and by which all are bound together. Through this principle we have learned that the sun, earth, and planets, form a connected whole, and obey one law called attraction; and still more we have risen to the sublime conviction that all the heavenly bodies, countless as they may be, are linked together by mutual dependencies and beneficent influences into one system. Now this tendency to search for connection and harmony—for Unity—in the infinite variety of nature, is a direct tendency to a belief in One God. For this unity of nature manifestly proves, and can only be explained by, unity of thought, design, and intelligent power; that is, it proclaims One Omnipotent, All-comprehending Creator.

2. Look next at the Conscience; and here we see another natural tendency to religion. What particularly strikes us in this principle of our nature is that it not only enjoins the law of duty, but intimates that there is a Ruler above us, by whom this Law will be sustained and executed. Conscience speaks not as a solitary, independent guide, but as the delegate of a higher Legislator. Its convictions of right and wrong are accompanied with the idea of an Authority more awful than man's, by which these distinctions will be enforced. That this is the natural suggestion of Conscience we learn from the fact that men in different ages, countries and conditions, have so generally agreed in speaking of the inward monitor as the voice of the Divinity. In approving or condemning ourselves, we do not feel as if we alone are the judges, but we have a presentiment of standing before another tribunal. Especially when we see the wrongdoer prosperous do we feel as if the injustice of fortune ought to be redressed. We demand an Almighty Patron of virtue. Retribution is the claim of our moral nature. So powerful is this tendency of Conscience to assert a righteous Deity, that we cannot escape the sense of His Presence. Often when the guilty have tried to efface the impression of a Supreme Lawgiver, the commanding truth has defied their power. The handwriting of the Divinity in the soul, though seemingly obliterated, has come out with awful distinctness in the solemn seasons of life. Thus Conscience is a prophet of religion. And in proportion as it is obeyed, and the idea of Right becomes real and living within us, the existence of the Almighty Friend of virtue is intimately felt, and with profoundest reverence.

3. If we pass next to the Affections, we shall recognize still more clearly that our nature is formed for religion. What is the first affection awakened in the human heart? It is filial love, a grateful sense of parental kindness. And is not this the seed and prime principle of religion? For what is religion but filial love rising to our Father in heaven? Thus the first emotion of the human heart is virtually towards God. Its first spontaneous impulse is an element of piety.

Another characteristic emotion of our nature is that feeling of Approbation with which we look on disinterested benevolence. We cannot conceive of a human being quite wanting in this moral principle, whose heart would not expand at witnessing in a fellow-man philanthropy unaffected, unwearied, and diffusing happiness far and wide. Here is another germ of religion. For what is religion but sympathetic joy in the unbounded beneficence of God? What but this very affection of esteem raised to Him who is the source of all goodwill in men, and before whose glory of disinterested love all other goodness is but a shadow?

I proceed to another affection of our nature, which bears strong testimony to our being born for religion. I refer to the emotion which leads us to revere what is higher than ourselves, to wonder at the incomprehensible, to admire the vast, to adore the majestic. There is in human nature an affinity with what is mighty, an awful delight in what is sublime. It is this emotion which draws man to the grandest scenes of nature, to the wilderness and ocean, to thundering cataracts, and the still solemn mountaintop. It is manifested in the interest which the multitude take in persons of commanding intellectual energy, of heroic courage, of all-sacrificing devotion to the cause of freedom and humanity. Men are attracted by no quality so much as by sovereign greatness of will. They love whatever bears the impress of the infinite. So strong is this principle of Reverence that, when fallen from the knowledge of the true God, they have sought substitutes in their own teeming imagination, have deified fellow-men, have invented beings in whom they might concentrate and embody their conceptions, just or unjust, of Supreme dignity. Thus the heart was made for worship, and worship it will. It longs for something more excellent than it finds on earth. In works of poetry and fiction it continually creates for itself a more than human glory. This emotion of Reverence is a perpetual impulse in the soul towards God.

Another emotion of our nature, and closely related to reverence, next claims regard as a germ of religion. This is the love of the beautiful. Beauty, that mysterious charm which is spread over and through the universe, who is unconscious of its winning attraction? Whose heart has not softened into joy as he has looked on hill and valley and cultivated plain, on stream and forest, on the rising or setting sun, on the constant stars and the serene sky? Now whenever this love of the beautiful unfolds into strong emotion, its natural influence is to lead up our minds to contemplate a brighter Beauty than is revealed in creation. To them, who have eyes to see and hearts to feel the loveliness of nature, it speaks of a higher, holier, Presence. They hear God in its solemn harmonies, they behold Him in its fresh verdure, fair forms, and sunny hues. To great numbers, I am persuaded, the beauty of nature is a more affecting testimony to God than even its wise contrivance. For this beauty of the universe is an emblem and revelation of the Divinity, and the love of it is given to guide us to the All-Beautiful.

Thus we see that human nature is impelled by affections of gratitude, esteem, veneration, joy, not to mention various others, which prepare us to be touched and penetrated by the infinite goodness of God, and which, when directed to Him, constitute piety. That these emotions are designed to be devoted peculiarly to the Creator, we learn from the fact that they are boundless in their range and demand an Unbounded Object. They cannot satisfy themselves with the degrees of love, intelligence, and power which are found in human beings. They excite the imagination to conceive of higher, richer, ampler excellence than exists on earth. They delight in the infinite, and never can they find repose, but in an Infinite Being, who combines all good.

4. I might easily multiply views of human nature, all tending to show that religion is natural to man. But I will add only that the human soul has two central motive principles, which are specially fitted raise it to God. There is in all human beings an insatiable desire for Happiness, which can never be appeased in our present existence, which the universe is wholly inadequate to gratify, which becomes only more intense amidst life's sufferings and disappointments, and which is only deepened, expanded, and purified by our highest experience of joy. And there is in refined minds a still profounder and more urgent impulse, already indicated, the longing for Perfection, for deliverance from all evil, for perpetual progress, the desire to realize in character that bright Ideal of which all noble souls conceive. These aspirations appear wherever men are found, now in sighs and lamentations, now in struggles and ardent efforts. But there is no good on earth that can fulfill their claims. They require an Infinite Blessedness and Perfection; and innumerable weary spirits have they led up to God.

5. Thus have I endeavoured to show, by a few illustrations, that all the great principles of human nature are germs of religion, as impulses towards God. If further proof were needed of its congeniality with our nature, I would appeal to facts. Let us ask History then whether religion be natural to men. What principle has acted with equal energy on human affairs? To what principle did all ancient legislators appeal as the foundation of civil institutions? To religion. What principle was it that gave Mohammed the Empire of the East? What principle under the Crusades precipitated Europe into Asia? I grant that these movements arose out of excesses of the religious principle. But we learn by its excesses how deeply planted are its roots in our nature. And in the largest historic view, what principle is it that has produced in all times and lands the most devoted and fearless martyrs, that has sung hymns of praise in the depths of dungeons, that has smiled with hope on the scaffold, endured without a groan the rack and fire, and refused to accept deliverance when one recanting word would have set the sufferer free? O, the miraculous power of the religious principle in the human soul! How has it led men to forsake the cheerful haunts of their fellow-beings, and to live in solitary cells, that in silence they might open their hearts to God and feel His joy-inspiring presence! What has it not strengthened men to do and to suffer! What speechless sorrows has it not soothed! What strength, peace, hope, has it not breathed into the dying! Yet it is a question whether our nature was formed for religion! The strongest love which the human heart has ever felt has been that for its Heavenly Parent. Was it not then constituted for this love? Where but in God can it find an Object for its overflowing fullness, of reverence and affection, of aspiration and hope?


III. —My friends, we all possess indeed this capacity for religion. Let us not wrong it by neglect. It is, as we have seen, the central and all-pervading principle of Human Nature. And by proper means it may be cultivated, expanded, and made supreme. To give it life and vigour should be our highest aim. Here is the great field for our activity. By turning our chief energies abroad, we frustrate the end, and defraud ourselves of the proper happiness of our being. The world within is our great domain, worth infinitely more than the world without. To enthrone God in our inmost being is an immeasurably grander aim. than to dispose of all outward realms. We boast of the power which we are daily gaining over material nature, how we bend the elements—fire, wind, steam—to our uses; and we look with compassion, if not scorn, on ages when man did not dream of this dominion. But may not a more fatal ignorance be found among ourselves? There is a loftier power of which we seldom adequately conceive. It is man's power to combine and direct the spiritual elements of his being, his power to free the intellect from prejudice and open it to the influx of Truth, his power to disengage the heart from degrading selfishness and to commune with God by disinterested love. This power we all possess, and we should prize it more than life.

By this language I do not mean that we are to exalt our religious character by ourselves alone. I am not so unwise as to claim for men any independent strength. The truth is we cannot learn a science, art, or language without aid. It is only by help from other minds that we improve our own or achieve any important enterprise. It is only by help from the mineral world and the elements that cultivate the land or traverse the sea. And without God's perpetual sustenance we could do absolutely nothing, and should not even exist. I am not teaching man's isolated energy. His power consists in ability to seek and use assistance from nature and from his fellow-creatures. Above all it consists in ability to seek and to use Spiritual Influence from God. This Influence may be gained by aspiration and by effort. It is in truth constantly exerted upon us, even when unsought—exerted in every dictate, encouragement, warning, reproof of conscience and reason, in every secret longing of the soul for freedom from error and evil and for growth in wisdom and virtue. Aids without measure are offered to us by God. And when I say that love towards God is placed within our reach, I mean that it is so placed by the Inspiration which He incessantly pours on every human being.

What might we not become, were we but just to ourselves and to the means of religious life thus bountifully afforded from heaven! We have all, I trust, a faith in God, and occasionally recognize our near relation to Him. But we can attain to more than cold belief, to more than formal worship, or to transient emotions of gratitude. The religious principle may become the very Life of our souls. God, now so distant, and perhaps little more than a name, may become to us the nearest and most real of all beings. We may cherish a reverence and attachment to Him more profound and devoted than the affections with which we embrace parent, and child, and dearest human friends. And through this strength of piety we may gain an immovable strength of moral principle, an unbounded philanthropy and a “peace which passeth knowledge.” This capacity for religion is a spring of perennial freshness in every human breast. I would not resign it for the gift of countless worlds. It invites us to Him from whom, as a living center, all suns and systems with their beauty and blessedness shine forth, and of whose glory they are but the dim reflex. We pity the barbarian, in whom intellect and imagination and sensibility slumber. But do not diviner capacities slumber in many of us? Gifted with the power of honouring God and of living with Him in filial intimacy, do we not desert Him and bury our souls in transient cares, distinctions, gains, amusements? Let us retire into ourselves and become conscious of our own nature and of its high destination. Let us not profanely debase or destroy it. There is an inward suicide more awful than the destruction of the animal life, an inward ruin more mournful than any wrought by the conflagration of cities, or the desolation of whirlwinds. The saddest spectacle in this or in any world is a rational and moral being, smitten with spiritual death, alive only to what is material and earthly, living without God and without hope. Beware of this inward death—this insensibility to the Presence, the Authority, the Goodness of our Heavenly Father.

Do you ask by what means this end of entering into living communion with God can be attained? I answer first: Let us each put forth our best force of Intellect in gaining clearer and brighter conceptions of the Divine Being. We must consecrate our loftiest powers of thought to this sublime Reality. We must not leave to others the duty of thinking for us. We must not be contented to look through others' eyes. We must exercise our own minds with concentrated and continuous energy. One chief source of truth for us, in regard to God, is Revelation; and this, accordingly, should claim our most serious and devoted study.

But when I thus speak of Revelation, I mean the Christian Religion. In the Jewish Scriptures, though many sublime passages are found in relation to the Supreme Divinity, yet in many others the image given of God is adapted to a rude state of society only, and to a very immature stage of the human mind. And not a few Christians have depressed their idea of the Infinite Being by conceiving of Him as He was represented in half-barbarous ages, instead of learning to know Him from Jesus, who came to scatter the shades of Judaism as well as of Heathenism, and who alone reveals the Father—or the Paternal Character of the Creator—in full glory. Again, in studying the Christian Revelation, we must take our views of God from what is clear rather than what is obscure, from the simple teachings of Jesus, rather than from the dark reasonings in some parts of the Epistles. Still more we are to learn the Divine Character in Christianity, not merely from passages which expressly describe Him, but from the character of Jesus Christ, who came to be an image of the Father, and also from the character which Jesus seeks to form in us—that is, from the precepts of this religion; for these are intended to exalt us into the likeness of God. Whoever combines these three sources of knowledge—the express declarations concerning God—the virtues manifested in Jesus Christ—and the virtues which he inculcates—whoever looks to these for the Character of the Supreme Being cannot misapprehend its grand features. I have said that our best force of Intellect is to be employed on Revelation. But Revelation is not the only source of spiritual light. The great design of Jesus Christ is to teach us to see God everywhere, in Nature, in Providence, and in the Human Soul. He perpetually points to God's works for instruction, and to His manifestations through humanity. And we cannot comprehend Him aright if we do not go beyond Revelation and take lessons in religion from all that we observe, enjoy and suffer. Jesus came, not to shut us up in a Book, but to open the Universe as our School of spiritual education.

But in teaching you to use the Intellect faithfully and independently in acquiring just views of God, I have given the least important precept. With this we must join obedience to God's Will, so far as we know it, or all intellectual effort will avail little. We may indeed by study, or by living among enlightened people, acquire a just theory in regard to our Creator. But it will be Theory only. It will be a knowledge of words more than of realities—a vague superficial apprehension—unless the mind prepare itself by purifying obedience for an intimate knowledge of God. Moral discipline is much more important than a merely intellectual one for gaining just apprehensions of the Supreme Being. I beg you to consider this. To know God we must have within ourselves something congenial to Him. No outward light, not the teachings of hosts of angels, could give a bad man bright conceptions of God. A man who yields himself up to selfish ambition, to avarice, to sensuality or to sloth, who sears his conscience and hardens his heart, is as effectually shutting his mind on the All-Good, as he would deprive himself of the light of the sun by deadening the optic nerve or by destroying the structure of the eye. Intellectual learning helps man not a step towards God unless conjoined with inward spiritual discipline—government of the passions, reverence for conscience, and growing development of good principles and affections within. The Infinite Spirit must be revealed to us in the unfolding and operation of our own Spirits, or we shall never truly know Him. For example, God's Purity, or aversion to sin, may be read and talked of, but is never understood until conscience within us is encouraged to reprove all forms of evil. The solemn and tender reproof of this inward monitor alone enables us to know the moral displeasure of the righteous Lawgiver, in whose name and with whose authority it speaks. In the same manner we have a superficial knowledge only of God's Goodness, we know nothing of it intimately until a Spirit of Love, bearing some resemblance to His own, springs up within, until, through some conquest over the selfish principle, virtuous benevolence begins its work in our minds. This it is that helps us to comprehend the Father, to recognize and respond to that Love, which shines forth from every region of creation. Again, every man who has read the New Testament knows how it teaches that the mind is God's great work, and that it is destined to an immortal existence. But the mere reading of this in a book gives us no conception of the reality. Unless my own spirit makes progress in truth and virtue, and so reveals to me a measure of its power and beauty, I may hear about Immortality, but I shall receive little more than a sound. Nothing external can tell me what a glorious principle the Mind is. The sublimest work of the Creative Mind will be hidden from me. And having in my own heart nothing which speaks of the Immortal Life, that doctrine will be but a word on my lips. I appeal to you all for a confirmation of this. I ask you whether thousands under the bright light of Christianity are not almost as ignorant as the heathen of the true God. Do not a few commonplaces or trite expressions about His greatness, goodness and mercy, uttered in a manner which show that their meaning is not felt, make up their stock of knowledge on the sublimest realities? No outward teaching can bring us to a vision of the Divine Being. The soul must join with intellectual effort a moral operation upon itself. And Christianity contributes to our knowledge of God by nothing more than by setting this truth before us, by awakening a consciousness of our infirmities, and by inciting us to obey the conscience in its remonstrances against sin, and its monitions to duty.

Would you then attain to the love of God with all the heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, begin with purifying yourself from all known evil. Let your fervent prayer be to Him to animate you in your conflict with bad passions and habits, and in steadfast obedience to His Will. With this purifying purpose of obedience, read the Scriptures, and the simple passages, in which Jesus speaks of his Father, will open on your minds with new brightness. In this temper study the character of Jesus, and in him who was the image of the Father, you will learn to see more and more distinctly the fullness and freeness of Divine Benevolence. In this spirit of obedience look on nature and observe the works of the Creator, and their beauty and harmony will become more touching, till gradually heaven and earth will grow eloquent in their Author's praise. In this spirit look into your own minds, observe what is good and great in the minds of others, and the Infinite Mind will more and more appear to you in His crowning creation, the human soul. And finally, with this purifying purpose of duty, pray for the Divine Spirit, and you will receive it. A secret Influence will aid your efforts after oneness with the Holy One. Peace, silent as dew, will distill on you from heaven. I believe too that, with such a temper and life, you may enjoy something more than distant communications from the Father of Spirits, that you may be favoured with those blessed seasons of universal light and strength, of which good men have often spoken, in which the mind seems warmed by a new flame and quickened by a new energy from on high, and which, though not miraculous, still bring with them a near consciousness of the Divine Original and come like the very Breath of God upon the soul. Through these various methods, you will ascend by degrees to a living communion with our Creator, which, however low compared with what awaits you in another life, will yet be lofty in contrast with all you could have conceived of in the beginning of your religious course.

I close with reaffirming the truth that I have aimed to impress. Religion is not an unnatural or unattainable good. Its germs exist in us all. We have, each of us, the spiritual eye to see, the mind to know, the heart to love, the will to obey God. We have a Spiritual Nature that may bear the image of Divine Perfection. Glorious privilege! Let us not cast it away. Let us not waste our souls on perishable objects, for these souls may become Temples for indwelling Divinity. They may even partake of the glory and the blessedness of the Living God. May we all, through a just exercise of intellect, and a sincere and purifying obedience, enjoy this gradual illumination and sanctification, which are the beginning of Heaven! You will then learn how cold is the most earnest language of the preacher, and how inadequately the loftiest human eloquence can unfold the blessedness of a spirit making progress towards fellowship with the All-Perfect One.


© 2007 American Unitarian Conference