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God current among men, scarcely a narrow and malignant passion of the human heart, scarcely a moral obliquity, scarcely a political error or misdeed, which Biblical texts are not, and may not be without any violence to their obvious signification, adduced to countenance and justify. On the other hand I was compelled to see how many clear, honest, and aspiring minds have been hampered and baffled in their struggles after truth and light, how many tender, pure, and loving hearts have been hardened, perverted, and forced to a denial of their nobler nature and their better instincts, by the ruthless influence of some passages of Scripture which seemed in the clearest language to condemn the good and to denounce the true. No work contributed more than Mr. Newman's Phases of Faith, to force upon me the conviction that little progress can be hoped either for religious science or charitable feeling till the question of Biblical authority shall have been placed upon a sounder footing, and viewed in a very different light.
Thirdly. I called to mind the probability that there were many other minds like my own pursuing the same inquiries, and groping towards the same light; and that to all such the knowledge that they have fellow labourers where they least expected it, must be a cheering and sustaining influence.
It was also clear to me that this work must be performed by laymen. Clergymen of all denominations are, from the very nature of their position, incapacitated from pursuing this subject with a perfect freedom from all ulterior considerations. They are restrained and shackled at once by their previous confession of Faith, and by the consequences to them of possible conclusions. It remained, therefore, to see what could be done by an unfettered layman, endowed with no learning, but bringing to the investigation the ordinary education of an English gentleman, and a logical faculty exercised in other walks.
The three conclusions which I have chiefly endeavoured to make clear, are these :—that the tenet of the Inspiration of the Scriptures is baseless and untenable under any form or modification which leaves to it a dogmatic value ;—that the Gospels are not textually faithful records of the sayings and actions of Jesus, but ascribe to him words which he never uttered, and deeds which he never did ;--and that the Apostles only partially comprehended, and imperfectly transmitted, the teaching of their Great Master. The establishment of these points is the contribution to the progress of religious science which I have attempted to render.
I trust it will not be supposed that I regard this work in any other light than as a pioneering one. A treatise on Religion that is chiefly negative and critical can never be other than incomplete, partial, and preparatory. But the clearing of the ground is a necessary preliminary to the sowing of the seed; the removal of superincumbent rubbish is indispensable to the discovery and extraction of the buried and intermingled ore; and the liberation of the mind from forestalling misconceptions, misguiding prejudices, and hampering and distracting fears, must precede its setting forth, with any chance of success, in the pursuit of Truth.
Nor, I earnestly hope, will the book be regarded as antagonistic to the Faith of Christ. It is with a strong conviction that popular Christianity is not the Religion of Jesus that I have resolved to publish my views. What Jesus really did and taught, and whether his doctrines were perfect or superhuman, are questions which afford ample matter for an independent work.
There is probably no position more safe and certain, than that our religious views must of necessity be essentially imperfect and incorrect;—that at best they can form only a remote approximation to the truth, while the amount of error they contain must be large and varying, and may be almost unlimited. And this must be alike, though not equally the case, whether these views are taught us by reason or by revelation ; ---that is, whether we arrive at them by the diligent and honest use of those faculties with which God has endowed us, or by listening to those prophets whom He may have ordained to teach us. The difference cannot be more than this : that in the latter case our views will contain that fragment, or that human disguise, of positive truth which God knows our minds are alone capable of receiving, or which He sees to be fitted for their guidance ;-while in the former case they will contain that form or fragment of the same positive truth which He framed our minds with the capability of achieving. In the one case they will contain as much truth as we can take in in the other, as much as we can discover:--but in both cases this truth must necessarily not only be greatly limited, but greatly alloyed to bring it within the competence of finite human intelligences. Being finite, we can form no correct or adequate idea of the Infinite :-being material, we can form no clear conception of the Spiritual. The question of a Revelation can in no way affect this conclusion; since even the Omnipotence of God cannot infuse infinite conceptions into finite minds,-cannot, without an entire change of the conditions of our being, pour a just and full knowledge of His nature into the bounded capacity of a mortal's soul. Human intelligence could not grasp it; human language could not ex
“ The consciousness of the individual (says Fichte) reveals itself alone ;-his knowledge cannot pass beyond the limits of his own being. His conceptions of other things and other beings are only his conceptions ;—they are not those things or beings themselves. The living principle of a living Universe must be infinite, while all our ideas and conceptions are finite, and applicable only to finite beings. The Deity is thus not an object of knowledge, but of faith ;--not to be approached by the understanding, but by the moral sense ;-not to be conceived, but to be felt. All attempts to embrace the infinite in the conception of the finite are, and must be, only accommodations to the frailty of man.
“Atheism is a charge which the common understanding has repeatedly brought against the finer speculations of philosophy, when, in endeavouring to solve the riddle of existence, they have approached, albeit with reverence and humility, the source from which all existence proceeds. Shrouded from human comprehension in an obscurity from which chastened imagination is awed back, and thought retreats in conscious weakness, the Divine Nature is surely a theme on which man is little entitled to dogmatize. Accordingly it is here that the philosophic intellect becomes most painfully aware of its own insufficiency But the common understanding has no such humility ; its God is an Incarnate Divinity ;-imperfection imposes its own limitations on the Illimitable, and clothes the inconceivable Spirit of the Universe in sensuous and intelligible forms derived from finite nature!”
This conviction once gained, the whole rational basis for intolerance is cut away. We are all of us (though not all equally) mistaken; and the cherished dogmas of each of us are not, as we had fondly supposed, the pure truth of God, but simply our own special form of error-the fragmentary and refracted
ray of light which has fallen on our own minds'. But are we therefore to relax in our pursuit of truth, or to acquiesce contentedly in error ?-By no means. The obligation still lies upon us as much as ever to press forward in the search; for though absolute truth be unattainable, yet the amount of error in our views is capable of progressive and perpetual diminution; and it is not to be supposed that all errors are equally innocuous. To rest satisfied with a lower degree of truth than our faculties are capable of attaining, -to acquiesce in errors which we might eliminate,-to lie down consciously and contentedly in unworthy conceptions of the Nature and Providence of God,-is treason alike to Him and to our own Soul. It is true that all our ideas concerning the Eternal Spirit must, conşidered objectively, be erroneous; and that no revelation can make
I "Our little systems have their day ;
They have their day, and cease to be :
They are but broke,, lights of Thee,
them otherwise ;-all, therefore, that we require, or can obtain, is such an image or idea of Him as shall satisfy our souls, and meet our needs ;-as shall (we may say) be to us subjectively true. But this conception, in order to become to us such satisfying and subjective truth, must of course be the highest and noblest that our minds are capable of forming ';-every man's conception of God must consequently vary with his mental cultivation and mental powers. If he content himself with any lower image than his intellect can grasp, he contents himself with that which is false to him, as well as false in fact,one which, being lower than he could reach, he must ipso facto feel to be false. The Peasant's idea of God true to him -would be false to me, because I should feel it to be unworthy and inadequate. If the nineteenth century after Christ adopts the conceptions of the nineteenth century before him,-if cultivated and chastened Christians adopt the conceptions of the ignorant, narrow, and vindictive Israelite,—they are guilty of thinking worse of God, of taking a lower, meaner, more limited view of His Nature, than the faculties He has bestowed are capable of inspiring ;—and as the highest view we are capable of forming must necessarily be the nearest to the truth, they are wilfully acquiescing in a lie. They are guilty of what Bacon calls “the Apotheosis of error”-stereotyping one particular stage of the blunders through which philosophy passes on its way to truth.
Now to think (or speak) ill of God is to incur the guilt of blasphemy. It is surprising that this view of the matter should so rarely have struck the orthodox. But they are so intently occupied with the peril on one side, that they have become blind or careless to the at least equal peril that lies on the other. If, as they deem, erroneous belief be dangerous and criminal, it must be so whether it err on the side of deficiency or of excess. They are sensitively and morbidly alive to the peril and the sin of not believing everything which Revelation
Religious truth is therefore necessarily progressive, because our powers are progressive, ---a position fatal to all positive dogma.