« PreviousContinue »
This work was commenced in the year 1845, and was finished two years ago. Thus much it is necessary to state, that I may not be supposed to have borrowed without acknowledgment from works which have preceded mine in order of publication.
It is now given to the world after long hesitation, with much diffidence, and with some misgiving. For some time I was in doubt as to the propriety of publishing a work which, if it might correct and elevate the views of some, might also unsettle and destroy the faith of many. But three considerations have finally decided me.
First. I reflected that, if I were right in believing that I had discerned some fragments or gleams of truth which had been missed by others, I should be acting a criminal and selfish part if I allowed personal considerations to withhold me from promulgating them ;-that I was not entitled to take
upon myself the privilege of judging what amount of new light the world could bear, nor what would be the effect of that light upon individual minds ;-that sound views are formed and established by the contribution, generation after generation, of widows' mites ;-—that if my small quota were of any value it would spread and fructify, and if worthless, would come to naught.
Secondly. Much observation of the conversation and controversy of the religious world had wrought the conviction that the evil resulting from the received notions as to Scriptural authority has been immensely under-estimated. I was compelled to see that there is scarcely a low and dishonour
ing conception of 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 only form 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 express it.
“ The consciousness of the individual (says Fichte) reveals itself alone ;-his knowledge cannot pass beyond the limits of his own beiug. 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 phi