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ON INDIFFERENCE TO RELIGION.
1 PETER i. 17. And if ye call on the Father, who without
respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.
I HAVE spoken, in my last discourse from these words, of the practical apology for religious indifference; the apology, that is to say, which a man finds in his own heart, and which he expresses when he says that “ he does not need religion—that he is very well as he is now.” I have appealed to life, to the love of happiness, to the desire for improvement; I have appealed to the mind, nay, and the senses, to say whether this can be so: and they have all answered, and truly answered, as I think, that this grand practical assumption of religious indifference is utterly mistaken, untrue, unfounded in the nature of things, and of the mind.
I shall now proceed to consider the theoretical defence of religious indifference ; the apology, that is to say, of a limited creed. Let us see, then, whether the most limited creed still is not ample and solemn enough to overshadow with awe the most negligent mind that takes shelter under it.
If, says the apostle, “ye call on the Father.” Here is recognised the first article of almost universal belief that there is a God! It is indeed the first article of
every creed—the foundation principle of every religion; it is, as we call it, the first truth and the plainest truth; and we utter it in common words and tones, such as we give to all other truth, till the danger is, that all its sublimity and mysteriousness will be lost in its certainty, and familiarity, and constant repetition. But what a truth is it, and what mind that thinks of it can be indifferent? That there is a God, and with such attributes-eternal, but existing in time; infinite, but existing in space, all around us; all-creating, himself uncreated ; all-sustaining, himself independent; all-seeing, himself invisible; all-comprehending, himself incomprehensible--whose mind that thinks of it is not lost, is not overwhelmed in this truth? To acknowledge this, and not to be religious, is an utter and almost inconceivable contradiction of ideas. It is a moral absurdity, which no language can express. It is like saying there is light, and not seeing it; there is danger, and not fearing it; there is sublimity, and not reverencing; there is glory, and not admiring; there is beauty or loveliness, and not loving it. It is more for it is saying that there is a Being to whom all these ideas belong, without measure or end, and not entertaining any correspondent emotion.
There is no thought which we can admit to our minds concerning God but it is a solemn thought. If he dwelt at an infinite distance from us; if his presence never came near to us; if he never had any concern with us; if the world had formed itself and us by certain self-producing powers of its own; if we and our humble sphere were too insignificant to be noticed; still that atheism in the thoughts leaves to us the conception of a Being, though distant, yet so wonderful, that the bare idea of him must strike us with awe;' that the bare idea of him might be enough to arrest the most careless mind, and to fix it for ever in the profoundest admiration. But, suppose that the doctrine concerning that great Being came nearer to us-suppose that God were the actual Maker of this world and our Maker, but had left all to itself, as some seem to imagine, and took no further account of the work of his hands : yet how much does even that supposition leave us to awaken a religious devoutness? Even then we should have it to consider that we dwell where God has been! that we dwell amidst the tokens of a mighty presence passed away! that every hill and mountain lifted up before us the dread monuments of departed omnipotence! What a thought might that be, to strike the mind with the profoundest awe! He who should wander amidst some silent city of the mighty dead, amidst broken columns and falling temples, and feel no serious nor sublime emotion, would not be guilty of such unpardonable inconsistency or dulness, as the moral being who acknowledges in any sense that there is a God, and feels no religious awe.
But how solemn is the truth, and what words shall declare it,—that this awful and glorious Being is not in the infinite height, nor in the unfathomable depth only, nor in the immeasurable distance where thought and imagination have never wandered ; but that God is here also !-here in all the majesty and glory that fill the heavens with his splendours ! '"Oh, God!” should we not exclaim, if we felt this_“God, who art present with us! help our unbelief and indifference.” Indifference! my brethren,-and the admission that
there is a God what power of imagination can make such things to co-exist—to dwell together in the same world, in the same soul! And yet, alas ! they are found to meet in the experience of thousands. i
But I pass to another part of what may be considered as the general belief. “If ye call upon the Father”--this implies the first part—" who, without respect of persons, judgeth every man's work.” Here is recognised the universal obligation of duty and the certainty of retribution.
Now, duty—to consider this in the first place duty is, in its very nature, something that admits of no neutrality, and, consequently, of no indifference. To whatever it applies it imparts a peculiar character : it binds the most indifferent things with a bond, strong as the Almighty will. But duty is, at the same time, a principle of boundless application. There is not a thought, nor a word, nor a deed, but duty has a relation to it. There is no place of our abode but duty is there with its claims. No view is there which we can take of it but is of very deep import. Its sanction is an infinite authority ; its residence is in the immortal part; its issues go forth to eternity; it is the dignity, and happiness, and perfection of our nature ; it is the end of our being. If it is failed of, what misery is the consequence! And yet it is as easy to fail of it as to take any of a thousand devious paths rather than the only one that is right.
There is no class of our duties that are so readily acknowledged as those which are relative—those which we owe to one another. These are, indeed, first principles of the doctrine of Christ. But they are held also to be the first principles of reason. They are the
faith and boast of unbelievers! To be just, generous, and kind; to have a benevolent regard to the best welfare of others; to be honest, disinterested, and useful; these are obligations which it would be thought unnatural, unpardonable, to deny. To admit and practise them is thought to be the least that we can do. And yet, after all, .how momentous an affair is it rightly to discharge the very least of these universally acknowledged duties! How rare is it to see a perfect or even a very high exemplification of the faithful and friendly offices that men owe to one another! How difficult is it to preserve our conduct from offence, our lips from guile, our hearts from unworthy feelings ! How strait is the path even of honesty, of friendship, of natural affection! Who does not deviate? Who does not require a strict guard ? The best, the kindest, the most faithful err, and have occasion to mourn over their folly, their carelessness, or their passion.
And then there are others for whom society mourns. How do all the relations of life bleed under one cruel infliction ! How easy is it to touch some point in the delicate system of social connexions that shall send contagion and suffering through the whole! How prevalent is evil! How prolific, how diffusive is vice!
Or, to take a higher view of these relative duties, if we are bound to regard each other's welfare, then surely that which is the highest and the most permanent—the future, the eternal. And this view presents society before us, as one vast association, whose great concern is to form its members to religious virtue, to piety, to the love of God, to the spirit of heaven. It teaches us that our greatest duty is to the soul; our most momentous influence is on the character. Now