Imágenes de página

transcend the limits of our present faculties, as in what relates to the essence of the Godhead, the fallen state of mankind, and their redemption by Jesus Christ, its doctrines may appear mysterious and dark. Against these the scoffer has often directed his attacks, as if whatever could not be explained by us, ought upon that account to be exploded as absurd.

It is unnecessary to enter at present, on any particular defence of these doctrines, as there is one observation which, if duly weighed, is sufficient to silence the cavils of the scoffer. Is he not compelled to admit, that the whole system of nature around him is full of mystery? What reason, then, had he to suppose, that the doctrines of revelation, proceeding from the same author, were to contain no mysterious obscurity? All that is requisite for the conduct of life, both in nature and in religion, Divine wisdom has rendered obvious to all. As nature has afforded us sufficient information concerning what is necessary for our food, our accommodation, and our safety; so religion has plainly instructed us in our duty towards God and our neighbour. But as soon as we attempt to rise towards objects that lie beyond our immediate sphere of action, our curiosity is checked; and darkness meets us on every side. What the essence is of those material bodies which we see and handle; how a seed grows up into a tree; how man is formed in the womb; or how the mind acts upon the body, after it is formed; are mysteries of which we can give no more account, than of the most obscure and difficult parts of revelation. We are obliged to admit the existence of the fact, though the explanation of it exceeds our faculties.

After the same manner in natural religion, questions arise concerning the creation of the world from nothing, the origin of evil under the government of a perfect Being, and the consistency of human liberty with Divine prescience, which are of as intricate nature, and of as difficult solution as any questions in Christian theology. We may plainly see, that we are not admitted into the secrets of Providence, any more than into the mysteries of the Godhead. In all his ways, the Almighty is a God that hideth himself. He maketh darkness his pavilion. He holdeth back the face of his throne; and spreadeth a thick cloud upon it ;-Instead of its being any objection to revelation that some of its doctrines are mysterious, it would be much more strange and unaccountable, if no such doctrines were found in it. Had every thing in the Christian system been perfectly level to our capacities, this might rather have given ground to a suspicion of its not proceeding from God; since it would have been then so unlike to what we find both in the system of the universe, and in the system of natural religion. Whereas, according as matters now stand, the Gospel has the same features, the same general character, with the other two, which are

[ocr errors]

acknowledged to be of Divine origin; plain and comprehensible, in what relates to practice; dark and mysterious, in what relates to speculation and belief. The cavils of the scoffer, therefore, on this head, are so far from having any just foundation, that they only discover his ignorance and the narrowness of his views.

LET us next proceed to what relates to practice, or the preceptive part of religion. The duties which religion enjoins us to perform towards God, are those which have oftenest furnished matter to the scoffs of the licentious. They attempt to represent these as so idle and superfluous, that they could owe their birth to nothing but enthusiasm.-For is not the Deity so far exalted above us, as to receive neither advantage nor pleasure from our worship? What are our prayers, or our praises, to that infinite mind, who, resting in the full enjoyment of his own beatitude, beholds all his creatures passing before him, only as the insects of a day? What but superstitious terrors could have dictated those forms of homage, and those distinctions of sacred days, in which vulgar minds delight, but which the liberal and enlarged look upon with scorn?

Now, in return to such insults of the scoffer, it might be sufficient to observe, that the united sentiments of mankind, in every age and nation, are against him. Thoughtless as the bulk of men are, and attached only to objects which they see around them; this principle has never been extinguished in their breasts, that to the great Parent of the human race, the universal, though invisible, Benefactor of the world, not only internal reverence, but external homage, is due. Whether he need that homage or not, is not the question. It is what, on our part, we undoubtedly owe; and the heart is, with reason, held to be base, which stifles the emotions of gratitude to a benefactor, how independent soever he may be of any returns. True virtue always prompts a public declaration of the grateful sentiments which it feels; and glories in expressing them. Accordingly, over all the earth, crowds of worshippers have assembled to adore, in various forms, the Ruler of the world. In these adorations, the philosopher, the savage, and the saint, have equally joined. None but the cold and unfeeling can look up to that beneficent Being, who is at the head of the universe, without some inclination to pray, or to praise. In vain, therefore, would the scoffer deride, what the loud voice of nature demands and justifies. He erects himself

against the general and declared sense of the human race.

But, apart from this consideration, I must call on him to attend to one of a still more serious and awful nature. By his

See this argument fully pursued, and placed in a strong light, by the masterly hand of Bishop Butler, in his Analogy of Natural and Revealed Religion.

licentious ridicule of the duties of piety, and of the institutions of Divine worship, he is weakening the power of conscience over men; he is undermining the great pillars of society; he is giving a mortal blow to public order and public happiness. All these rest on nothing so much, as on the general belief of an all-seeing Witness, and the general veneration of an Almighty Governor. On this belief and this veneration, is founded the whole obligation of an oath; without which government could not be administered, nor courts of justice act; controversies could not be determined, nor private property to be preserved safe. Our only security against innumerable crimes, to which the restraints of human life cannot reach, is the dread of an invisible Avenger, and of those future punishments which he hath prepared for the guilty. Remove this dread from the minds of men, and you strengthen the hands of the wicked, and endanger the safety of human society.

But how could impressions so necessary to the public welfare be preserved, if there were no religious assemblies, no sacred institutions, no days set apart for Divine worship, in order to be solemn remembrances to men of the existence and the dominion of God, and of the future account they have to give of their actions to him? To all ranks of men, the sentiments which public religion tends to awaken, are salutary and beneficial. But with respect to the inferior classes, it is well known, that the only principles which restrain them from evil are acquired in the religious assemblies which they frequent. Destitute of the advantages of regular education; ignorant, in great measure, of public laws; unacquainted with those refined ideas of honour and propriety, to which others of more knowledge have been trained; were those sacred temples deserted to which they now resort, they would be in danger of degenerating into a ferocious race, from whom lawless violence was perpetually to be dreaded.

He, therefore, who treats sacred things with any degree of levity and scorn, is acting the part, perhaps without his seeing or knowing it, of a public enemy to society. He is precisely the madman described in the Book of Proverbs,* who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death; and saith, Am I not in sport? We shall hear him, at times, complain loudly of the undutifulness of children, of the dishonesty of servants, of the tumults and insolence of the lower ranks; while he himself is, in a great measure, responsible for the disorders of which he complains. By the example which he sets of contempt for religion, he becomes accessary to the manifold crimes, which that contempt occasions among others. By his scoffing at sacred institutions, he is encouraging the rabble to uproar and violence; he is emboldening

* Prov. xxvi. 18.

[ocr errors]

the false witness to take the name of God in vain; he is, in effect, putting arms into the hands of the highwayman, and letting loose the robber on the streets by night.

WE come next to consider that great class of duties which respect our conduct towards our fellow-creatures. The absolute necessity of these to general welfare is so apparent, as to have secured them, in a great degree, from the attacks of the scoffer. He who would attempt to turn justice, truth, or honesty, into ridicule, would be avoided by every one. To those who had any remains of principle, he would be odious. To those who attended only to their interest, he would appear a dangerous man. But though the social virtues are treated in general as respectable and sacred, there are certain forms and degrees of them which have not been exempted from the scorn of the unthinking. That extensive generosity and high public spirit, which prompt a man to sacrifice his own interest, in order to promote some great general good; and that strict and scrupulous integrity, which will not allow one, on any occasion, to depart from the truth, have often been treated with contempt by those who are called men of the world. They who will not stoop to flatter the great, who disdain to comply with prevailing manners, when they judge them to be evil; who refuse to take the smallest advantage of others, in order to procure the greatest benefit for themselves; are represented as persons of romantic character, and visionary notions, unacquainted with the world, and unfit to live in it.

Such persons are so far from being liable to any just ridicule, that they are entitled to a degree of respect, which approaches to veneration. For they are, in truth, the great supporters and guardians of public order. The authority of their character overawes the giddy multitude. The weight of their example retards the progress of corruption; checks that relaxation of morals, which is always too apt to gain ground insensibly, and to make encroachments on every department of society. Accordingly, it is this high generosity of spirit, this inflexible virtue, this regard to principle, superior to all opinion, which has ever marked the characters of those who have eminently distinguished themselves in public life; who have patronised the cause of justice against powerful oppressors; who in critical times have supported the falling rights and liberties of men; and have reflected honour on their nation and country. Such persons may have been scoffed at by some among whom they lived; but posterity has done them ample justice; and they are the persons whose names are recorded to future ages, and who are thought and spoken of with admiration.

The mere temporizer, the man of accomodating principles, and inferior virtue, may support a plausible character for a

while among his friends and followers; but as soon as the hollowness of his principles is detected, he sinks into contempt.They who are prone to deride men of inflexible integrity, only betray the littleness of their minds. They show that they understand not the sublime of virtue; that they have no discernment of the true excellence of man. By affecting to throw any discouragement on purity and strictness of morals, they not only expose themselves to just contempt, but propagate sentiments very dangerous to society. For, if we loosen the regard due to virtue in any of its parts, we begin to sap the whole of it. No man, as it has been often said, becomes entirely profligacy at once. He deviates, step by step, from conscience. If the loose casuistry of the scoffer were to prevail, open dishonesty, falsehood, and treachery, would speedily grow out of those complying principles, those relaxations of virtue, which he would represent to be necessary for every man who knows the world.

THE last class of virtues I am to mention, are those which are of a personal nature, and which respect the government to be exercised over our pleasures and passions. Here, the scoffer has always considered himself as having an ample field. Often, and often, have such virtues as sobriety, temperance, modesty, and, chastity, been made the subject of ridicule, as monkish habits which exclude men from the company of the fashionable and the gay; habits, which are the effect of low education, or of mean spirits, or of mere feebleness of constitution; while scoffers, walking, as it is too truly said of them by the Apostle, after their lusts, boast of their own manners as liberal and free, as manly and spirited. They fancy themselves raised thereby much above the crowd; and hold all those in contempt, who confine themselves within the vulgar bounds of regular and orderly life.

Infatuated men! who see not that the virtues of which they make sport, not only derive their authority from the laws of God, but are moreover essentially requisite both to public and to private happiness. By the indulgence of their licentious pleasures for a while, as long as youth and vigour remain, a few passing gratifications may be obtained. But what are the consequences? Suppose any individual to preserve unrestrained in this course, it is certainly to be followed by disrepute in his character, and disorder in his affairs; by a wasted and broken constitution; and a speedy and miserable old age. Suppose a society to be wholly formed of such persons as the scoffers applaud; suppose it to be filled with none but those whom they call the sons of pleasure; that is, with the intemperate, the riotous, and dissolute, among whom all regard to sobriety, decency, and private virtue, was abolished; what an odious scene would such a society exhibit? How unlike any civilized or well-ordered state, in which mankind have chosen to dwell? What turbulence and

« AnteriorContinuar »