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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Correspondence. — Rationalism

page 117



Sir,—Although thoroughly interested in the success of the Free Religious Press, I am willing to see it subjected to the most searching criticism. But some principle of honor ought to be observed, and I should have taken no notice of the attack of the Rev. J. Burke, but for its gross unfairness. I shall quote his own words, which will be found to carry with them their own refutation. "Why," he says, in reply to Mr. Gordon, "have recourse to the expressed sentiments of the supporters of the new phase of religion, and hold them up as a bugbear to frighten the ignorant and timid? Will Mr. Gordon undertake to show that the Public Schools Act has been framed to encourage this new phase of religion? or that the administrators of the Act are tainted with it? When he shows this it will be admitted his arguments are not without foundation, and his warning note to religious teachers not a false alarm." . . . And further on he observes, "I make no nice distinction between Roman Catholic and Protestant, yet I am free from the taint of the new phase of religion."

Now, before committing himself to so sweeping a condemnation, the Rev. Mr. Burke ought surely to have taken the trouble to ascertain what the principles of the Free Religious Press really are. But he did nothing of the kind, it seems. On the contrary, he openly avows "I do not receive or read the Free Religious Press." Mr. Burke has not even observed the formalities of fair play and read the Free Religious Press for himself, having resolved to condemn it be its principles what they may. It is, however, scarcely the thing for a clergyman to decline to study the opinions of others simply because they are not his own, and yet arrogate to himself a right to sit in judgment on them.

But Rationalism is evidently the beté noir of the Rev. Mr. Burke's theology. For he says, "Why not take up the Public Schools Act, or the books authorised by the Council of Education, and show by extracts from them there can be no religious teaching under the Act; that the principle on which it is founded is Rationalism, or some other equally obnoxious ism."

I should like to know what the rev. gentleman's definition of Rationalism really is, and what harm in the world a little Rationalism could possibly be in the Public Schools—or even in the Church, where its absence is so pain-fully visible? He evidently treats Rationalism as he has treated the Australian Free Religious Press, that is, by neither receiving nor reading anything on the subject. Otherwise, how could he forget that during the whole of the eighteenth century and the first thirty years of the nineteenth, the Church of England was professedly, and, so to speak, officially rationalistic? Surely Mr. Burke must be familiar with the fact that some of the most eminent laymen, and all the most eminent theologians and bishops of the Church during the above period were divines of the rationalistic type? What was Addison, the glory of English literature, but a rationalist? What was Locke, the author of the "Essay on the Human Understanding," and one of the most religious of men, but the Prince of Rationalists? And then we have the names of such eminent men as Bishop Gibson, Dean Prideaux, Dr. Rogers, Archbishop Tillotson, Bishop Butler, Paley, Warburton, Lardner, and Archbishop Whately. Crowds of other names might be mentioned, but these will suffice for our present purpose.

In defending Rationalism, it is not necessary to hold that it and religion are equivalent terms. I put forward no such doctrine. If the Church of England was for upwards of a hundred years prevailingly rationalistic, the result can clearly be traced to her attitude of exclusiveness towards the non-conforming sects. Nor is it to be wondered at that Rationalism in being propounded by her as the "be all and end all" of religion should have palled page 118 on the taste; but then to pass with big recoil from setting an exaggerated value upon it, to wholesale repudiation, is outrageously inconsistent, and but a fresh exemplification of the narrowness of the theological spirit; all the more indefensible considering the great services Rationalism has rendered in defending the human mind from the ecclesiastical confusion of an arrogant and fantastic Puritanism, as well as from the degrading vassalage of a blind faith.

If ever the Church of England comes to the front, not as a great social and political, but as a great moral power, it will be under the guidance of such men as the new Bishop of Exeter—Dr. Temple. True Dr. Pusey terms him a wolf in the fold, and the Right Rev. Hugh McNeile, a leper. This but reminds us how the priests of his day scattered the ashes of Wycliffe to the winds. We have much to hope for from Dr. Temple. His ordination sermon contains a profession of principles which the Australian Free Religious Press will cordially adopt and support, although not necessarily in the same form. "There are," said the Right Rev. Prelate, "two sources of Divine revelation—the revelation of physical truths through the intellect, and the revelation of spiritual truths through the conscience." Here is a burst of sunshine, as unexpected in a Protestant Prelate of our degenerate days, as thunder in a cloudless and serene sky. Will it prove continuous? Or shall we be compelled to say in the language of Wordsworth

. . . . . "welcome light,
Dawns in the East; but dawns to disappear;
And mocks me with a sky that ripens not
Into a steady morning."

W. B.