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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Correspondence. — The Unitarian Position


The Unitarian Position.

Sir,—Since your editorial notices inform readers that the discussion of questions relating to free religious inquiry is admitted into your paper, I, as a seeker for "more light," am induced to address you for the purpose of ascertaining what are held to be "cardinal points" in that rational phase of religion known as Unitarian, which, as a sceptic in relation to the self-styled orthodox creeds, I should like to see logically stated for the edification of men who, like myself, are accused of infidelity. I know that in my position there are considerable numbers of men who desire to aid in social work such as can best be effectively taken in hand by a community disciplined under chosen and trained leaders, and administered analagously to a church system; but these independent thinkers, having once broken loose from the mental incubus of superstitious belief, are unable to approach with a feeling of consistency any communion where assent would be required to be given to a belief that at best might be metaphysical beyond possible verification, and although possibly true, might not be true, and therefore worse than useless to take for granted as a safe foundation for a living form of religion.

A time there was when I attended church services to seek therein the "appointed means of grace," but I ceased so to do when self-contradiction became apparent in ecclesiastical teaching, after subversion of that peculiar interpretation which I had been carefully trained to give to the Bible in order to impart what has been termed a "safe" meaning to its doctrine. A man in my position dreads nothing so much as a return to the land of metaphysical mists and shadows which erudition has discovered in the Greek Scriptures; but what must I confess relative to my altered reading of the general scope of the Hebrew Testament? Why, that these very writings which formerly were held out to me as leading up to, or as inferring the dogma of the soul's immortality, have at length appeared not only not to infer or assume any such doctrine, but positively to lean in the mass altogether the other way. Will any of your readers then indicate upon what precise grounds Unitarian theism teaches a religion that inculcates rationally and not dogmatically the hope of life beyond the grave? I have heard the dogmatist argue that "If man is not immortal where would he the good of any God at all;" and, on the other hand, a so-called rationalist has based his steadfast conviction in life hereafter upon what he assured me was instinctive conviction, which to my apprehension seems at best but analogous to the symbols x or y of some unsolved problem.

"The abstract arguments for the immortality of the soul," observes F. W. Newman, in his Phases of Faith, "had always appeared to me vain trifling, and I was deeply convinced that nothing could assure us of a future state but a divine communication."This is precisely my present intellectual position, and it is perplexing to mo to find the very same believers by instinctive page 245 conviction in human immortality denying or explaining away those special instances of resurrection of the dead which are recorded as material facts in both Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. Is it not but too plain that the special instances are much too material for mere Platonic believers, who do not always see that particular instances may be negative to any loosely held notion of a general and indiscriminate resurrection. I do not, and I dare not, say that higher conditions of existence are not the destiny of humanity, or that this planet may not be the abode of beings as much superior to its present inhabitants as they, in their turn, are higher on the infinite scale of organised life than the quadrumana; but I can emphatically assert that manifestation of higher life has been marked by such extremely rare instances as to constitute the miraculous, which is therefore considered supernatural. The Rev. T. Binney, in his essay, How to make the best of both worlds, recommends those who look for no life beyond the grave to make the most of one, upon the ground that they have all the better reason for turning to good account the life they can realise; and I have heard an avowed atheist commenting upon this secular view, argue that the very best preparation for a world to come (should there be one) is to get duty effectively done here whilst daylight lasts to do it in. Now, while I really believe that the human races are progressing towards new and regenerated conditions of existence, I yet maintain that the doctrine of personal salvation, so far from being the alpha and omega of living religion and morality, may readily become actively antagonistic to it, so that in the garb of an apparent messenger of light there may be, sugared over, the devil himself, drawing men away from, and not towards, that divine deed of redemption, which, as the late Baron Bunsen said, was intended to set man free from the rule of selfishness in his lower animal nature.

A halo of sanctity once for me surrounded orthodox church doctrines, and continued so long as I fancied truth was in the assertion that they led to something nobler than mere personal safety; but, alas! the charm slowly vanished as the years rolled on, and the converse of sacerdotal propositions became all too apparent to be overridden by plausible arguments to explain inconsistencies.

Religion, I hear it said, is nothing unless based upon dogma, the assumption apparently being that the acceptance of a certain set of theological propositions is essential to salvation. Was it, then, dogma or rational belief in Jesus of Nazareth to teach that a man who held fast to his life should lose it, but if he surrendered it then he should eventually recover it? What also led Paul of Tarsus to say—"If by any means I might attain to the resurrection of the dead? Might attain this? Why the man was no Sadducee, and as a Pharisee could he ever have doubted it? Yet he does express a doubt, and evidently did so while hopeful of attaining to what he believed was quite possible. But if not, would it lead to the inference that the loss of life hereafter is opposed to human conception of goodness in Deity? Why should not an ethical man obey what is called the law of universal being in the surrender of the one in itself for the lives of the infinitely many, and in following this to accept the consequences of such conduct as they come, regardless of sugar-plums for good boys, or a rod-in-pickle for naughty ones? Still, if religion must transcend ethics, why should it not embrace science; and why am I to be solemnly warned that the Bible was never designed to teach science, but only to lead us into the paths of holiness. It is not farfetched, surely, to surmise that this non-scientific view is entertained because its upholders know nothing of what science once was or may hereafter disclose, while the "path of holiness" hypothesis being vague and indefinite, is a broad and easy road to adhere to.

There are things mentioned in the Bible which I must acccept as conveying objective truths, for I cannot slur them over as being the subjective impressions of the writers, such as has been commonly accepted as valid explanation of apparently incongruous narratives since the days when the Tractatus page 246 Theologico Politicus of Spinoza began to be more generally read by continental neologians. I would not contend that allegorical or hieroglyphic pictures find no place in the Bible, but I am pursuaded that there are real scientific truths told in the only way that the non-scientific Hebrew language would admit of expressing them, and I decline to accept for the contrary of knowledge any mere absence of it.

I have read the published sermons and essays of Dr. Channing and of the Rev. J. Martineau, and, readily yielding my assent to most of what they say, can now understand their protest against the tendency to petrifaction of mind inherent in the huge bulk of sacerdotal erudition; but when they come to lay much stress upon what they make a fundamental moral basis in "sin consciousness," then I dissent, bearing as I do in mind Paul's terrible cry, "Wretched man that I am, who shall rescue me from this body of death!" which I conclude from the context to have meant his self-consciousness in personal sin. I do not know that Unitarian theism in general makes so strong a point of this conviction of sin, but I have certainly found it strongly urged to repulsion of my logical sense in both the standard divines I have alluded to. When I turn to the late Rev. Theodore Parker, I have only to express regret that this penetrative mind did not enter the world a quarter of a century later than it did; for were he alive now, I am sure he would have found some way on which to travel for the purpose of stretching forth a hand in intellectual sympathy with the struggling mass of theological sceptics who are hurrying on they hardly know where from the metaphysical phantoms they leave behind.

Surely the time is come for religious regeneration. Baboo Keshub Chunder Sen, representing the Hindoo religious reformers, arrives in England and is welcomed by its citizens as a man of promise, but others sneer at this Brahmo Somaj leader because he preached in Unitarian churches, and stigmatise his faith as mongrel Christianity! I am not yet a Unitarian by profession whatever I may eventually become, but I protest against this exhibition of the odium theologicum as insulting to the English public. Baboo Sen pointed to the sectarian divisions, the inconsistent lives of professing believers as being a bar to the Christianisation of India, and there can be little doubt that in so doing he touched a raw and sore place in John Bull's hide. To make moral selfishness a basis for Christianity is to manufacture the proverbial rope of sand, and even criminals working the treadmill lose all energy when they find they are grinding away to no purpose.

W. B.