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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: James Edward Fitzgerald Volume

Religious Teaching: A Speech

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Religious Teaching:

A Speech

Christchurch: Printed at the Press Office, Cashel Street.

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Religious Teaching.

At a Soiree given on the 15th of June, 1868, to commemorate the opening of a Sunday School in connection with the Presbyterian Church in Wellington, New Zealand, Mr. Waring Taylor in the chair, Mr. FitzGerald spoke as follows:—

Mr Chairman, and ladies and gentlemen—If I feel some difficulty in responding to the kind invitation which I have received to take a part in the proceedings of this evening, it is not because I do not heartily sympathise with the object you have in view, but because this is the first occasion upon which I have addressed any similar assembly upon such a subject. Indeed, for a great part of my life I should have declined to do so upon principle. I used to hold that it was each man's duty to confine any exertions which it might be in his power to make in aid of the spread of religious instruction, to that section of the Christian community in which he had been brought up, or to which he conscientiously belonged. I need not say that, had I not in late years modified my opinion in this respect, I should not be here to-night. But as we advance in years, and enlarge the range of our experience, I hope we take somewhat more extended views of the obligations of duty, and perhaps regard with a somewhat wider charity the opinions of others when they differ from our own. As we toil up the mountain of life with steps which grow ever feebler as we approach the summit, it does seem to me that the horizon of human affairs, with all its rights, duties, responsibilities, and obligations, expands its circle before our gaze; our failing vision is more than compensated by the serenity of the atmosphere in which we stand, and those narrower views and more active prejudices which monopolised our attention in earlier life, are now seen only amidst the mists at our feet, or are dwarfed into insignificance in the presence of the larger panorama which is opened to our view.

I hope it is from this cause, and not from any indifference to the realities of religious truth, that of late years those great principles which underlie, or are enshrined in, all Christian communities, have assumed in my mind an importance immeasurably greater than that of the peculiar forms and phases in which those truths have commended themselves to various religious sects, or have been expressed by different classes of human intelligence. And I embrace the more readily the opportunity you have afforded me for expressing these views, because I perceive with uneasiness the growth of principles in the Church to which I belong, and which I love and revere as much as I do any earthly institution, which tend to limit and narrow the range of human thought, and enquiry, and criticism, and to bind the religious aspirations of the soul in the chains of a formal ritualism. Nor is this spirit confined to the Episcopal Church, but is shared in some form or other by page 2 every sect of Christians. So far as my personal feelings are concerned, I do not quarrel with those who would clothe religious ceremony with the artificial beauty of vestments, or canopy it under the shadow of architectural splendour, or train its devotional utterances to the strains of a skilful and regulated harmony. The beauty of divine worship is ever to me more beautiful, when ministered to by those arts, in which the inner perceptions and cravings of the soul for the sublime and the beautiful, are typified and reflected in the external economy of form and colour and sound.

That is not the error of which I complain. On the contrary, I think we Northerns and Protestants sometimes display much bigotry and ignorance, and do our fellow Christians of more mercurial natures and of warmer climes much injustice, in condemning their ceremonials as simply the offspring of superstition. A nation gifted by God with keen perceptions of physical beauty, and inspired with the native love and power of song, will express its devotional, as its other feelings, through the same medium; and so, colour and dress and music will be the natural and necessary mode of its expression, in a manner which is inappreciable by men of colder blood, and of sterner, and, it may be, of coarser mould. To this we should fairly attribute much of the gorgeous ceremonial of the Italian and Spanish and Greek Churches, which we are apt invidiously to compare, in a somewhat self-satisfied and self-righteous spirit, with the more unadorned forms of worship practised in the gloomier temples of northern Europe.

But it is not the mode of expression or the mere forms of worship which are objectionable. It is because I perceive that these revived and antique and foreign ceremonies, and especially the efforts made to force them upon a reluctant people, who do not appreciate or love them, involve a sort of fetish worship of the ceremonies themselves, to the obliteration or subordination of the immortal truths of which all ceremony is but the symbol and expression. But I must speak what I feel to be the honest truth in this matter, and I must say that this charge of fetish worship among Christians does not attach to the Episcopal Church alone, or even to the Roman Catholics, but is shared by all the sections of the Christian community. It is possible to make a fetish of an idea or a dogma, as much as of a vestment or of a chaunt. If one sect gives undue prominence to a ceremony, another gives equally undue prominence to the opposition to a ceremony. And so in our time we have seen serious riots about a clergyman wearing his surplice in the pulpit; as if it mattered whether a human soul were saved or God glorified, in a white dress or a black one: and yet for this, Christian Churches have, in our time, been made the scenes of scandal and of brawl. Formalism, my friends, is not the only danger to the Church of these times. There seems to me to be a spirit of superstition—a spirit of what I call fetish worship, in which all sections of the Christian community are too apt to indulge. I mean the worship of their own special dogmas or particular forms of expressing and interpreting truth. If Galileo was compelled by the Papal Church to recant, as false, his great discoveries in the motions of the heavenly bodies, as heresy against the faith of the Church, have I not seen many a good and pious man in these days set his face hard against the discoveries of modem science, because they seemed to disturb his own peculiar views of the meaning of revealed truth. Geology has had page 3 to fight its way against the superstition of the Protestant world, as astronomy of old had to struggle against the ecclesiastical authority of Rome.

And now we see the same old spirit evoked to crush the researches in that new science which has made such marvellous strides in our day—I mean the science of philological criticism—a science closely akin to that of geology, because it evokes out of the ruins and relics of the dead and forgotten languages of former ages, evidences of the past history of mankind, just as geology elicits out of the crumbling rocks and broken stones, the physical history of the world which that man has inhabited. I ask not that we shall hastily or rashly accept the conclusions offered to us by modern criticism. I say not that, so far as my humble powers extend—and very humble indeed they are—to understand such enquiries, I say not that I accept myself all the conclusions at which these critics have arrived. But I do claim, in the spirit and in the exercise of the same right for which our fathers fought and died at the Reformation, and which they have bequeathed to us—the right of private judgment and of free enquiry—I do claim that scientific research shall not be stifled, or placed under ban, by the lingering superstition of modem Protestantism, any more than by the senile anathemas of Rome. Between revelation rightly understood, and true science, there can be no possible or conceivable discrepancy; for was it not the same Divine power which communicated its will to man by the mouth of bard and seer, of prophet and apostle, and which spreads open before man the great book of nature, and lays bare its secrets and its mysteries before his eager and inquiring intellect, and has clothed his mind with the capacity to discover and understand its laws.

When I have seen how texts of Scripture, strangely misunderstood, have been wrenched from their context, and hurled at the head of approaching criticism, I sometimes feel as if there were a tendency on the part of Protestants to make a fetish, as it were, of the very Bible itself, and to bestow upon the human words and syllables—those mechanical contrivances which are after all only the vehicle of communicating the will of God to mankind—to bestow upon those mechanical contrivances that reverence which is due only to the truths which those words were intended to convey; a tendency, in one word, to worship the book itself, more than the truths which it reveals, or the God who inspired it.

It has often appeared to me that all differences in religious opinion arise not so much from the acceptance of error, certainly not from the desire or the intention to accept error, as from a partial and narrow view of truth. Our minds, in their present state of education, seem incapable of grasping the whole body of truth, and of reconciling all the infinite and diversified and complex phenomena, physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual, which constitute this world and its inhabitants. This partial perception of truth has throughout all ages created those differences, divisions, and discords, which have been the bane of humanity, and especially of the Christian Church. Most vividly does this thought present itself to the mind when we ponder over what I may call the impotency of Christianity at the present day, as compared with its early vigor. You all know how Christianity arose amidst the plenitude of the Imperial power of Rome. You know how it triumphed over persecution and violence, and how nation after nation was converted to the faith. And when the heathen hordes of page 4 Northern Europe were let loose upon that mightiest fabric of empire, and that most gigantic mass of human corruption which the world had ever seen; you know how, amidst the wreck of nations and the chaos of society, the form of the Christian Church appeared rising into power and splendor, moulding the minds and characters of men to the reception of a newer and a higher civilisation.

Sometimes, as in the early history of our native country, nations were converted to Christianity, and were swept away by some fresh wave of heathenism rolling out of the dark-caverns of the North; and then the conquerors themselves were absorbed into the faith which they had fought to destroy. Compare the history of the spread of Christianity in the first few centuries after Christ, with its efforts during later ages. I venture to say there is no one who has honestly thought upon this subject, whose mind has not been filled with doubt and perplexity at the contrast; no one who does not ask himself—Why is it that the religion of Christ seems powerless in these later ages to war against the heathen world? How is it that for so many centuries the star of Bethlehem has paled before the crescent of Mahomet? How is it that Christianity has striven in vain to penetrate among the countless millions of the human family, who, during the past eighteen centuries, have lived and died in the vast continent of Asia? How is that, in this very island, the faith which we thought had been established by the efforts of good and holy men amongst the native inhabitants, instead of taking vigorous and enduring root, as amongst the nations of early church history, has withered and died in a single lifetime, swept away before a cruel and puerile superstition?

I can offer no solution of this great mystery in the world's history; but I can perceive one cause which may possibly have helped to paralyse the arm and sap the vigour of the Christian church, in the intestine discords and divisions amongst its members. The early church was one. The church of later ages has been torn into sects, which have hated and persecuted each other as cordially and as cruelly as their common heathen foes could have done. And now, the Christian church, instead of going forth as in early times, an army of martyrs, marshalled under one faith, one hope, one baptism, to wage war against the wickedness and misery of a heathen world, is like that same army, each division shut up in its several fortress or encampment; each battalion entrenching itself, not against the common foe, but against its own friends and allies; entrenching itself by forms and ceremonies, by narrow prejudices, or superficial dogmas; some amusing themselves with pageantry; some nursing a self righteous abhorence of pageantry; some taking refuge in the sternness of asceticism; some ridiculing the mortifications of the ascetic; whilst that one great law of Christian society—that principle upon which our Lord and Master based, if I may so speak, his scheme for the transmutation and elevation of the human race—the law of self-sacrifice—the law of love—seems well nigh banished from the Christian code: and the sacred image of Christian truth, in the divine beauty of its full and perfect ideal, is hurled from its pedestal, while each sect seizes some broken relic, some paring of a nail, or lock of hair, or shred of the hem of its garment, and, setting up the fragment on its altar, deems that it forsooth is in exclusive possession of the secret counsels of the Most High, and that the poor figment which it worships, represents the whole page 5 majesty and glory of the complete image of divine truth.

And when we look at the social and political attitude of Christian Europe at the present hour, are we not sometimes compelled to ask in a feeling akin to despair—what has become of Christianity? when I see the millions of men who are abstracted from the sacred duty and wholesome discipline of productive labor, who are kept in idleness at the expense of their toiling fellow-men; countless hosts, bristling with arms, glaring upon one another with menacing aspect, ready to precipitate the world into deadly strife, to gratify the will of a despot, or the ambitious schemes of a statesman, or the more dangerous and deadly passions of a misguided people; when I think of the enormous mass of human labour, and the vast hoards of wealth, and the inestimable riches of scientific knowledge and inventive ingenuity and mechanical skill, which, instead of ministering to the progress and happiness of man, are at this moment unceasingly, year after year, more and more, being devoted to the production of implements for the destruction of human life by land and sea; and when I think that this is the outcome of well nigh nineteen centuries of the teaching of Him who, with his latest breath on earth, bequeathed to mankind the heritage of peace; I seem staggering in amazement and wonder at the mystery of so strange a spectacle, as if I were living in the midst of one of those fanciful tales of Oriental romance, in which the form of the beneficient genius of human destiny had been borrowed and simulated by some hideous and malignant demon; and as if under the external semblance of Christ, the destinies of the Christian world were being ruled by the genius of a destroying angel.

Shall we then say that Christianity has done nothing for the race of man?—nothing to elevate his moral and social being? That I think were a very false conclusion. However disappointed we may be—however perplexed and surprised, that so divine a scheme has apparently failed as yet to realise all the results which we might well have anticipated; history compels us to acknowledge that the condition of mankind, oven under the partial and fragmentary form of Christianity received by the world, has vastly improved and is improving. It is a remarkable fact, and one which I would earnestly commend to the attention of those who are inclined to regard the advance of science with feelings of religious jealousy, that it has been to the Christian world alone, that scientific truth seems to have been revealed. We might indeed have been sorely perplexed had we found that nations rejecting Christianity were advancing before us in the march of true scientific discovery. But, on the contrary, it is only by that portion of the human race, whose mind had been touched and transmuted by the fire of Christianity, that the prosecution of true scientific discovery would appear to have been possible.

There are evidences that mankind is slowly improving. Religious intolerance is not yet cast out of our churches; but it is feeble to what it once was. There are signs around us of the collapse of long-cherished bigotries, none more remarkable than the approaching downfall of that stain upon England and Christianity—the Church Establishment of Ireland. The civilisation of man is advancing, not receding. The elevation of man may be a very slow process—as slow as the geologic changes which transform the features of his earthly abode. As has been said:

"The mill of God grinds slowly,
Though it grind exceeding small."

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Yet the steady upward tendency of our race entitles us to rest in the faith that the consummation of Christianity will come at last, and its highest ideal as shadowed out by its divine Author will one day be realised. And whilst we deplore the schisms in the Christian Church, it may be that, in the providential order of the world's growth, these very divisions are necessary to train mankind for a fuller and larger perception of the divine laws. It may be, that only by such external differences will the spirit of earnest and reverend enquiry and investigation and criticism be thoroughly evoked, stimulated, and cultivated; and the mind of man thus trained to perceive, and his intellectual and spiritual capacities enlarged to embrace the whole and perfect truth of God. It may be, that when mankind has been so trained and elevated as to be capable of accepting higher truths, and of living under a nobler law, the days may come when those maxims of Christ, which are now by universal consent almost banished from Christian teaching and practice, as if they were the unattainable dreams of a visionary, may become the universal law of human society;—days when we shall call no man Rabbi, for one is our master, even Christ—when it will be no strange thing to sell all that a man has and give to the poor—when a brother's sin will be forgiven until seventy times seven—when the unsmitten cheek will be offered to the second blow—and the coat be given to him who has taken the cloak; in a word, when the world shall have learned to look back on the worship of physical force, as the miserable barbarism of a scarcely Christian age, and the law of self-sacrifice and love shall bo found to be practically coincident with, and coeval with, the highest and noblest development of which the race of man is capable. Then, indeed, may perhaps be realised that vision, of which holy men of every age have loved to dream—which all the riches of imagination and of language have been exhausted to portray—the apocalyptical glories of a pure and sinless world.

If I have not wearied you with these somewhat wide speculations on the aspect of Christianity, I would ask your permission, before I sit down, to come somewhat nearer home, and to call your attention to the effect which these divisions in the Christian Church have had upon the question of the education of the young. There is, I venture to say, no man in the full possession of a healthy moral and reasoning faculty, who does not think that religious teaching is an essential part of all education. And yet I am driven to the conclusion that, whilst it is the bounden and imperative duty of every State to provide that its children shall be educated, it is a necessity of the position of a State in which religious differences exist, and in which religious liberty is respected, to exclude all religious instruction from its schools. I believe this colony to fall strangely short of its duties in respect of education. We live in a State whose government is almost completely democratic. And where the demos—the people—is educated and intelligent, I know of no better form of government which can exist in the world.

On the other hand, I firmly believe that an uneducated and ignorant people are absolutely incapable of working the complex machinery of popular and parliamentary government under which we live in this colony. You have not attempted to work it yet by native skill and labour. The men who have had the working of your Government are for the most part men of English education and training. page 7 The mass of the electors themselves have brought with them much of the traditions of the old country. But the time will come when you must supply leaders of the people out of home manufactured materials. Therefore, that the generations who are born and brought up in this country shall be sufficiently intelligent and informed to distinguish honesty, ability, and learning, from dishonesty, ignorance, and assumption, and to select the really best men in the country for the high offices of government—this seems to me a first and imperative necessity under our constitution of society and government. Therefore I say that the State must insist on the education of the young, in obedience to the law of self-preservation.

But when we are told that this secular education by the State will be a Godless education, we reply—it is not pretended that the education thus given by the State is a complete education. You must teach religion if you would develope the highest character of the man. And for this reason—that the feeling of submission to authority—the instinct of reverence for what is above us—better, wiser, greater than ourselves, is based upon the feeling of reverence for the divine power. Reverence, teachableness, submission, are habits of the mind not to be arrived at by the cultivation of the intellect only, or by the acquisition of learning: and yet these qualities in the young are the basis of all that is greatest, strongest, and noblest in the character of the man.

Then, as the State cannot, owing to the untoward circumstances of religious differences, undertake the teaching of religion without violating liberty of conscience, it remains for the Church to supplement the want by its own internal means. The State is, after all, only an organisation of society for certain limited objects—for the protection of life and property, and the ascertainment and enforcement of private rights between man and man. But the State is not the only organisation of society. We associate for a multitude of objects; to supply ourselves with railways, gas, water, and so on. The Church is the organisation of society for the teaching of religion and the public worship of the Deity. When the State has done its work in respect of education, the work is not all done. The responsibility lies with the Church to do its duty also. You have recognised this duty in the establishment of this Sunday school. If the youth of this great country, as it will become, are to grow up a sober, steady, God-fearing people, loyal to their country, and to their Queen as the impersonation of their country's greatness and glory, reverend in their habit of mind, and therefore courteous in their manners—for, says the poet laureate—

Manners are not idle; but the fruit
Of loyal nature, and of noble mind;

—in a word, if they are to be deserving of the name of gentleman—and I use the word not as the heritage of a class, or the monopoly of the rich, but in its truest and widest sense—the gentleman;—you must lay deep the foundations of the character in early life by instilling into the child a reverence for God; a reverence for the divine law; a reverence for those authorities and institutions which are a part of the divine and providential governance of human society.

And if I may, without offence say, in conclusion, one word of advice to those who are to be the teachers in this institution, I would beg of them to teach the children to be Christians, rather than Presbyterians; to instil deeply into their minds those great page 8 divine truths upon which we all agree in theory, however we may vary in their expression, or however deficient we may be in their practice, and would leave to a later period of life the assertion of those peculiar points of doctrine in which the various sects of Christendom differ. And if, my friends, by your exertions, you shall so influence the mind and heart of a single child, that he may, by your teaching, grow up a good man and a good citizen; righteous and honest in his dealings, for the pure love of right and honesty; sober and industrious in his habits; respectful and courteous to others as he would that others should be respectful and courteous to him—you will have done that which a secular State education can never do without you: you will not only have conferred a great and lasting benefit on your country by helping to elevate the character of its citizens; but you will have been the means of bestowing an inestimable blessing upon the child himself for here and for hereafter. And I venture to believe that, though it may never be known on earth, you will not fail of that reward which was promised, by the lips of Him who spake as man never yet spake, to those who should give, if it were but a cup of water, to one of those his little ones.

Printed at the Press Office, Cashel Street, Christchurch