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now examine whether religion affords any just grounds for the contempt or ridicule of the scoffer. They must be either the doctrines or the precepts of religion, which he endeavours to hold forth to contempt.
The doctrines of the Christian religion are rational
All that it has revealed concerning the perfections of God, his moral government and laws, the destination of man, and the rewards and punishments of a future state, is perfectly consonant to the most enlightened reason. In some articles which 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 le 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 doctrine 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 adınitted 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. Ile 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 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,
* 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.
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 stifies 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 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 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 day 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