True Religion

[James 1:27]---'Pure religion.'

The learned and devout men to whose labor of love we owe the revised translation of the New Testament, while sometimes altering passages that might well have been left unaltered, have most unaccountably left untouched this verse, which, by reason of the changes in language, is no longer able to deliver its full message to the ordinary reader. As James wrote it, this verse is simply one of the grandest and most luminous in the whole Bible; but as it reads here it seems a mere repetition, weakening the force and obscuring the argument of the passage. More than all, it seems to be utterly inconsistent not only with the teaching of Christ and the other Apostles, but with that of James himself.

No passage in the Bible has been more thoroughly misunderstood than this. Men, having read what Paul says of faith in Christ, repentance, newness of life, justification, and sanctification, finding their reason baffled by these mysteries, and their practice condemned by these Divine ideals, experience a feeling of relief when they open their Bible at James and read this verse. "See!" they cry. "Here is something like sense at last. Here is an Apostle who does not lose both himself and his readers in the cloudland of mysticism, but treads the solid earth, and gives us a rational and sensible definition of religion: "kindness and purity of life." Faith, repentance, justification are mere phantoms, born of the heated brain of Apostles whom much theology had made mad."

But this text does not determine what the nature of true religion is. It treats of the expression or manifestation of religion rather than of its spirit or principle. The persons addressed were Jewish converts to Christianity who seem to have been disposed to attach undue importance to the external forms and observances of religious worship, and, if not to introduce into Christianity something of the elaborateness and sensuous splendor of their former faith, at any rate to identify religion too much with the exact performance of its outward rites and ceremonies. The word translated 'religion' means more properly what we understand by the terms 'worship' and ritual'; and the idea of the writer is, that it is not ceremonial observances but kind words and gentle deeds---sympathy, charity, purity---which constitute the true Christian ritual; in other words, that the most genuine expression of religion is to be found, not in special forms and acts of devotion, in observances which are always more or less technical and conventional, and which vary with the particular conditions of time and place; but in those moral acts which are universal as the common nature of man, and unchanging as his relations to his brother man and to God.

But in thus contrasting an imperfect with a higher and truer expression of religion, the text does not give us any direct insight into what religion in itself essentially is. Morality is a better manifestation of the principle of religion than ceremonial observances, but it is not that principle itself, nor even an infallible sign of it. For while the text implies that there can be no religion without morality, it does not teach conversely that there can be no morality without religion. And in point of fact we know that the social and personal virtues here enumerated are not invariably the effects of religious principle.

What then, is the essence of religion itself? If morality is not religion, or even the infallible sign of its existence; if purity, charity, beneficence, integrity, if even a certain nobleness and elevation of character, though it may spring from a religious spirit, may also spring from a source far less profound, then the only way in which we can distinguish between them is by penetrating beneath the form, going deeper than the outward life, and ascertaining what the inward spirit or principle of that which we designate religion is. That which makes a man religious is some state, or attitude, or relation of his inner spiritual nature---what is sometimes called the 'state of his soul.' What, then, is that? Examinining my own consciousness---what is that by the presence or absence of which I can determine whether or not I am a religious man? Some make religion to consist essentially or mainly in feeling, while others make it to consist primarily in knowledge. In our relations to God, whether immediate, or through whatever means they begin and are carried on, there are certain feelings, emotions, aspirations, which are awakened within the devout heart; and, again, there are certain notions, ideas, doctrines, concerning God and Divine things which we form or accept as true. In which of these two kinds of experience does the essence of religion lie? Is it in either as distinguished from the other, or in a combination of the two? Is religion a thing of the head or of the heart? In order to be a religious man, is the indispensable thing soundness of creed, or depth and intensity of feeling---a correct system of doctrines, or a devout and ardent spirit? May we hold, on the one hand, that notwithstanding much error and inaccuracy of dogmatic belief, a man may still be a genuine Christian if the fire of devout and holy feeling burn within his breast; or, on the other hand, that, however cold, unimpassioned, unemotional a man's nature be, he must be regarded as a religious man if he knows and sincerely accepts all the articles of the Christian faith?

Now there are considerations, many a pertinent and fundamental points, which seem to be fatal to the assertion that the main or indispensable thing in religion is accuracy of theological opinions; or, in other words, that in its ultimate principle or essence, religion is a thing of knowledge. In the first place, it may be urged that religion must be a thing attainable by all, and therefore cannot, like knowledge, be dependent on gifts and acquirement accessible only to a few. All need it; none can be saved without it. Science and philosophy are noble things. Literary and artistic culture and refinement are most desirable attainments---dignifying and beautifying life and opening up to their possessors the springs of purest enjoyment. But they are not indispensable. It is possible to live and die without them, and there are thousands of men who must and do contrive to live tranquil, happy, and useful lives, to whom these blessings are but a name. But religion is something altogether different. It is no luxury or superfluity of life; it is itself the very life, the happiness, the salvation, of man, that without which existence is vanity and wretchedness, and death is darkness and horror, without which we cannot live, and dare not die. Its attainment cannot therefore be dependent on conditions which would render it threw monopoly of a learned and culture class, of acute or logical or philosophical minds. It must be a blessing not more accessible to these than to little children, to dull and feeble-minded and unlettered men.

Is the spirit of religion not where the little child breathes forth from stammering lips, at a mother's knee, its first prayer of wonder and awe and reverence to the great Father in Heaven? Yet need we ask, if this be religion, whether it is a religion that is independent of all theological lore? Is the essence of religion not where the weak, worn sufferer lies stretched on a bed of pain, incapable of the faintest approach to consecutive thought or intellectual effort, bereft of every other power save the power to love and pray, clinging with dying hands to the Christians cross of hope? Or, have we never witnessed the unmistakable influence of religion in the life of many a humble follower of Christ---the influence of a faith which he could neither define nor defend; yet which made him strong for duty and submissive in trial, which softened care and sweetened joy, shed an atmosphere of dignity around coarse toils and rude, unpolished ways, and lifted him by similar exchange with an infinite ideal above the narrow influences of a contracted sphere of life?

There is another thought pointing to the same conclusion. There is springing up in many devout minds the conviction that the principle of Christian fellowship cannot be an intellectual one, that that which makes Christians one must be something deeper and more comprehensive than agreement in a system of doctrines. Religion is eminently social. It is essentially the deepest bond of union between man and man. Whatever that be which makes a man a Christian, it should unite him to all Christians, to all good and religious men. No matter what our natural or required diversities, no matter what our deep hereditary distinctions, our individual or national genius and temperment, our age, or country, or class, our habits of thought and ways of looking at things, religion is that which should lift us above such distinctions, and bring us into perfect accord and unity of spirit.

At its first preaching Christianity broke upon a divided and distracted world---torn asunder by wars, broken up by sharp nationalities---in which the spirit of caste, of social and religious exclusiveness had struck deep root, and in which nation was severed from nation, class from class, and man from man, often by an intellectual and moral gulf which it seemed impossible to bridge over. And yet to all these discordant elements Christianity proclaimed itself the all-uniting principle. 'Ye are all one in Christ Jesus.' In Christ 'there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Jesus is all, and in all.' 'Believe in Jesus Christ, and in the deepest center of your spiritual being you will become one. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling.'

And still the announcement is the same. Christianity is the all-uniting element---that which has power to solve all distinctions, to heal all divisions, to bind together in loving fellowship minds of the most dissimilar constituents, to breathe harmony and peace over a distracted world. Open your spirit to its benign influence, and with every other Christian spirit you will see eye to eye, and feel heart to heart. But if this be so, it is obvious that the bond of union so comprehensive cannot be an intellectual one. The irresistible conviction is winning its way into all candid and tolerant minds that the essential spirit of religion may exist under wide theological divergences; and that though good men may differ, and differ greatly, in doctrinal forms of belief, there is something deeper which unites them. The essence of religion is something more universal than its creeds. And could we get at that something,---call it spiritual life, godliness, holiness, self-abnegation, surrender of the soul to God, or, better still, love and loyalty to Christ as the one only Redeemer and Lord of the Spirit,---could we pierce deeper than the notions of the understanding to that strange, sweet, all subduing temper and habit of spirit, that climate and atmosphere of heaven in a human breast, and not in the superficial distinctions which keep men apart.

Wherever in the heat of feeling, amid the weary strifes and rivalries of sects and churches, we are tempted to indulge the spirit of theological or ecclesiastical exclusiveness, or to feel for intellectual error the indignation and hostility that should be reserved for sin, there is one thought that may well bring us to a better mind. Let us recall to mind the good and holy men of different sects and churches who were with us and are now in the presence of Christ; and ask whether the points which divided them here, and about which, it may be, they contended and wrangled so hotly, can keep them asunder there, in that deeper diviner life into which they have entered. Let us think, too, if it be ours to join one day their blissful society, whether we shall carry with us much of our ecclesiastical partanships of our theological jealousies into the still, sweet rest of heaven. Travelers as are midst the mists and shadows of this life, it is not wonderful, perhaps, that in its dim and deceptive light we should sometimes mistake a friend for a foe, or turn away from a brother as if he were a stranger and a alien. But 'the night is far spent, the day is at hand'; not distant is the hour when the sun of our souls shall rise full-orb on our waiting eyes, and the mists shall disappear and the shadows shall flee away forever; and then---then at last, if not now, we shall recognize in every soul that has ever loved and lived for Christ, the face of a brother and friend.

IN CHRIST, timothy.