St. Augustine and the Doctrine of Life

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[The Present. Nov 15, 1843, p. 88.]

My dear friend:—Nothing could better meet my ideas than the prospectus of your new periodical. A vehicle to address the thoughtful, whether conservative or reformer, with all considerations, whether for conservatism or reform, is the want of the time. Most periodicals are so exclusively the one or the other, and so partially patronised, that the conservative has no chance to hear of reform, nor the reformer of conservatism. A multitude of persons will be struck with surprise that a Baptist should appear among your contributors. But it is strictly according to Baptist principles, to appear in the movement party. The apparently most intolerant of sects, by a superficial intolerance, preserves the innermost principle of liberty in most vigorous life. This I shall at some time endeavor to show forth to your readers from metaphysical ground, if you will permit me space so to do in your paper. But just now, I wish to speak of two books. The one the time honored production of a saint of the fourth century;<ref>St. Augustine's Confessions. Boston: E:. P. Peabody. 1842.</ref> the other a child of yesterday—the first essay of a young author, unknown to fame.<ref>Doctrine of Life, with some of its Theological Applications. Boston: B. H. Greene. 1843. This work; in the advertising bill, is ascribed to Wm. B. Greene, a very young man, who has within a year or two resigned a Lieutenantcy in the U. S. Army, to devote himself to theological studies.</ref> They have both been published in Boston, within six months of each other; and I have seen the publication of the first defended by the same writer who attacks the last. But this circumstance, bringing them into juxtaposition in my mind, I saw they were of identical import; while that the one should be rejected and the other accepted by the same person, was to me a sign of the times, not unexpressive of the iron relation of the two works to each other, and seemed to reveal to me why it was that the young philosopher found himself constrained to speak to the same public which had demanded the old saint; and say the same thing in so different a way. "The Christian Examiner," and "the Boston Christian World," are directly opposed to each other on the point of the propriety of the publication of St. Augustine's confessions. The Christian Examiner says he "can see no good reason, for in the first place translating these confessions, or in the second place, republishing them in this country," for the theology is mere rhapsody," and "as it is plain that he did not know his own meaning, it is little likely his readers will be greatly enlightened." The Boston Christian World, on the other hand, ascribes this opposition to a "unitarianism," "resolved not to be humbugged," and confesses itself "superstitious enough to believe, that a man who has ruled the highest and strongest minds of our race for fourteen hundred years, must have had something more in his head than 'a mass of mingled confusion and error.'" Now, as you know, both these periodicals are Unitarian. The Christian Examiner has long been the organ of the sect, and preserved great consistency in its opposition to orthodoxy. The Christian World, according to its own account of itself; is an outbreak of the Unitarians of Boston, conscious to themselves that they are dying of inanition; a cry for living water. Unitarianism seems to have proved itself to them to be but a wave of the great ocean of life, that, having broken against the barriers of time, must perforce return, with a murmur, to accumulate waters from a greater depth, whereby to sweep away the rocky ramparts of sin, and let in eternal truth. The Christian World is the murmur of the returning wave.

The defender of the publication of St. Augustine gives no reason for his reverence but presumption. He does not say one word of what is in the book. And from his want of apprehension of the "Doctrine of Life," I am justified in thinking he sees no Idea in it, any more than the Christian Examiner does. This is one of the series of contradictions which characterises the Boston Christian World, and must necessarily do so, considering its origin and position with respect to Unitarianism.

Let me explain myself. Unitarianism, at the time of its appearance, was a moral reaction against formalism and formality, the caput mortuum of the Puritan churches. A distinguished Baptist preacher, who has now been dead a quarter of a century, used to say to his brethren who complained of the decline of religious enthusiasm in the people, "there is no want of the pleadings of the Holy Spirit with men, but it is your great theological wooden spoon that has become ragged and worn out, and will not serve any longer to dispense the milk of the word." The same person predicted, in a conversation of which there is a living ear-witness, the whole Unitarian movement, and looked upon it as a necessary, if not a salutary agitation for the purposes of purification.

Unitarianism declared war against bigotry, and others of those vices which are always ready to sprout from human nature, even if it is improved as the garden of the Lord; but it did not take its stand in God manifest in Jesus. It threw itself upon the " dignity of human nature," as it said; and although it professed to recognize in Jesus the model man, even in some instances, a man supernaturally endowed, both intellectually and spiritually; yet, by making mere manifestation, which is necessarily finite, its Saviour, Unitarians deprived themselves of the fountain of life which is eternal. But if God could delegate the power of redemption, it would prove man was not his own image. A creature who may depend on another creature, though he were the highest archangel, for his salvation, has not surely so dignified a nature as one who is inevitably lost, unless the Highest Good condescends to come into personal relation with him; as those Christians, who are called Calvanists, hold that He does, in the person of Jesus Christ.

But you will remind me that salvation, if it is not moral perfection, can only be known in that form;<ref>La perfectionnement morale expresses, what I believe, more exactly, than moral perfection. I am no "Perfectionist," but believe in a constant advance into perfection, after the secret of life is learnt.</ref> and that no inconsiderable degree; of moral beauty has indisputably adorned the professors of this heresy. To admit this, is not inconsistent with my view. The first professors in any sect, are wont to be saint-like. It has not been in vain for the race, as a race, that the word, without which nothing was made that is made, was in the world from the beginning; and especially, that in the fulness of time it was made flesh and dwelt among us, and that some men have seen its glory, as of the only begotten of the Father. There was always natural religion, which revealed religion has acknowledged. St. Peter declared at the very moment he rose, to utter for the first time the gospel of glad tidings, that "God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that heareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him;" and St. Paul, on Mars' Hill, began with recognising the Grecian poet's discovery, that men are the offspring of the Lord; and subsequently he reasoned with the Romans, on the ground of the law being written in the hearts of Gentiles, "that knew not the law," except by this nature of theirs. And Christianity has progressively raised the tone and character of natural religion. Although the individual may not reap the benefit of the death and resurrection of Christ, unless he take the significance of these events into himself personally, yet by the life of Jesus, and works "not done in a corner," a principle of progress has entered into the race, as such. The darkest region of Christendom, the most heretical limb of the Christian church which is visible, holds elements of a greater moral perfection undoubtedly, than were held by either the Jews or Gentiles, to whom the apostles spoke. Thus the modern Jews, who have made a systematic opposition to the facts and ideas of Christianity, do, in spite of themselves betray its influence in their life. There is no more striking proof of this, than the correspondence of Mendelsohn with Lavater, on the Christian religion, which in this regard as well as some others, is richly worth study. The Unitarians of this late century, therefore, in turning to "the dignity of human nature," as; their primal resource, and in making Jesus, apprehended by the reasonable understanding and aesthetic heart, the expression of that dignity, were not without great means for the production of virtue. Many a form of excellence has arisen from their ranks, and many a righteous work has been performed by them, bearing witness that not in vain hath Christ lived for them, even if in vain he died and has risen for them. Thousands who sit where they may drink from the eternal fountain, should veil their faces for shame, that so many who have known Jesus only as a picture of virtue, have exhibited more of his likeness, and devoted themselves with more fidelity to follow in his footsteps, than they do, who have the words of the gospel of eternal life upon their lips.

Yet, in paying this tribute to the moral worth, and a certain religious fidelity to duty, which have illustrated the lives of many Unitarians, I must in sincerity add, that these manifestations have generally been made in those happy temperaments which involve no great temptations to the evils of which they were innocent, and where the depth and energy of human passions have not been called forth. In looking over the biographies of Unitarian saints, do we not find them the gentle beings, the flowers of humanity, rather than those master spirits whose lives are to themselves a mystery, not to be solved by analogies of nature and art, and whose destiny it is to mould the ages in which they live, and commence new eras in the life of humanity, either by great crimes or great reforms. A certain feeble and sometimes a dilettanti air pervades the purest of these imitators of Jesus of Nazareth, who in a majority of cases, die young. Why do I feel that a man would rather be of the worst type of humanity, provided only he could be energetic and original, than the most angel-like of these beautiful children of Christian circumstance, who bloom to die?

Yet I would not seem ungracious to these fair forms, in which I take delight, as the most beautiful of the beauties of nature. I have in my thoughts one, perhaps the greatest who has ever worn the Name of Unitarian. Endowed by nature with wonderful sensibility to beauty of every kind and degree, and separated to his profession, in early life, by all the restraining circumstances of a strict New England education, never removed at all from the surveillance of a public, uncompromising in its requisitions of moral severity upon all devoted to its religious interests, this good seed, well planted, under good rains of a certain sort of adversity, as well as a fair proportion of sunshine, was the fairest, richest product of the natural religion of his age. By means of this religion, which, not without an humble reverence he called Christian, he protested well and nobly against the corruptions of the prevailing church strategy, and the dry technicality of the theological teaching. More especially was he mighty against the social evils which he saw were out of harmony with the theory of government that he all but worshipped; and which is the growth of a far higher theology, and a far deeper insight into human nature's wants, than, with all his fidelity to the law written on his heart, and all his beautiful talents, he appreciated. But have not you, as well as I, felt the note of melancholy that bases even the triumphant organ-flow of his style; as from his voice it ever resounded to the ear? The more strictly spiritual were the subjects of his eloquence, the more was this evident. But I do not fail to discern it on his happiest occasions, even when Emancipation, or the Freedom of the press, the interests of education, or the elevation of the poor, were his themes. Unitarianism was not to him a fountain of life. The best he ever said of it was, that he hoped it was a road to the fountain. He never pretended that he had learnt precisely what that power is, which should change the selfishness of the heart into love, although he asserted so eloquently, that as sure as God lives, such a power Jesus personally possessed; and, under certain conditions, which, however, he did not clearly define, all men might gain it from him. Though he seems, to those who stand in my position, to be shading from men, by his method, the light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world; yet it is affecting to see how careful he is of the lantern which should contain this light, and how intensely conscious of the darkness that needs its beams. He has done with great fidelity an important work in his day, and did not pass away without giving many signs of being intrinsically superior to the system which he supported, one of which was, that he always declared it if the best he knew—yet a very meagre and lifeless statement of the Christian religion, quite inadequate to have stirred into existence the stormy chaos that Christendom has hitherto been, or manifestly inadequate to make that chaos an ordered world. The apotheosis of Satan, in his Essay on Milton, is an undying record of his manliness. It reveals depths in his nature, which, had he ever sunk into and explored, with the same fidelity with which he observed social existence and inferred therefrom his code of ethics, would have shown him exactly what those needs are, that cry for a salvation which only the absolute sovereignty of God, and no derived power can bestow, on created intelligence.

But if Unitarianism is inadequate to the growth of other than flowers planted in their native soil, under auspicious circumstances, still less may it change the rocks and sands of human nature into children of Abraham. Of conversions of great sinners it has never boasted. Could it even take the stand of St. Charles Borremeo in I Promessi Sposi? Nor has it made any eras in society. To many of the Unitarian laity the history of crusades and martyrdoms is a sort of fairy tale and Arabian Night's Entertainment. The conversion of the world to Christianity by such means as the apostles used, they cannot make a pressing concern of their own; and their religious conscience is quite quiet, if they do not grossly break the ten commandments, but duly honor, with kind expressions of regard, and a comfortable life in this world, the gentlemanly students, who cultivate their minds to give them on Sundays fine intellectual entertainments, or at least, to do their best to make them entertainments. Am I uncharitable in saying this? I re-echo it, from the more earnest of their own clergymen and among other organs of the sect, from this very "Christian World," which sees and confesses that under "the logic and philosophy" in which St. Augustine "is unfortunate enough to differ" from them, there was a progress of the inner life of man; while, with themselves, there is only progress in the beauty of manifestation. They would call on St. Augustine and others, against whom Unitarianism makes a general and "dogged" protest, to new water their roots. Whatever in the orthodox methods is most like their own, and farthest removed from the orthodox principle, they would adopt. Some go so far, they would confess, with St. Augustine. But old Unitarianism protests against this; she sees in a moment it will not do. She could accept in a considerable degree the Abbot books, finding them the poorest part of herself drest up in the poorest part of orthodoxy. But St. Augustine is not swallowable. This controversy of the separating bodies of Unitarians I rejoice to see. There is still another branch, separating on another side towards pure naturalism, which sees the impertinence of the Unitarian's Saviour, and has no glimpse of the Calvinist's. They will enlighten each other on their respective deficiencies; and thus be all led to the wicket-gate that stands forever at the head of the way. Both bodies of separatists seize on St. Augustine; one, because he is old and has ruled; the other, because they believe him to be a great work of nature. But to take his leading Idea is to leave the Unitarian method entirely, as will appear from a little consideration. I will, with your leave, inquire what is St. Augustine's doctrine of life, and why it is the medicament of the times, and how far the scientific statement of the same doctrine in Mr. Greene's book, is in harmony with it. Before doing this, however, let me say one word of the objections made to the latter by the "Christian World." In the first notice, (May 13th) there was merely shown a want of apprehension of any meaning. In a synopsis of the book, not a single idea it contained was touched; and in the second notice, the reviewer, who seems to be a very old man, extremely desirous of not blighting the budding promise of his "young friend" the author, gently admonishes him of the crudeness of his views, and his fatalistic reasoning, by submitting, that "if a tree was endowed with consciousness," it could set up for Mr. Greene's man. Perhaps Mr. Greene will accept this, and ask him what significance he attributes to the word consciousness, that he supposes it involves nothing essential, to endow a tree with consciousness? If a tree were a man, spiritually, doubtless all would be true of it that is true of a man spiritually. With such want of apprehension of Mr. Greene's analysis, it is not strange that the reviewer cannot follow his theological applications.

But in the June number of the Democratic Review there is hardly a less surprising misapprehension of Mr. Greene's statement of consciousness. The Reviewer makes objection to the "Doctrine of Life" as a scheme of fatalism; and contrasts it unfavorably with that of the Rev. O. A. Brownson, as advanced in his letter to Dr. Channing, "on the mediatorial life of Jesus." But if he had observed how distinctly Mr. Greene states on pages 7 and 8, that if to every action, "influences are present," so "that which is influenced is also present," as part of the motive, he would not have brought the illustration of the man and horse before the stack of hay, as a parallel case. According to Mr. Greene's definition of consciousness, a man cannot be merely in the presence of a stack of hay; for the man himself is a part of his own objective. It is by this fact that a man is not equally the subject of the stack of hay that a horse is. Where then is the fatalism?

The reviewer points out, as the difference of Mr. Brownson's from Mr. Greene's statements, that the latter makes life a struggle between two forces, the former a product of two forces. In saying that Mr. Greene makes life a struggle between two forces, he neutralizes the other declaration, that his system is a system of fatalism. Mr. Greene must thank him for pointing out the difference of the statements which many persons confound. It is very important. Mr. Greene states that life is constantly created by God, and manifested in man, by the struggle of the subjective and objective. Mr. Brownson appears to believe that life is created by these two forces, which indeed is a very different doctrine, and leads to consequences heavenwide. I should like to enlarge on this point, but will waive it for the present.