From: New Views . . . (1836)
Author: O. A. Brownson
Published: James Munroe and Company 1836 Boston



  RELIGION is natural to man and he ceases to be man the moment he ceases to be religious.

  This position is sustained by what we are conscious of in ourselves and by the universal history of mankind.

  Man has a capacity for religion, faculties which are useless without it, and wants which God alone can satisfy. Accordingly wherever he is, in whatever age or country, he has—with a few individual exceptions easily accounted for—some sort of religious notions and some form of religious worship.

  But it is only religion, as distinguished from religions institutions, that is natural to man. The religious sentiment is universal, permanent, and indestructible; religious institutions depend on transient causes, and vary in different countries and epochs.

  As distinguished from religious institutions, religion is the Conception, or Sentiment, of the Holy, that which makes us think of something as Reverend, and prompts us to revere it. It is that indefinable something within us which gives a meaning to the words Venerable and Awful, which makes us linger around the Sacred and the Time­ hallowed, the graves of heroes or of nations,—which leads us to launch away upon the boundless expanse, or plunge into the mysterious depths of Being, and which, from the very ground of our nature, like the Seraphim of the prophet, is for-ever crying out, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

  Religious institutions are the forms with which man clothes his religious sentiment, the answer he gives to the question, What is the Holy? Were he a stationary being, or could he take in the whole of truth at a single glance, the answer once given would be always satisfactory, the institution once adopted would be universal, unchangeable, and eternal. But neither is the fact. Man’s starting point is the low valley, but he is continually—with slow and toilsome effort it may be—ascending the sides of the mountain to more favorable positions, from which his eye may sweep a broader horizon of truth. He begins in ignorance, but he is ever growing in knowledge.

  In our ignorance, when we have seen but little of truth, and seen that little but dimly, we identify the Holy with the merely Terrible, the Powerful, the Inscrutable, the Useful, or the Beautiful; and we adopt as its symbols, the Thunder and Lightning, Winds and Rain, Ocean and Storm, majestic River or placid Lake, shady Grove or winding Brook, the Animal, the Bow or Spear by means of which we are fed, clothed, and protected ; but as Experience rolls back the darkness, which made all around us appear huge and spectral, purges and extends our vision, these become inadequate representatives of our religious ideas ; they fail to shadow forth the Holy to our understandings; and we leave them and rise to that which appears to be free from their limited and evanescent nature, to that which is Unlimited, All-sufficient, and Unfailing.

  We are creatures of growth; it is, therefore, impossible that all our institutions should not be mutable and transitory. We are forever discovering new fields of truth, and every new discovery requires a new institution, or the modification of an old one. We might as well demand that the sciences of physiology, chemistry, and astronomy should wear eternally the same form, as that religious institutions should be unchangeable, and that those which satisfied our fathers should always satisfy us.

  All things change their forms. Literature, Art, Science, Governments, change under the very eye of the spectator. Religious institutions are subject to the same universal law. Like the individuals of our race, they pass away and leave us to deck their tombs, or in our despair, to exclaim that we will lie down in the grave with them. But as the race itself does not die, as new generations crowd upon the departing to supply their places, so does the reproductive energy of religion survive all mutations of forms, and so do new institutions arise to gladden us with their youth and freshness, to carry us farther onward in our progress, and upward nearer to That which “is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever.”

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