The Foundations of Our Belief
Henry J. GoldingFrom Henry J. Golding, THE FOUNDATIONS OF OUR BELIEF, in The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Ethical Movement 1876-1926.
To read the story of the world of humanity by the sole light of a single body of writings, however nobly inspired, is to shut out "the many-splendored thing," to blind oneself to the vistas opening before the advancing spirit of man. Moreover, the assumption of divine authority for any set of dogmas exalts assent above inquiry, uniformity above uniqueness or subordinates growth to prescription. The closed mind is the headquarters and citadel of the spirit of persecution. Heresy it brands as impious. Dogma enthroned diminishes men. It distrusts their inherent possibilities and denies their right to moral autonomy. For an increasing number of religiously-minded people the traditional theology speaks a dead language--a language not meaningless but demanding reinterpretation. And its whole "economy of salvation" fades in the new perspectives. It haunts the independent inquirer with an air of spectral futility. He has discovered that essential religion is not ascript to special revelation, to unverifiable doctrines or to the sanctions of this or that system of supernatural rewards and punishments. The faith was not once for all "delivered." Religion is ever in the making; growth is its essence; it either develops or petrifies. Unless its vision answeringly heightens to man s knowledge and insight it ceases to constrain his adoration.
Ethical religion expresses that ardor of conviction with which men have realized that "revelation comes not from without but from within" and that in man himself are the living springs of moral energy. All the historic faiths have voiced human faith, hope, fear and longing. The Ethical Movement was born not of doubt but of faith. In no mood of intellectual and moral skepticism did it announce that the ideal of individual and social righteousness, wherein it saw the animating principle of all true religion, is independent of the competing orthodoxies in which the past had formulated its beliefs about men s nature and destiny. It kindled to the moral passion that glows in the noblest teachings of the great seers and teachers. It sought to purify and enlarge the spiritual heritage of mankind, not to belittle, still less to deny it. But it believed, as Spinoza says, that "religion is universal to the whole human race; wherever justice and charity have the force of law and ordinance, there is God's Kingdom." There, and nowhere else. Entire and decisive is the change of emphasis from correct theological belief to righteous living, from external authority to the sovereignty of conscience.
Ethical religion, then, roots in reality--in the greatest of all realities. For it springs from that aspiration to exalt life which has given birth to all the world has known of spiritual heroism, sublime self-sacrifice, quenchless faith and consecrating love. it grows out of the same soil in which the great religions took their rise. The "revelations" of the past are phases, aspects of the one human revelation, of the questing spirit of man, that element which moves him, very faintly at first, but with more imperious urgency as reverence deepens, to self-transcendence. It forbids him to rest on any achievement. It deepens his sense of responsibility for himself and others, challenges him to enlist in the service of ideals, to the subordination of lower aims, and to transfigure his life by making it instrumental in its degree to the cause of truth, wisdom and righteousness. Ethical religion affirms that what man has worshipped as divine is manifested in and through man himself. It speaks in this divining, creative impulse towards perfection. It is the source of his power to conceive ever nobler ideals and to strive, amid whatever error and confusion, through doubt and failure, to remold his life so that it might express them less imperfectly. In the moral conflicts begotten by his effort thus to embody them he suffers the birth pangs of a nobler order.
All things in the world, it has been said, are ruled by force or right, by force till right be ready. Ethical religion summons men themselves to usher in the reign of right. For trust in supernatural providence wanes as human providence waxes, and as the conviction strengthens that on man himself devolves the shaping of his destiny. Man must be the savior of men. It becomes ever more manifest how intimately interwoven are our lives, and that the moral ideal of right, which claims allegiance as the inmost law of our being, proclaims how insunderable are the spiritual threads that bind us to our fellows. In a profounder sense than men had ever fathomed we are members one of another. That fact yields the master law of our existence. Implicitly it contains the whole of ethics. No men can attain to his full stature alone; his highest good is a common good, which is not lessened but is enriched by being shared; for it consists in the effort to liberate and exalt life in all. Though it be true that "every man has himself for task and problem," ethical religion holds he can best redeem himself, not by centering his will on the task of his private salvation, but by renouncing egoism, and finding self-fulfillment through self-surrender, in the attempt to raise others to moral freedom. The man who has truly come to himself has come home to humanity.
Ethical religion claims for all men freedom for growth. It challenges every authority that would fetter the human spirit, arraigns every form of power, ecclesiastical, political, social, economic or other that defaces the divine in man. The supreme task of mankind is so to transfigure human relations in the light of a widening knowledge and deeper love of the right that society shall be no longer the expression of conflicting egoisms, but shall be organized for unfolding the spiritual life of all its members. To lift men's eyes and turn their will toward that vision is the purpose of the Ethical Movement.
This document is part of a larger document, Understanding Ethical Religion edited by Howard B. Radest.
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