CHAPIN

NICODEMUS: THE SEEKER AFTER RELIGION


BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Edwin Hubbell Chapin, Universalist divine, was born in Union Village, Washington County, N. Y., in 1814. He began his very successful ministry 1837 in Richmond, Va., subsequently he preached in Charlestown, Mass., from which place he was called to the pastorate of the Fourth Universalist Church in New York City. His preaching attracted large congregations, and he was generally regarded as one of the greatest preachers of this country. He spoke from a manuscript, using no gesture, but his magnetic personality never failed to drive his message home. He published numerous volumes of sermons and lectures. He died in 1880.

Lewis O. Brastow, D. D.


CHAPIN

1814-1880

NICODEMUS: THE SEEKER AFTER RELIGION

There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night.—John iii., 1, 2.

Altho we have but few glimpses of Nicodemus in the gospels, he is a personage of peculiar interest. A Pharisee, and a member of the great Jewish senate, or Sanhedrin, he shows us that the influence of Christ was not limited to the poor and the obscure; but that, while His words and works awoke enmity and fear among the higher classes, they struck, in the breasts of some of these, a holier chord.

It may not be certain that Nicodemus ever openly confest Christ; yet, in this chapter, he appears in the attitude of a disciple, and we find him defending Jesus before the Sanhedrin, and assisting at His burial. Still, unless the last-mentioned act be considered as such, we do not discover, in his conduct, that public and decisive acknowledgment which the Savior required; we do not behold the frank avowal of Peter, or the intrepidity of Paul. There is an air of caution and of timidity about him. He carefully feels the ground of innovation, before he lets go the establishment; and, indeed, he appears to have taken no step by which he forfeited his caste or his office. It is difficult, too, to discover the precise purpose of this visit to Jesus. Perhaps he sought the interview from mixed motives. A religious earnestness, kindled by the teachings and the character of Christ, may have blended with speculative curiosity, and even with the throbbings of political ambition. His coming by night, too, may have indicated timidity, or he may have chosen that season as the best time for quiet and uninterrupted discourse. But, whatever may have been his motives, the position in which we find him shows, I repeat, that the power of Christ's ministry was felt, not only by the excitable multitude, but by the more thoughtful and devout of the Jewish people.

Nicodemus, however, presents a peculiar interest, not only because he exhibits the influence of Jesus upon the higher orders of his nation, but because he appears as a seeker after religion, and as one personally interested in its vital truths. His interview with the Savior gives occasion for one of the most important passages in the New Testament. The conversation of Christ, in this instance, is not uttered in general principles and accommodated to the multitude, but it is directed to an intelligent and inquiring spirit, in the calm privacy of the night-time laying bare its very depths, and craving the application of religion to its own peculiar wants. To be sure, Nicodemus did not profess this want, but commenced the conversation with the language of respect, and with suggestion of more general inquiry. But He who "knew what was in man," had already penetrated the folds of the ruler's breast, and saw the real need that had sent him; so, putting by all compliments, and all secondary issues, He struck at once the conscious chord that throbbed there, and exclaimed: "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God!" These words must have filled Nicodemus with surprize, both from their sudden heart-searchingness, and as addressing to him a term which was usually applied to men of very different condition. For the phrase, "new birth," was a customary one to express the change through which the Gentile passed in becoming a Jew. But it was indeed a strange doctrine that he, a son of Abraham, a Pharisee, a ruler, must be born again, before he could be fit for the Messiah's kingdom. Therefore, really or affectedly, he misunderstood the Savior's words, and gave to a phrase, plain enough when applied to a heathen, the most gross and literal interpretation. But Christ reiterated the solemn truth assuring him that an inward change, and an outward profession, a regeneration of the affections and the will, and a renunciation of pride and fear, by the symbol of baptism—a new birth of water and of the Spirit—was essential to true discipleship. And thus, stripping away all the reliances of formal righteousness, and all the supports of birth and position, in reply to the earnest question of Nicodemus: "How can these things be?" the great Teacher proceeded to utter some of the sublimest doctrines of the gospel.

As I have already said, whether Nicodemus became an avowed follower of Jesus, or not, is uncertain; but we know that the truths which he then heard are of everlasting importance, have a personal application to every man, and appeal to wants in our own souls, which are as real and as deep as those of the ruler of old.

But while thus Nicodemus exhibits a need of our common humanity, he especially represents a class who may be called "seekers after religion," either as being unsettled and inquiring in their spirits, or as resting upon something which is not religion, but only, perhaps, a tendency toward it—they are seekers after it, as not having actually found it. In other words, for this class, religion has its meaning and its pressure; they think about it, and they feel its claims, yet they do not thoroughly and mentally know it; or, like Nicodemus, they rest upon some substitute. Some of these positions I propose now to illustrate.

I observe, then, in the first place, that some seek religion in rituals and sacraments. The tendency of the human mind, as to matters of faith and devotion, has always been to complicate rather than to simplify, and to associate these with set forms and symbols. In all ages, men have shrunk from naked communion with God, from the solitude of an intense spirituality, and have conducted transactions with the Invisible, through the mediation of ceremony. But that which, at first, was an expression of the individual soul, has grown into a fixed and consecrated rite. Gestures and modes of worship, suggested by the occasion, have been repeated in usage, and grown venerable with age, until they have become identified with religion itself. They have been exalted into mystic vehicles of grace, have been considered as possessing virtue in themselves, and as constituting an awful paraphernalia, through which, alone, God will deign to communicate with man, and through which man may even propitiate and move God. Christianity has not escaped this tendency; and, even now, there are many with whom the sacraments are something more than expressive signs and holy suggestions, and with whom the position of an altar, the shape of a vestment, and the form of a church are among the essentials of religion. With such, baptism speaks, not merely to the eye of an inward washing, but it is of itself a regenerative process. In their view, the communion bread is not simply a representation of the broken body of the Redeemer; but is itself so sacred, so identical with that body, that they must receive it by a special posture, and upon a particular part of the hand. As a matter of course, to such, religion must appear eminently conservative and retrospective; the genius of the established and the past, rather than of the reformatory and the future. Cherishing the minutest fibers of these ancient rites, they chiefly venerate the men who authenticate them, and the soil out of which they grow. With them, the fluent spirit of religion became organized, and fixt into a form, with fast-days and feast-days, with miter and cassock, and a lineal priesthood, ages ago.

It cannot be said that this method is entirely unfounded. It has its justification in human nature, if not elsewhere. There are those who can find peace only in the arms of an hereditary faith: who can feel the inspiration of worship only among forms that have kindled worship in others for a thousand years: with whose earliest thoughts and dearest memories is entwined a ritual and an established church, so that personal affection and household sanctity, as well as religious feeling, demand that every great act of life—of joy or sorrow—should be consecrated, by the familiar sacrament. For that church, too, their fathers have died in darker times, and beneath its chancels, sainted mothers molder into dust. All, too, that can exalt the ideal, or wake the pulses of eloquent emotion, is connected with such a church. To them it opens a traditional perspective, the grandest in all history. Behind its altars, sweep the vestments of centuries of priests, and rises the incense of centuries of prayer. In its stony niches, stand rows of saints, who have made human life sublime, and who, through all the passing ages, look down upon the turmoil of that life with the calm beatitude of heaven; while its flushed windows still keep the blood-stain of its own martyrs, plashed against it ere yet it had become an anchored fact, and while it tossed upon the stormy waves of persecution. I can understand, then, how an imaginative and reverential mind can find the truest religious life only in connection with ritual and sacrament.

I can understand, moreover, the reaction in this direction, which is taking place at the present day.

It is the retreat of the religious sentiments from the despotism of an imperious reason. It is the counter-protest of loyal affections against what is deemed an anarchical tendency. It is the clinging of men's sympathies to the concrete, alarmed by the irreverent and analytic methods of science. It is the retirement of faith and devotion to those cloistered sanctities that shut out the noise of the populace, and the diversions of the street. It is the reluctance of taste and imagination at our new and varnished Protestantism, with its bare walls, its cold services, and its angular churches, of which one wing, perchance, rests upon a market, and the other upon a dram-shop. Especially would I not deny the profound spiritual life, the self-sacrifice, and the beautiful charities which have consisted at all times, and which consist in the present time, with this ritual and sacramental form of religion.

But when men claim that this alone is the genuine form—that these are essentials of the only true Church—then I deny that claim. If it fills some wants of our nature, it repudiates others equally authentic. If one class of minds find peace only under its consecrated shadows, others find no satisfaction but in the discipline of a spontaneous devotion, and the exercise of an individual reason. If it suffices for men like Borromeo or Newman, it does not suffice for men like George Fox or Channing; and the religion of these is as evident, in their simple spirituality, as those in their mystic symbolism. When it sneers at the Puritan, then I must vindicate that rugged independence of soul, that faithfulness of the individual conscience, that sense of the divine sovereignty, which could kneel at no man's altar, and to God alone; which sacrificed all things for the right, but yielded not a hair to the wrong; which could find no medicine for the spirit in sacraments, but only in the solitude of the inner life; and which has, under God, wrought out this noble consummation of modern times, whereby others may plant their vine of ritual under the broad heaven of toleration, and have liberty to sneer. When the ritualist deprecates the ultraism and irreverence of the anti-formalist, I must urge the tendency of his own principles to mummery and absolutism. And, finally, when he falls back upon tradition, I must fall back upon the Bible. The spirit of the New Testament is not that of rituals or sacraments; and the universal sentiments of the Old are not. The prophet Isaiah, who exclaims: "Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; your new moons, and your appointed feasts, my soul hateth.... Wash you, make you clean ... cease to do evil, learn to do well!" joins with the apostle, who says that Christ "blotted out the handwriting of ordinances ... nailing it to his cross," and that no man should judge us in meat or drink, or times, or seasons. And surely, there is no argument for forms or places in those Divine Words, which declare that "God is a Spirit, and they who worship him, must worship him in spirit and in truth."

We cannot deny, then, that pure religion may consist with rituals and sacraments; we cannot deny that it may exist without these. But I insist upon this point: that the sacrament, the ritual, is not, itself, religion. It may be a beautiful sign—it may be a quick suggestion—it may be a medium of spiritual influence; but, alone, it cannot take the place of inward, personal piety, of right affections and an obedient will. No punctilious form can stand substitute for a vigilant conscience; no posture of devotion can supply the place of living deeds; no ascetic mortification can atone for guilt; no auricular confession can speak, instead of the breathings of repentance, in the ear of God, and out from the depths of the solitary soul. He who relies upon these forms, and finds sanctity only in them, may be sincere, may be serious about religion, but as yet he is only a seeker; and, speaking to his heart with all-penetrating meaning, comes to him the decree: "Ye must be born again."

Again; there is a class who seek religion in philosophy. They believe in God by a course of reasoning. They believe in immortality, because it is a conclusion riveted in their minds by the iron links of induction. They pray, or not, according as it seems logical to do so. They would be good, because goodness is useful.

But every proposition upon which they act, must first be strained through the alembic of the intellect, and must stand out in the clear definition of science. They verify and build up their religion with callipers and dissecting-knife. It is a system of digestion and pneumatology. They find an organ for veneration, and another for conscientiousness, and therefore conclude that religion has a legitimate place in the harmony of human character. But all must be calm and balanced. They dare not trust the feelings and give but little scope to enthusiasm. Sometimes, indeed, they rise to eloquence in expatiating upon the truths of natural theology, and of "the elder Scripture"; tho they believe in Christ also, because He seems well authenticated as an historical fact. In short, such men are religious like Cicero, or Seneca, with some modification from modern science and from the Sermon on the Mount.

Now there is a close alliance between true philosophy and true religion. That the New Testament is eminently free from fanaticism, and makes no appeal to mere credulity, any one will see who examines. That it is rational and sober, constitutes one of its great internal evidences. A Christian philosopher is no anomaly, but a beautiful expression of the essential harmony of all truth. Knowledge and piety burn and brighten with an undivided flame. Revelation and science are continually interpreting one another, while every day the material universe is unfolding a more spiritual significance, and indicating its subservience to a spiritual end. But, after all, in order to be religious, it is not necessary that a man should be a philosopher, and it is certain that often he is a philosopher without being religious. Religion and philosophy may coalesce, but they are two different spheres. Philosophy is out-looking and speculative; religion is inner and vital. In the scheme of philosophy, religion is reasoned out as a consequence, and adopted as an appendage to character. In the true scheme, it is the central germ of our being, the controlling force of life. The religion of philosophy consists of right views of things, and a prudential schooling of the passions. True religion consists in a right state of the affections, and a renunciation of self. In the one case, religion may "play round the head, but come not near the heart"; in the other, it breaks up the great deep of conscience, and pours an intense light upon the springs of motive. Philosophy contains the idea of intellectual rectitude; religion, of moral obedience. Philosophy speaks of virtue; religion, of holiness. Philosophy rests upon development; religion requires regeneration. In short, we make an every-day distinction between the two which is far more significant than any verbal contrast. It is the one, rather than the other, that we apply, in the profounder experiences of our moral nature, in the consciousness of sin and in the overwhelming calamities of life. The one pours a purifying, healing, uplifting power into the homes of human suffering, and into the hearts of the ignorant and the poor, that the other has not to bestow. Philosophy is well under all circumstances; but it is not the most inner element of our humanity. Religion, in its humility, penitence, and faith—at the foot of the cross, and by the open sepulcher—rejoices in a direct and practical vision, to which philosophy, with its encyclopedia and telescope, cannot attain.

Under this head, too, may be ranked a class of men who, tho they may not be exactly philosophers, fall into the same conception of religion, as a matter of the intellect—as the possession of correct views—rather than a profound moral life. They estimate men according to what they believe, and attribute the same sanctity to the creed that others attribute to the ritual. And as religion, in their conception of it, consists in a series of correct opinions, the great work should be an endeavor to make men think right. So the pulpit should be an arsenal of controversial forces, incessantly playing upon the ramparts of dogmatic error, with the artillery of dogmatic truth, and forever hammering the same doctrinal monotony upon the anvils of logic and of textual interpretation. They are satisfied if some favorite tenet is proved to a demonstration, and go forth rejoicing in the superiority of their "views," without asking if saving love has melted and transfigured their own hearts, or whether personal sin may not canker in their souls, if hereditary guilt is not there. Now, it is true that great principles lie at the foundation of all practical life, and the more elevated and clear our views, the more effectual are the motives to holiness and love.

But it matters little to what pole of doctrine the intellect swings, if the heart hangs unpenetrated and untouched. It matters little to what opinions in theology the pulpit has made converts, if all its mighty truths have not heaved the moral nature of the hearer—if it has not shot into the individual soul, like an arrow, the keen conviction: "I must be born again!"

Once again: there are those who seek religion in a routine of outward and commendable deeds—in mere morality. With such, the great sum of life is to be sober, chaste, humane; laying particular stress upon the business virtues, honesty, industry, and prudence. In their idea, that man is a religious man who is an upright dealer, an orderly citizen, a good neighbor, and a charitable giver. To be religious, means to do good, to keep your promises, and mind your own business. They tell us that benevolence is the richest offering, and that the truest worship is in the workshop and the field—that a man prays when he drives a nail or plows a furrow, and that he expresses the best thanksgiving when he enjoys what he has got, and is content if he gets no more.

Now, the world is not so bad that there is not a good deal of this kind of religion in it. It would be unjust to deny that many golden threads of integrity wind through the fabric of labor; that there is a strong nerve of rectitude holding together the transactions of daily life, and a wealth of spontaneous kindness enriching its darker and more terrible scenes.

But, after all, these easy sympathies, and these prudential virtues, lack the radicalness of true religion. Religion cannot exist without morality; but there is a formal morality which exists without religion. I say, a formal morality; for essential morality and essential religion are as inseparable as the sap and the fruit. Nor is morality a mere segment of religion. It is one-half of it. Nay, when we get at absolute definitions, the two terms may be used interchangeably; for then we consider religion presenting its earthly and social phase, and we consider morality with its axis turned heavenward. But, in the case of these outside virtues, which are so common, we behold only one-half of religion, and that is its earthly and social form; and even this lacks the root and sanction of true morality. For the difference between the morality of a religious man and that of another, consists in this: with the one, morality bears the sanction of an absolute law, and God is at its center. It is wrought out by discipline, and maintained at all cost. With the other, it is an affair of temperament, and education, and social position. He has received it as a custom, and adopted it as a policy; or he acts upon it as an impulse. With the one, it is a matter of profit and loss, or a fitful whim of sentiment. With the other, it is the voice of a divine oracle within, that must be obeyed; it is the consecrated method of duty, and the inspiration of prayer. Now, to say that it makes no difference about the motive of an act, so long as the act itself is good, indicates that very lack of right feeling and right perception, which confounds the formal morality of the world with religion. For, in the distinctions of the Christian system, the motive makes the deed good or bad; makes the two mites richer than all the rest of the money in the treasury; makes the man who hates his brother a murderer. The good action may bless others, but if I do not perform it from a right motive, it does not bless me; and the essential peculiarity of religion is, that it regards inward development, individual purity, personal holiness—so that one essential excellence of the good deed consists in its effect upon the agent—consists in the sinews which it lends to his moral power, and the quantity it adds to his spiritual life. When, from a right motive, with effort and sacrifice, I help a weak and poor man, I enrich my individual and spiritual being. If I bestow from a mere gush of feeling, I receive no permanent spiritual benefit; if from a bad motive, I impoverish my own heart. Acts, then, which appear the same thing in form, differ widely, considered in the religious bearings. There is the morality of impulse, the morality of selfishness, and the morality of principle, or religious morality. The motive of the first-named, we obey instantaneously, and it may do good, just as we draw our hands from the flame, and thereby obey a law of our physical nature, tho we act without any consideration of that law. A great deal of the morality in the world is of this kind.

It may do good, but has no reference to the law of rectitude. It is impulsive, and, therefore, does not indicate a steadfast virtue, or a deep religious life. For the very impulsiveness that leads to the gratification of the sympathies, leads to the gratification of the appetites, and thus we often find generous and benevolent characteristics mixed with vicious conduct. Then, as I have said, there is the morality of selfishness. In this instance, I may perform many good actions from sheer calculation of material profit. I may be benevolent, because it will increase my reputation for philanthropy. I may be honest, because "honesty is the best policy." But is this the highest, the religious sanction of morality? No; the morality of the religious man is the morality of principle. The motive in his case is not "I will," or "I had better," but "I ought." He recognizes morality as a law, impersonal, overmastering the dictates of mere self, and holding all impulses in subservience to the highest good. The morality of impulse is uncertain. The morality of policy is mean and selfish. The morality of religion is loyal, disinterested, self-sacrificing. It acts from faith in God, and with reference to God.

But another trait separates the religious from the merely formal moralist. It consists in the fact that with him, "morality," as we commonly employ the term, is not all. Piety has its place. His affections not only flow earthward, but turn heavenward. He not only loves his neighbor as himself, but he loves the Lord, his God. He not only visits the widows and the fatherless in their affliction, but he keeps himself unspotted from the world. With him, toil is prayer, and contentment is thanksgiving, because he infuses into them a spirit of devotion, which he has cultivated by more solitary and special acts. With him it is a good thing to live honestly, industriously, soberly; but all life is not outward, is not in traffic and labor, and meat and drink. There is an inward world, to which his eyes are often introverted—a world of spiritual experience, of great realities, and everlasting sanctions—a world behind the veil—a holy of holies in his soul, where rests the Shekinah of God's more immediate presence; yea, where he meets God face to face. And it is this that directs his public conduct. The orderly and beautiful method of his life is not the huddled chance-work of good impulses, is not the arithmetic of selfishness; but it is a serene and steady plan of being projected from the communion of the oratory, and the meditation of the closet.

Again, I say, let us not depreciate morality. Let us condemn that ostentatious piety which lifts up holy hands to God, but never stretches them out to help man; which anoints its head with the oil of sanctity, but will not defile its robes with the blood of the abused, or the contact of the guilty; which is loud in profession and poor in performance; which makes long prayers, but devours widow's houses. Let us condemn this, but remember that this is not real religion, only its form; as often, the kind deed, the honest method, is not true morality, only its form. Of both these departments of action let it be said: that these we have done, and not left the other undone. Let us recognize the perfect harmony, nay, the identity of religion and morality, in that One who came from the solitary conflict of the desert, to go about doing good, and who descended, from the night prayer on the mountain, to walk and calm the troubled waves of the sea.

But those who rest in a mere routine of kind and prudential deeds need the deeper life and the inner perception which detects the meaning and gives the sanction to those deeds. Such need the vital germ of morality—the changed heart, the new birth.

And as I have spoken of a subordinate yet somewhat distinct class who may be ranked under the general head of seekers after religion in philosophy, let me here briefly allude to some with whom religion is a matter of mere sentiment and good feeling. Such are easily moved by the great doctrines of the New Testament. They are affected by the sermon; they have gushes of devout emotion during the prayer. But with them, religion is not a deep and steady pulse of divine life. Prayer is not a protracted aspiration—is not a habit. They feel well towards God, because they consider Him a good-natured, complacent being; but they do not meditate upon the majesty of His nature, upon His justice, and His holiness.

From the doctrine of immortality they draw consolation, but not sanctity. They regard it as a good time coming, but it furnishes them with no personal and stringent applications for the present. They need a more solemn and penetrating vision; a profounder experience in the soul. They need to be born again.

Then, again, there are those who may be called amateurs in religion. That is they are curious about religious things. They like to speculate about it, to argue upon its doctrines and to broach or examine new theories. They go about from sect to sect, and from church to church, tasting what is novel in the reasoning, or pleasing in the manner of the preacher; in one place to-day to hear an orator; in another to-morrow to hear a latter-day saint; it is all the same thing to them. All they want with religion is entertainment and excitement. They are Athenians, ever seeking some new thing. They smack at a fresh heresy as if they were opening a box of figs, and are as delighted with a controversy, as a boy with a sham-fight. They have no fixt place in the Church universal. They are liberalists, without any serious convictions, and cosmopolites without any home affections. In fact, to them religion is a sham-fight—a matter of spectacle and zest—not a personal interest, or an inward life. They would seek Jesus by night, because they hope to learn something wonderful or new, and would be started to hear His solemn words tingling in their hearts: "Ye must be born again!"

Nay, my friends, would not these solemn words startle many of us? It may be, we have never made any inquiry concerning religion—have never even come to Jesus, as it were, by night. Such, with their barks of being drifting down the stream of time, have never guessed the meaning of their voyage, or reckoned their course; nay, perhaps they live as tho religion were a fable, as tho earth were our permanent abiding-place, and heaven a dream. If such there are, they have not even listened to the Savior's words. But there are others among us perhaps, who are interested in the subject of religion, who are in some way or another engaged in it; but who are restless seekers after it, rather than actual possessors of it; who are resting upon insufficient substitutes for it. And I ask, would not these words breaking forth from the lips of Jesus, startle us in our ritualism, our philosophy, our outside morality, our sentimentalism, or our mere curiosity? And do they not speak to us? Are they not as true now as when they struck upon the shivering ear of Nicodemus? Do they not make us feel as intensely our obligation and our religious wants, as he might have felt there, with the wind flitting by him as tho the Holy Spirit were touching him with its appeal, and with the calm gaze of the Savior looking into his heart? Do they not demand of us, resting here awhile from the cares and labors of the world, something more than mere conformity, or intellectual belief, or formal deeds? Do they not demand a new and better spirit, a personal apprehension of the religious life, a breaking up and regeneration of our moral nature, a change of heart?