The Plea of the Indifferentist.—Religious creeds are a matter of personal preference, and a search for the right creed, if there is any such thing, can not be expected of the average man. On the other hand we all have a grasp of certain principles of morality which are the mainstay of society. With these society may well rest contented.
Our Answer.—We have dealt in another article with the watchword of the indifferentist, "Deeds, not creeds," and have endeavored to show its absurdity. In the present article we aim at being more helpful to the indifferentist by enabling him, if possible, to realize the gravity of the situation in which he finds himself, and by furnishing him with a positive clue to the discovery of the truth.
The indifferentist believes, or tries to make himself believe, that the motto ''Deeds, not creeds" is the embodiment of common sense. Let us sift it a little. Ask a man of this way of thinking what deeds he means. Ask him to draw up a list of those deeds which he thus sets over against the creeds, that is to say, of the acts and habits which he deems morally right. Ask a second and a third, and so on indefinitely, to do the same. You will find that no two such lists will in all points tally, and some will be much longer than others. One man's list of honest deeds will include no more than honesty, sobriety, obedience to the laws (when they can not be evaded), and a care of one's family, with perhaps a bit of philanthropy and public spirit thrown in by way of giving a sort of halo to the rest. These are only the deeds and duties without which even pagan society could not get on at all, and without which the individual would come to grief.
Another vaunter of deeds as against creeds would add a few more virtues to his list. His moral sense is of a finer sort, and hence he adds to the catalogue meekness and patience, charity in words (mere thoughts would be under no moral restraint), and chastity, as a matter of outward behavior.
Another would add sincerity (an approach to humility) and a restraint upon thoughts and desires. One would like to know, in dealing with such persons, where the line is to be drawn between good and bad deeds. Why should one man's list of virtues be longer than another's? Have they any criterion by which to discover whether any one of them is complete and exhaustive? And then, what is their criterion for deciding whether any deed deserves to be called virtuous? Most men who are indifferent to positive creeds are quite at sea on these points. As to prayer and worship, well—they may have some vague notion of the fitness and reasonableness of the thing, but they would seldom think of entering it on a list of moral duties.
And then the very notion of duty and obligation which underlies all their ideas about virtue and vice—upon what is it based ? The basis is either a rational or an irrational one. If it is a rational one it will resolve itself into a judgment that certain things are right and ought to be done, whilst other things are wrong and ought to be avoided; in other words, into a dictate of conscience. But conscience must be based upon a belief (implied at least) that there is some higher power than our own wills, one to which our wills are subject; for there can be no duty or obligation unless it be imposed by a will which has a sovereign right over ours the will of a personal Deity. Any other basis for the notion of duty is irrational. You may see the expediency or the utility of doing certain things which you consider right, but that it is a duty for you to do them —that you must do them—you would regard as absurd unless you admitted a higher will to which yours was subject.
The existence of this sovereign power is frequently a matter of doubt, or even of denial, to the one who is a vaunter of deeds and a contemner of creeds. Formally or virtually he is an atheist or an agnostic. What, or how much, do you believe, we would ask the indifferentist, concerning the existence of a God who has brought you into being and has a claim on your obedience ? And what bearing do you suppose obedience to God has upon one 's eternal destiny? You have drawn up a brief list of essential duties: what if obedience to God requires you to extend the list? Whatever be the present state of your mind regarding that subject, the question is one of tremendous importance to you, personally. Your eternal destiny must far outweigh any possible amount of difficulty involved in a search for light on the subject. If the duty of knowing and serving God were but a fancy engendered in weak and ignorant minds it might be set aside as undeserving of attention. But if the brightest and noblest minds in history have accepted it and acted upon it, it surely possesses a special claim to your attention. Even though it had no such high recommendation, the fact that eternity is at stake should be enough to induce you to make an honest inquiry after the truth. Such an inquiry need not be a hopeless one. It is not a matter of traveling into some unknown region of speculation in which there are no landmarks for the guidance of the traveler. These nineteen hundred years a power has been at work in this world which has wrought for the ennobling, elevating, and purifying of the human soul, and which bears upon it the seal of its divine origin. Impeded in its action, at times, by the human instruments which it must employ, nevertheless, by reason of the divine element in it, it has won its way to human hearts and has gradually embraced the greater part of the world within the sphere of its influence. Christianity is the first subject to be studied by any one who is setting about a search for the truth—the more so as Christianity has sprung from and is the perfecting of the oldest, the most consistent, and the noblest tradition of religious teaching in the history of the world—that of the chosen people of God. Tolle et lege-- take up the book of the Gospels—as the angel said to St. Augustine, whose giant intellect was for a time held captive by one of the false philosophies of his day, read with the unbiased mind of an Augustine, and pray with but one tenth of his fervor, and sooner or later light will succeed darkness.
We have been thinking in the above passage of the type of indifferentist who makes light of all religious knowledge, who knows nothing and cares to know nothing about God, revelation, or immortality. But there is one of another type who is something of a Christian and who respects the authority of Christ and the Bible. Bred in childhood to the teaching of one or other of the Christian sects, he has allowed the cares or the pleasures of the world to draw him away from religious worship—or, it may be, he attends religious services intermittently, though he brings to them a set of Christian or half- Christian beliefs of his own making. In either case, when the claims of the one true religion are urged, he takes refuge behind a sort of half-conviction that, after all, it matters little which of the creeds he adopts provided his deeds are in harmony with the Christian code—whatever that may mean to him. An indifferentist of this class should be reminded that the first and foremost of those good deeds of which he makes so much account is to believe—and believe in its totality—what Christ has revealed, and what He has enjoined upon all to believe. That revelation is one and unchangeable, and constitutes a definite body of teachings, placed in the keeping of a Church --one only Church-- which is "the pillar and ground of truth" (1 Tim. iii. 15) —against which "the gates of hell shall not prevail" (Matt. xvi. 18)—to whose teachers the promise was given; ''Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world" (Matt, xxviii. 20).
That this definite teaching of a visible Church must be accepted by all is plain from the words of Christ: "Go ye into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be condemned" (Mark xvi. 15, 16), or, as the Protestant Authorized Version has it, ** shall be damned." If a rejection of Christ's teaching deserves eternal damnation, an indifference to all creeds must deserve the same penalty. Therefore an effort to find the one true creed is an imperative duty. But, replies the indifferentist, as things are to-day how is it possible to discover the true faith of Christ? Must I examine the claims of seven hundred sects, each asserting its own exclusive possession of the truth? The difficulty you fear is, in the first place, exaggerated. Yet, even if it were much greater than it is, the importance of the object of your quest would far outweigh the difficulty involved in searching for it. It is a matter of obtaining the "pearl of great price" and of providing for eternity. If you were given seven hundred keys of all shapes, and were told that one of them, by a certain number of turns to right and left, would unlock the door of an apartment containing untold treasures, all of which would be yours if you lighted on the right key and discovered how to use it, would you not spend whole days--nay, even months and years—searching for the key and applying it to the lock? Most men would; and not unreasonably, for the treasure would be worth the trouble.
But the search for the truth is not of so intricate a nature. It is true that but one of the seven hundred keys is the right one, but there are ways of simplifying the search. There are tests that may be applied, by means of which you may in a short time eliminate all but the right key. By the use of these tests countless inquirers have, as a matter of fact, been led to the truth. Some have applied to the various Christian sects the historical test, or that of origin: the Church that could trace its history back to the apostles must have superior claims to those churches that have existed only a few centuries, and which were repudiated and cut off from communion by the Church which has undoubtedly existed since the time of the apostles.
Others have applied the test of universality: the Church of Christ must be a world-Church—it must be confined to no single country or race, and above all must not derive all its authority from the secular government of any particular country.
But there is one test which is perhaps the most obvious and the most easily applied—the test of unity—and to this we would ask the special attention of the indifferentist. It needs but little reflection to see that unity should be one of the chief attributes of the Church to which Christ committed the preaching of the word. In the first place, the doctrine He commanded it to preach was to be one and unchanged forever. This, from the nature of the case, should be obvious. No one, not even an angel from heaven, St. Paul admonishes us, was authorized to change it. It is no less clear that perfect agreement should subsist among those who accepted the teaching of the apostles; otherwise it would have been useless for one only doctrine to have been preached to all.
Moreover, oneness of doctrine was to be rooted in oneness of authority—the divinely constituted teaching authority of the Church. Our Lord did not simply exhort His followers to unity of doctrine, but gave them a body of accredited teachers, who were to go forth "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you'' (Matt, xxviii. 20). ''He that believeth [your teaching] and is baptized, shall be saved; he that believeth not, shall be condemned" (Mark xvi. 16). "He that heareth you, heareth Me; he that despiseth you, despiseth Me" (Luke X. 16). "If he will not hear the Church let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican" (Matt, xviii. 17). Such is the visible teaching authority established by Christ. This, and no other, can be the source of all right doctrine, and consequently of all unity of doctrine in the Church.
In any church professing to be Christian and yet not teaching with authority, unity of doctrine is left to chance, or rather is exposed to certain disruption. The Jews said of Our Lord that He spoke as one having authority, and not as the Scribes and the Pharisees; and a consciousness of divine authority showed itself in every word He uttered. The same note of authority rang through the discourse of St. Peter on the day of Pentecost. No less authoritative were the utterances of the Apostle of the Gentiles. And if there is a Church today that perpetuates the mission of Christ and His apostles, its teaching must bear the same stamp of authority. Oneness of doctrine and oneness of authority are, therefore, a characteristic note of the true Church of Christ.
Take unity as your criterion, we would say to the indifferentist, and you will find that the problem of finding the one Church of Christ is rendered comparatively easy. Your seven hundred religions will at once resolve themselves into two classes: those that possess unity and those that do not. In the first class you will find the Catholic Church, and no other. (Catholic and Roman Catholic are the same.) The unity of the Catholic Church is so conspicuous as to force itself on the notice and excite the jealousy of its enemies. Every single Catholic in a grand total of nearly three hundred million believes the same doctrine as every other member of the Church. True, in matters that have not been defined as of faith considerable latitude is permitted to personal opinion, and on these points there has been divergence of opinion ; but, on the other hand, there is a tribunal which is competent to decide, in the first place, what is of faith and what is not, and, in the second place, which of the parties to a controversy is in the right. The unity of the Church consists, then, in the universal acceptance of what is taught as of faith and the readiness to accept the decision of the Church in matters of controversy. With human minds constituted as they are this is the most perfect unity conceivable-- and, indeed, there is no parallel to it in human society.
Outside the Catholic Church we find an enormous number of sects all bearing the name of Christian. Taken as a body, and to a great extent taken singly, these Christian sects are confessedly and notoriously disunited. Their one common ground is their opposition to the only Church that possesses unity. Even the Bible, which has always been their one rule of faith, has fallen from its once high place in their estimation and is gradually sinking to the rank of an ordinary history containing a large admixture of the mythical. All the world knows that many of the leading lights of Protestantism deal with the Bible in a purely rationalistic spirit. But even when the Bible ruled supreme it was the very fountain-source of disunion, for it was on the alleged authority of the Bible that every new dissenting sect based its separation from the older ones.
This tendency to disunion has been the most striking trait of Protestantism from the beginning. Not even the potent influence of such characters as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli could reduce their followers to unity. Seeing, however, that their teachings must be backed by an assertion of authority, they ruled the conduct and consciences of their subjects with a rod of iron. But private judgmentwas not to be stifled. Who is this Luther? Who Calvin? Who Zwingli? Are we not as good interpreters of the
Bible as they? So queried their followers; and hence the numerous divisions that sprang up even during the infancy of Protestantism. **It is of great importance," wrote Calvin to Melanchthon, ''that the divisions that subsist among us should not be known to future ages; for nothing can be more ridiculous than that we, who have been compelled to make a separation from the whole world, should have agreed so ill among ourselves from the beginning of the Reformation." Melanchthon wrote in answer that "the Elbe, with all its waters, could not furnish tears enough to weep over the miseries of the distracted Reformation. '' Beza makes moan in a similar strain. "Our people," he says, "are carried away by every wind of doctrine. If you know what their religion is today, you can not tell what it may be tomorrow.
There is not a single point which is not held by some of them as an article of faith and by others rejected as an impiety." "Each individual is a free and fully authorized judge of all those who wish to instruct him, and each one is taught by God alone."
The divisions of Protestantism have not been healed by time. It is no paradox to say that disintegration is the law of its being. Temporary union is the result of the accidents of time and place. Where every one may think as he pleases there may be as many religions as there are heads to invent them.We have endeavored to furnish the indifferentist a clue that may lead him out of the labyrinth into which he has been driven by the sight of the multitudinous sects whose claims are so confused and so confusing. The clue we offer him is neither new nor untried, for it has been used by many in the same situation. Moreover, testimony of the strongest kind has been rendered in its favor by a class of thinkers who, though not embracing the truth themselves, have lost nothing of their logical acumen. It is a well-known position of many unbelievers of the skeptical and critical schools that if Christianity were true, there would be no choice for them between Roman Catholicism and any other form of Christianity. Unity and consistency are naturally looked for by logical minds in the teaching of a God-Man and His true representatives. The strength of this testimony lies in the fact of its coming from so independent a source. For any one who is convinced by the above reasoning there is but one practical course open: he should seek instruction in Catholic doctrine.