CREEDS AND DEEDS
Erroneous View— Right conduct does not seem to depend much upon formulas of belief. There are good and bad men in all religions. The great thing, after all, is to do what is right.
The Truth—The great thing, you say, is to do what is right, whether you believe what is right or not. But suppose for a moment that one of those things you are obliged to do is to accept certain articles of belief, or, in other words, to accept a creed—what then? Can you be indifferent to all creeds ? There is no Christian creed that does not profess to embody a divine revelation—an expression of God's own mind. The mind of God revealed to those whom He has created can not he a matter of indifference. What if one of those creeds should be a correct exponent of God's revelation: could you then be indifferent to all creeds, including the right one?
True it is that creeds differ and are mutually contradictory, and that consequently they can not all be right. Indeed there is only one true creed, as there is only one true revelation; but, though creeds are so different, we are not left without a clue to the right one. But it is not our purpose just here to point to the path leading to the one true creed—that we have done elsewhere. (See "The Church of Christ—How to find it" and ''Indifferentism." I will post these two subjects in the next couple of days) We are anxious to come to close quarters with our indifferentist friend as regards his criterion of right and wrong actions. You say that our one great concern should be to do the right thing, whether we believe the right thing or not. Evidently, then, you regard some acts as good, others as bad; and in this we agree with you. But why do you so regard them? You answer that every one has an instinctive feeling that some things are morally right, others morally wrong. But I reply that we are rational beings, and if we can plead no more than instinct we do not act according to reason. You will rejoin that it is rational to judge of things by their results, and that the results of the practice of the virtues of honesty, sobriety, and chastity are happiness for the individual and general order and prosperity for society. In other words, the moral virtues work well. But that is not morality—it is only expediency. At any rate, you will say, there is a certain charm about right actions—which proves them to be right, and perhaps constitutes them such. Again, this is not the morally right, but the esthetically pleasing. Neither the expedient nor the esthetically pleasant answers to that conception of the morally good with which every child of Adam is gifted, and which it is the object of scientific ethics to bring into the foreground of consciousness. Morality implies a law, in the strictest sense of the term—a law which impresses itself on the conscience and tells me the right that must be done and the wrong that must be avoided.
If there is no strict law back of the dictates of conscience there should be no sense of guilt when one does wrong; but it is precisely because before acting I feel the force of a just command, which is the expression and application of a law of morality, that after acting I feel guilty for having gone counter to it. On the other hand, I know of no command to do what is merely expedient or merely pleasing. It may be desirable to do the one or the other, but I don't feel bound to do either. But where it is a question of the morally right or the morally wrong, I feel that I am bound by the moral law to do the one and avoid the other. This is the only rational interpretation of that universal impression which men have of a right and a wrong in their actions. There is a law, and a law that binds, beneath the dictates of conscience. But if we once admit a law of morality we must also admit that it has its ultimate origin in that which is the source of all law— the will of God. All obligation in the moral order must be traced to the ultimate source of all authority, for authority is implied in the very notion of law. If I can not trace a reputed obligation back to the ultimate source of authority, I may feel it pleasant or profitable to do the thing in question, but I can not feel bound to do it.
What we have said applies to moral action in general; but it is plain, of course, that when God's will is manifested by means of positive divine laws, as in the case of the Ten Commandments and the divine ordinances promulgated by Christianity, the connection between human obligation and the divine will is more directly evident than in the case of the natural law impressed by the divine will upon the human reason.
But the connection thus established between morality and the will of God has important consequences. My notions of morality, or my application of the principles of morality, will vary according to what I know or believe about God and His law. They will vary, in a word, according to my creed. I can not, therefore, be indifferent to creeds. If my creed is a deistic one I reject many truths revealed by God. which I am not at liberty to do. If I have a creed which is Christian, but faultily Christian,—if, for instance, it takes a lax view of the marriage tie and permits divorce,—it opens the door to countless moral evils. If it is a creed that does not recognize a principle of authority to which one may look for an absolute decision in matters of faith and morals, it throws its followers back upon their untutored private judgment in matters of the first moment. If it is a creed (or a church) whose general spirit breeds an indifference to the religious education of the young, it is destined to reap a harvest of misdeeds beyond the reckoning of men and angels. Illustrations might be multiplied indefinitely, but they will easily occur to yourself if you once get seriously thinking on the matter. But even though you observed the whole of God's law externally, the interior motive, which is the very soul of the moral act, would be a matter of the first importance. God as our Creator and sovereign Lord has a right to control our thoughts and feelings, which are the springs of outward action, for our whole being belongs to Him. But the effect of indifference to beliefs is to shut God out of our thoughts in reference to the morality of our actions and to fall back upon motives of pleasure or utility, —which is nothing short of denying the interior allegiance we owe to our Maker.
A parody of Cardinal Manning's on a couplet of Alexander Pope's may serve as a rallying-point for future thoughts on the subject of deeds and creeds. The poet had written:
"For forms and creeds let graceless zealots fight:
He can't be wrong whose life is in the right."
Manning retorts as follows:
"For charts and compasses let graceless zealots fight:
He can't go wrong who steers the ship aright."