The Divinity School Address, Rev. Arthur G. Severance

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  In this resplendent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the   breath of life.  The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is   spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of   birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and   the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome   shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost   spiritual rays. Under them one seems like a young child, and the huge   globe one's toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and   prepares one's eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature   was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been   freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which   the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of   explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this   world, in which our senses converse.

     But when the mind opens, and reveals the laws which traverse the   universe, and makes things what they are, then shrinks the world at   once into a mere illustration and fable of the mind. What am I� and   What is� asks the human spirit with a curiosity  new-kindles, but   never to be quenched.

   The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection   of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out   of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus in our   souls there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire.   One who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. One who does a mean   deed, is by the action contracted. If one is at heart just, then in so   far is one God; the safety of God, the majesty of God do enter into us   with justice.

    See how this rapid intrinsic energy worketh everywhere, righting   wrongs, correcting appearances, and bringing up facts to a harmony   with thoughts. Its operation in life, though slow to the senses, is,   at last, as sure as the soul. By it a person is made the Providence to   oneself, dispensing good to one's goodness, and evil to one's sin.   Character is always known. See again the perfection of the law as it   applies itself to the affections and becomes the law of society. As we   are, so we associate. The good, by affinity, seek the good; the vile,   by affinity, the vile. Thus of their own volition, souls proceed into   heaven, into hell.

   These facts have always suggested to us the sublime creed, that the   world is not the product of manifold power, but of one will, of one   mind; and that one mind is everywhere active, in each ray of the star,   in each wavelet of the pool; and whatever opposes that will, is   everywhere  balked and baffled, because things are made so, and not   otherwise. Good is positive. Evil is merely privative, not absolute;   it is like cold, which is the privation of heat. All evil is so much   death or nonentity. Benevolence is absolute and real. So much   benevolence as we have, so much life have we. For all things proceed   out of this same spirit, which is differently named love, justice,   temperance, in its different applications, just as the ocean receives   different names on the several shores which it washes. Whilst one   seeks good ends, one is strong by the whole strength of nature. In so   far as we stray from these ends, we bereave ourselves of power; our   being shrinks out of all remote channels, and we become less and less,   until absolute badness is death.

   The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment   which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest   happiness. This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude   of humanity, It makes us illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows   itself. It corrects the capital mistake of the infant human, who seeks   to be great by following the great, and hopes to derive advantages   from another,-by showing the fountain of all good to be in each of us,   and that we, equally with everyone else, are an inlet into the deeps   of Reason.  When one says "I should;" when love warms one, when one   chooses, warned from on high, the good and great deed, then deep   melodies wander through our soul from Supreme Wisdom.

   Then we can worship, and be enlarged by our worship; for we can never   go beyond this sentiment. In the sublimest flights of the soul,   righteousness is never surmounted, love is never outgrown. 

   This sentiment lies at the foundation of society, and successively   creates all forms of worship. Humanity fallen into superstition, into   sensuality, is never quite without the vision of the moral sentiment.   The expressions of this sentiment affect us more than all other   compositions. This thought dwelled always deepest in the minds of   people in the devout and contemplative East; not alone in palestine,   where it reached its purest expression, but in Egypt, in Persia, in   India, in China. Europe has always owed to oriental genius, its divine   impulses. And the unique impression of Jesus upon humanity, whose name   is not so much written as ploughed into the history of this world, is   proof of the subtle virtue of this infusion.

    Meantime, whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day,   before every person, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is   guarded by one stern condition; this namely; it is an intuition. It   cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not   instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.   What someone announces, I must find true in me or wholly reject. The   doctrine of the divine nature being forgotten, a sickness infects and   dwarfs the constitution. Once the person was all, now we are an   appendage, a nuisance. And because the indwelling Supreme Spirit   cannot wholly be got rid of, the doctrine of it suffers this   perversion, that the divine nature is attributed to one or two   persons, and denied to all the rest, and denied with fury. The   doctrine of inspiration is lost; the base doctrine of the majority of   voices, usurps the place of the doctrine of the soul. Miracles,   prophecy, poetry, the ideal life, the holy life, exist as ancient   history merely; they are not in the belief, nor in the aspirations of   society; but when suggested, seem ridiculous.

    These general views find abundant illustration in the history of   religion, and especially in the history of the Christian Church. As   the Cultus, or established worship of the civilized world, it has   great historical interest for us. I shall endeavor to discharge my   duty to you, on this occasion, by pointing out two errors in its   administration, which daily appear more gross from the point of view   we have just now taken.

   Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open   eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished   with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all   history, he estimated the greatness of humanity. One man was true to   what is in you and me. He saw that God Incarnates himself in humanity   and ever more goes forth anew to take possession of our world. He   said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion,"I am divine. Through me, God   acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when   thou thinkest as I now think." But what a distortion did his doctrine   and memory suffer in the same, in the next, in the following ages. The   understanding caught this high chant from the poet's lips, and said,   in the next age, "This was Jehovah come down out of Heaven. I will   kill you if you say he was a man." The idioms of this language, and   the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and   churches are not built on his principles, but on his metaphors.   Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teachings of Greece and of   Egypt, before. He spoke of miracles; for he felt that life was a   miracle, and all that one does. But the word miracle, as pronounced by   Christian Churches, gives a false impression; it is monster. It is not   one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.

   He felt respect for Moses and the prophets; but no unfit tenderness   at postponing their initial revelations, to the hour that we are now;   to the eternal revelation of the heart. Thus was he a true man. Having   seen that the law in us is commanding, he would not suffer it to be   commanded. Boldly, with hand, and heart, and life, he declared it was   God. Thus is he, I think, the only soul in history who has appreciated   the worth of humanity.

    1. In this point of view we become very sensible of the first defect   of historical Christianity. Historical Christianity has fallen into   the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it   appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine   of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the   ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the "   person" of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites everyone to   expand to the circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but   those of spontaneous love. But by this eastern monarchy of a   Christianity, which indolence and fear have built, the friend of   humanity is made the injurer of humanity. The manner in which his name   is surrounded with expressions, which were once sallies of admiration   and love, but are now petrified into official titles, kills all   generous sympathy and liking. All who hear me, feel, that the language   that describes Christ to Europe and America, is not the style of   friendship and enthusiasm to a good and noble heart, but is   appropriated and formal- paints a demigod, as the Orientals or the   Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo. One would rather be a "pagan,    suckled in a creed outworn", than to be defrauded of our human right   in coming into nature, and finding not names and places, not land and   professions, but even virtue and truth foreclosed and monopolized. You   shall not even be a human. You shall not own the world; you shall not   dare, and live after the infinite Law that is in you, and in company   with the infinite Beauty which heaven and earth reflect to you in all   lovely forms; but you must subordinate your nature to Christ's nature;   you must accept our interpretation; and take his portrait as the   vulgar draw it.

          That is always best which gives me to myself. The sublime   is excited in me by the great stoical doctrine, obey thyself. That   which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me,   makes me a wart and a wen. There is no longer a necessary reason for   my being.

    The divine bards are the friends of my virtue, of my intellect, of   my strength. They admonish me, that the gleams which flash across my   mind are not mine, but God's; that they had the like, and were not   disobedient to the heavenly vision. So I love them. Noble provocations   go out from them, inviting me to resist evil, to subdue the world; and   to Be. And thus by his holy thoughts, Jesus serves us, and thus only.   To aim to convert someone by miracles is a profanation of the soul. A   true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as always, to be made by the   reception of beautiful sentiments. It is a low benefit to give me   something; it is a high benefit to enable me to do somewhat of myself.   The time is coming when everyone will see, that the gift of Food to   the soul is not a vaunting, overpowering, excluding sanctity, but a   sweet, natural goodness, a goodness like thine and mine, and that so   invites thine and mine to be and to grow.

   2. The second defect of the traditionary and limited way of using the   mind of Christ is a consequence of the first; this namely; that the   Moral Nature, that Law of laws, whose revelations introduce   greatness-yea, God himself, into the open soul, is not explored as the   fountain of the established teaching in society. We have come to speak   of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were   dead. The injury to faith throttles the preacher; and the goodliest of   institutions becomes an uncertain and inarticulate voice.

   It is very certain that it is the effect of conversation with the   beauty of the soul, to beget a desire and need to impart to others the   same knowledge and love. If utterance is denied, the thought lies like   a burden on us. Always the seer is a sayer. Somehow our dream is told;   somehow we publish it with solemn joy: sometimes with pencil on   canvas; sometimes with chisel on stone; sometimes in towers and aisles   of granite, our souls worship is builded; sometimes in anthems of   indefinite music; but clearest and most permanent, in words.

    Courage, piety, love, wisdom, can teach; and everyone can open their   doors to these angels, and they can bring us the gift of tongues. But   the man who aims to speak a as books enable, as synods use, as the   fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let them hush.

   From the views I have already expressed, you will infer the sad   conviction, which I share, I believe, with numbers, of the universal   decay and now almost death of faith in society. The soul is not   preached. The Church seems to totter to its fall, almost all life   extinct. On this occasion, any complaisance would be criminal, which   told you, whose hope and commission it is to preach the faith of   Christ, that the faith of Christ is preached.

     The test of the true faith, certainly, should be its power to charm   and command the soul, as the laws of nature control the activity of   the hands- so commanding that we find pleasure and honor in obeying.   The faith should blend with the light of rising and setting suns, with   the flying cloud, the singing bird, and the breath of flowers. But now   the priest's sabbath has lost the splendor of nature; it is unlovely;   we are glad when it is done. We can make, we do make even sitting in   our pews, a far better, holier, sweeter, sabbath for ourselves.

    I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to   church no more.  People go, thought I, where they have to go, or no   one would have entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was   falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely   spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and   then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the   snow. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the   people his life- life passed through the fire of thought.

    It seemed strange that the people should come to church. It seemed   as if their houses were very unentertaining, that they should prefer   this thoughtless clamoring. The prayers and even the dogmas of our   church, are like the Zodiac of Denderah, and the astronomical   monuments of the Hindus, wholly insulated from anything now existent   in the life and business of the people. They mark the height to which   the waters once rose.

   With whatever exception, it is still true, that tradition   characterizes the preaching of this country; that it comes out of   memory and not out of the soul; that it aims at what is usual, and not   at what is necessary and eternal; that thus historical Christianity   destroys the power of preaching, by withdrawing it from the   exploration of the moral nature of humanity, where the sublime is,   where are the resources of astonishment and power. The pulpit in   losing sight of this Law, loses its reason, and gropes after it knows   not what. And for want of this culture, the soul of the community is   sick and faithless.

    I think none of us can go with our thoughts about us, into one of   our churches, without feeling, that what hold the public worship had   on us is gone, or going. It has lost its grasp on the affection of the   good, and the fear of the bad. I heard a devout person, who prized the   sabbath, say in bitterness of heart,"on Sundays, it seems wicked to go   to church."

   My friends, in these two errors, I think, I find the causes of a   decaying church and a wasting unbelief. And what greater calamity can   fall upon a nation, than the loss of worship. Then all things go to   decay. Genius leaves the temple, to haunt the senate, or the market   place. Literature becomes frivolous. Science is cold. The eye of youth   is not lighted by hope of other worlds, and age is without honor.

    And now my brothers and sisters, you will ask, what in these   desponding days can be done by us?  The remedy is already declared in   the ground of our complaint of the church. We have contrasted the   church with the soul. In the soul, then, let the redemption be sought.   The stationariness of religion; the assumption that the age of   inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed; the fear of degrading   the character of Jesus by representing him as human; indicate with   sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. It is the office   of a true preacher to show us that God is, not was; that God speaks,   not spoke. The true Christianity ,- a faith like Christ's in the   infinitude of humanity-is lost. None believe in the soul of a human,   but only in some man or person old and departed.

    And now let us do what we can to rekindle the smoldering, nigh   quenched fire on the altar. I confess, all attempts to project and   establish a Cultus with new rites and forms, seem to me in vain. Faith   makes us and not we it, and faith makes its own forms. All attempts to   contrive a system are as cold as the new worship introduced by the   French to the Goddess of Reason- today, pasteboard and filigree, and   ending tomorrow in madness and murder. Rather let the breath of new   life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For, if   once you are alive, you shall find they shall become pliant and new.

   The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and   ever more, soul. A whole popedom of forms, one pulsation of virtue can   uplift and vivify. Two inestimable advantages Christianity has given   us; first; the Sabbath, the jubilee of the whole world; whose light   dawns welcome alike into the closet of the philosopher, into the   garret of toil, and into prison cells, and everywhere suggests, even   to the vile, the dignity of spiritual being.

    Let it stand forevermore, a temple, which new love, new faith, new   sight shall restore to more than its first splendor to mankind. And   secondly, the institution of preaching, � the speech of man to men, �   essentially the most flexible of all organs, of all forms. What   hinders that now, everywhere, in pulpits, in lecture-rooms, in houses,   in fields, wherever the invitation of men or your own occasions lead   you, you speak the very truth, as your life and conscience teach it,   and cheer the waiting, fainting hearts of men with new hope and new   revelation?

        I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished   the souls of those eastern men, and chiefly of those Hebrews, and   through their lips spoke oracles of all time, shall speak in the West   also. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that   have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical   integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the   intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow  so far those   shining laws, that he or she shall see them come full circle; shall   see their roundness complete grace; shall see the world to be the   mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation   with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one   thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.

Amen 

Event type
Worship Service