In these days, when theological creeds are waning and religious dogmatism has so largely spent its force, it would naturally appear liberal churches whose faith is simple, wholesome and attractive should be distinctively prosperous and aggressive. But, outwardly and numerically at least, such a consummation has not been realized. During the last two or three decades, while there has been a remarkable growth in the population of the country, the numerical increase of liberalism, as a system, has fallen relatively much behind. As a comparative factor in the collective religious whole, it seems to have relatively ebbed in a measure that is worthy of serious attention.
The causes which may be assigned for this apparently anomalous state of affairs are doubtless somewhat complex. But perhaps a discriminative study of present conditions, coupled with a simple outline of the historic forces which led to the rise and spread of a freer religion, especially in New England, may shed some light upon the problem and measurably aid in its interpretation. Is it not possible to locate with some degree of accuracy those commissions and omissions which are accountable for the lack of that vigor and of those wide-spread positive results which might have been logically expected?
Every progressive soul must warmly appreciate the high mission, beneficent influence, and past accomplishment of the liberal denominations. Since the early part of the century now just ended they have sweetened moral acidity, rationalized an imposed superstition, lightened a Puritanic austerity, and gladdened millions of beating hearts, not merely among their own adherents, but through their outward penetrative influences, which have softened the former rigidity of Christendom through and through.
In a broader sense of the term, liberalism includes many vital principles of the great Reformation in the sixteenth century, which were germinal in the humanizing of theology and ethics and in molding them more nearly into accord with the autonomy of the mind of man. But in this inquiry reference is limited to modern liberal ecclesiastical organizations, as distinguished from those known as Trinitarian and orthodox, in the United States. As a distinctive movement, Unitarianism began in 1815 to organize a liberal theology under a democratic or what is known as a congregational polity.
Soon there followed an important landslide into its ranks, the extent of which may be inferred from the fact that among its existent societies of today no less than one hundred and twenty were originally orthodox Trinitarian. The change marked the ripeness and culmination of the Calvinistic theology, which included such an emphasis upon the doctrine of "three Persons" that in great degree there were in the thought of men three Gods. Monotheism had well-nigh given place to tritheism. Extremes invariably result in reaction, and in this case it was most pronounced. Under the molding influences of Martineau, Channing, Theodore Parker, and their associates, the rising system was coherently rationalized, spiritualized, and made more definitely natural and scientific than any previously accepted body of doctrine. Then followed a lessened emphasis upon biblical literalism, with freer interpretation and more impartial criticism. As a logical sequence, there came a denial of the "fall of man" from holiness in Adam as the representative head of the race, of the total depravity of human nature, the substitutional atonement, and eternal punishment. The dignity of man and his divine sonship were brought to light and affirmed. The Holy Spirit, instead of being a "Person," was identified with the omnipresent God, or as the direct influence of the mind of God upon the mind of man. An inborn immortality of soul was generally accepted, with the belief of the progressive attainment of all men in holiness and happiness. The movement was rather in the direction of free thought than toward any fixed even though liberal theology. While it had much in common with other religious systems, it avoided dogmatism and encouraged open inquiry for new truth. Perhaps the most prominent and ideal exponent of liberal thought was Channing. So broad and beautiful was he in spirit that dogmatism and sectarianism melted away before him.
In due time a kind of philosophical coalescence naturally formed between Unitarianism, which is here more distinctively considered, and the transcendentalism of Emerson and his associates, the latter subtle element entering in and softening and rounding out the lofty ethics of the denominational leaders, thus bringing the combination considerably in touch with the prevailing German philosophy and theology. The rational and scientific spirit more and more prevailed. Theological abstractions weakened, and the constitution, capacity and needs of man began to be studied in their adaptability and relation to religious truth. Increasing simplicity continued, and coming down to the present time the system was finally focalized into the recent brief but all-inclusive formula of doctrine: "The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man."
But justly to estimate the progress and triumph of the truth and spirit of Unitarianism, one must go outside of its denominational boundaries. Its leaven has "leavened the whole lump." In liberal measure the rest of Christendom has appropriated its principles and taken on its color, while carefully avoiding its name. Like many another innovation, it has been gradually taken possession of without thanks, or even any fair recognition. It has yielded its vitality to its former opponents. Its real conquest therefore has been esoteric and without observation.
But there is another important phase of organized liberalism that claims attention. It engaged with vigor in a long and arduous iconoclastic work, which was so absorbing that constructive effort fell into neglect. After leading innumerable weary souls out of bondage, its own garner became lean and failed to furnish them with adequate sustenance. It broke many shackles, but the released limbs grew feeble for lack of exercise. Its task of pulling down the decayed framework of other systems became so absorbing that protest and negation at length became the rule. In the mean time the necessity for iconoclasm had come to an end.
The spirit of liberalism is amiable, its humanitarianism lofty, and its charity abounding, but its spiritual fabric lacks strength. The reason for this seems to be that, in its escape from and reaction against supernaturalism and superstition, it came under the prevailing influence of scientific materialism. The divinity of man and his normal spiritual oneness with God, though held in theory, have been practically over rationalized. On this account new esoteric systems and philosophies possessing more of the spiritual element, are springing up and showing wonderful increase. The present trend of the multitude may be described as a reaction from a reaction. It is therefore easy to divine the real cause of the slow growth, or rather the relative decadence, of denominational Unitarianism. It is the lack of a distinctive spiritual philosophy and a corresponding psychological hygiene. Among its individual exponents there are many and notable exceptions, but these, by comparison, tend to emphasize the truth of the generalization.
The prevalent viewpoint and plane of effort in the liberal church is mainly included in the field of material altruism, social reforms, and humanitarianism. These are most excellent so far as they go, but are not all. They constitute an important part of practical religious life and character, but stop far short of the full ideal. Man is a spiritual being, and the higher aspirations of his soul must be ministered unto and developed. The spiritual nature must be definitely fed, for "man shall not live by bread alone." This higher attainment has increasingly come to be regarded as beyond the limit of every-day practicality. The externalism of the stress and motive of occidental civilization at length becomes barren and burdensome, and humanity craves something deeper and more satisfying. That which is without, however refined and humanized, fails to fill an esoteric and subjective void. Even physical science is striving more and more to penetrate beyond the surface and to get at the soul of things. Prevailing materialism breeds pessimism, and both are the result of a low viewpoint of observation.
The wonderful march of material science, invention and physical adaptation has done little to lift the burdens under which men are groaning. The hunger of the higher nature is no better satisfied under the contribution of all the boasted modern improvements than when life was vastly more simple. Literature and fiction under the plea of devotion to art, pander and appeal mainly to the lower zone of man's complex nature. Idealism and a spiritual philosophy are looked upon as unpractical, and the ponderous juggernaut of materialism rolls on threatening everything which is more refined than itself. The fog of pessimism subtly prevails high and low. The greater the profusion of material comforts and luxuries, the more general the discontent and sullen dissatisfaction of men with their condition. The panacea of remedial legislation, so much relied upon, only complicates and increases the friction between the various classes and conditions of men.
But what have the liberal churches to do with all these subtle inharmonies? Much, as have also all the other Christian churches. The whole Church, while ethically important, is primarily constituted for the spiritual development of the race. In proportion as its field of labor is limited to the realm of material things its higher ideal is not realized. The cultivation of the spiritual consciousness is not here used in the sense of other-worldiness, or primarily as a preparation for that future state. It is as normal, as an evolutionary step here and now, as is the improvement of the lower intellectual or social zones of man's nature. It is even more important because it is higher. It belongs to the natural order, is amenable to law, and has practicality. An impression has become common among men that such a consciousness belongs to some intangible and supernatural domain far away, if indeed it be not entirely imaginary. But Channing, the great prophet of prematerialistic Unitarianism, thought otherwise. Note a few of his ringing sentences:
"I call that mind free which masters the senses, which protects itself against animal appetites, which contemns pleasure and pain in comparison with its own energy, which penetrates beneath the body and recognizes its own reality and greatness, which passes life, not in asking what it shall eat or drink, but in hungering, thirsting, and seeking after righteousness. I call that mind free which escapes the bondage of matter, which, instead of stopping at the material universe and making it a prison wall, passes beyond it to its Author, and finds in the radiant signatures which it everywhere bears of the Infinite Spirit helps to its own spiritual enlargement."
Such a normal upliftment with a rational recognition of its restorative influence upon the physical organism of man, as well, is what humanity is seeking, even though unconsciously, to round out its shrunken proportions, and it should be the high office of the church, both liberal and conservative, generously to minister to such a universal hunger. Man is and will be restless until he finds his supplement and completeness in the Universal. While neither the church nor any other objective institution can furnish him, from without, with that divinity which only can be found within the deeps of his own being, it can powerfully aid in arousing and warming its latent and benumbed energies into wholesome activity. A positive spiritual philosophy, when vital at the soul-center, will radiate, as its legitimate fruit, transformed ethical, social and physical conditions. As the highest is sought and cultivated, lesser things will be added in their order. Before the church can fulfill its high ideal it must emerge from under the wide-spreading shadow of dominant materialism into the sunlight of a deeper reality. It must penetrate beyond the surface of the phenomenal, and fully recognize and deal with the primal and noumenal. Man must be interpreted to his own consciousness not as formed of the dust, but as a living spiritual entity in the process of individual unfoldment. It is to be hoped that the great current of liberalism, which in its earlier course received so many clear and wholesome tributaries, will not become bound in the shallows of an unspiritual age, and measurably miss that spiritual robustness which was so conspicuous in Channing, Starr King and other earlier apostles of the faith.