Religion has been hitherto too much regarded as an exclusive possession for the few. The Greek looked down upon the Barbarian with contempt. The Jew regarded the Gentile as unclean, and would have no dealings even with such near neighbors as the Samaritans.
The history of our own country is full of saddening accounts of persecution and intolerance, and the twentieth century begins without a full recognition of the rights of conscience, and the freedom of the individual. Nevertheless science is gradually teaching that the universe is one, and that unity and not division is the law of life and being. So also religion is coming to be regarded as that which unites, and we learn that all the best things in all the great religions have but one common purpose, the aim being to cast out evil, and bring good instead; to substitute brotherliness for hatred, and mutual helpfulness for ill will. We see that all the best things are common—light and air, the teeming earth, and the boundless ocean. The sunshine warms alike the beggar and the King. Men build walls of separation both material and spiritual, civil and ecclesiastical; but to the soul rejoicing in essential religion such walls have no terrors; they exist only in the minds of those who erect them; who are simply shut up in their own enclosures. All the formal barriers erected by all the divided sects of this age, cannot exclude one single soul from communion with the Highest and Holiest. The central Soul of the Universe is Eternal Love which cannot, and will not, let us go.
The idea our forefathers had of a book of "Common Prayer" was good, but there can be no "common prayer" till there is a recognized common life of loving-kindness and tender mercy.
So therefore the common religion must be unselfish first of all; recognizing the best everywhere, living up to the best always, allowing no hard or uncharitable thought to find lodgment in the mind, and no bitter word to fall from the tongue; then no unkind action can possibly be done to damage the better life, or bring sorrow and regret upon the soul. To be an effectual common religion, the daily practice must be actively unselfish; not alone, or so much, that busy activity which delights in giving doles, or providing free repasts, as the unselfish acts of kindness and justice which can be done by the poorest in their poverty, as easily as by the rich amidst their plenty. But above all, common religion must be universal, leaping over all barriers of race or nation or creed, uniting everywhere; world-wide, not by inducing men of one creed to accept another, but by leading them to compare, and after full consideration, accepting the best to be found in all; uniting from all, "whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report." Every man, passing, for business or research, or study or pleasure, from one part of our world to another, should be a real missionary of goodwill, bearing about in his own life and character the honest, and just, and pure, and lovely things which tend to goodness and unity. The religions of the world should partake of this simple common character; they exist side by side, as childhood and youth, and middle age and maturity exist in one family circle; but in ordinary life the good grandfather does not despise the baby grandson, nor does the wise father act in opposition to a well-conducted son. Theories about the unknown do not divide a family, or prevent the various members from working for the common good.
It seems, therefore, in accord with reason that religion should be of such a binding and uniting character that by its very nature all who are brought under its power should belong to the rest, not alone by the ordinary ties of humanity, but that they should also be drawn by the higher bonds of reason and love to that "unity of spirit in the bonds of peace," to which the best souls in all ages have aspired. To some this may seem a mere Utopian, impracticable dream, but may we not hope that every dream yet dreamt by those who see better things in the future than the past has known, is destined to become a prophecy fulfilled?
And already we see indications of greater good from all parts of the world; tendencies among many of the religious organizations to give reason for a growing hope that the things which divide are less powerful, whilst those which unite are growing stronger.
We are slowly learning that the foundation principles which govern human life, and make it beautiful and wise and strong, are always the same, and that diversity need not lead to antagonism. As one of our thoughtful religious teachers has recently said:—"What are the reports that are coming in from all parts of the world today? They all tend to one announcement—they all unite their voices to preach one mighty Gospel—the essential goodness of the world and of life; that the universe is cradled in Love; that it is not only a unity, but a beneficent unity; that the life of man, the child of the universe, lies embosomed in one Great Life; that the essence of things is good, and the purpose and the outcome good. But what is this but a confirmation of the essential Gospel of Jesus Christ? What he discovered in the depths of his own pure and serene heart, in his own sense of sonship, men are finding today in the great universe. The Father, the Eternal Goodness, the Universal Love—this is the Eternal Gospel of which all partial Gospels are phases.”
And so, even though it be through much tribulation, we are working out our salvation, and sooner or later upon a blessed world will dawn the day of unity, peace, and concord, and all the fierce controversies of past ages shall be exchanged for a glorious synthesis of all the best, in one great, beautiful, common religion.