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Discourses on the Philosophy of Religion, I

George Ripley

Written between 1833 and 1836, when they were published in pamphlet format, "Discourses On the Philosophy of Religion," exhibit the strides George Ripley had taken in developing a religious philosophy that reflected the influence of both German idealism and French eclecticism. They were written, primarily, to counter what he perceived to be the hypocrisy of his Unitarian colleagues who, while having advanced intellectually, philosophically and theologically beyond traditional Christian dogma and tradition, still clung tenaciously to the belief that the miracles recorded in the Bible, particularly those of Jesus, were to be believed literally if one were to be considered a member of the body of Christ. For Ripley, such a requirement, and the theolgical arguments in favor of it, were contrary to Reason. He was convinced that religious truth, as perceived by the intuition inherent in human beings, who were themselves "emanations" fom God, was the foundation on which all empirical knowledge itself was dependent. This conviction led him to the ultimate conclusion that religious institutions, including institutional Unitarianism, "stifled religion with abstractions," and that Christ's command had not been to contrive a theology, but rather a "church of humanity," one which encouraged interior exploration of the intimate communion of the soul with God. (Crowe, 72-74) Ripley's intuitional philosophy also led him to the conclude that the purpose of religion, in particular Christianity, was the development and cultivation of the human personality in all of its divine fullness, and he was opposed to any creed or formula that stifled the free expression of these higher faculties in the individual. The "kingdom of God on earth," for Ripley, would only be known in all of its splendor when the goals of society and church were reconciled through the recognition of the divine in all of humanity, each being an agent of his or her own salvation, not by adherence to dry theological creeds, but by the cultivation of a morality based on the knowledge of God perceived inwardly and intuitively. Ripley rejected the radical individualism of Emerson, positing that the real fruit of an intuitional philosophy led individuals to recognize their individualism as well as their interdependence, and was expressed outwardly in one's relations with others, particularly in social outreach to In 1840, he would make public his ideas in "A Letter Addressed to the Congregational Church In Purchase Street." The following year he would establish the community at Brook Farm. [Author unknown--Drew University]

"For he endured, as seeing him who is invisible." Hebrews XI. 27.

***************** "Wisdom is the brightness of the Everlasting Light, the unspotted mirror of the Power of God and the image of his Goodness. And being but one she can do all things; and in all ages entering into holy souls, she maketh them friends of God and prophets." *****************


The following discourses are not published by way of controversy. Their only aim is the quickening of a pure faith in spiritual truth, by a calm exposition of some of the principles on which it rests. They were written, and preached, nearly two years since, to the people of my pastoral charge. One of them has been given to the public,Note but I think it right to introduce it here as an integral part of the whole series.

It is certain that any discourses, prepared in the usual course of professional labor, without the remotest view to publication, are likely to be found unworthy of a wider sphere. I am sensible that these discourses can claim little merit, except that of containing the distinct expression of ideas, which seem to me of vital importance to the welfare of man. They are set forth in so many ways by more skilful hands than mine, that I should be ashamed of the sight of them in print, did I not feel called upon by a strong sense of duty to reveal my whole mind to those who are already in possession of one side of my faith. I have been thought by some esteemed friends to have exhibited views in a recent number of one of our theological journalsNote that are liable to many serious objections. I fear also that I may have unconsciously given pain to some devout and timid minds, who think that discussions of this nature serve only to unsettle the foundations of Christian faith. I have the most heartfelt sympathy with such minds. I would sooner never speak again than do aught which tends to cloud the blessed light of a serene and confiding piety. It was my purpose, in the discussion alluded to, to suggest a mode of considering the evidences of christianity which should free it from certain difficulties under which it has been thought to labor. No one who has read my article understandingly can suppose that I intended to cast any doubt on the reality of the Christian miracles—or that I doubted them myself. I do not. Their certainty being once established, by what I deem the only valid proof, they are no less holy and precious to me than to others.

The fears which are entertained by many, who are not theologians by profession, with regard to the effect of free discussion, often arises from the want of an intelligent and vigourous faith. They dread lest the progress of inquiry should bring to light some hidden defect in the grounds of our religion. They are, in fact, doubters, though they know it not. They wish to believe. They cannot bear to hear a word said which implies that any cherished view is wrong. But this arises from a lurking suspicion that there is something unsound in the fabric of their faith. To such minds these discourses are addressed. I would frankly point out to them the principles on which my own faith is built; and I cannot but hope that theirs will gain strength by the exposition. The interests of speculative science and of practical piety appear to me so intimately blended, that it would cause me deep sorrow to think that I had laid a rude hand on either. What I have recently published explains the negative side of my faith. I here give the positive; and one should read both statements in connexion, in order to perceive the complete whole in which I venture to think my views exist in my own mind.

These pages do not claim to exhibit any thing new. I would watch for light from every quarter; and I can hardly suppose that my eyes are open to rays which have not fallen on many others also. Resemblances may be detected between some of the views here advanced and those which are maintained by far abler pens. They are not intentional, but are traceable to the unconscious influence that is always exerted on a seeking mind by master spirits; which it looks up to and reverences.

I ought to ask pardon for some repetitions of thought and expression. Perhaps they are not more, however, than were to be expected in compositions prepared at intervals of several weeks, by one whose mind was possessed with a few predominant ideas. Besides, it was my purpose to present the same course of argument in tow or three different applications. The attentive reader, I trust, will discover that "uniformity of thought and design which will always be found in the writings of the same person when he writes with simplicity and in earnest."Note

Boston, November 18, 1836.


Hebrews XI. 27.

These words are applied by the writier of the Epistle to the Hebrews, to the ancient lawgiver of their nation, as descripive of the principle of faith which formed a prominent element in his character. They may be regarded as describing with no less justice and force the peculiar character of every truly religious man. For there is nothing which more strongly marks the believer in religious truth, than his firm conviction of the reality of a vast range of subjects, which do not come under the cognizance of any of the senses. His thoughts are not confined to the contemplation of facts, which are presented to the notice of the outward eye. His mind is not limited to the gross and material objects, with which he is now surrounded, but passing over the boundaries of space and time, is conversant with truths, which bear the stamp of Infinity and Etermity. He is conscious of an inward nature, which is the source of more important and comprehensive ideas, than any which the external senses suggest, and he follows the decision of these ideas as the inspiring voice of God, with none the less confidence, because they lead him into the region of the Infinite and Invisible. The principles of faith in the truth and reality of these ideas, exerts such a strong influence over his mind, that he acts as if their objects were now present with him; he proceeds upon their certainty, with as much assurance, as if they had been exhibited to his bodily eye; he endures as seeing him who is invisible. This, indeed, is so obvious and essential a trait in the character of the truly religious man, that it has led those who are blind to the destiny of our nature, to charge him with being a visionary, and devoted to the objects thatlie beyond the cognizance of the human mind. A religious man is one, it is said, who is taken up with objects that no one has ever seen, and which, it is further argued, are unworthy the attention of a rational being. We wish for facts, it is repeated by persons of this way of thinking; we can have no knowledge beyond the evidence of our senses; we can believe nothing, except what we have actually seen. The religious man, they contend, is in a great error, because he is not content with that, but wishes to obtain truth from the testimony of his inward nature, as well as from his outward senses.

Now we admit, that remarks like these are correct, so far as they indicate the direction which religion gives to our minds, towards the "things which are unseen and eternal;" but they are incorrect, as we think, in supposing, that this direction does not lead to as clear and certain truth, as that which is opposed to it. The religious man is, indeed, conversant with invisible objects. His thoughts expatiate in regions, which eye hath not seen, but which God has revealed to him, by his spirit. He reposes as firm faith in those ideas, which are made known to him by Reason, Note as in those facts, which are presented to his notice by the senses. He has no belief that human nature is so shackled and hemmed in, even in its present imperfect state, as to be confined to the objects made known by the eye of sense, which is given us merely for the purposes of our temporal existence, and incapable of ascending to those higher spheres of thought and reality, to which eternal elments of our nature belong.

But, allowing this, it by no means follows, that the religious man is a visionary, in any just sense of that wors, because, in the first place, he need not neglect the objects, with which he is at all times surrounded, and which are appropriate to the province of sense, and in the second place, the invisible objects, with which he is conversant, have no less truth and reality, than those which are seen.

The religious man need not see less, in the sphere of the senses, than any other man. There is nothing in his faith in the Invisible, which should blind him to any perceptions, within the sphere of the visible. Indeed, he ought to give his understanding a generous culture, that it may be acute and ready to decide on all objects, that come within its province. One part of his nature os not to be educated at the expense of another. One portion of his existence is not to be sacrificed to the claims of another. The present, with its duties, its enjoyments, and its dangers, is not forgotten, amid the hopes and prospects of the future. It is a most pernicious mistake, which leads men to suppose, that they must give up the interests of tis world in order to prepare for another, instead of making their preparation for another, to consis in a faithful discharge of all the claims and trusts of this. The visible is of great importance to every man on earth. Our Maker has made us conscious of life, in the most intimate connexion with it. He has surrounded us with objects, address to the senses, on a proper use of which, the religious improvement oflife essentially depends. It is our duty, as immortal beings, not to neglect the present. It is our duty to provide for its wants. it is our duty to obtain a wise acquaintance with its necessities. The truly religious man feels this as much as another. the enlightened Christian, who understands the spirit of his Master, and who is resolved to cultivate it, should not be confounded with the dreaming visionary, who in the fancied care for his soul, cares for nothing else; who is so absorbed in the contemplation of the Invisible as to lose sight of the important realities before his eyes; whose mystic speculations on heaven spoil him for the duties of earth, like the ancient philosopher, who, in gazing at the stars, fell into a pit. This is not the course pursued by the truly-instructed Christian. He knows that every thing has its place and its importance, that all duties and all thoughts should preserve a just proportion among themselves, and if he sees those things which are invisible, he should give non the less heed to those which are visible.

But, again, the invisible objects, with which the religious man is conversant, possess as much reality, as those within the sphere of the outward senses. Do not call him a visionary, until you have proved that he is dealing with visions. What if the objectsof his attention should be found to have a more substantial existence than any thing which we now see? Do not deem him a man of a fantastic mind, until you have proved that he is following phantoms. What if the things that are not seen, should turn out to be enduring realities, while the things that appear, are only transitory appearances? It may be that this is the case. We have great reason to hold that it is probable. Nay, we have the words of inspiration, declaring that it is a fact. "For the things which are unseen are eternal." What then are the unseen realities, to which the Christian gives his faith, and on which he acts, with as much confidence and hope, as if they had passed within the boundaries of his earthly vision?

I. The Christian is conversant, I answer, with an invisible God. The Mighty Being, upon whom he depends and whom he worships, in infinite, and of course, incomprehensible. He, who sees all things, is himself unseen. His existence is of a spiritual nature, and of course, not perceptible to the eye of sense. The very idea of God, as that of Primeval Spirit,—form whom all things proceed and by whom they are sustained, who is present in every part of his creation, to receive the homage of the intellect and the heart,—precludes the superstition, that he can be seen by the outward eye. That is formed for a different purpose, organized with different powers, and called to a different service. It is designed to place us in connexion with the various forms of matter, to reveal to our souls the beauty of the external universe, and to make us acquainted with the properties and laws of created Nature. If it were possible for God to be seen by the eye, he would no longer be the being that he is. He would be deprived of the attributes, which make him worthy of our highest adoration and praise. He would no longer be infinite but finite, for our finite senses comprehendonly the latter, and ceasing to be infinite, he would cease to be God. The Creator of the universe, if capable of being seen by the bodily eye, would be reduced to a level with nature, would become amaterial object, and of course no longer God, since God is a Spirit, and only by the pure in heart can he be spiritually discerned. But I would ask, if the fact, that God is invisible, and from his very nature ever must be so, takes aught from the reality of his presence, or from our convictions of his existence? Is he any the less near to the heart of the good man, than if he could be apprehended with the eye of sense? Do we not repose as firm a faith in the Being of God, as we do in the objects of nature, which reveal his wisdom and his love? It is impossible for the enlightened Reason to avoid this. Though the eye cannot see God, the soul perceives hi. It does as great a wrong and injustice to its own nature, whenit doubts the inward convictions of a Maker and Governor of the world, as if it were to refuse evidence to the testimony of the senses, with regard to the outward universe. The decisions of Reason, which may be regarded as the very essence of the soul, compel us to admit the existence of God, as the ground of our own existence, of an Infinite Being, as the first cause of finite nature, of an invisible spirit, as the origin and support of the visible universe. Deny this idea, who can—hecannot wholly deny his own Reason,—and though he may endeavor to cast it from him, it will again return, it voice will make itself heard, announcing the presence of the Almighty, and he cannot reject the convictions which it brings. Now, it is with this God, whom the eye cannot see, but whom the Reason canot call in question, that the Christian is conversant. He feels, that it is his privilege to hld communion with the Maker of the universe. He rejoices in the endowments of his nature, which ally him with God, and enable him, on this lower earth, to worship Him who is eternal and unseen. The thought, that God is at all times near to him, is one, which touches his heart with grateful joy; it enlarges his happiness in the hour of prosperity, and mitigates his suffering in the season of sorrow. At all times, he looks to his Father in Heaven, with the assurance, that no needless pang will be inflicted, and no needed good withheld. With the same confidence, with which he trusts in the permanence of the universe, the stability of nature's laws, he trusts in the wisdom of that God, whose Providence is non the less certain, because its source is unseen. And yet such a man would, by some persons, be deemed a visionary. Those who suppose that religion is a dream, because its objects lie beyond the sphere of the senses, would regard the Christian as a dreamer, because he worships a God whom he has not seen. But in so doing, he is in fact paying homage to the highest laws of his own being. He is yielding his deepest reverence where his Reason tells him that it is due; he is conversant with that great reality, which, though unseen by mortal eye, is the ground and centre of all other reality in the universe.

II. Again, the Christian cherishes communion with an invisible Saviour. Next to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is Jesus himself who is the dearest object of his gratitude, his sympathy, and his love. No subject makes a deeper impression on his heart than the character of his blessed Lord. No remembrance touches more powerfully the springs of his best feelings than the remembrance of the love of Christ, who laid down his life, that we might live. He sees in him the manifestation of the Father's glory, the express image of the Divine Perfections. All that we most love and adore in God,—his holiness, his justice, his benevolence and his truth,—is displayed in the person of his Son, and by the spiritual contemplation of that, we obtain the best idea of the Father himself. But here is nothing presented to the senses. Non of us ever saw the Saviour of men. We did not know him after the flesh. No material representation could convey to our souls a just impression of his character. Indeed, we obtain so much clearer a perception of him, by bringing his actions in review before the mental eye, that there can scarecely be a material representation, intended to represent the features of his character, which does not fall far short of the conceptions which we had previously formed. Every thing here is addressed to the soul. It is the inward eye, that beholds the glory of Christ. It is to the principle of faith, that his spiritual presence is revealed,—and who can say that it does not make him conversant with a noble object? Who can deny that the recollection of such a being as our Saviour was, calls forth our highest faculties, and introduces us into a region of thought, in which it well befits a man to expatiate? Is the Christian the sport of a vain and idle fancy, when he communes with an unseen Saviour? Is he giving way to a visionary delusion, when he calls up the remembrance of him who became a man of sorrows, that we might be partakers of joy; who tasted the bitter cup of death, that we might drink the waters of life, and opened to us the gates of Heaven, by his own agony on the cross? Is this communion with an invisible Saviour, the delusion of an enthusiast? All the better feelings of our nature declare that it is not. All the homage that is paid at the tomb of departed worth, all the gratitude that is lavished on the benefactors of our race, all the reverence that is accorded to glorious specimens of moral perfection declare that it is not.

III. Again, the Christian is conversant with the invisible powers of his own nature. He is in a state of constant communion with feelings and faculties, that he has never seen. He takes counsel of Reason. He inquires at the Oracles of Conscience. He communes with his own heart. He is conscious that he is the possessor of a living soul—a soul which is to live for ever. He has no more doubt of the existence of the soul, than he does in his eyes. But it is all invisible. Nobody has ever seen the inward nature of man. The researches of the anatomist stop short of it. It cannot be laid open with the knife. It cannot be exhibited for inspection. It is the object of no one of the senses. It is as invisible as the Creator himself. But does any one doubt, on that account, the reality of his inward nature? Can the Christian be charged with folly or with prejudice, because it is his aim to submit the senses to the soul? Can we call in question the existence of Reason, of the Conscience, of the feeling of moral obligation, because we have never seen them? If we are not aware of their exitence, it is because we have never felt their power; and if we have never felt their power, what does it prove with regard to ourselves? If the Christian is guilty of folly, in paying reverence to unseen powers, give me his folly rather than the wisdom of one, who by his own confession, is a stranger to Reason, to Conscience, to a sense of obligation, to the noblest attributes and faculties of man.

IV. Once more, the Christian is conversant with an invisible world. He believes in the existence of a state of being which he has not seen, with as much confidence as in the reality of the world which he now occupies. He has obtained too deep and correct an insight into his own nature, to admit the idea for a moment, that the "be-all and end-all" of man is the present state. He is conscious of undeveloped powers, which demand an Eternity for their expansion, and he feels sure that God will grant the opportunity, where he has given the capacity. The future world rises before him, as his final home. His thoughts often dwell upon it, with the deepest interest. There he hope for brighter manifestations of God. There he expects more intimate communion with his Saviour. There he trusts to enjoy the acquaintance of kindred minds, who have lived in past ages and distant lands, and who in Heaven have become one through Christ Jesus. There are the prophets of the elder world, through whose noble spirits God spake to his people. There are the venerable sages, whose lips dropped wisdom and whose hearts were devoted to truth. There are the glorious host of martyrs, who went up by blood and fire, to their Father's throne. These all have obtained the promises. They have crossed the dark river. They have tasted the bitter waters of death. They are before the throne of God, and the Lamb's name is written on their foreheads. Shall not the Christian think of them? Who would prevent him? Who would tear from him those holy hopes, which are the charm and solace of his present existence? Who would deny him the privilege of indulging in those anticipations, which are demanded by his feelings and sanctioned by his Reason, because they are not laid open to the eye of sense? He cannot tell, indeed, by any cold deductions of the understanding, how the dead are raised up, or with what body they do come, but he believe that the same God, who raised up Christ, will also raise him from this mortal life on earth, to a higher life in Heaven. The nature of that life he cannot fully describe. Its pursuits he does not know. Its connexion with space and with time, he does not comprehend. But he feels his intimate connexion with it. He knows, that compared with it, this life is but a dream—a vapor. He is sure, that it cannot be far off. Soon he will enter upon its amazing scenes. Soon will its mysteries be disclosed to his waiting faith, and a higher consciousness of existence commence. He does not see that world, but he expects to meet there beings like himself. How many have gone before him! How many will be there to receive him! Angel voices call him from on high. Angel-hands are stretched forth for his aid. The dead, who have gone, are living still. The angel-friends who have vanished from earth are angel-spirits in the presence of God. They speak to his heart, when it is open to the voices of Eternity. Their spiritual presence is revealed, as the shadows of earth disappear and the glories of Heaven draw nigh. And will you say, that the Christian should not often commune with invisible realities like these? Will you tell him that because the prospects of Eternity are shut out from his sight, they should also be shut out from his heart? Speak, thou faithful disciple of Christ! Speak, ye, who look up for rest in Heaven! Speak, pilgrim of earth, as ye behold in the distance the shining walls of the city of God! Speak, heart of man, that yearns, with desires that cannot be expressed, for a closer union with the Infinite and the Eternal! Speak! and ye will say, that there is no worthy object for the Everlasting soul, but the things that are unseen—no source of illimitable joy, but the Infinite Presence of God!

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