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UN EXTREMES IN RELIGIOUS AND MORAL CONDUCT.
Turn not to the right hand, nor to the left.-PROVERBS, iv. 27.
I WILL behave myself wisely said the Psalmist David, in a perfect way.* Wisdom is no less necessary in religious, and moral, than in civil conduct. Unless there be a proper degree of light in the understanding, it will not be enough that there are good dispositions in the heart. Without regular guidance, they will often err from the right scope. They will be always wavering and unsteady ; nay, on some occasions, they may betray us into evil. This is too much verified by that propensity to run into extremes, which so often appears in the behaviour of men. How many have originally set out with good principles and intentions, who, through want of discretion in the application of their principles, have in the end injured themselves, and brought discredit on religion? There is a certain temperate mean, in the observance of which piety and virtue consist. On each side there lies a dangerous extreme. Bewildering paths open; by deviating into which, men are apt to forfeit all the praise of their good intentions; and to finish with reproach, what they had begun with honour. This is the ground of the wise man's exhortation in the text. Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eye-lids look straight before thee. Ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established. Turn not to the right hand nor to the left ; remove thy foot from evil. In discoursing from these words, I propose to point out some of the extremes into which men are apt to run in religion and morals; and to suggest directions for guarding against them.
* Psalm ci. 2.
With regard to religious principle in general, it may perhaps be expected, that I should warn you of the danger of being, on one hand, too rigid in adhering to it, and on the other hand, too easy in relaxing it. But the distinction between these supposed extremes, I conceive to have no foundation. No man can be too strict, in his adherence to a principle of duty. Here, there is no extreme. All relaxation of principle is criminal. What conscience dictates is to be ever obeyed. Its commands are universally sacred. Even though it should be misled, yet as long as we conceive it to utter the voice of God, in disobeying it we sin. The error, therefore, to be here avoided, is not too scrupulous or tender regard to conscience, but too little care to have conscience properly enlightened, with respect to what is matter of duty and of sin.-Receive not without examination, whatever human tradition has consecrated as sacred. Recur, on every occasion, to those great fountains of light and knowledge, which are opened to you in the pure word of God. Distinguish, with care, between the superstitious fancies of men, and the everlasting commandments of God. Exhaust not on trifles that zeal, which ought to be reserved for the weightier matters of the law. Overload not conscience, with what is frivolous and unnecessary. But when you have once drawn the line with intelligence and precision, between duty and sin, that line you ought on no occasion to transgress.
Though there is no extreme in the reverence due to conscience, there may undoubtedly be an extreme in laying too much stress, either on mere principle, or on mere practice. Here we must take particular care not to turn to the right hand, nor to the left; but to hold faith and a good conscience united, as the scripture, with great propriety, exhorts us.* The error of resting wholly on faith, or wholly on works, is one of those seductions, which most easily mislead men; under the semblance of piety on the one hand, and of virtue on the other. This is not an error peculiar to our times. It has obtained in every age of the Christian church. It has run through all the different modes of false religion. It forms the chief distinction of all the various sects which have divided, and which still continue to divide, the church ; according as they have leaned most to the side of belief, or to the side of morality,
Did we listen candidly to the voice of scripture, it would guard us against either extreme. The Apostle Paul every where testifies, that by no works of our own we can be justified; and that without faith it is impossible to please God. The Apostle James as clearly shews, that faith, if it be unproductive of good
* 1 Timothy, i, 19.
works, justifies no man. Between those sentiments there is no · opposition. Faith without works, is nugatory and insignificant.
It is a foundation, without any superstructure raised upon it. It is a fountain which sends forth no stream; a tree which neither bears fruit, nor affords shade. Good works, again, without good principles, are a fair but airy structure; without firmness or stability. They resemble the house built on the sand ; the reed which shakes with every wind. You must join the two in full union, if you would exhibit the character of a real Christian. He who sets faith in opposition to morals, or morals in opposition to faith, is equally an enemy to the interest of religion. He holds up to view an imperfect and disfigured form, in the room of what ought to command respect from all beholders. By leaning to one extreme, he is in danger of falling into vice; by the other, of running into impiety.
WHATEVER the belief of men be, they generally pride themselves in the possession of some good moral qualities. The sense of duty is deeply rooted in the human heart. Without some pretence to virtue, there is no self-esteem; and no man wishes to appear, in his own view, as entirely worthless. But as there is a constant strife between the lower and higher parts of our nature, between inclination and principle, this produces much contradiction and inconsistency in conduct. Hence arise most of the extremes, into which men run in their moral behaviour; resting their whole worth on that good quality, to which, by constitution or temper, they are most inclined.
One of the first and most common of those extremes is that of placing all virtue, either in justice, on the one hand; or in generosity, on the other. The opposition between these is most discernible among two different classes of men in society. They who have earned their fortune by a laborious and industrious life, are naturally tenacious of what they have painfully acquired. To justice they consider themselves as obliged; but to go beyond it in acts of kindness, they consider as superfluous and extravagant. They will not take any advantage of others, which conscience tells them is iniquitous; but neither will they make any allowance for their necessities and wants. They contend, with rigourous exactness, for what is due to themselves. They are satisfied, if no man suffer injustly by them. That no one is benefited by them, gives them little concern.- Another set of men place their whole merit in generosity and mercy; while to justice and integrity they pay small regard. These are persons generally of higher rank, and of easy fortune. To them, justice appears a sort of vulgar virtue, requisite chiefly in the petty transactions which those of inferior station carry on with one another. But humanity and liberality, they consider as
more refined virtues, which dignify their character, and cover all their failings. They can relent at representations of distress; can bestow with ostentatious generosity, can even occasionally share their wealth with a companion of whom they are fond; while, at the same time, they withhold from others what is due to them ; are negligent of their family and their relations; and to the just demands of their creditors give no attention.
Both these classes of men run to a faulty extreme. They divide moral virtue between them. Each takes that part of it on ly which suits his temper. Without justice, there is no virtue. But without humanity and mercy, no virtuous character is complete. The one man leans to the extreme of parsimony. The other to that of profusion. The temper of the one is unfeeling. The sensibility of the other is thoughtless. The one you may in some degree respect; but you cannot love. The other may be loved; but cannot be respected : and it is difficult to say, which character is most defective. We must undoubtedly begin with being just, before we attempt to be generous. At the same time, he who goes no farther than to bare justice, stops at the beginning of virtue. We are commanded to do justly, but to love mercy. The one virtue regulates our actions; the other improves our heart and affections. Each is equally necessary to the happiness of the world. Justice is the pillar, that upholds the whole fabric of human society. Mercy is the genial ray, which cheers and warms the habitations of men. The perfection of our social character consists, in properly tempering the two with one another; in holding that middle course, which admits of our being just, without being rigid; and allows us to be generous, without being unjust.
We must next guard against either too great severity, or too great facility of manners. These are extremes of which we every day behold instances in the world. He who leans to the side of severity, is harsh in his censures, and narrow in his opinions. He cannot condescend to others in things indifferent. He has no allowance to make for human frailty; or for the difference of age, rank, or temper among mankind. With him, all gaiety is sinful levity; and every amusement is a crime. To this extreme, the admonition of Solomon may be understood to belong : Be not righteous overmuch ; neither make thyself overwise. Why shouldest thou destroy thyself?* When the severity of manners is hypocritical, and assumed as a cloak to secret indulgence, it is one of the worst prostitutions of religion. But I now consider it, not as the effect of design, but of natural austerity of temper, and of contracting maxims of conduct. Its in
# Eccles. vii, 16.
fluence upon the person himself, is to render him gloomy and sour; upon others, to alienate them both from his society, and his counsels ; upon religion, to set it forth as a morose and forbidding principle.— The opposite extreme to this is, perhaps, still more dangerous; that of two great facility, and accommodation to the ways of others. The man of this character, partly from indolent weakness, and partly from softness of temper, is disposed to a tame and universal assent. Averse either to contradiction or to blame, he goes along with the manners that prevail. He views every character with indulgent eye; and with good dispositions in his breast, and a natural reluctance to profligacy and vice; he is enticed to the commissions of evils which he condemns, merely through want of fortitude to oppose others.
Nothing, it must be confessed, in moral conduct, is more difficult, than to avoid turning kere, either to the right hand, or to the left. One of the greatest trials both of wisdom and virtue is, to preserve a just medium between that harshness of austerity, which disgusts and alienates mankind, and that weakness of good nature, which opens the door to sinful excess. The one separates us too much from the world. The other connects us too closely with it; and seduces us to follow the multitude in doing evil. One who is of the former character, studies too little to be agreeable, in order to render himself useful. He who is of the latter, by studying too much to be agreeable, forfeits his innocence. If the one hurt religion, by clothing it in the garb of unnecessary strictness; the other, by unwarrantable compliance, strengthens the power of corruption in the world. The one borders on the character of the Pharisee; the other, on that of the Sadducee. True religion enjoins us to stand at an equal distance from both; and to pursue the difficult, but honourable aim, of uniting good nature with fixed religious principle ; affable manners, with untainted virtue.'
FARTHER; we run to one extreme, when we contemn altogether the opinions of mankind; to another, when we court their praise too eagerly. The former discovers a high degree of pride and self-conceit. The latter betrays servility of spirit. We are formed by nature and Providence, to be connected with one another. No man can stand entirely alone, and independent of all his fellow-creatures. A reasonable regard, therefore, for their esteem and good opinion, is a commendable principle. It flows from humanity, and coincides with the desire of being mutually useful. But if that regard be carried too far, it becomes the source of much corruption. For, in the present state of mankind, the praise of the world often interferes with our acting that steady and conscientious part which gains the approbation