Explained Away

From “The Religion of the Day,” Parochial and Plain Sermons (1832)

“In the first age of the Church, while persecution still raged, the devil set up a counter religion among the philosophers of the day, partly like Christianity, but in truth a bitter foe to it; and it deceived and made shipwreck of the faith of those who had not the love of God in their hearts. Time went on, and the devil devised a second idol of the true Christ, and it remained in the temple of God for many a year.

The age was rude and fierce. Satan took the darker side of the gospel: its awful mysteriousness, its fearful glory, its sovereign inflexible justice; and here his picture of the truth ended, “God is a consuming fire;” so declares the text, and we know it. But we know more, that God is love also. But Satan did not add this to his religion, which became one of fear. The religion of the world was then a fearful religion. Superstitions abounded, and cruelties. The noble firmness, the graceful austerity of the true Christian were superseded by forbidding specters, harsh of eye, and haughty of brow; and these were the patterns or the tyrants of a beguiled people.

What is Satan’s device in this day?… What is the world’s religion now? It has taken the brighter side of the gospel — its tidings of comfort, its precepts of love; all darker, deeper views of man’s condition and prospects being comparatively forgotten. This is the religion natural to a civilized age, and well has Satan dressed and completed it into an idol of the truth. As the reason is cultivated, the taste formed, the affections and sentiments refined, a general decency and grace will of course spread over the face of society, quite independently of the influence of revelation. That beauty and delicacy of thought, which is so attractive in books, then extends to the conduct of life, to all we have, all we do, all we are. Our manners are courteous; we avoid giving pain or offence; our words become correct; our relative duties are carefully performed. Our sense of propriety shows itself even in our domestic arrangements, in the embellishments of our houses, in our amusements, and so also in our religion’s profession. Vice now becomes unseemly and hideous to the imagination, or, as it is sometimes familiarly said, “out of taste.”

Thus elegance is gradually made the test and standard of virtue, which is no longer thought to possess an intrinsic claim on our hearts, or to exist, further than it leads to the quiet and comfort of others. Conscience is no longer recognized as an independent arbiter of actions, its authority is explained away; partly it is superseded in the minds of men by the so-called moral sense, which is regarded merely as the love of the beautiful; partly by the rule of expediency, which is forthwith substituted for it in the details of conduct. Now conscience is a stern, gloomy principle; it tells us of guilt and of prospective punishment. Accordingly, when its terrors disappear, then disappear also, in the creed of the day, those fearful images of divine wrath with which the Scriptures abound. They are explained away. Everything is bright and cheerful. Religion is pleasant and easy; benevolence is the chief virtue; intolerance, bigotry, excess of zeal, are the first of sins. Austerity is an absurdity — even firmness is looked on with an unfriendly, suspicious eye…

The present age is the very contrary to what are commonly called the dark ages; and together with the faults of those ages we have lost their virtues. I say their virtues; for even the errors then prevalent, a persecuting spirit, for instance, fear of religious inquiry, bigotry, these were, after all, but perversions and excesses of real virtues, such as zeal and reverence; and we, instead of limiting and purifying them, have taken them away root and branch.

Why? Because we have not acted from a love of the truth, but from the influence of the age. The old generation has passed, and its character with it; a new order of things has arisen. Human society has a new framework, and fosters and develops a new character of mind; and this new character is made by the enemy of our souls, to resemble the Christian’s obedience as near as it may, its likeness all the time being but accidental… God give us grace to search our hearts, lest we be blinded by the deceitfulness of sin!

St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was among the most widely influential English theologians of the nineteenth century. One of the principal leaders of Anglicanism’s Catholic revival at Oxford in the 1830’s, he became a Roman Catholic in 1845, and was an Oratorian for the remainder of his life. He was made a cardinal shortly before his death and was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2019. His Parochial and Plain Sermons, first published in 1863, were written in his years as an Anglican priest, while serving as vicar of Oxford’s Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. His feast day on the Roman Calendar is October 9 and he is commemorated on other days on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican Churches.


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