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John Toland - CHRISTIANITY NOT MISTERIOUS (1696)
From: John Toland, Christianity not Mysterious (London: Sam Buckley, 1696).
Christianity Not Mysterious: Or, A Treatise Shewing, That There Is Nothing in the Gospel Contrary to Reason, Nor Above It: And That No Christian Doctrine Can Be Properly Call's A Mystery.
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[From the Preface]
I hope to make it appear, that the Use of Reason is not so dangerous in Religion as it is commonly represented, and that too by such as mightily extol it, when it seems to favour 'em, yet vouchsafe it not a hearing when it makes against them, but oppose its own Authority to itself. . . . I hold nothing as an Article of my Religion but what the highest Evidence forc'd me to embrace. . . . Since Religion is calculated for reasonable Creatures, 'tis Conviction and not Authority that should bear Weight with them. . . . Truth is always and everywhere the same; and an unintelligible or absurd Proposition is to be never the more respected for being ancient or strange, for being originally written in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. . . . The true Religion must necessarily be reasonable and intelligible.
[From the Essay]
There is nothing that Men make a greater Noise about, in our Time especially, than what they generally profess least of all to understand . . . I mean the Mysteries of the Christian Religion. . . . Some say the Mysteries of the Gospel are to be understood only in the Sense of the Ancient Father. . . . Others tell us we must be of the Mind of some particular Doctors, pronounc'd Orthodox by the Authority of the Church. . . . Some give a decisive Voice in the Unravelling of Mysteries, and the Interpretation of Scripture, to a General Council; and others to one Man whom they hold to be the head of the Church Universal upon Earth, and the infallible Judge of all Controversies. . . . But they come nearest the thing who affirm, that we are to keep what the Scriptures determine about these Matters: and there is nothing more true, if rightly understood. . . . Some will have us always believe what the literal Sense imports, with little or no Consideration for Reason, which they reject as not fit to be employ'd about the reveal'd Part of Religion. Others assert, that we may use Reason as the Instrument, but not the Rule of our Belief. The first contend, some Mysteries may be, or at least seem to be contrary to Reason, and yet be receiv'd by Faith. The second, that no Mystery is contrary to Reason, but that all are above it. Both of 'em from different Principles agree, that several Doctrines of the New Testament belong no farther to the Enquiries of Reason than to prove 'em divinely reveal'd, and that they are properly Mysteries still.
On the contrary, we hold that Reason is the only Foundation of all Certitude; and that nothing reveal'd whether as to its Manner or Existence, is more exempted from its Disquisitions, than the ordinary Phenomena of Nature. Wherefore, we likewise maintin, that there is nothing in the Gospel contrary to Reason, nor above it; and that no Christian Doctrine can be properly call'd a Mystery. . . .
Every one experiences in himself a Power or Faculty of forming various Ideas or Perceptions of Things: Of affirming or denying, according as he sees them to agree or disagree: And so of loving and desiring what seems good unto him; and of hating and avoiding what he thinks evil. The right Use of all these Faculties is what we call Common Sense, or Reason in general. But the bare Act of receiving Ideas into the Mind . . . is not strictly Reason, because the Soul herein is purely passive. When a proper Object is conveniently presented to the Eye, Ear, or any other sense rightly dispos'd, it necessarily makes those Impression which the Mind at the same time cannot refuse to lodge. (Not the object, but and idea lodges in the mind) and I have not only and Idea of the Picture that is before me, I wish it were mine. And thus I form or rather after this manner I have first form'd, the Ideas of Knowing, Perceiving, Affirming, Denying, Considering, Willing, Desiring, and the Ideas of all the other operations of the Mind, which are thus occasion'd by the Antecedent Impressions of sensible Objects.
By the word Idea . . . I understand the immediate Object of the Mind when it thinks, or any Thought that the Mind imploys about anything. But these simple and distinct Ideas be not what we call strictly Reason, yet they are the sole Matter and Foundation of all our Reasoning: For the Mind does compare them together, compound, enlarge, contract, or separate them. . . . So all our Knowledge is, in effect, nothing else but the Perception of the Agreement or Disagreement of our Ideas in a greater or lesser Number, whereinsoever this Agreement or Disagreement may consist. . . . This Method of Knowledge is properly call'd Reason or Demonstration, That faculty of the Soul which discovers the Certainty of any thing dubious or obscure, by comparing it with something evidently known. . . . What is evidently repugnant to clear and distinct Ideas, or to our common Notions, is contrary to Reason; so I prove that the Doctrines of the Gospel, if it be the Word, cannot be so.
The first thing I shall insist upon is, that if any Doctrine of the New Testament be contrary to Reason, we have no manner of Idea of it. To say for instance that a Ball is white and black at once, is to say just nothing; for these Colours are so incompatible in the same subject, as to exclude all Possibility of a real positive Idea or Conception. So to say, as the Papists, that Children dying before Baptism are damn'd without Pain, signifies nothing at all: For if they be intelligent Creatures in the other World, to be eternally excluded from God's Presence, and the Society of the Blessed, must prove ineffable Torment to them: But if they think they have no Understanding, then they are not capable of Damnation in their Sense; and so they should not say they are in Limbo-Dungeon, but that either they had no Souls; or were annihilated; which would be reasonable enough, and easily conceiv'd. Now if we have no Ideas of a thing, it is certainly but lost Labour for us to trouble our selves about it: For what I don't conceive, can no more give me right Notions of God, or influence my Actions, than a Prayer deliver'd in an unknown Tongue can excite my Devotion.
The next thing I shall remark is, That those, who stick [choke] not to say they could believe a downright Contradiction to Reason, did they find it contain'd to the Scripture, do justify all Absurdities whatsoever; and, by opposing one Light to another, undeniably make God the Author of all Incertaintude. The very Supposition that Reason might authorize one thing, and the Spirit of God another, throws us into inevitable Scepticism; fro we shall be at a perpetual Uncertainty which to obey: Nay, we can never be sure which is which. . . .
The natural Result of what has been said is, That to believe the Divinity of Scripture or the Sense of any Passage thereof, without rational Proofs, and an evident Consistency, is a blameable Credulity, and a temerarious Opinion, ordinarily grounded upon and ignorant and wilful Disposition, but more generally maintained out of a gainful Prospect. For we frequently embrace certain doctrines not from any convincing Evidence in them, but because they serve our Designs better than the Truth; and because other Contradictions we are not willing to quit, are better defended by their means. . . .
I [have] said that Revelation was not a necessitating Motive of Assent, but a Means of Information. We should not confound the Way whereby we come to the knowledge of a thing, with the Ground we have to believe it. A man may inform me concerning a thousand matters I never heard of before, and of which I should not as much as think if I were not told; yet I believe nothing purely upon his word without Evidence in the things themselves. Not the bare Authority of him that speaks, but the clear Conception I form of what he says, is the Ground of my Persuasion.
If the sincerest Person on Earth should assure me he saw a Cane without two ends, I neither should nor could believe him; because this Relation plainly contradicts the Idea of a Cane. But if he told me he saw a Staff that, being by chance laid in the Earth, did after some time put forth Sprigs and Branches, I could easily rely upon his Veracity; because this no way contradicts the Idea of a Staff, nor transcends Possibility. I say Possibility; for Omnipotency itself can do no more. . . . We heartily believe God can do all things: But that mere Nothing should be the Object of his Power, the very Ominipotency alleg'd will not permit us to conceive. And that every Contradiction, which is a Synonym for Impossibility, is pure nothing, we have already sufficiently demonstrated. . . . When we say then, that nothing is impossible with God, or that he can do all things, we mwan whatever is possible in itself, however far above the power of Creatures to effect.
Thus god is pleas'd to reveal to us in Scripture several wonderful Matters of Fact, as the Creation of the Wolrd, the last Judgement, and many other important Truths, which no Man left to himself could ever imagine, no more than any of my fellow creatures can be sure of my private Thoughts. . . Secret things belong unto the Lord; [but] those things which are reveal'd belong unto us and to our Children. Yet, as we discours'd before, we do not receive them only because they are reveal'd: For besides the infallible Testimony of the Revelation from all requisite Circumstances, we must see in its Subject the indisputable Characters of Divine Wisdom and Sound Reason; which are the only Marks we have to distinguish the Oracles and Will of God, from the impostures and Traditions of Men.
Whoever reveals any thing, that is, whoever tells us something we did not know before, his Words must be intelligible, and the Matter possible. This Rule holds good, let God or Man be the Revealer. If we count that Person a Fool who requires our Assent to what is manifestly incredible, how dare we blasphemously attribute to the most perfect Being, what is an acknowledg'd Defect in one of our selves? As for unintelligible Revelations, we can no more believe them from the Revelation of God, than from that of Man; for the conceiv'd Ideas of things are the only Subjects of Believing, Denying, Approving, and every other Act of the Understanding: Therefore all Matters reveal'd by God or Man, must be equally intelligible and possible; so far both Revelations agree. But in this they differ, that tho the Revelation of Man should be thus qualified, yet he may impose upon me as to the Truth of a think; whereas what God is pleas'd to discover to me is not only clear to my Reason (without which his Revelation could make me no wiser) but likewise is always true. A Man, for example, acquaints me that he has found a Treasure: This is plain and possible, but he may easily deceive me. God assures me, that he has form'd Man of Earth: This is not only possible to God, and to me very intelligible; but the thing is also most certain, God not being capable to deceive me, as Man is. In how many places are we exhorted to beware of false Prophets and Teachers, Seducers and Deceivers? We are not only to prove or try all things, and to hold fast that which is best, but also to try the Spirits whether they be of God. But how shall we try? How shall we discern? Not as the Horse and Mule which have no understanding, but as circumspect and wise Men, judging what is said. . . .
The New Testament (if it be indeed Divine) must consequently agree with Natural Reason, and our own ordinary Ideas. The Apostles commend themselves to every Man's conscience, that is, the appeal to every Man's Reason, in the Sight of God. Peter exhorts Christians to be ready always to give an Answer to every one that asks them a Reason of their Hope. Now to what purpose serv'd all these Appeal, if no Regard was to be had to Men's Understandings? If the Doctrines of Christ were incomprehensible, contradictory; or were we oblig'd to believe in reveal'd Nonsense?
There is nothe Mysterious or above Reason in the Gospel [no matter how veiled or obscured some things may be in the ceremonies or rituals of men] . . . and I affirm that nothing can be said to be a Mystery, because we have not an adequate Idea of it, or a distinct View of all its Properties at once; for then every thing would be a Mystery. . . . I understand nothing better than this Table upon which I am now writing: I conceive it divisible into Parts beyond all Imaginiation; but shall I say it is above my Reason because I cannot count these Parts, nor distinctly perceive their Quantity and Figures? No Christian Doctrine, no more than any ordinary Piece of Nature, can be reputed a Mystery, because we have not an adequate or compleat Idea of whatever belongs to it. What is reveal'd in Religion, as it is most useful and necessary, so it must and may be as easily comprehended, and found as consistent with our common Notions, as what we know of Wood or Stone, of Air or Water. . . .
Now since by Revelation Men are not endu'd with any new Faculties, it follows that God should lose his end in speaking to them, if what he said did not agree with their common notions. . . . No matter of Fact can be known without Revelation [either divine or human], but what is once reveal'd we must as well understand as any other Matter in the World, Revelation being only f use to inform us whilst the Evidence of its Subject persuades us. Reason is not less from God than Revelation. . . .
No Miracle is contrary to Reason, for the Action must be intelligible, and we learn from Scripture and Reason that no Miracle is ever wrought without some special and important End, which is either appointed by those for whom the Miracle is made, or intended and declar'd by him that works it.
[Toland concludes his discussion by asserting that so-called Mysteries were introduced into Christianity by self-interested professionals who endeavoured to secure their own desires by obscuring the simple, reasonable things of Christianity in a maze of ceremonies, customs, and exalted claims of special insight. In particular, this happened to Baptism and the Supper].
I acknowledge no Orthodoxy but the Truth; and, I'm sure, where-ever the Truth is, there must also be the Church, of God I mean, and no any Human Faction or Policy.
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