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The Church And Good Conduct
by [?]

The Episcopal Church, at the late Triennial Convention, took up and determined to make a more vigorous effort to deal with the problem presented by the irreligion of the poor and the dishonesty of church-members. It is an unfortunate and, at first sight, somewhat puzzling circumstance, that so many of the culprits in the late cases of fraud and defalcation should have been professing Christians, and in some cases persons of unusual ecclesiastical activity, and that this activity should apparently have furnished no check whatever to the moral descent. It is proposed to meet the difficulty by more preaching, more prayer, and greater use of lay assistance in church-work. There is nothing very new, however, about the difficulty. There is hardly a year in which it is not deplored at meetings of church organizations, and in which solemn promises are not made to devise some mode of keeping church-members up to their professions, and gathering more of the church-less working-classes into the fold; but somehow there is not much visible progress to be recorded. The church scandals multiply in spite of pastors and people, and the workingmen decline to show themselves at places of worship, although the number of places of worship and of church-members steadily increases.

We are sorry not to notice in any of the discussions on the subject a more frank and searching examination of the reason why religion does not act more powerfully as a rule of conduct. Until such an examination is made, and its certain results boldly faced by church reformers, the church cannot become any more of a help to right living than it is now, be this little or much. The first thing which such an examination would reveal is a thing which is in everybody’s mind and on everybody’s tongue in private, but which is apt to be evaded or only slightly alluded to at ecclesiastical synods and conventions–we mean the loss of faith in the dogmatic part of Christianity. People do not believe in the fall, the atonement, the resurrection, and a future state of reward and punishment at all, or do not believe in them with the certainty and vividness which are needed to make faith a constant influence on man’s daily life. They do not believe they will be damned for sin with the assurance they once did, and they are consequently indifferent to most of what is said to them of the need of repentance. They do not believe the story of Christ’s life and the theory of his character and attributes given in the New Testament, or they regard them as merely a picturesque background to his moral teachings, about which a Christian may avoid coming to any positive conclusion.

No man who keeps himself familiar with the intellectual and scientific movements of the day, however devout a Christian he may be, likes to question himself as to his beliefs about these matters, or would like to have to define accurately where his faith ended and his doubts began. If he is assailed in discussion by a sceptic and his combativeness roused, he will probably proclaim himself an implicit and literal acceptor of the gospel narratives; but he will not be able to maintain this mental attitude alone in his own room. The effort that has been made by Unitarians and others to meet this difficulty by making Christ’s influence and authority rest on his moral teachings and example, without the support of a divine nature or mission or sacrifice, has failed. The Christian Church cannot be held together as a great social force by his teaching or example as a moral philosopher. A church organized on this theory speedily becomes a lecture association or a philanthropic club, of about as much aid to conduct as Freemasonry. Christ’s sermons need the touch of supernatural authority to make them impressive enough for the work of social regeneration, and his life was too uneventful and the society in which he lived too simple, to give his example real power over the imagination of a modern man who regards him simply as a social reformer.