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Religio Laici

 Dim, as the borrow'd beams of moon and stars
To lonely, weary, wand'ring travellers,
Is reason to the soul; and as on high,
Those rolling fires discover but the sky
Not light us here; so reason's glimmering ray
Was lent not to assure our doubtful way,
But guide us upward to a better day.
And as those nightly tapers disappear When day's bright lord ascends our hemisphere So pale grows reason at religion's sight: So dies, and so dissolves in supernatural light.
Some few, whose lamp shone brighter, have been led From cause to cause, to Nature's secret head; And found that one first principle must be: But what, or who, that Universal He; Whether some soul incompassing this ball Unmade, unmov'd; yet making, moving all; Or various atoms' interfering dance Leapt into form (the noble work of chance;) Or this great all was from eternity; Not even the Stagirite himself could see; And Epicurus guess'd as well as he: As blindly grop'd they for a future state; As rashly judg'd of Providence and Fate: But least of all could their endeavours find What most concern'd the good of human kind.
For happiness was never to be found; But vanish'd from 'em, like enchanted ground.
One thought content the good to be enjoy'd: This, every little accident destroy'd: The wiser madmen did for virtue toil: A thorny, or at best a barren soil: In pleasure some their glutton souls would steep; But found their line too short, the well too deep; And leaky vessels which no bliss could keep.
Thus anxious thoughts in endless circles roll, Without a centre where to fix the soul: In this wild maze their vain endeavours end: How can the less the greater comprehend? Or finite reason reach infinity? For what could fathom God were more than He.
The Deist thinks he stands on firmer ground; Cries [lang g]eur{-e}ka[lang e] the mighty secret's found: God is that spring of good; supreme, and best; We, made to serve, and in that service blest; If so, some rules of worship must be given; Distributed alike to all by Heaven: Else God were partial, and to some deny'd The means his justice should for all provide.
This general worship is to PRAISE, and PRAY: One part to borrow blessings, one to pay: And when frail Nature slides into offence, The sacrifice for crimes is penitence.
Yet, since th'effects of providence, we find Are variously dispens'd to human kind; That vice triumphs, and virtue suffers here, (A brand that sovereign justice cannot bear;) Our reason prompts us to a future state: The last appeal from fortune, and from fate: Where God's all-righteous ways will be declar'd; The bad meet punishment, the good, reward.
Thus man by his own strength to Heaven would soar: And would not be oblig'd to God for more.
Vain, wretched creature, how art thou misled To think thy wit these god-like notions bred! These truths are not the product of thy mind, But dropt from Heaven, and of a nobler kind.
Reveal'd religion first inform'd thy sight, And reason saw not, till faith sprung the light.
Hence all thy natural worship takes the source: 'Tis revelation what thou think'st discourse.
Else how com'st thou to see these truths so clear, Which so obscure to heathens did appear? Not Plato these, nor Aristotle found: Nor he whose wisdom oracles renown'd.
Hast thou a wit so deep, or so sublime, Or canst thou lower dive, or higher climb? Canst thou, by reason, more of God-head know Than Plutarch, Seneca, or Cicero? Those giant wits, in happier ages born, (When arms, and arts did Greece and Rome adorn) Knew no such system; no such piles could raise Of natural worship, built on pray'r and praise, To one sole God.
Nor did remorse, to expiate sin, prescribe: But slew their fellow creatures for a bribe: The guiltless victim groan'd for their offence; And cruelty, and blood was penitence.
If sheep and oxen could atone for men Ah! at how cheap a rate the rich might sin! And great oppressors might Heaven's wrath beguile By offering his own creatures for a spoil! Dar'st thou, poor worm, offend Infinity? And must the terms of peace be given by thee? Then thou art justice in the last appeal; Thy easy God instructs thee to rebel: And, like a king remote, and weak, must take What satisfaction thou art pleas'd to make.
But if there be a pow'r too just, and strong To wink at crimes, and bear unpunish'd wrong; Look humbly upward, see his will disclose The forfeit first, and then the fine impose: A mulct thy poverty could never pay Had not Eternal Wisdom found the way: And with celestial wealth supply'd thy store: His justice makes the fine, his mercy quits the score.
See God descending in thy human frame; Th'offended, suff'ring in th'offender's name: All thy misdeeds to him imputed see; And all his righteousness devolv'd on thee.
For granting we have sinn'd, and that th'offence Of man, is made against omnipotence, Some price, that bears proportion, must be paid; And infinite with infinite be weigh'd.
See then the Deist lost: remorse for vice, Not paid, or paid, inadequate in price: What farther means can reason now direct, Or what relief from human wit expect? That shows us sick; and sadly are we sure Still to be sick, till Heav'n reveal the cure: If then Heaven's will must needs be understood, (Which must, if we want cure, and Heaven be good) Let all records of will reveal'd be shown; With Scripture, all in equal balance thrown, And our one sacred Book will be that one.
Proof needs not here, for whether we compare That impious, idle, superstitious ware Of rites, lustrations, offerings, (which before, In various ages, various countries bore) With Christian faith and virtues, we shall find None answ'ring the great ends of human kind, But this one rule of life: that shows us best How God may be appeas'd, and mortals blest.
Whether from length of time its worth we draw, The world is scarce more ancient than the law: Heav'n's early care prescrib'd for every age; First, in the soul, and after, in the page.
Or, whether more abstractedly we look, Or on the writers, or the written Book, Whence, but from Heav'n, could men unskill'd in arts, In several ages born, in several parts, Weave such agreeing truths? or how, or why Should all conspire to cheat us with a lie? Unask'd their pains, ungrateful their advice, Starving their gain, and martyrdom their price.
If on the Book itself we cast our view, Concurrent heathens prove the story true: The doctrine, miracles; which must convince, For Heav'n in them appeals to human sense: And though they prove not, they confirm the cause, When what is taught agrees with Nature's laws.
Then for the style; majestic and divine, It speaks no less than God in every line: Commanding words; whose force is still the same As the first fiat that produc'd our frame.
All faiths beside, or did by arms ascend; Or sense indulg'd has made mankind their friend: This only doctrine does our lusts oppose: Unfed by Nature's soil, in which it grows; Cross to our interests, curbing sense, and sin; Oppress'd without, and undermin'd within, It thrives through pain; its own tormentors tires; And with a stubborn patience still aspires.
To what can reason such effects assign, Transcending Nature, but to laws divine: Which in that sacred volume are contain'd; Sufficient, clear, and for that use ordain'd.
But stay: the Deist here will urge anew, No supernatural worship can be true: Because a general law is that alone Which must to all, and everywhere be known: A style so large as not this Book can claim Nor aught that bears reveal'd religion's name.
'Tis said the sound of a Messiah's Birth Is gone through all the habitable earth: But still that text must be confin'd alone To what was then inhabited, and known: And what Provision could from thence accrue To Indian souls, and worlds discover'd new? In other parts it helps, that ages past, The Scriptures there were known, and were embrac'd, Till sin spread once again the shades of night: What's that to these who never saw the light? Of all objections this indeed is chief To startle reason, stagger frail belief: We grant, 'tis true, that Heav'n from human sense Has hid the secret paths of Providence: But boundless wisdom, boundless mercy, may Find ev'n for those bewilder'd souls, a way: If from his nature foes may pity claim, Much more may strangers who ne'er heard his name.
And though no name be for salvation known, But that of his eternal Son's alone; Who knows how far transcending goodness can Extend the merits of that Son to man? Who knows what reasons may his mercy lead; Or ignorance invincible may plead? Not only charity bids hope the best, But more the great Apostle has expressed.
That, if the Gentiles (whom no law inspir'd,) By nature did what was by law requir'd; They, who the written rule had never known, Were to themselves both rule and law alone: To nature's plain indictment they shall plead; And, by their conscience, be condemn'd or freed.
Most righteous doom! because a rule reveal'd Is none to those, from whom it was conceal'd.
Then those who follow'd reason's dictates right; Liv'd up, and lifted high their natural light; With Socrates may see their Maker's Face, While thousand rubric-martyrs want a place.
Nor does it baulk my charity, to find Th'Egyptian Bishop of another mind: For, though his Creed eternal truth contains, 'Tis hard for man to doom to endless pains All who believ'd not all, his zeal requir'd, Unless he first could prove he was inspir'd.
Then let us either think he meant to say This faith, where publish'd, was the only way; Or else conclude that, Arius to confute, The good old man, too eager in dispute, Flew high; and as his Christian fury rose Damn'd all for heretics who durst oppose.
Thus far my charity this path has tried; (A much unskilful, but well meaning guide:) Yet what they are, ev'n these crude thoughts were bred By reading that, which better thou hast read, Thy matchless Author's work: which thou, my friend, By well translating better dost commend: Those youthful hours which, of thy equals most In toys have squander'd, or in vice have lost, Those hours hast thou to nobler use employ'd; And the severe delights of truth enjoyed.
Witness this weighty book, in which appears The crabbed toil of many thoughtful years, Spent by thy author in the sifting care Of rabbins' old sophisticated ware From gold divine; which he who well can sort May afterwards make algebra a sport.
A treasure, which if country-curates buy, They Junius and Tremellius may defy: Save pains in various readings, and translations; And without Hebrew make most learn'd quotations.
A work so full with various learning fraught, So nicely ponder'd, yet so strongly wrought, As nature's height and art's last hand requir'd: As much as man could compass, uninspir'd.
Where we may see what errors have been made Both in the copier's and translator's trade: How Jewish, Popish, interests have prevail'd, And where infallibility has fail'd.
For some, who have his secret meaning guess'd, Have found our author not too much a priest: For fashion-sake he seems to have recourse To Pope, and Councils, and tradition's force: But he that old traditions could subdue, Could not but find the weakness of the new: If Scripture, though deriv'd from Heavenly birth, Has been but carelessly preserv'd on earth; If God's own people, who of God before Knew what we know, and had been promis'd more, In fuller terms, of Heaven's assisting care, And who did neither time, nor study spare To keep this Book untainted, unperplex'd; Let in gross errors to corrupt the text: Omitted paragraphs, embroil'd the sense; With vain traditions stopp'd the gaping fence, Which every common hand pull'd up with ease: What safety from such brushwood-helps as these? If written words from time are not secur'd, How can we think have oral sounds endur'd? Which thus transmitted, if one mouth has fail'd, Immortal lies on ages are entail'd: And that some such have been, is prov'd too plain; If we consider interest, church, and gain.
Oh but says one, tradition set aside, Where can we hope for an unerring guide? For since th' original Scripture has been lost, All copies disagreeing, maim'd the most, Or Christian faith can have no certain ground, Or truth in Church tradition must be found.
Such an omniscient church we wish indeed; 'Twere worth both Testaments, and cast in the Creed: But if this Mother be a guide so sure, As can all doubts resolve, all truth secure; Then her infallibility, as well Where copies are corrupt, or lame, can tell? Restore lost Canon with as little pains, As truly explicate what still remains: Which yet no Council dare pretend to do; Unless like Esdras, they could write it new: Strange confidence, still to interpret true, Yet not be sure that all they have explain'd, Is in the blest Original contain'd.
More safe, and much more modest 'tis, to say God would not leave mankind without a way: And that the Scriptures, though not everywhere Free from corruption, or entire, or clear, Are uncorrupt, sufficient, clear, entire, In all things which our needful faith require.
If others in the same glass better see 'Tis for themselves they look, but not for me: For my salvation must its doom receive Not from what others , but what I believe.
Must all tradition then be set aside? This to affirm were ignorance, or pride.
Are there not many points, some needful sure To saving faith, that Scripture leaves obscure? Which every sect will wrest a several way (For what one sect interprets, all sects may:) We hold, and say we prove from Scripture plain, That Christ is God ; the bold Socinian From the same Scripture urges he's but man .
Now what appeal can end th'important suit; Both parts talk loudly, but the Rule is mute? Shall I speak plain, and in a nation free Assume an honest layman's liberty? I think (according to my little skill, To my own Mother-Church submitting still) That many have been sav'd, and many may, Who never heard this question brought in play.
Th' unletter'd Christian, who believes in gross, Plods on to Heaven; and ne'er is at a loss: For the Strait-gate would be made straiter yet, Were none admitted there but men of wit.
The few, by nature form'd, with learning fraught, Born to instruct, as others to be taught, Must study well the sacred page; and see Which doctrine, this, or that, does best agree With the whole tenor of the Work divine: And plainliest points to Heaven's reveal'd design: Which exposition flows from genuine sense; And which is forc'd by wit and eloquence.
Not that tradition's parts are useless here: When general, old, disinteress'd and clear: That ancient Fathers thus expound the page, Gives truth the reverend majesty of age: Confirms its force, by biding every test; For best authority's next Rules are best.
And still the nearer to the Spring we go More limpid, more unsoil'd the waters flow.
Thus, first traditions were a proof alone; Could we be certain such they were, so known: But since some flaws in long descent may be, They make not truth but probability.
Even Arius and Pelagius durst provoke To what the centuries preceding spoke.
Such difference is there in an oft-told tale: But truth by its own sinews will prevail.
Tradition written therefore more commends Authority, than what from voice descends: And this, as perfect as its kind can be, Rolls down to us the Sacred History: Which, from the Universal Church receiv'd, Is tried, and after, for its self believ'd.
The partial Papists would infer from hence Their church, in last resort, should judge the sense.
But first they would assume, with wondrous art, Themselves to be the whole, who are but part Of that vast frame, the Church; yet grant they were The handers down, can they from thence infer A right t'interpret? or would they alone Who brought the present, claim it for their own? The Book's a common largess to mankind; Not more for them, than every man design'd: The welcome news is in the letter found; The carrier's not commission'd to expound.
It speaks itself, and what it does contain, In all things needful to be known, is plain.
In times o'ergrown with rust and ignorance, A gainful trade their clergy did advance: When want of learning kept the laymen low, And none but priests were authoriz'd to know: When what small knowledge was, in them did dwell; And he a God who could but read or spell; Then Mother Church did mightily prevail: She parcell'd out the Bible by retail: But still expounded what she sold or gave; To keep it in her power to damn and save: Scripture was scarce, and as the market went, Poor laymen took salvation on content; As needy men take money, good or bad: God's Word they had not, but the priests they had.
Yet, whate'er false conveyances they made, The lawyer still was certain to be paid.
In those dark times they learn'd their knack so well.
That by long use they grew infallible: At last, a knowing age began t'enquire If they the Book, or that did them inspire: And, making narrower search they found, though late, That what they thought the priest's was their estate: Taught by the will produc'd, (the written Word) How long they had been cheated on record.
Then, every man who saw the title fair, Claim'd a child's part, and put in for a share: Consulted soberly his private good; And sav'd himself as cheap as e'er he could.
'Tis true, my friend, (and far be flattery hence) This good had full as bad a consequence: The Book thus put in every vulgar hand, Which each presum'd he best could understand, The common rule was made the common prey; And at the mercy of the rabble lay.
The tender page with horny fists was gall'd; And he was gifted most that loudest bawl'd: The spirit gave the doctoral degree: And every member of a company Was of his trade, and of the Bible free.
Plain truths enough for needful use they found; But men would still be itching to expound: Each was ambitious of th'obscurest place, No measure ta'en from knowledge, all from grace .
Study and pains were now no more their care: Texts were explain'd by fasting, and by prayer: This was the fruit the private spirit brought; Occasion'd by great zeal, and little thought.
While crowds unlearn'd, with rude devotion warm, About the sacred viands buzz and swarm, The fly-blown text creates a crawling brood; And turns to maggots what was meant for food.
A thousand daily sects rise up, and die; A thousand more the perish'd race supply: So all we make of Heaven's discover'd Will Is, not to have it, or to use it ill.
The danger's much the same; on several shelves If others wreck us, or we wreck ourselves.
What then remains, but, waving each extreme, The tides of ignorance, and pride to stem? Neither so rich a treasure to forego; Nor proudly seek beyond our pow'r to know: Faith is not built on disquisitions vain; The things we must believe, are few, and plain: But since men will believe more than they need; And every man will make himself a creed: In doubtful questions 'tis the safest way To learn what unsuspected ancients say: For 'tis not likely we should higher soar In search of Heav'n, than all the Church before: Nor can we be deceiv'd, unless we see The Scripture, and the Fathers disagree.
If after all, they stand suspected still, (For no man's faith depends upon his will;) 'Tis some relief, that points not clearly known, Without much hazard may be let alone: And, after hearing what our Church can say, If still our reason runs another way, That private reason 'tis more just to curb, Than by disputes the public peace disturb: For points obscure are of small use to learn: But common quiet is mankind's concern.
Thus have I made my own opinions clear: Yet neither praise expect, nor censure fear: And this unpolish'd, rugged verse, I chose; As fittest for discourse, and nearest prose: For, while from sacred truth I do not swerve, Tom Sternhold's, or Tom Shadwell's rhymes will serve.

Poem by John Dryden
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