The effect of religion on the formation of character [essay by Norman L. Beurle, 21 March 1901]

[Editor: This essay by Norman L. Beurle was published in The Ballarat Star, 21 March 1901; it was the winning entry in the essay section of the Ballarat literary competition in October 1900.]

The effect of religion on the formation of character.

(A first prize essay, South street competitions.)

All sane opinion testifies to the supreme importance of character, and all true educational effort, both formative and reformative, aims at the harmonious development of all its various parts. So many faculties are combined in this composite possession, so varied are the forces which go toward its final settlement that any discussion relating to it must, if adequate, cover a large area. But in the present instance, we are, happily, limited in our view, and can therefore deal with it more exhaustively than if we were to endeavor to treat the whole scope of the subject.

Moral scientists have described and classified the various forces that act upon human character. These forces are many, but out of them all stand two in unrivalled importance and power. They are, according to our authorities, heredity and environment.

Heredity, shortly defined, is the force of natural tendencies received from ancestors, recent or remote.

Environment, similarly treated, is the force of surrounding objects and actions in relation to their effect on character. We are not giving dictionary definitions, but rather the sense of the words in the present connection. Beside these two, all the forces of character-production pale into insignificance, or, at least, into minor importance. Religion, as a factor in our ultimate development, partakes of the power of both.

We receive certain religious tendencies from our parents. We also receive certain religious impressions from our surroundings. Of these, the relative values vary infinitely in various cases. So much so, that it would be rash to opine whether received religious tendencies are more or less powerful in the finished article than impressions gained from our surroundings.

Whichever be the stronger, the importance of religion as a factor in character-production cannot be seriously questioned. Some characters may form, some may even attain, to a high moral standard, without it. We have had instances of this. But because Thomas Huxley and a handful of others reach a high level of moral excellence, though entirely out of touch with all existing religious teaching, it does not follow that religion, as a formative influence on character, is to be discounted.

It does not even prove that religion had no share in the production of those virtues, which some shallow thinkers consider a formidable negative argument against the value of religion. To take the example cited:— How much of the moral rectitude and hate of evil that have made Huxley respected, even by his opponents, is to be traced to the forces received from his Puritan ancestry?

With Brutus, we “pause for a reply.” Of course the argument is two-edged, and we do not claim that Puritan ancestry is wholly accountable for Huxley’s grandeur of character, or we should be confronted speedily by the difficulty of accounting for the villain in a family of long-continued good report.

But, we say, there is no ground for asserting that the beauty and strength of such a character as the one referred to are the result of entirely non-religious forces. On the contrary, we have powerful reasons for thinking otherwise.

But we have stronger evidence of the positive effect of religion on the character of man.

Taking the term “Religion”‘ in its broad and liberal sense the strong characters of the world have been religious. We do not say the noble, nor even the most successful as nobility and success are usually understood. We say, the strong, the telling characters.

Why, the man whose system holds sway over millions of our fellow subjects in the East, besides millions of others, was a religious force, first and chiefly. The man who cost us so many precious lives in Egypt and the Soudan was a religious fanatic, a follower of the greater religious power gone before. The dominating force in the characters of such men as Cromwell, Havelock, Gordon, Stanley, and Livingstone was their religious zeal.

The great workers of the world are almost exclusively religious men; not narrowly religious, perhaps, nor outwardly demonstrative of their piety, but men of deep humble, reverent Godliness. Take the realm of literature, and read its roll of honor.

Listen as the grand old names come forth in imposing array, and ask yourself what religion meant to these men:— Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton; Wordsworth, Goethe, and Tennyson; Browning, Longfellow, and Whittier; Scott, Thackeray, and Dickens; Macaulay, Carlyle, and Ruskin. Why, the kings of letters are religious men, in the period covered at least.

Even in the realm of science, that happy hunting ground of the secularist, are to be found some of the brightest examples of undying fidelity to the purest and best religious principles. We may not number them, perhaps, in this or that ecclesiastical organisation, but the same calm spirit of deep reverence for things religious characterised them so long as we remember the names of Agassiz, Kelvin, Faraday, Virchow, Newton, Herschel, and Drummond, we need have no fear that religion is fatal to scientific accuracy and calmness of judgment.

The great artists and musicians have been nearly all religious men. There is no master-mind among musical atheists. Atheism is fatal to harmony. It is the soul and essence of all discord.

Religious zeal has given us nearly all our great works of art, and some countries might justly ascribe all the glory of their pictures to the religious spirit.

In the warrior, poet, author, statesman, scientist, artist, and musician, the strong influence of religion asserts itself, and always, mark you, in an elevating fashion. Sceptics may scoff, cynics and secularists may sneer but it is never the truly religious man whom they justly scorn. It is the unavailing imitation of piety, not the genuine and undebased substance, which excites their criticism. But so far, it is to be noted, we have not suggested the one fact that stamps religion as the greatest force in the right development of character.

The chief glory of a religion lies in its power. Paul gloried in the Gospel, “for,” said he, “it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” The greatest power employed in the grandest work! So the crowning glory of our religion is its effect upon the lives of men. We speak advisedly, keeping steadily in view the fact that insincerity is rampant and shams by no means uncommon, and we say, and say it too with exultant gladness and devout joy, that the most honorable, pure, and right characters obtainable are to be found among the heroes known and unknown of the Christian Church. The mere mention of representative names would exhaust the limits of this essay. But it is not necessary to repeat names that are blazing across the history of our land.

From the time when the cursing, forsworn fisherman became the inspired Apostle of Pentecost, to the days when, as now, the criminal and wretched of the modern city are transformed into reputable citizens, the power of the Gospel has gleamed forth like a tower of light and strength for the renewing and regenerating of fallen human character.

The secret of this ennobling power of true religious thought is not far to seek.

Every religious system worthy of the name provides some more or less exalted example, at whose standard its devotees are to aim, and who is to be the final test of their merit or demerit.

Whether it be Odin among the gallant Norsemen; Confucius and Buddha in the ancient temples of the East; Mohammed among the Arabic races; whether it be the vague conceptions of Ormazd and Ahriman among the Gushers, or the peerless, dazzling example of the one Divine Man; there is in each and every system a more or less urgent command to approach as nearly as possible a high and noble pattern.

It has been left, apparently, for modern times to introduce a form of worship, which strives after conformation to all that is diabolical and obscene, in the devil-worship which, we are assured, goes on at the present time in parts of Europe.

In other cases there is some attempt after the realisation of a noble and pure ideal, and as that attempt becomes more strenuous in its action and more successful in its results, so the religion becomes more and more effective in its moral upbuilding. The religion which gives the highest example for imitation and provides the greatest facilities for its reproduction is the most valuable and divine. Such a religion will be of paramount importance in the building and strengthening of moral fibre, and the producing of a strong and healthy character.

The religion of Jesus Christ is incomparably in advance of all other known systems of moral architecture, because of its compliance with these two great conditions.

It provides the highest of all examples, the Holy One and Just, and it gives the greatest facility for the reproduction of His characteristics— “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.”

There can be no higher example than God Himself, and there can be no greater facility for attaining to the standard set than absolute re-creation on the prescribed lines, such as, the Word assures us, has been wrought upon the man whose “life is hid with Christ in God.”

The other systems give a more or less admirable example, and are silent as the grave upon the means of reproduction, save in a few cases where physical torture is pointed out as the way to excellence. This way, alas, stained with the blood of hermit and dervish, of fakir and fanatic, has led, and still leads, only to that Land of Despair, of which the poet sings—

“The dark, remorseless deep
Beareth us onward to another land,
Wherein no flowers gleam, but willows weep
Around the margin of that silent sea
Of wasted hopes throughout eternity.”

But, in bright contrast with such a prospect, the Gospel of Christ rings out in glad invitation to men long disappointed with broken reeds and faithless supports. It says “I will cleanse you,” then “I will renew you,” then “I will sustain you.” It is prompt, drastic, thorough, and lasting. It thus complies with the requirements of a character-building force. Indeed, not only does it strengthen the good and purge away the bad, but it implants new traits of character, new desires, new standards of conduct in the personality into which it is granted entrance. Rightly received and enthroned, it corrects the moral measures of the soul, sets it free from the thraldom of tradition and usage, provides an unfailing test for all future worth, purifies and exalts the affections, permeates the mental atmosphere with the spirit of gentleness and love, and sets free a thousand generous impulses too long prisoned by the powers of darkness.

Truly, as we have seen, some of these glories of human character are achieved by men not calling themselves religious. Well, so be it. This merely assures us that man, “made in the image of God,” has not yet, in every case, forsworn all trace of the Divine Hand.

These splashes of Heavenly gold on the dross of degenerate nature are the last remaining evidences of the touch of the Great Master. Let them not be despised. What there is of them is good; but, mark you, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh, that which is born of the spirit is spirit,” and if these characteristics be not of the earth, they bear the impress of the Heavenly, and, as such, are traceable to Heavenly influences. Probably, of all the effects of religion upon character which we have so far noted, the most noteworthy is the setting up of new standards.

There is no greater contrast observable between the truly religious and the non-religious man than in regard to their standards. Indeed, all the difference might be covered by that term. The non-religious man takes his standard of morality, of business principle, of social affection, and of civic duty, from the example of his fellow men; the Christian man takes his standard more or less faithfully from that of Christ. We are ignoring, for the present, unreal Christianity, and speaking only of the true, though imperfect, type. Now, “as the heavens are higher than the earth,” so is Christ’s standard higher than that of the mere human soul. To dignify Shakespeare’s phrase, He is “the model of eternity.” What shall we say, then of the effect on character produced by even an approximation to the ideal of Jesus Christ? The poet admonishes us—

“He who means a star
Shoots higher far than he who means a tree,”

but here we are told to aim at the Source and Centre of all starry systems, and the Giver of all created light.

The philosopher advises

“Hitch your waggon to a star,”

but here we have the opportunity to draw force and inspiration from the very Sun of Heaven.

If religion in general be an uplifting and elevating influence, how shall we describe the power of this faith which outshines all others as the sun outshines the taper? In spite of the bigotry and intolerance resulting from warped and false interpretations of Divine truth, notwithstanding all the selfishness that “follows the loaves and fishes,” and in spite of the cant and hypocrisy and the crawling meanness practised under cover of its name, the Christian religion is the grandest, purest mightiest power that has ever moulded the wills and thoughts of men.

But, again, were there no splendid examples of valor, wisdom, and purity, in the days before the advent of Christ? We admit, as before, the existence of these shining exhibits of Divine power. But the marvel of Christ’s religion is that it regenerates, ennobles, and sanctifies the poorest and humblest of men. To the fisherman, tinker, and cobbler it gives valor more sublime than that of Leonidas; wisdom more rare than that of Solon; eloquence more exalted that that of Demosthenes; and moral insight keener than that of Epictetus.

And why? Because it comes directly “from the Father of Lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of a turning;” whereas their gifts, sublime as they were, filtered down to them through the mists of pagan error, the blessings of the Christian faith come like shafts of celestial light straight from the central seat of all true illumination.

In Christ, man is “raised to Heavenly places.” To fill those places he must be changed from the vileness and wretchedness of this original state. No permanent and stationary evil of character can be permitted in the occupant of such a seat.

So the hallowing power of our Divine Redeemer comes into the realm of our thoughts and actions, and cleanses, renews, and sustains the character, until the Apostolic message again finds an illustration, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” But that fact, “in Christ,” is stated as the only one whereby not merely improvement, but regeneration, may be effected; in Christ, “who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the Light which no man can approach unto, whom no man hath seen nor can see, to whom be honor and power everlasting! Amen.”

Kenmare, 6th June, 1900.

The Ballarat Star (Ballarat, Vic.), 21 March 1901, p. 4

[Editor: Changed “exhause” to “exhaust”, “Morsemen” to “Norsemen”, “of the earth earthy” to “of the earth”.]

[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]

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