How To Avoid The Cage Stage

John Angell James
Addresses To Young Men
pp. 153-159

Having made up your minds, upon evidence, as to what is truth, then have as little to do with religious controversy as you can. Seek a practical religion, rather than a polemical religion. Treat it as a something rather to be done than to be talked about. Be not fond of disputation. Be no religious knight-errant, fighting against every one who differs from you. A pugnacious disposition, whether it be from natural combativeness, or prevailing vanity—is a dangerous thing to piety, which, like the dew, falls only in a still atmosphere, and lies longest in the shade. Be too much taken up with adding “to your faith virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, temperance; and to temperance, patience; and to patience, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, charity” (2 Pet. 1:5-7), to have much time for strife and contention.

Avoid Vain Curiosity.

Let it be your great concern to eat of the Bread of Life, pure and unadulterated—rather than mix up with it the grit and chaff of controversy; and to drink, and not trouble and foul, the clear Water of Life. Avoid a taste for curiosity in things that are unrevealed in Scripture—a speculative bias concerning mysterious things—and a distempered zeal for what, if true, is comparatively little. “There is,” says an old author, “a kind of intemperance in most of us, a wild and irregular desire to make things more or less than they are in themselves, and to remove them well-nigh out of sight by our additions and deductions. Few there are who can be content with truth, and settle and rest in it as it appears in that nakedness and simplicity in which it was first brought forth. But men are ever drawing out conclusions of their own, spinning out and weaving speculations—thin, unsuitable, and unfit to be worn—which yet they glory in and defend with more heat and animosity than they do that truth which is necessary and by itself sufficient without this speculation. For these are creatures of our own, shaped out in our fantasy, and so dressed up by us with all minuteness and curiosity of diligence, that we fall at last in love with them, and apply ourselves to them with that closeness and adherence which dulls and takes off the edge of our affection to that which is most necessary—and so leaves that neglected and last in our thoughts, which is the main thing.”

Love the ‘closet of devotion’ more than the ‘arena of contention’—study the Bible more than the ‘volume of angry discussion’—and seek the company of the sons of peace, rather than association with those who say, “We are for war.” It is well, of course, to make yourselves acquainted generally with the subjects of controversy, especially those of the leading controversies of the day. No young man, for instance, should be ignorant of the evidences of Christianity, or of the great principles of Evangelical truth—as opposed to Rationalism or Unitarianism; or of Protestantism as against Popery, in all their range and bearing. These are the questions of the day. And in order to contend earnestly for the “faith once delivered to the saints,” we must know what the faith is, and both how it is assailed, and how it can be defended. Every man should know what he believes, and why he believes it; and thus “be able to give a reason, with meekness and fear, of the hope that is in him.” He should take his side, and valiantly keep it.

Cultivate Piety, Avoid Dead Orthodoxy.

All this is proper and necessary, but it is a different thing to our reducing true religion to a mere matter of controversy. How many are there whose whole godliness is a mere contest for a creed, or a church, without their having any true faith in Christ, or their being members of the church which he has purchased with his blood! What multitudes are now fierce for Protestantism, who have never embraced with their whole hearts one great and true Protestant principle! Oh, that men were more anxious to practice Christianity than argue about it! That they were as zealous for holiness as they seem to be for truth, and as anxious to imbibe the spirit and exhibit the image of Christ in their disposition, character, and conduct—as they are concerned to embody his doctrines in their creeds! Young men, be ardent lovers of the truth, diligent seekers after it, constant followers of it, and impassioned admirers, valiant defenders, and zealous promoters of it—but at the same time, not pugnacious, restless, bitter, and bigoted disputants for it.

Be Ye Steadfast & Unmoveable.

Having received, upon satisfactory evidence, the system of doctrine which you believe to be Scriptural, do not allow your convictions to be shaken, or your faith to be staggered, on account of any difficulties with which it may seem to be attended; nor by any cavils and objections brought against it, which you may not be able to answer. It is of great importance for you to remember, that there is no truth, however evident and certain it may be, against which an ingenious and dexterous sophist may not advance some plausible objections; and in connection with which, its most assured believers may not see some difficulties which they are not able to explain. Mathematical science is the only department of human inquiry which excludes all doubt and difficulty. Even the scientist often finds many difficulties in his path which he is unable to clear up; some ultimate laws which perplex and confound him; and some results which baffle him. Does he abandon himself to skepticism? Certainly not. He credits his proofs, he relies upon his ascertained facts, and says, “I am puzzled, I see a difficulty which I cannot yet explain, but I hold fast my conviction of the truth of what I have proved, and wait for further light to clear up what is now dark. I cannot give up evidence, because of difficulty, and thus relinquish what I do know for what I do not know.” Is not this perfectly rational and entirely philosophical? In this way I am anxious that you should act in reference to true religion, its doctrines, and its controversies. Receive whatever truth revelation makes known, and because it makes it known, no matter with what difficulty it may be attended, and wait for further light to enlighten what is now dark.

By difficulty, I mean something that you cannot perfectly understand—something that you cannot entirely harmonize with your previous notions; something that you cannot make quite to agree with some other portions of divine truth; something which may have been objected to by others, whose objections you feel yourselves in some measure unable to answer. If convinced that any doctrine or fact is revealed, let not any difficulty connected with it confound you or shake your convictions. It may be well sometimes, when startled and perplexed with difficulties on one side of a question—to look at the difficulties on the other side. Suppose you reject a doctrine, or a system, because of something that you cannot explain—should you not encounter difficulties far more formidable in the opposite system? Have you not more evidence and less difficulty on the side you have taken, than you would find if you were to pass over to the other side?

There is a one-sided way of looking at these matters practiced by some people, which you should avoid. In very many cases, conviction must rest upon the balance of evidence and difficulty, there being some seeming proof and some sound objection on each side, and our business is to determine which side has more of the former, and less of the latter. I cannot, therefore, give you a more important piece of advice than this, never abandon ‘evidence’ to follow ‘difficulty’, for it is like turning away from a lantern, somewhat dim it may be, but still a steady light; or from the moon, in a mist perhaps, to run after a temporary glimmer.

And at the same time, do not allow yourselves to be driven from your convictions, because you cannot refute all the arguments, or remove all the difficulties, or meet all the objections, which may be brought against them. There are men, I repeat, of such subtle minds, of such logical power, and so clever in argument, as to make the worse appear the better cause; who can by fallacy and sophistry sustain the most palpable error, and make that truth doubtful which has to you the luminousness of the sun. Never be ashamed to say to such an opponent, “I cannot refute your arguments, nor meet your objections, but I am unmoved by them.” And I would reiterate the advice I have already given—avoid controversy! Having found truth—believe it, love it, enjoy it, practice it—but do not be eager to dispute about it.

Cultivate a love of truth and a spirit of charity—in proper balance.

Whatever may be your convictions of the truth of the religious opinions you have embraced, cultivate with a love of truth, a spirit of charity. There is a medium which it should be your concern to discover, between ‘indifference to truth’ and a ‘distempered zeal for truth’—between ‘latitudinarianism’ on the one hand, and ‘bigotry’ on the other. There are some who make truth everything in religion, others who make it nothing—the former are the advocates of an unsanctified orthodoxy; the latter of an equally unsanctified charity—the one are the worshipers of a creed, the other, the iconoclasts of all creeds—the former say, “No matter how well a man acts, if he does not hold these opinions;” the others reply, “It is no matter what opinions he holds, provided he acts well.” Both are wrong. There can be no right belief of the truth, which does not lead to holiness—and there can be no holiness which does not spring from right belief of the truth.

Be therefore, the zealous advocates of truth—for error is sin. Error cannot sanctify. If a man may disbelieve one truth, and be innocent, he may disbelieve two; if two, ten; if ten, half the Bible; if half the Bible, the whole. Affect no false candor, no spurious charity, as if all sentiments were equally unimportant. This is treason against truth, and the God of truth. Let not all the various sects, denominations, and creeds, appear in your eye as the beautiful colors of the rainbow. It is a false and bad figure, and the very seed of infidelity.

But, at the same time, guard against the opposite extreme of a want of charity towards those who differ from you. It is not your business, nor mine, to fix the boundary line of religious opinion which divides those who will be saved from those who will be lost. The Church of Rome, with insufferable arrogance, and a daring invasion of the prerogative of Heaven, has fixed that line in the pale of her communion. Imitate not this impious assumption.

And while you avoid this highest of all pretensions, of determining who shall or shall not be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven, guard against the lesser mischiefs of controversy. I mean that bitterness of spirit and exclusiveness of feeling which we are but too apt to cherish towards those who in lesser matters differ from us. Charity is as much a part of truth as doctrine. No man believes the Bible who rejects charity. The want of charity is as truly a heresy as a disbelief in the divinity of Christ. The want of charity will as certainly exclude a man from Heaven, as the want of faith! “Now abide faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Cor. 13:13). With one hand, lay hold of faith; with the other, lay hold of charity; then and then only, may you cherish hope.

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