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THE general scheme of thought on which the contents of this volume are based was sketched out many years ago. Large portions of it have for a considerable time been delivered as lectures at Manchester College. It is only at the earnest request of friends that it is now reduced to book form, and, with various additions, given to the public. Its origin, making it a small part of a complete curriculum, may explain what would otherwise seem to be serious omissions. The philosophical discussion of the fundamental doctrines of religion, a review of the most important problems affecting the use and interpretation of the Bible, and the question of miracles as the guarantee of a dogmatic revelation, were provided for in other courses; and an exposition and criticism of modern schools of theology, and an appreciation of individual writers, however eminent, would have demanded an undue enlargement of the course, and hardly fell within its proper scope.
I am well aware that even within the confessional churches many theologians consider themselves only loosely bound by their standards, and that the Catholic Church itself is feeling the effects of a wave of ‘modernity”; but till the standards are altered, they hold the field, against individual opinion, as the collective expression of the Church's thought, and it may be that the constant pressure of their dead weight will in time suppress every freer movement. Their leading ideas are still prevalent, and, in spite of dissentient voices, are seriously maintained by numbers of cultivated and earnest
It was with these publicly recognized doctrines that I had to deal, leaving to the critical historian an estimate of the views of individual thinkers. While I have been compelled by the evidence, as it presented itself to my own mind, to reject some long-established doctrines, and to criticize them with perfect frankness, it has been my endeavour to do so in no controversial spirit. I have wished to treat every serious form of thought with sincere respect, and, where I am unable to accept it, to trace it to its spiritual roots, and to conserve some underlying truth, which may at once appeal to the religious sensibility and satisfy the instructed intellect. For the statement of ecclesiastical doctrines I have always resorted to established authorities, and it has been my earnest endeavour not to misrepresent views from which I dissent. In presenting adverse arguments I have used only such as have seriously affected my own judgment; and even to those who regard my denials as fallacious it may be useful to know exactly the difficulties that press upon the mind of another. I have been anxious to exhibit fairly such current arguments as appear to me unsound; and if in any instance I have failed to do so, my want of success is due to a defect of understanding, and not to any wish to weaken the effect of an argument by placing it in a false light. How far I have succeeded I must leave it to others to judge. I can only hope that in the changing thought in the midst of which we live my work may afford some help to a few seeking souls, and enable them, through the imperfect forms of thought, to discern, if only in dim outline, the eternal Spirit of Truth.
I must acknowledge, with warm thanks, the generosity and confidence with which the Committee of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association undertook to publish a work which they had not seen, and in the preparation of which they exacted no conditions. The authorities of that Association are well aware that it is not in me to write a party manifesto, and they can have no wish to receive such at my hands. This fact proves, what it may be as well to state explicitly, that members of the Association are in no way committed to any opinions which are expressed in this volume, nor am I committed to any opinions but my own, and to these only so long as the evidence appears to me to render them certain or probable. We have no authoritative creed to which individual thought must bow. We all alike have but one aim, Truth; and truth presents itself in many partial phases to differently constituted minds. There are diversities of opinions, but one Spirit ; and all faithful souls are moving, on different sides, towards one luminous peak, where Truth stands transfigured in heavenly light, far above the fogs and doubts of earth.
OXFORD, October, 1907