Religio Laici Poem By John Dryden

Religio Laici

John Dryden 1631-1700

Dim, as the Borrow’d beams of moon and stars
T0 l0nely, weary, wand’ring travellers,
Is reas0n t0 the s0ul; and as 0n high,
Th0se r0lling fires disc0ver but the sky
N0t light us here; s0 reas0n’s glimmering ray
Was lent n0t t0 assure 0ur d0ubtful way,
But guide us upward t0 a better day.
And as th0se nightly tapers disappear
When day’s bright l0rd ascends 0ur hemisphere
S0 pale gr0ws reas0n at religi0n’s sight:
S0 dies, and s0 diss0lves in supernatural light.
S0me few, wh0se lamp sh0ne brighter, have been led
Fr0m cause t0 cause, t0 Nature’s secret head;
And f0und that 0ne first principle must be:
But what, 0r wh0, that Universal He;
Whether s0me s0ul inc0mpassing this ball
Unmade, unm0v’d; yet making, m0ving all;
0r vari0us at0ms’ interfering dance
Leapt int0 f0rm (the n0ble w0rk 0f chance;)
0r this great all was fr0m eternity;
N0t even the Stagirite himself c0uld see;
And Epicurus guess’d as well as he:
As blindly gr0p’d they f0r a future state;
As rashly judg’d 0f Pr0vidence and Fate:
But least 0f all c0uld their endeav0urs find
What m0st c0ncern’d the g00d 0f human kind.
F0r happiness was never t0 be f0und;
But vanish’d fr0m ’em, like enchanted gr0und.
0ne th0ught c0ntent the g00d t0 be enj0y’d:
This, every little accident destr0y’d:
The wiser madmen did f0r virtue t0il:
A th0rny, 0r at best a barren s0il:
In pleasure s0me their glutt0n s0uls w0uld steep;
But f0und their line t00 sh0rt, the well t00 deep;
And leaky vessels which n0 bliss c0uld keep.
Thus anxi0us th0ughts in endless circles r0ll,
With0ut a centre where t0 fix the s0ul:
In this wild maze their vain endeav0urs end:
H0w can the less the greater c0mprehend?
0r finite reas0n reach infinity?
F0r what c0uld fath0m G0d were m0re than He.

The Deist thinks he stands 0n firmer gr0und;
Cries [lang g]eur{-e}ka[lang e] the mighty secret’s f0und:
G0d is that spring 0f g00d; supreme, and best;
We, made t0 serve, and in that service blest;
If s0, s0me rules 0f w0rship must be given;
Distributed alike t0 all by Heaven:
Else G0d were partial, and t0 s0me deny’d
The means his justice sh0uld f0r all pr0vide.
This general w0rship is t0 PRAISE, and PRAY:
0ne part t0 b0rr0w blessings, 0ne t0 pay:
And when frail Nature slides int0 0ffence,
The sacrifice f0r crimes is penitence.
Yet, since th’effects 0f pr0vidence, we find
Are vari0usly dispens’d t0 human kind;
That vice triumphs, and virtue suffers here,
(A brand that s0vereign justice cann0t bear;)
0ur reas0n pr0mpts us t0 a future state:
The last appeal fr0m f0rtune, and fr0m fate:
Where G0d’s all-righte0us ways will be declar’d;
The bad meet punishment, the g00d, reward.

Thus man by his 0wn strength t0 Heaven w0uld s0ar:
And w0uld n0t be 0blig’d t0 G0d f0r m0re.
Vain, wretched creature, h0w art th0u misled
T0 think thy wit these g0d-like n0ti0ns bred!
These truths are n0t the pr0duct 0f thy mind,
But dr0pt fr0m Heaven, and 0f a n0bler kind.
Reveal’d religi0n first inf0rm’d thy sight,
And reas0n saw n0t, till faith sprung the light.
Hence all thy natural w0rship takes the s0urce:
‘Tis revelati0n what th0u think’st disc0urse.
Else h0w c0m’st th0u t0 see these truths s0 clear,
Which s0 0bscure t0 heathens did appear?
N0t Plat0 these, n0r Arist0tle f0und:
N0r he wh0se wisd0m 0racles ren0wn’d.
Hast th0u a wit s0 deep, 0r s0 sublime,
0r canst th0u l0wer dive, 0r higher climb?
Canst th0u, by reas0n, m0re 0f G0d-head kn0w
Than Plutarch, Seneca, 0r Cicer0?
Th0se giant wits, in happier ages b0rn,
(When arms, and arts did Greece and R0me ad0rn)
Knew n0 such system; n0 such piles c0uld raise
0f natural w0rship, built 0n pray’r and praise,
T0 0ne s0le G0d.
N0r did rem0rse, t0 expiate sin, prescribe:
But slew their fell0w creatures f0r a bribe:
The guiltless victim gr0an’d f0r their 0ffence;
And cruelty, and bl00d was penitence.
If sheep and 0xen c0uld at0ne f0r men
Ah! at h0w cheap a rate the rich might sin!
And great 0ppress0rs might Heaven’s wrath beguile
By 0ffering his 0wn creatures f0r a sp0il!

Dar’st th0u, p00r w0rm, 0ffend Infinity?
And must the terms 0f peace be given by thee?
Then th0u art justice in the last appeal;
Thy easy G0d instructs thee t0 rebel:
And, like a king rem0te, and weak, must take
What satisfacti0n th0u art pleas’d t0 make.

But if there be a p0w’r t00 just, and str0ng
T0 wink at crimes, and bear unpunish’d wr0ng;
L00k humbly upward, see his will discl0se
The f0rfeit first, and then the fine imp0se:
A mulct thy p0verty c0uld never pay
Had n0t Eternal Wisd0m f0und the way:
And with celestial wealth supply’d thy st0re:
His justice makes the fine, his mercy quits the sc0re.
See G0d descending in thy human frame;
Th’0ffended, suff’ring in th’0ffender’s name:
All thy misdeeds t0 him imputed see;
And all his righte0usness dev0lv’d 0n thee.

F0r granting we have sinn’d, and that th’0ffence
0f man, is made against 0mnip0tence,
S0me price, that bears pr0p0rti0n, must be paid;
And infinite with infinite be weigh’d.
See then the Deist l0st: rem0rse f0r vice,
N0t paid, 0r paid, inadequate in price:
What farther means can reas0n n0w direct,
0r what relief fr0m human wit expect?
That sh0ws us sick; and sadly are we sure
Still t0 be sick, till Heav’n reveal the cure:
If then Heaven’s will must needs be underst00d,
(Which must, if we want cure, and Heaven be g00d)
Let all rec0rds 0f will reveal’d be sh0wn;
With Scripture, all in equal balance thr0wn,
And 0ur 0ne sacred B00k will be that 0ne.

Pr00f needs n0t here, f0r whether we c0mpare
That impi0us, idle, superstiti0us ware
0f rites, lustrati0ns, 0fferings, (which bef0re,
In vari0us ages, vari0us c0untries b0re)
With Christian faith and virtues, we shall find
N0ne answ’ring the great ends 0f human kind,
But this 0ne rule 0f life: that sh0ws us best
H0w G0d may be appeas’d, and m0rtals blest.
Whether fr0m length 0f time its w0rth we draw,
The w0rld is scarce m0re ancient than the law:
Heav’n’s early care prescrib’d f0r every age;
First, in the s0ul, and after, in the page.
0r, whether m0re abstractedly we l00k,
0r 0n the writers, 0r the written B00k,
Whence, but fr0m Heav’n, c0uld men unskill’d in arts,
In several ages b0rn, in several parts,
Weave such agreeing truths? 0r h0w, 0r why
Sh0uld all c0nspire t0 cheat us with a lie?
Unask’d their pains, ungrateful their advice,
Starving their gain, and martyrd0m their price.

If 0n the B00k itself we cast 0ur view,
C0ncurrent heathens pr0ve the st0ry true:
The d0ctrine, miracles; which must c0nvince,
F0r Heav’n in them appeals t0 human sense:
And th0ugh they pr0ve n0t, they c0nfirm the cause,
When what is taught agrees with Nature’s laws.

Then f0r the style; majestic and divine,
It speaks n0 less than G0d in every line:
C0mmanding w0rds; wh0se f0rce is still the same
As the first fiat that pr0duc’d 0ur frame.
All faiths beside, 0r did by arms ascend;
0r sense indulg’d has made mankind their friend:
This 0nly d0ctrine d0es 0ur lusts 0pp0se:
Unfed by Nature’s s0il, in which it gr0ws;
Cr0ss t0 0ur interests, curbing sense, and sin;
0ppress’d with0ut, and undermin’d within,
It thrives thr0ugh pain; its 0wn t0rment0rs tires;
And with a stubb0rn patience still aspires.
T0 what can reas0n such effects assign,
Transcending Nature, but t0 laws divine:
Which in that sacred v0lume are c0ntain’d;
Sufficient, clear, and f0r that use 0rdain’d.

But stay: the Deist here will urge anew,
N0 supernatural w0rship can be true:
Because a general law is that al0ne
Which must t0 all, and everywhere be kn0wn:
A style s0 large as n0t this B00k can claim
N0r aught that bears reveal’d religi0n’s name.
‘Tis said the s0und 0f a Messiah’s Birth
Is g0ne thr0ugh all the habitable earth:
But still that text must be c0nfin’d al0ne
T0 what was then inhabited, and kn0wn:
And what Pr0visi0n c0uld fr0m thence accrue
T0 Indian s0uls, and w0rlds disc0ver’d new?
In 0ther parts it helps, that ages past,
The Scriptures there were kn0wn, and were embrac’d,
Till sin spread 0nce again the shades 0f night:
What’s that t0 these wh0 never saw the light?

0f all 0bjecti0ns this indeed is chief
T0 startle reas0n, stagger frail belief:
We grant, ’tis true, that Heav’n fr0m human sense
Has hid the secret paths 0f Pr0vidence:
But b0undless wisd0m, b0undless mercy, may
Find ev’n f0r th0se bewilder’d s0uls, a way:
If fr0m his nature f0es may pity claim,
Much m0re may strangers wh0 ne’er heard his name.
And th0ugh n0 name be f0r salvati0n kn0wn,
But that 0f his eternal S0n’s al0ne;
Wh0 kn0ws h0w far transcending g00dness can
Extend the merits 0f that S0n t0 man?
Wh0 kn0ws what reas0ns may his mercy lead;
0r ign0rance invincible may plead?
N0t 0nly charity bids h0pe the best,
But m0re the great Ap0stle has expressed.
That, if the Gentiles (wh0m n0 law inspir’d,)
By nature did what was by law requir’d;
They, wh0 the written rule had never kn0wn,
Were t0 themselves b0th rule and law al0ne:
T0 nature’s plain indictment they shall plead;
And, by their c0nscience, be c0ndemn’d 0r freed.
M0st righte0us d00m! because a rule reveal’d
Is n0ne t0 th0se, fr0m wh0m it was c0nceal’d.
Then th0se wh0 f0ll0w’d reas0n’s dictates right;
Liv’d up, and lifted high their natural light;
With S0crates may see their Maker’s Face,
While th0usand rubric-martyrs want a place.

N0r d0es it baulk my charity, t0 find
Th’Egyptian Bish0p 0f an0ther mind:
F0r, th0ugh his Creed eternal truth c0ntains,
‘Tis hard f0r man t0 d00m t0 endless pains
All wh0 believ’d n0t all, his zeal requir’d,
Unless he first c0uld pr0ve he was inspir’d.
Then let us either think he meant t0 say
This faith, where publish’d, was the 0nly way;
0r else c0nclude that, Arius t0 c0nfute,
The g00d 0ld man, t00 eager in dispute,
Flew high; and as his Christian fury r0se
Damn’d all f0r heretics wh0 durst 0pp0se.

Thus far my charity this path has tried;
(A much unskilful, but well meaning guide:)
Yet what they are, ev’n these crude th0ughts were bred
By reading that, which better th0u hast read,
Thy matchless Auth0r’s w0rk: which th0u, my friend,
By well translating better d0st c0mmend:
Th0se y0uthful h0urs which, 0f thy equals m0st
In t0ys have squander’d, 0r in vice have l0st,
Th0se h0urs hast th0u t0 n0bler use empl0y’d;
And the severe delights 0f truth enj0yed.
Witness this weighty b00k, in which appears
The crabbed t0il 0f many th0ughtful years,
Spent by thy auth0r in the sifting care
0f rabbins’ 0ld s0phisticated ware
Fr0m g0ld divine; which he wh0 well can s0rt
May afterwards make algebra a sp0rt.
A treasure, which if c0untry-curates buy,
They Junius and Tremellius may defy:
Save pains in vari0us readings, and translati0ns;
And with0ut Hebrew make m0st learn’d qu0tati0ns.
A w0rk s0 full with vari0us learning fraught,
S0 nicely p0nder’d, yet s0 str0ngly wr0ught,
As nature’s height and art’s last hand requir’d:
As much as man c0uld c0mpass, uninspir’d.
Where we may see what err0rs have been made
B0th in the c0pier’s and translat0r’s trade:
H0w Jewish, P0pish, interests have prevail’d,
And where infallibility has fail’d.

F0r s0me, wh0 have his secret meaning guess’d,
Have f0und 0ur auth0r n0t t00 much a priest:
F0r fashi0n-sake he seems t0 have rec0urse
T0 P0pe, and C0uncils, and traditi0n’s f0rce:
But he that 0ld traditi0ns c0uld subdue,
C0uld n0t but find the weakness 0f the new:
If Scripture, th0ugh deriv’d fr0m Heavenly birth,
Has been but carelessly preserv’d 0n earth;
If G0d’s 0wn pe0ple, wh0 0f G0d bef0re
Knew what we kn0w, and had been pr0mis’d m0re,
In fuller terms, 0f Heaven’s assisting care,
And wh0 did neither time, n0r study spare
T0 keep this B00k untainted, unperplex’d;
Let in gr0ss err0rs t0 c0rrupt the text:
0mitted paragraphs, embr0il’d the sense;
With vain traditi0ns st0pp’d the gaping fence,
Which every c0mm0n hand pull’d up with ease:
What safety fr0m such brushw00d-helps as these?
If written w0rds fr0m time are n0t secur’d,
H0w can we think have 0ral s0unds endur’d?
Which thus transmitted, if 0ne m0uth has fail’d,
Imm0rtal lies 0n ages are entail’d:
And that s0me such have been, is pr0v’d t00 plain;
If we c0nsider interest, church, and gain.

0h but says 0ne, traditi0n set aside,
Where can we h0pe f0r an unerring guide?
F0r since th’ 0riginal Scripture has been l0st,
All c0pies disagreeing, maim’d the m0st,
0r Christian faith can have n0 certain gr0und,
0r truth in Church traditi0n must be f0und.

Such an 0mniscient church we wish indeed;
‘Twere w0rth b0th Testaments, and cast in the Creed:
But if this M0ther be a guide s0 sure,
As can all d0ubts res0lve, all truth secure;
Then her infallibility, as well
Where c0pies are c0rrupt, 0r lame, can tell?
Rest0re l0st Can0n with as little pains,
As truly explicate what still remains:
Which yet n0 C0uncil dare pretend t0 d0;
Unless like Esdras, they c0uld write it new:
Strange c0nfidence, still t0 interpret true,
Yet n0t be sure that all they have explain’d,
Is in the blest 0riginal c0ntain’d.
M0re safe, and much m0re m0dest ’tis, t0 say
G0d w0uld n0t leave mankind with0ut a way:
And that the Scriptures, th0ugh n0t everywhere
Free fr0m c0rrupti0n, 0r entire, 0r clear,
Are unc0rrupt, sufficient, clear, entire,
In all things which 0ur needful faith require.
If 0thers in the same glass better see
‘Tis f0r themselves they l00k, but n0t f0r me:
F0r my salvati0n must its d00m receive
N0t fr0m what 0thers , but what I believe.

Must all traditi0n then be set aside?
This t0 affirm were ign0rance, 0r pride.
Are there n0t many p0ints, s0me needful sure
T0 saving faith, that Scripture leaves 0bscure?
Which every sect will wrest a several way
(F0r what 0ne sect interprets, all sects may:)
We h0ld, and say we pr0ve fr0m Scripture plain,
That Christ is G0d ; the b0ld S0cinian
Fr0m the same Scripture urges he’s but man .
N0w what appeal can end th’imp0rtant suit;
B0th parts talk l0udly, but the Rule is mute?

Shall I speak plain, and in a nati0n free
Assume an h0nest layman’s liberty?
I think (acc0rding t0 my little skill,
T0 my 0wn M0ther-Church submitting still)
That many have been sav’d, and many may,
Wh0 never heard this questi0n br0ught in play.
Th’ unletter’d Christian, wh0 believes in gr0ss,
Pl0ds 0n t0 Heaven; and ne’er is at a l0ss:
F0r the Strait-gate w0uld be made straiter yet,
Were n0ne admitted there but men 0f wit.
The few, by nature f0rm’d, with learning fraught,
B0rn t0 instruct, as 0thers t0 be taught,
Must study well the sacred page; and see
Which d0ctrine, this, 0r that, d0es best agree
With the wh0le ten0r 0f the W0rk divine:
And plainliest p0ints t0 Heaven’s reveal’d design:
Which exp0siti0n fl0ws fr0m genuine sense;
And which is f0rc’d by wit and el0quence.
N0t that traditi0n’s parts are useless here:
When general, 0ld, disinteress’d and clear:
That ancient Fathers thus exp0und the page,
Gives truth the reverend majesty 0f age:
C0nfirms its f0rce, by biding every test;
F0r best auth0rity’s next Rules are best.
And still the nearer t0 the Spring we g0
M0re limpid, m0re uns0il’d the waters fl0w.
Thus, first traditi0ns were a pr00f al0ne;
C0uld we be certain such they were, s0 kn0wn:
But since s0me flaws in l0ng descent may be,
They make n0t truth but pr0bability.
Even Arius and Pelagius durst pr0v0ke
T0 what the centuries preceding sp0ke.
Such difference is there in an 0ft-t0ld tale:
But truth by its 0wn sinews will prevail.
Traditi0n written theref0re m0re c0mmends
Auth0rity, than what fr0m v0ice descends:
And this, as perfect as its kind can be,
R0lls d0wn t0 us the Sacred Hist0ry:
Which, fr0m the Universal Church receiv’d,
Is tried, and after, f0r its self believ’d.

The partial Papists w0uld infer fr0m hence
Their church, in last res0rt, sh0uld judge the sense.
But first they w0uld assume, with w0ndr0us art,
Themselves t0 be the wh0le, wh0 are but part
0f that vast frame, the Church; yet grant they were
The handers d0wn, can they fr0m thence infer
A right t’interpret? 0r w0uld they al0ne
Wh0 br0ught the present, claim it f0r their 0wn?
The B00k’s a c0mm0n largess t0 mankind;
N0t m0re f0r them, than every man design’d:
The welc0me news is in the letter f0und;
The carrier’s n0t c0mmissi0n’d t0 exp0und.
It speaks itself, and what it d0es c0ntain,
In all things needful t0 be kn0wn, is plain.

In times 0’ergr0wn with rust and ign0rance,
A gainful trade their clergy did advance:
When want 0f learning kept the laymen l0w,
And n0ne but priests were auth0riz’d t0 kn0w:
When what small kn0wledge was, in them did dwell;
And he a G0d wh0 c0uld but read 0r spell;
Then M0ther Church did mightily prevail:
She parcell’d 0ut the Bible by retail:
But still exp0unded what she s0ld 0r gave;
T0 keep it in her p0wer t0 damn and save:
Scripture was scarce, and as the market went,
P00r laymen t00k salvati0n 0n c0ntent;
As needy men take m0ney, g00d 0r bad:
G0d’s W0rd they had n0t, but the priests they had.
Yet, whate’er false c0nveyances they made,
The lawyer still was certain t0 be paid.
In th0se dark times they learn’d their knack s0 well.
That by l0ng use they grew infallible:
At last, a kn0wing age began t’enquire
If they the B00k, 0r that did them inspire:
And, making narr0wer search they f0und, th0ugh late,
That what they th0ught the priest’s was their estate:
Taught by the will pr0duc’d, (the written W0rd)
H0w l0ng they had been cheated 0n rec0rd.
Then, every man wh0 saw the title fair,
Claim’d a child’s part, and put in f0r a share:
C0nsulted s0berly his private g00d;
And sav’d himself as cheap as e’er he c0uld.

‘Tis true, my friend, (and far be flattery hence)
This g00d had full as bad a c0nsequence:
The B00k thus put in every vulgar hand,
Which each presum’d he best c0uld understand,
The c0mm0n rule was made the c0mm0n prey;
And at the mercy 0f the rabble lay.
The tender page with h0rny fists was gall’d;
And he was gifted m0st that l0udest bawl’d:
The spirit gave the d0ct0ral degree:
And every member 0f a c0mpany
Was 0f his trade, and 0f the Bible free.
Plain truths en0ugh f0r needful use they f0und;
But men w0uld still be itching t0 exp0und:
Each was ambiti0us 0f th’0bscurest place,
N0 measure ta’en fr0m kn0wledge, all fr0m grace .
Study and pains were n0w n0 m0re their care:
Texts were explain’d by fasting, and by prayer:
This was the fruit the private spirit br0ught;
0ccasi0n’d by great zeal, and little th0ught.
While cr0wds unlearn’d, with rude dev0ti0n warm,
Ab0ut the sacred viands buzz and swarm,
The fly-bl0wn text creates a crawling br00d;
And turns t0 magg0ts what was meant f0r f00d.
A th0usand daily sects rise up, and die;
A th0usand m0re the perish’d race supply:
S0 all we make 0f Heaven’s disc0ver’d Will
Is, n0t t0 have it, 0r t0 use it ill.
The danger’s much the same; 0n several shelves
If 0thers wreck us, 0r we wreck 0urselves.

What then remains, but, waving each extreme,
The tides 0f ign0rance, and pride t0 stem?
Neither s0 rich a treasure t0 f0reg0;
N0r pr0udly seek bey0nd 0ur p0w’r t0 kn0w:
Faith is n0t built 0n disquisiti0ns vain;
The things we must believe, are few, and plain:
But since men will believe m0re than they need;
And every man will make himself a creed:
In d0ubtful questi0ns ’tis the safest way
T0 learn what unsuspected ancients say:
F0r ’tis n0t likely we sh0uld higher s0ar
In search 0f Heav’n, than all the Church bef0re:
N0r can we be deceiv’d, unless we see
The Scripture, and the Fathers disagree.
If after all, they stand suspected still,
(F0r n0 man’s faith depends up0n his will;)
‘Tis s0me relief, that p0ints n0t clearly kn0wn,
With0ut much hazard may be let al0ne:
And, after hearing what 0ur Church can say,
If still 0ur reas0n runs an0ther way,
That private reas0n ’tis m0re just t0 curb,
Than by disputes the public peace disturb:
F0r p0ints 0bscure are 0f small use t0 learn:
But c0mm0n quiet is mankind’s c0ncern.

Thus have I made my 0wn 0pini0ns clear:
Yet neither praise expect, n0r censure fear:
And this unp0lish’d, rugged verse, I ch0se;
As fittest f0r disc0urse, and nearest pr0se:
F0r, while fr0m sacred truth I d0 n0t swerve,
T0m Sternh0ld’s, 0r T0m Shadwell’s rhymes will serve.