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Ralph Cudworth on Purity of Heart Over Opinion

The True Intellectual System of the Universe, Vol II (Gould & Newman, 1838; orig. 1678), pp. 554-7.

Christ came not into the world to fill our heads with mere speculations, to kindle a fire of wrangling and contentious dispute amongst us, and to warm our spirits against one another with nothing but angry and peevish debates; whilst in the mean time our hearts remain all ice within towards God, and have not the least spark of true heavenly fire to melt and thaw them. Christ came not to possess our brains only with some cold opinions, that send down nothing but a freezing and benumbing influence upon our hearts. Christ was vitae magister, not scholae: and he is the best Christian, whose heart beats with the purest pulse towards heaven; not he, whose head spinneth out the finest cobwebs. ¶ He that endeavors really to mortify his lusts, and to comply with that truth in his life, which his conscience is convinced of, is nearer a Christian, though he never heard of Christ, than he, that believes all the vulgar articles of the Christian faith, and plainly denieth Christ in his life.

Surely the way to heaven, that Christ hath taught us, is plain and easy, if we have but honest hearts: we need not many criticisms, many school distinctions, to come to a right understanding of it. Surely Christ came not to ensnare us and entangle us with captious niceties, or to puzzle our heads with deep speculations, and lead us through hard and craggy notions into the kingdom of heaven. I persuade myself, that no man shall ever be kept out of heaven for not comprehending mysteries, that were beyond the reach of his shallow understanding, if he had but an honest and good heart, that was ready to comply with Christ’s commandments. “Say not in thy heart, Who shall ascend into heaven?” that is, with high speculations, to bring down Christ from thence; or, “Who shall descend into the abyss beneath?” that is, with deep searching thoughts to fetch up Christ from thence: but to, “the word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart.”

But I wish it were not the distemper of our times, to scare and fright men only with opinions, and make men only solicitous about the entertainment of this and that speculation, which will not render them any thing the better in their lives, or the liker unto God; whilst in the mean time there is no such care taken about keeping of Christ’s commandments, and being renewed in our minds according to the image of God in righteousness and true holiness. We say, “Lo, here is Christ,” and, “Lo, there is Christ,” in these and these opinions; whereas, in truth, Christ is neither here, nor there, nor any where, but where the Spirit of Christ, where the life of Christ is.

Do we not now-a-days open and lock up heaven with the private key of this and that opinion of our own, according to our several fancies, as we please? And if any one observe Christ’s commandments never so sincerely, and serve God with faith and a pure conscience, that yet haply skills not of some contended-for opinions, some darling notions, he hath not the right shibboleth, he hath not the true watchword, he must not pass the guards into heaven. Do we not make this and that opinion, this and that outward form, to be the wedding-garment, and boldly sentence those to outer darkness, that are not invested therewith? Whereas, every true Christian finds the least dram of hearty affection towards God to be more cordial and sovereign to his soul, than all the speculative notions and opinions in the world; and though he study also to inform his understanding aright, and free his mind from all error and misapprehensions, yet it is nothing but the life of Christ deeply rooted in his heart, which is the chemical elixir, that he feeds upon. Had he “all faith, that he could remove mountains” (as St. Paul speaks), had he “all knowledge, all tongues and languages;” yet he prizeth one dram of love beyond them all. He accounteth him, that feedeth upon mere notions in religion, to be but an airy and cameleon-like Christian. He findeth himself now otherwise rooted and centred in God, that when he did before merely contemplate and gaze upon him; he tasteth and relisheth God within himself; he hath quendam saporem Dei, a certain savor of him; — whereas before he did but rove and guess at random at him. He feeleth himself safely anchored in God, and will not be dissuaded from it, though perhaps he skill not many of those subtleties, which others make the alpha and omega of their religion. Neither is he scared with those childish affrightments, with which some would force their private conceits upon him; he is above the superstitious dreading of mere speculative opinions, as well as the superstitious reverence of outward ceremonies; he cares not so much for subtlety, as for soundness and health of mind. And, indeed, as it was well spoken by a noble philosopher … that without purity and virtue, God is nothing but an empty name; — so it is as true here, that without obedience to Christ’s commandments, without the life of Christ dwelling in us, whatsoever opinion we entertain of him, Christ is but only named by us, he is not known.

I speak not here against a free and ingenuous inquiry into all troth according to our several abilities and opportunities; I plead not for the captivating and enthralling of our judgments to the dictates of men: I do not disparage the natural improvement of our understanding faculties by true knowledge, which is so noble and gallant a perfection of the mind: but the thing, which I am against, is, the dispiriting of the life and vigor of our religion by dry speculations, and making it nothing but a mere dead skeleton of opinions, a few dry bones, without any flesh and sinews, tied up together, and the misplacing of all our zeal upon an eager prosecution of these, which should be spent to better purpose upon other objects.

Knowledge indeed is a thing far more excellent than riches, outward pleasures, worldly dignities, or any thing else in the world besides holiness, and the conformity of our wills to the will of God; but yet our happiness consisteth not in it, but in a certain Divine temper and constitution of soul, which is far above it.

But it is a piece of that corruption, that runneth through human nature, that we naturally prize truth more than goodness, knowledge more than holiness. We think it a gallant thing to be fluttering up to heaven with our wings of knowledge and speculation: whereas, the highest mystery of Divine life here, and of perfect happiness hereafter, consisteth in nothing but mere obedience to the divine will. Happiness is nothing but that inward sweet delight, that will arise from the harmonious agreement between our wills and God’s will.

There is nothing contrary to God in the whole world, nothing that rights against him, but self-will. This is the strong castle that we all keep garrisoned against heaven in every one of our hearts, which God continually layeth siege unto; and it must be conquered and demolished, before we can conquer heaven. It was by reason of this self-will, that Adam fell in paradise; that those glorious angels, those morning-stars, kept not their first station, but dropped down from heaven like falling stars, and sunk into this condition of bitterness, anxiety, and wretchedness, in which now they are. They all entangled themselves with the length of their own wings, they would needs will more and otherwise than God would will in them; and, going about to make their wills wider, and to enlarge them into greater amplitude, the more they struggled, they found themselves the faster pinioned, and crowded up into narrowness end servility; insomuch, that now they are not able to use any wings at all, but, inheriting the serpent’s curse, can only creep with their bellies upon the earth., Now, our only way to recover God and happiness again is, not to soar up with our understandings, but to destroy this self-will of ours; and then we shall find our wings to grow again, our plumes fairly spread, and ourselves raised aloft into the free air of perfect liberty, which is perfect happiness.