Religio Laici

Or A Layman's Faith

Original Text: 
John Dryden, Poetry, Prose, and Plays, ed. Douglas Grant (Reynard Library edition: Hart-Davis, 1952). PR 3412 G7 1952 ROBA. The base text is the second issue of the first edition of Dryden's Religio Laici (1682).
1Dim, as the borrow'd beams of moon and stars
2To lonely, weary, wand'ring travellers,
3Is reason to the soul; and as on high,
4Those rolling fires discover but the sky
5Not light us here; so reason's glimmering ray
7But guide us upward to a better day.
8And as those nightly tapers disappear
9When day's bright lord ascends our hemisphere
11So dies, and so dissolves in supernatural light.
12Some few, whose lamp shone brighter, have been led
14And found that one first principle must be:
16Whether some soul incompassing this ball
17Unmade, unmov'd; yet making, moving all;
18Or various atoms' interfering dance
19Leapt into form (the noble work of chance;)
20Or this great all was from eternity;
21Not even the Stagirite himself could see;
22And Epicurus guess'd as well as he:
23As blindly grop'd they for a future state;
24As rashly judg'd of Providence and Fate:
25But least of all could their endeavours find
26What most concern'd the good of human kind.
27For happiness was never to be found;
28But vanish'd from 'em, like enchanted ground.
29One thought content the good to be enjoy'd:
30This, every little accident destroy'd:
31The wiser madmen did for virtue toil:
32A thorny, or at best a barren soil:
33In pleasure some their glutton souls would steep;
34But found their line too short, the well too deep;
35And leaky vessels which no bliss could keep.
36Thus anxious thoughts in endless circles roll,
37Without a centre where to fix the soul:
38In this wild maze their vain endeavours end:
39How can the less the greater comprehend?
40Or finite reason reach infinity?
41For what could fathom God were more than He.
43Cries eur{-e}ka the mighty secret's found:
44God is that spring of good; supreme, and best;
45We, made to serve, and in that service blest;
46If so, some rules of worship must be given;
47Distributed alike to all by Heaven:
48Else God were partial, and to some deny'd
49The means his justice should for all provide.
50This general worship is to PRAISE, and PRAY:
51One part to borrow blessings, one to pay:
52And when frail Nature slides into offence,
53The sacrifice for crimes is penitence.
54Yet, since th'effects of providence, we find
55Are variously dispens'd to human kind;
56That vice triumphs, and virtue suffers here,
57(A brand that sovereign justice cannot bear;)
58Our reason prompts us to a future state:
59The last appeal from fortune, and from fate:
60Where God's all-righteous ways will be declar'd;
61The bad meet punishment, the good, reward.
62     Thus man by his own strength to Heaven would soar:
63And would not be oblig'd to God for more.
64Vain, wretched creature, how art thou misled
65To think thy wit these god-like notions bred!
66These truths are not the product of thy mind,
67But dropt from Heaven, and of a nobler kind.
68Reveal'd religion first inform'd thy sight,
69And reason saw not, till faith sprung the light.
70Hence all thy natural worship takes the source:
72Else how com'st thou to see these truths so clear,
73Which so obscure to heathens did appear?
74Not Plato these, nor Aristotle found:
76Hast thou a wit so deep, or so sublime,
77Or canst thou lower dive, or higher climb?
78Canst thou, by reason, more of God-head know
79Than Plutarch, Seneca, or Cicero?
80Those giant wits, in happier ages born,
81(When arms, and arts did Greece and Rome adorn)
82Knew no such system; no such piles could raise
83Of natural worship, built on pray'r and praise,
84To one sole God.
85Nor did remorse, to expiate sin, prescribe:
86But slew their fellow creatures for a bribe:
87The guiltless victim groan'd for their offence;
88And cruelty, and blood was penitence.
89If sheep and oxen could atone for men
90Ah! at how cheap a rate the rich might sin!
91And great oppressors might Heaven's wrath beguile
92By offering his own creatures for a spoil!
93     Dar'st thou, poor worm, offend Infinity?
94And must the terms of peace be given by thee?
95Then thou art justice in the last appeal;
96Thy easy God instructs thee to rebel:
97And, like a king remote, and weak, must take
98What satisfaction thou art pleas'd to make.
99     But if there be a pow'r too just, and strong
100To wink at crimes, and bear unpunish'd wrong;
101Look humbly upward, see his will disclose
102The forfeit first, and then the fine impose:
103A mulct thy poverty could never pay
104Had not Eternal Wisdom found the way:
105And with celestial wealth supply'd thy store:
106His justice makes the fine, his mercy quits the score.
107See God descending in thy human frame;
108Th'offended, suff'ring in th'offender's name:
109All thy misdeeds to him imputed see;
110And all his righteousness devolv'd on thee.
111     For granting we have sinn'd, and that th'offence
112Of man, is made against omnipotence,
113Some price, that bears proportion, must be paid;
114And infinite with infinite be weigh'd.
115See then the Deist lost: remorse for vice,
116Not paid, or paid, inadequate in price:
117What farther means can reason now direct,
118Or what relief from human wit expect?
119That shows us sick; and sadly are we sure
120Still to be sick, till Heav'n reveal the cure:
121If then Heaven's will must needs be understood,
122(Which must, if we want cure, and Heaven be good)
123Let all records of will reveal'd be shown;
124With Scripture, all in equal balance thrown,
125And our one sacred Book will be that one.
126     Proof needs not here, for whether we compare
127That impious, idle, superstitious ware
128Of rites, lustrations, offerings, (which before,
129In various ages, various countries bore)
130With Christian faith and virtues, we shall find
131None answ'ring the great ends of human kind,
132But this one rule of life: that shows us best
133How God may be appeas'd, and mortals blest.
134Whether from length of time its worth we draw,
135The world is scarce more ancient than the law:
136Heav'n's early care prescrib'd for every age;
137First, in the soul, and after, in the page.
138Or, whether more abstractedly we look,
139Or on the writers, or the written Book,
140Whence, but from Heav'n, could men unskill'd in arts,
141In several ages born, in several parts,
142Weave such agreeing truths? or how, or why
143Should all conspire to cheat us with a lie?
144Unask'd their pains, ungrateful their advice,
145Starving their gain, and martyrdom their price.
146     If on the Book itself we cast our view,
147Concurrent heathens prove the story true:
148The doctrine, miracles; which must convince,
149For Heav'n in them appeals to human sense:
150And though they prove not, they confirm the cause,
151When what is taught agrees with Nature's laws.
152     Then for the style; majestic and divine,
153It speaks no less than God in every line:
154Commanding words; whose force is still the same
156All faiths beside, or did by arms ascend;
157Or sense indulg'd has made mankind their friend:
158This only doctrine does our lusts oppose:
159Unfed by Nature's soil, in which it grows;
160Cross to our interests, curbing sense, and sin;
161Oppress'd without, and undermin'd within,
162It thrives through pain; its own tormentors tires;
163And with a stubborn patience still aspires.
164To what can reason such effects assign,
165Transcending Nature, but to laws divine:
166Which in that sacred volume are contain'd;
167Sufficient, clear, and for that use ordain'd.
168     But stay: the Deist here will urge anew,
169No supernatural worship can be true:
170Because a general law is that alone
171Which must to all, and everywhere be known:
172A style so large as not this Book can claim
173Nor aught that bears reveal'd religion's name.
174'Tis said the sound of a Messiah's Birth
175Is gone through all the habitable earth:
176But still that text must be confin'd alone
177To what was then inhabited, and known:
178And what Provision could from thence accrue
179To Indian souls, and worlds discover'd new?
180In other parts it helps, that ages past,
181The Scriptures there were known, and were embrac'd,
182Till sin spread once again the shades of night:
183What's that to these who never saw the light?
184     Of all objections this indeed is chief
185To startle reason, stagger frail belief:
186We grant, 'tis true, that Heav'n from human sense
187Has hid the secret paths of Providence:
188But boundless wisdom, boundless mercy, may
189Find ev'n for those bewilder'd souls, a way:
190If from his nature foes may pity claim,
191Much more may strangers who ne'er heard his name.
192And though no name be for salvation known,
193But that of his eternal Son's alone;
194Who knows how far transcending goodness can
195Extend the merits of that Son to man?
196Who knows what reasons may his mercy lead;
198Not only charity bids hope the best,
200That, if the Gentiles (whom no law inspir'd,)
201By nature did what was by law requir'd;
202They, who the written rule had never known,
203Were to themselves both rule and law alone:
204To nature's plain indictment they shall plead;
205And, by their conscience, be condemn'd or freed.
206Most righteous doom! because a rule reveal'd
207Is none to those, from whom it was conceal'd.
208Then those who follow'd reason's dictates right;
209Liv'd up, and lifted high their natural light;
210With Socrates may see their Maker's Face,
211While thousand rubric-martyrs want a place.
212     Nor does it baulk my charity, to find
214For, though his Creed eternal truth contains,
215'Tis hard for man to doom to endless pains
216All who believ'd not all, his zeal requir'd,
217Unless he first could prove he was inspir'd.
218Then let us either think he meant to say
219This faith, where publish'd, was the only way;
220Or else conclude that, Arius to confute,
221The good old man, too eager in dispute,
222Flew high; and as his Christian fury rose
223Damn'd all for heretics who durst oppose.
224     Thus far my charity this path has tried;
225(A much unskilful, but well meaning guide:)
226Yet what they are, ev'n these crude thoughts were bred
227By reading that, which better thou hast read,
229By well translating better dost commend:
230Those youthful hours which, of thy equals most
231In toys have squander'd, or in vice have lost,
232Those hours hast thou to nobler use employ'd;
233And the severe delights of truth enjoyed.
234Witness this weighty book, in which appears
235The crabbed toil of many thoughtful years,
236Spent by thy author in the sifting care
238From gold divine; which he who well can sort
239May afterwards make algebra a sport.
240A treasure, which if country-curates buy,
242Save pains in various readings, and translations;
243And without Hebrew make most learn'd quotations.
244A work so full with various learning fraught,
245So nicely ponder'd, yet so strongly wrought,
246As nature's height and art's last hand requir'd:
247As much as man could compass, uninspir'd.
248Where we may see what errors have been made
249Both in the copier's and translator's trade:
250How Jewish, Popish, interests have prevail'd,
251And where infallibility has fail'd.
252     For some, who have his secret meaning guess'd,
253Have found our author not too much a priest:
254For fashion-sake he seems to have recourse
255To Pope, and Councils, and tradition's force:
256But he that old traditions could subdue,
257Could not but find the weakness of the new:
258If Scripture, though deriv'd from Heavenly birth,
259Has been but carelessly preserv'd on earth;
260If God's own people, who of God before
261Knew what we know, and had been promis'd more,
262In fuller terms, of Heaven's assisting care,
263And who did neither time, nor study spare
264To keep this Book untainted, unperplex'd;
265Let in gross errors to corrupt the text:
266Omitted paragraphs, embroil'd the sense;
267With vain traditions stopp'd the gaping fence,
268Which every common hand pull'd up with ease:
269What safety from such brushwood-helps as these?
270If written words from time are not secur'd,
271How can we think have oral sounds endur'd?
272Which thus transmitted, if one mouth has fail'd,
273Immortal lies on ages are entail'd:
274And that some such have been, is prov'd too plain;
275If we consider interest, church, and gain.
276     Oh but says one, tradition set aside,
277Where can we hope for an unerring guide?
278For since th' original Scripture has been lost,
279All copies disagreeing, maim'd the most,
280Or Christian faith can have no certain ground,
281Or truth in Church tradition must be found.
282     Such an omniscient church we wish indeed;
283'Twere worth both Testaments, and cast in the Creed:
284But if this Mother be a guide so sure,
285As can all doubts resolve, all truth secure;
286Then her infallibility, as well
287Where copies are corrupt, or lame, can tell?
288Restore lost Canon with as little pains,
289As truly explicate what still remains:
290Which yet no Council dare pretend to do;
292Strange confidence, still to interpret true,
293Yet not be sure that all they have explain'd,
294Is in the blest Original contain'd.
295More safe, and much more modest 'tis, to say
296God would not leave mankind without a way:
297And that the Scriptures, though not everywhere
298Free from corruption, or entire, or clear,
299Are uncorrupt, sufficient, clear, entire,
300In all things which our needful faith require.
301If others in the same glass better see
302'Tis for themselves they look, but not for me:
303For my salvation must its doom receive
304Not from what others , but what I believe.
305     Must all tradition then be set aside?
306This to affirm were ignorance, or pride.
307Are there not many points, some needful sure
308To saving faith, that Scripture leaves obscure?
309Which every sect will wrest a several way
310(For what one sect interprets, all sects may:)
311We hold, and say we prove from Scripture plain,
312That Christ is God ; the bold Socinian
313From the same Scripture urges he's but man .
314Now what appeal can end th'important suit;
315Both parts talk loudly, but the Rule is mute?
316     Shall I speak plain, and in a nation free
317Assume an honest layman's liberty?
318I think (according to my little skill,
319To my own Mother-Church submitting still)
320That many have been sav'd, and many may,
321Who never heard this question brought in play.
322Th' unletter'd Christian, who believes in gross,
323Plods on to Heaven; and ne'er is at a loss:
324For the Strait-gate would be made straiter yet,
325Were none admitted there but men of wit.
326The few, by nature form'd, with learning fraught,
327Born to instruct, as others to be taught,
328Must study well the sacred page; and see
329Which doctrine, this, or that, does best agree
330With the whole tenor of the Work divine:
331And plainliest points to Heaven's reveal'd design:
332Which exposition flows from genuine sense;
333And which is forc'd by wit and eloquence.
334Not that tradition's parts are useless here:
335When general, old, disinteress'd and clear:
336That ancient Fathers thus expound the page,
337Gives truth the reverend majesty of age:
338Confirms its force, by biding every test;
339For best authority's next Rules are best.
340And still the nearer to the Spring we go
341More limpid, more unsoil'd the waters flow.
342Thus, first traditions were a proof alone;
343Could we be certain such they were, so known:
344But since some flaws in long descent may be,
345They make not truth but probability.
347To what the centuries preceding spoke.
348Such difference is there in an oft-told tale:
349But truth by its own sinews will prevail.
350Tradition written therefore more commends
351Authority, than what from voice descends:
352And this, as perfect as its kind can be,
353Rolls down to us the Sacred History:
354Which, from the Universal Church receiv'd,
355Is tried, and after, for its self believ'd.
356     The partial Papists would infer from hence
357Their church, in last resort, should judge the sense.
358But first they would assume, with wondrous art,
359Themselves to be the whole, who are but part
360Of that vast frame, the Church; yet grant they were
361The handers down, can they from thence infer
362A right t'interpret? or would they alone
363Who brought the present, claim it for their own?
364The Book's a common largess to mankind;
365Not more for them, than every man design'd:
366The welcome news is in the letter found;
367The carrier's not commission'd to expound.
368It speaks itself, and what it does contain,
369In all things needful to be known, is plain.
370     In times o'ergrown with rust and ignorance,
371A gainful trade their clergy did advance:
372When want of learning kept the laymen low,
373And none but priests were authoriz'd to know:
374When what small knowledge was, in them did dwell;
375And he a God who could but read or spell;
376Then Mother Church did mightily prevail:
377She parcell'd out the Bible by retail:
378But still expounded what she sold or gave;
379To keep it in her power to damn and save:
380Scripture was scarce, and as the market went,
381Poor laymen took salvation on content;
382As needy men take money, good or bad:
383God's Word they had not, but the priests they had.
384Yet, whate'er false conveyances they made,
385The lawyer still was certain to be paid.
386In those dark times they learn'd their knack so well.
387That by long use they grew infallible:
388At last, a knowing age began t'enquire
389If they the Book, or that did them inspire:
390And, making narrower search they found, though late,
391That what they thought the priest's was their estate:
392Taught by the will produc'd, (the written Word)
393How long they had been cheated on record.
394Then, every man who saw the title fair,
395Claim'd a child's part, and put in for a share:
396Consulted soberly his private good;
397And sav'd himself as cheap as e'er he could.
398     'Tis true, my friend, (and far be flattery hence)
399This good had full as bad a consequence:
400The Book thus put in every vulgar hand,
401Which each presum'd he best could understand,
402The common rule was made the common prey;
403And at the mercy of the rabble lay.
404The tender page with horny fists was gall'd;
405And he was gifted most that loudest bawl'd:
406The spirit gave the doctoral degree:
407And every member of a company
408Was of his trade, and of the Bible free.
409Plain truths enough for needful use they found;
410But men would still be itching to expound:
411Each was ambitious of th'obscurest place,
412No measure ta'en from knowledge, all from grace .
413Study and pains were now no more their care:
414Texts were explain'd by fasting, and by prayer:
415This was the fruit the private spirit brought;
416Occasion'd by great zeal, and little thought.
417While crowds unlearn'd, with rude devotion warm,
418About the sacred viands buzz and swarm,
419The fly-blown text creates a crawling brood;
420And turns to maggots what was meant for food.
421A thousand daily sects rise up, and die;
422A thousand more the perish'd race supply:
423So all we make of Heaven's discover'd Will
424Is, not to have it, or to use it ill.
425The danger's much the same; on several shelves
426If others wreck us, or we wreck ourselves.
427     What then remains, but, waving each extreme,
428The tides of ignorance, and pride to stem?
429Neither so rich a treasure to forego;
430Nor proudly seek beyond our pow'r to know:
431Faith is not built on disquisitions vain;
432The things we must believe, are few, and plain:
433But since men will believe more than they need;
434And every man will make himself a creed:
435In doubtful questions 'tis the safest way
436To learn what unsuspected ancients say:
437For 'tis not likely we should higher soar
438In search of Heav'n, than all the Church before:
439Nor can we be deceiv'd, unless we see
440The Scripture, and the Fathers disagree.
441If after all, they stand suspected still,
442(For no man's faith depends upon his will;)
443'Tis some relief, that points not clearly known,
444Without much hazard may be let alone:
445And, after hearing what our Church can say,
446If still our reason runs another way,
447That private reason 'tis more just to curb,
448Than by disputes the public peace disturb:
449For points obscure are of small use to learn:
450But common quiet is mankind's concern.
451     Thus have I made my own opinions clear:
452Yet neither praise expect, nor censure fear:
453And this unpolish'd, rugged verse, I chose;
454As fittest for discourse, and nearest prose:
455For, while from sacred truth I do not swerve,

Notes

6] "Assure" is used with its full force of "make certain, remove all doubt." Back to Line
10] "Religion" is here used as synonymous with "Revelation." Back to Line
13] "Nature's secret head" is God as first cause of Nature. Back to Line
15] These lines present views of the classical philosophers, particularly of Aristotle and Epicurus. The Stagirite of the next line is, of course, Aristotle. Back to Line
42] The doctrines of Deism became increasingly popular from the late seventeenth century through the eighteenth. Starting from the problem, which Dryden discusses in this poem, of whether salvation was possible for those who had never had a chance to know the Christian revelation, the Deists argued that for salvation "natural religion" (as distinguished from "revealed religion") was enough, and that all men, by the use of natural reason, could arrive at those truths necessary for salvation. The problem was not a new one by any means: it had arisen early in the history of the Church in relation to the great thinkers, often morally admirable, of the ancient world, and, as Dryden points out, had formed part of the dispute between Arius and Athanasius. The discovery of new lands and new peoples, remote from the Christian world and even the pre-Christian world of the Old Testament, gave the problem new vigour. One of the earliest expositions of Deist doctrine was that of Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), and the "system of deism" given by Dryden in these lines is a very neat summary of Herbert's main argument. It presents the notitiae communes, the ideas arrived at by natural reason (which is the same in all men) and hence which are common to all. Back to Line
71] This presents the essence of Dryden's rejection of the Deist argument. The religious ideas which they find common to all men, and which they ascribe to reason (discourse), are actually, as he puts it in his preface, "only the faint remnants or dying flames of revealed religion in the posterity of Noah." Back to Line
75] The reference is to Socrates. Back to Line
155] "Our frame" is the physical universe, the "universal frame" of the Ode or St. Cecilia's Day. The fiat is the "creating word" of God. Back to Line
197] "Ignorance invincible" is a lack of knowledge which cannot be overcome: that is, which the individual who is ignorant has no means of overcoming. The American Indian, before 1492, would have no means of knowing the New Testament, for example. Back to Line
199] The reference is to St. Paul, Romans: 2: 14-15. Back to Line
213] The "Egyptian bishop" is Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century, opponent of Arius and author of the Athanasian Creed. His creed states expressly: "It is necessary to eternal salvation: that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ," and also the complete doctrine of the Trinity: "which except a man do faithfully and steadfastly believe, he cannot be saved." It should be noted that Dryden's position, in opposition to Athanasius, is certainly now the orthodox one. Back to Line
228] The "matchless author's work" is the Critical History of the Old Testament by the French Jesuit Father Simon. It was translated by Henry Dickinson, the "friend" addressed in the same line. Father Simon's work was a textual analysis of the sort more generally associated with the German "Higher Critics" of the nineteenth century. His motive was to undermine the Protestant reliance solely on the Bible as literally inspired and consequently infallible, in favor of the Catholic position, which places weight upon the traditions, doctrinal and exegetical, preserved by the Church. Dryden discusses these matters again at greater length, and with different conclusions, in The Hind and the Panther (1687) after his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Back to Line
237] "Sophisticated" in the sense of "adulterated, mixed with other substance." Back to Line
241] Junius and Tremellius: Calvinist translators of the Scriptures. Back to Line
291] See Esdras 8 (Nehemiah 8). Back to Line
346] Pelagius: British churchman, after whom the Pelagian heresy is named. "Provoke" is used here in its etymological sense of "appeal." Back to Line
456] Thomas Sternhold made with John Hopkins a popular collection of versified psalms which first appeared in 1549. Their popularity was due more to the subject matter than to their poetic style. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1682
RPO poem Editors: 
G. G. Falle
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.32-43.
Form: