'To recommend religion': lessons from Tillotson for the Church in a secular age?

From Tillotson's Sermon 'Of The Inward Peace And Pleasure Which Attends Religion':

My design, at present, from these words, is to recommend religion to men, from the consideration of that inward peace and pleasure which attends it. And surely nothing can be said more to the advantage of religion, in the opinion of considerate men, than this. For the aim of all philosophy, and the great search of wise men, hath been how to attain peace and tranquillity of mind; and if religion be able to give this, a greater commendation need not be given to religion ...

Now religion, and the practice of its virtues, is the natural state of the soul; the condition which God designed it. As God made man a reasonable creature, so all the acts of religion are reasonable and suitable to our nature: and our souls are then in health, when we are what the laws of religion require us to be, and do what they command us to do ...

A great part of religion consists in moderating our appetites and passions, and this naturally tends to the composure of our minds. He that lives piously and virtuously, acts according to reason, and in so doing, maintains the present peace of his own mind.

Three things might be worth noting about Tillotson's approach in this sermon.

Firstly, the confidence that religion is inherent to human flourishing offers an important corrective to the sectarianism (of ecclesial Left and Right) evident in much contemporary Christianity.  (Tillotson also finds an echo in Burkean wisdom: "man is by his constitution a religious animal"). Despite evidence of the post-9/11 success of the New Atheist cultural critique of religion, the emergence of, for example, Mindfulness is certainly suggestive of a contemporary recognition (however imprecise and inadequate) that our well-being has need of the 'spiritual'. Tillotson points to how the contemporary Church could articulate a need for religion that is "attractive, sane and wise".

Secondly, there is something of a Benedictine quality to Tillotson's words.  We might see it as cohereing with Esther De Waal's account of Benedictine moderation and with Malcolm Guite's celebration of the Rule of Benedict:

A modest, gentle, moderate attempt,

With nothing made too harsh or hard to bear,

No treating or retreating with contempt. 

Thirdly, Tillotson's understanding of the good of religion embodies and gives expression to the truth proclaimed by Thomas, gratia non tollit naturam, and echoed by Hooker, 'grace hath use of nature'.  As Whichcote stated in one of his aphorisms:

Religion does not destroy nature but is built upon it.

This is the fundamental theological truth underpinning Tillotson's account.


Sermon XII is in Volume Two of the 1820 collection of Tillotson's Works.


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