Chapter I: The Ideal of the Spirit
Our first task must be to get some notion of the phenomenon of religion, and the nature and limits of this inquiry.
First, then, the fact or phenomenon is religion in the common acceptation of that word.1
This phenomenon we are to take at present, as a mere empirical fact which we want to analyse, setting aside all questions about its ultimate nature or its value in human life, about the truth it conveys or fails to convey, and any distinction of truth or value between one religion and another. One difference, indeed, we cannot wholly ignore, that between less developed and more developed religions; but we are to regard it as we should the difference between a simple and a highly complex kind of flower.
On this matter there are two points to be considered by way of preface.
We want to observe the common nature of all forms of religion. But this does not mean those beliefs and usages which appear in all religions. Even if there were such common beliefs and usages (which may be doubted), they would be so very few that an account of them would leave out the greater part of every religion. The common nature we want to see is rather the scheme or plan of functions which takes a different shape in each religion, just as in all flowers there is one scheme of organs, parts and functions, though it is worked out variously in the various kinds of flowers.
Next, we are not inquiring into the origin and growth of religion. Its origin—in the sense of its historical beginnings—must be utterly indiscoverable unless we are to reject all the conclusions to which our knowledge points. It must be tens of thousands of years behind us, in a past which has not left, and could not leave, any records of its inward life; and for anything we can tell, the simplest forms of savage belief and usage may be immensely superior to those first beginnings. But even if we could discuss those beginnings it is not the origin or growth of religion that we want to trace, but the common nature or function. And though we want an account of this common nature which will be true of the simplest religions known to us as well as of the most developed, we cannot expect the simplest to show this nature fully. On the contrary, just as the nature of society is least clearly and fully exhibited in the groupings of savages, and the nature of poetry and music in their songs and chants, so it is with religion. It follows that an account of religion as an empirical fact must be more completely applicable to the higher forms than the lower, and in its application to the lowest must often be taken with some abatement or reservation.
This difficulty is unavoidable, unless you are prepared to take the absurd position that the nature of a thing, for example of a flower, is to be identified with the earliest and simplest sort of flower you can find, and that nothing whatever that comes later belongs to the nature of flowers. And that line of argument will soon lead you to deny the simplest flower too, and drive you back to the position that nothing belongs to the nature of things except what is absolutely undifferentiated, pure matter or pure being or pure thought. The difficulty, then, is unavoidable and it is also great; and, in any detailed attempt at an account of religion, scrupulous care ought to be taken to point out the place at which statements are made which are not fully applicable to the lower forms of religion. But in a brief analysis which makes no pretence to be exhaustive we may be content, perhaps, with a general warning on this head.
This brings me to another matter. The further we go from our own religious experience, the less do we really understand the facts called religion: for we really understand religious experience only by recreating it, and this is more difficult to us, say, with Greek religion than with Hebrew, and much more difficult with savage religions than with Greek. What this means—and it cannot be too distinctly recognised—is that a mere account of religion, such as we are to attempt, is no understanding of religion and is in many cases no more than the description of its dead shell. If I read an account of a poem in a history of literature, I know something about it; but it is equally true that I do not thereby know the poem at all. I do that only in so far as it relives itself in me and becomes, in imagination, my expression. Hence it is possible for a man to know, in one sense, all the poetry that exists in the record of mankind and yet never, in a true sense, to have come into contact at all with the fact called poetry. So it is with religion. I may with sufficient labour know all that can be known about the outward facts of a given religion—its beliefs and acts and institutions; but all this is a mere caput mortuum unless I can in some measure relive in imagination the inner experience that formed the soul of this body.
Now to do this is, in many cases, possible only in the most meagre degree, and that is the reason why the study of religion is in some ways so disappointing. We know that such and such a people worshipped, as we say, such and such a god. But what this really means, what they felt in worshipping him, what made them regard him as adorable, what (as we say) went on inside them, how exactly, for example, a man imagined and felt when he bowed his whole soul before a thing in which we see next to nothing—this we cannot get at: and, if we cannot get at it at all, then I say we are no more in possession of the whole fact of that religion than a perfectly prosaic reader is in possession of a poem. We must recognise therefore that the fact we have to give an account of is hardly ever the whole fact, and is removed from it in various degrees and on the whole most removed from it the more distant a given religion is from our own experience.
And—if I may digress for a moment—these remarks really apply to religion all around us. Men belong, as they say, to the same religion and share the same religious ideas, but their actual religions are infinitely various; and it is both foolish and mischievous to expect them to be otherwise. A man with a buoyant temperament and a man with a depressed one never have the same religion, nor a man born to long for understanding and a man born with a keen sense of beauty. One man is nowhere more conscious of the divine presence than when he is wearing himself out in effort for social reform; to another this is nothing but a painful duty in which he does not himself feel the divineness which he acknowledges to be there, but alone among the hills he knows the peace that passes understanding. How can they have the same religion? Yet for our purpose, or that of the historian, one and all may be grouped under a rough head, for one and all may be, even in the narrowest interpretation of the term, Christians. That is a very important fact, but it is only a fragment of the whole fact. The whole fact, the actual Christianity, is something infinitely more various than the core of common beliefs and feelings and acts in Christians; it is their whole spiritual experience in its interminable variety. Before that the analyst or historian stands helpless. And what then must he feel when he is confronted by the whole spiritual experience of all the religions that ever were? What a miserable fragment of it can he hope really to understand!
There is another point on which a word of preface is required. I propose to begin by considering religion on its inner side—as a state or activity of the soul, apart from its outward expression. And the soul, of course, as an individual soul. Now this plan may be objected to. But in attempting some account of religion we must, at least at first, look at it as it exists in the individual soul. This is what we mean when we say of a man that religion was the centre of his life. The word, of course, has a different meaning when we speak of the religion he belongs to, or the history of a religion. It then means a body of beliefs, feelings, actions, rites and institutions, which we regard as in some sense a unity having a continuous life lasting through many generations; and we regard the individual as dependent on this unity, or perhaps as one of the organs in which for a time this vaster life exists. Now it is sometimes said that this is really the only true way of looking at the matter, because religion is always and essentially something social, that of a family, or clan, or city, or nation, or church, and that the individual gets his religion, and keeps it, only as a member of some such body; so that we misrepresent the facts in a very grave way when we propose to examine religion as something existing in the individual soul. In that way, it may be said, you vitiate your analysis at its very beginning, just as you vitiate an analysis of morality if you ignore the fact that it too is social, and if you try to discover what it is by looking at an individual all by himself and asking what is the end and purpose of his being.
But we may fully admit what is true in this objection, and yet remain convinced that, as a matter of method, it is most convenient to look first at religion as something in the individual soul. For that larger religious unity of family, clan, city or church with its continuous life still exists, at any time you choose to take, only in individual souls; they are its necessary organs; it is they who believe and feel and act and sustain institutions. If you set out therefore to describe the religion of a clan or a church, you will find yourself at once describing processes in individual souls, or acts and institutions directly dependent on such processes; and, conversely, if you describe processes in individual souls, you do not thereby deny the membership of these units in a larger unity and their dependence on it for the character of their religious experience. There seems therefore no objection to beginning in this manner. To do so is also to begin at a point at which on the other method you must soon arrive, and moreover it is to begin with what is simplest and most easy to observe.
But that is not all. This plan is also safer, because, in following it, while you do not deny that in most cases the religion of an individual is that of the member of a distinct religious body, you do not assert that in all cases it is so. And that assertion would certainly be questionable or ambiguous. It is doubtless true that no man makes his religion wholly for himself; he can no more do that than he can make his mind for himself; but it does not follow that there is no religion except that of religious bodies, or that religion is, in that sense, essentially social. Those who assert this and who lay such exclusive stress on the idea of the community or church do more than merely assume that in their own day there is no religion outside the churches, an assumption which might be defended when the word is being taken in the universally accepted sense, but they forget that some of the greatest religious movements in the world's history have sprung from the initiation of individuals who were not, so far as they were initiators, members of religious bodies at all, or who broke with that to which they belonged. The two principal religions of the world now, I suppose, are Buddhism and Christianity. Can the religion of Buddha, or the religion of Christ, then, be accurately called that of a family, clan, city, nation, or church? It was, on the contrary, at the beginning, the religion of a single individual and no more. And movements of reform, again, such as that of Luther, or of Wesley—must we not say that these generally spring from a religion which was primarily that of individuals and not that of the bodies to which at first they belonged? These are facts of great importance, and their importance is not lessened by the consideration that, in all such cases, the religion of the individual was doubtless formed in part by influences in the general society around him and that, again, it speedily led to the formation of a distinct religious body.
We begin, then, with inward religion, the state or activity of individual souls.
Our best plan in tracing the outline of religion will be to distinguish and consider in turn what may be called its various elements or factors. Only, in doing so, it is essential to remember that in religion what we thus regard apart does not itself exist apart, and also that in the total fact these elements are not added together but fused in one experience; just as in a poem there is not one separate thing called the meaning, and another separate thing called the form, but the two co-exist in such a union that neither by itself could possibly be a poem, and that, if the one is modified, the other is of necessity modified with it.
That being understood, religion, we may say, contains in the first place an intellectual or theoretic element. This does not mean that every man's religion contains a theory, for this would be quite untrue. ‘Intellectual’ here means only that in religion there are always perceptions, ideas or beliefs—something which by itself is neither emotional nor volitional. ‘Theoretic’ has the same meaning. Religion is worship; worship, therefore, of something, of an object; and a man cannot worship this object without perceiving it, or having some image or notion of it, or some belief or knowledge concerning it. That perception, image, notion, belief or knowledge, then, is the intellectual or theoretic element in his religion.2
What then is the content of the idea or belief, what is the object worshipped? The obvious answer ‘A god or gods’ is either false or it tells us nothing. If it means that the object is always something which we should call a god, or which would have been so called by Hebrews or Greeks or by our Teutonic or Celtic ancestors, the answer is not true: and if by the word ‘god’ is meant merely whatever any man as a matter of fact has worshipped, the answer tells us nothing. We want to know the characteristics of this, whatever it may be, that is worshipped: and the mere name ‘god’ gives no information on that head. We may use the name, however, for the sake of brevity, so long as we remember that we do not yet know what it means, but have to find that out. And it is exceedingly hard to make a statement on the subject that will be true of all religions. Perhaps, however, we may say as much as this:
(1) The object is a being or beings conceived as, in some respect or in respect of certain qualities or powers, superior to the worshipper; usually as greatly superior; frequently and, in the higher religions perhaps always, as incomparably superior. I use the word ‘being’ here as the vaguest I can find: ‘something’ would answer the purpose equally well if it had a plural. ‘Being’ includes animals, plants, fountains, what we should call ‘things’, as well as ancestors or quasi-human beings, or beings that we should count superior to man. I use the word ‘superior’ rather than ‘higher’ because to us the word ‘higher’ suggests spiritual or moral superiority. But while in the more developed religions the object is conceived as superior to man in that respect, this is not so in all religions. It is a matter of doubt whether in the lowest forms of religion there is any connection at all between religion and morality. And indeed, even in the higher, such as Christianity, it is not uncommon for the worshipper to attribute to his god what he would be ashamed to attribute to the best men of his acquaintance. What seems essential to religion, what induces worship, we must say more generally, is great superiority in quality or power of some kind—a superiority which excites a high degree of fear, wonder, or admiration. The fundamental thing, in other words, is that the god can do what the man is far from being able to do—whether it is shining, or raining, or knowing, or loving. If we take care to use the word simply to convey this, we may say the object or god is superhuman.
(2) So far I think we are safe. But we are not perhaps quite so when we say that there is a second superiority. But certainly, almost always, and perhaps absolutely always, the object of worship is conceived as having a mode of existence or operation different from that of the worshipper as he knows himself in his ordinary waking life—different, that is, from the mode of existence of that which he would call himself. That this is so in the more developed religions is clear: the god is not only much stronger and usually wiser and better than the worshipper, but he has a different sort of existence or operation: thus he is not subject in the same degree, perhaps not at all, to limitations of space or time, or to those of the body such as hunger and thirst and disease and death. And although all this cannot be said of the object in the lowest forms of religion, yet everywhere that object seems to be conceived as in some way superior in mode of existence to man. In other words it can not only do more fully what he can do, but also what he cannot do at all, or is free from certain limitations and evils to which he is subject. This could not be said, no doubt, if it were the case that religion is ever literally a worship of stones or trees or animals, or even the sun or moon. But this, it seems clear, is not the case. For what we mean by this is that men, conceiving stocks and stones and the rest as we conceive them, worship these things; whereas it is practically certain that they no more do this than we ourselves do. The stone the man worships is not to him a dead lump of matter, but (if we must use our language) a body which is also soul, the two undistinguished; or at a rather later stage, where this distinction is somehow apprehended, the sensible object is the dwelling-place of a spirit, or the sign or medium or instrument through which unusual powers are exerted, different in kind from those which the worshipper himself is conscious of possessing, and different again from those which he attributes to his ordinary fellows or to the mass of things around him.
It is tempting to sum this up in the statement that the object or god is supersensible or supernatural. But, if we use these words, we must be very careful to limit their meaning, and to understand by them merely the characteristics we have just observed. Clearly, in the mass of undeveloped religions the object (in the obvious meaning of the word) is sensible and natural—as we say, a part of nature or a power of nature, if not a thing—though it may be said to have supersensible powers. ‘Supernatural’ in particular is a dangerous word, not only for this reason, but because it suggests to us an antithesis between nature, or an order of nature, or laws of nature, and something beyond this nature, order, or laws, and perhaps breaking through them. This antithesis, however, does not exist for the early mind, any more than it does now for the mind of a young child, which (I may add) is the best key to the understanding of primitive religion. And at the other end of the scale there are religious ideas which do not include the notion of a fracture of the order of nature. What seems essential, and what we must understand by the words supersensible and supernatural if we use them here, is the contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary, the superiority of the god in certain powers, and in mode of existence or operation, to the worshipper, to his companions, and to the things around him, as he conceives himself and them in the usual course of life.
(3) We may now go on to a third point. In spite of this essential difference between the object and the worshipper himself, the object is yet akin to him. On one side it shares his nature. Though superhuman, it is human. If it is what we should call a thing, a plant, or the like, yet it is also what we should call animated: it has (like a man) feelings and, inter alia, a capacity for putting forth its powers or withholding them. In the stage when the god is a being like Apollo or Thor the kinship to man is obvious, and so it is in most of the highest forms of religion. Even in the philosophical forms of Eastern religion the statement may still hold. The object may be called Being or even Nothing, but it is usually also called Self. It is Thought in its utmost abstraction, thought which has abstracted from every particular content, and thinks merely itself, its own form. That is so more or less in man also, i.e. is human. And in many cases this kinship between man and the object appears in the shape of a belief that man is in some way descended from the god or is, so to speak, his blood-relation, whether this relationship is conceived in a more physical or a more spiritual manner. Apart from that, and in the more general sense, the kinship of the god with man seems to be as essential to religion as the difference—his superiority to man. One might even say in this vague sense that the idea of the unity of god and man is essential to all religion.
We have now, if we have been fairly right, an abstract account of the nature of the object in religion, or the content of the worshipper's idea of it or belief about it. And we may now go on, by an artificial separation, to ask what he believes about its relation to himself—for without some belief on this head there can be no religion. Not only does he believe the object to exist and to have a certain nature (as we believe of a triangle or a crystal), but he believes it stands in a practical relation to himself and is capable of benefiting or injuring him, influencing him for his weal or woe. And, what is more, in almost all religions he believes that he is in turn capable of influencing it, so that whether he receives from it weal or woe depends in some way and degree on his attitude or action towards it. It is possible for him to be at peace with it or at discord, in communion with it or out of communion, reconciled with it or shut out from it. These phrases will mean very different things in different cases, in accordance with his notion of himself and of it, of what his weal and his woe consist in, of what communion with it means. But without some belief of this kind (we must say) there may be a theological opinion but there is not a religious belief. We might perhaps lay it down that such a belief is not merely that the object exists and stands in a certain relation to the worshipper, but that this may be a working relation. And this formula will be found inaccurate, I think, only when thought is very highly developed, is in fact philosophical.3
We must dwell for a moment longer on this belief in a practical or working relation between man and his god, for it concerns the essence of religion. The more the subject is examined, the more clear, I think, it becomes that the main impulse to religion is not curiosity or the desire to understand or find the causes of things. Nor yet is it aesthetic, the desire to satisfy the sense of beauty or sublimity. These intellectual and aesthetic impulses undoubtedly play their part, but the main origin is practical need, the pressure of present evils, the fear of worse, the wish for unattained goods. And the purpose or end of religion is of the same kind. It is to escape evil and to obtain good: however these words are understood. Taken at a low stage, religion means ‘I am surrounded by all sorts of beings or agencies, in one way or another much more powerful than myself and able to hurt me dreadfully or give me delightful blessings; and I can, and therefore I had better, work on these beings and induce them to save me from the first and bestow on me the second’. Taken at a very high stage, religion means: ‘the sense of my own imperfection and evil is unbearable to me, and I can escape it, and therefore will do anything to escape it, and obtain peace and blessedness, by union with that which is totally free from this imperfection and evil.’ But in both cases alike the mere idea or knowledge of the power beyond and of its nature is, broadly speaking, not an end in itself, but a means to that union which, indirectly or directly, is freedom from evil and attainment of good. Of course ‘good’ may include knowledge, but those to whom this is a prominent kind of good are a very small minority of mankind. Hence the idea of the object is essentially an idea of it, not in itself and apart from man, but in its working relation with man. That is the centre, though doubtless about this centre there may gather many ideas or beliefs (e.g. mythological ones) which have comparatively little practical or, for that matter, religious import.
And now, summing up our results so far, we may describe the theoretical element in religion roughly thus: it is an idea of, or a belief about, a being or beings (usually called a god or gods) greatly superior in one or more respects to the worshipper, and differing from him in its mode of existence—and, in this sense, supernatural—but yet akin to him and standing in such a practical relation to him that it is of the greatest importance to him to be in union with it. This union either ‘is’, or is effected by, religion, and the idea or belief is the theoretical medium through which it is effected.
Further ideas are of course involved in religion. In addition to this notion of God (his theology, to use the word loosely), the worshipper will have some notion or theory of the world and its relation to his god (his cosmology), especially as the evils he fears or suffers from, and the goods he hopes for or enjoys, arise largely from his own dependence on the world. And he will have again some notion of himself and man in general, and how they came to be, and perhaps what is likely to become of them. But these ideas in so brief an account as ours may be passed by, and some others cannot be conveniently mentioned at this point.
Union with the god, we saw, is effected by religion, and the idea or belief is the theoretical medium through which it is effected. Nothing therefore can seem clearer than that this idea or belief is not religion itself, but only an element in it, and that, when it is not this, it is not religion at all. And it is hard to think that any religious man, at any stage, if he understood these statements would dispute them. He may indeed hold that a correct belief about God is requisite to union with him. This is a sufficiently terrible belief, but very common in religion and not, on the face of it, absurd. But to hold that a correct belief is religion would seem possible only through great confusion of mind.
This can hardly be produced simply by language, but—and this has often been observed—it may be facilitated by language. Such words as πίστις, fides, Glaube, belief, are all ambiguous. I may believe in God in the sense of believing that he exists and has a certain nature. Such belief is a purely intellectual state, no more religious than the belief that he does not exist. I may also believe in him in the sense of having (in the Pauline sense) faith in him, assuredly a religious state or act, but by no means a merely intellectual one. Being told, then, that I may be justified or saved by my belief in the latter sense of faith, it is only too easy for me to transfer this power to belief in the former sense, of intellectual assent or conviction. This intellectual assent or conviction is now nearly equivalent to religion itself, and the want of it to irreligion, which means perdition. This confusion, with its results, is written on the pages of Christian history from the time of St. James's Epistle until today: and on many pages it is written in fire and blood.
What now does religion contain besides this first or theoretical element? In the second place, certain feelings or emotions directed to the object of worship. A man who has no such feelings has not religion.
These feelings naturally will vary with the worshipper's ideas regarding his god, the world, and himself (the feelings and the ideas growing up together and determining each other). They will therefore differ considerably in different forms of religion, one being relatively strong in one religion and weak in another, and they will differ again with the temperaments of individuals and the chances of their lives. But, remembering this, we may arrive at a general truth about their feelings by recalling what we found to be a general truth about their object. This object is something greatly superior to the worshipper, and he believes his welfare to depend on his harmonious or discordant relation to it. The feelings it causes in him, therefore, will be of two main kinds, which we may call negative and positive. The thought of it will depress him because it will make him feel his own littleness, weakness, and need of help, and these may be called negative feelings; on the other hand, because it is so superior to him in qualities which he would like to have, he must view it with wonder and admiration, and these are positive feelings. And, considering the great gap between him and it, and the difference between its mode of existence and his mode, these feelings may well tend to be extreme and to be accompanied by a sense of mystery. Again, on the one side he will fear it, because he is ignorant of the limits of its powers, or convinced that they are limitless, and because therefore it can injure him so much; and on the other side it will inspire him with longing, hope or aspiration through the thought of the good that he may attain by pleasing it, or the share that he may have through his union with it in that which it possesses and he lacks. Or again—especially in the higher stages—if he is conscious of his disunion with it he may feel troubled, self-abased, remorseful or even desperate, while his consciousness of union with it will be accompanied by joy, gratitude, and love. And further, if the object is conceived as in some sense moral, the negative feelings of self-abasement and fear and the positive of admiration and aspiration will combine in what we call reverence. It may be difficult for some of these feelings to exist when the object of religion is conceived in a certain way, and there may be religions of peoples or of individuals in which feelings of the one kind—those I have called the negative, or, again, those I have called the positive—may predominate so much that the one may get the title, say, of a religion of fear, and the other of a religion of love; but it would seem that there can hardly be a religion in which either class is wholly absent.
If now we suppose that with the theoretic element of belief there is also present this element of emotion, are we to say that religion is present? In one sense we may answer ‘Yes’, for probably no man could habitually feel the emotions in question unless he were in some degree religious. But then he would not be religious merely by virtue of feeling them, but because they would imply something besides themselves; and if a man could merely feel them without, as we say, anything coming of it, we should certainly deny that he was religious, though we might admit that his temperament inclined him to religion. People often talk as if religious feeling amounted to religion, but no simple religious mind, at any stage of culture, if it could understand this position, would assent to it. ‘Do you suppose,’ the savage would reply, ‘that my god will do anything for me if I do nothing for him and merely feel about him?’ And the reply of the simple Christian would be practically the same, except that he would ay less stress on outward action and more on inward. A man is not religious, in short, unless his will is in tune with his emotions and his belief, unless he submits his own will to the divine will, and tries to fashion himself in accordance with it and to carry it out in his deeds. Till he does that, we should say, he may torment himself with fear and even with remorse, or drown himself in dreams of his god as blissful as a lover's, and none the less remain without religion.
For the present we may ignore the outward acts, for we are considering religion only as a state or act of the soul; but it is emphatically an act of the soul and not merely a state. It is, at any stage, in some sense devotion, the devoting of a man's self to the object he worships. That is willing, and the habitual repetition of such acts of will produces that permanent direction of will, or that inward disposition of character, which we call piety. And piety is another name for the whole of religion on its inner side. This whole, then, whether as the single act of devotion or as the permanent disposition, is essentially volitional. But there is included in it, fused with the element of will, both the theoretical element of belief and the emotional element of feeling. For the devotion of the will to the object worshipped implies on the one hand an idea of the object or a belief about it, and on the other the presence in some degree of those feelings towards it of fear, reverence, aspiration, or love, which impel to union with it.
We may sum up our account of inward religion, then, as follows. It is an attitude or activity of the whole soul or personality containing a mode of belief about God, and about the self and the world in their relation to him; a mode of feeling concerning him; a direction of the will towards him or a union of the will with his will;—no one of these alone or merely side by side with the others. But, in view of what seem errors on this subject, I will venture to urge that, so far as these three aspects can be regarded apart, the last has a certain preeminence, or occupies the central position. For a mere belief about God is not religion; a man may believe and believe and be a villain. And emotions towards God, so far as they exist apart from acts of will, are not religion and may be a morbid perversion of it. But the devotion of the will to the object, if it exists at all, is religion; and it may exist in great strength and purity, and perform its office of effecting the communion of the worshipper and his god, although his belief may be meagre, confused, and to the minds of others even ridiculous or shocking, and although he is aware of little or no emotion towards his god. Hope and love and even fear may seem to be dead within him, and yet he may devote himself in sadness and shame to the divine will. And, if he does so, doubtless his religion is not what religion may be, but still it is religion.