However I admit my weakness and the only excuse I can plead is that these same religions have so often been drawn from their dark and hideous side that there is less danger perhaps of people at large forming too favourable an opinion of them if now and then I should have spoken too well of them. Perhaps I have given the Brâhmans too much credit for their tolerant spirit and for allowing great latitude of philosophical speculation to the older and more enlightened members of their villages. They were able to solve a problem which to us seems insoluble because they lived in a state of society totally different from our own. The Âranyakas or Forest-books which contained the oldest Upanishads the philosophical treatises of the Veda were to be known by those only who had retired from active life into the forest and the teaching contained in them was often called rahasya or secret. In ancient India there were no printed books not even manuscripts but all teaching was oral. Nothing was easier therefore for those who were the guardians or depositaries of the higher truth of religion than to keep it from all except those who were considered fit to receive it men who had left the world men living in the forest. So long as this was possible it may have been right. What I doubt is whether in our time the few who even while living in the world have retired into their own forest freed from many fetters which they had to wear in their youth and manhood would be treated with the same forbearance aye reverence with which the forest-sages the Vânaprasthas were treated by the students the householders and the very priests of ancient India.
Lecture 2. On Toleration.
Lecture 2. On Toleration.
Bright Side of an Religions.
I HAVE often been told that in treating of the ancient religions of the world I dwell too much on their bright side and thus draw too favourable that is not quite correct a picture of them. I believe to a certain extent I must plead guilty to this indictment. One naturally feels more attracted by one bright jewel than by the heap of rubbish in which it is hidden; and more than that one is inclined to consider what is false and bad in any religion whether our own or that of others as a mere corruption as something that ought not to be and that will pass away; while what is good and true in all of them seems to constitute their true and permanent nature. You know the argument of the ancient Greek philosophers when they were reminded of the often repulsive character of their gods. Nothing they said can be true of the gods that is not worthy of them.
Danger of keeping Truth secret.
But we shall see that even in India this device of keeping the highest truths carefully hidden not only from younger students but also from grown-up men householders and fathers of families broke down in the end nay proved one of the main causes of the downfall of Brâhmanism.
In a former course of lectures I explained to you how after a time Brâhmanism was supplanted by Buddhism and how this Indian Buddhism was really the inevitable consequence of the old system of the four Âsramas or the successive stages in which the life of an orthodox Brâhman was supposed to be passed. Buddha and those who followed him seem simply to have asked the question why if the real truth is reached in the third Âsrama only should people spend their youth and their manhood in learning and practising a religion which was preliminary only to a higher and truer knowledge and in performing sacrifices which were a snare and delusion rather than a means of grace1. Those who joined the Buddhist brotherhood looked upon the long apprenticeship spent in the study of the Veda on the fulfilment of the duties of a householder and on the performance of sacrifices as mere waste. They left the world at once and listened to the highest truth such as Buddha had discovered and taught it.
Antecedents of Buddhism.
The first signs of this rebellious spirit against the old system are already visible in the Brâhmanic literature. I shall read you an extract from the Mahâbhârata which has been well translated by my old friend Dr. John Muir. It is a dialogue between a father and a son. The father exhorts his son to keep to the old paths to serve his apprenticeship then to marry and to perform the regular sacrifices and at the end of his life only to seek for the hidden wisdom. The son however does not see why he should reach the highest goal on so circuitous a road and decides to leave the world at once in order to find rest where alone it can be found. The exact date of the dialogue may be doubtful but its spirit is certainly pre-buddhistic.
Dialogue between rather and Son.
Since soon the days of mortals end
How ought the wise their lives to spend?
What course should I to duty true
My sire from youth to age pursue?
Begin thy course with study; store
The mind with holy Vedic lore.
That stage completed seek a wife
And gain the fruit of wedded life
A race of sons by rites to seal
When thou art gone thy spirit's weal.
Then light the sacred fires and bring
The gods a fitting offering.
When age draws nigh the world forsake
Thy chosen home the forest make;
And there a calm ascetic sage
A war against thy passions wage
That cleansed from every earthly stain
Thou may'st supreme perfection gain.
And art thou then my father wise
When thou dost such a life advise?
What wise or thoughtful man delights
In formal studies empty rites?
Should such pursuits and thoughts engage
A mortal more than half his age?
The world is ever vexed distressed;
The noiseless robbers never rest.
Tell how the world is vexed distressed;
What noiseless robbers never rest?
What means thy dark alarming speech?
In plainer words thy meaning teach.
The world is vexed by death; decay
The frames of mortals wears away.
Dost thou not note the circling flight
Of’ those still robbers day and night
With stealthy tread which hurrying past
Steal all our lives away at last?
When well I know how death infests
This world of woe and never rests
How can I still in thoughtless mood
Confide in future earthly good?
Since life with every night that goes
Still shorter and yet shorter grows
Must not the wise perceive how vain
Are all their clays that yet remain
We whom life's narrow bounds confine
Like fish in shallow water pine.
No moment lose; in serious mood
Begin at once to practise good;
To-morrow's task to-day conclude;
The evening's work complete at noon:—
No duty can be done too soon.
Who knows whom death may seize to-night
And who shall see the morning light?
And death will never stop to ask
If thou hast done or not thy task.
While yet a youth from folly cease;
Through virtue seek for calm and peace.
So shalt thou here attain renown
And future bliss thy lot shall crown.
As soon as men are born decay
And death begin to haunt their way.
How can'st thou thoughtless careless rest
When endless woes thy life infest;
When pains and pangs thy strength consume—
Thy frame to dissolution doom?
Forsake the busy haunts of men
For there has death his favourite den.
In lonely forests seek thy home
For there the gods delight to roam.
Fast bound by old attachment's spell
Men love amid their kin to dwell.
This bond the sage asunder tears;
The fool to rend it never cares.
Thou dost advise that I should please
With sacrifice the deities.
Such rites I disregard as vain;
Through these can none perfection gain.
Why sate the gods at cruel feasts
With flesh and blood of slaughtered beasts?
Far other sacrifices I
Will offer unremittingly;
The sacrifice of calm of truth
The sacrifice of peace of truth
Of life serenely purely spent
Of thought profound on Brahma bent.
Who offers these may death defy
And hope for immortality.
And then thou say'st that I should wed
And sons should gain to tend me dead
By offering pious gifts to seal
When I am gone my spirit's weal.
But I shall ask no pious zeal
Of sons to guard my future weal.
No child of mine shall ever boast
His rites have saved his father's ghost.
Of mine own bliss I'll pay the price
And be myself my sacrifice.
Buddhism originally a Brâhmanic Sect.
Between this view of life and that of the Buddhists the difference is very small. At first the followers of Buddha seem to have been but one out of many religious brotherhoods with which India has abounded at all times. We only know a few of them because we know so little of ancient India and all we know is taken from two or three literatures that of the Brâhmans that of the Buddhists and that of the Gainas. We must not imagine however that these three literatures or what remains of them represented at any time the whole intellectual and religious life of India. India is as large as Europe without Russia and its population is over 200 millions most of them scattered in villages. Many of these villages probably never heard the name of the Veda or the Tripitaka or the Aṅgas. We are told that even now there are people in India who have never seen a white man.
India is swarming with innumerable sects and has always been a very hotbed of religious ideas. It was Cousin the great French philosopher whose knowledge of the history of European philosophy was probably unrivalled who declared that India contained the whole history of philosophy in a nut-shell. And yet philosophers will continue to write on philosophical questions as if Kapila and Kanâda had never existed. And if India contains the history of philosophy in a nut-shell it certainly is richer in material for the history of religion than any other country. No phase of religion from the coarsest superstition to the most sublime enlightenment is unrepresented in that country. And yet theologians will write on religious questions as if the Vedas the Pitakas the Aὅgas the Purânas and Tantras had never existed.
It stands to reason that in a country swarming with religious sects like India there must have been discussion and controversy on religious topics. And so there was from the earliest times. We read in the Upanishads of disputants who were ready to stake their heads if they should be worsted by argument. Nor need we wonder that there should have been differences of opinion represented by different schools. We saw how in the Veda there stand side by side the most transparent natural polytheism in the hymns the most minute and unmeaning ritualism in the Brâhmanas and the most subtle theosophy in the Upanishads. I do not doubt that these three strata represent originally three successive stages of historical growth; but so long as we know anything of India we find hymns Brâhmanas and Upanishads coexisting and united under the common name of Veda the Veda being recognised not only as the highest authority on all religious questions but as divine revelation in the fullest sense of that word. Remember then that the Vedic hymns are addressed to a number of gods of whom sometimes one sometimes another is represented as supreme; remember that in the Brâhmanas an enormous number of daily monthly quarterly semestrial and annual sacrifices are enjoined as the only means of salvation whether they be offered to single gods or to Pragâpati the lord of creation; remember that the Upanishads generally integral portions of these very Brâhmanas teach in the clearest way that all the gods of the Veda are but names of one Supreme Being whether we call it Brahman or Âtman; that sacrificial acts so far from helping man are a snare and delusion so long as he expects any reward for them and that true salvation can be gained by knowledge only by knowledge of the human self and its true relation to the Highest Self. All these opinions were upheld by certain teachers and in their schools the minutest differences of opinion on religious ceremonial and philosophical questions were discussed by the Brâhmans. Yet all this was done peacefully and quietly and we hear of no persecutions on account of differences of opinion.
When Buddhism and Gainism arose about 500 B.C. the Brâhmans had to defend their views against those of the new sects the new sects criticised the old teaching of the Brâhmans and very soon various teachers among Buddhists and Gainas began to differ one from another.
We read for instance in the Buddhist scriptures of several teachers the contemporaries and rivals of Buddha the best known being the Nigantha Nâtaputta who has been recognised as the founder of the Gaina sect Pûrana Kassapa Makkhali of the cattle-pen (gosâla) Agita with the garment of hair Kakkâyan of the Pakudha tree and Sañgaya the son of the Belattha the slave-girl2. We hear of controversies between them; and that even the imperturbable Buddha could use cutting words in these discussions we may gather from what on one occasion he said of Makkhali of the cattle-pen: ‘O ye disciples as of all woven garments a garment of hair is deemed the worst a garment of hair being cold in cold weather hot in heat of a dirty colour of a bad smell and rough to the touch so my disciples of all doctrines of other ascetics and Brâhmans the doctrine of Makkhali is deemed the worst3.’ In the canonical books of the Gainas also we read of Gosâla the son of Makkhali4 being defeated in disputation by Nahâvîra Nâtaputta.
But though during Buddha's life we hear of such discussions sometimes bitter discussions between him and his disciples and other teachers we never hear of persecutions on the side of the Brâhmans nor of any strong hostility on the side of the Buddhists. People disputed but they tolerated each other; they agreed to differ.
After a time however Buddhism seems to have spread very rapidly and to have led to great social and political changes. The dynasty founded by Kandragupta at the time of Alexander the Great was that of a pretender a kind of Napoléon not belonging by birth to the royal caste and therefore bidding for popular support wherever he could find it. It is possible that the Buddhists were more ready to recognise and support him than the orthodox Brâhmans. Anyhow under the reign of his grandson king Asoka (259-222 B.C.) we see the followers of Buddha not only recognised but patronised by the king and we hear of a great Council held under his auspices to settle the sacred canon of the Buddhists.
Toleration preached by Buddhism.
In some respects Buddhism may be called a kind of Protestantism directed against Brâhmanism and we know that neither those who protest nor those who are protested against are generally distinguished by mutual love and charity. The first authentic evidence of the political and social changes produced by the spreading of Buddhism in India we have in those wonderful inscriptions of king Asoka which are scattered over the whole of his dominions. They have suffered no doubt during the more than two thousand years that they have been exposed to the climate of India; but as they exist in many copies their text has been restored they have been published and interpreted and we can now read them exactly as they were read by the subjects of king Asoka whether Buddhists or Brâhmans. Their decipherment is due to the combined labours of Prinsep Burnouf Wilson Norris Bühler and Senart. If then we remember that Asoka was a kind of Constantine who owed much of his power to the support which he received front the new religion or if you like a kind of Henry VIII hated by all who suffered under the new reform you will be surprised to see how much more of true Christian charity was shown by this Buddhist king in the third century B.C. than by Constantine in the fourth or by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.
The Edicts of Asoka.
It may be true that the idea of putting up public inscriptions struck the Indian mind for the first time when Greek ideas had reached India after Alexander's conquests. But when Asoka had his inscriptions engraved on rocks and pillars it was not in order to perpetuate his name or the names of his ancestors it was not to glorify his own origin; it was chiefly to preach toleration for all creeds. Thus he says in his Seventh Edict5:
The king Piyadasi dear to the gods desires that all sects should dwell (in peace) everywhere; for they all desire the control of the senses and purity of mind. Men however have different wishes and different passions; they will perform the whole or a part only (of what they ought to do). But even he whose charity is not abundant may surely always possess control of the senses purity of mind gratitude and loyalty6.’
And again in his Twelfth Edict (l.c. p. 251) he says: ‘The king Piyadasi dear to the gods honours all sects those of hermits and those of householders he honours them by alms and by different kinds of worship. But the king dear to the gods does not value alms and worship as much as the increase of essentials. And7 the increase of essentials does not differ much in different sects; on the contrary the true foundation of every one consists in the bridling of the tongue so that neither should there be praising of one's own sect nor disparagement of other sects without a cause; and whenever there is cause it should be moderate8. The religions of others may even be praised for any given reason9. In this manner a man may much advantage his own sect and at the same time benefit that of others; while if he acts otherwise he damages his own sect and injures that of others. For whosoever exalts his own sect and disparages all others from a strong devotion to his own sect but in truth from a wish that it should be rendered pre-eminent he will in this wise injure his own sect much more. Therefore a mutual understanding is best that all should listen to the teaching of others and wish to listen. This is indeed the wish of the king dear to the gods that all sects should listen much and be possessed of pure doctrines. And all who belong to this or to that sect should have it said to them that the king dear to the gods does not value alms and worship as much as the increase of essentials and that respect should be shown to all sects10.’
The Tolerant Spirit of Asoka.
The exact meaning of these edicts which king Asoka had engraved on rocks and pillars in different parts of his kingdom is not always easy to discover nor easy to express in our modern terminology. Still we cannot be mistaken in giving him credit for a most tolerant spirit which finds but few parallels in ancient or modern history. He had recognised what many find so difficult to recognise even now that we must distinguish between what is essential in all religions what Asoka calls the sâra or sap and what is not. The number of religious and philosophical sects prevalent in India during the third century before our era must have been very considerable and on some points their differences were no doubt very great. Put Asoka gives them all credit for inculcating the same lesson namely control of the passions purity of mind gratitude and loyalty. And think what would be gained if these four points were really gained by any religion! And when he comes to what he calls the root or life-spring of religion he finds it in mutual forbearance and more particularly in the bridling of the tongue as if anticipating the wellknown words: ‘If any man among you seem to be religious and bridleth not his tongue but deceiveth his own heart this man's religion is vain11.’
I doubt whether any other religion could produce such royal edicts in favour of mutual toleration. They are one of the brightest pages in the history of India and I thought it right to make you acquainted with them because they show that a comparative study of religions has some important lessons to teach even to us. If therefore I may sometimes seem to speak too favourably of some of these religions may I not appeal to the words of king Asoka: ‘For whosoever exalts his own faith and disparages all others from a strong devotion to his own he will injure his own faith.’ And again: ‘The true foundation of every faith consists in bridling the tongue so that there should be neither a praising of one's own religion nor disparagement of others.’
Disappearance of Buddhism in India.
Whether these edicts of Asoka were always obeyed is another question; but even as an aspiration they deserve our respect. History so far as we can speak of history in India certainly seems to teach that the sentiments of forbearance and brotherly love inculcated in these edicts have not always been obeyed by the rulers and by the people of that country. The ruins of Buddhist monasteries tombs monuments anti pillars scattered over the whole of India tell a terrible tale. For some centuries the Buddhist religion must have ruled supreme in India. During the period covered by the travels of the Chinese pilgrims from 400 to 700 though the kings still preached toleration and encouraged peaceful congresses for the discussion of religious questions we hear already of many Vihâras or monasteries being deserted of many Stûpas or pillars lying prostrate. How Buddhism was exterminated in India we shall never know. But the fact remains that Buddhism exists no longer as an Indian religion. It lives in Ceylon from whence it has spread in its southern branch to Burma and Siam and it lives in Nepal from whence in its northern branch it spread to Tibet Mongolia China and Japan. But in India proper Buddhism has ceased to exist and the religious census returns no Buddhists except as strangers and pilgrims in their Holy Land the birth-place of Buddha.
So much for king Asoka the great ruler of India in the third century B.C. We have to remember so many kings for their intolerance. Let us give to king Asoka a niche in our memory for his tolerant spirit for his benevolence his large-heartedness—for that broad and wide view of religion which in our days is so often stigmatised as latitudinarianism.
It seems often to be supposed that if we praise one religion we tacitly blame others. That is not so. If I call Buddhism tolerant I do not mean to imply that Christianity is intolerant. Some who call themselves Christians may be intolerant but the spirit of Christianity itself is not so. Those who so often quote the words (Matth. xii. 30) ‘He that is not with me is against me’ forget the words (Mark ix. 40) ‘For ho that is not against us is on our part.’
Toleration in the Jewish Religion.
The greatest minds whatever their religion have always been the most tolerant and charitable. We often see how the founders of new religions endeavoured to retain all that was good and true in the religions from which they seceded. They came to fulfil not to destroy.
Even the Jewish religion which is often represented as very intolerant was not so from the first. The Mosaic Law commanded that the stranger should not be oppressed—‘for you know the heart of a stranger seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ The Jews were told: ‘Ye shall have one law as well for the stranger as for one of your own country.’ Now in the eyes of a Jew a stranger was a man who worshipped false gods and yet Moses claimed toleration and protection for him.
It was owing to political circumstances that the Jewish religion became in time so strongly national and exclusive and it was the influence of the Rabbis that imparted to it in later times so narrow-minded and dogmatic a character.
Still there were Rabbis and Rabbis and some of them would I believe put the most enlightened of our Biblical critics to shame by the tolerant spirit in which they treat the most widely-differing interpretations of the Old Testament. Thus it is laid down in the Talmud12 as a general principle of interpretation ‘that the Sacred Scriptures speak in a language that should be intelligible to men.’ A living Rabbi Dr. Fürst remarks on this that ‘if the Bible speaks of the four ends of the earth which rests on its pillars or of the sky stretched out like a tent or of the sun as running his course like a hero round the earth’ the Jews in ancient times were far from seeing in such expressions matters of fact which science was not allowed to question or to reject. People said that the Scripture used expressions which should be intelligible to men such as they were at the time13. No one was called a heretic because he did not believe in the pillars on which the earth was said to rest.
With us also when children are taught to pray to their Father in heaven the only idea which they as children can connect with heaven is the blue sky. This is so during childhood and it has been so during the childhood of the human race. The Romans called the gods superi those above. They spoke of them naturally as descending from the clouds to the earth and they spoke of the favourites of their gods as having been lifted up to heaven. Our own word heaven is derived from heaving and meant originally what had been heaved on high. We know all this—we know it is inevitable and we do not blame children when they retain for a time these childish ideas inherited from the childhood of our race.
But to judge from some recent theological controversies the question seems no longer to be whether we can tolerate this language of children but whether the children—children whether in age or in knowledge—will tolerate us.
Jewish Interpretation of the Bible.
Let me explain more fully what I mean. I shall quote again a Jewish Rabbi and you will see how much more enlightened some of these despised Rabbis were than some of our loading theologians.
Rabbi José says that ‘the descent of God on Mount Sinai must not be taken in a literal sense’ and he continues ‘as little as the ascent of Moses and Elijah14.’
Now I ask Do we always bear this in mind? Do we remember that the descent of Jehovah on Mount Sinai as described in Exodus and his carrying down the heavy tables of stone to hand them to Moses must not nay cannot be taken without irreverence in a literal sense. Every educated every serious-minded person knows it. The very Fathers of the Church who have so often been appealed to in support of antiquated errors protest against the literal interpretation of such passages in the Bible—passages to which so many of our most troublesome miracles are due. May we no longer claim the same freedom of the spirit against the slavery of the letter which even in the first half of the second century was boldly claimed by and freely granted to such a man as Justin Martyr! ‘You are not to think’ he writes ‘that the unbegotten God carne down from anywhere or went up.’ Thus by one stroke this great Father of the Church whom no orthodox theologian would venture to contradict removes or rather explains a number of so-called miracles which we in the nineteenth century are told we must not touch we must not venture to explain we must not venture to try to understand. Those who do so nevertheless who study ancient language and ancient thought are called Rationalists—a name meant I believe as a reproach but in reality the proudest title in the eyes of every rational man for it means a man who tries to use to the best of his power the best gift which God has given us namely our reason.
It is useless to fight against the truth—truth will conquer us all even the most orthodox. I have often been told that I ought to have followed the example of my colleague at Edinburgh Mr. Hutchinson Stirling the only orthodox among the Gifford Lecturers. I grant that Mr. Hutchinson Stirling is most orthodox but he is also a scholar and thoroughly honest. I doubt whether those who represent him as the champion of what they call orthodoxy have really read his lectures. When we read in the Bible that the walls of Jericho fell at the blast of the trumpet or when the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that the walls of Jericho fell by faith after they were compassed about some days what does Mr. Hutchinson Stirling say? Does he accept this as a miracle? Far from it. He sees in it nothing but what he calls Oriental phantasy expressing in a trope the signal speed of the event as if we were to say that the walls fell at the first blast of the trumpet. He goes still further and says without any misgiving: ‘He who would boggle at the wife of Cain (whose daughter she was) or stumble over the walls of Jericho is not an adult: he is but a boy still.’ This is quite true; the only question is whether the boys because they are many should rule the masters or the masters the boys.
Should we then allow ourselves to be frightened by another argument namely that all this may be true but that such facts and such interpretations are for the few not for the many and that more particularly the young would suffer shipwreck of their faith if they were told that Jehovah did not reside in the blue sky that he did not descend on Mount Sinai in fire carrying in His arms the tables of the law to hand them to Moses?
Archdeacon Farrar has been a schoolmaster for many years yet he did not hesitate to say ‘We do not suppose that heaven is a cubic city.’ Is there really any danger in this and if there is should it not be faced? I believe that so long as a child's mind is still unable to take in more than the idea of God dwelling in the clouds and descending on Mount Sinai in a bodily form as working Himself with His own tools the tables of stone as writing Himself with His own finger the ten commandments in Hebrew on the stone nothing will disturb his childish thoughts. But if he has once learnt to conceive God as a spirit whom no man can see and live no authority will be strong enough to convince him that the account given in Exodus should be accepted in a literal and material sense.
The Ascent of Elijah.
And what applies to the descent of Jehovah applies equally as Justin Martyr said to all descents from heaven and all ascents to heaven. If we understand the language of the time we can well understand the true meaning of the ascent of Elijah as told in the Old Testament. But I doubt whether any serious student of the Bible would bring himself to say that the passage as we read it there (2 Kings ii. 11 was meant to vouch for an historical event namely that there appeared a real chariot of fire and real horses of fire and parted them both (Elijah and Elisha) asunder; and that Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
The Ascension of Christ.
If then their own learned Rabbis who knew the language of the Bible as their own exhorted the Jews to take Elijah's ascent to heaven in a spiritual and not simply in a material sense why has so much intolerance been shown of late to clergymen of the Church of England who claimed the same freedom with regard to Christ's ascension and tried to see in it a spiritual truth and not a merely material event? The pictorial language is much stronger in the case of the assumption of Elijah and yet it was rightly interpreted. In the case of Christ the fact of His body being lifted from the mountain and passing through the clouds as we see it in many well-known pictures and as it is impressed on the minds of many children is really never mentioned; and if it were it ought to be understood in its deep spiritual meaning and not as a merely miraculous event. The first Gospel is altogether silent. In the Gospel of St. Mark the most simple language is used that ‘He was received up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God.’ Can we doubt of the true meaning of these words? Does any one really believe that the approach to God is through the clouds? The third Gospel says ‘He was parted from them and carried up into heaven.’ St. John is reverently silent as to any bodily assumption though the expressions that Christ descended from heaven and ascended up to heaven are most familiar to him in their true spiritual meaning. (St. John iii. 13; vi. 62; xx. 17.)
It is in the Acts of the Apostles that the ascension seems to assume a more material character though even here the expressions of His being seen going up to heaven or taken up and received by a cloud out of their sight must be taken in a spiritual sense. The material fact was that He was withdrawn from their vision. The spiritual meaning was that He was raised up and exalted to the right hand of God (Acts ii. 33) that He ‘ascended on high and led captivity captive’ (Psalm lxviii. 18).
We can well understand that to some minds and more particularly to the minds of children the material miracle of a passage through our terrestrial atmosphere is a necessity. It requires less effort less thought it requires less of real faith. So long as the blue sky is believed to be heaven so long as the lessons of astronomy do not open wider views of God's universe a mere passage through the clouds has nothing to disturb a childlike imagination. Nor is there any reason why this view should not be tolerated for a time during the days of childhood as it is sure to disclose its spiritual meaning in the end. It is the discovery of that spiritual meaning which requires real faith; while if we looked upon the ascension as simply a material fact or an historical event we should simply have to submit the evidence like the evidence of any other historical event to a critical examination and reject or accept it as we reject or accept the disappearance of Romulus on the authority of Livy i. 16.
Some people say that they can derive no help no comfort from what they call spiritual only. Spiritual only—think what that only would mean if it could have any meaning at all! We might as well say of light that it is light only and that what we want is the shadow which we can grasp. So long as we know the shadow only and not the light that throws it the shadow only is real and not the light. But when we have once turned our head and seen the light the light only is real and substantial and not the shadow.
All this is a matter of growth of spiritual growth and that growth though it need not be hurried ought never to be checked. There is a period in the history of the world and there is a period in the life of every individual during which the material shadows only seem to be real while the light behind us seems a mere illusion the result of a deduction. Nay even when that deduction has been made and has proved irresistible to human reason the human heart often hesitates. There are many to whom the spirit seems something too shadowy not half so real as the body and the utmost they can grasp is what they call a spiritual body. If they can connect any definite meaning with such an expression let them do so.
But why should others who have learnt to believe in the stern reality of the spirit have to plead for toleration? Why should those to whom the material miracle would be no help at all while the spiritual fact the true ascension of Christ is a necessity why should they be deprived of that freedom which even Jewish Rabbis and the Fathers of the Church enjoyed of interpreting the Bible according to the language of the time? Why should not the two live peaceably together remembering the edict of Asoka ‘that respect should be shown to all sects;’ and if to all sects why not to all ages of men to all stages of thought? We want snore faith not less.
If there had been more of these Jewish Rabbis think how many controversies might have been prevented.
The Solstice of Joshua.
Think of the long controversies carried on at the time of Galileo! At first so-called logical arguments were used to show that the earth could not possibly move. I shall give you a specimen or two:
‘All animals which are able to move have members and muscles
The Earth has no members and no muscles
Therefore it does not move—qoud erat demonstrandum.’
Or better still to quote Chiaramonti:
‘Angels cause Saturn Jupiter and the Sun to move and
The Earth also if it does move must be moved by angels in its centre
But in that centre of the Earth dwell devils
Therefore devils would have to move the Earth—which is impossible.’
But when these neatly-contrived syllogisms produced no longer any effect an irresistible appeal was made to the Bible. Ever so many passages were then quoted from the Bible to show that Copernicus and Galileo could not be right because their view of the world was contradicted by the express language of the Bible. In the Bible the sun is spoken of as moving and Joshua said to the sun ‘Sun stand thou still.’ Must we then surrender our faith in the Bible or shut our eyes to the facts of science? The Jewish Rabbis would have given a better answer than was given at the time by Popes or Councils: ‘The Bible must be interpreted according to the language of the time.’ Joshua spoke as many a hero or poet would speak even now however convinced he might be that the sun never moved. We read in the Odyssey (xxiii. 243) that on the day when Odysseus and Penelope were reunited Athene lengthened the night and kept Eos the dawn back in the ocean not allowing her to harness the quick-footed horses Lampos and Phaeton who bring light to men. But do we imagine that Athene really upset the course of nature? Does anybody with any sense of poetry doubt that all that Homer wished to say was that those who like Odysseus and Penelope believed in the protecting care of Athene felt as if she had lengthened for them the happiness of their reunion?
Again when we read in the Iliad (xviii. 239) that after the death of Patroklos Hera sent Helios against his will to dive into the waves of the ocean can we doubt that what the poet really meant was no more than that the Trojans felt grateful to Hera when the sun set sooner than they expected and the revenge of Achilles was stayed for that day?
We lose nothing by accepting these true and natural explanations. Even in the case of Joshua we lose nothing we only gain. Joshua is represented to us as eager to destroy the Amorites who had been defeated and were fleeing before him. Whatever we may think of his warfare he believed that in destroying the Amorites he was doing the work of God. When darkness seemed to come upon him and to prevent him from finishing his work what was more natural than that he should exclaim: ‘sun stand thou still upon Gibeon and thou Moon in the valley of Ajalon.’ He is not the only general who has uttered such a prayer15. And if the Israelites finished their slaughter before nightfall their poets would have been very different from all other poets if they had not sung that the Lord had delivered their enemies into their hands and that ‘the sun stood still in the midst of heaven and hasted not to go down about a whole day.’
All this is natural and intelligible and what is most important it does no violence to our sense of truth. For however anxious people may be to accept every event recorded in the Old Testament as historical it must require an effort to believe that such an event as stopping the sun and moon took place in the year 1520 B.C. without being observed anywhere except in the valley of Ajalon and let me add without upsetting the whole order of the planetary system. These are what I mean by the so-called physical miracles which science has proved to be once for all impossible not the true miracles of which Mohammed spoke when he said ‘You want to see miracles—look at the sun.’ And there is no necessity here for doing violence to our sense of truth if only we remember the ruling of the old Rabbis that the Scripture speaks in language intelligible to men.
But now let me tell you what may happen if we forget that ruling and take this poetical language in its literal sense.
Fasti Temporis Catholici.
Many years ago when I first came to Oxford the University Press published a work in four large volumes called Fasti Temporis Catholici and Origines Kalendariae by the Rev. Edward Greswell 1852. It is a work full of learning full of ingenuity. But its principal object is to show that there is a perfect agreement between astronomical and historical chronology. The beginning of astronomical chronology is fixed most minutely in the year 4004 in the week between April 25 and May 2. Then by following the solar and lunar years and by taking into consideration all eclipses of the sun and the moon the dates of ancient and modern history are brought into perfect agreement with the recorded and calculated movements of the heavenly bodies. But when all is done there remains a small discrepancy. There are twenty-four hours less of astronomical than of historical time. And how do you think this discrepancy is accounted for? By the time that the sun stood still at the command of Joshua and by the time that the sun returned backward ten degrees on the dial of Ahaz in the time of Hezekiah on the 31st of March 710 B.C. (2 Kings xx. 11). You would be surprised at the learning that is expended in these four volumes in order to establish the fact that this addition of twenty-four hours was really made to what we call time and how it agrees with the whole system of astronomical chronology and forms in reality a most valuable confirmation of the historical truth of the Old Testament. It may the so in the eyes of some people and if it is a plank which has saved them from drowning who would interfere with them? Who would use against these learned arguments any weapons except those of unimpassioned verification? So long as the world remains what it is and always has been so long as there are children and grandmothers educated and uneducated wise and foolish people people who dare not speak the truth even when they know it and people who dare not not speak the truth if once they know it there will be difference in religious opinions as in everything else.
Diversity of Opinion inevitable.
However strong the desire for unity and uniformity in religion may be it requires but a small knowledge of the history of religion it requires no more than that we should look around in order to feel convinced that this ideal will never be realised. One feels surprised when one reads how Mohammed who is considered the most intolerant of prophets exclaims in the Korân (X. 99): ‘Had thy Lord pleased all who are in the earth would have believed altogether: as for thee wilt thou force men to become believers16?’ And again: ‘Follow what is revealed to you and be patient until God judges for He is the best of judges.’ This was the language of Mohammed though hardly his practice.
Look how Christianity is divided into throe hostile camps Roman Catholics Greeks and Protestants. Yet they are all Christians. Look at the divisions among Protestants in Germany Holland England and America. Yet they are all Christians. Look again in each division at the variety of opinions preached every Sunday from the same pulpits and listened to by the same congregations. Yet they are all Christians.
Why should we always dwell on the differences which divide the Roman Catholic the Greek and the Protestant Churches? Why should we be disheartened at the multiplicity of Protestant sects and at the numberless shades of doctrine and ritual which we see in cathedrals churches chapels and meeting-houses? Are not the beliefs which they all share in common infinitely more numerous and infinitely more essential than those on which they differ? And yet these differences in some cases so small as almost to defy definition are allowed to separate so-called Christian denominations while the magnificent inheritance of truth which belongs to all of them is wilfully ignored. Christianity which in the beginning was the most tolerant of all religions seems to have become the most intolerant. We say no longer ‘He who is not against us is for us;’ we always seem to say ‘He who is not with us is against us.’
It is an easy excuse to say that this or that point is essential and that whosoever will be saved must hold it. Many things seem essential to the young which are looked upon in a very different light by the old. To quote the words of one of the highest ecclesiastical dignitaries in this very city ‘Alan judges more wisely of what is essential and what is indifferent in the quiet sunset of life than during the heat and burden of the day17.’
A Comparative Study of Religions teaches Tolerance.
And here I say once more that a serious study of the great religions of the world may prove a great help and a most efficient remedy against intolerance. A story was told of Macaulay when after his return from India he stood as Member of Parliament for Edinburgh. He had been heckled by some ministers who wanted to find out whether he was quite sound on certain minute points of doctrine which were too minute even for so acute an intellect as Macaulay's. ‘Gentlemen’ he exclaimed at last ‘if you had lived for some years as I have in a country whore people worship the cow you would not waste your thoughts on such trifles.’
Macaulay was right. The essentials of religion may be found in almost every religion even among those who have a superstitious feeling about a cow. When one sees the struggles through which mankind has to pass in order to establish the few fundamental principles of religion and to gain a recognition for the simplest rules of morality one learns to be very grateful to the founders of every religion for what they have achieved. Man can be a very wild beast and to have induced him not only to believe in a supreme government of the world but to restrain his selfish passions in submission to a higher will that is a real miracle. You remember what Asoka called the essentials or the sap of religion—control of the senses purity of mind gratitude and loyalty. These he finds inculcated by all the sects in India however different in other respects. We occupy a much higher point of view than Asoka and looking at the work done by religion in all parts of the world we may learn that in these essentials all religions are really one. There are differences there are great differences between the great religions of the world between their sects between their individual members. But there is a unity which ought to comprehend them all—the unity of toleration the unity of love.
From the book: