You are here

I: Introduction: Subject and Method

A Gifford Lecturer, especially one who is framing a second series, is sure to be embarrassed in his search for a novel theme. For so many lectures have already been given on this foundation in the four Universities of Scotland that it is unlikely that any subject belonging naturally to our scope still remains unhandled. But I cannot find that any of my gifted predecessors have given a systematic exposition of the topic that I have at last selected as the subject of this course. And I was all the more inclined to it, not only because of its intrinsic importance, but because this theme, ‘the attributes of God’, is a subject explicitly mentioned in his deed of foundation among the themes that Lord Gifford desired his lecturers to handle. Its speculative and practical importance hardly needs exposing: it is concerned so deeply with our spiritual history both of the past and of the present: it is so full and clearly written a record of our hopes and fears and ideals, of our achievements along the various paths of civilization, law, politics, morality, arts, sciences, and religious experience. It forms an essential part of any complete general history of religions; and the critical exposition of it touches on many philosophical problems of ethics and metaphysics.

It may be well at the outset to announce more precisely the scope of this course. It is not directly concerned with that which is the basis of all higher religion, the assumption or the conviction of the existence of a God; but its chief concern is to review the qualities and activities attributed to God in the living religions or in those that have lived and had force. Therefore as regards the philosophy of religion, it will only deal with the philosophic thought that has borne fruit in real popular belief, not with that which may have only worked in the solitary brain of the eccentric thinker. It will endeavour to arrange or present the divine attributes in a certain scale, proceeding from the lower and more material or physical conceptions to the higher and more spiritual. It will also be concerned with tracing out the logical implications in the attribution to the divine power of a given quality or function; further, it will have to consider whether any particular attribution harmonizes or conflicts with others that are generally regarded as essential to the concept of divinity, and, if there is revealed to be a conflict, whether the popular religion or religious thought is conscious of it, and whether the apparent antimony is capable of solution.

Though our main study will lie in the field of the higher religions—for it is only in these that the attributes become of deep interest and complexity—we shall occasionally have recourse to the facts presented to us by the study of the lower as well; for it is now a truism that in the greatest world-religions deposits of the ruder and more primitive thought survive by the side of the highest spiritual products, and centuries of liturgical repetition of act and formula deaden the sense of incongruity. As a recent writer on Indian Theism has observed: ‘It has always been found possible everywhere to hold together at one period thoughts that later reflection discovers to be contradictory, and it is generally alleged of Indian thinking that it has peculiar capacity in this respect.’1 But sooner or later among a progressive people the intellect challenges such incongruities and is called upon to harmonize or expunge them, a function of religious logic which our theme will compel us to undertake in due course. On the historical side of our subject, we may glance at the influence of certain divine concepts or attributions on social institutions, ethics, art, and literature.

Our material is the religious literature of the world, which no individual student can master in a lifetime, but which the labours of qualified specialists are rendering accessible and available for general comparison. We may draw also sometimes and for certain purposes from religious art.

After this statement of the scope, purport, and method of this course, certain preliminary observations suggest themselves, so as to avoid misunderstanding. Our theme is an essential chapter in Comparative Religion, which is a science, that is to say, an intellectual activity; and it may be objected that religion does not lend itself to a purely intellectual treatment, as it is not primarily a matter of the intellect. If this objection were felt to be a serious challenge of the validity of the science of Comparative Religion, it would be none the less effective against all Christian and other theology. For these theologies, though basing themselves on revelation, a divine phenomenon which a Gifford Lecturer is prohibited from considering, are nevertheless mainly intellectual systems, striving to give the logical deductions of a certain religious metaphysic. But we escape the objection by a clearer view of the relations of the intellect to religion. It may well be that the basis of religion is never primarily intellectual, that the true source and strength of it is not in the intellectual sphere, and that no intellectual proof of the existence of God has been able to maintain itself as convincing. Let us admit that the stuff of religion is emotional and psychic; that faith in the being of God may be an intuitive and self-sufficing intuition of the soul; that Plotinus, Baron von Hügel, and Dean Inge are right in preferring intuition to discursive reasoning. But it is scarcely necessary to observe that the scientific reason can reflect on psychic and emotional phenomena, and that a scientific treatment of religion is just as valid as the scientific treatment of the facts of poetry and art, which like those of religion are drawn mainly from a non-intellectual sphere. In fact, the conflict between the religious and the intellectual faculty cannot be regarded as inevitable. It has arisen frequently, especially in Christendom, from the usurpations now of the one faculty now of the other. When religion claims to make definite judgements about cosmology or the phenomena of the physical world, to decide that the earth is flat or that the sun goes round the earth, we call this usurpation; and the Greek physicists were justified as against the writer of Genesis and were more truly inspired. Progress in religion consists partly in a recognition of its true sphere and a wise self-restraint, and religion is dangerous and in danger when it defies or challenges the rightful claims of the intellect. On the other hand, it is part of the function and it is in the power of religion to give us a scale of values, which the discursive intellect is wholly powerless to give. For it is not by intellectual reasoning but by some intuitive and mysterious soul-activity that we pronounce one thing higher than another in the scale of being; just as in ethics, the intellect devises means to ends and traces out the results of actions, but does not give us the end or decide authoritatively on good and evil. It is at the same time true that prolonged intellectual activity and devotion to the mode of life that maintains it engenders a certain faith of its own, a certain sense of values, that is likely to react on religion and modify it. Thus a devoted physicist may be so penetrated with the sense and the value of the law and order of the cosmos that he must revolt from a religion which proclaims indiscriminate miracles and casual divine interference with nature.

Also, while keeping carefully within its own sphere the intellect has played a great and progressive part in the development of religious systems, comparing religious judgements and testing their coherence, clearly eliciting the assumptions on which they rest, and tracing religious institutions, judgements, and emotions, to their discoverable origin.

We note how prominent is the question of origins in recent investigation bearing on the science of religion: and how in alarm at the possible results of such research the champions of higher religious orthodoxy endeavour to intrench themselves within the position that origin does not affect validity. It may be helpful to consider this axiom a little, for we may be forced at certain points to consider origins; and it is well to have some estimate beforehand what such considerations are likely to be worth. We see at once that in ordinary human life the axiom by no means always holds; but that the question of origins of a title or a claim is often vital in respect of validity. It is also decisive in certain questions of higher Christian theology and of the theology of other world-religions that base themselves on certain sacred books regarded as inspired. Many momentous controversies, such as those that have divided Christendom concerning apostolic succession, the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, have turned and still greatly depend on the interpretation of New Testament texts, or on the authenticity of certain writings included in the canon. And even now there are many Christians who allow or refuse validity to any particular rite or dogma according as they believe or disbelieve that it is confirmed by a passage in the Bible. In this simple sense, then, in the sphere where Sacred Books are cherished and appealed to, origin deeply affects validity.

But the influence of origin upon validity is more subtle and far-reaching than this. It has been and indeed may reasonably be maintained that if a certain ritual or belief is pure and high, beautiful and noble, helpful and comforting to those who hold or partake in it, the scientific historian of religion may succeed in showing that it developed from something lower, something perhaps impure or cruel, primitive and savage; and yet its value for us may remain undimmed by this discovery: we may kick away the ladder by which we have risen and continue to enjoy the heights. The Sabbath-rest on one day in the week may maintain itself as of high value to the nation that practises it, although we may smile at the superstition from which it arose, attaching a mystic value to the number seven, and at the crude myth concerning the Creator by which it was justified and which Mahomet pronounced unworthy of belief.2 We can find another justification; and we know that much that is good for us has been reached by strange paths. But in other cases the appeal of religious belief or feeling may be impaired or at least modified. If it can be clearly shown that certain dogmas that we have believed essential to our higher theology are only transfigured refinements or symbols of some old-world ritual that is abhorrent to us, such as human sacrifice, or of some crude ethical view which we now pronounce immoral, such as the rightfulness of vicarious punishment, it may well be that those dogmas will gradually lose their hold on the thoughtfully religious. The strength and durability of an article of faith or of a cherished ritual may be greatly affected by the proof that it descends from an inspired and exalted source or has a lowly and disreputable ancestry. We can imagine how difficult it might be to maintain a fervid Mariolatry among sincere Christians, if the worshipper was vividly conscious that he was worshipping, not the historic personage, but another form of the great Pagan Goddess of the Mediterranean.

We must admit, then, that the discovery of origins may exercise a momentous influence upon religious faith and even practice. And the same may be said of some of the other functions and fields of investigation proper to the science of Comparative Religion. In fact the workers in this field must expect to arouse a measure of hostility in certain orthodox circles; for however intellectual and detached may be their devotion to their task, it may easily modify the temperament and attitude of the average religious man, as their results penetrate the public mind. The mere process of comparing religions and the exposition of the similarity found in the higher in respect of doctrine, ritual, and legend may dim the enthusiasm of a one-eyed faith, that once clave passionately to the conviction that its religion was a new and unique revelation, springing whole and uncontaminated from a divine source. That claim was long maintained for Christianity by the early fathers and the later authorities of the church or the churches, inheriting as they did from their early struggle with Paganism and from the strong Judaic strain in their spiritual ancestry a Judaic hatred of other creeds. But much study and research, fruitfully pursued by the last generation of scholars, have invalidated that claim, and it is no longer maintained by our more enlightened theologians.

The indebtedness of early and later Christianity to certain institutions, certain ritual, certain beliefs of Paganism, Hellenic, Anatolian, Egyptian, possibly Zarathustrian, has long been admitted; I have dealt with the subject elsewhere and need not elucidate it now. But it is relevant here to point out that this recent discovery has compelled or stimulated the champions of orthodox Christianity somewhat to change their position. No longer happily content with the formula ‘origin does not affect validity’, a leading prelate of Rome has in recent years maintained the superiority of Roman Catholicism to all other forms of Christianity on the ground of its tolerant absorption of all that was best in the Graeco-Roman Empire. And the new phrase ‘progressive revelation’ has been dexterously used to sanctify the modern conception of evolution in religion; how quaint and bizarre may be its working in any particular case to which it may have to be applied is not a consideration that troubles the users of the phrase.

The intellectual student of the science of religion may be merely devoted to truth and indifferent as to the possibly far-reaching practical results of his work. But it is clear that such results, direct or indirect, are inevitable. His investigations may establish that certain mystic conceptions about the altar that have been recently revived are rooted in ancient fetichism, which we condemn; that certain modern sacramental ideas are the sublimated product of ancient barbaric ritual which repels us; that certain legends attaching to the high personalities of our religion are asserted with equal emphasis and equal evidence of the personalities of other religions, which we regard as fictitious and depraved: that the miracles of our sacred books do not markedly differ in quality or in the value of the evidence attesting them from the miracles that abound in the story of other faiths.

And all this is not likely to leave the enlightened religious temperament as it found it. The science of religion is not then solely an intellectual activity; it cannot avoid being also pragmatic. Whether its influence on the religious mind is helpful or harmful depends greatly on the wisdom with which its results are used. This at least is certain that if progress in religion is still humanly possible, possible that is through human thought and will, comparative religion can be a most useful guide for pointing the paths of advance: and if no advance is possible, it can still be of service in saving us from possible retrogression, of which there are ominous signs around us; for the full history of religion includes the darkest chapters in the whole record of human illusion and misery.

This introductory chapter may conclude with a few general observations that concern our main subject before we come to the multifarious details.

We shall have to note that according to the different mentality and historical environment of the different nations, different attributes become more or less prominent in their conception and presentation of divinity. But what is still more striking is the similarity in the different complex accounts of the High God or Gods. In Vedic and Vedantic theology, in the Hellenic, the Judaic, the Christian, the Islamic, and the Zarathustrian systems, the multiplicity of divine attributes could be brought under the three great categories, Potentia, Sapientia, Bonitas-Power, Wisdom, and Goodness-which was the quasi-trinitarian formula summing up the medieval schoolmen's ideal of God.3 Without resorting to the theory of divine revelation vouchsafed to the various peoples, we may discover certain secular causes, both material and psychic, for this. Allowing the truth of the ancient poet's phrase4— ‘all men stand in need of God’, we note in the whole life-record of man the constancy of human needs, especially in the material sphere, but also in the moral and spiritual. And human need has been one chief cause for the imputation to the divinity of certain powers and qualities, because of the strong belief that he ought to have these and must have these in order to be able and willing to respond to our prayers and satisfy our needs. We must not imagine the early societies starting with clear and elaborate religious concepts which shaped their prayers. It was rather the prayer that helped to shape and make articulate the concept by the use of traditional formulae of invocation repeated by many generations and varied according to the varying needs of the worshipper; when rain or sun was desired for the corn and fruits, the deity would be invoked under such terms and with such titles as marked his or her power in the physical world and beneficent will to maintain the physical life of man: when the individual or the community felt the need of expiating some sin, the deity would be invoked in terms expressing his character as the merciful and forgiving God, the friend of suppliants and the deliverer from sin. The forms and methods of petitioning the supreme power in the spiritual world are a reflex of those that have been found effective in appealing to the supreme power in the secular. These invocations just exemplified express the manifold hopes of the worshipper, the hopes that the deity is of such and such a nature as to minister to his manifold wants. From hope long continued and often expressed emerges faith, and as faith becomes fixed, a definite theology dogmatizing on the nature of God becomes possible.

Fully to understand the process adumbrated above, we must realize the quasi-magic value attaching to invocations and formulae of prayer. Fundamentally and according to the true law of their function, prayer and magic are mutually antagonistic and irreconcilable. And religions rise in the spiritual scale according as they discard all magic. But in subtle ways and for long periods the spirit of magic insinuates itself into the spirit of prayer, owing to the strange human fallacy of attributing a magic-power to the use of divine names and formulae. We are not so concerned here with the fact, familiar to the student of Babylonian Liturgies and Zarathustrian Sacred Books, that sublime phrases expressing the nature and attributes of the High God were recited for magic purposes, for instance to avert demons; it is more pertinent to our present point to realize that the special formulae of invocation, the special terms of address to the divinity, were felt or half-felt to exercise a constraining or at least a powerfully persuasive influence upon him; and such use of them, if not religious magic, may be termed religious mesmerism. The worshipper will then carefully select that particular divine appellative which exactly corresponds to his need, and powerfully invokes or-we may say-evokes the deity by that. Hence arises a large liturgical vocabulary of such appellatives, and their influence in building up, in articulating and enriching the complete conception of the Godhead is obvious.

The far-off echo of these old-world voices is faintly audible in our own liturgies. But the process that I have been trying to describe is most saliently and at times strangely manifested in the religious phraseology of Hellenic paganism. I may here quote a few words that I wrote in 1910,5 which still seem to me to be true and to mark a rarely noted phenomenon in the evolution of divine personalities: I referred to ‘a small class of divine appellatives, which are directly transferred from the worshipper to whom they properly belong, to the deity by a curious motive of religious magic, so as to make the invocation stronger in its compulsion’. Zeus is not really believed in his own self to be a suppliant, but Aeschylus and an archaic Spartan inscription invoke him as Zeus ‘the Suppliant’. The religiously minded Greek did not believe that his High God was a miserable sinner; but ‘it seems that Aeschylus dared to call him so for Ixion's sake’. For in his play, Ixion, being a miserable sinner, like Cain, the first murderer and wanderer on the face of the earth, is indeed ‘Alastoros’ in every sense; and in order to evoke the sympathy of Zeus he invokes him by the name Alastoros, that only expresses his own condition. Zeus was no husbandman, yet an Attic inscription invokes him as such (gewrgo,j), in order to quicken his sympathy with husbandmen. Zeus was not everybody's kinsman, yet any injured kinsman could call on Zeus ‘the kinsman’ to aid. In Arcadia the girls invoked Hera by the title of ‘Hera the Girl’, the married women prayed to ‘Hera the married one’, more quaintly ‘the widows prayed to Hera the widow, without asking whether Hera was a widow’. These are a few instances… of a Greek psychical magico-religious law… ‘by a daring magic-transference of his own self, his own condition, his own need to the God, he could evoke between him and the object of his spell-prayer a temporary communion and the sympathetic help that comes from communion’. We can discern the same strange impulse working secretly in early Christianity, which from our own human needs evolved the idea of the suffering God as a dogma of its highest theology.

The process above described would explain the striking resemblances between the higher theologies of the world; and I believe it to have played a real and active part in their gradual evolution. But if it were given as the sole process, such a theory would be open to the objection that it presents religion as a pragmatic and utilitarian system, a projection or sky-reflexion of man's own mind and will craving satisfaction for his terrestrial needs. We have, most of us, come to recognize the weakness of a pragmatic philosophy; it is doubtful if any one can really believe in an external world merely because such belief is found ‘to work’ and to be a paying proposition. It is certain that no religion can be maintained on a consciousness that man invented and developed God and built up the divine character as a reflex of his own nature and aspirations. For man cannot long pay conscious worship to a make-believe, to his own creation—or to himself. When it has been pointed out, as it was by Euripides and Plato, that man has often imputed his own evil nature to the divinity, the progressive races, so far as they were conscious of doing so, endeavoured to purify their religious thought of such imputation. If they could also have been convinced that the High God, even so purified, was only the reflex of their own better nature, it is difficult to believe that any higher religion could have been maintained or would not have fallen back to the lower level of magic. For one of the fundamental postulates of the former is a belief in the ‘Eternal not-ourself’. Whatever part ‘make-believe’ played in the early evolution, however prone man has been ‘to make Gods in his own image’, he has been able to transcend that phase of self-deception and to achieve a stable faith in objectively real personages with essential and eternal attributes higher than man's and not given by man: just as at some times he was able to persuade himself that his rudely made fetich-idol had fallen from heaven of its own accord.

But the process that I have described above and that may be called pragmatic is not the sole process in the psychic activity of early religious development. In some of his moods and emotional experiences, in his moral aspirations and abnegations, equally also in his aesthetic reactions to dance, music, song, and the beauty of the natural world, at times in his outbursts of battle-rage and vindictiveness, man has felt himself in communion with a life and a power other and stronger than himself which possesses him, ‘ecstasizes’ or carries him out of himself, exalting him or subduing him, and which he cannot but personify as superhuman and divine. This psychic process is not ‘pragmatic’, but goes with an intuitive soul-perception that is probably the deepest and most nourishing root of theistic religion. It has helped us to the highest ideals of Godhead; it has also exposed us to the belief in devils. We shall often have to recognize its potency in the varied religious history that these lectures endeavour to present.

  • 1.

    MacNicol, Indian Theism, p. 26.

  • 2.
    Qur'an, 50. 35.
  • 3.

    Vide Rashdall in Personal Idealism, p. 387.

  • 4.

    Aratus, Phainomena, 1. 2–5.

  • 5.
    Classical Quarterly, 4, p. 187.
From the book: