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Lecture 2 Conception of the Development of Religion

Lecture 2
Conception of the Development of Religion
THE first task of our science is as already pointed out to survey religion in its development. At the outset however we must define what we mean by development; but I shall not attempt as yet to determine the essentials of religious development for these we can only discuss after having traced its whole course. Such an attempt would be premature.

What then do we generally understand when we speak of development? This is the first question that must be answered. And it is necessary because people often have a mistaken notion both of the term and of our understanding of it. It is necessary also because the term is a figure borrowed from natural history and is only applied by analogy to man's higher nature or spiritual life. Development is growth. From the green bud the flower bursts forth as from its sheath and reveals the wealth and brilliance of its colours. From the tiny acorn springs up the mighty oak in all its majesty. The man in the prime of his strength the woman in the summer of her beauty have once been helpless children and we know that their growth began even before their birth. These are instances of what we call development. But the term is not applied to physical life alone. We use it also in speaking of mental endowments of artistic skill of individual character and generally of civilisation art science and humanity. We therefore think that in view of what the anthropological-historical investigation of religion has brought to light we are fully entitled to apply the term to religion also. And for doing so we may appeal to no less an authority than Jesus Himself who compared the kingdom of heaven to a grain of mustard-seed which is the smallest of all seeds but grows up into so mighty a tree that the fowls of the air lodge in the branches thereof. What else does this mean but that the seed sown by Him in the bosom of humanity was destined to develop into a mighty religious community?

But although we are obliged to use a figure of speech in order to translate a very complex fact into a single word especially when that fact is of a spiritual nature the figure is but a simile which needs further explanation. What do we imply when we speak of development? In the first place we imply that the object undergoing development is a unity; that the changes we observe are not like those that proceed from the caprices of fickle man as the clothes we wear change with the freaks of fashion; that the oak already potentially exists in the acorn and the man in the child. The one does not merely succeed or supersede the other but the one grows out of the other. Development is to quote an American scholar “a continuous progressive change according to certain laws and by means of resident forces.”1 In the second place we imply that each phase of the evolution has its value importance and right of existence and that it is necessary to give birth to a higher phase and continues to act in that higher phase. If I uproot an oak and plant a beech in its place I cannot say that this beech has developed out of the oak. Nor can I say so if I appoint an experienced man to an office in place of an untrained youth. Or to keep within our own province when certain positivists say that morality or when Strauss teaches that art must supersede religion they have no right to call this development. Neither morality nor art have grown from religion; they have long existed side by side with it; they cannot even be said to supersede it. Those who teach such doctrine maintain nothing short of this that religion belongs to a transient period of human development that a time is coming when man will need it no longer that it has fulfilled its mission and run its course; and not only that it is becoming extinct but that nothing requires to be put in its place. In short the hypothesis of the evolution of religion rests on the conviction of the unity and independence of the religious life throughout all its changes of form.
But it is not enough to have determined the conception of development in general; we must also see what is understood by the development of religion in particular. This by no means implies that the religions and the sects of every kind and extent known to history—many of which still exist—are constantly developing. To some extent doubtless they are but the development is not continuous. All religions—that is all organisations of the religious life of a given community and period—develop; but like every form of social life for a time only. All have their periods of birth growth bloom and decline. Many have for ever quitted the stage of the world's history. As there are dead languages so there are dead religions. Many last for centuries; some have been short-lived; others still exist but in so fossil a condition that they can hardly be said to be still living and developing: they exist but nothing more clinging to some ancient tradition from which they dare not swerve an inch. If they are national religions like the Hellenic or state religions like the Roman they share the fate of the state or the nation and live and die with it. It may even happen that they lose all vitality earlier than the state or nation and are only kept alive artificially by the authority of government but without satisfying the religious needs of the majority. The religion of the Roman empire is a striking instance of this. If they are less inseparably bound up with a state or a people their bloom or decay their expansion and decline depend on other causes; but to them also the law of transience equally applies. In such cases therefore the idea of evolution is relative only. But we shall see that this transitoriness of religion is precisely one of the strongest proofs of the development of religion. Languages states peoples die but mankind does not. Religions—that is the forms in which religion manifests itself—die but religion itself does not. Though ever changing in form religion lives like mankind and with mankind. Labitur et labetur in omne volubilis aevum.
And accordingly the development of religion does not imply that religion develops locally or temporarily in one form or another but that religion as distinguished from the forms it assumes is constantly developed in mankind. Its development may be described as the evolution of the religious idea in history or better as the progress of the religious man or of mankind as religious by nature. In man—not the individual man but mankind—never stationary but ever advancing who precisely in this respect is superior to the lower animals religion being a part of his inmost life necessarily develops with him. If he advances in knowledge in mastery over the powers of nature in mental and moral insight his religion must keep pace with that advance by virtue of the law of the unity of the human mind a law which we shall afterwards find to be the chief law of religious development also. Here then is the theory founded upon the results of historical research a hypothesis if you please but one of those working hypotheses rightly so called because they show us the proper direction of our investigation. To substantiate this hypothesis will be the aim of our whole exposition.
Before we enter upon it however several further points require to be cleared up and several possible objections answered.
First of all let me repeat emphatically and the more so because this matter is often misapprehended that development of religion does not mean development of religious externals. We cannot even properly speak of the spontaneous development of religious conceptions or doctrine of religious observances and ritual. This would be a misuse of the term. These change they are modified; not however spontaneously but designedly and of set purpose. Conceptions dogmas long prevalent because people deemed them the fittest expression of religious truth and indeed sometimes confounded them with the truth itself are controverted at first by one or more religious thinkers and then by others in their footsteps; and at last when their criticisms appear justified and when the majority or at least their leaders come to the same conclusion though not without bitter fierce and sometimes bloody opposition these old dogmas are either materially modified or are superseded by entirely new ones. The same thing happens in the case of religious observances or forms of worship. They are more tenacious and survive longer. But if they are connected with a class of manners and customs long disused to a past state of society if they wound the susceptibilities or even the conscience of a more civilised generation they are doomed to decay. They fall more and more into neglect. Prophetic natures will testify against them with righteous scorn. Superficial pioneers of enlightenment will smile at them as old-fashioned customs of which no reasonable man can understand the drift or the use. Most people in fact are ignorant of their real meaning because the very form intelligible enough to an earlier generation has become strange to them. Yet neither thoughtless derision nor prophetic testimony nor indifference will suffice to abolish the old institution. Some out of veneration for what they deem a sacred tradition others from a regard for supposed political social or ecclesiastical interests but most people from mere habit will remain faithful to it. Nay the less able they are to explain it the more ardently will they fight for it. But at last even its most obstinate champions begin to see that they are running the risk of losing all by their persistence and that it is urgently necessary to replace the dead form by others better adapted to the wants of a new era.
Changes made designedly are therefore not development itself but are the results of it and are promoted by it. Conceptions and observances which expressed the creed of many generations have ceased to satisfy because religion itself has developed because the disposition sentiment and attitude of mind which determine the relation of man to his God have become purer and his conception of that relation therefore clearer with the result that higher demands are made on the forms of worship. For the present we pass by the question whether the religious sentiment precedes the conception and whether the conception precedes the observance. Nor do we moot the further question whether religion originates in man's conscience or in his reason. All we now maintain is that man's general disposition and his whole views of life and the world are necessarily reflected in the ideas he forms of his God or gods and of their relation towards him; that so far as possible he transfers his sentiments and views to his God and that whatever change takes place in them effects a change in what is termed his conception of God. Beliefs may be formed by imagination and thought but in this case the “issues of life” flow from the heart also. A well-known ancient philosopher disgusted with anthropomorphism and deeming it unreasonable that every human passion foible and misdeed should be ascribed to the gods maintained that men represented their gods as men just as the beasts if they had gods would represent them as beasts. He was mistaken. Men have embodied their gods in every variety of form—as beasts trees plants and even stones—and a time comes in the course of man's development when even the human form ceases to satisfy him. At all events it is certain that he cannot rest content with a conception of his god which is repugnant to his conscience and his reason or conflicts with his views of life. When theologians and philosophers argue in favour of their creeds why do they so rarely convince others who think differently? Because the latter are different. As they are so they must believe. In accordance with the disposition of the man his god will be a peaceable but austere Varuna a fierce warlike drunken Indra a gloomy and bloody S´iva delighting in cruel self-mutilation a kindly gentle Vishnu a Melek to whom children are sacrificed or a wanton Canaanitish Baal. In the ethical preaching of the Jewish prophets of the eighth century before Christ God is represented as holy in a different sense from the Yahve of their ancestors as a God too pure to behold iniquity and preferring mercy to sacrifice. Can we wonder that God's sovereignty and free grace form the foundation of the theology of that great Reformer John Calvin who with iron hand transformed profligate Geneva into a theocratic state after his own ideal who deemed obedience the first of virtues whose deep sense of religion powerful mind and inflexible character even his opponents cannot fail to admire? Lastly what preaching should we expect from Him who was moved with compassion for the crowds that He saw like sheep without a shepherd who called to Him the weary and heavy-laden to give rest to their souls who commended the widow's mite who was the friend of publicans and sinners? What preaching but that of a God who maketh the sun to rise on the evil and on the good and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust of a Father who not only lovingly embraces the repentant prodigal but addresses the envious and refractory elder brother in words of adorable forbearance—“Child thou art ever with me and all that I have is thine!”
Hence when we perceive religious conceptions—conceptions of God's nature and of His relation to man—and the observances which are influenced and modified by them in process of change we may be sure that they have been preceded by an inward change which we may define as religious development. We study these phenomena—the conceptions and the observances of religion—in order to penetrate to what is concealed behind them. In their changes we discern the revelation of an inward life a process of continual advance. And therefore the very fact that religions and churches do not endure for ever but have their periods of growth prime and decay affords a proof that religion itself of which they are the various temporary embodiments is continually progressing. Were it not for this ever-progressing invisible yet not imperceptible or immaterial development doctrines and rites would themselves endure for ages religions and Churches would be imperishable for they would always satisfy unaltered needs. In these incessant changes and vicissitudes we therefore discern not a puzzling but a grand and instructive spectacle—the labour of the human spirit to find fitter and fuller expression for the religious idea as it becomes ever clearer and for religious needs as they become ever loftier—not the mere fickle play of human caprice but to use the language of faith the eternal working of the divine Spirit.
But people have objections if not to the doctrine of development in general at least to our method and to our unconditional application of it objections which I must not pass over in silence. “From the changes” they will doubtless say “or improvements if you will in doctrine and worship you always infer religious development. Is the conclusion always justified? Are the data from which you argue always trustworthy always genuine and well-meant? Above all are they always religious and may they not be of an entirely different nature?” I am far from disputing this and it suggests caution in drawing conclusions. Appearances may deceive but they only deceive the superficial observer; nor did I say that we were blindly to accept them all but rather that we must carefully study sift and scrutinise them. People may profess a doctrine without really meaning it they may perform religious observances without applying their minds to them they may go through all the forms of a higher religion without understanding anything of them; but in the long-run they can only mislead the simple and credulous many. For a higher form of religion may be imposed on a people by authority—a prince a priesthood a leading minority may forcibly suppress the externals of a rude folk-religion; but no sooner is the grasp of the master or the moral supremacy of the enlightened shaken off than the religion which was thought suppressed again rears its head and it becomes clear that the mass of the people has failed to advance a single step. No one would cite the condition of the Jewish people under King Josiah as a proof that they had greatly progressed in purity of religion. The king probably flattered himself that he had firmly established in his country the Mosaic law according to the book found by Hilkiah and that all opposition to it was rooted out. Yet it soon appeared that the majority of the nation were still secretly attached to their local gods and that they attributed the disasters under which they groaned not to unbelief in the Yahve of the prophets but to their neglect of the worship of the Queen of Heaven.
Changes in religious forms are not always of a religious nature and such therefore afford no proof of religious development. “What you regard as development” it may be objected “is often a mere concession to the demands of more refined taste or higher civilisation to a wider knowledge of nature and the world to greater humanity or morality and is not a provision for higher spiritual needs.” This may sometimes be the case in an early stage at least. But what does this prove? Merely that external influences also affect the growth of religion which like all other growth is furthered by assimilation. It is just a proof of the development of religion that it is able to appropriate the fruits of development in different but cognate spiritual provinces. Surely it was not merely an æsthetic need not merely obedience to the demands of higher artistic taste that led the Greeks to give up representing their gods as a huge column like the ancient Hêra of Argos or as a startling compound of the attributes of fertility like the image of the Ephesian Artemis that fell down from heaven—but to represent them in pure human form and to replace the rude wooden idols once so sacred the archaic images with their stiff awkward postures and vacant smile by figures full of grace and majesty with countenances of sublime and godlike expression. According to the unanimous testimony of all who saw it the Zeus of Olympia chiselled by Phidias was not only the masterpiece of that greatest sculptor of antiquity the mature fruit of his creative genius but also the purest utterance of his fervent piety. “Zeus himself must have appeared to him or he must have ascended into heaven in order to behold God” exclaimed one of their poets. And even the Roman conqueror who like his compatriots of that time was no judge of art felt when he entered the temple as if he were in the presence of Jupiter himself.
It cannot in fact be a matter of indifference to religion that its conceptions become clearer more rational more in accordance with the reality brought to light by science and therefore truer—that its manifestations become more refined more attractive purer more moral and its observances more humane. And certainly the prevalent disposition of mankind cannot but produce a corresponding disposition in the minds of the pious.
I now come to the last objection the objection to the general application of the theory of development. The argument in the main is as follows. Among the religions of the world two chief classes may be distinguished those that have grown and those that have been founded. Professor Whitney was not the first to make this distinction for it had long been pointed out by others but he gives the best description of it. These are his words: “There is no more marked distinction among religions than the one we are called upon to make between a race-religion—which like a language is the collective product of the wisdom of a community the unconscious growth of generations—and a religion proceeding from an individual founder who as leading representative of the better insight and feeling of his time (for otherwise he would meet with no success) makes head against formality and superstition and recalls his fellow-men to sincere and intelligent faith in a new body of doctrines of specially moral aspect to which he himself gives shape and adherence.”2 In the first of these cases it is said you may speak of development or as Whitney calls it “unconscious growth” but in the second you cannot. Here individual founders have been at work; there is no growth here but a planting a cultivation by human agency and of set purpose.
I will not here repeat my former criticism3 or that of Professor Max Müller before me on Whitney's description of these two categories of religions: it consists mainly in a demonstration that on both sides of the “line of demarcation” there is the work of individual founders and there is also “unconscious growth.” I will only further note that Whitney himself calls “the individual founders” “the leading representatives of the better insight and feeling of their time” thus admitting by implication that their appearance is a consequence of development. For in the words “for otherwise they would have no success” he expressly indicates that religious development may be guided by them into a definite channel but that it is not rendered superfluous by their work and that this constant growth is the necessary condition of the permanence of their institution.
The chief objection however is still unanswered. Grant that the theory of development is applicable to new religions because the founders children of their time and people only voice what has been stirring inarticulately in the minds and hearts of their contemporaries and compatriots and only give a form to needs already felt by the best people around them. But when the new doctrine is proclaimed by missionaries to other nations and is accepted by them with the result that they reject what they had hitherto worshipped forsake their ancestral gods for the new God and thus change their religion altogether this is surely not a case of development. For there lacks here the first of these conditions of development we have made acquaintance with unity continuity; the one does not grow out of the other in this case but the one is ousted by the other.
This seems undeniable and yet it is far from being so. To the superficial observer indeed it appears as if a simple change of religion had here taken place just as one discards a worn-out garment and puts on a new one. This is the popular view of the matter but it is a false view. And the error is supported by what is seen to happen at the outset. Those who promulgate a new religion whether as zealous apostles by their preaching or like Mohammed or Charlemagne by the sword demand the total abjuration of the old and the unconditional acceptance of the new. They overthrow what they believed to be false gods they desecrate the altars and defile the holy places. All that reminds of the old cult must be rooted out. But ere long it is discovered that they have not entirely succeeded. The ancient faith has only bowed before the mighty storm; but as soon as calm is restored it raises its head again either unabashed in its old form or in modified shape and under new names while preserving its former substance. The ancient gods return some still retaining their old characters and the parts they played in the ancient mythology as demons but most of them as angels saints or prophets and in the latter case at least they are more honoured than before. Their ancient seats are now mostly converted into their burial-places to which pilgrims flock to pay their devotions. The observance of their holy days and especially of their great annual festivals is soon revived; prohibitions against them avail nothing; ecclesiastical authority has to acquiesce and to rest content with giving them a different complexion or modifying them in some details; and naïvely enough their ancient so-called heathen names remain in vogue (e.g. Yule Easter and Whitsuntide). In short I can see nothing here but assimilation. Or if it is thought that something more takes place it may be compared with the grafting of a fresh branch on an old stem or with the crossing of two different breeds which produces a new variety and thus helps rather than hinders development. This subject deserves closer study than we can now devote to it. But whichever of the two last-named views may ultimately appear the right one the popular notion that a new religion can be mechanically spread and adopted must certainly be rejected.
Permit me to illustrate my meaning by a striking example. I shall not select for the purpose one of the two great world-religions Buddhism and Christianity which having sprung up within limited circles and having been rejected after a longer or shorter struggle by the very peoples from which they emanated now count their adherents by many millions; nor shall I select their mighty rival Mohammedanism which can only be called a world-religion with certain reservations; for this would require a longer exposition than our limits permit. In the case of Christianity you can easily make the application for yourselves. For every one even without having made a special study of the subject must see what an immense difference not only in form of worship and organisation but in doctrine spirit and character subsists between the numerous churches to which the preaching of the Gospel has given birth—the Greek-Russian the smaller Oriental the Roman Catholic and the various Protestant churches—so that one is tempted to regard them as hardly related to one another at all. I select Parseeism as my example.
Where this religion arose—in Bactria as some think in Eastern Irân according to others or perhaps in the North-West—is still unascertained but certainly not in Persia nor as I am convinced in Media proper. The precise date of its origin is also unknown though we may certainly place it before the time of the Achæmenides or even as seems to me justifiable before or at least as early as the period of the Median empire. But this does not materially affect our argument. We are only now concerned with the relative antiquity of the writings which form the Avesta the sacred scriptures of the Mazdayasnans in particular. A considerable part of the texts classified probably at a somewhat late period in accordance with the requirements of the cult is written in a dialect related indeed to that of the others yet differing from them in more than one respect and more archaic. No one unless blinded by love for his own hypotheses denies that the texts in this older dialect are really older than the others as indeed was the conviction of the ancient Persians themselves. Now in these oldest texts especially in the Gâthas or hymns which form their staple we find in its original purity the then new doctrine as laid down by the Saoshyañts the prophets of salvation as the revelation of God to Zarathushtra or according to some scholars as proclaimed by Zarathushtra himself. The passages in prose written in the same idiom are probably later and show that the doctrine was by this time somewhat modified though in essentials the same. The foundation and at the same time the foremost requirement of this preaching is belief in Mazda Ahura the all-wise Lord the God who made heaven and earth and all that is therein and governs everything with wisdom. Beside him and closely associated with him are six satellites forming with him the sacred seven. But they are by no means his equals: in one passage he is said to have created them in another they are called his children; of his own birth there is no mention. So little personified are these beings and so often are their names—Good Sense the best Righteousness the Wished-for Kingdom Welfare and Immortality—used as mere abstract terms that the sole really personal being in the doctrine of the Gâthas is Mazda Ahura himself. Even Sraosha the genius of obedience and revelation is not as yet a clearly defined figure while the ancient deities Aramati and Aryaman are only retained in the system as vague personifications of the piety of the good peasant and of the friendship of believers. From the first two spirits a benevolent and a malevolent Speñta and Angra Mainyu are in antagonism; but the former is not yet identified with Mazda Ahura while the latter is not yet opposed to him as an almost equally powerful combatant Mazda being placed above both. Were it not for the practices of worshipping Atar the fire of Mazda Ahura the visible manifestation of Asha Vahishta who is the genius of all that is becoming orderly regular and holy or in a word of true righteousness and of invoking the pure waters the manifestation of Aramati—we might have called the system monotheistic. In substance it is so though not strictly maintained. The Zarathushtrian prophets of salvation inveigh no less emphatically against the existing polytheism than did the Jewish prophets from the eighth century before Christ onwards against the Ba'alîm. The Daêvas the national gods whom the Iranians had in common with their kinsmen the Indians are entirely repudiated by the reformers. Their name is now a name for evil spirits and has become synonymous with the ancient Drujas. Their worship is inexorably and unconditionally forbidden. And the whole mythology the still prevailing folk-creed is carefully and purposely ignored; even the sacred tradition is only once alluded to. There is no doubt that the preachers of the Zarathushtrian reform aimed at entirely rooting out the belief in the Daêvas and their worship and substituting for it a belief in Mazda Ahura with a purer form of worship; and in spite of the opposition they encountered and the persecution of which they complained they still hoped to attain their end and were confident of the triumph of their cause.
Was this confidence justified this hope to be fulfilled? To some extent certainly. The new doctrine was accepted where it was at first preached. Tradition has preserved the names of several noteworthy and influential men who took part in the work. One of them Kava “the wise singer” Vîshtâspa is even said to have been a king. He formed a community which indeed adhered faithfully to the precepts of the new doctrine but which must be regarded as having been only a small group of believers in the midst of adherents of the ancient faith and which was harassed and persecuted by them in every possible way.
At last however Mazda-worship was adopted by all the Iranian peoples and even by several other tribes and became the national and state religion perhaps of the Median and at all events of the Persian empire. First all the eastern regions afterwards those of the Medes Persians Parthians and Armenians were gradually converted to the Zarathushtrian doctrine. But this was not effected except at the cost of its original purity. This is proved by the records which form the greater part of the Avesta and are written in the later dialect of the language. Several of the Daâvas so abhorred by the sacred prophets return: Haoma the god of the heavenly cup of immortality and his representative on earth the juice pressed from the stalks of a sacred plant; Mithra the highest god of the Medes and especially of the Persians the triumphant god of Light already worshipped by the Indo-Iranians and next to Varuna by the Vedic Indians; Tistrya a storm-god identified with the star Sirius; and a number of others. And their worship is now not merely tolerated or connived at but is inculcated in hymns composed in their honour is practised under the authority of many saints and heroes of antiquity especially Zarathushtra himself and is commanded by Ahura Mazda. Nay both of them even practise this cult themselves. Several modifications however were made in the conceptions of these gods and sometimes the ethical elements in their character were placed in the foreground. They are no longer called Daêvas and a somewhat lame attempt is made to transform them into Zarathushtrian Yazatas. They are ranked below Ahura Mazda whose supremacy is maintained in theory at least and it is doubtless the rule that they are not to receive so great sacrifices as He and his satellites and that they are not to be served in the manner in which the Daêvas were worshipped. Yet all this does not prevent their service from being revived; and they are really although people fear to call them so the same Daêvas whom the faithful in their creed profess to hate abhor and abjure. All this shows that it was found impossible to root out the folk-creed and the folk-religion and that it was found necessary in order to spread the new doctrine over the whole country and to ensure its adoption by all the tribes to make concessions to Polytheism and to Idolatry both of which had been at first sternly rejected. All this proves not that an existing lower religion was discarded in order to be replaced by a new and higher religion but that the existing religion of Irân assimilated as much as it could from the Zarathushtrian doctrine and thus although it mutilated the doctrine and applied it very imperfectly was itself reformed and proceeded to develop itself in this direction.
We shall therefore apply the theory of development not to one category of religions alone but to all. But is not this naturalism disguised materialism positivism or whatever other name hated by the many you choose to give it? In other words when we recognise such a development subjected to certain laws and produced by indwelling forces do we not deny the agency the revelation the omnipotence of God? Not a whit more than by recognising development in the external and visible world. It appears to us that God reveals Himself to the devout in the development in the orderly and methodical progress and in the life of religion more perfectly and gloriously than in the caprices of an inscrutable arbitrary will. Moreover we are quite aware that science has her limits. She can show where there is growth she can prove development and thereby explain phenomena—that is her duty. But to explain how development takes place what growth and life really are is beyond her power and is an insoluble mystery for even the profoundest science. What we vindicate for our science as her right is to trace the life of religion in its progress and even to mount to its fountainhead but she does not stir a single step beyond her own province and leaves all religious convictions untouched.
Be it so. Science wishes to learn the origin and nature of religion. But need I for this purpose trace religion throughout its whole development? Why need I go back so far and dwell so long on the study of the lower religions when I possess the highest and the best and know this from my own experience? And when I wish to know whence religion proceeds is it not enough for me to observe man the religious people I see around me people on the plane of the present development and then as a self-conscious being look within myself and examine my own inmost nature? That is certainly necessary but not sufficient. Let us admit that the most highly developed form of religion best reveals the nature of religion. Let us assume that our form is the highest as indeed every one thinks who sincerely believes in his religion whether he be Mohammedan or Christian Buddhist or Brahman Zarathushtrian or Confucian. You and I are convinced that the purest and most genuinely human form of religion has been brought to light by the Gospel. But may it not be a blind faith? In the religion in which we have been brought up the religion of our fathers the religion of our youth we have found consolation and strength a light upon our path a stimulus to all that is good and great; we are grateful for it and we have learned to love it; and so long as it is the source of our higher life and our purest happiness we shall never forsake it.
But others too have found the same in their religion. And the only inference we can draw from this is that our religion is the best for us and theirs for them from different points of view. Science may respect these beliefs and even recognise their relative rights but cannot allow them the validity of proofs. She desires to know and account for every conviction. And how can I know whether a religion is the highest without comparing it with others? And even if I have discovered by comparison what form of religion best expresses the highest stage the development of religion can attain this would still be insufficient. What we are concerned with in the last instance—a knowledge of the fixed permanent and unchangeable element in religion and of its essential characteristics—we can only attain by gleaning it from the different forms which religion has assumed throughout the whole course of the world's history. In order to understand anything thoroughly we must know how it has come to be what we now perceive it to be. No knowledge of man is possible without embryology and biology. No knowledge of religion is possible without a knowledge of its origin and growth.
In the study of the development of religion to which the following lectures will be devoted we must attend to two distinct matters: first to the various steps of development usually so called; and secondly to the directions in which religions develop in different surroundings and different periods.
The expression “steps” or “stages” though convenient is not very accurate as it indicates a succession of things placed one above another not emanating from and growing out of each other which is the process we mean. I should therefore prefer the term μόρϕαι or “forms of existence” which conveys the idea more accurately and I therefore call this first part of our scientific-philosophical task the morphological part. Anthropological-historical research has already paved the way for us by its morphological classification of religions; and this therefore we must first consider. Our proper task will then be to show how one form not merely succeeds but grows out of another and in such a way that the more developed form contains nothing essential that cannot be found though in less perfect shape or merely as a germ in all the preceding forms from the very first.
What we mean by directions of development requires further explanation. It does not invariably or even generally happen that one religion is wholly transformed into another; but from the old form either simultaneously or successively proceed various new forms which then develop sometimes for centuries independently and side by side. Each of these forms by a one-sided elaboration of one leading religious idea contributes to religious development; none of them singly but all taken together represent the religion of a period in the history of mankind. Such a one-sided elaboration of a single root-idea to its utmost consequences is necessary to make it the inalienable property of mankind and at the same time by its very one-sidedness to awaken the need for other and not less essential elements of religion which it has for a time forced into the background. Thus we see arising from one and the same Judaism the three different parties of the Sadducees the Pharisees and the Essenes and after them Christianity itself; and so too from one Vedic religion there spring up among others the Pûrva and the Uttara-Mîmâṁsâ the ritual school and the speculative respectively. So too the East-Aryan religion divides into the Indian and the Iranian religions very different from the outset but afterwards rendered hostile by the Zarathushtrian reform. And so lastly to take but one more example among many the early Christian post-apostolic Church is sundered into Eastern and Western Christianity; and the Roman Catholic Church afterwards gives birth to the great Protestant communities each of these laying stress on some special principle to which that Church had not done justice. We may here also use the figure of a river forking into two or more branches which then run their separate courses until they empty themselves into the ocean or else reunite. Thus the Indian and Iranian religions remain separate down to the present day and it is unlikely that they will reunite; while on the other hand we see the two great main streams of the Semitic and the Aryan religious development coalescing in Christianity. We shall however in the sequel have an opportunity of explaining this further. It is only after we have done this that we shall be able to inquire by what laws or fixed rules the development of the human mind is governed and how far they are applicable to religion in order that in conclusion and as the crown of all we may try to answer the question—wherein the development of religion essentially consists.
On the route I have thus sketched I hope to be accompanied by your indulgent interest to the end.