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Lecture 5 Stages of Development—The Ethical Religions

Lecture 5
Stages of Development—The Ethical Religions
WE shall now proceed to discuss the most highly developed religions those we have called the ethical-spiritualistic revelation-religions or more briefly the ethical religions on the grounds already explained. I call them spiritualistic because they are sometimes characterised by spiritualism carried to an extreme; revelation-religions because the idea of revelation has now attained perfect clearness and maturity and because a special revelation vouchsafed by the deity once for all and recorded in sacred writ forms the foundation on which the religion rests; but above all ethical because arising out of an ethical awakening they aim at a more or less lofty ethical ideal an ideal no longer merely co-ordinated with religion but conceived as God's own will and an emanation of His being—or in more abstract philosophical language an ideal objectivised in and projected into the conception of God. I have also had occasion to point out that the transition from the nature-religions to the ethical does not proceed so regularly as the transition from the lower to the higher nature-religions or from the animistic-polydæmonistic to the ordered polytheistic but is invariably accomplished by means of a designed reformation or sometimes even by a revolution. All this must now be further explained and illustrated.

Let us first say a word about the religions which may be considered to have attained this pitch of development. About some of them there can be no doubt. I need only mention Judaism sprung from the Mosaic community founded upon the sacred Thora the law revealed to Moses by God himself and upon the preaching of the inspired prophets; or the Brahmanic community with its Veda as a book of revelation comprising the whole divine science of redemption infinite and eternal not imagined but actually seen by the ancient bards; or Confucianism which reveres Kong-tse the great sage of China as its founder and possesses its sacred writ in the five Kings or canonical books and the four Shu or classical books of which the last-named emanated from the school of Kong; or Islâm with its Korân recording the revelations made by Allah to Mohammed greatest of all his prophets; or various other religious communities which sprang up in later ages chiefly in India and Persia and which cannot exactly be identified with Brahmanism Buddhism or Mohammedanism although founded partly on one of these religions and partly on Christianity. The question whether Taoism the other great Chinese religion can be deemed an ethical religion has yet to undergo an investigation for which I do not consider myself qualified; but judging from its historical development I suspect that it has no such claim. For although it appeals to Lao-tse the other great Chinese sage an older contemporary of Kong and highly revered but not followed by the latter and to his Tao-te-King the book of the Way and the Virtue as a sacred writ I fear that it can just as little claim such a title as it is possible to find relationship between the silly superstitions and dreary magic arts in which it delights and the gloomy but profound speculations of the master. On the other hand the religion of Zarathushtra which prevailed in the Iranian lands during the ancient Persian domination of the Achæmenides in the Parthian kingdom of the Arsacides and the mediæval Persian dominion of the Sâsânides certainly belongs in my opinion to the ethical religions; and it is a mystery to me how Professor von Siebeck can rank it among the higher nature-religions which he terms morality-religions. None of the characteristics of a spiritualistic-ethical revelation-religion are lacking here. Although it is a moot-point whether Zarathushtra was a historical or a mythical personage—and there are high authorities on the subject of Iranian antiquity and historians of repute who maintain the former—it is certain that although he belongs to a legendary period and is extolled as a supernatural being he constitutes the concrete summary or the eponym of a definite reformation effected by the promulgation of a new and systematic doctrine. This doctrine at once religious and social was essentially ethical. For the roving life of predatory hordes there was now to be substituted the settled life of husbandmen and herdsmen; the Daêva worship of the former was to be succeeded by that of higher beings who no longer as nature-gods ruled over nature and who demanded hallowed and protected purity vigilance and industry. These beings as I have already indicated who were at first little more than shadowy personifications of abstract ideas were regarded as the vassals and servants of a real god the all-wise Lord Ahura Mazda neither born nor created like them and far exalted above them. If at a later period when the new religion had spread among tribes and classes which clung to their ancestral cult several of the antiquated gods and rituals were revived they were subordinated to Ahura Mazda or transformed from gods into Zarathushtrian Yazatas while their service was conformed with the orthodox doctrine. Many a Christian a Buddhist and Mohammedan saint owes his origin to a similar process. The ancient worship of Fire was maintained but now on the ground that it was of heavenly origin and truly the spirit of Ahura Mazda himself. Nor was a sacred writ lacking. The Avesta which we still possess contains the sadly meagre but in part the earliest fragments of a religious literature which according to both indigenous and Greek tradition was of great extent and as being the record of divine revelation was preserved by order of government in two authentic copies but was lost when Persia was conquered by Alexander the Great. To this day among the Parsees of India and the inhabitants of several districts of Persia who compare favourably with other Orientals in industry honesty and cleanliness the Zarathushtrian religion still survives bearing venerable testimony to one of the noblest religious-ethical movements recorded by ancient history.

You are perhaps surprised that I have not yet mentioned the two greatest religions in the world and the most widely diffused of all—Buddhism and Christianity. What position is to be assigned to these two in the classification is a matter of keen controversy. Professor Whitney had no hesitation on the subject. He naturally placed them in the category of “religions proceeding from an individual founder” or practically the same class which I prefer to call ethical. “Of this origin” he says “are Zoroastrism Mohammedanism Buddhism; and from the point of view of the general historian of religions whatever difference of character and authority he may recognise in its founder Christianity belongs in the same class with them as being an individual and universal religion growing out of one that was limited to a race.”1
I quote his words advisedly as they exactly indicate the attitude that our science must take towards our own religion. We are only concerned for the present with the morphological classification of religions and not with the question as to which of them in our judgment best satisfies man's needs or which is the most excellent or which is the only true religion. If therefore we place Christianity as a form of religion among the most highly developed ethical religions it will be on purely scientific grounds. And if we place it in the same category as others such as Buddhism we by no means imply that it is of equal religious value. For the present we leave this point undetermined; but to prevent misunderstanding we had to explain it.
It is obvious to every one that there is a material difference between these two religions and the other ethical religions. Most religions limit themselves to a particular people or nationality and if they spread and are accepted by other nations it is as part and parcel of the civilisation to which they belong; but these two alone address themselves not to a single people but to all men and to every nation in its own language. Judaism for example admitted from other nations proselytes who either obeyed some of its behests or fulfilled its whole law of righteousness; but it never accounted even the latter as equal in rank to the born children of Abraham. But the Buddha says “My law is a law of redemption for all;” and Christ exclaims “One is your Father and ye are all brethren!” I am aware that many at first must have taken offence when they saw that even Chandâlas who belonged to no particular caste and contact with whom polluted a member of the Brahmanic community were admitted to the Buddhistic; and it is well known that many of the Jewish Christians looked askance at the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles and refused to eat with Gentile Christians. Yet both religions contained the same great principle from the first. In short Buddhism as well as Christianity are universalistic in character while all the other ethical religions are in the main particularistic. Of these Mohammedanism is the least particularistic. This religion also extends to all nationalities and makes no distinction between Arabian believers and converts of other nations. But its sacred language its obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina and its minutely detailed legal ceremonial render it far more particularistic than either Buddhism or Christianity to which it is inferior in other respects also. Born of a combination of Judaism with an ill-understood and degenerate Christianity and grafted on the Arabian religion at a time when the highest religious development was making itself felt it was in fact compelled if it would vie with Christianity to adopt the form of a universalistic religion; but it remained much more Semitic and even Arabic than Buddhism was Aryan or Indian; while it entirely lacks the general human element of Christianity and its marvellous adaptability to the most divergent of human needs. Professor von Siebeck has therefore called Islâm a Rückbildung a decline to a lower plane; and when I formerly classed it with Buddhism and Christianity among the so-called World-religions several scholars protested. And I admit that there is a material difference between Islâm and these two great religions inasmuch as Islâm did not spontaneously produce the universalistic principle as a necessary corollary of its fundamental conceptions but borrowed it from Christianity and accepted it in a political more than in a religious sense. In fact the universalism of Islâm differs little from and is but an extension of the proselytism of Judaism. It is a world-religion in the same sense as we speak of a world-monarchy a religion essentially national and in so far particularistic yet striving to subjugate the world and to substitute Mecca for Jerusalem as its religious capital.
Further study and reflection however have led me to take a somewhat different view of this subject especially as regards Buddhism and Christianity from that which I formerly held in common with others. Have we not by ranking these two religions with the other ethical religions though on a higher platform unwittingly co-ordinated what is really heterogeneous? Can we—and this is the chief question—call them religions in the same sense as the Jewish the Parsee or any other? It is not on the ground that Buddhism might originally be called atheistic and therefore not a religion at all that I ask this question: because in the view of the Buddhist community at all events the Buddha himself whether as the glorified S´âkya Muni or as Adi-Buddha exalted above him and attended by a retinue of other Buddhas was regarded as the deity. And in any case the difficulty does not apply to Christianity. But the one religion as well as the other is rather an abstraction than an actual organisation not a special religion but rather a group or family of religions one in origin and some general principles but otherwise totally different and even antagonistic—a group or family in the same general sense as is meant by the Aryan and the Semitic but differing from these in this particular that they are conscious of that common origin and general affinity of principle because they arose within while the others arose before the historic period. Each of these groups worships the same Lord but the mode of His worship and the conception of His person are widely divergent. All Christian churches appeal to the same or nearly the same Holy Scriptures—while among the Buddhists even the Canons are different—but all differ in their views as to the use and the interpretation of these ancient records. In short if we may define religions as “modes of divine worship proper to different tribes nations or communities and based on the belief held in common by the members of them severally”2 the definition applies indeed to the various Buddhistic and Christian churches and sects but neither to Buddhism nor to Christianity as such. They fall beyond the boundaries of our morphological classification. They are powerful revelations of ethical religious spirit which disseminated by preaching conquered sometimes only after long resistance the old religions with which they came into contact permeated them more or less with their higher principles and thus entirely reformed them. This preaching this conflict and this fusion or compromise as one might call it then gave birth to those religions or churches cognate indeed but quite distinct in character and development which taken together we call Buddhism or Christianity. The stage of development to which each of these different churches belong must then form the subject of a special investigation.
You have doubtless observed the great importance and wide application of the remarks I have made both as regards theory and practice. But these may suffice for the present. We need not now explain the matter further but must endeavour to sketch and to characterise the course of religious development in the ethical stage.
All the religions which have attained this plane of development were originally personal religions sprung from an ethic-spiritualistic movement of some kind. Whether each has been founded by one definite person or rather whether each has sprung from the mind of a single thinker or from the soul of a single pious man must remain undetermined. Each of them indeed names a founder as the mediator through whom the divinity has communicated the highest revelation to men; but it has been doubted—if rightly or wrongly we need not stop to discuss—whether some of them as the Buddha and Zarathushtra are historical or purely mythical persons. At all events the ethical reform whence these religions arose must have been called forth either by some mighty prophetic nature who gathered a circle of disciples or kindred spirits around him though far superior to them or by a small band of religious thinkers of whom some unknown leader must have been the life and soul—in any case they are manifestations of individualism of the religious sentiment grown to maturity and independence of a single person or of a group of like-minded persons in conflict with the traditional religion of the state or community. And their later history always betrays this origin. Born amid toil and strife growing up amid oppression and persecution and yet in spite of them and then sometimes rapidly sometimes only after a struggle of many years or centuries forming more or less powerful communities which play an important part in the world's history they ever retain the indelible mark of their lineage.
Let us now consider what bearing this has upon the development of religion.
In the first place must be mentioned an important modification in the conception of revelation. The idea of revelation is common to all religions however differently the term may be interpreted. Even the nature-gods reveal themselves by their oracles and prophets and by signs and wonders (omina et portenta) which are observed or are supposed to be observed in nature and especially in the vault of heaven or in any deviation from the ordinary course of events. Yet all these revelations though not entirely abandoned and though afterwards reappearing in a modified form are eclipsed by the one great revelation of the new doctrine which is regarded as comprising the whole law of God. At first the doctrine is undefined still as it were in a state of fluidity still a living word whose authority depends solely upon the truth that it utters and the echo that it finds in the hearts of its hearers. But handed down by the first believers to a succeeding generation which had not witnessed the source of the reformation and augmented with additions and interpretations which did not originally belong to it the doctrine at last assumes a fixed form; and instead of allowing its adaptation to depend upon its own spiritual efficacy and convincing force the leaders now begin to impose it as obligatory. The books in which it is recorded in the form of a historical narrative or of a sermon or a law or dialogues between God and the Mediator destined at first merely to remind and edify believers are at a later period united with others of much more recent origin in a single volume to which the whole authority originally ascribed to the revelation itself is gradually transferred. The confusion of ideas which in the nature-religions—and in higher religions too—leads to an identification of the image and symbol with the spirit of the idol with the god leads in this case to the identification of the revelation and the doctrine containing it with the writ in which it is recorded. No difference is now made between the two. If the doctrine is ancient the book must not be later but must be like it of divine and supernatural origin and cannot have been written like other books. The Ṛshi's the sacred singers of the Vedic hymns did not compose these hymns but actually saw them. The Veda itself is neither made nor created but existed with the divinity before the Creation. There are other sacred writings also but they cannot compare with this book of revelation. The Brahman makes a strict distinction between the S´rauta-sutras and the Smarta-sutras; the former rest on divine revelation the latter on sacred tradition only. The Mazdayasnians were well aware and admitted that ages before Zarathushtra a different mode of worship had prevailed from that introduced by him; but they maintained that the revelation had been made to the prophet at the Creation and was only communicated by him to men much later. The oldest of the sacred prayers the Ahunavairya prayer which needs only to be uttered in order to make the Daêvas tremble and flee is the word of creation by which the All-wise called everything into life; and all the parts of the Avesta the older records and the Gêthas in particular are worshipped as divine beings. The Chinese also place the Kings the canonical books above the Shu or classical books although in accordance with their national character they are less enthusiastic in their veneration of them than the Indians and Persians. These views are not entirely new. In germ in embryo they are already found in the nature-religions. These too have their sacred scriptures the use of some of which was prescribed in their ritual as possessing special efficacy in driving out evil spirits while other scriptures contained their sacred traditions. But they are of a different kind. They are not a religious law or rules of faith or a Canon. It is in the ethical religions for the first time that we meet with Books invested with divine authority containing the whole truth revealed by God and from which no one may presume to deviate.
It is obvious what effect this must have on the development of religion. It must be a hindrance no doubt but to a less extent than is commonly supposed. You may train a tree prune it and fence it in; but if it is strong and healthy it is sure to grow in spite of its restraint and at last bursts through all barriers. It is certain that “the letter killeth.” Its authority is fatal to all progress. With a fixed doctrine and therefore with the ethical religions religious intolerance at length fairly sets in. In the nature-religions foreign gods and rites may be banished people who introduced them may be punished philosophers who find fault with the national religion may be persecuted but only because religion is a State institution and because those who undermine it are bad citizens and traitors to their country. And this sometimes happens also with those ethical religions which are State religions. But in these the idea of infidels of heretics who are denounced as devils and monsters because they speak a different religious language makes its appearance for the first time. No one would make light of all the blood shed in the name of what is most sacred all the fearful autos-da-fé “deeds of faith” less justifiable than the human sacrifices in the valley of Gehinnom. Yet while we may have a horror of inquisitions and be convinced that all religious persecution and coercion of conscience is of the Evil One we may admit that the collection of the oldest records into one sacred Volume and the ascription to it of a very special value have promoted the development of religion and have indeed been its necessary instrument especially when mankind was still in a state of pupillarity and barbarism. A wholesome curb was thus placed upon the young community restraining it from too great deviation from its original character; the beautiful traditions of the heroic period of their origin the remembrance of their “first love” was thus more securely preserved; the priceless memorials were therefore treasured up with extraordinary care; and people therefore deemed it necessary to be constantly occupied with them and to interpret them for edification and instruction as testifying with irrefragable authority against the encroachment of abuses. No progress can be permanent unless rooted in the highest development of the past and this can only be learned from the Scriptures. If the unbridled fancy of the believer forms all sorts of irrational notions about the origin of these Scriptures through which veneration becomes worship and even idolatry or if a reactionary priesthood is jealous for the letter without understanding the spirit or if the ignorant multitude is satisfied with mere sounds and degrades the venerable heirloom to the position of a fetish yet there will always be some who penetrate more deeply into these records and who there discover the treasures hidden from most other people. And such persons as soon as the time is ripe for a new manifestation of religious sentiments for a new revelation of the religious conception and for a new form of religious community constitute the links between a great past and an entirely new era. And when from the despised Nazareth whence nothing good could come the dawn of a new life shines upon humanity or when the light of divine truth hidden for ages by selfishness obscured by ignorance and clouded by superstition suddenly bursts forth with renewed brightness in the soul of a Wycliffe or a Luther the source of that light may be traced to earnest searchings of the Scriptures in the Galilean village and in the cloister and the cell and to the profound impression made by them upon devout souls.
Another and no less important consequence of the peculiar origin of the ethical religions is the formation of more or less substantive religious communities distinct from the national or political community and to a certain extent independent of it. With the ethical religions arises the Church for each of them is necessarily embodied in a church. And let me say in passing that I should not like to dispense with the word “church” not however as used in its etymological sense but as denoting the idea popularly attached to it. All the Germanic nations—Anglo-Saxons Scandinavians High and Low Germans—employ a word usually derived from the Greek τὸκυριακὸν ἣ κυριακὴ or by some from the Latin curia and by Professor Wackernagel a high authority from the Celtic cyrch but which at all events was at first applied to the building where people met for worship and transferred thence to the community itself. All the Romanic nations on the other hand use a form of the Greek word ϵ̓κκλησιὰ—ecelesia église chiesa—which in pre-Christian times denoted an assembly of the people. But of late on the Continent at least several religious radicals have shown a disposition to ostracise both Church and Ecclesia and to substitute for them the word Community or Congregation. People have witnessed and perhaps themselves suffered so much religious persecution by the existing churches and so much opposition by them to free religious development that they prefer the word community as better denoting spontaneous association. But I fear that this would lead to a lamentable confusion of terms and worse still to religious anarchy. The religious community is no more the Church than the civic community is the State. For we do not apply the word Church to any single form or specific system such as the Roman Catholic but to the aggregate of all the religious organisations wherever locally situated just as we use the word State in speaking either of a despotic or a constitutional monarchy or of a federative republic or of that “one and indivisible” which as a rule gives an edifying example of internal divisions. We shall therefore continue to apply the word Church in a concrete sense to the more or less independent religious organisations which embrace a number of kindred communities and in general in the abstract to the whole domain of religion in so far as it manifests itself substantively in society.
This short digression was necessary in order to establish my view that the Church comes into existence with the rise of the ethical religions. We must however again look back for a moment. For the germ of this development also lurks in the past. In the nature-religions the organisation of the worship still coincides with that of social life and thus according to its stage of development with the family the tribe the state or the people. In the head of the family are united the highest civil authority and the religious leadership. In Egypt the king and his sons are invested with the highest sacerdotal dignities while the other priests are merely substitutes appointed by them their officials who at the same time discharge civil and even military duties. The same kind of thing happened in Babylon and Assyria where the kings attached great importance to their sacerdotal titles. The same tradition was so firmly rooted in Greece and Rome that in the Athenian republic the Archon who conducted the public worship was styled βασιλϵὺς and in the republic of Rome the Patrician who presided over the ancient sacra was called Rex while the dignity of Pontifex Maximus was conferred upon the head of the State for the time being.
Gradually however the different phases of spiritual life science and philosophy art and morality but above all religion strive within the limits of the State to cast off its supremacy. This takes place chiefly in two ways. One is that powerful priesthoods are formed and use the respect shown them by the people and the influence they thus exercise in order to overcome the supremacy of the State or at least to dictate to it and even to supersede it entirely when they find an opportunity. Such a priesthood is at first a profession which does not merely devote itself to religion but exclusively rules over all intellectual life and takes care as long as possible that science if such there already be letters and art do not emancipate themselves from their authority. In the State also this profession does its utmost to get the upper hand and to gain the mastery over all other professions. For this purpose it continues in close union with the State. No one as yet dreams of the independence of religion and its representatives. But there are two alternatives. Either the priests and scholars are the king's powerful ministers or they govern the State in which case not being qualified for the task they usually bring their country to the brink of ruin. But although the State and religion—the latter still represented by a profession in which is centred the whole intellectual æsthetic and ethical life of the people—are as yet indissolubly united the attempt of that profession to gain the mastery over the temporal powers is a proof that the spiritual and especially the religious element is becoming more conscious of its dignity and is striving to emancipate itself.
Another and more decisive means is the formation of small associations which aim at supplementing the public worship or at superseding it. This tendency shows itself even in the religions swayed by Animism. In the case of the North American Indians it leads to the formation of small cliques to which no one is admitted without first having undergone severe tests of self-command and perseverance but whose members are then regarded as raised far above the rest of their tribe and brought into closer relation with the higher spirits. Among the Polynesians and even the Negroes similar secret associations occur. In the higher religions also we meet with societies of the same kind but of course animated by purer ideas and more in conformity with the higher civilisation—such as the various Chinese Indian and Persian sects the Essenes in Israel the Hanifites in Arabia the Eleusinian mysteries the Pythagoreans the Orphics the Neoplatonists in Greece and to mention one other instance the monastic orders and sects in the middle ages. These associations rarely survive the religions from which they have sprung and sometimes even die out before them. But under favourable circumstances when the time is ripe and the need of reform is urgent they grow into larger communities vying with the prevailing religion and after a longer or shorter struggle entirely superseding it. All the ethical religions or churches have sprung from such small societies of which as a rule some highly gifted leader has been the life and soul. And the churches thus possess a certain independence of the national and political community. At first they confine themselves to their own people and direct their efforts solely to reforming or replacing the native cult. But they do not yet coincide with the people as their old religion did. A number of persons or even a majority hold aloof and cling to their traditional ancestral faith. In some cases the new doctrines are rejected by the people with whom they originated as was the case from the very first with Christianity in Israel and after a long conflict with Buddhism in India. And even such as do not at first aspire to Universalism are always ready on certain conditions to admit foreigners to their communion. You may note the Turanian Zarathushtrians mentioned by the Avesta the Proselytes of Judaism and the conversion of Japan to Confucianism and of the Dravidian and other Anarian peoples of India to Brahmanism.
The ethical religions also and even some of the highest such as the Buddhistic and Christian groups may become State churches. But they become so merely as churches privileged above others and not as coinciding with the State; and as such they form a distinct body and cannot prevent the citizens from setting up other church communions independent of the State.
The rise of such more or less substantive churches is a weighty factor in the history of religious development. Called into life by religious self-consciousness they are destined and indeed bound to vindicate that principle in the first place. From their birth dates the emancipation of religion. We have indicated how important it is for development that the purity of tradition should be preserved and how impossible it is for any progress to be true and lasting unless firmly rooted in and springing from tradition. And of this tradition set down in sacred records the Church is now the authorised custodian. The task of her ministers and her organs is to examine these documents and to interpret them and to reconcile the principles and doctrine they lay down with the ever-varying and deepening needs of the age. She must foster the religious truth thus handed down in the members of her communion; she must defend it against attacks from without and she must proclaim it far and wide. But she can only do so when she becomes fully conscious of her proper vocation and when she devotes herself exclusively to the performance of the task for which she alone is qualified and commissioned. She is entitled to sovereignty within her own domain the domain of conscience of spiritual life of religious conviction. No power in the world I mean no external power has any jurisdiction over her in these matters. But she forfeits her rights as soon as she encroaches upon a domain that is not her own as soon as she is actuated by ambition or self-interest and denies to others the freedom she claims for herself; as soon as she begins to domineer over the State over science philosophy and art and thus hinders the development of other manifestations of man's spiritual life. People misjudge the Church and are unjust to the clergy of whatever communion they may be when they regard her as an obstacle in herself in the way of progress and condemn and hate her on that account. But as a rule such misjudgment is caused by her own arrogance and worldly ambition. As guardian of the highest interests of mankind as representative of the Infinite in the Finite as in the world yet not of the world she has a sublime vocation provided she does not abdicate it by secularising herself and sullying her pure robes in the turmoil of political passions of social strife and of the struggle for material interests; provided above all that she continues to develop and to be a living community that she does not become fossilised and does not cling to antiquated forms when the spirit which bloweth where it listeth has need of others; provided she does not lose faith in the power of truth and the independence of religion thus despairing of herself and her vocation and try to maintain them by extrinsic authority or swathe them in the cerements of a mummy—in a word provided she is the living witness of a living religion.
When she ceases to be this the Church or religious community becomes a hindrance to religious development or to speak more accurately she ceases to contribute to it. For the mighty stream of development is stronger than the dams with which any church can try to stem it and pursues its course in spite of her and without her aid. This leads us to consider a third result of the peculiar origin of the ethical religions—namely that the individualism of which they are born can never be entirely killed by the power of the community. Conversely individualism can never kill religion. I do not maintain that an ethical religion may not perish when ousted by the superior power of another. But I know that this has never happened. This is a remarkable fact which deserves to be carefully noted. All the nature-religions of antiquity even the highest and most beautiful have died out with the peoples to which they belonged—the Egyptian and Chaldean the Greek and the Roman the Germanic and Slavonic and many others. The ethical religions on the other hand have an individuality vigorous enough to withstand even the most violent revolutions. The Persian empire became the prize of Mohammedan conquerors and adopted their religion. Yet the religion of Zarathushtra still survives though partly in exile and flourishes chiefly in India where it has found hospitality. The religion of Kong-tse though it already had a rival in the popular Taoism found a second in Buddhism (a system despised indeed by the upper classes but largely diffused among the lower) and yet it succeeded in maintaining its ground against both. The mere name of Judaism suggests another example. Israel is scattered throughout the whole world. Its unity and independence as a nation are annihilated. It is intermingled with the Goyim speaks their languages respects their laws obeys their princes. But everywhere it carries with it its Law and its Prophets and remains true to its ancient traditions. Two mighty offshoots have sprung from its trunk and these have already become widely branching stems but the old tree still stands firmly rooted and in full blossom. This is a type of the development in the ethical period. A community which owes its origin to individual piety can never altogether disavow that piety and derives from it the reforming power which enables it for a long time to keep pace with general development. The community itself as the guardian and interpreter of the records of the revelation whence it sprang fosters individual piety by its preaching and instruction and unconsciously teaches others to discover in it the germs of something higher than it has itself realised or is capable of realising. Then trembling for its own existence and alarmed by the bold conceptions of its own sons which it cannot understand it casts them out—or it may happen that they voluntarily withdraw having outgrown their ancient hampering limits. Do not let us mourn over this as if it were retrogression for it is really progress. Let us rather deplore the petty divisions the religious dissensions and the bigoted hate which instead of combating error persecutes the erring. Let us rather rejoice over the ever-increasing wealth of varieties and the ever-growing distinctness and vigour of personalities. For this is the true path of development the only path from a dead or dying unity which regards form as all-important to spiritual unity to the communion of the saints which while true to its own cherished convictions can discover genuine piety under manifold forms and takes delight in the fact that every one may glorify God in his own language the language he best understands welling up from his own soul.
But the three main points to which I have directed your attention are far from exhausting the question as to what place should be assigned to the ethical religions in the history of development. It has been thought by some that these religions were in their origin at least more or less strictly monotheistic or else pantheistic and that it was only at a later period that they admitted survivals of the polytheistic nature-cult. And it may indeed be maintained with some reason that a religion emanating from personal piety must necessarily be either monotheistic or pantheistic. Another question is how far the spiritualism which is undoubtedly peculiar to the ethical religions and which shows itself in ever stricter renunciation of the world and self-chastisement in hostility to all that is natural and humanistic in opposition to art and science to commerce and industry and in a doctrine of redemption that sees no way of escape from the miseries of this world but by the extinction of existence itself—how far this pessimistic and ascetic spiritualism can be regarded as religious-moral evolution or whether it is rather an exaggerated reaction against the naturalism which its votaries desired to overcome. These questions however are not only too wide to be dealt with here but in the present state of our science they are hardly ripe for solution. For the present they only afford an indication of the directions our studies must take and they still demand a thorough and many-sided investigation. In a different connection we shall recur to them at a later stage.
There is still however an important question to which many would desire an answer. The ethical religions especially those which belong to the universalistic and above all to the Christian group are the highest we know the highest in existence. Are they also the highest conceivable? Shall we say that science is unable to give an answer because it founds on experience and can only deal with what is perceivable what has already assumed a definite form and not with what is future and hypothetical? Natural science at all events makes forecasts which the issue verifies. Are the mental sciences incapable of doing the same? The development of religion is as already remarked the labour of the human mind to create more and more perfect forms for the ever-growing wants of the religious soul. Can we assume that this labour is at an end and that the creative power of the human mind is exhausted? Observe that the question is not whether we may still expect a higher revelation than that vouchsafed to man in Christianity. Even those who like myself are convinced that the Gospel rightly understood contains the eternal principles of true religion may well conceive that besides the existing ethical religions and probably from their bosom others will yet be born which will do better and more complete justice to these principles and which will then perhaps exhibit a somewhat different character from the religions we have termed ethical or supernaturalistic. Those who closely scan the age we now live in cannot be blind to the new aspirations which manifest themselves from time to time and which enable us to form some idea of the character likely to be assumed by the newer forms. This is our general and preliminary answer to the weighty question. We shall perhaps be in a position to give a more definite answer after we have not only traced the gradations of religious development but determined the different directions in which it moves. To this latter task our next lecture will be devoted.