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Lecture 8 Laws of Development

Lecture 8
Laws of Development
I HAVE several times alluded in passing to the laws of development. Do such laws exist? And if we must assume that they do are we in a position to discover them with the means at our command? In other words do they lie within the scope of human science?

More than twenty years ago I answered this question unhesitatingly in the affirmative. In the ‘Theologisch Tijdschrift’ of 1874 I wrote an article on “The Laws of the Development of Religion” which attracted attention at the time even beyond Holland and was assented to by many but impugned by others. It was a first attempt to deduce from the religious phenomena not a single such law—which had already been tried by others—but a complete system of laws of development. Was this too bold or rash or was it a proof of the presumption of our still youthful science? But unless science is to stand still we must now and then grapple with difficult questions and at least try to answer them. If the answer is unsatisfactory it may serve as a stimulus to further research and it need not make us despair of ultimately finding the true solution. Much of what I then wrote I should now formulate otherwise and I have indeed several times modified my university lectures on the subject accordingly. And I must now admit that the title of the article was not quite accurate. I should not have said “Laws of the Development of Religion” but “Laws of Development in their Application to Religion.” For in point of fact I only meant even then to maintain that the laws which govern the development of the human mind hold true of religion also though their application may differ in form and in details. But I still adhere to the article as a whole and have not altered my opinion in point of principle. If such laws—or call them the rules forms necessary conditions if you will by which spiritual development is bound—did not exist and if we were unable to form some idea of them corresponding with reality it would be better to give up the science of religion altogether as a fond illusion. We should not even be entitled to speak of development at all for this idea necessarily involves that of rules and laws.

There is a school of historians of merited repute who have conducted historical research into new paths and who above all insist upon a careful and thorough examination of the original sources—and in this they have our full sympathy—but who will not hear of such a thing as historical laws. None of those propounded as such as they declare has obtained general recognition; the path often followed by history is not necessarily a law which it must always follow; it is impossible here to speak of natural laws like the law of gravitation; and even if we were to assume that such laws exist and operate it would fall beyond our powers of thought to determine them. My old friend and colleague the late Professor Acquoy an authority of the highest rank among the historians of Christianity could not speak without a smile of what he called with a kind of ironical respect the higher kinds of historical writing and particularly of what he termed nomological hierography. No serious historian need trouble himself with the question whether there is a law in accordance with which history grows. “Let the philosopher study this question if he pleases.” Well we do please to examine the question although we do not claim the distinction of being philosophers. Or rather we must do so whether we please or not because it is the task and the duty of science. If the historian is content with a genetic description of history and thus excludes his department of knowledge from the sphere of science properly so called he is free to do so; his limitation is perhaps conducive to the accuracy and trustworthiness of his results. But although we are grateful to him for the results and admit that they must be carefully reckoned with we decline to rest satisfied with them and we deem it our duty further to inquire what they teach us concerning the development of the human mind in different directions.
Let us however distinctly understand each other. The science of religion is not a natural but a mental science and therefore there is no question here about natural laws. The mechanical element is entirely excluded. I do not maintain that the phenomena of history and in particular of the history of religion recur with the same regularity as day and night summer and winter. The attempts that have been made to prove this by the statistics of marriages suicides cases of insanity and crimes within a given space of time I regard as utter failures. And I am just as far from maintaining for example as is sometimes done that a system of protection is always the greatest enemy of progress. It can indeed be proved that it has often injured the prosperity of nations hampered their intercourse and prevented their industry from taking higher flights; and we are entitled to assume that this will always be the case under the same circumstances. But there may be conditions in which it is of great service in fostering a budding industry and in averting the fate of the consequences of an unequal struggle unfair competition and unworthy practices. This holds true in the sphere of religion also. There also unwarrantable conclusions have been drawn from frequently recurring phenomena. Priests and theologians have often opposed salutary reforms; and many persons observing this have inferred that theology is injurious to religion and that a priesthood is always an evil. It has not unfrequently turned out that what was at first opposed by the authorities in State and Church as false doctrine and detestable heresy really represented a truth long misunderstood and that so far from contaminating religious life it elevated and refined it; but we may admit this without regarding it as a law as a well-known ecclesiastical historian does that heretics are always right. Purity and strictness of morals sometimes seem to decline with the increase of devoutness of a certain kind—but only apparently for if there is any relation here of cause and effect the very reverse would be the case—yet this phenomenon imperfectly observed has been accepted by several self-styled philosophers as a sufficient ground for assuming that religion is pernicious to moral life. It would be easy to multiply examples. But it is just as easy to see that there is really no question of laws in the case. This is mere doctrinarianism injurious both to scientific research and to practical life.
Nor above all must it be forgotten that laws of history are quite a different thing from laws of development. Let us admit that the former assuming them to exist and operate cannot be discovered by us; that we have no right to say that what has happened hundreds or thousands of times in a particular way must always happen in precisely the same way; that we cannot determine by fixed laws what must happen because it does not depend solely on conditions that we can ascertain but also on the incalculable element of individuality of the personal free-will of each individual; and that all this accordingly lies beyond our comprehension and transcends our powers of thought. But no intelligent person will deny that the best dispositions require to be guided with discretion formed and cultivated and to be provided with a sphere of action wide enough to enable them to assert themselves and that this is a law of development. And indeed the famous saying to the effect that the signs of the times are no less certain than the signs of heaven already implies that it is not chance or caprice but God that governs mankind by rational laws—that is by laws perceptible to our reason. And the science of religion unless it is to forfeit its rank as a science must try to trace them; it must account for the laws which are in force in this domain also; it must determine the conditions to which the development of religion is subject and define what religious development really is. The history of religion is a very different thing from an Old Curiosity Shop. It is totally different from some mere collection of antiquities skilfully and tastefully arranged; it is the exposition of the religious life of man and is therefore a fit subject for philosophic investigation. Has it already yielded definite results? Have we already discovered such laws? I formerly gave an affirmative answer to this question and I will not now disown it. But permit me for the present to treat the matter as an open question and to speak less positively. We are not now attempting to construct a system but only to sketch an introduction to the science of religion. And in doing so we need not anxiously conceal our conviction of what has been already discovered but we must keep in view our main task of marking out the route we have to follow in order to make discoveries. And in order to make the slightest progress in any science whatever we require what has been rightly called a working hypothesis. I shall therefore for the present submit to you the laws of development which have been greeted with so much distrust merely as indispensable working hypotheses. Anthropological and historical observations present various problems of which we must not omit to attempt a solution. It is necessary to look such problems in the face. The mere fact of knowing them and especially of describing them accurately has already yielded good results. We shall therefore endeavour to do this but not without offering some suggestions for their solution.
The first question that arises is What influence development in other domains has exerted on that of religion? That such influence exists requires no proof. That it is inevitable results from the mere fact that the human mind however different its operations is really one; and we are of course only speaking here of mental development and not of the physical development of man as a mere animal. Now even when the latter is not in question a distinction is sometimes made between material and mental or intellectual æsthetic and moral development—between progress in industry and temporal welfare which is termed material and progress in science philosophy art and morals which is termed mental. But there is no ground for this distinction or at least it is inaccurate. All genuine development is mental and even the development which is called material is simply that of the human mind applied to material aims and revealing itself in a variety of inventions which facilitate intercourse which gladden life and bring its enjoyments within the reach of ever-increasing numbers. They bear testimony to the growing supremacy of the human mind over physical nature. They must not therefore be excluded from our present inquiry. For religion also must experience the influence of such progress though of course it is less intimately connected with it than with philosophical and ethical progress. All these kinds of human development may be embraced in the word civilisation understood in its widest sense so that the question may also be put thus: What influence does civilisation exert upon the development of religion?
The answer which thousands upon thousands have given and still give to this question is decidedly unfavourable. All civilisation they say whether it increases the enjoyment of life by making matter more and more subservient to it or delights the eye and the ear by the creations of the fine arts or music or tries to regulate everything by rational thought or proposes to set up a doctrine of morality apart from divine doctrine is injurious to religion corrupts and deteriorates it impedes its development is even hostile to it and if allowed free scope would speedily put an end to it altogether. This view is perfectly natural and intelligible. It arises from two different causes. In the first place it is based upon the misuse made of advanced civilisation and upon the biassed views which lead it to assume a hostile attitude to religion. It does not escape pious people that the enhancement of the enjoyments of life and the increasing ease of sharing in them often lead to luxury and laxity and if not theoretically at least practically to materialism; that when there is a mania for art and people care for nothing else value nothing else and are entirely engrossed with it the seriousness of life suffers and we lose our sense of the good and the true. They hear science—not true science which is modest and which as it advances sees more and more distinctly that although it knows more than formerly there still remains just as much that it does not know—they hear superficial science which appropriates and parades the but half-understood results of the investigations of others loudly proclaiming that religion is played out that faith is imagination and that science alone can solve all the riddles of life. They see other people giving up their religion in order to replace it by a certain kind of philosophy or by what they call an independent doctrine of morality. And fearing they will altogether lose their religion the most cherished inheritance of their fathers Vindicamus haereditatem patrum nostrorum! they exclaim and turn away in disgust from a civilisation which in their judgment can only proceed from the Evil One.
The other cause is to be found in themselves in their own short-sightedness. They do not see that the form of religion in which they have been brought up and to which they are with heart and soul attached is but one of the forms of religion and that religion itself is entirely independent of such forms; that forms may change and vary without sacrificing the eternal ideas and the immortal aspirations which constitute the essence of religion. They feel rather than understand that their form of religion which they identify with religion itself no longer accords with the present stage of civilisation but with an older stage and rests upon a very different view of life and the world from that which has now become prevalent among the more enlightened. They accordingly withdraw anxiously from the influence of everything which they think may undermine the sole genuine manifestation of divine truth.
The history of peoples and religions testifies to the wide diffusion of such views. They show themselves in the contempt and renunciation of the world inculcated by austere prophets of repentance monks and hermits by pietistic sects and churches by the Chinese Tao-sse Indian Yatis Yogins Nirgranthikas S´ramanas Bhikshus or whatever else be their names by Essenes Therapeutics Heraclists by the rival orders of medieval monks by Quakers and Moravians and by various kindred religionists of modern times. They showed themselves in a less harmless way in the persecution of Anaxagoras the philosopher and Phidias the sculptor the friends of Pericles in the cup of poison of Socrates in the martyr's stake of Giordano Bruno and in all the bloody horrors perpetrated by the defenders of threatened forms of religion whereby they unconsciously displayed their want of faith.
An important article on the Nomad Ideal of the Old Testament has recently been published by Professor Karl Budde of Strassburg in the ‘Preussische Jahrbücher.’ This is the ideal of the strict Yahve-worshippers who did their utmost to maintain that oldest and rudest form of their religion to which they were strongly attached. Glimpses of this are still distinctly obtained here and there in the Old Testament. But the system is nowhere carried to such an extreme as by Jehonadab the Kenite the son of Rechab and founder of the sect of the Rechabites who gave his countenance to Jehu when the latter in Yahve's name slew the sons of Ahab and the servants of Baʻal. In order to preserve the purity of their religion the Rechabites dwelt in tents forbade agriculture and abstained from wine not from asceticism but because the culture of the vine was associated with the worship of Baʻal. In this case we have an example of the renunciation of certain kinds of social life as endangering a specific form of religion combined with a ruthless extirpation of those who deviated from that form. In the name of religion a pastoral life is in this case just as strongly inculcated as the Zarathushtrian Iranians inculcated agriculture as the only kind of occupation pleasing to Ahura Mazda. But what lesson does this teach? That so obstinate an opposition to the march of civilisation is unfavourable to the development of religion. It may indeed ensure a certain degree of purity for a definite form of religion but it condemns it to stagnation. We may respect the stedfastness of the stern devotees of the wilderness who renounced all the comforts and enjoyments of settled life in order that they might continue to worship the god of their fathers in the ancient manner. But we must concur with Professor Budde in the answer he gives to the question whether it would have benefited religion if Israel had adopted the nomad ideal of Jehonadab ben-Rechab. “Certainly not” he says. “A pure Yahvism would indeed thus have been established but only by crushing out all the germs and principles of a higher development—the Yahvism of a bygone type from which we should recoil in horror if we met with it in actual life.” It was by others that Yahvism was developed and enriched yet without the least abatement of its purity. It was by the great prophets of the eighth and following centuries two of the earliest of whom Hosea and Isaiah still start from the nomad ideal but who had learned to see in Yahve the Lord of their country whose glorious gifts men may unhesitatingly enjoy as his blessings.
From what has been said we conclude that to dissever religion from all other human development to withdraw it entirely from the influence of civilisation may serve to uphold a specific form of religion which is no longer in accordance with the altered conditions of civilisation but inevitably dooms it to stagnation. People are quite entitled to defend their religion against the enervating effects of luxury against the sensuous charms of art against the rationalism of a one-sided science against the scepticism of philosophy and against the usurpations of an independent doctrine of morals; and by absolute repudiation of all these they may effectually gain their object. But this is a radical measure which deprives religion of all the advantages its development might gain from a true and healthy civilisation. This is what the Germans proverbially call “emptying out the bath and the child along with it.” The wise spiritual leaders of Israel and other nations have perhaps felt rather than perceived this but they acted with tact and discretion in modifying their religious ideas and aims in conformity with the altered views of life and the world called forth by the advance of civilisation. For indeed religion cannot but gain by welcoming the influences of refinement of manners of elevation of moral insight of purification of artistic taste of the light of science and of the bold speculations of philosophy. All development including that of religion takes place by means of assimilation.
It would require a separate chapter to show in detail how this truth is confirmed by the teachings of history or rather how it is the fruit of historical research. I shall therefore merely touch upon a few of the main points. The doctrine concerning God and divine things becomes ever clearer and more definite and at the same time deeper and simpler; the wild confused vague constantly changing ideas of unbridled fancy are sifted classified and reduced to a few leading dogmas then to maxims and lastly to principles and to one paramount principle. The conception of God becomes more rational and exalted; from being crude and material it becomes ever more spiritual; from being wholly or partly animal it becomes ever more human and superhuman; and as men become more keenly alive to the highest qualities in human nature they attribute them in perfection to the divinity also. As the higher civilisation in the best sense of the term advances and as the increase of knowledge the enlightenment of views improvement of taste refinement of moral sentiment and mastery over nature beget in man an ever higher sense of his value as man so too they materially modify his conception of his relation to the deity. Fear will then gradually give way to trust servility will yield to devotion no less fervent but emanating from a purer source and therefore voluntary. Man will no longer regard God merely as the Almighty Sovereign whose blind caprice he must fear whose inscrutable wrath he must strive to avert; but he will look up to Him as the Holy One whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity and before whom the sinner alone must tremble in the consciousness of his guilt. When morality has ceased to be a law and has been merged and consummated in the all-ruling principle of love all eudæmonism all desire of reward being thus at the same time banished the attitude of man to his God will then become that of children to the Father who loves them and whom they love and he will seek his sole reward in the fulfilment of his destiny and his only happiness in communion with his Creator.
Religious observances institutions and customs or in a word the forms of worship are slower to follow the more advanced civilisation. Doctrine worship and observances are in their origin closely akin having sprung from the same religious disposition and responding to the same spiritual needs. But tenacious as are doctrinal systems and traditional dogmas religious observances and organisations are still more so. Religious views and conceptions are modified imperceptibly and more or less unconsciously at first; in course of time however the modifications become so serious that the faithful adherents of the old system begin to notice them and strife is kindled. But forms of cult hold their ground much longer often long after they have ceased to satisfy any real want and thus lose their raison d᾽être altogether. At last however in this case also the gulf becomes too palpable to escape notice; and new forms and institutions though often not without a serious struggle or even an entire revolution are substituted for them. Yet it is curious how slowly this comes about how long the misshapen old images completely banished from the domestic hearth and from the market-place are treasured up in the temples as more sacred than all others; how long the symbols and representations of what is repugnant to decency are tolerated in the holy places and in the ceremonial without general offence; and how long many a cult clings to barbarous bloody and grovelling rites condemned and forbidden both by law and morality in ordinary human intercourse. Many even take offence because their king will no longer suffer his God to dwell in a tent or a poor enclosure while he himself resides in a house of cedar or in a sumptuous palace or because a Pericles invokes the aid of the masters of sculpture and architecture in order to represent and to house the gods worthily. The Jews and Christians who deemed their God too high and holy to be represented in visible form seemed to the Greek and Roman little better than atheists. A religion that demands no other sacrifice than the entire dedication of heart and life; that attaches no value to set forms of prayer thoughtlessly mumbled and endlessly repeated of which not a syllable can be omitted without destroying their efficacy; a religion which on the contrary approves of any form of prayer that wells up from a pious heart and a pure soul—such a religion is at first sight in the eyes of many not a religion at all. In short the influence of general development or civilisation manifests itself in every department of human life but in religion last of all because religion has struck the deepest roots into the human mind and is most inseparably bound up with man's personality. And this reminds me of a striking expression once used by the famous French orator Athanase Coquerel: “To make me change my opinion you have only to adduce convincing proofs that it is wrong; but to deprive me of my religious conviction il faut me déchirer de haut en bas.”
Nevertheless the reforms which a more advanced civilisation demands in the sphere of religion as well as in others are bound to come however tardy their advent. Progress in the intellectual æsthetic ethical and even in the social and political spheres has an educative influence on religion; and religion is sure in the end to assimilate thence all that makes its creed clearer and deeper that makes man's disposition towards God and his mode of worshipping Him purer and worthier that makes the religious community more independent and better adapted to the aims it has in view. This must take place. And why? Because the human spirit is one. Those who regard civilisation as a mere external a form they imitate a fashion they follow will probably fail to observe its inconsistency with their traditional religion. But those who are thoroughly imbued with it who have marched with the development of the age will be unable to rest satisfied with a religion which still occupies a much lower stage. Their knowledge is more extensive and better grounded they have learned the by no means common art of reflecting their artistic taste and their moral sentiment are purified and they have formed entirely new views of life and the world. It is therefore impossible for them now to tolerate the childish conceptions and unseemly observances which made up the religion of a former generation; and they feel the need of bringing their religion into accord with the civilisation in which they have been brought up. The only alternatives would be to give up the fruits of development altogether or else religion itself. The Rechabites of all ages and peoples choose the first alternative. Rather than sacrifice their religion—that is their ancestral form of religion which they mistake for religion itself—they anxiously seclude themselves from all progress. Others esprits forts as they modestly call themselves or freethinkers who as a rule seem to consider themselves free not to think at all and honestly mistaken persons too starting from the false premisses that religion can have but one form by which it must stand or fall and not being prepared to forfeit the blessings of civilisation choose the second of the above alternatives and break with religion altogether. But man cannot find rest in either of these counsels of despair. He does not leave his task unfinished but he ever crowns each stage of development by bringing religion also into harmony with it. The attraction he feels towards the divine the infinite is too powerful and overmastering to allow him to rest content with a conception of it or with a mode of entering into relations with it which has tome to be repugnant to his advanced artistic taste or moral sentiment or at variance with his scientific and philosophic insight. And this attraction constrains him to weave an appropriate garment out of the new material. Or in theological language with each higher phase of general development there corresponds a new religious revelation.
And I would ask whether we are going too far or assuming too much in believing that we here discern a supreme law of development in its application to religion the law of the unity of mind? Man finds himself in an awkward dilemma which ere long becomes intolerable when one sphere of his spiritual life the religious in this case lags far behind the others—his knowledge his sense of the beautiful his morality and the views of life and the world which he founds upon them. The pain of his inward struggle compels him to harmonise his religion with these views of life and the world by reforming it. A particular religion which does not keep pace with civilisation and takes up a hostile attitude to it must suffer and languish if the latter gets the upper hand; but if the religion itself gains the victory its adherents are deprived of the blessings of that civilisation. A particular civilisation on the other hand which disregards the religious element and is content with the progress it has made in other departments bears no lasting fruit and soon stagnates or declines. Or briefly the development of religion is the necessary consummation of all human development and is at once demanded and promoted by it.
But the problem we have studied to-day is connected with another which cannot be explained by the law of the unity of mind and must therefore be accounted for otherwise. I mean that isolation is prejudicial to development while living intercourse with others generally promotes it. I say generally for there is an exception to be noticed afterwards.
This is a general proposition and holds true of all mental or rather human development. In the case of individuals any one may observe it in his own surroundings. The man who obstinately secludes himself who ignores all ideas which have not been formed in his own esteemed brain and turns a deaf ear to all ideas and convictions different from those in which he has been brought up remains narrow and stunted constantly turns round in the same circle and fails to advance a single step. It requires no great knowledge of history to teach us that it is the same with nations. Which are those that have developed a higher civilisation and have therefore acted a more important part in the world's history and have taken the lead of all others? Not those which have jealously held aloof from intercourse with others or happened not to come in contact with them shunned everything foreign and clung tenaciously to the traditions of their forefathers. Surely those alone which either by conquest or by trade and navigation or by intellectual intercourse have come into abiding contact with other more or less developed nations and have benefited by their rich experience. All the really historical nations of antiquity—the Egyptians and Western Asiatics the Chinese Indians and Persians the Hellenes and Italians—migrated from elsewhere to their historic dwelling-places and there mingled with an autochthonous population. Others like the Japanese in the East and the Germans and Celts of Europe only attained the plenitude of their capabilities through the influence of a foreign civilization—that is the Chinese and the Greeco-Roman—as indeed also holds true of the peoples above-named. And the same was the case with the original inhabitants of America. There the Natchez of the North the Muyscas of the South the Maya peoples and the Aztecs of Mexico and the Quichua and Aymaras of Peru surpassed their congeners in development but all had immigrated from elsewhere to the regions where their higher albeit barbaric civilisation grew up. On the contrary the dwellers in Central Arabia probably the cradle-land of the Semites remained longest shut out from intercourse with the outer world and were long the most backward of the Semites although it was only when a prospect into the wide world was opened up to them that it was discovered what a highly gifted nation they were. And nearly the same remark applies to the Slavonic peoples. I need not further illustrate this point from modern history. These are well-known facts. The peoples that hold aloof from foreign influence remain stationary; but those which no longer by conquest and migration but by intellectual intercourse by letters science and religious teaching are in constant touch with what goes on in the enlightened world around them are sure to progress.
No one I believe will deny this or at least no one who is qualified to express an opinion. But many deny that what admittedly holds true of general civilisation has any application to religions in their mutual intercourse; and this is an opinion which we must not ignore.
Nowhere does there prevail such a spirit of exclusiveness as in religion. Many good people anxiously strive to keep their religion free from contact with others lest the strange and from their point of view false and heretical ideas should contaminate it and cause it to degenerate. In the religions of antiquity it was the strange gods that people sought to repel but without denying their existence or disputing that they might be powerful beneficent and adorable beings in their own domain and for their own people. The adherents of the ethical religions on the other hand repudiate all deities with all their various cults that conflict with the ruling conceptions of their own religion or seem to detract from the honour of their only true God or gods. And to a certain extent this is reasonable and for the weak it may be even necessary for a time provided only that it be a temporary precaution applied in certain cases and not amounting to absolute exclusion. But the history of religion bears ample testimony to the fact that religion has never really developed except when a number of different religions have come into contact. Although such cases abound one striking example may suffice. Israel—whose religion surpasses all the religions of antiquity in purity and loftiness and has given birth to two others which count their adherents by millions among those most gifted families of peoples the Semites and the Aryans—was personally acquainted with all the chief religions of antiquity. The Israelites had seen the Egyptian burning incense before the Hapi bull of Memphis the ever-reviving Ptah and before the Mena bull of the Sun-god of On; they had beheld their Canaanitish neighbours and compatriots worshipping the Baalim and Ashtartes and the children of Phœnicians and Moabites passing through the fire to their deity; by the waters of Babylon they had witnessed the solemn processions of Maruduk and Nabû and they afterwards heard of Auramazda the god of Koresh and Darius who most resembled their own Yahve; they had been to the grief and horror of the pious spectators of the invasion of their holy temple on Zion by Assyrian and Egyptian deities with all the host of heaven and by Zeus Olympius and Jupiter O. M. Capitolinus. And not a few in Israel had themselves bent the knee to all these gods and even burnt their children before Molech. But all the more faithfully did the nucleus of the people cling to their own purer worship. The more clearly did the religious thinkers in Israel become conscious of their higher and better possession. The more fully were developed all the great and glorious elements slumbering in germ in their own religion. Yet this was not merely a counteraction of all foreign modes of worship. On the contrary they may even be said to have imitated a number of foreign elements and to have adapted them to their own religion. Their religious horizon was thus extended the conception they formed of their national God was at once enriched and softened and his service was elevated and ennobled. In this case also as in that of general development assimilation had been more or less consciously at work. As in Israel so in Greece and Rome so among the Persians and Germans so it has been everywhere and always.
The explanation of these historical facts flows naturally from what has been already said. Before entering upon it let us further note that we are not speaking of mere imitation or adoption. This takes place also but it leads to nothing and bears no fruit. The Phœnicians at one time aped the Egyptians in everything not only adopting their external forms of civilisation and artistic models but even substituting the gods of Egypt for their own or at least assigning them equal rank. And the same thing was done by the ancient Ethiopians under the influence of the Egyptian domination. But in neither case was the development of religion in the least affected. So long as a foreign system continues foreign unappropriated and unabsorbed it is incapable of conducing to higher spiritual life and is apt to prove more faulty than the original native system itself. As an instance of genuine and fruitful assimilation on the other hand let us see what the genius of the Greeks made of the Apollo and Artemis of Asia Minor and how they converted the wanton and the austere Ashtartes of Western Asia into their Aphroditê and Artemis. Nor is it a mere relation of master and disciple that is here in question. It is unnecessary as a rule that a religion should be a higher or a purer one in order that it may influence the development of another. Confronted with a lower religion than theirs people are all the more alive to the merits of their own and the more eager to develop it. Of this both Israel and Hellas afford a proof. As in the case of individuals so in the mutual intercourse of religions heterogeneous elements act beneficially. Those that are more highly developed and therefore superior at once attract and repel but conquer in the end; and the fusion of two forms of religion at first hostile gives birth to a new development which is sure to be richer and fuller than its predecessor.
Let us sum up these remarks. When we perceive that intellectual intercourse with others promotes development while seclusion and isolation hinder it and often bring it to a standstill; when we note that contact not only with people on a higher plane more highly gifted and more advanced but also with the inferior and less gifted gives a powerful impetus to development because it causes men or communities to discover their slumbering powers and stimulates them to a better use of these; and when we see that all this is confirmed by the history of religion too—I think that we here discern a law of development which applies to religion also and which I would formulate thus:—
“All development apart from the natural capabilities of men and peoples results from the stimulus given to self-consciousness by contact with a different stage of development whether higher or lower.”
And if we transfer this general law to our own particular domain two practical rules flow from it: First “The religion that will attain the highest development is that which is most alive to the genuinely religious elements in other forms;” and secondly “Religious development is best promoted by the free intercourse of its most diverse manifestations.”
But I foresee that many on hearing these rules will object to them and their objections must not remain unanswered. Does not religion they will ask when thus allowed constantly to associate with art science and philosophy with a refined but human and therefore always somewhat corrupt civilisation run the risk of being deprived of her sweet savour and her vigour and to please her companions of being induced to abate something of her strict demands and to part with something of her earnestness? Must she not ever amid worldly surroundings unavoidably be contaminated by them and at last become worldly herself? Is it not to be feared that by studying such divergent opinions and by searching for religious truth in so many diverse systems men will become disloyal to their own religion be shaken in their convictions and at last in utter perplexity and despair exclaim “What is truth?” Will this freedom of thought not lead to want of principle and to indifference to the purity and truth of their own religion the precious fruits of so much conflict and of so long and toilsome a process of development? Or to adhere to our scientific province—for the objections mentioned are all of a practical character—is it not the true nature of religion to sever herself from an unholy world and to seek the solitude extolled by our devout poet Lodensteijn?—
“O holy solitude!
In commune with my God
Would I were one with Thee!”
And will not religion by allowing herself to be carried along with the stream of general development insensibly neglect her own inward development? Groen van Prinsterer the former leader of the then small religious-political party in Holland which called itself anti-revolutionary used to say of it “In our isolation lies our power.” Does this not apply to religion everywhere and always and is it not precisely in her isolation that her power consists?
I at once admit all this. I even go a step further and maintain that the more religion develops the more she will advance in what I might call her chastity—that is the more she will shrink from exposing what she deems holiest to the curious gaze and the unskilled judgment of the profanum vulgus an often thoughtless and superficial world. Least of all should I wish to see her led and controlled by any extraneous power and thus deprived of her independence; for as I shall afterwards show her independence increases with her advancing development and is one of its indications. And what applies to religion in general holds true of each religious community in its relation to others. Intolerance is an ugly failing and those who demand freedom for themselves are bound to accord it to others. But each communion each church if it is to be of any value and to contribute to man's religious development must be consistent and must form maintain and vindicate its own character. It is not merely entitled but solemnly bound to do this.
Do not however suppose that this is forbidden or prevented by the above-mentioned laws which we sought to deduce from history. Those who have considered the meaning of the word “assimilation” which I have used advisedly will readily understand this. Development as I have said is promoted by assimilation; religion assimilates whatever is good and true in general culture; and each form of religion assimilates whatever is good and true in other forms. Does this mean that religion must yield and conform to the demands of worldly culture to the whims of changing fashion to the not always irrefragable dicta of science or to philosophical systems which may be overthrown by a succeeding generation? Does it mean that a church is simply to copy and to borrow the forms of a different communion its doctrine and cult though at variance with her own character and stage of development or at all events that she should adopt a certain eclecticism? I have practically answered these questions already. Assimilation is appropriation of what conduces to one's own growth and increases one's own spiritual possessions. Development does not therefore cease to be a purely inward process.
And as to the practical objection that the law of development is fraught with danger we do not deny it—but it is only dangerous for the weak for those who have no religious conviction of their own for those who are not rooted and grounded in their faith. If you are weak and ill remain in your sick-room and shut the windows close; for the fresh outer air the breath of life to the healthy might be fatal to you. So there are conditions and periods in religious life when its seclusion for a time at least may be salutary and even necessary. But living religion demands the open air of intellectual intercourse with general culture and the religious development of mankind.
All growth all development all life is a battle and no battle is free from danger. But when the heart or vital principle is sound it is braced by the struggle and will in the end surmount the danger. I again think of the Israelites. Their heart was sound. Conceptions which caused the weak among them to stray were therefore welcomed by prophets animated by the Holy Spirit and independently utilised by them in order to exalt and magnify their religion. And that religion completed and perfected has become the religion of the most highly developed nations in the world.