You are here

Lecture 1 The Manifestations and Constituents of Religion

Lecture 1
The Manifestations and Constituents of Religion
IN my previous course I endeavoured to explain my views regarding the development of religion. We investigated the stages and the directions of its development; we attempted to establish several laws or conditions which that development obeys; and lastly we tried to determine wherein that development essentially consists. We were concerned in short with an introduction to the morphological part of the science of religion. A different task now awaits us. We have hitherto been occupied with the ever-changing forms and varying manifestations of religion throughout human history but we must now inquire as to what is permanent in the forms arising out of each other and superseding each other and as to the elements they all possess in common. This alone will enable us so far as our limited knowledge permits to determine the essence of religion and ascend to its origin. The subject of this second course will therefore be an introduction to the ontological part of the science of religion.

I am fully aware that this part of my task is more difficult than the first. To classify and explain phenomena and to trace the development which they indicate is not so easy a task as simply to describe them or to study them within a particular period of development as for example in the history of a single religion or a single important epoch. But it is a still more difficult task to penetrate to the source whence they all spring and to discover the Unity in their multiplicity and diversity. I will not however dogmatically formulate my conclusions. I shall confine myself to the task of investigation or merely to that of initiating an investigation and shall attempt nothing more ambitious. Adhering to the same method as before we shall start from the solid ground of anthropology and history the well-ascertained results of which can alone enable us to understand the essence of religion and trace it to its source.

We therefore again take our stand upon established facts. And the first question we have to answer is—Can we discover among religious phenomena any that recur so invariably that we are justified in regarding them as necessary manifestations of religious consciousness whatever stage of development the religion may have attained? Or in other words Does religion contain any constant elements none of which it can lack without injuring it and rendering it imperfect and which therefore belong to every sound and normal religion?
It seems easy enough to answer this question. Most people who hear it will probably think that we need not be philosophers or scholars in order to answer it. Man is a thinking feeling and willing being and this must show itself in his religion also. And in point of fact this is proved by history and the study of religions. In every religion from the lowest to the highest we find certain conceptions regarding the supernatural powers upon which men feel their dependence certain sentiments they cherish towards them and certain observances they perform in their honour. This common and popular view although inexact as we shall afterwards see corresponds fairly well with reality. It has been countenanced by scientific authors and adopted in various handbooks. Professor Rhys Davids1 for example has recently defined the word religion as “a convenient expression for a very complex set of mental conditions including firstly beliefs as to internal and external mysteries (souls and gods); secondly the mental attitude induced by those beliefs; and thirdly the actions and conduct dependent on both.” He adds however that these conditions are by no means fixed and unchangeable and that they “are never the same in any two individuals”—a fact which we are the last to deny because they differ in accordance with every one's character and development—yet he calls them “the constituent elements of religion.” Others again mention only two constituents of religion conceptions and ritual with the religious community founded upon these; but they regard both as manifestations of religious faith and they deem the relation between the worshipper and his god as essential in every religion (Rauwenhoff);2 or like the philosopher Teichmüller they resolve every imaginable form of religion into Dogmatic Ethic and Cult;3 or lastly according to the most recent theory they explain this threefold basis by saying that religion consists in a direction of the will coincident with a conception of the deity and that sentiment is the badge of its real existence.4
Seeing then that there is so much agreement in the main among inquirers of entirely different schools in spite of differences in detail and exposition it would seem impossible to doubt the accuracy of the popular view. Yet the matter is not so simple as it appears. I cannot here enter upon a criticism of each of the systems named. Nor will I mention those who regard one of these three elements as the sole essential of religion—such as agnostics and mystics who sum up all religion in a vague feeling of or mysterious union with the divine (unio mystica); or such as the advocates of a school of theology which though it has strong opponents now finds many adherents in Germany who regard religion merely as a practical system and the church merely as an insurance society for the attainment of temporal and eternal happiness a system of which the religious doctrine is but the theory borrowed from philosophy in content and form while religious sentiment is simply modelled upon the requirements of ethics with the needful modifications.5 This however relates to systems which we can only discuss in another connection. But I must not omit to point out that the agreement of these views is not so great as their difference and that the definition of religion given by Rhys Davids as a set of three mental conditions among which curiously enough he includes actions and conduct is a very different thing from Pfleiderer's view that the essence of religion consists in a direction of the will coinciding with certain conceptions of the deity and that sentiment is merely a badge of its real existence. I must frankly confess in passing my inability to understand how anything can be a badge of the real existence of something different without necessarily belonging to its essence. But above all it must be clearly kept in view that conceptions sentiments and actions are not strictly speaking kindred or really correlative terms. Words and deeds are kindred and correlative; and we do not require to prove that religion manifests itself in both of these whether the words be merely the stammerings of primitive man or poetic myths or doctrines moulded in philosophic form or whether among deeds we include religious observances or in a wider sense the whole of man's religious life. And so too religious emotions conceptions and sentiments are kindred and correlative; they arise out of each other as we shall see and moreover they all form the source of words and deeds to which they alone give a religious impress. Words and deeds creed and cult understood in their widest sense can alone literally be manifestations. Although these are not infallible signs of the real existence of religion—because words may be repeated without conviction and deeds may be aped without meaning—yet it must be admitted that every living religion produces them spontaneously and that no religion is complete without both of them. But they cannot be called constituents of religion. The true constituents of religion are emotions conceptions and sentiments of which words and deeds are at once the offspring and the index. To describe these constituents as manifestations seems to me a misuse of the term.
We therefore distinguish the forms in which religion is manifested from the constituents of religion. These forms consist as I have said in words and deeds. I must now explain this a little further. The words in which religious sentiment finds utterance—those alone which flow spontaneously from the heart which emanate from inward impulse which conform to the apostolic saying “We believe and therefore we speak” but not those which are thoughtlessly mumbled by rote—the words which religious man utters because he feels the necessity of voicing what lives within him are numerous and manifold. Such are prayers from childlike stammerings to the solemn litanies of the most highly developed ritual—from the wordy and redundant prayers of those who seek to propitiate their god by a wealth of sounding phrases to “Our Father” sublime in its simplicity—from the storming of heaven with petitions and supplications from which not a wish or want however trivial is omitted to the piteous cry of the afflicted sufferer the exulting song of the highly blessed the declaration of entire self-dedication of calm resignation of perfect conformity of will. Such are hymns and songs of praise some of them an embellished form of prayer others a form of confession and others again the utterances of the aspirations of the soul—from the monotonous wearisome and usually plaintive litanies of primitive peoples to the Vedic songs the Homeric hymns the chants in honour of the chief Egyptian and Assyrian gods the psalms of Babylon and Israel the profoundly religious poems of Mohammedan mysticism and those no less deeply felt and no less sublime in which Christians of all times and churches and in many tongues have poured forth their religious feelings. Such are the epic narratives partly borrowed from folk-lore and partly original compositions in which religious thought is embodied—myths from the world of gods miraculous tales of the golden age when the sons of heaven still associated on almost equal terms with the dwellers upon earth a mightier and happier race than the present—legends of heroes of light who smote the powers of darkness stories of saints and martyrs and lastly the history of the golden era of humanity when the champions of faith wrestled against unbelief and persecution when religion after its profound degradation revived and when the light of a higher revelation of the divine dispersed the dense and lowering clouds—not a history scientifically investigated or pragmatically recorded but actuated and glorified by a spirit of pious adoration and transformed into an epic a beautiful idyl composed by the deity himself. And such too are confessions of faith—but not of course those which are merely learned and repeated by rote—confessions which bear witness to the overflowings of the heart; confessions in prophecies and sermons; confessions in the systems of great religious thinkers like a St Augustine a St Thomas a Wycliffe a Melanchthon or a Calvin systems which borrow their form from philosophy and seem cold and lifeless in their stern logic but which are nevertheless the creations of a profound and fervent faith.
Nor is there less diversity in the actions in which religion is manifested. A word may be an action: a confession of the truth boldly uttered in the very face of the powers that are striving to crush it a summons to resist religious persecution a vow that binds a man throughout his whole life. But as a rule deeds form a more vigorous manifestation of faith than words. Those who confine themselves to mere words spoken or written however well meant however deeply felt cannot be regarded as thoroughly in earnest unless they seal them with their actions. And these actions are manifold. They do not consist solely in the observances summed up in the term Worship of which we naturally think in the first place—that is in communion with the Deity in secret or in public at set times or whenever the heart yearns for it a communion which though indispensable to the maintenance of religious life cannot of itself alone be called the religious life. There is something attractive to the religious soul in every religious act provided it be earnest and sincere. The form may be childlike naïve and defective and we may have outgrown it; but man seeks in this fashion and in good faith to approach his God; and those who do not appreciate this fact place the form above the substance. Where all the arts combine to render the ritual impressive as in the cathedral which of itself elevates the thoughts where in presence of the devout congregation crowded into every nook and amid majestic strains of music the sacrifice of the Mass is offered up even the Protestant who is enlightened enough to respect worship in every form feels impressed if not carried away by the grandeur of the spectacle. I wish I could adequately interpret for you a beautiful description of the Romish ritual given by Jan van Beers a poet of the Southern Netherlands; but it cannot be fully appreciated except in the masterly verse of the original. He declares that although he had ceased to be an orthodox Catholic the foundations of his childhood's faith “having been sapped by the waters of doubt” “he felt his soul overwhelmed with a holy trembling” on entering the imposing temple to which his mother had once taken him as a child and where “she had taught him to call the eternally Inscrutable whose ineffable name the whole universe scarce dares to stammer his Father.” It seemed to him “as if the old familiar saints with their golden halos nodded to him from their niches as if the angels once more swayed beneath the arches to the music of harps and celestial songs as if the whole bright-winged hosts of the dear old legends he had once so eagerly listened to by the fireside long forgotten suddenly burst into new life within his heart. And when the great organ lifted its melodious voice in the anthem and “the radiant and glittering sun” of the sacrament was held on high by the priest and the countless throng of worshippers “from the choir-steps down to the dim twilight of the aisles bowed as if beneath the wind of invisibly wafting wings” he felt himself a child again and hoped and believed as a child he thought of his mother and involuntarily folding his hands murmured “Our Father!” Even grander and in its simplicity more sublime was the worship of the persecuted Huguenots who when seeking an asylum in the wilds of the Cevennes and ever threatened by the dragoons of Louis XIV. met in that temple not made with hands in order that the inspiring words of their preachers and the artless recitation of their psalms might brace them for the unequal struggle. And yet beautiful as is such adoration in spirit and in truth finding utterance in manifold ways its utterance in the form of ritual is but the symbol and foreshadowing of the sacrifice which consists in so entire dedication of self to the Most High that we shall live in Him and He in us and that we shall be able to say with Calvin “Cor meum velut mactatum Domino in sacrificium offero.” In short those who desire to learn the nature of a religion from the conduct of its votaries must study not only their forms of worship but all the other acts prompted by their faith.
But I must not omit to answer a question which arises here. How many words have been and are spoken how many deeds done in the name of religion which are objectionable from a moral point of view and even arouse our intense indignation? I do not speak of hypocrisy which uses religion as a means of attaining sordid and selfish ends nor of the thoughtlessness which prompts people to utter religious words or perform religious acts without considering the consequences for there is no real religion in either case. But I allude to the harsh judgments and the condemnation pronounced by religious persons against those who differ from them to the blood of martyrs of all ages and peoples to the burning of heretics to the so-called sacred synods and councils which have behaved like gangs of robbers and to the so-called holy wars which have been waged with greater bitterness and obstinacy than any others. Are such horrors to be regarded as manifestations of religion? Unquestionably. But they also indicate a morbid condition of the religion concerned. They prove that it is cramped by the fetters of particularism and pedantry that it is identified with an effete tradition that it is contaminated by sordid passions by arrogance ambition and hatred. And to these evils is added the confusion of form with substance which begets the notion that our own form of religion that of our fathers or that of our people or our church is not only the best (as it doubtless is for us) and not only the purest of all existing religions (which is quite possible yet without entitling it to take precedence of others which are less mature but not necessarily inferior) but the only true religion and one that ought to be adopted by the whole world. If this conviction gives birth to missionary enterprise as a labour of love and compassion such enterprise if rationally and prudently conducted and not merely from proselytising motives may be fraught with blessing. But when these motives are tainted with the passion of fanaticism or clouded by the blindness of selfishness crosses begin to be erected and stakes begin to blaze. But these are pathological phenomena too often unjustly laid to the charge of religion itself but which require to be studied and scientifically explained in order that we may learn to distinguish what is sound from what is morbid. And in undertaking this task the philosophic historian must refrain from all partisanship. He must not assume that all the wickedness of hell is on one side and all the purity of heaven on the other. Even when the courage of martyrs who have died for their faith arouses his sympathy or when he looks up reverently to the great Sufferer on the cross he will not regard their persecutors as utter fiends. For these persecutors were men not fiends—men weak and ignorant indeed and blinded by passion and selfishness yet attached to their religion although in one of its forms only; while their deeds of violence although sadly misapplied revealed that striving after unity which we have already recognised as one of the mightiest factors in religious development. The holiest never ceases to be holy although it is abused; and it is the duty of the scientific inquirer to discover it even when marred and obscured.
Religion therefore which is a mental condition manifests itself in all kinds of words and deeds. And let me say once for all that when we speak of religion pure and simple and search for its essence and origin we do not mean that kind of religion which is adopted without inward conviction as a necessary appendage of enlightened education and put on like a Sunday garment but solely that religion which lives in the heart. And we have already pointed out its component parts—emotions conceptions and sentiments.
The sequence in which I have named these elements of religion is not an arbitrary one. The question as to their order of precedence has been much debated. Some trace the origin of religion to the feelings others to the thoughts or at least to the imagination while thought and imagination are both traced to the intellect; others again trace it to the will. But many despairing of reconciling this conflict of opinion have pronounced the whole inquiry to be futile and have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to lay down any fixed rule. I do not however regard the matter as so unimportant or so hopeless. I am satisfied that a careful analysis of religious phenomena compels us to conclude that they are all traceable to the emotions—traceable to them I say but not originating in them. Their origin lies deeper and we shall try to discover it at a later stage.
Religion always begins with an emotion. Strictly speaking an emotion is simply the result of something that moves us the effect of some external agency. But I use the word here in the more general sense in which it is commonly understood. And in this sense every emotion embraces three elements: (1) a predisposition in the form of certain longings or aspirations as yet partly unconscious and certain latent and vague conceptions differing according to the temperament and inclination of the individual which may be described as a mood; (2) an impression produced upon us from without or the affection itself; and (3) the fact of becoming conscious of such affection or the perception of such affection.
In the case of the great majority of people religious emotions are awakened by the representations of others whether heard in the teaching of parents or masters of preachers and prophets or contemplated in the works of artists or learned from the scriptures which we have been taught from childhood to regard as specially sacred or from other sources. But in the case of persons whose temperaments are religiously predisposed by nature the emotion is aroused not only mediately as above but directly also by the events they witness in the world around them and particularly in their own history in their own life and in the destinies of their own kith and kin their family tribe or people. Their eyes do not require to be opened to the contemplation of the divine or at least they cannot rest satisfied with the views of it handed down by tradition; but they discern the divine where it has as yet been undiscovered by others. Or to express it otherwise and perhaps more clearly things that fail to produce any religious impression upon other people evoke it in them because they are more religiously disposed. For it depends solely on the mood or mental condition whether the things that a man hears contemplates or experiences—a word a conception an impressive natural phenomenon or striking incident—awaken in him a religious or some other emotion. Many persons may sit at the feet of the inspired and eloquent preacher and many may hang upon his lips but few very few of them experience a religious awakening. Most of his cultured hearers will merely take an interest in his preaching as a work of art. The thoughtful will pay special attention to the force and accuracy of his argument. Moralists who value religion solely as a means of making men honest will only appreciate him if his preaching conduces to that end. Not to speak of the great masses who though not actually lulled to sleep hear the sonorous phrases with a kind of dreamy complacency without grasping their real meaning—how few there are whose inmost souls are stirred and who are prompted to dedicate themselves and their lives to God anew! Nor is the case different when the emotion is awakened not mediately by the words and representations of others but directly by things people see and feel for themselves. This requires no further explanation. We all know it by experience. Think for example of the starry vault of heaven. All who use their eyes must be struck with its beauty: those who have learned something of astronomy must marvel at its cosmic system and infinity; and this admiration will often give rise to religious emotion. But it is only the religiously disposed who will discern in it what the poetic eye of Rückert saw when in his famous sonnet he compares it to a letter written by God's hand and sealed with the sun but when night has unsealed it showing in myriads of lines a single mighty hieroglyph:—
“‘Our God is love a love which cannot lie.’
No more than this yet this is so profound
No human mind can fathom or explain.”
And as was the case with the poet the emotion which has ripened into perception in the religious man is speedily and spontaneously transformed into a conception. Let it not be thought that those who are struck by the words they hear or read or by the image they contemplate merely adopt the conceptions of others and that the conception precedes the emotion. This is apparently but not really the case. No doubt it is a conception which produces an impression upon them but it is only when the conception affects them religiously that they adopt it as their own. But every one does this in his own way; for the conception which people form for themselves is never exactly like the one which has given rise to it and of which it is only a reflection. And it never can be thoroughly appropriated by them unless born of a genuine religious emotion.
And next produced by such a conception and awakened by emotion there arises a definite sentiment the direction of the will which impels to action which makes the mouth speak out of the abundance of the heart which with gentle hand diffuses the precious fragrance of grateful love and veneration and which in short will not allow the pious to rest until they have sealed it by word and deed.
If we now inquire what it is that stamps an emotion a conception or a sentiment as religious and what differentiates it from an æsthetic intellectual or ethical impression we may answer in the familiar old words “the tree is known by its fruits.” Words sincerely uttered and deeds spontaneously performed afford the true test. Religious emotions may indeed be so weak and transient and conceptions so vague that they exert no great influence upon the will and are therefore scarcely perceptible in the life of the persons concerned. But if the emotion is vivid and the conception distinct they cannot fail to subdue the will and to yield good fruit. And the fruit is different from that yielded by an emotion which is merely admiration for what is outwardly or morally beautiful or for the sublime and attractive creations of poetic imagination or for the inscrutable depth and infinity of the universe governed by its immutable laws—an admiration which incites the philosophic mind to reflection and impels it to search for the origin of things in order to found a system of the world. But in the sphere of religion the emotion consists in the consciousness that we are in the power of a Being whom we revere as the highest and to whom we feel attracted and related; it consists in the adoration which impels us to dedicate ourselves entirely to the adored object yet also to possess it and to be in union with it.
This reminds me of a well-known and very suggestive myth which is admirably calculated to illustrate my argument. I mean the myth of Pygmalion which was perhaps borrowed by the Greeks from the Phœnicians but was certainly recast by them in a more beautiful and poetic form. You all know the story. Pygmalion the sculptor has chiselled the image of a goddess so beautiful and so charming that when it is finished he falls in love with it. And behold the fervency of his love gives life to the cold marble and the goddess becomes his! So too the aspiration after the divine awakes in the mind as an indefinite longing; and then just as the sculptor embodies his idea in his work of art so the religious mind forms a conception of the deity corresponding with his ideal; but the conception does not burst into actual life the believer is not wholly possessed and swayed by it nor does he attain complete union with his God until he worships Him in adoring love.
I have called these three constituents of religion indispensable. And so they undoubtedly are. Where one only of the three is present or when one of the three is absent there may be a certain religiosity but there can be no sound and perfect religion. And this point requires to be emphasised because the contrary has been maintained by various critics from different points of view. It was once the fashion though we hear less of it nowadays to look down with contempt on every manifestation of faith and not even to take account of distinct conceptions and definite sentiments but to attach importance solely to certain vague feelings and longings as if they contained the whole pith and essence of religion. People felt specially edified by the verses of a certain poet—who as a poet holds a foremost rank—who in the midst of his wildest flights has sung of the immense espérance which constrains us in spite of ourselves to raise our eyes to heaven; and even now certain young poets who scribble their pious confessions on the table of some café under the inspiring influence of their absinthe find enthusiastic admirers. I do not despise their outpourings for I assume them to be genuine. I rejoice that the need of religion so long obscured by prosaic materialism is again beginning to make itself felt. This however is but the glimmering of dawn; the morning has yet to come; and noon is still far distant.
I am not sure whether any one maintains that the conception we form of the deity is really everything in religion and that all else is indifferent. But people certainly often act as if they thought so. Our conception of God and of our relation to Him is very far from being unimportant and we should do our utmost to purify and ennoble it. But however poetically beautiful or philosophically profound it may be it possesses little religious value unless it proceeds from emotion and gives an impulse to the will.
Lastly it has been said and it is still maintained by many that everything depends on sentiment. Nor do we dispute that a great deal depends upon it. For is it not the blossom of which the fruit is the offspring? But was there ever blossom or fruit without tree or plant? Surely the object towards which one's sentiment is directed whatever be the conception that sways it is far from being unimportant. Obedience calm submission perfect dedication and sincere adoration are all genuine religious sentiments; and wherever they occur there religion exists. But it is certainly not a matter of indifference whether the believer entertains such sentiments towards a benevolent Vishnu or towards a cruel S´iva or obeys Melek or Ashtarte or adores the Yahve of Israel who takes no pleasure in human sacrifices and is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity. And there may even be sentiment of a very virtuous and exemplary kind but unless it is deeply rooted in emotion it cannot be called religious.
There are in short three essential and inseparable requisites for the genuine and vigorous growth of religion: emotion conception and sentiment. All the morbid symptoms in religious life are probably due to the narrow-mindedness which attaches exclusive value to one of these or neglects one of the three. If religion be sought in emotion alone there is imminent danger of its degenerating into sentimental or mystical fanaticism. If the importance of conceptions be overrated doctrine is very apt to be confounded with faith creed with religion and form with substance an error which inevitably leads to the sad spectacle of religious hate ostracism and persecution. Those again who take account of sentiment alone regard every act done in the name of religion however cruel and inhuman as justifiable on the ground that they are acts of faith (auto da fé)—of what kind of faith they do not inquire—while others would care nothing if religion were entirely swallowed up by a dreary moralism.
But important as it is the indissoluble union of these three elements does not of itself ensure the completeness of religion. They must also be in equilibrium. In this respect religion differs from other manifestations of the human mind. In the domain of art the feelings and the imagination predominate and in that of philosophy abstract thought is paramount. The main object of science is to know accurately imagination playing but a subordinate part; while ethics are chiefly concerned with the emotions and the fruit they yield. In religion on the other hand all these factors operate alike and if their equilibrium be disturbed a morbid condition of religion is the result.
And why is this? The answer is to be found in the fact already pointed out that religion constitutes the deepest foundation or rather the very centre of our spiritual life. Or as it is sometimes expressed “religion embraces the whole man.” If this means that religion once awakened and quickened within our souls sways our whole lives nothing can be more certain. For the object I adore and to which I have dedicated myself occupies my thoughts and governs my actions. But if understood too literally the expression would hardly be accurate and might easily lead to fanaticism. Human life has other and perfectly justifiable aspects besides the religious. Yet one thing is certain religion dwells in the inmost depths of our souls. Of all that we possess it is our veriest own. Our religion is ourselves in so far as we raise ourselves above the finite and transient. Hence the enormous power it confers upon its interpreters and prophets a power which has been a curse when abused by selfishness and ambition but a blessing when guided by love—a power against which the assaults of the adversaries of religion with the keenest shafts of their wit with all their learning and eloquence their cunning statecraft and their cruel violence are in the long-run unavailing and impotent.