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Lecture 8 Inquiry into the Being or Essence of Religion

Lecture 8
Inquiry into the Being or Essence of Religion
PROFESSOR SIEBECK in his thoughtful manual of the philosophy of religion1—a most instructive work even for those who cannot follow his method or always concur in his conclusions—disputes the accuracy of the common antithesis of husk and kernel as applied to the external and the internal elements of religion respectively particularly because it implies that we have only to strip off the husk in order to get possession of the kernel. In other words the doctrine with the scriptures in which it is expounded and divine worship are mere externals or husks which are matters of minor importance whilst the spirit or kernel is the essential thing. This view as he contends leads to error and is contradicted by history. The true relation between the two may as he admits be destroyed; words and forms may lose their life in which case religion becomes fossilised. And so too externals may grow so rankly as to choke the internal vitality. But this just seems to him to prove that the internal and the external the abstract and the concrete in religion are inseparably united. Or as it may perhaps be better expressed religion has a subjective and an objective side—namely religiosity and religion—and it is only in the constant action and reaction of these two elements upon each other that the true nature of religion is fully revealed. And the same process as Professor Siebeck points out is observable in other departments of culture particularly in that of art.

These observations are well founded and they coincide with what we have learned from our preceding inquiry. The opinion combated by Siebeck and one which is still generally entertained is a survival of the old superficial rationalism as well as of the no less superficial idealism which failed to take account of history. We have seen that religious man has ever clothed his emotions his thoughts and his sentiments in conceptions and ideas and has ever expressed them in observances and ceremonies. Out of the former grows a religious doctrine which as civilisation advances is committed to writing in the shape of sacred documents and creeds while the latter gradually assume the form of organised worship. And for the maintenance of that doctrine and the practice of that worship he allies himself with kindred spirits in communities of greater or less extent. Consciously or unconsciously he feels constrained to act thus; and if he did not the emotions would pass away the impressions would lack stability the sentiments would prove to be but vague ebullitions and his thoughts would fail to attain perfect clearness even in his own mind. This is therefore a phenomenon which must needs constantly recur.

Or to adhere to the figurative language used by Siebeck himself who can deny that the husk is just as necessary for the preservation of the fruit as the kernel is necessary in order to give the husk its value? Without the husk the kernel would be lost. If for example we rejoice in the blessings of that new religious life which dawned in Galilee we must not overlook the fact that we owe these blessings to the formation of a community which carefully collected and preserved the earliest documents of the Gospel and thus handed down to posterity the memory of the fervour and enthusiasm of that period; that we owe them to the development of the community into a church so solidly founded and stoutly built as to defy the storms of the dark ages of barbarism; and that when the church was found no longer to satisfy the religious needs of many and to be a hindrance rather than a help to the sustenance of their spiritual life we owe the same blessings to the establishment of other communities differing in views and in organisation but all agreeing in the conviction that the Scripture is the word of God—a conviction which led them not only to guard the purity of its text with anxious care but to bestow the utmost pains on its study and interpretation. All these have been in their time necessary means for the preservation of what would otherwise have certainly been lost—but only in their time. Many people nowadays require these means no longer. The Roman Catholic Church still satisfies the religious wants of millions and possesses many peculiar merits which are not to be found elsewhere or not at least to the same extent. But for these she could not continue to exist. Again the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures in its old mechanical acceptation is still in the case of many people the only means of making them appreciate the Bible. But there are millions who have ceased to regard the mediæval church as the guide of their religious life who are nevertheless religious and to whom we cannot deny the name of Christians. There are many persons also who can no longer subscribe to the old-church doctrine of the infallibility of the Scriptures or who at least regard the divine inspiration of their authors as something totally different from a mere literal or mechanical agency; and yet there is abundant evidence to show that such persons by no means underrate the religious value of the Bible—nay that when released from the tyranny of its letter they are the better enabled to penetrate into its spirit. In short the husks in which the priceless treasure has been preserved throughout the ages have themselves been indispensable but they have had their day; and in the fulness of time just when the spiritual fruit they protect begins to run the risk of being choked by them they require to be removed and replaced by others. The husk is therefore invaluable though only for the sake of the kernel. Our concern is now with the kernel. The kernel alone gives its value to the fruit and alone affords us sustenance.
I therefore agree with Siebeck in holding that the external manifestations of religious consciousness are not mere unimportant incidents and that their study should by no means be neglected. Above all I consider it wrong to maintain that it does not matter what a man believes and teaches or how he worships provided only he believes something and worships in some fashion or other. But while I hold that the content of the doctrine and the forms of worship are by no means matters of indifference in religion I can no more admit that they pertain to the essence of religion than I can regard my body as pertaining to the essence of my human nature or suppose that the loss of one of my limbs or organs would really impair my personality or true humanity. It is one of the conditions of the life of religion that its internal elements should be reflected in its external that the subjective should constantly be objectivised. It is indeed of the utmost importance that the outward form should as faithfully as possible index the inward essence and that the objective should agree as far as possible with the subjective—as far as possible I say because there are many cases in which images and symbols can only approximately express the thought that underlies them. Yet for the very purpose of maintaining this agreement they must constantly undergo change because the subjective or inward essence is perpetually developing.
What is it then that we can characterise as the abiding the unchanging the essential element as distinguished from the ever-varying phenomena in which it is revealed. “The spirit” every one will of course reply or perhaps “the idea.” But I cannot accept this answer without some further definition. The terms used in the so-called mental sciences are apt to be so uncertain and arbitrary that as we are concerned with a question of fundamental importance we are bound to determine the precise meaning we assign to them. The term “spirit” in particular is apt to be the least definite of all. When we speak of spiritual kindred in the domain of religion we denote persons of the same way of thinking advocates of the same principles; yet we cannot deny that men of totally different views sometimes act more in accordance with the spirit of our principles than others who belong to our own party. We distinguish between the spirit of Rome and that of Dordrecht or Geneva between the spirit of the apostolic age and that of the middle ages; and we thus denote cardinal differences in principle and development within the bosom of one and the same family of religions. As a rule we here use the word “spirit” to signify a certain sentiment or frame of mind but we also include the idea of a direction both of thought and life. The word is however also applied in a general way to what may indeed develop yet remains essentially the same and retains the self-same individuality throughout all changes. In this sense it might be here employed; but to prevent mistake I prefer to use the word “being”—that which is as distinguished from that which grows or becomes the οὐσία as distinguished from the ever-changing μορφαì; and I have therefore called this part of our course the ontological though it might perhaps have better been described as the physiological. At all events our science cannot rest satisfied until it has extended its investigations to this point. The question as to what is the true being or essence of religion is a very difficult and complex one and I cannot hope to offer an entirely satisfactory or final solution; but I may at least make a humble attempt. And to begin with let me emphasise this point that we are not now speaking of the essence of religion in the metaphysical but solely in the psychological sense. To treat of religion as something more than a mere psychological problem does not indeed he beyond the province of philosophy in the widest sense but it certainly lies beyond that of our science.
The difficulty of answering this question is at once apparent from the fact that attempts have already been made to answer it in a great many different ways. Men whose knowledge of religious phenomena of history and of psychology merit our admiration and even the profoundest thinkers have arrived at widely divergent conclusions on this subject. Some seek for the essence of religion in creeds and accordingly suppose that everything depends on their purity and therefore on their orthodoxy. And when we observe how passionately men have wrangled and still wrangle over doctrines how they condemn persons who differ from them as infidels and how they flatter themselves that they alone possess a monopoly of religious truth and are God's elect we see that such views are very generally prevalent and that they are perhaps in practical life the commonest of all. Rejecting such views others maintain that divine worship the church and the church's ordinances together constitute the essence of religion and that the only object of dogma is to rally the faithful to a common standard and to facilitate the religious education of their children. Now we have repeatedly stated that neither doctrines nor worship are matters of indifference but are rather the necessary manifestations and in a sense the true tests of religious life. We are convinced that religious men as thinking beings feel the need of possessing some conception of God and the divine whether derived from others or thought out for themselves—a conception such as to satisfy their thinking faculty; and we are equally convinced that worship must utter itself in outward observances because men's hearts impel them to do so. Zealous for truth and longing for a sense of assurance and clearness of insight they naturally translate into outward acts those feelings of which their hearts are full. But how can we discern the essence of religion in what is a mere index or utterance of man's inmost soul? (And let me remind you that even religious doctrine rests ultimately on emotion.) How can we discern the essence of religion in ever-varying conceptions and ideas which are but an imperfect reflection of truths too deep for utterance? How are we to discover it in observances which because never entirely satisfying the craving of the pious soul are constantly being superseded by others? And above all how can we hope to discover it in such outward and imperfect institutions as our churches and their ordinances? As well might we attempt to discover in man's body the true essence of his humanity.
In order therefore to determine the true essence of religion we must mount from the visible to the invisible from the phenomena of external nature to the source whence they spring. We need not seek for that essence that abiding element in religion as an anthropological phenomenon; for as such religion is subject to continual changes; but we must seek for it in the religiosity or religious frame of mind in which it has originated. Although in reality the two things are inseparable we must try to distinguish between the ever-changing manifestations of religion and the sentiment which underlies them.
And hence we are concerned neither with doctrine nor worship nor church but with that common root from which they all spring. And what root can this be but faith? Such was the view I formerly held in common with many others. And indeed without faith there can be no true and living religion. Excise faith from doctrine and doctrine becomes an empty phrase a lip-service the parrot-like mumbling of a catechism without the slightest idea of its meaning and in short nothing but a wretched travesty of religion. Divorce faith from worship and worship becomes mere senseless gesticulation mummery like that of the Chaldæan impostors a contemptible hypocrisy like that of the Italian priest who as the story goes upon the elevation of the host exclaimed to Luther's horror “Bread thou art and bread shalt thou remain!” Sever faith from the church and the church becomes an institution in which love of power ambition and covetousness reign supreme and which grievously abuses the most sacred heritage of mankind. Faith is the life of religion. Religion without it is dead.
Are we then it will be asked to seek for the essence of religion in faith? And there immediately arises the counter-question Does this apply to religion alone? Surely it applies to our whole spiritual life. What is religion without faith? Yes—but what is our moral life without belief in the reality of goodness in its power and in the possibility of its realisation and its final triumph? True charity is said to believe all things. Can a man of science advance a single step in his researches without faith in the unity of nature without belief in the possibility of discovering its laws without belief in the truth? Who can be a genuine artist without belief in art and in his own artistic faculty? And on the other hand does there not even exist a belief in ghosts in evil spirits in witchcraft and exorcism which though we may regard it as superstition and a mere caricature of religion is nevertheless as deeply rooted in some minds as religious faith in the souls of the pious? It is thus obvious that we cannot pronounce faith to be the specific characteristic of religion. Some other definition is therefore required.
Several different attempts have been made to find such a definition. The essential element we are in search of has been defined as a belief in the moral order of the world involving the postulation of a supreme power which institutes such order and which causes it ultimately to triumph. (This is the doctrine of Bunsen Rauwenhoff and to some extent that of Kant also.) But this view depends upon the hypothesis that religion originates in ethics and upon an identification of the moral with the religious principle a view which we shall afterwards impugn.
I should be more inclined to agree with those who seek the source of religion in our experience of the fact that in every religion albeit in countless different ways a belief in God's supremacy over the world and mankind is combined with a belief in man's kinship with God. Here therefore we find a belief in God as the Infinite the Illimitable who is the perfect substance of all that is highest in our inward nature though it be but finite and limited combined with a belief in ourselves as created in God's image for the purpose of striving ceaselessly to attain to His perfection. Or briefly we here find a belief in the essential unity of what is specifically human with what is divine a union which embraces both the different aspects of faith. Now this faith is to be met with in religions on the lowest and on the highest plane of development. Yonder in crude animistic conceptions myths and symbols especially in what is known as Totemism; here in the philosophical form of dogma. This faith has been embodied by the theology of the Christians in particular in their dogmas of the Trinity and of the divinity of Christ so that both the phases of our conception of faith are united in the Son of God. And is it not precisely this dogma (for it is in truth but one) which throughout the ages has formed the mainspring of religion and the profession of which has ever been regarded as the cognisance of all true Christians? And hence we might draw the conclusion that belief in the spiritual unity of God and man combined with the fullest recognition of God's superiority to man—belief in the Infinite above us and the infinite within us—is the kernel of all religion.
This proposition undoubtedly contains much truth. It is a hypothesis; and it is justifiable as being founded on the preceding genetic-psychological inquiry. Yet this solution which once satisfied me does not after prolonged study and maturer reflection appear entirely adequate. What it lacks is the great desideratum of unity of principle. And besides it is too much of a dogma—nay it is really a compound of two dogmas or two distinct conceptions welded into a single doctrine.
Nearly the same remark applies to Siebeck's treatment of this question.2 More Germanico he sums up his exposition in a single formula which for the benefit of our non-German hearers and readers we shall analyse a little. He regards religion as a conviction that God and a super-terrestrial world exist and that redemption is possible—a conviction to which heart and mind alike contribute and which is practically operative. And in the determination of religious consciousness faith is the essential psychological moment. Faith in this highest sense he describes as an act performed by the freewill of the individual. This act consists in the first place in an affirmative answer being given by the believer with regard to the idea of the Good to the question whether the existence of a highest goodness and a highest worth should be admitted or denied—a question which in view of the doubts begotten by experience and reflection cannot be solved theoretically; but the act is at the same time a postulation of the super-terrestrial personality of God as the profoundest guarantee and the all-sufficient foundation of the continuous realisation of goodness. And the formation and elaboration of this conception spring essentially from the fact that the human personality whatever essential and worthy elements it possesses in its own general nature cannot fail to use them as keys or handles to the possibility of discerning the transcendental origin of the world. It seems to me with all due appreciation of the truths thus enunciated that the above statement amounts to little more than a dogmatism compressed into a formula a sort of extractum theologiae dogmaticae triplex! Faith is indeed a free act of each human personality; and the statement is creditable to the discernment of the German philosopher. Yet I cannot acquiesce in holding that faith in a super-terrestrial deity as being the foundation and guarantee of the realisation of goodness is to be regarded as the abiding characteristic of all religion. At all events this is just another conception (a term which the author himself uses) and a very complex conception too. But a conception even when a central one from which all others diverge and to which all others again converge can never be the essence or kernel of religion. It may form the root-idea of a philosophical system or of a philosophical religious doctrine; but doctrine though a fruit of religion is not religion itself. I also greatly doubt whether Siebeck's formula could be applied to religions in their earliest stages of development.
We must therefore try to find some other method of solving the problem. It is needless to search for the essence of religion in any outward phenomenon either in doctrine or in worship or in church or even in faith which may doubtless be regarded as the source of one of its elements—that of religious thought. It must be sought for in a certain sentiment or disposition—in religiosity. Religion is essentially a frame of mind in which all its various elements have their source. Religion is piety manifesting itself in word and deed in conceptions and observances in doctrine and in life. I once met an aged Roman Catholic priest who complained that his infirmities confined him to the house during the cold winter weather. “But how” I asked “could he perform the service in his cold and draughty parish church?” “Oh that is devotion” was the reply. I loved and revered the old man for these simple words. For here I said to myself is a truly pious man although our austere Calvinistic fathers would have branded him as an idolatrous votary of the Popish Mass. True to his sacerdotal vows he felt bound to offer up the sacrifice which he deemed the holiest rite of his religion. Whether this might hasten his end he did not stop to consider—God knew. Surely this was religion this was piety and devotion.
Now I do not claim to have been the first to seek this method of solution. That religion is really piety is no new discovery. Others have already expressed their conviction of its truth. But most people stop here as if this statement were sufficient to solve the whole problem whereas in reality it is only the first step towards the solution. For unless we would rest satisfied with using one term in place of another we must further determine what piety really means. We need not trouble ourselves much about etymologies; for we must bear in mind that the German fromm the Dutch vroom and the Latin pius are no longer used in their original senses but now possess a different and deeper significance. Fromm or vroom originally meant what is “useful profitable or salutary” and pius meant “dutiful or loyal.” We have ceased to use the word “pious” in any of these senses. Piety is now practically synonymous with “devotion or consecration” because it involves the idea of self-dedication and personal one's whole faculties. To adore is to love “with all one's heart and soul and mind and strength.” To adore is to give oneself with all that one has and holds dearest. But at the same time—and herein consists its other phase—adoration includes a desire to possess the adored object to call it entirely one's own and conversely a longing on the part of the adorer to feel that he belongs to the adored one for ever in joy and in sorrow in life and in death. He gives himself in order to attain perfect union with the object of his adoration. He cannot feel happy except in the presence of that object. Although it is only in the lower stages of religious evolution that we find the worshipper placing himself wholly at the disposal of his god in order conversely to gain control over that god; and although he displays the same selfish desire to secure a monopoly of the divine favour and the same ignoble emulation as characterise earthly relations (a selfishness which is speedily dispelled by clearer moral insight and purer moral sentiment)—yet no pious man will ever rest satisfied until he can exclaim out of the fulness of his heart “My Lord and my God!” Adoration therefore demands that closest communion that perfect union which forms the characteristic aim of all religion and to which all true believers earnestly aspire.
And further the spirit of adoration affords a key to all the various manifestations of religion. Who can adore without being so filled with the adored object that it constantly occupies his thoughts and that albeit the object is the Infinite and Invisible he cannot refrain from forming a conception of it an image to delight his eyes and his heart? Who does not strive to know the adored one better so far as it is possible for poor finite man to know him? Who can adore without his whole life being dominated by the adored object without strenuously clinging to it without being inspired by it without longing to give vent to his feelings in enthusiastic songs and in acts of reverential love? Thus inspired he rejoices to find kindred spirits willing to enter into a sacred league with him and when he meets with persons whose spiritual life still slumbers he delights to awaken it to convince them by word and example and with his enthusiasm to kindle in their bosoms that sacred fire which burns so brightly within his own. Faith in all its various manifestations worship in all its forms every church and sect; all the manifold phases of religious life the longing of believers to seek communion with their God in solitude their impulse to go forth into the world in order to confess Him in public and show forth His marvellous works; the depths of their self-abasement in presence of the Most High their trembling approach to His footstool or their proudest triumph over the earthly and the transitory; the humble prayer “God be merciful to me a sinner”; the sufferer's piteous lament “Eli Eli lama sabachtani”; the cry of anguish “Out of the depths I call unto Thee O God” as well as the exultant “Nothing shall separate me from God”—all all this lies enshrined in adoration.
Two further questions that arise here must not remain unanswered. The first is “Does all this apply exclusively to religion? Can we call adoration its essence when it is the essence of idolatry also? We might reply that adoration may take a false course and be directed towards unworthy objects just as we may throw away our charity upon persons undeserving of it without thereby impugning the truth that love is the fundamental law of our moral life. But we must go a little deeper into the matter.
We use the term adoration even in our intercourse with our fellow-men. The passionate love of the youth for the bride of his choice the unbounded admiration of children for a distinguished father the wife's fervent reverence for her husband's talents so well expressed by the poet Chamisso in words which I may paraphrase thus:—
“To serve hint live for and belong to him
Be my whole aim
And give myself and thus exalted be
By his proud fame.”
All this though rare in these days of male precocity and female emancipation and though we may smile at it as sentimental nonsense is comprised in the word adoration. And although such adoration may be less intense and overmastering than religious adoration it has a great many features in common with it and is of the self-same nature. To the same category belongs also the worship of genius hero-worship which has been recommended by David Friedrich Strauss as a substitute for religion and has been so eloquently extolled by Carlyle. Such too is the veneration of the saints although in theory the Church carefully distinguishes between the veneration of saints and the worship of God. The difference however is in degree only and not in kind. But is it not a kind of idolatry to offer to weak and sinful creatures the homage we owe to the Creator alone?
Surely such veneration of saints and heroes and such fondly cherished memories can never serve as a substitute for religion. To devote the highest love to what is only limited and finite is irreligious. But veneration does not necessarily or always imply such a maximum of love. And after all it is not the actual imperfect and finite men as such that are revered but rather a creation of the imagination an ideal objectivised in this or that personage whether historical or legendary or of our own acquaintance. Are we angry or do we smile benevolently when we hear fond relations singing the praises of a father a son or a husband and basking in the sunshine of their fame in which they fail to see the blemishes detected by your sober and critical eye? For my part I would rather see a little enthusiasm warmth of feeling and affection whatever the object of it may be than an entire want of generous admiration. And what is more those minds which are susceptible of such impressions are likely to be much more alive to religious emotions than those cold natures which scoff at what they consider silly fanaticism.
Nay I venture to go a step further. What is idolatry? I do not now use the word in its figurative sense as applied for example to such idols as money or honour art or science: the pursuit of such objects has really nothing in common with religious idolatry. I am only now using the word idolatry in its proper and original sense. And I would define it as religion under the influence of intellectual aberration. To some extent it is an entirely subjective idea. To you and to me an idol appears to be a different conception of the Deity from our own and I may surely say a lower conception. The Hapi-bull of Memphis is an idol from our point of view but the Egyptian mysticism regarded it as a symbol and pledge of the ever-reviving Ptah the God of nature's undying power of reproduction. In the eyes of the great Swiss Reformers the adoration of the Virgin was a profane deification of the creature whilst in the view of the devout Catholic Mary presented a marvellous combination of pure maidenhood and of suffering maternal love. St Paul regarded Diana of the Ephesians as an abominable idol and rightly so from his religious point of view; but although Demetrius and his fellows championed her worship solely from interested motives there must have been many pious persons who honestly believed in her divinity and feared lest disloyalty to the sacred traditions of their fathers would bring ruin upon their city. In the opinion of our Calvinist forefathers intellectualists as they were the Popish Mass as already observed was hateful idolatry while the Catholics regard it as the daily renewal of the great sacrifice of the Son of God. I venture to say that in all this there is religion although on a lower plane of development and that this religion only becomes idolatry when the conception of the deity upon which it rests ceases to satisfy our moral sentiment or our religious needs and when we have advanced so far in religious evolution as to perceive that the adored object has ceased to be adorable.
Here again arises a second question. If adoration is the essence of religion may we then regard the lower nature-religions as manifestations of that essence? Now it is true that religion only displays the full beauty of its essence when it has reached a maturer stage. Yet the attentive observer who takes account of even the most transitory forms and who does not scorn even the rudest will feel convinced that these primitive and barbarous religions likewise contain the germ of that essence which has since gradually developed and borne such glorious fruit. In the uncivilised man this vital principle naturally takes the form of trembling awe of a shrinking dread of the mysterious powers and perhaps of hopeful reliance while sometimes it shows itself in the opposite extreme of undue familiarity. With his adoration he mingles a large measure of selfishness. His chief aim is to secure the favour of the gods for himself and he is jealous when others get a share of it. He carefully excludes strangers from the worship of his domestic or tribal or national gods; they belong to him alone and he vindicates their honour and their jurisdiction as against all foreign deities. While he acknowledges a number of different gods and scrupulously gives to each his due he generally has one special god of his own whom he reveres above all others. In order to prevent his god from forsaking him or withdrawing his favour he builds him a sumptuous dwelling and embellishes it with the richest decorations that his barbarous taste can suggest. He honours him with costly banquets and offers him the most precious objects he possesses. Nay in order to prevent the god from escaping or being stolen he even binds him with chains—a barbarous custom of which the chaining of Arês the god of war at Sparta and the clipping of the wings of Nikê the Athenian goddess of victory were curious survivals. All that pertains to his god everything in which he believes his spirit to reside he regards as precious and sacred (just as civilised men cherish the memorials of their departed friends or as the devout Catholic prizes the relics of his saints or the fragments of the cross) and he loves to carry such mementoes about with him wherever he goes. For he too regards his god as the highest being he can imagine as his ideal of perfection as the Lord and Master to whom he and all his possessions belong whom he loves above all things although awe-stricken by His mysterious power and who fills all his thoughts rules all his actions and dominates his whole life.
Through all these stages religion had to pass before it assumed the form in which we now know it. Yet its vital principle has ever been adoration. Can we wonder that its heart beats more feebly and that its enthusiasm cools in times when many of the enlightened leaders of men deny the existence of anything higher than what is visible and tangible when the multitude desire nothing better than panem et circenses food and amusement? And is not our time characterised by a want of reverence for all that the fathers prized and by a tendency to depreciate and trample under foot everything that rises above mediocrity? Is it not an age of positivism of levelling down of ochlocracy and of quite a passion for hard facts? These are things we cannot help observing; but if we are right in regarding them as signs of the times we may take comfort in the thought that such periods pass away as they have done more than once in bygone ages. A time always comes when the deluded ones see the error of their ways when they humbly confess that man cannot live by bread alone when their souls thirst for the living God as the hunted stag panteth for the water-brooks—a time when poor human hearts go forth in love towards the One whom alone they can truly adore.