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Lecture First. The Possibility of a Science of Religion.

The Progress of Science due to the Division of the Sciences — The Advance from Simpler to more Complex Problems — The consequent need, for Specific Principles, and the Controversies which arise, for want of them — Special difficulties in the case of the Moral Sciences — The Science of Religion — Defects in the earlier Treatment of it — Reasons for the New Interest in the Facts of Religious History — Ideas necessary to explain those Facts — (1) The Unity of Mankind — History of this Idea — Modern Use of it in History and the Philosophy of History — (2) The Development of Man — History of this Idea — Modern Scientific Use of it — How the History of Man's Development throws light upon the Individual Life — Special Difficulties in applying these Ideas to the History of Religion: (1) because Religion is the most concentrated Form of Man's Consciousness of Himself and the World: (2) because of the Extreme Variation of the Forms of Religion.

THE work of science is to find law, order, and reason in what seems at first accidental, capricious and meaningless, and the arduousness of that work grows with the complexity and intricacy of the phenomena to be explained. The freer the play of difference, the harder it is to find the underlying unity: the fiercer the conflict of opposites, the more difficult it is to detect the principle out of which it springs. Hence arises the necessity for scientific method. Unconscious of the greatness of the task they were undertaking, the first bold adventurers in the field of science tried to solve the whole problem of the universe at a stroke, and to find some one principle which would account for everything. But it soon became obvious that the citadel of knowledge was not to be taken by storm, but only by advancing parallel after parallel in a long and patient siege. In order to gratify the desire of knowledge, it was necessary in the first instance to restrict it; and the earliest and most secure triumphs of science were won by separating off some comparatively limited sphere of reality, and treating it as a world by itself. Thus the mathematician was content to deal with a world which had been emptied of everything but quantitative relations, and the physicist with a world of motion without life. And it is just because they thus narrowed the problem that they succeeded in solving it. Divide et impera. The chaotic aspect which things at first present can be overcome only by the division of the infinite field, and the man of science wins success mainly by confining his attention to one limited sphere of investigation. It is true that, even within this limited sphere he finds a kind of infinity. Mathematics, the earliest of the sciences, still sees an endless series of new problems opening up before it; and, great as has been the progress of physics in modern times, it has raised more questions than it has answered. But though the field of inquiry opened up by each of these sciences is infinite, it has ceased to present the aspect of a chaos: it is progressively revealed as a cosmos by the application of one simple principle. The general nature of the difficulties to be met with is known, and also the methods by which they can be overcome. The field is not, and cannot be exhausted, but such light has been thrown upon it, that no room is left for the fear that, within that department, the progress of science will ever meet with any insurmountable obstacle, or that any new fact which may be discovered will throw its conceptions back into the confusion from which they have emerged.

From this it follows that the general progress of science is not arrested by the incompleteness of its achievements within any particular department. Although it is not possible that investigation should ever exhaust the sphere of mathematics or physics, it can advance from mathematics to physics, and from physics to biology, with the security of a general who has sufficiently covered a hostile fortress in his rear. Hence the prejudgment or faith that there is no sphere of existence which is exempt from the reign of law, has been gaining ground with every new success of science; in spite of the fact that, in every step of its advance from the simple to the complex, the difficulty has been becoming greater. Men of science met the more intricate problem of biology with the prestige of their success in the fields of mathematics and physics, and they are now meeting the still harder problem of anthropology with the prestige of their certain, though incomplete, victory in biology. If Hegel raised the cry of triumph too soon, when he asserted that “the secret nature of the universe has no power in itself which could offer permanent resistance to the courage of science,” yet it may safely be said that the faith which he expressed rests now on a securer basis than ever before, and that it is continually receiving a kind of objective verification, which it received in no previous age. The belief that in some sense the world is a rational or intelligible system, is indeed one which has never been entirely wanting to mankind, since it is bound up with the very nature of the intelligence; but by the great scientific advance of the past, and especially of the last century, it has ceased to be a vague anticipation, and become—at least to all educated men—a living, and, we might almost say, a palpable assurance.

While I say this, however, I must at the same time point out that the faith and the realisation of it have to contend with a difficulty which seems to grow as we advance. For as we pass from mathematics to physics and chemistry, and from physics and chemistry to biology and anthropology, there is an increase in the intricacy of the problems we have to solve. Nor is this due merely to the greater number of the phenomena to be explained. It is due also to successive changes in the character of the phenomena themselves, and it points to the need for specific principles of explanation. The transitions, from motion to life, and from life to sensation and consciousness, are qualitative; and the endeavour to extend those principles, which enable us to explain the lower terms of the series, to all its higher terms, is doomed to inevitable failure. Thus the general faith that the world is an intelligible system requires to be justified in a different way in every new science. Physics and chemistry have secrets which cannot be unlocked with a mathematical key; nor would biology ever have made the advance, which in this century it has made, without the aid of a higher conception of evolution, than that which reduces it to a mere ‘mode of motion.’ And if the effort which is now being made to explain the nature and history of man is to succeed, it undoubtedly will require a still higher conception or principle of explanation.1

The necessity for such an ascending series of specific principles is sometimes concealed from us by the fact that we apply the general terms ‘law’ and ‘cause’ to every kind of rational explanation of things, without considering what sort of law and cause is meant. But to say that there is a universal reign of law, and that nothing happens without a cause, is by no means to say that there is one kind of law and one kind of cause for everything. The world is not a congeries of things all on the same level. It is more fitly described as a hierarchy, in which the lower orders of being are both presupposed and explained by the higher. If, therefore, we have a right, as we rise from biology to anthropology, to carry with us the faith that the new sphere, like the old, is under the reign of law, yet we must expect that the new sphere will demand a new law or principle of explanation. And if we try to dispense with such a principle, we shall find many a phenomenon escaping into contingency, and defying all our efforts to find a place for it in our imperfectly conceived cosmos. What is worse, the attempt to subject facts to an insufficient theory is apt to awaken a revolt against the very idea of law, and even to call forth a denial of the possibility of any rational explanation of the facts in question. And the only result that can emerge will be an unprofitable controversy between those who would solve the difficulty by means of an inadequate principle, and those who maintain that it cannot be solved on any principle whatever, or, in other words, that we must be content with a faith that cannot be rationally justified.

Such reflexions as these naturally arise, when we consider the present state of controversy in regard to the life of man, as a rational or spiritual being. In taking up any question connected with this subject, we are confronted, on the one hand, with those whose scientific principles are too narrow to explain the facts of mind, and especially that moral and religious consciousness with which the highest phenomena of mind are connected. On the other hand, we are confronted with those whose spiritual experience has given them a firm intuitive grasp of these facts, and who, recognising the inadequacy of the explanation offered, set themselves against all theory as tending to explain the facts away. On the one side, we hear the demand that the life of man, like everything else, should be brought under law and interpreted in relation to its causes; but that demand is presented in such a form as practically to involve the reduction of the moral and religious consciousness to an illusion. On the other side, every attempt at scientific explanation is met by an assertion of the freedom of man's will and of the immediacy of his relation to the Infinite Being; but this assertion of man's spiritual nature is so interpreted as to make him an exception to the order of the world, a being who is not subjected to the reign of law, and cannot be brought into intelligible relation with other natural existences.

But there is little to choose between an illusion and an unintelligibility; and the mind, in virtue of its native confidence in itself, rises in rebellion against both. The nature of the intelligence and its whole past history are our warrant for rejecting any theory which turns man's highest consciousness of himself into an illusion; but we have the same warrant for asserting that it, the intelligence itself, cannot be an exception to the general system of the world in which it exists and manifests itself. It is impossible that in its highest life reason can be unfaithful to itself; but it is equally impossible that that highest life should be irrational, or not rationally explicable. To say that the mind is successful abroad, but that it loses all its power at home: that it can penetrate the secret of the world, but that its own being is permanently unfathomable to it, is to put it at variance with itself, and to deny to it its essential attribute of self-consciousness. If anything is intelligible, it must be the movement of the intelligence itself. It is natural, indeed, that as the spiritual life of man is the most complex and difficult of all subjects, the subject which includes and transcends all others, it should be the latest to be treated on an adequate method. But this is no reason for denying that it can ever enter upon what Kant calls “the secure path of science.” It only calls upon us for increased vigilance, so as to make sure that we are omitting no important element in the statement of so comprehensive a problem, and that, in our attempts to solve it, we are not misled into using principles which are inappropriate or inadequate.

It is only with one section, though not the least important section, of this subject that we are here concerned. We have to ask what success has attended, or is likely to attend, the attempt to give scientific explanation of the phenomena of man's religious life. In other words, we have to consider by what method, and upon what principle, the investigation of these phenomena should be conducted, and—so far as is possible in a short course of lectures—to show the nature of the results to which a course of investigation, so conducted, is calculated to lead.

The science of religion is one of the earliest and one of the latest of the sciences. It is one of the earliest: for philosophy, which is the parent of the sciences, is the child of religion; and the first efforts of philosophy are spent in the endeavour to find some kind of rationale for the religious consciousness. On the other hand, it is one of the latest: and that for a twofold reason. It is not till quite modern times that the necessary data of the science—the facts to be explained—have become fully accessible; and even if they had been accessible at an earlier time, they would have excited no intelligent interest in the absence of the ideas and principles by which alone it is possible to explain them. For, in the development of human thought there is always a double process, by which the ideas are brought to the facts, and the facts to the ideas; or, rather, these are two factors in one process, the warp and the woof, which are continually being woven together into the web of man's intellectual life. The growing curiosity which leads men to investigate fields of knowledge hitherto neglected or even regarded as unworthy of notice, is the result of the development of man's spirit, and of the half-unconscious action of the new ideas which that development brings with it; and, on the other hand, these new ideas, as we become more definitely aware of them, not only give new interest to the facts, but enable us to explain them. This is a view of our intellectual progress which avoids at once the false empiricism that sees nothing in growing knowledge but an accumulation of objective materials, and the narrow a priori philosophy which regards truth as born, like Athene, from our brains, without the marriage of the soul with the world. It is undoubtedly in and through experience that all our knowledge comes, and looking inward without looking outward is a process which has never brought any gain to the intelligence of man. Nihil in intellectu quod non prius in sensu. But, on the other hand, the world with which experience makes us acquainted is not something foreign to the intelligence, nor in seeking to understand it do we need to lose ourselves. On the contrary, it is just in the effort to understand the world that the intelligence grows and comes into possession of itself; and, conversely, its understanding of the world is conditioned by its own growth. The world cannot answer unless the mind question it, and the nature of the questions is at every step determined by the stage of development which the mind has attained. Thus it may for a long time remain utterly blind to facts for which it is not yet ripe; and the same facts may subsequently become its central interest, just because they appeal to a new consciousness which is growing up within it. In other words, they furnish it with the means of answering a question which, by its own development, it is then constrained to ask, and thus supply the nutriment it needs for its further growth. The dawning idea makes the facts interesting and intelligible, and the facts make it possible to verify the idea, and bring it to explicit consciousness. Thus, even in the most empirical process of science, we have no mere importing into the mind of an external matter alien to its own nature but a satisfaction of native impulses which enables it to attain a clearer consciousness of itself. It would, indeed, be strange if it were otherwise. We can take into our bodies only what the nature of these bodies enables us to assimilate,—only what they can use to build themselves up into their matured structure. It would be strange if our minds were receptacles of all kinds of matter, without reference to their own needs or their own constitution. The mind, indeed, is in one point different from the body, for, in a sense, there is nothing alien to it; it has a universal appetite and can assimilate all kinds of materials of knowledge. But it can do so only in its own way and in its own time, and it refuses or even repels any information which does not answer its own questions, and so contribute to its own development.

It may, therefore, be desirable, before entering upon our subject, to ask a preliminary question. What is it that has awakened the new modern interest in the science of religion, and has given rise to the persistent attempts which are now being made to investigate the facts of religious history in all times and places? What is it that has made us carry our inquiries beyond the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which are directly connected with our own religious life, and beyond the classical mythology, which is immediately bound up with our literary culture,—that has set to our scholars the task of analyzing the Sacred Books of all nations, and seeking for the “key of all the mythologies”? What is it that has raised the folk-lore, which was formerly left to children and old women, into an object of keen scientific curiosity, and led an army of careful observers to record with such perseverance the crudest superstitions of savages and their most wayward fancies about the constitution of the universe and the powers that rule over it? The folk-lore has not ceased to be childish, and, though it may carry in it some elements of genuine imagination—some hints at a poetic idealisation of nature which are worth preserving—it is not for these grains of gold that we turn over the infinite heaps of sand. Nothing can be more coarse and repulsive than are many of the superstitious customs of savages; nothing can be more absurd and irrational than most of their ideas as to the constitution of the natural and the spiritual world. No civilised being could possibly look to such a source, either for moral guidance or intellectual light. What lends them their interest must, therefore, be their bearing on some new question which we are forced to ask; it must be their value as giving further definition or illustration of some principle which we seek to verify. I do not, of course, mean that every one who feels the impulse to investigate in this new branch of inquiry is conscious of the full meaning of what he is doing. The spirit of the time enlists many servants to whom it does not communicate the purpose of the commands it issues. Hundreds feel the pressure of a new desire, the stimulus of a new curiosity, for one who asks himself distinctly what it is that he wants, or why he seeks to fill his mind with details which to a previous age would have seemed intellectual lumber, as useless to remember as the scandal of a village or the advertisements of a daily paper. But such unconsciousness does not lessen the significance of the fact. The δαίμων that thus possesses men is not a meaningless impulse, like a taste for collecting books whose value lies in their errata. It is a spiritual need, an intellectual and even a practical want of man's spirit, which has been awakened by its past growth, and the satisfaction of which is necessary to its further growth. And undoubtedly it is well for us not only to obey the spirit of the time, but also to ask what it means, to try to understand the interest which such inquiries awaken in us and to estimate the good that can come to us by discovering the answer to them. For this, if we can attain it, will tend to give method and direction to our efforts, and it may to some extent prevent us from wandering into paths that lead to nothing, or attaching too much or too little importance to particular results.

A full answer to this question cannot yet be given; but it is possible at once to indicate one or two points which lie almost on the surface. First of all, we may observe that the idea of the unity of mankind has within the last century become not merely a dogma, but an almost instinctive presupposition of all civilised men, and that, at the same time, it has been freed from the theological reservations and saving clauses with which it was formerly encumbered, even among those who, in a sense, accepted it as a truth. We know now, in a way in which it was never known before, that humanity is a genus which has no proper species; i.e., that the divisions between men are as nothing in comparison with the fundamental fact of self-consciousness which unites them all to each other. Ancient society was built on the principle of natural kinship, and therefore on a principle which carried with it tribal or national exclusiveness, even where it did not set up further barriers between the members of the society by immovable divisions of family from family, rank from rank, and caste from caste. The artificial unity of the Roman empire, however, with its equal justice and its rigid conception of the rights of the individual person, did much negatively to break down these walls of separation between Greek and barbarian, Jew and Gentile, patrician and plebeian, master and slave. And Christianity sought positively to knit men together by a spiritual bond of fellowship, of which all men were regarded as capable. It is true that Christianity for a long time hid its levelling power in the very excess of an idealism, which treated worldly distinctions as indifferent, and therefore allowed them to subsist. But by treating all such distinctions as accidental differences of outward position which a few years must terminate, and by disregarding them in the order of the church, it spread through all the nations which it reached a consciousness of the infinite value of each individual soul and of the comparative unimportance of the things that in this world divide one man from, or set him above, another,—a consciousness which in the long run must be fatal to all absolute claims of superiority. The belief that the best which man has it in him to do or to be, springs out of that which is common to all, and therefore that the highest good is open to all, is fatal to all systems of privilege, and it is equally fatal to all national exclusiveness. In the slow progress of humanity, indeed, there is always a long way between the premises and the conclusion, between the germinating of an idea in the religious life and its manifestation as a transforming social principle; and it may work for a long time unconsciously as such a principle before it is explicitly recognised in its universal meaning. Yet, though a thousand years are as one day in the secular process of development, which is the manifestation of the divine spirit in man, the days and the years come to an end, and the fruit follows by an inevitable necessity upon the seed.

The application of this idea to the case before us it is not difficult to see. The hyper-idealism of early Christianity refused to question the justice of slavery in private life and of despotism in the State. It declared that the powers that be are ordained of God, without asking how they had been established or how they exercised their authority. And the mediæval church was inclined in its asceticism rather to emphasise than to criticise the division between the spiritual and the secular orders; though it soon found itself forced by an inevitable logic to insist that the powers of the latter should be used in such a way as not to interfere with the higher interests of the former; and in time this claim inevitably grew into the demand of Hildebrand that the world should be subjected to the church. But the Reformation brought with it a better solution of the difficulty, leading, as it did, to the denial of the division between world and church as anything more than a distinction of outward order, and to the assertion that the divine principle could be realised, and ought to be realised, in the life of the laity as much as in that of the clergy, in the State as much as in the Church. In this way the theological limit to the realisation of the divine principle in man was broken down. The new wine of Christian cosmopolitanism burst through the old bottles of spiritual and secular exclusiveness. The divine right of priests in the church and of a royal or noble class in the world was set aside for the divine right of humanity. And the idea of a unity in men deeper than all racial and social distinctions, deeper than all distinctions of culture or even of religion, became for the first time a living force.

As usual, the first expression of this truth was extremely one-sided. The cosmopolitanism of the last century carried the abstract assertion of the equality of men to the paradox that civilisation itself is a moral disadvantage, and that the genuine voice of humanity is to be heard only from the natural man, “the noble savage.” But the irrational consequences of a theory which treated the unity of human nature as the negation of all the different forms in which it has been or can be realised, must not hide from us the immense gain for man's intellectual and moral life which lies in the recognition of that unity. Looking at it in the former respect, with which we are more directly concerned, we see that it furnished the intellectual key to a problem which the increasing intercourse of mankind, since the discovery of the New World, had been pressing upon men's minds with ever greater insistence. The conviction that God has formed of one blood all the nations that dwell upon the earth—interpreted as meaning that, as regards that which is deepest and most important in human nature, men are essentially equal—supplied for the first time a point of view from which human life in all its heights and depths, and in the whole range of its history, could be brought within the sphere of science. It swept away at once the literary prejudices which caused classical models to be regarded as the only humane letters, and the religious prejudices which consecrated the history of the chosen people and of the early Christian church as the only sacred history. Above all, it set to science the problem how, out of our common humanity, it is possible to explain the almost infinitely diversified forms of culture, literary, social, and religious, which we meet with in different times and in different parts of the world. If we are “not to count anything human alien” to us, we must be able to understand every such form, not merely in the sense of gathering together the facts regarding it and observing their general character, or even of discovering the laws of their co-existence and succession; but in the sense of throwing ourselves into them, of realising the states of mind in which they arose, the process of thought and feeling by which they grew, and the connexion of the results to which they developed with our own life and thought. In other words, this principle makes us conscious that we have not solved the scientific problem suggested by the lives of other men till we are able to live them over again, to reproduce their movement in living imagination, and to repeat in conscious thought the unconscious logic of their growth. It is this desire for a living picture, still more for a rationale, of human life in all its forms, which prompts our minute research into even the most trivial point of custom and observance, of myth and doctrine, in ancient and modern nations. It is this which makes our anthropologists at once so greedy of facts and so eagerly anxious to penetrate through the mere facts to the principle that explains their genesis. We want not only to believe in the unity of man, the identity of the spirit of humanity in all times and places, but to see it; and we cannot see it aright unless we both feel and think it, unless both by imagination and reason we realise how, under the conditions, we might ourselves have developed into such ways of thinking and living. It is this impulse to revivify and reconstruct the facts,—to make the past into a living present, while yet we understand its inner meaning in a way in which the present can never be understood by those who live in it,—it is this that characterises the modern scientific spirit and differentiates it so completely from a mere casual and external curiosity. And it is manifest that such an impulse can never be satisfied with any mere empirical collection of information, which still leaves us on the outside of that which we are observing; nor, indeed, with anything short of a real appreciation, both sympathetic and intuitive, of the nature of the process by which the one spirit of man manifests itself in all this difference of forms, and through them all is continually advancing to a fuller realisation and a deeper comprehension of itself.

And this leads me further to point out that it is not merely the bare idea of the unity of man which now furnishes the guiding principle of science in this department, but the idea of that unity as manifesting itself in an organic process of development—first, in particular societies, and, secondly, in the life of humanity as a whole. This also is a conception which has gradually been gaining ground ever since the beginning of the Christian era, but which has for the first time taken an effective form, as an instrument of science, in the present day. The favourite idea of classical antiquity was not the idea of progress, but the idea of a cycle of changes in which departure from the original unity and return to it, or, as we should say, differentiation and integration, are not united, but follow each other. This idea seems to be adopted even by Aristotle. The constant march of the Roman State through campaign after campaign, during century after century, to the empire of the world, suggested to Livy the conception of a process of outward growth, which, however, seemed to hint to be accompanied by inward decay; for the power and wealth which patriotism and discipline had won had, in his opinion, proved in the end fatal to the virtues which gave rise to them. The Hebrew Scriptures carry us a step beyond this: for prophecy—in so far as it was not mere soothsaying, but a foresight based upon insight—implied a discernment of seeds of good and evil in the present which must necessarily ripen to a harvest of greater good and evil in the future; and, in this sense, prophecy was just development read forward. And when Christ spoke of his own ethical doctrine as a fulfilment of that which potentially or in germ was contained in the law, and at the same time represented that doctrine as itself only a grain of mustard-seed which was one day to grow into the greatest of all trees; still more, when he spoke of the corn of wheat that was to multiply by dying, he gave a clearer expression to the idea of development than it had ever before received, and even perhaps than it has received till quite recent times. By St. Paul this thought was caught up and presented in a more imposing though less suggestive form, under the guise of a great providential world-drama, in which the whole history of the Jews is viewed as a long legal preparation for the new era of the Gospel. And the same idea appears in St. Augustine's City of God, only with the additional suggestion that another act of the same drama is found in the history of the Romans, by whom the nations of the enslaved world were brought together under one universal empire. It is true that Augustine sets the “two cities” in abrupt antagonism to each other, and regards the secular power as the natural enemy, in conflict with which the church had to show its higher spiritual energy. But when the two powers were thus connected and compared, the thought could not fail to arise that the State was not merely the opposite of the Church, but that, on the contrary, it provided the peaceful sphere within which alone the operations of the Church were possible. Hence arose the conception of the two “preparations for the gospel,” an outward and an inward preparation—in the history of Rome and in the history of Judaism respectively—which culminated in the union of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. This conception furnished the guiding principle of what we may call the mediæval philosophy of history; and, as such, it is presented to us in the great poem of Dante. But for a deeper and less spectacular expression of that connexion between the different phases of the life of individuals, of nations, and of humanity, which we call development, we have to wait till a much later time. The intuitive genius of Vico discerned the importance of the idea at the dawn of the modern period; but the full perception of its value as a key to the history of man and of the world was reserved for the end of the last, and the beginning of this century. It was then that Lessing, Kant, and Herder gave that decisive impulse under which the principle of development was carried into biology by Goethe, Schelling, and many eminent scientific men, while Hegel made it the leading idea of his philosophy, subjected it to a more penetrating analysis than it had ever before received, and applied it with wonderful insight and grasp to the political, the artistic, the religious, and the philosophical history of man. After these we need only refer to the names of Lamarck and Comte in France, of Darwin and Spencer in England, and of Von Hartmann and Wundt in Germany, as writers who have done much to throw light on various aspects of the idea and to give it new applications. We may, indeed, say without much exaggeration that the thought of almost all the great speculative or scientific writers of this century has been governed and guided by the principle of development, if not directly devoted to its illustration.

It is by the aid of this principle and by its aid only, that the other idea of which we have already spoken—the idea of the unity of mankind—can be made fully intelligible and applicable to the facts of history. In other words, the unity of mankind must for our purpose be interpreted as involving not only the identity of human nature in all its various manifestations in all nations and countries, but also as implying that in their co-existence these manifestations can be connected together as different correlated phases of one life, and that in their succession they can be shown to be the necessary stages of one process of evolution. The conception of development is thus a corollary which cannot be disjoined from the principle of the unity of man itself. For if it be true that we can find light in the history of man only as we throw ourselves into it and live it over again in ourselves, it is only by the aid of the idea of evolution that we can bridge over the gulf between ourselves and the men of an earlier and simpler stage of culture. Without the aid of this idea our sympathies will not stretch far enough. It is, indeed, comparatively easy for us to recognise the identity of a common nature through the differences of language and custom that separate us from nations like the modern Germans or French, who stand, on the whole, on the same level of civilisation with ourselves, and are embraced in the same general spirit of the time. By a further stretch of effort we can reach back to those previous stages of culture that still survive in a recognisable form in our own lives. We can make ourselves citizens of Rome or Athens, because in literature and philosophy, in politics and laws, Rome and Athens still live with us as easily distinguishable influences. And our religion still preserves so much trace of its Jewish source that it is not very difficult for us to realise in some measure the spirit of the prophets and psalmists of Israel. But when we are required to widen our view still farther, and extend the same living sympathy—the sympathy out of which alone true knowledge can spring—to early India and Egypt, to the primitive civilisations of Babylon and Mexico and Peru; still more, when we have to include in our idea of humanity the lives of utterly uncivilised races and to realise the first obscure beginnings of religion and morality, nay, even to reproduce the dawn of unconscious reason in the formation of language,—the line of continuity seems to be stretched to the breaking-point. And it must needs break but for the help of the idea of evolution, which has at once created a new interest in the earliest vestiges of human life, and has supplied the key for their explanation. This idea, in fact, is the most potent instrument for bringing back difference to identity which has ever been put into the hands of science; and, without it, it would be impossible to hope for a real understanding of the facts of the history of man, a problem which in its complexity and difficulty includes and transcends the complexities and difficulties of all the other problems of science.

One other point may be mentioned. The study of the historical development of man, especially in respect of his higher life, is not only a matter of an external or merely speculative curiosity; it is closely connected with the development of that life in ourselves. For we learn to know ourselves, first of all, in the mirror of the world; or, in other words, our knowledge of our own nature and of its possibilities grows and deepens with our understanding of what is without us, and most of all with our understanding of the general history of man. It has often been noticed that there is a certain analogy between the life of the individual and that of the race; and even that the life of the individual is a sort of epitome of the history of humanity. But, as Plato already discovered, it is by reading the large letters that we learn to interpret the small. If in the biography of each of us the history of mankind is repeated, yet it is repeated in an abbreviated and therefore confused way; in a way analogous to that whereby all the stages of animal life are reproduced in the development of the human embryo. But, as no one could have discovered what these stages were by a mere observation of the growth of the embryo, as, on the contrary, we are forced to interpret the stages in the life of the embryo by reference to the divisions of the animal kingdom, so it is here. The history of the individual mind cannot be used by itself, at least in the first instance, as a key to the history of the race, but rather his life becomes intelligible by means of the large letters in which its stages are written in the life of mankind as a whole. We first come to understand the obscure struggle of different tendencies within us, when we regard them as the reproduction in us of great conflicts of race and creed, which once set man against man and even nation against nation. These great forces are also warring in us. But in the microcosm the arena is too close, the forms of the combatants are too indistinct, for the issues to be clearly seen, unless we have identified them under the more conspicuous shapes in which they appear in the macrocosm. Hence our increasing knowledge of the facts of history and of the ideas by which they can be interpreted is not merely the addition of a new chapter to science, but it throws a new light upon our own inner life. In view of the ethical and religious development of humanity, which is the presupposition of our own spiritual life, we are enabled to discern more definitely the moral and religious meaning of our own experience, and, on the other hand, we are taught to regard our own lives as having their main value in the contribution which they make, in turn, to the growing life of humanity.

To sum up what has been said. We have seen that the studies usually embraced under the name of anthropology, and of which the science of religion is one of the most important, have risen into a prominence and attracted an attention unprecedented in any previous time; and that they have done so, not only because the extension of our knowledge of the world's inhabitants and of their history has supplied the necessary data, but because the progress of man's intelligence has brought with it certain ideas, which at once excite our interest in such inquiries, and furnish us with a means of solving the difficulties which they bring with them. These are the ideas of the unity of man, and of the organic connexion of life between the different parts of the human family, and also between the different stages in that secular development of man's spirit, to which all the various forms of culture in all the nations of the world ultimately serve as contributions. These ideas we do not put forward as dogmas,—for, indeed, there are many difficulties, both in their analysis and their verification, on which we have as yet said nothing,—but we point to them as indicating the problems with which at the present time it has become necessary for science to deal, the questions which by its own development the human spirit is now compelled to answer. This necessity lies in the fact that it is only through a deepened consciousness of the world that the human spirit can solve its own problem. Especially is this true in the region of anthropology. For the inner life of the individual is deep and full, just in proportion to the width of his relations to other men and things; and his consciousness of what he is in himself as a spiritual being is dependent on a comprehension of the position of his individual life in the great secular process by which the intellectual and moral life of humanity has grown and is growing. Hence the highest practical as well as speculative interests of men are connected with the new extension of science which has given fresh interest and meaning to the whole history of the race.

Now, these remarks have special application to the history of religion. Without as yet attempting to define religion, or to give any precise account of its characteristics, we may go so far as to say that a man's religion is the expression of his ultimate attitude to the universe, the summed-up meaning and purport of his whole consciousness of things. How, and how far he rises above the parts to the whole; how, and how far he gathers his scattered consciousness of the world and of himself to a unity; how, and how far he makes anything like a final return upon himself from all his fortunes and experiences, is shown more clearly in his religion than in any other expression of his inner life. Whatever else religion may be, it undoubtedly is the sphere in which man's spiritual experience reaches the utmost concentration, in which, if at all, he takes up a definite attitude towards his whole natural and spiritual environment. In short, it is the highest form of his consciousness of himself in his relation to all other things and beings; and, if we want a brief abstract and epitome of the man, we must seek for it here or nowhere. But just for this reason the problem presented by the history of religion contains in an intensified firm all the difficulties which we find in all the other aspects of man's life. All the complexity and diversity, all the opposition and conflict, which make it so hard to find a principle of law and order in the life of man as a physical, moral, and intellectual being, reach their extreme form in his religious history.

Connected with this is a difficulty which has troubled many writers on the science of religion—the difficulty of finding any one quality or characteristic which is common to all religions; for in his religious life man has sounded the whole gamut of possible forms of consciousness, from the highest inspiration to the lowest superstition. To take only a few instances: there are religions of terror and religions of love, religions of hope and religions of despair, religions in which the gods seem to be worshipped mainly as beings who can help or hinder man's effort after his own finite ends, and religions in which he is called on to make absolute surrender of all such ends, and even to merge his very life in the finite. Whatever element be named as essential to religion, it seems easy to oppose a negative instance to it. For instance, Kant tells us that “without a belief in a future life no religion can be conceived to exist.” But, to mention only the most obvious facts, the early Jewish religion was without such a belief; and, if some idea as to a life beyond the grave has formed a part of most religions, yet there are many in which it was by no means a prominent or important part. The religions of classical antiquity were for the most part centred in the domestic or national life, and the immortality thought of by their votaries was the immortality of the family or the state. On the other hand, there have been nations, such as the Egyptians, for which the concerns of the other world and the future life seemed altogether dwarf the interests of the present. The Egyptian lived among tombs whose size and splendour reduced into insignificance the dwellings of the living; and the most characteristic features of his mythology were representation of the death and resurrection of nature in winter and summer, as types symbolising the death and resurrection of man.

Again, in its attitude nature, religion has passed through every phase which it is possible to conceive. At one extreme we have the mythology of the Vedic hymns, in which the “bright ones,” the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon, with the various elemental powers of storm and wind, are the only distinctly recognised divinities. At some distance from this stands the Jewish religion, which abhors any mingling of the creature with the Creator, and treats nature not as the manifestation of God, but rather as a weapon in His hand, which He has made, and which He breaks in pieces when He has done with it. Lastly, at the opposite extreme, we find the Buddhist religion, treating the whole objective from which it is the highest aim of the devotee to free himself.

Again, the religious view of man himself and his relation to the Divine Being passes through a similar series of kaleidoscopic changes. Sometimes, as in Greece, man is the one finite being, whose form is transferable to the divine, and the gods are, above all, regarded as the powers that preside over the life of the family or the state. Sometimes, on the other hand, man seems to seek his gods at the farthest possible point from himself, and to find divinity in plants, in animals, in almost anything and everything rather than in humanity. Arid anthropologists have found good evidence of a state of civilisation, in which men could think of kinship as a sacred bond only when they regarded it as a participation in the blood of a zoomorphic or phytomorphic god or totem.

To take one other illustration: it might seem that, if anything is essential to religion, it is a belief in the objective reality of God as apart from the religious sentiment of His worshippers; and in some forms of religion we even find Him treated as a purely external power, with whom no inward relation is possible. Yet we find at least one great religion, that of Buddha, which begins with the negation; of all the objective gods of earlier Hindooism, or the reduction of them to parts in the great illusion of outward existence, and which at last finds the divine, if anywhere, only in the self-negating process of the finite mind, and the Nirvana which is supposed to be its result. Finally, even within the compass of the one religion, we find something analogous to all these forms. For Christianity, in the course of its history, passes through phases which recall the opposite forms of polytheism and monotheism, of pantheism and dualism. We find it at one time united with the ascetic morality of the cloister, which carries the negation of nature to the verge of self-annihilation, and at another time associated with an ethics which idealises the natural desires and affections, and a poetry which finds God in nature.

These variations are so great that it cannot seem wonderful if some are inclined to deny that there any unity beneath them; or that the succession of religions is anything but the play of the wayward fancy of man, in a region which is outside of the sphere of reason and experience. Yet even so, the problem of the changes of religion would form part of the general problem of human history. Even if religion were a madness of humanity, an illusory form of consciousness destined ultimately to disappear, there must be a method in it which we are interested to discover. We cannot suppose any great province of the life of rational beings to lie outside of the general development of reason. Even atheism or agnosticism involves a definite attitude towards the ultimate problem of human life; and if it is the highest attitude possible to man, it must show itself to be the last term, or one of the elements in the last term, in which the whole process of development is summed up. For the modern ideas of the organic unity and the organic evolution of man, which are the presuppositions underlying all our investigation into the history of humanity, inevitably compel us to seek for the one principle of life which masks itself in all these various forms, and which through them all is striving towards the complete realisation of itself.

  • 1. Ultimately, every object requires the highest principle to explain it, at least for a philosophy that accepts the principle of evolution. But of this we are not here speaking.