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Lecture Fourteenth. The Religion of Israel.

Summary View of the Development of Subjective and of Objective Religion — Moral Strength of Subjective Religion — The Opposition of Spirit to Nature — Semitic Tendency to see God in the Destructive rather than the Productive Powers of Nature — The Hebrew Transition from Nature to Spirit — The Religion of Sublimity as opposed to the Religion of Beauty — Opposition of Prophet and Priest, Moral and Ceremonial — Transition from a National to a Universal Religion — Rise of Moral Individualism — The Idea of a Covenant between God and Man — Limits of the Development of Jewish Religion — Its History as an Illustration of the Principle of Development.

IN this lecture, which is the last of the present course, I propose to speak of the Religion of Israel, the highest form of subjective religion; but it may be useful first to recall the results which thus far we have reached. Objective religion, as we have seen, represents the Divine Being, who is the principle of unity in all existence, objective and subjective, in an external and therefore a natural form. It, therefore, bases the social unity of man with man upon their common relation to some power or element in nature, which is regarded as the parent or founder of the society and is worshipped as its god. Yet the power or element in nature which is thus worshipped is not universally or even commonly taken as a being like man. It is, indeed, personified, and so invested with some guise of humanity; but usually, at least in the earliest stages of religion, it is some object or class of objects in the inorganic or organic world other than man. With such a religion goes a morality which is not yet other, or at least is not yet recognised as other, than the social obligation connected with the natural bond of kinship, and which of course is limited by that bond. A certain widening of the scope of this naturalistic morality takes place at the stage in which the great elemental powers—the heavens the sun and moon, etc.—are raised to supremacy over the totems, or tribal and family deities. And a still deeper transformation of it takes place whenever, as especially among the Greeks, but also among the Romans, the Germans and the Celts, the naturalistic gods are humanised; or, what amounts to the same thing, wherever the form and nature of man are taken which alone can be attributed to the beings who are regarded as divine For nature cannot be put under man's feet without some discernment in man of qualities which are not merely natural. In such an anthropomorphic religion it soon begins to be seen that, if spirit grows out of nature, yet it goes beyond it and transforms it. The poetic exaltation of man and the humanising of nature, in the poetry and art of Greece, prepare the way for a philosophy that inverts the relation of natural and spiritual, and substitutes the law of freedom for the law of necessity. Thus Plato and Aristotle tell us that the state begins to exist with a view to life, but that it maintains its existence with a view to the good or noble life—the life of culture and moral and intellectual excellence. They also tell us that that which is last as to origin is first as to the nature of things; and that it is, therefore, to the highest results of the state that we have to look to find out its true raison d'être. But when the spiritual source and end of the social life of man is recognised, it becomes necessary to seek the basis of his social obligations in his inner nature as a self-conscious being, and not in any outward tie of blood relationship. The ultimate result of this new perception is, therefore, a recoil from the object upon the subject, and the exaltation of the inner life at the expense of the outer. Each subject now finds the law of his being written, not without him in the order of the society in which he belongs, but within, in the ‘fleshly tables of the heart’; and his relation to God is no longer mediated for him by his membership in a society, but it becomes a direct relation of spirit to spirit, a consciousness which is bound up with the consciousness of self, and which indeed can hardly be distinguished from the consciousness of a better self within us. The dialogue of the soul with God is an experience of its own inner life, into which no outer voice can intrude and which needs no outward mediation:—

“Speak to Him thou, for He hears, and spirit with spirit can meet,

Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands or feet.”

Now, this recoil upon the subject as against the object, upon thought as against perception and imagination, upon spirit as against nature, always has in it something harsh and violent. Elevating God above and opposing Him to all finite things and beings, it tears asunder the bonds of nature, and rends the veil of art and poetry. It hardens men in isolation from the world and even from their fellowmen. It “cuts the universe in two with a hatchet,” and refuses to recognise the gentle transitions by which beauty leads man from lower to a higher truth. It sets the individual man alone with himself and God, and makes him regard everything else as comparatively indifferent. And in doing so it is apt to lose the balance of truth, as decidedly as the superstition which sees God only without and not within the soul. Nay, we might even say that, in the ultimate logic of it, it loses the consciousness of God altogether; for a God who is within and not without, like a God who is without ail not within, is no God at all. And with this loss of the object must ultimately come loss even of that subjective life to which the sacrifice is made; for the subjective has no meaning except in relation to the objective world, and, as the Buddhist saw, its freedom front that world turns into its own extinction. Nevertheless, this concentration upon the subjective is a necessary stage in the development of man both in religion and morality. Without it, the moral law in its universality could not have been separated from all natural impulses, even those based upon ties of kinship or nationality; and without it, religion cold never have cleared itself from the superstitious awe of external powers. The one-sidedness of objective religion could never have peen overcome without the opposite one-sidedness of a morality and religion of the inner life; nor could the universal have been realised as a principle that reveals itself in the particular—but which is not to be confused with the particular—unless it were once for all set against all particulars, even at the risk of being emptied of all its contents. An abstract ‘ethical monotheism,’ which is the typical form of subjective religion, could not elevate and idealise nature or the natural life of man; it could not furnish the binding force necessary to make humanity one family. But its purifying power, its power to root out naturalistic superstitions and to cleanse the moral life of man, can scarcely be doubted by anyone who contrasts the life of the nations which have, with that of those nations which have not, been subjected to its influences. In more or less adequate forms, as Buddhism, as Stoicism, as Judaism, as Islamism, as Puritanism, it is the expression of that necessary recoil by which the spirit of man turns away from nature, and even from that second nature of social custom and belief, which is its own unconscious product: a recoil without which it could never truly find itself. Even when it has become fanatical, its fierceness has been a cleansing fire. Even when it has been violent and iconoclastic, when it has refused to see even in the work of a Phidias anything more than a dumb idol, or in the highest product of the art of a Raphael anything more than, as John Knox said, “a pented brod,” it has been the exaggeration of an aspect of truth to which it had become imperative that men should attend. We may regret with Goethe the losses which culture sustains in the victory of one half-truth over another, but it is certain that in the growth of man's spirit such losses are inevitable; or at least it has not hitherto been found possible to avoid them. It is hardly possible for man to appreciate a new aspect of things, especially of his own life, without being for a time unjust to that which has preceded it. A spiritualism which despises nature, a monotheism which separates God from his world, and a subjective morality which divorces the inner from the outer life and breaks the organic bond between the individual and society,—these cannot be conceived as a final goal of progress in which man can rest. But they mark an essential stage in the development of man, a stage through which he must pass, ere he can reach a consciousness of the divine as a principle which reveals itself in all the differences of finite existence and overcomes them.

The highest and, as it might be called, the typical example of this kind of religion, is Judaism, and to it, therefore, it will be advisable for us to devote most of our attention. What is said in this lecture, however, must be regarded as an anticipatory sketch, which I hope to fill out with more detail in my next course of lectures.

The Greeks, as we have seen, by idealising nature ultimately reach a point of view from which nature and that which is natural in man are cast into the background; and the pure inward self-determination of reason, which in another aspect is determination by God, becomes all in all. The Hebrews reach the same goal in a more direct way. Partly because they wanted the Greek capacity for apprehending the spiritual in the natural, they had less difficulty in rising above nature and attaining to a purely spiritual conception of God. It is true that this characteristic has been somewhat exaggerated, and that later students have found many traces of an earlier nature worship among the Jews. The theory of Renan that the Semitic race are naturally monotheistic, cannot be maintained in the face of what we know of other Semitic races, and even of the race of Israel itself. But there is this element of truth in it, that the Semitic family, and especially the branch of the Semitic family to which Israel belonged, tended to recognise the manifestation of a divine power rather in the more threatening and anomalous aspects of nature, than in its brighter and more genial aspects, or in its ordinary phenomena of production and increase. It was from the tempest, the tumult of heaven and earth, the thunders of Sinai and the earthquake that devoured the unbelieving, that this nation learnt its first religious lessons. And, if her prophets early rose above the Moloch-worship which was found among some of her neighbours, yet it was not till a comparatively late period that the nation as a whole freed itself from all traces of it. If the prophets ultimately taught that the still small voice within is a higher manifestation of God than the whirlwind or the earthquake or the fire, yet even in their sublimest poetry, it is these stormy agencies that they chose as the symbols of the divine, rather than the more ordinary and apparently regular phenomena of nature. The action of God on the world is generally regarded by them as disturbing, transforming, miraculously interfering with the usual order of things, rather than as establishing and maintaining that order; it is treated, to use the language of geology, as catastrophic rather than evolutionary. Or, if nature is viewed as revealing Him, it is rather negatively than positively, by the way in which she trembles before Him, or shrinks up into nothing in His presence. The poetry of Israel is the poetry not of beauty but of sublimity.1 Its leading thought is not that of the immanence of God in nature, but of His transcendence,—the transcendent might and glory of a Being for whom “Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof for a burnt-offering,” and who “taketh up the isles as a very little thing.” The Jewish writers, in fact, regard nature rather as a negative than as a positive starting-point for thought. They use the might and majesty of natural powers as showing what God is only by their nothingness before Him, and their incapacity to express and manifest Him. The strength of the everlasting hills is a suggestion of God's omnipotence, but nothing more than a suggestion; the order and adaptation of nature is a suggestion of His wisdom, but nothing more than a suggestion, which tells as much by what it cannot, as by what it can express. To take it as more than this would be the idolatry which confuses the Creator with the things He has made. He has called all these things into being, and by a word2 He can annihilate them, and they reveal Him only by their instant obedience to Him. He speaks, and they are; He speaks again, and they cease to be. Hence the Hebrew prophet looked upon nature almost as indifferently—that is, with as little sense of an abiding divinity in it—as a scientific man who has taught himself to think of it as a system of phenomena which can be explained on mechanical principles. It was to him only a dead weapon in the hand of the Almighty, which He had created and which He could use and destroy at pleasure. It was not and never could be to him what it was to the pantheistic poetry of the East, or what it is to the revived and spiritualised pantheism of Goethe or Wordsworth, the living garment of deity, a manifestation of God which cannot be separated from His existence.

Now, for a religious consciousness of this kind, it is obviously much easier to pass beyond nature. One who hears the voice of God “dividing the flames of fire” and “breaking the cedars of Lebanon,” who realises His presence as a wasting, desolating exhibition of force throned on the mountain summits of the desert rather than in the brightness and beneficence of the fertilising sun, finds it less difficult to get away from nature altogether, and to lift his mind to that which is purely spiritual. He is easily accessible to the idea that the infinite cannot be contained in any finite form, or represented in any finite image. His God is already on the way to become a God of pure thought, who cannot be adequately represented either in perception or imagination. As Schiller says to the astronomers, “I admit that the heavenly bodies are the most sublime of objects in space; but it is not in space that the sublime can be found.”3 The abstraction that lifts God above every finite form, because “even the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him,” is already preparing the way for the idea that He can only be revealed within, and not without. And this is just the transition which we find achieved and expressed by the prophets of Israel. It was their great inspiration which changed the fear of that which is greater than nature into the reverence for that which is spiritual, and thereby separated their religion once for all from the horrors and sensualities of Baal and Moloch worship, which corrupted and poisoned the moral life of the races that were their nearest kindred. This transition is, in fact, the characteristic movement of thought that has stamped itself most deeply on the pages of the Old Testament,—from the period in which Abraham learned to reject the idea of human sacrifice to the latest and highest utterance of the Psalms, which declare that God is one who prefers mercy to sacrifice. It is, so to speak, the negation of nature immediately passing into the assertion of spirit.

But if the strength of the religious thought of Israel is that it is continually engaged in making this transition, its weakness is that it never quite completes it. Its whole history is the history of the war of prophet against priest, who, however, have always to come to terms; for neither can as yet do without the other. The nation may be said to possess an outward worship, just in order that it may transcend it and look down upon it; to maintain the temple, the altar, and the sacrifice, just in order that it may teach by contrast that the true temple of God is the soul of man, and that the true priest is he who offers the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart to God. Hence the last outcome of the life of the nation was, on the one hand, the Levitical law which hedged round the life of the Jewish devotee with the minutest prescriptions of outward service and ritual; and, on the other hand, the book of Psalms, which expresses, in language that the highest Christian devotion is glad to accept as its own, the inward yearning of the soul that turns away from all outward forms as empty and worthless, and is content with nothing short of the deepest inward union with God. “Sacrifice and offering Thou didst not desire. Then said I, Lo! I come, I delight to do Thy will, O God. Yea, Thy law is within my heart.”4

When we look at the outward national life of Israel, we find the same transition presenting itself in another form. The Hebrew nation begins, like other nations, with a national God and a morality which is conceived mainly as the realisation of the bond of kinship between the children of Abraham. Yet, characteristically, the connexion of Israel with its God, from the earliest time of which we have record, is regarded rather as the relation of subjects to their Lord, than that of children to their father. Nay, we may even say that it is regarded as the relation of soldiers to their general; for the cradle of the religious life of Israel was the desert camp, and Jehovah was at first but a God of battles, under whose guidance a loose aggregation of tribes was converted, first into an army, and then into a nation. And as the nation was founded, so it was again and again restored, by warlike leaders whom the inspiration of Jehovah raised up, to assert its unity and independence against Moab and Ammon, against the Canaanites and the Philistines. Hence we may say that the people of Israel are at first less close to their God than most other nations, being merely His servants and not His children. Yet this very negation of natural relationship made it easier for the Israelite to rise to the conception of a spiritual unity which is closer than any merely natural bond. The spiritual fatherhood of God was the ultimate message of Israel to the world, just because it began by setting aside the idea of His being the natural parent of the race.

In the pre-Christian history of the Jews, at least two steps are taken in this direction. In the earliest times, as I have indicated, we have good evidence that Jehovah was regarded merely as the national god, the Lord of Hosts, who made war at the head of the nation against its enemies and their gods. And, as a national god, he was conceived to be related, not to individuals as such, but only to the nation as a collective whole. So far, therefore, the morality of Israel was like the morality of other early races—a morality which had for its main principles, the solidarity of the kinship within itself and the entire exclusion of other kinships from all the charities and privileges of life. And the religion of Israel in this period was just the consecration of this unity and this opposition. But, as the view of the relation of Israel to its God becomes spiritualised, it tends to break away from these merely national limits in two different ways. It tends to become at once individualised and universalised, i.e. it tends to become a subjective relation of the individual to his God, and at the same time, being based on subjective conditions, it tends to be regarded as not confined to Israel alone. I say, it tends in this direction. For though, during the pre-Christian history of the nation, it is continually moving towards this goal, it never completely attains it. Stubbornly rooted in national exclusiveness and national privilege, it is always striving to reach beyond both. The higher mind of the Hebrew nation is continually reacting against a prejudice which it can never conquer, which at least it never could conquer, until the founder of Christianity broke away the spiritual fruit of its labours from the tree on which it first grew, and planted it out in the wide field of the world. The end, however, is already foreshadowed in the earliest of the prophets whose writings have come down to us. As God was not the natural father of the race, He was not to be conceived—so Amos the inspired herdsman of Tekoa already taught—as their unconditional patron or partisan; but His favour for them was bound up with the moral relation of their will to His. If Israel was privileged to hear the voice of God, it had upon it the weight of a greater responsibility, which must bring with it a greater punishment for failure. “You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” It is, however, impossible to conceive such a spiritual relation as one of privilege. By the very fact that it is regarded as a moral relation, it cannot be consistently represented as a relation between a particular god on one side and a particular nation on the other. The God who stands in a purely ethical relation to His worshippers is of necessity the one and only God, and the men to whom He stands in that relation are necessarily men of any and every race or people. Further, as such an ethical relation is one which involves inward conditions, it must be a relation of the individual as such to God, and not one in which the individual is lost in the family or the nation. Hence the later prophets, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, set themselves against the idea of a collective responsibility for good or evil; and they take their stand on the principle of ethical individualism, that each moral agent must answer for his own doings. “What mean ye that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying: The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion to use this proverb in Israel. Behold all souls are Mine, as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is Mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”5 “Everyone shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.”6

Thus the three truths—the spirituality of God, the separate moral responsibility of the individual, and the universality of the relation of the one God to all men—are only three different aspects of one thought which cannot be severed from each other; and with whichsoever of these aspects we begin, we must necessarily be driven ere long to admit the other two. What we find in the Hebrew prophets is, therefore, a national religion in the very process of breaking away on every side from its national limitations. And the transitionary character of Judaism shows itself just in the continual contrast and conflict of the most stubborn and intolerant claims of national privilege, with a conception of worship which reduces it to the direct subjective relation of the finite to the infinite Spirit.

The same idea may be illustrated in another way. It is a distinctive characteristic of Jewish thought that, instead of resting the spiritual upon the natural, and basing the moral bond of man with his fellowman and with God on the physical fact of common blood, it treated the bond of nationality as deriving all its sacredness from a spiritual relation of Israel to God, which had been established by a special contract or covenant of obedience. Now, the idea of such a covenant might at first seem to be favourable to the conception of national privilege; but it is really opposed to it, in so far as it bases the relation between God and man upon a spiritual act of man himself. And this opposition could not but manifest itself more and more clearly, as the obedience required in the divine covenant detached itself from the accidents of ceremony and ritual. A covenant ‘to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God,’ could be made only with a God who was identified with the universal principle of right; and it was a covenant into which all men were equally called upon and equally entitled to enter. The goal towards which the whole development of Jewish religion points, the ultimate outcome of the teaching of prophets and psalmists, is, therefore, the consciousness that each individual spirit of man has an inward relation to the Father of spirits, the God who is the source at once of all spiritual and of all natural existence. Logically carried out, such teaching could end only in a subjective and individualistic religion, a religion of the inner as opposed to the outer life.

At the same time, while this is the goal of the development, the ultimate outcome of the religion, we have to remember that the religion exists only in the process, and not in the result. In other words, we are not to suppose that the full import of the religion can be seen simply by looking to the end or logical issue to which it ultimately brings its adherents, without reference to the whole movement by which it reaches that issue; and also, it may be added, without reference to the manner in which that issue prepares the way for a still further advance. For the result attained is in itself imperfect, and, its imperfection once seen, it becomes the beginning of a new movement of development. A purely subjective religion would be a narrow and limited thing, if we regarded it by itself, nay, as we have already seen, it is self-contradictory; for the subject as divorced from the object loses all meaning. But the real value of such religion lay just in this, that it was the final term of one stage of evolution and the beginning of another. It is the great error of dogmatism to forget that ‘ideas are living things which have hands and feet,’ and that, if we fix them as definite results, no more and no less, we take away their life and power. The life and power of Jewish religion lay in the process towards the universality, which was also a process towards the subjectivity, of religion; but it did not attain this latter point till its very latest stage, when it began to harden into a formalism. Thus the doctrine for which the prophets contended—that religion must be a purely subjective relation to a spiritual God, was a relative truth. And it was of the greatest importance to emphasise that truth at a time when the great enemy of religion was a superstition which treated God as a merely external power, who secured privileges to men in virtue of their belonging to a particular kinship and of their performing certain outward rites. But, so soon as the end was reached and the thought began to arise that religion is merely subjective and individual, so soon as it became dissociated from the social bonds of family and nationality, it was in danger of producing an unhealthy division of the inner from the outer life—an opposition of the universal principle to all the particulars in which it could be realised. The sense of national privilege could be safely set aside only when it became possible to conceive of a unity of all men on the ground of a spiritual relationship,—a unity which at once transcends all natural bonds and gives them their relative value. The feeling of the immediate relation of the individual subject to God could cease to be connected with obedience to a Divine King and Lawgiver who spoke to a special nation through the thunders of Sinai, only when God was regarded as a Universal Father of spirits. For only such a God can be represented as the immanent principle of all life and being, who unites all men to each other as members of one family, and who therefore is manifested in the inner life and consciousness of each, only as, at the same time, He unites him to all his fellows and to the world.

The long toil of Jewish history; the struggle of the spirit of monotheism with the infection of the sensuous nature-worships of the kindred peoples, and with the darker elements of its own earlier faith; the destruction of the nation itself as an outward secular power; the sufferings of its captivity, and the great prophetic inspirations with which it consoled itself; its revival no longer as a separate state, but rather as a kind of monotheistic church, holding itself apart from the idolatry of other peoples; the long vicissitude of fortune in which it maintained its stubborn Puritanic protest against the world, and nourished in its bosom the unquenchable hope of a Messiah who should redeem at once itself and the world: this whole historic process furnishes perhaps the most striking of all illustrations of religious evolution. In other words, it exhibits to us a typical instance of the development of a religious idea from lower to higher forms, till finally it exhausts itself and dies, only however to rise again in a religion of a still higher type. Nor has this illustration of development lost any of its force in consequence of those modern investigations, which have so greatly altered the prevailing view of the relations of the Old Testament writings. If there be good reason to regard the books of the Pentateuch as, partly at least, an ex post facto reconstruction of early history, in conformity with the views of a later time; if there be good reason to suppose that the earliest religion of Israel was the worship of a national God, who was revealed mainly in the more gloomy and terrible aspects of nature, and that it was only by the long struggle of the prophets that this worship of terror was changed into the reverence for a God of justice and mercy,—such results of criticism do not really tend to lower but rather to raise the value of that history, as a support to our faith in a Divine Being who has been gradually revealing Himself, not by signs in heaven or on earth, but through the natural working of man's own spirit. On the contrary, such applications of the idea of development to human history, seem to be now for the first time yielding us rational evidences for those religious beliefs which formerly were supported by a kind of artificial scaf-folding. To discern the steady movement by which, in continual struggle with nature and with himself, man is ever advancing to a deeper comprehension of his own nature and a clearer recognition of the divine power which is the beginning and end of his life, this, it seems to me, is a far more real help in dealing with the doubts that inevitably beset us as to the ultimate meaning of human existence, than any miracle that could bring us into relation with a spiritual world which was essentially divorced from the world of our experience. And it is something more than a happy coincidence that the same intellectual progress, which has incidentally weakened some of the adventitious supports of religion, should also have brought with it this more natural and rational basis of belief. In this light “Moses and the prophets” may be more to us than “if one rose from the dead”; for the evidence thus given is not externally brought to the aid of ideas which have no immediate connexion therewith. It is simply the evidence derived from the growth of the ideas themselves.

In my second course of lectures I shall endeavour to follow more closely the development of the subjective principle in the Jewish religion, and especially to throw some light on the connexion between its ultimate form and the Christianity which at once fulfilled and destroyed it. And then I shall attempt, so far as time and ability will permit me, to show what is the principle or germinative thought presented to us in the recorded words of the Founder of Christianity, and how it has gradually developed into that system of life and thought which has passed, and is still passing, through so many phases.

  • 1. Hence Hegel calls Judaism the religion of Sublimity, as contrasted with the Greek religion of Beauty. See Phil. der Religion, ii. 39 seq.
  • 2. The transition through which the meaning of the expression ‘Word of God’ passes in the interval between the Old Testament and the Gospel of St. John, contains in it a whole history of the development of religion. The prophets used it as conveying the idea that God works directly and immediately upon the world without any mediation, without going out of Himself or communicating Himself to that which His will has created. Christian theology uses it just to express the reverse of this: that God does manifest Himself in and communicates Himself to nature and humanity through His Son, “who is the express image of His Person.”
  • 3. Euer Gegenstand ist der erhabenste, freilich, im Raume, Aber, Freunde, im Raum wohnt das Erhabene nicht.
  • 4. Psalms xl. 6.
  • 5. Ezekiel xviii. 2.
  • 6. Jeremiah xxxi. 30.