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Lecture Second. Different Methods of Defining Religion.

Religion and the Theory of Religion — How to define Religion — Definition to be sought not in a Common Element in all Religions, but in a Common Principle from which they spring — Necessity of this according to the Idea of Development — The Explanation of Religion not to be derived from its Earliest Forms — First Definition of Religion as Conscious Relation to a Divine Being — Objections to it — Further step gained by consideration of the Historical Development of Religion — Meaning of the Question: How Religion is possible.

THE object of the last lecture was to show that the spiritual progress of man brings with it, on the one hand, a new kind of interest in the history of that progress, and, on the other hand, new ideas which, in explaining the facts of history, derive from, them their own exposition and verification. The, ideas of the organic unity of mankind, and of the organic process of development in which that unity is manifested, have given scientific value to many objects and events which formerly were matters of mere antiquarian interest. For in the light of these ideas the facts of history cease to be barren, and become a potent help in solving some of the highest problems of religion and morality. They enable us to read the secrets of our own lives in the large letters of the life of the race, and so, by reflexion, to understand the spiritual forces that are working within us. Especially is this the case with the great problem of religion, in which, if anywhere, the meaning and interest of our spiritual life is summed up and concentrated.

It is true that it is one thing to have a religion, and quite another thing to understand what religion is; still more, to trace out the full meaning of religion in the light of its history. Nor can it be said that the former is in any direct way dependent upon the latter. Here, as elsewhere, theory comes after the fact which it seeks to explain; and it would seem to be as absurd to attempt to nourish religious life on a theory of its own nature, as to try to feed the body with a treatise on physiology. Yet this analogy should not be pressed too far; for even in its earliest stages religion is a process which involves consciousness; and although consciousness is not in the first instance reflective, yet in the course of its development it inevitably becomes so. The elevation of the soul to God, and the surrender of the will to the inspiration which the consciousness of God brings with it, may take place without any need being felt for a logical proof of the existence of the Divine being, or for a criticism of the process whereby the idea of such a being is awakened and developed within us. They may take place even apart from any attempt to distinguish the elements which enter into our thought of God, or to determine their relation to each other. But inevitably, insensibly, in the growth of the human spirit, a time comes when such questions must begin to trouble it, and constrain it to advance from religion to theology, or as mediæval writers put it, from veneratio to delectatio, from experience and feeling to reflexion and self-consciousness. In our day especially, when the conceptions of science and philosophy have, in so large measure, penetrated into the general consciousness of men, and transformed their whole view of themselves and the world, it is almost impossible for any one to dwell permanently in the region of simple faith, and to escape altogether the questionings of reflexion. And he who has once listened to these questionings can never, without some attempt to answer them, regain the intuitive certainty of God which he has lost. The spirit of the time compels us to build our temple with arms in our hands, to maintain religious life amid the jar of controversy, and with the consciousness of many difficulties which demand, but cannot always obtain from us, a rational solution. The advance of science, of historical investigation, of philosophical criticism, has forced us to realise how much is required for the evidence of any idea so far-reaching as a religious principle must necessarily be; it has made us mistrustful of the easy methods in which an earlier age was content to find the proof of a foregone conclusion. The external scaffolding on which religious belief formerly rested has in great part fallen away, and we are obliged to look for a natural and rational basis for many of those convictions which were then propped up by adventitious supports. In this way religion and the theory of religion have been brought into closer relations than they ever before needed to maintain, and there is a more direct reaction of the latter upon the former. This, no doubt, has its dangers; dangers of which we are made painfully conscious in the inadequate and futile discussion of great questions which invades even our newspapers; but it has compensating advantages. For, if the discussions of the market-place are apt to be superficial, the philosophy which is not obliged to explain itself outside of the school is prone to become scholastic, and to lose all vital relation to that immediate experience of which it claims to be the higher interpretation and vindication.

In seeking to find such an interpretation and vindication of the religious consciousness, it seems necessary to start, if not with an exact definition, at least with some general idea of the nature of religion, which may enable us to mark out the limits of the field we have to survey. But, owing to the immense range of variation in the phenomena usually classed as religious, it is no easy task to do even so much as this. For what idea of religion can be found which will not fail to include some of the many species of religions enumerated at the end of the last lecture? The question would be unanswerable, if we were obliged—as many writers on this subject have supposed they were obliged—to look for some one quality common to all religions as the basis of our definition. For such a quality, if it could be found, would be something so vague and abstract, that little or nothing could be made of it. The truth, however, is that such a definition would not supply what in this case we want. The different religions are not merely co-ordinate species varying, one in this direction, the other in that, from a single general type. They are, in many cases at least, to be regarded rather as successive stages in one process of development, in which the later include and presuppose the earlier. As there is little to be gained by asking what is common to the bud, the leaf, the flower, and the fruit of the tree, so there is little to be gained by asking what is common to the Vedic Polytheism of early India, to the later Brahmanic system and to the religion of Buddha, if these, as we find to be the case, are only different stages in one great movement of religious life. There is little to be gained by considering what is common to Judaism and to Christianity, when the springs from a soil prepared by the former. And even those religions which have no such direct historical connexion, and which therefore it would be difficult to regard as prior and posterior stages of the same course of development, are nevertheless not strictly co-ordinate with each other. The Greek, the Latin, the Celtic, and the German forms of the Aryan mythology are not reciprocally exclusive logical species which are united only by a common generic quality, but rather members of one family, each of which emphasises an element that is present but latent in all the others. And the same truth is illustrated on a still wider scale if we go beyond special religions to such general ideal types of religion as are indicated by the terms Polytheism, Pantheism, and Monotheism; for these are not really species of religion which are co-ordinate with each other, but phases of religious belief, which represent different stages in the development of the idea of religion. In the sequel, an attempt will be made to show that Pantheism is simply the culminating phase of Polytheism, and that Monotheism, in the strict sense of the term, always arises in direct opposition to both. If this view be correct, it would be idle to seek for any common element in these different forms; or, if we found it, to suppose that in it we had a real principle of unity, by reference to which we might classify the religions, and determine their relations to each other. Finally, any definition which We might derive from the analysis and comparison of the higher forms of religion would be too lofty and comprehensive to apply to the superstitions of savages; yet in these superstitions we recognise the obscure beginnings of religious experience, and they could not be left out of account in any definition of religion. Nay, if the different religions be stages in a single development, it is just in such elementary phenomena, if anywhere, that we must find the common element of which we are in search; for, ex hypothesi, the simplest religion must still contain the essence of religion, and it will contain little or nothing else to disguise that essence from us. Thus it appears that the search for a common element in all religions is entirely misleading. If it yielded any result at all, it would constrain us to define religion in terms of the lowest possible form of it: and it could not yield even so much as this, unless, in the order of development, each successive religion at once included and transcended the previous one. If, on the other hand, a religion ever arose by movement of recoil against an earlier religion—and this seems actually to be the case with Buddhism in relation to Brahmanism—then the clue of the common element would be entirely lost to us, and we should be obliged to reject from our definition even the elements that appear in its earliest form.1

What, however, we really want in a of religion is no such summum genus, reached by omission of all that is characteristic of the species, but a germinative principle, a principle of the genesis of religions. Such a principle will reveal itself not so much in each religion taken separately as in all the religions contemplated as stages in a process; and, most of all, in the transitions of thought whereby one religion develops out of another, or asserts itself in conflict against it. Or, if we can expect to find it revealed in any one religion, it must be in the highest rather than the lowest. For a principle of development necessarily manifests itself most clearly in the most mature form of that which develops. As we take our definition of man, not from the embryo or the infant but from the grown man, who first shows what was hidden in both; so, in like manner, in defining religion, we must look to Christianity rather than to Judaism, to Buddhism rather than to the Vedic Polytheism, and to all the forms of worship which we find among civilised peoples rather than to the superstitions of savages. When, indeed, we turn back from the developed organism to the embryo, from the man to the child, we find that a study of the process of genesis casts no little light upon the nature of the being which is its result. The man becomes in a higher sense intelligible, when we trace him back to the child. But, primarily and in the first instance, it is the developed organism that explains the germ from which it grew, and, without having seen the former, we could have made nothing of the latter. No examination of the child could enable us to prophesy the man, if we had not previously had some experience of mature manhood; still less would an examination of the seed or the embryo reveal to us the distinct lineaments of the developed plant or animal or man. Nor would our insight be greatly helped by a knowledge of the environment in which the process of development was to take place. And the same is true of religion. It is the full growth and expansion of this mighty tree, under whose shadow the generations of men have rested, that enables us to understand its obscure beginnings, when it was “the least of all seeds.” Development is not simply the recurrence of the same effects in similar circumstances, not simply the maintenance of an identity under a variation determined by external conditions. Hence it is impossible, from the phenomena of one stage of the life of a developing being, to derive laws which will adequately explain the whole course of its existence. The secret of the peculiar nature of such a being lies just in the way of regular transition in which, by constant interaction with external influences, it widens the compass of its life, unfolding continually new powers and capacities—powers and capacities latent in it from the first, but not capable of being foreseen with any definiteness by one who had seen only the beginning. It follows that, in the first instance at least, we must read development backward and not forward, we must find the key to the meaning of the first stage in the last; though it is quite true that, afterwards, we are enabled to throw new light upon the nature of the last, to analyse and appreciate it in a new way, by carrying it back to the first. We may derive an illustration of this characteristic of development from the idea of development itself; for the idea of development is one of the latest ideas whose meaning and value has been brought to light by the progress of man, and it is itself the much wanted key to the history of that progress. If it has to some extent ceased to be true that, as Goethe says in the Faust, the “history of the past is a book with seven seals,” and that what the historian discovers to be its spirit is only the spirit of the historian himself, ‘des Herren eigner Geist,’ this is due, more than anything else, to the fact that the idea of development has enabled us to recognise the identical spirit of man in all the enormous cycle of changes through which it has passed, yet without suppressing or disguising the differences that separate men from each other in different ages, and under different social conditions.

It follows from these considerations that, in seeking for a definition of religion, we are not to look for a common element in all religions. For, as we have seen, such a way of defining would force us at once to raise the difficult, or rather, impossible question, “what is the lowest kind of spiritual experience which we can think worthy of the name of a religion?” And any possible answer to that question would cut across the line of development by an arbitrary determination of the limits within which we shall confine the meaning of the word. What we have to look for, on the contrary, is a principle which is bound up with the nature of man, and which, therefore, manifests itself in all stages of his development. A definition of religion in this sense, if we can attain it, will express an idea which is fully realized only in the final form of religion, while in the earlier stages it can be seen only obscurely, and in the lowest and earliest it might escape us altogether but for the light thrown back upon it by that which has arisen out of it. It will thus enable us to cast the light of the present upon the past, and to explain man's first uncertain efforts to name and to realise the divine, in the light of the clearer consciousness and more distinct utterance of a later age. It will permit us to trace back the religious life to its earliest and most elementary forms, and yet it will exempt us from the vain effort to extract from these forms an adequate idea either of the religious consciousness or of its object.

We may illustrate this way of looking at the subject by reference to a misconception which has greatly interfered with the impartial consideration of the development of religion. There is a common prejudice—a hope on the one side, a fear on the other—that, if the history of religion be brought under the idea of development, religion itself will be explained away by reducing it to its lowest terms. Such a hope and such a fear equally arise from an insufficient apprehension of the nature of development, and of the sense in which what goes before in development can be said to account for what follows. Causation, indeed, is a word of ambiguous meaning, and it might lead to misunderstanding if we were simply to assert that “development is not causation”; for this might be taken to mean that there is only an arbitrary and external connexion between the successive stages in it. But, this misunderstanding being precluded, we may undoubtedly lay it down that the phenomena of the beginning of a life are not to be regarded as the causes of the phenomena that follow; but that the former are imperfect manifestations of a principle which is more completely manifested in the latter.2 Beneath the most elementary phenomena of life there is a unity, which is not exhausted in them; a unity which grows by subordinating the environment to itself, and which, through all its stages, maintains its identity with itself, while it enlarges its sphere of manifestation. This unity, therefore, is the more clearly manifested the further we advance along the line of development. Hence we cannot from an examination of the first stage of a development pronounce any final judgment either for good or ill upon the later results of it.

To apply this to the case in point. It has been maintained on the one side, and disputed on the other, that religion develops out of a belief in ghosts, which is suggested by the remembered or imaginary forms that present themselves to us in dreams; and those who have maintained, as well as those who have disputed this idea, have spoken as if the question of the value and truth of religion depended on its being proved or disproved. In other words, they have assumed that a tendency which manifests itself at first as a belief in ghosts, must necessarily remain to the last an illusory tendency, a tendency to give form and substance to what is really the baseless fabric of a vision. But those who say this might just as well maintain that the man is only a larger child, because the “child is father of the man”; or that science is merely a collection of fancies, because its first efforts produced nothing but vague hypothesis. Now, as we have already seen, it lies in the very nature of the case that the earliest form of that which lives and develops is the least adequate to its nature, and therefore that from which we can get the least distinct clue to the inner principle of that nature. Hence to trace a living being back to its beginning, and to explain what follows by such beginning would be simply to omit almost all that characterises it, and then to suppose that in what remains we have the secret of its existence. This is not really to explain it, but to explain it away; for, on this method, we necessarily reduce the features that distinguish it to a minimum, and, when we have done so, the remainder may well seem to be itself reducible to something in which the principle in question does not manifest itself at all. If we carry the animal back to protoplasm, it may readily seem possible to explain it as a chemical compound. And, in like manner, by the same minimising process, we may seem to succeed in reducing consciousness and self-consciousness in its simplest form to sensation, and sensation in its simplest form to something not essentially different from the nutritive life of plants. The fallacy of the sorites may thus be used to conceal all qualitative changes under the guise of quantitative addition or diminution, and to bridge over all difference by the aid of the idea of gradual transition. For, as the old school of etymologists showed, if we are at liberty to interpose as many connecting links as we please, it becomes easy to imagine that things the most heterogeneous should spring out of each other. While, however, the hypothesis of gradual change—change proceeding by infinitesimal stages which melt into each other so that the eye cannot detect where one begins and the other ends—makes such a transition easier for imagination, it does nothing to diminish the difficulty or the wonder of it for thought. For the change which we call “development” is always qualitative as well as quantitative, and to treat it as merely quantitative is to omit the distinctive characteristic of the facts we have to explain.

We shall return to the analysis of the idea of development at a farther stage in our inquiry. For the present enough has been said to show that in the definition of religion we have not to seek for something which is common to all religions, but rather for that which underlies them all as their principle. In other words, what we are looking for is that motive power, working in the human mind and essentially bound up with its structure, which manifests itself even in the sorcery and ghost-seeing of savages, which causes the gradual transition from such superstitions to better forms of worship, and which fully reveals its character only in the highest types of the religious life of Christianity. It need not, therefore, be a matter of wonder, if an examination of the facts of religious history, taken in relation to their psychological possibility, should lead us to a definition of religion which contains ideas quite beyond the reach of uncivilised men, and even to ideas that are not present to the consciousness of many who are in a high degree civilised. This, indeed, lies in the very nature of the case, and may be easily illustrated by many analogies. Thus, the structure of language contains implicitly in it a wealth of relations and distinctions of thought, which it requires the most subtle metaphysic to analyse. Yet all the thought which such metaphysic can discover is actually involved in the forms of grammar. It is not an external addition to the facts, but must in some way have been present in, if not to, the minds of those who created the language. Man is rational and self-conscious long before he has made reason and self-consciousness the object of his reflexion; and therefore he is guided in the creation of language, as in the development of his social relations and of all the institutions of his life, by a rational principle, of which he is never fully conscious, and of which at first he is not conscious at all. And the same holds good of his religion. It is only at an advanced stage of reflexion that we begin to ask what religion is, and any answer to the question must involve conceptions which were altogether beyond the reach of those who were first moved by the religious sentiment. They did not know and could not know what “the spirit which was within them did signify,” when it awed their souls into worship, or lifted them in passionate aspiration. It was impossible for them to analyse the idea that possessed them. A religion even partially conscious of itself could only be the result of a long process of development. It is therefore no valid objection to a definition of religion that it contains much that was not consciously present to mankind under many of the earlier religions, though it would be an objection to it if it did not furnish the means of explaining what was present to them,—explaining it, that is, as a stage in the development of the religious consciousness. A principle is far on the way to a complete realisation of itself when it has become self-conscious, yet it is only then that it is able to explain the simplest facts of its own evolution.

With these preliminary explanations, we may now proceed with the attempt to define religion. We may begin by asserting that religion involves a relation, and, indeed, a conscious relation, to a being or beings whom we designate as divine. This, of course, is little more than a nominal definition of religion; for, prior to an explanation of the term God, it does not tell us anything, except that it is a relation of the conscious subject to some kind of object. Even to this definition, general as it is, objections might be taken. It might be said that, in some forms of savage superstition, there is no objective existence believed in, to which the name of God could properly be applied; and it might be pointed out that in Buddhism we have an instance of a religion which is purely subjective, and which finds its absolute principle only in the soul that turns away from the illusion of objective existence altogether.

But both these objections really rest on that false view of what is wanted in a definition, and especially in the definition of any being or thing that develops, which we have been considering. The phenomena of savage religion (assuming them to be primitive phenomena, a point which we are not here concerned to discuss) are explicable only as the obscure beginnings of a religious consciousness that has not yet taken definite form; and the fact that in them a clear idea of God is still wanting only shows their immaturity. It would be as absurd to say that the idea of religion is to be confined to that which religion shows itself to be among savages, as to say that the idea of language is to be confined to that which is revealed in the speech of an infant. The principle of development makes such imperfect forms intelligible; for it teaches us to expect that in the first steps of the evolution of any form of consciousness, its expression will be indistinct and uncertain, and will least of all show what it really is.

The same answer, mutatis mutandis, may be made to the other objection to which I have referred. A true conception of development will enable us to understand the peculiarities of the Buddhist religion, and especially its denial of an objective God. For it will teach us to explain that denial as the result of the recoil of the soul of man, from the worship of God under a purely objective or external form, to the opposite extreme of subjectivity. Such a one-sided development of religious thought becomes intelligible, when we cease to regard it as an isolated fact, and when we take account of that alternation of movements, that swaying from side to side, which necessarily accompanies the advance of human thought from one stage to another. When we take the separate religions as stages in a process, we cease to wonder at the excessive prominence of one factor of religion at one period, and of another at another. Religion may seem at one time to become altogether objective, the awe or fear of an external power which does with man what it will; and at another, it may seem to shrink up into a purely subjective experience, in which harmony with self takes the place of harmony with God. But such one-sided developments must always be regarded as stages in a movement, transitionary phases of consciousness, which we cannot estimate rightly except by considering at once that which they have developed from, and that which they are developing to. The preponderance of particular elements at particular times—and especially the alternating preponderance of the objective and the subjective elements—should not, therefore, hide from us the fact that the whole process turns upon the changing relations between two constant terms, God and man, each of which is conceived as essentially distinguished from, and essentially related to, the other,—God, as manifesting Himself to and in man, and man, as consciously seeking by acts of worship, by prayer or sacrifice or self-surrender, to establish or maintain harmonious relations between himself and his God or gods.

But is this all that we can say of the Being thought of as divine, or can we say anything more? Can we say that God is to be thought of as a natural or as a spiritual Being; as a Being whose image is to be found in man himself, or in any of the animals or plants, or in the heavenly bodies, or the powers of nature? Or, on the other hand, are we to refrain with pious awe from likening Him to any of the finite things which He has created? Can we say, we might further ask, whether God is to be conceived as one or as many? In either case, can we say what is the character of the unity or the diversity of His Being? A merely external consideration of the different religions would naturally lead us to conclude that religion may exist in any one of these forms, and therefore that no one of them can be regarded as necessary to it. But the principle of evolution enables us to regard each of these forms as a stage in the development of the religious idea, a phase through which it has passed in some age and nation. Further, though there may be great difficulties in placing the different religions in any definite genetic relation to each other so as to exhibit a complete scheme of development; though, perhaps, it is an unattainable ideal to arrange all the forms of religion according to such a scheme, yet there can be little doubt or controversy as to the general direction in which the current of history has run. The most general view of the historical succession of religions is sufficient to show that the movement has been towards a conception of God as one and not as many; as manifested both in nature and in spirit, but as reaching a higher and clearer manifestation in spirit than in nature; as, indeed, revealing in man's highest intellectual and moral life much that is hid or only imperfectly prefigured in nature. Thus far we might go without looking beyond the most obvious facts of history. Further, it would be acknowledged that, as the result of this historical process, the problem of religion has for us moderns taken a definite shape, both for those who accept and those who reject it. It would be acknowledged by almost every one that we are now shut up to the alternative, either that there is no God, and no revelation or knowledge of Him, or that the revelation of God must be sought in the whole process of nature and history, regarded as a development which finds its ultimate end and its culminating expression in the life of man as a spiritual being. This is the God whom alone it is now considered worth while either to assert or to deny. This is “our highest faith, our deepest doubt,” the faith which is supported by the most powerful utterances of modern poetry and philosophy, the doubt on which all the scepticism and agnosticism of the age are concentrated.

Now, postponing in the meantime all attempt to trace out more definitely the course of development which has resulted in such a consciousness as this—in the consciousness that God, if there be a God, must be conceived as a self-revealing Spirit, whose revelation reaches its culmination in the intellectual and moral life of man—postponing even the question whether this idea of God rests upon any sufficient evidence, let us simply ask what is implied in the very existence of the idea or consciousness in question. In other words, what are the conditions in the mind of man which make the rise of such a consciousness possible? What is it in the constitution of the human spirit that explains the origin and the growth of the belief in a Divine Being, and, ultimately, of such a Divine Being? The broad general fact that religion is a persistent element of man's consciousness, and further, that the religious idea has gone on developing till it has taken this form, and taken it in the minds both of those who assert and of those who deny the reality of its object, makes it necessary to ask for its psychological causes. We may regard it, if we please, as an illusion; but it is at least no superficial phenomenon of belief, no chance product of phantasy. It is a principle which has grown with man's growth and strengthened with his strength, and which has shown itself to be bound up in some way with his inmost consciousness of himself. We need not deny, at least in the first instance, that there may be a point in his development at which man will throw off religion; but, if religion ever becomes extinct, it can only be because it has served its purpose and has given rise to some more comprehensive form of life. And even the final recognition of the unreality of the object or objects of religion would not release us from the necessity of explaining it, of tracing it back to its root in man's nature, and of determining its relation to other elements in his consciousness. And, indeed, it is only in this way that we can finally ascertain its value—its truth, if it contain any truth, or its falsity, if it be nothing but an illusion. For as, on the one hand, we are never sure of a truth till we see the evidencing principle which connects it with our intelligence, so we can never finally rid ourselves of an error till we have found out the secret of its power over us, the semblance of truth whereby it deceived us. Just as Kant sought to determine the value and limits of our knowledge of the immediate world of experience, by asking what makes that knowledge possible, so we must ask what makes possible our religious consciousness, our real or supposed knowledge of a Divine being. It is only in this way that we can discover whether it is real or not, and, if real, what kind and extent of reality it has. We have to ask, in other words, what is the ground in our rational nature of a consciousness which grows, as the religious consciousness has actually grown, and which finally takes the form which it has now actually taken, in order that we may once for all determine the extent and nature of its validity.

  • 1. It is, of course, still open to any one to maintain that, dialectically, the later stage in a development includes the earlier, although it is related thereto only in the way of opposition or negation: in other words, it implies and pre-supposes it as a simpler or more elementary stage of thought. But this idea, to which we shall have to return in the sequel, cannot help any one who is seeking to define religion by reference to a supposed common element, as distinguished from a common principle, in all religions, and who therefore regards the different religions simply as reciprocally exclusive logical species falling under one abstract genus.
  • 2. From a slightly different point of view we might say that the explanation of facts of development by their causes is always of great value, but that it can never be a final explanation of them.