You are here

Lecture Third. The Definition of Religion.

General Result of the Historical Evolution of Religion — The Question of its Possibility — The Three Ideas that define our Consciousness — Place of the Idea of God in relation to the Ideas of Self and Not-Self — That Religion does not imply Reflective Consciousness of the Idea of God — Sense in which the Ordinary Consciousness implies this Idea — Consistency of this with the existence of degraded Types of Religion — The Distinction between what is in, and what is for Consciousness, and its Bearing on the Idea of Development — Religious Reverence, as rising above Slavish Fear of the Object, and Presumptuous Self-assertion of the Subject — Religion as a Principle of Unity in Life.

IN the last lecture we were seeking for some general idea or definition which might be a guide to us in our subsequent inquiries. I endeavoured to show that the idea we want is not to be found in any element common to all religions. For, even if such an element could be detected, it would be too general to supply us with a clue to the facts of religious history. A definition so obtained would correspond, if to any, only to the lowest and most primitive form of religious life; it would not be a principle adequate to the explanation of the endless multiplicity of forms which religion takes in different ages and nations, or of the way in which they successively arise out of each other. Rather, in conformity with the idea of evolution, the definition of religion must be derived from a consideration of the whole course of its history, viewed as a process of transition from the lowest to the highest form of it. In fact, if the different religions are to be regarded as successive stages in a development, what we have in that history is just religion progressively defining itself, and the idea of religion will be most clearly expressed in the most mature form which it has reached as the result of the whole process. Reflexion, therefore, will have to read that history backwards, and to view what is earliest in the light of ideas derived from a consideration of what is latest; somewhat as we search among the sparse records of the boyhood of a great man for the indications of a greatness which none of his contemporaries saw, or could possibly have seen.

Now the most general and superficial view of history is sufficient to show that, while all religion involves a conscious relation to a being called God, this Divine Being is in different religions conceived in the most different ways; as one and as many, as natural and as spiritual, as like to, and manifested in, almost every object in the heavens above or earth beneath, in mountains and trees, in animals and men; or, on the contrary, as incapable of being represented by any finite image whatsoever; and, again, as the God of a family, of a nation, or of humanity. But, further, when we regard the history of religion as a process of evolution, we do not need to go beyond the most general facts to discover that, in the development of the idea of God, there is a certain trend or direction of progress from multiplicity to unity, from the natural to the spiritual, from the particular to the universal. We are, therefore, able to say that now, as the result of the long process, the only God whom it is possible to worship is one who manifests Himself both in nature and in spirit, but more clearly in spirit than in nature, and most clearly of all in the highest developments of the intellectual and moral life of man. Farther, we can say that all ideas of a family or national god have disappeared from the minds of civilised men, or that they exist only as survivals from an earlier stage of human culture. It is universally acknowledged that, if there be a God, he can be no ‘respecter of persons,’ but must be a ‘God of the whole earth,’ manifested in and to the spirit of man in all times and places alike. Sentiment and aesthetic feeling may at times make us throw ourselves back into the spirit of an earlier faith, and wish, like Wordsworth, that we could

“Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea,

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”

But we cannot really worship such divinities. The only Deity we can believe in, nay, we might say, the only Deity we can disbelieve in, or seriously deny is a universal God, a spiritual principle manifested in all nature and history.

Now, regarding the historical development of religion as a whole, up to its culmination in a universal religion, we may reasonably ask how we are to explain its possibility. An element of human life which has had such a history, whose influence has been steadily widening and deepening with the general advance of civilisation through age after age, must be closely, if not indissolubly, bound up with the nature of man. And it must be so, whether ultimately we are to regard it as a fundamental truth or a fundamental error. It may be an illusion, but it is not at least a superficial illusion, produced by the accidental circumstances of our environment, or, as was at one time supposed, by the intrigues of interested impostors. It is a belief which, whether true or false, has a psychological necessity as an important phase in the development of the human spirit, a belief which has a deep root in the spirit of man, even if it is not a permanent element of his life. And the only way to find a rational criterion by which we may ascertain the nature and extent of its validity, and determine the truth or falsity of its claims, is by asking ourselves what that root is.

What, then, I ask, is the root or basis of religion in the nature of our intelligence? Why is not man content with the experience of the finite, and why does he seek after an infinite Being, if haply he may find Him? Can it be said that the idea of God is bound up with the other elements of our general consciousness of the world and of ourselves? And if so, what place does it hold in relation to the other elements of that consciousness?

I answer that, when we consider the general nature of our conscious life—our life as rational beings endowed with the powers of thinking and willing—we find that it is defined and, so to speak, circumscribed by three ideas, which are closely, and even indissolubly, connected with each other.

These are the idea of the object or not-self, the idea of the subject or self, and the idea of the unity which is presupposed in the difference of the self and the not-self, and within which they act and react on each other: in other words, the idea of God. Let me explain these terms more fully. The object is the general name under which we include the external world and all the things and beings in it all that we act on, the whole environment, which conditions the activity of the ego and furnishes the means and the sphere in which it realises itself. All this we call object, in order to indicate, its distinction from and its relation to the subject for which it exists. We call it by this name also to indicate that we are obliged to think of it as one whole, one world, all of whose parts are embraced in one connexion of space and all whose changes take place in one connexion of time. All these parts and changes, therefore, form elements in one system, and modern science teaches us to regard them all as connected together by links of causation. There is only one thing, which stands over against this complex whole of existence, and refuses to be regarded simply as a part of the system; and that is the ego, the self, the subject for which it exists. For the primary condition of the existence of this subject is that it should distinguish itself from the object as such—from each object, and;from the whole system of objects. Hence, strictly speaking, there is but one object and one subject for each of us; for, in opposition to the subject, the totality of objects constitute one world, and in opposition to the object all the experiences of the subject, all its thought and action, are merged in the unity of one self. All our life, then, moves between these two terms which are essentially distinct from, and even opposed to, each other. Yet, though thus set in an antagonism which can never cease, because with its ceasing the whole nature of both would be subverted, they are also essentially related, nor could either of them be conceived to exist without the other. The consciousness of the one, we might even say, is inseparably the consciousness of its relation to the other. We know the object only as we bring it back to the unity of the self; we know the subject only as we realise it in the object.

But, lastly, these two ideas, between which our whole life of thought and action is contained, and from one to the other of which it is continually moving, point back to a third idea which embraces them both, and which in turn constitutes their limit and ultimate condition. For where we have two terms, which are thus at once essentially distinguished and essentially related, which we are obliged to contrast and oppose to each other, seeing that they have neither of them any meaning except as opposite counterparts of each other, and which we are equally obliged to unite, seeing that the whole content of each is just its movement towards the other, we are necessarily driven to think of these two terms as the manifestation or realisation of a third term, which is higher than either. Recognising that the object only exists in distinction from, and relation to, the subject, we find it impossible to reduce the subject to a mere object among other objects. Recognising that the subject exists only as it returns upon itself from or realises itself in the object, we find it impossible to reduce the object to a mere phase in the life of the subject. But, recognising them as indivisible yet necessarily opposed, as incapable of identification yet necessarily related, we are forced to seek the secret of their being in a higher principle, of whose unity they in their action and reaction are the manifestation, which they presuppose as their beginning and to which they point as their end. How otherwise can we do justice at once to their distinction and their relation, to their independence and their essential connexion with each other? The two, subject and object, are the extreme terms in the difference which is essential to our rational life. Each of them presupposes the other, and therefore neither call be regarded as producing the other. Hence, we are compelled to think of them both as rooted in a still higher principle, which is at once the source of their relatively independent existence and the all-embracing unity that limits their independence. This principle, therefore, may be imaged as a crystal sphere that holds theism together, and which, through its very transparency, is apt to escape our notice, yet which must always be there as the condition and limit of their operation. To put it more directly, the idea of an absolute unity, which transcends all the oppositions of finitude, and especially the last opposition which includes all others—the opposition of subject and object—is the ultimate pre supposition of our consciousness. Hence we cannot understand the real character of our rational life or appreciate the full compass of its movement, unless we recognise as its necessary constituents or guiding ideas, not only the ideas of object and subject, but also the idea of God. The idea of God, therefore—meaning by that, in the first instance, only the idea of an absolute principle of unity which binds in one “all thinking things, all objects of all thought,” which is at once the source of being to all things that are, and of knowing to all beings that know—is an essential principle, or rather the ultimate essential principle of our intelligence, a principle which must manifest itself in the life of every rational creature. Every creature, who is capable of the consciousness of an objective world and of the consciousness of a self, is capable also of the consciousness of God. Or, to sum up the whole matter in one word, every rational being as such is a religious being.1

While we say this, however, we must at once guard against a misunderstanding which is very apt to arise. If all men are religious, and if religion involves the idea of an absolute principle of unity in our lives, it might seem to follow that the belief in such a principle must be found in connexion with every form of religion. But, as a matter of fact, this is far from being the case. Indeed, it would be hard to discover in any pre-Christian religion a thought that fully answers to the account of religion just given Yet, in development, the earliest stages always point for their explanation and completion to the later stage; and the germ of the idea of God as the ultimate unity of being and knowing, subject and object, must in spine way be present in every rational consciousness. For such a consciousness necessarily involves the idea of the self and the not-self, the ego and the world, as distinct yet in relation, i.e. as opposed within a unity. The clear reflective consciousness of the object without, of the subject within, and of God as the absolute reality which is beyond and beneath both—as one complete rational consciousness in which each of these terms is clearly distinguished and definitely related to the others—is, in the nature of the case, a late acquisition of man's spirit, one that can come to him only as the result of a long process of development. But the three elements are there in the mind of the simplest human being who opens his eyes upon the world, who distinguishes himself from it yet relates himself to it. And the difficulty and perplexity which is occasioned by the unity and the difference of these elements is the moving principle of development from the very dawn of intelligence.

Let it not, therefore, be thought that we are supposing primitive man to possess developed philosophical ideas of the relations of the self and the not-self. We can no more expect him to attain to such ideas than we can expect hire to analyse grammatically or logically any sentence which he utters. We assume that he is conscious of an external world, but not that he knows anything of the conditions under which knowledge of that world is possible,—anything of the nature of an object as such, or of the relations of objects in general. We assume that he is conscious of a self, but not that he has ever considered what is meant by a self, or that he has distinguished between the self—as the centre of unity in all his thinking and feeling and willing—and the particular thoughts and feelings and acts which he refers to it. Finally, we assume that he does relate self and not-self to each other, and that, therefore, in some way he rises in thought above his own individual existence and the individual existence of the objects he knows; we assume, in other words, that, as a rational being, he is not limited to a purely objective consciousness of things, nor imprisoned in a subjective consciousness of his own ideas, but that he takes up a point of view above this opposition. And this necessity of his rational nature, the necessity which places him at a universal point of view, cannot but modify his consciousness both of the object and of himself; it cannot but lead him in some way to raise his thoughts from the world and from himself to that which is beyond both, or to see in them something which is greater than their immediate existence as finite things. But this does not mean that the savage or the child is able to analyse the idea of God or to give any intelligible account of the infinite and the universal, of that something, higher than the immediate objects of his consciousness, which so persistently haunts him and disturbs his life ‘with thoughts beyond the reaches of his soul.’ In fact, we only assume that he is a self-conscious being, and that, as such, he cannot but oppose himself to objects and relate himself to them; for this already involves that these three elements are present, if not to, yet in his consciousness, stimulating it to development, and therefore to the differentiation and integration of the confused unity of sense. But this, as will be shown more fully in the sequel, is quite consistent with the fullest recognition of the crudeness, the materialism, the almost brutal sensuousness and coarseness, of the ideas of uncivilised man, who has never distinctly realised, nay, who scarce can be said to have realised at all, the existence of anything that is not given in the particular impressions of sense. Whether realised or not, the universal principle is there, ruling over man's consciousness of the particular. But at this early stage he cannot make it an object of reflexion. It cannot, therefore, present itself to him as a universal principle, but only in the guise of a particular and finite object; and his consciousness, if he has any consciousness of it, must be in the utmost degree incoherent and confused. Man is always man; but in this stage he is least of all conscious what it is to be a man; and, in spite of the immense formal difference which separates him from a pure animal or sensitive being, from beings who are not self-conscious, the difference of the content of his thought and feeling from theirs seems almost infinitesimal. Nay, we might even say that, in a moral point of view, it is a difference for the worse. God has given him a glimpse of heaven's light, and, as Mephistopheles says in the Faust,

“Er braucht's allein

Nur thierischer als jedes Thier zu seyn.”

“He makes use of it only to be more brutal than any brute.” He distinguishes himself from the animals mainly by the fact that he has lost the simplicity, the innocence, the contentment with the present, which characterises the animal. The balance of sense has been disturbed or destroyed in him, but the balance of spirit has not been attained. He is the most greedy and fierce and sensual of beasts, because he cannot fully satisfy himself with the diet of the beast, and has as yet acquired no idea of any other diet. And his religion, therefore, seems, in our first view of it, to contain little more than a terror of something more powerful than himself, the haunting consciousness of his weakness before the mighty forces of the universe, and the dream that, by some incantation or propitiation, he may bring them to his side. On a closer view, however, when we regard the growth of savage superstition not merely in itself, but in the light of that which springs out of it, we begin to see that under the unsightliness and horror of his superstition, there is germinating a consciousness of that which is greater than himself and greater than any object, and yet which is so close to him that he cannot neglect or evade it. We cannot, indeed, say in this case that corruptio optimi pessima; for what we have here is not corruption and decay, but rather the error and defect of imperfect development: not the babblings of senility but the lispings of infancy. But we can say that it is what is best in him—his highest consciousness and that which is most distinctive of him as a man—which is troubling and perplexing him. It is ‘heaven's light that is leading him astray.’ And his wanderings, terrible as they sometimes are, give proof, nevertheless, of something far higher than the dull complacency and innocence of animal life: they are the indication of a nature that cannot be satisfied with the finite.

It may be desirable to illustrate this idea a little farther, as it is the key to what is perhaps the greatest difficulty connected with the application of the idea of development to the life of man, and particularly to his religious life. It is hard to analyse the religious consciousness, and to express all the elements it contains, without seeming to attribute to it universally elements which are found only in its highest forms. This difficulty we can meet only by making a clear distinction between that which religion contains or involves—that which it is to one who is able to reflect upon its nature and thoroughly to analyse it—and that which it is to the subject of it, that which the religious man consciously realises. The distinction is one which affects every department of man's rational life, and it cannot be neglected by any one who would seek to understand him as a being who not only exists but develops. Though man is essentially self-conscious, he always is more than he thinks or knows; and his thinking and knowing are ruled by ideas of which he is at first unaware, but which, nevertheless, affect everything he says or does. Of these ideas we may, therefore, expect to find some indication even in the earliest stage of his development; but we cannot expect that in that stage they will appear in their proper form or be known for what they really are. We often speak, indeed, in a general and indiscriminating way, as if the undeveloped mind had no contents except that of which it is clearly conscious. In this spirit Wordsworth declares of a rude and uncultivated nature that

“A primrose by the river's brim

A yellow primrose was to him,

And it was nothing more.”

But, if we take this literally, it contains an impossibility. Peter Bell could not see the primrose with the eyes of a poet; it could not awaken in him all the suggestions of virgin beauty and early decay which made Shakspere's Perdita speak of

“pale primroses

That die unmarried ere they can behold

Bright Phoebus in his strength”;

but as little could he gaze upon it with the dull uncomprehending gaze of the animal, whose sense is for the moment filled by it to the exclusion of everything else. In recognising it as a primrose—by whatever marks or characteristics he does so recognise it—he has given it a definite place in his world, a place determined by its relations to other things and to himself. If he has not observed any of the analogies and relations which make the little flower so eloquent to the poet, he has at least laid the basis and prepared the way for them, by giving to it a local habitation and a name in the intelligible world. In like manner, it might seem not unjust to say that the religion of primitive man is nothing but a degrading fear of some superior power, and that the idea which we have introduced into our definition of religion, the idea of an ultimate unity which underlies and embraces “all thinking things, all objects of all thought,” is entirely beyond his reach. It is beyond his reach in the sense that he never can comprehend it, nor even set it as a distinct object before his thought or imagination. But as, after all, he is a self-conscious being, he cannot but distinguish himself from and relate himself to the objective world; and it is impossible that the suspicion, the Ahnung, the dim anticipative consciousness, of an all-encompassing power, which is beyond both object and subject yet manifested in both, should not sometimes visit him. And to one who views his obscure superstitions—his dread and horror of supernatural powers which are near him but which he cannot measure—in the light of a true idea of the relations of self-consciousness to the consciousness of God, they will seem already to contain the germ of those higher forms of belief which gradually arise out of them.

What I have said may be thus summed up Man, by the very constitution of his mind, has three ways of thinking open to him. He can look outwards, upon the world around him; he can look inwards, upon the self within him; and he can look upwards, to the God above him, to the Being who unites the outward and the inward worlds and who manifests Himself in both. None of these possibilities can remain entirely unrealised. Even in the earliest stages of his existence he cannot but be conscious of the outward world: it is the first and most natural effort of his mind to throw itself into the external objects which exercise all his senses, and offer immediate satisfaction to his appetites. By a natural necessity he thus, as it were, lives out of doors and becomes a citizen of the world, long before he learns to dwell at home with himself and to know himself as having an inner life of his own. Yet, though this is true, it is certain that the most unreflecting man has an inner, as well as an outer, side to his mental existence. He is essentially self-conscious; and this self-consciousness, however little he may reflect on it, inevitably separates him from the things and beings he knows, even while he knows them. The pains and pleasures of his sensuous existence, not to mention anything higher, must inevitably send him back upon himself, and make him partly conscious of his isolation from other objects and beings.

And with this growth of self-consciousness comes, on the one hand, a painful sense of dependence on what is not himself, and, on the other hand, a desire to aggrandise himself, and make the outer world subservient to his satisfaction, a desire not merely to appropriate this or that object, but even to appropriate the whole universe to himself. Every self, once awakened, is naturally a despot, and “bears, like the Turk, no brother near the throne.” The inner world is as great as the outer, and everyone, as even Hobbes in spite of his Sensationalism recognised, has an ‘infinite desire for gain or glory’; has, in other words, a desire that grows with what it feeds on, till it can be satisfied with nothing less than a whole universe for itself. The humorous and eloquent words in which Carlyle expressed this idea are very well known, but perhaps I may be allowed to quote them once more:—

“Will the whole finance-ministers and upholsterers and confectioners of modern Europe undertake, in jointstock company, to make one shoeblack happy? They cannot accomplish it above an hour or two; for the shoeblack also has a soul, quite other than his stomach, and would require, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more, and no less: God's infinite universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose…Try him with half a universe, half of an omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men. Always there is a black spot in our sunshine; it is even, as I said, the shadow of ourselves.”2

But is this all? Are we thus shut in between an outward world which limits us on every side, and a self that we can never satisfy, and which forces us into an internecine struggle with all other beings for existence and for satisfaction. To this we can only answer by referring to the third element of our consciousness—

“Unless above himself he can

Exalt himself, how mean a thing; is man.”

There is necessarily present in us, in virtue of the very fact that our inner and our outer lives stand in constant relation to each other, the consciousness of a Being or Principle which is above both, and revealed in both. And the idea of this Principle or Being, just so far as we can realise it, or, in other words, make real to ourselves the thought of it, lifts us at once above the mere feeling of dependence upon that which is without us, and equally above the feeling of lawless independence, and the limitless greed of appetite, which would make us claim everything for ourselves. A human consciousness cannot exist without some dawning of reverence—of an awe and aspiration which is as different from fear as it is from presumption, from slavish submission as it is from tyrannical self-assertion. And it is this reverence, this sense of a subjection which elevates us, of an obedience that makes us free, this consciousness of a Power which curbs and humiliates us, but at the same time draws us up to itself, which is the essence of religion, and the source of all man's higher life.

Now, as I have already said, it is not always easy to detect the germs or imperfect forms of such a consciousness in all the forms of religion which have appeared in different ages and nations. Nor, indeed, would it be possible in many cases for us to detect theta at all, if it were not for the light thrown back upon them by the later development of religion which has come out of them. Amid the sensualities of nature-worship, the horrible sacrifices offered to gods who seem to us the very embodiments of cruelty, revenge, and injustice, and the indescribable follies of spirit-scaring and witchcraft which we find even in many nations not altogether uncivilised, where, it may be asked, can we find the traces of that reverent awe and aspiration which we have been describing, and which are the natural feelings of man towards God, if God be really the Being, the consciousness of whom is to give unity to our divided and finite existence, and to lift us above its division and finitude?

A full answer to this objection it is impossible here to give. I can only refer by anticipation to one point which may be verified by the most superficial knowledge of the history of religion. Religions may differ very widely, they may be comparatively elevated or they may be what we would call degraded; but they have this as their common characteristic (at least when they rise above the vaguest superstition), that they give a kind of unity to life. And they do this mainly by at once allying man with nature, and joining him with his fellows in some more or less comprehensive society. They round off the world, so far as it affects him, into a whole which is referred to one principle, a principle which is manifested at once within the man and without him, and which binds him in some way both to nature and to his fellowmen. Hence I said in the first lecture that a man's religion, if it is sincere, is that consciousness in which he takes up a definite attitude to the world, and gathers to a focus all the meaning of his life. Of course, the man's world may be, and in earlier times is, a comparatively narrow one. He is unable to look beyond the nation, the clan, or, it may be, the family to which he belongs; nor can he at this stage form any conception of nature in general, but only of special powers of nature, which he regards as in some way friendly to him. And so long as this is so, the unity given to his life by religion can only be partial and superficial. His heaven may still admit a multiplicity of gods, who are only imperfectly harmonised or united with each other. Yet so far as it goes, his religion gives him a sense of alliance with nature and man under the protection of a divine power who is above both, and in both.

Now this is just what we should expect, if religion be always the more or less developed consciousness of that infinite unity, which is beyond all the divisions of the finite, particularly the division of subject and object. We may add, finally, that so far as religion does this, it is, in spite of much error and even immorality, a step towards that consciousness of rest beyond the agitations of finite care, of unity beyond the differences of finite life, of eternal reality beyond the show of a passing world, which Hegel expresses so vividly in the introduction to his philosophy of religion. “All nations know that it is the religious consciousness in which they possess the truth; and they have therefore regarded their religion as that which gives dignity and peace to their lives. All that awakes doubt and perplexity, all sorrow and care, all limited interests of finitude, we leave behind us on the ‘bank and shoal of time.’ And, as on the summit of a mountain, removed from all hard distinctness of detail, we calmly overlook the limitations of the landscape and the world, so by religion we are lifted above all the obstructions of finitude. In religion, therefore, man beholds his own existence in a transfigured reflexion, in which all the divisions, all the crude lights and shadows of the world, are softened into eternal peace under the beams of a spiritual sun. It is in this native land of the spirit that the waters of oblivion flow, from which it is given to Psyche to drink and forget all her sorrows; for here the darkness of life becomes a transparent dream-image, through which the light of eternity shines in upon us.”

  • 1. The above, of course, is only a very abstract statement of an idea which requires much illustration and explanation. It was necessary, however, to make it at once, in order to indicate the point of view from which the subject is to be treated. This and several of the following lectures will be devoted to the further exposition of it.
  • 2. Sartor Resartus, Book II. Ch. ix.