Morality and Religion
(a) Their Antagonism
WE must now take up one of the most difficult and important of our problems namely the inter-relation of morality and religion. And first as to some things which are obvious. Morality is plainly concerned in the ordinary affairs of everyday life. It is in a sense the whole of life. At every turn there is some more or less urgent want; there is something to be done; some call to be obeyed or disobeyed or neglected. Approval or disapproval follows. We pass a moral judgment upon the deed and call it good or bad. In doing so we recognize that a universal law has been sustained or broken. A moral law has been either respected or violated. The agent has acted either consistently or inconsistently with a moral world which is at once eternal in its laws and a-building by means of the deeds of man.
The privacy of duties.
Moreover the things to be done duties as they come to be called are always inalienable. Mine is mine and yours is yours and theirs is theirs. There is a certain individuality a personal privacy and apartness and single-handedness about duties. The will to act and the resulting deed whether right or wrong are the individual's own however much he may cooperate with others in the doing of them however closely his environment may press upon him and however deeply the social life into which he was born has penetrated into him and become the sustenance and tissue of his soul. His acts are not only his own but exclusively his own; for no influence has entered into him without thereby becoming an element in his individuality.
But religion not less obviously seems to break down the barriers of individuality. The primary interest of the religious man lies in some good. He lives for it as we have seen; and the supreme value of the object of his devotion or his God lifts the exercise of religious functions above the level of what is secular or even merely moral. It does so even when it penetrates what would otherwise be commonplace. The spirit of religion may and often does attend a mother on the hearth as she moves among the bairns radiating love's services all day long.
The growing aloofness of religion.
Nevertheless on that same hearth at the beginning and close of the day there are definite religious rites. There is family worship and an hour that is sacred. Then the soul ascends for a moment out of the reach of ordinary cares and its eyes look away to where the horizon of the present life dips out of sight. Primitive religions naturally become ceremonious. Primitive communities naturally gather together for praise and prayer and sacrifice: and the rites on the great religious occasions are accompanied by all the circumstances that can make them impressive. They are conducted by men gifted with the powers that impress dedicated men who are held to be in mystical communion with unseen powers. A priesthood grows and religion becomes a thing apart—sacred—not to be touched by ordinary hands or approached in ordinary moods. Awe which is a feeling that fluctuates between fear and reverence is the primitive worshipper's mood; and the strangeness of something that lies beyond—beyond all things that can be seen or heard beyond the utmost limits of even possible knowledge—is the most insistent characteristic of his God. In short Herbert Spencer's conception of religion as awe of the unknown describes not inaccurately the primitive man's blind groping for the Best.
The mutual indifference of religion and morality.
Thus while the lives of men gain to some degree that consistency which results from more constant conceptions of what has worth and should be first sought religion and morality come to occupy different territories. Religion henceforth will have nothing to do with the ordinary ways of life: these are all “secular.” And morality does not concern itself with religion which is sacred and aloof and a matter of rites and ceremonies. This separateness of their interests permits for a time a relation of mutual indifference between them. Each goes its own way. The moral man need not be religious except now and then on sacred days; nor does the religious man at this stage need to be moral. He may even have a “morality” of his own and the atrocities of the crude priesthood may be but symbols of its sacredness.
Each lays claim to the whole of life.
Such indifference however cannot last. All things that grow human life amongst them must maintain their unity as well as branch into differences. Man must be consistent with himself if he is to escape war against himself. Hence as mankind develops both religion and morality claim more and more completely to have dominion over the whole of life. As the moral consciousness gathers strength the ill deeds done in the name of religion its barbarous and cruel rites and sacrifices lose their sacred lustre. They are condemned. Even the gods when a Plato arrives must respect the moral laws.
On the other hand religion also widens its domain claims more and more authority over the minutiae of daily life. If it is external and formal as at this stage it generally is then it sees more and more to the mint and annis and cummin and insists on abstention from common things. “It garr'd Cuddie Headrigg to refuse to eat the plum porridge at Yule-tide Eve.” And naturally poor Cuddie could not see how it was “ony matter for God or man whether a ploughman had supp'd on minched pies or sowens.”
Morality must take a second place.
Morality at this stage is ousted into an inferior position as compared with religion. It has little spiritual and no lasting value. Indeed it is despised as having less than none; for it comes to be regarded as purely mundane and all mundane things all that are natural are held to be the enemy of that which is spiritual. The ordinary occupations which man follows in order to supply his physical wants are tolerated in the laity; but those who have given themselves completely to God must reduce their physical needs to the lowest limits renounce the world engage neither in industry nor in commerce nor follow the arts either of peace or war. They are pilgrims on their way home through a barren wilderness. Everything pertaining to the world and the flesh is corrupt. Even the domestic ties and the other social relations which in truth furnish the opportunities of the good life and are the nurseries of all the virtues lie outside of the limits of the sacred life. In short the world and the flesh are ranked with the devil.
The slightest acquaintance with the history of the Christian Church makes this antagonism familiar and the echoes of it still survive in the memory of many of us. On the whole at present morality is strengthening its claims; sometimes at the expense of religion. It is so far recognized as vital to religion that we will not call an immoral man religious though perhaps we would allow more lapses to the religious devotee than a moral rigorist could approve in himself. On the other hand religion is not now deemed necessary to the moral life. Many men like Matthew Arnold consider that religion can only add to morality a certain emotional intensity whose value is doubtful.
The dignity of the moral attitude.
Sometimes even the moral attitude is held to be the nobler of the two. It means that a man faces his own duty frankly in his own strength and trusts to its intrinsic value. Consequences do not count where what is right is done for its own sole sake. The steadfast moral universe is felt by the good man to be at his back so long as he is in his duty. He stands for the Empire of the Good as the lonely soldier on the night-watch stands for his country. He has a right to its support: and its support is certain. An attitude which appreciates the unconditional authority and sufficiency of morality has the further advantage that it seems to relieve us from the difficult and possibly insoluble problems of religion. We need not ask except as a matter of speculative curiosity whether God exists or not; whether it is his love or his power that is defective or whether the evil and pain and disorder of this tragic world of ours are but appearances. Nor lastly are we committed to the task of finding some way of reconciling the reality of these evils with the reality of an unlimited love clothed with infinite power which is the Christian's God. Our part as moral beings remains the same. We strive to do what is right whatever solution is refused or offered and we put our trust in it.
Green's view of the value of religion.
Nobody can deny the dignity and strength of this Stoic attitude. On the other hand the value of a religion which is real of a genuine devotion to the Perfect the Spiritually Perfect remains unimpaired and unquestionable. “If we are honest with ourselves” (says Mr. T. H. Green in his great sermon on “Faith”) “we shall admit that something best called faith a prevailing conviction of our presence to God and his to us of his gracious mind towards us working in and with and through us of our duty to our fellow-men as our brethren in him has been the source of whatever has been best in us and in our deeds. If we have enough experience and sympathy to interpret fairly the life of the world around us we shall admit that faith of this sort is the salt of the earth. Through it below the surface of circumstance and custom humanity is being renewed day by day and unless our heart is sealed by selfishness and sophistry though we may not consciously share in the process there will be men and times that make us reverentially feel its reality. Who can hear an unargumentative and unrhetorical Christian minister appeal to his people to cleanse their hearts and to help each other as sons of God in Christ without feeling that he touches the deepest and strongest spring of noble conduct in mankind?”1
Is it quite certain that the splendid ethical recklessness which stands by its own deeds accepting the condemnation of the eternal moral laws if the actions are wrong and if they are right finding ample reward in the mere doing of them—is it quite certain that this proud Stoicism is not itself a true religion? Or does not religion demand as its first condition humility self-distrust self-condemnation and utter rejection of all claims to merit and a yielding up of the very soul to him who can forgive and cleanse and heal? What is the relation between morality and religion? Do they at their best pass into each other; or as we have hinted is there a difference between them that while leaving them both necessary to man still holds them apart complementary perhaps in practice but like other things necessary to man not reducible to sameness nor reconcilable by any logic that would bring such a monotonous consummation?
Before raising the next question it may be well to summarize the results we have so far reached in regard to the relation of morality and religion.
We saw that at the lowest stages of man's life the conception of a binding and universal rule of conduct had not emerged. Not only was there no acknowledged rule of life or moral law there were no consistent ways of behaviour. Man like other animals merely sought to supply his own physical wants and of these usually only the most urgent and imperative. The dictators of his conduct were hunger and thirst and the sexual impulses. He was marked amongst other animals mainly by the extent of his greed as a creature of wilder passions and of more incalculable capriciousness. His religious history showed the same features as his ordinary or secular conduct. So little continuity was there in his experience and personality that even polytheism had not been attained. Each God ruled for a moment and then passed away and was forgotten.
The emergence of morality and religion and their growing opposition.
But there was an operative law beneath all this chaos of particularism. It led man from moment to moment to seek the Best he knew even as it makes the preservation of life the paramount and persistent end of the animal. At length man became more or less aware of this law. He tried to apprehend and to define this Best. He sought it with a certain persistency. It became the ideal of his practical life and also something nobler than his ordinary purposes and interests a supreme mystical reality. Thus morality and religion emerged from the chaos of fitful caprice and man's interests fell into two quite definite and mutually exclusive domains. One was secular and in it the demands and conditions of morality were supreme; the other was sacred and within it religion tolerated no rivalry or intrusion. With the growth of civilization and the consequent enrichment of man's spiritual inheritance the demands of both morality and religion were enlarged and their rights became more and more sovereign in character. The opposition between them necessarily deepened and it became ever more difficult at once to grant their demands and rights in all their fulness and also to reconcile them.
Idealism alone at present tries to do justice to both morality and religion.
Ambiguities both of the Absolute and of finite things.
At present there is confusion on every side as to the relation of morality and religion; and the confusion of the ordinary moral and religious spirit of our time is amply echoed by our philosophers. We come up against it on every hand: sometimes in one guise sometimes in another. Idealism that is the Idealism which is frank and fearless and would fain be a Realism if it can alone tries to accord to both religion and morality their full rights; but the result is a constant oscillation from the primacy of one to that of the other. At one moment the Absolute is not the God of religion and the God of religion is not absolute. Yet the Absolute alone it is asserted is ultimately and unconditionally real; and it lends to all finite things such dubious existence as they have; for it contains them though transfigured in such a way that they cannot be called either true or good or beautiful. Truth beauty and goodness vanish in the Absolute to reappear on occasion something after the manner of the Cheshire cat. Except as in the Absolute and therefore transmuted finite things are not real and being transmuted in the Absolute they become unrecognizable. On the other hand the finite objects that we do know are just appearances—real appearances but only appearances. The Absolute is not itself quite unknowable. We find that it is static cannot change swallows and transmutes finite things. But we know nothing specially to its credit since truth goodness beauty disappear in it. And its very reality is of a dubious kind: for it contains so far as we know nothing but transmuted appearances. All it can “take up” “include” “sublate” “transform” are phenomena finite appearances and the kind of reality which they possess is very obscure at best.
Barrenness of the critics and alternative solutions.
The present-day consciousness of the continuity of the real.
Its character the great problem.
From these difficulties which beset the reflexions of the teachers to whom I owe most I have learnt one thing clearly namely that we can deny or do without neither the finite nor the infinite and above all that we cannot separate them. From the merely negative criticisms that have been advanced and from the one-sided theories which as a rule have betrayed the interests of religion and shown no need of any Absolute or of any unity within the differences of finite things I am afraid I have learnt less. And as to the forms of Idealism which are still tainted with Berkeleian subjectivity they seem to me to be quite barren. It is only in such doctrines as those of Mr. Bradley and Mr. Bosanquet that a genuine recognition of the apparently inconsistent rights of the finite and the infinite and as a consequence of morality and religion makes itself felt. And it is a great step towards the solution of a difficulty to lay it quite bare. Nevertheless the solution has not been found. It is only suggested in the vacillation from side to side. The principle on which an uncompromising realistic Idealism rests has still to be justified. The dualism of nature and spirit has not been overcome nor that of the secular and sacred nor indeed of the finite and infinite in any form. But it has become suspect. A sense of the continuity of what is real is abroad; and that continuity is no longer merely materialistic or physical. The affirmation of gaps between the physical and biological and the conscious or between the conscious and the self-conscious is less confident even while we confess our inability to overleap these gaps. Nature is one we say and man is merely her child. We do not hesitate to trace his history backwards and downwards a long way. But so far it has not been shown that nature produces him as consequently as she produces apple trees and by means of him in the same consequent fashion builds up the marvels of the social and spiritual world. The affirmation of continuity between nature and spirit is hesitating.2
All the same if we cannot say that the conviction is growing we can say that the hypothesis is becoming more and more probable that some principle of unity not merely underlies but so acts and functions as to express itself in all things and as I have said we are not any longer tempted to offer a materialistic account of that principle. I believe we are on the way to an Idealism which is at the same time a Spiritual Realism and which with the aid of the sciences shall demonstrate the working in all things of a principle which operates as a natural force at a certain level and reveals its fuller character in the spiritual enterprises of mankind. The “Stern Law-giver” for Wordsworth wore “The Godhead's most benignant grace” as well as “preserved the stars from wrong.” “The awful power” could be called upon to perform “humble functions.” The conception is familiar to the religious consciousness at its best: it is I believe the destiny of a sound Idealism and of science to make it good.
Meantime somehow or other it has to be shown that all our halting dualisms even that of nature and spirit or of matter and mind rend asunder the seamless garment of the real. That as a matter of fact no one ever has known and that no one ever can know nature and spirit except as elements of a unity is a significant but neglected truth. Spirit functions as an active principle functions; and spirit like everything else is what it does. It is revealed in the natural cosmos and revealed and realized more fully in the moral and religious life. Nature and spirit imply each other as subject and object; they exist in virtue of each other and neither their difference nor their unity can be compromised. The world which we think existed before man or mind was a world in its make and structure relative to mind. It became a known world as soon as mind appeared and performed its part. Spirit is not except as an active principle: nature is not except as its expression. The Absolute is not static and the Universe is not dead. Such is “the faith” of a realistic Idealism.