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8. The Diversion of Higher Religions from their Spiritual Mission to Mundane Tasks

The Diversion of Higher Religions from their Spiritual Mission to Mundane Tasks1

And these are they which are sown among thorns: such as hear the Word, and the cares of This World and the deceit-fulness of riches and the lusts of other things, entering in, choke the Word, and it becometh unfruitful.—Mark vi. 18–19.

What is to be the higher religions’ relation to the old order? This is a question that is bound to present itself. The higher religions make their epiphany in the World with a spiritual mission of their own—the mission of preaching to every creature a new gospel2 by which Man is inducted into a new attitude towards Suffering through a new revelation of the character of God. But, though the higher religions’ Gospel is thus a new kind of spiritual seed, their mission-field is not virgin soil. In the very nature of the case, it could not have been, since the spiritual education that has made the first recipients of the new gospel capable of receiving it has been the work of long and painful experience. The epiphany of the higher religions could have taken place only on ground that had been prepared for it by the rise, breakdown, and disintegration of civilizations of the second generation. The epiphany thus presupposes the presence of an old order in the field; and, even if this old order has been a failure and has fallen into discredit, its debris, at any rate, will still be cumbering the ground, and, even in ruins, it will still be a power to be reckoned with.

The relation between this old order and the new gospel is bound to be one of conflict, open or latent, because these two dispensations are fundamentally irreconcilable. The old order is founded on a belief that Man is God, overlying an older belief that Non-Human Nature is God. Man-worship refuses to acknowledge and act upon the truth that Suffering is of the essence of Life. It tries either to suppress Suffering through the mobilization of collective human power or to evade it individually through a self-extinction of which the half-measure is a self-detachment from the ties knit by Pity and Love. The new gospel is founded on a belief that Absolute Reality is neither Man nor Nature, but is beyond and above them both. It recognizes the truth that Suffering is of the essence of Life; and instead of trying to get rid of Suffering, it tries to use it as an opportunity for acting on feelings of Pity and Love which it believes to be divine as well as human. It believes that this way of acting expresses the nature and purpose of Life more truly, and therefore more creatively, than self-assertion expresses them. In following the lead of Love, Man will be exposing himself to Suffering, because he will be swimming against the current of self-centredness. But the new gospel tells him that, in exposing himself to Suffering for Love’s sake, he will be swimming, not against, but with, the main current of the Universe, because an Absolute Reality which, in one of its aspects, is the True God is a Love which has expressed itself in self-sacrifice, besides being a Power which has created the Universe and is sustaining it. God is the centre of the Universe, not through a self-centred self-assertion that would defeat itself because it would be repellent, but through a self-sacrifice that evokes an answering love and an answering self-sacrifice in God’s creatures. The fundamental irreconcilibility of these two beliefs and objectives is the ground for the saying, attributed to Jesus, that he is come to bring, not peace, but strife.3

The question what the higher religions’; relation to the old order is to be remains simple and easy so long as the old order is proscribing and persecuting them; it becomes complicated and difficult if and when the old order offers to come to terms.

Blessed are ye when men shall hate you and when they shall separate you from their company and shall reproach you and cast out your name as evil for the Son of Man’s sake.… Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets.4

So long as a Church is proscribed and is exposed to the peril of being persecuted at any moment, its membership is likely to be limited to a spiritual élite who are both disinterested and courageous. As soon as it is taken into partnership by the powers that be, its moral quality is likely to be diluted through mass-conversions of time-servers eager to jump on to the victor’s band-waggon. So long as a church is proscribed, it can build up a new society at its own peril without being implicated in the old society’s weaknesses and sins. When it has been taken into partnership with the old society, it will be involved in its failures and be led astray into serving its purposes instead of continuing to serve its own incompatible purpose single-mindedly. Therefore the negotiation of a concordat with any of the institutions embodying the old order is likely to blunt a church’s edge for the execution of its own spiritual mission, and even to divert it from this mission into the old order’s service. Yet, since a church’s mission is to preach the gospel to every creature, a church would be acting at variance with its own purpose if it were to rebuff offers of reconciliation proposed by former opponents, even if these offers are suspect of being insincere and of being inspired, at least subconsciously, by an intention to carry the old struggle on by means of a new, more subtle, and more effective strategy.

Conversely, the old order stands to gain by proposing terms for a concordat. It is losing nothing further by making a public acknowledgment that it has tried and failed to suppress the preachers of the new gospel by physical force. It is merely acknowledging an already patent fact; and, in making this concession, it is purchasing cheaply for itself a chance of carrying on the struggle by a new strategy. It can now try to defeat its adversary by mobilizing, for its own purposes, the strength which has enabled this adversary to withstand victoriously all forcible attempts to suppress him. This strength resides in two elements: the new gospel’s spiritual appeal to human souls in virtue of its truth and Tightness; and the new institution—the church—which the preachers of the new gospel will have had to build up as a necessary means for carrying out their spiritual aim. The construction of a church is unavoidable, since institutions of some sort—Devil’s work though all institutions may be5—are the only instruments that Mankind has yet devised for giving human relations a wider range than can be attained through direct personal intercourse.6 Cannot the hold which the Church has secured over people’s minds and hearts by disseminating a new gospel with a strong appeal be turned to account for the benefit of the old order? The answer is that the Church can be captured and converted into an instrument for the furtherance of the old order’s interests if the manœuvre is not advertised or avowed.

A classic example of this stratagem is the Roman Empire’s change of policy, though not of aim, in its dealings with the Christian Church after the failure of a persecution—launched, at Galerius’s instance, by Diocletian against his own better judgement—which had been the most ineffective, as well as the most cold-blooded, systematic, and cruel, in the whole series. The Roman Empire’s paramount aim in now offering terms was that of every state—and, indeed, every institution—at all times from the beginning to the end of its existence. Its aim was to keep itself in being; and an overture to Christianity was the logical next step in the pursuit of an unchanging objective.

We have noticed already that, before offering a concordat to the Christian Church, the Roman Imperial Government had already tried, and found wanting, two successive devices for mobilizing Religion in its support. First it had instituted a worship of itself; then it had set up another artificial god to provide a professedly external religious sanction for itself: the Sol Invictus worshipped by Aurelian, inherited from Constantius Chlorus by his son Constantine the Great, and entrenched in the Neoplatonic counter-church that was organized by Maximinus Daia and was afterwards revived by Julian. By the time when Constantine was raised on the shield at York, the successive failures of both these devices had made it evident that the only alternative left to the Empire was to find a religious sanction for itself that would be external to it genuinely and not merely in pretence. A sanction conferred by the Christian Church would be indisputably one of this kind, considering that the Christian Church had arisen spontaneously and had withstood victoriously the Imperial Government’s utmost efforts to suppress it. The Empire had nothing more to lose by trying, as a last resort, to capture the Church’s power for the Empire’s purpose.

These were some of the considerations underlying the change of policy that was carried out by Constantine in the light of his predecessors’ trials and errors; but neither he nor they were consciously or deliberately Machiavellian. The would-be conservative, as well as the guardedly radical, emperors in this series, from a rustic Aurelian to a superficially cultivated Julian inclusive, were, all alike, ex-barbarian novi homines of the first, the second, or, at the farthest remove, the third generation; and they all ran true to type in being naïvely unintrospective and therefore naïvely sincere. There was no hypocrisy, though there may have been much unconscious calculation, in Aurelian’s conversion to the worship of Sol Invictus or in Constantine’s conversion from this to the worship of Christ. Constantine was moved to capitulate to Christ by the experience that was to move the Scandinavian vikings to capitulate to Him seven or eight hundred years later. The attribute of Christ that took an ex-barbarian Constantine captive was not Christ’s self-sacrificing love but Christ’s invincible power. What moved him to transfer his allegiance to Christ from Sol Invictus was his conviction that, in Christ, Sol had met a god who was stronger than Sol himself.

Constantine’s slowness in advertising his change of religious allegiance in the images and superscriptions on his coins is an indication that he was aware of the hazardousness of his radical new departure. A concordat between two parties with incompatible purposes is a wager. Either party is buying a chance of being able to make the other serve his purpose at the risk of the other’s proving the winner in playing the same game. For the Roman Empire, Constantine’s policy of securing the Christian Church’s sanction for the Empire at the price of the Emperor’s conversion to Christianity was evidently riskier than Aurelian’s policy of placing the Empire under the protection of the Emperor’s own nominee and creature Sol Invictus, or than Augustus’s policy of equating the Empire itself with God by instituting the worships of Dea Roma and Divus Caesar. At the same time, the Christian Church was incurring a greater risk in being forced, by Constantine’s offer, into becoming official instead of continuing to be proscribed. The Church was, in truth, making with the Empire the wager that Faust made with Mephistopheles.

Christianity is not, of course, the only religion that has been captured by a mundane power to serve some non-religious purpose. A brief survey of instances of the diversion of higher religions to the pursuit of these alien objectives may enable us to see what the result is apt to be; and we may then go on to look at instances in which such attempts at capture have been resisted. For political purposes, we find higher religions being captured by oecumenical empires, their successors, and their avatars, by parochial states, and even posthumously by states of one kind or another that are already extinct by the time when they manage to win this purchase on the future. We also find higher religions being captured to serve mundane purposes that are, not political, but cultural.

The capture of the Christian Church by the Roman Empire has parallels in the eastern half of the Hellenic World in the capture of the Mahāyāna by the contemporary Kushan Empire in the Oxus-Jaxartes Basin and Hindustan and the capture of the Zoroastrian Church by the Later Arsacid, followed by the Sasanian, counter-empire that held ‘Irāq and Iran against Roman attempts to re-conquer for Hellenism these lost dominions of Alexander’s Macedonian successors. Islam, likewise, was captured by the Umayyad Dynasty—to the indignation of sincerely religious Muslims—to serve the political turn of a South-West Asian oecumenical empire that the Umayyads were reconstituting out of one of the Roman Empire’s barbarian successor-states. A post-Buddhaic Hinduism proved a more pliant instrument in the service of the Indian oecumenical empire that was established by the Gupta Dynasty. The Christian Church, first in its Arian and then in its Catholic shape, was subsequently taken into the service of the North European barbarian successor-states of the Roman Empire in the west. Islam was used by its own founder as an instrument for establishing the nucleus of an Arab barbarian successor-state of the Roman Empire in the east before it was diverted by the Umayyads to serve the more ambitious enterprise of re-establishing the Achaemenian Empire in the shape of an Arab Caliphate. The Mahāyāna, after making its long trek from the Kushan Empire to Eastern Asia, was taken into the service of the Eurasian Nomad barbarian successor-states of the Chinese Empire in the north. Hinduism was used in the same way by the Eurasian Nomad barbarian successor-states of the Gupta Empire; the Sikh Church by a Panjābī successor-state of the Mughal Empire in India; the Jewish Church by a Maccabaean successor-state of the Seleucid successor-state of the Achaemenian Empire.

While it is manifest in the cases of Judaism, Christianity, and the Mahāyāna that a higher religion was being diverted from its own mission in being exploited politically, this is not less true, though it may perhaps be less obvious, in the cases of Islam and Sikhism. Islam originated as a version, made for Arab pagan barbarians on the fringe of the Graeco-Roman World, of the new vision of God that had been attained in Judaism and Christianity. The Prophet Muhammad had faithfully carried out an authentically religious mission at Mecca for twelve discouraging years, during which he had made few converts and had suffered much persecution, before he succumbed to the temptation to move from Mecca to Medina. His hijrah was not only a geographical migration but was also at the same time the counter-transfiguration of a prophet without honour in his own country into the successful president, by invitation, of a rival oasis-state. It was as if Jesus, at His temptation in the wilderness, had allowed Himself to fall into the fatal error of accepting just one little principality—some diminutive Andorra or San Marino—out of all the kingdoms of This World that were being offered to Him by Satan. Sikhism, again, originated as a concordance of Hinduism with Islam, and it fell from this religious height into a political trough because the Sikh gurus Har Govind and Govind Singh, and their eventual political successor the Sikh war-lord Ranjīt Singh, succumbed, like the Prophet Muhammad, to the temptation to use force.

Higher religions have also been captured by avatars of universal states. The Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, for example, has lent itself to the purposes of the East Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Moscow ‘the Third Rome’. In all these avatars of the Roman Empire the Church has been made into the department of state that Constantine had intended it to become and that it would duly have become in the Roman Empire itself if the Roman Empire had not gone to pieces in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries of the Christian Era. The defeat, by sheer force, at Constantinople, in the early years of the fifth century, of Saint John Chrysostom’s intrepid reassertion of the Church’s spiritual independence was a portent of what would have happened in the Roman Empire and an anticipation of what did happen in the East Roman Empire after its rehabilitation in the eighth century.

A classic example of the capture of a higher religion by parochial states is the domination of the Western Christian Church by the modern successor-states of a medieval Western Christian Papal Commonwealth. Protestantism was exploited politically in Luther’s lifetime and with his collusion, as Islam had been in Muhammad’s and with his. It is more significant that the Roman Catholic fraction of a fissile Western Church, which formally preserved its oecumenical range and its independence of parochial governments, was captured, de facto, by the Spanish, Danubian Hapsburg, and French monarchies, no less effectively than the Protestant fragments were captured by parochial principalities in Germany, Scandinavia, and Britain. In the Islamic World, where the ancient schism between the Sunnah and the Shi’ah became virulent again in the same generation that saw the fission of the Church in Western Christendom, Imāmī Shi’ism was captured and exploited overtly by the Safawī Dynasty, while the Sunnah was made to serve the Ottoman Dynasty, as Roman Catholicism was made to serve the Hapsburgs, de facto.

The strangest of all these captures of higher religions for political purposes are those that have been made by states posthumously. Communities that have not only been deprived of their political independence but have been uprooted and been dispersed abroad among alien majorities have, as we have already noticed, succeeded in a few cases in retaining their corporate identity even in these utterly adverse circumstances. They have achieved this tour de force by diverting some higher religion from its true mission of preaching the new gospel to all men to the alien task of keeping in existence an uprooted community’s diasporà. The Jewish Church was thus dedicated to keeping in existence a diasporà of the Maccabaean successor-state of the Seleucid successor-state of the Achaemenian Empire; the Zoroastrian Church to keeping in existence a diasporà of a Sasanian Empire that had been the Roman Empire’s peer and rival; the Gregorian Monophysite Christian Church to keeping in existence the diasporà of the Roman and Sasanian Empires’ Armenian buffer-state. The Coptic Monophysite Christian Church was dedicated to keeping in existence the diasporà of a Pharaonic United Kingdom of Upper and Lower Egypt which had been taken over intact by successive alien conquerors, down to the Romans, till it had been dissolved at last in the re-organization of the Roman Empire by Diocletian. The oecumenical Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church was dedicated to keeping in existence the Greek diasporà of an East Roman Empire which had been broken up by Frankish and Turkish assailants.

On the cultural plane there is a classic example of the exploitation of higher religions for mundane purposes in the history of the encounter between the Graeco-Roman Civilization and its contemporaries in South-West Asia and Egypt. The Nestorian and Monophysite versions of Christianity had originated in theological disputes that had arisen over the translation of the Christian gospel into terms of Greek metaphysics; but both these schools of Christian theology were conscripted for the non-religious service of a cultural counter-offensive, in an Oriental underworld, against a long dominant Hellenism. These are two clear instances of a cultural exploitation of Christianity; and there was also a cultural as well as a political side to the exploitation of Judaism by the Maccabees, of Zoroastrianism by the Sasanidae, and of Islam by the Umayyad Caliphs. For, in their military conflicts with the Seleucid Monarchy and with the Roman Empire, these South-West Asian political powers were also waging a cultural war against the Graeco-Roman Civilization. In the parallel encounter between the Graeco-Roman Civilization and the contemporary civilization of India, the Tantric version of the Mahāyāna in Bengal (still extant in Tibet) played the part that Nestorianism and Monophysitism played in South-West Asia and Egypt, while Hinduism played the part that was played there by Islam. In the encounter between the Islamic and the Hindu civilizations, Sikhism, which had been founded to transcend the division between Hindus and Muslims by preaching the gospel of the higher religions to all men in terms that all men could accept, was diverted—under provocation from a Mughal Empire that grew more intolerant as it became more decrepit—into serving as the instrument of a militant Hindu reaction against the militancy of Islam.

The effect of this capture of higher religions for alien mundane purposes has been doubly disastrous. On the one hand the captured higher religions have been diverted from their true mission of preaching to all men a new gospel in which God is revealed as being Love, and Suffering as being the price and opportunity for following Love’s lead. The diversion of Hinduism and Islam, at early stages in their histories, from their religious mission to mundane tasks is perhaps one reason why these churches seem—at least in the eyes of an historian brought up in a Western Christian environment—to have been, so far, less illuminating exponents of the new gospel than either Christianity or Buddhism. On the other hand the effect on the mundane movements in whose service the higher religions have been enlisted has been to import into them a whole-heartcdness which the new gospel alone can inspire; and this effect has been untoward. Whole-heartedness can rise to sainthood when it is directed to the religious purpose that is its true end, but it is apt to descend to a demonic savagery when it is prostituted to the service of mundane causes. Man-worship, unreinforced by a captured higher religion, is not capable of evoking more than a limited response, even when it is presented in its least unworthy form—as the cults of Dea Roma and Divus Caesar have demonstrated by falling flat. But Man-worship is much more formidable, as we shall remind ourselves in the second part of this book, when it is keyed up through being perversely inspired by the new gospel’s glowing spirit.

Though the miscarriage of the higher religions through their diversion to mundane purposes has been a frequently repeated tragedy in their short history up to date, resistance movements have never been altogether in abeyance. Perhaps the most notable of these, so far, has been the attempt, in Medieval Western Christendom, to create a commonwealth under Papal auspices. In this Commonwealth it was intended that a church, embodying one of the higher religions, should not be captured by, but capture, the entire body social of a civilization and also the bodies politic into which this society was articulating itself. In Early Medieval Western Christendom the conditions were unusually favourable for this ecclesiastical experiment, owing to the unusual barbarousness of the lay elements in the society. The North European barbarian successor-states of the Roman Empire had been more incompetent than its Arab successor-state and than the Eurasian Nomad successor-states of the Chinese Empire; and thereafter the attempt to revive the Roman Empire had been a fiasco in Western Christendom, whereas it had been a success in Eastern Orthodox Christendom, as the corresponding attempt to revive the Chinese Empire had been in Eastern Asia. Thus the Early Medieval Western Christian Church had an unusually favourable chance of influencing its social milieu; and it rose to the occasion in the ambitiously idealistic policy of a Pope Gregory VII and a Pope Innocent III. The miscarriage of this Medieval Western Respublica Christiana through the human shortcomings of ecclesiastical statesmen is the most tragic of all the disasters that the Western Society has brought upon itself so far.

The lamentable failure of this promising attempt to create a Western Christian Commonwealth was followed by a revival in Western Christendom, at the beginning of the Modern Age, of the idolatrous worship of parochial states that had been the principal religion of a pagan Graeco-Roman Society before its breakdown. Yet the Western Christian Church did not submit, without resistance, to being enslaved in the service of this renascent form of Man-worship. The Roman Catholic Church has never acquiesced in being turned into a department of this or that parochial Western state, even where it has been virtually reduced to this subordinate position de facto; and, in states in which a Protestant church has acquiesced in such enslavement as the purchase-price of the privilege of being officially established, free non-conformist Protestant churches have sprung up.

Free non-conformist churches sprang up in Russia likewise, in protest against the Eastern Orthodox Church’s subservience to the resurgence, in Russia, of an idolized oecumenical state, even before a fourteenth-century Muscovite avatar of the Roman Empire had been reinforced, in the eighteenth century, by the importation of a Modern Western ‘enlightened autocracy’. Similarly the capture of the Early Christian Church by the Roman Imperial Government in the fourth century was resisted by the militantly sectarian Donatists, and the exploitation of Islam for the Umayyad Dynasty’s political purposes by the militant Kharijites,7 as well as by the nonviolent, yet not less single-minded, doctors of the Islamic Law at Medina.

These smouldering religious resistance movements are auguries that the choking of the Word by the cares of the World and the lusts of other things is not going to be the end of the higher religions, notwithstanding the thorns’ effectiveness in preventing the seed from coming to harvest hitherto. ‘The smoking flax shall he not quench.’8

  • 1.

    The subject of this chapter has been dealt with in greater detail by the writer in A Study of History, vol. i, pp. 40–1, 56–7, 90–2, 347–402; vol. v, pp. 646–712; vol. vii, pp. 392–423, 526–50.

  • 2.

    Mark xvi. 15; Col. i. 23.

  • 3.

    Matt. x. 34–7; Luke xii. 49–52.

  • 4.

    Luke vi. 22 and 26.

  • 5.

    ‘God created Man, but the Devil invented Man’s institutions.’

  • 6.

    See Chapter 19, pp. 265–6, below.

  • 7.

    The word khārijī, like the word pharisee, means someone who separates himself (from the prqfanum vulgus).

  • 8.

    Isa. xlii. 3, quoted in Matt. xii. 20.