With the will-to-live in human beings neither religion nor ethics are on good terms. It causes them infinite misgiving and vexation, and they incline to see in it the enemy both of God and of society. For on what principle do all living creatures consistently act? On the principle, as we have seen, of doing the best for themselves always and everywhere. But this principle brings them necessarily into conflict with the others animated by the same principle. The will-to-live, by the very law of its being, searches diligently in each and all of its embodiments for more and fuller life. Each is, in a word, the incarnation of selfishness. And religion and ethics are thus brought into collision with the many individual wills, deplore their egoism, and for the greater good of the common weal, for social ends and purposes, would have them abandon the pursuit of their private goods and separate desires. They stand, that is, for unanimity and peace, for law and order, against the ‘who-knows-what-next?’ apprehensiveness we all dread, against the capricious self-willed person, that incalculable quantity, doing what he pleases, when he pleases and as he pleases. Unless he be curbed, or converted from his self-seeking habits, how can society be saved from endless alarms, dangers and disturbances? How else can we sleep in security and comfort?
The surface of the great ocean of existence, over which religion and ethics look with such anxiety, is in continuous unrest and agitation. It should be, they appear to hold, calm and motionless, reflecting, as in a placid mirror, the peace of God. What is the cause of its agitations? No other, they assure us, than the opposing minds and aims of self-intoxicated men. Alas!—though upon this distressing truth they do not care to dwell—in the will-to-live we have simply nature herself speaking, that majestic, creative and sovereign nature, which contains all things and is all things, whose unsubduable, quivering activities are but the symptoms of her life, the throbbing pulses of her mighty heart.
But if, indeed, it be this omnipotent power against which religion and ethics are in arms, the situation is nothing short of desperate; so desperate and inexplicable that they face it with extreme reluctance. Of the delinquencies of men they are very ready to speak, and have much to tell us, but of the delinquencies of the universe, of which the will-to-live in ourselves is a manifest product, they rarely complain. They may even praise its beauty and sublimity. Human beings they boldly and unhesitatingly call to account for their doings, but to call nature to account, which brought them into being and made them what they are, that is a different matter. For in the first place, to pass an adverse judgment on nature goes perilously near passing an adverse judgment upon God, and in the second place, they perceive that to attempt to combat nature would be to attempt the impossible. As well try to resist an avalanche.
You are acquainted—who is not acquainted?—with this awkward hiatus, or rather with this frowning theological precipice no mountaineer has ever scaled. ‘In knowing more about the world’, wrote the late Bishop Gore, ‘I am learning more about God.’ Well, he was learning many, and terrible things of which he never spoke, upon which men of religion are for excellent reasons unwilling to discourse or dilate. If nature’s ways are the ways of God, its Creator, they certainly do not recommend themselves for adoption in human society. If the voice of God is to be heard, as religion asserts, in our ideals of goodness and kindness, He speaks in a very different voice in the world at large, in a voice there of power but not of friendliness.
The earth is full of anger,
And the seas are full of wrath.
We are surrounded, as everyone knows, by devouring and pitiless forces. How merciless is nature’s demeanour, and how terrible at times her visitations. How many tender and loving hearts she has broken, how many innocents massacred! That she also produced them, that her victims are her own children, is the flaming paradox. Who has resolved it for us? Not Plato, not Kant, not Mohammed nor Christ. They have thrown no glimmer of light upon our situation, nor revealed to us the cause of our sufferings. It is here that religion and ethics conspicuously fail us. For the pains of life they offer, indeed, remedies; but when we ask for their causes, when we ask why we are required to endure them, they are silent and provide no explanation. So perceiving that with nature nothing can be done, nothing with her torrid heat and polar cold, her earthquakes, fevers, tempests, sharks and tigers, that she is beyond talking to, heeds no remonstrances, and must be allowed to go her own unpleasant way, the preachers and the prophets leave her in peace, and devote their attention to human beings, with whom there appears to be more hope of dealing. We are ourselves, they tell us, chiefly responsible for our own sufferings, for the dissensions, wars and tumults, for example, by which the world is vexed.
Yet when we look about us we are not so sure that malice, hatred and uncharitableness are the sole causes of our tribulation. Though religion and ethics are slow to charge nature with iniquity, she cannot be altogether acquitted. Nature cannot be left out of the account, and is seen to be in some measure to blame for our distress. To take a simple and single instance. The world adds fifty thousand souls a day to its population, and has increased its inhabitants within the last fifteen years by some three hundred millions. This cascade of new life, these millions, desire food, warmth, comfort like the rest of us. Three-quarters of the present dwellers on the earth are already upon the very brink of famine and destitution. Where then for the new-comers are habitable land and means of living to be obtained? Or are they to be blamed for desiring them, or for the struggle to obtain them? The will-to-live, that is, nature herself, is at work in them, a force when lives are at stake, neither to be gainsaid nor condemned.
What, in such a case, then, do religion and ethics propose, what practical proposition? Here is an example of the bewildering predicament in which mankind finds itself. We would substitute, if we could, our moral order for nature’s order, yet, so far from stretching out a hand to help us, she adds to our difficulties, and accumulates our perplexities. Who does not see, if the purpose of God be represented in nature—and what other means have we of discovering it except in His works?—who does not see in the dislocation, the cleavage, between nature, the lifegiver, and our religion and ethics, an impassable crevasse? Of nothing in the wide universe are we the creators. The will-to-live is given us, like all else, and is not of our making. And observe how assured it is, and without hesitations. It knows, or supposes itself to know, quite well, what is both good and bad. The good is what ministers to the free activity, expansion and contentment, the bad is what frustrates, diminishes or denies the aims and desires of the living creature. ‘When I steal my enemy’s wife’, said the negro chief, ‘it is good, but when he steals mine it is bad.’ What could be simpler? But now upon the scene arrive religion and ethics, proposing to substitute for these simple values quite other values. And addressing the will-to-live, nature’s deputy in us, they advance the astonishing statement, ‘You do not know your own needs. You are utterly and miserably mistaken. Nature has deceived you. What you think good is bad, and what you think bad is good.’
In so saying religion and ethics find themselves in very strange and suspicious company, not only in opposition to nature, but arrayed, to all seeming, among the adversaries of life, the worlddespisers and world-deserters, in the company of thinkers like Santayana, whose ‘moral philosophy’, he tells us, ‘is the philosophy of abstention and distaste for life’, among the pessimists, like Schopenhauer, who cry out against separate, individual existence, the world-order, as the root of all human misery, and declare that the sooner it comes to an end the better. Personal life is essentially sinful, and must be abandoned. So the will-to-live is invited to deny its nature and go out of existence. And the thought, no comfortable one, immediately invades the mind, ‘Is it possible that ethical codes are merely a subtle device on the part of the weak majority to disarm, or circumvent the strong minority, to cajole them out of their advantages, and is religion, perhaps, in its essence a flight from the world, from the undertakings and activities to which nature prompts us, not so much an encouragement to live as an invitation to die, aiming at a value which puts an end to all values, a proposal arising less out of a love of God than out of a detestation of the inevitable conditions of existence? Is its true message, however cloaked with eloquent phrases, that the less we have to do with life in the world the wiser and the nobler we shall be?’
A stamp of the foot will not resolve this knot, nor call angelic armies to your aid. Looking back through history we can see how slight, indeed, has been the success of religion and ethics, at the best a very partial success, and that only secured by the assistance they have received from a secret ally in the human soul. For here, as everywhere, we are entangled in the opposites, the contending eagles ‘with ages in their plumes’. The will-to-live is at work in us, a force not to be easily set aside nor destroyed, but there is also at work in us the will-to-love, an influence which is represented by our ideals of perfection, a passion as undeniable as that which resides in the will-to-live, for truth, goodness and beauty, which need no bush, to which religion and ethics make their appeal. Their source is hidden from us, as the source of the will-to-live is hidden from us, yet they, too, speak with authority and persuasiveness.
Throughout its history mankind has been haunted by a dilemma—at whose door shall its troubles be laid? That we ourselves, the men and women now in the world, are in any way responsible for its distractions is a proposition too preposterous for any save the fanatics to entertain. No one any longer believes it. Honesty forbids. ‘We cannot find by experience’, said the sagacious Bishop Butler, ‘that all our sufferings are owing to our own follies.’ Some mysterious agency has been at work, whose doings we cannot fathom, and from which we are estranged. Yet we desire, and desire ardently, to think well of that mighty agency, for its might, whatever we may think of its morals, cannot be questioned. We desire to believe in its good intentions towards us, and even to worship it. ‘The Romans’, said Polybius, ‘were more religious than the gods themselves.’ Surely, we think, the gods cannot be our enemies. Men cherish the idea that the powers above look upon the human race with a friendly eye. They have not, however, at all times been of that opinion. ‘If we were as rich as you’, said a Hindu poet, addressing the gods, ‘we should not allow our worshippers to beg their bread.’ A great mass of forbidding evidence raises itself up against the thesis that the gods are kind. In the eyes of early man the case against them looked black. It was in past times very generally feared that they regarded mankind either with jealousy and disfavour or with complete indifference. Or, if they concerned themselves at all with mortal affairs, they bestowed their scant and capricious favours upon this or that tribe or community for reasons hard to determine. Never till the advent of Christianity was the doctrine anywhere widely disseminated of a loving God, a benefactor of all mankind. Fear of the gods, yes, and an uneasy suspicion of them, much of that, indeed, there was; but affection, a happy trust and confidence in them, no!
Poets and thinkers since the dawn of reason have not seldom been driven to think of human life as cruelly unreasonable, and of man as a wild animal caught in a trap. Turn to the Prometheus of Æschylus, or to The Book of Job, in our own Bible, and you may read eloquent descriptions of the human lot;—its desolation ascribed not to men, but to the Governor of the Universe Himself. When Job’s friends, in conformity with Jewish religion, contend that it is his own sin which has brought upon him the divine displeasure, he breaks out upon them in scornful indignation. He refuses to listen to such sophistries. The sense that he has done his utmost to serve God and do righteousness, and none the less been betrayed and abandoned, is strong upon him. The outbursts of the most modern pessimists are matched in his fierce utterances:
I will not restrain my mouth,
I will speak in the heaviness of my spirit,
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
Were I to call, and he answered
I would not believe that he heard my voice.
He mocks at the despair of the guiltless.
Job submits because he must, but is not persuaded either of the benevolence or of the justice of God. With what scornful irony he answers his critics.
No doubt ye are the people,
And wisdom will die with you.
But I have a head as well as you;
I am not inferior to yourselves:
Yea, who knoweth not such things as these?
What things? That evils befall the righteous as well as the unrighteous, that virtue is no shield against the misfortunes and miseries of humanity.
And this very thought of an indifferent God, which accounts so simply and easily for our human state, appears in the meditations of many great masters of life and of speculation. It prevails today. ‘We stand at all times’, wrote Herbert Spencer, ‘in the presence of an infinite and eternal energy from which all things proceed.’ The attributes of this power do not include either friendliness or benevolence. Human beings do not come within the range of its vision, if it can be said to have any. Gazing at the prodigious massif of that great Himalayan peak, Nanga Parbat, clad in its eternal mantle of snow, General Bruce describes his emotions. ‘It gave one a feeling of impossibility; it gave one also a feeling that one wasn’t there, and it gave one a feeling that if one wasn’t there, it didn’t matter. In fact it was a liberal education in itself.’ So God appears to many minds in these present times. ‘I may say,’ writes the author of Thirty Years in the Frozen North,1 ‘I may say that I am myself a Catholic. But I have not been in church for the last forty-five years, and for all that time I have never said my prayers. I have no religion, because it was no use to me up North. When I am living up there in that far-off corner of the world, and see how terrible nature is at close quarters, I come to the conclusion that we all originate from earth and water. Even the Eskimo, who is stupid, and has never been to school, points to the icy rocks around him, and says, “That is your God, who created you”.’
Go to Spinoza, the ‘god-intoxicated’ philosopher, who has much to say of God and the love of God, and you will learn that God’s thoughts have no more likeness to man’s than the Dog-star has to the dog, the barking animal. How shattering a hammer stroke! Or go to the poet Blake, infected with the Gnostic heresy that the Demiurge, the world-builder, was the adversary of the true God, and you will hear that in his opinion ‘the Creator of this world is a very cruel being’.
Through the myths and fables of many races it runs, this theme of the indifference or tyranny of the cosmic powers. And with it the accompanying theme that mankind has had its champions, who met that tyranny with determined opposition, like Prometheus in the Greek myth—
With courage never to submit or yield.
They were semi-divine beings, these comforters of persecuted humanity, who conferred upon it benefits, denied by the grudging gods. They procured for men fire from heaven, fire to which a peculiar sanctity and value were in early times attached. They were also light-bearers, bringing to them knowledge, which smoothed the rugged path of human destiny. They suffered, these benefactors of the race, at the hands of the jealous deities for their friendliness to mankind and were thus worthy—so said the poets—of the gratitude and honour they received. ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of God and angels,’ declared Blake, ‘and at liberty when he wrote of devils and hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the devil’s party without knowing it.’
Interpret these early stories as you prefer, at least their critical attitude towards the celestial powers is sufficient evidence of the profound discordance felt in all ages and among all peoples between human beings and their surroundings, the inexplicable disharmony between their desires and dreams, the resistances they everywhere encounter.
Disappointment with life in some form or other lies at the root, too, of all religion. Had life contented us, had it been all that we could wish, we should be already in heaven, and in no need to seek happiness here or elsewhere. And to persuade men that the Creator was a God of love, and their misfortunes of their own contriving, has proved an embarrassing and not too successful undertaking.
Do not let us be told that the will-to-believe was absent. The desire for a protecting Providence is writ large in human history. And man could not but marvel that the infinite and majestic Whole of Being, call it by what name you choose, the One or Absolute, should be blind, deaf and heartless. Human logic and human emotion both revolt from the conception of the grand procession of nature, the sum of all creation, as
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Our minds cannot take kindly to such a juxtaposition of ideas, to magnificence unrelated to wisdom, and grandeur divorced from soul. If you have reached the conclusion that the universe is an iron-bound mechanism, you may close your churches and put away your books of devotion. To worship a machine, however vast, is no less an idolatry than to do obeisance before a graven image. Humanity will have it that omnipotence and benevolence should somehow be in alliance. It is Plato’s thought, and none more natural. Deny, however, that Heaven can be to blame for our condition, for ‘the giant agony of the world’, and what alternative offers itself, and where are we to look for its explanation?
Let me recall to your memory a famous passage in Cardinal Newman’s Apologia, in which he describes the dismay which overcame him, when he looked out upon the human scene and saw it as the prophet’s scroll ‘full of lamentation and mourning and woe’. ‘To consider the world’,2 he wrote, ‘in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of men, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, ‘having no hope and without God in the world’—all this is a vision to dizzy and appal; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution. What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence.’
Newman did not stay to ask himself whether any other world than that of the contraries was possible. He assumes its possibility. He assumes also, apparently, that such a perfect world had at one time actually existed. He assumed, certainly, that there might have been quite another and better world, in which other ways of life, other types of enterprise, other forms of government, would have been found, a world whose inhabitants would have been good and happy, sinless and deathless as the angels in Paradise. A perfect universe seemed to him the only natural universe, whereas our part of it, the actually existing world, was unnatural and utterly incomprehensible. Why he should have thought so, or assumed it should be so, we need not now consider. We can see that in this indictment a pious and beautiful soul is speaking. His feelings overflow, and they are not those of our bright optimists, who with a few coats of humanitarian paint will turn earth for you into heaven. His eyes are open. The author of this passage is a man in spiritual extremity, who in his straits was driven into the dilemma, from which, as we have seen, the exit is hard to find. Either there was no Creator, or ‘the human race was implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity’.
The dilemma left Newman no choice. Since he could not accept the conclusion of a world without a Creator, the human creature must himself be held responsible for the situation. It must be that through revolt and disobedience he had fallen from God’s grace. ‘Man had rebelled against his Maker.’ ‘The unaided reason’, Newman tells us, ‘when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God.’ He found, moreover, the conviction of God’s existence in the depths of his own being, no less certain than the conviction of his own existence. He was thus irresistibly impelled to the view that the human race had been its own evil genius, its own destroyer—to the view known to us all as the Fall of Man.
While some, then, of the great speculators have ascribed the sorrows of the world to God, others have with equal confidence attributed them to God’s creatures, to sinful mortals. And there is something exceedingly remarkable in the persistence and vitality of this Eastern conception, which ascribes the sad estate of mankind to the transgression of some divine ordinance.
What possible interpretation can be given, what justification offered of this conception, of which biology and history know nothing? Of man’s rise both have much to tell us, of his fall they never speak. When did he fall, and where? Clearly, indeed, in this conception we have an allegory, and not less clearly it corresponds to some mysterious intuition, echoing from the depths of the human soul.
What then was the original sin, the damnosa hereditas? Metaphysically interpreted, it was the revolt of the Many against the One, whose transgression it was to become the Many, to prefer a personal independent existence in time to a life hidden with God in eternity. Somehow it became possible for human souls to embark upon separate lives, to enter each upon individual existence, to exchange a blessed unity for the pursuit of private aims—in a word, to choose Becoming on their own account to Being, remaining with the One; to prefer a progressive to a static state. Thus the sacred calm, the motionless perfection of Heaven, was shattered, and behold the world of separated selves, each seeking a false felicity, the unattainable end of personal happiness. Of necessity it followed that for this fault, the flight from God, remedy there could be none save in repentance, liberation from the burden of selfhood, and the long and toilsome journey home to the undivided whole of Being, the perfect and immutable Unity. The essence of religion appears to be the recognition of the One. Forget not in your individualism the One. What doth the Lord require of thee? To remember the One.
Needless to ask at what point in man’s history did the separation, the dire event, take place—when came man to take so momentous a decision. These are unanswerable questions. Let us ask instead, how in the light of this conception of the Fall of Man is Christianity to be interpreted? It was claimed by Schopenhauer—a remarkable claim—that he was Christianity’s best, indeed its true, interpreter, who expressed its innermost thought, that of deliverance from the self, from the tyranny of the will-to-live. Jesus Christ, he declared, ‘ought always to be conceived as the symbol or personification of the denial of the will-to-live.’ Schopenhauer contended that the later readings of Christ’s message had forgotten or overlooked its true significance, and degenerated into dull optimism. ‘To turn against the will-to-live, to deny it, is’, he wrote, ‘the only absolute good, the summum bonum, the only radical cure for the disease of life.’ And again, ‘Certainly the doctrine of original sin—the assertion of the will—and of salvation—the denial of the will—is a great truth, which constitutes the essence of Christianity.’ The less man is entangled in any human activity, national, social or domestic, the less associated with other men, the Many, his fellow sinners, the nearer he approaches the primal state of unity and blessedness.
This self-styled apostle of Christianity made one or two attempts to meet the powerful objection to his creed that a revolt against the will-to-live, should it prove successful, must lead to the extinction of all life, to final nothingness. In the end, however, he accepts the inevitable conclusion, accepts nothingness, more attractively expressed in theological terminology as union with God, as the final and desirable state. He turns his back upon time, and declares for eternity, in which all distinctions vanish, and
The dewdrop slips into the shining sea.
The secret, then, is out. Life is a huge mistake. The best is never to have been born, the second best to die.
Was Schopenhauer’s interpretation of Christianity correct? It must, I think, be acknowledged that to the Eastern ideal of asceticism, or world-refusal, our religion inclined in the early centuries a ready ear. If Christ’s teaching be not a rejection of the social, political, intellectual and artistic interests that life offers, we can scarcely refuse to admit that it has been widely so interpreted. We have only to think of the ascetics and their austerities, their suspicion of all the bodily appetites, their aversion from worldly activities, their dread of sex and exaltation of chastity. Christianity, by its acceptance of the Eastern conception of man’s fall, is committed to a world view, a complete philosophy, to a condemnation of the present world, to the belief that it was preceded by a better, a Paradise that man has forfeited, from which, by his revolt from God, he is exiled. It is committed to the conclusion that in deliverance from our earthly lot, and return to our former state, lies our only hope.
This interpretation of existence is in essence the creed and philosophy of India. Is it also the creed of the Christian churches to-day? Or, if not, is Christianity anything more than an ethical gospel, the religion of philanthropy? How difficult it is for the plain man to know where he stands!
And to resolve the knot one question above all others should first be faced and answered, upon which even in theological circles you may observe in these times much hesitation. What are we to understand by this ambiguous and equivocal term, eternal life, of which philosophy and religion speak? Heaven, eternity, union with God—are these phrases synonyms for the extinction of individual existence? In this matter falsehoods and hypocrisies abound. Ask the philosophers or the divines and you plunge them into deep discomfort. How many of them beat a retreat, like the gods and goddesses of Homer, into a protecting cloud, into a smoke screen of monstrous verbiage! This eternal life of higher values and ideals is by no means to be confused, we are told, with everlastingness. It can be enjoyed here and now. And one asks oneself whether it can anywhere else be experienced save now, and only now, in time, the negligible time with which we were accustomed to contrast it, whether, indeed, it be not—a curious paradox—the life of time and no other, lived on some higher and more spiritual plane, without promise of any continuation beyond our few and troubled years. There is much talk of the unreality of time, but this eternity, so important while we are yet in time, ceases apparently to have any further significance for us at our death in time. How lucid and fascinating are the conceptions of the philosophers! It is well, if this be so, to bear in mind that this eternal life will not restore to you your lost friends. It will not reunite lovers parted by death, nor provide any compensation for the cruelties and injustices men have endured. Did Spinoza believe in any future for the individual man, or even desire it? Or did Hegel? Or do any of our advanced theologians? Is theirs not the poetic immortality which in Adonais Shelley assigned to Keats, that he had become ‘a portion of the loveliness that once he made more lovely’?
He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his Being to its own:
Which wields the world with never-wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.
What could be more beautiful? He provides certainly for the dead man a magnificent cemetery. Yet of all this the poet himself after his brief career has ceased to be conscious. He is no longer aware of the loveliness of which he is now a part. It has for him no longer any interest.
Far from the busy mart
Deep in the woods, dear heart,
He’ll lie, and have no part
In friendship or good cheer.
The lyre, the flute so clear
Shall sound, but he’ll not hear.3
And ‘the Power which wields the world with never-wearied love’—where then is the evidence of that love, of that affectionate solicitude for men, for the poet himself, cut off by cruel illness in his youth? If you read the story of his last days you will not, I think, come to the conclusion that it was a matter of indifference to Keats whether or not he continued to be a witness of all this wonderful beauty. And are not love and friendship a part of it? How, too, has it come about, if this Power created so marvellous and delectable a world, that multitudes who passed through it found existence there devoid of any worth, a betrayal of their youthful hopes, their birth a calamity and death a boon?
Through such a chaos of inconsistencies no philosopher could steer a course; in this wild sea of contradictions no ship of thought could swim. Resignation is not seldom described as a Christian doctrine and a mysterious doctrine, a turning away from earthly to heavenly things. But heaven in what sense? Is resignation itself the only heaven, and death a deliverance certainly from the ills of life, but at the same time ‘the morningless and unawakening sleep’? And if this be the Christian’s joyful hope, how does it differ from that of other men? All mankind may equally anticipate the blissful entry into the ‘all-healing hospital of death’, where they will join the happy company of those for ever dead, as dead as any stone. They, too,
When all the tears of time are dry
The night shall lighten from her tearless eye.
from the fetters of the light unbound,
Healed from their wound of living shall sleep sound.
Religion, until our modern interpreters got to work upon it, rested upon the belief in another and a future world, with which our human destinies were somehow associated. If no such world exist interest in religion is, to my mind, of much the same order as an interest in the geography of Gulliver’s travels, or the tribal customs of the Lilliputians. Religion has resigned in favour of ethics. In the eyes of most believers, to excise from Christian doctrine the hope of a life to come would be to extirpate its starry centre, its sublime expectation. I am not discussing the truth of Christian doctrine. I am speaking only of its interpretation. Is Christianity a religion for the stalls, and also a religion for the gallery, for the emancipated intellectuals, who take it in one sense, and the simple folk, who take it in quite another? Is there any doubt of the Christian promises? Is this much talked of better country a pious legend only, a pretty story for the children? What were the glad tidings which have brought comfort to so many millions of aching hearts? All men are not theologians or philosophers, and the question to which the simple folk desire an answer is as simple as themselves—Do the dead exist? If Christ’s teaching gave no promise of individual life beyond the grave, His followers have been, one fears, sadly deceived, and the history of Christianity is the history of the greatest imposture ever practised upon suffering humanity. Christians may find philosophy a dangerous ally if it requires them to believe that the many mansions spoken of by Christ were so many graves; if it requires them to believe that when St. Paul exclaimed, ‘O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ he was indulging in a false and windy rhetoric.
What did Christ teach, and His followers believe these nineteen hundred years? It is not for me to say. I have read in the books of some theologians that a confirmation of the belief in a future life is undesirable. They are, I believe, mistaken. When they assure us further that human destiny, the fate of the soul, is not a religious interest at all, and claim merit for this remarkable discovery, they are not, I think, wise in their generation. They incur a widespread suspicion that they have profound misgivings, are far, indeed, from sure that for this ancient faith there is the slightest foundation. They proclaim that Christianity is not in need of this supporting pillar, and rests upon far more solid columns. It is an interesting speculation how long it would survive the extinction of the belief. In my judgment not long. The decay of this ancient hope, as old as the human race, is the worm at the root of all our creeds, and without it Christianity becomes what Arnold a generation ago declared it to be, ‘Morality touched with emotion,’ a gentle humanitarianism, associated with a time-honoured and beautiful ritual—humanitarianism, which that penetrating thinker, Dostoievsky, held to be the form of atheism most to be dreaded, the greatest anti-religious force in Europe. When Christianity ceases to stand, as it has stood hitherto, for the infinite and everlasting value of the individual, its sun will surely set. Let its guardians look to it. Men will not long distress themselves to save their souls when they know that save for the present hour they have no souls to save. Nor will it long survive if it propose to make of resignation, of deliverance from the world, of abstention from its natural activities, of withdrawal and retreat, the end to be achieved. ‘There is no gain in shutting out the world,’ as Maeterlinck expresses it, ‘though it be with walls of righteousness.’ If it offer no future and exalt dying above living, the time has come to look round for some other and more heroic religion, a religion of encouragement to put more heart into men. Time was when they supposed themselves upon an expedition of some interest and importance. Such a time will come again, and with it a religion to suit the time, to
give the world another heart
And other pulses.
We have digressed. Let us return to Newman’s dilemma. He was convinced of God’s existence, and his conception of deity carried with it the attribute of goodness in the human sense, of kindness towards its creation, as well as of almighty power. His own benevolent heart would have it so, and told him so. A God to whom he might resign in perfect confidence his entire being, alone seemed worthy of that august title. What is a God? It was remarked by Blake that ‘all deities reside in the human breast’. Or, in Spinoza’s acid phrase, a community of triangles would worship a triangular God. So each man seeks a deity after his own heart. Your God is your ideal. A community of logicians would ask for a First Cause, a community of mathematicians for a God who geometrises, while a community of Newmans would create for themselves a God of love.
Thus the Christian’s God filled and satisfied to the exclusion of all others his affectionate and pious soul. But how was this kindly Providence to be demonstrated? Arguments for God’s existence? Yes, there were arguments, with which theologians had busied themselves since the world began, and still busy themselves. Unhappily they fell far short of the demonstration that Newman required. At the most they demonstrated only a First Cause, Aristotle’s Prime Mover, or Plato’s ‘self-subsistent Being’. Of course the world is somehow supported. It does not rest upon the back of an elephant. And this you may also truly say, the architect is present in the building, though not a trace of him is visibly present in its structure. But these arguments for God’s existence were never advanced by the Founder of Christianity. The New Testament—a noteworthy omission—supplies no such arguments. The God whose existence could be proved by ‘the correct use of reason’ was not at all the divine Being of Newman’s, or any Christian’s desire. The God of love does not reside, and so will not be found, in the palace built for him by the metaphysicians. Of what use are such metaphysical gods? Or can any man take an interest in a deity who is uninterested in him? The arguments in support of such a Being, ‘did not’, as Newman himself said, ‘warm or enlighten him,’ or ‘take away the winter of his desolation’. Despite their formidable array, their marches and campaigns, the army of the ontological, teleological, cosmological arguments has no victories inscribed upon its banners. Man asks for a helper, and it is the existence of an ever-present help in time of trouble that is in doubt. An enormous deception, an ugly insincerity infects this whole region of debate. Among the theologians you have Pantheism with a Christian varnish, and among the philosophers a ‘darkness visible’ no eye can pierce. You have the ‘polite atheism’ of Spinoza, for whom God is nature, and who yet calls upon his fellow creatures to love and worship this insensate power, a power as unconscious of their existence as the palm tree of the poet who sings its praise, and, still more absurdly, of its own existence. Conscious man prostrates himself before an unconscious God, unaware of the worship. What kind of bastard piety is this?
‘Never propose to thyself’, said Donne, ‘such a God as thou wert not bound to imitate.’ Yet once for all discard you may, and must, the doctrine that the God of love can be established by arguments, can be either proved or disproved. The only God of whom you can be sure is the God given in your own experience—‘sure of the thing,’ as Jeremy Taylor phrased it, ‘though not sure of the argument’. Experience dispenses with proof; proof rests upon, and can rest upon nothing else than experiences, which speak for themselves. Is beauty ever in need of demonstration, or is goodness? Religion, like poetry, music and painting, requires an organ of vision. You may have a mathematical genius like Newton, or a musical genius like Bach, or a religious genius like St. Francis, or a poetic genius like Virgil, or a genius for action like Napoleon. You may also without genius have an appreciation of such things. The discovery of poetry is man’s discovery, the discovery of music is man’s discovery. The discovery of religion and morals are his discoveries. Est Deus in nobis. There is no other revelation than the revelation of his own soul. And what is the implication of these discoveries? That in the soul itself resides a divine principle of which these are the fruits. Like music and poetry, religion provides its own justification, like them is witness to its own worth. If I am happy, do I hurry round to the psychologists to assure me that it is so, that I am in fact happy? They are much more likely to assure me that I am miserable, and make me so. If you experience in a picture, a poem, a sonata, or in the companionship of a friend a sense of pleasure, or contentment or joy, should you make haste to consult the Royal Society whether in fact you have had or are justified in having any such experience? I do not advise it. You will be plunged in doubt, and presently—debauched by dialectic—cease to believe it. Men are mad enough, yet scarcely so mad as to indulge in such exalted lunacies. If you find, as millions have found, in thoughts of God, in prayer and worship a support and consolation, what more can arguments do for you? The power of religion to confer happiness, to give peace, has abundant testimony in its favour.
Your music’s power your music must disclose,
For what light is ‘tis only light that shows.
Definitions of God are not so much perilous as they are insane. Define God? As well attempt to place a ladder against the sky. He is incomprehensible, and if comprehensible were no longer God. ‘We can know’, as St. Augustine said, ‘what God is not, but we cannot know what He is.’ And though the intellect delights to try its wings in the ambient air of speculation, ‘tis too chill and nipping for the soul. To enquire further for a better understanding into the nature of divine Being is to gaze at the sun. The greater the light the more the pupil of the eye contracts; it dazzles, and the excess of light becomes a darkness. Nor is there any value in a belief which fails to move us, which we accept without interest and go our ways without recalling. Only those which inflame the spirit have any virtue, or are worthy to be called beliefs at all, and the wise man holds by the faith which provides for him the strongest incentive to living, and rouses his highest powers.
How slippery is the ground over which we have travelled! So confused are we in these times amid the hubbub of contending voices that we have almost come to believe, in Fontenelle’s words, that ‘everything is possible, and everybody is right’. Can we be sure of anything? Yes, we may be sure that there are such things as obsolete and superannuated ideas, that have served their turn, and are no longer useful. And to quarrel with the conditions of existence, to crucify yourself, to look upon resignation as the key to religion are among them. There are also others. That either God or man must somehow be held to blame for the human situation, that the Fall of Man was the great aboriginal catastrophe—of these incoherent doctrines nothing can be made. What can be substituted? Well, there are alternatives. If we were to interpret the so-called Fall of Man as a fortunate rather than a lamentable occurrence, if we were to call it rather his coming of age, the moment at which he took upon himself his natural duties and responsibilities, matters might begin to wear a sensibly brighter appearance. If it were regarded as the moment at which a world of finite creatures came into being, providing for them a field of enterprise, we might look upon ourselves with less pity together with greater interest and respect. If we were to substitute for the idea of a lost paradise, in which there was no room for activity, since nothing could be done there without impairing its everlasting perfection, for the idea of human beings loitering for ever through fields of asphodel, the idea of a more honourable rôle assigned them, and a more adventurous journey through the Cosmos, and of the world as a family estate left us to do with as we please, if we could substitute for the thought of ourselves as timid children in a well-regulated nursery the conception of a resolute company of men, a band of vikings, standing on their own feet, and no longer afraid of what time or change might bring—would these be impious or dangerous thoughts? ‘Why stand we here’, enquired Blake, ‘trembling around, calling on God for help, and not ourselves in whom God dwells?’ To die upon the last rampart for the cause he holds most dear is the happiest death for any man. Or can you tell me of a better?
The gods may be interested to see what we can make of the world; and our business seems to be to make it what we should like it to be, if—as is not, indeed, impossible—we may have, ourselves, to return to it. We must do our best, and yet not expect too much either of ourselves or our fellow creatures. Die Zeit ist unendlich lang, and the journey no doubt will be a chequered one. If we are foolish and stupid, it will make it all the easier to become wiser; if, as is certain, we are far from perfect, there will be all the more room for improvement. And if it be asked, ‘What assurance have we of final victory?’ I answer, ‘They are not soldiers who require to be assured of it before taking the field.’ ‘Upon the night-view of the world’, as Fechner wrote, ‘a day-view must follow, which will give foundation to the view of the natural man—not contradict it.’ The natural man? Yes, he must be accepted. And with him we must accept the things of time. ‘All that the earth provides we must like’—‘Nothing is superfluous, nothing is to be rejected.’ We must build on what we know and have, making of human experience and history a foundation for our efforts and ideals. And if it be not our positive duty to give currency to the ideas in which we believe, to give them enduring form, to ensure their acceptance for the good of future generations, to fight for them, ‘to adorn our Sparta’—if this be not our duty, I for my part cannot tell you where our duty is to be sought.