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Chapter II: The Ideal of the Mind

From our outline sketch of the phenomenon called religion we come now to consider, equally in outline, what progress in religion means, or how the less developed forms differ from the higher. And here we leave the purely empirical point of view, and are obliged more or less to pass judgment. We cannot avoid this, for to speak of development or progress is to imply a standard by which we judge the phenomena. We need not make this a standard of truth, indeed, which would be to prejudge the question whether all religions are not equally false; but any reasonable man who held that view would still distinguish religions as lower and higher, less or more worthy of human nature at its best, less or more likely to stimulate the believer to a good life. Nor do we really abandon the empirical position or simply judge by a standard in ourselves and our society: we are still observing facts. For what we call the progress from lower to higher is the way in which, as a matter of fact, religions do change. It is a change observable, on the whole, within single religions, and again, on the whole, in the supersession of one by another. Finally, we can see that this movement, with all its eddies and relapses, still answers to the nature of man and of religion. What we call the higher stage is a working out of the same needs and tendencies that operated in the lower but were not fully satisfied in it. In short, we are judging as we judge when, for example, we call the movement from earlier forms of community to the city-state and from that to the national state ‘progress’—not merely because the later is nearer to our private ideal, but because it does more completely what was done less completely by the earlier.

There are, however, certain things to be borne in mind in thinking of this progress. We must not assume that, because one form is higher than another, it is therefore higher in all respects. Progress is not of that nature. It is always a losing of something in order to gain more of something else. When, having admired anything greatly, we find it unsatisfying and transfer our admiration to something better, we are apt to lose our sense of that which really was admirable in the first. And so it is on the larger scale. To suppose that the national European state is superior in every point to the Greek city-state, or Christianity to Judaism or Greek polytheism, or one form of Christianity to another, is blindness. And we may go lower. People who worshipped, in some sense, the sun or a spring or fire or a cat, must surely have seen in them or felt about them much more than most of us, perhaps any of us, see or feel. We cannot worship the spirits of our ancestors, nor yet our king, but we shall hardly maintain that our piety produces such a flame of patriotism, and such a hatred of life, when duty calls for death, as we heard of in the common Japanese. Special sensitiveness to that which is divine on earth is scattered over the whole globe and down the whole history of man; it issues in the ideal of the one religion which includes all and cannot possibly be exhausted in a single form. But, perhaps we may say, this unrealisable ideal of a single religion would be to re-vivify, within its own sphere and in the spirit of that sphere, the intuitions which had given their peculiar truth and beauty to each of its predecessors.

In the same way the movement within a single religion is never an unmingled progress. When, for example, a religion is definitely that of a limited being like a people, the decay of that people may involve the inward as well as the outward decay of its religion. And when this danger is not equally present or not present at all, when a religion has its main origin in a historical founder, this means—whatever else it may be held to mean—a person of extraordinary religious genius; and his experience, like all the experiences of great genius, in spreading itself into inferior minds, or elaborating itself to suit more logical minds, is always both attenuated and coarsened, even when it is not overlaid with legend or externalised into a ceremonial system.

Lastly, the religion of a higher stage, if you take it in the concrete in the minds of the mass of its adherents, never belongs wholly to the higher stage. It always contains much that belongs to the lower, relics persisting and reasserting themselves untransformed by the principle of the higher. Thus among Christians the idea of God actually used, as distinct from that explicitly acknowledged, is frequently more Hebraic than Christian; and, to go lower, relics of pagan ideas and customs are found in all Christian countries. Sometimes again, when such relics do not appear, you can still only understand a man's religion by remembering the forgotten religion of his ancestors. For instance the stoicism, grim or cheerful, of the best peasants in the Teutonic parts of our island, which certainly forms a part of the faith they live by, cannot be understood if you consider Christianity alone: it is easily understood if you read Icelandic sagas or the documents of early Teutonic religion. Most of us, too, perhaps have superstitious feelings, however much we may decline to be influenced by them, which may remind us of the religions of savages, dim fears of disaster to come from unknown capricious powers, shadowy notions of things lucky and unlucky, alarms from dreams, coincidences, the unaccountable suddenness with which ideas present themselves apparently totally disconnected with our overt consciousness. These are the spirits of our distant ancestors imprisoned in some Hades deep within ourselves, where they still perform their mysteries and senseless rites. And not all of us exclude these rites from our religion. A good many hold a mixed religion. One day they believe that the world is governed by perfect wisdom and goodness, and the next they are afraid of the number thirteen, go to a fortune-teller, or refuse to be married in May.

Let us now try to distinguish certain main lines of advance in religion, which we shall find to be connected. And the first will be a tendency to monotheism, which, we should observe at once, does not mean merely the worship of one god but also the belief that there is only one. It is natural to the early worshipper to deify everything that strikes him as unusual and greatly superior to himself in some way, without looking for any connection of one thing with another; this idea of connection or order or law is beyond him, and both nature and human nature are to him mere aggregates of independent things or powers. Hence he has a great number of separate objects of worship. And this polytheistic tendency persists, of course, for an immense time, so that much later a man worships, for example, the sun and fire as perfectly independent deities, in spite of what to us is the obvious fact that they both do the same thing—give heat and light. The process towards unity goes through intermediate stages, differing in different religions: the gods come even to be conceived as an order or system in which one is more or less supreme, as in Greek religion; or a people from worshipping a number of gods passes to the worship of one only, though it continues for a time to believe in the existence of the others, as with the Hebrews (according to the theory now usual); or, in a religion, there may be a belief in two independent principles, though only one of them is worshipped—as in the religion of Zoroaster. Monotheism is reached only with the belief that there is only one God. Other superhuman beings may be believed in, as e.g. in Christianity, but not as gods, not as beings independent of the one God. Distinctions again may be admitted in God, but not a distinction fatal to his unity.

The belief in one sole God is evidently the correlation of the perception of the unity in human nature, intellectually of the unity of reason. To the modern mind, accordingly, in which the working of this unity is powerful, any notion of reverting to polytheism in any shape seems at first almost absurd, and any idea even of dualism, of the notion of two independent principles, is also repugnant. Apart from more specifically religious feelings, these ideas are felt to run directly counter to the impulse of the intellect, as seen, for instance, in science, and beyond it in philosophy—the impulse to find unity, to connect everything with one cause or at least in one whole.

Connected with the advance to monotheism is the advance to the idea that God is the God of all men, not merely of an individual, or a family, or a clan, or city, or nation or race. And here the correlation to which I have just referred is even more obvious. The sense of the identity of human nature, familiar to us but a comparatively late development, goes along with the growth of the monotheistic idea, though the two do not necessarily advance at the same rate.1

The influence of this belief in one God as the God of all men is an example of the double-sided character of human progress. It would seem that it must necessarily make for peace and unity: perhaps on the whole it does so now; but in the past, translated into the idea that all men must believe and worship in the same way, it has been the source, perhaps, of more evil than was ever caused by the ambition of kings, or the animosities of peoples—evils so terrible that an impartial visitor from another planet might wonder whether things were not better when each people had its own gods, and viewed the gods of its neighbours, for the most part, with indifference if not with kindness. The idea of the universal god again has another danger of an opposite kind, religious individualism. When a man's deity is the god of his country it cannot be simply his: but the god of all men may become mine in particular, and I may be so absorbed in my personal relation to him as to forget that my country's claim on me is his claim. It is not hard to understand how Hegel in his younger days, face to face with the impotent divisions of Germany, was drawn rather to Greek religion than to Christianity. Still, with all its drawbacks, the idea of God as the God of all men unquestionably, as an idea, is the goal of religious advance on one line.

The two movements we have now glanced at are connected, thirdly, with another, progress to the idea of God as infinite. This appears as a tendency to magnify his power, and ultimately to conceive it as unlimited. When there are many gods, or even two, sooner or later the idea of their collision arises: it is the reflection of the war in nature and in human nature. But the one and only God has no rival, as the god of a people may have, nor any one to quarrel with, as Hera quarrelled with Poseidon. Neither is he limited by a Fate in the darkness behind him. And if evil spirits and evil men oppose his will, it is only by the permission of his will. Nature and everything else that is finite is completely dependent on him: he is their creator, or their source, or in some sense includes them. Or else they do not really exist: he alone really is. In one way or another he is conceived as limited by nothing; that is, as infinite.

It would not be difficult to bring all that has been said under a fourth and last heading, progress in spirituality, advance from sense or from nature to spirit: for it is sense and nature that divide and are multiple, and therefore cannot be one or self-dependent or infinite. The beginning of religion, as known to us, is the belief in ‘spirits’, its advance is to the belief in spirit; to conceptions drawn from the higher intellectual and moral life of man, but freed (at any rate in intention) from the limits of that life. We may trace the advance in several ways.

(a) The god is gradually freed from nature. At first he may be called an animated and conscious natural object—sky or sun or tree or animal. Then he becomes a magnified human mind, still, however, in some special connection with a part of nature and really limited by it. He lives on a mountain, for example, and has to journey about the world. Then he is liberated from nature: he is not a part of it, nor the aggregate of it, nor dependent on it, though it is dependent on him. Hence at last any language which implies spatial or temporal limitation, and has come down from earlier stages, is regarded as figurative.

(b) The god, freed from external nature and thought of as like a man, escapes from the natural or physical in man. At first he has a body, just as a man has, though it has greater powers. He has eyes, hands, face and so on, quite literally: but all this, with his dependence on the physical needs and appetites of man, is gradually discarded, and language implying it is regarded as figurative.

(c) The notion of his soul, if I may put it so, naturally advances at the same time. At first he is frequently as monstrous and cruel as the forces of nature sometimes appear to us. Then he becomes a powerful monarch, sublime and sometimes gracious, but arbitrary, irritable, given to favouritism, open to bribes, subject to jealousy, envy, revengefulness. We may say that the idea of him becomes more ethical in two senses. He is the revealer and patron of all ethical institutions and of the arts and sciences, and the guardian of justice and truth; then he himself becomes just, kind, and pitiful, and at last is the ideal of perfection. Everything therefore which comes down from an earlier stage and contradicts this ideal has in some way to be removed. But the formula as to the idea becoming more ethical is not wide enough, for there is a parallel advance on the intellectual side. The earlier god, though superior to man, has man's intellectual limitations, and is partly ignorant and subject to misapprehension, sometimes stupid and easily outwitted; much later he is still in blindness regarding the decrees of Fate; at last he is conceived as, in some way, knowing all things and knowing them completely, the future equally with the past and present, the ideal of intelligence as well as will. But we must add that he is thus conceived with the proviso that his immeasurable distance from humanity must not be obscured or diminished.

Perhaps we may sum up, so far, by saying that religion appears to tend to an idea of God as one infinite perfect spiritual being, the source in some sense of nature, and both the source and the goal of humanity. And the worship of this being, it appears, would attain completely the end of religion, which is to procure for the worshipper freedom from his limitations and from evil, through union with something which itself is free from them.

(d) Parallel with these changes in the idea of God run changes in man's notion of himself, and of the good and the evil which he seeks from, or in, the union with the god. He is at first mainly a natural being and his good is to him chiefly the greater security and fulness of this natural being. The notion of his good is gradually expanded and dignified and moralised, and the more natural elements are subordinated to higher ones, until the most spiritual are regarded as alone unconditionally good, and the others as receiving goodness only from relation to them. Hence there is a growing recognition of the fact that the highest good is attainable only by sacrifice of the lower, and even that this sacrifice is an essential part of it and therefore not evil at all. And in Christianity this idea of sacrifice, of affirmation through negation, appears in a sense even in the conception of God. Thus, with the rough truth that alone is possible in these broad statements, we may say that religion itself, the union with God, becomes more and more an end in itself. At first it is scarcely more than a means to natural good; then you have stages where it is realised that in itself it is a great good, though it is also a means to prosperity (success in war and the like) and this prosperity, though semi-moral, is still an independent good; then there grows the perception that union with God is the first good, that a large self-denial is necessary to its attainment, and that, if necessary, it is not only right but the most desirable of things to give up everything else in order to attain it. ‘Evil’ now means separation from God, and nothing is really evil except that, or what leads to that: ‘good’ means union with God, and nothing is in the end good except that and what leads to it or results from it.

Hence, if we consider the religious feelings, we see that these change their character; and we may also say, again with a very rough truth, that the negative feelings tend to lose and the positive to gain. The fear of natural power passes into fear of the moral superior, whose displeasure means inward pain as well as outward adversity, and this into fear of separation from the supreme object of desire or love. This does not imply that the negative feelings in some form can be lost, but that the positive gain upon them, as God is regarded more and more as the highest good.2

Hence, finally, the notions of worship are gradually spiritualised. But in the instances of prayer and sacrifice we have already seen examples of this advance, and it need not detain us. Its goal would appear to be the perception that union with a spiritual being can exist only in purely spiritual activities, and that outward worship can have religious value only as the means to such activities, to their completion or expression.

One general remark remains to be made, before we pass on, regarding all that has been said as to progress in religion. The point is of importance but it also involves difficulties, the consideration of which would be out of place here, and I will deal with it as briefly as possible. Progress is made in religion, as everywhere, by negation, and the new idea is therefore apt to appear as the blank denial of the old one. But, throughout, we must be careful not to assume that this is more than a transitory stage or that it forms the goal of advance. That, we must say, is rather the restoration of the old idea within the new one; that is to say, the restoration of it not in its original shape but as an element of the new one. Thus, if the multiplicity of polytheism has to be denied, that does not mean that the goal of religion is an idea of God as abstract unity, whether personal or impersonal. If God from being national becomes universal, that does not mean that all peoples or individuals must be in equal measure his instruments, or that he is not manifested in national history as much as in individual. If God ceases to be material, and if the life of mere sense has to be reckoned un-divine and to be sacrificed to the spiritual, that does not mean that in the most developed religion matter is regarded as evil or incapable of manifesting God, or that physical health and what is called worldly prosperity may not be elements in spiritual life. And if man comes to find the unity of his being in his spirit, that should mean, not some hidden centre or residuum of his concrete activities, but one life or force pervading all of them. In all cases the abstract denial, necessary perhaps as a stage, tends to pass into re-affirmation, in a changed form, of that which was denied, and if this does not happen that which was denied tends to assert itself afresh, not in subordination, but in its original and now perverse independence.

We have now in a preliminary manner completed our outline of religion considered as a state or activity of the soul. We may call it inward religion. But there remain the outward expressions of this activity, and the outward media connected with it. They will constitute outward religion, a phrase which we must use without implying by it any shade of depreciation, or any opinion that outward religion is inessential, or that inward could be complete or even exist apart from it.3

We shall, however, arrive most rapidly at some account of outward religion if for the moment we ignore its relation to the inward and treat it as merely outward. And to do this let us take what lies nearest to us and imagine how a stranger quite ignorant of the religion of this country might describe its outward worship. At certain recognised times, he would say, a man goes to a recognised place, where he meets with others assembling for the same purpose. Here, partly perhaps directly, and at any rate through a recognised person or persons, they offer prayers, read passages from sacred writings, and join perhaps in a sacramental action. Their prayers they sometimes speak of as offerings or sacrifices, and some of them also describe the sacramental action as a sacrifice. In prayer a particular bodily attitude is adopted, and in some assemblies many gestures or movements are used by the ministrant. Most of the worshippers also have at some time been baptised; that is to say, some part of the body has been touched or washed with water. This, of course, would be a merely external description and also a partial one; but it may answer our purpose. Equally from the outside, and equally partially, we may say that generally in religion we find an outward worship in which there is prayer or sacrifice; we find gestures and movements, lustrations and other rites; sacred times, sacred places, and frequently sacred writings; often special persons considered sacred, by their office or in some other way; generally some definite community united in and by the worship. All this and more of the same kind we may perhaps include, for the sake of brevity, under the head of outward worship, as consisting in that or closely connected with it, but we must not assume that this is the whole of outward religion.

We need not examine outward worship fully, but I must touch briefly on its relation to inward religion.

In the first place, to the great majority of worshippers of all times and places, though doubtless more at some times and places than at others, it is a matter of immense importance and a most vital part of religion. A savage would be much amused or horrified by the suggestion that his gods would dispense with prayers or offerings, and the average Christian would hardly agree that a man may be religious though he does not go to church. Any tendency to depreciate the importance of outward worship is out of harmony with religion in the accepted sense of the word—the phenomenon we are considering. It is natural, therefore, that in the study of religion as a phenomenon of human history outward worship or the cult should occupy a very large space, a space as large perhaps as that given to ideas and beliefs, and in recent times perhaps even larger. And these two aspects, outward worship and the theoretical element of religion, in this study overshadow the aspects of inward feeling and devotion. This is inevitable, for they are much more open to observation; but it is also unfortunate, because it exaggerates the great importance attached to beliefs and outward acts of worship in religion itself. It is unfortunate also in this way. The beliefs and outward acts, in the case of religions not shared by the observer, often appear to him absurd or immoral. He is ignorant of the feelings and the inward devotion which accompany them and which no considerate man would wholly despise, and so he is tempted to regard all strange religions as mere superstitions, or perhaps to extend that view to all religions alike.

There remains in regard to part of an outward worship (e.g. prayer and sacrifice) the question ‘How is it related to inward worship?’ This question is a very difficult one, and I doubt if an answer can be given to it which would be true of all religions. Can we describe the one, for example, as merely the expression of the other? If we think of such a prayer as ‘Thy will be done’, or of the sacrifice of a contrite spirit, it is natural to regard these as the expression of the inward devotion. But even in the higher forms of religion prayer is often a request for some more or less outward good. In the lower it sometimes appears as a present made to the god, a kind of flattery which is thought likely to dispose him to make a substantial return. Or, again, it is a species of food which strengthens him, and so enables him to operate more vigorously in favour of his worshippers. Or it may even be a magical charm which forces him to do what is wanted whether he likes to do it or not. Obviously you cannot describe such prayer—nor perhaps prayer on the whole—as a mere expression of inward worship.

Sacrifice, again, some of us may think, must be purely spiritual. That which is sacrificed is the natural desire, or rebellious will. Or, if it is something outside the worshipper's soul, his time, or money, or health, it is not supposed to have any value to God except as a symbol of inward devotion. God cannot care about having the man's money as money, or his health as health. But sacrifice in religion is usually much more than this—or rather much less, for the hardest thing to sacrifice is a man's heart. The offering at one stage is perhaps like the prayer or gift that pleases the god, not because it betokens anything, but because it is itself. He likes a sweet smell, or the taste of blood, or he wants nourishment just as the worshipper does or as the ghosts of his ancestors do. Or, perhaps, the sacrifice is not this, but an actual communion, as we should say a physical communion, in which the life blood of the slaughtered beast is regarded as also the life-blood of the god, and becomes by being devoured the life-blood of the worshippers. In none of these cases, which are typical of many others, can the outward worship be called a mere expression of inward religion: it is either a means to union with the god, or it is that union itself. And even when prayer and sacrifice are regarded in what some will think the most spiritual way, they seem still to be more than a mere expression. They appear—at any rate in many cases—to be required in order to make the inward act complete, to clinch the man's resolution, to commit his will fully, even to show him clearly what it is that he wants. And so they are really part of the inner act and not only the sign of it,4 just as expression in art is not really mere expression, that which is to be expressed is only fully formed by being expressed.5

Thus it seems that whether you take the outward worship in its crudest or in its most spiritual form, still it cannot in strictness be distinguished from inward religion as a mere utterance or a mere symbol. But the relation in which the two stand to one another appears to differ so greatly in different cases that it is difficult to see how to include them all under one head, and therefore one can only describe them indefinitely as outward worship.

This is all that can be said here of outward worship. But the question remains: Is outward worship the whole of outward religion, or only a part of it?

Outward worship is sharply separated from the rest of outward life. It is called, for example, sacred or religious, the rest profane or secular; and this sharp separation, which of course extends also into the inner sphere of belief, emotion, and volition, is characteristic of the phenomenon of religion. But in most of the higher forms, apart from misunderstanding or perversion, religion would not be regarded as complete, or even as genuine, if the inner state produced only an outward worship, and did not flow over into action on the whole field of life. True religion, we hear, for example, is to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction. To the true worshipper of the civic or national god good citizenship was a religious duty. And a famous modern philosopher, reproached by his landlady for absenting himself from divine worship, replied ‘My good lady, thinking too is divine worship’. Perhaps we may say that, on the whole, outward religion is held to consist partly in outward worship, but partly and essentially also in the doing, as a religious duty, whatever it is right to do—that is, in religious morality. And so the sphere of outward religion will be the whole of life; nothing can fall outside it, except through the defect of the worshipper; just as the spheres of morality or art or philosophy are limited only by subjective defect, not in their own nature.

But we can only say this on the whole, or speak of it as what ought to be. For, in the first place, in human development something which we must call religion appears sooner than what most of us would call morality, and the earliest undeniable morality seems not always at any rate to be referred to a divine origin or sanction. Religion, then, seems to have a private sphere of its own, not co-extensive with life.6 Again, at the other end of the scale, we sometimes find a detachment of religion from active morality, both in the higher religions of the East and, as we all know, in Christianity. This would seem to arise usually not from lack of religion but from mistakes in theory. And the mistake reappears often enough in accounts of religion. It is not a rare experience, though a melancholy one, to read elaborate descriptions of religion which treat it as though it were a thing shut up in a hothouse, and never so much as mention the actions of a good man. Yet in any but a low stage these surely must be counted to belong quite as essentially as does outward worship to outward religion.

We have now considered in outline, first, religion on its inner side as an attitude or act of the whole soul, theoretical, emotional and volitional; and then religion on its outward side as outward worship and religious action.7 It remains, finally, to notice a religious belief which could not be considered until we had glanced at outward worship or the cult.

This, to use the word in its widest sense, is the belief in revelation. In well-nigh all religions, if not in all, it is believed that man's knowledge of the god and of his will, including the forms of worship and religious morality, comes from the god, is divinely communicated. And this is regarded as absolutely essential: the security and sanctity both of the worshipper's beliefs and of his worship (the means of union with his god) depend on it. So also does the possibility of his knowing the future, his ignorance of which is one of the most prominent evils of life from which he desires freedom. The revelation may take place in many different ways, most obviously by the occasional appearance of the god, or by his incarnation, but again through oracles, messengers, signs that have to be divined, dreams, visions, supernatural events, an inward inspiration issuing in prophecy or in sacred writings. In all cases there is something extraordinary, wonderful, in later language, miraculous. The original revelation is handed down by tradition, and in the less developed religions is lost in antiquity, and described only in mythology, but in other cases, such as Christianity, Mahommedanism, Buddhism, it attaches to historical figures. Any attempt to depart from it is commonly regarded as in the highest degree impious and therefore dangerous, though religions differ according as they attach the greater importance to the revealed ideas or to the revealed cult.8 The main general idea is that the religion must not be altered, though the content of revelation may be explicated. If the fact of change is forced into consciousness, there is disquietude or alarm. If, on the other hand, the need of change is felt, it tends to take the form of an attempted return to the original revelation, unless there is the intense consciousness of a new one, when, given an appropriate soil, a new religion may be founded, as in the case of Buddhism and Christianity.

  • 1.

    This is shown in the history of the Jewish religion. Yet there we see in the post-Exodic literature, as the monotheistic idea becomes purer and purer, the growing of the idea that the God of Israel is to be the god of all nations.

  • 2.

    One has to ignore, of course, in such a general statement as this the great differences that arise from the character of peoples, e.g. Greeks and Hebrews.

  • 3.

    The phrase means merely religion as it can be observed from without or shows itself without.

  • 4.

    Or again it is a communion of man and God, for to the worshipper the strength by which he prays that God's will may be done, or sacrifices his heart to God, is not his own but comes from God.

  • 5.

    This bears on the question whether religion may not be complete though merely inward.

  • 6.

    I use guarded expressions because the matter is not so clear to me as it seems to be to some anthropological authorities, while I am not competent to check their statements of fact. It is, however, certain, I suppose, that in very low stages there is nothing like the intimate connection between morality and religion which is general later.

  • 7.

    In so doing, prayer was considered only as it appears in outward worship; but it may of course be also considered as an element in inner religion.

  • 8.

    The Greeks, for instance, were comparatively lax about the former.

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