Examination of Definitions.
Natural and Revealed Religions.
MOST of the earlier definitions of religion which we shall have to examine have reference to Judaism and Christianity only.
These two religions were considered in Europe at least as different in kind from all the rest being classed as supernatural and revealed in opposition to all other religions which were treated as not-revealed as natural and by some theologians even as inspired by the powers of evil.
In an historical study of religion however such a distinction is untenable for we shall find that the claim of revelation or the assertion of a supernatural origin is by no means peculiar to Christianity and Judaism. Most of the great religions of the world were by their followers believed to have been revealed and the arguments by which such a belief was supported are much the same among all theologians.
As the founders of most religions professed to teach what no eye had seen nor ear heard they could not invoke the ordinary authorities for the truth of their doctrines but had to appeal to supernatural sources of knowledge. And even in cases where the founders themselves made no such claim but took their stand on the testimony of the spirit of truth only their followers would soon ascribe to them a higher authority so as to render all questionings and all opposition to their doctrines impossible. This applies to all or nearly all religions and the claim of a supernatural origin so far from being exceptional is really one of the most natural tendencies of natural religion.
The student of Comparative Theology therefore can claim no privilege no exceptional position of any kind for his own religion whatever that religion may be. For his purposes all religions are natural and historical. Even the claim of a supernatural character is treated by him as a natural and perfectly intelligible claim which may be important as a subjective element but can never be allowed to affect the objective character of any religion.
In that respect Comparative Theology has but followed the example of what used to be called Natural Theology which was always defined as the study of religion independent of revelation. It professed to comprise all that could be known of God by the aid of the human understanding alone. This system of natural religion such as we find it elaborated for instance by Raymundus de Sabunde (or Sebonde) was intended at first to serve as an introduction only to revealed religion. But it soon became independent and Natural Religion in its purity and reasonableness threatened to excel all revealed religion. In the last century all religions began to be treated as sects if not as corruptions of Natural Religion and a study which at first was looked upon as a powerful aid to faith was afterwards discouraged as dangerous to the interests of true religion.
Natural Theology differed however from what is now called Comparative Theology in that it paid but scant attention to the historical religions of the world framing its ideal of what natural religion ought to be from the inner consciousness only.
But in the same way as towards the beginning of our century General Grammar which taught what according to the rules of logic language ought to be was replaced by Comparative Grammar which showed what language really had been the study of Natural or General Theology also had to make room for the study of Comparative Theology or what may be called the Science of Religions as distinguished from the Science of Religion. While Natural Theology treated of religion in the abstract or of what religion might or should have been Comparative Theology studies religions as they have been and tries to discover what is peculiar to each and what is common to all with a silent conviction that what is common to all religions whether revealed or not may possibly constitute the essential elements of true religion.
Modus cognoscendi et colendi Deum.
The first definition with which we have to deal and which is perhaps the most widely accepted among Christian theologians existed as we shall see with a very slight alteration among non-Christian as well as among Christian theologians. In most theological manuals we find religion defined as modus cognoscendi et colendi Deum ‘ a mode of knowing and worshipping God.’
Though accepted by most theologians as unobjectionable this definition has not escaped criticism. It is said that a definition should trace whatever has to be defined back to one genus proximum not to two; that if religion is a mode of knowing God well and good; but that it cannot be at the same time a mode of worshipping God. This may be true in logic but what can we do if as a matter of fact the same name has been given to our knowledge as well as to our worship of God? In that case the definition of religio as modus cognoscendi et colendi Deum would at all events be historically correct. But that is not all. There are surely many concepts which have two sides nay which become complete only when we comprehend these two or more sides as sides of one and the same concept. We may define a triangle by its three angles as well as by its three sides. Our definition of logic becomes complete only if we define it both as a knowledge and as an art. Even while engaged in studying logic and gaining a knowledge of the laws of thought we practise these very laws while afterwards in practising the laws we know also as logicians that we know them. It is the same in medicine in law and in most of what we call the applied sciences.Knowledge and practice ἐπιστήμη and τέχνη are mostly inseparable.
And this really holds true in religion more than anywhere else. Is not religion as mere knowledge or faith said to be ‘dead being alone’ that is being without works? And would not works however perfect and useful cease to be religions if performed without a motive without a knowledge of God?
Feeling or knowledge as motive of action.
But we may even go a step further. All our acts are stimulated either by feeling or by knowledge by percepts or by concepts. A feeling of pain makes us act in one way a feeling of pleasure in another. A mere perception of distance makes the crow fly direct that is by the shortest road and induces a peasant to cross a field diagonally instead of laterally. A knowledge of geometry produces the same action only lined with intelligence. An engineer does what the crow does only he does it not simply by intuition but because he knows that the hypothenuse of any triangle is nay must always be shorter than the two other sides together. In this way every act of ours may be shown I believe to be under the influence of either feeling or knowledge and thus the active side of religion also could easily be shown to be inseparable from though of course not identical with the theoretic side.
The logical fault therefore of tracing religion to two proxima genera instead of one if fault it be would have its historical justification in the fact that active religion whether worship or morality is in its beginning at all events inseparable from religious knowledge while in most cases religious knowledge would by its very nature lead to religious acts.
The object of religion must be defined.
There is however a much more serious difficulty in this definition and this may best be discovered if we examine the same definition as we find it in a very similar wording in the writings of a heathen philosopher namely Seneca. He defines religion as Cognoscere Deum et imitari ‘to know God and imitate him.’ Now let us remark that Seneca does not say to know the gods and imitate them but to know God and imitate him. We must indeed not lay too much stress on this for it is well known how promiscuously philosophers of his age used deus either in the singular or the plural. Thus the same Seneca says: ‘I do not obey God but I assent to him with all my heart; he worships the gods best who imitates them.’ Now if Seneca had in his definition of religion spoken of an imitation of the gods we should probably have detected at once the serious fault which his definition shares in common with that of our own theological manuals. We shall see that in defining religion both definitions leave the most important part namely the object of religion undefined. If Seneca had explained religion as a knowledge and imitation of Mars Bacchus or Venus we should have said at once But how do you know that there are such beings as Mars Bacchus or Venus? What do you know about their character and their proceedings and why do you advise us to imitate them? The flaw which in Seneca's definition of religion would thus have become palpable at once can hardly escape notice in the Christian adaptation of it. If the object of religion if what is to be known and to be worshipped can thus be taken for granted and left undefined by simply calling it God we might with the same right explain physical science as a knowledge of nature or moral science a knowledge of good and evil without stating what we mean by nature or what we understand by good and evil. Such definitions would be pure tautology. If we once know what we mean by god or gods the definition of religion becomes easy enough. But the discovery and elaboration of the name and concept of gods and god form really the most important and the most difficult chapter in the history of religion and to take that fundamental element of religion as simply granted is to overlook the most difficult part in a definition of religion.
It will be easily seen however that nearly all definitions of religion and particularly those of modern philosophers take the object of religion for granted or explain it by terms which themselves stand in need of definition. Plato naturally does not like to speak of gods in the plural but when he uses instead the Divine τὸ θϵι̑ον he ought to have defined it. Of modern philosophers Schleiermacher used the Infinite instead of God; Professor Pfleiderer speaks of the world-controlling Power Dr. Martineau in his recent work on Religion of the Divine Mind and the Divine Will or even of the Unknown; and the author of the Philosophy of Religion your own honoured Principal defines religion as a surrender of the finite will to the infinite will.
If we were all agreed on the meaning of these terms the Divine the Infinite the Unknown the world-controlling Power the infinite Will no formal objections could be taken to these definitions. But our antagonists will not allow us to take any of these terms for granted or as requiring no definition.
If religion is knowledge they say does not all depend on what we know? If religion is belief must we not ask first of all what it is that we are to believe or how our mind got possession of the concept and name of divine beings that are to be believed? Let religion be fear or love worship or meditation its essential character must always be determined by the object to which it looks. If we call that object God does that tell us anything so long as it is left uncertain what is meant by God whether something visible or invisible something comprehensible or incomprehensible something that can be named or something that must for ever remain nameless? How often in the religious battles of the world do we hear the combatants say What you call God I deny to be God. If you call me an atheist I call you an idolator.
Fichte on Atheism.
When Fichte was accused of atheism what did he reply: ‘Your God’ he said ‘is the giver of all enjoyment the distributor of all happiness and of all unhappiness among human beings. That is his real character. But he who wants enjoyment is a sensual carnal man who has no religion and is incapable of religion. The first truly religious sentiment kills all desire within us. A god who is to serve our desires is a contemptible being an evil being for he supports and perpetuates human ruin and the degradation of reason. Such a god is in truth the prince of this world who has been condemned long ago through the mouth of truth. What they call God is to me not-God. They are the true atheists; and because I do not accept their not-God as the true God they call me an atheist.’
Goethe and Lavater.
And even in a more friendly encounter as that between Goethe and Lavater we see how entirely what the one and the other called religion was determined by the object to which their religion was directed. ‘To recognise God wheresoever and howsoever he reveals himself that is true blessedness on earth’ Goethe says and he would call that true religion. His friend Lavater on the contrary could see the Divine revealed in one person only in Christ so that his personal religion consisted as he declared in his own soul being hid in Christ.
All definitions of religion therefore in which the object of religious knowledge or reverence or love is left undefined may indeed interest us as throwing light on the relation between the subject and the object of religion between man and what is called God but they can hardly claim the title of a formal and complete definition in the recognised sense of that term.
Different classes of Definitions.
We can best examine some of the most important and instructive definitions of religion by classing them not according to the subject of religion which is always man or according to the object which is called by various names but according to the form in which this relation between man and God is supposed to manifest itself.
Most definitions may be arranged under two heads in so far as they lay the chief stress either on the practical or on the theoretical side of religion. Let us begin with the former.
The old scholastic definition according to which religion is ‘the chain of conscience by which we feel ourselves bound to the Godhead in all we think and will and do’ refers to the practical side of religion to what has been called our conscience or the voice of God within us so far as it regulates our actions.
It is well known that Kant took a similar view of religion. ‘Religion’ be wrote ‘(as subjective) consists in our recognising all our duties as divine commandments’ or ‘in our regarding God as the universally to be revered lawgiver for all our duties.’ He is very careful however to exclude mere cultus or worship from the sphere of religion and he declares that any attempt to please the Deity by acts which by themselves have no moral value by mere external worship is not religion but simply superstition.
We must likewise class here the definition of religion given by the author of the Philosophy of Religion though it aims at a higher phase of religious morality than that of Kant. According to him ‘Religion is the surrender of the finite will to the infinite the abnegation of all desire inclination volition that pertains to me as this private individual the giving up of every aim or activity that points only to my exclusive pleasure and interest the absolute identification of my will with the will of God.
A similar thought underlies the definition which Professor Pfleiderer has given in the second edition of his excellent work Die Religionsphilosophie of which an English translation is now in course of publication or has lately been completed. ‘Religion’ he writes ‘is the relation of our life to the world-controlling Power which is to become a community of life with it.’ ‘Relation of our life to the world-controlling Power’ is only a more generalised conception of what Dr. Caird has called the surrender of the finite will to the infinite. But the highest object of religion is conceived as the same by both philosophers ‘the community of life with the world-controlling Power’ being evidently intended by Pfleiderer for what Dr. Caird calls ‘the absolute identification of my will with the will of God.’
The difficult point however in all these definitions of religion as the submitting of our will to the will of God seems to me this—that they leave unexplained our knowledge of the will of God nay even our knowledge of the existence and character of what we call God.
Nor is much light thrown on that dark point if we simply substitute belief for knowledge. In his recent work On the Study of Religion Dr. Martineau defines religion as ‘a belief in an Ever-living God that is a Divine Mind and Will ruling the Universe and holding moral relations with mankind.’ Here ‘a belief in an Ever-living God’ has as much to be accounted for as a knowledge of God and the definition of God as a Divine Mind and Will would likewise call for an historical justification. If a definition of religion could be silent on these points or could take man's knowledge of God and of the will of God or man's belief in a Divine Mind and Will for granted al difficulties would certainly seem to vanish. But a glance at the history of religion teaches us that we should thus leave unexplained those long periods during which the human mind after many struggles arrived at last at the abstract and sublime conception of a Divine Mind and a Divine Will. If religion has become as no doubt it has in many minds a complete submission to the will of God such submission must in the beginning at all events have been preceded by an intellectual struggle which left behind as its result such concepts and names as ‘God’ and ‘the will of God.’ Man's readiness to submit to the will of God would be inconceivable without a previous concept of God which justified such submission and rendered it intelligible. All definitions therefore of religion as simply practical and particularly that of Kant seem to me like the definition of a fruit-bearing tree which should ignore its invisible roots.
Schenkel and Newman.
In order to avoid this difficulty of taking the concept of God for granted in our definition of religion and making our conscience the vinculum with something unknown or undefined some theologians maintain that our conscience is the very faculty which gives us an immediate knowledge of God and wish us to accept conscience as the religious organ of the soul. In Germany this view has been eloquently defended by Dr. Schenkel in England by John Newman who has always pointed to conscience as the creative principle of religion. Still we gain but little for a better definition of religion by adopting this opinion which may be quite true as a matter of personal experience in the nineteenth century but which fails to remove the historical difficulty how from the earliest times the human conscience elaborated the idea of the Godhead and thus and thus only made religion a possibility.
Equally defective however are the other definitions of religion which I call theoretical as opposed to practical. They seem to look to the invisible roots only and forget the tree and the fruit which these roots were meant to support and to nourish. Without its practical results nay without its practical purposes religion would never have been religion. It might have been theory or dogma it might have grown into a system of philosophy but never into a religion whether manifested by outward worship or by inward piety.
Religion as sentiment or knowledge.
Most philosophers in attempting to define religion in its theoretic character have explained it as a sentiment; few only as simple knowledge like all other knowledge. Even in ancient times sentiments particularly the sentiments of fear or admiration or reverence were supposed to form the very essence of religion. Fear the ancients declared made the gods and even in modern Christian phraseology the fear of God Gottesfurcht ϕόβος θϵου̑ are often used as synonymous with religion.
One of the most eminent of modern philosophers who have lately been writing on the philosophy of religion Professor Teichmüller of Dorpat whose recent death has been a serious loss to our studies combines the sentiments of fear and reverence in his definition of religion and adds to it a third namely the sentiment of moral goodness.
Religion he says consists (1) Of personal feelings of fear of complete dependence on unknown powers which form a motive leading man to seek comfort in a view of the world not supported by experience.
(2) It consists of aesthetic feelings which surrender themselves in admiration to the Beautiful and lead to the erection of an ideal world.
(3) It consists of moral feelings which lead to an attempt to construct such a system of the universe as should in turn make them (our moral feelings) intelligible.
Author of Natural Religion.
The author of Natural Religion whoever he may be lays the chief stress on the sentiment of admiration defining religion as a habitual and permanent feeling of admiration.
Goethe preferred reverence instead of admiration though he speaks of the result rather than of the nature of religion. ‘A threefold reverence’ he writes ‘has to be called forth in man by religion: a reverence for what is above for what is around and for what is beneath us. The last is the most difficult and has been realised by Christianity only because it alone has been able to recognise even misery and poverty scorn and contempt shame and disgrace suffering and death as divine; nay to honour and cherish even sin and crime not as impediments but as helps to the Saint.’
Mill also in his Three Essays on Religion published after his death in 1874 would seem to trace back religion to a feeling of admiration or as he expresses it to a craving for an ideal object. ‘So long as human life is insufficient’ he writes ‘to satisfy human aspirations so long there will be a craving for higher things which finds its most obvious satisfaction in religion.’ And again: ‘The essence of religion is the strong and earnest direction of the emotions and desires towards an ideal object recognised as of the highest excellence and as rightfully paramount over all selfish objects of desire.’
After having examined these two classes of definitions which look exclusively to either the practical or the theoretical side of religion we have still to say a few words on the views taken of religion by one of the most theological of philosophers Spinoza and by one of the most philosophical of theologians Schleiermacher.
Though Spinoza defines true religion and piety as love of God founded on a knowledge of his divine perfections—a definition with which Leibniz seems to agree—yet he considers that with us practical religion should come first should in fact remain the only religion for the majority of mankind while a higher and philosophical faith should be reserved for the few. What Spinoza means by practical religion is simple obedience to divine commands while the higher religion consists in the intellectual love of God inseparable from a true philosophical knowledge of God and man and leading to that true blessedness which arises from the consciousness of our own God-given powers. The former he considers as based entirely on sacred books and historical revelation the latter on the highest knowledge which can only be the work of our own mind. The former ought to be beneficial the latter ought to be true; the former is to serve for the public good the latter is to lead to that peace and love of God which passeth all understanding. Spinoza's view of religion does not in this respect differ much from that of the Brâhmans. As they look upon the first and second period in a man's life as a discipline to subdue our human passions and weaknesses Spinoza too expects practical religion to curb the passions and thus to prepare man for a higher life Only after this has been achieved is the mind prepared for a purer light. In India this progress from a lower to a higher religion was supposed to take place in the same individual when passing through the four stages of his life the four âsramas. In Spinoza's time and in the society by which he was surrounded such a hope was impossible. Few only might find the way to the highest beatitude; but even for those who rested half-way practical religion supplied as Spinoza thought all those comforts which human nature requires in every stage of its growth.
This was the man who not more than 200 years ago was considered the most dangerous heretic by his Jewish co-religionists.
Let us now hear what Schleiermacher has to say on religion he who has likewise been spoken of as a most dangerous heretic by his Christian co-religionists. I mentioned already that he recognised true religion neither in thoughts nor in deeds nor in both combined but rather in a certain disposition or tone or character of the whole man in what is called in German religiöse Stimmung. Religion was to him a kind of music pervading all our sentiments our thoughts and our acts. ‘Religion’ he says ‘is neither knowing nor doing but an inclination and determination of our sentiments which manifests itself in an absolute feeling of dependence on God.’ Or again: ‘Religion consists in our consciousness of absolute dependence on something which though it determines us we cannot determine in turn.’
He tries to describe this feeling or this disposition and inclination of the mind or the heart in ever varying expressions. He calls it ‘a sentiment sense taste of the Infinite.’ In his Second Discourse on Religion he is anxious to show that religion is neither metaphysics nor ethics nor a mixture of both though something of each is mixed up with all positive religions. ‘Religion is not knowledge because the measure of knowledge is not the measure of piety. Observation may be said to belong to religion but the observation of religion is different from that of science. It does not aim at knowing the finite in relation to the infinite nor the nature of the highest cause by itself or in relation to finite causes. It strives to view the universe to watch it reverently in its own manifestations and acts and to let itself be grasped and filled in childlike passivity by its immediate influences. Religion is the immediate consciousness of all that is finite within the infinite of all that is temporal within the eternal.’
‘This intuition however’ he adds ‘without sentiment would be nothing and cannot have either the right origin or the right force. Sentiment also without intuition would be nothing and both together are something only when they are undivided and because they are originally undivided.’
In opposition to this sentiment of dependence and devotion which according to Schleiermacher and his numerous disciples constitutes the essential character of religion Hegel defines religion as perfect freedom. If the sense of dependence constituted religion he says the dog might be called the most religious animal. Religion with Hegel is perfect freedom; it is in fact the Divine Spirit as becoming conscious of Himself through the finite spirit. Or again ‘Religion is the knowledge acquired by the finite spirit of its essence as absolute spirit.’
With equal boldness does another philosopher Fichte define religion not as sentiment but as knowledge. ‘Religion is knowledge’ he says. ‘It gives to man a clear insight into himself answers the highest questions and thus imparts to us a complete harmony with ourselves and a thorough sanctification to our mind.’
How to account for these different definitions.
It may seem difficult to understand how it is possible that men whose knowledge and whose honesty of purpose admit of no doubt should have arrived at such different nay contradictory definitions of religion. How could Schleiermacher see in religion absolute dependence when Hegel perceives in it the most absolute freedom? How could Fichte define religion as the highest knowledge while Agnostics in ancient as well as in modern times have represented the object of religion as beyond the sphere of human knowledge? Such contradictions have often been pointed out and made use of in order to prove the vanity of all human knowledge or at all events the futility of philosophy when applied to religious problems. But there is no reason to despair. I believe that the Science of Thought as based on the Science of Language supplies a solution to this as to many other riddles of philosophy. There is but one solution for them all and this consists in our defining the words which we use in philosophical discussions.
At first sight dependence seems indeed the very opposite of freedom; but we have only to define dependence as trust and then dependence or trust in God as the wisest the most perfect and most powerful Being is changed at once into a perfect consensus or accord with the will of God nay into perfect and unhesitating atoneness with even His most inscrutable counsels. So long as man stands face to face to God conscious only of his own physical weakness and of the overwhelming power of what is above and beneath and around him he may feel himself dependent only a creature a slave a mere nothing; but when he has discovered the omnipresence of the Divine not only without but within himself then that feeling of dependence is inevitably changed into a feeling of union trust and love and he begins to understand what was called of old the liberty of the children of God.
So again when the Agnostic says that we cannot know God when he calls God the Unknown nay even the Unknowable he is perfectly right so long as he uses the verb to know in its ordinary sense. To know in its ordinary sense means first to perceive through the senses and then to conceive by means of language. All our phenomenal knowledge is such and cannot be otherwise. Nihil est in intellectu quod non ante or rather quod non simul fuerit in sensu; and nihil est in intellectu quod non simul fuerit in lingua. Now to know the Divine by this knowledge by the same knowledge with which we know a stone or a tree or a dog would be tantamount to annihilating the Divine. A known God in that sense would ipso facto cease to be God. It would become a phenomenal object an idol if you like or a fetish or a totem but not what we mean by God. Scitur Deus nesciendo.
But as soon as we recognise that the very concept of phenomenal is impossible without the correlative concept of the noumenal or in other words that there can be no appearance without something that appears and behind its appearance is or exists by and in and for itself; as soon as we have learnt to recognise the invisible in the visible the eternal in the temporal the infinite in the finite the Divine Presence in nature and in man then we can understand what Fichte meant when he called religion the highest knowledge for it is religion in its truest sense which opens our eyes and makes us perceive the nou-menal in the phenomenal the supernatural in the natural and thus changes the very veil of nature into a never-ceasing revelation of the Divine. All religions may be called endeavours to give expression to that sense of the real presence of the Divine in nature and in man. Philosophers called that sense the sensus numinis and when Aristotle said that ‘all things are full of the gods whatsoever appears before our sight or our hearing or any other sense’ he meant what we mean that by knowing the finite we know the infinite by knowing nature we know God by knowing our-selves we come to know the Highest Self that Self which poets and prophets have called by many names but which by its very essence is and must be above all names the Unknown in one sense and yet the fountain of all knowledge in the truest sense of the word.