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Chapter 2: Ideal Religion and the Idea of God

§ I. The Idea of God in Religion

1. HOW or under what conditions may the belief in one God be incorporated in a universal religion? To discuss this question we must resume certain positions already argued: (α) that a single universal religion is possible, but only through the belief in one God; (β) that the belief may exist without the religion, though not the religion without the belief; and (γ) that the incorporation can happen only under certain terms or conditions, such as (1) that God is held to be equally accessible in all places, to all peoples and persons; (2) that the terms on which access is granted are capable of fulfilment by all men; and (3) that He has a character all can trust and qualities all can reverence. These principles imply others still more fundamental, such as (α) the correlativity of our knowledge of God, of nature, and of ourselves; (β) the indissoluble connexion between the conception of God as a moral Being and the facts of our moral nature; (γ ) the co-ordination of His responsibility for us with our responsibility to Him, His responsibility being increased rather than lessened by the existence of evil; and (δ) the witness borne (1) by man's universal search for God to His search for universal man; (2) by the universality of the religions to the possibility of a universal religion; and (3) by the action of the higher religious ideas on man to his need of the highest of all ideas in its highest form in order that he may attain his most perfect state.

2. How, then, is this highest of all ideas to be worthily realized, i.e. incorporated in a religion which does justice to its intrinsic qualities and capabilities? There is nothing so easy as to change an idea in philosophy, nothing so near to the impossible as to change an idea in religion. What reason created reason can uncreate; what human nature has made can be unmade only by the dissolution or reconstruction of the nature. And religious beliefs have not only a more indestructible life, but a vaster potency than philosophical ideas. They have lived longer and gathered strength from their years; they speak to man and to more of him, with a more audible and more familiar and intelligible voice. If we try to represent a deity as he appears to those who worship him, how innumerable are the figures of speech we must employ! He is the highest known power, yet he is in the hands of those who address him. His interests are so theirs and his inclination such that if they but do the thing he approves, he will do what they desire. What he is to them he has been to their fathers; their history is the story of his action; their good fortune tells of his favour, their calamities tell of his displeasure. The events which sum up the meaning of life are associated with his name; the birth which promises continuance to the family, the marriage which brings it enlargement, the death which makes the living desolate, yet gives them dignity by binding their moment of being to the eternal. If they contend in battle, they ask him for victory; if they are confronted by famine, they beseech him for food; if their enemies perish, they sing his praises; if pestilence and death walk abroad, they appease his wrath. If they have imagination, their delight is the poetry that exalts his majesty and his power; if they are emotional, they either cultivate the mysticism that seeks absorption in him, or they offer the gifts that administer comfort by assuaging fear; if they are moral they put themselves under discipline and train themselves into asceticism and self-denial. There is no mood that the god who lives in the religion does not speak to, no conviction or affection, no passion or prejudice to which he does not appeal. It is no wonder, then, that the change of an ancestral and national deity is one of the rarest things in history; and it is the rarer because in this region, where the ideas are all ideas of the reason, reason so seldom reigns, or reigns with shut or blinded or veiled eyes. Hence what may be to the thinker an obvious truism will be to the zealot or the devout person a “damnable heresy.”1

Two things are to us so self-evident as to deserve the name of inevitable ideas, viz., the unity of God and His moral character; yet how does the case stand as regards the religions? Take the Unity. Monotheism is a very late and an infrequent faith. With that curious subordination of history to theory which distinguished him, Comte made Monotheism the last step in the first of the three stages through which man passes in the progress of his knowledge. But, as a matter of fact, Monotheism is a belief relatively recent; it has not been uniformly reached, was reached not by any general consensus, but by a small and exceptional fraction of the race, a single desert tribe, from whom all civilized men have received it. To-day Polytheism extends far further than Monotheism, for it is easier and more natural to man to embody in everything the Divine which he finds everywhere, to localize it, to split it up as it were into a multitude of definite and tractable individuals, than to refine it into an infinite personality, too abstract to be felt. But unless God be One He cannot be moral; in a multitude of deities morality is dissolved, for each of the multitude being divine has his own laws and does what is right in his own eyes. It is a matter of history that Polytheisms are by nature either unmoral or immoral. It is hard for us to conceive any sort of vice as godliness, or a pious man as other than virtuous. But our difficulty, which is due to centuries of Christian discipline, is one no ancient Greek would have felt, and no modern Hindu, or any modern savage who worships as nature bids him, would feel. We must have one God before we can have the idea of a moral deity whose will is absolute law. But the moment this point is gained we are faced by difficulties of another order. On the one side the philosopher lays hold of the Monotheistic idea, elaborates it logically, reduces it to an abstraction, translates it into the terms of the schools, names it Substance or Entity, Nature or Humanity, the Infinite or even the Unknown; but the idea so transformed has ceased to be the living God which religion needs in order to live. On the other side there operate the sensuous temper and tendencies of the people. They cannot have a God afar off, they must have Him near at hand, manifest, palpable, living to spirit by being real to sense. Hence even within Christianity we find the energies of the Deity and His means of intercourse with man placed in stones, in temples, in images, in rites, nay, in the very garments men may wear as they worship. Men, indeed, will make anything into a god, if so be they can get command of the god they fear.

§ II. Christ's Interpretation of God

The abstract question, then, with which our discussion began, now assumes a much more concrete form: How far may it be justly claimed that God, as interpreted through Jesus Christ, has become, or is capable of becoming, the God of a universal religion? The positions assumed from our previous argument are: (α) The creative pre-eminence in religious history of Jesus Christ; (β) the special type of religion embodied in His character and life; (γ) the interpretation of His person by Himself, His disciples and apostles as containing (1) distinctive ideas of God and man; (2) the terms on which God comes to man, and man can find access to God; and (3) the modes in which man may worship Him.

One or two points suggested by the phrasing of the question must be considered, (α) God is said to be interpreted “through Christ,” not “by” Him. Interpretation “by Christ” would be limited to His teaching, what He said as expressing what He thought concerning God; but interpretation “through Christ,” while it does not exclude the teaching, includes the person and character as well; what others thought concerning God because they thought as they did of Christ. (β) To interpret God is not to create man's knowledge of Him, though it may be to correct or perfect that knowledge. Men had known God and believed in Him before Christ came, as they still do where they have never heard of Him. Without the knowledge that existed before and apart from Him, the interpretation could not be understood. This means that He stands in an order governed by law, that He completes a process which has been going on ever since the birth of man, and still goes on wherever man is. Christ is more of a response to a nature dissatisfied with its own discoveries and knowledge, than an absolute miracle which violates all that nature's laws. (γ) The God He interprets is not an object of speculative thought, the causal or the synthetic idea of the nature we study; but He is an object of veneration, a Being man seeks to know that he may love and worship. What we have to do with, then, is not the metaphysical reality or philosophical warrant of the belief, but its religious value and efficiency, whether it has power to displace the ideas which the local cults have throned so firmly in the soul, and whether it has the qualities capable of organizing a fitting form for man's highest and most potent idea. (δ) The interpreter brings to more perfect knowledge the God in whose name He speaks, but does not supersede Him. While He Himself was construed as the God within God, the hands as it were by which Deity held and guided and saved humanity, yet He was not, in spite of strong tendencies to the personification and apotheosis here of an abstract nature, there of an ethical quality, set as an independent and isolated Divine Being over against the Godhead. And this is the more remarkable as supersession is a process so common in the religions as to be entitled to be termed uniform and constant. It finds barbarous expression in Greek mythology, especially as it is found in Hesiod. Zeus, though the father of gods and men, is himself a son who supplanted a father, who had attempted to keep his supremacy by devouring his own offspring. In the Rigveda we can trace the process by which Indra displaces Varuna, just as he had earlier stepped into the seat of Dyaus, and as all the gods vanished later into the bosom of Brahma, the youngest of the Vedic deities, who yet with his name slightly changed, so as to denote the highest philosophical idea, swallowed up all the older gods. In the Mahabharata we see Krishna rise, attain fame, climb from manhood into godhood, though the qualities and feats held to prove him divine are very manlike indeed; and he attracts to himself, as he sits amid the high gods in the Hindu pantheon, peculiar honours and a special cult. But Christ reveals or interprets without superseding Deity, enhances His grace without lessening His dignity. He does not break up the unity of God, for divided or individuated being is never claimed for Him. His own achievements do not form into a glory round His head, eclipsing the eternal Father. On the contrary He at once infinitely enriches and unifies the object of worship. He interprets without either superseding God, or reducing His majesty, or dividing His honour.

§ III. The God Christ Interprets a Universal Ideal

How far, then, may we say that God so interpreted through Christ is a Deity who could not be known and worshipped without forming a universal religion?

1. Let us note the action of the Interpreter on the idea. God was dissociated from a special State and associated with a person; and this person was conceived as the symbol of humanity, an epitome of mankind. It is the characteristic of all ancient and unreformed religions to be tribal or national—for the nation is but the larger tribe; and the tribe loves its religion and reveres its god because they are its own, and are so bound up with its order and customs that their dissolution could only signify its destruction. If a stranger wishes to be admitted to the favour of the god, or the practice of the religion, he must become a member of the tribe, rebirth or naturalization being the only way to participation in its most solemn rites. The sanctuary was ever the spot most jealously guarded against the curious and prying alien. But Christ, as the interpretative personality, detached God from the customs of the tribe, and attached Him to the idea of man. There is nothing so universal as the individual who is the whole in little, as there is nothing so exclusive as the family which must, to maintain its being and its claims, keep its blood pure. But Christ, construed as the ideal of humanity, shows what God intended to be to every man, and what every man ought to be to God. He is an illimitable yet concrete and historical person; and as such He is at once the type of the man who alone can please God, and the symbol of the idea that one has only to be a man to be God's, and that the more fully He inhabits us the more completely human we become. The family from which Christ sprang disowned Him, and the act which cut Him off was like the truth told in parable: it meant that God had ceased to be the property of a people, and become the possession of mankind.

1. The change in the medium through which God was known involved a correspondent change in the way He was conceived, i.e. since Christ stood for man without any distinction of race, God, as interpreted through Him, was loosed from the qualities that bound Him to a peculiar people. The attribute of will which had been emphasized to justify His choice of Israel, fell into the background, and grace, which is will spontaneously seeking the common good, came to the front. Christ was Son of God in no figurative or incidental sense, but essentially; and as the moment never had been when there was no Son, so there had never been, and could never be, a moment when there was or should be no Father. Thus love and fellowship, affinity and affection were bound up with the very being of God. He could not be conceived as loveless thought, or as abstract substance, or as almighty energy, so long as the terms Father and Son could be used to denote eternal facts and relations essential to His Deity. But even more significant was the correlative change in the conception of His manward activities and relations. To conceive the typical Man as essentially Son was to be driven to think of humanity in the terms of sonship. If by the very constitution of His being God was a Father, man by the very fact of his creation in Christ was constituted a son. And if collective man was God's son, it followed that God was man's Father, and so there stepped into the place of the tribal deity the universal Fatherhood. Before we can guess what this signified, we must have studied the spirit, traced the history, watched the action and the effects of the religions. To see how they have created caste, sanctioned and magnified the pride of blood, emphasized the distinctions of colour and race, justified the inhumanity of man to man, and then to discover how a religion has been based on a Fatherhood too universal either to know or to show “respect of persons,” is as if one were suddenly taken from the study of crippling disease to the contemplation of sunny and buoyant health. The provincialism which justifies the jealousy and injustice of deity, his partiality for his own race, his insincerities and even ferocities to other races, directly hinders the birth and the growth of the idea of humanity, and encourages the terror which regards blood as the proper food of the gods. But when man thought of God in the terms of ideal humanity, as impersonated in Jesus Christ, his religion was at once universalized; the more thoroughly he believed, and the more piously he worshipped, the more humane he became in faith. The religion which did honour to the God who loved all men required the service of all mankind.

2. But the conception of man was changed as well as that of God. We may without extravagance say that man had never come by his rights in religion; for either, where God was great and of infinite majesty, he had been humbled into the dust; or, where God was very terrible, he had been degraded into an instrument that could be broken and cast away, or depraved into a coward who would offer the fruit of his body for the sin of his soul; or, where God was complaisant, he had taken him into his own hands and done with him as he pleased. To find a fit relation or a seemly equilibrium between God and man is a thing hard enough to be esteemed impossible, yet this was what Christ achieved. He made man stand upright before God, conscious of his dignity. It does not become a being of infinite promise to lie prone in the dust, even before the Infinite Majesty. To feel what it is to be the eternal Father's son, is to learn to behave as a son, possessed of his privileges as well as bound by his duties; and it is also to feel that all sons are equal in their potential, though not perhaps in their realized worth. Hence the Christian idea created two novel notions as to man: the value of the unit and the unity of the race. The ancient nations that most valued their collective existence attached least value to the individual man. If he was a slave, he was but a chattel; if he was an alien, his own gods might care for him, the native gods had other and better things to do. If his colour or his stature was not theirs, he would be described in terms more appropriate to a brute than to a man; and if his worship was noticed, his gods were said to be devils rather than deities. Refinement, intercourse, the decay of the martial spirit and the rise of the great empires may have created in the West a milder temper and more restrained speech, but they did not add to the dignity of the individual. We admire the pyramids and temples of Egypt, but forget the misery of the men whose forced labour built them, or the pride of the king who wanted a splendid mausoleum, and thought, if he thought at all on the matter, that to sacrifice some thousands of men in building it made it all the fitter a tomb for a king. And so it seems to China, with its hundreds of millions of men, as if the waste of man by disease or the fierce forces of nature mattered little; there is the more to divide among the living if there are fewer mouths to be fed. We never cease to wonder at the art and literature of Athens, both so perfect in form, but we seldom imagine what is meant by the simple fact that when her life was bravest and her struggle hardest she had barely five thousand citizens, while of her slaves twenty thousand could desert to the enemy. Roman law was remarkable for its love of justice and its care for human rights; but to the Roman law the slave was a thing and no man, while Roman men were never so pitiless to others as when they were most concerned about their own privileges. And to-day the Hindu judges life by other standards and reads it with other eyes than ours. To him indeed life, simply as animal life, is sacred, a thing which he must not destroy; yet the feeling of its sanctity does not extend to the human personality, at least as the West understands it If he argues as the divine charioteer in the Bhagavadgita does, he will hold that since man's being is indestructible, a mere moment in the circle of everlasting change, killing is no murder; but he may add for himself that to lose one's life in trying to rescue others from the jaws of famine and pestilence, is a most needless ex-travagance of mercy. The Englishman is—because of his passion to save the lives of men, combined with his pleasure in killing wild animals, a pleasure great in proportion to the wildness of the animal—a standing puzzle to the Hindu; but if he only could read the Englishman through his religion, he would see that the enthusiasm for the saving of men was the point where Christ had touched him, and made him so different in religion from what he is by nature. By nature he kills the tiger for sport, delights in perils and adventures, and finds amusement in facing or causing death in the jungle; but by religion he has become one who would die to save a man from death, whether he be a man of high caste, or of low caste, or of no caste. And how is it that man has become to the higher Christian peoples a being of such infinite possibilities and incalculable value that he must cease to be a slave, and be protected in his life and in his rights, however mean his nature and low his culture? How has it come about that the most truculent of races has come to act as if it were a fitter and more heroic thing for a man to sacrifice himself in saving life than to assert himself in destroying it? There is but one answer possible: it is due to the idea in his religion which holds him most strongly, and which never, whatever may happen to his faith, quite loses its grasp upon his conduct, that he ought to do for others what Christ did for him. He may die for man, but he cannot despise him. If he believes that Christ took his human nature, he must also believe that He dignified the nature He bore. Man seen through His humanity becomes a being of transcendent value; the nature which has been put of God to the most gracious of all uses is a nature that can be no more despised or mishandled. To the strong it was an imperious duty to help the weak, and a thing sternly forbidden to destroy the brother for whom Christ died. And so the religion began as a recreative humanity, which made it impossible to the parent to expose his child, or to the crowd to make holiday in the amphitheatre where the trembling man was thrown to the wild beast, or to the freeman to hold a brother man as his slave.

But this value of the individual needed for its full significance another and correlative idea, the unity of the race.2 The most abstract of ideas was here destined to prove the most potent of practical beliefs. One person conceived as the symbol or epitome of man, in whose life all lived, in whose death all died, achieved the unification of mankind. The unity as it was held in ancient philosophy, especially by the Stoics, was a noble doctrine, but it remained a doctrine, an ideal which is an abstract; it did not walk about in the marketplace and deal with actual men. But the unity which Christ embodied was not ideal only, it was ethical and actual. The churches came into being as attempts to realize it, and these attempts grew into a fuller consciousness of what it signified. Ideals may take centuries to grow into realities, but they do grow, and the nearer the realities come the more infinite do the ideals appear. And this is pre-eminently true of this belief. We are but beginning to understand the responsibilities and obligations which lie upon the whole family of man for each member, and which He upon each member for the family as a whole as well as for its several parts. Humanity as a whole was responsible for the sufferings of Christ, but though He suffered at its hands He was not free to inflict upon it suffering. On the contrary, His grace bound Him to submit that He might conquer, to die that He and His might live. He saw that sin as collective, inherent and inherited, rooted in nature and by nature propagated, was more a misfortune than a crime, and that sin as personal, active and expressed in acts, was a crime, though it might begin in misfortune. And He further saw that while it was the nature of the evil to harm the good, it was the duty and function of the good to save the evil. And so as the blameless Brother of a guilty family He bore the family's guilt, so bore it that all might learn of Him how to escape the sin that was sorrow and caused death.

§ IV. The Condition of Realization

1. But quite as significant as the ideas is the condition of their appropriation, the act and attitude of mind—for it is both—termed faith. It is an intellectual act, for it is a form of knowledge; it is an emotional attitude and activity, for it trusts persons and works by love; it is a moral intuition, for it sees obligation in truth and right in duty. It is not a single or occasional act, though it may be compared to a vision which for a moment looks into eternity and never forgets what it has seen; but it is continuous communion with the things the vision saw. Faith as knowledge studies the historical person, but as belief it sees in the ideal the symbol of God and the universe. The historical person is studied as if He were the realized religion, and He must be known that He may be imitated and obeyed. The ideal is contemplated that the soul may stand face to face with God, and endure as seeing Him who is invisible. In both aspects, as knowledge and as vision, faith is a receptivity; it is man standing open to the touch and action of the eternal, yet as also sensitive and active, holding fast to what has been received. Its antithesis is the work which creates merit, the action which establishes a claim to reward; but its correlative is grace, the spontaneous energy of the God who made man for Himself, effecting His conscious appropriation by the man He made.

2. Now faith, so understood, is an idea most characteristic of the Christian religion; in no other does it hold the same place or fulfil the same functions. This is, no doubt, partly due to the kind and quality of the associated ideas; it belongs to their household, has the face and features distinctive of the family. But this only emphasizes the distinction of the religion as a religion. Those before and around it were constituted by acts and customs rather than by beliefs; and were more methods of approaching God than ways by which He could approach us. They threw the burden of reconciliation on man and bade him do the things or use the means that would give him acceptance with God. The Christian was the first religion, as a religion, to say that custom has no worth, that work has no merit, that the only thing that can avail before God is the righteousness He gives and faith receives. In Greece, religion was a matter of oracles and shrines, of festivals national and civil, of conformity to law and custom, as both Protagoras and Sokrates found to their cost. Men might believe in the value of certain acts or the efficacy of certain institutions; but religion was too nearly identical with these to lay much stress on the faith that trusted the truth and acquired no merit. Its absence in the religion is reflected in the schools, where it has no recognition in a religious sense till we come to Proclus, who, in what is more a borrowed than a native tongue, speaks of faith as higher than knowledge and better than love, for love leads us only to the beautiful, but faith to God. The Roman worship consisted pre-eminently in expressions of joy, in lays and songs, in games and dances, and, above all, in banquets, “being grounded essentially on man's enjoyment of earthly pleasures, and only in a subordinate degree on his fear of the wild forces of nature.”3 In India the customs and laws of religion surround a man from his birth, govern his life as a whole, as well as its individual parts, his childhood, youth, manhood, and old age, his years, his months, his very days, but faith is no part of it Certain philosophical sects have indeed made of Bhakti, which under one aspect is devotion, and under another faith, a cardinal doctrine; but while they may have known it, the multitude of religions we call Hinduism has not. The notion was native to prophetic Hebraism, and was fitly associated with the promise and its ethical Monotheism; but institutional Judaism was too much concerned with the acts and articles of worship to care for faith. Hence Christianity, in making faith the subjective pivot of religion, separated itself from uniform and invariable custom, boldly made itself independent of usage and institution, and brought the individual man and the absolute God face to face. It was the only mode in which a religion of universal ideas could have been realized by universal man.

This discussion leaves us with a question we must ask, though we shall not attempt to give it the answer it deserves and requires: What precisely did Christ, by these ideas and the condition of their realization, accomplish for religion? It is a small thing to say, He made a universal religion possible; it is a greater thing to add, The religion He made possible is one that ought to be universal, for its ideal is the humanest and the most beneficent that has ever come to man. He completely moralized Deity, and therefore religion; and so made it possible—nay, obligatory and imperative—to moralize the whole life of man, individual and collective. His moral ideal expressed the beneficence of an infinite will, yet as impersonated in what we may term an actual yet universal Man. It was transcendental as God, it was immanent as mind; and as incarnated in a religion, it concentrated the energies of the eternal for realization in the modes of time. If this can be said of Christ, what higher work could be ascribed to God?

  • 1.

    2 Peter ii. 1.

  • 2.

    Ante, pp. 444 ff.

  • 3.

    Mommsen's History of Rome, i. 221.