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Chapter 7: The Philosophy of Religion

B. THE HISTORICAL RELIGIONS

THE analyses and discussions conducted in the preceding chapter may be said to have introduced us to the problems co-ordinated under the terms “the Philosophy of Religion.” What is so named may now be defined as the dialectical or reasoned interpretation of the consciousness of man as expressed in his religions and unfolded in their history. As such its function is to study mind in religion, in order that it may the better explain religion through mind. Now the mind it studies is a much more concrete and real object than the abstract mind which the metaphysician tries, speculatively, to read; which the psychologist attempts, experimentally, to observe and analyze; and which the anthropologist, imaginatively, invites nature to insert or inscribe in his primitive man. For history may be described as the incarnation or externalization of this mind, and the events or acts it records as the steps and process of its self-revelation. For though these acts may have been done by persons, yet the persons have not been isolated personalities, but rather the concatenated and rational vehicles of a single and coherent power, which could operate in a multitude of forms without losing its essential unity. If, then, we conceive the languages, the literatures, the institutions, the laws, the societies, and the beliefs of peoples as so much undesigned and spontaneous racial autobiography, it is evident that if these can be accurately interpreted they will enable us to live within the racial mind, and look at the world through its eyes. We have already argued that the problems of individual are one with those of collective experience; but though they be identical, yet it is no paradox to say that they grow more rather than less capable of solution by being extended in scope and increased in complexity. For while the universe does not become a mystery to man till man has become a mystery to himself, yet, though he does not cease to be mysterious, he becomes a more intelligible mystery when viewed through the whole than when regarded as a separate and independent atom. The very fact that it is those immense idealisms which we call the religions that have been the main factors in the organization of society, speaks volumes as to the intrinsic quality of the spirit which we call human nature.

We return, then, to the position, that there can be a philosophy of religion only when the religions are historically studied. Without history the philosophy would move as in a dream, attempting to grapple with the shadows of a world unrealized; while without thought history would have no vision in its eyes, would find no reason in what it saw, would simply aggregate matter whose atoms were, singly, insignificant and, collectively, an unordered heap. We may say, then, in terms suggested by one of Kant's most famous dicta, the philosophy without the history is empty, the history without the philosophy is blind; or, changing the figure for one more illuminative, the religions are like a multitude of dialects into which man's aboriginal speech or faculty of speech has broken. The concern of philosophy is with the speech, or the faculty that made the speech, for without it articulate and intelligible dialects could not have been. The concern of history is with the dialects, for without them speech could have had no actual or continuous life. The universal is realized in and by the individual; but the individual without the universal would be simply an uninterpretable unit. History, then, has to do with the religions as children of time and place, each with its own ancestry and kinships, its own accent and idiom, its own features and idiosyncrasies, its own antecedents and environment; but philosophy has to do with the causes which made all religion possible, and the conditions which turned the possible into actual religions. The two are thus necessary to a complete synthesis, for we can as little explain history by a method of isolation or individuation as we can interpret nature by a process of physical or metaphysical abstraction, which conceives force, but will not recognize any correlation of forces. Without the accurate knowledge of local forms, the character and behaviour of the universal cause could never be ascertained; and without the investigation of roots and reasons, the enquiry into why things are what they are and why they behave as they do, research into local forms would lose almost all its scientific worth. But the more we seek for religion some root in reason, personal and collective, the less can we conceive any religion as void or vain, an irrational chance or mischance, which has come, no one knows whence, to walk the earth with aimless feet and vanish, whither no one can tell. For if we hold with Bunsen that God, which is but another name for Reason, “and not the devil or his Punchinello—Accident—governs the world,”1 then we must conclude that just as there is a divine thought in nature, so there is a divine idea in the religions; and could we find and express this idea, we should have the very vindication we most need of God's ways to men.

§ I. Religions as National and Missionary

1. One of the most obvious and familiar classifications of the historical religions is into the local or national, and the universal or missionary. The local or national live within a defined geographical area, and are so bound up with the speech, the customs, the institutions, the special modes of thought, the social and political order of the particular peoples who inhabit it, that they could not exist apart from these conditions; while they are at once jealous of all foreign intermeddling or intermixture and void of the ambition to become the faith of the alien. The universal religions, on the contrary, refuse to be limited by a land or people, by any special speech or local usage; and are by nature expansive, seeking to comprehend man simply as man, and to live by being believed rather than merely observed. The local religions are an infinite multitude, while the universal are but three. Of these, two—Buddhism and Christianity—possess independently the missionary spirit; but the third, Mohammedanism, derived its idea from the second. The first is the product of the Aryan, the second and third of the Semitic race. The antecedents of the first lie in a religion whose keynote is monism and the immanence of Deity; the antecedents of the second, which are in a large degree also those of the third, He in a religion whose keynote is monotheism and the transcendence of God. And each owes its special characteristics to the religion out of which it grew; the features of the parent faith are visible in the face of its offspring.

But this, like all obvious classifications, is neither accurate nor descriptive. For there are national religions that may be termed missionary, while no missionary religion either has been or can be independent of national forms and the service of particular nationalities. It may also be added that there are religions which have inspired universal empires, though without becoming universal themselves. It is, indeed, one of the curious facts of history that dreams of universal empire are older and more common than the vision of a universal religion; and it is instructive as well as curious that the peoples who dreamed of empire were never possessed of the vision, while those who had the vision were untouched by the lust of secular power. Thus the Egyptian kings subdued and plundered their weaker neighbours in honour of Horus or of Amon Ra; the mighty potentates of Mesopotamia conquered and enslaved states to the greater glory of Bel or Assur, Merodach or Nebo, Persia overcame Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt, and invaded Greece in the name of her great god; the Greek carried his language and his arts to farthest Ind, and the Roman legions bore the Roman eagles, and with them Roman law and order, throughout the civilized world. But these empires did not dream of establishing their religions where they imposed their wills. Their ambition was not to reign over mind and conscience, but simply to be sovereign in civil affairs. The peoples, indeed, were ready enough now to mock at alien deities, thus expressing their scorn or hatred of the states they defeated or were defeated by; now to borrow or propitiate them, and now to endow them with the names of their own gods; now to imitate alien cults or turn them into mysteries which should do for the initiated what their national worship failed to accomplish. But the wisest of all the world-empires most scrupulously respected all the legal rights of the religions native to the regions it conquered, and did not allow Jove to reign over any of the lands it governed. Instead the state itself underwent a species of apotheosis, the emperor became divus, and the citizens were, if not so tolerant, yet so devout as to naturalize in Rome the deities of other lands. And so it seems as if civil ambition were fatal to religious expansion, and to nurse a missionary empire were to cultivate a restricted faith.

2. But it was said above that a national might also be a missionary religion. The ideas do not constitute a true antithesis, for a religion may spread by a process as well of absorption as of diffusion, i.e. a religion may so assume new families or tribes into itself as to outgrow its original limits, yet without departing from its original type and home. Thus Brahmanism is so intensely racial that it may well be described as the apotheosis of blood, or as the pride of race deified. There is no law so inexorable or so pitiless as the law of Caste; it binds the Hindu peoples, even though split into a multitude of states, into a unity more absolute than the most imperious despotism has ever, or could ever anywhere have, achieved. The religion has not, indeed, any outlook beyond India; it does not love the sea; to cross it and mix with alien peoples is to lose caste; it is sufficient for itself, does not Seek to be known, has no wish that the foreigner should know it; it told its meaning reluctantly, with many a protest that the secrets wrung from it were not its genuine and veritable mind, and that only the twice-born man could seek and know the truth. Yet, in spite of this deification of race, nay, perhaps because of it, Brahmanism is in India missionary to a degree and in a way that Islam is not. The latter has the strength and the severity of a system which has been knit together and forced into its place by a succession of imperious wills, creating a fanaticism as imperious as their own; but the former lives and grows like an organism perfectly adapted to its environment—plastic, elastic, invincible as the waves which break against the rock only to return unwearied, increased in volume, massed into rhythmic ranks, to break unbroken again and yet again. And so Brahmanism grows irresistibly, absorbs tribes, steals into the jungles, creeps up the mountains, modifies the Mohammedan, assimilates the hill-man, ever enlarging its numbers, yet never leaving its home. And as in India so in China, where the ancestral religion may be described as the apotheosis of the family as distinguished from the race. Here, too, tribes have been absorbed, other cults and religions have been assimilated, the magic of Taoism has been allowed to stand beside the wisdom of Confucius, and the word and ritual of Buddha have supplemented the simple speech of both; but the ancient customs still live, observed by hundreds of millions where once they were followed by tens. These religions are national, yet they are missionary; though their increment comes by absorption, yet the absorbed are the converted, changed from heathen into children of the faith.

3. But it is no less true that the most aggressively missionary religion has a radius within which it lives most vigorously, races it commands and possesses most completely, and social or political conditions which it feels most congenial to its spirit and most favourable to its growth. Thus Buddhism moves within a well-defined area, which it has never been able to break through or live beyond. It spread very early to southern India; crossed the sea from Ceylon to Burma and Siam; in the north it pierced the passes of the mighty Himalayas, and moved eastward to China and Japan. But the enthusiasm of its missionaries failed to touch the free and wandering tribes of Central Asia, or the cold and more rational mind of Persia, though both were destined a thousand years later to put their stiff necks, under the yoke of the stern Arabian prophet. We may say, then, that Buddhism is a missionary, but not a universal religion,—it is not even generically Asiatic, though specifically Oriental. Its intellectual basis and superstructure, the ethics it inculcates, the ideal of life it enjoins, and the type of society it would create or realize, are, while distinctive of the land of its birth and congenial to the peoples it has converted, yet so foreign and so offensive to the more strenuous Western mind that it could not persuade it to believe or awaken within it any sympathetic response. And Western does not here mean European; it means to the West of India, and includes races which gave to Asia its oldest civilization and its most masterful empires as well as its last and most aggressive religion. It was not its white face that made Europe insusceptible to the eloquence of the dusky Hindu, but it was what the Hindu preached. His word was a gospel to his own people, but a meaningless mystery to minds with another history and a different outlook on life.

The missionary and universal features in Christianity will be discussed later; but here it must be noted that it seems to the Orient as distinctively Occidental as the religions of India or China seem Oriental to us. We may argue that intellectually it is of no place or time; that historically it is Asiatic in origin; that its founders were Semites, its first preachers and earliest disciples Jews; but this is to the Hindu or the Chinaman to speak ancient history, not living fact. It comes to India from the land and in the speech of its conquerors; to China in the ship and the raiment of the merchants who trade for gain, and who would for the sake of profit break up the most ancient civilization in the world. And it is not surprising that the peoples judge as they see, and hate because they so judge. It would be wonderful were it to be otherwise. Christianity comes to them speaking the tongue of Europe, thinking with its mind, baptized into its spirit, charged with its ambitions,—if not expounded, yet annotated, illustrated, and made lucid more by its soldiers, statesmen, merchants, and magistrates than by the missionaries whose office it is to speak up for the religion. The Eastern peoples cannot see it because the Western sunlight that streams through it has got into their eyes. And so they feel its missionary spirit to be offensive; it is part of the insolence which marks the raw aggressiveness of the young and inexperienced West. They identify the religion with the people most active in its service, and think of it as only a national faith which European vanity has, simply because the faith is Europe's, mistaken for the world's.

§ II. The Idea and the Institution in Religion

1. It is evident, then, that our analysis must be carried farther back until we reach principles of differentiation at once simpler and more determinative than can be expressed by terms like local and universal, national and missionary. And here we begin by drawing a distinction:—to use national forms and to be served by particular nationalities is a very different thing from being either dependent on them or identical with them. If a religion were incapable of assuming a national or local form, it would be disqualified from doing any good to the nation; but if it were incapable of assuming any other form than this one, it would be unfit to be of service outside the particular nation, or simply to man as man. A universal religion may be described as one capable of being possessed by any people, but incapable of being the possession of any one people; while the mark of a particular religion is fitness for one state or race and unfitness for any other. The universal addresses man as man, is able to speak his many languages, adapt itself to his many stages of culture, live within his many environments,—physical, intellectual, social, political,—even though it may be for the purpose of ultimately adjusting them to its own ideal; but the local can use no more than one tongue, live within but one body, and flourish in only one environment. In other words, the universal emphasizes the substantive, the ideal, the essential; while the local emphasizes the formal, the external, what we may term the provincial accent and the dialectal idiom. Now, the analysis of religion into the subjective or causal elements, and the objective or caused, revealed certain possibilities of emphasis in actual religions: they may accentuate the ideas, the truths, the beliefs which constitute their reasonable soul; of they may accentuate the customs, the polity, the institutions, and usages which form their visible organism. Where the accent falls on the ideas and beliefs, the religion is more or less independent of place; where the accent falls on customs and usages, the religion is local, the only expansion possible to it is through the growth or diffusion of the people, the caste, or the order whose institution it is. The mere change of accent from usage to belief does not indeed by itself distinguish a universal from a local religion; that depends more on the quality of the ideas, the character of the ideals, and their power to command a suitable embodiment, personal and collective. The mere development of the intellectual contents of a national religion will not universalize it—may indeed dissolve it as custom without enlarging it as faith. Thus the action of Greek thought was as disintegrative of Greek religion as it was later re-integrative of the Christian. The ideals of the philosophical intellect and the realities of religious custom formed in Greece a contrast that soon became a conflict. What the religion was we know only in part. We have learned since Lobeck to think of the mysteries as shows or spectacles rather than as schools of secret wisdom; but we forget that to see is also to learn, and that what is true of the mysteries is largely true of the cults as a whole: they were spectacles, though not always edifying spectacles. The student who studies Greek religion in literature or in art may with Hegel speak of it as the apotheosis of the beautiful; but the man of cultivated reason and refined feeling who saw it as it lived, feared rather its power to deprave the passions and defile the imagination of the multitude. Of all the gods of antiquity the Greek were the most human: warriors and heroes, fathers and sons, husbands and brothers, magnified men all of them, no one immortal in his own right, pure by nature and good by choice. The poetry which describes their characters and lives was the only sacred history the people knew, yet to us it is the most secular poetry in all ancient literature. But the discovery made by philosophy, that the ideals of the reason were one with the ideas fundamental in religion, begot a sense which the worship of the temple and the mythology alike offended. With the vision that spared no illusion the Greek thinkers saw that two things were needful: religion must be saved by being purged from its coarser customs, and men must be got to think of the gods better than they thought of themselves. It was the necessity, yet impossibility, of doing these two things that forced the thought to dissolve the religion it could not refine. Yet what it failed to accomplish then it achieved later. The Greek thinkers bound once for all thought and belief, reason and deity, man's highest idea and his chief object of worship, indissolubly together. They made him feel that he could never think his best unless he thought worthily of his God, and that the truth which it was the function of the reason to seek was, when found, a law for the government of life. They coined terms that were to be used in building up a more universal theology than their own, and so evoked what we may term the religion latent in man as to make it the inalienable heritage of the race. To make a theology may be a smaller thing than to found a religion, but it is only through its theology that the religion can have any reality for the intellect or any authority for the conscience. Theologies apart from religion are but fields for the exercise of the speculative reason; religions apart from theologies are but sensuous arts, the sanctioned amusements of the vulgar. Hence, though Greek thought dissolved the consuetudinary religion of Greece, yet by laying the basis of every future theology it performed a service so eminent that it deserves to be described as the contributory creator of a religion qualified, by the degree in which the Deity it worships is one with the highest ideal of the reason and the supreme law of the conscience, to be at once missionary and universal.

2. But the principle which has just been stated involves another, its complement and counterpart: the religion that emphasizes the formal at the expense of the substantive element loses in moral quality just as it gains in local features or provincial character. Worship and belief stand to each other as language and thought; as man thinks of Deity, so he worships, but it is from the worship, and not from the schools, that the multitudes learn what to think or believe concerning Him, as well as the terms on which He will accept their homage and consent to be their friend. But worship is precisely the point where man is most potent, where his fears, passions, impulses of hope and despair have freest play; and where he finds it therefore so much easier to accommodate the usages he follows to his own weakness than to make or keep them worthy of the majesty of God. The very desire to stand well with God, when he knows he ought not so to stand, leads man to the use of means for appeasement or propitiation congruous to his own nature, and so more or less ignoble; and the use of the ignoble in worship by depraving the notion of Deity lowers both the man and the religion. As a simple matter of fact, which the scientific student of religions will be the last to dispute, the agencies which do most to deteriorate and demoralize religion are the usages, the sacrifices and the offerings designed to reconcile man to God. As a rule, when man attempts to do the greatest offices, he tends to do them in a way which he himself feels to be agreeable, just as if he argued, What is pleasant to me must be acceptable to the Deity. And as his worship, like his word, is the incarnation of an idea, the idea it incarnates is his interpretation of God, the kind and quality of the Being he wishes to please, and the sort of things that are conceived to give Him pleasure. A purely speculative idea of Deity does not constitute a religion; it is constituted by the idea which is realized in the worship, and is by it judged or redeemed. Thus the speculative idea of ancient Egypt was refined and even noble: the ethics in the Book of the Dead are perhaps the most exalted ethics in ancient religion; but the worship of the ox, the ape, the cat, the crocodile, and similar beasts, with all the bestial ministrations it involved, stamped the religion with a character and made it exercise an influence which suited its worship rather than its speculative idea or its theoretical ethics. Greek thought laboured hard to redeem Greek religion from the worship that depraved it, but it laboured in vain. Xenophanes reproached Homer and Hesiod for attributing to the gods things men held to be dishonourable and disgraceful. Herakleitos condemned the men who prayed to images, or sang the shameful phallic hymns to Dionysos, and the priests, priestesses, and mystery-mongers who traded on men's fears. Plato described the popular mythology as “lies and bad lies,” and proposed to blot out of Homer the stories that did not become the good, the images, acts and indecencies, unseemly in all, but most of all unseemly in Deity, which appealed to the more ignoble qualities in men—the fear of death, contempt of virtue, lust, irreverence, hate, treachery, cowardice, insensibility to the true and the beautiful. The Stoic, who consciously lived under the reign of an ethical ideal, tried to get rid of the immoralities in the popular beliefs, which the worship articulated, by allegorizing the mythology, turning it into an elaborate and finely articulated parable in which the ancients had stored their wisdom and out of which the moderns were to draw it like honey from the honeycomb. And did not the greatest of the Epicureans, the Roman Lucretius, because he so loved beauty and truth, hate religion, which had so much power to terrorize and deprave, but none to elevate and ennoble, and which could only lower with baleful eyes from the four quarters of the heavens upon the unhappy race of mortals? And as with ancient Egypt and Greece, so with modern India. There are Brahmans who think high thoughts, and dream sublime dreams, and conceive Deity as pure Being, whom to know is highest bliss. But they do not represent the religion which is known as Hinduism; with it their Supreme has only the remotest speculative concern. The god who is worshipped in the temple is not the Brahma of thought; but it is the wild and furious Kālī, or the mighty and excited yet ascetic Siva, or the golden-haired and swift-moving and gracious Vishnu, or Krishna of the many loves and the invincible life, and the multitude of similar deities that the pujari waits on and the people pray to and praise. And the worship is as the gods are, and the religion is as the worship and the gods. The idea that does not penetrate, purify, and command these may be an object of thought, but is no part of religion; the religion which does not absorb the highest thought, at once refining it and refined by it, is divorced from reason and morals, and has ceased to guide and inspire man's better life. It may continue a worship or a usage, but it has ceased to be in the true and proper sense a religion.

§ III. The Idea of God in Religion

A. BUDDHISM

1. The ultimate principle, then, which determines the character and quality of a religion, is the object it worships, or, to use the old simple and concrete term, its idea of God. Worship is essentially an act and process of reciprocity, a giving and a receiving; in it man surrenders himself to God, that God may communicate of His grace to man and realize in him His will. But this reciprocity signifies that each term of the relation is a person, each conscious of the other, each seeking to find and know the other. On the one side is the person who admires and adores and implores; on the other side is the Person who can see the speaker, hear his voice, and respond to his appeals. Hence no impersonal Being whether named fate or chance, necessity or existence, the soul or the whole, can be an object of worship, though it may be an object of thought. As a matter of historical fact no religion has ever been a pantheism, nor has any pantheism ever constituted a religion. The Hindu philosophies, for example—and this is especially true of the Vedantâ—are just as much and just as little a religion as are the speculations of Plato and Plotinus, of Spinoza and Jacob Boehme. They are of the nature of afterthoughts, hypotheses to account for things as they are, to be studied and criticised as products of the logical intellect rather than of the spontaneous and inspired reason. Pantheism, in all its forms, is on its ideal side the deification of the actual, or the apotheosis of what is, and its ultimate truth is the right of all that is, whatever it is, to be. Hence it can be quite consistently used to vindicate the most multitudinous polytheism as well as the grossest cults; but what it cannot do is to take the place of any one of the gods or cults it vindicates, and by inviting worship become a religion. The impersonal must be personalized before thought, which is a subjective activity, can pass into worship, which is a reciprocal action, or a process of converse and intercourse between living minds. But we cannot say of monotheism what has been said of pantheism; on the contrary, it was a religion before it became a philosophy, and its speculative problems and perplexities grew out of its power as a religious faith. The notion of a single and supreme God obviously involves a single religion, and so cannot be used to justify either a multitude of deities, or the legitimacy of their worship, or the existence of an actual which is in conflict with its ideal, the holy and gracious character of a God who must be personal to be worshipped, but who can be most easily conceived by having all His personal qualities translated into empty logical abstractions. And so monotheism has a much harder intellectual problem than pantheism, but it has a higher religious value and greater ethical force. For since what is does not satisfy it, it feels bound by obedience to the Supreme Will to create what ought to be. The historical significance of this idea for religion is, therefore, the question we have next to discuss.

2. But before we can proceed we must deal with a curious fact which may seem to invalidate both our argument and the conclusion which has been stated as the premiss of the new discussion: there are, as we have seen, two original missionary religions, and of these the one knows no God, while the other knows no God but One. Buddhism has been cited as an illustration of how a highly and potently ethical faith can exist not only without a personal God, but even without any deity whatever. Such citation, however, is essentially incorrect; for nothing could be farther than the soul or system of the Buddha from what we mean by atheism. He indeed denied both the pantheistic and the polytheistic Brahmanisms of his day, with the authority of the sacred books on which they were based, the social distinctions by which they were justified, and the customs by which they were guarded and enforced; but to turn this denial into the affirmation of an atheism is a feat of the most inconsequent logic. We maintain, on the contrary, that his denial was the expression of a thoroughly theistic consciousness. Buddha's relation to the thought and religion of his time has been already sketched.2 He desired to escape from its unethical metaphysics and sensuous worship, and to come face to face with the moral realities of existence and life. This he did by insisting that a Supreme Soul which had no direct and helpful relation to the millions of souls that sorrowed, was but a supreme deceit; that gods who were void of moral qualities were but empty names; that a priesthood which did but observe ceremonies, perform sacrifices, or cultivate a self-regarding asceticism, and did not teach men who were dying in ignorance, was but a master of make-believe; and that such a social system as caste was derogatory to the dignity of man, the harmony of society, and the end of existence. And so he became a preacher, persuading men to believe as he did; he praised virtue, practised charity and chastity, lived as one who had discovered that goodness was the secret of life and that its end was to be holy, and he showed men how to associate for its attainment. He could not free himself from the sub-conscious mind of his people; he thought as they did, used their logic to disprove their formulated principles, and to substitute for their egoistic metaphysics the noblest dream of altruistic ethics which ever broke upon the Oriental spirit. And if the idea of a sovereign moral order, too inexorable to allow the evil-doer to escape out of its hands and too incorruptible to be bribed by sacrifices into connivance at sin, be a theistic idea, then Buddha was a transcendent theist. But his people could not stand where he did; his philosophy could not become a religion without a person to be worshipped, and they, by a sublime inconsistency of logic, rose in the region of the imagination and the heart to a higher consistency, and deified the denier of the Divine. Buddhism, then, may be described as the apotheosis of the ethical personality, an apotheosis; spontaneous and imaginative rather than rational and logical. It could not be justified by the reason, but it was a vivid reality to faith. The deification was none the less complete that the religion knew no God, though it was a result that at once paralyzed the intellect and quickened and satisfied the heart. For on the speculative side Buddha was an anomaly in the universe, stood where no being could have been conceived as able to stand, invested with higher ethical attributes and enshrined in more reverent honour than India had ever ascribed to any deity, yet without having any of the physical qualities or functions which belong to a divine Being. But on the religious side devotion embalmed him in the richest and sweetest mythology known to man. Tales of his infinite tenderness became the soul of his religion, which lived not by the worship of his relics, or by meditation on the four sublime truths, or by the many attempts to stumble into the noble eightfold path, or by the subtle disputations of the doctors, but by the faith that he who impersonated its ideal was a person who had spoken, who could hear speech, and who would himself yet return to accomplish what was further needed for the complete saving of man.

§ IV. The Idea of God in Religion

B. HEBRAIC MONOTHEISM

1. We turn now to the question raised by the action of monotheism. What is here cardinal is the fact that it appeared as a belief creating a religion, not as a rational idea constituting a philosophy. And this means that while it rose amid a people to whom the transcendental idea was native,3 it began to live, not as a speculative principle, but as a belief surcharged, as it were, with personality. It had none of the qualities of an intellectual concept, did not define or deny, but simply affirmed, as of a definite person, “The God of the people is a living God, and acts, loves, hates, thinks, wills as a Being must who has made a nation His special concern and care.” And here another cardinal fact has to be recognized, that the belief, unlike a reasoned philosophical idea, had to be incorporated in local and social forms; that these could not be other than ancient and ethnical; and that therefore it could not fail to be governed in its life and growth more by these consuetudinary forms than by speculative or dialectical forces. In other words, in a world where all religions were only local and tribal cults, it was only as such a cult that monotheism could begin to be; and the only form in which it could be held by men who were neither speculative nor logical thinkers, but only sons of the desert, in consciousness incoherent, confused though convinced in mind, was as a belief in the superiority and sufficiency of their God, not as an articulated notion which denied reality to all other gods.

In itself, as handled by analytic thought, the belief signified that ideas which transcended the tribe or nation had come into existence; and that in due season, by the sheer pressure of its immanent logic, the ancient and hitherto invariable association of God with a particular people and its special forms of worship would cease. But as a matter of fact the belief had to live as an expansive and expulsive power within a twofold rigorously limiting medium; first, a tribal consciousness of colossal egoism; and, secondly, the institutions and customs of the tribe. The humane force in Greece was culture, or the thought which so interpreted nature as to refine man; the humane force in Israel was faith, or God so interpreted as to be incapable of restriction to any people or place. Culture was personal, and so independent of the customs it disliked or the laws it criticized; faith was collective, could become worship only by becoming social, and so stooping to tribal usages. Thus the idea which the faith expressed the polity tended to restrict, if not to deny. The impossibility of either surrendering or realizing his religious ideal is the tragedy in the history of Israel. The very majesty of the ideal waked the fanaticism of the tribe, and begot the consciousness that it had a treasure too singular and sublime to be entrusted to the hands of any other people. In theory Jehovah was the God of the whole earth, but in fact He was the God of the Jews only; and to share in His grace and covenant other peoples must become Jews, it was not enough that they should be men.

2. But even under these conditions, or possibly all the more because of them, the monotheistic idea revealed its intrinsic character. We may study its action first in the attitude of Hebrew thought to man and history. If we examine the conception which underlies the structure and narratives of the Old Testament, we shall find, as the peculiar and characteristic creation of the theistic idea, what we may without extravagance name a philosophy of history and of religion. The similarities of the Hebrew narratives of creation to the Chaldæan mythologies, with their days and stages of creation, the chaos and the void which preceded it, the division of the waters, of the darkness and the light, with the order in which the successive organisms appear, the coming of man and the dawn of the Sabbath, are too well known to call for either exposition or remark; but the genius of Israel contributes the idea which turns the mythical into a rational process, and which entitles his race to the praise Aristotle accorded to Anaxagoras: he walks amid the ancient peoples like a sober man among drunkards. We start with a beginning in which God is; He is the only uncaused Being; the vision that would pierce the eternal past sees Him alone, and beside Him stands no second; and His creative methods are those of the thinker rather than of the mechanic or artificer, and are as remote as possible from the monstrosities of the mythical cosmogonies, whether Babylonian or Greek. He speaks, and His language is nature; He commands, and the personalized forces obey His word. His spirit moves upon the face of the waters; He breathes into man the breath of life. And His relation to the creature is no less remarkable. Since man is His breath, he is His kin, with a dependent being, yet with an independence of will which fits him to hold fellowship with the God who made him. This dignity, which he can keep only by obedience, he receives but to lose; for on the very morrow of the creation, which, as it left God's hand, was so good, evil enters because man, who had been made so much greater than he knew, was by his very innocence and inexperience so open to its enticements.

And from this point onwards the marvellous segregative and organizing faculty of the monotheistic idea shows itself with growing distinctness. The material it deals with is old, traditional or borrowed, expressing the common knowledge or beliefs of Israel and the cognate peoples; but the idea so acts as to build it into a new structure with a new life. Evil becomes the opponent without being the counterpart of God, and works against Him through man, in whom it becomes impersonated, while He works against it in man and in the course of his history. And here we meet in an implicit and more profound form the question so familiar to certain schools of Greek thought as to the origin of religion. Man has been so made that religion is native to him; but he has so acted that a multitude of religions have come to be. The instinct to worship springs from the nature he owes to the Creator; but the impulse to imagine counterfeit deities comes from the evil which desires a God lenient to sin. Man cannot escape his destiny, he must be religious; yet even in being what he must he indulges his self-will, and by multiplying religions grows alien from the truth. But man's misbehaviour does not relieve the Creator from responsibility for His handiwork; nay, it has rather increased it, and so sin is met by punishment. The guilty race perishes in the waters of the flood; but, as if to show that destruction in no cure, the saved family, the moment it touches the earth, again betakes itself to sinning. Since the severest and most exemplary penalties, so far from acting as deterrents, seem only to encourage evil to return as an unvanquished and mocking power, discipline is tried instead. If men will not retain God in their knowledge, He will neither accept their depraved ignorance nor abandon them to it. And so a people is chosen, and by special methods trained as the vehicle of His truth, that in them “all the nations of the earth may be blessed.” In the literature this universalism within the election is never lost sight of; the people are not allowed to think themselves an end, God is not restricted to their borders, but in the Law a hedge is set round them that His name may be preserved for all mankind. The forms used to express this idea are as graphic as they are naïve. The man who appears as priest of the Most High God, blessing the father of the faithful and receiving tithes of him, does not belong to the selected family.4 The forsaken bondwoman and her son are seen and specially cared for in the desert by the God of Abraham, who thus knows Ishmael as well as Isaac.5 The “perfect man, who fears God and eschews evil,” dwells not in Judæa, but in the land of Uz.6 The anointed minister of His will is a heathen king, a Persian.7 Out of the East comes a queen to admire the wisdom of Solomon.8 In one prophetic vision all nations are seen bowing down to serve Him;9 in another all empires, even those most violently opposed to His kingdom, are made to be the ministers of His will.10 And these universal elements persist in the face of the rigorous tribal consciousness which ever tended to conceive God as Israel's rather than Israel as God's.

3. But still more instructive than the thought which applies the monotheistic idea to man and history is its action within the religion. Here there is a twofold movement, one which is proper to the idea itself, its immanent growth or personal history; and one which belongs to the worship and institutions in which the collective consciousness laboured to incorporate and realize it.

(α) The history of the idea shows its progressive amelioration and expansion, the coincident growth of higher moral qualities, and a wider and more sovereign universalism. At first strength or power and God are nearly equivalents. His names speak of might, of a force that can be neither exhausted nor resisted; and while He is so conceived He is but the strongest—and therefore the most majestic and awful—of the gods, who has selected a people for Himself. Since He has chosen Israel He cannot brook a rival; He is a jealous God, towards the faithful pitiful and slow to anger, but terrible to the faithless. Yet even in early times His moral quality appears; at the heart of the Mosaic legislation there stands a moral idea of law which governs His relations to His people and His people's to Him. These relations are conditional and not absolute; God can be theirs, and they can be His only as they believe and obey, and their obedience is to be personal and ethical, not simply collective and ceremonial. This was a wonderful innovation in religion, a thing so new and so strange that its significance and its possibilities were by no means obvious to those who saw it made. But this was only the beginning of change; the longer the people knew God and the better they served, the more they loved and revered Him. He had called them out of Egypt, founded their state, which stood in His strength rather than in its own. On this act He would not go back, for was He not faithful, bound by His acts, bound by His promises, though acts and promises alike implied that His people should be as faithful as He? But this strong and sovereign and faithful God was also tender and compassionate: had He not married Himself to Israel, and would lie not be true to His vows even when Israel erred, and be patient, forbearing, forgiving, even as a noble husband to a faithless wife? But there was a nearer and a higher thought: the Maker was the Father; and though his child might rebel, yet would He not forget the fruit of His loins. And if He was a God of this order, did He not dwell apart from all gods, and from all frail and feeble creatures, holy in nature and in name? But the more moral He was conceived to be, the more moral man had to become in order to please Him. It was not enough that He should be honoured by fasts and festivals, by sacrifices and oblations, as were the gods of the Gentiles. What He required of man was justice, mercy, humility, purity of hands and heart; the only service fit for a holy God was the service of holy men. Hence the worship of the Good by the good was the only worship He could approve. And at this point the evolution of the idea introduced into the religion a twofold change; first, Jehovah ceased to be regarded by the great teachers as the God of one people, bound to them by peculiar ties of word and deed, and He came to be conceived as the God of the pious man everywhere, sought and worshipped by him, loving the search and approving the worship; and, secondly, He was to be recognised in a hitherto unknown degree as the God of the individual, the hearer of his prayer, the comforter of his life, the object of his faith, and the hope of his salvation. And these were not opposed, but concordant tendencies, for what is most universal must be open to every individual, and what every person may appropriate must be accessible to all. The books which express these ideas are the sublimest, not only in Hebrew, but in all sacred literature. The great prophets of the captivity and the return, especially Jeremiah and the later Isaiah, express the monotheistic as a collective yet ethical faith, opening its arms to all the reverent, blessing all the obedient. And the Book of Psalms is the voice of the monotheistic faith as a personal religion, seeking with a passion that will not be denied the God who is the light and life of the soul. It needs Him in its joy and in its sorrow, in the face of death and in the midst of strife, when it goes to the house of God in goodly company, and when it pines alone, forsaken of all the men it trusted; when it dwells in the besieged city or watches on the lone plain the flocks by night, when it is uplifted by being cast down into the depth or humbled by being allowed to go its own way to disaster and shame; but, above all, it needs Him when it has sinned against Him, and can only ask that He would, according to the multitude of His tender mercies, blot out its transgressions. The Psalter is a great Book of Religion; it shows that devotion is most sublime when it is most personal that the man who has never stood with his soul uncovered before God has never worshipped, or tasted the ecstasy of one who, though a mortal, has lost all sense of mortality by feeling round him the everlasting arms. The literature that can plant so majestic a life in the soul may well be known as the sacred Book of Monotheism.

(β) When we turn from the idea to the institutions, or the worship by which God was to be approached, and in which He was to be served, we come upon a history with a very different moral. Here we find the tribal consciousness at work, seeking to restrict God to Israel, to fix the terms on which the Gentile should be allowed to participate in His grace. It is a sad story, all the sadder because through so many ages the Christian read the Jew's legislation with the Jew's eyes and in his sense. But now that our eyes are opened we can see, as Stephen and as Paul saw, the strenuous labour of the Jew, running through many centuries, to limit the Holy One to his tribe. The institutions, which were the organism of worship, if not in intention yet in fact and in effect, contradicted and cancelled the monotheism which was the intellectual and moral soul of the religion. To say this is not to undervalue the ethical ideas that underlie the ritual. The people elected to serve God must be worthy of the God they serve. “Be ye holy, for I am holy,” is the maxim on which their worship is founded. The people who are God's priests to mankind must be clothed in the beautiful garments of the priesthood. The idea is excellent, provided the symbolical sense be not forgotten; but here as everywhere the tribal instinct translated the symbols into substance. And as the ethical was lost in the ceremonial, the universal died in the particular. The more sharply the national consciousness expressed itself in national institutions, the more emphatically were tribal limitations placed upon the religion. The more they made the law they enacted the law of God, the less could they allow peoples who had not the law any share in their God. By building the temple they localized the worship of Him who knew no place; by drawing tighter the terms of the covenant, they confined to themselves the Father who loved every people; by forming an hereditary priesthood they attached His service to one family; by elaborating their ceremonies, they shut religion within the ritual which they alone possessed, though even here the ethical sovereignty which could not be denied to Jehovah made Him broader than their law. The writer of most significance here is Ezekiel, who is priest as well as prophet, and who stands between the Deuteronomic legislation on the one hand, and the Levitical on the other. Jehovah is to him pre-eminently the God of Israel and they are his people.11 He makes with them an everlasting covenant, sets His temple in their midst, and dwells in their land.12 The priests, like himself sons of Zadok, are the ministers who enter the sanctuary and approach God for the people;13 and their independence is to be secured by a gift of land which is to be “holy,” the portion of the priests, the ministers of the sanctuary14 whose revenues are thus assured that they themselves, with their offices and rites, may be protected from princes and people. Ritual offences are grievous sins; and though he holds the individual responsible, yet the real unit before God is the nation, and the only goodness the nation can know or manifest is conformity to some external law. Hence Ezekiel represented the tendency that would restrict God to a particular place or definite temple, His ministry to a specific priesthood, His worship to special forms, and His servants to a peculiar people. The higher and more spiritual prophets struggled indeed to emancipate the religion from this tribal particularism, but they struggled in vain. They saw the impure idolatries which corrupted the nations; they described with passion and splendid irony the idol which the smith made and the carpenter fastened in his place, and the people bowed down before and called upon as their god; and over against it they placed the Eternal, the unmade Maker, who formed the light, who formed the darkness, who overthrew kings and set up kingdoms, who fainted not and never was weary, and they bade all states to come and worship Him. But their ideal remained a prophetic vision; it never became a reality. The real that was they hated only less than the heathen worships, if indeed they hated it less. For in the region of realized things the fanaticism of the tribe was mightier than the inspiration of the prophet. It is one of the supreme ironies of history that the last century in which the monotheistic people existed as a nation was also the period of their most frenzied particularism. In the heated imagination of the tribe the vessel became more infinitely precious than the treasure it carried.

§ V. Judaism at Home and in the Dispersion

1. But what Israel at home failed to do, the Israel of the dispersion more nearly accomplished. The men who escaped in some measure from the tribal institutions escaped also in the same degree from the tribal consciousness; and so could look at religion in the light of their universal theism rather than through the shadows cast by local cults and customs. Of the kingdoms that sprang from the empire of Alexander, two had dealings with Israel: the Syrian oppressed him at home, the Egyptian protected him abroad. The Seleucid kings so tyrannized over the elect people, so insulted their faith and worship, as to provoke the Maccabæan revolt; and in the war for freedom religion became the symbol of the patriot and the seal of civil independence. As a consequence the tribal and the religious consciousness became more deeply interfused, the religious gave to the tribal its exaltation and its sanction; while the tribal defined, narrowed, and embittered the religious. But the Ptolemies, by befriending the Jews, who had by settling in their opulent cities increased their wealth and enhanced their importance, evoked a temper quick to admire the different and to assimilate the foreign. And the amelioration was most marked in the region of faith, for the immigrants soon discovered that even as regards religion the Gentiles could teach the Jews as well as learn from them. The very attempt to interpret their religion for the foreigner, interpreted it into a new and larger faith for themselves. The Scriptures were translated out of the Hebrew into the Greek tongue, and so became international or even cosmopolitan, a book for Gentiles as well as Jews. Then translation did not leave the matter unchanged; sacred history and discourse, read in the medium of a literary and philosophical language, not only lost much of their old simplicity and many of their old associations, but also gained with their new forms new associations and a new sense. The Jew who knew Greek but did not know Hebrew read his Scriptures more as a Hellenist than as a Rabbi; the traditions of the great synagogue fell from him, and the canons, critical and exegetical, of the Alexandrian schools took their place. With the knowledge of Greek came also the knowledge of another order of religious thought. To hear Moses and Plato, Jeremiah and Zeno, Isaiah and Euripides speak in the same tongue was rather to realize their kinship than to feel their difference. And there began to dawn upon the students of Alexandria what had been hidden from the patriots of Judæa, that the vision of Deity had been known to Greece as well as to Israel. The Attic sage and the Hebrew seer were of one spirit, fulfilled like functions, were Inspired and instructed by the same God. The method of allegorical interpretation which the Greek had used to reduce his mythology to literary decency and philosophical wisdom, the Jew used to turn his sacred history into a theology; the creation, Eden, the fall, our first parents, the patriarchs and their acts, were all subjected to the metamorphic process which had expelled violence from Homer and reduced to respectability the most lascivious of the gods. But the theistic idea suffered the most significant modification. The Greek Logos was allowed to break into the stern solitude of the Hebrew Deity. It stood between Him and the world, separated Him from its evil and grossness, and relieved it from the oppressive weight of His almighty hand. The Logos was the intelligible which He had thought into being; but it was also the architect who had realized the actual. The All-holy did not stand face to face with the material and sensuous, but He saw them, if He could be said to see them at all, through the medium of His beloved Word. And this mediated relation allowed a kindlier attitude to man and his religions. They were studied not through the divisive properties of law and custom, but through the affinities of imagination and thought. The speech which, had interpreted the religion made the religion more just to all who had used the speech. Greece as well as Judæa had known the true God; in the one as certainly as in the other the Logos had been active; men through contemplation of His beauty had learned to obey His will. And so a conclusion was reached which we may thus express: Where the thought is the same the religions may be distinct, but cannot be different, for the God who made the intelligible made all intellects akin to each other and to Him; and it is through the knowledge of the truth that He is most truly known, and in its contemplation that He is most purely worshipped.

What Judaism represents, then, is the issue of the conflict between the universal idea and the local cult as embodied in the localized race. Where the cult had behind it the traditions, the associations, and the patriotism of the home it proved stronger than the idea, imposing upon God, who was theoretically one and alone and supreme, the limitations of a tribal worship; but where the idea was emancipated from those domestic and ancestral associations, it tended to prove itself stronger than the cult. The triumph of the cult meant the nationalization of the religion, which would then be an abortive or unrealized monotheism; but the triumph of the idea meant the universalization of the religion, which could only become an absolute monotheism by the worship being loosed from the bonds of the tribe and realized in humaner forms. And the form which the process assumed in the dispersion was the modification of the religion into a system of philosophy, whose notes were eclecticism in thought and syncretism in worship. But the necessity of the situation was the consistency of idea and form, the homogeneity of the worship, the worshipper, and the God. And this homogeneity no syncretism has ever realized. Hence came a conflict which was not incidental, but essential; for it grew out of the imperious demand of the only thoroughly universal idea which had risen in the history of religion for a medium which should do justice to its universalism. In the nature of the case this could not be found in the institutions which were the symbols of national existence, as they were the creations of the tribal or national consciousness. To speak of the Jewish law and worship in these terms is to characterize, but not to depreciate, them. The universal idea could come into the thought and faith of humanity only through special persons, and such persons could be born and nursed only by a special people. The fitness of Israel to be the foster parent of such an idea does not lie open to question; it is writ large on the whole face of his history and of man's. He lived for his idea; his loyalty to it resisted all the absorbent forces of the ancient empires, and though the mightiest empire of them all broke up his state and threw his homeless members broadcast upon the world, yet the dispersed units have defied the assimilative energy of all modern peoples. And we may add that that energy has been inspired by every passion—hate, fear, greed, revenge, disdain, indifference, toleration, love of freedom in the abstract rather than of concrete men—by everything, indeed, save the only thing that could have helped and heal viz., sympathy and appreciation. Such a people was the very medium needed for the birth and breeding, the nurture and development of an idea which man so required, and yet was so averse to receive; but the idea which could be begotten and nursed only by such a people could not continue their perennial possession. And the pathos of Israel's position lies in their invincible devotion to the national form of a belief which, in order that it might realize itself and become man's, required to lose all trace of its national origin and tribal history and live in a medium as universal as its nature and function. Whether such a medium has been found is a question which has yet to be discussed.

  • 1.

    Christianity and Mankind, vol. iii. p. 4.

  • 2.

    Ante, pp. 118–121.

  • 3.

    Ante, pp. 217–219.

  • 4.

    Gen. xiv. 18–20; cf. Ps. cx. 4; Heb, v. 6, 10; vii. 1–10.

  • 5.

    Gen. xvi. 10–13; xxi. 12–20.

  • 6.

    Job i. 1.

  • 7.

    Isa. xliv. 28; xlv. 1.

  • 8.

    1 Kings x. 1–10.

  • 9.

    Isa. lix.–lxi., lxv.

  • 10.

    Dan. vii.

  • 11.

    xxxiv. 30.

  • 12.

    xxxvii. 26–28.

  • 13.

    xliv. 15, 16.

  • 14.

    xlv. 3–8.