THIS book may be described as an attempt to do two things: first, to explain religion through nature and man; and, secondly, to construe Christianity through religion. The author conceives religion to be a joint product of the mind within man and the nature around him, the mind being the source of the ideas which constitute its soul, the nature around determining the usages and customs which build up its body. He does not think, therefore, that any one of its special forms can be explained without the local nature which begot and shaped it, or that its general being can be resolved and construed without the reason or thought which is common to the race. He sees in religion the greatest of all man's unconscious creations, and the most potent of the means which the past, while it was still a living present, formed for the making of the man and the times that were yet to be.
The beliefs of the author are writ large on almost every page, and these he need neither explain nor justify here; but a word or two may be said as to the occasion which defined not so much the problem of the book as its scope and point of view. Some years ago he had the honour of being appointed by the University of Chicago lecturer on the Haskell foundation. The conditions of the endowment were that a certain number of lectures should be delivered in India, especially in the Presidency towns. In India the author suddenly found himself face to face with a religion he had studied in its literature and by the help of interpreters of many minds and tongues, and this contact with reality at once illuminated and perplexed him. It was not so much that his knowledge was incorrect or false, as that it was mistaken in its emphasis. No religion can be known in its Sacred Books alone, or simply through its speculative thinkers and religious reformers; and of all religions the one that these can least interpret is the encyclopoedic aggregation of cults and customs we know as Hinduism. Hence he realized as he had never done before the force of custom and usage, of social convention and religious observance, the didactic and coercive power of a worship which can command obedience where its value is doubted, or even where it is denied and despised. He saw a religion which had an innumerable multitude of deities and an indescribable variety of worships, which had grown out of a simple and primitive naturalism that had no knowledge of these gods and rites, which had had hosts of reformers who had yet only added to the mythologies and cults they had set out to purge and reform, and which still amid so many changes was conceived and described as one religion, and as continuous with that of the ancient Aryan men. Hence he was confronted with certain philosophical problems which he had to attempt to solve before he could think of undertaking any large historical investigation:What is religion in general? How and why has it arisen? What causes have made religions to differ? Is the multitude as good for man permanently as it has been necessary to his development? What are the ultimate constituents of religions,ideas and beliefs, or customs and institutions? If by their usages and observances some religions are native to certain localities and peoples, and alien from certain other places and races,can a religion whose institutions are at once local and essential be universal? How has it happened that certain religions have become missionary while others have never desired or been able to transcend the limits of the tribe or the home? What attributes must distinguish a missionary from nonmissionary religions?
These then were the problems which created this book, for they compelled the author to stud), his own faith in their light. He could not but feel that Christianity stood among the religions which must be historically investigated and philosophically construed; and that no greater injury could be done to it than to claim for it exceptional consideration at the hands of the historical student or philosophical thinker. For he who advances such a claim practically surrenders either the truth and equity of his religion, or the integrity of the reason which was God's own gift to man. But it is further obvious that the mode of interpreting other religions, especially as regards the fundamental point of the origin and warrant of the ideas which are as the heart or basis common to all, has the most serious possible significance for Christianity. For if our primary and original beliefs be but the glorified survivals of certain mistaken inferences deduced by savage man from the phenomena either of his own dreams or of a nature he did not understand, then it is clear that every religion will be made to suffer from the inherent and inherited sin of its remotest ancestor. And, again, if great historical religions which innumerable millions of men, as rational as we, have professed through thousands of ages, be resolved into systems of error and delusion that only the blind deceitfulness of the human heart could tempt man to believe, then it is evident that we dare not use the reason or the conscience which we have so discredited either to believe or to attest or to justify the truth of our own. In other words, the philosophy that misreads the origin of religious ideas and the history of any religion will not, and indeed cannot, be just to the Christian; while he who would maintain the Christian must be just and even generous to all the religions created and professed of men.
This book, then, is neither a philosophy nor a history of religion, but it is an endeavour to look at what is at once the central fact and idea of the Christian faith by a mind whose chief labour in life has been to make an attempt at such a philosophy through such a history. The Son of God holds in His pierced hands the keys of all the religions, explains all the factors of their being and all the persons through whom they have been realized. And this means that the author would not, if he could, take the religion be loves out of the cycle of the historical religions. On the contrary, he holds that Christianity must stand there if it is to be really known and truly honoured. The time is coming, and we shall hope that the man is coming with it, which shall give us a new Analogy, speaking a more generous and hopeful language, breathing a nobler spirit, aspiring to a larger day than Butler's. It will seek to discover in man's religions the story of his quest after God, but no less of God's quest after him; and it will listen in all of them for the voice of the Eternal, who has written His law upon the heart in characters that can never be eradicated. And it will argue that a system whose crown and centre is the Divine Man, is one which does justice to everything positive in humanity by penetrating it everywhere with Deity. The Incarnation, as here read, is the very truth which turns nature and man, history and religion into the luminous dwelling-place of God.
In sending out this book the author must record his gratitude to two friends: Mr. P. E. Matheson, Fellow of New College, Oxford, for his patience in reading the proofs, and for the many emendations in style and expression he has suggested; and the Rev. R. S. Franks, M.A., B. Litt., formerly of Mansfield College, now of Birkenhead, for his labour in drawing up the Table of Contents and preparing the Index.