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Part III. Ethics and Belief

Chapter XII: Myth in Religion


1 Religion is an attempt to adjust one's nature as a whole to ultimate reality. In a sense all human life is that. But whereas the larger part of such life consists of an adjustment to what is immediately around us, religion seeks to go behind the appearance of things to what is self-subsistent, to something which, intellectually and causally, will explain everything else. And it must be conceived as a response of man's nature as a whole. The attempt has often been made, but never with success, to conceive religion more narrowly as the function of some part or faculty of human nature. Some have lodged it in the activity of knowing or thinking. E. B. Tylor described it as ‘the belief in spiritual beings’;1 Freud said that ‘religion consists of certain dogmas… which tell one something that one has not oneself discovered and which claim that one should give them credence’;2 many persons would identify it without further ado with the acceptance of their own creed, and would view with honest astonishment the suggestion that persons who would reject that creed in toto might still be thought religious. Others have held religion to be a matter of feeling merely. For Paulsen it lay in feelings of humility and trust; for Schleiermacher it was a feeling of absolute dependence; ‘it resigns, at once, all claims on anything that belongs either to science or morality’.3 For others, again, religion has been primarily a matter of practice, either in the form of ritual observance, as with the ancient Pharisees, or in the form of morality generally. Religion for Kant was the acceptance of duty as the command of a God not rationally knowable; for Matthew Arnold it was ‘morality touched with emotion’.

2 None of these conceptions will serve. They all break down for the same reason, namely that what we ordinarily mean by religion, vague as that meaning is, is not to be imprisoned in one side of our nature. Make it simply a matter of knowledge or belief, and one is compelled to say that the professor of theology who can recite and give reasons for all the thirty-nine articles, but happens to be both irreverent and dissolute, is a religious man. Make it a matter of pure feeling, and it crumbles away in one's hands. One can hardly fear, and yet fear nothing; if one trusts or loves, one must have somebody or something for an object; this object must be apprehended, and then thought is obviously involved in addition to feeling. As Dean Inge says about Schleiermacher, ‘“Mere dependence” is nonsense, unless there is a known object on which to depend’.4 If we then go on to make religion an affair of morality solely, common thought and usage again rebel. It is not beyond doubt that Luther was a better man morally than John Stuart Mill, but there would be very little doubt that he was a more religious man; and there is certainly something deserving of a separate name that marks off a St Francis or a George Fox from even the purest of secular saints.

If we may take the old trio of cognition, feeling, and emotion, as covering the field of human faculty, we may say that religion employs all these activities at once and hence engages the whole man. On the cognitive side, the religious man is a philosopher ex officio, whether a competent one or not. Since he is trying to adjust himself to the government of the world, he will inevitably feel some interest in knowing the truth about it, and hence be carried on to form some conception of it. This conception, in turn, will evoke toward its object some attitude of reverence, love, indifference, or fear. Again, if he conceives the world to be governed by a personal being who is wise and good, as Christianity does, he will try to bring his practice into line with what he takes to be the divine will. His religion, then, will not be a function of thought or feeling or will; it will be the joint activity of all three; it will be the response of the man as a whole to what he takes as ultimately true and ultimately good.

3 If all these factors enter into the essence of religion, we may of course go on to say that they have been involved in it at every period of its history. But they have not been at all times equally prominent. Sometimes the rational element has been in the ascendant, sometimes one or other of the non-rational elements. I have noted in an earlier study5 the long struggle between reason and feeling for the primacy in moral judgement and the moral life. There has been a somewhat similar struggle between rational and non-rational demands running through the history of Western religion, and the position in which religion finds itself in our day marks the most recent stage of that struggle. We shall not understand this stage unless we know something of its predecessors. But before looking at the steps by which we arrived where we are, may I say in a few words what I see when I look back on the journey as a whole?

Religion at the beginning was no doubt chiefly a matter of impulse and feeling. An intellectual element was present, but it had to work within the medium of imagination, and imagination was the puppet of irrational forces. As reflection began to stir uneasily in the religious consciousness, and to achieve some freedom of movement, it slowly transformed the object of worship in the attempt to accommodate it more fully to the contrary claims of fact and desire. For many centuries after the Christian era its main work continued to lie in this internal transformation, in which, while its own standards were pressing their rights more imperatively, it remained, on the whole, the servant of religious need. It touched its highest point in this service in the thirteenth century with the great attempt of St Thomas to articulate and rationalise the religious view of the world. With the coming of Descartes, reason freed itself from the service of faith, and began to judge theology no longer by standards set by religious desire and need but by standards of its own, now isolated and defined. Since then the older world-view has been slowly disintegrating, and has not yet been succeeded by any philosophic or scientific construction that can take its place. I am convinced that religion has reached a stage where it must either vote its own dissolution or reconstruct itself on an altered pattern. These are large assertions. In my limited space I can hardly hope to render them plausible except to those whose experience has supplied them with favouring predispositions. But let us take a rapid survey and begin at the beginning.


4 It seems to me almost certain that religion sprang in the first instance from animism. Animism is the recognition, at first virtually instinctive, of a spiritual or non-rational agency in physical things. Aristotle thought religion was born of wonder, but if wonder means the raising of questions and the deliberate thinking about them, there is no doubt that animism is far older, older indeed than any explicit thought. There are signs of its presence even in the animal mind. It is difficult to interpret otherwise an experiment which Darwin once carried out upon his dog. He tied a fine thread to a bone, and then from a distance, while the dog was looking at the bone, he pulled it about by this invisible thread. The dog, seeing a ‘dead’ bone apparently come to life and start doing things by itself, almost went into convulsions of fascinated fear. Here already there seems to have been a sense of something mysterious and dreadful controlling a familiar object to unknown ends. It is not nature generally that the primitive mind takes as animated; souls peep through only in its interstices, when something happens that calls for special explanation. That water wets or fire burns or round things roll is no puzzle; these things behave as they do because that is their habit, and so long as they go on behaving so, primitive curiosity would not worry its feeble head about them. But when a bone gets up and walks, that is something else. Or suppose a child eats an apple that looks like any other apple, only to writhe and die in pain. Suppose a raging wind arises, beyond anything in memory, and sweeps one's house away. These present themselves not as the workings of nature's habits, but as violent breaches of habit that call for something behind the scenes to account for them. What could this be?

There is only one cause that seems adequate to the effect. The one quite natural explanation is a supernatural one. There is malice here, working its malignant will against us. Children and savages live in an intensely personal world. If the child is fed and dressed, or spanked or put to bed, it is by the will of persons stronger than he; all that is most important in his life issues from these personal wills. What more natural, then, than to think that if a door catches his finger, it has hurt him in spite?—and we find him pommeling it vigorously. It would be putting the case far too intellectually to say that he is using a conscious argument from analogy; the extension of the personal account to ‘inanimate’ things is not felt as really an extension. An angry person struck and hurt me; an angry dog bit me painfully; an angry wind ripped my house down; there was something evil in that apple that struck at me through my child; as one moves along this line, there is no sense of having passed over from fact to theory, or from perception to inference; implicit inference is accepted as fact throughout. We can now see that none of these is a case of mere perceived fact, that all alike are inferences. The child, of course, does not see or feel his father's annoyance in wielding the slipper; he must reach it by interpretation of what he sees and feels. We should now say that the reading of the signs to mean anger in the parent and the dog is, or may be, correct, while it is pretty certainly incorrect in the cases of the wind and the apple. But that is a later refinement. For the primitive mind, the movement of thought is the same throughout. And that simple instinctive movement is the origin of religion. It is hard to resist Tylor's conclusion that ‘animism is, in fact, the groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilised man.’6


5 When the savage makes this leap behind the scenes, what is it that he takes to be there? The question has been pressed upon him times without number by prying inquirers, armed with pads and pencils. Their unhappy victim squirms and twists; sometimes he is in terror about answering their questions; these matters have dark associations for him, which he does not call up willingly. When he forces himself to answer, the result is disappointing, and yet all that one could rightly expect. To take perhaps the least questionable case, he would say that behind the angry look and blow of the person who struck out at him was a self that aimed the blow. This self is not the man's body but what managed his body, as I now manage my own. But of course his body is all that one sees. And how is a groping mind to think of what eye has not seen nor ear heard? If you press the matter, what comes out is the thought of another more subtle and elusive body—a wraith, a mist, a wisp of vapour, a breath, possessing the likeness of the body we see but without its solid substance. This groping venture into metaphysics gains encouragement from the happy way in which it accounts for other experiences as well, and soon the savage mind begins to feel the satisfaction of a coherent theory and of a new territory won for its understanding. In dreams he sees people who were not there bodily; if their bodies have doubles, ghost-souls that can wander afield, these must be what he saw. And he himself wanders afield in dreaming, while his body, so he is assured, never left its corner; evidently his own soul differs from its body, and can make pilgrimages of its own. There is a widespread courtesy among primitive peoples toward a dreaming man, which would deter them from waking him abruptly lest his soul should not have time to return and adjust itself to its familiar lodging again.

If the soul is thus distinct from the body, we have a convenient theory of death, that most shocking of all vicissitudes. My companion is badly hurt. Yesterday he was talking, laughing, planning exploits with me; today, as his blood ebbs away, he becomes something like a log, only more repellent from being so alien to what it once was. Has not something else ebbed away, that which made him laugh and plan? The spirit in him, his animating breath or soul has gone. But it has not ceased to be. It hovers wistfully for a time about its old haunts; hence the bamboo tubes in the grave, that allow it to go freely out and in, and the doll buried in the woman's arms that the wanderer may still think her child is there. Hence, too, the logic of the strange cruelties that often multiplied the terrors of primitive death—the killing of wives and servants and horses that the soul of the master might be less forlorn in its new land through the attendance of familiar shades. And what is the new land like? Not unnaturally, primitive thought on this head is as vague as it is reluctant. It is a shadowy land, where shades continue to live, but live the impotent life of shadows. The king of Babylon is assured by the writer of Isaiah that when he arrives in Sheol, ‘All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we?’7 and the Preacher exhorts us to do with our might what our hands now find to do, ‘for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, whither thou goest’.8 When one finds Odysseus in Homer visiting a Greek replica of the Hebrew Sheol and conversing with shades that flitted about inconsequently and talked in barely audible voices, we may wonder at the closeness of the parallel in two cultures that hardly touched each other. But the point is that mutual influence, even if it occurred, would not be needed to account for the parallel. The common logic of the primitive mind is enough, and no doubt a diligent searcher could find parallels the world over.


6 The next step is myth.9 In mythology, animism escapes into freedom of imaginative play. The animist says that when echoes come across the glen somebody is there and answering; the myth-maker says that the ‘somebody’ is a tribe of little hill people, merry dwarfs, who find glee in mocking us, and who came there in such and such wise. The animist says that if it thunders and lightens, a mighty being is angry with us. The myth-maker is not content. He accepts the suggestion, but embroiders it imaginatively. He says that this is the heaven-god Indra, who shoots great gleaming arrows with his rainbow and hurls his bolts at the sky-dragons, the clouds; or it is Thor laying about him in a rage with his mighty hammer. The animist thinks vaguely of sun and moon as personal powers. To the weaver of myths they are man and wife, or brother and sister, Apollo driving his blazing chariot across the sky and Artemis keeping state in her silver chair; and then since each must have a character, and ancestors, and designs, and adventures, each becomes the root of an exuberant flowering of legend. The general pattern of these legends bears a striking similarity as one passes from people to people. The most arresting aspects of nature and the most important epochs of experience are largely the same for all men. Sun, moon, and stars, the coming of the mysterious night, the winds that are sometimes wanton and sometimes angry, the new life in the spring, the minds of animals, so near to us and yet so far away, human birth and death, and the crises that, for all alike, lie between them of inexplicable luck, untoward accident, and the blight of sickness and pain—it is inevitable that when men set themselves to muse about these things their fancy should spin webs of similar patterns. The fables on which we have been brought up are drawn from three or four peoples, the Greeks, the Romans, the Hebrews, and perhaps also the Teutons. But there are vast masses of more or less parallel legends awaiting us if we care to explore the records of the red Indians and the Mexicans, the Chinese, the Zulus, and the Persians.

What is important to us about these records is not, of course, their diversities, not even their identities, if that means similarities of story. What we are interested in is their character as exhibiting one stage in the advance of reason in religion. And from this point of view there are three things to note about the making of these myths. (a) Although it is a telling of stories, it is an exercise in reason. (b) At the same time, its satisfactions and its sources of control lie as much in sensibility and desire as in intelligence. The result is (c) that we have in myth an extremely viable hybrid, a weed so hardy that to root it out one would almost have to uproot religion itself.


7(a) The reason that was at work in animism extends its operations in myth. We have seen that the child who pummels the door and the savage who cringes before the angry thunder are seizing on the best, and indeed the only, explanation open to an unreflective mind. They are explaining through analogy with the kind of causation they know best, which is that of their own will. But there is nothing like explicit reasoning in the process; they are not theorising; speculation is so firmly captive within perception that the anger and the thunder are taken alike as perceived facts. On the other hand, myth is conscious theory. The explanation is still in personal terms, but there is no pretence that the glorious Apollo and the queenly Artemis are facts before one's eyes; they are rather what the fact requires if we dwell on them wonderingly. They eke out the fragmentariness of nature as we see it, fill in the interstices, supply stage and setting for otherwise disconnected events, and so make them parts of a single intelligible drama. In myth the mind has broken loose from the tied ideas of perception, and, with the achievement of free ideas, can range at will from the creation of drama to the final fall of the curtain.

It is true that free ideas need not be abstract ideas. The notion of law, the conception that each event, or rather each element in each event, is connected with some element in an earlier event by an abstract unchanging thread of causation, is still far in the future; and if this is science, myth is not. Yet myth quite obviously is incipient science; for it is an attempt, however stumbling and blundering, to construe the constitution of things and to shape, in the mind's eye, the fashion of their coming to be. Incapable as yet of analysis, the primitive mind explains in terms of wholes—not of qualities and relations, but of things, actions, and persons—as children do. And some of its shots in the grey dawn reach their mark. To say that night comes because Apollo plunges with his steeds and his flaming chariot down under the earth and drives them from west to east is, to be sure, to fire a blunderbuss at nature; and, from the point of view of a modern astronomer, most of one's shot has gone wild. But embedded in the legend, after all, is the truth that night is caused by the sun's travelling, relatively to us, under the earth and in a direction opposite to its daytime journey. If primitive man has to shoot a whole covey of ducks to get the one he wanted, that is no reason for denying either that he was trying for a particular duck or that he did in fact bring it down.

Of course, to say that myth was aiming explicitly at scientific explanation would be absurd. One cannot aim at what is yet invisible. In the primitive mind there is no clear line between what is perceived and what is read into perception, between the relevant and the irrelevant, between impersonal thinking and the sort of thinking Bacon described as ‘drenched in the affection’. Its reasoning is association, its causes are powers, and its powers are ultimately wills. The scientific end has not yet detached and defined itself as against all the other ends that are working in conjunction with it. Nevertheless it is there, confused and distorted often by the imaginative medium in which it has to move, but very much alive. The myth is the first large-scale attempt of an understanding still in fetters to make sense of its world. The fact that it is so plainly the parent of literature and religion should not blind us to the fact that it is only a little less plainly the grandparent of philosophy and science.


8(b) Still, the impulse that makes myth is not in the main intellectual. It is that, to be sure, but it is a great deal more, and for the primitive mind this ‘more’ is what chiefly counts. As the joint contrivance of many impulses, the myth must satisfy all its artificers if it is fully to pass muster. And since, when myth emerges, intellect is without discipline and its requirements are loose, the non-rational requirements are the really decisive ones. We have agreed that the tale is a theory; and, as such, it must fit the facts in a way that experience renders plausible; the thunder must genuinely seem like a tremendous hammer pounding on the floors of heaven. To Eskimos who find with atonishment that they can rub sparks from the coat of a reindeer, the notion is not incredible that in the far regions from which the northern lights are rising there is a great herd of celestial reindeer rubbing their furry coats together. But one need only consider such a myth to see how feeble and easily satisfied the intellectual demand must be and how much more important is congeniality to feeling and imagination. Press such a myth ever so gently on the factual side and it collapses ignominiously like a pricked bubble. If it survives, this is not because it has passed intellectual criticism, which is non-existent, but because, again like the bubble, it is pretty to look at, a satisfying picture to dwell on.

So of myths generally. They are less theories than works of primitive art. In this they are like ballads. It is far more important to their survival that they should be dramatically satisfying, that they tell a tale of thrilling prowess like that of Theseus and the Minotaur, or mighty strength like that of Hercules and his twelve labours, or ‘capable and wide revenge’ like that of Odysseus and the suitors, than that they should be true. What the qualities are that make myths satisfactory will vary with the aesthetic perceptiveness, the cheerful or melancholy temper, and the practical ideals of the people who create them. The gods of sunny Olympus would hardly have been satisfactory deities for the Hebrews in their flight from Egypt or in their Babylonian captivity. The uproarious banquets of Valhalla, with their gargantuan haunches of venison and their undrainable goblets of wine would probably have held small appeal for the people of India, not because they were less true than the tales of Vishnu and Varuna but because they would not answer to the gentler and less boisterous Indian desire. The figures drawn upon the clouds are projections, with suitable amendments, of the self. As Montesquieu put it, ‘Si les triangles faisaient un Dieu, ils lui donneraient trois côtés’.


9(c) Here already within the myth we see the seeds of that conflict between reason and desire that is to run through the later history of religion. All that was needed to produce scepticism in the mind of the myth-maker was an independent theoretical interest. What this means in practice is the appearance of some man who recognises the autonomy of the intellectual life, the distinctness of the desire to know, who goes on asking why, and declines to be put off with congeniality to feeling as an answer to his question. Socrates was a man of this sort. He is alleged to have held that if you looked at the sun through the glare-proof glasses of fact you would see that it was not the chariot of Phoebus Apollo but more probably a great hot stone. His fellows rightly sensed in him a danger to their whole scheme of things; such a spirit is the death of mythology; and they saved themselves for a time by doing away with him. The inertia of the human mind in regard to the system of ideas in which it has been brought up is notorious, and suggests that the poet was perhaps right who called the love of truth the faintest of human passions. Men can continue to live quite placidly in a framework that would dissolve if touched by the faintest breath of critical reflection. They can entertain both sides of a contradiction without a qualm. It is reported that in some parts of China where eclipses have long been predicted with accuracy there persists side by side with this scientific knowledge the belief that a great monster is making an attack on the sun; the announcements of an eclipse serve only to warn the people to get ready the bells and gongs with which to scare the monster away.

Nor need we go so far as China to find our illustrations. The peace is still deeper before science has begun to stir in the womb of myth. Since there is neither science nor rational history, imagination can play unhampered. The desire for fact and explanation are there, as we have seen, but it has developed no secure test for telling fact from fancy or a coherent hypothesis from a story that imaginatively hangs together. A man among ourselves who had no sense of the line where facts end and pleasing fancy begins, who believed quite unsuspectingly that horse-hairs turn into worms and men at times into werewolves, that in certain insalubrious places it rained toads, that crops might be ruined by an evil eye, or favour incurred in heaven by kissing the toe of a statue, would be thought, and justly, either to be mentally subnormal or to be living on an island in the modern world. What is the use, we ask impatiently, of all the techniques which logic has developed to distinguish proof from guess, which history has developed to distinguish fact from fiction, which science has developed to distinguish the probable from the improbable, if people are to go on swallowing these childish things whole?

Our impatience would be justified. But of a child himself we cannot ask that he should be other than childish, and we cannot sensibly ask it of the childhood of the world. To understand the very young mind we must put ourselves a long way back in individual or racial life, before prose and poetry parted company. What is Santa Klaus for a child? Is he fact or fancy? Is he a fat jolly old man in red who actually comes down the chimney with a pack on his back, or is he a picture that young eyes can dwell on with delight and grow large and round in contemplating? There is only one answer; he is both. For the child, neither part of the answer gets in the way of the other. The world of imagination in which he lives is not poetry, for the poet knows well enough that he is improvising, and that the test of what he makes is whether it satisfies. But neither is it knowledge, for it may be false, which knowledge cannot be. The child's imagination is antecedent to these distinctions. It provides him with fact that is still malleable like poetry, truth that can be pulled about by one's heartstrings like a puppet.

So of myth. It was made by the man as a whole, and it will answer only to the whole of him. Its plausibility, its being a good round tale that appeases our wonder and our admiration, its picturesque and exciting and dramatic satisfactoriness—these are its truth for mythology. Robin Hood and his merry men, St George and the dragon, Jonah and the great fish, the siege of Troy, Atlas holding up the world—who is to say that these are false? Did the Creator first make night and day, and then later hang the sun, moon, and stars in their places? Did he make first the waters and then produce the dry land out of the waters? Anyone who knows the rudiments of astronomy or geology knows he did not. Genesis says he did. But when Genesis was written, astronomy and geology were still themselves of the household of myth, and you cannot set a myth to catch a myth. What could history be except mythology when there was no science and no written records? In every part of the world men were musing on how things might have come about, and dozens of accounts were hazarded, two of them in Genesis itself. All of them had their points. None of them could be checked or therefore dismissed. If they told an attractive story and became current, they were forthwith elected as history.

Many factors have been stressed in accounting for myths. Euhemerus stressed their origin from the lives of actual beings, Max Muller from the metaphors that are so plentifully embedded in language, Andrew Lang from abnormal events that would now be given over to the psychical researchers, Robertson Smith from ritual. Myths that some students regard as virtually made out of whole cloth others regard as roughly historical records. We shall not follow these controversies. For however myths came to be, there can be little doubt how they came to be accepted. And because what commended them to general acceptance had very little to do with their truth, the question of their origin is, for our purposes, hardly worth pursuing. Even if originally true, they would be forgotten or revised if they did not suit the taste of those who later rehearsed them, and their falsity would not prevent their retention if they clothed things in desirable guise. The point to insist on is that they were versions of what might have happened, taken in all innocence as what did happen, that they offer us poetry and reason fused into an imagination that follows rules of its own.

Is this now all gone, like an insubstantial pageant faded? Not wholly. Myth is unconscionably long in dying. Millions are trying to live still among its melting cloud-castles. Perhaps all of us keep a few sheds and outhouses among the ruins that we like to regard as of firmer stuff than the structures that proved so nebulous when the winds set in from scientific regions. But it is obvious that critical minds could not live permanently among these illusions. How did they effect their escape?


10 They did so by various routes. By far the most interesting and important of these routes for Western religion is the road taken by the Hebrews, and it will repay us to follow it in some detail. It lay through the moralisation of mythology. The Hebrews in our first records of them were very much like the tribes around them. Their cultural world was constantly being penetrated by the superstitions and practices of the Moabites and Philistines to the east and west of them and the Phoenicians and Edomites to the north and south; since their little land lay at a crossroads between several great empires, it was successively overrun by the armies, and to some extent the ideas, of Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia. They had their own tribal god, Yahweh, but they knew that neighbouring nations, often stronger and more cultivated than themselves, had other gods, and the heads of their two little kingdoms had to fight a perpetual battle against the vagrant impulses of the people to bow down to Baal and Astarte.

These alien loyalties often went far; some parents adopted a widespread practice of the early Semites of which gruesome evidence has been found beneath the ruins of Carthage, and offered their first-born child as a sacrifice to the god. We have seen that the legend of Abraham and Isaac, which Kierkegaard dwelt on with such enthusiasm, was probably a relic of human sacrifice. The Israelites at times called their own god Baal; one of their kings, Ahab, after marrying a worshipper of Baal, Jezebel, erected a separate temple in honour of his wife's god, while retaining his own worship of Yahweh. There was a general belief in spirits inhabiting wells, caves, and mountain tops, and after the Hebrews had made contact during their exile with the hierarchy of spirits worshipped by the Babylonians, this belief flowered out into the acceptance of armies of angels. Again, the character of Satan, as known in later Hebrew and Christian tradition, would seem to be largely the result of absorption, during the captivity, of the Persian notion of Ahriman, the evil spirit who is in perpetual battle with Ormuzd, the god of goodness and light. The belief in a resurrection, with future rewards, and punishment, which was no part of the earlier Hebrew world-view, may have come from the same source.

What the religion of the primitive Hebrews was like it is hard to make out with certainty, for much of it as it presents itself to us in the earlier books of the Old Testament is the retrospective product of those years in Babylon that split the pre-Christian history of Hebraism approximately in half. When Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 597 BC, he carried off with him to Babylon the flower of the Hebrew people and established them in a separate community. Here their historians, with the help of such records as they could bring with them, set about refashioning in imagination the Hebrew past, and it is to their work that we owe much of that great mass of legend with which Western man is so familiar, such as the stories of Adam and Eve, of Noah and the ark, of Lot and the pillar of salt, of Moses and the pillar of fire; of the mighty Samson and the jawbone, of Joshua and his ally, the sun; indeed the whole early history of the Hebrews in its present form seems to be the product of this time of brooding. Piety and patriotism combined to people the great days with a set of figures more intimately human even than those of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Now this mythology was in many respects extremely crude. Yahweh was a tribal deity, jealous, irascible, and cruel. He demanded incessant sacrifices as the price of his continued favour; he approved and commanded such barbarities as Samuel's hewing of Agag in pieces before his altar, Saul's destruction of the Amalekites, man, woman, and child, and Elijah's slaughter of the four hundred and fifty priests of Baal. The worship accorded by the Hebrews to their savage deity was frankly utilitarian; he had made a covenant with them that he would carry them through to prosperity and victory if they would propitiate him duly, and if they kept the covenant, it was less because they were moral idealists than because they wanted the promised fruits. But, to put it baldly, a tribal deity that undertook to challenge the powerful imperial deities round about was facing fearful odds, and here at least the gods seem to have been on the side of the heavier battalions. The Assyrians under Tiglath-Pileser and Sargon came down like a wolf on the fold and the ten tribes of Israel disappeared forever; a century or so later Nebuchadnezzar at the head of a Babylonian army repeated the performance in Judah and destroyed Jerusalem. What were the devotees of Yahweh to conclude?


11 There were two possible explanations of what had happened, one obvious, the other more subtle. The more obvious was that the tribal deity was himself a broken reed, that the defeat of his people revealed him as no match for the powerful deities that had brought ruin on his chosen people. Many of the Hebrews did in fact draw this conclusion and go over to the gods of their conquerors. The other and more subtle interpretation was offered by the prophets. It was not the weakness of Yahweh, they insisted, that had allowed his people to be overthrown, but rather his anger and desire to punish them. His people had broken their side of the covenant; they had foolishly mistaken his will; they had supposed that what he wanted was the smoke of sacrifice whereas it was really a clean heart and conformity to an appointed way of life. The demand of the Ten Commandments was not primarily for rites and observances but for morality. It seems probable that the delivery of these commandments to Moses on Sinai was itself a tale of the prophetic historians who, in the brooding days of the exile, partly edited and partly fabricated the national history in the interest of two ends that were not then clearly distinguished, edification and truth. Looking back, they could see that while the people had remained loyal and obedient even the might of Egypt had not prevailed against them. It was pride that went before their destruction, a haughty and rebellious spirit that preceded, and no doubt caused, their fall. Let the people only keep the commandments of Yahweh, and he would turn from his anger and still carry them to lordship over the whole earth.

When, after sixty years of exile, those who wanted to return to the homeland—and there were many who did not—were allowed to make the long march back across the desert to the mound of ruins that was Jerusalem, they had to start from the beginning and build anew. They were resolved that this time they would make no mistake. What they did was to build a theocracy, a community dominated by religion from top to bottom. Their high priest was their only king, his associates in the priesthood were the aristocracy, and the life of the people was regulated as completely as practicable by the minute requirements of a code. This was not what the prophets had asked for. But their gospel of individualist inwardness seemed beyond the bounds of ordinary human nature, while a carefully planned programme of prayers and observances could, with due effort, be carried out. Could Yahweh ask for more? Here was a whole community centring its life in his temple, ordering its daily walk in accordance with his code. Surely here was the obedience that would at last bring triumph. Did the triumph come? On the contrary, what followed was disaster, utter and appalling. The brutal Persian soldiery under Artaxerxes III stormed into Jerusalem, ripped off the ornaments of the temple, burnt it to the ground, destroyed the synagogues throughout the country, and strewed the streets of the capital with the bodies of the religious aristocracy.

The official philosophy had again conspicuously failed. The perplexities of the surviving remnant found eloquent expression in the drama of Job. Many gave up once for all the old allegiance to Yahweh. But there was a core of unyielding loyalists whose position was ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust him’. It was still they who were at fault, they confessed, not their god. They had been wrong in seeking victory or strength, wrong in prizing material goods at all. Yahweh could at any time have ushered in the new kingdom in which all men would bow the knee to his chosen people, but he had deliberately seen fit to do otherwise; his will lay elsewhere; only too probably this sort of kingdom would never come. We must not ask him to conform his ways, which are so plainly not our ways, to our uninstructed wants. He will not desert us in the end; we shall receive in his good time a full measure of justice, pressed down and running over, though we may, in his wisdom, have to wait for it till this time of probation is over. For the present we must accept the hard truth that whom he loveth he chasteneth, that his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, in which the desires of the world and the flesh can have no part, and where his will, not ours, must be done. We must accept our lot and call it good through faith that its giver is good. ‘Thus,’ says Santayana, ‘the prophet's doctrine that not prosperity absolutely and unconditionally, but prosperity merited by virtue, was the portion of God's people changed by insensible gradations to an ascetic belief that prosperity was altogether alien to virtue and that a believer's true happiness would be such as St Francis paints it: upon some blustering winter's night, after a long journey, to have the convent door shut in one's face with many muttered threats and curses.’10

In the thousand years or so between the time of Moses and the time of Christ the Hebrews had travelled far. Starting as a horde of nomads with a tribal god for whose protection they bargained their best rams and bullocks, they developed, with the help of their pagan neighbours, a full-fledged mythology, with detailed accounts of the creation of the world and of the origin of their people, and with an extensive pantheon of divinely guided heroes, captains, and lawgivers. The chief concern of their god and his earthly lieutenants was to see that Israel prospered and that its enemies were scattered. The actual history of the people was one of almost unendurable hardship and of defeat continually repeated. For a small Oriental tribe there was nothing unusual in such a history. What was unusual about the Hebrews was the way they took it. It led not to the abandonment of their mythical theology but to its progressive moralisation. First there was the message of the prophets that misfortune was the punishment of sin, and that Yahweh was a god of righteousness whose favours would not be given except to the clean of heart. Then there was the message of Job that even the clean of heart cannot present commands to their god to stand and deliver, that his wisdom and justice are beyond the bounds of man's understanding, and that they must utterly humble their pride when they come before him. This development seems to have occurred nowhere else in ancient religion. From our point of view it was supremely important, since it paved the way for Christianity.


12 Jesus stood in the direct line of the prophets. His great work was to sound the note of inwardness in its purity, to disengage the prophetic teaching from its entanglements with worldly advantage, to free the humility of Job from its humiliation, and to make the spiritual life one of liberty rather than of Pharisaical conformity to law. Much of what he said had been said already by the prophets and psalmists whose words he had by heart. They had insisted, as he now did, on compassion and purity in the inward parts. But as a rule, in the back of their minds was the notion that this was the price demanded by Yahweh for sparing his children the rod and for supporting them in their pursuit of prosperity and pre-eminence. For Jesus it was irrelevant whether these perquisites were attached or not. Love alone really counted. If a man had that, it was of no consequence whether he was as rich as Dives or as poor as Lazarus; indeed if he had a choice, he might better be Lazarus, since it was hard for a rich man not to be over-involved with what he owned. On the other hand, if he did not have a loving spirit, he had really lost his own soul, and for that nothing could compensate, not even the gaining of the whole world. Again, in Jesus’ attitude there was nothing of the muted faith of Job. Except for some tragic moments at the end, his attitude seems to have been not that of sad and puzzled submission to an inscrutable will but the happy unquestioning confidence of a child that its love is reciprocated, that every sparrow is cared for and every hair numbered.

Just as his love of man was free from utilitarian design, so his love of God was free from speculative perplexity. It was a lyric and childlike love that felt a response in kind from the heart of the world. Such a love did not need to be regulated by priestly ordinances. It was already the source and the end of such ordinances, and hence could afford to be a law unto itself. Rules about fasts and dress and the Sabbath were useful for keeping us in order so long as we had no inner principle of guidance, but once we had achieved that principle, to go on obeying them mechanically was to put ourselves in a straitjacket; rules were made for man, not man for rules.

13 Here was an amazing approach to morals without mythology. The central positions of the Christian ethics, that love and humility and compassion and forbearance are better than their opposites, and that an outward life that reflected them would be a heaven on earth, are not derived from speculations, verifiable or otherwise, about the ultimate nature of things, nor are they refutable by any theological considerations; they form a set of insights and inductions based directly on experience. They are propositions that could be understood and appraised by any sensitive person, whether he had the theological convictions of a Hebrew, a Greek, or a Hindu, or no theology at all.

This is not to say that as they presented themselves to the mind of Jesus they had no involvements with theology. We have seen that they did. Jesus seems to have accepted unquestioningly most of the local framework of belief. He accepted the existence of a personal devil, and of demons who could get control of men's minds and bodies; he presumably credited as historic truth the generally received stories about the creation and the fall, the flood and the tablets on Sinai; he evidently believed in Jewish prophecies about the coming of a Messiah who would save his people; and there are apparently authentic passages that predict the end of human history, with the coming of a divine judge, before a generation has passed away. How he conceived of his own place in this framework of belief will always remain uncertain. There is no doubt of his having conceived of a ‘Father in Heaven’ in whom he maintained a filial and unquestioning trust. But the whole cast of his mind was opposed to the precise conceptual elaborations by which a Greek thinker would have attempted to define his relation to God. The probability, as Renan maintained, is that his conviction as to his nature and destiny underwent great change; it seems to have been only gradually that he came to think of himself as the Messiah foretold by the prophets, who would shortly return to deliver and judge his people. That these convictions should affect his teaching about the conduct of life was inevitable. He could hardly give the same counsels about providing for the support of one's children, for example, or about laying political plans, if all human affairs were to be wound up within a generation, as he would if they were to last indefinitely. St Paul seems to have interpreted his teaching against a background of such expectancy: ‘the time is short; let those who have wives be as though they had none.’ And there have been scholars, as we have seen, who would dismiss the whole ethics of Jesus as an Interimsethik whose validity disappears when its theological framework is discarded.


14 This clearly goes too far. It fails to catch the true direction of Jesus’ thought. His commendations of brotherliness and humility, his denunciations of cruelty and hypocrisy, were not deductions from a theory of the nature or will of God, or from what God required for one's inclusion among the sheep rather than the goats at an imminent assize. The trend of his thought was probably the other way about. ‘The moment Jesus speaks,’ says Matthew Arnold, ‘the metaphysical apparatus falls away, the simple intuition takes its place; and wherever in the discourse of Jesus the metaphysical apparatus is intruded, it jars with the context.…’11 He was passionately committed to certain great goods—sincerity, sympathy, affection, peaceableness, docility of temper; he was passionately opposed to certain other states of mind as poison of the spirit—anger, hatred, hypocrisy, mammon-worship, fear. Starting from these devotions and antipathies, or, if one prefers, these moral insights, he conceived God in terms of them. That is what all the prophets had done before him. As their own conceptions of good and evil were pruned and purified, they reshaped their notion of Deity in accordance with them.

Where, indeed, but from their own moral experience could they draw the means of such reshaping? One can hardly answer ‘from revelation’. For if one accepts the old canonical books as conveying revelation, the character of God there revealed is hopelessly inconsistent with that disclosed by Jesus; the God who ordered the extermination of the Amalekites is remote from the God of the New Testament. On the other hand, if one regards the disclosures of Jesus as alone revealed, one is still in trouble. For the awkward fact remains that while he corrected these earlier revelations he seems to have accepted them as genuine. The natural suggestion of these facts is surely the relativity of revelation to the capacity of the receiver. One of the principal values of the long Scriptural record is the documentary evidence it offers of the way religious advance followed ethical clarification. Take what the Biblical record says of God as inspired throughout, and nothing but palpable sophistry can put its reports together into a coherent whole. Take that record as the projection into the ultimate of men's changing conception of the ideal, and the story makes sense.


15 If we are not mistaken, then, the inner movement of Jesus’ thought, whatever the outward form of his teaching, was not from God to man but from the assured perception of what was good on earth to the conviction of what must be God's will. His true greatness lay in the greatness of his spirit, not in the fantastic eschatology, the bizaare metaphysics, and the suggestions of thaumaturgy with which tradition has surrounded him, and which, since he shared inevitably the conceptions of his time, did in some measure invade his thought. He caught a glimpse of what human life might be if perfected in its inward temper. It was an exquisite and moving vision and his own embodiment of it in practice greatly strengthened its appeal. This vision constituted an immense moral advance. Its acceptance would have transformed the course of history; indeed it did so, even in the altered form in which it survived.

I have admitted it to be defective. The claim that it presents a rounded, infallible, and final portrait of the ideal life for man will not stand rational scrutiny; the attempt to derive from it the sort of recognition of science, art, philosophy, economic and physical well-being, and legal and ethical justice that, after twenty centuries of experience and rational reflection, we must accord them smacks of special pleading.

But granting all this, granting that the insights of Jesus did not cover all human values, and that they come to us half buried in a primitive Eastern mythology, the ethical gold of his insight was none the less pure gold because embedded in this crude ore. One cannot read the fragmentary accounts of him that remain to us, with their obvious innocence as to where fact ends and fabrication begins in either science or history, and their continual resultant distortions, without astonishment at the figure uncertainly seen through them. The other great founder of Western ethics, Socrates, has been handed down to us by a writer who knew the master intimately, understood him thoroughly and, in all the arts of presentation, was greater than the master himself. The figure and teaching of Jesus come to us through a set of writers whose identity is most doubtful, who may in no case have known him personally, who compiled their work a generation or two after his death from conflicting records and traditions, and who had only rudimentary notions of either scientific or historical fact. Yet all this only increases the fascination that surrounds the person of Jesus. Here, beyond the possibility of creation or concealment by these compilers, was a figure who was not only the supreme poet of the moral life but an ethical teacher whose insights all men could verify as, in the main, true.


16 Rationality calls for adherence to such verifiable truth, and its separation from the unverifiable. It is not at war with imagination; it has no wish to expel myth or metaphor; it only asks that these things be not confused with truth and substituted for it, and it asks this on the ground that such confusion leads to a superstitious cosmology and a perverted morals. In the generations following the Sermon on the Mount, the Western mind had an extraordinary opportunity. In centres like Antioch and Alexandria, the currents of Christian and Aristotelian teaching flowed together and intermingled. The ethical teaching of Aristotle was sane, naturalistic, and civilised; it had emancipated itself once for all from mythology and achieved the fundamental insight of a rationalist ethic that the good life for society is what fulfils harmoniously the human nature of its members. But it was uninspired and unimaginative, and in its Greek preoccupation with the ends of conduct was unduly insensitive to the springs of action from which conduct emerges. The genius of Christianity, on the other hand, lay precisely in the delicacy with which it discerned those springs of action, and felt their moral import. But Christianity, unlike Greek naturalism, arose in an Oriental setting, where imaginative congeniality was still confused with truth, and where the stream of ethical thought, even at its clearest, carried the debris of centuries of myth.

Each ethic sorely needed the other. The Greek needed the Christian inwardness and sense of sin; the Christian needed the Greek reflectiveness and freedom from illusion. How different the course of history might have been if, in the critical years, some moral genius had arisen to effect the rational junction of the two great streams! There might have been no Catholicism, no Holy Roman Empire, no holocausts for heresy, no wars of religion, no Reformation or Counter-Reformation. Morality, taught as the obvious requirement of sense and sanity, might have been detached altogether from supernatural imperatives and terrors. Whether a morality thus freed from all that was adventitious to it could have secured the allegiance in practice that Romanised Christianity did is a question beyond solution.


17 In any case, what we did in fact get was something extremely different. We got the church fathers. Instead of an eclectic genius who could fuse what was rational on both sides into a stable amalgam, we got St Paul and Origen, Irenaeus and Tertullian, Justin Martyr and Jerome, Arius and Athanasius, and that inexhaustible factory of dogma and fantasy, Augustine. What did they do? Instead of freeing the moral teaching of Jesus from the mythology that had enveloped it, they ossified this mythology in a quasi-rational system. Apologists rather than inquirers, they took over the Hebrew legends en masse, accepting without question that the Deity had been hovering over this chosen people since the creation, legislating for them, admonishing them, halting the sun over Gibeon till they completed their massacre of the Amorites, sweeping Elijah to Heaven in a chariot of fire, healing the leprosy of Naaman, stretching the lives of favoured patriarchs into centuries.

Where in this gorgeous tapesty of legend were the fathers to place its culminating figure? What were they to say of Jesus? He had spoken, they were sure, as never man spoke. Contemplating him from within an Oriental tradition, they dealt with him in the way that had become natural to the Oriental mind. If an ethically exalted spirit appeared, no explanation would satisfy that mind but an environment of signs and wonders commensurate with his moral stature. So these devoted weavers and spinners went to work upon their prophet. Anyone who has looked into the history of dogma knows the result. We have the gradual accumulation in stratum after stratum and century after century of what can only be called a new mythology, austerely intellectualised and closely articulated, in which the exquisite figure of Jesus is buried almost irrecoverably in a kind of primitive metaphysics. Even when Greek thought took a hand in the interpretation, as it conspicuously did in the fourth gospel and in Origen, it worked in fetters; John does not offer a rational appraisal of Christian teaching, but the translation of an antecedently accepted theology into terms familiar to Greek readers. When men like the church fathers, ingenious, fertile, and not seldom fanatical, fascinated by the figure of Jesus but unhampered by any canons of science or scientific history, let themselves go about him, the crop of theories was prodigious; and many of these theories hardened rapidly into dogmas.

In the course of a few centuries the prophet of Nazareth, with his gospel that we should become as little children, reappeared as the uncreated and eternal second person in the Trinity, who was mysteriously incarnated without original sin, whose death was a ransom paid, as some doctors maintained, to Satan, and others to the first person of the Trinity to forestall the damnation of the race for the sins of its ancestors. The problem of the union within one person of an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfect Deity with a struggling human nature that grew from boyhood to manhood, and that in its manhood confessed ignorance and was tempted like as we are, produced a spate of tortured theories; and for centuries the disputants spilled ink and sometimes blood over Ebionism and Docetism, Sabellianism and Arianism, Nestorianism and Eutychianism, Monophysitism and Monothelitism. From these disputes, which seem to present-day philosophers unreadably unreal because so uncritical in their premises, the church in time winnowed out a body of doctrine which it imposed under heavy sanctions on all who would calls themselves Christians. It did this with the deepening conviction that the process of winnowing was itself supernaturally guided and that the doctrine ultimately declared orthodox had lain in the Christian teaching from the beginning. The process of selection, definition, and elaboration still goes on.

18 Should this system of dogma be taken seriously by philosophers? It is notorious that many of them think not. ‘The idea that religion contains a literal, not a symbolic, representation of truth and life,’ said Santayana, ‘is simply an impossible idea. Whoever entertains it has not come within the region of profitable philosophising on that subject’.12

Though I think, as Santayana did, that most religious dogma belongs in the sphere of myth, I have tried to show that myth is more than vain imagining. It is an attempt at explanation on the part of minds to whom better tools are not available. The church fathers who elaborated the creeds and the millions who have continued to accept them, including not only the unlettered and untutored but also the Pascals and Newmans of the world, the Barths, the D'Arcys, and the Gilsons, would reject as irresponsible the view that creeds are flights of primitive imagination. For such persons the only tolerable attitude on the part of a critic is one of respectful consideration of a dogma as at least a candidate for truth. That has been my own attitude, and unless I could have taken it, these pages would not have been written. My chief interest has been in whether a dogma is true rather than in how it arose.

When the charge of mythical status is made of a particular dogma, however, the most effective criticism is often genetic. Such criticism was first offered on a large scale by David Friedrich Strauss in Das Leben Jesu, probably the most influential work of Biblical criticism that has yet been written. How far Strauss's attempt to show the mythical character of supernaturalist dogma generally is to be taken as a success is too large an issue to raise here, since his success varied greatly from one dogma to another. But his name reminds us that the dialectical approach to the truth of doctrine is not the only one. The probability or improbability of a belief may be affected profoundly by the circumstances under which it came to be believed. A doctrine springing from careful observation or from self-critical reflection would have a better chance of truth than one springing from fear or popular desire. It will be worth our while, by way of illustrating the possibilities of the historical method, to apply it in some detail to a single case. We shall take as our example the place in Catholic belief of the Virgin Mary.


19 Surprisingly little is said about Mary in the New Testament. In what is probably the earliest of the gospels, Mark, there is no mention of a Virgin birth, nor does Peter, Paul, or the author of the fourth gospel seem to have heard of it. Matthew and Luke report the story of the miraculous birth, but with inconsistencies which show that at least one of them must be reporting incorrectly. Moreover, both writers cite facts and use language that are inconsistent with their own reports of this birth. Both of them give genealogies for Jesus—themselves conflicting with each other—which trace the descent of Jesus through Joseph, on the assumption that Joseph really was his father. Indeed it is only if Joseph was his father that the claim for his messiahship as the ‘son of David’ can be made out. Some Catholic apologists, perceiving the difficulty, have entered a claim for Mary as the daughter of David, but this is afterthought and conjecture. ‘The birth stories in Matthew, taken as a whole,’ says the Anglican Bishop Barnes, ‘were built up conscientiously on texts of the Old Testament which could be regarded as prophetic’.13 Dean Inge agrees: ‘The story of the virgin birth turns on a text from Isaiah.’ He quotes Loisy's judgement on this part of Matthew: ‘rien n'est plus arbitraire comme exégèse, ni plus faible comme narration Active.’14 The text of Isaiah 7:14, quoted in Matthew 1:23, is ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son’. It is not improbable that much of the weight of legend that has grown up about Mary rests on a mere mistranslation; the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ was translated into the Greek παρθενος, meaning virgin, an error corrected in the revised version of 1953.

There is further internal evidence that the story is fictitious. The birth that was attended with so many miraculous manifestations, bringing the Magi from the East to worship, was apparently unknown to Jesus’ own fellow villagers, who, when he came among them, asked: ‘Is not this the carpenter's son?’ (Matt. 13:55); ‘Is not this Joseph's son?’ (Luke 4:22); ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?’ (John 6:42). Such a reception can only raise doubt about the angelic and political fanfare of his birth. Apparently these townsfolk barely remembered a person whose entrance into the world had been heralded by flights of angels, the visits of wise men from a distance, piloted by a star, and the wholesale massacre of infants by Herod, the king, in order to cut off a rival leader of his people. Could Jesus’ neighbours have remained thus indifferent and unknowing if these wonders had occurred when he first came among them?

Nor is the account in the gospels of the relations between mother and son at all what one would expect from such a mother and such a son. The record suggests a relation of coolness and even misunderstanding. A lack of rapport with his mother seems to have manifested itself early. When his parents took him at the age of twelve to Jerusalem and were on their way home, they found that he had disappeared from the caravan, and it took them three days to find him. When they did find him, his mother expostulated with him: ‘My son, why have you behaved like this to us? Here have your father and I been looking for you anxiously.’ To which the boy's reply was: ‘Why did you look for me? Did you not know I had to be at my Father's house? But they did not understand what he said’ (Luke 2:41–50; Moffatt). This story is full of surprises. Both his behaviour and his reply seem curiously wanting in consideration. And Mary, on her part, certainly does not act like a ‘Mother of God’; she reproaches her errant son for his indifference; she speaks to him of ‘your father’, which she knew Joseph was not; more surprisingly, though she realised that his Father was God himself, she was lost as to what he could mean when he said he must be about his Father's business. Neither his attitude toward his mother nor hers toward him makes sense on the traditional theory.

The references to Mary during the adult life of Jesus are few. We have mentioned these already in discussing his ethical attitude toward women, but we may return to them for a moment, since they bear poignantly on our present topic. If Mary was indeed the Mother of God and the sinless Queen of Heaven, one would expect that a son who had all the ordinary grounds for affection would give evidence in his treatment of her of these further grounds for respect and veneration. This expectation is not fulfilled. Mary was present at the marriage feast in Cana, and appealed to her son to replenish the supply of wine. His answer, ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ (John 2:4) is not the language of veneration. She next appears on the outskirts of a multitude which was surrounding and harassing him. She sent him a message that she and certain of his brothers were there, on which he said, ‘Who is my mother and my brethren? And looking round on them that sat round about him, he saith, Behold my mother and my brethren’ (Mark 3:33–4). Here again we have the same cool note. His strange comment, on hearing his mother blessed by an admirer of hers, was ‘Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it’ (Luke 11:28). His last words to his mother were addressed equally to her and to John; to his mother he said, ‘Woman, behold thy son!’ and to John, ‘Behold thy mother!’ (John 19:25–27). She appears again only when mentioned as having been present at a gathering after the ascension ‘with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren’ (Acts 1:14). In view of what Mary was to become, it is an extraordinary fact that in the twenty-one letters from Apostles included in the New Testament her name is never once mentioned.

Here then is the Mary of the New Testament. Apart from the stories of the miraculous birth, whose character and inconsistencies make them quite incredible, she plays a role in the record of Jesus’ ministry that was pathetically dim and insignificant. The exalted place she was later to occupy was unsuspected not only by the apostolic writers but also by the early fathers of the church. She was not exempted from original sin, for example, by Irenaeus, Origen, Cyprian, Jerome, or Ambrose.15 Tertullian and Chrysostom describe her as being rebuked by her son for her presumption.16 Her perpetual virginity is contradicted in the New Testament itself, which records that she and Joseph had four sons and at least one daughter. No one seems to have thought of addressing prayers or worship to her for more than three hundred years. ‘There is further no ancient consent,’ writes Bishop Gore, ‘even for her actual freedom from venial sins—no evidence at all of any one having held her immaculate conception.’17 Certain apocryphal writings, indeed, were circulated with picturesque embroideries on the theme of the nativity, but these were pretty clearly exercises in imagination and were not accepted in the canon. The prospect was that Mary would remain the somewhat wistful and shadowy figure that appears in Mark and John.

20 Then began what is surely one of the most extraordinary translations that has ever occurred to a mortal man or woman. A number of forces, some internal to developing Christian dogma, some external, combined to exalt, magnify, and transfigure her into something very like deity. Take one example of the internal agencies. Augustine asked himself how, if Jesus had been exempted from the taint of original sin inherited by the race from Adam, this exemption had been effected. Was it to be believed that a person wholly without taint was formed in the body of a person who herself was vitiated through and through by this taint, as other human beings were? Augustine was puzzled, and he allowed that the argument seemed to point in the direction of Mary's sinlessness. Had she been miraculously exempted, then, from the taint of the rest of mankind? No. He was prepared to say that she had never in her life committed a sin; but that she had been really freed from this metaphysical burden was too much for him to believe, and his views on this point were shared by the most influential church writers for many centuries.18 As time wore on, however, and acute minds played over the logic of the matter, theologians arose who maintained a different view. They held it more logical to suppose that if Jesus had been immaculately conceived so had his mother, since otherwise the danger of contamination would not have been wholly escaped. To the layman it is not quite easy to see why the process should have stopped there. If, in order to render the last-born in the line immaculate, it was necessary to render his mother immaculate, one would have thought that to render her thus immaculate, her own mother must be immaculate, and so on back to Eve.

This step was not taken. Indeed the doctrine of an immaculate conception seems not to have been clearly stated and urged before the twelfth century, and then it met with vigorous opposition. It was denied by both St Bernard and St Thomas Aquinas, and became a bone of contention between Franciscans and Dominicans, the former upholding the doctrine and pointing to the visions of St Bridget in support, the latter denying it and citing in support the visions of St Catherine of Sienna.19 Pope Innocent III in the early thirteenth century denied the immaculate conception of Mary; Pope Sixtus IV in the fifteenth century, convinced that it was a fact, offered indulgences to those who had masses said in its honour. The truth did not finally emerge till 1854. In that year Pius IX, in the bull Ineffabilis Deus, announced that ‘the blessed Virgin Mary in the first moment of her conception was… preserved immune from every stain of original sin,’ and that henceforth this ‘is to be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful’. From that time forward, for one of the faithful to believe what St Augustine and St Thomas had believed, and presumably also St Mark and St Paul, was to place his soul in peril.20

21 But in explaining the cult of the Virgin, the external influences were more important than the internal. Christianity had to make its way in a Graeco-Roman and pagan world peopled with numberless divinities. Zeus and Jupiter were in a sense presiding deities, but there was a host of lesser figures. The shift from the pagan to the Christian worship would obviously be easier if the new pantheon contained figures that could be substituted for those of the old. Christianity was pressed to accommodate itself to the established habits and felt needs of the people to whom it was appealing. This it did. In place of the old local divinities it gradually provided a rich variety of local and patron saints, whose aid and protection could be invoked very much as the pagan divinities were. How easy it is to effect such a transition is shown by the Catholic worship of today in Mexico, where the old divinities of the countryside have fused with the Christian saints and apostles without producing any sense of incongruity. And among the divinities worshipped by the pagans, goddesses played an important part. Demeter, Persephone, Isis, and many others had their eager devotees. To such persons there would be something lacking in a worship that had nothing corresponding to these figures.

Furthermore, conspicuous among the pagan goddesses were virgins. The finest temple in the world, the Parthenon at Athens, was the shrine of a virgin, Athena Parthenos. Dr Farnell in his Gifford Lectures reminds us of the significant fact that Greek women, in worshipping Hera, thought of her in quite inconsistent ways as suited their special need, young girls praying to ‘Hera the girl’, married women to ‘Hera the married one’, widows to ‘Hera the widow’.21 Among the adherents of Mithraism, which was for a time the leading contender with Christianity for the devotion of the West, a heavenly virgin, accepted by the Semites as a form of Astarte, was held to have borne the sun-god Mithra on the twenty-fifth of December. It is most probable, as Frazer has contended, that this is what fixed the date of the Christian Christmas; and so strong was the influence of this Mithraic worship on the early Christian community that both Augustine and Leo the Great found it necessary to remind its members that Christmas did not celebrate the birth of the sun but the birth of Christ.22

Now when the worshippers of Mithra went over to Christianity, it was natural enough that for the worship of Mithra they should substitute that of Christ. But for the heavenly goddess who was the mother of Mithra, what substitute was to be found? None was available but Mary, and if Mary was to be available, a place must be accorded her which had no warrant in the gospels themselves. The reasoning by which this difficulty was surmounted was plausible enough. If Jesus was an incarnation of Deity, and she was his mother, then in a sense she was the mother of God, and indeed the only queen of heaven, and must have divine powers in her own right. If so, it was appropriate to pray to her for protection, to place images of her in the churches, and to ask her intercession with the persons of the Trinity; indeed, by the eighth century John of Damascus was placing her just below the Trinity in the Christian hierarchy.

22 This development was furthered by a famous controversy and the church's decision of it. In the fourth century occurred the debate between Athanasius and Arius over the union of the divine and human natures in Christ. Athanasius held that the two were identical in substance, that the Christ who lived and laboured on earth was the uncreated and eternal God. Arius held, on the contrary, that to refer to an uncreated and eternal Deity as now three years old and now six was absurd, that the spirit incarnate in Christ, while exalted above all human spirits, was nevertheless created by God in time and subordinate to him. It was to settle this controversy, which threatened to tear the church in two, that Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325. This council decided for Athanasius. But the victory proved equivocal. The orthodox party—as they were from now on—expected that the decision would confirm and strengthen the worship of Christ as God himself. But the effect upon many seems to have been to remove him so far from humanity into theological absoluteness that they needed a more human and less formidable being to pray to and confide in. This they found in Mary. They could appeal directly to her understanding heart to intercede for them with her son, who was now enthroned in remote and awful splendour A century later the worship of the Virgin had become so general that Nestorius, the eloquent preacher and patriarch of Constantinople, not only warned against it but insisted that those in his charge must not refer to Mary as Mother of God. He little knew what was in store for him. His words provoked such a storm that the then emperor felt obliged to call another council at Ephesus in 431 to allay it. The decision went against Nestorius, and he was deposed and exiled.

The result gave free rein to the popular enthusiasm for Mary; pictures and images of her multiplied; she was frankly worshipped as divine. She became so exalted that some people raised the question whether she was not best approached through her own mother, St Anne. The Bible was searched for confirmatory evidence of her greatness and made to yield it plentifully. The salutation in Luke 1:28, ‘Hail! thou that art highly favoured’ or ‘much graced’, was interpreted to mean that Mary was herself a source of grace. She was the bride of the Song of Solomon; she was the woman in Revelation who was clothed with the sun, and also the woman who was attacked by a dragon with seven heads and seven crowns. She was made the subject of many prophetic passages in the Old Testament without suspicion that later descriptions of her may have been influenced by those passages; ‘the bush that was on fire and was not burnt’ was Mary who had conceived a son without being burnt by sex; Eve, Sara, Deborah, Judith, and Esther were all symbolic forerunners of the queen of women; the ark of the covenant, carrying in itself something infinitely precious, was, if one looked keenly between the lines, Mary again.

When Christianity spread to the Teutonic tribes, Mariolatry received further support. These peoples held woman in higher regard than the Southern or Eastern peoples, and the same sentiments that made the institution of chivalry attractive to them made it acceptable also to include a woman among the objects of their worship. To this must be added the natural tenderness felt everywhere for a mother and her child, and the security that was given to apprehensive minds, in a world supposed to be peopled with malignant demons, by the consciousness that a mother's solicitude was always open to them when they were in fear or pain. These attractions, again, helped to give Mary and her child the quite extraordinary place in art that they held for many centuries. The great artists of the mediaeval and modern church devoted much of their time and skill to her. The madonnas of Giotto and Leonardo, of Raphael and Titian, of Botticelli, Correggio, and Holbein are among the great paintings of the world.

23 Thus, little by little over the years, a young woman of whom practically nothing is known with certainty became the Morning Star, the Queen of Heaven, the sinless Mother of God.23 Since the twelfth century countless devoted worshippers have depended on her to present their case at the throne of heaven. The Ave Maria became a regular form of Catholic prayer; St Dominic introduced the string of beads called the rosary to make easier the repetition of 150 Ave Marias along with 15 Pater Nosters; Ignatius Loyola is described as having prayed to Mary daily for hours and having taught that in the eucharist one partakes of the flesh of Mary as well as of Jesus; St Bonaventura describes her as the ‘porta caeli, quia nullus potest jam caelum intrare nisi per Mariam transeat tamquam per portam’.24 Alphonso dei Liguori, who wrote an immensely popular work called The Glories of Mary and who was later canonised, taught that God gave no grace except through Mary, a doctrine that was later defended by Cardinal Manning. Innocent III said that ‘to a sinner who has lost Divine grace, there is no more sun,’ this being the symbol of Jesus, ‘but the moon is still on the horizon; let him address himself to Mary’. J. J. Olier, the influential founder of the French seminary of St Sulpice, argued that from the time of the resurrection Jesus was identified with the Father, and hence took the Father's attitude of rejection toward sinners, ‘so that the difficulty is to induce Him to exchange the office of Judge for that of advocate.… Now this is what the saints effect, and especially the most Blessed Virgin.’25 Some Catholic writers have gone further still and maintained with Bernardinus de Bustis that ‘the blessed Virgin is herself superior to God, and God Himself is subject unto her in respect of the manhood he assumed from her’.26 Of course this is excess of zeal, not Catholic orthodoxy. But what counts is less the technical definitions of the learned than the practical attitudes of the many, and these attitudes have been permitted and encouraged to outstrip official doctrine. It has been noted that out of the 433 churches and chapels in Rome two are dedicated to the Holy Spirit, two to the sacraments, four to the crucifix, five to the Trinity, fifteen to Jesus, and 121 to Mary.27

The glorification of Mary, however, is neither a thing of the past nor a popular movement only. The two dogmas which perhaps come nearest to fulfilling the requirements of infallibility, those of the immaculate conception and the bodily assumption, have both been promulgated since 1850, and both concern the Virgin. In 1854 Pius IX declared it a doctrine ‘revealed by God’ that Mary, alone among mankind, had come into the world free from all taint of original sin, and added that ‘if any presume to think in their heart otherwise… they have suffered shipwreck as regards the faith.…’28 Enthusiasm for Mary among the faithful continued to rise. On 23 February 1870, two hundred bishops asked that the Vatican ‘expressly and solemnly define that Mary with her spotless soul and virgin body is enthroned in heaven at the right hand of the Son of God, as our most powerful mediatrix.…’ The suggestion that her ‘virgin body is enthroned in heaven’ seemed to call for a further dogma. ‘It is certain’, writes Joseph Duhr, SJ, in his Glorious Assumption of the Mother of God, ‘that no truly faithful believer will ever accept the idea that the Virgin Mary's body, the august tabernacle of the Word made flesh, could become the prey of worms, or that it remains somewhere shrouded in silence and indifference’.29 In Pius XII Mary had a follower whose devotion and power enabled him to dispel with authority so repulsive a thought. On 1 November 1950, he had the satisfaction of defining another revealed truth, binding on all the faithful. Mary's body as well as her soul had, at her death, been miraculously translated directly into heaven.30


24 Now I suggest that the decision whether this complex of beliefs is true lies neither with scholarship nor with dialectic, but with the sort of philosophy, or as I should prefer to say, reasonableness, which consists of refined and extended common sense. There are many glib secularists in these days who dismiss such belief as merely stupid and ignorant. No one can take that view who has exposed himself to the learning and subtlety of the theologians who have dealt with it. Indeed if one is of a speculative turn, and can with good conscience make the initial leap of faith which enables one to accept the collection of Biblical writings as containing a supreme and unique revelation, the fascination of searching this out and piecing it together is wholly intelligible. Put yourself inside the system, accept once and for all the exciting view that hidden in these cryptic prophecies, oriental metaphors, and dramatic narratives, and only waiting to be construed by us, is the truth about the nature and eternal destiny of the race, and there will obviously be nothing more important for scholarship to undertake than the deciphering of the divine code. The 520—page letter that Pusey wrote to Newman about whether the Virgin was freed at her own conception from the burden of original sin will then be a real service to mankind. Pusey believed that the doctrine could be refuted by careful reasoning, starting from the Scriptures and the fathers; Newman believed—at least after the Papal edict on the matter—that it could be established in the same way.

It would be foolish to question the scholarship or acumen of these men, or of their present-day successors. We can and should admit it to the full. And yet what modern reader who is not already committed, heart and mind, to the system within which their thought revolved is moved in the least by this erudition? They and their successors were really ignoring the question which the modern mind wants settled. That question is not whether, given certain doctrines within the system, certain other doctrines follow, but whether the system itself as a whole can any longer be lived in, whether it can be coherently included in a world that also includes, and must include, modern biology and physics, psychology and anthropology, Freud and The Golden Bough. That question cannot be answered from within the system, even by the most masterly dialectics. I have made no attempt to consider the pros and cons of the dogma I have fixed on, because I think that for most present-day students that would evade the fundamental issue, and because that issue is more effectively dealt with simply by projecting the story of the dogma against the background of modern knowledge.

What confronts us is two hypotheses, each so complex that neither can be proved, and we must choose between them on the basis of comparative probability. Nearly everything in the chronicle of Mary is logically possible. It is possible that a Jewish girl in about 5 BC did conceive a child in a manner of which there is no other biological example; that she was made to do so by the miraculous intrusion into nature of an omnipotent and omniscient power; that Matthew and Luke were confused when they traced the descent of her son through Joseph; that there is such a thing, not as inherited sin, which is a contradictory notion, but inherited evil, and that Mary was exempted from this by supernatural intervention; that she never in her life did anything wrong; that the magi knew in advance about the miraculous birth and arrived in time to adore and bring gifts, though the townspeople did not learn of it; that Jesus regarded his mother as virtually divine, though some accident has prevented any hint of this from appearing in the record; that the silence of St Paul and the fathers for some four centuries about her true position was again a curious accident in a development that was,—on the whole, supernaturally ordered; that her exaltation, when it came, was quite independent of those other contemporary faiths where virgins were worshipped, and was only the belated acknowledgement of a truth known all along; finally that her corpse was reanimated and swept intact out of the world of space and time, though her contemporaries, so ready to believe such things, never seem to have heard of it, and the church took eighteen centuries to make up its mind that it had taken place. All this, I repeat, is possible, not in the sense that it would be consistent with physical law, since it would collide with biology and physics at many points, but in the sense that there is nothing obviously self-contradictory in it.

The other hypothesis is simpler. It is that as the figure of Jesus was thought about and talked about over the years by followers who loved and worshipped him but who were as uncritical as children in their attitude toward the marvellous, a set of legends collected around him, and that for such reasons as we have mentioned these legends gradually extended themselves to his mother and were embroidered with time. This hypothesis, like the other, is neither impossible nor demonstrable. The choice between them, I repeat, is one of comparative probability. And if, in estimating this probability, one starts from the only assured basis, that of actual experience and the principles it forces upon us, I do not see how the question can be answered in any way but one. The first hypothesis, if true, would shake the whole fabric of common sense and scientific belief in which modern man lives. The second hypothesis would square with that belief throughout. For minds brought up on scientific method and critical history the choice is hardly a live option. They could not accept the first hypothesis unless they could divest themselves of their own past and secede from the intellectual world they live in.


25 We have glanced at only one dogma, or one small cluster of dogmas, from the immense system that grew up in the first thousand years of our era. I have suggested that this part of the system would almost certainly turn out under scrutiny to be as truly a product of the myth-making faculty, rather than of reason operating freely upon the evidence, as the earlier legends of Samson and Joshua. I do not want to suggest, far less to argue, that all the dogmas in that great system are in similar case. That there is a great deal of truth in the system, important and helpful truth, I should not question for a moment, and still less should I care to question the ability that went to its elaboration. There are few if any enterprises in intellectual history that can compare with that of St Thomas in the skill with which the available knowledge of the time is reduced to coherent order. It is, and will remain, like the Divine Comedy, one of the most impressive of human achievements. If it is to be criticised, this must indeed be on the ground that it is too much like the Divine Comedy. Let anyone pick up at random a volume of the Summa and examine its contents. Along with acute discussions of substance and accident, unpretentious but extensive Biblical learning, and penetrating commentaries on Aristotle, he will find discourses on angels and demons, an undoubting assumption that the entire mass of Hebrew legend from Cain and Abel to Daniel in the lion's den is inspired truth, and a virtually total absence of any reference to the world of observed fact.

It gradually comes home to the reader what an extraordinary phenomenon this is—one of the great intellects of the race struggling within the walls of its cell to elaborate a view of the universe, not from the materials that science and history laid before him, for neither science nor history, as we know them, then existed, but from a set of fragments of the ancient world, a few treatises of Aristotle being the chief source for method and the Scriptural canon for truth. We have seen enough about the Hebrew writings to have some idea of what this meant. It meant that any clear water he might have drawn from his sources was muddied by an infusion of myth as rich and legendary as the siege of Troy. The Summa is like a gigantic sponge which shrinks to small proportions when this water is squeezed out of it. The critic who enters the system and tries to argue with Thomas about his particular deductions is probably riding for a fall, since the great doctor is a formidable antagonist in any argumentative lists. The trouble the modern mind finds with him is not with the validity of his deductions but with the truth of his starting-points, and hence with the instability of the whole construction. His belief in the literal truth even of Hebrew chronicle was such as to make him say that if Elkanah was not the father of Samuel then revelation as a whole was placed in jeopardy. The truth of the entire system, with all its intricate and subtle argumentation, depends on a proposition which every objective historical critic would now regard as false, namely that the Bible is to be treated not as literature but as the record of assured historical fact and infallible truth. Grant him that proposition, and you may as well surrender to him first as last. Question it, and the central bastions of the grandiose edifice become a cloud castle.

This suggests what has actually happened to the philosophy of Thomas in modern times. Something similar must be said, no doubt, about the nearest Protestant counterpart of the Summa, the Institutes of Calvin. These men were both great rationalists in the sense that if you supplied them with premises they could perform prodigies in the way of constructing upon them massive and orderly structures of thought. Neither had the kind of intellectual radicalism required to carry the process downward by continued questioning of these premises till they came to the bedrock of rational certainty. This is what modern thought has attempted for them. It has never, I take it, refuted them, in the sense of showing that they built incompetently with the materials they had. It has refuted them only in the sense of showing that even they could not build structures of enduring truth out of materials that were half myth. The process of separating fact from myth, particularly in an extended system whose branches intertwine with every physical science and which includes a panoramic history of the world from the beginning to the final catastrophe, is no instantaneous process like the perception of a fallacy; it is properly the business of centuries, in which there emerges a new realm of scientific and historic truth, and with it a new sense of how such truth is to be established. The emergence of these things is the birth of the modern intellectual world. The story of this long hard labour has been often told, and need not be repeated. But it may be well to remind ourselves of the main intellectual movements that hastened the process.

26 First there was the renaissance of ancient humanistic culture, which suggested experiences and ways of living quite different from those of the religious tradition, yet apparently self-justifying. Then there was the Reformation, which insisted that the important point was not what a man could get the church or the saints to do for him but what happened in his own mind, a conviction which encouraged the individual to take more responsibility for his beliefs and attitudes. Then came the revolutionary suggestion of Descartes, who, though a loyal churchman himself, has become for such thinkers as Maritain the great source of modern intellectual perversion.31 For Descartes held that the appeal to reason was the ultimate test of any belief. Was the belief held with the clear and distinct conception of its terms and their relation that we have in mathematics? If so, it must be as true as 2 + 2 = 4; self-evidence is the test of truth. Descartes tried to make an exception of revealed truth, but the exception was so contrary to the spirit of his system, which was in essence an uncompromising rationalism, that the church put him on the Index.

It did so too late, however, to prevent the seed that he planted from growing. His idea that rational necessity is the bar to which every proposed belief must in the end be brought was accepted and developed by a line of thinkers that form the most distinguished single tradition in modern philosophy, a line that runs through Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel to Bradley, Royce, and McTaggart. This tradition did not conceive itself as, on the whole, hostile to religion. Among the more impressive in the long series of Gifford Lectures are those in which idealistic rationalism has been expounded as the one true basis of religious belief, the lectures of the Cairds, for example, and of Royce, Bosanquet, Watson, and Haldane. Yet no historically minded readers of these lectures can fail to see that they defend Christianity by rewriting it. The theology of Bosanquet is almost as far from that of St Thomas as that of St Thomas is from that of the gospels.

While this new and formidable rationalism was developing on the continent, there appeared in Britain a quite different kind of philosophy, which was to prove in the end even more dangerous to theological tradition, though it was founded, like rationalism, by men who conceived themselves as defending that tradition. This was the empiricism of Locke and Berkeley. The gist of it was that ideas come from sense experience. At first little attention was paid to the contrapositive of this assertion, namely that whatever ideas do not come from sense experience are at best but pseudo-ideas. This consequence was underlined with devastating theological effect by Hume. The influence of his scepticism has fluctuated greatly, but in recent years it has been very strong. When such empiricists as Carnap and Ayer dismiss theology as meaningless, they are standing admittedly on Hume's ground. They argue that to derive from sense experience, or to verify by it, beliefs in the fall, or original sin, or the incarnation, or the eucharist, or the existence of God is impossible, and hence such terms are meaningless. Similar views have been urged by some of the linguistic philosophers. I have examined a number of these theories of meaning in another work, and found them unsatisfactory. Still, empiricism has been the order of the day in recent British and American philosophy, and its temper has been clearly hostile to the traditional forms of religious belief.

27 Influential as philosophy has been among the few, however, its influence among the many has been far outweighed by that of science. In explaining the resurrection of Kierkegaard we listed the main inroads of science on theology and may here be brief. There is no one of the sciences that has not at some point or other trespassed on the domain that once belonged to theology and followed up the trespasses by wresting territory from it. Theological astronomy was replaced, after an acute struggle, by that of Copernicus and Newton. The theological biology that assigned past life on the earth a duration of six thousand years has been snowed under by fossil discoveries. The world of witchcraft, demons, and divine scourges in which Thomas lived was gradually transformed into one in which witches were cured and demons expelled by psychopathologists, and epidemics controlled by scientific medicine. Magic was replaced by chemistry and physics; miracles were either refused credence or domesticated as examples of unfamiliar law. Hebrew mythology, though containing some historical fact, was found by students of anthropology to parallel many other mythologies whose status as such no one could doubt. The inevitableness with which the scientific account of things made its way is symbolised by what happened when Smith's Dictionary of the Bible was compiled in Victorian days. The editor wanted a book written by authorities, but nevertheless safe. He assigned the article ‘Deluge’ to a competent scholar, but got from him an article so heretical that he decided it would never do. So under ‘Deluge’ he entered ‘see Flood’, and gave the article to another and, he believed, less dangerous hand. But the second article, when it came in, was more alarming than the first. So, desperately writing under ‘Flood’ ‘see Noah’, he appealed to a distinguished Cambridge professor to save the situation. He too turned out to have conceded the case to the new geological science. But he did so with a sufficient depth of professional obscurity to exempt the editor from the need of further struggle.32

Darwin's theory has been before the world only since the year in which Dewey, Bergson, and Husserl were born, 1859, but the change in attitude toward it has been an all but complete reversal. It is hard now to believe that the denunciations of his view came not only from such persons as the Pope33 and the rather sorry Wilberforce, who was Bishop of Oxford at that time, but from such relatively enlightened minds as Carlyle, who described Darwin as an ‘apostle of dirt worship’, and even from the eminent historian of the inductive sciences, Whewell, who refused to permit a copy of The Origin of Species to be placed in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was master. When Mr Bryan attempted to take a similar view at the Scopes trial of 1925, the world laughed.

28 No doubt the application of reason that for many was hardest to bear was its criticism of the Scriptural text. This had begun as early as Spinoza, who showed that the Pentateuch had been compiled from various sources and long after the time of Moses. But the great development of this sort of criticism took place in nineteenth-century Germany, Holland, and France. Kuenen, Wellhausen, and others showed by irresistible internal evidence that the Old Testament books had been written in another order, by other hands, at other times and places, and under other influences than had been supposed, for example that the Mosaic law and its historical background were mainly projections into the past from a much later epoch. A succession of scholars from Strauss and Renan to Harnack and Schweitzer did for the New Testament what these men did for the Old. They revealed that Matthew and Luke were chiefly compilations from Mark and one other source, now lost but largely reconstructed by Harnack; they showed that John differed profoundly in purpose and doctrine from the other gospels; they brought to light countless errors and inconsistencies which clearly excluded the character assigned to any of them by the Roman and the more conservative Protestant interpreters; they threw a flood of light on the actual life and teachings of Christ. The resistance to the new results was determined. But it could not prevent, it only delayed, their general acceptance.

These results, aided by George Eliot's translation of Strauss and the literary brilliance of Renan's Vie de Jesus, penetrated slowly to Britain and America. The change in the climate of opinion in the last century may be brought home by one illustration. The famous volume of Essays and Reviews by Jowett, Mark Pattison, the elder Temple, and others appeared in 1860. All but one of its authors were clergymen, and their position was one many churchmen of today would regard as not only conservative but almost reactionary. They did try to make use, however, of some of the recent German discoveries. This was the signal for a vigorous attack both on them and on the attempt to apply scientific and historical method to Biblical study. The hue and cry was prodigious. Two of the writers were prosecuted in the clerical courts and suspended from their posts. They appealed to the Queen in Council, who referred the case to a judicial committee headed by the lord chancellor, and including the bishop of London, both archbishops, and a number of distinguished laymen. One of the culprits was charged with having betrayed his office by denying the doctrine of eternal punishment. The lord chancellor and the majority of the committee declined to find him guilty, saying that they did not conceive themselves required ‘to punish the expression of a hope by a clergyman that even the ultimate pardon of the wicked who are condemned in the day of judgement may be consistent with the will of Almighty God’. Both archbishops voted against acquittal on this point, and when the decision freeing the essayists was made known, a petition of protest came in, signed by eleven thousand clergymen, and deputations representing great numbers of laymen waited on the archbishops to thank them for their efforts to save the faith. But the lord chancellor stood firm. An epitaph of the time, composed for him by an admirer, ran: ‘He dismissed Hell with costs, and took away from orthodox members of the Church of England their last hope of everlasting damnation.’34 One wonders how many clergymen would sign a petition now insisting on this ‘hope’. It is significant of the change that has occurred in the past century that in 1945 a book entitled The Rise of Christianity, accepting whole-heartedly the methods of continental ‘higher criticism’ and incorporating many of its most radical conclusions, was published, not by an obscure cleric, with trial and suspension hanging over him, but by the bishop of Birmingham, who was admonished in consequence by some colleagues but who remained serenely on his episcopal throne.35

29 The advance of rationalism had one more step to take, a step which, as we have seen earlier, aroused passionate resistance. So far, though it had insisted on bringing Biblical theology and history to the bar of reason, it had been inclined to leave Christian ethics untouched. There was, of course, the diverting spectacle of Nietzsche beating his breast loudly and proclaiming himself the Antichrist, though his voice, like that of Kierkegaard on the other side, was obviously not the voice of reason, but of something less or more—fanaticism or prophecy as one preferred. If anyone spoke with the voice of reason, however, it was that ‘saint of rationalism’, as Gladstone called him, John Stuart Mill. Mill offered sober criticism of various points in the Christian ethics as he understood it, for example of the character it ascribed to God in connection with the evil in the world, a character Mill thought immoral, of its condemnation of heresy as carrying a moral taint, and of its lack of due concern for the physical basis of life. Similar doubts were raised, again with the impressiveness that belonged to high character, by John Morley; and in the present century the debate about Christian ethics has become an open one, with such vigorous debaters as Shaw, Russell, and Westermarck on one side and Dean Rashdall, Dean Inge, and Bishop Henson on the other. This marks the high-water line of rationalist criticism. It means that there is nothing whatever in the great structure of belief and faith begun in the first century and virtually completed in the thirteenth that is now considered outside the bounds of rational inquiry and correction.

30 Even in the most authoritative of the Christian churches, scepticism is spreading at surprising speed. When Pius XII in 1950 announced as a necessity for all Catholics the belief that the body of Mary was translated directly into heaven, he threw down the ecclesiastical gauntlet to the modern world. He little knew how quickly that gauntlet was to be picked up, not only by outsiders but by members of his own communion. His successor, the good John, saw that the church could not play the role indefinitely of a Canute defying the tide of secular thought, and began a process of accommodation to it. The concessions were modest, but they proved to be a sowing of the wind, of which his successors have begun to reap the whirlwind. One small bit of evidence: in May 1972 the present writer took part in a dialogue between Catholic and rationalist thinkers in New York, about twenty-five members from each side being present. What was surprising to the rationalists was not so much the amount of difference as the amount of agreement between the two groups. While the Catholic members could hardly have been representative of their church at large, the readiness with which they rejected the traditional dogmas of their church, repudiated the pronouncements of popes and councils, and insisted that they too were essentially rationalists was as astonishing to their critics as it would certainly have been perturbing to the head of their church. The fact is that the appeal to authority among Catholics and the appeal to revelation in both the great Christian communions are steadily losing their credibility.

What is taking their place? The appeal to reason? Perhaps. But reason provides no answers that compare in definiteness or breadth of support with the answers given by revelation and church authority. Reason, to be sure, is the best and indeed the only illumination we have in this field, but it is after all a flickering candle in a universe that stretches out indefinitely on all sides and lies chiefly in shadow. To the questions of the religious man there is no one set of answers that can be offered as the answers of reason, but only the speculations of individual men, through whom the voice of reason is never heard in its purity, but always with provincial accents and personal inflections. Certainly the chapters that follow, in which I give some account of my own tentative answers to these questions, do not pretend to be more. But any reader who has lasted through so many chapters of negation will be more than ready for some effort at construction.

From the book: