The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39
Religion: Its Changing Forms and its Eternal Essence.*
Religion: Its Changing Forms and its Eternal Essence.*
There are large numbers of people, both in America and Europe, and throughout Christendom, who are quiet and at rest in their religious ideas. They seem to be unconscious of the disturbing forces that are at work unsettling the foundations of old ideas. They seem to be unconscious of the new movement of things in the air, that threatens to disintegrate the structures that have stood so long. If indeed it be so, that the rest which is mere quiescence be a blessing, then blessed are these people! But to me it appears to be true that there is a higher and nobler form of peace than that which is simply quiet and stagnation,—the peace of the eagle poised on balanced wings, sweeping through the air; the peace of the mighty steamship, in spite of lowering cloud, or threatening wind, or buffeting wave, holding straight on her resistless course; the peace of the brook running and rippling, running itself clear by its own motion, and singing ever as it goes. These seem to me to symbolize that kind of peace which is more desirable than mere quiescence. But, however large this number of people may be to whom I have referred, there is, on the other hand, a still larger and an increasing number of those who are not at peace, who feel the upheaval beneath them, who hear the whisper of change in the air. This class is constantly on the increase. Already it is in the majority, and that majority is growing.page 4
This class, for the purposes I have in mind, may be accurately enough divided into two parts. On the one hand are those who believe that religion is something that pertains to the childhood of the race, and that, with the childish things of the past, it is to be put away when man has grown to his perfect intellectual stature. They tell us that religion is fathered by ignorance and mothered by fear; that it is twin- born with superstition, and is finally to be outgrown: it is like a belated ghost, that, when the cock crows and the sun rises, fades away, not able to stand the light of the coming morning. And this class of people rejoice in this belief. Religion to their thought means superstition, credulity, ignorance, the separation of nations, of peoples, of families, of sects. It means bitterness, heart-burnings, false conceptions of God, horrible anticipations for the future. Holding this conception of it, I do not wonder that they are glad to believe it is destined to pass away.
The other class is made up of quite a different sort of persons. They claim to believe that the religious ideas which they hold, and to which they cling with such tenacity and love, are God-originated and God-given to man; that they are divine, and that on them hinge the welfare and the prosperity of the world. And yet, strange as it seems, these very persons who profess so firmly to believe that the ideas they hold are divine, and therefore eternal, do in fact betray a deep-down infidelity that holds possession of their hearts. For they tremble and are afraid; they fight against criticism, they despise and cast contempt upon modern science and the new light of investigation; and anything that threatens to look into the foundations of things gives them tremors of the heart, and anticipations that these things which they have asserted to be divine and eternal are really in danger.
If I had a piece of jewelry that I was very anxious to believe was gold, and yet that I did not feel quite certain about, and if somebody came along with a chemical test by which he proposed to settle the question, very likely I should button that bit of gold up tight in my pocket to keep it out of page 5 the way, preferring my comfortable belief to what might be a very uncomfortable certainty. But, if I really believed that it was gold, would I fear subjecting it to any, even the extremest conceivable test? If, then, I really believe that my ideas are divine, that the truths, as I call them, are God-originated, God-given, and as eternal as God himself, then welcome the light of clay, welcome all research, welcome the broadest, freest; deepest investigation. Let me bring them forth into the open arena of debate and conflict, confident that their divine strength cannot be overcome, but that they will come out of the severest trial, and fully vindicate their divine origin and their power to go forth making conquest over all the earth.
These two classes then, those who believe that religion is false and destined to pass away, and those who still claim to believe that it is true, but are yet afraid that somehow their divine truths are going to receive injury,—these two classes are increasing. But if they, and we all, would only take the trouble to get into our minds a clear and consistent definition of what religion means, it would show the folly of the fear on the one hand, and the folly of the hope on the other.
For what is religion? I believe that my definition is so broad, so inclusive, so far-reaching, that it is capable of consistently covering every form and manifestation of religious life that the world has ever seen. Religion then is simply man's thought—including the emotion that springs out of and accompanies the thought and the ritual expression with which man clothes this thought,—religion is man's thought of the universe and the relation in which he supposes himself to stand to the powers, or power, that controls it. So long then as the universe stands, and so long as there is an intelligent being in the universe, so long there must be religion. As well might the shipmaster think to out sail the horizon that encompasses him on every hand: as well might the lark rising into the morning air think to outfly the atmosphere in which it flutters its wings, and the movements of which con- page 6 stitute the liquid beauties of its song, as humanity think to outlive religion.
Religion, then, is eternal in its nature; and, whatever changes its external manifestations may pass through, that which is at its heart, its essence, must endure just so long as intelligence and the universe abide. But, as if to contradict this statement, all those things that to the popular mind, and to that mind that does not analyze very deeply, seem to constitute all there is of religion,—all these things, I say, are perpetually changing, and they do pass away.
Let us look for a moment at the three main elements that to the popular mind constitute all there is of religion. First, there is the dogma, the creed,—that is, the intellectual theory as to the nature of things. However creedless you may call your church, every man who has brains enough to think, and who ever does think, has his creed, and must have it now and forever. But the dogma perpetually changes. Man's thought about the universe and the relations he sustains to it is perpetually undergoing modifications. Old systems and old theories have passed away by the dozens, if not by the hundreds, in the past; and others still shall grow old and die.
The second element, that to the common thought, seems to constitute that which we call religion, is the emotional attitude in which man stands to the object of his worship. That is, if a man thinks of the power that is around him as a pitiless power, he stands in awe, he is afraid. If he thinks of it as kindly and fatherly, then a corresponding emotion of trust and love is called out. Out of the thought then, the dogma, springs of necessity the emotional attitude in which man will stand toward this power that he thinks of as holding his destiny in its hands.
The last element is the ritual manifestation of man's religious life. This is constituted by architecture, by painting, by statuary, by rites, by prayers, by processions, by sacrifices, by all that man has ever done from the beginning of history until to-day in the way of setting forth in external forms his thought and his feeling about God. That which is meant page 7 by ritual covers all these. Is it not a fact that these, the thought, the emotion, the ritual, constitute almost all that is commonly thought of as making up religion? And is it not true that religions in this sense do grow old and pass away? Religions are born. Religions grow old, decrepit, die, and are buried and forgotten. But,—and here is the important distinction,—though religions pass away, religion is an immortal, and never dies.
To illustrate what I mean, take a parallel truth in regard to governments. Governments are born. They grow old, become decrepit, die, are buried, and are forgotten. But government remains. Government is not necessarily the supremacy of a chief, not necessarily the dominance of the despot, not necessarily a monarchy, not necessarily a representative republic, nor a pure democracy. There are govern-ments,—manifestations of this power of social self-control; but government survives the toppling thrones of crumbling monarchies and the decay of dynasties. These do not touch the eternal youth and the eternal progress of government. Another thing, striking in its bearing on the theme we have in hand, is suggested by this illustration: that is not the best government which makes the largest display of itself. By the common consent of all wise men and philosophers, that is the noblest type of government which governs the least, which makes the least display of itself, which has the fewest court-houses, the fewest jails, the smallest standing army, the smallest police, which makes the slightest external demonstration of its life. That is the finest, truest, noblest government where the laws are written in the intelligence and the heart of the people, where it simply governs itself. So that religion is not necessarily the best, not necessarily the most intense, where there is the largest external manifestation architecturally, the most elaborate ritual, the most costly sacrifices, processions, and external displays. That is the grandest and divinest development which the world has ever seen, where the laws of God, of truth and right, are written on the fleshly tablets of the heart; where page 8 there is the least display of external power, for the simple reason that it is not needed.
All these external manifestations that I have named change, grow old, and pass away. But the essence, what is that? It is time to raise that inquiry, which is central to my whole discussion. What is this thing that endures, which survives the decay of dogma, which survives the decay of the emotional attitude in which man stands toward God, which survives the decay of ritual? We shall find, as the result of this inquiry, something which, while extremely radical in its sweep, is at the same time grandly conservative and constructive, and full of encouragement and hope.
Before I point out just what this thing is; I wish to draw a few outline etchings of some of the contrasted types of religious life which find their manifestations in the history of man, that we may be the more struck and impressed by the fact, which at first you might not be ready to believe, that there is at the heart of all these, however divergent in manifestations and forms, one essential purpose, one essential and unchangeable power.
Glance then for a moment at some of these contrasted pictures. Look at the fetich worshipper standing terrified and afraid in the presence of a stone, a stick, a frog, a snake, anything to which the veriest accident may have called his attention and made him afraid of, as the residence of some mysterious power. Look at the Indian, or the lowest type of barbarian above the fetich worshipper. Look at him as he brings to the grave of his ancestor a little tobacco, a few grains of rice, a part of some animal that he has slain in hunting, bringing it as veritable food for the spirit of his ancestor, or to the dead chief of his tribe, whom he thinks of as still hungering. Standing by this grave, he chants some words of praise over the remembered chief or the departed ancestor, which is the first crude beginning of what has grown to be the Christian hymn. He asks the spirit of this dead chief to help him in the hunt or in war, or at least not to be vindictive and injurious to him; and here is the beginning of page 9 what has grown to be the Christian prayer. How far away such a religion seems to us, and how unlikely, at first thought, that we should find an element in it which we should recognize as having anything in common with that which we hold to-day!
Pass from this to the valley of Gehenna outside the walls of the Holy City. Here is a metallic image of the horrid god Moloch, hollow within and heated like a furnace. The parents that stand in awe of its terrific and superhuman majesty bring their little, tender children, and lay them across the red-hot arms of the monster, and beat their drums and rattle their rude musical instruments, and send their shouts to heaven to drown the feeble wail of the little life that is consecrated to the abominable worship. Pass from that to the Quaker meeting, where they simply sit in quiet awe, waiting for the movement of the divine spirit. Then from the simplicity of this Quaker meeting, which is almost utterly devoid of form, pass to Rome, and witness a grand procession on some great fête day; see the pope crowned, and carried on the shoulders of his devotees, passing through the streets thronged with those that look upon him as the very vicar of God on earth, and who bend themselves into the dust as he passes by. See them, as with song and music they enter the great cathedral, there to go through the solemn celebration of the high mass, until that crowning moment when the veritable God himself, as the worshippers believe, is lifted in the consecrated wafer in the sight of the awe-struck throng. From this turn to the severity of our common Puritan worshippers in our meetinghouses, where there is the carefully prepared essay or discussion, doctrinal or practical, of what is regarded as divine, the simple prayer, and singing of simple hymns.
But there is no room nor time to outline the one-hundredth part of the many forms of worship that have been assumed in Asia, in Africa, in ancient Egypt, among the Buddhists, among the Mohammedans, and the followers of Confucius, among the Parsees, and all the ten thousand page 10 devotees that, have worshipped under all forms and all names. Is it possible that at the heart of these lies some common element that we can recognize as permanent and held by ourselves to-day? This seems to me to be the grand, wide, sweeping, all-inclusive truth,—religion at heart is one. The fetich worshipper, the follower of Moloch, the Puritan, the Papist, all are seeking one same thing, from the lowest, crudest development of superstition, up to Jesus talking with the woman of Samaria, and saying to her: "The hour Cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. God is a spirit, and seeks such to worship him as are capable of worshipping him in spirit and in truth." From Jesus talking with the woman of Samaria, on to the least anthropomorphic development of modern science,—that science which dares not say God, which only says power, law, life, which stands awe-struck before the infinite mystery of the universe,—all the way, I say, through highest and lowest, there is one line running which is binding all in unity. What is it? It is the purpose, the impulse of life forever at the heart of man, the purpose to find and come into right relations with God. This is what the fetich worshipper seeks; this is what the worshipper of Moloch sought; this is what the followers of Confucius seek; it is the object of the Buddhist's search. It is what the Parsee, the Quaker, the Papist, the orthodox, the liberal, the scientist, are seeking. The scientific man says that the one end and object of human life is to bring about a complete and perfect adjustment between man and his environment. Religion says, meaning precisely the same thing, the grand end and object of human life is to become reconciled to God. This, then, is the one thing in common, the one thing that is eternal in religion. For, as I have shown you, the dogma, the emotional attitude, the ritual, change: this purpose only is eternal, and abides forever.
Now, then, it will be apparent to you, I trust, that since the essential thing is this purpose; since this purpose endures and is eternal; since man by his very nature must forever page 11 seek that which he regards as his highest good, must seek to come into right relations with the Power on which his very existence depends, that holds his destiny in his hands; since this abides forever,—it follows naturally, of necessity, that the form which this purpose will assume, the method by which man will seek to work out this purpose in practical life, will depend entirely on his intellectual development. It will depend upon his thought. For at the heart of all these religious developments of the world there is a theory about God which is simply man's intellectual conception of him. And he must, so long as he holds that theory, live in accordance with it, and attempt to work it out. Therefore, you find all these forms, developments, and manifestations. If man thinks of God as cruel, his worship of him will be cruel. If he thinks of his God as sensual, his worship will be sensual. If he thinks of his God as spiritual, his worship will be spiritual. If he thinks God wants a sacrifice of a bullock or a goat, he will make that sacrifice. If he thinks God demands the life of his first-born, the first-born must die. If he thinks God demands righteousness and mercy and truth, then all these cruder and rougher forms of the religious life will be sloughed off, cruelty will be left behind, and man's religion will become the doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with his God. It all turns on his thought of God.
If man started, as we believe, away down on the borders of the animal world, if he started crude, ignorant, animal, barbaric, the first form of his religion must have been crude, animal, barbaric; and so we find it. But, as he takes a step ahead in intelligence, as he rises to a higher degree of civilization, his thought about God changes, and his religion becomes more refined.
Religion, even in its lowest expression, has three or four theories which I must notice briefly. There is first the theory of the universe. Then man must have a theory of himself, some sort of idea as to what his own nature is, and his needs are. Then he will have a thought in regard to the relation in which he actually stands to God, whether God loves page 12 him or cares for him, whether he is a friend or an enemy, or whether he is indifferent to him. He will have some sort of thought about it. He will have another thought, and he cannot avoid it, concerning the relation in which he ought to stand to God. Think of it for a moment; grasp the idea clearly. Religion in its practical development in all ages is nothing more nor less than man attempting to bridge over the gulf between the actual and the ideal. It is an attempt to turn the fact into the ought, to change the relation in which he really does stand to God into the relation in which he ought to stand, either by changing God, if that is conceivable, or himself, or both.
Now, then, as briefly as I may, having made clear the principles that underlie these changes, and the fact that these changes are necessary, I wish to indicate in rough outline the grand essentials of the changes through which we are actually passing.
Of course, since this universe is infinite, and since man is finite, we can never conceive of the human race as having gotten through, as being done. God must forever be only a human ideal to us. He is the eternally pursued and the never completely found. For to say that we can comprehend God is simply to assert an absurdity: it is to say that the finite has suddenly developed to the size of the infinite. If, then, man makes any progress, if he takes a single step ahead, it must be by changing from the old to the new. It must be by abandoning old and accepting grander and nobler ideas.
What, then, are the essential changes through which we are passing? First, we are changing most radically our conception of this universe in which we live and of which we are a part. Do you know there has never, from the dawn of human intelligence until to-day, been so radical, so revolutionary a change going on as that in the midst of which we are and of which we are a part? When men surrendered the Ptolemaic conception of the universe and accepted the Kopernican, even this did not work so great a revolution as that which the conceptions of modem science are forcing on our accep- page 13 tance to-day. The universe to us now, instead of being a little, contracted thing, created by almighty fiat in six clays, out of nothing, in the darkness of infinite space, the whole of it not so large as we know the orbit of the moon to be; instead of this little thing that God created outside of himself, impressed with its own stamp, and set going with its own laws and by the machinery that he constructed, made to run of its own accord, or by his coming now and then to adjust or change this way or that to suit his purposes, when it doesn't run exactly as he intended:—instead of this we think it infinite. And, as there cannot be two infinites in the universe, we conceive of God no longer as a carpenter outside of the house that he has builded. We conceive of this universe, in every part and parcel of it, from star to dust grain under foot, as alive. From blossoming constellations to blossoming roses it is alive, as I am alive from the crown of my head to the sole of my foot. And God is its life, as I am the life of my body.
Where, then, is God? Everywhere,—in this flower; in the cloud floating in the sky; in the most distant sun; in my pulse-beat; in the brain that now generates the thought to which I am giving utterance,—God, the life, the light, the power of all we see. Touch the universe anywhere, and you touch divinity. Look at its mechanism and operations anywhere, and you behold the creative work of God. This changed conception of the universe, do you not see how radically it alters our conception of God?
We have also changed our conception of man. Instead of man being created a perfect being six thousand years ago, so perfect that the greatest philosophers of the world are only fragments of his broken perfection, he started,—as you know very well, I believe,—not simply on the borders of the animal world, but beyond the borders. I believe that one chain of development of life connects us with the lowest and simplest particle of living matter on the borders, and in the midst of the ooze of some primeval sea millions of ages gone. There came a time when the human burst through the brutal in the page 14 face; when this creature stood on its feet, and said, "I am a man"; when he looked in the face of the sky, and thought of a power not himself; when he lifted up his hands in worship, and said, "God." And, from that time to this, he has climbed, until he says of himself now, "I am a son of God, and it does not yet appear what I shall be." He looks on and on, and sees no limit to his possible progress.
This new conception of man awakens a new conception of what it means to be saved. Man is not fallen. There is not a child in the common schools of America who has not the means in his hands of knowing that the whole story of Adam and Eve, of the garden of Eden, of being cast out, and of the earth being cursed by God, is an Oriental myth, born, so far as we can trace it, in the midst of a people that inhabited the valley of the Euphrates before Babylon was built, and thousands of years before the Hebrew people had an existence or a name.
As, then, man has not fallen, he does not need to be redeemed in the theological sense of the word. He does not need to be saved, in the theological sense of the word. There is no need of an incarnation; there is no need of a suffering God; there is no need or fear of endless hell. These are all crude, barbaric conceptions, born of these myths of the night, having no foundation in the rational thought of the scientific world.
The conception of salvation that we must hold to-day is not the old one of deliverance, but of growth, education,—not in the sense of crowding the brain with facts, but in the sense of leading out and developing all the possibilities latent in the individual and in society,—growth, leaving all the old ideas, gradually sloughing off that which clings to us from our former nature, and going up into and grasping that which is divine.
I do not wonder that men are startled, that men are afraid and tremble in the midst of changes so revolutionary as this. I do not wonder that these ideas make progress as slowly as they do. I only wonder that they grow as rapidly page 15 as in fact they do grow. Sometimes, we liberals allow ourselves to be discouraged at the slow progress of our thought. But there never was a religious movement on the face of the earth that grew so rapidly. It took Christianity, in its old form, over three hundred years to climb to the throne of the Caesars. In fifty years, the liberal thought of the world has made more progress than Christianity did in two centuries. Already, it has climbed to the intellectual throne not only of one people, but of all Europe and America, and of the civilized world. It is growing as rapidly as it is healthful that it should grow. I do not wonder that men shrink from these marked changes. I do not wonder that people are homesick in this wide, new universe, that, as it seems to them, is without father and without mother. No matter whether the change be good or bad, this love for the old must still abide and work in us. A new couple, husband and wife, build themselves a quiet, small home in an obscure part of the city when they are young and poor and are beginning their way in life. And here they live for years, until the whole house is redolent with perfumed memories of the experiences through which they have passed. By and by, they are prosperous, they are rich. Children have been born and grown up. The necessity of the home has widened and enlarged until the nest is too small, and there must be the building of a more comodious one. So they buy or build a grand new home on the square or on the avenue, and move out of the old into the new. Is it any wonder if the mother goes over the old house for the last time, and says, "In this room, those that I love so dearly were born. Here, night after night and week after week, I watched over the cradle of the little one that died so many years ago, and is thus the only little one that the growing years have not taken away from me; and here stood the son and daughter when they were married, and went away to build for themselves a new home"? And thus she passes through the halls and up the stairs and into each chamber, and in every nook and corner there are memories that tug at her heart and that bring tears to her eyes. And page 16 yet she knows perfectly well that the new home is a great deal better. It is a larger house and finer, and everything in it is an improvement on the old; but this does not touch and never will touch the fact that the old memories cling to the old home, and she will never be able to shake them off so long as she lives.
I do not wonder then that it is very hard for people to leave their religious ideas. God knows how hard it was for me to leave the thoughts of my childhood, the memories that I gained at my mother's knee, the prayers, the hymns, the thoughts of God and heaven, the dreams of the place where I believed my brothers had gone when they left me. I have no hard words to say for men who feel deeply the homesickness on leaving their old ideas, their old religious domicile, to go into the new. But yet, on the other hand,—and let me say it as forcibly and strongly as I can,—if a man is ever to make a step ahead, if he is to grow, if he is to become better, wiser, if the world is to advance, then these changes must be gone through with, and this homesickness must be borne. The chrysalis must be burst through and left behind. And I believe, in spite of these memories that tie us to the past, that we shall find in future years that to fly in the air is better than to lie quietly in the chrysalis. And I wish to record, as the result of my own experience, although it was a bitter process of years, that to-day I am unspeakably gladder and more hopeful both for myself and for the race than ever I was before.
It follows then that he who stands in the way of these changes, he who allows the sentiment and the feeling and the tenderness of his old associations to stand in the way and to block the progress of the world, is really committing a crime against God, against man, and against his own soul. Any one who clings to or attempts to create an orthodoxy,—I use this word in its most general significance,—whether it is an Orthodox orthodoxy or a Unitarian orthodoxy; whether it is a physician's orthodoxy in regard to the method of treating disease; whether it is a school-teacher's orthodoxy in regard page 17 to the education of children; whether it is a political or social orthodoxy,—any man who attempts to create and defend this hardening and stiffening process that shall forbid the world to grow and move and live is a traitor to man. He stands square in the way of progress, of growth, of any hope of the world's becoming larger and better in the years that are to come.
What is needed then, in order that the world may reach its noblest and its best? I believe the answer, in view of the line of thought that we have followed, and to which it is a fitting crown, is a simple one. This impulse, this desire to find that which is good, this purpose to come into right relations to the universe, this desire for human progression, is just as natural, just as ceaseless, just as eternal in its working in the human heart, as is the impulse of the heliotrope to turn to the sun from the darkness of the room where it is growing, as natural as it is for the rootlet of the flower to reach down and out after water and food. This impulse is eternal. What, then, does it need? It needs only one thing: it needs guidance, it needs light. The only thing needful to lift up and lead on the world is light. Men are ready to move: show them the way. They desire the perfect kingdom of God: where is the path that leads to it? If the time shall ever come when the world shall be agreed as to the answer to this question, men will march side by side, shoulder to shoulder, step by step, one vast army of progress, to take possession of the kingdom of God.
It needs then that religion bear in her hand the torch of knowledge; and that, with this torch to light her way, she dig down into the mines and quarries, and shape her blocks of eternal truth and bring them up, and with them lay the foundations and build the walls of the coming city of God, which is the city of man on earth. Truth for foundation, truth for material with which to construct these walls; knowledge for master-builder, justice for square and to level; knowledge for light to shine in it; love for atmosphere to breathe,—this is the perfect city of God. And this is to be built— page 18 where? Here on earth. The old conception was that it was to descend by miracle from the sky. The new conception is that it is to rise from the ground.
"From God down out of heaven"
John saw "the city" fair
Descend in gorgeous vision,—
A city of the air.
By human labor founded
On rock-hewn truths below,
To God, up toward the heavens,
I see the city grow.