Tolstoi brings us face to face with religion. If we think of it, every personality we have considered has brought us subtly in contact with that ineluctable shape. It is strange: men seek to be, or to seem, atheists, agnostics, cynics, pessimists; at the core of all these things lurks religion. We may find it in Diderot's mighty enthusiasm, in Heine's passionate cries, in Ibsen's gigantic faith in the future, in Whitman's not less gigantic faith in the present. We see the same in the music-dramas of Wagner, in Zola's pathetic belief in a formula, in Morris's worship of an ideal past, in the aspirations of every Socialist who looks for the return of those barbarous times in which all men equally were fed and clothed and housed. The men who have most finely felt the pulse of the world, and have, in their turn, most effectively stirred its pulse, are religious men.
One is forced to ask oneself at last: How can I make clear to myself this vast and many-shaped religious element of life? It will not let me pass it by. Can Iwithout any attempt to theorize or to explainreduce it to some common denominator, so that I may at least gain the satisfaction that comes of the clear and harmonious presentation of a complex fact? When we have settled the question of the evolution of religion, another more fundamental question may still be asked: What is the nature of the impulse that underlies, and manifests itself in, that sun-worship, nature-worship, fetich-worship, ghost-worship, to which, with occasional appeal to the vast reservoir of sexual and filial love, we may succeed in reducing religious phenomena? On the one hand, this impulse must begin to develop at least as early as the earliest appearance of worship; on the other hand, we cannot ascertain its distinctive characters unless we also examine and compare its more specialized forms. What is there in common between the religious attitude of the child of to-day, enfranchized from creeds, and that of, let us say, Lao-tsze, the child of a day that is twenty-five centuries old; or between these and the far more primitive adoration of the Dravidian for his cattle? If the vague term “religion,” which, as commonly used, contains at least three elementsmoral, scientific, emotionalcovers any distinct and persistent human impulse, what is the nature and scope of that impulse? I wish to represent to myself, as precisely and as broadly as may be, man's religious relation.
When we look out into the universe we see a vast medium, the world, gradually merging itself indistinctly in a practical infinite, and in the centre a certain limited number of souls, souls like the theoretical atoms of the physicist, never under any circumstances touching. Let two souls approach ever so nearly, there is yet a subtle chasm, through which
“The unplumbed, salt, estranging sea”
still flows. These souls are made up essentially of mind and body. There can be no change of consciousness without a corresponding change in the vascular circulation. There can be no thrill of body in a soul without a correlated thrill of mind. Matter and mind in the soul are co-extensive. When we speak of the “spirit” as ruling the body, or as yielding to it, we are, it must be remembered, using a traditional method of speech which had its origin in a more primitive theory, just as we still speak of sun-rise. In the soul the spiritual can no more be subordinated to the material, strictly speaking, than in water the oxygen be subordinated to the hydrogen. The old dispute for supremacy between mind and matter no longer has any significance. Both matter and mind are in the end equally unknown: exeunt in mysterium.
The soul is born and then dies. What do we mean by birth and death? According to the old Hebrew conception a spirit was created out of nothing and put into a mould of matter, and then at death again passed back into nothing. But to-day this conception is impossible. Ex nihilo nihil fit. It is clear that both the elements that make up the soul must be, under some form, equally eternal. By a marvellous cosmic incident, our little planet has broken forth into a strange and beautiful efflorescence. We rise from the world, whom we are, on this variegated jet of organic life, to fall back again to our true life, by whatever unknown ways and under whatever change of form, conscious, it may be, but, as before birth, no longer with any self to be conscious of, no longer organic.
Now souls, although they always remain isolated, are acted upon by the world and by other souls, and when so acted upon they yield an emotional response. And for the present purpose these actions may be divided into two classes, corresponding to the two classes of sympathetic nerve fibresvaso-constrictor and vaso-dilatorwhich control the vascular system, the rougher daily contacts of life, which contract though they strengthen the soul with their legacy of strong desires and griefs, and the incomparably rarer contacts at which the soul for a while and in varying degrees expands with a glad sense of freedom. As every bodily change in the compacted soul is correlated with a mental change, these responses may be spoken of indifferently in mental or material terms. We know that they are on the bodily side vaso-motorial; that a thrill of joy is accompanied by a change in arterial tension, and we can therefore use this expression of the part as the symbol of the whole. It is this enlarged diastole of the soul that we call religion.
“The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one single individual,namely, to You.” From the religious standpoint this is essentially true. The soul is situated at the centre of the world, exposed to a practically infinite number of appeals, to which it is capable of yielding a practically infinite number of responses or initiations. Every moment a stream of influences is striking against the soul and producing a multitudinous stream of responses, new stops growing, as it were, beneath the player's touch. We know that for the most part the harsh and jarring discords predominate, that a soul that answers to the world's touch with a music that is ever large and harmonious, is so rare that we call it by some divine ideal word. Yet the field of the soul's liberation is a large one, whether we look at it on the physical or on the mental side. The simplest functions of physiological life may be its ministers. Everyone who is at all acquainted with the Persian mystics, knows how wine may be regarded as an instrument of religion. Indeed, in all countries and in all ages, some form of physical enlargementsinging, dancing, drinking, sexual excitementhas been intimately associated with worship. Even the momentary expansion of the soul in laughter is, to however slight an extent, a religious exercise. I do not fear to make this assertion; the expansions of the soul differ indefinitely in volume and quality. If this is but a low rung of the ladder along which pass the angels of our gladness, at the other end is that vision of divine self-sacrifice, so marked in the more highly developed religions, which has sustained through sorrow and defeat some of the world's loftiest spirits. They differ, as much as we will, in degree, but between them what hint by which to draw a line? Whenever an impulse from the world strikes against the organism, and the resultant is not discomfort or pain, not even the muscular contraction of strenuous manhood, but a joyous expansion or aspiration of the whole soulthere is religion. It is the infinite for which we hunger, and we ride gladly on every little wave that promises to bear us towards it.
When we try to classify the chief of these affections of the soul according to the impulses that arouse them, we find that they may be conveniently divided into four classes:(1.) Those caused by the liberation of impulses stored up in the soul. (2.) Those caused by impulses from other souls. (3.) Those caused by impulses from the world, as distinct from souls. (4.) Those caused by an intuition of union with the world.
(1.) Here we are, above all, concerned with art. It is not necessary here to distinguish between the emotion of the artist and that of him who merely follows the artist, passing his hand as it were over the other's work, and receiving, in a less degree it may be, the same emotion. We are all artists potentially. The secret of the charm of art is that it presents to us an external world which is manifestly of like nature with the soul. “Non merita nome di Creatore,” according to Tasso's saying, “se non Iddio ed il Poeta.” The work of artpoem, statue, musicsucceeds in being what every philosophy attempts to be. Neither change nor death can touch it; also it is immeasurable; we feel that we are in the presence of the infinite. No art has ever succeeded in embodying those visions of the infinite which are commonly regarded as specifically religiousso that even to-day we respond with a thrill of dilatationas the old fragmentary art of Egypt in the ruined temples of the Thebaid. Greek art, also, is a manifestation of the infinite; we may lose ourselves among those subtle curves of man's or woman's body. A Gothic cathedral of the thirteenth century is an embodiment of the infinite world itself. The soul responds expansively to all these things. When that response is wanting, and the art therefore, however interesting, is not religiousas in the art of Pompeii and the Italian post-Raphaelite artit will generally be found technically inferior. The subject, one may note, has little or nothing to do with the matter. A representation of God the Father rarely evokes any religious response. De Hooge, by means of mere sunlight and the rubbish of a back-yard, awakes in us an enlarging thrill of joy. In music the most indefinite and profound mysteries of the soul are revealed and placed outside us as a gracious and marvellous orb; the very secret of the soul is brought forth and set in the audible world. That is why no other art smites us with so powerfully religious an appeal as music; no other art tells us such old forgotten secrets about ourselves.
“O! what is this that knows the road I came?”
It is in the mightiest of all instincts, the primitive sexual traditions of the races before man was, that music is rooted.
There are perhaps two instincts, a motor and a sensory, lying at the bottom of art and the delight in art. All the constructive instincts of living things, from bees and ants and worms and birds upwards, have gone to mould our delight in the fashioning of a whole, and in the contemplation of its fashion. The same process was carried on into human life. The primitive potter who took clay and wrought with her hands, and dinted with her nails, the cup or pot or jar, wrought it through long ages ever more lovely and perfect, embodying therein all that she knew of the earth's uses and saw of its beauty, and by a true instinct she called her work a living creature. The baskets that early men wove, and the weapons that they carved for themselves, and their rhythmical cries in war-dance or worship, are part of a chain that presents itself again in Gothic cathedrals or Greek and Elizabethan dramas.
Even stronger than this motor instinct of art is the sensory delight in beauty which has its root in the attraction of sex. Not indeed the only root; all the things in the world that give light and heat and food and shelter and help gather around themselves some garment of loveliness, and so become the stuff of art; the sun and the reindeer are among the very first things to which men tried to give artistic expression. But the sexual instinct is more poignant and overmastering, more ancient than any as a source of beauty. Colour and song and strength and skillsuch are the impressions that male and female have graved on each other's hearts in their moments of most intense emotional exaltation. Their reflections have been thrown on the whole world. When the youth awakes to find a woman is beautiful, he finds, to his amazement, that the world also is beautiful. Who can say in what lowly organism was stored the first of those impressions of beauty, the reflections of sexual emotion, to which all creators of beautywhether in the form of the Venus of Milo, the Madonna di San Sisto, Chopin's music, Shelley's lyricscan always appeal, certain of response? One might name finally as the highest, most complex summit of art reached in our own timea summit on which art is revealed in its supreme religious formWagner's “Parsifal.” These things sprang from love, as surely as the world would have been wellnigh barren of beauty had the sexual method of reproduction never replaced all others. Beauty is the child of love; the world, at least all in it worth living for, was the creation of love.
Yet another art, more subtle and complex, has played a large part in the history of religionthe art of metaphysic. The savage finds religious gratification in the exercise of his coarser senses, in singing or dancing or drinking; the man of large and refined intellectual development, a Plato, a Spinoza, a Kant, finds it in philosophy. Such men, indeed, are few, but by force of intelligence they have been enabled to thrust their pictures of the world on inferior minds; their arts have become articles. But every man who has reached the stage of development in which he can truly experience the joy of the philosophic emotion will construct his own philosophy. A philosophy is the house of the mind, and no two philosophies can be alike because no two minds are alike. But the emotion is the same, the emotion of expansive joy in a house not built with hands, in which the soul has made for herself a large and harmonious dwelling.
(2.) It is true that souls remain for ever apart. The lover seeks to be absorbed altogether in the heaven of the loved personality, but in the end the heaven remains unsealed.
“Adfigunt avide corpus junguntque salivas oris et inspirant pressantes dentibus ora, nequiquam.”
And yet a large or lovely personality is not the less an outlook towards the infinite. We cannot think of certain men of immense range or power or sweetnessSt. Francis, Leonardo, Napoleon, Darwinwithout experiencing a movement of liberation. To pronounce the names of such men is of the nature of an act of worship. I cannot for a moment think of Shakespeare without a thrill of exultation at such gracious plenitude of power. No person, probably, ever made so ardent a personal appeal to men as Jesus. He discovered a whole new world of emotional life, a new expansion of joy, a kingdom in which slave and harlot took precedence of priest and king. To the men for whom that new emotional world was fresh and living, torture and shame and death counted as nothing beside so large a possession of inward gladness. The weakest and lowest became heroes and saints in the effort to guard a pearl of so great price. There are few more inspiring figures in the history of man than the white body of the slave-girl Blandina, that hung from the stake day after day with the beasts in the amphitheatre at Lyons, torn and bleeding, yet, instar generosi cujusdam athlet?, with the undying cry on her lips, Christiana sum! It is open to everyone to give liberating impulses to his fellows. It is the distinction of Jesus that he has, for us, permanently expanded the bounds of individuality. We all breathe deeper and freer because of that semi-ideal carpenter's son. “Fiat experimentum in corpore vili,” said the physician in the old story, by the bedside of a wretched patient. “Non est corpus tam vile pro quo mortuus est Christus,” unexpectedly returned the dying man. The charm of Jesus can never pass away when it is rightly apprehended.
But it is not alone the large mystery of exceptional personalities which calls out this response. To certain finely-tempered spirits no human thing is too mean to fail in making this emotional appeal. The chief religious significance of Walt Whitman lies in his revelation of the emotional value of the entire common human personality and all that belongs to it. The later Athenians (as also Goethe) placed above all things the harmonious development of the individual in its higher forms. It still remained to show the loveliness of the complete ordinary personality. Whitman's “Song of Myself” cannot in this respect be over-estimated.
(3.) There is a religion of science. It is rarer than has sometimes been supposed, and among men of science, probably, it is seldom found. Strauss's “Old Faith and New” is one of the chief attempts by a man of science to present the scientific attitude as food for the religious consciousness. The result is dreary in the extreme, in the end almost ludicrous. Herbert Spencer's attitude towards the Unknowable is a distinct though faint approximation to the religious relationship. Positivism, with its quasi-scientific notions, was founded on a curiously narrow conception of the nature of religion, and its religious sterility is probably inevitable. The man of science has little to do with magnificent generalizations; he is concerned chiefly with the patient investigation of details; it is but rarely that he feels called upon, like Kepler or Newton, for any emotional response to the grandeur and uniformity of law. Yet to many this vision of universal law has come as a light moving over chaos, a glad new discovery of the vastness and yet the homeliness of the world.
An ?sthetic emotion is not necessarily religious, even within the field of inanimate nature. So also the elusive tints, the subtle perfumes of things, so far from liberating the soul, may excite a tormenting desire to grasp and appropriate what is so lovely and so intangible. Still, there is a distinct class of emotions aroused by nature which is of the religious order. A large expanse of air or sea or undulating land, or the placid infinity of the star-lit sky, seems necessary to impart that enlarging and pacifying sense of nature alike to poets and peasants. Some sight or sound of nature, either habitually, or under some special conditions in the percipient, may strike upon the soul and liberate it at once from the bonds of commonplace actuality. Perhaps no modern man has better expressed the religious aspects of nature than Thoreau. Of the American wood-thrush Thoreau can rarely speak without using the language of religion. “All that was ripest and fairest in the wilderness and the wild man is preserved and transmitted to us in the strain of the wood-thrush Whenever a man hears it, he is young, and Nature is in her spring. Wherever he hears it, there is a new world and a free country, and the gates of heaven are not shut against him. Most other birds sing, from the level of my ordinary cheerful hours, a carol, but this bird never fails to speak to me out of an ether purer than that I breathe, of immortal vigour and beauty.” Generally, however, this emotion appears to be associated, not so much with isolated beautiful objects, as with great vistas in which beauty may scarcely inhere
And solitary places; where we taste
The pleasure of believing what we see
Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.”
It is indeed myself that I unconsciously project into the large and silent world around me; the exhilaration I feel is a glad sense of the vast new bounds of my nature. That is why, at the appearance of another human being, I sink back immediately into the limits of my own normal individuality. I am no longer conterminous with the world around me; I cannot absorb or control another individuality like my own. I become a self-conscious human being in the presence of another self-conscious human being.
(4.) The supreme expression of the religious consciousness lies always in an intuition of union with the world, under whatever abstract or concrete names the infinite not-self may be hidden. The perpetual annunciation of this union has ever been the chief gladness of life. It comes in the guise of a ?? of egoism, a complete renunciation of the limits of individualityof all the desires and aims that seem to converge in the single personalityand a joyous acceptance of what has generally seemed an immense external Will, now first dimly or clearly realized. In every age this intuition has found voicevoice that has often grown wild and incoherent with the torrent of expansive emotion that impelled it. It is this intuition which is the “emptiness” of Lao-tsze, the freedom from all aims that centre in self: “It is only by doing nothing that the kingdom can be made one's own.” This is the great good news of the Upanishads: the atman, the soul, may attain to a state of yoga, of union, with the supreme atman; free, henceforth, from doubts and desires which pass over it as water passes over the leaf of the lotus without wetting it; acting, henceforth, only as acts the potter's wheel when the potter has ceased to turn it: “If I know that my own body is not mine, and yet that the whole earth is mine, and again that it is both mine and thineno harm can happen then.” The Buddhist's Nirvana, whether interpreted as a state to be attained before or after death, has the same charm; it opens up the kingdom of the Universe to man; it offers to the finite a home in the infinite. This is the great assertion of Christ, “I and my Father are one;” and whenever Christianity has reached its highest expression, from Paul's day to our own, it has but sung over again the old refrain of joy at the “new birth” into eternal lifethe union, as it is said, of the soul through Christ with Goda tender Father, a great sustaining Power on which the soul may rest and be at peace:
“E la sua volontade nostra pace.”
And that again is but in another form the Sufiism of Jelal-ed-dinthe mystic union of the human bridegroom with the Divine Bride. Even the austere Imperial Stoic becomes lyrical as this intuition comes to him: “Everything is harmonious with me which is harmonious to thee, O Universe!” As far back as we can trace, the men of all races, each in his own way and with his own symbols, have raised this shout of exultation. There is no larger freedom for man.
It seemed well to name at least the chief implications contained in a broadly generalized statement of man's religious relation to the universe. It is important to remember that they are but an individual mode of representation. I can only say that I am conscious of myself in varying attitudes or relations. The terms of those relationships, stated with however much probability, will ever remain matter for dispute. Moreover, various attitudes reveal various metaphysical implications.
The scientific attitude, for example, has a series of implications of its own. In its solvents all things are analyzed and atomized; the “soul” of our religious worldthe vast pulsating centre, at the bottom of which, according to the profound saying of the old mystic, lies that unutterable sigh which we call Godis resolved into a momentary focus of ever-shifting rays of force; it is but an incident in a huge evolution of shifting forces which we may, if we like, personify as Nature, but which, none the less, we cannot conceive as a whole. The scientific attitude has its own implications, and their far-reaching significance, their immense value for the individual and for the race, can scarcely be overrated.
Again, the moral attitude is equally distinct. The criminal after a successful piece of villainy may feel a thrill of ecstasy. It is indeed well known that criminals in every country are the children of (more or less superstitious) religion. We may regard morality as grounded in the sense of personality, gradually extending by imagination and sympathy to every individual. Or we may regard it as springing, in a sense of adhesiveness, from the family and resulting relationships, and thence growing into a consciousness of the oneness of all human interests, the individuals finding themselves to be, according to that Stoic conception which has moulded European laws and is still a leavening influence in European ethics, members one with another in the same natural body of humanity. In any case, as a moral being the individual finds himself dependent on other individuals, and with a duty, therefore, laid upon him to live harmoniously with those individuals; there being no response forthcoming to the demands of his own nature unless he also responds to the demands of other natures. Religion, however, knows nothing of the scientific “nature” or of the ethical “man;” its impulse is from within and of free grace.
At the dawn of civilization, it is true, religion and morals are inextricably mingled; they only become disentangled by a gradual evolution. The Toda who regards as sacred an ancient cattle-bell is obeying an impulse of adoration whose foundation is, probably, largely ethical, for the bull is intimately connected with the beginnings of civilization. A religious impulse will sometimes have an ethical element; morals will sometimes find an ally in religion. But religion with its internal criterion and morals with its more external criterion remain essentially distinct, sometimes antagonistic: “to reject religion,” Thoreau said, “is the first step towards moral excellence.” That is but a puny religion that is based on morals; on the other hand, the morals that rests on religion will sooner or later collapse with it in a common ruin. That has been too often seen. Religions change: every man is free to have his own, or to have none. No man, scarcely even a Crusoe, is free to have no morals, and the ideal morality cannot widely vary for any two societies.
Yet religion cannot live nobly without science or without morals. It is only by a strenuous devotion to science, by a perpetual reference to the moral structure of life, that religionso made conscious of its nature and its limitscan be rendered healthful.
“None can usurp this height
But those to whom the miseries of the world
Are misery, and will not let them rest;”
so spake Moneta to Keats, among all English poets the purest artist.
A man takes sides with religion, or with science, or with morals; oftener he spends the brief moments of his existence in self-preservation, fighting now on one side, now on the other. But for a little while we are allowed to enter the house of life and to gather around its fire. Why pull each other's hair and pinch each other's arms like naughty children? Well would it be to warm ourselves at the fire together, to clasp hands, to gain all the joy that comes of comradeship, before we are called out, each of us, into the dark, alone.
The other elements fall away from religion, leaving the emotional, deeper and more fundamental than either of the others; just as the brain itself is controlled by the sympathetic system which outlives it and holds in its hands the centres of life. That element underlay the crude imaginings of the primitive man who first created a spiritual world out of the stuff of his dreams and his primitive delight in the most marvellous object he saw, the sun, that as he truly divined is the source not only of light but of life; just as it underlies also our more complex imaginings to-day. In religion, we are appealing not to any narrow or superficial element of the man, but to something which is more primitive than the intellectual efflorescence of the brain, the central fire of life itself.
Our supreme business in lifenot as we made it, but as it was made for us when the world beganis to carry and to pass on as we received it, or better, the sacred lamp of organic being that we bear within us. Science and morals are subservient to the reproductive activity; that is why they are so imperative. The rest is what we will, play, art, consolationin one word, religion. If religion is not science or morals, it is the sum of the unfettered expansive impulses of our being. Life has been defined as, even physically and chemically, a tension. All our lives long we are struggling against that tension, but we can truly escape from it only by escaping from life itself. Religion is the stretching forth of our hands toward the illimitable. It is an intuition of the final deliverance, a half-way house on the road to that City which we name mysteriously Death.
THE WALTER SCOTT PRESS, NEWCASTLE-ON-TYNE.