Religion and Dogma
The Religious Consciousness in HistoryThe Description of Religious Experience
The great rational religions are the outcome of the emergence of a religious consciousness which is universal, as distinguished from tribal, or even social. Because it is universal, it introduces the note of solitariness. Religion is what the individual does with his solitariness.
The reason of this connection between universality and solitariness is that universality is a disconnection from immediate surroundings. It is an endeavour to fine something permanent and intelligible by which to interpret the confusion of immediate detail.
This element of detachment in religion is more particularly exhibited in the great reflective books of the Old Testament. In this group of books we find a conscious search after general principles. In other books, current ideas are assumed and are applied to the troubles of what was then the immediate present. Such books exemplify the state of thought of their times as in controversy, but they do not exhibit a process of reflective formation.
In the reflective books the effort is not to reform society, or even to express religious emotion. There is a self-conscious endeavour to apprehend some general principles.
In the book of Job we find the picture of a man suffering from an almost fantastic array of the evils characteristic of his times. He is tearing to pieces the sophism that all is for the best in the best of possible worlds, and that the justice of God is beautifully evident in everything that happens. The essence of the book of Job is the contrast of a general principle, or dogma, and the particular circumstances to which it should apply. There is also throughout the book the undercurrent of fear lest an old-fashioned tribal god might take offence at this rational criticism.
No religion which faces facts can minimize the evil in the world, not merely the moral evil, but the pain and the suffering. The book of Job is the revolt against the facile solution, so esteemed by fortunate people, that the sufferer is the evil person.
Both the great religions, Christianity and Buddhism, have their separate set of dogmas which deal with this great question. It is in respect to the problem of evil that one great divergence between them exists. Buddhism finds evil essential in the very nature of the world of physical and emotional experience. The wisdom which it inculcates is, therefore, so to conduct life as to gain a release from the individual personality which is the vehicle for such experience. The Gospel which it preaches is the method by which this release can be obtained.
One metaphysical fact about the nature of things which is presupposes is that this release is not to be obtained by mere physical death. Buddhism is the most colossal example in history of applied metaphysics.
Christianity took the opposite road. It has always been a religion seeking a metaphysic, in contrast to Buddhism which is a metaphysic generating a religion. The defect of a metaphysical system is the very fact that it is a neat little system of thought, which thereby over- simplifies its expression of the world. Christianity has, in its historical development, struggled with another difficulty, namely, the fact that it has no clear-cut separation from the crude fancies of the older tribal religions.
But Christianity has one advantage. It is difficult to develop Buddhism, because Buddhism starts with a clear metaphysical notion and with the doctrines which flow from it. Christianity has retained the easy power of development. It starts with a tremendous notion about the world. But this notion is not derived from a metaphysical doctrine, but from our comprehension of the sayings and actions of certain supreme lives. It is the genius of the religion to point at the facts and ask for the their systematic interpretation. In the Sermon on the Mount, in the Parables, and in their accounts of Christ, the Gospels exhibit a tremendous fact. The doctrine may, or may not, lie on the surface. But what is primary is the religious fact. The Buddha left a tremendous doctrine. The historical facts about him are subsidiary to the doctrine.
In respect to its treatment of evil, Christianity is, therefore, less clear in its metaphysical ideas, but more inclusive of the facts. In the first place, it admits the evil as inherent throughout the world. But it holds that such evil is not the necessary outcome of the very fact of individual personality. It derives the evil from the contingent fact of the actual course of events; it thus allows of an ideal as conceivable in terms of what is actual.
Christianity, like Buddhism, preaches a doctrine of escape. It proclaims a doctrine life is placed on a finer level. It overcomes evil with good. Buddhism makes itself probable by referring to its metaphysical theory. Christianity makes itself probable by referring to supreme religious moments in history.
Thus in respect to this crucial question of evil, Buddhism and Christianity are in entirely different attitudes in respect to doctrines. Buddhism starts with the elucidatory dogmas; Christianity starts with the elucidatory facts.
The problem of evil is only one among the interests of rational religious thought. Another is the search after wisdom. In the Book of Proverbs, in Ecclesiastes, and among the books of the Apocrypha, in the Wisdom of Solomon, and in Ecclesiasticus, we find the record of the reflection upon general principles embodied in proverbs, reflective, witty, and homely.
The search after wisdom has its origin in generalizations from experience:
Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die:
Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with food convenient for me:
Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord?
or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain!
(Proverbs xxx. 7,8,9.)
The habit of reading the more exciting denunciations of the prophets is apt to conceal from us the amount of detached, middle-class common sense, which also contributed to the religious tradition of the Jews> There is a keen appreciation of actual fact, even when the moral is not over-clear. For example:
I returned, and saw under the sun,
that the race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong,
neither yet bread to the wise,
nor yet riches to men of understanding,
nor yet favour to men of skill,
but time and chance happeneth to them all.
(Ecclesiastes ix. 11.)
These two quotations express incontestable general truths, verified by the cynical wisdom of ages; and yet they are religion at a very low temperature. The point, thus illustrated, is that a rational religion must not confine itself to moments of emotional excitement. It must find its verification at all temperatures. It must admit the wisdom of the golden mean, in its season and for those whom it can claim by right of possession; and it must admit "that time and chance happeneth to them all."
The collection of Psalms is not properly a reflective book. It is an expressive book. It expresses the emotions natural to states of mind hovering between a universal and a tribal religious conception. There is joy in the creative energy of a supreme ruler who is also a tribal champion. There is the glorification of power, magnificent and barbaric:
The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof,
the world, and they that dwell therein.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.
Magnificent literature! But there is no solution here of the difficulties which haunted Job. This worship of glory arising from power is not only dangerous: it arises from a barbaric conception of God. I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the bones of those slaughtered because of men intoxicated by its attraction. This view of the universe, in the guise of an Eastern empire ruled by a glorious tyrant, may have served as purpose. In its historical setting, it marks a religious ascent. The psalm quoted gives us its noblest expression. The other side comes out in the psalms expressing hate, psalms now generally withdrawn from public worship. The glorification of power has broken more hearts that it has healed.
Buddhism and Christianity find their origins respectively in two inspired moments of history: the life of the Buddha, and the life of Christ. The Buddha gave his doctrine to enlighten the world. Christ gave his life. It is for Christians to discern the doctrine. Perhaps in the end the most valuable part of the doctrine of the Buddha is its interpretation of his life.
We do not possess a systematic detailed record of the life of Christ; but we do possess a peculiarly vivid record of the first response to it in the minds of the first group of his disciples after the lapse of some years, with their recollections, interpretations, and incipient formularizations.
What we find depicted is a thoroughgoing rationalization of the Jewish religion carried through with a boundless naivet? and motived by a first-hand intuition into the nature of things.
The reported sayings of Christ are not formularized thought. They are descriptions of direct insight. The ideas are in his mind as immediate pictures, and not as analysed in terms of abstract concepts. He sees intuitively the relations between good men and bad men; his expressions are not cast into the form of an analysis of the goodness and badness of man. His sayings are actions and not adjustments of concepts. He speaks in the lowest abstractions that language is capable of, if it is to be language at all and not the fact itself.
In the Sermon on the Mount, and in the Parables, there is no reasoning about the facts. They are seen with immeasurable innocence. Christ represents rationalism derived from direct intuition and divorced from dialectics.
The life of Christ is not an exhibition of over-ruling power. Its glory is for those who can discern it, and not for the world. Its power lies in its absence of force. It has the decisiveness of a supreme ideal, and that is why the history of the world divides at this point of time.
The dogmas of religion are the attempts to formulate in precise terms the truths disclosed in the religious experience of mankind. In exactly the same way the dogmas of physical science are the attempts to formulate in precise terms the truths disclosed in the sense- peception of mankind.
In the previous section we have been considering religious experience in the concrete; we have now to define its general character. Some general descriptions of religion were given in the former lecture. It was stated that "Religion is force of belief cleansing the inward parts"; and again, that "Religion is the art and theory of the internal life of man, so far as it depends on the man himself, and on what s permanent in the nature of things": and again, "Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness."
This point of the origin of rational religion in solitariness is fundamental. Religion is founded on the concurrence of three allied concepts in one moment of self-consciousness, concepts whose separate relationships to fact and whose mutual relations to each other are only to be settled jointly by some direct intuition into the ultimate character of the universe.
These concepts are:
1. That of the value of an individual for itself.
2. That of the value of the diverse individuals of the world for each other.
3. That of the value of the objective world which is a community derivative from the interrelations of its component individuals, and also necessary for the existence of each of these individuals.
The moment of religious consciousness starts from self-valuation, but it broadens into the concept of the world as a realm of adjusted values, mutually intensifying or mutually destructive. The intuition into the actual world gives a particular definite content to the bare notion of a principle determining the grading of values. It also exhibits emotions, purposes, and physical conditions, as subservient factors in the emergence of value.
In its solitariness the spirit asks, What, in the way of value, is the attainment of life? And it can find no such value till it has merged its individual claim with that of the objective universe. Religion is world-loyalty.
The spirit at once surrenders itself to this universal claim and appropriates it for itself. So far as it is dominated by religious experience, life is conditioned by this formative principle, equally individual and general, equally actual and beyond completed act, equally compelling recognition and permissive of disregard.
This principle is not a dogmatic formulation, but the intuition of immediate occasions as failing for succeeding in reference to the ideal relevant to them. There is a rightness attained or missed, with more or less completeness of attainment or omission.
This is a revelation of character, apprehended as we apprehend the characters of our friends. But in this case it is an apprehension of character permanently inherent in the nature of things.
There is a large concurrence in the negative doctrine that this religious experience does not include any direct intuition of a definite person, or individual. It is a character of permanent rightness, whose inherence in the nature of things modifies both efficient and final cause, so that the one conforms to harmonious conditions, and the other contrasts itself with an harmonious ideal. The harmony in the actual world is conformity with the character.
It is not true that every individual item of the universe conforms to this character in every detail. There will be some measure of conformity and some measure of diversity. The whole intuition of conformity and diversity forms the contrast which that item yields for the religious experience. So far as the conformity is incomplete, there is evil in the world.
The evidence for the assertion of general, though not universal, concurrence in the doctrine of no direct vision of a personal God, can only be found by a consideration of the religious thought in the civilized world. Here the sources of the evidence can only be indicated.
Throughout India and China religions thought, so far as it has been interpreted in precise form, disclaims the intuition of any ultimate personality substantial to the universe. This is true for Confucian philosophy. There may be personal embodiments, but the substratum is impersonal.
Christian theology has also, in the main, adopted the position that there is no direct intuition of such an ultimate personal substratum for the world. It maintains the doctrine of the existence of a personal God as a truth, but holds that our belief in it is based upon inference. Most theologians hold that this inference is sufficiently obvious to be made by all men upon the basis of their individual personal experience. But, be this as it may, it is an inference and not a direct intuition. This is the general doctrine of those traditionalist churches which more especially claim the title of Catholic; and contrary doctrines have, I believe, been officially condemned by the Roman Catholic Church: for example, the religious philosophy of Rosmini.
Greek thought, when it began to scrutinize the traditional cults, took the same line. In some form or other all attempts to formulate the doctrines of a rational religion in ancient Greece took their stand upon the Pythagorean notion of a direct intuition of a righteousness in the nature of things, functioning as a condition, a critic, and an ideal. Divine personality was in the nature of an inference from the directly apprehended law of nature, so far as it was inferred. Of course, there were many cults of divine persons within the nature of things. The question in discussion concerns a divine person, substrate to the nature of things.
This question of the ultimate nature of direct religious experience is very fundamental to the religious situation of the modern world. In the first place, if you make religious experience to be the direct intuition of a personal being substrate to the universe, there is no widespread basis of agreement to appeal to. The main streams of religious thought start with direct contradictions to each other. For those who proceed in this way, and it is a usual form of modern appeal, there is only one hope-to supersede reason by emotion. Then you can prove anything, except to reasonable people. But reason is the safeguard of the objectivity of religion: it secures for it the general coherence denied to hysteria.
Another objection against this appeal to such an intuition, merely experienced in exceptional moments, is that the intuition is thereby a function of those moments. Anything which explains the origin of such moments, in respect to their emotional accompaniments, can then fairly be taken to be an explanation of the intuition. Thus the intuition becomes a private psychological habit, and is without general evidential force. This is the psychological interpretation which is fatal to evidence unable to maintain itself at all emotional temperatures amid great variety of environment.
Here a distinction must be drawn. Intuitions may first emerge as distinguished in consciousness under exceptional circumstances. But when some distinct idea has been once experienced, or suggested, it should then have its own independence of irrelevancies. Thus we may not know some arithmetical truth, and require some exceptional help to detect it. But when known, arithmetic is a permanent possession. The psychological interpretation, assigning a merely personal significance, holds when objective validity is claimed for an intuition which is only experienced in a set of discrete circumstances of definite specific character. The intuition may be clearer under such circumstances, but it should not be confined to them.
The wisdom of the main stream of Christian theology in refusing to countenance the notion of a direct vision of a personal God is manifest. For there is no consensus. The subordinate gods of the unrationalized religions the religions of the heathen, as they are called are not to the point; and when the great rationalized religions are examined, the majority lies the other way. As soon, however, as it comes to a question of rational interpretation, numbers rapidly sink in importance. Reason mocks at majorities.
But there is a large consensus, on the part of those who have rationalized their outlook, in favour of the concept of a rightness in things, partially conformed to and partially disregarded. So far as there is conscious determination of actions, the attainment of this conformity is an ultimate premise by reference to which our choice of immediate ends is criticised and swayed. The rational satisfaction or dissatisfaction in respect to any particular happening depends upon an intuition which is capable of being universalized. This universalization of what is discerned in a particular instance is the appeal to a general character inherent in the nature of things.
This intuition is not the discernment of a form of words, but a type of character. It is characteristic of the learned mind to exalt words. Yet mothers can ponder many things in their hearts which their lips cannot express. These many things, which are thus known, constitute the ultimate religious evidence, beyond which there is no appeal.
The Quest of God
Today there is but one religious dogma in debate: What do you mean by "God"? And in this respect, today is like all its yesterdays. This is the fundamental religious dogma, and all other dogmas are subsidiary to it.
There are three main simple renderings of this concept before the world:
1. The Eastern Asiatic concept of an impersonal order to which the world conforms. This order is the self-ordering of the world; it is not the world obeying an imposed rule. The concept expresses the extreme doctrine of immanence.
2. The Semitic concept of a definite personal individual entity, whose existence is the one ultimate metaphysical fact, absolute and underivative, and who decreed and ordered the derivative existence which we call the actual world. This Semitic concept is the rationalization of the tribal gods of the earlier communal religions. It expresses the extreme doctrine of transcendence.
3. The Pantheistic concept of an entity to be described in the terms of the Semitic concept, except that the actual world is a phase within the complete fact which is this ultimate individual entity. The actual world, conceived apart from God, is unreal. Its only reality is God's reality. The actual world has the reality of being a partial description of what God is. But in itself it is merely a certain mutuality of "appearance," which is a phase of the being of God. This is the extreme doctrine of monism.
It will be noticed that the Eastern Asiatic concept and the Pantheistic concept invert each other. According to the former concept, when we speak of God we are saying something about the world; and according to the latter concept, when we speak of the world we are saying something about God.
The Semitic concept and the Eastern Asiatic concept are directly opposed to each other, and any mediation between them must lead to complexity of thought. It is evident that the Semitic concept can very easily pass over into the Pantheistic concept. In fact, the history of philosophical theology in various Mahometan countries such as Persia, for instance shows that this passage has often been effected.
The main difficulties which the Semitic concept has to struggle with are two in number. One of them is that it leaves God completely outside metaphysical rationalization. We know, according to it, that He is such a being as to design and create this universe, and there our knowledge stops. If we mean by his goodness of daily life. He is undeniably useful, because anything baffling can be ascribed to his direct decree.
The second difficulty of the concept is to get itself proved. The only possible proof would appear to be the "ontological proof" devised by Anselm, and revived by Descartes. According to this proof, the mere concept of such an entity allows us to infer its existence. Most philosophers and theologians reject this proof: for example, it is explicitly rejected by Cardinal Mercier in his Manual of Scholastic Philosophy.
Any proof which commences with the consideration of the character of the actual world cannot rise above the actuality of this world. It can only discover all the factors disclosed in the world as experienced. In other words, it may discover an immanent God, but not a God wholly transcendent. The difficulty can be put in this way: by considering the world we can find all the factors required by the total metaphysical situation; but we cannot discover anything not included in this totality of actual fact, and yet explanatory of it.
Christianity has not adopted any one of these clear alternatives. It has been true to its genius for keeping its metaphysics subordinate to the religious facts to which it appeals.
In the first place, it inherited the simple Semitic concept. All its founders naturally expressed themselves in those terms, and were addressing themselves to an audience who could only understand religion thus expressed.
But even here important qualifications have to be made. Christ himself introduces them. How far they were then new, or how far he is utilizing antecedent thoughts, is immaterial. The point is the decisive emphasis the notions receive in his teaching. The first point is the association of God with the Kingdom of Heaven, coupled with the explanation that "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you." The second point is the concept of God under the metaphor of a Father. The implications of this latter notion are expanded with moving insistence in the two Epistles by St. John, the author of the Gospel. To him we owe the phrase, "God is love."
Finally, in the Gospel of St. John, by the introduction of the doctrine of the Logos, a clear move is made towards the modification of the notion of the unequivocal personal unity of the Semitic God. Indeed, for most Christian Churches, the simple Semitic doctrine is now a heresy, both by reason of the modification of personal unity and also by the insistence on immanence.
The notion of immanence must be discriminated from that of omniscience. The Semitic God is omniscient; but, in addition to that, the Christian God is a factor in the universe. A few years ago a papyrus was found in an Egyptian tomb which proved to be an early Christian compilation called "The Sayings of Christ." Its exact authenticity and its exact authority do not concern us. I am quoting it as evidence of the mentality of many Christians in Egypt during the first few Christian centuries. At that date Egypt supplied the theological leaders of Christian thought. We find in these Logia of Christ the saying, "Cleave the wood, and I am there." This is merely one example of an emphatic assertion of immanence, and shows a serious divergence from the Semitic concept.
Immanence is a well-known modern doctrine. The points to be noticed are that it is implicit in various parts of the New Testament, and was explicit in the first theological epoch of Christianity. Christian theology was then Platonic; it followed John rather than Paul.
The modern world has lost God and is seeking him. The reason for the loss stretches far back in the history of Christianity. In respect to its doctrine of God the Church gradually returned to the Semitic concept, with the addition of the threefold personality. It is a concept which is clear, terrifying, and unprovable. It was supported by an unquestioned religious tradition. It was also supported by the conservative instinct of society, and by a history and a metaphysic both constructed expressly for that purpose. Moreover, to dissent was death.
On the whole, the Gospel of love was turned into a Gospel of fear. The Christian world was composed of terrified populations.
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge," said the Proverb (i. 7).
Yet this is an odd saying, if it be true that "God is love."
In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God,
and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ; says Paul.
Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord,
and from the glory of his power. (II Thessalonians i. 8, 9.)
The populations did well to be terrified at such ambiguous good tidings, which lost no emphasis in their promulgation.
If the modern world is to find God, it must find him through love and not through fear, with the help of John and not of Paul. Such a conclusion is true and represents a commonplace of modern thought. But it is only a very superficial rendering of the facts.
As a rebound from dogmatic intolerance, the simplicity of religious truth has been a favourite axiom of liberalizing theologians. It is difficult to understand upon what evidence this notion is based. In the physical world as science advances, we discern a complexity of interrelations. There is a certain simplicity of dominant ideas, but modern physics does not disclose a simple world.
To reduce religion to a few simple notions seems an arbitrary solution of the problem before us. It may be common sense; but is it true? In view of the horrors produced by bigotry, it is natural for sensitive thinkers to minimize religious dogmas. But such pragmatic reasons are dangerous guides.
This procedure ends by basing religion on those few ideas which in the circumstances of the time are most effective in producing pleasing emotions and agreeable conduct. If our trust is in the ultimate power of reason as a discipline for the discernment of truth, we have no right to impose such a priori conditions. All simplifications of religious dogma are shipwrecked upon the rock of the problem of evil.
As a particular application, we may believe that the various doctrines about God have not suffered chiefly from their complexity. They have represented extremes of simplicity, so far as they have been formulated for the great rationalistic religions. The three extremes of simple notions should not represent in our eyes mutually exclusive concepts, from among which we re to choose one and reject the others.
It cannot be true that contradictory notions can apply to the same fact. Thus reconcilement of these contrary concepts must be sought in a more searching analysis of the meaning of the terms in which they are phrased.
The man who refused to admit that two and two make four, until he knew what use was to be made of this premise, had some justification. At a certain abstract level of thought, such statements are absolutely true. But once you desert that level, you admit fundamental transformations of meaning. Language cloaks the most profound ideas under its simplest words. For example, in "two and two make four," the words "and" and "make" entirely depend for their meaning upon the application which you are giving to the statement.
Analogously, in expressing our conception of God, words such as "personal" and "impersonal," "entity," "individuality," "actual," require the closest careful watching, lest in different connections we should use them in different sense, not to speak of the danger o failing to use them in any determinate sense.
But it is impossible to fix the sense of fundamental terms except by reference to some definite metaphysical way of conceiving the most penetrating description of the universe.
Thus rational religion must have recourse to metaphysics for a scrutiny of its terms. At the same time it contributes its own independent evidence, which metaphysics must take account of in framing its description.
This mutual dependence is illustrated in all topics. For example, I have mentioned above that in modern Europe history and metaphysics have been constructed with the purpose of supporting the Semitic concept of God. To some extent this is justifiable, because both history and metaphysics must presuppose some canons by which to guide themselves.
The result is that you cannot confine any important reorganization to one sphere of thought above. You cannot shelter theology from science, or science from theology; nor can you shelter either of them from metaphysics, or metaphysics from either of them. There is no short cut to truth.
Religion, therefore, while in the framing of dogmas it must admit modifications from the complete circle of our knowledge, still brings its own contribution of immediate experience.
That contribution is in the first place the recognition that our existence is more than a succession of bare facts. We live in a common world of mutual adjustment, of intelligible relations, of valuations, of zest after purposes, of joy and grief, of interest concentrated on self, of interest directed beyond self, of short-time and long-time failures or successes, of different layers of feeling, of life-weariness and life-zest.
There is a quality of life which lies always beyond the mere fact of life; and when we include the quality in the fact, there is still omitted the quality of the quality. It is not true that the finer quality is the direct associate of obvious happiness or obvious pleasure. Religion is the direct apprehension that, beyond such happiness and such pleasure, there remains the function of what is actual and passing, that it contributes its quality as an immortal fact to the order which informs the world.
Lecture 1 - Religion in History
Lecture 2 - Religion and Dogma
Lecture 3 - Body and Spirit
Lecture 4 - Truth and Criticism
Editorial - Commentary and Resources