Religion: A Function or a Phase of Human Life?

A poetic approach to religion

But this only reminds us how, at one time, religious organization did actually control all the details of social activity with singular effectiveness and levied its tax, too, most emphatically. At a critical moment, Western Europe's future hung upon the veneration of the Teutonic tribes toward two traditions, the one religious, the other political and legal. The local Patri­archs of Rome, already in a position of leadership in the Western Church, which Christian tradition permitted them, seized the supreme opportunity of combining their spiritual prestige with the practical substance of the Ire penal political tradition.

But this resulted only in poisoning the vitals of the Church with the passions and ambitions of a growing and suppressed secular life, only gradually becoming conscious of its own distinct functions or powers; while at the same time the seeds were sown of a profound skepticism of the organic character and the divine origin of the Christian tradition, whose authority had never before been questioned in Christendom,

Resisted at every point by Roman power, secular civilization at length came more and more into possession of its consciousness and powers, though the rediscovery of the free development of antique civilization. Gradually the medieval scheme of society seemed paler and more unreal. The inadequacy of a religious imperialism became more and more obvious, its incapacity to footer to their normal height all the powers of which human nature is capable. The disillusion is still going on. The priest becomes less and less of a 'parson.' Clerical art, natural philosophy, political economy, prove too jejune for the full pulse of life. Strokes of ultramontane statecraft, social reforms led by preachers, the diplomacies of pulpit liberalism, the truly noble and self-effacing ventures of institutionalize and social service - they arrest attention, they touch the heart, they prevent the 'man-in-the-street' from utterly underrating the vitality of religion; but they simply do not prove to the modern world that which above all things they are yearning to prove that religion is a matter of permanent human interest. The attempted 'leadership' of the clergy really puts the seal upon their subjugation to secular domination.

There are people whose esthetic sense is satisfied with copies of Fra Angelico's frescoes. There are people who look forward eagerly to the next Church Social, and who enjoy art and science only as it passes through the mind of some kindly and thoughtful minister. The medieval countrysides flocked to see the miracle-plays; but Shakespeare was not yet born. Let us not too rashly pity and patronize, as Tennyson did, the 'sister' whose 'melodious days' we are to be so careful not to disturb with our deadly 'shadowed hints.' But, the rest of humanity needed and needs the Renaissance,-the direct contact with mundane nature and life. Sooner or later the clerical shoemaker will be forced to stick to his last. And then the crucial question will be, has he any last to stick to? What is left of religion after nature and earthly life have found their own freedom and their own discipline.


To say, as is so often said, that it is pernicious to draw a line between the sacred and the secular, since all life is sacred, simply confuses and postpones he issue. Nature, in herself, is conscious of no sacredness, and of no desecration. Desire, and venture, and curiosity, and even decency, do not naturally open their activities with prayer. 'Laborare est orare' is a very pretty sentiment, but commonly taken so seriously that people forget that it is a paradox once uttered by a Catholic mystic, St. Catherine of Siena. Normally, when people work and play, they give their whole attention to the matter in hand. It is only in moments of uncertainty and helplessness in the midst of endeavor, that the prayer slips in.

Secular humanism essentially is neither sacred nor accursed; it is not anticlerical; it is simply non-clerical and inevitable. Inevitably the poet sings, the lover loves, the warrior fights, the student thinks; yes, inevitably the Good Samaritan pours his oil and wine. Now at last we have religion to the wall. Even the Good Samaritan, as such, does not need a correct belief. And even yet, it is the more pertinent to ask: As the poet sings, as the Good Samaritan heals and helps, can we say too, that (with a similar pagan spontaneity) the Christian prays? Has the sacring of life its own faculty, its own organic function with its own freedom and limits, its own proper sphere of social development, and therefore its own background of organic tradition as the necessary condition of its progress? Is humanism legitimate as applied specifically to religion?

That great humanist, Matthew Arnold, gravely implied a negative when he said, in effect, that Poetry is likely to take the place of motive power that religion has hitherto occupied. Gathering up from the past the esthetic and moral elements of greatest beauty and permanency, the religion of the future will be simply the social expression, in creative forms, of the noblest aspirations and ideals of the race. Objective faith being doomed to die a gradual death, an enlightened interpretation of the Christian 'mythology' and traditions will touch the soul of humanity with an enduring appeal. Curiously enough, the Tubingen theology does not seem to have any but a rather depressing effect on Arnold's own muse. Hers is rather the note of the dirge than of the palinode.

Yet Matthew Arnold's theory presents one of the most inspiring substitutes for religion that has yet been prophesied. Still, in order perpetually to sustain the inspiration for this poetic­ didactic Neo-Catholicism, it would be necessary to preserve and colonize a remnant of actual traditionalists, as a picturesque and romantic group, like a Tuscan village or a Filipino section in an international exposition. Their pathetic rites and prayers would be a living ruin about which the cultured mythopoetic imagination could play. Thus a substitute for religion might prove to derive its main value from the background of the actual religion.

It is really important to inquire whether religion, with its naively objective beliefs, is an essential part of our nature. The ignoring or the suppressing of any function impoverishes or injures other functions. The contempt of the aesthetic tends to moral cruelty. The neglect of the moral nature eventually produces decadent art. Ours is a wonderful civilization, but what if there were one sphere of human interest which we were unwittingly crushing and mutilating? Our prevalent attitude toward religion certainly does not involve the recognition of it as a distinct and permanent department of life. When we enter into the contemplation of art, we suspend the logical faculty, in order to get the complete impression. When we botanize, we do not let the poetic impulse interfere. But when we go into an atmosphere laden with piety and adoration, we go there militantly as aesthetics or philosophers or psychologists. The more religious the atmosphere, the less religious we feel called upon to be, and the more detached and secularly upright.

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