Religion: A Function or a Phase of Human Life?

A poetic approach to religion

Suppose, with a view to determining how far organized religion may become a merely poetical-ethical, social force, which is presumably its only resource since it has proved its ineffi­ciency as the official arbiter of all human activity - suppose we cursorily survey the existing state of organized religion. Its varieties and contradictions might seem to promise disintegration. The desire for closer unity among certain Christian bodies might prove a solvent. Many of them contain, in their traditions, a decidedly negative element; that is to say, their position is determined by an attitude of reaction against some other aspect of religion. Might not this critical aspect develop further? Many of their clergy show a singular sensitiveness to current thought and sentiment, and a willingness to let the traditions to which they are formally committed remain in obscurity. These bodies often show much capacity of adaptation to conditions.

And yet among them there is a persistent strain of positive common tradition. They have ceased to try to explain why they are separate bodies, and merely accept it as a rather unfortunate fact; meanwhile in their plans for common action there is an undoubted tendency to emphasize those parts of positive tradition which they all share, and to make it the centre and motive of missionary propaganda.

But the most stubborn obstacle in the way of forming an irenic world. religion, is the persistence of the original form of Christian traditionalists, the most accurate name for which is Catholicism. At present it exposes several vulnerable points. First, it is not corporately united. Second, the largest body of its three divisions, the body which claims most insistently to represent the whole, seems to be at present committed to the more than dubious cause of religious imperialism. Third, the Catholic body which is most in harmony with Anglo-Saxon development is at present greatly hampered in presenting the whole claim of Christian traditionalism, on account of that large part of its constituency which is under the influence of negative traditions, Protestant or Liberal.

In the popular mind, Catholicism is associated with ultramontane objects and policies. Now the modern world is no more inherently anti-clerical than the poet or the Good Samaritan is; but it is determined not to be Catholicized if Catholicism brings Vaticanism with it. Romanism has marshalled the forces under its control so as to represent Catholicism as constantly attempting control over secular activities; eastern traditionalism, for the present, seems to be safely confined within racial lines. Anglicanism, which is unquestionably traditional in its faith and constitution, is nevertheless, for the sake of internal peace, practically forced, for some time to come, to suppress the full acknowledgment of its birthright. So that, for the present, the domination of public opinion in religious matters is divided between Liberalism and Romanism.

Certainly the present state of organized Christianity, taken as a whole, or in parts, hardly compels the public mind to regard it as a promising competitor for world-domination. So long as Christianity continues so to be presented to public opinion, either as a series of bewildered experiments, or as a hopelessly aggressive organization at liar with human nature, a considerable number of people will feel that existing religion hardly justifies the barriers it erects between common human sympathy and interests; and that the society of the future must find an interpretation of religion that will help human progress rather than impede it; enrich society, rather than cling, beggar-wise, to its skirts for a grudging recognition.

But one cannot have a modern world religion unless all the world goes in for it. Even if Christian traditionalism made no gains, and were satisfied, like Orthodox Judaism, merely to perpetuate itself, the mere persistence of traditional religion would be the one fatal bather. And with or without Roman championship, independent of ecclesiastical policies, papal, anti-papal, or liberal-imperialistic; and irrespective of the limits of its evident spheres of influence, traditionalism is very much alive. The French know this, and have never been deceived by the fiction of social toleration. The French mind, having established its premises, leaps quickly to logical issues. Curiously enough, Anglo-Saxon attacks on religion charge it with interfering too little with secular matters. But both the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon critics are confronted with the vitality of organic religion; 'Its pernicious activity,' says the Latin; 'Its stubborn self-perpetuation in spite of social inefficiency,' says the American critic. Sometimes, it is interesting to remark, the support of religions organizations is presented as an economic problem; and if religion's only justification is direct and efficient and varied social service, it will logically become more and more evident that it is a waste of money and effort to support institutions which are mere perpetuations of religious tradition.

Yet just this fact of the persistence and vitality of tradition, is what prevents the fair-minded American secularist from passing judgment, as the fierce Latin secularist does. In so far as he is in earnest about all things human, he refuses to condemn utterly organized traditionalism. He says merely that it is alien to his habits of thought. But his mind is still open to the possibility that the soul may not be a disease, nor its cultivation a morbid practice, like drug-taking. And it remains for Christian Traditionalists to clear themselves once for all of the charge that they aim to use secular power for winning supremacy over all other human interests; and at the same time to differentiate religious culture sharply and to show that it has a liberty and authority, laws of protection and sanction peculiar to its own sphere of relationships; to bear witness, by their own fidelity, to the possibility that religious tradition may be, like legal tradition, organic and complex without being unreal; and repeatedly misused and misinterpreted without losing authority. So long as the hope of this survives, there will be dissenters from any experimental world-religion that may be attempted. And dissent, by hypothesis, would be fatal.


Are there facts to correspond with this conception of Religion? The fact is that Christian tradition was not developed by an oligarchy to the end of controlling political and social life. The originator, in the few words he spoke before his secular judge, clearly differentiated His Kingdom as 'not of this world,' and as clearly recognized secular power as having an authority of its own 'given to thee from above.' The 'greater sin' was not that of the secular power; it was the sin of the 'traditor' who delivered spiritual authority over to be abused by the secular power.

The spiritual King and His Kingdom existed in the world to 'bear witness to the truth.' This witness was committed by the One to the Twelve, and by the Twelve to many more, in an organic, institutional form. It grew more and more complex, as it answered question after question of thought and experience, through representative councils and common consent of all who with varying responsibility had received the witness. It cast out of itself doctrines inconsistent with the complete tradition, clearly differentiating itself men and more. It made laws and gave sanctions, it liberated and protected and disciplined devotion, and controlled all developments of intellectual inference in religious matters, by considerations of consistency with the whole tradition, and consistency with reason and experience.

And the man-in-the-street had his voice in the Catholic Church. He discussed the Two Natures while he shaved his customers in Alexandria He repudiated the illegal action of his bishops when they returned to the east after the Council of Florence. But his power was based upon his hearing the law of the Church, and maintaining it. His revolts were revolts against illegal action. It was his devotion that developed richness and variety in worship, his common sense that demanded doctrinal consistency, his speculations and ecstasies, often, that called for correction, restraint, and definition. And he exercised this liberty and privilege only on condition of his spiritual dependence upon the Tradition and the medium through which it reached him. He received from the Church all he was capable of receiving, and therefore what he gave to the Church was a constructive contribution.

This attitude, this spirit, still exists throughout organized Christianity, either latent or developed. Wherever there is Christian faith, there is the desire to learn, not so much what is the mind of the world, hut what is the mind of the Church. The present difficulty is to determine what the Church is, whether the Church has a mind of her own, and how she possesses it. And just here the Babel of voices from the world breaks in, and brings confusion. Leaders arise to 5terpret and 'reinterpret.' Perhaps the Church is merely 'the soul of the wide world dreaming on things to come'? All other spheres of human interest have their laws. Christianity, religion, is supposed to govern itself by 'principles' alone. Just this situation is what makes Roman claims so plausible to those spiritually minded men who, mark you, are not weaklings, but who, failing to see the weak spot in pragmatic views of life, defend their faith against modern pragmatism by entrenching themselves in a more venerable form of the same thing.

When the Renaissance set free the secular life of Western Europe, it was because a submerged world, a cosmos of law and proportion and relationship, had been rediscovered in the classic past. The artist, the philosopher, the merchant, the statesman, found the seed of their future glory and expansion in what had been the mere memory of shattered temples and gods thrown down. It was not that they enshrined the pagan gods once more, but that they found that Man in the past is the same as Man in the present. The very ambitions and desires and curiosities they felt within themselves, they found in ancient Greece fully developed and practically expressed; in Greece they saw the primary difficulties of art and thought and government met and overcome, and their fundamental laws established. To build upon the traditions of ancient civilization was simply an inevitable necessity. It was the only condition of progress, the only hope of liberation, and of productive discipline. Greece herself had built upon the traditions of Phoenicia and Egypt. And so, if religious faith should be a legitimate activity human nature, is the atmosphere of present-day empiricism its congenial element, any more than the magic, the alchemy, the cabalism of medievalism was a satisfying element for the inquiring intellect that at length found its normal atmosphere in the ample clearness of Greek thought and life?

If, now oppressed with the secular dogma that faith is a creative activity finding its true end in supplying motive and color and idealism to this present age, that it must produce by a mysterious alchemy a form of optimism to suit every changing condition; if, in the midst of an atmosphere that is haunted by dreams of an objectless faith, a motiveless morality, unblessed and unguided desire and curiosity, surrounded by a world of iron and senseless restrictions, and a great invisible Unknown whose possibilities are unknowable and therefore uninteresting, men should break their bonds and know themselves to be spiritual beings, with the power of believing, of fearing, of repenting and adoring; then they would naïvely expect that somewhere in the world there must be a human Way between God and man, trodden by many feet; and they would seek it, not in dreams, but in memories. And finding that lost Path through those memories, they would find nothing there to wither any of the glories Man or Nature have ever known. Rather the whole emancipated Man, like Jacob, would kneel where once he slept, saying, 'Surely, the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.'

We trust art to justify her usefulness; and art weaves her charms, and leads us to regions unmoral and unscientific; still we trust her, and at last she brings us back to the solid world of reality and experience, and we learn that art does not contradict truth, and that she actually in herself is productive. We trust science, and science leads us into cold regions of pitiless force; yet we trust her, and she too proves human and productive; but not until we have given her her liberty and submitted to her authority. We trust society, so full of frauds and follies and injustices; yet we trust her, and find that her customs and usages were built up for very necessary purposes. But we do not trust religion to justify herself; we give her little or no opportunity to prove her productiveness. We yield to religious influence as to some foible of which we are rather ashamed. We accept just so much religion as we judge to be helpful or inspiring, and then we are careful to isolate it from complication with other beliefs by defining and limiting it as our own private 'creed' which must be kept to the strictest simplicity, since the world's complexities demand all our attention. And so we know no more about what religion is than a medieval monk, penning grotesques around an initial, knew of the mind of Praxiteles. We do sometimes, as Arnold did in the ruins of the Grande Chartreuse, look wistfully through the bars that separate us from the Christian past. With poets and historians and psychologists, we patronize kindly the 'age of faith.' But we are not yet free. We are really afraid of faith, for we fear that if we come too much under her siren spell, she will so inhumanly devour and absorb our mental life as to make all other departments of life seem distorted or unreal. A scarlet night-hag haunts us, with a thumbscrew in her hand, and we turn away.

Our humanism is not yet complete; the full and final flower of the Renaissance is yet to bloom.

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