Religion: A Function or a Phase of Human Life?

A poetic approach to religion
I

Cecil Rhodes, the great Anglo-Saxon imperialist, who founded university scholarships in order to bring into closer touch with one another the possible future leaders of thought and culture in America and Great Britain, in said to have once remarked that the Church of England did not interest him. During the last general convention of a religious body in this country, while a discussion of Unction for the Sick was in progress, one of the deputies, an important man of affairs, arose and left the hall. The incident was at once seized upon by the public press, and commented on as a significant evidence of lay opinion on the subject discussed. The deputy was quoted as having said that such discussion was pure nonsense.

An English bishop lately watched a number of working-men file out of their shops, and stopping one of the more intelligent of them, inquired as to the sentiments of his class toward the Church. 'It don't touch us, sir, no more than the moon,' was the reply. This incident, also, has figured frequently is recent sermons and addresses to religious gatherings.

The accuracy or inaccuracy of these reported incidents does not affect the purpose of my allusion to them. What I wish to illustrate concerns rather the inferences such anecdotes commonly suggest to most modern-minded people, and the significant intention with which they are frequently quoted, and seldom without a sensitive response, especially in circles where religious problems are discussed. It is characteristic of the mental atmosphere that surrounds present-day religion, to sound notes of warning to organized religion, by quoting the opinions and sentiments of the active men of the world in regard to religious systems, doctrines, and methods. The phrase 'man-in-the-street' has a peculiar religious connotation. It suggests an ominous judicial being whose leisure moments, snatched in the midst of a life of clearly demonstrable productiveness, are sometimes spent in weighing all ecclesiasticism in the balance and finding it wanting as an asset to human society.

It is not that the man-in-the-street is arrogant. On the contrary, he is usually modest -a 'plain business man,' a 'common working-man,' a 'mere layman,' who merely betrays his distaste for various aspects of organized religion. But just for this reason his attitude is given vital importance. His indifference, or his distaste, or his humbly confessed inadequacy to see what it is all for, is urged upon the consideration of religious leaders as the pressing reason for a thorough reconstruction of religious teaching, methods, formularies.

II

Now Christianity would never have spread beyond Jerusalem, or Mohammedanism beyond Arabia, except by acting upon the assumption that the religious needs of the man-in-the-street were more important than his existing religious views, and that it was possible to bring his views into harmony with his needs. The religions that have been an actual force in human life have operated as communications assumed to have been delivered by God to man, to be preserved and propagated from man to man. This involves tradition, written or institutional, or both; and tradition is certain to become more and more complex, as the original communication interacts with the experience and thought of succeeding generations of believers. The more varied the thought and experience with which the believers come into contact, the more clearly defined will be the position of the belief they hold in common, sometimes involving very subtle distinctions, provided the communication survives the stress of thought and experience of many ages. Worship will become complex as well as doctrine; forms of devotional expression, and of reverence, will become varied. And all this will require the sanction and discipline of legislation, forbidding or permitting, so as to keep all the developments self consistent with the organic whole. Thus, after many centuries, a communicative or traditional religion will present a complex phenomenon which can be understood only by those who, in some sympathy with it, give it a thorough study. Its adherents, to avoid the danger of estrangement from it (and the whole assumption of a consistently traditional religion is that estrangement would be the gravest catastrophe to a believer), must preserve a receptive attitude of mind toward the whole tradition, for the sake of the importance of the original message. They must be willing to grant that the institution which has brought them the vital message they believe, and has for centuries treasured that message, knows more about their religious needs than they do. Fearing to be cut off from communication with the assumed source of the message, they believe and worship according to the law of the historical medium through which that message came to them.

But on the other hand, suppose that in some way the believer is detached from the influence of the organic tradition, its teachings and institutions, and yet habitually believes the original communication. Suppose he has come to regard his own judgment as the only guide in determining how the original message applies to him. He will naturally view the whole matter differently.

The way in which the message has' been preserved and transmitted to him seems to him an irrelevant consideration; the fact that the message has reached him is more important; and so, being a busy man, and confident of his own ability to decide his own religious problems, he makes a rough and ready application of the message to his own case, and devotes his main energies to solving the practical problems of his life in the world.

From this point of view, elaborate and complex religious institutions and doctrines will seem to be more or less cumbersome and useless, and the persistence of their effort to win influence will be irritating. Feeling more or less detached from them, yet still allied to them by his reverence for the original message they represent, he finds them constantly interfering with and contradicting his private interpretations, and demanding of him more attention to religion as a specific department of activity, than he deem necessary. Religious energy should be devoted rather to solving practical social problems, than to preserving and guarding its own heritages.

And something like this is the attitude of the modern man, whose sentiments are so frequently quoted, who is so often placed in the chair of judgment in religious matters. There is a curious analogy between his situation and that of the Roman Pontiff. The Pope for many centuries has regarded himself as responsible for the control and regulation of Christian society. Recognizing no true legitimacy in secular life unless arbitrated by religious authority, he finds his problem very complicated in modern times. Secular life is everywhere asserting independence of ecclesiastical control. At the same time the Papacy is dependent upon its own religious leadership for whatever political or social influence it is able to exert. The Papacy is therefore bound to foster and encourage the development of popular devotional life, whether or not it take forms consistent with traditional doctrine.

Modern conditions have brought about in the Roman communion an arrest of doctrinal development and consequent abnormal developments of devotional life. On an issue between popular cults and theologians, the Pope cannot afford to sacrifice his popularity to theology. Backed by the loyal support of the multitude of devotees, he is able to close, by his own word in favor of popular devotional cults, any questions that are likely to occasion discussion in scholastic circles, and to concentrate all the forces under his leadership for meeting the practical problem of 'secularism.' There is a real relation between His Holiness the leader of the cause of Italian emancipation, and His Holiness subsequently proclaiming the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and of Papal Infallibility. Pope Pius IX abandoned the national cause because its aspect of 'secularism' proved inevitable, and the forces of religion must be solidified to resist 'secularism' there and throughout Western Europe. The supreme issue which the Pope sees steadily throughout is political and social.

Religious devotion and doctrine are to him the indispensable though adjustable means to a supreme end the subjection of earthly kingdoms to the spiritual kingdom.

III

Fundamentally, the Papal and the Liberal theories as to the object of religion do not greatly differ: religion should be a direct agent in social progress and happiness, and it must act directly and effectively, or not at all. Both Rome and the modern semi-secularized Anglo-Saxon of to-day assume that religion is sterile if it does not directly and demonstrably make itself a force to be reckoned with in the world of all human activities. Both Rome and the modern man insist that it is a waste of time for traditional religion to preserve its self-consistency by constitutional methods. It must make the best it can of the past by some diplomatic and business-like measure that will combine forces in the best way, and deal wholly with the present. And it may be observed that many men of affairs express an admiration, however detached, for the effective methods of the Papal policy.

One advantage, however, which Rome has over the modern man, arises from Rome's long experience in dealing with Christian traditionalism. The modern man does not sufficiently reckon with religion as a permanent force; he is open to the suggestion that religion may die out. Rome stakes all her prospects upon the permanence of Christianity. She builds her power, however extraneously, upon the Christian faith, and it is only her social and political aims that have tempted her to tamper with the Christian traditions, and to attempt to deflect their development and suppress their normal constitutional methods of self-correction.

There are modern thinkers who have speculated on the possibility of combining various religious traditions. Rome has been too wise for this, in spite of all her statecraft. The Jesuits who attempted irenic methods with the Buddhists were promptly suppressed. Human experience is rather against all attempts to make peace between rival traditions. The status quo of the Temple of BaaI B'rith, where the worship of Baal and Jehovah was alike tolerated, did not last long.

There is a tendency to-day to erect the idea of universal religious toleration into the place of a supreme religious principle. Clearly the motive of this tendency has a certain generosity. It arises from the humane desire to unite all men closer together in social sympathy; it observes that religious differences are actual barriers to this common feeling of humanity. It therefore hopes for some way in which these strong convictions may be melted down, and the world united on certain beliefs common to all those who are socially productive. What modern-minded man has not had such a vision as this? But just here is a curious difficulty. The enthusiastic Tolerant soon finds himself in a position where he is logically bound to be intolerant. Making peace with one's neighbor in the present (religiously) involves either peace or war with past generations. It is just as difficult to tolerate all the religion of the present as it is to tolerate all the religion of the past. Sooner or later one is forced to take sides.

IV

There are those who point to the principle of religious toleration by the State as the harbinger of final social toleration of all 'productive' religion. But the very existence of religious antagonisms makes it necessary, albeit difficult, for the State to maintain this principle. At times the principle often gives way to a policy, under pressure of religious influence. This is especially evident in the sphere of education, where solid religious combinations sometimes gain quasi-recognition by the State. So long as religion is in any sense a force in society, and allowing for all social sympathies and amenities and policies and common interests, social toleration of religious differences is simply a contradiction in terms. England, Germany, and America are slow to admit this fact, but France and other Latin countries have long discovered that a permanent balance of opposing religious forces in society is unthinkable. The matter even enters into government programmes, certainly into social movements in Latin states.

With us, the State is undoubtedly on solid ground in refusing to decide what type of religion is best for society. Society is left free to work out the problem. And here is a curious and pertinent matter for remark: that the Stale is the only department of civilization which, by common consent, is denied this privilege. Litterateurs, scientists and scholars, sociologists, business men, labor leaders, philanthropists, all are lending their good offices to help determine what the world needs in religion, and, incidentally, what the world does not need, and are eagerly being listened to by many religious leaders. Unquestionably much of the testimony is such as laymen have always given freely in religious matters, but somehow to-day it is the opinions or judgments that are more eagerly looked for than before. The judge on his bench, the senator, the president, are much more reserved - possibly because they feel more responsible. Beyond the pragmatic judgment that religion ought to make good citizens, these officials do not venture. For the sake of its own untrammeled authority, the civil power overtly leaves religion to its own laws and its own wars.

Thus we see how closely related are authority and freedom of function. The citizen votes and sits on juries. But the voter is not given a chance to decide whether law and government are a failure. The juryman is not asked to append to his verdict a keen critique of judges, lawyers, and legal processes. He enjoys his franchise and exercises his jury-power on condition that he hears and abides by the law in the case. The legislators he elects are bound to make laws consistent with the whole body of legal tradition. Unjust legal traditions, flagrant misgovernment, do not in the least invalidate the authority of law, although they do cause skeptical contempt of authority. Resolutions and reforms justify themselves, at length, by actually restoring consistency and continuity with legal tradition. The appeal to past statutes is something more than a 'fiction,' as some clever writer has called it. It is the only condition of social sanity. For, if the seeds of justice are not to be found in immemorial institutions, there is no guaranty that stable justice is possible.

And so with art, with science, with education. The redress of the common man, duped by the meretricious and unjust guides or rulers, is in compel1't them to rule or teach consistently with the law of the tradition. Rebellion, or revolution, where it arises from social needs, really restores broken junctures with fundamental social tradition. Evolution itself insists that the true originator is he in whom the past bears its fruit, not he who requires the wreckage and the failure of the past as the background of his glory. That Shakespeare may shine, the laurels of Dante do not fade. Those periods when the ecclesiastic was made the arbiter of scientific problems produced bizarre science. It was the utilitarian moralist, posing as literary critic, who pronounced the famous judgment on Keats's poetry: 'This will never do.' The moment the mob disperses, and there is no longer need to explain or to assert that law and order are necessary, the judge goes back eagerly to his precedents and statutes; for the mob was simply the result of a previous neglect or abuse of precedents or statutes.

And so we come to our question: Can we apply the same principle to religion? The mob is muttering; a very respectable mob, it is true, and it mutters after a peaceable sore. For the sake of the ladies, whose sensibilities are to be considered, it 'aggravates' its voice, and roars you as gently as any sucking dove. Something is wrong with religious officialdom: it is 'too complex,' it 'has outlived its usefulness,' it 'needs re-adaptation to the times.' The threats of this estimable mob are not violent; the only red-cap it brandishes is a nightcap which it threatens to draw over its own ears, to the everlasting contempt of religion. But it is a formidable weapon. For this threatened sleep of the just, this calm, judicial indifference of the modern man, leaves organized religion shivering outside the splendid gates of civilization, starved out of all the good things that are to come with 'the parliament of Man, the federation of the World!'

V

Let us therefore, in such moments of grace as we are allowed, examine the grave charge against organized religion,—that it does not demonstrate its usefulness. Its usefulness to what, and to whom?

The popular scientist reminds us how ecclesiasticism has vainly attempted to restrain the progress of knowledge.

The business man points to the unedifyingly unbusinesslike methods of many churches in administering their affairs. The working-man says religion has done precious little toward industrial justice. The philanthropist stays away from Church and triumphantly proves that 'human uplift' does not depend upon religion. The educator shows how religious prepossessions limit the free development of the mind. The moral philosopher clearly proves that it is possible to develop an esoteric morality that is independent of the reward-and-punishment motives supplied by religion, and adds that the religious attitude of dependence limits abstract moral development.

All these charges are strangely based upon the assumption that organized religion, to justify its existence at all, ought to maintain a leadership of all activities of life, without levying any appreciable tax upon them. And since religious circles are observed trying very hard to accomplish this modern mission, and meeting with a very small degree of success in proportion to the output of energy, the popular inference is, that religion must be urged to make still more heroic efforts, if it is to maintain its footing. 'Hep, hop, keep step, Christian!' The tables are turned, and the liberal Rabbi occupies the pulpit to give godly counsel on Holy Cross Day.

VI

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.

VII

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.

VIII

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.

IX

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.

Presented by

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In