Significant Books of Religion

THEY are all in furtherance of expansion. Some, indeed, would expand religion to the point of vaporization; but this is an inevitable accompaniment of freedom. It belongs to that perfect liberty which carries with it the privilege of error and of folly. It means that truth is discovered by experiment, after a good many of the experiments have failed.

There is, of course, in the contemporary literature of religion a proper amount of cautious conservation. There are brethren who are both scandalized and scared. But the scared and scandalized theologians, for the most part, get their books printed in rather small quantities, and by publishers who have little more than a denominational constituency. They do not come to the table of the reviewer. The books of religion which are being widely read at present are of the liberal sort.

The difference between this situation and the attitude of our recent ancestors appears in Dr. Greene’s admirable monograph on The Development of Religious Liberty in Connecticut.1 The Cambridge Platform of 1648, dealing with the duties of the Civil Magistrate “in matters Ecclesiastical,” declared that the foremost duty of the state is to put down blasphemy, idolatry, and heresy. The magistrates were to advise with the elders in the trial of heretics, and in cases of condemnation were to remember that such offenders were “moral lepers for whose evil influence the community was responsible to God.”

This repressive legislation made no end of trouble not only for dissenters, but for the orthodox as well. The Established Order found itself in the position of a schoolmaster who has made a rule which contradicts human nature. He cannot enforce it. Human nature finds various ways whereby to evade him, or, failing that, defies him openly. Thus at Yale the New Lights persisted in disturbing the academic peace. The authorities expelled David Brainerd — now remembered as a missionary and a saint — for criticising the college prayers. They dismissed the Cleveland boys because in the vacation of 1744 they went to church with their parents, who were Separatists. They suppressed Locke’s essay Concerning Toleration, which the senior class had secretly printed at their own expense. But the New Lights were no more discouraged than the rising sun.

With much learning and insight into the meaning of events, with a lucid style and without prejudice, Dr. Greene has written a valuable religious history of Connecticut. The lesson — which she does not draw, but which is plain enough — is that repression of private opinion, even when such opinion is in error, is not for the advantage of religious truth. It makes faction and controversy, divides churches, embitters differences, destroys brotherly love, and, after all, does not gain its purpose. The argument of truth is not assisted by the courts. These troubles were ended for the moment by the Great Awakening. That religious revival changed the subject.

How religion prospers in the sunshine of such a spirit is shown by Professor Harnack in his Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries.2 He finds, indeed, that the organization of the Christian community had a great deal to do with it. It combined the two principles of individualism and association. Thus, in regard to every Christian, he was expected to save his soul, — the very formula of individualism, — while at the same time he was forbidden to forsake the assembly of his brethren. And in regard to the community, there was on the one hand the local parish with its presbyter, and on the other hand the territorial district with its bishop, each having its own independent prerogative. It was this combination, according to Dr. Harnack, which made the primitive Church such a power in the Empire. The primitive Church was at the same time Congregational, Presbyterian, and Episcopal.

Professor Harnack deals also with the doctrine of the early Christians. He discovers the “ sad passion for heresy-hunting” as early as the second century. “These people,” said Celsus, “utter all sorts of blasphemy, mentionable and unmentionable, against one another, nor will they give way in the smallest point for the sake of concord, hating each other with a perfect hatred.” At the same time, together with an endeavor after doctrinal uniformity, there was maintained a singular complexity of opposites. Some were for humbling the human understanding under the word of ecclesiastical authority; some held that Christianity was a system of philosophy, reasonable and lucid and eminently provable; some were mystics, for whom religion was a sacramental mystery whereby they entered into the immediate perception of God.

But the chief characteristic of the Christian religion in the time of its early expansion was its good, honest, helpful living. This was the convincing apologetic of the primitive Christians. They held the religion of the Spirit and of power, of moral earnestness and holiness; they preached and practiced the gospel of love and charity; they offered to save men both from sin and from sickness; they went about,like Christian Scientists, with gifts of healing. Professor Harnack does not mention Christian Science by name, but he has it in his mind when he remarks that the Founder of Christianity did not explain that sickness is health. There was nothing artificial or sentimental,he says, about Him. Nevertheless,he finds that the Christians made a great point of curing disease, and that they did it without medicine. He shows, how Christianity supplanted the cult of Æsculapius. It would have been a fair thing at this point to acknowledge that the Christian Scientists, whatever their errors, have returned to the primitive practice of Christianity, and that the extraordinary expansion of their sect in our time is an illustration of Dr. Harnack’s subject.

Some of the obstacles which lay in the way of the expansion of Christianity in the first three centuries are shown in Dr. Wright’s Cities of Paul,3 in Dr. Healy’s Valerian Persecution,4 and in Dr. Crapsey’s Religion and Politics.5 The old world, as Dr. Wright displays it in his interesting chapters, was very like the new. Even Ancyra, though it is most unlikely that St. Paul visited it, is abundantly illustrative of the fickle and superficial spirit of the times. The reader suspects that the dramatic properties of the place inclined the writer to look with favor on the North-Galatian theory, which is no longer in good standing among scholars. Tarsus, however, comes rightly enough into the book, and there Dr. Wright finds a colossal image of Sardanapalus snapping his stone fingers in the face of the world, saying, “Eat, drink, and be merry. Nothing else is worth that.,, This common sensuality was the most serious hindrance in the way of the true religion.

The persecutions were a lesser evil. How the Christians bore themselves under these tremendous onslaughts, how they successfully defied the Roman Empire, Dr. Crapsey and Dr. Healy make very plain. It is pleasant to read the two books side by side, and find them in substantial agreement in spite of the different positions of their authors. Dr. Healy’s book bears the imprimatur of a Catholic archbishop; Dr. Crapsey’s exposed him to the investigation of a diocesan committee appointed to examine his orthodoxy. The reader looks over Dr. Crapsey’s pages with a certain quickening of interest in consequence of being told that various sentences therein have a shocking sound in the ears of elderly persons; but these sentences are so incidental that they will not be discovered except by reading the book attentively. The cardinal difference between the professor in the Catholic university and the rector of the Rochester parish is that one confines himself entirely to the past, while the other brings the past into immediate relation with the present. Professor Healy is writing history, one of the most innocuous of occupations; but Rector Crapsey is writing sermons, taking his texts from history, — a perilous adventure.

Dr. Crapsey finds true religion in philosophy, and saints among men of science. He prefers Darwin to Dominic. The Church, he says, is discredited as a religious teacher because it persists in using a method which is now discarded in every other department of life. It insists that theological statements which are pronounced by ecclesiastical authority must be received without further question. The Church, he says, is our hopelessly old-fashioned great-grandmother, to be affectionately revered, but not to be seriously consulted as to our contemporary problems. It depends, however, on what Dr. Crapsey means when he speaks of “the Church.” That is a large name, and includes a great many different people, Dr. Crapsey himself being one of them. It is true that Tertullian said in the second century, “ What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy with the Church ? Now that Jesus Christ has come, no longer need we curiously inquire or even investigate, since the Gospel is preached. To be ignorant of everything outside the rule of faith is to possess all knowledge.” But Tertullian became a heretic, while men who proved all things died in the odor of sanctity. In the opinion of some very respectable scholars of old time, Athens was a suburb of Jerusalem, and the Academy was next door to the Church, and to be ignorant of everything outside the rule of faith was to be so ignorant as to misunderstand the rule of faith itself.

A great part of this philosophy, in which ancient fathers found divine inspiration, is presented by Dr. Gomperz, in his three volumes entitled Greek Thinkers.6 He begins with the earliest recorded reflections upon the universe, in the primitive cosmogonies, and passes in review the procession of intellectual discoverers and pioneers to the death of Plato. He finds in Hecatæus the first of the historical critics. This philosopher visited Thebes, carrying with him, perhaps by way of passport or introduction, his genealogical tree, which traced his family back some fifteen generations to a divine ancestor. The Thebans took him into the hall which contained the statues of the high priests of their city. There were three hundred and forty-five of them, in hereditary order, father and son, each done from life, not one of whom had been either a god or a demigod. “He must have felt,” says Dr. Gomperz, “as if the roof of the hall in which he stood had been lifted high above his head, and had narrowed the dome of heaven. The region of human history stretched before him in infinite, and the field of divine intervention was diminished in proportion. Gods and heroes, he perceived, could not possibly have taken part in such events as the Trojan War or the expedition of the Argonauts, to which indisputable history assigned a comparatively recent date. Things must have occurred in these circumstances much as they occur at present. The canons of the possible, the natural, and therefore of the credible, had to be applied to the events of an age which had formerly been the playground of supernaturalism and miracles.” Thereupon, Hecatæus put his family tree in the fire, and went home to rewrite history. Geryon, he said, with whom Hercules fought, was a plain king in the northwest of Hellas, having only the conventional number of heads. Cerberus was a large snake which once inhabited the Laconian promontory of Tænarum. And so forth. Thus the higher criticism began.

Professor Gomperz gives a volume and a half to Plato, and deals in technical detail with the earlier philosophers, but it is all made abundantly interesting to the ordinary reader. There is a constant human touch, a personal concern for the men who published their deep thoughts, and for the places and circumstances in which they lived, and for their relation to our present life, which is both edifying and delightful.

The temple roof is high-pitched in Mr. Santayana’s Reason in Religion, but the reader soon finds, like old Hecatæus, that it has taken the place of the sky. Dr. Adler tells how St. Sebald, being summoned to minister to a poor family in the dead of winter, found them starving and freezing; whereupon he broke off an armful of stout icicles from the eaves, put them in the grate, blew a warm breath upon them, set them to blazing, and upon the fire thus kindled cooked a supper. But Mr. Santayana’s cold facts do not burn. There is no heat. He shows, indeed, a momentary glimmer of flame when he remarks that any one who entertains the idea that religion contains a literal representation of truth and life has not come within the region of profitable philosophizing on the subject. “His certitudes and his arguments,” he says, “are no more pertinent to the religious question than would be the insults, blows, and murders to which, if he could, he would appeal in the next instance.” But this warms neither the hands nor the heart.

This book is one of a series of five volumes on The Life of Reason.7 They are very cleverly written. The reader, however much he may dissent, goes on reading. Every page is suggestive, though often the suggestion moves to an inquiry rather than to an affirmation. Is it true, for instance, that the Hebrew mind makes use of metaphor, but that the Greek mind, perplexed by metaphor, translates it into metamorphosis ? and is this the source of the doctrine of transubstantiation ? So long as Mr. Santayana is concerned with matters with which he is sympathetically acquainted, his philosophizing is profitable. The volumes on Art and Society are excellent. But his discussion of Religion calls to mind the theory that no heretic has ever been condemned for heresy; the men who have been condemned have always been thus sentenced, not in form, but in fact, for being disagreeable.

It is likely that Mr. Dickinson, who writes on Religion : a Criticism and a Forecast,8 would find himself in general agreement with Mr. Santayana. Both of them define religion in terms of imagination, and make it a poetic interpretation of experience. Both assert that the truths which it maintains are symbolically rather than literally true. But Mr. Dickinson is in earnest. He is desirous of claiming for himself and his fellow thinkers a place in the household of faith. This and that, and a good deal, he cannot believe; but faith, he holds, is not a creed, but a certain attitude toward life, — “the attitude of a man who, while candidly recognizing that he does not know, and faithfully pursuing or awaiting knowledge, and ready to accept it when it comes, yet centres meanwhile his emotional and therefore his practical life about a possibility which he selects because of its value, its desirability.” This, he says, “keeps the horizon open.” “Faith is the sense and the call of the open horizon.”

The heart, even of the orthodox, goes out to such a man as this, desiring to know the way of God more perfectly. So it is with the anonymous author of The Creed of Christ.9 He is a religious man dealing with religion. He believes that Christ has been grievously misinterpreted, so that Christianity has come to stand in large part for the very things which Christ, when he was here, contradicted. Pharisaism, for example, the idea of an external obedience as man’s part in a covenant with God, to be maintained for the sake of a reward, — this, he says, was what Christ hated. “The idea of a covenant between God and Man, when kept (as poetry keeps it) in the region of natural law, is sternly grand and fundamentally true; but when the vitalizing influence of poetry ceases to be felt, and the letter of the Law which God is supposed to have given to Man comes to be regarded as divine, the idea degenerates into the most soulless of all conceptions, that of a commercial bargain.” This, he says, in the days of the scribes, had killed freedom, conscience, and imagination. And all this, against which Christ had so protested that the system crucified him in self-defense, came back into the Christian Church. “ By the time the Church had been fully organized, the whole diameter of thought separated Christianity from the mind of Christ. Everything that Christ hated most had been accepted, systematized, and authoritatively taught. The central idea of Israel’s creed, that of salvation by machinery, had won a complete and apparently final triumph over the central idea of Christ’s creed, that of salvation by spiritual growth. The false dualism of the Old Testament — its total separation of the supernatural from Nature, of Heaven from earth, of God from Man — had become the basis of the philosophy of Christendom.” The book ends with a prophecy of “final triumph,” in which the supernatural world, as distinguished from the natural, shall fade “like the cloud - mountains of a summer day.” Then Christ “will have entered into the possession of his kingdom; the idea of the Incarnation will have fully disclosed its inner meaning; and the restoration of God to Nature will be complete.”

This is somewhat alarming to the quiet reader, and seems to portend a general and unpleasant overturning of foundations, but a second reading shows that there is a great amount of salutary truth in it. The actual difference between the Jewish expectation of the Messiah and the realization of it in the person of Jesus Christ is set forth soberly in Professor Shailer Mathew’s admirable study of The Messianic Hope in the New Testament.10 The Pharisees did look for very much the sort of Messiah that is reprobated in the Creed of Christ, but the Messianic Idea was not arbitrarily attached to Jesus; he laid claim to it with all plainness. At the same time, as Professor Mathews shows, he dealt with it as he dealt with the law and the prophets, taking part and leaving part, and bringing in new meanings. The connection of Christ with the Old Testament, which some modern thinkers would sever as with a knife, is here considered with all critical freedom, and yet with insight and appreciation.

As for that fading away of the supernatural for which the Creed of Christ looks with eagerness, the meaning of it is contained in Professor Bowne’s essay on The Immanence of God.11 There it is admirably stated by a Christian scholar. The book contains no new contribution to thought on this subject, but that is not its purpose. It puts the whole matter in a clear, popular way on the level of the general understanding. This is a praiseworthy service, for in this theme is the heart of all the present controversies. The change of thought about the miraculous in nature and in Scripture is in the doctrine of the immanence of God. “By this we mean that God is the omnipresent ground of all finite existence and activity.” The old idea was that there are two forces at work in the world, one represented by the word Nature, the other by the word God. These two were quite distinct, so much so that wherever an event was adequately accounted for by natural causes, it was thereby removed from the activity of God. The regular course of life was natural, the irregular, the mysterious, the unknown, was divine. Only by such interference with nature, only by breaking through nature, did God manifest himself to man.

Such a belief made all discussion of the miraculous a nervous business. For every event which was taken out of the range of the unexplainable over into the range of the natural law was taken away from God. God was being gradually exiled from the world. This belief, however, was the result of a wholly needless and entirely irrational distinction between God and nature. There is no such distinction. The natural routine of the world is the expression of the will of God. It is all an act of the constant purpose of God. What is going on, therefore, at this moment, in religion, is a taking over of nature into the supernatural, that is, into the divine order. This is the supreme extension of religion.

“The source of all religion in the human heart,” said Professor Max Müller, “is the perception of the Infinite, the yearning of the soul after God.” And “this sense of the infinite,” says Dr. Hall, in his Barrows Lectures, is from the Infinite. Our yearning for God is from God. This is the ground on which he would base all the science of religion. The title of Dr. Hall’s book, Christian Belief Interpreted by Christian Experience,12 represents the difference between his position and that of a detached philosophy. The initial requisite for an understanding of religion is a religious experience. Dr. Hall was asked to interpret Christianity to the Oriental mind. He traveled about among the universities of the East giving these lectures. Such an audience demanded great simplicity, because the course was brief, but at the same time great frankness, sincere respect for differences of opinion, and an appeal to reason. The lecturer showed these qualities in a clear style, an unfailing courtesy and consideration, and a purpose to set forth Christianity in its profound agreement with the desires and interests of our best nature. This young religion, he says, stands amidst the ancient faith of India and China as the child Jesus stood in the temple among the doctors. The lecturer, too, comes from the youngest of the nations. This, at once, dismisses all idea of controversy. What he asks is not philosophical surrender, but “philosophical adjustment.” Thus he proceeds to discuss the Christian idea of God, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Supreme Manifestation of God, and the ideas of holiness and immortality. These he commends to attention because they have been proved by experience. Have you not been taught them by your fathers ? Does not your own nature respond to them with instinctive agreement ?

This appeal to instinct and experience is clear and convincing in such books of practical ethics as Dr. Adler’s Religionof Duty,13 Dr. Van Dyke’s Essays in Application,14 President King’s Rational Living,15 Dr. Henderson’s Children of Good Fortune,16 and Professor Peabody’s Jesus Christ and the Christian Character.17 These are all wholesome and helpful. Most of them illuminate the path of duty by the light of religion.

Accordingly, Dr. Adler begins with a chapter on “ Changes in the Conception of God.” “What rivers of joy,” he says, “sometimes wild and turbid, but often deep and pure and serene, have flowed from the well of religion! There must be some proportion between cause and effect; the cause is apparently a purely imaginary conception, a fancy, mistaken for a fact: and the effects are these magnificent manifestations of beauty and art, of comfort and joy to man, and, above all, the conviction that this falsehood is truer than any other truth.” Is the cause a fancy, then ? May it not be the supreme truth ? The writer is sure of it. He holds that there is “a moral certainty, based, not on truth verifiable in experience, but on truth necessarily inferred from moral experience.”

“Christianity,” says Dr. Van Dyke, taking this for granted, “needs not only a sacred scripture for guidance, warning, instruction, inspiration, but also a continuous literature to express its life from age to age, to embody the ever-new experiences of religion in forms of beauty and power, to illuminate and interpret the problems of existence in the light of faith and hope and love.” To this literature, Dr. Van Dyke’s last book, like all his books, is a contribution. These recent writers in ethics are all of a hopeful mind, and find the contemporary situation eminently encouraging. The first Essay in Application maintains that the world is better than ever it was before.

Dr. Henderson holds that we are all of us children of good fortune. Most of us are much too busy, he says; and if we are engaged in occupations in which profit is the major end, our business is not only irrelevant to the best life, but is positively immoral. The second best, also, with which we are apt to be contented, is a form of immorality. Every smallest act involves some measure of moral responsibility. But this is nevertheless a beautiful and stimulating world in which to live; “the moral outlook is full of promise;” we are always “in touch with a godlike possibility.” The strong, cool winds blow through the leaves of the book. Dr. Henderson would not describe them as Pentecostal, but they come from the high mountains which are near the sky.

The same good sense shines in President King’s treatise. This is the practical advice which used to be given to young people in homiletical form, as in the works of Mr. Smiles. Now it appears as psychology. It is profitable in any shape.

But the best book of ethics is that of Professor Peabody. Here is learning and wisdom and perception of human need, and the word spoken in season, made attractive and convincing and vital by association with the Supreme Person. Precept is enforced by example. The whole matter is uplifted by being put upon his plane. “The root of Christian ethics is in the command: ‘ Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness;’ the flower of this righteousness is a rational and serviceable love: but when this growth from root to flower is surveyed as a whole, the moral process is found to be nothing else than the process of life itself.” A man’s life consists “in the capacity to use his possessions, in the discipline of the body as the instrument of the will, in wealth of righteousness and love.” “The Christian character is not a fragmentary collection of detached virtues. It is a normal, healthy, gradual growth.” “The perfecting of the saints is like the development of the body. We are ‘henceforth no more children,’ but are come unto a ‘perfect man,’ unto ‘the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.’” This is effected by what Dr. Peabody calls the “descent of faith,” — faith coming down to transform the world, faith revealed in works. “Up the ladder of life mounts duty, until the pure in heart see God, and down its stairs descends the wisdom from above to interpret the life below; and along both ascent and descent stand the angels of God to guard and cheer the sons of men.”

  1. The Development of Religious Liberty in Connecticut. By M. LOUISE GREENE, Ph. D. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1905.
  2. The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries. By ADOLF HARNACK. Translated by JAMES MOFFAT. TWO vols. New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1905.
  3. Cities of Paul. By WILLIAM: BURNET WEIGHT. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1905.
  4. The Valerian Persecution. By PATRICK J. HEALY. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1905.
  5. Religion and Politics. By ALGERNON S. CRAPSEY. New York : Thomas Whittaker. 1905.
  6. Greek Thinkers: a History of Ancient Philosophy. By THEODOR GOMPERZ, Translated by LAURIE MAGNUS and G. G. BERRY. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1905.
  7. The Life of Reason : I. Reason in Common Sense; II. Reason in Society; III. Reason in Religion; IV. Reason in Art; V. Reason in Science. By GEORGE SANTAYANA. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1905.
  8. Religion : a Criticism and a Forecast. By G. LOWES DICKINSON. New York : McClure, Phillips & Co. 1905.
  9. The Creed of Christ. London and New York : John Lane. The Bodley Head. 1905.
  10. The Messianic Hope in the New Testament. By SHAILER MATHEWS. University of Chicago Press. 1905.
  11. The Immanence of God. By BORDEN P. BOWNE. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1905.
  12. Christian Belief Interpreted by Christian Experience. By CHARLES CUTHBERT HALL. University of Chicago Press. 1905.
  13. The Religion of Duty. By FELIX ADLER. New York : McClure, Phillips & Co. 1905.
  14. Essays in Application. By HENRY VAN DYKE. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1905.
  15. Rational Living. By HENRY CHURCHILL KING. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1905.
  16. The Children of Good Fortune. By C. HANFORD HENDERSON. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1905.
  17. Jesus Christ and the Christian Character. By FRANCIS GREENWOOD PEABODY, New York : The Macmillan Co. 1905.