Religion and Temperament

THE fact of difference is elemental in the history of religion, but it has always been disliked. It has been regarded as synonymous with dissent, with rebellion and revolution, even with anarchy and atheism. The man who differs from us is a disagreeable, perhaps a dangerous, neighbor. We may endeavor to take the matter lightly, and to recite with more or less seriousness that fine ironical sentence of Emerson: “ Difference from me is the measure of absurdity.” But the situation is unpleasant.

Difference is a form of criticism. It puts us instinctively on the defensive or offensive. In the early days of Christianity, the Christians were persecuted because they were different from other people. They did not do the conventional thing. They were queer. Human nature resents the appearance of queer people. In the country, the boys throw stones at them. The martyrs were queer, and were burned at the stake on that account. They had no right, men said, to be different from their neighbors. But they persisted in their singularity and suffered for it. What we call tolerance is a friendly acceptance of the fact of difference. But tolerance is the youngest of the virtues, and even now is accounted, perhaps by a majority, to be a vice! So difficult is it to overcome an inveterate prejudice.

Nevertheless, the fact of difference is not only elemental, but inevitable. Here it is, and here it will remain to the end of time. It is not only inevitable, but beneficent and divine: a providential ordering for our good. Darwin began to demonstrate its usefulness in science just half a century ago this year, maintaining that all progress has been made by variation; here a difference and there a difference, until the old order changes, giving place to new, the old difference becoming the new uniformity, and then another beckoning us on. And this is true in society and in religion.

One of the potent causes of difference in religion is temperament. People are temperamentally different. Diversity is innate. Indeed, every individual is unique, and varies from all others in nature as in feature. It is one of the everlasting mysteries, perplexing parents, and making domestic distinctions in the face of all the uniform influences of environment. It defies environment. Professor Bousset, in The Faith of a Modern Protestant1, declares that this doctrine of the uniqueness of the individual is essential in Christianity. “ Modern biologists are especially interested in the fact that every form of organic life, every plant, even though it is in conformity with the law of its development, has something peculiar, individual, incalculable in it. And it is this same riddle that confronts us everywhere, that meets us in human life, only with far greater potency and distinctness.” This idea, he says, “ has remained peculiar to the Christian belief.” One of the reasons for the vast progress of the Christian nations, as compared with all their pagan neighbors, is this emphasis on the value and the unique importance of the individual. Anyhow, here it is, a discoverable and potent fact in universal life, bringing about the most surprising social consequences. Edmund Gosse, in his extraordinarily interesting biographical recollections, under the title Father and Son,2 makes this as plain as the shining day.

Here is a grave father, by profession a naturalist, by vocation a theologian. He has the systematic instincts of a man of science. As a theologian, he applies these to the materials contained in the Bible. He has a mind so independent that he dissents from all the conventional and traditional forms of contemporary religion, and becomes a Plymouth Brother. At the same time, this independence is wholly in subjection to the authority of the Word of God. The subjection is so complete that, when the evolution controversy compels him to choose between the evidence which as a naturalist he finds in nature and the statements which he finds in Genesis, he resolutely abides by Genesis. Here he is, determined by temperament to take the Bible as he finds it, asking no questions; whatever is there written is the truth, decisive and ultimate.

But here is an inquiring son. He breathes the atmosphere of theology; he learns to speak in the dialect of theology. He is wholly unacquainted with fiction, or with any imaginative literature. Nobody, he says, ever pronounced in his presence the magic formula, “ Once upon a time.” The only literary fun which he has in his early youth is derived from the Penny Cyclopœdia. He reads aloud to his parents the commentaries of Jukes on the prophets. He has no playmates. The great world, with its sins and invading doubts, exists only in the dim presentiments of his father’s sermons. There he learns that it is an awful thing to be a pagan or a papist. He is a little Plymouth Brother, apparently destined to become a parson of that sect. But, in some mysterious way, he introduces into the theological serenity of the household, in which he is the only son, the fact of difference. He is impelled to ask questions, and to test things for himself.

For example, he hears much at meeting about idolatry; he has a fearful interest in it. “ What would happen,” he asks his father, “ if one were to be an idolater in England?” His father gives him an immediate and absolute answer: “No doubt such a person would be visited with the manifest wrath of God.” But the small boy is not satisfied. He is only six years old, but the combined authority of his father and the Bible does not convince him. He resolves to try it. He has no stone at hand to which he may bow down, but wood may do as well. He takes his little chair and sets it on the dining-room table, and, with his heart beating hard and high, kneels down and begins, “ O Chair! ” and says his prayers. He has committed idolatry. Then he goes to the window, and inspects the sky, and waits for something to happen. And when nothing does happen, he makes up his mind that his father does not know so much about God as he thought he did.

The book is full of like illustrations of the phenomenon of difference. Under conditions which would seem to make independence impossible, the lad asserts himself. One day he is invited to the Browns’. This is an unprecedented matter, and the father does not like it. The boy ought not to like it. It is pretty sure that the Lord would not approve. But let us ask Him; let us lay the matter before the Lord. So they kneel down together, the small boy and the great, grave father, beside the haircloth sofa. And the old man prays aloud, reminding the Lord of all the perils which accompany the pleasures of evening parties. Then they get up and the father says, “ What is the answer, my son, which the Lord vouchsafes ? ” And the small boy, after a moment of trepidation, answers, “ The Lord says I may go to the Browns’! ” There it is, the fact of difference, finding its way into this positive family as the fairy prince penetrates the impenetrable palace in which the princess is imprisoned. “ As I knelt,” he says, “ feeling very small beside the immense bulk of my father, there gushed through my veins like a wine the determination to rebel.”

“ This book,” says the writer, “ is the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciences, and almost two epochs.” But back of the epochs and the consciences, explaining in great part why the consciences and the epochs differ, is the antagonism of temperaments. It is at the heart of change in religion. It is the reason for non-conformity, for dissent, for the founding of sects, for heresy and schism. There it is, an everlasting fact.

Then, out of temperament grows experience. Indeed, it is by temperament that we are sensitive to special experiences and responsive to them. In the matter of reading, for instance, young Gosse was not responsive to Dr. Young’s The Last Day, Blair’s Grave, Death by Bishop Beilby Porteus, or The Deity of Samuel Boyse; he was immediately responsive to the plays of William Shakespeare. This is true of most of the details of environment. Temperament and experience go on together, hand in hand, acting and reacting. The surroundings provide the materials and the language; they fortify the soul with prejudices; but they do not insure obedience. Presently, in the midst of the environment, the soul chooses and refuses. It determines its own experience. And this experience decides in great measure the characteristics of individual religion. When Mr. Bernard Shaw begins his essay On Going to Church3 by saying, “ As a modern man, concerned with matters of fine art, and living in London by the sweat of my brain, I dwell in a world which, unable to live by bread alone, lives spiritually on alcohol and morphia,” the reader perceives at once that the parson will not be able to distribute this as a tract. This is not the kind of temperament or experience in which normal religion has its growth. Mr. Shaw says that the letter which he wrote to the press in his tender teens announcing, to the great horror of his respectable connections, that he was an atheist, was largely due to his hearing every Sunday “ that most accursed Te Deum of Jackson’s.” But most of the congregation probably liked Jackson’s Te Deum; that is why they had it every Sunday. Finally he says, “ There is still one serious obstacle to the use of churches on the very day when most people are best able and most disposed to visit them. I mean the service.” This is as logical as anything in Euclid, or in Alice in Wonderland.

This determination of religion by temperament is set forth in a very different way, and with a wholly different result, in a book which is now called My Spiritual Autobiography,4 but which in its first edition had for its title The Unselfishness of God. The writer was bred a Quaker, and in her childhood was as completely surrounded by the convictions of the Quakers as was Edmund Gosse by the dogmas of the Plymouth Brethren. She remembers how all things were divided for her into “ plain ” and “ gay.” The Quaker ways were plain; all departures therefrom were gay. To kneel in prayer was “ gay; ” the Quaker children said their prayers after getting into bed. To repeat the Lord’s Prayer was “ gay.” But while the Plymouth Brethren put the emphasis on doctrine, and were wholly occupied with theology, the Quakers emphasized emotion, and were concerned with feeling.

The unreflecting acceptance of this presentation of religion gave Hannah Smith much satisfaction until, as she passed out of childhood into womanhood, she suddenly found that she had no feeling. Convinced as she was that the salvation of her soul depended on herself, and discovering that she could do nothing, she fell into despair. The result was an eclipse of faith. “ The religion of my years between sixteen and twenty-six,” she says, “ was nothing but a religion of trying to feel; and as I was a very natural, healthy sort of being, my feelings were not likely to be very sentimental or pious; and my agonizing futile effort to bring them up to the right religious pitch is something pitiful to consider. My soul hungered for God, but I could not find Him.”

She had that sense of “ strain ” of which President King speaks in his book on The Seeming Unreality of the Spiritual Life.5 “The spiritual life,” says Dr. King, “is not a life of strain, either in the sense of putting pressure upon the mind to hold certain beliefs, or in the sense of keeping up a certain continuous stress of attention. . . . Any theory of the religious life that calls for this sort of psychological tension really leaves God out of account. . . . God can be counted upon. The life in relation to Him is no mere imaginary one, which you are forced to make; it is a real life in which He is constantly at work.” If Hannah Smith could have read President King’s book, she would have been saved a deal of hard distress. She had to come at its conclusion by that divine disclosure which is made possible by experience.

Out of this forlorn condition she was saved by a series of spiritual discoveries. One after another, she got hold of certain fundamental facts. These came to her, she says, by a process of revelation. “ Suddenly something happened to me. What it was or how it came I had no idea, but somehow an inner eye seemed to be opened in my soul, and I seemed to see that after all God was a fact, — the bottom fact of all facts, — and that the only thing to do was to find out all about Him. It was not a pious feeling such as I had been looking for, but it was a conviction, — just such a conviction as comes to one when a mathematical problem is suddenly solved. One does not feel that it is solved, but one knows it, and there can be no further question.”

The next step was to find out what God said. Not “How do I feel ?” but “ What does God say?” became the impelling question of her life. She found it answered in the Bible. In her diary she says, “ I have brought my Bible to Atlantic City this summer with a determination to find out what its plan of salvation is. My own plans have failed utterly; now I will try God’s, if possible.” The conclusion at which she arrived by this study was, that God was somehow or other in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself. “There need be no searchings within or raking up of one’s inward feelings to make things right with God. Christ had made them right, and we had nothing to do but to accept it all as a free gift from Him.” This again flashed in upon her soul as an immediate revelation, as good news from heaven. “ I began,” she says, “ to buttonhole everybody, pulling them into corners and behind doors to tell them of the wonderful and beautiful things I had discovered in the Bible about the salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ.” She made herself a great nuisance, she says, so that her friends dreaded to have her visit them. She used to go up to the preacher after the sermon and expostulate with him because he had not preached the gospel clearly. But the joy of Christ possessed her. “ I had begun to know God, and I was finding Him to be lovely and loveable beyond my fondest imaginings. The romance of my life had dawned.”

But there were questions still remaining. The fact of sin and its consequences in the loss of God deeply distressed her. How could it be reconciled with the eternal love? How could God be love, who had made sinners ? “ I remembered some mothers I had known, with children suffering from inherited diseases, who were only too thankful to lay down their lives in self-sacrifice for their children, if so be they might in any way be able to undo the harm they had done them in bringing them into the world under these disastrous conditions; and I asked myself, Could God do less ? I saw that, weighed in a balance of wrong done, we who have been created sinners, had infinitely more to forgive than any one against whom we had sinned.” One day, on the tram-car in Market Street, Philadelphia, she had another sudden and satisfying disclosure of the divine will. “ If I were Christ, nothing could satisfy me but that every human being should in the end be saved, and therefore I am sure that nothing less can satisfy Him.”

All this culminated in the discovery of the unselfishness of God. She confesses that she had thought of God as one of the most selfish, self-absorbed Beings in the universe, far more selfish than we could think it right to be ourselves, — intent only upon His own honor and glory, looking out continually that His own rights were never trampled upon.” Now she perceived that God, as revealed in Jesus Christ, is inconceivably unselfish; and that His will is not only just and wise, but the complete satisfaction of all our happiness.

And then she found that these revelations, thus made known from heaven, had been written all along, not only in the Bible, but in the Quaker books, and had been preached in the Quaker sermons. She had heard them from childhood without attending. They had been translated for her, as from a foreign language, by her religious experience. Mr. Chesterton, in his discussion of orthodoxy,6 imagines an English yachtsman who miscalculates his course and discovers England, under the impression that it is an island in the South Seas. I, he says, have done that thing. “I am the man who, with the utmost daring, discovered what had been discovered before. With toil and pain, I worked out the articles of a new religion. I came to laborious conclusions. And at the end of my endeavors I found that all my discoveries had been preached for years, Sunday after Sunday, in the parish church around the corner. When I fancied that I stood alone, I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.” But the trouble with orthodoxy is that it is truth conventionalized. Having become everybody’s accepted opinion, it ceases to be the actual opinion of anybody in particular. It is continually in need of rediscovery and consequent realization by the individual. The mariner’s compass for such adventurous voyages is temperament.

This is perhaps the reason why Mr. Chesterton and Mr. H. G. Wells arrive at somewhat different destinations. Mr. Chesterton’s exploration of the Land of Things-as-they-are brings him to the tall top of an island in the sea. It has a wall about it, and within the wall are children playing merry games, racing and leaping. The cliff is steep on every side, but that does not matter so long as the walls stand strong. The walls, to Mr. Chesterton’s mind, are the symbols of authority. The heart of Christianity, as he plainly sees, is happiness; but one of the conditions of happiness is the sense of security, and that comes when we perceive that all around us, fencing the perilous places, are the solid protecting walls of the church. Liberalism takes away the walls, leaves the playground all unfenced, and stops the games by the fear of falling over. Thus liberalism is a species of limitation. “ It is often suggested that all Liberals ought to be free-thinkers, because they ought to love everything that is free. You might as well say that all idealists ought to be High Churchmen, because they ought to love everything that is high. You might as well say that Low Churchmen ought to like Low Mass, or that Broad Churchmen ought to like broad jokes. The thing is a mere accident of words.” Accordingly, Mr. Chesterton finds that true liberty is inclosed within stout walls, and that the best beginning of free thought is a devout submission to authority.

But to Mr. Wells, undertaking in his turn to give an account of his religious life, these paradoxes are impertinent. Casting up the first and last things,1 which give the title to his book, he finds the account a much more serious matter. Indeed, it is possible that thereby he verifies Mr. Chesterton’s fable of the playground; for the sides of his world have no walls, and he is manifestly in fear of accident. He is all the time on careful guard, watching his words lest a misstatement prove a mis-step. Thus, he confesses that at times his sense of personality in the universe is very strong. “At times, in the silence of the night and in rare lonely moments, I come upon a sort of communion of myself, and something great that is not myself. It is perhaps poverty of mind and language obliges me to say that this universal scheme takes on the effect of a sympathetic person, — and my communion a quality of fearless worship. These moments happen, and they are the supreme fact of my religious life to me; they are the crown of my religious experience.” Then of a sudden he perceives that he is close to the unwalled edge of things, and he draws back. “None the less,” he says, " I do not usually speak of God.”

At the same time, Mr. Wells inspires a confidence in his conclusions, such as they are, which the reader hesitates to give to Mr. Chesterton. All this about the frivolity of the patriarchs and the practical jokes of the patron saints may be very well, — and it is probably true that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not such solemn persons as we think, — but there is a decent prejudice among many in favor of taking religion somewhat seriously. Mr. Chesterton’s orthodoxy will not altogether commend him to the orthodox. It is true that Mr. Wells confesses that the personality of Christ does not attract him. “ To me the Christian Christ seems not so much a humanized God as an incomprehensible sinless Being, neither God nor man. His sinlessness wears his incarnation like a fancy dress, all his white self unchanged. He had no petty weaknesses. — The Christian Christ is too fine for me, not incarnate enough, not flesh enough, nor earth enough, nor failure enough.” But this means only that the explorer is still upon his travels. He has a good way yet to go, and old discovered lands, with spicy ports and shiningroofs, still to discover. The romance of religion, as Hannah Smith calls it, is yet before him. It is plain that he is reading the Gospels too conventionally. The life of Jesus Christ was so full of failure that to those who looked on indifferently that was the whole of it. First his own town, then his own province, then finally his own nation, rejected him. And his sinlessness was no blank, cold, and colorless monotony of perfection, but had in it even for him such elements of strong endeavor, such attainment of obedience through suffering, such intelligent sympathy with the alternatives of the common day, that they who know Him love Him, not only because He is so completely divine, but because He was so completely human. The reader of Mr. Wells’s book feels that he will presently come into this nearer knowledge, and that, as he knows more about socialism now than he did a few years ago, he will know more about Christianity by and by.

For there are two temperaments in religion, each with its consequent experience and revelation of the truth; and each of these is imperfect and delusive until it is corrected by the others. Those varieties of churchmanship of which Mr. Chesterton speaks — High and Broad and Low — are manifestations of them. Baron von Hügel, in The Mystical Element of Religion,7 entitles them more accurately. One is the institutional, another the philosophical, the third the mystical. The High Churchman is concerned with the precedents of history; the Broad Churchman, with the synthesis of the facts of life into an intelligible whole of religion; the Low Churchman, with less concern for either past or present, would enter into immediate communion with God. Baron von Hügel shows how institutional religion came to its logical conclusion in the Inquisition; and how philosophical religion, having its own way at the French Revolution, worshiped the Goddess of Reason in Notre Dame; and how mystical religion disclosed itself in the madness of the Anabaptists of Münster. Mr. Chesterton is a High Churchman, Mr. Wells a Broad Churchman, Mrs. Smith a Low Churchman. One reason why the defects of temperamental emphasis, while evident in each of them, do not proceed to their logical extremes, is that they have each a saving sense of humor.

Caterinetta Fiesca Adorna, the heroine and text of Baron von Hügel’s book, had no sense of humor. In all her visions of the world invisible she never became acquainted with “ that truly exalted order of angels who are correctly called High Spirits.” It is true that at one time “she was in a state of jubilation of heart which manifested itself exteriorly in merry laughter; and having been asked as to the cause, she said that she had seen various most beautiful, merry, and joyous countenances, so that she had been unable to refrain from laughing.” But this was in her last illness. For the most part, her life was marked by “a certain monotony, a somewhat wearying vehemence.”

It was perhaps this quality in Catherine which led her husband to stay away from home as much as possible. They were married by their respective aristocratic families, — thereby reversing the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet; but there was tragedy enough in consequence. He was idle and selfish, she was ardent and aspiring; both were nervous and impatient. The result was ten years of domestic distress. At first, for five years, the neglected wife lived apart from the world, and wept; then for five years she returned to society, and danced and sang and made as merry as she could, with ill success. Then she had a vision.

In Genoa, in the days when Columbus was young, on the eve of the Feast of St. Benedict, and in the chapel of the convent of Our Lady of Graces, a vision seems a natural and appropriate event. It is what we would expect. When Hannah Smith has a sight of the splendor of heaven in a horse-car on Market Street in Philadelphia, that is a very different matter. But Hannah Whitall Smith and Caterinetta Fiesca Adorna, in spite of the contrast of their names and of their surroundings, had the same spiritual experience, and it grew into the same kind of religion. “ My heart,” cried Hannah, “ is filled with the exceeding preciousness of Christ, and I am lost in wonder at the realization of His infinite mercy to me, who am so utterly unworthy of the least favor at His hands. — I have so long bewildered myself with trying to work out my own righteousness, and have found such weariness in it, that I feel as if I could never appreciate deeply enough the blessedness that is for me in Christ.” “ Her heart,” says the biographer of Catherine, “ was pierced by so sudden and immense a love of God, accompanied by so penetrating a sight of her miseries and sins and of His goodness, that she was near falling to the ground. And in a transport of pure and all-purifying love, she was drawn away from the miseries of the world; and, as it were, beside herself, she kept crying out within herself, No more world, no more sins! ”

The place matters little. God and the soul are the only essentials. “O young prophets of the truth,” cries President Faunce in his fine Yale Lectures, The Educational Ideal in the Ministry,8 “ the idea that God is confined to any place or time is the master falsehood of humanity. It is the one fundamental untruth which will put unreality into every sermon and impiety into every prayer. Our God was, and is, and is to come. In your familiar garden you may hear His voice in the cool of the day. Moriah is to Him not more sacred than Monadnock, nor did Aaron’s rod bear diviner blossoms than our golden rod.” The form of the divine manifestation changes, but not the fact.

Then Catherine entered upon a life of penance and contemplation. “ She wore a hair shirt; she never touched either flesh-meat or fruit, whether fresh or dried; she lay at nights on thorns.” She endured extraordinary fasts, keeping a whole Lent without eating, and repeating the same abstinence at Advent; though these were undertaken, not so much from a desire to inflict suffering upon herself, as from a positive distaste for food. These penances were the conventional expression of the mystical life: that was the manner in Italy. Hannah Smith would have done the same had it been the manner in Pennsylvania. More important is the fact that Catherine took up her residence beside a hospital. Her husband, by a blessed coincidence, was also converted, and there they lived together, a long and useful life. After a while they moved into the hospital, where Catherine was first a nurse, then matron, and at last a patient. It is remembered of her that, in the midst of her devotions and visions, she kept the hospital accounts with unfailing accuracy. It is also characteristic of her that though she partook daily of the eucharist, she made but little use of the services of a confessor. She declined direction; she was the mistress of her soul.

Baron von Hügel has told the story of this devout life with deep sympathy, but with entire restraint. He has studied it as a significant phenomenon in the realm of mystical religion, taking note of all the psychological and even of the physiological details. He finds a text for a discussion of the whole field of mystical religion in the records of Catherine’s teaching, which was held in high esteem by St. Francis de Sales, and Cardinal Bellarmine, and Bossuet, and Manning, and Newman. Newman, in his Dream of Gerontius, found his text and inspiration in St. Catherine’s doctrine of the pleasure of Purgatory; into the pain of Purgatory plunges the eager soul as into a bath, accepting and willing the punishment which belongs to sin, and thereby entering into peace and content and harmony with the heavenly will.

To attain such harmony in this present life is the supreme achievement. That is the goal toward which the traditionalist, the rationalist, and the mystic are pressing, each along his own way. Happily, that blessed destination is reached by many roads. We have a notion that our own path is the only way to get there, and are moved to call across the fields to other travelers who are trying the great quest in other directions to tell them that they are off the track. Hence the contentions of the churchmen. But he who would ascend a hill may start from the north or south or east or west. All that is necessary is to keep on going up.

  1. The Faith of a Modern Protestant. By WILHELM BOUSSET. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1909.
  2. Father and Son. By EDMUND GOSSE. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1907.
  3. On Going to Church. By G. BERNARD SHAW. Boston : John W. Luce & Co. 1905.
  4. My Spiritual Autobiography. By HANNAH WHITALL SMITH. New York: Fleming H. Revell & Co. 1908.
  5. The Seeming Unreality of the Spiritual Life. By HENRY CHURCHILL KING. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1908.
  6. Orthodoxy. By GILBERT K. CHESTERTOH. New York : John Lane Co. 1909.
  7. First and Last Things. By H. G. WELLS. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 1908.
  8. The Mystical Element of Religion. By BARON FRIEDRICH VON HüGHL New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. 1908.
  9. The Educational Ideal in the Ministry. By WILLIAM HUBERT PERRY FAUNCE. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1908.