The Religion of the Past
THE religion of the future is occupying men’s minds. They are right to think of it, to talk of it, and hope for it; their leaders, as leaders toward the new have always been, are men of the pioneer sort, animated by a need of room, eager to avoid and escape from the restraining bounds, the narrow quarters, in which the old centuries have lodged us. They are brave; they set their faces toward the new, and feel the fresh salt breezes of the unknown sea blow full in front. Their courage is none the less praiseworthy because at times it seems to shine the more from contrast with the dull hues of a sicklier liver; nor is their selfreliance less to be admired because it is quickened by a knowledge of the selfhelplessness of others. They are leaders ; their business is to lead, and one of their duties is to prod the laggards and the stayat-homes. They have so much right upon their side, that they may well be excused for thinking they have it all.
The need of change, of cutting away old, time-eaten parts of religion, of replacing that which is cut away by modern notions, of substituting dogmas that will stand the hammers of logic and science for those that dissolve impalpable before a child’s knowledge of physics and history, is and may well be ample justification for a wide sweep of the pioneer axe. They, however, by the very thoroughness of their devastation, force the issue of the value of this thoroughness. Their trenchant ploughshares uncover our holes and crevices, and stir the dispossessed “Wee, sleekit, cowrin’, tim’rous ” acceptors of old ideas into an attitude of asking for further proof of this lighthearted confidence in the new. Is there not some small remnant of religious use left in the old home ? Have the emigrants got it all stowed away in their lockers ?
For if, by this uncompromising thoroughness, they raise a comparison between themselves and us, if they vaunt their riches in contrast to our poverty, they must be scrupulous to measure, and set apart the things that are theirs on one side and the things that are ours on the other. There must be no confusion. The produce of the new land whither they go is theirs; the produce of the old home and its garden belongs to us. Let us divide clearly and mark the division.
The new religion has a “ god; ” but at the very outset we may ask, What right have they to take our name? How can they strip that name of a hundred associations that come thronging, — the belief of good men, the hopes of the unhappy, the trust of the valiant, the passion of those who set their hearts upon the things that are not of this world ? What is their “ god ” ? They feel the pulse and throb of countless forces, they feel their sensibilities played upon, their consciousness awake and receptive, their fires of life fed with fuel; they assert that all these unknown commotions, these stirrings, waves, fluctuations, movements, are the results of contact with innumerable manifestations of one primal force, and they say he is their god. But this very zeal for unification, for oneness, for an all-embracing whole, is of our creation; we of the past have created that. They of the future have only a vast aggregate of like elements, if even they have that. They combine and mould together in one form these inorganic, intolerant forces, and then they wrap this moulded image up in our emotions, in the reverence and awe that we of the old home have made. Reverence, awe, love, are the makings of the past, the handiwork of ignorance, of superstition, of belief, of faith ; they are ours to deck our altars and our idols.
The “ god ” of the future is but a concatenated aggregate of unknown forces, and both aggregation and concatenation, are assumptions. They claim reverence for the reign of law, with its uniform and measured impartiality, in place of the arbitrary and tyrannical actions of a jealous God; but they have no right to reverence. Even if they will kneel to the downward fall of an apple, and the elliptical orbits of the planets, even if they will sing hymns to the swell and ebb of the tide, and praise the union of hydrogen and oxygen, they have no right to take our words, our associations, our frippery of old thoughts and emotions. Unless they are prepared to bestow an adequate allotment of ecstasy on each electric volt, they have no right to clap all the volts together in one symbolic whole and bow down before them. The only rational attitude toward the “ god ” of the future is distrust. That god must be utterly dehumanized and given its due, no more, no less. “ It” should inspire such amazement and respect as generalizations of the human mind, made in the laboratory or the lecture-room, are entitled to. “ It ” must be charged with whatever sin and suffering, whatever pain and distress, there may be throughout the universe. “ It ” may well be feared by the timid and should be defied by the bold. “It” cannot attach to itself any of the emotions that the religion of the past has called into being. We are men, and the relation of humanity toward the universal forces is one of enmity. We must conquer or die. We must outwit them, control them, counteract them, or they will beat us down under their feet. There is no evidence of any friendliness toward us; those forces, for which the reign of law is emotionally claimed, will destroy us according to their laws unless we can control them. We are human, they are non-human; this is all we know.
In this respect the reformers have taken from our stock what belongs to us; by their own doctrine they may not take a word, — the word of words, — transfer it to their stock, and then pretend that they have taken a mere term of dialectics, as if they could leave behind the connotation which is its essence, and strip off all vestiges of those yearnings which semper, ubique et ab omnibus have given the word god all its significance. Then on this borrowed word they seek to build the religion of the future.
What attribute of religion can they hang upon it, they who have cut themselves loose from all the network of affection that man’s history has woven about the God of the past ? They cannot take duty. Their god has nothing in common with duty; the two conceptions are antagonistic. Their god acts on motives that we can neither know nor conjecture ; this present manifestation of contemporaneous phenomena that we call our universe comes from we know not where, and goes we know not whither. All is dark. But duty is plain and readily understood. Duty is a human conception, a means for human good, a human contrivance in the long war of humanity against the forces of evil that encompass us on every side. Good is that which is good to humanity; evil is that which is evil to it. The unconscious forces that nourish germs of disease, that rob us of health, of happiness, of life, that cause untoward heat and cruel cold, that “hurl the lightnings and that wing the storms,” that create venomous reptiles and poisonbearing insects, that cool the old earth and threaten our race with a miserable end, are to our human desires wholly evil. They are all law-abiding, and in them as well as in us lies a portion of the dignity of the universe; and yet we hate them. Our duties are toward our parents and children, toward our wives and husbands, toward our fellow townsfolk, toward such as chance may render our neighbors, toward our horses and our dogs. Out of earthly relations our duties are begotten; but out of what shall we create a notion of duty toward this “ god,” or how shall we, except by making ourselves mere fate-led puppets, identify duty with its will ? Our human duties, our sense of solidarity, our consciousness of common joys and sorrows, are not affirmations of this new “ god,” but a denial of it. If we shall awake, as the reformers say we shall, to a keener appreciation of the need of standing by one another, of working together, it will be because we perceive that we are alone, unaided, sailing in one great ship over an unknown sea. The sense of human duty may grow stronger as we shall cease to rely on outside help, we may become more self-reliant under the new gospel; but self-reliance is not religion.
The religion of the past is of a different order. It was born of ignorance and superstition, nursed by credulity and need, fostered and tended by evil times, by misery, disappointment, fear, and death. Nothing could be further from a rational and scientific explanation of this extraordinary phenomenon, life, than the God of old. He grew with the growth of our race, he acquired attributes as we progressed, he gradually became high, holy, and loving; and, when, in our deeper need to feel communion with Him, He put on human shape and shared our common human experiences, man loved Him passionately. He is the creation of many great hearts; and because humanity has made Him, we love Him. Humanity has loved its beautiful creation; and, rounding out the allegory, created a human mother for its offspring. We feel our weakness, our ignorance, our incapacity to stand alone, and we cling to that which we have created.
Yet because we can see no further than our own handiwork, because we seem to have been creating something out of nothing, is it necessarily so ? And if it is so, was the handiwork a waste of labor and of love ? Is the image of a loving God with a human heart, botched and marred though it is by the glosses of churchmen, necessarily an unserviceable illusion ? How are we to know that it is an illusion ? What is this world ? What are illusions, what is the line that divides them from other impressions, and are not illusions as worth while as other things? Are they not oddly like reality, and have they not their special uses? What is our conscious life, but a storehouse of illusions, and what are our senses but mechanical doors to let more illusions in ? Why should we not, for our comfort, our well-being, our ennoblement, create one illusion the more?
Or ought not our old religion to be called a work of art rather than a cluster of illusions ? Is it not the incomparable work of the imagination, upon which, as upon speech, all men have been at work ? Here and there, indeed, great men have altered the design, remodeling sometimes the fundamental plan; while all the time, here and there, according to their personal tastes and capacities, the mass of believers have been adding touches: filling in the background, heightening the color, strengthening a line, or deepening a shadow. Is not this work of art a beautiful thing in itself, with all its rudeness and crudity; and is it not so entwined and entangled with the history of the human race that any divorce between them must be a maim?
They may prove without any great fear of opposition that the tribal god was a barbarous conception, that a rational god is at times an irrational and mischievous hindrance to the progress of civilization. But why not proceed, as nature does, from seed to shoot, from shoot to stalk, from stalk to trunk, drinking in from sunshine and rain new properties and powers, till the climber climbing to its topmost bough sees ever further and further ? If we have grown, the tribal god has aided our growth. In the home, in the school, in the counting-room, in the court-house, on the battlefield, or in the penitential cell, he or his successors have helped men and women, boys and girls, to fight the good fight. When Israel conquered Moab, when Greece defeated Persia, when confederate Europe beat back the Huns, when a high-aspiring sold has turned away from temptation, were not these victories touched at least with the glory of divine achievement ? It is important for the right to prevail, even if in the doubtful balance the right leans to one side only by the least fraction of a scruple. Whenever the side impregnated with a greater degree of high purpose and aspiring will has overcome the other, that has been a victory for the divine cause. Whenever a man has sacrificed himself or what he loved most, in obedience to the command of what he held holy, whenever he has renounced the easy pleasure for the hard denial, whenever the little persistent instincts of sympathy and human fellowship have triumphed over his passions, there the tribal god, the national god, the sectarian god, or the human god, has been by his side, helping, sustaining, encouraging. Wherever men have felt that the issues before them were fraught with a significance greater than the balance and adjustment of appetite and expedience, there one of the old gods was at work. The old God was human, He cared for men, their tears, their endeavors, their love, their obedience; but the god of the future is to have no human sympathies. From now on, man is not to rely on god but on himself, and we are now to watch the deceitful vapors, that have set themselves together in the shape of walls, bastions, ramparts, and bannered citadel, dissolve in the white light of disillusion. The real and the non-real must be set sharply apart.
The old religion had a mass of additions, accretions, agglutinations, gathered to it as it rolled along the path of history. These were unjustifiable in any logical system of theology; but why should we adopt a manner of judgment that judges according to origins ? Why should we not judge according to results ? That has been an old habit of mankind. When men felt a relief, an enlargement, a revival, a more potent energy, a new and kindling vigor, they ascribed these accessions of fife to an animating power of goodness, and fell upon their knees and worshiped it. They invented the word sacred to define, as well as a single word might do, these animating influences; and when, after an habitual association of the felt effects and the imagined causes, they desired to experience again the remembered blessings, they invoked the symbol of these casual circumstances and hastened on the consequence. They established ceremonies in the hope of putting themselves and their children in the way of receiving the benignant gifts of the Spirit. They kept old traditions, usages, terms, and practices, as a grown man calls his father and his mother “papa” and “mamma;” and by unreasonable association of sentiments they swelled childish emotions into manly deeds. It may even be that these superstitious imaginings of the past were instinctive recognitions of forces uncomprehended, happy reachings out for spiritual sustenance, and erroneous only in the explanation of their nature; that they really found a way to draw upon secret sources of power and life.
What is less reasonable than baptism ? But if a man has been baptized, and his father, and his father’s father, and his again, then the memory of these repeated dedications of young life, — the memory of young and radiant mothers praying and smiling as they prayed, — from a time back beyond all records, renders the ceremony more potent in its effect upon the imagination than any argument drawn from common sense. Such ceremonies do not square with reason; they quicken deep emotions and bring their rude barbarian strength to the support of right doing. Men who stroll across the fields of Gettysburg and mark the contours of the hills, the slope of the falling ground, and feel their feet press the very sods pressed by the dead and dying on those three great days, do not ask whether on that summit a factory might be built, on this meadow grain planted, and along that ancient line of fence a highway laid out; they stop, and highly resolve to quit themselves like men on whatever field the battle of life may chance to range them.
If men are moved to adhere to the cause of right because of visions and dreams of other men who died long ago, if they are cheered and emboldened because they wear a uniform, follow a flag, and tramp to the rolling of sticks beaten on taut pigskin, why not keep these beneficial supports, irrational though they are ? A thousand chances every day remind us that we are not creatures of reason, but act willy-nilly in response to innumerable stimuli that prick us from we know not where.
Marriage under the new dispensation will not be a sacrament. But is not this a question of words ? How is a man, in the full flood of romantic passion, going to formulate with any pretense of fitness the sentiments that draw him high above the meannesses of life, unless he calls on God to witness, and vows to love, honor, and cherish forever? These rites are stammering efforts to give expression to sentiment. Never again is God revealed so present to man and woman, never again is a moment in their wedded lives so sacred. No man knows a sentiment except at the moment when he feels it; the most vivid imagination falls hopelessly short of another man’s passion or even of his own remembered emotions. If passion is to be expressed in form or word, it must be by him whom the passion at the moment possesses; and to him love is of God and eternal.
In the new religion there are to be no intermediaries between God and man, none to whom, by self-dedication and long ministration, the habits of selfsacrifice, of aspiration, of willing unworldly things, of obeying high impulses, shall have become a power and an authority fit to help those whom the common occupations of life encumber; none to whom music, poetry, gratitude, and love are daily cares, to whom the old trappings of holiness are especially dear. God will be so immanent in nitrogen and carbon, in drop of water and pull of smoke, that nothing else will be necessary; we need no intermediary to feel heat or cold, to catch waves of light and sound, and such other vibrations as do not elude us. The alderman wall register the names of our children, the mayor witness our contracts for the reproduction of our kind, the sheriff’s deputy may superintend the cremation of our bodies. Churches, purged from superstition, fetiches, and idolatry, will be turned into parlors for summer lectures, as in the golden age swords were beaten into ploughshares; and chapels will become reading-rooms with scientific tracts on the tables and the best literature on the shelves. Surgeons, physicians, dentists, and other health officers of society, will satisfy the rational needs of mankind; and the ignorant yearnings, the unintelligible appetites, that have cried aloud for a draught that shall satisfy them, will atrophy for lack of pampering.
Above all, in this new religion there shall be no mystery. Along the periphery of this luminous spot, which our five senses shine upon, we shall, to be sure, still continue to come into direct contact with the dark and the unknown; but we shall let it alone. Like well-behaved children, we shall not concern ourselves with what is not set on the table before us. The old, foolish, passionate cry, demanding to know why, why, why, do I suffer pain? why am I called out of the tranquil insentient mass into this sentient being, merely to feel my nerves quiver and shrivel in the fires of grief, disappointment, sorrow, jealousy, and shame? Why, oh, why, am I? And what art Thou, dread power by whose will I live? These futile questions, obviously asked far too often, will be dropped. In fact, mystery is to be ignored. Men, who in love and longing fling themselves away from the things they know on the bosom of mystery, stretching their arms toward the great dark, are no longer to be tolerated. All the correlatives of mystery — awe, reverence, holiness — must depart together with mystery. And yet what is knowledge, what at any moment and how large is the content of consciousness ? Are we to live, incurious islanders, forever satisfied to turn our faces inland and forswear the long encircling beach, where the waves of mystery forever beat and ocean winds bend the fringing trees, shaking their tops to sibylline utterance ?
And is our reasoning self the most intimate part of us, the most permanent and central ? Is that the axis of our revolving life, to which moment by moment new sensations are fastened, and from which memories are sloughed off? Is that the tube through which the wind of life passes, catching its melody from chance stops by the way? Why then does the call of a bird, or the note of a violin, stir us so profoundly ? There is a pleasure in the dark, a joy in the night, a relief from the inadequacy of waking, a freedom from the thralldom of sight and speculation. It is only through mystery and in mystery that man has the feeling of buoyancy, of an all-embracing being that bears him up, of an imagined contact with something unfathomable. In the light of day, staring at the outward aspects of such things as are within his horizon, he feels the littleness of his possessions, of his interests, of himself and his universe, he feels their insipidity and futility.
All the phenomena that astronomy, physics, chemistry, open their windows on, derive their qualities from man. The stars and the interstellar spaces are glorious and awe-inspiring, because man is here to feel the glory and the awe. The minutest elements that reveal themselves to the chemist are marvelous because of our ignorance. This universe, unreflected in any intelligence, moving unknown, unthinking, and unthought, would be an immeasurable ennui. It is the human relation that flatters the mountain-tops of science and gilds its discoveries with heavenly alchemy. The marvelous is merely our first acquaintance with the unfamiliar. But mystery is out of the category of the marvelous. Man, in face of that which transcends his intelligence, experiences a rest from effort, a peace; he feels the impotence of vexation and of striving. A pervasive calm that cannot be shaken wraps him round; he is free from the importunity of his senses. Neither sight, nor sound, nor movement, nor dimension, nor scope for activity, disturbs him; nothing is present but a fading consciousness that self seems slowly drifting from him. As when a long-drawn note upon a violin is held until the hearer no longer hears whether it continues or has ceased, and this uncertainty fills his attention; so man, confronting the mystery that encompasses all existence, absorbed and self-forgetful, insensibly doubts whether it and he are or are not. As the mind is refreshed and inspired by sleep, by exile from things and images, by submersion in self-unconsciousness, so, too, in the presence of mystery, loosed from the oppression of the familiar and the known, lifted above the friction and the fret of petty cause and consequence, the mind, grasping nothing, touching nothing, feeling but freedom, is refreshed and inspirited.
From this bath of his soul, man comes back to earth and daily life purified and ennobled. The trivial has a glint of some far-off meaning, the common loses the texture of its commonness, and our animal life — the needs and appetites of the body — becomes the symbol of something that shall justify toil and sacrifice. It is for this that creeds have gone beyond the verge of common sense and practical understanding in their endeavors to find some symbol to express the incomprehensible. And if you once grant the significance of mystery, — that it transcends experience and cannot be classed in this order of phenomena or in that, — then why not let each man adjust his relations with it as he thinks or feels to be the best for him ? Let him express his approach, his envisagement, his reactions, all his relations with mystery, in such forms and ways as he pleases; let him take such aids to further what to him is a desirable state of being as his experience shall counsel. There is still, for some people at least, in the vaulted nave, in the exultant, heavenward leap of the pointed arches, in the glory of color, in the long, deep rolling of the organ, a power that awakens dormant capacities for worship. Even in the little wayside church, where friends have met together for years, where the last words have been said over the well-beloved dead, where vows have been plighted, where babies have cooed at the minister while the young parents gazed proudly at each other, there is a touch of poetry that pushes back some bolt in the heart, and opens the door to higher purposes. “ Open wide the door of my heart that Thou mayst enter in,”said St. Augustine. What matter, so long as the door is opened, whether it is music, liturgy, ritual, the blending sweetness of sad and happy memories, or some rational key, that opens the door ?
Another distinction between the old religion and the new is the attitude toward pain. Under the old, often, oddly enough, it is true, pain was regarded as the gift of God, something to be accepted with humility and resignation. Death, disease, disappointment were, if not marks of special favor, marks of special interest. Under the new religion, pnin is a base inconvenience, an ignoble discomfort, to be removed speedily and completely. Nobody will quarrel with the attempt to remove pain as speedily and as completely as possible. Pain hinders living and loving, and is an evil. But we have not yet succeeded in removing pain, and there is no prospect that we shall. Death, disease, discontent, the coolness of lovers, the indifference of friends, the broken promises of life, are not to be got rid of. How had we best look upon such pains while we endure them ? Shall we regard them as a tear in a garment, a leak in a pipe, as a mere base inconvenience, or may we do as the old religion teaches, and try to climb up on them as steps to a, fuller and larger life ? The place of pain in natural philosophy, whether it be a link in the chain of human action or a mere register to record a backward step, is not of great consequence to us. If from pain we can call forth resolutions that free us from the bonds of lust, of gluttony, or other bestiality, if we can use it as a background from which the colors of life stand out in greater charm, or as the death of old life from which newer and better life springs up, why should we not let the gains shine back upon that liberating and fertilizing pain, and dignify it with the name of blessing? Why not deem it good in its own bitter way as the Christians do, and let gratitude cluster about, it, and praise it as a condition and a help to the birth of higher life ?
To reject this old use of pain because it is superstitious in origin, to refuse to make it our servant because we cannot banish it, is wasteful, and, being wasteful, blameworthy. Does not the desirable future, the happy land beyond the horizon of the present, show more clearly to the spirit in pain? Does it not see — purified from the distractions, the temptations, the misconceptions that dog the steps of happiness and content — what is right, what is just, what is good? To strike from human history the records of pain, the refinement, the ennoblement of man by suffering, when that has been accepted as a means of grace, would cheapen that history indeed. Self-sacrifice, too, must go. Its remote prototype, human sacrifice, its closer analogies, the holocaust of beeves, the blood of goats, the burning of incense, are common arguments to show us how superstitious the practice is.
The new theology is surely right in this: We must either reject or accept the principle of sacrifice. If we reject the principle, we commit ourselves to the doctrine of the right of each to the fullest enjoyment of life that he can attain. No man is to make way for anything less strong than himself, or to sacrifice himself, or anything that is his, for another’s good. If we accept the principle, we can ill justify our course by reason. For we cannot consistently stop at arbitrary limits to sacrifice, as for the good of a higher being, of the community, of society at large, saying that so far sacrifice is good but no further. And if we carry it out to logical completeness we also run foul of reason; for it is contrary to reason to sacrifice every member of a society for the sake of all; and it is still more absurd for each generation to sacrifice itself for the sake of the next; for then the long results of sacrifice would accumulate for the ultimate descendants of the human race, until the last man should finally experience the last satisfaction in solitude.
We can justify sacrifice only on the principle that there is in sacrifice some element of good for the sacrificial victim, some breath of a larger life, some draught of a nobler existence, some light from a higher sphere, if only for a time, how short soever. Society may, indeed, punish its members who refuse to sacrifice themselves for the common weal, so sternly that they shall be afraid to disobey ; but then the doctrine of self-sacrifice will be destroyed. Or, society may inculcate by education a willingness to die or suffer for the general good, but that is by an appeal to superstition and bigotry of an order wholly analogous to those religious superstitions which the new theology rejects. Unless we become pure egotists, we are forced to come very close to the Christians; for what reason is there for preferring altruism to egotism other than the witness of experience that to common men altruism offers a deeper and more intense emotional life ?
Under the old religion, sacrifice was not judged by its origin. It was regarded as justifying itself. For, if what was sacrificed was a mere passing pleasure, a desire, an ambition, then, the appetite once passed, the sacrifice left barely a ripple on the memory, and the sense of selfmastery, of an easy wheel that lightly turns the ship, amply repaid the loss. If the sacrifice was serious, even to death, it was an oblation to duty and to the God from whom duty emanated. Sacrifice was not a loss; it was at most a displacement, a changing about, a shift; it added a more than compensating increase of powder to some other member of the mystic body of which the willing victim was a part. He served his God, and his God blessed him. When the soul labors under an overwhelming emotion, words are idle and music is weak, and there is no voice to express the joy and rapture of love and worship, except sacrifice. It sounds unreasonable, but if we delve deep into human nature we find strange correlations, odd fellowships of experience and sentiment.
This fresh rejection of the notions of sacrifice, of holiness, of mystery, of sacraments, of a divine presence, of the spiritual uses of pain, is a recurrence of the familiar attempt to put human life on one plane, to reduce it to one scale of values, to render it intelligible, subject to demonstration, to a final philosophy. It is the working of the positive mind, which is impatient of the skeptical and the undecided, and, out of desire to have things settled, inclines to any law rather than to anarchy, to any order rather than chaos, to any scheme of reason rather than to superstition. It proceeds from a bent for action; it must be up and doing, it must have a course, it must hoist sail and away, with chart, compass, and pole-star. But the sea-captain, however great his experience, however wide his knowledge, is obliged to stay upon the watery floor between the sea beneath and the air above. He is out of his element when he transfers his reckonings to religion. There are so many sides to life, so many sorts of experience, so many kinds of character, disposition, and temperament, so many different conceptions of what constitutes happiness and the value of life, that one might well leave the slow adjusting mind to continue to piece and patch the old constitution of his belief, changing it here and there, mending and tinkering, but preserving the main fabric which for centuries has procured him peace or victory and honor. Old conditions, the easy, rambling, comfortable habitation of the human heart, overgrown with memories and affections, if pulled down to make way for a modern structure, would leave desolation and barrenness. The lares and penates would not come to the new hearth.
This discord between the old religion and the new is really, in one aspect at least, a reappearance of the contention over fact and poetry. To some men poetry is idle, deceitful, tending to sentimental mooning, a hindrance to doing, a barrier to achievement, and beneficent only in its sterner aspects, as filling the soul with Miltonic images and a high disdain; to other men poetry — the poetry of childhood, of romance, of daring and delicacy, of far-off scenes and idolized images, of unattainable visions and momentary dreams, of lights and shadows that never were on land or sea, of hopeless causes and impossible beliefs — seems the best justification of life, and the old religion is poetry. And poetry is a word of far-reaching meaning. The poet is a man upon whom the throbs of human experience beat with a clearer and more melodious resonance than upon other men. His imagination, led by a happy craving for harmony between these resonant experiences, selects and arranges, creating a melody; then, proceeding from melody to melody, he constructs a synthesis of sweet, concordant strains, and to these, as the echoes swell through his brain, an ideal significance attaches. The flush of color when dawn kisses the earliest clouds, the wave of sound when the breeze stirs the ripples and bends the rushes, the sensation of touch when hand meets hand, do not and cannot of themselves satisfy the yearnings they awaken; echoes, circling and rising, proceed onward and upward — till the memory of each, almost divorced from its origin, becomes to the exultant imagination a message from the infinite.
This ideal metempsychosis comes over all the great experiences of life; ideas, thus begotten, like some divine pollen, leaven as they permeate, and give a new aspect to common joys and pains, to right and wrong, to love and duty. Emotion, skillful musician, touches notes which in themselves are idle, until the hearer is banished from the world of bald experience into an ideal world of transcendent values. This ideal world becomes more important, more real than the phenomena of daily experience, lightly undergone and lightly forgotten. It is the dreamer’s dominant habitation, it becomes his home; and by it he explains the trivial sequences of physical sensations. Because in this ideal universe there is a God, because there is an immortal life, because right is right forever, and wrong wrong, therefore human life, the relations of man to man, the satisfactions and discomforts of conscience, the success or failure of the soul, are matters of mighty consequence.
This ideal world is the world of religion. This is what the poetic needs of mankind have done with facts and imaginings picked up almost at random. Christianity, for instance, seized on many harsh and grating notes, as well as on sweet sounds, — the legends of Chaldæan shepherds, the traditions of wandering sheiks, the chronicles of barbarous chieftains, the rites of fanatical priests, the prophecies of unpoised minds, as well as on the story of a beautiful and holy life, rendered more beautiful and holy by its remoteness from European experience, and on many another note, in itself odd and seemingly unfit for religious use; and out of them it has created a religion, which, with all its defects, is permeated with poetry. The figure of Christ, the image of Mary, the stories of the Apostolic age, the Gregorian chants, the Gothic cathedrals, the Divine Comedy, the vesper bells, are all parts of this irrational poetry. And the defects are for the greater part due to the practical minds who desire to bring these strange, incongruous elements into a rational union, — rational according to an unpoetic interpretation of the experiences of life. And if one says that Christianity is permeated with poetry rather than with truth, it is because truth is of two kinds: scientific truth, which is the accumulated experience of the senses, ranged and sorted according to reason; and poetic truth, which is the sorting and arrangement of recorded images (exalted and illumined by an emotional hunger as they dwell in the memory), in accordance with the poetic needs of mankind. One satisfies the mind, the other satisfies the soul. And as the soul is vague, elusive, uncertain, tremulous, and passionate, it has never yet, at least with the masses of men, accepted the conclusions of reason. Its values do not coincide with the values of reason. Its satisfactions do not tally with the satisfactions of reason. Therefore rationalism and religion do not agree. Religion can take strange symbols, strange doctrines, strange dogmas, at which the scientific mind stares with amazement — sin, redemption, an incarnate God, a Trinity, a heaven, and a hell; because for religion these things do not rank as rational facts: they are symbolic causes, the least unsatisfactory explanation for the emotions and imaginings of the soul; they are the least unsympathetic evasions of the question, Why am I?
One may criticise Christianity, one may find it irrational or transcending human experience in almost every detail, one may be repelled by its superstitions, dull to its poetry; but, on the other hand, one cannot be rational and create a new religion. Religion is an emotional assumption to explain the world of reason. Poor humanity, it cannot have all that it would like. In our present stage of knowledge, at least, an adequate expression of emotional life can only be through poetry and religion. Poetry and music, love and hope, life and death, these persuade men that religion, however formulated in superstition and irrational dogma, is near to truth.
chè, se potuto aveste veder tutto,
mestier non era partorir Maria,
If rationalism could satisfy the soul we should not need a God or a religion.