Reasonable Hopes of American Religion

I

IT has been said that ‘our dreams are the shadows of our hopes,’ and sometimes it is doubtless the case that our hopes are the shadows of our dreams. In the vicious circles of mere subjectivity, idea, dream and hope belong in the category of the null and void. To gain and retain a sober meaning, hope must be the prophet of a reasonable human experience. Kant’s three questions at once occur to one here: What

can I know? What ought I to do? For what may I hope? Knowledge and moral action are the parents of legitimate hope. Our ideas of knowledge and duty may differ from those of Kant; there can be no difference among sensible persons about the conclusion that authentic hopes are the ideal completions of an imperfect but an essentially rational experience. The reasonable hopes of men are therefore like the morning fires in the East; they herald the coming of the perfect day. America is the land of hope; concerning the greatest force in its life, its religion, shall it be without great hopes?

‘Keep in the middle of the stream,’ is the refrain of an old Negro melody. The Negro toiling on the banks of the Mississippi had observed that in the mightiest of American rivers there were shallows, eddies, counter-currents, and all sorts of water pranks. Hence his warning to the navigator, ‘Keep in the middle of the stream.' The Negro’s observation became a metaphor significant for the adventure of his soul. In the religion of his country there are shallows, whirlpools, all sorts of eddies and oddities. There is, however, a vast central movement. Whoever would live religiously must remain in that great current; whoever would understand American religion must watch the middle of the stream. Otherwise, while the observer may write about the religion of America with genial humor, obvious charm, kindly sarcasm, telling epigram, and artistic ecclesiastical purpose, he must write without insight into the spiritual life of Americans, and however much he may protest against it, the picture drawn will be ‘a chimera, the monster’ of the writer’s imagination.

The religion of Americans, like that of other peoples, utters itself in no uniform manner. Its natural idiom is now formal and again intangible, obtrusive and evasive, orderly and vagrant, superconscious and subconscious, normal and eccentric, manifesting itself here in creeds and elaborate ritual and there as pure spirit. At last, in all significant instances, it comes to something like this: Religion is the ultimate strength of man’s soul gathered mediately or immediately from the Soul of the universe. Its worth lies in its relation to life as men wend their way through the wild mysteries of time; it is illumination, inspiration, sustaining might, increasing peace. Thus understood, religion carries in its heart the principle of the complete idealization of existence. The religious soul aims with Plato at becoming like God so far as that is possible for man. He directs his life toward a supreme end; with Eudemus he endeavors to behold God and to serve him. He expects, in the highest sense of the words, to fare well; with St. Paul he believes that all things work together for good to them that love God, with Socrates that in life or in death no evil can happen to a good man. His religion is his final satisfaction; he sings with Augustine, ‘Thou hast made us for thyself and we are restless till we repose in thee.’ He looks to the Infinite as the source of life’s ideal and goal; he answers the sublime call of Jesus, ‘Ye shall be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.’ Religion is thus the ideal life of a soul conscious that it lives and moves and has its being in the Infinite soul, able to utter its experience and hope in the great confession, ‘The Eternal God is thy dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’

It is at once admitted that nothing is satisfactory in the present conditions of the religion of America. As in every other region of our life, here too discontent and confusion reign. There is, however, one great note of prophecy ringing in the heart of religious America audible above the tumult of confused and contentious tongues. A group of serious American students, engaged in the arraignment of an unsatisfactory college preacher, were silenced by one of their number, who said, ‘I plead for this preacher. He has done me a world of good. As I have watched him striving earnestly to find something and always failing to find it, I have been stimulated to hunt for that something myself. I am now engaged in the hunt, and I have already found in religion a reality and greatness beyond my utmost dream.’ American churches, Protestant, Catholic and Greek Orthodox, all American religious bodies, are more or less in the condition of that college preacher. They are unsatisfactory; they are seeking something that they have hitherto failed to find. They are however in earnest, and they are stimulating by their earnestness and failure a multitude of the elect youth of the land to undertake the search for themselves. The unattained is the glory of American religion.

The mood of content, whether with the religious insight won, the volume and quality of experience secured, the ideals formed, the fellowship established, the influence exerted, or the character achieved, is to the genuine religious American the worst of all bad signs. Men are in an infinite world; they are capable of growth indefinitely great; content with present attainments therefore means the arrest of progress, the blight of hope.

America has decreed freedom for religion in the sure foresight of the advent of the crank and the freak. These abound inside organized religion and outside. The American method of treating the normal and the abnormal in faith follows the teaching of Jesus in his Parable of the Wheat and the Tares: ‘Let both grow together until the harvest.' Freedom is costly, but it is worth while. It is the great test of faith.

Can we trust truth to win in a fair fight with error? The man who says that he cannot must secretly despise the truth. Such a man might well take a lesson from the tyrant Tiberius, who refused to punish offences against religion on the ground that the gods can take care of themselves. Besides, religion can never know itself as real save in the world of freedom. No man can tell whether religion is an oasis in the desert or a mirage, who is not free to test it by every power of the mind and spirit. Further, self-reliant, responsible manhood is gained only through the solemnity of choice; as in Goethe’s song, —

But heard are the Voices, —
Heard are the Sages,
The Worlds and the Ages;
Choose well; your choice is
Brief and yet endless.

Once more, the repression of the crank by the law of uniformity means the excommunication of the prophet. The greatest words ever uttered in behalf of freedom in religion are these: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets and stonest them that are sent unto her! how often would I have gathered thy children together even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold your house is left unto you desolate.’ On a level immeasurably lower let it be said that since differences abound in the minds of men it is in every way safer to provide them with freedom. Wild beasts are wild beasts in cages no less than in jungles; putting them under restraint sometimes tends to the disguise of this fact. The utmost freedom serves to disclose the utmost in man; under freedom we shall know man better and learn to act with knowledge. One may put the skin of a deer over the body of a lion; that act will not make the wearer of the new robe any the less a beast of prey. Cover all religious views with the same ecclesiastical skin, if you can, but know that not in this way are doubt, protest, heterogeneousness, distemper, ruthless passion abolished. We thus keep while we conceal these evils; we add to them a whole brood of greater evils: insincerity, the double life, and sometimes the atheism that, feeds on the sacramental bread and wine.

II

The great religion is the product of the great race; when brought forth, the religion returns to exalt and perpetuate the race from whose life it has come. Israel has given to the world the sovereign religion, because in moral sincerity and depth, in the vision of God and of the spiritual world, Israel has been the sovereign race. If the religion of America is to be great it must have as its source a great American people. The mean races and the mean individuals among great races degrade religion. Such has been the fate of Christianity many times in the course of the centuries; the degenerate person reflects his degeneracy in his religious ideas.

But, Lord, remember me and mine
Wi’ mercies temporal and divine,
That I for grace an’ gear may shine
Excell’d by nane;
And a’ the glory shall be thine —
Amen, Amen.

What about the race of Americans? It is without doubt heterogeneous; human beings are here, it might almost be said, from every nation under heaven. Sometimes in moments of bewildered thought America seems a Pentecostal nation, minus the Holy Ghost. When one becomes clearer and looks deeper into the life of Americans one sees that minus must be changed to plus.

Business stamina and athletic prowess show conclusively that Americans are physically a great people. The evidences of their mental alertness, ingenuity, inventiveness, resourcefulness, and mastery multiply on every hand. Nothing else is to be expected when one considers that hither have come, for many generations, the boldest, the most energetic, and in many ways the most gifted and resolute, of the peoples of Europe. The physical and intellectual capacities of Americans are beyond dispute.

Can the same thing be said about the moral qualities and the spiritual aptitudes of our people? I conceive that more can be said to their advantage on this third and highest level of life than on either of the other two. Immigration is the surest key to the soul of Americans. We are a nation of immigrants; some have come earlier, some later; but the race as a whole is a stranger in a strange land. As of old there came a voice to the earliest settlers and to their successors, ‘Get thee out from thy country, and from thy kindred and from thy father’s house.’ Leave was taken with hope, and also with deep, inevitable regret. The deepest psychic fact in our people is a structure of light and shadow, ‘built of tears and sacred flames.’ Few of all who come to remain here ever return or catch so much as a glance of the land of their birth that lies transfigured in the morning memories of the heart. Recollection deepens with the stream of the years like the bed of the river under its current. The volume of sentiment increases; our people are deephearted; they are united by the ties of the soul both to the old world and the new. They have in them an impulse toward cosmopolitanism; there is among us a vast unspoken humanity of high prophetic moment. Some day the voice of genius will unseal the depths and we shall see what the discipline of sorrow and hope, the warp and woof of immigration, has wrought for this new race.

Here we meet a confident, and sometimes an insolent, objection. Is not immigration mainly for economic purposes? Are not the Pilgrims absolutely without successors in the motive of their settlement here? Should we not excite against ourselves the mirth of the world were we to claim that any mortal now seeks these shores solely or chiefly that he may have freedom to worship God? We should indeed; yet that admission is only the introduction to the epic of the immigrant’s life. Few gain the economic Paradise they came hither to find; their hopes prove to be more than half hallucinations. What the overwhelming majority of immigrants discover is that harder work awaits them here than in the old home, a swifter movement of activity, severer conditions of toil, more pay, but not pay enough to take them from the racecourse; more pay but less play, less peace; an existence heightened in intensity and therefore more exhausting, success gained through an abnormal devotion to material ends, a success that seems poor in the light of the early economic ideal now seen to be impossible.

We hear much of the few great economic successes among our immigrants; we hear little of something infinitely deeper and more importunate for the life of Americans, the economic disillusionment. In the experience of millions the economic ideal is seen to be hopeless; by itself as a satisfaction for the rational soul, it is at length seen to be unutterably base. Then comes the great epoch and its great event, the recoil of the disillusioned humanity upon itself. This does not mean that all who pass through the experience described turn up in the weekly prayer meeting, that they go to church, adopt a particular creed, or embrace any form of conventional religion; it means the growing sense of humanity as the great superlative, the vision of something other and immeasurably better than economic triumph and obedience, often enough halting and broken, but in heart essentially true to this heavenly vision. America has been cruelly misrepresented to the immigrant; it has been made to appeal to the mere economic animal in his composite existence; experience brings reversal of hope and the vision of the true America, the place where as of old men earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, where the ground is cursed for their sake.

Great is the life that often follows this early disenchantment. The sun is down, the dust is now laid that the wild winds have blown through all the hot noisy hours of the day, and against the background of infinite night the stars appear, symbols of the high and countless splendors that exist in this amazing universe for the men who have recovered their humanity. Standing upon this ground of the essential moral greatness of our people, some of the nobler hopes of American religion come into view.

III

Keeping in the middle of the stream, it may be said that religion in America is setting toward its great objects with a deeper and stronger tide. As the external supports of religion have become the subjects of serious question, religion has become clearer and surer of itself; it has made some progress in disengaging essential from incidental, and is likely to make greater progress along this line in the immediate future. Once the Bible was the book whose words settled all religious debates. While for the seer the Bible has become a greater book in passing through the fires of modern criticism, its words are no longer substitutes for insight, but inspirations and guides toward the larger vision. The letter fails in the greatest of books; because of the literal failure the spiritual opportunity and appeal have become more evident; spirit has been incited to find spirit with increased sureness and depth. To be found of the Infinite Spirit one must more and more enter the realm of spirit, and American religion may be said to be making that entrance.

The Christian church, of whatever name, no longer appeals to religious Americans as a distinctively divine institution. It is indeed a divine institution in the sense in which all essential human institutions are divine. The family, the state, the school, the university, and the organized trade of the nation are divine institutions; that is, they are essential expressions of the life of our people. The forms of these institutions may change; the institutions themselves are permanent necessities of man’s life in this world. They have been wrought out by human beings, seeking, under the guidance of the Eternal Spirit, the juster and mightier organization of existence. The church and other essential human institutions rest, therefore, on the same foundations. These institutions are like the different peaks in some great mountain range; higher and lower they are, more and less massive; one it may be towers far above all the others and fills a vaster area, but one and all rest upon the same earth, one and all rise into the same heaven. A church organized out of heaven and set apart from and above all other institutions is a fiction that has vanished from the free mind of America. It exists in certain places doubtless, with other survivals of an outgrown time; but among wise men it exists as a myth, and is so regarded. The Founder of Christianity was less of a churchman than any other religious teacher in the annals of history. He used synagogue, temple, human homes, mountain tops, desert places, the fields and the sea, as the scenes of his prophetic activity and worship. It would not be too much to say that his church was the cosmos, the lights thereof the sun, moon, and stars; the pictures on its walls the fires of morning and evening and the shadows of noon; its altar the heart of man; its music the whispering winds; its organ the universe supporting his prophetic voice.

From this, the most unecclesiastical of teachers, arose, justified by the necessities of the life of his disciples, fallen upon different times in different lands, successive forms of church organization. These were integrated finally in the church of the East and the great church of the West. Disintegration at length set in; what was built by man in obedience to the impulse of life, was taken down in reverence for the same impulse. The issue is the sense of the absolute primacy of the life of the soul; the hope is that, this builder and destroyer of institutional forms will become surer of itself and continue to renew itself from the aboriginal Fountain of life.

The Christian ministry has become one vocation among many, equally sacred with other essential vocations and no more. The gain here is inexpressibly great; all mere officialism is impotent and vain; the man is a prophet or priest in virtue of his humanity exalted by the presence of the living God, or he is a chimera. No titles, no rank, no official consecrations can serve as substitutes for a gifted, disciplined, exalted human character; they may remain convenient signs of it; they do not impart the grace of the spirit, at best they only call attention to that grace; they do not create the prophet or priest; they do their utmost when they serve him. This means the exaltation of all essential human callings; it does not mean the degradation of the one sacred calling. The command has gone forth to all vocations, Come up higher. Again the outward fails us; the boat sinks and we trust ourselves to the deeps of the Eternal Spirit.

For more than a thousand years a definite system of thought ruled the minds of religious men throughout Christendom. Protestant and Catholic confessed substantially the same theology; Europe and America stood here upon essentially the same ground. It was universally held that the truth about man’s world was reflected in this system of belief. At length disintegration began here; great abiding ideas were dug out of the débris and carefully conserved; the traditional creed as a whole, however, became incredible; the eyes through which men for fifteen centuries had read the meaning of the universe became dim. The relief from this disintegration to the vexed religious soul has been like escape from Hades; the world of God now bids man welcome from the prison that he had built for himself. According to their differing temperaments, fear or audacity at first filled the minds of many persons in the presence of this stupendous event; bewilderment has encompassed a multitude of fine souls like a thick cloud; there has been much uncertainty and searching of heart; what seemed the foundations of the world have given way. What can the religious soul do in this extremity? Betake itself to God, with all its heart singing its great song, —

Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.

So it has been in ten thousand instances; our reasonable hope is that more and more it shall be thus. The call has gone forth for a profounder retreat upon the aboriginal Soul of the universe. From this great experience insight will return, insight into the innermost heart of religion and confidence in its findings. This is the issue for the religious spirit as against the man to whom life itself carries no gospel and whose home is in ruins amid floods and tempests.

The scientific intellect is at its task, dissolving all on its way to the everlasting. To the dweller in the region of the traditional this is appalling; to the soul whose one supreme passion is to see God here is another vast inspiration. Such a soul longs for the things that cannot be dissolved, to hear in the roar of this world of fateful change the song of the Time-Spirit, —

At the whirring loom of time, unawed,
I weave the living mantle of God.

Such in few words are some of the graver conditions of religion to-day. Under these conditions religion would seem bound to do one of these three things: to curse God and die, the blasphemy of thought found on a tragic scale inside Christian churches and beyond them; to hug the old traditions in the new environment, hoping by desperate loyalty to secure them against the fierce critical heat that encompasses them, — a faith as vain as would be the expectation of an iceberg to remain intact afloat on the South Atlantic; the cry of the mysterious Presence that wrestled with the first Israelite, ‘Let me go for the day breaketh.’

We are in the dawn of a new epoch. It would seem that religious men are to be deterred by the decree of the living God from continuing the practice of jumbling together in one indistinguishable mass the precious and the worthless in human experience, the rational and the mythical, the selfattesting and the impossible, the selfsufficing reality and the superstitions that always dim the radiant soul of religion and try to replace its pure splendor with their wild fantastic shows. The mood of the time sounds a more profound retreat upon God; it spreads its table in his presence; it seeks for that table the living bread, the sustenance without, which man cannot remain man. Temporal helps have been taken away, that the Eternal helper may be found; religion has been compelled, like a ship caught in a tempest in shallow water, to put out to sea. Our ship is good but there is safety for her and her precious burden only on the deeps.

IV

American religion is seeking, and it is likely to seek more and more, a justification of its being out of the universe now. Emerson’s essay, curiously referred to in a recent issue of the Atlantic as ‘mournful,’ sounds the note of a vast hope. ‘The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?’ In these words Emerson is the prophet of all deep religion, of the Christian religion in its inmost spirit. Protestant and Catholic are here one. Communion of saints, fellowship with the spirits of just men made perfect, access to the soul of Jesus, admission to the immediate presence of God, is recognized by all enlightened Christians to be at the heart of the soul’s life. This immediate contact with the Divine reality is primal; books, churches, prophets, priests, creeds are secondary. We press toward the light Ineffable; we are now led and again driven toward this supernal centre by the majesty of the past, by the mystery of the future, and by the present necessities of the soul. We seek with all religious human beings the immediate vision of the living God. The apocalypse for this day we crave as our daily bread. We discover that the greatest words of the past become living only in the experience of the present hour; outside of that experience they are dead.

If the religious man’s soul, the souls of his fellow men, and the Soul of the universe are hidden, as may well be the case, he may borrow light from all religions to help him in his search. The point is that no religion can create the objects of religion; the chief religion comes not to create, but to reveal. At last the universe itself must justify or discredit our life in the spirit. Believers claim that it must be possible to-day, as in other days, to be profoundly religious and to justify from experience this attitude of face-to-face converse with the Eternal.

Here indeed we touch the inmost soul of the Christian faith, that which it utters in its doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Christians were never meant to rely solely upon the epic history of the Master, to go back two thousand or ten thousand years in order to find the warrant for their faith. There is the present Guide unto all truth; there is the universe to-day under the illumination of the Spirit. The record of the Master’s career is inexpressibly precious; it is enriching, regulative, corrective, prophetic, dynamic; it is the sovereign, historic form of the Infinite compassion; yet its deepest promise is of the Presence that pervades and illumines the contemporary world of men, ‘Lo, I am with you alway even to the end of the world.’ The ultimate realities of the Christian religion are souls: the souls of men and the soul of God; the New Testament has its highest use as a guide to these ultimate realities. By the wonder of the Spirit Jesus becomes the contemporary of his latest discipics.

The great insight at work to-day in all truly religious persons that the Infinite Soul is with us lends new significance to many forms of faith that must appear to thoughtful men crude. New Thought, Theosophy, Spiritualism, Eddyism, the Healing Cult, and all kindred movements which seem trivial in the presence of the greater historic churches of Christendom, which are as it were mushroom growths compared with the religions of immemorial influence, which often appear mere amusing products of American extemporaneousness, become of serious importance when viewed either as man’s face-to-face converse with the universe or as presenting to the Infinite in the unending process of apocalypse the open mind. The world of science would stagnate, the growth of art would come to an end, the hope of political and social betterment would die, if the elect youth in each new generation should be content with the insights and achievements of the past. The crudeness and the eccentricity of youth do not blind us to its noble dissatisfactions with the great past out of which the greater future is to come. In the same way we should regard even the crude, the eccentric, the wildly extravagant in contemporary religion. It is at all events the sign that men are living in the presence of the Infinite; that their minds are in the mood of invocation; that they believe God to be greater than man’s best experience; and that they look for his mightier manifestation.

From this new and eager contact with the Divine universe, from this contemporary agitation over life’s sovereign problems, from this original, immediate fellowship with the Eternal, it would be strange if there did not eventuate a vaster religious insight, a more steadfast religious character. In the case of New England transcendentalism, which continues to minister to the sense of humor of many genial souls of alien discipline, these four lines from Emerson annul the extravagance of the movement and indicate its deep prophetic note: —

Speaks not of self that mystic tone
But of the Overgods alone;
It trembles to the cosmic breath —
As it heareth so it saith.

All religion that is of substantial worth is man’s response to the whispers of the Eternal in his heart. The speaking universe and the listening human soul are the great major premise of valid religion. The contemporary soul, pure through desperate need and lofty longing, responsive to the voice of God that wanders through the world to-day seeking the willing ear, whatever its immaturities and eccentricities may be, is a fountain of life in the nation’s religion.

The unique Exemplar and Prophet of American religion, in all its manifold varieties, is Jesus of Nazareth. His kingdom of man stands deeper in American insight and sympathy than the programme of all other religious teachers and cults. His teaching and example have set aside Calvin and Edwards; He and no other has his hand upon the springs of religious desire; He and not the crank or freak in our caravan is the inspirer of all that is worthiest in our experience and surest in our hopes. We find that Jesus is often acknowledged by the anarchist crazed by the woe of the nations; He is not seldom close to the heart of the Socialist in his madness over the contempt of the strong for the weak; He is recognized as the supreme friend of man by many among those who see in his disciples, as organized in churches, a solidarity of selfishness hallowed under the shadow of his glorious name; He is the pillar of fire by night to many a servant of social betterment to whom the universe is an impenetrable mystery; believers in the humanity of man have seen the incomparable greatness of Jesus. Inside all communions with present power and the hope of to-morrow beating in their heart the image of the Prophet of Nazareth is sovereign. Hospitable to all promising voices, ready to entertain strangers in the hope that they prove angels in disguise, sadly disillusioned as it is about many of its guests, American religion persists in the open mind, the catholic heart, in the presence of the Infinite possibility of to-day; at the same time the name that was to St. Paul above every name is still our sheet-anchor in the storm. Otherwise to read the signs of the times in the religious life of America is to miss the chief sign.

V

American religion, while sympathetic toward the whole higher intellectual achievement of mankind, is likely to be less disposed to ask alien philosophies to account for it or to accredit it to the world. This is the issue of the discipline in historical analysis that a generation of great scholars have imposed upon themselves. Everything that has become mixed with Christianity in the course of the centuries is not therefore an essential part of its character; additions to Christianity made since the close of the apostolic age are not necessarily alien in spirit. Historical analysis exhibits the original force and body of ideas in the Gospel of Christ; it discriminates between what is original and what is a later addition. It leaves the free mind of the world to decide the further question, How far is the historic accretion compatible with the original genius of Christianity? Historical analysis has made good the distinction between the original and the derived, the kindred and the alien, the development from within and the addition from without, the product of the Holy Spirit and the product of the Time Spirit. This distinction has been adopted by the free mind of religious America; the adoption of this distinction marks an epoch in the higher religious mind of the nation.

Christianity, the highest form of American religion and incomparably the widest and deepest in influence, has been obliged, as every one knows, to run itself into the forms of philosophies more or less alien to itself in order to shape the minds of men in certain ages of the world. Christianity has at times spoken with the great voice of Plato; it has filled with its transfiguring grace the vast impressive fog of Neo-Platonism; it has taken as an ally the mighty intellect of Aristotle; it has identified its belief with the opinions of men like Origen and Athanasius, Augustine and Aquinas, who were themselves in some degree products of many alien contemporary influences. Christianity has become Calvinistic, Arminian, Hegelian, Evolutionary, Pragmatic. As adaptations of the genius of Christianity to the mind of particular times, these forms of faith may be highly useful; they may indeed be a temporary necessity. Christianity must know the dialect and idiom of the successive ages and speak in them if it is to be widely understood. The wonder of Pentecost, at which were gathered the devout from every nation under heaven, each group hearing in its own tongue the mighty works of God, has been in a true and great way the one continuous wonder in the onward movement of Christianity.

Still it must be said that Christianity does not espouse the cause of the absolute truth of these contemporary servants. They are not bone of its bone or flesh of its flesh. Nothing is essential to Christianity as metaphysic but the reality of the souls of men and the soul of God; nothing is permanently vital to the Gospel but the fellowship of these souls in an ever-deepening moral experience and the resulting exaltation of our human world. Jesus is the permanent centre of his religion as mediating between human souls and the Eternal soul; he is essential as the Supreme prophet of a universe in which soul is the ultimate reality.

This deeper sense of its distinctive being and purpose on the part of Christianity explains much in the Christian mind to-day. The mood of American religion is that it is unwise to identify its truth with the fortunes of even the most important contemporary movements in the world of thought; it is less unwise, but still questionable, to make too close a covenant between the Gospel of Jesus, with its austerely simple metaphysic and its sublime ethic, and the vast enduring systems of thought. Greek philosophy is great; on its human side it is in essence lasting as the mind of man. Yet it is often immature, wanting in width of sympathy; it is the product of a small although a profoundly significant world. Religion is always the product of a vast world; it is at its highest always in the sense of the Eternal, and the Eternal is in the soul of the religious man and community as creative spirit. This being its genius, religion must give an independent account of itself. As experience, it transcends in depth and character all other experiences; as empirical reality, its momentousness is self-evident; as reality, it must speak for itself, it must construe its own universe, it must be its own ultimate prophet.

VI

We come now to the highest aspect and hope of American religion. Vision is indispensable to religion, but vision is not the chief element; sentiment is essential, yet sentiment is not the main thing. The soul of American religion is action issuing from creative will. Our religion adopts Fichte’s great insight that the vocation of man is to become a doer of the will of the Highest; it cries out with Emerson,—

Unless to Thought is added Will
Apollo is an imbecile;

it accepts with reverence and confidence the assurance of Jesus, ‘If any man willeth to do his will he shall know of the teaching.’ Knowledge and being by the path of rational action is our firmest possession. American religion is often unconventional in its expressions, it can at times be profane in its dialect; it cannot acquiesce in hopeless impotence. To the pious cant of the fatalist on whose soul the wrongs of suffering men sit lightly, ‘Well, God mend all,’ it answers in the style of a man with red blood in his veins, ‘Nay, by God, we must help him to mend it.’ The fighter for righteousness believes that the stars in their courses are on his side; he does his duty in the sense that the universe is the backer of the conscientious servant of man. His faith comes up out of his experience as a creative force. He is confident that in the long run humanity cannot be defeated by inhumanity; in the vivid idiom of the street, the final triumph of evil over good is as likely as the success of a celluloid dog chasing an asbestos cat through hell. Aggressive, confident, militant action is the great watchword of American faith.

The actual world is apt to be the despair of the religions of the nations. The theism of Mohammedanism is great, and by no manner of means is it ineffective. It exalts the lives of millions; it prohibits the use of alcohol, and it rescues society from the retinue of miseries that follow the use of that poison. It does indeed sanction polygamy, but it exorcises the horror of prostitution. It secures among certain races a creditable measure of honesty, a large degree of kindness and loyalty. Mohammedanism has great merits and yet it is powerless in the presence of the deeper evils of the world. The status of woman as inferior to man it has established and maintained, and this is the fountain of the gravest disorders. It has been unable to sober the fanatic, to elevate into sovereign influence the sentiment of humanity. Above all it is impotent in the presence of autocratic and corrupt governments; it is without hope before the distresses that arise from disease and uncleanness; it has no inspiration for science and no appreciation of the mercies of applied science; it stands dumb as it looks upon the economic misery of its devotees; it calls for submission to present evils as to the foreordained lot of human beings; it is exhilarated by no outlook toward a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness; it is in despair as it surveys the actual world of men.

The same is true of Buddhism. The core of that mighty faith is as noble as anything in the possession of mankind; yet it is essentially the religion of despair. Resignation is its highest word; the path to extinction of being by the way of holiness is its supreme beatitude. The actual condition of man’s world in time is beyond remedy except by spiritual suicide. The universe has no light or help for those who cherish the will to live. Our human world with all its relations, interests, experiences, aspirations, and ideal dreams is a mistake. Nothing can cure this mistake but the will to die in the sense of absolute extinction. This religion is the refuge for human beings in defeat, for the victims of despair and for them alone.

Much of European Christianity is in a similar state of mind. It has no word upon the economic distress of the multitude; it does not lift its voice against government as it grounds itself upon brute force; it has no vision of remedial energy equal to its vision of sin; it has no social gospel for this world; it confines its work to the alleviation of evils that it cannot hope to cure, to the discipline of men in limitation and sorrow toward blessedness in another state of existence; it has no consciousness of a creative Christianity; it throws no defiance in the face of the total evils that afflict the world; it entertains no vision of the victory of humanity over inhumanity in the course of time.

This social faith is the chief note in American religion. It lives among evils as rank and offensive as exist in any nation on the globe; it will acknowledge none of them as inevitable and final. It has crudities enough of its own; it can match at all points the weaknesses of other religions with infirmities of its own, with this vast exception, — it is determined to absorb the best in the vision, passion, and character of the past and to wield this totality of ideal power through believing souls upon the present condition of the nation. All our efforts at the betterment of the people come from essentially religious motives. Education, prison reform, sanitation, the treatment of disease, the programme against intemperance and vice, the movements against industrial iniquity, social distress, the inhumanity of man to man, come from the great basic faith that there exists no incurable evil, that the Soul of the universe is on our side while we strive for the complete reflection in our existence of the humanity of Jesus.

We Americans confess at once that in many respects we are a crude race, that we are a people in the making. We gratefully acknowledge the resources put at our disposal by the older nations; we welcome the help of the art, the wisdom, and the character of ancient races; we concede their superiority at many points, we are eager to learn from them where they seem to be wiser than we. We must, however, add to this appreciation a criticism that we think inevitable. We find in much of the Christianity of the older nations a want of energy and hope that we refuse to make our own, a timidity in the presence of immemorial wrongs that we consider cowardly, a spirit of acquiescence with inhuman conditions of existence that we regard as equal to the denial of Christianity, a blindness to the physical and moral remedies in the order of humanity that is astounding, an infatuation with formal religion, a contentmen! with the pieties of a purely personal faith, and a resignation before the woe of the world that we must define as symptoms of practical atheism. Above all we miss in much of the Christianity of the old world the consciousness of the Creative Spirit, the Spirit that proclaims, ‘Behold, I make all things new,’ that goes against the total evil that afflicts mankind in a campaign that will end only when evil is done to death.

This is the American religious war; it includes in its grand army many dissimilar divisions, corps, battalions, and companies; it is not the assemblage of American churches merely; it is also and in a great sense the muster of the moral forces of American humanity; it is a war against evil to the knife and the knife to the hilt. Out beyond organized religion in America is the shadow of a mighty dream; the dream is of the Republic of God in the Republic of man; this dream lives and works in the souls of our greatest prophets. The shadow is the projection of this dream; that shadow claims for the complete life of our people the whole circle of essential human interests upon which it rests.

We hear, as we expected, the unbelieving response, ‘This is American optimism.’ To be sure it is. America, with all her sins, believes in God and the ultimate omnipotence of duty read in the light of God’s eyes. ‘This is the faith of a young nation,’ is another exclamation from our aged and somewhat infirm neighbors. True again; and this faith of a young nation repeats itself in the successive generations of elect American youth. In this way the religious nation keeps itself young; it has in vision the spirit of the Divine youth Jesus before whom time appeared as the field of the apocalypse of his Father, — ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away but my words shall not pass away’; it recalls the enthusiasm of the group of dauntless youth whom Jesus commissioned to carry the news of his kingdom into all the world. America is proud of her youth, she means to renew her youth like the eagle, she is resolved to make it everlasting in the creative might of the everlasting God in whom is her trust for herself and the world.

  1. Readers of Canon Barry’s article, ‘The Religion of America,’ in the April Atlantic will find his arguments leading to a different conclusion. — THE EDITORS.