Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 24.djvu/31

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
This page has been validated.
21
RELIGION AND THE ENVIRONMENT.

dependent personalities. Thus the early scientific investigators, as Anaxagoras and Parmenides, necessarily broke with polytheism, and proclaimed the essential oneness of that power from which all came. Men of philosophic spirit everywhere, whether in India, Egypt, China, or Rome, have pressed behind the confusing throng of pagan pantheons, to reach some elder, more eternal, more majestic, and absolute power behind them all. Nutar = the power; Tao = the eternal principle; Akevana Zarvana = boundless time; Brahma = the supernatural essence of all. The questions, “Whence has all come? What is the source of all?” have become more and more urgent. One after another, the idols of ancient belief have been broken by the iconoclastic hammer of fuller knowledge, and the yearning arms of faith, that must embrace some adored object, have reached up to purer conceptions of the divine, more worthy of worship.

Or when, on the contrary, civilization is decaying, and the incursions and conquests of barbarians are, from century to century, making society coarser and rougher, as happened in Europe from the fifth to the tenth century, then we see a corresponding degeneration in religion.

How lofty and pure the spiritual truths that Jesus taught! And, in the simple, ingenuous narratives of the gospel, what an anchor to the Christian Church to keep it, one would think, from ever drifting far away from its original place! And yet, what melancholy degradation, what gross perversions, did Christianity lapse into among the dissolute Greeks and Romans, the rude Franks and Vandals! As we study mediæval Christianity, with its belief in witchcraft and all sorts of pious and impious magic; its melancholy asceticism; the gross worship of saints, relics, and images, and deifications of Virgin and eucharistic bread and wine; with its martial, steel-clad bishops, ready to fight in public as in private; with its exaltation of ceremony above morality, and investment of priest and pope with supernatural power and authority — it seems almost incredible that the glad-tidings of the gospel, the simple faith that started as a message of peace on earth and goodwill to men, could ever have been transformed into this. It is only by the irresistible influence of a corrupt society in the first place, and, secondly, of a barbarous society, that it is at all explainable.

The first forms of religion have well been called a kind of primitive philosophy. So, full-fledged philosophy has been the constant pioneer of a purer theology, and the diverse speculations of the intellect, from the days of Ptah-hotep and Lao-Tsee down to those of Hegel and Cousin, have been prominent forces in giving pious hearts their special directions in the religious field. According as the metaphysics of a people varies — following the empiric or the intuitive, the positive or the idealistic type — so will its religion vary. See, e. g., what a different thing Buddhism developed into among the nation of positivists, the Chinese, from the form it took among the idealistic Brahmans.