The Religion of the Future
ONE morning, when a boy, I was walking on the Tors at Ilfracombe, and I overtook an old gentleman, who entered into conversation with me. We strolled on in company and spent the day together. I discovered that he was the Rev. Mr Dobney of Maidstone, a Dissenting minister of some note, whom I had often heard condemned for his heretical views on future punishment. We talked of many things and persons—among others, of Charles Kingsley. Mr Dobney spoke very enthusiastically about the illustrious Vicar of Eversley. But I listened somewhat coldly. I had been brought up in the Evangelical school; I had myself, as I thought, been “converted”; I had “believed in Jesus” and felt sure of heaven; I thanked God that I was not as other men nor even as this Canon. Mr Dobney’s enthusiasm therefore seemed to me misplaced. I said, “Yes, I suppose Kingsley was a good man, but he had no religion.” To which my companion replied, “What is religion?” I was taken aback and did not answer. We neither of us gave our definitions; but had we done so, mine would have been that religion consisted in saving the soul; his that it was devotion to goodness. He and I between us practically summed up the views of the whole human race.
Religion is probably derived etymologically, as Cicero originally maintained, from relegere, to care for, attend to, regard. But be that as it may, the term is invariably used to express the supreme and most important object of human attention. With the vast majority of mankind, whom I had the dishonour that morning to represent, the supreme object of attention is salvation from suffering. This conception of religion can be traced back to the primitive savage. The strongest instincts in his rude nature were desire for pleasure and dread of pain. He found the one very difficult to acquire, and the other still more difficult to avoid. Things were always going wrong with him. He fell sick, he was unsuccessful in the chase, he was wounded by a poisoned arrow, his property was destroyed by fire. He was thwarted and worried in a thousand different ways. It seemed as if he were the sport of some malignant spirit. He knew what malignancy meant, for he had often felt it. He knew, or thought he knew, what a spirit meant, for that other self of his, which lived in dreams, was apparently independent of the body. Might not his disasters be due to the action of a disembodied or unembodied spirit, who for some reason or other took pleasure in annoying him? This suspicion was confirmed by the more startling phenomena of nature, such as thunder and lightning, deluge and drought, earthquakes and eclipses; and at last he became convinced that he had to contend with a whole host of spiteful spirits, who were bent on nothing short of his destruction. Then a happy thought occurred to him. Possibly his ghostly enemies were, like himself, susceptible to bribes. If so, presents of barley or wine might induce them to leave him alone. Possibly to them, as to himself, the sight of blood was grateful; such an offering might prevail upon them actually to befriend him. Some of his fellow-savages undertook to investigate these matters. They became priests and theologians, studied the idiosyncrasies of the various deities, and explained minutely what men must do to be saved. Saved, that is to say, from pain. It was the only salvation they wanted, the only salvation of which they could conceive. At first they troubled themselves solely about the present life. By-and-by sacrifices came to be offered with a view to divine favours after death. But, whether the offerings had reference to this world or that which is to come, they were always made in the way of bargain. For a certain amount of pleasure men bartered a certain amount of pain. From the beginning to the end of the transaction there was no question of morality. Neither priest nor layman inquired into the character of the gods. The devotees never asked if the sacrifices were legitimate. It was sufficient to believe that they would pay. A man’s religion was but one of many “irons in the fire,” which differed from the others only in being somewhat more expensive. For his own salvation he would offer up anything and everything that god or devil might demand. He did not shrink even from human sacrifice. If necessary, he could bring himself, like Jephthah, to present his only child “a burnt-offering to the Lord.” But whatever the nature of the gift, it had one invariable meaning. In all ages and countries men have sacrificed to the gods for gain.
In most ages and countries, however, there have arisen prophets—and my companion on the Tors was one of their disciples—prophets like Isaiah, Confucius, Zoroaster, Gautama, Christ, Mohammed, who opposed the popular religion, protested against the teaching of the priests, maintained the worthlessness of ceremonialism, and declared that personal conduct should be the supreme object of human attention. These reformers were at first thought mad, then they were said to be blasphemers, by-and-by they obtained a few followers, and finally the names of some of them became associated with new religions, of which they are therefore said to have been the Founders. In many cases, however, this term is a misnomer. The religions now called after them are not theirs, while the Religion which they sought to establish can scarcely be said to have been founded at all. For soon after the reformer had passed away, the priests again reasserted themselves, the old routine of formalism was revived, the so-called new religion became a curious medley of inconsistencies, and the Master’s teaching was completely neutralised by the incorporation of doctrines and practices which he himself had condemned. The teaching of the prophets has always been fundamentally the same. We find Isaiah, for instance, speaking as follows: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord. I delight not in the blood of bullocks or of he-goats. Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; your new moons and sabbaths I cannot away with. . . . Cease to do evil; learn to do well. Seek judgment; relieve the oppressed; judge the fatherless; plead for the widow.” —Zoroaster denounced the magic and spells of the Dævas, and preached the doctrine that the one thing needful was to do right. “The good and the base,” he said, “rule over you. Between these two ye must make your choice. Be good then, and not base. All good thoughts, words and works lead to Paradise. All evil thoughts, words and works to hell.”—Confucius was so anxious to fix men’s attention on their present duty, that he would enter into no metaphysical speculations regarding the problem of immortality. When questioned about it he replied, “I do not as yet know what life is; how can I understand death?” The whole duty of man, he said, might be summed up in the word Reciprocity; we must refrain from injuring others, as we would that they should refrain from injuring us.—Gautama taught that every man has to work out his salvation for himself without the mediation of a priest. On one occasion when he met a sacrificial procession, he explained to his followers that it was idle to shed the blood of bulls and goats, that all they needed was a change of heart. So too he insisted on the uselessness of fasts and penances and other forms of ritual. “Neither going naked, nor shaving the head, nor wearing matted hair, nor dirt, nor a rough garment, nor reading the Vedas, will cleanse a man. . . . Anger, drunkenness, envy, disparaging others, these constitute uncleanness, and not the eating of flesh.” He summed up his teaching in the celebrated verse:—
“To cease from sin,
To get virtue,
To cleanse the heart,
This is the religion of the Buddhas.
And in the farewell address which he delivered to his disciples he called his religion by the name of Purity. “Learn,” he exhorted them, “and spread abroad the law thought out and revealed by me, that this Purity of mine may last long and be perpetuated for the good and happiness of multitudes.”—To the same effect spoke Christ. “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father. . . . Woe unto you, Scribes, Pharisees, hypocrites, who make clean the outside of the cup and the platter but within are full of extortion and excess, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. Ye shall receive the greater damnation.”—Mohammed, again, taught the self-same doctrine of justification by works. “It is not the flesh and blood ye sacrifice, it is your piety, which is acceptable to God. . . . Woe to them that make a show of piety and refuse to help the needy. . . . It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces in prayer towards the east or towards the west; but righteousness is of those who perform the covenants which they have covenanted.” Such was the uniform teaching of the prophets. And if they could come back to-day, they would be as much opposed to the religions which now bear their names as they were to the old superstitions which they are supposed, but erroneously supposed, to have destroyed. Look at Buddhism, for example. There has been, I admit, in what is called Southern Buddhism but little departure outwardly from the original teaching of the master. But though the letter remains, the spirit is for the most part gone. Mr Perrin says:
“The monks of Siam do not as a rule endeavour to make their sermons interesting. They are satisfied to intone a number
of verses in the dead language P li, and to add an almost incomprehensible commentary in Siamese. Nor do their hearers care. Crouching on the ground in a reverential posture, they make merit by appearing to listen, and they do not believe that
that merit would be one whit greater if they understood the language of the preacher.”
And in the Northern Buddhism of Thibet we find a system which is, even outwardly, the very antithesis of Gautama’s. There are tonsured priests, abbots, bishops, cardinals, popes, rosaries, images, holy water, vestments, processions, feasts, confessional, purgatory, the worship of saints and angels and the double Virgin, mysterious rites in which the laity are spectators only, even sacraments in which a portion of the Deity is occasionally swallowed by the celebrant. As for modern Mohammedanism—
“A volume might be written on its corruption. The present professors of Islam have dimmed the glory of their master.
. . . Practice has given way to the mockery of profession; ceremonialism has taken the place of work. Earnestness is absent, enthusiasm has died out. The notion has fixed itself in the minds of the generality of Moslems that the right of private judgment ceased with the early legists; so they adopt unconditionally the interpretations of men who lived in the eighth century, and who could therefore have had no conception of the necessities of the nineteenth. Mohammedans in the present day are governed in their lives and conduct less by the precepts of Mohammed than by the theories of the commentators— theories which are often utterly at variance with the Prophet’s spirit. In practice, the Koran is set aside in favour of the glosses
and traditions of the schoolmen of Islam.”
But the most remarkable instance of corruption is that which has occurred in the case of Christianity. Christ and “Christianity” are wide as the poles asunder. It is only by an elaborate process of critical investigation—a process as yet by no means completed—that we can discover for certain what Jesus really taught. The New Testament, more often than not perhaps, misrepresents Him. Even the first three gospels, as we have them, are quite untrustworthy. Nor do the MSS. help us much; for sometimes they support what we feel sure He did not say, and fail to support what we feel sure He did say. There is but little authority for the story of His conversation with the woman taken in adultery, and yet we know instinctively that it is true. There is strong authority for the cursing of the barren fig-tree, yet we know instinctively that it is false. Further, it is now established, beyond the possibility of reasonable dispute, that the Gospel miracles—except possibly those of healing—were altogether imaginary. Every great religious teacher has been accredited by his admiring disciples with a supernatural birth and resurrection, and with unlimited control over the phenomena of nature. This was not the result of dishonesty. It was the inevitable consequence of the psychological law, that miracles are seen by those who expect to see them. Once more, when we come to the Gospel of St John we find a good deal of Alexandrine philosophy, of which there is no reason to suppose that Christ would have approved, which is at all events thoroughly alien to His own conception of His mission as explained by the synoptic evangelists. Indeed, the writer’s point of view in the fourth gospel is quite different from that of the other three. This divergence, however, does not increase our difficulties, as might have been at first expected. On the contrary, it gives additional weight and significance to the statements in which the writers agree. And we find that the Jesus of St John, no less than the Jesus of St Matthew, invariably insisted on the paramount importance of conduct. Christ’s description of the last judgment (Matt. xxv.) is as follows: “The King shall say unto them on His right hand, Come, ye blessed. For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me. The King shall say unto them on the left hand, Depart, ye cursed. For I was an hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it not unto me.” And in His farewell address (John xiii.–xvi.) Christ three times laid down the new commandment as a complete summary of His teaching: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another. . . . This is my commandment, That ye love one another. . . . These things I command you, that ye love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”
That such was actually the fundamental doctrine of Christ is confirmed by the ‘Didache.’ This little treatise on the teaching of the twelve apostles could not have been composed much later than the end of the first century. Clement of Alexandria, one of the early Fathers, quotes from it and calls it “Scripture.” Not being included in the sacred canon, however, it was lost sight of for many centuries. But in 1873 it was rediscovered by Bryennios, Metropolitan of Nicomedia, who found a MS. copy of it in a library at Constantinople. And in the ‘Didache,’ as clearly as in the gospels, we find the doctrine that conduct should be the supreme object of human attention. “The two ways”—the way of life and the way of death—are distinguished by the actions, not by the creeds, of those who follow them. Canon Spence has naïvely said, without seeing the meaning of his admission: “Some notable omissions characterise the ‘Teaching.’ There is no clear-cut statement as to Christ’s relationship to the Father. Nothing is said respecting the Atonement or the work of the precious blood. The Holy Spirit, the third Person in the ever-blessed Trinity, is only mentioned twice. His work and office are left unnoticed.” Well, the gospels are characterised by precisely the same kind of “notable omission.” We may be sure, therefore, that in the original teaching of Jesus neither dogma nor “the precious blood” found place; but that, in common with the rest of the Prophets, he insisted upon right conduct as man’s all-comprehensive duty.
What is now called Christianity has for its foundation pre-Christian paganism, and for its superstructure post-Christian metaphysics. The latter is for the most part unintelligible; but it would be harmless enough, if we were not expected to say that we “believed” it. Jesus invented no formulæ, He made no definitions. Yet for centuries His nominal disciples fought like tigers over the question whether Christ’s substance—whatever that might be—were or , i.e., the same as the substance of the Father or only similar. Christendom was literally rent asunder by what is called the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed, by the question whether the Holy Ghost proceeds—whatever that may mean—from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone. And now we are taught that “whosoever will be saved must hold the Catholic Faith, must thus think of the Trinity.” That is bad enough; but the revival of the pagan doctrine of sacrifice is worse. And we find it taught most explicitly in all the Churches of Western Christendom. Our own Articles say “that Christ died to reconcile the Father”; and in our Communion Service He is declared to have “made satisfaction for the sins of the world.” Luther put it thus: “God’s anger against the sinner was so fierce, that it could only be appeased by the blood of His Son.” The Westminster Confession speaks of Christ’s death as a “bargain.” The Council of Trent maintained that “Christ appeased the wrath of God.” In the Romish Mass and the High Church Eucharist the priest is supposed to offer anew upon his altar the Saviour’s body and blood. And to this appalling theory is sometimes added the doctrine of predestination, according to which the sacrificial blood of Christ can only effect the ransom of a part of mankind, the Deity having determined that the rest shall, in spite of that sacrifice, be damned. “God delivers from damnation,” says our Article, “those whom He hath chosen.” The others were created on purpose to agonise eternally for what their Maker calls His glory! In its simple form of propitiation by blood, the orthodox Atonement is as vile as anything to be found in heathendom. But the addition to it of the doctrine of predestination makes it infinitely viler still. The two together constitute the most savage superstition which has ever existed in the world. The god of orthodoxy is the very wickedest being which it is possible for the human mind to conceive. But his devotees ask no questions about his character. They do not inquire into the legality of his “salvation.” If they did they would soon discover that to be saved in such a way was equivalent to being morally lost. Morality however does not enter into their calculations. It is enough for them to believe that they are in danger, and that here is a way of escape.
The religions of the world then ultimately resolve themselves into two kinds. The priests as a rule, and the great majority of mankind, have embraced the one; the prophets and a very small minority the other. The one is interested, the other disinterested. The one consists in devotion to pleasure, the other in devotion to character. The one is the art of getting good things, the other the art of becoming good. The one has an ideal of advantage, the other an ideal of righteousness. The one ignores morality or relegates it to a secondary place, the other makes morality supreme. The one is the religion of savages and of a low stage of evolution; we may therefore call it the religion of the past. The other is the religion of the noblest of our race, it belongs to the highest stage of evolution, and we may therefore call it the religion of the future.
It is frequently said that religion is dying out. But we should be more correct in saying that it is yet to come. In the good sense of the word, religion has but rarely existed in the past. That can only flourish when religion, in the bad sense, decays. And religion, in the bad sense, is decaying fast.
“Humana ante oculos foede cum vita jaceret
In terris oppressa gravi sub religione
Quæ caput a cæli regionibus ostendebat
Horribili super aspectu mortalibus instans,
Primum Graius homo mortalis tollere contra
Est oculos ausus primusque obsistere contra,
Quem neque fame deum nec fulmina nec minitanti
Murmure comprèssit cælum, sed eo magis acrem
Inritat animi virtutem, effringere ut arta
Naturæ primus portarum claustra cupiret.
Ergo vivida vis animi pervicit, et extra
Processit longe flammantia moenia mundi
Atque omne immensum peregravit mente animoque,
Unde refert nobis victor quid possit oriri
Quid nequeat, finita potestas denique cuique
Quanam sit ratione atque alte terminus hærens.
Quare religio pedibus subjecta vicissim
Opteritur, nos exæquat victoria cælo.”
Lucretius was somewhat too sanguine. The work was but begun by the “man of Greece.” To-day however there are vast multitudes who have mastered the lesson which he taught. And some of us have not only learnt to disbelieve in the existence of the old gods; we are beginning to feel that, even if they did exist, we should not worship them—we should treat them with execration and contempt. The number of human beings is continually on the increase who sympathise with the words of John Stuart Mill, “If God can send me to hell for not saying wrong is right, to hell I will go.” The number of human beings is continually on the increase who have dared to say to the god of orthodoxy what Prometheus of old said to Jove:—
“Why art thou made a god of, thou poor type
Of anger and revenge and cunning force?
True power was never born of brutish strength.
There is a higher purity than thou,
And higher purity is greater strength.
Thy nature is thy doom, at which thy heart
Trembles behind the thick wall of thy might.
He who hurled down the monstrous Titan brood
Is weaker than a simple human thought:
Let man but will, and thou art god no more.”
In a word, the undying Religion of the future is taking the place of the religions of the past, which are already almost dead.
Will the religion of the future involve a Deity? The gods are going: will God remain? Of the four greatest Reformers—Confucius, Gautama, Christ, Mohammed—only two were Theists. And it is sometimes said that an atheistic religion is “nothing but morality.” Well, if this were true, morality without a God would be better than a god without morality. But it is a mistake to say that a religion of conduct is only morality. It is a mistake to restrict the term religion to an explicit recognition of God. It is a mistake to talk of religion and morality as if they could exist altogether apart. There is no such thing as mere morality. In the good sense of the word, there is no such thing as mere religion. There is in morality at least an implicit recognition of God. Right conduct is all He can require of us, all that we can do for Him. And therefore one man who thinks he disbelieves in God may please Him as well, or even better, than another who thinks he believes in Him.
“Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold.
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
‘What writest thou?’ The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, ‘The names of those who love the Lord.’
‘And is mine one?’ said Abou. ‘Nay, not so,’
Replied the angel. Abou spake more low,
But cheerly still, and said, ‘I pray thee then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow-men.’
The angel wrote and vanished. The next night
He came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.”
Morality is the beginning of true religion; it is religion not yet come to full consciousness of itself. The man who has done the will of God is not to be called irreligious, merely because he has made a mistake in metaphysics.
But Atheism is a mistake in metaphysics none the less. There are three arguments for the existence of God which together amount almost to demonstration.
1. The uniformity of nature. That is the first step in the proof. But, by an extraordinary aberration of the logical faculties, the Positivists have used it as an anti-theistic argument. “Our power of foreseeing and controlling phenomena,” said Comte, “destroys the belief that they are governed by changeable wills.” Quite so. But such a belief could not be entertained by any philosophical Theist. A really irregular phenomenon would be a manifestation of sheer diabolism. Though the regularity of nature is not enough by itself to prove the existence of God, the irregularity of nature would be amply sufficient to disprove it. Theism—belief in a Being deservedly called God—could not be established until after the uniformity of nature had been discovered. We must cease to believe in many changeable wills, before we can begin to believe in One that is unchangeable. We must cease to believe in a finite God, outside of nature, who capriciously interferes with her phenomena, before we can begin to believe in an infinite God, immanent in nature, of whose mind and will all natural phenomena are the various but never-varying expressions.
2. The rationality of nature. “Science,” says Lange, “starts from the principle of the intelligibleness of nature.” And to say that she is intelligible is to say that she is dominated and suffused by thought. “Science,” says Bacon, “is the interpretation of nature.” To interpret is to explain, and nothing can be explained that is not in itself rational. Reason can only grasp what is reasonable. You cannot explain the conduct of a fool. You cannot interpret the actions of a lunatic. They are contradictory, meaningless, unintelligible. Similarly if nature were an irrational system, there would be no possibility of knowledge. The interpretation of nature consists in making our own the thoughts which nature implies. Scientific hypothesis consists in guessing at these thoughts; scientific verification in proving that we have guessed aright. “O God,” said Kepler, when he discovered the laws of planetary motion, “I think again Thy thoughts after Thee.” There could be no course of nature, no laws of sequence, no possibility of scientific prediction, in a senseless play of atoms. But as it is, we know exactly how the forces of nature act, and how they will continue to act. We can express their mode of working in the most precise mathematical formulæ. Every fresh discovery in science reveals anew the order, the law, the system, in a word the reason, which underlies material phenomena. And reason is the outcome of mind.
3. The progressiveness of nature. The last, the most comprehensive, the most certain, word of science is evolution. And it is the most hopeful word I know. For when we contemplate the suffering and disaster around us, we are sometimes tempted to think that the great Contriver is either indifferent to human welfare or incapable of securing it. But evolution, which is only another name for continuous improvement, inspires us with confidence. It suggests indeed that the Creator is not omnipotent, in the vulgar sense of being able to do impossibilities; but it also suggests that the difficulties of creation are being surely, though slowly, overcome.
In a word then, the uniformity, the rationality, the progressiveness of nature, seem to afford overwhelming evidence of the fact that her phenomena are controlled by a Being of transcendent wisdom and benevolence—that is to say, by God. And if this be so, the religion of the future will be explicitly theistic.
Will the religion of the future involve immortality? I think so. There is absolutely no evidence against the theory. It is said, I know, that we cannot imagine how there can be consciousness after the dissolution of the body. But if this argument could disprove the future life, it would also disprove the present; for we cannot imagine how there can be consciousness before the dissolution of the body. “The passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granting that a definite thought and a definite molecular action occur in the brain simultaneously, we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass by a process of reasoning from the one phenomenon to the other. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened and illuminated as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain, were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be, and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should still be as far as ever from the solution of the problem—How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?” Since then we do not know how brain and sentience are connected, we certainly cannot know that they are necessarily connected. “It is not even probable,” says Butler, “that the mind has any kind of relation to the body which it might not have to any other foreign matter formed into instruments of perception.” Consciousness not having been explained in the present, cannot possibly have been explained away from the future.
And while there is no evidence against the theory of immortality, there is a great deal of evidence in favour of it.
- (a) It is a hypothesis which is in harmony with experience. Immortality would be but another exemplification of that order and progress which we find everywhere throughout nature. “The advance through inorganic, vegetative, animated and self-conscious existence, and again from the lowest savage to the loftiest philosopher, is all in the direction of a more complete and definite personality. The severance of the ego from the non-ego is the supreme result of all the machinery of the physical life. To suppose that there is a height in the range of being whereto having attained, this slowly evolved
personality vanishes like a volcanic island and subsides into the ocean of impersonal being, is to suppose that the whole scheme of things is self-stultifying, a great much ado about nothing, the building of a tower which should reach unto heaven, but which, like a child’s house of cards, as soon as it is finished will be again swept flat.” We know of nothing to warrant the supposition that the end of all things is to be fiasco and collapse.
- (b) It is a hypothesis which explains experience. We find within ourselves a thirst for happiness, and yet we are never happy. We find within ourselves a yearning for perfection, and yet we are miserably imperfect. We find within ourselves a sentiment of justice, and yet this sentiment is being for ever violated by the fortunes and misfortunes of our neighbours. Immortality, and immortality alone, can reconcile these strange contradictions.
- (c) It is the only hypothesis which affords a logical basis for religion. I know that he who truly loves goodness loves it for its own sake, that he neither seeks nor needs reward. But if goodness be doomed to annihilation, it loses all its charm, and devotion to it becomes unreasonable—an amiable but quixotic weakness. It seems to me that the last word on this subject was said ages ago by the author of Ecclesiastes. He did not believe in immortality, and therefore he was a pessimist and a sensualist. By all the laws of logic the three things are inextricably bound together. If there be no future life, then everything is in the last resort vanity. And if everything be vanity, there is but one pursuit that will bear serious investigation, and that is the pursuit of pleasure. We have been dragged out of nothingness, and made to endure the heartache and the thousand natural ills that flesh is heir to, only to be hurled back into nothingness at the last. We may have struggled bravely to live a useful, heroic life, to help on the progress of the world, but the object for which we have worked we shall never see. Long ere that we shall have been “cast as rubbish to the void.” And those for whom we laboured were not worth the effort. They too are ephemeral and contemptible. They too will shortly be flung into the same bottomless abyss. In such a universe the man who tries to act morally is a fool. The wise man would adopt as his maxim the words of a modern
Koheleth: “Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face, some tone on the hills or sea is choicer than the rest, some mood or passion of intellectual excitement is irresistibly attractive for us—and for that moment only. A counted number of pulses is given us of a variegated life. We are all condemned to die. We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Our one chance is in getting into this interval as many pulsations as possible.” Pleasure is always pleasurable more or less. But the struggle for perfection is painful and, in this life at any rate, unsuccessful. To sacrifice pleasure for character—apart from immortality—would be to give up the certain for the uncertain, the real for the chimerical, the possible for the impossible. The art of life is to be in harmony with one’s environment. But if there be no future, the universe is immoral to the core, and therefore devotion to goodness is the crowning folly of the race.
So the religion of the future, if it is to be a rational religion, must involve the idea of immortality.
Will the religion of the future be called Christianity? No, if by Christianity be meant the Christianity of Christendom. That I have already shown. Yes, if by Christianity be meant the Christianity of Christ. In support of this assertion I cannot, I think, do better than recall to the reader’s mind the opinions of one or two of the most eminent thinkers of our time. Matthew Arnold said:—
“As the course of the world is for ever establishing the pre-eminence of righteousness, so too the course of the world is for ever establishing what righteousness really is—that is to say, true Christianity.”
John Stuart Mill said:—
“Whatever else may be taken from us by rational criticism, Christ is still left; a unique figure, not more unlike all his
predecessors than all his followers. . . . Religion cannot be said to have made a bad choice in selecting this man as the ideal representative and guide of humanity; nor even now would it be easy to find a better translation of the rule of virtue from
the abstract into the concrete than to endeavour so to live that Christ would approve our life.”
“Cheerfully recognising, gratefully appropriating, whatever Voltaire has proved, or any other man has proved or shall
prove, the Christian religion, once here, cannot again pass away. Were the memory of this faith never so obscured, as indeed in every age the coarse passions and perceptions of the world do all but obliterate it in the hearts of most, yet in every pure soul, in every poet and wise man, it finds a new missionary, a new martyr, till the great volume of universal history is finally
closed and man’s destinies are fulfilled on this earth.”
Finally, Renan said:—
"Par une destinée exceptionelle, le christianisme pur se présente encore, au bout de dix-huit siècles, avec le caractère
d’une religion universelle et éternelle. . . . La religion de Jésus est à quelques égards la religion définitive. Après lui il n’y a plus qu’ developper et à féconder. ‘Christianisme’ est devenu Presque synonyme de ‘religion.’ Tout ce qu’on fera en dehors de cette grande et bonne tradition chrétienne sera stérile. Quels que puissent être les transformasions du dogme, Jésus restera en religion le créateur du, sentiment pur. Quels que puissent être les phénomènes de l’avenir, Jésus ne sera pas surpassé. Tous
les siècles proclameront qu’entre les fils des hommes n’en est pas né de plus grand que Jésus.”
And in thus associating the name of the Nazarene with the religion of the future, we do not ignore, much less condemn, the religious reformers who preceded or followed Him. We only mean that their work is comprehended and completed in His. He was greater than some of the prophets by reason of His theism; greater than any Gautama alone excepted—in the charm of His personality; greater than all on account of His plan of salvation,—the attainment of righteousness through love. He was the creator par excellence of the religion that will never die. Alas! He has lain buried for centuries in the tomb of theology. But His resurrection is at hand. The stone is being rolled away from the door of the sepulchre, and some of us have already caught a glimpse of His immortal glory.
And what of the Church? Well, she will live if she becomes in reality what now she is but nominally—the Church of Christ. Otherwise she is most assuredly doomed. At present she represents the religions of the past—religions which Christ and all the prophets condemned, religions which are gradually dying out with the gradual development of the race. The barbaric theory of sacrifice continues to disgrace her formularies. And, apart from this, she is essentially anti-Christian in the importance which she attaches to “belief.” The fact is, “the world” has become more Christian than the Church. The most highly educated people have discarded the fundamental doctrines of orthodoxy. Even the average man is beginning to look upon those doctrines with suspicion and contempt. They are opposed to the best instincts of the race—instincts which are becoming every day more authoritative. It is certain therefore that if the Church is not reformed she will be destroyed. And by reform I do not mean any patching up of the Articles, any tinkering of the Creeds; it must be a thorough, radical, absolute reform. The Church must get rid altogether of what she now regards as fundamental. She must begin again from the beginning. She must take a fresh start from Christ. The last two thousand years of ecclesiastical nightmare must be as though they had never been. She must be born again. And before the new-born Church there would lie a glorious mission. Priests, I admit, would no longer be required to regenerate infants by baptism or to offer up sacrifices on the altar. But true worship would begin—the worship of a Deity who is all and only good; while in every worshipper would be kindled an enthusiasm for righteousness, a passionate resolve to “work together with God” for the elevation and amelioration of the race.
It may seem futile to hope for such a change as this. But the reformation would not after all be so difficult: for the Church is still called by the name of Christ; His words are still read in her services; she still professes to regard His authority as supreme. She has but to practise this article of her creed, and the reformation is accomplished. To go back to the simple Christianity of Christ would be to get rid at once of all her corruption. And I have shown that my own section of the Church is specially fitted to be the pioneer in such an undertaking. She is in reality much “broader,” much more Christian than she knows. The Church of England as by law established teaches, it is true, the pagan and patristic perversions of the religion of Jesus. But on the other hand the Church of England as by law established cannot force one of these perversions upon the acceptance of any of her members. Unconsciously, almost we may say by accident, the Church of England has drifted on to the true foundation. If she recognises the fact in time her salvation is secured.
It is we clergy who are the great obstacle. Many of the best men in the world, no doubt, have been by profession “priests”—in the Church yet not of it. From Zoroaster to Stanley there have been some who united in themselves the priestly and the prophetic office. They were ordained by men to perform a certain ritual, but they were also ordained by God to disseminate new ideas. Priests though they were, they did not hesitate to attack the abuses of the priesthood. The verses with which this essay concludes were actually written by a bishop. There are again many clergymen—I have letters from them continually—who are eager for reform, but who refrain from speaking out for fear of losing their livings, or because they think that nobody would listen to them. And there are also, I am well aware, many simple-minded parish priests, unable to see, much less to expose, the falsity of the orthodox doctrines, who nevertheless live and die in the service of their parishioners with as much devotion and self-sacrifice, as if they had never heard that “the wrath of the Deity had been appeased by blood” and that “men are to be justified by faith without works.” All these will be ready enough to discard the Christianity of Christendom, as soon as they can be made to see that it brings discredit on the Master whom they love. But the great majority of the clergy are so saturated with the spirit of Ecclesiasticism, so wedded to the religion of the past, that their conversion seems almost hopeless. The moral sense of the average priest has been perverted. It is actually laid down in our Articles that “before justification”—i.e., for those who have not accepted the orthodox doctrine of the Atonement—“good works have the nature of sin.” And even after “justification,” good works continue to be regarded as of less importance than orthodoxy. The “Fathers” are held up as saints, specially qualified, by reason of their holiness, to explain the nature of the Godhead; and yet it is well known—it is related in every ecclesiastical history—that they were the greatest liars, the most deliberate forgers, the world has seen. The “Councils” are said to have been under the guidance and control of the Holy Ghost; and yet it is well known—it is related in every ecclesiastical history—that the majority of their members were as self-opinionated, as quarrelsome, as contemptible a set of men as ever sat in conclave. “It would seem,” said Gregory of Nazianzen, “as though a herald had convoked to the assembly all the gluttons, villains, liars and false-swearers of the Empire.” In reading the works of the theologians, we get the impression that they look upon morality with comparative contempt. One, for instance, is so interested in the dogma of “inspiration” that he does not hesitate to accept the story of the Gadarene swine, utterly regardless of the fact that, if it were true, it would reflect lasting discredit on the character of Jesus. Another, after representing the Scriptures as a direct revelation from the Deity, says: “It is ludicrous to be disturbed by the scientific inaccuracies of Genesis; when the heart turns to God there will be an end of such silly trifling!” Silly trifling, indeed! Why, the question involved is nothing less than the veracity of God.
The Church will never be reformed until her clergy have learnt the lesson—which many an ‘infidel’ could.
“The parish priest
Climbed up in a high church steeple,
To be nearer God,
So that he might hand
His word down to the people.
“And in sermon script
He daily wrote
What he thought was sent from heaven;
And he dropped it down
On the people’s heads
Two times one day in seven.
“In his age God said,
‘Come down and die;’
And he cried out from the steeple,
‘Where art Thou, Lord?’
And the Lord replied,
‘Down here among my people.’ ”
- Relegere is the opposite of negligere, formerly written neglegere, to neglect.
- Cf. 1 Samuel xv. 22; Psalm li. 16, 17; Jeremiah vii. 22, 23; Amos v. 21, 22; Micah vi. 7.
- ‘Religion of Philosophy,’ p. 439
- Rhys Davids’ ‘Hibbert Lecture,’ p. 193.
- Life and Teachings of Mohammed, by Syed Ameer Ali, pp. 262, 281-288.
- It is idle to say that Christ intended to teach a moral lesson. “The time of figs was not yet.” The tree was cursed for being barren, when by the laws of creation it could not be anything else. We know nothing about Christ at all, if we do not know that He was incapable of such silly, sorry petulance.
- I know it is sometimes said that the sacrifice of Christ was necessary to satisfy the divine justice. But the god of orthodoxy has no justice to satisfy. To threaten eternal punishment for a temporal offence, to retaliate upon myriads of innocent men and woman for the disobedience of a single pair, to accept one person’s suffering as a set-off against another person’s sin—all this is injustice of the foulest dye. I know it is sometimes said that the Deity makes men good by imputing to them the righteousness of Christ. But to say this is to talk the most egregious nonsense. Imputed righteousness is as much a contradiction in terms as imputed health. I know that the orthodox Atonement is but little preached nowadays, and even less believed. But I am not here concerned with the opinions of the Rev. Mr A. nor even with those of the Right Rev. Dr B.; I am dealing only with the doctrines of the Church as they have been authoritatively expounded in Articles and Creeds.
- I need hardly say I use the word morality in no narrow, “nonconformist” sense.
- Fiske’s ‘Idea of God,’ chap. vii.
- This argument may be carried further. Kant and Hegel have shown that the whole of our conscious experience implies the existence of a Mind other than, but similar to, our own. I have given a simple exposition of this doctrine—at least as simple as it can be made—in my ‘Belief in God,’ pp. 73-79.
- That there were difficulties in the Creator’s path is an idea which, though not generally acceptable, has been entertained by many thinkers of many schools, notably by Plato, Leibnitz, Mill, and Martineau. On this subject see the chapters on the necessity for pain in my ‘Inspiration,’ pp. 141-161.
- Tyndall’s ‘Fragments of Science,’ vol. ii. p. 87.
- Cf. Fiske’s ‘Destiny of Man.’
- See my ‘Agnosticism,’ part ii.
- Hartmann, I know, in his ‘Religion der Zukunft,’ maintains that pessimism, so far from being antagonistic to religion, is its indispensable presupposition (“die unerlässliche Voraussetzung aller Religiosität”); and he declares that the pessimistic religion of the future will offer to the believer the satisfaction of feeling himself eternally one with his God. It reads like a grim joke. Satisfaction! When the only achievement of the Unconscious is to have produced the worst of all possible worlds!
- See my ‘Origin of Evil,’ pp. 74-77.
- This I have explained in my ‘Inspiration,’ pp. 38-63.
- I use this term as a convenient abbreviation for the various Churches and sects of Christendom.
- Essay VII.
- See a sermon on “The Faith and the Bible” by the Master of the Temple.