What Religion Is/Chapter 1

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What Religion Is
by Bernard Bosanquet
Chapter I: The Peace of God — Salvation — Justification by Faith



“What must I do to be saved?”

I begin, then, with what I take to be the central knot and need of all religion, “What must I do to be saved?” The old monosyllable, which has sounded so clearly since the coming of Christ the S.O.S. call of humanity, utters, it would seem, an ultimate need. And yet, what is it? Saved from what? The old word does not say; and this, I think, is very significant. We are to understand without telling, and I suppose we do. “Saved from pain and danger and hazardous enterprise?” No, that will not do at all. Salvation is the entrance to the strait gate and the thorny path. Saved from sin? That is more like it, but if we dwell much on it, it soon becomes too narrow. We seem to stumble as soon as we try to explain. We begin to qualify, to. restrict our meaning. The old absolute word is the right one. We cry out to be “saved.”

We gather our meaning best from the answer. When are we saved and how? Commonly we feel safe when we have nothing to fear. But safe and saved are not quite the same. Something has happened. We were not safe, but now we are. And how? Nothing outside will do it; no strength, no prosperity. Something has changed within us. We are different, or at least, awakened. And now we are saved, absolutely, we need not say from what. We are at home in the universe. and, in principle and in the main, feeble and timid creatures as we are, there is nothing anywhere within the world or without it that can make us afraid.

In other words, we are at peace, at rest. Not that we have not to fight; but now the battle itself is the victory. We are certain in our own mind. We are convinced of the supreme good, and that it is one with the supreme power. We have this experience in innumerable degrees, and it is a matter of words where you begin to call it religion. Obviously there must be grades of the religious experience. I do not believe that a human being can be wholly without it. Wherever a man is so carried beyond himself whether for any other being, or for a cause or for a nation, that his personal fate seems to him as nothing in comparison of the happiness or triumph of the other, there you have the universal basis and structure of religion. Power and perfection united, or such perfection as must, we are convinced beyond contradiction, be in the end a clue to power, as in the beautiful weak,[1] or in the lost cause with whose flag we are content to go down, are that to which in religion we have given our heart away.

And now we can see from what we are saved, and how. We are saved, if we must have a word, from isolation; we are saved by giving ourselves to something which we cannot help holding supreme.

You can trace this structure, I have said, throughout human life, for no man is really isolated. Every man, we must hope and believe, has somewhere an allegiance that binds him, some disloyalty which he would rather die than commit. And if you know what this is, then you know where his religion lies. “Where your treasure is” — it is a true saying.

But the special and intensest mean- ing of the words “salvation,” “the peace of God,” “religion,” indicates, as we saw, something unqualified and complete, something which involves that the root of our certainty is very thoroughly present, if not before our minds as a doctrine, then at least in them as an attitude. What is the nature of the fact which we have been describing, when stated at its simplest and strongest, and recognised, or felt, as the centre of our life and being?

There is a traditional phrase intended to sum up the whole point and meaning of religion; and it utters all those characteristics we have insisted on quite simply and plainly. It is the old expression “Justification by Faith.” And whatever practice or doctrine enables us to realise this in our life is so far a religion, for it does the essential work of a religion; whereas whatever theory or practice does not enable us to realise it may be a very fine or exalted or ingenious thought or custom, but is not, I think, in the strict sense, a matter of religion at all. Every man, in the end, must judge for himself, and I am not preaching any particular form of religion, nor intentionally criticising any, I am only trying to help people to get the full good, the point and spirit, of the religion which they profess, or which I am sure they really have, whether they profess one or not.

The situation which this expression embodies is simple, though fundamental, the knot or centre, as we said, in which the open secret of all human nature is bound up. We cannot be “saved” as we are ; we cannot cease to be what we are; we can only be saved by giving ourselves to something in which we remain what we are, and yet enter into something new. The peculiar attitude in which this is effected is religious faith. And this is, as I see the matter, just what we mean by religion — this, and no more, but nothing less. It is faith which is contrasted, not with knowledge, but with sight. All the resources of knowledge may contribute to faith. But faith is contrasted with sight, because it is essential to it that we rise into another world while remaining here.

Religious faith has two inseparable sides of will and of judgement. They are hardly indeed sides, for each has the other in it. Both mean absorption in a good such that nothing else matters and nothing else is real. This is why religion “justifies” the religious man. It does not abolish his finiteness — his weakness and his sin. But what it does is to make him deny that they are real — to make his whole being, as he accepts and affirms it, a denial that they are real. This is the very crux and test of religion, and its combined simplicity and profundity are here most plain. Nothing is so simple, nothing is so impossible. It is the cry from the heart of religion for all time, “Only believe.”

It is here that you must leave the distinctive ground of morality, while carrying with you its demands, and the social atmosphere which make it a halfway house to religion. For in the social whole the good is partly real, and partly, therefore, we are saved from the condemning “ought to be.” But, in principle, mere morality says, “You ought to be equal to the situation.” The good is imperative on you here and now, and you are to make it real in and by your will. Fail in doing this, in showing yourself perfectible in and by yourself, and to all conceivable ages you are a moral failure, even if you claim a life continued for ever in which to complete the work. Out of every moral success the further “ought” springs up inevitably to condemn you once more.

Religion — religious faith — is different. For it, the good is indeed real, as morality claims that it should be; but there is something more; for in the end nothing else is real. And so you can be good, though you are not good, because as you are and as you stand, you yourself are not real. By worship and self-surrender you repudiate and reject your badness, and will and feel yourself as one with the supreme goodness. “Hear again the vehement expression of mysticism. ‘When reason tells thee “thou art outside God,” then answer thou, “No, I am in God, I am in heaven, in it, in him, and for eternity will never leave him. The devil may keep my sins, and the world my flesh; I live in God’s will, his life shall be my life, his will my will; I will be dead in my reason that he may live in me, and all my deeds shall be his deeds.”’”[2]

Where does all this come from, and how do I know it is true? I answer without hesitation, it comes from the religious experience, which in it speaks with a single voice. And if more is wanted, as an inclined plane for the common-sense intelligence, I say that any one who considers human nature in the light of the facts of love, loyalty, community, will see that the character which in religion comes to a climax, is its very essence or centre or vital knot. Nobody is anything except as he joins himself to something. “Be a whole or join a whole.” “You cannot be a whole unless you join a whole.”

This, I believe, is religion. Strictly speaking, we need go no further. Here is peace, victory, salvation. If your creed effectually gives you this, you have all you want.

But from this great centre, so extraordinarily simple, as from a knot or fulcrum, the whole of life depends. And so, as I said, religion becomes also extraordinarily many-sided; and if we could be helpful in keeping some of its sides in their true place and connection, it would be worth doing. When we get away from this simple basis of religion, we are very apt to go further and fare worse. We add and explain and define to meet particular needs, pressures, troubles, doubts, and we insist on our explanations and perhaps lose contact, wholly or partially, with the centre. I am only too likely to fall into this fault myself. But I will make the hazard, and try to hint at the true proportions in which certain needs may be seen.


  1. Compare, e.g., Rossetti’s “Staff and Scrip.”
  2. Bradley, Ethical Studies, p. 293, note.