Breadth In Religion
( Originally Published 1912 )
The measure thereof is longer than the earth and broader than the sea.—Job.
When these words were written the vastness of a thing was fitly described by comparing it with sea and land. Now other means of comparison are needed. The mariner's compass has converted the unknown and mysterious sea into the known and common. Steam has greatly shortened all distances on our globe. Electricity has made the whole earth into a neighborhood. We no longer look with wonder toward England or Arabia, but to Sirius and Orion. It was not so in the days of Job. Sun and moon and the remote constellations did not seem as far away as Egypt or Greece. Thus when the ancient poet sought for something to illustrate the greatness of the Creator he found, not sun or star, but land and sea. He beheld the goodness and power of Deity. as extending beyond the borders of continents and oceans. God was greater than any known and measurable object. Perhaps in thinking of the Creator this is the only estimate possible to that past, this present, or any future age.
In our times much has been said concerning breadth of thought in religion. Many friendly and unfriendly words have been uttered. Some have not hesitated to say that breadth is only another name for skepticism and hostility to a true religion. Broadness of mind is accompanied by indifference of heart. A rational creed is followed by a decline of reverence. Not only so ; but the charge has been made that a lowering of the standard of morality would be one of the inevitable results of a change of doctrine.
If this were true the case would be closed. If a widening of the basis of belief is followed by moral negligence, then its champions should be-come silent and inactive. Better have an irrational theology that is friendly, than a rational theology that is unfriendly to public and domestic and private virtue. Instead of seeking a broad doctrine, if only thereby goodness can be kept alive in society, every one interested in the welfare of mankind should cast all breadth aside and ardently espouse that which is narrow and unyielding. Defective doctrines are much less reprehensible than defective deeds.
But the accusation that bad conduct follows a change of theological opinions is so far removed from fact that no time need be wasted in trying to answer it. It refutes itself. Some of the whitest souls the last century furnished stood for a free and rational religion. In the roll of the great, in all ages, it is impossible to find names of those who more truly loved righteousness and were better fitted to join the throng of those who have gone into the great light than they who have seen how constant and universal is the natural faith of humanity. In its origin, Christianity itself represents a movement from narrowness toward breadth, from he partial toward the universal. No one would think of charging the heroes of this movement with losing their morality or their spirituality when they lost their traditional doctrines.
Whether we are friends or foes of breadth in theology we agree in acknowledging its actual presence in our midst. Perhaps it did not come because it was desired by those who thought they saw in it a benefit for mankind, nor is it probable it can be banished by those who dislike its presence because they think it is hostile to the highest human welfare. It is more than probable it comes in obedience to some necessity found largely outside of human de-sires and aversions. The order for its coming is countersigned by that powerful monarch called "The Age." The same thing that has compelled us to enlarge the term law or liberty, has compelled us to enlarge the term religion.
The Emperor Julian said that the speech of the people on the Rhine sounded to him like the cries of birds of prey. Could the emperor have had keenness enough to discover that which scholars have discovered since he would have seen that the speech of those early Germans was intimately related to. his own elegant Latin language. They were parted streams of one fountain that arose among the high-lands of Asia.
That is what has been discovered among religions. They are dialects of one mother tongue. Humanity is a constant quantity. Everywhere man is capable of laughter and tears; everywhere he is subject to fear and hope; everywhere he admired that which he thinks is beautiful; everywhere he tries to avoid pain and everywhere he wishes for happiness. It is this constantly recurring quality of humanity that makes necessary a constantly reoccurring quality in religion. A broad church is nothing but one form of a broader mind.
That those who led in the movement should be regarded as disturbers is not strange. Society has never treated its advance guards with kindness. It is only when the main army has overtaken the place which the outposts have seized by a brave struggle and the scene where they fought and suffered has become a quiet camping ground for the larger hosts that their courage and strength are appreciated. One age kills the prophets; the next erects monuments to commemorate their fame. This is no more true in religion than in other forms of thought and action. Lessing and Parker were no more regarded as heretics in theology than were Bruno and Darwin in science. Emerson, with his doctrine of the spirit, made no more enemies than did Garrison with his doctrine of freedom. Jesus and Socrates were put to death quite as much in the name of politics as in the name of religion. A new school of art or literature is always ridiculed by the old.
But it is a true saying that wisdom is justified of her children. In time it appears that those who were persecuted were at least partly right. The infidels are sometimes the most genuine believers. Those who are hated by their contemporaries are sometimes the best beloved of succeeding generations. Long ago the world came up with Copernicus and Galileo and accepted their heresies as true. It overtook Wilberforce and Sumner and adopted their beliefs. Not very long since the theories of Huxley and Spencer were deemed arch heresies. Now nearly all men of science and philosophy accept them as the best explanation of life and history and their phenomena.
The same thing is occurring in theology. Many who once feared or despised any change are now glad to be considered in the ranks of those who appreciate the foresight and courage of the noble men who led an advance in the first half of the nineteenth century. The descendants of those who thought Robertson and Channing were enemies to true religion, who thought that if Emerson were not insane and to be pitied he was an arch-heretic to be condemned and who wondered why a just God permitted Theodore Parker to live, are now rejoicing in that religious liberty which, as from a perennial fountain, flows through our land from the spiritual philosophy of those masters of thought and speech. That which was sown in tears, we are reaping with joy.
When one goes from a valley to a mountain top he is not animated by indifference or hatred toward the valley. He merely wishes for a larger view than the lowland can furnish. Thus, if one pass away from traditional opinions, it is not because he is lawless; it is because he desires a wider outlook. In a mountain gorge or in a miner's shaft a spot of blue sky and perhaps a few stars may be seen. From an open plain how much more of the sky is unveiled to view! So, that which is called breadth in religion is often an ascent of the seeking mind and the loving heart to those heights which cause the horizon to retreat on every side. The private field enlarges to a state and the state to a continent. A neighborhood becomes a nation, and a nation a race.
A sect becomes Christianity and Christianity be-comes religion, the universal church, old as time and wide as all the parallels of human thought and human emotion.
A stream no more conforms to its banks than does religion conform to the mind and heart through which it flows. If they are narrow it will be narrow. The ocean is large, but a pint cup can only contain one pint of it. Heaven is measured by what we think of earth. Great as was his imagination, Dante could only picture the unseen world as an-other Italy. His hell is arranged in spiral terraces like the vineyards of his native Tuscany. The earthly Paradise is a mountain with shady woods on its slopes and the sunshine falling on its summit. Man places his own limitations on everything he describes.
Thus an unconscious, but unavoidable egotism is always present in every organization. Not only did the Hebrew, but every nation thinks it is the chosen nation. It possesses the divine right of existence and without it the world would be a failure. In a similar way each political party, each school of philosophy, of art, of literature thinks of itself. When Job said of certain persons: "Doubtless ye are the people, and wisdom will die with you," he was no more sarcastic than he was truthful. The sarcasm is in the truthfulness of his words, and they describe many more than the persons he had in mind when he wrote them. Those men of physical science, who find their mental activity among concrete facts, wonder why any one should spend time among the baseless abstractions of metaphysics, but no more than do the mental philosophers wonder at those who try to construct a theory of the universe by listening to the testimony of the senses. The men of affairs, who find life like a turbulent Niagara torrent all rushing in one direction,—those who build railways and manage caucuses and control elections and manipulate the stock market,—think the idealists and poets, who spin theories out of the fine filaments of fancy, are wholly useless, and regard themselves as alone sane and balanced and indispensable to the world. On the other hand the idealists and dreamers and mystics revenge themselves by a counter charge equally sweeping. They think they alone are fitted to find the true meaning of existence, and look with pity or con-tempt on those who find life all engrossed in so adapting means to end that cotton and corn and copper and corner lots and wheat and sugar and iron shall turn to money and find its way into their pockets. What is the prevalent rule of judgment? Largely this: "You are not as we are; therefore you are wrong."
The religions of the world have not been guiltless of this kind of arrogance. Each one has claimed for itself superiority to all others. Judaism made the boast that its God was the greatest of all gods. It expected all the nations to rally around its temple and worship Jehovah. Buddhism began a peaceful conquest of the world and kept it up until one-third of the race was conquered. Jesus said his field was the world and his reported final words were a command to convert and baptize all nations. Mahomet aimed at nothing less than universal do-minion. Different methods, corresponding to the genius of the leaders, have been employed, but the intention has been the same, namely, to make the religion universal. Sometimes it was by prophetic insight and affirmation and the exaltation of righteousness. Sometimes it was by enunciating the doctrine of brotherhood. Sometimes it was by holding forth an example of love and self-renunciation. Sometimes it was by the proclamation of a set of doctrines and enforcing them with the sword as in Mohammedanism and later in Christianity. But, by whatever way it was to be done, every religion assumed that it had a perfect right to impose itself upon the whole world.
That any of the historic religions will ever accomplish this result seems hardly probable. Much as we may love Christianity, and however well we may think it is fitted to the wants of mankind, the indications are not favorable to its becoming the religion of the human race. However praiseworthy in motive and endeavor the foreign missionaries have been, their success in converting the heathen has not been very great. A high authority in Christian circles is reported as recently saying that for every Christian England has made in India, a hundred drunkards have been made. When the character of some of the doctrines taught by the missionaries is recalled and when the divided condition and denominational animosities of Christianity are considered, it is not surprising that success in making converts has been so limited. Educated Hindus may revere Christ for his spiritual insight and the purity of his teaching and life ; but they are unable to see in what respect he was superior to Gotama Buddha. For every miracle the missionaries say Jesus performed, the followers of Buddha can point to a more marvellous one performed by their master. They can match every act of mercy recorded in the New Testament with a corresponding act in the life of their savior. For every sacred book the missionary produces as the basis of his teaching, they can bring forward one of greater antiquity and, to them, equally sacred. Some of the missionaries already see that the former methods of teaching dogmatic Christianity are not likely to succeed. They have abandoned the former method of seeking to displace Buddhism by Christianity and are placing emphasis upon what the two religions have in common. India is quite as likely to convert England to Buddhism as England is to convert India to Christianity.
It is hardly probable that either will be done. But something better may be accomplished. To both Christian and Hindoo will come a broader intellectual comprehension and a deeper spiritual sympathy. There will appear, not only the impossibility, but the uselessness of trying to designate all the race by one name in religion or trying to compel all to become the followers of one special teacher. Both may see that religion is something broader than any one nation. Its essentials are not Jehovah and Jew; nor Buddha and Hindoo; nor Mahomet and Arabian; nor Jesus and European, but God and Humanity. Its sacred books are not the history and poetry of Palestine alone; not the Zend Avesta of Persia alone; not the Vedas of India alone ; not the New Testament alone; not the Koran alone. Its Bible is the great literature of all the world.
Foregleams of a universal religion have not been wholly absent. There have been those in all ages who saw beyond partisan limitations. Jesus said: "God is spirit, and whoever worships in spirit and sincerity worships truly and acceptably." The Veda says: "God will not ask a man of what race he is, but will ask what he has done." The New Testament contains the sentence: "God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that doeth righteousness is accepted of Him." The Koran says: "All have a quarter of the heavens to which they turn them; but wherever ye be hasten emulocously after good. God will one day bring you all together." Thus religion is universal. That which caused Enoch to walk with God, made Abraham a man of faith, built the temple on Mount Moriah, burst into music in the heart of David, flamed into a holy passion in Jesus Christ, also inspired Gotama in India, erected temples by the Nile, poised the white columns of Greece, led Confucius and Plato along paths of lofty contemplation, built the cathedrals of Europe, the churches of America, and furnishes reason for the worship of this present hour.
There seem to be great highways along which the race has traveled in pursuit of God and duty and happiness. The work of a church should be to keep these great thoroughfares in view of the multitude. There are those who have tried to discover a channel through the ice of the far North to some open sea that may lie beyond. But of what avail would be such a discovery? At best it would be cold and dark. It could never become the track of commerce and pleasure. Thus there have been those who have sought for a narrow northwest passage in religion. But it is evident the multitude will never go that way. It is rather over the great shining path of common faith and duty lying between earth and heaven, as the Atlantic lies between the shores of two continents-a sea always sparkling under the smile of God. On this ocean every one may launch his bark.
A broad religion takes faith away from a mere personal or local meaning and attaches it to the heart of humanity. It sees no difference between the faith' of Paul and that of Aurelius. It maintains that a mere intellectual error does not shut out the grace and forgiveness of a God. Not only the Davids and Magdalens of Palestine, but in all lands sinning and penitent souls have found salvation. Jesus said: "Blessed are the pure in heart.
But he placed no barrier between the pure in heart who, with him, walked over the Judean hills, and those who made their seventy-year march under other skies.
A church worthy to be the agent of such a religion needs no apology nor special pleading to justify its existence. It will not be deprecatory and sup-pliant as if conscious that it is dealing in half-truths and make-believe sentiments. It will be brave, erect, uncompromising. It will be the friend of science. It will not condemn any truth the intellect can discover. It will not be frightened by any phenomena coming either from nature or the soul. For creed it would have the ethical and spiritual laws of the world. Duties would be its sacraments. Prayer and praise it would have; but they would be free and natural like the joy of childhood, like the blessing of mothers. Its liturgy would be as comprehensive and as' high as the hopes and aspirations, its solicitude and sympathy would be as wide and deep as the wants and sorrows of mankind. Organ of the great, the all-wise Spirit, it would rebuke all conceits, all egotisms of those who base infallibility on tradition and authority on respect-ability. In perfect accord with all tendencies of nature and history, it would show that truth and rectitude, that reason and wonder, that knowledge and faith, that use and beauty, that joy and sorrow must combine in perfecting the human race.
To help establish such a church no effort is too great, no sacrifice too costly. Money, toil, ease, love, sympathy might all be cheerfully given. Picocture a church, broad not in its unbelief and denial, but in its faith and affirmations. Strong, not in its dislikes, but in its loves. Unyielding, not in its sectarian prejudices, but in its spiritual convictions. High, not in its ritual, but in its ethical ideals; whose music finds its sweetness and pathos, whose prayers find their inspiration and motive, and, whose sermons find their theme and eloquence in the being of God, in the manifold and often mysterious experiences of life, and in the strange march of our race and whither it is tending! O that this beloved church might more and more become the reality now only seen as a picture!