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Religion Given

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



I HAVE said elsewhere how much it has contributed to the misunderstanding of St. Paul, that terms like grace, nez birth, justification,—which he used in a fluid and passing way, as men use terms in common discourse or in eloquence and poetry, to describe approximately, but only approximately, what they have present before their mind but do not profess that their mind does or can grasp exactly or adequately,—that such terms people have blunderingly taken in a fixed and rigid manner, as if they were symbols with as definite and fully grasped a meaning as the names line or angle, and proceeded to use them on this supposi-

Terms, in short, which with St. Paul are literary terms, theologians have employed as if they were scientific terms.

But if one desires to deal with this mistake thoroughly, one must observe it in that supreme term with which religion is filled,—the term God. The seemingly incurable ambiguity in the mode of employing this word is at the root of all our religious differences and difficulties. People use it as if it stood for a perfectly definite and ascertained idea, from which we might, without more ado, extract propositions and draw inferences, just as we should from any other definite and ascertained idea. For instance, I open a book which controverts what its author thinks dangerous views about religion, and I read : Our sense of morality tells us so-and-so; our sense of God, on the other hand, tells us so-and-so.' And again, ' the impulse in man to seek God' is distinguished, as if the distinction were self-evident and explained itself, from ' the impulse in man to seek his highest perfection.' Now, morality represents for everybody a thoroughly definite and ascertained idea :—the idea of human conduct regulated in a certain manner. Everybody, again, understands distinctly enough what is meant by man's perfection :—his reaching the best which his powers and circumstances allow him to reach. And the word ` God' is used, in connexion with both these words, morality and perfection, as if it stood for just as definite and ascertained an idea as they do ; an idea drawn from experience, just as the ideas are which they stand for ; an idea about which everyone was agreed, and from which we might proceed to argue and to make inferences, with the certainty that, as in the case of morality and perfection, the basis on which we were going everyone knew and granted. But, in truth, the word ` God' is used in most cases as by no means a term of science or exact knowledge, but a term of poetry and eloquence, a term thrown out, so to speak, at a not fully grasped object of the speaker's consciousness, a literary term, in short ; and mankind mean different things by it as their consciousness differs.

The first question, then, is, how people are using the word ; whether in this literary way, or in a scientific way. The second question is, what, supposing them to use the term as one of poetry and eloquence, and to import into it, therefore, a great deal of their own individual feelings and character, is yet the common substratum of idea on which, in using it, they all rest. For this will then be, for them, and for us in dealing with them, the real sense of the word ; the sense in which we can use it for purposes of argument and inference without ambiguity.

Strictly and formally the word ' God,' so. some philologists tell us, means, like its kindred Aryan words, Theos, Deus, and Devez, simply shining or brilliant. In a certain narrow way, therefore, this would be (if the etymology is right) the one exact and scientific sense of the word. It was long thought, however, to mean good, and so Luther took it to mean the. best that man knows or can know; and in this sense, as a matter of fact and history, mankind constantly use the word. This is the common substratum of idea on which men in general, when they use the word God, rest ; and we can take this as the word's real sense fairly enough, only it does not give us anything very precise.

But then there is also the scientific sense held by theologians, deduced from the ideas of substance, identity, causation, design, and so on ; but taught, they say, or at least implied, in the Bible, and on which all the Bible rests. According to this scientific and theological sense,—which has all the outward appearances, at any rate, of great precision,—God is an infinite and eternal substance, and at the same time a person, the great first cause, the moral and intelligent governor of the universe ; Jesus Christ is consubstantial with him ; and the Holy Ghost is a person proceed. ing from the other two. This is the sense for which, or for portions of which, the Bishops of Winchester and Gloucester are so zealous to do something.

Other people, however, who fail to perceive the force of such a deduction from the abstract ideas above mentioned, who indeed think it quite hollow, but who are told that this sense is in the Bible, and that they must receive it if they receive the Bible, conclude that in that case they had better receive neither the one nor the other. Something of this sort it was, no doubt, which made Professor Huxley tell the London School Board lately, that ' if these islands had no religion at all, it would not enter into his mind to intro-duce the religious idea by the agency of the Bible.' Of such people there are now a great many; and indeed there could hardly, for those who value the Bible, be a greater example of the sacrifices one is sometimes called upon to make for the truth, than to find that for the truth as held by the Bishops of Winchester and Gloucester, if it is the truth, one must sacrifice the allegiance of so many people to the Bible.

But surely, if there be anything with which metaphysics have nothing to do, and where a plain man, without skill to walk in the arduous paths of abstruse reasoning, may yet find himself at home, it is religion. For the object of re ligion is conduct ; and conduct is really, however men may overlay it with philosophical disquisitions, the simplest thing in the world. That is to say, it is the simplest thing in the world as far as understanding is concerned ; as regards doing, it is the hardest thing in the world. Here is the difficulty, —to do what we very well know ought to be done ; and instead of facing this, men have searched out another with which they occupy themselves by preference,—the . origin of what is called the moral sense, the genesis and physiology of conscience, and so on. No one denies that here, too, is difficulty, or that the difficulty is a proper object for the human faculties to be exercised upon ; but the difficulty here is speculative. It is not the difficulty of religion, which is a practical one ; and it often tends to divert the attention from this. Yet surely the difficulty of religion is great enough by itself, if men would but consider it, to satisfy the most voracious appetite for difficulties. It extends to rightness in the whole range of what we call conduct; in three-fourths, therefore, at the very lowest computation, of human life. The only doubt is whether we ought not to make the range of conduct wider still, and to say it is four-fifths of human life, or five-sixths. But it is better to be under the mark than over it ; so let us be content with reckoning conduct as three-fourths of human life.

And to recognise in what way conduct is this, let us eschew all school-terms, like moral sense, and volitional, and altruistic, which philosophers employ, and let us help our-selves by the most palpable and plain examples. When the rich man in the Bible-parable says ' Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years ; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry !' —those goods which he thus assigns as the stuff with which human life is mainly concerned (and so in practice it really is),—those goods and our dealings with them,—our taking our ease, eating, drinking, being merry, are the matter of conduct, the range where it is exercised. Eating, drinking, ease, pleasure, money, the intercourse of the sexes, the giving free swing to one's temper and instincts, —these are the matters with which conduct is concerned, and with which all mankind know and feel it to be concerned.

Or, when Protagoras points out of what things we are, from childhood till we die, being taught and admonished, and says (but it is lamentable that here we have not at hand Mr. Jowett, who so excellently introduces the enchanter Plato and his personages, but must use our own words) : `From the time he can understand what is said to him, nurse, and mother, and teacher, and father too, are bending their efforts to this end,—to make the child good ; teaching and showing him, as to everything he has to do or say, how this is right and that not right, and this is honourable and that vile, and this is holy and that unholy, and this do and that do not ; '—Protagoras, also, when he says this, bears his testimony to the scope and nature of conduct, tells us what conduct is. Or, once more, when M. Littré (and we hope to make our peace with the Comtists by quoting an author of theirs in preference to those authors whom all the British public is now reading and quoting),—when M. Littré, in a most ingenious essay on the origin of morals, traces up, better, perhaps, than anyone else, all our impulses into two elementary instincts, the instinct of self-preservation and the reproductive instinct,—then we take his theory and we say, that all the impulses which can be conceived as derivable from the instinct of self-preservation in us and from the reproductive instinct, these terms being applied in their ordinary sense, are the matter of conduct. It is evident this includes, to say no more, every impulse relating to temper, every impulse relating to sensuality; and we all know how much that is.

How we deal with these impulses is the matter of conduct, —how we obey, regulate, or restrain them ; that, and nothing else. Not whether M. Littré's theory is true or false ; for whether it be true or false, there the impulses confessedly now are, and the business of conduct is to deal with them. But it is evident, if conduct deals with these, both how important a thing conduct is, and how simple a thing. Important, because it covers so large a portion of human life, and the portion common to all sorts of people ; simple, because, though there needs perpetual admonition to form conduct, the admonition is needed not to determine what we ought to do, but to make us do it.

And as to this simplicity, all moralists are agreed. `Let any plain honest man,' says Bishop Butler, ' before he engages in any course of action' (he means action of the very kind we call conduct), ' ask himself : Is this I am going about right or is it wrong? is it good or is it evil? I do not in the least doubt but that this question would be answered agreeably to truth and virtue by almost any fair man in almost any circumstance.' And Bishop Wilson says : ' Look up to God' (by which he means just this : Consult your conscience) 'at all times, and you will, as in a glass, discover what is fit to he done.' And the Preacher's well-known sentence is exactly to the same effect : `God made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions,' —or, as it more correctly is, ' many abstruse reasonings.' Let us hold fast to this, and we shall find we have a stay by the help of which even poor weak men, with no pretensions to be logical athletes, may stand firmly.

And so, when we are asked, what is the object of religion? —let us reply : Conduct. And when we are asked further, what is conduct ?—let us answer : Three fourths of life.



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