Religion Given - Part 3
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Only with one people,—the people from whom we get the Bible,—these distractions did not so much happen.
The Old Testament, nobody will ever deny, is filled with the word and thought of righteousness. ` In the way of righteousness is life, and in the pathway thereof is no death ; "Righteousness tendeth to life ;' ' He that pursueth evil pursueth it to his own death ;" The way of transgressors is hard ;'—nobody will deny that those texts may stand for the fundamental and ever-recurring idea of the Old Testament.' No people ever felt so strongly as the people of the Old Testament, the Hebrew people, that conduct is three-fourths of our life and its largest concern. No people ever felt so strongly that succeeding, going right, hitting the mark in this great concern, was the way of peace, the highest possible satisfaction. 'He that keepeth the law, happy is he ; its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace; if thou hadst walked in its ways, thou shouldst have dwelt in peace for ever !' Jeshurun, one of the ideal names of their race, is the upright; Israel, the other and greater, is the wrestler with God, he who has known the contention and strain it costs to stand upright.
That mysterious personage by whom their history first touches the hill of Sion, is Melchisedek, the righteous king.
Their holy city, Jerusalem, is the foundation, or vision, or inheritance, of that which righteousness achieves, peace. The law of righteousness was such an object of attention to them, that its words were to `be in their heart, and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.' That they might keep them ever in mind, they wore them, went about with them, made talismans of them : ' Bind them upon thy fingers, bind them about thy neck ; write them upon the table of thine heart !' `Take fast hold of her,' they said of the doctrine of conduct, or righteousness, ` let her not go ! keep her, for she is thy life!'
People who thus spoke of righteousness could not but have had their minds long and deeply engaged with it ; much more than the generality of mankind, who have nevertheless, as we saw, got as far as the notion of morals or conduct. And, if they were so deeply attentive to it, one thing could not fail to strike them. It is this : the very great part in righteousness which belongs, we may say, to not ourselves. In the first place, we did not make ourselves and our nature, or conduct as the object of three-fourths of that nature ; we did not provide that happiness should follow conduct, as it undeniably does ; that the sense of succeeding, going right, hitting the mark, in conduct, should give satisfaction, and a very high satisfaction, just as really as the sense of doing well in his work gives pleasure to a poet or painter, or accomplishing what he tries gives plea-sure to a man who is learning to ride or to shoot ; or as satisfying his hunger, also, gives pleasure to a man who is hungry.
All this we did not make ; and, in the next place, our dealing with it at all, when it is made, is not wholly, or even nearly wholly, in our own power. Our conduct is capable, irrespective of what we can ourselves certainly answer for, of almost infinitely different degrees of force and energy in the performance of it, of lucidity and vividness in the perception of it, of fulness in the satisfaction from it ; and these degrees may vary from day to day, and quite incalculably. Facilities and felicities,—whence do they come? suggestions and stimulations,—where do they tend? hardly a day passes but we have some experience of them. And so Henry More was led to say, that `there was something about us that knew better, often, what we would be at than we ourselves.' For instance : everyone can understand how health and freedom from pain may give energy for conduct, and how a neuralgia, suppose, may diminish it. It does not depend on ourselves, indeed, whether we have the neuralgia or not, but we can understand its impairing our spirit. But the strange thing is, that with the same neuralgia we may find ourselves one day without spirit and energy for conduct, and another day with them. So that we may most truly say, with the author of the Imitation : `Left to ourselves, we sink and perish; visited, we lift up our heads and live.' And we may well give ourselves, in grateful and devout self-surrender, to that by which we are thus visited. So much is there incalculable, so much that belongs to not ourselves, in conduct ; and the more we attend to conduct, and the more we value it, the more we shall feel this.
The not ourselves, which is in us and in the world around us, has almost everywhere, as far as we can see, stuck the minds of men as they awoke to consciousness, and has inspired them with awe. Everyone knows how the mighty natural objects which most took their regards became the objects to which this awe addressed itself. Our very word God is, perhaps, a reminiscence of these times, when men invoked ` The Brilliant on high,' sublime hoc candens quod invocent omnes Fovem, as the power re-presenting to them that which transcended the limits of their narrow selves, and by which they lived and moved and had their being. Everyone knows of what differences of operation men's dealing with this power has in different places and times shown itself capable ; how here they have been moved by the not ourselves to a cruel terror, there to a timid religiosity, there again to a play of imagination; almost always, however, connecting with it, by some string or other, conduct.
But we are not writing a history of religion ; we are only tracing its effect on the language of the men from whom we get the Bible. At the time they produced those documents which give to the Old Testament its power and its true character, the not ourselves which weighed upon the mind of Israel, and engaged its awe, was the not ourselves by which we get the sense for righteousness, and whence we find the help to do right. This conception was indubitably what lay at the bottom of that remarkable change which under Moses, at a certain stage of their religious history, befell the Hebrew people's mode of naming God.' This was what they intended in that name, which we wrongly convey, either without translation, by Jehovah, which gives us the notion of a mere mythological deity, or by a wrong translation, Lord, which gives us the notion of a magnified and non-natural man. The name they used was : The Eternal.
Philosophers dispute whether moral ideas, as they call them, the simplest ideas of conduct and righteousness which now seem instinctive, did not all grow, were not once inchoate, embryo, dubious, unformed. That may have been so; the question is an interesting one for science. But the interesting question for conduct is whether those ideas are unformed or formed now. They are formed now' ; and they were formed when the Hebrews named, the power, not of their own making, which pressed upon their spirit: The Eternal. Probably the life of Abraham, the friend of God, however imperfectly the Bible traditions by themselves convey it to us, was a decisive step forwards in the development of these ideas of righteousness. Probably this was the moment when such ideas became fixed and ruling for the Hebrew people, and marked it permanently off from ail other peoples who had not made the same step. But long before the first beginnings of recorded history, long before the oldest word of Bible literature, these ideas must have been at work. We know it by the result, although they may have for along while been but rudimentary. In Israel's earliest history and earliest utterances, under the name of Eloah, Elohim, The Mighty, there may have lain and matured, there did lie and mature, ideas of God more as a moral power, more as a power connected, above everything, with conduct and righteousness, than were entertained by other races. Not only can we judge by the result that this must have been so, but we can see that it was so. Still their name, The Mighty, does not in itself involve any true and deep religious ideas, any more than our Aryan name, Deva, Deus, The Shining. With The Eternal it is otherwise. For what did they mean by the Eternal ; the Eternal what? The Eternal cause? Alas, these poor people were not Archbishops of York. They meant the Eternal righteous, who loveth righteousness. They had dwelt upon the thought of conduct, and of right and wrong, until the not ourselves, which is in us and all around us, became to them adorable eminently and altogether as a tower which makes for righteousness ; which makes for it unchangeably and eternally, and is therefore called The Eternal.
There is not a particle of metaphysics in their use of this name, any more than in their conception of the not ourselves to which they attached it. Both came to them not from abstruse reasoning but from experience, and from experience in the plain region of conduct. Theologians with metaphysical heads render Israel's Eternal by the self-existent, and Israel's not ourselves by the absolute, and attribute to Israel their own subtleties. According to them, Israel had his head full of the necessity of a first cause, and therefore said, The Eternal; as, again, they imagine him looking out into the world, noting everywhere the marks of design and adaptation to his wants, and reasoning out and inferring thence the fatherhood of God. All these fancies come from an excessive turn for reasoning, and from a neglect of observing men's actual course of thinking and way of using words.
Israel, at this stage when The Eternal was revealed to him, inferred nothing, reasoned out nothing; he felt and experienced. When he begins to speculate, in the schools of Rabbinism, he quickly shows how much less native talent . than the Bishops of Winchester and Gloucester he has for this perilous business. Happily, when The Eternal was revealed to him, he had not yet begun to speculate.
Israel personified, indeed, his Eternal, for he was strongly moved, he was an orator and poet. Man never knows how anthropomorphic he is, says Goethe ; and so man tends always to represent everything under his own figure. In poetry and eloquence man may and must follow this tendency, but in science it often leads him astray. Israel, however, did not scientifically predicate personality of God ; he would not even have had a notion what was meant by it. He called him the maker of all things, who gives drink to all out of his pleasures as out of a river; but he was led to this by no theory of a first cause. The grandeur of the spectacle given by the world, the grandeur of the sense of its all being not ourselves, being above and beyond ourselves and immeasurably dwarfing us, a man of imagination instinctively personifies as a single, mighty, living and productive power ; as Goethe tells us that the words which rose naturally to his lips, when he stood on the top of the Brocken, were : 'Lord, what is man, that thou mindest him, or the son of man, that thou makest account of him ? But Israel's confessing and extolling of this power came not even from his imaginative feeling, but came first from his gratitude for righteousness. To one who knows what conduct is, it is a joy to be alive; and the not ourselves, which by bringing forth for us righteousness makes our happiness, working just in the same sense, brings forth this glorious world to be righteous in. That is the notion at the bottom of a Hebrew's praise of a Creator; and if we attend, we can see this quite clearly. Wisdom and under-standing mean, for Israel, the love of order, of righteousness. Righteousness, order, conduct, is for Israel at once the source of all man's happiness, and at the same time the very essence of The Eternal. The great work of the Eternal is the foundation of this order in man, the implanting in mankind of his own love of righteousness, his own spirit, his own wisdom and understanding ; and it is only as a farther and natural working of this energy that Israel conceives the establishment of order in the world, or creation. ' To depart from evil, that is understanding ! Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth under-standing ! The Eternal by wisdom hath founded the earth, by understanding hath he established the heavens ;' and so the Bible-writer passes into the account of creation. It all comes to him from the idea of righteousness.
And it is the same with all the language our Hebrew religionist uses. God is a father, because the power in and around us, which makes for righteousness, is indeed best described by the name of this authoritative but yet tender and protecting relation. So, too, with the intense fear and abhorrence of idolatry. Conduct, righteousness, is, above all, a matter of inward motion and rule. No sensible forms can represent it, or help us to it ; such attempts at representation can only distract us from it. So, too, with the sense of the oneness of God. `Hear, O Israel ! The Lord our God is one Lord.' 2 People think that in this unity of God,—this monotheistic idea, as they call it,—they have certainly got metaphysics at last. They have got nothing of the kind. The monotheistic idea of Israel is simply seriousness. There are, indeed, many aspects of the not ourselves ; but Israel regarded one aspect of it only, that by which it makes for righteousness. He had the advantage, to he sure, that with this aspect three-fourths of human life is concerned. But there are other aspects which may be set in view. ` Frail and striving mortality,' says the elder Pliny in a noble passage, ` mindful of its own weakness, has distinguished these aspects severally, so as for each man to be able to attach himself to the divine by this or that part, according as he has most need.' That is an apology for polytheism, as answering to man's many-sidedness. But Israel felt that being thus many-sided degenerates into an imaginative play, and bewilders what Israel recognised as our sole religious consciousness,—the consciousness of right. `Let thine eyelids look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee; turn not to the right hand nor to the left ; remove thy foot from evil !'
For does not Ovid say,' in excuse for the immorality of his verses, that the sight and mention of the gods themselves,—the rulers of human life,—often raised immoral thoughts? And so the sight and mention of all aspects of the not ourselves must. Yet how tempting are many of these aspects I Even at this time of day, the grave authorities of the University of Cambridge are so struck by one of 'them, that of pleasure, life and fecundity,—of the hominum divomque voluptas, alma Venus,—that they set it publicly up as an object for their scholars to fix their minds upon, and to compose verses in honour of. That is all very well at present ; but with this natural bent in the authorities of the University of Cambridge, and in the Indo-European race to which they belong, where would they be now if it had not been for Israel, and for the stern check which Israel put upon the glorification and divinisation of this natural bent of mankind, this attractive aspect of the not ourselves ? Perhaps going in procession, Vice-Chancellor, bedels, masters, scholars, and all, in spite of their Professor of Moral Philosophy, to the temple of Aphrodite ! Nay, and very likely Mr. Birks 'himself, his brows crowned with myrtle and scarcely a shade of melancholy on his countenance, would have been going along with them ! It is Israel and his seriousness that have saved the authorities of the University of Cambridge from carrying their divinisation of pleasure to these lengths, or from making more of it, indeed, than a mere passing intellectual play ; and even this play Israel would have beheld with displeasure, saying : O turn away mine eyes lest they behold vanity, but quicken Thou me in thy way!' So earnestly and exclusively were Israel's regards bent on one aspect of the not ourselves : its aspect as a power making for conduct, for righteousness. Israel's Eternal was the Eternal which says : 'Be ye holy, for I am holy !' Now, as righteousness is but a heightened conduct, so holiness is but a heightened righteousness ; a more finished, entire, and awe-filled righteousness. It was such a righteousness which was Israel's ideal ; and therefore it was that Israel said, not indeed what our Bibles make him say, but this : `Hear, O Israel ! The Eternal is our God, The Eternal alone.
And in spite of his turn for personification, his want of a clear boundary-line between poetry and science, his inaptitude to express even abstract notions by other than highly concrete terms,—in spite of these scientific disadvantages, or rather, perhaps, because of them, because he had no talent for abstruse reasoning to lead him astray,—the spirit and tongue of Israel kept a propriety, a reserve, a sense of the inadequacy of language in conveying man's ideas of God, which contrast strongly with the licence of affirmation in our Western theology. ` The high and holy One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is holy,' is far more proper and felicitous language than `the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe,' just because it far less attempts to be precise, but keeps to the language of poetry and does not essay the language of science. As he had developed his idea of God from personal experience, Israel knew what we, who have developed our idea from his words about it, so often are ignorant of : that his words were but thrown out at a vast object of consciousness, which he could not fully grasp, and which he apprehended clearly by one point alone,—that it made for the great concern of life, conduct. How little we know of it besides, how impenetrable is the course of its ways with us, how we are baffled in our attempts to name and describe it, how, when we personify it and call it ` the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe,' we presently find it not to be a person as man conceives of persons, nor moral as man conceives of moral, nor intelligent as man conceives of intelligent, nor a governor as man conceives of governors,—all this, which scientific theology loses sight of, Israel, who had but poetry and eloquence, and no system, and who did not mind contradicting himself, knew. ` Is it any pleasure to the Almighty, that thou art righteous ?' 2 What a blow to our ideal of that magnified and non-natural man, ` the moral and intelligent Governor' Say what we can about God, say our best, we have yet, Israel knew, to add instantly
Lo, these are fringes of his ways ; but how little a portion is heard of him ! Yes, indeed, Israel remembered that, far better than our bishops do. `Canst thou by searching find out God ; canst thou find out the perfection of the Almighty ? It is more high than heaven, what canst thou do? deeper than hell, what canst thou know?
Will it be said; experience might also have shown to Israel a not ourselves which did not make for his happiness, but rather made against it, baffled his claims to it ? But no man, as I have elsewhere remarked, who simply follows his own consciousness, is aware of any claims, any rights, whatever; what he gets of good makes him thankful, what he gets of ill seems to him natural. His simple spontaneous feeling is well expressed by that saying of Izaak Walton : ' Every misery that I miss is a new mercy, and therefore let us be thankful.' It is true, the not ourselves of which we are thankfully conscious we inevitably speak of and speak to as a man ; for ` man never knows hows anthropomorphic he is.' And as time proceeds, imagination and reasoning keep working upon this substructure, and build from it a magnified and non-natural man. Attention is then drawn, afterwards, to causes outside ourselves which seem to make for sin and suffering ; and then either these causes have to be reconciled by some highly ingenious scheme with the magnified and non-natural man's power, or a second magnified and non-natural man has to be supposed, who pulls the contrary way to the first. So arise Satan and his angels. But all this is secondary, and comes much later. Israel, the founder of our religion, did not begin with this. He began with experience. He knew from thankful experience the not ourselves which makes for righteousness, and knew how little we know about God besides.