Religion Given - Part 4
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The language of the Bible, then, is literary, not scientific language ; language thrown out at an object of consciousness not fully grasped, which inspired emotion. Evidently, if the object be one not fully to be grasped, and one to inspire emotion, the language of figure and feeling will satisfy us better about it, will cover more of what we seek to express, than the language of literal fact and science.
The language of science about it will be below what we feel to be the truth.
The question however has risen and confronts us : what was the scientific basis of fact for this consciousness? When we have once satisfied ourselves both as to the tentative, poetic way in which the Bible authors used language, and also as to their having no pretensions to metaphysics at all, let us, therefore, when there is this question raised as to the scientific account of what they had before their minds, be content with a very unpretending answer. And in this way such a phrase as that which I have formerly used concerning God, and have been much blamed for using,—the phrase, namely, that, ` for science, God is simply the stream of tendency by which all things seek to fulfil the law of their being,'—may be allowed, and may even prove useful. Certainly it is inadequate ; certainly it is a less proper phrase than, for instance : ' Clouds and darkness are round about him, righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his seat.'
But then it is, in however humble a degree and with how-ever narrow a reach, a scientific definition, which the other is not. The phrase, ' A personal First Cause, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe,' has also, when applied to God, the character, no doubt, of a scientific definition.
But then it goes far beyond what is admittedly certain and verifiable, which is what we mean by scientific. It attempts far too much. If we want here, as we do want, to have what is admittedly certain and verifiable, we must content ourselves with very little. No one will say, that it is admittedly certain and verifiable, that there is a personal first cause, the moral and intelligent governor of the universe, whom we may call God if we will. But that all things seem to us to have what we call a law of their being, and to tend to fulfil it, is certain and admitted ; though whether we will call this God or not, is a matter of choice. Suppose, how-ever, we call it God, we then give the name of God to a certain admitted reality ; this, at least, is an advantage.
And the notion of our definition does, in fact, enter into the term God, in men's common use of it. To please God, to serve God, to obey God's will, means to follow a law of things which is found in conscience, and which is an indication, irrespective of our arbitrary wish and fancy, of what we ought to do. There is, then, a real power which makes for righteousness ; and it is the greatest of realities for us.' When St. Paul says, that our business is ` to serve the spirit of God,' ` to serve the living and true God ; ' and when Epictetus says : ` What do I want ?—to acquaint myself with the natural order of things, and comply with it,' 3 they both mean, so far, the same, in that they both mean we should obey a tendency, which is not ourselves, but which appears in our consciousness, by which we and other things fulfil the real law of our being.
It is true, the not ourselves, by which things fulfil the real law of their being, extends a great deal beyond that sphere where alone we usually think of it. That is, a man may disserve God, disobey indications, not of our own making, but which appear, if we attend, in our consciousness,—he may disobey, I say, such indications of the real law of our being, in other spheres besides the sphere of conduct. He does disobey them, when he sings a hymn like : My Jesus to know, and feel his bloodflow,—or, indeed, like nine-tenths of our hymns,—or when he frames and maintains a blundering and miserable constitution of society, as well as when he commits some plain breach of the moral law. That is, he may disobey them in art and science as well as in con-duct. But he attends, and the generality of men attend, almost solely to the indications of a true law of our being as to conduct ; and hardly at, all to indications, though they as really exist, of a true law of our being on its æsthetic and intelligential side. The reason is, that the moral side, though not more real, is so much larger ; taking in, as we have said, at least three-fourths of life. Now, the indications on this moral side of that tendency, not of our making, by which things fulfil the law of their being, we do very much mean to denote and to sum up when we speak of the will of God, pleasing God, serving God. Let us keep firm footing on this basis of plain fact, narrow though it may be.
To feel that one is fulfilling in any way the law of one's being, that one is succeeding and hitting the mark, brings, as we know, happiness ; to feel this in regard to so great a thing as conduct, brings, of course, happiness proportionate to the thing's greatness. We have already had Quintilian's witness, how right conduct gives joy. Who could value knowledge more than Goethe ? but he marks it as being without question a lesser source of joy than conduct. Conduct he ranks with health as beyond all compare primary. ' Nothing, after health and virtue,' he says, ' can give so much satisfaction as learning and knowing.' Nay, and Bishop Butler, at the view of the happiness from conduct, breaks free from all that hesitancy and depression which so commonly hangs on his masterly thinking. ' Self-love, me-thinks, should be alarmed ! May she not pass over greater pleasures than those she is so wholly taken up with ?' And Bishop Wilson, always hitting the right nail on the head in matters of this sort, remarks that, ' if it were not for the practical difficulties attending it, virtue would hardly be distinguishable from a kind of sensuality.' The practical difficulties are, indeed, exceeding great. Plain as is the course and high the prize, we all find ourselves daily led to say with the Imitation : ' Would that for one single day we had lived in this world as we ought !' Yet the course is so evidently plain, and the prize so high, that the same Imitation cries out presently : ' If a man would but take notice, what peace he brings to himself, and what joy to others, merely by managing himself right !' And for such happiness, since certainly we ourselves did not make it, we instinctively feel grateful; according to that remark of one of the wholesomest and truest of moralists, Barrow : ' He is not a man, who doth not delight to make some returns thither whence he hath found great kindness.' And this sense of gratitude, again, is itself an addition to our happiness ! So strong, altogether, is the witness and sanction happiness gives to going right in conduct, to fulfilling, so far as conduct is concerned, the law indicated to us of our being. Now, there can be no sanction to compare, for force, with the strong sanction of happiness, if it be true what Bishop Butler, who is here but the mouthpiece of humanity itself, says so irresistibly : 'It is manifest that nothing can be of consequence to mankind, or any creature, but happiness.' But we English are taunted with our
proneness to an unworthy eudæmonism, and an Anglican bishop may perhaps be a suspected witness. Let us call, then, a glorious father of the Catholic Church, the great Augustine himself. Says St. Augustine : ' Act we must in pursuance of what gives us most delight ; quod amplius nos delectat, secundum id operemur necesse est.'
And now let us see how exactly Israel's perceptions about God follow and confirm this simple line, which we have here reached quite independently. First : ' It is joy to the just to do judgment.' ' Then : ' It becometh well the just to be thankful.' Finally : ' A pleasant thing it is to be thankful.' What can be simpler than this, and at the same time more solid ? But again : ' The statutes of the Eternal rejoice the heart.' And then : ' I will give thanks unto thee, O Eternal, with my whole heart ; at midnight will I rise to give thanks unto thee because of thy righteous judgments ! ' And lastly : ' It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Eternal ; it is a good thing to sing praises unto our God ! ' Why, these are the very same propositions as the preceding, only with a power and depth of emotion added ! Emotion has been applied to morality.
God or Eternal is here really, at bottom, nothing but a deeply moved way of saying ' the power that makes for conduct or righteousness.' ' Trust in God' is, in a deeply moved way of expression, the trust in the law of conduct ; ' delight in the Eternal' is, in a deeply moved way of expression, the happiness we all feel to spring from conduct. Attending to conduct, to judgment, makes the attender feel that it is joy to do it. Attending to it more still, makes him feel that it is the commandment of the Eternal, and that the joy got from it is joy from fulfilling the commandment of the Eternal. The thankfulness for this joy is thankfulness to the Eternal; and to the Eternal, again, is due that further joy which comes from this thankfulness. ' The fear of the Eternal, that is wisdom ; and to depart from evil, that is understanding.
` The fear of the Eternal' and 'To depart from evil' here mean, and are put to mean, and by the very laws of Hebrew composition which make the second phrase in a parallelism repeat the first in other words, they must mean, just the same thing. Yet what man of soul, after he had once risen to feel that to depart from evil was to walk in awful observance of an enduring clue, within us and without us, which leads to happiness, but would prefer to say, instead of 'to depart from evil," the fear of the Eternal' ?
Henceforth, then, Israel transferred to this Eternal all his obligations. Instead of saying : ' Whoso keepeth the commandment keepeth his own soul,' he rather said, ' My soul, wait thou only upon God, for of him cometh my salvation ! ' Instead of saying : ' Bind them (the laws of righteousness) continually upon thine heart, and tie them about thy neck ' he rather said, `Have I not remembered Thee on my bed, and thought upon Thee when I was waking?'
The obligation of a grateful and devout self-surrender to the Eternal replaced all sense of obligation to one's own better self, one's own permanent interest. The moralist's rule : ' Take thought for your permanent, not your momentary, well-being,' became now : ' Honour the Eternal, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words.' 6 That is, with Israel religion replaced morality.
It is true, out of the humble yet divine ground of attention to conduct, of care for what in conduct is right and good, grew morality and religion both ; but, from the time when the soul felt the motive of religion, it dropped and could not but drop the other. And the motive of doing right, to a sincere soul, is now really no longer his own welfare, but to please God ; and it bewilders his consciousness if you tell him that he does right out of self-love. So that, as we have said that the first man who, as ' a being of a large discourse, looking before and after,' controlled the blind momentary impulses of the instinct of self-preservation, and controlled the blind momentary impulses of the sexual instinct, had morality revealed to him ; so in like manner we may say, that the first man who was thrilled with gratitude, devotion, and awe, at the sense of joy and peace, not of his own making, which followed the exercise of this self-control, had religion revealed to him. And, for us at least, this man was Israel.
Now here, as we have already pointed out the falseness of the common antithesis between ethical and religious, let us anticipate the objection that the religion here spoken of is but natural religion, by pointing out the falseness of the common antithesis, also, between natural and revealed. For that in us which is really natural is, in truth, revealed. We awake to the consciousness of it, we are aware of it coming forth in our mind ; but we feel that we did not make it, that it is discovered to us, that it is what it is whether we will or no. If we are little concerned about it, we say it is natural; if much, we say it is revealed. But the difference between the two is not one of kind, only of degree. The real antithesis, to natural and revealed alike, is invented, artificial. Religion springing out of an experience of the power, the grandeur, the necessity of righteousness, is revealed religion, whether we find it in Sophocles or in Isaiah. ' The will of mortal men did not beget it, neither shall oblivion ever put it to sleep.' A system of theological notions about personality, essence, existence, consubstantiality, is artificial religion, and is the proper opposite to revealed; since it is a religion which comes forth in no one's consciousness, but is invented by theologians,—able men with uncommon talents for abstruse reasoning. This religion is in no sense revealed, just because it is in no sense natural. And revealed religion is properly so named, just in proportion as it is in a pre-eminent degree natural.
The religion of the Bible, therefore, is well said to be revealed, because the great natural truth, that 'righteousness tendeth to life,' is seized and exhibited there with such in-comparable force and efficacy. All, or very nearly all, the nations of mankind have recognised the importance of con-duct, and have attributed to it a natural obligation. They, however, looked at conduct, not as something full of happiness and joy, but as something one could not manage to do without. But : ` Sion heard of it and rejoiced, and the daughters of Judah were glad, because of thy judgments, O Eternal ! ' 2 Happiness is our being's end and aim, and no one has ever come near Israel in feeling, and in making others feel, that to righteousness belongs happiness ! The prodigies and the marvellous of Bible-religion are common to it with all religions ; the love of righteousness, in this eminency, is its own.