Religion Given - Part 5
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The real germ of religious consciousness, therefore, out of which sprang Israel's name for God, to which the records of his history adapted themselves, and which came to be clothed upon, in time, with a mighty growth of poetry and tradition, was a consciousness of the not ourselves which makes for righteousness. And the way to convince oneself of this is by studying the Bible with a fair mind, and with the tact which letters, surely, alone can give. For the thing turns upon understanding the manner in which men have thought, their way of using words, and what they mean by them. And by knowing letters, by becoming conversant with the best that has been thought and said in the world, we become acquainted not only with the history, but also with the scope and powers, of the instruments which men employ in thinking and speaking. And this is just what is sought for.
And with the sort of experience thus gained of the history of the human spirit, objections, as we have said, will be found not so much to be refuted by reasoning as to fall away of themselves. It is objected : ' Why, if the Hebrews of the Bible had thus eminently the sense for righteousness, does it not equally distinguish the Jews now?' But does not experience show us, how entirely a change of circumstances may change a people's character ; and have the modern Jews lost more of what distinguished their ancestors, or even so much, as the modern Greeks of what distinguished theirs? Where is now, among the Greeks, the dignity of life of Pericles, the dignity of thought and of art of Phidias and Plato ? It is objected, that the Jews' God was not the enduring power that makes for righteousness, but only their tribal God, who gave them the victory in the battle and plagued them that hated them. But how, then, comes their literature to be full of such things as : ` Shew me thy ways, O Eternal, and teach me thy paths ; let integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I put my trust in thee I if I incline unto wickedness with my heart, the Eternal will not hear me.' From the sense that with men thus guided and going right in goodness it could not but be well, that their leaf could not wither and that whatsoever they did must prosper,' would naturally come the sense that in their wars with an enemy the enemy should be put to con. fusion and they should triumph. But how, out of the mere sense that their enemy should be put to confusion and they should triumph, could the desire for goodness come ?
It is objected, again, that their `law of the Lord' was a positive traditionary code to the Hebrews, standing as a mechanical rule which held them in awe; that their `fear of the Lord ' was superstitious dread of an assumed magnified and non-natural man. But why, then, are they always saying : ` Teach me thy statutes, Teach me thy way, Show thou me the way that I shall walk in, Open mine eyes, Make me to understand wisdom secretly ! if all the law they were thinking of stood, stark and written, before their eyes already ? And what could they mean by : ' I will love thee, O Eternal, my strength ! ' if the fear they meant was not the awe-filled observance from deep attachment, but a servile terror? It is objected, that their conception of righteousness was a narrow and rigid one, centring mainly in what they called judgment : ` Hate the evil and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate !' so that ' evil,' for them, did not take in all faults whatever of heart and conduct, but meant chiefly oppression, graspingness, a violent, mendacious tongue, insolent and riotous excess. True ; their conception of righteousness was much of this kind, and it was narrow. But whoever sincerely attends to conduct, along however limited a line, is on his way to bring under the eye of conscience all conduct whatever; and already, in the Old Testament, the somewhat monotonous inculcation of the social virtues of judgment and justice is continually broken through by deeper movements of personal religion. Every time that the words contrition or humility drop from the lips of prophet or psalmist, Christianity appears.
It is objected, finally, that even their own narrow conception of righteousness this people could not follow, but were perpetually oppressive, grasping, slanderous, sensual. Why, the very interest and importance of their witness to righteousness lies in their having felt so deeply the necessity of what they were so little able to accomplish l They had the strongest impulses in the world to violence and excess, the keenest pleasure in gratifying these impulses. And yet they had such a sense of the natural necessary connexion between conduct and happiness, that they kept always saying, in spite of themselves : To him that ordereth his conversation right shall be shown the salvation of God !
Now manifestly this sense of theirs has a double force for the rest of mankind,—an evidential force and a practical force. Its evidential force is in keeping before men's view, by the example of the signal apparition, in one branch of our race, of the sense for conduct and righteousness, the reality and naturalness of that sense. Clearly, unless a sense or endowment of human nature, however in itself real and beneficent, has some signal representative among man-kind, it tends to be pressed upon by other senses and endowments, to suffer from its own want of energy, and to be more and more pushed out of sight. Anyone, for in-stance, who will go to the Potteries, and will look at the tawdry, glaring, ill-proportioned ware which is being made there for certain American and colonial markets, will easily convince himself how, in our people and kindred, the sense for the arts of design, though it is certainly planted in human nature, might dwindle and sink to almost nothing, if it were not for the witness borne to this sense, and the protest offered against its extinction, by the brilliant aesthetic endowment and artistic work of ancient Greece. And one cannot look out over the world without seeing that the same sort of thing might very well befall conduct, too, if it were not for the signal witness borne by Israel.
Then there is the practical force of their example ; and this is even more important. Everyone is aware how those, who want to cultivate any sense or endowment in themselves, must be habitually conversant with the works of people who have been eminent for that sense, must study them, catch inspiration from them. Only in this way, indeed, can progress be made. And as long as the world lasts, all who want to make progress in righteousness will come to Israel for inspiration, as to the people who have had the sense for righteousness most glowing and strongest; and in hearing and reading the words Israel has uttered for us, carers for conduct will find a glow and a force they could find nowhere else. As well imagine a man with a sense for sculpture not cultivating it by the help of the remains of Greek art, or a man with a sense for poetry not cultivating it by the help of Homer and Shakespeare, as a man with a sense for conduct not cultivating it by the help of the Bible ! And this sense, in the satisfying of which we come naturally to the Bible, is a sense which the generality of men have far more decidedly than they have the sense for art or for science. At any rate, whether this or that man has it decidedly or not, it is the sense which has to do with three-fourths of human life.
This does truly constitute for Israel a most extraordinary distinction. In spite of all which in them and in their character is unattractive, nay, repellent,—in spite of their shortcomings even in righteousness itself and their insignificance in everything else,—this petty, unsuccessful, un-amiable people, without politics, without science, without art, without charm, deserve their great place in the world's regard, and are likely to have it more, as the world goes on, rather than less. It is secured to them by the facts of human nature, and by the unalterable constitution of things. ' God hath given commandment to bless, and he bath blessed, and we cannot reverse it; he bath not seen iniquity in Jacob, and he hath not seen perverseness in Israel ; the Eternal, his God, is with him !
Anyone does a good deed who removes stumbling-blocks out of the way of our feeling and profiting by the witness left by this people. And so, instead of making our Hebrew speakers mean, in their use of the word God, a scientific affirmation which never entered into their heads, and about which many will dispute, let us content ourselves with matting them mean, as a matter of scientific fact and experience, what they really did mean as such, and what is unchallengeable. Let us put into their 'Eternal' and ' God' no more science than they did :—the enduring power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness. They meant more by these names, but they meant this ; and this they grasped fully. And the sense which this will give us for their words is at least solid ; so that we may find it of use as a guide to steady us, and to give us a constant clue in following what they say.
And is it so unworthy? It is true, unless we can fill it with as much feeling as they did, the mere possessing it will not carry us far. But matters are not at all mended by taking their language of approximate figure and turning it into the language of scientific definition ; or by crediting them with our own dubious science, deduced from metaphysical ideas which they never had. A better way than this, surely, is to take their fact of experience, to keep it steadily for our basis in using their language, and to see whether from using their language with the ground of this real and firm sense to it, as they themselves did, somewhat of their feeling, too, may not grow upon us. At least we shall know what we are saying ; and that what we are saying is true, however in-adequate.
But is this confessed inadequateness of our speech, concerning that which we will not call by the negative name of the unknown and unknowable, but rather by the name of the unexplored and inexpressible, and of which the Hebrews themselves said : It is more high than heaven, what canst thou do ? deeper than hell, what canst thou know? '—is this reservedness of affirmation about God less worthy of him, than the astounding particularity and licence of affirmation of our dogmatists, as if he were a man in the next street ? Nay, and nearly all the difficulties which torment theology,—as the reconciling God's justice with his mercy, and so on,—come from this licence and particularity ; theologians having precisely, as it would often seem, built up a wall first, in order afterwards to run their own heads against it.
This, we say, is what comes of too much talent for abstract reasoning. One cannot help seeing the theory of causation and such things, when one should only see a far simpler matter : the power, the grandeur, the necessity of righteousness. To be sure, a perception of these is at the bottom of popular religion, underneath all the extravagances theologians have taught people to utter, and makes the whole value of it. For the sake of this true practical perception one might be quite content to leave at rest a matter where practice, after all, is everything, and theory nothing. Only, when religion is called in question because of the extravagances of theology being passed off as religion, one disengages and helps religion by showing their utter delusiveness. They arose out of the talents of able men for reasoning, and their want (not through lack of talent, for the thing needs none ; it needs only time, trouble, good fortune, and a fair mind; but through their being taken up with their reasoning power), their want of literary experience. By a sad mishap for them, the sphere where they show their talents is one for literary experience rather than for reasoning. This mishap has at the very outset,—in the dealings of theologians with that starting-point in our religion, the experience of Israel as set forth in the Old Testament,—been the cause, we have seen, of great confusion. Naturally, as we shall hereafter see, the confusion becomes worse con-founded as they proceed.