The Mission Of Illusion
AMONGST the subjects which no Christian teacher of today can afford to ignore is that of illusion and the part it plays in life and religion. It is a matter that will not be burked, and all who in any way stand for the interests of faith have to make up their minds upon it. To the present generation it is becoming increasingly clear that many things which it had been accustomed to regard as religious fact are really not so, and the revelation is one full of danger to the inner life unless its actual significance is fully explained. The Church has been, in a sense, brought up on illusions, and the plain man who is just becoming conscious of this, is shocked at the discovery. His first impulse is to cry " Treachery ! " Religion has betrayed him ; the teacher has proved false, and is therefore no Langer to be regarded. What he here evidently needs is a doctrine of illusion which shall remove his misapprehensions and put him at his ease in the new situation. He has to learn that, as the French Joubert tersely puts it, " Illusions come from heaven, errors come from ourselves." In other words, the existence of illusion in life and religion, is no betrayal, but one of the Divine ordinances for the education of humanity. It works by ascertainable laws, and its operations, when understood, are seen to be wholly beneficent.
The law of illusion is written broadly on every department of life. Children live in a world of make-believe, and Nature's method with the young people here has been her way with man as a whole. Truth is one of her goals for him, but she is in no hurry to get him there. She is content, in the earlier stages of his development, to fit him out with rudimentary and provisional ideas, adequate to his growth and requirements at any given stage, but to be replaced by broader ones when the time for them comes. He lives at first in a fancy world where his senses trick him at every turn. They give him what seem facts as to the relation of the earth to the heavens, as to the sun's motion, the blue of the sky, the nature and number of the elements, all of which turn out afterwards to be illusions. And are we sure even that a large part of the so-called scientific perception of the universe of the present day will not, in its turn, prove to be illusion P At best our theories are a series of working hypotheses which may turn out to be quite incorrectly based. We are, for instance, resting everything on an atomic theory, without knowing anything as to the interior nature of the atom, or how it came to be there at all. And when our knowledge has reached its utmost bound it will, after all, be an affair only of our particular perceptive faculties. We shall, as Fichte says, go on always making our own world. We can say nothing as to ultimate existence except that, as Spinoza has put it, "things must exist, not only in the manner in which they are manifested to us, but in every manner which infinite understanding can conceive."
With illusion playing this part in the broadest realms of life it would be surprising if its law should be abrogated in any one sphere of it, such as that of religion. As a matter of fact, we find it in full play there, and it is high time that we gave to its operations the recognition they demand. The successive cults of fetichism, of star worship and of polytheism, by which man arrived ultimately at monotheism, have been the differing vessels which in turn have held the treasure of his growing spiritual life. When these preparatory ideas had served their turn, the force which developed them provided for their decay. The soul, like the body, has an apparatus of decay which works as surely as its apparatus of growth. By a process which nothing can stop it separates, excretes and rids itself of, every element that has ceased to be of use. The efforts of a Julian to resuscitate the Roman paganism were powerless, though he had the force of an Empire at his back. Paganism passed because its hour had come.
Theology has been excessively reluctant to admit the working of this law in the Church, but the fact of it can no longer be denied. What we now discover is that the Christian consciousness that forms the Church's life has had successive coatings of ideas which it perpetually outgrows and casts aside. The reservoir of living water has had the roughest material for its embankment. The early Church was cradled in illusions. Whether it looked before or behind it met the mirage. It looked behind to a view of the Old Testament which we now smile at. Many of the Fathers readily accept the view that Ezra miraculously restored the books of the Hebrew Scriptures that had been lost during the exile, as well as the story of the miracle by which, in the translation of the Septuagint, the seventy elders, shut up in separate cells, wrote each one of them exactly the same words. In its forward look the first Christian community had a similar experience. It is pathetic for us, as we gaze back from our far-off standpoint, to observe the absolute confidence of those early forecasts and the way in which events have contradicted them ; to see how, in succession, now a Justin Martyr, now an Irenaeus, now a Tertullian and a Cyprian, and anon a Jerome and an Augustine, find in the state of the world around them the sure signs of the Advent and the world's end. In all this they were wrong ; but what then ? Was their religion one whit less centrally true or Divine 'because contained in this framework of primitive ideas ? Their religion was not in that framework, but in the fact that the love of Christ constrained them ; that their hearts had been filled by Him with the passion for holiness; that His infinite pity for all who suffered and were needy wrought in them. Here was the evidence both of its truth and of its divinity. The evolution of its ideas could in the meantime take care of itself.
Today we have to recognise that a certain portion of the Church creeds were wrought in an atmosphere of illusion. They were constructed to the scale of a pettier universe than that to which we now know ourselves to belong. The creeds are, for one thing, geocentric. They conceive the earth as central, with heaven and hell as adjunct and completion. They are unreal to a view which regards our planet as a dust speck in the infinity of the worlds.
At contra nusquam apparent Acherusia templa.
Jacob's ladder no longer reaches to the sky. The heavens have removed far off and become astronomical. In short, the concepts which presided over the Church creeds represent, in the language of a recent writer, "undeveloped science, imperfect philosophy and perverted notions of history." They will have to be revised. Their view of Christianity is steadily giving way in the minds of men to one more in accord with the laws that govern the outside universe and the evolution of the human soul.
What then ? Will this march away from the earlier illusions lead Christian people to a barer pasturage for the spirit ? Will their religion be poorer for the change in some of its surrounding ideas ? The previous history of the human movement should be enough to reassure us on this point. What man has found hitherto is that the new reality which he reaches is always greater and more satisfying than the old illusion which it displaces. The tiny Cosmos of the ancients was not to be compared in grandeur with that which modern astronomy and geology have disclosed. And if this be so with the external world the whole analogy of things suggests that in like manner will it be with the inner and spiritual world. We shall not go forward in every other department to go backward here. The new concepts which, in our escape from earlier illusions, we are gaining as to the origin and nature of Christianity will be more sublime and more religiously effective than those earlier ones, as they will offer an exacter and more satisfying relation to life's infinite whole. We shall advance, as Goethe says, from a Christianity of words to a Christianity of feeling and action." And as the investigations of science disclose to us an external nature which becomes more and more immeasurable to the view, so the sense of religion as it develops will reveal ever wider spheres in which love and faith and holiness may grow and expatiate.
There is another side of the mission of illusion which we can none of us afford to ignore. It is that of its relation to our personal life. Illusion is the charm and poetry of the soul, as well as one of its most effective inspirations. Children live in its enchanted realm, and if we are wise, we who are older will often take up our abode there, too. It is a trick of the present writer, of which he is willing to make a present to his readers, when at a concert where the highest music is provided, to enhance the enjoyment by the simple process of shutting his eyes and imagining himself in his own room, and this glorious feast to be an impromptu serenade under his windows. By getting rid, in this way, of the claims of expectation, and allowing everything to come as a surprise, one has doubled the delight. It is by illusion also that Nature gets her biggest things out of us. Young men set off on hardy adventures of campaign or of travel with an idea of accompanying pleasure or profit which in nine cases out of ten will not be realised. But they will have done something for their own and the world's furtherance, which otherwise would not have been done. A lad's notion of his own powers, and of his future, is half illusion. But what power he does exercise, and what future he will secure, are owing largely to that illusion. Under this rainbow arch men and women walk together to marriage and the founding of homes. Nature smiles at their ideas while securing, at their expense, the harvest of her own.
Yet is her smile, while carrying in it a trace of irony, ever benevolent. From passion's illusion, by which hearts seem often so cruelly beguiled, come results better than the dream, though so different from it. The family life, consisting often of hard enough realities, will leave higher effects upon character than the sentimental raptures which preceded it. And its disappointments and sorrows show illusion as one of the great training forces of the human spirit. It is by the contrast here forced on us between earth's promises and their fulfilment that it urges on the soul, as by an inner necessity, to seek finally its peace in those imperishables which do not betray.
( Originally Published 1903 )
Ourselves And The Universe:
A Roomier Universe
The Divine Indifference
Truth's Spiritual Equivalents
The Inwardness Of Events
The Sins Of Saints
The World's Beauty
Of Face Architecture
Westward Of Fifty
The Art Of Happiness
The Mission Of Illusion
Read More Articles About: Ourselves And The Universe