[Sidenote: Myths might be metaphysical.]
Such an avowed and defended magic usually takes one of two forms. When the miracle is interpreted dramatically, by analogy to human life, we have mythology; when it is interpreted rationalistically, by analogy to current logic or natural science, we have metaphysics or theosophy. The metaphysical sort of superstition has never taken deep root in the western world. Pythagorean mysteries and hypnotisations, although periodically fashionable, have soon shrivelled in our too salubrious and biting air. Even such charming exotics as Plato's myths have not been able to flourish without changing their nature and passing into ordinary dramatic mythology—into a magic system in which all the forces, once terms in moral experience, became personal angels and demons. Similarly with the Christian sacraments: these magic rites, had they been established in India among a people theosophically minded, might have furnished cues to high transcendental mysteries. Baptism might have been interpreted as a symbol for the purged and abolished will, and Communion as a symbol for the escape from personality. But European races, though credulous enough, are naturally positivistic, so that, when they were called upon to elucidate their ceremonial mysteries, what they lit upon was no metaphysical symbolism but a material and historical drama. Communion became a sentimental interview between the devout soul and the person of Christ; baptism became the legal execution of a mythical contract once entered into between the first and second persons of the Trinity. Thus, instead of a metaphysical interpretation, the extant magic received its needful justification through myths.
[Sidenote: They appear ready made, like parts of the social fabric.]
When mythology first appears in western literature it already possesses a highly articulate form. The gods are distinct personalities, with attributes and histories which it is hard to divine the source of and which suggest no obvious rational interpretation. The historian is therefore in the same position as a child who inherits a great religion. The gods and their doings are prima facie facts in his world like any other facts, objective beings that convention puts him in the presence of and with which he begins by having social relations. He envisages them with respect and obedience, or with careless defiance, long before he thinks of questioning or proving their existence. The attitude he assumes towards them makes them in the first instance factors in his moral world. Much subsequent scepticism and rationalising philosophy will not avail to efface the vestiges of that early communion with familiar gods. It is hard to reduce to objects of science what are essentially factors in moral intercourse. All thoughts on religion remain accordingly coloured with passion, and are felt to be, above all, a test of loyalty and an index to virtue. The more derivative, unfathomable, and opaque is the prevalent idea of the gods, the harder it is for a rational feeling to establish itself in their regard. Sometimes the most complete historical enlightenment will not suffice to dispel the shadow which their moral externality casts over the mind. In vain do we discard their fable and the thin proofs of their existence when, in spite of ourselves, we still live in their presence.
[Sidenote: They perplex the conscience.]
This pathetic phenomenon is characteristic of religious minds that have outgrown their traditional faith without being able to restate the natural grounds and moral values of that somehow precious system in which they no longer believe. The dead gods, in such cases, leave ghosts behind them, because the moral forces which the gods once expressed, and which, of course, remain, remain inarticulate; and therefore, in their dumbness, these moral forces persistently suggest their only known but now discredited symbols. To regain moral freedom—without which knowledge cannot be put to its rational use in the government of life—we must rediscover the origin of the gods, reduce them analytically to their natural and moral constituents, and then proceed to rearrange those materials, without any quantitative loss, in forms appropriate to a maturer reflection.
Of the innumerable and rather monotonous mythologies that have flourished in the world, only the Graeco-Roman and the Christian need concern us here, since they are by far the best known to us and the best defined in themselves, as well as the only two likely to have any continued influence on the western mind. Both these systems pre-suppose a long prior development. The gods of Greece and of Israel have a full-blown character when we first meet them in literature. In both cases, however, we are fortunate in being able to trace somewhat further back the history of mythology, and do not depend merely on philosophic analysis to reach the elements which we seek.
[Sidenote: Incipient myth in the Vedas.]
In the Vedic hymns there survives the record of a religion remarkably like the Greek in spirit, but less dramatic and articulate in form. The gods of the Vedas are unmistakably natural elements. Vulcan is there nothing but fire, Jupiter nothing but the sky. This patriarchal people, fresh from the highlands, had not yet been infected with the manias and diseases of the jungle. It lived simply, rationally, piously, loving all natural joys and delighted with all the instruments of a rude but pure civilisation. It saluted without servility the forces of nature which ministered to its needs. It burst into song in the presence of the magnificent panorama spread out before it—day-sky and night-sky, dawn and gloaming, clouds, thunder and rain, rivers, cattle and horses, grain, fruit, fire, and wine. Nor were the social sanctities neglected. Commemoration was made of the stages of mortal life, of the bonds of love and kinship, of peace, of battle, and of mourning for the dead. By a very intelligible figure and analogy the winds became shepherds, the clouds flocks, the day a conqueror, the dawn a maid, the night a wise sibyl and mysterious consort of heaven. These personifications were tentative and vague, and the consequent mythology was a system of rhetoric rather than of theology. The various gods had interchangeable attributes, and, by a voluntary confusion, quite in the manner of later Hindu poetry, each became on occasion any or all of the others.
Here the Indian pantheistic vertigo begins to appear. Many dark superstitions, no doubt, bubbled up in the torrent of that plastic reverie; for this people, clean and natural as on the whole it appears, cannot have been without a long and ignoble ancestry. The Greeks themselves, heirs to kindred general traditions, retained some childish and obscene practices in their worship. But such hobgoblins naturally vanish under a clear and beneficent sun and are scattered by healthy mountain breezes. A cheerful people knows how to take them lightly, play with them, laugh at them, and turn them again into figures of speech. Among the early speakers of Sanskrit, even more than among the Greeks, the national religion seems to have been nothing but a poetic naturalism.
Such a mythology, however, is exceedingly plastic and unstable. If the poet is observant and renews his impressions, his myths will become more and more accurate descriptions of the facts, and his hypotheses about phenomena will tend to be expressed more and more in terms of the phenomena themselves; that is, will tend to become scientific. If, on the contrary and as usually happens, the inner suggestions and fertility of his fables absorb his interest, and he neglects to consult his external perceptions any further, or even forgets that any such perceptions originally inspired the myth, he will tend to become a dramatic poet, guided henceforth in his fictions only by his knowledge and love of human life.
[Sidenote: Natural suggestions soon exhausted.]
[Sidenote: They will be carried out in abstract fancy.]
When we transport ourselves in fancy to patriarchal epochs and Arcadian scenes, we can well feel the inevitable tendency of the mind to mythologise and give its myths a more and more dramatic character. The phenomena of nature, unintelligible rationally but immensely impressive, must somehow be described and digested. But while they compel attention they do not, after a while, enlarge experience. Husbandmen's lore is profound, practical, poetic, superstitious, but it is singularly stagnant. The cycle of natural changes goes its perpetual round and the ploughman's mind, caught in that narrow vortex, plods and plods after the seasons. Apart from an occasional flood, drought, or pestilence, nothing breaks his laborious torpor. The most cursory inspection of field and sky yields him information enough for his needs. Practical knowledge with him is all instinct and tradition. His mythology can for that very reason ride on nature with a looser rein. If at the same time, however, his circumstances are auspicious and he feels practically secure, he will have much leisure to ripen inwardly and to think. He hasten to unfold in meditation the abstract potentialities of his mind. His social and ideal passions, his aptitude for art and fancy, will arouse within him a far keener and more varied experience than his outer life can supply. Yet all his fortunes continue to be determined by external circumstances and to have for their theatre this given and uncontrollable world. Some conception of nature and the gods—that is, in his case, some mythology—must therefore remain before him always and stand in his mind for the real forces controlling experience.
His moral powers and interests have meantime notably developed. His sense for social relations has grown clear and full in proportion as his observation of nature has sunk into dull routine. Consequently, the myths by which reality is represented lose, so to speak, their birthright and first nationality. They pass under the empire of abstract cogitation and spontaneous fancy. They become naturalised in the mind. The poet cuts loose from nature and works out instead whatever hints of human character or romantic story the myth already supplies. Analogies drawn from moral and passionate experience replace the further portraiture of outer facts. Human tastes, habits, and dreams enter the fable, expanding it into some little drama, or some mystic anagram of mortal life. While in the beginning the sacred poet had transcribed nothing but joyous perceptions and familiar industrial or martial actions, he now introduces intrigue, ingenious adventures, and heroic passions.
[Sidenote: They may become moral ideals.]
When we turn from the theology of the Vedas to that of Homer we see this revolution already accomplished. The new significance of mythology has obscured the old, and was a symbol for material facts has become a drama, an apologue, and an ideal. Thus one function of mythology has been nothing less than to carry religion over from superstition into wisdom, from an excuse and apology for magic into an ideal representation of moral goods. In his impotence and sore need a man appeals to magic; this appeal he justifies by imagining a purpose and a god behind the natural agency. But after his accounts with the phenomena are settled by his own labour and patience, he continues to be fascinated by the invisible spirit he has evoked. He cherishes this image; it becomes his companion, his plastic and unaccountable witness and refuge in all the exigencies of life. Dwelling in the mind continually, the deity becomes acclimated there; the worship it receives endows it with whatever powers and ideal faculties are most feared or honoured by its votary. Now the thunder and the pestilence which were once its essence come to be regarded as its disguises and its foils. Faith comes to consist in disregarding what it was once religion to regard, namely, the ways of fortune and the conditions of earthly happiness. Thus the imagination sets up its ideals over against the world that occasioned them, and mythology, instead of cheating men with false and magic aids to action, moralises them by presenting an ideal standard for action and a perfect object for contemplation.
[Sidenote: The sun-god moralised.]
If we consider again, for instance, Apollo's various attributes and the endless myths connected with his name, we shall find him changing his essence and forgetting to be the material sun in order to become the light of a cultivated spirit. At first he is the sky's child, and has the moon for twin sister. His mother is an impersonation of darkness and mystery. He travels yearly from the hyperborean regions toward the south, and daily he traverses the firmament in a chariot. He sleeps in a sea-nymph's bosom or rises from the dawn's couch. In all this we see clearly a scarcely figurative description of the material sun and its motions. A quasi-scientific fancy spins these fables almost inevitably to fill the vacuum not yet occupied by astronomy. Such myths are indeed compacted out of wonders, not indeed to add wonder to them (for the original and greatest marvel persists always in the sky), but to entertain us with pleasant consideration of them and with their assimilation to our own fine feats. This assimilation is unavoidable in a poet ignorant of physics, whom human life must supply with all his vocabulary and similes. Fortunately in this need of introducing romance into phenomena lies the leaven that is to leaven the lump, the subtle influence that is to moralise religion. For presently Apollo becomes a slayer of monsters (a function no god can perform until he has ceased to be a monster himself), he becomes the lovely and valorous champion of humanity, the giver of prophecy, of music, of lyric song, even the patron of medicine and gymnastics.
[Sidenote: The leaven of religion is moral idealism.]
What a humane and rational transformation! The spirit of Socrates was older than the man and had long been at work in the Greeks. Interest had been transferred from nature to art, from the sources to the fruits of life. We in these days are accustomed as a matter of course to associate religion with ideal interests. Our piety, unlike our barbarous pantheistic theology, has long lost sight of its rudimentary material object, and habituated us to the worship of human sanctity and human love. We have need all the more to remember how slowly and reluctantly religion has suffered spiritualisation, how imperfectly as yet its superstitious origin has been outgrown. We have need to retrace with the greatest attention the steps by which a moral value has been insinuated into what would otherwise be nothing but a medley of magic rites and poetic physics. It is this submerged idealism which alone, in an age that should have finally learned how to operate in nature and how to conceive her processes, could still win for religion a philosopher's attention or a legislator's mercy.
THE HEBRAIC TRADITION
[Sidenote: Phases of Hebraism.]
As the Vedas offer a glimpse into the antecedents of Greek mythology, so Hebrew studies open up vistas into the antecedents of Christian dogma. Christianity in its Patristic form was an adaptation of Hebrew religion to the Graeco-Roman world, and later, in the Protestant movement, a readaptation of the same to what we may call the Teutonic spirit. In the first adaptation, Hebrew positivism was wonderfully refined, transformed into a religion of redemption, and endowed with a semi-pagan mythology, a pseudo-Platonic metaphysics, and a quasi-Roman organisation. In the second adaptation, Christianity received a new basis and standard in the spontaneous faith of the individual; and, as the traditions thus undermined in principle gradually dropped away, it was reduced by the German theologians to a romantic and mystical pantheism. Throughout its transformations, however, Christianity remains indebted to the Jews not only for its founder, but for the nucleus of its dogma, cult, and ethical doctrine. If the religion of the Jews, therefore, should disclose its origin, the origin of Christianity would also be manifest.
Now the Bible, when critically studied, clearly reveals the source, if not of the earliest religion of Israel, at least of those elements in later Jewish faith which have descended to us and formed the kernel of Christian revelation. The earlier Hebrews, as their own records depict them, had a mythology and cultus extremely like that of other Semitic peoples. It was natural religion—I mean that religion which naturally expresses the imaginative life of a nation according to the conceptions there current about the natural world and to the interest then uppermost in men's hearts. It was a religion without a creed or scripture or founder or clergy. It consisted in local rites, in lunar feasts, in soothsayings and oracles, in legends about divine apparitions commemorated in the spots they had made holy. These spots, as in all the rest of the world, were tombs, wells, great trees, and, above all, the tops of mountains.
[Sidenote: Israel's tribal monotheism.]
A wandering tribe, at once oppressed and aggressive, as Israel evidently was from the beginning is conscious of nothing so much as of its tribal unity. To protect the tribe is accordingly the chief function of its god. Whatever character Jehovah may originally have had, whether a storm-god of Sinai or of Ararat, or a sacred bull, or each of these by affinity and confusion with the other, when the Israelites had once adopted him as their god they could see nothing essential in him but his power to protect them in the lands they had conquered. To this exclusive devotion of Jehovah to Israel, Israel responded by a devotion to Jehovah no less exclusive. They neglected, when at home, the worship of every other divinity, and later even while travelling abroad; and they tended to deny altogether, first the comparable power and finally even the existence of other gods.
[Sidenote: Problems involved.]
Israel was a small people overshadowed by great empires, and its political situation was always highly precarious. After a brief period of comparative vigour under David and Solomon (a period afterward idealised with that oriental imagination which, creating so few glories, dreams of so many) they declined visibly toward an inevitable absorption by their neighbours. But, according to the significance which religion then had in Israel, the ruin of the state would have put Jehovah's honour and power in jeopardy. The nation and its god were like body and soul; it occurred to no one as yet to imagine that the one could survive the other. A few sceptical and unpatriotic minds, despairing of the republic, might turn to the worship of Baal or of the stars invoked by the Assyrians, hoping thus to save themselves and their private fortunes by a timely change of allegiance. But the true Jew had a vehement and unshakable spirit. He could not allow the waywardness of events to upset his convictions or the cherished habits of his soul. Accordingly he bethought himself of a new way of explaining and meeting the imminent catastrophe.
The prophets, for to them the revolution in question was due, conceived that the cause of Israel's misfortunes might be not Jehovah's weakness but his wrath—a wrath kindled against the immorality, lukewarmness, and infidelity of the people. Repentance and a change of life, together with a purification of the cultus, would bring back prosperity. It was too late, perhaps, to rescue the whole state. But a remnant might be saved like a brand from the burning, to be the nucleus of a great restoration, the seed of a mighty people that should live for ever in godliness and plenty. Jehovah's power would thus be vindicated, even if Israel were ruined; nay, his power would be magnified beyond anything formerly conceived, since now the great powers of Asia would be represented as his instruments in the chastisement of his people.
[Sidenote: The prophets put new wine in old bottles.]
These views, if we regarded them from the standpoint common in theology as attempts to re-express the primitive faith, would have to be condemned as absolutely heretical and spurious. But the prophets were not interpreting documents or traditions; they were publishing their own political experience. They were themselves inspired. They saw the identity of virtue and happiness, the dependence of success upon conduct. This new truth they announced in traditional language by saying that Jehovah's favour was to be won only by righteousness and that vice and folly alienated his goodwill. Their moral insight was genuine; yet by virtue of the mythical expression they could not well avoid and in respect to the old orthodoxy, their doctrine was a subterfuge, the first of those after-thoughts and ingenious reinterpretations by which faith is continually forced to cover up its initial blunders. For the Jews had believed that with such a God they were safe in any case; but now they were told that, to retain his protection, they must practice just those virtues by which the heathen also might have been made prosperous and great. It was a true doctrine, and highly salutary, but we need not wonder that before being venerated the prophets were stoned.
The ideal of this new prophetic religion was still wholly material and political. The virtues, emphasised and made the chief mark of a religious life, were recommended merely as magic means to propitiate the deity, and consequently to insure public prosperity. The thought that virtue is a natural excellence, the ideal expression of human life, could not be expected to impress those vehement barbarians any more than it has impressed their myriad descendants and disciples, Jewish, Christian, or Moslem. Yet superstitious as the new faith still remained, and magical as was the efficacy it attributed to virtue, the fact that virtue rather than burnt offerings was now endowed with miraculous influence and declared to win the favour of heaven, proved two things most creditable to the prophets: in the first place, they themselves loved virtue, else they would hardly have imagined that Jehovah loved it, or have believed it to be the only path to happiness; and in the second place, they saw that public events depend on men's character and conduct, not on omens, sacrifices, or intercessions. There was accordingly a sense for both moral and political philosophy in these inspired orators. By assigning a magic value to morality they gave a moral value to religion. The immediate aim of this morality—to propitiate Jehovah—was indeed imaginary, and its ultimate aim—to restore the kingdom of Israel—was worldly; yet that imaginary aim covered, in the form of a myth, a sincere consecration to the ideal, while the worldly purpose led to an almost scientific conception of the principles and movement of earthly things.
[Sidenote: Inspiration and authority.]
To this transformation in the spirit of the law, another almost as important corresponded in the letter. Scripture was codified, proclaimed, and given out formally to be inspired by Jehovah and written by Moses. That all traditions, legends, and rites were inspired and sacred was a matter of course in antiquity. Nature was full of gods, and the mind, with its unaccountable dreams and powers, could not be without them. Its inventions could not be less oracular than the thunder or the flight of birds. Israel, like every other nation, thought its traditions divine. These traditions, however, had always been living and elastic; the prophets themselves gave proof that inspiration was still a vital and human thing. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that while the prophets were preparing their campaign, under pressure of the same threatened annihilation, the same puritanical party should have edited a new code of laws and attributed it retroactively to Moses. While the prophet's lips were being touched by the coal of fire, the priests and king in their conclave were establishing the Bible and the Church. It is easy to suspect, from the accounts we have, that a pious fraud was perpetrated on this occasion; but perhaps the finding of a forgotten book of the Law and its proclamation by Josiah, after consulting a certain prophetess, were not so remote in essence from prophetic sincerity. In an age when every prophet, seeing what was needful politically, could cry, "So saith the Lord," it could hardly be illegitimate for the priests, seeing what was expedient legally, to declare, "So said Moses." Conscience, in a primitive and impetuous people, may express itself in an apocryphal manner which in a critical age conscience would altogether exclude. It would have been hardly conceivable that what was obviously right and necessary should not be the will of Jehovah, manifested of old to the fathers in the desert and now again whispered in their children's hearts. To contrive a stricter observance was an act at once of experimental prudence—a means of making destiny, perhaps, less unfavourable—and an act of more fervent worship—a renewal of faith in Jehovah, to whose hands the nation was intrusted more solemnly and irrevocably than ever.
[Sidenote: Beginnings of the Church.]
This pious experiment failed most signally. Jerusalem was taken, the Temple destroyed, and the flower of the people carried into exile. The effect of failure, however, was not to discredit the Law and the Covenant, now once for all adopted by the unshakable Jews. On the contrary, when they returned from exile they re-established the theocracy with greater rigour than ever, adding all the minute observances, ritualistic and social, enshrined in Leviticus. Israel became an ecclesiastical community. The Temple, half fortress, half sanctuary, resounded with perpetual psalms. Piety was fed on a sense at once of consecration and of guidance. All was prescribed, and to fulfil the Law, precisely because it involved so complete and, as the world might say, so arbitrary a regimen, became a precious sacrifice, a continual act of religion.
[Sidenote: Bigotry turned into a principle.]
Dogmas are at their best when nobody denies them, for then their falsehood sleeps, like that of an unconscious metaphor, and their moral function is discharged instinctively. They count and are not defined, and the side of them that is not deceptive is the one that comes forward. What was condemnable in the Jews was not that they asserted the divinity of their law, for that they did with substantial sincerity and truth. Their crime is to have denied the equal prerogative of other nations' laws and deities, for this they did, not from critical insight or intellectual scruples, but out of pure bigotry, conceit, and stupidity. They did not want other nations also to have a god. The moral government of the world, which the Jews are praised for having first asserted, did not mean for them that nature shows a generic benevolence toward life and reason wherever these arise. Such a moral government might have been conceived by a pagan philosopher and was not taught in Israel until, selfishness having been outgrown, the birds and the heathen were also placed under divine protection. What the moral government of things meant when it was first asserted was that Jehovah expressly directed the destinies of heathen nations and the course of nature itself for the final glorification of the Jews.
No civilised people had ever had such pretensions before. They all recognised one another's religions, if not as literally true (for some familiarity is needed to foster that illusion), certainly as more or less sacred and significant. Had the Jews not rendered themselves odious to mankind by this arrogance, and taught Christians and Moslems the same fanaticism, the nature of religion would not have been falsified among us and we should not now have so much to apologise for and to retract.
[Sidenote: Penance accepted.]
Israel's calamities, of which the prophets saw only the beginning, worked a notable spiritualisation in its religion. The happy thought of attributing misfortune to wickedness remained a permanent element in the creed; but as no scrupulous administration of rites, no puritanism, no good conscience, could avail to improve the political situation, it became needful for the faithful to reconsider their idea of happiness. Since holiness must win divine favour, and Israel was undoubtedly holy, the marks of divine favour must be looked for in Israel's history. To have been brought in legendary antiquity out of Egypt was something; to have been delivered from captivity in Babylon was more; yet these signs of favour could not suffice unless they were at the same time emblems of hope. But Jewish life had meantime passed into a new phase: it had become pietistic, priestly, almost ascetic. Such is the might of suffering, that a race whose nature and traditions were alike positivistic could for the time being find it sweet to wash its hands among the innocent, to love the beauty of the Lord's house, and to praise him for ever and ever. It was agreed and settled beyond cavil that God loved his people and continually blessed them, and yet in the world of men tribulation after tribulation did not cease to fall upon them. There was no issue but to assert (what so chastened a spirit could now understand) that tribulation endured for the Lord was itself blessedness, and the sign of some mystical election. Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth; so the chosen children of God were, without paradox, to be looked for among the most unfortunate of earth's children.
[Sidenote: Christianity combines optimism and asceticism.]
The prophets and psalmists had already shown some beginnings of this asceticism or inverted worldliness. The Essenes and the early Christians made an explicit reversal of ancient Jewish conceptions on this point the corner-stone of their morality. True, the old positivism remained in the background. Tribulation was to be short-lived. Very soon the kingdom of God would be established and a dramatic exchange of places would ensue between the proud and the humble. The mighty would be hurled from their seat, the lowly filled with good things. Yet insensibly the conception of a kingdom of God, of a theocracy, receded or became spiritualised. The joys of it were finally conceived as immaterial altogether, contemplative, and reserved for a life after death. Although the official and literal creed still spoke of a day of judgment, a resurrection of the body, and a New Jerusalem, these things were instinctively taken by Christian piety in a more or less symbolic sense. A longing for gross spectacular greatness, prolonged life, and many children, after the good old Hebraic fashion, had really nothing to do with the Christian notion of salvation. Salvation consisted rather in having surrendered all desire for such things, and all expectation of happiness to be derived from them. Thus the prophet's doctrine that not prosperity absolutely and unconditionally, but prosperity merited by virtue, was the portion of God's people changed by insensible gradations to an ascetic belief that prosperity was altogether alien to virtue and that a believer's true happiness would be such as Saint Francis paints it: upon some blustering winter's night, after a long journey, to have the convent door shut in one's face with many muttered threats and curses.
[Sidenote: Reason smothered between the two.]
In the history of Jewish and Christian ethics the pendulum has swung between irrational extremes, without ever stopping at that point of equilibrium at which alone rest is possible. Yet this point was sometimes traversed and included in the gyrations of our tormented ancestral conscience. It was passed, for example, at the moment when the prophets saw that it was human interest that governed right and wrong and conduct that created destiny. But the mythical form in which this novel principle naturally presented itself to the prophets' minds, and the mixture of superstition and national bigotry which remained in their philosophy, contaminated its truth and were more prolific and contagious than its rational elements. Hence the incapacity of so much subsequent thinking to reach clear ideas, and the failure of Christianity, with its prolonged discipline and opportunities, to establish a serious moral education. The perpetual painful readjustments of the last twenty centuries have been adjustments to false facts and imaginary laws; so that neither could a worthy conception of prosperity and of the good be substituted for heathen and Hebrew crudities on that subject, nor could the natural goals of human endeavour come to be recognised and formulated, but all was left to blind impulse or chance tradition.
[Sidenote: Religion made an institution.]
These defeats of reason are not to be wondered at, if we may indeed speak of the defeat of what never has led an army. The primitive naturalism of the Hebrews was not yet superseded by prophetic doctrines when a new form of materialism arose to stifle and denaturalise what was rational in those doctrines. Even before hope of earthly empire to be secured by Jehovah's favour had quite vanished, claims had arisen to supernatural knowledge founded on revelation. Mythology took a wholly new shape and alliance with God acquired a new meaning and implication. For mythology grew, so to speak, double; moral or naturalistic myths were now reinforced by others of a historical character, to the effect that the former myths had been revealed supernaturally. At the same time the sign of divine protection and favour ceased to be primarily political. Religion now chiefly boasted to possess the Truth, and with the Truth to possess the secret of a perfectly metaphysical and posthumous happiness. Revelation, enigmatically contained in Scripture, found its necessary explication in theology, while the priests, now guardians of the keys of heaven, naturally enlarged their authority over the earth. In fine, the poetic legends and patriarchal worship that had formerly made up the religion of Israel were transformed into two concrete and formidable engines—the Bible and the Church.
THE CHRISTIAN EPIC
[Sidenote: The essence of the good not adventitious but expressive.]
Revolutions are ambiguous things. Their success is generally proportionate to their power of adaptation and to the reabsorption within them of what they rebelled against. A thousand reforms have left the world as corrupt as ever, for each successful reform has founded a new institution, and this institution has bred its new and congenial abuses. What is capable of truly purifying the world is not the mere agitation of its elements, but their organisation into a natural body that shall exude what redounds and absorb or generate what is lacking to the perfect expression of its soul.
Whence fetch this seminal force and creative ideal? It must evidently lie already in the matter it is to organise; otherwise it would have no affinity to that matter, no power over it, and no ideality or value in respect to the existences whose standard and goal it was to be. There can be no goods antecedent to the natures they benefit, no ideals prior to the wills they define. A revolution must find its strength and legitimacy not in the reformer's conscience and dream but in the temper of that society which he would transform; for no transformation is either permanent or desirable which does not forward the spontaneous life of the world, advancing those issues toward which it is already inwardly directed. How should a gospel bring glad tidings, save by announcing what was from the beginning native to the heart?
[Sidenote: A universal religion must interpret the whole world.]
No judgment could well be shallower, therefore, than that which condemns a great religion for not being faithful to that local and partial impulse which may first have launched it into the world. A great religion has something better to consider: the conscience and imagination of those it ministers to. The prophet who announced it first was a prophet only because he had a keener sense and clearer premonition than other men of their common necessities; and he loses his function and is a prophet no longer when the public need begins to outrun his intuitions. Could Hebraism spread over the Roman Empire and take the name of Christianity without adding anything to its native inspiration? Is it to be lamented that we are not all Jews? Yet what makes the difference is not the teaching of Jesus—which is pure Hebraism reduced to its spiritual essence—but the worship of Christ—something perfectly Greek. Christianity would have remained a Jewish sect had it not been made at once speculative, universal, and ideal by the infusion of Greek thought, and at the same time plastic and devotional by the adoption of pagan habits. The incarnation of God in man, and the divinisation of man in God are pagan conceptions, expressions of pagan religious sentiment and philosophy. Yet what would Christianity be without them? It would have lost not only its theology, which might be spared, but its spiritual aspiration, its artistic affinities, and the secret of its metaphysical charity and joy. It would have remained unconscious, as the Gospel is, that the hand or the mind of man can ever construct anything. Among the Jews there were no liberal interests for the ideal to express. They had only elementary human experience—the perpetual Oriental round of piety and servitude in the bosom of a scorched, exhausted country. A disillusioned eye, surveying such a world, could find nothing there to detain it; religion, when wholly spiritual, could do nothing but succour the afflicted, understand and forgive the sinful, and pass through the sad pageant of life unspotted and resigned. Its pity for human ills would go hand in hand with a mystic plebeian insensibility to natural excellence. It would breathe what Tacitus, thinking of the liberal life, could call odium generis humani; it would be inimical to human genius.
[Sidenote: Double appeal of Christianity.]
There were, we may say, two things in Apostolic teaching which rendered it capable of converting the world. One was the later Jewish morality and mysticism, beautifully expressed in Christ's parables and maxims, and illustrated by his miracles, those cures and absolutions which he was ready to dispense, whatever their sins, to such as called upon his name. This democratic and untrammelled charity could powerfully appeal to an age disenchanted with the world, and especially to those lower classes which pagan polity had covered with scorn and condemned to hopeless misery. The other point of contact which early Christianity had with the public need was the theme it offered to contemplation, the philosophy of history which it introduced into the western world, and the delicious unfathomable mysteries into which it launched the fancy. Here, too, the figure of Christ was the centre for all eyes. Its lowliness, its simplicity, its humanity were indeed, for a while, obstacles to its acceptance; they did not really lend themselves to the metaphysical interpretation which was required. Yet even Greek fable was not without its Apollo tending flocks and its Demeter mourning for her lost child and serving in meek disguise the child of another. Feeling was ripe for a mythology loaded with pathos. The humble life, the homilies, the sufferings of Jesus could be felt in all their incomparable beauty all the more when the tenderness and tragedy of them, otherwise too poignant, were relieved by the story of his miraculous birth, his glorious resurrection, and his restored divinity.
[Sidenote: Hebrew metaphors become Greek myths.]
The gospel, thus grown acceptable to the pagan mind, was, however, but a grain of mustard-seed destined to branch and flower in its new soil in a miraculous manner. Not only was the Greek and Roman to refresh himself under its shade, but birds of other climates were to build their nests, at least for a season, in its branches. Hebraism, when thus expanded and paganised, showed many new characteristics native to the minds which had now adopted and transformed it. The Jews, for instance, like other Orientals, had a figurative way of speaking and thinking; their poetry and religion were full of the most violent metaphors. Now to the classic mind violent and improper metaphors were abhorrent. Uniting, as it did, clear reason with lively fancy, it could not conceive one thing to be another, nor relish the figure of speech that so described it, hoping by that unthinkable phrase to suggest its affinities. But the classic mind could well conceive transformation, of which indeed nature is full; and in Greek fables anything might change its form, become something else, and display its plasticity, not by imperfectly being many things at once, but by being the perfection of many things in succession. While metaphor was thus unintelligible and confusing to the Greek, metamorphosis was perfectly familiar to him. Wherever Hebrew tradition, accordingly, used violent metaphors, puzzling to the Greek Christian, he rationalised them by imagining a metamorphosis instead; thus, for instance, the metaphors of the Last Supper, so harmless and vaguely satisfying to an Oriental audience, became the doctrine of transubstantiation—a doctrine where images are indeed lacking to illustrate the concepts, but where the concepts themselves are not confused. For that bread should become flesh and wine blood is not impossible, seeing that the change occurs daily in digestion; what the assertion in this case contradicts is merely the evidence of sense.
Thus at many a turn in Christian tradition a metaphysical mystery takes the place of a poetic figure; the former now expressing by a little miraculous drama the emotion which the latter expressed by a tentative phrase. And the emotion is thereby immensely clarified and strengthened; it is, in fact, for the first time really expressed. For the idea that Christ stands upon the altar and mingles still with our human flesh is an explicit assertion that his influence and love are perpetual; whereas the original parable revealed at most the wish and aspiration, contrary to fact, that they might have been so. By substituting embodiment for allegory, the Greek mind thus achieved something very congenial to its habits: it imagined the full and adequate expression, not in words but in existences, of the emotion to be conveyed. The Eucharist is to the Last Supper what a centaur is to a horseman or a tragedy to a song. Similarly a Dantesque conception of hell and paradise embodies in living detail the innocent apologue in the gospel about a separation of the sheep from the goats. The result is a chimerical metaphysics, containing much which, in reference to existing facts, is absurd; but that metaphysics, when taken for what it truly is, a new mythology, utters the subtler secrets of the new religion not less ingeniously and poetically than pagan mythology reflected the daily shifts in nature and in human life.
[Sidenote: Hebrew philosophy of history identified with Platonic cosmology.]
Metaphysics became not only a substitute for allegory but at the same time a background for history. Neo-Platonism had enlarged, in a way suited to the speculative demands of the time, the cosmos conceived by Greek science. In an intelligible region, unknown to cosmography and peopled at first by the Platonic ideas and afterward by Aristotle's solitary God, there was now the Absolute One, too exalted for any predicates, but manifesting its essence in the first place in a supreme Intelligence, the second hypostasis of a Trinity; and in the second place in the Soul of the World, the third hypostasis, already relative to natural existence. Now the Platonists conceived these entities to be permanent and immutable; the physical world itself had a meaning and an expressive value, like a statue, but no significant history. When the Jewish notion of creation and divine government of the world presented itself to the Greeks, they hastened to assimilate it to their familiar notions of imitation, expression, finality, and significance. And when the Christians spoke of Christ as the Son of God, who now sat at his right hand in the heavens, their Platonic disciples immediately thought of the Nous or Logos, the divine Intelligence, incarnate as they had always believed in the whole world, and yet truly the substance and essence of divinity. To say that this incarnation had taken place pre-eminently, or even exclusively, in Christ was not an impossible concession to make to pious enthusiasm, at least if the philosophy involved in the old conception could be retained and embodied in the new orthodoxy. Sacred history could thus be interpreted as a temporal execution of eternal decrees, and the plan of salvation as an ideal necessity. Cosmic scope and metaphysical meaning were given to Hebrew tenets, so unspeculative in their original intention, and it became possible even for a Platonic philosopher to declare himself a Christian.
[Sidenote: The resulting orthodox system.]
The eclectic Christian philosophy thus engendered constitutes one of the most complete, elaborate, and impressive products of the human mind. The ruins of more than one civilisation and of more than one philosophy were ransacked to furnish materials for this heavenly Byzantium. It was a myth circumstantial and sober enough in tone to pass for an account of facts, and yet loaded with enough miracle, poetry, and submerged wisdom to take the place of a moral philosophy and present what seemed at the time an adequate ideal to the heart. Many a mortal, in all subsequent ages, perplexed and abandoned in this ungovernable world, has set sail resolutely for that enchanted island and found there a semblance of happiness, its narrow limits give so much room for the soul and its penitential soil breeds so many consolations. True, the brief time and narrow argument into which Christian imagination squeezes the world must seem to a speculative pantheist childish and poor, involving, as it does, a fatuous perversion of nature and history and a ridiculous emphasis laid on local events and partial interests. Yet just this violent reduction of things to a human stature, this half-innocent, half-arrogant assumption that what is important for a man must control the whole universe, is what made Christian philosophy originally appealing and what still arouses, in certain quarters, enthusiastic belief in its beneficence and finality.
Nor should we wonder at this enduring illusion. Man is still in his childhood; for he cannot respect an ideal which is not imposed on him against his will, nor can he find satisfaction in a good created by his own action. He is afraid of a universe that leaves him alone. Freedom appals him; he can apprehend in it nothing but tedium and desolation, so immature is he and so barren does he think himself to be. He has to imagine what the angels would say, so that his own good impulses (which create those angels) may gain in authority, and none of the dangers that surround his poor life make the least impression upon him until he hears that there are hobgoblins hiding in the wood. His moral life, to take shape at all, must appear to him in fantastic symbols. The history of these symbols is therefore the history of his soul.
[Sidenote: The brief drama of things.]
There was in the beginning, so runs the Christian story, a great celestial King, wise and good, surrounded by a court of winged musicians and messengers. He had existed from all eternity, but had always intended, when the right moment should come, to create temporal beings, imperfect copies of himself in various degrees. These, of which man was the chief, began their career in the year 4004 B.C., and they would live on an indefinite time, possibly, that chronological symmetry might not be violated, until A.D. 4004. The opening and close of this drama were marked by two magnificent tableaux. In the first, in obedience to the word of God, sun, moon, and stars, and earth with all her plants and animals, assumed their appropriate places, and nature sprang into being with all her laws. The first man was made out of clay, by a special act of God, and the first woman was fashioned from one of his ribs, extracted while he lay in a deep sleep. They were placed in an orchard where they often could see God, its owner, walking in the cool of the evening. He suffered them to range at will and eat of all the fruits he had planted save that of one tree only. But they, incited by a devil, transgressed this single prohibition, and were banished from that paradise with a curse upon their head, the man to live by the sweat of his brow and the woman to bear children in labour. These children possessed from the moment of conception the inordinate natures which their parents had acquired. They were born to sin and to find disorder and death everywhere within and without them.
At the same time God, lest the work of his hands should wholly perish, promised to redeem in his good season some of Adam's children and restore them to a natural life. This redemption was to come ultimately through a descendant of Eve, whose foot should bruise the head of the serpent. But it was to be prefigured by many partial and special redemptions. Thus, Noah was to be saved from the deluge, Lot from Sodom, Isaac from the sacrifice, Moses from Egypt, the captive Jews from Babylon, and all faithful souls from heathen forgetfulness and idolatry. For a certain tribe had been set apart from the beginning to keep alive the memory of God's judgments and promises, while the rest of mankind, abandoned to its natural depravity, sank deeper and deeper into crimes and vanities. The deluge that came to punish these evils did not avail to cure them. "The world was renewed[A] and the earth rose again above the bosom of the waters, but in this renovation there remained eternally some trace of divine vengeance. Until the deluge all nature had been exceedingly hardy and vigorous, but by that vast flood of water which God had spread out over the earth, and by its long abiding there, all saps were diluted; the air, charged with too dense and heavy a moisture, bred ranker principles of corruption. The early constitution of the universe was weakened, and human life, from stretching as it had formerly done to near a thousand years, grew gradually briefer. Herbs and roots lost their primitive potency and stronger food had to be furnished to man by the flesh of other animals.... Death gained upon life and men felt themselves overtaken by a speedier chastisement. As day by day they sank deeper in their wickedness, it was but right they should daily, as it were, stick faster in their woe. The very change in nourishment made manifest their decline and degradation, since as they became feebler they became also more voracious and blood-thirsty."
Henceforth there were two spirits, two parties, or, as Saint Augustine called them, two cities in the world. The City of Satan, whatever its artifices in art, war, or philosophy, was essentially corrupt and impious. Its joy was but a comic mask and its beauty the whitening of a sepulchre. It stood condemned before God and before man's better conscience by its vanity, cruelty, and secret misery, by its ignorance of all that it truly behoved a man to know who was destined to immortality. Lost, as it seemed, within this Babylon, or visible only in its obscure and forgotten purlieus, lived on at the same time the City of God, the society of all the souls God predestined to salvation; a city which, however humble and inconspicuous it might seem on earth, counted its myriad transfigured citizens in heaven, and had its destinies, like its foundations, in eternity. To this City of God belonged, in the first place, the patriarchs and the prophets who, throughout their plaintive and ardent lives, were faithful to what echoes still remained of a primeval revelation, and waited patiently for the greater revelation to come. To the same city belonged the magi who followed a star till it halted over the stable in Bethlehem; Simeon, who divined the present salvation of Israel; John the Baptist, who bore witness to the same and made straight its path; and Peter, to whom not flesh and blood, but the spirit of the Father in heaven, revealed the Lord's divinity. For salvation had indeed come with the fulness of time, not, as the carnal Jews had imagined it, in the form of an earthly restoration, but through the incarnation of the Son of God in the Virgin Mary, his death upon a cross, his descent into hell, and his resurrection at the third day according to the Scriptures. To the same city belonged finally all those who, believing in the reality and efficacy of Christ's mission, relied on his merits and followed his commandment of unearthly love.
All history was henceforth essentially nothing but the conflict between these two cities; two moralities, one natural, the other supernatural; two philosophies, one rational, the other revealed; two beauties, one corporeal, the other spiritual; two glories, one temporal, the other eternal; two institutions, one the world, the other the Church. These, whatever their momentary alliances or compromises, were radically opposed and fundamentally alien to one another. Their conflict was to fill the ages until, when wheat and tares had long flourished together and exhausted between them the earth for whose substance they struggled, the harvest should come; the terrible day of reckoning when those who had believed the things of religion to be imaginary would behold with dismay the Lord visibly coming down through the clouds of heaven, the angels blowing their alarming trumpets, all generations of the dead rising from their graves, and judgment without appeal passed on every man, to the edification of the universal company and his own unspeakable joy or confusion. Whereupon the blessed would enter eternal bliss with God their master and the wicked everlasting torments with the devil whom they served.
The drama of history was thus to close upon a second tableau: long-robed and beatified cohorts passing above, amid various psalmodies, into an infinite luminous space, while below the damned, howling, writhing, and half transformed into loathsome beasts, should be engulfed in a fiery furnace. The two cities, always opposite in essence, should thus be finally divided in existence, each bearing its natural fruits and manifesting its true nature.
Let the reader fill out this outline for himself with its thousand details; let him remember the endless mysteries, arguments, martyrdoms, consecrations that carried out the sense and made vital the beauty of the whole. Let him pause before the phenomenon; he can ill afford, if he wishes to understand history or the human mind, to let the apparition float by unchallenged without delivering up its secret. What shall we say of this Christian dream?
[Sidenote: Mythology is a language and must be understood to convey something by symbols.]
Those who are still troubled by the fact that this dream is by many taken for a reality, and who are consequently obliged to defend themselves against it, as against some dangerous error in science or in philosophy, may be allowed to marshal arguments in its disproof. Such, however, is not my intention. Do we marshal arguments against the miraculous birth of Buddha, or the story of Cronos devouring his children? We seek rather to honour the piety and to understand the poetry embodied in those fables. If it be said that those fables are believed by no one, I reply that those fables are or have been believed just as unhesitatingly as the Christian theology, and by men no less reasonable or learned than the unhappy apologists of our own ancestral creeds. Matters of religion should never be matters of controversy. We neither argue with a lover about his taste, nor condemn him, if we are just, for knowing so human a passion. That he harbours it is no indication of a want of sanity on his part in other matters. But while we acquiesce in his experience, and are glad he has it, we need no arguments to dissuade us from sharing it. Each man may have his own loves, but the object in each case is different. And so it is, or should be, in religion. Before the rise of those strange and fraudulent Hebraic pretensions there was no question among men about the national, personal, and poetic character of religious allegiance. It could never have been a duty to adopt a religion not one's own any more than a language, a coinage, or a costume not current in one's own country. The idea that religion contains a literal, not a symbolic, representation of truth and life is simply an impossible idea. Whoever entertains it has not come within the region of profitable philosophising on that subject. His science is not wide enough to cover all existence. He has not discovered that there can be no moral allegiance except to the ideal. His certitude and his arguments are no more pertinent to the religious question than would be the insults, blows, and murders to which, if he could, he would appeal in the next instance. Philosophy may describe unreason, as it may describe force; it cannot hope to refute them.
[Footnote A: Bossuet: Discours sur l'histoire universelle, Part II, Chap. I.]
PAGAN CUSTOM AND BARBARIAN GENIUS INFUSED INTO CHRISTIANITY
[Sidenote: Need of paganising Christianity.]
The western intellect, in order to accept the gospel, had to sublimate it into a neo-Platonic system of metaphysics. In like manner the western heart had to render Christianity congenial and adequate by a rich infusion of pagan custom and sentiment. This adaptation was more gentle and facile than might be supposed. We are too much inclined to impute an abstract and ideal Christianity to the polyglot souls of early Christians, and to ignore that mysterious and miraculous side of later paganism from which Christian cultus and ritual are chiefly derived. In the third century Christianity and devout paganism were, in a religious sense, closely akin; each differed much less from the other than from that religion which at other epochs had borne or should bear its own name. Had Julian the Apostate succeeded in his enterprise he would not have rescued anything which the admirers of classic paganism could at all rejoice in; a disciple of Iamblichus could not but plunge headlong into the same sea of superstition and dialectic which had submerged Christianity. In both parties ethics were irrational and morals corrupt. The political and humane religion of antiquity had disappeared, and the question between Christians and pagans amounted simply to a choice of fanaticisms. Reason had suffered a general eclipse, but civilisation, although decayed, still subsisted, and a certain scholastic discipline, a certain speculative habit, and many an ancient religious usage remained in the world. The people could change their gods, but not the spirit in which they worshipped them. Christianity had insinuated itself almost unobserved into a society full of rooted traditions. The first disciples had been disinherited Jews, with religious habits which men of other races and interests could never have adopted intelligently; the Church was accordingly wise enough to perpetuate in its practice at least an indispensable minimum of popular paganism. How considerable this minimum was a glance at Catholic piety will suffice to convince us.
[Sidenote: Catholic piety more human than the liturgy.]
The Graeco-Jewish system of theology constructed by the Fathers had its liturgical counterpart in the sacraments and in a devout eloquence which may be represented to us fairly enough by the Roman missal and breviary. This liturgy, transfused as it is with pagan philosophy and removed thereby from the Oriental directness and formlessness of the Bible, keeps for the most part its theological and patristic tone. Psalms abound, Virgin, and saints are barely mentioned, a certain universalism and concentration of thought upon the Redemption and its speculative meaning pervades the Latin ritual sung behind the altar-rails. But any one who enters a Catholic church with an intelligent interpreter will at once perceive the immense distance which separates that official and impersonal ritual from the daily prayers and practices of Catholic people. The latter refer to the real exigences of daily life and serve to express or reorganise personal passions. While mass is being celebrated the old woman will tell her beads, lost in a vague rumination over her own troubles; while the priests chant something unintelligible about Abraham or Nebuchadnezzar, the housewife will light her wax-candles, duly blessed for the occasion, before Saint Barbara, to be protected thereby from the lightning; and while the preacher is repeating, by rote, dialectical subtleties about the union of the two natures in Christ's person, a listener's fancy may float sadly over the mystery of love and of life, and (being himself without resources in the premises) he may order a mass to be said for the repose of some departed soul.
In a Catholic country, every spot and every man has a particular patron. These patrons are sometimes local worthies, canonised by tradition or by the Roman see, but no less often they are simply local appellations of Christ or the Virgin, appellations which are known theoretically to refer all to the same numen, but which practically possess diverse religious values; for the miracles and intercessions attributed to the Virgin under one title are far from being miracles and intercessions attributable to her under another. He who has been all his life devout to Loreto will not place any special reliance on the Pillar at Saragossa. A bereaved mother will not fly to the Immaculate Conception for comfort, but of course to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows. Each religious order and all the laity more or less affiliated to it will cultivate special saints and special mysteries. There are also particular places and days on which graces are granted, as not on others, and the quantity of such graces is measurable by canonic standards. So many days of remitted penance correspond to a work of a certain merit, for there is a celestial currency in which mulcts and remissions may be accurately summed and subtracted by angelic recorders. One man's spiritual earnings may by gift be attributed and imputed to another, a belief which may seem arbitrary and superstitious but which is really a natural corollary to fundamental doctrines like the atonement, the communion of saints, and intercession for the dead and living.
[Sidenote: Natural pieties.]
Another phase of the same natural religion is seen in frequent festivals, in the consecration of buildings, ships, fields, labours, and seasons; in intercessions by the greater dead for the living and by the living for the lesser dead—a perfect survival of heroes and penates on the one hand and of pagan funeral rites and commemorations on the other. Add Lent with its carnival, ember-days, all saints' and all souls', Christmas with its magi or its Saint Nicholas, Saint Agnes's and Saint Valentine's days with their profane associations, a saint for finding lost objects and another for prospering amourettes, since all great and tragic loves have their inevitable patrons in Christ and the Virgin, in Mary Magdalene, and in the mystics innumerable. This, with what more could easily be rehearsed, makes a complete paganism within Christian tradition, a paganism for which little basis can be found in the gospel, the mass, the breviary, or the theologians.
Yet these accretions were as well authenticated as the substructure, for they rested on human nature. To feel, for instance, the special efficacy of your village Virgin or of the miraculous Christ whose hermitage is perched on the overhanging hill, is a genuine experience. The principle of it is clear and simple. Those shrines, those images, the festivals associated with them, have entered your mind together with your earliest feelings. Your first glimpses of mortal vicissitudes have coincided with the awe and glitter of sacramental moments in which those numina were invoked; and on that deeper level of experience, in those lower reaches of irrationalism in which such impressions lie, they constitute a mystic resource subsisting beneath all conventions and overt knowledge. When the doctors blunder—as they commonly do—the saints may find a cure; after all, the saints' success in medicine seems to a crude empiricism almost as probable as the physicians'. Special and local patrons are the original gods, and whatever religious value speculative and cosmic deities retain they retain surreptitiously, by virtue of those very bonds with human interests and passionate desires which ancestral demons once borrowed from the hearth they guarded, the mountain they haunted, or the sacrifice they inhaled with pleasure, until their hearts softened toward their worshippers. In itself, and as a minimised and retreating theology represents it, a universal power has no specific energy, no determinate interest at heart; there is nothing friendly about it nor allied to your private necessities; no links of place and time fortify and define its influence. Nor is it rational to appeal for a mitigation of evils or for assistance against them to the very being that has decreed and is inflicting them for some fixed purpose of its own.
[Sidenote: Refuge taken in the supernatural.]
Paganism or natural religion was at first, like so many crude religious notions, optimistic and material; the worshipper expected his piety to make his pot boil, to cure his disease, to prosper his battles, and to render harmless his ignorance of the world in which he lived. But such faith ran up immediately against the facts; it was discountenanced at every turn by experience and reflection. The whole of nature and life, when they are understood at all, have to be understood on an opposite principle, on the principle that fate, having naturally furnished us with a determinate will and a determinate endowment, gives us a free field and no favour in a natural world. Hence the retreat of religion to the supernatural, a region to which in its cruder forms it was far from belonging. Now this retreat, in the case of classic paganism, took place with the decay of military and political life and would have produced an ascetic popular system, some compound of Oriental and Greek traditions, even if Christianity had not intervened at that juncture and opportunely pre-empted the ground.
[Sidenote: The episodes of life consecrated mystically.]
Christianity, as we have seen, had elements in it which gave it a decisive advantage; its outlook was historical, not cosmic, and consequently admitted a non-natural future for the individual and for the Church; it was anti-political and looked for progress only in that region in which progress was at that time possible, in the private soul; it was democratic, feminine, and unworldly; its Oriental deity and prophets had a primitive simplicity and pathos not found in pagan heroes or polite metaphysical entities; its obscure Hebrew poetry opened, like music, an infinite field for brooding fancy and presumption. The consequence was a doubling of the world, so that every Christian led a dual existence, one full of trouble and vanity on earth, which it was piety in him to despise and neglect, another full of hope and consolation in a region parallel to earth and directly above it, every part of which corresponded to something in earthly life and could be reached, so to speak, by a Jacob's ladder upon which aspiration and grace ascended and descended continually. Birth had its sacramental consecration to the supernatural in baptism, growth in confirmation, self-consciousness in confession, puberty in communion, effort in prayer, defeat in sacrifice, sin in penance, speculation in revealed wisdom, art in worship, natural kindness in charity, poverty in humility, death in self-surrender and resurrection. When the mind grew tired of contemplation the lips could still echo some pious petition, keeping the body's attitude and habit expressive of humility and propitious to receiving grace; and when the knees and lips were themselves weary, a candle might be left burning before the altar, to witness that the desire momentarily forgotten was not extinguished in the heart. Through prayer and religious works the absent could be reached and the dead helped on their journey, and amid earthly estrangements and injustices there always remained the church open to all and the society of heaven.
[Sidenote: Paganism chastened, Hebraism liberalised.]
Nothing is accordingly more patent than that Christianity was paganised by the early Church; indeed, the creation of the Church was itself what to a Hebraising mind must seem a corruption, namely, a mixing of pagan philosophy and ritual with the Gospel. But this sort of constitutive corruption would more properly be called an adaptation, an absorption, or even a civilisation of Hebraism; for by this marriage with paganism Christianity fitted itself to live and work in the civilised world. By this corruption it was completed and immensely improved, like Anglo-Saxon by its corruption through French and Latin; for it is always an improvement in religion, whose business is to express and inspire spiritual sentiment, that it should learn to express and inspire that sentiment more generously. Paganism was nearer than Hebraism to the Life of Reason because its myths were more transparent and its temper less fanatical; and so a paganised Christianity approached more closely that ideality which constitutes religious truth than a bare and intense Hebraism, in its hostility to human genius, could ever have done if isolated and unqualified.
[Sidenote: The system post-rational and founded on despair.]
The Christianity which the pagans adopted, in becoming itself pagan, remained a religion natural to their country and their heart. It constituted a paganism expressive of their later and calamitous experience, a paganism acquainted with sorrow, a religion that had passed through both civilisation and despair, and had been reduced to translating the eclipsed values of life into supernatural symbols. It became a post-rational religion. Of course, to understand such a system it is necessary to possess the faculties it exercises and the experience it represents. Where life has not reached the level of reflection, religion and philosophy must both be pre-rational; they must remain crudely experimental, unconscious of the limits of excellence and life. Under such circumstances it is obviously impossible that religion should be reconstituted on a supernatural plane, or should learn to express experience rather than impulse. Now the Christianity of the gospels was itself post-rational; it had turned its back on the world. In this respect the mixture with paganism altered nothing; it merely reinforced the spiritualised and lyric despair of the Hebrews with the personal and metaphysical despair of the Romans and Greeks. For all the later classic philosophy—Stoic, Sceptic, or Epicurean—was founded on despair and was post-rational. Pagan Christianity, or Catholicism, may accordingly be said to consist of two elements: first, the genius of paganism, the faculty of expressing spiritual experience in myth and external symbol, and, second, the experience of disillusion, forcing that pagan imagination to take wing from earth and to decorate no longer the political and material circumstances of life, but rather to remove beyond the clouds and constitute its realm of spirit beyond the veil of time and nature, in a posthumous and metaphysical sphere. A mythical economy abounding in points of attachment to human experience and in genial interpretations of life, yet lifted beyond visible nature and filling a reported world, a world believed in on hearsay or, as it is called, on faith—that is Catholicism.
When this religion was established in the Roman Empire, that empire was itself threatened by the barbarians who soon permeated and occupied it and made a new and unhappy beginning to European history. They adopted Christianity, not because it represented their religious needs or inspiration, but because it formed part of a culture and a social organisation the influence of which they had not, in their simplicity, the means to withstand. During several ages they could only modify by their misunderstandings and inertia arts wholly new to their lives.
[Sidenote: External conversion of the barbarians.]
What sort of religion these barbarians may previously have had is beyond our accurate knowledge. They handed down a mythology not radically different from the Graeco-Roman, though more vaguely and grotesquely conceived; and they recognised tribal duties and glories from which religious sanctions could hardly have been absent. But a barbarian mind, like a child's, is easy to convert and to people with what stories you will. The Northmen drank in with pleased astonishment what the monks told them about hell and heaven, God the Father and God the Son, the Virgin and the beautiful angels; they accepted the sacraments with vague docility; they showed a qualified respect, often broken upon, it is true, by instinctive rebellions, for a clergy which after all represented whatever vestiges of learning, benevolence, or art still lingered in the world. But this easy and boasted conversion was fanciful only and skin-deep. A non-Christian ethics of valour and honour, a non-Christian fund of superstition, legend, and sentiment, subsisted always among mediaeval peoples. Their soul, so largely inarticulate, might be overlaid with churchly habits and imprisoned for the moment in the panoply of patristic dogma; but pagan Christianity always remained a religion foreign to them, accepted only while their minds continued in a state of helpless tutelage. Such a foreign religion could never be understood by them in its genuine motives and spirit. They were without the experience and the plastic imagination which had given it birth. It might catch them unawares and prevail over them for a time, but even during that period it could not root out from barbarian souls anything opposed to it which subsisted there. It was thus that the Roman Church hatched the duck's egg of Protestantism.
[Sidenote: Expression of the northern genius within Catholicism.]
In its native seats the Catholic system prompts among those who inwardly reject it satire and indifference rather than heresy, because on the whole it expresses well enough the religious instincts of the people. Only those strenuously oppose it who hate religion itself. But among converted barbarians the case was naturally different, and opposition to the Church came most vehemently from certain religious natures whose instincts it outraged or left unsatisfied. Even before heresy burst forth this religious restlessness found vent in many directions. It endowed Christianity with several beautiful but insidious gifts, several incongruous though well-meant forms of expression. Among these we may count Gothic art, chivalrous sentiment, and even scholastic philosophy. These things came, as we know, ostensibly to serve Christianity, which has learned to regard them as its own emanations. But in truth they barbarised Christianity just as Greek philosophy and worship and Roman habits of administration had paganised it in the beginning. And barbarised Christianity, even before it became heretical, was something new, something very different in temper and beauty from the pagan Christianity of the South and East.
In the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, as it flourished in the North, the barbarian soul, apprenticed to monkish masters, appeared in all its childlike trust, originality, and humour. There was something touching and grotesque about it. We seem to see a child playing with the toys of age, his green hopes and fancies weaving themselves about an antique metaphysical monument, the sanctuary of a decrepit world. The structure of that monument was at first not affected, and even when it had been undermined and partially ruined, its style could not be transformed, but, clad in its northern ivy, it wore at once a new aspect. To races without experience—that is, without cumulative traditions or a visible past—Christianity could be nothing but a fairy story and a gratuitous hope, as if they had been told about the Sultan of Timbuctoo and promised that they should some day ride on his winged Arabian horses. The tragic meaning of the Christian faith, its immense renunciation of all things earthly and the merely metaphysical glory of its transfigured life, commonly escaped their apprehension, as it still continues to do. They listened open-mouthed to the missionary and accepted his asseverations with unsuspecting emotion, like the Anglo-Saxon king who likened the soul to a bird flying in and out of a tent at night, about whose further fortunes any account would be interesting to hear. A seed planted in such a virgin and uncultivated soil must needs bring forth fruit of a new savour.
[Sidenote: Internal discrepancies between the two.]
In northern Christianity a fresh quality of brooding tenderness prevailed over the tragic passion elsewhere characteristic of Catholic devotion. Intricacy was substituted for dignity and poetry for rhetoric; the basilica became an abbey and the hermitage a school. The feudal ages were a wonderful seed-time in a world all gaunt with ruins. Horrors were there mingled with delicacies and confusion with idyllic peace. It was here a poet's childhood passed amid the crash of war, there an alchemist's old age flickering away amid cobwebs and gibberish. Something jocund and mischievous peeped out even in the cloister; gargoyles leered from the belfry, while ivy and holly grew about the cross. The Middle Ages were the true renaissance. Their Christianity was the theme, the occasion, the excuse for their art and jollity, their curiosity and tenderness; it was far from being the source of those delightful inventions. The Crusades were not inspired by the Prince of Peace, to whose honour they were fancifully and passionately dedicated; so chivalry, Gothic architecture, and scholastic philosophy were profane expressions of a self-discovering genius in a people incidentally Christian. The barbarians had indeed been indoctrinated, they had been introduced into an alien spiritual and historic medium, but they had not been made over or inwardly tamed. It had perhaps been rendered easier for them, by contact with an existing or remembered civilisation, to mature their own genius, even in the act of confusing its expression through foreign accretions. They had been thereby stimulated to civilise themselves and encouraged also to believe themselves civilised somewhat prematurely, when they had become heirs merely to the titles and trappings of civilisation.
The process of finding their own art and polity, begun under foreign guidance, was bound on the whole to diverge more and more from its Latin model. It consisted now of imitation, now of revulsion and fanciful originality; never was a race so much under the sway of fashions. Fashion is something barbarous, for it produces innovation without reason and imitation without benefit. It marks very clearly that margin of irresponsible variation in manners and thoughts which among a people artificially civilised may so easily be larger than the solid core. It is characteristic of occidental society in mediaeval and modern times, because this society is led by people who, being educated in a foreign culture, remain barbarians at heart. To this day we have not achieved a really native civilisation. Our art, morals, and religion, though deeply dyed in native feeling, are still only definable and, indeed, conceivable by reference to classic and alien standards. Among the northern races culture is even more artificial and superinduced than among the southern; whence the strange phenomenon of snobbery in society, affectation in art, and a violent contrast between the educated and the uneducated, the rich and the poor, classes that live on different intellectual planes and often have different religions. Some educated persons, accordingly, are merely students and imbibers; they sit at the feet of a past which, not being really theirs, can produce no fruit in them but sentimentality. Others are merely protestants; they are active in the moral sphere only by virtue of an inward rebellion against something greater and overshadowing, yet repulsive and alien. They are conscious truants from a foreign school of life.
[Sidenote: Tradition and instinct at odds in Protestantism.]
In the Protestant religion it is necessary to distinguish inner inspiration from historical entanglements. Unfortunately, as the whole doctrinal form of this religion is irrelevant to its spirit and imposed from without, being due to the step-motherly nurture it received from the Church, we can reach a conception of its inner spirit only by studying its tendency and laws of change or its incidental expression in literature and custom. Yet these indirect symptoms are so striking that even an outsider, if at all observant, need not fear to misinterpret them. Taken externally, Protestantism is, of course, a form of Christianity; it retains the Bible and a more or less copious selection of patristic doctrines. But in its spirit and inward inspiration it is something quite as independent of Judea as of Rome. It is simply the natural religion of the Teutons raising its head above the flood of Roman and Judean influences. Its character may be indicated by saying that it is a religion of pure spontaneity, of emotional freedom, deeply respecting itself but scarcely deciphering its purposes. It is the self-consciousness of a spirit in process of incubation, jealous of its potentialities, averse to definitions and finalities of any kind because it can itself discern nothing fixed or final. It is adventurous and puzzled by the world, full of rudimentary virtues and clear fire, energetic, faithful, rebellious to experience, inexpert in all matters of art and mind. It boasts, not without cause, of its depth and purity; but this depth and purity are those of any formless and primordial substance. It keeps unsullied that antecedent integrity which is at the bottom of every living thing and at its core; it is not acquainted with that ulterior integrity, that sanctity, which might be attained at the summit of experience through reason and speculative dominion. It accordingly mistakes vitality, both in itself and in the universe, for spiritual life.
[Sidenote: The Protestant spirit remote from that of the gospel.]
This underlying Teutonic religion, which we must call Protestantism for lack of a better name, is anterior to Christianity and can survive it. To identify it with the Gospel may have seemed possible so long as, in opposition to pagan Christianity, the Teutonic spirit could appeal to the Gospel for support. The Gospel has indeed nothing pagan about it, but it has also nothing Teutonic; and the momentary alliance of two such disparate forces must naturally cease with the removal of the common enemy which alone united them. The Gospel is unworldly, disenchanted, ascetic; it treats ecclesiastical establishments with tolerant contempt, conforming to them with indifference; it regards prosperity as a danger, earthly ties as a burden, Sabbaths as a superstition; it revels in miracles; it is democratic and antinomian; it loves contemplation, poverty, and solitude; it meets sinners with sympathy and heartfelt forgiveness, but Pharisees and Puritans with biting scorn. In a word, it is a product of the Orient, where all things are old and equal and a profound indifference to the business of earth breeds a silent dignity and high sadness in the spirit. Protestantism is the exact opposite of all this. It is convinced of the importance of success and prosperity; it abominates what is disreputable; contemplation seems to it idleness, solitude selfishness, and poverty a sort of dishonourable punishment. It is constrained and punctilious in righteousness; it regards a married and industrious life as typically godly, and there is a sacredness to it, as of a vacant Sabbath, in the unoccupied higher spaces which such an existence leaves for the soul. It is sentimental, its ritual is meagre and unctuous, it expects no miracles, it thinks optimism akin to piety, and regards profitable enterprise and practical ambition as a sort of moral vocation. Its Evangelicalism lacks the notes, so prominent in the gospel, of disillusion, humility, and speculative detachment. Its benevolence is optimistic and aims at raising men to a conventional well-being; it thus misses the inner appeal of Christian charity which, being merely remedial in physical matters, begins by renunciation and looks to spiritual freedom and peace.
Protestantism was therefore attached from the first to the Old Testament, in which Hebrew fervour appears in its worldly and pre-rational form. It is not democratic in the same sense as post-rational religions, which see in the soul an exile from some other sphere wearing for the moment, perhaps, a beggar's disguise: it is democratic only in the sense of having a popular origin and bending easily to popular forces. Swayed as it is by public opinion, it is necessarily conventional in its conception of duty and earnestly materialistic; for the meaning of the word vanity never crosses the vulgar heart. In fine, it is the religion of a race young, wistful, and adventurous, feeling its latent potentialities, vaguely assured of an earthly vocation, and possessing, like the barbarian and the healthy child, pure but unchastened energies. Thus in the Protestant religion the faith natural to barbarism appears clothed, by force of historical accident, in the language of an adapted Christianity.
[Sidenote: Obstacles to humanism.]
As the Middle Ages advanced the new-born human genius which constituted their culture grew daily more playful, curious, and ornate. It was naturally in the countries formerly pagan that this new paganism principally flourished. Religion began in certain quarters to be taken philosophically; its relation to life began to be understood, that it was a poetic expression of need, hope, and ignorance. Here prodigious vested interests and vested illusions of every sort made dangerous the path of sincerity. Genuine moral and religious impulses could not be easily dissociated from a system of thought and discipline with which for a thousand years they had been intimately interwoven. Scepticism, instead of seeming, what it naturally is, a moral force, a tendency to sincerity, economy, and fine adjustment of life and mind to experience—scepticism seemed a temptation and a danger. This situation, which still prevails in a certain measure, strikingly shows into how artificial a posture Christianity has thrown the mind. If scepticism, under such circumstances, by chance penetrated among the clergy, it was not favourable to consistency of life, and it was the more certain to penetrate among them in that their ranks, in a fat and unscrupulous age, would naturally be largely recruited by men without conscience or ideal ambitions. It became accordingly necessary to reform something; either the gay world to suit the Church's primitive austerity and asceticism, or the Church to suit the world's profane and general interests. The latter task was more or less consciously undertaken by the humanists who would have abated the clergy's wealth and irrational authority, advanced polite learning, and, while of course retaining Christianity—for why should an ancestral religion be changed?—would have retained it as a form of paganism, as an ornament and poetic expression of human life. This movement, had it not been overwhelmed by the fanatical Reformation and the fanatical reaction against it, would doubtless have met with many a check from the Church's sincere zealots; but it could have overcome them and, had it been allowed to fight reason's battle with reason's weapons, would ultimately have led to general enlightenment without dividing Christendom, kindling venomous religious and national passions, or vitiating philosophy.
[Sidenote: The Reformation and counter-reformation.]
It was not humanism, however, that was destined to restrain and soften the Church, completing by critical reflection that paganisation of Christianity which had taken place at the beginning instinctively and of necessity. There was now another force in the field, the virgin conscience and wilfulness of the Teutonic races, sincerely attached to what they had assimilated in Christianity and now awakening to the fact that they inwardly abhorred and rejected the rest. This situation, in so uncritical an age, could be interpreted as a return to primitive Christianity, though this had been in truth, as we may now perceive, utterly opposed to the Teutonic spirit. Accordingly, the humanistic movement was crossed and obscured by another, specifically religious and ostensibly more Christian than the Church. Controversies followed, as puerile as they were bloody; for it was not to be expected that the peoples once forming the Roman Empire were going to surrender their ancestral religion without a struggle and without resisting this new barbarian invasion into their imaginations and their souls. They might have suffered their Christianised paganism to fade with time; worldly prosperity and arts might have weaned them gradually from their supernaturalism, and science from their myths; but how were they to abandon at once all their traditions, when challenged to do so by a foreign supernaturalism so much poorer and cruder than their own? What happened was that they intrenched themselves in their system, cut themselves off from the genial influences that might have rendered it innocuous, and became sectaries, like their opponents. Enlightenment was only to come after a recrudescence of madness and by the mutual slaughter of a fresh crop of illusions, usurpations, and tyrannies.
[Sidenote: Protestantism an expression of character.]
It would be easy to write, in a satirical vein, the history of Protestant dogma. Its history was foreseen from the beginning by intelligent observers. It consisted in a gradual and inevitable descent into a pious scepticism. The attempt to cling to various intermediate positions on the inclined plane that slopes down from ancient revelation to private experience can succeed only for a time and where local influences limit speculative freedom. You must slide smilingly down to the bottom or, in horror at that eventuality, creep up again and reach out pathetically for a resting-place at the top. To insist on this rather obvious situation, as exhibited for instance in the Anglican Church, would be to thresh straw and to study in Protestantism only its feeble and accidental side. Its true essence is not constituted by the Christian dogmas that at a given moment it chances to retain, but by the spirit in which it constantly challenges the others, by the expression it gives to personal integrity, to faith in conscience, to human instinct courageously meeting the world. It rebels, for instance, against the Catholic system of measurable sins and merits, with rewards and punishments legally adjusted and controlled by priestly as well as by divine prerogative. Such a supernatural mechanism seems to an independent and uncowed nature a profanation and an imposture. Away, it says, with all intermediaries between the soul and God, with all meddlesome priestcraft and all mechanical salvation. Salvation shall be by faith alone, that is, by an attitude and sentiment private to the spirit, by an inner co-operation of man with the world. The Church shall be invisible, constituted by all those who possess this necessary faith and by no others. It really follows from this, although the conclusion may not be immediately drawn, that religion is not an adjustment to other facts or powers, or to other possibilities, than those met with in daily life and in surrounding nature, but is rather a spiritual adjustment to natural life, an insight into its principles, by which a man learns to identify himself with the cosmic power and to share its multifarious business no less than its ulterior security and calm.
[Sidenote: It has the spirit of life.]
Protestantism, in this perfectly instinctive trustfulness and self-assertion, is not only prior to Christianity but more primitive than reason and even than man. The plants and animals, if they could speak, would express their attitude to their destiny in the Protestant fashion. "He that formed us," they would say, "lives and energises within us. He has sealed a covenant with us, to stand by us if we are faithful and strenuous in following the suggestions he whispers in our hearts. With fidelity to ourselves and, what is the same thing, to him, we are bound to prosper and to have life more and more abundantly for ever." This attitude, where it concerns religion, involves two corollaries: first, what in accordance with Hebrew precedent may be called symbolically faith in God, that is, confidence in one's own impulse and destiny, a confidence which the world in the end is sure to reward; and second, abomination of all contrary religious tenets and practices—of asceticism, for instance, because it denies the will; of idolatry and myth, because they render divinity concrete rather than relative to inner cravings and essentially responsive; finally of tradition and institutional authority, because these likewise jeopardise the soul's experimental development as, in profound isolation, she wrestles with reality and with her own inspiration.