Those things which ye have both learned and received, do; and the God of peace shall be with you.Paul.
Religion relates to life; and the life of religion is to do good.Swedenborg.
Human life is so large in itself and so varied in its contents, that it is impossible to include all its meaning in any definition. All descriptions of its significance are only relative and incomplete.
Long ago it was asked: What is the chief good of existence? In answering this question there has never been very great harmony. Race, time, place and temperament have all combined to make the answer variable. Some of the far-remote, Asiatic peoples seemed to think that life was an opportunity for a few kings and nobles to become very rich and powerful and make gorgeous displays of their power and wealth. In other times and places life seemed to be only for beauty. Ability to create and appreciate the perfect in form and color was the main aim of existence. Some nations have made conquest and the extension of empire the object of their being. In some portions of Africa and on the islands of the South Pacific, the satisfaction of physical wants solved the problem of life. When sufficient bread-fruit and bananas were gathered for a meal and a shady place was found for repose, the end of life was accomplished. During some of the Christian centuries, in southern Europe, only two paths of preferment opened before ardent young men. They must either be soldiers or priests. There was only one career for women and it was not a great one. It was only a little above slavery. Later, two other objects were deemed worthy of desire and toil. These were art and learning.
It is not assumed that there was ever a time or place in which there was only one motive or one form of activity. In an age of power, some beauty was present. If there was philosophy, there was also some agriculture. In a time of conquest, there Was some commerce. In an age of priestcraft, there was some learning. In times and places in which woman was a slave, there were exceptions to the rule; and when the church and the army attracted most men, there were others engaged in various occupations. All that is meant is, the greater part of energy took shape in some form so definite and so prevalent that it marked the era in which it was found. Geologists speak of azoic, devonian, carboniferous, and mammalian periods in the formation of earth. They only mean that certain characteristics were in the ascendant at a given time. Thus, when allusion is made to an age of despotism or conquest or philosophy or art or literature or science, it is only meant that this characteristic is predominant.
Through all these times and places some form of religion may be seen moving. Being a product of the soul, religion is always found wherever this factor is found. In this, as in all other things, the result al-ways resembles the cause. The palm and the orange grow in tropical latitudes, while the apple and the oak flourish in the temperate zones. So, different races always produce a religion peculiar to the character of their souls and their surroundings. The native religion of the oriental nations was different from that of the Greeks and Romans. That of the Scandinavians was different from that of the North American Indians. Not only so; but a foreign religion imported and transplanted in another land undergoes many modifications. Sometimes the change is so great that it dies out entirely. In other places it may survive; but, in adapting itself to the new mental soil and spiritual climate, the change is so marked that its original form is hardly recognizable.
In harmony with this law, many different forms of the Christian religion appear in history. Starting from the same germ, the foliage and blossoms and fruit have undergone many changes. The answer to the question: What is Christianity? has been as variable as the answer to the question; What constitutes happiness? It has always been only a partial answer and has depended upon the point of view from which the observation was taken.
The familiar fable coming to us from the Hindoos is very instructive. Some blind men were asked to describe an elephant. The first one, touching the side of the great beast, said an elephant is like a wall. Feeling its trunk, the second thought an elephant resembles a snake. Touching its tusk, a third said it was like a spear. Another, coming in contact with its leg, thought it more resembled a tree. Still an-other, examining its ear, said it was more like a large fan. Each was partly right and all were wrong.
There have been as many variations and as many errors in the partial descriptions of Christianity. There was a time when it was all resolved into the word faith. Then it became philosophy. Then its meaning was all included in the word organization. Later it was made to consist in holding correct opinions concerning some rite or doctrine.
Perhaps all of these terms contain some of the elements found in a true religion; but each one is very imperfect in itself. Even when combined they do not form an adequate description of the great sentiment. Christianity is much too large to be expressed in any one term or by any one age. It is an expanding and flowing thing and manifests itself anew to each generation.
When Jesus inaugurated a new spiritual movement, the question as to belief in him would soon be-come prominent. The Jews would ask whether it was better to believe in him or the older prophets. The Greeks would raise the inquiry whether it was better to accept him or still cling to their philosophers. The answer became a mark of agreement or separation among many persons. But belief in one even as true and spiritual as Jesus is not sufficient motive to become the cause of a noble character. Some of those who believed in the first patriot leaders of national liberty carried with them much of the same kind of tyranny from which they sought to escape. There were those who thought Washington ought to be made king of the new nation. Many of the followers of the new scientists are infected by the old ignorance and intolerance. So, many of those who believed in Christ carried some of the old formalism and narrowness and materialism with them along the new paths.
Nothing is more common than changing interpretations and applications of well-known terms. As the race expands and its experience becomes larger and more varied, the mind opens to admit more expansive meanings. That which would have passed for an adeaquate definition of civilization among the Persians or Egyptians would be rejected in our era. Liberty does not mean the same to us it did to the founders of the Greek republic. Music is a much larger term in Germany to-day than it was to those who dwelt by the Rhine in the days of Charlemange. In the same way and for the same reason, religion changes its meaning from age to age. That form of Christianity which satisfied the middle ages is unsatisfactory to the twentieth century.
Our days are celebrating the reign of practical things. Mere theory has had to abdicate the throne in favor of use. For the modern period the revolt began with Bacon, when the mind was withdrawn from making aimless excursions among the clouds and came in contact with the more solid earth. As a result, science was started along actual paths. As fast as knowledge was acquired it was applied to life. Thus have come all the discoveries and inventions that have revolutionized the world. Here was the true lamp of Aladdin; and the wonders performed through its agency eclipse those reported in the Arabian Nights.
Nothing has been more affected by this method than religion. It was impossible for the mind to pass freely over all other fields and leave this one uninvaded. When it was asked, what is the use of steam or the lever or inclined planes or electricity? it was unavoidable that, sooner or later, it would be asked, what is the use of doctrines and rites and churches? Learning that the world is round, navigators said, then by sailing to the west we shall find the east. Putting their theory in practice they sailed around the world. When the law of gravitation was discovered, it was said, then we can make water turn our wheels. Applying this knowledge, the wheels actually turned. In the same way steam was made to drive engines. All practical science is knowledge applied to life. It is theory in action. Thus, in the same way, the mind approached the many doctrines and customs of religion and asked, what can they do for mankind? If they are what is claimed for them, they can be put to use. They can be taken away from the cloisters and schools where they have so long reposed in inaction and made to do some service for mankind.
There is an anecdote coming from English history during the religio-political revolt against the Stuarts that serves our purpose. Coming into one of the wealthy and highly decorated churches of the period and seeing twelve statues arranged in order up near the ceiling, Cromwell asked an attendant what they were. He was told they were the twelve apostles done in silver. Then, said he, let them be taken down, melted up and coined into money that they may go about doing good as did their Master. This may illustrate the attitude of our age toward many rites and doctrines of Christianity. It has tried to take them down from their resting place and put them in circulation.
From this, two things have resulted- The first of these is the number of doctrines has greatly decreased. Many, thought to be very imposing and sacred so long as they were kept apart from life, could not stand the the test of use. Brought into contact with earth their value disappeared. Carrying the sea-shell away from the shore and examining it among more prosaic surroundings, the poet sought in vain for its former beauty. So, many doctrines of religion, seen in a cloister or theological, seminary or sermon, seem to have some beauty and some use, suddenly lose it all when brought into the actual life of the world. It is as if, when taken down from their high pedestals, Cromwell had found half the statues of the apostles to be pewter in-stead of silver.
The second result of the method of inquiry is, more than ever before religion is made a matter of conduct. The doctrines that remain are more related to life. Religion’s right to exist is tested by its ability to make man’s lot on the earth holier and happier.
Its value must be as evident as the value of education and liberty and government. Sometimes the lament is heard that the decline of doctrine marks a decline of piety. A sigh is breathed over those departed days when unquestioning belief in church doctrines, regard-less of their unreasonable quality or their practical value, filled the Christian heart. Such laments come without reason. An ounce of gold is worth tons of earth. So a few rational doctrines that may be applied to life are worth more than a whole theological seminary full of irrational dogmas. Applied religion does not take the love of God from the heart. It only joins to the heart’s love of God its love of mankind. It annexes earth to heaven. It only asks that worship, rising toward the sky as prayer and praise to-day, to-morrow may come back to earth as acts of goodness,as the rising mists, made glorious when pierced by sunbeams, return in earth-rejoicing rain.
The fear is sometimes expressed that our practical age will destroy the power of imagination. This is not likely to occur. Imagination is an essential quality of the soul. The only change that is taking place is, the imagination is finding new objects upon which to exercise its power. It has turned away from enchanted islands, monster haunted caves, mysterious – seas, and sacred groves and is looking upon the real snow-covered or flower-covered earth. Finding a new canvas, it is covering it with new pictures. Earth it-self is so great and so wonderful that there is no need of any exaggeration. The adventures and conquests of actual man are so many that there is no need to draw the outline of some impossible hero or demi-god to fill the mind with amazement. Burns’ mountain daisy and Emerson’s rhodora are as interesting in them-selves and as mysterious in their origin as the narcissus of Ovid. Gray’s Elegy belongs to our modern era; but there is no poem in the classic or romantic days that furnishes more themes for thought or better subjects for imagination. Almost every line has an image and each one has the double merit of being beautiful and a true symbol of real life. There is nothing said about griffins; nothing about centaurs or Arethusa fountains or Niobes turned to stone. Its allusions are all to real nature and actual _human life. Its pictures are “the setting sun;” “the curfew bell;” “the lowing herd;” “the mantled towers;” the “children climbing on the parent’s knee;” the “storied urn;” “the short and simple annals of the poor;” “the pomp of power;” “the paths of glory ending with the grave.” Nearly all our modern poetry is related to earth with its actual, sinning, toiling, loving, hoping, dying millions. Fables have been displaced by much more wonderful facts.
The same thing that has happened to literature has happened to religion. It has become realistic. The fabulous has given way to the actual. To make religion impressive there is no longer any need to assume that it must possess a multitude of mysterious doctrines and legends. Its simple truths so abound in our common life there is no need to explore the old wonderland of heaven or hell to find its meaning and authority. As poetry no more describes a voyage in search of the Golden Fleece nor tells of battles among the angels nor pictures some Lucifer hurled from the heights of heaven, so religion selects all its subjects from the rich, but real life of man. It does not ask: What are the decrees of God? What is the Trinity? Where is heaven? How reconcile fore-ordination and free will ? It prefers to ask: What is man? How can he be made better? How can he be made happier? How can he be made more worthy of heaven?
Used in its largest import faith is a term representing something of great value. But it has not always been thus used. It has sometimes been used only as a means of escape from a future calamity. Each sect of Christianity possessed a set of articles which it was safe to accept and dangerous to reject. But, while the churches were busy teaching their doctrines, the morals of life did not play a very important part. In itself belief cannot be a sufficient life motive. Its value can only be determined by the answer to such questions as why one believes and in what one believes. It is evident from Christian history that much of that which is called faith in Christ has been a mere attachment to a name. It was only a form of partisanship. The only faith of any value is that which gathers up in its admiration, not the name of Jesus merely, but all of that of which his name is symbol,spirituality and a pure character. There have been many who thought they believed in Christ whose life in no way resembled his. If all good persons believed in him as God, and all bad persons denied him, the case would be very simple. But this is not true. Many bad per-sons have professed unbounded faith in him, and there have been many good persons who have never heard of him. The inference is that belief in him is not an essential to goodness.
Of those who say Christ, Christ! there shall be found
In judgment many further from him by far
Than such to whom his name was never known.
Atheism is bad; but one would better be an atheist and love mankind than be an intense believer in Deity and be cruel toward humanity. If in worship we say: Our Father in heaven, when worship is over we must not forget to say: Our brother on earth. To deny God is an error; but it has the merit of frankness. Whereas belief in God joined to an unholy life is, not only an error, but a hypocrisy. The hypocrite finds it much easier to fall upon his knees in prayer than to rise to a noble action. Great faith and noble deeds may co-exist in the same life. They often do thus co-exist. But, if there is only room for one in the heart, faith can be better spared than kindness.
Worship is a beautiful act of the soul. But God does not need worship as much as man needs justice and love. Christ taught that the cup of water must be given to him that is athirst. But God does not thirst. It is man who needs the water. Sometimes it has been thought that God must be honored though earth was full of ruin. He must be worshipped, al-though, by his permissive decree and to increase his glory, hell was full of lost souls. Such ideas are slowly passing away. Finally they will entirely disappear from all minds. Human misery in this or any world cannot be pleasing to the Creator. That which takes away happiness from earth will take it away from heaven. A God who could be happy while His creatures are unhappy is not worthy of honor. There is one sunshine for cottage and palace. So there is one law for man and God; one love for earth and heaven.
The aim of religion is righteousness. To this one end worship, doctrine, and ritual must tend. To think of God is great; but to live truly is also great. The one guides like a star. The other builds a high-way along the shining path and helps all humanity to find it. Believing in Deity, man must himself become divine.
We would not attempt to underestimate religion as a philosophy or as a sentiment. We would rather exalt it. With another we may say:
“Religion, the final center of repose; the goal to which all things tend; which gives to time all its importance, to eternity all its glory; apart from which man is a shadow, his very existence a riddle and the stupendous scenes which surround him as incoherent and unmeaning as the leaves which the sibyl scattered in the wind.”
We may approve of this sentence. It is as truthful as it is eloquent. But we must not forget that, in order to confer such blessings, religion must be in-wrought in the very structure of life.. It is not only a theory of existence; it is existence itself.
Applied to life in all its many forms a true religion would have a marvelous, transforming power. It would purify literature; it would make government more just; it would refine society; and, touching all the homes of earth it would make them as sacred as shrines of worship. It would bring a strange earthly happiness to each soul. In listening to music, pleasure is not postponed. It comes with the harmony itself. So, in holy living, the joy is immediate. Each passing hour brings its treasures. The bliss of those who have joined the hosts on high can not much surpass that of those whose lives on earth have become the home of love and goodness. The only addition heaven can make is to stamp their earthly happiness with immortality.