Search This Blog

Saturday, January 28, 2012

"The Dullness of the New Religions"


-The Open Road (London), originally published in 1911
[Reprinted in The New York Times, August 25, 1912]

It is a quaint feature of modernity that it is always in the newest and crudest churches that one hears the stalest sentiments. The old religions are at least paradoxes; the new religions seem to consist of nothing but platitude. Even when the truths they preach are important (as, for example, the brotherhood of men,) they are truths which should rather be built upon as first principles than thus perpetually dug up as rediscoveries. The old special and dogmatic religions- whether we believe in one of them or in none- enshrine certain really interesting moral theories, certain really important historical decisions. Islam decided entirely against wine; Quakers decided entirely against war; these are challenges which will always interest and perhaps perturb or attract. Go into a Jewish synagogue, and you will hear cogent and unique reasons urged against a Jew marrying a Gentile. Go into a little Roman Catholic Church, and you will hear a little unimportant priest expounding some really logical distinction between men or animals, or between one kind of drunkenness and another. Buddhist metaphysics and Swedenborgian theology are really interesting things. Men have studied a complex problem, have come to certain important conclusions: and they offer those conclusions to the world. And whether I like them as I like Catholicism, or loathe them as I loathe Buddhism, I should always think they were worth listening to. I like to hear a Scotch Calvinist minister of the old school ingeniously explaining away the text that "God is love." He may be hardening his heart, but at least he is not also softening his head; holding a certain view, he has the courage to hold its consequences. All these special doctrines are at least the results of some kind of thinking; and even when they are to be denounced as deadly errors, they will sometimes serve truth by comparison. Real theologies are at the noblest inspiring, in the average interesting, at the worst amusing. But the New Religions! The Universal Fellowships! The True Christian Brotherhood! O gods of slumber and the underworld! O sleep, it is a gentle thing, beloved from pole to pole, to the veiled goddess of the New Religions the praise be given; she sent that gentle sleep from heaven that slid into my soul… "A higher and truer faith unfettered by dogma and sacerdotalism, founded not on creeds and forms, but on the spirit of love and truth: faith in the universal, spiritual, eternal, fundamental unity of all and each; faith that you and we and they and all things are not separate, are not solitary, are not disconnected items or unconjoined individuals, but are one in love, one in purity, one in brotherhood,, one in truth-seeking, one in true social fellowship, one above all in service, one in that upward striving of the all which..." and so on for hours and hours. The priests in such a temple ought to wear nightcaps instead of mitres, and put up bedroom candles for altar lights. After half an hour of a new religion in a new tin chapel I feel inclined, like the man in the story, to put my boots outside the pew, so that they may be cleaned in the morning.

The New Religions profess to be new; but they never really venture beyond the most ancient and general maxims about the unity of God and the fellowship of mankind. They profess to be bold and innovating; but in truth they are too timid to trust themselves beyond the most grandmotherly truisms. They profess to be skeptical and inquiring; but in fact they never venture to ask any of the controversial questions, any of the questions on which men have disagreed and might disagree again- Can Suicide be noble? May Sex be abnormal? Is the Will free? Can the Soul be lost? They follow everywhere the line of least resistance, and are as anxious to avoid a scene as a snobbish political hostess. That any one should really prefer one thing to another, that any one should think one solution right, the other solution wrong, seems to them a violation of good taste. To say, "I regret the Reformation, " or "I dislike Christian Science," sounds to them like a guest criticising the wine or cursing the servants, and they end where good taste always ends- in a literal tastelessness.

The situation is, among other things, a curious, indirect tribute to the organic change made in man by Christianity. For the old pagans, who lived before that change, did manage to have a number of little local religions which were not dull, even when they were diabolical. But then they did not worship the Unity of the All, the tiresome god of the Pantheists who turns up everywhere, like a snob at garden parties. They worshiped a thing of some kind; a river, or a statue, or a star, or some horrible insect. They showed their sense; for if you begin at this end, you do really find a certain flow of ideas and images coming from the special thing upon which you set your thoughts. A sacred river will sanctify the fields through which it flows, the mills which it turns will grind merrily, and he that builds bridges over it shall be Pontifex Maximus. A holy image will have a real town built around it, ringing with hammers and shielded with high walls. The star will guide fishers and ploughmen as well as poets and astronomers. The insect will be at home both in the temple and the laboratory. When men worship the sun, they produce something; gods with bows of gold and epics, snake-slaughter, and healing. When men worship the moon they produce something; virgins with bows of silver and dim fairy tales of Endymion. But when men worship the All, they produce the Nothing- the Nothing to which I have listened for hours from the pulpits and platforms of the New Religions.

This fresh and childish idolatry of the ancients has become very difficult for us. It is really hard for an honest clerk in Battersea to worship the Thames without embarrassment. I have known few instances of prosperous ladies and gentlemen, even in so loyal a place as Kensington, being found on their knees before the Albert Memorial. We count the stars, but we cannot adore them; we collect the insects, but we hardly really love them. In an ordinary way I refuse to admit that the past is dead. I think we could and should re-establish any social or moral system which we really desire. But in this case it may be doubted whether we ever desire the light pagan polytheism, with all the limitations that it must imply. The Kensington gentlemen is prevented, I think, from kneeling before the Albert Memorial by two deep Christian qualities or elements. The first is a certain kind of humor, which is akin to mysticism and the more emotional and mixed psychology of the Christian life. The second is the Christian thirst for actuality, for the ultimate secret of the universe; the Christian cannot really believe Prince Albert to be a god, and he has lost the faculty of playing at believing it. This sense of inner incongruity and this thirst for truth are noble qualities; and I do not think we should wish to give them up even to purchase the varied altars and the spontaneous dances of the heathen.

Since, therefore, Europe became Christendom and decided to take its cosmic theory seriously, there have been two attitudes among Europeans. Strong creative minds got to grips with nature and morality and forced them to yield some tangible result- that is, they went in for what is called Dogma. They dealt with the disputable matters, sex and suicide and poverty and slavery, and produced plain definitions about them, right or wrong. They carried the great ethical commonplaces with which they had begun courageously into all the complications of actuality. They committed that audacious act of which that genial aristocrat, Lord Melbourne, complained, saying: "No one has more respect for the Christian religion than I have; but when it comes to interfering in private life-!" They created the great and humane science of casuistry. They really tried to find an answer for every riddle, to hammer out a key for every lock; but from time to time, this incessant and creative violence becomes too much for vaguer people; they are deafened by the dogmatists as by the hammers in some horrible smithy; they ask for a truce from discussions and definitions, and in some age of fatigue they get it. Then, in the silence that follows, some half-witted old man is heard murmuring in his sleep the infantile and obvious truths with which everybody started; that there is only one world and that men should love another. It is quite true; but he generally says it nine-hundred and ninety-nine times. When he has said it a thousand times it is called a New Religion.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.