Serious Study of All Religions
September 15, 1893 — World’s Parliament of Religions, Hall of Columbus, Word’s Congress Auxiliary Building, Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
My thesis bears the impress of the nineteenth century — the century par excellence in scientific research and classification, which has given us the new lessons of the telescope, the spectroscope and stellar photography ; the new earth of geology, chemistry, mineralogy, botany and zoology; and the new humanity of ethnology, philology, psychology and hierology. What is the value of this work? I am asked to respond only for one department of it, namely — that of hierology, or the comparative study of religions.
What is the value of this work? I am asked to respond only for one department of it, namely — that of hierology, or the comparative study of religions.
What is the value and importance of a comparative study of religions? What lessons has it to teach? I may answer, first, that the results of hierology form part of the great body of scientific truth, and as such have a recognized scientific value as helping to complete a knowledge of man and his environment; and I shall attempt to show that a serious study by an intelligent public of the great mass of facts already gathered concerning most of the religions of the world will prove of great value in at least two directions — first, as a means of general; second, as a means of religious culture. Matthew Arnold defines culture as “the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit.” This is a nineteenth-century use of the word.
The Romans would have used instead “humanitas,” or, with an English plural, “the humanities,” to express a corresponding thought. The schoolmen, adopting the Latin term, limited its application to the languages, literature, history, art, and archaeology of Greece and Rome, assuming that thither the world must look for the most enlightening and humanizing influences, and, in their use of the word, contrasting these as human products with “divinity,” which completed the circle of scholastic knowledge. Hut the world of the nineteenth century is larger than that of mediaeval Europe, and we may well thank Mr. Arnold for a new word suited to the new times, Culture — acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit. This will require us to know a great body of literature; but when we inquire for the best we shall find ourselves confronted by a vast mass of religious literature. Homer was a great religious poet, Hesiod also. The central idea in all the great dramas of AEschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, was religious, and no one need hope to penetrate beneath the surface of any of these who has not a sympathetic ‘acquaintance with the religious ideas, myths, and mythologies of the Greeks. Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost are religious poems, to read which intelligently one must have an acquaintance with mediaeval mythology and modern Protestant theology. Faust is a religious poem.
Then there are the great Bibles of the world, the Christian and Jewish, the Mohammedan and Zoroastrian, the Brahman and Buddhist, and the two Chinese sacred books. It is of these books that Emerson sings:
Out of the heart of nature rolled
The burden of the Bible old;
The litanies of nations came,
Like the volcano’s tongue of flame,
Up from the burning core below,
The canticles of love and woe.
He who would be cultured in Matthew Arnold’s sense of being acquainted with the history of the human spirit must know these books, and this means a patient, careful study of the growth and development of rites, symbols, myths and mythologies, traditions, creeds and priestly orders, through long centuries of time, from far away primitive nature worship up to the elaborate ritual and developed liturgy which demanded the written book.
But religion is a living power and not, therefore, to be confined to book or creed or ritual. All these religion called into being, and is itself, there fore, greater than any or all of them. So far from being confined to book and creed and ritual, religion has proved, in the word of Dr. C.P. Tiele, one of the most potent factors in human history; it has founded and overthrown nations, united and divided empires; has sanctioned the most atrocious deeds and the most cruel customs; has inspired beautiful acts of heroism, self-renunciation and devotion, and has occasioned the most sanguinary wars, rebellions and persecutions. It has brought freedom, happiness and peace to nations, and, anon, has proved a partisan of tyranny, now calling into existence a brilliant civilization, then the deadly foe to progress, science and art. All this is a part of the world history, and the student who ignores it or passes over lightly the religious motive underlying it is thereby obscuring the hidden causes which alone can explain the outer facts of history.
Again, the human spirit has ever delighted to express itself in art. True culture, therefore, requires a knowledge of art. But to know the world’s art without first knowing the world’s religions would be to read Homer in the original before knowing the Greek alphabet. Why the vastness and gloom of the Egyptian temples? The approaches to them through long rows of sphinxes? What mean these sphinxes and the pyramids, the rock-hewn temple tombs and the obelisks of ancient Egyptian art? Why the low, earth-loving Greek temple, with all its beauty and adornment external? What is the central thought in Greek sculpture? Why does the mediaeval cathedral climb heavenward itself, with its massive towers and turrets?
What is the meaning of the tower temples of ancient Assyria and Babylon, and the mosques and minarets of Western Asia? All are symbols of religious life, and are blind and meaningless without an understanding of that life. Blot out the architecture and sculpture whose motive is strictly religious, and how great a blank remains? Painting and music, too, have been the handmaidens of religion, and cannot be mastered in their full depths of meaning save by one who knows something of the religious ideas and sentiments which gave them birth: eloquence has found its deepest inspiration in sacred themes; and philosophy is only the attempt of the intellect to formulate what the heart of man has felt after and found.
Let a student set himself the task of becoming intelligent concerning the philosophic speculations of the world, and he will soon find that among all peoples the earliest speculations have been of a religious nature, and that out of these philosophy arose. If, then, he would understand the development of philosophy, he must begin with the development of the religious consciousness in its beginnings in the Indo-Germanic race, the Semitic race, and in Christianity. Dr. Pfleiderer shows, in his Philosophy of Religion on the Basis of Its History:
There could have been no distinct philosophy of religion in the ancient world, because nowhere did religion appear as an independent fact, clearly distinguished alike from politics, art and science. This condition was first fulfilled in Christianity. But no philosophy of religion was possible in mediaeval Christianity, because independent scientific investigation was impossible. All thinking was dominated either by dogmatism or by an undefined faith.
If the germs of a philosophy of religion may be found in the theosophic mysticism and the anti-scholastic philosophy of the renaissance, its real beginnings are to be found not earlier than the eighteenth century. But what a magnificent array of names in the two and a quarter centuries since Spinoza wrote his theologico-political treatise in 1670! Spinoza, Leibnitz, Lessing, Kant, Herder, Goethe, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Schelling, Hegel, and, if we would follow the tendencies of philosophic religious thought in the present day, Feuerbach, Comte, Strauss, Mill, Spencer, Matthew Arnold, Hermann Schopenhauer, Von Hartmann, Lotze, Edward Caird, John Caird, and Martineau. No student who aspires to an acquaintance with philosophy can afford to be ignorant of these thinkers and their thoughts, but to follow most intelligently the thought of any one of them he will need a preliminary acquaintance with hierology through the careful, painstaking, conscientious work in the study of different religions, as has been made by such scholars as Max Muller, C.P. Tiele, Kuenen, Ernest Renan, Albert Reville, Prof. Robertson Smith, Renouf, La Saussaye and Sayce.
If religious thought and feeling is thus bound up with the literature, art and philosophy of the world, not less close is the relation to the language, social and political institutions, and morals of humanity. It is sacred names quite as often as any other words which furnish the philologist his links in the chain of proofs of relationship between languages. It does not need a Herbert Spencer to point out that political institutions and offices are frequently related to religion as effect to cause; the king’s touch and the doctrine of divine right of kings are only survivals from the days of the medicine man and heaven-born chief.
The question concerning the relations of religion to ethics is a living one in modern thought. One class of thinkers insists that ethics is all there is of religion that can be known or can be of value to man; another that ethics if lived will of necessity blossom out into religion, since religion is only ethics touched with emotion; another that religion and ethics are two distinct things which have no necessary relation to each other, and still others who maintain that there is no high and persistent moral life possible without the sanctions of religion, and no high and worthy religion possible without an accompanying high morality; that, whatever may be true in low conditions of civilization, any religion adapted to high civilization must be ethical, and any ethical precepts or principles which are helpfully to control men’s lives must be rooted in faith. A wide and careful study of the world’s religions ought to throw light upon the problem.
C.P. Title, from his study in this field, concludes that though differing greatly among themselves in all other ways, all religions, even the oldest and poorest, must have shown some faint traces at least of awakening moral feeling. From an early period moral Ideas are combined with religious doctrines, and the old mythologies are modified in them. Ethical attributes are ascribed to the gods, especially the highest. Later, but only in the higher nature religions, ethical as well as intellectual abstractions’ are personified and worshiped as divine beings. If, however, the ethical elements acquire the upper hand, so that they become the predominating principle, then the nature religion dies and the way is prepared for an ethical religious doctrine, i.e., a doctrine of salvation.
What are the historic facts in the case? Have religion and morality had a contemporaneous development and in conjunction, or has the history of the two run on distinct and divergent lines? Who shall answer authoritatively save the student of the history of religions? Let us question some such. “All religions,” says C.P. Tiele, “are either race religions or religions proceeding from an individual founder — the former are nature religions, the latter ethical religions. In the nature religions the supreme gods are the mighty powers of nature, and though there are great mutual differences between them, some standing on a much higher plane than others, the oldest and poorest must have shown some faint traces, at least, of awakening moral feeling. In some a constant and remarkable progress is also to be noticed. Gods are more and more anthropomorphized, rites humanized.- From an early period moral ideas are combined with religious doctrines, and the old mythologies are modified by them. Ethical attributes are ascribed to the gods, especially to the highest. Nay, ethical as well as intellectual abstractions are personified and worshiped as divine beings. But, as a rule, this happens only in the most advanced stages of nature worship. Nature religions can for a long time bear the introduction into their mythologies of moral as well as esthetic, scientific and philosophical notions; and they are unable to shut them out, for if they did so they would lose their hold upon the leading classes among the more civilized nations.
If, however, the ethical elements acquire the upper hand so that they become the predominating principle, then the old forms break in twain by the too heavy burden of new ideas, and the old rites become obsolete as being useless. Then nature religion inevitably dies of inanition. When this culminating point has been reached the way is prepared for the preaching of an ethical religious doctrine.
Ethical religions are communities brought together, not by a common belief in national traditions, but by the common belief in a doctrine of salvation, and organized with the aim of maintaining, fostering, propagating and practicing that doctrine. This fundamental doctrine is considered by its adherents in each case as a divine revelation, and he who revealed it an inspired prophet or son of God.
These ethical religions Tiele divides into national, or particularistic, and universalistic. The latter, three in number, are the dominant religions in the world to-day. Of these Islamism has emphasized the religious side, the absolute sovereignty of God, opposing to it the nothingness of man, and has thus neglected to develop morals. Buddhism, on the contrary, neglects the divine, preaches the final salvation of man from the miseries of existence through the power of his own self-renunciation, and as it was atheistic in its origin it soon becomes infected by the most fantastic mythology and the most childish superstitions. Christianity in its founder did full justice to both the divine and human sides; if the greatest commandment was love to God, the second was like unto it, viz, love to man. Such is a brief resume’ of C.P. Tiele’s account of the mutual historical relations of ethics and religion.
Albert Reville devotes a chapter of his Prolegomena of the History of Religions to the same question. He finds that morality, like religion, began very low down to rise very high; that with morality as with religion we must recognize in the human mind a spontaneous disposition, sui generis, arising from its natural constitution, destined to expand in the school of experience, but which that school can never Create.
With the entrance of moral prepossessions into religion, life beyond the tomb becomes a place of divine rewards, and thus originates a new chapter of religious history. Under monotheism the connection between religion and morality becomes still closer. Here everything — the physical world, human society, human personality — has but one all powerful master. Moral order is his work by the same right and as completely as physical order. Obedience to the moral law becomes then essentially a religious duty. Consequently the religious ideal rises and becomes purified at the same time as the moral ideal. We may even say that, in the Gospel, religion and morality are no longer easily to be distinguished; upon the basis of the mono theistic principle and the affinity of nature between man and God, the religion of Jesus moves on independently of dogma and of rile, consisting essentially of strictly moral provisions and applications.
“Has morality gained or lost by this close alliance with religion?” asks Reville, and answers: “In a general way we may say that the characteristic of the religious sentiment, when it is associated with another element of human life, is, to render this element much more intense and more powerful. From this simple observance we have the right to conclude that as a general rule morality gains in attractiveness, in power and in strength by its alliance with religion.”
True, unenlightened religion has sometimes perverted the moral sense and reduced morality to a utilitarian calculation. Most of the religions which have assigned a large place to morality have foundered on the rock of asceticism, especially Brahmanism, Buddhism and the Christianity of the middle ages. Religion has sometimes failed to distinguish between morality and ritual, or morality and occult belief, and we have the spectacle of a punctilious observer of rites considered to be more nearly united to God, notwithstanding terrible violations of the moral law, than is the good man who fails in ritual or creed. And yet, Reville concludes from the individual point of view, “the question which the spiritual tribunal of each of us is alone qualified to decide is, whether we ought not to congratulate the man who derives from his religious convictions, freed from narrowness, from utilitarianism and from superstition, the source, the charm and the vigor of his moral life. Persuaded that for most men the alliance between religion and morality cannot but be salutary, I must pronounce in the affirmative.”
If the conclusions of all students of hierology shall prove in harmony with the views here expressed as to the close connection in origin and in history, between morality and religion, a connection growing closer as each rises in the scale of worth, until we find in the very highest the two indissolubly united, may we not conclude a wise dictum for our modern life to be “what God in history has joined together let not man in practice put asunder.” Rather let him who would lift the world morally avail himself of the motor power of religion; him who would erect a temple of religion see to it that its foundations are laid in the enduring granite of character.
I come now to the second division of my subject, namely, the value of hierology as a means of religious culture. What is religion ? Ask the question of an ordinary communicant of any religious order and the answer will in all probability as a rule emphasize some surface characteristic.
The Orthodox Protestant defines it as a creed; the Catholic a creed plus a ritual — believe the doctrines and observe the sacraments ; the Mohammedan as a dogma ; the Buddhist as an ethical system; the Brahman as caste; Confucianism as a system of statecraft. But let the earnest student ask further for the real meaning in the worshiper of his ritual., creed, dogma, ethics, caste and ethics-political, and he will find each system to be a feeling out after a bond of union between the human and the divine; each implies a mode of activity, a process by which the individual spirit strives to bring itself into harmonious relations with the highest power, will or intelligence. Each is of value in just so far as it is able to inaugurate some felt relation between the worshiper and the superhuman powers in which he believes. In the language of philosophy, each is a seeking for a reconciliation of the ego and the non-ego.
The earnest student will find many resemblances between all these communions, his own included. They all started from the same simple germ; they have all had a life history which can be traced, which is in a true sense a development and whose laws can be formulated ; they all have sought outward expression for the religious yearning and have all found it in symbol, rite, myth, tradition, creed. The result of such a study must be to reveal man to himself in his deepest nature; it enables the individual to trace his own lineaments in the mirror, and see him self in the perspective of humanity. Prior to such study, religion is an accident of time and place and nationality; a particular revelation to this particular nation or age, which might have been withheld from him and his, as it was withheld from the rest of the world, but for the distinguishing favor of the divine sovereign of the universe in choosing out one favored people and sending to that one a special revelation of his will.
After such study religion is an attribute of humanity, as reason and language and toolmaking are; needing only a human being placed in a physical universe which dominates his own physical life, which cribs and cabins him by its inexorable laws, and, lo! defying those laws he steps out into the infinite world of faith, of hope, of aspiration, of God. The petty distinctions of savage, barbarian, civilized and enlightened sink into the background. He is a man, and by virtue of his manhood, his human nature, he worships and spires. A comparative study of religions furnishes the only basis for estimating the relative worth of any religion.
Many of you saw and perhaps shared the smile and exclamation of incredulous amusement over the paragraph which went the rounds of the papers some months ago to the effect that the Mohammedans were preparing to send missionaries and establish a Mohammedan mission in New York City. But why the smile and exclamation? Because of our sense of the superiority of our own form of religious faith. Yet Christianity has utterly failed to control the vice of drunkenness. Chicago to-day is dominated by the saloons. Nor is it alone in this respect. Christian lands everywhere are dotted with poorhouses, asylums, jails, penitentiaries, reformatories, built to try to remedy evils, nine-tenths of which were caused, directly or indirectly, by the drink habit, which Christendom fails to control and is powerless to uproot. But Mohammedanism does control it in Oriental lands. Says Isaac Taylor: “Mohammedanism stands in fierce opposition to gambling a gambler’s testimony is invalid in law.” And further: “Islam is the most powerful total abstinence association in the world.” This testimony is confirmed by other writers and by illustration. If it can do soon the western continent as well, then what better thing could happen to New York, or to Chicago even, than the establishment of some vigorous Mohammedan missions ? And for the best good of Chicago it might be well that Mayor Harrison instruct the police that they are not to be arrested for obstructing the highway, if they should venture preach their temperance gospel in the saloon quarters of the city.
But if the study of all religions is the only road to a true definition of religion and classification of religions. it is quite as necessary to the intelligent comprehension of any one religion. Goethe declared long ago that he who knows but one language knows none, and Max Muller applied the adage to religion. A very little thought will show the truth of the application in either case. On the old-time supposition that religion and language alike came down ready formed from Heaven, a divine gift or revelation to man, this would not be true. Complete in itself, with no earthly relationships, why should it need anything but itself for its comprehension? But modern scientific inquiry soon dispels any such theories of the origin of language and religion alike. If the absolute origin of each is lost in prehistoric shadows, the light of history shows each as a gradual evolution or development whose laws of development can to some extent be traced, whose history can be, partially at least, deciphered. But if an evolution, a development, then are both religion and language in the chain of cause and effect, and no single link of that chain can by any possibility be comprehended alone and out of relation to the link preceding and following.
Allow me to illustrate this proposition at some length. I am a Christian. I want to know the nature, meaning and import of the Christian religion. I find myself in the midst of a great army of sects all calling themselves Christians. I must either admit the claim of all or I must prove that only one has right to the name, and to do either rationally I must become acquainted with all. But they absolutely contradict each other, and some of them, at least, the original records of Christianity in both their creed and ritual.
Here is one sect that holds to the unity of God, here another that con tends earnestly for a trinity; here one that worships at high altars with burning candles, processions of robed priests, elevation of the host, holy water, adoration of the Virgin Mother, and humble confessional, all in stately cathedrals with stained glass windows, pealing organ and surpliced choir; there another which deems that Christianity is foreign to all such ritual, and whose worship consists in waiting quietly for an hour within the four bare walls of the Quaker meeting house to see if the inner voice hath aught of message from the great enlightening spirit.
How account for such differences when all claim a common source? Only by tracing back the stream of Christian history to its source and following each tributary to its source, thus, if possible, to discover the origin of elements so dissimilar. Seriously entered upon the quest, we discover here a stream of influence from ancient Egypt, ” through Greece and Rome bringing to Roman Catholic Christendom,” so says Tiele, “the germs of the worship of the Virgin, the doctrine of the immaculate conception and the type of its theocracy.”
Another tributary brings in a stream of Neo-Platonism with its doctrine of the Word or Logos, there a stream of Graeco-Roman mythology with a deifying tendency so strongly developed that it will fall in adoration equally before a Roman emperor or a Paul and Cephas, whose deeds seem marvelous. Another stream from imperial Rome brings its gift of hierarchical organization, and here a tributary comes in from the German forests bringing the festivals of the sun god and the egg god of the newly developing lite of spring. Christianity cannot banish these festivals; too long have they held place in the religious consciousness of the people. She can, how ever, and does adopt and baptize them, and we have the gorgeous Catholic festivals of Christmas and Easter.
Christianity itself sends its roots back into Judaism, hence, to know it really in its deepest nature we must apply to it the laws of heredity, i.e., we must study Judaism. Judaism has its sacred book, and our task will be easy, so we think. Hut a very little unbiased study will show us that Judaism is not one, but many. There is the Judaism which talks freely of angels and devils and the future life, happiness or misery; and there is the earlier Mosaism, which knows nothing of angels or devils and of no future life save that of sheol, in which, as David declares, there is no service of God possible. Would we understand this difference we must note a tributary stream flowing in from Babylonia, and if we will trace this to its source we shall find its fountain head in the Persian dualism of Ormuzd and Ahriman, the god of light and the god of darkness, with their attendant angels. Only after the Babylonish captivity do we find in Judaism angels and a hierarchy of devils.
Pass back through the Jewish sacred books and strange things will meet us. Here a “Thus saith the Lord” to Joshua, “Slay all the Canaanites, men, women and helpless children, I suffer not one to live.” “Sell the animal that has died of itself to the stranger within your gate, but not to those of your own flesh and blood.” The Lord comes to dine with Abraham under the oak at Mamre, on his way down to Sodom, to see if the reports of its great wickedness be true, and discusses his plans with his host. Naaman must carry home with him loads of Palestinian earth if he would build an altar to the God of the Hebrews whose prophet has cured his leprosy.
The Lord guides the Israelites through the wilderness by a pillar of fire by night and of smoke by day, lives in the ark, and in it goes before the Israelites into battle, is captured in the ark and punishes the Philistines till they send him back to his people. The Lord makes a covenant with Abraham, and it is confirmed according to divine command by Abraham slaying and dividing animals and the Lord passing between the parts, thus affirming his share in the covenant.
Is this the same God of whom Jesus taught? This the religion out of which sprang Christianity? How, then, account for the immense distance between the two? To do this we must trace the early Hebrew religion to its source, and then follow the stream to the rise of Christianity, seeking earnestly for the causes of the transformation. What was the early Hebrew religion? A branch of the great Semitic family of religions. What was the religion of the Semites and who were Semites? These questions have been answered in an exhaustive and scholarly manner, so far as he goes, by Professor Robertson Smith, in the volume entitled The Religion of the Semites, a volume to which no student of the Old Testament, who wishes to understand that rich treasury of Oriental and ancient sacred literature, can afford not to give a serious study.
The Semites occupied all the lands of Western Asia from the Tigro-Euphrates valley to the Mediterranean sea. They included the Arabs, Hebrews and Phoenicians, the Aramaeans, Babylonians and Assyrians. A comparative study of the religions of all these peoples has convinced scholars that all were developments from a common primitive source, the early religion of the Semites. This religion was first nature worship of the personified heavenly bodies, especially the sun and moon god. Among the Arabs this early religion developed into animistic polydaemonism, and never rises much higher than this but among the Mesopotamian Semites the nature beings rise above nature and rule it, and one among them rises above all the others as the head of an unlimited theocracy.
If magic and augury remained prominent constituents of their ceremonial religion, they practiced besides a real worship and gave utterance to a vivid sense of sin, a deep feeling of man’s dependence, even of his nothingness before God, in prayers and hymns hardly less fervent than those of the pious souls of Israel. Among the western Semites the Aramaeans, Canaanites, Phoenicians, seemed to have sojourned in Mesopotamia before moving westward, and they brought with them the names of the early Mesopotamian Semitic gods, with the cruel and unchaste worship of a non-Semitic people, the Akkadians, which henceforth distinguished them from the other Semites. From the Akkadians, too, was probably derived the consecration of the seventh day as a Sabbath or day of rest, afterward shared by the Hebrews.
The last of the Semitic peoples, the Hebrews, seem to be more closely related to the Arabs than to the northern or eastern Semites. They entered and gradually conquered most of Canaan during the thirteenth century, B.C., bringing with them a religion of extreme simplicity, though not monotheistic, and not differing greatly in character from that of the Arabs. Their ancient national god bore the name Ei-Shaddai, but his worship had given place under their great leader, Moses, to a new cult, the worship of Yahveh, the dreadful and stern god of thunder, who first appeared to Moses at the bush under the name “I am that I am,” worshiped according to a new fundamental religious and moral law, the so-called Ten Words. Were this name and this law indigenous to Arabia or a special revelation, de novo, to Moses? But whence had Moses the moral culture adequate to the comprehension and appropriation of a moral system so far in advance of anything which we find among other earlier Semites? Nineteenth century research has discovered an equally high moral code in Egypt, and the very name “Nuk pu Nuk,” ” I am that I am,” is found among old Egyptian inscriptions.
Whatever its origin, this new religion the Hebrews did not abandon to their new home, although they placed their national god, Yahveh, by the side of the deity of the country, whom they called briefly “the Baal,” and whom most of them worshiped together with Ashera, the goddess of fertility. After they had left their wandering life and settled down to agriculture, Yahveh, however, as the god of the conquerors, was commonly placed above the others, though his stern character was softened by that of the the gentler Baal. Well for Israel and well for the world that these two conceptions of deity came together in Judea twelve centuries before Christ. If the worship of the jealous god, Yahveh, made the Jew stern and uncompromising, it also girded him with a high moral sense whose legitimate outcome was Israel’s great prophets; while the fierceness itself, as gradually trans formed by the gentler Baal conception of deity, gives us the final outcome the holy God who cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, and yet pitieth the sinner even as a father pitieth his children. If any have been perplexed over a religion of love, such as Christianity claims to be, proving a religion of bloody wars, persecutions, inquisitions, martyrdoms, mayhap its Hebrew origin may throw light upon the mystery. Jesus’ thought of a God, a Father, could not wholly displace at once the old Hebrew Yahveh, the jealous God.
All the Semitic religions, while differing among themselves in the -names and certain characteristics of their deities, had much in common. Their gods were all tribal or national gods, limited to particular countries, choosing for themselves special dwelling places, which thus became holy places, usually by celebrated trees or living water, the tree, rock or water often coming to be regarded not simply as the abode, but, as in some sense, the divine embodiment or representative of the god, and hence these places were chosen as sanctuaries and places of worship; though the northern Semites worshiped on hills also, the worship consisting, during the nomadic period, in sacrifices of animals sacred alike to the god and his worshipers, because sharing the common life of both, and to some extent of human sacrifices as well. The skin of the animal sacrificed is the oldest form, says Robertson-Smith, of a sacred garment appropriate to the performance of holy function, and was the origin of the expression, “robe of righteous ness.” Is this the far-away origin of the scarlet robe of office?
All life, whether the life of man or beast, within the limits of the tribe was sacred, being held in common with the tribal god, who was the pro genitor of the whole tribal life; hence no life could be taken save in sacrifice to the god without calling down the wrath of the god. Sacrifices thus became tribal feasts, shared between the god and his worshipers, the god receiving the blood poured upon this altar, the worshipers eating the flesh in a joyful tribal feast.
Here, then, was the origin of the Hebrew religion. It was not mono theistic, but what scholars designated as henotheistic, a belief in the existence of many gods, though worshiping only the national god. Thus a man was born into his religion as he was born into his tribe, and he could only change his religion by changing his tribe. This explains Ruth’s impassioned words to Naomi: “Thy people shall be my people, and thy god my god.” This idea of the tribal god, who is a friend to his own people but an enemy to all others, added to the belief in the inviolability of all life save when offered in sacrifice, explains the decree that an animal dying of itself may not be eaten by a tribesman, but might be sold to a stranger. A tribal god, too, might rightfully enough order the slaughter of the men, women, and children of another tribe whose god had proved too weak to defend them. Life was sacred only because shared with the god, and this sharing was limited to the tribe.
The Hebrew people moved onward and upward from this early Semitic stage, and have left invaluable landmarks of their progress in their sacred books. The story of the sacrifice of Isaac tells of the time when human sacrifices were outgrown. Perhaps circumcision does the same. The story of Cain and Abel dates from the time when agriculture was beginning to take the place of the old nomadic shepherd life. The men of the new calling were still worshipers of the old gods, and would gladly share with them what they had to give — the fruits of the earth. But the dingers to the old life could see nothing sacred in this new thing, and were sure that only the old could be well pleasing to their god.
The god who dined with Abraham under the terebinth tree at Mamre was the early tribal god, El-Shaddai. Naaman was cured of his leprosy because the Jordan was sacred to the deity. It was the thunder god, Yah-veh, whom the people worshiped on Sinai and who still bore traces of the earlier sun god as he guided the people in a pillar of fire. The ark is a remnant of fetichism, i.e., a means of putting the deity under control of his worshipers. They can compel his presence on the battlefield by carrying the ark thither, and if the ark is captured the god is captured also.
A powerful element in the development upward of Mosaism was prophecy. The eighth century prophets had moved far on beyond the whole sacrificial system, when, as spokesman for the Lord, Isaiah exclaims: “I am tired of your burnt sacrifices and your oblations. What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” Jesus condemns the whole theory of holy places when he declares: “Neither in this holy mountain nor yet in Jerusalem shall men think to worship God most acceptably.” God is a spirit unlimited by time or place, and they who would worship acceptably must worship in spirit and in truth.
How long the journey from the early tribal, sacrificial, magical, unmoral, fetich, holy place, human sacrifice worship of the early Semites, including the Hebrews, to the universal Fatherhood and brotherhood religion of the sermon on the mount and the golden rule, only those can understand who are willing to give serious study not to the latter alone, but to the former as well. To such earnest student there will probably come another revelation, namely, that there is need of no miracle to account for this religious trans formation more than for the physical transformation from the frozen snows of December to the palpitating life of June. They are both all miracle or none. The great infinite life and love was hidden alike in the winter clod and the human sacrifice. Given the necessary conditions, and the frozen clod has “climbed to a soul in grass and flower,” the tribal god and the tribal blood bond are seen in their real character as the universal God Fatherhood and man brotherhood. What the necessary conditions were only those shall know who are ready to read God’s thoughts after him in the patient researches of scientific investigation.
What is to be the future of this religion which has had so long and varied a history from far away Akkad even to this center of the western hemisphere, and from twenty centuries before Christ to this last decade of the nineteenth century after Christ?
One contribution made by the Hebrew to the Christian Scriptures demands special notice because it occupies so central a place in the development of the Christian system. I refer to the record of a first man, Adam, a Garden of Eden, a fall, an utter depravity resulting, and ending in a universal flood; a re-beginning, and another fall and confounding of speech at Babel. The founder of Christianity never refers to these events and the gospels are silent concerning them. Paul first alludes to them, but in his hands and those of his successors they have become central in the theology of Christendom. Whence came this record of these real or supposed events? Genesis is silent concerning its origin. The antiquary delving among the ruins of ancient Chaldea finds almost the identical record of the same series of events upon clay tablets which are referred to an Akkadian people, the founders of the earliest civilization of the Tigro-Euphrates valley, a people not Semitic, but Turanian, related, therefore, to the great Turanian peoples represented by the Chinese, Japanese and Fins.
We started out to make an exhaustive study of Christianity, an Aryan religion, if named from its adherents; Semitic from its origin, we found it receiving tributary streams from three Aryan sources, namely, Alexandrian Neo-Platonism, Pagan Rome and Teutonic Germany; its roots were nurtured in Semitic Hebrew soil which had been enriched from Semitic Assyria, Aryan Persia, Turanian Akkadia and Hamitic Egypt.
Its parent was Judaism, a national religion, limited by the boundaries of one nation. It is itself a universal religion, having transcended all national boundaries. How was this transformation effected? For answer go to Kuenen’s masterly handling of the subject, National Religions and Universal Religions. If our study has been wide, we have learned that religions, like languages, have a life history of birth, development, trans formation, death, following certain definite laws. Moreover, the law of life for all organisms is the same, and may, perhaps, be formulated as the power of adjustment to environment; the greater the adjustability the greater the vitality.
But this means capacity to change. ” That which is no longer susceptible of change,” says Kuenen, “may continue to exist, but it has ceased to live. And religion must live, must enter into new combinations and bear fresh fruit if it is to answer to its destiny, if refusing to crystallize into formulae and usages it is to work like the leaven, is to console, to inspire and to strengthen.” Has Christianity this vital power? “Yes,” again answers Kuenen, and quotes approvingly a saying of Richard Rothe: “Christianity is the most mutable of all things. That is its special glory.” And why should this not be so? Christianity has gathered contributions from many lands and woven them into one ideal large enough to include all peoples, tender enough to comfort all, lofty enough to inspire all — the ideal of a universal human brotherhood bound together under a common Divine Fatherhood.
Source: “Serious Study of All Religions,” in The World’s Parliament of Religions, An Illustrated and Popular Story of the World’s First Parliament of Religions, Held in Chicago in Connection with the Columbian Exposition of 1893, (Chicago: The Parliamentary Publishing Co., 1893) pp. 622-638.