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HISTORICAL TREATMENT OF RELIGIOUS QUESTIONS.
Is Religion Possible ? TT has often been said, What can be the good of
1 an historical study of religious questions? We do not want to know what Manu, or Buddha, or Socrates, or Christ thought about the questions which trouble us. We want to know whether any living man can give us an answer that will satisfy the requirements of our own age, or prescribe a remedy which will cure the complaints of our own society. The burning question of the day is not what religion has been, or how it came to be what it is. The real question is the possibility of any religion at all, whether natural or supernatural; and if that question has once been answered in the negative, as it has been by some of the most popular philosophers of our century, why not let the dead bury the dead ?
The fact that, as far as history can reach, no single human being has ever, from his childhood to his old age, been without something that may be called religion, would carry very little weight. The limitation, as far as history can reach,' would at once be construed into a confession of our ignorance, so long as there remained a single nook or corner on earth that had not been explored by anthro
pologists. In other cases, again, where the existence of a religion cannot be denied, the religion of the child would be explained as an hereditary taint, that of the old man as mere dotage or second childhood. The fact again that, so long as we know anything of the different races of mankind, we find them always in possession of something that may be called religion,-a fact which may now be readily granted,—and that out of the sum total of human beings now living on this earth (that number varies from 1400 to 1500 millions 1-if you can realise such a sum or even such a difference) those who are ignorant and those who deny the existence of any supernatural beings form a mere vanishing quantity, would make no impression whatever on those who consider that the very word supernatural has no right to exist and should be expunged in our dictionary.
I do not wish to prejudge any of these questions ; and in choosing for my own task a careful study of the historical development of religious thought among the principal nations of the world, I claim for it at first no more than that it may serve at least as a useful preparation for a final solution of the difficult problems which the great philosophers of our age have placed before us. It would be strange indeed if in religion alone we could learn nothing from those who have come before us, or even from those who differ from us. My own experience has been, on the contrary, that nothing helps us so much to understand and to value our own religion as a study
1 M. M. Selected Essays, ii. 228 ; Lehrbuch der Religionsgeschichte von Chantepie de la Saussaye, p. 41.
of the religions of other nations, and that nothing enables us better to deal with the burning questions of to-day than a knowledge of the difficulties inherent in all religions. These questions which are placed before us as the burning questions of the day, have been burning for centuries. Under slightly varying aspects they belong to the oldest questions of the world, and they occupy a very prominent place in every history of religion. If there is continuity anywhere, it is to be found in the growth of religious opinions.
History and Theory inseparable. Even our modern philosophers and theologians are what they are, and think what they think, because they stand on the historical accumulation of the religious thoughts and religious tbeories of former ages; and the religious thoughts and religious theories of former ages were in their time of exactly the same kind as the thoughts of our present philosophers. And not till our young philosophers have learnt that lesson, not till they will consent to serve a humble apprenticeship under the guidance of those who came before them, is there any hope of a healthy development in our modern philosophy. If there is evolution everywhere, is there to be no evolution in philosophy alone ?
Agnosticism. Let us examine a few of the more important of our so-called burning questions of the day, in order to see what kind of help we may expect to derive from history in trying to answer them. We are told that Agnosticism is an invention of our own age, and that, if it is once accepted, there must be an end of all that is called religion. This shows at all events a considerable agnosticism of the history of philosophy.
When a poet of the Veda (VII. 86, 2), though fully believing in Varuna, utters his complaint that he does not know how to get near him or into him, what is that but the most simple and primitive expression for the modern phrase, How can we know the Unknowable ?
Modern Agnosticism has been defined as the profession of an incapacity to discover the indispensable conditions of either positive or negative knowledge 1. In that sense, Agnosticism simply represents the old Academic étoxń, the suspense of judgment, so strongly recommended by all philosophers?, and so rarely observed by any one of them, not excluding the Agnostics. When the word is applied in a more special sense, namely as expressing man's inability to assert either the existence or the non-existence of God, there was the old Greek word Agnoia which would have avoided the ambiguity of the word Agnosticism. For Agnosticism seems at first sight merely the opposite of Gnosticism, and it has to be carefully explained that it has nothing to do with Gnosticism, in the usual sense of that word, not even as its negation. And even if we are told
1 Huxley, Hume, i. 60.
3 Cic. De Nat. Deor. i. 1, 'De qua (religione) tam variae sunt doctissimorum sententiae, ut magno argumento esse debeat, caussam, id est principium philosophiae, esse inscientiam, prudenterque Academicos a rebus incertis assensionem cohibuisse. Quid est enim temeritate turpius ? aut quid tam temerarium tamque indignum sapientis gravitate atque constantia, quam aut falsum sentire, aut, quod non satis explorate perceptum sit et cognitum, sine ulla dubitatione defendere ?'
that the name Agnostic was really derived, not from Gnosticism, but from ăyvwotos, the unknown God, whose altar at Athens is mentioned by St. Paul', this would not make Agnosticism a better name, for Agnosticism is supposed neither to deny nor to assert the existence of a god, while a god who has an altar is à very real god, although he may be said to be unknowable by men.
Plutarch, in his treatise on Superstition, calls what we mean by Agnosticism, Agnoia or Amathia, and he states that it generally branches off in two directions, leading either to atheism (åbeórns) or to superstition (deloidaluovía) 2.
Agnosticism, therefore, is at all events not a modern invention, and if we want an answer to it, we may find it in the words of one who has frequently been counted not only as an agnostic, but even as an atheist. This is what Goethe says:
The brightest happiness of a thoughtful man is to have fathomed what is fathomable, and silently to adore the unfathomable.'
Das schönste Glück des denkenden Menschen ist :
i On Fimbul-ty, the unknown god among . Celts, see Hibbert Lectures by John Rhys, p. 613. In the Babylonian psalms we constantly meet with expressions such as: 'To the god that is known and that is unknown; to the goddess that is known and that is unknown, do I lift up my prayer. See Hibbert Lectures by Sayce, pp. 217, 304, 349, In Egypt we meet with unnamed gods and goddesses and such invocations as 'Oh, all ye gods and goddesses who are unnamed, let a child remain in my place for ever and ever, keeping alive the name of my house.' Le Page Renouf, Hibbert Lectures, p. 141. * ? Plut. De Superstitione, i. 1, Tas nepi Dewv å ualias kai kyvoias eubùs εξ αρχής δίχα ρυείσης, το μεν, ώσπερ έν χωρίοις σκληρούς, τους αντιτύποις ήθεσι την αθεότητα, το δε, ώσπερ εν ιγρούς, τους απαλούς, την δεισιδαιμονίαν εμπεποίηκεν.