And as the philosophical mistake is to the highest type of mind not only untrue and delusive, but unsatisfactory rather than satisfactory, so is the theological mistake. Theology gathers all our thoughts of the higher and better together, and conceives them in the form of a perfect person who rules and guides the world. There is a noble side to theology: I mean, of course, not as savages or narrow bigots, but as pure and lofty souls have conceived it. God is the perfect; there are no limitations, no failings there, — measureless goodness, infinite justice, make up that image of the mind. And if the only alternative were between the world as it is, with no thought of anything above it by which to try it, and this lofty ideal of excellence which might be ever kept in mind, I do not see how we could hesitate in pronouncing which would be the better. We must look on all that is from some ideal stand-point; we must keep in our minds some high and unfailing standard of excellence ; and until provision is made for this in the new order of things, the old belief will remain, and deserve to remain. For man has these two sides to his nature, of which I have spoken, and the most perfect knowledge of what is will not take the place of the thought of what ought to be. But the noble side of theology is easily disengaged from theology itself. When one ceases to believe in God in the ordinary sense, one does not need to drop flat to the world and life as we see them and know them. All that made that image admirable remains, — all those higher qualities that we instinctively call divine and that mankind instinctively worships, wherever any hint or suggestion of them appears in human form, — goodness, pity, boundless charity, unfailing justice.
We do not find these in the world, we do not see them in ourselves ; and so, foolish creatures that we are, we jump to the conclusion that they are in another world, that they belong to God. And here is the ignoble side to theology; for not only is the personal Deity of theology illusory, but by gathering the divine qualities into a form outside of man, it allows us to forget that they are qualities for man, and religion becomes the worship of something already existing, instead of the sense of a burden and a task. We are to become divine : we are to make this world a scene of justice. All that men have gathered into the form of a God is but the image of our possible selves. We make a myth of love and justice, when we say that they are actually ruling in the world, as Christian believers hold; or as Emerson says, that "though ministers of justice fail, justice never," and that the ethical laws are self-executing, instantaneous.1 Justice is forever failing in the world. Whenever ministers of justice fail, it fails; for it acquires a real existence only in those who execute it. Aside from them, it is only what ought to be, nothing that is. There are no self-executing, instantaneous, ethical laws; though one might well, when one thinks of all the unrequited wrong there is in the world, wish to heaven that there were. The laws are over us, but they wait for us to execute them: they are shorn of their intent, as our lives are of their significance, if we do not execute them. We can only say that the ethical laws should rule in all our lives, that justice forever calls for ministers; and of love, not that it is supreme in the world, but let love, as Buddha said, even the love that fills the mother's heart as she watches over an only child, animate all. For the ideal itself of the old religions is not essentially different from that of the new. The old however say, The ideal does rule : the new will say, Let it rule! The old religions appear to open to us the secrets of what lies behind the veil: the new will take those august secrets, and make them in all their grandeur the aim and the rule of human life. The old religions leave us on our knees in rapt contemplation and worship : the new will summon us to stand erect, and to believe that all that men have worshipped, all that they have dreamed of, all that has seemed so far above them and beyond them, men and women in the future are to become and to realize.
But why, if man's ideals do not reveal anything outside ourselves, but only indicate what we ourselves should be and do, — why do we speak of devotion to them as religion at all ? I do not covet that word, and disbelieve in all the prevailing forms of religion. I do not begin with any attempt to compromise with them. And yet I am driven to speak of religion, — not indeed in the common way, as of something additional to morality, but of morality as religion.
1 The Preacher.
This may be made evident in two ways. Religion from the purely human side might be defined as man's supreme interest: whoever has an absorbing concern may be said to have a religion. We often hear persons spoken of as religiously devoted to some object, religiously faithful in some attention, some regard, some affection. There are those who have memories that are to them a religion, — statesmen to whom the service of their country has been a religion, reformers who give their lives and fortunes in religious devotion to the service of some idea. Those who care for no one thing more than another, who have no enthusiasm, who are listless and cannot be conceived as rising to any height of self-devotion, — these are properly the irreligious people of any time. In vain would the most perfect theory of life and the universe be called a religion, if it could not stir the souls of men, if it could not take hold of life and mould it into higher forms. If morality then, — if the thought of the good becomes supreme over all other thoughts in the minds of any, if it enlists their feelings and masters their life, it is their religion. I believe, indeed, that there is no other thought that wins so instinctive a reverence as this of the good; that conceptions of the Deity and plans for a truer society take deep hold of men only as they in some sense image or embody it. The question whether morality can become a religion for men in general, is the question whether men in general are capable of unselfish admiration; whether they can love the good unmoved by personal fears and hopes, because it is the good, and has an intrinsic charm for them. I do not doubt it. I believe we ordinarily think too meanly of man. The higher nature is in us all: it is not often appealed to, and it is perhaps for this very reason that human life remains on so low a level. Let a new religion arise which should dare to take man at his best, which should summon him to justice and generosity and all nobleness, solely because these are his true and proper life, and I believe the world would be astonished at the answer.