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THE DISTINCTIVE MESSAGES OF
THE OLD RELIGIONS.
THERE are two questions which are often confounded -What is the nature of religion ? and, What is the origin of religion? We frequently hear it said that religion has its origin in certain feelings of the mind. We are told sometimes that it is the product of fear, sometimes that it is the fruit of superstition, sometimes that it originates in a sense of absolute dependence. However true such statements may be, they can in no case reach the root of the matter. They may tell us what religion is; they cannot tell us whence religion comes. If we should succeed in reducing the religious faculty to an experience of fear, or a feeling of primitive superstition, or a sense of absolute dependence, we shall not have gained one step in the solution of the great problem, whence and how. What we want to know is, how came this fear, whence arose this superstition, what wakened this sense of dependence ? There is no reason why primitive man should have been more subject to these influences than cultured man; there is, a priori, every reason to the contrary. The experience of fear increases in proportion to the mind's development. The feeling of superstition, or presentiment of a violated law, demands that already in the heart of the man there should exist some knowledge of law. The sense of dependence is not a primitive instinct, but only reaches its flower when primitive instincts have been superseded. How comes it that these states of mind, which we should naturally expect to arise in the later stages of life, have found their crowning manifestation on the very threshold of human existence ?
There is a question which I have often asked myself and which leads directly into the heart of this subject, What is the reason that in the primitive stages of life the individual man does not begin by deifying himself ? He possesses a wonderful power of canonisation. There is scarcely an object in heaven or earth or the waters under the earth which he does not make divine. He deifies the stars; he deifies the hills; he deifies the rivers ; he deifies even a block of wood and a piece of rag. His bestowal of divine honours is by no means
regulated by the grandeur of the object. On the contrary, with the full perception of the visible universe, he begins by selecting for worship precisely those things which are not fitted to attract the eye, which, when they do attract the eye, are conspicuous by their want of beauty. These are facts patent and undeniable, but they are none the less suggestive, and they do not seem to me to have received adequate attention. For, the point to be considered is, that amidst this almost universal canonisation of the universe there is one object which the primitive man does not canonise-his own soul. He canonises the souls of others; he worships the spirits of his ancestors; but it never occurs to him to bow his head in reverence to that mysterious life which dwells within his own breast. Why is this? The life within him is the nearest object to him in all the universe, the only object in all the universe of which he has any real knowledge. One would naturally have expected that with the dawn of the tendency to worship, the earliest object of his adoration would have been precisely that mysterious life which manifested itself in contact with all other things, and without whose contact no other thing could be perceived. Why is it that the primitive man turns away from that which is nearest to him and bestows the gift of divinity originally upon those objects which are seemingly the most alien to his own nature—upon a petty piece of timber which his foot has accidentally struck, or a miserable bit of rag which has been lifted by the passing wind ?
Now I believe it is possible to arrive at a solution of this question. If we want to know why the primitive man deifies everything but his own individual soul, we have only to ask whether he can discover in his own individual soul any imperfection which he cannot find in the objects around him. Is there any respect in which the things of surrounding nature seem to have an advantage over this individual life which beats within him? There is, I think, one. When the primitive man looks within himself, he becomes conscious of something of which he is not conscious when he looks at any thing outside of him; he becomes aware of a limit to existence. In casting back his individual memory he is almost immediately arrested by a blank. He can retrace his steps sonie forty, fifty, or sixty years, and then he is stopped by a stone wall. There is a point beyond which he cannot go and at the back of which there is oblivion. In the recognition of that point and the oblivion beyond it the primitive man arrives for the first time at the definite conception of a beginning. He feels that there was a time when he was not, and that the existence of which he is now conscious has had a distinct origin. There must have been something to cause that origin. Two facts lie before him—the fact that he is now an individual being, and the fact that a few years ago he was individually nothing. Even to his primitive consciousness it is already clear that two such contrary states cannot have followed one another without the intervention of a third agency. If yesterday he was nothing and if to-day he is something, there must have intervened some mediating power to effect the transformation from the one state into the other. It is in the felt necessity for such a mediating power that the primitive man awakens for the first time to the conception of a cause in the universe.
It will be seen that the view I have here taken is essentially different from the view taken by Paley. Paley, as is well known, regards the primitive man as arriving at his notion of a universal cause by an observation of the objects of nature. He tells us that, if a savage found a watch, his immediate conclusion would be that there must have been a watchmaker. He intends to teach by analogy that, when the primitive man first beheld the mechanism of the universe, he would come at once to the inference that it must have had a creator. Now, of course we all understand that whenever an object is beheld as a piece of mechanism, it must at the same moment be beheld as requiring a maker. But the question is, Would either the watch or the universe or any part of the universe suggest to the primitive man the conception of a piece of mechan