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HOME > Religious Fiction > The Varieties of Religious Experience > Lectures XIV THE VALUE OF SAINTLINESS
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We have now passed in review the more important of the phenomena which are regarded asfruits of genuine religion and characteristics of men who are devout. Today we have to change ourattitude from that of description to that of appreciation; we have to ask whether the fruits inquestion can help us to judge the absolute value of what religion adds to human life. Were I toparody Kant, I should say that a "Critique of pure Saintliness" must be our theme.

If, in turning to this theme, we could descend upon our subject from above like Catholictheologians, with our fixed definitions of man and man's perfection and our positive dogmas aboutGod, we should have an easy time of it. Man's perfection would be the fulfillment of his end; andhis end would be union with his Maker. That union could be pursued by him along three paths,active, purgative, and contemplative, respectively; and progress along either path would be asimple matter to by the application of a limited number of theological and moral conceptionsanddefinitions(measure) . The absolute significance and value of any bit of religious experiencewe might hear of would thus be given almost mathematically into our hands.

If convenience were everything, we ought now to grieve at finding ourselves cut off from soadmirably convenient a method as this. But we did cut ourselves off from it deliberately in thoseremarks which you remember we made, in our first lecture, about the empirical method; and itmust be <321> confessed that after that act of renunciation we can never hope for clean-cut andscholastic results. WE cannot divide man sharply into an animal and a rational part. WE cannotdistinguish natural from supernatural effects; nor among the latter know which are favors of God,and which are counterfeit operations of the demon. WE have merely to collect things together without any special a priori theological system, and out of an aggregate of piecemeal judgments asto the value of this and that experience--judgments in which our general philosophic prejudices,our instincts, and our common sense are our only guides--decide that ON THE WHOLE one typeof religion is approved by its fruits, and another type condemned. "On the whole"--I fear we shallnever escape complicity with that qualification, so dear to your practical man, so repugnant to yoursystematizer!

I also fear that as I make this frank confession, I may seem to some of you to throw our compassoverboard, and to adopt caprice as our pilot. Skepticism or wayward choice, you may think, can bethe only results of such a formless method as I have taken up. A few remarks in deprecation ofsuch an opinion, and in farther explanation of the empiricist principles which I profess, maytherefore appear at this point to be in place.

Abstractly, it would seem illogical to try to measure the worth of a religion's fruits in merelyhuman terms of value. How CAN you measure their worth without considering whether the Godreally exists who is supposed to inspire them? If he really exists, then all the conduct instituted bymen to meet his wants must necessarily be a reasonable fruit of his religion--it would beunreasonable only in case he did not exist. If, for instance, you were to condemn a religion ofhuman or animal sacrifices by virtue of your subjective sentiments, and if all the while a deitywere really there demanding such sacrifices, you would be making a theoretical mistake by tacitlyassuming that the deity must be non-existent; you would be setting up a theology of your own asmuch as if you were a scholastic philosopher.

To this extent, to the extent of disbelieving peremptorily in certain types of deity, I franklyconfess that we must be theologians. If disbeliefs can be said to constitute a theology, then theprejudices, instincts, and common sense which I chose as our guides make theological partisans ofus whenever they make certain beliefs abhorrent.

But such common-sense prejudices and instincts are themselves the fruit of an empiricalevolution. Nothing is more striking than the secular alteration that goes on in the moral andreligious tone of men, as their insight into nature and their social arrangements progressivelydevelop. After an interval of a few generations the mental climate proves unfavorable to notions ofthe deity which at an earlier date were perfectly satisfactory: the older gods have fallen below thecommon secular level, and can no longer be believed in. Today a deity who should requirebleeding sacrifices to placate him would be too sanguinary to be taken seriously. Even if powerfulhistorical credentials were put forward in his favor, we would not look at them. Once, on thecontrary, his cruel appetites were of themselves credentials.

They positively recommended him to men's imaginations in ages when such coarse signs ofpower were respected and no others could be understood. Such deities then were worshipedbecause such fruits were relished.

Doubtless historic accidents always played some later part, but the original factor in fixing thefigure of the gods must always have been psychological. The deity to whom the prophets, seers,and devotees who founded the particular cult bore witness was worth something to thempersonally. They could use him. He guided their imagination, warranted their hopes, and controlled their will--or else they required him as a safeguard against the demon and a curber of otherpeople's crimes. In any case, they chose him for the value of the fruits he seemed to them to yield.

So soon as the fruits began to seem quite worthless; so soon as they conflicted with indispensablehuman ideals, thwarted too extensively other values; as they appeared childish, contemptible,orim(or) moralwhenreflectedon,thedeity grewdisc(so) redite(soon) d, and was erelong neglectedand forgotten. It was in this way that the Greek and Roman gods ceased to be believed in byeducated pagans; it is thus that we ourselves judge of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Mohammedantheologies; Protestants have so dealt with the Catholic notions of deity, and liberal Protestants witholder Protestant notions; it is thus that Chinamen judge of us, and that all of us now living will bejudged by our descendants. When we cease to admire or approve what the definition of a deityimplies, we end by deeming that deity incredible.

Few historic changes more curious than these mutations of theological opinion. The monarchicaltypeofsovereig(are) nty was, for example, so ineradicably planted in the mind of our ownforefathers that a dose of cruelty and arbitrariness in their deity seems positively to have beenrequired by their imagination. They called the cruelty "retributive justice," and a God without itwould certainly have struck them as not "sovereign" enough. But today we abhor the very notionof eternal suffering inflicted; and that arbitrary dealing-out of salvation and damnation to selectedindividuals, of which Jonathan Edwards could persuade himself that he had not only a conviction,but a "delightful conviction," as of a doctrine "exceeding pleasant, bright, and sweet," appears tous, if sovereignly anything, sovereignly irrational and mean. Not only the cruelty, but the paltrinessof character of the gods believed in by earlier centuries also strikes later centuries with surprise.

We shall see examples of it from the annals of Catholic saintship which makes us rub ourProtestant eyes. Ritual worship in general appears to the modern transcendentalist, as well as to theultra-puritanic type of mind, as if addressed to a deity of an almost absurdly childish character,taking delight in toy-shop furniture, tapers and tinsel, costume and mumbling and mummery, andfinding his "glory" incomprehensibly enhanced thereby:--just as on the other hand the formlessspaciousness of pantheism appears quite empty to ritualistic natures, and the gaunt theism ofevangelical sects seems intolerably bald and chalky and bleak.

Luther, says Emerson, would have cut off his right hand rather than nail his theses to the door atWittenberg, if he had supposed that they were destined to lead to the pale negations of BostonUnitarianism.

So far, then, although we are compelled, whatever may be our pretensions to empiricism, toemploy some sort of a standard of theological probability of our own whenever we assume toestimate the fruits of other men's religion, yet this very standard has been begotten out of the driftof common life. It is the voice of human experience within us, judging and condemning all godsthat stand athwart the pathway along which it feels itself to be advancing. Experience, if we take itin the largest sense, is thus the parent of those disbeliefs which, it was charged, were inconsistentwith the experiential method. The inconsistency, you see, is immaterial, and the charge may beneglected.

If we pass from disbeliefs to positive beliefs, it seems to me that there is not even a formalinconsistency to be laid against our method. The gods we stand by are the gods we need and canuse, the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another. What I then propose to do is, briefly stated, to test saintliness by common sense, to usehuman standards to help us decide how far the religious life commends itself as an ideal kind ofhuman activity. If it commends itself, then any theological beliefs that may inspire it, in so farforth will stand accredited. If not, then they will be discredited, and all without reference toanything but human working principles. It is but the elimination of the humanly unfit, and thesurvival of the humanly fittest, applied to religious beliefs; and if we look at history candidly andwithout prejudice, we have to admit that no religion has ever in the long run established or proveditself in any other way. Religions have APPROVED themselves; they have ministered to sundryvital needs which they found reigning. When they violated other needs too strongly, or when otherfaiths came which served the same needs better, the first religions were supplanted.

The needs were always many, and the tests were never sharp. So the reproach of vagueness andsubjectivity and "on the whole"-ness, which can with perfect legitimacy be addressed to theempirical method as we are forced to use it, is after all a reproach to which the entire life of man indealing with these matters is obnoxious. No religion has ever yet owed its prevalence to "apodicticcertainty." In a later lecture I will ask whether objective certainty can ever be added by theologicalreasoning to a religion that already empirically prevails.

One word, also, about the reproach that in following this sort of an empirical method we arehanding ourselves over to systematic skepticism.

Since it is impossible to deny secular alterations in our sentiments and needs, it would be absurdto affirm that one's own age of the world can be beyond correction by the next age. Skepticismcannot, therefore, be ruled out by any set of thinkers possibility against which their conclusionsaresecure;andnoempiricistoughttoclaimexem(as) p(a) tion from this universal liability.

But to admit one's liability to correction is one thing, and to embark upon a sea of wanton doubt isanother. Of willfully playing into the hands of skepticism we cannot be accused. He whoacknowledges the imperfectness of his instrument, and makes allowance <326> for it in discussinghis observations, is in a much better position for gaining truth than if he claimed his instrument tobe infallible. Or is dogmatic or scholastic theology less doubted in point o............
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