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An essay by Arthur C. Benson


Title:     Religion
Author: Arthur C. Benson [More Titles by Benson]

There is a motto which I should like to see written over the door of every place of worship, both as an invitation and a warning: THOU SHALT MAKE ME TO UNDERSTAND WISDOM SECRETLY. It is an invitation to those who enter, to come and participate in a great and holy mystery; and it is a warning to those who believe that in the formalities of religion alone is the secret of religion to be found. I will not here speak of worship, of the value of the symbol, the winged prayer, the uttered word; I wish rather to speak for a little of religion itself, a thing, as I believe, greatly misunderstood. How much it is misunderstood may be seen from the fact that, though the word itself, religion, stands for one of the most beautiful and simple things in the world, there yet hangs about it an aroma which is not wholly pleasing. What difficult service that great and humble name has seen! With what strange and evil meanings it has been charged! How dinted and battered it is with hard usage! how dimmed its radiance, how stained its purity! It is the best word, perhaps the only word, for the thing that I mean; and yet something dusty and technical hangs about it, which makes it wearisome instead of delightful, dreary rather than joyful. The same is the case with many of the words which stand for great things. They have been weapons in the hands of dry, bigoted, offensive persons, until their brightness is clouded, their keen edge hacked and broken.

By religion I mean the power, whatever it be, which makes a man choose what is hard rather than what is easy, what is lofty and noble rather than what is mean and selfish; that puts courage into timorous hearts, and gladness into clouded spirits; that consoles men in grief, misfortune, and disappointment; that makes them joyfully accept a heavy burden; that, in a word, uplifts men out of the dominion of material things, and sets their feet in a purer and simpler region.

Yet this great thing, which lies so near us that we can take it into our grasp by merely reaching out a hand; which is as close to us as the air and the sunlight, has been by the sad, misguided efforts, very often of the best and noblest-minded men, who knew how precious a thing it was, so guarded, so wrapped up, made so remote from, so alien to, life and thought, that many people who live by its light, and draw it in as simply as the air they breathe, never even know that they have come within hail of it. "Is he a good man?" said a simple Methodist once, in reply to a question about a friend. "Yes, he is good, but not religious-good." By which he meant that he lived kindly, purely, and unselfishly as a Christian should, but did not attend any particular place of worship, and therefore could not be held to have any religious motive for his actions, but was guided by a mere worthless instinct, a preference for unworldly living.

Now, if ever there was a Divine attempt made in the world to shake religion free of its wrappings, it was the preaching of Christ. So far as we can gather from records of obscure and mysterious origin, transcriptions, it would seem, of something oral and traditional, Christ aimed at bringing religion within the reach of the humblest and simplest souls. Whatever doubt men may feel as to the literal accuracy of these records in matters of fact, however much it may be held that the relation of incidents was coloured by the popular belief of the time in the possibility of miraculous manifestations, yet the words and sayings of Christ emerge from the narrative, though in places it seems as though they had been imperfectly apprehended, as containing and expressing thoughts quite outside the range of the minds that recorded them; and thus possess an authenticity, which is confirmed and proved by the immature mental grasp of those who compiled the records, in a way in which it would not have been proved, if the compilers had been obviously men of mental acuteness and far-reaching philosophical grasp.

To express the religion of Christ in precise words would be a mighty task; but it may be said that it was not merely a system, nor primarily a creed; it was a message to individual hearts, bewildered by the complexity of the world and the intricacy of religious observances. Christ bade men believe that their Creator was also a Father; that the only way to escape from the overwhelming difficulties presented by the world was the way of simplicity, sincerity, and love; that a man should keep out of his life all that insults and hurts the soul, and that he should hold the interests of others as dear as he holds his own. It was a protest against all ambition, and cruelty, and luxury, and self- conceit. It showed that a man should accept his temperament and his place in life, as gifts from the hands of his Father; and that he should then be peaceful, pure, humble, and loving. Christ brought into the world an entirely new standard; He showed that many respected and reverenced persons were very far indeed from the Father; while many obscure, sinful, miserable outcasts found the secret which the respectable and contemptuous missed. Never was there a message which cast so much hope abroad in rich handfuls to the world. The astonishing part of the revelation was that it was so absolutely simple; neither wealth, nor intellect, nor position, nor even moral perfection, were needed. The simplest child, the most abandoned sinner, could take the great gift as easily as the most honoured statesman, the wisest sage--indeed more easily; for it was the very complexity of affairs, of motives, of wealth, that entangled the soul and prevented it from realizing its freedom.

Christ lived His human life on these principles; and sank from danger to danger, from disaster to disaster, and having touched the whole gamut of human suffering, and disappointment, and shame, died a death in which no element of disgust, and terror, and pain was wanting.

And from that moment the deterioration began. At first the great secret ran silently through the world from soul to soul, till the world was leavened. But even so the process of capturing and transforming the faith in accordance with human weakness began. The intellectual spirit laid hold on it first. Metaphysicians scrutinized the humble and sweet mystery, overlaid it with definitions, harmonized it with ancient systems, dogmatized it, made it hard, and subtle, and uninspiring. Vivid metaphors and illustrations were seized upon and converted into precise statements of principles. The very misapprehensions of the original hearers were invested with the same sanctity that belonged to the Master Himself. But even so the bright and beautiful spirit made its way, like a stream of clear water, refreshing thirsty places and making the desert bloom like the rose, till at last the world itself, in the middle of its luxuries and pomp, became aware that here was a mighty force abroad which must be reckoned with; and then the world itself determined upon the capture of Christianity; and how sadly it succeeded can be read in the pages of history; until at last the pure creature, like a barbarian captive, bright with youth and beauty, was bound with golden chains, and bidden, bewildered and amazed, to grace the triumph and ride in the very chariot of its conqueror.

Let me take one salient instance. Could there, to any impartial observer, be anything in the world more incredible than that the Pope, surrounded by ritual and pomp, and hierarchies, and policies, should be held to be the representative on earth of the peasant- teacher of Galilee? And yet the melancholy process of development is plain enough. As the world became Christianized, it could not be expected to give up its social order, its ambitions, its love of power and influence. Christianity uncurbed is an inconvenient, a dangerous, a subversive force; it must be tamed and muzzled; it must be robed and crowned; it must be given a high and honoured place among institutions. And so it has fallen a victim to bribery and intrigue and worldly power.

I do not for a moment say that it does not even thus inspire thousands of hearts to simple, loving, and heroic conduct. The secret is far too vital to lose its power. It is a vast force in the world, and indeed survives its capture in virtue of its truth and beauty. But instead of being the most free, the most independent, the most individualistic force in the world, it has become the most authoritarian, the most traditional, the most rigid of systems. As in the tale of Gulliver, it is a giant indeed, and can yet perform gigantic services; but it is bound and fettered by a puny race.

Further, there are some who would divide religion sharply into two aspects, the objective and the subjective. Those who emphasize the objective aspect, would maintain that the theory that underlies all religion is the idea of sacrifice. This view is held strongly by Roman Catholics and by a large section of Anglicans as well. They would hold that the duty of the priest is the offering of this sacrifice, and that the essential truth of the Christian revelation was the sacrifice of God Himself upon God's own altar. This sacrifice, this atonement, they would say, can be and must be made, over and over, upon the altar of God. They would hold that this offering had its objective value, even though it were offered without the mental concurrence of those for whom it was offered. They would urge that the primal necessity for the faithful is that by an act of the will,--not necessarily an emotional act, but an act of pure and definite volition,--they should associate themselves with the true and perfect sacrifice; that souls that do this sincerely are caught up, so to speak, into the heavenly chariot of God, and move upward thus; while the merely subjective and emotional religion is, to continue the metaphor, as if a man should gird up his loins to run in company with the heavenly impulse. They would say that the objective act of worship may have a subjective emotional effect, but that it has a true value quite independent of any subjective effect. They would say that the idea of sacrifice is a primal instinct of human nature, implanted in hearts by God Himself, and borne witness to by the whole history of man.

Those who, like myself, believe rather in the subjective side, the emotional effect of religion, would hold that the idea of sacrifice is certainly a primal human instinct, but that the true interpretation has been put upon it by the teaching of Christ. I should myself feel that the idea of sacrifice belonged wholly to the old dispensation. That man, when he began to form some mental picture of the mysterious nature of the world of which he found himself a part, saw that there was, in the background of life, a vast and awful power, whose laws were mysterious and not, apparently, wholly benevolent; that this power sometimes sent happiness and prosperity, sometimes sorrow and adversity; and that though to a certain extent calamities were brought about by individual misconduct, yet that there were innumerable instances in the world where innocence and even conscientious conduct were just as heavily penalized as guilt and sin. The apparently fortuitous distribution of happiness would alarm and bewilder him. The natural instinct of man, thus face to face with a Deity which he could not hope to overcome or struggle with, would be to conciliate and propitiate him by all the means in his power, as he would offer gifts to a prince or chief. He would hope thus to win his favour and not to incur his wrath.

But the teaching of the Saviour that God was indeed a Father of men seems to me to have changed all this instantaneously. Man would learn that misfortune was sent him, not wantonly nor cruelly, but that it was an educative process. If even so he saw cases, such as a child tortured by agonizing pain, where there seemed to be no personal educative motive that could account for it, no sense of punishment which could be meant to improve the sufferer, he would fall back on the thought that each man is not isolated or solitary, but that there is some essential unity that binds humanity together, and that suffering at one point must, in some mysterious way that he cannot understand, mean amelioration at another. To feel this would require the exercise of faith, because no human ingenuity could grasp the method by which such a system could be applied. But there would be no choice between believing this, or deciding that whatever the essential nature of the Mind of God was, it was not based on human ideas of justice and benevolence.

The theory of religion would then be that the crude idea of propitiatory and conciliatory sacrifice would fall to the ground; that to use the inspired words of the old Roman poet--

"Aptissima quaeque dabunt Di.
Carior est illis homo quam sibi;"

and that the only sacrifices required of man would be, on the one hand, the sacrifice of selfish desires, evil tendencies, sinful appetites; and, on the other hand, the voluntary abnegation of comfortable and desirable things, in the presence of a noble aim, a great idea, a generous purpose.

Religion would then become a purely subjective thing; an intense desire to put the human will in harmony with the Divine will, a hopeful, generous, and trustful attitude of soul, a determination to receive suffering and pain as a gift from the Father, as bravely and sincerely as the gifts of happiness and joy, with a fervent faith that God did indeed, by implanting in men so ardent a longing for strength and joy, and so deeply rooted a terror of pain and weakness, imply that He intended joy, of a purified and elevated kind, to be the ultimate inheritance of His creatures; and the sacrifice of man would then be the willing resignation of everything which could in any degree thwart the ultimate purpose of God.

That I believe from the depths of my heart to be the meaning of the Christian revelation; and I should look upon the thought of objective sacrifice as being an unworthy survival from a time when men had little true knowledge of the Fatherly Heart of God.

And thus, to my mind, the only possible theory of worship is that it is a deliberate act, an opening of the door that leads to the Heavenly presence. Any influence is religious which fills the mind with gratitude and peace, which makes a man humble and patient and wise, which teaches him that the only happiness possible is to attune and harmonize his mind with the gracious purpose of God.

And so religion and worship grow to have a larger and wider significance; for though the solemnities of religion are one of the doors through which the soul can approach God, yet what is known as religious worship is only as it were a postern by the side of the great portals of beauty and nobility and truth. One whose heart is filled with a yearning mystery at the sight of the starry heavens, who can adore the splendour of noble actions, courageous deeds, patient affections, who can see and love the beauty so abundantly shed abroad in the world, who can be thrilled with ecstasy and joy by art and music, can at all these moments draw near to God, and open his soul to the influx of the Divine Spirit.

Religion can only be of avail so long as it takes account of all the avenues by which the soul can reach the central presence; and the error into which professional ecclesiastics fall is the error of the scribes and Pharisees, who said that thus and thus only, by these rites and sacrifices and ceremonies, shall the soul have access to the Father of all living. It is as false a doctrine as would be the claim of scientific men or artists, if they maintained that only through science or only through art should men draw near to God. For all the intuitions by which men can perceive the Father are sacred, are religious. And no one may perversely bind that which is free, or make unclean that which is pure, without suffering the doom of those who would delude humanity into worshipping an idol of man's devising, rather than the Spirit of God Himself.

Now the question must be asked, how are those who are Christians indeed, who adore in the inmost shrine of their spirit the true Christ, who believe that the Star of the East still shines in unveiled splendour over the place where the young child is, how are they to be true to their Lord? Are they to protest against the tyranny of intellect, of authority, of worldliness, over the Gospel? I would say that they have no need thus to protest. I would say that, if they are true to the spirit of Christ, they have no concern with revolutionary ideals at all; Christ's own example teaches us to leave all that on one side, to conform to worldly institutions, to accept the framework of society. The tyranny of which I have spoken is not to be directly attacked. The true concern of the believer is to be his own attitude to life, his relations with the circle, small or great, in which he finds himself. He knows that if indeed the spirit of Christ could truly leaven the world, the pomps, the glories, the splendours which veil it, would melt like unsubstantial wreaths of smoke. He need not trouble himself about traditional ordinances, elaborate ceremonials, subtle doctrines, metaphysical definitions. He must concern himself with far different things. Let him be sure that no sin is allowed to lurk unresisted in the depths of his spirit; let him be sure that he is patient, and just, and tender-hearted, and sincere; let him try to remedy true affliction, not the affliction which falls upon men through their desire to conform to the elaborate usage of society, but the affliction which seems to be bound up with God's own world. Let him be quiet and peaceable; let him take freely the comfort of the holy influences which Churches, for all their complex fabric of traditions and ceremony, still hold out to the spirit; let him drink largely from all sources of beauty, both natural and human; the Churches themselves have gained, by age, and gentle associations, and artistic perception, a large treasure of things that are full of beauty--architecture and music and ceremony--that are only hurtful when held to be special and peculiar channels of holiness and sweetness, when they are supposed to have a definite sanctification which is opposed to the sanctification of the beauty exterior to them. Let the Christian be grateful for the beauty they hold, and use it freely and simply. Only let him beware of thinking that what is the open inheritance of the world is in the possession of any one smaller circle. Let him not even seek to go outside of the persuasion, as it is so strangely called, in which he was born. Christ spoke little of sects, and the fusion of sects, because He contemplated no Church, in the sense in which it is now too often used, but a unity of feeling which should overspread the earth. The true Christian will recognize his brethren not necessarily in the Church or sect to which he belongs, but in all who live humbly, purely, and lovingly, in dependence on the Great Father of all living.

For after all, disguise it from ourselves as we will, we are all girt about with dark mysteries, into which we have to look whether we dare or not. We fill our life as full as we can of occupation and amusements, of warmth and comfort; yet sometimes, as we sit in our peaceful room, the gust pipes thin and shrill round the corners of the court, the rain rustles in the tree; we drop the book which we hold, and wonder what manner of things we indeed are, and what we shall be. Perhaps one of our companions is struck down, and goes without a word or sign on his last journey; or some heavy calamity, some loss, some bereavement hangs over our lives, and we enter into the shadow; or some inexplicable or hopeless suffering involves one whom we love, from which the only deliverance is death; and we realize that there is no explanation, no consolation possible. In such moments we tend to think that the world is a very terrible place, and that we pay a heavy price for our share in it. How unsubstantial then appear our hopes and dreams, our little ambitions, our paltry joys! In such a mood we feel that the most definite creed illumines, as it were, but a tiny streak of the shadowy orb; and we are visited, too, by the fear that the more definite the creed, the more certain it is that it is only a desperate human attempt to state a mystery which cannot be stated, in a world where all is dark.

In such a despairing mood, we can but resign ourselves to the awful Will of God, who sets us here, we know not why, and hurries us hence, we know not whither. Yet the very sternness and inexorability of that dread purpose has something that sustains and invigorates. We look back upon our life, and feel that it has all followed a plan and a design, and that the worst evils we have had to bear have been our faithless terrors about what should be; and then we feel the strength that ebbed from us drawing back to sustain us; we recognize that our present sufferings have never been unbearable, that there has always been some residue of hope; we read of how brave men have borne intolerable calamities, and have smiled in the midst of them, at the reflection that they have never been so hard as was anticipated; and then we are happy if we can determine that, whatever comes, we will try to do our best, in our small sphere, to live as truly and purely as we can, to practise courage and sincerity, to help our fellow-sufferers along, to guard innocence, to guide faltering feet, to encourage all the sweet and wholesome joys of life, to be loving, tender-hearted, generous, to lift up our hearts; not to be downcast and resentful because we do not understand everything at once, but humbly and gratefully to read the scroll as it is unrolled.


The night grows late. I rise to close my outer door to shut myself out from the world; I shall have no more visitors now. The moonlight lies cold and clear on the little court; the shadow of the cloister pillars falls black on the pavement. Outside, the town lies hushed in sleep; I see the gables and chimneys of the clustered houses standing in a quiet dream over the old ivy- covered wall. The college is absolutely still, though one or two lights still burn in studious rooms, and peep through curtained chinks. What a beautiful place to live one's life in, a place which greets one with delicate associations, with venerable beauty, at every turn! The moonlight falls through the tall oriel of the Hall, and the armorial shields burn and glow with rich points of colour. I pace to and fro, wondering, musing. All here seems so permanent, so still, so secure, and yet we are spinning and whirling through space to some unknown goal. What are the thoughts of the mighty unresting Heart, to whose vastness and agelessness the whole mass of these flying and glowing suns are but as a handful of dust that a boy flings upon the air? How has He set me here, a tiny moving atom, yet more sure of my own minute identity than I am of all the vast panorama of things which lie outside of me? Has He indeed a tender and a patient thought of me, the frail creature whom He has moulded and made? I do not doubt it; I look up among the star-sown spaces, and the old aspiration rises in my heart, "Oh, that I knew where I might find Him! that I might come even into His presence!" How would I go, like a tired and sorrowful child to his father's knee, to be comforted and encouraged, in perfect trust and love, to be raised in His arms, to be held to His heart! He would but look in my face, and I should understand without a question, without a word.

Now in its mouldering turret the old clock wakes and stirs, moves its jarring wires, and the soft bell strikes midnight. Another of my few short days gone, another step nearer to the unseen. Slowly but not sadly I return, for I have been for a moment nearer God; the very thought that rises in my mind, and turns my heart to His, comes from Him. He would make all plain, if He could; He gives us what we need; and when we at last awake we shall be satisfied.

[The end]
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Religion