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Art. I. - A Discourse of Matters pertaining to Religion.
By THEODORE PARKER. Boston: Little & Brown. 1842. 8vo.
In our last Review, we established the fact, that the Transcendentalists assume, as their rule of faith or method of philosophizing, the truth and rectitude of human nature; that man in his spontaneous or instinctive nature, which we identified with the inferior or sensitive soul, is the measure or criterion of truth and goodness; and therefore, that, in order to ascertain what is proper for us to believe or to do, we have only to ascertain what our nature spontaneously or instinctively approves. We now proceed to consider the second fundamental principle we have charged them with maintaining, namely, —
RELIGION IS A FACT OR PRINCIPLE OF Human Nature.
In strictness, perhaps, the Transcendentalists do not mean to assert that religion itself is a fact or principle of human nature, but simply, that it has its principle and cause in human nature; and, consequently, this second principle might be resolved into the third principle we enumerated, namely, All the religions which have been or are have their principle and cause in human nature. It is possible that we should have been more strictly scientific in our analysis, if we had omitted the second proposition altogether, and embraced the whole teachings of the school within the first and third. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the second proposition is true, and includes a portion of the teachings of the school, which we could not, without some inconvenience, discuss otherwise than under a separate head. VOL. II. NO. IV.
The word religion may be taken, and is taken by the Transcendentalists in several senses. They use the word, - 1. To embrace religious institutions; that is, dogmas, morals, and worship. In this sense, they do not hold it to be a fact or principle of human pature ; but they hold that it grows out of such fact or principle. But, 2. These religious institutions do not constitute what, in their view, is essential in religion. They are not its substance, but its forms and accidents, and we may have all that is essential to it without them, and even in opposition to them. What is essential in religion, if we understand them, is what is invariable and permanent, the same in all ages and nations, and in all individuals, — which is the religious sentiment and idea; and both of these they make facts or principles of human nature. Yet the teachings of the school are so vague and contradictory on this head, that it is not possible to reduce them to a common principle. It does not appear to have ever distinguished clearly, in its own mind, between the creator and creation, between the active or passive subject and action or passion; nor, again, between intuitive reason and discursive reason. It frequently puts causes for effects, and effects for causes ; and just as frequently runs the one into the other, and concludes indifferently from one or the other, without noting any distinction between them. It affirms a proposition to be intuitive, when it is evidently inductive; and tells us that it is given us immediately, when according to its own showing it is obtained only by reasoning. If any one doubts our assertion, we refer him to the first and second chapters of the Discourse before us.
In consequence of this contradiction and confusion, and in order to avoid even the appearance of injustice to the school, we shall, for the most part, in what we have to say, treat the proposition under consideration simply as if it stood, Religion originates spontaneously in, and depends upon, a fact or principle of human nature.
We must bear in mind that the Transcendental doctrine is not, that from the facts or principles of human nature we may rationally, scientifically, conclude to the objective truths of religion; but that these truths are given us immediately, without any reasoning at all, by a special fact, principle, or element of our nature. Religion is natural to us ; we are religious by a law of our nature ; in like manner as it is by a law of our nature that we breathe, that the stomach secretes the gastric juice, or the liver, bile. In a word, religion is a natural secretion of the human soul. That the Transcendentalists adhere throughout to this statement we are far from pretending ; for it is well known that they are not remarkable for self-consistency, and some of them consider it a mark of littleness for a man to aim at being consistent with himself. Their maxim is, Speak out from the great soul, or, rather, let the great soul speak out, and as it will. Nevertheless, this is their formal, official doctrine, to which we shall insist on our right to hold them.
The Transcendentalists begin by distinguishing between religion and religious institutions. Religious institutions are the forms with which man clothes his religious sentiment and idea. They vary according to time and space, and in passing from one individual to another. They are accidental and transitory. They may serve a useful purpose, or they may not ; but they are not of the essence or substance of religion. Religion, in its substance, lies back of these, and is their creator, and independent of them. In this sense, as abstracted from religious forms and institutions, religion is, as we have said, sentiment and idea. The sentiment is a special element of human nature, and is defined by Mr. Parker, after Schleiermacher, to be “the sense of dependence. The idea is "an intuition of reason,” not obtained by reasoning, whether a priori or a posteriori, but“ is a fact given by the nature of man. Hence religion, in its absolute sense, or what Mr. Parker calls absolute religion, is said to be religion as it exists in the facts of human nature, or
in the facts of man's soul.” According to this, we should be justified in insisting, to the very letter, on the proposition, that the Transcendentalists hold religion to be a fact or principle of human nature. But it is probable, after all, that they do not mean this, that they in this put the effect in the place of the cause, and really mean only that the origin and ground of religion is in a special element of human nature.
“ We are driven to confess,” says Mr. Parker, " that there is in man a spiritual nature, which directly and legitimately leads to religion ; that, as man's body is connected with the world of matter, rooted in it, has bodily wants, bodily senses to minister thereto, and a fund of external materials wherewith to gratify these senses and appease these wants, so man's soul is connected with the world of spirit, rooted in God, has spiritual wants and spiritual senses, and a fund of materials wherewith to gratify these spiritual senses, and to appease these spiritual wants. If this be so, then do not religious institutions come equally from man? Now the existence of a religious element in us is not a matter of haz
- p. 21.
ardous or random conjecture, nor attested only by a superficial glance at the history of man, but this principle is found out, and its existence demonstrated, in several legitimate ways. ..... Thus, then, it appears that induction from notorious facts, consciousness spontaneously active, and a philosophical analysis of man's nature, all lead equally to some religious sentiment or principle as an essential part of man's constitution. ..... It is, indeed, abundantly established that there is a religious element in man.” — Discourse, pp. 14 - 19.
The main point asserted in this loosely written passage is the fact, that religious institutions spring from a special religious sentiment, element, or principle of human nature, and “ which is an essential part of man's constitution.” This is the first point to be disposed of. What are the proofs of this? These proofs, so far as we can collect them from Mr. Parker and others, are, 1. The existence of religious phenomena in human history ; 2. The universality and indestructibleness of the religious phenomena ; 3. The power of religion over our thoughts, passions, and interests ; 4. Consciousness; 5. Philosophical analysis of man's nature.
1. The existence of religious phenomena in human history is unquestionable, and this existence proves that they have a principle and cause in man, or out of him ; but to infer that this principle and cause are a special element of human nature is a plain begging of the question, — at least, cannot be justifiable, unless it be first established that there is and can be nothing in human history which has not its principle and cause in human nature, - a proposition which may, indeed, be asserted, but not maintained, as we shall show when we come to discuss the third fundamental proposition of the Transcendentalists. The history of the human race is inexplicable, save on the supposition of the supernatural intervention of Providence in human affairs.
2. The religious phenomena are universal and indestructible, we admit. Wherever you find man, you find the altar, the priest, and the victim, — at least some sort of religious worship. But this simply proves that religion does not spring from accidental and temporary causes, but from a universal and permanent principle. Yet that principle may be divine as well as human ; for God, to say the least, is as universal and permanent a principle and cause as man.
3. The great power of religion in all ages is freely conceded. It is able to control man in his most intimate rela
tions, - to control his thoughts and passions, - to make him
forego his strongest desires, his dearest affections, and his most pressing interests, to make him submit to what is most repugnant to his nature, to glory in being contemned, and to sacrifice himself with joy at its bidding. But this, though conclusive against those who contend that religion is the mere creature of human passion, caprice, fear, hope, ignorance, imagination, or interest, says nothing in favor of its origin and ground in a principle or element of human nature. Indeed, it is rather a presumption that it has its origin and ground in that which is superhuman and independent of man. For it is hard to conceive how that which originates in man, and depends wholly on man, should be able to control him, and make him voluntarily abnegate himself.
4. Mr. Parker alleges that we are conscious of our own insufficiency, and that this consciousness is the consciousness of a religious element in our nature. It is true, he does not say this formally, but this is what he is required to say by the line of argument he is pursuing.
“We feel conscious,” he says, “of this element within us. We are not sufficient for ourselves; not self-originated; not selfsustained. A few years ago and we were not; a few years hence and our bodies shall not be. A mystery is gathered about our little life. We have but small control over things around us ; are limited and hemmed in on all sides. Our schemes fail. Our plans miscarry. One after another our lights go out. Our realities prove dreams. Our hopes waste away.
We are not where we would be, nor what we would be. After much experience, men as powerful as Napoleon, victorious as Cæsar, confess, what simpler men knew by instinct long before, that it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps. We find our circumference very near the centre, everywhere. An exceedingly short radius measures all our strength. We can know little of material things; nothing but phenomena. As the circle of our knowledge widens its ring, we feel our ignorance on more numerous points, and the unknown seems greater than before. At the end of a toilsome life, we confess, with a great man of modern times, that we have wandered on the shore, and gathered here a bright pebble, and there a shining shell, - but the ocean of truth, shoreless and unfathomed, lies before us and all unknown. The wisest ancient knew only this, that he knew nothing. We feel an irresistible tendency to refer all outward things, and ourselves with them, to a power beyond us, sublime, mysterious, which we cannot measure, nor even comprehend. We are filled with reverence at the