Characteristics of the Present Age/Lecture 16


According to the plan which we laid down in an early part of these lectures, we have to-day to set forth the principles whereon this question may be answered:—‘At what point of development does the Present Age stand with reference to Public and General Religion?

We have already, for a considerable time, regarded the True Religion, or Christianity,—which two expressions we avowedly hold to be synonymous,—as the peculiar and ultimate ground of all the phenomena by which our Age is characterized; and, in this view, the whole character of the Age is nothing else than this its ascertained standing-point in respect of Religion. The question which we have proposed has therefore either been already answered by all which we have previously said; or if it has not been so answered, and still demands a special solution, then we must here use the word Religion in a sense different from that in which we have hitherto employed it.

The latter is the case:—Hitherto we have regarded the True Religion as the concealed principle of phenomena; to-day we have to speak of it, not in this sense, but as itself an independent and substantial existence. Hitherto having represented it as the principle of phenomena, we have, on that very account, also represented it as an unconscious principle, and in this connexion we have called by the name of Religion, not that which men put forth in public professions, but that which has become their very inmost Life,—the root and spring of all their speech and action. To-day we have to consider this Religion as it reveals itself in clear consciousness; for the independent existence of Religion is no outward matter, and reveals itself in no outward manner, but is an inward consciousness, and indeed a wholly self-sufficing and self-comprehending consciousness.

In this sense the word Religion is also employed in the common judgment which the Age passes upon itself with reference to its religious condition,—in the well-known and almost universal lamentations over the decay of Religion, especially among the people. It might well be imagined that the mere existence of such lamentations was itself a refutation of the complaint,—for do not the complainers, in the very act of lamentation, manifest their respect and love for Religion?—were it not that their complaints are accompanied by certain suspicious assumptions, from which it appears to follow that it is not their own Irreligion which they deplore, and that it is not for themselves, but for others, and especially for the people, that they desire a revival of Religion: behind which desire there may perhaps lurk some interested purpose. Be this as it may, let us examine these complaints, and with this examination carry forward our own inquiry.

Without anticipating the results of your own observation, we may lay it down as certain, that whatever necessarily follows in regard to Public Religion from the principles of the Age will unquestionably be found truly represented and manifest in the phenomena of the time. Now, we have shown in passing, in our previous lecture, that the principles from which the Public Religion of an Age proceeds, are to be found in the Scientific, and particularly in the Philosophical character of the preceding Age. In the schools of Philosophy and Science, the popular teacher, the popular author, and the public opinion of the cultivated classes, are formed, and through these channels the influences of the schools spread themselves abroad, by teaching and example, among the People. The Philosophico-scientific character of the Third Age has been already set forth at the commencement of these lectures;—this, namely,—to accept nothing as really existing or obligatory but that which it can understand and clearly comprehend,—in which the Age is right; and further,—to connect therewith mere empirical and sensuous Experience as its sole measure of the Comprehensible,—in which the Age is wrong. It is quite clear, that by means of the prevalence of these principles everything mysterious and incomprehensible must be banished from Religion; and—since the fear of God, as well as the means of propitiating him, are founded on the Incomprehensibility and Unsearchableness of the Divine Counsels, and we can therefore be made acquainted with these means only by direct Revelation,—that everything awful in Religion, as well as blind faith and unquestioning obedience in its concerns, must wholly disappear. An Age, therefore, which is formed upon those principles, and thoroughly penetrated by them, will no longer be moved by the fear of God, nor employ any ostensible and pretentious means of propitiating him.

But is this fear of God, and these efforts to propitiate him by means of mysterious devices,—are these Religion and Christianity? By no means:—they are Superstitions, remnants of Heathenism which have mixed themselves up with Christianity, and have not yet been wholly thrust out from it;—and these remnants are wholly destroyed by the Philosophy of the Age wherever it has free play. Along with them True Christianity itself is, not indeed destroyed,—for except in individuals it has never yet attained a public and recognised existence,—but the Age is thereby rendered incapable of comprehending True Christianity or of introducing it into the world.

Does any one lament this downfall of Superstition as the decay of Religion?—then he violates the true use of language, and laments over that in which he ought to rejoice, and which is indeed a brilliant proof of the advancement of our Age. On what account, then, are these lamentations made? Since the thing which has fallen has nothing in itself to recommend it, it must be only the outward consequences of its fall that are deplored. In so far as these lamentations do not proceed from the priests themselves,—(in this connexion we may call them priests without fear of misapprehension),—whose grief at the loss of their dominion over the minds of men we can well understand,—but from the politicians, then they may be resolved into this, that Government has thereby become more difficult and expensive. The fear of the Gods was an excellent resource for an imperfect Government; it was a convenient thing to watch the doings of the subjects through the eyes of the Divinity, where the Government either could not or would not exercise this surveillance itself; the Judge was spared the exercise of his own sagacity and penetration, when, by threats of relentless damnation, he could induce the accused to communicate to him willingly the information he desired to possess; and the Evil Spirit performed, without reward, the services for which, at later times, Judges and Police had to be paid.

To declare frankly what we clearly perceive to be true, let us here say that, even if the maintenance of such a method of facilitating Government were allowable, which it is not, yet this increase of the burden of Government is no evil, but a precious good in which Humanity at large must sooner or later become partaker. Government itself is an Art founded on the laws of Reason, which ought not to be prosecuted at random, but must, on the contrary, be rightly and fundamentally studied;—but to this fundamental study we are only impelled by necessity, and only at a time when Government can no longer be carried on by superficiality.

Thus the philosophical and scientific sense of the Age overthrows Superstition when it is thoroughly recognised and understood; but cannot as yet establish True Religion in its place in distinct Consciousness. Hence in such an Age, there is no longer to be found any clear and distinct conception of a Super-sensual world, either true or false.

Suppose then that such is actually the case,—that these inferences are confirmed by observation, which here again I leave to yourselves to follow out,—would it necessarily follow, because the Super-sensual is nowhere clearly comprehended, that the indistinct feeling of the Infinite, and the struggling and striving after its attainment no longer exist; in one word, that with Religion itself, the sense of Religion, or Religious Feeling, has likewise disappeared? By no means. It may be laid down as an incontestable principle, that where even Virtue and Good Manners still prevail,—philanthropy, the charities of social life, sympathy, benevolence, domestic order, the faithful and self-sacrificing attachment of husband and wife, parents and children,—there Religion still exists whether recognised or not; and there the capacity still exists for its attaining a full and conscious being. Such a people can indeed no longer entertain those Superstitions whose empire has passed away; but let the attempt be made to awaken in them clear and true Ideas of Religion, and it will soon be seen that they will be moved by these as by nothing else. And has not this, in fact, occasionally occurred in Modern Times?—and has it not been remarked upon such occasions that men of all Classes, who seemed to be dead to every other spiritual influence, have been attracted and aroused by this? Very far, therefore, from joining in the lamentations over the decay of Religion in our Age, I hold this rather to be the character of the Age,—that it would be more ready than any other to receive and appreciate True Religion when presented to it. The empty and ineffectual babble of Free-thinking has had time enough to utter itself in all possible ways;—it has uttered itself and we have listened to it;—and on this side there is nothing new and nothing better to be said than what has been said already. We are weary of it; we feel its emptiness and its perfect nothingness with reference to that Feeling of the Eternal which can never be wholly uprooted from our souls. This Feeling remains, and urgently demands its rightful exercise. A more manly Philosophy has since then attempted to silence this Feeling by asserting the claims of another,—that of Absolute Morality,—under the name of the Categorical Imperative. Many powerful minds have accepted this principle, and rested satisfied with it: but this can endure only for a time, for precisely on account of a kindred feeling being cultivated does that which is unsatisfied feel more strongly the want of its satisfaction. Let Truth at last present itself to such a mind;—then, just because it has been inactive, and has already passed through so many errors, will it the more keenly discern and the more cordially accept the Truth which is now offered to its view. That such Truth will one day present itself to the public mind we may securely predict; for it is already prepared in the secret workshops of Philosophy although still in the obscurity of formula,—and already exists in the primitive records of Christianity although as yet not understood. How, and by what means it shall be introduced into the world we must leave to Time, looking forward with quiet confidence, and not expecting to see the harvest ready for the reaper while as yet the seed is but being sown.

Wherein, then, does this True Religion consist? Perhaps I shall be able to describe it most clearly if I show what it accomplishes, and if I do this by declaring what it does not accomplish. All previous outward forms of Christianity have had the effect of bringing Mankind, and in particular Nations and States, thus far:—that they have done many things which they would otherwise have left undone, and have left undone many things which otherwise they would have done; and in particular Superstition has constrained its subjects to abandon many pernicious, and to adopt many useful, practices. In one word: these outward forms of Christianity lie at the bottom of many phenomena and events which would otherwise never have occurred. It is not so with inward True Religion; it does not come forth into the world of outward Appearance, and impels man to no outward act which he would not otherwise have done. But it completes his own internal being, makes him wholly at one with himself, and intelligible to himself, thoroughly Free and Blessed:—in one word, it perfects his dignity.

Let us consider the highest which man can possess in the absence of Religion; I mean, Pure Morality. He obeys the Law of Duty in his breast, absolutely because it is a Law unto him; and he does whatever reveals itself as his Duty, absolutely because it is Duty. But does he therein understand himself?—does he know what this Duty, to which at every moment he consecrates his whole existence, really is in itself and what is its ultimate aim? So little does he know this, that he declares loudly it ought to be so absolutely because it ought; and makes this very impossibility of comprehending and understanding the Law,—this absolute abstraction from the meaning of the Law, and the consequences of the deed,—a characteristic mark of genuine obedience. In the first place, let not the impudent assertion be here repeated, that such an obedience without regard to consequences, and without desire for consequences, is in itself impossible and opposed to Human Nature. What does the mere sensuous Egoist, who is himself but a half man, what does he know of the power of Human Nature? That it is possible can be known only by its actual accomplishment in ourselves; and before its possibility is recognised in this way, and man has elevated himself in his own person to Pure Morality, he can have no entrance whatever into the domain of True Religion; for Religion also annexes no visible consequences to individual acts of Duty.—So much for the refutation of that portion of error which arises from the calumnious slander of Pure Morality.

Again, he who faithfully obeys the Law of Duty, as such, does not understand the ultimate aim of this Law. It is clear,—since he, notwithstanding this ignorance, maintains an unvarying and unconditional obedience; since, further, the Law of Duty, although not understood, speaks forth constantly and invariably within him,—that this want of comprehension causes no difference in his actions;—but it is another question whether such a want of comprehension is consistent with his dignity as a rational being. He does not indeed any longer follow the concealed law of the Universe nor the blind impulses of Nature, but a conception,—and in doing so he acts, thus far, a nobler part. But this conception itself is not clear to him, and, with reference to it, he himself is blind; his obedience therefore remains but a blind obedience;—he is led on by a nobler instinct indeed, but still with bandaged eyes. But if this position be inconsistent with the dignity of Reason, as it unquestionably is, and if there lie in Reason itself a power and therefore an impulse to penetrate to the meaning of the Law of Duty, then will this impulse be a source of constant disturbance and dissatisfaction to him, and if he still continue to hold by blind obedience, he will have no other course than to harden himself against this secret desire. However perfect may be his conduct,—that is, his outward and apparent existence,—there is still at the root of his inward being, discord, obscurity, and bondage, and therefore a want of absolute dignity. Such is the position even of the purely Moral Man, when regarded by the light of Religion. How displeasing, then, as seen by this light, must be the condition of him who has not even attained to True Morality, but as yet only follows the impulses of Nature. He too is guided by the Eternal Law of the Universe; but to him it neither speaks in his own language nor honours him with speech at all, but leads him on with dumb compulsion as it does the plant or the animal; employs him like an unreasoning thing, without consulting his own Will in aught, and in a region where mere mechanism is the only moving power.

Religion discloses to Man the significance of the one Eternal Law which, as the Law of Duty, guides the free and noble, and, as the Law of Nature, governs ignoble instruments. The Religious Man comprehends this Law, and feels it living within himself, as the Law of the Eternal development of the One Life. How each individual moment of our Earthly Life is comprehended in that Eternal development of the one original Divine Life he cannot indeed understand, because the Infinite has no limit and therefore can never be embraced by him; but that every one of these moments does absolutely lie contained within this development of the One Life he can directly perceive and clearly recognise. What was the Law of Duty to the Moral Man, is to him the inward movement of the One Life directly revealed as Life; what is the Law of Nature to others is to him the unfolding of the outward and apparently dead substratum of that One Life.

This one clearly recognised Life now becomes thoroughly established in the Religious Man, reposing upon itself, sufficient for itself, and blessed in itself;—dwelling there with unspeakable Love; with inconceivable rapture bathing his whole being in the original fountain of all Life, and flowing forth with him, and inseparable from him, in one eternal stream. What the Moral Man calls Duty and Law,—what is this to him? The most spiritual bloom of Life,—his element in which alone he can breathe. He wills and can do nothing else than this;—all else is to him misery and death. To him the commanding “Thou shalt” comes too late; before it can command he has already resolved, and cannot resolve otherwise. As all external Law vanishes before Morality, so before Religion the internal Law also disappears; the Lawgiver in our breast is silent, for Will, Desire, Love, and Blessedness, have already superseded the Law. The Moral Man often finds it difficult to perform his Duty; the sacrifice of his deepest desires and his most cherished feelings is demanded of him. He performs it notwithstanding:—it must be done; he subdues his feelings, and stifles his agony. The question, Wherefore is there need of this suffering, and whence arises this struggle between the desires which have been implanted in him and the commands of a Law from which he cannot escape?—this question he dares not permit himself to entertain; he must offer himself up with mute and blind obedience, for only under the condition of such obedience is the offering genuine. For the Religious Man this question has been once and for ever solved. That which thus strives against our Will, and which is so unwilling to die, is imperfect Life; which, even because it is Life, struggles for continued existence, but must cease to be as soon as its place is occupied by a higher and nobler Life. ‘Those desires which I must sacrifice,’ thinks the Religious Man, ‘are not my desires; they are desires which are directed against me and my higher existence; they are my foes which cannot be destroyed too soon. The pain which they cause is not my pain, but the pain of a nature which has conspired against me; it is not the agonies of death, but the pangs of a new birth which will be glorious beyond all my expectations.’

It would be unworthy of our picture of Religion were we still specially to repeat and insist that to it there is no longer anything displeasing and deformed in the world, but that all things there, without exception, are to it a source of the purest Blessedness. Whatever exists, as it exists and because it exists, labours in the service of the Eternal Life, and in the system of this development so it must be. To desire, wish, or love anything otherwise than as it is, would be either to desire no Life at all, or else to desire Life in a less perfect manifestation.

Religion elevates him who is devoted to her service above Time as such, above the Transient and the Perishable, and puts him in immediate possession of Eternity. On the one original Divine Life his eye reposes; there his love is rooted; whatever seems to be beyond this one original Life, is not beyond it but within it, and is merely a temporary form of its development according to an absolute Law which likewise lies within itself; he sees all things only in and through this one original Life, and in every individual life he sees the whole Infinite Universe of Being. His view is thus always the view of the Eternal, and what he sees, he sees as Eternal and in the Eternal: nothing can truly be which is not, even on that very account, Eternal. Every fear of perishing in death, every effort to discover an artificial proof of the immortality of the soul, lies far beneath him. In every moment of his existence he has immediate possession of the Eternal Life with all its Blessedness; and he needs no argument or inference to prove the truth of that which he possesses in ever-present consciousness. There is no more striking proof that the knowledge of the True Religion has hitherto been very rare among men, and that in particular it is a stranger in the prevailing systems, than this, that they universally place Eternal Blessedness beyond the grave, and never for a moment imagine that whoever will, may here, and at once, be Blessed.

This is the True Religion. What we maintained above,—that this Religion never comes forth in outward manifestation, nor reveals itself in external results, but is only the perfection of man’s inward being,—this has been thoroughly confirmed by our delineation. The Religious Man, indeed, does all those things without exception which the Law of Duty enjoins; but he does them not as a Religious Man, for he was already bound to do them, independently of all Religion, as a purely Moral Man;—as a Religious Man, he does the same things, but he does them with a nobler, freer inspiration. We must, however, necessarily pass through Pure Morality before we can attain Religion; for Religion is the Love of the Divine Life and Will, and he who obeys this Will reluctantly can never love it. By Morality we are first trained to obedience; and from habitual obedience Love arises as its sweetest fruit and reward.

But how shall our poor perplexed and harassed Human Race ever attain this Religion, and by its means be brought into this haven of secure repose? Some conditions which must previously be brought about we can easily indicate. In the first place, the Civil condition of the State and its internal and external peace must be firmly established. The empire of Good Manners must have commenced; the State must have no longer to struggle with its own necessities, or to impose them on its Citizens; this is necessary in order that quiet and leisure may be obtained. According to what we have said in our previous discourses, all this has already come to pass by means of Christianity as the fundamental principle of modern times; and in that same principle we have the assurance that this progress will still continue, and be carried out into farther and yet more perfect results. In this respect Christianity itself, by means of its external relations, has fashioned and prepared the world on which it is destined to burst forth with all its inward and essential nobleness; and our whole view of modern times has thus acquired a new significance, and the keystone has been placed on the completed structure of our inquiry.

In this state of order and tranquillity Mankind, or at least a large portion of them, must necessarily elevate themselves, in the first place, to Pure Morality. At this point, the power of the State, and the unconscious influence of Christianity in its external relations, come to an end. The State, as we have already seen, can impel its Citizens to negative Good Manners by means of Legislation and Government, and to positive Good Manners by means of the establishment of Equal Rights for all; and it may thus remove the most powerful obstacles to the development of Pure Morality; but it cannot impel them to this Morality itself, for the source of this lies within themselves, in their own minds, and in their own free will.

How much less then does it lie within the power of the State again to raise the great mass of its Citizens, or at least a large portion of them, from this generally diffused Morality to the higher dignity of True Religion. Whatever may be done in future times for the diffusion of this True Religion by great men whose hearts may be powerfully animated by its presence,—whatever these may do as individuals,—the State, as such, must never propose this purpose to itself; for its efforts would unavoidably prove abortive, and produce something quite different from the end desired. Indeed, I may add that no State will propose this purpose to itself, for the maxim which we have now laid down will one day be universally recognised.

How then shall an impulse arise by which Mankind may be moved to the acknowledgment and diffusion of True Religion? I answer, in the same way that all progress in Religious Knowledge has hitherto been brought about; by Individual Men, who, although as yet but partially and imperfectly, have still by one point or other of Religion been attracted, animated, and inspired, and have possessed the gift of communicating their inspiration to others. Such, in the beginning of modern times, were the Reformers:—such, in later days, when almost the whole of Religion was placed in the maintenance of orthodox systems of Theology, and the inward Religion of the heart was cast forth and neglected, were the so-called Pietistic Teachers, who gained an unquestionable victory; for what is the whole modern Theology, which would reduce the Bible to the level of its own shallow and superficial understanding, but a corruption of the view of the Pietists, retaining the contempt which these Teachers entertained for the orthodox systems of Theology, but casting aside the holiness of Feeling by which they were guided? And so in our own Age, when it has somewhat recovered and composed itself from the manifold errors with which it has been perplexed and harassed, will Inspired Men arise and bring to it that of which it stands in need.

We have finished the task which we proposed to ourselves:—we have delineated, briefly and succinctly as was our purpose, the Characteristics of the Present Age contemplated from those essential principles which belong to all Time. There remains nothing further for us to do but to add a conclusion to the whole. Permit me, for this purpose, to invite you here once again.