for its ancient fetiches, which are thenceforth regarded as representative signs of the divinities. Finally, when we come to conceive a Supreme God, of whom the old divinities are simply ministers or hypostases, the ancient figurative representations may still have a place, provided they are put in relation with the qualities or attributes of the superior being into which the divine world resolves itself. This is an evolution of which traces are observed almost everywhere in ancient polytheism. Dogmas and sacraments can always, on their side, be brought by symbolism into an interpretation harmonious with the progress of knowledge and reason. Such is the task to which are devoted—after Schelling and Hegel in Germany, and Coleridge and Maurice in England—a notable fraction of Protestant theologians, with a success which would doubtless have been greater if the school had not broken with the laws of historical truth by persisting in projecting into the past interpretations inspired by the present.
A religious condition may be conceived in which all cults become purely symbolical. There will be nothing to hinder their preserving with a pious care the rites and traditions of their heritage; only they will make of them particularly symbols of the truths common to all religions, and will consequently be able to treat one another—as we see in the rites of certain churches—as local forms and equally legitimate in the universal religion.
Such a syncretism looks, at first sight, to be very far from us. It would imply that all religions have their share of the truth, but that none possesses it all. This is hardly the language of the larger contemporary churches, if we may judge by those that touch us most nearly. But it must be observed that, in practice, their adepts live among one another as if the divergence in doctrines were reduced to a diversity of symbols. At times we see their chiefs—a thing unheard of in former centuries—co-operating on a footing of equality in works of philanthropy or social peace, as if they recognized that charity and justice afford a common ground for religious activity. Lastly, the attribution of a relative value—or symbolic, which is the same thing—to all cults indistinguishably may serve hereafter as a basis for the normal relations of the state with the churches in the countries which are under the influence of modern law. Let this idea, already anchored in our laws and our customs, be accepted in our consciousness, and for the first time in history the world will be able to enjoy a religious peace, founded not on the unity of forms and formulas, but upon the admission of what, under variety of symbols, is true and fruitful in all religions.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.