What Religion Is/Chapter 6



“The whole creation groaneth and travaileth . . . together.”

Suffering seems a very much wider fact than sin. What bewilders us most in it, I suppose, is its extension over the whole conscious world independently of goodness or badness. It seems as if it followed from any independence, any separateness or self-assertion in things. If things apparently indifferent to one another’s interests assert themselves in the same world, there must be conflict, and, with consciousness, suffering.

Religious faith does not seem to promise exemption from suffering. On the contrary, it almost seems to suggest that it is inevitable. We saw what a tremendous working contradiction faith involves between the true reality and the actual appearance. This seems to imply the possibility at least of a very fiery trial, though different no doubt for different natures and circumstances.

It is important, here as ever, to keep our attention on the central fact. We are very apt to generalise, to make a conception of human nature, for example, by leaving out special features which we think exceptional, and then to infer “This, and a world to suit, is what ‘ought’ to exist; and so religious faith, which takes the perfect good to be real, must be presupposed to promise this at least.” But all this seems groundless, and to be losing touch with what the facts suggest. We saw that what we find is individual spirits, all marked by different qualities and conditions, each apparently set to fight his battle and work out his line or grow his fibre of the good, in his particular and peculiar case of the whole striving world. There is nothing to suggest that any special mark or privation or deprivation in him is a sort of mistake in the universe, superfluous to the life of the good, and due to be set right as something without spiritual significance. The fact is that the attempt to recommend for adoption as it were a sort of typical complete man and typical complete life has always broken down, as Plato showed it must. You cannot train a perfect healthy animal man, and then complete him by adding a perfectly sane mind to his sound body. You must work out and let him work out his unique kind of health and his unique spiritual development in view of each other and of what he has to do and be. And you cannot put your finger on this or that condition, privation, deprivation, and say, This is dead spiritual loss and ought not to be. You may rightly try to hinder what you think hardship or defect. But it is far beyond the facts to say: This or that privation or deprivation is abnormal, an injustice, a necessary spiritual loss. The man, say, is blind. Is he so far less than a man should be? Would Mr. Fawcett have been less or more if he had had his sight? Who can tell? And Mr. Kavanagh, if he had had his limbs? One has a bad wife, a bad son. How can we say what he will make of the burden? We are not entitled to judge that the unique being and equipment which the universe lays upon each individual is such as to impair and defeat the possibilities of good. We must not assume that things would be better if we could make him and his conditions over to suit our smoothed conception of what a man and his life should be.

Here is a simple case of the principle in question. If we take as our standard a complete efficiency of our animal system, we are tempted to condemn its evolution as awkwardly managed. Its arrangements appear to have been primarily adapted to other ends than those they serve to-day, and to have been modified, not too successfully, in the interest of man’s spiritual functions. Now if we grant that this is so, does it follow that in this characteristic the universe is on the wrong track? There is a reticence in English treatment of intimate experience which it would probably be ill service to the higher life to violate or impair. Else I believe that it might not be difficult to show in more than one actual particular example how the whole connected set of physical distresses which sprang from one of these evolutionary maladaptations was a definite originating cause of the only seriously valuable production to which certain lives gave rise. In matters so complex, a particular case goes for little, and it might always be pronounced “exceptional.” Nevertheless I believe that it would be feasible by analyses of this kind to produce a good deal of conviction as to the positive values contributed to life by what commonly pass for negations, privations, deprivations.[1] Thus we might get rid of that tendency to standardise all finite spirits and their good at a somewhat commonplace or average level, which implies and is implied in the pretension to set down so much and such as what they ought to have, and again so much and such as what is abnormal and they ought to be spared. Of course, health is a good thing, and we have a right to make good things general if we can. But health, as we saw, itself is relative, besides that spiritual creativeness is not confined to health. The fact seems to be that the ways and conditions of spiritual productiveness are infinitely various and in each case unique. The good is obviously a highly vitalised and various world. And in all this there is universally present the general form or structure of suffering; beings prima facie indifferent to each other and to themselves, with an underlying unity which forces them into transformations.

Rejoice that man is hurled
From change to change unceasingly,
His soul’s wings never furled.

It is in and through such a conflict that the good is triumphant for faith, realising the vitality which is its nature in continual origination within and against the dazzle of plausible satisfactions.

Thus it seems to follow from the simple fact of religion that suffering belongs on the one hand to the religious spirit, and on the other to the finite world. I do not mean, or believe, that pain can be the sole feature of life, or is often the predominant one. But it does seem to me that we are losing sight of religious experience if we assign to it an ideal in which there shall be no place for pain even as a condition which may be suppressed, but is always imminent. A finite world of appearances, prima facie at issue with itself and with reality, may be, it would seem, the natural and normal arena for religious faith to dominate.

Now if so, what we call the reciprocal indifference of beings in time, and the maladaptations of evolution, may be no hindrance to the spiritual life, but its essential counterpart. Try to say what you think ought to be removed from any given private life in order to furnish its possessor with the conditions which you consider religious faith to presuppose, and, though you may feel certain at first about extremes from which you start, you will very shortly find yourself in a region of extreme unreality, almost all definite circumstances being condemned. War, or at least modern war, you would remove; and grinding poverty. And irresponsible wealth? That too. And commonplace mediocrity of circumstances? The worst starting-point of all. A cruel mother? Certainly to be excluded. A devoted self-sacrificing mother? The subtlest of moral dangers. You very soon find that you leave nothing standing. There is no normal. All is individual; and every pushing fibre and tendril of the good is unique, and has its own root to start from and its own issue to find. It is crude and pagan, perhaps, to say that all good comes by suffering, and I do not say it. But religious faith seems to mean a going out of oneself, which may be exultant, but can hardly fail at times to put the finite being on the rack.

We have approached too near to argument. But let the reader consider for himself how a supreme love and trust — Dante’s love — must be felt by a finite creature. It cannot be all simple receiving. It must make a severe demand. And if we might choose our own conditions, should we not rule out most things worth doing?

In a word, religion is just the weld of finite and infinite. Such an experience may be triumphant, but can it be costless?

“The whole creation . . .”; and yet we do not see how it can all share in religion. Yet it has been written:

The spirit of the worm beneath the sod
In love and worship blends itself with God.

Religion says nothing against this that I know of. At any rate the apparently finite world seems to be a necessary arena and instrument of values; and as better insight comes, it does not approximate to a fabric of pure blank preciousness, as the New Jerusalem does to a fabric of mere gems, but rather to more intimate and poignant realisations, united with a deeper perfection and a profounder victory. It is something of this kind that the religious experience offers as the simple and inward fact about suffering. And I believe we must take it so, and not try to reason or explain it away.


  1. The line of thought of course is affected by Spinoza.