What Religion Is/Chapter 7



“After this manner therefore pray ye . . . Thy will be done.”

Prayer and worship seem to be of the most intimate essence of religion. And just for this reason, when separately argued about and insisted on, above all its other features they tend to become distorted. Prayer, I suppose, is the very meditation which is, or at the very least which enables us to realise and enter into, the unity which is religious faith. Worship, inward or outward, is in principle the same. It is some direction of feeling, thought, or ritual which renews and fortifies, perhaps with the aid of sympathetic communion, the faith and will which is religion.

Every religion, I take it, intends to help its votaries in this way. It wishes to maintain and to reinforce in them the strictly religious spirit.

But here as elsewhere rationalism, curiosity, metaphor, and deduction from metaphor, operate by way of distortion. When faith weakens, the unity of the spirit tends to sever itself into ideas of persons in relation with each other, and the common conceptions of persons begin to react; the sides of the central experience, which prayer was to hold together, begin to fall apart, and the meditation and inspiration of unity cannot but be transformed accordingly. “Father,” “King,” “Lord,” “Creator,” all these words may help our sluggish imaginations in certain ways. But all of them offer by-paths for practical ceremony and for reflective inquisitiveness, in which the religious mind may lose itself.

If prayer, we argue, can keep us assured of the supreme triumph and of unity with the ultimate power, what can it not do? What can faith not do? From securing our daily bread to any miracle we chance to set our hearts on, all seems possible to it. Here is an example of what we must come to if we stray along roads like these till we run up against sanity and common sense. “Mr. John Scrimgeour, minister of Kinghorn, who, having a beloved child sick to death of the crewels, was free to expostulate with his Maker with such impatience of displeasure, and complaining so bitterly, that at length it was said unto him, that he was heard for this time, but that he was requested to use no such boldness in time coming; so that when he returned he found the child sitting up in the bed hale and fair. . .”[1]

The religious unity of spirit and its maintenance is thus coming to be broken up under the influence of various demands construed according to analogies imported into the matter by natural efforts to explain and interpret. With the growing distinction and remoteness of the human and divine factors the whole nature of prayer and worship transforms itself. It comes to be modelled on the normal relations between an inferior and a superior in the asking of favours and the rendering of honour.

Now here as throughout it is for the sincere mind to judge what incidents of hope and belief — what shapes of the answer to prayer — are really involved in his religion. We are only concerned to note the warning that prayer and worship certainly change their nature as we pursue curiosity and metaphor along paths which lead us away from what religious faith most strictly implies. What we essentially want, I suppose, is to be helped to realise and hold fast our religious faith, including, as we have seen throughout, our religious will. To this end “religions,” systems of creed and ritual, or, more generally, of feeling and practice, have their ways of being instrumental. And what is religious in them, I take it, is all that which contributes to keep true religion alive in the heart. Praise and supplication, so far as they do not help in this, seem not to be religious at all.


  1. Heart of Midlothian.