What Religion Is/Preface


What I hope and desire to do in writing this little book is to be helpful to persons who, while feeling the necessity of religion, are perplexed by the shape in which it comes before them. I am not thinking about historical criticism. I have in mind more fundamental things. We may be disappointed — I will at once make this suggestion, which is indeed the main substance of what I have to say — we may be disappointed in an experience which we have been taught to regard as all-important, not because it offers us too little, but because it offers not just what we were prepared for. Everything depends on the expectation and the hope with which we approach it. Religion is the knot, the centre, of all human difficulties; it is a many-sided thing, and if we ask it the wrong questions it will give us misleading responses.

To take the simplest of all examples: Will religion guarantee me my private and personal happiness? To this, on the whole, I think we must answer No; and if we approach it with a view to such happiness, then most certainly and absolutely No. And yet this answer might repel many persons who are quite sincerely inclined to religion. They might perhaps rejoin, “Well, but if not that, then what? We esteem the thing as good and great, but if it simply does nothing for us, how is it to be anything to us?” But the answer was the answer to the question; and it might be that to a question sounding but slightly different a very different answer would be returned. We might ask, for instance, “Does it make my life more worth living?” And the answer to this might be, “It is the only thing that makes life worth living at all.”

Now I should think it a great thing if I could help ever so humbly in guiding some minds to the right type of expectation, the true and open attitude in which they will have a fair chance to feel their religion in its fulness and its simplicity.

I insist on two expressions in this last sentence. “Their religion”; my hope is not to suggest or advocate a new religion to them. It is to help them to reach the full value of their own. No man is so poor, I believe, as not to have a religion, though he may not, in every case, have found out where it lies.

And “simplicity”; for it is a familiar paradox, that in the highest and deepest things, centres though they are of all complexity, yet we go wrong mostly by not being simple enough. “As a little child . . .”; that has been the motto, as of the saints, so of the wisest among mankind. Your mind is a good instrument; only keep it free and sincere; keep away from selfishness, self-conceit, from the vanity of learning, and from the vanity of resentment against learning. Open it to experience, and take that as largely as you can. We know the type of man who on the whole gets nearest to truth. It is not the cleverest. It is, I think, the sincerest.

I have nothing to say that has not been better said by thousands of better men. But every crisis has its own demand for the right question and the right answer. And even if the word is quite old, it makes perhaps a little difference when it is repeated in your ear by a comrade at your side.