Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 10. The Study of Comparative Religions

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVI. Later Theology

§ 10. The Study of Comparative Religions

Before they realized it, the churches were face to face with the discipline of “Comparative Religion”—what Nash called “the most significant debate the world has ever known.”James Freeman Clarke, one of the tenderest and truest ministers of Jesus in New England, composed a series of Lowell lectures on Ten Great Religions (1871) which went through at least twenty-two editions, and brought a knowledge of the high aspirations of other religious leaders to Christian people. Toward the end of our period, the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, composed of representatives of ten religions, visited by more than one hundred and fifty thousand people, gave dramatic underscoring to the “Brotherhood of Religions” —the phrase in which they were welcomed by one of the authorities—and adopted as its motto the words from Malachi: “Have we not all one Father? hath not one God created us?”

It was possible, of course, to take the ground—and it was at first widely taken—that these religions were so many evidences of the sinfulness of mankind. James S. Dennis, author of the three-volume work on Christian Missions and Social Progress (1898)—a mine of rare and accurate socialogical material—holds: “They are the corruptions and perversion of a primitive, monotheistic faith, which was directly taught by God to the early progenitors of the race.…They are gross caricatures and fragmentary semblances of the true religion.” W. C. Wilkinson of the University of Chicago, speaking at the Parliament of Religions, declared: “The attitude of Christianity towards religions other than itself is an attitude of universal, absolute, eternal, unappeasable hostility, while toward all men its attitude is an attitude of grace, mercy, peace for whosoever will.” And the noble and eloquent Bishop J. M. Thoburn of India castigates the preposterous view that the great religions were all originated and developed by God Himself and that they all have been and still are serving their purpose in the education of the human race, and declares that he has “no more respect for Mohammedanism as a system than for Mormonism.”

As time went on, however, a wise agnosticism regarding the origin of the religions of the Eastern world came to be combined with an ever more intelligently founded conviction of the moral supremacy of Christianity. Arthur H. Smith, brilliant speaker and keen observer, has given a record of his twenty-two years of life in China in the popular books Chinese Characteristics (1894) and Village Life in China (1899). He finds the Confucian classics to be “the best chart ever constructed by man” and feels that “perhaps it is not too much to say that its authors may have had in some sense a divine guidance.” He still insists, however, that the Chinese lack “character and conscience” and that they must have “a knowledge of God and a new conception of man” to attain them. William N. Clarke, after a tour of the missions abroad, sums up thus:

  • In Confucianism, where the religious movement is ethical, the ethics become human and religion is lost. In Buddhism, where it is philosophical, the philosophy becomes pessimistic and religion dies out. In Hinduism, where it is emotional, the emotion becomes degrading and religion is defiled. In Mohammedanism, where it is doctrinal, the doctrine becomes cold and lifeless and religion is atrophied.… A personal God, possessing a moral character and offering himself in personal relations to man, is known in Christianity alone.
  • But a still more outspoken sympathy and reverence for the religions which Christianity is to “complete” are to be found among missionaries and their devoutest supporters. George William Knox, for fifteen years a missionary in Japan and afterward Professor of the Philosophy and History of Religion in Union Theological Seminary, who died in Corea while Union Seminary Lecturer in the East, thus expresses himself in The Spirit of the Orient(1906):

  • If God rules, we cannot join in the wholesale condemnation of the East as if it were a blot on His creation.… As one thinks of Confucianism, its vast antiquity, its immense influence over such multitudes, its practical common sense, its freedom from all that is superstitious or licentious or cruel or priestly, of the intelligent men it has led to high views of righteousness, one cannot but regard it as a revelation from the God of truth and righteousness.
  • As we should expect, this viewpoint was strongly urged at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Dr. Barrows, its organizer, asked the frank question: “Why should not Christians be glad to learn what God has wrought through Buddha and Zoroaster?” And Robert Hume, a missionary from India who had been prominently identified with the liberal wing in the Andover controversy, and author of Missions from the Modern View (1905), declared:

  • By the contact of Christian and Hindu thought, each will help the other.… The Hindu’s recognition of the immanence of God in every part of his universe will quicken the present movement of western thought to recognize everywhere a present and a living God. The Hindu’s longing for unity will help the western mind…to appreciate…that there has been and will be one plan and one purpose from the least atom to the highest intelligence. From the testimony of Hindu thought, Christians will more appreciate the superiority of the spiritual and invisible over the material and the seen, of the eternal over the evanescent.
  • At the close of the Parliament, two lectureships were established to conserve the temper and purpose of that remarkable assemblage. One of these is named the Barrows lectureship, and upon its incumbent is laid the duty of delivering a series of lectures, interpretative of the Christian spirit, in the intellectual centres of the East. Charles Cuthbert Hall, the President of Union Theological Seminary, was twice the Barrows lecturer. As the result of this last strenuous and congenial service he laid down his devoted life. Between those two periods of Oriental travel he delivered the Cole lectures before Vanderbilt University, on the The Universal Elements of the Christian Religion (1905). Their chief impression concerns the folly of further sectarianism in the Protestant communion, but upon the matter immediately occupying us the lecturer declares in words thoroughly and inclusively typical of our period:

  • When one stands in the heart of the venerable East; feels the atmosphere charged with religious impulse; reads on the faces of the people marks of the unsatisfied soul; considers the monumental expressions of the religious idea in grand and enduring architectural forms, then the suggestion that all this means nothing—that it is to be stamped out and exterminated before Christianity can rise upon its ruins,—becomes an unthinkable suggestion. I look with reverence upon the hopes and yearnings of non-Christian faiths, believing them to contain flickering and broken lights of God, which shall be purged and purified and consummated through the absolute self-revelation of the Father in Christ Incarnate.”
  • As a result then of these three great world-movements of thought—the science of Biblical criticism, the theory of evolution, and the emergence of comparative religion—Christian theology has renounced its lofty isolation and become a department of human knowledge. But though finding religion at the heart of common human life, instead of in a holy sphere apart from it, modern theologians have not found it empty of significance. They have discovered the world to be not, as Plato feared, a creature marked by changing cycles but the theatre and stuff of a steady upward movement, culminating in man. They have found the Christian Bible to contain the most significant segment of man’s history, to be the transcript of that strenuous and sublime process by which the foundations of reverence and justice and truth were laid for Love to build upon. They have discovered Jesus of Nazareth to be Love’s supreme creation and channel. They believe the Christian function to be the transformation of human life by the energy of that Love. They find that mankind is to be led, as George W. Knox said, “not along the road of dialectics to our God but by the great highway of service to our fellowmen.” Consequently, with a growing scorn for sectarian problems and debates, they are applying themselves to the outstanding tasks of human society. Here many scholars and pastors have wrought nobly. In the earlier stages of this modern thought the books of Josiah Strong and C. Loring Brace and Edward Everett Halewere of much avail. William J. Tucker made the chair of Practical Theology at Andover seem one of Sociology and directed the founding of the first settlement house in Boston. Joseph Tuckerman founded a pastorship-at-large in the same city and helped to crystallize Unitarian social sympathy in paths of definite service to the poor. These men and many others have contributed to what E. Winchester Donald of Trinity Church, Boston, so happily called in his Lowell lectures “The Expansion of Religion.”