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Harvard University 


Religious ideas show something like an instinct of self- 
preservation. Having combated scientific advances long 
enough to discover the futility of that enterprise, they have 
sought to maintain Uvelihood in regions which science does not 
enter, regions above but not contrary to reason, regions beyond 
proof or disproof. God has long been silent, intangible, 
invisible: to many minds he has ceased to be the doer of the 
particular things that are done in the world. As our religious 
ideas thus withdraw beyond proof and disproof, and beyond 
reproach, have they not also withdrawn beyond all value and 

It would not be difiicult to define God in such a way that 
we should have to say: God does nothing. And if that is 
said, it is not far to the next step: God does not exist — for us. 
No one has any interest in the existence of an inert meta- 
physical possibility, not even metaphysicians. 

But it would also be possible to set up the postulate: God 
is what God does. And if a particular definition of God proved 
to be the definition of a Do-nothing, we should infer not that 
God does not exist, but that we have the wrong definition. 
It is at least one of the possible beginnings of a religious 
philosophy to inquire: What has God been supposed to do for 
men ? What has the idea meant to them ? To identify these 
functions, and then to identify the agent which performs these 
functions, is to identify God. 



This I understand to be Professor Ames's method of 
approach; and I imderstand his conclusion to be that as 
we become clear as to what God means to human experience 
it approaches coincidence with what the spirit of the social 
group means to human experience, so that the presiunption of 
identity between God and the group spirit is very strong. 

The method is a legitimate method; and the challenge 
which lies in this conclusion is at once powerful and fair. 


The evidence as one looks into it is massive — the evidence 
of correspondence between what the Group Spirit actually 
means to men, and what God is supposed to mean. One who 
begins by tracing analogies may well end by asserting identity. 

Or if one sees a certain truth — as I do — in polytheism, he 
may be inclined to say that wherever there is analogy there is 
identity. "Here, you say, something acts like God": then, 
there is a god at work. Something of God does preside, as 
Professor Ames points out, over one's occupation and one's 
luck, leads the social quest of culture and the arts, calls there 
for devotion and sacrifice, saves us there from self-absorption 
and moral decay, connects our labor with an immortal object, 
and even, in its more personal context, forgives our sins and 
atones by its own sufferings for our disloyalties. 

And surely no one can be unconvinced, or unmoved, by 
that striking picture of our individual immersion in the social 
body: it is the vine and we are the branches; in it we not only 
live and move — in it we think and will; through the language 
and the goods and the goals it sets before us we first find who 
and what we are. The purposes we frame are in no exclusive 
sense our purposes: as we learn by degrees what it is we want 
and aim toward, we become consciously what we always are 
subconsciously, the organ of a living organism, the general 
human will. 


Salvation is the central practical concept of religion; and 
salvation can henceforth be no solitary individual transaction 
with a supermundane God: no man can be saved except as he 
is reborn into the body and blood of a divine humanity. 

Thus far, I follow the analogy. If even so literal a thinker 
as the hard-headed Hobbes was stirred by the meaning of his 
Leviathan-State to name it " that mortal god, " with how much 
more reason are we impelled toward identifying the social 
spirit with the Deity. 


As Bacon reminded us, we need a "table of absence" to 
set beside our "table of presence." If we are to apply thor- 
oughly the method which Professor Ames proposes, we must 
be as intent to discover differences as resemblances: i.e., we 
must ask whether there is anything which the God of instinctive 
and practical religion does, which the social god does not do, 
and is not in a position to do. 

When the social god undertakes to preside over the fortunes 
and the moral welfare of men (as through the agencies of law, 
education, family counsel), is this god in a position to promote 
these fortunes with adaptation to individual need and with 
justice ? Is it in a position, more especially, to appreciate the 
moral needs of individual men with an adequate understanding 
of the human frame and an inward discernment, so that one 
might turn to it with the petition, "O Lord, Thou hast searched 
me and known me. . . . Thou understandest my thought afar 

oflf Try me and know my thoughts: And see if there 

be any wicked way in me Cleanse Thou from secret 

faults. . . ."? 

Or is it true that the social order, as it bears upon the 
individual, is inevitably somewhat crude, wholesale, and 
external, even at its best? The social order has its ideals, 
and in pursuit of them it approximates sensitiveness in justice: 


but still it seems to sacrifice many lives, many finer possibili- 
ties, even many demands for the most elementary moral 
satisfaction, in the stern necessities of historic movement, 
manned as that movement must be by persons hmited in time, 
in knowledge, in power, and in good will. 

If we identify God with the forces that play in human 
history, including the ideal forces that play there, we can take 
great satisfaction in the outcome for which we hope. But 
when we remember that the whole course of history lies prior 
to that goal, and is strewn with the wreck of honest causes and 
honest lives torn from the vine without the vine's knowledge 
or remembrance or power to help, the picture loses something 
of its divine aspect. If the god or gods of our social world 
function as leaders in party conflicts and national struggles — 
and this is said to be one of their merits — they also accept the 
fate of party struggle and of national subordination. The 
forces which decide such contests incline, it is true, more and 
more to the region of morale, and less and less bear out the old 
rule that "Dieu est toujours pour les plus gros bataillons": but 
what we discern here is a tendency, not an accomplishment; 
and after every campaign, even such as has reached a decision 
we call "right," there seems to remain in the hearts of indi- 
vidual man a need to appeal from that victor to another spirit. 
"Thou, O God, who didst not go out with our armies, give us 
help from trouble; for vain is the help of man." 

The truth is that society is not an organism, but is in a 
perpetual process of becoming one. And only an actual organ- 
ism, in which, not only the bodies and services and expressible 
thoughts of men, but their subconscious impulses as well were 
included, could play the part of God. That is the social ideal; 
but one need not call it a "mere ideal" to indicate that what 
it still lacks of complete reahty is of terrible moment for the 
lives of individuals. For if this spirit becomes our god, its 
judgments become absolute; its knowledge rightly turns itself 
into power; and if and when it says to this or that one, "Thou 


be damned, " then is that person effectively and finally damned; 
the keys of heaven and hell are indeed in the hands of men — 
at the best, of the court and the historian, at the worst, of the 
gossip and the mob. Until society becomes its own ideal, the 
soul will be one thing and social good another: and there will 
be besides all the sacrifices that promote the ideal a constant 
stream of brute, unnoted sacrifice, not of the worst, but of 
the best. 

The advocate of the social god may admit the crudity of 
human adjustments, and yet believe that they are the best we 
have: "Show me a God who does better," he may say, "and 
I will serve him." The demand is justified, and religion — and 
metaphysics — must hold themselves responsible for meeting it. 
But our sole present contention is that God has been believed 
to do better. It is his function to do better. The social spirit 
is not identical with what God practically means. 


We have been speaking of the God who works in history, 
contends with evil, and is interested in justice. But the reli- 
gious consciousness has other concerns beside these, and may 
regard justice, to itself at least, as wholly unimportant, because 
it has a greater good, the good of the worshiper or mystic. 

Religion has always taken upon itself to aid men in the 
historic struggle, but it has also taken upon itself to give them 
a conscious poise in the midst of that struggle which, while 
rendering them mentally immune to its contingencies, has been 
an element in their fullest efl&ciency. This consciousness has 
been given the name of "peace": it implies an ultimate confi- 
dence in the religious object; it corresponds to the attitude of 
"absolute dependence," which is certainly not the whole of 
religion, but an essential part of what we call worship. 

Now in our relations to society, we remain responsible and 
effortful. We depend on society; but we know that society 


also depends upon us: it will fail to be (in large measure) what 
we fail to make it. If in the instinctive basis of religion there 
is any support for that quest of peace, or rest, which implies 
" absolute dependence, " that instinct cannot find satisfaction 
in the social god. 

In the entity we call society there is nothing that can think 
if we men fail to think, nor will if we fail to will; it is we that 
must work; it is we that must supply "society" with ideas; 
it is we that must aspire; it is we that must grasp the goals of 
action and interpret society to itself. When society gives to 
the individual, it gives through other individuals, whose wills 
take part in the giving. The social god is not more self- 
conscious than the most self-conscious of its members: can we 
inquire of it why the world exists, or why individuals exists 
or why itself exists? Too palpably the social spirit keeps 
fraternal pace with the spirits of its members, shares our 
limitations, and being altogether such as we are, can hardly 
claim to be without sin. Society will always stand to men for 
an object of gratitude, and simultaneously as an object for 
correction and improvement. If there be in the universe an 
object upon which there can be reliance without criticism, a 
valid object of worship, and a source of peace, that object must 
be other than the social god. 

We have already said that worship, while it means "peace, " 
is not an idle attitude: this sort of peace is a release from the 
self-anxiety that hampers our best effect. But in another sense 
also worship is the focus of religious action: it fixes the degree 
of the will. There can be no religion that is not a religion of 
individual aspiration; there can be no aspiration unless the 
world is worth aspiring in; and the world is not worth aspir- 
ing in as a world of mere chance to be faced by the cosmic 
bravado of unreflecting minds. If the world is worth aspiring 
in it is because the successes of the spirit are already made 
possible by its total constitution, and not merely made con- 
ceivable by the structure of a fragment of the whole. Perhaps 


the most practical of all religious functions has been its func- 
tion of assuring individual minds that they may and should 
aspire without limit; that in the real world the will is con- 
cretely free. But if religion is to do this, it must involve the 
whole sweep of the objects of the mind that worships, and not 
any finite part of them. But the social spirit is a very finite 
portion of the cosmos. 

Finally, in religion, the worshiper seeks response. We can- 
not too often remind ourselves that, whatever the object of 
religious regard, whether society or something beyond society, 
reHgion itself is always the religion of individual minds; and 
it seeks a response which shall be an individual response. 

Now my judgment must be that the response of the spirit 
of society to the individual is never quite an individual re- 
sponse. It is a response to a class of which an individual 
happens to be a member. Society, for example, confers upon 
me my "rights" — that is one of its most marked attentions, but 
in doing so it never thought of me. What it does for me it 
does for all such as I am: the law, the customs, the industrial 
order in which we survive or perish, are provided for the 
average man, but not for John Brown in particular. 

And vhile through our lovers and friends the social spirit 
may be said to mean us, as individuals, and to respond to us 
as such, these precious gifts are after all but a fragment of the 
reality with which we have to do. They are s)Tnbols of what 
we could wish the whole to be. 

On its specifically religious side, then, the social god fails to 
meet the need for peace, for freedom of aspiration, and for 
individual response. And such must be the case with any 
deity who, like the social god, is fallible, mortal, and something 
less than completely real. The finite god, sought by many a 
brave spirit of our own time and of other times, we have no 
thought of denying, neither of disputing his religious value. 
We have already said that polytheism has its measure of truth, 
as a protest against an abstract monism which becomes empty. 


But the value of any finite god depends on his being an aspect 
of the God who is not finite. 


As we are dehberately confining our study to the functions 
which God has been supposed to fulfil, the history of religion 
should supply us with some evidence that the social gods have 
not been sufficient to fill the religious horizon of mankind, and 
that they appear less sufficient as religion develops. 

It seems right, then, to ask whether it has ever been true, 
in any stage of culture, that the social and functional deities 
to which Professor Ames refers constitute the whole of the reli- 
gious pantheon; or whether the supreme being among the gods 
has ever been conceived in terms of the spirit of the human 
society ? 

In a region where our ignorance is large one cannot right- 
fully speak in universal negatives; but one may surely say that 
even in primitive religions and from that point onward the 
typical situation is one in which some god of Nature stands 
above and behind the gods directly concerned with human life. 
Totemistic, ancestral, tribal gods have each their own hier- 
archy, and at the top of the series melt into the powers of the 
wider cosmos. The gods which are vivid and companionable, 
because they are near and concrete, are felt in just that propor- 
tion to lack something of finality. As Brinton puts it, speaking 
of our own aborigines: 

God, the ungrasped, remains behind. It is never the object of 
veneration or sacrifice; no myth brings it down to apprehension; it is 
not installed in his temples. Man cannot escape a belief that behind 
all forms there is one essence; but the moment he would seize and define 
it, it eludes his grasp, and by a sorcery more sadly ludicrous than that 
which blinded Titania, he worships not the Infinite he thinks, but an 
idol of his own making' 

In fact, the multiplication of deities in various of the greater 
pantheons can be traced, in successive steps, to efforts to name 

» Myths of the New World, p. 54. 


that ultimate being which the reUgious consciousness knows to 
be uncontained in all its plastic and associable shapes. 

If we press somewhat closer to the precise practical relation 
which the gods in these early stages of religion bear to the 
social interests, we shall discover, I think, that this relation 
has two sharply contrasted aspects. 

The gods do, in fact, embody and idealize the spirit of the 
group. But they also serve to keep the individual mind from 
being absorbed in the group; they help to save men from the 
oppressive insistence of group claims and group psychology. 
This seems to be true not alone in societies in which individual 
initiative has become conspicuous, but also in very early stages 
in which the group life seems to be almost the whole Ufe of all 
its members. For if we interpret rightly the ideas at the basis 
of fetishism, or of the rites of initiation, they mean that when 
the individual reaches adolescence, the time has come for him 
to shake off for a moment this childish identification with the 
group spirit; he must win maturity by facing the great fact of 
solitude, symbolic of the ultimate relation of man to his social 
order, a solitude in which he finds his own original relation to 
those powers which, for the moment, are not tribal function- 
aries in any sense, but simply the powers of the great world. 
It is their function now to enable him to look upon his whole 
social situation from the outside, so that when he adopts it, he 
shall do so as a free spirit, and not as one who has been smoth- 
ered along into a relation which he has never been able to assess 
because he has never had the mental picture of anything else. 

The prevalence of this sort of ceremony seems to me one of 
the most remarkable exhibitions of the rightness of human 
instinct under the spell of religious consciousness. It amounts 
to an act of self-suppression on the part of the social group; 
but it is an act from which the group knows it will derive new 
strength, because the member which it will now receive will 
be a member bearing with him the trace of that wakening of 
personahty from which all novelty and initiative must proceed. 


The group profits by the process, which is in very summary 
form, the eqxiivalent of our process of "higher education"; 
but that fact does not alter the meaning of the process to the 
individual. Its meaning is that he has first found God as God 
is apart from society; and it is this greater God which enables 
him to receive and appropriate the meaning of the tribal gods 
and traditions. He receives these latter gods as depending 
upon the God of the wider world. 

Thus even primitive religion has its antisocial aspects; 
because primitive religion is engaged in creating individuals 
who have to bring about the later stages of religion. It does 
this both directly, as we have seen, and indirectly, as by 
developing the institution of property, which makes its porten- 
tous connections with individual greed, brings an alienation of 
neighbor from neighbor even while it enlarges the wit, the fore- 
sight, and the force of the human mind. This religiously 
developed institution will react by shaking the entire social 
structure, breaking up in time the old modes of coherence; 
and with the aid of war, which is in part its offspring, bringing 
into being new unions, territorial and municipal, which modify 
their social gods to suit the altered spiritual bond. Mean- 
while the active divinities in this process are certainly not those 
passive divinities which so serenely accept the mutations of 
historic fortune. 

But come at once to the highest stage of religion, where 
whatever principles we find true should hold true in the highest 
measure, and see if there God has not settled nearer toward 
identification with the social spirit. What do we find ? We 
find, perhaps to our astonishment, that religion seems to have 
turned its back upon the whole social undertaking; not merely 
by sustaining a momentary retreat, as in the initiation program, 
but by expressly calling its followers to renounce this world 
and seek their treasure in quite another. 

It does not appear to me that the religion of the social spirit 
has taken the full measure of this phenomenon of religious 


history. Social religion is inclined to say that "the sense 
of God is closely bound up with social solidarity, and that 
when society is disintegrating or full of conflict God becomes 
unreal and remote"; that in our own age, for example, as an 
age of transition " it is hard to believe in God because we behold 
his face in troubled waters. " This, I think, should be the case if 
the thesis of social religion were true. But the history of reli- 
gion seems to show that at its culminating point the exact 
opposite is true. 

Not when the human society is solidary and prosperous, 
but when it is threatened, or overwhelmed, or morally bankrupt 
does the religious spirit reach it highest development. I will 
not quote here in explanation the remark of Hegel to the effect 
that it was first in the Roman world that the soul was thor- 
oughly lost. But I will remind you of the judgment of one who 
would probably reject any technical designation as either 
philosopher or Christian. Let me quote a passage from 
Gilbert Murray's Four Stages of Greek Religion: 

Any one who turns from the great writers of classical Athens, say- 
Sophocles or Aristotle, to those of the Christian era must be conscious 
of a great difference of tone. There is a change in the whole relation of 
the writer to the world about him. The quahty is not specifically 
Christian: it is just as marked in the Gnostics and Mithras-worshippers 

as in the Gospels It is hard to describe. It is a rise of asceticism, 

of mysticism, in a sense, of pessimism; a loss of self-confidence, of hope 
in this life and of faith in normal human effort; a despair of patient 
enquiry, a cry for infallible revelation; an indifference to the welfare 
of the state, a conversion of the soul to God. 

It is an atmosphere in which the aim of the good man is not so much 
to live justly, to help the society to which he belongs and enjoy the 
esteem of his fellow creatures; but rather by means of a burning faith, 
by contempt for the world and its standards, by ecstasy, suffering, and 
martyrdom, to be granted pardon for his unspeakable unworthiness, 
his immeasurable sins. There is an intensifying of certain spiritual 
emotions; an increase of sensitiveness, a failure of nerve 

I do not depreciate the religions that followed on this movement by 
describing the movement itself as a "failure of nerve." Mankind has 


not yet decided which of two opposite methods leads to the fuller and 
deeper knowledge of the world: the patient and sympathetic study of 
the good citizen who lives in it, or the ecstatic vision of the saint who 
rejects it. 

In the days of this movement of which Gilbert Murray speaks 
Rome itself was a political success; but the movement did not 
spring from that success; it sprang from Asia Minor, from 
Thrace, from Greece, from Persia, from Egypt, from Palestine, 
the regions of political and social failure. And what we pre- 
serve today as the most precious fruit of that movement is a 
religion that most clearly demands the subordination of all 
social interests and ties, even the tie of the family, to the love 
of a divine object which transcends every human object. 
This divine object manifests itself in a kingdom which is to 
have a career in this world; it is not hostile to association nor to 
earthliness as principles; it intends to confirm them, not to 
abolish them; but as a condition of confirming them, it de- 
mands that the passion of man shall finds its primary object 
outside of them. It must love first that which is not of this 
world and never can be. It is not alone the individual, it is 
society also, that must lose its life in order to save it. 

And if we can penetrate into the secrets of subsequent social 
history, we may perhaps be justified in saying with a great 
historian of Europe, that had the rehgious consciousness not 
reached this point of fixing its attention upon that which was 
so far outside all definite social aims as to be non-tribal, non- 
national, non-familial, non-pohtical, in brief, universal, Europe 
could, in all probability, never have succeeded in reaching a 
coherent political order. An antisocial religion made modern 
Europe possible. 


We have proceeded so far empirically, by the aid of the 
psychology of religion and the history of religion. Not wholly 
empirically, because our reading both of psychology and of 


history has been an interpretation of the facts, and not a mere 
rehearsal of them. But we must live by interpretation; we 
cannot Uve by facts alone. 

It would be possible to leave our case at this point. But 
it would be incomplete without an indication of the source of 
the interpretation we have adopted. The source of every 
interpretation lies in one's metaphysics, that is, in one's belief 
about the ultimate nature of the world he lives in. Let me 
then sketch very briefly, and therefore somewhat dogmatically, 
a few propositions from which our view logically depends. 

1. Every finite being is a dependent being; and in particular 
every empirical knower is a dependent being. — Thus, when we 
sum up reality in convenient dichotomies, as "man and his 
world, " we consider man as one thing and his environment as 
another thing, each limited by the other. Each of these 
partial beings is dependent; in this case, each is dependent to 
some extent on the other: but the presumption is that depend- 
ence upon dependencies points to an independent which is not 
the mere sum of the two parts. 

But in this case, too, the man is an empirical knower of his 
world; that is, he has to accept what is given him as fact. As 
a mental being, then, he is dependent on what is presented to 
him. He is not self-sufficient. 

2. Society, or community, is a dependent being. — ^Society is 
dependent in each of the two ways in which individual men 
are dependent. For society is a member of a pair — ^society 
and its environment. Society is also, as a mental being, an 
empirical knower. 

But society is dependent in a third respect: it depends on 
the prior being of its members. 

Every society is an organization of persons; and " organiza- 
tion" is a relation between terms. The terms in this case are 
not the same in and out of the relationship; but they are not 
wholly constituted by this relationship. For they are identical 
terms in other relationships, such as the relation of the indi- 


vidua! mind to its empirical objects, which are more funda- 
mental to its being. 

We say that the other relationships are more fundamental 
for the following reason: 

3. Society or community is a matter of degree, not merely a 
mutter of fact; the degree of association depends on a mental 
rapprochement of the terms associated; and this, in turn, depends 
on the relation of those members to a being not identical with any 
of them. — Community, it will be admitted, is never a finished 
fact. We are always more or less intimate with one another; 
always more or less involved in our social environment. We 
do not always feel it our present ideal to be more intimate or 
involved than we actually are. And if we in any case wish to 
be more intimate we do not always find that we can be so. We 
cannot become so by direct effort of will. In the one case, we 
make conditions of intimacy; in the other we find that 
conditions are imposed upon us. 

The essence of these conditions may be stated thus. We 
can approach one another, and can bear to approach one 
another, only in so far as we at the same time maintain our 
"selves," or as we maintain "reality" and "truth." Thus 
one who sacrifices truth for the sake of a friendship finds that 
the friendship is so far sacrificed and cannot be kept by main 
force of will. The same holds of all human relations. 

Society, then, depends on a prior relation of individual 
minds to that which is true; and that which is true is, in its 
most obvious aspect, the world of nature. 

4. But nature also is a dependent being. — ^Hence society 
depends ultimately on the relation of individual minds to that 
upon which nature itself depends. We need not here inquire 
what this independent being is. We shall so far beg the reli- 
gious question as to say that God is the independent being, or 
that God controls the universe; merely because whatever 
controls the universe is God. That is the deed, of all deeds, 
of Deity, in which religion is primarily interested. 


Worship is the effort to approach this reality. It aims to 
go behind whatever is dependent, and whatever is merely ideal 
or not yet actualized. Society will not do for an object of 
worship, for society is itself dependent on worship. It is depend- 
ent on worship because it is dependent on truth. In its 
dependence on truth it is manifestly dependent on science, 
which gives the truth of Nature — -and no religion dare leave 
Nature out; but worship penetrates to the truth behind 
Nature, and there establishes the ultimate social bond. 

Hence the common reUgious instinct of mankind has been 
right. It reveres society, because it is in fact dependent on 
society for the fulness of its life; but its deeper concern, its 
essentially reUgious concern, is for what the Universe apart 
from society is going to do with us — what it will do with us, 
for instance, when society is through with us. 

I was speaking not long ago with a Japanese friend about 
the rites of the Shinto religion, asking him whether there was 
anything corresponding to the sacraments of baptism or matri- 
mony. He said that marriage was usually the occasion for a 
social feast, but not for a religious ceremony; further, that, 
an infant is commonly taken by its mother, during the first 
few months of its life, to a local shrine, and there consecrated 
to the service of the community spirit (I alter his language to 
show its connection with our argument). But, he said, the 
main rehgious ceremony is that called out by death; so much so 
that the Japanese are often unpleasantly affected by the com- 
parative casualness of the Christian burial. The great deed 
of the God of Shinto piety begins, it would seem, when society 
has taken leave of the soul, having, for better or for worse, 
done what destiny has given it to do for that soul. And in 
this respect, the divine power of Shinto piety is the divine 
Power of the piety of all mankind.