The world of religious thought might be divided into two great schools: those who feel the need of taking as definitely settled a set of doctrines beyond which they would not question; and those who feel that men have not yet, and perhaps never will, have sufficient knowledge to be formulated into any fixed system of doctrines.
All who have followed the progress of it modern thought will have had their faith in the old doctrines and dogmas rudely shaken, if not shattered. And, perhaps with deep pain, perhaps with a joyful sense of freedom, according to their temperament, they will have been giving up beliefs that once seemed quite beyond question, and replacing them with a quiet humility of mind, through which they realize their utter inability to understand, still less to explain, the vast problems which once seemed so simple—nay, were not problems at all. Not only do they realize that men have not yet been able to find answers to such questions as, "Is there a God, and, if so, what is His nature?" "Do we live after death, and, if so, under what conditions?" or "What is the purpose of the Universe?" but they clearly see that it is likely that if the true answers to these problems were given they would be as meanigingless to them as a discourse on metaphysics would be to a child of two years old; if, indeed, our words could convey the message at all! Only dimly do they feel that they understand the direction in which things are moving, and that life is indeed worthy. And they are as contented with this as the dog is who hears his masters voice and obeys it and acts as he knows his master wishes, but no more comprehends the purposes or details of his master's life than we the purposes and details of the Universe.
And it may happen that a man holding this detached condition of mind, joining in none of the current religious beliefs, but insisting upon our inevitable ignorance, will one day enter a little place of worship. And there he may find, amid a general spirit of warmth and charity, people in simple sincerity performing their devotions and listening to the sermon, the old with a quiet sense of restfulness, the young with an earnest enthusiasm. Or he may witness a child at its prayers, who, never doubting, puts up its simple petition. And he will be overcome by a sense of something exceedingly beautiful in the simple childlike faith, which, without question or suspicion, finds in the (to him) crude, orthodox doctrines, the stimulus and the motive of a good, charitable life.
And he will go away and wonder whether after all the old simple faith is not really something better, and something to be envied, and striven after. He has, perhaps, come to look on faith as something exceedingly foolish, and only possible for children and ignorant people, and a little event such as above described may set him searching in his own mind as to why the faith of those people seemed so beautiful. He will wonder whether it would not be possible for him to develop some such faith in something, somehow.
But what I am prepared to assert is, not only that faith is a very necessary and a very beautiful thing, but that the man whom we have been describing possesses it in a far greater degree, and in a stronger and more beautiful form, than the ignorant dogmatist or the simple child.
In general parlance, the man who has rejected all definite forms of faith, whether he be an atheist, agnostic, freethinker, positivist or ethicist, is supposed to be an infidel—and from the standpoint of any particular sect he may be—but I think that deeper examination in many cases would show that there exists a stronger form of faith than that which needs the support of traditions, sacred books, and a host of theological doctrines. Is not this longing for definiteness and finality in doctrine and religious belief a sign of weakness rather than of strength? Does it not show a lack of faith in the great heart of the world, in the fundamental laws of nature, if there is felt the need of a comforting doctrine of divine interference (for the salvation of man) with the laws of Nature?
Should we not say that that man has faith who does not quail in the face of danger or impending misfortune, but trusts in the final fitness of things—not because he has read it in a book or been taught it as a divine message, but because he feels it from the depths of his soul and with the fullest sanction of his reason? That is faith compared with which much that goes by that name should be called only credulity.
Ask any man who has felt the great comfort and stimulus to be got from a simple faith in some traditional religion. Was it not when his spirit began to quail in the face of apparently real evil, and his heart grew sad over the seeming impossibility of reconciling an optimistic view of things with the facts to be faced, that he turned with a sense of relief and much-welcomed support to the gentle doctrines of Christ's love and sacrifice and God's forgiveness and the promise of Heaven after death, where all these contradictions should be no more?
Yes, it is when the heart quails, when faith is lost in the world as it is apprehended by an appeal to actual realities so far as they can be realized by our minds and senses, that relief is found by trying to pin one's faith to the less certain foundations of traditions and beliefs. When, owing to the greater difficulty of excavation, he had failed to build his house upon a rock, when, owing to the greater mental effort needed and the more subtle reasonings and emotions involved, he has failed to form a basis for his faith upon the unchanging laws of the universe, then he is driven to build as best he can, upon the ever shifting sands of doctrines and beliefs.
Let this not be taken as a general denial of all religious doctrine, nor an assertion of their uselessness. Far from it; many more of the beliefs of the old religions may be truer than modern criticism is prepared to admit. Nevertheless, I plead that whether they are held to be true or not need make no difference to one's faith—in the reality and worthiness of life.
The justification of that faith it is not the purpose of this paper to set forth. My effort has been to indicate that the proper domain of faith is in one's attitude, optimistic or pessimistic, towards the whole of existence; not in the more immediate questions with which orthodox religions deal.
Greater than gifts, better than prayer or fast,
Such wisdom is! The Yogi this way knowing,
Comes to the Utmost Perfect Peace at last.
—The Song Celestial