Oriental Religions and Christianity Part 13

Laotze, like Confucius, was agnostic; yet he could not wholly rid himself of the influence of the ancient faith. His conception of Taou, or Reason, was rationalistic, certainly, yet he invested it with all the attributes of personality, as the word "Wisdom" is sometimes used in the Old Testament. He spoke of it as "The Infinite Supreme," "The First Beginning," and "The Great Original." Dr. Medhurst has translated from the "Taou Teh King" this striking Taouist prayer: "O thou perfectly honored One of heaven and earth, the rock, the origin of myriad energies, the great manager of boundless kalpas, do Thou enlighten my spiritual conceptions. Within and without the three worlds, the Logos, or divine Taou, is alone honorable, embodying in himself a golden light.

May he overspread and illumine my person. He whom we cannot see with the eye, or hear with the ear, who embraces and includes heaven and earth, may he nourish and support the multitudes of living beings."

If we turn to the religion of the Iranian or Persian branch of the Aryan family, we find among them also the traces of a primitive monotheism; and that it was not borrowed from Semitic sources, through the descendants of Abraham or others, Ebrard has shown clearly in the second volume of his "Apologetics." Max Muller also maintains the identity of the Iranian faith with that of the Indo-Aryans. The very first notices of the religion of the Avesta represent it as monotheistic. Ahura Mazda, even when opposed by Ahriman, is supreme, and in the oldest hymns or gathas of the Yasna, Ahriman does not appear; there are references to evil beings, but they have no formidable head; Persian dualism, therefore, was of later growth. Zoroaster, whom Monier Williams assigns to the close of the sixth century B.C.,[147] speaks of himself as a reformer sent to re-establish the pure worship of Ahura, and Haug considers the conception of Ahura identical with that of Jehovah. High on a rocky precipice at Behistun, Rawlinson has deciphered an inscription claiming to have been ordered by Darius Hystaspes, who lived 500 B.C., which is as clearly monotheistic as the Song of Moses. The Vendidad, which Rawlinson supposes to have been composed 800 years B.C., is full of references to minor gods, but Ahura is always supreme. The modern Parsees of Bombay claim to be monotheistic, and declare that such has been the faith of their fathers from the beginning.

A Parsee catechism published in Bombay twenty-five years ago reads thus: "We believe in only one God, and do not believe in any besides Him....

He is the God who created the heavens, the earth, the angels, the stars, the sun, the moon, the fire, the water, ... and all things of the worlds; that God we believe in, Him we invoke, Him we adore." And lest this should be supposed to be a modern faith, the confession further declares that "This is the religion which the true prophet Zurthust, or Zoroaster, brought from God."

The Shintoists of Japan, according to their sacred book, the "Kojiki,"

believe in one self-existent and supreme God, from whom others emanated.

From two of these, male and female, sprang the Goddess of the Sun, and from her the royal line of the Mikados. There was no creation, but the two active emanations stirred up the eternally existing chaos, till from it came forth the teeming world of animal and vegetable life.

It has often been asserted that tribes of men are found who have no conception of God. The author of "Two Years in the Jungle" declares that the Hill Dyaks of Borneo are without the slightest notion of a divine being. But a Government officer, who for two years was the guest of Rajah Brooke, succeeded after long delay in gaining a key to the religion of these Dyaks. He gives the name of one Supreme being among subordinate gods, and describes minutely the forms of worship. Professor Max Muller, while referring to this same often-repeated allegation as having been applied to the aborigines of Australia, cites one of Sir Hercules Robinson's Reports on New South Wales, which contains this description of the singular faith of one of the lowest of the interior tribes:[148] First a being is mentioned who is supreme and whose name signifies the "maker or cutter-out," and who is therefore worshipped as the great author of all things. But as this supreme god is supposed to be inscrutable and far removed, a second deity is named, who is the _revealer_ of the first and his mediator in all the affairs of men.[149]

Rev. A.C. Good, now a missionary among the cannibal tribes of West Africa, stated in the Presbyterian General Assembly at Saratoga in May, 1890, that with all the fetishes and superstitions known among the tribes on the Ogovie, if a man is asked who made him, he points to the sky and utters the name of an unknown being who created all things.[150]

When Tschoop, the stalwart Mohican chief, came to the Moravians to ask that a missionary might be sent to his people, he said: "Do not send us a man to tell us that there is a God--we all know that; or that we are sinners--we all know that; but send one to tell us about salvation."[151] Even Buddhism has not remained true to the atheism of its founder. A Thibetan Lama said to Abbe Huc: "You must not confound religious truths with the superstitions of the vulgar. The Tartars prostrate themselves before whatever they see, but there is one only Sovereign of the universe, the creator of all things, alike without beginning and without end."

But what is the testimony of the great dead religions of the past with respect to a primitive monotheism? It is admitted that the later developments of the old Egyptian faith were polytheistic. But it has generally been conceded that as we approach the earliest notices of that faith, monotheistic features more and more prevail. This position is contested by Miss Amelia B. Edwards and others, who lean toward the development theory. Miss Edwards declares that the earliest faith of Egypt was mere totemism, while on the other hand Ebrard, gathering up the results of the researches of Lepsius, Ebers, Brugsch, and Emanuel de Rouge, deduces what seem to be clear evidences of an early Egyptian monotheism. He quotes Manetho, who declares that "for the first nine thousand years the god Ptah ruled alone; there was no other." According to inscriptions quoted by De Rouge, the Egyptians in the primitive period worshipped "the one being who truly lives, who has made all things, and who alone has not been made." This one God was known in different parts of Egypt under different names, which only in later times came to stand for distinct beings. A text which belongs to a period fifteen hundred years before Moses says:

"He has made all that is; thou alone art, the millions owe their being to thee; he is the Lord of all that which is, and of that which is not."

A papyrus now in Paris, dating 2300 B.C., contains quotations from two much older records, one a writing of the time of King Suffern, about 3500 B.C., which says: "The operation of God is a thing which cannot be understood." The other, from a writing of Ptah Hotep, about 3000 B.C., reads: "This is the command of the God of creation, the peaceable may come and issue orders.... The eating of bread is in conformity with the ordinance of God; can one forget that his blessing rests thereupon?...

If thou art a prudent man teach thy son the love of God."[152]

Professor Ernest Naville, in speaking of this same subject in a course of popular lectures in Geneva, said: "Listen now to a voice which has come forth actually from the recesses of the sepulchre: it reaches us from ancient Egypt.

"In Egypt, as you know, the degradation of the religious idea was in popular practice complete. But under the confused accents of superstition the science of our age is succeeding in catching from afar the vibrations of a sublime utterance. In the coffins of a large number of mummies have been discovered rolls of papyrus containing a sacred text which is called 'The Book of the Dead.' Here is the translation of some fragments which appear to date from a very remote epoch. It is God who speaks thus: 'I am the Most Holy, the Creator of all that replenishes the earth, and of the earth itself, the habitation of mortals. I am the Prince of the infinite ages. I am the Great and Mighty God, the Most High, shining in the midst of the careering stars and of the armies which praise me above thy head.... It is I who chastise the evil-doers and the persecutors of Godly men. I discover and confound the liars. I am the all-seeing Avenger, ... the Guardian of my laws in the land of the righteous.' These words are found mingled in the text, from which I extract them, with allusions to inferior deities; and it must be acknowledged that the translation of the ancient documents of Egypt is uncertain enough; still this uncertainty does not appear to extend to the general sense and bearing of the recent discoveries of our _savans_."[153]

Professor Flint as against Cudworth, Ebrard, Gladstone, and others, maintains that the Egyptian religion at the very dawn of its history had "certain great gods," though he adds that "there were not so many as in later times." "Ancestor worship, but not so developed as in later times, and animal worship, but very little of it compared with later times." On the other hand, as against Professor Tiele, Miss Amelia B. Edwards, and others, he says: "For the opinion that its lower elements were older than the higher there is not a particle of properly historical evidence, not a trace in the inscriptions of mere propitiation of ancestors or of belief in the absolute divinity of kings or animals; on the contrary ancestors are always found propitiated through prayer to some of the great gods; kings worshipped as emanations and images of the sun god and the divine animals adored as divine symbols and incarnations."

Among the Greeks there are few traces of monotheism, but we have reason for this in the fact that their earliest literature dates from so late a period. It began with Homer not earlier than 600 B.C., and direct accounts of the religion of the Greeks are not traced beyond 560 B.C.

But Welcker, whose examinations have been exhaustive, has, in the opinion of Max Muller, fairly established the primitive monotheism of the Greeks. Muller says: "When we ascend with him to the most distant heights of Greek history the idea of God as the supreme being stands before us as a simple fact. Next to this adoration of One God the father of men we find in Greece a worship of nature. The powers of nature, originally worshipped as such, were afterward changed into a family of gods, of which Zeus became the king and father. The third phase is what is generally called Greek mythology; but it was preceded in time, or at least rendered possible in thought, by the two prior conceptions, a belief in a supreme God and a worship of the powers of nature.... The divine character of Zeus, as distinguished from his mythological character, is most carefully brought out by Welcker. He avails himself of all the discoveries of comparative philology in order to show more clearly how the same idea which found expression in the ancient religions of the Brahmans, the Sclavs, and the Germans had been preserved under the same simple, clear, and sublime name by the original settlers of Hellas."[154]

The same high authority traces in his own linguistic studies the important fact that all branches of the Aryan race preserve the same name for the Supreme Being, while they show great ramification and variation in the names of their subordinate gods. If, therefore, the Indo-Aryans give evidence of a monotheistic faith at the time of their dispersion, there is an _a priori_ presumption for the monotheism of the Greeks. "Herodotus," says Professor Rawlinson, "speaks of God as if he had never heard of polytheism." The testimony of the Greek poets shows that beneath the prevailing polytheism there remained an underlying conception of monotheistic supremacy. Professor Rawlinson quotes from an Orphic poem the words:

"Ares is war, peace Soft Aphrodite, wine that God has made Is Dionysius, Themis is the right Men render to each. Apollo, too, And Phoebus and aeschlepius, who doth heal Diseases, are the sun. All these are one."

Max Muller traces to this same element of monotheism the real greatness and power of the Hellenic race when he says: "What was it, then, that preserved in their hearts (the Greeks), in spite even of the feuds of tribes and the jealousies of states, the deep feeling of that ideal unity which constitutes a people? It was their primitive religion; it was a dim recollection of the common allegiance they owed from time immemorial to the great father of gods and men; it was their belief in the old Zeus of Dodona in the Pan-Hellenic Zeus."[155] "There is, in truth, but one," says Sophocles, "one only God, who made both heaven and long-extended earth and bright-faced swell of seas and force of winds."

Xenophanes says: "'Mongst gods and men there is one mightiest God not mortal or in form or thought. Entire he sees and understands, and without labor governs all by mind." Aratus, whom Paul quotes,[156] says: "With Zeus began we; let no mortal voice of men leave Zeus unpraised.

Zeus fills the heavens, the streets, the marts. Everywhere we live in Zeus. Zeus fills the sea, the shores, the harbors. _We are his offspring, too._" The reference made by Paul evidently implies that this Zeus was a dim conception of the one true God.

That all branches of the Semitic race were monotheistic we may call not only Ebrard and Muller, but Renan, to witness. According to Renan, evidences that the monotheism of the Semitic races was of a very early origin, appears in the fact that all their names for deity--El, Elohim, Ilu, Baal, Bel, Adonai, Shaddai, and Allah--denote one being and that supreme. These names have resisted all changes, and doubtless extend as far back as the Semitic language or the Semitic race. Max Muller, in speaking of the early faith of the Arabs, says: "Long before Mohammed the primitive intuition of God made itself felt in Arabia;" and he quotes this ancient Arabian prayer: "I dedicate myself to thy service, O Allah. Thou hast no companion, except the companion of whom thou art master absolute, and of whatever is his." The book of Job and the story of Balaam indicate the prevalence of an early monotheism beyond the pale of the Abrahamic church. In the records of the kings of Assyria and Babylonia there is a conspicuous polytheism, yet it is significant that each king worshipped _one God only_. And this fact suggests, as a wide generalization, that political and dynastic jealousies had their influence in multiplying the names and differentiating the attributes of ancient deities. This was notably the case in ancient Egypt, where each invasion and each change of dynasty led to a new adjustment of the Egyptian Pantheon.

Rome had many gods, but Jupiter was supreme. Herodotus says of the Scythians, that they had eight gods, but one was supreme, like Zeus. The Northmen, according to Dr. Dascent, had one supreme god known as the "All-fader." The Druids, though worshipping various subordinate deities, believed in One who was supreme--the creator of all things and the soul of all things. Though conceived of in a Pantheistic sense, He was personal and exerted a moral control, as is shown by the famous triad: "Fear God; be just to all men; die for your country." In the highest and purest period of the old Mexican faith we read of the Tezcucan monarch Nezahualcoyotl, who said: "These idols of wood and stone can neither hear nor feel; much less could they make the heavens and the earth, and man who is the lord of it. These must be the work of the all-powerful unknown God, the Creator of the universe, on whom alone I must rely for consolation and support."[157] The Incas of Peru also, though sun-worshippers, believed in a supreme creator who made the sun. The oldest of their temples was reared to the supreme god "Virachoca." And one of the greatest Incas has left his declared belief that "there must be above the sun a greater and more powerful ruler, at whose behest the sun pursues his daily and untiring round."[158]

It has been assumed throughout this lecture, that instead of an advance in the religions of men, there has everywhere been decline. Our proofs of this are not theoretic but historic. As an example, all writers are agreed, I believe, that during the historic period the religion of the Egyptians steadily deteriorated until Christianity and Mohammedanism superseded it. In strong contrast with the lofty and ennobling prayer which we have quoted from an ancient Egyptian record, is the degradation of the later worship. On a column at Heliopolis, belonging to the fourth century before Christ, is inscribed this petition: "O thou white cat, thy head is the head of the sun god, thy nose is the nose of Thoth, of the exceeding great love of Hemopolis." The whole prayer is on this low level. Clement, of Alexandria, after describing the great beauty of an Egyptian temple, proceeds to say: "The innermost sanctuary is concealed by a curtain wrought in gold, which the priest draws aside, and there is seen a cat, or a crocodile, or a serpent, which wriggles on a purple cover."[159]

That the religions of India have degenerated is equally clear. The fact that all the medieval and modern reforms look back for their ideals to the earlier and purer Aryan faith, might of itself afford sufficient proof of this, but we have also abundant evidence which is direct. In the Rig Veda there is little polytheism, and no idolatry. There is no doctrine of caste, no base worship of Siva with the foul enormities of Saktism.[160] In the most ancient times there was no doctrine of transmigration, nor any notion that human life is an evil to be overcome by self-mortification. Woman was comparatively free from the oppressions which she suffered in the later periods. Infanticide had not then been sanctioned and enjoined by religious authority, and widow burning and the religious murders of the Thugs were unknown. And yet so deeply were these evils rooted at the beginning of the British rule in India, that the joint influence of Christian instruction and Governmental authority for a whole century has not been sufficient to overcome them.

Buddhism in the first two or three centuries had much to commend it.

King Ashoka left monuments of practical beneficence and philanthropy which have survived to this day. But countless legends soon sprang up to mar the simplicity of Gautama's ethics. Corruptions crept in.

Compromises were made with popular superstitions and with Hindu Saktism.[161] The monastic orders sank into corruption, and by the ninth century of our era the system had been wholly swept from India. The Buddhism of Ceylon was planted first by the devout son and daughter of a king, and for a time was characterized by great purity and devotion. But now it exists only in name, and a prominent missionary of the country declared, in the London Missionary Conference of 1888, that nine-tenths of the Cingalese were worshippers of serpents or of spirits.[162] The prevailing Buddhism in Thibet, from the eighth to the tenth century, was an admixture with Saktism and superstition. Where the system has survived in any good degree of strength, it has been due either to government support or to an alliance with other religions. The history of Taouism has shown a still worse deterioration. Laotze, though impracticable as a reformer, was a profound philosopher. His teachings set forth a lofty moral code. Superstition he abominated. His ideas of deity were cold and rationalistic, but they were pure and lofty. But the modern Taouism is a medley of wild and degrading superstitions.

According to its theodicy all nature is haunted. The ignorant masses are enthralled by the fear of ghosts, and all progress is paralyzed by the nightmare of "fung shuay." Had not Taouism been balanced by the sturdy common-sense ethics of Confucianism, the Chinese might have become a race of savages.[163]

The decline of Mohammedanism from the sublime fanaticism of Abu Bekr and the intellectual aspirations of Haroun Al Raschid, to the senseless imbecility of the modern Turk, is too patent to need argument. The worm of destruction was left in the system by the vices of Mohammed himself; and from the higher level of his early followers it has not only deteriorated, but it has dragged down everything else with it. It has destroyed the family, because it has degraded woman. It has separated her immeasurably from the status of dignity and honor which she enjoyed under the influence of the early Christian church, and it has robbed her of even that freedom which was accorded to her by heathen Rome. One need only look at Northern Africa, the land of Cyprian and Origen, of Augustine and the saintly Monica, to see what Islam has done. And even the later centuries have brought no relief. Prosperous lands have been rendered desolate and sterile, and all progress has been paralyzed.

In the history of the Greek religion it is granted that there were periods of advancement. The times of the fully developed Apollo worship showed vast improvement over previous periods, but even Professor Tiele virtually admits that this was owing to the importation of foreign influences. It was not due to any natural process of evolution; and it was followed by hopeless corruption and decline. The last days of both Greece and Rome were degenerate and full of depression and despair.

It is not contended that no revivals or reforms are possible in heathenism. There have been many of these, but with all allowance for spasmodic efforts, the general drift has been always downward.[164]

There is a natural disposition among men to multiply objects of worship. Herbert Spencer's principle, that development proceeds from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, is certainly true of the religions of the world; but his other principle, that development proceeds from the incoherent to the coherent, does not apply. Incoherency and moral chaos mark the trend of all man-made faiths. The universal tendency to deterioration is well summed up as follows by Professor Naville:

"Traces are found almost everywhere in the midst of idolatrous superstitions, of a religion comparatively pure and often stamped with a lofty morality. Paganism is not a simple fact; it offers to view in the same bed two currents (like the Arve and the Arveiron)--the one pure, the other impure. What is the relation between these two currents? ...

Did humanity begin with a coarse fetishism, and thence rise by slow degrees to higher conceptions? Do the traces of a comparatively pure monotheism first show themselves in the recent periods of idolatry?

Contemporary science inclines more and more to answer in the negative.

It is in the most ancient historical ground that the laborious investigators of the past meet with the most elevated ideas of religion.

Cut to the ground a young and vigorous beech-tree, and come back a few years afterward. In place of the tree cut down you will find coppice-wood; the sap which nourished a single trunk has been divided among a multitude of shoots. This comparison expresses well enough the opinion which tends to prevail among our savants on the subject of the historical development of religions. The idea of one God is at the roots--it is primitive; polytheism is derivative."[165]

We have thus far drawn our proofs of man's polytheistic tendencies from the history of the non-Christian religions. In proof of the same general tendency we now turn to the history of the Israelites, the chosen people of God. We may properly appeal to the Bible as history, especially when showing idolatrous tendencies even under the full blaze of the truth. In spite of the supernatural revelation which they claimed to possess--notwithstanding all their instructions, warnings, promises, deliverances, divinely aided conquests--they relapsed into idolatry again and again. Ere they had reached the land of promise they had begun to make images of the gods of Egypt. They made constant compromises and alliances with the Canaanites, and not even severe judgments could withhold them from this downward drift. Their wisest king was demoralized by heathen marriages, and his successors openly patronized the heathen shrines. The abominations of Baal worship and the nameless vices of Sodom were practised under the very shadow of the Temple.[166]

Judgments followed upon this miserable degeneracy. Prophets were sent with repeated warnings, and many were slain for their faithful messages.

Tribe after tribe was borne into captivity, the Temple was destroyed, and at last the nation was virtually broken up and scattered abroad.

There was indeed a true development in the church of God from the Abrahamic period to the Apostolic day. There was a rising from a narrow national spirit to one which embraced the whole brotherhood of man, from type and prophecy to fulfilment, from the sins that were winked at, to a purer ethic and the perfect law of love; but these results came not by natural evolution--far enough from it. They were wrought out not by man, but we might almost say, in spite of man. Divine interpositions were all that saved Judaism from a total wreck, even as the national unity was destroyed. A new Dispensation was introduced, a Divine Redeemer and an Omnipotent Spirit were the forces which saved the world from a second universal apostasy.

We come nearer still to the church of God for proofs of man's inherent tendency to polytheism. Even under the new Dispensation we have seen the church sink into virtual idolatry. Within six centuries from the time of Christ and His apostles there had been a sad lapse into what seemed the worship of images, pictures, and relics, and a faith in holy places and the bones of saints. What Mohammed saw, or thought he saw, was a Christian idolatry scarcely better than that of the Arabian Koreish.

And, as if by the judgment of God, the churches of the East were swept with a destruction like that which had been visited upon the Ten Tribes.

In the Christianity of to-day, viewed as a whole, how strong is the tendency to turn from the pure spiritual conception of God to some more objective trust--a saint, a relic, a ritual, an ordinance. In the old churches of the East or on the Continent of Europe, how much of virtual idolatry is there even now? It is only another form of the tendency in man to seek out many devices--to find visible objects of trust--to try new panaceas for the ailments of the soul--to multiply unto himself gods to help his weakness. This is just what has been done in all ages and among all races of the world. This explains polytheism. Man's religious nature is a vine, and God is its only proper support. Once fallen from that support, it creeps and grovels in all directions and over all false supports.

We have not resorted to Divine revelation for proofs except as history.

But our conclusions drawn from heathen sources bring us directly, as one face answereth to another face in a glass, to the plain teachings of Paul and other inspired writers, who tell us that the human race was once possessed of the knowledge of One Supreme God, but that men apostatized from Him, preferring to worship the creature rather than the Creator. There are no traces of an upward evolution toward clearer knowledge and purer lives, except by the operation of outward causes, but there are many proofs that men's hearts have become darkened and their moral nature more and more depraved. In all lands there have been those who seemed to gain some glimpses of truth, and whose teachings were far above the average sentiment and character of their times, but they have either been discarded like Socrates and the prophets of Israel, or they have obtained a following only for a time and their precepts have fallen into neglect. It has been well said that no race of men live up to their religion, however imperfect it may be. They first disregard it, and then at length degrade it, to suit their apostate character.

Paul's estimate of heathen character was that of a man who, aside from his direct inspiration, spoke from a wide range of observation. He was a philosopher by education, and he lived in an age and amid national surroundings which afforded the broadest knowledge of men, of customs, of religious faiths, of institutions. Trained as a Jew, dealing constantly with the most enlightened heathen, persecuting the Christians, and then espousing their cause, his preparation for a broad, calm, and unerring judgment of the character of the Gentile nations was complete; and his one emphatic verdict was _apostasy_.


[Footnote 125: Fiske: _The Destiny of Man_, pp. 78-80.]

[Footnote 126: We do not care to enter the field of pre-historic speculation where the evolution of religion from totemism or fetishism claims to find its chief support. We are considering only the traditional development of the ancient faiths of man.]

[Footnote 127: _Introduction to Christian Theology_, Appendix, pp. 166, 167.]

[Footnote 128: Ebrard's _Apologetics_, vols. ii. and iii.]

[Footnote 129: _Modern Atheism_, p. 13.]

[Footnote 130: _The Chinese_, pp. 163, 164.]

[Footnote 131: _Chips from a German Workshop_, vol. i., p. 23.]

[Footnote 132: Professor Banergea (see _Indian Antiquary_, February, 1875) thinks that this Hindu account of creation shows traces of the common revelation made to mankind.]

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