But there is a second way in which such documents may be read, and it is this second way that must be adopted by those who wish to read religious literature with any comprehensiveness. One may read another man’s bible. Now this requires a quite different attitude, and one that may need to be cultivated. It will not do to look for the same value which one finds in the book of one’s own religion; or to judge by one’s own peculiar spiritual standards. For then the other man’s bible will seem cold, repugnant, superstitious, or heretical. Nor will it do to read another man’s bible as so much secular literature, for then it will appear curious, fantastic, or at best poetical. It is necessary to bring one’s self by imagination and sympathy to an understanding of the other man’s outlook and needs. The outward aspect of Mohammedanism is to the Christian traveler only a curious local custom. But, “I would have you,” says H. Fielding in his “Hearts of Men,” “go and kneel beside the Mohammedan as he prays at the sunset hour, and put your heart to his and wait for the echo that will surely come.” It is in the inward value of this outward posture that its religion lies. And the same is true of any sacred writings. Their religious meaning is relative to the believer whom they exalt, stir, comfort, enlighten, or strike with awe. And no one can apprehend that meaning who cannot bring himself at least for the moment into the believer’s attitude.

Perhaps this seems to ask too much. How can one convert oneself in turn into a Buddhist, a Mohammedan, a Christian, a Brahman, and a Confucian? There is, however, a saving possibility. May there not be some attitude common to all believers? May one not divest oneself of what is peculiar to one’s own religion and yet retain a something which is in all religion, and by this come to a better understanding of each religion? An Englishman may understand a Frenchman by becoming less English and more human. Similarly it is possible that a Christian may understand Mohammedanism by becoming less Christian and more religious. “No matter where you go,” says Fielding, “no matter what the faith is called, if you have the hearing ear, if your heart is in unison with the heart of the world, you will hear always the same song.” There is, in other words, a sameness in all religion, which is the link between one special cult and another; and by coming to know and feel this common religion one may pass beyond the limits of one’s native religious province.

There is a danger that this important truth should be misunderstood. Some years ago a Parliament of Religions was held in connection with the World’s Fair at Chicago. It was a spectacular and impressive event which no doubt did much to liberalize and broaden religious opinion in America. But it encouraged the mistaken opinion that because all religions are equally religious they must be equally good or true. It would be equally reasonable to argue that because all forms of political organization are equally political, one must be as sound or equitable as another. All polities arise in response to the same fundamental need for order and justice, and in so far as they are accepted and persist, they must to some extent satisfy that need. And to understand a foreign polity I must see how it accomplishes in its way and for its place and time what my polity accomplishes in another way for me. But it does not follow that the two are equally sound in principle, or that the one might not be corrected in the light of the other. Similarly religion arises in response to the same fundamental need, a need that is world-wide and for all time. But one religion may meet that need more genuinely and permanently than another; it may be based on a truer notion of man or God, and so deserve preference in a comparative and critical study.

It is also important to avoid the error of supposing that religions should lose their individuality and retain only what they have in common. A religion which consisted only of what it had in common with all other religions would probably be no religion at all. There are peculiar needs as well as common needs. A religion must satisfy the concrete community or individual, and not the abstract man. Perhaps, in all strictness, there must be as many religions as there are believers or worshipers. But this is quite consistent with the important truth that there is one constant factor in life from which all religions spring, and which makes of religion a common necessity. And if one is to study the forms or read the literature of a religion that is not one’s own, one must see them in this light. One must become for the purpose simply religious; one must become alive not only to one’s peculiar needs, but to that deeper and identical need from which all religions have sprung.

I have suggested that this attitude requires cultivation. This is doubtless the case with the great majority even of enlightened readers of the present day, and is very apparent in the history of European thought. By a curious working of the laws of habit and imitation we are for the most part blind to the meaning of our commonest social practices. How many men who obey law and authority, or who are loyal to the peculiar political institution under which they live, reflect upon the utility of government? Most men take government for granted, or fail to think of it at all; and merely assert their factional differences or personal grievances. Similarly for most men religion as a general fact, as a human institution, does not exist. They are conscious only of their particular religious differences; or they identify religion so thoroughly with a special religion that they can think of alien religions only as irreligion. For the vast majority of Christians to be religious means the same thing as to be Christian; not be believe as they believe means the same thing as to be an “unbeliever.” Nevertheless a great change has taken place in the course of the last three centuries, and it will be worth our while briefly to trace it.

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