Security for a Failing World
The Place of Religion in the History of Morals
CONSIDERING the effect of religion upon human morals and culture, it is necessary to differentiate between nature religions which have evolved through man's own naive concept concerning the cosmic forces that surround and condition him, and those religions which have been given by inspired prophets who claim to have a special revelation from the Unseen World.
Nature religions, though they enforce a primitive culture and social organization, do not lead to a very superior degree of morals. The reason is apparent. These religions are the product of man's own thoughts about life, and they rise no higher than their source. The various deities and nature spirits which nature — religionists worship express every phase of human emotion and desire. Thus there are not only gods of justice and of hospitality, but there are also gods who are patrons of thieving, of murder, of sex orgies. In such types of religion magic plays a prominent part, both as a means of bringing curses upon one's enemies and of protecting oneself from such curses and from misfortune in general.
2The effect of revealed religions upon the lives of their adherents, as compared with effect of nature religions, is very striking. Take for instance the religion founded by Zoroaster. It inculcated honesty, kindness, industry, the development of agriculture and horticulture, the improvement of Mother Earth. All of these things were inculcated as duties owed to Ahura Mazda, the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. Those who did beneficent or righteous deeds were aiding the God of Light in His struggle against the Darkness of Evil.
What was the result upon the Persians of this teaching, so much loftier than that of any surrounding peoples? It gave them an honesty, an integrity, a valor superior to that of all the peoples of Western Asia. In the midst of the sensuality and wickedness of Babylon, the Persians appeared like a flaming sword of vengeance and easily conquered all the vast territory from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.
In spite of the natural decline of their religion in the course of time, the Zoroastrians have continued up to the present day to be superior in their morals, their character, and their business acumen to many peoples who surround them.
3In another quarter of Western Asia appeared in the middle of the second millennium before Christ a
pastoral folk who rose to great ethical and spiritual heights through their acceptance of Divine guidance. These were the descendants of Abraham, who found in the laws of Moses a remarkably high moral code.
Obedience to these laws lifted the Hebrew people far above the moral and spiritual average of their time. As long as they followed the Mosaic Code, their civilization was just and equitable. The rights of the weak and poor were protected. Greed was minimized. Even the strangers from another race were welcomed and treated with kindness, a rare thing in the life of the ancient world.
Sensuality, the prevailing curse of the Semitic race when in a condition of urban prosperity, was banned from the life of the Hebrews by laws most severe. All forms of sex irregularities were specifically condemned by law, and these laws were enforced by severe and immediate punishment. The custom of circumcision enforced as a religious law--so much a part of their religion that it became the distinctive mark of the Hebrew — was one of the most efficacious modes of guarding against climatic sensuality that has ever been devised.
A study of the successive editions of the Mosaic Code as described in Exodus XXI-XXIII, Deuteronomy XXI-XXV, and Leviticus XVII-XXVI will reveal to what ethical heights the Hebrews were trained. There was provision, as well as pity, for the poor and needy. The laws regarding the widow, the stranger, the orphan show a deep humanitarian spirit. Charity was made a duty and a responsibility.
This noble consideration for the weak and defenseless rises to a remarkable height in the so-called Holiness Code of Leviticus. Herein the Hebrews were taught: "If a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him, but the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt."
No such consideration for aliens existed elsewhere in the ancient world.
Here, too, following the command to refrain from hatred and the spirit of revenge, occurs that loftiest of ethical concepts, revived by Christ and made the basis of His Law: — Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
"No other body of laws equals this Code in delicate thoughtfulness and beneficent humaneness," says Houghton.
"A peculiar piece of legislation regarding real property prevented the accumulation of land in the hands of the few and the evils of absentee landlordism. Each Sabbatical (seventh) year 'every man returned unto his possession.' Every piece of land that had been sold or transferred was restored to its original owner. This was the first bankruptcy law ever enacted. It discharged the liabilities of the debtor and enabled him to start life anew unincumbered.
These economic principles served for centuries to keep the Hebrews a simple pastoral people, democratic,
and safeguarded from the chief dangers of exploitation by fellow-citizens of cunning and greed.
"And what enforced these laws? The belief of the Hebrews that the Mosaic Code had a divine origin. All laws were issued in the name of Jehovah. In spirit there was no difference between civil, criminal and ecclesiastical law, because all had the same sanction, authority, and purpose. 'Thus saith the Lord,' was the authority not only for temporary ritualistic expedients, but for eternal principles of ethics and righteousness. The basic principle underlying the whole thought of the Mosaic is that of even-handed justice. There breathes throughout it the spirit of incorruptible justice, culminating in the magnificent injunction in Deuteronomy XVI :18-20, 'Justice, justice only, shalt thou pursue.'"
As a result of these high ideals implanted in the Jews thousands of years ago and perennially renewed within their bosoms so long as Judaism held its force, the family and neighborly life of the Jews has been characterized by a spirit of unity and of mutual helpfulness which has been no small factor in the unique success, in whatever countries they have established themselves, of this most gifted race.
4In another quarter of the globe Buddha, in the Sixth Century before Christ, was promulgating a
noble doctrine of peace, of love, of self-restraint. In a world filled with hate, with rancor, with revenge, Buddha gave forth the golden maxim which is almost as much needed today as it was then: "Verily, not by hatred does hatred cease, but only by love does hatred cease."
Yet it was not enough merely to endeavor to forget hatred; one should give out love to all mankind. "As a mother at the risk of her own life guards her only child, so turn with heart of compassion toward all mankind."
In a climate tending strongly toward sensualism and sex degeneracy, Buddha taught the doctrine of self-restraint, of spotless purity. He ennobled chastity, as Christianity later was to ennoble it for the western world. "If a woman be old, regard her as your mother; if young, as your sister; if very young, as your child. The power of desire is great with men, and is to be feared withal; take then the bow of earnest perseverance, and the sharp arrow-points of wisdom. Cover your head with the helmet of right thought, and fight with fixed resolve against the five desires. Lust beclouds a man's heart, when it is confused with woman's beauty, and the mind is dazed. Better far with red-hot irons bore out both your eyes, than encourage in yourselves sensual thoughts, or look upon a woman's form with lustful desires. Better fall into the fierce tiger's mouth, or under the sharp knife of the executioner, than to excite in yourself lustful thoughts. Therefore, I say, restrain the heart, give it no unbridled license."
What was the result of Buddha's ethics? King Asoka, one of the greatest of Hindu monarchs, becoming a devotee of Buddha put an end to warfare and established peace throughout all India. In the name of Buddha he devoted himself to the welfare and prosperity of his people. He built roads, planted shade trees, inaugurated a system of irrigation. It is said that India has never been so uniformly prosperous or happy in any other period of its history. This prosperity and happiness was due to the inspiration of revealed religion acting on the heart and conscience of a great ruler.
Later Buddhism was to stimulate the ancient civilization of China and ameliorate and culturize the dawning civilization of Japan with the influence of the Lord of Mercy and Purity.
"The story of Buddhism is one of the greatest chapters in human history. It has done more to civilize mankind than any other movement except Christianity, and it numbers more adherents today than any other religion. Even in countries like China, where its followers may also be Confucianists or Taoists, its wide prevalence is clearly seen. 'Kwanyin (the Buddhist goddess of Compassion) in every household' is at once a proverb and a true statement of this deep and widespread influence. In Japan, too, its power has been persuasive and is everywhere apparent, while in the southeastern parts of Asia, where it has until lately met with no serious rivals, it has become the warp and woof of the national consciousness.
"Buddhism has been the vehicle by which the civilization of India was passed on to Ceylon in the third century B. C., to the uncivilized peoples of the Northwest frontier in this and the next century, and so on into Turkestan and the Himalayan hinterland, till by the middle of the first century A. D., during what may be called its second golden age in India, it established itself in the Chinese capital. During the following three centuries it was consolidating its power alike in China and Ceylon, and then passed on in the South to Burma and in the Far East to Korea."
5Into the Mediterranean world rife with cruelty, with exploitation, with cynicism, with sensuality, with magic came during the reign of Augustus Caesar a lowly carpenter with the simple message of purity, of forgiveness, of love, of devotion to God and to one's fellow men, of faith and joy. Six centuries after the mission of the Nazarene, a camel driver of Arabia arose and proclaimed a fiery oracle which purged the peoples of Western Asia of their vices of strife and sensualism, establishing a great empire founded on brotherhood under Allah.
To these two great missionary religions, active rivals still for world consideration, separate chapters will be devoted.