"I infer, then," I said, "that the disappearance of religious divisions and the priestly caste has not operated to lessen the general interest in religion."
"Should you have supposed that it would so operate?"
"I don't know. I never gave much thought to such matters. The ecclesiastical class represented that they were very essential to the conservation of religion, and the rest of us took it for granted that it was so."
"Every social institution which has existed for a considerable time," replied Mr. Barton, "has doubtless performed some function which was at the time more or less useful and necessary. Kings, ecclesiastics, and capitalists--all of them, for that matter, merely different sorts of capitalists--have, no doubt, in their proper periods, performed functions which, however badly discharged, were necessary and could not then have been discharged in any better manner. But just as the abolition of royalty was the beginning of decent government, just as the abolition of private capitalism was the beginning of effective wealth production, so the disappearance of church organization and machinery, or ecclesiastical capitalism, was the beginning of a world-awakening of impassioned interest in the vast concerns covered by the word religion.
"Necessary as may have been the subjection of the race to priestly authority in the course of human evolution, it was the form of tutelage which, of all others, was most calculated to benumb and deaden the faculties affected by it, and the collapse of ecclesiasticism presently prepared the way for an enthusiasm of interest in the great problems of human nature and destiny which would have been scarcely conceivable by the worthy ecclesiastics of your day who with such painful efforts and small results sought to awake their flocks to spiritual concerns. The lack of general interest in these questions in your time was the natural result of their monopoly as the special province of the priestly class whose members stood as interpreters between man and the mystery about him, undertaking to guarantee the spiritual welfare of all who would trust them. The decay of priestly authority left every soul face to face with that mystery, with the responsibility of its interpretation upon himself. The collapse of the traditional theologies relieved the whole subject of man's relation with the infinite from the oppressive effect of the false finalities of dogma which had till then made the most boundless of sciences the most cramped and narrow. Instead of the mind-paralyzing worship of the past and the bondage of the present to that which is written, the conviction took hold on men that there was no limit to what they might know concerning their nature and destiny and no limit to that destiny. The priestly idea that the past was diviner than the present, that God was behind the race, gave place to the belief that we should look forward and not backward for inspiration, and that the present and the future promised a fuller and more certain knowledge concerning the soul and God than any the past had attained."
"Has this belief," I asked, "been thus far practically confirmed by any progress actually made in the assurance of what is true as to these things? Do you consider that you really know more about them than we did, or that you know more positively the things which we merely tried to believe?"
Mr. Barton paused a moment before replying.
"You remarked a little while ago," he said, "that your talks with Dr. Leete had as yet turned little on religious matters. In introducing you to the modern world it was entirely right and logical that he should dwell at first mainly upon the change in economic systems, for that has, of course, furnished the necessary material basis for all the other changes that have taken place. But I am sure that you will never meet any one who, being asked in what direction the progress of the race during the past century has tended most to increase human happiness, would not reply that it had been in the science of the soul and its relation to the Eternal and Infinite.
"This progress has been the result not merely of a more rational conception of the subject and complete intellectual freedom in its study, but largely also of social conditions which have set us almost wholly free from material engrossments. We have now for nearly a century enjoyed an economic welfare which has left nothing to be wished for in the way of physical satisfactions, especially as in proportion to the increase of this abundance there has been through culture a development of simplicity in taste which rejects excess and surfeit and ever makes less and less of the material side of life and more of the mental and moral. Thanks to this co-operation of the material with the moral evolution, the more we have the less we need. Long ago it came to be recognized that on the material side the race had reached the goal of its evolution. We have practically lost ambition for further progress in that direction. The natural result has been that for a long period the main energies of the intellect have been concentrated upon the possibilities of the spiritual evolution of mankind for which the completion of its material evolution has but prepared the beginning. What we have so far learned we are convinced is but the first faint inkling of the knowledge we shall attain to; and yet if the limitations of this earthly state were such that we might never hope here to know more than now we should not repine, for the knowledge we have has sufficed to turn the shadow of death into a bow of promise and distill the saltness out of human tears. You will observe, as you shall come to know more of our literature, that one respect in which it differs from yours is the total lack of the tragic note. This has very naturally followed, from a conception of our real life, as having an inaccessible security, 'hid in God,' as Paul said, whereby the accidents and vicissitudes of the personality are reduced to relative triviality.
"Your seers and poets in exalted moments had seen that death was but a step in life, but this seemed to most of you to have been a hard saying. Nowadays, as life advances toward its close, instead of being shadowed by gloom, it is marked by an access of impassioned expectancy which would cause the young to envy the old, but for the knowledge that in a little while the same door will be opened to them. In your day the undertone of life seems to have been one of unutterable sadness, which, like the moaning of the sea to those who live near the ocean, made itself audible whenever for a moment the noise and bustle of petty engrossments ceased. Now this undertone is so exultant that we are still to hear it."
"If men go on," I said, "growing at this rate in the knowledge of divine things and the sharing of the divine life, what will they yet come to?"
Mr. Barton smiled.
"Said not the serpent in the old story, 'If you eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge you shall be as gods'? The promise was true in words, but apparently there was some mistake about the tree. Perhaps it was the tree of selfish knowledge, or else the fruit was not ripe. The story is obscure. Christ later said the same thing when he told men that they might be the sons of God. But he made no mistake as to the tree he showed them, and the fruit was ripe. It was the fruit of love, for universal love is at once the seed and fruit, cause and effect, of the highest and completest knowledge. Through boundless love man becomes a god, for thereby is he made conscious of his oneness with God, and all things are put under his feet. It has been only since the great Revolution brought in the era of human brotherhood that mankind has been able to eat abundantly of this fruit of the true tree of knowledge, and thereby grow more and more into the consciousness of the divine soul as the essential self and the true hiding of our lives. Yes, indeed, we shall be gods. The motto of the modern civilization is 'Eritis sicut Deus.'"
"You speak of Christ. Do I understand that this modern religion is considered by you to be the same doctrine Christ taught?"
"Most certainly. It has been taught from the beginning of history and doubtless earlier, but Christ's teaching is that which has most fully and clearly come down to us. It was the doctrine that he taught, but the world could not then receive it save a few, nor indeed has it ever been possible for the world in general to receive it or even to understand it until this present century."
"Why could not the world receive earlier the revelation it seems to find so easy of comprehension now?"
"Because," replied Mr. Barton, "the prophet and revealer of the soul and of God, which are the same, is love, and until these latter days the world refused to hear love, but crucified him. The religion of Christ, depending as it did upon the experience and intuitions of the unselfish enthusiasms, could not possibly be accepted or understood generally by a world which tolerated a social system based upon fratricidal struggle as the condition of existence. Prophets, messiahs, seers, and saints might indeed for themselves see God face to face, but it was impossible that there should be any general apprehension of God as Christ saw him until social justice had brought in brotherly love. Man must be revealed to man as brother before God could be revealed to him as father. Nominally, the clergy professed to accept and repeat Christ's teaching that God is a loving father, but of course it was simply impossible that any such idea should actually germinate and take root in hearts as cold and hard as stone toward their fellow-beings and sodden with hate and suspicion of them. 'If a man love not his brother whom he hath seen, how shall he love God whom he hath not seen?' The priests deafened their flocks with appeals to love God, to give their hearts to him. They should have rather taught them, as Christ did, to love their fellow-men and give their hearts to them. Hearts so given the love of God would presently enkindle, even as, according to the ancients, fire from heaven might be depended on to ignite a sacrifice fitly prepared and laid.
"From the pulpit yonder, Mr. West, doubtless you have many times heard these words and many like them repeated: 'If we love one another God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.' 'He that loveth his brother dwelleth in the light.' 'If any man say I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar.' 'He that loveth not his brother, abideth in death.' 'God is love and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God.' 'Every one that loveth knoweth God.' 'He that loveth not knoweth not God.'
"Here is the very distillation of Christ's teaching as to the conditions of entering on the divine life. In this we find the sufficient explanation why the revelation which came to Christ so long ago and to other illumined souls could not possibly be received by mankind in general so long as an inhuman social order made a wall between man and God, and why, the moment that wall was cast down, the revelation flooded the earth like a sunburst.
"'If we love one another God dwelleth in us,' and mark how the words were made good in the way by which at last the race found God! It was not, remember, by directly, purposely, or consciously seeking God. The great enthusiasm of humanity which overthrew the old order and brought in the fraternal society was not primarily or consciously a godward aspiration at all. It was essentially a humane movement. It was a melting and flowing forth of men's hearts toward one another, a rush of contrite, repentant tenderness, an impassioned impulse of mutual love and self-devotion to the common weal. But 'if we love one another God dwelleth in us,' and so men found it. It appears that there came a moment, the most transcendent moment in the history of the race of man, when with the fraternal glow of this world of new-found embracing brothers there seems to have mingled the ineffable thrill of a divine participation, as if the hand of God were clasped over the joined hands of men. And so it has continued to this day and shall for evermore."