Religion and literature spring from the same fundamental sources. Religion is the relation which man bears to ultimate Being. It is concerned with the substance which lies behind phenomena, and also with the duty which man owes to this Being, universal and eternal. It is concerned, too, with the questions what, whence, whither. Literature, in and its final analysis, represents the same fundamental relationship: it seeks to explain, to justify, to reconcile, to interpret, and even to comfort and to console. The Homeric poems are pervaded with the religious at mosphere of wonder, of obedience to the eternal, and of the recognition of the interest of the gods in human affairs. A significant place is held by religion in Greek tragedy. A Divine Providence, the eternity, universality, and immutability of law, the inevitableness of penalty, and the assurance of reward represent great forces in the three chief Greek tragedians. Less impressively, yet with significance, the poems of Vergil are bathed in the air of religious mystery and submission. The great work of Lucretius, De rerum natura, is, of course, an expression of the human mind in its attempt to penetrate the mysteries of being. The mythology, too, of the non-Christian nations of the north, as well as the literature of the medieval peoples, is concerned with the existence and the work of the gods. In Scandinavian mythology, literature and religion are in no small degree united.
Not only do religion and literature spring from the same fundamental sources, they also are formed by the same forces. They both make a constant appeal to life. They assume the presence and orderly use of the reason; they accept the strength of the human emotions of love, fear, curiosity, reverence, —and they both presume and accept the categorical imperative of the conscience and the freedom and force of the will of man. Both gain in dominance, prestige, and usefulness as they are the more intimately related to life. The great themes of religion and literature are similar and are vital: sin, its origin, penalties, and deliver ance therefrom; love-the passion, and the will-its place and its limitations; righteousness, and the relation of men to each other. In illustration of the identities of the themes of religion and literature, one may refer to Dante's " Divine Comedy," which is concerned with the passing from and through Hell, where live those who knew not Christ in the earthly life, or, if they knew him, refused to obey, through Purgatory, where dwell those whose sins are not mortal, and into the Paradise where dwell the righteous in an eternity of light and of love. The great poem of the Middle Ages is at once great literature and a certain type of religion. French literature is also pervaded by the religious atmosphere. The religious element in the system of Descartes-both philosophy in literature and literature in philosophy-and of his followers is marked, and from them later French literature drew religion and inspiration. This inspiration, be it said, was both emotional and intellectual. The whole field of modern fiction abounds in examples of the connection between literature and religion; Hawthorne significantly represents the more modern unity in America of the two forces, and among all his works The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Faun are in this respect most notable. In English fiction George Eliot exemplifies this unity, and of her works Adam Bede is an impressive illustration.
Religion and literature, moreover, adopt methods not dissimilar. They stand for the value of the imagination; they represent the artistic, rather than the scientific, methods of interpreting life and phenomena. If theology, which is the science of religion, lends itself to definition and to rational processes largely, religion be longs to the realm of the sentiments and sensibilities-the heart, the conscience, and the will. Literature, too, likewise declines to enter the realm of the formal definition; it is the product of the imagination, and to the imagination it makes its primary appeal, especially in poetry and, to some extent, in noble prose composition. Neither argues or
Religion gives to literature, moreover, vast and rich materials. Its sacred books themselves constitute great literatures and also furnish materials for great literature. The translation of the Bible into Gothic by Ulphilas not only preserved the Bible, but also helped to create and to perpetuate literature. Luther's translation of the Bible and the King James' Version are not only themselves great literatures, but also have helped to form great literatures in modern life. German and English speech, as well as letters, have been made more pure, more intellectual, and more inspiring by these great translations. It may be also added that the sermons of Robert South and of Isaac Barrow (qq.v.) are themselves worthy pieces of literature and might be compared with Burke's Orations. It is also to be remembered that the institutions of religion, as the monasteries and cathedral chapterhouses, were, for a thousand years, the custodians of the most precious treasures of literature. The medieval period was dark and damaging to humanity's highest interests. In times of war not only are laws silent, but also literature. It was the monks who preserved the manuscripts of ancient Greece and of Rome, copying and re-copying and commenting from the year 500 till the invention of printing. As the priests were astronomers, not only in Europe, but also in India, in order to fix and to preserve the feast and other holy days, so the monks of the Middle Ages in Europe, if not literary men themselves, were the guardians of the holy lamp of letters.
The religion which has made the strongest appeal to English and German literature in the last two centuries has been of two types: first, the universal or natural, and, second, the distinctively Christian; and the poetry to which the appeal has been chiefly addressed has given back a noble response. In illustration of the universal type, the religion which relates itself to literature, one selects three poets, Pope, Goethe, and Wordsworth. The "Universal Prayer" of Pope, a famous passage in "Faust," and the "Ode to Immortality" are the most representative of all passages of the three. Pope's "Universal Prayer," dedicated to Deo Optimo Maximo, declares in its first two verses:
With greater eloquence and definiteness, a similar lesson is taught by Wordsworth. The teaching has reference to the immanence of divinity and also to the prexistence of the soul.
The teaching of the greatest poets of the last fifty years gives forth lessons even more religious, and also more impressively Christian. The poems of Browning embody a religion more Christian .than is found in either Wordsworth or Pope. That God is a Divine Father, almighty and loving, and that Jesus Christ, his Son, is our Lord, are doctrines which embody both the statement and the atmosphere of Robert Browning. The Pontiff says in "The Pope" in an address made to God:
The divinity of Christ is also a doctrine taught by Browning. In "Christmas Eve" Christ stands forth as-
In these illustrations of the relation of religion and literature, no reference has been made to either Shakespeare or Milton. The reason is that in the older and greater poet, almost no mention is made of religion. That Shakespeare was, to a certain degree, impressed by the fundamental truths which constitute religion, there can be no doubt, but also it is clear that his great inspiration he drew from human, and not from divine, relationships. At the opposite extreme stands John Milton, who was far more a theologian than a religious poet. If Shakespeare represents the inspiration arising from human relationships, John Milton represents inspiration drawn from those dogmatic formulas which represent the skeleton, but not the life, of the Christian system.
It is apparently singular that the larger share of the illustrations used to present the relgtions existing between religion and literature are drawn from poetry. The singularity is, however, only superficial. For poetry is the highest and richest form and expression of literature; it represents the highest notes of the scale of thought, feeling, and imagination. Religion is the highest type of being, for it represents the relation of man to God and of God to man. Each, therefore, rises the highest in its own scale of being; each, therefore, becomes more clearly and closely akin to the other than are the other higher forces of humanity. They are related to each other far more intimately and constantly than can any type of prose literature be related to religion, either Christian or natural.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: W. S. Tyler, Theology of the Greek Poets, Andover, 1887; S. A. Brooke, Theology in the English Poets, Cowper, Coleridge. Wordsworth, and Burns, New York.1875, new ed., 1910; idem, Development of Theology . . in English Poetry, 1780-1830, ib. 1893; idem, Religion in Literature and Religion in Life, ib. 1901; G. McCrie, Religion of Our Literature, London, 1875; J. C. Shairp, Culture and Religion, Edinburgh, 1878; C. J. Abbey, Religious Thought in Old Buplish Verse, London and New York, 1892; T. W. Hunt, Ethical Teachings in Old English Literature, New York, 1892; L. Campbell. Religion in Greek Literature, London and New York, 1898; S. L. Wilson, Theology of Modern Literature. New York, 1899; W. S. Lilly, Studies in Religion and Literature, St. Louis, 1905; C. G. Shaw, Precinct of Religion in the Culture of Humanity, New York, 1908; E. G. Sihler, Testimonium anima;, New York, 1908; $. S. Guthrie, Spiritual Message of Literature. Chicago, 1909: E. M. Chapman, English Literature and Religion, 1810-1900, London, 1910.
1 Pope's Works, ii. 463-484.
2 † Taylor's translation of Goethe's "Faust," vol. i., scene XVI., pp. 221-222.
Calvin College. Last modified on 06/03/04. Contact the CCEL.