The Old ReligionS


My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,
Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern;
Accepter of all religions, preferer of none,
I enter into the thoughts of the different theological faiths—
Have perfect faith in all sects, not inclined to reject a single one—
Effuse all that the believing Egyptian would, all that the Greek, all that the Hindu worshipping Brahma, the Presbyterian, the Catholic with his crucifix and saints, the Turk with the Koran.
I know that they belong to the scheme of the world every bit as much as we now belong to it,
Afar they stand, yet near to me they stand.

Great are the myths—I too delight in them,
The elder religions, myths and fables of eld, the myths Asiatic, the primitive fables,
Towers of fables immortal, fashion’d from mortal dreams,
Lofty and dazzling towers, pinnacled, red as roses, burnish’d with gold!
Those poems of pure thought and fancy surely are more marvelous in their infantine spontaneity than any more mature production of the races which evolv’d them;
The best part of literature and religion are, in my opinion, the indirect results of these fables, these guesses at truth.

I see that the old accounts, bibles, genealogies, are true, without exception,
The deep-diving bibles and legends,
The far-darting beams of the spirit, the unloos’d dreams,
Spurning the known, eluding the hold of the known, mounting to heaven!

Yet remains the fossil theology of the mythic-materialistic, superstitious, untaught and credulous, fable-loving, primitive ages of humanity.
I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demi-god,
Honoring the gods, my lovers, faithful and true,
Lithographing Kronos and Zeus his son,
Buying drafts of Osiris, old occult Brahma, the tender and junior Buddha, Confucius himself.

Jehovah, old Brahm, and Saturnius, ever with those mighty laws rolling,
Executing righteous judgments inexorable—whoever sins dies—
Vengeance stern and vindictive, unpersuadable, relentless,
Gloating in the agony of sinners to be punished, without the least remorse;
Therefore let none expect mercy.

Satan, comrade of criminals, crafty, despised,
A drudge, ignorant, huge, frowning, sorrowful,
With sudra face and worn brow, but proud as any,
Full of guile, brooding, with many wiles,
Aloof, dissatisfied, plotting revolt,
In new lands duly appearing, (and old ones also,)
Permanent, warlike, equal with any, real as any.

Here the divine Christ, destin’d to an early death, expounds eternal truth—expounds the soul,
Once more eating the bread of his last supper in the midst of youths and old persons,
And here he appears en-route to Calvary, bearing the cross, the blood and sweat streaming down his face, his neck,
Rejected, taunted,  and crucified,
The beautiful god the Christ, whose life was perfect—the touch of whose hands and feet was miracles,
The beautiful gentle god, brother of rejected persons,
Brother of slaves, felons, idiots, and of insane and diseased persons,
The cheer-bringing god, consolator most mild, with hope and all-enclosing 
charity—
With the divine face and expression of the Guileless Man beaming down upon them, who could let meanness, selfishness, and passion, get such frequent mastery of reason?

Walking the old hills of Judaea with the beautiful gentle God by my side,
Lo! the Lord Christ brings the perfumed bread, ever vivifying and clean, to me,
Ever fresh and plenty, ever welcome and to spare.
I do not sound your name, but I understand you,
All the world have I given up for my dear brothers’ and sisters’ sake, for the soul’s 
sake,
All sorrow, labor, suffering, I, tallying it, absorb in myself.

I see the old signifiers—the libation, circumcision, baptism, ablution, confession,
I see the place of the idea of the deity incarnated by avatars in human forms,
I see the temples of the deaths of the bodies of gods,
Where the monks walk in advance, bearing the cross on high.
I do not despise you priests, all time, the world over,
Sacrificers, brahmins, sabians, llamas, monks, muftis.
O you temples fairer than lilies pour’d over by the rising sun,
With idols ranged along the sides or at the end,
You too with joy I sing.

Time falls back.
I hear the Egyptian harp of many strings,
The primitive chants of the Nile boatmen,
The old Egyptian singers, singing before the Pharaohs,
The Coptic refrain toward sundown, pensively falling on the breast of the black venerable vast mother the Nile.
I hear the sound of the Hebrew lyre, the Hebrew reading his records and psalms, Hebrew prophets chanting, rapt, ecstatic,
I hear the Christian priests at the altars of their churches, I hear the responsive bass and soprano.
I hear the Arab muezzin calling from the top of the mosque,
I see the worshippers within, nor form nor sermon, argument nor word,
But silent, strange, devout, rais’d, glowing heads, ecstatic faces.
The sacred imperial hymns of China,
To the delicate sounds of the king, (the stricken wood and stone.)
To Hindu flutes and the fretting twang of the vina, the Hindu sage teaching his favorite pupil his recitative in Sanskrit,
The ancient poems and laws, the loves, wars, adages,
Transmitted safely to this day from poets who wrote three thousand years ago. 

I see religious dances old and new,
I see again those rapt oriental dances of religious fervor,
The wild old Corybantian dance, the performers wounding each other,
Dancing yet through the streets in a phallic procession, beating the serpent-skin drum.
I see the rapt religious dances of the Persians and the Arabs,
Dervishes monotonously chanting, interspers’d with frantic shouts, as they spin around turning always towards Mecca.
At Eleusis, home of Ceres, I see the modern Greeks dancing,
Formless, free, religious dances,
I hear them clapping their hands as they bend their bodies,
I hear the metrical shuffling of their feet.

There is no false religion—each one is divine.
The pagan religions, grouped into one and led by the Greek theology, appreciated and expressed the sense of nature, life, beauty, the objective world, and of fate, immutable law, the senses of power and precedence, and also, to a greater or less degree, the mystery and baffling unknownness which meet us at a certain point of our investigation of any and all things.

Egyptian religion represents that phase of development full of belief, rich and divine enough;
The central idea seems to have been the wonderfulness and divinity of life—nothing more wonderful than life,
Standing amazed and awed before the mystery of life exemplified in any object, even in a hawk, a bull, or a cat.
The beetle, the bull were divine in that they exemplified the inexplicable mystery of life,
That great mystery, in the shadow of which we live and move and have our being;
It was a profound and exquisite religion.

The religion of the Bible is a beautiful advanced stage in the never-ending humanitarianism of the world, unsurpass’d in proverbs, in religious ecstacy, in suggestions of common mortality and death—the spirit everything, the ceremonies and forms of the churches nothing, faith limitless, its immense sensuousness immensely spiritual.
It is wonderful how such a contradictory repertoire was brought together and has held sway. Or is this diversity the very reason it has held together? Has there been something to touch or approach every phase of human want, development, tenderness, fanaticism, etc.?
How many ages and generations have brooded and wept and agonized over this book!
What untellable joys and ecstasies from it,
To what myriads has it been the shore and rock of safety—the refuge from driving tempest and wreck!

Hebrews—the spiritual element, the indefinite, the immortal, sublimity, the realm to which the material tends, the realm of shadows, meditation, the influence of the stars in solitude at night, the sublime idea of a coming man or saviour, a perfect individual.

In the Christian cultus the moral dominates—gentleness, love, the distinctions of right and wrong, the ideas of purity, abnegation of self, terminating often in a diseased benevolence, voluntary penances, celibacy, the bloodless, cast-iron virtue, gaunt Calvinism. 

Those stages, all over the world, leaving their memories and inheritances—
How credulous! how childlike and simple! the priests revered, the bloody rites, the mummeries.
I do not blame them for doing what they have done, and are doing,
All forms of religion, any age, any land, are but mediums, temporary yet necessary, fitted to the lower mass-ranges of perception of the human race—part of its infant 
school—.
Each one means exactly the state of development of the people,
Promoting religious and moral action to the fullest degree of which the humanity there under the circumstances was capable.

I stand silent and admirable before the movements of the great soul of humanity in all lands, in every age,
Redeemed, through the ages, the continents, by that one underlying fervor, out of which wayward forms arose.
I applaud them that they have done so well,
Every one doing the great service of suggesting something beyond all ostents to the human mind—the greatest service of all.

The sectarian, church, and doctrinal follies, crimes, fanaticisms, aggregate and individual, so rife all through history—taking them all for what they are worth and not a cent more—are proofs of the radicalness and universality of the indestructible element of humanity’s religion, and are the other side of it—just as disease proves health, and is the other side of it.

Amid vain forms and baubles, amid vermin and gnawing rust, overlaid with stifling and suffocating things, with corpses piled over them, smothered, as subterranean fire, invisible yet impossible to die, the divine ideas— of spirituality, of the immortal soul of the woman and the man, of another sphere of existence, of conscience and perfect justice and goodness—have been serenely preserved through millennia of years and, with many traditions, are here transmitted to us—to me, to you, whoever you are.

For us, along the great highways of time, those monuments stand,
For us those beacons burn through all the nights,
Bearing the freight so dear—dearer than pride—dearer than love,
All the best experience of humanity, folded, saved, freighted to us here,
To illumine our own selfhood, and its experiences.

The developed soul passes through one or all of them, to the clear atmosphere above them.
There all meet—Jew meets Hindu, and Persian and Greek and Asiatic and European and American are joined—previous distinctions are lost,
Any one religion is just as good as another,
And any religion is better than none.

I know the traditions help me well;
How could I be developed even so far, and talk with decision today, beginning the study of these things, without all those traditions?
I receive the great inheritance with welcome joy.

NEXT: THE END OF THE CHURCHES