XII

CHRISTIANITY AND THE MODERN WORLD

A. THE RELIGION OF LOVE

B. THE CHRISTIAN CHURCHES

C. OUTGROWING A GREAT RELIGION

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A. THE RELIGION OF LOVE

LET us now consider religion as it occurs in the modern world, and try to form some idea of the part which it should play in the future.

There is very much so-called religion in the world to-day, but it is mostly sham religion. The majority of mankind accept the doctrines of some great religious organization, and practise its form of worship; but on the whole it seems probable that Mohammedans, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and the rest are most often concerned merely with securing for themselves some kind of personal salvation. They are merely paying their premium to ensure eternal happiness in some form or other. Genuine religion no doubt does occur here and there among all these kinds of devout persons, but it is rare and spasmodic, and extremely ineffective as a force in the world.

Genuine religion in the modern world takes one or other of three forms. In one form, no doubt, the genuine religious experience is interpreted according to one of the great orthodox religious doctrines. In another form, all such doctrines are rejected, and the religious person persuades himself that, since in his view nothing in the universe deserves admiration except humanity, he must be worshipping simply humanity. In the third form, he feels very strongly that what stirs him so deeply, and is not any orthodox deity, is not humanity either. Loyalty to the great adventure of mankind on this planet has, he admits, a very important part to play in his religion. But this adventure, he feels, is not itself the thing that compels his worship. This other thing is after all something other than humanity. The object of his worship, then, is neither God nor man. What it is, he finds extremely difficult, indeed impossible, to say.

For most Europeans and Americans the only orthodox religion that matters is Christianity, in one or other of its many forms. I shall now try to set down with as much understanding and sympathy as I can muster, what I take to be the essential meaning of Christianity to the sincere Christian of any church or sect.

When Christians say that they love God, they seem to mean something like this. They very earnestly admire a certain person called Jesus. They also feel a deep tenderness toward him. Jesus, they believe, was an actual man who lived on earth many centuries ago; but also, in some subtle sense, he was and is God, the almighty creator.

Christians find in the biblical account of the life and character of Jesus, the human person, something which they are compelled to admire more than anything else in the universe. They feel also that by thinking about his unselfishness, and his love of his fellow men, and his sayings, they themselves are made capable of more awakened living. They are convinced that Jesus had unique insight into the hearts of men, into their real nature; and that he discovered their greatest need, namely the need to realize one another as living selves and to cherish one another. He saw that 'love' in this sense, was needed not only for the fulfilling of each person, but also for the making of the new and more spiritually awakened; world which he hoped to found.

Jesus himself, so his followers believe, was so great a I lover of his fellow men that his whole life was completely ruled by his will to help them, and especially to help them to the peace and joy of loving their fellows, and loving God. He himself was entirely possessed by this peace and joy. And because of his own great power of loving, and the beatitude which it gave him, he came to believe that the God who had made all things and all men, and had given all men in some degree the power 'to love, was not merely a just God but a loving God. Christians say that by feeling the beauty of the nature of Jesus they can reach the same conviction. They hold also that we all ought to believe in a loving God and ought to love him.

Let us at once distinguish between certain very different kinds of beliefs held by Christians. Some of their beliefs seem to me true and very important. Some, I should say, are extremely uncertain, and anyhow cannot be true in the sense that matters to Christian believers. Some are quite certainly false and base. What is true and important is that genuine love is a brilliantly awakened activity, to be prized for its own sake; and that if we could all love one another, or even treat one another altruistically, the world would be much better than it is. What is very uncertain is that there is, in any sense that matters, a loving God, and that he will give us happiness after we are dead. What is, at least in my view, quite certainly false and harmful is the belief that each man's chief concern should be to 'save his soul', in any sense whatever, whether by loving God or by loving his fellows, or by keeping a set of God-made rules, or even by making himself into as fine a personality as possible.

Of the belief in the importance of love in Christianity, only this need be said. Though indeed love, and the appraisal of love, were the supreme achievement of Jesus, those of his followers are mistaken who believe that men can be induced to love one another merely by being made to see the importance of love, or merely by being exhorted to love. When I was young my elders told me to 'love my neighbours', and I saw that I ought to do so; but unfortunately the more I tried to love them, the more I disliked them and wished them out of the way.

Christians often make the mistake of supposing that if only men really wanted to love one another they could. The truth is rather that if only we could, we would. But unfortunately our capacity for loving one another is extremely feeble; and, moreover, the circumstances of the modem world are so adverse to the proper development of men's capacities that in very many cases constant thwarting and repression destroys what power of love they ever had, and breeds instead a vast capacity for hate.

Let us now consider the belief in a loving God. No one can disprove the existence of such a being, at least if we may interpret the words 'God' and 'loving' in a sufficiently topsy-turvy way. It is quite possible that 'God', or 'the universe', or 'fate', gives us what is really best for us, but that what is best for us is very different from what we, in our human pettiness, actually want. It is quite possible that there is such a super-cosmical person as God, and that he appreciates the existence of each one of us. No-one can produce any serious argument to disprove this view. Certainly science has no argument against it, though many people have thought that it had.

On the other hand, no one can prove that there is a loving God. I cannot believe that any or all of the reasons which are offered in support of this theory would be taken as proof in a law court, unless the court was composed of persons already predisposed toward the doctrine. So far as I can see, only three of these reasons have any serious force at all. They may be called the argument from evolution, the argument from human personality, and the argument from the actual desire for a loving God. With regard to the argument from evolution, it is claimed that the fact that life on this planet has evolved is evidence that the universe is controlled by a mind which intended such evolution; and that, since the direction of evolution is toward ever more awakened living, the controlling mind must be benevolent. This claim ignores me fact that progress or biological species has been far less common than stagnation and actual degeneration. Few types have evolved at all. Very few have reached a high level. Only one has attained human rank. Evolution may be the result of divine purpose, but biology affords little evidence that it is so. And if it is, the purpose has apparently been carried out with almost ludicrous inefficiency.

Some who admit all this maintain that it is unimportant. The vital fact, they say, is that life has evolved, at whatever cost. That so precious a thing should occur at all, they say, is proof of a benevolent divine purpose in the universe. To this the answer seems to be that all manner of perversions and horrors have also evolved. By analogy, the fact that these have occurred at all might be taken as proof of a supreme satanic purpose in the universe.

The argument from human personality is as follows. It is claimed that human nature itself is evidence that there is a loving God, since the power which produced man must contain at least the attributes of man; and since human nature at its best is loving, moral, and capable of other highly developed activities, the power which produced it must be so also. My own feeling about this argument is that certainly it may be in some sense true, but that no human mind of our present order has the penetration to judge whether it is true or not. We are, of course, entitled to say that a universe which produced man had the capacity for producing man; but I see no reason to infer that it, or its creator, had, or has the characters that man himself has. It is surely time for us to realize that our rudimentary minds are not yet capable of such daring metaphysical flights.

The most effective reason for believing in a loving God is the desire for there to be a loving God. With many people this is still a very strong desire. And this strong desire has been taken as proof that the object of the desire must exist. How, it is asked, could men have come to conceive such a desire unless God himself had inspired them with it? A somewhat similar argument might be applied to food. How could men have come to desire food unless the physical environment had moulded their natures by providing them with possible food as a means to live? Now it is true that man's needs are one and all the outcome of the influence of environment, past and present. But it does not follow that for every need there actually exists the object which would ideally satisfy it. The environment has made me desire food, but I have no reason to believe that it will supply me with the ideal banquet, here or hereafter. Similarly with God.

Desire, then, affords no reason for belief in the existence of the desired object. Indeed, it affords, instead, reason for scepticism. Since strong desires are known to produce belief without logical proof, and known also to produce illusions of logical validity, the common desire for a loving God should surely warn men not to believe in any kind of theism without cogent proof. If religion depended on a number of precarious arguments for a cherished theory, it would certainly be doomed. But of course it does not. It depends on the religious experience, the immediate and overwhelming apprehension of something both superhuman and beautiful. This experience is often interpreted by the religious person to mean the existence of a loving God, because of his conviction that anything so excellent must be a mind, and a benevolent mind. But if the value of religious experience depends on the truth of this particular interpretation of it, it is indeed precarious.

The theory that there is a loving God may very well be true in some obscure and topsy-turvy sense; but it is almost certainly not true in any sense which would satisfy ordinary Christian men and women. And when it is understood and believed in their sense, it has a bad effect. It tends to keep them mentally in the nursery. It tends to shield them from full realization of the precariousness of man's position in the universe. If you demand immortality for human persons, a world in which there is no serious evidence of immortality must seem to you a thing of horror. You will be in danger of letting your desire rule your intelligence. Only if you can outgrow that desire, and outgrow even the desire that mankind as a race should win eternal life, can you begin to discover in existence what is, I believe, a far more satisfying beauty. By comforting men with a charming fairy tale of personal immortality, Christianity prevents them from ever exercising the muscles of the spirit (so to speak) by grappling with the more formidable aspects of existence. They never reach spiritual maturity; and so they never rise to the perception that this unsympathetic universe, or something in it, after all compels man's disinterested worship.

Of the Christian belief that each man's chief concern should be to 'save his soul', all that need be said further is this. If it is taken in an ordinary sense it leads directly into mere sham religion. The only sense in which it may be truly said that one of man's chief concerns should be to save his soul is a very metaphorical one, namely that, since he has more power to fulfil himself than to fulfil anyone else, he should indeed be specially concerned to make his particular self as awakened a self as possible, while it lasts. But this is not at all what the devout Christian means.

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B. THE CHRISTIAN CHURCHES

The Christian religion has played a very great part in the life of mankind, both for good and ill. Jesus has had an immense effect on the minds of Europeans. He has been a glorious and beloved example to many men and women. To deny this, as some do who are opposed to Christianity, is puerile. The Christian Churches, or rather the followers of Jesus, whenever they have really tried to carry out the teachings of their master, have done great service to the world. They have preached the brotherhood of all men. They have tried to make men outgrow their tribal feuds. They have tried to set up the authority of Jesus over the authority of kings and governments. They have tried to teach men loyalty not merely to a nation but to a way of life, namely to the brilliantly awakened life which Jesus had made them: admire. In early days they worked earnestly for enlightenment, for just laws, for the freedom of common men from the oppression of their masters.

But the followers of Jesus have not always nor often been faithful to the spirit of Jesus. A church is a society of ordinary men and women. So long as they are inspired by the genuine self-ignoring admiration for their God of Love, they may behave better than they otherwise would have done. Some of them may even turn into saints and martyrs. But when this enthusiasm has become weak and inconstant, they are no better than other ordinary men and women. Indeed they are worse, for they cannot help pretending to be what they are not. They continue to use the words of religion, but they no longer mean them. They say they love their God and their fellow men, but in fact they care only for the respectability of church-going, and for keeping the rules of a 'religious' society which no longer stands for enlightenment, justice and mercy, but simply for the maintenance of its own organization and power.

When this state of affairs has been reached, if the Church happens to be a powerful association with many members and much wealth, it may do immense hurt to the life of the people or of the world. There is a certain parasitic plant which lives in the 'flesh' of a tree and spreads its own roots or tentacles in all directions inside the branches and twigs of the tree, sapping the tree's life, and giving nothing in return. In much the same way a church can spread its priests throughout a people, or the world, persuading men to support the Church, and giving them in return nothing but false comfort for their craving to be assured of eternal happiness.

Sooner or later some exceptionally alive person or group within the Church may begin trying to put the teaching of Jesus into practice once more. And then a wave of new eager worship may spread far and wide. This kind of thing has happened again and again in the history of the Christian Church. Some earnest and religious man has founded a new religious order or sect. Its members have tried to imagine as vividly as possible the spirit of their master, Jesus, and have undertaken to live for the worship of the God of Love and for the help of their fellow men. Often they have been cruelly persecuted by the old Church, but persecution has only made them more earnest and resolute. For a while great things have happened, but soon the new movement has settled down, and the order or sect has become merely a comfort-able. society, within the Church or outside it. Presently another sect has been founded, which in turn has fallen comfortably asleep, and so on.

The Protestant 'Reformation' was one of these attempts to revive the Christian religion. The original Protestant Churches have long ago settled down to a respectable life. Within them many 'revivals' have taken place, but in each case the new eager worship has soon faded. The new sect has contrived to make itself mentally comfortable. Its members have become very like the members of the other sects or churches, routine-loving people, amiable so long as they are not frightened or shocked, anxious to keep up the appearance of religion, although the real fire of worship in them, the falling in love with their God. has become at best a feeble flicker.

Since there are two very different activities, both of which are called religion, there are two very different kinds of 'religious revival'. Or rather, in any religious revival the people who take part have two very different motives. In a few the main motive is genuine self-forgetful worship. They are on fire with admiration of their divine, all-loving Jesus. But most are chiefly concerned to 'save their souls', to do whatever they believe is necessary to secure a happy life in the next world. Many, of course, have no clear aim at all, but are simply infected by the emotions of their neighbours, just. as, when one person laughs, others are inclined to laugh too, even if they do not see the joke. This mere infection of emotion in religious revivals is bad, because it makes people believe they are really admiring something when they are not.

It is unlikely that there will ever be another widespread Christian revival, unless modern science is forgotten and the whole modern way of thinking and feeling gives place to something else. For though science cannot disprove the existence of God, it does make men less dependent, emotionally, on the belief in God. It is not impossible that science should be lost, but we must hope that it will not. Although much of our modern 'scientific' culture is probably very unsound, and although in Christianity at its best there is something that we greatly need, to lose science would be to go back to the nursery. We must cling to it, not only for the power it gives us, but even more because it may help us to outgrow the childish desire to live for ever and be cared for by a heavenly father.

During the last hundred years many of the beliefs that the churches had insisted upon have come to seem very improbable. The churches taught that God had made all the present kinds of animals separately. Science has shown very clearly that they have evolved from simpler kinds. The churches taught that man was created just as he is to-day. Science has shown that he also has evolved from a simpler animal. To doubt this, in our day, is almost as unreasonable as to doubt that the earth is round. The evidence, though rather complicated, is unmistakable. Now these questions have nothing to do with the beliefs that Christians think most important, such as the belief in a loving God who lived on the earth as Jesus. Gradually many Christians have given up the beliefs that science has disproved, and have clung only to their most cherished beliefs. But the fact that the churches had been mistaken weakened their power over men's minds, and made some men rather more inclined to judge for themselves. At the same time it was coming to seem more and more unlikely that Jesus really was God in any sense that was not so far-fetched as to be useless to ordinary men and women. No one, indeed, could prove that he was not God; but no one could give any good reason to believe that he was. Most people, of course, still believed that he was a very great and good man who had played an extremely important part in the history of the European peoples. They recognized that he had roused men as no one else had roused them, both by the example of his generous and heroic character and by the religion of love that he had preached. If ,the Bible story was to be believed, he was indeed in some respects a perfect man, and so might well be called divine, in one sense. But it was not merely in this sense that the Christian Churches claimed that he was divine. They said that he was actually almighty God, the loving creator of all things; and that he had become a man in order that he might save us all from the eternal damnation which he himself, as the almighty and vengeful God, might otherwise have awarded us for our wickedness.

To men who were trying to think for themselves this theory seemed very unsatisfactory. Moreover, since science had been at work, the universe was beginning to appear somehow not the sort of universe in which there would be either a just and wrathful or a loving God. After all, the Bible had been wrong in other respects, might it not be wrong also about the divinity of Jesus? Some religious people felt that it did not matter whether the man Jesus was God or not, so long as God was indeed a loving God. But as time passed it became more and more difficult to believe in a loving God, in any comforting sense. In the new world-view it seemed very improbable that human persons were immortal. Once more, no one could disprove the theory, but no one could give any serious reason to believe it true. Consequently men began to lose hold of the belief that God would compensate us for the miseries of our earthly life by giving us eternal joy. Incidentally the loss of the old terror of hell perhaps made the baser sort less anxious to behave themselves according to the conventional moral code.

When Jesus interpreted his own religious experience to mean the existence of a loving God, he gave an account which to the more awakened of his contemporaries was both credible and inspiring. But in our day that interpretation, even though it may be in some obscure sense true, can no longer playa useful part in the awakening of the world. The churches, by clinging to it, have lost almost all their religious vitality, though in many cases they still exercise great power of a kind which is not. truly religious.

The Roman Church has a very firm hold on its adherents, and is likely to increase its membership in this age of bewildered craving for certainty and security. But though doubtless some members of the Roman Church are genuinely religious, the great power of Rome obviously rests on soul-saving, and uses the twin principles of suppressing 'dangerous' knowledge and drugging the mind with ritual.

The 'reformed' churches are in a more pitiable state. Because they claim to be less intolerant of modern thought, they are more hard-pressed by it. Their priests are often kindly and devoted persons, and full of good works. But such power as they have over men rests almost entirely on their practical helpfulness toward those in distress, and very little on genuine religion. Some of them are, without doubt, truly religious men; but such hold as these have over their followers is due far more to their spirit of social service than to any power of kindling religious ecstasy in others. The best of them are sincere and, indeed, courageous believers in the doctrine of a loving God; but to-day this belief hampers them grievously, hedging them round as a child may be hedged round by fairyland. Because of their faith, or because of their 'cloth' or their collars, they can never make satisfactory contact with ordinary men; who, though they call themselves Christians, are, for good and ill, no longer Christians at heart. Many of us, when we are talking with any but the most exceptional ministers of religion, feel that we must play up to their expectations of us, as we play up to children or to old ladies. To be perfectly frank and natural with the average parson, we feel, would somehow be caddish, like hitting a man when his hands are tied. Religious leaders who have fallen into such a plight cannot help us in this tortured though pregnant age. Yet many of them are, indeed, courageous, generous, and even truly religious men. Many of them we respect; some we can heartily admire, even while we pity them and deal gently with them. There are other clerics, however, of a very different sort, toward whom it is less easy to feel charitable. These are the self-righteous condemners of all who do not acquiesce in the conventional morals and doctrines. In them the lust to condemn and punish, seemingly born of a sense of their own frustration, disguises itself as moral indignation, or even as love. Then there are the many comfortable and sanctimonious ones. But it is not only in the churches that complacency thrives.

The main power of the churches lies neither with the lovable though harassed and ineffective sort of clerics, nor yet with the puritanical, nor with the easy-going. It lies rather with talented men who, though they may have no gift for religious perception, are outstanding either in rhetoric or in organization and diplomacy. Some of them, perhaps many of them, must have had in their youth some kind of genuine religious experience, but to judge from their present behaviour many of them have long since forgotten what it was like. They confuse genuine religion with church membership, and the sheer impulse to worship with conformity to intellectual doctrines about the nature of the universe, or with the approval of a particular moral code. And so, doubtless with no dishonourable motives, they use their talent and authority not to help men forward through the present transitional and painful age but solely to keep them in bondage to a creed. Consequently in almost every crisis the churches come out upon the wrong side. We shall not easily forget that when war broke out they made no stand for peace, but were content to deplore the necessity of bloodshed; nor that in the class war, while they piously sympathize with the workers, they preach obedience to the law of the masters.

There has recently been some sign that the churches are determined to play a bolder and more generous part in the life of the community. They have been stung into activity by the taunt of futility, especially in respect of war and social injustice; and they have been strengthened somewhat by the obvious confusion which has fallen upon their main critics, the scientists. Consequently we find them now attempting to recapture the allegiance of men by means of a forward policy, and planning to lead a crusade for a more Christian spirit throughout social life. Many of their members, for instance, are in earnest in the will to destroy militarism. Some, it may be, are ready to face martyrdom for that cause. Others are in earnest, according to their lights, in attacking isolated t social evils of one sort or another.

But this effort at revival is doomed to failure, in the main and in the long run, for two reasons. The first is this. Militarism and social injustice cannot be eradicated, but only temporarily alleviated, without a much more far-reaching change in the social order than the churches dare contemplate. For the churches, one and all, depend in the main upon funds which are either directly dependent on the existing social order, or derived from persons whose wealth depends on the existing social order.

Clerics, of all denominations, are selected not to be revolutionary prophets but to be gentle supporters of the existing order. A minority of a very different type does, indeed, find its way into the churches. But any of these who dare to take serious action against the established order will in the long run be eliminated. In the majority of clerics consciousness of their dependence will inevitably temper enthusiasm with caution and 'broadmindedness' to such an extent that they will never go so far as to make serious protest. The second reason for the impotence of the churches is simply that they have lost the vision and the fervour which alone could have fired them to break from this economic constraint. The passion needed for the making of the new world must germinate elsewhere or nowhere. Once it has germinated, much good material from the churches may be gathered into its system; but the churches themselves as institutions are doomed to be ineffective, save on the side of reaction.

A great and sincere Christian revival, then, seems very unlikely, not only because modem knowledge makes many Christian beliefs hard to believe, but also because the churches are in the main no longer true to the spirit of their master. By their very constitution they are doomed to play for safety. And in the main they look not forward to a new world but backward for a vision that is lost, never to return. The trouble is not merely that the old vision is incredible. It is becoming un-desirable. Many of us no longer want to believe in a loving God, and in immortality, and so on. I do not mean merely that we do not want to sit on a cloud for all eternity playing hymn-tunes on a harp. I mean that we are outgrowing, or, at the very least, feeling that we ought to outgrow, even the desire that there should be in the universe any sort of God or power which is concerned to preserve and bless human persons or the human race. Many of us do indeed crave something definite to worship, but the idea of a benevolent God does not rouse us.

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C. OUTGROWING A GREAT RELIGION

Most men and women of to-day in Europe and America were brought up more or less as Christians. In childhood we all accepted the belief in a loving God and human immortality; and in those early days we were glad to think that we should live for ever and be cared for always. It is difficult for young people to think of death without hoping that they will live again and that in the long run some one will comfort them. But for adults, if they have managed to grow up in mind as well as in body, it should be possible to face calmly the idea that when they are dead they will be like a flame that has been extinguished. Some of us, at any rate, when we feel that we are most alive, find that we do not want to live for ever, and do not want to be loved by God. We do not even want there to be a benevolent God for us to worship. Such doctrines no longer kindle us, because we have seen something which is in the deepest sense more beautiful. Sometimes, when we are feeling tired or ill or beaten or deserted, we may slip back into wanting such things. But even then we recognize that we are not as alive as we were, not at our best, not keeping hold of the very best thing; in fact that we are betraying something.

The Christian religion is, indeed, at its best a very difficult and awakened way of living. It is also, for some people, a genuine way of worshipping. Few have been able to put the Christian religion into practice at all thoroughly. And yet, though in some ways it will always be far beyond us, in other ways we are outgrowing it, and ought to outgrow it. It is easy to see what it is in Christianity that is an awakened way of living, and still far beyond our capacity. Clearly, true Christian love of our fellow men, realizing them as selves, and serving their needs as our own, is the awakened way of living which is needed both for our private spiritual fulfilment and for the well-being of the world. The constant practice of this kind of behaviour is still far beyond us, and since it is part of the ideal behaviour, it will never have to be outgrown. What has to be outgrown is the belief in, and the desire for, personal 'salvation' of any sort, and also the belief in and the desire for a God who is Love. Why must we outgrow these beliefs? Not merely because to us of to-day they seem very uncertain. For who knows? They may still in some mysterious way turn out to be more true than false. The mind of man as he is to-day is not very much more developed than the mind of ape or dog. We have no right to trust our half-formed intellects in these very difficult matters. Then why is it so important that we should outgrow these beliefs to-day? Because for us to-day they are blinding, deadening beliefs; because they prevent us from doing something which is more alive than worshipping a benevolent God; because they prevent us from seeing something which in its own way can compel admiration more directly and surely than the theory that there is a loving God.

When doubt of the Christian doctrines first began to spread, its effect on men was often very distressing. Some resolutely refused to give up cherished beliefs which had been a real strength to them. Some, through intellectual honesty, became unbelievers, but with a sense that life must be henceforth a sordid and a joyless thing. But, as time passed, a few here and there began to realize that the new pitiless universe was not only vaster and more formidable than the old kindly universe, but also more interesting, more challenging, more a place for men to live in. Not only so, but to some at least this new universe began to appear more satisfactory, more admirable, even from the religious point of view. In fact, to their own surprise, they found themselves apparently seized with an uncomprehending and heart-gripping worship of the very thing that had formerly seemed so repugnant to them. It was almost as though the new universe had created in them a new religious need which it alone could satisfy.

I have said that what they worshipped was apparently the universe. But, strictly speaking, to say that they worshipped the universe is to say too much. All that is warranted by the religious experience itself is to say that they worshipped something which did not seem to be in any sense a loving God, and which some of them were inclined to interpret as being simply the whole of things. Perhaps we may safely say that they worshipped, or praised in their hearts, something which was 'universal', either in the sense that it simply was the universe, or in the sense that it permeated or characterized everything in the universe, somewhat as the personality of a human being may be said to permeate or characterize his actions.

Chapter 13

Chapter 11

Waking World Contents