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On Symbols

ISSUE:  Autumn 1936

Visible symbols are obviously of three kinds: persons, things of nature, and objects made by man. The first are the most immediate—but in their bodily form they have a painfully brief duration. The second are perennial: they wear an air of primality The third have the largest popular appeal and are therefore the most questionable. The chief example in this kind is of course the altar. Since the beginnings of society the sacred slab or table with its sacred food and fire has appealed more extensively than any other symbol to the human heart. And like the motions of the human heart the sacraments of the altar have ranged the whole scale between brutal and sublime. Sharp revolts and purgings, therefore, punctuate intense devotion in the story of the altar.

Glancing over that amazing story many excellent persons, during the past two centuries, decided that it was drawing to a close, that reason and a purer religious sense would presently abolish the altar. Doubtless the same opinion was held in India by many excellent persons more than two thousand years before, when the Buddhist movement was in its prime. But the art of perpetuating words was then very far from its prime. The enormous printed record of our modern revolt from the altar is lacking for earlier occasions. We have to put up with the loss of the multitudinous utterances of the average enlightened ancient Hindoo. But we know that his situation, four or five centuries before Christ, must have had much in common with that of his occidental successor of the eighteenth century after Christ. Behind him lay a long, long era of the altar,—an era that, taking its rise from the inspirations of holy men in a simple state of society, had become more and more involved in scholastic theories, mythic fancies, and elaborate practices. An outgrowth of “protestant” sects (as in the seventeenth century) had clumsily prepared the path of light; which, however, could be really followed only by persons who could free themselves utterly from the bonds of the altar. Such (as in the case of our eighteenth-century Enlightenment) must have been the common opinion of “enlightened” Hindoos.

The Buddhist revulsion from the gods of the altar is supremely significant. Occurring in the very heart of Asia it was something between, and above, two other reforming movements belonging to the same great period of religious history, one to the east of it and one to the west. It surpassed Confucianism in religious intensity; it surpassed the Hebrew prophets in philosophic and ethical reach. As for our modern reformation—viewed as a single spiritual and mental process, within and without the pale of the Roman Catholic Church, rising in the close of the Middle Ages and still going on—certainly it is extraordinary for dramatic energy and range. But so far it has lacked a Buddha. Instead it has had, first, the late and narrow medieval mystics, then Copernicus, Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, Loyola, Descartes, and then—the successors of all those.

The Enlightened One is unique indeed in the history of human enlightenment. More than any other he took up into his life and thought the spiritual meaning of the altar while abandoning the physical symbol. Sacrifice and justice, new vigour, joy, and mercy—he lived them and he taught them. His “supernatural generosity,” to use a superb Hindoo phrase, shone upon the needs of the common people around him. For them he condoned and indicated easier paths than his own. He himself, whatever may have been the attitude of the average enlightened man of his time, did not attack the altar. But he showed the way for future mankind, the only true and effectual way, to transcend the altar and leave it behind—if such be human destiny.

That destiny and that way, according to a common type of Christian argument, are entirely discredited by the so-called failure of Buddhism, capped by the high irony of Gautama’s transformation to a chief god of the altar. But the argument on the other side also appears cogent; it may be condensed as follows: Unless a seed die it cannot have a new and greater life. Classic Buddhism had to go underground in order to be freed from its local and temporal shell and also because the world was not yet ready for it. The young peoples of the West had to have their own era of mythological imagination, pagan and then Christian; wherein their greatest prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, was transformed, like the Buddha, into a god of the altar. But that era is now closing, slowly and painfully. The unmistakable reaction taking place at present in favour of the altar is a ripple in a sinking wave. Far more significant is the steadily rising infiltration of the religious wisdom of the ancient East into the western wind. Unlike Christianity, that wisdom is in fundamental harmony with the findings of modern science and, more importantly, with the essential teachings of Jesus. The Buddha, freed from the Buddhists, can free Christ from the Christians. The ways of those two supreme teachers converge upon the spiritual highroad that stretches ahead of us, beyond the myths and cults of the altar. So this argument runs.


Just here, however, one must remember that whether or not man abandons the altar he cannot abolish the class of objects in which it is comprised, any more than he can abolish the other two symbolic kinds mentioned at the beginning. Those two kinds, so long as they continue, will continue to produce the third. Since persons and the things of nature are symbolic, they cannot conjoin fruitfully without instilling that character into the offspring of their union. Persons, in the very act of winning from nature food and shelter and comfort, must create symbolic objects. Secular and religious purposes—taking the word “religious” in its most inclusive sense—are found indissolubly fused in the works of the earliest and latest men.

One of the best of recent buildings is the Post Office at Palermo, constructed in the spirit of the present Italian government. Its lines are massive and elemental. However, not far from its Doric portico you catch the motor-bus that carries you out to the Doric temple of Diana at Segesta— also massive and elemental, but now with wind and rain, and dogs, playing among its columns. . . . No local cult can be so enduring as its adherents feel it to be. But it may embody something that is really elemental and permanent. The civic cult of Diana and its present successor in Italy, the national cult of Fascism, are both derivative from the old tribal religion of Productivity. Diana is one of the many forms assumed by the fruitful Mother Goddess who was worshiped in archaic times, with practices gross in the main but often rising to noble; as she is worshiped today, and will ever be, so long as man and nature continue. The rap-tive energy of Diana was no more essential for ancient hunting-tribes than it is for modern tribes engaged in competitive industry; and it could not have been more ardently adored of old than now. Her wide-ranging fleetness of foot reappears in our vast electric maze of communications. And the modem post-office, with its air-mail sanctuary, is a proper temple of Diana. On returning from lonely Segesta (of course with certain regrets) to the busy postal shrine of Fascism in the heart of Palermo, you may read, in imagination, above its grand portico an inscriptive verse from Swinburne’s ode to the ancient goddess: “Over the splendour and speed of thy feet!”

In the courtyard of that building there is a huge stone figure of a soldier dead for his country, done in a style reminiscent of Babylonian gods; and above it towers in red marble the emblem known as the fasces. A building, a figure, a sheer emblem—these denote the chief modes of the sacred man-made object; and the modern age is extraordinary in its quantitative production of all three of them. The German Museum in Munich, housing a vast collection of tools and machines, is a temple of modern emblems. And one observes that the gay wonder in the faces of passing sightseers deepens often enough to reverence and even to awe, awe for the supernatural inventiveness of the modern mind. Which has its culmination, surely, in the moving and talking picture. Most of our other mechanisms, however important today, are liable to be discarded, or altered beyond recognition, when new scientific and industrial conceptions are brought forth by time. But time itself is brought forth by the cinema: it is the perfection of the old clock with figures coming out to act the hours. The film was latent in the art of the caveman, and its glimmering mimicry will go on so long as the reel of time runs. It gives a new turn and impetus to the religious symbolism of the human form. Henceforth the moving looks and tones of revered persons need not fade entirely from our screen of life. Suppose the cinema had been invented in ancient times: I fancy that even the modern thinker who, contemning symbols, wants to rebuild the spiritual life upon the distilled ideas of the saints and sages-distilled into human language, that great but imperfect symbol—even he, no doubt, would be tempted to visit a moving-picture temple wherein Gautama and Jesus were shown in their habit as they lived.

Personality, however, is never adequately bodied forth by its earthly forms. Admirers of a great man pass from one of his portraits to another, not satisfied by any and nonplussed by the ensemble. And the vivid ensemble provided by the moving-picture is achieved at the expense of the selective art of good portrait-painters. Like the electron, personality cannot be caught when in motion, whereas if made to sit for its portrait it loses its moving existence. The dilemma is primordial and our perception of it is revivified by the cinema. When this invention was still new it was carried by an enterprising showman to a remote Maine countryside. He assumed that his audiences, cut off from the great world and thirsty for a sight of its leading figures, would be enthusiastic for “news-reels.” But he soon found (so he told me) that he stood in danger of a “turnip-shower” until he consented “to feature screen-romances.” The history of the cinema, that product of modern actualism, is an extraordinary testimony to our yearning for romance; and this yearning is the effervescence of a deep human craving for that which is typical and lasting—for that which is super-personal if the word “person,” so vitally ambiguous, is confined to its denotation of an actual human figure. An actual moving-picture of Jesus himself, perfect in tone and colour and in that final film-dimension which now seems imminent, stereoscopic illusion, would soon become of secondary public interest. It would stimulate the production of a series of screen-romances based upon his life; and it would subside in their favour; and their favour, too, would presently subside. . . . He said, “They would not listen if one came to them from the dead”; and again, “It is expedient that I go away from you. . . .” At our best we acquiesce in the divine expediency of the transience of persons. The nobler a person is, the more he reveals the inadequacy of his earthly form. In sublime moments he is transfigured in the eyes of his close associates; and that intimate glory could not appear in the greatest conceivable picture of him.

In a crowded cemetery near Florence the saddest objects of all are the photographs of the departed displayed upon their graves. One looks away to the springtime hills, “oversmoked” (as Browning saw them) “with faint grey olive-trees.” We lift up our eyes to the hills when personal memorials press upon us blatantly; we seek in nature purer intimations of immortality. Our modern nature-worship is largely a reaction from popular Christian personalism, Catholic and Protestant. Certainly at its height, a hundred years ago, it brought a fresh and beautiful revelation of nature.

But in so far as it tried to satisfy the religious sense entirely with so-called “natural” symbols, it was a clear failure. Today, by way of sequel, science has literally dismounted the highest star: the heavenly bodies, from of old the supreme signs of permanence, are seen to share the evanescence of “faint grey olive-trees.” No doubt this discovery is not so revolutionary as it now appears: the latest men, like the earliest, will, in a way, worship the stars. But the fact remains that our greatest age of physical science, which, reversing Ptolemy, began by making the stars stand still, has eventually resolved them into whorls of gas ranging unknown orbits with supernatural speed. This fact is an after-illustration of Francis Thompson’s theme: the Hound of Heaven, while constantly driving us out to the things of nature, hunts us away from them with relentless love whenever we try to abide with them religiously. Their air of primal-ity, always so alluring to souls tired of history, is thin as the stuff of stars.

Nature incites man to “idolize” his own brief form, to depict it in an impersonal, a primal and typical, manner. This attempt on its lowest level gives rise to a host of curious figures, very ancient, very modern, in which the human body is freed from personality by emphatic brute features. But art in its loftiest moments, as in the great age of Greece, is religiously impelled to distinguish the human form from and above all others. Greek statues announce that man is made in God’s image. But their fate, as religious symbols, announces that God is not the image of man; that beauty is not truth— which is a blunt way of saying that natural beauty, in its necessary striving for completion, has to forget that its completeness is necessarily incomplete. Therefore the highest kind of idol is that in which the beauty of the human form yields to supernatural meanings. The most reverential statues of the modern soldier are nobly emblematic rather than humanly handsome. The bronze Buddha in meditation is seated forever above the region of Olympian marbles. The accomplished loveliness of Raphael loses the divine joy and sorrow of the Primitives. And Michelangelo’s statue of Christ as a beautiful Greek athlete easily bearing his cross, is a revolting hybrid. Nevertheless the religion of beauty is a child, as well as an enemy, of the beauty of religion. And one’s dislike of the emblematic distortion of the human form in the interests of religion (the Buddha’s impossible legs, for example) is religiously justifiable. Here one recalls the invincible hatred of idols shown by the Hebrew Jehovah, along with his warm approval of other sorts of symbol. His attitude in this respect, occasioned by local circumstances, was certainly extreme, but it is also significant. The upshot is that the idol, though always of real importance in a catholic view of religion, cannot hold the central place among religious symbols.

That place belongs to the sheer or pure emblem; which, from the earliest burial mound to the latest national flag, from Jacob’s anointed pillow of stone to the most elaborate altar-structure, has demonstrated its special hold upon the human spirit. The emblem (so to call it for the sake of brevity) takes up into itself the powers of all other symbols while escaping their limitations. Unlike the idol, it does not come into necessary conflict with our natural sense of beauty. Visible charm is confined to its narrowest dimensions in the case of the emblem; while its invisible charm is surpassing and mysterious. The emblem is free from what Meredith called “the taint of personality”; but it is also free from the taint of impersonality which (in spite of Meredith) is the religious defect of external nature. The emblem is a sign set upon nature, or rather stamped out from nature, by personality. It condenses the potencies of the natural objects that man intermittently worships, trees, springs, hills, stars; but it condenses them beneath personality. Walt Whitman’s “beautiful bunting, flag of stars,” flaunting the wide American landscape, meant, above all, the unfolding of a shining brotherhood of persons. And the swastika, an ancient sign of solar vitality, takes on new life when adopted by a strong national and personal cult: the Germans in awarding to their present leader an exceptional measure of personal devotion have felt all the more constrained to lift above him and above themselves an old enduring emblem. Such is the way of the emblem. In order to be thoroughly natural and intensely personal, it has to be superpersonal.


Man may be defined as a symbol-believing animal. Men sometimes claim that they believe in nothing; but they cannot avoid symbolizing, in one way or another, the nothing in which they believe. Symbols are innumerable. A significant love for some object or creature, a child, a friend, a chair, a factory, a golf-stick, is necessary to every man. Some one thing more than other things is for him “the real thing” —which is an immense claim when one comes to think of it —and he tends to undervalue the reality of the other things that other men adore. When a man declares that an altar, or a fishing-rod, or a flag is “just a mere symbol” he means that for him an electron, a horse, or the League of Nations is far more richly symbolical. Lie fails to reflect that in denying reality to other people’s symbols he cuts the ground from under his own. For it must be that all symbols, or none, have access to reality.

That issue needs to be made clear-cut. A capable modern philosopher has asserted that the history of his subject demonstrates at least this: from the standpoint of metaphysics there can be no real communion between a real Eternal and a real Temporal. The opposite standpoint appears in the bold verse of an old poet: “Eternity, who yet was born and died.” Those two standpoints may each be presented and labeled in a thousand different ways; but always the one denies, and the other affirms, that eternal reality is expressed in temporal forms. The one means that symbolism is radically false; the other, that it is radically true; and there is no proper compromise between the two views. A popular modern compromise is that of the man who likes to declare, broad-mindedly, “I know very well that the symbols which I love and live by are merely forms of self-delusion.” But this man knows not what he says. Reality is precisely that which we love and live by, in so far as we really love and live: a symbol, no matter how illusory or even delusory it may be, has either some hold on reality or no real hold upon us. Nor can that reality be experienced as a merely temporal thing by a symbol-believer. Whatever his foolish tongue may utter from time to time, his whole being knows that his chosen symbol, in so far as he loves it and lives by it, is a meeting of time and eternity. This communion, which may or may not be approved by the history of metaphysics, is established by what may be termed the history of histories, namely the story of human symbols. Human history, unless it is all delusion, turns upon an everyday awful fact: eternity is, and yet is born and dies.

Man knows eternity in a real though secondary fashion through the symbols of the tribe. The most powerful of gods after God himself is the old Jehovah; under many names and emblems, he ever commands the tribe to increase and multiply, and leads it forth to battle. Man’s primal urge to material productivity, divine in its way but deadly when turned to low personal ends, rises to religion in the service of the tribe. An advance in the means of production at any time in history is normally accompanied by an intensification of the tribal or national spirit; which thereupon accelerates its constant trend towards war, war open or undeclared; in so far as it does not succumb to material satisfactions. We cannot serve God and Mammon, but we can serve God and Jehovah. And the passing horrors of war can never be so horrible to man, in his heart of hearts, as the steady deadly glare that he finds in the eyes of Mammon. Man’s divine hist for life, life unseen and durable, drives him on from the service of Mammon, who cannot be other than death in life, to the service of Jehovah, who can he life in death.

But Mammon, aided by his friend Belial, is potently seductive. Milton’s account of the pair in Paradise Lost is a great unconscious prophecy of the path of social imagination from his time to ours. Men became more and more devoted to an alluring Dream—peace, plenty, and piety for all, to be effected by a new co-operation of the tribes of the earth, by extraordinary advances in the means of production, and by enlightened devotion to the solid and progressive god called Nature. This deity, however, was mainly Mammon in disguise. And soon the cool sword of science proceeded to cut away from it the support that science had lent to it: the solid evolution of the universe conceived by the nineteenth century, is now revolving ether. . . . Rational peace, limitless plenty, “natural piety”—the Great War, the Great Depression, the Great Secession of Nature! The scope of our catastrophe, said to be undreamt of, is proportionate with the scope of the antecedent Dream. The Dream is a very old one. Again and again tribes or nations in various parts of the globe have tried to get along together peacefully and prosperously in the service of Mammon, Mammon more or less disguised; and always the result has been, either a steady degeneration, or a renewed vitality from the bitter cup of war. When the Dream grows to a world dream, as in modern times, the sequel is a world tragedy— a vast demonstration of the fact that Mammon is a great god, that Jehovah is a greater, and that in human society Mammon is not subduable without the aid of Jehovah.

But Jehovah himself is subduable, since with God all things are possible. The Hebrew-Christian experience of the tribal god is the supreme episode in the history of symbols; it indicates the main plot of the whole human drama. It means that the tribe or nation is always the chosen people, always the main preliminary mode in which human society communes with the Eternal. The trials of the ancient Hebrews were select but thoroughly typical. Surrounded (like the modern Germans) by opposing tribes, they were impelled to worship intensely their own tribal spirit. It led them to develop their material life religiously, to fill efficiently and, at need, to forsake the fleshpots. It led them into struggles, brutal enough, with other nations. But also it enabled them at their best to discover the God of all nations, the Eternal at work in all of human history. They left as legacy to the Christian Church the conviction that Jehovah is an appointed ruler to whom must be given that which is due to Caesar, but who by the grace of God may be subdued and lifted to the service of catholic ends. It was a devoted member of the most devoted of tribes who uttered and lived, beyond any other, universal words; as, Be ye perfect in charity as your Father is perfect.

In sacrificial devotion to his tribe a man learns that Eternity is born and dies, that universal Being is also personal and local. The familiar type of modern man who says that for him the Divine Life, being everywhere, is never confined to places, would confine that Life to the place called “everywhere” ; which, for his children at least, is likely to mean nowhere. This man is either a sadly tribeless person, never finding Reality in one place more than another,—a home, a hill, a factory, a capitol, according to the kind of tribe; or, more probably, he does not really mean what he says. Through the national tribe, through Jehovah, man knows intensely that deity is more human, as well as more divine, than man; that, because man is not everywhere, God is where man most devoutly is. The courage and loyalty developed by the tribe are essential elements of the justice and charity adored by man at his best—adored, not as abstract virtues, but as revelations of a Life which is at once, and so mysteriously, personal and superpersonal, working through human places and emblems.

The chief place and emblem of that Life can be no other than the altar. The tribal altar is properly the step before the catholic (i. e., universal) altar. People speak bitterly of nationalism “invading” the Christian Church. But true patriotism, at least, cannot invade the Church any more than a person can invade his own home, if he is sane and sober. Certainly the situation is tragic when a frenzied nationalism is worshiped in a Christian sanctuary. But more significant is the fact that the most intensely national of all the ancient altars was the one that could best be transfigured to the altar of the universal Christ.

Man must ever labour to build great nations and to build above them a universal church. That twofold task, a magnificent challenge to the sacrificial powers of man (and of God), may be rejected of men but it cannot be simplified, To accept Christianity, in its catholic meaning, is to accept nationality. There is no vital alternative. One may despair, as some have done, of the whole of western civilization. Or one may reject Christianity in favour of “vital” nationalism, as some are doing openly and as many are doing so obscurely that they know not what they do. But this too, in the long run, is the way of death and despair—not because it means war but because it means the refusal of the great life-giving two-fold task that is laid upon human society. It means, in effect, the stultification of that very nationalism which it intends to glorify. For man yearns up through his tribes towards a glory that is higher. The cynic (this term means, not a person devoid of belief, but one whose belief in symbols is shallow and distorted) exclaims that in the World War the unreal God disappeared beneath the real gods of the tribes. But in fact, above those real gods the most real God reappeared. Always when men sacrifice supremely to Jehovah they recognize through him a greater than Jehovah; though as soon as the everyday world resumes its sway, the recognition begins to fade. But it cannot fade from the altar: it constitutes the altar.

This is the sole emblem that can never be either merely tribal or mistily universal. No wonder it is often hated by rabid nationalists, and despised by the followers of what I have called the Dream. Worse than despite, however, is the perverting patronage which those two opposite sects during the modern era have bestowed upon the altar. But all of this is testimony to the centrality of its position. Its enemies, whether attacking or despising or cajoling, must range themselves on opposite sides of that which holds the middle way, the highway, of human history. This situation was progressively obscured during the past four centuries by schism, “enlightenment,” and dream, till the thunder of the Great War clarified the air. At present the position of the altar is every day becoming more austerely clear. Certainly the western nations are a chosen, an awfully chosen, people. They were chosen to carry tribalism to its ultimate development, material and religious. They have carried their industrial and scientific machinery to the ends of the earth; but first, they carried their Cross. This sign, placed by them upon the world’s altar, became incorporate with it, lifting and pointing its perennial meaning. And this sign gives the meaning of the signs of the times today. Owing to western vitality the world is now dominated as it never was before by the signs and emblems of productive nationalism; and the only emblem rising clearly above these, yet among them and able to sanctify them, is the Cross-crowned altar.


The current movement towards the altar is therefore of central importance. But this consideration does not justify the conventional Christian attitude, noted above, towards the way of the Buddha. The significant fact remains that the man who next to Jesus has been most adored of men withdrew himself from the altar. This fact signifies that the greatest of emblems is also the most questionable, always in danger of deadly perversions, always in need of criticism and purification. Witness the amount of nonsense accompanying the modern Eucharistic revival. Doubtless superstition maintains a fairly constant level throughout the whole history of the symbol-believing animal, man; and modern superstitiousness, insidiously powerful because of its passing devotion to Nature and Enlightenment, may presently turn its current towards the altar, flooding it in a way worse than Elijah’s way. Hence the Way of Abstraction, so to call the attitude carried to its height by the Buddha, is a continual and, in particular, a modern necessity. Known and used by Christ himself, it needs to be far better known and used by the Christian Church. The Way of Abstraction ’ must be fully recognized by a catholic believer; but it must be recognized as, by itself, uncatholic.

For the meaning of the altar, not to say its power, cannot be extracted and abstracted from the altar. Every visible symbol, a person, a thing of nature, or an object made by man, has a whole meaning, or rather is a whole meaning, comprising what we call its spiritual and material meanings. This is because God himself, in whom all symbols live and move and have their being, is at once an inward and an outward life. That the outward aspect of a symbol ought, as men say, to be “kept in its right place,” is a truism testifying that this place, however subordinate, is essential. To say, “I can do without such and such a symbol because I know what it really means,” is a euphemistic way of saying, “I am willing to do without its real, full meaning.” This meaning does not come away like the kernel of a nut; such a simile is a false image, an image against the truth of images. A nut is cracked and eaten and the hull tossed aside when the nut is a commodity, but not when it is a living symbol. A mere and sheer commodity—if such a thing could be—is a dried and cracked symbol. A symbol is a commodity’s whole meaning and being as a fruit on the tree of life.

In loving a symbol and living by it—not in talking about it—one sees it, however dimly, as a living whole. One regards it, not just as a way of expressing a meaning, but as the way of knowing the meaning there expressed. We do not first find a truth that is vital to us and then look around for an object in which to embody it—a person, a tree, or perchance a family-tree. We learn that truth, too well for words, in the symbol that we reverence. Man did not first discover the highest and fullest meaning of food, fire, and light, and afterwards invent the altar to emblematize that meaning. That meaning was, and is, discovered to him in the altar; discovered as inherent in divine humility and grace. The spiritual is recognized in and through the material; these two aspects of the Universe are known to be at one through sacrifice involving not just one but both. . . . This mystery, however, cannot be put into words. Otherwise the Word would not have made things, would not have become flesh; as the writer of the opening passage of St. John tries to express the matter in sublime inadequate words. But the mystery is more or less apprehended by every symbol-lover; that is, by Everyman. The meaning of the altar, like that of every great symbol, is a living whole, at once material and spiritual.

The case of Buddha shows how nobly a man may live upon the abstraction which we call “the altar’s spiritual meaning.” But it shows, too, how inadequate is that way of life compared with the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The parallel cited above between the Buddha and the Christ, drawn by those who wish to merge the meanings of the two, is an historical and a religious error—as grave as the error of those who deny all divinity to the Buddha. Through Buddha, God criticizes the story of the altar, criticizes it extremely because of extreme abuses. Through Christ, God enters into the story of the altar with a unique fullness of presence, lifting and establishing it. The life of Gautama was sacrificially spiritual. The life of Jesus was a complete religious sacrament.

Hence it opened the way for a true and progressive understanding of the physical aspect of life. Classic Buddhism, though free from the passing miraculous features of Christianity, cannot properly be said to be in fundamental harmony with the findings of modern science unless these findings are not fundamental. The Buddhist Nirvana, no matter how modernly and richly it may be conceived, involves a fundamental departure from the realities of nature. The Buddha warned his disciples against speculation regarding the nature of the universe; but such speculation was latent in his claim that his way was central. This claim, also made by Christ, connotes a radiating network of universal relationships open to the searching of the speculative intellect. Such searching, the more it is controlled by catholic experience, establishes more and more the claim of Christ. Whereas the position of the Buddha is seen to be, so to speak, sublimely off-centre: the rays of richest human experience, physical and spiritual, will not converge upon it. The Buddhistic way of thought projects a picture of the universe which can be a whole only by never being wholly true to life. It goes aside from the full meaning of food, fire, light, humility, and grace. It indeed admits the fact that all life is symbolic; but it misses the life that is in all symbols; it misses the fact that, unless every symbol is entirely void of reality, all symbols must be seen to arrange themselves in vistas leading to the altar.

The Way of Abstraction, then, is properly a by-road— the most important by-road alongside the religious highway of history. Popularly speaking, it is the detour occasioned by the fact that the highway, being human, is incessantly in a state of damage and repair. Better, it is the pathway that thoughtful persons must continually tread—and should constantly leave behind. It is the way of winning that vital detachment from symbols which enables us to know how essential symbols are. . . . But the way goes further off, and comes further home, than any excepting One can know. It leads to those unknown hills where Christ meditated and prayed in unknown loneliness; whence He returned to the temple, to the cleansing of the temple, and to the sacramental meal through which He knew He would be known.


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