Edward Carpenter





Carpenter's Writings

The Religious Influence of Art


I should say, therefore, that the use of Art in religious ceremonial ought to be moderate; it ought, if possible, not to exceed what is natural and fairly within the limits of ordi­nary life. Of course it is impossible to give any exact rule: as impossible as it would be to attempt to circumscribe every man's mind within the same bounds. But, if the Church is to address herself to the great mass of the people, it soon becomes tolerably evident that she must choose a mean as nearly suitable as possible to the ideas of all classes, with a balance perhaps in favour of the poorer and more ignorant, because, as I said before, the more educated ought to be able to lay aside the wish for what might be injurious or unmean­ing to those who have not the same cultivation as themselves.

The instant any outward show or form ceases to be valued on account of the impulse it gives to the mind towards the attainment of something beyond, and begins to be only prized for its own sake, it immediately becomes the source of the besetting evil of all religions-the superstitious worship of the symbol. It can hardly be otherwise. The people see some outward act or object set up as of vast importance, long after the meaning, which gave it importance, has been for­gotten; and so they cannot but think that there is some inherent virtue in the outward thing, independently of any other consideration. Religion degenerates into magic; and spiritual worship becomes ‘dry as summer dust' amidst the stifling aridity of a ceremonial routine.

To take the ritualistic tendency of the last few years: those more educated men, who see in its many symbols only the passing forms used to embody high and spiritual thought, may find in it a great help to devotion and right action; and it is quite conceivable that there should be a vast body of people to whom a service of complicated ritual would be the only service really suitable. At the same time there are, no doubt, very many who do not see or consider the truth meant to be conveyed by these symbols, but only attach importance to the symbols themselves. These therefore, though they may frequent the ceremonials, are really learning to worship the letter instead of the spirit, and are in danger of losing their sense of religion in the coils of superstition. I take this case merely as an example that the ceremonial is made for man, not man for the ceremonial.

Ritualism is good for those to whom it conveys the sense of something which transcends all ritualism; bad for those to whom it is in itself all in all. The absence of all ritual is good for those to whom it suggests that He whom they worship cares not for burnt-offering or sacrifice, since all the beasts of the forest are His and the cattle on a thousand hills, and that the Spirit bloweth where it listeth, uncaring of the tradition of men; bad for those who see in it only a sign that the touch of the material is hateful and terrible to God, and that earth and all our natural thoughts and affections are for ever at deadly warfare with the aspiration of the spirit within us.

Of all incentives to perfection, the true love of the beauti­ful in the world around us is one of the most powerful and widely spread. Yet it is not so on account of any inherent virtue in the outward objects which we call beautiful; they vanish, they fade away, as words that are borne but for a moment on the sounding air. What remains, what cannot perish, is the inner meaning which they bring to our minds. Though we are not conscious of it, its influence is not lost. Something is added to the mind which makes it impossible for it ever to be again as it was before. Thus through our discipleship to the all of Nature we are nursed and taught by the Divine wisdom. Through the great fellowship of human Art do we spread that teaching, influencing each other daily and hourly, as certainly as perhaps insensibly, upwards to the very fountain-head of action. In this sense it is indeed true that we are a part of all that we have met. Every impres­sion of beauty brings with it something new wherewith to clothe the soul. Nor less is it true that we are a part of all that we have done. ‘Our actions make a moral tradition for our individual selves.' Our spirits haunt the places in which our bodies have moved. Our mind becomes ‘a mansion for all lovely forms,' the memory ‘a dwelling-place for all sweet sounds and harmonies.' And we may be sure that we may apply to all true Art those thoughts on the influence of Nature so beautifully expressed by Wordsworth:-


'Tis her privilege,

Through all the years of this our life, to lead From joy to joy; for she can so inform

The mind that is within us, so impress

With quietness and beauty, and so feed

With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues, Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,

Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all The dreary intercourse of daily life,

Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb

Our cheerful-faith, that all which we behold Is full of blessings.