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Lecture V: The Numinous, The Love of Nature and the Inspiration of Art

I am devoting this lecture to a consideration of the numinous, the love of nature and the inspiration of art. It indeed seems an audacious enterprise to set out to discuss three such subjects in the space of just one hour; each of them could more than occupy complete sets of Gifford Lectures. My object, of course, is not to attempt a systematic study of any one of them but to emphasize that all three must be taken into account in defining the scope of our future science of Natural Theology. I am merely, as I stressed in the last lecture, trying to map out the field to be covered. I shall only discuss the outstanding qualities of each in order to support the claim I shall make that all three, although not identical, are related.

The term numinous which has become so familiar to theologians was introduced by Dr. Rudolf Otto in his celebrated book Das Heilige, translated as The Idea of the Holy, to designate, not, as is often implied by later authors, man’s sense of the Divine presence, but actually a part of the reality and character of that Presence. It is now passing from being a technical theological term into more general parlance so that it is well that we should be quite clear as to its meaning; it is tending to be used more as an adjective than as a noun, as for example in the expressions “the numinous sense” or “numinous emotions”. When it is so used we should be careful to remember that this is not really the more essential meaning which Otto intended; it is, however, clearly his own fault that this change of emphasis has occurred, as is well explained by his translator and friend John W. Harvey in his preface to the second edition of the book in question:

When, therefore, Otto uses so frequently expressions like “the numinous feeling” (das numinose Gefühl)he must not be taken to be merely repeating the claim of “affect”, subjective emotion, to a place in any genuine religious experience. But it would certainly have been better had he always preferred the alternative phrase “the feeling of the numinous”. The word “numinous” has been widely received as a happy contribution to the theological vocabulary, as standing for that aspect of deity which transcends or eludes comprehension in rational or ethical terms. But it is Otto’s purpose to emphasize that this is an objective reality, not merely a subjective feeling in the mind; and he uses the word feeling in this connexion not as equivalent to emotion but as a form of awareness that is neither that of ordinary perceiving nor of ordinary conceiving. Certainly he is very much concerned to describe as precisely, and identify as unmistakably, as possible, by hint, illustration, and analogy, the nature of the subjective feelings which characterize this awareness; but that is because it is only through them that we can come to an apprehension of their object.

Scientists in general, I suppose, would not agree that the term objective could be used for that which is not discerned through the physical senses or their instrumental extensions; however, as a scientist who, on other than scientific grounds, believes in its existence, I should call the numinous a reality perceived by extra-sensory means. It is not itself an emotion like an affective feeling of love, joy or fear; it is something which is producing such feelings. Our awareness of it is most likely reaching us, I believe, as William James suggested, through the “half-open subliminal door.” At another point James says:

… the existence of mystical states absolutely overthrows the pretension of non-mystical states to be the sole and ultimate dictators of what we may believe. As a rule, mystical states merely add a supersensuous meaning to the ordinary outward data of consciousness. They are excitements like the emotions of love or ambition, gifts to our spirit by means of which facts already objectively before us fall into a new expressiveness and make a new connection with our active life. They do not contradict these facts as such, or deny anything that our senses have immediately seized.1

Because the word numinous used as a noun was intended by Otto to express the object of our feeling, rather than the emotion it produces, perhaps, in the title of this lecture, I should have put alongside it the “loveliness of nature” not the “love of nature”. The numinous is something like loveliness or beauty; it excites the divine spark within us.

Otto says that today the word holy contains for most people an element of moral goodness about it, but the numinous, he insists, is the element of the holy beyond the meaning of goodness. He takes it from the latin numen, meaning divine power or majesty. As omen has given us “ominous”, there is no reason, he says, why from numen we should not similarly form a word “numinous”. “The nature of the numinous can only be suggested by means of the special way in which it is reflected in the mind in terms of feeling.” In the deepest and most sincerely felt religious emotion there is in addition to faith, trust and love, this element which may profoundly affect us. The greater part of Otto’s book is devoted to a detailed analysis of the different components of this feeling.

Let us follow it up [he says] with every effort of sympathy and imaginative intuition wherever it is to be found, in the lives of those around us, in sudden, strong ebullitions of personal piety and the frames of mind such ebullitions evince, in the fixed and ordered solemnities of rites and liturgies, and again in the atmosphere that clings to old religious monuments and buildings, to temples and to churches. If we do so we shall find we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, “mysterium tremendum”. The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane”, non-religious mood of everyday experience.

It is most likely, I think, that different people experience the numinous in different ways according to their varying psychological make up. One of the components Otto gives prominence to is the “element of awefulness”—the sense of mystery—which for some people appears to merge into a sense of dread or fear like the eerie feeling that may be produced by reading a particularly good ghost story late at night. I know the feeling of religious mystery, but I must confess I have never myself experienced in a religious association the feelings of fear which I readily admit The Ghost Stories of an Antiquary once gave me. More important, for I think they are more generally felt, are the feelings which may be grouped under what he calls the “element of fascination.”

Here, too, [he writes] commences the process of development by which the experience is matured and purified, till finally it reaches its consummation in the sublimest and purest states of the “life within the Spirit” and in the noblest mysticism. Widely various as these states are in themselves, yet they have this element in common, that in them the mysterium is experienced in its essential, positive, and specific character, as something that bestows upon man a beatitude beyond compare, but one whose real nature, he can neither proclaim in speech nor conceive in thought, but may know only by a direct and living experience. It is a bliss which embraces all those blessings that are indicated or suggested in positive fashion by any “doctrine of salvation”, and it quickens all of them through and through; but these do not exhaust it. Rather by its all-pervading, penetrating glow it makes of these very blessings more than the intellect can conceive in them or affirm of them. It gives the peace that passes understanding, and of which the tongue can only stammer brokenly…2

He points out that both the element of the mysterious and of fascination, both in their highest development, lead to mysticism:

We saw that in the case of the element of the mysterious, the “wholly other” led on to the supernatural and transcendent, and that above these appeared the “beyond” (èπékelva) of mysticism, through the non-rational side of religion being raised to its highest power and stressed to excess. It is the same in the case of the element of “fascination”; here, too, is possible a transition into mysticism. At its highest point of stress the fascinating becomes the “overabounding”, “exuberant”, the mystical “moment” which exactly corresponds upon this line to the ÈπÉKELva upon the other line of approach, and which is to be understood accordingly. But while this feeling of the “over-abounding” is specially characteristic of mysticism, a trace of it survives in all truly felt states of religious beatitude, however restrained and kept within measure by other factors.3

He fully realizes that the numinous is not experienced only by Christians:

I recall vividly a conversation I had with a Buddhist monk. He had been putting before me methodically and pertinaciously the arguments for the Buddhist “theology of negation”, the doctrine of Anätman and “entire emptiness”. When he had made an end, I asked him, what then Nirvana itself is; and after a long pause came at last the single answer, low and restrained: “Bliss—unspeakable”.4

The writings of Rabindranath Tagore glow with the light and warmth of the numinous. These feelings of indescribable bliss are, of course, characteristic of all mystical experience. The testimony of the mystics must form a large contribution to our natural history of religion. I take that for granted. An important feature of the whole experience, common to the mystics of all great religious traditions is, in the words of Professor Grensted, “the complete and self-authenticating character of the ‘sense of presence’ which accompanies it.” Apart however from the real mystics, those exceptional characters who reach the higher flight of vision, there are all those who lead more normal lives but give us the same essential testimony, as so well expressed by Dean Inge:

It will be found that men of pre-eminent saintliness agree very closely in what they tell us. They tell us that they have arrived at an unshakable conviction, not based on inference but on immediate experience, that God is a spirit with whom the human spirit can hold intercourse; that in him meet all that they can imagine of goodness, truth, and beauty; that they can see his footprints everywhere in nature, and feel his presence within them as the very life of their life … 5

What Inge is here describing is the sense of the Divine immanence which forms so large a part of the numinous of Otto; particularly note that it includes the beauty of nature. I am sure that there is this link with the loveliness of the natural world. Otto says little about it, but he clearly recognizes it, for as an appendix to his book he gives the quotation from Ruskin describing his “conception of Sanctity in the whole of Nature” to which I shall presently refer (p. 117).

Otto has given us the name numinous for, and described something of the qualities of, what has really been at the heart of religion since the earliest feelings of mana and wakan of primitive tribes. It surprises me to learn that a number of theologians and others interested in the development of religious thought appear to hold the view that the sense of the Divine presence, which was so prominent in the gospels, only came to reappear in later history and to occupy a considerable place in religious philosophy comparatively recently through the work of Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Ritschl (1822-89). Professor Grensted for example writes:

In the Middle Ages the rational aspects of Christianity were worked out into the immense system of scholastic theology and faith as right belief was strongly emphasized. This was hardly modified, psychologically speaking, by the substitution at the Reformation of the inerrant Bible for the inerrant Church as the practical guide necessary alike to man’s reason and to his salvation. A more fundamental and subtly very far-reaching change of emphasis came much more recently with the influence of Schleiermacher and Ritschl, emphasizing the immediacy of religious experience and reasserting, in different ways, at one and the same time the primacy of direct “God-consciousness” and of ethical values as against cult practice and theological formulation6.

Or again Professor J. B. Pratt on p. 6 of his psychological study The Religious Consciousness writes:

This subjective nature of religion seems to be almost a discovery of our own times. The Eighteenth Century practically identified religion with theology, and it was not till after the psychology of Schleiermacher, on the one hand, and the evolutionary point of view on the other got well ingrained in the minds of writers on religion that the relatively subordinate position of any particular belief within the life of religion was appreciated.

Otto himself in developing his theme seems to imagine that he has had only this one forerunner, Schleiermacher, and in dealing with him I cannot help feeling that he is somewhat hypercritical. “Schleiermacher has the credit of isolating a very important element in such an experience. This is the feeling of dependence. But this important discovery … is open to criticism in more than one respect.”7 Or again “Schleiermacher’s exposition of his great discovery suffers from two defects …”8 and finally “Schleiermacher calls such an experience ‘intuition and feeling of the infinite’; we give it the name of ‘divination’.”9

Surely the feeling of the infinite, whether you call it intuition or divination, was not the discovery of either Schleiermacher or Otto. I welcome the introduction of the single name of the numinous for all the qualities that it embraces, but I would myself feel that its essence is that which is also essential for Plato and the Neoplatonists which so much influenced religion and Christianity in particular. It is this platonic thread I would suggest, that links together our feeling for the “numinous”, our love of nature and the inspiration of art. At the same time that Schleiermacher was writing in Germany, Coleridge in England was writing “A Hymn” which begins thus:

My Maker! of Thy power the trace

In every creature’s form and face

The wond’ring soul surveys:

Thy wisdom, infinite above

Seraphic thought, a Father’s love

As infinite displays!

From all that meets or eye or ear,

There falls a genial holy fear

Which, like the heavy dew of morn,

Refreshes while it bows the heart forlorn!

Great God! Thy works how wondrous fair!

And again he has a stanza in “The Aeolian Harp” with a remarkable biological philosophy:

And what if all of animated nature

Be but organic harps diversely formed,

That tremble into thought as o’er them sweeps,

Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,

At once the soul of each, and God of all?

In writing this he must surely have had in mind the theory of “plastic nature” developed by Cudworth, one of that important group of Cambridge Platonists in the seventeenth century; Cudworth’s views, and those of his colleague Henry More, had a marked influence on our great naturalist John Ray when he wrote his famous The Wisdom of God manifested in the Works of the Creation as is stressed by the late Canon Charles Raven in his Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion and Christian Theology10.

The Platonic tradition in religious thought was the subject of Dean Inge’s Hulsean Lectures11 at Cambridge in 1925. I believe his views are of profound importance for us in considering our Natural Theology of the future. His plea is for the recognition of a third type of Christian thought and belief to be considered as a line separate from those of the two main types called Catholic and Protestant but yet penetrating into them.

The three types [he writes in his preface] are happily not mutually exclusive. Just as there is a strong Evangelical element in the best Catholics, and just as many devout Protestants are earnest sacramentalists, so mysticism, and the Christian Platonism which is the philosophy of mysticism, are at home in all branches of Christendom. But I have claimed that the history of Christian Platonism, and the fruits which it has borne, justify its recognition as a legitimate and independent type of Christian theology and practice.

The influence of this third line of thought has been neglected, he believes, because it has never been political:

It did not form a party, but only a school of thought, and a rule of life. Its adherents kindled no fires at Smithfield, and were seldom sent to suffer upon them. They deplored the civil wars in the seventeenth century. They were accused of latitudinarian-ism under the Stuarts, of “enthusiasm” under the Georges, of “broad” tendencies under Victoria. And yet this type of Churchmanship has been found among High Churchmen and Evangelicals as well as among Liberals. It has established its right in the Church by a long catena of justly honoured names. This third influence comes down to us from the Renaissance, but it has a very much longer pedigree.

He stresses the remarkable fact that the study of comparative religion has revealed that a new spiritual enlightenment came to all the civilized peoples of the earth in the millennium before Christ. It was first felt in Asia, but then in Greece and Southern Italy in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. It is the recognition of an unseen spiritual world of eternal values behind the material world of the senses. It was this mystical faith, held first by the Pythagoreans, that Plato developed to give it a firm foothold in the west. From its revival in the Neoplatonism of the Roman Empire it passed into the theology and philosophy of the Christian Church. It is not my purpose to discuss the differences in theological opinions concerning the extent of this Hellenic influence which Dean Inge says “may confidently be called the Pauline and Johannine Christianity, though the theology of St. Paul is woven of many strands.” After its eclipse in the Dark and Middle Ages he shows it bursting out with a new and exuberant life in the Renaissance writers; our own Renaissance poetry, he says, is steeped in Platonic thoughts. And later, during the civil troubles of the seventeenth century, it reappears, and I quote again his words, “in a very pure and attractive form in the little group of Cambridge Platonists, Whichcote, Smith, Cudworth and their friends”—the group I have already mentioned. Passing on to later times he says:

The movement of emancipation, as usual, turned men’s minds towards Greece. After the French Revolution there was a remarkable outburst of Platonism in English poetry … The names of Shelley, Wordsworth, and Coleridge will occur to everybody, and the last two of these were, and wished to be considered, religious teachers. The influence of Plato is also strong in our great didactic prose writers, such as Ruskin, and Emerson in America.

He sums up his thesis in words which I feel have a special relevance for our Natural Theology:

The characteristics of this type of Christianity are—a spiritual religion, based on a firm belief in absolute and eternal values as the most real things in the universe—a confidence that these values are knowable by man—a belief that they can nevertheless be known only by whole-hearted consecration of the intellect, will, and affections to the great quest—an entirely open mind towards the discoveries of science—a reverent and receptive attitude to the beauty, sublimity, and wisdom of the creation, as a revelation of the mind and character of the Creator—a complete indifference to the current valuations of the worldling.

Dean Inge, of course, was one of the greatest disciples of Plotinus; his lectures that I have just been discussing were largely I think a development of the long study which went into his two-volume The Philosophy of Plotinus which formed his Gifford Lectures of 1917–18.

At the end of these lectures he gives a further summary of Neoplatonic characteristics which form a good supplement to those just given:

Neoplatonism differs from popular Christianity in that it offers us a religion the truth of which is not contingent on any particular events, whether past or future. It floats freely of nearly all the “religious difficulties” which have troubled the minds of believers since the age of science began. It is dependent on no miracles, on no unique revelation through any historical person, on no narratives about the beginning of the world, on no prophecies of its end. No scientific or historical discovery can refute it, and it requires no apologetic except the testimony of spiritual experience …

… Such independence of particular historical events, some of which are supported by insufficient evidence, gives great strength and confidence to the believer. But it does not satisfy those who crave for miracle as a bridge between the eternal and temporal worlds, and who are not happy unless they can intercalate “acts of God” into what seems to them the soulless mechanism of nature …

Neoplatonism respects science, and every other activity of human reason. Its idealism is rational and sane throughout.

I will now turn to the loveliness of nature; our love of it is, I am sure, part of this same mystical feeling that is the essence of the Platonic tradition. The two prose writers that Dean Inge singled out in this tradition were Ruskin and Emerson. Let me take this opportunity of reminding you or informing you if you did not know (I was ignorant of it until very recently) that Emerson was one of the authors that Lord Gifford most admired; his lecture on Emerson comes first in the little volume of essays which were privately printed and circulated among his friends after his death. In this essay we see clearly that Lord Gifford himself feels this same spirit:

For indeed [he says] the world is full of good and of excellence to those who will but take it. Every sky, morning and evening, gleams upon us with loveliness, if we but lift our eye to it, even from the city lanes. If you are a true lover you will find beauty every where.

Thou canst not wave thy staff in air,

Or dip thy paddle in the lake,

But it carves the bow of beauty there,

And the ripples in rhymes the oar forsake.

Let me next quote the remarkable passage from Ruskin to which Otto refers in an Appendix to his The Idea of the Holy. In it he describes experiences of his youth which, as Otto says, are purely numinous in character; they contain the elements of both joy and fear which Otto regards as characteristic of it and so link it with the love of nature. Ruskin writes:

Lastly, although there was no definite religious sentiment mingled with it, there was a continual perception of Sanctity in the whole of nature, from the slightest thing to the vastest; an instinctive awe, mixed with delight; an indefinable thrill, such as we sometimes imagine to indicate the presence of a disembodied spirit. I could only feel this perfectly when I was alone; and then it would often make me shiver from head to foot with the joy and fear of it, when after being some time away from hills I first got to the shore of a mountain river, where the brown water circled among the pebbles, or when I first saw the swell of distant land against the sunset, or the first low broken wall, covered with mountain moss. I cannot in the least describe the feeling; but I do not think this is my fault, nor that of the English language, for I am afraid no feeling is describ-able. If we had to explain even the sense of bodily hunger to a person who had never felt it, we should be hard put to it for words; and the joy in nature seemed to me to come to a sort of heart-hunger, satisfied with the presence of a Great and Holy Spirit… These feelings remained in their full intensity till I was eighteen or twenty, and then, as the reflective and practical power increased, and the “cares of this world” gained upon me, faded gradually away, in the manner described by Wordsworth in his “Intimations of Immortality”.12

How similar are the experiences of Richard Jefferies; but for him this sense of relationship with nature remained with him all his life to make his natural history writings a source of vivid joy to so many readers who have known something of the same elation. I quote from the final chapter of his remarkable The Story of My Heart.

I was not more than eighteen when an inner and esoteric meaning began to come to me from all the visible universe, and indefinable aspirations filled me. I found them in the grass fields, under the trees, on the hill-tops, at sunrise, and in the night. There was a deeper meaning everywhere. The sun burned with it, the broad front of morning beamed with it; a deep feeling entered me while gazing at the sky in the azure noon, and in the star-lit evening.

Or, as an example of this feeling, let me take a short extract from the opening paragraph of his Wild Life in a Southern County; he is describing an ancient earthwork on the downs:

The inner slope of the green fosse is inclined at an angle pleasant to recline on, with the head just below the edge, in the summer sunshine. A faint sound as of a sea heard in a dream—a sibilant “sish, sish”—passes along outside, dying away and coming again as a fresh wave of the wind rushes through the bennets and the dry grass. There are the happy hum of bees—who love the hills—as they speed by laden with their golden harvest, a drowsy warmth, and the delicious odour of wild thyme.

And now to Wordsworth. The love of nature is mixed with the wonder of it. It is this sense of wonder which is the source of inspiration of the true scientist as much as it is for the artist; those who lack it should rather be called technologists. To bring out this link I am going to quote from a scientist’s appreciation of Wordsworth, that by a zoologist, the late Professor Walter Garstang, which was published as a supplement to the scientific journal Nature with the title “Wordsworth’s Interpretation of Nature”13. Here we find that in his youth Wordsworth had the same mixture of joy and fear that Ruskin felt.

Wordsworth’s childhood and youth [writes Garstang] were spent with unusual freedom amid the sights and sounds of Nature, among hills and dales … He revelled unchecked amid them all, “fostered alike by beauty and by fear.”

His delight in Nature was closely akin to that which has inspired many famous naturalists, and his early sympathy with science was so clearly indicated that a slight turn of Fortune’s wheel at the critical period of his life might well have made a naturalist of him instead of a poet. In 1785, when a happy schoolboy of fifteen, he eulogised from his Lakeland home:

those Elysian plains

Where, throned in gold, immortal Science reigns,

and where Truth teaches

the curious soul

To search the mystic cause of things

And follow Nature to her secret springs.

After recounting the period of scepticism and hopelessness which came to Wordsworth after his return from France at the time of the Revolution, Garstang writes:

In early youth he had caught the vision of the all-embracing unity of things, which was lost in France, and had to be regained before he could accomplish anything. He sought to get a true view of life as a whole, of man in relation to Nature, even as a part of Nature; and when he had acquired it, poetry was the expression of his attainment.

I will quote a few more brief passages from this essay of forty years ago in the hope that some of the present generation may turn back to it and read it in full.

Put briefly, the argument and illustrations detailed at great length in “The Prelude” amount to this, that man is not outside Nature—the universe of law and order—but by his subtlest fabric intimately bound up with it. Divorce him in youth from free contact with external Nature and you rob him of Nature’s predetermined means of conferring upon him his share of her own grandeur, modesty and tranquillity…

Nature, indeed, was to Wordsworth a universal symphony, a harmony of infinitely varied elements, appealing to man through every sense and gateway to the heart. Some of his smaller poems, and innumerable passages in his longer works are just so many phrases and passages isolated from the general symphony for special purposes. The musical analogy crops up incessantly:

No sound is uttered,—but a deep

And solemn harmony pervades

The hollow vale from steep to steep

And penetrates the glades.

A soft eye-music of slow-waving boughs.

After discussing the difference between the scientific and the Wordsworthian outlook Garstang says:

On the lower plane of cause and effect there is no antagonism between the two points of view, for Wordsworth’s belief embraces in advance everything that science has established or may establish as to the orderly and interdependent character of the universe, whether viewed from without or from within. But on the higher plane, in the life of the emotions or spirit, the necessitarian chain simply drops away, and is seen as a mere substratum, conditioning results but not causing them. So long as imagination, or “faith”, maintains itself as “feeling” in that upper level, science, at any rate, can interpose no obstacles to its flight.

Take, as a test, this slight vignette:

A humming bee, a little trickling rill,

A pair of falcons wheeling on the wing.

The matter-of-fact man will see in these two lines a mere catalogue of three disconnected and trivial things of no significance; but to the Nature-lover they call up, with superb artistry, a fragment of the great world-symphony—summer peace with its muted sounds and leisured motions. To appreciate that fragment, or, better still, its original, is to enter, through the gateway of emotion, a realm in which the proudest generalisations of science are simply irrelevant.

One final example of Garstang’s appreciation of Wordsworth, (and this reminds us that he himself was a nature poet, as seen in his charming Songs of the Birds14):

But best of all his smaller Nature-poems, because simply lyrical, is, to my mind, his poem on the greenfinch (“Green Linnet”), in which he makes delightful play with the bird’s liveliness, protective colouring, and characteristic discontinuity of song:

My dazzled sight he oft deceives,

A brother of the dancing leaves

Then flits, and from the cottage eaves

Pours forth his song in gushes.

In fact, as the late Sir Walter Raleigh said, “the spirit of science has found no loftier or loyaller prophet than Wordsworth.”

I am sure that the sense of a divine element in the universe becomes more real to countless lovers of the countryside in nature herself than in the formal religious practices based upon any dogmatic theology.

Let me next take the views of another scientist who is also an artist: Professor Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, O.M., past President of the Royal Society; they are expressed in his Eddington Memorial Lecture for 1961 under the title of The Vision of Nature15. Perhaps only his close friends know that he paints, and paints very well. He writes as follows:

And now I come to a matter which seems to me to be of fundamental importance in the whole scheme of things. At a quite primitive stage of his development man reveals himself the artist.

He makes representations of other men and of animals, and he seeks satisfaction by decorating himself and his surroundings. Artistic representation is, I believe, sometimes said to be coupled with the idea of magic and the desire to gain power over what is represented. Primitive man might be imagined to depict animals in the hope of favouring his success in the hunt. Whether or not this is so I do not know. It may well be: and is possibly of great importance in anthropology. But I feel convinced that it is far from the whole story. Men draw and paint, carve and model because they feel an inner need to do so. This inner need is an elaboration of the urge to explore, grasp and understand what is around them; to control these things, indeed, though not in the crude sense of exerting magic power, but in the deeper one of making them part of the self. (p. II).

Regarding the anthropological significance of these early cave paintings I would draw attention to the views of the late Dr. R. R. Marett who, in his Gifford Lectures Faith, Hope and Charity in Primitive Religion (pp. 153–163), also saw in them something more profound than the supposed gaining of magical powers over the animals depicted. He points out that before the masterpieces could have been drawn on the rough wall surfaces in the dark with the aid of a flickering light, the artists must first have learnt to draw and paint in the light outside. The fact that they gave of their best and did not scamp their work, which was to lie hidden in the dark, indicates that they worked with a deep devotion. Let me now return to Sir Cyril Hinshelwood’s lecture; the following passages are taken from its last five pages:

There is a profound human instinct to seek something personal behind the processes of nature: and people are led both by intellectual and by emotional paths to the contemplation of religious questions. In so far as men seek to fuse their own personal worlds with the impersonal element in the external world they are pursuing the vision of nature: in their desire for communion with the universal and personal they pursue what I suppose through the ages they have meant by the vision of God…

The paths of art and poetry, science and religion are the means by which man grasps the universe, surrenders himself to it, identifies himself with it, loses himself in it, and, like the conquered absorbing their conquerors, strives to make it his in an ultimate identification of subject and object. This surely is the meaning of the passion for knowledge, the love of art, and the need for personal relations…

Scientists, artists, poets, theologians all form their images of the world. These are all incomplete, partial, relative, neither wholly true nor wholly false, but in any ultimate reality all must be comprehended, subsumed, transcended.

Whether an ultimate reality, timeless and absolute, is attainable, or even conceivable or whether there is only an endless evolution is a question on which I have nothing to say. But at least the former is not of this world in which life must be lived. And here something can indeed be said. To reject or ignore any of the aspects of the whole is to impoverish it: without poetry it loses colour, without art immediacy, and without science it loses structure and coherence. In the present age the scientific aspect is perhaps the occasion of the greatest and most adventurous activity: it presents the most vigorous growing-point. And the separation of the scientific and the humane is the falsest of false dichotomies, the disdain of science the most illiberal abstention from one of the greatest of human adventures. It is an adventure which brings with it control of external nature, and the betterment of the human lot, and by that alone it is sometimes justified. But consideration of means to ends must raise the question of the ends themselves. And to art and to science equally are applicable the words of Coleridge:

The primary imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation.

Here we are back at Coleridge and the platonic tradition.

I shall now, all too briefly, present the ideas on art and inspiration of the late Professor Alan Stephenson, F.R.S., the zoologist and painter who combined so remarkably the ideals and practice of both science and art. With the kind permission of his widow I wish to make better known his hitherto unpublished views by quoting from his posthumous and as yet unpublished book A Scientist looks at Modern Art. He writes:

I cannot persuade myself that there is anything to be gained by following the example of those writers who pretend that there is no such thing as beauty, or who explain it away by means of unconvincing definitions. Anyone capable of experiencing the vast and staggering volume of beauty in the world cannot adopt this course, which in the end explains away the writer rather than the beauty, which is impregnable. It would be easier to believe that we can only stand beauty in small doses, that it is something terrific by which we should be stunned if we had too much of it, as by the song of a thrush in a small room; this idea has been given poetic form in the legend that man cannot see the face of God and live …

What is beauty? A glimpse of heaven? A painter can transmit beauty without knowing it: if he feels beauty, it will leap from his brush to his canvas. He may not realise at the time that he has succeeded in recording it, but later it will stream back to him from the canvas, and perhaps almost frighten him, because it is a cosmic force…

When I speak of “a superhuman source”, of “heaven” or the “powers of the universe”, these words and phrases are not used in any religious sense, and imply no religious belief.

By religious belief he clearly means the creed of an orthodox theology, for a little later he writes:

When, therefore, I speak of “God”, I do not mean the God of the churches. I use the word, as any secular writer may use it, in the following sense. There is a widespread human feeling that man is not the only intelligence in the universe, and that behind him there may be a creator or guiding personality; men have an idea of an intelligence outside themselves. This feeling or idea is a reality, whether or no it is justified; and it is more concise and apt to refer to the entity imagined as “God” than to describe it in any other form of words…

We are familiar with some of the sources to which the results commonly attributed to inspiration can be traced. Thus it is well known that a painter, poet or musician may be “inspired” to high levels of achievement by the influence of a woman whom he admires; or that he may be similarly transported by an exciting sunset or a field of gentians…

But this is hardly inspiration in the full sense of the word. In the extreme case, inspiration is the transmission through the mind and hand of an artist, of something which reaches him from a personal non-human source, in other words from “God”… for our present purpose we can only examine the question of inspiration in the light of the fact that for all we know to the contrary there may be a God capable of transmitting an idea through a human mind and hand. We need not quibble as to the exact nature of such a God: for our argument we can think of him as a life force, an élan vital, a spirit of nature or any other conception which may suit our individual minds; but we can hardly think of him as lacking all personality, without making nonsense of any scheme we may work out.

Stephenson then goes on to describe the way painters work, how they have good days and bad days, and then how, when inspiration comes “the painter is conscious of power within him” and:

He can then do easily and unerringly things which on another day he can barely do with difficulty; or, even if he can do these things only with pain, he can do them. On such days it sometimes seems as if nothing can go wrong, as if any stroke he makes with his brush is at once the inevitable answer to his problem. In other words he acts as if he were inspired or guided by a mind surer than his own. In some cases a conscious feeling of inspiration may accompany such work. He may think “O Lord what a morning!” and feel that some outside power is painting a picture through the agency of his hand and eye, and that it can fail only in so far as he is himself an imperfect instrument. If he is satisfied with the painting when it is finished it is because he feels that it was painted through him from outside and has in fact very little to do with him. He may feel that no work succeeds unless he has been able to submit his mind to this flowing of the creative force through it, a feeling which may be expressed symbolically in such words as “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it”.

We have heard him say, concerning the feeling of something beyond the self which inspires the artist, that “this feeling or idea is a reality, whether or not it is justified; and it is more concise and apt to refer to the entity imagined as ‘God’ than to describe it in any any other form of words.” Whether or not this feeling is justified, that indeed is the question. Is it, or is it not, an entirely psychological effect? That is a question which, after many more facts have been gathered, the future science of natural theology should be able to answer. An important step in this direction is now being made by the experimental method within psychology itself. I can only very briefly call attention to this—to some no doubt surprising—scientific approach to the so-called “subjective”.

The study I refer to is one described by Professor Sir Cyril Burt in “The Psychology of Value”, in the British Journal of Statistical Psychology16. He opens with an amusing reference to the title of a lecture by Oscar Wilde: “Are the Critics of Hamlet Really Mad or Only Pretending?” and goes on to ask, in the same spirit, “Are the psychologists who criticize the notion of moral value really as unprincipled as they sound, or are they only pretending?” After pointing out the widespread belief that the modern followers of Freud and Watson are largely responsible for the marked decline in moral standards among the rising generation, he says that as scientists we must be “concerned primarily with the truth of the alternative views, rather than their possible consequences …”, and that “in its present phase the controversy had its origin in the sphere not of ethics but of aesthetics.” Towards a solution of this problem Sir Cyril and his fellow workers made experimental comparisons of aesthetic appreciation. Whilst the article is largely a reply to their critics, he makes a strong case for the scientific study of value and summarizes the results of this remarkable pioneer investigation; it is nothing less than an extension of the scientific method into a realm which for so long has been thought to be closed to this objective approach.

Psychologists and philosophers have often tried to reduce what we call “values” into other terms—for example “beauty” to that which gives pleasure, “goodness” to the greatest happiness for the greatest number and so on; after examining such proposals he shows that they all collapse and that we must conclude that the concept value is unique and irreducible. It would seem to follow that “value” and its different forms, goodness, beauty and truth, are logically primitive and therefore indefinable. “In that respect” he says “they resemble other relatively simple qualities that are directly experienced such as pleasure and pain, yellow or pink, the scent of a rose or the flavour of a vintage port.” Although we cannot define them we can, in different instances, say whether they are present in differing degrees or absent; and “this means that the appreciation of value implies a level of ability that is capable of apprehending relations.” Now he has not been content just to remain a theorist; it was to throw light on these issues that he undertook these experimental studies to demonstrate the truth or falsity of the propositions. He carries science into philosophy, just as we hope to see it carried into theology.

His experiments were based upon a wide variety of material and a representative panel of subjects (just over 200 men and women) from all walks of life; they involved not only quantitative methods such as paired comparisons and ranking, but also a questionnaire. His results confirm the view that value and differences in value are things that people directly apprehend. Let me give an example, but first I should explain that he divided his subjects into two groups: the more sophisticated (or “S” group) who were highly educated and might be influenced by their more specialized knowledge and theories, and the other, more ordinary, persons (or “O” group). I will now give his summary of one type of experiment:

I then show the subject two cards of similar size—one a coloured reproduction of the face of the angel in the London version of the Virgin of the Rocks, the other a coloured and rather vulgar postcard of an ill-drawn and intentionally repulsive female face. With these I ask first (i) what difference the subject notices. Sooner or later nearly all say that the former is “more beautiful” or the latter “uglier”. I then continue with much the same questions as before. [(ii) “How do you know?” (iii) “Do you think the difference is there independently of your noticing it? Would it still exist if no one were in the room, or if all living creatures were wiped out?” (iv) “Does the difference imply a difference of some specific quality or characteristic possessed by the two objects, and if so what?” (v) “Does this underlying characteristic also exist independently of your noticing it?”] In both groups nearly everyone says that he “just sees” the difference. A few in the S-group explain that they find the former “more pleasing”; one or two say that it comes closer to their ideal, or that it is sexually more attractive, sometimes adding that the other is more amusing: these are the nearest approaches to any suggestion that the judgement was based on feeling rather than on direct perception, and they are exceptional. For the most part the replies with these two cards are given much more promptly than the replies to the corresponding questions about size. Practically all the members of the O-group say that they consider the difference to exist even when it is not being observed. A few find it more difficult to say whether the beauty existed when not observed. In the S-group there is a marked tendency to discuss the matter as a theoretical problem.

He then tabulates the results, the figures being percentages of the total number of subjects in each group:

Comparison of Pictures O-group S-group
i Differences 95 97
ii How known    
  Direct perception 90 81
  Inference 0 4
  Emotional or affective 3 6
iii Differences independent of recognition? 96 73
iv Beauty independent of recognition    
  Yes 81 72
  No 2 11
  Doubtful 10 14

He now explains that:

… the mode of apprehension seems to resemble that of Gestalt-like qualities such as shape or order, rather than that of so-called secondary qualities such as colour, sound, or smell. Their judgements about beauty, and still more their judgements about goodness, they all, with a few exceptions, regard as statements of fact—assertions whose truth they would defend against any who ventured to contradict them.

Beauty thus appears to be a quality which we discover in certain objects and goodness a quality which we discern in certain actions; they are not unauthorized additions that we somehow impose on, or project into, the objects or the actions, as a result of our own private feelings or desires. It follows that the experience of value is primarily a process of a cognitive type, though, like all cognitive processes, it may be accompanied by affective or emotional processes, or be influenced by conative or appetitive tendencies, or modified by personal associations.

He goes on to point out that, whilst there are often marked individual differences in men’s judgements about beauty and goodness, the correlations between rank-orders obtainable from different individuals are almost invariably positive and much larger than usually assumed: the amount of agreement outweighs that of disagreement. If we could accept these results as they stand the natural inference would be, as he says, “that value, like shape and differences in shape, exists independently of human recognition and in that sense is genuinely objective, or at any rate more objective than subjective.” Whilst he admits that the evidence is by no means conclusive, being partly verbal as well as observational, it presents a strong prima facie case and “the burden of rebutting it is thus shifted on to the backs of those who want to discard it.”

Among his experiments Sir Cyril Burt also included one on “experiences of the sublime”—asking his subjects what was the most impressive experience they had had of beauty and the like. Here is the experimental method approaching the numinous or the mystical; about it I can only give one final quotation:

Quite unexpectedly, this turned out to be by far the richest of all the fields of inquiry to which these “axiological studies” have led. Here only the briefest summary is possible. Taken as they stand, the figures obtained indicate that experiences of this type are much more frequent than is generally supposed. At first sight they would seem to be commoner among the S-group than among the O-group; but that may be due partly to the fact that persons in the O-group more rarely find themselves in situations that are apt to trigger off such experiences, partly to their inability to recognize or put their experiences into words, and partly to a fear that they might be thought either “slightly pathological” or “unduly superstitious” or (as a Scottish girl put it) “a wee bit fey”. I found, as Galton did, that at the beginning of the interview, the person questioned would often return a slightly embarrassed denial, but, after his reticence had been overcome, he would later confess: “Well, there was one curious experience …”

I will end my lecture by referring to another important addition to this natural history: Marghanita Laski’s Ecstasy: a study of some secular and religious experiences. It is particularly valuable because it comes to us from the hands of an atheist17; it is a systematic study of human experiences entirely from a rationalistic standpoint. She draws upon three separate sources of material. Firstly from the answers given to a questionnaire she issued to some sixty friends and acquaintances who were willing to answer such questions as: Do you know a sensation of transcendent ecstasy? How would you describe it? What has induced it in you? How many times have you felt it and so on. Secondly she sought material from a number of literary sources: she was looking, she said, “for experiences superficially similar to those of the questionnaire group which their authors had thought worth communicating to the public”. And thirdly she collected examples from books about religious experience. The results of her survey, with the appendices of details of analysis, fill a volume of over 500 pages.

The reader must go to this original volume to get any idea of the scope of her studies; I am merely calling attention to them. She divides up her records of ecstatic experiences into five main categories. (1) The feeling of loss: i.e. loss of time, of place, of worldliness, of self, of sin and so forth. (2) The feeling of gain: i.e. gain of a new life, of joy, of salvation, of glory, of new knowledge, etc. (3) Ineffability: experiences which the person finds impossible to put into words at all. (4) Quasi-physical feelings: i.e. reference to sensations, suggesting physical feelings, which may accompany ecstatic experiences, such as floating sensations, a feeling of swelling up, an impression of a shining light and so on. (5) Feelings of intensity or withdrawal: an intensity experience is a feeling of a “winding up”, an accumulation of force to the point at which it is let go, whereas withdrawal is the opposite—an ecstatic condition reached “not by accumulation but by subtraction”, a feeling of withdrawal of force and energy. She analyses the records of experiences from her three separate sources of material—her questionnaire group (Group Q), her literary (Group L) and her religious examples (Group R)—under these five headings. She now estimates the percentage proportions occupied by each of the five categories of feelings as found in the analyses of all the records of the experiences within each of these three groups Q, L and R. What is indeed remarkable is the degree of similarity between these percentage proportions in each of the three groups. Her summary table, which I reproduce, shows this very well.

  Group Q % Group L % Group R %
Feelings of loss 17.1 23.1 22.8
Feelings of gain 47.8 43.0 44.9
Ineffability 1.4 1.8 4.2
Quasi-physical feelings 23.7 25.4 23.4
Feelings of intensity or withdrawal 10.0 6.6 4.8
  100.0 99.9 100.1
(The items do not add to 100 precisely because of rounding.)

Such results, with the examples of graphs that I reproduce in the last lecture (p. 91) illustrate the emergence of the new science from the realm of just descriptive natural history. It is possible to treat the relative occurrence of such “subjective” elements in quantitative terms.

Marghanita Laski’s studies make it quite clear that ecstatic states similar to those felt in mysticism are not entirely confined to experiences relating to what is generally understood by the term religion. We have already seen that the loveliness of nature can itself give rise to such feelings without them being associated with a distinctive theistic belief; and they can also be produced by the sudden realization of some new scientific insight. She quotes a saying by Einstein as follows:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the sower of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger … is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.

Arthur Koestler in his The Act of Creation quotes a remarkable passage from a speech made by Pasteur when he had been elected a member of the Académie Française and was replying to a welcoming oration:

I see everywhere in the world the inevitable expression of the concept of infinity. It establishes in the depths of our hearts a belief in the supernatural. The idea of God is nothing more than one form of the idea of infinity. So long as the mystery of the infinite weighs on the human mind, so long will temples be raised to the cult of the infinite, whether God be called Brahmah, Allah, Jehovah or Jesus… The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things. They bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language—the word “enthusiasm”—en theos—a god within. The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who bears a god within—an ideal of beauty and who obeys it, an ideal of art, of science. All are lighted by reflection from the infinite.

What are Miss Laski’s conclusions? From among them I quote the following:

But I do not believe that any explanations of these experiences can be satisfactory if they suggest that ecstasies are only this or only that—only a phenomenon of repressed sexuality or only a concomitant of some or other morbid condition. Certainly convictions are an insufficient substitute for evidence, but both people’s convictions of the value of these experiences and their substantial influence on outlook and language persuade me that these are of some evidential value in justifying the conclusion that ecstatic experiences must be treated as important outside religious contexts, as having important effects on people’s mental and physical well-being, on their aesthetic preferences, their creativity, their beliefs and philosophies, and on their conduct.

I do not think it sensible to ignore, as most rationalists have done, ecstatic experiences and the emotions and ideas to which they give rise. To ignore or to deny the importance of ecstatic experiences is to leave to the irrational the interpretation of what many people believe to be of supreme value. It is, I think, significant that we have no neutral adjective to distinguish the range of emotions, values, moral compulsions, felt truths that arise from ecstatic experience. Spiritual implies acceptance of pre-suppositions rejected by rationalists, and those who reject such pre-suppositions have sought rather to deny importance to ecstatic experiences than to examine them on the basis of their own pre-suppositions and to supply a vocabulary in which such examinations could be made…

I do not believe that to seek a rational explanation of these experiences is in any way to denigrate them, but rather that a rational explanation may prove at least as awe-inspiring as earlier interpretations… I should be content and happy to believe that ecstatic experiences are wholly human experiences; that what men have worshipped since ecstatic experiences were known to them was their own creative and generalizing capacity, and that the god they sometimes believed they had perceived in these experiences was indeed the logos.

I had wondered in what sense she used the word logos. Apart from the appendices it is the last, and I believe the most important, word in the book. It was clear that she could not mean by it the Hellenistic Christian concept of the fourth gospel; nor could she use it in the way the Stoics did, of the principle of life or reason working in dead matter, or as Philo did, attaching it to Platonism, as another name for Plato’s idea of the God as a creative activity. What the concept of the logos really means has always been a puzzle. I have now written to Miss Laski to enquire what significance she intended to attach to it. “By logos” she writes, “I mean ‘word,’ that is the ability to communicate consistently, both to ourselves and others, our generalisations. I suppose that the mystical accretions of logos derive from and come down to (or perhaps soar up to) just this.”

I believe that the word logos can indeed mean the divine flame, or in other words the en theos, the god within, as we have just recalled Pasteur using it. It is with the very nature of this god within and its relation to the universe without that our natural theology must deal.

  • 1.

    The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 427.

  • 2.

    The Idea of the Holy, p. 33.

  • 3.

    loc. cit., p. 36.

  • 4.

    loc. cit., p. 39.

  • 5.

    Lectures on Christian Mysticism, 1899 (p. 326), quoted by William James in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 271.

  • 6.

    The Psychology of Religion, 1952, p. II.

  • 7.

    The Idea of the Holy, p. 9.

  • 8.

    loc. cit., p. 149.

  • 9.

    loc. cit., p. 215.

  • 10.

    Especially the first series published as Science and Religion, 1953.

  • 11.

    The Platonic Tradition in English Religious Thought, 1926.

  • 12.

    Modern Painters, Popular Edition (George Allen), vol. III, p. 309.

  • 13.

    Nature, Vol. 117, Jan. 16, 1926.

  • 14.

    John Lane, London, 1922. And there is his beautiful and moving The Return to Oxford: A Memorial Lay (privately published, Blackwell, Oxford, 1919).

  • 15.

    Cambridge University Press, 1961.

  • 16.

    Vol. 16, pp. 59–104, 1963.

  • 17.

    I had originally written “agnostic”, but on showing my draft to Miss Laski she asked me to change it to “atheist” as more truly expressing her position: “one”, she says, “that has bearing on my conclusions and on which my conclusions bear.”

From the book: