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Lecture 2 Genesis and Value of Conceptions of Faith

Lecture 2
Genesis and Value of Conceptions of Faith
EVERY living religion that bears fruit in human life—that is every religion rooted in faith—begins with emotion whether produced by teaching and preaching or by our own contemplation of nature around us or by our wrestling with it and with our lot in life. Whatever it be that awakens religious life within us whether something that touches us directly or the fruit of the experience of others or even something that has been transmitted to them and assimilated by them in their own particular way it can only possess religious efficacy when our hearts are genuinely moved by it. I endeavoured to prove this in my first lecture. And I have already warned you and it may not be superfluous to reiterate my warning against confounding the beginning of religion which is merely the awakening of religious consciousness with its origin. Its origin lies more deeply rooted in man's nature. Perceptions can but awaken what already slumbers within us and more highly gifted persons may voice what has hitherto lain inarticulate and even unknown to us in our hearts but they cannot give us anything beyond what we already though unconsciously possess. They may reveal us to ourselves but they can only do so provided we are religiously predisposed. In others they arouse alarm dread surprise admiration or even discontent aversion and embitterment. When we speak in religious language of the soul being stirred or of its being touched by divine grace we can only do so because as the same language expresses it man is created in God's image and has affinity with the divine. We must reserve for subsequent consideration the precise nature of the disposition of mind in which faith manifests itself whether aroused by the impression of one's own experience or by the professions of faith made by others and the essential characteristics of that faith. Suffice it for the present to determine how it is born into the world.

We must be careful to avoid the not uncommon error of confounding faith itself with the conception of faith although indeed as already pointed out the emotion which calls it into life immediately transforms it into conceptions. We shall to-day consider the nature of these conceptions in general. And the first question that arises is How are conceptions of faith formed?

The well-known answer often given to this question and one that was defended at length by Professor Rauwenhoff a few years ago in his ‘Philosophy of Religion’1 is that conceptions of faith are the product of imagination. It is equally well known that this answer has been repudiated in various quarters and often with indignation as such a doctrine was supposed to undermine faith itself and banish it to the realms of fancy. Nor was it only the supranaturalists of the old school who took offence at this theory. For it was no less strongly objected to by persons who were of opinion that a rational religion could only be supported by rational reflection and therefore that the doctrine of belief to be of any value must be formed and reformed maintained and defended by reason. To say that conceptions of faith are a product of imagination seemed to the austere rationalist tantamount to saying that they are undemonstrated and undemonstrable nonsense.
For my part it has rather seemed to me a matter of surprise that so obvious and simple a truth should require any defence. It is just as axiomatic as the fact that we see with our eyes and hear with our ears with this qualification however which I must hasten to add that we could neither see nor hear as we do unless we had brains and that our imagination acts as that of reasonable beings. And this imagination is one of the noblest faculties of the human mind. Like a creative artist within us it presents us with living pictures of what we ourselves have never beheld and of things that have happened in the past or at some remote distance; it encircles the heads of those we love and revere with a radiant halo of glory; it builds for us an ideal world which consoles us for all the miseries and infirmities of actual life and for the realisation of which we can never cease to strive. Nay even upon our monotonous everyday life it sheds a poetic glow. But is it not a very dangerous faculty? Would it not be better for us as practical men of sense to get rid of the torments of this lively imagination and thus escape many a bitter disappointment? Or would it not be wiser in us simple mortals to refrain from such lofty flights which almost invariably result in a painful fall upon the hard ground of reality? No doubt if left to itself and unchecked by a clear intellect and a well-disposed heart imagination may be a very dangerous faculty and may lead to morbid fancies and even to fanaticism and madness. No doubt it is like a fiery steed which unless reined in with a firm and practised hand may carry its rider he knows not whither. Yet without it there would be nothing left for us but to crawl on the earth and eat dust like the serpent in the garden of Eden.
Let us therefore distinctly understand what imagination can and what it cannot do and what part it takes in the formation of our religious conceptions. It creates images and ideals but it borrows the materials for these from reality from observation and recollection. It is the imagination that unites into a harmonious whole the images reflected in our minds by perception and preserved by memory but which however rich and manifold are but imperfect representations of what really exists in the world of phenomena. By it alone the historian is enabled with the imperfect data at his command to sketch a picture of the past in what he believes to have been its true colours or of the progress of human development. By it alone the man of science is enabled to form an idea of the connection of phenomena and the laws which govern them; with its aid alone can the philosopher construct his system. With its aid also the religious man gives concrete shape to the faith that is in him by means of the image of an ideal future and a supernatural and divine world. But imagination can do no more. It can only create images which give utterance to some thought or give vent to some feeling. If it does not do this the images are but the vain fancies of a wandering brain and mere empty dreams. And accordingly when we call conceptions of faith the product of imagination we must lay special stress on the word conceptions as being the forms in which faith reveals itself. And indeed the emotions and the intellect contribute just as much to the conceptions as the imagination which forms them. Imagination embodies religious thought and religious feeling but thought and feeling are the essential and abiding elements. And therefore as soon as religious thought is deepened and religious feeling purified—as soon in short as the religious man is developed—there arises the need of new conceptions to express more accurately what he thinks and feels in his higher stage of progress.
Conceptions of faith have therefore no permanent and absolute value except as I shall presently point out to a limited extent only. And how should they? What do we see here of the Eternal except an uncertain reflected image? What image however lofty however sublime can adequately represent the Infinite? Even St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas recognised the fact that we can only approach God in spirit but that we cannot comprehend Him. And so too all sensible and devout people must be convinced that no conception of God no conception of the infinite and supernatural can be more than a feeble attempt to picture them to ourselves. And hence it is that images which long served to express the faith of many generations are superseded by others which satisfy new needs. We may admire the poetry and appreciate the religious thought expressed in the Homeric Zeus with his council of Olympians or in the God of Israel riding upon the Cherubîm or speaking in a still small voice after the terrors of the storm in the presence of His prophet who reverentially hides his face; but these conceptions no longer respond to our religious consciousness. We hesitate to think of God who is a spirit as being visible to mortal eye. It is only in parables or in the wearers of His image inspired by His spirit that we venture to figure Him to ourselves in human form. From our point of view therefore the picture of the father and his two sons the penitent whom he embraces joyfully and entertains sumptuously and the jealous elder son whom he seeks to appease with gentle forbearance will ever form the classic expression of God's all-embracing all-forgiving all-enduring love.
There is no doubt however that conceptions of faith possess relative though not absolute value. The religious man of every age and of every stage of development longs for something more than vague feelings or abstract philosophical ideas. He desires to behold his God if not with his bodily eyes yet with his mental vision. And this is proved by the whole history of religion. The less developed religions invoke the aid of art to represent their gods whom they desire to behold and to keep near them. Those again who deem their God too holy to be represented in human form are fain to surround Him with the images of His elect messengers and saints and above all of the only Mediator. Others who from dread of abuse and idolatry have refused to tolerate even this do not disdain the use of symbols and delight in pictures and other representations of sacred legends. And accordingly if any one desires to awaken religious sentiment by his words let him refrain from abstractions conceptions and logical demonstrations; but let him rather as a poet or prophet or preacher strive to make his hearers behold the Divine as he himself has beheld it.
In the formation of conceptions of faith therefore imagination is not the sole agent. All it does or can do is to give shape in our minds to the religious sensations we experience and to the thoughts awakened in us by these sensations. For thought contributes no less than feeling and imagination to the genesis of conceptions. It even precedes their operation. With every sensation there at once arises by virtue of our innate mental norm of causality the question Whence? And in religion as well as in philosophy this is really an inquiry as to the deepest foundations the highest Cause; and the invariable answer of the religious soul is A power not ourselves but a power above us on which we are dependent and with which we are yet related. This answer is not the result of long and deliberate contemplation or of a calm and logical argument but of a sudden and spontaneous process of reasoning of which we are ourselves unaware. It is only then that we form an idea of that power an idea more or less in accord with the nature of our first sensation. Religious conceptions therefore originate in no different way from those of the artist or the poet but they differ from them in one important respect. While the creations of art completely answer their object when they express æsthetic beauty though purely ideal religious conceptions on the other hand have no value as such unless supported by the conviction that they represent something real however imperfectly or unless in a word they are the expression of faith.
We now reach the vexed question What is the relation between belief and knowledge? Or to limit it to the special subject of our investigation What is the difference between the conception of faith and the propositions of science? The chief answers usually given to this question are well known. “They are diametrically opposed” says one of them; “the latter are founded on exact observation and are the result of clear and logical reasoning; the former scientifically speaking are mere guesses about things unperceivable and invisible and are therefore just as uncertain as the others are well founded. Any one may convince a man in his sound and sober senses of a scientific truth by means of a clear demonstration but nobody can prove the truth of conceptions of faith to any man who does not already possess faith. Knowledge is communicable faith is not.” “Conceptions of faith” so runs another answer “are the boundary-ideas of science; they form the necessary complements of human knowledge which because it is human cannot extend beyond what is perceivable.” And further it may be stated generally without mentioning various other answers in detail that there have been for ages past and that there still are Christian and non-Christian churches sects parties and schools which recognise the dicta of science only in so far as they do not conflict with their own conceptions of faith because they believe these conceptions to be founded on divine revelation or at least to be irrefragable convictions. We shall neither defend nor impugn any of these opinions directly. Apologetics and dogmatics are foreign to our subject. We consider the rights of faith to be just as well established as those of science; and we are convinced that when they come into collision it is because one or other of them has overstepped the boundary between their respective provinces. We need not here vindicate the rights of science while those of faith will be better vindicated by the final results of our investigation than by any long argument. But we must not pass over in silence the question as to the mutual relations between science and faith.
And in the first place we must distinguish between science and knowledge. No one qualified to judge will deny that such a distinction exists. Yet the two things are generally confounded. Knowledge is the sole and the indispensable material with which science works but it is not itself science. Every man of science must be learned and the more he knows or rather the more thorough his knowledge is the better; but every learned man is not a man of science. The latter must not only possess extensive and accurate knowledge but he must be capable of thinking clearly. Some fifty years ago it was a favourite saying that “knowledge is power” which has doubtless given rise to the modern system of overburdening the brains of our school-children; but knowledge like wealth is a useless and even dangerous power in the hand of those who know not how to wield it aright. All essential knowledge is acquired by observation and research and it is communicable to all who possess sound sense and the capacity to follow such research. In other words it is demonstrable and every unprejudiced person must admit the validity of the demonstration. But it is obvious that the knowledge thus acquired is of a totally different kind from what in religious language is usually termed the “knowledge of God” which is really identical with faith. In a certain sense it may be said that faith also rests on experience and that it is awakened by what we see hear and perceive; but the experience is an emotion of the soul and the religious man transfers what he beholds and perceives to a sphere which eye hath not seen nor ear heard. All conceptions of faith are inferences. Acquired by reflection and shaped by imagination they cannot be demonstrated like the results of research or imparted in the same way as knowledge.
Between knowledge and faith there thus exists a difference in kind. If the term knowledge be applied solely to facts ascertained by the perception of the senses and these alone be called truth faith becomes a very uncertain term and can lay no claim to the name of truth. But in that case science too would have to renounce all claim to certainty. And so likewise would many of the most cherished convictions which influence our actions and sway a great part of our lives—I allude in particular to confidence in the love of our relations and in the honesty and sincerity of our friends and fellow-workers and no less to our own self-reliance both of which are ultimately and necessarily rooted in faith but with which we are not now immediately concerned. For science—not in the limited English sense of the term which usually denotes the natural sciences only but in the wider sense now generally attached to it—science is not a collection or encyclopædic summary of all we know about a given subject but is a philosophic conviction founded upon what we know. Science is not attained by mere perception—which is indeed as much subjective as objective and never presents reality with absolute precision—but solely by means of reasoning from acquired knowledge and by means of hypotheses destined to explain the mutual connection between ascertained facts hypotheses which at first rise to the level of mere probability but which by the discovery of new facts may be established as laws. This applies also to the so-called exact sciences with the single exception of mathematics which is concerned with ideal dimensions and proportions and is therefore purely formal. But all the other sciences and in particular the historical and anthropological the so-called mental sciences start from a hypothesis without which we are unable to advance a step: I mean that intuitive belief in causal relation which is implanted in us by nature a belief which every one therefore takes for granted though no one can prove it. In other words they start from a belief. And thus where we are concerned not merely with ascertaining facts but with criticising explaining and combining them so as to build them up into a probable system the subjective element asserts itself; mood taste opinion and temperament play a foremost part; and a good deal must be left to intuition and æsthetic sentiment.
Between faith which strives on the basis of inward perception to form an idea of what lies beyond perception and science which kept within its proper bounds makes the perceptible the sole object of its research the opposition is not so absolute as is commonly supposed. If anything like perfect certainty reigns in the province of science how comes it that fierce conflicts so often arise between its different schools and parties? Nor is this merely the case when stupid and ignorant people are set to rights by lucid thinkers and sound scholars; for we often see the most distinguished men and the highest authorities attacking each other with a bitterness which pales the fire of the notorious odium theologicum. Science and faith are therefore by no means opposed to each other in the same way as certainty and uncertainty. Scientific theories and conceptions of faith are both attempts to explain what we perceive in nature and in mankind. The former do not go beyond the demonstration of the finite causes and the fixed laws which govern physical and mental life. The latter ascend to one or more supernatural causes in which everything that is finite has its origin. And neither these theories nor these conceptions are immutable: for with the advance of science the development of thought or the increase of moral insight both are liable to be modified or even entirely superseded by others. Both are the fruit of imagination as well as of reflection both start from what we behold and experience but one aims solely at explaining the world of phenomena from within itself while the other supplements that explanation by bearing witness to the existence of a higher world whence alone the visible world can be understood. To the man of science the results he attains appear more certain because the phenomena by which he can test them are more easily controlled; and superficial people who are blind to all that is not perceptible to the senses agree with him. But the religious man though well aware that the conceptions in which his faith are expressed form but a feeble reflex of the reality is no less assured of the truth of that faith and his assurance is justified by the instinctive dictates of his soul.
Can he then impart this assurance to others? This is what many doubt. I can expound a scientific theory so clearly and prove so plainly that it accounts for certain facts better than any other that every one who is capable of following my exposition without bias or prejudice must feel compelled to assent to it. This applies however solely to intellectual conviction. But in order to get others to assent to my conceptions of faith the most cogent argument will be fruitless unless their hearts are touched. However poetically sublime a conception may be however profound a doctrine however masterly and logical a system while we may admire it we cannot adopt it as the expression of our faith so long as our faith is different. There is indeed an old saying which rightly declares that no one can give us faith. Such is the argument. And it has been so often repeated that it has become a commonplace. I do not deny that there is some truth in it. But it does not follow that it is absolutely convincing or that we may draw the conclusion from it that a scientific theory may be imparted by means of rational demonstration while a conception of faith is incapable of being thus imparted. Let us examine the two propositions a little more closely. Are they so very different? We cannot make others participants of our beliefs if they are entirely destitute of faith for we cannot give them faith. But neither can we make them participants of our scientific conviction if they lack clear intelligence and sound judgment and these we cannot give them. In both cases there is a condition precedent to be fulfilled before our demonstration can take effect. In both cases we are powerless when we encounter stupidity or prejudice or unbelief. Surely then it is a mistake to maintain that science is communicable and faith is not. The true solution of the difficulty is in short to be found in the fact which no one will dispute that science and faith have each a special sphere and a peculiar character and that they must therefore be proclaimed by different methods.
How then can we impart our belief to others? Can we do so by the convincing force of our argument or by the strict logic of our demonstration? Certainly not. We can only do so when our words find an echo in their souls. It is unreasonable to demand that we should only adopt religious opinions after having carefully scrutinised the grounds on which they rest and after having convinced ourselves that they are not opposed to reason. How few there are who are in a position to do this! Surely then it is contrary to reason to insist that this is what should generally be done. Religious feelings are usually impressed upon us at a time of life when we are as yet incapable of such scrutiny by parents and teachers whose lessons interpret the prevailing opinions of society of the church and of the traditions of previous generations. If we fall under other influences at a subsequent period if we feel that what we learned and repeated in our youth ceases to respond to the religious needs of a more advanced time of life we can then form conceptions which satisfy these better or we can attach ourselves to some school of thought to which we feel specially attracted. But even then we are generally constrained by an impulse of the soul rather than by a scrupulous balancing of the for and against in a rational method. Argument the search for reasons and proofs is a thing that comes later when we are called upon to account to others for our religious convictions or are impelled by contradiction to justify our faith to ourselves.
In his chapter entitled “Authority and Reason” one of the most remarkable in his work on the ‘Foundations of Belief’ already cited Mr A. J. Balfour skilfully and to a great extent triumphantly refutes the view which has often been accepted as axiomatic that “Reason and reason only can be safely permitted to mould the convictions of mankind. By its inward counsels alone should beings who boast that they are rational submit to be controlled.” And he combats the popular prejudice “that authority serves no other purpose in the economy of nature than to supply a refuge for all that is most bigoted and absurd.” He adduces various examples to show that this is largely imagination and that in so general a sense at least it is contradicted by the actual facts. At the close of his comprehensive argument he determines the relative positions of Reason and Authority in the formation of belief. He recognises the fact that to Reason is largely due the growth and sifting of our knowledge and the systematising of the conclusions of our learning; that to Reason we are in some measure beholden for aid in managing our personal affairs in so far as they are not already controlled by habit; and lastly that Reason also directs or misdirects the public policy of communities within the narrow limits permitted by custom and tradition. Whatever other influence it exerts is indirect and unconscious. But all these operations of Reason are trifling compared with the all-pervading influences of Authority which at every moment of our lives moulds our feelings aspirations and beliefs whether as individuals or as members of society. And this according to the view of this acute thinker is very fortunate. For reason is a power which divides and disintegrates and there is much more need of “forces which bind and stiffen without which there would be no society to develop.” And although he admits that Authority has often perpetuated error and retarded progress Reason has not always been productive of unmixed good. We owe to Authority rather than to Reason our ethics our politics and above all our religion. Upon Authority depend the elements of our science and the foundations of our social life and by Authority the superstructure of society is cemented. “And though it may seem to savour of paradox” he concludes “it is yet no exaggeration to say that if we would find the quality in which we most notably excel the brute creation we should look for it not so much in our faculty of convincing and being convinced by the exercise of reasoning as in our capacity for influencing and being influenced by the action of Authority.”
If we were disposed to banter we might say that such a philosophy was of course to be expected of a statesman clothed with authority and a member of the Government but that we should probably hear a totally different opinion if the speaker were sitting on the benches of the Opposition.
But it is with the philosopher alone and not with the statesman that we have to deal. And there is indeed so much truth in his reasoning that we are much more inclined to agree than to disagree with him. For it would be of little use to maintain that authority has so much more influence over us particularly in social life and in religion only because humanity in general is so backward in rational insight and that it is only the élite who are guided by Reason while the mass of mankind is impervious to its persuasion. And it would be a mere trifling with words to say that Reason also is in its way a kind of authority from which when it is once brought home to us we cannot escape. But we cannot accept the proposition of the learned author without reserve or at least further explanation. What is here meant by Reason and what by Authority? Is reason merely the faculty of arguing criticising and sifting with full consciousness? If so we certainly are not indebted to it for our religion or even for our conceptions of faith. But reason which indeed also acts within us unconsciously embraces far more than the purely intellectual faculty of criticising and combining which to a less extent belongs to the lower animals also and enables them to understand our commands. It is the faculty which differentiates the self-conscious human spirit from the intelligence of the lower animals and enables him to form abstract ideas to ascend from the particular to the general and to investigate the cause and effect the origin and destiny of things. And probably no one will dispute that it is precisely to this category that religious conceptions belong.
And what is Authority? The meaning of the term is certainly not invariable. There is a usurped authority which can only be maintained by force and fear. Some submit to it from ambitious motives or because they think it to their advantage. But most people obey it unwillingly and under compulsion alone and throw it off as a burdensome yoke as soon as they see a chance of success. And it matters little whether the authority is wielded by the powers above us by the State or the priesthood or by some domestic tyrant or perhaps by our equals or inferiors who try to force their ideas and prejudices upon us by the sheer force of numerical majority. To bow before such authority is degrading to every rational being. It begets hypocrites and infidels. And a faith which has no other foundation is undeserving of the name. And there is also a deceptive authority exercised by plausible sophists and demagogues whether blind leaders of the blind or persons who know better but are actuated solely by mercenary motives or ambition. We must therefore make sure when we are urged to reverence authority that it is a legitimate authority. The only legitimate authority is that of our mental or moral superiors gifted experts in science or art profound thinkers men or women of character and weight sages and saints. Their authority is legitimate for it is founded upon their actual superiority. It does not require to be maintained by force or fear. Those who are modest and not entirely devoid of self-knowledge submit to it willingly not with the passive obedience of slaves or with blind reverence or with thoughtless imitation but because they feel that it opens their eyes to a clearer light and rouses their souls to higher enthusiasm; or to use Mr Balfour's language because they find themselves brought into a mental state which gives them greater peace into a spiritual atmosphere where they breathe more freely. Be it noted then that personal influence and superiority even in the province of science to a greater extent than people think but chiefly in that of religion are the most powerful levers. We cannot impart our belief to others by cold reasoning; we can only win them over and carry them away by the fire and fervency of our conviction. And in adopting that belief they usually accept along with it the conceptions in which it is conveyed as being its most appropriate embodiment. It is therefore undoubted that like so many other elements in our intellectual moral and emotional life our religion and faith also largely rest upon authority or at least emanate from authority the authority of tradition instruction and personal superiority. But it is no less true that such a faith is valueless and that such a religion lacks vitality unless they have found in our souls an echo of which our minds bear witness. For the only true and legitimate authority is not that of arguments which are often deceptive nor that of man's individual reason but solely that of truth a heritage handed down to us by our ancestors a light kindled by the most gifted of our contemporaries awakening whatever truth has been slumbering within us—a process whether we call it insight or feeling or conscience which is ultimately nothing but the authority of Reason or to use a religious expression the authority of the divine spirit within us.
In conclusion those who entertain religious convictions hold them no less firmly than those who have scientific convictions. To impart them to others is not more difficult and in some respects is even easier than to induce them to accept scientific propositions. But there is a difference. We cannot possibly define faith by means of dry mathematical formulæ or symmetrical syllogisms or cold abstractions of metaphysics without committing moral suicide. Faith can only embody in images in symbols and allegories in legends and parables its bold aspirations and its speculations soaring above the finite and transient. Not because it stands on a lower platform than science but because it has a higher aim. It must make shift to express itself in a language which is too poor to express everything. It is so to speak a king in exile a son of God in human form. Those therefore who in order to prove that it does not conflict with common-sense seek to bind it down to commonplace everyday morality and thus rob it of all beauty and fragrance render just as poor a service to religion as those who maintain that the dogmatic in which they sum it up for their own convenience or that of their generation is itself the eternal and immutable truth. Schopenhauer whom we may admire for many excellent and true sayings without adopting his pessimism pointed out long ago that it is a common mistake of Supranaturalists and Rationalists to seek for pure literal and unveiled truth in religion. “This however is to be sought for in philosophy alone; religion”—or as I should rather say religious conception—“only possesses an indirect emblematic allegorical truth.” “Rationalists are worthy people but dull fellows;” “Those who try to find the plain and naked truth either in the domain of history or in that of dogma are the euhemerists of our time.” The supranaturalists do not perceive that their doctrine is but the husk of profound and weighty truth which cannot be rendered intelligible to the great majority of people in any other way. “But religion is well adapted to satisfy the indelible metaphysical requirements of mankind and with most people forms a substitute for pure philosophic truth which is difficult and perhaps impossible of attainment.”
I can only accept this last utterance of the philosopher with some reserve. But this brings us to the important question of the relation between religion and philosophy or rather between the doctrine of faith and philosophy a question too extensive and weighty to be disposed of without due deliberation. We shall therefore proceed to consider it in our next lecture.