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Lecture Second: Stages in the Evolution of Theology

IN the last lecture I said that Theology begins in Greece, or at least that it is not necessary to trace it farther back; for it is there that we find philosophical reflexion, upon religion as upon other subjects, for the first time distinctly emancipating itself from sensuous images, and attempting to define its objects by their essential nature and relations to each other. Theology is religion brought to self-consciousness. It is the reflective analysis of the consciousness of God in its distinctive form, and in its connexion with all our other consciousness of reality. In this technical sense the word Theology first appears in Aristotle, as a name for what was afterwards called Metaphysic, the science which seeks to discover and exhibit the fundamental principles of Being and Knowing, and which therefore finds its ultimate object in God. But, while the word is not found before Aristotle,1 the thing itself already exists in its full development in Plato, who, for good or evil, is deeply imbued with the theological spirit, and might, indeed, justly be called the first systematic theologian. In other words, he is the first philosopher who grasped the idea that lies at the root of all religion, and made it the centre of his whole view of the universe.

Now, that which underlies all forms of religion, from the highest to the lowest, is the idea of God as an absolute power or principle. For, as I have attempted to show elsewhere,2 the religious consciousness, in its essential meaning, is the consciousness of a Being who embraces all our life and gives unity and direction to it, who lifts us above ourselves and binds our limited and transitory existence to the eternal. It is the consciousness that all our finite experience presupposes and rests upon a principle which comprehends all its various contents and transcends all its differences. It is, finally, the consciousness that, beyond all the objects we perceive without us, and beyond all the states and activities of the self within us, there is a unity which manifests itself in both, and from which neither can be separated. Now, such a consciousness is not an arbitrary product of circumstances; it is a necessary condition of the development of the mind of man, an experience which, in some form or other, man must make as he comes to realise the meaning of his own life, an idea which is presupposed from the first in all science and all morality, and which must rise to the surface when their nature is understood. It is seldom, indeed, that we recognise fully and distinctly the unity of the whole in which our existence is contained. But when we analyse our experience, and search out its ultimate conditions, we are forced to realise that all that we know is known as a factor in one experience, the experience of one world, and that such a unity is the presupposition of all our consciousness, both of ourselves and of other objects. The idea of the continuity and self-consistency of the intelligible world, as a system which throughout all its differences is the manifestation of one principle, may seem at first to be a distant and difficult conception; but it is in reality very near to us, and indeed may be shown to be the source of all our spiritual life. To think, to feel, to will—all the forms of our consciousness—are ultimately bound up with the idea of an all-comprehending whole; and to believe in a God is, in the last resort, simply to realise that there is a principle of unity in that whole, akin to that which gives unity to our own existence as self-conscious beings. Nor is the truth of this statement affected by the fact that it is the result of a reflective analysis of belief, which goes much beyond the immediate consciousness of the believer.

Now, if this be the real or ultimate meaning of religion, as I have attempted elsewhere to show, we are obliged to draw a marked contrast between the religious and the profane or secular consciousness. The secular consciousness—i.e. our ordinary unreflective consciousness of ourselves and the world—starts from the division and separation of things; it takes them all, so to speak, as independent substances which might exist by themselves, and whose relations to each other are external and accidental. It deals primarily with the finite, with the manifold forms of existence which limit, and are limited by each other in space and time; or, if it rises to the eternal and infinite, it is only as to something beyond and far away—something that is not present in experience, but which the limitations and imperfections of experience make us suspect or aspire to, a transcendent something, which we can neither name nor define except as the opposite of the finite. The religious consciousness is the direct antithesis of this way of thinking. It, so to speak, turns the tables upon the whole secular system of thought, beginning where it ends and ending where it begins, “burning what it adores and adoring what it burns,” denying or treating as phenomenal and illusive what it regards as most real and certain, and regarding as the first principle of knowledge and reality what to it is the vaguest of abstractions. In other words, the first concern of religion is not with the difference of things from each other, and from the subject that knows them, but with the unity that underlies all these differences. It demands that we should not regard the whole as the sum of the parts or particular existences presented to us one by one in our ordinary experience, but rather that we should regard the parts as having a dependent and derived life, which cannot for one moment be severed from the life of the whole, or from the principle of reality which reveals itself therein. If, therefore, it does not deny all reality or independence to the finite, yet it looks first and last to God as the unity from which all comes, to which all tends, and in which all is contained. In its conception of things it takes its stand not at the point of view of any one of them, but at the point of view of the universal principle, in relation to which they are and are known. The language of the natural man—if we may use that expression for the man whose thoughts and feelings are least influenced by religion—would be something like this: “I know most surely and certainly the things which I can see and handle, the outward objects I apprehend through my senses; I also know, in a way, the self within me—though about the soul or self there is something dark and mysterious whenever I try to realise its nature as other, and yet not other, than the body. But when I seek to rise above myself and the objects I perceive, and to think of a Being who is neither the one nor the other, and yet somehow is the source and end of both, I seem to lose all solid basis either for knowledge or belief, and to be trying to give substance to a dream.” On the other hand, the language of the man who looks at the world with the eyes of religion must rather be something like this: “I may be deceived, and am often deceived, as to the things without me, which at best are ever passing and changing. Of the self within me I have a more stable consciousness, as bound up with all that I know or feel, and as the source of a moral ideal which I cannot but regard as absolute; but even the self seems to escape me when I think of the limits of my earthly existence and of the rapid alternations of my thoughts and feelings. Of one thing, however, I am sure, of the abiding presence and reality that holds together all the shifting phases of the outer and the inner life, of the all-embracing, all-sustaining unity in which I and all things ‘live and move and have our being.’ Though all else should fail me, I am certain of God.” The religious consciousness, therefore, overturns all ordinary standards of value, and sets up a new standard in their place, a standard derived, not from any one finite existence or end, but from the relation of all finite existences and ends to the infinite. For, if the thought of God be admitted at all, it must claim everything for itself, and can leave nothing for Cæsar or for any other power. It cannot but demand that we should both understand and estimate everything else in relation to it, that all our knowledge of the universe should ultimately be brought to a focus in the knowledge of God, and that all the objects of our will should be valued only as means to the realisation of God in the world.

Now, it may be said, in objection to this view, that such a complete religious inversion of our ordinary consciousness of reality, such a ‘transvaluation of all values’ in the light of the infinite, goes very far beyond what we find in many religions, and that, indeed, it is a rare phenomenon even in the highest religion we know. In many religions God seems hardly to be regarded as an absolute being at all, but rather to be identified with some finite object or objects, or at least with some such object idealised, transfigured and lifted by imagination above the ordinary levels of finitude. And even when a more spiritual conception of divinity is attained, yet the relation of the individual to his God often takes a form which seems greatly to fall short of any such consciousness as I have described. It seems to be rather the relation of weak creatures to one who is far stronger than they, and from whom, therefore, they have much to hope and to fear—a relation which, even when it takes the form of admiration and love, is still analogous to the dependence of one finite being upon another, and not the unique consciousness in a finite creature of his union with the Infinite, in whom he loses, and in whom alone he can find himself.

Such objections can be met, in the first place, by showing that the religious consciousness, as the consciousness of the whole to which we belong, and of the supreme reality of the principle of unity in that whole, is involved in all our consciousness of the universe and of ourselves: and in the second place, that this principle, though involved in all our thought and activity, is for that very reason the last to be clearly apprehended by us. Aristotle's assertion that that which is first in nature is last in time, has its highest exemplification here. In the history of man religion does not at first reveal itself in that which is its true or adequate form. It represents God purely as an object or purely as a subject, as manifesting Himself purely without, or again purely within us, before it rises to the consciousness of God as God, the one principle of all knowledge and reality. Yet, even from an early period the true idea is silently working under the imperfect forms of its expression, and giving indications of itself in many ways, especially in the language of worship; for, under the sway of religious emotion, the individual is often carried beyond the limits of his ordinary thought. And the whole history of the evolution of religion is a record of the process whereby it gradually reveals what was latent in it from the beginning and finds ever better ways of representing its object, and whereby these again react in producing a truer relation of the individual to that object, as the principle of his own life and of the life of all things.

Such considerations—which I have dealt with more fully in another course of lectures3—may be sufficient to meet the difficulty of recognising in the various forms of religion what I have asserted to be the principle that underlies them all, and is more or less distinctly expressed in every one of them. Here, however, we have to deal not with religion but with theology, the science or philosophy of religion. And theology, as we have seen, is just religion brought to self-consciousness, and endeavouring reflectively to criticise and interpret its own unconscious processes. Theology begins, therefore, as soon as the immediate process of religious life, the direct movement by which our minds rise to the consciousness of God, ceases to be sufficient for itself. In other words, it begins when the mind turns back upon itself to question the results of its own spontaneous activity. Here, as elsewhere, science arises in doubt, a doubt which makes the mind retrace in reflective thought the path in which it has been led by its first imaginative intuitions of truth, and ask whether it can justify in whole or in part the results at which it has arrived. And the question thus raised is one that brings with it more searching of heart than any other which arises in the transition from intuition to reflexion, from the ordinary consciousness to science. For religion does not affect merely one aspect of life or one department of things. A man's real religion, whatever he may profess, is the summed-up product of all his experience, the ultimate attitude of thought and feeling and will, into which he is thrown by his intercourse with the world. And though this attitude of mind is, in the main, due to the working of what we call unconscious reason, yet the whole nature of man as a rational being comes into play in producing it. Hence the awaking of conscious reason to sift and criticise religion, must bring with it a more serious disturbance of the existence of man than any other critical reaction of thought upon life. It must give rise to a movement of doubt and denial, and ultimately to a sifting process which, even if it restores the fundamental principles of earlier faith, yet inevitably makes great changes in its form, and rejects so much that had formerly seemed essential, that sometimes it is difficult to detect the identity which maintains itself through the change.

Now, this remark has a special application to the development of theology in Greece. The religion of Greece, indeed, especially in its later humanised polytheism, marks a great advance in the spiritual history of man, a higher appreciation both of his own nature and of his relations to the world than can be discerned in earlier religions. Greek mythology, as it appears in Homer, in Pindar, and in the Tragedians, already shows the same freedom of spirit, the same large outlook upon the facts of human life and destiny, which at a later time manifested itself in the speculations of its philosophers. The Greek poets, indeed, wielded their imaginative symbols so freely, as a means of expressing all their thoughts and feelings, that the mythology they created or remoulded is like a collection of transparent allegories, through which spiritual truth is conveyed; and it was but a short step for the philosophers who came after them, to drop the symbols altogether and adopt the abstract language of thought. At the same time the imaginative form of Greek mythology exposed it in a peculiar way to the attacks of scepticism, so soon as the intellect of Greece had awakened to the distinction of poetry from prose. The delicate moonlit web of poetic fiction which the Greek imagination had woven around the crude naturalism of pre-historic religion, insensibly softening, colouring, and idealising it, could not maintain itself in the daylight of a critical age. Hence, at least in all the educated classes, there was a rapid collapse of faith; and philosophy seemed to have had thrown upon it the task, not only of interpreting religion, but, as it were, of providing a new religion out of itself. Bacon declares that with the ancients moral philosophy took the place of theology: he should rather have said that it tried to supply the want caused by the failure of popular religion. Indeed, the greatest of all the differences between the religious development of Greece and that of Christendom lies just in this, that, in the former philosophy at once breaks away from the tutelage of faith and asserts its independence, nay, claims to provide the only true basis on which the moral and spiritual life can be supported; whereas, in the latter, there is a long period during which philosophy remains strictly the ancilla fidei; and when it emancipates itself, it cannot be said, even with those who are most influenced by philosophical reflexion, to substitute itself for the religion of faith, but only to seek a rational basis for it, and to subject it to a sifting criticism.

A consideration of these facts enables us to make a preliminary division of the field which a complete history of theology would have to traverse, and to distinguish three main periods in that history, namely, the period of Greek and Roman antiquity, the Christian era down to the Reformation, and the modern period. In these lectures I shall confine myself almost entirely to the first of those periods; but it may do something to put our enquiries in their proper setting if we begin by sketching out, in however imperfect a way, the whole field of investigation.

In the first period, the period of Greek and Roman antiquity, philosophy is almost absolutely free, hardly even troubled by any counter-claim of authority, in its attempts to discover the nature of things and of the Being in whom all reality centres. The poetic conceptions of early religion could not, as I have said, stand for a moment the shock of criticism. Sometimes, indeed, we find early philosophers treating mythology as an allegory of the higher truth which is expressed in their own doctrine, while at other times they attacked it as untrue, or set it aside as irrelevant. Seldom or never do we find them treating it as having any value in itself. And if Plato recognises that some other kind of teaching than that given by philosophy is necessary for men in the earlier stage of their intellectual and moral education—necessary for all in whom the power of philosophical reflexion has not been, or cannot be developed—yet he regards the actual mythology as altogether unfit for such a purpose, and looks for the creation of a purified body of myths which should convey a better ethical lesson. And, on the other side, closely as religion was bound up with the political life of Greece, we hear of very few attempts to interfere with the freedom of speculation to criticise and refute it. The attack made upon Anaxagoras for the impiety of his physical theories was really aimed at Pericles, whose friend he was. And Socrates is the only martyr of philosophy in the ancient world, the only man who can be said to have suffered for the freedom of thought. After his time philosophy became the natural refuge of all those whose spiritual needs could not be satisfied by the decaying superstitions of the ancient world. The decline of that independent political life of cities, with which the religion of Greece had been so closely connected, deprived that religion of half its meaning; and under the empire of Rome the educated classes in ever-increasing numbers found moral support and guidance in the teaching of one or other of the philosophical schools. It is true that to a certain extent the Stoics, and to a still greater extent the Neo-Platonists, endeavoured by an allegorising method to revive in some degree the life of mythology, and even to find some rational meaning in the ritual and ceremony of popular religion. And there were some in later times, among whom the most celebrated is the Emperor Julian, who took seriously this curious amalgam of philosophy and superstition. But, at the most, it could only be said that philosophy patronised the popular religion, and not that it formed a real alliance with it, still less paid to it any real deference.

It may then safely be said that ancient philosophy was, at once and almost without effort, free. If it owed much to the religion from which it emerged, it was hardly at all conscious of the debt. And perhaps its imperfection was partly due to the very ease with which it won its freedom. In spiritual things the greatness of the price we pay, has much to do with the value of the good we acquire. And one consequence of the facility with which criticism disposed of the primitive faiths of the ancient world was, that the purely intellectual life, the life of philosophical reflexion, tended too much to withdraw upon itself and to disconnect itself from the life of feeling and impulse, to break away, in short, from the unconscious basis out of which the life of consciousness arises. This exaltation of conscious as opposed to unconscious reason begins with Socrates, who in teaching that ‘virtue is knowledge’ seemed to cast contempt on any virtue which is not the product of distinct reflexion upon the ends of human existence, any virtue that depends upon rule and habit, or upon the influence of society in drawing out and disciplining the moral energies of man. And though, as we shall see, this defect was partly corrected by Plato and Aristotle, who laid increasing weight upon habit and social training, yet these great writers repeated the same error in a more dangerous form, when they exalted the intellectual above the practical life, and treated the former as that in which alone man could be said to rise into unity with the divine. Against this undue exaltation of the intellect there is a partial reaction in the later schools of the Stoics, Epicureans and Sceptics, in which the guidance of practical life again becomes the great object of philosophy. But this change is less important than it seems. For in these schools ethics was almost entirely divorced from the wider social interests with which in earlier times it had been concerned, and confined to a consideration of the ways in which the inner independence and harmony of the individual soul might be maintained. The Roman Empire, while establishing outward order and organisation of life among all the races submitted to its rule, had exercised a disintegrating influence upon all the social and political bonds that had hitherto held them together. And philosophy could only accept the result and endeavour to fortify the individual man in his isolation, and to bestow upon him that strength of heart and moral self-sufficiency of which he was in need. Hence, even more than Socrates, the Stoics and Epicureans tend to concentrate attention upon the inner life, as a sphere to be regulated by conscious reason and deliberate purpose; and they show even less respect than he did for the movements of natural feeling and immediate impulse. Their philosophical religion is a creation of abstract thought which hardly attempts to connect itself with experience, or to find any interpretation of it. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius live in an ideal world, which they hold, indeed, to be the only reality, but which they hardly attempt to bring into any rational connexion with the facts of their external lives. They are optimists, who yet take an almost pessimistic view of the actual conditions of existence in which they find themselves. Their philosophy is rather a refuge from the confusion and evil they see around them than a means of removing the appearance of confusion by throwing upon it the light of a higher truth. They seek not to overcome the world but to make themselves indifferent to it. And with the Neo-Platonists, the last of the Greek schools of philosophy, this tendency to withdraw from life and all its problems becomes still more marked. The higher claims of contemplation, which had been asserted by Plato and Aristotle, are again put forward and in a still more exclusive sense; for while Plato and Aristotle sought to bring all nature and all the interests of human life within the scope of philosophy, and had made theology only the culminating phase of science which brings all its varied results to a final unity, with the Neo-Platonists this unity becomes in itself the main and, we might almost say, the sole object of interest. Thus theology, absorbing the whole life of philosophy, is emptied of its contents, or rather has for its whole content the bare idea of religion. That idea, indeed, is expressed in Plotinus with a depth and comprehensiveness which has hardly anywhere else been equalled; but we might perhaps say that with him the idea swallows up the reality. Man is left, as it were, alone with God, without any world to mediate between them, and in the ecstatic vision of the Absolute the light of reason is extinguished.

It appears, then, that in ancient philosophy thought is free; but, as it did not pay ‘a great price’ for its freedom, as it gained that freedom without any hard struggle with faith and social authority, its emancipation made it lose hold of reality. It tended in the end to an exclusive intellectualism, in which the form of thought was opposed to the matter, and the actual world was not idealised or spiritualised, but rather condemned as unideal and unspiritual. Nevertheless, the debt of philosophy and theology to Greek thought is incalculable. It first distinctly lifted man above vague wonder at a universe he could not comprehend, and gave him courage to define and to measure, to distinguish and to relate, all the forms of his inward and outward life. It first made him ask distinct questions of experience, and taught him the methods by which he could hope to answer them. It first attempted to name and to determine the categories or forms of thought under which we have to bring all things, if we would seek to understand their nature and to exhibit their relations to each other. Finally—what is most important in relation to our subject—it first sought to grasp and verify that idea of the ultimate unity of all things, which lies at the basis of all religion. It thus laid down the indispensable presuppositions of all later theological thought, and developed that flexible language of reflexion in which alone its ideal relations could be expressed. If the Roman empire, by the peace which its organised rule secured, the pacis Romanae majestas, provided the external conditions under which Christianity could advance to the conquest of civilised mankind, the philosophy of Greece provided the inward conditions whereby its ideas could be interpreted and brought into that systematic form which was necessary to secure their permanent influence upon the human mind.

The second stage in the evolution of theology is that in which the conceptions and methods of Greek philosophy were used to formulate and interpret the new ideas as to the nature of God and man and their relations to each other, which were involved in, or suggested by, the facts of the life of Christ and the spiritual experiences of His followers. To a certain extent the two stages overlap one another; for Christianity had begun to be developed into a dogmatic system long before Neoplatonic thought had received its culminating expression in Plotinus. The characteristic attitude of theology during this whole period is directly the reverse of that which had prevailed during the first period; for whereas in the first period philosophical reflexion was hardly conscious of limitation by any authority, and had not in any way to yield to the immediate claims of the religious consciousness, in the whole period of the evolution of Christian doctrine down to the Reformation philosophy is in a strictly subordinate position. In the early Christian centuries its influence is very great, and, indeed, can hardly be exaggerated; but it was not recognised. The Fathers did not seem to themselves to be actively developing a system of doctrine, but simply to be handing down the faith once delivered to the saints; and, though in the Scholastic period philosophy was recognised to have a place of its own, it was strictly that of an instrument to analyse and explain doctrines which were accepted as true on the authority of the Church. While, therefore, there is a real evolution of doctrine, involving great activity of thought and many changes in the interpretation of the fundamental ideas of Christianity, the prevailing view of theologians was that they were simply maintaining an immovable truth; and that, if they had made any alteration in its expression, it was merely of a formal kind, which had no effect upon the substance of the faith. Only once, in the Alexandrian school of theologians, did philosophical reflexion gain a certain independence, and even claim to be a higher way of apprehending the truth; but this was a passing phase in the early history of the Church.

The result of this process was that each doctrine, as it established itself as one of the articles of faith, tended to become fixed and fossilised, and ceased to have the power of growth; and the new life of thought seemed rather to transfer itself to fresh questions than to deepen and reinterpret the results already attained. Hence, though we can trace a rational process of development and a real movement of intelligence in the successive steps by which Christianity defined itself, yet this is disguised and to a great extent deprived of its value by the mode in which it took place. For, on the one hand, reason can never show its real power in servitude, or when its weapons are used by those who are not fully conscious of their nature. The conceptions of Plato and Aristotle, of the Stoics and Neo-Platonists, as employed by those in whom the genuine life of Greek thought was no longer present and who could not criticise the ideas they were using, were often combined in an external and mechanical way with the data supplied by Christian life and experience. And, on the other hand, it has to be remembered that these conceptions themselves contained elements that were essentially alien and even hostile to the matter to which they were applied. The consequence was that the movement of theological thought became more forced, unnatural, and fictitious the farther it advanced, till it ended in the production of the great Scholastic systems—systems in which compromise and balance take the place of organic unity, and arguments for foregone conclusions are substituted for scientific or philosophical investigation. Scholastic theology really deserves the character which Mommsen has attributed to all theology: it is “the bastard child of faith and reason.” It is the extreme manifestation at once of the slavery of reason and of the necessary recoil of reason against that which has enslaved it. The effort to confine the intelligence to the task of analysing data which it is not allowed to examine, and of arguing from premises which it may not question, could only end in making it rationalistic, sceptical, and even destructive. And the Scholastic, while seeming to himself only to be analysing the doctrine of Christianity, really dissected it, and turned it from a living truth into a dead body of dogma. Finally, the Nominalism of the age before the Reformation practically showed that the Scholastic method was fatal to a Christian, and even to a religious view of life, and made it necessary in the interest of philosophy and theology itself that the long divorce of faith and reason should come to an end.

What we find, then, in this second period of the history of theology is an external combination of religion with philosophy, and the production of a system of dogma in which the ideas and methods evolved by the free speculation of Greece were used to express and interpret the new principle of Christianity. But the results of such an artificial process, in which the form of thought was derived from one source and the matter from another, were necessarily very inadequate, and could have only a provisional value. It was inevitable in the long run that the reflective power, called forth by this imperfect attempt to work out the consequences of the new view of life, should turn against its own products. It was inevitable that modern philosophy, which had grown to maturity under the tutelage of the Church, should reassert the ancient freedom of Greek speculation, and again endeavour to interpret for itself the widening experience of humanity. And this movement of renewal and revival, or, as it is called, Renaissance, soon extended also to religious experience, when the Reformers, setting aside the whole system of thought and life which the medieval Church had built upon the foundation of Christianity, tried to put themselves again in direct contact with the life and teaching of Christ.

The Reformation, indeed, was far from being, in the first instance, an assertion of those claims of reason which Scholasticism had discredited; but it contained the germ of a reconciliation between the two factors of man's life, which in the medieval Church had been opposed to each other; for it demanded a faith which should not be the acceptance of the dictates of an outward authority, but the spiritual apprehension of Christianity by each man for himself. Such a faith was really, what a faith in authority could never become, a fides quaerens intellectum, a faith that had in itself the necessity of its own development into reason. And when Descartes put forward his maxim: De omnibus dubitandum est, and sought to restore philosophy to its rights, as an investigation into truth without any presuppositions, he was really proclaiming that the era of compromise—of the blending of incongruous elements derived from different sources, or of an external truce between opposite principles—was at an end; and that the form and matter of thought must henceforth be derived from the same source, and brought into complete unity with each other. Hence modern philosophy, and the theology or view of ‘the highest things,’ in which it culminates, is, like Greek philosophy, free speculation. It deals with religion, as it deals with the other experiences of life, which it tries with perfect impartiality and disinterestedness to interpret. And when any attempt has been made to limit its freedom, it has reasserted itself in a sceptical and even a revolutionary spirit against all dogma whatsoever, and even against Christianity itself, so far as it was identified with dogma.

It could not, however, permanently retain such a merely negative attitude. Nor could it fall back upon that indifference to popular religion, which was the general characteristic of the Greek philosophers. It found itself in the presence of a religious experience, which had a far richer content than that of the Greeks, and it was forced to seek for some explanation of that experience. It had to deal with a religion which was not bound up with the peculiarities of any special age or nation, but which from the first has breathed the atmosphere of universality—a religion which found its immediate expression, not in a fanciful mythology, but in a life lived under human conditions and carried through suffering and death to a spiritual triumph. It could not escape into abstraction from the influence of this great fact, and of all the experiences to which in the history of humanity it has given rise. Nor could it hope to discover the ultimate reality of things by withdrawing into the inner life, or by losing all the manifold forms of existence, like Plotinus, in a mystic unity. It was committed to the hard task of idealising a world which in its first aspect seems to know nothing of the ideal; of taking away the commonness of life by the power of a more comprehensive vision, and finding the key to its discords in a harmony which realises itself through them. It had to seek the essential means for the realisation of its ideal in that very chance and contingency of life, which the greatest of ancient philosophers regarded as inexplicable, or as the result of that external necessity which clings to all finite existence. In Christianity we might say that religion was for the first time brought face to face with the whole problem of the world in its vastness and universality, and at the same time in all its complexity of individual concrete detail. It had to idealise life and death, and in a certain sense even sin and evil, and to attain to a more real optimism through the lowest depths ever fathomed by pessimism. And philosophical reflexion upon such a religion was bound to follow in its footsteps, to face the same difficulties, and find by its own methods a way to the same or to a better solution of them. Hence modern philosophy, though in its earlier stages—in the effort to assert its own freedom and to establish the first basis of an intelligible view of the universe—it tended rather to withdraw from the whole sphere of religious thought, and even to regard it with hostility, has been obliged by the necessity of its own development more and more definitely to take cognisance of the Christian system of thought and life. It has been obliged to consider whether in its own way and by its own methods it can reinterpret and justify the thorough-going and fearless idealism and optimism of the founder of Christianity, while bringing it in relation to the whole results of modern life and science. This aspect of its work has gained greater prominence since the days of Kant, in the great speculative movement which he initiated at the end of the eighteenth century. And if it be true that during the course of last century there has been a partial reaction from the premature attempt then made to snatch at the fruits of philosophy before they were quite ripe, I think it may fairly be said that in its later years, after all the great development of science, especially of biological and historical science, there has been a return upon the methods and principles of idealism which, if it be characterised by greater caution, is perhaps on that account the more likely to bring about a permanent result.

  • 1. The word ‘theologian’ occurs in Plato, but only in the sense of a mythologist.
  • 2. The Evolution of Religion; see especially I, Lect. 3.