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Lecture 1: The Value and Need of Free Enquiry in Religion

NEARLY thirty years ago I was entrusted by this University with the office vacated by a very great teacher one of the greatest teachers of philosophy given to the world in modern times. The burden of the trust was almost beyond bearing; for the daily life of Edward Caird was even more flawless in its wisdom and peace than his doctrine. But as usual the responsibilities of the office were also an inspiration and its duties have been a continuous privilege. I have for a long time been grateful for them and recognized that I can repay the University neither for my life-task as a teacher nor for my nurture as a student.

And to-day my debt is deepened further still. My colleagues moved by their kindliness and judging most gently have given me a new opportunity of being of use. They have placed in my hands for helpful treatment if I can a theme which every thoughtful man knows to have an interest that is at once universal and intensely personal and a significance both speculative and practical which the wise observer of human history would hesitate to limit. I think I may say that to justify their trust in some measure were the crowning happiness of my life.

Lord Gifford's wishes.

The Gifford Lecturer is expressly relieved of the necessity of “making any promise of any kind.” I make none—not even to do my best; for I might fall short of that also. But the Founder of the Lectureship expressed one wish which was evidently deep in his spirit and made one injunction which he rightly expected to be followed. “I wish the lecturers” he said “to treat their subject as a strictly natural science…without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation. I wish it considered just as astronomy or chemistry is.” Then he enjoins that the lectures “shall be public and popular…as I think that the subject should be studied and known by all…I think such knowledge if real lies at the root of all well-being.”

A science of religion as having supreme value.

Lord Gifford's aim was thus thoroughly and directly practical. He desired free discussion with a view to the knowledge of the truth and he desired knowledge of the truth with a view to the well-being of man. The science of religion was to him “the greatest of all possible sciences indeed in one sense the only science.” He considered that it deals with matters which are ultimate by means of conceptions that either illuminate and explain or distort and falsify all things: for whatever principles are ultimate are also all-comprehensive. And its practical consequences seemed to him no less vital than the theoretical. “The science of religion” was he thought the science of human destiny. If valid if “the knowledge is real” the greatest good of all follows from it namely a good life in harmony with the nature of things: if unreal then it is doubtful if there be anywhere or in anything any real or finally reliable worth.

Doubts if it be real.

Will you note as we pass two things? 1st. The high value he attributes to religion. 2nd. The strong accent thrown on Knowledge on the Science of religion as contributory to religion itself. But both are qualified by the ominous words—“if real.” These words “if real” are evidently not meant to apply merely to some particular form of religion or religious belief. They suggest the possibility that all so-called religious knowledge may in its very nature be delusive. Its objects may be unreal or they may be above or beyond the reach of human intelligence. The suspicion implied in the phrase spreads over the whole domain of religion from the lowest and crudest to the highest and like mist on the countryside it at once exaggerates everything and makes everything seem unsubstantial. If the Knowledge is not real then both affirmation and denial are out of place; they must be out of place where nothing is certain. Doubt itself is absurd under such conditions; enquiry is vain all criticism baseless; there can be neither truth nor error; the intelligence is dismissed as futile.

It would seem therefore that there can be no greater necessity than that of making decisively clear if this be possible whether in professing to know religious facts we are dealing with realities that are intelligible or with the fictitious products of our imagination and the confused emanations of our desires. And there can be no necessity more urgent if as most men would confess a man's religion expresses and determines his attitude towards life as a whole. Whatever else religion has meant to man—and it is difficult to say what it has not meant—it may be said that where the religious issue has never been raised man's life drifts. He has not faced its meaning nor has his life any dominant purpose. He has not fixed its standard of values nor determined what must be sought first. He is like one storm-driven in mid-ocean without a star whereby to steer or any land in any direction for which to make. His little boat changes its course with every passing breeze and points in a new way with the rise and fall of every wave. His life is at the mercy of details it is indeterminate and ineffective and without a home. Religious faith cannot be otiose nor can religious doubt or error be innocuous. For religion is a practical matter and so indeed is irreligion. Uncertainty in religion means hesitancy in action and paralyses the will the more tragically the more far-reaching the issues. Verily the condition of man is not enviable if the last words he can honestly say of religious knowledge are the words used by Lord Gifford—“Such knowledge if real.” “Would that I could be certain” is the language of the inmost heart of men when they are tried to the uttermost. And there are not many men who some time or another are not tried to the uttermost.

The removal of the doubt by enquiry—the main purpose of the Lectures.

The purpose of the Gifford lectureship and the first duty of the lecturer are thus quite plain—to examine the causes and if possible to remove this uncertainty as to the validity of religious faith. The enterprise is as difficult as it is great. And the responsibility of the lecturer is the more full inasmuch as his liberty is complete. For he is invited to reach no prescribed conclusion either positive or negative on any religious issue. He is committed to nothing except to honest dealing with his subject. He may sail to any distance in any direction provided only the love of truth sits at the helm.

The value of enquiry in general.

Now in entering upon this adventure there is one thought that but for one consideration would give me complete confidence. Were the results of religious research analogous to those which are attained by scientific research in other fields I should be tempted to say that mankind may even yet use the words of Paracelsus and say

“I go to prove my soul

I see my way as birds their trackless way

I shall arrive! What time what circuit first

I ask not. But unless God send his hail

Or blinding fire-balls sleet or stifling snow

In some time his good time I shall arrive!

He guides me and the bird.”

Honest enquiry in every “secular” region whether of nature or spirit of mere theory or of practice character and conduct is always in itself rich in reward. So far as I know there are no secular facts that do not challenge the intelligence and ask to be understood and no forces natural or moral which are not better understood than unknown or misunderstood. And I am not convinced that it is otherwise with the facts of the religious life. We are told of course that there are facts which in their nature are unintelligible; not merely unknown up to the present time but intrinsically unknowable and religious facts hold high rank amongst these unintelligibles. But I doubt whether there can be anything unintelligible except that which is irrational and I doubt if anything real is irrational except as misunderstood. Look to the assumptions that lurk in your problems before you call them insoluble or condemn human reason. In any case we need not believe in an unintelligible fact until we meet it or are told about it by persons who have visited the ultimate boundaries of human knowledge and looked over the edge of its limitations into fields which it cannot enter. As a matter of experience within the fields of natural science no fixed limits are held to bar enquiry in any direction; nor is there any doubt that enquiry is the condition first of further knowledge and secondly of effective practical purpose and progress in the mastery of the means of civilized life.

Doubts of the value of enquiry in religion.

Prima facie one might expect the same results to accrue in regard to religion. One would expect that however opposed religious interests may be to the secular it were well to enquire into their meaning and value if they have either true meaning or real value and to expose their emptiness and delusiveness if they have not.

But enquiry in this matter has been held to be vain. Religion has been made to consist in mystic rites and ceremonies; and even by our own Protestant teachers its appeal has been directed often to the whole of man except his intelligence—to his feelings to his emotions his aesthetic temperament his prudence and even to his “will-to-believe”; and enquiry it has been said engenders rather than removes doubt.

Carlyle's substitute for enquiry.

Now I do not wish to enter with any fulness at least at present upon a discussion of these difficulties as to the possibility and value of religious knowledge. But there is one element in the situation that gives it additional seriousness and we cannot well pass it by. It is that doubt of the validity of religious knowledge and of the uses of enquiry is not as it would be in any other field confined to the sceptics or to men who have not learned by “experience” the worth of religious faith. It is shared and most fully by devout believers. They condemn doubt as a symbol of spiritual disease and denial as not only an error but a sin: moreover they maintain that the disease cannot be cured and the sin cannot be cleansed away by enquiry. Religion is not they say an affair of the intellect. However they may trust the intelligence and depend upon its light (or twilight) in other matters in the matters of religious faith its activities are out of place and even mischievous. They believe with Carlyle probably one of the greatest spiritual forces in this country in the nineteenth century that as he said “Man is sent hither not to question but to work; the end of man it was long ago written is an Action not a Thought.”1 Knowledge by itself however true is they contend a mere looking-on at life. The very attempt to seek it in this province of faith is unwholesome self-scrutiny. What has value is not knowledge but the volition that passes into deeds. “Experience” distinguished by them from Knowledge and assumed to be independent of it must take its place. “Faith conviction” as Carlyle tells us “were it never so excellent is worthless till it convert itself into Conduct. Nay properly conviction is not possible till 2 then: inasmuch as all Speculation is by nature endless formless a vortex amid vortices.…Doubt of any kind can not be removed except by action.…Let him who gropes painfully in darkness or uncertain light lay this precept well to heart—‘Do the duty which lies nearest thee.…Thy second duty will already have become clearer.’”3 “Here on earth” he adds “we are soldiers fighting in a foreign land that understand not the plan of campaign and have no need to understand it; seeing well what is at our hand to be done. Let us do it like soldiers with submission with courage with a heroic joy.”4

The failure of Carlyle's remedy for doubt.

But supposing that the one thing which we cannot see is “the duty” at hand to be done? Supposing “the soldier fighting in a foreign land” is ignorant not only of the plan of campaign but of the cause and country he is fighting for? Supposing that so far from comprehending the plan and trusting the Commander he finds no evidence anywhere that any plan exists or any Commander? Supposing he sees in the whole troubled history of mankind nothing but a confused purposeless execrable welter the result of “the fiat of a malignant Destiny or the unintentioned stab of chance”? And such is the outlook upon the Universe of the man who has lost his religious faith. Momentous happenings within our inner life—an intoxicating success or a failure that brings despair deep sorrow a devastating sin a consuming hate or disappointed love—may not only disturb old values rearranging the order of priority among life's aims but destroy all values. Then does not only the natural life of man become meaningless and “his days pass away as the swift ships” leaving no trace but the moral world itself ceases to matter and right and wrong become terms not to be used by such a being as he is—a wisp tossed about by homeless winds. “If I be wicked why then labour I in vain? If I wash myself with snow water and make my hands never so clean yet wilt thou plunge me in the ditch and mine own clothes shall abhor me.”5 Job was acquainted with deeper doubt and darker despair than Carlyle; and so was Shakespeare. His Othello so far from knowing his duty when Iago had poisoned his soul with doubts of Desdemona bade farewell to “the tranquil mind.” “Farewell content farewell the plumed troop and the big wars. Othello's occupation's gone”—the most pathetic line in all Shakespeare it has always seemed to me. There was no duty next to hand for Othello.

John Bunyan's better method.

The cure suggested by Carlyle is both ineffective and inapplicable. The doubts which can be cured by plunging into action are shallow; the evil is local. Moreover they are neither removed nor cured by that method. They are only silenced; and silenced doubts fester. The cure is ineffective. But further deep doubt leaves man incapable of action: it paralyses we say so that the cure cannot be applied. Bunyan in his incomparable way teaches us a better truth and offers a better remedy than Carlyle. He shows us Christian in the fields just outside the City of Destruction distracted with fear “lest the burden on his back should sink him lower than the grave.” “He looked this way and that way as if he would run yet he stood still because (as I perceived) he could not tell which way to go. ‘Why standest thou still?’ said Evangelist to him. He answered ‘Because I know not whither to go.’ Then he gave him a parchment roll and there was written within ‘Fly from the wrath to come.’ The man therefore read it and looking upon Evangelist very carefully said ‘Whither must I fly?’ Then said Evangelist pointing with his finger over a very wide field ‘Do you see yonder wicket gate?’ The man said ‘No.’ Then said the other ‘Do you see yonder shining light?’ He said ‘I think I do.’ Then said Evangelist ‘Keep that light in your eye and go up directly thereto so shalt thou see the gate at which when thou knockest it shall be told thee what to do.’”

When a man discovers that his past has been spent in the pursuit of a false good and the fruit he has plucked off the tree of life turns into ashes in his mouth; when even its good things prove evanescent and unreliable and snap under the strain of experience then he is passing through his first course of instruction. A light has already begun to break upon him which is hidden from those who dwell at peace in the city of Destruction. He has known enough to go outside its gates and look to the horizon. And his first need is for more light. He begins to ask questions. Is there any healing? Can my broken life be made whole again? Is loss bereavement failure the last word in my history? Or are there grounds for believing that they are but ways of awakening my soul and revealing an eternally benevolent will? Old convictions have been on their trial and are condemned; enquiry is inevitable.

Honest enquiry in Religion never fails.

So far from doubting the value of the plain and honest and earnest pursuit of truth in matters of religious faith I believe that like the pursuit of moral good it never utterly fails. The process of enquiry the very attempt to know like the process of doing or trying to do what is right is itself achievement altogether apart from what comes afterwards. I know nothing better than to be engaged and immersed in the process of trying to know spiritual truths and of acting upon them. Mankind when it comes of age will be engaged in this spiritual business even when it is handling the so-called secular concerns of life. And it will handle these all the more securely. Religion will be the permanent background of life—as the love of his wife and bairns is for a good man. The very meaning and purpose of our “circumstances” as we call the claims of the things and persons that stand around and press upon us may be to induce and to sustain this double process of knowing the true and doing the right. It is the method—the only natural and successful method—by which men make themselves: and I understand that the final business of man is this of making himself. We must learn yet to estimate men by the fortune they take with them not by the fortune they leave behind; that is if religion is true and if morality and its laws are not fictions of man's vanity.

Contrast of a facile and a tried faith.

Inasmuch as the process of striving to know has in my opinion this intrinsic value I should be glad if I could help were it merely to incite or sustain the search into and within the truths of our religious faith. I would if I could awaken enquiry where there has been indifference; foster strengthen and embolden it wherever there has been doubt or denial and above all where there has been blind belief and facile confidence. Unless my convictions as to both the possibility and the reward of a religious faith based upon knowledge are altogether false the man who would gain most from fearless search is the devout believer and especially the believer who challenges the sceptic on his own ground and invites the strain of actual experience by living his beliefs welcoming the rain that descends and the winds that never fail to blow and beat upon the house of life. The doubt that a man confronts purifies his faith from error substantiates the truth it contains and strengthens his hold. Valid belief has nothing to fear from the play of the world's forces upon it; and a delusive faith is better exposed and washed away. Truth accepted without enquiry from that hearsay which we call tradition has an ominous analogy to principles of conduct never put in practice. Man's hold of them is insecure for strength unexercised becomes feebleness. Moreover no kind of truth yields its richest meaning except under stress and strain. The instance that the scientific man prizes most highly is that which places his hypothesis under the severest test: no instance can either prove or disprove either effectively expose falsity or ratify truth except the instance he calls “crucial.” It is the crucial instance also that expands the application and deepens the significance of the hypothesis. And the same results follow in regard to religious faith. The words “I know Whom I have believed” when they are uttered by one who has walked hand in hand with his own pettiness and ill-doing carry a strange convincing and relieving power; and such simple utterances as “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want” have marvellous wealth of meaning when they come from the lips of one who knows what it is to be resourceless and undeserving.

False doubt.

Now in thus affirming the value of the search for religious truth and of the doubts and trials that test a religious faith I do not wish to be understood to advocate the fabrication of artificial difficulties either in ourselves or others. Wantonly to excite or foster doubt is not a part that an honest seeker after truth can stoop to play. An earnest believer would as soon make a plaything of life itself as of a religious faith; for faith is the inspiration of life. Such a simple faith as Tennyson describes when he bids him whose faith has centre everywhere to “Leave his sister when she prays” has not the splendour of the centuries-old storm-tossed oak but it has the beauty of the moss and violet. Besides there is no need of fabricating doubts. Growing truth and a maturing experience bring their own doubts; for honest doubt is a new aspect of truth standing at the door and knocking seeking a place in the system of rational experience. Life can be trusted to bring trials: man's part is to meet them as new opportunities of moving “onward.”

Religion and knowledge about Religion.

Nor in the second place would I be understood to imply that Religion and the knowledge of Religion are one and the same thing. Knowledge and the object known are never identical: Astronomy even if it were perfect as a Science would not consist of stars and planets nor would a sound Physiology be sound physical health. Nevertheless religious knowledge may be a condition of a religious faith and a religious life. Knowledge is certainly the condition of all the spiritual experiences which men rightly or wrongly distinguish from religion. However true it may be that knowledge of what is right is far from being the doing of it that which is done in ignorance cannot be called morally good. The moral life is impossible in the degree in which knowledge of what is right or wrong is lacking. Though the ideal is not the deed the deed that is not first an ideal known and valued and chosen cannot have any spiritual worth.

The relation between religious knowledge religious faith and religious life will demand fuller consideration later. It may be sufficient at present to insist that like vital organs of a living body they derive their value and meaning if not their very existence from their mutual involution. If we sever knowledge from faith or faith from conduct we have on the one hand otiose and impotent conceptions and on the other hand a behaviour that knows not what it is doing or whom it is serving. We are left I think with self-contradictory fictions—things that can neither be understood nor even exist.

It follows that if religious knowledge is thus a vital condition of religious experience then that which hinders the pursuit of this knowledge imperils religion. And if I were asked from what direction come the graver dangers that threaten religious life in these times and in this country of Britain I should answer without any hesitation that they come from the causes which turn aside the minds of men from reflection upon the things of the spirit and arrest or impede enquiry. For what occupies the mind determines conduct. Tell me what a man thinks about and I will come near telling you what he will do. “His delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.” What about him? “He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither.”

The articles of a faith in enquiry.

Believing with all my heart that in the last resort there is only one way of knowing and that there is no form of human experience where knowledge is not better than ignorance or where error is not dangerous and costly; believing secondly that the more profound and fundamental the practical issues which are at stake the higher the value of truth and the deeper the tragedies of falsehood and therefore the more imperative the duty of pursuing the former and exposing the latter; and believing lastly that there is no direction in which humble simple sincere and at the same time trustful intrepid and even adventurous research can bring so rich a harvest as that of religion—possessed by such a creed how can I but deplore the timid methods of the chief nay the only official guardian of the spiritual interests of our people and yearn for the day when the Church shall wholly entrust the guardianship of the divine authority of its doctrines to their intrinsic truth? “So truth be in the field” said John Milton “we do injuriously…to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple” “who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” “For who knows not that Truth is strong next to the Almighty? She needs no policies nor stratagems nor licensings to make her victorious those are the shifts and the defences that error uses against her power. Give her but room and do not bind her when she sleeps.” 6

Freedom is the condition of every spiritual good—of religious truth not less than of moral virtue—and it is a plea for free enquiry that I find in the second matter emphasized by Lord Gifford when he said “I wish the lecturers to treat their subject as a strictly natural science…I wish it considered just as astronomy or chemistry is.”

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