The Standard of Value
The religious faith.
IF the old doctrine that nature is in antagonism to spirit and that man's natural desires are sinful is now seen to verge on blasphemy the opposite doctrine which finds favour at present may well seem preposterous. We can tolerate and even enjoy the view that all men seek the best and as Browning says have
“All with a touch of nobleness despite
Their error upward tending all though weak—
Like plants in mines which never saw the sun
But dream of him and guess where he may be
And do their best to climb and get to him.”
That view is offered as a poetic vision. But as a sober doctrine the result of the unprejudiced observation of the facts of human life it will seem to many to be totally indefensible even although no criterion is employed except that which is moral or spiritual. It will be admitted that the law which connects antecedent and consequent within the moral region may be as invariable as it is within the physical world. I believe it will be admitted also that the circumstances of life are rightly understood by those who build up a good character in dealing with them and both misunderstood and misused by those who turn them into opportunities for doing what is wrong. And if this is true it must follow that the natural scheme is not impartial but favours morality and is in truth its instrument.
Difficulty of maintaining it in face of the facts of slum life.
But both of these admissions even when taken together fall short of justifying a faith that can satisfy the religious spirit. For that faith affirms the omni-presence of the divine benevolence which means that it is present at the heart of the most unsound lives as well as of the best. Its operation is in every individual life however great its squalor. The difficulty of believing in the universality of Divine Love is very great to many. Not only the cases of individuals but certain general features of modern life seem to make such a faith untenable. It is difficult to become familiar with the slums of our big cities without being convinced that there are many thousands who neither in themselves nor in their environment give evidence of any such divine operation or have any stimulus to virtue of any kind. Children are born into the world bringing with them inherited diseases or physical and mental feebleness: they are the descendants of men and women who never made any pretence to either physical or character cleanliness and they are brought up in a social environment in which moral judgment is hopelessly perverted. As they grow up the vicious and criminal life seems as natural to them and even as respectable as his apprenticeship to a trade is to a working man's boy. And it is a life much more full of adventure—a constant game of wits between them and the police.
The believer's defence of his faith.
Is it not better to say at once that for such persons the opportunities of a good life do not exist? If a benevolent power is operative elsewhere in the world is it not plain that it has overlooked the claims of such persons as these? What can justify the world as a school of virtue in their case? The readiest answer and the answer most frequently given is—“Nothing justifies it. It had been better had they never been born.” What answer can we make? What answer must we make if we are not to give up that trust in the Love and Power of God which we admit cannot be limited without virtually being denied?
He can make the same claim in dealing with these facts as the scientific man does in dealing with physical facts.
(1) I would fain make precisely the same answer as a scientific man makes when he fails to trace in particular instances the operation of the universal and necessary laws of which he speaks. As we have already seen the physicist does not profess to give an account of the magnitude and direction of all the forces operative in the ordinary physical changes such as those which occur amongst the clouds or falling forest leaves. It is in his laboratory after excluding all manner of irrelevances and thereby setting up an artificial case that he actually traces the operation of the material law. His affirmation of the working of the law in other cases and the world's acceptance of his affirmation are matters of trust or faith. Judgment is not suspended though the evidence has not been given. It is confidently affirmative of the law although the law has not been actually traced. And no one demurs. The scientist knows that to fail to trace the law is one thing and to deny its existence is another. “Not proven is not disproved.”
So far as I can see the religious man can justly make a strictly analogous claim in the case of the slum child. Nay if I rightly judge he must make it; for as we have seen the full knowledge of the particular is not possible least of all the knowledge of all that has gone to the making and upbringing of such an infinitely complex phenomenon as a slum child. And the sceptic ought to accede to the claim and recognize that his only logical right in the case is the right to suspend judgment. Instead of doing so he usually rushes to his conclusion and denies either the existence of God or his benevolent interest in human affairs.
(2) The negative conclusion from individual instances is generally as hasty and ill-informed as it is illogical. Is it quite certain for instance that the conception usually formed of these slum children is even proximately correct? Or are we not prone to demand from them the same kind of behaviour as from other more fortunate children? To do so were as unjust as it is natural. I can conceive skill in lying and deception courage and resource in housebreaking ingenuity in misleading and eluding the police bringing social respect to their owner and being regarded in such a social environment simply as virtues. Everything depends upon the criterion by reference to which approval is given or refused; and men employ the most various and inconstant and sometimes absurd criteria. As a rule the standard of values is not considered at all by those who pass judgment and approve or condemn the action of either God or man. Like the friends of Job we either mingle at random moral and natural considerations or expect physical prosperity as a consequence of an antecedent that is moral. Least of all does the unbeliever in his condemnation of God on the ground of the prosperity of the wicked or the calamities of the virtuous recognize that all non-ethical values are purely conditional. Indeed this is much too rarely remembered by believers as well; and the controversy as to divine governance is carried on in a blind fashion. Unconscious assumptions are made and some of the things taken for granted are not true; and in consequence evidence that is really irrelevant is admitted and taken as conclusive.
No absolute values except spiritual values.
Now in this fundamental question of the validity of the religious faith it would seem to me that no values should be admitted as standards by which to judge the assumed divine dealings except values which are absolute. And for my part I know no values which are absolute except spiritual values. That is to say everything that contributes to the spiritual progress of man I would call good everything that tends to hinder it I would call bad. And evidently if moral values verily are absolute as Plato and most other great teachers have maintained then no price at which moral progress is secured can be too high. And if pain and suffering poverty and need and the contempt of men contribute to this end more than their opposites could then they are better than good health and plenty and the honour of men. This means that instead of making secular prosperity the standard of judgment prosperity must itself be evaluated from the point of view of its spiritual effects. Prosperity before now has ruined men and calamity has been the making of them.
The religious equivalent of this moral estimate.
If this be true if spiritual values are alone final and absolute if the purpose of man's life is to acquire these and the aim of its changing circumstances is to help him then it is evident that what is highest best divine is in power and operative in man's destiny or in the language of religion that God is immanent in the world as its ultimate principle. And vice versa: if God is immanent these spiritual values must be supreme. On the other hand if this is not true then the alternative must be either the rule of chaos and unreason—which in truth is the absence of all rule—or else the rule of a power to whom the difference between right and wrong is secondary—a power whose ends are finite and secular.
The sceptic's implied secular hypothesis put to the test.
Now the denial of the existence or working of a God who is perfect in moral qualities as in power is equivalent it seems to me to the affirmation of some non-ethical force as that which has brought the universe into being sustains it and controls it. And the question now is—How does this secular hypothesis work? Supposing we apply the same tests to it one by one as have been applied to the believer's “faith” or counter-hypothesis?
He must acknowledge the difference between moral good and evil and account for it.
If the secularist is frank and faithful to the facts which he observes he will admit at once that in this world of ours warring against its evils there is to be found a great deal of that which we can only call moral goodness. There are just men and unselfish men and men courageous for what they deem right or true; and they cannot but be distinguished from the men who are selfish and cowardly and filthy. Now the secularist must account for that goodness or—if he likes—that seeming goodness; and give his own theory of the origin of these apparently moral phenomena. And his task does not seem to be an easy one. It is not obvious to say the least that no moral struggle enters into the history of mankind or that good men differ from bad men only in the success of their hypocrisy. A few decades ago as I have already suggested the secularist might attribute to nature the moral character and the benevolent purpose which he denies to God. But now it is seen that such a device merely clothes nature with divinity. The truth is that the secularist as a rule has nothing to offer. He has never faced the problem presented by the obvious significance attached by mankind to the difference between right and wrong and the part which ethical conceptions have played in its history.
The order of the universe on this hypothesis.
The order and the beauty of nature are generally first felt to be a test of his scepticism. That these exist he neither dares nor desires to deny. The evidence of order is always multiplying and deepening; and the marvel of the universe grows every day in the hands of science. So subtle is the equilibration of nature's forces that the practical man hesitates in his dealings with her even as his power over her forces grows. What he has called pests have proved to be his helpers and he has become afraid to meddle with nature's harmonies. In fact it has now become practically impossible to most reflective men to assign the order of the natural universe to an unintelligent cause. For a cause must manifestly be proportionate to the effects attributed to it.
The beauty of the universe.
The beauty of the natural world seems to carry one further even than its obvious order. Beauty comes as something gratuitously generous. It is a benevolent redundancy having a value that is quite different from mere utility. The natural endowments usually spoken of are those calculated to equip man or beast for “the struggle for existence.” But beauty presumably appealing to man only and not to animals has value of another kind. Its purpose seems to be to enrich and not merely to preserve life and its appeal is to reason. It is thus difficult to conceive of beauty as proceeding from an unintelligent source. We seem forced to conclude that if not God then surely some other kind of cause at once intelligent and benevolent has brought it about that the world shall be clothed in beauty and thus fill humanity's cup till it runs over. It is difficult to sympathize with a naturalism to which the marvels of colour form and musical sound give no pause. Their intrinsic value is at once unique and very great.
Scepticism finds more natural nutriment in the world of man than in the physical world. In that domain chaos and unreason may well seem to bear unquestioned rule. What except unreason could have placed the lives of many thousands of young men and the happiness of thousands of homes at the mercy of a petty pompous self-adoring individual who happened to have been born the eldest son of a crowned parentage? How often has this question not been asked in some form during the late war? And there was as a rule no answer except that of the unbeliever: “There is no God.” “If God is he does not care for man.” “He is an evil being: for by permitting evil he is guilty of complicity.” “If God is there and is worthy of man's service and worship then let him show himself.”
The demand for the special intervention of God if he verily is and is good. Intermittent providential intervention implies God's heedlessness at ordinary times.
The demand as a rule is for some special intervention and the absence of evidence of a meddling Providence has often been the source not only of the scepticism of the unbeliever but of the doubt of the faithful. I should like to show that the demand is in truth a demand for that which is not desirable.
It would be a poor substitute for divine immanence.
It is obvious that the demand for the intervention of the divine being in special circumstances implies his non-intervention in ordinary times. It is a demand that cannot be made by any one who believes either in the permanence of the relation of antecedent and consequent in the natural and moral world or in the divine omnipresence finding evidence of it on all hands in the world's ordinary course. The fulfilment of the demand would yield a far less satisfying religious experience than the consciousness of the nearness of God through his love at all times and in every kind of circumstance. And it is that consciousness which sustains devout men. “Providential” interference implies a separateness which is intolerable to the spirit that knows the longing of devoted love and its constant need of God. No conception can meet the demands of such a spirit once it understands itself except the conception of Divine Immanence: the idea of the permanent indwelling of God in human history. The conception has its own difficulties as we shall amply see; but it has become an article in the creed of the reflective religious spirit of modern times. And the issues which are raised by it are decisive. On the other hand it is not an implicit scepticism masquerading as religious faith which the conception of divine occasional intervention always is.
The demand is not compatible with morality.
But in the second place the demand that God should “show Himself” by special providential interference is open to a still more grave objection. It is incompatible with the conception of man's life as an ethical enterprise and of his world as furnishing the means and opportunity and in that sense as man's working partner. The Deism of the eighteenth century denied both the permanent indwelling and the intermittent intervention of the Deity. It maintained that God having called the world into being stood aloof and apart. There are many objections to this view which I need not mention. But it was not altogether false. With all its errors Deism taught one permanent truth or at least implied it: the truth that the moral life must be wholly entrusted to the moral agent; and that if man is here to learn goodness or if the meaning of his life and the purpose of his world is as we have assumed ultimately ethical then he must be left to carry out the ethical experiment in his own way. What use he shall make of his powers and his circumstances must be left to him. For as we have seen there is a sense in which morality is a most solitary enterprise.
The loneliness of the moral enterprise of the individual compatible with religion.
I do not in the least mean to imply the severance of morality from religion or man from God or that in the pursuit of his moral ends man is thrown upon his own resources. On the contrary the religion that does not break out into the highest moral life and the moral life that is not guided and inspired by a religious faith in that which is perfect are both unsatisfactory. Moreover man possesses no resources which are his own in any exclusive sense. He is a debtor to that which went before him and to that which works all round him for all that he is and all that he possesses. He is as much the product of the world as a fruit tree.
God's infinite giving: man's freedom in the use of His gifts.
The transformation of the natural into the spiritual in man and the implications of “spirit.”
This is too obvious to be denied by anyone so far as man's physical frame and physical powers are concerned. He appears on the scene as a very temporary focus in which those forces are found together as elements in a single life. And the analogy holds of his spiritual equipment. His faculties are gifts and the opportunities of employing and realizing them are endowments. His reason his very self his disposition proclivities taste and above all the fundamental necessity he is under to conceive and seek what in some sense he thinks good appear in him rather than begin with him. His individuality is due to the intense unity of these forces. It means that he is conscious of and in that sense in possession and command of himself. As such a unity or individuality man is in a very real sense something new and has no history. His self is traceable to no antecedents as its elements are. But these elements on the other hand are impotent and meaningless until they are united in a rational self-consciousness. We err in our account of man if we overlook his indebtedness or in any manner weaken his affinity and continuity with the physical and spiritual world. To detach him from the Universe is to empty his personality and deprive it of its constitutive elements.
On the other hand it must not be forgotten that it is only as meeting uniting and operating in him that these capacities are realized. Only as employed by a rational being do these capacities and tendencies the impulses desires needs etc. acquire any spiritual character at all. The instinct of self-preservation characteristic of all life is transmuted into a conscious purpose and acquires the character of a moral duty or opportunity. The blind impulse becomes a conscious desire; the natural need becomes a rational purpose. It has acquired an ethical character. And as man learns to know the truth and to love and do what is right he realizes for the first time the sleeping potencies of his personality and exhibits the characters of a rational being. A rational nature means much. In the first place it implies universality or shall I say a potential omnipresence. If the rational subject on the one hand holds every object over against itself at arm's length by the same act it overpowers all that is alien or foreign in its object and turns its meaning and uses into possessions of its own—as personal increase of power. A man's world is his objective self.
In the second place that which is in its nature universal or at home everywhere is virtually self-directing and the world around it is but its instrument and means. The forces that move it must be its own. It is impossible for rational beings to act except in order to realize conceptions of which they themselves are the authors. They are the creators of their motives and the motives are the forces of the self as it breaks out into deeds.
Occasional divine interference would arrest human effort.
Now in the presence of these facts the intermittent interference of providence in the course of events reveals itself plainly as irrational. (a) Given a world which endows man with all that he is and has a world which on the other hand reveals its full character only in man's spiritual activities; (b) let reason be established as intrinsically universal or as a power that ever comes upon its own content in every object which it interprets; (c) make it as we are doing the meaning of man's life and the purpose of the world to realize in knowledge and behaviour these rational and spiritual capacities then the occasional benevolent intervention of a well-meaning but ordinarily uninterested Deity becomes not only absurd but obstructive. Stability rational connections between fact and fact are unconditional characteristics of a religious scheme. Moreover they are the only conditions under which a rational being would choose to act at all. A rational being would hardly exercise his rational powers within an environment of contingencies. No one can employ these powers except in virtue of his individuality; but his employment of them would be frustrated if not arrested altogether were the results of his action made uncertain by being flung amongst circumstances which are dependent upon an interfering benevolence that occasionally suspends the operation of law.
The stable outer order as much a condition of the moral life as freedom is.
The stable order of the world in which man lives is thus as vital a condition of his moral life as is his freedom. Freedom cannot exist in a world of contingencies. Man in his action must presume the rational stability of the universe; indeed he always does so consciously or unconsciously; and his presumption must be valid. There must be no providential interventions. God as Browning said
“Stands away as it were a hand's breadth off”
“To give room for the newly made to live And look at him from a place apart.”
The better theory.
In speaking of man we must not sever man's very elements from him and think of him as
“Made perfect as a thing of course.”
The spiritual life must be an object of choice amidst rational and stable circumstances and the moral world must be called into and sustained in existence by the exercise of the human will. That man must be endowed for the moral enterprise that other hands than his own must clasp on this spiritual armour is true. He by no means as Browning thought
“Stands on his own stock Of love and power as a pin-point rock.”
Man in that case would have a very scanty and insecure foothold. I conceive of him rather as the heir to an inheritance whose value is without limit. As I have tried to show reason is by its very nature universal and man as rational has the whole realm of the real as the potential object of his knowledge and means of his ends. Let him but attain himself he will find “the world at his feet.” But the process of attaining himself must be left to himself. The use of his powers must be in his own hands. His actions good or bad must be allowed to bring their own consequences and the tree of his life must bear its own fruit. If the testimony of the religious consciousness be true God has given himself to man surely a most ample endowment and man can need nothing more. If the testimony of the moral consciousness be true man makes his own use of his endowments and may turn his gifts into losses. In this respect he is left to himself that is treated as a rational being capable of free choice. Nor is there anything incompatible in these dissimilar convictions. On the contrary both alike are essential to the best life; and they are reconciled with one another in every life which finds that the service of God is perfect freedom.
To accede to the demand for intervention would not settle the dispute.
The demand for providential intervention made by the sceptic as ground for believing in the existence and benevolence of the Deity however excusable when man seems to be tried beyond his strength—as in the great war—is inconsistent with man's spiritual well-being and with divine benevolence and wisdom. I should like to point out further that the demand implies a wrong notion of man's knowledge of God. Even were the demand conceded the doubt would not be allayed nor its grounds removed. Supposing for instance that some change of circumstances took place which at the same time favoured our wishes and seemed inexplicable—e.g. the German reverse at Mons at the beginning of the war as it appeared to those who sympathized with the allies—that favourable and inexplicable change would furnish nothing more than an opportunity for making an inference. One observer might infer providential interference and the special presence of a benevolent deity; his neighbour would infer some error of judgment or defective execution on the part of the Germans. The matter would still be in dispute.
We arrive at the idea of God in another way and the proof of the truth is of another kind.
The demand rests on the assumption that God himself is an object of perception. The sceptic seems to expect to come upon him and catch him in the act of interfering as he would catch a workman at his tools. But we arrive at the idea of God in quite another way and we base our faith in his power and goodness on other grounds. The idea of God comes as a possible or probable and convincing explanation of the universe and of man's life and destiny. If you like to call the idea a hypothetical conjecture I cannot object. But I would remind you that every other conception that brings order into our experience has the same history and the same character. Kant called such conceptions regulative: without them experience would have no systematic coherence and even perception would be blind. Hume looking into himself failed to come across his soul. His failure was inevitable. The soul is not an object of internal perception but a name we give to the living unity of man's rational powers. We see the process of the operation of these powers infer their existence and call their unity a “soul.” Now as an “inference” or “hypothesis” it would seem at first sight that the evidence of God is insecure—much more insecure than if He were an object of perception which so to speak we could knock up against. But it is not so. The surest truths are those whose denial would render all truth impossible; the safest conceptions are those without which the order of experience would be broken. We do not prove a thing by saying that it is an object of perception. On the contrary our perceptions have themselves to be correlated and tested by reference to the system of knowledge as a whole if they are to have meaning and to convince. Ancient scepticism has demonstrated once for all the untrustworthiness of sensible perception and modern philosophy has shown that in and of itself and apart from the correlating and systematizing principles of experience it has no meaning.
Conclusion as to the believer's God and the value of morality.
Moreover as I have tried to show the particulars which are objects of perception are in truth not premisses from which deductions may be made but tests of fundamental explanations. And undoubtedly it is as such a fundamental explanation that the idea of God is offered. Man derives it mainly from his interpretation of his own nature and needs. God is man's refuge from himself. He is strength as against his own weakness; purity as against his own sinfulness; the fulness of plenty as against his own poverty; and in a word perfection as against his own imperfection. Having found his refuge and given himself to his God and found in him the meaning and purpose of life the religious spirit finds him everywhere. And so far as I know there is no better explanation of the nature of things than as the outcome of the Divine Will; and no better conception of God or the Absolute than as the inexhaustible source of the spiritual energy operative in the world and manifesting itself in man's moral and religious life. Nor on the other hand could Divine Love itself make a more generous gift to mankind than that of the spirit that strives towards virtues and seeks self-realization in the morality which is at the same time the service of God.
Neither the sciences nor sceptical philosophy offer any effective alternative theory.
It remains both to explain and to defend this conception of the Divine Being and his relation to finite existence. Meantime it may be observed that it is a hypothesis which has no worthy rival. Spiritualistic Idealism in some one or other of its forms holds the field. Connections within the natural scheme are growing apace in the hands of science: that nature as a whole is the expression of one single principle is deemed certain. But the sciences refrain from forming even conjectures as to the nature of that principle. The continuity of the natural and spiritual and their interdependence are recognized as so intimate that the ordinary dualistic view is no longer authoritative. Nevertheless no theory now occupies in the scientific mind the place once held by naturalistic materialism. Science leaves these matters to the philosopher. As to the sceptic he is quite helpless and offers no positive suggestion of any kind. The evil natural and moral which he has observed in the world has raised his indignation but not the spirit of persistent enquiry. He is as a rule liable to be impatient of explanations offered by others and too ready to assume that to explain and especially to justify this fundamental article of religious faith as to the being and nature of God must be to reduce the reality of sin and to take the sting out of human wrong. And some forms of modern Idealism have one must confess gone far to justify this conclusion.
But our own doctrine still needs defence.
First as to the relation between the natural and moral.
What defence then can be offered? How in particular are the difficulties as to natural and moral evil to be met? I have made two main assertions as to the relation between natural and spiritual good and evil: first that “in the long run” right behaviour brings physical and material well-being and wrong behaviour the opposite; second that only in the light of their spiritual value can natural events be estimated. But one can imagine the sceptic replying Why “in the long run”? Why is the relation between right conduct and material or physical prosperity not direct and immediate? If it is granted that the value of natural facts does not lie in themselves and that we do not know whether a natural circumstance is to be called good or bad until we know its bearing upon human life and ultimately upon human character then it must be admitted that the “nature of things” is moral. Why then is nature's response to right and wrong action not direct? Why does the consequence arrive only “in the long run”? In one word why is man not rapped over the fingers at once when he does wrong? Why are the consequences of right or wrong doing so long postponed? And above all why do they often fall upon some one else than the person who has done the right or the wrong deed? The results of actions do not appear one often observes till the third or fourth generation: they “take time” to ripen into their consequences. In the meanwhile the second and third generations escape.
The delayed natural consequences and the immediate moral consequences of right and wrong action tend to favour the moral life
Reasons have already been shown for refraining from the attempt to explain “particular” instances unless the concessions made to science are refused in matters of religion. The answer if any as in science takes the form of a general hypothesis.
If the wrong act were followed by physical disaster and the right act by material prosperity as promptly as the roll of thunder follows the lightning what would result? As things are it is the moral consequence of right or wrong action which is immediate taking the form of either the improvement or the deterioration of the character. That ethical result moreover always falls to the agent himself and affects others only indirectly and remotely. In both of these ways the difference is clear. And the contrast between these two conditions seems to me to favour the moralizing process in mankind and to be the result of benevolent wisdom. The scheme of things if its purpose is spiritual (as we assume) stops short of terrifying or bribing man into good behaviour; but at the same time it invites reflexion and persuades. The freedom of man is respected and at the same time the fact that he himself may escape the consequences of wrong-doing which fall upon others who are guiltless ought to be and is an appeal to his ethical spirit. We are not compelled. The imperative “don't” or “do this” is not an external forcing as it would be on the secularist's scheme.
Pain an indicator of broken law and a warning.
The answer to the sceptical objections seems therefore once more to depend upon the moral character and values of natural events. And the same moral considerations account for the existence at all of natural evil. For the sceptic might ask—“Why after all is there pain and suffering of body soul or both”? Could not the spiritual advance of mankind be secured by some less costly method? Physical pain I believe is nature's way of indicating that a law of physical well-being has been violated and of saying “Don't do it again.” To abolish pain so that for instance a child might look at his foot burning off in the flames and enjoy the sight would be to deprive man of the most potent safeguard. Physical pain is a language so plain that everyone hears and understands.
Fidelity to the ethical standards of judgment imperative.
And as to the suffering of others from our deeds it is the same kind of warning but on another plane; and except when the instincts of motherhood come into play rebellion against its injustice is usual. Once more the educative character of the scheme of things and its share in the ethical progress of man reveal themselves. Everything that involves the well-being of men in one another favours morality.
One conclusion seems to me to be valid. The difficulties are met if and in so far as our estimate of good and evil rests loyally on the moral nature and purpose of the world.
But this involves that events must not be valued at all as separate or in themselves. They must be regarded in their relation to the self-justifying process of the whole.