The Results of our Enquiry
I HAVE come to the conclusion that we cannot close this series of lectures in a better way than by surveying the results of our enquiry. There are features I should like to accentuate as possibly the most worthy of being considered further by you. First things were said which if not new are certainly not familiar; second there are others whose truth is doubtful and a matter of controversy; and lastly there are truths which I consider to be fundamental to a rational religious faith.
The three parts of the course.
You have probably observed that the course falls into three parts. In the first part we dealt with the obstacles in the way of enquiry into the validity of our religious creeds by the frank and severe and free methods of science. In the second part I expressed as unsparingly as I could the antagonism between the religious and the secular life. I considered carefully the apparently irreconcilable opposition of morality and religion pointed out the erroneous conceptions from which the contradiction arose and finally indicated the principle and method by which alone that contradiction could be solved. In the last part we were engaged with the conception of the God of Religion and his relation to the finite world and especially to man; and we identified him with the Absolute of Philosophy. The result seemed to be to prove that reason comes to the support of the religion which is enlightened. Enquiry if free and thorough will demonstrate the validity of our religious faith.
Such expressed in general terms were our themes. Our question now is what did we make of these themes? What are the conclusions negative or positive as to the value and validity of our religious faith which we are entitled to regard as decisive and ought to carry away with us?
I must in the first place of all make a confession. Not merely are our conclusions somewhat meagre but they are unsatisfactory in a far more serious sense. They are based from beginning to end upon an assumption which I have made no attempt to justify and which if false deprives our attempt of all value. The assumption is that the moral life has a value which is final unlimited and absolute. By the moral life I mean the process of forming a good character; by good character I mean a way of living which in all its details is dedicated to the service of the best and is therefore the fulfilment at one and the same time of the moral law and of the will of God. From the absoluteness and finality of the value of the process of learning goodness it follows that everything which furthers that process is good in the most unqualified sense and that everything which hinders it is evil. Moral progress is our principle of evaluation and our only authoritative measuring rod. We approve and we condemn by reference to it and to it only.
The perfect world is not fixed and changeless.
Now if the moral process the practical life that is spent in achieving spiritual excellence has this unconditioned worth and is the best then the world which provides room for that process is itself the best world. It is better than the so-called perfect world or world in which the ideal and real are supposed to coincide—a world which is perfect in the static sense. In such a world nothing could be done without committing evil and doing harm; the voice of duty could not be heard because what “ought to be” already “is”; there could be neither the need nor the possibility of choosing between right and wrong. It would not be a moral world at all. It could not furnish man with the conditions of the moral or spiritual enterprise and the moral life would not be possible. But no one would dream of calling the present world as it is to-day “perfect” in this the usual static sense of that term; nor can anyone doubt for a moment that it furnishes the most ample opportunities for the exercise of the will to virtue. The calls of duty are loud and constant for him that hath ears to hear. Our view then is that the moral life is the best thing conceivable and that this present world owing in a way to its imperfections furnishes the opportunity for the moral process and demands it as the ultimate good. But we have not proved these truths. They are assumptions and their truth may be doubted and denied. Indeed judging by our ordinary conduct many of us do deny the absolute value of the moral process. We are always prone to postpone spiritual considerations and to seek first the things that perish.
The Hedonist standard of values.
Men have consciously and consistently made use of other standards of value both in their judgments and in their way of life. The Hedonists are a conspicuous example. In no wise could they justify a world however virtuous in which there was more pain than pleasure. And as a rule it is very difficult to convince men who deny the sovereignty of ethical conceptions that they are in error. We may urge for instance that the value of moral facts lies wholly in themselves and is as little dependent on as it is derivative from aught else. But they will say the same thing of pleasure—especially if you permit them to call it “happiness.” “Assure me happiness all my life long and assure the same to all those whom I love and I shall ask no more. I shall then say what Faust said when at last Mephistopheles claimed his soul ‘It is enough. Let the moment stay.’”
Now I do not admit that the Hedonistic position is unassailable; but I should like to expose and emphasise the difficulty of raising the secular spirit to a level from which it will judge things spiritually. The consistent use of spiritual criteria is not easy to any one in the present world; and to the secular-minded man the argument will to the end seem to rest on sheer assumption and our results will appear to be just the innocuous fancies of unpractical philosophers. It is probable that nothing short of the actual experience of living the religious life will suffice to justify our assumption and to qualify the critic to pass judgment.
In any case without that assumption we are quite helpless: while granted that assumption many more important consequences are found to follow. These consequences I shall now try to bring into the foreground.
The reconciliation of religion and morality.
The first consequence which follows from our assumption is that it provides the means of reconciling religion and morality. The moral life as the best life conceivable becomes on this view the process of realizing in the circumstances and amongst the calls of ordinary life the good which is absolute and thereby of fulfilling in utter devotion the will of God. Morality becomes religion in practice; and right conduct can be defined as doing the will of God. Morality and religion are found to be complementary and inseparable aspects of the good life. The former is inspired guided and controlled by the latter and the latter achieves reality in its moral incarnation.
Morality always attains.
The second consequence which follows is that on this view the moral life instead of never attaining is attaining in every virtuous act. The process of forming character through our volitional efforts is seen to be as positive and genuine an advance from stage to stage as the cognitive process; for by doing what is right we learn how to do better. And that is the only way of learning that best and highest of tasks. The moral world instead of presenting a scene of “hazards and hardships” and failures instead of being radically such a blunder that its success in identifying the real and the ideal would be its own extinction shows us a constant conversion of the past life into a stepping-stone. For man rises a better man from doing a fine action and a worse from doing a mean one. Moreover every good act is in its way perfect. If the whole law is not directly realized in it the law as applicable to the actual circumstances is put in practice. In the circumstances neither man nor God could do better; and the performance of duty is just the highest use of circumstance.
I cannot for my part regard these results as of small significance. The antagonism between morality and religion the view of the former as merely human and therefore of low value and of the latter as something aloof from the secular life and therefore in the last resort a matter of mysterious and incommunicable experience weakened the power for good of both of them. Nor can I consider that the consistent and persistent presentation of the moral life as a tragic matter a failure in that which is best of all instead of a joyous process of learning more thoroughly what is right could have been without its deterrent effects. We cannot of course advocate the pursuit of moral good on the ground of the prosperity it brings: that were to reduce morality the supreme good and “highest end” (as Aristotle taught us) into means. Nevertheless we can hinder the moral progress of no one by indicating in what a fair country the man who is learning goodness is travelling. Here is the true primrose path; and as I have already hinted the pilgrims who go along this way go singing. They are in the company of “The Shining One”: their moral life is a divine service.
In the next place the assumption of the sovereign worth of the process of learning to know and to do the will of God and of the present world as existing in order to furnish the opportunities for that process throws a new light on the problem of evil.
The problem of evil.
Our line of argument on this matter was both short and simple. If the spiritual process of learning to recognize and realize the best has the supreme value which we attribute to it then the world that makes that process possible is the best world. It is a better world be it noted than the so-called “perfect world” of ordinary opinion. That so-called perfect world obviously stands in no need of improvement and has no room nor call for change. There is nothing in it that “Ought” to be done; there are no unrealized ideals: on the contrary to do anything were to introduce change and a change for the worse; for the real and the ideal already coincide. Morality is not possible. No duty calls. Spiritual enterprise is extinguished. If we choose the good (as we would) we should find that it is already there accomplished; so that we can but stand with idle and empty hands. It is never a moral good.
A stale world.
But a world in which the moral life is not possible a world in which no lover of what is right can move hand or foot a world that is static as if struck by a magician's wand were I should say a most undesirable world. Man's spirit wants to be up and doing and if it is a dedicated spirit it wants to be up and doing for the God it loves. Nothing conceivable could be more stale than existence in a perfect world. It manifestly cannot compare in spiritual worth to a world where the cry for help arises from the social environment and where obedience to the voice of duty and the giving of that help are recognized as the fulfilment of the will of a loving God.
I in no wise seek to justify evil. I cannot maintain that in itself it is a form of the good: under no circumstances can it be changed into good. But I leave room for it; for I recognize that in this instance the striving for the aim is the attainment of it the battle is the victory. The process of learning to do what is right is the spiritual excellence we are seeking.
The third result that accrues from the assumption which we are making is the conception of the indwelling of infinite perfection in finite objects—the immanence of God in man's nature and his participation in his moral strivings. Man's blind and pathetic gropings after the best become from this point of view the working within him of the divine will. Nothing can be more divine than the process of acquiring spiritual excellence. It is a movement to new perfections each realization of the best being the starting point for a new departure. Instead of a Divine Being who dwells aloof from the world-process and can only look on at it seeing that it is already statically perfect God reveals himself in that process. He is the process from stage to stage that is from perfection to perfection.
God's working in the human soul may often seem to be most imperfect and obscure: for man being the medium of the operations limits both their range and their power. The human agent must adopt the will of God as his rule of behaviour and the range of man's choice is small. The divine working cannot pass beyond the boundaries of man's free choice: for what is a command on the one side is on the other a conscious obligation and devoted choice.
Difficulties of the conception
No doubt this view brings difficulties. How can an action it will be asked be at once the working of the divine will in man and the expression of man's free choice? The fact seems undeniable at least to the religious spirit: man's attempt to live the good life is unhesitatingly pronounced by it to be the consequence of its dedication of itself to the divine service in such a way that it has no wish or desire or aim which is exclusively its own. The religious man I repeat gives up his very self.
We met this difficulty by refusing to apply exclusive categories. Spiritual beings we affirmed include one another.
Spirit is never exclusive or finite.
The attitude of spirit is in the last resort not exclusive to any object. All things are possible contents of its knowledge and instruments of its purposes. The world is there waiting for man by means of his rational powers to enter into possession of it. And we cannot make it too decisively clear to ourselves that the parts or elements in the world—the facts in short—the possession of which signifies most are those which have already become the expressions of and are embodied in human character. “The world of man” is for every man the object best worth knowing and the powers asleep in that world are those best worth awakening.
Both instead of either-or.
Individuals we have said are never primarily or ultimately exclusive though they have their exclusive or inner aspect. They are infinite by nature and therefore all-comprehensive although hindered and limited by littleness of their medium. It were indeed a tragic world were the relations of men to one another exclusive and negative. Who wants a hearth where the child cannot say “My father” and the father reply with “My child”; or a country whose citizens do not feel that it is their own and also that they belong to it? Our domestic social nay I shall add our human life is one unbroken illustration of the mutual interpenetration of rational beings. The see-saw category of “either-or” which has hitherto been in use in social questions has brought endless difficulties. It is time that we should try the concrete view and start from the idea of “both.”
Man and the Absolute.
This view of the individual and of the relation of men to one another is once more in direct antagonism to that of Mr. Bosanquet and Mr. Bradley. They cannot as we saw assign individuality to man as well as to the Absolute. In the last resort he is a finite being to them. His individuality must prove to be a phantom and his existence phenomenal only. The indwelling of God must to them be destructive of man's personality. When taken up into the Absolute the finite being is transmuted and the transmutation I believe involves the extinction of personality or independent individuality. But on the view I have tried to set forth the indwelling of God constitutes the personality; for as already shown what is done to his world by the individual is done by the use of powers which the world has given to him. By his immanence in man God empowers man. The constituent elements break into consciousness in him and are focussed in his self-consciousness. In that act of becoming self-conscious the individual gathers himself together free from his world in order thereafter to be free in and by means of his world. Except on these terms I do not see how both the immanence of God and the freedom of man or how both religion and morality can be maintained.
If God is immanent in finite things he is not changeless.
Process is everywhere.
Now the conception of divine immanence seriously entertained carries with it a further consequence. It involves the rejection of the idea of God as perfect in the sense that he is unchangeable. It looks obvious that what is perfect cannot change except for the worse. But even were that true it does not justify us in saying that the impossibility of change or its absence is either a feature or a condition of perfection. Changelessness may be a ruinous condition. It is evidently a conception that is totally inapplicable to life in every form and at every stage. Life is constant self-re-creation. We are in some ways and in some degree new beings every day for the past constantly enters into us and becomes a part of us. The instant that process stops death ensues: death is the stopping of a process. But it is also the substitution of another: decay sets in. As a matter of fact in neither the world of dead objects nor in the world of living beings can we find anything but process. The whole Universe is a single process; and if our conclusions hold the reality at the heart of that process which expresses itself in it and which in truth it is is the Absolute of philosophy the God of religion.
God moves from perfection to perfection.
It does not seem easy to justify the conception of the Divine Being as moving from perfection to perfection. Compared with the later stage the earlier manifestly comes to appear to be defective and imperfect. A movement from perfection to perfection looks like a logical impossibility. Every present when it arrives seems to condemn what went before as at least a partial failure. But at stage A may not a be perfection; and at stage B may not b acquire that character? Is it quite certain that there are static limits to the indwelling perfections of the divine nature or indeed to anything that develops? What is admirable in a grown-up man can be repellent in a child. We value events often on the ground that they are timely: the fact is there to meet the need. Besides may not the process once more rather than either of the stages be the true object of judgment and the divine mode of existence? God himself may have in his power no better way than to sustain the process by which goodness is achieved.
He is the perfect in process.
To me the idea of God as the perfect in process as a movement from splendour to splendour in the spiritual world as an eternal achievement and never-resting realization of the ideals of goodness in human history is endlessly more attractive and I believe more consistent with our experience in the present world than the idea of a Divine Being who sits aloof from the world-process eternally contemplating his own perfections. Love at any rate is directly and finally inconsistent with such an aloofness. And the religion of Love which Christianity is undoubtedly identifies the destiny of God and man: God suffers in our sufferings and rejoices in our joys. He is our Father; and he moves with us because he moves in us.
A friendly and helpful world.
There is one more consequence which follows from the fundamental assumption on which our whole course rests. I shall merely indicate it. It is the view which for the first time we are enabled to entertain of the world as friendly and helpful and of God as an inspiring and empowering and guiding presence. It is the view which we advocate that for the first time recognizes the friendliness and helpfulness of man's environment and apprehends the inspiration and power which the recognition of God as dwelling in us and active in our deeds brings. These forces were there always; but the ordinary theory hid them from our sight. Now we can rejoice in a morality that is positive and triumphant; in a religion that breaks into this joyous morality; and above all in the knowledge that God is with us and that therefore nothing can be finally against us.
Religion and Philosophy at one.
We have in this course so far as I am able to judge followed the methods of science and admitted nothing which did not recommend itself to and stand the tests of an enquiring intelligence. And it is no small matter that the use of the methods of science if strict and unsparing can thus support a rational religious faith.
Were men strengthened and sustained by such a faith it seems to me that Browning's words would have a wide application. Many an unobtrusively modest religious man could describe himself as
“One who never turned his back but marched breast-forward
Never doubted clouds would break
Never dreamed though right were worsted wrong would triumph
Held we fall to rise are baffled to fight better