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Lecture 3 The Nature of Religion

Lecture 3
The Nature of Religion
IN the last lecture we pointed out a grave difficulty in following the injunction of Lord Gifford and treating Natural Religion “as a purely natural science like astronomy or chemistry.” We saw that the method of a science depends on the nature of the facts it professes to explain; and the facts of religion are spiritual facts and seem at any rate to stand in striking contrast and even opposition to all “natural” facts.
The attitude of the scientific thinkers of to-day.

The significance of this contrast we further saw is realized by scientific thinkers to-day as it never was before. They recognize that even if the natural domain is not separate from the spiritual but continuous with it a natural explanation is incomplete and inadequate. In other words it is now recognized by scientific men themselves that the purpose of the natural sciences is limited. They know that they set forth from hypotheses and they do not pretend to give a final and full explanation of the nature of the real. They are becoming conscious that natural science omits an aspect of what is real. They even realize to some degree at least that when they omit the relation of natural facts to man they may be omitting what is of vital significance. I have no doubt that they will yet correct the omission and help the philosopher to find room for man in the natural scheme to re-interpret that scheme in his light and to restore the wholeness of what is real. At present they acquiesce as we have seen in the limitation of their own aims and they leave the investigation of spiritual phenomena to others.

The abstract character of the natural sciences.
Now that which imposes limits on a science is always the same. Its purpose is limited and it deals with only single aspects of facts. Every science has its particular point of view and purpose and it recognizes only those features of a fact which are relevant to that purpose. Physics the greatest or at least the greatest group of all the Natural Sciences is a science of measurement. It deals with quantities. Of qualitative differences it offers no explanation. But there are no facts without qualities. And when we pass on to biological facts qualitative considerations become vital and paramount and physical conceptions cease to help in any significant way. Still more is this the case when the facts considered are psychical and self-conscious. The quantitative sciences being the most abstract become less and less adequate the more concrete that is the more complex the unity of the differences of an object.
Only the more abstract sciences held by Lotze to be demonstrative.
Hence religion is not an affair of the reasoning intellect.
On the other hand the more that qualitative considerations enter the more the direct convincingness of the proof disappears. Hence some philosophers like Lotze have maintained that conclusive demonstration is not possible except in Mathematics and Physics—the sciences of pure quantity or measurement. The moment that differences of quality appear computation and measurement lose their value and demonstrative proof becomes impossible. Hence in all the sciences except Mathematics and Physics there exists a purely conjectural or empirical element. We must wait on events; our process must be a posteriori prediction and certainty are impossible. The province of the ratiocinating intelligence is thus limited. And it is manifest that the facts of man's spirit that is of morality and religion where conceptions of value worth or goodness are of primary importance fall outside its boundaries.
This view will not bear investigation. It implies a wrong notion of proof. It overlooks the fact that there is proof wherever there is systematic coherence and existential interdependence.1 But at present I shall merely observe that a truth omitted from any system or a quality overlooked in any fact batters it from without. The theory is exposed as false and the fact as an illusion: they have only the doubtful value of fragments. The omitted aspect or quality so long as it is not allowed to enter into and take its own place as an element within the doctrine or system is a vital objection to it and a constant condemnation of it.
The intelligence no less than morality and religion demands what is ultimate and complete.
And the ultimate reality is the same for all of them.
Natural Science will in the future more and more recognize the spiritual significance of facts but at present the main witnesses are Philosophy and Religion.
The necessities of the intelligence are thus in the last resort the same as those of morality and religion. The True and The Good make the same claim to systematic wholeness: that is to say the former must take room for all facts and the latter for all values. Neither can stop short of the absolute. It is not a moral one-sidedness however pre-eminent that can satisfy—a justice that is not also mercy a kindness or generosity that is not just. As a matter of fact the virtues at their best not only hold hands but as Plato shows pass into one another. Temperance will turn under our very hands into courage courage into wisdom and any or all of them into unselfish regard for one's neighbour and service of the State. And vices I need hardly say pass into and generate one another in the same way. This is inevitable. For the virtues are manifestations of the same ultimate principle are elements within the same whole and therefore are only by help of one another. Now the principle which is ultimate for morality is the perfect Good by which religion holds; and it is also the absolutely self-explaining and self-determining reality which the intelligence demands. It is that in which all things subsist. The intelligence can not nor should it find rest except in assured knowledge of that principle. And natural science as it comes to its own will be less and less liable to omit to refer its phenomena to it for their final explanation. Science also will make more and more directly for wholeness—for knowledge of that which is self-determining and self-sufficient and which manifests itself in the facts of experience. And I believe it will find that principle of Wholeness of self-determining self-justifying reality that neither has nor needs a “Beyond” in the conception of Spirit. In other words I believe that the time is coming when convincing testimony to the spiritual nature of reality will be borne by the Sciences (merely “natural” no longer).
The abstraction to which Philosophy and Religion are prone.
The correction of both the abstract views lies in the discovery that the secular is sacred and the natural is also spiritual.
At present there are two main witnesses to this wholeness of reality namely Philosophy and Religion. They are not they cannot for a moment afford to be abstract. But in their own way they are not less prone to be abstract than are the natural sciences. Only the aspect or element which they are tempted to ignore or obscure or even overlook is a different one. They are apt to forget that spiritual facts are not real except when they are exemplified or realized in the things and events of time. The moral world is spoken of as if it had a separate and independent existence: Religion is made an affair of the other life. Their natural aspect is taken to be a mere garb which they can put on or off and do without. But the moral world must be sustained by continued volition. There is no knowledge but only knowing. A spiritual principle which is not active either in our conduct or our reflexion is a non-entity. The merely spiritual is as genuine an abstraction as the merely natural; nor as I may try to show later is the relation between them external or contingent. The devout who stand aloof from temporal concerns like many devotees of the Roman Catholic Church in times past are committing as real a blunder as those who overlook the spiritual meanings in the secular opportunities of life. And I am inclined to think that the error of forgetting that spirit in order to be real or that principles whether of morality religion or knowledge must be exemplified in temporal facts is a no less disastrous error than that of the sciences which have not learnt that the natural when all the meaning of it is set free blossoms into the spiritual like the tree into flower. Religion and philosophy and science also have yet to learn more fully that all which can possibly concern man occupy his intelligence or engage his will lies at the point of intersection of the natural and spiritual. But this is anticipate matters. What concerns us and has led us thus far is the fact that the matter of a system of knowledge determines the method of enquiry; and so long as the sciences treat facts as merely natural and philosophy and religion do not follow out “the application” of their principles in temporal particulars their methods must be both defective and different. The contrast between secular and sacred facts must be exposed in all its falsity and their unity accentuated. In other words (from opposite directions in a sense) both natural science and the philosophy of religion must extend their claims. Neither can find rest in abstraction nor should they seek it there. Their theme is at once secular and sacred; they have to deal with principles that are at once ultimate and if you like timeless and which also embody and actualize themselves in temporal events.
We have now to justify this view. We must ask with more relentless purpose than hitherto what is the real or constitutive character of religious facts? Are they knowable? And are they knowable by methods analogous to those of natural science?
What is Religion?
At first sight it would seem that no satisfying answer can be found; religion has had such diverse and even contradictory meanings and has played such different parts in man's history. Any attempt at expressing its character in a definition seems to be doomed to fail.
Endless varieties of religious beliefs and rites.
“Whatever element be named as essential to religion” says Edward Caird “it seems easy to oppose a negative instance to it.” There are religions of love and religions of hate and religions of indifference. There are religions whose Gods are helpers of man and there are religions whose Gods can be hindered from destroying him only if they can be propitiated by mystic ceremonies and bloody sacrifices. The Gods have been regarded as human in all things except that they are fairer in form and greater in strength and stature and that whatever they do is right. On the other hand man it is alleged has found his Gods in plants and animals and even in stocks and stones and the things most opposite to himself. And there are religions without any Gods at all. Even in our own times and in regard to the Christian religion we have the greatest diversity of view. Our religious beliefs were too anthropomorphic for Herbert Spencer; they were not anthropomorphic enough for Goethe. Our philosophers are divided as to whether God is or is not the Absolute and in either case as to whether he is or is not a person. And they are happy neither in the denial nor in the affirmation of his perfection. Few of them can tolerate an imperfect God—none would attempt to acquiesce in the notion could they otherwise admit and account for the reality of evil. On the other hand to affirm his perfection seems to imply his changelessness and the changeless must be inactive. But a God conceived as a static absolute cannot do anything and is as little satisfactory as a God who is limited and imperfect.
Doubt as to truth and value of Religion the natural consequence of its multitude of meanings.
In such circumstances doubt as to the truth and value of religion and even as to its meaning is more than legitimate. It is inevitable. But on the other hand amidst all these miscellaneous meanings and doubtful uses religion has had some characters which are no less universal than they are unique. Let us glance at two of these. Religion has always impassioned the spirit of man and added consequence to the things which it sanctions or condemns. It concentrates man's faculties rouses them to the uttermost exercise of their power excludes hesitation and expels alternatives. Not only does it possess the whole man but it leads him onward under the belief that the ultimate forces of his world are at his back. Hence when he acts “in the name” of religion he knows neither inner nor outer restraint. The impelling propulsive power of religion is supreme: the passions are at its service.
Every Religion impassions concentrates and intensifies human life.
Its effects are always extreme whether they be good or bad.
But the direction which religion will take in the exercise of its power is uncertain. It has proved a supreme force in the ways both of reason and of unreason. It has been the most sane and equilibrating power in man's history teaching him as nothing else can the relative values of ends and ways of life: it has also proved the most extravagant uncontrolled and I am tempted to add the most insane of all forces.2 What rites and ceremonies have not been inspired by it what articles of faith has it not represented as final and saving truths and what ways of conduct has it not both commanded and forbidden!3 The deeds which man has done when roused by his religion—done in the name and for the sake of it and with a rampant certainty of doing what is right—are amongst the darkest in his history appalling in their crudity and cruelty. On the other hand the lives of religious men and women have surpassed all description in their spiritual splendour—their gentleness their wisdom their courage and in the spendthrift magnificence of their ministering love. If on the one side no kind of selfishness or evil passion and purpose has created such a destructive dispeace amongst the nations of the earth as religion has; on the other side it has broken out into principles of conduct which have united men so that they live in and by means of one another. It has linked the generations together in the continuous and growing experience of stable and more or less civilized societies. For human society is welded not by needs nor by economical but by ethical principles which operate even when little understood; and the ultimate ground of these principles we shall I think find is religion. Nevertheless it must be recognized that amidst all these discrepant and mutually destructive practical effects of religion its feature of intensifying human interests remains.
The contrast of the religious and secular.
It varies but is universal.
But the fact that religion intensifies human interests giving them a significance that is often extravagant and new does not remove it from amongst the subjects amenable to scientific treatment. It really constitutes a more urgent need of it. Nevertheless it does result in establishing a contrast between the religious and secular life which tends to arrest science at the entrance of the religious domain. That contrast I am of opinion is not only general but universal. It varies indefinitely in depth but it does not always amount to direct antagonism. There are religions in which it almost disappears. The Greek passed to and fro between the secular and sacred domains most smoothly and was on very familiar terms with his gods and goddesses. The Greek spirit was artistic and for that spirit there must exist a complete equipoise of inner meaning and outward expression of soul and body of mind and matter. The Greek deities were in consequence simply men and women of greater strength and beauty and except for the ceremonial observances they exacted hardly superior to the Greek himself. But for the Israelite a chasm yawned between religious and ordinary concerns. Unlimited awe and reverence entered the soul and a depth of devotion and contrition hardly intelligible to the Gentile world. It is the Israelite rather than the Greek civilization which reveals and exemplifies the nature of religion. For however true it may be that the contrast of the secular and sacred must in the last resort disappear or that in other words nothing must prove finally “secular” or “unclean” still religion cannot reveal its true character except where that contrast emerges and obtains full expression. Finite concerns and ends must be tried and be found to fail and even to betray those who trust in them. Human civilization it seems to me must exhaust the uses of the finite ends before it is dedicated to the Best. When man turns to religion he turns his back upon the world and all that the world can offer as upon that which has proved worthless. It is not a difference of degree or of quantity of any kind that at first distinguishes the secular and sacred. It is as I shall try to show the contrast of the finite and the infinite. The inadequacy of the finite must be more than a mere conjecture. Nevertheless room must be left for it. Man must be allowed “to stand on his own pin-point rock” live his own life go his own way make his own choice discover the good for himself. The value and the power of religion are revealed by the strength of the resistance which it overcomes by the range of the secular interests which it transmutes; and its authority is complete only when it is recognized by the free.
Full justice must be done to the contrast and also to the solution of the contrast.
On the other hand the solution of the contrast must be as complete as the contrast is direct and explicit: in other words religion must penetrate and inform the whole of life. I must confess that religion loses its value for me if its presence and power are not made good everywhere in man's daily behaviour in the social powers which play within him and around him and even in the natural world which is also bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. It must not merely be present as one thing amongst many: it must be their truest meaning and highest worth. This religious faith or view or hypothesis is I believe that in the light of which alone the universe is left a cosmos and not a chaos and man's life therein a growing splendour and not a farce too tragical for tears.
The task of the philosophy of Religion and a confession of faith.
Now it is the business of the science or philosophy of religion to prove this hypothesis or substantiate this faith; that is they must demonstrate the universality of the presence and power of the Best we know. They must show that what is most perfect is also most real; that in the language of religion God is and is perfect in power and goodness and in the language of philosophy that the rational is the real. They must seek and find the ultimate meaning worth and reality that express themselves in a world which seems at first to consist of contradictory appearances and nothing more.
One of the things that I would accentuate and make decisively clear is that in this matter there can be no compromise in which either believers or unbelievers may take refuge. No ultimate law or principle can be operative only occasionally. To maintain that God is Good now and then and present and operative here and there or that order rules the universe at times and in certain spots while elsewhere contingencies are rampant and particulars run amok—all this seems to me as foolish as to say that 2 × 2 is 4 now and then on certain days and in certain places. Both the theory and the practice of religion demand for it sovereign authority and an unlimited domain.4
It is not true that there are some religious and some irreligious non-religious or secular facts; or that any choice is made as to who shall receive and who shall be denied the experience of the value of the former. Every man who is responsible and the being who is not responsible is (for our purpose at least) not a man is according to the extent of his responsibility capable of finding or missing spiritual meanings at every step of his way of life. The flowers of the field the birds of the air the whole panorama of colour and form the music of the winds and waves and the meaning that lies at the heart of all things are to him that hath ears to hear witnesses to the goodness of God and his care for man. There is no spot of earth anywhere that is not holy ground and no bush that does not burn where a leader of men may not meet the Best he knows and receive the message of his God. And if he cannot directly trace the presence of God in the incidents of man's sinful life he may find hints of it in the misery that sin brings on the world and in the revolt of his own soul against injustice cruelty debauchery in others and above all in himself.
I am loath indeed to admit that God reveals what is vital to some and not to others and reveals only by the rare and doubtful methods of dreams and visions and ancient books and stoled officials. His revelation is universal—all around always and everywhere—open to every one all the time or else it does not exist except as a fiction of a pious imagination. Standing in its place as a part of the world's context there is no fact and no event that is not a proof of and a witness to the universal rational order. And a rational order must be a benevolent order whose principle is Love.
In the light of Religion man reinterprets and re-values the facts of his life.
Does the presence or absence of religion then make no difference seeing that all facts are capable of either a material or spiritual interpretation according to the presuppositions of the interpreter or indeed of no interpretation at all but remain mere puzzles? On the contrary it makes the same kind of difference as the presence or absence of light to a looker-on at the outer world or the transparency of the window of his soul. A converted man as a rule re-interprets every incident in his past life and re-values every fact and purpose setting them in quite a new order of preference. Love for the Good the unconditional and final Good which religion is like all love finds rare values in some apparently very small facts and on the other hand shuts out what is a whole world for others as being of no consequence.
Religion is a new point of view. Taking his stand upon it man possibly for the first time surveys the whole expanse of his life and contemplates the distant horizon where the consequences of his deeds and thoughts and the meaning of it all dip out of sight. Within that scene regarded from a new direction every fact and incident stands in a new perspective. That which was near distinct urgent is now far vague and of the least significance; and that which was remote and vague and negligible—the moral uses of circumstances the spiritual opportunities of life the chance of serving one's fellows and the possibility of trusting God more fully and loving him with more devoted loyalty—these now are all in all.
Life as it proceeds demands meditative reflexion and reconstruction more and more.
And the truth of Religion is the grand Perhaps.
At first it seems a little thing to say of religion that it is a new point of view. But
“Belief or unbelief
Bears upon life determines its whole course.”
It is indeed the one thing that signifies: for a man lives his beliefs however much he may betray his creed. Nay I am not sure that it is not misleading to insist on the absolute newness of anything. It is possible that religion is not so much an introduction of new facts as a new light upon the familiar facts of the previous secular life. It is not new except in a limited sense—in the same sense as the conclusion which follows from premisses is new or an intuition that springs from experience or a bud that breaks out on a flowering plant. It is an improved interpretation of the meaning of life. It comes from him “Who is the light of all our seeing” And a greater miracle than “the nature of things” or a more illuminative revelation than the operation of its never-failing laws man need not desire. It is not a change of scene that religion brings. It opens the eyes of the looker-on. He discovers what was there already. The ordinary facts of his daily life whisper new meanings to him as he moves amongst them while their outer aspects remain just the same. Not that the slumber of the secular spirit is ever quite peaceful. Man is moved on from circumstance to circumstance unceasingly and he himself is always passing through change to change. New demands are ever being made upon him and these call upon him to awake. As life lengthens the calls become clearer. Trials thicken shallow joys grow pale man becomes more reflective. Instead of seeking new enterprises in the world without the experiences he has himself passed through engage his thoughts more and more and he would fain discern more clearly what they all mean. Ends that were his gods turn into idols of wood and stone and he can worship them no longer: and he knows now that things that seemed treasures are apt to change into trinkets. He yearns for a reliable good that will stand the weather. On the other hand the soul given to little deeds of kindness and the unobtrusive habits of a gentle life may find a growing good in man and a new benevolence in the world that make the religion which was latent in his moral life explicit. The music may become audible. So as Browning shows in a passage which cannot be quoted too often the spirits which neglect or deny the highest are rarely at rest or safe. They ask:
“How can we guard our unbelief
Make it bear fruit to us?…
Just when we are safest there's a sunset-touch
A fancy from a flower-bell some one's death
A chorus-ending from Euripides—
And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as nature's self
To rap and knock and enter in our soul
Take hands and dance there a fantastic ring
Round the ancient idol on his base again—
The grand Perhaps.”5
The “Perhaps” of religion is so magnificent if it is true: for it gives new worth to everything! While without it life is at best petty its interests are shallow and it passes away so soon! Indifference as to the truth of this “Perhaps” is not easy for man and it is not wise.

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