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Lecture 4 The Contrast of the Finite and Infinite

Lecture 4
The Contrast of the Finite and Infinite
PERHAPS a glance at the road along which we have travelled may be of some use at this stage.
Definition of our problem.

We have been asking whether Religion is or is not capable of being treated by the methods of natural science. This we believe is precisely the problem with which Lord Gifford desired that the lectures should deal. It meant to him as it usually does to others: first the question whether the objects with which Religion has to do are real or illusions; and second whether they can be proved to be real and whether their nature can be explained by the methods which have been so convincingly successful in the sciences.

Divergence of opinion as to the reality of religious objects.
As to the reality of the facts there is the greatest diversity of opinion. Religious believers say that they are real and real in a deeper and fuller sense than any other facts. Sceptics say that they are the fictitious creations of man's fears and hopes and the most persistent and powerful of all his illusions. Agnostics profess to offer no opinion either positive or negative on the ground that man can never find any adequate reasons for either affirmation or denial. Their intention is to refrain from both affirmation and negation; and were their agnosticism thorough and self-consistent both affirmation and denial would be seen to be out of place. What they profess to do is simply to suspend judgment. But that is equivalent to assuming no attitude of mind at all. Hence the only verdict that agnosticism really invites is that it should be ignored altogether or that it should count as what it professes to be namely a witness that testifies to nothing. But the practical effect of agnosticism so far from being negligible is the worst kind of religious denial namely that which follows from indifference from shutting religion outside of both the contemplative and the practical life.
Agreement as to the absence of the need of demonstrative proof of religious ideas.
Placid secularism the worst enemy of religion.
Now while there is thus the widest difference of opinion as to the reality of the facts there is a curious unanimity as to the needlessness or uselessness of all the demonstrative methods of the intellect in the domain of religious phenomena. The facts for the believer are matters of faith that is (usually) of a faith that is held not to be indebted to reason nor to rest on proof. Scepticism again as a rule if not even always is deaf to the implications of the finite; and resting its case on sheer particulars (just as if their context did not enter into their constitution) rarely takes the trouble to disprove the opinions it condemns and never exposes the positive basis of its own denial. The attitude of the Agnostic we have just considered. And the combined result of the low value thus set upon demonstrative knowledge in this region by believers sceptics and agnostics alike is a placid secularism of spirit that limits the issues of life and narrows its horizon. But no graver injury can be done to man than to limit the range of his fears and hopes. We can admit readily that there have been foolish and noxious faiths in this world of ours but without faith nothing great was ever done or even attempted.
The methods of the sciences vary with their matter and purpose.
A wrong method converts facts into enigmata instead of explaining them.
As to the application of scientific method of enquiry to religion we found that the natural sciences so far from having one method have many. Every science has its own method; for the method that can be fruitfully employed depends upon the aspect of reality or the matter which is investigated. There is no more prolific source of utterly baffling problems—the problems which men call insoluble and which they make into a ground for insisting on the incompetence of human intelligence—than the use in one province of methods that are effective in another where facts are of another kind. In short the use of the wrong method so far from explaining facts distorts them and makes them unintelligible.
Fundamental difference of natural and spiritual data.
Now the subject matter of the natural sciences is finite that of religion infinite. In other words ordinary or secular experience deals with nothing that is ultimate or final while it is the nature of religion to deal with naught else. The secular life the natural life perhaps I should say in obedience to and extension of the law of self-maintenance is always seeking what appears good and moves on in the pursuit of a better. It substitutes one finite end for another. But religion even when crude and rudimentary is a pursuit (and therefore a possession) not of a Better but of the Best. No doubt that “best” whether of a man or an age or even a race may be a poor thing. Conceptions of absoluteness and finality of worth may be most inadequate; nevertheless such as they are they are operative in all spiritual or truly human life. And man always gives the name of “God” to his “best.” He worships it adores it and even serves it in some fashion or another.
Religion seeks the perfect.
Carlyle would limit man's aspirations in order to satisfy him.
Now the conception of “the Best” implies as we shall see a reality that is the source of its own perfections and the cause and guarantee of all forms of good; and the suspicion naturally arises that man in professing to know to serve nay to be one with a reality of that kind having made it into his God the object of his contemplation and the goal of his desires has forgotten his own littleness. Carlyle has given expression to this suspicion in his Sartor. His “Shoeblack” remains dissatisfied though he were given “half a Universe of an Omnipotence” all to himself because there is “an infinite in him” which for satisfaction desires and demands an infinite object. But instead of satisfying the demand Carlyle suggests as a remedy that man should limit his desires. Let him get rid of his self-conceit form a better notion of his pettiness and a truer view of his deserts; then he will reduce his claims. “Fancy that thou deservest to be hanged (as is most likely) thou wilt feel it happiness to be only shot: fancy that thou deservest to be hanged in a hair-halter it will be a luxury to die in hemp.”
This is a good example of Carlyle's humorous extravagance but it conveys his serious meaning. His cardinal remedy for man's unhappiness is to limit his aspirations and reduce his claims. “The fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your numerator as by lessening your denominator. Nay unless my Algebra deceive me Unity itself divided by Zero will give Infinity. Make thy claim of wages zero then; thou hast the world under thy feet. Well did the Wisest of our time write ‘It is only with Renunciation (Entsagen) that Life properly speaking can be said to begin.’”
His remedy involves a deep wrong being a betrayal of both religion and of the rational nature of man.
Now Carlyle's remedy unless the whole direction of my thinking on philosophy and religion is wrong runs directly counter to both and betrays man's highest and truly human interests. Nothing can and nothing ought to satisfy man except that which meets the claims of his nature: and what his nature claims as we have seen is the Best the absolutely self-sufficient the Good that knows no limit. The Entsagung which Carlyle approves is a negation taken by itself as complete. The Entsagung which has value is both an aspect and a result of the discovery of the infinite fulness as well as the infinite want of it. As a mere negative standing by itself self-denial has no ethical value: Asceticism can not be justified as an end in itself.
Religion demands the Infinite.
The truth is that Religion invites man to enlarge his claims. Its dominant conception is self-realization. So far from limiting man's aspirations or narrowing his outlook or lowering his demands it teaches that nothing can or is meant to suit or satisfy him except that Highest which is also Best. In one word Religion reveals to man that he needs God and to know the need of God is to find him and to find God is to find what secures every final value. Religion is characterized by a radical resistance to limitation. And philosophy I believe when most true and positive is the process by which reason substantiates the main hypothesis of religion and furnishes a rational basis for man's infinite claims making him no doubt a pilgrim on a road that leads to a very far city. But the way is at every step a way of life.
How it passes into Mysticism and devout Agnosticism.
Now one result of the impatience of limits which characterizes religion is that it often takes the form of Mysticism. Instead of the Infinite men worship the Indefinite. And this Indefinite means that which resists all definition and is either “Unknowable” or else has the single known characteristic of being other than entirely exclusive of and excluded by and different and isolated from everything finite: in short it is the not-finite. It has always struck me that to call the Unknowable “God” is a masterpiece of confused thinking: any other name would fit just as well and no name is really possible. But what is meant is that whatever else the Infinite may be it is not anything known by minds which we are told can know only the finite and which must limit all that they do know. In other words we can be sure of only one thing: the Infinite is quite other than the finite. It is “Beyond.” It is different from all that we do or ever can know and it is easily presumed surpasses it and is all the more fit to be an object of worship on that account. Religion takes the form of devout Agnosticism.
While religion demands the Infinite the scientific spirit seems to demand the definite and limited.
The scientific intelligence and its world of exclusive particulars.
Modern Science leaves room for philosophy by limiting its own aims.
Another result of this yearning after the perfect the infinite erroneously interpreted as the indefinite or the not-finite is the quarrel between science and religion or as it is usually expressed between the intellect and the heart. The intellect in the service of the systematic sciences distinguishes and defines. In doing so it appears to discover set forth and fix limits. One fact or feature of a fact seems to be set apart over against all others as a distinct and separate object standing outside or in relations that are exclusive to all other objects. If the intellect in defining and distinguishing inevitably establishes relations between the objects that it defines and distinguishes these relations must be external. They do not enter into or form part of the intrinsic character of the objects. The objects it is argued remain the same whether they are in or out of these relations; and whether in or out they retain all their singularity and particularity. The world which arises on this view of the intellect is a collection of particular facts and events contingently connected by external laws which are empirically discovered. The laws do not constitute the facts. The facts owe nothing to their being parts of the same universe. The laws are not constitutive principles; and facts are not samples of principles nor their manifestations and embodiments. The laws are merely names we give as the result of experience to the repetitive constancy of temporal events; they are mere notions of our own and they correspond rest on point to no objective realities. Universals do not exist. They are mere generalizations. “Particulars are the only realia.” It is regarded as the characteristic and the good fortune of natural science that it recognizes this truth and seeks no ultimate and universally constitutive principles. That extravagant ambition and impossible adventure it leaves to philosophy and religion. Commerce with the ultimate and perfect is primarily we are told the concern of the heart that is of the feeling and willing self. For it is evident that the heart when it desires the self when it feels and wills reaches outwards escapes from its isolation seeks and often finds fulfilment and realizes itself in and by something other than different from itself. The self possesses and is possessed by its object. The object is thus deprived of its obstructive otherness. It becomes man's partner in the enterprises of life. Man's world is in him and he is in his world. And this process is at its highest and completest when the object of desire and of the practical devotion of will the object whose “otherness” or “strangeness” or “aloofness” it overcomes is the perfect or best the ultimate object of desire and man's resting-place. The fullest revelation of man and of the range of his desires and will is thus to be found in Religion. It is Religion that brings out most clearly man's natural intolerance of fixed limitations or in other words reveals most fully the implications of infinitude that dwell in him.
The time is not yet for us to examine this view of man's reason. But I may indicate that it identifies the intelligence with “the understanding” confines its operations to finite and therefore particular objects makes the domain of reason a separate territory and its problems at once inevitable and unanswerable and finds the progress of the natural sciences to issue from the limitation of their aims.1 At present I shall simply deny the validity of the distinction and I shall maintain that the intelligence in all its operations even the simplest is more and other than a particularized faculty. It reaches over and enters into or rather finds itself in objects; just as the desires or the theoretical and practical reason of man are held to do. All its actions refute the view that the object is alien and a mere “other” limiting the self. Let me illustrate this truth.
Rejection of the view of the intelligence as dealing with particulars and of the world as a collection of them.
The world as man's instrument and helpmate in his natural and spiritual enterprise.
If we observe the ordinary attitude of the ordinary man in his dealing with objects we shall find that he takes for granted that once understood they may be the means of extending his power. He assumes in fact that objects are of use if he can only find what they mean. Objects are often possibly always capable of being man's helpmates and effective partners. In that spirit the farmer ploughs his fields sows his corn and awaits the harvest confident of the co-operation of his world in the fulfilment of his natural needs. He can overcome the dualism bring his world over to his side make it an extension of his own capacities. His whole practical life is a refutation of the sheer opposition and antagonism of nature and spirit. The spiritual uses of objects and their spiritual affinity are not recognized so readily. They reveal themselves only very gradually and are more unobtrusive and easily overlooked. What man long seeks from and finds in his world is animal maintenance. He does not realize the part that his world plays in making himself—or what an empty and impotent self were left him were the results of his intercourse with his world and his fellow-men taken away from him. Objects somehow guide man's enquiries refuse their help to ignorance and resist misconstruction. They awaken mind create and satisfy man's intellectual hunger which is not less legitimate than his moral aspirations or religious yearnings nor less a condition of his well-being. Religion and science will be reconciled when it is realized that their domains overlap in this way and are in fact the same.
The independence of the Truth.
Truth and Goodness imply each other and Religion demands both.
At first sight no doubt the demand of the intelligence is for Truth and nothing else and that of religion is for the Good. Nevertheless they coincide. There is nothing good which is not true or real and there is nothing ultimately and finally true which is not good. They must coincide for they are both alike Universal. The real as a whole and as a harmonious whole is the object of each. Moreover the authority of each is final. Truth must vindicate itself even as goodness must justify itself. It must be valid in its own right and only reason can substantiate what reason avers. The appeal to utility or value of any kind is out of place. Nothing must be accepted as true simply on the ground that it is profitable or useful. After all the pragmatic theory rests on an assumption whose Truth is vital to it namely that in the last resort nothing “works” except what fits into a rational universe or a universe that satisfies the intelligence. It is its own intrinsic content and systematic wholeness which gives to Truth all the certainty it can have.
Now Religion demands the absolute in both these forms and as a consequence it demands that they shall be reconciled. In other words Religion could not survive a fundamental discrepancy between the Good and the Real or True. It must be the experience of their ultimate agreement. In fact the consummation of religion is the practical discovery that in the life which is dedicated to the Best and also in its world value truth and reality are at One. To demonstrate the possibility of their coincidence is the final purpose of philosophy; to experience it as a practical fact is the soul of religion.
But the difficulties are as great as they are obvious. If we profess such a faith we are asked at once—“What shall we say of pain sorrow sin the agonies of the innocent and the prosperity of the wicked—or in a word of the whole scene that man's history presents? Is the Bad not real?
Religion cannot the intelligent observation of facts must admit the reality of evil.
Attempts at compromising the contradiction of religion and the intellect.
At first sight Religion and the intelligent observation of the facts of life seem to give answers which cannot be reconciled. The former apparently must deny the reality of evil and the latter must admit it. And I need hardly add that solutions of the difficulty have on both sides taken the form of compromises. The perfection and self-determining infinitude which the intelligence no less than religion demands (if that is to say it must assume that the Universe is a Cosmos) has been attributed to the Absolute; but not to God. The God of Religion is spoken of as limited either in power or in goodness or in both. He is man's leader in the fight against evil. Moreover the perpetual nature of the struggle or its inconclusiveness and the uncertainty of the issue are supposed to add zest and even reality to the moral and spiritual adventure and to give God something useful to do. On the other hand the reality of evil has been weakened or denied by means of a distinction drawn between what exists and what is real. The assumption on which this doctrine rests is that the real must be fixed and changeless. But it is a costly distinction: for it involves the relegation into a domain that is neither real nor unreal of all finite things. They are but they are “appearances” or “phenomena”: and so far I have never learnt the meaning of these terms for it fluctuates according to the necessities of the moment. But this method does not help religion: for “the good” becomes as passing and on this view as unreal as evil. Indeed both the world of the intelligence and that of morality both truth and goodness turn into Phenomenal appearances that is into things which manage to exist without being real and which in becoming real and passing into the Absolute cease to exist.
These attempts at reconciliation fail. They do not arise from the observation and interpretation of the relevant facts.
Now it would take me far afield to criticize these doctrines. By and by I hope to make plain the fundamental falsity of the controlling presupposition (or principle) from which they spring. At present I shall merely say that I cannot deny the claim of religion to the perfection of its deity nor reject the testimony of the intelligence to the reality of both physical and spiritual evil. And it seems evident that the first involves and the second contradicts the idea of a world that is perfect. Those solutions which are offered are very easy but they are suspect as all compromises are. They are so obviously made in order to avoid difficulties instead of from observation of facts. The view of the divine perfection is moderated in order to leave room for evil and on the other hand the reality of evil is denied in order to save religion. But so far as I can see the religious history of man gives no ground for believing that he consciously worships a recognized imperfect God. For the moment even the God of the polytheist whom at any instant he may toss aside stands for the perfection he needs. On the other hand the secular or ordinary history of man gives no ground for denying the existence and genuine reality of both good and evil in his life. Even if evil is evanescent or is overcome abolished or turned into its opposite in a way which Good is not it does not follow that it lacks reality in any sense or degree.
The contradiction must be admitted whether it can be solved or not.
The first requisite for the solution of the contradiction between the demand of religion for the perfection of God and therefore the final and complete victory of the good on the one hand and the reality of evil on the other is the honest admission that the contradiction is there and inevitable: though possibly like other contradictions it is there only to be solved. For their opposition may not be a contradiction. There are opposites which not only supplement but exist in virtue of each other. In any case the contradiction or opposition will certainly not cease to exist in the future. On the contrary it will grow. As mankind advances religion will extend and deepen the meaning of the perfection which it demands and on the other hand the evil of evil the significance of its opposition to the good will also become more evident. Man will become more fully aware of the resources of the Universe in which he lives; and on the other side his knowledge of himself and of the possibilities and demands of his nature will grow so that any spiritual injury done to the self will have deeper significance. His dedication to his God will be even more complete and his rest in him and sense of oneness with him will be more full.
Put more directly I believe that man is destined to become both more intelligent and more religious. His recognition of the greatness of the Spiritual Destiny of mankind will become more clear and his dedication to the service of the Good will become more complete. And the result is obviously the deepening of the opposition so long as it lasts and also the deepening of the reconciliation when it comes. The refusal of both the religious and the intellectual consciousness to withdraw or modify their testimony as to what is real becomes decisive. The contradiction cannot be avoided. The terms of it cannot be softened. The contrast of the sacred and secular infinite and finite in all its forms must be admitted in its fulness. Then and not till then will the possibility of a solution arise and the contradiction be found to be a condition of the reality and the work of the conflicting terms.
But the nature of contrast must not be misinterpreted.
The nature of the contrast must however not be misinterpreted: the conditions of its possibility must be clearly admitted. And these errors are committed by all those who find it impossible to reconcile the terms and therefore betray either the one or the other of them denying either the perfection which Religion demands or the reality and the imperfection of the finite to which the intelligence testifies. It may be useful to shew this in a preliminary way before we come to the deeper contrasts of finitude and infinitude.
All contrast must fall within a Unity.
The error briefly stated is that of overlooking the fact that every rational contrast falls within a unity of some kind; or in other words that the contrasting terms are in truth elements within a whole and that they neither do nor can exist otherwise. To give them a separate and independent existence or even to raise the question of their separate existence is to raise insoluble questions—insoluble because irrational. Contrasts made absolute as is often attempted for the defence of religion lose all meaning for they destroy the terms contrasted. So we are told by the Logician and we would be none the worse of occasionally sitting at his feet. The contrast possible and rational only within a unity of some kind and as between the elements of a whole implies that the contrasting elements borrow their meaning and their very existence from each other. Make it absolute turn the contrast within a unity into a complete separation where there is reference to no unity and the elements are destroyed. Unqualified sameness and unqualified difference are both alike meaningless. Neither of them was at any time the object of any rational intelligence. A whole that has no parts parts that are parts of nothing we never can know. Knowledge is a system of systems: every part of it is a unity of differences. It is complex throughout. It is systems that agree or disagree in our rational experience. The simplest unit that can be an object of the intelligence is already a system. Every judgment man makes is a saying of something about something. It is either a further articulation of a whole as the emphasis falls on the elements or a clearer expression of their congruence as the emphasis falls on their unity. And the thinking in the first case is directly analytic and indirectly synthetic and in the second case the reverse. Every judgment is thus a unity of differences. Every fact known is a system. “This” is a system—the mere “this” as distinguished from “that.” It is something distinct as against something else rounded off as against something else; and it has its own character or quality were it only that it occupies a different spot in space. Every “particular” is a system and has its character arising out of its qualities. The Universe as a whole is but a system of such systems cellular throughout so to speak like the living body.

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