Scientific Hypothesis and Religious Faith
Only one way of knowing.
Natural facts our helps to spiritual attainment.
Emptiness of both morality and religion if parted.
I HAVE attributed the failure of the attempts to reconcile the presuppositions on which religion rests and the demands it makes with our ordinary secular experience to the fact that the unity which must underlie the contrast has been overlooked—an oversight which makes the contrast absolute and unconditional. The last lecture was occupied throughout in pointing to evidence of the existence of such a unity. Beneath the differences of method which are quite real and which both the scientific and the religious enquirers must admit and respect there lies the fact that there is only one ultimate way of knowing. It consists in finding a place for new phenomena within our system of experience or in re-interpreting that experience in the light of the new demands of life. For experience grows like a living thing. It is always a system always analogous to a living organism and every part of it participates in every process and all of it is always changing. No one maintains that one part of the organism is nourished one day and another part another day. And in like manner it should be admitted that the whole system of our experience is enriched by a new truth or a new practical triumph. I indicated also that all the powers of mind were involved in the process of knowing whether the data were religious or secular and that every mind brought with it pre-suppositions which controlled and guided the knowing process. Moreover I tried to show the part which the objects of knowledge took in the process and ventured to represent “nature” “natural” facts “natural” tendencies “natural” interrelations between man and man “natural” or secular interest as a whole not as obstacles to the life of spirit but as supplying that life with its content. The world both natural and spiritual is constantly proffering its gifts to man and he that hath ears to hear listens to its beauty its order its goodness and its truth. Those who best know the history of religion know best what a profound change of attitude towards “nature” on the part of religion this implies. Finally I tried to suggest what poverty-stricken abstractions the religious and the secular life would be were they sundered. And I ventured to say that both those who value religion rather than morality and also those who deem religion of little import if the course of life be moral would gain by facing more frankly the contrast which they set up. For beyond doubt the truly religious man does somehow in his practical life reconcile these forces and no unprejudiced observer can deny the splendour of the result.
The rival conceptions of the believer and the sceptic.
The problem of a science of religion is to set forth in a definition which can be justified that principle which in the practice of the religious man brings about the miracle of the harmony of the divine and human and lifts the secular to the level of the sacred. It may be of use to recall our conception of Religion as on the theoretical side a point of view from which man sees what seems to him at the time to be ultimately real self-sustained and absolutely worthy in the light of which conception he re-interprets and re-valuates all the facts of the secular life. The reflective religious spirit so far as I have found never doubts but that somehow somewhere some-when the restoration of man is complete and the redemption of the world is final. “God's in his Heaven: All's right with the world!” is a vital conviction to religion and true to him who thinks of “the world” in its context and not as a separate item. For it means that in the light of his belief in a God who is perfect in power and goodness this world of ours and the most wild and incalculable facts within it namely the lives of men are factors in a system to be judged not by themselves but as parts of the system into which they fit and which amply justifies them. On the other hand so far as I can see the sceptic who considers that the conceptions on which religion is based are man's own inventions and that man's gods are just the reflections of his own face and his faith a farce must regard the whole realm of the real as also a farce and a tragically sad farce. The whole order of the Universe must collapse for the sceptic. He possesses no explanation of his own and can suggest no conception for the solution of the riddle. Between the view that affirms and that which denies the existence of a unity that makes the universe a rational whole there comes of course one of the most inept of all metaphysical theories namely the Pluralism that “lets contingency into the very heart of things.” I shall not try your patience by criticizing it.1
Objections to identifying religious faith with scientific hypothesis.
From this point of view namely the theoretical the faith of the religious man is strictly analogous to the hypothesis of the scientific man. But the religious consciousness is ready to revolt against the notion that its faith is just a hypothesis. A hypothesis is usually held to be a mere guess invented by man's ingenuity as a possible solution of some problem or as a tentative explanation of some facts. A hypothesis is a conjecture on its trial. Its existence is threatened by every relevant fact which it cannot explain and it is finally destroyed by one single “crucial instance” that refuses to illustrate it. Moreover it is liable at every moment to be supplanted by some simpler more fundamental or far-reaching hypothesis. An Einstein comes after our Newtons and at least startles the world. The whole progress of science when it takes long strides illustrates this revolutionary kind of advance that comes from the substitution of one hypothesis for another.
A hypothesis inadequate for religion.
In the next place a hypothesis however true is only a theory. It concerns primarily at least the intellect only not “the heart” or the will or the ends of men. In short a hypothesis is a mere conception we are told a universal that promises to colligate ideas but points to no fact and is not a reality which a man may experience as a force within or without him against which he jostles whether he understands it or not. No man will commit his life to the care and guidance of a hypothesis recognized as such. What guides conduct must be assumed to be ontologically
true it must be a faith
. But for the scientific man to convert his hypothesis into a faith were to betray the very spirit of science. A hypothesis must not turn into a dogma and the scientific man is the servitor of no creed
. Hypotheses consequently can not transform character. They have no practical vim
. They have by no means proven themselves as religious faith has done to be of all forces the strongest in man's history. The difference is vital and must not be obscured. Even philosophers who are supposed to attenuate realities into abstractions will say that “If the belief in God is simply an hypothesis…it is worth nothing at all. Ideas have certain sustaining powers even though they are wholly our own fabrications; but no idea that is such a pure launch of our own imagination into the unknown—and nothing more—has any permanent sustaining power.…God can be of worth to man only in so far as he is a Known
As long as we have only probabilities and hypotheses to refer to in these matters we have nothing at all.
Religion a matter of experience not of theoretical conjecture.
The difference between a scientific hypothesis and religious faith seems to be fundamental. The sciences may conjecture religion must “know”: that is to say it must be a matter experienced. Our ordinary beliefs rest on grounds follow from premisses are held to be valid in virtue of their connection with other truths. The truths of a scientific system must in this way depend on one another. If you demand a proof of anyone of them you are referred back to something else—and it has been maintained that such a reference is endless and that in the end all our knowledge rests upon conjecture or is hypothetical and hangs mid-air by an “if.” But religion as a matter of experience is held to be a witness to its own validity. This experience itself is the final court of appeal and its authority is supposed to be higher and more unerring than that of any logic. The religious believer on this view is not required to uphold his faith by means of his intellect. Arguments have no force; they cannot touch either to strengthen or to weaken what springs from a man's own “experience.”
Hence it is independent of the support of the intellect and likewise of its attacks.
On such grounds as these religious experience has appeared to have a claim for exceptional regard and reliance. He who maintains this view may see that by this method he loses the support of the intellect but he certainly does not as a rule realize the results of losing that support. He does not see that without the testimony of the intellect he is not entitled to say that his experience is true however undeniable it may be that he has had it. That he has had an experience is no proof of its truth otherwise all personal experiences would be true. They have all occurred as events of some inner life but some of them may have a very low value or even be deceptive. The happening of an event in a man's inner life is one thing the meaning and value to be attributed to it is another. It is quite certain that we can call nothing either true or false until the intellect has dealt with its meaning and found its place amongst facts which are open to the observation of every intelligence. The privacy or subjective nature of it destroys its uses for knowledge. But the religious devotee overlooks these facts and refuses to make any appeal to the intelligence at the very moment that he claims credence to his assertions. Browning's Pope refuses even to raise the question of the being or character of his God:
Put no such dreadful question to myself
Within whose circle of experience burns
The central truth Power Wisdom Goodness—God.”
He assumed that because this conviction burnt within him it must be true; and thought there was no need for argument. But have not false convictions burnt? His evidence was within deep as his own life a veritable part of his life; he could not but accept it.
“I must outlive a thing ere know it dead;
When I outlive the faith there is a sun
When I lie ashes to the very soul—
Someone not I must wail above the heap.”3
Someone else must deny and very likely someone else will be found to do it on the ground that he has had no such experience or even that he has experienced the opposite.
But we must examine this very common attitude of men towards religious experience with some care and find out what truth it uses as gilding to its errors.
That Religion verily is a matter of experience and subject to the Pragmatic test.
1. It cannot be denied that religion verily is through and through a matter of experience. The domain of religious faith is that of practice while hypotheses scientific or other are as a rule considered to be essentially and primarily theoretic affairs and nothing more. It follows naturally that proof disproof and doubt must differ in the two cases. The test of a religious faith lies in the kind of behaviour that it inspires and controls and in the contribution it makes to human well-being. The proof is pragmatic. It is like the test of an invention and in nowise like the arguments for or against a theory. It consists in observing “how it works.” But the test of a hypothesis is its agreement or disagreement with other ideas which are regarded as true or with the system of experience that is relevant. If I accept such and such a statement what opinions if any must I change? Can I admit that the three angles of a triangle are together equal to two-and-a-half right angles? Not without overthrowing the whole system of my mathematical experience. It is all a matter of the coherence of thoughts with thoughts.
Now this difference between a matter of faith and a hypothesis is real but it is quite superficial and in the last resort disappears. The practical test is also a test by the intellect. The intelligence must look on guide and judge what the hand does. Practice only supplies new premisses and it supplies these only to the observant intelligence. Handling a thing placing it in different relations reveals new qualities. You know more about a piece of leather if you hammer it bend it cut it; you multiply the ways in which it reacts and give new opportunities for your intelligence to observe the new aspects. But without the intelligence nay without previous relevant knowledge great or small practice amounts to nothing. Man must interpret his experience and find all the meaning and value they can have; and he finds nothing that does not penetrate his intelligence more or less and pass muster before his judgment. Practice supplies data; it is the intelligence which proves disproves accepts or rejects; and in questions of truth and error there is no appeal from it nor the need of any appeal.
Religious experience supplies data lacking which the irreligious man is a mere looker-on.
2. But if religious experience does not render the operations of the “theoretical” intelligence superfluous it must not be concluded that it has no value. It does supply data. The religious man in virtue of his experience can call a witness and appeal to a court which are beyond the reach of the non-religious man. He is entitled to say what religion has meant for him: how it has determined the direction of his life transmuted it in every detail in virtue of the supreme worth of its ends sustained him in the pursuit of these ends and made the pursuit itself a triumphant attainment. But the non-religious man not having had any such experience must do without its testimony and speak from incomplete knowledge. The fact process reality of religion is not known to him on its inner or subjective side. Religion is a matter of hearsay to him. At the very best he can only form the opinions of a looker-on. He is like a deaf man who having been taught the physics of sound and laws of harmony approves or condemns a piece of music; but he has never heard a note he knows nothing of the ravishment of music and cannot conceive what it is like. Neither the non-religious man nor the deaf man know all about their subject so long as they are without the personal experience however correct their theories. Do they know the real thing at all seeing that they have never known its splendour invade the soul?
The looker-on at religion the secular-minded sceptic must recognize his limits. And I may say quite plainly here that a great deal of the scepticism of the present day is for these reasons not worthy of respect. Men reject what they have never tried and condemn what they have never seriously or systematically reflected upon. They have been engaged with other things than those which are spiritual and which concern the making of their manhood. The affairs of religion are as foreign to them as the computations of higher mathematics and their judgment of the former has as little value as their knowledge of the latter. They have not tried it in practice; they do not know its history; they are not within reach of advanced argument either for or against religion. Their morality is traditional and the whole movement of their thoughts is in another region and on another plane than that of religion. And many of them being prosperous in a worldly sense they are not in the least aware how contemptible they are in a higher and deeper sense.
The two aspects of Truth and of Goodness.
But having thus fully conceded the value of the personal aspect of religious experience I must point out that religious experience is in this respect the same as every other experience wise or foolish of every other object however secular. Every experience is on one side unique and private. Every act and attitude of my mind is my own and no one else's. My neighbours and I may know the same things form the same opinions of them will the same good seek to serve our fellows in the same ways; nevertheless every one of my activities is my own and theirs is theirs. However many men may conclude that 2 ´ 8 = 16 (or children may think that 2 ´ 8 may be “9 or 10 or 11” giving one an option!) each comes to his own conclusion and has had his own little mathematical experience. Human personality and everything belonging to it are very private—even though privacy is by no means the whole truth concerning them. No other being human or divine can occupy the seat of my individuality and look at facts with the eyes of my soul or with my volitions. But we cannot conclude from this that every experience I happen to have had is out of reach of criticism. It may be misleading even to myself. The privacy of an experience is no test of its value. Otherwise all experience would be true and good. We should ask rather whether truth is ever a private affair and nothing more. Must what is true not be true for every intelligence that can apprehend it? And what of the Good? It cannot be willed except privately and by a personality which is at least in one sense lonely and exclusive. But on the other hand the Good has an intrinsic and universal character which depends upon no individual not even upon God. Or is the moral world made up of beings every one of whom has his own private moral code and special kind of virtues which no one else can share? On the contrary the universality the community of spiritual realities is to say the least as real and as fundamental as their individuality. “To every one his own Religion” in an exclusive sense is as absurd as—“To every one his own Mathematics.” Reconcile the privacy or singularity and the community of different experiences as we may it is evident that neither religion nor any other kind of rational experience can lack either of these two characters.
The test of the validity and worth of an experience is always objective.
But the validity or truth of an experience lies in its universality and in no sense in its privacy. The experience as an occurrence or event or process or fact is personal like my holding this pen at this moment. As mere happenings all experiences are on the same level. They mean nothing and therefore cannot be true or false till they are dealt with by the intelligence. But the moment meaning or worth is attributed to a matter of experience the moment it is held to be true or false good or bad that moment the experience has become an interpreted and evaluated fact an object of observation and judgment a thing in the object-world standing over against the knowing mind just as truly as the pole-star. That a man is moved by a religious faith is thus one thing that his faith is valid or valuable is quite another. The subjective side of experience furnishes no test. Men have been deeply moved by bad religious beliefs and they have done “heroic deeds” of the most atrocious kind.
Hence the fundamental conceptions on which Religion is made to rest must stand their trial like all other conceptions.
It remains that the objective side of religious faith as of all other beliefs is that which counts. “By their fruits shall ye know them.” Things declare their nature by what they do. They are what they do. In no way or degree can religious belief escape the tests we apply to other convictions. Its claim to be true and not false brings religion out into the open. It is liable to be attacked by the whole world and if it is true it is capable of being upheld and ratified by the whole world. Indeed so far from being less a matter for the intelligence than others less liable to attack or less capable of support it is much more. Religion claims ultimate truth and final worth. It comes forth as the supreme interpreter. If religion is in its nature true then it must provide the possibility of reconciling all the contradictions of existence and perverse incongruities of man's behaviour and apparent destiny. Its truth will be justly tested and tried and even doubted as long as there is one incident that has not found its fitting place. Religion cannot be true now and then or here and there only any more than Mathematics can. On the other hand if religion is in its essence a delusion then so far as I can see the whole order of the universe collapses. For religion professes to reveal the ultimate principle of that order. The only alternative that lies before the sceptic is the view that at the heart of the real there lurks the insane.
The power and value of the religious believer.
The break-down of religious faith.
Religion must to the end of time for mankind as a whole swing somewhere between these two extremes. It must be the healing of all man's sorrows if it is to heal any of them. Hence any new event any fresh sorrow or any added ill summons religion before the bar and tries its sufficiency. Religion is always on its trial always under judgment and it is on its part always judging man and pronouncing his destiny. Ages and individuals may vary indefinitely as to the degree and the grounds of their belief or unbelief. There are individuals and possibly there have been ages so peaceful or so triumphant that the hardest of all trials brings to them no devastating doubts. Their faith is
“Safe like the signet-stone with the new name
That saints are known by.”
Their God is not dead but living and he is not far away. They lie upon his bosom always. Such souls as these we have seen. They have the beauty of flowers and their sweet modesty. There are other souls however and these are the greater helpers of mankind as a rule who like tall oaks must battle with all the winds of heaven. These greater servants of man these Redeemers of the world have not laboured their life-long under a clear sky. They have striven in darkness with despair and doubt. Who was it who cried “Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani”? Do you think that his despair the conviction that God had already
abandoned him was unreal? He asked not whether but why. And do we not hear the ring of battle even in the song of triumph of St. Paul as it breaks out in the battle's pause? It was verily no carpet knight who challenged the powers and cried “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?.…Nay in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”4
The heroes of the religious life
“Grapple danger whereby souls grow strong”
and they prove anew that—“All to the very end is trial.” And the trial is not at its height so long as any faith in final issues remain and there is any outlook onward. It is a fiery it is a life-or-death trial not when a particular item in a creed or a particular kind of religion fails but when the truth and possibility of any religion is uncertain. As long as any good survives and is unconquerable any Best on which man may place either his trust or his life things are not at their worst. The waters of the deluge have begun to “assuage” already if there is food on the earth were it only for ravens. But the failure of religion is the collapse of the hypothesis on which every true or real good rests. If the perfect is not then are all minor degrees of good unreliable: man dare not lean against them. The Universe were an arch without a key-stone.
Religious faith the supreme hypothesis.
It is for this reason that I call religious faith the supreme hypothesis because religion bears upon the whole destiny of man and of all that he values as does the scientific hypothesis upon all that comes within the borders of the science. There is nothing real except in virtue of it nothing intelligible except in its light. If the hypothesis breaks down nothing remains except unintelligible chaotic particulars.
The function of hypothesis in ordinary life.
There would be less reluctance to call religious faith “a hypothesis” if the functions of hypothesis in knowledge and in practical life were better known. But we are least aware and most oblivious of the value of those conditions of well-being which are at once permanent and universal. The gifts that come to man by inheritance as potencies in his very structure at birth; the treasury of slowly accumulated traditions and habits of living into which he enters little by little day by day as a member of society are by far the richest of all his possessions. But they are not even known to exist until reflection enters and those who reflectively reconstruct their experience are very few. The absence of these elements the foreign make of the soul of a neighbour may reveal their value. So it is with the hypotheses on which depends the order of the world and the possibility of rational conduct therein: I mean the hypotheses of morality and free religion; the conviction that the spiritual powers are in the last resort dominant and that there is nothing finally good except goodness. Their presence and their use are universal but the recognition of them is rare.
Except for hypotheses facts and events would seem to us to stand in no relation of any kind to one another. We could not call some of them causes and some of them effects: for causality is a hypothesis or conjectured relation. No one has ever actually perceived a cause. According to Hume we can perceive only sequence; if the sequence is unvaried and we expect it to be invariable we call it a “cause.” Again looking within ourselves we affirm that we are selves or have souls. On what grounds? We are told on all hands that we have never perceived our self or our soul as a fact apart from its passive and active changes. What we perceive—at best—are occurrences activities feelings thoughts volitions; but of the self supposed to lie beneath in which these events seem to occur we have no direct evidence. The idea of a soul or self is on this view another explanatory supposition. We are told that we merely assume or form the hypothesis of a continuity behind these events and changes and we give the name “soul” or “self” to it.
The contradiction of explaining the “new.”
It is usual to regard hypotheses as the rare products of rare minds during moments of inspiration. They are supposed to be inventions of the imagination intuitive creations that seem to spring up of themselves lightning flashes from a blue sky due neither to objects nor to mental effort. As a matter of fact they are born from the intercourse of mind and objects like all other knowledge; and as I have tried to show they are as genuine a result of the previous interaction of the inner and outer conditions of knowing as any other conceptions. No doubt there is an instant when “the light breaks” the happening of what seems new. And we cannot explain it. Nor do we realize that to try to explain “the new” is absurd. It is to try to prove that it really is not new; for the explanation of an object runs it back to a previous state and finds it there. We cannot in fact catch change and arrest it in the act.
As regards even the simpler changes like the transmutations of physical energy they occur we know not well how. But first there is one form then there is another and there is a fixed and definite quantitative relation between the two forms. This relation the Physicist will reveal to us; and as his science progresses he finds ever new stages or differences or “links” which are a more and more suggestive revelation of the reality which changes. For change implies both of these opposed aspects. It is never known except as a process in and of a continuous reality and that reality is never found except in the succession of its differences. And these two the continuous and the changing the same and the different the one and the many mean nothing apart and must be grasped in their relation.
The hypotheses on which our experience rests are modified by the growth of that experience.
The occurrence of the new is thus characteristic of all growing experience however stunted it may be. And we err greatly in confining our notions of hypotheses to those great scientific occasions on which a new science is born or born again—as when a Copernicus Newton or Darwin makes his revolutionary contributions. Maturing experience which finds new depths of meaning in old truths exemplifies the operation of hypotheses in a more peaceful way. The same miracle happens whenever the puzzled mind extricates itself from a difficulty masters a problem and cries “I see.” Such vision always seems sudden and it is an event and an event of great importance. For the conception mere guess though it seems at first illuminates with meaning the whole extent of the material to which it is applied. More accurately the meaning that was in the material all along is discovered. The facts express themselves more fully in the new mental process which supervenes when the two related factors of knowledge co-operate.
That every step in the growth of knowledge comes through this outbreak of hypotheses that the operation of hypotheses is universal only enhances their significance. There is everywhere in different degrees evidence of their illuminating power. They explain what was unintelligible before connect what seemed to be mere irrelevant and scattered contingencies and they culminate in systems whose elements fit into and support each other. The details of the system illustrate the hypotheses and the hypotheses reveal the real being of the details. For the universal is the truth of the particulars and the particulars are the manifestations of the universal.
The significance of hypotheses as affecting every element of experience.
It is not easy to exaggerate the significance of hypotheses. Their coming is the dawn of order and the fixing of the firmament—a feat of creation. No least fact within the domain of the new conception remains unaffected either in its rank and value or in its use and meaning. It becomes an item in a new world and one of the foci of its universal laws. It derives its being its force and function from the new principle and it supports it in turn. For the scheme of which a hypothesis is the principle is a system in equipoise like the planetary system. It is not a building resting on a foundation. There is no truth that has independent separate axiomatic validity any more than there can be a moral principle that has not the moral universe at its back. Every part of a system of knowledge in so far as it is true sustains and is sustained by every other: and the seat of its life is everywhere and most in evidence where it is most threatened. The defence and the safety of the whole belongs to every part and on the other hand the whole is exposed to the peril that menaces any part. In truth the relation of whole and part is more intense than that of any living organism; for facts of mind interpenetrate more intimately than physical facts and events. The hypothesis or the principle and its applications have one destiny. If they acquire meaning or if they lose it they do so together. And the significance of their inter-relation is always the same. His world comes to pieces in the plain man's hand when a familiar hypothesis proves false just as a mathematician's would collapse if 2 + 2 were shown to be not 4 but 5. In a word the power of hypotheses is as real in the thinking of the plain man as in that of Darwin.
The hypothesis of Evolution and how it preserves the past.
Moreover hypotheses in the process of their application acquire meaning and security. A hypothesis that has been true from the first becomes in a sense more true as knowledge grows. The central hypothesis if valid is ratified more and more in new instances “gains under new applications” as we say and gains especially when its application was unexpected and it seems to explain facts that appeared to be remote and unconnected with its province. As its domain extends every item within its authority gains fresh meaning and use. The hypothesis of Evolution first effectively applied by Darwin to plants and animals not only created the science of Biology but threw its rays into other fields. At first it was supposed to “animalize” man and despiritualize the world; but in the hands of modern Idealism that conception has been found to yield a final refutation of all theories that account for results by origins and which try to explain the last in terms of the first thereby reducing the higher to the level of the low. Evolution suggests a solution of the ultimate dualism of mind and its objects and contains the promise of boundless help to religious faith. Existences that seemed to perish lives that seemed to fail and utterly pass away become in its light stages in an unbroken history. For evolution is not only a conception that opens out into the future a boundless vista: it also redeems the past. Instead of the wide waste of lost causes that human history presented each little life reaching at best its little ends and then so far as its earthly career went perishing forever we find that its meaning and substance are carried forward into the very structure of the present. The past does not perish; its passing away is superficial appearance. In matters of mind and character above all others what was persists. The thoughts and deeds become propensities beliefs purposes principles of action habits and capacities.
Its effect on religious faith.
There is hardly any science or any region of man's vital interests in which the significance of the conception of evolution has not become evident. And for my part the value and power of religion must receive measureless expansion when its fundamental truths are regarded and dealt with in the same way: not as authoritative dogmata not as revelations from without or from beyond the facts themselves not as fixed and unalterable; but as the best explanation we can find as the essential truth and innermost value of the facts of man's every-day life in this every-day world.
Now the hypothesis on which religion rests is comprehensive and daring beyond all others. And the more developed the religion the more stupendous its daring. In all the Universe for religious faith I repeat once more there can be no fact ultimately out of hand: there can be no legitimate purposes which are not reconciled and no interests which in the last resort are not within the grasp of law and modes of working of what is Perfect. And the reconciliation is not of mere aspects nor of shallow appearances. On the contrary where the religious hypothesis has gripped the soul and become a belief on which a man dares to live the contradictions of pain suffering yea the suffering of the innocent and sin itself are somehow held to be overcome. We have but to follow out their history to find that real as they are their destiny is to serve. The Perfect is found everywhere in power. “If I ascend up into heaven thou art there; if I make my bed in hell behold thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me and thy right hand shall hold me.”5
The religious hypothesis the most insecure as well as the most daring of all.
But surely it will be said the religious hypothesis is according to such a doctrine the most insecure as well as the most daring of all constructive conceptions; whereas religious faith is absolute trust a giving utterly and finally away not only of this or that private interest but of the very self. No hypothesis as a hypothesis can ever be finally proved: human knowledge is never complete. And yet the hypothesis must be ready to answer every call. It is at the mercy of every fact or event that seems to refuse to fit into the system which the hypothesis informs.
What shall we say to these objections? Both of them are so far as I can see valid: but within their own region they can be urged in the same way against all hypotheses even those of Mathematics. No hypothesis is completely worked out; and every hypothesis breaks down when faced with one genuinely contradictory instance. But on the other hand we do not reject a hypothesis on the ground that we have not been able to apply it to a particular case nor do we represent it as what surpasses human comprehension. And this is the measure which is usually meted to the religious hypothesis. We think that natural laws are constant and that all physical events have causes even though we cannot account for the changes of the weather or measure the forces that toss the tree-tops. “Not proven” is not mis-interpreted and regarded as “dis-proved.” But if we cannot trace the goodness of God in an untoward incident or calamity especially if the calamity has fallen upon ourselves we are prone to deny his existence or his power or his goodness. The apparent exception to a natural law as the history of science has frequently shown often turns into the most striking proof of the validity of the hypothesis. The apparent exception in religion is at once assumed to disprove its validity.
The religious hypothesis must re-explain and justify the present world.
Now in all these matters the religious and the scientific hypotheses are in character the same. There are no differences except those which spring from the comprehensiveness and the finality of the religious hypothesis. The scientific hypothesis applies only to an aspect or a department of what is real and is always dependent on conceptions which have not been proved. Hence its validity can be directly challenged and it can be either ratified or rejected by the facts of its own limited field. But a fundamental religious hypothesis is challenged and imperilled from every quarter; and for the same reason if it is valid it is not beyond the reach of doubt till it is verified in every quarter. If God is and if he is perfect in love and power then the whole realm of things natural and spiritual when it is interpreted in the fulness of its meaning will be found to illustrate and establish these truths. If not then so far as I can see no reasonable account of the apparent order of the universe can be offered. To call it the work of chance as the sceptic used to do is to make a larger and more impossible demand than any religion makes.
“I say the acknowledgment of God in Christ
Accepted by thy reason solves for thee
All questions in the earth and out of it”6
says Browning. In the whole Universe there was for him
“No detail but in place allotted it was prime
On the other hand one instance of the failure of the hypothesis to render the true and ultimate meaning of any fact one event ultimately irreconcilable with the hypothesis would destroy it.
“Of absolute and irretrievable
And all-subduing black—black's soul of black
Beyond white's power to disintensify
Of that I saw no sample: Such may wreck
My life and ruin my philosophy.”8
Nor is it enough that wrongs and ills should be rectified in the end and that there should be some inexhaustible recompense. The whole of the confused and so far as we can see cruel history of the struggle of beast with beast and man with man and both with nature must somehow prove to be at every step the fulfilment of a perfect will which to the Christian means a Will which is all Love. Nature itself on this view must be interpreted in a way that directly contradicts the tenets of both the theology and the science of the end of the last century. Nature was an obstacle to the spiritual life according to the former; and for the latter as represented by Huxley it was the scene of struggle for existence and either directly antagonistic or entirely alien to the moral life of man. Now it is seen that its purpose and meaning must reach beyond that of a sublime cosmos. Seen in the context of that which is spiritual and in the light of religion nature must be found to have a spiritual significance in and through its product man.
And if we turn to man himself there we must find if this hypothesis be true evidence of one and only one process—the process of producing the highest namely moral character. So far we have been prone to be satisfied with looking for the power of religion only in the life of the saints and mystics as they stood the strain of imprisonment torture death and the contempt of men. But the validity and inexpressible value of religious faith will seem almost more convincing if we witness its power in inconspicuous and unrecorded lives. How can we overlook the splendour of the religious hypothesis if we observe how the consciousness of God's presence and irradiating love accompanies the mother as she goes about her domestic duties or sits at the bed of her sick child; or as it attends as the silent background of his life the labourer in the field the craftsman in his workshop the man of business behind his counter or in his office making their lives clean and human and beautiful and the obvious service of the Best. There could be no more signal proof of the power and truth of religion than its capacity to penetrate and convert the economic spirit of these times.
The religious man when he looks around seems to me to be entitled to say that while the religious hypothesis like all others is never finally proved it is always and everywhere in the act of being proved. It is the one thing that is being done throughout creation. It is the experiment—the Grand Perhaps of the Universe on which both nature and spirit are engaged. The consciousness of the omnipresence of the unutterable goodness of the Divine Being is being gradually deepened. There is no incident in man's life no outer circumstance in his world but at the magic touch of religious faith will be heard by the religious spirit to testify to the unlimited goodness of God.
The Universe as the Spiritual Laboratory and the experimental test of the “Grand Perhaps.”
I admit at once that the fulness of religious trust does not prove the truth of the religious hypothesis. Men have trusted their very souls to errors and delusions. But on the other hand if there are certain forms of the religious faith certain hypotheses which deepen the meaning of natural facts which amplify and extend the suggestiveness of the natural sciences and so far from traversing their findings accept and invite them; and if in the world of human conduct they dignify human character add reach and sanity to man's aims construct and consolidate human society elevate and secure the life of man and make for peace and mutual helpfulness amongst the nations—if in one word a form of religious faith or hypothesis works in these ways then indeed is the proof of its validity strong; stronger than the proof of any other hypothesis because wider and deeper. The truth or falsity of the religious hypothesis is manifestly the paramount issue for man; and one might expect would overcome the indifference which is characteristic both of the shallow belief and of the shallow scepticism of our time.
It is on this account that we are entitled in all earnestness as well as with respect and yearning love for their cause to urge the analogy of the method and spirit of the natural sciences upon our religious teachers. After all it is this method that Philip used in order to convince Nathanael. When the latter doubted if they had found him of whom Moses in the Law and Prophets wrote in Jesus of Nazareth son of Joseph he asked Philip “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” The answer was—“Come and see.” The same answer ought to be offered by the Protestant Church to every enquirer in every age. The Church as teacher must learn to represent its beliefs not as dogmas but as truths which it challenges the disbelieving world to put to the test and to the hardest tests it can find even amongst the worst intricacies of the pathetic tragedies of human life. It will thus find that reason will serve religion as soon as religion allows reason to be free. Till then there must be conflict and loss on both sides.