—Antiphon of December 16th.
Those of us who are from time to time honoured by the invitation to lecture on Lord Gifford’s foundation are placed under a definite restraint in the choice of our subject-matter by the fact that each of us is acting as temporary substitute for a permanent Professor of Natural Theology. We are instructed to deal, as such a Professor would be bound by ordinance to deal, exclusively with “natural” theology, and natural theology is a name with a well-known history and an established significance. The phrase was introduced into the vocabulary of educated men by Cicero’s contemporary, the famous littérateur and antiquarian M. Terentius Varro,1 for the express purpose of discriminating an account of God and divine things which makes the claim to be strictly true from two other accounts of the same matters which advance no such pretensions, the mythical and the civil theologies. Mythical theology meant acquaintance with the tales of gods and their doings told in, or implied by, current imaginative literature. Since the Periclean age, the current opinion in “enlightened” circles had been that these stories are the mere inventions of poets,2 whose only aim is to entertain and amuse. Civil theology is knowledge of the various feasts and fasts of the State Calendar and the ritual appropriate to them, such as is imparted, for six months of the year, by Ovid’s Fasti. The whole of this cultus, it was held, is the manufacture of legislators aiming at social utility and convenience. But philosophic, or natural, theology is a different thing. It is the doctrine of God and the divine seriously taught by scientific philosophers as an integral part of a reasoned theory of φύσις, natura, the reality of things. It thus makes a definite claim, well founded or not, to be genuine ἐπιστήμη, to give us truth, in the same sense in which geometry or arithmetic does so. The ground to be covered by such a doctrine of God had already been marked out with some precision by Plato in the tenth book of the Laws; it is the same ground to which, in the main, natural, theology has confined itself ever since Plato’s first erection of it into a scientific discipline.
It was Plato’s conviction that there are three fundamental truths about God which cannot be denied, or even called in question, without poisoning moral life, personal and corporate, at its sources. They are these: (1) God, a perfectly good and wise supreme mind, exists and is the author of all “becoming,” of all we call “nature”; (2) God controls all the events which make up nature for ends worthy of His perfect wisdom and goodness; (3) God exercises a moral government of mankind in accord with a law of sovereign and inflexible justice which ensures that each shall receive his deserts—a thesis from which the immortality of the human self follows as a corollary. From Plato’s time to our own, the natural, rational, or philosophical, theologian has remained in principle true to this programme: God, Providence, Judgement to come have been and are his special themes; his confession of belief might be said to be, credo in unum Deum, vivum et remuneratorem.3
Thus, to take one or two typical examples, we may consider first the general scheme of the great classic work of the golden age of Scholasticism on our subject, the Summa contra Gentiles of St. Thomas.4 We are told there (S.C.G. i. 9) that the knowledge of God accessible to the human mind independently of specific revelation may be brought under three heads. We may consider (1) what may be asserted of God in Himself, quae Deo secundum seipsum conveniunt; (2) what may be asserted about the procession of the creatures from God, processus creaturarum ab ipso; (3) and about the ordination of the creatures towards God as their end, ordo creaturarum in ipsum sicut in finem. The starting-point of the whole inquiry will therefore be the demonstration of the existence of God, consideratio qua demonstratur Deum esse. In accord with this scheme, the first book of the work is given to the consideration of the existence and attributes of God, the second to God’s relation to the historical world of finite “creatures” as its creator, the third to His fuller relation to the creatures as their “good,” His providential government, His eternal morallaw, and His action as judge and as bestower of grace. Only the last book falls outside this scheme, since it is concerned with the “revealed” doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Word, the Sacraments, and the final state of the penitent and impenitent—all matters in relation to which the function of human reason is no longer positive demonstration, but the mere dialectical dissolution of objections raised by “infidels” against the authoritative teaching of the Church.5
In the same way, the first half of Butler’s Analogy, which bears the sub-title Natural Religion, takes as its topics in order, The Future Life, The Government of God by Rewards and Punishments, the moral character of this government, the conception of our present state as one of probation, the moral freedom of man (ch. 6, On the Opinion of Necessity); the existence of God being treated as outside the argument on the ground that it is not disputed by the Deists, against whom the whole treatise is directed. So the famous Boyle Lectures of Samuel Clarke6 deal in order with the existence of God, the attributes of God as Creator and Moral Governor of the world, the certainty of a “state of rewards and punishments” as truths assumed to be capable of formal demonstration, and then proceed to argue “dialectically” for the necessity of a specific divine revelation and to dismiss the objections urged against the claims of Christianity in particular to be this revelation.
Kant’s conception is, to all intents and purposes, the same (KdrV2 659 ff.). With his usual quaintly pedantic fondness for exhaustive formal classification, he begins his criticism of speculative theology with the time-honoured distinction between a purely rational and a revealed knowledge of God. Rational theology is then subdivided into two types, the transcendental, that of the strict Deist, who admits only the existence of a first, or supreme, or necessary being with a character wholly unknown and unknowable, and the natural, that of the Theist, who holds that some light on the character of the Supreme Being can be derived by analogical reasoning from the known character of the human mind. (Hume, we observe, would thus rank in Kant’s classification as a Theist, since he admits at least a “remote” analogy between the Supreme Being and the human mind.) Strictly speaking, Kant goes on to say, such a natural theology may take either of two very different forms. “Natural theology concludes to the attributes and existence of an author of the world from the structure, order and unity, found in this world, a world in which we have to assume two kinds of causality with their rules, Nature and Freedom. Hence natural theology ascends from this world to the supreme intelligence as the principle either of all natural or of all moral order and perfection; we call it in the first case physico-theology, in the second, moral theology.” But, he adds, since we understand by the word God not an “eternal blindly-working nature,” but a supreme being “who is to be thought of as the originator of things through his intelligence and freedom,” in rigid accuracy we ought to deny that the mere Deist has any real belief in God, though courtesy leads us to express ourselves more gently by saying that the Deist believes only in a God, the Theist in a living God. At bottom, then, natural theology means for Kant the doctrine of God as free intelligent creator and moral ruler of the Universe, and we may note that on his classification the doctrine of Spinoza is a “true atheism”.
It is, of course, no more true of ancient than of modern philosophers that they have spoken on these themes with a single voice. Of old, as to-day, the pure sceptic concluded that knowledge in such high matters is impossible to man; the Epicurean vigorously asseverated7 that we can be sure of the existence of the gods, but still more vigorously that we can be sure that there is neither providence, moral government of mankind, nor life to come. But properly speaking an atheistic theology, or a theology of simple nescience, is still a theology, though it may be a poor one. Even to say that mankind is temporarily incompetent to decide the issues Plato had raised is to admit at least the competence of human intelligence to take cognisance of them. The court may find itself unable to reach a decision, but the questions have at least not been raised before the wrong tribunal. To get clean rid of theology we should need to maintain that its problems are not merely unanswerable by human intelligence, but are not even questions with an intelligible meaning, that they are mere strings of insignificant vocables with none of the characters of a genuine question beyond the rising pitch of the final syllable or the printed mark of interrogation after the concluding word.
It is, no doubt, conceivable that a man might take up this position; there seem even to be philosophers8 who must be presumed to have adopted it if they are to be supposed alive to all the consequences of their principles, though such philosophers seem to be a small minority. If I held the view myself, I should not, of course, be attempting the delivery of a series of Gifford Lectures, since it is the only theological position which seems to be ruled out by the terms of Lord Gifford’s bequest. So long as the questions which give rise to theologies are allowed to be genuine questions with an intelligible sense, it is open to a lecturer on the foundation to treat them with complete freedom, provided only the freedom is, combined, as it always should be, with sincerity, candour, and courtesy. He may contend that human intelligence is debarred by its own inherent limitations from finding any answers to its own questions, or again that in the present state of our information any answer would be premature. Or he may find solutions of some or all of the problems in an actual existing theology or philosophy, or in a new philosophy or theology of his own. He would be within his rights if he saw fit to argue that the true answers to the questions have been already given in the Catechism of Trent, the Thirty-nine Articles, or the Westminister Confession, that they are contained in the Christian, Jewish, or other Scriptures, the Hermetic writings, the works of Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy, or the Philosophiepositive of Comte. The only restriction on his freedom is the highly proper one that when he finds the solution to a problem in the dogmas of an existing theology or philosophy he must offer reasons for holding that the dogma in question is true; he must not stifle examination of its truth by a mere appeal to extra-rational authority. He may be as orthodox, by any given standard of orthodoxy, as he pleases; only he must not allege the orthodoxy of his convictions as sufficient proof of their truth. He may be as “unconventional” as he chooses, but he must have something better to urge on behalf of his unconventional positions than the bare fact that they are “heresies”.
If the subject-matter of a course of Gifford Lectures is thus limited by certain justifiable restrictions, none, fortunately, are laid upon what it is the fashion to call, by a metaphor from the national game of Scotland, the speaker’s “approach” to his subject. He may, if he is a professional philosopher, directly attack the meta-physical problem of the nature of “ultimate reality,” or the “epistemological” problem of the characteristics of genuine knowledge and the conditions of its possibility. If his interests lie in either the exact or the descriptive sciences, he may choose to discuss the initial postulates, the special methods, and the present achievements of his own study, and the worth of the contribution it can make to a fully integrated and co-ordinated reaction of the human person against the total environment in which human life has to be lived. If his concern has been more with the study of man than with inanimate or infra-human nature, he may speak to us, out of the fullness of his knowledge, and beyond it, of our human past. He may seek, I know not with what success, to throw light on the truth and worth of religious convictions and practices by considering them in their first beginnings, as part of the still crude and inarticulate response of the nascent human intelligence to its bewildering surroundings, and discussing their social value as creating, supporting, or transforming the corporate life of the family, the clan, the horde. Or he may survey the customs and beliefs of men at a higher stage of development; he may attempt to reconstruct the thought of Israelites or Babylonians, Egyptians or Iranians, Greeks or Romans, about man’s unseen lords and his dimly surmised destiny, may exhibit its significance for the culture of these peoples, and invite us to consider what legacy from these old religions might yet profitably be carried over into our own vision of the world, and what we shall do well to reject as a damnosa haereditas of error and folly. We might, again, be addressed by a poet, or other artist, anxious to discuss the question what witness, if any, his own art bears to the reality of the unseen things. The Gifford foundation has already been fruitful in our Scottish Universities, and not least in St. Andrews, in work by men of acknowledged eminence along most of the lines of which I have spoken, and we must hope that it will continue to bear like fruit in the future.
It is hardly necessary to state, before an audience in the University where I so long and so recently had the honour and happiness to teach, that I cannot undertake work of the kind I have been describing; you will all know that I possess none of the qualifications. I must not attempt even to attack the fundamental issues of metaphysics and epistemology, and to offer you anything in the way of a novel conception of the nature of reality or of knowledge. I am only too conscious that any positions I have so far been able to reach by inquiry in these remote and difficult regions are provisional and tentative, and, I suspect, may not be too self-consistent. I can well believe that others are more fortunate, but, for my own part, the more I reflect on the deliverances of philosophers with a system, even those for whom I feel the highest reverence, the more readily do the words rise to my lips, mirabilis facta est scientia tua ex me; confortata est, et non potero ad eam.9 I cannot promise anyone who may care to attend these lectures any new and startling information, or any particularly original fresh “orientation” in thought. What I propose to attempt is something less ambitious, though perhaps not without its use.
Since it has been my business in life for many years, and will remain so until my days for business are over, to introduce young people to the study of moral philosophy, it is most fitting that I should approach the questions which a Gifford lecturer is expected to consider from the side of ethics. There, if anywhere, I ought to be least out of my depth, or perhaps it would be more modest to say, sticking most strictly to my last. Such a treatment may be further recommended by a rather different consideration. No living theology has ever arisen from mere intellectual curiosity. The serious theologies have always come into being as the fruit of reflection upon lived and practised religions; hence the truth we all recognise in the saying that pectus facit theologum. And though a richly living religion is always something much more than a rule of conduct, it is never for those whose religion it is, less than this. A religion we can accept means, among other things, a guide by the light of which we can face all the tragedy and all the comedy of life joyously and undismayed, without frivolity as without misgivings. The march of events in our own country and our own life-time has been sufficient to prove that the old combats which used to be waged between the professors and the assailants of our own religion, the Christian, over such problems as the discrepancies between Scripture and geology or astronomy, the date and authorship of the Pentateuch, the books of the prophets, or the Pastoral Epistles, were mere insignificant engagements between outposts. The infinitely serious issue for the whole future of European civilisation is that of the soundness of the Christian ideal of human character and the Christian rule of life. If we can still maintain that in that rule and ideal we have something absolute and permanent, authoritative for Europeans of our own age no less than for Jewish and Hellenistic communities of the first century, or for our own ancestors of the thirteenth or seventeenth, it is certain that the Christian religion will survive uninjured any criticism it may yet have to encounter from biologists or anthropologists. If the finality of the Christian ideal of personal character and the Christian rule of conduct cannot be maintained, no temporary success of the apologist in rebutting this or that ill-considered “scientific” or “historical” criticism can alter the fact that the Christian faith, as a religion, is under sentence of death. And it is a chief symptom of the mental condition of our age that this precise issue is being pressed upon us with a wholesomely relentless insistence. As recently as the years of my own boyhood, the most prominent of the unfavourable critics of Christianity in our own country were usually the most anxious to declare that their quarrel was with bad science and false history, not with a bad ideal of life or a false rule of conduct. At the present moment the sons and daughters of the men of my own generation are expressly urged, by persons whose intelligence and conscientiousness are undisputed, to break with the whole moral tradition of Christianity, precisely on the ground of its inadequacy to furnish a rule of life for a society which, so it is assumed, has outgrown its past. The spirit of man, we are told on all sides, has “found new paths,” and we must walk in them.
Indeed something more is at stake than the fate of a particular historical faith, however dear or august. Not Christianity only, but religion itself, is on its trial. It may quite well be that the future philosophical student of history will yet find the most significant and disquieting of all the social changes of the “Victorian age” to be the combination of universal state-enforced primary education with the transference of the work of the teacher to the hands of laymen under no effective ecclesiastical or theological control. The effect of this successful laicisation of education has inevitably been to raise the immediate practical question whether moral conduct, the direction of life, does not form a self-contained domain, and ethics a wholly autonomous science, neither requiring support or completion from religion, nor affording rational ground for religious convictions of any kind. The gravity of this practical issue can hardly be exaggerated. Something more momentous than even our national existence is at stake; the question is that of an ideal of life for the whole of future humanity. It is idle to hope, as some of our contemporaries perhaps are hoping, that the secularisation of education may at least leave religion in being as a graceful and desirable embellishment of life for the exceptionally sensitive and imaginative souls. It is of the very nature of a living religion to claim the supreme direction of effort and action. If the claim is disallowed, religion itself ceases to be real; if it is allowed, it is idle to dispute the right of religion to be made the foundation of education. A wrong answer to the question about the relations of morality and religion, once generally accepted, is certain, sooner or later, to be made the foundation of an educational policy, and adoption of a radically vicious educational policy means shipwreck for the spiritual future of mankind.
I propose, then, to discuss this question of the relations between morality and religion. I do not, of course, mean the subordinate historical question of the ways in which the actual ideal of character cherished, or the actual level of practice attained, by a given community at a given date has been affected for good or bad by the religious usages, traditions, and convictions of the community. Even had I the inclination to conduct an inquiry of the kind pursued in the mid-nineteenth century in well-known works by such writers as Buckle and Lecky, I have not the necessary minute erudition. The question I would seek to answer, if I can, is definitely not historical, but critical and philosophical. It is, in fact, that which is raised, though inadequately, in Kant’s second Critique, and more simply presented by Plato in the Philebus. What is the true character of the “good for man”? Would successful prosecution of all the varied activities possible to man, simply as one temporal and mutable being among others, suffice to constitute the “condition” which, in Plato’s words,10 “will make any man’s life happy”? Or have we to confess that, at the heart of all our moral effort, there is always the aspiration towards a good which is strictly speaking “eternal,” outside the temporal order and incommensurable with anything falling within that order? Is the world where we play a part for our three-score years and ten what Wordsworth called it, to Shelley’s disgust, “the home of all of us,” where we must “find our happiness, or not at all,” or is it, as others have told us, a far country from which we have to make a tedious pilgrimage to our genuine patria? In language more fashionable to-day, have we as moral beings only one “environment,” a temporal, or two, a temporal and an eternal? If the eternal exists, what light is thrown on its character by our experience of the struggle to attain to it? What kind of thing must it be, if it is indeed the goal of all our human aspiration? As a second question, if our true good is a “thing infinite and eternal,” is it conceivable that it can be attained by a one-sided movement of endeavour on our part, or must we think of our own moral effort as a movement of response, elicited and sustained throughout by an antecedent outgoing movement from the side of the eternal? Is the reality of what Christian theologians call the grace of God a presupposition of the moral life itself? These are the questions to which we have in the first place to find an answer, when we undertake to discuss the relations between morality and religion and the bearing of specifically moral experiences on the issues of natural theology.
The attempt to answer these questions will naturally lead on to a further third question, that of the degree in which “autonomy” can rightly be ascribed to moral science in particular, or to science in general. If we should find that the basis of a sound rule of conduct and a true ideal of character have themselves to be sought in the eternal realities which religions claim to disclose, we shall be driven to reconsider the well-known grounds on which Kant proclaimed the “primacy of the practical reason,” and to ask whether they do not prove something Kant would not have been willing to grant, the “primacy” not of ethics, but of divinity. We shall be face to face again with the claim made in the famous metaphor of St. Peter Damiani11 that theology, the knowledge of God, is the rightful mistress; “philosophy” and “science,” the whole body of our systematised knowledge of the creatures, only the handmaid. Manifestly, such a claim should neither be admitted nor rejected without careful scrutiny. Religion is, to put it bluntly, by no means an accommodating neighbour: grant her a single inch, and she will promptly demand an ell, or rather, not an ell, but the whole compass of sea and land. She will have nothing at all, or else the supreme direction of all the activities of life. And we cannot well allow that claim without conceding a corresponding claim to primacy for theology, the organised body of our religious knowledge. To admit religion into life but exclude theology from science, fashionable as the compromise has been in recent times, would be like conceding the importance of the physician as a practical director, but dismissing physiologist and pathologist as impostors. Yet on the other side, theology is clearly not entitled to dictate to the student of morals, or of anything else, either his point of departure or his point of arrival in his investigation of the facts of life. Unless the investigation has been genuinely free from such interference, the witness of ethics, or any other study, to theology becomes worthless in the degree in which the evidence has undergone preliminary manipulation. We are thus compelled to deal in the last place with the double question: (a) What is the kind and degree of autonomy which may reasonably be claimed for any science? (b) under what limitations is it possible to claim some kind of primacy for theology?
The discussion of these questions ought not to demand any very minute or profound acquaintance with the technicalities of professional philosophy, or the special systems of individual philosophical thinkers. The issues to be faced are the same which confront any man who has become conscious of the duty of playing a man’s part in the business of active living and the necessity, if he is to live in a way worthy of a man, of playing that part consistently and on intelligible principle. None but those who are content to drift through existence without any attempt to understand it can ignore them or be indifferent to them. What they most demand for their profitable discussion is not so much information, or erudition, or even dialectical ingenuity, as openness to the whole wide range of suggestion with which all our active experiences are pregnant, combined with the sound and balanced judgement we popularly call common sense—the esprit juste, to speak with Pascal, rather than the esprit de finesse.
In actual life these qualifications do not seem to be more liberally distributed among metaphysicians, psychologists, or constructors of theoretical systems of ethics than among their neighbours. Hence, for our purpose the thought of great makers of literature who have been also great readers of the human heart may be much more important than the speculations of the professed metaphysician or psychologist. In particular, I venture, at my own peril, to think that the popular estimate of the authority attaching to the deliverances of the psychologist by profession in matters of morals and religion is grossly exaggerated, probably in consequence of an elementary fallacy of confusion. The psychologist manufacturing, on the basis of his laboratory experiments, an artificial schema of the human mind is too often confused with a very different person, the reader of individual human character. Yet all of us probably know able psychologists whose verdicts on character or interpretations of motive we should never dream of trusting in an affair of any practical moment, and must certainly know many a man whose judgements of his fellows and insight into the possibilities of life we should accept as highly authoritative, though we are well aware that he knows nothing of the highly abstract science of psychology, and would very possibly be merely puzzled if he tried to study it. When we wish to confirm or correct our reading of human life, it may safely be said, we do not commonly think of turning in the first instance to the works of the metaphysician or psychologist, or, if we do, the metaphysician or psychologist whose view of life we trust is trusted because he is something more than a specialist in metaphysics or psychology. We all attach great weight to Shakespeare’s interpretation of human life, or Dante’s, or Pascal’s, or Wordsworth’s; even when we reject their testimony, we at least do not reject it lightly. I believe it would be safe to say that Plato is the only metaphysician to whose verdicts on things human we ascribe anything like this significance, and the reason is manifest. It is that Plato was so much more than the author of a philosophical theory; he was one of the world’s supreme dramatists, with the great dramatist’s insight into a vast range of human character and experience, an insight only possible to a nature itself quickly and richly responsive to a world of suggestion which narrower natures of the specialist type miss. If I am found in the sequel appealing to the testimony of “moralists,” I trust it will be understood that by moralists I do not mean primarily men who have devoted themselves to the elaboration of ethical systems, the Aristotles, or even the Kants, but men who have lived richly and deeply and thought as well as lived, the Platos, Augustines, Dostoievskys, and their fellows.
Similarly the psychologist who can teach us anything of the realities of the moral or religious life is not the Professor who satisfies a mere intellectual curiosity by laboratory experiments, or the circulation of questionnaires about the dates and circumstances of other men’s “conversions,” or “mystical experiences”. A man might spend a long life at that business without making himself or his readers a whit the wiser. So long as he looks on at the type of experience he is investigating simply from the outside, he can hope to contribute nothing to its interpretation. He is in the position of a congenitally blind or deaf man attempting to construct a theory of beauty, in nature or art, by “circularising” his seeing and hearing friends with questions about their favourite colour-schemes or combinations of tones. The psychological records really relevant for our purpose are first and foremost those of the men who have actually combined the experience of the saint, or the aspirant after sanctity, with the psychologist’s gift of analysis, the Augustines and Pascals, and next those of the men who have had the experiences, even when they have been unable to analyse and criticise them, the Susos and the Bunyans. Mere analytical and critical acumen without a relevant experience behind it should count for nothing, since in this, as in all matters which have to do with the interpretation of personal life, we can only read the soul of another by the light of that which we know “at first hand” within ourselves. To put the point in a paradoxical way, when we try to interpret the life of another, we are in much the situation we should occupy if we had to light a candle to see the sun, and if the apparent luminosity of the seen sun were directly proportional to the brightness of our candle. Wär’ nicht das Auge sonnenhaft, Wie könnte es das Licht erblicken? may perhaps—I am not confident on the point—be meaningless in the physical world, but is strictly true in the moral.
One final observation before I attack my problem directly. We are to be concerned in our discussion with “natural” theology, and the very name suggests to us, as it did not to its inventor,12 a contrast with “revealed” religion and theologies claiming to be based on “revelation”. For the purpose of exhibiting the point of the contrast, we may be provisionally content to understand by a “revelation” any kind of spontaneous self-disclosure of a divine reality, as distinct from an attainment of knowledge about divine things reached purely by effort from our own human side. It is manifestly possible to hold more than one view of the relation of natural theology, as we have defined the phrase, in accordance with the precedent set by Varro, to a theology founded on revelation. One formally possible view, indeed, we may exclude at once, the view that a genuine natural theology and an equally genuine revelational theology might be in real contradiction. Such a contradiction would prove that either the natural theology had not been reached by the right use of human intelligence, and so was not “natural” in the sense in which we are using that word, or the revelation on which the revealed theology was based no genuine self-disclosure on the part of the divine, and therefore no true revelation. But two possibilities still remain. We might conceive that a revelation, if there is such a thing, would leave the results won by the aid of “natural human reason” standing without modification, merely supplementing them by further knowledge not attainable by unassisted human effort; again, we might conceive that the effect of revelation would be not merely to supplement “natural” knowledge, but to transform it in such a way that all the truths of natural theology would acquire richer and deeper meaning when seen in the light of a true revelation.
Whether there is any subtle disloyalty to reason involved in such conceptions of the supplementation, or enrichment, of natural theology by revelation, and if there is not, in which of these alternative ways we ought to conceive the relation of the two theologies, will be topics for future consideration. At the outset I am concerned only to mention the simple fact that, as matter of history, natural theology has never been found an entirely adequate expression of the attitude of devout souls to their world. It may fairly be doubted whether any man has been able to live and die nobly solely in the strength furnished by a “natural” religion or theology. Even if we consider the cases of intensely religiously-minded philosophers who have been markedly out of sympathy with the institutional cults and traditions of their community—a Plato, for example, or a Spinoza—it is not difficult to see that the practical faith with which they have confronted the issues of life and death has regularly gone far beyond the limits of legitimate deduction from the professed principles of their philosophy. And in Christian societies natural theology has only been pursued with steady devotion by men who, in point of fact, were earnest believers in an historical self-disclosure of the divine, and active adherents of a positive institutional religion. It has been a factor in the great institutional and traditional religions of the world, not a rival to them. The attempt of the Deists of the eighteenth century to erect what they called the “religion of nature” into a rival of historical and institutional Christianity was, as we all know, a short-lived failure. Partly, the champions of the “religion of nature” were insincere; their alleged devotion to “natural” religion was often no more than an excuse for practical irreligion and worldly living. Partly the being proposed for worship in the “religion of nature” was found too thin and insubstantial an abstraction to evoke genuine adoration in a rational creature. Even when the “religion of nature” did not begin in irreligion, it speedily lapsed into it. To-day, I take it, few of us would quarrel with the title of one of Blake’s brochures, There is No Natural Religion. Men who feel the need of religion as a guide, but cannot reconcile their intellectual convictions with unqualified acceptance of any of the institutional religions around them, fall back on some kind of tentative personal faith which has its roots in one of the great historical religions; from this they take what they can and leave the rest. Men who in the eighteenth century would have been among the more devotionally-minded Deists enroll themselves now as the advanced “Modernists” of Christianity or Judaism. They thus bear impressive witness to the truth that worship, like all the specifically human activities, morality, art, the pursuit of knowledge, and the rest, is a supra-individual activity, needing for its maintenance at a level of steady and vigorous efficiency all the support afforded by organised fellowship, definite institutions, and a great historical tradition.
It is a curious paradox, when one comes to reflect, that an age as alive as our own to the necessity for association, common interests, shared work, in the prosecution of science, and the value of a great inheritance of tradition for the production of living art, should tend to be suspiciously resentful of the suggestion that the same conscious fellowship in a great community of the living and the dead is equally important for the soul’s religious life. We readily admit that the discovery of a great truth or the creation of a great poem, picture, or symphony, by a solitary, alone in a society which cares nothing for science or art and has no inheritance of tradition in either, would be something like a moral portent. Yet it is not uncommon to find estimable writers expressing themselves, with a touch of contempt and a curious disregard of the historical facts, as if there must be an actual opposition in principle between a living personal faith and an institutional religion, or as if the men of supreme insight and genius in religion were so many flowers blossoming alone in a desert, owing nothing to the educative influence of association for a common purpose with the like-minded among the living, and less than nothing, if that were possible, to the traditions which bind a living generation to the like-minded among the dead.
In sober fact things are not thus. Religion, like science, requires a communal background. What Royal Societies are to the one, Churches are to the other. Organised and accumulated tradition plays the same part in both as the conservator of sanity and protectress against the tragedy of merely futile effort. No one can deny that institutions, traditions, conventions, have their very real dangers in all departments of life, but in all they are indispensable. They are edged tools, if you like, but necessary tools. You cannot, to besure, conserve sanity in thought, art, or living, without some risk of occasional cramping of genius. But without some organised protection of sanity the world would be filled not with men of genius, but with “cranks,” faddists, and lunatics. The real enemies of spiritual life in all its manifestations are not conventions and traditions, but conventionalism and traditionalism, outward respect for the letter of traditions, or the form of institutions, which are no longer alive. This must be my excuse, if excuse is needed, for frankly approaching the study of the moral and religious life in no spirit of affected neutrality and aloofness, but from the point of view of one moulded by education in a definite moral and religious tradition, and actively partaking in the common worship of a definite historical community. There is no reason why such historical loyalties need make clearsighted critical study impossible. If the difficulty were insurmountable, the effects would be felt far beyond the bounds of a study of religion. It should be possible, and there is abundant evidence that it is possible, for an intelligent man to be a loyal and whole-hearted Scot, Englishman, or Frenchman without being blinded to the defects of the national character or institutions. Where will is morally upright and intelligence alert, the loyal citizen, indeed, is more likely to hit the mark with a criticism from within than the benevolent and intelligent foreigner, who must, to the end, remain an “outsider” to so much. And it is even so with the organised life of religious communities. You must be an insider if you are to have full comprehension of their real weaknesses as well as of their strength. In a world where the best of us carry about so much of the fomes peccati, men are naturally not prone to carry on the work of quiet criticism from within in public; they prefer to descant on the mote in a brother’s eye, and to keep a decent silence about their troubles with the beam in their own. Such merely polemical criticism is seldom of much benefit to a man who honestly wants to understand. What the faults of the Christian Church are is probably better known to its devoted workers than to the smart non-Christian journalist, and though I have often listened, I trust in a spirit of willingness to learn, to trenchant “exposures” of the errors and sins of my own branch of that Church from representatives of other branches, I confess I have found the quiet comments of loyal supporters from within more enlightening. A “philosophy of religion,” to be of any value, must not come from the detached theorist “holding no form of creed, but contemplating all”; it must be the fruit of patient and candid self-criticism on the part of men living the life they contemplate, each in his own way, but each ready to learn, alike from the others and from the outsider.
Augustine, De civitat. Dei, vi, 5.
Cf. Euripides, Heracles 1346 ἀοιδῶν οἵδε δύστηνοι λόγοι, Isocrates, xi. 38 ὰλλὰ γὰρ οὐδέν σοι τῆς ἀληθείας ἐμέλησεν, ἀλλὰ ταῖς τῶν ποιητῶν βλασφημίαις ἐπηκολούθησας, οἳ δεινὸτερα μὲν πεποιηκότας καὶ πεπονθότας ἀποφαίνουσι τοὺς ἐκ τῶν ἀθανάτων γεγονότας ἢ τοὐς ὲκ τῶν ἀνθρώπων τῶν ἀνοσιωτάτων κτλ.
See the continuous exposition of this elementary theology in Laws x. 893 B 1-907 D 1, and compare the brief statement, which we may fairly call Plato’s personal “confession of faith,” Ep. vii. 335 A 2 πείθεσθαι δὲ ὄντως ἀεὶ χρὴ τοῖς παλαιοῖς τε καὶ ἱεροῖς λόγοις, οἳ δὴ μηνύουσιν ἡμῖν ἀθάνατον ψυχὴν εἷναι δικαστάς τε ἴσχειν καὶ τίνειν τὰς μεγίστας τιμωρίας, ὅταν τις ἀπαλλαχθῇ τοῦ σώματος • διὸ καὶ τὰ μεγάλα ἁμαρτήματα καὶ ἀδικήματα σμικρότερον εἷναι χρὴ νομίζειν κακὸν πάσχειν ἢ δρᾶσαι.
Thomas gives his reason for confining the argument to “natural” divinity at S.C.G. i. 2. A Christian cannot appeal, in controversy with Mohammedans or “Pagans,” to the authority of a “scripture” acknowledged by both parties: unde necesse est ad naturalem rationem recurrere, cui omnes assentire coguntur; quae tamen in rebus divinis deficiens est.
S.C.G. iv., Proemium, Restat autem sermo habendus de his quae nobis revelata sunt divinitus ut credenda, excedentia intellectum humanum. … Probanda enim sunt huiusmodi auctoritate sacrae Scripturae, non autem ratione naturali; sed tamen ostendendum est quod rationi naturali non sunt opposita, ut ab impugnatione infidelium defendantur.
The full title is “A Discourse concerning the Being and Attributes of God, the Obligations of Natural Religion and the TRUTH AND CERTAINTY of the Christian Revelation. In Answer to Mr. Hobbs, Spinoza, the Author of the Oracles of Reason, and other Deniers of Natural and Revealed Religion. Being sixteen Sermons Preached in the Cathedral-Church of St. Paul, in the years 1704, and 1705, at the Lecture founded by the Honourable ROBERT BOYLE, Esq.”.
Epicurus, Ep. iii. (Usener, Epicurea, § 123) θεοὶ μὲν γὰρ εἰσίν • ἐναργὴς γὰρ αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ γνῶσις; Κύριαι Δόξαι I-2, τὸ μακάριον καὶ ἄφθαρτον οὔτε αὐτὸ πράγματα ἔχει οὔτε ἄλλῳ παρέχει, ὥστε οὔτε ὀργαῖς οὔτε χάρισι συνέχεται • ἐν ἀσθενεῖ γὰρ πᾶν τὸ τοιοῦτον. ὁ θάνατος οὐδὲν πρὸς ἡμᾶς • τὸ γὰρ διαλυθὲν ἀναισθητεῖ. τὸ δ’ ἀναισθητοῦν οὐδὲν πρὸς ἡμᾶς.
The sceptics, whose views are represented for us by Sextus Empiricus may serve as an example. Hobbes, again, seems to hold that “natural reason” requires us to make no theological assertion beyond that of the existence of an unknowable cause of the world.
Ps. cxxxviii. (Vulg.) 6.
Philebus 11 D 4 ὡς νῦν ἡμῶν ἑκάτερος ἕξιν ψυχῆς καὶ διάθεσιν ἀποφαἰνειν τινὰ ἐπιχειρήσει τὴν δυναμένην ἀνθρώποις πᾶσι τὸν βίον εὐδαίμονα παρέχειν.
De divina omnipotentia, v. (Migne, Patrolog. Lat. cxlv. 603) “quae tamen artis humanae peritia, si quando tractandis sacris eloquiis adhibetur, non debet ius magisterii sibimet arroganter arripere, sed velut ancilla dominae quodam famulatus obsequio subservire.”
Cf. C. C. J. Webb, Studies in the History of Natural Theology, pp. 10 ff.