If my puffed life be out, give leave to tine
My shameless snuff at that bright lamp of thine:
Oh what’s thy light the less for lighting mine?
It is characteristic, as we have said, of all the great religions which have claimed to be universal, that is, to have a right to the allegiance of mankind, irrespective of distinctions of race, nationality, local history, on the ground of their intrinsic truth, that each of them professes to rest, in the last resort, on a revelation. Each claims to be in the possession of truths of moment about the unseen which have not been, and could not have been, found out by any process of reflection upon the common features of all human experience, but contain an element derived from an immediate self–disclosure, an irruption of the unseen order itself into the visible and familiar, an element which is accepted as given, not discovered by man’s own activity. It is a consequence of this givenness of the central content of the revelation that it also regularly claims, at least in respect of what is essential to it, to be, in some sense, final. The disclosure, because coming spontaneously from the side of the divine itself, is not subject, like the results of scientific inquiry, to unlimited revision and restatement. There is something in it which is not provisional, but once for all, and yet cannot be, and never will be, established like the so–called “immutable” laws of pure science. Hence the unending difficulties in which the divines of the various universal religions have found themselves involved when they begin to discriminate between the elements in their own teaching, as formulated at a given time, which really belong to this unchanging “deposit” or “core,” and those which are only part of its accidental setting, and admit of legitimate accommodation to the changing intellectual “environment” of successive generations. Hence also the question, inevitable for any really critical age, whether it is in principle legitimate to admit the possibility of any “deposit” with this unchanging character. Is it disloyalty to intelligence itself to concede that there is some sense in which “religious truth” is un–progressive? If it is, it must also be an equal disloyalty to believe seriously in such self–disclosures of the divine as we have contemplated, and there will really be an unbridgeable gulf between the theology possible to a thinking man and that of any of the historical universal religions. There will, in fact, be de iure only one universal religion and theology, one confined rigidly “within the limits of pure reason,” and we ought to anticipate, and do all we can to forward, the arrival of a day when all the historical religions shall have purged themselves of what is specific to each, and are indistinguishably merged in such a pure natural religion, just as there are those who would have us work for a future in which national loyalties will have lost themselves in a common attachment to a “commonweal of mankind”.
The problem thus has its very practical side. Just as it is a practical question for each of us whether we serve mankind best by sitting loose to ties of nation and race, or by setting ourselves to be good Britons, or Frenchmen, or Germans, so it is a practical question whether we serve God best by owning no allegiance to a particular faith or Church, or by doing our best to be good Christians, or good Jews, as the case may be. It is true, to be sure, that the parallelism between the two situations is not complete. For no man, as I take it, seriously supposes that the universal brotherhood of man, if it is to be achieved, will be achieved by the expansion of the British Empire, or the French or American Republic, over the whole globe. But the good Christian, or good Jew, in proportion as he deserves the name, does look for the ultimate achievement of unity in religion, if it is ever to be attained, by the conversion of mankind to Christianity or to Judaism. Religions which claim to be universal claim also, in virtue of the element of finality in them, to be permanent, in a way in which states do not: there is a real exclusiveness about them, and it is inevitable that there should be. A brotherhood of all mankind would be consistent with the retention of separate local loyalties, so long as these latter were kept subordinate and secondary. In a “federated” religion for mankind, Christianity, Islam, and the rest of the universal religions would simply have lost their being. The “missionary” spirit is inseparable from all of them, because none can regard itself as a mere temporary precursor of the world–religion yet to come, without abandoning its pretension to be the self–disclosure of the divine. God cannot have spoken with equal finality to men through Moses, through Christ, and through Mohammed, for their witness does not agree; if God has spoken with finality through one of these messengers, then the claims of the faiths which treat the messages of the other two as the full self–disclosure of God must be surrendered. And what makes a man an adherent of the religion of Moses, Mohammed, or Christ is precisely the consideration that through this one channel God has spoken finally, as through no other, and that to identify the self–disclosure of God with the general features in which several competing faiths are alike to the exclusion of all that is specific to any one of them, would be to rob that “revelation” of what is richest in it.
We can readily understand, then, why, when reflective men who profess one of the universal religions come to discover that societies not demonstrably inferior to their own in intelligence and virtue, possibly in some respects even superior, profess another, a distinction comes to be made between convictions in which several such religions are found to agree and those specific to each; why the former, inasmuch as they are seen to be independent of any one particular historical “revelation,” should be assumed to be capable of demonstration by “natural reason,” but the latter to be knowable only in virtue of special revelation; why, also, in each of the great religions it should be the latter, the specific “truths of revelation,” which are regarded as of supreme importance.1 It is equally easy to understand the reaction of the critical intelligence against this point of view. Some such reaction, indeed, might have been expected to show itself, even if history has presented us with no more than one single revelational religion, with no competitors. Even in such a case it would seem inevitable that the religion should be lived and practised before it could be reflected upon, and an attempt made to say precisely what are the “doctrines” about the unseen implied by this life and practice. And the first attempts to answer the question would be bound to take account of what was most obvious. In course of time the answers would need reconsideration, in view of constantly emerging divergences of speculation and practice within the growing religious community, of new situations calling for fresh adaptations, of collisions between the earliest formulations of the community’s belief and subsequently discovered facts of the temporal and secular order. The necessity of taking account of competing theologies only accentuates this process a little more acutely; even apart from that necessity, theology, the intellectual formulation of the implications of a religion, is clearly largely tentative and progressive, and this is enough to raise the problem whether the religion itself may also be considered, in the end, to be wholly provisional and tentative—a view which would make real revelation superfluous.
If we consider the problem, as I hold that Lord Gifford’s instructions compel us to do—in its complete generality, without any suggestion of an apologia for the claims of a particular world–religion to be the revelation of God to man—I believe we may fairly summarise the main arguments against the reality of “special” revelation as follows:
(1) A revelation, if not impossible, is at least antecedently highly improbable.2 For either the statements alleged to be revealed are in conflict with truths ascertained by the “natural use of reason,”3 or they are not. In the second case, they are attainable in due time by the unaided patient employment of human intelligence, and so a revelation of them is, at best, superfluous; in the first, they are not even genuine truths, and therefore, a fortiori, not revelations.
(2) If God discloses Himself to us at all, it should be in a way intelligible and convincing to men in all times, and at all places; otherwise there can be no finality about the disclosure. But from the nature of the case, such disclosure is impossible.4 A revelation made through a particular person, to particular persons, in particular circumstances, will not be intelligible—much less convincing—unless it is adapted to the “mentality”—sit venia verbo—of the man through whom it comes and the men to whom it comes. All truths, to be received and understood, must be thus adapted to the whole state of mind of the specific recipients, as a spoken message, to be apprehended, must be conveyed in a determinate idiom. You cannot speak without speaking some particular language—Latin, French, English, or some other—and if you are to be understood by speakers of English, you must speak not only English, but the English of a definite period, the English of the contemporaries of Cynewulf, or Chaucer, or Milton, or Tennyson, as the case may be. Now the mental outfit of men varies with place and time, like their speech, being moulded in much the same fashion by the traditions of their historical past. The very thoughts which were true and significant to a Galilean of two thousand years ago have lost their truth and significance for us, to whom they are as foreign as the Aramaic vocables in which they were originally uttered. What is the highest and most vital truth for us may similarly be unmeaning for men of the fortieth century, whose whole intellectual outlook on the world will presumably be as unlike ours as their speech. There are, in fact, no “truths for all time”; every truth, to be genuine truth, must be the truth for its time.5 Revelation, then, as it has been conceived by the world–religions is not merely superfluous, but actually impossible.
(3) If we consider what has been the really valuable element in the various world–religions, we shall be led to the same conclusion. They have been of value just so far as they have been an elevating influence in life, and they have made for the elevation of life in proportion as they have taught and enforced a high standard of moral conduct, and no further. In a society which has reached a sufficiently high level of reflective moral civilisation, a variety of religions may be professed, but the recognised rules of conduct are much the same for the adherents of all, as we see, in our own society; the serious–minded men, whether they are Christians, or Jews, or stand outside all the great historical religious communities, have much the same ideal of good conduct, and conform to it about equally well. It is reasonable, then, to look for the final and divine element in the various religions in a moral ideal and rule of life, just the characteristic in respect of which they tend to merge into one another; unreasonable to attach significance to the features which discriminate them. Thus the element of true and abiding religion in all the religions is a purely moral one, independent of revelations alleged to be made to particular persons and at particular times. At most, we might perhaps include in it, along with the moral ideal and rule themselves, whatever implications about the unseen order a genuine morality demands. But these implications will constitute only a “natural” or “philosophical” theology, “within the limits of mere reason”.
(4) It might be added that there is not one of these revelational religions which has not included, as an integral part of its professedly divine revelation, assertions of fact about the course of nature and of human history. But it is difficult to believe that, in a rational universe, any man’s attainment or non–attainment of his final good can be contingent on the accident of his acquaintance with events of which he may never have had the opportunity to hear. Moreover, in the case of every such religion, the assertions of fact about nature and human history which have been made on the strength of revelation have included some which have proved to be false.
This, I believe, is the main substance of such a case as a fair–minded man might make out against admitting the possibility of recognising divine self–disclosures, made at specific times and places, as a real source of knowledge about God and about man’s beatitude. With more special polemical objections against the genuineness of a particular revelation, the Christian or another, we are not now concerned. I propose to offer some reflections on the cogency of such a destructive Kritik aller Theologie, die als Offenbarung auftreten will.
It has, no doubt, to be admitted that there is point in much of what has been urged, and that the discredit into which the notion of revelation has fallen with, perhaps, a majority of reflective men has, in large measure, been due to the fault of the representatives of revelational religion themselves. Even when, as in the case of the Christian Church, they have professedly limited the sphere of revelation to faith and morals, they have been apt to bring a great many assertions of natural and historical fact under this rubric, on the plea that they are indirectly necessary for religion and morality, and have often shown a levity in advancing this claim which has recoiled on themselves, as the assertions in question have been more and more completely shown to be mistaken. They have failed signally to distinguish, as they should have done, between the content of the primary revelation upon which they rest, the actual self–disclosures of God made through their founders and prophets, and the whole contents of the sacred writings which profess to record the circumstances of those self–disclosures, or to comment upon and expound their significance. It is a more serious matter that they have often revolted the sensitive conscience, as some of them still continue to revolt it, by making the eternal welfare of men depend on the historical accident of acquaintance with, and appreciation of, their own special revelation. Ignorance, even when wholly unavoidable, has been put, in this respect, on a level with deliberate and obstinate rejection of the truth. Thus the traditional Moslem belief has been, and presumably still is, that “idolaters,” Jews, Christians, all go to “the fire,” even those who have never heard of the Prophet and his “perspicuous book”; and Christians, on their side, have only too often maintained the same thing of all the millions of the human race who have never known of the Gospel and its contents. The claim to the exclusive possession of the final revelation has naturally and directly led to the dictum extra ecclesiam nulla salus, and it is instructive to note the devices to which the sensitive and thoughtful have been driven, in order to reconcile themselves to such a principle. Thus we have in the Middle Ages the examples of the attempts of men like Roger Bacon and St. Thomas to exempt the great Gentiles from the sentence, either by forced exegeses which discover the special doctrines of the Church’s theology in the text of Plato and Aristotle,6 or, more modestly, by falling back, with St. Thomas,7 on the double possibility that the righteous man, living remote from the society which possesses the saving revelation, may either receive a strictly personal revelation, or, at any rate, may attain to an “implicit” faith in a redemption which God will effect by ways known to Himself.
With all this, however, we are not specially concerned now. Whatever may be the best solution of the question of God’s dealings with those who, from no fault of their own, have been beyond the reach of an historical revelation, it is irrelevant to make difficulties of this kind a ground for denying in limine the possibility, or the worth, of such a revelation. If the possibility of a real specific self–disclosure of the divine be granted, the problem raised by the fact that it is not bestowed equally on men in all times and at all places becomes, in principle, identical with the more general problem, why men everywhere and at all times are not equally favoured with other good gifts; why one man has endowments and opportunities which are denied to another. That problem admits of no solution, except that of Uncle Toby8—and St. Paul—that God in His wisdom has disposed it so. The alleged moral difficulty only arises when we go on needlessly to complicate the problem by the assumption that a God of infinite wisdom and goodness penalises His creatures for not possessing what He has not seen fit to bestow on them; and this assumption, we may fairly say, is obsolete in any form of historical religion which is a “live option” for educated Europeans to–day.9
The other three considerations demand less summary treatment, and it may be convenient to deal with them in the reverse order from that in which we stated them. Is revelation shown to be superfluous, and therefore not reasonably to be reckoned with, as a source of knowledge of the divine by the contention that knowledge of our moral duties is sufficient for us, and on them there is agreement? For one thing, I am not myself clear that the agreement is as complete as the argument assumes. What is meant seems to be that the precepts of such a code as the Ten Commandments are, in the main, accepted and followed equally by Christians, Jews, Moslems, persons without any special religious “profession.” In our own society a decent man who is theoretically a complete “Agnostic,” or even an avowed Atheist, is usually about as “moral,” in the way of paying his debts, abstaining from violence and fraud, and leading a wholesome family life, as the man who is a regular Church–goer. So much, no doubt, is happily true: we have long ago discovered that the man who professes no religion at all is not, as a rule, the more likely to cut our throats, corrupt our daughters, or cheat us of our property; he is not necessarily a would–be criminal only restrained by fear of the police, as eighteenth–century apologists were too ready to contend, forgetful perhaps of the vehement assertions of thinkers of the so–called “ages of faith” about the inferiority of the moral practice of their contemporary Christians to that of classical Paganism in its flourishing days. But when it is further assumed, on the strength of this general uniformity of moral standard and practice within our own community, that religion, as an inspiration to practical good living, is independent of all historical revelation, certain relevant facts seem to be overlooked. It is forgotten, that whatever may be the theological tenets of the individual among us, the morality by which he lives is one which he has learned from the tradition of his community, and that this tradition has been formed under the direct influence of a great revelational religion. Even where a rule of conduct has not been directly inspired by the specifically Christian tradition, the interpretation put on the rule, often a far more important thing than the formula itself, has come direct from that tradition.
It might, no doubt, be said that when once the interpretation has been reached, its reasonableness, and the unreasonableness of any other, can be discerned without reference to its origin, and, in principle, I would not dispute this. But, as Aristotle should have convinced us long ago, in moral matters there are no postulates which are self–evident ex vi terminorum; it is only the man who has begun by accepting the postulates by an act of faith, and thus acquired “moral insight” pari passu with the acquisition of virtuous habit, who comes in the end to see that the ἀρχαί of “practical philosophy” are true and rational. Thus the fact that men of to–day who have been trained in doing good to those who hate them and persecute them pronounce the principle of meeting hatred by love rational, even though they may no longer accept the Gospel as “revelation,” is not sufficient proof either that such action would ever have come to be recognised as “conformable to right reason” without the Gospel, nor that it will continue to be regarded as reasonable in a society which has been emancipated from the influences of Christian theology long enough to be able to treat the Gospels as a mere interesting historical monument.10
The point can perhaps be made still clearer if we consider the most famous modern attempt to construct an exceptionally high and austere morality in complete independence of history and revelation—the attempt of Kant. There is no principle upon which Kant is more anxious to insist than the strict “autonomy” of ethics. According to him all that is valuable in religions is their enforcement of a right rule of conduct on the “heart” and the imagination; the rule itself is discoverable by metaphysical analysis, without any reference to historical social tradition, much more without any reference to revelation; we discover it by analysing the implications of the concept “reasonable action.” Ethics must thus be built up from the first without any reference to God, either as the source of obligation or the object towards which we have obligations. It is only by subsequent reflection on the ultimate presuppositions of an already constituted and recognised true morality that we discover justification for believing in God as the monarch of the “kingdom of ends.” For ethics itself it has to be kept an open question whether the commonwealth of ends may not be a pure democracy. It is consequently vital to Kant’s unqualified “rationalism” to maintain, as he notoriously does, that the “Categorical Imperative” which enjoins reasonableness, and forbids unreason in our every action, has a twofold character. It is not only merely a general formula under which all specific right action can be brought, as the dictum de omni et nullo is a general formula under which all valid syllogisms can be represented; it is also an infallible direct criterion of the Tightness or wrongness of any specific act proposed to be done.11 We can guarantee ourselves against the commission of moral wrong–doing if we will only take care to ensure that there is no latent contradiction in the principle of the act we are proposing to perform, and that the act is, in consequence, formally reasonable. (In Kant’s theory there can be no question of a material wrongness which would be compatible with merely formal Tightness. If the act is formally right, it is right simpliciter, and the worst you can say of it is that it has had “unwelcome” consequences, an extra–ethical consideration.) Kant thus holds out to anyone who will apply the proposed criticism to his contemplated acts a moral inerrancy, which may remind us of the intellectual inerrancy promised by Descartes to those who will suspend their judgement whenever their ideas are not “clear and distinct”.
Now it is notorious that the chief difficulty found by later critics in Kant’s doctrine arises, not from his treatment of the Categorical Imperative as a correct general formula for right action, but from this insistence on its further applicability as an immediate practical criterion. As is often said, it is a defect of the criterion that the only results Kant can get from it are purely negative. At best, it only stamps acts of certain kinds, like the deliberate making of fraudulent promises, as wrong. It gives no positive guidance whatever, as Kant might have seen if he had asked himself how the test is to be applied to a really difficult moral problem, like, for example, the choice a young man may have to make between the career which will immediately qualify him to contribute most efficiently to the support of his mother and sisters and that in which he can make the most valuable contribution to art or science; or the problem whether a specific man, in specific circumstances, would do right to make a specific offer of marriage, or, again, to break off an engagement to marry. Kant’s criterion, that the unreasonable course is the morally wrong course, will only apply in such cases if one has already discovered, in some unexplained way, what is the reasonable course. If that is still uncertain, the application of the test leaves the uncertainty where it was.
What is worse, but even more illuminating, the failure of the criterion is not confined to these cases of special decisions in highly complex situations, where no sane moralist would expect to be able to lay down any rule of general applicability. The test equally fails in cases where moralists in general would agree that there is a recognisable rule. For example, it obviously rules out adultery, since adultery—breach of bed–vow—is only possible where marriage, as a status with definite rights and duties, exists, and thus he who wills to permit himself an act of adultery is willing at once that there shall and shall not be respect for the rule of marriage. But the advocate, or practiser, of complete sexual promiscuity would come out unscathed from the application of the test. His “maxim” is simply that the sexual side of human life should be, like many other sides of it, left unregulated to the “inclination” of the parties concerned, and there is no more logical absurdity in such a maxim than there is in the proposal to leave men to please themselves at which end they will break their breakfast–eggs, or whether they will starch their collars. Yet we may feel fairly sure that Kant would have agreed with the common verdict that, though adultery is morally bad, universal promiscuous “free love” would be worse.12 How, then, comes he never to have reflected that his highly extolled criterion of right and wrong cannot well be sound, since it fails in so obvious a case? The only answer I can find is that Kant all along tacitly assumes that he already knows what sort of acts are right, before he resorts to his criterion. He takes it unconsciously for granted that the traditional moral rules recognised by educated German Protestants of his own time are known to be the right rules, and may therefore—since his analysis has yielded the equation right = rational—be presumed to be rational. If you grant this, it is not very hard for him to prove plausibly that various ways of acting, which conflict with this tradition, being in conflict with what is ex hypothesi rational, must be irrational, and therefore wrong.
But to justify his own claims for his criterion, Kant ought to have done something very different. He ought to have shown that by applying it we can work out an unambiguous moral legislation in vacuo for a community of human beings13 destitute of all tradition. If we recognise that this task is insoluble in principle, and that consequently pure “rationalism” in the strict Cartesian sense, rigid deduction of conclusions, through a chain of “clear and distinct ideas,” from principles “evident by the natural light,” is as impossible in ethics as in other fields of thought, we must admit that it is a matter of moment for morality itself what the unproved “synthetic” postulates of a moral tradition are. In point of fact, these postulates which give a moral tradition its distinctive individual quality are not found, in the history of civilisation, existing apart from the religious tradition of the community; they are part and parcel of it. Christian religious tradition is not, indeed, the only source of the moral ideal current in our own country and our own age; we have also to take into account the influence of racial and national temperament, of our inheritance from the classical moral civilisation of Greece and Rome, and, no doubt, of other factors not so easy to trace. But the influence of the specifically religious Christian tradition is all–pervasive in our accepted scheme of values. Even when some particular feature in our moral scheme seems at first sight most obviously due to the historical influence of Greece or Rome, the lesson we learn from classical antiquity is, commonly, profoundly modified for us by the Christian medium through which we have received it;14 it is just this which makes it difficult for the historically minded student of morals to understand the ethical thought of a Socrates or an Aristotle, “objectively,” without unconsciously Christianising it in all sorts of more or less subtle ways. We have, I submit, no right to say that our moral tradition of conduct could have come to us in any way except that in which such tradition has historically come to every society with whose moral tradition we are acquainted, that is, as connected by relations of reciprocal interdependence with a religious tradition.
It might be possible to admit the fact of this complication of the morality characteristic of a world–religion with its specifically religious element, and yet to dispute the importance of the fact. For, it might be said, though, in fact, we never find the religious and the ethical isolated from one another in an historical tradition, we may isolate them for ourselves by a Denkexperiment. Noetic analysis will enable us to get each loose from the other, though in actual fact they are regularly presented together. In fact, that is, they are always “conjoined,” not, in any real sense, “connected”; why then should we make the conjunction any reason for doubting that the one may be the precious ore, the other merely so much dross? I should reply that, if we take that line, we lay ourselves directly open to a rejoinder which I find unanswerable. Each of the great world–religions has been, for good or for evil, a most potent force in transforming the whole scheme of moral “valuations”; each has produced a moral reform—not necessarily a salutary one—on the grand scale, and it would be hard to point to any other influence in history which has had the same effect on such a scale. But it is equally true that no great historical religion has ever aimed, first and foremost, at a moral reform as its main objective. Each has always rested its claim on mankind primarily not on the improved morality it enjoins, but on the new light it throws on God and man’s relation to God. Mohammed is credited with improving the morals of the Arabs of the “ignorance” in various ways, notably by the prohibition of infanticide. Islam has also been called the greatest of all “temperance societies.” But the main business of Mohammed, as declared by himself, was not to prohibit infanticide, to limit polygamy, or to abolish intoxication; it was to proclaim the unity of God. No one, I imagine, doubts that St. Paul improved the morals of his converts (though it is to be observed that he seems usually to assume that what was wrong with them in their unregenerate days was not theoretical ignorance of the moral law, but practical disregard of it; he does not claim to be the prophet of a “new” morality of any kind). But his immediate concern was not the improvement of manners and morals; it was the preaching of “Jesus and resurrection”.15 The all–important thing with him is that men should accept his message about God and what God has done for them; moral improvement follows, or ought to follow, as a matter of course from the consciousness of a new relation to God.
I think we may say two things about all the great religions which have proved their power, in varying degree, to mould the life of men as men, not as men of this or that stock or speech: all owe their origin to individual founders, and in no case has the founder conceived himself, or been conceived by his followers, in the first instance, as a moral reformer. A religion of this kind is the most potent of all forces in transforming moral ideals and practice, but it owes it potency to the very fact that it is something other than a project of moral reformation. Indeed, it is often urged by unfavourable critics in depreciation of the founders of such religions, as it has been urged against Our Lord, that they are wanting in ethical originality; their precepts, it is said, are not found, on careful scrutiny, to contain anything which had not been said, more or less explicitly, before them. The criticism would be largely just, but for the fact that the founders of religions do not announce themselves as moral reformers, except incidentally and in the second place.
The consideration I would urge, then, is this. Even from the standpoint of those who, like Kant, judge religions by their value as instruments of moral reform, it would be a bad mistake to suppose that we can estimate the worth of a religion by artificially isolating the expressly ethical deliverances of its founder or its prophets. The real moral effects of a religion depend primarily on its new and characteristic declarations about God, and the relations into which it brings the worshipper with God. Moral improvements effected by a religion are consequences, and very largely indirect and half–unconscious consequences, of the changed attitude towards God into which the convert believes himself to have been brought. We should be misconceiving the facts if we thought of the founders of the great religions simply as men of remarkable moral insight, and consequently conceded that their directly ethical precepts, being reached by an immediate intuition of the morally right which is beyond the range of more ordinary men, may properly be regarded as a “revelation” or self–disclosure of the supreme moral personality, God, but persisted in confining the concession to these merely ethical utterances, as Kant wouldlikeus to do.16 From the standpoint of the Kantian philosophy of religion, it would be justifiable to find a revelation from God in such sayings as “Love your enemies,” “Resist not evil”; but such utterances as “No man knoweth the Father but the Son,” or “Hereafter ye shall see the Son of Man coming on the right hand of the Power,” would have to be dismissed as the pardonable excesses of an exuberant imagination. But in point of fact, so far as Christianity has been really operative to moral renewal, it has been so precisely through these not directly ethical utterances, with the new vistas they open on the strictly transcendent and eternal. It is they, much more than any specific moral precepts of the Gospel, which are at the roots of the Christian conception of the practical life itself, and furnish it with its “dynamic.” Either the claim of Our Lord to special direct intuitive apprehension of the divine must be surrendered, or it is to these “otherworldly” utterances that we must look for the evidence of a first–hand disclosure from the supernatural. So, even from the point of view which measures the worth and estimates the truth of religions exclusively by their influence on morals, it is reasonable to attach weight not merely to the ethical precepts of the Religions–stifter, but to their intuitions concerning God and the eternal world. They too will have weight, just so far as we are justified in regarding them as genuine disclosures of a reality which is there in its own right, not creations of human fantasy. And we must certainly add that it seems a bad mistake to regard religion in this fashion, as merely a useful instrument of morality, as Kant, for example, wished to do.
No doubt, we should be justified in saying that a religion which did nothing to make the standard of morality at once more elevated and more inward, still more a religion which actually debased the moral standard, must be a false, as well as a bad, religion. The indignant eloquence of Adimantus in the Republic,17 when he denounces the moral corruption chargeable on the Orphic pardon–mongers and vendors of “sacraments,” rightly carries us away with it, as we read. Nor should we, I conceive, feel inclined to dispute the verdict of the aged Plato, that the worst kind of “infidel” is the hypocritical trafficker for private ends in the credulity of mankind.18 But this is no more than might also be said, with the same sort of truth, about science, or art. It may be the case that, in particular instances, this man or that man has suffered morally from his interest in science or in art, that he would have been a morally better man, in some important respects, if he had not been so good an artist, or man of science. There are undeniably men whose devotion to scientific research has made them, in some respects, inhumane, and others whose absorption in art has led them to neglect their duties to wife and children. But I think we should all deny that devotion to art or science, as such, has any inherent tendency to make men cruel, or indifferent to family affections; we should be ready to admit that if, in particular societies, the practice of art, or the following of science as a vocation, has really tended generally to deprave the moral standard, the art and science in question have been debased art and false science. I believe we should go further, and might fairly say that, in the main, devotion to the highest art and to rightly conceived science tend, on the whole, to the all–round elevation of moral character. There are bad men among artists and men of science, and some of them rise to eminence in their vocations; but among the very greatest, in science and in art, the greatly good do not seem, to say the least of it, to be more uncommon than in any other walk of life. If we hear more of the moral frailties of famous artists than we do of the shortcomings of shopkeepers, or attorneys, or labourers, the reason is, perhaps, partly that our curiosity about the artist leads to the collection of gossip about him which is not forthcoming for the shopkeeper; partly that most of us are more like the shopkeeper than we are like the artist, and are prone to indulge the “all–too–human” habit of confining our reprobation to the vices to which we are personally least addicted.
The very unity of human personality would seem to make it impossible that courage, sincerity, self–denial, loyalty to the best one can conceive, untiring reaching out from the good to the better, should be regularly characteristic of a man in one great part of his activity, and merely wanting in another. And, on the other side, if a man is generally slack, indolent, readily satisfied with the second–best, fitful, backbone–less, in the conduct of his life, we should hardly expect to find these qualities regularly replaced by their opposites in his vocational work. Since a man is, after all, one man and not several, he will probably put the same sort of personality into what we call his vocational work as into the rest of his doings, if only we knew how to look for it there. And yet it is certain that the sole justification, or the chief justification, of science and art is not to be found in their immediate effect on moral character, and the direct aim of art and science is never moralistic. Both deteriorate at once, as soon as they are made consciously subservient to a purely moral purpose. Art and science both do us good, but the good they do is not, in the first instance, to improve our discharge of our duties to our families, our customers, or our clients. Art does us good directly by teaching us to detect and revel in beauty, science by teaching us to care for truth.
Just so it is with religion. Like science and art, and more markedly, it has its repercussions on our daily moral practice, but, like them, it is primarily something quite different from a moral rule of life. As art has its source in the intuition of the beautiful, and science its source in the vision of the true, so religion arises directly from, and is the creature’s response to, the dim and vague, but intensely vivid, perception of the presence of the uncreated and adorable. The characteristic attitude of the religious soul is that of worship, and worship springs from assurance that the uncreated and complete good is no mere Sollen, but is given as intimately present here and now, as the overpowering reality. Now this sense of the actual presence of the divine, though, when accepted as such, it can infuse a new quality of life into all our practice, is in itself something transcending the merely moral. The furthest that moral practice, and philosophical theory based on reflection upon practice, will take us is to the inferential conclusion which Kant reaches, that if moral obligation is more than a mere generous illusion or bellum somnium, the uncreated good must be a reality too. But to draw this conclusion as a philosophical inference is not the same thing as to live in the conscious presence of the divine as given. Morality, at its best, and the “practice of the presence of God” are two and not one; it is because they are two, not one, that the Kantian moral autonomy, obedience to a self–imposed law of conduct, is not the same thing as what our fathers called “Gospel liberty,” but only a second–best. So long as we are living only at the level of Kantian autonomy, we have not really anchored our life on the “Rock of Ages,” and it is a consequence of this that the note of joy, so characteristic of religion, is so entirely absent from Kant’s philosophy of life. Once more, we must say that the direct vision which gives a great religion its supreme and unique value is not an affair of commands and precepts, a vision of what we ought to do, but a vision of what that from which we come, and to which we return, actually is, and what it is doing and will do, in and for us. The regenerating moral effect of our religion on our conduct is most genuine and profound when the direct object of our attention is not the self and its tasks, but God; and, for this reason, the supremely important thing in any religion is its “revelation” of God. Either we must deny that religion has any relation but one of accidental conjunction with moral practice, or, if the facts of life and history are too strong for us, we must, as it seems to me, frankly admit, for all the great religions which have really elevated humanity, the presence of a genuine element of direct self–disclosure of the divine, and so of “revelation,” immediately given knowledge of God.
If so much is conceded, we may attempt an answer to the argument which maintains that there can be no finality about revelation because its content must be conditioned by the antecedents of the recipients; that there can be no “truth for all time,” just because every truth, to be true at all, must be a truth for its own particular time. In a sense, I grant, the fact is so, and has to be frankly admitted. It is true that, as the schoolman’s phrase ran, quidquid recipitur, recipitur ad modum recipientis, or, in more familiar words, “not all can receive this saying, but those to whom it is given.” And this is a principle with an applicability not confined to the domain of religion and theology. Art, science, philosophy, to be significant at all, must speak the language of a particular community and a particular age. There is no work of art which is neither a work of Greek art, nor of Flemish, nor of Japanese, nor of Italian, nor of any other age or place, but just a work of art überhaupt. A great tragedy, like Agamemnon, or Othello, is not simply a tragedy; it is a tragedy instinct with the spirit of a definite people, the Attic or the English, and a definite age, the age of Cimon, or the age of Elizabeth and James, and we do not properly understand the tragedy until we can recreate in ourselves something of the spirit of the place and the time to which it belongs. Othello, a characteristic product of the London of the reign of James I., is necessarily more or less of a sealed book to any man who can only feel and think like a man, perhaps not even like a Londoner, of our day. Even a great philosophy is always, in some sense, the product of its place and age, and is never fully understood, if it has to be studied in isolation from the whole concrete life of the society to which it belongs. If one has spent years in trying to understand a great thinker, such as Plato, and to help others to understand him, one knows well from one’s own experience how dependent one is for success on the double process of purgation and enrichment of one’s own mind. One has constantly to be resolute to forget so much that one knows, or supposes one’s self to know, about the world, because it was unthought of in the Athens of Socrates and Plato; on the other side, one must constantly be awake to the possibility that ignorance of apparently irrelevant facts about the life of their age may have the gravest consequences for one’s work of interpretation.19 And the double process is one which can never be brought to completion. After years of purgation by the resolute effort to think historically, one can never be certain that one’s interpretations are not still vitiated by undetected elements of the unhistorical; again, our documentation is so imperfect that, when every extant scrap of historical and antiquarian evidence has been utilised, our knowledge of a long–vanished age is bound to be schematic, abstract, and full of ugly gaps, and we can never be confident that the filling up of the gaps, the clothing of the skeleton with flesh, might not gravely affect our understanding of the thought of the age.
It is true everywhere that the determinable is never found actually existing, except as modified by specific determinants. Truth, to be spoken to any age, must be spoken in the age’s own dialect, and the dialect of different ages is never quite the same. Nor could we escape the problem by reducing it to one of mere verbal expression, as is done by those who have said, for example, that the “language of the Christian creeds is Greek, but their meaning universal.” Meaning and its expression are not related as my body and my clothes, but rather as my body and its skin. I may disguise myself in garments of a score of different fashions, retaining the same body unchanged; to be fitted to a different skin, I should need to have a differently built body. So the transference of knowledge or thought from one society to another is no mere affair of adaptation to a new vocabulary; it is a matter of adaptation to a different set of habits of mind.
If all this has to be admitted, as it surely must be, it should be plain that it applies just as much to thought which may have originated in a specific disclosure of the divine as to any other thought. We have this treasure in earthen vessels, and the excellence of the wine makes no difference to the fact that the vessels are earthen, and that many of them may be earth of very common quality, not superfine porcelain clay. Yet, when the fullest allowance has been made for such considerations, the question still remains with us whether, because every truth communicable to man must be a truth for its own time, every truth must also be one only for its own time. The conclusion is congenial to a certain type of philosophy, not unfashionable in some quarters, the philosophy of pure becoming or sheer impermanence. It is fashionable to–day in these quarters to say that “nothing is, everything becomes,” just as it was fashionable to say the same kind of thing in the Athens of Socrates. The favourite modern way of saying it is, as we should expect, epistemological rather than ontological. Truth, we are told, is itself a mental fashion, and fashions are proverbially changeful. A philosophy, a theology, a scientific doctrine, must perish, and rightly so, by mere lapse of time, not because the answers it gives to its problems have been found to be false, but because, with the change in intellectual fashions, the problems themselves have lost their significance. No truth can be the “truth of God,” valid for all time and all places, for the same reason that no costume can be the wear for all mankind, always and everywhere. This way of thinking has more than one name, and shows itself in more than one quarter. It may appear now as “pragmatism,” now as “humanism,” now, perhaps, as the filosofia dello spirito, but all these would seem to be variations on one theme, the doctrine that permanence is an illusion. Without us, there is no law in nature; within, there are no fixed principles of truth; without or within, there is nothing but “motions,” the more slowly or more rapidly passing whims of la mode. In the language of the Hera–clitean aphorism so often quoted by Nietzsche, “Time is a child playing draughts; the kingdom is a child’s”.20
When we try to meet and counter theories of universal impermanence with special reference to what concerns us most for our present purpose, their epistemological side, our most natural first thought is to look for some definite isolated body of truths which may plausibly be said to be truths for all time, because they are manifestly not clothed in a linguistic garb peculiar to any one time, and consequently do permit of transcription from any one idiom into any other without loss or increment of significance. Then we inevitably tend to think, with Plato, Descartes, and Spinoza, of the system of the propositions of pure mathematics as the great outstanding example establishing the existence of truth which is permanent, just because it is truth at the extreme limit of depersonalisation. We to–day, were we arguing for mere persuasive effect, might make an impressive point by simply exhibiting the three massive volumes of a work like the Principia Mathematica of Whitehead and Russell, where the “timeless validity” of the body of pure mathematical propositions seems to have been demonstrated in act by the rendering of them all into a stereotyped language which has never been, and never will be, the living idiom of anyone anywhere, but, in compensation, can be equally apprehended by individuals of the most various idioms. The mere fact that the propositions of mathematics have been so successfully translated into a language which, being still–born, cannot grow or change might seem to have met the epistemologists of impermanence as Diogenes is fabled to have met the deniers of motion. But such a defence would be inadequate to our purpose, for a double reason.
For one thing, even in Principia Mathematica, the stereotyping of thought is not, and could not have been, complete. There are intrinsic limits to the capabilities of a “universal symbolism.” Its not innumerous symbols for primary “indefinables” have to be accurately apprehended before their combinations can be understood, and thus presuppose preliminary explanation in an idiom which is not dead and impersonal, but personal and living. Here is, at the outset, an opening for what may prove to be serious misunderstandings. And again, in every such symbolic system, there must be some supreme principle or principles, governing all its inferences, and these obviously cannot be expressed in the symbolism itself. Thus, every symbolically expressed demonstration in Principia Mathematica depends on the principle that “what is implied by true premisses” is itself true,” but neither this proposition nor the meaning of the terms “implication” and “truth” can be expressed in the symbolism of the authors, or any other.21 Explanations on such points have to be given in ordinary language, and this makes it possible that the explanations may, from the first, have been confused or ambiguous, and again that they may cease to convey the sense intended, as the words employed shift their meaning “in use.” Thus, the most rigorous system of symbolically expressed mathematical truths would not wholly escape the criticism of a resolute denier of permanence.
It is a more important consideration, for our purposes, that even if it were possible to put the whole body of pure mathematics, including the primitive indefinables and primary principles of inference, into a stereotyped symbolism, as a guarantee against change of significance, all we should have achieved by this would be the construction of a purely abstract and formal pattern, inadequate to the description of the simplest piece of concrete fact. The “world” with which the physicist professionally concerns himself is a sufficiently poverty–stricken abstract from the world of individual events and purposes in which we all, including the physicist, have to live as men and women, but even the physicist’s “world” itself defies all attempts to build it up out of mathematical formulae. Even in physics, the formulae function as describing the structure of an elusive something which slips through their meshes; a fact, however empty of content we try to make it, is not to be manufactured out of formulae, there is an haecceitas about it which is proof against our analyses. It is this fact, and there can be no “symbol” for this.
If, then, we are looking for examples of permanent truths, with an interest for life which persists through all the ages, it is not to pure mathematics, with its formulae from which the vitality has been carefully drained, that we should turn. We may perhaps derive a more helpful suggestion from consideration of the analogous case of the works of art and imagination which are found to retain abundant life and significance for generation after generation. We could all name some of the great outstanding works, in literature and the arts, which most successfully defy all vicissitudes of time, all differences in customs, manners, morals, institutions, to make them antiquated. Now a curious thing about these works which are never “out of date” is that the fact of their universal appeal to the human mind, in all times and places, seems to be connected with the other fact that they are so deeply rooted in the life of the society from which they spring. They seem to be “for all time,” not though, but because, they are so very definitely of their own time. The creations of genius which remain perfect after the lapse of centuries, and the rise and fall of commonwealths, are not works which reflect the life and thought of no particular age or place, and might, so far as can be seen, have been equally well produced almost anywhere, or at any time, but those which are so full of a rich and complex life that they could only have come to birth in the soil from which they did, in fact, spring.
The play of Hamlet may serve as an example. In a way, Hamlet is a specimen of a kind of composition which has made its appearance at more than one period in the history of European imaginative literature, the tragedy of revenge.22 Tragedies of revenge may be, and I suppose have been, composed in most societies which have any drama at all. But what makes Hamlet unlike most other works of the type, a perennial delight, what gives it its interest for men whose intellectual and moral convictions may be very different indeed from those of the English of the year A.D. 1600, is precisely its saturation with the qualities which stamp it as the product of the whole social life of a particular community, acting as a stimulus to an individual man of genius. A tragedy of revenge, of some sort, might be composed by almost anyone in Europe at any time. Hamlet could only have been the work of an Elizabethan Englishman, and only of just the one Elizabethan Englishman who did, in fact, write Hamlet. (If any of you doubt this last statement, I recommend a careful perusal of the other contemporary dramas of the same type.) The paradox is that it is just this which gives the play what is called, in the hackneyed journalistic phrase, its “universal human appeal” to a world in which only a few students have ever heard of the Spanish Tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, Titus Andronicus, The Revenger’s Tragedy, or Women beware Women. And we must note that this does not mean that Hamlet, or any other work of the same immortality, has, for mankind at large, an interest which is primarily historical or antiquarian. Hamlet is saturated with the spirit of Elizabethan England, but the reason why it retains its hold on us is not that it gratifies our natural historical curiosity to observe the obsolete and unfamiliar outlook of Englishmen of a remarkable age, now some ten generations behind us, on the world and life. This is very largely why the minority of students find some of the other contemporary tragedies of revenge which we have just mentioned interesting. But Hamlet “grips” us of to–day, and not only those of us who are English by birth or education, because it is full of an attitude towards life and its problems which we still feel to be our attitude. The often–lauded universality of Shakespeare does not mean that in his vision of life he misses out what is characteristic of his own people and his own time; it means that his vision penetrates to the depths.
What is true of the great poet’s vision is, I should say, equally true of the thought of the great philosopher contemplating life concretely. I meet in my reading the repeated allegation that the great constructive philosophies of antiquity, or of the Middle Ages, have lost their value for us, not by being refuted and shown to be false, but by a change in the temper and spirit of the age, which has made the problems of the past and the solutions given them equally unmeaning. I doubt whether even the able writers who say this kind of thing most glibly really feel altogether as they profess to feel, at least when they are actually opening their minds to the influence of the great teachers of the past. If they do, how comes it that they can still be aware of the greatness of that which, according to their professions, no longer means anything to them? For my own part, when I try to enter, for example, into the thought of Plato, I know well enough that there are nuances which must be lost on me, because I am unavoidably ignorant of so much of the mental life of the Athens of the fourth century before Christ. But I do not find that I am in an intellectual fog where I have lost my bearings, as I might be if I could listen to the conversation of a group of “Martians.” The great problems man’s life suggests to Plato seem to be recognisably the same with which our own society still has to reckon; the precise form in which they are stated may often not be that which would occur most readily to ourselves, but, after all, we can translate the Platonic problem significantly into terms of our own intellectual currency. If at times we feel that the rendering cannot be made a perfect equivalent, that is no more than the common difficulty which besets us whenever we try to turn a page of French, or German, or Italian into English. It does not mean that the understanding of Plato’s thought is in any way analogous with the attempt to decipher an inscription in a tongue which has vanished and left no traces behind it. There is no ancient philosophy which is undecipherable in the same sense as the picture–writing of Easter Island.
It should be clear, then, that the mere fact that any truth less abstract and superficial than the propositions of pure mathematics must be the truth of a specific age need not mean that such a truth must be the nonsense or falsehood of other ages. Those who think thus seem to forget that, after all, our precursors, ourselves, and our distant successors—if we leave any—in the course of history are alike in being men: we all have the same ground–pattern, are all variations on one theme. A philosophy which ignores the reality of “universal human nature” as at least an universale In re is a philosophy which does not look “under the skin.” If these considerations apply to all human thought, they apply, of course, independently of any question of the historical origination of the thought. Thus, the fact that whatever is “received” is received only “after the measure of the recipient” is not in itself a valid objection against the reality of revelations made through specific channels and at specific times. Unless it is nonsense to speak of any utterance of man to man as having abiding significance, there is no reason why utterances prompted by such self–disclosures should not possess that abiding significance and, in that sense, be final.
But we shall also do well to remember certain things which advocates of the claims of a particular historical “revelation” to finality are sometimes inclined to forget. We have to remember that the conditioning of the disclosures received by the limitations of the recipient must be twofold. If we may judge by the historical records about those who have claimed to be recipients of such illuminations, the thing revealed is nearly always descried dimly and with much confusion; it can never be expressed in speech in a way which is wholly adequate. This is no peculiarity of the revelations of the world–religions; it is true of all that any man feels to be at once supremely significant and eminently personal to himself. Our deepest thoughts, as Shelley said to Trelawny, are “unintelligible even to ourselves”; they are what a greater than Shelley has called “thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.” Even in Christianity, which asserts a relation of unique intimacy between the human mind of its Founder and the mind of God—“the Son knoweth whatsoever the Father doeth”—this problem is not absent, as may be seen by the way in which Christian theologians have been exercised by the question of the human knowledge of Christ and its limitations.23 Curiously enough, the philosophical theologian who has gone nearest towards denying the existence of this problem in the case of Christ is one who stood all his life outside the Christian community. “To Moses,” says Spinoza, “God spoke face to face, but to Christ He spoke mind to mind.”24 That may be so, but it is surely equally clear that, even to Christ, God did not speak by the communication of the only thing which deserves the name of adequate knowledge on Spinoza’s principles, an exactly articulated system of propositions about the relations of “clear and distinct ideas.” No one, orthodox or unorthodox, I conceive, will maintain that Our Lord was either speculative metaphysician or speculative theologian. His revelation of the Father was not a speculative system, it was the whole of his own concrete personality and life; and such propositions as are ascribed to him are expressions, wholly unsystematic, and mostly, as von Hügel has somewhere said, “exoteric,” of an immediate perception.
And, apart from this, a revelation on which a religion is to be built is not a perception to be kept to the immediate recipient; it has to be imparted to the community. Even if it has been received by the immediate recipient, “mind to mind,” as Spinoza phrases it, it has to be conveyed to others in the language they understand, and thus adapted to their limitations, and this creates a second problem. If the conservative Christian theologian, for example, is unwilling to admit that Our Lord himself had, in his conception of past history, his expectations for the future, his outlook on the world of nature, in many respects the mind of a Galilean of his century, the only alternative is to assume that, in communicating his teaching to his disciples, whose limitations no one denies, the Lord must have translated what, as conceived in his own mind, was simple Wahrheit into a Wahrheit sufficiently leavened with Dichtung to be appreciated by them and fruitful in them. If he did not himself expect to reappear in the immediate future in the clouds before the eyes of his enemies, at least he must have used language which the first generation of his followers could only understand in that sense, or the New Testament would not be permeated, as it is, by the conviction of the imminent nearness of the Lord’s return and the “end of history.” The reality of a revelation, however assured, cannot dispense from the duty of repeated scrutiny and careful distinction between that in it which is the permanent substance and that which belongs not to the substance, but to its adaptation to the measure of the recipients; and this should make the theologian more scrupulous than he has frequently been to avoid the assumption that the separation has already been accomplished, and that what he has now on his hands is pure and unmixed “substance of faith”.
Yet, on the other side, it is unjustified dogmatism to assume that because we cannot be certain that what we have left after our winnowing is pure and unmixed substance, there is really no substance at all. This is that “emptying out of the child with the bath” of which the proverb warns us. What is substance, I take it, we only learn in what might fairly be called an empirical way. A priori we are hardly entitled to say more than this. A religion is true religion just in so far as it achieves the purpose, on which we dwelt so long in our former series, of thoroughly remoulding the self, so as to make God, the supernatural good, and eternity the very centre of a man’s thought and will. Whatever, in the life and practice of an actual religious community, is an obstacle to this inward renewing of life is plainly incompatible with true religion, and whatever, in the alleged revelation possessed by the community, encourages and perpetuates the obstacle cannot be of the substance of revelation. But also, what cannot be dismissed without impoverishing spiritual life, and hindering the remaking of the self into eternity at its source, clearly is of the substance. If we would judge how the test is to be applied, I do not see that we have any sure course but to study the types of life and character actually promoted by given affirmations and denials. If we find that a high level of the right kind of spirituality and other–worldliness is regularly attained in dependence on certain convictions which have their origin in acceptance of a given “revelation,” but regularly missed when these convictions are ignored or denied, we shall, if we are prudent, be very slow to treat these particular affirmations as temporary and unessential; we shall feel fairly persuaded that they at least contain something which is sterling substance, and that they must not be met by bare denials. It may be that the affirmation is not thus proved to be all substance without alloy; the future may yet show that there may be qualifications of the affirmation which can coexist with, or even be favourable to, the richest spirituality. But the test, if it has been fairly applied, may, for all this, entirely dispose of an unqualified denial.
We may consider a simple illustration of this point. We probably all remember Kant’s violent opposition to prayer, an opposition directly due to his determination to see nothing sui generis in the religious, as distinguished from the moral, life. A man, being autonomous, ought, Kant holds, to do his duty in his own strength by the unaided exercise of the morally good will; to pray for “grace” to live aright is therefore no better than unethical superstition,25 if the prayer is more than the expression of a hope that we may persevere in our virtuous resolution. We know, too, how widely even anti–materialistic philosophers in the second half of the nineteenth century were infected by the coarse deterministic prejudice that prayer, if it means anything more than meditation, is an absurdity, because to pray implies the belief that the “laws of the physical world” can be modified or suspended by the will of God. One might debate the Pelagianism of Kant’s argument, or discuss the ambiguity and arbitrariness of the “determinist” scheme to the end of time and “find no end, in wand’ring mazes lost,” so far as any decisive theoretical result is concerned. In practice the question whether prayerless life is not also wholly worldly life admits of a much readier solution. It is not to dialectic we need to turn to discover that a prayerless good will, reliant on its own strength, does not remain permanently at any high level of inward goodness, or that, even in respect of the “external good things” of life, a man’s moral always suffers, if his theories forbid him to ask for the provision for his needs, and to give thanks when he receives it. There are many methods of prayer, not all equally compatible with a true spirituality, but it should be plain from experience of “fruits” that, whatever elements of superstition may disfigure the practice of some forms of prayer, a philosophy of religion which has no place at all for “prayer and supplication” is a false philosophy.
Some suspicion of this may be detected in the language of philosophers who, after proscribing prayer proper, concede that “meditation,” at any rate, may be a real need of the religious life. The pity of it is that those who speak thus too often abstain from specifying the object of the meditation they are willing to permit. Whether meditation is to do us good or harm must surely depend on the nature of that on which we meditate. It will not be all one to our characters whether the object of our habitual meditation is a Father who knows how to give good things to those that ask him, or a Stoic εἱμαρμένη, or a purely non–moral “law of necessity.” Spinoza, to be sure, fancied that by meditation on the “absolute necessity” of all events we might be led to the summa mentis acquiescentia of the saint.26 In actual life, if the meditator has not, like Spinoza, a predisposition to saintliness, such “morose contemplation” is more likely, I take it, to lead to the defiant vapourings of Mr. Russell’s “free man,”27 or W. E. Henley’s brags against the “bludgeonings of Fate,” and oftener still to something even worse than vapouring or bluster, that listless apathy which the Middle Ages reckoned a deadly sin, and called by the name of acedia. Even meditation on my own autonomy as giver of the moral law to myself is more likely to end in a Stoic self–idolatry than in anything noble, and meditation on the Absolute of the more optimistically coloured nature–pantheisms in spiritual voluptuousness. The meditation which can be counted on as a source of strength and sweetness of spirit is meditation on a God to whom one can and must spontaneously pray. Clough, for example, in a well–known stanza, seems to be explicitly surrendering prayer; yet the attitude of his “prayerless heart” to the object of its meditations can be described in such words as these:
Man’s inmost soul, before Thee inly brought,
Thy presence owns, ineffable, divine;
Chastised each rebel self–encentred thought,
My will adoreth Thine.28
That is a meditation on the living God which is itself already a prayer.
We have still to consider the allegation that revelation, the direct disclosure of the divine, is in principle either impossible, or at least superfluous, since a revelation, even if possible, must coincide in its content with what we can independently discover about God by the “natural light.” The allegation of impossibility may be very lightly dismissed, as the mere prejudice of a mind which has not learned to think historically. An unhistorical age is usually sceptical, at once and for the same reason, of revelation and of genius in its various manifestations. For like revelation, genius, whether it be that of the poet, the dramatist, the musician, the painter, the mathematician, the mechanician, is always a disturbing factor in things for the type of mind which finds its satisfaction in clarity, definition and the conscious orderly arrangement of thoughts, rather than in their depth and “grip” on reality. For it is notorious that the genius, like the poets examined by Socrates, cannot, as a rule, tell anyone whence his “inspirations” come, nor analyse their content, or reduce it to a neat and transparent structural pattern. His insights come to him, as perceptions come, direct, with the appearance of being unsought disclosures of a reality given to him, not constructed by himself; they impose themselves, violently and intrusively, as “impressions of sense” do, and again, as with “impressions of sense” there is a wealth of confused concreteness about them which resists analysis. This rich, but confused and intrusive content is offensive to all the intellectual habits of an age of “enlightenment” and “good sense,” which, accordingly, tends to deny the fact of genius, just as it tends to deny the fact of revelation. As such an age is prone to reduce the claimant to revelation to the status of a conscious moral and social reformer, who conceals his purpose under a cloud of mystifications and pretences, with a view to impressing the imagination of the “vulgar,” so it reduces the great poet to the status of a craftsman deftly insinuating moral and political “lessons” by artificial “fiction” and allegory. As it sees in the prophet only the reformer, so it sees in the poet only the teacher.29 Both are supposed to make, in their own minds, a clear distinction between the matter they are presenting and the adventitious and artificial form in which they clothe it, and the form is regarded as a mere instrument, deliberately adopted for the conveyance of the matter. It is not, I think, a mere accident that it is also characteristic of the philosophy of such ages of “good sense” to lay great stress on the “subjectivity” of sensible qualities, to treat the inexhaustible wealth of colour, tone, fragrance, and the like, as merely superposed by “the mind” on a reality consisting only of fully analysed and articulated interconnections between monotonously simple elements, and then, finally, to suspect these very elements, just because they have been so denuded of everything obviously intrusive and qualitatively given, of being themselves “mental fictions.” In the process of being divested of its mystery and refractoriness, reality is, in fact, evaporated.
Now, as regards both the sensible world and the world of art, this whole mental attitude may, I trust, be considered hopelessly discredited. I do not think we are likely to hear much more from the really competent of the mere illusoriness and “subjectivity” of the amazing wealth disclosed to us by the senses. As Mr. Meyerson somewhere puts it, the working physicist is at heart an obstinate realist, convinced that he is confronted in his work with a world which he does not make out of nothing by some process of mental synthesis, but finds given to him. If he could ever succeed in analysing the course of events without remainder into an elaborate logical construction, transparent to the intellect, he would instinctively feel that its reality had slipped through his fingers; the real, to him, is that which defies such complete analysis. (This explains why a coherent thinker like Dr. Whitehead will hear nothing of the “subjectivity” of the sensible. “Qualities” were pronounced to be “subjective,” precisely because they are ultimates for analysis: that is, because they have just the character which should be proof of their reality.)
Again, with all its crudities, the age of romanticism has at least taught us that the genius of poet and artist is something wholly different from deft artifice; it is something which controls the artist, and is not controlled by him.30 Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, are something very much more intriguing than men coolly devising a “fable” as a convenient vehicle for the conveyance of instruction. All of them, presumably, do this kind of thing incidentally, as we all do, but it is not the doing of it that stamps them as supreme poets. The Iliad, the Divine Comedy, King Lear, full as they may be of conscious artifice, are in kind very different from the frigid allegories of an Addison. Each has its source in a direct and eminently intrusive vision of a life which is overpoweringly real and inexhaustibly complex, and full of surprises—something disclosed to the poet, not fashioned by him, nor completely understood by him.31 The form of his work is not simply selected as a well–chosen device for expounding a matter alien to itself, which might, but for assignable reasons, have been conveyed by a different vehicle; the matter itself dictates the form. The hard and fast distinction between end and means, effect and instrument, a distinction in fact borrowed from the realm of industry, if taken over–seriously, is as pernicious in the theory of art as it is in the theory of morals.
All this, to be sure, is commonplace by now, but I have a motive for reminding you of the locus communis. It is not in the region of religion only that we meet with the startling and apparently unaccountable, sudden self–disclosure to particular persons and at special times on the part of a reality which does not equally obtrude itself on the notice of all men everywhere and always; we meet it wherever we have to recognise the presence of that which has been called genius. Genius is not, as it has been called, infinite capacity for taking pains; that would rather be a definition of superb and conscious craftsmanship. But we might say, perhaps, that genius is capacity for being arrested by and sensitively responsive to characters of reality which elude the average man’s notice; that it is rare and unique receptiveness. We might then add that, apart from supernatural revelation, which has God for its object, there is natural revelation, and that the men of genius are its depositaries. Indeed, I should like to go further, and say that, below the level of disclosure we call genius, sense itself is a kind of natural revelation. Even the man who, without any title to be considered a genius, has an exceptionally fine sensibility to delicate variations of tint and tone which the rest of us allow to pass unnoticed, might be said to be the recipient of a revelation of real riches,32 which only reaches us through him, so far as we learn, under his tuition and by starting from an act of faith in his utterances, to see with his eyes and hear with his ears. It is a familiar fact that this can be done; we can actually learn from the work of a great painter, interpreted by a true critic, to see the visible world itself with new eyes. But the lesson is never learned without a meek docility. The work of painter and artist will be thrown away on us, if we persist in the prejudice that what we cannot see for ourselves, “with our own pair of eyes,” is not there to be seen, and so must be an illusion superadded to the given and real. What is real, in the realm of colour is what is given, but it is not given to all in the same measure and with the same immediacy.
We may say the same thing of the vision of human life which inspires the great poet. He does not embroider the reality of life with trappings of pure illusion, or, if he does so, he is falling below the level of his own genius. What he sees is there to be seen, though the rest of us must go to school to him, if we are to learn to see it; this is why poetry could be called a “criticism of life”.
If then, the very world of nature and everyday human life would largely be closed to us, but for our readiness to trust disclosures which come, in the first instance, to the exceptional few, it is unreasonable to deny the probability that the same thing may hold true of God, the transcendent reality. We should rather expect that the analogy would hold good here also; that there would be exceptional persons to whom this reality, too, is immediately disclosed in a special manner, and that here, as elsewhere, the best of what is to be discerned will be lost on us, if we refuse to learn to see through their eyes. So much, indeed, is actually admitted when it is proposed, as it often is proposed, to recognise the reality of what is called “religious genius.” Unfortunately, there is a widely diffused notion that we somehow get rid of the recognition of revelation, actual self–disclosure on the part of a real divine, by using this phraseology. It is fancied that the “religious genius” somehow creates the content of what he himself regards as the “revelation”; it is magnificent, but we must not suppose that it has “objective validity,” or is strictly entitled to be called truth. As against all such loose ways of thinking and speaking, we need to be clear that to speak of “religious genius” is not to explain a fact, but merely to give the fact a new label. To explain revelation by calling it genius is merely to explain one mystery by another. And if we have been right in maintaining that genius, in its various forms, is special receptiveness, and its so–called “intuitions,” as the very name implies, apprehensions of a reality actually there and given, we have not done even so much as to replace one mystery by another by introducing “genius” into the argument. We have only admitted the fact that there are special apprehensions of a self–disclosing God, which are not bestowed equally on all of us. We have admitted not only the possibility, but the actuality of revelation, however we may please to boggle at that old–fashioned name for the fact.
These same considerations should dispose of the contention that, at any rate, revelation, if actual, can only disclose, a little sooner in point of time, what might be made out sufficiently without it by patient unaided “natural reason,” and is therefore superfluous, though convenient. One might as well say, in the same fashion, that by my own account of genius, the great painter or poet only sees in nature or human life what is there to be seen, and that the rest of us, in time, learn to see from him. After all, then, the painter or poet only sees what, in a sense, the rest of us may come to see for ourselves, “with our own eyes.” Is the painter, or the poet, then, not also a superfluity?
We all know well enough the answer to such a suggestion. What we come to see with our own eyes, by learning the lesson of poet or painter, we only come to see because we have first, as we say, learned from him to look through his eyes. If he had not seen first, and seen distinctly, we should not have learned to see at all. And, besides this, if the artist who teaches us is a sufficiently great artist, the time never comes when we say: “I have now learned to read nature, or life, from him so thoroughly that he has no more to teach me about them. Henceforth, I can dispense with his hitherto valuable, indeed indispensable, help, and look at the object unaided.” When does any of us reach the stage at which he has learned all that Dante, or Shakespeare, can tell him about human nature, or all that is to be learned from the great painters about the natural world as a kingdom of colour? It comes—never. It is not merely that while we are beginning to know human nature, Shakespeare’s vision of it may guide us, and his knowledge furnish us with “opinions” which will be a temporary surrogate for first–hand knowledge of our own. To the end, for any man who is not a second and greater Shakespeare, there will be truths about human nature which he has not verified by his own personal vision, and knows, if he knows them at all, by trusting to Shakespeare’s vision where his own fails him.
“He is most natural,” says Sir W. Raleigh of Shakespeare, “when he upsets all rational forecasts. We are accustomed to anticipate how others will behave in the matters that most nearly concern us; we seem to know what we shall say to them, and to be able to forecast what they will say in answer. We are accustomed, too, to find that our anticipation is wrong; what really happened gives the lie to the little stilted drama that we imagined, and we recognise at once how poor and false our fancy was, how much truer and more surprising the thing that happens is than the thing we invented. So it is with Shakespeare. His surprises have the same convincing quality. … We are watching the events of real life; from our hidden vantage–ground we see into the mystery of things, as if we were God’s spies.”33 This is finely said, and as truly as finely. But in principle it applies as much to revelation of the divine as to the revelation of human nature, and may supply a justification to the theologian for his belief in the possibility of “truths of revelation” about God, transcending the range of “natural reason”.
God, as all who believe in Him acknowledge, must have a being infinitely richer than our own. If there is so much about human nature which would be dark to us but for the intuitions of Shakespeare and his fellows, there must be much more that is true of God which would be completely hidden but for the flashes of intense and direct insight which are granted to a privileged few. Here, too, when the recipient of the disclosure has conveyed it to us, we may recognise its “convincing quality,” may discover “how poor and false our fancy was, how much truer34 and more surprising” the reality than “the thing we had invented.” The relation between a knowledge of God through a genuine revelation and “natural” knowledge of God, such as we may reach by analysis of the presuppositions of the moral or physical order, has an analogical counterpart in the relation between truth about human nature disclosed to us by the “intuitions” of a Shakespeare and truth about human nature reached by our own reflections on our everyday experience. If we found that Shakespeare’s “surprises” were in contradiction with what we know for ourselves about human motive and purpose, we should not pronounce them “convincing,” or turn to Shakespeare for insight. This is exactly what we do find about the “surprises” of too many dramatists,35. and we reject their claims to be “true to nature” in consequence. So if we find that God, as pourtrayed in what claims to be a revelation, has a character flatly contradicting that which “natural reason” is forced to ascribe to the author of physical and moral order, we may safely pronounce that we are dealing with a product of misguided imagination, not with the self–disclosure of the transcendent reality. It is because we find Shakespeare’s “surprises” at once so surprising, and yet so true to the human nature of which we independently know something, that we accept them, even when they surprise us most utterly, as divinations into a reality, not as fanciful distortions of it. In the same way, if there is a doctrine of God, claiming to rest upon genuine revelation, which provides us with surprises, but surprises recognisable après coup, though not antecedently, as inevitable, as of one piece with, though not discoverable from, that which a strictly natural theology can tell us of the divine character, there should be no rational objection against the acceptance of such a doctrine as a further and fuller disclosure of the divine nature, and the recognition of divine self–manifestation as its source.
In historical fact, apologists for the several revelational religions have made an unnecessary complication for themselves, and weakened the defence of revelation as a source of knowledge about God, by yielding too much to the polemical desire of representing their own religion as the only one possessing such knowledge, and its rivals as mere pretenders to a wholly unreal revelation. Thus the apologist for one particular historical religion provides the rejector of all with an argument, by using against his rivals weapons it is easy to turn upon himself. But it is not really necessary to defend the reality of revelation as a source of truth in one historical religion by refusing to admit its presence in every other. Since the historical religions do not simply contradict, but also, on many points, confirm one another, it is more natural, as well as more charitable, to recognise that they cannot be summarily dichotomised into one true religion and several false, but that truth, in different measures may be found in all of them. Since this is so, there is no sufficient reason to deny the presence, again in different degrees, of a genuine revelational element in them all. Thus, for example, since Christianity and Mohammedanism are in conflict on fundamental points, if one of them is the truth, the other cannot be. But this does not justify a Christian controversialist in simply dismissing Mohammed as the “false prophet,” and his religion as an “imposture.” That religion, like Christianity, testifies emphatically to the divine unity, and the reality of providence. I can see no sufficient ground for assuming that we have not here an element of Mohammedanism which came as a direct disclosure of the divine to the Arabian prophet, though, from the Christian point of view, it would be important to distinguish carefully between, for example, the truth of the divine unity and distortions of the conception of God in Islam by reckless and one–sided insistence on unity. The real antithesis is not between one religion which is true and a plurality of others which are simply false, but between a religion—if there is one—which is the whole truth, ad modum recipientis, about man’s relations with God, and others which are partial and infected with error, because they do not, in the poet’s phrase, look at the Lord “all at once”.36 From this point of view, while it would be possible to find an element of the revelational in all the great religions, it would remain an open question for speculation whether or not any of them is the true religion, the final self–disclosure of God to man. It would be conceivable that there are only more or less imperfect religions, but not a true and final religion; but it would be equally conceivable that there should be, or actually is, an historical religion which is also final, and can properly be called the true religion, because it integrates harmoniously, in one fuller and deeper vision of God, the different “broken lights” of the others, thus incorporating the truths of all, without the one–sidedness of any.
Whether any actual religion can advance this claim is not a question for this place. If it is made, it requires, or so it seems to me, to be substantiated by the successful application of a double test. No religion under which a genuine spiritual life has flourished can be simply false, and the religion which would establish its claim to be the one true faith must therefore stand the test of, showing that it actually provides full recognition for all the elements of abiding truth in all the others, and does so by integrating their various insights into a real unity. It must also stand the test of being able to sustain the spiritual life of men as men, irrespective of circumscribing conditions of time, locality, race, or manners. A religion cannot be the true religion if, for example, it can become part and parcel of the life of the European and American West, but cannot truly naturalise itself elsewhere, and so remains something exotic for the Jew, the Hindu, the Chinese, or the Arab. The visible and outward sign of the true religion would be its success as a universal missionary religion, not in the superficial sense of ability to make proselytes all over the world at the cost of denationalising them, and on the condition that they are dependent for their life as a community on control, supervision, and stimulation from outside, but in the sense of power to make itself, in its entirety without mutilation, deformation, or contamination, part and parcel of a life which is not a borrowed one. Such a test of the claims of Mohammedanism would be, for example, its ability to produce British or French Moslems who remained British or French to the core; of the claims of Christianity, its power to produce Indian or Chinese Christians who should be not, as too many “converts” have been, inferior imitations of Europeans, but at once Christians, and Indians or Chinese, as the case may be, “in their bones”.
These last remarks are by the way, and merely “illustrative.” But they may conceivably serve to suggest the right way of dealing with a real difficulty. How can the mind hold together two lines of thought apparently antithetic and yet both necessary to any genuine belief in revelation? A revelation with God as its source clearly must be, in some quite real sense, “final,” and yet theology, the systematised intellectual elaboration of the content of revelation, never is final, but always in fieri. If we feel any doubt of the fact, we may readily allay the doubt by studying the history of the theology with which we are ourselves most familiar, Christliche Dogmengeschichte. Every considerable Christian society has sincerely professed to regard its Christianity as something in a real sense given once and for all, a “deposit” to be transmitted unchanged down the generations. The controversy between the most unyielding of the conservative–orthodox and the most venturesome of modernists has never really been as to the existence of an unchanging “substance of the faith,” but always as to its content. The modernist, admitting that there is such a “deposit,” merely adds that his conservative opponent confuses that priceless deposit with accretions which have grown up round it and disfigure it. And yet, it may fairly be urged, does not history seem to show that every affirmation which has been regarded as part of the “deposit” has repeatedly changed its meaning? Is it so certain, for example, that the same Trinitarian formula really bears the same meaning in Boethius and in St. Thomas? The doctrine of “original sin” is regarded as indispensable to Christianity by St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and Kant; but do not these three eminent men mean three different things by the formula which all of them employ? It might be said, with a considerable show of justification, that the more resolutely a religious society tries to live up to the motto semper eadem, the more impossible it finds the task, unless it is prepared to translate the Latin audaciously into a living vernacular as eppur si muove. The “Liberal Protestant” of 1927 would, no doubt, have been disowned as a mere “deist” by the “Liberal Protestants” of 1727, as our friends in the Roman fold like to remind us; but may we not equally suspect that an “orthodox” Roman of our own time, a Leo XIII., for example, would have found it hard to talk theology with the Angelic Doctor, without discovering that, for good or bad, the man of the thirteenth and the man of the nineteenth century meant different things by the same phraseology?
There is a way of meeting the difficulty which is popular and tempting, but to my own mind profoundly unsatisfactory, by the drawing of a hard–and–fast distinction between the “faith” which abides, and its intellectual expression in doctrine and dogma which is merely mutable and subject to the law of indefinite modifiability. I do not myself understand how so many philosophers have been content to acquiesce in this depreciation of “dogma” which is part of the current superior journalism of our times. The only consistent logical position for the rigid separatist of “faith” from all intellectual formulation, I take it, is the extreme position which simply identifies religion with some kind of emotion, and the mere identification of any fundamental activity of the human spirit with emotion, cut loose from a specific object, is the degradation and, in the end, the paralysis of the emotion itself. Emotions of all kinds so manifestly derive their value for human life from the character of the object on which they are directed. Emotion inappropriate or disproportionate to the objective situation by which it is evoked is the bane of life. We can all see this clearly enough in moral theory when the question is raised of the worth of this or that emotion as a “motive” to action. It is, or should be, the stalest of ethical commonplaces that emotions cannot be classified into the morally good and the morally evil, and that if “motive” is taken to mean what Mill took it to mean, the “feeling” which “makes a man act” by breaking down a kind of mental and moral inertia, the view that the worth either of our acts or of our character is a function of our “motives” would be the ruin of coherent thinking about conduct.
There would, for example, be no sense in saying that pity is a good motive, but resentment a bad one. The worth of either depends on the question who it is that is pitied, what it is that is resented. Pity for the wrong persons, or even ill–regulated pity for the right persons, has repeatedly led to the most dreadfully wrong moral action; anger, if it is righteous anger against oppression or meddling, is one of the most precious ingredients in the character of the moral “hero.” The moral worth of wonder or curiosity, again, depends wholly on its object. To wonder about the right things, as Plato knew, is to be on the way to become a master in knowledge; to “wonder with a foolish face of praise” at the wrong things is to be for life a curioso impertinente.
Nor would the edge of this criticism be turned by appealing to the now familiar distinction between belief in a statement and belief, or faith, in a person. That distinction is real, and we may have to revert to it, but it will not serve this turn. Faith in a person will not be a quickening and regenerative influence, if it is faith in the wrong person; nothing will wreck the moral life more utterly than an unquestioning faith in an unworthy person. The important thing is that our faith should be reposed in a person who is really adequate to sustain it, and thus it makes all the difference in the world to the spiritual fruits of such faith what we take the person we believe in to be, and whether he really is what we take him for. This surely disposes once and for all of the proposal to find the real value of religious faith in mere intense emotion, divorced altogether from any element of intellectual conviction. We may, no doubt, acquiesce intellectually in any number of propositions about a person without being moved by the acquiescence to any practical surrender of the direction of our will and conduct by our “convictions,” as the devil has been imagined to accept the whole of Christian theology without being even faintly stirred to conformity of will to God. But such assent remains a merely “dead” faith, if we are to call it faith at all. It would be mere unreason to infer that since “living” faith is more than such intellectual assent to a number of propositions, it involves no such assent. To “believe in” a man is, indeed, always more than to believe certain statements about him, but it is no less true that I cannot “believe in” a man without believing something “about” him, even if that something is no more than that “this is the best and wisest man I have hitherto met,” and what one believes thus is always capable of being stated in an intelligible, though commonly very incomplete, form.
A faith which was mere emotion—if there really can be, as I gravely doubt whether there can be, any such thing as a mere emotion—would be a faith devoid of anything deserving to be called conviction. Genuine faith, because it reposes on conviction, cannot be other than a fides quaerens intellectum. For that reason, I should say, we owe a real debt of gratitude to the much decried “dogmatists,” whose concern has always been to make explicit the implicit convictions which justify faith in a person. Being, like the rest of us, human, and incident to the common intellectual and moral weaknesses of humanity, the dogmatists may execute this task very imperfectly, but it is a task which rational beings cannot decline. Thus I suspect that the secret reason why so many of us to–day incline to resent all attempts to put our convictions about God into clear doctrinal form is an uneasy suspicion that, if we were quite honest with ourselves, we should find that we have no real convictions to support our emotionalism, and are naturally unwilling to be driven into making this discovery. I should suspect the same thing of a man who professed unqualified faith in his teacher, or his country, if he resented all questions about the precise achievements of either which elicit and demand his faith.
Thus Fr. G. Tyrrell’s epigrammatic declaration, “I share the faith of Simon Peter, not his dogmatic theology,” seems to me to come perilously near converting a needful distinction into a dangerous false antithesis. I do not see how we can have a faith in common with Simon Peter, unless there are also some intellectual convictions which we share with him. It may be impossible to isolate just that element of common intellectual conviction completely from other elements which are not common, as it is, I presume, impossible in practice to isolate one chemical element absolutely from all others, and yet, in both cases, it may be a proper, even a necessary, exercise to make our approximate analysis as thorough as we can.
The problem is, of course, one which meets us in every sphere of human intellectual activity. Thus the “external world” of the ordinary practical man and that of the physicist “physicising,” especially if he is a physicist of the latest type, may seem to have as little in common as the simple unspeculative faith of Simon Peter, the fisherman of Bethsaida, and the systematic theology of the Summa of Thomas, or the Institutes of Calvin. Yet the attempt sometimes made by the physicist to set the two “worlds” of common experience and physical theory in absolute antithesis to one another leads nowhere, and cannot, I should say, represent the real belief of the philosophical physicist himself. It is not many months since I had the privilege of listening to a brilliant statement of the antithesis from the lips of Professor Eddington.37 If we took the professor at his word, there seemed to be so complete a severance between the common man’s world and the physicist’s world that the mere reference of an object to the one would be enough to exclude it from the other. The table upon which Professor Eddington, as a man speaking to men and women, rested his manuscript or his crayon, and the table which, as a physicist, he regarded as an object for investigation and description, were made to seem so wholly disparate that any statement which must be made about one of them would be simply false if asserted of the other. There was not even justification left for so much as calling the “physicist’s table” a ghost or shadow of the “real table.” And yet I am sure that the speaker never meant seriously to suggest that the physicist is only amusing himself with capricious inventions of his own unregulated fancy, or that “verification” by reference to the common man’s “sensible objects” and their behaviour is not the standing test of the physicist’s hypotheses. He did not really believe himself as a professor of astronomy to be concerned with an “intelligible sun” and “intelligible stars” to which the eccentricities of the sun and stars we can see have no sort of relevance. For he proceeded in subsequent lectures38 to draw all sorts of conclusions about the probable past and future history of the sun and stars, and, of course, the sun which has had a history in the past and will have a history in the future is the sun which we all see and whose warmth we all feel. There was no serious question of forgetting that all the problems of the physicist are set for him by the sense–experience which he shares with the rest of us, and that the supreme test of his success in solving them must be found in his ability to anticipate other experiences of the same kind, or that the only kind of scientific hypothesis which can be dismissed once and for all as “illegitimate” is an hypothesis which, from its nature, is capable of possible disproof by confrontation with “facts in the sensible world.” Whatever Professor Eddington might permit himself to say for the purpose of impressing his audience with the abstract and schematic character of physical science, it was clear that he knew—no one better—that the physicist means all the time to be talking of the world which “is the home of all of us,” and that his genial attempts to “make our flesh creep” by telling us, for example, that the human body consists almost entirely of “empty space,”39 would have had no point if this were not so. For if the physicist really means when he talks of my body to be speaking only of something which has even less connection with what I, as an ordinary man, mean by my body than my shadow has, why should I feel perturbed, or even mildly interested, by anything the physicist may please to say about it?40
Now, a physicist like Professor Eddington really stands to you and me, in his utterances about human bodies, tables, suns, stars, precisely as the scientific theologian stands to the simple believer, Simon the fisherman, or another. The physicist is the systematic theologian of the natural world, that θεὸς εὐδάιμων of Plato’s Timaeus. The viri Galilaei and their lived religion set the Christian theologian his problems, as the sense–experiences of the common man normally equipped with eyes, ears, nostrils, tongue, skin, set the physicist his. There is no legitimate physical speculation which has not its point of departure in common pre–scientific sense–experience, and there is similarly, I take it, no legitimate theological problem which has not its point of departure in the actual life of contact with God. In this sense, the whole of legitimate theology is implicit and given once for all in the life of the man practising his religion, as the whole of physical science is implicit and, in a way, given once for all, in the actuality of the sensible.
Now, to say thus that the “dogmas” of a true physics are, in a real sense, given once for all in our everyday apprehension of the sensible means, to be sure, that there must be an element of intellectual conviction common to the physicist with the ordinary man. Their respective certainties are not, after all, of wholly disparate orders. The physicist does not live in one world with his intellect, as a physicist, and in a “wholly other” world, that of human life, with his emotions and reactions to stimulus. He takes the “world” of common life with him into his laboratory, when the disclosures of the senses set him a problem for investigation, and he recurs to that “world” when he tests his solution by comparing his theoretical results with the record of another set of immediate disclosures of sense. Thus there are convictions, as well as emotions and motor responses, in common to him with the plain man, though it is true that he could not set out these common convictions in exact and abstract logical form completely and unambiguously. For he must speak either the language of common life itself, or the technical “jargon” of his special science. The one is always pregnant with masses of unanalysed and imprecise suggestion, which make it hopelessly ambiguous;41 the other has been devised specifically to deal with the physicist’s abstractions as such, and the more adequate it proves for this purpose, the less is it fitted to express convictions which are not peculiar to the physicist as such, but shared by him with the rest of mankind. Yet these convictions are none the less present and all–persuasive, that we have no idiom in which to give them well–defined expression.
In the same way, I suggest, we should conceive of the all–pervasive presence in theology of intellectual convictions which are common to the theologian and the simple unspeculative believer, but defy precise formulation, whether in the rich but systematically ambiguous language of direct and vivid faith, or in the highly specialised and artificial technical vocabulary of theology itself. We may reasonably expect that the difficulty of formulation will be even more formidable for the theologian than for the physicist, since all our apprehension of God, the supreme reality of realities, is necessarily so much dimmer and more inadequate than our apprehension of everyday sensible body. And theology may surely learn a much–needed lesson from the procedure of the physicist. The once–for–all–ness and finality of the sense–experience through which the bodily world is given makes itself felt in physics in the recognition that a theory which demands consequences to which our senses definitely give the lie is thereby discredited. This, I take it, is the only finality known to physics. May we not say that there is only one way in which a theological doctrine is finally discredited? It is discredited if its truth would require that the religious growth of the soul should be fostered by conditions which, in fact, impede it, or hindered by conditions which, in fact, promote it. A refutation of this kind may be hard to obtain, but sometimes it is obtained, and then it is indeed final. Where it cannot be obtained, it seems premature and dangerous to convert our best attempts to find formulae for the intellectual expression of the convictions by which we live into “articles of a standing or a falling Church”.
But the rival attempt to dispense altogether with intellectual formulation is itself equally dangerous to real spiritual life in a different way. Faith may die, often has died, of internal ossification, when it is not allowed to stir except under the weight of a cast–iron panoply of ready–made doctrinal formulae; it may die, no less surely, by a sort of liquefaction, when suffered to evaporate in vague emotionalism. And of the rival dangers, there cannot be much doubt that the second is the more imminent for the average member of the “educated” society of our own country at the present day. Most of us are in no very great danger, as we might have been in some former ages, of spoiling our religion, our morality, our politics, or our art, by excess of rigid intellectual conviction. Our danger is rather that living, as we do, at the end of a “romantic” age which ran riot in the glorification of emotion for its own sake, we may try to make out, in religion, morals and politics, art alike, with a superficial scepticism, feebly coloured with thin sentimentality. In an age in which scepticism—a languid skepticism—about the “certainties” of science, not so long ago apparently the most assured of all “certainties,” has become the favourite intellectual attitude of the “educated public,” our most crying intellectual need, perhaps, is the need of men who will, by their robust assertions, arouse us, not from our “dogmatic,” but from our lazily anti–dogmatic, “slumbers.” There was something heroic about the temper of the “Mid–Victorian” time, with its cry of
It fortifies my soul to know
That though I perish, truth is so.
There is nothing heroic about “keeping the mind open” on all questions, simply because we are too indolent to give ourselves the trouble of shutting a door. Nor is it well to leave all doors indiscriminately open, for, though the open door often provides an avenue for the entrance of much that is welcome, it also, as we too often forget, affords an exit through which what we can least afford to lose may disappear. The important thing is to judge rightly which doors should be left open and which should be shut.
Cf. C. C. J. Webb, Studies in the History of Natural Theology, p. 158–9: “We shall not find in Anselm a sharp distinction … drawn between the spheres of Natural and Revealed Theology. Modern Roman Catholic writers, for whom the distinction established by St. Thomas Aquinas is authoritative, sometimes find themselves obliged to apologise for Anselm’s inattention to it. No doubt the reason for it is to some extent historical. The intimacy of the later schoolmen with the doctrines of Aristotle least capable of reconciliation with Christian dogma … as also with the writings of the Mohammedan commentators, forced upon their attention the fact of the diversity of creeds, and the consequent question whether there was not a common stock of knowledge concerning things divine independent of this diversity.” [I should suspect the study of Maimonides had most to do with calling the attention of St. Thomas to the point.]
I am of Professor Eddington’s opinion that it is a much more damaging objection to a thesis to call it “highly improbable” than to call it “impossible.” The “impossible” commonly only means that which an opponent has ruled out of consideration by an arbitrary initial postulate. (Nature of the Physical World, pp. 74–7.) It is a trivial objection against the causal efficacy of human volitions that it is an “impossibility” (i.e. will not fit into the wholly arbitrary “determinist” metaphysical scheme); it is a grave—I should say an insuperable—objection to all theories of “parallelism” that, as James Ward urges, invariable concomitance without causal connection is infinitely improbable.
I mean, of course, by “use of reason,” the employment of reason upon data supplied to it by perception. I am not suggesting that reason can function in vacuo. I fully concede that, if reference to data is excluded, “reason” condemns nothing but violation of the formal “laws of thought.”
I must not be charged with inconsistency on the ground that I am now urging “impossibility” as a grave objection to revelation, in spite of what has been said in n. 1 to p. 47. The reasoning given here is not my own, but that of certain σοφοί whose view I am stating for purposes of examination. Cf. d’Holbach’s question “s’il (viz. God) a parlé, pourquoi l’univers n’est–il pas convaincu?” and Shelley’s employment of the passage in the note to Queen Mab, vii. 13. I am trying to make the best argumentative case I can for d’Holbach and Shelley; their own exposition contains much more bad rhetoric than tolerable reasoning.
Remember, once more, that οὐκ ἐμὸς ὁ μῦθος.
This view commended itself to Roger Bacon, from its coherence with his “illuminationist” conception of philosophy as originating in a revelation to the patriarchs. Cf. what is said of Aristotle in c. 1 of Bacon’s “edition” of the Secretum Secretorum (Opera inedita, fasc. v. p. 36): “erat vir magni consilii et sani et literature magne, penetrabilis intellectus, vigilans in legalibus studiis, in gratuitis moribus et spiritualibus scienciis, contemplativus, caritativus, discretus, humilis, amator justicie, relator veritatis. Et propter hoc multi philosophorum reputabant ipsum de numero prophetarum. Invenitur etiam in antiquis codicibus Grecorum quod Deus excelsus suum angelum destinavit ad eum dicens: Pocius nominabo te angelum quam hominem … de morte sua diverse sunt opiniones. Quedam enim secta que dicitur peripathetica asserit ipsum ascendisse ad empeireum celum in columpna ignis.” Bacon’s own comment on these statements of his (Arabic) author is (p. 37) that the philosophers had certain “preludia fidei, set quod sufficientem fidem habuerunt non debemus ponere, nec tamen debemusaffirmare dampnacionem aliquorum dignissimorum virorum, quia nescimus quid fecerit eis Deus.”
S. Th. ii.aii.ae q. 2, art. 7 ad tertium. “Multis Gentilium facta fuit revelatio de Christo, ut patet per ea quae praedixerunt. … Si qui tamen salvati fuerunt quibus revelatio non fuit facta, non fuerunt salvati absque fide Mediatoris: quia etsi non habuerunt fidem explicitam, ha buerunt tamen fidem implicitam in divina providentia, credentes Deum esse liberatorem hominum secundum modos sibi placitos.” The case under consideration is that of the Gentiles of pre–Christian time. It is not clear to a non–specialist whether Thomas would extend the principle to meet the case of Gentiles in Christian times, living remote from Christendom. Possibly they might get the benefit of the doctrine of the “baptism of desire,” which Dante introduces to explain the presence of Rhipeus in Paradise (Par. xx. 127–8). Dante’s own treatment of the problem seems singular. The great Gentiles in general are placed in a Limbo which is technically in Hell, but where there is no poena sensus. It should seem to follow that they are excluded from Paradise neither by mortal, nor by venial, sin, but solely by the peccatum originis, like unbaptized infants. And this seems to be actually implied in the case of Virgil, of whom we are told that only Baptism is wanting to him (Inferno, iv. 39). Yet Dante can hardly have supposed that the most excellent Gentiles were wholly free from venial sins, and his Limbo contains persons like Julius Caesar, whom he cannot have thought clear of some mortal sins.
Sterne, Tristram Shandy, iii. 41: “There is no cause but one, replied my Uncle Toby, why one man’s nose is longer than another’s, but because that God pleases to have it so. … That is Grangousier’s solution, said my father. ’Tis he, continued my Uncle Toby … who makes us all, and frames and puts us together in such forms and proportions, and for such ends, as is agreeable to his infinite wisdom.”
The Anglican Church formally anathematises, in its 18th Article, those who “presume to say, that every man shall be saved by the law or sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that law, and the light of nature,” on the ground that “holy Scripture doth set out to us only the name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.” But nothing is said, or implied here, as to the destiny of the non–Christian. All that is denied is that the “virtuous unbeliever” will be saved by his unbelief. That no “virtuous unbeliever” will, in fact, be saved, has never, so far as I know, been the teaching of the Anglican Church, and is certainly not the belief of any responsible Anglican teacher to–day. I am surprised that a philosopher of the distinction of James Ward should have gone wrong on so simple a point. (The Realm of Ends, p. 424, “There is one doctrine of the theology now in vogue which gives special point to the objection we have considered—the doctrine that those who die outside the pale of Christianity are “lost eternally.” I do not know where this theology is “in vogue”; certainly not in any Christian community with which I am acquainted.)
The argument becomes much stronger when we compare the moral standard of persons, whether “believers” or not, who have been brought up under the influence of the Christian tradition, with that of those who have been untouched by it. Christian morality, for example, and Moslem morality, both forbid adultery. But the Moslem tradition, with its permission of polygamy, concubinage, and divorce, recognises as morally unobjectionable a great deal of conduct which, by Christian standards, is deliberate and persistent adultery. The individual Moslem, as we know, may often conform in practice to the demands of the Christian standard in this matter, but the fact remains that behaviour which to the Christian is obligatory, on pain of mortal sin, is to the Moslem a “counsel of perfection.”
Werke (Hartenstein2), iv. 251.
Cf. the singular argument by which Kant attempts to prove in the Metaphysik der Sitten (Werke, Hartenstein2, vi. 76 ff.) the immorality of all sexual relations outside the limits of lifelong monogamous marriage. Strict fidelity to monogamy is demanded on the ground that an act of sexual intercourse is one in which a human being “converts himself into a thing, conduct which conflicts with the right of humanity in its own person.” This, says Kant, can only be legitimated if each party to the act adopts the same attitude; each must “convert its personality into thinghood,” i.e. each must assume the position of instrument to the pleasures of the other. This really seems to amount to no more than a certain well–known sentiment of Ovid. If Kant’s description of the sexual relation were truly an adequate one, it should surely follow that it conflicts with the rights and duties of personality in a way not to be made good, and is therefore simply vicious. And, at any rate, if the conflict is removed by reciprocity, it should follow that simple fornication to which both parties are freely consenting is as unobjectionable as marriage. The artificial reasoning by which Kant tries to evade this consequence, if valid, would seem equally to prove that morality is outraged by a cricketer who employs different “professionals” to bowl to him on different occasions.
I say “human beings” because in their case only we may presume empirical acquaintance with the great fundamental “inclinations” common to the kind, and this empirical knowledge is necessary for “applied” ethics.
To give a single illustration out of many which might be adduced: In one of the most impressive of recent books on Plato, I read that “conscience” is a characteristically “religious” and “Christian” concept which is meaningless from the moral standpoint of Plato (Stenzel, Platon der Erzieher, p. 278). To my own mind such a statement makes nonsense of the Apology, the Crito, the Gorgias, and I can only account for its presence in a valuable book by the reflection that whereas I see Plato through a tradition shaped by Augustine, Cudworth, Butler, Richard Price, the German author views him through a different medium, just as inevitably as an Englishman sees the great Attic tragedians in the light, so to say, of Shakespeare, a Frenchman, presumably, in that of Racine.
Acts xvii. 18 οἱ δὲ (ἔλεγον). Ξένων δαιμονίων δοκεῖ καταγγελεὺς εἶναι· ὄτι τὸν Ιησοῦν καὶ τὴν ἀνάστασιν εὐηγγελίζετο.
Cf. Kant, Werke (Hartenstein2), vi. 209, on the oberstes Kriterium aller Schriftauslegung.
Plato, Republic, 363.
Plato, Laws, 908 B ff.
How often, for example, it is forgotten that Socrates was a man of the Periclean age, that Plato came of a family in which “democratic” politics were traditional, that Aristotle had no personal experience of the life of the “citizen,” and that we are bound to misunderstand all three if we neglect these facts. Even Descartes is often misrepresented and unjustly accused of insincerities from mere disregard of the fact that he was a seventeenth–century French Roman Catholic, not a concealed “free–thinker.”
Heraclitus, Fr. 79 (Bywater), αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων πεσσεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη.
Cf. L. Couturat, Les Principes des mathématiques, p. 11: “il est remarquable que ce principe ne peut pas s’exprimer symboliquement. Comme le remarque M. Russell [cf. Principles of Mathematics, i. p. 34], ce principe marque la limite du symbolisme. Il n’y a rien d’étonnant, d’ailleurs, à ce que le symbolisme ne réussisse pas à traduire tous les principes, car il faut évidemment définir verbalement les premiers symboles et les premières formules.”
We can trace the “family tree,” so to say, of the play Hamlet back through Kyd and the Spanish Tragedy to Seneca and his Thyestes, and through Seneca back to the older Greek tragedies which dealt with the same and similar themes.
A problem forced on the most conservative mind by the express statement of the Gospel that ’Ιησοῦς προέκοπτεν σοφίᾳ καὶ ἡλικίᾳ καὶ χάριτι παρὰ θεῷ καὶ ἀνθρώποις (Luke ii. 52).
Tractatus Theologico–Politicus, i. 23–4. “non credo ullum alium ad tantam perfectionem supra alios pervenisse praeter Christum, cui Dei placita, quae homines ad salutem ducunt, sine verbis aut visionibus, sed immediate revelata sunt; adeo ut Deus per mentem Christi sese apostolis manifestaverit, ut olim Mosi mediante voce aerea … si Moses cum Deo de facie ad faciem … loquebatur, Christus quidem de mente ad mentem communicavit.”
Kant, Werke (Hartenstein2), vi. 294 ff.
Ethica v. 5–8, 11, 26, 27.
“When, without the bitterness of impotent rebellion, we have learnt both to resign ourselves to the outward rule of Fate and to recognise that the non–human world is unworthy of our worship, it becomes possible at last (? why) so to transform and refashion the unconscious universe, so to transmute it in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay” (B. Russell, Philosophical Essays, p. 66). (Exactly: the “free man” of Mr. Russell, like Nebuchadnezzar, only “worships” an image of gold, the “work of his own hands.” Spinoza knew better than this.) “Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race, the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man … it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built,” etc., etc. (ib. p. 70) But what does the “free man” worship at this “shrine”? On Mr. Russell’s own showing, something which is a pure product of his own imagination, and known by himself to be nothing more. And what is the quality of the “worship”? Is not the plain prose of the situation—Mr. Russell, as the rhythms of his sentences show is “dropping into poetry,” of a kind—that the “free man” is sheltering himself in “make–believe” from a merely disgusting reality? Might it not be more advisable to ask the question whether Mr. Russell’s bugbear, “omnipotent matter,” is anything but an alias for “old Noboddady”?
Qui laborat, orat.
The eighteenth–century critic of Shakespeare tended, for example, to ask about every play what was its “moral,” and even to make the value of a work like Macbeth dependent primarily on its supposed usefulness in teaching us that it is commonly “bad business” to murder a king and usurp his crown.
On the philosophical significance of the “romantic” reaction against “good sense” see inter alia Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, v. pp. 109 ff.
I do not forget the famous Letter to Can Grande in which Dante himself apparently treats his Commedia as though it were a mere contrivance for the preaching of an elaborate “lesson.” But I think it safe to say that the whole fourfold lesson described in that letter might have been perfectly set forth in a work which would have had no poetical value whatsoever, and further that the account is itself an obvious “rationalisation” of the real facts, based on the assumption, traditional in Dante’s time, that a great poem has to be justified by showing it to be didactic. It is not a transcript of the poet’s real personal experience. In fact, the letter only shows that the greatest of modern poets would have been unable to stand examination by Socrates on the question “what he meant by his poem.” One can be sure that Shakespeare’s sense of humour would have forbidden him to “explain” Lear as intended to prove that professions of affection do not always mean all they say, or that it is not always wise to anticipate one’s death by a donatio inter vivos.
Cf. what a poet of our own day has written of “the body”:
“Thy senses close
With the world’s pleas. The random odours reach
Their sweetness in the place of thy repose,
Upon thy tongue the peach,
And in thy nostrils breathes the breathing rose. …
“Music, all dumb, hath trod
Into thine ear her one effectual way;
And fire and cold approach to gain thy nod,
Where thou call’st up the day,
Where thou awaitest the appeal of God.”
Shakespeare (E.M.L.), 143–4.
Italics, of course, mine, not the author’s.
And about some of the surprises in Shakespeare’s own lighter and cruder work. Who “believes” in the sudden conversion of Sir Proteus or Duke Frederick, or the sudden reformation of Oliver de Boys?
R. Browning, The Heretic’s Tragedy:
“The Lord we look to once for all
Is the Lord we should look at all at once.”
Nature of the Physical World, c. 1.
Op. cit. c 4.
Op. cit. pp. 1–2.
Cf. Professor Eddington’s own observations in another volume: “Science is not the describing a world invented to save trouble; it is following up a problem which took definite shape the first time two human beings compared notes of their experiences; and it follows it up according to the original rules.... I simply do not contemplate the awful contingency that the external world of physics, after all our care in arriving at it, might be disqualified by failing to ’exist’. … It is sufficient that it is the world which confronts our common experience and that therefore we are interested in knowing all we can about it.” (“The Domain of Physical Science” in Science, Religion, and Reality, pp. 196–7.)
Cf. Plato, Ep. vii. 342 Ε πρὸς γὰρ τούτοις ταῦτα οὐχ ἧττον ἐπιχειρεῖ τὸ ποῖόν τι περὶ ἕκαστον δηλοῦν ἢ τὸ ὂν ἑκάστου διὰ τὸ τῶν λόγων ἀσθενές · ὧν ἓνεκα νοῦν ἔχων οὐδεὶς τολμήσει ποτὲ εἰς αὐτὸ τιθέναι τὰ νενοημένα ὑπ᾽ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ταῦτα εἰς ἀμετακίνητον.