You are here

V. The Meaning and Place of Authority

A prophet? Prophet wherefore he

Of all in Israel(’s?) tribes?

He teacheth with authority,

And not as do the Scribes.


Nulli ergo dubium est gemino pondere nos impelli ad discendum, auctoritatis atque rationis. Mihi autem certum est nusquam prorsus a Christi auctoritate discedere: non enim reperio valentiorem.


I CAN readily believe that an auditor of our foregoing discussions might be willing to allow the force of all we have said, and yet might contend, with a great show of reason, that we have carefully avoided facing the real problem. In the last resort, he might argue, there is an inevitable and ineradicable opposition between the very spirit of rational philosophy and the spirit common to all positive and revelational religions: philosophy is committed to the principle of “private judgement”; it is a state and habit of mind rather than a set of dogmas; it has no value unless it is the fruit of a free personal effort to understand, and it is even more important for the philosopher that his convictions should have been reached by such strenuous personal effort than that they should be true. But all the positive religions, avowedly or implicitly, are no less deeply committed to the recognition of an absolute authority before which private judgement may properly be bidden to submit itself without reserve. In a word, philosophy is, in its very nature, “Protestant,” positive religion “Catholic”; the one would have us hold our convictions because we are personally persuaded of their truth, the other because of the auctoritas, or dignity, of the source from which we have learned them, and no man can loyally adopt both these attitudes at once. I have heard an amusing anecdote, true or false, which puts this point very neatly. It relates that a Roman Catholic theologian was in conversation with an outsider, who remarked that there seemed to be no real difference between the position of Rome and that of a well–known and widely respected “Anglo–Catholic”. “Pardon me,” replied the theologian, “we are at the opposite pole from X. He holds every doctrine that we hold, but holds them all for the entirely irrelevant reason that he thinks them true.” You see at once the point of this epigrammatic criticism. By the critic’s own admission, what X holds in theology is the truth, and the whole truth, so far as the whole truth is accessible to man; the trouble is that X takes it to be the truth for a wrong reason. He should take it for truth because it comes to him on the authority of the Church, but in fact only takes it as true because it commends itself to his personal judgement, and is thus, formally, though not materially, a “Protestant heretic.” If a particular dogma happened not to recommend itself to his personal judgement, he would not assent to it, whereas he ought, in fact, to believe the dogma without so much as raising the question whether it approves itself to his judgement or not, on the sole ground that God, speaking through the officials of the Church, has declared it; when God speaks, we believe, not because what God says can be seen or shown to be correct, but because the speaker is God.

Though the Roman Church has given this conception of authority as the one real and sufficient basis of faith in “revealed truth” its most elaborate expression, the position is not, of course, peculiar to that Church; indeed, it may fairly be argued that it is common in principle to all the positive religions. One may reject the authority of the Church in favour of that of an infallible written Scripture, as the original Reformers did, or one may reject the authority of the body of Scripture as a whole, as some of the successors of the Reformers do, in favour of that of those utterances which, as it is held, can safely be taken to have come from the actual lips of the supreme revealer of God, the authenticated sayings of Christ, relieved of everything which can plausibly be regarded as later exegesis or amplification. But differences of this kind are only secondary disagreements about the precise channel through which infallible authority speaks; they do not affect the principle that there is somewhere an authority which is that of God Himself, and that when this authority has spoken, the question whether its deliverances recommend themselves to a man’s personal judgement becomes irrelevant. If God has never spoken in this way, is there not an end of all the claims of any positive religion on the universal allegiance of mankind? If He has so spoken, causa finita est. The foi du charbonnier would thus appear to be an indispensable constituent in every positive religion.

But, it may be said, the one thing which a rational philosophy cannot tolerate on any terms is just this foi du charbonnier. For, as Ferrier has maintained,1 it is even more important that a philosophy should be reasoned than that it should be true. That a man, in that resolute effort to think things out which is philosophy, should come to erroneous conclusions is a comparatively trivial matter. If his conclusions are erroneous, the patient following of the method of “thinking things out” will of itself, in time, lead to their correction; patient thinking can always be trusted, in the end, to repair its own mistakes. But if we once allow an assent which is more than consciously tentative and provisional to be given to that which has not been thought out by a personal effort, but taken on trust without question or criticism—and this is the kind of assent a positive religion necessarily demands when its God has spoken—the central conviction which lies at the heart of all rational philosophy—the conviction that reality has a structure which is intelligible—has been surrendered. We may call such dutiful submission to authority asserted to be divine assent to the declaration of the supreme source of truth, but it is, in plain fact, no more than a “strong propension” to view things in a certain light, dignified by a name to which it has no right.

The point, it may be said, is made abundantly clear by the history of apologetics. The philosophically minded apologist may start, like Anselm, with unbounded belief in the possibility of justifying his faith at the bar of intellect by showing that when you “think things out” you are always led to the very convictions you had begun by taking on trust. But even Anselm, when he speaks of fides quaerens intellectum, does not mean, as the modern Agnostic does when he takes as his motto “we seek for truth,” that the search is begun in the dark. It never occurs to him to doubt the indispensability of beginning with absolute and unqualified assent to the whole received content of fides, or to suspect that the thinking out of things might possibly lead to substantive modification of the “deposit” of faith. It is itself, not the “manifold of science,” or the “great mystery” that his fides is seeking to understand. If he had found himself completely unable to urge anything in answer to Gaunilo’s apology for the “fool” who says in his heart that there is no God, his faith in the Christian creed would no more have wavered than Gaunilo’s own wavered when he constructed his pamphlet. At bottom Anselm’s conviction that he is already in possession of a truth which merely needs to be cast into a logically articulated form to become evident amounts to an assumption that metaphysics is, to parody a mot of Bradley, “the finding of good reasons for what we believe on instinct”.2 But, we may ask, is not that which we “believe on instinct” usually any set of ideas, true or false, which has the advantage of being deeply interwoven with the whole social fabric of our particular place and time? Fides quaerens intellectum will be led to a Western Christianity in the atmosphere of eleventh–century Paris or Canterbury, to Islam at the court of Bagdad or Cordova.

Nor is the case visibly mended much by drawing a distinction between natural theology, that part of the contents of a positive creed for which we can succeed in finding good and sufficient probative grounds, and the revealed truths for which the most close and patient thought can do no more than to show that the reasons urged against them are inconclusive, and where, therefore, the last word must be with authority. St. Thomas’ words, indeed, read well: “To argue from authority is supremely proper to this study, because the principles of the study are had from revelation, and it is therefore right that there should be belief in the authority of those to whom the revelation has been made. Nor does this derogate from the dignity of this study; for though the appeal to authority founded upon human reason is exceeding weak, the appeal to authority founded upon divine revelation is exceeding efficacious.”3 This may be true enough, but you have first to identify your divine revelation before you make your appeal to its authoritativeness, and thus there would seem to be only two alternatives, either to take as the accredited divine revelation whatever happens to enjoy the prestige of a revelation in your own community, or else to judge of the credentials of professed revelations by the exercise of your own intelligence, though when once the credentials have been found satisfactory, you propose for the future to ascribe your assent to reverence for divine authority.

In either case, it might be said, the whole of your faith really rests in the end on the locus ab auctoritate quae fundatur super humana ratione, which is infirmissimus. If it is a poor reason for accepting a revelation as truly divine that it seems to be so “to the best of my personal knowledge and belief,” it is a worse reason still that on dit “this is a divine revelation”. “And so,” to borrow the words of Hobbes, “we are reduced to the Independency of the Primitive Christians, to follow Paul, or Cephas, or Apollos, every man as he liketh best … because it is unreasonable in them who teach that there is such danger in every little Errour, to require of a man endued with Reason of his own, to follow the Reason of any other man, or of the most voices of many other men; which is little better than to venture his Salvation at crosse and pile.”4 The only divine authority left with a right to demand absolute submission thus proves, after all, to be the authority of the “God within,” the reason and conscience of the individual. But the cause of a positive religion seems to be inseparably bound up with the recognition of a supra–individual supreme authority, that of a “God without,” by which the aberrations of individual judgement may be magisterially corrected and controlled. If we are in earnest with the demand that each man shall be left to follow “Paul, or Cephas, or Apollos, as he thinketh best,” we cannot in consistency draw the line there; a man must also be left free, “if he thinketh best,” to follow none of the three, but to strike out his own line, to be of a school in which there is “no man doctor” and no man disciple, except himself, and however we may seek to disguise the fact, there will thus really be as many religions as there are individuals—a state of things far removed from the “independency” of the primitive Christians.

To Hobbes this does not very much matter, but the reason why it does not matter is that he really cares nothing about religion and wholly disbelieves in its worth as a knowledge and worship of God. Knowledge of God, according to his philosophy, is impossible, because God is “ingenerable,” and knowledge is all of motions, generations, and their effects;5 conformity to the established worship has nothing to do with convictions; it is “not philosophy, but law,”6 merely an indication that, as good citizens, we do not propose to disturb the King’s peace for any metaphysical quillets of our own. From the individualistic premisses of the sectary we thus reach the conclusions of pure indifferentism.

This seems, at first sight, a paradox, but reflection may possibly show that it is no paradox, but an inevitable consequence of consistency in individualism. For the thoroughgoing individualist begins by making a double assumption, both parts of that assumption being equally necessary to him. My religion is strictly a purely personal affair, a concern between myself and my God to which there is no third party; it is primarily a matter of the salvation of my own soul, and nothing else. (“Nothing,” says a hymn I have heard sung in my boyhood, “is worth a thought beneath, But how I may escape the death That never, never dies”.) It is because the whole transaction is so strictly individual that it appears so reasonable to hold that the only authoritative guide for me in the transaction is the interior voice of God, recognised as such by my own judgement and conscience. One only succeeds in combining such a view, as it has historically been combined, with the further conviction that there is a religion which is true and obligatory for mankind by the further tacit assumption, regularly made by enthusiasts for all creeds, that every other man’s personal judgement and conscience will agree in its deliverances with my own, if only he shows good faith in consulting them. This proposition of fact is just what the cool–headed student of men and manners, with no strong personal enthusiasms, finds it impossible to grant. “No honest man,” said Johnson, “could be a deist, for no man could be so after a fair examination of the proofs of Christianity.”7 At the present day—experto credite—an educated layman who ventures to write in the most modest way on the side of Christian, or even theistic, belief may expect to receive communications from “infidels” who are entire strangers to him, informing him in unambiguous language that he must be a dishonest person, because no one who has considered the refutations of Christianity (or of Theism) with attention can possibly retain any belief. To a dispassionate mind it is mean–while patent that there are very honest Papists and equally honest Protestants, sincere Christians and Jews, and also sincere atheists, at all levels of general education and intelligence. The reason and judgement of all the individuals cannot be trusted even to lead in the same general direction, on the single condition that it shall be loyally followed. If there is no other authority, it seems natural to draw one of two conclusions: either there is no truth to be reached in matters about which equally intelligent and sincere persons draw such divergent conclusions from the same data, or if there should be any truth which will ultimately emerge from the endless welter of inquiry and controversy, truth so hard to find cannot be of much moment for the practical conduct of life and the attainment of the “good for man.” And this is Indifferentism.

But a positive religion can flourish only when it is recognised that the direction of life by its light is the supreme and very practical concern of mankind; no such religion can tolerate reduction to the status of an interesting speculation which may prove to be not entirely unfounded, but has no pressing importance for the ordering of conduct and life. We can thus readily understand why it is that, in actual fact, even those religious bodies which theoretically push the rejection of “external authority” to an extreme almost always, in practice, prove to retain some authority to which they expect private judgement, in the last resort, to submit itself; and, again, why every movement which effects much for the quickening and deepening of the personal spiritual life seems regularly to be accompanied by a revival of insistence on the authoritativeness of something which is not “private judgement,” whether the something is the organised Church, the letter of a Scripture, a particular interpretation of a Scripture, or some new revelation, attested by physical or moral wonders.

Thus, to illustrate the point by the history of a particular religious community, it is manifest fact that the gravely enfeebled spirituality of the English Church of two hundred years ago has been wakened into new vitality chiefly by three great movements—the Methodist, the Evangelical, the “Anglo–Catholic.” The broad fact remains certain, however badly any man may think of some of the incidental characteristics of some or all of these movements. (I can understand that to some minds the ardent Methodist, the eager Evangelical, and the earnest Anglo–Catholic may all be distressing, but I should not understand the denial of the proposition that all three are alive, if sometimes disconcertingly alive, while the decorous Latitudinarians of George I.’s time were dead, or moribund.) Each of the three movements was, in its own way, a somewhat violent revolt against the domination of individual judgement and “good sense” in matters of religion, towards some form of “non–rational” authoritarianism. Wesley, Toplady, Newman are, in various ways, unlike enough, but they all agree in seeing the enemy in what Newman called “Liberalism”; all, like the priest in Blake’s poem,8 or, for the matter of that, Blake himself, regard it as the supreme blasphemy to

Set up reason for the judge

Of our most holy mystery.

We see the same thing, in a highly grotesque form, in the curious contemporary American movement which calls itself Fundamentalism. That the Fundamentalists, being for the most part extremely ill–educated, should be violently obscurantist in their attitude to natural and historical science is only what might be expected, though I doubt whether their caeca fides is really more obscurantist at heart than the equally blind confidence of the aggressive “rationalist” in the competence of scientific methods, of which he most commonly knows next to nothing, to answer all questions “in the earth, or out of it.” But it is, I should say, a mere mistake to see nothing in the Fundamentalist movement but its hostility to Darwin and Huxley and the “higher critics” of Biblical documents. What is really at the back of the movement, and supplies it with its driving force, is the conviction that any attempt to eliminate absolute supernatural “authority” from Christianity, or any other great positive religion, is destructive of its character as religion. Such attempts convert “the faith” into a philosophy, and by consequence, since there can be no such thing as an authoritarian philosophy, into a mere body of tentative “personal opinions,” a collection of Privatmeinungen. And a man for whom his religion has become an affair of Privatmeinungen has ceased to have a religion.

The real issue is not whether the opening chapters of Genesis are “fundamental,” but whether there is anywhere a genuine fundamentum, a “sure cornerstone,” on which positive religion can build. It is felt that such a corner–stone cannot be found in any purely rational theology or metaphysic, since the God of such a system is a God whom we have succeeded in understanding, a God who is not a deus absconditus, and does not “move in a mysterious way.” We accept His disclosure of Himself through theology or metaphysic because, so far as one can see, it contains no mistakes, not because haec dicit Dominus Deus. But such a God divested of mystery, a God whom we understand, as we understand the properties of integers or triangles, would be a God who “has no more in Him,” or, indeed, “has less in Him,” than the mind which can thus understand and dispose of Him, a mere dieu des savans et des philosophes, and therefore not a being whom we can adore, and so not a true God at all, in the sense in which “heart–religion” demands a God. Worship, indeed, is not mere abjection and abasement before something which baffles our intelligence, but without the element of the baffling there is no worship. If, then, such a God has ever declared Himself to mankind, the communication cannot owe the claim of its content to acceptance to the transparent intrinsic reasonableness and good sense which pervades it; there must be something in it which has to be accepted, not because, with the expenditure of sufficient industry and acumen, we can see it to be “what could not be otherwise,” but because God has spoken it, and it rests on His word for it.

State contenti, umana gente, al quia;

chè se possuto aveste veder tutto,

mestier non era parturir Maria.9

Now, I own that it is just this recognition of the principle of absolute authority, in one form or another, which is, in the end, the scandalum offered by all positive and historical religions to the philosophical mind, honestly bent on the understanding of things. The mysterious always presents a problem to intelligence, and the intellect would be playing the traitor to itself if it merely sat down idly in the presence of the problem without any serious effort to grapple with it. Yet, on the other side, it seems impossible to remove the scandal by denying that there is any ultimate mystery at the heart of things. When we consider how utterly the attempt to locate absolute authority in a definitely circumscribed seat, and to codify its deliverances, has always broken down, we may, indeed, be strongly tempted to cut the knot in this fashion. To consider only the solutions of the problem of the seat of authority which have been propounded within the limits of Christianity itself, it seems impossible, without great feats of sophistry, to place it in the official declarations of Popes or Councils, or of both together, for some of them seem to contradict others openly, and some to be in disagreement with independently ascertained truth. The same and similar difficulties attend the appeal to the written text of the Bible; the text appealed to is sometimes corrupt, sometimes speaks with an ambiguous voice, sometimes asserts what we know to be historical or scientific error. Moreover, before we can so much as know what Bible it is to which we are appealing, since the Bible itself never enumerates its own component parts, we have to go to an extra–biblical authority to learn what “books” are part of the infallible Bible, and what are not. (So far the “Fundamentalists” apparently have shirked the question what is the authority which fixes the canon of Scripture, but it is a question which they must be prepared to face—with curious consequences for Fundamentalism.)

If we fall back from the Biblical writings as a whole on the recorded personal utterances of Our Lord, there is the desperate problem of ascertaining how far these utterances have been accurately transferred from the idiom in which they were primarily spoken to another, and then transmitted to us without mutilation, addition, or deformation.10 (If careful and unbiassed criticism is steadily delivering us, as it seems to be, from the more extravagant speculations which once threatened to dissolve the whole Gospel story into a tissue of “tendencious” misrepresentations of fact in the interests of early quarrelsome theological controversialists, it is no less steadily making it plain how very little we know of the actual words and deeds of the Lord with anything like certainty.) And the various ingenious devices by which the theories of the infallibility of Popes, of Councils, of Scripture as a whole, of the reports of the sayings of Christ, is kept intact under difficulties, what a lame affair they all are! The Pope infallible? Yes, of course; but somehow one can always make out a case for holding that this Pope, making this pronouncement, has omitted to comply with some condition necessary to make his utterance one of the infallible ones. General Councils liable to err? Why, no; but it may always be possible to discover that this Council had some defect which made it not really oecumenical, or that its Acts are interpolated, or have been misunderstood. The words of Scripture are inerrant, but we may disagree about the canon, or allow for unlimited corruption in transcription, or may take strange liberties of interpretation. The actual words of the Lord are beyond question, but He may be credited with a double meaning, or a recorded utterance may be shown to have suffered from imperfect rendering out of Aramaic into Greek, or to have been misunderstood from unfamiliarity with Galilean tradition, or to have undergone “development,” whenever it suits our convenience. All transparent subterfuges by which our absolute authority is nominally respected, while in fact we trim its deliverances to suit our changing fancy. It is an old story over which the world has made merry until it is ashamed of its own jest.

And yet when all has been said, it is as hard to conceive of an adequate religion without mystery, and consequently without the note of authority, as it is easy to smile at the shifts to which the theorist is driven when he attempts to provide authority with its clearly defined seat and to compile a register of its declarations. It remains true that “God comprehended” would be no God, but a mere artificial construction of our own minds. Christianity not Mysterious is no proper title for a work on the Christian religion by a writer who seriously believes that religion to be something more than an invention of ingenious moralists and statesmen. Butler’s famous Analogy, it has been said, cuts both ways, for it seems to make “revealed religion” superfluous by demonstrating that it leaves the course of the world as mysterious as it finds it.11 But the criticism is surely much more smart than sound. It is true, after all, though it is an unwelcome truth, that in the Aristotelian phrase so often repeated by the great schoolmen,12 the eye of man’s mind for truth is like the eye of the owl for daylight. A theology which finds mystery it cannot explain away at the centre of things may not be true, but it is certain that a theology which professes to have cleared away all the mystery out of the world must be false. In any true account of the concrete and individual reality one must somewhere come upon something of which it can only be said, “Why this thing should be so, or even just what it is, is more than I can tell, but at all costs it must be recognised that here the thing is.” If this is all we mean by “irrationality,” we may safely say that historical individuality is the great supreme irrational from which thought can never succeed in getting free. If by the “rational” we mean that which is wholly transparent, that which va de soi for the logical mind, the one ubiquitous irrationality is the very fact that there should be anything more than the “bloodless ballet of impalpable categories,” the fact that something exists. For the something that exists is always individual, and this means, in the first place, that it is not constructed by, but given to, our thinking, and in the second, that it is inexhaustible by analysis, an implicit and dimly apprehended “infinite.” The actual function of thought is neither to create its own data, nor yet to fit data otherwise given in a number of clear–cut simple apprehensions into an alien pattern, or relational scheme, of “universals,” independently given by a second kind of simple apprehension, but to analyse and articulate the present experience, which is our one, always confused, real datum; to transmute apprehension, if I may so express myself, into recognition.13 It is of the essence of the situation that this transmutation is never complete; there is always in the confused, concrete, given fact a remainder of the perplexing, the not yet recognised, which intrigues us, and yet cannot be ignored without killing the experienced fact. A mere “laboratory” fact, from which this element has been artificially subtracted, is no longer the living fact.

So far as I can see, the function of authority is just to insist upon the reality and omnipresence in religion, as in all our contact with the objectively real, of this element of refractoriness to complete intellectual analysis which is the stamp of objectivity, this never wholly removable misfit between the real and the categories in which we try to confine it. “A God comprehended is no God”; also, a “nature” completely comprehended would not be the real natural world. But the misfit is so much more patent when it is God who is the object of our thinking, because of the incomparable wealth of intrinsic reality in the object. In dealing with a God who does not simply stand aloof “on the other side,” but has entered into the historical and become truly immanent in it, though never merely immanent, authority provides us with the way of escape from the agnosticism which is the despair of the intellect. For ignora–bimus it substitutes the happier watchward, console–toi, tu ne me chercherais pas, si tu ne m’avais trouvé.14 The possession is in the puzzling form of dim and vague contact, but it is a genuine fact, which guarantees us that the au delà, where we can detect no clear and definite outlines, is not, after all, a mere terra incognita which may prove, like the unexplored regions in mediaeval maps, to be filled by fantastic man–destroying monsters. Or, to put it rather differently, what I would suggest is that authority and experience do not stand over against one another in sharp and irreconcilable opposition; authority is the self–assertion of the reality of an experience which contains more than any individual experient has succeeded in analysing out and extricating for himself. It is indispensable for us as finite historical beings who need a safeguard against our inveterate tendency to supplement the statement “this is what I can make of this situation” by the perilous addition, “and this is all there is in it”.

It is instructive, I think, to consider the analogy of what we often call the “authority” of sense–perception, and the part it plays in our knowledge of the natural world. As has been remarked before, we may safely say, following in the steps of Mr. Meyerson, that it is just the impossibility of resolving the course of physical becoming without remainder into a complex of universal connections, in accord with exactly formulable laws, that forbids us to regard the whole of physical nature as no more than a coherent dream of the physicist. If the physicist could ever succeed in getting rid altogether of the element of intrusive and perturbing brute fact which will not square wholly with his scheme of formulae, he would probably feel, as I think Mr. Meyerson has said, that the real world had evaporated before his eyes into a mere collection of logical or mathematical symbols. Now, of course, the brute facts which thus save the natural world from being sublimated away into a system of differential equations are, in the end, facts about our sensations, and what they disclose. The natural world is obstinately real because, however far we have carried the reduction of its processes to “law,” we have always still to take account of experiences in the way of sensation for which we can give no justification beyond the fact that they are there. Sense furnishes a standard of appeal which seems to be external to thinking, and by which the results of thinking have to be corrected. In the end, if there are undeniable facts recorded on the testimony of sense which refuse to square with the apparently best assured analyses and deductions of the intellect, it is the intellect, with its deductions and analyses, which has to submit.15 This is as annoying to the typical “thinker” as the theologian’s demand that “reason” should give way before “authority”; the same repugnance to admit the control of thought by anything beyond itself which gives rise, in one sphere, to the contemptuous rejection of all “authority” produces, in another, the types of philosophy which, in various ways, attempt to deny that sense as sense makes any contribution to the fabric of natural knowledge. In the one case, as in the other, theories which try to deny or conceal the fact that in all our thinking, whether about physical becoming or about God, the eternal Being, thought is working on an object which it has neither created nor “postulated,” but finds there, given in a contact which is not mere thinking, seem doomed to failure, as all unqualified apriorism must be, by the consideration that the thinker is himself an historical being, and that nothing has significance for him except in so far as it affects him by historical contacts.

In the case of the sensible experiences16 which give us our historical contacts with nature there are several points which call for remark. In the first place, it is obvious that there is no possible proof that all present sensation may not be mere illusion, as some of the ancient philosophies seem to have taught that it is. Descartes may make his immediate inference to an objective reality, the sum, from a single cogito, the fact, for example, that he is aware of colour or warmth, but that he is aware, that he cogitat, is not even an immediate illation.17 If it is denied, the denial cannot be met by the production of grounds, but must be swept aside by a mere reiteration of the original assertion. In the second place, though the whole edifice of philosophy and science is built, in the end, on a basis of direct simple apprehension, of which no further account can be given, this does not mean that one could ever isolate the simply apprehended content from the context of interpretation and “construction” with which it is complicated. Sense and thought, direct apprehension and the interpretation of what is given to it, may both be involved in any articulate perception, but we can never sort them out, so as to be in a position to say “this, and no more, is the element in my present perception which is given, simply apprehended as present; that is the result of recognition, analysis, comparison, and so is not given, but made”.

Kant, indeed, seems to undertake such a separation in his doctrine of the forms of intuition, but Kant, as I imagine we should all agree now, did not probe deep enough. Apparently, he would be content to assign to the side of construction everything in the perception recorded in a simple perceptive judgement which has to do with the spatial or temporal shape, size, position of what is perceived; but supposes that when you get down to the purely qualitative, when, for example, your perception constates no more than could be adequately conveyed by the monosyllable “green,” or “sour,” you have reached the merely given. In that case, the element of construction would only come in with that which the exclamation “green!” may imply, but does not convey—the implication “just here and just now.” Yet it seems plain on reflection that merely to say “green” with significance is to perform an act of comparison and recognition; interpretation has already begun, before we proceed to the implication “here, not there; now, not then.” If there ever was a time, as we may fairly doubt, in our own past history when we were purely receptive, the time must have passed before we could so much as name things, and to recapture the condition must be beyond the power of “articulate–speaking men”.18

The analytic psychologist may produce reasons, and possibly good reasons, to show that there must be such a thing as “pure” sensation, but it is abundantly clear that no such thing as a sensation pure of all elements of interpretation can enter as such into the fabric of our perception of the natural world, or be produced for the inspection of the psychologist who is reflecting on the problem of perception. In any bit of what we call our sense–experience, however elementary, which can be detached for examination, we find the given, or received, and the interpretative work of mind on this datum already inextricably complicated, a fact too readily ignored by the many promising young philosophers who treat the theory of knowledge simply as an affair of theorising about “sensa” and the relations between them.

In the third place, there is an important consequence which follows from this impossibility of making a quasi–chemical separation between a definite, exactly describable given, in respect of which we are simply receptive, and an equally definite and describable construction performed upon it, in respect of which we are active, and, it may be, wrongly active. The so–called authoritativeness, or infallibility, of sense is based wholly on the presence in it of the given and simply received. It will not cover anything which must be assigned to interpretation of the given, or construction on the basis of the given. And since we can never, as a fact, make an unambiguous separation, by reflective analysis, between one element in an experience which is all givenness, and a second which is all construction, the so–called “infallibility” of sense in respect of its proper sensible is never a sufficient guarantee that a specific experience involving sense is simply veridical. We may be mistaken when we appeal to any particular “sense–experience,” for none of the experiences we call by the name is pure unalloyed receptivity of a given. In part, all are manufactured, and we can never say certainly and exactly what part has been manufactured.

It is true, as Locke used to say, that there is a difference between real life and a dream, between actually burning my hand and only dreaming that it is burned. But there is no certain criterion by which, in a given case, we can distinguish waking from dreaming, actual perception from imagination. A careful psychologist may accumulate a number of distinctions which commonly stand us in good stead, for example, the superior vividness of actual waking perception, its steadiness, its coherency. Yet, in a given case, we know that any, or all, may fail us. In general, “images” may have less vividness than the corresponding percepts; they may be incoherent, or may flicker in a way in which the percepts do not. Yet there is always a real difficulty in discriminating a distant and faintly heard noise, or a colour seen by a dim and flickering light, from a sound or colour which we have only imagined; again, it seems undeniable that a “pure hallucination” sometimes has all the intensity, the fullness of detail, the steadiness and persistency which are, as a rule, marks of a true perception of the physically real. It is always hazardous to tell a man that he has not really observed, but only imagined, what he claims to have observed, because his observation, if genuine, would upset an important and apparently well–accredited theory. If we allow awkward observations to be disposed of in this fashion, we are plainly taking a dangerous step towards the arrest of all progress in natural knowledge. Yet there are cases where the procedure would be justified, and we can lay down no rule for their detection. There is a meaning, and an important meaning, in the assertion that sensation is authoritative, and even, if you prefer the more emphatic word, in a way infallible, and yet it is also true that no “observation” can be guaranteed as beyond criticism and correction.

I do not mean only that an observation may prove to have been made with defective instruments, or in neglect of some condition which might conceivably have been relevant to the result observed. I mean, further, that when all possible precautions have been taken to exclude error arising from such causes, error, that is, due to definitely identifiable special misinterpretation, there is still a more insidious source of error. We talk of “reading off” a record made by our “instruments of precision,” but in actual fact all “reading off” is itself inextricably mingled with interpretation because the very construction of the “instrument” itself involves and embodies interpretative theory; we never can be sure that we have successfully made ourselves the purely passive and recipient registers of “external fact.” The use of a measuring–rod presupposes the previous selection of a whole system of geometrical postulates; the appeal to a chronometer involves a theory of the “flow of time”. “Omnes perceptiones, tam sensus quam mentis, sunt ex analogia hominis, non ex analogia universi. Estque intellectus humanus instar speculi inaequalis ad radios rerum, qui suam naturam naturae rei immiscet.”19 Thus, though there could be no real knowledge of physical nature if we had not in sense, with its core of receptive passivity, an authoritative “control” of active speculation, we can never treat the particular “observation” as though it were all pure receptivity, and therefore absolutely infallible. It is not our thinking only that recipit infusionem a voluntate et affectibus.20

We may reasonably expect to meet with similar difficulties when we turn to examine our human knowledge of God, just because the subiectum which owns both kinds of knowledge is the historical human individual. Here also, if knowledge is to be more than personal opinion (δόξα), there must be control of our personal intellectual constructions by something which is not constructed but received. Not only must we begin as little children, if we would enter either the regnum hominis super naturam or the kingdom of God, but we must retain the submissiveness and docility of the childlike mind all through our subsequent progress. A true humility of soul in the presence of the given is as much a condition of advance in natural knowledge as it is of “growth in grace.” The problem in both cases is how to combine rightly two characters, both of which are distinctive of gracious and unspoiled childhood, humility and the spirit of fresh and fearless adventure, τὸ πρᾷον and τὸ θυμοειδές, to speak with Plato; we should, like the best and most attractive kind of boy, be at once receptive and eager—receptive without servility and eager without presumption and waywardness. The combination will only be effected if we remember always that there is, in the case of our knowledge of God also, that which is simply received, not invented by ourselves, and is therefore, in its nature, simply authoritative, a genuine control on the wilfulness of our individualism. It is not by “searching” that we find out God. And it is clear what this control must be. It must be the experience of rich, but confused, contact with the supernatural which plays, in our knowledge of God, the same part that immediate contact through sense with a confused “other” does in our knowledge of nature. The difference between the two cases is partly that the contacts with the supernatural are at once dimmer and richer than our contacts through sense with the natural, partly that whereas contact with the natural, being a necessity of physical existence, is common to us all, and exhibits only moderate variations, except when there is definite bodily disease or malformation, impressive and frequent contacts with the supernatural are given to the few, and there is a much wider range of variation in sensibility to them. It is not hard to find the human individual of “good normal” acuteness of sense–perception, and the divergences between the reports of such “normal” individuals on the same situation can be made negligible, or nearly so. In respect of natural eyesight, most men in health and the prime of vigour are beings with fairly “normal” delicacy of vision; the myopic or markedly astigmatic are a minority, sufferers from serious ophthalmic disease a smaller, and the downright blind a still smaller, minority. But in the matter of spiritual vision not a few of us are perhaps the born blind, the vast majority are myopic; the clear–sighted are the very few. Clear–eyed spiritual vision seems to be at least as rare as penetrating mathematical insight or exquisite musical sensibility.

Hence, while we rightly take as the authority to which we must, in the end, defer in questions of natural fact the perceptions of the “normal” man, exercised under carefully prearranged conditions of observation, in questions about facts of the supernatural order we cannot similarly make our authority the “common,” or “average” man. It is as though the great majority of a certain population were markedly short–sighted, or colour–blind, and were therefore forced to take as authoritative the visual perceptions of the few who stood out as exceptionally free from those defects—a case which would presumably actually occur if there were a group of human beings who had become, by past “adaptation” to a special environment, generally colour–blind, or myopic.21 In such a kingdom of the blind, the one–eyed would actually be king. And, in fact, we do act on this principle in the closely analogous case of aesthetic perception. We do begin by trusting the authority of the few of exceptionally keen perceptivity, e.g. in music, on the question whether a composition has beauties to be found in it, and what those beauties are, and it is only by our initial submissiveness to their authority that we come, if we do come, to acquire ability to perceive for ourselves. Even so, none but the few among us ever come to perceive for ourselves independently more than a part—in my own case, alas, how small a part!—of what the more favoured few perceive, though we are content to believe that much which we shall never learn to discern is really there, because the few agree in assuring us that it is so. We have found that we perceive the more clearly for having believed them, and therefore we continue to believe their assurances, even where we never expect to be able to see directly for ourselves. In the same way, it is reasonable to recognise that if a great religious tradition has ennobled and purified human life, over a wide range of space and time and circumstance, by bringing the supernatural down into it, and is actually, so far as we have been able to assimilate its content, doing the same thing for our own lives, what has been intensely perceived and lived by the chosen spirits who have shaped the tradition, even where we have not been personally able to assimilate it and build it into the substance of our own lives, is no mere “subjective” illusion, but embodies real apprehension of a real supernatural.

But the point on which I am personally most concerned to insist is a different one. It is that in immediate apprehension of the supernatural, as in immediate apprehension of the natural, we are dealing with concrete, individual, historical, experiences which resist complete intellectual analysis, at the same time that they demand it. In both cases, no man can communicate what he sees in its totality and individuality. Any attempt at communication involves rationalisation and analysis, at least in an unconscious form, and communication, in consequence, brings with it loss and gain together. In the effort to say what one sees there is always an intellectual concentration which makes it clearer to the beholder himself what certain central features of the chose vue are. This is why a prudent man distrusts “impressions” of which he cannot “give clear account” to another; and, again, why it is a good rule never to be satisfied with one’s own proof of a proposition unless one can “set it down in black and white on paper.” But the central features of the chose vue are always in fact given in a setting of penumbra or marginal vision, and this setting falls more or less completely outside the range of that which can be imparted by communication. No one can answer the simple question, “What do you see at this moment?” in a way which will convey “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” The thing simply cannot be done, even if the statement is being made to a second person with vision as perfect as the speaker’s;22 much less, if the second person is lamentably colour–blind. It follows that it is with perception of the supernatural as it is with perception of the natural; it is impossible to make an unambiguous presentation of the actually given and the reflective interpretation of the given in separation from one another. In every attempt to communicate the content of the experience there is inevitably an accompaniment of interpretation, and therefore of construction, even if the construction amounts to no more than the negative omission of the “marginal,” and it is never possible to say with precision how much is construction. (Even if the construction is no more than a leaving out of the “marginal,” you cannot say just what and how much you have left out; if this could be done, the “marginal” would have ceased to be marginal.) And, as in the case of sensation, so in the case of contact with the supernatural, the reality and authoritativeness of the given as given does not guarantee the infallibility of the individual declarations based upon immediate contact.

It seems to me, then, that the rightful demand of the intellect for individual freedom to think sincerely and fearlessly, and the equally rightful demand of religion for objectivity and protection against the vagaries of pure subjectivity, can only be harmonised in one way, through the cultivation, by all parties who are concerned that human life shall be the prey neither of worldliness nor of superstition, of the two complementary qualities of docility and adventurousness. In the past untold mischief has been wrought by their separation. The ecclesia docens, the official body of teachers in the religious community, has often shown a high degree of adventurousness in its bold formulations of articles of faith, or other propositions claiming to embody the content of what is authoritative; from the rest of the community it has demanded unqualified submissiveness. Or, in the reaction against this demand, individual thinkers have denied the right of authority, reposed in any external body, to exercise any control over, or receive any deference from, the solitary mental adventurer. Indeed, not so long ago, there seemed to be, at least in Western Europe, a still more complete inversion of the parts played for so many centuries by the ecclesia docens and the individual. We have witnessed something hardly to be distinguished from a claim on the part of self–constituted representatives of the secular sciences to be the sovereign authority which dictates but does not obey, while official theologians have, in large numbers, been almost comically anxious to show their docility by accepting almost any speculation put before the British Association by a Professor, or a Fellow of the Royal Society, or communicated to the newspapers by a medical man of any notoriety, as the latest deliverance of an infallible authority, to which religion must at once conform itself, at its peril. Neither the ends of pure religion, nor the purposes of sound science are well served by these attempts to make authoritarian dictation the duty, or privilege, of one set of men and teachable humility that of another. No man will be either a true saint or a man of the right scientific temper who does not know how to be at once docile and adventurous in his own personal thinking.

This fairly obvious truth has very important bearings on the duties of those whose office it is to be, for their time, the representatives of authority in the religious community. It is inevitable that, for the necessary purpose of avoiding pure anarchy in thought and consequent anarchy in practice, there should be somewhere in the community a body thus charged with the duty of safeguarding the foundations of its life. The whole raison d’être of the religious community as such depends upon its possession of a genuine disclosure of the supernatural, too precious for human life to be surrendered at any man’s bidding. But where there is not a true and deep docility of spirit in these official custodians of the “deposit,” there is certain to be, along with rightful jealousy for the real spiritual treasure of the community, a great deal of unreasonable jealousy of surrendering, or even modifying, much in the existing tradition which is mere temporary incrustation upon the true jewel. The motives for this conservatism in authorities need not always be, and most often, perhaps, are not chiefly the more discreditable ones of lust of dominion, or professional esprit de corps, though a “man in authority” does well to be vigilantly on his guard against the unsuspected presence of both in himself. But the excellence of the motives in no case removes the mischievousness of their effects. If one age, from the worthiest motives, persists in defending the indefensible, the next is likely to see a panic surrender of the indispensable.

Now the danger to the spirit of religion itself from an improper exercise of authority is not sufficiently guarded against by merely drawing such distinctions and marking such limitations as have already been recognised by even rigidly authoritarian religious communities. It is true that even when the claims of an infallible authority—Pope, Councils, Bible—have been most insisted upon, it has been customary, in theory at least, to admit a whole mass of such limitations. Thus there has always been some sort of recognised distinction made between the primary and indefeasible authority of the official person, or persons, as custodians of the truth and a second and temporary authority of a purely executive or administrative kind to determine what, in view of existing conditions, may be taught or practised with the consent of the community, and I suppose it would be pretty generally conceded that actual re–positaries of authority have not infrequently misused their position by confusing the two different kinds of authority. If, for example, in the too famous case of Galileo, it had simply been decided that, at the existing juncture, the Church must not be distracted by the teaching of Copernicanism as a definitely established truth, there would, I take it, have been no serious reason to complain of the decision; the scandal arose from the presumptuous declaration of the Cardinals Inquisitors that Copernicanism is false.23 So, again, it has generally been held by the supporters of an infallible authority that the range of its infallibility is circumscribed; authority is only infallible in matters of “faith and morals.” And, once more, even within this domain itself, a distinction has been taken between the express words of an authoritative deliverance itself and the explanations given of them, or the inferences drawn from them, by individual theologians, which are said to be authoritative only in the sense that they deserve a respect based on the eminence of the expositor in his own speciality. Unfortunately, in practice Popes and Councils determine for themselves what questions are questions of faith and morals. Where the authority recognised is the text of a written Scripture, either the determination of this point is left with some group of divines who happen to be prominent and influential, or, as in societies of “Fundamentalist” views, the text of Scripture is taken indiscriminately as equally authoritative in all spheres whatsoever. What is really needed, if there is to be no faltering of specifically religious life and thought, as well as no dictation by theologians, acting in the supposed interests of religion, to natural and historical inquiries, is, I suggest, the making of a distinction between authority and inerrancy, and the recognition on all sides that the claim to rightful authority is not a claim to inerrancy.24

The justification of this distinction has already been provided by what we have said of the impossibility of making any intelligible statement, whether about the natural or the supernatural, which shall have as its content the simply objective and given, with no element whatever of the subjective and constructed. It is worth while to reflect that even the unique authority ascribed by orthodox Christianity to Our Lord, as the man in whom humanity and deity, nature and supernature, the temporal and the eternal, are in perfect interpenetration, does not seem to affect the application of this distinction to the authoritatively enunciated doctrines of the Christian religion. From the Christian conception of the person of Christ it follows, no doubt, that the spiritual vision of the one man Jesus Christ, unlike that of any other of our race, must be thought of as adequate, never obscured by wilfulness, self–centredness, consciousness of alienation from the divine. But we have also to remember that equally, according to the conception of orthodox Christianity, Christ is no Misch–wesen, not something more than human but less than divine, like the daemons and heroes of Hellenic fancy, but at once truly divine, and no less truly and utterly human. Both the soul and body of Christ are held to be, in the fullest sense of the word, “creatures”; the historical, human experience of Christ is thus a creaturely experience, though an absolutely unique creaturely experience, of the divine; hence the strictest traditional orthodoxy has found itself confronted with the problem of the limitation of the human knowledge of the incarnate Christ, a problem raised from the first by the simple statement of an Evangelist that, as he advanced from childhood to manhood, he “grew in wisdom and grace with God and man,”25 by the record of his frank admission of ignorance of the day and hour of the final triumph of the divine purpose,26 and still more impressively by the narrative of his devastating experience of sheer dereliction at the crisis of his history, the prayer of passionate prostration in the garden, and the dying quotation from the most heart–broken of the Psalms. It is only the creaturely that can pray, and when a Christian speaks of the adequacy of the Lord’s human experience of the supernatural, he must not, I take it, forget that the adequacy meant is still relative to the conditions of creatureliness inseparable from genuine humanity. The human experience even of a humanity “personally united with the Word,” being human, is still temporal experience of the supra–temporal, and of it, too, it must hold true that quidquid recipitur, recipitur ad modum recipientis. If it were not so, Christian theology would have had no obstinate Christological problem to wrestle with.

It is hardly necessary to recur again in this connection to the point already dealt with earlier, that in dealing with the recorded utterances of the historical Christ, even if we could be sure of their actual words, we have to allow for qualification of the received by the very real limitations of the recipients to whom the utterances were addressed, and of those for whose immediate benefit they repeated them. But we must add, finally, that before a doctrine, however derived, becomes a defined dogma, a formula approved by the community or its representatives, there is still a further stage of more conscious reflection, regularly attended by prolonged, and often prejudiced and inflamed, discussion and debate; there are also always, or nearly always, the dissentients who, at most, silently acquiesce in the formula finally adopted for the sake of peace because adoption is the alternative which “divides least,” and even among those whose acceptance means more than this acquiescence to avoid strife, verbal agreement often covers a wide divergence of interpretation. On all these grounds it seems a dangerous confusion to treat a rightful claim to authority as if it could ensure the formal infallibility of a dogmatic formula. The permanence of truth, I hold, is perfectly compatible with the transience of the precise formulae in which we try to give truth its expression.

We are all, I hope, alive to the reality of this distinction in the realm of natural knowledge. There we rightly revere the authority of the great names: we regard the Galileos and Newtons as having really made imperishable additions to our stock of apprehended objective truth, additions which will never have to be simply removed or dismissed as subjective fancies, but we do not dream of declaring that the formulae in which they gave expression to their truth are lifted once and for all above all possibility of modification. There seems to be no sufficient reason why the same distinction between authority and inerrancy should not be quite frankly recognised in connection with the theologian’s attempts to formulate human knowledge about God. If it were recognised, we might look for a double advantage. We might fairly expect the candid lovers of science to lose their natural, but unfortunate, prejudice against theology, as they came to realise that the kind of authority claimed for himself by the theologian is, in principle, the same sort of authority with which they are familiar, and to which they properly attach weight, in their own sphere. With the clear distinction between authority and inerrancy once before them, it would become increasingly apparent that what the theologian is really asserting as the foundation of his claims is simply the reality and autonomy of experiences of contact with God as a genuine feature of human life, and the legitimacy of co–ordinating the contents of such experiences into a coherent system by trusting the testimony of those in whom it is richest and most pronounced. There are many signs in the present attitude of outstanding leaders in natural knowledge to the great religions that a claim of this kind would be understood and respected, if it were not supposed to carry with it the further claim of some specific man, or body of men, to decree the truth of anything they please, without condescending to any account of the why and wherefore. If the official custodians of religion would but cultivate the virtue of wise docility, the gain would not be only to their own characters and reputation. Theology itself, I believe, would once more win a more general recognition as a true science, and we should be delivered, to our great spiritual and moral profit, from the ruinous compromise which makes over the whole field of real knowledge to the various branches of secular study, and reduces religion to a mere affair of elegant but meaningless emotionalism, our latest method of honouring God with our lips while our hearts are far from Him. Unfeigned docility in the representatives of theological authority would have as one consequence a salutary advance, on the part of philosophers and men of science, from religiosity to religion.

And, moreover, such an advance would carry with it also an increased inward respect, from the scientific side, for the positive doctrines and even the dogmatic formulae of the great religions. When the claim to authority had been put on its true basis, appeal to a spiritual insight and experience which have proved their power to sustain a definite and unique type of life of supreme value, it would no longer be possible to regard the agelong systematic reflection on the principles underlying and regulating that life embodied in the dogmas of great theologies, and the expositions of them by great theologians, as mere intellectual curiosities which stand in no vital connection with the realities of spiritual experience, and may, without loss to our personality, be relegated to a museum of obsolete fashions. It would be increasingly understood that where there is a genuine given for the intellect to work on, the fruits of generations of continuous elaboration of the given by those whose aptitudes make them specally at home in the field are never to be lightly set aside as having exhausted their significance.

We know how, a century ago, this sort of treatment was meted out to the great constructive philosophies of the past; the thought of Plato, of Aristotle, of Descartes, was treated as a curious, but mainly wrong–headed, divagation of the human intellect with no significance for the direction of the modern mind, which would, in fact, best prepare itself for its own conquering advance by freeing itself once and for all of all this antiquated lumber. We all know, also, how within less than a century, the quickening of interest in the great philosophical systems has not only made the history of philosophy and science a living subject, but has also helped to provide some of the most modern and “progressive” of our scientific and philosophical thinkers with significant “direction–cosines” for their own work and their own specific problems. Even in my own youthful days, most of my teachers would have said that at any rate the physical speculations of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, were things simply dead, mere monuments of perverse and wasted mental ingenuity. To–day we see Professor Whitehead, in one work,27 consciously and avowedly going back to the Timaeus; and in another,28 less consciously perhaps, but none the less really, to the Physics of Aristotle for the foundations of a singularly fresh and living and eminently “modern” doctrine of the principles of natural knowledge; and Mr. Meyerson29 throwing a new and brilliant light on the tendency and the logic of the “theory of relativity” by exhibiting it as the unforeseen outcome of the conception laid down in its great outlines in Descartes’ Principia, as, in fact, the fulfilment, in an unexpected form, of the Cartesian demand for the geometrising of physics. If, to our own grave intellectual detriment, we have so long missed the light we might have drawn from thought wrongly supposed to have lost its vitality, one cause which excuses, though it does not justify, our error has been, as we all know, the way in which earlier generations had converted the authority attaching to the doctrines of great men into something like a formal inerrancy of their dicta. Now that, as we may hope, this reaction has fairly spent itself, it is not too much to say that the authority of great thinkers, like those I have named, has once more become real to us, just because we no longer confound it with this formal inerrancy. Because we do not treat their utterances, still less the official pronouncements of members of their “schools,” or the explanations of their commentators, as verbally infallible, we do not need to understand their teaching in a forced and unnatural sense, or to explain it away into truisms, in order to safeguard their words against all modification. This sets us free to look for their real meaning with a reasonable conviction that even when their express statements can be seen to require most modification, they mean something which has real and permanent significance. We appreciate their authority better because we do not mistake it for a mechanical inerrancy. When there is no longer danger that the same mistake will be made about “authority” in the theological sphere, we may look to see the real significance and authority of the great theologies regain the same kind of general recognition.

It will, no doubt, be said that the suggested analogy between authority in the domain of theology and authority in philosophy or science is misleading, since the claim made by every theology of revelation is that it has behind it the absolute authority of God, whereas the authorities in other fields are avowedly no more than human. But I do not think that this historically famous distinction can really be maintained as ultimate. So far as it exists, it is a difference in degree rather than in kind. On the one side, we must remember what has been already said about the way in which both actual contact with the supernatural and the communication to others of the disclosures made in such contacts are conditioned by the inherent creatureliness of the recipients. On the other, when we speak of the purely “human” character of philosophical and scientific authority, we must not forget that, according to the authors of the very distinction we are discussing, super–nature and nature have the same source. It is the same God who discloses Himself, at different levels, through the order of nature, through prophets charged with a special message, through a Son who is the “express image” of His person. In all three cases we have a contact with the supreme source of actuality and value, mediated by a contact with something or someone historical and temporal. The mediation may be more or less remote, and the type of life it sustains correspondingly poorer or richer, merely natural, simply human and ethical, or vividly supernatural. The content of the disclosures may be as loosely connected with the occasion by which it is afforded as a scientific law with the particular incidents which set its discoverer on the track of his discovery,30 or as closely bound up with it as the doctrine of the great prophets with the special spiritual experience through which it has been won and without which it would lose the best part of its meaning. But in all cases alike, in different ways, the same fundamental type of situation recurs. There is an element of the wholly given and trans–subjective which is absolutely authoritative, has unquestionable right to control our thinking or acting, just because it is so utterly given to us, not made by us; also in any communicable expression of the experience, there is the other element of construction, always relative to the mental habits, or rather to the whole physical and mental condition, of the experient at the specific moment of experience, and so always, to an unknown extent, infected with “subjectivity.” It is the presence, in however subordinate a form, of this second factor which seems to make it impossible to equate authority with inerrancy. Whenever, in nature or supernature, we are face to face with objectivity not to be explained away, God is speaking, but whether God speaks through the processes of nature, through a specific message brought by a specific messenger, or through a unique human life as a whole,31 the communications, of very different worth and depth, coming to us in these different ways, all come through a channel which is creaturely, and none of them ever wholly loses all marks of the creaturehood of the channel.

Perhaps the reality and worth of an authority which, for all its reality, is not the same thing as a formal inerrancy, is most readily illustrated from the sphere of the moral life, a life which is more than merely natural and yet not fully and consciously supernatural. How impossible to maintain the inerrancy of a man’s conscience, and yet how necessary to any serious morality to insist upon its authority, and even its absolute authority! Kant, it is true, if he is to be tied down to the letter of his teaching, appears to confound the authority of conscience with a formal inerrancy. In his anxiety not to weaken the sense of obligation in man he actually maintains that an honestly mistaken judgement on the morality of an act I am contemplating is impossible; “an erring conscience is a Chimaera32 an imaginary danger not to be met with in the real world. But Kant only takes himself in by this pronouncement because he has first made a false simplification of the typical situation in which we “consult conscience” about a course of action. The only “conscientious difficulty” he contemplates is that of the man who knows quite well that what he is proposing to do is a violation of positive moral law, but is looking for some plausible “colour” for the transgression. Had he considered the kind of decision which is really critical, choice between alternative lines of conduct where there is no traditional rule to afford any guidance, and the whole responsibility of deciding right or wrong thus actually falls on the individual conscience, the decision, for example, to accept or refuse an offered post, to make or not to make a proposal of marriage, he must have seen the extravagance of maintaining either that in every such case we pronounce one alternative right and the other wrong, or that when we do with difficulty arrive at such a pronouncement, its honesty is sufficient guarantee of its correctness. Yet when the pronouncement has been arrived at, in any case, it is authoritative, and even absolutely authoritative, for the person who has reached it. I know that my conscience is not inerrant, but the knowledge does not excuse disobedience. When we are once clearly awake to the relative extreme in–frequency in our actual moral life of uncertainties of the kind Kant selects for sole consideration, uncertainties whether we are morally at liberty to break a generally sound moral rule, we may perhaps be tempted to say that an erring conscience, so far from being an imaginary “bogey,” is an ever–potent source of moral mistake. When we have to make up our minds to a really critical choice, is not our maximum of conviction represented by language like that of the Prince in R. L. Stevenson’s story, when he throws the Rajah’s diamond into the river, “God forgive me if I am doing wrong, but this is what I mean to do?”

Most moralists, after all, have admitted that an erring conscience is only too common in actual life, but have not held that the possibility that my conscience may be in error diminishes my obligation to follow it. St. Thomas, for example, is as convinced that an erroneous conscience absolutely obliges as he is that it does not relieve from responsibility.33 Hutcheson is teaching the same doctrine of an authority which is absolute, though not formally inerrant, when he distinguishes between the material goodness of the act which is in fact demanded by the situation and the formal goodness of the act which the agent honestly believes to be demanded;34 so is Henry Sidgwick,35 in different language, when he says that conscientiousness, though not a sufficient, is always a necessary, condition of virtuous action. The opinio melior among moralists is unmistakably that conscience may, and sometimes does, err, but that this want of complete inerrancy does not affect its authority. The light it gives is not always that of the sun at noonday, and may at times be as fitful as that of a taper in a dark night, but it is light, and is all the light I have. I could wish always to have the sun, but if the brightest light I can get is that of the taper, I must guide myself by it. In other words, conscience, when it speaks, is authoritative and, if you like, absolutely authoritative, but its authority is not inerrancy. Even Butler, the great classical moralist of the doctrine of the unqualified authoritative–ness of conscience, never, so far as I can remember, credits the “principle of reflex approbation” with simple inerrancy.36

Next observe that the drawing of this formal distinction between the authority of conscience and inerrancy does not imply that all consciences are equally liable to err in all matters. How far my conscience can in practice be treated as secure against the danger of error will depend on many things: on the questions, for example, whether I am a callow youth, with all the inability of the young to see the full bearings of a confused and complex moral situation and to fix on those which are most truly relevant, or a man made clearsighted by experience of life; whether I have made it my practice to reflect on moral issues and to wait for the determination of conscience before committing myself, or have habitually allowed myself to act on headlong first impressions; whether the issue on which I have now to pronounce is, in its general character, of a type which experience of the situations presented by life has made familiar to me, or is, to me, unprecedented; whether I am facing a choice to be made by myself, or trying to give sound advice to another, and the like. Yet our moral experience may fairly be said to show that the surest way to get a more clearly illuminated conscience is to be steadily loyal to the light one already has, partly within one’s self, partly in the practice and the counsel of those whom one discerns, by the light one possesses, to be better and wiser than one’s self. A caterpillar, says James Ward,37 eats to fill its skin, but in doing so it gets a better skin to fill. Even so, by loyalty to the conscience one has—if we carefully remember that amenability to the admonition of those whom that conscience reveals as one’s betters is a point of this very loyalty—one gets a better conscience to be loyal to. The one certain way to miss getting a better conscience is to treat the conscience one has as less than absolutely authoritative, by living at random, or by handing over the direction of one’s conduct blindly to another. The more loyally one thus follows conscience, the more assured and delicate do one’s own personal discriminations between right and wrong become, and the more surely does one also learn who are the “others” who really stand out, in virtue of their moral insight, as guides whose help may be most safely relied on. There is thus nothing very paradoxical in a remark, made somewhere by Bosanquet, that a man of habitual loyalty to conscience may, with sufficient experience of the situations of life, reach something not very different from infallibility of moral judgement, for himself and his own personal choices.

If, further, we find that, throughout a great historical civilisation in which our own life forms an integral part, and which has the prospect of indefinite further extension from age to age, and race to race, the deliverances of conscience, as interpreted by those who are most delicately sensitive to them and listen most loyally for them, steadily tend to integrate themselves into a coherent system, covering the whole sphere of human action and pervaded by definite principles, we may fairly say that in such a moral tradition we have, not indeed as yet fully given, but as in process of being given, a truly objective morality which is not only of obligation and authoritative for man as man, but guaranteed in all its essentials against error, a morality which is an adequate basis for an ethical science at least as assured and certain as the most indubitably scientific of physical sciences. I do not myself see why we might not entertain the same hopes for the future of theology as a genuine, assured, and yet progressive science of God, if once the claim for authority could be disassociated from the very different claim of formal inerrancy for the precise words of statements made in the past, or to be made in the future, under certain strictly defined “standard” conditions. “Dead” authority and “living” experience are sometimes talked of as if they formed a natural and irresoluble antithesis, but the two are only antithetic when the authority is conceived of as dead and sterotyped.

“I should not believe in the Gospel,” says Augustine, nisi me catholicae ecclesiae commoveret auctoritas, “were I not constrained by the authority of the Church universal”.38 Had Augustine meant by the auctoritas ecclesiae catholicae, as has sometimes been meant by the words, a formal order issued by ecclesiastical officials, it might be said that he is committing the circle of crediting the inerrancy of officials on the strength of passages in the very Gospel which he professes to receive only because it is vouched for by the inerrant officials. But the thought permits of a very different interpretation. The auctoritas of the Church universal is not dead and canalised, but intensely alive. It is the weight attaching to the undeniable reality of a new and vivid experience which transforms life. In the life actually lived by the members of the Christian community there is a unique dominant quality, and it is historical fact that the source of this new life is, by the consenting utterances of all generations of the community in which it is manifested, a new relation to the supernatural, mediated through the human personality of which the Gospel narrative is the record. Understood so, the “catholic” appeal to the authority of the Church as a ground for belief is not opposed to the familiar “evangelical” appeal to the personal experiences of the individual. Both are forms of the appeal to a direct and personal experience, but when the experiences thus appealed to are those of the whole community throughout its existence, the impressiveness of the argument is immeasurably increased. The testimony of one man to the source of his own changed life, if it stood alone, might easily be discredited. He may be thought to have wrongly found the genuine source of the change in someone or something only incidentally connected with it. Or that which has really been mediated to him through one channel may be equally capable of being mediated with the same success to a second man through another, just as some other work than Chapman’s Homer may do for another youth of poetic genius what Chapman’s book did for Keats. The concurrent testimony of generations of a community with members from every “people and nation and kindred and tongue” is a different matter. It is not in the nature of things that the whole of such a community should be under a standing collective hallucination, either as to the reality of the special quality of its life, or as to its source.

You cannot explain away the entrance of a new spiritual life into the world through Christ as a consequence of “Jewish apocalyptic” ferment in the Palestine of the first century, for the ecclesia catholica embraces Greek and Scythian as well as Jew, and its history covers many generations; yet you find it bringing the same specific new quality into men’s lives, where–ever and whenever it comes into contact with them. So, again, you cannot account for “conversion” to the life of the ecclesia catholica as a psychological accompaniment of the attainment of puberty, a by–product of sexual development, for the “converted” are not all adolescents: some are children, some men and women in the prime of life, some in advanced age, and it is the same new quality which the “conversion” brings into the lives of them all. The “catholicity” of the community is precisely that which gives the driving force to the appeal to its authority, for what it means is that since the community does not belong to one sex, or one period of life, or one special age, or place, or national or social tradition, there can be no explaining away of its experience as illusory, unless one is prepared to believe in the recurrence of the same identical illusion, with the same identical dominus Christus as its centre, in all places, at all times, and in spite of all variations in individual and social endowment and tradition. The wider one spreads one’s net the more “universal” the ecclesia which exhibits the common experience, the more incredible that it should be under an illusion about the genuineness of this experience, or the source of it. A scepticism which sees “collective illusion” here cannot well see anything else in any conviction of humanity, and if all our convictions may be an illusion, the very meaning of the distinction between truth and illusion is lost. That, I take it, is what is really meant by the auctoritas of the Church universal, and there could be no better illustration of an authority wholly independent of the claim of any set of officials to a formal inerrancy. And this is precisely why, with all respect for the “great church” of the West, I cannot but think that the attempt to locate the “seat of authority” in a specific official, or group of officials, is on a level with the attempts of some political theorists to localise “sovereignty” in the same fashion within the body politic and of some psycho–physicists to localise “the mind” in some delimited region of the nervous system.

  • 1.

    Institutes of Metaphysics, p. 2: “Philosophy, therefore, in its ideal perfection, is a body of reasoned truth … it is more proper that philosophy should be reasoned than that it should be true; because, while truth may perhaps be unattainable by man, to reason is certainly his province, and within his power.”

  • 2.

    The word “instinct,” indeed, is perhaps not the best that could be chosen to convey Anselm’s thought. But neither does it really convey Bradley’s meaning.

  • 3.

    S.T. i.a q. I, art 8 ad sec. “argumentum ex auctoritate est maxime proprium huius doctrinae, eo quod principia huius doctrinae per revelationem habentur. Et sic oportet quod credatur auctoritati eorum quibus revelatio facta est. Nee hoc derogat dignitati huius doctrinae: nam licet locus ab auctoritate quae fundatur super ratione humana sit infirmissimus, locus tamen ab auctoritate quae fundatur super revelatione divina est efficacissimus.”

  • 4.

    Leviathan, c. 47.

  • 5.

    De Corpore, c. i. 8 “excludit a se Philosophia Theologiam, doctrinam dico de natura et attributis Dei, aeterni, ingenerabilis, incomprehensibilis, et in qua nulla compositio, nulla divisio institui, nulla generatio intelligi potest.”

  • 6.

    Seven Philosophical Problems, Epistle Dedicatory (English Works, ed. Molesworth, vii. 5): “But what had I to do to meddle with matters of that nature, seeing religion is not philosophy, but law?”

  • 7.

    Johnson to Boswell, February 1766.

  • 8.

    “A Little Boy Lost,” in Songs of Experience.

  • 9.

    Dante, Purgatorio, iii. 37.

  • 10.

    The problem has its very practical bearings. E.g. if we are to take the ipsissima verba of Christ as they fell from His lips as our absolute authority and our only absolute authority, how is a Christian Church to deal with the problems of divorce? Everything will turn on the questions—(1) Did Christ actually utter the words “apart from a case of fornication,” which appear in Matt. v. but not in Mk. x.? (2) What is the precise signification of the word “fornication” in this clause? (3) In view of the actual institutions of Galilee in the first century, does the presence or absence of the clause make any difference? It seems impossible to hold that all three questions can be answered with certainty. I am not asking, be it understood, whether divorce in case of fornication is Christian or unchristian, but whether anything could be determined either way by simple appeal to the litera scripta.

  • 11.

    Leslie Stephen, English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, c. 5.

  • 12.
    Met. α 993 b 9 ὥσπερ γὰρ τὰ τῶν νυκτερίδων ὄμματα πρὸς τὸ φέγγος ἔχει τὸ μεθ᾽ ἡμέραν, οὕτω καὶ τῆς ἡμετέρας ψυχῆς ὁ νοῦς πρὸς τὰ τῇ φύσει φανερώτατα. In the versio vetus Latina, the νυκτερίς is replaced by the noctua. Is there some chance reproduction of the original image in Blake’s words,

    “The Bat that flits at close of Eve

    Has left the Brain that won’t believe?”
  • 13.

    This, I should say, is the real meaning and the permanent truth of the Platonic doctrine that all knowledge is ἀνάμνησις.

  • 14.

    Pascal, Pensées, 553 (Brunschvig) (Mystère de Jésus).

  • 15.

    This explains what Democritus meant when he made the senses say to the intellect τάλαινα φρήν, παρἡμέων λαβοῦσα τὰς πίστεις ἡμέας καταβάλλεις; πτῶμά τοι τὸ κατάβλημα (fr. 125 Diels). Cf. the observations of É. Gilson with reference to the ultra–rationalism of Descartes: “à un phénomène réel qu’il ne pourrait pas s’expliquer s’il le connaissait Descartes préfère de beaucoup un phénomène qui n’existe peut–être pas mais qu’il peut expliquer pour le cas où ce phénomène existerait. Tels ces escadrons de fantômes qui combattent en l’air. … Les scolastiques croient au phénomène et renoncent à l’expliquer. [They ascribe it to the agency of God, or of good, or bad, angels.] Descartes n’y croit guère, mais il indique cependant les causes qui lui semblent capables de le produire” (Études de philosophie médiévale, p. 285).

  • 16.

    If I am asked exactly what I mean by sensible, I do not know that I can do better than quote the definition of Augustine: “iam video sic esse definiendum, ut sensus sit passio corporis per se ipsum non latens animam” (de quant. animae, 23, 41). See the exposition of É. Gilson (Introduction à l’étude de saint Augustin, 72), from whom I borrow the reference.

  • 17.

    We must be careful to avoid the mistake of Huxley in his essay on Descartes, who argues that the premiss of the inference should be stated in the hypothetical form, si quis cogitat, est. The absence of existential import in such a premiss would make it incapable of yielding the existential conclusion Descartes needs. His premiss is really ille homo qui est Renatus Descartes hie et nunc aliquid cogitat.

  • 18.

    Plato shows more insight, when he subjoins to an account of the intellectual activity implied in the grasping of a geometrical truth the words ταὐτὸν δὴ περί τε εὐθέος ἅμα καὶ περιφεροῦς σχήματος καὶ χρόας, περί τε ἀγαθοῦ καὶ καλοῦ καὶ δικαίου, καὶ περὶ σώματος ἅπαντος σκευαστοῦ τε καὶ κατὰ φύσιν γεγονότος, πυρὸς ὕδατός τε καὶ τῶν τοιούτων πάντων, καὶ ζῴου σύμπαντος πέρι καὶ ἐν ψυχαῖς ἤθους, καὶ περὶ ποιήματα καὶ παθήματα σύμπαντα (Ep. vii. 342 D).

  • 19.

    Novum Organum, i. 40.

  • 20.

    Ib. i. 49. One might almost say that the “theory of Relativity” is no more than an illuminating comment on these two aphorisms. As an illustration of the source of difficulty I have here in mind, the reader may ask himself, carefully comparing Einstein, Theory of Relativity (E. tr.), pp. 53–4, with Eddington, Nature of the Physical World, p. II, whether or not the “FitzGerald contraction” is a fact, and just what he means by his answer to that question. And cf. the whole of Eddington’s essay “The Domain of Physical Science,” in Science, Religion, and Reality, particularly pp. 209–18.

  • 21.

    Cf. the famous parable of the cave–dwellers at the opening of the 7th book of Plato’s Republic, 514 A ff.

  • 22.

    At least the answer would have to be “much what you see yourself,” and this is an evasion of the difficulty.

  • 23.

    Of course there was a further issue, viz. how far any decisions of the Inquisition are binding outside the Pope’s dominions. Were the Universities of France in any way bound to respect such a decision? But this is a wholly secondary matter.

  • 24.

    Cf. the distinction always felt by the Romans, from whom we have borrowed the very word authority, between the imperium of the consul, or praetor, and the auctoritas of the senate. As W. G. de Burgh says (Legacy of the Ancient World, p. 191 n. 1), “auctoritas means ‘moral influence’; the English word ‘authority’ in the sense of executive power would be expressed in Latin by imperium or potestas.” What some of us find amiss in the attitude of “authoritarian” divines is precisely that they seem to us to confuse auctoritas with imperium.

  • 25.

    Luke ii. 52.

  • 26.

    Matthew xxiv. 36; Mark xiii. 32.

  • 27.

    The Concept of Nature.

  • 28.

    Science and the Modern World.

  • 29.

    In La Déduction relativiste, pp. 135 ff., 267 ff.

  • 30.

    Cf. the disputes on the question whether an incident of the year 1665 connected with an apple had or had not anything to do with the genesis of Newton’s planetary theory.

  • 31.

    “The work of our redemption was an intire work, and all that Christ said, or did, or suffered, concurred to our salvation, as well his mothers swathing him in little clouts, as Josephs shrowding him in a funerall sheete; as well his cold lying in the Manger, as his cold dying upon the Crosse” (Donne, Sermon for Christmas Day, 1625). It would be relevant to meditate upon the implications of this.

  • 32.

    Werke (Hartenstein2), iv. 251, vii. 204 (where an erring conscience is expressly called an Unding, the word rendered in our text Chimaera).

  • 33.

    S.T. i.a q. 19, art. 5, 6; cf. ib. q. 76, art. 3.

  • 34.

    Though, to be strictly accurate, Hutcheson expresses himself rather differently about formal goodness; an act is formally good “when it flows from good affection in a just proportion” (System of Moral Philosophy, i. 252).

  • 35.

    Methods of Ethics, bk. iii. c. 1.

  • 36.

    Though he does regard its possible “aberrations” as confined within a narrow range (Sermon ii. par. 2, iii. pars. 5, 6).

  • 37.

    Psychological Principles, p. 268.

  • 38.

    Contra Epist. Manichaei, v. 6. The context is to this effect. How is the claim of Mani to be an apostle of Jesus Christ to be defended against one who denies it? It is suggested that the Manichaeans may appeal to passages in the text of the Gospels. Augustine replies, “I only accept the Gospel because it comes to me with the auctoritas of the Church behind it. But it is the same Church which denies the apostolic mission of Mani. Its auctoritas is valid to substantiate both positions or neither.”