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Lecture II. Faith and Reason

IN my first lecture I attempted to show that the distinction between natural and revealed religion cannot be held to be an absolute distinction. Neither moral nor religious ideas can be simply transferred to the human spirit in a form of fact, nor can they be verified by any evidence outside of or lower than themselves. They can pass into and become nutriment only to the soul that by its own spiritual intelligence appropriates and assimilates them. And if this be so, revealed truth cannot belong to a different order from all other truth that appeals to the human consciousness, and with which therefore philosophy can claim to deal.

But though it may be granted that spiritual truth must be spiritually discerned, it may be maintained that this by no means implies the competency of reason to deal with the content of revelation. That there must needs be a response in the human consciousness to the truth it receives, does not necessarily mean that the response must be that of the reason or understanding. Spiritual knowledge, it may be held, is not speculative or ratiocinative knowledge; and there are many religious thinkers who altogether repudiate the claims of philosophy in the sphere of religion, on the ground that whilst finite truth can be apprehended by the understanding, it is by a different, and in one sense higher organ, that we hold communication with God and divine things. The appeal of religious truth, it is said, is not to the head but to the heart, not to reason but to faith. Belief in it is not of the nature of a conclusion from logical premises, but of an immediate, intuitive recognition, arising in the devout mind on the presentation to it of spiritual truth. Such a mind does not attain, e.g., to a knowledge of the existence and nature of God by following the steps of a metaphysical proof. Religion is the immediate communion of the soul with God, and the Spirit of God is to the devout and believing mind its own witness. And the same principle applies to all the essential truths of our Christian faith. Our belief in the divinity of Christ is not the result of any elaborate theory as to the Incarnation or the co-existence of two substances, a divine and human, in one person; the personality and life which the Gospel narrative brings before us awakens in us the sense of an infinite presence, an immediate recognition of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. What constitutes belief in the Scripture doctrines of redemption, of the forgiveness of sin, of the reality and efficacy of the atoning sacrifice of Christ, is not intellectual assent to any theory of atonement or of imputed righteousness or of justification by faith. The awakened soul, as it listens to the Gospel message of pardon through Him who bore its sins and carried the burden of its sorrows, responds to it with a simple unhesitating assurance that is beyond the reach of doubt, and rests on no process of theoretical argument.

From its very nature, therefore, according to this view, religion belongs to a sphere which lies beyond the jurisdiction of reason. If there be any kind of knowledge that is analogous to it, it is to be found, not in the sphere of science, but in perceptions, such as the intuitive or instinctive perception of beauty in nature and art, which are independent of the logical or theoretical faculties, and which are often keenest and quickest in natures whose reasoning powers are feeble or untrained. The responsive sympathy with nature, the thrill of admiration that fills the soul in the contemplation of her glory, is indeed in one sense full of intelligence; but it is a kind of intelligence altogether different from that which takes cognizance of scientific definition and demonstration, and which can formulate its results in propositions and arguments. And so, it is maintained, religious belief may be implicitly rational, but the knowledge it contains is not reached by any theoretical process, but comes to the soul as an immediate vision of spiritual realities, an intuitive perception of their divine grace and truth. It may even be maintained, not only that religious knowledge is primarily intuitive, but that it can never be anything else. Intuitive conviction from its very nature cannot, it may be held, render any account of itself. A belief that proceeds by process from one thing to another admits of formal statement. But how can we reproduce in reasoned form a conviction that rests on no process of reason? How can we re-cast in dialectic mould that which in itself is beyond all dialectic? Such a condition does not admit of any apologetic buttress, for that would be to seek support for a higher in a lower ground of certitude. Its only reply to rationalistic doubt or to reason's demand for systematic statement is the simple assertion, “I see it, I feel it to be true.”

Now it must be conceded that there are many considerations which seem to favour this view of the nature of religious knowledge, carrying with it the exclusion of philosophy from the sphere of religion. Some of these considerations I shall now briefly examine. I have dealt with this subject elsewhere in a somewhat different form, but a re-statement of it is required for the methodical treatment of the subject of these lectures.1

It may be conceded, for one thing, in favour of the view just stated, that the organ of religious belief cannot be any faculty in the human spirit which is not universal. A religion which is for all must be intelligible to all. The recognition of its truth cannot depend on evidence which is beyond the range of a limited intelligence. If Christianity is to be a universal religion, constituting the principle of a new life for all mankind, a world-redeeming, regenerating power, its reception cannot turn either on the accurate knowledge of historic facts, the evidence for which it requires much research and critical acuteness to appreciate, or on the apprehension of ideas which only minds endowed with no little dialectic skill or speculative insight can grasp.

Moreover, the reception of religious truth implies a moral and religious, and not a merely intellectual attitude of mind. It cannot be an act equally possible to the irreligious or even immoral, and to the pure and spiritually-minded. Belief in Christ cannot be as independent of any moral element as belief in Socrates or Caesar or any other historic personality; or, again, as belief in the Copernican system or in the Kantian or Spencerian philosophy. The faculty of historical criticism by which the element of truth is extricated from any narrative of events in the past may be possessed in fullest measure irrespectively of the moral and spiritual character of the critic, and the process of historical investigation may be carried on successfully or unsuccessfully without the investigator being either in the one case the better, or in the other the worse. The intellectual subtilty and deftness which enables a man to grasp the salient points of an argument, the speculative insight in virtue of which he can appreciate a philosophical theory, are qualities altogether apart from the moral tone and temper of his spirit or the purity and elevation of his life.

On this ground therefore—that the organ of religious belief cannot be a faculty which is the special prerogative of a limited class, and which may be and often is developed in highest measure in the most unspiritual minds—it does not seem possible to evade the conclusion that, in the province of religion, the province of spiritual truth, on the knowledge of which turns the relation of the soul to God, the organ of knowledge cannot be any faculty whose end or aim is simply intellectual satisfaction.

Further, it is urged with no little force that the attempt to give rational or intellectual form to our spiritual intuitions deprives them of their spiritual vitality and power. The impatience with dogmas and theological systems to which many in our day have given forcible utterance, and the demand to go back to the simple and informal presentation of divine truth in the life and teaching of Christ, arises, it may be said, mainly from the felt inadequacy of theological dogmas to embody the vital experience of the Christian life. The knowledge which comes to us by faith contains in it infinitely more than the understanding by any intellectual process can reproduce. Philosophical and theological ratiocination is the attempt to bring into clear consciousness what is implicitly given in Christian experience; but at best the former must ever fall short of the latter. In the attitude of communion with God, intuition takes in at a glance what scientific definitions, however elaborate, can only imperfectly and partially evolve. As the initial act of self-surrender to Christ is the germ which contains in it the potentiality of the whole future spiritual life, so faith is the potentiality of all knowledge; and the devout soul, even if it were associated with the keenest intellectual power, would in vain attempt to give definite form and expression to what is contained in one act of genuine Christian experience. The religious life in general, the ever-growing sense of the beauty and glory of the things unseen and eternal, the emotions of love, aspiration, reverence, self-devotion, have in them an element of infinitude akin to the nature of their objects. But the categories of the understanding are narrow and finite, they can express only separate aspects of truth; what they can give us is only a number of intellectual abstractions standing in hard and fast distinction from each other, and the one thing they are incapable of reproducing is the living harmony and beauty of spiritual truth as it presents itself to the eye of faith.

The conclusion, then, to which, as it has often been held, these considerations seem to lead, is that faith or intuition, not reason, is the organ of religious knowledge, and that in the immediate response of the spirit to the teaching of revelation, we have an uncritical certitude, an implicit strength and fulness of conviction, to which by no exercise of the logical or reasoning faculty we can ever attain. The appeal from faith to reason is the appeal from a higher to a lower and less reliable authority; and even if the formulating of the content of our spiritual experience in a reasoned system of doctrine be not an impossible achievement, the result would at best be the reproduction in an imperfect and inadequate form of what in the immediate consciousness of the spiritual life we already possess. Let us now briefly examine what force there is in these objections to the endeavour after a rational or philosophical knowledge of the content of our religious belief.

1. It is no valid objection to this endeavour to say that the primary organ of spiritual knowledge is not reason but faith. That we must begin with intuition or immediate knowledge is no reason why we should not go on to mediated or scientific knowledge. The practical and the scientific, the spontaneous and the reflective tendencies, may co-exist, and there is no reason why the one should prove a hindrance and not a help to the other. The popular outcry against dogma is, in some measure at least, based on a misapprehension of the end aimed at by theology in dealing with religion and religious ideas. Neither theology nor philosophy proposes to substitute scientific for immediate or experimental knowledge; or if in any case they do, they lay themselves open to the objections above adduced. To insist on the acceptance of a theological proposition or theory as the test of a man's Christianity, to conceive it possible that the state of the soul before God should be determined by its capacity to apprehend a theory of the Atonement or of the Person of Christ, or that its salvation should turn on the ability accurately to discriminate between the many conflicting creeds and confessions, all alike claiming to be based on the same inspired authority, is a notion which, it is to be hoped, has almost entirely vanished from the world. In the recoil from any such notion, thoughtful men have sometimes set themselves to inquire how much theological error may be consistent with genuine religion and a right to the Christian name. But to my mind the right answer would be that, directly and in the first instance, neither theological accuracy nor theological error, neither orthodoxy nor heresy, has anything to do with the matter. The response of the Christian consciousness to the glad tidings of the Gospel, the spiritual appropriation of the great ideas of the Christian revelation, the Fatherhood of God, the forgiveness of sin, the sinless perfection of the person and life of Christ, the call to participation in a life of Sonship and sacrifice akin to his own—the appeal which these and kindred ideas present to the believing mind, and the act of spiritual apprehension by which it responds to that appeal—are, in whatever way we describe them, wholly different from intellectual assent to consciously and deliberately reasoned opinions or to the articles of a theological creed.

But this concession does not by any means imply that no place or function is left for reason or rational investigation in the province of religion. Theology is not religion, but neither is ethical science morality, nor aesthetical science the sense and enjoyment of beauty, nor grammar and rhetoric the gift of speech. The sciences of Optics and Acoustics are not meaningless because we can see and hear without a knowledge of them, nor the sciences of Anatomy and Physiology, because the knowledge of them is not necessary for the performance of the bodily functions. “We act before we reflect and philosophize about our actions. We enter into social relations, we create institutions, silently and spontaneously the self-conscious nature that is in us gives birth and development to the organizations of the family, the tribe, the nation; and only later do we reach the point of progress at which thought turns back to reflect on the significance and ground of its own creations and to discern the principles that have been at work in their formation and development.”

In like manner, religion exists and must exist as a life and experience before it can be made the object of reflective thought; but there is no more reason, in this than in other instances, why experimental knowledge should exclude scientific knowledge. There can be no question that piety may be genuine and fervent where there is little or no capacity for theological investigation; but where the capacity exists, it is neither possible nor desirable that the intellectual impulse, the impulse after grounded, coherent, systematic thought, should be stifled. In religion as in other spheres of human activity—in morality, in art, in social and political life—there is present the underlying element of reason which is the distinctive characteristic of all the activities of a self-conscious intelligence; and the endeavour, by reflection, to elicit and give objective clearness to that element—to know what our religious ideas mean, what conceptions of the object of worship and of our own spiritual nature are involved in them, on what grounds they rest and to what results they point, to trace their relations to each other and to other branches of knowledge; to infuse, in short, into the spontaneous and unsifted conceptions of religious experience, the objective clearness, necessity, and organic unity of thought—this in religion as elsewhere is the aim of science. And it is no futile aim. To renounce it would be, for many at least, a kind of intellectual suicide; to pursue it, with even partial and imperfect success, is the only rest for minds in which the intellectual instincts are strong and irrepressible.

Nor, again, does there seem to be any real ground for the charge of repulsive hardness and narrowness as the characteristic of scientific theology, in contrast with the intensive serenity and harmony of religious experience. It is true that, here as elsewhere, science does not present its objects clothed with the spontaneity and beauty of nature and life. Analysis, division, abstraction, are the instruments with which science works. It must needs break up the fair and rounded wholeness and harmony of immediate experience. It must deal with abstractions, and be content to give up for the moment that concrete harmony which the world possesses for ordinary observation. But it is only to the unreflecting mind that science has an aspect of hardness and crabbedness. The botanist's herbarium, the collection of classified specimens in a museum, have lost the spontaneous beauty of nature, the attractiveness of delicately-moulded form, the ever-varying loveliness of colour, of light and shade, of motion and life. But though the scientific collection has lost this kind of beauty, it has gained for the educated observer another kind of beauty—the beauty of order and law, of identity of principle under diversity of form, of relation of organ and function, of organic development towards an ideal end.

But, indeed, the loss which science involves is by no means so great as this illustration suggests. For it is to be considered that scientific knowledge does not destroy, but leaves wholly unimpaired the simpler charm which nature possesses for ordinary observation. The science that unfolds the types and orders of plants, the organic laws of vegetable life, does not obliterate to the eye of the expert the inartificial beauty of form and colour which nature scatters from her inexhaustible treasury over the world's face. The knowledge of the principles of art does not suppress, but rather stimulates, the appreciation of the works of the great masters in the mind of the cultured observer.

But if this be so, may we not, on the same principle, be prepared to admit the futility of the contrast frequently drawn between religion or religious experience and scientific theology? It would be strange indeed if, in the highest of all provinces of human experience, intelligence should be compelled to renounce its birthright, and a check be put on those intellectual instincts which in every other province lead the human mind to reflect, to analyze, to endeavour after the rational grounding, harmonizing, systematizing of the materials which experience supplies. Nor is there any incompatibility here, any more than elsewhere, between the scientific and the intuitive life. There may be a temptation in some cases to substitute a scientific for an experimental interest in religion, and it is possible that the zeal of speculative investigation may not be accompanied by a corresponding ardour of the religious affections. But it is not the legitimate effect of science to dull our religious any more than our domestic and social sensibilities; and a thousand examples go to prove that profound learning and fervent piety is no impossible combination.

2. That we must begin with faith then, is, we have seen, no reason why we should not advance to science. That the primary organ of religious knowledge is not reason but faith, leaves to reason still an important office to fulfil. What then, let us now go on to inquire more closely, is that office? What function or functions has reason to perform in order to the attainment of a scientific or systematic knowledge of the content of our intuitive religious belief? I answer that faith is but implicit reason, reason working intuitively and unconsciously, and therefore without reflection or criticism of its own operations. Hence one of the functions of conscious reason is to purify our intuitions from foreign or spurious admixture. The sanction of intuitive or immediate certitude may, experience shows, be claimed for much to which it really does not extend. Truth is indeed its own witness to the spiritual mind, but not all that seems to be true. Grant that the witness of the spirit is the touchstone of truth, it is possible for the individual mind to be mistaken as to that to which it really does bear witness, and in different minds it may seem, and has often seemed, to bear witness, with the same irresistible sense of conviction, to the most diversified and discordant beliefs. The response of the consciousness, which is due only to the kernel of truth, may seem to accredit what is but the accidental husk of form or even the subtle admixture of error. The underlying element of truth, in other words, has come to men under manifold forms and in combination with much that is either irrelevant, or arbitrarily connected with it, or even that tends to disguise or corrupt it. A thousand influences of tradition, education, early association, and so on, have gathered round the arbitrary or accidental form a reverence due only to the inner reality. It may be that a particular theological formula or system of doctrine or ritual or church order, has been to many a good man, all his life long, the medium of his religious experience, bound up with the lessons of childhood and the teaching of revered instructors. It has been the conventional form or mould under which a sense of divine things has taken hold of his spirit; it has furnished the language in which he has prayed and worshipped and held communion with God. What wonder that religious feeling should blend inextricably the eternal reality with the transient form, and that faith should seem to lend the same sanction to the outward letter as to the divine spirit that operates beneath it? If therefore it cannot be assumed that our moral and spiritual intuitions, taken in the lump, are an absolute criterion of objective truth, and if the same sanction may be pleaded, and has been pleaded, for the most various and even antagonistic beliefs, it is no unimportant function that is left for reflective thought, when it claims to examine the content of the religious consciousness, to distinguish between the substance and the spurious adjuncts, between that which has a right to dominate the mind and that which derives its influence only from accident and external association.

And now, finally, what has just been said may enable us to perceive, in a general way, the function which reason and reflection have to perform in dealing with the materials supplied by religious experience. That function, in general terms, may be said to be this—that reason translates the necessarily inadequate language in which ordinary thought represents spiritual truth, into that which is fitted to express its purely ideal reality. We can see at a glance that the language in which faith embodies its ideas of divine things, though sufficient for its own practical needs, cannot be taken in its bare and literal form as true or adequate to the realities it would represent. When, for instance, the religious thought of a primitive time applies to God anthropomorphical or sensuous conceptions—when it speaks of Him as having eyes to behold the righteous and ears that are open to their cry, when it conceives of Him as working for a certain period and then resting from His labours, or again as enthroned in some celestial locality or seat of power and sending hither and thither emissaries to execute His behests, or again as repenting of some past action and only prevented by intercession from destroying the work of His hand, or as being roused to anger and wrath and appeased by gifts and sacrifices,—we see at a glance, in these cases, that the form is not strictly homogeneous with the matter to be expressed, and that to get at the truth, we must by reflection discount the merely symbolical or analogical element in the form in which it is expressed.

But even to the language of a purer and more exalted spiritual experience, a measure of the same inadequacy clings. When we apply to God and our relations to Him the notion of human paternity, or again when we think of Him as acting or operating on our spirits from without, as one physical agent on another, as exerting on them a mysterious force, or pouring forth remedial influence into them, or of His making them His temple or dwelling place,—here again it needs little consideration to see that such conceptions, though they may serve as the medium of devout thought and feeling, yet cannot be regarded as literally true, or adequately representative of the ideas they seek to express. If we limit them to their proper use—that of suggesting or calling up in the mind spiritual ideas through pictorial, sensuous, anthropomorphic forms, they suffice for the practical needs of the religious life. And though they are not, and cannot be dealt with, as exact equivalents for spiritual truth, yet in a certain intuitive and unconscious way the spiritual mind rises above the poverty and inadequacy of the medium it employs, strips away from the finite image the inapplicable and unspiritual element,— with the result, that language which, literally construed, would ascribe to God and divine things the conditions of space and time, the physical and mental limitations of human personality, becomes for the devout soul the suggestive symbol of spiritual thought and the food of the religious life.

But, on the other hand, when we attempt to identify the letter with the spirit, and to extract from these representative conceptions exact definitions and doctrines, to strain out of them every conclusion they will logically bear, they become the fertile source of misconception and error. How many, e.g., of the controversies, divisions, heresies, that have marked the history of Christian thought have originated in the attempt to apply to things spiritual conceptions and categories that are applicable only to things physical? The apparently contradictory ideas and doctrines that gather round the problem of the relation between the human spirit and the divine, between grace and free will, between the all-embracing agency of God and the moral independence and activity of man, have seemed to be contradictory, just because men have tried to apply to inward and spiritual relations the categories that pertain only to material and sensible phenomena.

So long as we do so, the ideas of divine and human agency are absolutely irreconcilable, and there is no escape from contradiction save by abandoning or tampering with one or other of the elements of the problem, and landing ourselves either in a Pantheism which identifies the world with God, or in a Deistic conception of freedom which makes man independent of God. Apply the category of causality to God, and His Omnipotence becomes the Omnipotence of unlimited and irresistible force, in the presence of which all finite activity becomes an illusion and there remains no agency in the universe but one. Apply the same category to the nature and life of man, and he can be or become free only by the assertion of a force that can resist or overcome all other power, even the power of God, and secure for itself a life and activity apart from His.

It is true that the religious life is the practical solution of the problem. The experience of every devout mind is the tacit refutation of the seeming contradiction. For every such mind it is not one or other of the alternatives, “God is all in all,” “Man is free and responsible,” which consciousness asserts, but both. Wherever the spiritual life is deep and real, there is, on the one hand, the instinctive claim and assertion of moral freedom as a reality which no sophistry can explain away, the profound and inalienable conviction that our moral destiny is in our own hands, that there is for each of us a sphere of thought and action which no other human being, which not even Omnipotence can invade. And, on the other hand, there is the equally irresistible conviction that our spiritual life flows from a higher than finite source, rests on a thought and inspiration that transcends our own individuality. In my conscious weakness and dependence, beset by temptation, conscious of an infinite ideal which my utmost endeavours made in my own strength are baffled to reach, I can yet feel that that very ideal is the revelation in me of a power that is mightier than my own; that the supreme command, “Thou oughtest,” is the utterance, only different in form, of the same voice in my spirit which says, “Thou canst”; and that my highest spiritual attainments are achieved, not by self-assertion, but by self-renunciation and surrender to the infinite life of truth and righteousness that is living and reigning within me. It is this seeming paradox, this coincidence of the lowliest humility with the loftiest aspiration and endeavour, which is of the very essence of the spiritual life, and which finds expression in such language as this of St. Paul, “When I am weak, then am I strong,” “Work out your own salvation,… for it is God that worketh in you,” “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” He who so speaks has realized in his own experience that play and activity of seemingly conflicting tendencies by which the spiritual life maintains itself and which have found in the unity and harmony of that life their practical reconciliation.

And what faith and Christian experience thus intuitively assert, it is the highest task of philosophy to justify. Philosophy seeks to lead us to a higher point of view, from which the seeming contradictions vanish, from which reason, following in the wake of faith, grasps the great conception that the religious life is a life at once human and divine—the conception that God is a self-revealing God, that the Infinite does not annul, but realizes Himself in the finite, and that the highest revelation of God is the life of God in the soul of man; and, on the other hand, that the finite rests on, and realizes itself in, the Infinite; and that it is not the annihilation, but the realization of our highest freedom, in every movement of our thought, in every pulsation of our will, to be the organ and expression of the mind and will of God.

  • 1.

    Cf. Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, chaps. II. and VI.