THE claim that Theology should be based upon Religious Experience has in our times become very familiar to those interested in such matters. But it is a thought of which little use can be made, unless we possess a fairly clear conception of the nature and scope of that which we describe by the name of Religious Experience. To the important part played in drawing attention to the subject in this country by the well-known Gifford Lectures of the late Professor William James on the Varieties of Religious Experience is perhaps to a considerable extent due the fact that this expression is apt to suggest too exclusively either the emotions and excitements associated with what is called ‘sudden conversion’ or the extraordinary states of consciousness so often described in the biography of those to whom the name of ‘mystics’ is commonly applied.
The prominence of these types of religious experience in James's treatment of his theme is easily explicable. In the first place the facts collected and classified by Professor Starbuck1 which formed the basis of James's induction were drawn almost exclusively from accounts given by members of American Protestant communities accustomed to require proof of a definite individual change of mind in their younger adherents as a condition of admission to full religious privileges. In the second place the individualism characteristic of American religion and encouraged by this traditional tendency in certain churches to lay so great a stress on the importance for spiritual life of individual feelings was thoroughly congenial to the bent of James's own mind; while his interest in abnormal psychology naturally directed his attention to those phenomena which pass by the name of mystical, and which may also be said to belong rather to the private than to the corporate aspect of religious life. This latter aspect seems to have appealed to him but little, and his comparative neglect of it was the proximate occasion of his friend and colleague Josiah Royce's striking reassertion of its significance in the last book that he wrote, The Problem of Christianity.2
But, though the records of conversions and of mystical raptures are by no means to be neglected by the student of religious experience or ignored in the construction of a theology claiming to interpret such experience, it is, I am convinced, a great mistake to forget here, or indeed in the investigation of any form of human experience, the lesson taught us in Plato's Republic,3 that we shall find it easier to read what in the individual soul is written in letters hard to discern, if we turn first to their reproduction on a larger scale in the institutions of society.
In the public theologies and ecclesiastical polities of mankind we have the best expression of the normal religious experience of the peoples among whom they have arisen. This is by no means to say that they merely represent the feelings and desires of average and commonplace individuals. The founders of religions and of churches, without whom they would not have come into being, have, for the most part, been prophets—that is to say, men of original religious genius; and the same is true to a considerable extent of the organizers and reformers through whom these religions and churches have assumed their present form; but these prophets have themselves sprung from and have exhibited in its most highly developed form the general religious type of their nation or community; and in the creeds and institutions which have taken their rise from their teaching we have a mirror of their activity, so far as it has proved effective in stimulating and raising the level of spiritual life around them, and in maintaining it at the height to which it has thus been lifted. Without wishing to deny that the ‘questionnaire’ may sometimes extract information of value even in this region of inquiry, one may not unreasonably suspect that the characteristically religious sentiments of reverence and awe may make it an instrument of investigation peculiarly unfit for wholesale employment in the field of Religion. No doubt there is a risk, to which we do well to be alive, of forgetting that the language or behaviour which has become traditional in religion may often reflect rather the thoughts and feelings of those who first introduced them than of those who at present use them. Nevertheless we are more likely to discover what men's thoughts and feelings are from the language and behaviour in which they are at any rate content to acquiesce, and under whose influence their religious life has unfolded itself, than from answers given or refused in a cross-examination to which they are not accustomed, and which may, by its apparent lack of delicacy in touching on the most sacred intimacies, reduce them at once to an indignant or obstinate silence.
I have already, in the first Lecture of this course4 expressed my general view of the relation of the religious experience embodied in historical religions to the Natural Theology which Lord Gifford chose to be the theme of the Lectures appointed under his will. I said there that, in my judgment, while every actual system of Natural Theology presupposes a definite type of religious experience expressed in a historical religion, the ultimate goal in all speculations must be a system which shall presuppose the whole religious experience of mankind. Of course the speculations which I am offering in these Lectures make no pretence to be at any but a very remote distance from that goal. Nevertheless no one can claim in dealing with this subject to be in touch with the general movement of the civilized thought of to-day who does not extend his view beyond the boundaries of a particular system of organized religion and does not keep before his mind the ideal of a universal religion and a universal theology whose shrine and school shall be “neither in this mountain nor yet in Jerusalem” but “in spirit and in truth.”5
So long, however, as the personal experience of any one engaging in the pursuit of this ideal is inevitably of a character far from comprehensive, he will do well to guide himself by two considerations.
In the first place he will recognize it as his special task to discover, so far as he may, the universal significance of that particular tradition whereof he is by his training and convictions an inheritor, the contribution which it has to make toward any final synthesis. In the second place, he will frankly acknowledge that in classifying religious traditions or experiences among themselves as ‘higher’ or ‘lower,’ although he may very possibly be often mistaken as to the particular rank to be assigned to a particular tradition or experience, he is in no wise disloyal to the ideal mentioned above, which does not and cannot require that all religions be placed upon one level, or that the student of these should hold himself debarred from preferences resting not upon mere prejudice, but upon a deliberate application of a suitable criterion.
But what is a suitable criterion? I think that there is one, but that it is easier to apply than to formulate it. Two statements, however, about it I would venture to make, which may at first sight appear to contradict one another. One of these statements will be that we may rightly test a religion by its success in encouraging, and being itself encouraged by, moral and intellectual progress among its votaries. The other statement will be that the only true test of the rank of one religion as compared with another is to be sought in the greater or less extent to which it exhibits the specific nature of Religion, and not that of Science or of Morality as distinguished from Religion. How these two apparently inconsistent positions can be reconciled may be perhaps most conveniently suggested by an illustration from a different region of experience. We should most of us readily admit that in ranking Venus and Adonis and Love's Labour's Lost below Hamlet and King Lear we were taking into account the greater moral and intellectual interest of the latter as compared with the former. Yet we should not consider ourselves bound upon that account so to judge of poetry by the excellence of its ‘moral,’ or by the correctness of the scientific or historical information imparted in it, as to run into danger of placing Mrs. Turner's Cautionary Stories above Romeo and Juliet or the well-known doggerel verses which give the dates of the Norman Conquest or the Fire of London above the Æneid or the Divine Comedy. What we should ask about a poem would be, not ‘What conduct does this advise?’ or (as the legendary mathematician is reported to have asked about Paradise Lost) ‘What does this prove?’ but rather ‘Does this express emotions consistent with moral and intellectual self-respect in the mind of him who entertains them?’
Yet it may be objected that this question too is surely one which only a prig would put to himself, at any rate in this explicit form; and in dealing with this objection (which has my full sympathy), we shall, I think, discover by the way an important difference between the sphere from which I took my illustration, the sphere of Art, and that which is at present our chief concern, the sphere of Religion.
When we are enjoying the nonsense of the Walrus and the Carpenter, the exciting incidents in the New (or for that matter in the old) Arabian Nights, or even the delightful society of the ladies and gentlemen whose doings Jane Austen has chronicled for us, we should without hesitation reply in the negative to any one who should ask us the question whether we should be content if literature never penetrated further and deeper into the mysteries of life, never took a more comprehensive view of the world than we find in these charming works of fancy and imagination. But we are content to refresh ourselves with these, to spend a holiday with them without impairing our moral and intellectual self-respect—even feeling, indeed, that to keep an eye all the time on the fact that we are not impairing it is somehow to fail in the true holiday spirit of enjoyment and to write ourselves down as prigs.
But in Religion we are directly concerned with the whole of life and experience; hence while we may no more estimate the rank of a religion by the application of a non-religious standard,—as though Religion were (as it has sometimes, indeed, been held to be) merely a means to morality or to intellectual culture,—than we may apply non-æsthetic standards in the criticism of works of art; yet we may here speak not merely of a negative consistency with the spiritual atmosphere of a high morality and of a disinterested search for truth, but of a positive harmony with such an atmosphere as a consideration which may determine us in calling one form of faith higher or lower than another.
I now come to the use which I would make for my present purpose of these general considerations. It falls under two heads. In the first place, if we compare the religions of the world on some such principle as I have just indicated, we shall, I think, have no difficulty in acknowledging that there is none which has shown more capacity for maintaining and even developing itself in the atmosphere of what would be generally admitted to be the highest moral and intellectual culture to be found at present in the world than the religion which, as we have had occasion to see,6 has more than any other laid stress on the presence of Personality in God. This will justify us in attaching especial importance to the witness of Christian experience; and this is also, as it happens, the only form of religious experience of which I myself can claim that intimate knowledge which training and conviction alone can impart. And, in the second place, so far as a greater stress on Personality in God than is elsewhere to be observed is characteristic of Christianity among the religions of the world, it can, I think, be shown that this is no merely extrinsic nor accidental feature of that religion, but the fuller development therein of a factor in some degree present in all religion.
This factor is, as those who have followed the course of our discussions will have divined, no other than what passes under the name of ‘divine transcendence.’ Religion can never, as we have seen,7 be content with a merely immanent object, though it is also no doubt true that it can never be satisfied with one merely transcendent. It is indeed in its discontent with either of these alternatives that it reveals itself as essentially concerned with nothing but the whole, the ‘Absolute’ of modern philosophy. But while nothing seems to possess beyond question the character which, under the name of Transcendence, Religion has been shown to require in its object, the character of a reality fully equal to that of the subject, except what can claim to be, like the subject itself, personal, it would also be difficult to deny that even where there is no explicit assertion of Personality in the object of Religon, the religious relation is on the whole thought of as exhibiting an emotional quality of the sort especially associated with personal intercourse, whether hostile or friendly. We shall moreover, I think, find that the more definite ascription of personality to the object of Religion will generally correspond to a fuller realization of his own personality by the worshipper. I shall not dwell upon this correspondence at present; for it will fall to be more fully considered in my second course. But it goes along with the other circumstances which I have mentioned immediately above to justify my assertion that the express affirmation of Personality in God, though made, strictly speaking, by one alone of the great historical religions of the world, is the natural culmination of a tendency traceable in all Religion, and therefore deserving of especial attention from any one desiring to construct a theology upon a broad basis of religious experience.
It will, I think, be not unprofitable to point out how, in the case of some of the principal religious conceptions—I will take for consideration those of Sin, Forgiveness, Justice, Sacrifice, Union—the acknowledgment of Personality in God does actually add both to their intelligibility and to their moral power.
It must not be supposed that the conception of Sin cannot or does not exist except in connection with the thought of an offended personality. The history of Religion shows that this is very far from being the case. Among primitive peoples it is probably more often imagined as a kind of uncleanness or infection which can by some act such as expectoration, imposition of hands, or what not, be transferred to some other person or thing and so got rid of. The terrible consequences which it is thought to entail are represented as ensuing upon it rather after the manner of direct physical effects than after that of punishments inflicted by a person whose displeasure it has incurred. On the higher levels of religious development it may still be regarded as working out its baleful issues after an impersonal fashion, as we find it regarded, for example, in ancient Greek tragedy or in the Indian doctrine of Karma, rather than as bringing them about only through the intervention of a divine Judge. It may even be contended that this view of the matter is a higher one, because assimilating the moral order of the universe to the august likeness of inexorable natural law instead of using language which may appear to aim at introducing into it the arbitrary element of personal feeling.
In opposition to this suggestion, I can but declare my conviction that to regard Sin as an offence against a personal authority, and still more to regard it as an affront to a loving Father, is a more intelligible and a more ethically significant way of thinking about it than it is to conceive it after the analogy of a physical defilement or an automatic mechanism. It is no doubt true that in our experience of the personal action of human rulers or parents there is present not only an element which, in Kant's famous phrase, is fit to be law for all rational beings, and is recognized as such by our common reason, but also an element which depends on the idiosyncrasies of the individual's peculiar temperament. But, even allowing for the moment that the latter element is unquestionably something of inferior worth, and that nothing corresponding to it is to be sought in a divine personality, should we be doing any more violence to our imagination in representing the divine character to ourselves as a personal character wherein desire and will are completely coincident with the requirements of Reason than in supposing an impersonal order which should yet be capable of inspiring in a supreme degree the veneration and the confidence which we render in varying measure to wise and good persons? It seems to me clear that the former presentation does but take for real a perfection our comprehension of which is implied in the very contrast with it of the imperfection of human personality, whereas the latter unites by a merely verbal device characteristics which cannot really be thought together, while secretly cancelling the inconsistency by indulgence in an emotional attitude which presupposes a quite different, indeed a personal, object.
We may, however, before leaving this subject, consider a little more closely what may for the moment be called the impersonal view of Sin, with a view of bringing it into a more detailed comparison with that which interprets it as essentially a personal offence. It may be thought, indeed, that to speak of any view of sin as ‘impersonal’ must be misleading, since Sin must be regarded as at any rate committed by if not against a determinate person. But we may here recall the significant fact that Buddhism, while adopting the doctrine of Karma, which is characteristic of Indian religion in general, eliminated Personality by its denial of the existence of any substantial soul, and thereby gave an interesting illustration of the close connexion which always exists between a religious doctrine of Personality in God and a genuine concern for Personality in man.
The experience of mankind has not confirmed the belief in a detailed dependence of the course of nature upon the social conduct of men which is often found in the earlier stages of religious development. The prevalence of sexual irregularity among a people does not lead, as primitive men sometimes suppose, to the blighting of its crops; and however true as a general rule it may be that a virtuous life conduces to the maintenance of physical health and a vicious life to its decay, yet moral goodness and bodily vigour are far too often divorced from one another to make possible an identification of the rules of hygiene with the law of holiness. Thus that ancient view of Sin which assimilates its connexion with its penalty to a natural sequence of cause and effect, and does not greatly, if at all, interest itself with the question against whom it is committed, seems destined to disappear with the advance of knowledge and the consequent subversion of the sanctions by which the avoidance of it was formerly secured. The doctrine of Karma, indeed, is not necessarily involved in the ruin of this view, for it cannot be subjected to the same empirical tests, since it is only from the observed fates of individuals in one life that we can ascertain the moral quality of those deeds done in other lives which, according to this doctrine, have entailed those fates. But those who share the conviction expressed above, that the recognition of a personal relation in the sinner to God makes the whole conception of Sin more intelligible and more ethically significant than it can be without such a recognition, cannot but hold that the lack of it is a serious drawback to the doctrine of Karma, as well as to cruder views of Sin which resemble it in dispensing with a God against whom Sin is committed and by whom it is judged.
It would, however, be unfair to pass over altogether without comment an argument which is not infrequently met with and which challenges the morality of introducing the notion of personal displeasure into our view of Sin, by pointing to its consequence in the doctrine of a forgiveness of sins, a doctrine which is (it may be alleged) of a distinctly immoral tendency. This is a challenge to be taken up, especially as this doctrine is one which, while it is intimately associated with the conception of Sin as a personal offence, very specially distinguishes the religious from the merely ethical view of the world. On the general question of the mutual relations of Morality and Religion I do not here propose to dwell, because we shall encounter it again in the course of the discussions which I have reserved to my second series of Lectures. But on this particular matter of the morality of the Forgiveness of Sins it will be in place to say something at this point of our investigations.
Insistence upon the importance of the Forgiveness of Sins is obviously connected with the peculiar horror of Sin which is a mark of Religion rather than of Morality when considered apart from Religion. Yet this religious horror of Sin need not be combined with a faith in a provision for its forgiveness. The doctrine of Karma is a religious doctrine resting upon and expressing a profound sense of the seriousness of Sin, but it leaves no room for the forgiveness as distinct from the expiation of Sin. While therefore the objection which is sometimes raised from the side of ‘mere Morality’ to the religious view of Sin as diverting the mind from positive activity in well-doing to gloomy meditation upon the ill-spent past may be brought (I do not say that it would be justly brought) against the doctrine of Karma as against doctrines embodying a similar view of Sin under other religious systems, the disciple of that doctrine may be tempted to join with the exponent of a Morality divorced from Religion in charging the believer in the Forgiveness of Sins with weakening the sense of the gravity of those inevitable consequences of ill-doing which no change of mind on the part of the doer or of any one else can undo.
Nevertheless I think it may be shown that only if a doctrine of the Forgiveness of Sins falls short of being what it professes to be does it deserve this reproach; and that, when it is what it pretends to be, it possesses an ethical depth and value beyond that of rival doctrines which may at first sight present an aspect more awe-inspiring in their uncompromising disregard of human weakness, their vigorous enforcement of the melancholy lesson of the ‘vanity of human wishes.’
Here, however, I can only attempt a very summary indication of the way in which this claim on the part of the doctrine of the Forgiveness of Sins may be maintained. In my second course of Lectures I hope to deal at greater length with the problems upon which at present I can do no more than touch.
A genuine forgiveness of sins must imply a thorough recognition, both by the sinner forgiven and by him who forgives, of the nature of the sin committed. It must thus be quite inconsistent alike with impenitence on the sinner's part or with indifference to the gravity of the offence on his who forgives. No doubt it is possible to speak of a forgiveness of those “who know not what they do,”8 but in such a case those who are said to be forgiven must miss the full experience of forgiveness, except in so far as by such a subsequent understanding of their action as necessarily involves repentance they appropriate the pardon which has been by anticipation already pronounced. And on the other hand, a sinner who does not find in what is offered him under the name of forgiveness a comprehension of the heinousness of his offence correspondent to the depth of his own penitence cannot but feel that he has failed to attain that for which he seeks. Here at once we see how, if personal relations exist only between human beings, the penitent sinner must be often thus defrauded; while if, on the other hand, he can always pass beyond the neighbour he has offended to God and say with the Psalmist of the Miserere, “Against thee have I sinned”9 he can attain in the experience of divine forgiveness what otherwise he must for ever go without.
But the supposed immorality of the Forgiveness of Sins disappears if we regard it in this way; and no kind of Forgiveness which falls short of this has any claim to rank as an idea which, in Mr. Bradley's phrase,10 “is really required in practice by the highest religion.” And as to the superior dignity which may be attributed to an eternal Order conceived impersonally, whether after the manner of Karma in Indian religion or otherwise, I can but repeat what I have in substance already said, that we can only reverence it in so far as we impart into our attitude towards it an element which is at home only in personal intercourse; for a system definitely realized as impersonal, of which we can say that it “as impotently rolls as you or I”11 we are far more likely, when we find ourselves helplessly in its grip, to loathe and curse than to venerate. And yet, even in loathing and cursing it, we shall not cease to illustrate the unconquerable tendency of the human soul to envisage its relation to the ultimate Reality in terms of personality; we shall but be treating it as a devil instead of as a God.
I am not forgetting in what I have just said the austere and lofty piety of the Stoics and Spinoza which would find freedom and peace in the world by willing that what We cannot help happening should happen. But I feel sure that here again the use of the name of God is really in contradiction with the conception of his nature explicitly held. “Our wills are ours to make them”12 God's, but this saying has no meaning if God's will is a mere figure of speech, if it is not at least as really what we mean by will as ours is. But here, as in all similar cases we must remember, if we are to be true to our purpose of basing our theology upon religious experience, that our starting-point must be our experience of submission to the divine Will and not an attempt to imagine the divine self-consciousness in abstraction from that experience.
Having dealt so fully with the conceptions of Sin and of Forgiveness as religious ideas which seem to possess a greater value in the context of a personal relation to God than otherwise, it will not be necessary to dwell in the same detail on the others which I mentioned as agreeing with these in that respect—that is, on Justice, Sacrifice, and Union. But some few observations may, perhaps, be profitably made upon each in turn.
In the case of Justice it might plausibly be argued that ideal or absolute Justice may be best conceived on the analogy rather of the working of a law than on that of an award by a personal judge. It might be pointed out that we regard the establishment of a legal system, whereof persons are but the ministerial agents, as an advance upon the stage of social development in which one is left to the chances of finding on the judgment-seat a Solomon or an unjust judge who “fears not God nor regards man”13 as the case may happen to be. This seems to point to the progressive diminution or elimination of the personal factor as indicating the direction we should follow in our attempts to work out the thought of a supreme Justice.
On the other hand, we must note that there is much reason for doubting whether the notion of a personal source of Justice, whether in a sovereign or in God, is not on the whole younger than that of a custom or law valid on its own account and only declared by the individual judge.
But I shall do no more than call attention to this fact, and shall not now pursue the consideration of it; it will come before us again when in my second course of Lectures I attempt to trace the bearing of the conclusions reached in this course upon our view of the various activities in which human Personality expresses itself. I only mention it at present to show that the elimination of the personal element is far from constituting the whole story of the development of our notion of Justice. What I would rather insist upon here is that our preference for an impersonal law over the personal discretion of the judge is due chiefly to the security afforded by it against the uncertainty which must prevail where the discretion must be now one man's and now another's. There are persons to whose discretion one would commit oneself with far more confidence than to the generalities of a legal rule; and hence our care to leave as little scope as possible in human tribunals for the vagaries of personal caprice does not at all carry with it an ultimate preference for the impersonal over the personal, which we must needs carry over even into our notion of divine justice.
Again, impersonal Justice is contrasted with Mercy. So opposite to one another may the two conceptions seem to be that men have sometimes imagined them to be the respective attributes of different divine persons. But we should in fact scarcely call an unmerciful person just; and, in speaking of a person as unjust, we should think rather of his hard treatment of those who do not deserve it than of his comparative over-leniency to others; we should certainly think it strange to describe him on account of such over-leniency as a merciful man. The truest Justice would seem to include Mercy, and Mercy in the highest sense would vindicate for itself the name of Justice; and it is, I am convinced, easier to represent to ourselves such a union as realized in a personality than after any other fashion. It is not unworthy of remark in this connection that in political communities the prerogative of mercy is habitually left to be personally exercised by the head of the State or by those who rule in his name, after everything possible has been done to exclude his or their interference in the administration of justice.
In turning to another important religious conception, that of Sacrifice, we find that investigation of its history by no means goes to show that a sacrifice is always thought to be offered to a determinate person any more than Sin is always thought to be committed against a determinate person or Justice to be that which is in accordance with the decree of a determinate person. Thus it is not a merely trifling proposition to say that we see the notion of Sacrifice in its most intelligible and ethically significant form where Sacrifice is regarded as an act of personal intercourse between a worshipper and his God. It belongs to Sacrifice in the fullest and highest sense that what is sacrificed should be, in the very surrender of it, recognized by the sacrificer as good. Hence there may seem to be at the heart of the notion a contradiction; there is certainly a paradox, in so far as something is treated at once as good (since, if it is not good, there is no sacrifice in the surrender of it) and as not good (since it is not pursued, but, on the contrary, declined). This paradox becomes intelligible only where the thing in question being surrendered to God is regarded as safe in him; in whom, although not directly in itself, its goodness is enjoyed, even when surrendered. To this an analogy may be easily found in the mutual relations of persons but hardly elsewhere; and it cannot be disputed that to such mutual relations of persons as those of which one is here thinking we attribute a value superior to any which could be assigned to Sacrifice as a religious act on any theory but that of an intercourse with the God capable of expression in terms of personal relations.
The religious idea of Union with the Supreme Reality, the ruling idea of Mysticism as we may call it, is the last of those which I propose to take in illustration of my thesis that the recognition of Personality in God imparts to religious ideas generally an increase of intelligibility and of ethical significance. A particular interest belongs to this idea in connexion with our present inquiry. For some thinkers who lay especial stress on Divine Personality are inclined to be suspicious of al mystical language, just because to them a union of two personalities in any such intimate sense as that which mystical language suggests appears to them impossible14; while, on the other hand, thinkers of a different turn of mind are disposed to appeal to this same mystical language, which is so recurrent in the history of Religion, in proof of the inadequacy of the notion of Divine Personality to the requirements of the religious consciousness. I cannot, however, here enter upon anything like a full examination of this controversy, my general view of which may be easily inferred from the discussion of kindred issues in preceding Lectures. There is a celebrated phrase which might seem to suggest a loss of Personality in the climax of Union—I am thinking of the figure under which entrance upon Nirvana, the goal of the Buddhist's spiritual ambition, is described in the words: “The dewdrop slips into the shining sea.”15 In this phrase there is, in fact, nothing to mark the existence of Personality on either side. The dewdrop is no more personal than the ocean into which it is absorbed. In itself this might indicate no more than that the contrast of the personal existence of the saint in this life with the impersonal nature of the Eternal Being from which at death he ceased to be distinct was absent from the mind of the framer of the phrase. But it is doubtful if even finite Personality has any place in the original philosophy of Buddhism. On the other hand, the great mass of mystical literature in which the union with God is described under the imagery of a marriage between lovers bears impressive testimony to the truth that the human soul is for the most part best satisfied when in the culmination of its religious experience it recognizes the antitype of the most intimately personal form which human fellowship can assume.
Now it is doubtless possible to admit (as Mr. Bradley would, he tells us,16 be willing to admit) that our relation to God may be rightly represented as a personal relation, while insisting that this will not entitle us to attribute Personality to the Absolute, the supreme and ultimate Reality. For to do this would (according to this way of thinking) be to transfer the imaginative language of Religion without modification to Metaphysics which, as it is sometimes hinted, is in a very special sense the sphere of ‘bitter earnest.’
It is certainly not my intention to deny that the language of Religion is always imaginative and in a sense mythological, and that to take it to be literally and prosaically true as it stands will be apt to lead us into error. Nor would I have the metaphysician abate a jot of his determination to pursue the intellectually satisfying at all costs. But (and here Mr. Bradley would assuredly agree) it is not the test of the intellectually satisfying that it should be expressible in prosaic language. Nor can Religion be content that her language should be treated as ‘merely figurative’17 in the sense in which the term might be used of an eighteenth-century poet's conventional invocation of the Muse. The language of Religion we must no more dismiss without discrimination as figurative than accept it without discrimination as scientifically exact. I will go back to an illustration of which I made use earlier in these Lectures.18 A child's picture of his elders’ lives is no doubt very unlike indeed to those elders’ lives as known to themselves from within. Or again, we may think of the distance which may separate a savage's notion of what the ruler or generalissimo of a great civilized State has to do from such an one's actual conduct of government or warfare. Yet as the child grows up or the savage is educated, there need be no shock in their gradual discovery of the unlikeness in many respects of their earlier picture to the reality. But what if it should dawn upon the child that those he called his parents were not real persons at all? Were he only to learn that they were no more than foster parents, or that they did not love him as they seemed to do, the discovery might be baffling, disheartening, discouraging enough. But what would it be in comparison to the discovery that they had no more independent existence than the correspondents of Mr. Toots?19 Would not this be a complete subversion of the world in which he had grown up and a grave threat to his sanity?
The application of this to our present subject will, I think, be obvious. We shall readily believe that in personal intercourse with God we behold so small a part of his ways20 that nothing we could report of them but would probably or even certainly require drastic revision from the point of view of a fuller knowledge. We shall indeed all the more readily believe it, the more deeply penetrated we are with the sense of being truly in communion with the Highest. But that this intercourse is not a genuinely personal intercourse at all; that personality in “him with whom we have to do”21 is no less figurative than the image of the father's table or the mother's breast or the bridegroom's embrace, which we may use, turn and turn about, despite their mutual inconsistency, as suits our mood; that there is no reciprocal knowledge and love coming to meet us at all; or that, if there is, it is not on the part of the true God, who is, as we may say, at the back of everything; to discover this—and really to believe in our discovery—would it not mean the overthrow of our religion, the revelation of such an incoherence in the world as must confound the reason and shake knowledge from its very foundations?
I think that it would; and yet, before we conclude that religious experience favours the affirmation of personality in God, we must turn aside to consider a possible assertion by the opponents of this position of a religious interest which may be enlisted upon their side. Is it not a principal interest of Religion, it may be asked, to be kept from falling into Idolatry? And is there not in the view which has been maintained in this Lecture, and in the reasons by which it has been supported, an encouragement of a tendency in that direction, full of danger to the very cause we have been endeavouring to serve?
From the point of view of a philosophical theology we must understand by Idolatry the worship as God of that which, at the moral and intellectual level occupied by the worshipper, is less than the Highest. The acquiescence by thinkers like Mr. Bradley and Mr. Bosanquet in the distinction of God from the Absolute must, it would seem, imply the condemnation of any one who stands at their high level of philosophical culture to a choice between Idolatry and no Religion at all. I suspect that Signor Croce would agree with me in drawing this inference from their premises, and for himself would frankly embrace the second of the alternatives allowed. Of Mr. Bosanquet I will speak later on; but Mr. Bradley would, I think, prefer the former, while disclaiming the insinuation of disparagement conveyed by the word Idolatry, for which he would probably prefer to substitute ‘worship of an Appearance.’ I must confess to an unwillingness to accept either alternative, and am ready to justify this unwillingness on the ground that, as I have elsewhere said in another connexion, “I do not think it possible to remain content with the reduction of an experience so manifestly substantial, rational, and harmonious as a genuine religious experience can be to the rank of mere mirage or sheer illusion.”22 And, while no doubt this is by no means what Mr. Bradley and Mr. Bosanquet intend to effect, I am convinced that denial of the claim of Religion to take as its object nothing less than the supreme and ultimate Reality can have no other issue.
In the history of Religion the idolatry of to-day is often the true religion of yesterday, and the true religion of to-day the idolatry of to-morrow, but only if we look for the identity of a religion merely in the identity of the symbolism which it employs. But that religion which has its face set ever towards the Supreme Reality and which does not lower its thought thereof to accord with its symbols, but rather adapts its symbols, or replaces them by others better adapted to the highest and best that it can conceive, this is true Religion, whatsoever symbols it may use.
On the other hand, such a new religion as Mr. Bradley23 seems to desire, which metaphysics, although its full requirements would still not be met, might be able, “in some sense” (as he says), “to justify and support,” would, I fear, like the worship of the Golden Calf in Horeb, wear from the first the air of a ‘substitute’ provided to satisfy those whose impatience will not allow them to wait for, or to do without, the genuine article, and could hardly in the long run be able, any more than that worship, to escape condemnation as an idolatrous service.
In personal intercourse with our friends, if we rest content with our first impressions or even with the impressions gained at any stage of our friendship and cease from further exploration of their characters we are so far falling short of the ideal of such intercourse. It may be that our own limitations or those of our friend really make this check to our activity inevitable. Still it is a failure. The most successful marriage is that where romance does not culminate with the wedding bells, but where each partner can to the end address the other in those brave words of Browning's:—
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be.24
But if we can go so far as this in speaking of the converse of human lovers and friends, it is surely the very essence of that other converse which we call Religion, where we have to do with no finite being, but with the Supreme and Eternal, that the possibilities of discovery therein are inexhaustible. To suppose that, on the attainment of any level of insight, we have seen all there is to see, this is surely to commit the sin of Idolatry, no matter how free we may be from any temptation to “bow down to wood and stone.”25 But it is not necessary, because we must not suppose God to be no more than that of which we have experience in the personal intercourse of our religion, to deny that this is personal intercourse at all We know that it is, and, so far as to speak of Personality in God expresses this knowledge, it is more than a mere symbolical phrase; although any imaginative representation of this Personality, such as we cannot but form, may fairly be called symbolical, and be acknowledged to be such without any derogation from the reality of the experience in the service of which it is formed.
That when once the stage of religious development is reached at which religious experience takes the form of an experience of personal intercourse, the denial that there is truly Personality in God must in the end lead to the denial that religious experience is an independent and autonomous form of experience at all, I feel for my own part no doubt whatever.
I think that the Philosophy of Religion owes a considerable debt to Signor Croce for bringing this clearly out. I am of course very far from disputing the sincerity and deep conviction of Mr. Bosanquet in adopting as he does a different view. But it seems to me that his thought about the Absolute is constantly coloured by the religious associations of the language which he employs—the language of the religion which has above all others insisted on Personality in God. The difference between his intellectual temperament and that of Signor Croce corresponds to a conspicuous difference between the national characters of the peoples of which they are such eminent representatives; a difference which shows itself in politics in the fact that the ‘anticlericalism’ of the Latin countries of Europe has no precise analogue in Great Britain. I sympathize, I will admit, far more with Mr. Bosanquet than with Signor Croce in regard to their respective attitudes toward Religion; but I think that Signor Croce is in this matter the more logical of the two.
In an earlier Lecture26 I discussed the antithesis between Personality and Reason. We saw that while Reason was an essential feature of our conception of personality, it was nevertheless a difficulty felt in ascribing Personality to God that there seemed to be involved in Personality something which, unlike Reason, was not common to all persons, in so far as they reasoned aright. Yet should we not, in ascribing to the thought of a Divine Mind any variation from this common Reason, anything capricious or arbitrary or susceptible of an explanation only from some peculiar circumstances of the thinker, be ascribing to it something incompatible with the perfect Wisdom and Truth which are at any rate an important part of what we mean by God?
On the other hand, the characteristic religious emotion of Reverence was one which it appeared hard to refer to an impersonal object. The dilemma in which we find ourselves thus placed has more than once come into view in the course of our discussions, without having been ever finally disposed of. I would now at last invite your attention to some few considerations which are all that I have to contribute to the solution of a very real difficulty.
In what has been said above of a common Reason, it will be clear that we have had in mind the kind of Reason which is exemplified in what are often called the exact Sciences. These Sciences, as was pointed out in the first Lecture of this course, may be said to take as little account as possible of personal differences. Though of course not all men are equally endowed with the capacity or the opportunity for carrying on the investigations proper to these branches of knowledge, so that personal differences affect in this way the history even of the exact Sciences; yet we regard the trains of thought employed therein as throughout capable of statement in generally intelligible terms and communicable not only in respect of the results but also in respect of the processes which have led up to those results. We suppose that from the same premises any person competent to understand them must draw the same conclusions as any other. Moreover as we saw in the fifth Lecture, when examining the ethical doctrines of Kant and Fichte, we seemed to find in the field of Practical Reason also the same neglect as characterized the exact sciences of a factor no less indispensable to Personality than the rationality which distinguishes it from other forms of individual existence. But, if we turn from the exact sciences to the field of Art, we perceive at once an interesting difference. We should never say that any competent musician or man of letters could see how a symphony of Beethoven or a play of Shakespeare should be completed, if only he had the earlier movements or acts before him. On the other hand, we do not regard this fact as meaning no more than that the composer or poet may do as he likes, and that he might have finished off his work in half a dozen ways as well as in that upon which he actually hit. On the contrary, we are disposed when we see how it is done to say ‘That is the only possible way in which it could satisfactorily have been done.’27 Reason, the common Reason, could not anticipate but can endorse it, and can say, as Albert Dürer is reported to have said of a picture of his own, “Sir, it could not have been better done.” In the creative activity of the artist we seem to see Personality and Reason no longer contrasted but reconciled and at one. God, it was said of old, plays the geometer;28 but does he not play the artist too? Or rather, is not the artist made in his image as well as the geometer and the moralist? And was not the writer of Genesis happily inspired when he imagined the Creator, like a greater Dürer, beholding “all that he had made, and behold it was very good”?29
These reflections upon the possibility of conceiving a factor in the Divine Mind distinguishable from that which seemed, when supposed to exist in absolute perfection, to exclude something necessary to Personality, and yet by no means describable as an irrational factor, may, I think, be supplemented by some observations intended to suggest that a Reason of what may conveniently be called the mathematical type is not adequate to interpret even the world with which the investigations of the natural sciences themselves are concerned.
In the first place, it is to be borne in mind that even according to that view of the physical world which we may call pre-evolutionary, but which has not always been abandoned by thinkers who have won fame as exponents of a philosophy of Evolution—I mean the view which looks to the laws of matter in motion and of the compounding of simple elements for a complete explanation of all phenomena—there must, as John Stuart Mill pointed out,30 be supposed an initial collocation of material elements, inexplicable by those laws themselves, but necessary before they could begin to operate. Such an original collocation would in theistic language be referable only to the Divine Will; and thus even an account of the world in terms of a pre-evolutionary natural science would seem to involve in its cause not merely a Reason whose workings could be traced out by a calculating intelligence from certain premises, but a Reason which could establish those premises—in other words, a Reason which, working, in the phrase of Leibnitz31 in accordance with the principle of the best, is more easily conceived—is perhaps only conceivable—after the analogy of a personal intelligence.
If, however, the conception of development be taken seriously, we must refuse to accept the pronouncement of the Hebrew Preacher that there is no new thing under the sun,32 and must acknowledge, with M. Bergson, that evolution is creative; and in that case it is clear that the Intelligence which is manifested in the world-process must be thought of rather after the analogy of the dramatist than after that of the geometer; so that there will not seem to be the same incongruity in the attribution of Personality to it which there certainly is when, in representing to ourselves the Supreme Mind, we employ the analogy rather of the mathematician or moralist than that of the artist.
Shall I be thought too fanciful if I add to these two considerations a third, drawn from the implication of such judgments as we constantly make when we speak of certain events imagined or even actual as grotesque or fantastic, or as like bad dreams or nightmares? We seem to appeal herein to a certain mood or style as we may put it, which, though we could no doubt not describe it in detail, we feel to be that of Reality, and with which the imaginations or experiences in question are, as it were, out of tune. Although no doubt we often speak of this as especially manifested in what we call Nature, that is to say in the world as unaffected by the deliberate operations of man—the thought which inspires such language is of course the ruling idea in the poetry of Wordsworth—yet it is possible sometimes to find Nature itself strike a jarring note. We may recall the familiar lines of Tennyson:—
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?33
And the very outcries of pessimistic spirits to whom the world seems a ‘city of dreadful night’ remind us of those dream experiences in which we comfort ourselves in the midst of horrors by an assurance that we shall awake out of what must be after all a dream because it has not the familiar sanity of the real world. It is not of the mood of Nature as contrasted with Man or with Spirit so much as of the mood of Ultimate Reality that I am here thinking. Coleridge said34 that the World was no goddess in petticoats but the Devil in a strait waistcoat. And certainly, since the evil wills of men undoubtedly produce their evil effects in the real world, I cannot affirm a priori that there are no evil wills other than human to which what we cannot but hold to be evil in the world beyond humanity may be traceable.35 I should rather hold it to be likely that there are such. But that does not affect our capacity of apprehending what we may call the standard mood or style—as we may speak of the mood or style of a particular poet or artist—whether what we call Nature fully express it or no. Such a capacity seems, indeed, to be implied in our æsthetic judgments generally. We appreciate and take pleasure in all kinds of eccentric moods and feel that it is well to have them isolated and expressed by individual artists, yet we fall back for more enduring satisfaction on the great masters—
Who saw life steadily and saw it whole.36
But even these are only relatively universal, only relatively satisfying. They are not always in accord with one another, and we reach forward after a supreme mood which will harmonize them without loss in no merely eclectic or artificial fashion.37 What are we here speaking of but of that in the Supreme Spirit whereof what we call the ‘personally characteristic’ in a finite spirit is the image, just as in that which in knowledge and morality is common to all rational beings philosophers have been ever ready to recognize the thoughts or ideas of the Eternal Mind? I do not know that I have made intelligible the drift of a speculation which it would take too long to attempt further to develop here. But I hope I may have done so sufficiently for my present purpose, and will now pass on to the last topic to which I shall call your attention in my present course.
It will perhaps have occurred to my readers that the arguments of this Lecture have pointed rather to a single personality of God than to that distinction of persons in God which, as we saw before, was taught by the theology which, among the great theologies of the world, had been most in earnest with the task of working out the implications of Divine Personality.
It has been my contention throughout that, although the existence of Personality must in any case give rise to problems which cannot but embarrass every philosophy unable to allow to it any but the subordinate significance assigned to it by all systems except those which may be classed as theistic, yet a satisfactory defence of Divine Personality can only be founded upon the facts of religious experience. Nor, in my judgment, can a theological account of such religious experience as takes the form of the consciousness of personal intercourse with the Supreme stop short of conceiving this personal intercourse as itself falling within the divine life, and thereby translating the personal distinction which it involves into a fundamental factor in the Supreme or Absolute Experience itself. But this personal distinction cannot be interpreted as involving a difference in personal character without abolishing that unity behind and through all differences which is what we primarily have in view in speaking of the Absolute at all. It could only involve such a difference for those who could accept a genuine pluralism, which would appear in a religious form as a true and thorough-going polytheism.
Such a thorough-going polytheism, we must observe, we shall not find in doctrines of a hierarchy of many gods under a single chief, but rather in such as leave us at the end with an eternal opposition of a good and an evil Principle.38 If, however, the personal distinction within the Supreme Experience to which our religious experience testifies is not to be regarded as involving a corresponding personal difference of character, then the analogue, or rather archetype, in God of the personally characteristic element in human souls will not be diversified by the existence of the personal distinction which, in the language of Christian theology, is called the distinction of the Son from the Father; and the language used about it will not vary from what would be used by theists who recognize no such personal distinction within the Divine life.
This is not, of course, to say that the rich variety of personal character wherein lies the great interest of personal intercourse is lost in the Supreme Experience. In its relation to the personal distinction which we may call that of the Son or Word from the Father, it is probably best represented as constituting the content of the Word, and the corresponding variety of moods as “broken lights”39 of what I have called the supreme mood, of which may be given the name which the poet gives it from whom that phrase is taken—the name of “immortal Love.”
On the other hand, care must be taken to avoid the suggestion that this richness of content is absent from the other term of the personal distinction, which Christian theology calls the Father. For it would destroy the very meaning of that religious faith in following the implications of which we have been induced to borrow the terminology of the Christian schools, if the wealth possessed in the religious life is more or less or other than that supreme Good which is the nature of the Father, and therefore that of whosoever can call himself his Son.
It is for this very reason that this bond of union, this common nature itself, can come to be described in theological phraseology as Person also. It might seem that the analogy of human intercourse would suggest another word. Two human persons’ love of one another may be the best thing about each of them; yet we describe it as an affection or sentiment on the part of each rather than as something no less real than they themselves who feel it. They may come to lose it and yet remain real. On the other hand, if we think of the bond which binds human beings together as a community or society to which they belong, and of this as something no less real than its members, or rather as something more lasting, more sacred, more august than any of its members, something for which they may even sacrifice their lives, yet we know how even here it does not seem to possess, despite its greater permanence and dignity, that special assurance of reality which comes to the individual members in their consciousness of self. The intention of the theological phraseology to which I have referred I take to be no other than this—to claim for the life of mutual knowledge and love which, in the intercourse of Religion, the worshipper, so far as he realizes his sonship, enjoys with the Supreme, and in enjoying it recognizes to be no other than the very life itself of the Supreme—to claim for that life a complete concrete reality, in no respect less than that of those who share in it and have their being in it.
Here I must leave the subject of Divine Personality: in the sequel I hope to consider what is the bearing upon our conception of human Personality and of its manifestation in the various phases of human life, of that conception of Personality in God which I have attempted to outline in the present course of Lectures.
In his Psychology of Religion (2nd ed. London 1901), to which James contributed a Preface.
New York, 1913.
ii. 368 D.
P. 31 ff.
John iv. 21, 23.
See above, Lecture III.
See Lecture VII, p. 159.
Luke xxiii. 34.
Psa. li. 4.
See Essays on Truth and Reality, p. 433. Cp. p. 439.
Fitzgerald, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (3rd and 4th eds.), § 72.
Tennyson, In Memoriam, introductory verses.
Luke xviii. 4.
I am thinking especially of Dr. Rashdall.
See Edwin Arnold's Light of Asia, bk. viii. ad fin.
See Essays on Truth and Reality, pp. 432, 451.
I have seen an eighteenth-century translation of the New Testament intended to satisfy readers to whom the Authorized Version seemed written in a style which, tried by the standard of Hume and Robertson, was rude and unpolished. John vi. 63 was (if my memory does not deceive me) thus translated: “The discourse which I have been addressing to you is entirely figurative; and to take it in any other sense would be to be guilty of the highest absurdity.”
See Lecture V, p. 131.
In Dickens's Dombey and Son, see c. 12.
See Job xxvi. 14.
See Heb. iv. 13.
Group Theories of Religion, p. 181.
See Essays on Truth and Reality, p. 446.
Rabbi ben Ezra, § 1.
Heber, Hymn before a Collection made for the S.P.G.
I am especially conscious here of a debt to the conversation of my friend Mr. C. J. Shebbeare, though he is in no way responsible for my use of thoughts suggested to me by him. Cp. his Challenge of the Universe, p. 183, and Mr. Temple's Mens Creatrix, p. 154.
Plutarch, Quæst. Conv. viii. 2, p. 718 c. ff.
Gen. i. 31.
Logic, iii. 5 §§ 8, 9.
See Théodicée i. 8.
Eccles. i. 9.
In Memoriam, § 55.
Table Talk, April 30, 1830.
See Problems in the Relations of God and Man, p. 270.
Matthew Arnold, To a Friend.
Here too I am conscious of a special obligation to the conversation of Mr. Shebbeare.
See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra Gentiles, i. 42 ad. fin.
Tennyson, In Memoriam, introductory verses.