This book originated in two courses of Gifford Lectures delivered at the University of Edinburgh in the years 1952 and 1953. When the University did me the honour of inviting me to be one of their Gifford Lecturers, and asked me to propose a subject, I suggested that I should talk about the glimpse that we get of the Universe when we look at it from an historian’s point of view. I found myself intimidated by this subject when I offered it, and still more when I learnt that it had been accepted. I offered it because, in my own life, I had reached a point at which the question’ What is our attitude towards Religion?’ was calling for an answer too insistently for me to be able to ignore it any longer. I might, perhaps, have gone on trying to ignore it if I could have persuaded myself that the question was no more than a personal one; for then it would have been of no great importance or interest to other people. I believe, however, that, in finding myself pursued by this question, I am having one of the characteristic experiences of the living generation in the Western World. We have been reminded of Religion by the quickening touch of Adversity; and this common experience is a serious call for a candid inquiry into the meaning of the glimpse of Reality that each of us obtains in the course of following this or that walk of life.
The famous title of Sir Thomas Browne’s book Religio Medici shows that I could have described my subject in the two words Religio Historici, instead of the present five, if Latin titles for books in English were still tolerated by readers.
An Historian’s Approach to Religion necessarily re-traverses some of the ground covered in A Study of History. The present book is on a far smaller scale; so, in chapters dealing with topics already discussed in the other book, I have given references to this, for the convenience of any reader who may care to go into greater detail. In the present summary treatment, I have not been able to repeat my explanations of the terms that I use, or to support the points that I make by illustrations and arguments. I have had to state my theses rather baldly, and this might perhaps give the impression that I have mistaken personal views of mine for choses jugées. I know very well that, in both books, I have been presenting merely one view among many possible alternatives. My object in writing is to ask questions, not to coin dogmas. If any passages in the present book seem dogmatic, this is an effect of compression in the writing, not of illusions in the writer’s mind.
While I have been writing this book I have had the pleasure of being constantly reminded of two happy visits to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, during which I was able to prepare the lectures, thanks to the hospitality of the Institute and the generosity of the Rockefeller Foundation, and of two happy months which my wife and I spent in Edinburgh while the lectures were being delivered. Above all, I think, with gratitude, of the friendships which we made, thanks to the kindness with which we were received. It would take many lines to mention all our friends in Edinburgh, but I cannot leave unmentioned Sir Edward and Lady Appleton and Dr. and Mrs. Baillie. Though our time in Edinburgh passed all too quickly, our memory of it will be a lasting possession for the rest of our lives.
In revising chapters 19 and 20 for the press, I have had the benefit of comments and criticisms from the Reverend Dr. Henry P. van Dusen, President of Union Theological Seminary, and the Reverend E. H. Robertson, Assistant Head of Religious Broadcasting in the B.B.C. Neither of these kind critics bears any responsibility for the final version of these chapters, but I am very conscious of the help that they have given me, and very grateful for their goodness in finding the time to read these chapters in draft.
This book, as well as A Study of History, has been typed by Miss Bridget Reddin with her usual care and accuracy in deciphering a heavily corrected manuscript.
My wife has done a great service to the reader, as well as to me, in making an index that is a key to topics and ideas, and not just to names. At every stage in the writing of the book, she has also helped me in countless other ways.