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Chapter VIII: Religious Ideas and Truth (II)

From this long introduction let us turn to religious ideas, first noting that so far we have been speaking almost wholly of ideas about nature, whereas of course both poetic and religious ideas are by no means confined to that subject.

I am far from suggesting that poetic and religious ideas stand on the same ground. That would be quite a false view. For there is a most radical distinction. Poetic ideas are produced by imagination for the sake of imagination; it does not want to satisfy anything beyond itself. It has neither set out in search of truth, nor to discover for the struggling will an object in its devotion in which it may find rest. And therefore, however serious its mood may be, in poetry or other art it still acts freely, and combines and invents without regard to any standard but its own nature. And, knowing this, it does not seriously claim for its products the same kind of reality that belongs to the objects of perception or science, or again to those of philosophy.

But religious ideas, even those in which imagination plays a considerable part, are not thus freely produced. They spring from an experience in which there is little or no play of imagination, but which is primarily that of the heart and will. And this experience seeks to become conscious of itself, to form an idea of itself, not that the imagination may be delighted, but that the heart and will may preserve and deepen this experience. The ideas produced, therefore, are meant to be in the fullest sense true, and, if they are coloured by imagination, that is unintentional. Hence the instinctive attitude of religion towards its ideas is that of conviction; a suspicion that the imagination had been at work in them would cause alarm; and, in fact, the imagination works in them as a rule unconsciously and within strict limits.

I have stated this distinction too sharply, for in many religious ideas there is conscious and recognised use of metaphor and figure. But here the important point is to emphasise the distinction, and to ignore or forget it would be fatal. It is our old fundamental distinction between religion and any merely theoretic activity. But now, on the basis of it, it will be useful to observe certain resemblances, and certain further differences, between religious and poetic ideas:

(1) It is of the essence of religion, as of poetry, to go beyond the realities of perception and of science; and to go beyond them is to modify and, in a sense, to deny them. Religion, like poetry, declares that there are other realities. And this means not only what it says, but that the first realities, taken by themselves and out of relation to these others, are taken untruly, i.e. very partially, and not as they really are. But religion goes much further on this path than poetry. In its higher forms it is not content until it explicitly connects everything with the whole, or the principle of the whole. For it everything finite is really (to use alternative phrases) a creation, a revelation, or an instrument of God. And that for religion is the only true way of looking at anything finite. In fact, if finite means independent or apart from God, there is nothing finite. Poetry on the whole goes nothing like so far: it is enough for it to see the lower nature, for instance, in the light of something higher; but the higher need not be, and generally is not, explicitly the highest, the infinite.

(2) Religion is like poetry in being little, if at all, interested in what we may call the machinery of things. Neither cares to know the pace at which a wind travels, or why there is this particular current, or what gases a flower assimilates or exhales. Things of this kind make little or no difference to that in the finite object which has poetic or religious interest. I do not say that it might not be so to this or that person, or that, if our minds were wider, it would not be so. But, in general, what matters to the religious mind is that the stormy wind fulfils God's word or purpose, or that the flower has in the end its being from him and exhibits his wisdom and goodness: the particular processes, the modus operandi, through which this result is produced, are on the whole ignored. And here again religion goes further than poetry; for poetry is intensely interested in some details to which religion is indifferent; for instance, the working and the intricacies of the human passions, which are of moment to religion only from a special point of view.

(3) Finally, although the imagination acts freely in poetry and consciously invents, while in religion for the most part it does not, because it is not employed for its own sake but in the service of something else, yet in both it shows itself in the character of the ideas produced. However spiritual the content of these ideas may be, the form given to that content is, in poetry always, in religion not always but often and in some degree, sensuous and pictorial. There is here a great difference, for this characteristic is absolutely essential to poetry, and if it were removed poetry would vanish. And even when the poet feels that he is trying to express what passes all expression, the words in which he must convey this feeling still appeal to imagination, just as much as the words in which he describes a flower or a stream. We may then say roughly that the earliest and the latest poetical ideas, though differing in content, are equally sensuous in form. This is not so with religion. Here, after certain stages have been passed, men rise to the perception that the object of worship is infinite, and so they become partly conscious that it cannot be pictured, and that the language of imagination, when applied to it, is figurative. And so the most obviously poetic religions are neither the lowest, which are too sensuous, nor yet the highest; but those in the midway stage, where the god is semi-spiritualised—a glorified half-natural individual, like the gods of the Greeks and the Teutons. Nevertheless, in spite of the effort of the highest religions to rise completely above the finite, in many of their ideas the shape and colour of finite forms retain their hold. And this, though it renders their ideas acceptable to the general mind, produces difficulty when the intellect employs itself on them with the one purpose of ascertaining their truth: the intellect is then apt to find, on the one hand, that religion, like poetry, makes assertions about objects in the sphere of perception or science which clash with our knowledge, or the conditions of knowledge within these spheres; while, on the other hand, it may find defects in the idea of that which rises beyond them, because this idea attempts to express something spiritual in a shape imperfectly spiritual. In the first case the religious idea conflicts with science, natural or historical; in the second with philosophy. In neither case can the intellect admit that the idea is wholly or ultimately true; though the nature of the defect will differ in the two cases, and its degree again will vary greatly in various instances. In short, the fundamental difficulty with popular religious ideas is that they are all attempts to say something about the whole, in a language which is strictly applicable only to parts in the whole. This is also, in the end, the difficulty with theology and philosophy. Common-sense and science escape it because they simply make statements about parts, smaller or greater, in isolation from the rest of the whole. These are accurate as far as they go, but by dint of going such a very little way; and an exceedingly partial truth is assuredly not the truth.

This difficulty with religious ideas arises inevitably from one general cause, quite apart from particular and additional causes. The great bulk of human experience is concerned with finite and more or less sensuous things; and such things come to be unconsciously regarded as the type of reality to which we try to assimilate everything else. That is the invariable position at first taken up by commonsense. The very language we use is, as Tennyson says, ‘matter-moulded’, adapted to express these things, and their relations and actions. Almost all our words have originally a sensuous meaning, and when employed to designate higher reality are unconscious metaphors. We ourselves are on one side such finite sensuous beings, and our whole nature is not satisfied unless that side of us is satisfied. We remain children: we want to see or at least to picture everything. When, then, a spiritual experience takes place in us, and urges its way into consciousness, it inevitably tries to express itself in the forms habitual to that consciousness. And equally inevitably it fails, or rather partly fails: it indicates but does not express itself. The stirring of religion in us, let us assume, is the dawning in the soul of that infinite which is within it, and beyond it. This, let us say—and it is only a general truth that matters for our present purpose—cannot have the limitations of a thing, or of our finite selves. Nothing can be outside it; it cannot be here or there in space, then or now in time; cannot act as body on body; or as we, half-spiritual, half-natural beings, act on bodies or communicate with each other. It cannot think and will as we do, by fits and starts, and always incompletely and against opposition; can have no desires for what is not, regrets for what is gone, struggle against what should not be: no fears nor hopes, nor beginning nor end. And yet it is to become conscious, to be represented, in a soul accustomed, as we saw, to construe all its experience on the model of stones and streams and animals, or of its own intermittent and imperfect operations. Naturally all it can do at first is to embody the dim spiritual striving within it in a stone or stream or animal, or the sky or something picturable, if only as a ghost. And though after thousands of years the hopeless inadequacy of such attempts has long been perceived, and the spiritual nature of the infinite is in a large measure recognised, the old tendency remains. We are partly natural: nature, the sensuous in us, failing to find itself or its familiar experience in this infinite being, persists in figuring it as finite, with a local habitation at a distance from the earth, and in a particular situation relative to the earth (above it), so that there are descents from it and ascents to it. And it comes to us, and we may go to it; or we imagine it vaguely in a space before there was space, and a time before there was time, making these and a matter outside itself, operating on this matter as we semi-spiritual creatures do; establishing a settled course for it, and then asserting its power, as we should like to do, by changing this course; forming purposes and executing them, just as we do; looking back and looking forward; revealing itself to us, not merely in spirit and as spirit, but in ways that startle or impress our imagination. For it is that—the imagination—that in all this is seeking satisfaction, and it is the child of sense as well as of spirit. It cries out for a god whom it can picture and who is related to us as a man to a man; and the heart seems to take its side, for it is used to its language. And yet, all the time, not only does the intellect boggle at its creations, but the spirit itself in us is unsatisfied by them; for it experiences a far more intimate union of itself and God than can possibly be between the God and man of the imagination; and all its most eloquent language implies this union and contradicts imagination. The experience itself is this union, and the imagination or semi-sensuous understanding, trying to represent it, half represents it and half belies it.

These difficulties, then, would seem from this general cause to be inevitable—so much so that, if one could imagine (it would be an imaginative idea) perfect truth somehow being shown suddenly to men, it could not be received in its own likeness, but, in being received, would be changed by the minds that assimilated it, and would appear as itself, if at all, only after a long process of confusion and correction. But in fact we have not recognised the full extent of the difficulty, and have something further to take into account.

(1) First, there is the inborn passion of the imagination for the unusual, strange, and marvellous—a passion which has filled the world with legend, mythology, fairy-tale and romance. Neither it, nor its immense influence in the great bulk of the world's religions, needs illustration. Unless restraint is laid on it, it always tends to surround spiritual greatness with an atmosphere of astounding physical occurrences, to translate inward achievements into abnormal outward events or actions. Or, in later days, passing by as commonplace the miracles of self-control, endurance, faith, and love, which are performed day by day in country cottages and the streets of cities, it hunts for the witness of God in occult regions where the light is so dim that it can see what it chooses, and the voices so faint that they seem to speak unutterable things. The work of the imagination, in its own proper world of free creation, needs no acknowledgment; but it is a genie whose services to religion, invaluable as they have been, are never bought for nothing.

(2) Then, secondly, we were speaking just now of the mind, with its religious experience, somewhat as if it existed in vacuo. But in fact, of course, the mind has its place in history and is the mind of a particular time. Not only has it the tendency of its common nature to interpret its religious experience in the form of its customary consciousness, but it must somehow fit this interpretation into the body of its beliefs about the world—about nature and human history. These beliefs perhaps in its particular time have not, for the most part, a religious source, but have been constructed by the intellect, in accordance with the canons of its usual finite experience. Nor is this all. Its own religious experience, in most cases, comes to it through the medium of ideas which have their origin in a distant past. Those ideas were themselves coloured by the general picture of the world current at that period. And it was a period when men's notions of nature and of historical fact were quite different from those of the later time. They were constructed perhaps before there was anything that we should name either science or history. What we call the intellect, with its purely theoretic purpose, had not disengaged itself from other activities: everything—custom, law, the traditions of the past, notions of the heavens, the sun and stars and earth, and of man's body and soul—was all permeated by religious imagination. And the picture thus formed, within which the distinctively religious ideas had their setting, is now confronted with a picture painted mainly by the disengaged intellect. How can the two help conflicting, and producing more or less conflict also between those religious ideas and the intellect? This was what happened when science and philosophy in Greece, coming to their strength, looked the traditional religion in the face. And it is what has been happening, much more slowly, since the Renaissance, with the great difference that, in the first case, the traditional ideas were found not merely theoretically, but morally and therefore religiously, unsatisfactory; while in the second this has been so, if at all, only in some slight degree; and with this further difference that, in the second case, the discrepancies between the old and the new worldpictures have been gradually diminished by modifications, effected in the former through a period of some centuries.

It is not my intention to discuss the detail of this conflict or discordance: but there are some general considerations regarding it which may be offered without any attempt at a particular application.1

Let us first recall our results as to the nature of religion.

Ideas are necessary to the fulfilment of its purpose, but they are not to religion ends in themselves, but the vehicles of worship and so of union with the object of worship. It is not the heart's desire in religion to understand man or the world or God. If, per impossibile, they were all perfectly understood, that by itself would give no satisfaction to religion; they would be still the mere vehicle for its own proper purpose. Thus the aims of religion on the one side and of science and philosophy on the other are diverse. And so are the aims of religion and the aesthetic imagination. The mere satisfaction of that is not in itself the least religious, and, conversely, the most brilliant mythology or the most beautiful works of art are, for religion, no more than a vehicle for its own proper purpose.

(1) Now in the first place it is clear that in any given body of religious ideas there is a good deal which has not a strictly religious origin. It has not arisen out of distinctively religious experience, but from other interests of the mind, and, again, from the fact that this experience necessarily finds its setting in a general picture of the world, not framed exclusively or mainly from religious motives. The independent work of aesthetic imagination, for example, and again of the nascent scientific impulse, is distinctly traceable in the theologies and cosmologies of most religions. Whatever religious experience may have lain at the root of some Indian and Greek myths, it is impossible to doubt that the superstructure reared upon it was built largely by the imagination working, however unconsciously, on its own account and to please itself; nor can this influence be wholly excluded in the case of the highest religions. Again, while it would be grossly untrue to assert that the purely intellectual desire for understanding and logical coherence was the main motive in philosophical Brahmanism or in the construction of Christian dogma, its presence is surely undeniable, and the limits of its influence would be difficult indeed to determine. But, if this is true as to the origin of certain elements in the body of ideas, it seems to follow that religion can have at most an indirect interest in such elements. Their bearing on the religious life always was remote, and it may well be much more remote after the lapse of centuries since they came into being.

And if we turn to the body of ideas we are confirmed in this view. We may consider first the difficulty with science, natural and historical, and especially the former. At what a distance from the burning centre of religious experience lie the astronomical, geological, anthropological ideas—with many even of the historical ideas—which are attached to it. Of what consequence to religion, one is inclined to ask, can the detail of any natural process be, or the question of the constitution of matter, or the origin of species, or the way in which the earth became what it is, or the parentage of man, or the length of time he has existed or will exist? The interest of religion can be, it would seem, in no such questions of mere method, but solely in the belief that nature and man are wholly dependent on the object of worship, and have no sort of independent existence or power.

For this belief has a practical bearing. On it hangs the faith that man can be freed from the evil of the world and humanity—can be saved—by union with something beyond that evil. But this belief is not on the same level, or in the same sphere, with beliefs about those matters of method. It is, as you may prefer to say, prior to all of them, or further than all of them, and unaffected by any of them. It is a belief with which science has no concern whatever; but they are the very matters with which science is concerned. And it is not this belief which produces any conflict with science, but the complication of this belief with some particular answer to the question of method, the questions of science. Through this complication religion may be led to make assertions within the sphere of science—natural or historical—which clash with the conditions or the results of science. It confuses the spheres as poetry does; only, unlike poetry, it is tempted, for reasons already discussed, to claim for its assertions scientific truth.

It would seem, then, that the interest of religion in these matters is really confined to the general idea of the entire dependence of nature and man on God—a general idea, which of course may be expressed in other language—and that it need not concern itself at all with these questions of method. I do not say that this position is ideal. The mind is one, and religion wants to find religious meaning in all the contents of the mind. Hence, it would seem, it would be better still if religion could frankly accept the results of science, and try to see a religious meaning in them, and apply its own general belief to them. And this to a considerable extent it does, to its own great benefit. But there are obstacles in its way, apart from any reluctance to abandon an old world-picture. One is the extreme slightness of the acquaintance of the average educated man with the new world-picture; the fact, in other words, that, for the most part, he is not educated in natural science or in the history of mankind, and only catches glimpses of his rightful kingdom. The other is that the sciences are of course progressive, and, for that reason, there is insecurity on the fringes of their realm; while it is the tendency of religion to suppose that all its ideas must be perfectly true, and that it can never be at home in anything short of certainties. That supposition may be found on reflection more than questionable; but, if it is maintained, the safety of religion from conflict with science, on those matters which fall within the field of science, would seem to lie in excluding them, as far as may be, from the field of religious belief, as matters indifferent to it.

(2) If we turn now, secondly, to those ideas regarding which difficulties arise with philosophy, it may seem that this line of reflection cannot be pursued, because these ideas do not refer to a limited sphere like that of physical or historical fact. Nevertheless, up to a certain point, we may still follow the same line, and it will be most useful not to ask at what point we must stop, but to put the matter broadly and perhaps in an exaggerated way.

If religion is worship, if its interest is not directly in theoretical truth, but is practical—the union of the whole soul or personality with the object of worship—the abstruse questions of theology, it would seem, and those metaphysical problems into which men are driven by the search for truth, have no direct religious interest. Religion is concerned with them, if at all, only in so far as certain answers to them may indirectly affect religious experience. This experience is that of men, it takes place in men, and nothing can have religious value or efficacy which does not so take place. The salvation of a soul, if we use Christian language, must be in that soul, and nothing can possibly bring it about which is simply outside. The soul is not a thing; it is activity. It cannot be saved as money is saved, but only by and in this activity, however much this activity may extend beyond itself. As the old mystic said—‘If Christ was born in Bethlehem a thousand times over without being born in me, I should still remain lost.’ And, enlarging this, surely we must say, ‘What God is in me or—if you object to the phrase—what he is in relation to me, is all that can possibly matter to me religiously.’ Religion, if I may put it baldly, is the business of man; it is the business of God only in his relation to man, or in so far as he is in man. What have I to do then, simply as religious, with inquiries as to God in himself, or his inner distinctions, or how precisely nature stands to him, or what exactly his intelligence or will can be, or in what sense he is to be called personal? These are problems that may interest my intellect immensely, but how do they affect my religious experience, my experience of God? If I could answer them all completely, would that be any better than it is, or in any way changed? If absolute knowledge on these matters were substituted for my present state would it be a more religious state? God is manifest to me in religion as infinite wisdom and love—it is so that I worship him, whatever more I may believe him to be. Would he become any the more adorable to me if I could discover what beyond this manifestation he may be, or, again, how precisely his manifestation as selfsacrificing love is related to other possible aspects of his nature? Are not these purely intellectual inquiries? If so, do I gain anything from them for religion? And do I not lose, and expose myself to needless difficulty, if I hang my religion on answers to them?2

Here again, if we turn to the facts of the religious life, we find a confirmation of this point of view. For that life in the great majority of cases seems to take hardly any notice of these abstruse matters. The doctrines concerning them are doubtless in some sense passively accepted, i.e. they are not rejected, but they lie so far from religious experience that they are practically ignored. The creed by which nine out of ten ordinary Christians really live bears very little resemblance to the Athanasian Creed. The idea that comes before them in the act of worship, or when they think of God in the troubles and difficulties of life, is not the least like the ideas set forth in the first part of that Creed.

I may add that what I have been suggesting applies equally to the philosopher. Conclusions as to the nature of the ultimate reality are required, for his religious purpose, only within certain limits. He must be satisfied that this reality is of such a kind as to manifest itself in the form in which he worships it or thinks of it religiously; or, in other words, he must be satisfied that the object of worship is a manifestation of the reality and not a fiction. If, for example, he comes to the conclusion that the reality is matter, the basis of his religion would be removed; for he could not worship matter, neither could matter possibly manifest itself as that which he can and does worship. And he must be satisfied that the object of worship is not only a manifestation of the reality, but an incomparably more full and adequate manifestation than are things indifferent to his religious feelings or hostile to them. If, for example, he came to the conclusion that the reality was manifested equally fully and truly in evil and in good, in unreason and reason, hatred and love, the basis of religion would again be removed. Possibly we may go further, and say he must be satisfied that what he worships is the most adequate manifestation of this reality possible for the purpose of religion. But beyond this point, so far as I see, the precise nature of this reality, though a matter of great intellectual interest, is not a religious question.

Still, it may be said, indirectly at least, such questions affect religion, and they must be discussed, if not by everybody, yet by theologians and philosophers; for men cannot and will not let them alone, and if true answers are not given to them false ones will be. And this must be fully admitted. Only, fully admitting it, one may still insist:—

(1) that in the first place these are questions about theological or metaphysical ideas, and not directly about religious ideas. I mean that in religion proper, in devotion, the ideas used are not, and cannot be, those that figure in a system of dogmatics or, let me say, in the first part of the Athanasian Creed. When a man worships, what comes before his mind is, if you like, a result of these more complicated ideas, but it is itself something far more simple and less intellectualised.

Nor is there any difference here between theology and philosophy. The same thing is true of anyone who uses philosophical ideas as the vehicle of religion. As philosophical ideas proper, they exist only in long, highly mediated processes of thought; but what is used religiously is, so to say, not these, but a deposit of these, or these run together into a simpler and less articulated idea, generally not untouched by imaginative colouring and therefore not the truest idea of which the philosopher is capable. Thus, I say, even in these exceptional cases—for the majority cannot be theologians or philosophers—theological or metaphysical ideas are the background or justification of those of religion, not themselves religious ideas.

(2) It is only within certain limits that they are thus even indirectly important to religion. I will illustrate what I mean not from theology but from philosophy. It matters greatly for religious purposes whether materialism, or some sort of idealism or spiritualism, is true, or whether the final truth is pessimism or some sort of optimism; but the differences between Plato and Aristotle, between Spinoza and Leibnitz, between Hegel and Lotze as to the nature of the Absolute, though they are metaphysically considerable, are of scarcely any consequence for religious purposes.3

Suppose, for instance, to take an extreme case, the philosopher found himself driven intellectually to the conclusion that the ultimately real is plural, this would not affect him religiously, if he were also driven to the conclusion that it is the intrinsic nature of this reality to manifest itself most fully to the religious consciousness as a spiritual unity. That this spiritual unity, that is, was not in the least an invention of his, but in the fullest sense a revelation of this reality, and the fullest possible within the sphere of religion; so that to worship this reality as plural would be not to worship it truly, but to fall back into a lower stage of religion. I admit that this is an extreme case, but none the less it appears to me the rational position of such a philosopher would be to say: ‘In religion I am not concerned at all with the reality as it is in itself, but solely with it as it manifests itself to me in religion.’

I have been endeavouring to point out that the fields in which religion is most apt to collide with science or philosophy are those which concern natural events and processes, and abstruse theological and metaphysical questions; and that both of these lie on the outskirts of the religious domain, at a great distance from the centre of experience. I pass now to a third point, and may begin by reference to the case just supposed. Let us assume that a philosopher finds metaphysical difficulties in the way of the idea that God is accurately or exhaustively definable as love. Then it will be said that his religion would be injured or fatally affected by this conclusion, because, however you may disguise the fact, he could not take his religious idea to be perfectly true, and that is a necessity of religion.

Now we have seen that religion cannot take its ideas as poetry does, and it is generally assumed that it must take them to be perfectly true. But I venture to deny this assumption. It is natural to religion so to take them; it frequently does so take them; and most religious men, if questioned, would perhaps at once assert that they do and must take them so. But they do chiefly because they have in their heads the mistaken notion that, if an idea is not perfectly true, it is false. And, in point of fact, most men do not take all their religious ideas to be perfectly true; on the contrary they use some of them, knowing that they are not so; and if the question were properly put to them they would not maintain that any of them are absolutely true.

Only they would say that the question was idle, and that the deficiency in truth was of no consequence to them, though it might possibly concern a philosopher or theologian. Now I want to suggest that they would be right, that some difficulties would be avoided if this position were more consciously taken up by educated people, and if they recognised that the majority of religious ideas, as of other ideas, are, in various degrees, inadequate expressions of the meaning they strive to convey; and that this in itself is no reason whatever against their religious use. It would not follow, of course, that there are not ideas so inadequate or involving, if taken as final, such contradictions with knowledge of another kind, that it would be much better to abandon them.

These statements can be better enforced by illustration than by argument. Religious people, I have said, use some of their ideas knowing quite well that they are not perfectly true. When they pray ‘Our Father which art in heaven’ they do not imagine that God is related to them, either physically or spiritually, exactly as an earthly father is related to his child or, one would hope, is more truly described as a father than as a mother; or that God lives in one place called heaven which is locally separated from another called earth. Such notions were in early religion literally held; nothing is more common than the notion that the gods inhabit mountain tops or other high places—and indeed that has a poetic truth. But such ideas are for us figurative, imaginative, or pictorial ways of representing a meaning which is spiritual, and which therefore they do not express, but indicate or symbolise. But that, we should say, is no reason why they should not be employed in prayer, if the meaning they symbolise is true; for it is that with which the man puts himself in relation when he employs the symbolic expression. And what applies here applies to a great number of ideas. Men use them in worship though they are perfectly aware, if they think about the matter, that they do not adequately express their meaning; and they would resent as irrelevant and stupid any attack on these ideas which assumed that they are taken otherwise. If anyone said, for example, ‘Christ cannot be sitting at the right hand of God and at the same time be dwelling in your hearts,’ the answer would be that this criticism has no application to what is meant by these expressions, and that there is no contradiction in that.

Now let us take the statement that, if the matter were properly put to him, the religious man would not maintain that any of his ideas are absolutely true: and let me illustrate again. If he were asked ‘What then is the meaning of these more or less figurative expressions, that meaning which you say is not figurative but spiritual and true?’, he might not be able to give an answer which wholly satisfied him. Perhaps he would have recourse to theological works, and find there an interpretation which seemed to him satisfactory. That, he would say, is the true version of the meaning of those ideas he used in prayer. But suppose it was said to him, ‘Do you really think that you or the theologian or any other man can see the whole complete truth in this matter, that you can ever mean by the words “God” and “yourself” all that they mean to God himself?’ He would not simply deny this, he would reject the notion as downright irreligious. But perfect truth about anything surely means the whole truth. So that the man does not really use any of his religious ideas with the conviction that they are perfectly true; he knows that there is always a meaning beyond them, not completely expressed in them. And, though there is a great difference between various ideas, the idea ‘heaven’, for example, being evidently symbolic, while the theological idea of God is not so in the same sense, yet this difference, though important, is not final. For any idea which has a meaning partly beyond it, may be called, in a broad sense, a symbol of that meaning.

If this is so, it follows that it is not a necessity of religion to be convinced that the ideas it uses are true, in the full sense; but, on the contrary, it is the habitual practice of religion to use those which in that sense it knows not to be so, but which it believes to convey or indicate so much of the truth as is required for the purpose of religion—which is not the purpose of complete intellectual understanding. Nor is this, of course, a new notion. It is, I presume, what is implied, for instance, in the familiar doctrine that our ideas of the attributes of God are obtained in part by way of negation; that taking, say, the idea of wisdom or goodness or love, as we know them in man, we do not merely extend the idea in attributing its content to God, but also deny some part of it: that is, we do not suppose God's wisdom or goodness to be perfectly identical in kind with man's. Indeed if we tried to do so we should certainly find ourselves involved in contradictions. Perhaps it may be worth while to illustrate by reference to the idea of omniscience. I suppose most people, in thinking of this for religious purposes, do in effect imagine God knowing everything as a man would. But this image cannot be finally true. It would be easy to exhibit its self-contradictions, but it is simpler to bring home its absurdity. Take anything you like—this desk—and consider, in the whole of its being, such a minute fragment as its distance from every other object in this room. Consider that the desk is divisible in thought ad infinitum, and so is everything else material in the room; and that the distance from every point you like to take in it to every point you like to take in everything and everybody is a fact—a truth. Consider further what proportion this room bears to the earth, and all the other things in it; and that there are similar truths about distances as to all these and everything else in the whole stellar universe. And consider, again, what a ridiculously small proportion of the truth about anything is comprised in truths about its distances from other things; and then ask whether you suppose God's omniscience means that he is eternally thinking—for God is complete actuality—all the possible truths in the universe, in the sense in which we mathematically think. Is not that a preposterous supposition? Is it not obvious that God's omniscience must be a totally different kind of knowing from such knowing; and that the ‘all’ which he knows cannot be the ‘all’ of things as we, in this supposition, are regarding them. In other words, the real meaning of omniscience is something which is not expressed, but only very imperfectly symbolised, when we imagine God knowing as we know, at any rate in our ordinary sense of that word ‘know’.

What follows from this? It follows apparently that, if we want to understand, we cannot rest in such an imagination—we must go beyond it, whether we can arrive at a satisfactory understanding or not. It does not follow that for religious purposes the image is useless or may not be very useful. But again it does follow—it seems to me—that it is well to be quite aware of its great inadequacy, and not to suppose that we are defending religion by insisting that it is finally true.

I might extend this line of thought further. I might point out that to almost all of us, if not all, the bulk of our higher and undoubted practical ideas are really on the same footing with religious ideas.

We talk of mother-country, or duty, or justice, or liberty: we have not a doubt that these ideas mean realities, but we do not suppose that our country is literally our mother; and, if we were asked to give a final account which could satisfy the intellect of the meaning of the ideas of country, duty, justice or liberty, we might find ourselves in embarrassment. We know that we have a meaning, and a most vital one, but the fact is we do not, strictly speaking, know what we mean, and therefore the ideas of country, justice, liberty are more or less symbolic, as most religious ideas are. In philosophy we try to find out what exactly their meaning is, and we have theories as to their meaning just as false to our experience as some theories about religion are to our religious experience.

  • 1.

    (These considerations, it must first be observed, can have no relevance, in our view, to the belief that there is a revelation, in sacred writings or otherwise, of such a kind that no change whatever is permissible in religious ideas of any description. This belief, however, is, I suppose, not held by anyone with entire consistency, and, if it is not so held, no external criticism appears possible as to the limits of such change; but in the end an individual or a church determines them for itself—a phrase which need not preclude the belief that, in so determining them, it follows the guidance of something beyond itself.)

  • 2.

    It is of consequence for my worship of self-sacrificing love as divine that I should be able to think of this love—in whatever form I think of it—as the manifestation or revelation of God; but it is not religiously of consequence whether it is perfectly accurate metaphysically simply to identify this love with God. So far as I am religious—if I may put it thus—I do not care what more God may be, so long as I am sure that he reveals himself in what calls for this worship. In any case I should not directly worship this ‘more’—and religion is worship.

  • 3.

    And this is certainly the usual and natural practice of the religious mind. It commonly asserts that all religious ideas except its own are false, but it would commonly assert most strenuously that its own ideas are true.

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