According to the intention of the founder of these lectures Natural Theology in its widest sense was to be their subject, and their condition freedom for the discussion of such questions as the origin and truth of man's conceptions of God or the Infinite, and the belief in revelation. With the whole of Natural Theology so defined no lecturer is likely to wish to deal, and I, like others, must make a selection; but I wish also to extend my subject, and to consider some aspects, not merely of theology, but of religion. These are evidently not the same thing; a man may be a skilled theologian without being specially religious, and equally may be deeply religious without being a theologian at all. Religion is not a mere state of activity of the intellect; it is worship—inward if not also outward. It implies and includes, no doubt, an intellectual activity, some idea, belief, theory, science or logos, concerning the object of worship. But this is very far from being all: religion is a movement of the whole soul. Theology, as such, on the other hand, is simply and solely an intellectual activity just as much as is mathematics. Hence it can collide directly with the natural sciences, history or philosophy, for these are simply intellectual; whereas religion could not come into direct collision with any of them. I propose then to look at some aspects of religion, and not merely of theology. I say ‘not merely’ because it is not my intention to give a purely anthropological and historical account of various religions without ever raising the question of the truth of the ideas, beliefs or theories contained in them.
Now I believe there are few things more irrational or more injurious than the disproportionate importance attached, in controversy about religion, to the question of its truth. If religion were merely a theory of the world, competing with natural science or philosophy, this question would be the only question at issue, But if the need to understand truth—the desire for truth—are never solely, mainly or at all the needs that produce religion—if religion is not mainly intellectual—then, even if you could settle off-hand that its ideas are mostly or wholly false, you would not have done with it either as an object of theoretic interest or as a practical problem. For these needs are not disposed of by the demonstration that they have not led to truth. They are still there calling for satisfaction and capable of producing the most tremendous effects.
Is it not better then to begin by inquiring, not into the truth of theology, but into these needs, into the nature of religion, the impulse from which it arises, and the object at which it aims? That inquiry ought to show what part had to be played in the function of religion by ideas, beliefs, theories; whether or how far it is necessary to that function that they should be true; whether and in what sense those who held them believed that they were true; whether it is impossible that they should all be more or less untrue, and yet religion be the best thing in the world.
There is another reason for the substitution of ‘religion’ for ‘theology’, namely that words have a way of bringing silent assumptions with them, and it is so with theology, which means the doctrine or the science of God. The word theology thus suggests that religion is always the worship of God—in a much more specific sense the worship of ‘the Infinite, the One and the sole Existence’ or even of what we in particular believe to be God; and we know too well how congenial that idea is to the average religious mind, how it is always tempted to assume that religion means its own religion.
Now all through the nineteenth century there had always been arising in one quarter or another, in one or another form, the question: ‘Is not religion possible without any belief in a God, any belief that could be called Deistic, Theistic, Pantheistic, Polytheistic, Christian?’ Surely that is not a question which serious men can simply ignore or can answer without consideration in the negative, and surely to answer it you must first try to make out what religion is and what are the needs which it has to satisfy.
The mere existence of the Gifford Lectures is significant and startling. The times are not very far distant when a man of any denomination or of no denomination, or of any religion or of no religion, if invited to speak on religion, not to a private audience of theological students but in public, and invited not to give a historical survey of religious beliefs but to discuss their truth with entire freedom, would have answered, unless his orthodoxy were immaculate or his ambition of martyrdom unqualified, ‘I dare not accept your invitation and I wonder that you dare to offer it.’
It is to the nineteenth century that we owe the conditions in which we stand. The earlier part of it, judged by some of its greater men, was a wonderful time, full of confidence and inspiration, and therefore in a high degree creative. It may be that ages to come will look back to it as the seed-time of their own harvest, or the day when the vision of the victories they have painfully to win dawned in such splendour on men's eyes that they were ready to believe these victories already won. In our country, these greater men were chiefly poets and might be called optimistic; the creative spirit is always so. But they do not stand alone. The same intensity of mental life appeared also in others to whom the world bore a different aspect.
A familiar but striking feature in the life of the nineteenth century was the severance of culture (to use Matthew Arnold's favourite term) from the received forms of religion. If we took a list of men famous in literature, art, science and philosophy, the creative spirits of the century, and asked how many of them habitually or in their work looked at the world from a so-called orthodox point of view, we should find these a very small proportion; and in the rest we should find a gradation either rising from attachment, modified by considerable deviations, or sinking downwards therefrom to indifference and repugnance.
This state of things repeated itself with tolerable accuracy as they descended to the lesser men, and again with modifications among those who, though they did not produce, took a great interest in literature, science and the like, and this severance, though probably less marked in Protestant countries than in Catholic, and probably less marked in Britain than elsewhere, was everywhere obvious, and was, of course, a fact representative of many other facts.
Do we fully realise the result of these facts? Do we realise how utterly different from the picture of the world which would have been sanctioned by an orthodox theologian a hundred years ago, is the picture habitually presented to and active in the average cultivated European mind of today in regard to the beginning and history of the earth and man, or their possible or probable future, or the causation of events, whether usual or unusual, that happen here or anywhere else in the Universe? It is easy to say that all that is unessential and does not concern ultimate matters at all—only opinion; but then this opinion itself is the reverse of orthodox.
On the other hand take the list of famous creators, and strike out from it the names of purely scientific men, consider the philosophy and the sources of literature of the nineteenth century, and ask the question, ‘Is it, on the whole, irreligious or even non-religious?’ No thoughtful man would answer ‘Yes’. On the contrary, it may be answered with much more truth that no secular products of the higher kind since the Renaissance have been so religious as those of the nineteenth century. We have as something apparently characteristic of the nineteenth century this contrast, that the creative minds as a rule have not thought or worked in the medium of the received theological ideas, and yet that their work is pervaded by what in a vaguer sense must be called a religious character.
Meanwhile the century saw a great change in the body of these ideas themselves, a change not officially recognised but none the less effectively used. The consequence is that, if we try to describe the general view of the world held today by the majority of educated people, we shall find it to be the product of three distinct influences which modify one another—that of religion in the accepted sense, that of science natural and historical, and that of ideas derived from philosophy and imaginative literature. And it is perhaps not too sanguine to believe that the further consequence is a decided tendency towards closing the rift between progressive culture and religion.
The Trust Deed, however, did not provide that the Gifford lecturers should be prophets. In trying to arrive at some conclusion I have thought it best to begin at as great a distance as possible from philosophy, to which such inquiries are bound at last to come. We are to begin, therefore, by looking at the phenomenon called religion—what everyone understands by that word—and we are to take it as a mere fact, simply attempting in a general way to discover what it consists in, what are its distinguishing elements, and what needs of human nature it is directed to satisfy. We may then consider briefly what is meant by religion, or by the statement that one religion is higher than another, and finally we may try to come to some conclusion, however tentative, as to what religion is and what it seeks.