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Part Second. Constructive

Lecture First. Faith, Knowledge and Mythology

IN my former course of lectures I tried to show that it is a fundamental mistake to think of religion as occupying a separate and independent sphere of its own, where it dwells in calmness and serenity undisturbed by the conflicting interests of everyday life; that, on the contrary, it is co-extensive with the whole realm of human experience. No doubt in his religious consciousness man is lifted above all division and contradiction by his union with the divine; but this union is not attained by abstraction from the finite, but by its spiritualization. Through all its changing phases religion has remained faithful, in spirit if not always in letter, to the fundamental principle, that nature, man and God are inseparable from one another. Beginning as a simple and almost undifferentiated germ, it has developed into a highly specialized organism; but it has through the whole of its history preserved the three aspects of religion, as a life, a creed and a ritual; though the tendency to abstraction, which is the great vice of the reflective intellect, has often led thinkers who sought to analyze its contents to isolate one of those aspects, to the neglect or suppression of the others. At the present time, there are many writers who lay all the emphasis upon life. Religion, it is said, is entirely independent of any creed, orthodox or heterodox, and it is even doubtful if a theology is possible at all, in view of the necessary limitations of human experience. There is an absolute contrast, it is contended, between the freedom and spontaneity of religious life and the arid abstractions of theology. Religion, they say, rests upon faith, not upon the artificial constructions of the intellect, and nothing can be more fatal than the identification of the one with the other. The religious man may be a very poor theologian, the theologian need not be religious; and religion can only be preserved, in these days of unrest and sceptical mistrust, by an appeal to intuition, not by the futile attempt to construct a system of theology, an attempt which from the nature of the case must always end in failure.

This endeavour to base religion upon faith, as distinguished from knowledge, may either be advanced in defence of the Christian view of life, or as the only basis of any form of religion whatever; and it will therefore throw some light upon the subject of these lectures to consider shortly what can be said in support of each of those views.

According to the former, the essence of Christianity was revealed for all time in the first century of our era, and therefore the nature of Christianity must be learned from a study of the original Christian records, combined with a vigorous exercise of the historical imagination. In this way, it is contended, we may succeed in seeing things with the eyes of the first disciples of our Lord, and in freeing ourselves from the obscurations and perversions with which the original revelation has been subsequently overlaid. In the life and death and teaching of the Master, it is said, there was embodied the deepest principle of the religion that he founded; and therefore, by imaginative contact with him, there may be reproduced in us the fresh and vigorous spiritual life of the first Christians. Where else, indeed, can we expect to find the fundamental nature of Christianity revealed, if not in the three first Gospels, as properly interpreted? In the writings of St. Paul, we are told, the religion of Jesus is already intermingled with Pharisaic elements; and the Fourth Gospel, with its mystical doctrine of the Word that became flesh—a doctrine suggested by, if not borrowed from, the philosophy of Alexandria—carries this process of obscuration further still; while the subsequent speculations of the Greek and Roman fathers, and the whole dualistic and ascetic movement of the medieval Church, have almost destroyed the warm and breathing life of genuine Christianity. Only by removing the veil which has for so long obscured the truth, can we hope for a renewal of spiritual life and for the experience of a real living faith such as the immediate followers of Jesus experienced.

What underlies this endeavour to recover the ideas and feelings of the first century is the conviction that in this way we may get rid at a stroke of the whole edifice of dogma, which, it is held, has been built up by the intermixture of abstract speculation with an unhistorical interpretation of the Christian documents. The system of doctrine endorsed by the Church claims to be deduced from scripture by the exercise of reflective thought. This claim, it is contended, cannot be substantiated. When we apply modern methods of criticism to the sacred text, the result is that by a slow yet sure method one by one the folds of misinterpretation are removed, misunderstandings due to want of sympathy and to unfamiliarity with the intellectual and spiritual atmosphere of the past are disclosed, and at last there gradually emerges the divine figure of the Master as he really was, so that we come to see what he actually taught and what was the true significance of his self-sacrificing life and atoning death.

Now, I should be the last to undervalue the labours of the great army of historical critics, who have done so much to make the past live again for us, by removing to so large an extent the prejudices and preconceptions which for so long prevented us from reading the sacred writings in something like their original sense; but I am not prepared to admit that by this method a substitute can be provided for a theology or philosophy of religion. I am unable to see that the new insight gained into the life and thought of the first century can possibly lead to the conclusion that the labours of theologians and philosophers have been nothing but the misdirected efforts of able and pious men in pursuit of an impossible task, or that the reconstruction of theology in the light of modem thought is either useless or impossible.

It seems to be assumed by those who adopt this view of the history of religion that, by getting back to the original form in which the Christian religion was enunciated by its Founder, we may reach absolute religious truth, and that any attempt in the slightest degree to modify or expand this truth in the light of subsequent experience must necessarily lead to its obscuration and distortion. What, then, is the picture of Jesus which is held to result from the application of the historical method to the sacred writings? The question is still to a certain extent unsettled, but a measure of agreement has been reached by all unbiased critics as a result of their laborious investigations.

The idea of the Kingdom of God, so we are told, on which the teaching of Jesus was based, can be traced back to a very early stage of the religion of Israel. What Jesus did was to impart to it a new and deeper meaning. Like his immediate predecessor, John the Baptist, he accepted the idea of the Kingdom to which apocalyptic writers like Enoch and Baruch had given currency: the calamities of the last days, the circumstances of the judgment, and the dissolution of the whole order of nature and society. At the same time his conception of the Kingdom was not a mere transcript of the apocalyptic tradition. He does not, for example, contemplate an entire destruction of the present world, but its continuance in a transfigured and purified form, with a fresh beginning in the history of the world, when even the outward limitations and evils of man's life will be done away, so that there will be no distinctions of rank and class; no sorrow, or poverty or death. But the greatest and most fundamental change he conceives to lie in the spiritual transformation of man's life. Having a clear consciousness of the mind of God, the heirs of the Kingdom will freely and spontaneously conform to it. Thus the present imperfect world, into which evil has somehow entered, will be purified and renovated. Not that the existing world belongs to Satan, but it is so far imperfect, that the will of God only works itself out in antagonism to the evil powers that ever seek to obstruct its operation. There are, it is admitted, no doubt sayings of Jesus which seem to imply that the Kingdom will come as the result of a slow and gradual process; but, on the whole, the sayings in which a sudden and miraculous coming is assumed are still more numerous. Image is heaped upon image in order to make it perfectly clear that the Kingdom will come with a bewildering abruptness through the direct and miraculous intervention of God. Nor can our Lord have meant that the Kingdom had already begun. This supposition is excluded by the conception of its sudden and miraculous advent, which necessarily involves its futurity. So close at hand, however, was the Kingdom believed to be that its power could be already felt, and there were indubitable signs and guarantees of its near approach. As a preparation for the advent of the new age Jesus demanded, in place of a mere outward conformity to the precepts of the Law, a complete transformation of the inner nature. Each commandment he traced back to its source in the will. Repentance, therefore, consisted in a radical change of heart. Jesus demanded of his followers an entire renunciation of occupation, wealth and even family ties; not on ascetic grounds, but because these things were bound up with the present order, which was so soon to come to an end. We cannot, it is contended, explain away this eschatological idea of the Kingdom of God by interpreting it in a purely spiritual sense, or viewing it as but the imaginative setting of moral and religious ideas. On the other hand, it is even a greater mistake to regard the moral and spiritual ideas of Jesus as something secondary and incidental; for only by projecting himself into a world of ideal conditions was he able to realize the true purpose and will of God. Thus, while the apocalyptic hope supplied the outer framework of his teaching, it was the higher spiritual interest that for him was always paramount. And, though the Kingdom was conceived of as the direct gift of God, yet, giving an example in his own life of an all-conquering faith, Jesus urged his followers to hasten its advent by their own efforts.1

Now, it must be admitted that the picture thus sketched for us, as the result of recent historical criticism, undoubtedly enables us to realize more vividly the personal life of Jesus and the source of his influence upon his contemporaries. It is impossible, in the presence of this inspiring figure, to acquiesce in such later fictions as those adopted by certain theologians, whether they take the form of a spectral Christ instead of the Jesus of history, or of that impossible combination of human limitations and divine omnipotence which was supposed to solve the problem of the relations of God and man. But, while we are thus enabled to get a clearer and truer vision of the person of Jesus, we only become all the more conscious that for us the whole atmosphere of ideas in which he lived and moved has so completely changed, that it is only by an effort of the historical imagination, and as the result of a minute and careful study of the ideas and modes of thought of his time, that we can enter with sympathy into his mind and teaching. The whole idea of a sudden and miraculous advent of a new order of things, to take place in the lifetime of those then living, has been made incredible to us, not only by its failure of accomplishment, but by its incompatibility with that gradual process of evolution that is one of the main presuppositions of our world of ideas. It is therefore impossible for us to accept without criticism even the spiritual ideas expressed by Jesus. True, the principle enunciated by him, that the whole essence of religion is summed up in the command to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves, we feel constrained to accept; but this principle, absolute and comprehensive as it is, does not solve the difficulties that have come upon us as a result of the controversies and the conflicts of centuries. Undoubtedly Jesus expressed the deepest principle of religion—the unity of Man in his true nature with God—and embodied it in his life and death; but it is impossible, if we are to attain to anything like security of faith, to avoid asking what meaning this principle has for us, who live in a world that does not correspond to the ideal Kingdom of God, and who have laid upon us the immense burden of the apparently conflicting results of science, politics, philosophy and religion.

The claim to substitute a historical description of Christianity, as it appeared to the mind of the Founder, for a philosophy of religion derives support from the conviction that theology and philosophy are not essential to the religious life. This is no doubt true, in the sense that piety and theology do not always go together; but it is not true, if it is meant that a simple reference to the teaching of Jesus makes the endeavour to construct a system of theology superfluous. When it is once admitted that the eschatological setting of the ideas of Jesus cannot be accepted, we are simply forced to ask upon what grounds of reason the fundamental principle of Christianity is based, and how far it admits of justification in the light of modern thought. Or rather, the real problem is, how a principle not dead but full of vitalizing power has gradually defined itself in its conflict with antagonistic or complementary ideas; and how that principle is to be interpreted in harmony with the highest results of modern investigation.

The theory which we are considering seeks to take us back to the point of view of the Founder of Christianity and thus to arouse in us a living faith. What, then, is faith? It is clearly impossible to identify faith with the mere presence of an idea in the mind, or even with a belief in the truth of that idea. It is not the former, for I may have an idea before my mind without regarding it as corresponding to reality. Some thinkers, for example, deny that the existence of an omniscient and omnipresent God is capable of demonstration; but the very fact that the existence of such a Being is denied, is sufficient evidence that it exists as an idea in the mind of those who make the denial. To have the idea of an infinite Being is therefore not the same thing as to have faith in the reality of that Being. But, further, we may believe in the reality of God without having, in the religious sense, faith in him. For, faith, in this sense of the term, while it presupposes belief in its object, also involves an act of will. I cannot have faith in God without having the conviction that he is not a mere fiction of my own creation; but, unless this conviction is of such a character as to influence my life, it cannot be called faith, in the religious sense of the word. Thus “faith” is the expression of my deepest and truest self; it is the spirit which determines the whole character of my self-conscious life. To suppose that genuine faith should exist without being translated into action is therefore a contradiction in terms. The faith which has no influence on the life is not faith. Bearing this in mind, we can understand why it has been maintained that religion has nothing to do with creeds and confessions. One may be perfectly familiar with a definite system of doctrine, and yet be entirely destitute of religious faith. What can it matter to me, it is said, that I am an accomplished theologian, if my life is in no way influenced by what I believe? It is therefore inferred that faith is something different from, and even antagonistic to, any and every system of doctrine.

While it is undoubtedly true that religious faith is nothing unless it determines the will and issues in action, it by no means follows that the intellectual formulation of the contents of religion is superfluous. A precondition of faith is belief in certain ideas, though that belief does not of itself constitute faith. If I do not in some sense believe in the reality of God, even if my belief is only in the validity of an ideal, I shall certainly not strive after truth and beauty and goodness. If I am convinced that unselfish conduct has no higher claim to obedience than selfish conduct, my life will either be a continual oscillation between opposite courses of action, or it will degenerate into the most pronounced selfishness. While therefore there may be doubt as to the truth or adequacy of the ideas formulated in a creed, there can be no religious faith where there are no ideas and no belief in them. Thus, while faith is something more than the theoretical endorsement of certain ideas, it yet necessarily presupposes that endorsement. What we should compare, therefore, is not faith as a whole, faith as an expression of the whole man, but the intellectual side of faith with that systematic formulation of ideas which constitutes a theology or philosophy of religion.

Looked at from this point of view, we can no longer contrast the ideas involved in faith with the ideas contained in a theological system as if they were abstract opposites. They are related in no such antithetical way. The difference between the idea of God as it exists in the mind of the least reflective believer, and the idea of God as held by the theologian, can only be a distinction between implicit and explicit truth. Just as Plato pointed out that moral ideas, as they exist in the mind of the ordinary unreflective citizen, are not to be regarded as contradictory of the moral ideas formulated in a system of ethics; so the religious ideas of the unreflective man are not opposed, or at least need not be opposed, to those of the theologian. In truth, it is impossible for man to believe in ideas that are fundamentally untrue; and therefore we may be certain that the beliefs of the religious man only need to be explicitly stated, and freed from a certain vagueness and inconsistency, to be converted into an articulate system of theology. Religion is possible only for a being who continually thinks, feels and acts under the presupposition that he lives in a spiritual universe; and thispresupposition, when made explicit and grasped in all its articulations, constitutes a philosophy of religion.

We may conclude, then, that religious faith must necessarily express itself in action, and that this essential relation to the will constitutes its differentia from theology. It is important, however, to guard against the fallacy that faith is the result or product of action. What gives plausibility to this view is the fact already insisted upon, that religion is a life, and that only by living the religious life can a man realize what is meant by religion. It is by doing what is good, it may be said, that a man learns what is good. We do not begin by making an elaborate investigation into what ought to be done, and then proceed to do it; but we do it, and in this way determine what ought to be done. Without action there would be no faith.

There is an ambiguity in this view which leads to a fatal confusion of thought. It may mean, in the first place, that religious faith can be entirely resolved into action, or is simply the result of action. Taken in this sense, it seems to me fundamentally false. To say that a thing is right because it is done, means at bottom that the distinction between good and evil is merely a question of what is or is not customary. The fallacy is similar to that into which the pragmatist falls, when he says that “truth” is that which is found to “work,” instead of saying that it “works” because of its “truth.” The reason why an attempt has been made to explain faith as the result instead of the source of right action is, that man, in action as in knowledge, begins with an indefinite faith, which he only learns to comprehend at all adequately after he has acted. On the other hand, man would never will the good, were it not that he is always governed by a desire for the good; which again involves a belief that the good can only be found in a certain general course of conduct. Gradually, as he translates his intuitions into practice, man learns to determine more and more what the ideal course of conduct is; but were his action from the first not guided by ideas, though not necessarily by ideas that are made an object of reflection, he would learn nothing by the teaching of experience. We cannot separate faith from action, as if the one could be regarded as the cause of the other. All such modes of thought are inadequate to express the nature of the religious life. There is no religious faith that does not involve the combined and inseparable activity of thought, emotion and will. Take away all thought, and nothing remains but mechanical action that has no more meaning than the fall of a stone; eliminate feeling, and there would be no response of the individual; remove will, and thought would never be translated into action. What this shows is that we cannot divide up the self-conscious life of man into three separate and independent powers, and therefore that we can have no action that is either good or evil which does not involve the whole man. Since the whole man is expressed in what he wills, the only true sense in which it can be held that faith is dependent upon action, is the sense that will is realized faith. To say that faith is the result or effect of action is therefore to say that it is the result of itself. As a form of intelligent and emotional activity, involving the whole rational subject, faith cannot be due to anything but itself.

Faith, then, to sum up, always involves (1) an idea, (2) belief in the object of that idea, (3) willing in conformity with the belief; and its distinction from theology lies in its active or practical character, and in the fact that, so far as it is contrasted with theology, it contains implicitly, or in an unreflective form, that which in theology ought to be expressed in a completely rounded system. It is therefore only in a true theology that faith can find its theoretical justification; while, on the other hand, theology can only compass this justification, in so far as it does not contradict the total content of faith.

From what has been said it manifestly follows that faith is not exclusive of knowledge; in truth, the aim of theology is to determine how far faith can be justified; in other words, to effect the transition from unreflective to reflective knowledge. It is no doubt true that this transition cannot be made without some alteration in the form in which truth is presented; but there can be no alteration which destroys the substantial content of what is held in faith. It may be said, however, and indeed it has been said, that the gradual increase of knowledge must lead to a correspondent diminution of faith; so that ultimately faith will be entirely replaced by knowledge.

To this view there seems to be the insuperable objection, that knowledge is here conceived, not as the development of the truth implicit in faith, but as a process in which faith is gradually abolished. But surely this is a perverse view of their relation. Faith no doubt exists at first in a form that is reflectively very vague and indefinite. A man, for example, may firmly believe that the highest life consists somehow in union with the divine, while the attempt to specify what is meant by the divine, and by union with it, may be a task entirely beyond his powers. When, therefore, the theologian, by a dialectical process, goes on to specify ideas which to the ordinary consciousness are vague and indefinite, he is not at every step receding from faith, but, on the contrary, interpreting it to itself; and if it is possible to carry this process to its completion in knowledge, faith, so far from being attenuated more and more until it vanishes away, will have been confirmed and strengthened. The notion that knowledge displaces faith seems to be largely due to a confusion between faith and credulity. But these are really opposites. Credulity is belief resting upon no evidence of any kind; whereas faith is conviction to which all that is deepest in nature and human life bears witness. Hence faith cannot be abolished by knowledge, but the strongest faith must be the result of the amplest knowledge. It is only because, in the ratiocinative process by which faith is gradually transformed until it coincides with the highest knowledge, adventitious elements, which are really inconsistent with its principle, are eliminated, that reflection can seem to lead to the destruction of faith. In the unreflective faith of the ordinary consciousness there is inevitably much that is foreign to the genuine religious consciousness, and this element theology is compelled to reject. A man, for example, may be accustomed to conceive of God as a “magnified and non-natural man in the next street” he may think of the world as formed after the manner in which the builder fashions a house, or the sculptor a statue; he may represent evil as the result of the machinations of the devil; he may think of the regeneration of man in terms of the market-place or the law-court; he may imagine the soul to be of a ghost-like half-material substance, and attempt to establish immortality by more than doubtful stories of the supernatural influence of disembodied spirits; and in all these ways he may contradict the fundamental truth of the spiritual faith which really rules his life. It is therefore only natural, when these crude and inadequate modes of thought have been shown to be untenable, that he should for the moment feel as if his faith had suffered a shock from which it might never recover. But, in truth, his faith did not derive its support from such inadequate modes of representation: it sprung from something much deeper, which the removal of these fictions cannot possibly affect. And when, for the inadequate idea of a finite anthropomorphic God, he substitutes the conception of God as self-conscious spirit; when he comes to see that for the confused notion of creation out of nothing must be substituted the idea of the world as a reality which has no meaning apart from God; when evil is discerned to be the product of his own irrational will, not of any external agency; when he sees that the regeneration of man is inseparable from the whole spiritual constitution of the universe; when he discards the fiction of the soul as a ghost-like replica of himself, and sees in his self-conscious spiritual nature the only defence of immortality; with the abandonment of these inadequate modes of thought, and the substitution for them of conceptions that will stand the test of the severest criticism, he is not really faithless to his religious intuitions, but he merely frees them from accretions which make the preservation of faith for reflective minds a difficult and in some cases an impossible task.

We may conclude, then, I think, that a completely purified and developed faith is identical with the highest knowledge of divine things, so far as the intellectual element implied in it is concerned. The man who interprets his religion in the light of a comprehensive theology does not weaken his faith, but imparts to it security and confidence. An unreflective faith is necessarily in a condition of unstable equilibrium, and is liable to be shaken by every wind of doctrine. Nothing but a reasoned and systematic faith, a faith which has triumphed over the worst assaults of scepticism and pessimism, can give us permanent satisfaction, especially in our day when no truth however venerable is immune from attack.

It may be contended, however, that from the nature of the case faith cannot be converted into knowledge, and therefore that religion must in the end be based upon a faith which excludes knowledge. The older Positivism or Agnosticism, it may be said, erred in dogmatically assuming that the results of science are absolute, whereas they are but limited truths, which leave a whole region of possible reality unexplored. This vague and indefinite reality, it is true, cannot be brought within the sphere of knowledge; but, certain as we are that it exists, our attitude should not be that of positive assertion but only of suggestion, not logic but passion, not prose but poetry. Divination is here more important than fact, imagination than reason. In all that concerns his higher life man must, in default of knowledge, fall back upon mythology and poetry, which do not pretend to a knowledge that is beyond the reach of man, and yet figure forth something that in some way corresponds to reality and satisfies his needs and aspirations. The content of this new mythology, which shall displace the old and self-contradictory creed, can only be vaguely suggested, but it will probably include such beliefs as these: (1) that the world is somehow in harmony with man's ideals; (2) that evil is not a mere appearance but a fact, so that in fighting for good we are assisting something real that is divine, and resisting something real that is diabolical; (3) that, instead of dwelling upon the false idea of original sin, we should insist upon man's power to overcome nature and adapt it to his own ends; and (4) that we should cherish the stimulating idea of personal immortality, and therefore welcome such investigations as those conducted by the Society for Psychical Research. Thus, it is contended, faith may supplement knowledge, and, so long as it is kept from hardening into the rigidity of dogma, it should prove a powerful incentive to further knowledge, as well as to progress in ethical well-being.

Now, so long as a knowledge of reality as it is in itself is denied, the attempt to save our higher interests by falling back upon mythology I regard as utterly futile and self-contradictory. We are asked, in the absence of knowledge, to trust to our divinations or aspirations, as something higher than the facts and laws of science. But these divinations, it would seem, are so fluctuating and uncertain in their character, that they can only prompt us to believe, in the absence of any convincing ground for our belief, that somehow or other, we know not how, the world is not hostile to the fulfilment of our higher needs. All attempts to explain the unreconciled dualism of good and evil we are to abandon as hopeless, while for the belief in personal immortality there is no other ground than the precarious evidence furnished by the Society for Psychical Research. One can understand the contention that our higher needs, as involved in the self-conscious life of man, demand a belief in the triumph of goodness, in the value of the struggle with evil, and in personal immortality; but this attempt to base them upon an arbitrary mythology, which has no other support than a vague and vacillating aspiration, which cannot even state definitely what it means, is little more than a cry of despair. In the absence of any rational basis for the beliefs in question, what are they but unverifiable fictions? How utterly uncertain is the appeal to divination, passion and imagination, we may learn from the ambiguity of the oracle; it cannot even tell us whether it is for or against the belief in personal immortality; apparently the oracle gives forth so uncertain a sound, that it may be cited in support of either. No other result indeed could be anticipated from a theory which makes uncriticized feeling the basis of faith. Where there is no ground for holding one thing rather than another; where we have no support beyond vague intimations, which may with equal plausibility be claimed by either side; we may construct our mythology after any pattern we please, but what we cannot do is to have permanent faith in it. An appeal is made, in support of this defence of a baseless mythology, or at least a mythology that cannot tell what its basis is, to the poets, and we are told that it is to them, and not to the theologians or philosophers, that we must look for comfort and for truth. And no doubt there is a sense in which poetry may be more philosophical, not merely than history, as Aristotle said, but even than theology or philosophy. The poetic intuitions of Wordsworth and Browning, of Goethe and Schiller, contain larger and deeper truth than is to be found in the systems of contemporary theologians or philosophers; but the reason is, not that imagination comes closer to reality than reflection, but that it naturally outruns its slower-paced sister. Poetry never contains deeper truth than philosophy, except when it embodies intuitions that are afterwards expressed, or may afterwards be expressed, in systematic form. In poetry we have the concrete presentation of ideas in definite pictorial form, but it is only as it exhibits the whole through the parts, the ideal in the sensible, that it can ever be regarded as reaching a higher stage than a philosophy which has lost itself in the parts. If poetry merely gave expression to the vague yearnings of the human spirit, it would be absurd to appeal to it in support of religion. No doubt lyrical poetry may legitimately express the feelings of the individual, and such an expression may be shown to have a universal value by the critic who is seeking to determine the character of a certain type of mind or of a certain age; but no one who knows what he is about would cite the lyrical outpourings, say of a despairing and overburdened soul, as a literal expression of truth.

Poetry, then, does undoubtedly contain true ideas, and, it may be, even ideas which are truer than any that have hitherto been divined; but it does so only because it has penetrated more deeply to the heart of reality; and in that case it is the task and the duty of theology and philosophy to make room in their systems for the new truth. The only test of the value of a poem is the possibility of expressing its underlying ideas in a connected and rational system; and if that cannot be done, the failure is due either to want of inspiration in the poet or to the imperfect comprehension of the reflective thinker. I contend, therefore, that a mythology which is not based upon reason has no value whatever, and indeed may prove to be but another obstacle in the way of truth. It cannot be admitted that whatever is called faith is necessarily higher than knowledge. A faith that cannot be shown to be rational is simply a play of fancy, not a product of genuine poetic imagination, which never contradicts reason. It must not be supposed, however, that philosophy, because it is capable of expressing in systematic shape the ideas that inform the imagination of the poet, can be employed as a substitute for poetry, or can dispense with its aid. It is not a substitute; for, after the construction of the most perfect system of philosophy, poetry is essential to give to the system its concrete realization. Nor can it dispense with the aid of poetry, because it is only through the fresh intuitions of poetic genius that new truths, or rather new developments of truth, are brought to light. The poet, working directly upon his own typical experience, and looking at the world with the fresh unjaded eyes of a new unconventional soul, discerns in the concrete and immediate the operation of the single principle that binds all things together; and the abstract thinker, looking at nature and human life through the inspired eyes of the poet, is enabled to make a new synthesis, a synthesis that otherwise would have been beyond his reach. The poet and the philosopher have a different task to perform, and yet each must harmonize in his results with the other—assuming, that is, that each performs his own work adequately and in his own way. This, indeed, is essential, for if the poet lapses into the abstracting, reflective, and in the first instance divisive, mood of the philosopher, his poetry will be “sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought”; while the philosopher who falls back upon the intuitive and imaginative method of the poet, will fail to attain to that clear distinction and that coherent connection and completeness which it is his business to secure.

We cannot admit, then, that the only organ of religion is imagination, while the only true products of imagination are mythologies, not systems of thought. Nevertheless, there is a sense in which it may be said that faith must always outrun knowledge. The edifice of truth is not built in a day, nor is it ever absolutely complete. Each stage in its development grows out of a former stage and prepares for that which follows. However far the progress of knowledge may have gone, a new and unexplored region must always lie vaguely beyond, and this new region can only be indicated by faith. It would therefore seem that after all we must oppose faith to knowledge. It must be observed, however, in the first place, that the faith which is thus contrasted with knowledge is itself based upon knowledge, and therefore differs in kind from the faith which is identified with baseless mythological fictions; and, in the second place, that, just because it emerges from knowledge, it is really already implied in knowledge. There is no advance by discontinuous leaps: each new stage of knowledge is already implicit in its predecessor; and therefore faith points beyond knowledge only by bringing to light what is already implicit in knowledge. To take an illustration from our special subject, the idea of God as the unity which gives meaning to life is implied even in the simplest form of religion. No doubt this unity is at first wrongly identified with a particular sensible object; but were there not in this primitive form of religion the implicit idea of an absolute unity, there would be no continuity in the development of the religious consciousness. We must therefore recognize that, while faith may go beyond, and does go beyond, what is explicitly formulated, it does not go beyond what is implied in that formulation. Or, to put the matter in another way, the whole progress of knowledge consists in the continuous process by which a single reality is grasped in its determinate forms. Thus, while knowledge in its progress brings ever new differences into prominence, it at the same time remains, and must remain, within the unity of one intelligible world. The unity and the differences develop pari passu. As new distinctions are made, the unity becomes ever more concrete, but it never ceases to be a unity. Now, faith just consists in a reassertion of the unity that is always presupposed as the condition of knowledge. At each stage in the progress of knowledge, the mind reacts, and must react, because at no stage has the universe been completely specified. But the fundamental presupposition which underlies every stage of that progress is the unity or absolute coherence of reality; and it is this idea, which, at each advance, faith reasserts. We may, no doubt, refuse to this presupposition the name of knowledge; but it is only not knowledge, because it is the condition of all knowledge. Thus, in the end, it becomes apparent that faith never transcends knowledge, but, as the assertion of the principle which underlies and makes knowledge possible, it is the highest form of knowledge.

There is only one other point to which reference should be made before we leave this mythological theory of faith. Its advocates summarily reject what they call the Christian doctrines of creation, the incarnation, the inherent sinfulness of man, and the resurrection, as formulated in the creeds of the Church. Now, the creeds of the Church are simply unintelligible apart from their place in the historical evolution of ideas. By an application of the same external method, it might plausibly be shown that there is nothing in common between the various forms of religion. This whole mode of thought seems to me belated and pernicious. It can hardly be necessary at the present day to enter into an elaborate argument to prove that the history of man is inexplicable apart from the idea of evolution; and the application of that idea will convince any one that such unsympathetic criticisms as those referred to are inept and anachronistic. Historical investigation has amply proved that, by slow and tentative steps, the primitive religions of Greece and Israel developed into monotheism, and that Christianity effected a synthesis of Greek and Jewish ideas by the aid of a principle implicit in both, but wider and deeper than either; and especially that the development of theology has consisted in the reinterpretation of Christian ideas in the light of enlarged religious experience. We cannot, therefore, without ignoring this long and toilsome process, go back to the theological ideas of the first, the fourth or the seventeenth century. The fundamental principle of Christianity—the essential unity of the divine and human natures—must needs receive new applications and come to a clearer and clearer understanding of itself as time goes on, and it is therefore preposterous to identify Christianity with the inadequate formulation of its principle in any given age. At the same time, it is equally one-sided to find in the beliefs of any age nothing but a perversion of the truth. We cannot thus “cut things in two with a hatchet.” The only profitable study of theological conceptions is that which endeavours to discover what element of truth they contain, and what is the degree of error which prevents them from expressing the truth in its purity and comprehensiveness. To remain rigidly bound by a particular formulation of the Christian principle makes progress impossible; to deny all truth to it, makes progress unintelligible. The development of theology, like all other manifestations of the human spirit, is never the mere annihilation of the old and the substitution of the new. So to read the history of thought is to reduce it to a mere alternation of contradictory ideas, and a mere alternation is the denial of all law. The history of man becomes an un-intelligible enigma, if any period, whether it be the first or the twentieth century, is isolated and treated as self-sufficing. The first Christian century grew out of the preceding non-Christian centuries, as the twentieth has developed out of all the centuries that have followed the advent of the new form of religion. No absolute line of demarcation can be drawn anywhere; and, unless we are determined to treat Christianity as a dead and lifeless mechanism, we must be prepared to incorporate in our theology the result of its centuries of struggle and conflict with partly alien and partly kindred forces. To eliminate all that has been contributed, not only by writers like St. Paul and St. John, but by the theologians and philosophers of nineteen centuries, will leave us with a content so vague and general as to be incapable of satisfying the religious needs of our age. At the same time, the history of these ideas cannot be treated as simply the record of different and conflicting views about the same or kindred topics; it must be conceived as the ever fuller development of a germ that in its complete differentiation comprehends the whole of life. Development necessarily seems at each crisis of belief to be a reversion to earlier and simpler modes of thought; but that is only because it is necessary, in taking a new step, to realize, in something like its original simplicity and comprehensiveness, the principle that underlies the whole movement. This is the aspect which has been called faith, and it has therefore sometimes been falsely assumed that faith goes back to an earlier stage of thought, ignoring the whole process that has intervened. In reality it is not so, for the return is no mere return, but the preparation for a further advance. The history of man, as M. Bergson insists, is creative, in the sense that the present gathers up the meaning of the past and prepares for an advance beyond it:

One accent of the Holy Ghost

A heedless world hath never lost.

The long ascetic discipline of the medieval Church, when properly understood, was a practical refutation in advance of the ethics of self-assertion, as preached in somewhat rhapsodical fashion by Nietzsche; while its dualistic theology contributed an element of truth which is a necessary complement of pantheism. It is therefore a mark of crudity and superficiality of thought, when we find such a view as that we have been considering advanced as a substitute for a Christianity that is rejected only because it is viewed as a stationary creed, not as a living principle which is continually creating new forms for itself.

  • 1.

    For the summary of recent critical thought contained in this paragraph I am much indebted to the able work of my colleague, Dr. E. F. Scott, on “The Kingdom of the Messiah” (T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh).