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Lecture Tenth. Hypothetical Theism, Absolutism and Mysticism

IN my last lecture I endeavoured to show the inadequacy of personal idealism as an explanation of the spiritual life of man, of the nature of God, and of the relation between man and God. Its fundamental defect, I argued, arises from the assumption that the absolute self-sufficiency of the individual is the necessary condition of morality, freedom and immortality. The pluralism from which personal idealism starts is also maintained by Radical Empiricism, although the conclusion reached is only that of a hypothetical and limited theism. The universe, it is held, is composed of a number of finite selves of whom God, if he exists, is the highest. In the study of religion, as in other investigations, we must, we are told, “base our conclusions upon the facts, and the facts here are the various beliefs which have been held by men with a genius for religion.” Many of these have been “creatures of exalted emotional sensibility, exhibiting peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological”; and it is held that in such abnormal forms of consciousness, and indeed ultimately in the “subliminal” form of consciousness, the secret of religion must be sought. Certainly, we cannot accept the crude theory of medical materialism, which disposes of St. Paul by “calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex,” stigmatizes Saint Teresa as an hysteric, and calls St. Francis a hereditary degenerate. It would be just as fair and pertinent to ascribe atheism to a diseased condition of the liver. We have therefore to examine the contents of the religious consciousness. It turns out, however, that it is in the “subliminal” consciousness that we must look for the basis of religion. “We have in the fact that the conscious person is continuous with a wider self…a positive content of religious experience which is literally and objectively true as far as it goes.”1 Unfortunately the subliminal consciousness gives a very divided testimony, and, on the whole, it does not seem that we can derive from it more than the conviction that there is something higher than ourselves, though whether that something is a Being of infinite knowledge, power and goodness seems to be very doubtful. The result, then, of this attempt to base religion upon the “subliminal” consciousness is, that the only conclusion of which we can be certain is that there is probably some being or beings higher than ourselves by whom we may hope to be aided in our spiritual life.

Now, while we must agree with radical empiricism, as with personal idealism, that experience is not reducible to mechanical law, it seems to me that the attempt to base religion upon so uncertain and dubious a witness as the “subliminal” consciousness is fundamentally wrong in principle. A philosophy of religion which ignores the verifiable results of conscious experience, and takes refuge in the obscure and doubtful region of the “subliminal” consciousness, is surely self-condemned. If religion is a principle of unification, it must unify and not isolate; but by the method of ignoring the results of science and philosophy, and falling back upon the vagaries of obscure and self-contradictory feeling, religion is identified with that which is capricious and unreasonable. Religious emotion, as I have contended, is essentially rational, because it implicitly rests upon a higher synthesis than that of ordinary experience, and therefore admits of rational defence. St. Paul is only allowed to rank as a man of religious genius, along with a crowd of hysterical visionaries, because of his visions—as if his inspired conception of a universal religion, in which all men were united in the bonds of a common faith in one God and Father, counts for less in the history of the race than the accidents of his temperament. Having thus excluded the possibility of a rational faith, it is not surprising that the only positive conclusion we seem fairly entitled to reach is a doubtful belief in something that is called divine only because it is perhaps higher than ourselves, though like us it is finite.

In contrast to both Radical Empiricism and Personal Idealism we have seen reason to believe that the world is not an aggregate of separate subjects, each confined to its own experience, and that no conscious subjects are possible which do not genuinely participate in the life of the whole But, while it is certain that the conception of absolutely independent individuals is untenable, it is of the utmost importance that we should not fall into the opposite mistake of viewing the world as a unity which completely abolishes all individual subjects, by reducing them to phenomenal aspects of a single Unity in which they are transformed or transmuted, we know not how. An abstract Monism seems to me just as untenable as an abstract Individualism. It is perfectly true that nothing can be real which does not fall within experience; but the question is whether experience must ultimately be resolved into a unity which abolishes all distinctions. An Absolute in which all the distinctions are abolished by which the world of our experience is redeemed from chaos and vacuity, cannot be regarded as the true principle of the universe. It will therefore be advisable to state succinctly the method by which Absolutism is sought to be established.

In attempting to determine the true nature of reality we are entitled, it is argued, to assume that reality must be such that it will satisfy the intellect. If we therefore succeed in finding a way of conceiving reality which is entirely satisfactory to the intellect, we must conclude that our conception is true, or is a comprehension of reality as it absolutely is. No doubt there seems to be a difference between thought and reality, and it may be asked how we can know that such a difference exists, without bringing reality within thought? We do something to solve the problem by saying that reality is identical with experience, but the difficulty remains, that thought must truly comprehend experience, or we shall not bring reality within it. The only possible solution, it is contended, is that thought cannot be satisfied without a conception of reality which includes the aspects opposed to mere thinking; and such inclusion is impossible for thought, because thought would then cease to be thought. It follows that reality is above thought, and above every partial aspect of being, but includes them all. Each of these aspects must be in harmony with the others, and their unity must constitute the perfect whole. Thus in the end nothing is real except the Absolute. Everything else is appearance, which is indeed real in the Absolute, but not taken by itself. Intellectually, appearance is error; and as every appearance is real in the Absolute, there is no absolute error, while the degree of reality is measured by the amount of supplementation required in each case. If it is objected that such an Absolute is a mere blank, or else unintelligible, it is answered, that it is only unintelligible in the sense that we cannot understand all its detail, while it is perfectly intelligible in the abstract. The Absolute, we may fairly argue, must be a unity, because anything like independent plurality or external relations cannot satisfy the intellect. And it fails to satisfy the intellect because it is a self-contradiction. For the same reason the Absolute is one system in the very highest sense of the term, any lower sense being unreal because in the end self-contradictory.

The necessity of postulating the existence of an Absolute, which may be defined as a single all-comprehensive system, may be shown indirectly by an examination of the various ways in which we ordinarily interpret our experience, all of which finally break down in self-contradiction. Take, for example, the familiar distinction between primary and secondary qualities. The former are those aspects of what we perceive or feel and are spatial: the latter are non-spatial. A real thing, it is assumed, is something that remains always the same, and therefore something the properties of which are always present in the thing. But secondary qualities are not of this character. A thing is not coloured except when seen by an eye, and its colour is not the same for every eye. Similarly, cold and heat, sound, smell and taste, exist only in relation to an organ of sense, and are not always the same to every such organ. It is therefore inferred that secondary qualities are appearances of a reality which possesses only primary qualities. Now, not to mention other objections, the same line of reasoning which shows that secondary qualities are not real, is fatal to the claim of the primary to be real. These also are relative to an organ of sense. Besides, if we eliminate the secondary qualities, the primary are inconceivable: for extension is never presented except as coloured or touched or as relative to the muscular sense. We must therefore conclude that the distinction of primary and secondary qualities, from which materialism is blindly developed, brings us no nearer to the nature of reality.

In a similar way it may be shown that other modes of conceiving the world break down in self-contradiction, and therefore cannot be ultimate, since nothing can satisfy the intellect short of a comprehensive self-consistent and coherent system. It is therefore argued that none of these methods of comprehending reality can possibly be true. When it has been shown, for example, that materialism breaks down in self-contradiction, it is set aside as false, and the question is not raised whether it has not made an important advance upon the ordinary common-sense view of the world as merely an aggregate of disconnected objects in space and time. Now, as we have found in criticising Personal Idealism, while Materialism is a very inadequate determination of the world, it has this signal merit, that it insists upon the inviolability of the system of nature, so far as nature is identified with the reciprocal movements of masses. Similarly, space, time and causality are no doubt very inadequate determinations of reality, and it is therefore inferred that the Absolute is beyond space and time, and cannot be determined as a cause. So sweeping a conclusion does not seem to me to be justified. Undoubtedly the attempt to characterize the world as purely spatial, or purely temporal, or as a succession of connected or causal changes, must contradict itself: but surely it does not follow that the world is therefore in itself non-spatial, non-temporal and non-causal. To say so seems to me to play into the hands of Phenomenalism, which yet is characterized as self-contradictory.

The answer which is made to this objection to the ordinary ways of regarding reality is that what has been viewed as appearance, self-contradictory as it is, is not a mere nonentity, but must somehow belong to reality. I can only understand this reply by drawing a distinction between two different senses in which the term “appearance” may be used. By “appearance” may be meant either (1) those fictions which are shown to be false by breaking down in self-contradiction, or (2) those immediate or apparently immediate experiences which seem to be facts, whatever be our ways of regarding reality. In the first sense appearance is very much the same thing as “error” or “illusion” or “incompatible hypotheses”; in the latter sense “appearance” can only be called “appearance” as contrasted with reality. Now, it seems to me that it is only “appearance” in the second sense that we can declare to belong to reality. But it is “appearance” in the former sense that is set aside as untrue, and therefore as incompatible with the fundamental nature of the Absolute. One of the discarded hypotheses is that of independent things; another, that things are in space or mutually external; a third, that there are actual changes or events in time; and other untenable doctrines are those of causation, activity, things-in-themselves, and selves. Not one of these hypotheses, it is held, can be regarded as true, and therefore they may be called “appearances.” But they are surely not “appearances” in the sense that they belong to reality. As hypotheses which we have discovered to be false, they must be placed on the same level as the idea, for example, of “chance,” and therefore simply discarded. If there are no things with qualities, no objects and events in space and time, no movements or changes, no action of one thing or another, no identical selves, how can we say that they are not mere nonentities, or that they belong to reality in any sense whatever? As false hypotheses they are nothing but nonentities, and certainly do not belong to reality. The only thing to be done with an hypothesis that we are sure is false is to set it aside absolutely; and when the world of appearance is said still in some sense to survive, I can only suppose that it is not any of the discarded hypotheses which survives, but the facts which these were supposed to explain. In that case, the doctrine will be, that after the rejection of all false explanations of the facts of experience, these facts still remain. But if they are to be regarded as facts of experience, which withstand any assault that can be made upon them, why should they be called “appearances”? On the other hand, if they are “appearances,” how can they be called “facts”? The abstract opposition of “appearances” and “reality” seems to me to be a false contrast, and I do not think we shall ever get a satisfactory theory of reality so long as it is regarded as absolute. The only valid distinction is that which regards “appearance” as an inadequate but not absolutely false comprehension of reality, and therefore does not oppose “appearance” and “reality” as abstract opposites, but views the former as a less complete or less adequate form of the latter.

What is sought to be substituted for our false ways of conceiving reality is a conception of it which shall be perfectly satisfactory, because free from self-contradiction. Now, whatever else it may be, reality, it is argued, must be a single self-consistent and all-comprehensive system. If it is denied that we can tell anything about the nature of reality, it must be on the ground that what is presented to us in our immediate experience cannot be identical with reality. But why should we deny that immediate experience is identical with reality? There is no other valid reason, it is said, than that immediate experience is self-contradictory; which obviously implies that reality is not self-contradictory, or, what is the same thing, that it is self-consistent. Thus, we assume that self-consistency is an absolute criterion, by which we may determine the nature of reality. If it is asked what is the ground of this criterion, the answer is that it has no ground, because it is the ultimate logical principle to which every true judgment must conform. And if it is objected that non-contradiction yields no positive knowledge, it is replied, that as a bare denial is impossible, the rejection of all other predicates but those of unity, self-consistency and comprehensiveness implies that we have a positive basis for our objection.

Now, it is undoubtedly true that every negation must rest upon an affirmation. Logically, it is impossible to condemn anything as “appearance” without having a positive knowledge of “reality.” It seems to me, however, that in one of the two ways of defining “appearance,” to which reference has already been made, this principle is violated. If we summarily reject all the ordinary ways of regarding reality as entirely false we are logically left, not with reality, but with nothing. From this point of view, therefore, no positive result is reached by the application of the “criterion.” Hence it is only in so far as we take “appearance” in the sense of immediate experience, that we have any real ground for a positive knowledge. What is immediately experienced certainly cannot be a mere nonentity, but must be involved in reality; and when it is properly understood, it must be identical with reality. A sudden leap from “appearance” to “reality” obscures this fact. It is only by advancing from less to more and more comprehensive determinations of experience, that we can attain any positive grasp of reality. We must, in other words, be able to show that the various contradictory ways of regarding immediate experience are inadequate conceptions of it, and that, when truly comprehended, our experience is possible only within a self-consistent and harmonious world.

When we have reached the conclusion that reality must be self-consistent, the difficulty may be raised, whether reality is one or many. The latter view, it is said, cannot possibly be accepted, because a number of reals which are not in relation to one another cannot be many, while a number of reals in relation to one another cannot be independent. Hence reality must be a unity which comprehends all distinctions within itself.

Now, it is no doubt true that the conception of a number of completely independent beings can never satisfy the intellect, and that there can only be a single reality, in which all beings must somehow be embraced. But the question is whether this unity is to be conceived as one which abolishes all the individuality and independence of the several beings, or whether it differentiates itself in beings which are individual, just because they are capable of living in the whole. If an Absolute is maintained, which gathers up into itself and transmutes individuals in some way that we cannot comprehend, we virtually abolish all individuality and self-determination on the part of the several beings. Now, while we have seen reason to reject the self-centred individuals of Personal Idealism, it does not follow that we must fall back upon an abstract Absolute, in which all subordinate individuality is abolished. Reality must be conceived as a self-consistent unity differentiating itself in individuals. The Absolute is a spiritual or organic whole, and in such a whole the self-activity and self-determination of the parts is as essential as their unity with the whole. As we have argued above, the consciousness of self is inseparable from the consciousness of the world, and by its very nature self-consciousness is free and self-determined. It is no doubt true that only gradually does any individual theoretically comprehend and practically realize his unity with the whole, but that unity is not first created when he comes to the consciousness of it.

No satisfactory theology can be constructed which does not recognize that nothing can possibly be real except in dependence upon and subordination to God, while yet this dependence and subordination must be consistent with the reality of the finite. This twofold demand, as we have seen, makes it impossible for us to accept either the view which makes God merely one among a number of separate subjects, or that which abolishes all finite subjects in the one all-comprehensive unity of God. God must be the inner principle of the finite, and he cannot be in the physical world alone, or in the conscious world alone, but he must be in both.

We have seen that it is only by abstraction that the world of nature seems to have any reality independently of mind. The world becomes for us a cosmos, an orderly and coherent world, only when it is conceived as a manifestation of mind. Even from the point of view of our growing experience, it is obvious that only because he is a thinking rational subject can man construct for himself a world of order and law. On the other hand, it is only as the conscious subject recognizes that the world is no arbitrary creation of his own mind, that he rises to the consciousness of the creative Mind which is immanent in the world. This Mind is not immanent merely in nature, but is more fully and clearly manifested in the self-conscious life of man. For, in the first place, unless the human mind as knowing is identical in its essential nature with the infinite mind, it cannot possibly comprehend anything of reality. A law of nature, or a law of society, is redeemed from arbitrariness only in so far as the human mind is able to grasp the principle which gives it meaning; and that principle can be nothing else than one phase of the eternal Mind. It is just in so far as we set aside all prejudices and preconceptions that we enter into communion with the mind of God. In this self-abnegation we realize that which our intellectual nature demands. To live in the whole is to live in God. His Mind must be our mind, and it is only as we enter into his Mind that we learn the true nature of things. It is true that in the growth of our knowledge we never completely comprehend the depth and riches of the Divine Mind; that is, completely comprehend that object of which our mind is continually in search; but we do comprehend the principles of that Divine Mind, in so far as we comprehend the principles of nature and of human society.

In the second place, it may be shown that God must be manifested in the world. When God is conceived as a Being complete in himself apart from the world, the existence of the world becomes unintelligible. We come to a knowledge of the world as a system because it is the embodiment of Mind, and therefore the world cannot be separated from God without ceasing to be an intelligible object. Moreover, it is in the comprehension of our own self-conscious life that we obtain the clearest and fullest conception of God; and therefore that life is the fullest expression of the Mind of God. The ideals of man are not merely conventional, but express his essential nature; and the nature of man is not determined by what he thinks of himself, but by what reason compels him to think of himself. Now a principle operative in man, and continually realizing itself more perfectly as man develops in social organization, is the expression of the very nature of God. To suppose that the highest in man is something accidental, is simply to conceive of God as a purely arbitrary Being. Thus God is ever realizing himself in the spiritual nature and history of man, and without this self-realization he would not be God. It is not possible to believe that man is in communion with God, except in so far as God communicates himself to man.

The self-conscious life of man is possible only because man comes to the consciousness of himself as related to and contrasted with the world of nature and the world of society. But the principle present in both is that divine Principle which we call God. Thus, man comes to self-consciousness only in and through the response of his spirit to the Divine Spirit. The latter cannot be conceived as isolated and self-centred, but is necessarily self-revealing; and if it were not manifested in the world, there would be no possibility of communion with God. In man, and especially in the highest theoretical artistic and religious ideals, God reveals himself to the human spirit. If the highest conception of human society is that of a community of rational subjects, each seeking his own good in the good of the whole, the perfect nature of God must consist in the absolute surrender of himself to the good of his creatures, which is at the same time the absolute realization of himself.

The difficulty which naturally presents itself in this connection is that the conception of God as infinite, eternal and unchangeable seems to imply that the nature of man cannot be identical in kind with that of God. Man, it may be said, is at once soul and body, God is spirit; man is capable of evil, God is absolutely holy. For this reason it is thought to be impossible to regard man as of the same essential nature as God. We have to observe, however, in the first place, that when man is said to be identical in nature with God, what is meant is that his ideal nature is of this character. This ideal nature is not something belonging to man in his first state, but something which must be slowly and laboriously achieved by his own conscious activity. This is true of every side of man's nature. Knowledge “grows from more to more”; morality is achieved only through stress and conflict. But, though it is only the ideal nature of man that can be said to be identical with that of God, yet that ideal is in a sense already realized. In the spirit of man it operates as “the light of all his seeing” and the motive power which ever urges him forward toward greater achievements. Looking at man as in idea he is, it is no exaggeration to say that lie contains in himself an element that is infinite. For, while he is “part of this partial world,” on the other hand he is capable of comprehending the nature of God and seeking to realize that which in idea he is; and this power of comprehension and self-identification with God implies that, finite as in one aspect he is, in another aspect he is infinite. Thus he is capable of transcending in idea all limits of space and time, and grasping the principle from which all that is has proceeded. If man were not thus capable of transcending the limits of his finite existence, he would never become conscious of his finitude. In the simplest knowledge, as we have seen, there is involved that comprehension of something riot ourselves which develops into the explicit consciousness of God. All our experience moves within the framework of an absolute unity, and no degree of progress ever carries us beyond it. The simplest discrimination of the difference between “this” and “that” is possible only because consciousness is a universal capacity for distinction and unification. And in the moral life the implicit infinity of the human spirit reveals itself in the unceasing effort after perfection. The conflict with evil is the struggle towards that unity with oneself which is inseparable from unity with God. Were it not that man's self-consciousness involves the presence in him of this ideal of perfection, he would be satisfied, like lower beings, with the gratification of his immediate desires and inclinations; but, because nothing short of absolute perfection of nature can give him permanent satisfaction, his spiritual life is necessarily a struggle toward an ideal, which he can only realize in the sense that it is the principle of his undying efforts. Thus in principle the battle is already won. Conscious of his own weakness and imperfection, man is yet, in his religious consciousness, assured that goodness must be progressively realized, because, in his struggle after it, he is realizing the absolute will of God. His spiritual life man leads, not in isolation, but as containing in himself and embodying in his life the principle that gives meaning to the whole universe. No doubt man is capable of doing violence to his ideal nature, which is also his true nature; but, in so far as his desires are transformed into universal principles of action, he is in unity with the perfect will of God. In this religious consciousness man learns that his own true will and the will of God are the same. Though the spiritual life of man must ever be progressive, it yet is in principle one with the life of God. Thus man may “live in the eternal,” and enjoy the peace and blessedness which come from self-surrender to the divine.

What has been said may help us to understand why no adequate conception of God is possible, when appearance and reality are so separated from each other, that no actual union of them is conceivable. From this dualistic point of view, all the objects of our experience are riddled with contradiction; while, from the point of view of an abstract Absolute, there is nothing but blank indefinable reality, of which we vainly predicate unity and system, since there are no differences to unify or systematize. We can only maintain that experience and reality are identical by recognizing that there is no isolated finite or isolated infinite, but only such a union of finite and infinite as does away with their abstract opposition.

The main difficulty which prevents us from admitting this unity is due to the mechanical way in which we usually think of both. How can God, it is asked, be immanent in man, while man preserves his individuality? Now, this mode of conception is inadequate even as applied to living beings, not to speak of self-conscious or spiritual beings. We cannot separate the principle of life from its relations directly to the body, and indirectly to the whole physical world. No answer can be given to a question which logically precludes an answer. There is no productive activity in a tree apart from its environment, and the environment really presupposes the tree. Both must operate: the tree working up and assimilating the soil, and the soil supplying the material to be assimilated. And when we attempt to apply the categories of exclusion to self-conscious beings, we find that they are even less adequate than when they are applied to living organisms. The individual man would not be self-conscious at all but for his spiritual relation to his fellows; yet we cannot say that he is merely the product of society, for his own self-activity is a necessary factor in the development of his spiritual life. Without the spiritual atmosphere in which he lives, he could have no self-conscious life; but in his relation to his fellow-men, while he can be influenced by ideas, he cannot be influenced except by ideas, and the acceptance of an idea is possible only through his own self-conscious activity. When one man is said to influence another, the relation is not to be compared to the communication of motion from one body to another; for no man can influence another unless the other is in a condition to be influenced. So far from it being true that the action of mind upon mind destroys freedom and individuality, there can be no such influence without freedom and individuality. As a rational being, man can accept nothing but what seems to him reasonable, though no doubt he often comes to believe what is unreasonable. The more reasonable any two self-conscious beings are, the greater is the influence of the one upon the other. The influence is that of reason, and the response of reason can only be to that which is essentially reasonable. When therefore we say that the Divine Spirit is immanent in the human spirit, we must not think of the relation as that of two separate and distinct individuals, one of which acts upon the other irrespective of the response of his own spirit, but rather after the manner in which the Church speaks of the influence of the Holy Spirit. Nothing can destroy the freedom of a rational subject, which consists in believing and doing nothing but that which commends itself as reasonable; and therefore the influence upon man of the indwelling spirit of God is in essence identical with the influence of one human mind upon another; it operates by bringing to light that which is essentially reasonable.

God, then, we conclude, is not immanent only in nature, but is the informing spirit of both nature and man. He is not present in one particular event or series of events, but in the history of man as a whole. There can be no progressive evolution of morality, unless in all his efforts man is seeking consciously to realize that ideal goodness which is implied in the reality of God. “God,” it has been said, “is transcendent as Maker and Ruler of all things, and yet through His eternal spirit immanent in the world and particularly in man and his history.” This seems to be an unsuccessful attempt to combine the two ideas of transcendence and immanence. God is assumed to be transcendent, in so far as he has brought the world into existence and rules it from without; while lie is immanent, not in himself, but in his spirit, in “man and his history.” The former view is open to the objection which we have seen to be fatal to the deistic conception of God; while the latter does not really explain how the spirit of God is reconcilable with the freedom and moral responsibility of man. It is perfectly true that God cannot be identified with the physical world of matter and motion; for that world, taken by itself, is an abstraction, and therefore it is nothing apart from God. On the other hand, to speak of the spirit of God as immanent in man does not tell us how this immanence is to be reconciled with man's freedom or self-determination: Only in a doctrine which recognizes that God is immanent in man just in so far as man is in self-conscious identity with God, can the immanence and transcendence which are separately affirmed be united in a single concrete idea.

Human life in all its aspects, theoretical, practical and productive, is essentially purposive. We live in ideals, and these ideals are the mainspring of all our efforts. Truth, goodness and beauty, as the partial realization of absolute ends, are principles immanent in the human soul and yet they are unrealized ideals. But, unless these ideals were actually operative, they would not be recognized as real. In a completely developed spiritual life they would be realized in unity and harmony with one another. This absolute unity, which is at once constitutive of our self-conscious life, and yet transcends its actual realization, is what we mean by God; and therefore God must be conceived as the principle, identification with which is the motive and the goal of our total spiritual activity. Thus God is at once present with us in all our spiritual endeavour, and yet infinitely transcends our highest achievement. Without this twofold consciousness we should have no knowledge of good, and therefore no knowledge of evil. But this brings us to one of the most difficult problems in the philosophy of religion, the problem of the origin and nature of evil. Before we attempt to deal with this problem it will be advisable, however, to complete our review of inadequate conceptions of the nature of God by considering the account of that nature which is given by Mysticism.

Absolutism, as we have seen, maintains that all the facts of our experience, while they cannot be taken as expressing the ultimate nature of things, yet belong to the Absolute. This opposition of that which facts are as phenomenal, and that which they are affirmed to be from the absolute point of view, does not enable us to tell how they must be regarded from the latter point of view. What is for us indefinable cannot be grasped by our intelligence, which operates only by making and resolving distinctions. Thus the Absolute becomes for us nothing more than pure or abstract being. Logically, therefore, it leads to Mysticism, the doctrine which virtually abolishes all relations, even the relation of subject and object. Beyond all the definite conceptions, by which in our ordinary consciousness we make the world intelligible to ourselves, the subject is in certain exalted states held to be capable of complete identification with the Absolute. And as God is isolated from the world, and even from the ordinary consciousness of man, no positive predicates can be applied in determination of the divine nature. Only by a complete surrender of the whole being, a surrender in which all the distinctions which separate us from God are abolished, can we realize our true nature. Since God, the Absolute One, cannot be compressed within the framework of our ordinary divisive intellect, he is affirmed to be a unity which transcends and abolishes all distinctions, even the distinction of subject and object. As unthinkable and ineffable, he can only be lived or experienced, not comprehended by the intellect.

Mysticism agrees with Agnosticism in abolishing all distinctions, and therefore affirming that the intellect cannot comprehend the Absolute; but it reaches this conclusion, not by a purely naturalistic explanation of the world, but by regarding the whole sphere of scientific knowledge as occupied with what is merely illusion. Man's true life is held to be the life of religion, and in this life he is not shut out from the Apprehension of God, but, on the contrary, comes into direct contact and communion with God. For in God, it is said, there is no finitude, change or division, and therefore only by dropping all the distinctions by which the finite self is characterized, including the distinction of the self from itself, does man “erect himself above himself.”

Now, it is not to be denied that Mysticism has fixed upon an aspect of truth which it is of supreme importance to emphasize. The religious consciousness undoubtedly lifts man above all the divisions of his ordinary secular consciousness, and enables him to enter into communion with the divine. On the other hand, Mysticism makes all rational defence of the religious consciousness impossible by its assumption that the intelligence is in its fundamental nature incapable of comprehending anything but the finite. Moreover, it affirms the imbecility of the intelligence, on the ground that by this faculty man cannot accomplish what cannot possibly be accomplished, namely, the reduction of all reality to abstract conceptions. The result of this double mistake is that the whole of our experience is condemned as illusive, instead of being reinterpreted from the highest point of view. And this false conception of the world and of man inevitably leads to an equally false view of God. The world and man, as divorced from God, are necessarily illusive, because they are but fragments of the whole. It is no wonder therefore that, having first severed the spiritual bond by which the world, the self, and God are united, Mysticism can only fall back upon analogy when it seeks to express the inexpressible, heaping metaphor upon metaphor in its vain attempt to give an air of plausibility to the doctrine that, while God is absolutely complete in himself apart from the world, yet the world is absorbed in God. In contrast to this essentially self-contradictory and irrational doctrine, I have tried to show that the world only seems to be an arbitrary product of the divine nature when it is assumed to have a separate and independent existence. We are continually tempted to take a phase of the whole and affirm its self-completeness. We begin by assuming that things as isolated from one another by spatial externality have a real existence; then, finding that they undergo changes, we think of them as a series of vanishing states in time; discovering that, in a mere succession, there is nothing to explain the orderly sequence of events, we attempt to characterize the world as a congeries of interrelated objects, which go through an eternal cycle of changes, while always preserving the same inviolate order; reflecting still further, we see that a system of mere objects, however orderly, does not account for the self-determining process exhibited in the life of organized beings, and we then conceive of the world as the manifestation of an eternal self-evolving soul; still unsatisfied, we at length discover that only in self-conscious beings, which yet are in inseparable union with the absolute self-conscious Being—the only absolutely self-determining or creative spirit—can a self-consistent and comprehensive theory of the universe be reached. Thus by a regressive process we finally reach the true meaning of the universe; and, recovering our faith, we see that the world and man are “everywhere bound by gold chains about the feet of God.” All being manifests him, and to suppose that God could be apart from the world in its totality, is to suppose that he could be and yet not be. There are no finite beings, if by that is meant things which exist in isolation from other beings and from the absolute principle without which they could not be. No device is needed to bring together what has never been separated. God cannot be revealed to us in an ecstatic vision, which lifts us above all the distinctions of things; for, by the abolition of distinctions, and above all of the fundamental distinction of subject and object, if it were possible, we should plunge into the abyss of nothingness. It is true that God can be apprehended only by the response of man's whole nature; but this response does not involve the abolition of all distinctions, but their interpretation from the point of view of the whole. There is no possibility of transcending self-consciousness, because with such transcendence we should cease to be rational. But since self-consciousness is possible only in and through the consciousness of the world in all its phases, to destroy the consciousness of the world is to destroy the consciousness of self; and as the consciousness of God is inseparable, as I have tried to show, from the consciousness of self, Mysticism, in its eagerness to preserve the unity of God, has really destroyed it. Misled by the fact that in the upward movement of reason we finally come to see all things illuminated by the idea of God as a self-revealing intelligence, we are apt to suppose that this vision of all things in God is a vision of all things as God. In reality the religious consciousness is the most concrete of all, because it allows of no exception to the principle that nothing is real apart from God. So far from it being true that in the intuition of God all distinctions vanish away, the very reverse is true; for it is by referring all things to God that we learn what a depth of meaning may lie in the globule of dew or the “flower in the crannied wall.” The progress of the religious consciousness has really been towards a more and more definite consciousness at once of the world, the self and God; and in its blindness to this fact, Mysticism has failed to learn the lesson of all history and all experience.

  • 1.

    W. James, Varieties of Religious Experience.