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Lecture 5. General Considerations (1).


WE have now come to a point from which it may be well to look back once again on the results we have reached. We found, then, a lower revelation on the existence and structure of the physical universe, and a higher in the spiritual nature of man, in his historical development from the past, and in the personal relations and experiences of life. We assumed as a working hypothesis that the power behind Nature is rational and good, because we cannot otherwise reason at all; and each step of our investigation confirmed the truth of our assumption. The revelation in the physical universe assured us of the unity of God, of his eternity, and of power and wisdom greater that any assignable power and wisdom; but it left open the practical question, whether the divine nature is wholly right and good. Such it seemed to be, but not so plainly as to leave no room for doubt. It is not till we question the spiritual nature of man that we reach clear evidence of infinite rightness and infinite power and wisdom, though it still remained a venture of faith to believe in an infinite goodness which is only seen in part. The revelation in history confirms all this on a large scale, but (apart from any special revelation there may be) it does not seem to add much new matter. The question of goodness in particular becomes clearer; but is by no means finally settled in the sense that it becomes matter of demonstration. First principles must always remain assumptions, however they may be confirmed by facts. Even the revelation of life, which does seem decisive, is decisive only for those who recognize it in life; so that this question of infinite goodness remains open for others. Many things indicate that God is good; but on the easy-going theory of goodness it can always be replied that some things point another way. Many have borne witness of that they know; but it is always possible to insist on seeing and handling for ourselves. We have reason for our trust, cumulative reason convergent from the whole realm of thought; but we cannot demonstrate the unseen. Even to-morrow's sunrise must always be matter of faith. If there be a special revelation, we may find that one purpose of it is to give us in a generally intelligible form some special ground for fuller and more unhesitating trust.

This brings us nearer to the question whether a special revelation may be expected in addition to the general revelation already surveyed. Such revelation, if such there be, must appeal to the same faculties as the other, though it may call them into more vivid action, and it must give the same general account of God and the world, though perhaps from a new point of view. The mere possibility of such a revelation will not detain us long. There may be particular objections to particular limitations; but if a revelation be possible at all, no general objection seems valid against anything which is grounded on the general revelation and does not contradict it, and in particular implies neither ignorance nor fickleness on God's part. We might safely reject an alleged revelation which spoke of sundry gods, or of one capricious or immoral God, or preached de contemptu mundi, or evaded the final appeal to reason by setting above it some infallible authority or mystic intuition. Apart from self-contradictions like those, there is no evident a priori reason why the general revelation should not be extended or made plainer if need arise; nor do we know enough of God's plans or of the effects of sin to be sure that there is no such need. Nor would it necessarily imply ignorance or caprice on God's part, for it might have been foreseen and provided for. The Lamb might have been slain from the foundation of the world, and for us men, not simply for our salvation.

It is also generally agreed that there is room for a special revelation, in the sense that it might in many ways prove helpful. If the Deists were satisfied that it could add nothing to Natural Religion, they seem to stand alone. The Agnostic may doubt or the Naturalist deny the possibility of revelation, but neither of them imagines that we could not do with more light than we have already; and even the Pantheist might almost forgive the utter shattering of his theories if he gained by it an authentic view of the world sub specie œternitatis. Common men, however, feel theoretical difficulties much less than the pressure of evil in the world. For one who looks to things divine in simple desire of knowledge, thousands are driven by the sense of pain in this world to seek for help from another. The enemies of religion are not far wrong in thinking that it will cease to be a power in the world if they can make men happy without it. There is virtue in that If; but the reasoning seems sound. Without the pressure of toil and sickness and sorrow and death, I fear few of us would care to face the moral facts of life, and find a meaning for them. The lotus-eaters do not seem to have had much of a religion, and are not recorded to have produced a philosopher. It is not on idle questions but on this urgent problem of evil that we should look for light to a special revelation, if such there be. In any case it is most important to settle the question whether there is one, for we cannot otherwise be sure that we have before us all the conditions of the problem that are within our understanding.

In much current discussion it seems taken for granted that the actual development of evil in the world is final, in the sense that there is no power in the universe which will ever be able to alter it. Some of the ancients did so think; but it is a strange idea to come upon in an age of evolutionary theories in science and history, and reforming practice in society. Yet it is logically implied in much current literature, though clearly it is more than either theist or atheist can safely assume, if he believes at all in either evolution or reform. Perhaps those who have most clearly realized the slowmoving advance from matter to life, from life to conscious life, and from conscious life to moral life, will be the slowest to foreclose all further advance from moral life to sinless life, which if it be possible must needs have the power of an endless life. At any rate, we cannot assume that evil as we see it now is permanent, unless it can be shewn that the entire evolution is completed. And this, I think, is more than any one will maintain.

We need not further discuss the general question just now. Our present concern with the evils of the world is only so far as they affect themselves. They have been roughly classified in familiar words as distresses of mind, body, and estate; but there is no Stoic paradox in adding that distress of mind is not only the worst form of distress, but the sting of all distress. Trouble of estate is serious only so far as it brings bodily privation or mental suffering; and even disease is fairly tolerable when it leaves the mind cheerful. Wealth is a poor thing without health to use it; and health itself is forgotten in mental anguish.

We may leave the pessimists to catalogue in detail the miseries of life. They are no doubt the most competent persons. Suffice it that there are physical evils the work of Nature, rising upward from the mud of the streets to the grandeur of a Martinique eruption; and moral evils caused by men, downward from our neighbour's fit of temper to the lawless violence of the worst governments and the wilful corruption of life by the worst religions. Now how do men behave in the face of them? Very variously, of course. One man bears up, while another is crushed. One turns cynic, another sees in them the will of heaven. One is stirred to greater efforts, while his neighbour grows listless. One blasphemes, while another prays. One forgets the past, another broods over it instead of acting. One looks with hope to the future, while the next will not hear of hope at all, at least in this life.

Besides the contrast here of active and passive characters, there is a deeper one which cuts across it; for the fundamental contrast is between attitudes of acceptance and attitudes of rebellion, towards what is recognized as the true order of things, or in semitheistic language, the will of heaven. Active acceptance is when a man frankly makes heaven's will his own will, and strives faithfully to do whatever duties he sees before him, while in passive acceptance he aims at nothing better than what some call saintly resignation. Active rebellion shews itself in open grumblings and in fierce endeavours to do something that pleases us better than the duty we see before us, while rebellion of a passive sort, though no less real, comes out in the immoral sophistries with which we make believe that wrong is right, and in the whole tribe of irrational disgusts and pessimistic discontents which undermine the faith of reasoning men, that the world's order is at bottom rational and moral.

Of those four possible attitudes, only the first is a right one. It does not mean passive obedience to everything that comes to pass, but active concurrence alike in joy and sorrow, with a power believed to be working in the world for good. It cannot accord with the true order of things that wrong should be done by men, though it may so accord that we should bear it if it is done, while it is still our duty to do the best we can to cure it. In some cases the active attitude may be reduced to a genuine saintly resignation by sheer inability to do more, though even then it differs toto cœlo from the spurious resignation which is quite content with itself. That sort of resignation is an unreal acceptance, very near akin to the pessimist rebellion, and essentially no better, for there is always a self-righteous grumble at the bottom of it.

It is easy to see how these three rebellious attitudes arise. We like our own way, and are vastly pleased with ourselves so long as things go smoothly. But when checks come—either serious troubles or the petty worries we often feel as keenly—rebellion is the impulse of the natural man. It often overcomes the best of us in a first assault; and with most of us it is more or less chronic, for there are few who have not brooded over their trials till they are at times more than half persuaded that life is nothing but misery. One confirmed rebel puts on pious resignation, another fumes and curses, and yet another gives himself up to murmuring; but in their hearts they are all agreed against the final postulate of rational thought and action—that the world's order is at bottom rational and moral. The grumbling temper they have in common is not only the most profoundly irreligious of all tempers, but the most fatal to reasoning action and even to truthful thinking, for the setting up likings of our own against the natural or the moral order of things is first of all untrue. How can truth or reason or healthy action in the world be expected from men whose wills are cancered by the πρω̑τον ψϵν̑δος of rebellion against its rational and moral order?

If the earthquake and the storm have slain their thousands, these rebellious passions have slain their tens of thousands. By far the largest part of human misery is the work of human impatience and discontent. By impatience of thought we pervent or set aside the evidence before us, that we may give ourselves licence to believe what pleases us better than truth. By impatience of action we rush at something we like better than right and goodness, pushing our neighbours out of the way and if need be tyrannizing over them. In a more passive discontent we cherish our grievances against the order of things, and fill our hearts with bitterness. It is the spirit of rebellion which far more than any intellectual error misdirects and weakens all our powers of thought and action. Now suppose an alleged revelation were so to emphasize the brighter side of life, and so to assure us of the ultimate goodness of the order of things as to strengthen well-disposed persons in their hard battle with the misguiding and enfeebling rebelliousness of the natural man. Would any serious thinker tell us that such a revelation was doing work that is not needed? Would he not rather feel that it was a straight blow at the central evil of the world, the evil heart of unbelief? Would not this be a presumption so far of its truth?

On the antecedent probability of a special revelation we touched before in our discussion of the general question; and we have not since then found any new factors in the problem. The question still lies between the misery which might call forth such a revelation and the sin which might keep it back; and perhaps we shall still do well not to be too sure either way. It would be rash to object beforehand to the limitation of place or time implied in a special revelation, for we cannot say—even Matthew Tindal expressly refused to say—that justice requires the same light to be given to all men. It only requires each roan to be judged by the light which he has, and not by that which be has not. We are not competent judges beforehand of the need for such limitations; and indeed it might prove that a local or temporary limitation was the best security for a permanent and universal extension. Nor need there be any objection to special methods as such, for a special revelation, being ex hypothesi more or less different from the general revelation, is not unlikely to work by more or less different methods. However, one aspect of the question seems much changed since we last discussed it. If God is indeed infinite goodness, the appeal to him of human misery must be much stronger than we could then assume it to be. If even a man who is utterly merciless is utterly hateful, we can hardly believe that God is utterly careless of the great and bitter cry that conies up from earth to heaven. Had man no bias to rebellion, the general revelation might have sufficed to keep him in obedience to the true order of things; but if as a matter of fact it has not so sufficed, there seems to be nothing incredible beforehand in the supposition that such a God may have given him further and more special help. Some will go further, and say that such a God could not fail to give it sooner or later. This is certainly a strong position, and may be a very sound one; but for the purposes of a Gifford Lecturer it will suffice to take the lower ground, that there appears at any rate no reason beforehand why such help should not be given.

If then we were going further on this line, we might at once discuss historically such evidence as there may be for any alleged particular or special revelation. If we have had to pass lightly over many thorny questions, there are some advantages in a rapid review; and I think we have not left the worst of the philosophical difficulties unfaced. Our concern, however, is not with the fact of a past revelation, if fact it be, but with the idea we ought to form of one supposed possible in the future; and we have still a little work to do before we can put our question of what its purpose and chief end is likely to be. What precisely do we mean by a special revelation? I have used the word in a loose and popular way, since my initial notice that I could not assume it as self-evident that a special and a miraculous revelation are necessarily identical: but now we shall have to look at the matter more closely.

All revelation, then, must be from God and of God, given to men and for men, communicated on God's part by inspiration in the wide sense which comprehends the whole of his preparation of men for receiving it, and received on the part of man by the joint energy of feeling, thought, and will; and all revelation, even if it come through the natural order of things, requires action in the moral or supernatural order of persons. So far all revelations must be alike; and though they may differ in their subject-matter, in the purity of their teaching, and in the depth of the insight they give, such differences as these may not of themselves warrant us in a separate classification of one or more as special. But there is another possible distinction that will. It is historically evident that some nations, some persons, some periods of time, some series of events, have influenced much more than others the spiritual development of mankind. If we compare from this point of view the Greeks and the Phœnicians, Plato and Xenophon, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, or the Roman and the Mongol empires, we shall see the difference between the main stream and a backwater. But if this inequality cannot be denied, neither can the possibility that God's general providence over the world may culminate in some more special spiritual development of a part of the world. There is nothing against it but the assumption which was too rash for Matthew Tindal, that God is bound in justice to give equal light to all men. The world is not such a dead level as this. Some persons or peoples must be more fitted than others to receive the revelation—or to discover the truth—which needs next to be known at a given time. Such fitness will not of necessity imply a higher degree of general moral excellence. The difference may be made by some special delicacy of feeling, grasp of mind, or force of will, according to its nature. The Jews, for instance, are described as bad receivers, because they were a stiff-necked people, and slow to learn; but they must also have been good receivers, because they were a stiff-necked people, and slow to forget. So too we can see special qualities (apart from any general moral excellence) which may at various times have fitted the Greeks, the Romans, or the English to take the part they plainly have taken in the development of human thought on things divine.

It is therefore not unlikely that we may find in history some revelation or series of revelations so much nearer than others to the main line of development, that all the rest may be treated from some points of view as subordinate or imperfect growths. Such a revelation is likely to contain purer truth and to give a deeper insight than others; but its position in history is its distinctive character, and makes it more illuminative of others than illuminated by them. Such central revelation, if such there be, is what we mean by a special revelation.

It may be answered here that a central revelation is not what is usually meant by a special revelation. I am not so sure of that. If we do not find the distinctive character of the latter in some miraculous method of communication—which is a curious way of preferring the earthen vessel to the treasure contained in it—we must look to the character of the message itself. But if all revelation is God's purposed message, as it must be on any theistic theory, a revelation which contains so much truth, or truth in such purity as to illuminate all the rest, must be more visibly than any of them his purposed message, and therefore a special revelation in the common meaning of the phrase. The historical question of miracles accompanying it would not come up till later; and a Gifford Lecturer is not concerned with it.

Here we are then face to face at last with the central question of our whole investigation. If hopes of a special revelation are not unlawful, how far can we go towards giving them a definite form? Such a revelation must no doubt be neither more nor less than what God shall please to give us; but can we form beforehand any idea of what he may or may not please to give? I believe we can. But we shall need reverence as well as wisdom if we are to wade far into the doings of the Most High. We must not forget the old warning,1 he is above, and we upon earth; therefore it behoveth our words to be wary and few. There is no sadder sight in philosophy than the rashness with which men have taken for granted that God must do this or that. Yet we are not without light, for even the knowledge that there is a mystery is some knowledge; and we are free to find its limits. Speaking as here I do speak, under full sense of the reverence and caution that is needed by one who takes upon him to speak on so high and arduous a question, I believe that while many things must be left in doubt, some things can be laid down for certain, and others as more or less likely. One thing, and only one, we can safely say God must do: he must act according to his own nature. Given what we know of him, we may safely start from the position that what comes from him cannot be unworthy of him. Like himself, it must be rational and moral; and since the gift of a special revelation would itself be a clinching proof of his goodness, it must also plainly shew that goodness. Whether an alleged revelation fulfils these conditions is a question of which we are not incompetent judges.

In the first place, a special revelation will certainly be serious. It will have a purpose, and that a moral purpose. It will not be idle spirit-rapping and table-turning and stories of ghosts which have no moral importance. If, indeed, the ghosts had a serious and otherwise credible story which gave us new help towards right living, we might consider their plea more fully; but this is Just what they never seem to have. So far as we can make sense of their messages and compare them with known facts, we find that what is new in them is not true, and what is true is not new. Most of these tales may be set aside at once, though some will remain for further consideration, like the story of Jesus of Nazareth, where the meaning is serious enough, and the evidence prima facie considerable. Whether it finally proves true or false, no fair-minded man will summarily class it with stories whose want of divine authority is only too evident from their want of common sense.

In particular, we may safely say that a divine revelation will be practical. Its purpose is ex hypothesi to help men, not to minister to curiosity. Its concern is with this life: of another it will only speak by way of help for this. Thus we can hardly recognize a divine revelation in Mahomet's elaborate descriptions of a sensual Paradise, or in Swedenborg's accounts of the planets. The former would be less liable to objection if we might take them allegorically; but their language would seem too realistic, and the Muslim commentators have always understood them literally. They exclude the allegorical as definitely as the Apocalypse excludes the literal meaning. Speaking generally, though we are not competent to lay down very closely the limits of that which may be morally helpful, an alleged revelation which as a whole clearly falls outside them cannot be divine. One that is divine will have a side of reticence as well as one of revelation, and may be almost as clearly marked by what it does not contain as by what it does. Thus there is an argument in the lines on the resurrection of Lazarus—

Behold a man raised up by Christ;

The rest remaineth unrevealed:

He told it not, or something sealed

The lips of that Evangelist.

Similarly, such a revelation will directly concern our highest interests, or others incidentally and by way of consequence. This is the point which Professor Bruce worked out so admirably at Glasgow with regard to omens and divination; and in his steps we must follow for a while. The art, then, of divination starts fairly enough. If there are gods, we may presume that they care for men; and if they care for men, they will not refuse to give them signs of their will. But then come two great mistakes which vitiate everything. First, the signs were expected and supposed to be given on outward and secondary matters, such as the Stoics called ἀδιάϕορα. Thus the question may be, “Will this enterprise be a success? Shall I marry that woman? Will somebody have good luck?” So Epictetus had the dilemma, though he did not quite put it together, that it is impious to ask whether we ought to do our duty, for no sign can make that clearer than it is already; and demoralizing to ask what will be the worldly consequences of doing it. The other mistake was in looking to unusual events for signs, as if the common order of the world was useless for the purpose. They did not even choose for their signs moral facts to be interpreted by moral insight, but physical things like the cry of a bird or the state of a victim's entrails, which had to be deciphered by technical skill. The root of the mischief was the belief in fortune instead of character as the supreme good, and consequent unhealthy curiosity about the future. The distrust of the moral order implied in this kind of divination hindered true religion by the low ideals it encouraged, and true knowledge by its arbitrary methods and contempt of common things. It was at once dishonouring to the gods and debasing to their worshippers.

So far as there is a true art of divination, it can only be a moral divination, an inverse of, By their fruits ye shall know there; and sometimes that will go a long way. The second Isaiah, for instance, might very well foresee the fall of Babylon without any miraculous help. And if Jesus of Nazareth foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, he said no more than a pure and thoughtful mind might have gathered from the signs of the times—that the savage fanaticism of the Jews would soon bring the Romans to take away their place and nation. So far as this prediction goes, there is no need on any theory to put the discourse after the event, as whole schools of commentators do. Caution against the miraculous need not go the length of blinding us to the possibilities of reasonable foresight.

The next thing we can say for certain of a revelation is that its character will be moral and rational. It will meet the moral and rational needs of serious men, and from the first commend itself to some of them as doing so. Only to some, for we cannot expect it to secure immediate and general acceptance. The more truly it answers the noblest aspirations of the time, the more sharply it will contradict the baser thoughts of common men. If a new thought is needed in the world, it cannot but run counter to the shallow popular religion of the time—“that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” The natural man will take fright; and those that run after a novelty are likely to drop it before long. Better men will defend the religion they have, because they see the truth contained in it, and do not know how to sift out the error. The most open-minded men are not always the clearest headed, and may not see how to reconcile the new truth with the old. Hence a revelation cannot fail to be a sword of division, sharpened by the aggressiveness of men who have the world against them. Still, it ought to win followers among the best men of the time, and sometimes to extort from its worst enemies such praise as men can give while still remaining enemies. Thus Christianity would have a real difficulty to explain if it could not set Origen and Athanasius against Plotinus and Julian, or in our own time Tait and Clerk Maxwell against Huxley and Tyndall.

Again, if we are right in supposing that a revelation will be moral and practical, aiming rather at helping us to right living than at satisfying our curiosity, we cannot take for granted that it will give us a full solution of our intellectual difficulties. We are like children when compared with beings we might imagine; and there are many things a child cannot understand, many he does not need to understand, and some that might do him harm if he came to know them before his time. Such or such-like the case must be with us. A revelation is likely enough to make some difficulties worse, or even to disclose new and greater difficulties, as new light commonly does. Even science never gives a final explanation of an observed fact: all that it can do is to group that fact with others under a wider law, which is a deeper mystery. We cannot expect revelation to do more than this; though its general effect, like that of science, ought to be intellectually clearing. On practical questions, however, of aims and motives it might possibly speak a final word. Supposing, for example, it were to skew us that God is good in spite of any appearances there may be to the contrary, this would be a final word; for it would give us a motive covering the whole of life, a motive which no imaginable development of a finite being could render obsolete.

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    Eccles. v 2.