Those upon whom Lord Gifford laid the responsibility of selecting lecturers on his foundation have adopted the practice of mixing among thinkers who have given their main effort to the study of philosophy or science, some whose primary avocations are in other spheres, and for whom philosophy is not a business but a recreation. In this I think they have been wise; though my evidence must be discounted as that of a biassed witness, for it is only in virtue of this practice that the great honour could ever have come to me of occupying a place in the distinguished series of Gifford Lecturers. The wisdom of the electors in taking this course is grounded in the fact that every form of mental activity tends to affect the method of approach to ultimate questions; and concern (for example) with political or administrative problems produces its effect in this matter as surely as concern with a departmental science or with metaphysic itself. I should expect to find some valuable diversity of colour and emphasis in the metaphysical constructions of a scientist, a politician and a professional metaphysician. If that expectation is wellfounded, then philosophy requires, for the full manifestation of its riches, the contribution of those who are not professional philosophers as well as of those who are; and one of the special contributions of this kind, particularly to the study of Natural Religion, should come from persons whose main concern is with the promotion of the specifically religious interest of mankind, unless indeed it be held that this interest is essentially spurious and delusive.
But for one whose mental habit is inevitably influenced by such an occupation there is a special need to be clear about the real scope of Lord Gifford’s intention. The Lectures are to deal with Natural Theology, and are not to rely in any way on a divine Revelation accepted as such. Lord Gifford’s words are these:
“I wish the Lecturers to treat their subject as a strictly natural science, the greatest of all possible sciences, indeed, in one sense, the only science, that of Infinite Being, without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation. I wish it considered just as astronomy or chemistry is .… The Lecturers shall be under no restraint whatever in their treatment of their theme; for example, they may freely discuss (and it may be well to do so) all questions about man’s conception of God or the Infinite, their origin, nature and truth, whether he can have any such conceptions, whether God is under any or what limitations, and so on, as I am persuaded that nothing but good can result from free discussion.”
These words refer to the handling of the subject, which is itself described as follows:
“The Knowledge of God, the Infinite, the All, the First and Only Cause, the One and the Sole Substance, the Sole Being, the Sole Reality and the Sole Existence, the Knowledge of His Nature and Attributes, the Knowledge of the Relations which men and the whole universe bear to Him, the Knowledge of the Nature and Foundation of Ethics or Morals and of all Obligations and Duties thence arising.”
At the time when Lord Gifford wrote those words the distinction between Natural and Revealed Religion was much clearer in most men’s minds than it is to-day. It is important to realise that this distinction was drawn by Christian theologians, not by scientists or philosophers as distinct from theologians. During several centuries the authority of the Bible was, with whatever qualifying considerations, accepted in Europe as final. It was the vehicle of a divine self-disclosure. Natural Theology was then such thought about God—the grounds for belief in His existence, the evidence of His character, and so forth—as might be conducted without reference to the Bible. Revealed Religion was man’s response in thought and feeling and purpose to the self-disclosure held to be contained in the Bible. Doubtful inferences were drawn from these assumptions and universally accepted. Thus it was the general scholastic doctrine that the existence of God is a truth of Reason, attainable without supernatural aid, while the doctrines of the Incarnation and of the Trinity are truths of Revelation, which Reason could never reach without such aid. But there have been doctrines of a divine Trinity quite apart from Christianity—in some versions of Hinduism, for example, and in Neo-Platonism. And if it be said that these are not the Christian doctrine, it must be replied that, while that is true, it is also true that there is no one complete doctrine of the Trinity accepted by all orthodox Christians. There is an orthodox formula, which excludes certain conceptions of the Divine Nature; but that formula is itself capable of many interpretations, from the approximation to Tritheism found in the Cappadocian Fathers to the approximation to Unitarianism (in this respect) of St. Augustine and St. Thomas. And in our own time men discuss whether the Hegelian doctrine of the Trinity is compatible with Christianity or not.
The supposed clearness, then, of the distinction between Natural and Revealed Religion, as it existed in the minds of our grandfathers, was partly illusory. For us it has, in that form,1 been completely destroyed by recent study of what was taken to be the main source of Revealed Religion—the Bible. In the eighteenth century, and for much of the nineteenth, the theologian believed himself to draw his principles from the lively oracles of God contained in Holy Scripture, and developed his theology as a deductive science. The critical philosopher, on the other hand, left the Bible altogether on one side. The former was engaged in systematising Revealed Religion; the latter was exploring Natural Religion.
But we are now vividly conscious that whatever the Bible may contain of divine self-disclosure, it is also the record of a very rich and significant human experience. And while modern Biblical scholarship has made that record vivid and full of suggestion for us, the Comparative Study of Religions has set it side by side with other records of religious experience, tracing out points alike of resemblance and of contrast. There is here a whole mass of data for the Natural Theologian which was not available until recent times.
Whenever there is doubt about the precise point at which the line should be drawn between two terms which are undoubtedly distinct, but which either overlap or else possess a common frontier, it is well to employ the method known in naval gunnery as bracketing; first a shot is fired well beyond the target, then another well short of it, after which the interval is narrowed down until the target is found. Now no one disputes the right of the Natural Theologian as such to include among the facts, which he seeks to correlate and from which he seeks to draw his conclusions, the religious beliefs and practices of primitive races as described for us by anthropologists. On the other hand no one would give the name of Natural Theology to a process of thought which began by accepting as infallible the utterances of some religious leader—Buddha or Mohammed or Christ—and aimed at setting forth the experience or the duty of mankind in the light of these.
But if the religious beliefs and practices of primitive races may be included, there can be no ground in principle for excluding those of races more advanced. And in fact references to the beliefs and practices of ancient Greeks and Romans, of Moslems, Hindus and Confucians, have been frequent in Gifford Lectures; and recently Professor Pringle-Pattison published a volume based on his Gifford Lectures delivered in Edinburgh during the year 1923, which deals almost exclusively with the development of religious experience and doctrine recorded in the Bible.2
The truth quite plainly is that the distinction between Natural and Revealed Religion or Theology is in no way directly concerned with the content of the beliefs examined, but solely with the principle determining the method of examination. So far as any doctrine is accepted on authority only, such acceptance lies beyond the frontier of Natural Theology, and all conclusions drawn from the belief so accepted must be excluded from its sphere. But the fact that a doctrine forms part of a dogmatic system, which is itself based on utterances regarded in some quarters as beyond all criticism, cannot exclude that doctrine from the purview of the Natural Theologian, provided that he considers it, or proposes it for acceptance, independently of such authority.
This is not to say that the acceptance of articles of belief on authority is in any way unreasonable. Not every man can give much time to the study of Natural Theology, and yet every man must adopt some attitude towards God; for indifference and neglect are, after all, an attitude. In view of the place which Religion has held in the experience of mankind, it is no more reasonable for any individual to adopt in practice a negative attitude towards religion on the ground that he has not proved for himself the reality of its object, than it is to adopt a positive attitude because he has not disproved it. It is a perfectly reasonable, if provisional, judgement, which declares that what has been so great a power in human life cannot be altogether illusory. It is not the beneficence of religion that is here in question; about that there is much more to be said. Our question concerns its manifest potency, for evil as for good. It is not inconceivable that so great a force is grounded solely in the psychological vagaries of the human mind; but it is not unreasonable to prefer the alternative hypothesis and, merely on a broad survey of human history, to adopt the view that man’s religion is a movement within him of some great force which it behoves him to appreciate, or his response to some object of supreme import which it behoves him to understand, or both of these at once.
It is worth while to insist on the reasonableness of such an almost unreasoned acceptance of religion as we embark upon the enterprise of Natural Theology, for this enterprise easily leads those engaged in it to the unfounded belief that only by its means can men win the right to believe in or to worship God. But this conclusion would not only reduce to negligible proportions the number of those who are to be regarded as possessing that right; it would also destroy a great part of the evidence which Natural Theology itself is called upon to consider and to evaluate.
We are here dealing with a kind of back-wash from the excessive emphasis put upon authority in an earlier period, and the consequent false division which allocated some whole departments of belief to Revelation, leaving others as the proper sphere of Natural Theology. Here as so often the Liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries failed through lack of thoroughness in the application of its own principles. Confronted with an apparently accepted division of religious beliefs into truths of revelation and truths of reason, it did not take the truly radical course of denying the distinction and insisting on the universal supremacy of reason; on the contrary, it accepted the distinction, and confined its attention to the truths (so-called) of reason. Its intention was to dub the other beliefs irrational, and so to divert attention from them as subjects of possible intellectual concern. It failed to observe that in this way it retained for its sphere of study themes whose living interest sprang solely from that treatment of them which it excluded. For the question whether there is a God derives all its interest from the question what manner of Being He is; and the question whether God can work miracles, or what evidence would be necessary to convince us that He has done so, is very defective in emotional thrill as compared with the asseveration that He raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Thus it could come about that David Hume should compose his Dialogues on Natural Religion, so cogent in argumentation, so urbane, so devastatingly polite, at a moment when John Wesley was altering the characters of thousands and the course of English History by preaching salvation through the precious Blood—a theme which one suspects that Hume and his friends would have thought ill-suited for refined conversation. If Natural Theology is restricted, or restricts itself, to the study of what has never been part of a supposed revelation, then it is concerned with what is very unimportant alike to its own students and to all mankind.
“But surely”, it will be objected, “the three great notions styled by Kant ‘Ideas of Reason’—God, Freedom and Immortality—are of supreme and transcendent importance to every child of man; and these are the traditional concern of Natural Theology.” To which I answer that no one of these ideas is of any importance at all until it has received some measure of determination. To prove that the world is a rational whole in such sense as to make scientific procedure possible, and then to call its attribute of rationality by the name of God, is a course of argumentation in which much dialectical skill may be displayed, but it does not establish the existence of such a Being as can satisfy man’s age-long search for God. Freedom, again, is a word used in many senses; there is a conception of Free Will more ruinously destructive of morality than the crudest type of Determinism; and if Immortality is the doom of the soul in virtue of its own nature to continue for ever in unending successiveness, it corresponds to no deep spiritual need, and can even become an object of truly spiritual abhorrence, as the great religions of India tragically testify.
Of these three famous terms the first and the last— God and Immortality—derive their actual content from the historical religions, not from any such Natural Theology as has excluded the content of the actual religions from the scope of its enquiry. For many generations this was concealed alike from philosophers and from the public by the tacit assumption that the meaning of the great religious terms is fixed independently of the historical religions. But this is not so; and when Kant spoke of God, he had in mind the somewhat deistic object of contemporary Lutheran faith and worship. It is only after criticising these three terms that Natural Theology has the right to use them; and when it undertakes that criticism it finds that it can give no content to these terms which will justify the expenditure of time and thought in the discussion of them, except what is drawn from the actual religion of men, which is never based on Natural Theology alone.
The source of trouble is the uncritical acceptance by Natural Theologians of that distinction of the two spheres—Natural and Revealed Religion—which was itself drawn by the exponents of Revealed Theology. What I am now contending is that the true distinction is one not of spheres but of method. And this contention would scarcely need to be advanced in these days, if the influence of the old habit of thought were not so persistent and so pervasive. For in effect that false distinction of spheres involved the exclusion from Natural Theology of all consideration of Religion itself as it has historically existed among men; it limited it to the philosophical introduction to Religion, and even then condemned it to ignorance of the subject introduced. Like Laplace, it scanned the heavens with its telescope, and either found, or did not find, that it had need of the hypothesis of God. If of late it has been less concerned with the celestial mechanism and more with conceptions drawn from biology, it is still true that for it God is too often a hypothesis, to be accepted or repudiated independently of and previously to any examination of the forms which faith and worship have taken among men. The question is whether Faith is justified; and philosophers have set themselves to answer this by considering the universal cogency of established yet ever advancing mathematics, the presuppositions of triumphant physics, the new demands of self-confident though still speculative biology—anything and everything in fact except Faith itself. Before a man says his prayers he is to gain permission to do so from a philosophy which, in deciding whether to grant such permission or not, considers everything except those same prayers. What wonder that Faith and Philosophy have tended to drift apart! There is enough in their own proper natures to make them suspicious of each other, as we shall see more fully in the next lecture, without such artificial inducements to antagonism.
No doubt the Philosophy of Religion must set Religion in the context of man’s general knowledge as that has been established at any period when this enterprise of philosophy is undertaken. But this must not mean that only the context is studied, and never the subject itself. It may be that in the practice of religion men have real evidence of the Being of God. If that is so, it is merely fallacious to refuse consideration of this evidence because no similar evidence is forthcoming from the study of physics, astronomy or biology. Sir James Jeans says in his justly famous book, The Mysterious Universe:
“We discover that the universe shews evidence of a designing or controlling power that has something in common with our own individual minds—not, so far as we have discovered, emotion, morality, or aesthetic appreciation, but the tendency to think in a way which, for want of a better word, we may call mathematical.”3
But his meaning is unfortunately obscure. If he means that in the course of his personally and brilliantly conducted tour of the stellar system we have found no evidence of a God who cares for our ethical and emotional interests, the answer is that no religious person, and perhaps even no sensible person, would think of looking for such evidence in that quarter, though if he has come on other grounds to faith in God as Christians believe that they know Him, he will gladly link together the declaration of God’s glory by the heavens and the purity of His law which converts the soul.4 If, however, Sir James Jeans intended his words to be taken more absolutely, and to convey an actual denial of evidence for the moral character of God, we must assert very plainly that he has no right to draw that conclusion from any premises which he has put before his readers.
The fact that astronomy reveals God only as mathematician is not surprising, for astronomy is a mathematical science studying the mathematical aspects or functions of the objects under review. If we attend to no other aspects, it may leave us gazing spellbound but fundamentally hopeless into the depths of
The everlasting taciturnity—
The august, inhospitable, inhuman night
Glittering magnificently unperturbed.5
So a great poet interprets for us one mood—a legitimate but not a necessary mood. Another poet, who is himself, in the words of a third, “gold dusty with tumbling amidst the stars”,6 will see the moon as an “orbed maiden with white fire laden”, round whom may be perceived, through a cloud-rent, the peeping and peering stars as they “whirl and flee like a swarm of golden bees”, and the depths of heaven’s vault becomes the “star-inwoven tapestry” that curtains the sleeping sun.7
The plain and crude fact is that you can get out of philosophy just what you put in—rearranged no doubt, set in order and rendered comprehensible; but while the machine may determine the size and shape of the emergent sausage, it cannot determine the ingredients.
Surprise has lately been expressed that mathematics appears to be the only fully surviving science, for all others are passing into mathematics. It would not have surprised our forefathers: Optime autem cedit inquisitio naturalis, quando physicum terminatur in mathematico.8 But this is due to the acceptance of a mathematical ideal for science, which we must discuss on a later occasion. For the present it is sufficient to observe that if you begin by attending to objects only in so far as they are measurable, you are likely to end by having only their measurements before your attention.
The argument, however, is carrying us beyond the province of this introductory discussion. Enough has been said to expose the futility of the method to which, until lately, Natural Theology condemned itself. But it is fair that we should remind ourselves how deep a separation from established tradition would have been involved in any avoidance of this course. The historical method and historical habit of mind are novelties in this realm of thought; indeed they are the great distinguishing characteristics of the “modern thought” of our era. It was not open to theologians or philosophers of an earlier period to make use of them. Consequently our forefathers were precluded from tracing out the process, so familiar to us, whereby an initial act of divine revelation, or what was taken for such, has led to fresh forms of religious experience or to new exploration of divine mysteries, and has thus issued in an accepted formulation, which itself becomes the starting point of further novelties in experience and in doctrine as these interact upon one another. For those to whom such an enquiry was almost impracticable, there was no escape from the dilemma which offered either Reason or Revelation as the source of any religious conviction, with no third alternative and no recognition of any serious intermixture. No doubt it was always recognised that Reason may work upon the content of Revelation; but this was to explicate it, not to affect it in any essential way. And, as has been already said, it was the exponents of Revealed Religion who, for very good reasons as will shortly appear, insisted on the non-rational or supra-rational origin of the “truths of revelation”. It is true that for them God was the source of Reason, and that there was therefore nothing intentionally irrational in their view of either the method or the content of Revelation. But such doctrines as those of the Trinity or the Incarnation or the Atonement could never have been reached, it was held, by any process of human reasoning, though reason had had its part in formulating them for presentation to men’s understanding.
When, in the sixteenth century, philosophy began its course afresh in independence of an avowedly accepted theology, it was almost inevitable that it should at first accept this situation. It had no desire to break with the accepted theology, if only it were left free to follow its own methods for its own purposes. It had no interest in attacking (for example) the Church’s Trinitarian doctrine. That lay off its track. It was a truth of Revelation; no one was supposed to be able, still less to be required, to reach it by scientific enquiry into men’s normal experience of the natural universe. The philosopher himself could quite well accept it on the authority of Revelation, and neither cause nor feel anxiety on the ground that his philosophy did not actually lead him to it.
But this frame of mind could not be permanent. As soon as the spirit of independent enquiry was established, it vindicated itself in ways that were bound to have reactions in all departments of thought. More particularly the theories resulting from independent enquiry offered themselves for verification. The desire to test all propositions by actual experience became dominant. Doctrines which relied for their commendation on the august character of the authority promulgating them began to be at a disadvantage. A distinction which had once protected the truths of Revelation now tended to involve them in contempt. Natural Theology no longer suggested that beyond its reach lay truths which the soul could embrace with an assurance never due to its own conclusions, but rather suggested that it alone offered the grounds of certitude, which are to be found in the realm of possible experiment, while beyond lay flights of fancy on which whoso would might embark provided he did so as a private venture at his own risk.
Thus was reached the situation which has been described, in which it appeared that the method which had some promise of cogency could only achieve what has little interest, while all that gives interest and power to Religion has its source in spheres that are not open to criticism and are therefore ignored or reverenced with equal intellectual right. Religion, it appeared, must be either insecure or else uninteresting.
From that situation we have been making our escape, though the deliverance is still incomplete. It is largely the work of three allied sciences—Psychology, Anthropology and the Comparative Study of Religions. For these have undertaken to treat as the subject of scientific enquiry exactly those traditions, beliefs and practices which were previously regarded as lying beyond the scope of such enquiry. At first this new development only brought under examination the cults of primitive races or the beliefs of religions other than that familiar among ourselves. The scientific investigation of the Bible led to much alarm and indignation while it was still an innovation, and the psychological treatment of prayer and worship and conversion is still an occasion of apprehension in many quarters. This is partly due to the survival of a sense that what springs from divine revelation should be accepted without criticism, partly also to the fact that the scientific tradition has not in the past made its count with the possibility of Revelation, which ex hypothesi lay beyond its sphere, with the result that many scientific enquirers approach their subject with a strong presupposition that no such thing exists.
What is needed, and what is plainly coming to pass before our eyes, is the deliberate and total repudiation of any distinction of spheres as belonging respectively to Natural and Revealed Religion or Theology. It is abundantly clear that a great deal, at least, of the actual religion of mankind is traced by its adherents to a supposed act of Revelation or to a tradition so deeply rooted as to have the equivalent of divine authority. In Hinduism the system of Caste is not accepted as being a valid generalisation from human experience. The position of Buddha among his followers does not depend on the cogency of the reasoning by which Buddhist philosophers may seek to justify it. The Koran claims its authority on the strength of its alleged divine origin. No doubt it is true that in the very long run a failure to produce any rational defence of these positions may make them untenable. What is contended is that as a matter of historic fact the Hindu or the Buddhist or the Moslem holds his belief independently of any rational justification of it. But this fact, and the various beliefs thus held, are themselves the proper subject of scientific enquiry, and that enquiry is now well established. In just the same way the beliefs and practices of Christians have been increasingly made the theme of such enquiry, to the great advantage, as I am persuaded, of those beliefs and practices themselves, and to the vastly increased interest of Natural Theology.
Let it then be frankly and fully recognised that there neither is, nor can be, any element in human experience which may claim exemption from examination at the bar of reason. If reason’s attitude to the arcana of Religion has sometimes seemed truculent and unsympathetic, that is largely because Religion has tried to exclude reason altogether from investigation of its treasures. This was natural enough, but unwise; and in our days, when the authority of science is a far more potent force among men than the authority of religious tradition, the unwisdom is apparent in the disaster to which it has led.
One lamentable result of that false division of spheres which we have been considering is traceable in the habit of mind with which the study of religion has been approached. Few whole-hearted believers in any of the great religions have attempted the most difficult task of a dispassionate examination of their convictions. The task has thus been in great measure left to those who study all religions from outside. These may be reverent; they may be sympathetic; yet even so, if they are not worshippers of God, they cannot speak of worship with real knowledge. A man who is colour-blind may master the science of optics, he may be as competent as any one else to follow discussions of rival theories of light, but he will never see a sunset as others see it, and his appreciation of a poetic description of it is bound to be sadly limited. So the man, who studies the worship of others but is not himself a worshipper, may discuss with clarity and insight the grounds which prompt men to worship, or which lead them to a sense of sin and its forgiveness; but what those things are in themselves and in their pervasive influence on experience as a whole, he can never know unless he learns to worship. The problem thus created will concern us in the next lecture.
But the undertaking to examine scientifically the living content of actual religions has difficulties of its own. These are not only due to the general and almost diametrical opposition between the intellectual habit natural to Religion and that appropriate to Science; to the consideration of that opposition we must return.9 But there is a special difficulty arising from an element in Religion so universal as to be apparently essential. This is precisely that note of Authority which led to the division of spheres about which so much has been already said.
The plea was made earlier that there is nothing unreasonable in the acceptance by any individual of a religious creed on the basis of what seems to him adequate authority, if only because not every one has time to examine the arguments that may be adduced for or against the principle of religious faith in general or any given religious creed in particular. But that is a very small part of the relevant truth. Far more important is the consideration that almost every one who has any religious belief at all forms it in me first instance on the basis of authority, and, even though he may find reason for it as years go by, this process does not weaken the authoritative element in his creed but rather strengthens it. This is a point so frequently misconceived, so essential to the life of Religion, and so important, even if also very awkward, for the study of Natural Theology as we now understand it, that some time must be spent in its elucidation. With its significance we shall be concerned throughout these lectures.
For we understand by Natural Theology the scientific study of Religion, as it exists among men, in relation to the general interpretation of man’s experience as a whole within which religion is a part. Religion claims indeed to be not only one part along with others, but the dominant element, exercising over all the rest a certain judgement and control. The investigation of that claim is one of the functions of Natural Theology; it may have to declare it invalid and presumptuous; certainly it cannot admit it without criticism, for to do that is to go over to the other theological method with which Natural Theology is contrasted; but while it cannot admit this claim at the outset, it must observe as part of the subject under review the fact that the claim is certainly made. And in just the same way Natural Theology must recognise that actual human Religion is authoritative through and through, and that this characteristic becomes more, not less, conspicuous as the religious life matures. No doubt this fact is the explanation of the false distinction between Natural and Revealed Religion or Theology, which bases the contrast on their contents instead of on the method of handling those contents.
Now it is universally recognised that religious belief, like all other, rests at first on authority.10 There is here no relevant difference between a child brought up by religious parents and a full-grown unbeliever converted by the appeal of a preacher. In the latter case the act of surrender is more conscious, and it is also more conspicuous because surrender is a less frequent occurrence in the life of an adult than in that of a child. But it is still, in both cases, surrender. The number of instances in which a man becomes in a living sense religious because he has been convinced by argumentation must be extremely small.
The child accepts what he is told concerning God as he accepts all else that he is told by those in trust upon whom he lives, according to his capacity to receive it. In the same way he accepts the dogmatic assertion that 7 × 7 = 49 without working it out for himself. But in most departments of life the basis of belief is gradually shifted from the authority of parents and teachers to his own experience and his own reflection upon this. And so far as this happens, his belief becomes more autonomous. It is his own; he has verified and vindicated it. He is still grateful to parents and teachers—more grateful now than ever. But his belief no longer rests on their authority. He has put it to the proof himself; very likely in so doing he has modified it; but in any case it is now his own, not something which he has borrowed from others.
The process is familiar also in religious growth. But here there is a difference. The believer who finds that experience and reflection confirm his belief is also in the position of having changed a faith rooted in the authority of teachers to one based on and vindicated by his own experience and criticism. In that sense he too is translated from dependence on authority to a real autonomy. Yet that is not the feature in the situation which is most conspicuous to himself. No doubt, if challenged, he is ready to assert the immediacy of assurance with which he now holds his faith. But it requires a challenge to bring that aspect of the matter into prominence. What he realises day by day is that his growth in personal certitude, in detachment from any human authority, has brought him into ever closer relations with a Being who claims the allegiance of his entire nature—desire and thought, conscience and will. He is delivered, not from, but to, authority, though to authority of a new kind; for the point on which he has reached personal conviction is the existence of a God entitled to exercise authority over him, and of his own consequent obligation to serve and obey that God. He does not find here any conflict with reason; nothing can be so reasonable as total submission to the God with whom he has to do. It is not unreasonable for the ignorant man to trust and implicitly to follow the expert; on the contrary, it is unreasonable for him to set up an ill-formed judgement in opposition to real knowledge; he may begin to study the subject so that he may understand the expert, but till his understanding is equal he will defer in judgement. So to the devout man it would seem the height of unreason that he should set up his judgement against that of his God. He, too, will try to understand the mind of God, but he will not expect to reach the end of that enterprise, and as he looks back upon his philosophisings in the light of his vision of God he will exclaim with Job:
“Who is this that hideth counsel without knowledge? Therefore have I uttered that I understood not, things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee; wherefore I loathe my words and repent in dust and ashes.”11
“Yes”, it may be urged, “that is the character of Religion, and so much the worse for Religion. It is at root a fanatical devotion to uncriticised oracles. It flourishes in every sort of Infallibilism—it may be of the Pope, it may be of the Bible, it may be of the Koran, it may be of individually accepted Guidance. It can give no justification for its initial act of surrender, and it instinctively makes war upon all criticism because it knows that in the end it cannot sustain itself by reason; therefore it will admit reason only as exponent of its fundamental dogma, whatever that may be, but never as its judge.”
That contention is not without truth, and it is well, at the outset of an attempt to set forth a rational view of Religion, to recognise that the various irrationalities which have attended its whole history are not mere accretions. If they are perversions, they are what may be called true perversions; that is to say, they are not imported from without, but are developments of such a kind as to be quite inevitable if the purely religious interest is not balanced by and harmonised with others.
It is a modern, and already happily vanishing, delusion to suppose that in the eyes of religious people all Religion is invariably good. The truth is that Religion is a very great power for good or evil, and it is therefore supremely important to secure that its power is for good. The highly developed religions do not look upon their rivals as essentially colleagues in a conflict with irreligion. There is a great danger as well as a deep truth in the contemporary realisation that all religions have a common cause against secularism. For while it is certainly true that all religions posit a spiritual interpretation of the universe, and must all alike perish if that is discarded, it is by no means true that any religion is better than none. A strong case could be made for the contention that on the whole Religion, up to date, had done more harm than good. Nor is this a purely modern conception based on standards supplied by humanitarian ethics. “Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum,” is the cry of the greatest of Latin poets.12 There was indeed in the ancient world little possibility of atheism; there was for most men only a choice between one deity and another. But this did not make the adherents of one creed tolerant of those of others. The Biblical writers of the Old Testament have as a rule no doubt that the worshippers of the ethnic deities are better destroyed; and the prominence given to Idolatry as the greatest of sins is hardly compatible with a modern tolerance which might say, “Well, of course you ought to worship Yahweh; but if you cannot bring yourself to do that, at least become a worshipper of Moloch”. We have come falsely to suppose that the essence of Idolatry is found in the worship of material images; but that kind of idolatry comes second in the Decalogue. The first commandment is: “Thou shalt have none other gods but Me”; and the same is reiterated to-day in the cry of the Moslem muezzin. Religion itself, when developed to real maturity, knows quite well that the first object of its condemnation is bad Religion, which is a totally different thing from irreligion, and can be a very much worse thing.
If that is so, we are not censuring the inner principle of Religion when we say that some natural developments of that principle are false and bad. We have indeed as yet found no criterion for distinguishing these from developments which are true and good. We have only found that the distinction must be drawn and the criterion discovered.
The recognition of the indestructible note of authority—not in human teachers but in the object of religious faith itself—has lately been brought home to European readers by Rudolph Otto in his well-known book Das Heilige,13 and also by theologians of the school of Barth and Brunner. What Otto speaks of as the “Mysterium tremendum”, the quality in the object of religion which he describes as “Numinous”, is just that before which we do not reason but bow. He recognises that the perception of this needs to be educated, and that in the end the most rational faith is also the most religious. But this does not mean that there is any assertion of independence or autonomy in the believer. The sense of “creatureliness”, to use Von Hügel’s favourite expression, remains and is intensified; for all the elements of human nature, including sovereign reason itself, are united in our acknowledgement of the transcendent Majesty of God and of our creaturely insignificance in face of it.
To reach that point a man must, like Job, retain his integrity; he must not consent to lie on behalf of God,14 for that involves attributing to God something less than perfect goodness and truth. Yet the end is total surrender.15 And even if the Voice of the Almighty says to the prostrate worshipper, “Stand upon thy feet, and I will speak with thee”, yet it must be the Spirit of the Almighty which strengthens him to stand in that Presence.16
Now the first thing to recognise about this characteristic of religious development is that it is by no means without parallel, and the parallels may suggest the direction in which we are to look for the criterion that will help us to distinguish between true and false developments of the essential principle. The transition from the child’s belief that God exists, which is based on the teaching and practice of others, to the man’s belief, which is expressed in the same words but is based on his own experience and reflection, has been so far compared to a similar transition in relation to any particular proposition, such as that 7 × 7 = 49. But this is not the right comparison. A belief in God based on experience and reflection is not one particular apprehension among others, but an apprehension of universal import. It corresponds, not with the scientist’s apprehension of some one Law of Nature, but with his conviction of the supreme claim of Truth. If the scientist were asked to explain why he must give loyalty to Truth precedence over all other considerations, he would find it hard to comply. It does not seem to him unreasonable, but he cannot give a reason for it, because it is the rational presupposition of all particular “reasons”.
Scientists do not often give accounts of their conversion or vocation. But there have been scientists who suffered persecution for their loyalty to truth, and it must be often that a clash occurs between that loyalty and various enticements of personal or worldly interest. Now this loyalty to truth is inculcated in childhood as surely as faith in God, and there is a transition from the child’s apprehension of it at second-hand to the scientist’s independent grasp of it. But when he grasps it, it is not something which he masters; it is something which masters him. And here too, arising out of this loyalty to Truth, there may be perversions in either direction; there may be obscurantism, such as Mr. Bernard Shaw claims to find in the General Medical Council, or there may be fanaticism such as many Christians think they see in the so-called rationalism of the Rationalist Press Association. And we must recognise that these, if perversions at all, are true perversions—that is to say, they spring from real loyalty to Truth, though the conception of Truth which gives rise to them is narrow and one-sided. And the way of remedy is the way of ever closer adherence to the central core of the fundamental principle of Truth in its purity but also in its fullness.
Scientists seldom give accounts of their conversion or vocation. Poets are less reticent. This is partly because the poetic temperament is naturally given to self-expression, partly because devotion to Beauty is less often inculcated in childhood than devotion to Truth or faith in God, so that its emergence, if it ever emerges at all, is more prominent in consciousness. Among many expressions of this sense of vocation to a conscious loyalty Shelley’s is perhaps the most explicit:17
Spirit of Beauty, that dost consecrate
With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon
Of human thought or form,—where art thou gone?
Man were immortal and omnipotent,
Didst thou, unknown and awful as thou art,
Keep with thy glorious train firm state within his heart.
Thou messenger of sympathies,
That wax and wane in lovers’ eyes—
Thou—that to human thought art nourishment,
Like darkness to a dying flame!
Depart not as thy shadow came,
Depart not—lest the grave should be,
Like life and fear, a dark reality.
While yet a boy I sought for ghosts, and sped
Thro’ many a listening chamber, cave and ruin,
And starlight wood, with fearful steps pursuing
Hopes of high talk with the departed dead.
I called on poisonous names with which our youth is fed;
I was not heard—I saw them not—
When musing deeply on the lot
Of life, at the sweet time when winds are wooing
All vital things that wake to bring
News of birds and blossoming,—
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!
I vowed that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine—have I not kept the vow?
It is not always easy for the artist to keep that vow. If in Shelley’s case the difficulty came as much from his loyalty to Truth and Right, as he understood them, as from loyalty to Beauty, yet there are many artists in words, in line, and in colour, in bronze or marble, in tone and rhythm, who have had to choose between the gains of popularity and loyalty to the Beauty they had apprehended. Art and Science have their martyrs equally with Religion. And we do despite to their experience if we say that they suffer for fidelity to their own ideals and therefore, indirectly, to themselves. “To thine own self be true” is a piece of high-class ethical futility which Shakespeare appropriately puts into the mouth of his own most priceless old dotard.18 The first condition of attainment in Science or Art or Religion is not loyalty to self, but forgetfulness of self in concentration on the Object; it is most truly the meek who possess the earth.19 But that Object is not a passive recipient of recognition or of homage. To perceive it is to be conscious of its prehensive grasp, not only calling but drawing the percipient into its allegiance and service.
We have here the clue, only to be followed with diligence and pain—or at least the readiness to suffer pain—by which we may learn to distinguish true from false developments of the central principle in Art or Science or Religion. For despite the intense objectivity of each of these in its own essence, yet of necessity the apprehension of the Object is subjective, and the self-hood of the perceiving subject must introduce limitations, and may introduce distortions, into the perception. Criticism must be sympathetic, or it will completely miss the mark; but it must also be dispassionate and relentless, and nothing whatever must be allowed to escape its universal inquisition. In the sciences this criticism is part of the scientific process itself; in the aesthetic sphere it has the name of criticism as used in the specialised sense; in relation to Religion the task of criticism is discharged by Natural Theology. Natural Theology should be the criticism of actual Religion and of actual religious beliefs, irrespective of their supposed origin and therefore independently of any supposed act or word of Divine Revelation, conducted with full understanding of what is criticised, yet with the complete relentlessness of scientific enquiry.
- 1. What I conceive to be the true distinction between Natural and Revealed Religion will appear in Lecture XII.
- 2. Studies in the Philosophy of Religion.
- 3. Op. cit. p. 149.
- 4. As is done in the nineteenth Psalm.
- 5. William Watson, Melancholia.
- 6. Francis Thompson, Shelley, p. 18, in vol. iii. of his Works.
- 7. Shelley, The Cloud and Hymn of Apollo.
- 8. Bacon, Novum Organum. ii. 8.
- 9. See Lecture II.
- 10. It is important to remember that there is no contrast between Reason and Authority. It is impossible to accept a belief on Authority except so far as the Authority is accepted by Reason. In so far as a child’s acceptance of what he is told is totally uncritical, that is not acceptance on Authority, but on the causal action of impressions received. His belief rests on Authority only when his acceptance of what he is told is due to trust in those who tell.
- 11. Job xlii. 3, 5, 6.
- 12. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, i. 101.
- 13. The Idea of the Holy.
- 14. Job xiii. 7, 8, 15; xlii. 7.
- 15. Job xlii. 5.
- 16. Ezekiel ii. 2.
- 17. Shelley, Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.
- 18. Sc. Polonius. See Hamlet, Act I. Sc. 3. Shelley’s vision of Beauty taught him “to fear himself and love all humankind”. For the truth that is distorted by Polonius see below, p. 195.
- 19. St. Matthew v. 5.