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Part II: The Immanence of the Transcendent

Lecture XIII: Spiritual Authority and Religious Experience

Our account of Revelation has presented it as a special form of religious experience, in which both the objective and the subjective elements afford a special manifestation of that divine control which directs all things. Just as the complete course of history would disclose the divine character and intention to a mind qualified to appreciate its meaning, so the particular events in history which are specially described as revelations disclose the divine character and intention to those who have eyes to see. The divine self-disclosure in the objective event claims authority because it is such a disclosure; the apprehension and appreciation of it as such a disclosure is a specific religious experience. Thus the two terms Authority and Experience are both involved in the very occurrence of revelation; and as the relation between them has been the subject of far-ranging controversy, it may be well to see in what way our general view enables us to formulate this relation. How far is all religious experience dependent on the authority of given revelation? How far does objectively given revelation hamper the free development of religious experience? What is the relation of that spiritual Authority, which is an indispensable element in all vital religion, to the particular vehicles—Scriptures, Institutions, Ceremonies—through which it is mediated? Some answer to these questions may be attempted by any one who seeks to understand the actual religion of men or to use it as part of the data for an interpretation of the universe.

In the primitive stage of development it is impossible to distinguish between the objective and subjective aspects of the experience in which the presence of the divine is apprehended. As with other forms of primitive experience, perception and interpretation are indistinguishably fused into one another. In the same act of experience is found also what will later be distinguished as social obligation. Progress begins with a rudimentary sense of these distinctions, so that it becomes possible to have awareness of the divine apart from any particular external occasion, while the object or event which has been or even which still is, an occasion of such awareness, may be apprehended by certain minds without any stimulation of religious feeling. That stage has long been reached in certain departments of experience by any of our species who stand near enough to ourselves to make possible a secure estimate of their beliefs or feelings. And when that stage has been reached, we find authority and experience acting upon one another in every gradation of mutual interdependence. The supposed conflict between Authority and Experience in religion is really a tension between two indispensable elements. For the individual, Authority, whether as tribal custom or as alleged Revelation, is prior to Experience; in the race as a whole Experience is prior to Authority. Both have their origin in the stage of indistinguishable fusion, but they have become distinct—so distinct as sometimes to appear as hostile opposites—and yet they remain essentially interdependent.

There are two broad divisions of tradition to be observed in this connexion, according as primacy is given to intellectual or to moral interests. The purely intellectual treatment of experience, with the yearning for wholeness or totality which is the mainspring of logic, leads to the conception of God or Ultimate Reality as the Absolute One, or, in Lord Balfour’s less exalted phraseology, as “the logical glue which holds multiplicity together and makes it intelligible”.1 Such a conception of God imposed by the authority of tribal or national custom leads religious experience, where it occurs, to approximate to the type of mystic union in which the distinction of worshipper and deity disappears. But we have seen that though philosophy has often tended to such a conception, yet it is philosophically unsatisfactory, for the Absolute One is not self-explanatory, and as nothing from without can explain it (for nothing is outside it), it remains a mere brute fact, however august. Philosophy can only find its own satisfaction by going beyond the purely intellectual process in which its life consists, and consenting to receive illumination from the complete personal and spiritual life of which it is a part. Truth for truth’s sake is false-hood; for truth’s own sake we must say—Truth for good’s sake. In our discussion of Truth and Beauty (Lecture VI.) it became clear that the principle of Truth is one which finds its full expression in Good as the meeting of Mind with itself. What is said above is, therefore, no pragmatist subordination of Truth to some thing alien or extraneous: Truth is one form of Good, but a secondary form; the primary form is Love, and this requires Truth for its own completeness. The one self-explanatory fact is the full energy of spiritual life active in the achievement of the good. This brings us at once to the other conception of God, which we may also describe in Lord Balfour’s words:

“When I speak of God, I mean something other than an Identity wherein all differences vanish, or a Unity which includes but does not transcend the differences which it somehow holds in solution. I mean a God whom men can love, a God to whom men can pray, who takes sides, who has purposes and preferences, whose attributes, however conceived, leave unimpaired the possibility of a personal relation between Himself and those whom He has created.”2

We may later on be able to see how this conception satisfies the needs which lead to the formation of the other; indeed we have already seen that it alone is in principle adequate to the function which any conception of God is philosophically required to discharge. The thought of a personal Creator would really explain the world and all things in it, if only as we look upon the world we could see that it is good, sharing the estimate of it attributed by the Biblical myth to the Creator Himself.3 This at any rate is the predominant conception of God in the Bible and in those religions which owe their character to its influence. Where these religions are prevalent, religious experience tends to take the form of a communion of persons in which the distinctness is never lost; one is Creator, the other creature; and if the special quality of the Christian religion is also potent, one is Redeemer, the other redeemed: and of course it is only with such a conception of God that the idea of revelation as grounded in a special divine activity is compatible at all. The Absolute appears in its appearances; only the living God can reveal Himself in action. Hinduism here as elsewhere attempts a combination of mutually destructive elements; its bhakti is incompatible with its metaphysics.

The form taken by religious experience in the individual is always dependent on the influence of religious tradition, or in other words of authority. But the authoritative quality of tradition is at its maximum where the tradition is taken to be or to contain a specific revelation. This special quality of authority may both stimulate a personal experience responsive to itself, and also give to experience a deeper tone, a greater intensity. But inasmuch as the tradition is not the only influence moulding character and thought, it may be that any particular mind responds more readily to other influences; and then the tradition with its authority is felt to be a barrier erected against the free movement of the spirit. Thus we trace the difference between the attitude to tradition and its authority which is characteristic of the Middle Ages, and that which is typical of the Reformation; or again the difference between both of these on the one hand, and, on the other, the attitude of some modern types of religion to the tradition of the Church and to the variety of new influences which have become powerful alongside that tradition, such as, at one time, the new classical scholarship of the Renaissance, or, at another time, the new scientific achievements of the last hundred years. The extent to which any individual revolts against the authority of the religious tradition of his civilisation, without stimulus from some other great influence in his environment, is probably very small. There may have been some brought up under the static unity of the Absolute as presented by Brahminism and the other Eastern traditions, to whom God has directly revealed Himself as righteous Will, apart from any external influence of which the Bible was the ultimate source; but we do not hear of them, or find their influence in history, unless it be claimed that Zoroaster was such an one; and if he is, then he is truly an exception that proves the rule, because the strongly ethical character of his teaching was quickly “obscured or submerged in superstition”.4 When once a religious tradition has established itself, the unaided individual consciousness cannot escape from it. But, of course, there is escape provided by other forms of experience or thought. When the sole supremacy of the mediaeval tradition had been undermined by the Renaissance, the path was open for Luther to find his way back to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments relatively unencumbered by traditional interpretation, and thus to receive the stimulation of his religious experience from the almost forgotten doctrine of St. Paul concerning Grace and Faith. So experience initiated a new tradition which was capable of becoming as tyrannical as its predecessor. But Luther did not begin from an immediate experience of the divine; he began with St. Paul and the effect which St. Paul produced in his religious history. As usual, external and internal, objective and subjective, are found together; but priority, also as usual, is with the external and objective.

Where several influences of diverse proximate origins are at work, the current orthodoxy or distinctively religious tradition is commonly felt as a restraining rather than as a stimulating factor. Some men reach experience of God in other modes than those supplied by the religious tradition of their age and country, and as these owe less to that tradition they easily appear to be more spontaneous. Thus a supposed contrast is drawn between religions of authority and religions of the spirit. But this is a false division. The less orthodox form is not independent of authority; it only finds its authority in a new place—in natural science, or in art, or in the momentary phase of literary fashion. And there is no reason to suppose that the religious tradition which was till a slightly earlier date authoritative was any less than these representative of the divine spirit. Yet the tension will continue until the various influences have been re-synthesised by the natural activity of thought, and there is again an accepted tradition possessed of an authority now seen to be that of the divine Spirit Himself. Thus orthodoxy is constantly refashioned so that its permanent essence may be synthesised with an ever-growing range of experience.

Perhaps the world has passed beyond the stage when such a complete adjustment and synthesis is to be expected; even if it is achieved, it is sure to be shortly broken up again. The question, therefore, how Revelation, Authority, and spontaneity of religious experience may best be related to one another is not only of great interest to the student, but of great importance to the practical life of religion. In handling it the Natural Theologian does not rely on any revelation, though he must allow for the fact that all religions assert its reality, and does not submit himself to authority, though he must notice that the essence of his subject-matter—Religion itself—is such submission; he will therefore most easily begin with religious experience.

It is impossible to use that phrase without recollection of William James and his Gifford Lectures on Varieties of Religious Experience delivered at Edinburgh thirty years ago. The immediate value of that book was very great. Its freshness, its candour, its openness of mind gave it a very strong and wholesome influence in encouragement of the tendency of thought to recognise the reality and authenticity of religious experience, and to claim attention for it from those who construct systems of thought purporting to unify all fields of experience. But if the immediate value was great, there is doubt about the balance of value in the long run, for William James had a great share in associating the thought of religious experience with moments of specially intense awareness. He used the word experience in that sense which enables us to prefix to it the indefinite article or to employ it in the plural. When a man speaks of “an experience” or of “experiences” he is thinking of special and isolated moments in his experience as a whole. Now there can be no doubt about the occurrence of such religious experiences. But if they stood alone, they would be of comparatively small importance. They derive their importance from the fact that each is a focus of a quality that pervades the whole life of some persons, including as a rule those to whom the special moments of experience occur. It is not religious experiences, but religious experience as a whole, that is of chief concern—that is to say, the whole experience of religious persons. For the religious man is not only religious when he prays; his work is religiously done, his recreation religiously enjoyed, his food and drink religiously received; the last he often emphasises by the custom of “grace before meat”. He does his duty religiously; above all, his failures in duty affect him religiously. For duty is to him the “stern daughter of the voice of God”, and while he may be conscious of God in the doing of it, he is perhaps most vividly conscious of God in his failure to do it. Other men find in such failure a breach of moral law, an offence against society, a disgrace to self; the religious man finds there disloyalty to a king, betrayal of a friend. This judgement on the self and its conduct may or may not be accompanied by a specially vivid awareness of God, but it proceeds from belief in God and an acknowledged relationship to him. It is the whole reaction to circumstance resulting from that belief and from that acknowledged relationship that should be uppermost in our minds when we speak of religious experience and its significance—the apprehension by the psycho-physical organism of its environment as (amongst other things) divine. Like other forms of awareness, this has its moments of special intensity; but these moments derive their chief importance from the fact that they bring specially vivid awareness of what is matter of constant apprehension. In those moments the religious man does not enter on a novel and otherwise unknown type of experience; rather in those moments he is vividly conscious of what he then knows perfectly well to be a permanent element in his experience as a whole.

In any individual the type of religious experience will depend upon the religious tradition prevalent in his social environment. That remains true even when it takes the form of conscious and deliberate rebellion against the authority of that tradition, just as a political rebellion must needs take its form from that of the government which it seeks to overthrow. From this follows the immense importance of securing that the traditional and prevalent belief of any community is in the closest attainable correspondence with truth, alike by the exclusion of falsehood, which, in this field, is idolatry or superstition, and by the inclusion of all truth which is relevant. Correctness of belief is of high importance to the individual, for reasons which will engage our attention shortly.5 But it is very much more important to the community, because whatever is the prevalent belief of the community will be accepted uncritically by great numbers of individuals and will predispose them towards forms of religious experience, and of its issue in religious and moral practice, corresponding to that belief. Heresy may be compatible in the individual with deep religion which as a whole is sound; but the Church is bound to regard heresy as for its purposes a more serious evil than some aberrations which in the individual would be more pernicious.

But while, in the individual, experience very largely depends on belief, and this again on tradition, it is none the less true that in the totality of religious history tradition and belief depend on experience. No doubt it is true that in the primitive phase of human existence in which both have their origin they are not yet distinct from one another; but it was because men actually found the divine element as one among others in the field of their experience that they formed a conception of the divine. It is the task of anthropologists to trace out the long process by which man’s vague awareness of Something—call it “the numinous” or what you will—developed into the positive religions of mankind in the historical era. This is a subject of profound interest, and is full of warning against hasty judgements. But it is not directly relevant to the study of religion as it exists among civilised men; for whatever may be the process of development which has led to this result, the massive fact of human religion is there before us to be evaluated.

Within the historic period development has come in two ways—by religious experience itself and by philosophical reflection. Each is chiefly a contribution of individuals. The religious experience of a multitude—whether Church or nation or group—is almost certain to conform closely to an already prevalent tradition, which, in the case of Church or group, is actually constitutive of the common life. This may be of supreme value in strengthening faith or in evolving zeal to live conformably with faith; but it will contribute little to the purgation or the expansion of faith. This must come through individuals, whose activity will at first render them suspect to all who are content with the tradition. They may proceed by philosophical reflection, which must be taken to include the comparison of religious tradition with the ethical consciousness of the community. Thus the canon of Xenophanes—If Gods act basely they are not Gods—provided a principle of ethical purgation for application to the Greek mythology, but its method was that of philosophy, not of direct religious experience. It is the philosophic counterpart of the plea of Abraham: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”6 But Abraham is applying an apprehension of the divine character to a particular suggested action; Xenophanes is offering a general principle for application to a tradition. By the efforts of philosophers man’s thought of God has been purified and enlarged; but philosophy can contribute little of that definiteness wherein lies most of the driving power of any actual faith. The labours of philosophers from Plato to Hegel might have sufficed to provide a criterion of superstition, and perhaps, in the long run, its elimination; they might have saved religion from shallow ridicule by showing its inherent dignity and its place in the thoughts of those whose thought is most worthy of attention. But it is hard to suppose that the thought of God resultant from those labours would have stopped infanticide, and homicidal public spectacles and slavery,7 or studded Christendom with hospitals, or inspired crusades against prostitution. Something more than truth and loftiness of thought is necessary to endow religion with converting power.

The growth of religion as a dynamic force comes rather from the side of religious experience, though this is less potent than the other in the elimination of superstition or in the expansion of the thought of God so that it may be adequate to the range of secular knowledge. This religious experience is conditioned by the prevalent tradition, as we have seen; but it may carry men far beyond it. Individuals, who are specially responsive to those elements in the tradition which are qualified for permanence, receive through their religious experience so vivid an apprehension of the aspects of truth which these express, that these elements assume an altogether new proportion; the perspective and emphasis of the tradition is thereby changed, and sometimes, under the influence of that change, elements, which had at one time been accepted with a reverence equal to that paid to any part of the tradition, sink into recognised unimportance and finally drop out altogether. Such a process is probably, though not necessarily, assisted by philosophical reflection and criticism; but its first impetus comes from an empirical apprehension with new clarity of the element which is destined to remain. This is clearest when this apprehension comes in a definite moment of time to an individual; and usually there is such a prophetic apprehension at the outset; but it retains its essential character when it occupies several generations and advances by the slow change in the point of view of a whole people.

It is easy to suggest illustrations of this point. There are comparatively few Christians who remember where is to be found the first proclamation of the familiar words “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. It is in a passage which clearly shows that its writer had no notion that in that phrase he was enunciating the fundamental principle of all morality.8 It was just one incidental precept, and moreover “neighbour” meant “fellow-Israelite”—one of “the children of thy people”.

Before this maxim could be recognised as the true categorical imperative, two creative transformations were required. The first was accomplished when Rabbis of the school of Hillel drew it out from its obscurity and set it side by side with what was already recognised as the supreme requirement of the Law.9 The second was accomplished when Jesus of Nazareth, accepting this combination of precepts as a summary of the Law, declared by the Parable of the Good Samaritan that the word “neighbour” must be understood as meaning any human being that a man happens to meet, even a member of a hated nation.10

The supreme example of religious progress, occasioned by direct religious experience is that of the Hebrew Prophets. There is no means of accounting for their fresh apprehensions of truth by reference to current movements of thought either in Israel or among the surrounding nations. At least for any believer in Theism, the simplest and most natural explanation of the impressive fact of Hebrew prophecy is offered by the Prophets’ own interpretation of it as issuing from a real communion between God and the Prophets, in which the initiative lay wholly on the divine side.11 Devout men, loyal to the religious faith of Israel as hitherto developed, they were receptive of divine intimations consonant with it but going beyond it, or else so magnifying as to transform certain elements within it. The supreme prophetic intuitions—that God is Righteous, that God is One, that the One God is the ruler of all nations, so that not only Israel but also the enemies of Israel are His peoples12—were all present as elements in a faith which originally gave prominence only to the first. But that primary conviction of the Righteousness of God, of which the emergence into clear consciousness is typified by the story of Abraham, and of which the distinctive form of a covenant-relation between Jehovah and Israel came to clear expression in Moses, made those who accepted it receptive of the other two. The essence of polytheism is the attribution of diverse characters to Deity; it was the conviction of the absolute righteousness of God which prepared the way for Monotheism, and that in its turn for belief in universal providence. But the prophets did not make this great advance by any form of argumentation. They did not plead that what man already believed involved certain other beliefs which they did not yet accept; they presented themselves as the spokesmen of divinely imparted oracles: “The word of the Lord came unto me saying, Thus saith the Lord”.

But it would be a false account of the prophetic writings which would suggest that these divine oracles came to the prophets’ consciousness unmediated by either tradition or external event. They are not simply divine utterances in which the prophet is used as a mouthpiece. They are stimulated by events in the contemporary world—the religious and moral decay in the court of Samaria, the enmity of Syria, the advancing thunder-cloud of the Assyrian Empire, the fall of Nineveh and rise of Babylon, the triumphant career of Cyrus. These and other historical events supply the external occasion of the prophetic intuition, and the divine communication is, for the most part, an illumination of the prophet’s mind, in congruity with his inherited faith, enabling him to apprehend with new freshness and vividness that truth concerning God which at once explains the external event and indicates the right way of acting in face of it. The prophetic oracles are not formulated theological doctrines, presented in detachment from the practical needs of the moment. The prophets were not Gifford Lecturers with the advantage of some special “guidance”. They were men faced with practical problems of political, moral and spiritual life: how is this invasion to be met? how is that act of oppression to be punished? with what manner of hope may endurance be braced or the disappointment of high aspiration be checked from turning into despair and faithlessness? As the prophet faces some actual human need, that truth of God which bears upon it irradiates his mind and he proclaims it in words that thrill our hearts to-day.

In all this there is communion of the divine and human spirit; but it is not unmediated; it is mediated by the tradition which has prepared the human spirit to receive it, and it is occasioned by the external circumstances of the moment. The prophet is enabled to interpret the circumstance as it falls within the divine purpose; in other words, we have here the perfect example of revelation—divinely guided external event interpreted by a mind divinely illuminated to that end. Such revelation escapes from the perils of pure subjectivism, which always accompany special moments of religious experience, for the reference of the illumination is not to a feeling but to a historical fact. And to historical facts the prophets habitually appeal in recalling men to faith in Jehovah—above all to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. The principle reaches its fullest expression in that event which Christians regard as the culminating point of revelation interpreted as Christians interpret it; for here it is claimed that the external fact is not merely a divinely guided event but a life that was lived by God Himself, which those, whom He “chose that they might be with Him”, were enabled by His Spirit to understand for what it truly was.

Now it is evident that such Revelation carries with it a great, indeed an overwhelming, authority for those who so accept it. But what is the nature of this authority? If our account of the revelation itself is true, two allowances have to be made, which entirely prevent the authority from being decisive for any other person than the prophet. The first is that though it consist in an experience where both objective and subjective factors are subject to divine control, yet this control is not unmediated. The prophet’s personality and religious history—including the tradition under which he grew to maturity—are the vehicle, the medium, of the divine communication; and it is quite impossible to determine with precision the extent to which this may have affected the divine communication itself. Indeed that mode of expression allows too much for the thought of a divine oracle which, if only it could be disentangled, would be a direct utterance of God, entitled as such to unquestioning acceptance. But that is very rarely presented as occurring. What we have in the prophetical writings of the Old Testament—in which the Jews quite rightly include the historical Books—is the record of, or judgment upon, providentially guided history, proceeding from divinely illumined minds. There is not a divine message, other than the prophetic utterance itself, which has been distorted into this by the medium through which it has passed. That utterance is the only message, but it comes out of an experience of communion with the divine which endows it with more than human authority, though not with the inerrancy of a divinely dictated oracle.

Secondly, with the exception of the Shema to which reference has already been made,13 and what may be regarded as comment upon this, almost every divine message has direct application to a particular occasion, and it is impossible to declare with certainty how far it applies to any other occasion. Each is characterised, no doubt, by universal truth; but it is only a part—for its occasion the relevant part—of universal truth, and does not contain guidance for its own application elsewhere nor for the supplementing of it that may be called for at other times. Even the moral code of the Decalogue calls for supplement or for completely transforming interpretation before it will correspond to what we know of the will of God for ourselves.

Pharisaism, therefore, was, and is, a perversion. It was a very noble perversion. It had its roots in reverence and in loyal desire to obey God’s will. But by converting occasional legislation and direction into a code for all times and places it corrupted the true character of the revelation in which it was grounded; and the same condemnation awaits all who follow the Pharisaic principle of seeking to order life by immutable rules. The revelation itself came in a living experience; that in it which is of permanent authority is not capable of being stated in formulae; it is the living apprehension of the divine will in living intercourse of the human spirit with the divine. It is one mark of the supremacy of the New Testament scriptures that in them this, which was actually true also of Old Testament revelation, came clearly into consciousness.

But all this does not mean that revelation has no authority, or that in religion authority is altogether out of place. On the contrary, consciousness of authority and submission to it is the very heart of true religion. It is because of this that religious history is so full of tragic submission to authority of the wrong kind, and of consequent reactions in which men try to practise religion apart from authority and fall into every variety of phantasy. The heart of religion, as has repeatedly been emphasised, is acknowledgement by the finite of insignificance before the Infinite, by the sinner of pollution before the Holy, by the creature of total dependence before the Creator. It is in its essence a submission to authority.

This authority actually presents itself to the individual in two ways: in the well-proved and attested religious tradition of his community; and in personal experience of the divine as calling, sustaining, judging. If there is any divergence between these two authorities, there is always an initial presumption in favour of the tradition, for it represents the deposit of innumerable individual apprehensions; none the less, it must be remembered that it is by fresh individual apprehensions that the tradition has been developed, and to reject the new intimation may be, not the suppression of a human aberration, but a quenching of the divine spirit; and where the individual apprehension is sufficiently vivid, it may be found in practice irresistible.

Religious tradition has taken many forms. In Hinduism it is chiefly embodied in custom; in Buddhism it is partly represented by custom, partly by the supposed precepts of the Buddha and his chief disciples; in Confucianism, chiefly by the ethical maxims of the sage. But in none of these could it have the special form that belongs to it in Christendom and Islam as the vehicle of a divine revelation. In Islam the sacred writings are regarded as divine oracles to be accepted and obeyed without question. In Christendom a similar view has struggled to maintain itself alongside the complicating factors of a living and very active Church, and of a personal loyalty to a personal Lord which is recognised as more fundamental and more vital than any other element. It is therefore in Christendom that the various forms and repositories of spiritual authority are most in evidence, and for this reason, as well as because the data are here the most familiar to ourselves, we do well to examine and evaluate the modes of spiritual authority by reference to Christian history and experience. We have then to ask what kind of authority belongs of right, according to our general view, to Scripture, to Creeds, to ecclesiastical decrees and customs? And what is the relation of each and all of these to the spiritual experience of individuals or groups, and what is the individual to do when recognised authorities diverge? Plainly we are not concerned with what may be called the disciplinary aspects of these questions. Societies must have rules by which members of those societies are bound so long as they continue to enjoy the privileges of membership. A society may even hold that its own rules are of divine appointment, so that modification of them by any human authority is in itself an act of profanity. With such matters we are not now concerned. Our concern is with genuinely philosophic questions concerning the general nature of spiritual authority and its general relation to its own agencies.

The essence of spirituality is freedom. The quality of that freedom has already been discussed in its relation to the order of physical nature;14 its relation to the supremacy of God who is Himself spirit will concern us later.15 But spirit manifests itself by its activity in the initiation of processes not initiated or governed by the causal processes of the physical world. The spirit is controlled, not by force or physical causation, but by the Good in one or other of its forms, among which beauty, truth and moral goodness are the chief. This control only becomes operative through appreciation on the part of the spirit subject to it. Consequently the essential principle of spiritual authority is the evocation by Good of appreciation of itself; for only when this occurs is authority exercised over the spirit. Where conformity of conduct, or even of opinion, is secured by any other means than that of persuading the person affected that such conduct is good, or such opinion is right, the authority exercised is less than fully spiritual. Of course a man may act in a certain way out of loyalty to his Church or his country or his party, without being persuaded that the act is in itself right, and such deference to the collective wisdom may be fully spiritual in quality, because it is grounded in a recognition that obedience or conformity in itself is good even though the justification of the particular requirement is not perceived. This is a very frequent experience, and while it is always an advance when the particular requirement also is recognised as good, yet there is plenty of room for sheer obedience within the freedom of spiritual life. The important distinction is not between individual judgement and authority, but between action determined by appreciation of good either in the act itself or in obedience to the authority requiring it, and action undertaken for the avoidance of pain and inconvenience or for the enjoyment of pleasure other than that of doing what is seen to be good.

Confusion of thought at this point is very common, and it may be worth while to elaborate the distinction thus drawn. If a man seizes me and throws me over a cliff, my fall (so far as my part in it is concerned) is due to physical causation only; there is nothing spiritual about it. If he seizes my wife and says he will throw her over unless I jump over, I may choose to jump over rather than accept the alternative; and I am free in that choice of alternatives; for I choose that which I see to be good, in the sense of being the better of the two possibilities before me. But it would be misleading to say in such a case that I jumped over the cliff by an act of my own will; that action cannot be taken in detachment from its immediate context; it was adopted under moral, though not physical compulsion. If now instead of threats the man offers me a great reward, say some large sum of money, if I jump and survive, I may decide that the risk is worth taking, even though the chance of survival is small; and then my action is more clearly voluntary, but can hardly be described as due to spiritual authority. But if, once more, I can be persuaded that by jumping to certain death I may be the means of rendering some great service to my country, as when Curtius leapt into the pit in the Roman story, then my action becomes a free choice of good, and is taken under the spiritual authority of the law of service. In other words, there are various degrees of distance from pure spiritual freedom, according to the degree in which any action is truly voluntary. But we leave the truly spiritual realm as soon as other determinants of choice than the good, in itself and for itself, are introduced.

The spiritual authority of revelation depends wholly upon the spiritual quality of what is revealed. If what comes to the human soul in its religious experience is a sense of impending doom upon itself unless it conforms to the supposedly divine command, that is not an exercise of true spiritual authority. A genuine revelation may take that form, because it may be that the soul is incapable of free response to the appeal of the Good, so that, in order to give opportunity to its better instincts, a purely disciplinary use of fear may be in place. But if so, this means that God Himself makes use of authority other than purely spiritual in dealing with His creatures. Authority does not become spiritual in its own nature because it is exercised by a spiritual being; and a truly spiritual being will have recourse to other methods only as preparatory to the exercise of truly spiritual authority. But there is a point to notice which is for our immediate purposes more important. This supposed revelation of impending doom would only have any effect at all in so far as the recipient supposed it to be true. To that extent the free play of his own judgement is involved. If on calm reflection he dismissed what seemed like revelation as after all no more than the phantasy of a moment, his conduct would be unaffected. But that is the limit of spirituality in the determination of his conduct. He does not really choose the divine will; what he chooses is avoidance of threatened doom, and conformity to the divine command as a means thereto. This may be better than nothing; it may be the best of which he is capable; but it is all on the level of coercion and inducement, which is mental certainly as distinct from physical, but is not yet spiritual.

On the other hand submission to authority, even to human authority, may be purely spiritual. To take the most familiar instance, if a man accepts some doctrine of the Church, some article it may be, of the Creed, or if he conforms to some ecclesiastical regulation, though he himself has no perception of the truth of that doctrine or the rightness of that regulation and conforms solely on the ground that he thinks the Church likely to be right, that submission to its authority is fully spiritual; it is a free exercise of judgement concerning the good. But if a man decides to accept the direction of the Church, not because in one way or another he has come freely to believe that it is likely or even certain to be right, but because he thinks it may just possibly be right and that there is risk of very great pain or inconvenience to himself, here or hereafter, if it is, then his judgement is no longer of the good as such but is merely a prudential calculation concerning his own pleasure or pain; his choice then is a mental, but not a spiritual act. And it must be plainly admitted that though mere obedience to the Church may be spiritual in principle, and may even be the best and wisest course for many individuals, yet it is a limitation of the area of full spiritual response, and if all questions were regarded as settled by the Church, the exercise of spiritual faculty would be very disastrously curtailed for its members.

Now it may be held that God exercises authority over finite spirits as their Creator who is capable also of being their destroyer.16 Yes; He does exercise such authority; and the believer will be confident that He will exercise it in wisdom and love. But it is not a truly spiritual authority. The spiritual authority of God is that which He exercises by displaying not His power, but His character. Holiness, not omnipotence, is the spring of His spiritual authority. In such a vision as that of Isaiah there is awe-inspiring majesty; but what leaps to the prophet’s consciousness is not the sense of his powerlessness before the Almighty, but the sense of his uncleanness before the All-Holy.

The true contrast, then, is not between religions of the spirit and religions of authority, for authority may be fully spiritual, and cannot be truly authority at all if it be not partly spiritual; there is no proper authority in physical compulsion, or coercion by fear, or inducement by bribery. The true contrast is between the authority which exacts deference through its own inherent quality, and that which exacts deference through any non-spiritual form of sanction. The use of sanctions may be perfectly justified, provided its aim is to develop a character that will no longer require them; but it must be clearly recognised that sanctions do not become spiritual in virtue of the fact that they are imposed by a spiritual Being or Society; they approximate to the spiritual when they are such as to make a spiritual appeal; thus excommunication is more spiritual than flogging, because a completely unspiritual person would be indifferent to it, and to him therefore it would be no sanction at all. This may therefore be described as a spiritual sanction; it is an appeal to the free recognition of good in one department of life, designed to correct the consequences of failure to recognise it in another. The point is that spiritual authority always operates within that sphere of the discovery by mind and spirit of itself or of what is akin to itself in its object, which we have already found to be the essential condition of actual value.17 Where the soul freely chooses or seeks an object for that object’s value alone, there is, in principle, determination by the good—there is spiritual activity; and the spiritual authority of God Himself consists, not in His having the power to create and to destroy, but in His being the appropriate object of worship and love.

The disclosure of the divine character is made through creation;18 through the principle of reason found to be active in the human mind and discovered to be exemplified in the physical universe; through the history of mankind; through religious experience, especially as providing the interpretation of history; and also (according to Christian belief) in the historical occurrence of a personal Life as interpreted by those who were qualified by sympathetic companionship with that Life to become its interpreters. We have spoken already of the revelation through creation and the principle of reason.19 We are concerned now with the authority of the revelation that reaches us through the record of certain historical events and through certain persons supposed to be qualified by their intercourse with the divine Being to read His purpose and character therein. Concerning all of these, except that personal Life in which this supposed process of revelation culminates, we must say two things: first, that millions of spiritually sensitive souls have found here what they are bound to acknowledge as the very Word of God; secondly, that the message is none the less so inextricably human and divine in one, that no single sentence can be quoted as having the authority of an authentic utterance of the All-Holy God. The message comes through the broad impact of the revelation as a whole upon the human spirit; this may be gathered up in summary phrases, but these are only indicators pointing to elements in the living experience of the living God of which the Scriptures give the record. Such summary phrases belong to conceptual thinking, which is in its own nature of an interim character, enabling us to enter more fully into the fruition of living experience. For this very reason such summary phrases are not the proper subject-matter of revelation. Specific Revelation, if it exists at all, is revelation of God, not of propositions about God; and God is not a concept.

It follows that everyone who makes any use at all of the alleged revelation of the Old Testament must make what he can for himself out of it, gaining, if he is wise, all the help that he can from those who by spiritual insight and careful study are qualified to assist him. How far is this still true of a revelation given in a Person believed to be both God and Man? If Christ had written a code of precepts or a manual of theology, those who accepted Him as the Incarnate Self-Utterance of the Eternal God might have found it impossible to deviate from what was so laid down. But in doing this He would have confined the fully spiritual response of His followers to their general acceptance of Him as Lord; Mohammed did, by the kind of authority which he claimed for the Koran, confine in that way the spiritual response of Moslems. If Christ designed to evoke a response spiritual in every part, He must write no book, but leave the general impact of His Person and Work to reach mankind in general through the account of Him which His disciples would give. Here once more the human element intervenes with all its limitations, not only those inseparable from the perfect humanity attributed to the Incarnate Lord Himself, but also those of His faithful but not infallible disciples. And the purely spiritual authority of the revelation is secured by this removal of what would otherwise have been the almost coercive quality of its divine origin. For Christians must exercise their own insight and their own intelligence, not only in judging whether or not to submit themselves to Him as Lord, but also in estimating the claim on their allegiance of any particular recorded direction. Any individual Christian may accept a recorded utterance as final for himself, as some “pacifists” take certain sayings in the Matthaean compilation known as the Sermon on the Mount and let these decide their personal attitude to war. But the decision to accept those recorded sayings as decisive is a personal decision. The mode of the revelation as it reaches us renders inevitable a large exercise of private judgement, which is the essentially spiritual principle; and the spiritual authority of the Gospel for those who accept it is secured by the fact that it is transmitted in a form which perpetually calls for private judgement.

In the case of Christ as fully as in that of the prophets we have to allow for the occasional character of the recorded utterances. It is true that He refers every occasion to its appropriate principle; but it does not follow that this is the only principle appropriate to some other occasion. The duty of thinking out what duty requires still remains. But it is precisely in virtue of this occasional quality of His words and acts that His truly spiritual authority can be regarded as universal. If He had committed Himself to the formulae of conceptual thought, He would have laid a fetter upon human spirits, nor could any formula of action be applicable to all circumstances or stages of social progress. But occasional words and acts display the spirit in its living relation to the facts confronting it; and it is the spirit that is universal in its scope, it is the spirit that is entitled to authority; and its authority can only be recognised by an act of private judgement, or rather, a private act of judgement.

But private judgement need not be individualistic; indeed to exercise it in a spirit of independence or self-assertiveness is the distinctively diabolic as contrasted with the merely animal way to alienation from God. That an individual, who is called to the august responsibility of determining his own response to what he accepts as in some sense at least the self-revelation of God, should fail to make use of the best help that he can find, would be wanton arrogance. He will find wisdom in submitting his judgement very largely to the guidance of that accumulated understanding of the revelation to which devout souls and profound thinkers in many generations have contributed. He will think it most unlikely that he should be right and the common testimony of the saints be wrong. But that testimony is enshrined of necessity in the propositional form of conceptual thinking; no creed or doctrine can, because it belongs to that stage of apprehension, have full spiritual authority in itself. It can only be an indicator, pointing to the place where true spiritual authority may be found. Among Christian theologians it has been common to point out that most articles of the Creeds were adopted in their familiar form as a warning against a line of thought proved to be disastrous to some element in that full revelation and corresponding experience which Christians believed themselves to possess. So far as that is true, it would follow that the authority of the Creeds resides in their warning to avoid denial of any article rather than in a claim that any article should be accepted and believed exactly as it stands. In any case, the function of the Creed is not to be itself an object of faith, but to point men to what is worthy to be accepted as an object of faith, and it is in that proper object of faith, and not in the Creed, that true spiritual authority is to be found.

It has been a traditional Christian doctrine that a Creed becomes authoritative only by the consensus fidelium; and this is a clear recognition that the source of its authority is the mind of the living Church—not, indeed, that of the contemporary Church alone, but also not that of the Church of past ages alone. Here we come back to the truly spiritual realm of personal intercourse, but in doing so we leave behind the possibility of infallible guidance. The Christian will believe that he has an infallible authority in the Mind of Christ; but he should also know that he has no infallible means of ascertaining this in application to given circumstances. There always remains necessity for private judgement either upon the matter under consideration, or else by reference of the decision to an authority known to be fallible. Infallible direction for practical action is not to be had either from Bible or Church or Pope or individual communing with God; and this is not through any failure of a wise and loving God to supply it, but because in whatever degree reliance upon such infallible direction comes in, spirituality goes out. Intelligent and responsible judgement is the privilege and burden of spirit or personality. A man may have full and (in psychological fact) unshakeable assurance concerning the will of God, or the rightness of his Church, or the character of his friend; but though his assurance cannot be shaken, it does not rest on certain knowledge or deem itself infallible; its root is personal trust.

The revelation to the prophets was a personal revelation to persons, even when the medium of revelation was a historical event or course of events; the words of the prophet are the expression of the prophet’s personal apprehension of the Divine Character and activity as disclosed. The words are not the revelation but the vehicle of it. The precise oracles of Isaiah or Jeremiah, for example, are not in themselves revelation for others. But countless persons have been convinced that through those oracles the Word of God has come home to their own souls. And when it comes it always comes with authority claiming obedience. What is revealed is not truth concerning God, but God Himself. It may be that this revelation is sometimes given to a community of persons rather than to individuals in isolation; it may be that an individual believer recognises an obligation to defer his judgement to that of his religious community. But all such questions are secondary. The primary fact concerning revelation in its essence is that it is a personal self-disclosure to persons, and has authority as such. In the Hebrew-Christian tradition, God is revealed as holy love and righteousness, demanding righteousness of life. The real acceptance of such revelation is not only intellectual assent; it is submission of will. And this must be submission to the revelation as personally received, not only to the record of it as received by some one else. Every revelation of God is a demand, and the way to knowledge of God is by obedience. It is impossible to have knowledge of God as we have knowledge of things, because God is not a thing. We can only know a person by the direct communion of sympathetic intercourse; and God is personal. But besides this He is Creator, so that the communion of man with God is communion of creature with Creator; it is worship and obedience, or else it does not exist.

God is personal; revelation therefore is the self-disclosure of personality to persons; its authority is its capacity to satisfy those aspirations which God Himself has implanted in persons. Other forms of persuasion may be used to lead men away from interests that have no promise of satisfaction; but the authority of God over the soul does not arise from anything external which He may bring to bear upon the soul; it arises from the intrinsic nature of God and of the soul—of God as creative, holy Love, and of the soul as creature, yet free to respond to love and holiness with willing obedience and with worship.

  • 1. Lord Balfour, Theism and Humanism, p. 20.
  • 2. Lord Balfour, Theism and Humanism, p. 21.
  • 3. Genesis i. 12, 18, 21, 25, 31.
  • 4. Gore, The Philosophy of the Good Life, p. 54.
  • 5. See pp. 352–353.
  • 6. Genesis xviii. 25.
  • 7. These are, according to Lecky, the three signal achievements of Christianity in the sphere of social ethics; cf. History of European Morals, vol. ii. pp. 20–84.
  • 8. Leviticus xix. 18. High Jewish authorities, including Dr. J. H. Hertz, the Chief Rabbi (see his work The Pentateuch and Haftorahs; Leviticus, pp. 201, 2; 220–222), claim that the scope of this command is already universal. I find it hard to accept this in view of the combination of phrases in the text. But it is unfair for Christians to refer to the passage without mentioning the claim made by Jewish scholars.
  • 9. Deuteronomy vi. 4, 5.
  • 10. St. Luke x. 25–27.
  • 11. I could not go so far as Bishop Gore appears to do in Belief in God (the first section of “Reconstruction of Belief”), where he seems to make the fact of Hebrew Prophecy a main ground for Theism itself. If I did not accept Theism on other grounds, I should have to accept even an improbable psychological account of prophecy rather than resort to so immense a hypothesis to account for it.
  • 12. Cf. especially Amos ix. 7; Isaiah xix. 24, 25.
  • 13. Deuteronomy vi. 4, 5; see p. 339.
  • 14. See Lecture IX.
  • 15. See Lecture XV.
  • 16. St. Luke xii. 4, 5.
  • 17. Lectures VI. and VII.
  • 18. Romans i. 20.
  • 19. Lectures V.–XI.
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