You are here

Gifford Lecture the First.

Introductory — Lord Gifford — The bequest — The lectureships — God really all in all to Lord Gifford — The lecturers — Natural theology the only science — The immediate lecturer — The three Churches — Feeling — Understanding — Both — Intolerance — Reason as reason — The positive — Rationalism — Anfklärung — “Advanced” views — The temper of the time — Tom Paines of the tap — No-God men — What is really the new — The prejudice against belief — Duty of philosophy now — Sacred books — Those of the Hebrews — Discrepancies — Buckle Hume Voltaire — Historical anachronism.

MR. PRINCIPAL AND FELLOW-STUDENTS—The first word that is due from a man in my position is necessarily one of thanks. I owe it to the Senatus of this University respectfully to tender it my best thanks for the high honour it has done me in electing me to the distinguished office of its first Gifford Lecturer.

Again a word is no less due from me in respectful acknowledgment of the rare liberality and signal generosity of him who disinterestedly sought to bestow what best boon he could think of for the public in the founding of this and the other University lectureships which bear his name.

I have had but few opportunities of acquaintanceship with the late Lord Gifford. I have however met him over the dinner-table and elsewhere; and I could not but like what I saw in him. He had eminently the bearing of an honourable gentleman who held his own ground. With a smile there was humour on the mouth; but there was at the same time a look of shrewdness in the eyes with a certain firm stability of the chin and the whole countenance that intimated as plainly as any words could: I am accessible open willing; but have a care that you neither trespass nor exceed. He was frank loyal warm generous in his affirmation of merit; but neither bitter nor unjust in his negation of demerit and insufficiency. He was good-natured: he could listen to what was out of place or doubtfully offensive even in a personal regard and keep silence with a smile on his lips. That he was skilful and successful as a lawyer; esteemed respected honoured as a judge—that is a matter of public recognition. To me it belongs rather to note that he was a lover of books. The hours he loved best were those he spent with the writings of his favourite authors; foremost among whom were the heroes of his own day and generation: and of them all that it was Emerson for whom perhaps he entertained specially a predilection vouches for his love of philosophy. Further now indeed we know that not philosophy only but religion also lay at his heart and must have constituted there a very familiar theme of reverent and persistent meditation. I did not think of that then as I met him often in my walks about Granton. I did not think of that then as I saw him trailing his poor semi-paralytic limbs along but holding his head bravely aloft and looking imperturbably before him as within his open coat he still placed a broad chest as it were in front of all the accidents of time. That in these circumstances was always the impression he exactly and vividly made upon me. He was for months confined to the house before his death; but doubtless even in these walks at that time he was meditating this bequest that is the occasion of our being at present together.

And to that bequest it is now my duty to turn; for clearly the very first necessity of the case is to know what that service specially is which the Testator expected to be rendered to the University and the public in return for his own munificence.

I have spoken of Lord Gifford as pondering in his mind what best boon he could find it within his power to bestow upon the public; and about the very first words of the Extracts from his Trust Disposition and Settlement bear me out in this. “I having fully and maturely considered my means and estate and the modes in which my surplus funds may be most usefully and beneficially expended and considering myself bound to apply part of my means in advancing the public welfare and the cause of truth:” from these words it is plain that Lord Gifford finding himself in possession of what appeared to him more than was necessary for the satisfaction and fulfilment of all his private duties claims wishes or intentions felt himself in presence with the rest of a public burden which he was bound to discharge. How for the public welfare and the cause of truth that could be most usefully and beneficially effected was the next thought. And so as he says further “being of opinion that I am bound if there is a ‘residue’ as so explained to employ it or part of it for the good of my fellow-men and having considered how I may best do so I direct the ‘residue’ to be disposed of as follows:—I having been for many years deeply and firmly convinced that the true knowledge of God that is of the Being Nature and Attributes of the Infinite of the All of the First and the Only Cause that is the One and Only Substance and Being; and the true and felt knowledge (not mere nominal knowledge) of the relations of man and of the universe to Him and of the true foundations of all ethics and morals—being I say convinced that this knowledge when really felt and acted on is the means of man's highest well-being and the security of his upward progress I have resolved from the ‘residue’ of my estate as aforesaid to institute and found in connection if possible with the Scottish Universities lectureships or classes for the promotion of the study of said subjects and for the teaching and diffusion of sound views regarding them.” From these words there can be no doubt that the conclusion of Lord Gifford's mind as to how in satisfaction of a public obligation which he felt lay upon him he could best employ an expected “residue” of his estate was the institution and foundation of certain lectureships in Natural Theology. The lectureships in question in fact are within inverted commas formally described as established for “Promoting Advancing Teaching and Diffusing the Study of Natural Theology.” That is express; there is no possible mistake of or possible escape from the bare term itself; and just as little are we allowed any possible mistake of or possible escape from what Lord Gifford himself literally prescribes as his own whole will and meaning in the term. Natural Theology is for Lord Gifford in precise “other words” and with the same distinction of inverted commas “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 man 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.” All here we see is formal and express; and everything is done that can be done by capital letters and inverted commas by word upon word and phrase upon phrase to cut off the very possibility of any failure to understand. That is the technical scroll style title and designation of the business that is in hand. That is the Purview of the Lecturer: these are his Instructions.

Further indeed and more expressly as regards the lecturers he says this: “I have intentionally indicated the general aspect which personally I would wish the lectures to bear but the lecturers shall be under no restraint whatever in their treatment of their theme…provided only that the ‘patrons’ will use diligence to secure that they be able reverent men true thinkers sincere lovers of and earnest inquirers after truth.” These then briefly are Lord Gifford's views in regard to the lecturers; while as for the lectures we have already learned that they are to promote the teaching and diffusion of “sound views” in respect of Natural Theology. Now the whole question here is—What did Lord Gifford mean by “sound views”? This in the first place is plain that Lord Gifford wished the “sound views” he desiderated to be independent of Revelation; but in the second place Revelation apart he undoubtedly expected the phrase to be understood as it is ordinarily understood—and that is on the serious and affirmative side.

Unless we can suppose that Lord Gifford could in such serious and solemn circumstances descend to a paltry quibble and an unworthy irony we must believe that the phrase bore for him and must have borne for him the only signification that is given to it in current usage. But we can say more than that. Lord Gifford himself expressly tells us “I have intentionally indicated in describing the subject of the lectures the general aspect which personally I would expect the lectures to bear;” and with such an avowal as that before us there can be no great difficulty in coming to a certainty of assurance as regards what was peculiarly meant by the expression “sound views.” Lord Gifford tells us that his personal expectation as regards the general aspect of the lecturers has been “intentionally indicated” by himself and that we shall find as much in his description of the “subject” of the lectures. We are not even allowed a moment's hesitation in the reference then; for not only do we know that the subject is Natural Theology but we know also and that too in all fulness and completeness of detail Lord Gifford's own definition of the subject. We need but recall a phrase or two here to have the whole before us again and to feel relieved from all doubt relatively. “The First and Only Cause” “the Sole Being” “the greatest of all possible sciences—indeed in one sense the only science that of Infinite Being”—surely when Lord Gifford solicits “sound views” on such subjects and so expressed he is speaking affirmatively and not negatively; seriously and not mockingly. The whole tone of any relative wording all through is one of reverent belief in and reverent desire for the realization of religion. His solemn last words are these: “I give my body to the earth as it was before in order that the enduring blocks and materials thereof may be employed in new combinations; and I give my soul to God in Whom and with Whom it always was to be in Him and with Him for ever in closer and more conscious union.” These sublime and solemn almost aweing last words comport but ill with “sound views” in the construction that would make them only ironical and a mock. I have no desire to strain the situation to any undue extreme; it is not my wish to make a Saint Simeon Stylites of Lord Gifford in the matter of Revelation nor yet an antique ruling elder in rigidity of Confession and the Creed. As to that I know nothing. How it was situated with Lord Gifford as regards any particular religious body or persuasion is beyond my ken. I know only this and the document so long before us bears ample testimony to the fact that during these suffering last years of Lord Gifford it must have been the subject of religion that occupied his whole mind and heart. The proof is his Testament and Will in which he is not content to concern himself only with the things of earth and his worldly relations but in which he draws nigh also to his God and his heritage on the other side. “I give my soul to God” he says “in Whom and with Whom it always was to be in Him and with Him for ever in closer and more conscious union.” What in a religious sense Lord Gifford personally felt and what in a religious sense as regards his lecturers he personally expected or desired I shall hold now to have been made conclusively plain. It is equally plain at the same time that Lord Gifford had no wish in any way to trammel his lecturers or to bind them down to any express articles provided always that whatever they advocated was advocated only by them as “reverent men true thinkers sincere lovers of and earnest inquirers after truth.” No doubt that is true; though I think we may also take it for granted from the whole tone and general drift of his expressions that it was the serious side he would wish to see triumphant in the world and prevailing in the lives of men. “My desire and hope”—this is his own most unambiguous declaration towards the close—“my desire and hope is that these lectureships and lectures may promote and advance among all classes of the community the true knowledge of Him Who is and there is none and nothing besides Him in Whom we live and move and have our being and in Whom all things consist and of man's real relation to Him Whom truly to know is life everlasting.”

Now coming from such considerations as these it is not unnatural that the question should suggest itself And how of the lecturer—how is he situated in regard to the momentous interests which have been before us? Of course there is no necessity in the bond that the lecturer whom it has been the care of the patrons to appoint should declare himself before he lectures or simply further and otherwise than as he lectures. Still it might be convenient did he contrive to let his hearers have some inkling beforehand generally of what spirit and drift they might expect from him. Fielding in one of his novels tells us that when we dine with a gentleman who gives a private treat we must not find fault but cheerfully accept whatever fare he pleases; whereas in the case of an ordinary with a bill of fare in the window we can see for ourselves and either enter or turn away as it suits us. This hint which only bears on physical food Fielding does not disdain to borrow in respect of food otherwise. Following his example then let us prefix not exactly now a bill of fare (which will come later) but an explanation so far in regard to creed. But that amounts to a religious confession whereas it may seem that Lord Gifford himself deprecates or disapproves all such. It is certain that according to the terms of the document all previous declarations are unnecessary; but still it cannot be said that there is any actual prohibition of them either expressed or understood. Lord Gifford himself as I have attempted to show has made no secret of his own convictions on the general question; and without at all desiring to set up a compulsory precedent for others we may without impropriety follow his example. I am a member of the National Church and would not willingly run counter to whatever that involves. Again as is seen at its clearest and most definite in the sister Church farther south perhaps—there are three main sections of that Church or rather as actual speech has it in that one Church—there are three Churches. There is Broad Church High Church Low or Evangelical Church. I daresay it has been by some—few or many I know not—supposed that I am Broad and it is very certain that it is not with my own will that I shall be narrow. I am an utter foe to religious rancour—religious intolerance of any kind. In that respect I am absolutely as Lord Gifford himself would appear to have been from his own statements which are now I hope clearly in our minds. Nevertheless I have to confess that I would quite as soon wish to be considered High as Broad and that the party to which I do wish to be considered to belong is the Low or Evangelical one. No doubt there is deeply and ineradicably implanted in the human soul an original sentiment which is the religious one; and no doubt also there is as deeply and ineradicably implanted there a religious understanding. We not only feel we know religion. Religion is not only buoyed up on a sentiment of the heart it is founded also on ideas of the intellect. So it is that if for me High Church seems too exclusively devoted to the category of feeling Broad Church again too much accentuates the principle of the understanding. Now if as much as this be true as well for the one Church as the other it will not be incorrect to say that while the Low or Evangelical Church is neither exclusively High nor exclusively Broad it is in essential idea both; and so it is that it is on its side that I would wish to be considered to rank. I know not at the same time but that all three Churches have a common sin the sin of absolute intolerance and denial the one of the other. That I would wish otherwise for them in a mutual regard and that I would wish otherwise from them in my own regard when I point out this difference between them and me that what they possess in what is called the Vorstellung I rely upon in the Begriff. What they have positively in the feeling or positively in the understanding or positively in a union of both I have reflectively or ideally or speculatively in reason. What the term positive amounts to will be best understood by a reference to other religions than our own. The very edge and point of the positive may be placed in bare will the bare will of another. Mormonism is a positive religion. There says Joseph Smith holding up the book of Mormon take that believe whatever it says and do what it tells you. That is positive: the religion—the book—is just given and it is just received as given. There is not a shadow of explanation not a shadow of reasoning not a shadow of stipulation on the one side or the other. So it is with Mahomet and the Koran. Book in hand he just steps forward and there on the instant the Mahometan is at his feet simply repeating the precise words he hears read out to him. It is for the same reason that laws are positive. They rest on authority alone another will than his who must obey them: as the dictionary has it They are prescribed by express enactment or institution. Nevertheless it is implied in laws and law that they as particulars and it as a whole are as much the will of him or them who receive as of him or them who give. Law is but a realization of reason of the reason common to us all as much yours as his as much his as yours. So it is or so it ought to be with religion; and there you have the whole matter before you. He whose religion rests only on the Vorstellung possesses it positively—believes it positively only; whereas he with whom religion rests on the Begriff has placed beneath it a philosophical foundation. You may illustrate this by a reference to the Shorter Catechism. If you get its specifications by heart and making them your own only so straightway act upon them then that is an illustration of what is positive. To dwell on each specification separately by itself again making it to flow and coalesce and live into its own inmost meaning—that is to transmute it into the Begriff for the Begriff is but the external material words made inward intellectual notion or idea—thought—something from without converted into one's own substance from within. Not but that the positive has its own rights too. We positively muzzle our dogs we positively bridle our horses and we positively install our cattle; and we have right on our side. In the same way and for the same reason we positively teach our children; and we have no other resource—we positively must. But what we teach them is only their own; they follow only their own true selves when they follow us. We make it only that they are free—that it is absolutely only their own true wills they have follow and obey when we give them the wills of maturity and experienced reason. So it is that it has been a custom of a Sunday in Scotland to make our children learn by heart verses of the Bible or the specifications of the Shorter Catechism. They take what they learn only into the Vorstellung; they are unable as yet to convert it into Begriff; but the trust is that they will do so later. Nor is there any reason that they should not do so at least on the whole. I do not mean to say that earnest reflection will remove every difficulty connected with the various articles of the Book of Articles or of the Larger or Shorter Catechisms; but I do say that many of these articles mean at bottom the very deepest and most essential metaphysical truths.

But it is not with that that we have to do at present at the same time that it and what else I have said in this connection will all serve to realize to you the religious position of the lecturer as what we are concerned with at present. And in that reference I ought to explain that when I have opposed what is positively held in feeling or understanding or a union of both to what is reflectively ideally speculatively held in reason it is not the system of belief technically known as Rationalism that I have in mind whatever relation there may exist between the two words etymologically. As the sentence itself shows indeed the term reason is opposed by me not only to feeling but also to understanding; and understanding is the faculty special proper and peculiar of Rationalism. Rationalism in fact means—in its religious application—nothing but Aufklärung is nothing but the Aufklärung though claiming a certain affirmative side in its bearing on religion. The prevailing mind of the Aufklärung namely as in Hobbes Spinoza Hume Voltaire is seen to be in a religious direction negative so far at least as Revelation is concerned; whereas the Aufklärung in the form of. Rationalism as in such a writer as the German Reimarus for example while planing away much or perhaps almost all that is essential in religion makes believe still to have an affirmative attitude to Revelation. Of course I need no more than mention the distinction between understanding and reason as I have no doubt it is now well known and familiar. It is current in Coleridge. I think then there will no longer be any possibility of misapprehension or mistake when I oppose religion as in reason to religion as in understanding; while the latter in the form of Rationalism say has to do only with what is conditional and finite the former in ideal or speculative religion would attain to converse with the unconditional and the infinite itself.

But though I am thus careful to preclude the danger of a religion in reason being confounded with Rationalism it seems to me that I must be equally careful to provide against another and opposing danger. There is a great prejudice against old forms now-a-days; and it is not usual for the advocates of them to find themselves listened to. Advanced views that is what are called advanced views are very generally because advanced supposed to represent the truth—at least the truth in its highest contemporary form. The supporters of them have been fighting a battle against the old it has been conceived—a battle of enlightenment progress and improvement against received prejudice traditional bigotry and stereotyped obstruction. It is the new only that is to be hailed as the true. He who in any way may seem now to stand for the old must be but a hired spadassin a gladiator a Prætorian guard a bravo a bully upon wages. He cannot have anything to say worth hearing. He must simply be going to babble the orthodoxy he is paid for.

These words I doubt not will be found to strike a true note now. If a man would have any success with the general public now-a-days almost it would seem as though very commonly he must approve himself on the whole as an Aufgeklärter a disciple of the “advanced” thinking we all understand so well. That is the temper of the time and the time—let critics say as scornfully as they like “whatever that may mean”—the time has a a temper; and suppose it even in the wrong it is as much in vain to move against it as for Mrs. Partington to stave out the Atlantic with her besom. The reason of course is that the Aufklärung—call it if you will Secularism Agnosticism or even Rationalism—the reason is that the Aufklärung which to our greatest thinkers was old and worn-out and had completely done its task by the beginning of this century has descended upon the generality.

In our large towns in these days in our capitals in our villages we are confronted by a vast mass of unbelief. The Aufklärung the historical movement called Aufklärung as I say dead among thinkers has descended upon the people; and there is hardly a hamlet but has its Torn Paines by the half-dozen—its Tom Paines of the tap all emulously funny on the one subject. I witnessed such a thing as this myself last summer in the country—the bewildered defeat of my landlady under the crowing triumph of her son a lad of seventeen or so who had asked her to explain to him where Cain got his wife! In such circumstances we cannot expect to find a large portion of the Press different. I recollect I was once warned by a publisher that I must remember it was the No-God men who had the pull at present. One is glad to think however that in this the dawn of a change begins to show. There are those among our highest best and most influential organs that have ceased to think that it is any longer necessary only to follow. They will teach now inform instruct educate lead. Still on the whole we may lay our account with this that there is a prejudice in the mass for what appears at least to come to it as new. These are the words of the advanced it thinks of those as I have said who have been fighting the battle of time in which of course it is always the new is the true. I am sorry for this. It is only a radical mistake of what is the new and what is the true. “Distinguished Paine rebellious staymaker rebellious needleman” as Carlyle calls him cannot at least be new in these days seeing that it is now about a hundred years since by his chalked door on the wrong side he just escaped the very last tumbrils of the French Revolution. I suppose deep with Paine was but shallow at its best: it is not likely that the shallowness of a hundred years ago is less shallow now.

That however is the other danger. If there was a danger that reason might be confounded with the understanding and philosophical faith with Rationalism there is also a danger that said philosophical faith just in this that it is faith should by the followers of what they consider the new not be listened to. It is to be suspected indeed that many good men who know quite well what and where the Aufklärung is are now-a-days reduced to silence precisely by such a consideration. Why speak if no one will listen? Nothing succeeds like success and a failure remains a failure. Human nature is but weak; and it cannot be wondered at that it very soon gets hoarse in the throat if it finds itself to be bawling only in a desert. It takes patience and a long life for men like the Carlyles and the Brownings to be overwhelmed with plaudits in the end that can only spoil themselves.

What I mean by all this however is only to protest against such religious views as I have not expounded but indicated being regarded as something too old to be listened to. I for my part very stupidly perhaps but still as even the adversary will hasten to allow not unnaturally am apt to look upon them as the very newest of the new as precisely the message which the votaries of philosophy have to give the world at present.

And so it is that to my mind such votaries of philosophy must not allow themselves to be browbeat by the vulgarity that cries and can only cry as Cervantes tells us “Long live the conqueror” meaning of course by that only the side that is uppermost for the moment. What is really out of date what is really behind the time is to insist on regarding as still alive an interest that as is historically known had so far as the progress of thought is concerned fully come to term a hundred years ago. Not at the same time that there is any call for us to be either narrow or intolerant. What is in place now is a large and wise liberality that shall not fail at any time in the wish and the will to face and admit the truth. If any man confessed to me for example that when the walls of the city were said to have fallen at the blast of the trumpet his own belief was that this was merely the Oriental phantasy expressing in a trope the signal speed of the event—if any man confessed such attitude of mind to me with fears for his orthodox security I do think that I should not feel justified in bidding him despair! In fact our relative riches are such that to my belief we may readily allow ourselves as much. For the sake of comparison let us even do this—let us consent so far and for this purpose to place the sacred books of the Hebrews on the same level as the other sacred books of the East and what have we lost? Will they lose in the regard? Is it not amusing at times to note the exultation with which our great Cochinese and Anamese scholars our great Tonquin explorers will hold up some mere halting verse or two or say some bill of sale certificate of feu against the Hebrew Scriptures. Suppose the state of the case reversed. Suppose we had been rejoicing all this time in these bills of sale certificates of feu and halting verses—nay give them all give them their own best suppose we had been rejoicing all this time in the Confucian Kings and the very oldest Vedas and suppose in the face of all these possessions the Hebrew Scriptures unknown before were suddenly dug up and brought to light! Then surely there might be a cry and a simultaneous shout that never before had there been such a glorious—never before had there been such a miraculous find! The sacred writings of the Hebrews indeed are so immeasurably superior to those of every other name that for the sake of the latter to invite a comparison is to undergo instantaneous extinction. Nay regard these Scriptures as a literature only the literature of the Jews—even then in the kind of quality is there any literature to be compared with it? will it not even then remain still as the sacred literature? A taking simpleness a simple takingness that is divine—all that can lift us out of our own week-day selves and place us pure then holy rapt in the joy and the peace of Sabbath feeling and Sabbath vision is to be found in the mere nature of these old idylls in the full-filling sublimity of these psalms in the inspired Godwards of these intense-souled prophets. With all that in mind think now of the tumid superiority of Mr. Buckle! If any one can contradict me he magnanimously intimates when perorating against all that “I will abandon the view for which I am contending!” With the Hebrew Scriptures lying there before us in their truth as I have attempted to image it is it not something pitiably small to hear again the jokes even of a Voltaire about the discrepancies? I do not apprehend that it is pretended by any one that there are not discrepancies; but what are they in the midst of all that grandeur? He now who would boggle at the wife of Cain or stumble over the walls of Jericho is not an adult: he is but a boy still. For my part I do believe—I feel sure—that David Hume that Voltaire himself were he alive now and were he cognizant of all the education that we have received since even on prompting of his own would not for a moment be inclined to own as his these laggards and stragglers of an army that had disappeared. He would know that the new time had brought a new task and he would have no desire to find himself a mere anachronism and historically out of date.

But with whatever general spirit we may approach the subject it is to be considered that that subject that Natural Theology itself makes no call on Revelation—nay that the Lecturer is under an express stipulation to treat it in independence of Revelation. Natural Theology indeed just as Natural Theology means an appeal to nature an appeal that is only natural. In it the existence of a God is to be established only by reference to the constitution of the universe even as that universe exhibits itself within the bounds of space and time; and not in anywise farther than as it is reflected also in the intellect and will of man.

Having thus exhausted what appeared necessary preliminaries of the subject so far as the respective persons seem concerned their claims wishes intentions views powers and understandings in its regard we shall in the next lecture proceed to what more directly bears on the subject itself.

From the book: