You are here

Lecture 5. Philosophical Faith.

The final problem of the universe is the signal object-lesson for measuring man's power to think or know.

THE final problem of the universe may be taken as the signal object-lesson for illustrating the limit of man's the power to interpret experience, his intellectual relation to reality, and the ultimate constitution of moral faith in the universe. Can our final relation to the highest realities be found in and through what we are as thinking or thinking or intellectual beings only? Does the reasonableness of our philosophic interpretation of things not depend on complex influences, other than those that are determined by the scientific understanding measured by data of sense? Must not the moral, practical, and reverential dispositions in man, as well as the logical understanding and sense-experience, be recognised when we try to read the deepest available thought about the world—including the spiritual world—that we are living and having our being in? Is it therefore possible for man to eliminate all mystery from his final philosophical conception of himself, the world, and God—in an intellectual vision in which all imperfectly understood faith, that things are working together with loving purpose towards a reasonable end, is exchanged for an all-comprehending philosophical intuition of the infinite reality in all unmysterious rationally articulated system? Is man potentially, if not as yet with full consciousness, all omniscient being? Can his individual intelligence of the universe become perfect without any eternally necessary remainder of incompletable mystery left for faith to assimilate, in what some might deprecate or disparage as a mystical act? What if this be in reason impossible, unless man can become absolutely identified with God—his incarnate consciousness one with the eternal consciousness? Moral faith or trust must then be each man's highest form of living, in relation to what can be completely intelligible only at the Divine centre of things, from which man is eternally excluded, as entrance into it would mean complete deification. If this be true, theistic faith cannot be exchanged by man for theistic thought that has been completely liberated, by philosophical speculation, from that abridged or broken, because imperfect, knowledge that at last takes the form of feeling, faith, and action.

Alternatives which must be faced by a philosophy that promises to transform final faith into final thought.

These questions are suggested by attempts to think out exhaustively the human ego, the outer world in its temporal process or evolution, and the Divine active reason, all “organically united” in necessities of reason, and emptied of resolved mysteries. This is offered as relief from the mental discomfort of imperfect knowledge, implied in a final faith burdened with mysteries. The Moral faith out of which theism seems to emerge cannot, of course, sustain what is demonstrably self-contradictory—what can be shown to be absolutely irrational. But may the faith, in addition to conformity with this negative criterion, be also transformed, in a human mind, into completely unmysterious insight—unclouded mental vision, that is, so to speak, coextensive with universal reality? If a philosopher affirms this, and professes that he has accomplished this transformation, let us make sure that no convictions which are indispensable to human experience are thereby virtually converted into illusions; rejected only because they cannot be provided with accommodation in the philosophic theory that is offered in exchange for a final faith. For we are in that case face to face with the alternative of either rejecting a philosophy of the universe that is obliged to spoil indispensable root-convictions in order to vindicate its own claims, or of eliminating the convictions themselves, in order to save the philosophical theology that must be pronounced inadequate if they are retained. In order to rise wholly out of the incomplete knowledge of the universe, which needs trust, shall we adopt a speculative system which contains the seeds of general scepticism? Should we not rather regard the offered system as a failure, if it cannot consistently recognise in their integrity the root-convictions which human life needs?

Lock formally raised the question of the necessary limits of man's philosophical or theological knowledge.

It was the speculative intrepidity, more immediately of Spinoza and others, in offering a purely intellectual solution of the mysteries which confront religious and moral faith, that at the end of the seventeenth century opened what is now perhaps the most significant question of modern thought—that between a final nescience, a final gnosticism, and a final combination of nescience with gnosticism in which the last word is moral faith in the perfect goodness or perfect reasonableness of the end, incompletely conceivable by man, towards which all things are making;—towards which, in virtue of necessary moral postulates of experience, we are obliged to believe that they are making. John Locke was in this matter the earliest spokesman of modern religious thought, as regards the question of the limits of a human understanding of the realities of existence: he sought by argument to restrain rash attempts philosophically to translate human feeling; and faith into full intellectual vision. Locke set to work in order to try how far a human understanding could go in what one might call the ontological direction,—in dispensing with the authority of faith, as non-rational, possibly fallacious, but anyway an insufficiently thought-out sort of knowledge. He was the first deliberate modern representative of this investigation. Yet one need not take his famous ‘Essay,’ in which the inquiry is only initiated, as a sufficient reply to the fundamental question about the power of man as a thinker to think out the universe, or as to the possibility of elaborating a philosophy or theology which should make all that was mysterious about the human ego, the temporal process of nature, and the Eternal Consciousness or Universal Reason, fully understood. Locke only raised what has become the question between a thorough-going agnosticism, a thorough-going gnosticism, and the intermediate blending of the two in a final faith. The question has come to its crisis in the nineteenth century, which is confronted by the philosophy that finds its apotheosis in the Unknowable, at the one extreme, and the philosophy which, at the other extreme, seems to claim the Infinite Reality as within the comprehension of human thought.

The infinite “ocean of Being.”

The caution that is characteristic of Locke's state of mind finds emphatic utterance in the familiar sentences in the Introduction to his ‘Essay,’ which tell of its occasion and design: we there learn what gave rise to his philosophical enterprise, which has become the problem of modern thought in the last two centuries. It was the perplexities in which human understanding is involved when one engages intrepidly in religious speculation, and tries to interpret the universe finally. “This it was,” Locke tells us, “which gave the first rise to this Essay concerning human understanding. For I thought that the first step towards satisfying several inquiries the mind of man was very apt to run into, was—to take a view of our own understanding, examine our own powers, and see to what things they were adapted. Till that was done, I suspected we began at the wrong end, and in vain sought for satisfaction in a quiet and sure possession of the truths that most concerned us, whilst we let loose our thought in the vast ocean of Being;—as if all that boundless extent were the natural and undisputed possession of human understanding, wherein there was nothing exempt from its decisions or that escaped its comprehension. Thus men extending their inquiries beyond their capacities, and letting their thoughts wander into those depths where they can find no sure footing, it is no wonder that they raise questions and multiply disputes; which, never coming to any clear resolution, are proper only to increase their doubts, and to confirm them at last in perfect Scepticism.” Locke's tone in this enterprise has been deprecated as an expression of the languid speculative interest, and compromising intellectual mediocrity, of the unspeculative Englishman. We are told that the true and only way to determine the extreme resources of man's understanding, is for men to make trial of what their intelligence can do: let each man actually enter the water, without first seeking to find, in this abstract way, whether he is able to swim; let him persist in trying, in hope of reaching a fully satisfying or omniscient intellectual vision of the infinite reality. Furthermore, we may be told that for man to ask how much man can know, is to presume already that man can know enough to justify him in engaging in this supreme intellectual enterprise—that which Locke inaugurated, which Kant a century later carried further, and which underlies contemporary theological thought and controversy.

Man may inquire weather his thought of the reality must not at last take the from of reasonable moral Faith.

A criticism of Reason as it can be manifested in man is possible.

But an inquiry into the foundations of what may turn out on reflection to be necessarily incomplete human knowledge of God, the world, and the individual self, in their organic unity, need not be engaged in—indeed was not by Locke—in order to find first whether man can be intelligent of anything, and then to find whether he can reduce all final questions about the three supposed realities to answers in which no remainder of intellectual incompleteness or mystery need remain. To show that a human, knowledge of the universe must at last become incomplete or mysterious, presupposes that something is knowable by man, although divine omniscience may not be within his reach. Now the inquirer who recognises that he already knows something, or that he has some amount of intelligible experience, may perhaps be able to find points at which reason itself forbids further approach to intelligibility or completeness, under human conditions of thought and experience; the point, for instance, at which understanding is arrested by the absence of all experience, or else by the discovery that there are indispensable needs and convictions of human nature which are spoiled whenever they are taken as adequately rendered in a human intellectual vision, instead of remaining in the living religious or moral faith, which would be thus shown to be our only and sufficient philosophy. It may be found that such faith cannot be held in its spiritual integrity in the purely intellectual way, inasmuch as the whole man, emotional and moral as well as intellectual, may be required to sustain what human understanding can only in part comprehend, or realise in terms of sense and sensuous imagination. If it should turn out on inquiry to be so, what is called man's “participation” in the Universal Consciousness or Universal Reason would be finally an act of trust in what his spiritual constitution authorises and requires, but which his understanding of the changing universe is too incomplete to unfold in a finally unmysterious philosophy. In this way submission to what is reasonable would at last bear the character of submission to reason as trusted authority, rather than recognition of reason, on account of the fully perceived meaning and rationality of the faith. It would be the issue of the living action of the whole man at his best, in response to the universe of changing reality in which he awoke in dim perception and self-consciousness at first. This is what I mean when I speak of human attempts to determine the final meaning of the universe, as being necessarily, in their last and highest form, what may more properly be called reasonable faith or trust than absolutely complete science. The result must be the outcome of what is characteristic in man in his whole spiritual personality, not the outcome of man merely in his sensuous understanding, which is incapable of grasping and elaborating what is needed for the whole divine or infinite problem. Man, as Goethe says, is not born to solve the problem of the universe, but to find out where the problem begins. The reason of man and the reason of God are in this different.

In its final outcome, man's knowledge of the changing universe of reality takes the form of morally reasonable faith or trust.

May it not be said that the otherwise impassable gulf between the Divine Omniscience or Infinite Knowledge—towards which no advance in our scientific knowledge is more an approach than an addition of finite spaces is an approach to Immensity, or an addition of finite times an approach to Eternity—that the gulf between this Omniscience and our necessarily incomplete scientific understanding of the universe is practically crossed—sufficiently for human purposes—by our spiritual humanity in the fulness of its rationally authoritative needs—by the larger reason, if one chooses so to call it—by reason as authoritative, as distinguished from the purely logical understanding? For this would be reason in the form of authority, so far as it is a faith and hope that is imposed by something in the mind—which cannot be shown to contradict logical intelligence, although the reality cannot be adequately represented in the religious or philosophical imagination. This may be sufficient for man, while infinitely insufficient. When opposed to what is properly knowledge, this final trust or faith involves the incompleteness, or necessary mysteriousness of its object in imagination, and in any empirical evidence, while yet the faith cannot be charged with being absurd or self-contradictory. It is not sufficiently comprehensible for this charge to be brought against it, and therefore it may be reasonably sustained by what one might call spiritual motive as distinguished from full intellectual insight. It may even be said to be the crowning example of man's inevitable dependence upon authority, that all human thought about the meaning and active principle of the universe, must end in an authoritative, because partly blind or agnostic, exercise of reason, as contrasted with those acts in which a man comprehends, or completely grasps, a defined but isolated object.

Reason in Man thus becomes finally an authoritative principle.

Faith, trust, authority, are accordingly words not unfit to designate the final relation of the human spirit to the universe of reality. Properly speaking we know only what is perfectly comprehended: we submit in faith to the authority of our spiritual constitution, when it moves us to assent to what can be only imperfectly comprehended. In this way reason itself, it may be said, at last rests upon authority: for its original, in a finite intelligence, with limited experience, does not consist of logical conclusions, but of what is spontaneously accepted by reason as reasonable, because imposed by human nature spiritually developed. It is therefore of the nature of trust. Our final interpretation of the appearances which the changing universe presents—so unlike in many ways to what man might have expected in an essentially divine universe—is therefore an interpretation that has to unfold itself in the moral faith that relates to a fragmentary revelation of perfect reason and perfect goodness or love. Working convictions, the object-matter of which cannot be fully translated into picturable thought for the understating, even by the philosopher, seems to be the implied condition under which man exercises intelligence, and which must therefore determine his finally reasonable attitude towards the Whole. It is a crede ut intelligas, but in which intelligo is partly contained in the crede; it is not the intellige ut credas in which omniscience or perfect intelligence is the precondition of the credo. This philosophical faith can be implicit knowledge, but it is for man an unrepresentable knowledge, of the infinite reality: it is the human equivalent for Omniscient Divine Reason. So it may be said that we have at last only faith in the “authority” of a necessarily incomplete, or finally mysterious, knowledge, because the concrete conclusions of human reason must all be rested on trusted principles that are not in their turn logically proved conclusions. In the end—

“We have but faith; we cannot know;

For knowledge is of things we see;

And yet we trust it comes from Thee,

A, beam in darkness: let it grow.

Let knowledge grow from more to more,

But, more of reverence in us dwell;

That mind and soul, according well,

May make one music as before,

But vaster.”

And leaves room for knowledge that “passes human knowledge.”

It is in this way that the religious instinct in man rises above the finite and transitory, and although incapable of complete intellectual satisfaction which takes the form of spiritual life, and of a philosophy that may be disparaged as indolent and mystical, or dogmatic and uncritical, by those who resent limitations in our power of conception and understanding. This too, I take it, may give meaning to Sir William Hamilton's paradox when he speaks of the last and highest consecration of true religion being “an altar to the unknown and unknowable God.” For this may signify that the final Principle, or supreme Power, of the universe is unknowable by man, in the sort of way we are said to know “things we see,” or natural laws of change in the temporal procession, in the physically scientific meaning of knowledge. But in a larger meaning this final faith or trust may itself be called knowledge, as when St Paul says, “I know in whom I have believed,” or St John in his exclamation, “We know that we know Him.” The “knowledge” that “God is love” is the deepest expression of theistic faith in the principle of the universe.

The dutiful obedience of understanding in Man to the authority of the Reason that is latent in the universe of reality.

I seem to find a germ of this philosophy latent in those opening aphorisms of the ‘Novum Organum,’ which express the action of final faith in its physical form: in words reported as spoken by Jesus to his followers in Palestine, one seems to find recognition of the final faith in its moral and spiritual form. When Bacon speaks of man as the interpreter of nature, only so far as he is its obedient minister; and when he makes the suggestion in the often-quoted words, “Natura non nisi parendo vincitur,” does he not strike the key-note of reverential submission to an authoritative voice, proceeding from the reality that is undergoing investigation, and which must not be gainsaid, although it is only imperfectly comprehensible, accepted at last in an act of obedience rather than of victorious intelligence? And is not a like idea at the root of the memorable words, “If any man will do God's will, he shall know,”—know by this practical criterion—the final difference between individual opinion and the divine reality—know this so far as this is intellectually comprehensible by man? Not through intellect alone, or by man exercising himself as a thinking being exclusively, but in and through the constant exercise of all that is best or highest in him—through the active response of the entire man, while still in an incompletely understood “knowledge”;—it is only thus that it is open to man finally to dispose of his supreme problem, with its mysterious intellectual burden. The final philosophy is practically found in a life of trustful inquiry, right feeling, and righteous will or purpose,—not in complete vision; and perhaps the chief profit of struggling for the vision may be the moral lesson of the consequent discovery—the consciousness of the scientific inaccessibility of the vision.

Revelations of god in the actual universe, that are imperfectly reducible intellectually by Man.

The rational reality in which all finite spirits may in a sense be said to participate, cannot be fully reached even in the most philosophic thought of a human spirit, if the time-consciousness of finite intelligence and the eternally complete divine thought must remain unharmonised. And we must meet the mystery of man's personal power to create acts that ought not to be acted, which are inconsistent with the perfect reason, and for which the human person, not the Power at the heart of the universe, is responsible. These two along with other mysteries are bars to the perfect vision. The burden of the first is not removed by explaining away history, and resolving the whole at last into the Universal Consciousness, in which the illusion of time is supposed to disappear; nor is the mystery of the other relieved by disclaiming moral responsibility for man and other finite spirits, and thinking of them all as only temporary, non-moral, occasions for the manifestation of eternal Substance. The reality of time and change disappears in the one explanation, so that the words “before” and “after” are philosophically irrelevant, and this means scepticism even as to all the temporal evolutions of external nature, and in the history of man. Then if God can be self-revealed as the real agent even in the immoral acts of man, how can this be reconciled with the inevitable self-accusation of which the immoral man himself is conscious, which supposes that he himself must be the culprit, and therefore the sole origin of the acts? And how does it consist with reprobation of the man by moral reason in mankind, or with the constitution of society?

Can we find relief for the mysteries of “endlessness”and “moral evil” in an abstractly reasoned idealism?

It is difficult to see that modern thought of the Hegelian sort has done much towards translating these two mysteries—the universe in time, and morally responsible personality—out of the darkness in which preceding philosophies have had to leave them, and in which it seems that they must remain—unless man can become God. Philosophy may show, notwithstanding, that those dualisms—continuous change and absolute endlessness—physical causality and moral freedom from this sort of causality—are not necessarily inconsistent with scientific reason. It may also show that moral reason obliges us to live under their pressure, although we cannot fully think the whole out into an articulately consistent image, but must be content with a fragment at the last. Moreover an eternal consciousness that is supposed to reduce to illusion the temporal procession of events in Nature, and to explain away the moral economy of finite spirits independent enough to originate acts that ought not to be acted,—this abstract universal consciousness, or abstract system of rational relations, while called “spirit,” now begins to resemble the Universal Substance of Spinoza, of which nothing could be predicated, which takes a semblance of meaning from the illusory things and persons in which it is manifested in time. The intellectual vision which was to give relief seems to present a God that is in a gradual process of revelation and self-development in what is after all an unreal or illusory revelation;—at least if we are bound to think that God is dependent on the successive conscious acts of finite persons—who are not really persons—for entering into consciousness at all.

The “organic unity” is still incompletely comprehended unity.

On the other hand, is it more than the semblance of a perfectly explained “organic unity” that the Hegelian thought presents, if it is able to preserve the reality of outward events, and of persons with their self-originated changes, and if it is to deliver the divine perfection from all responsibility for the immoral actions of men? It is true that men are not conceived by the Hegelian to be mechanically parts of God, although they find their true reality in Him; but in that case “organic unity” is only a term which covers over a relation still left in the mystery of a necessarily incomplete human thought or philosophy. It is still an organic unity that passes human knowledge, although it is doubtless innocent of the gross idea which makes all things and all persons only physical parts of One Boundless Substance, the physical effects of One Unknowable Power called Nature.

And the mysteries of endlessness and moral evil are only verbally relieved.

That Hegel meant his final thought to be interpreted consistently with the actuality of the world, and also with the moral personality of man, I do not deny; nor can one fairly interpret this philosophy or theology “pantheistically,” in the obnoxious sense that involves final moral, and therefore final scientific, scepticism. Its fundamental unity is perhaps elastic enough to admit of being interpreted so as to comprehend, but in some mysterious way, the world of successive nature, and the world of human spirits,—without spoiling our experience of the actuality of the world, or the morally necessary conviction of the freedom of each man to create actions referable exclusively to himself for their responsible causation. But then this is more than an assertion of faith at last. Yet we were led to expect that through Hegelian dialectic this and every other legitimate faith could be translated into philosophic thought, with the burden of its mystery all removed—not merely with the mysteries articulated in a fresh form of verbal expression. If there is here more than amended verbal articulation of the old difficulties, one fails to find it, as long as, notwithstanding; Hegel, the burden still oppresses that resisted all former attempts so to think out the universe of reality as to eliminate, for example, the two mysteries which I have taken as illustrations of man's intellectual inadequacy. Even the philosophic human knowledge of what we are living and having our being in, and of how we are so living, to us seems still to remain knowledge of something that in the end passes knowledge, that is known while it is still unknown; known, in a moral and spiritual life which can be lived if we will; unknown, because it cannot be fully thought out in the infiniteness of its reality. So intellectual analysis of human experience generally, and of religion in Christianity, seems always to leave at the last a residuum of trust, inevitable in what one might call authoritative reason, instead of perfectly understood reason;—the authoritative reason in which reverential obedience to what is trusted in as reasonable is more prominent than intellectually victorious insight. Surely the authority of final faith can be dispensed with only in the Omniscience which leaves no room for mystery or incomplete knowledge.

The Hegelian intellectual analysis of Christian Religion may be interpreted as making a more modest claim.

But after all it may be only the question of how the final attitude of man to what is of human interest in the universe of reality should be named, rather than a difference with regard to what the actual attitude must at last be, that separates those who suppose that they are adopting, from those who suppose that they are rejecting, the Hegelian interpretation of the relation of man and the universe to God. Should the final attitude be called knowledge—thought—reason; or should it be called faith—trust in authority? To call it “knowledge” seems to claim too much, as long as there must be an inevitable remainder of mystery, which leaves the so-called knowledge incomplete in quantity, and an unimaginable unity, incomprehensible by the sensuous intelligence. To call it “faith” may seem to mean that it is empty of objective rationality; for this is not secured by even the most confidently felt conviction, individual certitude being no sufficient ultimate test of absolute truth. As for “authority,” this is a word that suggests deference to a person, instead of the impersonal intellectual necessity that belongs to purely rational proof. Yet if those who prefer to express, under the names of “reason” and “knowledge,” their final relation to the highest reality, at the same time disclaim for man the omniscience which otherwise seems to be assumed in their words,—then this philosophic thought, at last obliged to submit to arrest, is really the philosophic faith that at last trusts in what is not fully open to man's understanding. The difficulties in which the inevitable remainder of final ignorance involve every human mind are not necessarily suicidal, if they do not necessarily forbid man, on pain of contradicting reason, from satisfying his moral and spiritual needs. The suicidal or essentially sceptical philosophy is then the one that claims to have thought out in its infinity what man can think out only incompletely.

Hegelian speculation humanized.

An intellectual analysis of religion and Christianity that adopts this final attitude, would probably be regarded by some as not inconsistent with Hegelian theism, and its exhaustive interpretation of the universe in terms of the divine reason. The “organic unity” of Nature and Man in God is then interpreted in a meaning that admits the moral freedom of agents who are responsible for themselves when they act immorally, and also the reality of change or temporal succession. What is called “participation” in, or “identity” with, Universal Reason, and “organic unity” of the universe, are taken only as emphatic expressions of the conviction that men are not isolated psychological atoms, but members of a moral totality, in which the moral faith that is in us is sure to find sympathetic response in the incompletely comprehensible Divine Reason that is perpetually active at the centre of the Whole. So the further man penetrates intellectually, the more fully this divine order discovers itself; more and more of what corresponds to the final faith is recognised in the principles that are determining the history of the world; and it is seen that, while men are “free” to resist God by doing evil, it is in their harmony with the Divine Reason that the highest freedom is to be found. So understood, the Hegelian speculation becomes an elaborate dialectical recognition of man's final dissatisfaction with the limited phenomena of sense in time, in perception of which human life begins; also of the obligation which the reason that we call ours finds to unite the universe of change in dependence on the Perfect Reason that, in broken form, is involved in our experience, but under which we never fully comprehend the Whole. It becomes a vindication of the universe, as incapable of being conceived as mindless, purposeless evolution of phenomena—as really the expression of morally related Spirit—thus relieving the chill of abstract physical science with the warmth of pervading Divine life and love. In the thorough-going, intellectual analysis of Christian Religion, man may in this way be helped to recognise his own moral or personal reality, by its mysterious affinity with the transcendent intellectual system on which all depends. Still this philosophy would be at last only an expression of faith, founded upon needs inherent in the entire human constitution, not on perfect intellectual comprehension on the part of the human thinker. It would at most represent man's best way of carrying an intellectual burden that is too heavy for the sensuous understanding. It would be his philosophical acknowledgment of absolute dependence upon the constantly active Reason that he is nevertheless mysteriously able to violate and resist, in his volitions and voluntary habits. This final faith or theistic reason is weakened when it is made the object of logical proof. Its justification is that the universe of reality dissolves in sceptical and pessimist doubt when the moral faith is withdrawn. The ultimate foundation of proof must be incapable of proof, and intellectual reserve is the correlative of a philosophic faith.

Philosophical Faith the reflex of Theistic Faith.

Philosophical Faith is the truly rational trust that nothing, can happen in the temporal evolution which can finally put to confusion the principles of moral reason that are latent in Man, scientifically incomprehensible as the world's history of mingled good and evil must be when measured only by finite experience in scientific intelligence. Philosophical Faith is thus the reflex of theistic faith.