1. In last week's lecture I suggested that good reasons could be given both empirical and logical in support of the view that theism is what the beliefs essential to religion become when thoroughly thought out into their leading implications. Nevertheless I ended the lecture by expressing some hesitation about giving an unqualified acceptance to this view; and I want to begin today's lecture by explaining why.
Part Two (Second Course): On Godhood
Lecture XIII: Theism and the Problem Of Evil: (1) Sin
It will be remembered that when we set out to try to trace the logical development of religion—that is to say the course which religious belief tends to take if permitted to develop in a milieu of full and free intellectual criticism—we were careful to emphasise that this development could only be correctly determined by an analysis which proceeded within the framework of the religious consciousness. Now is it on reflection quite certain that our exegesis of this development with its cumulative characterisation of God by a group of more or less definite concepts—e.g. ‘spirit’ ‘power’ ‘wisdom’ and ‘goodness’—took adequate account of the element of the supernatural in the object of the religious consciousness? Does the theistic creed as we defined it and in a sense defended it as the true theoretical expression of religion do full justice to the aura of mystery that envelops the Godhead in all known religions?
In my own view the answer to that question depends upon the way in which one chooses to interpret the several conceptual terms in the theistic creed. Broadly speaking two ways of interpretation are open to us; the literal and the non-literal. Thus we may understand by God's perfect power wisdom and goodness qualities identical in principle with those qualities as we know them in human experience; though premising that they have not in God the limitations which cling to them in even the highest human experience. On this the literal way it seems to me that there is room for a great deal of doubt as to whether in the effort to make God meaningful we have not made Him cease to be worshipful. According to the other non-literal way qualities like power and wisdom and goodness are not ascribable to God in the precise meaning they have for us in finite life and our use of them has validity only as a symbolic expression of the Divine Nature. The doubts which this view provokes are the converse of the doubts provoked by the first view. It is by no means clear now whether in the effort to make God worshipful we have not made Him cease to be meaningful.
I shall not attempt to disguise in which direction my own sympathies lie. I believe that only in its symbolic interpretation is theism the logically developed expression of the religious consciousness; and the second half of the present course of lectures will be devoted first to defending that conviction and secondly to trying to answer the question whether theism thus understood is not only the proper theoretical expression of religion but is also (a very different matter) objectively true. But it is to the other literal interpretation that we must first of all give our attention; for there can be little doubt that it is in this sense that most people have understood theism.
It may seem at first sight unfair to suggest that it is in this sense also that most theistic theologians have understood theism; nothing would be easier than to cite many utterances by many theistic theologians which openly acknowledge the ultimate incomprehensibility of God. But the trend of a theology is surely to be judged not by the detached utterances of individual theologians but by the operative principles of the systematic theology to which they subscribe. I shall return to this matter on a later occasion; but is it really doubtful that almost all systems of theology in working out their conceptual account of the relation of God to the world and to man presuppose that power and wisdom and goodness are ascribable to God in their literal meaning (though of course in a perfected form)? And indeed the theist could argue with a good deal of plausibility that we cannot have what would ordinarily be called a ‘theology’ at all if it is not ‘rational’ at least in the sense of accepting the conceivability in principle of the attributes of God. I think one ought to begin therefore by considering the truth-claims of theism in its literal version and by considering in particular the ability or inability of theism so understood to return satisfactory answers to the fundamental difficulties which critics have constantly pressed upon it and which theists themselves are as a rule very ready to recognise as genuine difficulties. This orthodox theism of the theologians I shall for the present often refer to simply as ‘theism’. But I hope it will not be felt to be tendentious if on occasion where some risk of confusion might thereby be averted I give it the title of ‘Rational Theism’ in order to distinguish it from the ‘Supra-rational Theism’ which holds that the Divine Nature in principle transcends all human conception and is capable of apprehension only in symbols.
It will be generally agreed I take it that theism cannot be true if it is inconsistent either with itself or with the actual facts of experience as we are compelled to regard them. In today's lecture and also in my lecture next week I shall be concerned with its alleged inconsistency with certain facts of experience. My conclusion will be that no such inconsistency has been established although there are undoubtedly certain facts of experience which subject the theistic faith to a strain that brings it uncomfortably near to breaking-point. Thereafter I shall take up the charge that theism is inconsistent with itself. And to this charge I may as well say at once I cannot persuade myself that there is any effective answer. If religion really stands or falls with the truth of Rational Theism then in my judgment religion falls. But as I have already hinted I do not myself believe that religion stands or falls with the truth of Rational Theism for in my view not Rational but Supra-rational Theism is the authentic theoretical expression of religion. From Lecture XVI onwards accordingly I shall be concerned almost solely with the nature and claims of Supra-rational Theism a faith which seems to me capable of being formulated in a way which escapes the objections to Rational Theism while incurring no loss of anything that is really vital to a religious interpretation of the universe. These are bold words and I am acutely conscious how presumptuous they may sound. I can only plead in extenuation that what I shall have to say about Supra-rational Theism represents a conviction of over thirty years’ standing which I have been unable throughout that period to find any compelling reason to abandon.
2. Let us then address ourselves to the alleged inconsistency of theism with the actual facts of human experience.
Now the specific facts of human experience which have always been regarded as constituting the gravest problem for the theistic position are of course those that are epitomised by the word ‘evil’. This ‘Problem of Evil’ (as it is called) falls naturally into two distinct parts: (1) the problem of moral evil or as it appears from the religious standpoint of sin; and (2) the problem of natural evil which it is customary to identify more or less accurately with the problem of suffering. Moral evil and natural evil both seem to be indisputable facts. The question is how are these facts to be reconciled with the theistic hypothesis of a God Who is at once all-powerful and absolutely good?
Very strangely (as I cannot help thinking) it is the problem of moral evil that seems often to be regarded by theists as the more troublesome of the two. In my own view so far from its being the more troublesome the problem of moral evil is in a theistic context virtually non-existent. It will be the main business of today's lecture to try to explain and defend this judgment.
We must begin by getting clear about our terms. Basically moral evil pertains to acts of will—only derivatively to dispositions overt actions and states of affairs. It can be defined sufficiently for present purposes I think as the willing of some course which the agent himself deems to be contrary to his duty. No doubt a man may be mistaken as to what course of action is in fact his duty; but whether he is mistaken or not and whether or not if mistaken the mistake is one which he could have avoided if he had been a better man in the past it remains incontrovertibly true I think that his present act of willing is morally evil if it is directed to an end which he himself deems to be contrary to his duty. And in no other conditions so far as I can see can an act of will as such be morally evil. It must be conceded that we do sometimes speak of an act as morally evil even when we have reason to believe that the agent does not at the time of acting regard it as contrary to his duty; but such a judgment is in my opinion legitimate only where it is believed that the agent morally ought to have known better and that his present mistaken view of what constitutes his duty is the consequence of blameworthy negligence or some other moral fault in his past. In that case however what we are judging to be morally evil is not really his present act of will but certain of his past acts of will. That is to say our ascription to him of moral evil is a retrospective judgment applicable to the man now only in the sense that he is presumably now the self-same person as he who willed badly in the past.
Sin I take to be morally evil willing where the willing is contrary not merely to what the agent deems to be his moral duty but also to what he deems to be the Will of God. For the religious man it is almost impossible not to identify God as the ultimate source of all that is with the imponent of that moral law which seems objectively to confront and to claim unconditional obedience from every rational being; and in that event moral evil becomes tantamount to sin. For the atheist on the other hand while moral evil can be as real as anything in the universe ‘sin’ must be accounted a mere myth. Clearly there can be no disobeying a God that doesn't exist let alone issue commands to rational beings.
Now granting the religious premises according to which moral evil is to be identified with sin it is all too evident that sin exists as a fact of experience. But why should it be supposed that the sinning of the creature is difficult to reconcile with the Perfection of his Creator?
It is easy enough to see how sin (or ‘the evil will’ as we should call it in this context) presents a thorny problem to a certain metaphysic which has much in common with theism the metaphysic of Absolute Idealism. According to this world-theory everything that is (including of course each finite mind) is a mode of expression of the one ultimate reality Absolute Mind or Spirit which is also Absolute Perfection—the very norm of all ‘goodness’. It is indeed pertinent to ask of this theory how the evil will the will that deliberately opposes itself to goodness can possibly be conceived as expressing (with whatever degree of inadequacy) the nature of a Being who is ex hypothesi supremely good. It seems quite futile to try to interpret good willing and bad willing utterly opposed to one another as they are in their basic spiritual direction as somehow expressive though in different degrees of the same spiritual principle. Bad willing is not an ‘inadequate expression of goodness’. It is just a more or less adequate expression of badness. Proponents of Absolute Idealism have had some success in dodging but I think none at all in meeting this simple but fundamental objection to their system.
But surely this difficulty has no relevance for the metaphysic of theism. Here too certainly we have a Perfect Spirit Who is the source of all that is. But on the theistic doctrine finite selves are not expressions of or differentiations of but creations of the one Perfect Spirit; and what is more creations that are endowed by their Creator with a real measure of individual self-determination. Now this makes all the difference in the world. If it be agreed that finite selves receive from God a genuine power of initiative that is as much as to say that finite selves do not necessarily align themselves with the principle of goodness—or in religious language with the Will of God. The possibility of evil willing is implied in the metaphysic of theism. Where then is the problem? Surely the real problem would be if human beings despite the bestowal upon them of the freedom which theism postulates were nevertheless always to will what is good!
Let us look at the matter further from a slightly different angle. Although the Divine purpose of creation is no doubt for theism as for other religious philosophies something not fully comprehensible to the finite understanding all theists would I take it agree that it accords with the Divine purpose for man on earth that he should set himself to realise the highest moral values. There is little demur among theists I think to the Keatsian interpretation of the world as at least ‘a vale of soul-making’—though it may also be more than that. Now an indispensable condition of the achievement of moral values is ‘free will’. And free will is meaningless if it is not a freedom to choose wrongly as well as to choose rightly. Would it not be rather absurd then for theism to accept it as entirely conformable with God's goodness that He should create beings with the free will which is the condition of their realising moral values and at the same time to find a difficulty in reconciling with God's goodness the fact that these ‘free’ beings sometimes will wrongly?
In the last resort perhaps the best answer to those who are troubled about the compatibility of human sin with a God who is supremely good (as well as omnipotent) is to ask a question. Would it have been a better world if man had been created without the power of self-determination; without therefore the opportunity of realising moral values?—for it is only on that condition that the complete absence of human sinning is conceivable. I fancy that very few people or at any rate very few Christians would be prepared to answer this question in the affirmative. To most of us human life would seem to lose not only all its dignity but its very meaning if men were not endowed with the freedom of choice which makes their realisation of moral values possible. Indeed I can conceive of only one ground upon which it could be argued with any force that a creation in which man was not vouchsafed freedom would be a ‘better’ world despite the consequence of its being a world in which there could be no virtue any more than there could be any vice. One might argue that the distress and suffering that are inflicted upon innocent victims by human sin are so extensive and so horrible that the bestowal upon man of the freedom which makes sinning possible is on balance a bad thing; in other words that the price of a world in which moral virtue is possible is too high; and that accordingly the created order as we know it is incapable of being reconciled with the theistic hypothesis of a Creator who is perfect in power wisdom and goodness. Now I certainly do not regard this line of argument as unworthy of serious notice. I would only point out here that it is not at bottom an argument against the existence in a God-created world of moral evil or sin. It is an argument against the existence in a God-created world of certain forms of distress and suffering; i.e. of natural evil. We shall postpone our answer to it therefore (in so far as we can answer it) until the next lecture when we shall be attempting to deal systematically with the problem of suffering.
3. In what I have been saying up to the present however I have been assuming the admission by the theist that while human willing is sometimes sinful it is also sometimes good; that we do at least sometimes choose what we believe to be our duty. This does not seem on the face of it a very outrageous assumption—it represents the belief of every man in his ordinary day to day life. But we must now recognise the fact that it is directly and vehemently challenged by a great many theistic theologians who claim to know that the human will is essentially sinful. And this if it were true would put a very different complexion on the problem of evil. These theologians will allege that our discussions so far have been founded on a misconception of the nature of man and consequently of his relationship to God. ‘We do not deny’ they may tell us ‘that if man's will were only sometimes sinful that would set no problem for theism. But the real situation is not that man's will is sometimes sinful but that it is always sinful. Human nature as we know it is intrinsically corrupt so that man where he depends on his own resources alone cannot but will what is evil. The “problem of sin” is the problem of reconciling this “tainted nature” of man his native bias towards evil with the perfect goodness of the God Who created him. And the solution we theologians propound lies in our doctrine of the Fall of Man—a doctrine with the highest scriptural authority. Man has fallen from the original high estate in which the good God created him through a primal sin which implicates the whole of “Adam's seed” in a corruption of nature only redeemable through the operation of Divine grace’.
What are we to say of ‘the problem of sin’ in this altered guise?
With the very many variants of the doctrine of the Fall which have been offered by theologians in the effort to make the doctrine conflict a little less conspicuously with enlightened thought in history psychology ethics and metaphysics there is fortunately no need for us here to concern ourselves. It will suffice for our purpose if we examine the premise which underlies and gives meaning to the doctrine (in so far at any rate as the doctrine is not taken simply to rest upon ‘revelation’). We must examine that is to say the proposition that in human nature as we know it there is a native bias towards evil. If this premise is false as I firmly believe it to be the problem of sin to which the Fall is offered as a solution just does not arise.
I begin by dismissing as irrelevant the rather melodramatic appeals often made today—understandably enough in a generation that has witnessed horrors on a scale that can have had few parallels in human history—to the enormous mass of wickedness that seems plainly to confront us in the world of men. The appeal is irrelevant for the question at issue is not whether man's will is often evil but whether it is always evil. If we are to take our stand here upon externally observed facts at all these facts must be permitted to include countless acts of noble self-sacrifice and heroic devotion to duty on the part of a whole multitude of ordinary men and women as well as the bestial cruelties of a Buchenwald or a Belsen; and the outcome then is to establish with at least as much certainty that human nature is sometimes almost incredibly good as that human nature is often almost incredibly bad.
But in any event evidence drawn from external observation is precarious at best where the subject of enquiry is moral good and evil. These are matters of the inner direction of the will towards or away from a conceived duty; and on this it is in the last resort only the agent himself who can tell us the truth.
In other words ‘inside’ information is the only kind of information that can be at all decisive when our task is to judge the truth or falsity of such a proposition as that now under consideration; i.e. that the human will is inevitably sinful. It is imperative therefore that we look closely and without preconceptions at actual moral experience as we know it and in particular at the situation which is the mise en scène for the more crucial of man's moral choices. I refer of course to the situation of ‘moral temptation’. In my opinion introspective analysis of that situation makes it abundantly clear that we can make sense of the doctrine that man's will is essentially sinful only on pain of having to repudiate the most inescapable deliverances of our common moral consciousness.
The essence of the situation of moral temptation as I understand it is as follows.1 We are conscious of X as our duty and of Y incompatible with X as the object of strongest desire. There may be and very often is some desire for X as well as the consciousness of moral obligation with respect to it; but we are aware of this desire as being weak relatively to the desire for Y and we know that if we let our desiring nature have its way it is Y and not X that we shall choose. We feel quite certain however while actually engaged in the situation that we can rise to our duty and choose X though only by the exercise of moral effort; and that it lies with us here and now whether we make this effort or alternatively yield to the importunings of our strongest desire. So much it seems to me is not capable of being doubted by the moral agent in the moral situation. All sorts of doubts engendered by scientific psychological philosophical or theological theory may assail us later concerning the trustworthiness of this testimony of our moral experience. But that this is the testimony of our moral experience in the crucial situation of moral temptation anyone it seems to me can verify for himself by making with care the appropriate introspective experiment. Were there not in fact this conviction present that we have a personal choice between genuinely open alternatives of good and evil it is hard to see how we should suppose ourselves as we do justly liable to moral censure if we choose what we deem to be evil.
Now how are we to fit into this picture the bias towards evil which we are assured is intrinsic to human nature? Does it correspond to anything in actual moral experience?
It might be tempting at first sight to locate the alleged bias in our desiring nature since as we have seen the main trend of our desires in the situation of moral temptation is always in opposition to the course ordained by duty. But this will clearly not do at all for a variety of reasons. In the first place situations of moral temptation are relatively rare episodes in the life of the normal man. In the great bulk of situations a man's desiring nature does not enter into conflict with ‘duty’ in any degree; and it is an ethical commonplace that in men of the highest virtue their desires have been brought into such substantial accord with duty that it would be sheer abuse of language to call their desiring nature anything but ‘good’. In the second place (and the point here is crucial) the fact that man's desiring nature can and does sometimes incline him towards evil courses so far from being an indication that man is essentially depraved is actually an indispensable condition of his being morally good. If his desires always inclined man in the direction of what he deemed to be his duty if man never felt tempted to do what he believes he ought not to do there could be no moral life for him at all. The possibility of conflict between desire and duty is the precondition of his being either morally good or morally bad. And still a third reason why we cannot locate man's alleged natural bias towards evil in his desires is that desire strictly speaking is not a part of man's natural endowment at all. What is ‘natural’ are the instinctive impulses and appetites that constitute the ‘raw material’ of desires. But these instinctive impulses and appetites seem perfectly neutral with respect to good and evil. There is none it would seem that is incapable of being turned either to good or to ill account according to the manner in which it comes to be organised in the life policies of the individual agent after he has reached the level of self-conscious direction of his conduct.
On the other hand it seems equally futile to look for the natural bias towards evil in some other factor. If as I have argued the pressure of ‘desire’ in the situation of moral temptation lends no support whatsoever to the ‘natural depravity’ thesis to what else can we hopefully point as inclining the will towards evil? Is there the slightest hint to be found in actual moral experience—granted always that we approach it without prejudice from theological proconceptions—of the presence of any other impediment to the discharge of our duty? So far as I can see none at all. Indeed it is extremely hard to understand in terms of our moral experience what the hypothesis of an inhibiting factor other than desire could even mean. And as for the claim that this hypothetical impediment intrinsic to man's nature so completely shackles the human will that it can be diverted from evil to good only by the operation of divine grace its flat rejection is surely implicit in all moral experience. In the situation of moral temptation the agent as we saw earlier feels certain that he can by his own moral effort overcome the resistant elements in his nature and rise to his duty.2
The truth would seem to be that if we are to accept the natural depravity doctrine as valid we must be prepared to face the implication that the moral experience of man with the conviction inseparable from it of personal responsibility for the choice between good and evil is sheer delusion. Possibly some theists are prepared to accept this implication. But if they are they should surely give up the pretence of appealing to the facts of experience in support of their doctrine. On the very kindest interpretation the ‘facts’ they appeal to must be of a highly selective order.
4. I have been arguing that actual moral experience discloses no evidence whatever of a bias towards evil incapable of being overcome save by the miracle of ad hoc Divine assistance. This conclusion I should confidently expect to be confirmed by all those who do not bring with them to moral experience theological preconceptions which clash with the testimony of that experience. It would be too much to expect more than a partial confirmation from those who approach moral experience with such preconceptions. People who have been induced from whatever causes to accept as a religious truth that man is essentially vile his nature so corrupt that only by Divine aid can he avoid choosing evil will naturally try to interpret their moral experience in the light of those ideas. But try as they may I doubt very much whether they ever at all fully succeed in doing so. A man may believe in his study that he has in himself no power to resist temptation. But set him in an actual moral situation and he can hardly prevent the intuition of personal freedom intrinsic to moral experience from giving the lie direct to his preconceptions. The usual outcome I think is a sort of muddled compromise state in which he believes that he can and should do something himself in the matter but also believes that God's help is necessary for complete success.
I should agree however that on this particular matter it is hard to make confident pronouncements. The abnormal emotive force of religious beliefs must be allowed its full weight. Perhaps there may be cases in which preconceptions about man's inherent corruptness are held with such almost obsessional fervour that even in a ‘live’ situation of moral temptation the intuition of personal freedom is virtually suppressed never emerging with sufficient explicitness to make an effective contribution to the complex mental state that accompanies the action. But if there are any such cases they must be extremely rare. It is a familiar and noteworthy fact that even the most fanatical preachers of man's total impotence to resist temptation unaided often reveal by implication that they do not themselves whole-heartedly believe what they preach. For example it is surely most unusual to find anyone whatever his religious convictions prepared to disavow completely personal responsibility for his failures to resist temptation? Yet if he really believed that he could not by his own unaided effort resist temptation he ought surely to find it absurd to accept personal responsibility for succumbing to it. It is perfectly true of course that we often fail to detect certain of the logical implications of what we believe; but it is not easy to fail where the relevant situation is as here one that is constantly before our notice and where the reasoning involved is of an extreme simplicity. There is nothing complicated or subtle so far as I can see about the intellectual process required to discern that a being who cannot by his own effort will other than evil is not to be blamed if in fact he does will nothing but evil. Or again one might call in evidence those cases of moral temptation that are comparatively trivial in character but which are of course just as genuinely instances of the choice between good and evil as any other cases; e.g. the temptation to tell a seemingly harmless untruth in order to save one's self some petty inconvenience. I take leave to doubt whether those who are in theory uncompromising apostles of human depravity do in practice feel that they must call upon God's aid to enable them to resist temptation on such minor matters. Yet the principle is the same whether the temptation be important and enduring or unimportant and ephemeral. If it is admitted that one can by one's own efforts will the good even in the latter type of case then the doctrine of the natural man's essential depravity is in principle abandoned.
5. I am well aware of course that efforts have by no means been lacking among theologians to do some kind of justice to the intuitions of moral experience and in particular to rescue for man some sort of moral responsibility while still holding fast to the principle of man's natural depravity and his utter dependence upon Divine aid for the willing of any good thing. For example a device to which theologians have frequently had recourse is to suggest that although man can will the good only by God's grace nevertheless that grace is only offered to man. It lies in man's own power whether he appropriates or repudiates the ‘gift of grace’ that God freely offers. But this suggestion favoured by many theologians though hotly contested by others surely contains a latent self-contradiction. The choice between appropriating and repudiating God's grace is just as much a choice between good and evil as is any straightforward choice between resisting a temptation to commit a wicked action and yielding to it. If a man can by his own ‘human’ power decide to accept rather than reject God's grace how can we regard this decision as other than a manifestation of the man's will to good and how then can we continue to retain the doctrine of man's ‘natural’ depravity? One may challenge the premises but one must I fear respect the logic of those more ‘tough-minded’ adherents of the natural depravity doctrine who insist that even in respect of the reception of grace the human being has nothing whatever to do with the matter. Whether or not the individual person receives grace they declare depends solely upon whether or not God elects to confer it upon him.
6. I am bound to say that none of the feats of intellectual acrobatics which aim at reconciling man's moral responsibility with man's natural depravity seems to me to accomplish more than a certain obscuring of the inherent contradiction by enveloping it in a bewildering cloud of irrelevant subtleties. It seems to me that when the mists have been dispelled the simple truth stands out clearly that if man cannot will the good save by God's grace there is no longer any point in talking about man's moral responsibility. There can be in man neither moral goodness nor moral badness. If the ‘good’ will never issues from the personal initiative of the agent then it is not he that is morally ‘good’. And if it is not open to him to be morally good it is not open to him to be morally bad either. A man can only be morally bad if he fails to do what he could do; not if he fails to do what God alone could do for him.
To be perfectly candid what has most troubled me in criticising the natural depravity doctrine is that the objections to it seem to me so obvious as hardly to be worth the stating. I should be glad to be able to believe that in fact there is no need to state them. In some respects however they would appear to stand in more urgent need of statement—or rather of restatement—today than for many generations. The powerful neo-Calvinist trend in recent theology is familiar to all. I do not for my own part have any doubt that there are elements of profound and permanent value in this trend. I should agree warmly that there was the most pressing need as against certain forms of liberal theology that had much prevalence in my own youth of the heavy stress that neo-Calvinists have laid upon the aspect of ‘transcendence’ in God; and again (a point which is of course closely connected) for their exposure of the vanity of the pretensions of human reason in aspiring to ‘know’ God. But I cannot for a moment admit that these important truths (as I believe them to be) can only be upheld at the cost of disparaging and even of denouncing as fraudulent the intuitions of personal responsibility that seem to be quite inseparable from man's moral experience. With the deplorable practical consequences that must follow upon teaching which however unwillingly—and perhaps in some cases unwittingly—conveys the impression that ordinary moral experience is a tissue of delusions I have here no concern. My business in this course of lectures is not with the practical value or disvalue of doctrines but with their claim to be true. And on the latter question I take my stand on this. No doctrine can be accounted true if it contradicts beliefs which are intrinsic to ineradicable from a mode of experience which belongs fundamentally to our common human nature. That moral experience in the sense of experience of unconditional obligation is a mode of experience that belongs fundamentally to our common human nature and that the belief in personal freedom and responsibility is intrinsic to it I have done my best to show in the concluding lectures of my previous course and I must leave the matter there.
7. Clearly however there is one further question that must be raised and so far as may be answered before we can legitimately bring this discussion to a close. What lies behind this doctrine of the natural depravity of man? Wherein lies the immense force of its appeal?—for that it has the power to attract not merely great numbers of people whose religious zeal is uncontrolled by any noticeable exercise of a critical intelligence but also many religious thinkers of outstanding parts and of the most enviable range of learning both sacred and secular is beyond dispute. To put the question in somewhat tendentious form what is it that makes men of evident spiritual discernment so firmly persuaded of the essentially corrupt nature of man that they are prepared to advance in support of it such remarkably unconvincing arguments? Until we have answered this question we have no right to feel wholly comfortable about our rejection of the doctrine.
Now it seems plain at least that the doctrine must have its ultimate roots somewhere in religious experience; for it is only in the religious mind that it secures any lodgment. It is as alien as anything well can be to the mind of the ordinary layman who has no doubt at all that (within limits of course) he is free to choose between good and evil. Is it possible that we have to do here with a conviction that is as intrinsic to the religious consciousness as the contrary conviction is to the moral consciousness? If so we should indeed be confronted by a grave dilemma since—or so it seems to me—there are at least as good and very much more evident grounds for insisting upon the objective validity of the moral consciousness as for insisting on the objective validity of the religious consciousness. We should be forced to admit a fundamental and irremovable cleavage within the very heart of human experience; and we should find ourselves oscillating between acceptance and rejection of the natural depravity doctrine according to whether the religious or the moral standpoint happened to be at the moment dominant in our minds.
I think that we can in fact find the roots of the doctrine in religious experience. I do not believe however that it is intrinsic thereto. On the contrary I shall suggest that the facts of religious experience upon which the doctrine is based have been given a wrong significance and have led to a false inference. In my judgment there is a confusion here which it is extraordinarily easy to fall into and in a sense which will I hope become clear is all the easier to fall into the more deeply religious the mind of the thinker.
An authentic element in religious experience I think we should all agree is the consciousness of an immeasurable and humanly unbridgeable gulf between the finite creature at his very best and the infinite perfection of his Creator. The more vivid and profound the consciousness of God the more acutely realised is the contrast with mere man and the keener in consequence is the sense of one's own and of all men's radical imperfection. Measured (if we may be permitted the paradox) by the immeasurable majesty and excellence of God man must seem to himself utterly devoid of worth mere ‘dust and ashes’. But this is not it is imperative to notice the same thing as a conviction of sin. There is a clear distinction between consciousness of the gulf that separates one from God in virtue simply of man's creaturely nature and consciousness of the far more terrible gulf that separates one in virtue of that deliberate self-alienation from God which is involved in evil willing; in the will that sets itself at once against moral law and Divine purpose. But though the two are distinguishable readily enough for abstract thought in the impassioned consciousness of religion it is fatally easy for them to be fused and confused; and this confusion I suggest is the real root in religious experience of the belief in the essential depravity of human nature as such. The intrinsic inevitable imperfection that belongs to man in virtue of his finite creaturely status is falsely identified with the different mode of human imperfection which is sin; and sin accordingly comes to be regarded as something intrinsic and inevitable in human nature.
It seems to me that the doctrine of the natural depravity of man cannot survive a clear grasp of the distinction between these two different types of human imperfection. Common to our consciousness of imperfection in both cases and the ground of the temptation to identify them is the sense of profound estrangement from God and limitless inferiority. What distinguishes the two—the consciousness of the imperfection that attaches to the creature qua creature from the consciousness of the imperfection that attaches to the creature qua sinful—is that in the latter we acknowledge in ourselves an act of deliberate defiance of God which has no place whatsoever in the former. It seems to me quite impossible to deny the reality of this distinction once it has been brought to one's notice. But to recognise the distinction is surely to recognise also that sin is not a universal but a special human state. It goes without saying that human nature is ‘sinful’ in the sense that man is so constituted that he can and does commit sins. But that human nature is ‘sinful’ in the sense that man is so constituted as not to be able of his own volition to do anything but sin—that is a proposition which in my judgment is totally devoid of rational foundation. It is a proposition that wins assent from many religious minds only on account of a confusion between two similar yet vitally different kinds of human imperfection. The staggering paradox that all men are equally sinners is no more than a logical consequence of this proposition but the fact that many theologians are prepared seriously to proclaim it seems to me to confirm up to the hilt the confusion I have alleged. For it makes good sense to say that all men are equally estranged from God if we are thinking of the ‘estrangement’ that pertains to the creaturely status as such. It makes no sense at all that I can see if we are thinking of the ‘estrangement’ that pertains to sin i.e. to deliberate defiance of the will of God.
8. I have I fear ‘trailed my coat’ a little in this lecture. I do most firmly believe everything I have said; but I am not so ingenuous as to suppose that in all quarters it will be cordially received. I shall be not too surprised though I shall be sorry if I am told that I have been talking about something which the devout understand but which I manifestly do not and that my conclusions are in consequence mere nonsense. Possibly they are nonsense. Nevertheless it may not be altogether without profit even to the theologian to be made aware of the kind of nonsense that philosophers feel obliged to talk when they reflect honestly if misguidedly upon the kind of thing they are sometimes asked to believe by theologians.
Still on the main question at issue in this lecture viz. whether human sinfulness is compatible with the perfect goodness of God I am glad to be able to range myself on the side of the theologian even if it be as he may think for the wrong reasons. The affirmative answer seems to me open to no objections of any gravity once we rid ourselves of the self-contradictory premise that man is so constituted that he can't help sinning. For myself indeed the only problem of sin is the problem why sin should ever have been thought to be a ‘problem’. The problem of evil as I see it is not the problem of sin but the problem of suffering. To that most formidable problem though not without much misgiving I shall address myself next week.
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