1. My exposition of and incidental comments upon Rudolf Otto's religious thought in the last lecture will have made it clear I think that however dubious about certain elements in his metaphysics and epistemology of religion I have nothing but admiration for his religious psychology. I accept his delineation of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans as the object of religious experience; and I accept what I take to be the implication of this viz. that the authentic theoretical expression of the religious consciousness is not Rational but Supra-rational Theism; i.e. a Theism which proclaims that the Nature of God is in principle incapable of being conceived in terms of rational concepts in their literal significance but that certain of these concepts are validly applicable to God when understood not as literal portrayals but as appropriate symbols of the Divine Nature.
Part Two (Second Course): On Godhood
Lecture XVII: Supra-Rational Theism and ‘Symbolic’ Knowledge
Now there are manifest difficulties in the notion of a supra-rational theism. The whole conception of ‘symbolic’ knowledge especially clamours for elucidation and we shall have to deal with it as systematically as time permits later in this lecture. Until that has been done the claim that supra-rational theism is the authentic theoretical expression of the religious consciousness will rightly remain to some extent suspect. But even now there is one consideration apart from the merits of Otto's psychological analysis which might reasonably dispose one to look at that claim with a good deal of favour. If the argument of Lecture V was sound then Rational Theism is internally inconsistent and hence cannot be objectively true. It would be extremely unfortunate therefore if Rational Theism did happen to be the authentic theoretical expression of the religious consciousness for we should then have no alternative but to conclude that religion is not objectively true. If on the other hand it is Supra-rational Theism that is the proper theoretical expression of the religious consciousness then whether religion is objectively true or not is at least still an open question.
The root of all the troubles that beset Rational Theism lies I believe in its failure to do justice to the mysterium aspect of religious experience. It would of course be quite unfair to suggest that Rational Theism simply ignores this aspect. Apart from sporadic pronouncements already referred to which have too much the character of obiter dicta there is some reflection of the mysterium even in its formal doctrine. Thus it is I think largely under the compulsion of the mysterium aspect that Rational Theism is led to proclaim that God is Perfection Absolute utterly free from all limitations and defects of finitude; and so one would presume beyond finite comprehension. But unhappily in the interests of clear conceptual formulations Rational Theism throws away what it had seemed to gain by insisting upon interpreting God's Absolute Perfection as though it could find literal illustration in modes of experience like thought and will which in fact imply finitude and defect. Thus to interpret Absolute Perfection makes Rational Theism at once inconsistent with itself and untrue to the religious experience it is concerned to formulate.
Rational Theism could of course achieve internal consistency in large measure at any rate if it were frankly to drop the mysterium aspect altogether thus releasing itself from the pressure to maintain the absoluteness of God's perfection. But to do this would be too plainly at variance with the testimony of religious experience and very few theists have had recourse to so drastic a remedy. They have rightly preferred to retain an unsolved problem rather than to take an easy way out which entails clear conflict with religious experience. A fact we have already noticed is significant in this connection; namely that even among the less well-disposed of Otto's theological brethren tribute is constantly paid to his outstanding perspicacity as a religious psychologist. This applause would be hardly intelligible if it were combined with decisive disapproval of the very thing which Otto's analysis of religious experience is chiefly concerned to establish viz. that for religious experience the object of worship is of a might and majesty and worth that transcend all human power of conception—of ‘a kind and character incommensurable with our own’. The note struck in Tersteegen's dictum that ‘a God comprehended is no God’ has seldom been absent for long from the course of theistic theology and it is certainly not lacking today. What is lacking in my opinion is sufficient ruthlessness and candour in following out its implications in the systems of doctrine that Rational Theists elaborate and present to the religious public as entitled to acceptance.
If I have somewhat harped upon what seems to me a fatal defect in Rational Theism it is because I suspect that there will be little disposition to view sympathetically the claims of theism in its supra-rational form until the grounds for dissatisfaction with its orthodox rational form are thoroughly appreciated. But I must confess I find it hard to see how intellectual dissatisfaction can really be avoided by anyone who reflects impartially upon a doctrine that is at its best so equivocal—on the one hand prepared to acknowledge when the question is directly faced that the Divine nature cannot be comprehended by finite minds and on the other hand assuming throughout its systematic theology that we can know a great deal about God's attributes and qualities. I am far from denying that religion on any discerning view of it has its ‘paradoxes’—inescapable paradoxes. Even so I cannot help feeling that it savours a little of obscurantism to use that term when what we appear to be confronted with is something that in plain English is called a self-contradiction.
2. And yet—may we perhaps be going too fast in taking for granted that a theism which is internally inconsistent cannot be the authentic expression of the religious consciousness? Is it a possible alternative that the religious consciousness itself involves self-contradiction that it is intrinsic to religious experience both to recognise the supra-rational character of its object and to think it in terms of rational concepts in their literal sense? Desperate as this expedient seems there are some religious minds to which it appears as at least less repugnant to believe that religion involves theoretical inconsistency than to believe (with supra-rational theism) that religion cannot legitimately mean just what it says when it calls God wise and just and merciful and loving. To them this is to empty religion of all genuine significance; and it is not to be denied that it does indeed entail the jettisoning of much that is taken by many good and devout minds to be central to religion. Nevertheless the acceptance of internal inconsistency in religion is surely a quite desperate alternative. There is no way of avoiding the conclusion that religion if it involves this defect is objectively false. If religious experience intrinsically requires subscription to logically incompatible propositions such as that God is beyond all human powers of conception and that God can legitimately be described by rational concepts in their literal sense then the question of ‘the truth of religion’ will for most people be already settled in the negative.
For my own part however I do not at all accept that religious experience involves subscription to logically incompatible propositions. It is I believe a mistake (though an easily understandable one) to suppose that religion is emptied of all meaning if we are denied any knowledge of God in terms of rational concepts literally interpreted. The demands of religion on its ‘rational’ side are very real; but they are adequately met in my submission if certain rational concepts can be shown to be valid symbols of the Divine Nature as is maintained by supra-rational theism. So I shall be arguing in what now follows. It will be a chief part of my endeavour to lay the spectre of nescience which seems for so many to haunt the notion of a ‘knowledge’ of God that is ‘merely symbolic’. To establish that these concepts though not literal portrayals of can yet reasonably be taken to be truly significant of the nature of God seems to me to be the chief thing required in order to break down the resistance to the acceptance of supra-rational theism as the true theoretic expression of religious experience. The further and all-important question whether supra-rational theism can be substantiated as objectively valid will be taken up thereafter and will occupy us almost exclusively throughout the last three lectures.
Now manifestly everything turns here upon the notion of ‘symbolic validity’. Let us then look for a little at the nature of symbols and try to specify the character as religious ‘symbols’ of the rational concepts which are our concern with a view to bringing out the precise sense in which these concepts may be said to possess ‘symbolic validity’ for the knowledge of God.
3. A ‘symbol’ may be roughly defined as anything that is mentally accepted as standing for something other than itself. There are a great many different kinds of symbols; but we shall try to keep our discussion within manageable bounds by noting only those distinctions most germane to our purpose.
We should distinguish first between ‘conventional’ symbols and ‘natural’ symbols. We may call a symbol ‘conventional’ if it is instituted as a symbol by a more or less formal act of agreement. This is perhaps the commonest type of symbol. Very often however some object or event is accepted by one or more persons as standing for something other than itself and as thus symbolising it without there being any formal agreement so to regard it. Thus a Rolls-Royce car is regarded by many persons as a symbol of worldly prosperity simply because as a striking and familiar manifestation of wealth it has a natural tendency to suggest worldly prosperity to their minds. We may call such symbols ‘natural’ as opposed to ‘conventional’. Conventional symbols in the nature of the case have a certain publicity of character. Natural symbols may be highly personal and indeed need not have force for more than a single person.
The line between conventional and natural symbols is not however a sharp one. In some cases it is hard to say with any confidence whether a particular object has or has not received a sufficiently formal sanction as a symbol to be properly styled ‘conventional’. Perhaps this is true indeed of the example we have just taken of a natural symbol—a Rolls-Royce car. Moreover what has once been only a natural symbol may in the course of time acquire formal sanction as a symbol and qualify as a conventional symbol.
A second and (for our purpose) more important distinction is that between ‘arbitrary’ symbols and ‘analogical’ symbols. We may call a symbol ‘arbitrary’ if there is nothing in the intrinsic meaning of the symbol to suggest that which it is chosen to symbolise—its symbolizandum. Mathematical symbols are of this kind. There is nothing in the English letter x which suggests an unknown quantity nothing in the Greek letter π to suggest the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. And most though not all words of most languages are ‘arbitrary’ symbols in this sense. We may call a symbol ‘analogical’ on the other hand if there is some recognised identity of character between symbol and symbolizandum in virtue of which the symbol has an intrinsic tendency to suggest to the mind what is to be symbolised. It is clear that only conventional symbols can be ‘arbitrary’ since those we classified as ‘natural’ depend for their acceptance as symbols upon some supposed identity of character between symbol and symbolised and are thus essentially analogical. But a great many conventional symbols also are analogical or at least have an analogical element. Flags are a familiar example of a conventional symbol but they are often also analogical symbols as in the ‘Skull and Cross-bones’ of the Pirate's flag or the ‘Hammer and Sickle’ of the Communist flag. The Parliamentary Mace is another obvious example of a conventional symbol with a strong analogical element. So is the circle as a symbol of infinitude. The presence of an analogical element in so many conventional symbols is not of course in any way surprising. There are manifest advantages in choosing as a symbol something that will tend by its intrinsic character to suggest that which we wish it to stand for.
It is clear also that if the analogical element in the symbol is to achieve its maximum effect the affinity of character between symbol and symbolizandum should be of a conspicuous sort and that the symbol itself should be something easily grasped by the mind. For this reason the symbol is most commonly something capable of sensory representation; not necessarily of course a sensory ‘object’; it may be an act or a gesture (e.g. raising one's arms in token of surrender) or perhaps a set of acts and gestures a ‘performance’ (as in many of the symbols of ritual). But conceptual elements are often present along with the sensory and they may be important. Allegories and parables are essentially symbolic but they require a measure of conceptual thinking for their apprehension. However the conceptual element in symbols tends to be kept as simple and as close to the sensuous as the nature of the case will allow. Clearly the symbol would lose its value as a symbol if it were itself no easier to grasp than what it symbolises.
One further distinction must be made to complete our necessary preliminaries. The thing to be symbolised is usually complex in character and is often something highly abstract but it is in most cases susceptible of clear conceptual grasp (though to attain this grasp may well involve a laborious and difficult intellectual operation). Sometimes however the nature of the symbolizandum is such that it cannot be grasped conceptually. In a work of art (in so far as a work of art can be taken as not merely containing symbols but as itself symbolising something—an obscure and perplexing question which I am happy not to have to discuss) what is symbolised does not admit of conceptual apprehension. It is told of the celebrated danseuse Tamara Karsavina that once when asked the ‘meaning’ of some more than usually complicated item in her repertoire she replied ‘If I could tell you in words I should not go to the so great trouble of dancing it’! An important consequence of this impossibility of conceptually apprehending the symbolizandum is that the symbol in such cases cannot be accepted by the mind as a symbol on the ground of a conceptually apprehended identity between it and the symbolizandum. And yet it is certainly not an arbitrary symbol; an identity is certainly recognised; but it must be a felt identity not a conceived identity.
4. Let us turn now to the symbols that are our especial business; those rational concepts like Power Value Love Justice Wisdom Mercy and Personality which theistic religions almost all predicate of God in some sense and which supra-rational theism insists ought to be regarded and can significantly be regarded as symbols only of a God whose ultimate nature transcends human powers of conception. It is easy enough to see under which of the distinctions we have marked they will fall. Evidently (if symbols at all) they will be natural rather than conventional symbols. They have not been deliberately instituted by any common agreement to serve as symbols for aspects or facets of the Divine but are (by some) accepted as such in virtue of their own intrinsic meaning. Again like all natural symbols they are not arbitrary but analogical symbols. Again they are by definition conceptual not sensory symbols (there are any number of sensory symbols also in religion but with these we are not here concerned). Finally it is plain that they belong to the class of symbols whose symbolizanda are not amenable to conceptual apprehension and whose identity with their symbolizanda must be felt rather than conceived.
But though these rational concepts regarded as religious symbols share the last-mentioned important characteristic with works of art regarded as aesthetic symbols we must be careful not to press too far the parallel between ‘religious’ and ‘aesthetic’ symbols. There are several important differences and one that is fundamental for our present theme. The relation of symbol to symholizandum in the work of art raises peculiarly baffling problems and I must confess to a good deal of doubt as to whether the language of symbolism is appropriate in this connection at all. But in so far as the work of art can be regarded as a symbol of anything it at least seems certain that it is not a symbol which is felt by the artist to be a weaker version of a ‘falling away from’ that which it is intended to symbolise. If the work of art is successful it is felt by the artist to express perfectly what he wants to express. Now it is obviously quite otherwise with the rational concepts that are accepted as symbols of the supra-rational God. It is of the very essence of the situation that they are taken to be imperfect representations of the symholizandum merely ‘the best we can do’ if we are to ‘think’ God at all. The symholizandum is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans in its numinous meaning and our inadequate conceptual pictures or ‘ideograms’ fall inevitably far short of that which they ‘symbolise’.
5. And now we are in a position to attack the crucial problem of symbolic validity. In what sense satisfactory to religion (if in any such sense) can these rational concepts be presumed to be valid symbols of their symbolizanda?
In an obvious sense of course all symbols are valid symbols in that (whether conventional or natural) they are genuinely indicative of their symbolizanda for those who accept them as symbols. But symbolic validity of this sort is only a subjective or personal validity holding good for some minds. This is quite inadequate to the needs of the present case. For religion clearly could not be content to accept a rational concept as a valid symbol of a supra-rational God simply on the ground that for some minds which happen to be circumstanced in a certain way it is taken to have sufficient identity of character with such a Being to serve as a symbol of Him. In order to be able to accept it as a valid symbol of God religion would rightly insist that its identity with God be shown to be not a ‘subjective’ identity conditioned by the particular circumstances of particular individuals but an identity that is in some intelligible sense objective or necessary. It must be a symbol that is valid not just for some minds but for mind. In short what has to be shown if these rational concepts are to be established as having symbolic validity in any sense that will be satisfactory to religion is that they have objective and not merely subjective validity as symbols of their symbolizanda.
But a word of caution should perhaps be interposed here. It must be borne in mind that it is the objective validity of these concepts only as symbols of their religious symbolizanda i.e. as symbols of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of religious experience that is our present concern. This is not to be confused with the question of the objective validity of these concepts as symbols of a reality that exists independently of religious experience. That is quite a different question—the question (in one form) of the objective validity of religious experience itself which we shall come to in due course. Our present question is a necessary prelude to this. It is the question whether from the standpoint of religion these concepts can be regarded as having objective validity as symbols of the Divine nature.
Very well then. Can it be shown that from the standpoint of a supra-rational theism (like Otto's) there is some kind of necessary identity between certain rational concepts and a supra-rational God and that these concepts have accordingly an objective validity as symbols? It seems to me that this can be shown. It was indeed the whole point of Otto's contention which we discussed in the last lecture that certain rational concepts are applied to God through what he calls an a priori schematism of numinous experience; that it is by ‘an inward necessity of the mind’ not by the accidental circumstances of particular minds that the identity (despite the difference) of these concepts with the nature of the supra-rational object of religious worship is affirmed. The basis of this inward necessity it will be recalled was the felt analogy between the emotions evoked by the numinous object and the emotions evoked by the ‘rational’ qualities in question. Whereas for example the emotion evoked by the ‘value’ aspect of the numinous object the mysterium fascinans is different not merely in intensity but in quality from the emotion evoked by value or goodness as we apprehend it in finite embodiments—a difference partially marked by the difference between such terms as adoration and reverence on the one hand and admiration love and respect on the other—there is a felt identity as well as difference between the two emotive responses. Anyone reflecting on a moment of deeply felt religious experience will I think confirm that his emotion of adoration felt like the natural emotions of admiration and love—that it pointed as it were in the same direction—while feeling not merely unlike but clean contrary to such natural emotions as contempt and hate—pointing as it were in the opposite direction.
Moreover that the recognition of such analogies is not just something fortuitous depending upon the personal circumstances of the individual but is an inner necessity of the mind would seem to find illustration in the whole history of religious experience. Everywhere and always on the basis presumably of this felt identity the religious consciousness interprets the object which evokes the religious emotion in terms of ‘the highest it knows’; i.e. in terms of the qualities that evoke such ‘natural’ emotions as admiration respect and love. This uniformity in the response of the religious consciousness throughout history may indeed be disguised by the almost infinite variety of the specific qualities that are ascribed to God by different religions. But the disguise is superficial. It would be absurd not to expect such variety since inevitably the qualities that are taken as manifesting the highest values will vary enormously according to the level of knowledge and culture and ethical enlightenment of different religious communities. Even if we took no account (as of course we can and in the end must) of the complication introduced by the tremendum element in religious experience which will undergo equally with the fascinans element a conceptual translation appropriate to the particular culture there would still be nothing strange in the fact that the gods of primitive communities have many features that to modern eyes are gross and repellent. Shocking as the cruder conceptions of deity may seem to us there is no theoretical difficulty in understanding them to be the worshipper's conceptual translation of the numinous. There is a long road to travel in the development of homo sapiens before he can be expected to interpret the mysterium tremendum et fascinansas an Infinite and Eternal Spirit with the attributes of the God of Christianity; and startling differences in overt content should not be permitted to blind us to the underlying but very real identity of substance.
Now if this be indeed the situation if the religious consciousness is subject to an inward necessity of the mind to symbolise its object in terms of certain ‘rational’ concepts at the same time as it humbly acknowledges that the real nature of God transcends all possible human conception then it seems to me that there is good justification for the claim that these concepts have objective validity as symbols of their symbolizandum. For their propriety as symbols is determined not subjectively by anyone's personal choice and private history but objectively by the very constitution of the human mind. The human mind qua religious cannot butthink its object in these terms even while it fully recognises their utter inadequacy as literal representations.
And after all is there from the religious point of view anything at all surprising or at all objectionable in the notion that the Creator has so made us that our knowledge of Him is not so to speak face to face apprehension but only through the medium of symbols which are indicative of the Divine Nature but not literal portrayals of it? For myself I can see nothing strange and nothing derogatory to the dignity of God or man in such a situation. I should have thought that this kind of knowledge was eminently appropriate to the creature in respect of its Creator. Would not the strange thing rather be (I am tempted to say the incredible thing) if finite temporal man were capable of comprehending as He truly is the Infinite and Eternal Spirit that is God?
6. It may help to elucidate further the position of supra-rational theism with respect to knowledge of God if we now compare it briefly with the familiar doctrine of via negativa so much favoured in mystical writings. The essence of this doctrine is that since the positive ascription to God of determinate predicates implies a limitation in that which is ex hypothesi completely perfect the least misleading way of talking about God is by the denial to Him of all determinate predicates whatsoever no matter how exalted. ‘God is neither this nor that’ says Eckhart. ‘He the Self the Atman is to be described by “No! No!” only’ say the Upanishads.1
But while there is important truth in this doctrine of universal negation it must I think if it is not to mislead be supplemented by the equally important truth that not all of the negations have for the religious consciousness the same status. Positive value terms—Justice Love Mercy and the like—are negated because of their felt inadequacy to God whose value is transcendent and ineffable; whereas disvalue. terms—Injustice Hatred Cruelty and the like—are negated not just because of their felt inadequacy but also and primarily because of their felt contrariety to the Divine nature. Clearly there is a vital difference between negations which proceed upon such different principles; and it is precisely because there is this difference to which the religious consciousness bears consistent witness that it makes sense to say that the value terms e.g. Justice Love and Mercy though not literally applicable to God are applicable to Him in a ‘symbolic’ significance. Were it not for this felt difference of principle within negation there would be no case for holding that there is even symbolic knowledge about God. It would be no more justifiable to think of Him in terms of what human beings deem good than in terms of what human beings deem bad. We should then indeed be left with sheer nescience.
Just as it is misleading to say that God's nature can only be indicated by negation of all determinate predicates and leave it at that so too it is misleading to say without careful qualification that God because supra-rational and supra-moral is ‘beyond good and evil’. For such language can easily be taken to mean that the Divine nature has no more affinity with the one than with the other. And this as I hope I have shown is by no means an implication of supra-rational theism. On the contrary the recognition of the special affinity of the Divine nature with goodness is implied in the recognition of the analogy between the emotion which the conception of good evokes in us and the emotion which the mysterium fascinans evokes in us; a felt analogy that is in the sharpest contrast with the felt antithesis between the emotions which the concept of evil and the mysterium fascinans respectively evoke in us. To be supra-moral is by no means to be non-moral. A God that is neutral between good and evil is emphatically not the God of supra-rational theism.
7. I shall be forgiven I hope if I dwell a little longer on this perplexing but utterly central problem of symbolic or analogical knowledge in religion. In my judgment at any rate it is almost impossible to exaggerate its importance for any serious theistic philosophy or theistic religion. I doubt whether even the naivest forms of fundamentalism can in the end avoid pronouncing or implying at some point that the human mind has to be content with symbols or analogies or ideograms or metaphors—the particular term preferred is immaterial—for its knowledge of God. We ought therefore to spare no pains to assure ourselves that symbolic or analogical knowledge does really mean something in religion and mean something important.
I want therefore to look rather carefully now at an argument which might it seems to me be directed against our position with considerable plausibility; an argument which if sound carries with it the conclusion that analogical knowledge in the particular case that is our concern is virtually worthless. It might perhaps be stated as follows:
Analogy implies difference as well as likeness between the analogates. Now it would seem on reflection that if analogical knowledge of a quality is to be of any real worth it is vital that we should be in possession of information (as we generally are) about the respects in which the particular quality is like its analogate and the respects in which it is unlike it. For suppose we know only that there is a likeness. In that event it may well be the case for all we can tell that the likeness to the analogate is quite trivial as compared with its unlikeness. For example stinginess is in some respects like thrift and in some respects unlike it; but the unlikeness so far outweighs the likeness in importance that we take up totally different attitudes towards the two qualities condemning the one as a vice while approving the other as a virtue. Now the peculiarity of the case that is our special concern our analogical knowledge of the ‘value’ pertaining to the supra-rational God is that we do not know in what respects the Divine ‘value’ is like its analogate ‘Value’ as we ordinarily conceive it; for ex hypothesi we have no conceptual knowledge of the Divine nature which would enable us to institute the necessary comparison. It follows that the unknown difference between Divine value and its analogate may be of such a sort that if it were known to us our attitude towards them would be transformed—just as in the case of stinginess and thrift where we do know in what respects the analogates are like and unlike one another our attitude towards the one is utterly different from our attitude towards the other. But if that is so does it not follow that our analogical knowledge of Divine value is virtually worthless?
I think the answer to this objection lies in principle in seeing that value is not the kind of quality that can be ‘like’ another quality at all; that in fact nothing can be like value save value itself. In order for any quality A to be like another quality B there must be at least one more general quality X of which both A and B can be regarded as species; as e.g. stinginess is like thrift in that each can be regarded as a species of the quality ‘saving’. And that obviously is the condition of the great bulk of qualities—that there is at least one genus of which they are species. But is valuea quality of this kind? I think not. A particular form of value such as economic value aesthetic value or moral value of course is. Each is a species of the genus value and is accordingly like (and unlike) each of the other species of the genus. But the genus of which they are species value as such cannot it seems to me be so regarded. For there is no more general quality (so far as I can see) of which value can be said to be a species and which would make it possible for us to say that value is ‘like’ (and ‘unlike’) some other species of that quality. (This is not necessarily to imply it should be noted that those philosophers are in the right who say that value is a ‘simple’ quality where ‘simplicity’ is understood to exclude relations. Value may very well be a relational quality intrinsically involving perhaps a relation to human desire. What is important for the argument is not that value be simple but that it be ultimate in the sense that there is no genus of which it is a species.)
Now if this be granted and nothing is like value save value itself it follows that the Divine quality which we take to be analogous to value as we ordinarily conceive it is in fact value as we ordinarily conceive it. But in one respect this result looks rather disconcerting. It would appear as if we had escaped from one difficulty only to land ourselves in another just as formidable. For have we not all along been insisting on the significant difference as well as identity between ‘human’ value and Divine value? Indeed was it not on that very account that we found it necessary to say that we have only ‘analogical’ knowledge of the Divine quality? How can we maintain that nothing is like value except value itself and at the same time assert that value as ascribed to God is genuinely different from value as we conceive it in ordinary human experience?
But a solution of this difficulty is perhaps not so very hard to seek. For does not value as we ordinarily conceive it point beyond itself for its own perfect realisation? Our human aspirations after value cannot find absolute fulfilment so long as any imperfection remains in our state. Now this entails that absolute fulfilment is achievable not in any finite mode of being but only in an infinitude or self-completeness of being that transcends our human condition. In other words the ideal consummation of ‘human’ value itself lies in a state qualitatively different from any conceivable human value. But if that be the situation the recognition that nothing is like value save value itself is not incompatible with the recognition that Divine value is ‘like’ human value and is yet in a very important sense different from it. For the ‘difference’ in the case is a difference within a general identity. It is the difference between the value man aspires after in its imperfect expressions in finite life and that same value in its completely perfect realisation.
This way of interpreting the likeness and the difference between value as we ordinarily conceive it and Divine value seems to me to solve our problem and also to coincide perfectly with the testimony of religious experience. What for religious experience distinguishes the value of the religious object from value in any finite embodiment is precisely that the former is value absolute—the perfect satisfaction or consummation of our value aspirations. As such as absolute it is felt to be a value that transcends human conception since all conceived value has the limitations that attach to the finite mode of being and is accordingly incapable in principle of completely satisfying our value aspirations. Appropriately this value absolute which transcends human conception has for religious experience the note of mystery that belongs to the numinous.
There is no need to defend in detail against the same criticism the significance of analogical knowledge of God in respect of the other of the two ultimate qualities ascribed by religion to the Divine mysterium viz. Power. For it seems clear that a precisely parallel line of argument is in order. Power like value though it has species is not itself a species of any more general quality and thus cannot be ‘like’ any other quality. And Power too points beyond any finite embodiment of itself for its own complete fulfilment; so that power ‘absolute’ is qualitatively distinct from power as finitely embodied and yet is rightly deemed to be ‘like’ power as finitely embodied since the difference between the two falls within the power concept itself. And as in the case of value this interpretation of the likeness and difference between human and Divine power seems to correspond perfectly with the testimony of religious experience.
8. Let me now bring this lecture to a close with a few words of reminder about what we have been trying to do in it. We have not been trying to prove that supra-rational theism is objectively true. The discussion of that problem will be begun in the next lecture. We have been trying to show only that supra-rational theism is valid as the theoretical expression of religion; valid in the sense that we have in it the logical terminus ad quern of reflection upon the object of religious experience and its implications. The most formidable obstacle to acceptance of this view we considered was its entailment that theological doctrines are debarred from claiming anything better than a ‘symbolic’ knowledge of God. We therefore devoted most of our time to trying to remove misgivings about the significance and value of ‘symbolic’ knowledge in a theistic context and to trying to show that this is as clearly distinguishable from mere nescience as it is from knowledge in the strict sense. If it be so distinguishable our submission is that religion has nothing whatever to lose and has very much to gain by a frank recognition that the qualities it ascribes to God have to be understood as only symbols or ideograms of the Divine Nature. I do not myself believe that this conclusion conflicts in any way with the general mood of religion however sharply it may conflict with the main trends of dogmatic theology. When the plain question is put ‘Which is the more fit object of worship a God whose power and goodness are in principle beyond human comprehension or a God whose power and goodness differ not in kind but only in degree from the power and goodness to be found in His creation?’ I confess I find it difficult to understand how a religious mind could hesitate long about giving its preference to the former.
From the book: