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Chapter IV: The Epistemological Status of Faith

§ 15

What we do when we ‘reason things out’ is to try to bring to the light of full consciousness the real nature and interior grounds of such knowledge as we already have, and thus to add further knowledge to it. This effort is a very arduous one and can never achieve complete success. Even in the case of my simplest and most elementary pieces or acts of knowledge, it is not quite easy to ‘reason out’ how I have come by them. I have no difficulty at all in distinguishing the real world from the world of my dreams, but when I am asked how I do this, I am more than likely to give a wrong answer; and indeed philosophers and psychologists have long argued about it. Or when, crouching in the water-meadow, I see the trees through the reeds, and am asked just how and why I know the trees to be longer than the reeds, though they appear much smaller, it requires careful thought to get the answer quite right. Moreover, I am to the end much surer of the knowledge I am analysing than of the added knowledge that comes from my analysis of it. Knowledge gained by later inference can never have the same certitude as that contained in direct experience.

When, however, we pass to the subtler regions of our experience, this becomes far more evident. I know that a certain landscape or painting or building or poem or musical melody is beautiful, but if I am asked to say why it is beautiful, or wherein its beauty consists, I do my best to answer but I shall in this case despair of ever getting my answer quite right, and certainly I shall never be so sure of the correctness and adequacy of my analytical theory as I am of my original judgement. Or again if, in an act of comparison, I judge Shakespeare's blank verse to be better than Tennyson's (or Martin Tupper's), I may do my best to say why, but I shall be far from staking the justice of my preference on the success of my later explication of its implicit grounds. Still again, my knowledge that it is my duty to help my neighbour who is in need is attended by far greater certitude than is the ethical theory I construct to explain why this should be so. Even John Stuart Mill was much more assured where his duty lay in this matter than of the correctness of his hedonistic explanation of it. And to consider one more instance, when I say about some new acquaintance ‘I trust that man’, and am asked to say why, I may in this case find it almost impossible to give any answer, and certainly my confidence in the man will be greater than in the adequacy of any tentative explanation of it I may venture to offer. This, incidentally, is one of Newman's examples of the illative sense—‘the intuitive perception of character possessed by certain men, while others are destitute of it’.1

Even our most direct perception of reality, corporeal or otherwise, is indeed far from infallible. We have already allowed that it is not easy to attach certitude to any single such perception. Nevertheless we have claimed that each field of our percipient experience is transfused with certitude. If there is not certitude here, there is none anywhere. Starting from such knowledge as is thus already in our possession, we proceed to draw inferences from it, but the inferred knowledge cannot have the same quality of certitude; and the more elaborate the chain of inferences required to reach it, the less assurance we have in respect of it. There may always be an error in our logic, a neglected alternative perhaps, and the further our speculation goes, the greater is the possibility of such error. All in all, therefore, the seat of human wisdom will always remain with our intuited rather than with our inferred knowledge of our human situation.

§ 16

This brings us to the much discussed question of verification. When this word is spoken, we think first of its use by the natural scientists. These proceed by forming hypotheses which go beyond our immediate experience in attempting to systematize and explain it. They say, ‘Let us suppose this or this to be true of the things we experience.’ They then test the truth of the supposal by returning to their experience of these things and seeing whether it accords with it, correlating different parts of it in a way of which they had not previously been aware; and to this end they frequently arrange for themselves special little complexes of experiences in a carefully planned pattern and sequence—they call them experiments, but that is only another form of the same word. If the supposal in question turns out to be in accord with these experiences and really to correlate them, it is said to be verified. Among the many hypotheses for which verification is thus claimed are, for instance, that the air is a mixture of two different gases, that water is a compound of two different gases, that the earth revolves round the sun, and that the human race is genealogically related to the apes.

Those who are anxious to persuade us that we should accept nothing as true unless it can be verified usually mean that it must be verified in this particular way. To begin with, however, we must remember that pre-scientific common sense has its own much simpler variant and anticipation of this scientific procedure. If I look out of my window in Edinburgh in the month of January and ‘see’ a tulip in bloom in my garden, I certainly do not at once accept this apparent perception as veridical, but I go out into my garden to look again more closely, and I may then see the supposed tulip as only a fragment of Christmas bunting which has been discarded and caught in the wind. You may call that a case of experimental verification, and you may also say, if you like, that when I first saw the object, I merely ‘supposed’ it to be a tulip and that I was therefore putting forward what was in essence a scientific hypothesis. ‘There is nothing perverse or paradoxical’, writes Professor Ayer, ‘about the view that all the “truths” of science and common sense are hypotheses.’2

In all this, however, we are still dealing with our knowledge of the corporeal world, but what the empiricists are accustomed to claim is that no knowledge can be accepted as true unless it is capable of verification with reference to the same region of experience as that with which natural science deals, namely, that gained through the bodily senses. ‘Every factual proposition’, Professor Ayer next tells us, in distinguishing these from what he calls merely emotive utterances, ‘must refer to sense experience.’3 But against this I would submit that, whereas indeed our ethical, aesthetic and religious knowledge is capable of verification and should constantly be subjected to such, this must be carried out by a return, not to our experience of corporeal reality, but, as the case may be, to our ethical, aesthetic or religious experience itself. The demand we should make of our judgements in these fields is, as Professor Niebuhr has said, that they should be ‘verifiable on their own level’.4 If, for example, I listen to a new piece of music and am inclined to judge it beautiful, how do I proceed to ‘verify’ this judgement? Obviously by returning to the experience, by hearing the piece over and over again, by living with it. I can and do indeed bring such knowledge of musical theory as I possess to bear upon my judgement, and in this way I may be stimulated to some revision, perhaps even to a reversal, of the judgement. But this can be only if, through my theoretical analysis of it, I am first led to a revision of the experience itself, so that I no longer have the same perception of beauty as I had before. Musical theory is itself drawn from musical experience and from nothing else, and can be verified in no other way than by appeal to such experience. I read also with some eagerness what the critics have to say about that particular piece of music, and I am interested to know what is thought about it by lovers of music in general, and if these find little beauty in it, I may be much shaken in my own judgement, but clearly this does not settle the issue for me, or conclude the process of verification, unless or until what they say leads me myself to hear the music differently from before; just as it may be somebody else's scepticism that prompts me to have a closer look at the supposed tulip in the garden and to see it now as what it really is. If I cannot myself hear the music differently, and if yet I remain shaken in my judgement through the suspicion that their faculty of musical perception may be more developed than my own, then my only recourse must be to train myself in such perception by listening to more and more music. And of course what I have here said about musical appreciation applies equally to our judgement in respect of all other arts. Each is verifiable only by an appeal to the region of experience out of which it arose.

§ 17

But the same principles apply also to our ethico-religious judgements. These, as we have seen, are judgements relating to ‘our ultimate concern’. They too are verifiable, but in their own kind and on their own level. They are verified by appeal to our ethico-religious experience and to that alone; and certainly not by appeal to our sensible experience of the corporeal world.

The proper name of religious experience is faith. It is by faith that we apprehend the things of God. ‘Faith is the evidence of things unseen.’5 There was lately a tendency among certain theologians to say that our faith is founded on our religious experience—to say, for example, that we believe God forgives sins because we have experienced the forgiveness of our own sins, or that we believe in prayer because our own prayers have been answered. It would, however, be truer to say that only by believing in a God who forgives sins can we experience the forgiveness of our own; and that only through faith, only by believing in a God who answers prayer, can we have experience of our own prayers being answered. We must ‘make our requests known to God’,6 but it is contrary to all true faith to suppose that we may hold him to a particular way of responding. It would be frightening to take upon ourselves that measure of responsibility. My own son, when he was small, was forward enough in requesting things of me, but if I had given him everything he asked, just because he asked it and without using maturer judgement to determine what would be best for him to have, I think that even at that tender age he might have been afraid to ask anything at all—and certainly, when he himself came to a maturer understanding, he would have reproached me with having neglected my parental duty towards him. As somebody has put it: ‘If God granted me the form of my petition, He would be denying me the substance of my desire.’ In my own undergraduate days I had a friend in my college year who had fallen deeply in love with a girl whom we both knew and whom he hoped afterwards to marry. He used to pray fervently that the girl might be led to respond to his love, and I remember how he would confess to me that he would make this a test case for the validity of the faith in which he had been brought up. If this request were refused, if the lady remained as indifferent to his advances as she then appeared to be, he would no longer believe in God. As it turned out, he made no progress with his suit, but I hope (for I believe him to be still alive) that he has now been granted a truer faith to which the thought of that kind of ‘verificatory experiment’ would be wholly repugnant.

The reason why we must not say that faith is based on religious experience is that religious experience, if it is authentic, already contains faith. Faith is the cognitive element in it, on which the accompanying emotional and volitional elements are utterly dependent. The other way of speaking and thinking has given rise to so strong a reaction against it in the minds of many contemporary theologians, not least those of the Barthian school, that they will not allow themselves to speak of ‘religious experience’ at all. But while fully sharing their reasons, I cannot agree with them in this result. Faith is experience but, like all veridical experience, it is determined for us and produced in us by something not ourselves. We cannot make ourselves believe and we should not try. If it is veridical at all, faith is the gift of God. On the other hand, instead of speaking of faith as a mode of experience, I am equally willing to speak of it as a mode of primary apprehension.

How then, we are asked, are judgements of faith to be verified, so that we may know whether they are true or false? But here we must make a distinction such as will lead us to answer the question in two different parts. The phrase ‘judgements of faith’ might mean either of two things. My old teacher, Wilhelm Herrmann of Marburg, always insisted on distinguishing between what he called the Glaubensgrund and the Glaubensgedanken; and my other theological teacher, Hugh Ross Mackintosh, used to work with the perhaps slightly different distinction between ‘the immediate utterances of faith’ and ‘the further implicates of faith’. The not dissimilar distinction I wish to draw is between our Christian faith itself and those theological judgements which, though having no other justification than that they rest upon faith and are seen to be implied in it, are nevertheless drawn out and made explicit only by later reflection.7 Formally regarded, this distinction is parallel to that between our commonsense knowledge of the corporeal world and the added and refined knowledge of it which science yields; and we must remember with Professor Macmurray that ‘The conclusions of some centuries of scientific research into the characteristics of matter constitute only a minute portion of our knowledge of the physical world.’8 It is formally parallel also to the distinction between aesthetic appreciation and the theory of aesthetics—between for instance, our delight in music and musical theory. We must not indeed make the mistake of thinking that in any of these cases an entirely sharp dividing line can be drawn between the two kinds of apprehension, or even of thinking that the line, such as it is, is equally well defined in each case. Something of rudimentary scientific reflection is contained in all our commonsense apprehension of the physical world; some aesthetical theory is contained in all appreciation of beauty; and even more obviously is it true that some theological reflection is contained in even the simplest kind of ‘simple faith’.

This being understood, however, the distinction between faith and theology still stands, and we must therefore first ask How are theological judgements verified? But if we are already agreed that all theoretical judgements are to be verified by a return to the area of primary apprehension (or experience) which first suggested them, then our answer must be that theological judgements can be verified only by a return to the area of primary apprehension which we call faith. We are constantly being reminded by contemporary philosophers that the true significance of any statement is best understood from a consideration of the kind of verification which it demands. With regard to the propositions of physical science this principle may now be taken as generally accepted. ‘The meaning of a scientific statement’, wrote the late Professor Eddington, ‘is to be ascertained by reference to the steps which would be taken to verify it.’9 But the philosophers desire to extend the same principle to all statements; as for example Professor Ayer:

We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express—that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as false.10

I think the philosophers are right. Certainly there is no better way of ascertaining the true import of a theological doctrine than by asking what exactly it is in faith's apprehension of the divine which has led to its being put forward and by reference to which it can afterwards be checked. No doctrine has any right of place within a system of Christian theology unless it can make good its claim to yield the best available explication of some constituent strand of that knowledge of God which has been revealed to the Christian community and received and enjoyed by faith; and it is only by appeal to this existent knowledge, which is precedent to all doctrinal or dogmatic formulation, that the true meaning and relevance of any doctrine or dogma can be understood.

The formal pattern of the verificatory procedure is thus the same in theology as in physical science, the difference being that in the latter case the appeal is to what is ‘revealed’ to ordinary sense perception, but in the former to what is revealed to the ‘eye’ of faith. And as to the deepening and refining of faith itself, all that was said above about the deepening and refining of our aesthetic appreciation may now mutatis mutandis be applied to this also. Just as there is no way of developing a juster sense of what is excellent in poetry except by living with poetry, by hearing and reading more and more of it, so there is no way of deepening and refining our faith, save by living the life of faith, which is the same as to say by being more humbly open to receive, and more diligently prepared to attend to, what is being divinely revealed to us. Yet here also, just as in the other case, we shall do well to hear what others have to say; not placing too much reliance upon our own individual divinings, but allowing these to be tested in relation to the fuller and maturer faith of our fellow believers, of the religious community to which we belong, and of the long tradition in which we stand; though here again such a process avails for us only in so far as we are thus enabled to see things differently for ourselves, so that our own personal faith is thereby deepened and refined. Even of natural science this is true. The scientist is not content if it is only by his own individual experience of the external world that he can verify his results. He does not much trust his own perceptions if others perceive nothing similar.

§ 18

But the philosophers will further press their challenge, applying their principle not only to the question how we can ascertain the meaning of a statement, but also to the question how we can acquire any right to hold it. We must not, they will say, believe anything unless we are able to define some experience or experiences which we would accept in refutation of it. Under what circumstances, they will ask, would we be willing to abandon the doctrine we now profess? If there are no such circumstances, then the doctrine in question cannot be grounded on veridical experience of any sort, since a statement which is consistent with every conceivable possibility obviously tells us nothing about actuality. Here are two brief formulations of this challenge from the pens of two different contributors to the same volume of essays:

What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God? If, then, religious ‘statements’ are compatible with anything and everything, how can they be statements? How can the honest enquirer find out what they mean, if nobody will tell him what they are incompatible with?11

In accepting this challenge, it may be necessary to begin by repeating that a body of doctrine which was not in the first place derived from empirical observation of the corporeal world, and which makes no claim to have been so derived, obviously cannot find its verification or falsification in a return to such observation; for to insist that it should is merely to reiterate the former dogmatic assumption, with which we have already fully dealt, that (apart, no doubt, from our apprehension of analytic propositions, such as those of mathematics) we have no knowledge of anything save the corporeal world. This state of the case may be obscured from us by the fact that the Bible, the total contents of which have often been identified with that revelation on which Christian doctrine is founded, does undeniably contain many affirmations which are capable of being tested, and in some part also refuted, by appeal to scientific results resting ultimately on the evidence of the bodily senses. So long as these remained unchallenged by advancing scientific and historical knowledge, the stimulus was lacking to make the necessary discrimination between them and the authentic message of revelation with which they were intertwined, but this discrimination is now a commonplace of theological procedure. It is now agreed by responsible theologians that for our knowledge of such things as can be perceived by the senses, for our knowledge of ‘things seen’, we are dependent alone on the evidence of those senses and the scientific reflection that builds on such evidence. Needless to say, this does not mean that faith has nothing to say about the corporeal world. It has very much to say. There is a Christian doctrine of the body and there is a Christian doctrine of the world, but the affirmations which these contain are not such as a truly empirical physical science would ever venture either to affirm or to deny.

Sufficient evidence that circumstances can be defined which would force the theologian to the surrender of any particular theological proposition (as distinct from the primary apprehensions of faith which I would not regard as particular theological propositions, and of which more anon) is furnished by the fact that the truth or falsity of these is all the time being discussed by theologians and that such discussion does in fact very often lead to their surrender. Protestant theology at least is constantly changing its mind, and certainly individual Protestant theologians are constantly changing theirs. One instance of this has just been mentioned: most Protestant theologians have now surrendered the doctrine that Holy Scripture is inerrant. To take another example, I remember listening in my student days to a three-way debate involving those who supported the doctrine of everlasting punishment and those who supported the doctrine of universal salvation, as well as those who supported the doctrine of conditional immortality with the extinction of the obdurately wicked; and I remember that my interest on that occasion was not so much in the particular issue disputed as in taking careful note of the type of consideration to which each of the disputants was making appeal for the settlement of the issue, the type of consideration which he was bringing forward in the hope that it would convince the others, and the type of consideration which, if it could be substantiated, he seemed most likely to be willing to accept as a refutation of his own conviction. Since then I have often listened to other discussions with something of the same (I fear rather academic) interest, as recently when the disputed question was whether infants are regenerated in baptism, and again when the question was whether the statement ‘Jesus is God’ is a true way of speaking when standing by itself in this simple form. I think in all these cases I would have found it possible to define a body of evidence, or a type of consideration which, if it could be convincingly produced, would have been accepted by each disputant in refutation of the view he was defending; yet in no case would it be evidence drawn from what could be perceived by the bodily senses or from the discoveries of physical science. The ultimate appeal was always from the particular theological proposition to the Glaubensgrund, to the primary apprehension by faith of God's revelation of himself in Jesus Christ, about which there was no dispute, because by the grace of God all were alike held by it. Where they differed was only as to whether the particular proposition did or did not inevitably follow from that primary apprehension, was in some sort contained in it, or was at least fully consistent with it.

§ 19

It is clear, then, that when particular theological statements are challenged, they are habitually referred for their verification or falsification to that which they were originally designed to explicate, namely, faith's primary apprehension of the divine. But now our positivist philosophers will press their question further back and will ask what we would accept in refutation of, and as wholly discrediting, that primary apprehension itself. What positive grounds can we have for our faith, if we can conceive and define no grounds which would tell against it? A faith that is consistent with everything possible is not a faith in anything actual.

We speak here of faith itself (as distinguished from the many theological propositions which claim to ground themselves upon it) as being a single apprehension, a single disposition of the believing mind. This appears to be justified. Christian faith does not consist in believing a list, short or long, of disparate and mutually detachable things. It is a single illumination, a single reception of and commitment to the light revealed. ‘This faith’, as the Westminster Confession says, ‘is different in degrees, weak or strong’;12 but it is always faith in the same reality; and its essence is trust in that reality—a trustful commitment leading to obedience to its claims. This is what pistis means in the New Testament.

When therefore we are asked under what circumstances we should be forced to surrender our faith, we are really being asked under what circumstances we would find ourselves altogether discrediting a whole mode of primary apprehensions which we have hitherto regarded as veridical. The question is thus formally parallel, not to the question as to what would lead me to the reversal of a particular judgement of sense perception or a particular scientific conclusion, but to the question as to what would lead me to distrust my sense perception as a whole and consequently to surrender my belief in the objectivity of the corporeal world. Or again it is parallel, not to the question how I come to revise my particular aesthetic judgements, but to the question what would lead to so complete a destruction of my sense of beauty that for me there would be no longer any distinction between the beautiful and the ugly at all. Or once more it is parallel (though indeed to my thinking this is not so much a parallel as part of the same thing), not to the question how I might come to think that I was not really under some particular moral obligation which I had hitherto considered binding, but to the question how I might conceivably come to think that I was not obliged to do or to be any one thing rather than another.

These are all questions for which it is very difficult to find an answer; and not least the question how I can be quite sure (as I am) that what I call my waking life is not after all a dream, so that the supposed corporeal world (including my fellow men by whose independent witness I might otherwise test the objectivity of my own individual hearing and seeing) is not ‘there’ at all. It would appear that the veridical nature of any primary mode of apprehension cannot be tested by reference to anything outside itself. Each must carry its own witness or must collapse. If the trust we repose in it be not self-authenticating, there is no other apparent way of authenticating it.13

Thus when we are asked to conceive and define a set of circumstances which would lead to a total dissipation of the faith that is in us, we can only remind ourselves of how that faith was first gained and how it has continued to be nourished. As we have already indicated, our faith was born within us through our divining a profounder meaning in certain encountered events than is evident to our ordinary senses. Through the impact of these events we found ourselves apprehending a reality which evidenced itself as such by setting a resistant limit to the free expansion of our own desires, constraining us to a recognition of its sovereign claim. It follows that faith would be lost only if this primary apprehension should itself utterly fail, if we were no longer able to discover any such meaning in any events but came to regard the whole of our experience and everything that has ever happened as a meaningless jumble.

The answer is as simple as that. Nor was there any need to guess at it. For if faith has in fact ever been lost, we know that that is how it happened. We know also that our own faith is being constantly ‘tried’; that, as the Westminster Confession says, it ‘may often and many ways be assailed and weakened’.14 And we know how this comes about. Faith is ‘tried’ as often as we are confronted with events in which it is difficult to believe that there is any divine meaning. ‘As for me’, cries the writer of the seventy-third psalm, ‘my feet were almost gone, my steps had well nigh slipped… when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.’15 Trials of this kind are always with us in some degree; for we cannot hope so to penetrate each single event as to find meaning in it. One of the things it is given faith to see is that God's ‘judgements are unsearchable, and his ways past finding out’,16 that the divine strategy is so grand in its conception that (as we might say) the private soldier cannot be expected to understand all its moves—and indeed that it would be far from grand if he could.

But the psalmist, it will be remembered, recovered his foothold when he ‘went into the sanctuary of God’ and was given the reminder ‘Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand.’17 Here is another instance, also from the Psalms:

Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more?

Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fail for evermore?

Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?

And I said, This is my infirmity; but I will remember the years of the right hand of the most High.

I will remember the works of the Lord; surely I will remember the wonders of old.

I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings.18

This means that certain highly significant encounters yield the assurance that even those other encounters which are most opaque to our understanding and appear least patient of an interpretation consonant with trust in God, are nevertheless charged with divine meaning; nor is the harbouring of such assurance out of accord, on its own level, with familiar ‘empirical’ procedure. As A. N. Whitehead wrote in a well-known passage,

Religion claims that its concepts, though derived primarily from special experiences, are yet of universal validity, to be applied by faith to the ordering of all experience. Rational religion appeals to the direct intuition of special occasions, and to the elucidatory power of its concepts for all occasions. It arises from what is special, but it extends to what is general.19

That distinguished sociologist, the late Karl Mannheim, has taught us to speak of such highly significant encounters as ‘paradigmatic experiences’. ‘The religious focus’, he writes, ‘… is a way of interpreting life from the centre of some paradigmatic experience.’20 The faith of Israel in the prophetic period had its focus in the paradigmatic event of the Exodus or the paradigmatic constellation of events represented by the Exodus, the journey through the wilderness and the entry into the Promised Land. Christian faith finds its focus in the paradigmatic event of Christ's Advent or in the paradigmatic constellation of His Advent, Passion, Cross, Resurrection and Exaltation, and the Coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. Thus if Christian faith is ever completely lost, it must be either because certain events are now encountered whose contrary witness is so overpowering as altogether to undermine our reliance upon these paradigmatic events, or else because the divine significance of the paradigmatic events themselves now evaporates from our mind, whether as a result of further consideration of them or from negligently ceasing to think of them at all. Either way it may be said that a man loses his faith only if he now sees things differently from how he had formerly seen them; and, save that it is a different kind of seeing which is here in question, it is in this way also that the physical scientist comes to reject beliefs which he had formerly entertained.

The naïveté of the demand of the positivist philosophers that the deliverances of faith should be verifiable by reference to ordinary sense perception has often made me wonder. In reality nothing could be more stultifying to faith, or more repugnant to the New Testament understanding of it, than that it should thus become part of the most matter-of-fact common sense, requiring nothing for its nourishment but sufficient intelligence to take in what the bodily senses reveal and to understand the agreed results to which the natural scientists are led through their closer and more co-ordinated observation. Faith would thus shine with no brighter radiance in the saint than in the sinner, in the most spiritually-minded than in the most negligent of their spiritual condition. But ‘the secret of the Lord is with them that fear him’;21 and, as St Paul says, ‘spiritual things are spiritually discerned’.22

§ 20

But the question suggests itself. Is faith ever completely lost? We should find it difficult to believe that any man ever experiences the complete dissipation of that mode of primary apprehension which informs him of the reality of the corporeal world; but do some men experience the complete dissipation of this other mode of primary apprehension which alone can inform them of the meaning of existence? If they do, it should perhaps not surprise us too much, because faith is a tender plant in comparison with sense perception. It may be said that the grosser the reality with which we are concerned, the less likely is it to be corroded by the acids of our scepticism. Our awareness of so-called brute fact needs little to fan its flame. Our more delicate perceptions of truth more easily flicker towards extinction if insufficiently nourished.

Nevertheless it is not so certain as is sometimes made to appear that the apprehension of an ultimate meaning in life ever completely fails in any man whose use of his mental powers is still fully alert, though it may, alas, approach vanishing-point in some who have been left by the inhumanity of their fellows to languish in a degrading penury and debilitating inanition. We have already said that there has apparently never been a culture to which some disposition of faith was not native. Certainly our own culture has such a disposition as part of its foundation. Here is a pleasing parable of this:

Viewing a church tower from a train, we almost accept it as a natural growth. We say the church fits in with the landscape, though it would be correcter to say the landscape fits in with the church, which is likely to be older, built before field-pattern was formed or tree-clump planted.23

Not a few of our latter-day intellectuals (including some whose names I have already mentioned) may indeed be found protesting that they have rid themselves of the last vestigial, shred of faith, the life they live being unaffected by any clue to its ultimate meaning. But I am by no means always inclined to take their word for this, for it is open to me, without discourtesy, to suspect that they are incorrectly analysing their own spiritual condition. I should look to their deeds as well as to their words, to their behaviour when they are off their intellectual guard as well as to their merely theoretical conclusions about themselves; just as there are others about whom it would have to be said, ‘They profess that they know God, but in their deeds they deny him.’24 According to Karl Mannheim, for example,

It is not wholly impossible that what is happening in Russia, apart from conscious intention, is that a very genuine source of religious and primitive experience is using modern sophisticated terminology to translate itself into the idioms of modern society.25

For I cannot but agree with the same writer's view of what would be the result of what he calls the total ‘depersonalization’ of a culture, the total ‘evaporation of primordial images or archetypes which have directed the life-experience of mankind throughout the ages’. Without paradigmatic experiences or consistent conduct, no character-formation and no real human existence and co-operation are possible. Without them our universe of discourse loses its articulation, conduct falls to pieces, and only disconnected bits of successful behaviour patterns and fragments of adjustment to an ever-changing environment remain.26

If this melancholy result is not more often realized in actual practice, it is because complete agnosticism has been less frequently professed than we are inclined to think, and is still more rarely carried out with vigorous consistency. Most of those of our nineteenth-century intellectuals who come nearest to a total rejection of the paradigmatic experiences which lay at the root of the Christian tradition continued to accept the Christian standards of conduct so closely associated with these; and not a few still tenaciously believed these standards to be somehow grounded in a reality that is independent of our own desires. At an earlier point I quoted from some works of what may be called Lord Russell's middle period some very dogmatic denials of such an independent grounding, but ‘As we all know, Mr Russell produces a different system of philosophy every few years’.27 In his earliest period he followed Professor Moore in defending the independent reality of moral values, though by 1917 he was writing with reference to his views of 1902, ‘I feel less convinced than I did then of the objectivity of good and evil’.28 Yet it would appear that in his latest period he is beginning to revert, for in 1954 he wrote thus:

If I say that oysters are good, and you say they are nasty, we both understand that we are merely expressing our personal tastes, and that there is nothing to argue about. But when Nazis say that it is good to torture Jews, and we say that it is bad, we do not feel as if we were merely expressing a difference of taste; we are even willing to fight and die for our opinion, which we should not do to enforce our views about oysters. Whatever arguments may be advanced to show that the two cases are analogous, most people will remain convinced that there is a difference somewhere, though it may be difficult to say exactly what it is. I think this feeling, though not decisive, deserves respect, and should make us reluctant to accept at all readily the view that ethical judgements are wholly subjective.29 I, for one, find it intolerable to suppose that when I say ‘Cruelty is bad’ I am merely saying ‘I dislike cruelty’, or something equally subjective.30

§ 21

Perhaps the most tenuous of the residual forms of professed attachment to the traditional paradigm is that which, surrendering altogether its claim to be revelatory of reality, still fondly clings to it as a purely imaginary frame of reference for the conduct of life. This view found exemplification in Thomas Hardy and in George Santayana. Hardy was in many ways deeply Christian in his sentiments and remained so to the end, but ‘with the top of his mind’ he came to adopt a philosophy which seemed to leave these sentiments in mid-air. Hence in 1901, when he was sixty years old, he wrote to a friend as follows:

I do not think there will be any permanent revival of the old transcendental ideals; but I think there may gradually be developed an Idealism of Fancy; that is, an idealism in which fancy is no longer tricked out and made to masquerade as belief, but is frankly and honestly accepted as an imaginative solace in the lack of any substantial solace to be found in life.31

Santayana too lived out his life within a Christian frame of reference which he was unwilling to surrender, but his philosophical theory about it was that it was an artifact of human imagination and nothing more. ‘Christian history and art’, he wrote in his autobiography, ‘contained all my spiritual traditions, my intellectual and moral language.’32 But in conversation with such a transcendentalist thinker as McTaggart,

I soon found, when we began to talk about philosophy, that he had discovered that, apart from technicalities, I could be as transcendentalist as he. Only for me transcendentalism was a deliberate pose, expressing a subjective perspective; whereas for him it revealed the metaphysical structure of reality.33

In this way ‘each religion, by the help of more or less myth which it takes more or less seriously, proposes some method of fortifying the human soul and enabling it to make its peace with destiny’.34 ‘And so a moral world, practical and social, would become, for our imagination, the theatre of our social action, and a roughly valid representation of the forces actually playing upon us and determining the weal and woe of our lives.’35 Yet he confessed to have been greatly troubled in his mental life with what he called ‘the temptation of the primitive poet to believe his fables’.36

This delight in an imagined realm of ideals is, however, only one phase of the religion which Santayana wished to retain, the other being a certain ‘reverent attachment’ to the real nature of things in spite of this being believed to bear no relation at all to our ideal imaginings. ‘Rational religion’, he wrote in another of his books, ‘has these two phases: piety, or loyalty to necessary conditions; and spirituality, or devotion to ideal ends.’37 More fully:

The aspiring side of religion may be called spirituality. Spirituality is nobler than piety.… A man is spiritual when he lives in the presence of the ideal, and whether he eat or drink does so for the sake of a true and ultimate good. He is spiritual when he envisages his goal so frankly that his whole material life becomes a transparent vehicle which scarcely arrests attention but allows the spirit to use it economically and with perfect detachment and freedom.38

But piety, ‘cosmic piety’, is necessary also; a philosophic piety which has the universe for its object; for ‘the universe, so far as we can observe it, is a wonderful and immense engine; its extent, its order, its beauty, its cruelty, make it alike impressive’.39

An identical view has been intermittently defended by Santayana's close friend Lord Russell; and first, I think, in an article published seven years after Santayana's book just quoted. He too argues that in order to remain religious we must break up our religion into two quite disparate and unrelated worships—an ‘impartial’ worship of existent reality frankly recognized as indifferent to all distinctions of value, and a devoted worship of our ideals frankly conceived as human artifacts. ‘The two worships subsist side by side without any dogma: the one involving the goodness but not the existence of its object, the other involving the existence but not the goodness of its object.’40

I should wish to claim, then, that these depositions of Hardy, Santayana and even Lord Russell betray some residual presence ‘in the bottom of their hearts’ of that primary mode of apprehension which is faith, though with the philosophic ‘top of their minds’ they have played such havoc with it. They are ‘seeing’ something which is, to say the least, analogous to what the man of faith ‘sees’; otherwise how could they speak of worship, piety, spirituality, sanctity and reverence? But, as Professor Moore, Lord Russell's early associate, once wrote, ‘The strange thing is that philosophers should have been able to hold sincerely, as part of their philosophical creed, propositions inconsistent with what they themselves know to be true; and yet, so far as I can make out, this has frequently happened.’41

Lord Russell, indeed, appears to have a particularly confused mind in this matter of faith. In his recent Human Society in Ethics and Politics, already quoted from, he writes thus:

We may define ‘faith’ as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of ‘faith’. We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.42

And such faith he himself apparently cherishes. He gives us a clear example of it in the closing words of his book, which are these:

Those who are to lead the world out of its troubles will need courage, hope and love. Whether they will prevail, I do not know; but, beyond all reason, I am unconquerably persuaded that they will.43

But how can he be ‘unconquerably persuaded’ of the truth of a proposition, while at the same time confessing that he does ‘not know’ whether or not it is true? That certainly is substituting emotion for evidence, and is ‘a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence’. Not only is this a kind of faith to which I myself am quite unable to rise, but the particular utterance by which he here exemplifies it is one that I am unable to affirm. But of course this is not what faith means at all. Certainly we do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round; but that is not because faith means believing without evidence, but because it means believing in realities that go beyond sense and sight—for which a totally different sort of evidence is required.

Furthermore, there is some ground for believing that failure of faith is frequently associated with some failure or other of the more delicate modes of primary apprehension. A well-known case is that of Charles Darwin, who very honestly confessed that while ‘disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, until it was at last complete’, what he called his ‘higher tastes’ were at the same time gradually ‘atrophied’, until at last he could derive little pleasure from fine landscape, ‘could not endure to read a line of poetry, found Shakespeare intolerably dull’, and could no longer recapture ‘the state of mind which grand scenes formerly excited in me, and which was closely connected with belief in God’.44 With equally admirable honesty Mr C. D. Broad writes as follows:

I am somewhat obtuse to the influence of scenery, painting, music, and the higher kinds of literature.… Closely connected with this is the fact that I am almost wholly devoid of religious or mystical experience.


This is combined with a great interest in such experiences and a belief that they are probably of extreme importance in any theoretical interpretation of the world.

And again,

There is one thing which Speculative Philosophy must take into most serious consideration, and that is the religious and mystical experiences of mankind. These form a vast mass of facts which obviously deserve at least as careful attention as the sensations of mankind. They are of course less uniform than our sensations; many people, of whom I am one, are practically without these experiences. But probably most people have them to some extent, and there is a considerable amount of agreement between those people of all nations and ages, who have them to a marked degree.…It seems reasonable to suppose at the outset that the whole mass of mystical and religious experience brings us into contact with an aspect of reality which is not revealed in ordinary sense-perception, and that any system of Speculative Philosophy which ignores it will be extremely one-sided.45

The phrases I have taken the liberty of italicizing show Mr Broad's readiness to allow that there may be a mode of primary apprehension of reality other than the single one to which the positivists desire us to confine ourselves. Many other cases could be cited in which the atrophy of religious discernment has been accompanied by, or associated with, a failure of other powers of discernment, but I have thought it better to confine myself to cases in which such failure has been self-confessed.

The task of the Christian apologist would have been very different from what it has proved itself to be, if he commonly found himself defending his faith against an agnosticism which not only professed to be complete but did not even, in the course of articulating such profession, betray some unacknowledged or only half-acknowledged residue of the gnosis which was professedly denied. Not least do I know this from the many occasions on which my apologetic has had to be directed against the threatened failures of my own faith, and when I have had to fall back for its re-establishment upon the search for those things which in the bottom of my heart I found it impossible to doubt. But if the unbeliever should seem to be genuinely without any ‘ultimate concern’, any ‘sense of the holy’ and impulse to worship, any sense of obligation, or any conscience that was more than an attachment to his own individual preferences and an honouring of his own more stable desires, no argument with him would then be possible; any more than it would be possible, or sensible, to argue with one who appeared to have genuinely lost all sense of the reality of the external world and all ability to distinguish it from his dream-world; or with one who was no mere theoretical solipsist but had apparently lost all sense of the independent existence of his fellow men. In such a case there would be no Anknüpfungspunkt at all, no premise from which argument could begin.46 If faith is really a primary mode of apprehension, it follows that no theological proposition can be validly deduced from any proposition that is not already theological. The most the apologist, or rather the evangelist, could do in such a case would be to endeavour to introduce his fellow into what might become for him a ‘revelatory situation’, in which he would be confronted with certain events such as might give rise to ‘paradigmatic experiences’. Much the commoner case, however, to say the very least, is that the apologist has to deal with an agnosticism that is significantly less than total; an agnosticism into which some alternative faith, or surrogate for faith, is surreptitiously, however honestly and unsuspectingly, introduced to fill the distressing gap left by that which was surrendered. Perhaps the most familiar of these within the modern period, though it is one to which some like Thomas Hardy were much too clear-sighted to be tempted, has been some form of the belief in progress, which deluded itself into supposing that it was capable of empirical verification and thus consistent with a positivist profession. Such a delusion was very natural and very human in the circumstances and, as I have written elsewhere, its recent evanescence is something ‘in which none be so insensitive or hard-hearted as to rejoice; a situation the possible disastrous consequences of which it is difficult to overestimate. For what, after all, is left for modern man to believe in, if he can no longer believe that the future is likely to be better than the past, or that his children's children are likely to inhabit a world less full of wrong than he himself has had to live in.’47

I have spoken of our convictions of the reality of the external world and of other selves than our own; and of the theoretical doubts by which these convictions have on occasion been assailed. The former of the two certainly seems to have been doubted by some philosophers. Nor is it only the idealists, from Plato to Bradley, who have spoken of the external world as mere ‘appearance’, but also not a few empiricists. ‘Doubt of the existence or reality of an external world’, writes Mr G. A. Paul, ‘has not been peculiar to those philosophers whom we primarily think of as speculative or metaphysical’;48 and he quotes Lord Russell's remark that ‘the common-sense belief in fairly permanent bodies—tables, chairs, mountains, is a piece of audacious metaphysical theorizing’.49 As for myself, I cannot claim that such doubts are entirely foreign to my own mind, but if I am asked how I am able to overcome them, I shall have to confess that for me their ultimate refutation is theological and incarnational. Already at an earlier point I argued that my sense of the reality of the corporeal world is dependent upon my apprehension of it as a shared world and is thus ‘in some sort a derivative [from my recognition] of the reality of other selves’.50 But the most effective way to counter in its turn such tendency as I have to the non-recognition of these other selves is to remind myself that it betokens a failure of duteous obligation, or failure of love. I have no right to ignore the claims made upon me by the presence of my neighbour. When he calls to me out of his need, I am not permitted to ‘pass by on the other side’, pretending he is not there, that his reality has still to be established. But to say that I am not permitted is to talk the language, not of any merely prudential or humanist morality, but of religious faith.51 It is to acknowledge that through the need of my neighbour a claim is being made upon me by unconditioned being, which is to say by God. ‘If we love one another, God dwelleth in us.’52 Where there is no recognition of the neighbour, there can be no recognition of God; and furthermore, where there is no recognition of the reality of the corporeal world, there can be no recognition either of the neighbour or of God, since it is in the world that I encounter my neighbour, and God through my neighbour, and my neighbour through God. The substantiation of each of these three realities is thus dependent upon our awareness of the other two.

Yet for the Christian the refutation of solipsism is not only theological but also incarnational and Christological. Where there is lacking, as in Indian religion and in many forms of Western idealism, any apprehension of God as incarnate, there is likely to be lacking also a full apprehension of the reality of the corporeal world; and we know also how arduous was the struggle of the early Christian Church within its Hellenic environment against the docetic heresy. Ultimately it is because this world of sense and time is the world into which God carne, the world in which my salvation has been procured, that I am unable to doubt its reality. Here are some relevant words of Archbishop William Temple:

In the great affirmation that ‘the Word was made flesh and we beheld his glory’ is implicit a whole theory of the relation between spirit and matter. Christianity is the most materialistic of all great religions. The others hope to achieve spiritual reality by ignoring matter—calling it illusion (maya) or saying that it does not exist….

Christianity, based as it is on the Incarnation, regards matter as destined to be the vehicle and instrument of spirit, and spirit as fully actual so far as it controls and directs matter.53

I have been concerned in all this to indicate the way in which the profession of a total atrophy of faith is met by the Christian apologist or evangelist. I have said that if the atrophy were really total, no argument would be possible; but I have also said that in numerous cases we are constrained to doubt its totality, whether because some element of belief is surreptitiously (though unsuspectingly and in all good faith) introduced into the professed outlook itself, or because the professed unbeliever's behaviour belies his profession of complete unbelief, betraying the presence somewhere in his make-up of a remnant of faith that is not conscious of itself. But here I must remind myself of the wise words of a nineteenth-century Scottish preacher: ‘There is such a thing as “unconscious faith”, but those who plead it in their own behalf do not possess it. With them it is conscious unbelief.’54