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Chapter XIII: Retrospect

With the fore-going chapter I have really finished my argument but some kind of epilogue seems to be required, and I do not know what form to give it except a series of retrospective comments on the way we have travelled. In making these comments I propose to ‘let myself go’ and ‘give myself away’ to an extent to which I have not hitherto done, being more outspoken in my impatience with some of the schools of thought and the individual writers in my discussion of whom I have always tried to mingle a due deference with my criticism.

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In the early chapters I argued at considerable length with the school of logical or conceptual analysis which has recently dominated the philosophical thinking of Oxford and Cambridge, has spread to the provincial English Universities, and is increasingly invading the American Universities and Colleges. I have made many concessions to this school, have accepted no small part of what it puts forward, and have learned much from it. But when I am asked to swallow it whole, I become angry, and the more of the recent books I read by its representatives, the angrier I become. I therefore ask permission to read to you rather a long passage from the chapter entitled ‘A Crisis in my Mental History’ in John Stuart Mill's Autobiography:

For now I saw, or thought I saw, what I had always before received with incredulity—that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings: as indeed it has, when no other mental element is cultivated, and the analysing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives. The very excellence of analysis (I argued) is that it tends to weaken and undermine whatever is the result of prejudice; that it enables us mentally to separate ideas which have only casually clung together: and no associations whatever could ultimately resist this dissolving force, were it not that we owe to analysis our clearest knowledge of the permanent sequences in nature; the real connexions between Things not dependent on our will and feelings; natural laws, by virtue of which, in many cases, one thing is inseparable from another in fact; which laws, in proportion as they are clearly perceived and imaginatively realized, cause our ideas of things which are always joined together in Nature, to cohere more and more closely in our thoughts. Analytic habits may thus even strengthen the associations between causes and effects, means and ends, but tend altogether to weaken those which are, to speak familiarly, a mere matter of feeling. They are therefore (I thought) favourable to prudence and clear-sightedness, but a perpetual worm at the root both of the passions and of the virtues; and, above all, fearfully undermine all desires, and all pleasures, which are the effects of association, that is, according to the theory I held, all except the purely physical and organic; of the entire insufficiency to make life desirable, no one had a stronger conviction than I had.1

It is significant that the term ‘analysis’ was familiar to Mill, not only in the Autobiography (which was published only posthumously) but quite certainly also at the very early period in his life when ‘the crisis in his mental history’ overtook him; and that it was used, if not in precisely the same sense, at least in a sense bearing a very strong ancestral resemblance to the sense in which it has recently been used by the logical analysts. I agree with Mill, then, that the practice of analysis, when it stands alone as so many of its practitioners have insisted that it must, is ‘a perpetual worm at the root both of the passions and of the virtues’.

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My next remark is one which I do not at all wish to apply to any of the distinguished advocates of logical analysis against which I have argued. I have argued against their philosophy, but I believe in the men in spite of their philosophy, that is, I believe that in their ‘passions and virtues’ and in their general management of their lives and their relations to their neighbours, they manifest qualities of mind and heart to which their philosophy, as such, does not seem to entitle them. But there are some among those who listen to them, or who have imbibed the outlook of a reductive naturalism from some quite different and probably much older source (by means however indirect), of whom I could not say the same. Not do I here speak of their morals in any ordinary sense, for we are all miserable sinners, but of a certain painful restriction of outlook, of interest, of understanding and of sympathy which seems to leave them as very incomplete human beings. I find this to be true of some students of science, including not a few who are engaged in scientific research or who occupy (perhaps junior?) teaching posts in our Universities. So much do their minds travel along one particular track that I find it difficult to establish any contact with them. They are incomplete personalities.

On the other hand I know well that there are men and women of the most active aesthetic, ethical or devoutly religious outlook who are incomplete personalities also. I have known artists, or students of one or other art, who seemed to be quite imperceptive of any values in life beyond their own narrowly restricted aesthetic field, knowing nothing but ‘art for art's sake’. But those whom I have chiefly in mind are the representatives of a type of piety that has never subjected itself to any kind of logical or other analysis. They lack just what the most myopic students of natural science possess, their own myopia being of precisely the opposite kind. With these also I find it very difficult to communicate. And here I should like to quote a remarkable passage from one of Thomas Carlyle's essays:

It is worthy of note that, in our little British Isle, the two grand Antagonisms of Europe should have stood embodied, under their very highest concentration, in two men produced simultaneously among ourselves. Samuel Johnson and David Hume… were children nearly of the same year; through life they were spectators of the same Life-movement; often inhabitants of the same city. Greater contrast, in all things, between two great men, could not be.…

Through Life they did not meet; as contrasts, ‘like in unlike’, love each other, so might they too have loved, and communed kindly had not the terrestrial dross and darkness that was in them withstood! One day their spirits, what Truth was in each, will be found working, living in harmony and free union, even here below. They were the two half-men of their time: whoso should combine the intrepid Candour and decisive scientific Clearness of Hume, with the Reverence, the Love and devout Humility of Johnson were the whole man of a new time. Till such whole man arrive for us, and the distracted time admit of such, might the Heavens but bless poor England with half-men worthy to tie the shoe-latchets of these, resembling these even from afar!2

I have quoted this passage because it gives me the term for which I have been seeking, ‘half-men’. In a general sense I accept Carlyle's verdict on the two half-men he instances. But I take leave to think that Johnson had the better half. ‘Reverence, love and devout humility’ are qualities more necessary to wholeness of outlook than ‘decisive scientific clearness’. They engage us, and enable us to meet with one another, on a far deeper level. At all events, it is with the half-men who know nothing but analysis, and leave us with nothing but the reductive naturalism in which it issues, that my present argument has been concerned; and I confess that in my heart of hearts my impatience with them knows no bounds.

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Next I would say something in further explanation of the respects in which I differ from Dr Karl Barth. I need not say that Dr Barth is a great man and a very great theologian, because everybody knows it. He has changed the face of Protestant theology far more radically than any other theologian during my life-time. He has also made more difference than anybody else to my own attempts at theologizing. Whatever the measure of our agreements or disagreements with him, we have all to reckon with him. I have often said that there can be no hopeful forward advance beyond his teaching, as I fervently hope there will be, if we attempt to go round it instead of through it. There are already many signs of a reaction towards a more liberal outlook, but it must be a liberalism which, while regaining some of the lost pre-Barthian ground, has been much chastened by the many valuable things he has taught us.

I had of course always believed that there is no ultimate salvation for mankind save in Jesus Christ, but when I began to read Dr Barth's books, what struck me at once as unfamiliar was his insistence that mankind had no knowledge of God save in Jesus Christ. This is new teaching, and it is precisely what I have never been able to accept. I still believe, as I had always done, that at all times God ‘left himself not without witness’,3 but has revealed something of his holy nature to men through creation, that is ‘through the things that are made’;4 through ‘their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another’;5 and above all through the law, whether this be the Torah of the Israelite people to whom ‘were committed the oracles of God’6 or the works of the law ‘written in the hearts of the Gentiles’:7 and all this is knowledge which man possesses before he meets with Jesus Christ.

It is clear to me that this is the view which pervades the whole Bible. It has nowhere been more strongly re-affirmed, in cogent and indeed merciless refutation of Dr Barth, than in Dr Gustaf Wingren's book Theology in Conflict, and from it I give you the following brief passages:

The knowledge of God which man lacks he receives from Scripture, i.e. from Christ. This is the simplest formula in which Barth's theology can be expressed. And about this formula we must say that it is entirely unbiblical. There is no possibility of interpreting the biblical writings correctly from this point of view.8 That which disappears from our attention through the theological work of Barth in this generation is the living and active God of the Bible, this God who continually creates and gives.9

Barth has the ability to a very large degree of being able to employ the language of Scripture in a system that is totally foreign to the Bible.10

He has removed the law as a power that rules over man even before the preaching of the gospel appears.11

The gospel is a part, the more important part, in a history of salvation in which creation, the election of Israel, the covenants etc., also belong. If it is separated from this context, it is no longer a ‘gospel’, nor a witness to that Agape of which the New Testament speaks. The gospel acquires its meaning through its connections forward and backward, to creation and to the consummation. The gospel itself presupposes that every man to whom it comes stands subjected to the conditions of God's acts even before he hears it.…12

All that is very uncompromisingly spoken, though not nearly so uncompromisingly as Dr Barth's attack on Dr Emil Brunner in his pamphlet called Nein with its ‘Angry Introduction’.13 I should probably not myself have been quite so outspoken as Dr Wingren, but I am in full agreement with him none the less.

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Next, I propose to return to the topic with which I began, namely, certainty. My contention then was that, while indeed it seems impossible to enunciate any theoretical propositions concerning God and the unseen world about which we could be certain that they were true just as we enunciated them, nevertheless all our experience, in this realm as in others, is ‘transfused with certitude’ or, in Tillich's phrase, that certitude ‘pulsates through all our thinking’. Our direct knowledge, I agreed, is not knowledge of truths but knowledge of realities, and it is out of our immediate contact with these realities that certitude is born.

At a later point I contended that the affirmations of faith are always practically orientated, providing us with a frame of reference within which our lives are to be lived rather than as adding to the sum of our theoretic, speculative, not to say scientific, knowledge; and I ventured to use in description of them Kant's phrase ‘practical and regulative’, though not without pointing out my discontent with Kant's own use of it. Still elsewhere I remarked that there is nothing of which I am more firmly persuaded than that the right attitude to life is that of the man whose whole comportment and activity have their root in the sentiment of gratitude, and I added that ‘it is precisely in regard to such a conviction as this that I feel able to speak of certitude, and to do so without the least scruple or diffidence’.

And now I shall ask your leave to quote another passage from Mill's Autobiography. Speaking in the chapter entitled ‘My Most Valuable Friendship’ of the remarkable influence exercised upon him by his wife, Mill writes as follows:

With those who, like all the best and wisest of mankind, are dissatisfied with life as it is, and whose feelings are wholly identified with its radical amendment, there are two main regions of thought. One is the region of ultimate aims; the constituent elements of the highest realizable ideal of human life. The other is that of the immediately useful and practically attainable. My own strength lay wholly in the uncertain and slippery intermediate region, that of theory or moral and political science: respecting the conclusions of which, in any of the forms in which I have received or originated them, whether as political economy, analytic psychology, logic, philosophy of history or anything else, it is not the least of my intellectual obligations to her that I have derived from her a wise scepticism, which, while it has not hindered me from following out the honest exercise of my own thinking faculties to whatever conclusions might result from it, has put me on my guard against holding or announcing these conclusions with a degree of confidence which the nature of such speculations does not warrant.…14

Surely Mill had learned something immensely valuable when his wife persuaded him that ‘real certainty’ lay not in the theoretical realm but in ‘the region of ultimate aims; the constituent elements of the highest realizable ideal of human life’. And as to the other region which Mill mentions, ‘that of the immediately useful and practically attainable’, I should prefer to express myself in a less utilitarian fashion, and say that we can often be certain of our immediate duty, even when the intermediate steps between it and ‘our ultimate aims’ are shrouded in darkness for us. Perhaps Mill's friend, Thomas Carlyle, was not after all so far wrong when he said, ‘Do the Duty which lies nearest thee; which thou knowest to be a Duty! Thy second Duty will already have become clearer.’15

I have contended throughout that Christian faith is essentially trust. It is placing our complete reliance on God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, committing ourselves wholly to his care, nowise doubting that he will betray our commitment. I have always been careful to add that there are certain intellectual implicates latently contained in such trust. When I trust a man, I have grounds for trusting him. But it is often very difficult to say what they are; and when I try to express them in the form of propositions which I am prepared to make about him, I am never sure that I have got them quite right. The kind of assurance which attaches to my trust itself no longer attaches to the reasons I give, to the theoretical propositions I formulate. If we can say with the Reverend Thomas Brown of Whitehall in his version of Martial's epigram,

I do not love you, Dr. Fell,

But why I cannot tell;

But this I know full well,

I do not love you, Dr. Fell16

so surely we can say that we love and trust our friends, while finding it very difficult to tell why. The reasons Christians give for their trust in God stand, of course, on an altogether more secure basis, because they rest upon the accumulated wisdom and keen and tireless inquiry of the theologians of twenty centuries, beginning with the apostolic authors themselves. Nevertheless not one such theological proposition attracts to itself the full degree of assurance that attaches to the Christian's simple trust in God.

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This leads directly to the last topic over which I wish to cast a retrospective glance. I want to say something more in defence of the title which I have ventured to give to the lectures and to the book as a whole, and I shall begin by quoting some words of Dr John Hick. The Christian, he writes,

sees in his situation as a human being a significance to which the appropriate response is a religious trust and obedience. His interpretative leap carries him into a world which exists through the will of a holy, righteous and loving Being who is the creator and sustainer of all that is. Behind the world—to use an almost inevitable spatial metaphor—there is apprehended to be an omnipotent, personal Will, whose purpose toward mankind guarantees men's highest good and blessedness. The believer finds that he is at all times in the presence of this holy Will.…

Thus the primary religious perception, or basic act of religious interpretation, is not to be described as either a reasoned conclusion or an unreasoned hunch that there is a God. It is, putatively, an apprehension of the divine presence within the believer's human experience. It is not an inference to a general truth, but a ‘divine-human encounter’, a mediated meeting with the living God.17

It will be noted that although Dr Hick's book did not come into my hands, nor was it in fact published, until well after I had completed the draft of the relevant chapters of this book, he insists, as I have done, that faith is an act of perceiving rather than of conceiving, that he is not afraid to apply to it the language of vision, and that he speaks of the presence of God within the believer's human experience. Moreover, it is just because the divine presence is perceived by us, never in isolation from, but always in and through some familiar human experience that he speaks of it as a mediated meeting with the living God.

It has always seemed to me that much confusion has surrounded the frequently quoted Biblical saying that ‘no man has seen God at any time.’ The question is whether the word ‘see’ is here used in its primary sense of seeing with the eyes of flesh, or in its derivative and no doubt symbolic sense of seeing with what we may call the eyes of the spirit or, if you prefer it, the eyes of the mind. Now it is clear that for us today there can be no question about it. Nobody can see God with his corporeal eyes, because there is nothing there to see; God is not a corporeal being located in space, so that in no circumstances could he be seen in the primary sense of seeing. On the other hand it is equally clear that the early Hebrews did not know this. They thought of God as having a body, and according to the thirty-third chapter of Exodus Moses was permitted to see part of his body with his own bodily eyes, but not permitted to see God's face.

And the Lord said unto Moses… Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me and live. And the Lord said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: and I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.18

As time went on, the Israelites came more and more to understand the incorporeality of God, and of course in the New Testament it is everywhere taken for granted, but there the old phrase that ‘no man has ever seen God’ is never allowed to stand unqualified. It still remains true that the perception (or sense or vision) of God's presence is never vouchsafed save in the context of familiar experience, and is thus mediated by such experience. The chief of such contexts, which governs all the rest, is of course the Incarnation, that is, the appearance of God in the man Jesus. ‘We have seen his glory’,19 says St John—and glory both in the later Old Testament and in the New is really only another word for presence. ‘Nobody has ever seen God’, but ‘the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him plain (evkei/noj evxhgh,sato).’20 And again, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father.’21 But a further context of the vision of God, a further mediation of the divine presence, is spoken of in the Johannine Epistles. ‘Nobody has ever seen God’, but, ‘if we love one another God dwells in us and his love is perfected in us.’22 ‘He who does evil has not seen God.’23 In the Beatitudes we read that ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’.24 The Beatitudes are of course eschatological, pointing to a state of things that has not yet supervened, but I do not myself believe that the fulfilment our Lord had in mind was ‘beyond history’ and in another world, but rather on this familiar earth, after his own death and resurrection and the formation of the pentecostal community. This, however, is a large and still hotly debated issue, and I shall not press it further.

At all events my main contention throughout has been that we have to do, not with an absent God about whom we have a certain amount of information, but with a God whose living and active presence with us can be perceived by faith in a large variety of human contexts and situations. This is the true burden of Kierkegaard's—the only original—existentialism; the true meaning of his declaration that true Christianity is not doctrine but existence. As he says somewhere—and I regret that, though I once copied the words carefully, I cannot now find the reference, ‘Truth is not an objective statement about certain relations of being, but a form of existence in which such relations are actualized.’

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And now, I do not believe that Lord Gifford would object to my quoting in conclusion a prayer by Henry Vaughan, the last of our Caroline poets: ‘Abide with us, O most blessed and merciful Saviour, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent. As long as Thou art present with us, we are in the light. When Thou art present, all is brightness, all is sweetness. We discourse with Thee, live with Thee and lie down with Thee. Abide then with us, O Thou whom our soul loveth; Thou Sun of righteousness with healing under Thy wings, arise in our hearts. Make Thy light then to shine in darkness, as a perfect day in the dead of night.’