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The Faith of a Moralist, vol. 2

1926 to 1928
University of St. Andrews

In volume two of The Faith of a Moralist, the theme of Taylor’s text/lectures is natural theology and the positive religions. At the outset, in connection to his previous lectures, the author notes that there are three great supernatural implications for the moral life: God, grace and eternal life. Taylor argues that these may be called the central themes of the great historical world religions. As he understands it, a historical religion that presented them all adequately and preserve the right balance between them would be the ‘absolute’ religion for humankind. In actual fact, no historical religion presents these themes in their pure metaphysical abstractness; each has what we may call its contingent side. ‘Natural’ religion and theology themselves have been the products of thinkers brought up as members of societies with such specific religious traditions and have never flourished except in a soil and atmosphere of historical religion.

In further discussion of the relation between religion and the historical, Taylor contends that what has been said so far would leave it an open possibility that the contents of ‘revelation’ should all be truths of a strictly super-temporal order disclosed through historical persons and on historical occasions. But among the credenda propounded for belief by the great positive religions there are, in every case, some which are assertions about historical facts, past or future, and this is especially the case with Christianity. The historical religions treat these assertions about historical fact as essential, and it might be said that this, rather than the concept of revelation, is the crux for the philosophic mind. How, though, can a statement about historical fact have the value of ‘saving truth’? The author answers this question by acknowledging that at bottom, the attempt to divest religion of attachments to historical persons and events is an attempt to manufacture the supreme reality out of mere ‘universals’, or to make an ‘is’ out a mere ‘ought’, and ends by degrading religion into theosophy. The presence of statements about historical facts among the credenda of the great religions is thus no mere accident. But it is not possible to say with finality just how much in the tradition is historical fact.

In addition to exploring the tension between religion and history and revelation and reason, Taylor examines the problems surrounding discussions and interpretation of the supernatural and the miraculous. For the author, a special difficultly is created by the ‘miraculous’ character of some the historical facts included in the credenda of the positive religions. Why should we desert in one case the anthropological explanation we accept in all other similar cases? In regards to Christianity, Taylor understands that the question is whether the conception of the relation of the world to God implied by ‘miracle’ is unphilosophical. For him, it is important to distinguish clearly between notions of the supernatural and the miraculous. There can be no religion without belief in the supernatural, but there may well be religion without belief in the miraculous.

Taylor then addresses the meaning and place of authority. He posits that somewhere in every great positive religion appeal is made to an authority which claims to be that of God and therefore absolute. It is maintained in the secular world that to recognize any such absolute authority is treason to reason. Whatever the case, the author argues that the assignation of authority is the assertion of the reality of an experience which contains more than the individual experient can analyze for him- or herself. The appeal to authority thus means that the object of religion is not constructed or postulated by the isolated intellect alone but found in a context which contains something more than mere thinking.

According to Taylor, appeals to authority within the history of any of the great religions then illustrates the universality of the tendency of religions to create an elaborate system of institutional and ceremonial worship and of the opposition that tendency awakens. Thus, he argues, we find everywhere both the drift towards conventionalizing the expressions of the religious life and the rebellion against this tendency as ‘unspiritual’. Every social activity, if it is to be preserved from debasement, needs to find worthy outward expression and, if it is to be kept alive, needs to have its occasions of special prominence, and it is here that ritual has its justification. The most adequate ritual, though, is always in danger of becoming merely external; hence, the necessity of the perpetual tension against it. Some ritual is demanded for the simple reasons that humans are forgetful creatures and the extemporized expression is always liable to be inadequate. To degrade worship, however, into a mere means to moral reforms is like degrading art into a mere vehicle of instruction. The right balance in devotion between freedom and prescribed form is always a ‘costing’ thing, and it might be well if communities, and even individual congregations, took more care to avoid becoming slaves to a single ‘use’.

In connection with discussions of worship and ritual, Taylor states that a special difficulty is often felt about the sacramental characteristic of historical religion. More specifically, he understands that the problem is whether it is irrational to hold that specific bodily things and acts may become by divine appointment the usual vehicles of a specific contact between the divine and human spirit.

In the end, Taylor posits that the source of the apparent incompatibility of so many of the leading characteristics of the great positive religions with a rationalistic metaphysic seems to lie in a rooted prejudice of the metaphysical mind against ascribing reality and significance to the historical. The positive religions ascribe so much more reality to the temporal than is conceded by many metaphysicians. Thus, the author argues, there exists the ultimate tension between history and religion, the temporal and the eternal, reason and faith.


The Faith of a Moralist, vol. 2

Macmillan and Co., Ltd.
  • Kelly Van Andel, University of Glasgow