What Is Distinctive In The Religious Outlook

At the very beginning and throughout we must keep the following points

clearly before us, otherwise all our endeavours will only lead us astray,

and be directed towards an altogether false issue.

Firstly, everything depends and must depend upon vindicating the validity

and freedom of the religious view of the world as contrasted with

world-science in general; but we must not attempt to derive it directly

rom the latter. If religion is to live, it must be able to

demonstrate--and it can be demonstrated--that its convictions in regard to

the world and human existence are not contradicted from any other quarter,

that they are possible and may be believed to be true. It can, perhaps,

also be shown that a calm and unprejudiced study of nature, both physical

and metaphysical reflection on things, will supplement the interpretations

of religion, and will lend confirmation and corroboration to many of the

articles of faith already assured to it. But it would be quite erroneous

to maintain that we must be able to read the religious conception of the

world out of nature, and that it must be, in the first instance, derivable

from nature, or that we can, not to say must, regard natural knowledge as

the source and basis of the religious interpretation of the world. An

apologetic based on such an idea as this would greatly overestimate its

own strength, and not only venture too high a stake, but would damage the

cause of religion and alter the whole position of the question. This

mistake has often been made. The old practice of finding "evidences of the

existence of God" had exactly this tendency. It was seriously believed

that one could thereby do more than vindicate for religious conviction a

right of way in the system of knowledge. It was seriously believed that

knowledge of God could be gained from and read out of nature, the world,

and earthly existence, and thus that the propositions of the religious

view of the world could not only gain freedom and security, but could be

fundamentally proved, and even directly inferred from Nature in the first

instance. The strength of these evidences was greatly overestimated, and

Nature was too much studied with reference to her harmony, her marvellous

wealth and purposeful wisdom, her significant arrangements and endless

adaptations; and too little attention was paid to the multitudinous

enigmas, to the many instances of what seems unmeaning and purposeless,

confused and dark. People were far too ready to reason from finite things

to infinite causes, and the validity or logical necessity of the

inferences drawn was far too rarely scrutinised. And, above all, the main

point was overlooked. For even if these "evidences" had succeeded better,

if they had been as sufficient as they were insufficient, it is certain

that religion and the religious conception of the world could never have

arisen from them, but were in existence long before any such

considerations had been taken into account.

Long before these were studied, religion had arisen from quite other

sources. These sources lie deep in the human spirit, and have had a long

history. To trace them back in detail is a special task belonging to the

domain of religious psychology, history, and philosophy, and we cannot

attempt it here, but must take it for granted. Having arisen from these

sources, religion has long lived a life of its own, forming its own

convictions in regard to the world and existence, possessing these as its

faith and truth, basing their credibility, and gaining for them the

adherence of its followers, on quite other grounds than those used in

"proving the existence of God." Ideas and conclusions which have not

arisen in this way can hardly be said to be religious, though they may

resemble religious ideas. But having thus arisen, the religious view comes

into contact with knowledge in general, and then a need for justification,

or even a state of antagonism, may arise. It may then be asked whether

convictions and ideas which, so far, have come solely from within, and

have been affirmed and recognised as truths only by heart and conscience,

can possibly be adhered to in the face of the insight afforded by an

investigation and scientific knowledge of nature.

Let us take an example, and at once the highest that can be found. The

religious recognition of the sway of an eternal Providence cannot possibly

be directly derived from, or proved by, any consideration of nature and

history. If we had not had it already, no apologetic and no evidences of

the existence of God would have given it to us. The task of an apologetic

which knows its limitations and its true aims can only be to inquire

whether there is scope and freedom left for these religious ideas

alongside of our natural knowledge of the world; to show that the latter,

because of its proper limitations, has no power to make a pronouncement in

regard to the highest meaning of the world; and to point to certain

indications in nature and history that justify us in interpreting the

whole in terms of purpose and ultimate import. This is the case with all

the conceptions and conclusions of the religious view of the world. No

single one of them can be really proved from a study of nature, because

they are much too deep to be reached by ordinary reasoning, and much too

peculiar in their character and content to be discovered by any scientific

consideration of nature or interpretation of the world. It is, however, at

the same time obvious that all apologetic must follow religion, and can

never precede it. Religion can only be awakened, never coerced. Once

awakened, it can reflect on its validity and freedom; but it alone can

really understand both. And apart from religion, or without its presence,

all apologetic endeavours are gratuitous, and are, moreover, expressly

forbidden by its own highest authorities (Matt. xxiii. 15).

The second point is even more important. Religion does not hold its theory

of the world and its interpretations of the nature and meaning of things

in the same way as poetry does its fine-spun, airy dreams, whose chief

value lies in the fact that they call up moods and arouse a play of

feeling, and which may be grave or gay, elegiac or idyllic, charming or

sublime, but may be true or false indifferently.

For there is this outstanding difference between religion and all

"moods"--all poetic or fanciful views of nature--that it lives by the

certainty of its ideas, suffers if they be uncertain, and dies if they be

shown to be untenable, however charming or consoling, sublime or simple

they may be. Its theories of the world are not poems; they are

convictions, and these require to be first of all not pleasing but true.

(Hence it is that criticism may arise out of religion itself, since

religion seeks for its own sake to find secure foundations.) And in this

respect the religious conception of the world is quite in line with

world-theory in general. Both desire to express reality. They do not wish

to lay gaily-coloured wreaths and garlands about reality that they may

enjoy it, plunged in their respective moods; they desire to understand it

and give an account of it.

But there is at once apparent a characteristic difference between the

propositions and conclusions of the religious view and those of the

secular, a difference not so much of content, which goes without saying,

but in the whole form, manner and method, and tone. As Schleiermacher put

it: "You can never say that it advances with the sure tread" of which

science in general is capable, and by which it is recognisable. The web of

religious certainty is much more finely and delicately woven, and more

susceptible of injury than the more robust one of ordinary knowledge.

Moreover, where religious certainty has attained its highest point in a

believing mind, and is greater rather than less than the certainty of what

is apprehended by the senses or experienced day by day, this

characteristic difference is most easily discerned. The believer is

probably much more confident about "the care of his Heavenly Father," or

"the life eternal," than he is about this life with its varying and

insignificant experiences and content. For he knows about the life beyond

in quite a different way. The truths of the religious outlook cannot be

put on the same level as those of ordinary and everyday life. And when the

mind passes from one to the other it does so with the consciousness that

the difference is in kind. The knowledge of God and eternity, and the real

value, transcending space and time, of our own inner being, cannot even in

form be mixed up with the trivial truths of the normal human understanding

or the conclusions of science. In fact, the truths of religion exhibit, in

quite a special way, the character of all ideal truths, which are not

really true for every day at all, but are altogether bound up with exalted

states of feeling. This is expressed in the old phrase, "Deus non scitur

sed creditur" [God is not known but believed in]. For the Sorbonne was

quite right and protected one of the essential interests of religion, when

it rejected as heresy the contrary position, that it was possible to

"know" God. Thus, in the way in which I "know" that I am sitting at this

writing-table, or that it rained yesterday, or that the sum of the angles

in a triangle are equal to two right angles, I can know nothing of God.

But I can know of Him something in the way in which I know that to tell

the truth is right, that to keep faith is duty, propositions which are

certain and which state something real and valid, but which I could not

have arrived at without conscious consent, and a certain exaltation of

spirit on my own part. This, and especially the second part of it, holds

true in an increased degree of all religious conceptions. They weave

themselves together out of the most inward and subtle experiences, out of

impressions which are coarsened in the very act of expressing them. Their

import and value must be judged entirely by the standards of conscience

and feeling, by their own self-sufficiency and validity. The best part of

them lies in the intensity and vitality of their experience, and in the

spontaneous acceptance and recognition which they receive. They cannot be

apprehended by the prosaic, secular mind; whatever is thus apprehended is

at most an indifferent analogue of religious experience, if it is not

self-deception. It is only in exaltation, in quiet enthusiasm, that

religious feelings can come to life and become pervasive, and religious

truth can only become a possession available for everyday use in

proportion as it is possible to make this non-secular and exalted state of

mind permanent, and to maintain enthusiasm as the enduring mood of life

and conduct. And as this is capable of all degrees of intensity from

overpowering outbursts and isolated raptures to a gentle but permanent

tension and elevation of spirit, so also is the certainty and actuality of

our knowledge, whether of the sway of the divine power, or of our own

higher nature and destiny, or of any religious truth whatever. This is

what is meant by St. Paul's "Praying without ceasing" and his "Being in

the Spirit" as a permanent mood; and herein lies the justification of the

statement of enthusiasm that truth is only found in moments of ecstasy. In

fact, religion and religious interpretations are nothing if not

"enthusiasms," that is to say, expressions of the art of sustaining a

permanent exaltation of spirit. And any one who is not capable of this

inward exaltation, or is too little capable of it, is badly qualified for

either religion or religious outlook. The "enthusiasts" will undoubtedly

make a better figure in the "kingdom of God," as well as find an easier

entrance therein, than the prosaic matter-of-fact people.

This is really the source of much that is vexatious in all apologetic

efforts, and indeed in all theorising about religion, as soon as we

attempt to get beyond the periphery into the heart of the matter. For in

order to understand the subject at all a certain amount of "enthusiasm" is

necessary, and in most cases the disputants fail to reach common ground

because this enthusiasm is lacking in one or both. If they both have it,

in that case also dialectics are out of the question.

Finally, it must be remarked that, as Luther puts it, "Faith always goes

against appearances." The religious conception of the world not only never

grows directly out of a scientific and general study of things, but it can

never be brought into absolute congruence with it. There are endless

tracts and domains of the world, in nature and history, which we cannot

bring under the religious consideration at all, because they admit of no

interpretation from the higher or more general points of view; they lie

before us as everlasting unrelated mysteries, uncomprehended as to their

import and purpose. Moreover, the religious theory of the world can never

tell us, or wish to tell us, what the world is as a whole, or what is the

meaning of its being. It is enough for us that it throws light on our own

being, and reveals to us our place and destiny, and the meaning of our

existence. It is enough if, in this respect, reality adapts itself to the

interpretations of religion, admits of their truth and allows them scope,

and corroborates them in important ways and instances. It actually does

this, and it can be demonstrated that it does. And in demonstrating this

the task of an apologetic that knows its own limitations alone consists.

It must be aware that it will succeed even in this, only if it is

supported by a courageous will to believe and joy in believing, that many

gaps and a thousand riddles will remain, that the ultimate and highest

condition of the search after a world-interpretation is personal decision

and personal choice, which finally depends upon "what manner of man one

is." Faith has always meant going against appearances. It has gone against

them not from obstinacy or incorrigible lack of understanding, but because

it has had strong reasons, impossible to set aside, for regarding

appearances literally as appearances. It has suffered from the apparent,

often even to the point of extinction, and has again drawn from it and

from its opposition its highest strength. That they overmastered

appearances made of the heroes of faith the greatest of all heroes. And

thus religion lives by the very riddles which have frequently caused its

death, and they are a part of its inheritance and constitution. To work

continually towards their solution is a task which it will never give up.

Until success has been achieved, it is of importance to show, that what

comes into conflict with faith in these riddles at the present day is not

something new and previously unheard of. In cases where faith has died

because of them we almost invariably find the opinion that religion might

have been possible in earlier and more naive times, but that it is no

longer possible to us, with our deeper insight into the dark mystery of

nature and destiny. This is foolishness. When faith dies thus, it dies of

one of its infantile diseases. For from the tragedies of Job and of

Jeremiah to the Tower of Siloam and the horror of the Mont-Pelee eruption

there runs a direct lineage of the same perennial riddle. Well-developed

religion has never existed without this--at once its shadow and its