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Comforts And Rewards Of Right Belief

( Originally Published 1915 )

THOSE attitudes of mind, whether toward things, truths, or persons, which we ordinarily describe by such words as "confidence," "reliance," "belief," or "faith," are in general characterized by a peculiar feeling of comfort. This feeling is closely allied to that which accompanies a state of bodily repose. Indeed, we use the same words to describe the two; and, in experience, they are not infrequently so blended as to be almost indistinguishably one. We covet mental reliance on the chair or bed in which we repose; somewhat as we repose our faith in the friend of whom we know that he will stand back of us, or support us, in some business or other enterprise. One must have confidence in one's tools, if one is to work with them in quiet assurance of success; just as one must put a large faith in one's fellows, if one is to live in comfortable social relations with them.

In scientific discovery, and even more in the teaching of science, and applying its results to ends of practical good, belief in its experimental means of testing the truth, and a generous faith in its accepted principles, are indispensable. Above all, must one rely on the deliverances of moral consciousness, if one is to have any sort of satisfaction in one's choices or courses of conduct; while, in religion, faith is so essential to its comforts and rewards as to be considered the central factor in its very conception. Faith is religion subjectively considered.

The very comfortable nature of all these attitudes of mind and body is further indicated by the prepositions with which the words expressive of the attitudes themselves have come to be connected. We rely "on" the thing or person, "toward" which, or whom, this outlook of right belief is directed. We have confidence "in" the word of promise uttered by our friend; as we believe "in" the enterprise which he recommends to us, or, more especially, the good cause which has enlisted the enthusiastic efforts of both of us for its speedier realization. The army that does not trust its leaders is not at ease when resting in camp; much less can it enter battle with the comforting feeling that it is going to be led to victory. The New Testament employs all three of the prepositions which we have just been using to describe the Christian's attitude of mind toward Christ. This attitude is faith "toward" him; it is faith "upon" him; it is faith "in" (iv) him. It is comforting feeling of trust, going out toward its object, reposing upon its object, and finding in this object an inspiring and vitalizing atmosphere.

But the seductions and dangers of this mental attitude of comfortable repose are also notably comparable to those which invest the corresponding physical condition. The comforts of repose, whether of body or mind, are quite too apt to make difficult the exchange for them of the painstaking activities which they should excite and inspire. For doubt, distrust, and weakness of belief, are essentially uncomfortable states, whether the object to which these states have reference be physical or mental. They have the ferment of restlessness, such as belongs to all unsupported physical and psychical conditions. Hence there occurs a lack of balance, or even a condition of contrast and war-fare between the comforts of wrong belief and the rewards of right belief. The belief of the man of science in some particular hypothesis, or means of attaining a valuable practical result, may be a hindrance to its own realization (or rectification) if it does not keep him stimulated in the effort to work diligently at the testing of the belief. The more we trust things and per-sons that are not worthy of trust, the worse is our awakening from the comfortable slumber with its alluring dreams, when the inevitable hour of awakening has actually come. In morals, it is quite regularly more profitable to inquire often into the grounds of one's opinions on matters of right and wrong, than to be always reposing undisturbed in the pleasing assurances of an invulnerable self-righteousness. In religion, it is the unavoidable experience of the inquiring mind, that its prayer must be: "Lord! I do believe" (some things, with some degree of assent) : "help thou my unbelief" (about other things, and to a fuller and more intelligent assent). And when the faith comes in answer to the prayer of painful doubt or momentary unbelief, it must be in the form of a faith that inspires and proves itself in works.

But there is nothing supremely strange, or even foreign to all our other experiences, in this high price at which are sold to men the comforts and the rewards of right belief. It is the case of "spur and bridle," by intermitting or concurring use of which the spirit of man is driven and guided, if he is to realize the destiny of being a person in any commendable degree. On the one hand, we have to appreciate the worth of the allurements of the beliefs, that at the best are partially wrong; on the other hand, we have to confess the need of the birth-pains of doubt, and of the trials of faith, until we come somehow to distinguish what is right belief. Whichever of the two experiences outweighs the other the discomforts of doubt and uncertainty by the way, and of disappointment at the end, or the comforts of the partially right belief as it grows in the process of testing, to the fruition of a mature and reasonable faith if our measure be one of quantity alone, we can-not deny that the quality of the product which can be attained only in this way, the personal life conducted under the guidance of the will that grasps and holds on to the more reasonable of the greater faiths, renders the process well worth all that it costs. Faiths must be refined by fire, before they are made enduring substance of the Self.

We are not, however, sacrificing regard for the sacredness of truth to cravings for temporary feelings of a comfortable sort, when we justify Nature (or Providence) in using so large a measure of delusion in the cultivation of human beliefs and faiths. For there are two most important and fundamental considerations which should determine our opinions and our practice at this point. One of these considerations is this: The absolute need of faith in something that reaches beyond the present experience, and indeed, is not quite warranted by it, if there is to be any worthy development of personal life. Belief must have a certain audacity to accomplish such a development. The other is the fact, that all these greater beliefs have the truths which correspond to them only gradually and partially revealed. This partial and temporary character of the satisfactions of belief belongs to the very nature of belief. If we demanded for the hypotheses, or beliefs, of the positive sciences, all absence of the partially true, of the defective, of that which so often in the end is supplanted by something far better than the form earlier taken by the belief, we should never have any science at all. If we set aside, in the efforts to perfect human society, all the beliefs of men in one another, and in their varying schemes of organization, and in the formulas and rules and practices adopted for the carry-out of these schemes, because they so universally turn out largely deceptive and disappointing, society of any sort would be impossible of development.

This necessity for partially right belief, with all its illusory character, is absolute in morals and religion. As said Schiller: "Man is robbed of all worth, when he no longer believes in the three words" (God, freedom, and immortality). As a more recent writer has declared: "Religious faith is a postulate of the practical reason. Man must believe, in order to retain his worth as man a worth which no noble-spirited man ought to renounce." But this necessity does not guarantee every stage and item of even the wisest mortal's most confident faith. For, as Professor Royce has finely said: "Applied philosophy is like practical religion. It illumines life, but it gives no power to use the arts of the medicine-man. Religious faith involves no direct access to the counsels of God; but it inspires the believer with the assurance that all things work together for good, and endows him with readiness to serve in his station the God who is All in all." In his "Oration on Wieland," Goethe praises the power to counteract the pessimism arising from the facts respecting the condition of the State, of morals and of religion, by cheerfulness born of faith, which was possessed in so high a degree by Lord Shaftesbury as well as by Wieland. In all such matters, faith must allure the mind to imagine conditions and results that are contradicted by many of the facts of present experience.

To enforce the comforts and rewards of right belief we might turn again, as so often, to the master among the ancients of the Stoical philosophy as applied to the life of conduct. We should find the thought at the centre of all his reflective thinking. According to Epictetus, the attitude of the human will toward the Di-vine Will, which is characterized by perfect confidence, is the only one that can support a reasonable, a comfortable and successful life. Perfect faith in God is the indispensable condition of such a life. But this attitude must be maintained in spite of the trials of faith, and indeed, in the scorn of them. The contradictions and disappointments of such a faith belong to the world of the illusory and the seeming; the faith itself is the reality and the guaranty of all other reality. To this belief the conduct of the mind should be implicity entrusted; just as one entrusts one's body to the physician, or one's property interests to one's lawyer. For without it "the soul is like a vase filled with water; while the semblances of things fall like rays upon its surface. If the water is moved, the ray will seem to be moved likewise, though it is in reality without motion." But such a faithful will must govern conduct; for, "It is scandalous that he who sweetens his drink by the gift of the bees, should by vice embitter reason, the gift of the gods."

It is, of course, in the realms of morals and religion that the comforts and rewards of right belief are, as a rule, most eagerly sought and most conspicuously present or absent. But their presence and influence as connected with the beliefs that enter so largely into the nature and progress of scientific systems and of social and political institutions are just as truly beyond all doubt. Something of a more special sort in describing and defining the nature and limitations of these applications of the greater beliefs, during the unceasing effort of the individual and of the race to render them increasingly reasonable, is demanded by the most brief answer to the question, What should I believe?

In general, then, it seems that the utility and value of human beliefs and faiths consist largely in their exploratory, tentative, and experimental character. For man does not learn to know, or conquer for his service, the world of things, by strictly logical inferences derived from a background or a foundation of indubitable a priori principles. He learns what things are by a series of approaches, in which the direction and the degrees of his belief in them come nearer and nearer to the truth of reality. He guesses at what they are, and what they will probably do to him and for him, and puts more or less of confidence in the accuracy of his guesses. He, thereupon, pins a kind of faith to these guesses. He extends and corrects the guesses, the crude, preliminary beliefs, by putting them to the test of experience. By using the suggestions which this testing affords (in which failure is often quite as helpful as success) he gets somewhat nearer to the goal of a perfectly valid confidence, a belief that is thoroughly right, although it may never attain the certainty ascribed to the conclusion of a perfectly constructed syllogism. It is, indeed, not on the basis of strictly logical inference that the temple of knowledge is chiefly erected, even in the physical sciences. The steps of these sciences are, the rather, like the rungs of a ladder of suggestions as to the truths of fact and truths of principle, by trusting which a climb is made toward the heavens of truth in its perfection and purity; and the foot of the ladder is itself placed on ground shifting at times between doubt and faith, but on the whole commending itself more and more to the confidence of the mind that has staked all on the success of its climbing.

In the last analysis, therefore, to plead the rewards of the will to believe, what to the reason it seems at the time is nearest that which it is right to believe, is a superfluous task. Such a plea is really equivalent to saying that, since we must discover the nature of things by progress in the skill of reckoning probabilities, and must govern our intercourse with things and uses of things by the same kind of skill, it is best for us to do so. It is always "best" to do what one positively "must" do. And whether we like it or not, we are doomed (or privileged?) to live largely by right be-lief in all our dealings whether for purposes of scientific progress or of practical benefit with the physical environment from which, except by death, there is no possible escape.

The indispensable necessity and high value of human beliefs and faiths in their office as "working hypotheses," is yet more evident in matters political and social; but above all, in matters moral and religious. All political and social progress is made only by a series of attempts, in which men for the time believe as the best thing possible for the time, or to which they attach their faith in a passionate and devoted way, as though the form attempted were the only and veritable realization of the coveted ideal. How fragmentary and faulty these beliefs are, and how surely the most care-fully constructed of them the political and social beliefs of the wisest minds and the most fortunate times are doomed to partial failure, needs no specially selected illustrations to prove it true. All social and political schemes and actual constitutions prove the fact, and the necessity of the fact, that progress can be gained only by putting them to the test, to determine their claims to approach the right beliefs and faiths. But choices of this sort, made by the "will to believe," are an indispensable expression of the "will to live" in association with one's kind. If the attempts at right belief carried with them no conviction, they could do no work. If they were not put to the test, to the trial of their faith, there could be no development. For men do not live together, with common success and in righteousness and harmony, because they have taken lessons from experts in a deductive science of sociology, "societology," or political economy. They find out the way to live with a measurable success in the attainment of the rewards of right living, in community relations, by an unending series of "trying it on." The only way, for example, that the vagaries and inconsistencies and lurking perils of the communistic schemes which are arousing the enthusiastic confidences of so large a portion of the race, and which are calling forth so much of noble, if half-blind, faith, can be made to give way to more of right belief, will doubtless be only through a process of "trying the schemes out." The trial will inevitably be fraught with much disappointment and suffering.

Above all, however, if a man is going to live the life of morality and religion, must he cling, often times almost desperately and in spite of many indubitable facts, to certain beliefs which have their present rewards largely in what they do to answer the demand for satisfaction of the higher sentiments and profounder needs of the personal life. To these faiths, there come many severe trials when they are tested by the actual happenings of the daily experiences of the individual, or the wider but more superficial survey of the courses of human history. The man who is going to lead the life made reason-able by the faiths of morality, needs to hold firm the conviction that wrong-doing, whether by himself or others is due to be thwarted and punished; that to those who do their duty according to their light and opportunities, all will essentially and ultimately be well. Especially does he crave that most comforting and glorious of all moral beliefs, the faith in the ultimate triumph of righteousness, and in the blessedness which is the fit companion of righteousness. But he may be unable to de-rive this faith, with the rigidity of the Kantian dialectic, from the very nature of the Practical Reason. And he will quite surely be called to face an immense number of experiences in which all these comforting beliefs seem to be contradicted by the facts.

So, too, for the man who would lead the life demanded by the faiths of religion, there is constantly sore need of the comfort and support which these faiths furnish in sufficient measure, and in a reasonable manner, only when they attach themselves to ideals that are high up and far away. But only the act of believing itself can draw the ideals down and make them nestle in the heart to keep it warm and make it strong. Such is the belief in the sanity and friendliness of the Universe, otherwise stated, in the wisdom and goodness of God. This faith is closely allied to that in the moral issues of life, as lived under the dominance of this Universe. But how awfully do the facts of life shock this faith! How ruthlessly do so many of our experiences flaunt themselves in its face! "The mills of the gods grind slowly," said that ancient people who, with the exception of the ancient Hebrews, of all peoples, ancient or modern, left on record the choicest fruits of profound reflection on moral issues. But only faith in a God, who is perfect Ethical Spirit, supports the practical conviction that the mills will grind on until they grind "exceeding small." That they will, however, is not the cherished conviction of the pious alone, whose lives bear witness to the sincerity and depth of their faith; it is also the suspicion of many another who has followed "variant by-paths" with an "uncertain heart," but whose poetical insight or quiet reflective thinking has compelled him at times to take refuge in the comforts of this faith. So deeply planted is this conviction in the very substance of the Self.

If the rightness of our moral and religious beliefs must be held in hypothetical form at first, and then purified and made more reason-able by long and painful processes of testing; in what respect, pray! do they essentially differ from all the most important and reasonable of our greater beliefs? We trust them; we con-duct our lives in reliance on their truth. But we admit that they must stand the testing of doubt, the discipline of experience, in order to merit and receive their highest, permanent rewards. What would you? This is only to say that right belief, like all other good things, must be proved right by a series of experiments. We may even say, without irrationality or caprice, that it is made right only by approaches along the thorny path of painful experiences. Such an admission, however, is no valid reason for denying oneself its comforts and its rewards by the way. This is not to say that one should shape one's beliefs and faiths, in things scientific, social, moral or religious, solely by the comfort one can get out of them; but that the comfort which right beliefs do actually afford to the soul in its approaches to them by the actual process of "trying them on," is an item of no small moment in their favor, in spite of the pains of the trial, and the disappointments, that are unavoidable in this process.

Let it not seem invidious if we turn our argument around a little way, in order to glance an instant at the dark side of life, when in its shadows through loss of faith in the greater truths of morality and religion. We need not mention names, as was done not long ago in an article giving a critical estimate of the literary work of a group of English writers whose lives had been a sad commentary on their seeming complete failure in the will to believe the greater truths essential to the unfolding of the higher personal life. Of these, some had "mingled their religion with the fumes of alcohol and opium"; some had died victims of absinthe and some of suicide. "And, above all, there is the hideous tragedy in Reading Jail." But one of the most gifted puts his final estimate of the values of the faith he had rejected, into verses celebrating the choice of the nuns who, with its comforts and supports, had devoted themselves to the active service of humanity.

"And there they rest; they have serene insight
Of the illumining dawn to be.

Surely their choice of vigil is the best?
Yea! for our roses fade, the world is wild;
But there, beside the altar, there is rest "

A curious and interesting tribute this to the comfortable repose of soul afforded by the faiths of morality and religion!

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