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Religious Valuation And Supernaturalism

( Originally Published 1910 )

IN the preceding chapter 2 the question was raised as to whether the valuations of religion can actually be considered valid except upon the basis of some sort of supernatural world of spirits or deities with whom communion is possible and from whom various inspirations or influxes of energy may be expected, if not for the purpose of changing the order of nature, as the primitive man imagines, at least for the purpose of bestowing upon the suppliant strength of will or fresh courage in the midst of sorrow or bitter calamity. This question is an altogether legitimate one, even though psychology should seem to be able to account entirely for all the phases of religious experience without recourse to spirit agencies of any sort. We say it is legitimate, because one sort of experience cannot be said, offhand, to be more reliable than another kind. If the religious mind contends that it actually receives its values from a supernatural world, and that it continually recuperates itself through intercourse with such a higher or-der of existence, its various experiences and concepts should be examined, not merely to determine whether they can be explained by the canons of psychology, but as well to deter-mine whether their real significance and value for human life would disappear if a supernatural world capable of interacting with the natural should be rejected.

Our point of view in these studies has continually been that the religious attitude is a fairly determinable psychological complex which has been built up in the course of the life-process and which, therefore, bears a definite relation to the physical and social environment within which it has taken shape. Since it is thus a psychical complex rather than an elementary instinct, it is not necessarily always present as a definite attitude in a given individual, and it is further quite conceivable that in some persons it may never be clearly organized at all. But, notwithstanding this, we may assume the attitude does have a determinable place within the life-process. It will help in the solution of the problem of the chapter to try to state as well as we can what that place is.

What the final meaning, or reality, of the universe may be, we scarcely need say, is practically beyond all possible advances in our knowledge. The best statement we can give of the world we must always feel falls far short, if not of what present experience has given us, at least of what further experience will hold to be valid. And, not merely do we feel the universe affords unlimited opportunities for the develop-ment of experience, but also we just as truly feel that what we actually are or have attained has an element of subtlety about it that defies statement. Every formula we can possibly construct regarding our experience is inevitably abstract, and we know when we have spoken that life is richer in meanings than our best phrases have or can give it credit for being. Our statements are usually confined to what is accomplished, to the static aspects of experience, whereas life is essentially projective, striving, reaching out. Thus, any statement which takes account only of what we have actually done thus far, or does not take into account the direction of our movement, must be either untrue or inadequate. Aspiration is real, even though the specific way in which we may be able to symbolize our aspirations may not be descriptive of something in the world in quite the same way as are such concepts as stone or tree.

Now, the religious consciousness is, as we conceive it, an attitude built up about this larger meaning of experience which we feel but cannot state except in relatively vague symbolic forms. There is nothing especially metaphysical about this point of view. On the one hand, there is such a thing as the religious attitude of mind, and, on the other, experience does appeal to us as more worthful than we shall ever be able to state in exact terms. The religious attitude represents the attempt of some, if not most, minds to grapple with this larger reality or meaning of life, to give it a symbolism that may render it more definitely available, or capable of playing some explicit part in our social interactions. But, inasmuch as the universe, as we have already said, will probably always offer possibilities of experience beyond any actual attainment, it will usually be found to be true, in the light of more extended dealings with things, that our formulas and symbols err, not in overstating the possibilities of experience, but rather in narrowing down these possibilities and tending to limit them for all time.

What we have just said applies preeminently to the ac-count of reality offered by religion. Religious concepts and valuations are symbols of relationships and meanings which must expand as experience expands. Thus, its hypothesis of a supernatural world is purely symbolic of a preexisting valuating attitude, and the question as to whether this supernatural world exists as it is postulated does not add to nor detract from the validity of the valuating consciousness. If the question of the reality of the order of existence postulated by religion is raised, we should have to say that probably all the concepts of religion fall short of an adequate account of experience rather than that they attribute too much to it. The religious mind may suppose, for instance, the existence of a universal moral order and a supernatural being or beings who have some connection with this order and with whom it may have communion. Particular efforts may be made, upon the strength of such a moral order, with its supernatural beings, or a crisis or problem may appear which seems inexplicable except upon the supposition of a God who is just, or jealous, or loving. Or, to put it another way, the elements of the crisis which we face may be so conflicting that all experience will seem to resolve itself into a chaos unless there is in the universe an all-wise God through whom the present conflict may be given a meaning or through whom order will in some way be wrought out. All persons may not agree that the particular hypothesis offered is satisfactory, but that is immaterial here. Manifestly, the important point is that the supposition does render some experience intelligible to its possessor, and for the time being such a one is not concerned as to whether his hypothesis is a final and adequate description of reality or not.

Briefly restated, the idea is this : Thought and the products of thought are to be interpreted, and hence are valid only with reference to certain crises or tensions that arise in action. It is not permissible to take the conceptual machinery thus evolved and hold that it gives us a cue to the construction of a reality beyond experience. The concepts of the chemist are true because they enable him to control his reactions, but he has not the least right to assume that he has therefore in them an account of the ultimate nature of matter. They give an account of it only as it is concerned in practical experiences of the sort with which the chemist deals. It is an almost universal tendency, however, to take these statements that seem to give us definite control under specific conditions and to generalize them into dicta about absolute existence. As opposed to this tendency, it is here maintained that our concepts are only functionally valid, and do not refer to ontological realities. All our realities are of the functional variety. They are realities because they serve these definite functions, and for no other reason. Some of them have a wider variety of uses than others, and hence appear in a greater number of our practical experiences. As such they seem to have a high degree of objectivity. ` Objective reality' is, in fact, our name for those elements which appear in the greatest variety of situations and interpret the most varied experiences. Such a statement does not dispute the reality of the world, but simply tells in what it consists. It amounts to this, that whatever else reality may be, as far as we are concerned, it is something involved in the onward movement of our experience, and all our descriptions of it are with reference to its function in this onward movement.

But we are not here interested in the general application of this principle. We wish rather to work it out with reference to the meaning of religious concepts. It should throw light upon the vexed question as to the place and authority of the dogmas of past ages in the modern religious consciousness. It is worth while to inquire whether they should be rejected in toto as false, or whether they have a certain validity, and if so, in what that validity may consist. Does the dogma of the Trinity, for instance, have any claim from this point of view to being a valid statement of the being of God? We should note first the context in which some of these dogmas originated.

It is well known that New Testament Christianity was not dogmatic but practical. That is, it did not promulgate the dogmas of a system of religion, but was the exponent of a certain manner of life. "The teachings of Jesus do not appear in a systematic form, but in terms of life and social relations. It requires laborious research and reconstruction to formulate them into scientific statements. Neither do the apostles present the Gospel in a theology, although doubtless they come nearer to it than Jesus does, and that is why theology took its point of departure from them rather than from Jesus. But still, even with them, while the theological material is more accessible, there is no systematic arrangement nor attempt at true philosophical explanation. They wrote for specific practical purposes, and always massed their teachings so as to bear upon the end in view. The New Testament is a book of religious truth, not of theological science; and it is content to state this truth in its practical aspects, upon the sole authority of Jesus, and not because its philosophical foundations have been worked out and approved."

"The distinctively theological interest which first began to make itself strongly felt in the Church during the second century centred immediately in Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity." 2 As we have seen, this doctrine does not appear as a dogma in the New Testament, for primitive Christianity was concerned with the concrete problems of life. Thus the concepts on which the dogma was later founded and which are to-day interpreted in the light of the dogma, were essentially the expression of definite practical situations and problems. It is true the idea of the Trinity was present in the early Church, but purely as a practical concept. It had developed in the centuries immediately preceding the Christian era under the influence of Greek thought. It grew out of the notion that God could not act directly upon the world, but only through certain intermediaries, as angels, his word, or his spirit. Hence, when anything occurred which seemed to demand the explanation of supernatural influence, it was natural to attribute it to the spirit of God or to his angels. In this form it was not a dogma, but simply a working concept that was in harmony with the then current notion of God.

This is certainly the context of its appearance in the New Testament. Wherever the Spirit is mentioned, it is with reference to just such practical problems or crises within experience, problems that demanded some sort of explanation. For example, the mysterious conception of Mary is explained thus. The baptism of Jesus differs from that of John by the presence in it of this divine element. Certain peculiar states of mind, or changes of mental attitude, that seem to transcend experience come to attention, and these are interpreted as caused by the Holy Spirit.

That it is essentially a practical concept comes out most clearly when Jesus seeks to allay the sorrow of the disciples over his departure by promising the Holy Spirit as a comforter in his place. In no case do we find reference to the Spirit except when some real or conceived situation of life is in the foreground. If, with their peculiar heritage of thought, these practical situations were met in the light of such a concept of the relation of God to man, we shall certainly not wish to deny its validity, but maintain rather that it was essentially illogical to turn this doctrine into a dogma and postulate as ontologically real what had reality only as it served certain functions in concrete life. How could its practical significance be enhanced by its being generalized into an ultimate view as to the nature of the person of God ? Every thinker must feel that the reality of God is far greater than can be crystallized in any such relation as that of son, spirit, and father. Such concepts are simply ways of making his infinitude come into working contact with our life.

As with the question of the spirit of God, so with that of the Son. His significance was certainly a functional one. Whether we take the standpoint of those of his time who expected a Messiah or that of the Christian world of to-day, we must admit that he was significant to them, and is significant to us, primarily because he is conceived as the mediator of certain definite experiences. With the modern Christian the significance of Jesus is certainly as an interpreter of God. The phrase, "What would Jesus do," however objectionable it may be, is at least evidence of this attitude. The dogma as to his metaphysical relation to God is meaningless except in so far as he is also functionally real.

In the New Testament times it is, of course, true, as every one knows, that the followers of Christ conceived him rather in terms of a definite earthly mission, more or less, in the light of the earlier Jewish notions, and by no means as bearing a certain metaphysical relation to God. He bore a definite relation to the glory of Israel, if not temporally, at least in a spiritual sense. The conclusion is, then, that both the Son and the Spirit were originally the embodiments of certain practical attitudes related in a definite way to the tendency that became prominent among the Alexandrian Jews to exalt God infinitely above all that is earthly, human, and imperfect, even above all human conception. "From the idea that God is absolutely incomprehensible and infinitely exalted flows the other that man cannot enter into direct relations with him, that he can neither know nor tell what he is."

"This idea that God is infinitely exalted above the world and without direct relations with it, necessarily led to the recognition of intermediate beings, through whom relations might be made possible."

The point of the whole discussion is this : that there existed at that time a certain attitude of mind that could best view its onward movement in terms of son and spirit, and God him-self could likewise be best conceived, and no doubt always can be for that matter, as a father. It is further held that these concepts interpreted to the believer certain practical situations, gave him their value, so to speak, and hence freed him for further action in similar directions. We do not question but that such an attitude may still exist, and hence demand such concepts for its expression. But the point of emphasis, in any case, is upon the tension within a certain type of experience rather than upon any reality outside this tension. It is only when the specific need has passed, or at least is no longer realized acutely, that the conceptual tools are brought into clear consciousness and come to be regarded as having a reality of their own. It is then that the functional reality ceases and the dogma takes its place. If a certain type of mind finds the concept of the Trinity significant, it is certainly a fact to be taken into account, but it does not follow, as has already been said, that because it is true as an interpretative principle it is also true without reference to any experience that is true ontologically.

This point of view may be applied with profit to a number of other Christian doctrines. We may quote in this connection from an article by H. Barker.' Traditional religion em-bodied "a great religious or ethical conception, that of a suffering saviour-God. Such a conception appealed directly to faith; it was a gospel of salvation that told of a divine love and pity greater than it was possible to hope for, and summoned men to strive with all their energies to be worthy of their God. Such a gospel was worth believing. It was a true object of faith; and its moral grandeur was a legitimate motive for faith. On the other hand, the traditional creed set forth certain miraculous or supernatural facts which guaranteed the reality of its ethical conception." Barker illustrates the above point as follows : " The essence of the belief in the resurrection of Christ on the religious side is the conviction that the personality of Christ has a spiritual value which constrains us to think of it as eternal. A universe in which it passed away and lesser things remained, would, for the Christian, be irrational. Now this conviction can as little be proved by any ghost-like appearances of Christ after his death as it can be refuted by their absence. If such appearances counted for anything, they would be as important in the case of any other man of whom they have been asserted. . . . The truth is that the Christian's religious conviction about Christ craves for some visible sign and confirmation of its truth, and the resurrection seems to faith to be such a sign. The error lies in turning a symbol which only faith can apprehend into the very premise by which the faith itself is proved.

Thus, when the symbol begins to be used as a logical premise, we may be sure that the faith has lost its intrinsic certainty, and is seeking to quiet itself in some outward and inferior guarantee." Putting this point in the terms that we have been using, we should say that when the practical situations cease to be acutely felt, the conceptual machinery that belonged with them in a manner holds over and finds its guarantee, no longer in its practical efficacy in a certain type of experience, but in the unconditioned reality of that which before had been real only because it had proved itself practically valuable. The intrinsic certainty, referred to in this statement from Barker, is the same point we have made regarding all practical attitudes. Intrinsic certainty is a characteristic attributed to all successful experience. Abstract the concepts from the situation that caused them to differentiate, and these specialized elements are left, as it were, in the air. Hence attention is fixed upon them, and they are held to be valid in themselves. This attitude is represented in many types of emotional experience. The virtuoso in the sphere of emotion has abstracted his feelings from the situations in which they belong, in which they have been in consciousness only as contributing to an end toward which the whole experience is moving. He has abstracted them, we repeat, and brought them to the focus of attention; in other words, given them a validity of their own. It seems to us that this procedure is parallel to the one we have been discussing in the religious sphere.

Barker continues: "Consider the belief in the miraculous birth of Christ. The absence of any strictly logical relation between the supernatural event and the religious doctrine which is connected with it is here more patent than ever. That Christ was born into the world in a preternatural way is in itself no proof at all that he was an incarnation of the deity, although, of course, to one already convinced of his divinity the miraculous birth has a certain fitness as a symbol." As Barker further points out, the symbol has, however, a certain function, for faith comes in pulsations, that is, the practical situations in which the symbol is significant are not always at hand, but the attitude of readiness to meet them must be preserved intact, and this is the more possible, if the tools of the attitude can continue to be held in the foreground of consciousness. The mind is thus kept accessible to the influences by which faith can be revived. "The Christian whose faith had grown weak attributed the lack of faith to himself as a fault, because he did not doubt that the objects of faith were there to be apprehended, although he could no longer feel their reality and truth for himself." 1 In other words, we represent the values of our past experiences by means of the conceptual machinery they involve, apparently because it can be most easily isolated. But the mental concomitants of a practical attitude can never be isolated and still be expected to retain their original nature. It may be the only way we can represent to ourselves that we have had the experience, but we must nevertheless not forget that this conceptual framework is not the original experience. The only reality the conceptual structure or system of dogmas has, its only validity, is in pointing to a time when practical situations were very acutely felt.

The significant characteristic of the practical situation is that it is immediate, and its reality needs no logical proof. No theory of the universe, no philosophy, can disprove the immediate appeal of the practical crisis, or rob it of its total independence of the necessity of logical support. But as soon as there is felt to be a necessity for proving the attitudes involved, the situation itself has passed away. The whole force and significance of the concepts and attitudes depends upon the undisputed presence of the practical situation. Thus "the supernatural facts embodied in the creed do not need to be disproved to lose their peculiar value. This value is already lost when they can be reasonably doubted.

Their peculiar function is gone from the moment they appear to be doubtful." ' That they are doubted means that they have lost their dynamic relations to experience, that practical needs have changed, and hence that different systems of concepts are now needed. The only way to prove any claim of theology is to show its vital relation to the crises of life. No one was ever convinced of the truths of religion in any other way, nor has any one who has believed them from this side lost his faith by mere ratiocination. If such a one has lost his faith, it has been because its vital contact with his life has ceased, and the work of reason is, then, simply to show that what is left is dead. Our point, in a word, is this, that the reality of a practical situation is recognized immediately, and its tools are in the same immediate manner regarded as valid solely because of their dynamic connection with the situation. There is no other way to prove their truth, and to attempt to do it otherwise is to admit that they have lost their value, and hence are false.

It is suggestive to apply this point of view to the doctrine of the second coming of Christ. There is no question but that the expectation of this event had a very important place in the thought of New Testament times. It is an excellent illustration of the evolution of a belief according to the theory here presented. The Church of to-day, obliged to admit that the early Church was mistaken in the particular form in which it held to this belief, holds it now in a modified form. But in a sense the early Church was not in error. This belief in the second coming of Christ was a part of a more general attitude toward the world and human conduct, and as such it served to mediate a definite practical attitude which was then significant. When this appropriate context disappeared, the belief was left stranded and, in the eyes of later ages, it was manifestly a mistaken one, as far as ontological fulfilment went. But the conviction that it stood for an ontological reality has led each generation to reconstruct the belief on a basis that at least offered a possibility of fulfilment. What is true of this particular belief is true of all others referred to above, except that in this one its falsity when taken out of its context, was so self-evident that it had to be reconstructed if it were to continue to be believed. Of the other dogmas it was not so evident that they were meaningless when thus isolated, and hence they were more easily adhered to in unreconstructed form.

It is likewise as regards the doctrine of inspiration. The individual who finds in the Scriptures a key that interprets his ethical life asks for no other proof that they are inspired. But the so-called logical proofs of inspiration never convince any one, because when such proofs are offered it is evidence that inspiration is now taken as a fact out of connection with the actual unfolding of experience. It is well known that no argument for the inspiration of the Scriptures, for immortality, or for the divinity of Christ is convincing to any one who does not believe in them already as facts of immediate experience.

The various phases of supernaturalism that appear in religion thus seem to be but symbols of valuation, and cannot be taken as means of establishing its truth or its falsity. Sup-pose religious values are, in part at least, communicated by revelation. That fact would not in any way add to their certainty or worthfulness. He who believes in spiritual beings who can impart higher truth to man, usually believes also in bad as well as in good spirits, and how is he to know but that the revelation is from evil spirits, except as it is compared with other things which are regarded as good and, further, as he utilizes that revelation in the interpretation of human life and human relations? On the one hand, then, it is in the intrinsic character of the whole that its validity is to be sought, and on the other, in its adaptability to social need rather than in any supposedly miraculous events attending its first expression. "A religion which has endured every possible trial, which has outlived every vicissitude of human fortunes, and which has never failed to reassert its power unbroken in the collapse of old environments, declares itself by irresistible evidence to be a thing of reality and power. If the religion of Israel and of Christ answers these tests, the miraculous circumstances of its promulgation need not be used as the first proof of its truth, but must rather be regarded as the inseparable accompaniments of a revelation which has the historical stamp of reality." 1 Although this author holds to the idea of miraculous revelation, it is evident from these words that he believes also that the character of the values, especially as they stand the test of social approval, is the really vital point. Let it alone and see if it will come to anything was the intent of wise words addressed to the Jewish Sanhedrin when that body was considering the advisability of adopting severe measures against the new Christian sect, and, as far as psychology is concerned, there is no reason for demanding another test. As long, however, as the hypothesis of supernaturalism persists in human thought, so long will it be associated with religious values and so long will the cultivation of the religious attitude always afford more or less stimulus to some types of minds to seek unusual varieties of experiences and to find in such experiences objective, tangible evidence of the verity of their faith.

While the concept of supernaturalism is mere symbolism, it is probably, then, one that is necessary for the expression of higher valuations. It is an evidence of our social nature and of the social form in which we must almost of necessity do our thinking. In as much as religious values are of social origin, and have been elaborated in the various processes of social intercourse, it is almost inevitable that they should always be most clearly and most forcefully expressed in terms of social relationships. If we express the reality of our faith in life and human striving in some sort of terminology of spirits, deities, or of a single supreme God, with whom social inter-course is possible, and from whom help may come to us, as help may come from a father or friend, we are not going beyond the possibilities that the universe affords, even though our particular symbolism may be quite inadequate as an ultimate statement of reality.

Religion is essentially a faith that the universe, in which we have our being, contains the elements that can satisfy in some way our deepest aspirations. The concept of God as a father and a friend, with whom communion is possible, is a legitimate way for the religious mind to symbolize its faith in the reality of life. In so far as such symbolism satisfies and helps, it represents a genuine aspect of reality. It is also quite possible for the religious mind to develop under the stimulus of this method of expression. But, as we have said, the mode of expression can never be taken as a means of proving the validity of the attitude of mind behind it.

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