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Essays - Conditions Of Moral Certitude


(1) TAKING belief as the general term, we regard it as including the two stages or degrees of Opinion and Certitude.

By Opinion we mean that state of mind and soul in which we feel our mental representation corresponds with fact so far forth as present evidence determines the fact. At the same time we are conscious to a greater or less degree of the possibility that further or other evidence might occasion qualification or even removal of our view. (Compare Doubt.)

By Certitude we mean that state in which, by reason of the quality or quantity, or both, of the evidence, our whole being rests purely and simply in the feeling or conviction that our mental representation corresponds with fact, without any haunting consciousness whatever that this conviction may or can be revised, much less removed.

(2) We start with the distinction first laid down by Kant, we believe, and elaborated by Letze and especially Ritschl,* between judgments of truth and judgments of value or worth. The former, judgments of truth, have the intellect for their realm; the latter, judgments of value, all have their root in feeling and will.

The fundamental principle of all judgments of truth is that the constitution of the universe is rational. The fundamental principle of all judgments of value is that the ultimate end or aim of the universe is the good. All belief, as distinguished from knowledge, rests ultimately, however remotely, upon judgments of value; and all judgments of value depend upon probable and not demonstrative evidence.

(3) By demonstrative evidence we mean a series of propositions every one of which is seen not only to be true, but the contradictory is seen to be not only false but unthinkable.

By probable evidence we mean a series of propositions judged to be true, but the contradictory while judged to be false is not unthinkable.

No object, then, beyond the sphere of immediate consciousness that is, no matter of external fact is capable of demonstration. All the truths of the whole body of natural science in reality rest in the last analysis on probable evidence.

Demonstrative evidence is incapable of degrees. The demonstration that three angles of a triangle equal two right angles in the case of one particular triangle cannot have its logical force increased by addition, repetition, or enlargement.

But probable evidence is capable of indefinite increase; there is no theoretic limit to its cumulative force. Further, as Bishop Butler points out, "Probable proofs, by being added, not only increase but multiply the evidence "óby their simultaneity and consequence.

(4) Now Certitude may be equally attained by either line of proof, for there is a certitude of knowledge as well as moral certitude or certitude of belief, e. g., I am as certain of the existence of the Pacific Ocean or San Francisco city as that two times two equal four; though I can think the non-existence or contradictory of the one and not of the other.

(5) Now in all cases of probable evidence, i. e., when the judgment is not necessitated by the very structure of our mental nature, a moral element comes in. By moral element we mean an act of choice. Put broadly, all our judgments upon probable evidence are choices, and all choices are betrayals. They disclose and record in a measure the present moral make-up of the chooser, the affinity or non-affinity between the chooser and the object chosen or rejected.

In the sphere of demonstrative evidence the pure intellect decides; decides by necessity and therefore mechanically. Otherwise there might be as much moral quality in the belief in and employment of the multiplication table as in the belief and practice of the maxim, "To love your neighbor and enemies is good and right."

In the sphere of probable evidence the whole spiritual nature is called more or less into play; not only the pure intellect but the passional nature, heart and will and conscience as well.

Therefore, in all judgments upon probable evidence, i. e., value judgments, the state of and disposition of the passional as well as intellectual nature must be taken into account in explanation of decision.

(6) This leads to the important observation that in all acts of belief or doubt or disbelief (belief of the contrary), resting as they must on probable evidence, there will be and must be an antecedent preparation for belief or doubt or disbelief in the moral history of the man.

For instance, we do not and cannot in strictness believe any fact on the strength of external evidence or testimony alone that is unsupported by what Mozley has aptly called "a sense of antecedent probability" in ourselves.

This sense of antecedent probability, the result of our past moral experience or history, must, so to speak, go out to meet the external evidence to fortify and complete it before belief can arise.

"Every perception is an acquired perception; that is, is a combination of reproduced attributes with presently felt attributes in the unity of a thing."

"The general law of perception is that while part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part and it may be the larger part always comes out of our own mind."

Take the illustration of a Missionary and Tropic Islander. The Missionary alludes to sharks and to solid ice. The Islander cannot believe the latter at first; further companionship creates a sense of antecedent probability of the fact being true, arising from his experience of the intelligence and entire truthfulness of the Missionary; and he comes to believe it.

(7) Now transfer observation to the distinctly moral and religious sphere: the same law prevails. Men can believe and will believe what their moral history has prepared them to believe: those things with regard to which there exists in them a sense of antecedent probability.

"If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one."

(8) To come at once to the practical object of this discussion: The evidence of Christianity is probable, not demonstrative. The whole circle of its converging proofs confronts men not as a demonstration but as a test; it comes not to win what Pascal would call a "barren victory" over the understanding by the force of evidence, but to try the moral temper of the soul, to re-veal the faithful or unfaithful use of moral liberty in the fact.

(9) The immense mass of unbelief in the world regarding the essential truths of Christianity is robbed by these reflections of much if not all of its disturbing force. Their unbelief is natural, inevitable (in their present condition), and to be expected. It is strictly in accord with the moral make-up of man, so long as his choices, desires, hopes, wishes, convictions in a word, his moral experience as a whole has not created in him a sense of antecedent probability respecting those truths.

The practical question for us is how can this antecedent preparation be secured, which' makes the external evidence of Christianity cogent and effective finally in producing certitude?

That there is a practical and sure way we believe; and in submitting a statement of it we desire it to be borne in mind that for the purposes of this paper we emphasize the human side or element in special.

(10) Let us take Christ's two sayings,

First: "Ye believe in God, believe also in Me."

Second: "If any man willeth to do His will, he shall know of the doctrine."

The first assumes the distinction between Theism and Christianity; the second supplies a practical formula for making our way from mere belief in God to belief in the essential truths of Christianity proclaimed by Christ.

(We start with the assumption of a man's belief in God. Rational atheism we think logically impossible it is intellectual suicide. All arguments of atheism, in fact, must assume as the only possible guarantee of their premises and processes the very truth which their conclusion seeks to overthrow.)

Willing or striving to do the will of God, or duty as Divine command, then, is the Divinely assured way to certitude of faith in Christianity. But what are we to understand by doing the will of God? What is the will of God? To answer that "belief in Christ and His claims is the will of God, therefore to believe in Him is to do the will of God," would be not only reasoning in a circle but in a circle of amazingly small diameter.

For to believe that belief in Christ is the will of God is the very point to be established. This would be to ask a man to begin to be a Christian by being a Christian. We believe the true starting-point is well stated by Kant in his "Duty as Divine Command," or by Foster in his " Christian Life and Theology" : "The ultimate thing in Christian life (i. e., the primary will of God) is the permanent choice of duty." He who seeks earnestly and honestly to do all duty at all times as the will of God, will by that very process create in himself that antecedent state of preparation which will not only welcome but perfect the incoming external evidence of Christianity and turn its probabilities to certitude.

The objection is sometimes raised that many eminent moralists of today and other days are not Christians.

We observe, in answer, that it is not simply doing duty but doing duty as fulfillment of Divine will, with desire to please God, that has the positive preparatory effect desired.

Agnostic morality morality without reference to the will of God will have a precisely opposite result. Such a moralist has for ideal only an abstract law or proposition. Therefore, just in proportion as he realizes in life and conduct the rules and maxims of the moral system he frames or adopts, does he come to exaggerate his own sense of self-importance, moral worth, and self-sufficiency.

This endured in Stoic morality. His moral arrogance may reach the height so bluntly expressed by Seneca:

"A truly moral man is better than any of the gods; for they are good by necessity of nature, but the moral man is good from choice."

Why this relation between doing duty devoutly and gaining certitude respecting the essential truths of Christianity?

The answer in brief is that the essential postulates of Christianity are of such special nature that the discipline of devout duty creates a sure and certain sense of fitness and harmony in their favor which, when these truths present themselves, coalesce with them, and their evidence creates invincible assurance or certitude.

The essential truths of Christianity may be stated in a few words:

(a) Man's moral guilt before God, and need of forgiveness.

(b) Man's moral helplessness in himself and need of Divine grace.

(c) Christian authority and power and compassionate readiness to meet those needs and aspirations.

Plainly, then, any discipline or form of moral probation that tends to deepen, intensify, and make real man's sense of moral burden and of moral inability before God, tends to create that inner preparedness that predisposition of heart and will and moral reason that forms the effective half of the argument which brings him to see and accept as divinely true the harmony and fulness and efficiency and the promise of mercy and grace and forgiveness proclaimed by Christ; e. g., to do duty devoutly deepens and quickens immeasurably the sense of guilt. Such a man sees as he otherwise could not see the essential enormity of sin, even the least. He casts aside his former worldly, shallow conception of guilt as simply a reflex of personal or social disapprobation and recognizes that the sense of guilt within is nothing less than the shadow of the favor of Divine displeasure falling upon the soul. His conviction finds voice in the Psalmist's words :

"Against Thee, and Thee only, have I sinned.."

Hence arises the conscious and imperative need of forgiveness; not from self or from men, but from God.

Again, striving devoutly to do duty, he learns with ever-growing clearness of conviction his moral inability, the utter hopelessness of self-help. For it is one of the most tragic facts of his moral nature that the sense of moral helplessness and inability is quickened and intensified by the very honesty and earnestness of the efforts put forth to attain and conform to a higher ideal.

It is often in moments of clearest moral vision that he feels an evil and insurgent nature pressing on his will and leading him to do the evil he would not; and such experience brings home to him the truth that it is not moral knowledge (which might be gained) but moral power (which must be given) which is the supreme need of his soul. Like the wounded traveller found by the Good Samaritan, what he consciously needs is not instruction but invigoration; not a ministry of counsel and admonition, how-ever wise and well reasoned, but a ministry of living energy and compassionate power like that of the Good Samaritan. Hence his conscious need and recognition of the necessity of Divine grace offered by Christ.

Now, let a man disciplined to such experience by devout performance of duty open the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth and read the record of Christ's claims and promises and teachings as uttered by Himself and amplified by His apostles; and he will find that within him which goes out irresistibly to meet those overtures and to confirm those truths.

His measure of conviction finds expression at first, perhaps, in words like those of the Apostle, "Lord, to whom else can we go? Thou alone hast eternal life"; but rises later to that fulness of certitude foreshadowed by the Psalmist outburst:

"My heart is fixed, 0 God, my heart is fixed;
I will sing and give praise."

As Coleridge has finely said: "Only let a man be brought to feel the need of Christianity, and Christianity is its own best evidence."

By the profound needs of the soul which the discipline of devout duty makes clear, emphatic, intense; by the fitness and fulness of Christian persuasion and teaching to meet those needs which experience verifies, a man comes to believe with the certitude of an assured faith that the same being that made the human soul speaks to that soul with authentic voice in the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth.

( Originally Published 1914 )

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