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Bergson, As Seen From A Preacher's Study


MANY a preacher has no attitude toward the study of the course of philosophic speculation. He simply ignores the whole subject. He is interested in practical matters. He cares more about men than men's ideas. He cares more about life than philosophy. He is entirely engrossed with the effort to be an efficiency expert as regards the matter of winning and holding men for the kingdom of God, and administering the affairs of his church with skill and success. His laboratory is life; his experiment station is human experience. He gets his sermons from a constant and hearty human contact, illuminating his study of the Bible. He knows how to press the gospel home to the hearts of men. He speaks with the accents of vigorous and robust life. He makes no pretensions to being a scholar, but he is an effective evangelist as well as a preacher. Scattered over the country you find this type, in quiet hamlets and in thriving cities. The church owes a real debt to this expert in religion, even when he is a man who would soon get lost in discussing ideas about religion.

It is quite easy to see, however, that this type of man fails of the highest efficiency. To care immensely about everything that pertains to men except their mental life is an incomplete devotion. To be an evangelist for the saving of men's souls without a mastering message for their minds is to perform an inadequate service. The man who speaks to less than the whole life can never be the most effective evangelist, and he is sure to be inadequate in the wider ministries of pastoral service.

On the other hand, many a preacher is more interested in ideas than he is in people. He can outline the course of Greek philosophy more easily than he can follow the winding paths by means of which a struggling man finds his way to peace. He gets his knowledge of life second-hand; the fresh currents set in motion by actual human contact do not throb through him. He has separated the mind from all the rich and diversified experience of the remainder of the life, and so his message is likely to be-come dignified and wise and impotent. To preach only to the mind is as great a mistake as to fail entirely to appeal to the mind. The distrust of the "philosophic preacher" is entirely a repugnance for the type of utterance which has intellect but is without the blood of life. It is one thing to describe the evangel with cold precision; it is quite another to preach it, with intellectual adequacy and also with a burning heart. Thought and feeling belong together.

The most effective preacher has the virtues and shuns the weaknesses of the two types we have been analyzing. He is a man of men and a man of ideas. He is a student of books and a student of people. He is at home in philosophy, and he is at home in a human heart. Deeper than this, the real preacher is always a man of God. He does not leave his piety behind when he picks up a book of philosophy. He takes all there is of him into every intellectual endeavor of his life. His Christian experience has a position of defining power in every intellectual exploration which raises questions of moment as to life and destiny.

This is a matter of supreme importance. Perhaps we can best put it in this way: When it comes to the study of philosophy the preacher is both the judge and a part of the evidence. The peril and the strategy of his situation lie in this fact. He is the judge, for he must study and weigh and appraise the system. With perfect candor and honesty he must take account of all that it has to say. But he does not approach the task without presuppositions. An open mind is not an empty mind. He himself is a part of the evidence to be considered. His own experience is part of the data to be taken account of. The philosophy he accepts must be big enough to make room for his personal experience of salvation through Jesus Christ his Lord. All the facts and energies which have to do with the new life in Christ must find a comfortable home in the philosophy which he makes his own. He never tries to make his experience shrink to fit his philosophy. It is the business of a philosophy to organize and interpret the facts of experience, not to change or distort them. And the preacher knows that his Christian experience is as defining as any fact of life.

This does not mean that he is narrow-minded. It does not mean that he is a bigot. It does not mean that he is unwilling to accept new truth. It just means that he has such a complete sense of the true scientific method that he will insist that all the facts must be faced. As an unclassified flower, if it had a voice, might say to a botanist, "You must take account of me"; as a strange insect with bright wings might say to the scientist who scrutinized it, "You must alter your classification to make room for me"; as any physical or chemical fact has the right of way through any speculative theory, so a Christian experience and all the facts and truths involved in it have the right of way. The preacher with the real experience of these things in his life has a perfect right to say to the philosopher, "No system is adequate which does not make room for me."

And the making room must be of a character which leaves all the creative power and moral splendor of a Christian experience intact. To explain a Christian experience in such a way that you make its repetition impossible is in effect to deny it. To interpret a Christian experience in such a way that the man who accepted the interpretation could never experience the moral invigoration and spiritual renewal of such an experience is to distort an important series of facts. It is utterly unworthy of the spirit of candid scientific procedure.

These things the preacher holds firm in his mind as he approaches the study of philosophy. He sharpens his mind with every discipline in philosophic research. He is open to new truth everywhere. But he never forgets that he has in his own experience some defining truth which must have commanding place in the final philosophic synthesis. He is both the judge and a part of the evidence. And he never forgets his significance as evidence while he is thinking of his duties as judge.


When we attempt to get at the heart of the modern philosophic situation a thousand clamorous voices cry for a hearing. Many of them are characterized by loudness rather than by importance, and our task is to find those few defining assertions which gave its quality to the thought of the time. Bent on this quest, we soon discover that philosophy in the nineteenth century was much like a great feast at which a certain Banquo's ghost insisted on appearing just when the guests had settled down comfortably to en-joy themselves. The feast was wonderfully well set out, the viands included every delicacy of the mind and much that was substantial as well. But the ghost had a way of taking one's appetite. Sometimes the feast was given by one philosophic school and sometimes by another. But still the ghost would appear at the most disconcerting and inopportune times.

It has not proved too difficult to think the universe into unity and coherency, but somehow you make it a machine in the process. The ghost is the ghost of necessity. Just when everything is well arranged and properly classified, you find that you do not have a living organism but a dead machine. There is no fault to find with the classification except that life has slipped through it and escaped. Movement and change in any living sense are forever done for. You were seeking a palace of the mind and you have found a sarcophagus.

The whole materialistic philosophy of the century just gone is one illustration in point. Expressed with wonderful brilliancy and skill in the synthetic philosophy of Herbert Spencer, it fairly captured the imagination of thousands of men. A far-flung battle line the synthetic philosophy spread out with all of life and all of the universe and all that comes within the range of experience as the object of its mastery. Nobody could deny the power of the brain that worked out the system. Nobody could deny the splendid powers of observation and generalization shown by the system itself. But just as everybody was enjoying the feast the ghost appeared. The system was seen to account for everything else in existence by denying the one thing which makes existence itself worth while. Freedom was politely bowed out of the universe. Personality was made a mechanical device and not a matter of free intention. There were ultimate forces, but they belonged to a great universal mechanism of moving belts and revolving wheels. As far as intention, purpose, and free movement are concerned, where the names were kept the reality had vanished. The body of life had been dissected but the soul had escaped.

It was not hard to point out internal contradictions in the system. It was not hard to show that it implicitly assumed the very things it later denied. It was clear that you could never account for the synthetic philosophy itself on the basis of its own postulates. To build such a system required the very free mental movement which the system denied.

All this was true, but, deeper than this, the system was an attack on life itself. It robbed men of the sense of freedom and responsibility, of creative energy and fullness of power. It sapped the roots of morals and religion. In dealing with physical facts it refused to take account of the most out-standing facts of the mental and moral and religious experience of the race. It was unconsciously an attempt to dam up the movement of life itself. Of course the mighty river simply rose above the dam and swept on. There was some devastation in the process, but life could not be impeded. No philosophy can survive which lifts a defiant hand in the face of life itself.

Another characteristic expression of philosophic speculation might seem to promise more. The Hegelian philosophy did not begin with things. It began with thought. It entered the sanctuary of the mind and took its own process as its guide. The thesis and antithesis and synthesis of the Hegelian philosophy were an attempt to make the logical movement of the thought process itself the explanation of the problems of existence. Here is surely a lofty idealism. Now the great things of mind and spirit will come to their own. Thought is on the throne and the blighting power of material-ism has been overthrown. It is a severely intellectual feast at which the Hegelians sit down. All is moving with lofty propriety when suddenly the ghost appears. It cannot be ! Yes, indeed, it is the same old ghost of necessity. We have escaped from the lion to confront the bear. We have escaped physical necessity to find mental necessity. The universe is still a big machine, only now it is a mental machine instead of a physical machine. Thought proves as relentless a tyrant as things, and life and freedom and any real responsibility are again banished from the universe.

A system built on logic instead of on a logician is sure to prove a system of necessity. Hegelianism worshiped logic and left the logician quite out of account. It bowed down before thought and enunciated principles which made a free and responsible and living thinker forever impossible.

Here again it is easy to find technical errors and contradictions. But here again the deeper matter is that the system was a defiance of living experience and not an expression of it. Life was dwarfed; all its facts were not faced. The biggest experiences of men were left out of the circle of the truth as it is in Hegelianism. The men who tried to live in the system wore it like chains. The great currents of life swept past it. Intellectual necessity proved as impotent as physical necessity to be speculatively satisfying to men.

Here, then, we have the typical nineteenth-century movements as far as the widest influence and power are concerned, and both of them strikingly failing to meet the demands of life. Were there no voices of revolt? Were there no prophets of the currents of life itself? Did the goddess Necessity call and ordain all who spoke in the courts of Philosophy?

The answer is that there were right vigorous and notable voices of protest. In America Professor Borden P. Bowne, through a long and notable career at Boston University, was a voice crying in the wilderness, in the name of a personal interpretation of the universe, with the freedom of a personal agent as the final and decisive fact. In England Dr. Hastings Rashdall gave forth a system of personal philosophy with genuine kinship to that of Professor Bowne, and so in the two great English speaking nations the voice speaking for free and uncoerced personal agency at the heart of things was heard. In Germany Professor Rudolf Eucken carefully worked out and gave forth his philosophy of Activism. Essentially his thinking is another protest in the name of life, it is another voice crying, "Life itself has the right of way."

In both England and America the pragmatists joined the protesting voices. Pragmatism may mean either a method or a philosophy, or both. But it always means an appeal to life. Everything must go down before life. If logic lies wounded and helpless, the pragmatists will do nothing, providing life goes on its way, full of strength and power, unattacked and unharmed. Among these voices of protest one of the very most potent is that of Bergson. He is the great leader in France of the revolt from Necessity, and his voice has become one of worldwide significance and influence.


Henri Bergson is a Parisian by birth and is now fifty-six years of age. Educated at the Lycée Condorcet and the Ecole Normale Supérieure, his early interest was mathematics, and he later graduated in philosophy. He spent seventeen years teaching in various schools, and in 1900 was appointed to a professorship of the Collège de France, which professorship he now occupies. In 1901 he was elected a member of the Institute.

"To say that his lectures have made him world famous and that men of many countries and races flock to the somber lecture room of the old Collège de France is to give a fair indication of the tremendous and almost protean influence of Bergsonism. His is the largest lecture room the college can boast, but not nearly large enough to accommodate the polyglot crowd of both sexes that gathers every Wednesday" (E. Hermann in Eucken and Bergson).

Bergson's style is a marvel of lucidity, precision, and charm, and his illustrations are of a felicity which fills his hearers with glad surprise. His power of thought is easily equaled by his skill in expression. The following of Bergson's works and they include his most important utterances have been translated into English : Time and Free Will, 1910 (published in French in 1888) ; Matter and Memory, 1911 (in French, 1896) ; Creative Evolution, his fullest and most thoroughgoing exposition of his philosophy, 1911 (in French in 1907) ; Laugh-ter, 1911 (in French, 1901).

The preacher who wants to know some-thing of Bergson will do well to begin with H. Wildon Carr's little book, Henri Bergson, The Philosophy of Change (in The People's Books, published in New York, by the Dodge Publishing Co.). This he may follow with Mrs. E. Hermann's brilliant and powerful study, Eucken and Bergson (The Pilgrim Press). Then he should plunge directly into the Creative Evolution itself.

Now, what is Bergson's distinctive position as a philosopher, and how does he approach the problems which existence and experience present to us? We may best begin with his conception of time, for here he strikes a distinctive note. The historic conception of time, he tells us, is really time translated into space. When we speak of time we mean the things that happen and not the duration itself. And because of this slipping into one meaning when we use another word, all sorts of confusion arise. Time becomes a contradicting conception or a mere mental form when viewed in this way. But, according to Bergson, the very thing which escapes us when we speak of time is the vital thing not only in time but in existence. The experience of duration is the fundamental fact of life. We experience duration as a movement of which we are deeply conscious in our moments of extreme intuitive sympathy. And this movement of duration with which we are one in our deepest sense of life is the very stuff of which reality is made. Because of this position Bergson has been called the modern Heraclitus.

The idealist begins with thought, and does not know what to do with things. The realist begins with things and never success-fully makes his peace with thought. Berg-son begins with that experience of change of which both thought and things are aspects and so finds a tertium quid by means of which he can deal with both.

This fundamental movement is infinitely larger than human experience, though by intuition we feel our oneness with it. And this ceaseless, changing duration is the last fact of reality and the basis of knowledge. This great movement is like a vital energy pushing its way to complete expression and coming out in various ways. The slumber of the plant, the instinct of the animal, and the knowledge of man are various burstings forth of this vital moving energy. The intellect is man's organ for dealing with experience. It takes snapshots, as it were, of the rapidly moving train. These snapshots are very useful, but for philosophic purposes they are always misleading. In the picture the train is always standing still. It is of the very nature of the intellect that it must seem to bring creation to a standstill in order to apprehend it. But for all that, the fundamental characteristic of existence is the one which the snapshot does not reveal.

Is there any way, then, by which we can get at reality? Is the intellect merely a practical tool which leaves us helpless when we approach the great philosophic problems? The reply is that our own consciousness is larger than intellect. There is a fringe of consciousness which does not take snapshots but knows itself as one with the movement of life. We must seize this fringe, this intuition of the movement, and here we shall find genuine, if fleeting, knowledge of reality itself. The deep sense of oneness with the changing movement of duration is the fundamental fact for philosophy.

This movement is an endless creative activity. It does not look ahead. But it does carry all the past with it in the illuminated action of the present. The process of evolution is not toward a foreseen goal. It is a fresh, creative output, always bringing forth something new. After the new is brought forth you can fit it into a scheme.

But there was no scheme beforehand. It is utterly free, entirely full of creative energy, a great current which perpetually changes and continually creates.

Reality is the movement. Thought is a snapshot which sees it, or a section of it, at a standstill. Matter is the section we seem to see but is really a part of the movement. Intuition is the experience of oneness with the movement. This mighty vital push, the very self of duration, the very heart of change, is the ultimate reality. It is free, it is creative.

The intellect is an organ for dealing with aspects of the movement in a practical way. It is of practical value just because it enables us to see sections at a standstill, so that we can deal with life; but because the soul of the movement slips away from the grasp of the intellect, it can never in its own strength build up an adequate philosophy. The systems of physical mechanism and intellectual mechanism are what they are because of this fact. The intellect sees things in a mechanical way. But the larger sense of reality which intuition gives us opens the door to the true philosophy. When we experience our oneness with the creative movement we have at last reached the defining fact of existence. We have touched reality itself.


The preacher who reads Bergson soon feels that there is a certain mood about his philosophy which has very real kinship with the mood of the preacher. Deeper than that, again and again there is a ring about the very phrases of Bergson which is like the ring of human experience as is recognized in the preacher's mind and heart. The sense of movement, of activity, of stir, of a universe in which things happen corresponds to the deepest knowledge and intuitions of the preacher himself. The trouble about mechanical interpretations of the universe is just at this point. They leave no room for anything really to happen. There is no room for tragedy. There is no room for comedy. It is a closed universe with room for nothing but a careful system of pigeon-holes.

Bergson from the start gives you the feeling that his philosophy strikes the note of life itself. The consciousness of creative energy in a man's soul is answered to by the placing of creative energy at the heart of philosophy. Then the emphasis on freedom is most welcome to the Christian thinker. He is tired of being a practical believer in freedom and a theoretic believer in necessity. The philosophy of Bergson gives a world of initiative, of uncoerced movement, a world where no frowning physical or logical laws leave freedom to perish among the wastes of thought. The kingliness of freedom is recognized in Bergson's philosophy as perhaps it has never been recognized before. Then the sense of great things to come is welcome to the Christian thinker. Life is not finished. The world is not completed. The creative energy is now at work. We are not spectators, watching the curtain fall on the last act. We are participants, and we may well believe that the great action is yet to come. A splendid optimism naturally flows from such a philosophy. Again, the emphasis on activity fits the thought of the preacher. It helps a man to believe in effort. It sets free initiative. It sends a man forth to do and to dare. He is a part of a universe in action, and he himself may realize some of its wonderful potencies. Last of all, the emphasis on the sympathetic intuition which puts us within the circle of reality in a sense impossible to pure intellect is welcome to the Christian. His own Christian experience has just this quality at its highest, and he is glad to find philosophy recognizing the validity of the sympathetic intuition, which he knows may be the saint's sense of God, as well as the philosopher's sense of oneness with the movement of duration. The atmosphere, then, and many of the contentions of Bergson's philosophy come to the preacher in his study as assets he is glad to receive.


All that we have said is by no means intended to suggest that Bergson is a Christian philosopher. He often gives the Christian thinker tools which he himself would never dream of using in the way which immediately suggests itself to the Christian. Bergson is very eager about consciousness and creative energy. But does he lift them to the place where he makes them our secure possession? Does he see that these things are only figures of speech unless they are the characteristics of a person? Does he see that the push of creative evolution must be the conscious intention of a mighty personal agent? Does he know that his own enthusiastic propaganda hangs ready to fall back into necessity, for all his fine phrases, unless he lifts it clear and clean by recognizing the personal agency which is one with the creative movement of duration?

We are not able to make an affirmative reply to these questions. Bergson is eager to save freedom and creative energy and fullness of life, but he has not yet been willing to find their security in the clear and definite recognition that active personal agency the activity of God is the heart of the whole matter.

Now, unless we rise from what Bergson gives us to this higher conception, we cannot permanently hold the ground for which he so valiantly fights. Many of his noblest passages become mere figures of speech, unless we put living, active personality back of them for their support. This hesitancy about personality is united with other failures to discriminate closely. Bergson has what we may almost call a great antipathy to final causes. But a free personal agent may be able to preside over the movement just because he is the movement and makes his intention potent. The freedom of the movement is the freedom of the personality who is the movement, and while a freely chosen goal toward which the whole creation moves may present difficulties to the mind, they are outweighed by the greater difficulties attending any other conception. Final causes are not our foes but our friends.

If we make personal agency in free and self-chosen action the core of the movement of creative evolution, we shall escape the snares which beset the path in which Berg-son is now walking.


Of course, there is a sense in which philosophy may not be called Christian any more than may mathematics. There are aspects of experience whose interpretation is as much apart from religion as the fact that two and two are four. In many a range of its speculations philosophy is dealing with things which do not belong to morals or to religion. But when we come to the deepest matters of life and destiny, Christian experience has implications of which philosophy must take account. The metaphysical implications of Christian experience are far-reaching. They include : 1. A personal God. 2. A personal revelation. 3. An Incarnation of the Son of God in human life. 4. A world presided over by the will of its personal Deity. 5. A divine deed of suffering rescue. 6. A goal for life secured by the character, the purposes, and the will of God.

Now, a philosophy which makes room for these facts will be transformed by them. It will be dominated by them. They will become the defining facts of the system. In this sense we have a right to speak of a Christian philosophy. And from this stand-point we must say that Bergson offers many materials which may be used in a truly Christian interpretation of the universe and all the phenomena of existence and life. But we must add that his own use of his materials, as thus far seen, leaves out of account many of those supreme facts which the Christian thinker can never ignore.

( Originally Published 1915 )

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