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Truth's Spiritual Equivalents

THE debt of theology to science is, perhaps, nowhere more strikingly illustrated than in the light which modern discovery in the latter field is shedding upon some of the most difficult problems of religious thought. One of the brightest rays of this new illumination is that which streams from the scientific law of the transmutation and equivalence of energy. The fact, now so familiar to us, that force is constant; that it is capable of infinite transformation while remaining the same in quantity ; that so much motion can be turned into so much heat, or light or electricity, and back again through all the series, without the loss of a fraction of it irresistibly raises the question whether a similar law may not be discerned in other spheres. We propose here to follow out this suggestion in one particular direction, and to ask whether evidence does not exist of a law of equivalency between moral or spiritual feeling and intellectual truth. Can it be said that a given moral emotion argues always the presence somewhere of a corresponding truth for the intellect ? Is what is noblest in the moral life truest as a fact? Can what the soul realises as the highest in its inner feeling be taken as a proof of an objective reality that the reason may recognise? Before we have done we shall hope to show that the topic is a practical one, and that the applications of it are of the first importance,

We need not stop here to investigate the precise philosophical relations between thought and feeling, nor to inquire to what extent, in a given mental state, feeling is amalgamated with thought. It is sufficient for our purpose to go upon the distinction, broadly marked in every man's consciousness, between his reason and his emotions. To indicate precisely what we are inquiring after, let us take a concrete illustration. The first appeal to a man of a volcano in eruption would be to his feeling. After the initial act of perception what he would be immediately conscious of would be sensations of wonder, admiration, awe, perhaps terror. But if he were a scientific man, there would be a supervening play of faculties upon this spectacle of a totally different order. He would find himself speculating about the causes of the phenomenon. What has happened to his emotions has suggested a problem to his intellect. Now the point we wish here to bring out is that his investigation would proceed upon the supposition that the feeling just raised in him had somewhere a full objective equivalent ; that the awe, wonder, terror, in the sphere of his emotions were a correct, though as yet =deciphered, register of outside causes and forces which it was for his intellect to interpret.

We can proceed now immediately to the application of this to the problems of religion, and especially of New Testament religion. The religious appeal, both to the race and to the individual, is first of all to the emotions. The cry of Faust, " Gefühl ist alles," is a strained expression of the fundamental truth on which Schleiermacher built, that the heart, the moral consciousness, is the true theologian. We turn the pages of the Gospels and the Epistles to find what? Not an argument, a definite appeal to the intellect, but an exhibition of emotions and of acts consequent upon emotions. Like our traveller in presence of the volcanic eruption, the first Christians, we find, are full of an immense complex of feeling to which they are here trying to give expression. The traveller's phenomenon is the volcano ; their phenomenon is Christ. The traveller, as a scientific man, is convinced that the immense impression on his senses has an exact equivalent behind it of objective fact. And the question of questions for us to-day is whether we are not entitled to apply this same law to the impression made on the first disciples by the Master of whom they write.

Let it here be observed that the force of this consideration is in no way lessened by the criticism that the language in the New Testament which describes these impressions may possibly be inexact or hyperbolical. We may accept it as perfectly true that the titles given there to Christ, such as the Son of God, the Logos, the Messiah, were not coined by the writers, but were already familiar to the Jewish Messianic theology. When all this is granted we have still this position remaining and to be accounted for, that the life, words, and works of Christ had produced in His followers an emotional and moral condition an awe, a wonder, a love, a sense of holiness, a hatred of sin, a consciousness in them of spiritually renovating power such as had never before been reached in the human soul. The question is, What were the dimensions of the objective fact capable of producing this inner effect ? Science demands that for every result there must be an adequate cause. What was the cause adequate to this effect ? In this conjunction it is really ludicrous to observe the attempts of the Comtists to make Paul the effective author of Christianity. To exalt Paul, and in the same breath to nullify his one life testimony is surely a strange procedure. To the really scientific student of Paul's utterances, of those ever-repeated asseverances that Christ is everything and himself nothing; that his whole inner life, so far as it is good, is a derivation from Christ the one question is, What or who was He who could produce such an impression upon such a mind ?

The argument which looms out of all this is immensely strengthened when we remember that these inward impressions are not an affair of testimony merely, but have been a matter of continuous experience in human history ever since. The inward thrill which Paul and John felt at the presence of Christ, and which they tried to translate into words, has been felt ever since, and is felt today. Into the histories of Christ, as we have them, we may have to admit that something legendary has crept. But in the love and joy which He made to spring up in human hearts, the sense of forgiveness, of sonship, of inward sanctifying, there was nothing legendary. There is nothing legendary either about the same experiences which fill the souls of men to-day wherever He is preached and accepted. But what is the intellectual equivalent of such a feeling as this P Theology has through all the ages been trying to find it for us, and has not succeeded any too well. But whatever the formula we accept as to the Per-son of Christ, this at least the scientific as well as the Christian consciousness demands, that it shall not be lower than the effect. The apostles and first witnesses felt that their soul had been in contact with God, and they said so. The living Church, though it may vary its phraseology, repeats the affirmation. As Hermann puts it : " None of us can come as a witness to the virgin birth ; one can only report it. But that the spiritual life of Jesus has not proceeded from the sinful race, but that in Him God Himself has stepped into the history of the race, of that we can be witnesses, for this knowledge forms a part of that which we our-selves have experienced."

The value of this line of argument to the central positions of Christianity will, perhaps, not be immediately patent to us all. But in the days of theological storm and stress that are coming, when the tempest of New Testament criticism which already in Germany has wrought such havoc upon earlier conceptions has made its force fully felt in England, it will be realised that here is faith's central and impregnable defence.

And the suggestion we have here been following, that the morally highest has its equivalent in the intellectually truest, and vice versa, will be found to apply with excellent results in other of the problems of religion and life. It may, for instance, be safely taken for granted that whatever contradicts the soul's highest moral witness is thereby proved intellectually false. When, for example, the last century listened to the scornful criticisms of Diderot, Condorcet, and the other encyclopedists on Christianity as " most absurd and atrocious in its dogmas, most insipid, most gloomy, most Gothic, most puerile, most unsociable in its morals," and so on, the inward sense of untutored Christians knew them wrong, though it took another century for the critically educated intellect to discover precisely where the error lay. And conversely, when from the supposedly orthodox side doctrines are presented to us as Christian which the moral consciousness revolts against, we may rest assured that, however venerable the authority against which it reacts, the verdict of feeling here will turn out to have its full equivalent in the ultimate presentment of the reason. When the Puritan Cartwright, offering what he supposes is Scriptural confirmation of religious persecution, exclaims, "If this be regarded as extreame and bloodie I am glad to be so with the Holy Ghost," we know he is wrong long before we discover the arguments that prove it. But the feeling and the arguments tally in the end. In general it may be stated that whatever in the way of teaching detracts from reverence, from love, from self-sacrifice, on the one side, and on the other limits liberty and deadens the instinct for truth, is thereby, without further evidence, certified by the soul as false. The moral criterion is linked indissolubly with the intellectual one.

From the foregoing exposition a number of results follow which we can here only in the briefest way indicate. One is that the Church which fails to produce the highest inward states is proved thereby defective in its teaching. Conversely, the higher spiritual conditions, wherever we find them, are the-surest of all religious evidences. The inward life of a saint points as certainly to an actually existent spiritual world as the colouring of a flower to the existence and potencies of light. When, however, we say that the highest life can only be nourished on the highest truth it is not meant that the form in which the truth is held is always necessarily the best. Some of the noblest lives we have known have been nourished on doctrines many of which, in the form they were held, we should reject. But the very fact that a doctrine has helped to nourish a holy character is, if our analysis is correct, proof that, however defective its form or expression, its substance is true. Whatever has helped to make men better is always intellectually as well as morally verifiable. It was precisely this argument, from the moral to the intellectual, that in the second century turned Justin Martyr from a pagan into a Christian, and that, in the nineteenth, brought Tolstoi from sceptical pessimism to the optimism of faith. The pagan philosopher tells us how, studying the lives of the early Christians, he realised that such moral effects must have fact and truth for the cause, and the Russian has testified that when " I saw around me people who, having this faith, derived from it an idea of life that gave them strength to live and strength to die in peace and in joy," the moral logic of the spectacle subdued him.

The Church need never worry itself about giving a complete intellectual expression to the life that is in it. For what is the meaning of the breakdowns of its past theologies P Is it not simply that the truth hidden behind its life is something vaster than any of its mental forms can contain?

( Originally Published 1903 )

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