Letters on Spiritual Christianity——ILLUSIONS
My dear ——,
I see you are still violently prejudiced against illusions, that is to say against recognising the very important part which they have played in the spiritual development of mankind. You clearly believe that, though the world may be full of illusions, Revelation ought to be free from them. “The Word of God,” you say, “ought to dispel illusions, not to add to them.” I maintain on the contrary, that the Word of God, if it comes to earth, must needs come in earthen vessels; and that the most divine truth must needs be contained in illusion. Let illusions then be the subject of my present letter. At the same time I shall attempt to answer your prejudice against the natural worship of Christ as being a “new religion”. Not of course that I admit that it is a “new religion”; on the contrary I regard it as the old religion, the predestined God-determined religion to which we are to return after extricating ourselves from the corruptions of Protestantism, as our forefathers extricated themselves from the corruptions of Romanism. I shall not deal here with the special illusions of Christianity, but with your evident a priori prejudice against any admixture of illusion with Revelation.
But first, what do I mean by “illusion,” and how does my meaning differ from “error” or “mistake” generally, and from “fallacy,” “delusion,” and “hallucination” in particular? I say “my meaning,” because the word is 98often used loosely (I do not say wrongly) for any of these synonyms: but I restrict it to a special sense.
“Illusion,” then, is wholesome error tending to the ultimate attainment of truth; “delusion” is harmful error arising from a perverted Imagination; “hallucination” is a wandering of the Imagination, without any guidance or support of fact, involving “delusion” of the most obstinate character; “fallacy” is an error of inference or reasoning; “mistake” is the result of mal-observation or weak memory; and “error” a general name for any deviation from the truth.
Illusion, in many cases, is an exaggerative and ornative tendency of the mind. It leads the very young to think their parents perfection, and the young to think them far better and wiser than they really are; it constrains the lover to exaggerate the beauty, accomplishments, and qualities of the woman whom he loves; it tends to the distortion of history by inclining all of us to accommodate facts to the wishes and preconceptions of our idealizing nature, which is always longing for “a more ample greatness, a more exact goodness, and a more absolute variety than can be found in the nature of things”; and it lures us onward, young and old alike, over the rough places of life, even to the very brink of the grave, by the ever-fleeting, ever-reappearing suggestions of a bright to-morrow that shall make amends for the dull and commonplace to-day.
These illusive hopes, beliefs, and aspirations are never fulfilled in this life; but even the cynic and the pessimist must acknowledge, with Francis Bacon, that they constitute the very basis of all poetry that “tends to magnanimity and morality.” Those who believe in God will further recognize in illusion a divinely utilized integument for the preservation and development of aspirations that shall 99ultimately find a perfect fulfilment in a harmonious co-operation with the divine Love and in the unending contemplation of the divine Glory. Nor are illusions without a present practical purpose. Men are more hopeful, more active, more loving on account of them. On the other hand, even optimists must acknowledge that no man should shut his eyes to the truth in order to remain in what he knows to be no more than a comfortable error. The venial illusions of childhood, youth, and ignorance, become unpardonable or hypocritical in experienced age. Do you ask how we are to distinguish “illusions” from “delusions”? The answer is easy—on paper; but, in practice, often difficult to apply. However, the test is the same as that by which we distinguish knowledge from ignorance. Illusions “work”; that is to say, men are on the whole the better for them, and they prepare the way for truth. Delusions fail; men are in no way the better for them, and they often prepare the way for insanity and for physical or spiritual death.
We have spoken of moral illusions; let us touch on another kind of illusions to which some (I do not say rightly) have given the name of “illusions of sense.”
I doubt whether the name is correctly given; for to me it seems that the illusion proceeds not from the senses (which, as far as I can judge, never deceive us) but from the imaginations and inferences which we base upon the report of the senses. Take an extreme case, fit rather to be called “delusion” than “illusion.” If I see the phantom of a cat before the fire, which cat nobody else in the room can see, do my senses deceive me? No; but I am deceived by the imaginative inference which leads me to assume from past experience that the object which I see is visible to, and can be touched by, everybody else. My visual sense (which has to do with images only) reports—and can do no otherwise—that it discerns the image of a cat. That report is true. But then my imagination forces on me the belief that this is an ordinary tangible and visible cat. That belief is false. Or take again the not infrequent case of colour-blindness. I am a signalman, and cannot tell a green light from a red: do my senses deceive me when I call a red light green? No; my sense reports inadequately for my necessities, and coarsely is compared with those who possess a finer sense of colour, but not deceitfully. My error arises from having loosely and servilely used the distinctive words “red” and “green” from childhood to manhood, although my senses continually protested that they could not distinguish two colours corresponding to the two words: but I imagined that there must be some such distinction for the two, and that I must be capable of recognizing it, because everybody around me recognized it. If we are to say that the signalman’s senses deceive him we must be prepared to admit that every man’s senses deceive him more or less. Do you suppose, when you see anything, that you see that which the thing is? “This is a yellowish-green,” say you. “Of course,” a Superior Being might reply; “but which of the one hundred and fifty shades of yellowish-green is it? You might as well tell me, when I shew you a sheep, ‘This is a being,’ as tell me simply this is ‘yellowish-green.’” We do not see things as Superior Beings see them; but we are not on that account to say that our sight deceives us. Our visual sense reports the truth more or less adequately: but our Imagination, prompted by insufficient experience and inference, leads us sometimes to illusive conclusions.
Still, although “illusions of sense” ought perhaps to be rather called “illusions from sense;”—i.e. illusions arising “from” the report of the senses, but not illusions in which the senses are themselves deceived—no one will deny that such illusions exist. Sometimes they are exceptional, but sometimes so common as to be almost universal. Let us enumerate a few and ask whence they spring, and what purpose they serve?
They spring from a very strong conviction—erected upon the basis of Experience by Faith, but absolutely necessary for healthy life and spontaneous action—that the ordinary inferences which we almost instinctively derive from the report of the senses, are true, that is to say, will correspond to experience; and that we can act upon them without formally reasoning upon them.
Take the following instance. Shut your eyes, and get a friend to prick the back of your hand with the two points of a pair of compasses simultaneously, so that the two points may be about the eighth of an inch apart when they touch you; you will feel—and if you could not correct the inference by the sense of sight, you would infer—that only one point is pricking you. The reason is that the skin of the back of the hand only reports one sensation; and the mind leaps to the conclusion—owing to the multitude of past instances where one sensation has resulted from one object—that, in this instance also, one object alone is producing the sensation. A more curious instance is the following: Place the middle finger over the first finger, and between the two fingers thus interlaced place a single marble or your nose: you will appear to be touching two marbles or two noses. The reason is this: when the two fingers are in their usual position (not thus interlaced) and touching marbles or similar objects, two simultaneous sensations on the right side of the right finger and on the left side of the left finger would always imply two marbles; now you have constrained the two fingers to assume an unusual position where these two simultaneous sensations can be produced by one marble; but you, following custom, would infer the presence of two marbles, if sight, or other evidence, did not shew there was only one.
But illusions from the sense of touch are far less common than illusions from the sense of sight. We all know how a cloud or sheet or coal may be converted by the Imagination into an image of something entirely different and visible only to the imaginer, although he supposes that others “must see it” too. But these are, so to speak, private illusions: the great public and, at one time, universal illusion, was the conviction that the sun and the stars move and that the earth does not move. There is scarcely any illusion more natural than this. Our senses give no indication whatever of the earth’s motion; but they do indicate that the sun and the stars are moving. So complicated a process of reasoning, and so much experience, are needed before a man can realize (as distinct from repeating on authority) the causes for believing in the earth’s motion that it is by no means surprising that, even now, only a minority of the human race believe that they are dashing through space at the rate of some thousands of miles an hour; and, except during the last three hundred years, the illusion that the earth is at rest was universal. Another common illusion from sight is that which leads us to suppose that, when we see anything in the air, a straight line from our eye towards the image which we see would touch the object itself: whereas, in reality, the image is raised by refraction so that in misty weather we see an object considerably higher than it is, and I suppose (to speak with strict exactness) we never “see” an object precisely where it is.
I have mentioned a few of the “illusions from the senses”; and now you will probably ask me what purpose they serve, how they can be called “wholesome,” and how they “tend to the ultimate attainment of truth.”
They appear to me to be “wholesome” because they represent and spring from a wholesome belief that “Nature will not deceive us; Nature does not change her mind; Nature keeps her promises.” Sent into the world with but little of the instinctive equipment of non-human animals, we are forced to supply the place of instincts by inferences from sensation. Now if we were always obliged consciously to argue and deliberately to infer, whenever the sensations hand over a report to the Imagination, we should be at a great disadvantage as compared with our instinct-possessing compeers, whom we call irrational. “This inkstand which I see before me was hard yesterday, and the day before—but will it be hard if I touch it to-day or to-morrow?”—if a child were to argue after this fashion every time he reached out his hand to touch anything, the life of Methuselah would be too short for the ratiocinations necessary as a basis for the action of a week. For healthy progress of the human being, trustful activity is needed, and for trustful activity we must trust Nature, or, in other words, we must trust these quasi-instinctive inferences about Nature which we derive from our sensations. This trust or faith in the order of material things within our immediate observation, I have already described as being the germ of a trust or faith in a higher order altogether, that universal order, at present imperfectly realized, which we call the Divine Will.
Now when we say to Nature, “We trust you; you will not deceive us,” Nature replies for the most part, “You do right; I will not deceive you; you will be justified in your faith.” But occasionally she replies in a different tone.
“Yes, I have deceived you; you did not use the means you had of obtaining the truth; therefore you deceived yourselves, or, if you please to say so, I deceived you, in order that, after deceiving yourselves by a prolonged experience, you might learn, while trusting my order and permanence in general, not to trust every conception of your own about that order and permanence in particular.
“Yet in reality, what you call my ‘deceptions’ were, in part, the results of your own defects (some blameworthy, some perhaps inherent and not blameworthy), in part the results of my method of teaching mankind, by line upon line and inference upon inference. How does a child gain knowledge? By generalizing from too few instances: by inferring too soon; then by enlarging the circle of instances from which he generalizes; by correcting his inferences with the aid of experience: thus the progress of every child towards truth is through a continuous series of illusions. But when I break each one of your false and rudimentary conceptions of my Order, I always reveal to you, concealed in the husk of it, the kernel of a better conception. Thus while I teach you daily to distrust your own hastily adopted and unverified assumptions or inferences about my Order, I give you no cause to distrust my Order itself; and by the self same act I strengthen both your faculty of scientific reason and also your faith in me. You may find fault with me that I did not bestow on each one of you, even in the cradle, the perfection of all knowledge and wisdom. Deeper laws, deeper than I can now speak of, forbade that rapid consummation: but, since that could not be, since it needs must be that imperfection should be in the intellectual, as well as in the moral, world, rejoice at least that illusion is made subject to truth.”
Well, after this long but needful account of “illusions,” in the sense in which I use the term, let me now recur to your objection that “the Word of God ought to dispel illusions, not to add to them.” I suppose those who believe in a God at all, will in these days regard Him as the Maker of the world, as a whole, in spite of the evil that is in it. Some of the Gnostics, as you know, believed that the good God who had not made the visible world was opposed to the bad God who had made it; but with them we need not at this time concern ourselves, as there are probably none who now entertain that belief. Those then who believe in a God, Maker of heaven and earth, will not deny that God partially reveals Himself to men by the things He has made. Now by which of all His creatures does God reveal Himself most clearly? You will say perhaps—indeed I have heard you say it—“By the stars and their movements.” I do not believe it. I say, “By the life of the human family first and by the stars of heaven, second. But I will assume that your answer is correct, and that God reveals Himself mainly by the movements of the stars of heaven; and I will try to shew you that in this revelation God leads men to truth through illusion. Then I think it must seem reasonable to you that, if God does not dispense with illusion in that intellectual revelation of Himself which most closely approaches to a direct spiritual revelation, illusion may also have been intended or permitted by Him to play an ordained part in spiritual revelation itself.”
Where, then, I ask, in all the teaching of Nature’s school, has there been more of illusion than in her lessons of astronomy? When I was a boy, I remember, in the midst of a hateful sum of long division that would not come out right, devoting my attention to the sun moving through the branches of certain trees, and announcing to my tutor that “The sun moves.” “No, you are mistaken.” “But I cannot be mistaken, for I saw it.” I rivalled—I exceeded—the obstinacy of Galileo; I was ready to be punished rather than consent to say what seemed to me a manifest falsehood, that the sun did not move. Surely this boyish experience represents the experience of mankind, except that the tutor who has corrected their astronomical illusions, has been their own long, very long experience. Does it not seem sometimes as if God Himself had said, when He made the heavens to declare His glory, “Being what they are, my children must be led to knowledge through error, to truth through illusion”? It may be said that in some cases men have fallen into astronomical mistakes through their own fault; through haste, for example, through the love of neat and complete theories, through carelessness, through excessive regard for authority; and so indeed they have. But is it always so? When you and I last walked out together on Hampstead Heath, you took out your watch, as the sun went down over Harrow, and said, “Now he’s gone, and it’s just eight.” I remember replying to you, “So it seems; but of course you know he ‘went’ more than eight minutes ago.” You stared, and I said no more; for something else diverted your attention at the time, and I felt I had been guilty of a little bit of pedantry. But I said quietly to myself as we went down the hill, “I don’t suppose he knows it, but the sun certainly ‘went’ eight minutes ago; and what my young friend saw was an image of the sun raised by the refraction of the mist, like the image of a penny seen in a basin of water.” Well now, was this your fault, this error of yours? No, it was, in the second place, the fault of the University of Oxford, which has bribed the schools to desist from teaching mathematics to any boy with a taste for classics and literature, so that you had to give up your mathematical studies before you came to optics; and it was, in the first place, the fault of—what shall I say? Shall I say the fault of Nature? That means the fault of God. Say, if you like, that it was the fault of Matter, or of an Evil principle. Say, it was no one’s fault. Say that more good than harm results from it, in the way of stimulating thought and research. Deny it was a fault at all. Yet do not deny that it represents a Law, the Law of the attainment of truth through illusion—a Law which it is folly to ignore.
So far I have been going on the assumption that your answer was correct as to the means by which God mainly reveals Himself. But now let us assume that my answer, and not yours, is correct, and that God reveals Himself mainly by the relations of the family. In that case we must agree that each rising generation is led up to the conception of the divine fatherhood mainly by the preliminary teaching of human fatherhood. Now surely in the domestic atmosphere refraction is as powerful and as illusive as in the material strata of the air. Nay, the better and purer the family, the stronger is the illusion. Unloving children may be logical and critical; but what loving child does not idealise a good mother as perfectly good, and a strong wise father as the perfection of wisdom and strength? To the good child the parents stand in the place of God; and it is his illusive belief in these earthly creatures, which, when it has been corrected and purified, is found to have contained and preserved the higher belief in the eternal Father. You see then that in the family no less than in science, in the spiritual as in the intellectual side of Nature’s school, the pupils pass upwards through illusion to the truth.
I have promised to say nothing of the special illusions of Christianity which I must reserve for a later letter.
But let me say thus much from the a priori ground on which we are now standing, that if illusions in Nature are most powerful in her noblest and most spiritual teaching, then, so far from there being a prejudice against finding illusion in religion, we ought on the contrary to be prepared to find illusion most potent in the early stages of the purest religion of all. Was ever people so illusively trained as the faithless children of faithful Abraham, the rejected Chosen People? Is not the Promised Land to this day a proverbial type of illusion? Do we not recognize illusion in every age of Christian revelation? And if the very Apostles of the Lord Jesus—so much I will here assume—had their illusions both during, and after, the life of their Master; if the early Christians had their illusions also concerning the speedy coming of Christ; if in the Mediæval Church and in the later Roman Catholicism there have predominated vast illusions about transubstantiation, the powers of the priesthood, and the infallibility of the Pope; if the Protestant Churches themselves have not been exempt from illusions about the literal inspiration and absolute infallibility of the Bible; is it not the mark of astounding presumption to suppose that for the Anglican branch of the Reformed Church there should have been reserved a unique immunity from an otherwise universal law?
But possibly you think that the Gospels have been so long in our hands, and the Christian religion so long in practice and under discussion, that nothing new can now be said or thought about them? Just so Francis Bacon, in 1603, expressed his conviction (the innocent philosopher!) that there had at last come about a complete “consumption of all things that could be said on controversies of theology.” Reflect a moment. How long have the stars been with us “under discussion”? And how recent have been our discoveries of the real truth about them! How recently have these discoveries been even possible? In the same way the exact criticism of the New Testament has only become recently practicable. The subject matter and thought could of course be appreciated centuries ago, and often perhaps by the simple-minded and unlearned as well as by the subtle and profound theologian; though, even as to the thought of the New Testament, I often think that we are greatly to blame if our increased knowledge of history and psychology does not illuminate much that was dark in its pages for those who had not our advantages. But we are speaking of that kind of 109intellectual criticism which dispels illusions; and for the purposes of the critical analysis of the First Three Gospels, Bruder’s Concordance was as necessary as Galileo’s telescope was for the discovery of Jupiter’s moons, or the thermometer for the investigation of the laws of heat. Other influences have been at work, as well as mere mechanical aids, to throw light on the central event of the world’s history. And surely if Abraham could wait nineteen hundred years for the coming of Christ, the spiritual descendants of Abraham—for such we claim to be—may well wait another nineteen hundred years to realize His nature and enter into the full meaning of His worship.
You see I am not now trying to prove the existence of any illusion in our present form of Christianity; I am simply arguing against your prejudice that, if the present form of Christianity be not true, then any new form must necessarily be false. You say, or perhaps till lately you were inclined to say, “If I could only breathe the atmosphere of Augustine! If only I could have been a companion of the Ante-Nicene or (better still) of the Apostolic Fathers! Or (best of all) of the Apostles! Or of Christ Himself! Then I should have been free from illusions.” I reply, “No, you would not; and your aspiration is a mark of ingratitude to God. You deliberately reject the commentary He has given you in the History of the Church during these eighteen centuries. You think the story of Christ is completely told and completely explained. It is not so. All the created world is intended to bear witness and illustration to His life and work. Shakespeare and Newton and Darwin, as well as Origen, Augustine, and Chrysostom, have added to the divine commentary. All the good and all the evil of eighteen hundred years have borne witness to the divine nature of His mission; to the impotence and ruin which 110await the nations that cast Him off; to the blessing that attends those who follow His Spirit; to the mischief that dogs those who substitute for His Spirit a lifeless code of rules or a fabric of superstitions.”
And now one last word as to the special illusion from which (in my belief) we must in the short remnant of this century strive to deliver ourselves. I think we have worshipped Christ too much as God, and too little as Man. We have erroneously supposed that He exempted Himself during His manhood from the laws of humanity. Like the Roman soldiers, we have stripped from Him the carpenter’s clothes, and put upon Him the purple rags of wonder-working imperialism, and placed in His hand the sceptre of worldly ostentation, and in that guise we have bowed the knee to the purple and the sceptre, and, doing homage to these things, we have cried, “Behold our God.” But now the time has come when we must take from off Him these tawdry trappings, and give Him back His workman’s garments. Then we may find ourselves constrained to bow the knee again in a purer homage offered no longer to the clothes but to the Man.
Call this homage by what name we will, it is already of the nature of worship. And as we grow older and more able to distinguish the realities from the mirage of life, more capable of trust, love, and reverence, and better able to discriminate what must be, and what must not be, loved, trusted, and revered—looking from earth to heaven, and from heaven to earth, we shall ask in vain where we can find anything, above or below, nobler, and better, and more powerful for good, than this Man to whom our hearts go forth in spontaneous love and trust and reverence. Then we shall turn once more to the Cross finding that we have been betrayed into worship while we knew it not, and while we cry, “Behold the Man,” we shall feel “Behold our God.”