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Letters on Spiritual Christianity——THE CULTURE OF FAITH

With Christ My Savior

Letters on Spiritual Christianity——THE CULTURE OF FAITH

My dear ——,

I have been very much pained by your sprightly account of the lively and witty conversation between you and your clever young friends, —— and ——, on the proofs of the existence of a God. Bear with me if I assure you that discussions in that spirit are likely to be fatal to real faith. They may often be far more dangerous than a serious collision between untrained faith and the most highly educated scepticism. I do not deprecate discussion, but I do most earnestly plead for reverence.

Young men at the Universities stand in especial need of this warning because their studies lead them to be critical; and habits of criticism may easily weaken the habit of reverence. I remember once being shewn over a great public school by the Headmaster, justly celebrated as a Headmaster once, and much more celebrated since in another capacity. It was a grand school, though a little too ecclesiastical to suit my taste. While we were in the chapel my friend spoke earnestly of the pleasure it gave him on Sundays to see in the chapel the familiar faces of the old boys who came to revisit the old place. At the same time he deplored the contrast between those who went into the army, and those who went to the Universities: “The army fellows,” he said, “almost always come to Communion, the university fellows almost always stop away.” These words made an indelible impression on my mind, “Who is to blame, or praise, for this?” asked I, on my journey homeward. “Is it the army that is to be praised for its inculcation of discipline and self-subordination, helping the young fellows to realise the meaning of self-sacrifice? Or is it the University that is to be blamed for its negative and destructive teaching? Or can it be that the school is in part to blame for teaching the boys to believe too much; and the University in part to blame for teaching the young men to criticize too much?”

Over and over again, since that time, I have asked myself these same questions about many other young men from many other public schools. I honour the army as much as most men, more perhaps than many do: but after all the profession of a soldier is the profession of a throat-cutter; throat-cutting in an extensive, expeditious, and honourable way,—throat-cutting in one direction often undertaken merely to prevent throat-cutting in another direction—but still throat-cutting after all: and it seemed very hard to believe that the profession of throat-cutting is, and ought to be, a better preparation than the pursuit of learning at the Universities, for participation in the Holy Communion. On the whole I was led to the conclusion that the young men in the army had retained and deepened the instinctive obedience to authority, the sense of the need of the subordination of the individual to the community, and perhaps also the feeling of reverence, while they had not been taught so fully to appreciate all that was implied in attendance at Communion or to realize the intellectual difficulties presented by the New Testament. In other words—to put it briefly and roughly—the young cadets and officers came to Communion because they had been taught to feel and not taught to think; and the University men stayed away because they had been taught to think and not to feel. Now I will ask you to excuse me if I suggest that the principal danger to your character at present arises from the want of such discipline as may be obtained by some in the army, and by others in the practical work of life. You need some emotional and moral exercise to counterbalance your mental and intellectual training. You are not aware how much of the most valuable knowledge, conviction, certainty—call it what you will, but I mean that kind of moral and spiritual knowledge which is the basis of all right conduct—springs in the main from spiritual and emotional sources.

In the present letter I should like to confine myself to this subject, the culture, if I may so say, of Christian faith. Let me then ask you first to clear your mind by asking yourself what is the essence of the faith which you would desire to retain. It is (is it not?) a faith or trust in the fatherhood of God. This surely is the Gospel or Good News for which Christ lived and died, in order that He might breathe it into the hearts of men. “Fatherhood”—some of your young friends will exclaim—“What an antiquated notion! Flat anthropomorphism!” By “anthropomorphism” they mean a tendency to make God in human shape; just as Heine’s four-legged poetic Bruin makes God to be a great white Polar Bear, and the frogs of Celsus imagine Him to be a gigantic Frog. No doubt, this is very funny; but the decryers of anthropomorphism who venture on any conception of a God—are they any less funny? Do not they shew a similar disposition to make God in the shape of human works or human experiences? Shall I be exploring a nobler path of spiritual speculation if I say God is a Rock or a Buckler, or a Centre, or a Force, than if I say God is a Father in heaven? Ask your sceptical companions what conception of God they can mention which is not open to objection, and they will perhaps reply “An Eternal, or a Tendency, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness.” Now to reply “an Eternal,” appears to me to be taking a rather mean and pedantical advantage of the uninflected peculiarities of English (and Hebrew), which leave it an open question whether you mean your “Eternal” to be masculine, or neuter. And “Tendency”—what is it? Is it not a “stretching,” or “pulling,” or partially neutralised force—a common human experience? Now we are dealing with the accusation of limiting our conception of God to our experiences as men. And, so far as this charge is concerned, what is the difference between calling God a “Tendency,” or a “Rock,” or a “Shield,” or a “House of Defence,” as the old Psalmist does? Are not all these names mere metaphors derived from human experience? In the same way to call God a Father is (no doubt) a metaphor: but is it more a metaphor than to call Him a Tendency?

Some metaphors, which describe God by reference to the relations of man to man, may be called anthropomorphic; others, which describe Him by reference to implements (such as a Shield) may be called organomorphic; others, which assimilate Him to lifeless and inorganic objects (such as a Hill) may be called by some other grand name, such as apsychomorphic; others, which would subtilize Him down to a thought, or a mind, or a spirit, may be called phronesimorphic, noumorphic, pneumatomorphic; but in the name of common sense—or in the name of that sense which ought to be common, and which ought to revolt against bondage to mere words—what is there in that termination “morphic” which should stagger a seeker after divine truth? Do we not all recognize that all terms applied to the supreme God are “morphisms” of various kinds? And the question is not how we can avoid a “morphism”—for we cannot avoid it—but how or where we can find the noblest and most spiritually helpful “morphism.” And as between the ancient and the modern metaphors just set before you can you entertain a moment’s doubt? Might we not imagine the question put—after the old Roman authoritative fashion—to an assembly of the consciences of universal mankind: “Christ says that God is a Father in heaven; refined thinkers say that He is a Tendency; utri creditis, gentes?” To which I seem to hear the answer of the Universe come back, “We will have no Tendencies seated on the throne of Heaven. Give us a Father, or we will have nothing.” And you, my dear friend, how is it with you? Utri credis?

But perhaps you complain, or some of your friends might complain, that this is not treating the question fairly. “The doctrine of the Fatherhood of God,” they may say, “is to be discussed like any other proposition, upon the evidence.” I entirely deny it, if from your “evidence” you intend to exclude the witness of Imagination expressed in Faith and Hope. I assert, on the contrary, that it is to be believed in, against what may be called quasi-evidence. It cannot be demonstrated to be either true or false. Do not misunderstand me. There is abundant evidence of a certain kind—as I will hereafter shew—for the Fatherhood of God; but there is also evidence against it: and what I mean is, that the mind is not to sit impartially and coldly neutral between the two testimonies, but is to grasp the former and hold it fast and keep it constantly in view, while it lays less stress on and (after a time) puts on one side the latter. I have shewn you that many of our deepest and most vital convictions are based less upon Reason than upon Imagination. Why then should we be surprised if the most profound convictions of all, our religious certainties, rest upon that imaginative desire to which we have given the name of Faith?[4] If an archangel (robed in light) were to step down to me this moment and were to cry aloud, “Verily there is no God,” I should reply, or ought to reply, “Verily thou art a devil.” If the same archangel were to come in the same way and to say “Verily there is a God,” I should reply, “I felt sure there was; and now I am more sure than ever.” How unfair, how illogical, if our belief is to be a matter of mere evidence! But it is not to be a matter of mere evidence. It is to be a struggle against an evil thought—shall I not say an evil being?—that is perpetually attempting to slander God to men by representing Him as permitting or originating evil.

Does this startle you—this suggestion of an evil being—as being too old-fashioned for an educated Christian? Well then, put it aside for the time (though it is indeed Christ’s doctrine): and merely assume as a temporary hypothesis that the essence of Christ’s Gospel is a trust in the Fatherhood of God. Now, if this be so, and if this trust or faith is to be kept pure and strong, must it not be regarded with reverence and reserve as being (what indeed it is) a kind of private, domestic, and family relation? Is it to be made the subject for light, casual, frivolous discussions; epigrammatic displays; cut-and-thrust exhibitions of word-fence; logical or rhetorical symposia? What would you say of a young man who should allow his relations with his father and mother to be discussed with humour and epigram on every light occasion? Would he be likely long to retain the bloom of domestic affection unimpaired? I remember reading about some well-educated and enlightened free-thinker—I fancy it was Bolingbroke—on whose table a Greek Testament was regularly placed by the side of the port when the cloth was drawn, and whose favourite topic for discussion after dinner was the existence and attributes of the Deity. Does not your instinct teach you that from such discussions 65as these no good could possibly come, nothing but a hardening of the conscience, a fatal familiarity with sacred things regarded with a view to witticism—that kind of familiarity which too surely breeds contempt? What a terrible contrast it is—complacent Bolingbroke at his wine, analysing the attributes of God, and the all-pitying Father looking down from heaven and pleading, through Christ, not to be analysed but to be loved and trusted!

May we not go a step further and say that Christian Faith or trust—if it be once recognized as faith or trust, altogether distinct from the kind of assent which we give to a proposition of Euclid—needs not only to be protected from certain evil influences but also to be subjected to certain good influences? It is a kind of plant, and requires its spiritual soil, air, rain and sunshine; in other words it needs good thoughts, noble aspirations, and unselfish acts, to keep it alive. You may retort perhaps that Faith itself ought to produce these results, and not to be produced by them. But I reply that, though Faith does tend to produce these results, it is strengthened by producing them; and it is weakened and finally extinguished by not producing them. “Our faith” has been described as “the victory that hath overcome the world.” What is there in the world that it should need to be “overcome”? I suppose the writer meant that this present, visible, tangible, enjoyable system of things—which was meant by the Supreme to be a kind of glass through which we might discern something of the greatness and order of the Maker has been converted, partly by our selfishness, partly by some Evil in the world outside us, into a mirror shutting out all glimpse of God and giving us back nothing but the reflection of ourselves. On the other hand, there is a different way of regarding the world when, our eyes being opened like the eyes of Aeneas amid burning Troy, we discern in the midst of this present condition of things a great conflict between Good and Evil, and on the side of goodness, we see the forms of Righteousness, Justice and Truth, supported by Faith, Hope, and Charity; amid the smoke and roar of battles and revolutions, the destructions of nations, and the downfall of empires and of churches, we realise that these are abiding influences; that either in this world, or in some other, these things shall ultimately prevail, because these are the Angels that stand about the throne of the Ruler of the Universe. This state of mind is Faith, and it is to be nurtured by effort, partly in action, partly in thought. Bacon bids us nurture it by “cherishing the good hours of the mind.” St. Paul says nearly the same thing in different words: “Whatsoever things are honourable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Are you surprised at this? Does faith seem to you, on these terms, a possession of little worth—this quicksilver quality which varies with every variation of our spiritual atmosphere? Why surely everything that lives and grows is liable to flux. You do not disparage bodily health because it is dependent on supports and influences, and liable to changes; why then disparage spiritual health because it is similarly dependent? No doubt one would not be willingly a religious valetudinarian; a man’s spiritual constitution ought not to be at the mercy of every slight and passing breeze of circumstance; but at present there is little danger of spiritual valetudinarianism. Physical “sanitation” is on every one’s tongue; but no one thinks of the necessity of good spiritual air and of the evils of bad spiritual drainage. We do not recognize that there are laws of our spiritual as well as of our material nature. We wilfully narrow our lives to the sabbathless 67pursuit of gain or pleasure—self everywhere, God nowhere—and then go about hypocritically whining that the age of faith has passed and that we have lost the power of believing. With our own hands we put the stopper on the telescope and then complain that we cannot see!

Do not however, suppose that I call upon you, because hope is the basis of Christian belief, on that account to hope against the truth and to believe against reason. I bid you believe in the Fatherhood of God, first because your conscience tells you that this is the best and noblest belief, but secondly also because this belief—although it may be against the superficial evidence of the phenomena of the Universe—is in accordance with these phenomena when you regard them more deeply and when you include in your scope the history of Christianity.

I admit that we have to fight against temptations in order to retain this belief; and sometimes I ask myself, “If I and my children had been slaves in one of the Southern States of America; or if I and my family had suffered such indelible outrages as were recently inflicted by the Turks upon the Bulgarians; or if I were at this moment a matchbox-seller or a father of ten children (girls as well as boys) in the East of London—should I find it so easy to believe that God is our Father in heaven?” And I am obliged to reply, “No, I should not find it easy;” I fear that I might be tempted to say, as a workman did not long ago to a lecturer on co-operation who mentioned the name of God: “Oh, no; no God for us; the workman’s God deserted him long ago.” And perhaps you yourself may remember the answer of one of those wretched Bulgarians to some newspaper correspondent who endeavoured to console him in his anguish by the reflection that “After all there is a God that governs the world:” “I believe you,” was the reply; “there is indeed a God; and he governs the world indeed; and he is the Devil.” Or take a spectacle of the Middle Ages as a problem. In the lists are two armed knights; on the one side a man of might and muscle, exulting in conflict; on the other, a slight, weak creature, who never fights save on compulsion, and is to fight now on sternest compulsion, being accused (though innocent) of some gross crime by yonder man of flesh, who combines scoundrel, liar, traitor, oppressor, thief, and adulterer, all in one; and the fight is to begin under the sanction of the Church of Christ. As the trumpets sound, while the heralds are still calling on God to “shew the right,” the two men meet, and “the right” is cast to the ground, trampled on by his enemy, and dragged from the lists to the neighbouring gallows, while the muscular scoundrel wipes his forehead and receives congratulations. Do you suppose that the innocent man’s wife, if she were looking on, would be able easily to say at that moment, “Verily there is a God that judgeth the earth”?

Can I possibly put the case for scepticism more strongly? I would fain put it with all the force in my power in order to convince you that I have thought often over these matters, and that, although my own life may have been happy and free from stumbling-blocks, I have at least tried to understand and sympathize with those who find it very hard to believe that there is a God. But, in the presence of such monstrous evils as these, I take refuge in a belief and in a fact; first, in the belief (which runs through almost every page of the Gospels and has received the sanction of Christ Himself) that there is an Evil Being in the world who is continually opposing the Good but will be ultimately subdued by the Good; secondly, in the fact that in one great typical conflict between Good and Evil,—where apparently God did not “shew the right,” and where, in appearance, there was consummated the most brutal triumph of Evil over Good that the world ever witnessed—there the Good in reality effected its most signal triumph. The issue of the conflict on the Cross of Christ is my great comfort and mainstay of faith, when my heart is distracted with the thought of all the spurns, buffets, and outrages, endured by much-suffering humanity. “At last, far off,” I cry, “the right will be shewn, even as it was in the contest on the Cross.”

You see then the nature of the conflict of faith. It is a struggle of hope against fear, trustfulness against trustlessness, where strict logical proof is impossible. But I do not call you to set Faith against Reason, or to make hope trample on the understanding, or to shut your eyes to the presence or absence of historical evidence. If religion comes down from the region of hope and aspiration into the region of fact and evidence, and asserts that this or that fact happened at this or that time and place, then, so far, it appeals to evidence, and by evidence it must be judged.

Half the earnest scepticism of the present day is not really spiritual scepticism but simply doubt about historical facts. Distinguish carefully and constantly between two terms entirely different but continually confused—the super-natural and the miraculous.

In the super-natural every rational man must believe, if he knows what is meant by the term; for every rational man must acknowledge that the world had either a beginning or no beginning, a First Cause or no First Cause; and either hypothesis is altogether above the level of natural phenomena, and therefore supernatural. The theist and the atheist are alike believers in the supernatural. The agnostic, poised between the two, admits that some supernatural origin of the world is necessary, but is unable to decide which of the two is the more probable. All alike therefore believe in the supernatural; but the important difference is that some take a 70hopeful or faithful, others a hopeless or faithless, view of the supernatural. Proof in this region is not possible, unless the testimony of the conscience may be accepted as proof. If Jesus were to appear to-morrow sitting on the clouds of heaven and testifying that there is a Father in heaven, I can imagine some men of science replying, “This is a mere phantom of the brain,” or, “This is the result of indigestion,” or “Assertion is not proof.” Mere force of logical proof or personal observation can convince no one that there is a God or that Jesus is the Eternal Son of God; such a conviction can only come from a leaping out of the human spirit to meet the Spirit of God; and hence St. Paul tells us that “no man can say”—that is, “say sincerely”—“that Jesus is the Lord save by the Spirit.” Here therefore, in this region of the indemonstrable, I can honestly use an effort of the will to ally myself with the spirit of faith. “I will pray to God; I will cling to God; will refuse to doubt of God; refuse to listen to doubts about God (except so far as may be needful to do it, in order to lighten the doubts of others, and then only as a painful duty, to be got through with all speed); I am determined (so help me God) to believe in God to the end of my days:” resolving thus I am not acting insincerely nor shutting my eyes to the truth, but taking nature’s appointed means for reaching and holding fast the highest spiritual truth.

But I do not feel justified in thus using my will to constrain myself to believe in the miraculous; for here God has given me other means—such as history, experience, and evidence—for arriving at the truth. Nor does a belief in the super-natural in the least imply a belief in the miraculous also. I may believe that God is continually supporting and impelling on its path every created thing; but I may also believe that there is no evidence to prove that His support and impulsion have ever been manifested save in accordance with that orderly sequence which we call Law. I may even believe that the Universe is double, having a spiritual and invisible counterpart corresponding to this visible and material existence, so that nothing is done in the world of flesh below which has not been first done in the world of spirit above; yet even this latitude of spiritual speculation would not in the least establish the conclusion that the observed sequence of what we call cause and effect in the material world has ever been violated. To take a particular instance, I may be convinced, that Jesus of Nazareth was the Eternal Word of God, made flesh for men; and yet I may remain unconvinced that, in thus taking flesh upon Him, He raised Himself above the physical laws of humanity. In other words I may, with the author of the Fourth Gospel, heartily believe in the supernatural Incarnation while omitting from my Gospel all mention of the Miraculous Conception. Nay, I may go still further. While cordially accepting the divine nature of Christ, I may see such clear indications and evidences of the manner in which accounts of miracles sprang up in the Church without foundation of fact, that I may be compelled not merely to omit miracles from my Gospel and to confess myself unconvinced of their truth, but even to avow my conviction of their untruth. But into this negative aspect of things I do not wish now to enter. I would rather urge on you this positive consideration, that, since our recognition of the Laws of Nature themselves, depends in a very large degree upon faith, we ought not to be surprised if our acknowledgment of the Founder of these Laws rests also on the same basis. And, if this be so, we cannot speak accurately about the “evidence” for the existence of a God, unless we include in that term the aspirations of the human conscience toward a Maker and Ruler and Father of all.

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