The Challenge To Religious Orthodoxy
[In this series men and of organized religion in ill-informed, is common, Harvey, part author of Atheism."
wom0.1 presenting the outlook of the younger generation have been invited to express their criticism order that their views may be answered from the Christian standpoint. Such criticism, well and and we hold that it should be met by those best qualified to do so. This week Professor John The Naturalness of Religion, answers Mr. Louis Anderson Fenn's article on " An Interpretation of
Next week Mr. John Strachey, M.P., writes on " Religion and Socialism."]
The Significance of Theism
BY PROFESSOR JOHN HARVEY.
" IS it of real moment what a man's religious beliefs arc if his heart is in the right place ? Consider the Christian creeds, the frequent insincerity of those who profess them and the inevitable inadequacy of the ideas that express them, infected as they are with symbol and metaphor. Can we help concluding that the apparently deep cleavage between theist and atheist is but super- ficial ; and that the true opposition is between those whose lives, whatever be their beliefs, embody some genuine ideal- ism and faith in human aspirations, and those, on the other hand, whose lives are without hope or disinterested- ness ? "
Such, I hope, is a fair statement of the main conclusion of Mr. L. Anderson Fenn's able and sincere Interpretation qf Atheism, in which (to adapt a phrase of Mr. Chesterton's) he would almost persuade us that atheism and Christi- anity are very much alike, especially atheism. There is much in Mr. Fenn's exposition with which many who " profess and call themselves Christians " will feel in warm sympathy. Yet, taken as a whole, it surely implies a misinterpretation of the central significance of theism. How far it fairly represents the mental attitude of the Russian communist I am not competent to judge.
We notice first the extremely sceptical view of know- ledge underlying Mr. Fenn's argument. In places he seems to imply a thoroughgoing mistrust of the whole effort of the interpreting mind, in so far as it claims to give knowledge of reality. We cannot (it is urged) really get beyond the " data of experience," primary facts. Thought may indulge in congenial phantasies upon these (as in religious myth and creed) or, as in science, frame useful schemes for handling them ; but in neither case will our interpretation be a digging deeper into a knowledge of reality. But what are these " fundamental data " of religion, in comparison with which a man's religious beliefs are to be disparaged as little more than a personal gloss or comment ? Clearly they are not mere spasms of subjective feeling, but (in Mr. Fenn's words) " what Men and women have found in life " ; and this must include the beliefs they have come to hold about life, or (which is the same thing) what life has come to mean to them. There is no core of pure " experiences " or facts capable of isolation, which we may contrast with the theoretical " interpretation " we give them. Theory soaks into even the simplest fact, and the attempt to detach one from the other is not so much (in Mr. Fenn's metaphor) to take a fastener from a bundle of papers, as to attempt to peel an onion. Thought-experience is, in fact, the process by which the mind interprets more clearly and acknowledges more effectively the nature of that reality with which it is from the first in encounter.
The sceptical doubt that would discredit any belief's claim to truth is here rendered more plausible by a com- mon confusion. " God is from the human angle, deriva- tive and hypothetical." This phrase is a mere blur. If it means that the idea of God, i.e., man's thought about God, is in process of transition, has evolved, changed in the light of growing experience—well and good. But it may also convey the suggestion that God, the object to which such thought is directed, is in some Sense " derivative " and insecure, a mere " idea in the mind." This is to beg the whole question, and deny by implication that our minds strike. outward and can grapple with a reality, which, in the case of the supreme reality, is so far from being " derivative " that everything " derives " from it. It is as though, because . we can speak loosely of Ptolemy's universe being far smaller than that of Sir James Jeans, we were to assert that the universe in its actual being has grown in size during the Christian era, or :that its magnitude is quite hypothetical.
I'Ve are reminded that many of the formulations in abstract science are avowedly dealing with relations and symbols, rather than with actual entities. But it should be clear that a religious affirmation cannot be compared with an equation of mathematical physics ; if only for the capital reason that the mind is facing in the opposite direction, away from generality and abstraction, and towards concrete individuality. The term " God to the theist does mean, as the term " electron " to the physicist does not mean, the reallest of real beings ; other- wise his whole attitude of mind would be other than it is.
Once we escape from the scepticism which holds suspect -the claim of thought to give knowledge, we 'see that there is no justification for an arbitrary division between certain interpretations or beliefs which are to be given the status Of " fundamental things," and others which are to be esteemed more lightly as " formulas.' Religious beliefs have, so to speak, as much right to claim truth as the particular beliefs of every day ; though the claim may be more difficult to substantiate. And whether true or not, the belief of the Christian theist, if whole-heartedly believed as true, must profoundly affect his attitude to the particular experiences of life—i.e., will make those experiences actually other than they would be, as the details in a picture actually look different if we have a clue to the whole design. If the belief that a man is our friend determines, as it may, our outlook upon life, why should the belief in a supreme " friend behind phenomena" fail to do so far more momentously ?
My aim is not so much to advance reasons for accepting the ultimate beliefs of Christian theism, as to demur to the view that they do not, when examined, yield any " meaning for human life " which might not equally well be expressed in purely secularist terms. I close by con- sidering this contention as it concerns those fundamental articles of Christian belief which Mr. Fenn seeks. to analyse ; God as "personal," as all-powerful, as Father.
The attribution of "personality" to God raises, no doubt, profoundly difficult issues. But it certainly is not a mere gloss upon a man's " sense of communion " with nature, for, as Mr. Fenn hints, such a " sense " is not peculiar to theists. Rather it affirms, not that we may have certain feelings, but what that Reality is like "with which man may enter into relation—whether this is manifested in feelings or not. Here as always the theist's affirmation is much more concerned with God's being than with human feelings.
The word " almighty," Mr. Fenn thinks, " has in the literal sense no meaning at all." It amounts in his view to asserting the invincible power of certain kinds of good, " because the world is what it is and men what they are." Is there not a profound difference in import between this and the theist's affirmation—the invincible and inex-. haustible power 'of certain kinds of good, because God is what He is ? This latter claim implies the repudiation of the old homo mensura positivism ; against which Theism will always repeat with Plato : " Now God is to be for us the measure of all things, far more than man—as people assert."
Faith in man is an excellent thing, but no moral equivalent for belief in God. It is no accident that an optimism built on this precarious foundation alternates with cynicism, romantic pessimism, and even Satanistic nihilism. " Men what they are " ; but w hat is man ? For the theist he is a being whose reach exceeds his grasp, who cannot but appeal to a standai d not of his own making, and whose life only acquires Aiding meaning and worth with the realization of an ctern...1 source of meaning and value outside himself. The affirmation of an almighty ever-living God " is the answer to the haunting doubt whether, if human life is merely a human concern, it matters very much what we do with it. It is the assertion that man is not his own master ; he belongs.
But the most extreme travesty of Christian theism is that which dilutes the "Fatherhood of God" to mean no more than that the world is not hostile to human aspirations ; as though the absence of a veto were the same thing as active aid and care. It is surely of the essence of this Christian belief (whether true or false) that there is a " divine aggression," an initiative of love for man to which his religion is but his response, and by responding to which new reaches are opened up to him ; a prevenient grace, through which he may have the experience of being succoured. It is a long step from the faith in an un- refractory, adaptable world to the belief in a God who is the " lover of men's souls." The staggering claim of Christian theism that " the all-great is the all-loving too " had better be rejected out of hand than explained away in this fashion. But if it is true, wfat belief could matter more to life than this ?