The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Intellectual Position of Christians
by E. M. Caillard
[Emma Marie Caillard, 1852-1927 was a writer of novels, science, religion, essays, and poetry. Some of her books are online and can be accessed from The Online Books Page.]
X--WILL AND BELIEF.
We have now arrived at the close--not of our subject, for that can never be regarded as closed; the intellectual position of Christians must necessarily be one which changes and progresses with the change and progress of intellectual life generally,--but of the brief consideration which, in view of its tremendous import, we have been able to give it. We naturally turn, therefore, to look for the practical conclusions which we may carry away with us as the result of the whole line of thought pursued; and, perhaps, in passing, one word may be addressed to those readers who have been inclined to regard it as too "metaphysical." It is not possible to address ourselves to any serious question of this nature without crossing the border of metaphysics, and that for the very simple reason that we are not only physical but metaphysical beings. That is why such ideas as God, religion, immortality have any significance so far outweighs any which attaches to purely physical realities. The metaphysical realities underlie these others--involve, include, transcend them--and we are so constituted that the simplest-minded and most uninstructed among us may know it if we choose. These papers have not, however, been addressed to the uninstructed and uncultured, but to those whose very culture and instruction have caused them to feel intellectual difficulties with regard to their Christian faith, which to parents and teachers assume a specially practical form. We cannot, if we are honest, teach what we do not believe; we cannot believe that which does not appear to us in agreement with reason and experience; and, accordingly, the object of the present series of papers has been to show that the Christian Revelation is not only thus in agreement, but gives us light by which we are enabled to understand in a way we could not otherwise do what reason and experience tell us independently of it. Belief is not, however, wholly dependent on the reason, it is dependent also,--at any rate, such belief as controls conduct,--on the will; and therefore it seems appropriate that this closing essay should be devoted to the very practical subject which forms its title. The belief referred to will be principally religious belief, but it is purposely not so qualified because the relation of the will to belief is in all cases the same. This was already intimated in the introductory essay, [Parents' Review, January, 1896. vol 6, pg 809] and it is now possible in the light of subsequent considerations to review and justify the assertion.
In that deeply interesting though fragmentary posthumous work, [George John] Romanes' "Thoughts about Religion," the Christian answer to the "pure agnostic" question, Why should it be thought a thing credible with you that God should raise the dead? is given in these terms: "I believe in the resurrection of the dead, partly on grounds of reason, partly on those of intuition, but chiefly on both combined; so to speak, it is my whole character which accepts the whole system of which the doctrine of personal immortality forms an essential part." It is not difficult to see that this acceptance by "the whole character," which so often goes by the name of faith, might with equal truth be referred to the will. Faith, according to a modern theologian, consists in "a profound and radical act of the inner soul. It is essentially an active principle, a source of energy, a spring of movement . . . It verifies itself only in actions: its reality can only be made evident through experience of its living work." [Lux Mundi, Essay I., p. 11. "Faith" by Canon Henry Scott Holland] But a "profound and radical act of the inner soul," an act which calls forth the personal energies, cannot be performed involuntarily;--it must at the very least be consented to, and consent is pre-eminently a function of the will. "Will you or won't you have it so? is the most probing question we are ever asked.
We are asked it at every hour of the day, and about the largest as well as the smallest, the most theoretical as well as the most practical things. We answer by consents or non-consents, not by words. What wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things! What wonder if the effort demanded by them be the measure of our worth as men! What wonder if the amount we accord of it be the one strictly underived and original contribution which we make to the world!" [William James, "Principles of Psychology," vol. II. p. 579; the italics are in the original]
We cannot, then, justly regard this "acceptance by the whole character," this "profound and radical act of the inner soul" by which we compass belief, as otherwise than voluntary. The consent that a thing is, or shall be, is an absolutely indispensable condition of its existence to us, of our realizing it, and consequently believing it. This is true of even such a universally accepted postulate as the existence of the external world. "There is hardly a common man," says the same writer just quoted, "who (if consulted) would not say things come to us in the first instance as ideas; and that if we take them for realities it is because we add something to them, viz.: the predicate of having also real existence outside of our thought." [Ibid., p. 318.] The part played by the will in our beliefs is very well illustrated by the way in which we so often exclaim, "I won't believe it," when some unwelcome object of thought is presented to the mind. Subsequently we may, as we say, "have to believe it," because of its absorbing, persistent demand upon our attention. We cannot get rid of it, and so finally, in a longer or shorter time, according to character and circumstances, the will consents to its presence; but that is always what has happened when we arrive at acknowledging, "I believe so and so." The will is not annihilated, but its attitude is changed; it consents, not, of course, to liking the unwelcome object, but to attending to it. So long as there is non-consent, in other words, so long as we refuse to accord the attention necessary, as we say, to "realize" any object of thought, so long, however real it may be, it is not real to us. We have not chosen that it shall be so.
Consequently if we obstruct consent by persistently diverting attention, it is possible even in the most ordinary matters of life to disbelieve quite obvious facts. The ruin of many a business man may be attributed to this cause. He would not keep before his mind, and therefore he failed to believe in the inevitable consequences of incurring liabilities which he could not meet, and drawing upon capital which was not his, and so at last the crash came. Again, how often is the approach of serious illness in some member of a family circle recognized later by friends and relatives than by less interested persons. This is by no means always because the former are used to the signs of weakness, or because they are unsympathetic. They may be full of affectionate solicitude: the reason of their blindness is that they do not want to see; they refuse to "realize" the meaning of failing powers and growing langour, and consequently they are suddenly awakened from their false security by the shock of some alarming symptom or by death itself.
It is not difficult to see, then, how great a responsibility rests upon us in the matter of our beliefs. The part which the will takes in bringing them about, practically amounts to enabling each one of us to create for himself the world which is to him the real world. It does so because, save in cases where a sudden shock (such as those referred to above,) rudely forces from us the recognition that what we choose to regard as real does not necessarily merit the attribute we have conferred upon it, anything which we bring into "intimate and continuous connexion with our life, becomes a thing of which we cannot doubt." [James, "Principles of Psychology," vol. II., p. 298.] But nothing can be brought into such a connexion to which we are not willing to devote the necessary attention. Thus, whatever answer we may theoretically give to the questions,--"Where do our true interests lie? which relations shall we call the intimate and real ones? which things shall we call living realities and which not?" to ourselves individually, our true interests, our intimate and real relations, our living realities, will always be those with which we chiefly and most continuously occupy ourselves,--those things which we have chosen to realize by bringing them into the closest relation with our inmost self, and in which therefore we believe.
These are not new thoughts; but they come, perhaps, in a new form and with a new force, when we find that the command so familiar to us in the voice of religion and morality: "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honourable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there by any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things," [Phil. iv. 8.] is not only reiterated by science, but the explanation of its necessity given. To beings constituted as we are, "these things" can only be real if we do "think on them." That intimate and continuous relation with our lives, which for us constitutes reality, is always impossible without our consent, and because of the sustained attention consent involves, frequently impossible without determined and persistent effort. The question is: about what do we choose to give this consent and make this effort?
These considerations are of the highest practical importance with reference to our religious beliefs. For is it not the continual complaint of those who nevertheless call themselves, and desire truly to deserve the name of Christians, that they cannot realize those things which they nevertheless assert to be the supreme realities? That the "things of sense," the visible world with its visible and apparent, though transitory relations, is more present to them, in more intimate touch with their lives than "the things of God," those invisible and eternal relations which bind them to the Father of their spirits? There is but one remedy,--to choose and persist in choosing to keep these relations present to the mind. A wish is not sufficient: there must be a deliberate determination, and a deliberate effort,--a true and definite bending of the mind towards God, towards Christ, towards the attainment of that personal holiness "without which no man shall see the Lord," if to us, God and Christ and holiness are to come into such close and intimate relation with our lives that we may realize them, that to us and in us they may be real. Their intrinsic reality is, of course, entirely unaffected by what we may elect to believe concerning it. It is only the reality to us individually which is dependent upon our consent or non-consent, and but a very little reflection is needed to show us how awful a power we thus wield, and how terrible must be the consequences of wielding it wrongly.
To beings such as we are, it is quite possible to create a set of relations altogether at variance with those which really are, and to live in a false self-centered world, dependent only on self-will for its existence. We have seen that such a world has, in fact, been constituted, and that all our misery, our bondage, our false relations with the natural environment, with our fellow-men and with God, come of our consenting to, and consequently participating in a condition of things which is essentially and emphatically a lie. We have seen also the remedy; but what we have to lay to heart is that the remedy cannot be applied without the co-operation of our will. We must consent that the Divinely appointed relations,--God's Order,--shall be our Order, or it will not be so. We shall disbelieve it, and to us it will have no existence; for into the Order of Eternal Truth there shall in no wise enter anything that maketh a lie. If we refuse to assent to the lie,--if in spite of all difficulties, all failures, all illusions,--we yet, so far as our capacity goes, cling to and assert the fact that God, not self, is the centre of the universe and of all the relations of which the universe is the sum, then in our measure we are re-constituting the disordered world. God has associated us, as a study alike of Nature and the Christian Revelation would lead us to suppose He intended to associate us, in the work of creation: we are "workers together with Him."
In what has above been said, a recognition of the appeal of the Christian Revelation to the reason has been pre-supposed. The primary object of these essays has been to show how strong that appeal is; and consequently no faintest suggestion is now made that the will should take the place of, or act in opposition to that other equally important faculty which makes man, man. Indeed, even if the suggestion were made, it could not be acted on by any sane person. Real belief in anything whatever implies that, to us, the belief is reasonable. None but a lunatic would deliberately set himself to keep before his mind and endeavour to realize ideas in contradiction to his reason. But intellectual assent alone is too cold and distant to constitute belief, when by belief we mean an active sense of the reality of what is believed in. The will, as we have seen, must then take its part by keeping the attention fixed on the objects of belief, for the "essential achievement of the will when it is most 'voluntary,' is to attend to a difficult object and hold it fast," [James, "Principles of Psychology," vol. II., p. 561.] as, did our space allow, might be abundantly proved by many familiar facts.
The crux of the matter lies in the "difficulty" of the object, for it is not denied that in the matter of religious faith that difficulty is present in a pre-eminent degree. It consists chiefly of this: our attention is claimed by so many objects which seem to have no connexion with eternal realities, that the latter slip from our hold and become to us vague and shadowy. We feel as though we could not so fix the mind upon them as to recognize them as present. One remedy which has been tried is to renounce life in "the world" for the "religious" life: to refuse to let the mind occupy itself with the common matters of common existence, and force it to remain, as far as possible, in unbroken contemplation of "the life to come" and in prayer. As all readers of history are aware, the results of this remedy have often been as bad as or worse than the evil it was intended to cure. Without doubt many noble minds have been attracted to, and many noble characters trained by this method, yet it is nevertheless radically vicious, because it proceeds upon the false assumption that the eternal realities have more to do with some other state of existence than they have with this. The whole of the Christian Revelation, most especially that Life which is its centre, is in opposition to such a fatal misconception. Its genius is expressed in the words of the Apostle: "And whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus." [Col. iii. 13.] The generality of Christians, or of those who claim to be such, do not obey this precept. They speak their ordinary words, and do their ordinary deeds in their own name, and reserve only certain duties to be performed and certain words to be spoken in the Divine name. If such is our way of treating eternal realities, to us they will not be real. That "profound and radical act of the inner soul," which to be valid must be all-embracing, is wanting, and however far advanced we may be in intellectual apprehension of religious truth, in practical belief,--i.e., realization of it,--we are immeasurably behind the humblest Christian who has discovered the secret of good old George Herbert's "elixir":--
"Teach me, my God and King,
* * * * *
"All may of Thee partake,
"A servant with this clause
"This is the famous stone
Perhaps one very simple, but, alas, too often neglected rule, may be suggested to those who are indeed desirous of realizing through all the petty vicissitudes and monotonous or trivial round of their daily life, the Divine presence and power. "Devotion--early in the day before the day's worries begin. It is the only way to keep the spirit Godward through them all." [Archbishop Edward White Benson, "Communings of a Day," p. 30] Devotion, it is needless to add, is not "saying prayers" in words either of our own or anyone else's,--nor is it only or chiefly "making request." It is pre-eminently worship,--the deliberate homage of the mind and heart,--of the whole being to God who is its source. [Readers of that most interesting and touching memoir,--"The Life and Letters of George John Romanes," will remember how the one who knew him best, states that "the keynote of his religious history was the desire to worship" (p. 155). They will remember also how the darkness of doubt was dispelled at last, and the light of faith dawned clear and strong. If the same keynote prevailed more universally among those who complain that they would believe if they could, the power in which they fail would fail less long and less completely.] And here steadfastness of will, showing itself in determined concentration of attention is the indispensable condition of success; for such concentration is by no means always an easy matter to attain, even when the effort is "made early in the day before the day's worries begin."
Sometimes there are sleepless "worries" which assert their presence with the first dawn of consciousness; sometimes we are mentally or physically lazy, inert or languid. Well, if we habitually give in to such difficulties in a way of which we should be utterly ashamed were any other object of mental effort in question, we must not be surprised if the entirely natural result ensues that we fail to "realize" what we have never honestly set ourselves to treat as real. "Those to whom God and duty are now mere names," says the writer who has been several times quoted in this essay, "can make them much more than that, if they make a little sacrifice to them every day," [James, "Principles of Psychology," vol. II., p. 322.] --only, to be efficacious, the sacrifice must of course be genuine. Amid the thronging duties, the ceaseless cares, the toilsome or pleasurable round of daily life, we must take and we must keep time to "commune with our own hearts and in our chamber and be still." And in the stillness we must turn to Him from Whose presence we never go out, and yet Whose presence we so constantly ignore. Thus we shall learn to "endure as seeing Him Who is invisible," and the life of faith will prepare us for that perfect and all-sufficing vision which is the goal of Christian hope and Christian effort.
Proofread by LNL, Oct 2020
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