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James Freeman

"We walk by faith, and not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7)

In this chapter the Apostle is treating of the immortality of man. With great confidence, he expresses his hope of a future state of happiness. Nevertheless, he adds, we walk by faith, and not by sight. That is, this immortality is not a matter of knowledge, but of belief. We cannot demonstrate it, though we are firmly persuaded of its truth. The assertion of the Apostle is not applicable to a future state only; but in almost all the doctrines of revealed religion, we walk by faith and not by sight. Absolute knowledge, in few cases, is granted to us; what we believe may be probable, but it is not certain; for here we see through a glass darkly, and know in part. In a future world we hope to enjoy perfect knowledge; but the present world is in some measure a scene of obscurity.

As a consideration of this subject is adapted to make us cautious, humble, and candid, it deserves attention. At the same time, it is of importance to show that the prejudices, which are entertained against religion on this account, are ill-founded; for if we walk by faith in religion, we are guided by the same light in almost everything else. We ought not therefore to object against revelation because it cannot be demonstrated, for demonstration is not afforded us in other subjects.

Man, however, anxiously wishes for certainty in everything of importance, and when he does not possess it, is disposed to complain. “Why has not God made what we are to believe so plain and evident, as that all doubts should be prevented?” is a common inquiry. “Why has he not revealed himself so clearly, as that we should be as certain of his existence as of our own?” “Why do we not only believe, but know, that he is one being, who is infinitely powerful, wise, and good, the creator of heaven and earth, and the judge of men?” “Why are we not enabled absolutely to determine whether Jesus Christ is a pre-existent being, or only a man?” “Why do we not certainly know whether or not he is an object of prayer?” “Why have we not more than probable evidence of the truth of Christianity?” “Why are men permitted to dispute about the meaning of its doctrines?” “Why is there such obscurity in the language of the sacred writers, as that controversies should exist concerning the trinity, the atonement of Christ, original sin, predestination, and everlasting punishment?” “Why do we not understand St. Paul as well as he understood himself, and why should it be possible that so many different explanations can be made of his words?” “In particular, why do we not know that we are immortal? Why have we not such evidence as that it would be impossible to doubt of a future state? Why does not a ghost return from the other world, or a dead man rise, and make this important doctrine certain?” “We are frequently told that we shall be punished hereafter for the deeds done in the body; we wish that we absolutely knew this, for certain knowledge would have a greater influence on our conduct, than mere faith, however lively it may be. We have also heard that we shall meet our virtuous friends in a better state. If we were certain of this, we should see them die with more resignation.”

Such language as this is natural to man. There are few of us who have not felt it and spoken it in our hearts. In particular, when we have been inquiring after truth, when we have been disputing concerning any doctrine of revealed religion, when we have been defending Christianity against the objections of infidels and have found how easy it is to involve the subject in obscurity, we have ardently wished that a voice from heaven, or some other proof, which might infallibly be depended on, would decide the controversy at once and remove every doubt.

May we not say that the goodness of God would vouchsafe us the demonstration which we desire, if it was proper or possible? But he does not in fact; we live the life of faith, and not of knowledge: such is the constitution of things. Satisfied that whatever God does is right, I conceive that it is our duty not to complain of this system and to wish that it might be altered, but to endeavour to find out its reasons. Let us therefore inquire why it is that God causes us to walk by faith and not by sight, after which let us attempt to show that from this constitution of things advantages result, which we could not enjoy, if, in every case, we possessed absolute knowledge.

I. The most important doctrine of religion is that there is one God of infinite perfection, by whose power we were created, by whose providence we are preserved, whom therefore we are bound to love, to worship, and obey, and to whom we are accountable for all our conduct. This truth is proved by the strongest probable arguments, the evidence of which is nearly irresistible. It does not amount, however, to strict demonstration. There have been persons who have doubted of the being of God, which shows that this truth is not as certain as mathematical propositions, for no man can, or does, doubt of them. Here then some may be ready to desire that the Supreme Being had revealed himself more fully; so that we might not only rationally believe, but absolutely know, that he exists.

But, it may be asked, how could this have been done? As God is infinite, it is impossible that he should become the object of any one of our senses. We could not be made to see or feel him, who has neither parts, nor limits, nor form, nor colour, nor motion. We see his works, and he has given us understanding, by which, when it is properly directed, we are capable of discerning their contrivance, beauty, and harmony, and of perceiving that they must have an author of great power and wisdom. The visible world manifests to the well-tutored eye, that there is a God, but so sublime an idea as that of a Deity would not of itself enter the uninstructed mind. On the contrary, it is probable that men are indebted for their first knowledge of this truth to a divine communication, or to a tradition, derived from this source. Revelation informs us that the world was produced by an intelligent cause. But revelation is not an object of knowledge, but of faith. Even then with respect to the being of a God, the most important of all truths, we walk by faith, and not by sight; and it seems not possible that it could otherwise be.

We believe that God has made a revelation of himself in the sacred Scriptures, and that to them we are indebted for our notions of religious and moral truths. Now it is evident to any person, who attentively considers the nature of it, that it was not easy, nor practicable, to make it an object of knowledge. Revelation is contained in a certain number of books, all of them written near two thousand years since. The authority of them, who delivered its doctrines, was confirmed by miracles, or evidences of supernatural power. Our acquaintance with these facts is derived from the testimony of the Apostles and others, whom we have reason to believe were intelligent, impartial, and sincere witnesses. They knew that what they declared was true, but it is impossible that we should know it in the same manner, or have anything more than a probable proof of it, unless God had continued a series of miracles from that age to the present, which would produce more bad than good effects. These books were written by men in the languages with which they were familiar, which, like all other human languages, are imperfect and contain words which are used in different senses and abound with figurative modes of expression, the precise meaning of which cannot always be ascertained. These languages are unknown to us, and before we can read the Scriptures in our own tongues, we are obliged to procure translations of them, made by fallible and uninspired men. From these causes and others of the same kind, there are obscurities in these books; and the consequence is that Christians of different sects do not understand all their doctrines in the same sense. We may add that every part of the Scriptures is not equally clear. The preceptive parts are plain, but the opinions of the Apostles and their reasonings are sometimes dark and hard to be understood. Perhaps also the first disciples, who immediately succeeded the Apostles, were not perfectly uniform in their ideas on points of less importance. They agree in their general doctrines, but it was not necessary that they should agree in every minute article of their creeds; and as they were men like ourselves, nothing short of a perpetual miracle could have produced this perfect unity of sentiment. Why then should we complain that, with respect to revelation, we are obliged to walk by faith and not by sight? Is not this complaining that men are made as they are? Is it not finding fault with the natural imperfection of the human understanding and requiring that God should change the constitution of things?

An extensive inquiry into the nature of Christianity and a laboured delineation of its evidences would show that probability must be the foundation on which it rests. This task, however, would demand, not a single discourse, but volumes. The hints which I have given manifest that it is vain to expect mathematical demonstration in so complicated an argument.

It may still be urged that we have a right to require positive proof of the immortality of man. Here we ought to be indulged with the clearest sight, because the doctrine, if true, is of the highest importance, as it is intimately connected with our virtue and happiness.

But let us not be hasty in requiring this proof. If man is immortal, it must be in consequence of the free gift of God. He has no right to demand immortality, and there are few arguments from nature which lead him to expect it. On the supposition that there is in man a spiritual substance distinct from his body, how could its existence be proved? For as it is not material, it cannot be made either visible or palpable. To require therefore that spirits should appear, to demonstrate to us the immortality of the soul, is demanding an impossibility. But if our immortality depends on the resurrection of the dead, our idea of it must be the same as that of revelation itself: it must be faith, and not sight. If we believe the New Testament to be the word of God, as we may rationally do, we can entertain no reasonable doubt of it; but as we cannot obtain absolute demonstration of the one, so neither can we strictly demonstrate the other.

II. These observations may show that the constitution of things, by which we are made to walk by faith and not by sight, cannot easily be changed. There are advantages resulting from this system, which we could not enjoy, if, in every case, we possessed absolute knowledge.

One—and it is of great importance—is that, by the present constitution of things, the understanding is sharpened and improved, employment is found for the mind, and man is rendered active. If all truths were certain, man would lead a life of indolence. There would be an end of inquiry, of debate, of criticism; almost all the books in the world would be annihilated, and the learned professions would be extinct. In a word, we should have nothing to do but to open our eyes and receive the light which was poured in upon them. Some persons may conceive that such a state would be better than the present.    But they, who have this imagination, have never tasted the pleasure which is derived from a minute examination of an intricate subject, in which knowledge is obtained and truth discovered by degrees. There is a satisfaction, a self-complacence, in exercising the reasoning powers, which permits us not to regret the want of absolute knowledge.    When the judgment is employed in investigating our own ideas, in separating truth from falsehood, which are so intimately blended in almost all subjects, in exploding error, in deducing new truths from truths already believed, or even in probable conjecture, a delight is experienced, which would be altogether unknown if every proposition was immediately clear and certain.

How pleasing is it, for example, to follow the arguments of such a noble and wonderful book as Butler's Analogy, and to trace the complicated evidences of Christianity in the profound works of the preachers at the Boylean Lectures! If the truths of the gospel were self-evident, the world would never have seen those learned apologies, which, in all ages, have done honour to the church, and which have so highly exalted the minds, not only of their authors, but of their readers.

Another advantage resulting from this constitution of things is that it furnishes us with an opportunity of exercising humility, candour, and forbearance.

As we walk by faith and not by sight, we ought to be humble and modest in our opinions. We ought not to assert any thing too positively, as we may, notwithstanding all our inquiries, be in an error. We ought to keep our minds open to conviction and to the reception of new ideas, however contrary they may be to the notions which we have formerly entertained. We should be sensible of the imperfection of our knowledge and think, and reason, and act, with that caution, which becomes beings who are absolutely certain of very few truths.

In consequence of this system, by which we are made to walk by faith and not by sight, there is a variety of opinions among Christians. Almost all subjects can be viewed in different lights and are attended with obscurities. This variety need not produce any ill effects, for as Christians agree in the essential point, the necessity of loving God and our neighbour, the interest of virtue is secure upon every system; but it affords an opportunity of displaying candour and forbearance. There is nothing more amiable than liberality and indulgence toward them, who differ from us in opinion. If we all believed exactly the same things, our benevolence would not be so meritorious; for we naturally love them, who resemble us, but to love them, whom we think erroneous, is generous, is charitable.

On the whole, from a view of the subject, it appears that in religion it is proper that we should walk by faith and not by sight. But this system, whether it is right or wrong, is analogous to all the other dispensations of divine Providence. In nature, in government, in civil and domestic life, in agriculture, and in every kind of business, it is no less true than in religion that we walk by faith and not by sight. The statesman, who with the experience and accumulated wisdom of preceding ages forms a constitution of government, cannot promise himself more than a probability of success; he cannot certainly foresee what will be the effect of his plans. The parent, who with the utmost care educates his child, knows not that the instruction which he communicates will produce any good effect; he can only rationally hope that his offspring will become intelligent and virtuous. The husbandman, who tills his fertile soil under an auspicious sun, is not certain, however probable it may be, that he shall gather in the harvest. The merchant, who sends his ships to a foreign port, knows not, though chances may be greatly in his favour, that they will ever return. If the statesman, the parent, the husbandman, and the merchant ought not complain because they walk by faith, and not by sight, ought the Christian to complain, because he walks in the same manner?

Though faith however is the light by which we must guide our steps in the doctrines of religion, yet the duties of it are clear and certain. Whether our own opinions of Christianity are true or false, it is our duty to be pious and virtuous, to practise the precepts which are contained in the gospel. These precepts are agreeable to nature and reason, and must be true, whatever our speculative system may be. Christianity, which teaches them, is supported by innumerable probable arguments. Let them who deny this assertion examine the subject with care. In every step which they take, they will find proofs accumulating upon them, which they cannot easily resist; and they should acknowledge that it is not less absurd to neglect their moral conduct, because they cannot demonstrate by irrefragable arguments a future state of rewards and punishments, than it is to neglect exertion in any other case, because they cannot positively answer for the success of their plans. Uncertain as events may be, sufficient motives present themselves to induce us to be virtuous; and if we refuse to attend to them, it cannot be allowed that we act with wisdom.

1st Sunday in Advent.


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