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THE PHILOSOPHY OF MAN'S SPIRITUAL NATURE IN REGARD TO THE FOUNDATIONS OF FAITH

James Walker

A sermon from 1834, taken from Reason, Faith, and Duty: Sermons Preached Chiefly in the College Chapel (1877), pp. 37-62.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”—Heb. xi. 1.

Faith is defined in Scripture as being “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” By it we can and do regard many things which lie beyond the sphere of our senses and actual experience as really existing, and are affected by them as realities. By it the spiritually minded of all religious persuasions, in proportion as they are spiritually minded, feel a confidence and practical assurance in the existence and reality of the spiritual world. It is this principle which constitutes man, unlike the inferior animals, a religious being; and it is by a right development of this principle that we become capable of seeing Him who is invisible, of being affected by those things which pertain to our inward and spiritual life as if addressed to the senses, and of holding free, intimate, and habitual communion with the Unseen, the Infinite, and the Eternal.

Now it is remarkable of the infidelity of the present day, that it strikes at the very existence of this principle considered as an element or property of the human soul. Not content with disputing in detail the evidences of natural and revealed religion, or driven perhaps from this ground, it thinks to cut the matter short by denying that man has any faculties for the apprehension of spiritual existences, or of any existences but such as are cognizable by the senses, and so far as they are cognizable by the senses. I have no fears that many amongst us, or that any who are accustomed to contemplate and study the workings of their moral and spiritual nature, will be seduced and carried away by this gross form of sensualism, which they must feel and know to be contradicted and entirely set aside by the facts of their own inward experience. Still it may be well in connection with the evidences of Christianity, to begin by setting forth, in the simplest and clearest language of which the subject is susceptible, the true philosophy of man’s moral and spiritual nature in regard to the foundations of faith.

In the present discourse I shall endeavor to establish, illustrate, and enforce, as much at length as my limits will permit, the three following propositions: —

First, that a little reflection will convince every one alive to noble thoughts and sentiments, that the existence of those spiritual faculties and capacities, which are assumed as the foundation of religion in the soul of man, is attested and put beyond controversy by the revelations of consciousness.

Secondly, that religion in the soul, consisting as it does of a manifestation and development of these spiritual faculties and capacities, is as much a reality in itself, and enters as essentially into our idea of a perfect man, as the corresponding manifestation and development of the reasoning faculties, a sense of justice, or the affections of sympathy and benevolence.

And, thirdly, that from the acknowledged existence and reality of spiritual impressions or perceptions we may and do assume the existence and reality of the spiritual world; just as, from the acknowledged existence and reality of sensible impressions or perceptions, we may and do assume the existence and realities of the sensible world.

These three propositions being established, it will follow that our conviction of the existence and reality of the spiritual world is resolvable into the same fundamental law of belief as that on which our conviction of the existence and reality of the sensible world depends.

I. My first proposition is, that a little reflection will convince every one alive to noble thoughts and sentiments, that the existence of those spiritual faculties and capacities, which are assumed as the foundation of religion in the soul of man, is attested and put beyond controversy by the revelations of consciousness.

Some writers contend for the existence of an unbroken chain of beings, starting from the lowest form of inorganic matter, and mounting upwards by regular and insensible gradations to the highest order of created intelligences. Others insist on a division of substances into material and immaterial, and make one of the principal arguments for the soul’s spirituality and immortality to depend on the nature of its substance, and not on the nature of the laws and conditions imposed upon it. Happily, neither of these questions is necessarily implicated in the views I am about to offer, and both may therefore be dismissed at once from the discussion; the former as being a little too fanciful, and the latter as being a little too metaphysical, for the generality of minds. It is enough if persons will recognize the obvious fact, that in the ascending scale of being, as the vegetable manifests some properties which do not belong to crude and inert matter, and as the animal manifests some properties which do not belong to the mere vegetable, so man as man manifests some properties which do not belong to the mere animal. He is subject, it is true, to many of the laws and conditions of crude and inert matter, to many of the laws and conditions of vegetable life, and to many of the laws and conditions of animal life; but he also has part in a still higher life, —the life of the soul. He brings into the world the elements of a higher life, the life of the soul; the acknowledged phenomena of which can no more be resolved into the laws and conditions of mere sensation, than into those of vegetation or mere gravitation. This higher life, —consisting among other things of a development of conscience, the sentiment of veneration, and the idea of the perfect and the absolute, —constitutes the foundation of religion in the soul of man; the existence and reality of which is attested, as I hold, and is put beyond controversy, by the revelations of consciousness.

I do not suppose, of course, that the existence of the above-mentioned properties or affections of the soul is matter of sensation. I do not suppose that we can see, or hear, or feel, or taste, or smell a mental faculty, a moral sentiment, or an idea. Their existence, supposing them to exist, could be revealed to us by consciousness alone; and by consciousness it is revealed to us: and the evidence of consciousness in a question of this nature is final and decisive. It is not a matter of sensation nor of logic, but of consciousness alone. We are conscious of their existence; and being so, whatever
we may say or however we may argue to the contrary, we cannot, practically speaking, doubt it, even if we would, any more than we can doubt the testimony of the senses. Reflect for one moment. What evidence have you of the existence of your own mind, —of the power of thought, or even of the power or the fact of sensation itself, —but the evidence of consciousness? Nay, what evidence have you of your own individual being and personality, —that you are yourself, and not another; that you are a man, and not a horse or a tree; that you are awake and alive, and not asleep or dead, —but the evidence of consciousness? None whatever. You can say, “I am conscious of being what I am;” and that is all you can say. An archangel cannot say any thing more. It is not a matter of sensation or of argument, but of consciousness alone. If, therefore, you are conscious of possessing not only a sensual and an intellectual, but also a moral and spiritual nature, you have as good evidence for believing that this moral and spiritual nature really exists, and that you possess it, as you have for believing that you exist at all.

“True,” the sensualist[1] may say, “this does prove the existence of something which we call our moral and spiritual nature; but it does not prove that this something belongs to our original constitution, that it has its root and foundation in the soul, that it cannot be resolved into a mere figment of the brain.” And then, in the accustomed vein of this philosophy, he will be likely to urge: “Your conscience, —what is it? One thing in the child, and another thing in the man; one thing in this age or country, and another thing in that; here expressly forbidding what there it as expressly enjoins. And your sentiment of veneration, —what is it? To-day prostrate before sticks and stones, to-morrow adoring the host of heaven; among one people deifying a virtue, among another a man, among another an onion; now manifesting itself under the forms of the grossest superstition, and now breaking out into the excesses of the wildest fanaticism. And your idea of the Absolute and the Perfect, —what is it but an hallucination of the metaphysically mad; the finite vainly thinking to comprehend the infinite? Do not all these things therefore, though they exist or are thought to exist in the human mind, when a little more carefully examined, look very much like figments of the brain?”

How long is the plain, practical good sense of mankind to be abused by a sophistry like this, which owes all its apparent force and pertinency to a sort of logical sleight-of-hand, that, with a quickness making it imperceptible to slow minds, substitutes for the real question at issue another having nothing to do with the subject? So far as the present discussion is concerned, it matters not whether conscience, as already instructed and educated, always decides correctly, or never decides correctly. I am not contending, as everybody must perceive who is capable of understanding the argument, for the correctness or uniformity of the decisions of conscience, —a circumstance which must depend of course on the nature and degree of instruction and education it has received, —but for the existence of conscience itself, not as a figment of the brain, but as an element of our moral and spiritual nature. What I maintain is simply this: that every man is born with a moral faculty, or the elements of a moral faculty, which, on being developed, creates in him the idea of a right and a wrong in human conduct; which leads him to ask the question, “What is right?” or, “What ought I to do?” which summons him before the tribunal of his own soul for judgment on the rectitude of his purposes; which grows up into an habitual sense of personal responsibility, and thus prepares him, as his views are enlarged, to comprehend the moral government of God, and to feel his own responsibility to God as a moral governor. My reasonings and inferences, therefore, are not affected one way or another by the actual state of this or that man’s conscience, or by the fact that probably no two consciences can be found which exactly agree. A man’s conscience we must presume, according to the influences under which he has acted, will be more or less excited and developed, and more or less enlightened and educated. Still, we hold it to be undeniable that every man has a conscience to be excited and developed, enlightened and educated; that in this sense conscience has its root and foundation in the soul; and that man herein differs essentially from the most sagacious of the inferior animals, and, unlike them, was originally constituted susceptible of religion.

And so, too, of the sentiment of veneration or devotion, considered as an original and fundamental propensity of the human mind, I care not so far as my present purpose is concerned under what forms it has manifested itself, or to what excesses or abuses it has led. These very excesses and abuses only serve to demonstrate the existence and strength of the principle itself, as they evince such a craving of our nature for religion that it will accept of any, even the crudest and most debasing, rather than have none. Could this be, if we were not made to be religious? No matter what may be the immediate or ostensible object of this sentiment, —a log, a stone, or a star; the god of the hills, or the god of the plains; “Jehovah, Jove, or Lord,” —still it is veneration, still it is devotion. Neither can the principle itself, by any show of evidence or just analysis, be resolved into a mere figment of the brain or a mere creature of circumstances; for, in some form or other, it has manifested itself under all circumstances and in every stage of the mind’s growth, as having its root and foundation in the soul. The sentiment may be, and often has been, misdirected and perverted; but there is the sentiment still, with nothing to hinder its being excited, developed, and directed aright: and the result is religion. There is the sentiment disposing man to look upward to a higher power, and inducing faith in the invisible; a quality in which the most sagacious of the inferior animals do not share in the smallest degree, and which proves, if final causes prove any thing, that man was made for worship and adoration.

One word more respecting our capacity to form an idea of the Absolute and the Perfect. The shallow and flippant jeer, that it is the finite vainly thinking to comprehend the infinite, comes from substituting the literal sense of the term comprehend, as applied to bodies, for its figurative sense as applied to minds; making the comprehension of an idea to resemble the grasping or embracing of a globe with the hands or the arms. Besides, we need not say that man can, strictly speaking, comprehend the Absolute and the Perfect, but only that he can apprehend them as really existing; and there is this difference between the literal import of apprehension and a full comprehension, that one can lay hold of what he would not think to be able at once to clasp. However this may be, it is certain that the idea of the infinite grows up in the human mind as it is cultivated and expanded, and becomes an essential condition of thought. As a proof of this, let any one try and see if he can separate the idea of infinity from his idea of space and duration; or, in other words, whether he can possibly conceive of mere space or mere duration as otherwise than infinitely extended. Moreover, the very idea of imperfection, as such, involves at least some faint glimmering of an idea of the perfect with which it is compared, and without which imperfection would be to us as perfection. In other words, if we had no idea of perfection we could have no idea of its absence, which is what we mean by imperfection. So likewise in contemplating things accidental and dependent, the idea of the Absolute grows up in the mind, —the idea of something that is not accidental and dependent, and on which every thing that is accidental and dependent leans and is sustained. In short, the mind of man is so constituted, that in the full development of its intellectual powers it can find no real satisfaction, no resolution of its doubts and difficulties, but in the idea of the Absolute and the Perfect. Take away this idea, and existence itself becomes an enigma, a meaningless and objectless phantasm. Give us back this idea, and it again becomes a consistent, intelligible, and magnificent whole. Man, unlike the most sagacious of the inferior animals, is so constituted that this reaching after the Absolute and the Perfect enters into and forms an essential element of his moral and spiritual nature, giving him not only a capacity but a predisposition for that faith which is “the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.”

Therefore do we say, and say confidently, that a foundation for religion is laid in the soul of man, the existence whereof is attested and put beyond controversy by the revelations of consciousness. This is my first proposition, and I have only to add in respect to it two brief suggestions. If, as we have seen, a foundation for religion is laid in the soul of man, can we bring ourselves to believe for one moment that it is laid there for nothing? And again, if, as we have seen, a foundation for a higher life than that of the senses is laid in the soul of man, must it not be accounted a sort of insanity in us, to say nothing of its sinfulness, to refuse or neglect to build upon it?

II. Here my second proposition comes in, which asserts that religion in the soul, consisting as it does of a manifestation and development of our spiritual faculties and capacities, is as much a reality in itself, and enters as essentially into the idea of a perfect man, as the corresponding manifestation and development of the reasoning powers, a sense of justice, or the affections of sympathy and benevolence.

Modern philosophy has revived all important distinction, much insisted on by the old writers, between what is subjectively true and real—that is to say, true and real so far as the mind itself is concerned—and what is objectively true and real, that is to say, true and real independently of the mind. Thus we affirm of things, the existence of which is reported by the senses, that they really exist both subjectively and objectively; that is to say, that the mind is really affected as if they existed, and that, independently of this affection of the mind, the things themselves exist. In other words, we have an idea of the thing really existing in the mind, and this is subjective truth and reality; and there is also an object answering to that idea really existing out of the mind, and this is objective truth and reality. One sense therefore there certainly is, in which the most inveterate sceptic must allow that religion has a real and true existence to the really and truly devout. Subjectively it is real and true, whether objectively it is real and true or not. All must admit that it is true and real so far as the mind itself is concerned, even though it cannot be shown to have existence independently of the mind. It is a habit or disposition of soul, and in any view of the matter the habit or disposition truly and really exists. It is a development of our nature, a development of character, and as such is as true and real as any other development of nature and character. Even if it feeds on illusions, it is not itself an illusion. Even if in its springing up it depends on nothing better than a fancy, a dream, its growth in the soul and the fruit of that growth are realities, —all-important, all-sustaining realities.

I dwell on this distinction, because it is one which the sensualists, from policy or perversity, would fain wink out of sight, making the question at issue to be, whether religion is or is not a mere illusion. This is not the question. Take any view of the matter, take the sensualist’s view of the matter, and still it is undeniable that religion itself as it exists in the soul of the devout is a reality, as much so as any other habit or disposition of soul, as much so as taste, or conscience, or parental or filial affection; and its effects are as real.

Nor is this all. Religion in the soul enters essentially into our idea of a perfect man. Suppose a man perfect in his limbs, features, and bodily proportions, but entirely destitute of understanding; would he answer to anybody's idea of a perfect man? No. Give him then a perfect understanding, but still let him be entirely destitute of moral sensibility, as dead to sentiment as before he was to thought, —would he answer to anybody’s idea of a perfect man? No. And why not? Because we mean by a perfect man one in whom the whole nature of man is developed in its proper order, and just relations and proportions. Now, as has been demonstrated, a foundation for religion is laid in the human soul. In other words, we have spiritual faculties and capacities as well as intellectual and moral faculties and capacities; and the former constitute a part of our nature as truly as the latter; and this part of our nature must be developed. Otherwise the entire man is not put forth. Part of his nature, and of his higher nature too, it may be said, is yet to be born; and thus it is that a deep and true philosophy re-asserts and confirms the Christian doctrine of regeneration. We are born at first into the visible or sensible world; when we become alive to the invisible or spiritual world, we may be said to be born again: and it is not till after this second birth that we become all which, as men, we are capable of becoming. It is not, I repeat it, until after this second birth, consisting as I have said in a development of our spiritual faculties and capacities, that the entire man is revealed, or our idea of a perfect man realized or approached.

Every well constituted mind must be painfully conscious of this truth, though often without being aware of the cause of its uneasiness, in reading the lives or contemplating the fame of men of eminence, and sometimes perhaps of integrity and philanthropy, but destitute of religion. Doubtless a man may have some of the forms of greatness and goodness without having all; and nothing can be farther from my purpose or disposition than to derogate from any form of either, wherever found and however connected. Still, when we behold a manifestation of the lower forms of greatness and goodness without the higher, an impression is left on the mind similar to what is universally felt on seeing a foundation laid for a noble structure, and that structure carried up far enough with the richest materials to indicate the grand and comprehensive plan of the architect, which plan, however, from some cause has been interrupted and broken off midway.

Thus far have I reasoned, as you will perceive, from what consciousness attests and puts beyond controversy respecting the moral and spiritual nature of man. Waiving the question whether any thing exists out of the mind corresponding to our idea of religion in the mind, —waiving the question whether the objects of our faith have a true and real existence independently of the mind itself, —still the conclusion, as we have seen, is unavoidable, that this faith has its foundation in human nature; that its development is a true and real development of our nature; and that it is absolutely essential to our nature’s entire and perfect development. Whether religion exists independently of the mind or not, we know that, to those who have it, it has a true and real existence in the mind; that it is a source of true and real strength, solace, and hope; and that men, as men, can truly and really do bear and enjoy with it what they could not do, bear, or enjoy without it. Even therefore if the discussion were to stop here, it would follow incontestably that to disown or neglect religion because of this or that real or supposed logical difficulty, would be to do violence at the same time to both those instinctive desires, from one or the other of which it is said a rational being as such must always act, —a desire of happiness and a desire of perfection.

III. But the discussion does not stop here. I maintain, and this is my third and last proposition, that, from the acknowledged existence, and reality of spiritual impressions or perceptions, we may and do assume the existence and reality of the spiritual world; just as, from the acknowledged existence and reality of sensible impressions or perceptions, we may and do assume the existence and reality of the sensible world.

Most of you, I presume, are apprised of the extravagance of scepticism into which men have been betrayed by insisting on a kind of evidence of which the nature of the case does not admit. Some have denied the existence of the spiritual world; others have denied the existence of the sensible world; and others again have denied the existence of both worlds, contending for that of impressions or perceptions alone. These last, if we are to believe in nothing but the facts of sensation, and what can be logically deduced from these facts, are unquestionably the only consistent reasoners. For what logical connection is there between a fact of sensation, between an impression or perception, and the real existence of its object, or of the mind that is conscious of it? None whatever. I do not mean that a consistent reasoner will hesitate to admit the real existence of the objects of sensation. Practically speaking, he cannot help admitting their real existence if he would. Every man, woman, and child believes in his or her own existence, and in that of the outward universe or sensible world; but not because the existence of either is susceptible of proof by a process of reasoning. Not the semblance, not the shadow, of a sound logical argument can be adduced in proof of our own existence or that of the outward universe. We believe in the existence of both, it is true; but it is only because we are so constituted as to make it a matter of intuition. Let it be distinctly understood, therefore, that our conviction of the existence of the sensible world does not rest on a logical deduction from the facts of sensation, or of sensation and consciousness. It rests on the constitution of our nature. It is resolvable into a fundamental law of belief. It is held, not as a logical inference, but as a first principle. With the faculties we possess, and in the circumstances in which we are placed, the idea grows up in the mind, and we cannot expel it if we would.

Now the question arises, On what does a devout man’s conviction of the existence and reality of the spiritual world depend? I answer, On the very same. He is conscious of spiritual impressions or perceptions, as he also is of sensible impressions or perceptions; but he does not think to demonstrate the existence and reality of the objects of either by a process of reasoning. He does not take the facts of his inward experience, and hold to the existence and reality of the spiritual world as a logical deduction from these facts, but as an intuitive suggestion grounded on these facts. He believes in the existence and reality of the spiritual world, just as he believes in his own existence and reality, and just as he believes in the existence and reality of the outward universe, —simply and solely because he is so constituted that with his impressions or perceptions he cannot help it. If he could, it would be to begin by assuming it to be possible that his faculties, though in a sound state and rightly circumstanced, may play him false; and if he could begin by assuming this as barely possible, there would be an end to all certainty. Demonstration itself, ocular or mathematical, would no longer be ground of certainty. It is said that sophistical reasoning has sometimes been resorted to in proof of the existence and reality of the spiritual world; and this perhaps is true: but the error has consisted in supposing that any reasoning is necessary. It is not necessary that a devout man's conviction of the existence and reality of the spiritual world should rest on more or on better evidence than his conviction of the existence and reality of the sensible world; it is enough that it rests on as much, and on the very same. It is enough that both are resolvable, as I have shown, into the same fundamental law of belief; and that, in philosophy as well as in fact, this law ought to exclude all doubt in the former case, as well as in the latter.

But how, it may be asked, according to the views here presented, can we account for the fact of such different and conflicting spiritual impressions or perceptions? If a spiritual world really exists, why do not all men apprehend it alike? Because, I hardly need reply, it is contemplated under such widely different aspects, and by persons whose spiritual faculties and capacities are variously developed, and above all because in spiritual things the best people are so prone to mix up and confound their inferences with their simple perceptions. There is nothing, therefore, in the real or apparent diversity of our spiritual impressions or perceptions which should shake our confidence in the principle, that, to a rightly constituted and fully developed soul, moral and spiritual truth will be revealed with a degree of intuitive clearness and certainty equal at least to that of the objects of sense. Besides, a like diversity in our views and theories prevails in respect to the material world; but nobody thinks, merely on the strength of this, seriously to raise a doubt whether the material world exists at all. And it is further urged, that the most spiritual men may sometimes be tempted to say of their religious experience, “Perhaps it may turn out to be an illusion;” yet it should be recollected that this is no more than what they may also, in moments of inquietude and despondency, be tempted to say of all their experience. They may say of all their experience, “Perhaps it may turn out to be an illusion.” At this very moment, when I seem to myself to be writing a discourse on the Christian evidences, how do I know but that really I am in my bed dreaming about it? We may talk in this way, I know, about dreams, illusions, visions; but it is certain that to a well constituted and well ordered mind it never has occasioned any real doubt or difficulty, nor ever can, in regard to ordinary life; and for the same reason neither ought it to do so in regard to the life of the soul.

Once more. What, according to the doctrine advocated in these pages, shall we reply to those who may affirm that they never had any of our alleged spiritual impressions or perceptions? Precisely what we should to those who might say that they never had any of our alleged moral impressionls or perceptions; any sense of justice, or honor, or disinterested benevolence, or natural affection. We should reply, —that we are very sorry for it. If, however, along with their scepticism they evince any love of the truth, any desire or willingness to have their doubts dispelled, any tenderness of conscience or of soul, we may reason with them, and not without some prospect of convincing them that their want of faith is to be ascribed to one or both of the two following causes: either to a vicious or defective development of their nature, or to their insisting on a kind of evidence, of which the subject, from its very nature, is not susceptible. Either, from some defect or vice of their peculiar moral constitution or training, they are not prepared to appreciate the only appropriate or possible evidence in the case; or, from ignorance of true philosophy, they require the sort of evidence for truths addressed to one faculty, which is available only in regard to truths addressed to another. By insisting on these topics, it is not improbable that many apparent atheists may be reclaimed. “In days of crisis and agitation,” says an eminent French philosopher, “together with reflection, doubt and scepticism enter into the minds of many excellent men, who sigh over and are affrighted at their own incredulity. I would undertake their defence against themselves; I would prove to them that they always place faith in something.... When the scholar has denied the existence of God, hear the man; ask him, take him at unawares, and you will see that all his words imply the idea of God; and that faith in God is, without his knowledge, at the bottom of his heart.”[2]

As for the rest, the propagandists of atheism, the men who love atheism from eccentricity, or misanthropy, or deadness of soul, —I say it with submission, but I say it with the utmost possible confidence in the wisdom of the course, Let them alone. Conversion by the ordinary modes of instruction and argument is precluded. Gratify them not with a few short days of that notoriety which they so much covet. Leave them to the natural influences of their system; leave them to the silent disgust which their excesses must awaken in a community not absolutely savage; leave them to the cant and priestcraft of a few ignorant and interested leaders; and it is not perhaps entirely past all hope that, in this way, some of them may be so far reclaimed as to become ashamed of their cause, ashamed of one another, and ashamed of themselves.

Meanwhile let us hope that a better philosophy than the degrading sensualism, out of which most forms of modern infidelity have grown, will prevail; and that the minds of the rising generation will be thoroughly imbued with it. Let it be a philosophy which recognizes the higher nature of man, and aims in a chastened and reverential spirit to unfold the mysteries of his higher life. Let it be a philosophy which comprehends the soul, —a soul susceptible of religion, of the sublime principle of faith, of a faith which “entereth into that within the veil.” Let it be a philosophy which continually reminds us of our intimate relationship to the spiritual world; which opens to us new sources of strength in temptation, new sources of consolation in trouble, and new sources of life in death; nay, which teaches us that what we call death is but the dying of all that is mortal, that nothing but life may remain. Let it be a philosophy which prepares us to expect extraordinary manifestations of our heavenly Father’s love and care, and which harmonizes perfectly with the sublime moral purpose and meaning of the gospel, “casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.”

 



[1] The term is used in this discourse in its philosophical sense.

[2] Cousin’s Introduction to the History of Philosophy, pp. 179, 180.


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