THEOLOGICAL AGNOSTICISM By Alexander Balmain Bruce, 1897
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"Agnostic" is a modern epithet. It was invented some forty years ago by the late Mr. Huxley to distinguish his religious position from that of theists, pantheists, atheists, and to indicate that he, for his part, was not able to make any affirmations of any sort about God; not even that he is, or is not, still less what he is. Thus used the epithet denotes an attitude antithetic to that of the ancient gnostics who believed that an unlimited knowledge of God and the supersensible world was possible, and that its attainment was man's chief good. Since Huxley first coined the term it has steadily gained ever-increasing currency, and, following the fate of all new words, it has been used with various shades of meaning. In strictness it should be applied only to those who, like that distinguished scientist, profess absolute, unqualified agnosticism concerning God. But there is an agnostic Zeitgeist which influences many men who have not reached that extreme position. And so we have to reckon with a modified, partial agnosticism, professed not by unbelieving men of science, or by skeptical philosophers, but by religious men or theologians, and consisting in a severe restriction of the knowledge of God attainable by man. It has its ultimate unconscious source in the spirit of the time, and its conscious grounds in philosophic theories of knowledge, in particular views as to the idea of religion, and in certain convictions cherished concerning the characteristics of the Bible and the proper use of the sacred literature. It is of this modified type of the modern phenomenon in question I mean to speak under the title of "theological agnosticism." Its proper home is Germany, but sympathetic movements of thought are not lacking in English literature.
The slightest sketch of German theological agnosticism must take into account the epoch-making influence of Schleiermacher, who has largely shaped the course of theological opinion since his time in many ways, but very specially through his conception of the nature of religion. According to this great theologian religion consists not in morality, as Kant imagined, nor in theoretic knowledge, as Hegel taught, but in feeling; in the feeling of absolute dependence on the Great Being who manifests himself in the world. Religion, he said in effect, appears in connection with morals and with metaphysics, but it is neither the one nor the other, nor a combination of the two. It consists in conscious contact with the Infinite, the whole, and in the sense of entire dependence which the august presence of the divine awakens in us. This conception of religion determined Schleiermacher's whole method of handling theology which, in his view, had for its distinctive task to observe, describe, and classify the various modes, or affections, of the Christian consciousness, i. e., of the feeling of dependence as modified by faith in Christ. Theology thus viewed is not the science of God as he is in himself, but the knowledge of God as he affects us through the world and through Christ, or the knowledge of our own mental states as thus affected.
This view of the function of theology is simply an extension of the Kantian theory of knowledge in general to the special sphere of divine knowledge. Of things in themselves, Kant had taught, we know, can know, nothing, but only of things as they affect us through our senses, and as these sense affections are reduced to system by the categories of the understanding. Thus was the world out of relation to our senses reduced to an unknown x, and in a similar manner the soul and God were removed beyond the sphere of the knowable; God most of all, because, unlike the world and the soul, possessing no distinctive media of self-manifestation. In Schleiermacher's system God does not labor under this exceptional disability, as he is the Being who awakens in us that sense of absolute dependence wherein the essence of religion lies. But in that system God is knowable only as the world and the soul are. As the world is knowable through the phenomena of sensation and the soul through the phenomena of thought, so God is knowable through the peculiar feeling of dependence of which religious natures are conscious. Hence the attributes we ascribe to God do not describe anything special in God, but only something peculiar in the form which the feeling of dependence assumes towards him.
Ritschl, who flourished a generation later than Schleiermacher, assumed the same general attitude. He did not indeed accept Schleiermacher's idea of religion without modification. Admitting that religion consists in a unique feeling, he maintained that the feeling which constitutes religion, while determined in us by God, is not an isolated relation between God and the soul, but is always conditioned by our relations to the world. He declined to regard religion as an affair of mystic raptures, and mysterious fellowship with the divine. He rather regarded it as the world-dominating disposition of man, the necessity laid upon him to assert over against the world the claims of his spiritual personality. The stimulus to religious life, though coming ultimately from God, comes to us directly through the world. And it comes to us through the world in virtue of that in it which is out of harmony with the needs and rights of our spiritual nature. For there is much in the world which tends to crush our personality, and it will crush us if we tamely yield. But the legitimate, divinely intended effect of the untoward element is to rouse us into a conflict not to be terminated otherwise than by the victory of the spirit o'ver the brute force of the world.
Common to Ritschl and Schleiermacher is the placing of the essence of religion not in theoretic knowledge but in emotional affections; in the sense of absolute dependence, or in the sense of dissatisfaction with the world. Common to both also is the limitation of theology to our estimate of God in relation to the root feeling of religion under all its manifestations. Ritschl adopted as his philosophic basis the Kantian theory of knowledge as modified by Lotze, which may be summed up thus: We know things (I) as the causes of the characteristics which act upon us, (2) as the ends which these subserve as means, (3) as the law of their constant changes. Applied to theology the theory restricts theological formulations to what God is in relation to us. In relation to us God is love. This, therefore, is for all legitimate theology the fundamental characteristic of the Divine Being. God's love, not God's personality, or his omnipotence, or any other transcendental attribute, should be the starting point of all Christian theology, as it is at that point that God touches us, and it is only as deductions from the attribute of love that the metaphysical attributes of deity are to be dealt with by the theologian if he has any concern with them at all.
This general position Ritschl resolutely applied to all details. One of the most characteristic and important applications is that which relates to the person of Christ. To our Lord, Ritschl assigned the religious value of God, because in him God's will of love found adequate expression, and the victory over the world to which man is destined was fully achieved. But metaphysical knowledge of his divine nature he conceived to be unattainable. Hence the dogma of Christ's preexistence forms, in his view, no proper part of Christian theology. If it be a reality the pre-existent state belongs to the region of the thing-in-itself, and as such it cannot be a matter of revelation. The notion of it is not a religious idea, because in it Christ has not been revealed to us. Neither is the doctrine of the preexistence the complete expression of Christ's divinity; at most it is but a buttress to the traditional theological conception of that divinity. In a similar manner is the state of exaltation disposed of. It is regarded as having no contents for thought, because it has no direct bearing on our experience. The final result is that for all affirmations concerning Christ the fact-basis must be his earthly history. If we call him divine it must be with reference to the impression the gospel narratives make on our minds without regard either to the preexistent or to the postexistent state.
Postponing in the meantime critical comments on this theological agnosticism of Ritschl, I add a few paragraphs descriptive of the school founded by that theologian, a school now flourishing vigorously in Germany and characterized by great religious earnestness not less than by theological ability. The members of the school, while exhibiting considerable theological individuality, have two salient features in common: a rooted aversion to metaphysics in theology, and an earnest conviction that God is known only in so far as he reveals himself to men in their experience, aiding them to realize their chief end and to attain the summum bonum. The aversion to metaphysics embraces in its impartial scope both the ancient metaphysics of the Greeks utilized by the fathers in the construction of the ecclesiastical creeds, and the modern metaphysical systems of Germany, especially that of Hegel. The use of metaphysics in theology is condemned as resting on a false idea of religion, as consisting very specially, if not exclusively, in theoretic knowledge of God and on an equally false theory of knowledge as embracing not only the world of phenomena but the world of noumena. Theology is severely restricted to its sole legitimate function of estimating what God is found to be in religious experience. It consists, that is to say, of what are called value-judgments, setting forth not what God is, per se, but what he is worth to us. An outside critic might think knowledge thus reached illusory, but not such is the opinion of the school. In their view value-judgments have real value as revelation. Surely, they argue, it is worth knowing what God is to us. What more worth knowing? The knowledge thus gained is as real as that we have of the external world through our senses. We know the world through the senses as the cause of our various sensations; we know God as the Being who helps us to gain a victory over the world, in so far as it threatens to oppress our moral nature, and enables us to realize our destiny as his children.
Some members of this anti-metaphysical school absolutely limit our knowledge of God to that which comes to us through Jesus Christ. Dr. Herrmann, of Marburg, has made himself conspicuous by the vigor and persistency with which he has advocated this position. Through Christ alone, he contends, do we know so much as that there is a God at all. The so-called proofs for the being of God may appear very convincing to men already convinced, or whose life has been smooth and pleasant. But they yield no real aid to faith in a living God for men burdened with a sense of sin, or with the manifold miseries of human experience. Faith that God is, and that he is good, comes to such only when they get their eye fixed on Christ, and see in him one who realized the moral task of man, and who, in spite of all the darkness of the world, believed in a Supreme Being who wills the good and works unceasingly for its realization. Through faith in this unique man, the Sinless One, and the Proclaimer of a Divine Father, we at length learn to hope for ourselves and to believe in a good God.
In proceeding now to offer some critical observations on this modern theological movement I must begin with expressions of cordial appreciation of it in several aspects. The mere names of some of the men most prominently associated with it command at once our sympathy and respect. Foremost stands Harnack, whose great work on The History of Dogma, now happily appearing in English in an unabridged translation, must make on all competent readers the impression that the new school of theological thought as represented by the author is full of fresh impulse, energy, and insight, and cannot fail to leave its mark on theology for generations. From not a few of his opinions we may dissent, some of his positions may appear to us very insufficiently supported, but on the whole the effect of his historical studies must be to throw open for fresh consideration the whole question of the Christian origins and of the genesis and value of ecclesiastical dogmas.
The anti-scholastic spirit of the movement commands our hearty approval. The revolt against dogmatic legalism is evangelic in spirit and in harmony with the religious temper of multitudes who have never heard the name of Ritschl. It is never out of season to emphasize the truth that religion does not consist in dogma but in life, and to enter a protest against the theological gnosis which puffeth up in the interest of the charity which buildeth up. Nothing probably has done Christianity more harm than the dogmatic spirit which makes salvation depend upon opinion, unless it be sacramentarianism which turns poetic symbols into fetishes and depositories of magical power.
No one who understands the spirit of the New Testament can have any objection to offer to the postulate that all legitimate theology be based on religious experience. By this salutary requirement divinity is preserved from wandering into airy speculation and from attaching indiscriminate importance to all theological theses supposed to be capable of Scripture proof, and is kept in touch with vital practical interests. At this point modern theology is in sympathy even with Saint Paul, the most dogmatic of all New Testament authors. The apostle was not a scholastic theologian, however much protestant system-builders may have labored to make him appear such. His theology was rooted throughout in his religious history, and the discovery of this fact is making his epistles undergo a species of resurrection in the minds of many thoughtful ministers of the Word at the present time. They sit down to study the epistle to the Romans with a prejudice inherited from a traditional exegesis in which the writer appears a dry-as-dust theologian, and rise with the surprised, glad conviction that they have made the acquaintance of a truly prophetic man whose thoughts are ever transfused with heroic, pathetic feeling.
The stress laid on the normative value of the historical foundations of Christianity is wholly to be commended. That the Christ of the gospel history is the ultimate authority in religion! is a proposition which, far from disputing, many will be inclined to pronounce a commonplace. It may be a commonplace, but it is a much neglected one. It has been much neglected throughout the whole history of the church. Many in our generation have wakened up to the fact, and with a zeal not unmingled with indignation have made it their business to restore the Great Master to his place of sovereignty. When the religious history of the nineteenth century comes to be written no small meed of praise will be due to the Ritschlian school for the service which they have rendered to this good cause. They have said to their time with memorable emphasis: "Christ is the sole foundation; take heed, ye theologians, what ye build thereon."
The jealous protest of the school against metaphysics in theology is, all things being considered, not without justification. It is not wise to express the Christian faith too exclusively in terms of any philosophy, whether ancient or modern. Philosophies are subject to fashion, and have their day. While they are in vogue they seem to be of signal service for statement and defense, but when they have fallen into discredit or oblivion the categories and formulae borrowed from them grow foreign, distasteful, and even unintelligible save to experts in antiquarian research. Take as an instance the term Logos, applied to Christ. It may not have been borrowed from Philo by the author of the fourth gospel, but it certainly belonged to the vocabulary of a contemporary philosophy which conceived the Deity as transcendent and able to communicate with the world only through an intermediary. Its use by John and by the early apologists served a purpose. But how little we care for the word, or the idea it expresses, now, compared with the more human universal title Son, suggestive of the more winsome conception of God as Father!
These things said by way of earnest commendation, I must now offer some words of respectful criticism.
Exaggeration, undue emphasis, natural, not blameworthy in view of the theological environment, yet to be guarded against by all tempted to abject discipleship, may be charged against the school at various points.
The horror of metaphysics is a reaction to be transcended. Metaphysics have wrought mischief in the formulations of Christian dogmas, yet they are not entirely to be repudiated. The Christian religion, while it does not formally teach, implies a theory of the universe, a certain way of conceiving God, man, the world, and their relations, which it is well for believers to be acquainted with, were it only as an antidote to false theories like materialism, pantheism, or deism. Acquaintance with the speculative presuppositions of Christianity helps to keep the head clear and to make faith self-consistent.
The denial of all possible knowledge of God save through Christ is a signal instance of exaggeration. That as a matter of fact not a few have reached the only sure valuable knowledge of God they possess through Christ I doubt not, but it is going too far to say that not otherwise can any knowledge of God, however small, be attained. How did the writer of the seventy-third psalm, after long and serious doubt, reach the conclusion, "Yea, God is good"? The facts brought out by the comparative study of religion show that men can attain some real, useful knowledge of God independently of the special revelation accessible to Christendom. The world without and the soul within both speak to the human spirit concerning the Divine Being. Man's very position in the universe, as the crown of the creative process, justifies important inferences regarding the nature of the Creator. Natural theology is by no means a purely imaginary science, and it is mistaken policy so to treat it. The programme Outside Christ nothing but agnosticism plays into the hands of the absolute agnostic quite as effectually as the attitude of Cardinal Newman, whose watchword was: No knowledge of God except through the church. To Newman the agnostic reply was in effect this: Your position means that to follow reason lands in agnosticism as the only creed possible or rational for all outside the Catholic church. Why, then, should we cease being agnostics and become Catholics? Those who maintain that no knowledge of God is possible save through Christ must be prepared for a similar response. Instead of shutting agnostics up to faith in Christ the thesis is more likely to confirm them in their agnosticism. "Why," they may not unreasonably ask, "should we become theists at the bidding of Jesus of Nazareth when there is confessedly nothing in all the universe bearing witness to God's being and benignity? If Jesus be in possession of the truth, how is he so isolated? Is the isolation not rather a proof that he was mistaken in his doctrine of a Divine Father who cares for those who, like himself, devote their lives to the doing of good? That the doctrine is beautiful we do not question. But is it not simply the poetic dream of a man endowed with rare sweetness of nature, who somehow contrived to combine in his character the careless simplicity of a child with the insight of a sage? That it would be well for all to be like him, both in faith and in spirit and in conduct, we acknowledge. He had, we gather from the gospels, little or no struggle with the baser elements of human nature and to believe in a heavenly Father came apparently as easy to him as it comes to a child to trust in its mother. What a happy world if all could be like him in these respects! Exemption from perpetual warfare with the passions were an immense boon, and faith in a Divine Father were very soothing amid life's cares. But these advantages are not at the command of everyone. It is all a matter of idiosyncrasy. It is not in the power of every man to be either a saint or a poet. Most men must be content to fight on as best they can with moral evil, and to get through life without the fair dream of a Father in heaven. We perceive the moral excellence of Jesus, and we feel the pathos of his words when he reminds careworn men of the guardianship exercised by a paternal Providence over even birds and flowers; yet we cannot follow his example or make his poetic creed ours." I do not see what answer can be given to this by the Christian agnostic who goes the whole way with the absolute agnostic until he comes to the school of Jesus, and then says to his companion: "Good-bye: I enter here, and henceforth call Christ my master."
If Christ's doctrine of God be true, and not merely a poetic dream, there ought to be something in the world to verify it. There can hardly be a real Divine Father in the gospels, unless there be some traces of that Father, outside the gospels, in the universe. The optimistic theism of Jesus cannot be accepted as sober truth if pessimism be the truth of nature. Nor can a man with any comfort or with harmony in his spiritual life be a pessimist in his reading of nature and at the same time a professed believer in the Father-God of Jesus. There must be constant conflict between the two parts of his creed, till either bias prevailed over the other. Either his philosophic pessimism will extinguish his Christian faith or his Christian faith will make him see the dark facts of nature and history in a new and truer light. I say a truer light. Herrmann, to be consistent, would have to say new, happier, but not objectively truer. The Christian, on his theory, in the might of his own spiritual life, invests the world with an aspect which does not really belong to it, and imputes to its author a goodness which science and history fail to verify. He brings to the world and its cause what cannot be seen there save by a Christianly biased eye. As I conceive the matter the Christian brings to the study of nature and history not a biased but an opened eye, and sees what is really always there, though not lying quite on the surface. If Christ's doctrine of God be valid the new light is the true light. Everyone who accepts that doctrine must in consistency hold that in teaching it Jesus was not inventing, but discovering, seeing below the surface into the real heart of things, seeing what any other man might see if he had clear vision. That is to say, the disciple of Jesus must hold that while there is a superficial aspect of the course of nature which makes for agnosticism there is a' deeper aspect which makes for Christian theism.
The true interest of the Christian faith is to make Christ appear not isolated in his views of God and the world, rather the true interpreter of the universe, therefore in touch with wise teachers of all times and peoples, while excelling all in the clearness of his vision and the felicity of his utterance. I am inclined to maintain this position even in connection with what is most distinctive in his teaching. I hold, e. g., that a gospel of pardon in at least rudimentary form is not wanting in nature. I make this remark with special reference to a statement to the contrary effect contained in the recently published collection of essays by Congregational ministers entitled Faith and Criticism. The statement emanates from one who confesses his indebtedness to Herrmann and makes it his business to expound Herrmann's doctrine that Jesus Christ is the sole source of knowledge concerning God. "If we will use words carefully there is no revelation in nature. There can be none because there is no forgiveness. We cannot be sure about her. She is only aesthetic. Her ideal is harmony, not reconciliation. She may hold to her fitful breast her tired child, soothe her fretful sons, kindle her brilliant lovers to cosmic or other emotion, and lend her imagery to magnify the passions of the heart; but for the conscience-stricken or strong she has no word. Therefore she has no revelation. For revelation is not of thought, structure, or force, but of will and purpose. Nature does not contain its own teleology, and for the moral soul that refuses to be fancy-fed Christ is the one luminous smile upon the dark face of the world." No forgiveness in nature: what if that should mean that forgiveness cannot be realized? A Hebrew psalmist writes "who forgiveth all thine iniquities, who healeth all thy diseases." The psalmist, like all Jews, is a realist, and by diseases means bodily ailments. The healing of these he looks on as the sequel in the physical sphere of divine forgiveness. And our Lord, after saying to the palsied man, "Courage, child, thy sins be forgiven thee," added "Arise, take up thy bed and walk," so making the pardon penetrate the physical sphere. If that be possible, then there is such a thing as pardon in nature. Nature's laws do not work all and only against the sinner. Up to a certain point, as even Butler with all his somberness taught, nature leaves an open door for repentance. Broken bones knit again. There are remedies in nature's pharmacy for many, perhaps for all, diseases. The healing power inherent in vital organisms is as marvelous as it is beneficent, as beneficent as it is marvelous. It speaks to me of the pity of God.
As a final instance of the infirmity of the Ritschlian school — the exaggerated assertion of ignorance — may be mentioned its treatment of the person of Christ. A few brief notes must here suffice. If through Christ alone we can know God, according to the Ritschlian, the knowledge we are allowed to have even of Christ is very limited. We can know the historic man, that which rises higher we cannot know, we should not even try to, but be content to leave it a mystery, while assigning to the man the religious value of God. It may be questioned whether in taking up this position the Ritschlian does full justice to his own method. The method limits knowledge to experience. But does experience itself not give us that in Christ which points to something beyond and stimulates inquiry as to its nature? Spiritual intelligence discovers in Jesus not only a thoroughly human personality, but something unique: sinlessness, saving power. Can we help asking whence this difference? It was in this way the Christology of the apostles, of St. Paul, e. g., arose. It was not a purely objective revelation sent down to them out of the clouds. It sprang out of their perception of the uniqueness of Christ's character, and out of their consciousness of redemption. "The Sinless One, and my Saviour, therefore my Lord and my God"—such was the logic of the apostolic church. Facts forced them to find for Jesus a place in the divine sphere. What they say on this subject consists of mere hints coming far short of the full-fledged dogma of the Nicean creed. But that dogma was simply the final stage of an inevitable dialectic process which could not rest till it had found what seemed an adequate expression for the divine value faith assigns to the man Jesus. The church fathers did what they could. Their formula may not be adequate or final. There may be reason to suspect that the ancient creeds and the use made of them ever since have done more justice to the divine than to the human in Jesus, extinguishing the man and leaving only the dead abstraction, "man." In that case they must be dropped, and thought must commence anew. But the point is that thought cannot rest. If the past efforts of believing thought are unsatisfactory then we must begin de novo. The uniqueness of Christ acknowledged by all compels inquiry. How true this is may be seen in such a book as The Christ of Today, written by a man who is no slave to traditional creeds, but, being an able, believing thinker, has brooded long over the person of Christ, and in this valuable work offers thereon some very fresh suggestions. The modern church is quite entitled to think out the question for itself, bound, indeed, if it is not satisfied with past solutions; and if it fail, in turn, some future generation must go over the whole process again, starting always with the Man and taking care that the rights of the humanity shall not be abridged. For if the Man disappear the divinity ceases to have any value.
There is no space left to treat of theological agnosticism of native growth. In England it is more a tendency than a well-defined attitude. The late Mr. Matthew Arnold did much to foster the agnostic temper in relation to theology by his well-known work Literature and Dogma, in which he combated the traditional view of the Bible as a quarry of texts out of which to build an imposing edifice of dogmas, and contended that it should be regarded rather as an incomparably valuable collection of religious literature. Allowing for exaggeration, it may be said that this position is now in the main generally accepted. More and more men are seeking in the Bible guidance in life rather than initiation into theological mysteries. It is seen that it teaches not many things, but a few things very thoroughly. One of the things it teaches with due emphasis and iteration is that which Mr. Arnold exclusively insisted on, viz., that righteousness is the supremely important matter, and that the power at work in the world is on the side of righteousness. Another thing is a truth he missed, yet equally vital; that in the history of the world is being evolved a divine purpose of grace, manifested 'first in the vocation of Israel and finally and supremely in the mission of Jesus Christ. All other truths contained in Scripture are but corollaries to these two, and possess importance proportional to the closeness of their connection therewith.
Thus in the English-speaking world, as in Germany, there prevails a strong anti-dogmatic bias, a disposition to repudiate metaphysics in theology and to restrict the number of affirmations concerning God. It is a wholesome reaction against a conception of the Christian religion which made it consist almost wholly in holding an orthodox system of theological opinions. But it may be carried too far, and that it has been may be inferred from the interest with which fresh, competent contributions within the sphere of dogma are welcomed by the public. Particular systems of theology may have outlived their day, but zest for theological inquiry has not died out. Let a man only think vigorously, and above all sincerely, on dogmatic problems and no fear that he will lack readers, even though he be conservative in tendency. What honest men object to is not conservatism, but zeal for orthodoxy having another source than intelligent, pure love of truth. Such zeal is not unknown. There is an antiquarian orthodoxism springing out of devotion to all that the church, especially the prereformation church, has taught. There is also an opportunist orthodoxism which affects adhesion to old ways because such policy is believed to be safest for a church whose position is in danger. Neither of these isms, least of all the last named, is entitled to more than a very moderate measure of respect.