Religious Perplexities

Produced by Al Haines




D.D., LL.D., D.LITT.


“Perplexed, yet not unto despair”



A Foreword

The substance of this little book was delivered in the form of two lectures given at the invitation of the Hibbert Trustees in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham during March and April, 1922. On revising the spoken word for the press I have made certain rearrangements which seemed to be required in committing the lectures to the printed form. The first section is wholly new and may be considered as a short introduction to the main theme. Such an introduction is, I think, needed, but the time at my disposal did not allow of its inclusion in the oral delivery of the lectures.

L. P. J.




The Source of Perplexity

The first and greatest of religious perplexities, the source of all the rest, arises in the mysterious fact of our existence as individual souls. Our perplexities spring from the very root of life. Why are we here at all?

Did we but know the purpose for which we are present in the world, should we not have in our hands the key to all the questions we raise about God, freedom, duty and immortality? But if we know not why we are here how can we hope to answer these other questions?

Or again, if we were forced to acknowledge that our existence has no purpose at all, would it not be futile to embark on inquiries concerning God, freedom, duty and immortality? What meaning could these terms have for beings who had learnt that their own existence was purposeless?

The Westminster Confession affirms that the true end of man is “To glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.” A splendid saying! But might not God be better glorified, and more fully enjoyed, if the particular soul inhabiting my own body, with all its errors and defects, had not been suffered to appear upon the scene? Might not another soul, sent into the universe instead of mine, have played that part infinitely better than I can ever hope to do? Why, then, among the host of possibilities, did the lot fall upon me? Why me? Why you?

Why should God need to be glorified, or enjoyed, by you, by me, by anyone? Why should he need anything? If, as some affirm, the universe is the dwelling-place of the All Perfect, what reason can be given for the existence, side by side with that All Perfect one, or within him, of a multitude of imperfect images of his Perfection—like you and me? In the presence of One who has all purposes already fulfilled in himself what purpose can be served by our introduction into the scheme of things? If you and I, and all such, were to be blotted out forthwith and the All Perfect left in sole possession of the universe, where would be the loss? You and I are apparently superfluous.

Philosophers, both ancient and modern, have addressed themselves to this problem, not altogether, I think, without success, and yet not quite successfully. Their arguments have not removed but greatly deepened the mystery of our existence, bringing it to a critical point where we must either accept it or run away from life and its perils—to the point, in fact, where we must choose between life and death. If we choose life we accept the risk that its burden may prove too heavy for us. If death, we escape the perils of life but forfeit our share in its victories.

The former is the heroic choice; the latter the cowardly. As Carlyle was never tired of repeating, the ultimate question which every man has to face and answer for himself is this: “Wilt thou be a hero or a coward?” No philosophy can relieve us from the responsibility of having to make that choice. All that philosophy can do, and it is a great thing to accomplish even this, is to bring us to the point where we see that the choice has to be made. This it does by forcing us to raise the question: “Why am I here? For what end have I been sent into the world?”

But let us inquire more closely what philosophers have done by way of bringing us to this point—the point where a final decision between heroism and cowardice becomes inevitable.

To the argument that we are superfluous, that with a Perfect God in possession of the universe no reason can be given why imperfect beings should be here at all, the philosophers make reply that the One must needs “differentiate itself into a Many,” the Eternal Consciousness “reproduce itself” in a multitude of time-bound mortals like you and me, troublers of the Divine Perfection, which is all the more clearly perfect because it suffers and at last overcomes the trouble that our presence creates.

But while reasons have been offered why the One should thus “reproduce” or “differentiate” itself as a Many, no reason, so far as I am aware, has ever been found, nor ever can be, why there should be just so many of these troublers as there are—no more and no less. Nor why you and I should be among them. To explain why human units exist, does not explain the existence of any single individual we choose to name—of Julius Cæsar, of Napoleon, of Mr Lloyd George, whose significance in the universe, it will be admitted, consists not in their being mere human units required to make up a certain number, but in their being just the kind of men they happen to be. So too the proof that a human unit must needs be there to fill the niche in time and space you now occupy is no proof that you, and no other, must needs be the unit in question. Another, substituted in your place, could play the part of one in a multitude as well as you, and the theory of the One and the Many would not even notice the change. But it would make a notable difference to the facts. And as with the units, so with the totality. If the number of souls now drawing the breath of life were halved or doubled, nay, if they were all suddenly blotted out and their places filled by an entirely new multitude, men, angels or devils as the case might be, philosophy might still maintain its theory of the One and the Many as though nothing had happened. Why these rather than those? Why you? Why me? Philosophy precipitates this question and leaves it, at the end of all theorizing, unanswered, poignant and tremendous. “Who can say positively,” writes Sir Leslie Stephen, “that it would not be better for the world at large if his neck were wrung five minutes hence?”[1]

Unable, as every man is, to give a convincing reason why he should be here at all, or why, being here, he should remain here any longer,—unable to prove that it would not be better for the world at large, if all necks, his own included, were wrung five minutes hence—is there not something fundamentally irrational in our determination to continue in existence as long as we possibly can—that universal will-to-live, which forms the basis of all particular volitions, and supplies the motive power to our plans, purposes, preparations and policies for our own or others’ good? Challenged to show cause why we should linger here a moment longer, what answer could any of us give that would have the slightest claim to “the universal validity of reason”? Reason cannot be bullied into acquiescence by the importance of individuals in their own eyes. Was there ever a great man whose sudden extinction would not have been hailed with joy by a considerable section of his contemporaries, or a little one who would not have made things pleasanter for somebody by taking himself off?

If we limit the word “rational” to the processes of thought which issue in demonstrations after the manner of mathematical arguments, and if all behaviour is to be termed irrational which involves the taking of a risk, I see no escape from the conclusion that human life is infected with irrationality at its very core. So far as any of us act upon the assumption that it is better for us to exist than not to exist we are assuming what can never be “proved.”

But, for my own part, I am not prepared to put these limitations on the word “rational.” The traditional logic of the schools, on which this notion of rationality is founded, turns out on examination to cover no more than a departmental activity of the human mind. The type of conclusion to which it leads us is determined in advance by the rules it lays down for its own procedure, in the one department where such procedure is possible. Free activity, which is the essence of self-consciousness, and the life of all creative work, lies entirely outside its province, and the attempt to deal with it by departmental rules yields nothing but the rank absurdity that freedom itself is absurd.[2] The logic in question may be compared to a locomotive engine which can move only on the rails that have been laid down for it; and the philosopher who would apprehend the things of the spirit by the means which it affords him is like a man who rides an engine rather than a horse when he goes to hunt a fox. Logical machinery cannot follow the movement of the live spirit, nor arrest it even for a moment’s inspection. Within its own province the rule of the traditional logic is, indeed, absolute. But to make that province co-extensive with the realm of truth, to extend the laws which govern it into the universal laws of spirit is a fatal pedantry. So extended, our logic leads not to truth but to falsehood and, ultimately, to the paralysis of the very thought it seeks to regulate, nay, to the extinction of thought itself. This procedure has no claim whatever to usurp the name of “reason,” but rather stands condemned as the very type of what is unreasonable. Let those who deny this prove, if they can, in terms acceptable to universal reason, that it would “not be better for the world at large if their necks were wrung five minutes hence.”

There is a coward and a hero in the breast of every man. Each of the pair has a “logic” of his own adapted to his particular purpose and aim—which is safety for the coward and victory for the hero. The two are perpetually at variance, the reason of the one being the unreason of the other, the truth of the one being the falsehood of the other. The inner strife, the division in our nature, the law in our members warring against the law of our mind, on which so many great doctrines of religion have hinged, has its origin at this point. Anyone who watches himself narrowly may observe the strife going on, and going on in just this form,—as an argument between the coward within him, who is out for safety, and the hero within him, who is out for victory. They have little common ground and can barely understand each other’s speech.

Everything the hero proposes is unreasonable to the coward. Everything the coward proposes is detestable to the hero. The hero would pour spikenard on the head of his beloved—that would be victorious. The coward would sell it and give the money to the poor—that would be “safer.” The coward sees a danger in having children and limits his family. The hero would have many sons. On all such points the coward, judged by the standard of what passes muster as logic, is a better reasoner than the hero. But the hero, though he has less to say for himself, when brought before the seat of judgment, is nearer to the fountain head of Reason. Would not the offence of the Cross, submitted at the time to a sanhedrim of “logical” experts, have been condemned as unadulterated folly? Such a sanhedrim is always in session within a man, and the hero has much ado to stand up to its decrees.

Religion is a power which develops the hero in the man at the expense of the coward in the man. As the change proceeds there comes a moment when the cowardly method of reasoning, with its eye on safety, ceases to dominate the soul. At the same moment the heroic element awakes and looks with longing towards the dangerous mountain-tops. Thenceforward the man’s reason becomes the organ of the new spirit that is in him, no longer fettered to the self-centre, but mounting up with wings as an eagle. His powers as a reasoner are enriched, his survey of the facts more comprehensive, his insight into their significance more penetrating.

Religion has sometimes been represented as introducing a new faculty called “faith” into the man’s life, as adding this faith to the reason he had before, or perhaps as driving reason out and putting faith in its place. This is a misconception. Faith is neither a substitute for reason nor an addition to it. Faith is nothing else than reason grown courageous—reason raised to its highest power, expanded to its widest vision. Its advent marks the point where the hero within the man is getting the better of the coward, where safety, as the prime object of life, is losing its charm and another Object, hazardous but beautiful, dimly seen but deeply loved, has begun to tempt the awakened soul.

Another way of saying the same thing is to name religion the “new birth” of the soul. But a new birth which, while changing all the rest of the man, left his reason unchanged, which turned all the rest of him into a hero, but kept him still reasoning with a coward’s logic, would not amount to very much. Unless I am mistaken the new birth must begin in the seat of reason if it is to begin at all. Is not the man’s reason the very essence of the man? How then, can he be converted at all unless he is converted there?

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