Recent Religious Literature

AN American professor of psychology, an American preacher, and an English theologian each present to us a book on the subject of religion, and all three are noteworthy. Professor James speaks modestly of his ability to discuss this theme, but his published essay, entitled The Will to Believe, and his Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality show that it has long been in his mind. While he may not have the technical equipment expected of a writer on the history of religion, he nevertheless has observed widely in the field of religious phenomena, and he has also looked into history for illustrative material. The results of his study are embodied in the lectures which he delivered at the University of Edinburgh during the past year. Although less profound than several previous volumes in the same series, this one will compare favorably with any of them in genuine human interest. The author and his Harvard colleague, Professor Royce, enjoy the distinction of being the first Americans invited to lecture on the Gifford foundation. There is good reason to believe that they will not be the last.

Psychological considerations determine in advance the limits of Dr. James’s treatment of his subject. He will deal not with any religious organization, whether pagan or Christian, but with personal religion, “ the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude ” (page 31). True to New England traditions, the author sets about his task as an individualist. Like Schleiermacher, he is bent on “ rehabilitating the element of feeling in religion ” (page 501) ; but unlike Sehleiermacher, his word is not spoken at the critical moment. For there is little danger in our day that religion will become too exclusively an affair of the intellect. Professor James draws his illustrations deliberately from extreme, rather than from normal types of religious experience, and anticipates adverse criticism by urging their unique value for his purpose, just as in medical science the abnormal case is often the most instructive for one who is attempting to formulate a theory of disease.

The sole novelty to which our author lays claim is in the wide range of phenomena passed under review. He finds that all religions agree in positing “ an uneasiness and its solution ” (page 508). There is something wrong about us, from which we are saved. The essentials of religion are few, but after these have been enumerated, there remains room for “ over-beliefs,” which enlarge the content of each one’s faith. A distinction must be drawn between the respective spheres of psychology and religion. “ Both admit that there are forces seemingly outside of the conscious individual that bring redemption into his life,” but psychology “ implies that they do not transcend the individual’s personality,” while Christianity “ insists that they are direct supernatural operations of the Deity ” (page 211). Within the mysterious domain of the “ subliminal consciousness ” Dr. James finds a possible point of contact between man and God. For when he refers any given phenomenon to the subliminal self as its source, he refuses thereby to exclude the notion of the “ direct presence of the Deity ” (page 242). In attempting to set forth what this theory involves for religious faith, he concludes with the half-despairing comment, “ I feel as if it must mean something, something like what the hegalian (sic) philosophy means, if one could only lay hold of it more clearly” (page 388). Another valuable distinction which the author draws is that between religion and ethics. Religion exhibits the “ enthusiastic temper of espousal ” where morality simply “ acquiesces ” (page 48).

It is characteristic of Professor James to discard the rationalistic method, which he regards as distinctly inferior to his adopted “ pragmatism ” (pages 73, 444). He will judge everything, religion included, by its utility, by the empiricist principle of its value “ on the whole ” (page 327). “ The true is what works well ” (page 458). One might query how far to go in applying this principle. Our author, for example, finds that “ Stoic, Christian, and Buddhist saints are practically indistinguishable in their lives ” (page 504). Shall we apply his test here, and argue the equal practical truth of Stoicism, Buddhism, and Christianity ? However we may answer such questions as this, it is interesting to note that, in thus emphasizing the importance of Werturteile, Dr. James falls back on the Kantian principle so high in favor with the Ritschlian school of theologians. To be sure, he will have none of theology in any form. He pronounces it dead. Yet even while he is bidding it “ a definitive good-by ” (page 448), some of its most active supporters are putting forth their new system, based upon fundamental principles very like those of Dr. James himself !

Lectures IV. and V., entitled The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness, must have seemed especially fresh to the Scottish audience that heard them. Here are discussed the mind - cure and kindred themes, including Christian Science, all of which make up 舠 America’s only decidedly original contribution to the systematic philosophy of life ” (page 96). The unfavorable judgment finally pronounced upon Christian Science (that its denial of evil is “ a bad speculative omission,” page 107) is all the more severe because of Professor James’s manifest desire to regard the movement sympathetically and seriously.

The English style of the book is vigorous, terse, and racy throughout. The reader chuckles over many a neat turn of expression and pointed anecdote. In referring to the theory of religion which makes it out to be the attitude one assumes toward the universe, Professor James relates a story of Margaret Fuller, who, in the genuine spirit of New England transcendentalism, once exclaimed, “I accept the universe.” This being reported to Carlyle, he coolly remarked, “ Gad ! She’d better! ” (page41). The warrior chiefs of barbarism are likened to “ beaked and taloned graspers of the world,” while religious devotees are by comparison “ herbivorous animals, tame and harmless barnyard poultry ” (page 372). If mere “ feeling good ” were accepted as the criterion of truth “ drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience” (page 16). The difference which may exist between the various methods of approaching a problem is illustrated by the remark, “ from the biological point of view, St. Paul was a failure, because he was beheaded ” (page 376). But some other statements, while undeniably clever, strike the reader as a little too realistic. The man who has been to the confessional is said to have “ exteriorized his rottenness ” (page 462). St. Teresa’s idea of religion is described as “ an endless amatory flirtation ” (page 347). The sallies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche remind the author more than half the time of “ the sick shriekings of two dying rats ” (page 38).

But the most striking thing about this book is that, after describing and classifying his observations, after attributing certain experiences to their sufficient physical causes, and after assigning to “ the subliminal consciousness ” its due part, Professor James confesses that the how and the why of it all are still unknown. There remains for religion a “ vital meaning ” (cf. pages 270, 364). The fact of definite and real religious experiences is amply demonstrated ; the attempt to explain the cause remains the legitimate business of religion itself. And if religion cannot offer a sufficient hypothesis, nothing can. It is a pleasure to note that Professor James hopes to publish a second work, in which he will treat at length the more profound philosophical problems which the subject involves.

Our Harvard professor believes that science and religion are both genuine keys with which we may “ unlock the world’s treasure-house,” and that, although at first sight the facts of science and the facts of religion may appear completely disjoined, yet the divorce between them may not prove so eternal as it seems. Dr. Newman Smyth of New Haven is of the same opinion, only he would go much further. The title of his Lowell Lectures, Through Science to Faith, indicates at once his point of view and his method. His tone is distinctly modern. In fact, each of the three writers with whom we are concerned has opened his eyes and gazed with satisfaction at the world of to-day. They all find it hopeful. Of course their modes of dealing with their subjects differ, and the proportions in which religion and science mix in them are various. James has little if any theology, in the ordinary sense, but aims to be thoroughly scientific. Smyth frankly commits himself to accepting whatever science proves, yet he would remain a theologian still. Fairbairn (whose book will be reviewed below) is primarily a theologian, but his ears are not deaf to the voice of science. He only insists that its conclusions shall submit themselves to philosophical examination and rational interpretation. Smyth and Fairbairn agree in seeking to discern the ultimate significance of the facts of nature. For them it is not enough simply to observe and to record ; one must also interpret. Things have a meaning, — this is a fundamental axiom with them both.

Dr. Smyth is concerned to frame a new natural theology. We gain only hints of what his systematic theology would be, but we learn that it would involve some modification of older systems (page 9). Accepting the approved results of experimental science, he affirms the unity of nature, and, by applying the evolutionary hypothesis, he attempts to show that all nature reveals intelligent direction. Its revelation “ increases as the capacity for perception of it grows ” (page 42). The real problem of the universe does not lie in the question, “ Is nature one ? ” but in the larger question, “ How is it one ? ” (page 11). And this question is not mathematical or physical, but philosophical (page 79). Dr. Smyth finds indication of “ an unknown, or mathematically immeasurable factor in evolution ” (page 18), which affords reasonable ground for believing in a completion of things somewhere beyond the confines of our present experience. Whatever progress we may make toward this completion must lie along the line of a spiritual rather than of a material conception of the universe, since it is the former alone which discovers any idea, or intelligence, in nature (page 52). In the beautiful, for instance, we may see one aspect of intelligence and deity, “ an expression of reason to reason ” (page 154). In spite of all apparent hindrances and disasters, nature advances toward good results ; nature therefore manifests moral character. The losses and retrogressions of the natureprocess are more than equalized by compensating restorations, and thus evolution is seen to bear a teleological character (page 232). The net outcome of what our author so happily calls “ the prophetic value of unfinished nature ” is pure optimism. In the application of his “principle of completion” he becomes personal, and touches closely our highest aspirations. What is it, he asks, which shows the highest “survival value” in this world of ours ? Men, is the answer, — individual human beings, possessed of reason and of soul. The importance of the individual has at last outrun that of the species (page 189). Hence personal immortality becomes a reasonable expectation, as well as a fond religious hope. “ The sure principle of natural prophecy is . . . that nature will not stop nor tarry till all her decrees of perfection shall be completed” (page 253).

Perhaps the most valuable contributions made by Dr. Smyth to the discussion of his subject are the emphasis placed upon “ the sign of increasing vital value ” (page 103), and, to a less degree, upon the “ moral significance of the introduction of play as well as work into the animal kingdom,” which receives interesting treatment (page 123). On the other hand, the place where one might most easily interpose an objection is in the sections treating of the moral character of nature. It is hard to see why the greater happiness of man, as compared with a monad, indicates that man’s development is moral, or how natural beauty manifests a “ moral aspect of nature ” (pages 120, 157). But in spite of imperfections in detail, the book is interesting and valuable. It forms a convenient connecting link between the psychological lectures of Professor James and the theological essay of Dr. Fairbairn, to which we must now turn.

The Philosophy of the Christian Religion is an able apology for the orthodox faith, from the pen of an expert dialectician. Dr. James has insisted that theology is dead, yet here we have it, in an elaborate treatise, wearing all the appearance of health and even of capacity for useful service. The persistence of religion in clothing itself in philosophic dress is indeed noteworthy. Not long ago a professor in Leipzig called attention to the fact that the church originally knew nothing of ecclesiastical law, and that, in ideal, Christianity and legal institutions were incompatible. But he also pointed out how legalism entered the church, and there grew up into an extensive corpus juris canonici. Now a somewhat similar process went on in another department of the church’s life. Although Christianity and metaphysics were far enough apart at first, circumstances led the new religion to come to terms with philosophy, to pour a new content into its ancient forms, and to give it fresh meaning and a vital function in the world, — whence proceeded dogma, which is nothing but doctrinal belief reduced to formal and official definition.

Professor James has said that in religion men feel, which is true, for religion deals primarily with experience. Dr. Fairbairn asserts that about religion men think, which is also true, for religion deals secondarily with thought. There never was a more foolish attempt to state a problem than to ask whether religion is “ a dogma or a life,” for with intelligent beings it must be both. Therefore each of the two modes of treatment, adopted the one by Professor James and the other by Dr. Fairbairn, is entirely valid, but it would be futile to claim exclusiveness for either of them.

One cannot resist the conviction that in Dr. Fairbairn’s book we have a conscious effort to produce the “ new Analogy,” for which the author fondly yearns in his Preface, in calling to mind Bishop Butler. At any rate, the result is not unworthy of the aim. The thesis is thus stated : “ The conception of Christ stands related to history as the idea of God is related to nature, that is, each is, in its own sphere, the factor of order, or the constitutive condition of a rational system” (page 18). In view of the order of the world and the constitution of the human mind, we cannot conceive that nature is unintelligent or godless. And finding ourselves led to accept a rational universe, we are forced by the same logic to seek a rational cause for history (page 435). Thus the author extends the boundaries of the discussion followed in his earlier book, The Place of Christ in Modern Theology, for he now finds in the Incarnation a point of departure for interpreting the meaning of all history. He exalts “ the extraordinary significance of Christ’s person, which, till it was interpreted, was but the immanent possibility of a religion” (page 533). Of course he recognizes that the Incarnation presents peculiar problems, but he so develops his analogical principle as to enable him to maintain that 舠 there is no problem raised by the idea of God manifest in the flesh, . . . which is not equally raised by the inter-relations of God and nature ” (page 479). This thought is elaborated with great skill and cogency.

Some of Dr. Fairbairn’s reasoning is so highly speculative as to provoke dissent, almost without regard to the validity of his conclusions, yet he frankly recognizes the final supremacy of ethical values in controlling our conclusions as to what is true. “ There is indeed in all history,” he says, “ nothing more tragic than the fact that our heresies have been more speculative than ethical, more concerned with opinion than with conduct ” (page 565). The book reproduces a few traditional opinions not very vigorously maintained in recent years, such as the statement that the Gospel miracles though “ supernatural” are not “ contra-natural ” (page 336). This is like the assertion that man is “ more than a natural being” (page 68). But everything depends on what we mean by our terms. The first question is, What is nature ? The more nearly we approach an adequate understanding of that, the less perhaps shall we feel disposed to emphasize the conventional distinction between “ nature ” and the “ supernatural.” Horace Bushnell wrote to Dr. Bartol, more than fifty years ago : “I hope it will some time or other be made to appear that there is a great deal more of supernaturalism in the management of this world than even orthodoxy has begun to suspect.”

Formally considered, the book suffers from wearisome over-analysis. Dr. Fairbairn’s readers are not so dull as to need the aid of all sorts of mechanical divisions and subdivisions. There is often more difficulty in understanding the classification than in following the thought. We prefer the under-analysis of Professor James, who has only lecture-division (and sometimes not even that). Less space devoted to refuting the views of other men would also have conduced to clarity, although we could ill spare such a fine bit of criticism as that relating to the philosophy of Hume. Typographical errors are more numerous than they should be. The author’s English is highly rhetorical, and not a few passages show a rare poetic beauty. In this respect his book presents a decided contrast to that of Dr. James, whose style is simple, though never commonplace, and also to the straightforward writing of Dr. Smyth. On the whole, Dr. Fairbairn’s book must be pronounced the most powerful defensive statement of the Christian faith that has recently appeared.

John Winthrop Platner.

  1. The Varieties of Religious Experience. A Study in Human Nature. The Gifford Lectures for 1901. By WILLIAM JAMES, New York : Longmans, Green & Co. 1902, pp. xii, 534.
  2. Through Science to Faith. Lowell Institute Lectures, 1900-1901. By NEWMAN SMYTH. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1902, pp. x, 282.
  3. The Philosophy of the Christian Religion. By A. M. FAIRBAIRN. New York: The Macmillan Co. 1902, pp. xxviii, 583.