First published in The Socratic (Digest), No. 5 (1952) and reproduced in Undeceptions (1971) and Timeless at Heart (1991), this essay was also in Compelling Reason (1998).
I have lost the notes of what I originally said in replying to Professor Price’s paper and cannot now remember what it was, except that I welcomed most cordially his sympathy with the Polytheists. I still do. When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Would that she were!’ For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially, the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our own day differs from him as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me. For the rest, what now occurs to me after re-reading Professor Price’s paper is something like this.
(I) I think we must introduce into the discussion a distinction between two senses of the word Faith. This may mean (a) a settled intellectual assent. In that sense faith (or ‘belief’) in God hardly differs from faith in the uniformity of nature or in the consciousness of other people. This is what, I think, has sometimes been called a ‘notational’ or ‘intellectual’ or ‘carnal’ faith. It may also mean (b) a trust, or confidence, in the God whose existence is thus assented to. This involves an attitude of the will. It is more like our confidence in a friend. It would be generally agreed that Faith in sense A is not a religious state. The devils who ‘believe and tremble’ (James 2:19) have Faith-A. A man who curses or ignores God may have Faith-A. Philosophical arguments for the existence of God are presumably intended to produce Faith-A. No doubt those who construct them are anxious to produce Faith-A because it is a necessary precondition of Faith-B, and in that sense their ultimate intention is religious. But their immediate object, the conclusion they attempt to prove, is not. I therefore think they cannot be justly accused of trying to get a religious conclusion out of non-religious premises. I agree with Professor Price that this cannot be done: but I deny that the religious philosophers are trying to do it.
I also think that in some ages, what claim to be Proofs of Theism have had much more efficacy in producing Faith-A than Professor Price suggests. Nearly everyone I know who has embraced Christianity in adult life has been influenced by what seemd to him to be a least probable arguments for Theism. I have known some who were completely convinced by Descartes’ Ontological Proof:1 that is, they received Faith-A from Descartes first and then went on to seek, and to find, Faith-B. Even quite uneducated people who have been Christians all their lives not infrequently appeal to some simplified form of the Argument from Design. Even acceptance of tradition implies an argument which sometimes becomes explicit in the form ‘I reckon all these wise men wouldn’t have believed in it if it weren’t true.’
Of course Faith-A usually involves a degree of subjective certitude which goes beyond the logical certainty, or even the supposed logical certainty, of the arguments employed. It may retain this certitude for a long time, I expect, even without the support of Faith-B. This excess of certitude in a settled assent is not at all uncommon. Most of those who believe in Uniformity of Nature, Evolution, or the Solar System, share it.
(2) I doubt whether religious people have ever supposed that Faith-B follows automatically on the acquisition of Faith-A. It is described as a ‘gift’ (e.g. I Corinthians 12:I-II; Ephesians 2:8). As sonn as we have Faith-A in the existence of God, we are instructed to ask from God Himself the gift of Faith-B. An odd request, you may say, to address to a First Cause, an Ens Realissimum, or an Unmoved Mover. It might be argued, and I think I would argue myself, that even such an aridly philosophical God rather fails to invite than actually repels a personal approach. It would, at any rate, do no harm to try it. But I fully admit that most of those who, having reached Faith-A, pray for Faith-B, do so because they have already had something like a religious experience. Perhaps the best way of putting it would be to say that Faith-A converts into religious experience what was hitherto only potentially or implicitly religious. In this modified form I would accept Professor Price’s view that philosophical proofs never, by themselves, lead to religion. Something at least quasi-religious uses them before, and the ‘proofs’ remove an inhibition which was preventing their development into religion proper.
This is not exactly fides quaerens intellectum,2 for these quasi-religious experiences were not fides. In spite of Professor Price’s rejection I still think Otto’s acount of the Numinous3 is the best analysis of them we have. I believe it is a mistake to regard the Numinous as merely an affair of ‘feeling’. Admittedly, Otto can describe it only by referring to the emotions it arouses in us; but then nothing can be described except in terms of its effects in consciousness. We have in English an exact name for the emotion aroused by the Numinous, which Otto, writing in German, lacked; we have the word Awe — an emotion very like fear, with the important difference that it need imply no estimate of danger. When we fear a tiger, we fear that it may kill us; when we fera a ghost — well, we just fear the ghost, not this or that mischief which it may do to us. The Numinous or Awful is that of which we have this, as it were, objectless or disinterested fear — this awe. And ‘the Numinous’ is not a name for our own feeling of Awe any more than ‘the Contemptible’ is a name for contempt. It is the answer to the question ‘Of what do you feel awe?’ And what we feel awe of is certainly not itself awe.
With Otto and, in a sense, with Professor Price, I would find the seed of religious experience in our experience of the Numinous. In an age like our own such experience does occur but, until religion comes and retrospectively transforms it, it usually appears to the subject to be a special form of aesthetic experience. In ancient times I think experience of the Numinous developed into the Holy only in so far as the Numinous (not in itself at all necessarily moral) came to be connected with the morally good. This happened regularly in Israel, sporadically elsewhere. But even in the higher Paganism, I do not think this process led to anything exactly like fides. There is nothing credal in Paganism. In Israel we do get fides but this is always connected with certain historical affirmations. Faith is not simply in the numinous Elohim, nor even simply in the holy Jahweh, but in the God ‘of our fathers’, the God who called Abraham and brought Israel out of Egypt. In Christianity this historical element is strongly reaffirmed. The object of faith is at once the ens entium4 of the philosophers, the Awful Mystery of Paganism, the Holy Law given of the moralists, and Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and rose again on the third day.
Thus we must admit that Faith, as we know it, does not flow from philosophical argument alone; nor from experience of the Numinous alone; nor from moral experience alone; nor from history alone; but from historical events which at once fulfil and transcend the moral category, which link themselves with the most numinous elements in Paganism, and which (as it seems to us) demand as their presupposition the existence of a Being who is more, but not less, than the God whom many reputable philosophers think they can establish.
Religious experience, as we know it, really involves all these elements. We may, however, use the word in the narrower sense to denote moments of mystical, or devotional, or merely numinous experience; and we may ask, with Professor Price, how such moments, being a kind of visio, are related to faith, which by definition is ‘not sight’. This does not seem to me one of the hardest questions. ‘Religious experience’ in the narrower sense comes and goes: especially goes. The operation of Faith is to retain, so far as the will and intellect are concerned, what is irresistible and obvious during the moments of special grace. By faith we believe always what we hope hereafter to see always and perfectly and have already seen imperfectly and by flashes. In relation to the philosophical premises a Christian’s faith is of course excessive: in relation to what is sometimes shown him, it is perhaps just as defective. My faith even in an earthly friend goes beyond all that could be demonstratively proved; yet in another sense I may often trust him less than he deserves.
1 This is briefly summed up in René Descartes, Discourse de la Méthode, Part iv, in which he says ‘I think, therefore I am’.
2 Faith seeking understanding
3 Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (London, 1923).