18th October 1910

The Calling of the Preacher

An Address delivered to the Theological Society of the New College at Edinburgh

Published in ‘UNIVERSITIES and NATIONAL LIFE: Four Addresses to Students’,
Viscount Haldane, London, John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1911

You have invited one who is a layman to deliver a presidential address to you who are theological students. It is not without misgiving that I have accepted your invitation and come here to speak. And I will say at once that it is only as a layman—a layman in spirit as well as in name—that I am here. I will take my chance simply as a man of the world who has been given an opportunity of telling what he has found helpful, and what the reverse, in sermons to which he has listened. I may, I think, fairly regard myself as able to represent to you a good many of those who will be your future hearers. I belong to no particular caste. I have had opportunities of observing various phases of social life. I have been a good deal in contact with the working classes, and I have known something of the atmosphere breathed by kings and their courtiers. I have spent part of my life at seats of learning, in this country and abroad, and I have associated with lawyers and men of business, with soldiers and with statesmen. I have had, as intimate friends, men of science, professors of philosophy, and ministers of religion. If, then, I am a layman in the unusual position of speaking with theologians, I hope to try to use the opportunity you have thought fit to give me without falling into the narrow groove that arises from habitual confinement to single topics.

This is all I have to say by way of apologia. The subject which I have chosen is “The Calling of the Preacher”, and I have chosen it because, after listening to many discourses from pulpits, it appears to me that there are things which one who is usually a listener may respectfully urge on those to whom he listens. After all, they have to stimulate and instruct others, and there are things which ought, from the standpoint of the listener, to be said about how this must be done if it is to be successful. What is it that we come for to the churches? Come we do, and in numbers that probably do not really diminish, however the outward semblance of habit may have changed. There is deep down in human nature an earnest craving for spiritual stimulation and enlighten­ment; the money and the buildings, and the time and the organisation, which are to-day being devoted in all countries to the satisfaction of this craving, are the proof of its reality.

Yet there is dissatisfaction. People feel that very often they do not get what they have come to seek. Many sermons fall flat, and, were it not for a vague but very evident desire for association in some sort of spiritual community, congregations would be smaller. All is not right, and the question to be answered is what it is that is wrong, and where it is that the remedy is to be sought.

Some forty years ago, Matthew Arnold, an Englishman more than usually well equipped for criticism, wrote a book· which seems to me to have been misunderstood. Whatever objection may properly be taken to the tone of some of the passages in Literature and Dogma, the task which the author set before him was one which he took up in all serious­ness. It was, in his own words, “to find, for the Bible, a basis in something which can be verified, instead of in something which has to be assumed.” He quotes Vinet with approval as declaring that “we must make it our business to bring forward the rational side of Christian­ity, and to show that for thinkers, too, it has a right to authority.” Arnold's solution was to read and learn as much as possible, “getting the power, through reading, to estimate the proportion and relation in what we read.” His conclusion may be illustrated by his declaration that we should be safest with a conception of God as “the Eternal Power, not ourselves, by which all things fulfil the law of their being.”

With this as his standard he passed many criticisms on the ways of saying and doing that were current in Church circles in England in his time, criticisms many of which have turned out to be over-anxious. But the book was in reality a very serious book, and, despite certain faults of taste, it emphasised great truths. Much has happened since Arnold wrote. The influence, which he dreaded, of Strauss and Mr. Bradlaugh has passed away. The old form of unbelief, the opposing of dogma to dogma, no longer confronts us. And yet there is apparent, even more than in the period when Arnold wrote, the indifference which arises from want of grasp and of faith. Men and women are convinced of the reality of social problems in a way they were not then, and they work at them with devotion which is the child of conviction. But they are not stirred as they were once by religious doctrine.

A century has hardly passed since it was the custom in every sermon preached in Scotland by the evangelical school to set forth, fully and with­out fail, the cardinal doctrine of the Atonement. The reason for the practice was that words which to-day seem to many abstract, imperfect, and remote, were to our ancestors the most vivid means possible of imparting the sense of reality. I am not sure that the truth which underlay the old pictorial images was very different from the conclusions of knowledge as they are to-day. The forms in which the deeper learning as to the nature of ultimate reality are expressed, vary in different genera­tions with the changes of the time spirit. But the substance, the ideal, which the efforts of each age aim at expressing, human as these efforts are, this substance, this ideal, remains permanent. What is needful is that the language in which we endeavour to give expression to the creeds should be of a charac­ter to awaken belief. Words which inculcate the great moral and religious duty of man towards his neighbour, the sacredness with which Christianity has invested every human personality, however lowly-words like these are, it is true, capable of giving the same sense of reality as did the old statements of the doctrine of the Atonement.

Yet in neither case is the form of expression satisfactory. We are probably at least as one-sided to-day as our ancestors were, only the one-sidedness is of a different kind. And if we ask why the disposition to look away from the old doctrine, and indeed from all abstract doctrines, is so marked, the answer seems to be that among the great mass of the people, not less than among the learned, there is a general distrust of abstract propositions. This is not a phenomenon which is confined to theology. It is apparent in contemporary philosophy, and it is manifest through the range of the sciences, from mathematics to biology. Everyone seems afraid of saying anything without at once qualifying it by adding that his assertion is provisional only, merely a partial and fragmentary effort to express the truth, and is to be taken as nothing else.

Now valuable as this cautious spirit is in getting rid of superstition-philosophical and scientific, as well as theological, it brings with it immensely increased difficulties for the teacher and the preacher alike. They have not the power of moving their hearers that their forefathers had, because they are not themselves convinced as their forefathers were. The modern preacher has not to face the counter dogmas of a Bradlaugh or a Strauss, the kind of prophet whose power Matthew Arnold feared. He is, on the con­trary, confronted with doubts as to the very possibility of knowledge and the capacity of intelligence itself. Such doubts carry with them misgiving as to religious doctrine, at all events in so far as it pretends to scientific accuracy.

If Matthew Arnold were writing to-day he would be troubled, not by the progress of unbelief of the old dogmatic kind, but by the influence of the pragmatic doubts of Professor William James, that remarkable thinker who has recently passed from among us, and of the questionings about the validity of intellectual processes which are associated today with the famous name of M. Bergson. It is true that Pragmatism, freshly as it was stated by the American philosopher whom some of us who were his friends are now mourning, is nothing new; it is indeed little more than a resuscitation of a definite phase of Greek thought. And as for the doctrine of M. Bergson's brilliant book, L'Evolution Creatrice, if anyone will be at the pains to read through the first volume of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, he may think that, despite the freshness and originality of the modern statement, what is distinctive in Bergson was in part at least anticipated by Schopenhauer three generations ago.

Yet the fact remains that, whether the reasons for doing so are sufficient, a halt in belief has been called, not only in Harvard and in Paris, but all around us, and that this feature of the present time creates fresh diffi­culties for the preacher. It is little consolation to him to know that he is not alone. It is true that there is as much disposition to hold aloof from doctrines which were accepted as finally established by mathematicians, physicists, and physiologists a generation ago, as there is to hold aloof from the old doctrine of the Atonement. The theories in pure mathematics of the arithmetic continuum as the foundation of the calculus, in physics of the electrical constitution of matter, in biology of the quasi-purposive action of the parts of a whole as the definition of life, and the consequent rejection of the old mechanical negation of vitalism—these when you analyse them turn out to be intellectual efforts of a negative or critical rather than of a constructive character. In the same way much that has recently been written about philosophy means rather a want of faith in the sweeping results of Idealism than the setting-up of a new and different doctrine.

Nevertheless there is consolation for the present-day predominance of the negative. Now, as at other periods, that negative is showing itself to be part and parcel of a movement towards a more complete view. It is disclosing itself, wherever it appears, as the commencement of a necessary correction of what were abstract and narrow points of view. This is notably so in science, where, so far from there being any indication of stagnation, the rate of progress is enormous. Whether we look at mathematics, pure or applied, or physics, or chemistry, or biology, it is no exaggeration to say that nothing approaching the advances in knowledge which are taking place at this moment have ever before been witnessed. And the potent instrument in these advances has been the just use of the negative, the method of criticism and correction, and the consequent widening of conceptions and outlook. Faith in the fact of progress is being substituted everywhere in the region of science for faith in finality of result.

But if this has been so in science, why should it not be so in philosophy and theology? And if the method of enlarging the outlook can help there, can it not equally do so in the case of the practical preacher? He, like the modern teacher of science, may succeed in inspiring his hearers, not with faith in finality of result, but with faith in continuity of progress. If he is to do so he must resort to the same means. He must gain for himself a wide outlook if he is to teach those who learn from him to have one. Now this was just what Matthew Arnold meant when he wrote Literature and Dogma; only, because the circumstances of the time were different, he applied his meaning in a way that is different from what we require to-day.

What he really meant to convey was that we must not shut our eyes to the importance and truth of the negative; for example, in the form of the criticism of the Tubingen School, or of the broader attacks on the authenticity of the Gospel narrative and the Biblical cosmogony contained in such books as The Old Faith and the New. But to this I take him to have meant to add something more, which in these days, when much light has been thrown by investigation on the true part played by the negative in knowledge, would be said more explicitly. To overthrow the evidence on which we are asked to believe in certain miracles is not to overthrow the foundation of Christian faith. Christian faith is rather the foundation of these miracles than itself founded on them. The state of mind which, denying the truth of the narrative of the miracle, excludes also the broad principle of the relation of man to God, of the natural to the supernatural, as taught by Jesus, finds itself in a position as barren as it is dogmatic. The outcome is always a reaction from the attitude of unbelief, but not always a return to the old uncritical ignorance which identified the miracle and the profound truth of which it was symbolical.

To restore a simple faith is the object of the great teacher, but the simplicity of that faith he seeks to restore on the basis not of ignorance but of knowledge. A profound conviction of the reality of what is above nature in the presence of God in man, and of the conceptions of God and man being logically necessary each to the other, is at least consistent with the form of this conviction being wholly independent and even contra­dictory of the notion of any mechanical mani­festation of what is divine. It is within us, as immanent, and not without us, that modern learning teaches us to look for a divine presence. Now Arnold wanted to point his readers to the higher view of the nature of truth, the view in which the abstract affirmative with which we start becomes qualified by a negative which itself is no resting-place, but merely the stepping-stone to a larger and wider outlook from a position which is out of the reach of the waves of controversy. And this outlook he thought could only be reached through enlargement of knowledge. Get knowledge, get ‘Geist’, he said. And to-day we need ‘Geist’, and we must get knowledge, though knowledge apart from practice cannot be the completion of wisdom. But in what form is the man who is training himself to influence the minds of those who will come to him once a week for guidance, to aim at getting this knowledge!

There is a saying of Heraclitus of Ephesus which is of far-reaching significance: “Much learning does not instruct the mind, else it had instructed Hesiod, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecatceus. The only wisdom is to know the reason that reigns over all.” It is not, in other words, any mere accumulation of book learning that will enable us to rid ourselves of the narrow and abstract conceptions that are the source of our doubts and perplexities, of the antinomies which rise up like spectres to bar advance towards light. It is the larger outlook which comes from mastery and com­prehension, and which shows that it is we who have ourselves set limits to our grasp of the fulness of reality, limits which we transcend even in grasping the fact of their presence.

In a sense all knowledge implies self-limitation. In science, as in everything else, it is true that he who would accomplish anything must limit himself. To get his mathematical structures clearly before his mind, the mathematician limits himself. He abstracts his attention from every phase of existence save quantities and rates of change, and with these, quasi pictorially indeed, but none the less ideally, he constructs a universe which exists for him not the less because it is only an ideal. He shuts out from attention causes, life, beauty, morality, religion, and much besides. Their existence as actual and necessary phases of the real he does not deny, he simply takes no cognisance of them. In this way he of set purpose affirms the negative. For he has—if he would, with his finite faculties, get beyond the limits of what is immediate, and construct a universe which he can take in and grasp in its entirety—to restrict the number of the con­ceptions and categories which he employs. By so doing he exposes himself, in his efforts to comprehend, to temptations to narrow­ mindedness.

But it is easy for him to avoid them, because it is plain that his special outlook on his world is bound of necessity to be too abstract to be adequate to the richness of the varying and complex content of actual experi­ence. The temptations of the physicist are more subtle and dangerous, for his categories bring him apparently more close to actual experience, and he is more prone in conse­quence, not merely to search out the negative, which is the stepping-stone to greater clearness and depth of conception, but to regard this experience as confined to the substances and causes for which alone his conceptions or categories enable him to search. It is difficult for him to realise that he has artificially pre­cluded himself from even taking in the fact of life, and much more from interpreting it. He is prone to deny the reality of any whole which is presupposed by and controls its parts or members, as if it were a conscious purpose to the fulfilment of which each of these parts or members devotes itself like a good citizen in a state. And yet such a metaphor, although for other reasons inapplicable, is nearer to the concrete and actual fact than his own metaphor of a cause operating ab extra.

For how other­ wise is an organism to be explained which develops a course of existence from birth to death, a course which is not arbitrary but conforms to a principle, and in which the living whole preserves the continuity of its existence, though every particle of matter which it takes in from the environment is changed from time to time till not one that was originally there remains? The analogy is certainly more nearly that of the action of an intelligent being than one of the physical relation of cause and effect. Undoubtedly life is real. But the physicist only stumbles into an abyss of bad metaphysics when he tries to interpret and explain it through the only categories which for him are permissible. No more can the biologist who knows the conception of life and nothing more—penetrate in his capacity as biologist into the world of the moralist or the artist. The history of thought is filled with illustrations of the confusion and failure which has arisen from the attempt to hypostatise the negative in this further form by extending biological conceptions to regions where they do not apply. The truth is that human experience is richer and grander than can be realised by the exclusive votaries of any one science. Yet their procedure, though its characteristic is insistence on the negative, is a genuine means of advancing knowledge. What explains this apparent contradiction is that their negative is a negative pregnant in which they do not remain, but through which they raise the original affirmative conception to a richer and higher level.

Now I am not, in insisting on the value of this procedure, suggesting to you that the preacher must, in order to do his work, possess universal knowledge. If he tried to acquire it he would probably end in becoming what Heraclitus hints to us that his own predecessors were. It is not so that the preacher can hope to come to know the reason that reigns over all. But I do suggest to you that a man, even of modest abilities, may learn how to free his mind from idola which lead him to try to shut the universe into narrow and limited conceptions. He will, if he is to enlarge his horizon, find it essential, unless he has unusual gifts, to discipline his mind proper study in what I will call the dialectic which is not destructive but constructive. Some there are who possess intuitively the attitude which is for the great majority only possible as the result of hard spiritual toil. History records this quality even in uneducated men. Great poets, who have not always been educated, at times have flashed forth that which, like lightning, for the moment dispels the darkness. Genius does not need actual experience to draw upon.

But for the vast majority of us the case is different. Only adequate knowledge can deliver us from the spectres which want of knowledge has conjured up. Without this adequate knowledge we do not know how to correct and deepen first impressions, impressions which are often very vivid. In the second part of his Ethics, Spinoza, a man of the finest intellectual temper, ·and a model for those who would acquire the spirit of saintly tolerance, describes the errors into which men are prone to fall in contemplations of this kind: “Thus, while men are contemplating finite things they think of nothing less than the divine, and again when they turn to consider the divine nature they think of nothing less than of the fictions on which they have built up the knowledge of finite things, with the result that what they come to about the divine nature is of no assistance. Hence it is not wonderful that they contradict themselves.”

Another and more recent writer, Edward Caird, the late Master of Balliol, a man who united to an admirably trained intelligence high moral strenuousness, describes, in connection with this very passage, still more fully the process of the mind in working its way towards freedom from the perplexities that are un­avoidable at the outset of its voyage of discovery. I quote from his book on The Critical Philosophy of Kant. “Contradiction or Antinomy,” he says, is the necessary law of thought in itself from which it cannot in any region escape. The first stage of intelli­gence, the stage of common sense, is one in which there is an undeveloped consciousness of the unity of thought with itself through all the diversity of its application, and an equally undeveloped consciousness of the discordance and opposition of the different aspects of things which are gathered together in knowledge. The contradiction of objects with each other, and with the thought that apprehends them, is not yet perceived, and hence no reconciliation is wanted. The identity is felt through the diversity, the diversity through the identity, and no more is required.

At times, indeed, one aspect of things is more prominent than another. Religious emotion lifts man above the divided and fragmentary existence in which in his secular life he usually dwells, and makes vividly present to him a unity which in general is but shadowy and uncertain. But he passes through the one state of consciousness after the other, without bring­ing them into contact or considering whether they are consistent or inconsistent. For many, indeed, there never is any conscious discord, and there never is any effort after inward harmony. But even where the intellectual impulse is feeble, the moral difficulties of life are constantly tending to awaken in us a sense of the differences and oppositions that exist in thought and things. And as the mind cannot abjure its faith in itself, it is forced by the necessity of its own development upon a choice between different elements of its life, which seem at first to contradict and to exclude each other.

I have cited these two witnesses to illustrate the attitude which it seems to me should characterise the student of divinity who is seeking to qualify himself to deliver those who come to him from spectres that arise out of ignorance. His aim must be among other things to set men and women on the road of deliverance from the negative, from the intellectual temptation that arises from a narrow outlook. As a rule they will be individuals who are agitated in spirit too little rather than too much.

Let us try to see what the future preacher will have to aim at, and what the transcending of the negative means in practice. There are many familiar illustrations of this which show its use as a constructive and enlarging factor in the constitution of a greater whole than that with which the first start was made.

We see this in the family circle, where husband and wife, parent and child, each grows in stature by the sacrifice of self, and the desire to find and enlarge the self in living in and for another. We see it in the State, where the citizen gives up some of his freedom that others may not have their personalities and liberties infringed by him, and thereby secures his own protection and freedom by obedience to laws which are the expression of what Rousseau, imperfectly as he conceived it, described rightly as the “volonte generale,” which is more than the “volonte de tous.” The larger entirety of the State, like that of the family, arises through its inclusion of the negative in the shape of restraint on individual action. Yet such inclusion is the result not of mere mechanical force ab extra, but of the purposive action of intelligence operating ab intra.

We see this clearly in the use which the true artist makes of the power of selection and exclusion in his construction of an aesthetic whole. A portrait created by such an artist is no photograph dependent on the chance aspects which nature at the moment presents. Its expression is rather one which is born anew of the mind of the artist himself. He rejects as well as selects. He does not slavishly copy nature. He seeks, often un­consciously, to realise a larger conception of his subject, a conception which may exclude many actual details, but which places its highest meaning for the onlooker in the subject of his picture. In creating a larger whole he raises the standpoint, and he thereby creates that which is independent of particular time and space, and is so made true in a deeper meaning than that of the fashion that passes away as moment succeeds moment.

In the regions of moral and intellectual activity alike, he who would accomplish any­thing must limit himself. It is only by the sacrifice of himself or his first opinions, in other words by accepting the negative, that he can raise his level and reach his ideal. But the negative must be the negative pregnant. What the preacher, for instance, has to show is that it is not merely by trampling on the world, but by loving it while trampling upon it, that freedom from that world is to be gained. And he has to show in a fashion analogous that it is not by ignoring the historical and scientific difficulties that embarrass faith in Christianity, but by setting these difficulties in their limited significance and true proportion, while at the same time frankly facing them, that deliverance from doubt is to be got. In each case the process is that of the effort after a larger whole which takes into itself both what was the original standpoint and its qualification through criticism.

In Scotland to-day the prevailing attitude of the working and middle classes seems to me to be that of a mild agnosticism. Now this is not a healthy attitude. It indicates indifference, a disposition to give up the struggle, to jump to premature conclusions, and to accept the negative as an end, and not as the stepping­ stone of return to a higher and wider belief in the affirmative. But if there is to be a spiritual victory there must be, as its preliminary, a spiritual struggle. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Carlyle's Sartor Resartus furnish testimony to this truth—yet testimony which after all falls short in its convincingness of the testimony of the Gospels themselves.

No man is a complete man unless he has wrestled for his mental freedom. It is not enough to exclaim, however sincerely, with Matthew Arnold:—

“Calm Soul of all things, make it mine,
To feel, amid the city's jar,
That there abides a peace of Thine
Man did not make, and cannot mar.”

“The will to neither strive nor cry,
The power to feel with others give;
Calm, calm me more! Nor let me die
Before I have begun to live.”

The teaching of the Christian religion is sterner than this. If man is to be reconciled with God, he must first realise his division from God, and have the consequent sense of failure. He must learn that the way out is to surrender his will and to find it again in a simple acceptance of the highest will. He must realise not only the meaning but the necessity of dying in order to live. Life is regained and peace attained when he has successfully struggled through the valley of the shadow of the negative, and not before. It is only by furnishing him with the materials necessary for criticism of his own position that even the learning of Heraclitus can help him along his difficult path. The one power which can conduct him safely to its conclusion is a sense of the divine within himself, a sense which can only be awakened when he has first become practically aware of his intellectual and moral finiteness. These things are taught in the New Testament with a simplicity and directness which is hardly to be found else­where.

Yet while Christianity did far more than any other influence to introduce these conceptions into the world, they are not the monopoly of the teachers who call themselves Christian. Something of a like conquest and corresponding humility of mind we see in that picture of the dying Socrates which Plato has given to us in the Phaedo. The great modern thinkers, in poetry as well as in prose, teach us a similar lesson, and some of them have not been Christians. Yet in the main the source of our inspiration to-day, the example to which we turn, is what we find in the Gospel. Nowhere else is the gap between man and God so displayed in its terrors. Nowhere else is it so completely bridged over. Nowhere else are we taught with the same vividness that God and man alike need each other, the infinite that it may have reality, the finite that it may realise its foundation in infinity.

I abstain from even trying to say how I think you can best work these things out for yourselves. And the reason which restrains me is not difficult to state. No man can accomplish for his brother what is necessary in this regard. Each must work out his salvation in his own way. To some the example of a great intellectual figure, such, for example, as that of Kant, will most appeal, Kant who laboriously thought out the limits of possible knowledge, and, scientifically classify­ing his perplexities, assigned them individually to the disregard of these limits. He was left, as the result of a life devoted to patient research, with a noble faith in duty, in freedom, in God. Over his bust in the stoa at Konigs­berg are his own well-known words about the two facts of daily life that he reverenced most of all: “Der bestirnte Himmel über mir, und das Moralische Gesetz in mir”—the starry heavens above, and the moral law within.

Or it may be that it is in the region, not of reflection, but of work, that light will be found. Some there are who give themselves for the sake of those about them, and to save these disregard riches, health, life itself. They pass through the portal of renunciation, and in the practice of the presence of God they find them­selves again, and gain a faith which inspires the onlooker with the sense of a higher reality.

Yet underneath the varying forms in which the individual, be he the humblest Christian or the most highly-equipped thinker or poet, dedicates his life to realising the infinite, the substance of the endeavour remains the same. With no apparently completed result will the true worker be satisfied. Just because the infinite realises itself in him he will be con­scious of his shortcomings, of something beyond and not attained, in other words of his finitude. Yet, conversely, this consciousness of his limits will not distress him, for in being conscious of them he has the certainty that he is transcend­ing them:—

“Rather I prize the doubt
Low kinds exist without,
Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.
Poor vaunt of life indeed
Were man but formed to feed
On joy, to solely seek and find and feast;
Such feasting ended, then
As sure an end to men.”

What is important is never to sit still and be satisfied. That is always an indication that the truth is not present. It is really in the struggle itself and in that alone that we daily gain and keep our life and freedom.

But the sense that the end is never wholly in our sight is no ground for despair or even for misgiving. Finite as we are, compelled to seek to express in pictorial images what these images can never adequately express, there is an aspect of the truth in attaining to which ordinary knowledge requires the aid of what we may call faith, or the sense of things unseen. A great thinker declared that within the range of the finite we can never see or experience that the end has really been secured. But he went on to point out that the accomplishment of the infinite end consists merely in removing the illusion which makes it seem yet unaccom­plished. That illusion can never be completely or actually realised as removed by us mortals. The best we can accomplish is the devotion of ourselves, in reflection or in practice, or in both, to the effort to rise above it. Were we at any moment to succeed completely we should have seen God, and die. Yet the faith that this illusion is but the outcome of our finite nature, and that the finiteness of this nature is essential to us even in as much as we belong to God, brings with it a sense of peace that is not the less real because it passes the limits of every­day understanding. For it enables us to accept our lot in life, whatever that lot may be, and to say with the conviction of truth attained, “In His will is our peace.”