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AND HE SAID, THOU CANST NOT SEE MY FACE; FOR THERE SHALL NO MAN SEE ME, AND LIVE. AND THE LORD SAID, BEHOLD, THERE IS A PLACE BY ME, AND THOU SHALT STAND UPON A ROCK: AND IT SHALL COME TO PASS, WHILE MY GLORY PASSETH BY, THAT I WILL PUT THEE IN A CLEFT OF THE ROCK, AND WILL COVER THEE WITH MY HAND WHILE I PASS BY: AND I WILL TAKE AWAY MINE HAND, AND THOU SHALT SEE MY BACK PARTS; BUT MY FACE SHALL NOT BE SEEN.—EXODUS XXXIII. 20-23.
MY last Lecture was chiefly occupied with an examination of the ideas of the Absolute and the Infinite,—ideas which are indispensable to the foundation of a metaphysical Theology, and of which a clear and distinct consciousness must be acquired, if such a Theology is to exist at all. I attempted to show the inadequacy of these ideas for such a purpose, by reason of the contradictions which to our apprehension they necessarily involve from every point of view. The result of that attempt may be briefly summed up as follows. We are compelled, by the constitution of our minds, to believe in the existence of an Absolute and Infinite Being,—a belief which appears forced upon us, as the complement of our consciousness of the relative and the finite. But the instant we attempt to analyze the ideas thus suggested to us, in the hope of attaining to an intelligible conception of them, we are on every side involved in inextricable confusion and contradiction. It is no matter from what point of view we commence our examination;—whether, with the Theist, we 92 admit the coexistence of the Infinite and the Finite, as distinct realities; or, with the Pantheist, deny the real existence of the Finite; or, with the Atheist, deny the real existence of the Infinite;—on each of these suppositions alike, our reason appears divided against itself, compelled to admit the truth of one hypothesis, and yet unable to overcome the apparent impossibilities of each. The philosophy of Rationalism, thus traced upwards to its highest principles, finds no legitimate resting-place, from which to commence its deduction of religious consequences.
In the present Lecture, it will be my endeavor to offer some explanation of the singular phenomenon of human thought, which is exhibited in these results. I propose to examine the same ideas of the Absolute and the Infinite from the opposite side, in order to see if any light can be thrown on the anomalies which they present to us, by a reference to the mental laws under which they are formed. Contradiction, whatever may be its ultimate import, is in itself not a quality of things, but a mode in which they are viewed by the mind; and the inquiry which it most immediately suggests is, not an investigation of the nature of things in themselves, but an examination of those mental conditions under which it is elicited in thought. Such an examination, if it does not enable us to extend the sphere of thought beyond a certain point, may at least serve to make us more distinctly conscious of its true boundaries.
The much-disputed question, to what class of mental phenomena the religious consciousness belongs, must be postponed to a later stage of our inquiry. At present, we are concerned with a more general investigation, which the answer to that question will in nowise affect. Whether 93 the relation of man to God be primarily presented to the human mind in the form of knowledge, or of feeling, or of practical impulse, it can be given only as a mode of consciousness, subject to those conditions under which alone consciousness is possible. Whatever knowledge is imparted, whatever impulse is communicated, whatever feeling is excited, in man’s mind, must take place in a manner adapted to the constitution of its human recipient, and must exhibit such characteristics as the laws of that constitution impose upon it. A brief examination of the conditions of human consciousness in general will thus form a proper preliminary to any inquiry concerning the religious consciousness in particular.
Now, in the first place, the very conception of Consciousness, in whatever mode it may be manifested, necessarily implies distinction between one object and another. To be conscious, we must be conscious of something; and that something can only be known as that which it is, by being distinguished from that which it is not.(1) But distinction is necessarily limitation; for, if one object is to be distinguished from another, it must possess some form of existence which the other has not, or it must not possess some form which the other has. But it is obvious that the Infinite cannot be distinguished, as such, from the Finite, by the absence of any quality which the Finite possesses; for such absence would be a limitation. Nor yet can it be distinguished by the presence of an attribute which the Finite has not; for, as no finite part can be a constituent of an infinite whole, this differential characteristic must itself be infinite; and must at the same time have nothing in common with the finite. We are thus thrown back upon our former impossibility; for this second infinite will be distinguished from the finite by the 94 absence of qualities which the latter possesses. A consciousness of the Infinite as such thus necessarily involves a self-contradiction; for it implies the recognition, by limitation and difference, of that which can only be given as unlimited and indifferent.(2) That man can be conscious of the Infinite, is thus a supposition which, in the very terms in which it is expressed, annihilates itself. Consciousness is essentially a limitation; for it is the determination of the mind to one actual out of many possible modifications. But the Infinite, if it is to be conceived at all, must be conceived as potentially everything and actually nothing; for if there is anything in general which it cannot become, it is thereby limited; and if there is anything in particular which it actually is, it is thelreby excluded from being any other thing. But again, it must also be conceived as actually everything and potentially nothing; for an unrealized potentiality is likewise a limitation.(3) If the infinite can be that which it is not, it is by that very possibility marked out as incomplete, and capable of a higher perfection. If it is actually everything, it possesses no characteristic feature, by which it can be distinguished from anything else, and discerned as an object of consciousness.
This contradiction, which is utterly inexplicable on the supposition that the infinite is a positive object of human thought, is at once accounted for, when it is regarded as the mere negation of thought. If all thought is limitation,—if whatever we conceive is, by the very act of conception, regarded as finite,—the infinite, from a human point of view, is merely a name for the absence of those conditions under which thought is possible. To speak of a Conception of the Infinite is, therefore, at once to affirm those conditions and to deny them. The contradiction, 95 which we discover in such a conception, is only that which we have ourselves placed there, by tacitly assuming the conceivability of the inconceivable. The condition of consciousness is distinction; and the condition of distinction is limitation. We have no consciousness of Being in general which is not some Being in particular; a thing, in consciousness, is one thing out of many. In assuming the possibility of an infinite object of consciousness, I assume, therefore, that it is at the same time limited and unlimited;—actually something, without which it could not be an object of consciousness, and actually nothing, without which it could not be infinite.(4)
Rationalism is thus only consistent with itself, when it refuses to attribute consciousness to God. Consciousness, in the only form in which we can conceive it, implies limitation and change,—the perception of one object out of many, and a comparison of that object with others. To be always conscious of the same object, is, humanly speaking, not to be conscious at all;(5) and, beyond its human manifestation, we can have no conception of what consciousness is. Viewed on the side of the object of consciousness, the same principle will carry us further still. Existence itself, that so-called highest category of thought, is only conceivable in the form of existence modified in some particular manner. Strip off its modification, and the apparent paradox of the German philosopher becomes literally true;—pure being is pure nothing.(6) We have no conception of existence which is not existence in some particular manner; and if we abstract from the manner, we have nothing left to constitute the existence. Those who, in their horror of what they call anthropomorphism, or anthropopathy, refuse to represent the Deity under symbols borrowed from the limitations of human consciousness, 96 are bound, in consistency, to deny that God exists; for the conception of existence is as human and as limited as any other. The conclusion which Fichte boldly announces, awful as it is, is but the legitimate consequence of his premises. “The moral order of the universe is itself God: we need no other, and we can comprehend no other.”(7)
A second characteristic of Consciousness is, that it is only possible in the form of a relation. There must be a Subject, or person conscious, and an Object, or thing of which he is conscious. There can be no consciousness without the union of these two factors; and, in that union, each exists only as it is related to the other.(8) The subject is a subject, only in so far as it is conscious of an object: the object is an object, only in so far as it is apprehended by a subject: and the destruction of either is the destruction of consciousness itself. It is thus manifest that a consciousness of the Absolute is equally self-contradictory with that of the Infinite. To be conscious of the Absolute as such, we must know that an object, which is given in relation to our consciousness, is identical with one which exists in its own nature, out of all relation to consciousness. But to know this identity, we must compare the two together; and such a comparison is itself a contradiction. We are in fact required to compare that of which we are conscious with that of which we are not conscious; the comparison itself being an act of consciousness, and only possible through the consciousness of both its objects. It is thus manifest that, even if we could be conscious of the absolute, we could not possibly know that it is the absolute: and, as we can be conscious of an object as such, only by knowing it to be what it is, this is equivalent to an admission that we cannot be conscious of the absolute at 97 all. As an object of consciousness, everything is necessarily relative; and what a thing may be out of consciousness, no mode of consciousness can tell us.
This contradiction, again, admits of the same explanation as the former. Our whole notion of existence is necessarily relative; for it is existence as conceived by us. But Existence, as we conceive it, is but a name for the several ways in which objects are presented to our consciousness,—a general term, embracing a variety of relations. The Absolute, on the other hand, is a term expressing no object of thought, but only a denial of the relation by which thought is constituted. To assume absolute existence as an object of thought, is thus to suppose a relation existing when the related terms exist no longer. An object of thought exists, as such, in and through its relation to a thinker; while the Absolute, as such, is independent of all relation. The Conception of the Absolute thus implies at the same time the presence and the absence of the relation by which thought is constituted; and our various endeavors to represent it are only so many modified forms of the contradiction involved in our original assumption. Here, too, the contradiction is one which we ourselves have made. It does not imply that the Absolute cannot exist; but it implies, most certainly, that we cannot conceive it as existing.(9)
Philosophers who are anxious to avoid this conclusion have sometimes attempted to evade it, by asserting that we may have in consciousness a partial, but not a total knowledge of the infinite and the absolute.(10) But here again the supposition refutes itself. To have a partial knowledge of an object, is to know a part of it, but not the whole. But the part of the infinite which is supposed to be known must be itself either infinite or finite. If it is infinite, it 98 presents the same difficulties as before. If it is finite, the point in question is conceded, and our consciousness is allowed to be limited to finite objects. But in truth it is obvious, on a moment’s reflection, that neither the Absolute nor the Infinite can be represented in the form of a whole composed of parts. Not the Absolute; for the existence of a whole is dependent on the existence of its parts. Not the Infinite; for if any part is infinite, it cannot be distinguished from the whole; and if each part is finite, no number of such parts can constitute the Infinite.
It would be possible, did my limits allow, to pursue the argument at length, through the various special modifications which constitute the subordinate forms of consciousness. But with reference to the present inquiry, it will be sufficient to notice two other conditions, under which all consciousness is necessarily manifested; both of which have a special bearing on the relation of philosophy to theological controversy.
All human consciousness, as being a change in our mental state, is necessarily subject to the law of Time, in its two manifestations of Succession and Duration. Every object, of whose existence we can be in any way conscious, is necessarily apprehended by us as succeeding in time to some former object of consciousness, and as itself occupying a certain portion of time. In the former point of view, it is manifest, from what has been said before, that whatever succeeds something else, and is distinguished from it, is necessarily apprehended as finite; for distinction is itself a limitation. In the latter point of view, it is no less manifest that whatever is conceived as having a continuous existence in time is equally apprehended as finite. For continuous existence is necessarily conceived as divisible into successive moments. One portion has already gone 99 by; another is yet to come; each successive moment is related to something which has preceded, and to something which is to follow: and out of such relations the entire existence is made up. The acts, by which such existence is manifested, being continuous in time, have, at any given moment, a further activity still to come: the object so existing must therefore always be regarded as capable of becoming something which it is not yet actually,—as having an existence incomplete, and receiving at each instant a further completion. It is manifest therefore that, if all objects of human thought exist in time, no such object can be regarded as exhibiting, or representing the true nature of an Infinite Being.
As a necessary consequence of this limitation, it follows, that an act of Creation, in the highest sense of the term,—that is to say, an absolutely first link in the chain of phenomena, preceded by no temporal antecedent,—is to human thought inconceivable. To represent in thought the first act of the first cause of all things, I must conceive myself as placed in imagination at the point at which temporal succession commences, and as thus conscious of the relation between a phenomenon in time and a reality out of time. But the consciousness of such a relation implies a consciousness of both the related members; to realize which, the mind must be in and out of time at the same moment. Time, therefore, cannot be regarded as limited; for to conceive a first or last moment of time would be to conceive a consciousness into which time enters, preceded or followed by one from which it is absent. But, on the other hand, an infinite succession in time is equally inconceivable; for this succession also cannot be bounded by time, and therefore can only be apprehended by one who is himself free from the law of conceiving in time. From 100 a human point of view, such a conception could only be formed by thrusting back the boundary forever;—a process which itself would require an infinite time for its accomplishment.(11) Clogged by these counter impossibilities of thought, two opposite speculations have in vain struggled to find articulate utterance, the one for the hypothesis of an endless duration of finite changes, the other for that of an existence prior to duration itself. It is perhaps another aspect of the same difficulty, that, among various theories of the generation of the world, the idea of a creation out of nothing seems to have been altogether foreign to ancient philosophy.(12)
The limited character of all existence which can be conceived as having a continuous duration, or as made up of successive moments, is so far manifest, that it has been assumed, almost as an axiom, by philosophical theologians, that in the existence of God there is no distinction between past, present, and future. “In the changes of things,” says Augustine, there is a past and a future: in God there is a present, in which neither past nor future can be.”(13) “Eternity,” says Boethius, “is the perfect possession of interminable life, and of all that life at once:”(14) and Aquinas, accepting the definition, adds, “Eternity has no succession, but exists all together.”(15) But, whether this assertion be literally true or not (and this we have no means of ascertaining), it is clear that such a mode of existence is altogether inconceivable by us, and that the words in which it is described represent not thought, but the refusal to think at all. It is impossible that man, so long as he exists in time, should contemplate an object in whose existence there is no time. For the thought by which he contemplates it must be one of his own mental states: it must have a beginning and an end: it must 101 occupy a certain portion of duration, as a fact of human consciousness. There is therefore no manner of resemblance or community of nature between the representative thought and that which it is supposed to represent; for the one cannot exist out of time, and the other cannot exist in it.(16) Nay, more: even were a mode of representation out of time possible to a man, it is utterly impossible that he should know it to be so, or make any subsequent use of the knowledge thus conveyed to him. To be conscious of a thought as mine, I must know it as a present condition of my consciousness: to know that it has been mine, I must remember it as a past condition; and past and present are alike modes of time. It is manifest, therefore, that a knowledge of the infinite, as existing out of time, even supposing it to take place at all, cannot be known to be taking place, cannot be remembered to have taken place, and cannot be made available for any purpose at any period of our temporal life.(17)
The command, so often urged upon man by philosophers and theologians of various ages and schools, “In contemplating God, transcend time,”(18) if meant for anything more than a figure of rhetoric, is equivalent to saying, “Be man no more; be thyself God.” It amounts to the admission that, to know the infinite, the human mind must itself be infinite; because an object of consciousness, which is in any way limited by the conditions of human thought, cannot be accepted as a representation of the unlimited. But two infinites cannot be conceived as existing together; and if the mind of man must become infinite to know God, it must itself be God.(19) Pantheism, or self-acknowledged falsehood, are thus the only alternatives possible under this precept. If the human mind, remaining in reality finite, merely fancies itself to be infinite in its contemplation of 102 God, the knowledge of God is itself based on a falsehood. If, on the other hand, it not merely imagines itself to be, but actually is, infinite, its personality is swallowed up in the infinity of the Deity; its human existence is a delusion: God is, literally and properly, all that exists; and the Finite, which appears to be, but is not, vanishes before the single existence of the One and All.
Subordinate to the general law of Time, to which all consciousness is subject, there are two inferior conditions, to which the two great divisions of consciousness are severally subject. Our knowledge of body is governed by the condition of space; our knowledge of mind by that of personality. I can conceive no qualities of body, save as having a definite local position; and I can conceive no qualities of mind, save as modes of a conscious self. With the former of these limitations our present argument is not concerned; but the latter, as the necessary condition of the conception of spiritual existence, must be taken into account in estimating the philosophical value of man’s conception of an infinite Mind.
The various mental attributes which we ascribe to God—Benevolence, Holiness, Justice, Wisdom, for example—can be conceived by us only as existing in a benevolent and holy and just and wise Being, who is not identical with any one of his attributes, but the common subject of them all; in one word, in a Person. But Personality, as we conceive it, is essentially a limitation and a relation.(20) Our own personality is presented to us as relative and limited; and it is from that presentation that all our representative notions of personality are derived. Personality is presented to us as a relation between the conscious self and the various modes of his consciousness. There is no personality in abstract thought without a thinker: 103 there is no thinker, unless he exercises some mode of thought. Personality is also a limitation; for the thought and the thinker are distinguished from and limit each other; and the several modes of thought are distinguished each from each by limitation likewise. If I am any one of my own thoughts, I live and die with each successive moment of my consciousness. If I am not any one of my own thoughts, I am limited by that very difference, and each thought, as different from another, is limited also. This, too, has been clearly seen by philosophical theologians; and accordingly, they have maintained that in God there is no distinction between the subject of consciousness and its modes, nor between one mode and another. “God,” says Augustine, “is not a Spirit as regards substance, and good as regards quality; but both as regards substance. The justice of God is one with his goodness and with his blessedness; and all are one with his spirituality.”(21) But this assertion, if it be literally true (and of this we have no means of judging), annihilates Personality itself, in the only form in which we can conceive it. We cannot transcend our own personality, as we cannot transcend our own relation to time: and to speak of an Absolute and Infinite Person, is simply to use language to which, however true it may be in a superhuman sense, no mode of human thought can possibly attach itself.
But are we therefore justified, even on philosophical grounds, in denying the Personality of God? or do we gain a higher or a truer representation of Him, by asserting, with the ancient or the modern Pantheist, that God, as absolute and infinite, can have neither intelligence nor will?(22) Far from it. We dishonor God far more by identifying Him with the feeble and negative impotence of 104thought, which we are pleased to style the Infinite, than by remaining content within those limits which He for his own good purposes has imposed upon us, and confining ourselves to a manifestation, imperfect indeed and inadequate, and acknowledged to be so, but still the highest idea that we can form, the noblest tribute that we can offer. Personality, with all its limitations, though far from exhibiting the absolute nature of God as He is, is yet truer, grander, more elevating, more religious, than those barren, vague, meaningless abstractions in which men babble about nothing under the name of the Infinite. Personal, conscious existence, limited though it be, is yet the noblest of all existences of which man can dream; for it is that by which all existence is revealed to him: it is grander than the grandest object which man can know; for it is that which knows, not that which is known.(23) “Man,” says Pascal, “is but a reed, the frailest in nature; but he is a reed that thinks. It needs not that the whole universe should arm itself to crush him;—a vapor, a drop of water, will suffice to destroy him. But should the universe crush him, man would yet be nobler than that which destroys him; for he knows that he dies; while of the advantage which the universe has over him, the universe knows nothing.”(24) It is by consciousness alone that we know that God exists, or that we are able to offer Him any service. It is only by conceiving Him as a Conscious Being, that we can stand in any religious relation to Him at all; that we can form such a representation of Him as is demanded by our spiritual wants, insufficient though it be to satisfy our intellectual curiosity.
It is from the intense consciousness of our own real existence as Persons, that the conception of reality takes 105 its rise in our minds: it is through that consciousness alone that we can raise ourselves to the faintest image of the supreme reality of God. What is reality, and what is appearance, is the riddle which Philosophy has put forth from the birthday of human thought; and the only approach to an answer has been a voice from the depths of the personal consciousness: “I think; therefore I am.”(25) In the antithesis between the thinker and the object of his thought,—between myself and that which is related to me,—we find the type and the source of the universal contrast between the one and the many, the permanent and the changeable, the real and the apparent. That which I see, that which I hear, that which I think, that which I feel, changes and passes away with each moment of iy varied existence. I, who see, and hear, and think, and feel, am the one continuous self, whose existence gives unity and connection to the whole. Personality comprises all that we know of that which exists: relation to personality comprises all that we know of that which seems to exist. And when, from the little world of man’s consciousness and its objects, we would lift up our eyes to the inexhaustible universe beyond, and ask, to. whom all this is related, the highest existence is still the highest personality; and the Source of all Being reveals Himself by His name, I AM.2525 Exodus iii. 14. (26)
If there is one dream of a godless philosophy to which, beyond all others, every moment of our consciousness gives the lie, it is that which subordinates the individual to the universal, the person to the species; which deifies kinds and realizes classifications; which sees Being in generalization, and Appearance in limitation; which regards the living and conscious man as a wave on the ocean of 106 1the unconscious infinite; his life, a momentary tossing to and fro on the shifting tide; his destiny, to be swallowed up in the formless and boundless universe.(27) The final conclusion of this philosophy, in direct antagonism to the voice of consciousness, is, “I think; therefore I am not.” When men look around them in bewilderment for that which lies within them; when they talk of the enduring species and the perishing individual, and would find, in the abstractions which their own minds have made, a higher and truer existence than in the mind which made them;—they seek for that which they know, and know not that for which they seek.(28) They would fain lift up the curtain of their own being, to view the picture which it conceals. Like the painter of old, they know not that the curtain is the picture.(29)
It is our duty, then, to think of God as personal; and it is our duty to believe that He is infinite. It is true that we cannot reconcile these two representations with each other; as our conception of personality involves attributes apparently contradictory to the notion of infinity. But it does not follow that this contradiction exists any where but in our own minds: it does not follow that it implies any impossibility in the absolute nature of God. The apparent contradiction, in this case, as in those previously noticed, is the necessary consequence of an attempt on the part of the human thinker to transcend the boundaries of his own consciousness. It proves that there are limits to man’s power of thought; and it proves no more.
The preceding considerations are equally conclusive against both the methods of metaphysical theology described in my last Lecture,—that which commences with the divine to reason down to the human, and that which commences with the human to reason up to the divine. 107 For though the mere abstract expression of the infinite, when regarded as indicating nothing more than the negation of limitation, and, therefore, of conceivability, is not contradictory in itself; it becomes so the instant we attempt to apply it in reasoning to any object of thought. A thing—an object—an attribute—a person—or any other term signifying one out of many possible objects of consciousness, is by that very relation necessarily declared to be finite. An infinite thing, or object, or attribute, or person, is, therefore, in the same moment declared to be both finite and infinite. We cannot, therefore, start from any abstract assumption of the divine infinity, to reason downwards to any object of human thought. And, on the other hand, if all human attributes are conceived under the conditions of difference, and relation, and time, and personality, we cannot represent in thought any such attribute magnified to infinity; for this, again, is to conceive it as finite and infinite at the same time. We can conceive such attributes, at the utmost, only indefinitely: that is to say, we may withdraw our thought, for the moment, from the fact of their being limited; but we cannot conceive them as infinite: that is to say, we cannot positively think of the absence of the limit; for, the instant we attempt to do so, the antagonist elements of the conception exclude one another, and annihilate the whole.
There remains but one subterfuge to which Philosophy can have recourse, before she is driven to confess that the Absolute and the Infinite are beyond her grasp. If consciousness is against her, she must endeavor to get rid of consciousness itself And, accordingly, the most distinguished representatives of this philosophy in recent times, however widely differing upon other questions, agree in maintaining that the foundation for a knowledge of the 108 infinite must be laid in a point beyond consciousness.(30) But a system which starts from this assumption postulates its own failure at the outset. It attempts to prove that consciousness is a delusion; and consciousness itself is made the instrument of proof; for by consciousness its reasonings must be framed and apprehended. It is by reasonings, conducted in conformity to the ordinary laws of thought, that the philosopher attempts to show that the highest manifestations of reason are above those laws. It is by representations, exhibited under the conditions of time and difference, that the philosopher endeavors to prove the existence, and deliver the results, of an intuition in which time and difference are annihilated. They thus assume, at the same moment, the truth and the falsehood of the normal consciousness; they divide the human mind against itself; and by that division prove no more than that two supposed faculties of thought mutually invalidate each other’s evidence. Thus, by an act of reason, philosophy destroys reason itself: it passes at once from rationalism to mysticism, and makes inconceivability the criterion of truth. In dealing with religious truths, the theory which repudiates with scorn the notion of believing a doctrine although it is incomprehensible, springs at one desperate bound clear over faith into credulity, and proclaims that its own principles must be believed because they are incomprehensible. The rhetorical paradox of the fervid African is adopted in cold blood as an axiom of metaphysical speculation: “It is certain, because it is impossible.”(31) Such a theory is open to two fatal objections,—it cannot be communicated, and it cannot be verified. It cannot be communicated; for the communication must be made in words; and the meaning of those words must be understood; and the understanding is a 109 state of the normal consciousness. It cannot be verified; for, to verify, we must compare the author’s experience with our own; and such a comparison is again a state of consciousness. Let it be granted for a moment, though the concession refutes itself, that a man may have a cognizance of the infinite by some mode of knowledge which is above consciousness. He can never say that the idea thus acquired is like or unlike that possessed by any other man; for likeness implies comparison; and comparison is only possible as a mode of consciousness, and between objects regarded as limited and related to each other. That which is out of consciousness cannot be pronounced true; for truth is the correspondence between a conscious representation and the object which it represents. Neither can it be pronounced false; for falsehood consists in the disagreement between a similar representation and its object. Here, then, is the very suicide of Rationalism. To prove its own truth and the falsehood of antagonistic systems, it postulates a condition under which neither truth nor falsehood is possible.
The results, to which an examination of the facts of consciousness has conducted us, may be briefly summed up as follows. Our whole consciousness manifests itself as subject to certain limits, which we are unable, in any act of thought, to transgress. That which falls within these limits, as an object of thought is known to us as relative and finite. The existence of a limit to our powers of thought is manifested by the consciousness of contradiction, which implies at the same time an attempt to think and an inability to accomplish that attempt. But a limit is necessarily conceived as a relation between something within and something without itself; and thus the consciousness of a limit of thought implies, though it does not directly present to us, the existence 110 of something of which we do not and cannot think. When we lift up our eyes to that blue vault of heaven, which is itself but the limit of our own power of sight, we are compelled to suppose, though we cannot perceive, the existence of space beyond, as well as within it; we regard the boundary of vision as parting the visible from the invisible. And when, in mental contemplation, we are conscious of relation and difference, as the limits of our power of thought, we regard them, in like manner, as the boundary between the conceivable and the inconceivable; though we are unable to penetrate, in thought, beyond the nether sphere, to the unrelated and unlimited which it hides from us.(32) The Absolute and the Infinite are thus, like the Inconceiveable and the Imperceptible, names indicating, not an object of thought or of consciousness at all, but the mere absence of the conditions under which consciousness is possible. The attempt to construct in thought an object answering to such names, necessarily results in contradiction; a contradiction, however, which we have ourselves produced by the attempt to think;—which exists in the act of thought, but not beyond it;—which destroys the conception as such, but indicates nothing concerning the existence or non-existence of that which we try to conceive. It proves our own impotence, and it proves nothing more. Or rather, it indirectly leads us to believe in the existence of that Infinite which we cannot conceive; for the denial of its existence involves a contradiction, no less than the assertion of its conceivability. We thus learn that the provinces of Reason and Faith are not coëxtensive;—that it is a duty, enjoined by Reason itself, to believe in that which we are unable to comprehend.
I have now concluded that portion of my argument in which it was necessary to investigate in abstract terms the 111 limits of human thought in general, as a preliminary to the examination of religious thought in particular. As yet, we have viewed only the negative side of man’s consciousness;—we have seen how it does not represent God, and why it does not so represent Him. There remains still to be attempted the positive side of the same inquiry,—namely, what does our consciousness actually tell us concerning the Divine Existence and Attributes; and how does its testimony agree with that furnished by Revelation. In prosecuting this further inquiry, I hope to be able to confine myself to topics more resembling those usually handled in this place, and to language more strictly appropriate to the treatment of Christian Theology. Yet there are advantages in the method which I have hitherto pursued, which may, I trust, be accepted as a sufficient cause for whatever may have sounded strange and obscure in its phraseology. So long as the doubts and difficulties of philosophical speculation are familiar to us only in their religious aspect and language, so long we may be led to think that there is some peculiar defect or perplexity in the evidences of religion, by which it is placed in apparent antagonism to the more obvious and unquestionable conclusions of reason. A very brief examination of cognate questions in their metaphysical aspect, will suffice to dissipate this misapprehension, and to show that the philosophical difficulties, which rationalists profess to discover in Christian doctrines, ale in fact inherent in the laws of human thought, and must accompany every attempt at religious or irreligious speculation.
There is also another consideration, which may justify the Christian preacher in examining, at times, the thoughts and language of human philosophy, apart from their special application to religious truths. A religious association may sometimes serve to disguise the real character of a line of 112 thought which, without that association, would have little power to mislead. Speculations which end in unbelief are often commenced in a believing spirit. It is painful, but at the same time instructive, to trace the gradual progress by which an unstable disciple often tears off strip by strip the wedding garment of his faith,—scarce conscious the while of his own increasing nakedness,—and to mark how the language of Christian belief may remain almost untouched, when the substance and the life have departed from it. While Philosophy speaks nothing but the language of Christianity, we may be tempted to think that the two are really one; that our own speculations are but leading us to Christ by another and a more excellent way. Many a young aspirant after a philosophical faith, trusts himself to the trackless ocean of rationalism in the spirit of the too-confident Apostle: “Lord, bid me to come unto thee on the water.”2626 St. Matthew xiv. 28. And for a while he knows not how deep he sinks, till the treacherous surface on which he treads is yielding on every side, and the dark abyss of utter unbelief is yawning to swallow him up. Well is it indeed with those who, even in that last fearful hour, can yet cry, “Lord, save me!” and can feel that supporting hand stretched out to grasp them, and hear that voice, so warning, yet so comforting, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”
But who that enters upon this course of mistrust shall dare to say that such will be the end of it? Far better is it to learn at the outset the nature of that unstable surface on which we would tread, without being tempted by the phantom of religious promise, which shines delusively over it. He who hath ordered all things in measure and number and weight,2727 Wisdom xi. 20. has also given to the reason of man, as to his life, its boundaries, which it cannot pass.2828 Job xiv. 5. And if, in the 113 investigation of those boundaries, we have turned for a little while, to speak the language of human philosophy, the result will but be to show that philosophy, rightly understood, teaches one lesson with the sacred volume of Revelation. With that lesson let us conclude, as it is given in the words of our own judicious divine and philosopher. “Dangerous it were for the feeble brain of man to wade far into the doings of the Most High; whom although to know be life, and joy to make mention of His name; yet our soundest knowledge is to know that -we know Him not as indeed He is, neither can know Hiln: and our safest eloquence concerning Him is our silence, when we confess without confession that His glory is inexplicable, His greatness above our capacity and reach. He is above, and we upon earth; therefore it behoveth our words to be wary and few.”(33)114
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