Project Canterbury

Conversion, Catholicism, and the English Church

By Walter Carey, D.D.
Bishop of Bloemfontein

London: Mowbray, 1923.

The Fundamentals Behind

A FRIEND to whom I read some of my manuscript made the criticism that I was arguing about the bases of the Church and of the English Church, but was omitting the fundamentals, the basic doctrines without which all discussion of the Church is moonshine.

I had omitted these on purpose because I had tried to indicate the outlines of these great arguments in a previous book, Have you understood Christianity? But I have thought more about them since, and would like to restate what line I think we should take in putting before ordinary men the great doctrines of God and Christ.

I think such presentment must be done on two planes. You need the work of deep and serious thinkers whose work must inevitably be long and difficult. But you also need the rough common-sense arguments which appeal to the unphilosophical.

When I read Bishop Gore's book Belief in God, my feeling was that the man in the street won't understand it. The march of thought from Heracleitus to Hegel or from Democritus to Macdougal involves many acute and delicate discriminations and distinctions, and the average man is rather lost. Subjective and objective: nominalism and realism: arguments ontological and teleological--all these terms involve some serious and connected thinking. And I do not think the average stockbroker, clerk, or boiler-maker has had time or opportunity for such thinking. We need therefore some rough reasoning for rough minds, and I would put forward the following:--

(1) We believe in God because the mind of man is so constituted that a belief in God, or something very like Him, is natural and instinctive. You can sophisticate or argue God out of your mind, but, speaking broadly and largely, the ordinary person does believe by some inner necessity. It is just as natural to believe in God as it is to believe in goodness or truth or honour. We cannot prove any of these beliefs by logic, although the philosophic arguments called teleological, ontological, cosmological, do all help in that direction.

Also the testimony of the mystics, although it cannot convince any one who is not a mystic, is yet a witness of important range and scale.

It is also true that it seems reasonable that an intelligible world should have been made by Intelligence: and that conscience does point to a judgement and a Judge; but in the long run we appeal to a general instinct for God just as we appeal in sport to a general instinct for fairness, or in conduct to a general instinct for justice and right. We cannot prove God. But I should like to point out that if the general instinct for God is wrong, then the conclusion is that we cannot trust human perception at all. We are agnostic not about God only, but about ourselves. We can be certain of nothing. Those who despair of ever knowing God must be equally uncertain of ever knowing anything except immediate sensation, and even that may be a dream.

We have to face the bold dilemma. Do I believe in the general instincts and perceptions of mankind or do I not? One has to decide: and for myself, I do.

But somebody may say, "We check our subjects by experiments and research. For instance, we feel that men are mortal, but we also examine history and find it is so. But with God we never do see Him, we cannot check Him; it is therefore all uncertain."

That seems to me a most uneducated statement. It is quite true that in abstract sciences like mathematics (granted the sanity and reality of the mathematician and the general truth and coherence of the subjects of mathematical experiment) you can get solutions to problems which admit of no contradiction. But the higher and less abstract you get in your subject the more difficult the proof. Prove honour, patriotism, beauty, excellence, if you can. I should love to see my objector standing in front of an audience of greedy profiteers trying to prove to them that honour was greater than profit.

I agree with him that it is: but his arguments will fail unless he can get them to see: and therefore I maintain that the "proof" of God's existence is just the same as the "proof" of honour or beauty. If you believe in honour and beauty, and surround yourself with honourable and beautiful people and things, you become entirely convinced that they are real. The profiteers seem to you only a beastly fantasy compared with the felt reality of honour and beauty. So with God. If you believe in Him and depend on Him and pray to Him and surround yourself with Him, He becomes the sole and ultimate Reality, in comparison with whom all apart from Him is shadow and unreality. But the final proof is the responsibility not of the preacher of God, but of each individual who attempts the God-adventure. Experiment with God and you find the proof in yourself.

(2) But even if we agree to trust our intuitions and perceptions of God, it by no means disposes of the terrific question of His character.

The whole of the Old Testament is a record of the ever-changing estimation of the character of God. How ridiculous it is to think that the character of God in the Old Testament is equally estimatable or equally rightly estimated there? The picture of the Sistine Madonna remains the same, but the estimation of it in the sight of John Brown varies all his life and according to his training. It looks different to him at thirty from what it did at twenty, and again different at sixty from what it did when he was thirty. Moreover, if he is an artist engaged in the study and expression of beauty it will look very different to him from what it would do if he was simply a grocer, and the sort of grocer whose interests are bounded by canned goods and his bank balance.

So in the Old Testament, the real character of God is unchangeable--He is Love; but they saw Him according to their level of spiritual education. Abraham saw Him as El the Strong One, but also as a covenanted Friend. In the time of the Judges He was the patriotic God Who would always stand by Israel. To Jehu He was the Captain-God of orthodoxy. To the Prophets He was the Righteous One; to the writers of Leviticus, the great Ecclesiastic. He is never revealed in full--and the revelations often mangled in translation--in the minds of those who came before Christ. It is not till Jesus, the Master Artist, the true expresser of God, that you find God fully revealed by Jesus and in Jesus.

You can say that God is vindicated and expressed in Jesus: or you can say simply "Jesus expresses God."

But if you want to put it in a more philosophic way, you could say that whatever the mind and intuition of man perceives to be ultimately and absolutely excellent, then this is God at work expressing Himself.

I wish this question could be universally asked, and universally thus answered:--

What is the relation between excellence (i.e. truth, beauty, goodness, love, wisdom, strength) and God?

Answer. The relation is one of identity.

Even now, alas and alas, this truth is unknown. God is the great Policeman, the great Orthodox Ecclesiastic; He "approves of" truth, goodness, etc., but that He is these excellencies (and more than we can see), and that they are He, is largely unknown.

No wonder men won't worship the great Policeman or the great Ecclesiastic; I wouldn't. No wonder their service of Him is a more or less bored slavery. But who can help worshipping truth and love and goodness; and yet they are He, and He is they.

Thus you bring God out of the sky into human life: by the Incarnation fully and primarily; but also you keep meeting God everywhere--in the sunrise and the sunset; in the harmonies of the symphony; in the kindness of man to man; in sweet family affection, you stumble upon God. He is what the artist tries to express in form and colour, or the musician in harmony, or the scientist in truth, or the historian in fidelity and proportion--try, and despair of success because He is too great to be wholly expressed; and yet their attempts, though partial failures, keep the whole world sweet.

This overmastering truth, in spite of the Brownings, the Francis Thompsons, and many others, is still a secret. Men do not know how lovable God is. They do not love Him, because they do not perceive His lovableness.

And then with Jesus.

Are we to say, "You must believe Him to be God made Man because the Church says so?"

I suppose we must say so to babes. But we must be frank and open with grown-up people. The story and claims of Jesus claim belief because they are true. As a historical fact He came down. He said and did what the Gospels say. It all bears investigation. But He did not come into a blank, unprepared world; you must study His antecedents: the movements and longings of the world which made this advent be the satisfaction of a psychological need; the whole history of the Jews; their longing for a Deliverer; their attempts to find God, and their pathetic failure to find Him. And you must add the consequences of His coming as well as the antecedents. How those who accepted Him and His salvation were men transformed; how they did find God and peace and power; how they altered and captured the world; how even to-day real and essential Christians have a secret, a look, a character, a peacefulness, which make themselves absolutely certain and secure, and influence history and humanity far more than any other influence--and that even after 2,000 years of experiment and failure and success.

Who is He? What is the truth of the Personality of this unique One? Is He only a Man? It doesn't look like it. Is He a Prophet? Yea, more than a prophet, for He is Lord of the Prophets. Is He a demi-God? If so, how is it that He lifts His redeemed far beyond His own demi-Godhood into the very heart and life of the Father Almighty?

He that lifts mankind into Himself, and in so doing lifts them right into the heart and being of God, must be God Himself. For any one with any real experience of Jesus and His salvation it is impossible to place Him any where lower than God. I still believe that if, with our Bible before us, we ask the old question, "Where shall we place Him?" we shall come to the old conclusion, after weighing all the facts of Him--antecedent, contemporaneous, and subsequent--that we can place Him nowhere else than where Christendom places Him--God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.

And when you have so done, then you can proceed to build up your doctrines of the Church, the English Church: conversion; Sacraments; the Christian life of Godlikeness in and through Christ. With this programme you can face the English people and win.

Project Canterbury