Project Canterbury Six Sermons to Men Preached in St. Ignatius' Church
New York City
During Lent, 1888. By the Rev. Arthur Ritchie New York: American Bank Note Co., 1888.
FACTS AND FANCIES; OR, WHAT TO BELIEVE.
JOSHUA x. 12, 13.
"Then spake Joshua to the Lord In the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and He said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the Sun stood still, and the Moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies."
There could hardly be proposed a more momentous question than this, What should a man believe? It is true that many people say, It does not make much difference what a man believes so long as he lives a good life. Yet that is only juggling with the question. It can only refer to minor matters of belief, not to the great radical questions, because these of necessity influence a man's life of action; each one's life is almost inevitably the outcome of the belief of his heart. And since the range of belief is infinite, carrying one into the regions of God and eternity, it is surely a bold undertaking to say that a man's belief ought to be this rather than that. Under these circumstances you have a right to demand of me, What are your qualifications for addressing us upon this subject? I do not claim to be extraordinarily learned; many men, perhaps not a few who hear me now, have gone deeper into scientific and intellectual problems than I; nor do I claim for myself unusual intelligence which fits me to instruct many who may be more experienced and better-trained thinkers than myself. I stand here to speak to you about the problems of belief as an officer of a great and venerable society, the Catholic Church, a society which claims God as its Founder, and the Holy Ghost as its Instructor and Preserver in supernatural truth. I speak officially, as the mouthpiece of this Society, setting forth not what I have found out for myself, but what the Church has taught me. Many of you are members of the Church yourselves, recognizing her authority as I do. I do not therefore feel myself in any sort set over against you as your adversary in argument, but I as a priest of the Church speak to you as laymen, not to convince you of what you already believe, but rather to call to remembrance the grounds of our common faith, partly that we may be stirred to great earnestness in our practice of it, partly that we may all be stronger to convince gainsayers.
There are two sorts of matters with which we have to deal intellectually in this world, facts and fancies. By facts I mean things which have real existence independently of my thought about them; and by fancies those things which are the creation of the imagination, having no independent existence outside the imagination. This is not intended as a philosophical disquisition. It is true that some great thinkers have held that all things which you and I would call facts are really only fancies; that things have no existence apart from thought; that is Idealism. Very practical people despise fancies, holding them to be only rubbish in this busy life. Yet most of us give place both to facts and fancies, holding that while facts give us the prose of life, fancy supplies its poetry, and we like both prose and poetry in their place and just proportion.
In business fancy is almost entirely out of place. There fact reigns supreme. Business cannot be conducted on sentiment, nor business letters be made dainty with scraps of poetry interspersed with quotations from the market.
In literature we may find fact and fancy going hand in hand, about as evenly adjusted to one another as it is possible for them ever to be. What would our literature be without the creations of the imagination? But, just as truly, what would it be without the data of history and the realities of everyday experience?
In art fancy triumphs and has free field; for even where the realistic seems to be alone thought of, it is the realistic of the artist's imagination rather than of the cold facts which the photograph gives. The charm of art lies in the way in which it makes the poetry of fancy to become fact to the unimaginative. What then of fact and fancy in religion? I have no doubt that most people would answer such a question off-hand after this manner: Religion consists of a few simple facts overlaid with a great mass of fancies, so much so that it is almost impossible for any one to determine at the present day what are the facts and what the fancies in popular religion.
Suppose then that we try to settle upon some points which we can all acknowledge for facts of religion, so that we can have a secure starting point for our further investigations. I am aware that I am not addressing infidels. There are a number of facts concerning which we have no differences of opinion, and as we may all be presumed honestly in search of useful information, let us agree on a common platform of acknowledged truth.
What then is Religion? Literally it is that which binds man to God, the bond of man's intercourse with the Almighty. We may note two aspects of this bond of intercourse, both cognate to the idea of religion, the expression by man of the relation in which he believqs himself to stand to God, and the possible expression by God of His sentiments towards man. In this conception of religion we have several fundamental facts.
1. The fact of God. What conceptions are involved as facts, in our conception of the general fact of God? Self-existence, eternity, oneness. We might add to these fundamental attributes, Almighty, Omniscient, Good. So far we are agreed in the first fact of religion, God.
2. A second fact is man. We instinctively separate ourselves from the other types of earthly creatures as having the religious instinct, the sense of God and of worship. Indeed since religion is the bond of intercourse between God and man, obviously the two most vital facts of religion are God and man. But when we say man, we are conscious of a further subdivision of the fact. Man is dual, a material part and a spiritual part, body and soul, in common parlance.
Physical science has convinced us, as a fact, that body is a composite thing, made up of atoms of matter. These atoms are imperishable; they change their environment in a thousand ways; they pass entirely out of one combination into another; yet they cannot perish, they are indestructible. There is no such thing known as annihilation in nature.
Mental science teaches us just as strongly that our spiritual part, our Ego, is not composite, but is itself an unit, an entity. Why should we suppose it possible that it should cease to exist, that annihilation could be its destiny, any more than the destiny of the atoms of matter? We do not suppose it, any of us; we are ready to accept it for one of the facts of our religion that the soul is immortal, merely passing at death out of the sphere of material conditions into a new sphere, probably of spiritual conditions of which all human science can give us no positive information. Thus in the fact of man, as involved in our common idea of religion, we find the further fact of the immortality of the soul.
3. Another fact of our religion which I am persuaded we all accept is the fact of Conscience, the moral sense. We are by no means willing to accept the idea that the sense of right and wrong which we find in our breasts is only the development of the idea of personal advantage or disadvantage. We are irresistibly forced to the conviction that this strange sense of intrinsic right and wrong is a fundamental possession of our human nature. And with it there goes the further fact, necessarily following upon the fact of conscience, the fact of our personal responsibility. No one can escape from this feeling that he is accountable for his actions, and that at some time and in some way he will be judged for them.
Now there opens out before us the great field of religious interest, the future. We have within us the conviction that religion holds the key of the future.
Do you ever stop to think of the momentous interest we have, or ought to have, in the future? Most of us had rather shun the thought of the future, at least of that part of the future which lies beyond the hour of death. Some of us take a great interest in the past. It is interesting enough surely, yet it is interest mostly of curiosity. I believe that in many minds there is an uncomfortable suspicion of the true solemnity of the future which makes them, in some instances, delve into the treasures of the past in the hope of overturning the popular belief concerning the future which haunts even those who profess utterly to disbelieve it; in other instances to forget the anxiety which the future instills into the heart by ardent enthusiasm for the things of the present. Yet there is no real present; while we think of it, it has become past, and we are rushing along into the future, either with our faces or our backs turned towards it.
Thus it is that the future, to thinking minds, becomes the absorbing thought, and since religion alone professes to hold the key of the future, religion becomes to the thoughtful a most absorbing study.
Let us sum up some of the conclusions we have reached, that we may more intelligently go on to consider further facts.
I. We cannot possibly know the future development of these fundamental facts, God and man; the soul beyond the grave, the mystery of conscience. I mean we cannot possibly know them by any modes of knowledge open to human experience. It is true that we have innumerable facts of physical science which patient investigators into the past and the present have accumulated. But they are inadequate to knowledge of the future. The astronomer can tell us that the stars and planets have been, are, or shall be worlds like our own, which once burned with intensest heat, then in myriads of ages gradually cooled down to its present fitness to sustain human life; eventually, after billions of years, to grow so cold and dreary that no life can endure upon it. But if all be true, as perhaps it is, it does not throw any light upon the future of the soul, living eternally, and answerable for its deeds. Well then, perhaps the facts of mental science can help us. Men have devised all sorts of theories about the soul and the possibilities of its being. We cannot believe in annihilation, for that seems logically unwarranted. Many would like us to accept the Buddhist Nirvana, in which the individual soul after this life sinks into the infinite and its individuality is lost, as the dew-drop in the shining sea. But the annihilation of individuality is not very different practically from the annihilation of soul; our conscious self-existence refuses to believe it possible. Why not then believe that the human life simply goes on under new conditions, akin to those of this world, but enlarged and perfected. So one might go on ad libitum suggesting possible futures for our race, but no one can be satisfied with them because they are so evidently only theories, fancies resting on no adequate basis of fact. Our first conclusion is that from no natural sources of information can we have any definite knowledge of the future, and of the destiny of our being.
2. But there is also another conclusion which grows out of our ponder-ings of this matter. We ought to have some authoritative facts upon this momentous question. Perhaps we cannot exactly explain the reason of this sense of our right to know, but we all are conscious of it. God has created us, put us into the world, given us immortal natures, moral sense and personal responsibility, all looking towards an unknown future. He ought to tell us something more about it, because He is good. Our nature demands a revelation.
And behold here is a revelation, presented to mankind by the Catholic Church. I am not denying that there have been other ostensible revelations, but this of the Christian Church is the one of supremest interest to ourselves. I may also add the most consistent in itself, and the most explicit in its teachings of any revelation ever given to man. In what form does this Christian revelation come to us? In threefold form.
1. Its great fundamental facts are embodied in a short form of words called the Creed. There are as you know three forms of the Creed, the "Apostles'," as it is called; the Nicene, again as it is called; and that commonly known as the Athanasian. But of these the so-called Nicene Creed is the one to which we must look as the authoritative exposition of the fundamental Christian faith, because it has the sanction of the whole Christian Church as its authorized statement of belief.
2. Again the revelation held by the Church is presented to us in larger form by the Bible, which may be regarded as a historical prelude to the Creed, and an exposition of many of its articles.
3. Once more the revelation held by the Church for man is most largely set forth in practical application by the traditional organization and working system of the Church, her Ministry, her Sacraments and her form of Worship being but the application in fact of the dogmas of the Creed and the records of the Bible.
Here then we have the answer to the yearning of the soul to know the mysteries of life. The Church says, This is that which God has revealed from Heaven, because man had a right to know it, and could not find it out for himself; its fundamental facts are contained in the Creed, the inspired record of those facts in the Bible, the practical application of those facts in the organized system of the Catholic religion. All of this is very brave talk, you might say; but where, O Mother Church, did this revelation come from?
The Church replies, For that I refer you to the records of holy writers 1800 years ago. In them you will find that there lived upon the earth, in the land of the Jews, one known as Jesus the Christ. He proclaimed Himself a great Prophet sent from God with the message of salvation to man. Indeed He said that He was the very Son of God. He gathered about Him disciples, of them choosing Twelve, whom also He named Apostles. To them He taught the fullness of that revelation He had from God. When He was departing from earth He commissioned them to act in His stead, to found a society on earth which should be the conservator and teacher of this great revelation for all time to come; and this society is the Christian Church. Now you may well say, I understand plainly that the Church derives all her authority from the Lord Christ, but what shall we say when His Divine mission is called in question?
It is a question which anyone has a right to ask, and one to which every Christian ought to be able to give the answer. Let us go back in thought to the days of our Lord and ask Him to demonstrate to us the truth of His supernatural commission. He might reply, I will call to witness the past, I will make the present confirm the evidence, and you shall for yourselves see that the future only settles the matter beyond dispute.
1. And first the witness of the past. Far back, hundreds of years before the event could take place, the advent of the Lord was told with startling preciseness by the prophets, the manner of His wonderful birth, of a Virgin, plainly declared by Isaiah, the time of His coming set forth with literal preciseness by Daniel, the full particulars of His bitter passion revealed by David, Isaiah and Jeremiah, besides other prophecies and prophetic types too numerous to mention. The force of this testimony is irresistible; how could the prophets have known all these things unless all were planned by God from the first?
2. Let us consult also the witness of our Lord's own times, His marvellous miracles. We may say with the man who received his sight by our Lord's gracious deed, " If this man were not of God He could do nothing." True it is that men in these days deny the miracles. If one of the miracles of the Bible be manifestly false and absurd, what reason is there for greater belief in the rest of them? True enough, but we do not admit that any of the Bible miracles are unworthy of credence. What then of that absurd story of your text, Joshua commanding the sun to stand still? In this miracle two points are made, for the adversary of the Bible narrative takes first one position, and when he finds that untenable shifts his ground to the other. But we shall easily drive him from both. First he says, Every one knows that it is the earth which moves and not the sun; and though it was not to be expected that Joshua should know that fact in his day, yet if the Bible be inspired the Holy Ghost ought not to have allowed such a false statement to be recorded. Could any objection be more ridiculous? And you and I, forsooth, will be said by the men who live on this planet a thousand years hence to have been ignorant of the same simple facts of astronomy as Joshua, because we talk about the sun rising, mounting up into the sky, and setting again, as if the world stood still and the sun moved. Has there ever been a nation of people, learned or unlearned, that did not speak of the sun as if the motion was on its part and the earth stationary? But these objectors would have the Holy Ghost cause Joshua with priggish accuracy to say, " Cease, O earth, your rotation, and so cause the sun apparently to stand still." When the absurdity of this first cavil is thus shown our objector says, But such a miracle as is here assumed would have brought indescribable ruin and disaster upon the whole earth, perhaps upon the whole planetary S5rstem. It would have been a catastrophe unparalleled in the annals of the world. But is it necessary to suppose that the earth did actually cease its diurnal motion, and come to a standstill? Even that ought not to be such a hard problem for God to solve, that He could find no way of averting the catastrophe involved in it. Why should He not have many other ways of His own infinite contrivance for producing the result called for in the miracle, that the day should be prolonged a number of hours? The truth is, in all this question of miracles, that objectors overlook the fact of the Agent of the miracle. As St. Paul said to King Agrippa, when the truth of the resurrection seemed to be a difficulty to that monarch, " Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead?" Is not God almighty and all-wise? Why should anyone who acknowledges God have any difficulty about the miracle of the lengthened day or any other miracle, when God is the agent of such miracle? Our Lord's miracles do not directly prove Him to be Divine in Person, but they demonstrate irresistibly that His authority was from God. This was the witness of the present which He called to testify of Him.
3. There remains that to which He appealed, the witness of the future, the present for us. The present existence and energy of Christianity is overwhelming evidence of its Divine origin. If one reply, What of the present existence and energy of the religion of Mahomet? the answer is easy. The religion of Mahomet appeals directly to men's natural lusts and inclinations; it is a religion congenial to human nature, not inimical to it. Christianity is in deadly hostility to natural inclination; self-denial is its very essence. There are many excellent reasons taken from human experience why Islam should prosper in half-civilized communities, but there is no natural reason why Christianity should prevail. Its existence and energy in the world to-day are inexplicable on any theory save that of its Divine origin.
We claim for the dogmas of the Creed, the records of the Bible and the constitution of the Church the character of honest facts and not fancies. Suppose that we have presented a good deal of presumptive evidence for the position, we still want certainty; the matter is too important to be left to probabilities. Why then am I certain that in this system of religion I have genuine facts?
1. First because the theory of it is adequate to the problems to be met. Our Christian revelation supplies a full, clear and intelligible harmony of all the facts of life which we know, and gives us consistent information concerning God, our relation to Him, personal accountability and the future life. There is not a single problem about any of these matters concerning which the Church cannot give precise and consistent information. She tells a full and straight story.
2. The second link in the argument for certainty in the Christian revelation is that all the facts supernaturally revealed when presented to our human reason are recognized as logically necessary and irresistibly certain. I wish I had time to enlarge upon this point, but one crucial instance of it must suffice. The truth of the Trinity. Human reason never found it out unaided, but instantly the Church puts the revealed doctrine of the Three in One before the intelligent mind, it must be accepted as philosophically inevitable; for we cannot conceive of the infinite Mind without unceasing though complete energy of Thought, nor yet without unceasing though complete energy of Affection; so that the fundamental distinctions of origination, thought and love are involved in any true idea of God. Thus does human reason declare revelation to be certain truth.
3. Lastly this revelation does what no other can, it satisfies all the yearnings of the soul. Man is a creature of progressive desire, some one has said. Nothing we have ever found out naturally satisfies the capacity of the soul. But the Christian faith does this wholly and absolutely, and when one finds that out, he is certain.
Our discussion of facts and fancies has led us over much ground; let us hope not fruitlessly. The truths of Revelation as contained in the Creed, in the Bible and in the Constitution of the Church are to me very real facts, not fancies; as real, and having the same sort of reality for me, as the facts of consciousness. I shall count myself happy indeed if I have helped any of you to the same certainty of faith.