Edwin Abbott Abbott.

The kernel and the husk : letters on spiritual Christianity online

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suggestion (which I found in Trench's book on miracles)
that the miracles of Christ must be in accordance with
some latent law of spiritual nature. It was a little strange
certainly that these latent laws should be utilised only for
the children of Abraham, and it was inconvenient that
the miracles of Moses should be, materially speaking, so
stupendously superior to those of Christ ; but I took re-
fuge in the greater beauty and emblematic meaning of the
latter. Even at the time when I signed the Thirty-nine
Articles I had no suspicion that the miracles were not
historical. Partly, I had never critically and systematic-
ally studied the Gospels as one studies Thucydides or
yEschylus ; partly the miracles had always been kept in
the background by my Rector and the books of the
Broad Church School, and I had been accustomed to rest
my faith on Christ Himself and not on the miracles ; and
so it came to pass that, for some time after I was ordained,
I was quite content to accept all the miracles of the Old
and New Testaments, and to be content with the ex-
planation suggested by "latent laws."

12 PERSONAL [Letter 2

But now that I was ordained, I set to work in earnest (the
stress of working for a degree and the need of earning one's
living had left no time for it before) at the study of the
New Testament. Of course I had "got it up" before, often
enough, for the purpose of passing examinations ; but now
I began to study it for its own sake and at leisure. While
reading for the Theological Tripos I had been struck by
the inadequacy of many of the theological books that I
had had to " get up." Especially on the first three Gos-
pels — looking at them critically, as I had been accustomed
to look at Greek and Latin books — I was amazed to find
that little or nothing had been done by English scholars
to compare the different styles and analyse the narratives
into their component parts. For such a task I had myself
received some little preparation. I had picked up my
classics without very much assistance from the ordinary
means, mainly by voluntarily committing to memory whole
books or long continuous passages of the best authors,
and so imbuing myself with them as to "get into the
swing of the author." I had early begun to tabulate these
differences of style ; and in my final and most important
University examination I remember sending up more than
one piece of composition rendered in two styles. Though
I was never a first-rate composer, owing to my want of
practice at school, this method had succeeded in bringing
me to the front in " my year ; " and I now desired to
apply my classical studies to the criticism of the first
three Gospels. It seemed to me a monstrous thing
that we should have three accounts of the same life,
accounts closely agreeing in certain parts, but widely
varying in others, and yet that, with all the aids of modern
criticism, we should not be able to determine which ac-
counts, or which parts of the three accounts, were the
earliest. At the same time I began to apply the same
method, though without the same attempt at exactness,

Letter 2\ PERSONAL 13

to the study of the text of Shakespeare ; in which I per-
ceived some differences of style that implied difference
of date, and some that appeared to imply difference of

About this time people began to talk in popular circles
concerning Evolution, and alarm began to be felt in
some quarters at the difficulty of harmonizing its
theories with theology. With these fears I never could
in the least degree sympathize. I welcomed Evolution
as a luminous commentary on the divine scheme of
the Redemption of mankind. That most stimulating of
books, the Advancement of Learning, had taught me to be
prepared to find that in very many cases " while Nature or
man intendeth one thing, God worketh another ; " and it
was a joy to me to find new light thrown by Evolution on
the unfathomable problems of waste, death, and conflict.
Death and conflict could never be thus explained— I
knew that — but one was enabled to wait more patiently
for that explanation which will never come to us till we
are behind the veil, when one found that death and
conflict had at least been subordinated to progress and
development. So I thought ; and so I said from the
pulpit of one of the Universities in times when the
clergy had not yet learned to call Darwin " a man of
God." My doctrine was thought "advanced" in those
days ; but time has gone on and left me, in some respects,
behind it. I should never have thought, and should not
think now, of calling Darwin "a man of God," except so
far as all patient seekers after truth are men of God :
but I still adhere to the belief that Evolution has made it
more easy to believe in a rational, that is to say a non-
miraculous, though supernatural, Christianity.

In this direction, then, my thoughts went forward and,
so far, found no stumbling-block. Guided by the poets
and analytic novelists, I was also learning to find in the

14 PERSONAL [Letter 2

study of the phenomena of daily life fresh illustrations
of the Pauline theology, confirming and developing my
notion (now of some years' standing) that the Redemp-
tion of mankind was natural, nothing more than a colossal
representation of the spiritual phenomena that may be
seen in ordinary men and women every day of our lives ;
just as the lightning-flash is no more than (upon a
large scale) the crackling of the hair beneath the comb.
Good men and women, I perceived, are daily redeeming
the bad, bearing their sins, imputing righteousness to
them, giving up their lives for them, and imbuing them
with a good spirit. This thought, as it gained force, was
a great help towards a rational Christianity.

But now my feet began to be entangled in snares and
pitfalls. I had begun the study of the Greek Testament,
believing that it would bring forth some new truth, and
assuming that all truth must tend to the glory of God and
of Christ. " Christ," I said, "is the living Truth, so that
I have but, as Plato says, to ' follow the Argument/ and
that must lead me to the truth, and therefore to Him."
But I was not prepared for the result. After some years
of work I found myself gradually led to the conclusion
that the miraculous element in the Gospels was not his-
torical. A mere glance at the Old Testament shewed
that, if there was not evidence enough for the miracles
in the New Testament, much less was there for the
miracles in the Old.

Before me rose up day by day fresh facts and infer-
ences, not only demonstrating the insufficiency of the
usual evidence to prove that the miracles were true, but
also indicating a very strong probability that they were
false. Often, as I studied the accounts of a miracle, I
could see it as it were in the act of growing up, watch its
first entrance into the Gospel narrative, note its modest
beginning, its subsequent development : and then I was

Letter 2] PERSONAL 15

forced to give it up. Worst of all, that miracle of
miracles which was most precious to me, the Resurrection
of Christ, began to appear to be supported by the feeblest
evidence of all. I had not at that time learned to dis-
tinguish between the Resurrection of Christ's material
body and the Resurrection of His Spirit or spiritual body.
Christ's Resurrection seemed to me therefore in those
days to be either a Resurrection of the material and
tangible body or no Resurrection at all. Now for the
Resurrection of the material body I began to be forced to
acknowledge that I could find no basis of satisfying
testimony. I had heard an anecdote of the Head of some
College of Oxford in old days, how he fell asleep after
dinner in the' Combination Room, while the Fellows over
their wine were discussing theology, and presently made
them all start by exclaiming as he awoke, "After all there,
is no evidence for the Resurrection of Christ ! ,; I realized
that now, not with a start, but gradually, and with a
growing feeling of deep and wearing anxiety. If the
Resurrection of Christ fell, what was to become of my
faith in Christ ?

Amid this impending ruin of my old belief I saw one
tower standing firm. It was clear that something had
happened after the death of Christ to make new men of
His disciples. It was clear also that St. Paul had seen
something that had induced him to believe that Christ
had risen from the dead. That which had convinced St.
Paul, an enemy, might very well convince the Apostles,
the devoted followers of Christ. What was this some-
thing? It seemed to me that I ought to try to find out.
Meantime, I determined to adopt the advice I gave you
in my last letter — to stand upon the old ways and look
around me and consider my path before taking another
step. Circumstances had placed me in such a position
that I was not called on to decide whether a clergyman

1 6 PERSONAL [Letter 2

could entertain such views as were looming on me, and
remain a clergyman. I was not engaged in any work
directly or indirectly requiring clerical qualifications ; and
as far as my affections and sentiments were concerned,
I went heartily with the services of the Church of

So I resolved to put aside all theology for two or three
years and to devote myself, during that time, to literary
work of another kind. Meantime, I would retain, as far
as possible, the old religious ways of thought, and, at all
events, the old habits. None the less, I would not give
up the intention of investigating the whole truth about
the Resurrection. That there was some nucleus of truth
I felt quite certain ; and even if that truth had been em-
bedded in some admixture of illusion, what then ? Were
there no illusions in the history of science ? Were there
no illusions in the history of God's Revelation of Himself
through the Old and New Testaments ? Might it not be
God's method of Revelation that men should pass through
error to the truth ? This line of thought seemed promising,
but I would not at once follow it. I would wait three
years and then work out the question of the influence of
illusion on religious truth.

An old college acquaintance, an agnostic, whom I met
about this time, was not a little startled when I told him
my thoughts. He frankly informed me that, though I
was "placed in a painful position," I was "bound to speak
out." I also thought that I was " bound to speak out ; "
but I did not feel bound to obtrude immature views upon
the world, with the result perhaps of afterwards altering
or recanting them. So I took time, plenty of time ; I
looked about me, on life as well as on books ; I formed a
habit of testing assumptions and asking the meaning of
common words, especially such words as knowledge,
faith, certainty, belief, proof, and the like. Believing that

Letter 2\ PERSONAL 17

theology was made for man and not man for theology, I
began to test theological as well as other propositions by
the question " How do they work ? " Meantime I tried
my utmost to do the duties of my daily life without dis-
traction and with the same energy as before, hoping that
life itself, and the needs of life, would throw some light
upon the question, " What knowledge about God is
necessary for men who are to do their duty ? And how
can that knowledge be obtained ? "

By these means I was led to see that a great part of
what we call knowledge does not come to us, as we falsely
suppose it does, through mere logic or Reason, nor through
unaided experience, but through the emotions and the
Imagination, tested by Reason and experience. Even in
the world of science, I found that the so-called " laws and
properties of matter," nay, the very existence of matter,
were nothing more than suggestions of the scientific
Imagination aided by experience. A great part of the
environment and development of mankind appeared to
have been directed towards the building up of the imagina-
tive faculty, without which, it seemed that religion, as well
as poetry, would have been non-existent. So by degrees,
it occurred to me that perhaps I had been on the wrong
track in my search after religious truth. I had been
craving a purely historical and logical proof of Christ's
divinity, and had felt miserable that I could not obtain it.
But now I perceived that I was not intended to obtain it.
Not thus was Christ to be embraced. There must indeed
be a basis of fact : but after all it was to that imaginative
faculty which we call " faith," that I must look, at least in
part, for the right interpretation of fact. That Christ
could be apprehended only by faith was a Pauline
common-place ; but that Christ's Resurrection could be
grasped only by faith, and not by the acceptance of
evidence, was, to me, a new proposition. But I gradually


iS PERSONAL [Letter 2

perceived that it was true. I might be doubtful whether
Thomas touched the side of the risen Saviour, yet sure
that Christ had risen from the dead in the Spirit, and
had manifested Himself after death to His disciples.
My standard of certainty being thus shifted, many things
of which I had formerly felt certain became uncertain ;
but, by way of compensation, other things— and these
the most necessary and vital— became more certain
than ever. I felt less inclined to dogmatize about the
existence of matter ; but my soul was imbued with a
fuller conviction of the existence of a God ; and deeper
still became the feeling that, so far as things are known
to me, there is nothing in heaven or earth more divine
than Christ.

Thus at last light dawned upon my darkness ; and when
the sun rose once more upon me, it was the same sun as
before, only more clearly seen above the mists of illusion
which had before obscured it. The old beliefs of my
youth and childhood remained or came back to me, ex-
hibiting Jesus of Nazareth as the Incarnate Son of God,
the Eternal Word triumphant over death, seated at the
right hand of the Father in heaven, the source of life and
light to all mankind. Like Christian in Pilgrim's Pro-
gress, I found myself suddenly freed from a great burden
— a burden of doubts, and provisos, and conditions which,
in old days, had seemed to forbid me from accepting
Jesus as the Lord and Saviour of mankind unless I could
strain my conscience to accept as true a number of stories
many of which I almost certainly knew to be false. In
order to believe in Christ, it was now no longer needful
to believe in suspensions of the laws of Nature : on the
contrary, all Nature seemed to combine to prepare the
way to conform humanity to that image of God which
was set forth in the Incarnation. I did not, as some
Christians do, ignore the existence of Satan (and almost

Letter 2\ PERSONAL 19

of sin) which Christ Himself most clearly recognized ;
but I seemed to see that evil was being gradually sub-
ordinated to good, and falsehood made the stepping-stone
to truth.

Through evil to good ; through sin to a righteousness
higher than could have been attained save through sin ;
through falsehood to the truth ; through superstition to
religion— this seemed to me the divine evolution discern-
ible in the light that was shed from the cross of Christ.
No longer now did it seem impossible or absurd that the
Gospel of the Truth might have been temporarily
obscured by illusions or superstitions even in the earliest

I think it must be now some ten years since I settled
down to the belief that the history of Christianity had
been the history of profound religious truth, contained
in, and preserved by, illusions ; an ascent of worship
through illusion to the truth. A belief that has been
fifteen years in making, and for ten years more has been
reviewed, criticized, and finally retained as being histori-
cally true and spiritually healthful, you must not call, I
think, "a transient phase." But I forgive you the
expression. A dozen pages of autobiography are a
sufficient penalty for three offending words.

C 2



My dear ,

You ask me to explain, in detail, what I mean by
asserting that the Imagination is the basis of knowledge.
" Apparently," you say, " our knowledge of the world ex-
ternal to ourselves seems to you to spring, not from the
sensations as interpreted by the Reason, but (at all events
to a large extent) from the sensations as interpreted by the
Imagination. If you mean this, I wish you would show
how the Imagination thus builds up our knowledge of
the world. But I think I must have misunderstood you."

You have not misunderstood me. I would go even
further than the limits of your statement : for I believe
that we are largely indebted to the Imagination for our
knowledge, not only of the external world, but also of
ourselves. However, suppose we first take a simple
instance of the knowledge of external things : " This
inkstand is hard. How did I come to know that it was
hard ? How do I know that it is hard now ? "

Let us begin from the beginning. I am an infant
scrambling on the floor where the said inkstand is casually
lying. Having a congenital impulse (commonly called
"instinct") to touch and suck anything that comes in my
way, and especially anything bright, I greedily and rapidly
approximate my lips to the corner of this polished object.
I recoil with a sharp shock of pain. The pain abates.
The instinctive recoil from the inkstand has left in me an
instinctive aversion to the pain-causing object : but my

Letter$\ KNOWLEDGE 21

touching and sucking instinct again revives, and as soon
as it prevails over the recoiling instinct, I am impelled
again towards the inkstand, not so rapidly as before, but
still too rapidly. I recoil again, with pain lessened but
still acute. I am acquiring "knowledge:" I "know,"
though I cannot put it into words, that I have twice found
the inkstand not-to-be-rapidly-approached-under-penalty-
of-a-certain-kind-of-pain, in other words, " hard." But I
try again ; I try four, five, six times : I find that when I
approach with less velocity my pain is less, and when with
sufficiently diminished velocity, there is no pain at all ; I
touch and suck in peace : but when I forget my experience
and suppose that the inkstand — even though I dash wildly
at it after my old fashion — will " behave differently this
time," I find that I am mistaken : the inkstand will not
" behave differently ; " it always behaves in the same
way. By this time then I know something very important

But pause now, my friend, and ask yourself how much
this infant has a right to say he "knows," so far as the
evidence of the senses guides him. All that the senses
have told him is that on five, six, seven, say even seventy,
occasions, he found the inkstand hard. But is this all
that he " knows " ? You know perfectly well that he knows
infinitely more : he has made a leap from the past into
the future and knows that the inkstand will be found hard
whenever he touches it. When he grows up and attains
the power of speech he will generally express his know-
ledge in the Present Tense : " I must not strike the ink-
stand with my mouth for it is hard : " but in reality this
" is " implies " will be ; " "I must not strike the inkstand
with my mouth for I shall find it hard." Now what is it
that has produced in him this conviction which no philo-
sopher' can justify by mere logic, but which every baby
acts on ? It seems to have arisen thus. The baby has

22 KNOWLEDGE [Letter 3

received in rapid succession two sensations, first, that of a
violent approximation to the inkstand, secondly, a sudden
shock of pain. Having received this pair of sensations
very frequently, he cannot help associating them together
in his thoughts ; so that now the thought of a violent
approximation to the inkstand necessarily suggests to him
the thought that it is not-to-be-approached-violently, or
" hard." He began by learning to expect that perhaps, or
probably, the first sensation would be followed by the
second ; but having found, after constant experiments,
that the second sensation, so far as his experience goes,
always follows the first, he gradually passes from belief
into certainty, or knowledge, that the second always
will, or must, follow the first.

A similar transition is going on at the same time in the
infant's mind — I mean the transition from belief to certainty
— in regard to thousands of other propositions besides the
one we have selected, "this inkstand is hard." Every
single case of such transition facilitates the transition in
other cases, by making the child feel that, if he is to get
on in the world and make his way through it without in-
curring the constant pains and penalties of Nature, he
must not disregard these juxtapositions, or pairs of sen-
sations, (which, when he grows older, he will, if ever he
becomes an educated man, call " cause " and " effect "),
but must take them to heart and remember them ; when
the first of a familiar pair comes, he must be prepared to
find the second immediately following. Not unfrequently
the child's limited experience associates together in his
mind sensations that Nature has not associated ; as, for
example, when he infers that a clock must tick because
he has never yet in his life seen a clock that has stopped.
In this and other cases the child has afterwards to dis-
sociate what he had too hastily joined together, and to
correct his conclusions by wider experience. But, on the

Letter 3] KNOWLEDGE 23

whole, the transition from belief to certainty, in an}' one
case, is facilitated by the great majority of similar cases
in which the same transition is going on with results that
are confirmed by his own experience and by that of his
elders. What helps the transition, in each case, is its
general success ; it works : it helps the child to move
more and more confidently in the world without subjecting
himself to the punishments which Nature has attached to

Now therefore, reviewing the stages of the progress
upwards, we see that the knowledge of which we are
speaking is based upon an inherent and fundamental
belief of which we can give no logical justification what-
ever. Why should an inkstand always be hard ? The
child can allege no reason for this except that, having
found the inkstand to be hard in a great number of past
instances, he is compelled to believe that it will be always
hard, with such a force of conviction that he cannot but
feel and say he " knows " it. But of course there is no
logical justification for this assertion. He might argue
for some months or even years, in precisely the same way
about a clock, and say that " a clock always ticks,'' because
he has seen the clock tick times innumerable and never
known it not to tick. Why should not a larger experience
confute his so-called knowledge in the case of the ink-
stand as in the case of the clock ? As the clock collapses,
why should not the nature of the inkstand collapse — be,
come unwound, so to speak, or altogether transmuted ?
There is no possible answer to this question for the
child, at present, exxept the following: — "It never has
done so, and therefore I believe that it never will. I
believe in the uniformity of Nature. The sequences of
observed cause and effect are Nature's promises, and if
she does not keep them, life will break down. I am com-
pelled to believe, and to act on the belief, that life will

24 KNOWLEDGE [Letter 3

not break down. I believe that this inkstand is hard,
because this belief works? "

I conclude therefore that all knowledge of the kind we
are now describing is based on belief (viz. the belief that
what has been will be) tested by experience. I think it
must also be admitted that Imagination contributed to the
result : for the child not only remembers his two past
consecutive sensations but gradually images in his mind a
kind of bond between them, which memory pure and
simple could not have contributed. Memory reproduces
" Inkstand and then hardness ; " Imagination paints, or
begins to paint, a new idea, " Inkstand and therefore hard-
ness." Again, Memory reproduces vaguely numerous in-
stances, "The inkstand was hard ten, eleven, twenty,
many times ; " then comes Imagination and at a leap
sets before the mind an entirely new notion, and invents
for it the word " always."

Concerning other and more complex kinds of knowledge
what need is there to say a word ? For if such simple
propositions as " a stone is hard," are shown to depend
upon Imagination for suggesting, and Faith for retaining,
a conviction of the uniformity of Nature, much more must
these influences be presupposed if the child is to attain

Online LibraryEdwin Abbott AbbottThe kernel and the husk : letters on spiritual Christianity → online text (page 2 of 29)