Thomas Hill Green.

The witness of God and faith [microform] : two lay sermons online

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Faith. 85

known, it keeps before us an object which we
may seek to become. It is an element of
identity between us and a perfect Being, who is
in full realisation what we only are in principle
and possibility. That God is, it entitles us
to say with the same certainty as that the
world is or that we ourselves are. What He
is, it does not indeed enable us to say in the
same way in which we make propositions
about matters of fact, but it moves us to
seek to become as He is : to become like
Him, to become consciously one with Him,
to have the fruition of His Godhead. In this
sense it is that Reason issues in the life of

An objector here may naturally ask, how,
if we do not know what God is, we can seek
to become as He is. Does not the limitation
we admit to the possibility of knowledge
make faith too, in the sense described, an
impossibility, or at any rate reduce it to a
vague aspiration

' The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion to something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow '?

86 Faith.

Now, in the first place, it may be noticed
that some limitation to our knowledge of the
object of Faith is implied in the very idea of
Faith. If we knew God as we know any-
thing else, if His nature had been revealed to
us by miraculous evidence of a kind with that
which convinces us of matters of fact, then
would faith be no more faith. As St. Paul
says of Hope, which is but another name for
Faith, ' We are saved by hope, but hope that
is seen is not hope.' In a certain respect
there is a correspondence between Faith, as
the practical consciousness of God, and the
artist's consciousness of an ideal. The ideal
which governs the production of a work of
art whether it be the ideal of an imitation
of nature, or of something so far removed
from this as I should suppose a musical com-
position to be is not in the proper sense an
object of knowledge to the artist. It is not
anything which he could adequately describe
in words. He can but gradually, and never
completely, define the ideal by means of the
work in which it is to some extent realised.
It thus appears that an object of conscious-

Faith. 87

ness may be in the highest degree operative
not upon us, but in and through us and in
that most proper sense real, which yet is not
known, but can only come to be known indi-
rectly or piece-meal through the gradual re-
sults of its operation. It will be observed
further, that such an ideal object does not
exist apart from the consciousness of it. It
is not what we suppose an external thing to
be there ready-made before and indepen-
dently of our being aware of it. It exists
only in the consciousness : yet any conscious-
ness of it that the artist could call his own or
that he could express not in a description
before-hand, but in his most finished work
falls far short, as he would tell us, of the ideal
itself. The ideal exists in his consciousness,
yet not in its full reality, for if it did it would
no longer be an ideal. There is an identity
between it and his consciousness of it ; other-
wise it would not exist for him at all. Yet it
must be more and other than his conscious-
ness of it, or that consciousness would not be
of an ideal.

By help of this analogy it may be under-

88 Faith.

stood how there may be a consciousness of
God, which is not a knowledge of Him of a
kind with our knowledge of matters of fact,
and yet is the most real, because the most
operative, of all spiritual principles : a con-
sciousness not definable like an ordinary
ccnception, but which defines itself in a moral
life expressive of it ; which is not indeed an
external proof of the existence of God, but
is in principle that existence itself a first
communication of the Godhead. Such con-
sciousness has in manifold forms been the
moralising agent in human society, nay the
formative principle of that society itself. The
existence of specific duties and the recog-
nition of them, the spirit of self-sacrifice, the
moral law and the reverence for it in its most
abstract and absolute form all no doubt pre-
suppose society ; but society, of a kind to
render them possible, is not the creature of
appetite and fear, or of the most complicated
and indirect results of these. It implies the
action in man of a principle in virtue of
which he projects himself into the future or
into some other world as some more perfect

Faith, 89

being than he actually is, and thus seeks not
merely to satisfy momentary wants but to
become ' another man ' to become more
nearly as this more perfect being. Under
this influence wants and desires that have
their root in the animal nature become an
impulse of improvement (' Besserungstrieb ')
which forms, enlarges, and re-casts societies ;
always keeping before man in various guise,
according to the deg ee of his development,
an unrealised ideal of a Best which is his God,
and giving Divine authority to the customs or
laws by which some likeness of this ideal is
wrought into the actuality of life. I cannot
here attempt to trace even in outline, as a
Philosophy of History should do, the pro-
cess by which God's revelation of Himself in
the human consciousness has thus issued in
the institutions by which our elementary
moralisation is brought about ; or to show
how upon this process there has supervened
another in which the consciousness of God
has come to distinguish itself from these its
partial and changing results, and to recognise
itself alone, in opposition to any outward law

o Faith.

of state or church, as the manifested God, His
communication of Himself in spirit and in
truth. We are born, so to speak, into a world
in which these processes have already been
carried so far, in which the consciousness of
God has already so far embodied itself, that
the problem of faith for us is rather to
overcome the selfishness and conceit which
prevent us from taking into ourselves in-
dividually the revelation of God which is
everywhere about us, than to develop that
revelation more fully. It is our very fami-
liarity with God's expression of Himself in
the institutions of society, in the moral law,
in the language and inner life of Christians,
in our own consciences, that helps to blind us
to its divinity, and emboldens us to claim the
right to please ourselves unabashed by its
presence. Yet if thus, by refusing to recog-
nise it, we turn the light that is in us to
darkness, how great is that darkness ! In the
higher forms of the Christian religion the
spirit of man has reached that stage some-
times called by mystics the reign of the Holy
Ghost in which the consciousness of God is

Faith. 9 1

a consciousness of Him, no longer as an
outward power, but as one with itself, as
reconciled and indwelling. If it becomes so
perverted in us that, having ceased to look
for a God outside us, we will not recognise
Him in ourselves and in that which our con-
science reveals to us, we are committing the
true sin against the Holy Ghost a sin un-
pardonable, in the sense that it shuts us out
from the higher life the life of correlative
self- reverence and self-abasement, of self-
sacrifice and self-development the life of

The enemy which religion, i.e. a God-
seeking morality, has now to fear, is not a
passionate atheism. Such atheism is often a
religion which misunderstands itself. It is
seeking after God, but in the hurry of irrita-
tion against the ignorance and fear which call
themselves religious, it cannot recognise its
object under the old name. It may limit and
distort the spiritual life, and yet leave the
spring of its nobility untouched. Not from
it is our danger, but from the slow sap of an
undermining indifference which does not deny

92 Faith.

God and duty, but ignores them ; which does
not care to trouble itself about them, and
finds in our acknowledged inability to know
them, as we know matters of fact, a new ex-
cuse for putting them aside. It is this which
takes off the native beauty from the fair
forehead of a child-like faith, and leaves, not
the scars of a much-questioning and often-
failing but still believing search after God,
whom so to seek is to find, but the vacancy
of contented worldliness or the sneer of the
baffled pleasure-seeker.

It is indeed no new malady. While ' the
flesh lusteth against the spirit ' it must always
be at work, and may be as prevalent in an
age of orthodoxy as in an age of doubt. But
we know it best and have most to fear it in
the form which it takes from the temper of our
own time. Most of us, I should suppose, who
have felt the influence of modern ' culture ' at
all, must have felt that it has been giving at
any rate great opportunities to this enemy of
our spiritual life. Everything has had a
history, we have learnt complacently to say.
The notions of God, of duty, of an ideal life,

Faith. 93

have been constantly shifting. They have
'developed,' and that is vaguely taken to
mean that they are transitory phases of a
force moving we know not whence or whither.
' We are children of nature, the offspring of
circumstance ; nature and circumstance may
be left to make us what they will, so long as
we take our fill undisturbed of such pleasures
as they put in our way. A perfect Being
whom we cannot know, an absolute law which
we cannot describe, are clearly no concern
of ours.' So, more or less articulately, we are
apt to argue ; and though the Divine con-
sciousness in us, which is necessary even to
the possibility of our so arguing, cannot thus
be wholly suppressed, it is prevented from
duly actualising itself, and we are left in a state
of moral triviality than which the darkest de-
spair of doubt is far more noble. Even though
we bear up against the deadening influence,
yet as criticism compels us to discard, one
after another, 'the fair humanities of old
religion ' the anthropomorphic formulae in
which we have been used to express to our-
selves the presence and action of God as an

94 Faith.

external person moulding nature to His pur-
poses and intervening in it when and how He
will our spiritual life cannot but feel the
change. It lacks the means of utterance and
communication. We know not how to speak
of Divine things to each other; we are es-
tranged from the sympathies of the Christian
congregation. Yet ' still the heart doth need
a language ; ' and, unable to use the old or to
make a new one, it loses the energy which
free exercise and expression are needed to
sustain. Our moral standard indeed may not
suffer. We may persist grimly in the walk of
duty and refuse to acquiesce in the attitude
of disbelief, but ' the fire so bright, the love
so sweet, the unction spiritual ' are ours no

It may seem more easy to show the in-
evitableness of this state of mind than a way
of deliverance from it. No deliverance indeed
is to be looked for from without. No dis-
covery in nature, no ' glimpses of the unseen,'
no revived force or recognition of authority,
will bring us help. Faith is not to be saved
by anything that would supersede faith, but

Faith. 95

only by its own faithfulness ; and it will be
so saved if, through the trial to which in the
criticism of its supposed dogmatic basis it is
subjected, it learns more clearly to recognise
its native divinity the God that worketh in
it and its proper independence of external
support. Thus finding in itself the revelation
which it seeks in vain elsewhere, it does not
cease to be rather it becomes again what
in essence it was to St. Paul. It is in his spirit,
I venture to think, that we may reason thus
with our doubts. ' You complain that by
searching you cannot find out God. No eye
can see, or ear hear Him. The assertion that
He exists cannot be verified like any other
matter of fact. But what if that be not be-
cause He is so far off, but because He is so
near ? You cannot know Him as you know
a particular fact related to you, but neither
can you so know yourself ; and it is yourself
not as you are but as in seeking Him you
become that is His revelation. " Say not in
thine own heart, who shall ascend into heaven
or descend into the deep," to find God in the
height of another world or in the depths of

96 Faith.

nature ? " The word of God is very nigh thee,
even in thy mouth and in thy heart." It is
the Word that has been made man ; that has
been uttering itself in all the high endeavour,
the long-suffering love, the devoted search for
truth, which have so far moralised mankind,
and that now speaks in your conscience. It
is the God in you which strives for communi-
cation with God.

" Speak to Him thou, for He hears, and spirit

with spirit can meet ;
Closer is He than breathing, and nearer
than hands and feet."

Not as to the sensual ear, nor necessarily
through the stinted expression of verbal
signs, but as a man communes with his own
heart, you may speak to God. Though you
know not what you should pray for as you
ought, yet the Spirit itself maketh interces-
sion for you with groanings which cannot be
uttered. Look not for an external answer to
your prayer. Your prayer will be its own
answer, even as the virtuous action is its own
reward. Prayer indeed, if of the right sort,
is already incipient action ; or, more properly,

Faith. 97

it is a moral action which has not yet made
its outward sign. It is the determination of
desire by the consciousness of God, and is an
incident of that process which, as the effort to
realise a conception of absolute law, to fulfil
our true vocation, to develop humanity, to
enact God in the world, constitutes the
morally good life. Neither the prayer nor
the life is a means to anything beyond itself.
Each has its value simply as the expression
or realisation of the Divine principle which
renders each possible. To ask for a verifica-
tion of your idea of God before you pray, or
for a proof of the existence of an absolute
moral law before you deny yourself in obedi-
ence to its command, is to deprive yourself of
the benefit of the only proof or verification
which the nature of the case admits. You
cannot find a verification of the idea of God
or duty ; you can only make it. God is not
something outside and beyond the conscious-
ness of Him, any more than duty is outside
and beyond the consciousness of it. The true
verification of the consciousness is the life of
prayer and self-denial which expresses it.

98 Faith.

Though the failing heart cries out for evidence,
at the worst live on as if there were God and
duty, and they will prove themselves to you
in your life. The witness which God has
given of Himself in the spiritual history of
mankind you will in this way make your own.'
Whether such language will carry much
meaning to those to whom I speak I cannot
but feel doubtful. But I can only say to them
what I say to myself, and offer them, the
thoughts in which, amid much misgiving and
frequent failure of heart and will, I still find
assurance. Even if the truth of such thoughts
be accepted, the difficulty of making them
available for the daily food which human
weakness requires still remains. They may
suffice for us while reason is strong and the
temper calm, but when

' Our light is low

When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle, and the heart is sick.
And all the wheels of Being slow,'

we need another sustenance the support,
as we should be apt to say, of something
more ' objective ' and tangible. It is idle

Faith. 99

to ignore the reality and inevitableness of
this demand, nor, though we may antici-
pate a time when it will be rather met by
the sympathies of a society breathing the
Christian spirit than by the propositions of
an anthropomorphic theology, will this an-
ticipation give us much practical help, since
the needed sympathies are at present scarcely
to be found except among those to whom they
seem dependent upon such a theology. To
those therefore who find themselves, not
indeed even seemingly detached from the
eternal basis of faith, but to a certain degree
weakened and distressed in their spiritual
walk by inability to adopt the received dog-
matic expression of the Christian faith and
by consequent estrangement from Christian
society, I must frankly confess that there is
no present compensatory support which I can
indicate. I can but make a few suggestions
for lessening the danger and loss which can-
not be wholly avoided.

In the first place, let us not make the
estrangement wider than it need be. Inability
to adopt the ' creeds of Christendom in their

i oo Faith.

natural sense and in any other sense they
are best left alone need not disqualify us
from using its prayers. A creed is meant to
serve either as an article of agreement with
other men, or as a basis of theological argu-
ment ; and from each point of view there are
objections to using its words in any other mean-
ing than that which they are ordinarily under-
stood to bear. But in prayer we need not
ask whether our words are such as would be
understood by others in the same sense as by
us, or whether they convey a correct theological
conception. They are not meant to be heard
of men. ' He that searcheth the hearts
knoweth what is the mind of the spirit/ So
long as our prayers express the effort after a
higher life, recognised as proceeding from, and
only to be satisfied by, the grace of God, the
theological formulae in which they are clothed
are of little importance. In the prayers of
the Christian Church, issuing as they do from
a consciousness to which the death in Christ
to sin and the new life in Him unto God, a
free forgiveness and the indwelling of the
Spirit, represented spiritual experiences, we

Faith. 101

have modes of utterance which in the de-
velopment of the same consciousness and it
cannot be developed without utterance we
may properly make our own. The fact that
others who use them have beliefs as to his-
torical occurrences which we do not share,
need not prevent us from sharing with them
what is not the expression of an historical
belief but of a spiritual aspiration. Such
participation is of the more value when it
becomes part of a general co-operation in that
active life of the Christian society, in which
the prayers of the congregation find their
proper complement It is often for want of
this co-operation that Faith, as a spiritual
principle, tends to languish in those to whom
the traditional dogmatic expression of it has
become impossible. Such persons are much
too ready to acquiesce in isolation as a neces-
sary result of their opinions. It is rather the
result of an obtrusion of their opinions, with
which vanity and impatience have much to
do. The days of tests and declarations, ex-
cept for clerical functions, are over, and it is
surely a weakness, when we are not pressed



IO2 Faith.

for our opinions, to make so much of them to
other people, or to ourselves, as to be excluded
or to exclude ourselves from joining in a
common activity, the spirit of which we in-
wardly reverence and would gladly make our
own, while in separation we are almost cer-
tain to lose it. It is one of the misfortunes of
our life here that it tends to make us overrate
the importance of opinions as compared, I do
net say with mere outward conduct, but with
the practical principles of the inner life ; and
even though, as a matter of theory, we avoid
this mistake, yet our position and employ-
ment allow us few openings into that active
life of charity in which Christian faith is most
readily realised. Even here, however, in our
intercourse with each other, there are oppor-
tunities for us to ' bear one another's burdens,
and so fulfil the law of Christ ; ' nor, because
much of our intellectual activity is the result
of mere curiosity or emulation, should we
forget that there is such a thing as a pursuit
of truth, in principle identical with the striving
after God which animates the moral life.
Those of us to whom University life is merely

Faith. 103

an avenue to the great world, would do well
betimes to seek opportunities of co-operation
with those simple Christians whose creed,
though we may not be able exactly to adopt
it, is to them the natural expression of a spirit
which at the bottom of our heart we recognise
as higher than our own. In the every-day life
of Christian citizenship, in its struggle against
ignorance and vice, such opportunities are
readily forthcoming. It will be rather, it is
true, on the fringe of the Church that such
work will lie. For some of the deeper cha-
rities, so to speak, of the Christian society
such as ministering to the spiritual wants of
the sick speculative differences may for the
present necessarily disqualify us. But there re-
mains a large range of Christian activity, from
which our excommunication will be our own
fault. In it, if we will exercise the needful
restraint if we will curb our conceit, and
watch our tongues, and keep aloof from temp-
tations to controversy we may still have
some experience of that fellowship with the
saints which is necessary for our daily suste-
nance in the life of Faith.

IO4 Faith.

Meanwhile, if the present distress must
still for a time continue, if the cheerfulness
and brightness of faith should still seem ne-
cessarily to disappear along with the abandon-
ment of that dogmatic expression of it which
criticism invalidates, let us be all the firmer
in refusing any compromise with our lower
nature. It is not the reality of God or of the
ideal law of conduct that is in question, but
the adequacy of our modes of expressing
them. We may be passing through a period
of transition from one mode of expressing
them to another, or perhaps to an admission
of their final inefTableness. Whatever we do,
let us not make the difficulties of the transi-
tion an excuse for concessions to the spirit of
self-indulgence. If doubts come thick, and
we have ceased to look for any rending of the
heavens to remove them, so that our faith in
God no longer brings the old joy and peace
of believing, let us rather ask ourselves what
right we have to be happy than seek our
happiness in pleasures where, because we are
capable of God, we cannot find it. Faith in
God and duty will survive much doubt and

Faith. 105

difficulty and distress, and perhaps attain to
some nobler mode of itself under their influ-
ence. But if once we have come to acquiesce
in such a standard of living as must make us
wish God and duty to be illusions, it must
surely die.





Late Fellow of Balliol College, and Whyte's Professor
of Moral Philosophy in the University of Oxford.

Edited by R. L. NETTLESHIP, Fellow of
Balliol College, Oxford.

i6s. each.

VOL. III. MISCELLANIES. With Memoir, Index
to the Three Volumes, and Portrait etched by
W. Sherborn. 8vo. zis.


Pi X



Santa Barbara


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Online LibraryThomas Hill GreenThe witness of God and faith [microform] : two lay sermons → online text (page 5 of 5)