The Spiritual Faculty

There are aspirations in us which stretch forth towards the infinite; affections which transcend calculation; religious emotions which struggle to pour themselves out to a supreme Personality in boundless adoration, self-abasement, trust, self-sacrifice, and love. These are the signs and witness of this soaring faculty, the actings by which its existence and nature are revealed.

That these point to a real and definite element of our personality seems unquestionable. With neither our animal instincts nor our logical understanding have they anything in common; nor can they be, without violence to facts, identified even with the action of our moral faculty. For the facts of consciousness to which this latter endowment of our being gives birth, the perception of right, the authority of conscience, the sense of duty and responsibility, the satisfaction derived from conscious integrity, although they may often appear to emerge within the peculiar sphere of spiritual feeling, and be almost inextricably intertwined with the more vivid emotions kindled by the religious sentiment, yet in themselves differ essentially from those in which the spiritual faculty displays its characteristic properties.

The reverential submissions of the will to the supreme Ruler and Judge is a feeling that lies a long way apart from those fervent religious emotions of which the human spirit is conscious towards the supreme Goodness, and which can only utter themselves inarticulately in ecstacies of gratitude and love, worship and praise. It is the spiritual element in man which kindles morality into a burning aspiration for unstained purity and unbounded perfection; impels the soul towards the infinite and eternal, and both craves and finds in God the object of its affections and hopes, its center of repose and its everlasting portion. Now when this faculty falls into the hands of the hostile analyst it may easily share the fate which we saw befall the moral consciousness, and like that seem to evaporate and disappear in the crucible of critical examination; and all the more readily because of its more ethereal texture, and its operation being in a sphere which lies more out of the way of busy social life. A great solvent of it is found in the idealizing faculty, and by a free use of this the process of disintegrating all that is spiritual in human nature goes on with marvelous ease and success, till a bare residuum of gross and earthy material is all that is left behind.

Now, we do not doubt that to persons in whom the religious sentiment is dormant and inoperative, an explanation of this kind of the genesis of spiritual feeling may seem plausible, perhaps even convincing. Unconscious themselves of any yearnings after God, any soaring away of the heart to find elevation and repose in a Being of infinite goodness, it may appear reasonable to them to think that such feelings, when alleged to exist in others, are fanciful, morbid, or even hypocritical. No argumentation can be too flimsy, no explanation too meager, to dispose satisfactorily of even the plainest facts in the estimation of persons who possess no faculty for understanding them.

But to those who know by experience what religion is, whose souls are on fire with a passionate longing for God, and are thrilled with the joy of communion with him in his goodness and love, it is really impossible that any explanation of any kind should fail to appear infected with the taint of flagrant absurdity and baselessness.

What, while they are feeling God within themselves as the unfailing source of their strength and peace and hope; while they are perceiving him by a spiritual intuition as vividly as their eyes discern the brightness of the sun, or their ears hear the deep roll of thunder; while he is more real to them than even a friend, or child, or wife, and their whole being so centers consciously in him and reposes upon him, that to snatch him from them would leave a void and desolation in their hearts, more drear and dark than if the world were blotted out around them; to tell these God-seeing, God-filled souls with a jaunty air that all this is but a baseless dream, and they are but weaving webs of idle fancies, and constructing a romance of the imagination by idealizing the ordinary relations of social life--why, one might as well expect them to believe that they themselves are but bubbles dancing on the foaming stream of time, or shadows flickering across the infinite void; that all existence is a dream, and everything is nothing!

But such intense religious emotions, such vivid realizations of spiritual things as these to which we are appealing, are they indeed well enough established facts of human experience to warrant our inference from them of a real and distinct spiritual element in human nature? Exceptional phenomena fail to afford a sufficiently secure basis of induction. They may possibly be misinterpreted, and the generalization from them run in an erroneous direction. We need a wide array of facts to allow us to feel safe in our inference.

Here, then, we are thrown back on the historical development of the religious instinct, and to make our conclusions sure we must feel our way along this line of human growth.

That religion is indigenous to human nature, and springs up in it by natural growth as a legitimate and normal product of its unfolding faculties and properties, may fairly be taken as certain. If religion does not have this native character, but is something artificial and alien, it would be difficult to alight upon any one property or affection exhibited by man against which the same charge might not be brought.

No nation has ever existed in historic times without a religion. Not even the most barbarous tribes have failed to entertain a religion as soon as their minds began to expand with culture, and human thoughts to predominate over mere animal instincts. Hence religion may be confidently said to be native to human nature, and to exist in even the lowest and rudest specimens of mankind, as a germ which only needs opportunity to grow and manifest itself.

Next, it may be affirmed that the essence of religion is the sense of a relation to a superhuman personality. How can it be otherwise? Religion implies worship, trust, reverence, prayer; these must have an object, and that object must be of the nature of a person. At times indeed men have conceived themselves to be subject to some impersonal fate, destiny, or force; but that has never been the object towards which their religious emotions have gone out. The beings whom they have worshipped have been being from whom they hoped to obtain help in their struggle against the blind, impersonal power; personal beings whose wills might be moved by sacrifice, prayer, or worship. Unless there is a person to be worshipped, as well as a person to offer the worship, religion is a name without signification or substance.

Further, it is historically true of all religions which have laid hold of the human heart and been efficacious to restrain and guide it, that their strength has been in proportion to the vividness with which they led men to realize their relation to a Superhuman Personality.

So far as those religions that were the mere creations of poetical fancy, philosophic thought, or mere mortals; they were inefficient, ineffective, and barren. But the element in religion whereby it spoke to the universal conscience, and awoke in it the sense of being face to face with the awful unseen Personality, it swayed the hearts of men, and was fruitful of moral results.

Our glance back has shown us that when religions have been practical forces in the world, more or less vivid emotions toward the object of worship have been their legitimate effect, and the measure of their vital affinity to human nature. But we still want more definite examples of the development of a consciousness of God, to illustrate the working of the spiritual faculty under favorable conditions. For these examples we may go at once to the two great and closely connected faiths, Judaism and Christianity, which in force and fruitfulness have immeasurably surpassed all others.

It is true that none of the great Gentile religions which have really swayed the souls of men has been entirely destitute of witness to the spirituality of human nature. In the records of them all may be traced aspirations towards the Absolute and Infinite, yearnings for God, a consciousness of vital relation to him, a sense of his being man's center of repose and source of blessedness. But in comparison with the testimony borne by the sacred literature both of Israel and Christendom, and by the history of the Christian church, all other witness is meager and scarcely noticeable. It is in this line of religious growth alone that the spiritual instinct has had free development, and risen into commanding and unrivalled supremacy.

Take Jesus Christ of the Gospels. For our present purpose it does not matter whether his matchless character is considered historical, or merely ideal. For even if ideal, it is the ideal which has been accepted by Christendom, that is by all the most energetic and enlightened nations of the world, as exhibiting the perfect pattern to which every human being should aim at being conformed. The Christian idea, therefore, of man--that is, let us remember, the idea of man which has rooted itself universally among all the leading, imperial races of mankind--is not the agnostic idea of a being limited to the relations and experiences of this visible world; but of a being in direct and supreme relation to a heavenly Father, and living his entire life in the consciousness of that relation.

A man without the consciousness of God is, in the estimate of the universal mind of Christendom, as distant and alien from the true ideal of humanity, as a man destitute of reason and motivated only by the mere instincts of animal life.

In the face of this mighty development of the religious instinct or sentiment among the choice and foremost races of mankind (a development which may truly be said to have been an efficient cause rather than a mere accompaniment of their civilization), it seems impossible with any show of reason to deny to human nature an indigenous faculty for religion, a faculty which reaches out instinctively beyond time and senses to find the eternal and infinite, and fastens itself on the idea of a fatherly God as the goal of its aspirations and the satisfaction of its desires.

Who that fairly ponders on the prevalence and practical working of Judaism and Christianity can seriously account for the phenomena on any other hypothesis than the existence in man of this spiritual sense, tendency, or consciousness, as an essential, native element of his humanity? To say that there have been tribes of men who exhibited no signs of possessing it, or even that there may possibly have been an early stage in the evolution of the human race in which the faculty had not yet come into being, does not really touch the root of the question at all. The most thorough-going evolutionist, who is driven by the exigencies of his theory to entertain the notion, in the teeth of all moral evidence, of the slow growth of the beast into the human being, must, if he still allows himself to think, be aware of the absurdity of denying a faculty to the mature man, because it had not appeared when he was still half beast and but half man.

Wherever human nature is not manifestly maimed, incomplete, crushed under barbarism and ignorance--that is, wherever it is allowed to be human nature--there this spiritual faculty, in fuller or scantier degree, manifests itself in yearnings after the unseen in the consciousness of relation to a Superhuman Personality, in religious emotions, and in acts of worship and thanksgiving. And we know too that in proportion as human nature has unfolded its higher properties, and advanced in the direction of its ideal type, in the same degree has the spiritual faculty invariably come out in greater force, and played a more dominant part in human life.

These are the facts with which our induction must deal; and from these we cannot but draw the conclusion, that just as certainly as man has a reasoning faculty, an aesthetic faculty, and a moral faculty, so surely does he also possess a spiritual faculty, by which he forms conceptions of God, yearns to know God, becomes conscious of God, and seeks repose in God's fatherly goodness and love.

Now it is true that this is purely a subjective conclusion, and that no logic can possibly carry us on from it to the objective fact of a real God who corresponds to the spiritual faculty in man. But it is no such logical bridge from the subjective to the objective that our argument requires. Again and again we have insisted that the whole of the practical knowledge on which human life is based rests on no logical foundation, but on the trustworthiness of our instinctive consciousness and intuitive perceptions. We do trust these, and it is only through trusting them that we are enabled to live human lives. We have no other ground for our belief in the physical world, in our fellow man, or even in our own permanent personality. Domestic, social, national life, the administration of justice, the acquisition of knowledge, the pursuit of art, the entire fabric of civilization, rest on these primary instinctive perceptions, and the beliefs of the reason in which they embody themselves.

Why then should we begin to distrust our consciousness, and cast doubts on its veracity, as soon as it begins to witness to us concerning the existence of God? If our souls are conscious of him, why should we not believe that he really exists just as much as we believe that other minds and other objects exist solely because we are conscious of them? If we begin to doubt here, where shall our doubting end? Experience proves that there is a vision of God by the purified soul, just as truly as there is a vision of the beauteous face of nature by the sensitive eye; why stigmatize one as a figment of the imagination, while confessing the other to be a reality of practical experience and common sense? By tracing the elements and workings of the religious instinct, we reach the broad fact that a consciousness of God is one of the primary and fundamental intuitions of human nature. Whence the conclusion follows that the belief in God to which it has given rise among mankind is another one of those primary beliefs of the reason which underlie all logical proof, and justify themselves by their very existence.