I. ON AGNOSTICISM.
A PAPER READ AT THE MANCHESTER CHURCH CONGRESS, 1888.
BY HENRY WACE, D. D.,
PREBENDARY OF ST. PAUL’S CATHEDRAL; PRINCIPAL OF KING’S COLLEGE, LONDON.
What is agnosticism? In the new Oxford "Dictionary of the English Language," we are told that "an agnostic is one who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind natural phenomena is unknown, and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing." The same authority quotes a letter from Mr. R. H. Hutton, stating that the word was suggested in his hearing, at a party held in 1869, by Prof. Huxley, who took it from St. Paul’s mention of the altar at Athens to the Unknown God. "Agnostic," it is further said, in a passage quoted from the "Spectator" of June 11, 1876, "was the name demanded by Prof. Huxley for those who disclaimed atheism, and believed with him in an unknown and unknowable God, or, in other words, that the ultimate origin of all things must be some cause unknown and unknowable." Again, the late honored bishop of this diocese is quoted as saying, in the "Manchester Guardian" in 1880, that "the agnostic neither denied nor affirmed God. He simply put him on one side." The designation was suggested, therefore, for the purpose of avoiding a direct denial of beliefs respecting God such as are asserted by our faith. It proceeds, also, from a scientific source, and claims the scientific merit, or habit, of reserving opinion respecting matters not known or proved.
Now we are not here concerned with this doctrine as a mere question of abstract philosophy respecting the limits of our natural capacities. We have to consider it in relation to the Church and to Christianity, and the main consideration which it is the purpose of this paper to suggest is that, in this relation, the adoption of the term agnostic is only an attempt to shift the issue, and that it involves a mere evasion. A Christian Catechism says: "First, I learn to believe in God the Father, who hath made me, and all the world; secondly, in God the Son, who hath redeemed me, and all mankind; thirdly, in God the Holy Ghost, who sanctifieth me, and all the elect people of God." The agnostic says: "How do you know all that? I consider I have no means of knowing these things you assert respecting God. I do not know, and can not know, that God is a Father, and that he has a Son; and I do not and can not know that such a Father made me, or that such a Son redeemed me." But the Christian did not speak of what he knew, but of what he believed. The first word of a Christian is not "I know," but "I believe." He professes, not a science, but a faith; and at baptism he accepts, not a theory, but a creed.
Now it is true that in one common usage of the word, belief is practically equivalent to opinion. A man may say he believes in a scientific theory, meaning that he is strongly of opinion that it is true; or, in still looser language, he may say he believes it is going to be a fine day. I would observe, in passing, that even in this sense of the word, a man who refused to act upon what he could not know would be a very unpractical person. If you are suffering from an obscure disease, you go to a doctor to obtain, not his knowledge of your malady, but his opinion, and upon that opinion, in defiance of other opinions, even an emperor may have to stake his life. Similarly, from what is known of the proceedings in Parliament respecting the Manchester Ship-Canal, it may be presumed that engineers were not unanimous as to the possibilities and advantages of that undertaking; but Manchester men were content to act upon the best opinion, and to stake fortunes on their belief in it. However, it may be sufficient to have just alluded to the old and unanswered contention of Bishop Butler that, even if Christian belief and Christian duty were mere matters of probable opinion, a man who said in regard to them, "I do not know, and therefore I will not act," would be abandoning the first principle of human energy. He might be a philosopher; but he would not be a man – not at least, I fancy, according to the standard of Lancashire.
But there is another sense of the word "belief," which is of far more importance for our present subject. There is belief which is founded on the assurances of another person, and upon our trust in him. This sort of belief is not opinion, but faith; and it is this which has been the greatest force in creating religions, and through them in molding civilizations. What made the Mohammedan world? Trust and faith in the declarations and assurances of Mohammed. And what made the Christian world? Trust and faith in the declarations and assurances of Jesus Christ and his apostles. This is not mere believing about things; it is believing a man and believing in a man. Now, the point of importance for the present argument is, that the chief articles of the Christian creed are directly dependent on personal assurances and personal declarations, and that our acceptance of them depends on personal trust. Why do we believe that Jesus Christ redeemed all mankind? Because he said so. There is no other ultimate ground for it. The matter is not one open to the observation of our faculties; and as a matter of science we are not in a position to know it. The case is the same with his divine Sonship and the office of his Spirit. He reveals himself by his words and acts; and in revealing himself he reveals his Father, and the Spirit who proceeds from both. His resurrection and his miracles afford us, as St. Paul says, assurance of his divine mission. But for our knowledge of his offices in relation to mankind, and of his nature in relation to God, we rest on his own words, confirmed and explained by those of his apostles. Who can dream of knowing, as a matter of science, that he is the Judge of quick and dead? But he speaks himself, in the Sermon on the Mount, of that day when men will plead before him, and when he will decide their fate; and Christians include in their creed a belief in that statement respecting the unseen and future world.
But if this be so, for a man to urge as an escape from this article of belief that he has no means of a scientific knowledge of the unseen world, or of the future, is irrelevant. His difference from Christians lies not in the fact that he has no knowledge of these things, but that he does not believe the authority on which they are stated. He may prefer to call himself an agnostic; but his real name is an older one – he is an infidel; that is to say, an unbeliever. The word infidel, perhaps, carries an unpleasant significance. Perhaps it is right that it should. It is, and it ought to be, an unpleasant thing for a man to have to say plainly that he does not believe Jesus Christ. It is, indeed, an awful thing to say. But even men who are not conscious of all it involves shrink from the ungraciousness, if from nothing more, of treating the beliefs inseparably associated with that sacred Person as an illusion. This, however, is what is really meant by agnosticism; and the time seems to have come when it is necessary to insist upon the fact.
Of course, there may be numberless attempts at respectful excuses or evasions, and there is one in particular which may require notice. It may be asked how far we can rely on the accounts we possess of our Lord’s teaching on these subjects. Now it is unnecessary for the general argument before us to enter on those questions respecting the authenticity of the Gospel narratives, which ought to be regarded as settled by M. Renan’s practical surrender of the adverse case. Apart from all disputed points of criticism, no one practically doubts that our Lord lived, and that he died on the cross, in the most intense sense of filial relation to his Father in heaven, and that he bore testimony to that Father’s providence, love, and grace toward mankind. The Lord’s Prayer affords sufficient evidence upon these points. If the Sermon on the Mount alone be added, the whole unseen world, of which the agnostic refuses to know anything, stands unveiled before us. There you see revealed the divine Father and Creator of all things, in personal relation to his creatures, hearing their prayers, witnessing their actions, caring for them and rewarding them. There you hear of a future judgment administered Christ himself, and of a heaven to be hereafter revealed, in which those who live as the children of that Father, and who suffer in the cause and for the sake of Christ himself, will be abundantly rewarded. If Jesus Christ preached that sermon, made those promises, and taught that prayer, then any one who says that we know nothing of God, or of a future life, or of an unseen world, says that he does not believe Jesus Christ. Since the days when our Lord lived and taught, at all events, agnosticism has been impossible without infidelity.
Let it be observed, moreover, that to put the case in this way is not merely to make an appeal to authority. It goes further than that. It is in a vital respect an appeal to experience, and so far to science itself. It is an appeal to what I hope may be taken as, confessedly, the deepest and most sacred moral experience which has ever been known. No criticism worth mentioning doubts the story of the Passion; and that story involves the most solemn attestation, again and again, of truths of which an agnostic coolly says he knows nothing. An agnosticism which knows nothing of the relation of man to God must not only refuse belief to our Lord’s most undoubted teaching, but must deny the reality of the spiritual convictions in which he lived and died. It must declare that his most intimate, most intense beliefs, and his dying aspirations, were an illusion. Is that supposition tolerable? It is because it is not tolerable, that men would fain avoid facing it, and would have themselves called agnostics rather than infidels; but I know not whether this cool and supercilious disregard of that solemn teaching, and of that sacred life and death, be not more offensive than the downright denials which look their responsibility boldly in the face, and say, not only that they do not know, but that they do not believe. This question of living faith in a living God and Saviour, with all it involves, is too urgent and momentous a thing to be put aside with a philosophical "I don’t know." The best blood of the world has been shed over it; the deepest personal, social, and even political problems are still bound up with it. The intensest moral struggles of humanity have centered round this question, and it is really intolerable that all this bitter experience of men and women who have trusted and prayed, and suffered and died, in faith, should be set aside as not germane to a philosophical argument.
But, to say the least, from a purely scientific point of view, there is a portentous fallacy in the manner in which, in agnostic arguments, the testimony, not only of our Lord, but of psalmists, prophets, apostles, and saints, is disregarded. So far as the Christian faith can be treated as a scientific question, it is a question of experience; and what is to be said of a science which leaves out of account the most conspicuous and most influential experience in the matter? One thing may be said with confidence: that it defeats itself, by disregarding the greatest force with which it has to contend. While philosophers are arguing as to the abstract capacities of human thought, as though our Lord had never lived and died, he himself is still speaking; his words, as recorded by his apostles and evangelists, are still echoing over human hearts, touching their inmost affections, appealing to their deepest needs, commanding their profoundest trust, and awakening in them an apprehension of that divine relation and those unseen realities in which their spirits live. While agnostics are committing the enormous scientific as well as moral blunder of considering the relations of men to God and to an unseen world without taking his evidence into account, and then presuming to judge the faith he taught by their own partial knowledge, his word is still heard, in penetrating and comfortable words, bidding men believe in God and believe also in himself. He, after all, is the one sufficient answer to agnosticism, and – I will take the liberty of adding – to atheism and to pessimism also. Not merely his authority, though that would be enough, but his life, his soul, himself.
Accordingly, as our object here is to consider how to deal with these difficulties and objections, what these considerations would seem to point out is that we should take care to let Christ and Christ’s own message be heard, and not to endure that they should be allowed to stand aside while a philosophical debate is proceeding. Philosophers are slow in these matters. They are still disputing, after some twenty-five hundred years of discussion, what is the true principle for determining moral right and wrong. Meanwhile men have been content to live by the Ten Commandments, and the main lines of duty are plain. In the same way religion has preceded the philosophy of religion, and men can be made sensible of their relation to God whether it can be philosophically explained or not. The Psalms, the Prophets, and, above all, the Gospels, are plain evidence, in matter of fact, that men are in relation to God and owe duties to him. Let men be made to attend to the facts; let them hear those simple, plain, and earnest witnesses; above all, let them hear the voice of Christ, and they will at least believe whatever may be the possibilities of knowledge. In a word, let us imitate St. Paul when his converts were perplexed by Greek philosophies at Corinth: "I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God; for I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and him crucified."