Dr. Kirk is a Southerner, born in Tennessee fifty-four years ago. Educated in the Southwestern Presbyterian University, he entered the ministry in 1897. After two brief pastorates, he came to the Franklin Street Church, Baltimore, in 1901, where for twenty-five years he has exercised an influential and fruitful ministry. Last year he declined the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church of New York City, on the ground that his work is not done where he is. Indeed, it is open to question whether a man has a right to leave such a place of power as Dr. Kirk has in Baltimore.
As lecturer at Princeton, Union, Hartford, New Brunswick, and McCormick Theological Seminaries, Dr. Kirk has a wide ministry to young men studying for the ministry. He is as well known in England as in America, as summer preacher at Westminster Chapel in London. Besides numerous articles in reviews, he has written The Religion of Power and The Consuming Fire; but the book that I love best is One Generation to Another, in which expository preaching is made more fascinating than fiction.
The sermon here deals with the nature of religious knowledge, one of the most vital issues before the mind of our day, showing, as St. Francis said long ago, that “we know as much as we do”; and that to know God we must be like Him—since in these high matters character is revelation.
If any man willeth to do his will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it be of God. John 7:17.
In these words Jesus speaks clearly about a question to which most of us would like a plain answer, although our ability to understand the answer will depend upon willingness to put our minds to it. These words were called out by an inquiry made of Jesus by the Pharisees, who were unable to resist the power of His teaching. They said, “Where did this man get his knowledge of God, since it is clear he was not educated in our schools?” Jesus replied in substance, “I obtained it from my disposition to do My Father’s will, and the way is open to all earnest minds. If any willeth to do His will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it be of God.” That is to say, if our disposition be right, we shall be able to obtain valid knowledge of God and the way of life.
Every man at some stage of his life wants this very thing. How can we be sure of God? Is our knowledge, admittedly at all times imperfect, still a valid knowledge? How may we reach those durable persuasions which in the hour of life or death shall give us a confident assurance that we are the children of God, that what we have committed unto Him against that day is safe? Let me attempt to answer this question, and set before you what seems to be the nature of religious knowledge.
The general drift of this saying is that a man’s disposition, his moral attitude toward life generally, will determine his apprehension of the mind of God. If his disposition is wrong, he can never reach assurance about any spiritual reality; if his disposition is right, it will lead him into ever-increasing light and confidence. If the eye be single the whole body shall be full of light, but if the eye be evil, that is, cursed with moral duplicity, then the whole body shall be full of darkness. Only the pure in heart see God. If we are willing to become disciples of Jesus we shall know the truth, and the truth shall make us free. These are the biblical conditions on which God offers valid religious knowledge.
The need for a reasonable conception of religious beliefs arises when we are confronted with a certain choice. We begin to be Christians under the influence of home and Church. We profess beliefs about Christ before we are able clearly to think about them. But eventually the question is bound to arise. Shall we continue to believe what we profess because we have been told to believe it, or shall we believe it because we are convinced that it is true? This is a perfectly normal experience, for our permanent hold on any belief will depend upon our choice of it because it is true. If we should entertain a reasonable doubt about it, no matter how earnestly it be urged upon us, we shall fail to realize its power, and go halting and stumbling all our lives.
The real danger, let me insist upon it, to our religious peace does not come from raising the question, but in refusing the serious and patient demands required to give it a fitting answer. That is why there is so much talk about doubt that is not doubt at all. It is a very grave moment when this question arises. It calls for thorough treatment, for by this method alone can a man confirm his religious possessions. Yet many who are too indolent mentally or too shallow morally draw back from it, turn from Christ and the Church, and spend the rest of their lives trying to give to a very unoriginal phase of human weakness the aspect of rationality. No man who has known the agony of doubt has ever professed to be proud of the experience, for doubt is both moral and spiritual weakness, and has been acknowledged to be such by every noble mind.
Yet doubt need not be the outcome of such a necessary mental process, but, on the contrary, it should lead to a stronger faith. The right way to meet such mental experiences is boldly to accept the challenge of life. We must believe that our Lord wants us to raise this question; to take our life seriously enough to insist that our beliefs shall rest upon truth, and that those who earnestly seek for the truth shall find it. Hence Jesus says, First of all consider your disposition. What is your attitude toward life as a whole? Are you willing to do God’s will as you at present understand it? If so, you will come to know more of Him, and as your knowledge is felt to be valid it will bring you into permanent relations with the eternal interests of life. Our inquiry then is this: What is the nature of the knowledge that Jesus promises we shall gain from a right disposition towards God’s will?
What is knowledge of any sort? It is not and never can be completely to know everything that can be known about anything, but sufficient information about a thing to justify us in acting as if it were true. All knowledge is relative. It is relative to your personal point of view, it is also relative to your opportunities and degree of comprehension. Complete knowledge of anything is impossible. Neither is it necessary; for the end of knowledge is action. Its reason for being is to serve life, to keep life in motion, and to direct it towards right ends. And knowledge of any kind, although it is admittedly partial knowledge, is valid if it gives direction and movement to the stream of life, simply because it is based upon the belief that one has enough information about a thing to justify one in acting as if it were true. From a religious point of view there is just as much danger in trying to believe or know too much as there is in trying to know and believe too little. All knowledge exists to keep us in motion; religious knowledge exists to keep us in motion toward the will and purposes of God, and whatever does this is valid, is real knowledge.
Belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour has been historically and experimentally demonstrated to be the most powerful force to keep the stream of human life moving towards the will and purposes of God. In the face of life’s gravest necessities it has always justified men in acting as if it were true, and willingness to act upon it has afforded the strongest possible confirmation of its truth; therefore I affirm with the utmost confidence that faith in Jesus Christ is a valid form of knowledge. In the wider sphere of its influence it is as valid for life as are the demonstrations of science or of philosophy in their more restricted domains of influence. Of course, this affirmation has often been questioned. It is denied, for example, by what is loosely called modern rationalism, and on the most absurd grounds. Modern rationalism as a rule is not rationalism at all, but impressionism. Rarely if ever does it face alternatives in a thoroughly radical spirit, that is, fearlessly thinking things down to the roots. It usually starts with assumptions, involves itself in phrases and slogans, and then proceeds quite illogically to set up a series of affirmations and denials which only require the criticism of sound reason to effectually set them aside.
For instance, modern rationalism acts on the supposition that the only information that justifies action must be susceptible of certain fixed measurements. It further assumes that man always acts as a reasonable being. As a matter of fact, our actions are usually initiated by many elements in which reason plays a very small part, such as impulses, instincts, and desires of various kinds. As Woodrow Wilson once put it, “It is a mistake to say that the mind governs. The mind reigns, but does not govern. We are governed by a tumultuous House of Commons made up of the passions, and the ruling passion is Prime Minister, and coerces the Sovereign.” It is not reason as it is usually understood, but the ruling passion, the main intent of the heart, that determines the significance of human action. And when a man asserts in a dogmatic way that faith is not valid knowledge for action, he is not saying something that can be demonstrated by reason, but simply disclosing a fixed limitation he has already decided to put upon his attitude towards life. Of course it is always legitimate that a man shall be permitted to choose the grounds upon which he will act, but this does not authorize him to set aside as irrational, grounds that commend themselves to people of different disposition.
Sometimes, however, the affirmation that faith is valid knowledge has been questioned by those who profoundly wished to believe it, and who were prevented from doing so by some serious mental confusion. It is easy to lose one’s way in the grave complexities which arise when our life is invaded by eternal issues. There is always fog where warm currents of water come in contact with cold currents of air; so are there fogs where the eternal touches too closely our mortal existence. When some tremendous sorrow overtakes the heart, slowing up the currents of life and exhausting its vital forces, it is apt to put a serious strain upon faith. And so a devout man may break out in lamentation as does Tennyson in In Memoriam. In his beautiful prayer to Christ, “Strong Son of God, Immortal Love,” the poet says:
Thou seemest human and divine,
The highest, holiest manhood, Thou:
Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours to make them Thine!
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O Lord, are more than they!
We have but faith; we cannot know;
For knowledge is of things we see;
And yet we trust it comes from Thee,
A beam in darkness: let it grow!
There is confusion here between a strong desire to believe and a feeling that belief is not knowledge, because knowledge is of things we see. This latter position would not be seriously maintained today by any genuine scientist or philosopher. Yet the notion that faith is something less than knowledge is a very stubborn one, and hard to get over. The poet, however, appears to be aware of a way out in asserting that faith comes from God, and that amid life’s confusions it will grow from more to more provided man’s heart grows in reverence too. This is the way out: not by seeking first to settle such questions by cold processes of reason, but by directing life towards the will of God. This is the teaching of our Lord. Do the will of God and you will know; your faith shall rest upon valid knowledge; it will grow from more to more until you possess a durable persuasion of the truth of what you believe and desire.
And now if you will put your minds to it we may be able to clear this confusion from our path. What makes any belief valid for action is some sort of assurance that it is true. There is a desire for certainty of some kind. The modern man has stumbled a good deal over this word “certainty.” How can we be certain that Jesus is the Son of God? that the soul is immortal? that the way of salvation is trustworthy? We believe these things, but can we ever be assured that they are true? Years ago I came upon a saying of Cardinal Newman that helped me clear up this confusion. He said: “Certainty is a quality of propositions, while certitude is a habit of mind.” This means, of course, that knowledge is of more than one kind; that its validity will depend now on certainty, and now on certitude; that one will rise from the character of the intelligence, the other will take its color from the disposition of the man.
For instance, the very statement of mathematical propositions carries certainty of their truth. There is no need to ask whether two and two make four, for that is a direct deliverance of the mind itself. Mathematical knowledge is the only form of knowledge, strictly speaking, where certainty is a quality of propositions. But although the propositions of science do not carry this sense of inevitability, still they are capable of verification by experiment, and as such may be accepted as certain. Mark this point: to speak of a certain notion as scientific does not justify us in thinking that it is true, but only that it is to be accepted with the authority of science, which has been verified by actual experiment. And of course it is clear that there are regions of life which are quite beyond the scope of scientific investigation. Thoughts, desires, affections, all the motions of the impalpable element of the human personality, cannot be weighed or measured like the quantitive elements of science. Yet we have certain ways of testing the deliverances of this immeasurable region. The propositions of philosophy, which seek to set forth the unity of the world, are never capable of certainty; but they may gain a high degree of probability from the severely logical character of reasoning, and so attain unto the character of certitude. But there is a domain of life far wider than that under the control of science or of philosophy: I mean the domain of human relations. You can never have, in the nature of the case, scientific assurance, in this region, but you may attain the most valid convictions about truth and reality. Not certainty but certitude, which depends on the habit of the mind, is what is gained here. And if you will reflect upon it you will see that this is really the sort of knowledge that moves the world. It lies at the basis of government, social relations, business and private contracts. It is the foundation of friendship, the heart of the relation between man and wife. You can never say of these human relationships that they are either scientific or philosophic, but that the confidence upon which rests human happiness grows out of moral certitudes entirely, upon the disposition to believe in other men; and this confidence grows, as it must grow, out of the purity of the disposition, and is determined by the final set of the heart.
This is being recognized by modern psychology in very interesting ways. We are vitally influenced both in thinking and in acting by our impulses, desires, and urges, which, when united together by a common bond, tend to shape life in accordance with their aims. Certitudes of the mind, slowly formed through human intercourse, hold the world together. They keep the stream of life moving towards desirable objectives. Whatever contributes to the motion of life, whatever moves life to higher and ever higher forms of self-expression, is not only valid knowledge, but the highest form of knowledge. Whatever, on the contrary, slows the stream of life is not knowledge, but error.
The most interesting phase of intellectual progress at the present time is the growing disposition on the part of scientists to recognize the necessity of philosophy for a complete coördination of scientific truth. Science today is beginning to appreciate two things: one is its need for philosophy, the other its need for a spiritual conception of the universe. Any first-class mind today will reject as unscientific the old saying that “knowledge is of things we see.” The world of sensible impressions is beginning to disclose itself as a symbol of invisible reality, for behind the temporal rises the eternal. The imponderable elements of thought are the most important data of scientific investigation. The most useful ideas of science, like the atom, the electron, to say nothing of the vast suggestiveness of the recently announced theory of relativity, are concepts of the mind. They are ideal existences only. To use them at all one must believe in them. They rest upon faith of some kind. It is equally true of mathematical concepts. In fact, the groundwork of science and philosophy is found in a world that is real only to belief, and the trustworthiness of such belief turns at last upon the disposition of the mind. It is because faith is so essential to genuine scientific progress that men of science have always been humble.
So striking has been this advance, that in my judgment we shall see within fifty years a very close union between these hitherto supposedly antagonistic regions of experience, science and religion. That union will be founded upon the recognition of faith as a valid form of knowledge, not only for scientific investigation but also for religious experience. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Many believe this now. Many more will believe it when the joint progress of scientific and religious knowledge has purged the mind of the cloudy confusions of economic rationalism and the impressionistic futilities of clever phrasemakers, and once again permitted man to think of himself as an immortal spirit capable of infinite growth towards God.
Let me then insist that these deep persuasions of truth which grow out of the moral habit and disposition of the mind keep the stream of life moving towards the highest objectives. Destroy faith in them and you have anarchy in government, panic in business, and paralysis in social relations. The clean heart makes the clear mind. It is in the region of the affections, the affinities of the spirit alone, that reside the powers of knowing and understanding ourselves, other selves, and God. This justifies the profound remark of Dr. Martineau that “faith is belief in another’s goodness on the inspiration of your own.” “All things,” as Montaigne long ago said, “take their colour from the mind.”
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of eternity.
This applies directly to our relation to God. In the long last, as the Psalmist says, God takes his moral complexion from the constitution of the mind: “With the merciful wilt thou shew thyself merciful, with an upright man wilt thou shew thyself upright, with the pure thou wilt shew thyself pure, and with the froward thou wilt shew thyself froward.”
By this means alone the first Christians gained their faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. It is an astonishing fact that physical contact with Jesus did not make men believers. Not even can this be affirmed wholly of the Apostles, for it is written that although they saw and heard and handled the Word of life, yet on the dark night of His betrayal they all forsook Him and fled. It was spiritual desire, and not the sight of the eyes, that opened the way to comprehension. Not upon physical contacts, but upon spiritual affinities, the final faith must rest. That is why Peter could write to his sterling converts, who had endured all manner of persecution for Christ’s sake: “Whom having not seen, ye love.” They heard the gospel, and believed it because their hearts were clean. This rightness of disposition opened the way for spiritual apprehension, and they came at last to know the certainty of those things wherein they had been instructed.
Such is and must be the spiritual and moral process by which we grow into the knowledge and into the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Read the testimony of the early Christians. The confidence which enabled them to adopt and gloriously maintain an unpopular faith was founded upon the moral direction of their desires. By actual experiment on the field of life and in face of opposition they came to know of the certainty of that which they had believed. Paul affirms it in the well-known words: “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God.” “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day.” This is the word of God on which we must build our faith. There must be no hesitation, no drawing back from fully committing oneself to the will of God. There must be no flinging of oneself, like Tennyson, upon the world’s great altar stairs and vaguely trusting to a larger hope, but a determination to keep one’s feet on the narrow path which leads upward and onward to the full communion with the eternal God.
To ourselves of the modern world who must needs find our way to the throne of heavenly grace comes the old great word of God: Do My will, and you shall know; commit your way unto Me, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free; love Me with your heart, and I will teach your mind to know Me. For the common problem, yours, mine, every one’s, is not to prove ourselves first of all clever thinkers, or even capable of developing a complete philosophy of life, but rather to acknowledge ourselves as those who need salvation, upon whom in these disturbed times the ends of the world have come, to bring home to our spirits an urgent question on which the whole future depends:
What think ye of Christ, friend! When all’s done and said,
Like you this Christianity, or not?
It may be false, but will you wish it true?
Has it your vote to be so, if it can?