Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Rational Theology not Attainable
By Henry Longueville Mansel (18201871)
From The Limits of Religious Thought Examined
IF there is one dream of a godless philosophy to which, beyond all others, every moment of our consciousness gives the lie, it is that which subordinates the individual to the universal, the person to the species; which defies kinds and realises classifications; which sees being in generalisation, and appearance in limitation; which regards the living and conscious man as a wave on the ocean of the unconscious infinite; his life, a momentary tossing to and fro on the shifting tide; his destiny to be swallowed up in the formless and boundless universe. The final conclusion of this philosophy, in direct antagonism to the voice of consciousness, is I think; therefore I am not. When men look around them in bewilderment for that which lies within them; when they talk of the enduring species and the perishing individual, and would find, in the abstractions which their own minds have made, a higher and truer existence than in the mind which made them; they seek for that which they know, and know not that for which they seek. They would fain lift up the curtain of their own being, to view the picture which it conceals. Like the painter of old, they know not that the curtain is the picture.
It is our duty, then, to think of God as personal; and it is our duty to believe that He is infinite. It is true that we cannot reconcile these two representations with each other, as our conception of personality involves attributes apparently contradictory to the notion of infinity. But it does not follow that this contradiction exists anywhere but in our own minds; it does not follow that it implies any impossibility in the absolute nature of God. The apparent contradiction in this case, as in those previously noticed, is the necessary consequence of an attempt on the part of the human thinker to transcend the boundaries of his own consciousness. It proves that there are limits to mans power of thought, and it proves no more.
The preceding considerations are equally conclusive against both the methods of metaphysical theology described in my last lecture; that which commences with the Divine to reason down to the human, and that which commences with the human to reason up to the Divine. For though the mere abstract expression of the infinite, when regarded as indicating nothing more than the negation of limitation, and therefore of conceivability, is not contradictory in itself, it becomes so the instant we attempt to apply it in reasoning to any object of thought. A thing, an object, an attribute, a person, or any other term signifying one out of many possible objects of consciousness, is by that very relation necessarily declared to be finite. An infinite thing, or object, or attribute, or person, is therefore in the same moment declared to be both finite and infinite. We cannot, therefore, start from any abstract assumption of the Divine infinity, to reason downwards to any object of human thought. And, on the other hand, if all human attributes are conceived under the conditions of difference, and relation, and time, and personality, we cannot represent in thought any such attribute magnified to infinity; for this again is to conceive it as finite and infinite at the same time. We can conceive such attributes, at the utmost, only indefinitely, that is to say, we may withdraw our thoughts for the moment, from the fact of their being limited; but we cannot conceive them as infinite: that is to say, we cannot positively think of the absence of the limit; for the instant we attempt to do so, the antagonistic elements of the conception exclude one another, and annihilate the whole.
There remains but one subterfuge to which philosophy can have recourse, before she is driven to confess that the absolute and the infinite are beyond her grasp. If consciousness is against her, she must endeavour to get rid of consciousness itself. And accordingly, the most distinguished representatives of this philosophy in recent times, however widely differing upon other questions, agree in maintaining that the foundation for a knowledge of the infinite must be laid in a point beyond consciousness. But a system which starts from this assumption postulates its own failure at the outset. It attempts to prove that consciousness is a delusion; and consciousness itself is made the instrument of proof; for by consciousness its reasonings must be framed and apprehended. It is by reasonings, conducted in conformity to the ordinary laws of thought, that the philosopher attempts to show that the highest manifestations of reason are above those laws. It is by representations, exhibited under the conditions of time and difference, that the philosopher endeavours to prove the existence, and deliver the results of an intuition in which time and difference are annihilated. They thus assume, at the same moment, the truth and the falsehood of the normal consciousness: they divide the human mind against itself; and by that division prove no more than that two supposed faculties of thought mutually invalidate each others evidence. Thus, by an act of reason, philosophy destroys reason itself; it passes at once from rationalism to mysticism, and makes inconceivability the criterion of truth. In dealing with religious truths, the theory which repudiates with scorn the notion of believing a doctrine although it is incomprehensible, springs at one desperate bound clear over faith into credulity, and proclaims that its own principles must be believed because they are incomprehensible. The rhetorical paradox of the fervid African is adopted in cold blood as an axiom of metaphysical speculation: It is certain, because it is impossible. Such a theory is open to two fatal objectionsit cannot be communicated, and it cannot be verified. It cannot be communicated, for the communication must be made in words, and the meaning of those words must be understood; and the understanding is a state of the normal consciousness. It cannot be verified; for, to verify, we must compare the authors experience with our own; and such a comparison is again a state of consciousness. Let it be granted for a moment, though the concession refutes itself, that a man may have a cognisance of the infinite by some mode of knowledge which is above consciousness. He can never say that the idea thus acquired is like or unlike that possessed by any other man; for likeness implies comparison, and comparison is only possible as a mode of consciousness, and between objects regarded as limited and related to each other. That which is out of consciousness cannot be pronounced true; for truth is the correspondence between a conscious representation and the object which it represents. Neither can it be pronounced false; for falsehood consists in the disagreement between a similar representation and its object. Here then is the very suicide of rationalism. To prove its own truth and the falsehood of antagonistic systems, it postulates a condition under which neither truth nor falsehood is possible.