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PART I. SOME OF THE PHILOSOPHICAL AND SCRIPTURAL PRINCIPLES AND DOCTRINES OF FAITH.



CHAPTER FIRST.


THE DOCTRINE OF NATURAL FAITH.


A distinction to be made between natural and religious faith. A full knowledge of religious faith implies some antecedent knowledge of natural faith. Natural faith or belief arises naturally and necessarily on its appropriate occasions. Is known chiefly by a reference to our own consciousness. Illustrations of its nature. Exists in different degrees. Does not concentrate attention upon itself. Its power.

ALL men have faith; but it cannot be said with truth, that all men have religious faith. All men have faith in something; but it is not true, that all men have faith in God. It is proper, therefore, to make a distinction, and to discriminate between religious faith and natural faith.

2.—In order, however, to understand religious faith, it is desirable, as it seems to me, to understand something of the nature or character of natural faith. Our attention, therefore, is properly directed, in the first place, to the inquiry, What is natural faith? And in the prosecution of this inquiry, an obvious remark here is, that faith, or belief, which is only another name for the same thing, arises within us naturally and necessarily, on its appropriate occasions. In other words, it does not depend for its origin on our volition; but it comes of itself. It does not depend, for instance, upon a man’s volition or his mere arbitrary choice, whether he shall believe in his own existence or not; whether he shall believe in his personal identity or not; whether he shall believe in the existence of an outward material world or not. In these cases, and in others like them, it is conceded, that he cannot help believing. The state of mind, therefore, which we denominate faith or belief, using the terms in the natural and not in the religious sense, exists in us by our very nature. It is not only there; but by the very constitution of our nature, it must continue to remain there, while man is what he is.

3.—Belief not only exists in man, as an essential part of his nature; but we may add as a separate proposition, that man knows what it is. There is belief in man, and a knowledge of that belief. It is no more possible for man to be without the knowledge of belief, than it is to be without belief itself. If a man believes, for instance, in his own existence, if he exercises any degree of faith in the physical and mental power he possesses, if in the affairs of life he relies more or less on the statements and promises of his fellow-men, if he believes in the fact of the revolution of the heavenly bodies, in the vicissitudes of the seasons, or in many other things which might be mentioned as things likely to control his belief, it is obvious that he knows, and that he cannot help knowing what natural belief or faith is, by his own inward experience. The knowledge of the thing, as well as the fact or existence of the thing, is involved necessarily in the constitution of the mind itself. And it is in that constitution, therefore, that we must seek for a knowledge of it. In other words, we obtain a knowledge of belief by a reference to our own inward consciousness; and we cannot obtain an adequate knowledge of it in any other way.

4.—It should be added, however, that, while, by turning the mind inward upon itself, we know what it is, we are, nevertheless, not able to define it. It is admitted, that it is not possible to give a definition of belief or faith, which, independently of inward experience, will render it easy to be understood. But this difficulty, whether it be regarded as greater or less, and which on a close examination will be found to be more formidable in appearance than in reality, is not limited to belief. All other states of mind, which are truly simple and undefinable, are better known by a reference to our own consciousness, than by any statements in words.

5.—Taking it for granted, in view of what has been said, that every person has exercised more or less of belief, and that consequently every person, as a matter of inward consciousness, knows something of its nature, we will proceed to give a few simple illustrations. The child, that sets out with his parents upon a long and untried journey, without a doubt that his parents will supply his wants and guide him in the right way and will bring him home again in safety, (if, indeed, he feels that he can have a home but in the arms and presence of those parents,) knows what it is to believe. The young man, who for the first time enters upon business for himself, and in the prosecution of the plans and labors which now devolve upon him, finds it necessary to implicate himself with his fellow-men, and to enter into arrangements and contracts, which imply the discharge of duties and the fulfilment of promises on the part of others, knows what it is to believe. The man of more mature years, who is called by his countrymen to the high office of sustaining and administering the laws, but who is obviously unable to do it, without confidence in himself, without confidence in his subordinate agents and in the community at large, knows what it is to believe. So complicated are the relations of society, and so dependent is man on his fellow-man, that it is difficult to see, if man had not faith in others, how he could exist in the world for any length of time. But it seems to us unnecessary to dwell upon this point. It is sufficient to add here, that this state of mind, of which it is so difficult to give a definition, but which may be supposed to be so well known and understood in each one’s consciousness, arises on a multitude of occasions; on the testimony of our senses in relation to the outward world; on the declarations of consciousness in relation to the facts and modifications of inward feeling; on the statements which are made by our fellow-men in the ordinary affairs of life; in view of that sort of circumstantial evidence, which is furnished by a continuous course of conduct in others; and in connection with the suggestions of the simplest forms of judgment and with the numerous and complicated deductions of reasoning.

6.—We proceed to say further, in explanation of this subject, that natural faith, which is always the same in its nature or essence, exists in different degrees. And this is so truly and distinctly the case, that we frequently employ different names as expressive of the different degrees of credence, which we yield. Differences in the degree of belief depend chiefly upon differences in the evidence, which is presented before the mind. And as the evidence in its different kinds is greater or less, we are in the habit of designating the resulting belief by names appropriate to its strength, such as presumption, slight or strong presumption, probability, low or high probability, and certainty. The same inward consciousness, which teaches us the nature of faith, indicates also the degree of it. And in accordance with this general view, which is scripturally as well as philosophically correct, we very frequently and very properly speak of a person’s faith in reference to its degree; describing one person as a man of strong faith and another as a man of weak or small faith, or by some other epithets intermediate in signification.

7.—Such is faith considered psychologically or mentally; a principle, or rather a mental state, essential to the human mind; naturally and necessarily arising on its appropriate occasions; of which every one has the experience in the ordinary conditions and transactions of life, and of which consequently every one has a knowledge in his own consciousness; a principle, not always the same in strength, but existing in a variety of degrees, proportioned to the evidence presented before it. And perhaps we may appropriately add in this connection, that there is no one of the natural principles of the human mind, which is more constantly operative and more important in its results, than natural faith is. I am aware, that this is not generally understood, and perhaps not generally admitted. And probably the reason of its not being so is, because faith is a principle which, in itself considered, attracts but little notice. We cannot doubt, nevertheless, that the statement is essentially true. We grant, that the state of mind, which we call belief or faith, is not, in general, so distinct in our consciousness, as some other states of mind. That is to say, it does not stand out quite so prominently, quite so distinctly, to inward observation. And we think we can see a reason for it. It is this. It seems to be the intention of nature, or rather of the wise and benevolent Author of nature, that we should give less attention to the act of belief, than to the object believed in. The fact, in the case under consideration, seems to be the same with what is known and acknowledged to exist in the case of those sensations, which connect us with the outward world. It is well known, in the case of these sensations, that the mind passes with rapidity from the inward state, which scarcely attracts any notice to itself, to the outward object, whatever it may be, which the inward sensation or state makes known to us. And in the same manner, the state of mind, which we denominate belief, fulfills the purpose, for which it is given us, not by turning the mind’s notice upon itself, but by passing on, if one may so express it, and by directing it towards the object believed in. With this remark in view, we repeat what has before been said, that there is no one of the natural principles of the human mind, which is more constantly operative, and more important in its results, than natural faith.

8.—It is this remarkable principle, exceedingly simple in its nature but almost infinite in its applications, which, not only connects the soul with its own acts, but with almost every thing around it; with woods and waters and sun and moon and stars, which would be nothing to us, if they were not believed in; with men, whose existence is made available and desirable to us only by belief in their existence and by confidence in their character; with God himself, whom it is impossible to realize as God, except by means of faith. Annul this principle, so simple in its appearance and yet so wonderful in its results, and man becomes, by the law of his own nature, an isolated being; he is like a person thrown into the midst of the ocean without even a plank to rest upon; not only desolate and hopeless in himself; but with nothing to console him in nature or help him in humanity, or be his support and his “bread of life” in the Infinite Mind.