By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
January 13, 1957
According to the famous logician, William Stanley Jevons, there was
once a Frenchman who, after taking a few lessons in logic, suddenly
exclaimed that he had been using logic all his life without knowing
it. What he had expected was that the formal study of the rules of
correct reasoning would take him into an entirely different world
from the one in which he did his ordinary thinking. He would come to
possess, he thought, unusual skill in dealing with unaccustomed
subjects. For was it not the case that philosophy ventured forth
into remote territories of which the average mind had no knowledge?
And was it not essential to the understanding of philosophical
argument that one should first be well versed in the science and art
How great was his disappointment, therefore, when he discovered that
philosophy was nothing more than ordinary thinking, rather more
carefully pursued. And that logic was just the way he had always
tried to reason, but now somewhat more strictly carried out. Instead
of finding himself in an entirely different world, he was compelled
to see that the only world there is is the one he had been living
in. And instead of encountering new and unheralded intellectual
experiences, he was forced to admit that he was just thinking over,
in a more thorough going way, experiences with which he was already
familiar. Thus he came to recognize that logic was just the name
that had been given to the effort he had been making all his
life--an effort to observe accurately and draw correct conclusions
from whatever it was he thought he saw.
It would be a wonderful thing for religion if those who approach it
as though it were exclusive territory could undergo a similar
experience to this Frenchman's. If they could, they would realize
that religion covers the same areas of thought and experience that
everything else covers. It is not something separate and apart from
ordinary life. It is life--life of every kind, viewed from the
standpoint of meaning and purpose: life lived in the fuller
awareness of its human quality and spiritual significance. At any
rate, it is that to begin with. Any other beginning is likely to be
an unfruitful one.
This is what people should have in mind when they ask about God.
Because they have been taught a wrong approach, most people, when
they think about God, start off with the wrong questions. They think
of God as a possible answer to a speculative question. "Is there a
God?" they ask. And they bring before their minds the image of a
majestic personage--or something so close to that that the
distinctions are not worth bothering with. "This Being," they say to
themselves, "may or may not exist. He may or may not have created
the universe. He is a question mark." But all the time, they have an
image in their minds which prevents them from seeing the reality at
which they should be looking.
This condition is aggravated by a preoccupation with what are called
external facts--or, if all the facts are gathered together and
considered as a whole, with what is called external reality. But
there is no such thing as an external reality, even to science,
apart from the internal reality of the human mind that perceives it.
Science has now fully recognized this by setting up so-called
principles of "the scale of observation." In its simplest terms,
this means that whatever is perceived as outer reality is only
perceived to the extent that a given mentality, under certain given
circumstances, is able to interpret it. If the mentality has been
able to invent a microscope, the interpretation will be widened in
the direction of the microscope. If a telescope has been invented,
interpretation will be proportionate to its range. If mathematics
has been developed, precision will be attainable to the extent that
mathematics makes it possible... But all of this, no matter at what
level, is conditioned by the mind that is interacting with it. And
this mind--namely the human mind--is not an outer fact at all. It is
not observable. It cannot be weighed or measured. It is, in its
actual substance, if it has substance, quite elusive. Yet, in the
language of science, it is the "recording-thinking instrument." It
is, no matter how earnestly we try to escape the fact, the final
scientific reality of all.
And this mind, as I say, has been the quite decisive factor that the
modern age, until fairly recently, has chosen to neglect. We have
talked of external reality as though we knew about it without having
to depend upon internal reality, namely, the human mind, to know
anything about anything else whatever. It is with the thought of
correcting this false emphasis that some of the more thoughtful
scientists have been warning us in the last few decades not to
suppose that science knows something that it doesn't know.
"I am not sure," Sir Arthur Eddington tells us, "that the
mathematician understands this world of ours better than the poet
and the mystic." And Sir James Jeans, in his Mysterious Universe,
tells us bluntly that "science is not yet in contact with ultimate
reality." In his presidential address before the British Association
of Scientists (in 1934), he went on to say that "the Nature we study
does not consist so much of something we perceive as of our
perceptions; there is" he concludes, "no clear-cut division between
the subject, and the object. And we could go on quoting from many
other scientists, such as Thomson or Fleming; Milliken, Smuts or
Compton; or latterly, DeNouy.
This, if we will allow it, will bring us to the right starting-point
when we want to consider experience of God. For all facts, without
exception, are facts of experience. And so-called physical facts are
no more real than any others. Let us see whether it is possible to
put all this very simply. At the present moment, I have experience
of this church in which we are meeting. I do not doubt its tangible
reality. Yet, my experience is not merely of what was written down
in the architect's specifications: bricks and mortar, steel beams,
joists and rafters, plaster, paint and glass. I have an experience
of its beauty, of its pleasing proportions, and this experience is
just as real as my experience of its size and shape and solidity.
Even if the church itself were not here, or if I were distant from
it, I could have a similar experience of its beauty, just by
remembering or imagining it. If would be an entirely real
experience, and just as real in the case of a church that had not
yet been built, provided my mind were equal to the task of
constructing it in imagination.
Or let me put it still another way. We will suppose that I am
looking at an oil-painting. What do I experience? Pigment?
Turpentine? Linseed oil, brush marks and canvas? Perhaps I do, but I
scarcely notice them. Indeed, if the painting is good, I do not
notice them at all. What I experience is the picture. And I may be
emotionally moved by its beauty so much that I am not aware of the
physical texture of the painting in the least.
"Ah," but some one says, "it is after all the pigment and canvas
that you actually see." No, indeed! I see the beauty. See it with my
mind through what comes to it through my eyes. And my experience of
it in my mind is not one whit more mysterious than my experience of
the light-waves that carry it through my optical nerves to my brain.
Color itself is in the end mental. It is something that happens in
the mind when light-waves of a certain length and frequency reach
the brain. There are thousands of other light- waves that never
reach the brain at all, or if they do, the mind is not able to do
anything with them. Light is not in the least more substantial or
real or less mysterious than the sense of beauty.
What we must do, therefore, is to accept all that comes to us in
experience--not merely the things we call physical--for we do not
know at last what physical means any more than we know what
spiritual means. If we do this, we shall have to accept the reality,
not only of beauty but of conscience, of the claim of justice, of
the power of truth, and of everything we call spiritual. After we
have accepted them, we may want to examine them rather carefully to
be sure how much importance should be attached to such qualities,
and in what ways, but we must certainly begin by accepting them as
real. For they are real.
Now, I have stressed all this because, as I said at the beginning,
people go astray in their search for God because they do not take
the right starting-point. We should never begin by asking, "Is there
a God?"--as though God could be something outside of ordinary
experience; or, to put it in the old-fashioned way, something
outside of Nature. If that is the question people insist upon
asking, there can be only one answer. Nobody knows. For how can we
know what lies outside our experience? And how can we imagine
anything that is not known to us in the natural world? One may just
as well ask an astronomer whether there are any stars outside the
universe. He will answer that so far as he knows, nothing can be
outside the universe. It is an empty question. And it is just as
empty to ask whether there is a God outside of the world of life.
The world of life is the only world we know and all our experience
lies within it.
What we must ask then, is not whether there is a God, as though God
could be something outside everything else, but what it is of which
we have experience when we feel the power of truth, or the claim of
justice, or the sense of beauty. It is certainly not the molecules
of stone in a range of mountains that move our hearts with a feeling
of wonder. And it is certainly nothing physical that makes us know
that truth is important. Or that right is better than wrong.
We do have experience of something, whatever it is, that we have to
call spiritual or else give it no name at all. And this something is
just as real as the earth beneath our feet or the sky above us. If
we believe in the reality of earth and sky, how can we avoid
believing in the reality of this other something--because of which
we can see the earth as beautiful and marvel at the starry vastness
of the sky?
This other something is no more produced by man than the earth is.
He discovers it in his experience--exactly as he discovers the
ground beneath his feet. And just as he can stumble over a rock if
he is careless where he walks, so he can be tripped up by
transgressions against the truth; yes, and in the same way that a
physical substance can poison his body, so can a corrupt way of
thinking drug his mind.
There is no getting away from it; the spiritual is completely real.
We never experience all of it at one time; no, but we never
experience the entire physical universe either. Yet we speak of a
physical universe. Because we experience parts of it, we believe
that other parts can also be experienced. With better telescopes,
better microscopes and improved logic and mathematics, we can know,
we say, a great deal more about the universe. Yes, but what is there
about this that is essentially different from our situation with the
spiritual? With better understanding, profounder wisdom, deeper
insight, and above all, nobler living, we can hope to know a great
deal more about the spiritual, too. And we can believe that though
we only experience it in part, it exists as a whole. It is the same
kind of belief as that we have about the physical universe.