A Faith For Today

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 4


THERE are some who are more sure of God than of life itself; God, indeed, is their life. But most of us have questions to meet about faith in God, questions rising in our own minds or brought by others. The questions usually move around two points: Can we prove the being of God? If we cannot prove, what right have we to believe?


Let it be said at once, you cannot prove the being of God any more than you can "prove" by logic that love and truth and right are real, or that man is more than a temporary arrangement of physical particles. The things that count most in life are not proved, they are experienced. No man ever believed in God because God was demonstrated. There are, however, grounds which appeal to the reason. They rest back upon our experience and suggest that such experience points to belief in God and is most reasonably explained by the idea of God. We will turn in order to the main fields in which we have our experience and see why it is that men believe in God,

1. The most common reason why people believe in God is because those round about them do so; we are brought up in this belief. Many would say that this was no ground at all, that we ought to reject tradition and authority as unworthy of free and thinking men, that though childhood begins by taking its ideas from others, we must not remain children. The emphasis on individual experience and inner conviction is in the spirit of Protestantism and of all high religion, yet there are some facts here that must not be overlooked. (1) The experience of any one man is limited; we should be poor, indeed, not only in religion but everywhere else, if we were confined to what we could discover for ourselves. But there are experiences of the group and the race in which we can share discoveries in the world of the spirit which the ages have made and tested. We must not take them blindly and unthinkingly; we must weigh and choose and try out. But we have the right to give great weight to these when we determine the faith by which we shall live. (2) Our capacities and abilities are limited. That is why we accept gladly the discoveries and creations of the geniuses in science and art and letters. Just so there have been great souls in religion, the seers and prophets and saints of the ages, more quick to see, more sensitive to the voice of God, more ready to receive his life. The greatest spirits of our race through long ages have believed in God. It is right that we learn from their insights and find in their faith a ground for our faith.

2. The world of nature points toward God. True, we no longer argue from the world to God as men could argue from a watch to a watchmaker. This universe has come to be through long ages of change by the operation of forces working within it, not by some divine Carpenter working from outside. But the question still remains: What is the nature of this Force that is working in this world? Look at some of the characteristics of our universe. (1) It is a world of order throughout, not haphazard or of one order here and another in the distant stars. (2) It is a world of beauty. Sir J. Arthur Thomson, in his System of Animate Nature, has pointed out that except for the abnormal and for the occasional parasitic creature, beauty is a characteristic of every form of life. The same beauty appears in inanimate being: in star and crystal and snowflake. (3) It is a world of development, moving slowly but steadily from the lowest forms to the highest: matter, life, mind, spirit. You may try to account for this in one of three ways. (1) Materialism, or pure naturalism, declares that only the physical is real, and that all this beauty and order and goodness have come by mere chance working blindly through endless change; that the mind of an Aristotle, the dramas of Shakespeare, the spirit of Francis of Assisi, and the drifting desert sands are all and equally nothing but chance collocations of particles of matter. But if people think that the medieval saints were credulous, what shall we say of this idea, that matter produces spirit, blindness brings forth sight, that order comes out of anarchy, something out of nothing! As Thomas H. Huxley once put it: "Is the universe a mud pie made by two blind children, Nature and Force?" One might as well suppose, to borrow an old figure, that a thousand children throwing letter blocks on the floor for a thousand years might someday produce Macbeth or King Lear, or a thousand monkeys at a thousand pianos if they pounded long enough might bring forth a Beethoven Symphony. (2) A second theory, more popular today, thinks of the universe in terms not of separate particles but of a kind of organism in which there is working a Life Force, a Creative Energy, or some kind of organizing Principle that slowly brings things into right relations and so gradually produces order and higher forms of being. This is a real advance. There is plainly some such creative co-ordination going on in the process of evolution. But is it blind or purposive, is it force or mind? Can the lower bring forth the higher, the stream rise above its source? (3) There remains the belief that the world is best understood as the work of a Spirit that is conscious, rational, purposive, and good. Such a Being would account for both the order within which all change takes place, and for the progress that is made within that order which at last brings forth the highest fruits of the spirit.

3. The world of moral experience, of the experience of values, requires faith in God. Let us make this broad enough to include all the ideals and values of life, all that is true and beautiful and good. A man can, of course, reject all spiritual values. He may believe only in things that he sees, may live only for wealth that he can own or for physical pleasure, and recognize no authority except his own selfish will. It is a question whether even such men, deep down in their hearts, really escape moral reality and its authority. Certainly, most of us do not, and do not wish to. It is these ideals and values that lift us above the common brute and give meaning to our life. Many a man in his hour of doubt, when faith in God has seemed impossible, has said to himself, "There is such a thing as truth and love and Justice and honor, and I will follow these." What does this moral experience imply? We do not make these ideals, we discover them. When we find them, they speak to us with authority and we recognize their right to command. When we obey them, our lives fall into right relations with other lives and with our world, and we gain strength, satisfaction, and peace. When we disobey them, there is discord without, disintegration within, weakness, fear, failure, destruction. And that applies to nations as it does to individuals, especially if we follow history through the long ages.

What does all this mean? Which way do these insights and experiences point? Plainly, the logic of all this suggests that these ideals and values of the spirit are not accidents or incidents or merely human invention; they belong to the essential nature of our universe, the very warp and woof of things. Our discovery of the moral universe may be slow, our insights and ideals may change, just as our understanding of the physical world through the ages has been almost incredibly slow. But the world of the right and good and true is there waiting for us as nature waits for the scientist; and it is something fundamental and enduring, something real and ultimate. But that means that the Being that is back of all appearing, and that is working in all change, is moral being; and moral being means personal being, and moral personal being means God. To believe in God means to believe that the final being and power in this world is not things or brute force, but a personal Spirit that is good. For these ideals and values cannot lire as mere abstractions. Beauty exists only for minds that see and appreciate. Love and righteousness are mere abstractions except as they live in beings that can love and follow what is just and true. The world of moral experience points to God and depends on him. And in history, when men have ceased to believe in God the world of moral ideals has lost its reality for man and its authority for his life; and then human society moves on to collapse.

4. Besides society and nature and morals, there is a fourth world of experience, the religious. Religion really takes in all life as its sphere, but we use it here in the narrower sense as meaning man's immediate awareness of something high and holy, before which he bows in reverence, upon which he knows that he depends.

The final ground for religious faith is found within religion, not outside of it. It is with religion just as it is with the other fundamental beliefs of life; you do not begin with an idea which you try to prove, you begin with an experience which you try to understand. The ideas come out of the experience and are our effort to interpret it. Something "out there" comes to me and acts upon me; I react, respond to it. There begins thus a life of active intercourse. I try to understand what comes to me in this way, to express it in ideas and words. So I am convinced that the world of things is real, though the scientist tells me I do not know it as it is. That is why my friend is real to me. I have never seen him, the man himself, his personal spirit; I have only seen color and form, heard sounds which I called his voice, felt his body. I cannot prove that there is a personal spirit there like myself. And yet there is this intercourse, this action, reaction, response; and I know him.

That is the real reason why men believe in God. The persistence of religion is one of the most extraordinary facts in human history. Central to it is the belief in a spiritual world, in forces that are not seen but are real, in God. The ideas have varied greatly. Experience and reflection have led men to reject this or the other as imperfect or false, but the belief has remained. It is hard to explain that on any other ground than that which religion itself assigns: Something There has spoken to us, has come into our life; and we name it God. You may call this religious insight or mysticism or the sense of the Holy, but no definition can contain it. It comes in the feelings of reverence and awe, in the sense of dependence, in the moral experience where we hear a word that commands with authority, in the mind's vision of a world of unity and order and meaning that transcends the individual and the moment, and, finally, in the strength and enrichment of life that comes when following these insights and demands. We know we are in actual intercourse with the world of the spirit, just as in everyday life we know when we deal with the world of things or men. It is this experience, repeated in all ages, available to all who will meet the necessary conditions, that explains the persistence of belief in God and so of religion.


And now we must meet a final question. What right have we to believe? We have considered the grounds for belief in God as brought by history, by nature, and by our experience in the moral and religious realms. In the end, however, it remains true: you cannot point God out so that men will see him with their eyes, or prove him logically so that men will have to accept him. No man can have God except by an act of faith. From the very nature of the case we cannot prove the Infinite by the finite, or the unseen by the seen. Every one of the "grounds" that we considered implied an act of trust in something that could not be demonstrated. And so we are challenged as to the right to believe. Since religion deals with the supreme issues and interests of human life, ought we not to wait till we have absolute proof? For the thoughtful and earnest man the answer, I think, must be No.

1. If our first business in life were logic, then our first concern would be proof; but our first business is living, and that demands faith. In Bergson's words: "Speculation is a luxury, while life is a necessity"; so we have the right to that which is necessary to the business of living. The necessity of faith appears in every activity of life. There is little that we can demonstrate; there is much upon which we must and do act. And the most important matters are those least capable of demonstration to the senses or by logic. Everywhere we deal with the invisible, with the imponderables, with values that are appreciated rather than things that are weighed and measured; and we are compelled to trust. The scientist himself has to do that; he trusts his senses, his reason, the reason of his fellow workers, and, above all, the presence of a universal and trustworthy natural order which confessedly he can never prove. He cannot even begin his work without such faith. So the statesman must have faith in his own people and in other nations; when that breaks down, there is nothing left but force and mutual destruction. So the business man trusts others; almost all his business is done with bits of paper—paper money, checks, notes, bonds, items of credit and debit in account—worthless in themselves, of value only as there is faith in what he cannot see. Even more are home and friendship founded on a trust that outruns sight.

Where would we be if we first had to stop and prove? We should be like the distracted centipede of Carolyn Wells's lines who couldn't move because he could not prove which of his hundred legs should lead off.

"The centipede was happy quite,

     Until the frog for fun

Said, 'Pray, which leg comes after which?'

This wrought him up to such a pitch,

He fell distracted in a ditch

     Considering how to run."

Curiously, men who act constantly and everywhere else on faith raise this objection when they come to religion and belief in God. So Mr. John Dewey in his books, The Quest for Certainty and A Common Faith, insists that we ought to be religious without accepting any religion, that is, without having any belief in God, since we can never have proof and certainty here. But Mr. Dewey himself in the moral-social realm is definitely idealistic, that is, he believes in realities and values which he cannot see, in higher goods which men should set as the goal of life, in such social forces as truth and justice and good will to which we must appeal in the democratic method which he so ardently espouses, and in men themselves as rational and moral beings who will respond to such appeal. But if we have the right to believe on all other levels, why not on that of religion? The principle is clear: no life without trust and action. The higher you rise in the plane, the more inevitable is the necessity. Why, then, refuse this at the highest? The right to live is more than the right to exist; it is the right to live at the fullest and best, and religion alone can give that.

2. Religious faith is neither illogical nor irrational; it is, in fact, faith in the rational in the highest sense of that term. The word "rational" has a double meaning. In understanding the reason, or explanation of any event, we first look backward; we try to find the antecedent cause, to account for it by something that went before. Thus we explain the automobile moving down the street by reference to gasoline, ignition, cylinders, transmission, and the rest. But we find a reason, or explanation, also by looking ahead. The car moves down the street because of the purpose of the driver. The car itself is explained by the fact that engineer and manufacturer had such an end in view. No world is truly rational in which what happens has not an orderly connection with what went before, with some "cause/' But in its most important sense, the rational concerns ends and not just causes, what lies ahead and not merely what lies behind. No world is rational in which what happens is not in some real way related to ends in view, to goods and goals which are to be realized. Scientific faith believes in the former kind of rationality. Religious and moral faith believes in the latter. If either were lacking, we should have an irrational world, chaotic and crazy.

3. Religious faith is not something apart from experience or devoid of knowledge any more than it is devoid of the rational. It springs from human experience on its higher levels. It is the confidence that this experience and its insights are as trustworthy as the information of our senses, while yielding us far more significant knowledge; and it is the determination to act upon this conviction.

4. Finally, it must be made plain that religious faith, like all other faith, requires criticism and scrutiny. Both religionists and critics are often wrong here. Faith does not mean wishful thinking. We have no right to say, "I need this kind of a God, therefore I will believe in such a God." Least of all does it mean the right to spin out our own theories, In religion, as in science, faith should be the response to an actual world. It is simply a response which trusts our insights and inner convictions as we experience this world. But, as in science so in religion, we must constantly apply certain tests and ask certain questions. (1) Will our religious convictions stand criticism? Have we drawn our conclusions rightly? (2) Do our religious convictions hang together among themselves? And do they fit in with the truths that we gain elsewhere? (3) Are they confirmed by further experience, as we put them to the test of life? That is, we must apply the three tests of rational criticism, coherence, and experiment. Only, these must follow; the business of living cannot wait till all this is settled. Our real danger is not credulity but lack of courage. Religion needs reflection, but its great demand is high adventure.


  • What do we mean by "proof"? What different kinds of proof are there?
  • In the field of human experience and belief, what matters are subject to proof?
  • Set down any important matters where you believe and act but cannot offer strict proof. What right have you in these cases to proceed with belief and action?
  • List in order what you consider the best grounds for belief in God.


In addition to the works cited with Chapters II and III, the following may be consulted:

  • W. A. Brown: Pathways to Certainty
  • G. A. Buttrick: The Christian Fact and Modern Doubt
  • Eleanor Rowland Wembridge: The Right to Believe
  • W. M. Horton: Theism and the Modern Mood
  • B. H. Streeter and others: Reality; Adventure
  • A. C. Knudson: The Philosophy of Personalism
  • D. C. Macintosh: The Reasonableness of Christianity
  • John Baillie: The Interpretation of Religion
  • Edwin Lewis: God and Ourselves
  • F. J. McConnell: Christian Certainty
  • H. P. Van Dusen: The Plain Man Seeks for God
  • John Dewey: A Common Faith; The Quest /or Certainty