Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Baron Friedrich von Hugel (1852-1925)
It was towards the end of the 19th century that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church identified a threat to Christian doctrine in a historically rapid drift to a one-world perception of reality. This they labelled "modernism".

Von Hugel, himself a Catholic, was a Florentine who inherited an Austrian title but lived most of his life in England. His most important work were: The Mystical Element of Religion (1908), Essays and Addresses (1921), and The Reality of God (1931).

He was in his lifetime often associated with the so-called modernist movement which in the latter part of the nineteenth century was bitterly criticised and strongly opposed by the Roman Catholic Church. But although von Hugel was indeed an adventurous thinker, he remained faithful to the Roman Catholic Church all his life, regarding it as the finest possible expression of humanity's religious spirit.

Nevertheless, it's a fair to say that he attempted to straddle the "great divide" between modern and traditional conceptions of the Christian way of life. In particular, he argued against the conclusion that there is no necessary connection between our subjective experience and the world "out there".

He was supported in his conclusions by a wide and deep knowledge of the history of religion. When he analysed Western cultures, he came up with what he perceived as three distinct elements or characteristics:

  • The Greek desire for a rich harmony in nature;
  • the Christian capacity to understand how people work and the hidden depths of personality; and
  • science, the analytical method by which we discover and formulate facts about the universe and the laws which govern them.

All three are essential to human well-being, said Hugel. This meant in practice, for example, that it was right for theologians to dissect and criticise the Bible just as other artifacts in our lives are analysed scientifically. It was probably this sort of free thinking which earned him the suspicion and sometimes opposition of other Roman Catholics. 

He was perhaps to some extent protected by living in England, with its long and bitter experience of religious persecutions and its resulting sense of broad tolerance in matters religious. I have little doubt that he would have been greatly disturbed by fanatical fundamentalists in the 21st century.

Like many before him, von Hugel tackled the difficulties most contemporary people have with life in a society which no longer naturally thinks of reality as a natural world somehow conjoined with a super-natural world. He thought that there are no good grounds for doubting that we can be in touch with God - or, as he put it, with the infinite.

God, thought Hugel, will always remain mysterious to a degree. We will therefore always be faced with unanswered questions about God's nature and the whys and wherefores of God's actions in the world. We know God through our experience of the world - but at the same time it must be realised that God is greater than the world, transcending space and time. He concluded that

There is no such thing for man as a complete escape from history and institutions. [1]

He sought to prove our connection with God by examining religious experience and the claims of great religious figures, Christian and non-Christian, throughout the ages. His examination showed, he claimed, that the mystical experiences reported by so many people are just as valid an "experience" as any we know as we interact with our environment.

In this sense he was sympathetic with the teachings of other religions. They shared the essence of all religion which is, in his view, the mystical adoration of the infinite by the individual. He insisted on

... the ready recognition, by any one religion, of elements of worth variously present in the other religions, together with the careful avoidance of all attempts at forced uniformity. [1]

Hugel was drawn to study Kierkegaard. But he thought that Kierkegaard was mistaken in drawing such a definite dividing line between humans and God. In doing so Hugel thought that Kierkegaard had rendered the mystical communication between mankind and God impossible - or at least so mysterious as to be subliminal at best or at worst incomprehensible.

One implication of von Hugel's theory of knowledge is that the notion of "experience" shouldn't be divided into internal and external aspects. Many think that the only sound ground upon which to build knowledge is our senses and the laws we discover about the world they reveal (this is usually called Positivism). 

In doing so they neglect the importance of our emotions and acts of will, said von Hugel. These not only are as real as anything else, but they form a unity or continuum with what we normally call the "objective" world. So when we experience the infinite we don't just "understand" something, we also respond emotionally and volitionally to something which is as real as we are.

I think that is this respect von Hugel may have been reaching towards the later notion of interlocking systems (which first came on the scene in the mid-20s of the twentieth century). The theory of systems holds that the universe itself is the ultimate system of which all other systems are part. We identify these parts as themselves sub-systems only by making an artificial distinction between the universe and constituent systems (such as the human being). 

So in reality what we call "experience" isn't something consisting of separate parts which interact with each other. Rather, it's an aspect of a sub-system (itself part of the universal system) we call the objective/subjective system, much in the same way we no longer speak of time and space but of the time/space continuum.

So for von Hugel sense experience puts "pressure on our minds" to conclude that there is a "trans-subjective validity". In other words, our senses tell us that there really is something "out there". 

We have to credit this pressure, he thought, if only because not to do so is to collapse into a degree of scepticism which makes any rational consideration of truth self-defeating. If one can't trust that one's sense experience reflects external reality - albeit imperfectly - then all argument applies only to the individual who is doing the arguing. The individual becomes the only arbiter of truth. That is, truth is entirely relative. What's true depends on who you are.

He took his justification of mystical experience a step further. We experience a genuine reality "out there" and from it we work out various mathematical and geometric conclusions with considerable clarity and certainty. But when we put everything together, we arrive at statements about real objects which can never be final because there is no such thing as the complete description of anything. 

As Ninian Smart writes of von Hugel, "Any statement or set of statements about a real object will fail to exhaust what is to be discovered" in that object [2].

The more complete one's awareness, therefore, the less clear it becomes. In effect, therefore, what we term "reality" is so complex that it becomes incomprehensible. This explains why philosophy and religion are like groping in the dark. The greater the lack of clarity, the more likely it is that religion will be rich because "Religion can't be clear if it is worth anything", he writes.
[1] Quoted by J Macquarrie in Twentieth-Century Religious Thought, SCM
      Press, 1963
[2] The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan, 1967

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