[From the Gordon-Conwell Lectures on Apologetics, 1981.]


Is Christianity a Religion, Part 2

Gordon H. Clark


I was in the midst of describing two methods of studying religion. They are certainly the two most used methods. I’m inclined to say they’re the only two possible methods. The first we call the psychological approach and I read into that, read a page or two into that and the next subhead from the point at which I stopped yesterday is a little over two pages on Bunyan and Edwards. And the background of course is Pratt’s religious — what’s the title of his book —The Religious Consciousness. James Bissett Pratt, The Religious Consciousness and he is discussing conversions. This is the way it goes for Bunyan and Edwards. Pratt’s interest in conversion further reveals the importance he assigns to emotion.


I’ll be talking a little bit about emotion, maybe a lot about it, and if you want to prepare for what is coming later somewhere or other you might get a concordance of the Bible and begin to go through from Genesis through the Old Testament at any rate, though I’m sure you won’t do it completely, and look up each, or as many as you feel like doing, look up the instances of the word heart in the Old Testament. Now the word heart occurs about 750 times in the Old Testament and I’m not sure you’ll have the patience to look up all 750. But at least do Genesis and Malachi and maybe that will solve your conscience a little bit. If you’ll do some of the books in between, the Psalms for example, so much the better. But I’ll be using that material later on. And it wouldn’t hurt you to look it up ahead of time.

Come in and see if you can find a chair somewhere.

Pratt’s interest in conversion further reveals the importance he assigns to emotion. And I mention this because we have something similar in Kierkegaard and also in popular Christianity that isn’t too orthodox and that sort of thing. In addition to the doubtful case of Ardigo, he relates the more obvious religious experiences of Brainerd and Bunyan. In these two instances the process was essential the same. When they began to think of the condition of their souls, now you’ve all read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, haven’t you? Please do if you haven’t. You’re at least 15 years behind the time if you haven’t read it now you should have read it 15 years ago. How many of you have read The Holy War or Grace Abounding? Well there are some educated people in the class. So you know what we’re talking about when we talk about Bunyan. That’s not the fellow out west with pine trees for toothpicks, you know.

When they, that is Bunyan and Edwards, no in this case it is Brainerd and Bunyan, when they began to think of the condition of their souls, their previous neutral state of mind gave way to increasing depression. They felt themselves entirely helpless. Desirous of salvation, they were convicted of sin and could not rid themselves of temptations. The impossibility of recommending themselves to God by their unaided human efforts increased their despair. Then suddenly there came a great peace of mind. And, concludes Pratt, the whole drama was one of feeling. And all that was accomplished was the substitution of one feeling for another. You can check on this on page 147 in The Religious Consciousness.

Feeling is, and I suppose he means emotion, feeling is so ambiguous nobody knows what it means. Emotion is at least a little more definite. But I suppose he means… Feeling is further elevated in the following chapter by a serious misinterpretation of Protestant theology. From the thesis that man by his own efforts cannot satisfy God’s requirements, Pratt draws the erroneous conclusion, that “The attention of everyone desiring salvation, since it was vain to center it on thought or deed or will, was inevitably fixed on feeling. Feeling indeed could help. The feeling of one’s own devilishness and despair. And nothing else could.” With this interpretation of the situation, Pratt disparages Bunyan’s conversion.”

Now, you will find many writers today, religious writers today emphasizing feeling or emotion. There is a very interesting book by Stott. You’ve heard of him. John Stott. I forget the title of the book and it’s one of his earlier ones, in which he spends pages and pages and pages showing how depraved man’s intellect is, and he never says one thing against emotion. Emotions are all holy. Nothing wrong with them at all. They were not touched by sin in the least. It is only man’s intellect that is sinful. I think Stott has changed his mind since he wrote that book, at least somewhat. But that is about what he says in that book. The title of which I forget. Well you can read all his books, then you’ll come across it.

To straighten Pratt’s misunderstandings of Protestant theology would complication the discussion too greatly. One point that lies on the surface is sufficient, is enough to mention. Since the Protestant thesis is that man by his own efforts cannot satisfy God’s requirements, it would follow that feeling and emotion could be of no more help than thought or deed or will. Thus the need of gracious divine help would of itself no more require attention to feeling than to thoughts and deeds. However, rather than to correct Pratt’s views of evangelical religion, it is more to the point to see how he uses his interpretation to disparage Bunyan’s conversion. He complains that Bunyan gained no new insight through his experience. No change of character or will had been wrought. No new unification had been achieved. No this complaint involves Pratt in a curious inconsistency. If no change had been wrought, Pratt should not have included this experience in a list of conversions, for he previously said the essential thing about conversion is the unification of character. And if this experience of Bunyan’s didn’t unify his character, as Pratt said it didn’t, Pratt has no business putting it in the list of conversions. It’s so pleasant to see people contradict themselves. That is one of the pleasures of life.

As in the case of Ardigo, Pratt stumbled upon the case of a conversion that was not religious, at least in the popular sense of the religious, so here he blunders and contradicts himself by selecting an experience that is religious, but on his own showing is not a conversion. The confusion is an evidence of a poor method.

Furthermore, Pratt is not justified in his disparagement of Bryan’s [Bunyan’s] emotions. And the argument that I give here in these next few lines is the same sort of argument you can use against logical positivists as I shall do with a certain obvious changes of course, but you can use it I think with considerable effectiveness. Furthermore, Pratt is not justified in his disparagement of Bunyan’s emotions even if they do not constitute a conversion. From a psychological point of view, a point of view that stresses the description of phenomena, and boasts that theology has had no influence on its conclusions. For such a view, a sequence of emotion is as legitimate a study as the unification of character. In the descriptive method, disparagement is out of place whether the subject be emotions or nuclear physics. Particularly for one who religion primarily an attitude or feeling, Bunyan ought to be a most happy example of religious experience. But the contemptuous style rather indicates that Pratt surreptitiously accords more value to the intellectual contents of religion than he explicitly admits and that he evaluates Bunyan from a position that does not lack theological bias. That is, a descriptive science has no place for evaluation. And since Pratt wants to be a descriptive psychologist, he can’t disparage one experience more than any other. He should disparage no sort of experience since his principle is that he’s just describing them.

Evidence of this one-sided procedure is again seen in his reference to Jonathan Edwards. This great New England puritan is also assimilated to the general phrase that feeling could indeed help and nothing else could. Now that’s a verbatim quotation from Pratt. Feeling could indeed help and nothing else could. Now if you haven’t read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, how many of you have read Jonathan Edwards? How many of you read anything of Jonathan Edwards? Oh, hooray, I’m so used to ignorant college classes that I feel elated to have such intelligent and well-educated students in front of me here. How many of you have read his treatise on The Religious Affections? Wonderful, wonderful. Tell me, what did he mean by affections? Oh. Tell me this, into what divisions did he divide consciousness? Intellect, will, and emotions? And it’s all on the first three pages of the treatise. Maybe you didn’t get that far.

[Audience Laughter]

Oh dear. Here I was just beginning to get enthusiastic and now you plunge me into depression. Pratt, in trying to picture Jonathan Edwards, says feeling could indeed help and nothing else could. That’s Pratt. Now it is true, as Pratt points out in his footnote on page 150 of his book, it is true that Edwards said, “Religion consists much in holy affection.” And no one who reads Edwards explanation could disagree. But first, note that Edwards said much. He did not say that religion or even conversion consists altogether in affections. Then second, the term affection, in Edwards, does not mean what Pratt says it means. Pratt had said that it was vain to center it on thought or deed or will. But for Edwards, the term affection includes the will. And in fact has more to do with the will than with pure feeling. And third, Edwards spends most of his book warning readers not to trust their feelings. And fourth, far from saying that nothing but feeling could be of help, far from belittling intellectual content, Jonathan Edwards put great emphasis on doctrine. Indeed, his stress on theology is more frequently the object of secularistic displeasure than his actual, or even his alleged, approval of emotions. It would seem therefore that these inaccuracies are the result of a poor method and of a prior decision to define religion in terms of emotion.

On the other hand, one who wishes to lay some or even great emphasis on the intellectual side of religion need not conclude that it is worthless to study emotions. Jonathan Edwards studied them on the basis of his theology gave certain warnings against them.

William James’ intensely interesting Varieties of Religious Experience, how many of you have read that book? Oh, fine, that was a pretty interesting book, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? Alright, that is what I wanted you to say. It is an intensely interesting book. Maybe you better read it before dinner this evening. Well it’s only 700 pages, you can do that in this afternoon, can’t you?  

William James’ intensely interesting Varieties of Religious Experience proceeds on a different religious basis. The New Testament itself, of course, from its own point of view describes the very different emotional circumstances of a number of conversions. But one’s evaluation depends on one’s theology. Doubtless, religion includes emotions. But it does not follow that will and intellect are negative factors. Unessential, least noticeable, and bare bones. Phrases which come from various writers.

Now the next subhead is, Does description explain. We have descriptive psychology. Now does description explain anything? In general, whatever the value or even the undisputed importance of such psychological studies, one may wonder whether strictly psychological descriptions are of much help in explaining religion or even in discovering its nature. First, as to explanation, to be sure the philosophy of logical positivism, which I may talk about some later on if I get to it, the philosophy of logical positivism holds that description is explanation. No statement of causality is permitted. No statement of purpose is permitted. No possibility is allowed of saying a phenomenon must be as it is. Not even an evaluation is permitted. The only legitimate statement is that the phenomenon is as it is observed.

Since a critique of logical positivism cannot be undertaken here, somewhere else, it must suffice to point out that the logical positivists constantly violate their prescription. Besides that, the identification of description and explanation is tantamount to denying explanation. No doubt this fact, whatever it may be, no doubt this fact is as it is described. A golf ball rises and falls. A painting or sonata is pleasing to me. Congress enacts a new law. But even more than the description of the event, we want the explanation of it. Why did this event occur? Under what generalization can it be subsumed? What was its purpose and what will be its effects? And should we, if possible, try to repeat it or to prevent its recurrence? The logical positivists go beyond their own principles when they limit explanation to description, for the limitation itself is not a description of anything observable other than their own conduct. Admittedly, description provides some elements that contribute to an understanding. At least description provides material to be explained. But it is prima facie unreasonable to confuse the two.

Now if understanding goes beyond the range of description, shall we explain religion as the opiate of the people? Or should we be a little less radical and explain it as the result of parental compulsion and social pressure? Or again, is the cause of religion either some innate aesthetic response to the sublime or an abject fear of the unknown? Or finally, does an adequate explanation transcend these factors and demand God as the cause? No psychological description can given any one of these answers nor chose from among them. So if you find a book called Psychology of Religious Experience, unless you want to write a treatise opposing it, the best thing to do is just throw it in the waste basket.

Now the next subhead, Does description discover?

I think I tried to show that description can’t explain anything. Can it discover anything? Just above it was questioned whether the psychological method could explain religion or even discover its nature. There are several reasons why psychology cannot discover what religion is. One reason, but not the deepest or most independent, but one reason is that the descriptive accounts of emotions are concerned only with surface phenomena. As the following considerations will show, these descriptions do not grasp what is essentially religious. That the same emotions are found in different religions would not disturb but would rather be welcomed by a writer like Hocking who insists on the unity of all religion and is not interested in distinguishing one religion from another.

That there are different emotions found in the same religion might merely result in increasing the difficulty or finding the one complex emotional state by which religion is to be defined. But what is fatal to this method of procedure is the fact that these emotions are found in experiences that are not usually regarded as religious at all. For example, love is currently emphasized by some religious writers as the religious emotion par excellance. It has been regarded as the sum and substance, the inner nature and deepest spring of true religion, and the essence of God himself. But when left undefined, the emotion of love is hardly restricted to religious situations. So far as the emotion per se is concerned, the psychological description would be the same no matter what the causes, the object, the circumstances, or the value might be. Some love is quite human. Some is irreligious and quite holy. Yet if religious love is to be defined so as to exclude the unwanted examples, the procedure becomes logically circular. Love is first used to define religion. And then an independent concept of religion is used to differentiate among loves. I don’t think that many of you would agree that biblical love and Joseph Fletcher’s love are quite the same thing. At least I hope you wouldn’t.

Then again, not only is it impossible to confine a given emotion, like love, or a complex of emotions. It is impossible to confine them to religious experience. It is equally impossible to confine religious experience to a given emotion. The emotion of anger is usually thought of as an anti-religious emotion.But Jesus’ anger was preeminently religious. Such considerations as these show that no purely psychological description of experiences, no emotion, no particular state of the affected consciousness, nor any combination of them can be singled out as the uniform and definitive element in religion. There can be a sequence of a calm mind, then depression with elation following, as Pratt notices in the case of John Bunyan. But the same sequence occurs regularly on election night in the case of politicians also. There is nothing distinctly religious about emotions. That’s why Kierkegaard allows you to worship the devil, you know. Because you do it passionately. Ah, we’ll get to Kierkegaard after a while. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Now another subhead is called: Description and presupposition.

The keener writers recognize the deficiency of purely psychological description. Grensted, who I quoted earlier says openly, “Ultimate questions about the real constituents of our experience in their own right and apart from their setting in that experience cannot be decided or even discussed by psychological methods. Psychology cannot even choose its own objectives, which are selected by the psychologists on the basis of values on which psychology can give no complete account.” Now that was an argument that was first figured out by St. Augustine long ago. And it not only applies to the psychology of religious experience, but it also applies to logical positivism and physics as well. St. Augustine used it more with respect to physics than to the psychology of religion. But it applies to any such thing.

Nonetheless, there are a few, even though they are not professedly logical positivists, there are a few who write as if psychological description answers all question. Yet it will be found that their volumes, no less than the works of the better offers, contain many presuppositions and judgments of value that cannot be obtained from observation. At the very beginning, though these writers do not recognize it, a normative or non-descriptive principle is needed for the selection of what to describe. It is very plausible to argue that no one should philosophize about religion before he describes the phenomena which call for the explanation. The fact, so it is said, the fact must precede the theory. But the trouble is that a descriptive procedure can never isolate what must be described. A theory must precede the choice of facts. Pure description could never decide to place the emphasis on emotion rather on intellection. According to the vague popular connotation of the term, religion is a most complex phenomenon. Some religious services are quite emotional. And the people shout and sing, stomp the fall, wave their arms, and act in a most undignified manner and if I’m impolite I get up and walk out. Other people like the Presbyterians and Puritans, we’re all Presbyterians and Puritans here aren’t we? Aren’t we in New England? This is the home of the Puritans? And we’ve all read Jonathan Edwards and so on. We are accustomed to sit quietly trying to understand a two hour doctrinal sermon.

There are groups also, both within and without the sphere of Christendom, who limit themselves almost entirely to an elaborate ritual. And still other equate religion with social service. Therefore, only a non-observational judgment of value could motivate the assertion that the intellectual tenets of a religion are not worth investigating. And only the same a priori judgment could select which part of the complex phenomenon to describe. What I’m saying is theory must precede observation. You can’t observe anything without a previous theory. Yes?

Audience question: How is the theory then formed?

Oh well, I suppose at the beginning it would be hit and miss. You see, when a person begins to theorize in a technical way he has already gone through grammar school and high school and maybe half way through college and his mind is all confused. Now then, he notices things and then decides that certain things are worth his attention. Now he may be wrong but he has the theory that certain phenomena, and not others, are worth his immediate attention. That’s not much of a theory, but at least he does have a notion of what these phenomena are. He has selected them out of all sorts of phenomena on the assumption that these have some value to him. But you can’t observe value. That’s not a sensation.

To this point the discussion has emphasized the view that emotion is the essence of religion. However, this restriction does not do justice to the psychological method nor to the general exclusion of intellectual definitions. The explanation of religion as a non-rational experience allows of another possibility. A possibility that was evident in the material from Pratt but which has not of yet been examined. Pratt spoke about the unification of character and used the secular conversion of Ardigo as an example. This is a theme popular with modern humanists. Confining religion to one emotion such as Schleiermacher’s feeling of dependence, they say, is too narrow a view. And though religious experience may sometimes be characterized by this feeling, other equally religious experience may not be so characterized. A sense of dependence is not essential to religion. The humanists generally, therefore, try to locate religion in the more universal needs of man. Not the non-religious needs of food and shelter, but in particular the need of integrating one’s scattered and conflicting impulses, emotions, and desires. This means that religion is the process of achieving a unified, coherent, and effective personality.

And you must have come across the phrase so frequently about people who want to find themselves. They want to know who they are. It always puzzles me why anybody wants to know who he is. I can’t understand why he asks such a stupid question, but they do. I guess that means they’re stupid, doesn’t it?

The consciousness of sin, as Christians call it, is the consciousness of failure to achieve this unified self. And redemption is the subsequent success. But success is not dependent on Christian ideas. This was the mistake of Protestant liberalism, commonly called modernism. Rejecting traditional theology, this religious movement still sought the solution of life’s problems within a Christian framework. But this restriction is inconsistent with the substitution of religious experience with an authoritative book. Humanism, consistently empirical, insists that integration of character, is often obtained by other methods. If we should examine all the methods of successful integration, it will be clear that Christianity is not unique or even superior. The main goods are the pursuit of truth, the creation of beauty, and the realization of love and friendship. Now that is not a verbatim quotation, but it does take up the three things in the definition of religion as given by what’s-his-name in the University of Chicago. But he made the goods the pursuit of truth, the creation of beauty, and the realization of love and friendship. Whatever methods are used to obtain these goods may equally be called religious, if one wishes to speak of religion.

There are two chief difficulties in this humanistic thesis. The first is the establishment of truth, beauty, and friendship as goods. Nietzsche denied that truth is always good. Can humanism, especially a tentative and relativistic humanism defend itself against Nietzsche’s arguments? Perhaps the good is even less to be found in beauty and friendship. Is it possible then on humanistic presuppositions to justify these preferences, or indeed to show that any definite line of conduct is good or evil? This question, since it raises the general problem of ethics, will be investigated in a later chapter where I guess we’ll never get to in this course, but it’s in here.…

The point here simply is that it is a difficult question. It is so difficult that sometimes the humanists shy away from it and embrace another difficulty. All the more do they shy away because the selection of particular goods such as truth and beauty and the stress laid by humanists on society, cooperation, collectivism, leading them at times to even speak of reverence for the social good is inconsistent with their view of religion. If personally integration is the essence of religion, if, as one of their numbers says, the empirical method can not demonstrate that non-Christian solution is inferior to the Christian, if therefore true religion is just wholehearted absorption in whatever envisioned greatness empirically brings integrity of selfhood, and the humanists use all these phrases, they are virtually verbatim quotations, then it follows that the integration of purposes, emotions, and sentiments achieved by Hitler and Stalin cannot by any empirical method be judged inferior to any other. These two dictators could say, with as much truth as the apostle Paul, this one thing I do. All three men, Hitler, Stalin, and Paul, all three men were characterized by complete unity of mind. The examples of misers and hermits, who also have achieved great integration of emotions and sentiments, are only slightly less embarrassing to this view of religion.

The disadvantage of this attempt to define religion should now be clear. The definition is so broad and vague that it covers and unmanageable variety of experience. The Hindu mystic, the apostle Paul, the dictator, and the miser are equally perfect examples of religions. But while they are undoubtedly equally perfect examples of integral personality, these types of personalities are so incompatible with each other that if one is called good, another must be call evil. No one, not even a humanist, would admit that he has no preference among these manners of living. And in this case, one cannot say tu cur that integration of personality is good. This conclusion is an essential point in the message of a Christian evangelist. Many of the people to whom he preaches are integrated personalities. That is just what is a matter with them. Their desires and interests are thoroughly harmonized into a naturalistic system of values. They are altogether satisfied with themselves. No sense of guilt disturbs their equanimity. The Christian message must destroy this integration. And even if the message does not succeed in providing them with as perfectly harmonized a substitute, the semi-integration so produced is better than the previous complete integration.

The psychological method, therefore, fails to discover, to define, and to explain religion. At the same time it fails to justify its claims to scientific impartiality. It is not by pure description that psychology overemphasizes emotion. This is a normative judgment. And it is a judgment which precludes distinguishing between religion and other emotional experiences like politics. The controlling influence of non-descriptive philosophic presuppositions is also revealed by the disparagement of certain types of conversion. Disparagement is obviously evaluative. If now these presuppositions are made definite and specific values are elevated above others, the general problem of ethics is inescapable. But if specific values are left vague and every type of integration is allowed, the general problem of ethics is evaded because incompatible types of life are put on the same level. Since this method results in these confusions, since the terms are left without definite meaning, it seems that therefore some other method is imperative.

Now I hope that explodes the psychology of religion. And also explodes descriptive science as well. The law of contradiction requires that a word have a definite meaning. Now if a word has all possible meanings, it means nothing. Suppose there was a word in the dictionary, and you look it up in the dictionary and the meanings were all the other words in the dictionary. Hence, suppose the word were, oh, automobile. The word automobile means cat, it means tree, it means the square root of minus one, and so on, so on, so on. Now to write a book all you have to say, “auto auto auto auto auto auto auto auto.” And that means the New York Yankees are going to win the pennant, and world series in October. Because auto means all those words. But whenever you say something meaningful you must use a word that not only means something, but also doesn’t mean something. And if you deny the law of contradiction, the words means everything. There is nothing the word doesn’t mean.

Now, I’m quite well aware, you might know, the English language is ambiguous, but most words don’t have more than 5 different meanings. Maybe there is some that do, I don’t … Most words have no more than 5. But when you get an ambiguous word you get a choice from 5. Now, if you wish to be very accurate, you would, when you use that word, you would indicate which of the 5 meanings, as I did the other day. The word “or” has three different meanings in English and I specified on the board. Now if I were using Latin I’d have three different words. Well for English words you don’t always have extra words to use. But you have to define them and say meaning 1, meaning 2, meaning 3. And then you do have, when you do that, you have a word that means just one thing and nothing else. And that’s the way you have to use it in a syllogism to be valid because one of the rules of any valid argument is the term must mean the same thing in all three cases. Well, all two cases. It occurs in the conclusion … It has to mean … because if a word changes its meaning in an argument, the argument is invalid. And hence you find the law of contradiction embodied in the meaning of any word at all. Hence you have the whole Aristotelian system of logic in the first word of the book of Genesis. Bereshith. See, that’s Aristotelian logic. Because bereshith doesn’t mean “after a lot of other things that happened.” It means “before anything else had happened.” So in order to say anything meaningful, you must use the law of contradiction.