War and the Christian Faith/Enigmas


When the articles which make up the substance of this book were appearing in "The Evening News," a very courteous correspondent wrote to me about one of them. He avowed himself a mathematician; and he protested against a paragraph which seemed to him to cast a shadow of doubt on Euclid's definitions. I had said: "It is written that no man hath seen God at any time; but has any man seen a Point or a Line or a Plane Surface at any time? A Point has neither parts nor magnitude—I seem to remember—but only position. A Line is length without breadth; which is a thing utterly inconceivable."

My friendly mathematician remonstrated with me, and endeavoured by various examples to convince me of the truth of Euclid. He bade me, for instance, try to think of a line as the "edge" of a black surface imposed on a white surface; and as for a plane surface, length and breadth without thickness, he declared that the surface of still water was a perfect example of it. But, I replied to him in effect, you cannot think of water without depth; and so you cannot think of position in space which occupies no space; and that edge of the black surface is part of the black surface, not a thing in itself, to be considered apart from the black surface. In a word: these Euclid definitions, elementary as they are, necessary as they are, seem in a sense rooted in contradiction. They are the very foundation stones of the absolute science of mathematics; and yet they must be presented to us in a glass darkly, by means of a mirror in an enigma. But we must firmly believe in them; for if we did not, then, the whole science of mathematics, and, a fortiori, all science, would become nonsense, and we should be, in fact, madmen, living in a world of chaos.

The fact is that, by the nature of the case, man is not capable of absolute truth; neither in the heights nor in the depths. Let him go to the very elements of the simplest things of the life about him, and he will find himself in a net of contradictions, obscurities, mysteries. It is idle for him to declare himself a purely rational creature, living in a rational, demonstrable universe: it is not so. It is idle for him to say: "If you can explain this to me I will believe in it." If he pursue the matter to the end, whatsoever the matter may be, he will find that it cannot be explained to him. He seeks the Lost Word, but he finds merely a substituted word, a symbol, which is a part of the truth, or an image of the truth, but not the whole and perfect truth. This being so with respect to small things, is it then wonderful that it should be so with respect to great things? If there are enigmas in points and lines and surfaces, is it not to be expected that there should be greater enigmas in the vast scheme of all things? We say that we do not understand how an Almighty and most merciful Father can allow the abomination of the war—can allow any pain or anguish of body or spirit. But have we the slightest ground for expecting to understand this; or any other problem?

In a sense, then, it is idle to seek the solution of the riddle of the universe, the riddle of ourselves and of our lives. Idle, that is, if we look—in this life—for an answer which will be clear, full, adequate; excluding all doubts, solving all difficulties. There is no such answer. And yet we are forced, by our very nature as men, to ask the question, to seek, at all events, for some hypothesis. And there is only one hypothesis.

For atheism is not an hypothesis at all. It is not even the "giving up" of the riddle; but rather the confession that there is no riddle. It is as if a man began the study of Greek, and was suddenly convinced that there was no such language as Greek; but merely a vast body of gibberish entirely devoid of meaning or significance; that the Greek Dictionary was an elaborate imposture, and that the tales told of Greek literature were extraordinary delusions, a mere chapter in the history of hallucination. This would not be in any sense an attempt to solve the undoubted difficulties which confront the student of the Greek language.

There is, then, only one hypothesis; that is the hypothesis of Faith; the hypothesis of God, that is of meaning and significance in all things, both good and evil. Here is a word written on the page; the hypothesis of faith holds that it is a true word, the symbol of an idea, that it signifies some real thing; that it is not mere senseless, unmeaning gibberish, signifying nothing at all. And as the idea is in the word, so faith holds that God is in the universe. Faith holds this; but cannot prove it. The existence of beauty cannot be demonstrated, the existence of God cannot be demonstrated. You cannot "prove" the beauty of Turner, the beauty of Bach, the beauty of Keats; the rapture of the stars and the earth and the waves upon the rocks does not exist by demonstration; there is no speech that is sufficient to declare these wonders. Gradgrind and Bounderby will grin if we speak of these things to them; they will grin if we speak of God to them; we must be content to leave Gradgrind and Bounderby grinning at God.

But as it is certain that those who make the adventure of beauty are not deluded, so it is certain that those who make the greater adventure of God are not deluded. And it is probable that this would be much clearer to many if the Faith were presented, not as a system of morals with certain supernatural sanctions, but as the supreme end of life, the key to all mysteries, the fulfilment of all desires, the quest of all quests.

It is very well that men should live decently; but Galahad sought for something more than respectability. He journeyed on a stranger adventure; he sought for a nobler chalice than the cup in which non-alcoholic beverages are contained.