‘The Distinction Between Natural and Revealed Religion’
I think some of Temple’s most important thinking on the essence of religion and its study are contained in this brief introduction. Significantly, he blurs the distinction between ‘natural’ knowledge of God (that which can be had through observation of the world around us, without reference to supernatural revelation), and the knowledge of God which depends on revelation. Although he does not deny that the Holy Scriptures are ‘inspired’, Temple counts the study of Scripture to be a proper activity to gain a ‘natural’ knowledge of the Jewish and Christian faiths. After all, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are, along with everything else that can be claimed for them, the record of the response made by generations upon generations of people to a specific revelation. The revelation contained in the scriptures may be in dispute; the response, for Temple, is not. It is essential to study the content of religions, and not just their forms. For Temple,
'It is a perfectly reasonable, if provisional, judgement, which declares that what has been so great a power in human life cannot be altogether illusory. It is not the beneficence of religion that is here in question; about that there is much more to be said. Our question concerns its manifest potency, for evil as for good. It is not inconceivable that so great a force is grounded solely in the psychological vagaries of the human mind; but it is not unreasonable to prefer the alternative hypothesis and, merely on a broad survey of human history, to adopt the view that man’s great religion is a movement within him of some great force which it behoves him to appreciate, or his response to some object of supreme import, which it behoves him to understand, or both of these at once.' (p. 7)
For Temple, it makes no sense to separate the phenomena of religion in general, from the specific content of a particular religion. And actual faith and devotion are (almost) never based on ‘natural theology’ by itself. Faith always has an object and content; rarely is it the result of argumentation, but experience. There is, however, no ‘element in human experience which may claim exemption from examination at the bar of reason’; however it is also ‘unwise’ for religion to try to ‘exclude reason altogether from investigation of its treasures.’ (p. 17)
He is also quite clear that ‘orthodoxy’ in religion—not least the Christian religion—is annoyingly difficult to pin down: ‘it is also true that there is no one complete doctrine of the Trinity accepted by all orthodox Christians. There is an orthodox formula, which excludes certain conceptions of the Divine nature; but that formula is itself capable of many interpretations...’ (p.5). This is echoed throughout Temple’s writings, especially those that pertain to his work in the ecumenical movement.
Religious authority is always an interesting topic in William Temple’s work. Religious belief, or trust in God, almost always begins with the acceptance of reasonable authority (p. 18)—the idea of ‘reasonable’ being the key. Authority has to be trustworthy—for a child, that may be the authority of loving parents or knowledgeable teachers; and this holds true in every aspect of life (not just religion). However, Temple encourages people to test authority through their experience. He is confident that in most cases, the teaching authority of a trustworthy religious tradition will be confirmed, rather than invalidated, through testing at the bar of reason and experience. Submission to religious authority is not ‘unreasonable’, any more than, for example, than deferring to expert opinion in medicine or law. What would be unreasonable, once ‘authority’ has been tested by experience and found not to be reliable, is to continue to submit to it. Authority, for Temple, is never about sheer enforcement of will or opinion—that is coercion. True authority welcomes challenge and testing, because it can stand up to scrutiny.
And perhaps that is why, at the close of this first lecture, Temple sets the following task for the study of Natural Theology:
'Natural Theology should be the criticism of actual Religion and of actual religious beliefs, irrespective of their supposed origin and therefore independently of any supposed act or word of Divine Revelation, conducted with full understanding of what is criticised, yet with the complete relentlessness of scientific enquiry.' (p. 27)
This, I believe, predates the contemporary love for ‘practical theology’—but it is an important element in it. Can faith claims stand up to scrutiny, through reason and experience? Is this great historic force known generally as ‘religion’, understood in its power for both good and evil? From there, the questions are many, including how people live the theology they claim to hold, and how that plays out in a wider society.