Joseph Butler & the Unity of Faith and Nature (2023)

Joseph Butler—Anglican bishop, theologian, and philosopher—strikes me as a man deeply involved with the great program of Christian humanism, one who did his bit to guide the ship of Western thought back to its moorings after skepticism had blown it off course.

The Analogy of Religion, by Joseph Butler, edited by David McNaughton (259 pages, Oxford University Press, 2021)

Joseph Butler & the Unity of Faith and Nature (1)In a number of my essays, I have meditated on the many connections between religion and philosophy, faith and reason. Here I would like to continue those reflections, but in the context of reviewing a newish book—or rather, a newish edition of a very old (yet oddly forgotten) book, one that any self-respecting imaginative conservative should be aware of.

Joseph Butler (1692–1752) was an Anglican bishop, a theologian, and a philosopher. He served as bishop of Durham and official theological expert to the queen of England. The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature was his best-known work; it influenced religious thinkers for generations, not least among them Cardinal John Henry Newman.

Here the British scholar David McNaughton has given us the first modern, annotated edition of the Analogy in well over a century. We can all be glad that he has done so because it is clear, to me at least, that Joseph Butler should be a lot better known today. A sort of 18th-century C.S. Lewis, Butler was much involved with meeting the skepticism and irreligion of his day with reasonable arguments on behalf of Christianity. Yet this treatise cannot be said to be merely a work of apologetics, nor is it theology strictly speaking. Rather, it can only justly be described as religious philosophy—or natural theology, to use a term favored in Butler’s time. Indeed, Butler to my mind exemplifies everything that religious philosophy can be. He defends Christianity using reason and logical argument, and brilliantly too. Only in a few spots does he bring scripture to bear on his arguments, and it never forms the core of his argument. Butler meets Deists and skeptical and secular thinkers on their own ground, that of an analysis of nature, their own favorite territory. There are wonderful, profound insights in this book about the relationship between religion and the natural order.

Going back to nature was one of the main intellectual motifs of the early modern period and the Enlightenment. According to many savants, knowledge was to be put on a scientific basis, with the methodology for investigating the physical universe serving as the template for all knowledge. There was much talk of “natural religion” (i.e., religion based on reason alone) and natural theology. Butler doesn’t so much refute this emphasis on nature and skeptical doubt about the existence of another world; he meets the naturalists on their own terms, arguing that religious claims and beliefs—including the existence of the mysterious and the miraculous—are completely in keeping with what we know about nature. McNaughton in his introduction says that such an “internal critique” of a particular view is inherently powerful and compelling.

In so doing, Butler’s approach is in the best tradition of British philosophical empiricism. Nearly everything in his treatise is based on common experience, not on hypothesis or supposition. Too many objections to Christianity, argues Butler, start from the basis of what we think ought to be the case, then proceed to find the Christian scheme to fall short of our expectations. (“I disagree with Christianity because it places such a strong emphasis on sin,” and so forth.) This, for Butler, is essentially frivolous. It is far more realistic and rational to start from what we know to be true in nature and life, then compare this with what Christianity says. If we do so, Butler contends, we will find a remarkable harmony and agreement.

Something that may surprise modern readers is the extent that skepticism and religious unbelief—“infidelity” was the common term then—had already reached in the 18th century. As Butler tells us (and I quote to give you a sense of his style):

… all of them do not content themselves with a bare neglect of religion, and enjoying

their imaginary freedom from its restraints. Some go much beyond this. They deride

God’s moral government over the world. They renounce his protection, and defy his

justice. They ridicule and vilify Christianity, and blaspheme the author of it; and take

all occasions to manifest a scorn and contempt of revelation. This amounts to an active

setting themselves against religion; to what may be considered as a positive principle

of irreligion: which they cultivate within themselves, and, whether they intend this effect

or not, render habitual, as a good man does the contrary principle.

And McNaughton further informs us in one of his notes that “A glance at […] Hume’s chapter ‘Of Miracles’ shows how far it was acceptable to ridicule the Scriptures in print.”

All of this, of course, chimes with our own time. One of the things you realize when reading the Analogy is that many of today’s irreligious arguments are just balder and cruder versions of ideas that were in full force 300 years ago. And Butler already dealt them a strong blow.

Butler points out that many arguments against religion and Christianity look at things through a foreshortened perspective, failing to see the whole picture and take in all considerations, including historical and metaphysical ones. Most arguments against Christianity, Butler claims, are “frivolous” and come with unwarranted intellectual hubris. Religious skeptics think that they have destroyed all the claims of religion when in fact they have not. Many antireligious arguments are made in a historical vacuum, as if the facts of religious history can simply be waved away—as if doubt about this or that point of belief is enough to destroy the entire edifice. The case is not nearly so simple, and the thrust of Butler’s book is to show why. He indeed throws the ball into nonbelievers’ court. Can they explain the fulfillment of prophesies or the incredibly unlikely growth of the early church? Can they explain what the Gospels actually recount, if not an intervention of God among humanity? And if orthodox Christianity is nothing but a collection of “fairy tales,” then why did a whole generation of believers who had seen Christ in the flesh willingly go to their deaths in witness to it? There is something exhilarating in all this, because since the birth of skepticism religious believers have constantly been put in the defensive position. Butler, instead, obliges skeptics to answer the questions they have raised.

There were in Butler’s era several forms of skepticism about revealed religion; among them the Deists are well known, and the Analogy is perhaps primarily addressed to them. It’s important to define Deism clearly, because the distinction between Deists and agnostics and atheists frequently gets glossed over today. Deists were believers in God; but their God was a purely philosophical conception, simple and shorn of the claims of revelation. Revelation was not necessary, claimed Deists, because everything we need to know about God can be learned through reason. Deism was roughly identical with what Butler refers to in the Analogy as “natural religion”—i.e., a belief in religious matters based on unaided reason without (or even to the exclusion of) revelation. One of the things that made Deists uncomfortable with the traditional, scriptural account of God is that they had committed themselves to a view of the universe as an orderly system defined by regularity and consistent laws. The idea that God would give “an occasional tweak” to nature—i.e., produce a miracle—was inconceivable and therefore had to be based in “superstition.”

Yet the full truth of the matter is that reality, far from being perfectly orderly and predictable, is frequently wondrous and strange. Paradox and irony are operating principles of the world we live in. It took Romanticism to develop this idea, bearing fruit in such Christian thinkers as Kierkegaard and Chesterton (and already present in Blaise Pascal, if I’m not mistaken). They delved into the mythopoetic dimension of reality as a means of understanding and justifying faith as a valid and necessary response to reality.

Butler, an 18th-century man of reason no less than his antagonists, anticipates this a bit when he discusses the factor of likelihood in deciding whether Christianity is true. It is often objected that the whole scheme of Christianity is unlikely and fantastical. Yet the same could be said about many common natural facts. It is highly unlikely and improbable that we should have been able to discover recondite facts about galaxies millions of miles away, yet remain ignorant about the cures for common diseases. One would expect the precise opposite to be the case.

This consideration of the surprising leads quite naturally to an investigation of the character of the miraculous. In addressing the question of miracles, Butler points out that many things in nature itself—electricity, for example—would seem miraculous to someone discovering them for the first time. He therefore poses a new category, the extraordinary, to describe wondrous things in nature between the ordinary and the miraculous. Christian miracles—the Resurrection, for example—should be compared not to the ordinary and the everyday, but to the extraordinary events in nature like electricity, comets, and eclipses. Miracles are not brute facts; they are like fanfares announcing a transcendent event; there are theophanies or self-revelations of God. It is therefore reasonable to assume that religious revelation might be accompanied by miracles, or events that bend or suspend the natural order of things.

Responses to skeptical currents of thought took different forms in Butler’s time. Some progressive religious believers tried to prove to the world that Christianity, far from being irrational, was in fact identical with reason, was nothing but “the revelation of reason to men.” The path taken by Butler’s friend Samuel Clarke, this usually involved downplaying or denying some of the supernatural elements of the Christian faith, reducing it to some degree to a “reasonable” philosophy.

Butler’s stance differs from such religious rationalism. He seeks to argue that Christianity in its historic and traditional form is credible; it is not irrational; there is good, solid evidence for it; and the claims of religion and Christianity in particular parallel what we see around us in nature. Given what is at stake—the salvation of our souls—we should stake our faith in religion and follow its precepts in our lives.

Very important in Butler’s conception is the idea of life as a trial and a progressive improvement of the soul. Christianity teaches that this life is a journey, a pilgrimage, and a testing ground—a state of probation, as Butler puts it. We will be judged on the basis of how we conduct ourselves, how well we resist temptations, and what spiritual fruit we have borne in our lives. The full reality and the true life, as Plato recognized long before Christianity, lies beyond. This is a crucial point of Butler’s in light of how life is commonly viewed from a secular framework today. The growth of secular humanism has led many of us—even if we outwardly profess religion—to adopt a view of life as a sort of pleasure garden, the locus of self-fulfillment and satisfaction of desire, rather than a moral drama with eternal stakes. It is the latter view that is, to my mind, far richer and leads to the fostering of the moral imagination. McNaughton summarizes Butler’s position: “If this life is to be a genuine test of character, there must be temptations and obstacles to overcome.”

Our earthly life is not the whole show; yet it is crucial because here on earth we learn who we are, who God is, and what we were made for. This life is the condition and testing ground for the next, where God will reward the just and punish the unjust.

As it so happens, nature gives us a foretaste of this. Good prudential judgments, even those about temporal matters, tend to lead to happiness and security, and bad decisions lead to ruin and decay—as regards our care of our bodily health, for example. What’s more, the idea that we grow into moral maturity to become fit for heaven is reflected in the way we experience natural life here on earth; our education as children fits us for life as an adult, just as our trials and tribulations as adults built our character so as to fit us for life in heaven. Growing up, we learn from experience what good and evil are and how to react to and adapt ourselves to our environment; this is directly comparable to what religion teaches us about the need to fit ourselves to eternity.

When we consider the doctrine that Jesus acts as the mediator between humanity and God, we remember that we experience mediators in our natural lives in the form of our parents, friends, and others as we grow and mature; and such friends often save us from the bad consequences of our actions.

Such considerations do not of course prove what religion teaches to be true, but they do render religion perfectly plausible and credible and thus worth pursuing—and this is the core of Butler’s method in the Analogy.

Perhaps most moving are Butler’s arguments in favor of life after death from the basis of nature. We see ourselves and other organisms going through many changes, yet they are not destroyed. Although we see the visible effects of death on a human being, we do not really know what death is in itself; it remains a mystery, like so much else. Our active powers (such as consciousness, sensing, and feeling) do not strictly rely on our bodies, and thus there is reason to believe that they can survive the death of the body. (This is tantamount to proving that there is in fact a part of man that is not the body, i.e., the soul.) Is it not possible, Butler asks, that death is nothing but another birth into a “higher and more enlarged state of life”—which we cannot see at present—just like our first birth, when we passed from our mother’s womb into the world? The body can survive the death of a limb; may we not suppose that the soul can survive the death of the body?

Indeed, nature shows many examples of changes that lead the subject to a higher state of being—processes that yield a result different from what we would have expected beforehand; for example, crops which often mature in an indirect and unexpected way. This lends credibility to the notion that there is another, spiritual world beyond the world of nature, a world that is surprising and unpredictable.

Butler draws from his arguments a number of consequences for belief. Because there are good reasons for believing in Christianity, it should be taken seriously; even if you have some doubt about it, you are still under an obligation to follow religion’s precepts, given what is at stake (here Butler comes close to Pascal’s Wager). Indeed, doubt or lack of certitude about religious matters may even be part of the probation and trial which God has imposed on us. Very possibly, God wants us to have faith even when complete reassurance is not forthcoming.

As in other matters, doubt and uncertainty as they apply to religion are paralleled in the world of nature. There are things in science about which we do not have certain knowledge; this does not stop us from forging ahead in our investigations of reality and applying them to the improvement of everyday life. Likewise, when it comes to religion, we do not need absolute certitude or positive proof; likelihood and reasonable credibility, according to Butler, are enough to compel assent.

Many people hesitate to commit themselves to Christianity because of lack of certainty, but perfect certainty is unobtainable here and now. Since we don’t even understand everything in nature, it would be absurd to suppose we could understand everything about the religious and moral dimension of existence. “We have been given all that is needful to live this life and to inherit eternal life,” writes Butler; “All else is mystery.” The need to have faith, to make a leap and take a risk, is inherent in our dealings with nature itself. We often have to act, in practical affairs, under a cloud of uncertainty and doubt. Why should religion be any different?

Many people, unfortunately, fall into the lazy habit of equating doubt with certain knowledge. Butler is strong on delineating the sloth and wishful thinking to which human beings fall prey in religious matters and which underlie many forms of irreligion. Some people don’t want religion to be true, so they reject it out of hand, assuming the case for atheism settled. Part of the main thrust of Butler’s book is that reasonable probability is sufficient for belief. Butler compels us all, whether believers or not, to reconsider our convictions seriously and thus come to a better understanding about where we stand vis a vis the great universal fact of Christianity.

Butler finally defends the necessity for revelation itself as against those who preach a “religion of reason.” The fact that we must discover religious truth gradually, with many things remaining mysterious, parallels our experience with regard to nature: the secrets of the physical universe must be found out by painstaking study and observation, and yet many things still remain unknown or imperfectly understood. The problem with many objections to Christianity is that the objector assumes the position of a perfect judge and jury. But given the magnitude of what we do not know, even about the natural world, it is highly probable that we are, at this time, simply not competent judges about eternal things. It is therefore not at all unreasonable to trust a body of revelation, properly interpreted and understood, when it comes to matters not discoverable by pure reason.

The first time I ever heard Butler’s name was not in a book about Christianity but in a survey of “Fifty Major Philosophers.” Besides overtly religious works like the Analogy, Butler was known as a moral philosopher who, among other things, performed a dissection on Thomas Hobbes’ rather miserable philosophy of human nature, substituting for Hobbes’ idea of universal selfishness his own concept of “enlightened self-love” that includes benevolence toward others. Much like his contemporary George Berkeley, Butler combated skepticism through empirical commonsense enlightened by a faith in the unseen. He strikes me as a man deeply involved with the great program of Christian humanism, one who—like many thinkers before and since—did his bit to guide the ship of Western thought back to its moorings after skepticism had blown it off course. Not surprisingly, one will not find him in most mainstream courses of philosophy. Yet in both content and style the Analogy of Religion should ensure him a place of honor in the history of Christian thought. Butler’s writing has both grace and force, although his rolling 18th-century prose periods might give your brain some exercise.

Reading Butler has helped me understand better my own philosophical orientation. I am a combination of rationalist and romanticist in my temper. On the one hand, I believe that the universe is governed by reason and order, and I seek to maintain in my life a tranquility of mind and a spiritual optimism grounded in biblical faith and hope. At the same time, I believe that the wondrous and strange exist, that “there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy,” that paradox and irony are woven into our experience. Butler comes to our aid on both sides of the equation. His book argues that reality is a complex and harmonious system in which what we know leads to things we could never have imagined.

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