Preface of a Saint (1)
PRAYER (traditional language)
Holy God, source of all wisdom: We give thanks for thy servants
George Berkeley and Joseph Butler, who by their life and work strengthened
thy Church and illumined thy world. Help us, following their examples, to
place our hearts and minds in thy service, for the sake of Jesus Christ;
who with thee and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.
PRAYER (contemporary language)
Holy God, source of all wisdom: We give thanks for your servants
George Berkeley and Joseph Butler, who by their life and work strengthened
your Church and illumined your world. Help us, following their examples,
to place our hearts and minds in your service, for the sake of Jesus Christ;
who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and
George Berkeley added to this commemoration, lessons
and collects revised provisionally at General Convention 2009.
Return to Lectionary
Last updated: 30 April 2010
GEORGE BERKELEY and
BISHOPS and THEOLOGIANS (1753, 1752)
Berkeley (pronounced /'barkli/) (12 March 1685 – 14 January
1753), also known as Bishop Berkeley (Bishop of Cloyne), was an Anglo-Irish
philosopher whose primary achievement was the advancement of a theory
he called "immaterialism" (later referred to as "subjective
idealism" by others). This theory contends that individuals can only
know directly sensations and ideas of objects, not abstractions such as
"matter". The theory also contends that ideas are dependent
upon being perceived by minds for their very existence, a belief that
became immortalized in the dictum, "esse est percipi"
("to be is to be perceived"). His most widely-read works are
Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) and Three
Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713), in which the characters
Philonous and Hylas represent Berkeley himself and his older contemporary
John Locke. In 1734, he published The
Analyst, a critique of the foundations of infinitesimal calculus,
which was influential in the development of mathematics.
— more at Wikipedia
Butler was born in 1692 and ordained in 1718. In 1726 he published
Fifteen Sermons, preached at the Rolls Chapel in London, which
chiefly dealt with human nature and its implications for ethics and practical
Christian life. He maintained that it is normal for a man to have an instinct
of self-interest, which leads him to seek his own good, and equally normal
for him to have an instinct of benevolence, which leads him to seek the
good of others individually and generally, and that the two aims do not
in fact conflict.
He served as parish priest in several parishes, and in 1736 was appointed
chaplain to Queen Caroline, wife of King George II. In the same year he
published his masterpiece, The
Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Cource
of Nature (often cited simply as "Butler's Analogy"), a
work chiefly directed against Deism, of which more will be said below.
Appended to the main work was a treatise, Of the Nature of Virtue,
which establishes him as one of the foremost British writers on ethics,
or moral philosophy.
When the Queen died in 1737, Butler was made Bishop of Bristol. (In England
at that time, bishoprics and parish churches were supported each by a
separate source of income that had been established for it perhaps centuries
earlier, and in consequence the funding was very unequal. Bristol, being
the lowest paid of all bishoprics, was where a new bishop usually started.
Later, he might be promoted to another diocese. The Reform movement of
the 1830's and its aftermath have remedied this situation.) However, George
II had been impressed with him earlier, and in 1746 he was called back
to court and the next year offered the post of Archbishop of Canterbury.
He refused the post, but in 1750 he became Bishop of Durham (in the north
of England, near the Scottish border, and well known even then as having
a tradition of bishops whose speeches and writings attract public attention).
He died there on 16 June 1752.
And now to return to the subject of Butler and Deism.
In the early 1700's, Deism was a religion rapidly gaining ground in intellectual
circles in England and France. Not all who called themselves Deists were
agreed on the tenets of the system, but in general it may be said that
a Deist believed in God, and believed that God had revealed himself in
two ways: "the starry heavens above us, and the moral law within us,"
as Kant put it. An examination of the physical world made it clear that
it had been designed by some great intelligence. Our conscience, or moral
faculty, made it clear that certain actions are wrong, and will surely
be punished, here or hereafter. Thus, Deists believed in God the Creator
and Judge, in the Moral Law, and in immortality, with rewards and
punishments to come.
What a Deist emphatically did not believe was that God had revealed himself
through prophets, visions, angels, miracles, inspired writings, and the
like. Thus, a Deist was not a Christian, or a Jew, or a Moslem, or a Zoroastrian,
or.... In the historical context, what chiefly mattered was that he was
not a Christian. In speaking of Christianity, some Deists used conciliatory
language, saying that the essence of Christianity was Christ's ethical
teaching, which confirmed the teachings of the moral faculty, and so there
was no real disagreement. Others were more assertive, and spoke at length
of all the harm that had been done by false prophets (on their view the
only kind). The second half of Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason
is an example of this. In particular, he complained that the Old Testament
often represents God as approving or commanding harsh, cruel, unjust,
or murderous conduct; and that the New Testament claim that salvation
comes only through Jesus is inconsistent with the idea of a just God,
since justice means rewarding good deeds and punishing wicked ones. Paine
believed that he had found many contradictions in the Bible, as well as
historical inaccuracies and morally unacceptable teachings, and he did
not hesitate to say so. (I am guilty of an anachronism here, in that Paine
wrote in the 1790's, long after Butler was dead. I simply refer to him
because he is the example that most readers of this list will find most
familiar and most accessible. He represents in extreme form a point of
view that had existed long before him, and which by his own time was in
retreat, thanks in large measure to Butler.)
Butler's reply to the Deist objections to Christianity could be summarized
in a single quote from Origen. "Those who believe the Author of Nature
to be also the Author of Scripture must expect to find in Scripture the
same sorts of difficulties that they find in Nature." Thus, for example,
the Deists would say:
The Bible says that God visits the iniquities of the fathers
upon the children to the third and fourth generation. In view of that
teaching, can any decent man be a Christian?
Butler's reply would be:
According to Deists, we have a sufficient revelation of God
in Nature, which he created. But in Nature, we find that a sexually promiscuous
father may give syphilis to his children and grandchildren. If a pregnant
woman abuses her body in various ways, her child is likely to have a low
birth weight, lowered intelligence, and other problems. If we consult
the Book of Nature to learn about God, we conclude that he visits the
iniquities of the fathers on the children. In view of that teaching, can
any decent man be a Deist?
He would then add that it is not a simple matter of finding that both Bible
and Nature portray God as wicked, in which case it is better to repudiate
both Christianity and Deism and adopt atheism as the only moral position.
Rather, we find that God has so made the world that our actions affect others
as well as ourselves. A world in which no one could hurt anyone would also
be a world in which no one could help anyone. Now a world in which every
thinking being had a planet all to himself would be a world without the
possibility of injustice between man and man, but it would also be a world
without the possibility of gratitude between man and man (do I really have
to explain that Butler normally uses the word "man" in a gender-inclusive
sense?), and it is not clear that it would be a better world than the one
Again, the Deist complains bitterly against the doctrine that salvation
is ours only through the action of Christ, and that the normal way, at
least, of being saved is through faith in Christ. This seems unfair to
the virtuous pagan, not to mention the virtuous atheist. The gist of Butler's
reply is the same. He would say:
Consider the following speech:
Again, the Deist objects:
I am an atheist, and I figure that I am great shape. I have all my bets
covered. I can do anything I want, while my Christian friends are hemmed
in by all kinds of silly restrictions. Sometimes they say to me:
"But suppose that there is a God after all. Then your choice doesn't make
sense in the long run." I reply that it makes perfect sense. If there
is a God, he is not going to blame me for acting on my sincere convictions.
He is supposed to be fair, and it is not fair to penalize someone for
an honest mistake. Therefore, if there is a God, I am going to be right
up there in heaven along with the Christians, so I haven't lost anything.
And if, as I suppose, there is no God, then I am certainly better off
not spending all that time and money on religion, and being otherwise
hemmed in. So, as aforesaid, I have all the possibilities covered. Now,
some of my friends have said that I ought not to be so sure that I have
nothing to worry about if there is a God. But I say that if the Universe
is ruled by a Being who is so unfair that he would punish someone for
an honest mistake, then I want nothing to do with such a being. He is
mean, and nasty, and unjust, and I defy him. So there!
Compare it with another speech:
Having mentioned the two speakers, Butler makes his point:
Here I sit in my chemistry lab, with a nice cup of coffee in front of
me, to which I have just added a spoonful of sugar, and which I am now
about to drink. My lab partner has just said, "Stop! Don't drink that
coffee. I was watching, and instead of adding sugar from the sugar jar,
you added cyanide from the cyanide jar which is just next to it. If
you drink it, it will surely kill you." But I shall pay no attention
to this warning. I do not think that I am likely to make that sort of
stupid mistake. Besides, if by any chance I am wrong, and this really
is cyanide, I am in no danger, because I truly and sincerely believe
that this is sugar. I am a chemist, and I have great faith in the Laws
of Chemistry. I know that it is the Laws of Chemistry that enabled life
to originate and evolve in the first place. (Some chemists have given
reasons for supposing that, given the Laws of Chemistry, the development
of life on any planet at a suitable distance from its sun is inevitable.)
I owe my life to the Laws of Chemistry. I know that those laws are pro-life,
that they are on my side. The suggestion that those laws would penalize
me for an honest mistake, for acting on a sincerely held belief, is
ridiculous and blasphemous. If the Laws of Chemistry are really as unjust
as that, then I defy the Laws of Chemistry. So there!
It is most perverse of a Deist to complain that Christians do not believe
in a God who forgives honest error. If a Deist really got his views of
God from a study of Nature, as he claims, he would find no reason to suppose
that God makes any distinction whatever, as to consequences, between an
act committed in honest error and the same act committed in wilful cussedness.
The Laws of Chemistry, which God created, make no such distinction. Why
should the Deist believe that God does? And why should he demand that
the Christian believe that God does? In fact, we do have some grounds
for supposing that God is gracious to those who do wrong out of honest
error or ignorance (see Luke 23:34 and 1 Timothy 1:13), but we find these
grounds in the study of Scripture, not in the study of Nature.
We are agreed that God is Love, and that he cares
for all those whom he has made. But the Bible describes him as slaying
the first-born of Egypt, and commanding the Israelites to slay everyone
in the city of Jericho, right down to the new-born babe. Does the Bible
reveal a God of Love?
Nature shows us entire towns destroyed by earthquakes
or volcanos, or plague. Worse, every human eventually dies. Why is it
consistent with the goodness of God to decide that everyone in Pompeii
is to die now, and cause a volcano to kill them, but not consistent with
the goodness of God to decide that everyone in Jericho is to die now,
and order Joshua to kill them? We are agreed that there is a life after
death, and that makes it easier to see that ending Jones's life on Tuesday
is not necessarily inconsistent with Jones's longterm best interest. It
may seem implausible that everyone in Pompeii, or everyone in Jericho,
or everyone on the 747 that crashed, was at precisely that stage in his
life where it was best for him to move on, but as long as we do not claim
to be omniscient, we can hardly say that we know that it would have been
better for some of them to live longer. What is certainly true is that
this is no more a problem for the Christian than for the Deist.
It may seem that Butler, by proving that Deism has as many problems as Christianity,
is simply encouraging Deists to become Atheists. He would say:
Deists and Christians both have reason to believe
in God. Both have seen that without God the world simply does not make
sense. Both see many things, in Nature or the Scriptures or both, that
are not what we would expect from a good and powerful God. We wonder about
the reasons for them. Sometimes we can make a plausible guess at the reasons.
Sometimes we cannot begin to guess at why God caused or permitted some
event, and yet we continue to believe that there is a good reason. Is
this irrational? Why should it be thought so? I believe in what we may
conveniently refer to as the laws of physics. When I see a good stage
magician at work, he does things that I cannot explain in terms of the
laws of physics. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that there is a perfectly
good natural explanation for them. Faced with a choice between believing
that Nature is in fact lawless and supposing that that there is some way
that I have overlooked of sneaking the rabbit into the hat, even though
I cannot begin to guess what it is, I opt for the latter every time. Likewise,
faced with a death (for example) that seems to serve no purpose, and forced
to choose between supposing that there is no God and supposing that God
knows more than I do, I opt for the latter every time, because the latter
gives me a universe with a few unsolved (by me) puzzles in it, but the
former gives me a universe fundamentally without meaning.
Incidentally, the above are not quotations from Butler. They are
my attempts to express the gist of Butler's arguments. One of the frustrating
things about reading Butler, for me, is that he almost never uses examples
or illustrations to bring an argument to life. Everything is stated in terms
of general principles, and left there. This, plus the total lack of any
devotional atmosphere, can make the book, in one sense, very dry reading.
On the other hand, many of his sayings are perceptive, insightful, and memorable.
I suspect that most readers of Butler will find themselves often pausing
to make a check-mark in the margin (not, of course, if reading a borrowed copy)
or reading a remark several times so as to remember it and quote it when
In its own day, the book had a tremendous influence. David Hume, a radically
skeptical philosopher, who did not admire most Christian apologists, admired
Butler, and unsuccessfully sought permission to dedicate his own
work to Butler.
by James Kiefer
Note: Clicking on the link above will
take you to Amazon.com, where you may buy the book if you like. More
information on Joseph Butler is avaialble on the Internet
Encyclopedia of Philosophy.