|Baron Friedrich von Hugel (1852-1925)
It was towards the end of the 19th century that the hierarchy of
the Roman Catholic Church identified a threat to Christian doctrine in a
historically rapid drift to a one-world perception of reality. This they
Von Hugel, himself a Catholic, was a Florentine who inherited an
Austrian title but lived most of his life in England. His most important
work were: The Mystical Element of Religion (1908), Essays and
Addresses (1921), and The Reality of God (1931).
He was in his lifetime often associated with the so-called modernist
movement which in the latter part of the nineteenth century was bitterly
criticised and strongly opposed by the Roman Catholic Church. But although
von Hugel was indeed an adventurous thinker, he remained faithful to the
Roman Catholic Church all his life, regarding it as the finest possible
expression of humanity's religious spirit.
Nevertheless, it's a fair to say
that he attempted to straddle the "great divide" between modern
and traditional conceptions of the Christian way of life. In particular,
he argued against the conclusion that there is no necessary
connection between our subjective experience and the world "out
He was supported in his conclusions by a wide and deep knowledge of the
history of religion. When he analysed Western cultures, he came up with
what he perceived as three distinct elements or characteristics:
- The Greek desire for a rich harmony in nature;
- the Christian capacity to understand how people work and the hidden
depths of personality; and
- science, the analytical method by which we discover and formulate
facts about the universe and the laws which govern them.
All three are essential to human well-being, said Hugel. This meant in
practice, for example, that it was right for theologians to dissect and
criticise the Bible just as other artifacts in our lives are analysed
scientifically. It was probably this sort of free thinking which earned
him the suspicion and sometimes opposition of other Roman Catholics.
He was perhaps to some extent protected by living in England, with its
long and bitter experience of religious persecutions and its resulting
sense of broad tolerance in matters religious. I have little doubt that he
would have been greatly disturbed by fanatical fundamentalists in the 21st
Like many before him, von Hugel tackled the difficulties most
contemporary people have with life in a society which no longer naturally
thinks of reality as a natural world somehow conjoined with a
super-natural world. He thought that there are no good grounds for
doubting that we can be in touch with God - or, as he put it, with the infinite.
God, thought Hugel, will always remain mysterious to a degree. We will
therefore always be faced with unanswered questions about God's nature and
the whys and wherefores of God's actions in the world. We know God through
our experience of the world - but at the same time it must be realised
that God is greater than the world, transcending space and time. He concluded
There is no such thing for man as a complete escape from history and
He sought to prove our connection with God by examining religious experience and
the claims of great religious figures, Christian and non-Christian,
throughout the ages. His examination showed, he claimed, that the mystical
experiences reported by so many people are just as valid an
"experience" as any we know as we interact with our environment.
In this sense he was sympathetic with the teachings of other religions.
They shared the essence of all religion which is, in his view, the
mystical adoration of the infinite by the individual. He insisted on
... the ready recognition, by any one religion, of elements of worth
variously present in the other religions, together with the careful
avoidance of all attempts at forced uniformity. 
Hugel was drawn to study Kierkegaard. But he thought that
Kierkegaard was mistaken in drawing such a definite dividing line between
humans and God. In doing so Hugel thought that Kierkegaard had rendered the mystical communication between
mankind and God impossible - or at least so mysterious as to be
subliminal at best or at worst incomprehensible.
One implication of von Hugel's theory of knowledge is that the notion
of "experience" shouldn't be divided into internal and external
aspects. Many think that the only sound ground upon which to build
knowledge is our senses and the laws we discover about the world they
reveal (this is usually called Positivism).
In doing so they neglect the importance of our emotions and acts
of will, said von Hugel. These not only are as real as anything else, but they form a
unity or continuum with what we normally call the "objective"
world. So when we experience the infinite we don't just
"understand" something, we also respond emotionally and
volitionally to something which is as real as we are.
I think that is this respect von Hugel may have been reaching towards
the later notion of interlocking systems (which first came on the scene in
the mid-20s of the twentieth century). The theory of systems holds that
the universe itself is the ultimate system of which all other systems are
part. We identify these parts as themselves sub-systems only by making an
artificial distinction between the universe and constituent systems (such as the human
So in reality what we call "experience"
isn't something consisting of separate parts which interact with each
other. Rather, it's an aspect of a sub-system (itself part of the universal
system) we call the objective/subjective system, much in the same way we
no longer speak of time and space but of the time/space continuum.
So for von Hugel sense experience puts "pressure on our
minds" to conclude that there is a "trans-subjective
validity". In other words, our senses tell us that there really is
something "out there".
We have to credit this pressure, he
thought, if only because not to do so is to collapse into a degree of
scepticism which makes any rational consideration of truth self-defeating.
If one can't trust that one's sense experience reflects external reality -
albeit imperfectly - then all argument applies only to the individual who
is doing the arguing. The individual becomes the only arbiter of
truth. That is, truth is entirely relative. What's true depends on who you
He took his justification of mystical experience a step further. We
experience a genuine reality "out there" and from it we work out
various mathematical and geometric conclusions with considerable clarity
and certainty. But when we put everything together, we arrive at
statements about real objects which can never be final because there is no
such thing as the complete description of anything.
As Ninian Smart writes of von Hugel, "Any statement or set
of statements about a real object will fail to exhaust what is to be
discovered" in that object .
The more complete one's awareness, therefore, the less
clear it becomes. In effect, therefore, what we term "reality"
is so complex that it becomes incomprehensible. This explains why
philosophy and religion are like groping in the dark. The greater the lack of clarity, the more likely it is that religion
will be rich because "Religion can't be clear if it is worth
anything", he writes.
 Quoted by J Macquarrie in Twentieth-Century
Religious Thought, SCM
 The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan, 1967