The Sense of the Presence of God Summary

John Baillie


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Trained in philosophy and theology, John Baillie taught at universities in Scotland, the United States, and Canada, and was a significant figure in the ecumenical church developments of the second third of the twentieth century. His views represent a middle position between the extremes of theological liberalism (Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich) and theological conservatism (Karl Barth).

In The Sense of the Presence of God, Baillie states that human experience (construed broadly enough to include “the sense of the presence of God”) provides a basis for knowledge sufficient for practical action, though it does not support claims to theoretical comprehension: “There can be no apprehension of the divine presence that is not at the same time a summons to a divinely-appointed task.” He insists that “we can see to do the work we were meant to do. . . . [And] if our end is the love and service of God, we cannot justly demand more light until we have better used the light we already have.” Baillie thus sides with those who think that God wants us to embrace religious belief and action despite (or even, in a sense, because of) “the very limitation of our possible knowledge.” He explicitly compares, but also contrasts, his view with Immanuel Kant’s attempt to limit knowledge to make room for faith. Religious knowledge is practical rather than speculative, but nonetheless knowledge.

Baillie rejects a narrow, positivist conception of experience, which he sees as philosophically inadequate in its own terms and as unrealistically divorced from the lessons of life. He believes that he, like others, has sensed the presence of God, though he grants that someone else might explain the experience away—just as someone...

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The Sense of the Presence of God Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Baillie, John. And the Life Everlasting. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933. Baillie discusses Christian and other views about human immortality.

Baillie, John. Our Knowledge of God. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939. Often regarded as Baillie’s best book, this volume presents the state of his thinking on the question of religious knowledge two decades before the Gifford lectures.

Fergusson, David, ed. Christ, Church and Society: Essays on John Baillie and Donald Baillie. New York: T. and T. Clark International, 2000. A collection of sixteen essays covering the lives, theological views, and church work of Baillie and his theologian brother, including a bibliography of their publications.

Hood, Adam. Baillie, Oman, and Macmurray: Experience and Religious Belief. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003. A comparison of Baillie’s ideas about the experiential grounds of religious belief with those of two other twentieth century Scottish theologians; two chapters are devoted specifically to Baillie.

Newlands, George. John and Donald Baillie: Transatlantic Theology. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. An intellectual and cultural biography of the Baillie brothers, examining their influence on each other and on international ecumenical theology and church work.