II: The Problem of Being or Reality
What is? What is real? What is appearance? Perhaps it may seem strange that we start with this question, which is certainly not the one modern man asks. His question is: what is the meaning of life? Has life a meaning at all? The problem of being is foreign to him. It always has been foreign to non-philosophers; it seems to be a problem which exists only for the thinker. So it is, as a conscious problem. The ordinary man does not ask this question; for him it seems to be settled, he lives as if it were settled. He is not aware of the fact that his whole life is determined by an axiomatic conception of what is real.
That becomes clear if we ask what then is reality, God or the world, mind or matter, the visible or the invisible, the temporal or the eternal, the Many or the One? For the man of our time at any rate, whatever else he may consider as real, it is beyond question that sensible, tangible material things have the priority as regards certainty and weight of being. A realist is a man who tests reality by this criterion: material, sensible fact. The prevalent standard is still the primitive standard of physical condition. The most real thing is the hard, solid material, then follows the liquid, then the vaporous airy, transparent. The spiritual, therefore, is a further diminution of substantial reality, that which is farthest away from that most impressive reality of all, the heavy, impenetrable block of iron or stone. It is from this conception of reality that Ernst Haeckel defined God in conscious blasphemy as a gaseous vertebrate. On the other hand, if a Hindu calls Europeans materialists, he has in mind somehow this scale of realities which most Europeans take so much as a matter of course, that they cannot even understand that anyone might disagree and think differently about reality. This conception of reality, however, is by no means self-evident. Those who have been brought up within the Hindu tradition not only think, but feel, differently. It is not merely their theory, but implicit in their whole sense of life, that this material world is a phantom, an illusion which hides and falsifies our perceptions.
This is the feeling not only of those learned Brahmins who have studied the philosophy of the Upanishads. In the course of hundreds or even thousands of years something of this advaita-doctrine has become a common possession and has deeply influenced the sense of reality within the Indian world. Reality is not the many things which we can grasp and touch; reality is the One which we can never perceive with our senses. The more sensual, the more material, the less real. The true being is that which is farthest away from the material, and therefore is pure spirit; nay, even this assertion is still determined by that illusory world of the Many, and therefore not adequate. The true being is that which is beyond the opposition of mind and matter, subject and object, and therefore beyond definition by concepts, because definition as such is a limitation. Truly real is that indivisible One which, because indivisible, is also indefinable—Brahma.
This idea, which is so foreign to us and sounds so incredible, has held its own not only in India but also at certain times in Europe, in the form of Neoplatonic philosophy and mysticism, particularly within the so-called Christian mediæval world. The one true being, the ὄντως ὄν, as Plato called it, is the divine One, the ἕν καὶ πα̑ν. True reality therefore is the spiritual, not the material world. A realist at that time was someone who affirmed the primary reality of the ideas of the spiritual world. Matter within that conception is, so to say, mind in a state of distension, obscuration, dismemberment, diffusion into what we in our time call substance. The mediæval thinker would have denied that attribute or qualification; substance to him was that which is unchangeable, that which has eternal duration, that which cannot be divided, the One and All.
Modern physics, paradoxical as it may seem at first sight, can bring us closer to an understanding of what mediæval man thought. In modern physics, reality is not substance, but energy, not something dead, fixed, stiff, but living power, tense, dynamic. No longer is energy an appearance of matter, it is matter that is an appearance of energy. Therefore it seems as if at the most unexpected point, in the science of matter, a revolution in the concept of being is in the making, a revolution in the direction of what we call mediæval Platonism or idealism. Leibnitz seems to be right: reality is to be found ultimately not in masses of matter, but in spiritual forces.
But perhaps this “either/or” is false, perhaps both extended matter and non-extended spirit are equally real, without being as such the ultimate reality. Since the Greek mind formed the concept of Cosmos, a mediating view of reality has been in existence. This world, which we see with our eyes and grasp with our hands, is somehow real. But what we grasp and see is not reality itself, but one of its aspects. Consummate reality is a totality, a world permeated by Logos, a unity of God and world, of mind and matter, of eternity and temporality, of transparent spirit and opaque weight. What the Greek with his plastic artistic mind expressed in his Cosmos idea, is something to which corresponds in some undefined manner a feeling which is basic in many peoples and which we find living in the primitive mind. Nature is permeated by divine spiritual forces, nature is always both, divine and immaterial, sensual and material. Reality is, like ourselves, animated body and materialised soul, divine nature and materialised divinity. Nature-forces are divine forces and deities are nature-forces. The one changes into the other, nay, the one is the other. This is also a feeling of many in our own day, expressing itself in the art and poetry of recent times in a most elementary way: reality is deeper than materialists think, our senses grasp only its surface, not its depth. Or better, surface and depth are one, the visible is the invisible and the invisible is the visible. Just this mystical unity is reality. “Natur hat weder Kern noch Schale, beides ist sie mit einem Male” (Goethe). This nature, identical with God, is reality.
The Christian understanding of reality is of a very different kind, totally unlike all these conceptions.1
It is determined by the thought that God is the creator and the world His creation. God therefore is the primary reality. Whatever else we call real is secondary, dependent reality. This opposition of the divine and the creaturely beings seems at first hand very akin to that Neoplatonic distinction between the One, the real being and the Many which are not truly real. It would indeed be hard to understand how during so many centuries Christian theology and the Christian Church could have believed in the congruence if not identity of these two concepts, if there were not at least some similarity between these two conceptions of being. It is possible, as scholastic theology shows, to interpret the Neoplatonic idea of being in such a way that it becomes reconcilable with the Christian idea, if we assume on the other hand that the Christian idea has already been in some way adapted to the Neoplatonic one.2
The common element in both is negative: this material tangible sense world is not, as the superficial mind believes, the true reality. Popular materialism or sensationalism is not reconcilable either with the Neoplatonic or with the Christian idea. The primary reality, the aboriginal being is God, and God is spirit.
This assertion, that God Who is spirit is the creator of all, has the most momentous consequences for the understanding of all existence.3
All co-ordinates of the picture of reality—the above and the below, the whole system of weights, the whole hierarchy of values—and therefore the whole conception of culture and civilisation is determined by it. If God, the creator, is
, then that gloomy idea of fate and fatality, which lies like a spell over the ancient as well as the modern world, loses its basis. It is not a fate, an impersonal, abstract determining power, not a law, not a something which is above everything that is and happens, but He, the creator spirit, the creator person.
If we take this idea seriously, we see at once an unbridgeable contrast between the Christian and the Neoplatonic idea of being. The Neoplatonic—and we may say also the idealistic and mystical conception of being—is impersonal; the Christian idea is personal. The Neoplatonic is static; the Christian is active and dynamic. God's being is the being of the Lord who posits everything and is not posited. Scholastic theology rightly uses the concept of God as actus purus, unconditional activity or actuality or actuosity. God is therefore never object, but always subject; never something—it, substance—but He, or rather Thou. God is absolutely free will, free in such a way that the world, His creation, is at every moment conditioned by His will. Its being is like that of a soap bubble which exists only because and as long as it is blown by the blower. The moment he ceases to blow it, it collapses into nothingness. Of course this simile falls short; the blower blows the bubble out of a given liquid, God “blows” the world out of nothing, and He holds it by His will through His creatio continua above the abyss of nothingness.
With this a second aspect of this idea of being is given, that of creaturely, dependent being. It is here that the contrast of the Christian with the idealistic as well as the materialistic concepts becomes particularly clear. For the materialist, i.e. one to whom material, sensual being is the truly real, matter is a reality of unquestionable, absolute solidity. True, even he cannot but see that all things are changing and passing. But what changes, he thinks, is not matter itself but merely the forms of matter. The bearers of this unquestionable, absolute reality are the elements, the chemical elements, the atoms. The atomic theory of Democritus was invented in order to maintain the conception of absolute matter in face of the obvious change in the material world. It therefore was a profound shock to this—popular or philosophical—materialism, when the latest results of physical science pointed to the fact that there are no such unchangeable material elements, that under the hands of the physicists this substance was transformed into mere energy and mathematical relations. However that may be, according to Christian thought there is no such imperishable, self-contained substance, but only creaturely being, which exists because, and so long as, and such as God wills it to be; being which He calls out of nothing and which He holds above nothing. It is, however, not only the doctrine of creation, but equally Christian eschatology, with its idea that this world at one time will be no more, which is determinative for the Christian conception of creaturely dependent being as distinguished from the being of God Himself.
This Christian idea of creaturely being is as radically different from the idealist as from the materialist conception. This created world is no mere appearance as idealism asserts. It is reality. God has called it to be real. Its being is not stamped with the mark of nothingness or degeneracy. What God has created, that is, even if it is not independent but dependent being. It is God Himself who gives it the weight of reality and even of goodness. “And God saw every thing that He had made and behold it was very good.” The Neoplatonic idea that everything which is not God is somehow degraded, degenerate, defective being, and the old idea of Plato that matter as such is evil, is here impossible. Its being material does not mean that a negative value is to be attached to material being; in its place and within its limits it is good.
There is in Biblical thought as well as in that of Aristotle or Plotinus a conception of a hierarchy of being, represented, for instance, in the Genesis narrative of creation. The different levels of the material, the organic, the animal and the human are distinguished. But the lower levels are not thought of as less real, nor as inferior. Everything which God has created, a so-called lower being as well as a so-called higher one, has its full positive value in its place. The idea—so fundamental in mediæval thought—that the hierarchy of being is also a hierarchy of value, has no place within the Christian concept of the created world. We shall see later what decisive importance this different valuation of the hierarchical structure of the world has for the whole problem of ethics.
The Biblical idea of God the creator and the world as His creation, in contrast to the Aristotelian and the Neoplatonic conception of being, does not permit the idea of a continuum in which God is the highest and matter the lowest point. God is never to be seen in continuity with the hierarchy of the created world. The distinction between God and creature is absolute; the distinctions between the creatures, however, are relative. There is no transition between created and the non-created being, God alone has non-created divine reality, and all creation has merely dependent, created reality. Between these two there are no intermediates. With this conception of creator and creation, the whole Cosmos idea and the corresponding pantheistic interpretation of nature, as we find it both in antiquity and in modern times, is exploded. The synthesis of the divine and of nature, of the infinite and finite is dissolved, and with it the foundation of paganism, which consists precisely in the affirmation of a transition between the divine and the world. All those conceptions of continuity between the finite and the infinite, the transcendent and this world, the divine and the earthly existence, that whole hierarchy of mythical figures, that scale reaching from the half divine hero to the highest of gods, or that interpenetration of nature and divinity which characterises the world concept of the primitive mind, as well as those sublime ideas of the world-permeating Logos making of the world a Cosmos, and every form of modern pantheism—all these are consumed by the fire of the idea of creation. No continuity whatever is left but the sharp opposition: Godhead on the one hand, the world's creatureliness on the other.
Of course this transcendence of God's being should never be confused with a transcendence of God's activity. The transcendent God—that is, the God who has the monopoly of divinity—is not separated from His creation. Distinction is not separation. God's being is distinguished from that of the world, but the world exists by His sustaining presence and activity. That God whom Goethe scorns (“Was wär’ ein Gott, der nur von aussen stiesse”), is not the God of Biblical revelation, but of rationalistic deism. The God of revelation is the absolutely unworldly, the self-sufficient Lord, but He is the One who not only creates the world but sustains and rules it. He is the One by Whose will and action it is real and remains in existence, and without Whose presence and sustaining activity it would fall into nothingness. Every grain of sand depends on Him; without Him it passes into nothing.
Therefore it is only from the Christian idea of creation that that which, in the philosophy of the Middle Ages, is called the contingency of being can be understood.4
The distinction between the divine and absolute, and the contingent and relative being of created things is unknown to all the Greek philosophers. They either oppose the One, as the truly real, to mere appearance, or they think in terms of continuity, be it an upward continuum, like Aristotle, or a downward continuum, like Plotinus.
On the other hand, in the same degree that modern philosophy departs from the Christian idea of God, the distance between the contingent and the non-contingent disappears. For materialistic thinkers there is no contingent being. For them matter is the primary and absolute being. The atoms are unconditionally, absolutely real. Materialism attributes to the atoms the qualities which in Christian theology are attributes of God. According to materialistic thought they have the a se esse, they are eternal and independent beings. For the idealist only spirit or mind is real. The world, however, is mere appearance. There is no room for contingence in either case. This becomes of special importance in the interpretation of natural law as physics understands the term.
For the materialist, i.e.
for the person whose conception of being is determined by matter, the laws of nature are absolute, objective entities inherent in material being. They are “die ewigen, unwandelbaren Gesetze” by which all being, all happening is determined. Again these natural laws play the rôle which in Christian thought is given to the will of God. They are the opposite of the contingent—the necessary. This is the blind, impersonal necessity of fate, which determines everything. According to Laplace, a mind which at a given moment knew the site and motion of all atoms in the Universe would be capable of reconstructing all the past and to predict all the future, according to the laws of mechanics.5
Everything is finished before it starts, nothing new can happen. But whilst we can easily understand that this determinism and fatalism is the natural and necessary consequence of a materialistic conception, it is rather surprising to observe that this idea of fate lurks behind all pre-Christian religion and philosophy as well. Fate is above all the Gods of mythology; Moira is above Zeus and his Pantheon. The sentences of the Norns decide the fate of the highest Gods of Germanic religion. The highest Gods of Indian religion are powerless with regard to Karma, they themselves are seized by the turning of the spinning wheel of fate. This coming and going is the expression of a higher, unknowable, impersonal necessity. And this is true also of all Greek philosophy. Neither Plato's “ideas” nor Aristotle's “entelechy” nor the divine Nous of Stoicism or of Neoplatonism breaks through this uncanny, gloomy determinism. Why is this so? It is because all being which is conceived of in impersonal terms has the character of fate. The personal Gods of mythology are not absolute, and the Absolute of Greek philosophy is not personal. There is but one alternative to fatalism or determinism—the idea of God being almighty, sovereign Lord, Whose freedom is above everything that is, and Whose freedom is the cause of being of everything which is not Himself; the idea that God, the sovereign Lord, has created the world out of nothing and can drop it into nothingness if He so wills. He is that God, however, Whose will is not an unfathomable secret, but revealed Love. Whether there is a fate above everything or not is the same question as whether there is an impersonal being or a personal absolute will above everything. It seems to make little difference, however, whether this impersonal being be material or spiritual or an unknowable unity of both. Either fate or God the Creator! From the Christian point of view, then, natural laws are not absolute entities, but belong themselves to the sphere of contingent relative being. Natural laws themselves are created. They are, as we have it in the German language, Ge-setze
“settings”. God set
them to be. Now this conception of setting is ambiguous or ambivalent. And this ambiguity of divine setting—Satzung
—is a fundamental trait of all Christian doctrine. On the one hand, God's settings, orders, laws, Gesetze
are thought of as permanent, static structures, as stable and dependable traits of the God-created Universe. You can rely upon these orders being maintained; you can count on them; there is no disorder and arbitrariness in this world; it is an orderly world. But on the other hand these settings, laws and orders, being given
by God, wants them to be. They are limitations for our
freedom, not for His. His freedom is above all settings or laws, they are not fetters upon His action, and some day they shall be no more. For “the frame of this world perishes”. The contingent is also the transient, the perishable, the non-eternal.
Natural laws are not absolutes; behind and above them there is divine freedom. Natural laws are not ultimates, they are instrumental to God's purpose. They do not determine the purposes of God. They are organs, servants of His will. God's purposes can never be understood in terms of law. The law in every sense of the word has a subordinate, although a very important and indispensable function in God's economy. It has always to be reckoned with as a means of God, but it is never to be taken as an ultimate expression of God's will and purpose. It is therefore questionable whether we are justified in speaking of “eternal laws”. All laws, whether natural or moral, belong to the created world. God's own will can never be expressed ultimately in terms of law, because the freedom of His love as well as of His holiness is above them. If theology speaks of the law of God's own being, we must take care that we are not caught in our own words, putting abstractions above God's free will.
The physics of to-day, in distinction from that of Laplace's time, has made it possible again to hold fast the Biblical idea of God without getting into a conflict with natural law. Without entering the difficult and controversial consequences of the Quantum theory and without making a premature use of its startling results, we may safely say that the 18th and 19th century idea of an absolute world-determination by natural law, presupposing the idea of a “closed Universe” as pronounced by Laplace, has broken down. The idea of natural law will play its important and beneficent rôle in the future as it has done in the past. But it has ceased to play the rôle of an absolute world-dominant. There is room again for the acknowledgment of freedom, both divine and human.6
But it is not physics, not even post-Planck-Einstein physics, that can break the spell of fatalism. That is done alone by the faith in God, the creator and Lord, as He is known through Biblical revelation exclusively.
I should like to draw from the Biblical idea of God a last consequence of ontology, which I shall call the “perspectivity” of being. Starting once more from the materialistic understanding of being, we find there as the guiding pattern the idea of the atom, the ultimate, material, unchangeable unit behind the changing, material happening. This atom is, whatever its definition in terms of physics may be, whether it is the Elektron or Proton or Neutron or what may be; it is, irrespective of where it is, from where you see it, or who sees it. It is, to use Kant's word, a “Sein an sich”, or “ein an sich Seiendes”. This objectivism, which philosophy for many a day has called naive realism, was exposed as an impossibility many centuries ago. There is no such “an sich Seiendes”, because being is always correlative to a subject for which it is being. This critical idealism has an easier task to-day than at the time of Berkeley or Kant. At that time there was still in existence the insuperable contrast between the so-called primary and secondary qualities of things. It is quite obvious that there is something sweet only for a tongue which tastes it and a mind which passes the judgment that it is sweet. But that a pound is a pound and a metre a metre, independent of a subject, seemed to be just as clear. Now, since Einstein, there are no “metres in themselves” left. What is a metre within one system of reference may not be a metre within another, and that means also that the so-called primary qualities have become relative to an observing subject. “Perspectivism” has broken the spell of naive objectivism in the very field of physics. With that knowledge, an old philosophical thesis of idealism has been confirmed. Plato finally has overcome Democritus.
None the less, this idealistic conception of being has never been capable of convincing definitely. However compelling its arguments, there was an aboriginal realistic instinct which did not give way to this contention. That there is nothing independent of himself as knowing subject is what no one will believe. To the ordinary man philosophical idealism always appeared as a sort of semi-lunacy, at least an eccentricity. The philosopher by his superior power of thinking could feel himself superior to the average man and to the judgment of common sense. But what remained a worrying fact, even for him, was that in his practical life he was a naive realist, just as much as his philosophical opponents. There is another observation which cannot be omitted at this point: it seemed to be impossible, at least very difficult, not to step over the limit which separates critical and speculative idealism and thus develop a system akin to that of Neoplatonic metaphysics with its idea of ἕν καὶ πα̑ν, the One and All, i.e. absolute spiritualism which denies a reality apart from or besides that One and All.
To return to the starting point of our lecture, the Christian conception of God the Creator, and of the world as His creation, is neither that of naive realism nor that of speculative idealism; in structure as in origin it is different from both. God, Who is spirit, is the primary original being and the world is dependent secondary being. That is to say that the world has objective reality, not in itself, but through the thought and will of the Creator. It is, but it is what God thought and willed it to be before it was. Everything which objectively is, is (1) an idea of God, (2) a realisation of His will, and therefore has reality only because it is God's idea and will. Where does our knowledge of this being come from? The answer to this question, I think, is this: we can know it exactly because it is an idea. If it were not an idea, knowledge could not penetrate it, it would be simply irrational. Now, being objective, world-being to us is both knowable and unknowable, rational and irrational. Our mind finds something to know. The light of our mind is capable of clearing up something of the objective reality, but it cannot make it transparent. There always remains something opaque, dark, resisting the perspicacity of knowledge. This is so because created being is not merely an idea of God, but is at the same time a setting of His will, and therefore irrational for our knowledge. It is factuality, that element of givenness, which is always the limit of our knowledge and at the same time exactly that element which produces in us the feeling of reality, transcending our knowledge.
From the Christian point of view, then, idealism is right in saying that there is no object without a subject which posits this being. But it is wrong in thinking that it is our
subject which posits this reality. It is not our, but God's subject, which posits reality. It is ours only in so far as our thinking gets a share in God's own thought, as the psalmist says: “In Thy light shall we see light”.7
On the other hand, our knowledge, however it may extend or be extended, always comes to grief at a certain limit, and it is precisely this limit which is the test of reality. It is just because our knowledge comes to grief at this dark, opaque something which it cannot penetrate, that we say “this is real”. But we are not capable of uniting both the light of knowledge and the darkness of irrational givenness, except in the one thought, that God is the creator, by Whose thought it is “rationable”, by Whose will it is irrationally “given”.8
I cannot but heartily agree therefore with Karl Barth, when in his doctrine of creation he formulates that sentence, which at first sight seems absurd, that the reality of the objective world becomes certain to us only in the faith or belief in God the Creator,9
that is to say, in that faith in that Creator who reveals Himself in His own word.
It is only by drawing this consequence of a divine “perspectivism” that what we said about contingence becomes convincing. The world around us is God's creation, that is why it is at once objectively real and subjectively ideal. It has not absolute reality, but in the strictest sense of the word relative, conditioned reality through God's positing it. It therefore takes part in the ambiguity or ambivalence which we have just been observing as the character of natural laws; it is real because, and in so far as, God realises it. It ceases to be real as soon as God ceases to realise it. It is possible that this insight may be the key to certain problems of Christian theology, e.g. of eschatology, which seem to us insoluble and which burden our theological conscience. But there is no room here to develop these consequences lying, as they do, beyond the horizon which we have drawn for these lectures.
If we deal with these problems of ontology, the first impression will always be that they are of a very abstract nature and far from the ordinary problems of life. I do hope, however, that I may have imparted to you some feeling that these are questions of most practical importance, even for the ordinary man in the street. The whole feeling of life, the whole orientation of existence must be very different according to whether one is the kind of man to whom material atoms are the measure of all reality, or the kind to whom all this is a mere illusion, or the kind who thinks in terms of his faith in the Creator and speaks to us in the 139th Psalm:
O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me.
Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising.
Thou understandest my thought afar off.
Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,
And art acquainted with all my ways
For there is not a word in my tongue
But, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.
Thou hast beset me behind and before,
And laid thine hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high, I cannot attain unto it.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me,
And thy right hand shall hold me.
I had to quote this Psalm literally and at some length because it is such a perfect summary of what I have been trying to say. The world around us is real; but God Himself is much more real, and therefore much more present. The things of the world we have at a distance; but He is as near to us as our eye, as our thinking mind. That God sees us, that He sees me and looks upon me, this is the central, all-determining assertion of the Biblical message. Let me put it, that this is the “perspectivism” of divine election. How fundamental this idea is for all our cultural problems we shall see as soon as we have grasped the necessary connections of this idea with that of human personality. Before we can enter on this problem, however, we shall have to deal with some others of a more abstract nature, the first of them being the question of truth.