With these words from The Attributes of God, ‘Omnipotence and omnipresence are characteristics of divinity that can only be grasped and imagined by the most advanced societies’, Lewis Farnell characterizes himself as interested in mediaeval theology (with its concern with typology), as a positivist, and as someone guided by the spirit of comparative religion. His task is to discover the origins which may influence religious faith and how changing attributes ascribed to divine nature evolved: ‘We can imagine how difficult it might be to maintain a fervid Mariolatry among sincere Christians, if the worshipper was vividly conscious that he was worshipping, not the historic personage, but another form of the great Pagan Goddess of the Mediterranean.’
In the first section, Farnell studies the early emergence of theism or belief in a divine person. He points out that there was a surprising uniformity in how God was perceived in the beginning—‘the strange human fallacy’ of connecting natural phenomena to magical powers. Soon, though, cultures diverged in their beliefs because of tribal and national functions of deity. ‘It is only at a certain stage of religious evolution that the idea of divinity becomes sufficiently definite.’ By examining various religions, Hellenic, Zarathustrian, Judaic, Christian and Islamic, the author feels confident that he can discern a complex, articulate personality. God is conceived as a conscious God (personal theism in a somewhat anthropomorphic sense), conceived as more or less theriomorphic or anthropomorphic, and is derived from a culture’s own consciousness. Farnell lightly touches on Judaism as less anthropomorphic, but concentrates much more on Hellenism, a religion that is ‘vividly so’.
Then Farnell takes Andrew Lang (a fellow Gifford lecturer) to task for Lang’s anti-evolutionary stance. Whereas Lang was convinced there had been ‘some kind of primitive monotheism’, Farnell is sceptical. The various causes inducing polytheism, such as animism, fetishism, ancestor worship, ‘even the primitive mind’, were very much prevalent. Polytheism had a better answer to the vagaries of nature, and ‘the popular mind could not live up to the height of dogma’. Even ‘many great passages in our Psalms and the Book of Job are infused with the sublimer phenomena of nature with the might and the majesty of the One God’. Furthermore, Farnell is not wholly convinced there has been a linear development. ‘The High God of Greece was never a jealous god, and generally more merciful, than the early Jahwé.’ ‘The pre-Christian Hellene was wholly free from that strange obsession of Christianity that disbelief is a heinous sin to be punished cruelly in this world and the next.’ And Farnell describes Catholicism, with its ‘diffusion of the cults of the Virgin, the Holy Mother of God, and the saints’, as an example of devolution.
In the second half of his book, Farnell examines the more positive attributes of God: political, moral and attributes of beauty, wisdom and truth. Farnell returns to the Hellenic city-state, where society reached fruition. God is seen as the source of wise political counsel and of all good thought, and the ‘Hellene was saved from Hebrew theocracy’. He discusses the point of Hellenic greatness, the worship of Eleutherios, ‘the free man’s God’, and the great battle which ‘saved Greece and the Western world from Persia’. It was here that the Greeks’ passion for freedom ‘raised men above themselves’. It is in ‘the highest humanitarian religion’ that Farnell is interested. While Israel, Islam and the Catholic Church share similar traits, the church ‘escaped from the bondage to the letter of their Sacred Books’.
As to the moral attributes of God, Farnell draws attention to beneficence, in his opinion a fixed attribute in primitive religions. Although the idea of a moral deity, the guardian of the moral order, is ‘a human rather than a cosmic conception’, there is still ‘a long history behind it, showing progress’. The author then begins to separate and examine the various filaments. The most prominent moral attribute has been justice. It is here that Farnell discusses the vindictive theory of punishment and the idea of belated justice in the next world. Again, he relates the concept to various religions. ‘Jewish theology, “good for good,” “evil for evil,” never seems to have risen above this.’ Christianity, with its great day of universal judgment, is most influential in this regard: ‘no other dogma has exercised so momentous an influence on life and conduct’. At least ‘Neoplatonism could expunge the idea of cruelty and vindictiveness from the character of God.’ Greek secular ethics harmonized with a Christian sense of a moral God is the ‘source of moral validity’.
In discussing beauty, perhaps Farnell was expressing a personal hope. The idea of beauty as an emancipation of divinity was prominent only in Hellenic religion. The concept of the deity as inspiring art was natural to the Hellene but rare in other religions. While wisdom, sometimes raised to omniscience, was attributed to God in all ‘higher religions’, it was only in Greek religion that rational thought was recognized as divine. ‘When intellectual light came to penetrate Judaism and Islam, it was light from an alien source, not from Jahwé or Allah, but from Hellas.’ For Lewis Richard Farnell, ‘the philosopher and the philosophic life is the personality and the life nearest and dearest to God’. ‘Contemplation above the moral and practical brings men nearer to the divine ideal.’