The discussion of this attribute has been reserved for the latter part of this course, as it forms a natural prelude to the consideration of certain leading problems of difficulty in the philosophy of religion. But the attribute itself belongs to the earliest conception of Godhead. At the stage where religion in our sense begins, man's earliest religious theory involves a belief in supernatural agents more powerful than himself, mysterious, capricious, and therefore formidable. The gods or the spirits are imagined as powerful before they are recognized as beneficent or just. But it was only after an indefinite period of development in our religious history that the consciousness of the divine power could rise to the height of the idea of omnipotence; and many obstructing causes can be given or surmised.
The self-confidence or self-assertion of uncultured man is sometimes as great as his fears are abject; and he believes himself capable of warding off by threats and show of armed force the evils that may attack him from the spirit-world; he can even threaten his gods. Also at an early time he had acquired the art of magic. And magic means the compelling force of mortal man's will over his fellow-men and over the seen and unseen world. It is one of the misfortunes of our mental history that its appeal to human egoism is so strong that it has survived long under the shadow of many higher religions. Where it prevails in their midst, the conviction that God is omnipotent and that the true religious attitude of the mortal is awe and humility cannot vitally prevail at the same time. If we find such a conviction expressed in the liturgies or sacred texts of a magic-practising people, we must say that it is not really vital and operative; and we must mark this as one of the many incongruities that all higher religions are apt to present. The briefest survey of the leading religions of antiquity gives us interesting illustration.
Throughout all periods of its long history, Egypt was the immemorial land of magic, and on it depended all the hope of the soul's salvation. As we have noted, it was the heroic achievement of Ikhnaton to have suspended it for a brief space, but in vain. Though the rich collection of Egyptian sacred books already discovered contains high religious thoughts and pregnant ethical expressions, the idea of divine omnipotence is almost entirely lacking, and is only implied in Ikhnaton's wonderful hymn and in one or two related documents. And Egyptian mythology presents us with very finite deities that struggle and perish. Even when a High God has risen into permanent power and eminence, Ré or Osiris, the soul of the deceased Pharaoh can be endowed by priestly magic with a power that transcends the divine, and Pharaoh can threaten the Gods with dreadful consequences if they disobey him.1 True religion was doubtless to be found at different periods in individuals in Egypt: the texts can attest it; but its upgrowth and diffusion were choked by the sacerdotal magician, and the whole impression presented by those texts is bizarre and contradictory, sometimes childish.
A late and most striking example of the evil influence of magic on religion, especially as blurring the concept of the omnipotence of God, is the Hermetic discourse known by the name of Poimandres, which is penetrated with Egyptian tradition: we find here the initiated possessor of the mysteries claiming complete knowledge of the name and nature of the High God and complete equality with him; and as by a law well known in the magical world the knowledge of the name and attributes of a person gives to the knower complete control over him, the initiate ventures to address his deity in the following way: ‘if anything happens to me in this year, this month, this day, or this hour, it will happen to the Great God also…’2 It is easy to discern here a veiled threat, such as the dexterous astrologer conveyed to Louis XI in Quentin Durward.
In ancient India also we must reckon a certain form of magic one among the causes adverse to the clear recognition of omnipotence as a divine essential attribute: what is almost peculiar to India is that the sacrifice itself was sometimes interpreted as a magical act constraining and giving strength to the deities; the view is put forward that the Gods would lose their strength and the sun be unable to rise, if the Brahman did not provide the Soma and the sacrificial fire. Hence arose that strange illusion, the personification of the sacrifice itself; hence also the supremacy in power of the personality of the ideal Brahmin, that is exalted even above the divine. It has already been noted that in the Vedic hymns more stress is laid on the power of the divinities than on their moral attributes; but in the sacerdotal Brahminical theory, and still more markedly in Buddhism, the spiritual flower of old Hinduism, the power of the personal deity remains far below the height of omnipotence.
In this respect Hellenic religious thought had advanced beyond the Indian and at an early period had invested the High God with this transcendent attribute. For already in the Homeric poems this is the essential prerogative of Zeus, whose will is supreme over the other gods and men, and the view that the poet imagined any shadow-power such as Fate or Destiny in the background controlling the action of Zeus has been shown to be an illusion.5 We also discern that this dogma was generally maintained by the popular religion; and the cults of certain communities definitely recognized Zeus as the Leader or the Lord of Fate. It clashed, indeed, like many other ideas accepted by the higher religious thought in Greece, with certain myths, notably with the Prometheus-myth even as treated by Aeschylus, the expounder of the highest religion of Zeus. It was challenged also by the doctrine of necessity, which emerged in the early physical philosophy of Ionia and was embodied in the Stoic system. But this was a philosophic and non-theistic concept that may have helped to undermine the theistic faith of individuals, but was of little avail in the popular religion. For many centuries the strongest public influence was exercised by the Delphic oracle; but Apollo himself was only regarded as the mouthpiece of the will of Zeus; and even the great goddess of Athens cannot oppose his will in regard to her city, but, as a Madonna, can only intercede. As we have seen, the weakness of all polytheism is that it admits the concept of frail and often perishable deities limited in power and spatial activity.6 The achievement therefore of Greek polytheism in evolving some belief in the omnipotence of the Highest God is all the more marked. And as we have noted that in other religions the preeminence of magic was a fatal obstacle to the authority of such a belief, it is interesting to observe how small a part by comparison magic played in the Hellenic communities: their high deities scarcely ever practise magic, nor does the priest practise magic on them.
In the earlier and purer form of the Zarathustrian system, according to its recent interpreters, we discern a high religion released on the whole from magic, and coming very near to the height of monotheism and the recognition of the divine omnipotence: only, even the prophet himself may have believed that Ahura Mazdāh was troubled and for a period restrained from universal dominion and the full fruition of his beneficence by the evil spirit who may have been regarded as coeval with the good; and this element of discord is developed later into the Magian dualism, according to which the High God must be regarded, at least for the period before the final triumph of good, as finite in power.
On the other hand, the religious thought of Judaism impressed the national consciousness with a deep sense of the omnipotence of Jahwé and avoided the danger of a dualism, in the divine world at least, by assigning to him the sole power of creation both of good and of evil.7 And the Judaic tradition, fixing once for all the dogma that infinite power was essential to the highest idea of divinity, was inherited and has been strongly maintained both by Christianity and Islam. The dogma may not be clearly comprehended, and certainly all its implications are not realized, by the popular religious mind; but, where there is strong theistic faith inspiring earnest prayer and devotion, the mind of the worshipper is generally moved with the conviction that the deity he addresses is all-powerful; for thus alone can he be strengthened in the hope of his prayer's fulfilment; and this conviction has been found even among savages.8 Thus the dogma may have a ‘pragmatic’ as well as a philosophic origin.
It is of interest to observe by what various means at the varying levels of religious thought the divine power has been supposed to operate. While the anthropomorphic imagination is still primitive, the deity works with physical force, superhuman in degree but similar to man's, and often with physical weapons. This is the picture presented by the epic mythology of the Aryan races in the period of advanced barbarism, the Vedic, the Scandinavian, and the Homeric for example; even the Hellenic Zeus, though too majestic to mingle in the Homeric fray, was occasionally represented as an armed warrior in Greek art. And this primitive view still survives in our higher poetry and religious metaphor; even Milton has not wholly discarded it; and in the early Hebrew war-song Jahwé is frankly described as ‘a man of war’. But another weapon equally familiar to primitive man, which he often regards as more effectual than physical force, is magic; and as he naively armed his deity with his own weapons of war or the chase, it was inevitable that he should impute to him the more cryptic manifestation of power through magical working. Thus the God may himself become an arch-magician, weaving spells and enchantment; Odin has knowledge of all runes; the Vedic Fire-God Agni ‘upholds the sky by his efficacious spells’,9 and this belief may survive in religions otherwise advanced. It maintained itself strongly in Egypt and Babylon; and the title ‘arch-magician’ is specially attached to the greatest of the Babylonian Gods, Ea and Marduk;10 it is specially against the demons and the evil human sorcerer that the divine magic is invoked.
Nevertheless so strong and long-enduring has been the hold of magic on the human mind, that its influence is subtly interfused with our higher theistic thought and expression. There is a magical tradition, though it passes unnoticed by the ordinary reader, behind the phrase of frequent occurrence in our sacred texts, ‘The word of God’. We note in the Old Testament how frequently Jahwé manifests his power by his ‘Word’, and how ‘the Word’ appears almost as a personal emanation from the High God, all powerful in Heaven and earth: ‘He sendeth forth his commandment upon earth: his word runneth very swiftly.’13 ‘So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth; it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please.’14 In a striking passage in the Book of Wisdom15 the personification is stronger and more impressive and the word has become a personal agent of the Wrath of God—‘Thine all-powerful word leaped from heaven out of the royal throne, a stern warrior into the midst of the doomed land, bearing as a sharp sword thy unfeigned commandment, and standing it filled all things with death.’
Of this phenomenon it is not a sufficient explanation to say that, as the word that issues from the mouth of the Oriental despot is an effective manifestation of his power, for it may contain a command which is sure to be executed, so a similar but transcendent power of the word may be naturally transferred to the absolute divine ruler. This might suffice if we were dealing merely with the simple and sublime text: ‘God said, Let there be light and there was light.’ But it fails to explain the mysterious force of the personification and the predominant stress laid on the withering power of the divine word. As we are in the atmosphere of Sumerian-Babylonian religion we have the right to suspect the influence of human magic. For the human magician the word or formula has a mysterious self-executive power; also it is projected with great stress out of himself as an ebullition of his will-power, as a personal part of himself; moreover, it was generally used against his enemies with blasting effect. Now if it is the human magician's occult word-power that has been transferred to the Babylonian gods, whom we otherwise know as practitioners in magic, we shall more easily understand the occult power of their ‘word’ in the passages quoted above: it is personified, because it is the violent ebullition of their personal will; more stress is laid on its destructive than on its beneficent force, because the magician's word is more usually blasting than healing.
But this a priori speculation can be fortified by some positive evidence. Dr. Langdon in the article mentioned above cites only one piece of evidence,18 which is certainly of sufficient importance, namely that the same Sumerian word ‘inim’ is also used for ‘an incantation’. And to this we may add certain Babylonian texts in which the Divine Word appears, as we may say, in magical associations. When just before the great cosmic struggle between the High Gods and Chaos, Tiamat, the Mother and Queen of the powers of darkness, chooses her champion Qingou as leader, she proclaims: ‘I have pronounced thy magic formula, in the assembly of the Gods I have made thee great,’19 we may understand her to mean that she has equipped him with the word whereby he can subdue the enemy. Also there are texts where the power of the Divine Word is contrasted with the power of the human magician; thus, ‘the Word of Bel-Marduk is said to be stronger than any exorciser or diviner’.20 and again, ‘The Word which stilleth the heavens above… a prophet it hath not, a magician it hath not’, which we may reasonably interpret as signifying that no prophet can adequately expound the Word, no magician can control it. It appears then that in the Sumerian thought which the Semitic Mesopotamians inherited, the Word of God was the arch-magic of the world, the most tremendous manifestation of the power of God.
We may suppose that the thought of the Hebrew Semites followed the same path independently from the earth to the skies; or that at some period, before or during the exile, it was directly influenced by the Babylonian-Sumerian liturgies. We need not impute to to any of the writers of our sacred texts any consciousness of the magical associations of the Word; but in tracing out the origin of the Biblical usage we must reckon with Babylon and the magical hypothesis.
This mystic development of the Word as a vehicle of God's power is only found, so far as I am aware,21 in Babylon and Israel; it remains strange and unfamiliar to the Western and Northern mind.
More obvious and more familiar to us is the use of the divine name as a chief vehicle for the manifestation of the divine power; and the Name is conceived to attach so closely to the divine personality that like the Word it lends itself to personification as the agent of the divinity. The occult power of the divine name has been the theme of recent treatises; and I have illustrated it elsewhere from the religious texts and legends of many different races.22 Further illustration may be added from older and more recent Indian religious literature: the name of Amītābha, sovereign of a Buddhist paradise, was so sacred, according to later Buddhistic literature, that ‘the most evil, by merely uttering the name of Amītābha, perhaps but in blasphemy, are reborn in Paradise’;23 in the services of the Sikh religion, composed by the Guru Nanak, there are many texts proclaiming the mystic potency of the name of God: by the mere hearing of the name men attain complete enlightenment, power over death, and immunity from sorrow and sin:24 it is the name that energizes the power of the unchangeable Lord in the soul of the hearer. As regards our own sacred books we are so familiar with passages in the Old and New Testament where the divine name is invested with a mystic potency, a half-personal automatic power, which can even emanate from God into others,25 that the ordinary reader does not realize how strange and alien all this is to modern logic and thought. Its origin is suggested by our prevalent popular phrase ‘a name to conjure with’. Here again we have an example of old-world magic bequeathing a leading and pregnant thought to higher theistic religion. The human magic of all races attests the occult power that attaches to the name of a person and sometimes of a thing; and the higher in the state is the person the greater is the power of his name. The ‘virtue’ therefore inherent in a God's name is very great, and it behoves the magician or the exorciser to know it and to use it. The transference of the superstition from the region of magic to religion may well have occurred in Egypt, and it was probably thence that the Israelites derived the illusion concerning the divine name, which, as we have noted, has had disastrous secular results. For Egypt was the very metropolis of magic, where men used magic on the Gods and the Gods used magic as the chief organ of power; and the most potent vehicle of magic was the name. The two most salient illustrations of this are the story of the creation preserved in the papyrus of Nesi-Amsu, and the legend of Ra and Isis and his wounding by her serpent contained in a papyrus of Turin, both translated or paraphrased by Budge in his Egyptian Magic.26 The creation myth is perhaps the strangest yet imagined by man. The God Neb-er-tcher, desirous of creating the Universe, first uttered his own name as a ‘word of power’, and then evolved himself and all the world. The proposition that an undeveloped God developed his own name and from it everything else is a masterpiece of occult theosophy. Again, in the story of Isis and Ra, we see how the omnipotence of Ra and his direction of the Universe is bound up with his name which he keeps hidden within himself; and when Isis guilefully extracts it from him the omnipotence passes to her.
It must be reckoned to the advantage both of the Hellenic and the Zarathustrian religions that scarcely any trace of this magical power of the divine name appears in their theistic thought. Ahura creates by his thought27—‘im Anfang war der Sinn’; so also in Greece the popular view, so far as it can be discerned, agreed with the view of philosophic theism that the chief manifestation of the power of God, whether as creator or director of the Universe, was his Reason or ‘Nous’. And if to Reason we add the concept of active will, the claims of faith and sane intellect are satisfied.
According as the popular religion is penetrated with this deeper recognition of law and harmony in the physical universe as the true manifestation of divine power, the more difficult it becomes to find place in the religion for the old popular faith in miracles which is an immemorial tradition handed down to us and which is enshrined to some extent in our Sacred Books, so that to abandon it appears to impair the authority and value of these. Any special record of that which we call a miracle may be attacked on three different lines of criticism. The witnesses that give the evidence may be shown to be inadequate, contradictory, or generally untrustworthy; this is the line of historical or literary criticism; thus as the Book of Daniel is proved to lack authenticity and historic accuracy, the value of its record of the miraculous is impaired. Secondly, the miracles recorded may seem trivial and ignoble, beneath the majesty of divinity, such as those contained in the apocryphal narratives of the childhood of Jesus, or those which from similar sources have strayed into our Gospels, such as the cursing the fig-tree, the water turned into wine; the disbelief in these therefore may be demanded in the name of higher religion; and this criticism from the point of view of spiritual values is often the most effective and purgative. Thirdly, credence may be refused to a record of miracle on the ground that it involves too violent a rupture of a well-established sequence or order of phenomena in the natural world; and it is on this ground that the quarrel has arisen between religion and science which still continues. But the sphere of contention is not as wide as it was. We no longer speak of miracles of healing as violations of the laws of nature, as we have come to understand more about psychiatry, auto-suggestion, and hypnotism. On the other hand the educated theologian seems willing to admit that an omnipotent and wise God does not normally and capriciously interfere with the action of the physical laws of the world; he no longer thinks of the Eternal, to use Pope's pungent phrase, as of ‘some weak prince… prone for his favourites to reverse his laws’. But he probably would not at once accept the dictum of one of our greatest among recent philosophers, ‘miracle is incompatible with plan’.29 He might feel justified in drawing a conclusion from the accepted faith in the divine omnipotence and wisdom that such a deity at a crisis of transcendent importance, such as the Incarnation, might choose in accordance with a higher plan of spiritual policy to disturb the normal order at a particular point without allowing the disturbance to reverberate through the whole; for the difficulty of imagining a limited disturbance or suspension is only felt by the severely scientific mind. To this extent at least the scientific spirit has gained ground and penetrated our religious consciousness that we severely restrict the occasions when the operation of the miraculous may be believed; and we regard the rage for miracles as the sign of a disordered time or disordered brain; but we have not yet revised and purged our Sacred Books.
The subject that has just been discussed is intimately connected with the religious value of prayer, that immemorial act of worship which seems an essential part of all religion, lower and higher. In trying elsewhere30 to trace out the evolution of prayer, I noted how in its primitive forms it was blent with magic and thus degraded, and how this taint survives in some forms of advanced religion. Here we are only concerned with its pure type, the type of humble petition to an omnipotent power to grant favours or help. Given the concept of an all-powerful God who governs without fixed plan or who like an earthly despot can be moved by tears and supplications to change his plan, no restriction is placed on the proper objects of prayer; and it need not be thought irreligious to pray for the most childish and grotesque. But as we gain the more educated sense of the laws of nature and as we raise and define our conception of the attribute of omnipotence by linking it with wisdom, which implies a mind working in accordance with a plan and with steadfastness of thought and will, we feel that there are certain things we cannot pray for; and the questions what objects of prayer are legitimate and finally whether any prayer at all is justifiable become pressing on the religious conscience. Our own liturgy stands in urgent need of revision in respect of the objects for which we think it legitimate to proffer prayer: we do not pray for alterations in the tides or movements of the planets; but we show ourselves on the primitive level of knowledge and religion when we pray for or against rain, as though the weather, being variable, obeyed no law but depended on the caprice or temper of an emotional deity; and we seem to impute to the divine ruler a startling inconstancy of purpose when we petition him, as in the Burial Service, to hasten the Day of Judgement. Certain thinkers, including some of the earlier Christian fathers, have arrived at the conviction that complete faith and trust in the beneficence and wisdom of God rules out prayer for any particular object of desire; and that the right religious attitude is only to be expressed in some formula of humble acquiescence in the divine will: such as our familiar Christian utterance ‘thy will be done’, or the prayer of Epictetus, ‘Do with me what thou wilt: my will is thy will: I appeal not against thy judgements’.31 But this seems to limit the ideal prayer to the attitude of acquiescent passivity. It is possible to discover for it a more active efficacy reconcilable at the same time with our clear conception of an all-wise Beneficence. The Neoplatonists declared that the ideal justification for prayer was that it raised the mind to ‘direct communion and converse with God’;32 this is a nobler account of it than the ordinary, but it leaves us uninformed what exactly happens in that communion and what is the right relation of the communicants. In William James's statement,33 ‘in prayer spiritual energy which otherwise would slumber does become active, and spiritual work of some kind is effected really’, there is something that the experience of many will endorse as true; but it needs clearer analysis. If we purge prayer of all reference to the physical world, so far as this is governed by natural laws, and only apply it for the increase of spiritual power and life, we may maintain that prayers for spiritual things, increase of love, increase of mental power, of will-power, the prayer of the thinker and the artist for stronger light and clearer vision, are justifiable and effective as bringing with them in some measure their own fulfilment; for they imply a self or a soul (as we may say) raised to a higher pitch by striving to reach communion with the higher source of inspiration; and only on the self so attuned can the influence demanded be shed. This indeed may seem to limit and deny the omnipotence of God; but that omnipotence was already limited when a free spiritual being was allowed to emerge. And it may be a law of our freedom that free effort on our part is a necessary condition for the influx of new spiritual power; and that spiritual prayer is the open path down which it flows. This may be accepted as a final justification of a certain type of prayer and as giving us the only valid type; but it bears with it the corollary that prayers for an individual or individuals other than oneself have no validity; for prayer-communion is a strong operation of free-will, which each individual must make for himself. And herein, more conspicuously than elsewhere, is revealed the wide cleavage that at present exists between the highest theistic thought and the popular religion.
The worst documents are given in Breasted, op. cit. pp. 127–8; cf. Arch. Rel. Wissensch. 16 (1913), p. 85.
Vide Reitzenstein, Poimandres, p. 21.
I have considered this point slightly more in detail in Greece and Babylon, pp. 173–7.
Vide Greece and Babylon, p. 173.
Vide Cults, 1, pp. 78–83.
Even Plato admits such deities into his system in the Timaeus, subordinating them to the highest ineffable Power, who lends to them a portion of his own immortality for the purpose of the creation of man, p. 41 B—D.
It is only the author of ‘Wisdom’ who in 1. 13–16 (‘God made not death: for he created all things that they might have being… but ungodly men by their own act and their words called death unto them’) contradicts the orthodox Jewish tradition represented by Isaiah and Ezekiel (Isaiah 45. 7: ‘I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil’).
The report on the Fan bribe of the Bantus, Intern. Cong. Relig. Basel, Abh. 2, p. 191; God is regarded as the ‘Father of Life’, ‘the All-Powerful’.
Vedic Hymns, pt. ii, p. 61.
Jastrow, op. cit. 1, p. 311.
I have only found in the Hellenic records one clear example of a god practising magic, namely, in the Hymn of the Kouretes, Arch. f. Relig. Wissensch. 1914, p. 21; but Pindar in the 4th Pythian ode invents or accepts the myth that Aphrodite invented a magic love-charm whereby Jason won Medea.
Payne, History of the New World, i, p. 460.
Psalms 147. 15.
Isaiah 55. 11.
In Hastings, E. R. E. vol. 12, p. 749.
Vide my Greece and Babylon, pp. 176–7, where the references are given.
Op. cit, p. 749.
Dhorme, Choix, &c., p. 25, 1. 39 (Greece and Babylon, p. 176); we might compare with this a text in the Pahlavi Bundahis, the Parsi book of creation, telling how Ahura threw the evil spirit into confusion and impotence by pronouncing a sacred formula of the Parsis; the formula is quite irrelevant to Ahura's action, but the God is following the practice of the earthly magician in quoting a sacred text for magical purposes; Sacred Books of the East, 5, p. 8.
Greece and Babylon, p. 177.
In the Zarathustrian text quoted in Evolution of Religion, p. 217, the Word, to which cosmic power is attached, is of different import: it is the whole message of Zarathustra.
Evolution of Religion, pp. 183–90.
Keith, Buddhist Philosophy, p. 299.
Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion, i, p. 200; Macnicol, Indian Theism, p. 217.
E.g. Exodus 23. 21 (Jahwé sends his angel to the people and commands them ‘Obey his voice, for my Name is in him’).
Pp. 136–42 and 160–2.
Gathas, Yasna 31. 11 (Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism, p. 353).
Vide Mullach, Frag. Philos. Graec. vol. 1, p. 151. Cf. Arnim, Stoic. Vet. Frag. 1, fr. 537; Bevan, Stoics and Sceptics, p. 54.
Bosanquet in Proceedings of British Academy, 1905–6, p. 238.
Evolution of Religion, pp. 162–232.
Epictet. (Schenkle, p. 479).
Porphyry ap. Procl. in Tim. 2. 64 B; Procl. in Tim. 2. 65; Sallustius, De Diis et Mundo, c. 16; Max. Tyr. Dissert. XI.
Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 477.