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X: Metaphysical Attributes and Problems of the Philosophy of Religion

A discourse on the attributes of God is not obliged to deal with the whole range of metaphysical problems that are the usual subject-matter of general treatises on the philosophy of religion. And the view maintained throughout this course has been mainly historical rather than philosophical or dogmatic, being chiefly fixed upon the phenomena of the living and working religions. Familiarity with these soon enables one to realize how slightly their votaries or their officials are moved or touched by the abstract metaphysical speculations on the nature or being of God that sometimes absorb the attention of the professional philosopher. The fruit of his thoughts is generally gathered only by an esoteric circle of pupils: the philosopher is rarely a saint or an active reformer. But we cannot say that the philosophy of religion is therefore a negligible fact for the historian of the popular creeds. Among such a people as the ancient Greeks, with a certain racial bias towards abstract thinking, it was likely enough that the thought of the philosophic schools, the Platonic for instance, the Stoic, the Epicurean, should have penetrated to some extent the popular mind. There is reason for believing that the deistic thought of the eighteenth century influenced some of our divines. And when members of our hierarchy, such as Dean Rashdall and Dean Inge, are specially trained and expert philosophers, there is the more chance that their speculations may affect the average religious mind, may modify the accepted orthodoxy, and may even effect at last some fundamental revision of our liturgy. And though the earnest student of the modern philosophic literature on this theme may often be depressed by the consciousness of the remoteness of much of it from the real life of effective religion, yet the religious historian must take note of the original thought of the lonely thinker; for he must reckon with the possibility that the new idea may quicken in the organism of the general religious consciousness, especially in a period of intellectual ferment. But this concluding chapter must confine itself to the minor task of surveying cursorily certain philosophic ideas concerning the nature and attributes of God that are reflected or have been adopted in the leading religions of the world or may be regarded as available for them, and of considering their coherence.

There are some pronouncements of religious philosophy, both ancient and modern, that do not concern our present subject and may be regarded by one conversant with the real world of religion as barren of all possible value for that world. By a certain fatal logic, to which those idealist thinkers are specially exposed who have a passion for the Absolute, it has been found possible to etherialize the concept of God into a being ineffable, unknowable, unthinkable, superior to all attributes or definite determinations, finally becoming an exalted but negative symbol which may be called a Super-Nothing, ‘Ex nihilo nihil fit’. If this were ultimately the truth about God, he does not concern us. That of which the highest expression is the entire negation of the forms of our own consciousness may be of value for metaphysics, but is a non-religious concept. Or we accept the term ‘ineffable’ as a divine attribute of interest for religion, only when it is used, as it has often been, merely as an expression of the adoration of the ecstatic worshipper, conscious that all words are inadequate to the height and the depth of the divine personality. The use of this term in such a mood does not prevent the user dogmatizing very definitely and severely on the nature and attributes of God.1 And unless we can believe that we possess some knowledge or intuition of these that we can trust, the concept of God can have no value or power for our lives.

For other reasons we may also find that the interpretation of God as the Absolute in some philosophic systems renders him of no avail for real worship. The term indeed is often ambiguously used.

In speaking of God as the Absolute, we might mean no more than that He is the Highest Being in the cosmos, of absolute value in himself and for us, and the source of whatever absolute value certain parts of the world, certain determinations or aspects of things, certain activities of our human life, certain moods of our consciousness, possess for us; the source, for instance, of our perceptions of duty, truth, beauty, nobility of soul, to which we give an absolute value. Thus interpreted, the notion of the Absolute is consistent with our belief in a divine personality, and gives the strongest support to our spiritual valuation of life and the world.

But in much modern speculation the Absolute is a term used in a more comprehensive sense, as expressing the unconditioned and unlimited, the All-in-All of the Universe, the sum of all reality, beyond which and outside which there can be nothing real; and much idealist philosophy tends, though often incoherently, to identify this with God. Such writers do not, perhaps, realize how religion, in any sense in which it has yet been recognized, is instinctively repelled by such an account of the idea of divinity. The cause of this repulsion may be briefly stated.

If God is the Absolute All-in-All, it might be possible to imagine him as conscious—we have seen that it is only Indian religious thought that could tolerate an unconscious God2—for the Universe might be imagined as conscious in all its parts; but he could not be conceived as a person, for personality implies individuality over against others,3 and there are no others over against God so conceived. Will, then, the Absolute All-in-All, which is God, remain of value for us if impersonal? The utterance of the Indian sage, quoted above—‘the worship of the Impersonal laid no hold upon my heart’4—appeals to us as the voice of all real religion. Worship, the accompaniment of all active religion, and Love the essence of the highest, seem both impossible and irrelevant to the impersonal All-in-All, besides which there is no ‘other’. For, as Dean Inge rightly insists, ‘the soul needs real otherness: else there could be no worship and no love’.5 And it is doubtful if in a real sense we can love the Impersonal, or any abstraction, even though we write it with a capital letter. In our common language we may say indeed that we ‘love’ Beauty, Justice, Music, Philosophy, &c., and the Greek term e;rwj was no less variously applied by Plato and others. But this means that we do not care to distinguish between delight and ardent pursuit on the one hand and, on the other, Love in its strict meaning, which is a spiritual mood of one person or at least one conscious being reflected upon another. The more ecstatic in its outpouring is the love of the religious votary, the more strongly it demands and projects a divine personality.

Again, such divine attributions as benevolence, justice, and mercy, which, as we have seen, are part of the foundation of all higher religions hitherto received or constructed, are found meaningless for the Absolute All-in-All.

Further, the interpretation of God as the Absolute in the sense of the All-in-All, the sum of all reality in the Universe, can be reconciled with no other system of religion save Pantheism in its most comprehensive sense. For a narrower meaning of Pantheism, in which it is equivalent merely to the term ‘Omnipresence of deity’, a conceivable attribute of a personal God—just as we might call that strange utterance pantheistic which is recorded in the recently discovered ‘Logia’ of Christ, ‘Lift the stone and there thou will find Me: split the wood and there I am’6—must be distinguished from its profounder significance conveying the theory that God is all things and beside God there is no other reality, the theory of the Absolute set forth above. Religion and thought are then confronted with a dilemma of which one horn is fatal to our sense of values, the other to our cognition of reality. For either the evil, the monstrous,7 and the cruel in our lives and in the world are as much part of God as the good, the beautiful, and the beneficent; or we must negate the former as unreal and allow reality only to the latter as alone worthy of divinity. If we accept the former view, we lose all higher sanction for our moral and aesthetic valuations: evil and ugliness are as divine as good and beauty; therefore pantheism in this sense rules out all possibility of loving God, and we cannot construct a higher religion upon it.

To adopt the other alternative, that we should deny the reality of the evil and monstrous, is to deny the autonomous value of our mental experience. But our moral and aesthetic intuitions and judgements that pronounce on evil and ugliness have just as much validity, no more and no less, as those that pronounce on the good and the beautiful; and we are convinced of the reality of the one set of facts in the same measure as we are convinced of the reality of the other. Idealist philosophers from Plato down to Bradley, especially those devoted to the Absolute and the One, have made much use of the doctrine of ‘illusion’; the phenomena of sense, the perceptions of evil and pain, of a material world, of our own finite and individual existence, have all been negated at various times by these thinkers as unreal illusions or regarded at best as ‘shadows’ of the real. The corresponding term in Indian speculation is ‘Maya’, a great cosmic force, created by the highest deity, the source of the illusion and falseness of all phenomena.8 But none of these philosophers, neither Plato and Plotinus nor our moderns, ever succeeds in explaining the fact of the illusion and the shadow; and many seem often unconscious of the truth that a shadow can only arise from at least two real things. We may discern a fundamental vice in all these speculations of the Platonic or neo-idealist trend, that value is confused with reality. We may have a hierarchy of higher and lower values ranging from the minutest particle of the Universe up to God; nevertheless, the lowest may be regarded as no less real than the highest.

The concept, then, of the Absolute understood in the sense explained, may possibly be of value for metaphysics; but though St. Paul might look forward in a different sense to a final consummation of the world when ‘God shall be all in all’, no higher religion has been logically constructed on it, nor can we imagine how it could avail for such a purpose in our present mental conditions.

The more special speculation concerning the divine nature is mainly concerned with the concepts of Eternity, Immutability, Creativeness, Infinity, Omnipotence, considered as attributes or functions of God, and these are concepts that are reflected with varying degrees of clarity in the higher religions, and each of them when analysed and correlated with others presents problems of difficulty.

That the divine existence is by its very essence eternal is and has been an inevitable dogma of all advanced belief, and the idea of temporary or perishable deities, though Plato and the later Stoics may have played with it, belongs to the infantile stage of religious thought. Now eternity is susceptible of at least two interpretations: (a) as infinite duration of time, endlessly extending back into the past and forward into the future, a concept no less intelligible than that of infinite space; (b) as timelessness, the conceivable attribute of a Being that transcended Time or was outside Time. The former is the sense in which the High God has been popularly believed to be eternal, and this presents no difficulty to the popular imagination. But religious philosophy, both earlier and later, has shown some preference for the latter interpretation; and a dim reflex of the concept of timelessness may be discerned in the mystic formula ‘I am that I am’, and in the eschatologic belief that after the final judgement of the world ‘Time shall be no more’, which our hymnology has borrowed from Revelation (10. 6). The suggestions prompting to this view appear to have been mainly the impression that the time-distinctions of past, present, and future are only proper to our finite consciousness and are impossible determinations of the consciousness of an Eternal Absolute God, to whose cognition the whole sum of things is presented as an everlasting ‘Now’. But an everlasting ‘Now’ is after all a time-determination; and it is doubtful if the idea of divine timelessness has been successfully worked out by any thinker into coherence with other theologic concepts accepted as essential. It was thought to clear away certain difficulties that early arose in religious and philosophic thought concerning the divine creation of the world, a belief deemed essential by many, though, as we have seen, not by all the higher religions. On the view of a Deity existing in eternal time and of the creation of the world as a divine act performed once for all at some remote point of time, the view of Judaism, early Christianity, Mazdeism, and Islamism, the question was sure to arise as to the motive which induced God to begin creation, and the answers were various, some being quaint and even frivolous, as that God desired creatures to appreciate and praise him or desired to admire himself as externalized in nature;9 the answer that appealed to the higher imagination of some early Christians and some Gnostics was that God needed spiritual creatures of like nature, on whom he could shed his love and make participants of his joy. But the more perplexing question remained—what was God doing before he created the world—to which St. Augustine provides no serious answer.10 Modern speculation has thought to escape these perplexities by insisting on the concept of a timeless God and on the view of creation as a timeless essential activity of the divine nature, so that God cannot be understood or imagined without the world, and the world or some world must be regarded as co-eternal with God.11 But no ancient or recent writer has succeeded in showing how the idea of creation is compatible with the idea of timelessness. To maintain is not to create: one may timelessly maintain a static world; one cannot timelessly create; for to create is necessarily to make something new, something which at least in that shape did not exist before; and ‘new’ and ‘before’ are time—determinations. If therefore by the constraining essence of his nature God is eternally creative, an activity that demands a time-determination is part of his essence, and this clashes with the concept of his timelessness.

The popular religions, including Christianity, have avoided the difficulties that arise from the idea of divine timelessness by interpreting eternity as endless duration of time. But Christianity, while insisting on ‘the Eternal’ as an essential attribute of Godhead, was troubled, as no other religion has ever been, by the problem of reconciling this attribute with the sonship and divinity of Christ. We know how the mental agony caused by this incoherence of two ideas came near to wrecking the Roman Empire. Even such a champion of the early Church as Tertullian inclined somewhat to the ‘Arian’ view that, though Christ as in some sense the Logos was co-eternal with the Father, he was not co-eternal as the Son, Fatherhood and Sonship necessarily implying priority and posteriority.12 The finally victorious Catholic dogma proclaiming the co-eternal Son, which virtually denies the right of the intellect to deal with religious concepts, is naturally prefaced in the Athanasian Creed by the dogma that God is incomprehensible. The logic of the incomprehensible, if relentlessly developed, may lead to the negation of all religious thought; for it may lead to the conviction, fatal to real religion, that God is ineffable, unknowable, unthinkable. It is the intellectual advantage of the Unitarian faith that it refuses the self-contradictory concept. As regards the thought of the average religious man of to-day, so far as he may be imagined to think on the problem of divine sonship, it is probable that its trend is unconsciously ‘Arian’; for we discern the audacious but probably unintentional Arianism of Milton, and we know how great has been his influence on the popular imagination of England.

With the idea of eternity are often linked the ideas of permanence and immutability, and most philosophic speculation on the nature of God has regarded unchangeableness as an essential attribute. There is some deep thought underlying the popular discussion in the second book of Plato's Republic concerning the illusion of Greek mythology in narrating the frequent shape-changings of the deity: if God is the sum of all perfection he cannot change, for the change in him could only be for the worse.13 The theory concerning the first cause in the eleventh book of Aristotle's Metaphysic14 tends to identify God with the First Cause that moves all things, itself being unmoved. An exception to this prevailing view of Greek theology appears in some Stoic speculation which made changefulness part of the divine character,15 as Stoic theory tended to immerse the Godhead in the cosmos. According to Indian thought a permanent unchanging God could have no relation to the movement and activity of life, for according to its narrower view permanence is excluded from activity.16 But the Greek mind achieved the deeper theory that the power which caused change and movement might itself remain unchanged and unmoved; and therefore such a power might be interpreted as a divine creator and the source of life and activity. Now much that is found in the popular thought of the higher religions of the world is consistent with this view; for we find it striving to apprehend God as an Eternal Being essentially the same through eternity, but able to deal freely and creatively with a changeful world, only—according to the higher view—dealing with the manifold and changing material according to the settled purpose of his own thought and the laws of his own nature. From the whirl of change and transcience rest is found or sought, at least by the Western World, in the concept of an unchanging God; and we try to discover a fixed basis for our moral and spiritual values by conceiving them as derived from the eternal laws of the divine will or mind. This feeling and this yearning find frequent utterance in our liturgy and hymns—

Change and decay in all around I see;

O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

A Greek poet17 in a moment of highest inspiration contrasts the eternal life of the moral laws of God with the transitory and capricious decrees of man. And Indian thought where it is strongly theistic lays stress on the same aspect of the divine nature: ‘He is unseen, inscrutable, omnipotent, the kind creator: the merciful alone is permanent: the whole world beside is transitory: call him permanent on whose head no destiny is recorded.’18 But deeper reflection does not permit us to affirm that the changeful is inevitably the imperfect or to admit the Oriental axiom that ‘the impermanent is necessarily miserable’. If we could imagine an unending series of changes from one perfect state to another, we should not view it with regret; each succeeding state of being or phase of creation might be new but none the less perfect, and the sense of change might become an added joy.

The concept of God as eternal and unchanging has been taken as giving us a principle for our valuation of the things of our own experience. Thus by a prevalent judgement of values the things which are believed to be eternal are to be counted as of higher value than those which are transitory; and in many discussions concerning the immortality of the soul and the justification of morality it is often maintained that without the assumption of immortality neither life nor morality could be shown to have real or ultimate value or good. This implies that there can be no real good or value in that which passes away: a doctrine which easily lends itself to pessimism and to the depreciation of human life. But the doctrine can be shown to clash with some of our deeper judgements of value. Greek philosophy was familiar with the distinction between the things called avi<dia or everlasting, and the things called genhta. kai. fqarta,, things that came into being and perished, and the former were sometimes described as the more ‘divine’ (qei/a), being more akin to the divine nature: the facts of mathematics were among the ‘eternal’ things. We might admit that a triangle, as a timeless concept, was in some sense ‘eternal’. But in our judgement of values we should place a temporary Shakespeare above an eternal triangle. Though we may admit that a good and valuable thing gains by being eternal, it does not follow that eternity is in itself a test of value, or that a thing intrinsically of small account would be any the better by being everlasting. There is deep philosophy in Ben Jonson's couplet—

In small proportions we just beauties see,

And in short measures life may perfect be.

This establishes the reasonable value of the fading flower or the ephemeral blue butterfly. We may maintain that a thing or a state does not loose in value because it has an end: the end may be a new beginning, and this beginning may be all the better in so far as the former thing was good. What is of importance is not so much duration, as the quality of the energy or the life displayed. We may conceive existences that grow, dilate, and are perfected with the fullness and joy of life in the space of a moment, and in these the creative spirit may have shown its power more marvellously than in other longer-enduring existences. And it is the perfection of God rather than his eternity that makes the strongest claim on the adoration of the believer.

Unchangeableness as an attribute of divinity has always been interpreted somewhat freely by the popular religions, as indicating only the essential permanence of his character. They have never accepted the concept in the most rigid sense so as to rule out the possibility of such psychical changes in the deity as are induced by the various emotions. Stoic thought and the religious theory of Aristotle might posit an emotionless deity; but such a being, incapable of anger or pity or of relenting and of being moved by prayer would be of no avail for the religious needs and sentiment of the people, so far as the historical record gives us a picture of these. But the question how far the attribution of an emotional nature to God could be reconciled with the concept of his unchangeableness has never been thoroughly treated by either the Christian or non-Christian philosophy of religion. The philosophic reformers of old Greek religion were content with purifying the divine character of baser emotions, such as jealousy or sex-desire, and the deeper thought of Greece came to the determination that it was unworthy to impute anger—even righteous anger—to the Highest God; not because it was necessarily a temporary perturbation, but because it was ignoble: on the other hand, pity, though equally temporary (unless, indeed, evil and pain were eternal), was consonant with the noblest ideal of the beneficent Godhead. In fact, the progress that can be discerned in our religious evolution has been mainly a progress from the primitive concept of divinity as a being capricious, corruptible, cruel, and wrathful to the ideal of a Being unchanging, wholly just, beneficent, and loving. Our own orthodox and traditional religion is only at the half-way in this advance; for its dogmatic scheme is framed on the compromise between divine wrath and divine pity, and it still gives a place of authority to the Old Testament, wherein the highest expressions of religious inspiration are apt to be disfigured and darkened by the intrusion of Jahwé's wrath or fierce emotion. Justice and punishment are consonant with a high divine ideal; but wrath or anger is ‘anthropopathic’ and undivine, and pardonable only in a man in view of our human weakness.

The imputation to the deity of any passing emotion, whether noble or ignoble, may be reconcilable with the view of his essential unchangeableness, but is not with the concept of a timeless Being. For our emotions are part of our experiences in time; and if we attribute them to the deity as transient psychic states, the time-determination inheres to them: a ‘timeless’ person could not pass from one emotion to another.

The first article of our Church insists that God is ‘without passions’; and the history of this phrase relates it to the Greek avpaqh,j, the attribute of a changeless and timeless personality.

But there are certain psychic states, humanly regarded as emotions, such as joy or love, which we could impute to the divine nature not as a transient experience but as an eternal or ‘timeless’ condition. As regards love, no difficulty either for popular or philosophic thought need arise. This may be regarded as the crowning trait of the highest divine character, not so much as an emotion but as an eternal mood essential to the unchanging and eternal God; and Christian philosophy has used it as an explanation of his creative agency. We may also find that joy has been included in the divine consciousness, and not as a passing emotion, but as an abiding mood: the prevalent pre-Christian Greek conception of the divine existence was ‘blessedness’ which included joy; and this agrees with St. Augustine's view, who attributes eternal joy in himself to God.19 But here the difficulty arises of imagining how this unchanging state of consciousness could coexist with pity, which implies sorrow, the emotion which the more advanced popular belief insists on attributing to the divinity and on which much of our Christology is based.

The inclusion of certain emotions in our ideal of the divine character is inevitable on the ‘anthropopathic’ plane of the religious imagination; and has always been found in those religions which have won a long-enduring and wide supremacy. But the few indications given above may suffice to show that the emotional elements in the divine concept need to be reconsidered and reinterpreted if they are to be harmonized with some of the leading postulates of current religious philosophy.

There still remains to consider the difficulties that may arise in connexion with the other remaining attributes among those enumerated above, Infinity and Omnipotence. The former frequently, the latter generally, has been regarded as essential to the ideal concept of divinity; but the former term is too vague to be of value for religion or for thought without more precise determination.20 The statement that God is Infinite would probably not be intended to convey the sense of infinite spatial extension. It might be the formula of a pantheistic creed and theory, in the sense that God was all-pervasive throughout an infinite universe; and the difficulty of accommodating pantheism to a morally and spiritually effective religion has been already indicated. By a more precise and special interpretation we may understand and accept the phrase in the sense that the various powers, functions, and attributes that make up the divine character are not bound by any limitations; thus we can claim a clear meaning and validity for the assertions that God's justice, kindness, love, wisdom, power, are infinite. Now each of these separate ‘infinities’ might be considered independently. But while little or no perplexity or contradiction has been found in the attribution of infinite wisdom or infinite love, the human intellect has been confronted with the most baffling of all problems in respect of the infinite power or omnipotence of the deity. For the problem involves the explanation and moral justification of evil in the world of man and the world of nature. And ancient and modern thought, the thought of prophet, saint, and philosopher, has travailed and agonized to reconcile this evil with the infinite power and the infinite love of the deity. A critical review of the efforts of the ages must pronounce that no such reconciliation has been found.

It is obvious that the difficulty only arises if we insist both on omnipotence and infinite love as essential divine attributes. It therefore did not trouble the writers of the Old Testament, who were more interested in the attribute of omnipotence than of beneficence, and who with their crude notions of justice and vicarious punishment were content to explain human miseries as due punishment for man's sin and the evil in the world of nature, of which they knew comparatively little,21 as the collateral result of God's curse on Adam, and who did not shrink from the dogma that God was the just author of all evil. But such a view is of no avail for those who have attained to a more refined conception of divine justice and a higher ideal of divine beneficence, and who through modern biology and zoology are familiar with the torment and horror rife in the animal world. If we, then, critically survey the other solutions attempted by ancient and modern thinkers, we shall find that at best they only avail for a small portion of the problem.

On the whole these attempts have followed three main lines. Evil has been negated altogether as an illusion. Or it has been belittled and reduced to slight proportions in comparison with the good. Or it has been justified as necessary to the evolution of spiritual beings or to the larger good of the cosmos. And it is generally admitted by those who have dealt with the problem that the two most comprehensive terms by which we may sum up evil are sin and pain, giving us the dual distinction between moral and physical evil.

As regards the first of these attempted solutions, its hopelessness has already been indicated. The theory that evil is an illusion is on the same level as the similar theory of the unreality of the sensible world. Our consciousness of evil is at least as positive and vivid as our consciousness of good; and if our judgement of evil has no validity, neither has our judgement of good. Nor will our common consciousness agree with the dictum that evil is only negative, the absence or privation of good, as St. Augustine appears to have believed.22 This idea seems latent in the explanation of evil ascribed to Aristotle, namely that evil in our world is due to the great distance that the good has to traverse before it reaches us, so that what seems evil is only exhausted or weakened good.23 This explanation is quaint and does not agree with our strong perception that pain and anguish are more than the absence or the weakness of pleasure, grief and sorrow more than the absence of joy. The familiar Stoic gospel denying or belittling pain did not in any case attempt to apply itself to the problem of evil in the animal world, and though revealing much ethical nobility is based on bad psychology. We may at times succeed by a higher spiritual interpretation in removing from the popular category of evils some that may have been wrongly so called; public obloquy, for instance, is not necessarily an evil to a righteous man confident in his cause; and by more than one theory of life death may come to be regarded as a good. But in spite of such readjustments and partial triumphs, the bulk of evil that defies such transformation remains the heaviest of problems for those who try to account for it in accordance with accepted theistic beliefs.

The third solution mentioned above is more serious. The attempts to justify the existence of evil and to reconcile it with the ideal of an omnipotent and beneficent God are among the most interesting events in the history of the human spirit. There has been at least some measure of success in explaining the problem of human wickedness and the evil resulting from it. God's omnipotence must be interpreted as an intelligible, not a self-contradictory omnipotence; and it is no limitation of an intelligible omnipotence to maintain that there were certain conceivable things that an omnipotent God could not do; for instance, as Homer long ago declared, not even God could alter the past. Similarly, if it were God's purpose to create or enlarge a fellowship of free spirits or spiritual beings akin to himself—and we can understand that this might well be the natural purpose of an omnipotent and loving God—he must endow such beings with free will; and to carry out his purpose he must voluntarily limit or in some degree suspend his own omnipotence; for such free persons, once created, must have the power to choose evil, that is, to thwart and inhibit his own will; but as one cannot choose evil or good in a vacuum, the world in which such beings moved must be framed with such qualities as to produce pain or evil if wrongly handled by them. This is a satisfactory answer to the question, Why does an omnipotent God allow man to sin? and it may be a partially satisfying answer to the question why the world of things is so constituted as to produce such misery as a result of sin. But the answer is only of avail if it can be also maintained that the Creator in no way weighted the scales against man; for our belief in the infinite benevolence cannot long endure the doctrine that God implanted in man a strong original propensity to sin or that he clothed him with a flesh that by its own essential operations made sin inevitable; and the fallacy in St. Paul's parable of the potter and his clay can be easily exposed; as it may be argued that if a potter designedly fashioned a pot of poisonous clay, which he then made conscious, and it suffered misery from its inherent poison, the potter was malevolent.24 To such a Creator we might say with Fitzgerald:

Oh Thou, who man of baser earth didst make,

And e'en with Paradise devise the snake,

For all the sin wherewith the face of man

Is blackened, man's forgiveness give—and take.25

But the solution just put forth, though there is light and value in it, does not clear the baffling sense of mystery in view of the distribution of human pain; that the material world must have been so constituted as to allow a free agent to work evil is an admission that does not explain the immense vicarious suffering of the innocent, the ‘vagitus ingens infantum’. An omnipotent deity, being absolute lord over matter, his own creation, might be logically imagined to have shaped it more mercifully. Nor is the solution available for the problem of mere physical evil that cannot be ‘moralized’ or brought into any intelligible relation with morality; nor for the problem of the pain broadcast throughout the animal world, which appears the more poignant the deeper we look.

A different solution has found favour with some modern writers who have tried the riddle. An omnipotent and benevolent Deity need not arrange the universe or our immediate world for our happiness: the eudaimonistic ideal is not the highest: the life of placid unruffled ease and contentment, even when enfolded with beautiful and happy thought and feeling and even if secured to each and every man as his lot and therefore unselfishly enjoyed, would not be so high in the scale of spiritual value as the life of high-pitched effort and strain, fraught with deep sorrow and pain nobly borne; hence comes a loftier mood of the soul: ‘deeper their voices and nobler their bearing whose youth in the fire of anguish has died’; those who have gone through the furnace have this intuition; and the higher divinity of sorrow is recognized in the voice of great tragedy and some forms of art. God's purpose is not happiness but soul-elevation; through certain forms of sorrow man's soul rises to a point nearer to God. The world-agony then is necessary to the evolution of the highest soul-life.

Stated in vague and abstract terms, the theory is plausible, and parts of it agree with the deepest experiences of some of us. But confronted with the many particulars of evil, it breaks down. It applies only to pain that can ennoble. But we know of much hopeless pain, even in the human world, that is vile, deadly, and degrading; and though we may be so stimulated by the divine will and so inspired by science that we may one day abolish it, that is no apology for its existence now and in the past.

Nor does the theory offer a solution that we can accept for the misery of the animal world. It never risks itself by approaching the burning test of a particular case. If it were to assure us that the agony suffered by the dying whale in the bloodstained seas, when his enemies were slowly devouring him alive, was necessary and conducive to the highest evolution of our souls, we should reject it in mockery or horror; and the act of faith necessary to believe in the unproved connexion between such an event and the laws of our soul-life is greater than any that authority has demanded of us. The pious vegetarian Porphyry26 declares that a benevolent God would not decree that the good of our bodies should depend on the sufferings of animals, and the modern anti-vivisectionist might urge the same view. We may maintain the same principle in respect of our soul's welfare. If the world-pain is part of a benevolent scheme designed for our higher life, which we cannot discern, then the dangerous thought emerges that our principles of moral action are not those of God; dangerous, because it endangers our conviction of the divine basis of our own morality, and because it naturally engenders such pessimism as was heard from the lips of the pious Babylonian in an utterance of great antiquity that reminds us of certain passages in Job—‘Who can understand the counsel of the Gods in heaven, God's plan is full of darkness, who hath searched it out?’ This is accompanied by the despairing thought that what is evil in man's view is good in the sight of God.27

There is yet another solution to consider that has won adherents both in ancient and modern times,28 namely that the apparent evil in human life and in the physical world is necessary to some higher cosmic plan, ‘to the salvation of the Whole’ (swthri,a tou/ o[lou),29 some divine scheme embracing and maintaining the whole universe and transcending our vision and our sphere. This is the idea underlying some of the verses in the famous hymn of the Stoic Cleanthes, and Plutarch ascribes a similar theory to Chrysippus of the same school, namely that our evil is perhaps necessary to some other part of the universe.30 This theory differs from the others just examined, in that it is no longer ‘anthropocentric’. It subordinates man to a higher cosmic policy, which he cannot discern, but must blindly accept as an article of faith. Man himself is thus treated by the Deity as a means to some end that lies far beyond and above him. Our life with all its sin and suffering serves some purpose which is accomplished in Neptune or Seirius; whereas in the view of our most modern ethical philosophers the cosmic arrangements in Seirius and Neptune are solely for the benefit of man's soul. The Stoic theory is consistent with a lofty theism, but one of a stern and non-human type. It saves divine omnipotence but scarcely divine benevolence as understood by the leading popular religions of the world: in fact, no known historic religion has ever been based on it. And some of its implications are destructive of our ethical values and assumptions; in so far as it implies that sin may be as necessary to the cosmic plan as virtue; and that the divine Power may treat man merely as a means, whereas our ethical system is based mainly on the Kantian formula that man is never to be treated as a means merely but always as an end.

Therefore, as we must interpret divine love and benevolence somewhat at least on human lines, we cannot say that such a theory is reconcilable with the assumption that infinite power and infinite love are essential attributes of God.

If this assumption is to be accepted as a necessary axiom, there is nothing more to say except with Calvin, ‘the procedure of Divine justice is too high to be scanned by human measure or comprehended by the feebleness of human intellect’;31 or with Lotze, ‘Let us say that, where there is an irreconcilable contradiction between the omnipotence and the goodness of God, our finite wisdom has come to the end of its tether, and that we do not understand the solution which yet we believe in’.32 ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him’ is the highest religious expression for this self-abnegation of the intellect. And this may well be the last word of wisdom.

But the intellect is always refusing to abdicate, and has in recent years been trying a new path of approach to the heart of the problem, or rather has been reopening an old path. The assumption concerning the two essential attributes has been challenged by William James and Dean Rashdall. That God's love is infinite is a necessary basis for our religion and ethics and is given us by our intuitive perception of him; that his power is infinite is not necessary nor so given us. ‘The practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and his ideals.… It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary.’33 The statement has the flatness of American ‘pragmatism’. The theory is expressed more philosophically and with more religious depth by Dean Rashdall in his Theory of Good and Evil,34 where his position may be briefly summarized thus: God created souls, even the bad soul, and the best world he could, because he is finite and could only create what was in his nature to create, and he has often to do evil as a means to do good: ‘there is in the ultimate nature of things, that is to say, the ultimate nature of God—an inherent reason why greater good should not be obtainable.’35 There is a difficulty in this statement which seems to have escaped the writer. He wishes to explain evil as due to a limitation of power in God, not to any limitation of his goodness. But the last quotation appears to assert that the evil in the world is due to the ultimate nature of things, and Dean Rashdall, being an idealist and desirous of avoiding dualism, maintains that the ultimate nature of things is the ultimate nature of God. And if the ultimate nature of God is such that it must produce a partially evil world, it might be more natural to conclude that it was his goodness or his wisdom rather than his power that was limited. But any limitation of the goodness or the wisdom of God is more alien to the religious mind as revealed in the history of the higher religions than some limitation of his power.

In any case, the idea of a God in some way limited is not necessarily repugnant to advanced religion, and we find Origen accepting it without scruple.36 It certainly lends itself to dualism, for it implies some other force or substance or principle other than God which limits him. And this implication is in accord with the main current of Greek philosophy, which is dualistic in spite of Plato, and which so far as it deals seriously with the great religious problem of evil, is less concerned to champion the doctrine of ‘monism’ or the unlimited divine omnipotence as to purify the concept of God's character from any imputation of evil and to shield him from any responsibility for it. It inclines therefore to the view that God did not create matter and that though matter is not intrinsically evil there is some quality of stubborn resistance in matter that prevents it being shaped in accordance with the perfect divine idea and to the perfect form that God would impress upon it. An echo of this thought is in Matthew Arnold's phrase—‘the something that infects the world’. This Greek view is fortified by the stimulating thought which finds some expression in Greek literature that the divine power and goodness are shown by the providential skill whereby evil can be turned into good at the last.37

This solution is logical and satisfying if we can accept the idea of a finite God and a cosmic duality. The latter assumption has always been repugnant to the traditional orthodoxy of Christianity, as it inherited the Judaic dogma of an Omnipotent God, the sole and absolute Creator; and it is repugnant to the idealist philosophy of modern times with its insistence on a monistic explanation of the universe. But the sin of dualism—if it is a sin—is occasionally committed by its most ardent opponents. Much Christian writing has been guilty of it in denunciations of the inherent sinfulness of the flesh and of the processes of the flesh created by God. And modern monistic theorists are liable to fall into it unheedingly, especially when they are dealing with our present problem, which for them and for Christianity of the orthodox tradition must remain insoluble in terms of the intellect.

We may say that only one nation has ever frankly accepted the dual principle and built upon it a great world-religion, the religion of the later system of Mazdeism, which survives in modern Parsism and faintly perhaps in one or two backward tribes of Asia where an indistinct Zarathustrian tradition still lingers.38 The duality is primarily between the two spirits, the Good and the Evil, but it penetrates the whole world, of which the created things, good and evil, are distributed between the two spirits. It implies a finite God, who may be believed, however, to win omnipotence and sole dominion in the end. And there appears in a few texts an interesting corollary of the doctrine of a finite God, namely, that man is necessary to God as God to man, that God endows the faithful with good will and good thought, so that man may aid him in the long-enduring struggle.39 We have even a beautiful legend that before creating man Ahura offered the Fravashis, his immortal ministers, the choice of remaining in the spiritual sphere or of descending to earth to aid man in his conflict with the demons; and they accepted the more strenuous part.40 The religion conveyed a stirring appeal to the moral energies of man, and on a far higher and more spiritual plane bears a faint resemblance to the barbaric theology of the Scandinavian bards of the viking age. And it was the religion that offered the explanation of evil most intelligible to the popular mind and most easily reconcilable with the infinite goodness of God.

A religion that appeals only to the intellect must always be lacking in warmth and living power. But a religion that makes intellectual assumptions incurs intellectual obligations; and cannot admit the claim, occasionally made in our pulpits, that incoherence, and self-contradiction are proofs of the highest truth. Intellectual progress in a religion means progress towards harmony and coherence in its assumptions; its moral progress depends on its willingness to revise and purge from time to time its liturgy, ritual, and sacred texts so as to bring them into unison with its accepted knowledge and its highest moral ideals.

  • 1.

    We may say the same of the attribute ‘Incomprehensible’ (wrongly given in our older English version of the Athanasian Creed as a translation of the original ‘Immensus’); this attribute is sometimes used in cloudy theologic speculation to justify our reason in attaching mutually contradictory ideas to our concept of God.

  • 2.

    Vide supra, p. 21.

  • 3.

    ‘Personality can only belong to one who is not everything, but stands in relation to others outside himself. Such conditions cannot apply to the Deity.’ Inge, Plotinus, 1, p. 250 (the writer speaks in his own person here, not as merely interpreting Plotinus).

  • 4.

    p. 20.

  • 5.

    Op. cit. 2, p. 229.

  • 6.

    We may say the same of the attribute ‘Incomprehensible’ (wrongly given in our older English version of the Athanasian Creed as a translation of the original ‘Immensus’); this attribute is sometimes used in cloudy theologic speculation to justify our reason in attaching mutually contradictory ideas to our concept of God.

  • 7.

    Vide supra, p. 21.

  • 8.

    It is probably this dreary sense of unreality infecting the Indian mind that has hindered for centuries the growth of physical science among that people.

  • 9.

    Aristotle or the writer of the Magna Moralia seems conscious of the absurdity of God continually contemplating himself, Magn. Mor. 2, 15, pp. 1212–1213. St. Augustine, Confessions, 11. 12, quotes as a merry joke the answer to the question what God was doing before he created Heaven and Earth: ‘He was preparing Hell for priers into mysteries.’

  • 10.

    Aristotle or the writer of the Magna Moralia seems conscious of the absurdity of God continually contemplating himself, Magn. Mor. 2, 15, pp. 1212–1213. St. Augustine, Confessions, 11. 12, quotes as a merry joke the answer to the question what God was doing before he created Heaven and Earth: ‘He was preparing Hell for priers into mysteries.’

  • 11.

    Vide Pringle-Pattison, op. cit. p. 303.

  • 12.

    Vide Kidd, History of the Early Church, vol. 1, pp. 327–8.

  • 13.

    p. 382 E, an opinion quoted with approval by Hooker, Works, 1, p. 275 (Keble).

  • 14.

    1072 B.

  • 15.

    In the definition of God as pneu/ma neoro.n kai. purw/dej ouvk e;con me.n morfh,n metaba,llon de, eivj a] bou,letai (Plut. De Plac. Philos. 1. 5, p. 879 d.).

  • 16.

    Keith, Buddhist Philosophy, p. 184.

  • 17.

    Sophocles, Antig. 1. 456.

  • 18.

    Macauliffe, Sikh Religion, vol. 1, p. 154.

  • 19.

    Confessions, 8. 3, pp. 4–5: ‘Thou art everlastingly joy to Thyself.’

  • 20.

    In prevalent Greek thought, especially the Platonic, Infinity in the sense of to. a;peiron was evil, and pe,raj, its opposite in the sense of definite form, was good. The only popular religious text that explicitly raises and determines the question whether Infinity is an attribute of high divinity is one of the Pahlavi texts on the Bundahis (the Original Creation), which may contain old Zarathustrian elements: ‘both the Good and the Bad Spirit, Auharmazd and Aharman, are both limited and unlimited’: Sacr. Books East, vol. 5, pp. 4–5. St. Augustine also admits that God is in some sense ‘bounded’, for instance bounded on the side of evil. Confessions, 5. 10.

  • 21.

    It is only in the apocryphal ‘Second Esdras’ that we find a serious recognition of the challenge flung by the facts of the world against the beneficence of God; vide Burkitt, Schweich Lectures, 1913, pp. 42–3.

  • 22.

    Confessions, 3. 7: ‘As yet I knew not that evil is nothing but the privation of good.’

  • 23.

    De Mundo, p. 397 B.

  • 24.

    Something like this is the indictment brought by von Hartmann against ‘the Unconscious’, for making the fatal blunder of giving birth to consciousness and the world; vide Rashdall, Theory of God and Evil, vol. 2.

  • 25.

    Omar Khayyám, 81.

  • 26.

    De Abstin. 3. 26.

  • 27.

    Vide my Greece and Babylon, p. 155; Zimmern, Babylonische Hymnen und Gebete, pp. 28–30.

  • 28.

    It commended itself to the rationalism of the eighteenth century, as is shown by Pope's Essay on Man.

  • 29.

    This is the phrase used by Maximus Tyrius, Diss. 41 (Reiske, p. 284).

  • 30.

    De Stoic Repugn. 35, p. 1050 F. Plutarch gives a shallower Stoic theory of evil in De Commun. Notit. 13 (p. 1065 A).

  • 31.

    Calvin, Instit. 3. 23. 2. 4 (quoted E. R. E. 3, p. 152).

  • 32.

    Quoted in E. R. E. 6, p. 324, from Microcosmus, 2. 717, in the English translation; in the German text, 18722, vol. 3, p. 605.

  • 33.

    James, Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 525.

  • 34.

    See especially vol. 2, pp. 286–90, 338–45.

  • 35.

    Op. cit. p. 287.

  • 36.

    Vide Origen's fragment quoted by Rashdall, The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology, p. 268.

  • 37.

    First in a play of Menander, the profound sentiment put strangely into the mouth of a cook; Perikeir. 11. 49–50:

    dia. ga.r Qeou/ kai. to. kako.n eivj avgaqon r`e,pei


    then in the hymn of Cleanthes.

  • 38.

    Anthrop. Journ. 1911, p. 204.

  • 39.

    e.g. text quoted by Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism, p. 355: ‘he shall be the most helpful companion to thee, O Mazdah Ahura.’

  • 40.

    Moulton, op. cit. p. 161.

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