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Lecture 4 The Constant Element in All Conceptions of God

Lecture 4
The Constant Element in All Conceptions of God
NOWHERE perhaps do there exist such diversity and such conflict of views as in the province of the conceptions of faith. To any one making acquaintance with this province for the first time it seems a perfect chaos; and even those who have explored it carefully find it very difficult to survey it and map it out on any systematic plan. In a sphere in which imagination has free scope and often seems to run riot is it not in vain to seek for any constant element to try to discover anything like unity amid endless multiplicity or anything abiding amid ceaseless change? The task is certainly a difficult one but it is not hopeless. For the abiding element we seek is not to be found in the conceptions themselves but rather in what they express. We might perhaps arrange the multiform conceptions in certain groups and then reduce these to a number of definite types but we should be unable to demonstrate the necessity of these types. They may often recur in somewhat modified form but there is nothing to prove that they must always recur; and it may even be doubted whether we should then have laid a foundation for any such assumption. We should find that certain definite conceptions are common to peoples and communities which are either related to each other or which have reached the same stage of development but that as soon as the whole of mankind has outgrown these conceptions they recur no more and henceforth retain an historical value only. And how can it be otherwise? Could we for instance still conceive the Deity as enthroned on the clouds of heaven or in the realms of light above the firmament while the powers of darkness and evil hold sway in the depths beneath? We should in that case still have to regard the earth as the centre of the universe fixed above a dark abyss and vaulted over by the heavens and we should have to repudiate all the ascertained results of scientific research and reflection. Let us take another example. For many long ages polytheism was the normal form of religious belief except where the latter still occupied the lower stage of polydæmonism; and it is not until late in the history of mankind and only among one or two peoples at first that it was superseded by monotheism. Slow of growth the latter only triumphed after a long struggle. For pure polytheism there is now no future left. It still survives but within ever narrower limits. It has indeed revived in some monotheistic religions when these have been imposed by force upon a people or a community which was not yet ripe for them but only on condition that its numerous gods group themselves round the throne of the One as his servants and vassals. We may safely say that the foundation of a pure polytheistic religion except perhaps among a people absolutely shut off from civilisation has once for all become an impossibility. Poets like Schiller and Heine may dwell regretfully on the beauties of the Greek or the German theogony which seemed beautiful to them because they saw their poetical side only; but these systems will never return. Zeus and his Olympians and Wodan with his Asas belong irrevocably to the past in this sense that they can never again become objects of belief. A religious conception may be absolutely general during a long period or even throughout a series of successive periods of history so general that we may almost regard it as an essential element inherent in all religion; yet there comes a time when it turns out to be no less transitory than the conceptions it has superseded.

We must therefore as I have already said search for unity for the abiding for the essential not in any conception however general or enduring it may seem to be but solely in the religious thoughts and aspirations to which the conceptions give expression. When we find such thoughts constantly reviving under new forms we may reasonably assume that they are essentials of religion.

I do not of course propose to subject the whole of religious doctrine in all its details to such an investigation. We must confine ourselves to a few leading ideas and try to show that they constitute an integral part of religious belief although manifesting themselves in very various and sometimes apparently conflicting forms.
The first question which requires to be answered is—What is this permanent and essential element in the manifold conceptions regarding the Deity which succeed each other in the history of mankind and which still cause so many divisions at the present day? For all religious doctrine emanates from some theology however primitive. What then it may be asked has the only eternal all-wise and powerful omnipresent and omniscient holy just merciful and gracious God whom Christians Jews and Mohammedans alike worship albeit in different ways—the God whom the Gospel proclaims as the Perfect one the loving all-attracting all-reconciling heavenly Father—what has He in common with even the highest of the nature-gods the Zeus-Jupiter of Hellas and Rome not to speak of the bloodthirsty beings in whose honour Canaanites and Moabites Accadians Celts Mexicans and many others slaughtered their fellow-men and even their own children? What has He in common with the gods (not to descend to the lowest stage) whose power extends over a limited domain only who have been born and who die who are swayed by the lower passions and are subject to human weaknesses? I might reply by asking another question: Have we ourselves nothing in common with the people who worshipped these beings? Is not the difference between their gods and ours essentially the same as the difference which separates them from us though they were men of the same mould as ourselves? We need not at present inquire into the causes of that difference as we have investigated them already. It is a difference of capacity and of circumstances but still more a difference in development—the difference between the grain of mustard-seed and the tree in whose branches lodge the fowls of the air the difference between the stammering child and the mighty orator between the unbridled fancy of the youth and the ripe wisdom of the experienced thinker. But the difference is not so great as it appears on the surface. Man climbs up but slowly to such abstract ideas as eternity omnipresence and holiness in the ethical sense. But their germ is nevertheless distinctly discernible in the less developed conceptions of deity. Let us then try to ascertain the germ from which the loftier conceptions have gradually developed. I mean the one element which essentially and indispensably constitutes the idea of a god. The conclusion to which the study of religions has led us is that a god is a superhuman power.
This is no mere a priori notion but the result of a careful and many-sided comparative-historical investigation. How such a conception arose—whether it sprang out of the impression produced by the phenomena of nature and by the action of the powers of nature upon the human mind or rather out of man's cognition of his own inmost being which he afterwards applies to all that he perceives around him—we need not at present inquire. We shall seek for its origin at a later stage; but meanwhile our object is to show that even the richest and loftiest conceptions of deity are but developments of this simple germ and that they lay enshrined within it from the very outset.
The root-idea then in every conception of godhead is power. In whatever manner this power is conceived as physical or rational as beneficent or malevolent in whatever way it may be described or defined—as wise just and holy as the power of love drawing all men together and upholding the moral order of the world or according to a well-known dogmatic formula the power of irresistible grace—the idea of Power is the constant and immutable element so that a powerless god cannot be a god at all. As soon as the man who is swayed by animistic conceptions begins to think that his fetish is powerless to help him and has therefore deceived him he casts it aside; for it turns out not to have been a genuine god after all. In the seventeenth century the Arminians were specially condemned by the Calvinists on the ground that their doctrine of conditional grace seemed to set bounds to the power of the Almighty which however they were by no means disposed to deny. And a couple of centuries later when the so-called ethical school of theology with its pessimistic views of the world tried to save the justice holiness and goodness of God by representing the Deity as the power of Good contending against the natural and moral evil of which it could not be the origin this again was obviously a limitation of God's omnipotence which vitiated the whole system. Even in a sharply defined dualistic system like Zarathushtrism in which the supremacy of the great god Ahura Mazda though undisputed in heaven does not extend over the realms of the lying spirits (drujas) and conflicts with that of the archdaêva Angra-Mainyu upon earth—even there the power of the god is superior to that of his adversaries and is destined to triumph over them in the end.
On a former occasion in treating of mythology and its interpretation I had occasion to remark that the religious doctrine of polytheism would never be rightly understood unless the various gods were regarded as personified agencies as factores agentes or in other words as powerful beings revealing themselves in the phenomena; and I am pleased to observe that Professor Max Müller has recently expressed his concurrence in that view.1
The controversy among mythologists as to the physical significance of the gods is well known. There was a time when several different theories were in marked antagonism. One of these regarded nearly the whole of mythology as a description of the storm—of the strife between the evil powers who try to withhold the beneficent rain and the good powers who steal water or fire from heaven and cause it to descend upon the earth. Another theory viewed it as symbolising the conflict between light and darkness between day and night between summer and winter. According to some theories the marriage of the god of heaven to the goddess of the earth was the ruling idea; according to others all the gods were gods of the sun and moon; and Professor Max Müller has made a very able and learned attempt to show that the myths of the dawn were always the most important or at least much more so than is commonly supposed. At the present day there is a more general inclination to combine whatever is good and true in each of these antagonistic theories a movement in which the master of mythological science just mentioned has taken the lead although we still meet with advocates of a kind of pass-key theory or single explanation with which they seek to unlock almost every myth.2 I need hardly say that I have no faith in any such universal myth-opener and that I am not disposed to join any one of these parties. And all the less so because it seems to me a matter of subordinate importance though not of indifference to determine the precise natural phenomenon or object from which this or that myth has derived its origin. Even the most ancient interpreters of the myths disagreed on these points and perhaps from the very outset there was no agreement. For the religious man the chief question is what his god can effect what he has to hope or to fear from him. It is quite possible that the Babylonian Maruduk the Vedic Indra the Germanic Thor-Donar and even the Hellenic Zeus were originally sun-gods; but in the eyes of their worshippers they were mainly the triumphant conquerors of the powers of darkness aridity and winter. The names of most of the gods are so ancient that they cannot now be interpreted with any certainty by means of the known forms of language and that they defy all the re-agents of scientific etymology. But those that we can still interpret and particularly the epithets applied to the gods usually denote an operation a power or a function. In short no being is recognised and worshipped as divine except by people who believe it to be the operative power in some natural phenomenon; and when religious and philosophical development has culminated in the idea of an only god God is mainly regarded as the Almighty who creates maintains and governs the universe.
Now this power of the gods is always deemed a superhuman power—superhuman but not supersensual or supernatural. In a more advanced stage of development a distinction may be drawn between the sensual and the supersensual but in the animistic stage no such difference is known. The spirits revered by uncivilised peoples are never immaterial. Nor indeed are even the highest gods in the polytheistic religions of antiquity. But they are all superhuman at least in the eyes of their worshippers who often estimate the value of human beings by a different standard from ours. When divine beings are worshipped in the form of mountains trees or animals (which entirely differ in kind from the objects known as fetishes) it is only because people who have not yet awoke to full self-consciousness attribute to whatever produces a strong impression on them some secret power a power greater than their own or because they admire qualities which they themselves either lack or possess to a very inferior extent. When they have reached a higher stage of civilisation and out of respect for tradition still retain the old animals or monsters as their gods then as Herodotus relates of the Phœnicians they allege as their reason the impropriety of making their gods like men—an explanation devised in good faith though of course an afterthought in order to account for what seems strange even to themselves. And even where anthropomorphism has attained full sway where the animals come to be merely temporary metamorphisms being usually the companions servants or symbols of the deities and where the deities themselves are invariably represented in human form their worshippers will always be careful to express their superhuman character in some way or other. This is sometimes done in a very naïve manner. The Hindoo gods (in so far as they are no longer therianthropic half-animal half-human) such as Ganes´a the god of wisdom with his elephant's head are provided with several heads and pairs of arms. The Babylonian-Assyrian have two pairs of wings. The Homeric are of gigantic stature or possess a voice as mighty as that of ten thousand men; instead of human blood a fluid called ichôr the blood of the gods circulates through their veins; and though they require nourishment like human beings they live solely on ambrosia the food of the immortals which is denied to men. And the power these deities wield is not merely greater than that of mortals but differs in kind. At first it is generally conceived as sorcery or as a magical power from which the idea of miraculous power is developed a power which is not bound by the same conditions as human power. The deity simply commands merely speaks “and it is done”; the divine word becomes the great creative power. And the belief of monotheism that with God all things are possible already exists in embryo in all the conceptions of divine power formed by votaries of the lower nature-religions.
And so too the conception of the divine omniscience must have lain dormant in the hearts of the pious long before it was formulated as a doctrine. Odhinn's ravens fly forth throughout the whole world and on their return they alight on his shoulder and whisper in his ear all they have seen. The Vedic Varuna and the Persian Mithra also have their spies (spas´as) whom nothing escapes. Satan whom the author of the Book of Job includes among the Sons of Elohîm scours the whole earth and then appears before His throne to render his report although Yahve already knows everything. Each god does not know everything—for that would be inconsistent with polytheism—but the gods collectively know everything while from the great heavenly god of Light nothing can remain hidden.
With the doctrine of omniscience is closely connected that of omnipresence. The numerous gods of polytheism cannot of course be omnipresent. Each of them has his own domain to which his power is usually restricted. On earth each of them has one or more favourite haunts while in heaven he possesses his own glorious abode. The exuberant oriental imagination surpasses itself when it tries to describe the palaces of the Indian Devas and the Zarathushtrian Yazatas. The poets of the Edda mention ten heavenly abodes of the Asas of which Odhinn's Walhalla is the chief and Baldur's Breidhablik is the purest. The homes of the Olympians have been built by Hephæstus round the summit of Olympus on which Zeus himself is enthroned. But none of them is bound to a fixed abode. They roam wherever they please with marvellous rapidity. With holy awe the pious man sometimes finds his god close to him when he supposed him far distant. “Surely” exclaims Jacob at Bethel on awakening from his dream “surely Yahve is in this place!” The fact that his own god should appear to him at a place where a different local god was worshipped filled his heart with joy. That some god dwelt and ruled in this region as in every region probably neither he nor any other of the ancients doubted for a moment. What in monotheism becomes the omnipresence of a single god is in polytheism the omnipresence of the divine in many different forms and persons. Wherever one may be wherever one may go there a superhuman power works and reigns. This belief is common to all peoples and all ages.
As the æsthetic sentiment is developed the gods are more and more endowed with superhuman beauty. In the plastic representation of the gods the Greeks stood pre-eminent. Their gods have human forms but they are idealised forms of masculine and feminine beauty. Still loftier is the conception of a divine glory which dazzles poor mortals a glory which indeed man cannot behold and live. The prophet to whom a glimpse of it was vouchsafed had to cover his face and durst not look up until Yahve had passed by so that he could only see the skirts of the divine garment. This idea belongs entirely to the Semitic conception of faith in which God's loftiness stands out in the foreground; and when we encounter it in the Greek myth of Zeus and Semele it seems unquestionably to be one of those features which Hellenic mythology borrowed from the East. But the needs that found expression in these immortal works of art and in the conceptions of the divine glory are precisely the same as those manifested in childish fashion by the savage who bedecks his poor idols with gaudy cloth and all kinds of finery so as to render them glorious in his eyes and by the simpleminded votary of Rome who bedizens his Madonna with gilded crowns and showy drapery.
The development of the ethical sentiment is a very different matter. It is not until a late period that the religiously disposed man strives to express the superhuman character of his gods by ascribing to them ethical attributes. They become the vindicators of law the rewarders of virtue the punishers of vice: they have imposed the moral law on mortals and require them to observe it; but at first they themselves are exalted above it. A god is never bound by the obligations he has imposed upon men. He acts according to his good pleasure—for the superhuman knows no limits. This is the ideal of the undeveloped believer. He regards the moral law as heteronomous being imposed on him from without and as a collection of commands and prohibitions which he ought to obey but which he cannot obey without denying himself and sacrificing his own inclinations and desires. It stands to reason he thinks that a power which is independent of all others is under no obligation to obey the laws which it imposes upon men. But when man's ethical consciousness has advanced so far as to substitute the autonomous for the heteronomous principle and when he has learned to measure human worth by an ethical standard he can no longer regard beings however powerful they may be as exalted above him if they are morally his inferiors. The conviction thus ripens within him that the moral element is not a mere arbitrary ordinance in conflict with human nature but is a revelation of his own inmost being and must for that very reason be an attribute of the deity who is the author of his higher nature. He then ceases to seek for the superhuman in external splendour and glory or merely in a power which transcends that of man but conceives his God as one who possesses in perfection all the moral qualities which he has learned to appreciate in man more than all other endowments. The Unapproachable then becomes the Holy One and justly so because “He is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.” The highest power then becomes all-embracing love. And so he deems his God to be in blissful possession of that infinite perfection to which no man can attain but which is nevertheless the object of his ceaseless endeavour.
We are now however confronted with a question with which many minds are always busied. How can a pure and perfect world be the origin or (to put the question in a personal form) how can a perfect and at the same time all-powerful God be the author of a world in which physical and moral evil are so pre-dominant? Polytheism found no difficulty in answering this question. The world of gods is divided into two different classes—the beneficent or naturally good gods and the gods who are dreaded the former being the givers of all blessings and the latter the authors of all disasters of death destruction and all evil; and both kinds must therefore be worshipped in order to gain their favour or avert their wrath. But in the ethical religions believers could no longer be satisfied with such a solution. They could not regard evil spirits as worthy of adoration. In their view the two classes of gods become two hostile camps. On the one side stood the good God with his satellites on the other the realm of the powers of darkness and destruction of sin and wickedness which had to be resisted and slain with the help of the good spirits. Over against Ormazd the giver of all good (dâta vaṅghvᾶm) is placed Ahriman who is full of death (pouru-mahrka) and over against the immortal benefactors (amesha speñta) and the adorable ones (yazata) stand the daêvas and the lying spirits (drujas). This is the doctrine of the Zarathushtrian religion in which the principle is most strictly adhered to. But even there people were not always satisfied with a God who though indeed higher and more powerful than his adversary and destined ultimately to triumph over him had to submit for a time at least to the withdrawal of a great part of the “embodied world” his own creation from his jurisdiction. The theologians came to the rescue. They exalted an abstract idea Unending Time (zrvan akaranam) to the rank of the highest god the father of both Ahura Mazda and Angra-Mainyu although the text of the sacred writings on which they relied merely imports that Ahura Mazda “created in unending time.” This doctrine though regarded as heretical by the orthodox Zarathushtrians was for a time officially accepted under one of the Sâsânides but was soon afterwards condemned. An abstraction could not long remain a popular god. And perhaps it was felt that the difficulty was not thereby removed but merely shifted. Another expedient to which they had recourse was the idea that man is free but that he has abused his freedom and that for this abuse he has been punished by means of sickness and other evils inflicted by Nature herself; but they overlooked the question whether the omnipotence of God would not be infringed by such freedom. Others have denied the absolute nature of sin (Pfleiderer) and have represented physical evil as a necessary means of education as the shadow without which there can be no light. It is beyond our province to investigate this problem. It suffices for us in this connection to note the fact that man's religious consciousness has invariably caused the rejection of every system which limited the omnipotence of God in order that His holiness righteousness and love might be preserved intact. A perfect solution of the problem would require omniscience and transcends the human mind. But for the pious of all ages although they are fully aware that they are confronted with an inexplicable riddle the answer is essentially the same as that given in Israel in ancient times: “God's ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts; God is great and we cannot comprehend Him.” Or to express this in the terms we have already employed: the divine power is superhuman and therefore inscrutable.
To this definition of gods as superhuman powers it will perhaps be objected that it is imperfect and that it is not every superhuman power though recognised as such that is recognised as a god. Shall we like Rauwenhoff for example argue as follows?—“No one is a god jure suo; but he has only become a god through the deification he has received from his worshippers. Not only does this hold true of the first time when a man has recognised his god in a supposed supersensual power but it always continues to be true and is indeed the general rule in all subsequent and in all future development of religion. To be a power of nature or to be a spirit is not yet to be a god. Such a power only becomes a god when it is worshipped. Even the most primitive religions consist not in the worship of every kind of natural phenomenon and every kind of spirit but they invariably select one or more of these to the exclusion of the others and promote them to the rank of deities. One only of all the spirits dwelling in animals is elected by the American Totemist to be his god;” and might we not then arrive with him at the conclusion that the origin of religion is to be explained “from the coincidence of the moral consciousness of man with the naturistic or animistic view of nature?”3 I cannot concur in this. The proposition that no one is a god jure suo rests if I mistake not on a confusion of special conceptions of belief with the general conception of a god. The cause of the confusion is that we generally use the same word for both. We call Zeus Wodan Indra Varuṇa Brahma Vishṇu and S´iva gods although they are in reality only the special conceptions formed by different peoples in different ages of their highest god. It stands to reason that they are gods only to those who I do not say worship them but who believe in their existence and power and that with their last worshippers they have lost or will lose their dignity of godhead. The only question that concerns us is what in all these changing conceptions is abiding what men in all ages have had in view when speaking of “God.” Moreover it is not because it is worshipped that a power of nature or power of any description or a spirit of whatever kind becomes a god but it is worshipped because it has already been recognised as a god. Nor can it even be asserted that in the animistic or the polytheistic stage of religion persons or communities regard those superhuman powers which they worship as the only gods in existence. They admit the existence and the dignity of many others also as such. When they enter their domain or have reason to dread their power they will even do them homage. When they learn that the gods of their neighbours are very wise and are thus better able to help them they will consult their oracles and offer them costly gifts. Thus Ahaziah King of Israel sent a mission to Ba῾al-zebub the god of Ekron to the great indignation of the prophet of Yahve. So too will an Asiatic prince beg the Egyptian king son of the Sun for the loan of one of his gods in order to cure his daughter of her sickness the gods of his own land having proved unequal to the task. And when the mighty conqueror Sennacherib (Sin-ahi-irba) is about to organise a naval expedition he hastens to present rich offerings to Ea god of the sea though on his return to Nineveh or Kalach he would certainly have worshipped none but Assur and the gods who had their temples there. Can we therefore say that Ea was his god solely during the time when he did homage to him but neither before nor after that time? Why it may be asked does the polytheist not worship all the gods whose power he admits? Simply because it would be impossible. On the other hand he will take good care not to offend them. Like the Hindoo he will not neglect to invoke the Vis´ve devâh or “all the gods” as well as those he specially reveres; or like the Roman after having named his own gods he will add: “Sive quo alio nomine to appellari volueris”; or like the Athenian he will by way of precaution erect an altar to the Unknown God. And so too the Totemist while choosing a special tutelary spirit just as you or I might choose a particular physician does not deny the existence of others. And neither Redskin nor Babylonian nor Assyrian who speak of their own special gods nor the Pârsee who believes that every one has his Fravashi nor the Roman who sacrifices to his own Lar familiaris will on that account omit to serve the gods of their tribe or country. How divine service originated is a question to be considered at a later stage. But we may for the present lay it down as a well-established proposition that the religious man in general regards as a god every superhuman power whose existence he owns; that the polytheist recognises besides his own gods many others whom he has no occasion or is not bound to worship; and that the monotheist acknowledges a single and almighty God by whatsoever name He may be called.
Is it necessary to add to our definition that in order to stamp a superhuman power as a deity it should be worthy of adoration? I do not think so. I am however far from maintaining that every power of nature as such is regarded as a god even by the least cultured of men. Certainly not those which he has learned to control. When he has grown up to full self-consciousness he feels that he is superior to all the blind powers of nature though he is physically weaker than they. The materialist who sees nothing in the universe but the operation of such powers takes leave of religion altogether. Men worship that only which they deem above them. Not the beast of prey whose claws make them tremble nor the bloodthirsty tyrant who persecutes them but those beings alone whom they judge superior to man. As long as they imagine that in a tree or in an animal or in the firmament of heaven dwells a spirit mightier than their own and one that can therefore influence the destiny and welfare of themselves and their families so long will they worship the tree or animal or firmament or rather the spirits residing in them. But as soon as they become conscious of the superiority of the human mind they will cease to worship these objects. As long as they occupy a low stage of ethical development they will worship even evil spirits whether injurious to man or not. But as soon as they have awoke to moral consciousness they will contend against these evil spirits with the aid of the good divine powers and they will worship them no longer. They still believe in their power; but it is not a divine power for it is doomed to destruction—the power of goodness and truth will ultimately triumph over it. The power of the evil spirits is indeed greater than their own but not superhuman although perhaps we may call it supersensual. The Zarathushtrian erects no altars to Ahriman nor does the mediæval Christian build chapels for Satan however much they may dread these spirits. The Mohammedan casts stones at Iblis and our Christian forefathers delighted in popular tales in which the devil was tricked or held up to derision. But to a power which he regards as superhuman man looks up with awe and he speaks of it with reverence.
We thus reach the conclusion that men of all ages have conceived the divine as a power operating in every kind of natural phenomenon as supernatural not merely in the sense of being greater than human power but as being bound by none of the conditions and subject to none of the limitations attached to human power. Regarded in the earlier stages of the development of belief as a magical power or as a miraculous power (for as Goethe has said “das Wunder ist des Glaubens liebstes Kind”) the most advanced believers regard it as the mysterious power in which the ultimate cause of the world of phenomena is to be sought; a power unlimited and unrestricted in time and space a power immutable whatever else may change or perish. It is merely a question of development as well as of disposition whether this power be distributed among many persons or embraced in one alone. But it is always the highest in its own province it is always unique of its kind; and even where it is divided among many its agency is everywhere: it is the ultimate cause of all that exists of all that happens. The world of the divine as men thus conceive it is not merely higher than but different from our world of natural phenomena because it is an ideal world. But it is only in contrast to ours in so far as it is perfect and infinite while ours is imperfect and finite.
Our next lecture will be devoted to an examination of the relation between these two worlds.