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Lecture 18 God and the Absolute

Lecture 18
God and the Absolute
God and the Absolute.
I ENDED the last lecture with a question. I asked if we were justified in identifying the God of religion with the Absolute of philosophy as has been done throughout our whole course. Is it true that our intellectual and our religious needs find satisfaction at the same ultimate source? Will the yearnings of “the heart” be stilled by the same conception of reality as that to which the frank and rigorous use of the methods of reason points? Or must we distinguish between God and the Absolute?
Love and Reason.

The same problem meets us in another form. What is the relation of Love and Reason and what are their respective functions? It is generally assumed that religion is not less obviously an affair of the emotions than philosophy is of the intellect. A religion that leaves the worshipper cold and indifferent and self-centred fails just as hopelessly as the philosophy which does not satisfy the demands of reason. Emotion appears thus to have a place and function in religion which it does not claim and which would not be readily conceded to it in a philosophical theory. This fact is usually overlooked by philosophers and to do so is an error; for although in the last resort the whole man is involved in all his moods and activities the differences between these still remain. There are many different ways in which the spirit of man expresses itself just as there are many different kinds of reality to which it is called to respond.

As to the relation of God and the Absolute Mr. Bradley says quite roundly (as is his admirable way) “For me the Absolute is not God. God for me has no meaning outside of the religious consciousness and that essentially is practical. The Absolute for me cannot be God because in the end the Absolute is related to nothing and there cannot be a practical relation between it and the finite will. When you begin to worship the Absolute or the Universe and make it the object of religion you in that moment have transformed it. It has become something forthwith which is less than the Universe.”1 There are thus two supreme beings—the Absolute which Mr. Bradley identifies with the Universe and with the reality to which speculative research leads; and God who is something less than the Universe and everything to religion. The Absolute is related to nothing and there cannot be a practical relation between it and the finite will. Nothing stands over against the Absolute. All that exists is part of its content. God on the other hand must stand in relation to my will. Religion is practical. There is a perfect will and there is my will; and the practical relation of these wills is what we mean by religion. And yet if perfection is realized what becomes of my will which is over against the complete Good Will? While on the other hand if there is no such Will What becomes of God?
Mr. Bradley refuses the escape offered by the idea of rejecting the Perfection of God and instead accepts as final a fundamental contradiction in religion. Religion demands and at the same time rejects a perfect God. God's will expresses itself in the activity of man and yet it must stand over against the will of finite beings. Mr. Bradley emphatically insists that the real presence of God's will in mine our actual and literal satisfaction in common must not in any case be denied or impaired. This is a religious truth he adds “far more essential than God's personality.” But is it compatible with his personality?
Mr. Bradley's affirmation of the personality whether of God or man is almost always hesitating and qualified; and he denies altogether the personality of the Absolute. He also speaks of the super-personal a word to which I can attach no definite meaning at all. “A God that can say to himself ‘I’ as against you and me is not in my judgment defensible as the last and complete truth for Metaphysics”2 “The highest Reality so far as I see must be super-personal.”3 It is on this matter of the significance of personality that I differ most deeply from Mr. Bradley—if I understand him correctly.
We must rest in contradictions as ultimate.
But I must first refer to another matter. Mr. Bradley denies that “Religion has to be consistent theoretically.” If we seek consistency we will be “driven to a limited God.” But apparently we ought not to seek it. We should be content so far as religion is concerned with contradiction. He is convinced that there are “no absolute truths” and that “on the other side there are no mere errors. Subject to a further explanation all truth and all error on my view may be called relative and the difference between them in the end is one of degree.”4
The defect of what we call truth arises from its incompleteness. Something is always left out by us. It is abstract; above all it omits its own opposite; and “with every truth there still remains some truth however little in its opposite.”5 “The idea that in the special sciences and again in practical life we have absolute truths must be rejected as illusory. We are everywhere dependent on what may be called useful mythology and nothing other than these inconsistent ideas could serve our various purposes. These ideas are false in the sense that they are not ultimately true. But they are true in the sense that all that is lacking to them is a greater or less extent of completion which the more true they are would the less transform their present character. And in proportion as the need to which they answer is wider and deeper these ideas already have attained actual truth.”6
Incompleteness is not error.
It is not possible to deny that all our knowledge is incomplete. It is also in the last resort hypothetical. But it is another thing to admit that there is no difference between truth and error except a difference of “degree.” True ideas as Mr. Bradley admits in the last sentence I quote from him answer to needs. That is to say they fit into are consistent with find a place within our conception of reality as a systematic whole. What we take for error refuses to do so. I admit that our conception of the system may be false but I also affirm that although incomplete it may nevertheless be true. By incompleteness we mean simply that the elements which are its content are not fully known. In a word the conception formed of the whole would be “general” and in that sense abstract. Our knowledge as I have shown rests on a hypothesis and the hypothesis is always on its trial. Its incompleteness is incompleteness and not error. Our knowledge does not misrepresent although it omits.
Opposition is not necessarily contradiction.
Understood in this way the quest for consistency in our thought of religion as in all our thinking is not a matter of choice. We are always seeking consistency. We cannot rest in contradictions. But we can be content with opposites. We may hold that two truths may differ and on that very account supplement and complete each other. Indeed I am not convinced that we ever do reach the truth before we can state “both sides” and find that each of the opposites demands and exists in virtue of the other.
Double aspect of reality illustrated in religion.
Religion amply illustrates this fact. Affirm nothing but the unity of the divine and human will or on the other hand affirm nothing but their independence of each other and religion becomes impossible. The truth is that the union of wills can take place only if they are independent. It is their concurrence that makes them one and they cannot concur if either of them is not free. There are many ways of uniting and disuniting chemical elements; but nothing can unite wills except the adoption of the same purpose by free agents. And the adoption of a purpose is an affair of the individual as a separate being. Only wills that are free can truly unite. A society of slaves has very little coherence and has at no period of the world's history been powerful for either good or evil.
Unity and individuality said to be contradictory to each other.
Mr. Bradley on the unity of persons.
But the mutual inclusion of persons that is of self-conscious individuals is unless I err possible in the opinion of Mr. Bradley only at the expense of their independence and individuality. In my opinion on the other hand their common life deepens their individuality and strengthens them as independent persons. And here lies the central issue. The more a man is the voice of his times and people and of what at their best they are striving to be the greater he is as an individual. He is a more significant unit because of the extent of the common elements. Mr. Bradley argues quite correctly so far as I can see that if we assume that “individual men yourself and myself are real each in his own right to speak of God as having reality in the religious consciousness is nonsense.”7 That is to say if men are separate individuals then God must be still another separate individual and the “indwelling” or “immanence” of God which is essential to religion cannot be. But Mr. Bradley goes on to prove that men are not independent individuals or separate beings. “The independent reality of the individual…is in truth mere illusion. Apart from the community what are separate men? It is the common mind within him which gives reality to the human being: and taken by himself whatever else he is he is not human.”8 Then he proceeds further to enforce the truth which many years ago he stated in his Ethical Studies in a manner calculated to lift it beyond the reach of controversy. Even when an individual sets himself against society it is on the resources of his society that he draws: he has not a shred that is exclusively his own. “When he opposes himself to the community it is still the whole which lives and moves in discord within him for by himself he is an abstraction without life or force.9 If this be true of the social consciousness in its various forms it is true certainly no less of that common mind which is more than social. In art in science and in religion the individual by himself still remains an abstraction. The finite minds that in and for religion form one spiritual whole have indeed in the end no visible embodiment and yet except as members in an invisible community they are nothing real. For religion in short if the one indwelling spirit is removed there are no spirits left. “The Supreme Will for good which is experienced within finite minds is an obvious fact and it is the doubt as to anything in the whole world being more actual than this which seems most to call for enquiry.”09
But that unity is impossible except by the exercise of individual functions.
I admit all this readily and gratefully: I first learnt it from Mr. Bradley many years ago. But I cannot admit that the participation of individuals in common elements lessens either their independence or their individuality. Least of all when as is evident that participation is not possible except by the rational adoption of these common elements that is to say except by the exercise of powers which are intensely individual. If my community is to live in me I must interpret its meaning I must adopt its traditions and creeds I must make its ends my personal purposes. And every one of these activities is personal and in a sense private and exclusive. In this reaction the material offered by the community is recreated by me; and the reaction at once enriches the communal store and exercises and develops my individual powers.
Mr. Bradley's neglect of this truth and emphasis on the pantheistic aspect.
But this aspect of the truth is not recognized by Mr. Bradley though at times he seems to accept both sides. “I cannot for one thing” he says “deny the relation in religion between God and finite minds and how to make this relation external or again to include it in God's personality I do not know. The highest Reality so far as I see must be super-personal. At the same time to many minds practical religion seems to call for the belief in God as a separate individual.”10 Mr. Bradley himself can accept this belief only if in the first place its practical value is clear and in the second place if it is supplemented by other beliefs which really contradict it. And these beliefs I must add are most vital to religion. He then proceeds to indicate some of these beliefs. He shows how much the Universe would be impoverished if the Maker and Sustainer were not also the indwelling Life and Mind of the inspiring Love. But he cannot reconcile this “pantheism” as he calls it (which to me also is priceless) with a God who is personal and individual. “The so-called ‘pantheism’ which breathes through much of our poetry and art is no less vitally implied in religious practice. Banish all that is meant by the indwelling Spirit of God in its harmony and discord with the finite soul and what death and desolation has taken the place of living religion! But how this Spirit can be held consistently with an external individuality is a problem which has defied solution.”11
Only in self-consciousness is unity achieved through difference.
But I would ask is personality ever “external”; or is such a personality an unreal creation of our own fashioned by taking account of only one aspect of a person namely the subjective? If personality means as I take it a rational subject conscious of itself and of its world as an object then it does not stand in an external relation to anything whatsoever. Self-consciousness is essentially that which overpowers external relations. Man as a rational being goes out of himself so to speak so as to know and use objects (and there can exist nothing which is not potentially his object) but he always returns to himself enriched for he brings back as a part of his own experience something of the meaning and use of the facts he has been dealing with. Not only so: there is nothing save self-consciousness which does overcome external relations. It alone achieves unity in difference. Self-consciousness is one with itself only through its relation to objects; for a subject that has no object that does not say “I” as over against something else is not possible. In denying personality or self-consciousness to the Absolute Mr. Bradley is thus permitting external relations to be final; and his Universe is in no sense a unity. Its differences cannot be made to come together. Everything within it holds everything else at arm's length. The ultimate relation between its elements is negative; and the Universe is at best a mere collection of particulars.
Hence the Absolute must be a person.
To arrive at the truth of this matter we must restore to self-consciousness all its functions. In order to do so it is not necessary to reduce the debt of the individual man to his community or his dependence upon it for the living experience which enters into his powers; nor is it necessary to impoverish the Universe by denying the pantheistic conceptions which are implied in the “indwelling spirit of God.” Every word said by Mr. Bradley on this aspect of the ultimate reality seems to me to be true; but not less true is that activity of the self-conscious being by which alone he converts his world into his own experience and establishes his “separate” individuality. It seems to me obvious that an Absolute which was not a person that is not a self-conscious individual could not be immanent in a world of objects or reveal itself in its processes.
Opposites may be complementary to each other.
Now these two aspects seemed to Mr. Bradley to be not only opposites but contradictory and therefore could be reconciled or even held simultaneously. Their co-existence as a matter of fact was a matter of which the intelligence could make nothing. “The immanence of the Absolute in finite centres and of finite centres in the Absolute I have always set down” he says “as inexplicable.” He cannot maintain the personality both of the Absolute and of man or recognize them as complementary; so he denies both alike.
Now what I would wish to make clear is that this mutual indwelling or possession is the condition of spiritual existence and of rational personality. It is illustrated and practically explained by the many ways in which the mutual participation takes place. The more a man enters the life of others the richer his own life. His uniqueness or difference from others is the greater the more he adopts and enlarges and carries out the ends of their common giver. Every deepening of unity in difference exemplifies the process. Science is quite familiar with the fact that “integration and differentiation” go together and are double aspects of one and the same process. The growth of learning or of spiritual power of any other kind shows the operation of the same tendency. As a man grows in wisdom experience becomes at once more consistent and more wide of range.
“Either-or” implies system.
Of course the fact is unintelligible if the “either-or” attitude of thought is final. But it is not. “Either-or” plainly implies “system.” That each points beyond itself is proved by the fact that each needs its opposite and exists only in virtue of it. Were it not for its relation to man the Absolute were not Absolute and vice versa. The Absolute realizes itself in finite centres; and more fully in that finite centres are spiritual and that man is man only in virtue of the indwelling of his God. The religious spirit is awakened whenever it apprehends this truth. It then seeks its own realization through obedience to God's will.
Whenever we have such mutual implication on the part of opposites we are in truth dealing with system i.e. with a unity that has neither reality nor meaning except in the different elements and with differences that are intelligible only when considered in their place in the system. And if we only follow our thoughts out we shall find that in the end everyone of our ideas is a system. Every sentence is a system every proof every theory every rational statement; and so is every fact. Rational experience on the one side and the Universe on the other is a system of systems. The relation of finite centres to the Absolute is but the supreme example of a fact which is universal.
Significant consequences of this view.
The importance of this result is great. It means that philosophy instead of finding in religion a self-contradictory and unintelligible fact discovers that religion attains as at a leap the results which it itself seeks by toilsome methods. The intelligence is always if its work is prospering finding some deeper unity amongst wider elements or new qualities and features in the unity. Here in the object of religion the unity is all-comprehensive and within it all differences are in the last resort harmonized. Religion teaches the apparently impossible maxim—“If you would save your life lose it.” “Give yourself if you desire to find yourself.” “Live! live the full and the best life. Attain an altitude where it is not you that lives but God lives and works in you.” But philosophy by means of its conception of an ever self-differentiating Absolute sustains the religious consciousness. It shows that religion so far from differing from or contradicting ordinary rational experience is continuous with that experience and differs from it only in that it is more complete and perfect. It is a very great matter for religion thus to gain the support of the enquiring intellect and it is a great matter for philosophy that its enquiries in the degree in which they are sincere and thorough support the religious view. The theoretical attitude then supports the practical attitude of man towards the Universe and he thereby attains the deepest peace and the greatest spiritual good.
“God” says Mr. Bradley “for me has no meaning outside of the religious consciousness and that essentially is practical.”12 And apparently theoretical inconsistency is of comparatively small consequence in religion. All that matters is that its tenets should prove practical. “To insist on ultimate theoretical consistency…becomes once for all ridiculous.”13
Practical and theoretical.
I admit the difference of the theoretical and practical though as a matter of fact they are both practical or purposive as I have already shown. But I cannot admit that what is theoretically unsatisfactory can be practically effective. We cannot act on ideas which we have detected to be mutually destructive. And if the last word which theory or philosophy can say of religion is that it is inconsistent then religion is left impotent for all practical good.
The difference of the religious from the philosophic attitude.
No doubt the distinction between the religious attitude and the philosophic is real. Religion like other practical interests (of which it is supreme) is confronted with its fundamental presuppositions only occasionally; while the philosopher so to speak is always fighting with his back to the wall and dealing with ultimate issues. In this sense a man's God is rarely absolute or all-comprehensive one with the nature of things or the ultimate living reality which expresses itself in the ever-changing universe. God is man's immediate help: in him is satisfied the need which happens to be urgent and imperative. He is man's leader in battle; or the judge between him and his enemies or his instrument of revenge. Is the punishment of the powerful enemy the primary need? Then he calls his God forward. “Let death seize upon them and let them go down quick into hell.…As for me I will call upon God; and the Lord shall save me.”14 God is at first the creation of the present passion—as we have seen; and it is only little by little in the course of centuries that he comes to represent the interests that are universal and to comprise within himself all the conditions of well-being. Inconsistency in rudimentary religion is thus in truth of little moment; but as the religious consciousness develops the demand that its God shall be perfect in every way infinite both in power and in goodness becomes more and more imperious. The religion of the future cannot afford to be inconsistent. It must justify itself at the bar of reason and prove that it has its place within “the universal system” and a function of its own if it is to maintain its hold of the practical life of mankind.
This demand for absolute perfection which an enlightened religion makes is met in Christianity by the conception of a God of Love who is also omnipotent. In him all spiritual and natural perfections meet. He is in Fact the same being as the “Absolute” of the philosopher. And both philosophy and religion would gain by recognizing this fact. But the Perfect Being whose attributes satisfy the intelligence has had comparatively little place in our religious creeds; and the philosopher on his part in contemplating religion has made little count of love or of any other sentiment or emotion. One reason for this fact is the misuse made of love by religious apologists. They have made feeling bear testimony to the truth of their religious beliefs. But to act as a witness is not the function of feeling. No judge if he can help it will give it a place either in the witness box or on the bench. He will not acquit or condemn a man because a witness feels that he has or has not stolen the article. And feeling whether it be love or hate can no more testify to the truth in religious matters than in secular. On the contrary it distorts blinds renders even the truthful man untrustworthy. Love can find every perfection where sober sight sees little but defects. It can arise from or attach itself to the most undeserving object. And the history of religion gives ample evidence that mankind has reverenced worshipped adored and loved all kinds of unworthy gods.
Nevertheless love has its own place and part to fill and a most significant function in religion; and I am inclined to think that philosophers have overlooked this fact. Neither the intelligence nor aught else can discharge that function. We would recognize at once the cold forbidding character of a domestic hearth where everyone completely understood everyone else but had neither love nor liking for him. It were the same in religion. Even had man that complete comprehension of his God or of the Absolute which philosophy seeks and the full splendour of the divine nature could break upon him unless there were love the attitude of man towards his God would not be religious. Men may know their God and fear him; instead of seeking him they may wish to flee and hide from him. But they cannot worship a “loveless God.” They recognize that “a loving worm within its clod” were diviner than such a deity. For love is one of those facts which has ultimate and absolute and un-borrowed value. Man may obey the divine commands from a sense of duty as demands made by an autocratic will; and God might care for the creatures he has called into being from a sense of justice. But religion does not come in till love enters and rules.
Now I am disposed to think that it is only on one condition that philosophy can conclude that God is love. It has to find operation of love amongst its data. And it must look to religion; for this datum is supplied most unambiguously by the religious consciousness. There love is simply all in all.
Let me illustrate. So long as natural science in its theological enterprises omitted to take any account of man it could not hope to find a God who was spiritual. Inert or dead matter the crudest form which reality could take was made the ultimate cause and origin of all objects. But when nature was found to imply a human or spiritual result as its own ultimate achievement then it had to be newly construed and a better idea of God or of the first cause than dead matter had to be found. Speculation started from fresh data. Amongst the premisses from which religious conclusions were drawn henceforth were the spiritual capacities and experience of mankind.
To-day both religion and experience enrich still further the data of the philosopher. By observation of that experience he discovers for the first time the function of love in uniting God and man. Only where love rules does the unity of persons attain fulness and the difference of “you and me” disappear so that the humblest devout man can say “I and the Father are one.”
But on this matter of the power and place of love in man's religious and secular life I am tempted to turn to the poets and above all to Browning who as a poet of love in all its sublimer forms stands alone.
Browning as a philosophical and religious teacher.
In endeavouring to estimate the value of his teaching I have asked “What then is the principle of unity between the divine and the human? How can we interpret the life of man as God's life in man so that man in attaining the moral ideal proper to his own nature is at the same time fulfilling ends which may justly be called divine?”
The poet in early life and in late life alike has one answer to this question—an answer given with the confidence of complete conviction. The meeting-point of God and man is love. Love in other words is for the poet the supreme principle both of morality and religion. Love once for all solves that contradiction between them which both in theory and in practice has embarrassed the world for so many ages. Love is the sublimest conception attainable by man; a life inspired by it is the most perfect form of goodness he can conceive; therefore love is at the same moment man's moral ideal 0and the very essence of Godhood. A life actuated by love is divine whatever other limitations it may have. Such is the perfection and glory of this emotion when it has been translated into a conscious motive and become the energy of an intelligent will that it lifts him who owns it to the sublimest height of being.
“For the loving worm within its clod
Were diviner than a loveless god
Amid his worlds I will dare to say.”15
So excellent is this emotion that if man who has this power to love did not find the same power in God then man would excel him and the creature and Creator change parts.
“Do I find love so full in my nature God's ultimate gift
That I doubt his own love can compete with it? Here the parts shift?
Here the creature surpass the Creator—the end what Began?”16
Not so says David and with him no doubt the poet himself. God is himself the source and fulness of love.
“'Tis thou God that givest 'tis I who receive:
In the first is the last in thy will is my power to believe
All's one gift.
Would I suffer for him that I love? So wouldst thou—so wilt thou!
So shall crown thee the topmost ineffablest uttermost crown—
And thy love fill infinitude wholly nor leave up nor down
One spot for the creature to stand in!”17
And this same love not only constitutes the nature of God and the moral ideal of man but it is also the purpose and essence of all created being both animate and inanimate.
“This world's no blot for us
Nor blank; it means intensely and means good.”18
“O world as God has made it! All is beauty:
And knowing this is love and love is duty.
What further may be sought for or declared?”19
In this world then “all's love yet all's law.” God permits nothing to break through its universal sway even the very wickedness and misery of life are brought into the scheme of good and when rightly understood reveal themselves as its means.
“I can believe this dread machinery
Of sin and sorrow would confound me else
Devised;—all pain at most expenditure
Of pain by Who devised pain—to evolve
By new machinery in counterpart
The moral qualities of man—how else?—
To make him love in turn and be beloved
Creative and self-sacrificing too
And thus eventually Godlike.”20
The poet thus brings the natural world the history of man and the nature of God within the limits of the same conception. The idea of love solves for Browning all the enigmas of human life and thought.
“The thing that seems
Mere misery under human schemes
Becomes regarded by the light
Of love as very near or quite
As good a gift as joy before.”21
Love thus played in Browning's philosophy of life the part that Reason filled in Hegel's or the blind-will in Schopenhauer's. He reduces everything into ways in which this principle acts. And it widens the outlook of the poet beyond the things of space and time and this life. Love not only gave him firm footing amidst the waste and welter of the present world where “time spins fast life fleets and all is change”; but it made him look forward with joy to the immortal course. The facts of eternity no less than those of time are love-woven.
So far as I can see the demand of philosophy placed at its highest is thus met by a religion whose God is a God of Love.

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