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Lecture III. The Christian Idea of God

IN the last lecture I endeavoured to point out in a general way what I conceive to be the function which reason and reflection have to perform in dealing with the materials supplied by religious experience. That function, as has been indicated, is to translate the necessarily inadequate language in which ordinary thought represents spiritual truth into that which is fitted to express its purely ideal reality. And the general reason for this inadequacy is that faith speaks, and necessarily speaks, in the language of one world, the world of sense and sight, concerning the things of another world, the world unseen and eternal. It presents the spiritual to us through images borrowed from the sensible and external, and it is only by rising above the symbolical or representative form that we can grasp the reality which they “half reveal and half conceal.”

It is impossible within the limits of these lectures to prosecute further the inquiry into the relation of faith to reason, or into the proper function of philosophy in dealing with Christian truth. The principles I have imperfectly suggested will, I think, be better understood by tracing their actual application to Christian thought. I propose, therefore, in this and the following lectures to consider, from the point of view I have indicated, the leading ideas or doctrines of Christianity; and I begin to-day with the most fundamental of all these ideas, the Christian idea of God.

So far from bringing God nearer to Christian thought, the doctrine of the Trinity has very generally, even by those who accept it as an article of the orthodox faith, been relegated to the region of the mysterious or unintelligible; and there are probably few who even attempt to construe to their own minds what it is they understand by this, the distinctively Christian idea of God. The conceptions of Natural Theology, the idea of God as the Creator, Preserver, Moral Governor of the world, and of the ‘Attributes’ of Power, Wisdom, Goodness, and so on, with which He is invested, do not seem foreign to our intelligence, for they are based on human analogies, and even where they transcend all finite parallels, they can be represented to our minds as only an indefinite extension of human qualities. Ordinary thought, in other words, finds no impossibility in representing to itself a personality who is simply a magnified man. But whilst a God who is a being like ourselves, only indefinitely larger and greater, is not beyond our apprehension, our ordinary notions of individuality, of personal existence and identity, are altogether baffled by the idea of a Being who includes in Himself a threefold Personality, into whose single self-consciousness is introduced a division or distinction that seems absolutely irreconcilable with individual unity. If by some easy intellectual device we contrive to think of the doctrine as not involving a direct contradiction in terms, yet the result for many minds, it is to be apprehended, is, that it is regarded as a metaphysical or theological enigma, and that, in their thought of God and their practical religious life, a deistic or unitarian conception of the object of worship is tacitly substituted for that in which they profess to believe.

Yet the attitude I have thus indicated is surely not one in which any thoughtful Christian mind should be content to rest. The doctrine of the Trinity is undoubtedly mysterious, in the sense that all things pertaining to the sphere of the infinite are mysterious, and that the mind of man can never exhaust the idea of God; but it may be questioned whether in treating it as an enigma there is not, under the appearance of humility, a culpable disregard of that light concerning the nature of God which this doctrine contains. The Trinity is the distinctively Christian idea of God, and it is scarcely conceivable that the new or distinctively Christian element should be, not light, but darkness, and that that by which Christian theism is distinguished from the imperfect theistic notions of the pre-Christian religions should be itself only an unintelligible dogma, a burden, and not a help to faith.

The obscurity or mysteriousness, which at first sight is involved in the notion of a Being who combines in His nature absolute unity with equally essential differences or distinctions, may be shown in a general way to arise from its very elevation and grandeur. Such a conception does not, as has been supposed, imply any self-contradiction; on the contrary, in all but the very lowest order of beings, and perhaps in them also, this union of different and even opposed characteristics presents itself to us, and it is just the highest natures in the world in which the departure from sameness or self-identity, and the combination of unity and diversity is the most strongly marked. The parts of a stone are all precisely alike, the parts of a piece of skilful mechanism are all different from each other. In which of the two cases is the unity more real?—in that in which there is an absence of distinction, or in that in which there is essential difference of form and function, each separate part having an individuality and activity of its own? In the one case the parts have no essential difference, and therefore no internal relation to each other, and their unity is merely that of juxtaposition or agglomeration; in the other case they are not merely stuck together, but they exist and act each for the rest; no one can fulfil the function of another, each is necessary to the others and to the whole which they constitute. In the former case the unity is that of blank identity or sameness; in the latter that of ideal design and end, of order, proportion, harmony, co-operation—the unity, not of dead matter, but of matter transfused and elevated by the presence of an ideal or rational element. In other words, we have here a unity which is higher and more profound, just because it is a unity which embraces, and which we are forced to think of as embracing many distinctions.

But there are higher unities than this. In the simplest form of animate life, and more palpably in a complex organism, such as the human body, there is brought before us a nature in which the unity is deeper and richer just because the difference is greater. That it is a higher and richer unity is obvious, in the first place, from this, that it is a unity which exists, not simply for you, the observer, but, in some measure at least, for the organism itself. The parts and members are not merely related to each other, but they feel that relation. The common life so suffuses them that each member suffers in the injury or suffering, is happy in the happiness and well-being of the rest. Moreover, they are not merely necessary to each other, but, though each has a distinctive character, they exist or maintain themselves, each by giving itself up or surrendering itself to the rest. Each member or organ maintains itself only by giving up any separate, self-identical being and life. It is for ever losing itself, only for ever to receive or find itself. Instead of ceasing to possess what it gives away, if it began to seclude itself or set up any independent identity, it would be marred or arrested. And on the other hand, the whole, the unity of the organism, has no life save in and through the life and activity of its organs; it maintains itself in communicating itself to them, and gathering back perpetually into itself the wealth of the life it gives. Finally, unlike the machine, the organism may be said to be, in a sense, its own creator. In the former, the end or purpose is in the mind of the contriver, and the unity of the mechanism is imposed on it from without, and is purely accidental to the materials of which it is composed. But in the organism there is a self-productive energy, a self-activity which works out diversities of member, form, function—differentiating itself by its own inherent spontaneity, and developing itself from the germ or embryo to the perfect, full-grown organic structure. It is not fashioned into completeness by any external force, but the idea or design, and the power to realize it, lie hid in itself from the first; it is the author, so to speak, of its own future, the potentiality of its own perfection is in it from the beginning, and it is the unity not only of all its parts and members, but of its own beginning and end, and of all the stages through which that end is reached.

And now, applying these considerations to the nature of mind or self-conscious intelligence, I think we shall find here the last and only perfect realization of the principle that the highest unity is that which combines in itself the elements of unity and difference. The principle, as we shall see, is one that is applicable to all intelligence, to mind as mind, but we may first view it as exemplified in its highest finite type, our own self-conscious being. In our earliest way of looking at things, every individual seems to be a separate, self-contained unit, having a being and life of his own, apart from all other beings, from all other individuals, and from the external world in which he lives. He may have manifold relations to his physical and social environment, but in the midst of all these he stands by himself, a separate, independent existence, a self distinct from all other selves, and which he could conceive to exist in all its reality though every other human being should cease to be.

Yet very little reflection is needed to see that mind or intelligence cannot be adequately described as a self-contained, self-complete unity. The pure abstract self-identity you ascribe to it is an illusion. The earliest dawn of conscious life, the first act by which mind or spirit becomes conscious of its own existence is the breaking up of this transparent, untroubled unity; and as it advances in conscious experience, it becomes, so to speak, the mirror in which the complexity and variety of the world is reflected. Every change in its environment, every object and movement of outward nature, every aspect and event of the social sphere in which it lives, re-produces itself in the ever-mobile susceptibility of mind. In its sensations, feelings, ideas, its whole inner experience, it is perpetually taking up into itself the play and movement, the infinite diversity of the world. Moreover, the seemingly indivisible self never remains for ever so brief a period the same. The current of experience is continually changing it. Every present affection of the self enters as a factor into the future self; and sometimes in the course of its history it undergoes changes which, it would almost seem, could not be more radical if the individual, instead of one permanent, self-identical being, consisted of a series of beings, each at every successive stage supplanting the former members of the series, to be again supplanted in its turn.

It might be urged in reply to this that we can conceive, or even that we are conscious of, a self that runs through or underlies all change and variety. I can conceive of a soul, a spiritual nature, endowed with capacities of thinking, feeling, willing, prior to the exercise of such capacities, existing behind them all, and before the outward world has begun to disturb the pure unity of its essence; or again, I can, nay must, conceive of my spiritual self as a substance that continues constant under all the changes of my outward or inward experience, a something I speak of as “I,” “Me,” which maintains itself through all the stages of life, and lies beneath or behind all passing ideas, feelings, volitions, present to them all, but identifiable with none of them. But the answer is, that this abstract self, prior to and apart from all objective experience, is an illusion. When you speak of mind as a unity endowed with capacities prior to and apart from the exercise of such capacities, what you are really thinking of here, is not mind or spirit, but the mere blank potentiality of mind, which slumbers in the unconsciousness of the embryo, the self which has not yet entered on the life of rationality or intelligence, and which, so far from being the essence of mind, is only that from which it must emerge in order to be mind. Or if you speak of the self as that absolute unity which runs through all outward and inward experiences, linking them together, yet not capable of being identified with any of them, it must be remembered that this blank spiritual substance or substratum of mind is a pure abstraction, a conception which, when we try to think it, slips from our grasp, at best a half-thought which, divorced from its complement, has no meaning or reality. For the very essence of mind or spirit is intelligence or self-consciousness, but self-consciousness is not conceivable as a simple, abstract unity. It includes of necessity two inseparable elements, a self or subject which thinks, and an object which is thought of—not to speak of a third element, the unity or oneness of these two. You can no more conceive of one of these elements apart from the other than you can think of a positive without a negative, an inside apart from an outside, a centre apart from a circumference. For mind or spirit to think nothing is to be nothing. When you have chased it to its ultimate retreat, you find that it is not a simple, self-identical unity, but that an element of dualism or difference is involved in its very essence.

It is here, then, that we come upon that thought of which we have been in quest—the organic unity of spirit, mind, or intelligence, a unity which is and realizes itself through difference. There is a sense in which it may be said of every living intelligence that it is not one but two, that there is another, a second self, in and through which alone it can know and be itself. Locked up in its abstract unity it is only a blank possibility of being; it needs another, a world of externality, in relation to which it may find itself, realize its hidden wealth, become reclaimed from nonentity. For it is easy to see that as the whole outward world passes into knowledge, there is not only a discovery of that world to the observing mind, but a revelation of the mind to itself. Shut out from nature and man, without a world of objects in time and space, without other kindred intelligences, without society and history, without the ever-moving mirror of the objective universe, thought in us would slumber in unconsciousness. Of the ideas that are awakened in us through the mediation of sense, of those conceptions of law, order, causation, system, which, as the revelation of reason in nature, are the realization of a kindred reason in ourselves, of those ideas of beauty which are brought to the birth in us by the objects and aspects of the material world, and of all that life of elevated thought and feeling in which imagination responds to the quickening touch of art, we should never, if isolated in our own individuality, become the conscious possessors.

And if we find ourselves in nature, still more profoundly do our social relations become to us a revelation of ourselves. Suppose a human being shut up from infancy in isolation from all other human beings, of how much would his nature be mutilated that is necessary to the very idea of humanity? One side of that nature would remain practically extinct. All that range of experiences which are possible only in the various social relations; all that is meant by such words as love, sympathy, admiration, reverence, self-devotion, patriotism, philanthropy; all that treasure of moral ideas of which we become conscious only through our relations to the family, the community, the state, would never emerge into being. To a human being thus isolated the creation of a brother spirit would be as the creation of a new soul within his breast: in the other's life his own would be reduplicated.

Finally, this principle is true, not only of the intellectual, but also of the moral life. It is only in relation to a world of external beings who are subjects like himself that a moral life becomes possible for man. For morality, or the moral life, may be described as the renunciation of the immediate, private, exclusive self, and the identification of my being with an ever-widening sphere of existence beyond me. The social environment in which I live, the corporate unity of the family, the civil and political organizations and institutions of the community or state, constitute a moral order external to me, but so related to me that apart from it my life as a moral being would be as impossible as the independent life of a severed branch or an amputated limb. What love, friendship, paternal, filial, fraternal affection mean, is that I have emerged from the void and narrow life of immediate, self-centred individuality, that my latent, sympathetic capacities have been liberated, and that another and larger life has begun to flow into mine. There is here a giving up or surrender of self which is yet, not the impoverishment, but the enriching of self. So, again, what benevolence, justice, patriotism, courage, self-devotion mean is simply this, that the private, personal self has expanded into a still wider and larger personality, that the pulse of its life has begun to beat with the play and movement of a richer, subtler organic life, and that the spiritual self has reached a yet fuller and higher stage of its evolution. Lastly, the escape from the individual self, the capacity of a universal life, finds its highest realization when the life of the individual is identified with the progressive life of the race. In the few nobler spirits to whom the brotherhood of humanity is more than a barren sentiment, in whom the love of kindred and country has expanded into an affection yet more comprehensive, and who have found it possible to identify their happiness with the welfare, the progress, the higher destiny of mankind—in these the nature of man has touched the supreme height of moral elevation, a point that can only be transcended when self-surrender passes beyond all finite limits into identification with a life that is infinite and eternal.

And now it remains for us to apply the principle we have attempted to explain to the subject before us, the Christian idea of God. That principle obviously is one that is applicable not merely to human intelligence but to all intelligence. It enters into the very idea and essence of spirit as spirit, and therefore into the essence of the nature of God. To conceive of God as an abstract, self-identical infinite would be to make Him, not greater, but less than man—to leave out from His nature elements of spiritual perfection and blessedness which finite natures contain. If we are to ascribe to God an intellectual and moral nature, if we are to think of knowledge, goodness, holiness as essential elements of His being, if we are not to deny to Him the perfection and blessedness which are expressed by the words love, self-surrender, self-sacrifice—then can this result only be reached by that conception which is expressed in the Christian doctrine of the Logos or Son of God—the conception of a self-revealing principle or personality within the very essence of the God-head.

The simplest way in which we can make this thought clear to ourselves is by considering that, regarded as a mere solitary, self-identical infinite, the nature of God would be a stranger to that which is the highest element of a spiritual nature—the element of Love. Without life in the life of others, as we have seen, a spiritual being would not be truly spirit. To go forth out of self, to have the hidden wealth of thought, feeling, action called forth in relation to other and kindred beings, and to receive that wealth back again redoubled in reciprocated knowledge and affection—this is to live a spiritual life; not to do this is to take from our lives all that makes them spiritual. But all this we leave out of our idea of God if we conceive of Him as an isolated, self-identical infinite, complete and self-contained in the abstract unity of His own being.

It is true, as I have already said with reference to our own nature, that we can separate in thought the capacity of love or of any other spiritual quality from the actual manifestation of it; and as we can think of God as possessed of creative power anterior to the exercise of it, so we can think of Him prior to the existence of all other spiritual beings, as having in Himself infinite capacities of goodness, love, compassion, of all those elements of spiritual excellence which are only revealed or become actual in His relations to the world. But what has been said of the finite is equally true of the infinite nature, viz., that an unrealized capacity is something different from, and less than, one which has become an actual, conscious, manifested reality. All the future plant is, in a sense, present in the germ, all the rich content of the cultured intelligence slumbers in the nature of the infant or the embryo; but the full-grown plant is something more and higher than the seed or germ, and the mind that has awakened to self-consciousness through the mediation of nature and human life, is something more and higher than the same mind whilst it is as yet only the blank possibility of intelligence. Nay, we may go further and say that, inasmuch as it is of the very essence of intelligence to be conscious of itself, and as that which has not entered into my thought is that which for me does not as yet really exist, so it is only that in me which has passed out of possibility into actual self-conscious thought that can be said to be reclaimed from nothingness. And this is a principle which holds good of all intelligence, divine as well as human. If therefore we say that in the self-contained solitude of the divine nature, apart from any actual relation to what is in a manner other than Himself, we can still think of all the treasures of wisdom and goodness as hid from all eternity in the secrecy of His being, the answer is that this solitary, self-sufficient God would be only a potential God. To be God, His knowledge must be eternally adequate to His being, He must for ever realize Himself in all the infinite riches of His nature. And this implies that there must be something to call forth that wealth, something to be known and loved by God, in order that knowledge and love may truly exist in God.

Can we think, then, of this finite world as constituting for infinite as for finite intelligence the medium of its self-realization? Have we here that second self of infinitude, in the knowledge and love of which the riches of the divine nature, its boundless capacities, are unfolded? There is a sense in which this is true—God reveals Himself to Himself in nature and in the finite spirits He has made in His own image. The capacity of love in the heart of God may be said to find a new channel for its outflow in every human soul; and in the responsive love which that love awakens there is something which we can think of as adding a new sweetness and joy to the very blessedness of the Infinite. Nay, seeing that love reaches, and can only reach, its highest expression, in suffering and sacrifice, and that the richest purest blessedness is that which comes through pain and sorrow, can it be wrong to ascribe to God a capacity of self-sacrifice, a giving up of Himself, a going forth of His own being for the redemption of the world from sin and sorrow?

Yet, apart from other considerations into which I cannot here enter, we cannot conceive of nature and man, of the finite world, as the adequate medium for the self-consciousness, the self-revealing knowledge and love of God. That which is finite can never exhaustively express or reveal that which is infinite; that which exists in time can by no indefinite prolongation of its life represent or reflect that which is not in time but is eternally perfect and complete. Even an original finite intelligence, a great human author or artist, is ever greater than his works; and to the end, the noblest productions of his genius leave within him, a world of ideas unexpressed, a fountain of thought unexhausted and inexhaustible. So, even the glory and splendour of nature is but the limited manifestation in space and time of an infinite beauty “which eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive,” and which can never fully reveal itself in the mirror of the material creation. And though it is true that there is what may be termed an infinite element in the nature of man, the infinitude of human intelligence is that, not of a nature that is without limit, but of a nature that is ever finding itself in that which limits it, ever advancing towards an ideal which it can never exhaustively realize. All of knowledge and goodness therefore, that has ever been attained, or that is attainable, by the individual or by the race can be only a partial and imperfect mirror of an intelligence and goodness which are limited only by themselves.

Moreover, if the finite world were the only medium of the divine self-revelation, it would follow that the nature of God is a progressive one, and that we can think of a past time when He was less, of a future when He will be more and greater than now. Not only must we think of a time anterior to the existence of the world when God was a solitary God, a being existing in the isolation of a still unmediated self-identity, and when therefore He was less perfect, less blessed than now; but seeing that the world has a history, that its intellectual and moral life is a progressive one, and that to the end of time there will be ever new objects calling forth new manifestations of the self-communicating love and grace of God—from all this it seems to follow that the nature and life of God must be an ever-growing one, and that, as for the finite, so also for the infinite nature, absolute perfection is a goal that can never be reached.

It is this difficulty which finds its solution in the Christian idea of God. If God be not merely the Spirit of the World, growing with its growth and partaking of its incompleteness, we must think of all that unfolds itself progressively in the history of the world, of all possibilities of truth, goodness, beauty, which are disclosed in time, as already comprehended in the eternal self-revelation of God. In the New Testament Scriptures there are several remarkable passages which bring before us the idea of an anticipation of the history of the world, “as it were under the form of eternity”; or, in other words, which represent the course of the actual world as only the temporal manifestation of what has existed ideally and eternally in the mind and purpose of God. St. Paul speaks of the spiritual destinies of the Church, not as the accidents of time, but as the revelation of a “purpose and grace which was given as in Christ Jesus before the world began.” Moreover, according to his view, the Christian redemption is not a device struck out to meet the spiritual exigencies of a fallen world, nor is the life of Christ a wholly new and unanticipated revelation of God. In his later Epistles and in the Logos doctrine of the fourth Gospel, the idea is brought before us of a Being or Personality transcending the limits of time, in immanent, indivisible relation to the very being of God, the mirror or image of the invisible thought and life of the Infinite. The language of religion indeed, and of the New Testament, as of other religious writings, is not that of scientific or speculative thought, but of ideas couched in analogical or figurative form. But when they speak of a Being who is “the image of the invisible God,” of an eternal Logos or Word who was “in the beginning with God,” and who “was God”; of a Divine “head of the body, the Church,” “in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily,” in whom “are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”; of an “only-begotten Son,” who was before all worlds “in the bosom of the Father”—our foregoing reflections may perhaps enable us to apprehend the principle which underlies these and other representations of things divine under forms and figures derived from things earthly and finite. We have spoken, for instance, of the world as the objective medium of self-consciousness, in and through which we become aware of the hidden wealth of our own thought and life. In the process of knowledge, slowly and gradually the world, so to speak, passes over into thought, and we spell out from step to step at once its meaning and the meaning of ourselves. But could we conceive of the whole realm of intelligence as gathered up or condensed into a single personality, and of a mind so enlarged or expanded as to be capable of grasping its significance, we should have before us perhaps what the New Testament writer seeks to express by the conception of an “image of the invisible God,” the living mirror “of all things created, that are in heaven and that are in earth, visible and invisible.”

In the purest and most elevated earthly natures, again, that suppression of a mere abstract individuality, that identification of two personalities in a deeper, richer unity, which is the true interpretation of love, is an ideal at best only imperfectly realized by us. Self-surrender, self-sacrifice, even in the noblest natures, never achieves an absolute victory over self-regarding impulse. But when the sacred writer speaks of an Eternal Son, “only begotten of the Father,” who loved him “before the foundation of the world,” who participated in the glory of the Father “before the world was”—they lead us, under the form of human relationships, to rise in thought to relations that are beyond the limits of time. They suggest to us the thought of an eternal past as the scene of the movements of an ineffable and boundless love, of an absolute reciprocity of thought and feeling in the life of the Eternal, of Infinitude yielding itself to Infinitude, of God as knowing and being known, loving and being loved by God. And perhaps in these images of things divine, we may discern the expression, under human analogies, of that principle of unity in difference, of that oneness of elements, distinguishable but indivisible, which we have seen to be the very essence of all intelligence, human or divine.

We cannot, however, fully develop the meaning of the Christian idea of God, as a self-revealing Spirit, until we have considered, as we shall proceed to do in the next lecture, the relation of God to the world.