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Lecture V. The Relation of God to the World


THE great problem, as we have seen, which all monotheistic systems have to encounter is, so to conceive of the relation of the Infinite to the finite, of God to the world, as not to tamper with either of the two elements involved in it, i.e. either with the infinitude of God, or with the reality and independent existence of the world. Can we include in one system of the universe a God who is infinite and absolute, and a world in which reality is ascribed to nature, and freedom and individuality to man? Pantheism solves the problem, but solves it only too easily. It reaches the unity we are in quest of by the simple expedient of annulling the element of difference, or reducing it to a phantom of the imagination. If nature and man have no more substantial reality than the baseless fabric of a vision, and their seeming reality dissolves away at the touch of rational or philosophic thought, the religious idea of a system in which God is all in all, is reached at a single stroke. But this, as we have seen, is a solution which cuts the knot instead of untying it, or which attains the required result only by ignoring or making light of one of the conditions of the problem. As in philosophy it is only a spurious solution of the problem of the relation of mind to the world which subjective idealism achieves, by reducing the element of objectivity to a creation of the individual mind, so, in theology, or the philosophy of religion, the reduction of the world to a mere subjective illusion is an expedient which evades rather than meets the difficulty it pretends to remove. If there were no other objection to it, there is still this, that, even as an illusion, the existence of the finite remains still to be accounted for; and further, that the intelligence which discerns and rises above the illusion cannot itself be comprehended in it, and leaves therefore the God of Pantheism with an element of difference still opposed to him in undissolved reality.

The natural reaction from a unity which rules out the element of difference is a view of things which, by exaggerating it, becomes virtually dualistic. In the recoil from a theory which swamps the finite in the infinite, the tendency arises to an excessive emphasizing of the independence of the finite world. In the endeavour to maintain the infinitude of the divine nature consistently with the ascription of any measure of reality to nature and man, Deism betakes itself to anthropomorphic analogies derived from the relations of man to the outward world—such as that of a human contriver or artist to the work of his hands, or that of a human potentate to his subjects. The artist is not identified with the materials with which he deals, or the result which he educes from them; yet, on the other hand, by manipulating brute matter into the expression of preconceived designs or purposes, by transforming its merely outward and accidental relations into ingenious adaptations of means to ends, by infusing into it order, symmetry, beauty, utility, he produces wonderful manifestations of power, wisdom, genius, which we might also call creative. So again, in the command of a human potentate over the wills and actions of his subjects—whether it be by outward force or by the domination of a great intelligence over other minds—we have manifestations of a kind of power, which we have only to conceive of as heightened to infinitude, to supply us with the conception of that relation of God to the world of which we are in quest. Instead of an Infinite who is merely the negation of the finite, an Absolute that is merely the negation of the contingent, we have here the idea of an omnipotent and all-wise Creator and Governor of the world. In other words, we have the idea of a Being who is not merely the blank correlate of an unreal and evanescent world, but who of His own will and pleasure creates a world in which His infinite wisdom and power are manifested. And, on the other hand, we have the conception of a world which, instead of being absorbed in the Infinite, has a reality as distinct from God as that of a human machine or work of art from its contriver, a freedom and independence as real as that of an earthly kingdom in relation to its sovereign.

There is much in this view of the nature of God, and of His relation to the world, which recommends it to popular thought; and so long as it is regarded simply as a figurative, analogical, or pictorial representation of spiritual things, it is of no little practical use as an incentive to religious feeling. But when closely examined, it is inadequate as a rational solution of the great problem we are considering; and it falls short of that deeper conception of the unity of the infinite and finite which, as we shall see, is the essential idea of Christianity.

1. It may be pointed out that there are obvious imperfections in the anthropomorphic analogies on which Deism is based. In the first place, an external contriver or ruler, even though indefinitely magnified, is not God, but only a bigger or colossal man; and there are elements in nature and man for which such a conception does not account. Even in the material world there are things which we cannot conceive of as made from without; and a made mind, a spiritual nature created by an external omnipotence, is an impossible and self-contradictory notion. A human contriver or artist deals with materials prepared to his hand. There are qualities in these materials, relations and laws which constitute their inner essence, of which he can only take advantage in shaping, moulding, fitting, constructing them into the piece of mechanism or work of art which he desires to produce; and when he has completed his machine, his power as an external worker is at an end. He must needs commit it to the custody of laws of nature, of natural forces and energies which are altogether foreign to the power that was at work in its construction—which live and operate within the thing, and without whose inner activity it would have no continuous existence. He may, it is true, at any subsequent time interfere from without with his own handiwork—touch it up where it seems defective, or modify or reconstruct it. But even here, his power, as external power, is limited. There is that in it which he can neither make nor unmake; there are in it qualities of extension, weight, solidity, relations of attraction and repulsion, and so on, which are not, and cannot be, either communicated or altered or subverted by any external power. It may be said, of course, that these are limitations which apply only to a human or finite designer, and which vanish when the designer is conceived of as the creator not only of the thing, but also of the materials out of which it is made and of the laws and relations on which its existence depends. But the answer is, that the corrective or supplementary idea by which we thus distinguish the omnipotent and the human designer, is an idea which cannot be reached by the enlargement of an external agent even to omnipotence. It is, in other words, when we examine what is implied in it, an idea which carries us wholly beyond the Deistic conception of God, and forces us to bring in an element altogether foreign to it—that, namely, of a God who is not an outside creator or designer, but an immanent spiritual presence, the inner life and thought of the world.

If we examine what we mean by the phrase, “creation of the world,” I think we shall see that even in the realm of inorganic matter there is something which it baffles us to conceive of as produced merely by an external creator. Power, however magnified, presupposes an object on which it is exerted, and without which it passes off meaningless and unthinkable as a blow aimed at empty space. You may have recourse, indeed, to the notion of the mysterious and inexplicable, and endow the Author of the universe with the power of “creating out of nothing.” But this is merely to solve our difficulties with a phrase. The gap between external power and material things, even of the lowest order, that have a nature of their own, cannot be bridged over by an arbitrary and inexplicable creative act. Even a stone has a distinctive character, is a centre of relations, a unity of manifold differences, the existence of which can not be embraced under the notion of almighty power, or conceived as imparted to it by an external agent. The relations that constitute the existence and nature of a stone imply, with reverence be it said, a God who from the first moment of its existence is in the stone and constitutes the inner essence of its being.

Now, if this be so even when we are dealing with inorganic matter, still more obvious is the limitation of the idea of external power when we try to make it account for organization and life. A plant or animal is causa sui in a sense in which a stone or a material construction, even though it be vast and complex as a planetary system, is not. Whatever the originating source of the existence and life of an organism may be, whatever the energy which correlates its members and gives rise to its growth and evolution, it cannot be apprehended as creating them or acting upon them from without. We are compelled in conceiving it to pass from external causation to the idea of self-causation or inner self-development. We must have recourse to something more than an external agent shaping and adjusting according to a plan or design in his own head, but foreign to the object on which he operates. We must conceive of an inner, formative energy which passes into, lives and breathes in the thing, inspiring the first minute germ or cell with the idea of the perfect whole, resisting, triumphing over, transforming all external influences into the means of its self-development. In other words, we are carried here beyond the Deistic Creator, dwelling in some celestial sphere and operating from above, to the conception of an immanent God, manifesting Himself in, and in a sense identifying Himself with, the inner life and being of the world.

Lastly, if we rise from nature to man, we are confronted with the conditions which the Deistic conception of God is wholly inadequate to meet. If a made matter or a made organism is an inconceivable notion, still more palpably unthinkable is that of a made mind, of a moral and spiritual nature created or constructed by an external agent. In thought, intelligence, self-consciousness, in moral activity and attainment, you come upon an order of things in which the very notion of an external relation vanishes, and the hard and fast division between the Creator and the created ceases to be any longer tenable. It is of the very essence of a spiritual nature that it cannot be originated or determined from without. Knowledge, morality, goodness, are not manufactured articles. Spiritual qualities are not things that can be rained into the soul or deposited in it ready-made. Ideas cannot be injected by a higher into a lower mind, or appropriated by the latter, save by an internal activity that is akin to, and in a sense one with, that from which they proceed. Moral character, again, is a thing which cannot be created or imparted. Not what I am, or find myself to be by nature, or am made or moulded into by any external power, constitutes my spiritual life, but what by conscious activity and self-determination I make myself to be. There are, indeed, certain elements which constitute the basis or materials of our moral life—a physical nature, appetites, desires, impulses, passions—and in a sense we can think of these as given or imparted; but if these in their immediate instinctive form constituted the sole spring of a man's activity, he would be little more than an animal. These tendencies, as they exist in man even at the lowest, are transmuted by his spiritual nature; and even so, it is by a struggle with them, by the awakened aspiration after an ideal end to which they are opposed, by the continuous transformation of natural desires through the energy of the higher self, that character is formed, and morality is developed. Now this process by which we rise out of nature into spirit, is one of which the essential condition is that it is free and unforced, that the activity by which it is produced is mine and not another's. The sphere of the spiritual life is one which no external power, not even a power conceived of as infinite, can invade. The power that could invade it would destroy it in the act. It is obvious, therefore, that we have here, in the very nature of spirit and the spiritual life, conditions which the Deistic analogy fails to satisfy. If God is to be conceived of as the author and sustainer of the life of the spirit, it must be in such a way that that life can be thought of as our own as well as His, as at once His and our own. His action must be not simply action on us, but action in us, losing the character of externality and becoming in a sense identified with us—the action not of an external creator or ruler, but of an inward inspirer, whose thought becomes our thought, whose will passes into our will, the light of all our seeing, the inspiration of all our doing.

2. Another aspect of the Deistic relation of God to the world, in which it may be shown to be inadequate, is its arbitrariness. To find in the idea of God the explanation of the existence of the finite world implies that that existence must be traceable to something in the nature of God and not simply to His arbitrary will. At first sight it seems to lend exaltation to our thought of God that we ascribe all things to His absolute will and power. It furnishes food for humility and reverence to think of Him simply as a Being who “doeth according to his own will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth.” We shrink from anything that has the appearance of imposing necessity on the divine action, or of a higher law or principle to which the divine agency must conform itself. Constitutional monarchy subjects the mere will and power of an earthly ruler to checks and limitations; but this arises, besides other reasons, from the weakness and imperfection of human agents, and from the inexpediency of making the welfare of a nation dependent on the caprice of an individual. If we could eliminate human imperfection and conceive a human potentate possessed of perfect and unerring wisdom, the need to canvass his procedure or to inquire into the reasons of his behests would cease. Sic volo, sic jubeo would in his case be reason enough. It would be the highest tribute to his greatness that we set no limit to his absolute power, but rather enlarge to the utmost the sphere of action in which his mere will and pleasure would be the ground of our obedience. In like manner, would it not lower our conception of God to think of His will and power as other than absolute? There may be much in His plans and operations that calls forth our intelligent admiration, but our highest tribute would seem to be rendered to Him when His works and ways pass beyond our intelligence, and are regarded simply as the expression of His infinite will. Is it not then a kind of impiety to ask for any reason for the existence of nature and man other than the will and pleasure of the Almighty, or to entertain any such notion as that God was under a necessity to create the world?

And yet when we reflect a little more closely on the attitude of mind which I have depicted, perhaps we may find reason to doubt whether it is one in which thought can rest, as an account of the relation of God to the world. In the first place, there is a sense in which it is no irreverence to set limits to the divine will and power, and to hold that there are eternal principles and laws to which even Omnipotence must submit. It is no more a limit to divine than to human power to say that there are things which are impossible to it—that, for instance, it cannot make 2 + 2 = 6, or transform a circle into a square. Neither in God nor man, again, is freedom a thing which excludes necessity. It is the lowest, not the highest nature, of whose actions no other account can be given than simply that it wills so to act. When you say of a human being that he does anything simply because he wills to do it, you degrade his action below the movements of a weather-vane or the vagaries of a straw tossed by the winds; for the latter are movements subject to conditions that admit of intelligent calculation. On the other hand, the more a human will is subjected to law, the less of caprice and the more of reason we find in its action, the higher and nearer perfection does that action become. And if we could conceive of a human spirit whose actions were necessitated by itself in so uniform and invariable a way that mere will as a principle of action was absolutely excluded, and its movements and activities had become as fixed and certain as the motion of a planet in its orbit, we should recognize it as having reached the highest ideal of spiritual excellence. The illustration here, indeed, falls short of the thing to be illustrated; for the conditions or laws to which a material object is subjected are something external and foreign to the thing itself, whereas the laws and principles that determine a wise and good man's conduct are part and parcel of his own true nature, in being determined by which he yields to no alien power, but is self-conditioned, self-determined. And it is just because the human will, even in the best of men, is not thus absolutely determined, because there is still some part of its activity which is unreclaimed from arbitrary caprice and is due only to lawless impulse, that the agent falls short of the ideal perfection of a spiritual nature. But when we turn to the contemplation of the divine nature and divine operations, it is just because we are here in a region where mere will and power account for nothing, are absolutely eliminated; and, further, because we can think of the conditions by which the divine will is determined as not external to but entering into the very essence of God's own nature, that we can ascribe to Him alone the character of absolute spiritual perfection.

Now the Deistic conception of the relation of God to the world, whether as Creator or as Ruler and Governor, is one which rests essentially on the notion of arbitrary will and power. It traces the existence of the world, not to anything in the nature of God, but only to an arbitrary inexplicable act, by which of His mere will and pleasure He calls a world into being. In the system of the universe there is an unbridged gap, a dualistic breach of unity, so long as there is nothing to connect the essential nature of God with the world He creates. To make the system one and unbroken, what thought demands is a relation between the infinite and finite, such that in the very idea and essence of the infinite there is that which requires and implies the existence of the finite, and in the very essence of the finite that which finds its explanation in the nature of the infinite. In other words, there must be in the very being and life of God that which calls for the existence of a finite world, and in the finite world that which has its explanation and origin, not in the mere will and pleasure, but in the inner being and life of God. When we ask why this world, with all its various orders of being, exists, it is only an explanation to the ear to say “God made it.” The true and sufficient explanation can only be that there is in the very nature of God a reason why He should reveal Himself in, and communicate Himself to, a world of finite existences, or fulfil and realize Himself in the being and life of nature and man. To discern this is to perceive, so to speak, that His nature would not be what it is if such a world did not exist, that something would be lacking to the completeness of the Divine Being apart from it—that, with reverence be it said, God would not be God without it. But the Deistic God, complete in His absolute infinitude, choosing to create a world which might as well not be as be, leaves the existence of the world an unsolved enigma, or explains it by a reason which would equally well explain the existence of any world. It leaves in absolute darkness the question why the infinite, self-complete, self-sufficient Personality should break through His eternal isolation, or by the creation of finite beings seek to add to an existence already infinite. It gives no reason why, if a world is to exist, it should be a world such as this—a world of order and beauty rather than of darkness and disorder; or why inorganic nature should not be its sole content; why life, with its infinite varieties of form and function and its boundless susceptibilities of pleasure and pain, should be crowned by intelligence with its capacities of knowledge, its moral aspirations, its possibilities of good and evil, its conflicts with self and the world, its insatiable desires and endeavours after perfection and happiness.

Equally obvious is the inadequacy of the Deistic conception when it represents the relation of God to the world under the analogy of the relation of a human ruler or potentate to his subjects. When we so conceive of Him, we are precluded from the idea of any other basis of authority than arbitrary will and power. For the ultimate ground of external rule is not reason or the intelligent recognition of the principles on which its commands are based, but simply the will of the ruler, exerted either directly in the form of physical force, or indirectly by rewards and punishments. A benignant despotism may condescend to explain the reasons of its behests, but in so far as obedience springs, not from submission to outward power, but from discernment of the reasons and sympathy with the spirit of them, the fundamental principle of personal rule is departed from. What the subject acknowledges and obeys is no longer an outward ruler, but a power or principle that is common to, and supreme over, both ruler and subject—the power of truth, goodness, righteousness, dominating the intelligence and actions of a moral and spiritual nature.

And the same is true of the relation of God to man. Even when we magnify the external potentate till he becomes the almighty ruler of the world, his rule is still an arbitrary one. If Deism permits us to see marks of intelligence in nature or in the providential order of the world, if it allows an appeal to conscience or the inner sense of what is good and holy and fair, it is indeed meeting an essential want of the nature which God has made in His own image; but in so doing it passes away from its fundamental idea of external and personal rule, and sets us on the search for a deeper conception of God and of our relation to Him—the conception of a Being whose nature and authority is one with the eternal principles of truth and righteousness, and of an obedience which is the intelligent submission to these principles, the recognition of their rational and moral authority, which is of the very essence of all spiritual natures. It is true, we do not need here, as in the case of intelligent obedience to an earthly potentate, to have recourse to the idea of an authority common to and above both ruler and subject, of a law of truth and righteousness to which God as well as man must submit. For, as I have already said, this law is not something foreign to, or outside of, the nature it controls. A nature absolutely controlled by it is, at the same time, a nature absolutely identified with it. God is truth, God is righteousness, God is love: they constitute His very essence; in being determined by them, He is self-determined, in acting out or revealing them, He is revealing Himself. And we too, in so far as we are emancipating ourselves from the control of impulse and appetite and entering into the life of truth and goodness, are determined by that which is not an alien authority but our own truest nature. In being determined by God, we are self-determined. The universal life lives in us. The eternal consciousness becomes our own; for “he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.” But in so conceiving of our spiritual life and its relation to the divine, we have passed beyond the Deistic notion of an external, personal God, to that idea of God and of His relation to the world which, as I shall attempt to show in the sequel, is the fundamental principle of Christianity.

Meantime let me only remark, in conclusion, that the Deistic attitude of mind is so akin to our ordinary habits of thought that we find it surviving and betraying its influence even under a religion with whose fundamental principle it is radically inconsistent. We seem to get nearer to God, when we can give no other account of any natural or spiritual phenomenon than that it is due to direct supernatural agency. A human contriver or artist is absolutely powerless to alter or modify the conditions and laws of nature under which his work is produced; and we seem to discern in the suspension or alteration of physical laws a power transcending all finite agency. We have a more vivid impression of the presence of a divine agent when we think of Him as not limited by any fixed and invariable conditions, as no longer “imprisoned in natural laws,” but as bringing about results of which we can only say, “ The finger of God is here.”

And the same tendency is manifested in the view we often entertain of the relation of divine agency to the moral and spiritual life of man. There are certain universal laws by which the thought and will of man are conditioned, certain processes by which slowly and gradually the individual passes from infancy to maturity, grows in the knowledge of himself and the world, and is disciplined into virtue and goodness. And on the larger field of history there is a certain providential order, according to which communities and nations slowly emerge from barbarism into civilization, by which each successive age becomes the inheritor of the intellectual and moral wealth of the past, the peculiar genius and character of a people is developed, and its advancement in law, government, social order, in science, art, morality, religion, is determined. But there is an invincible tendency in many minds to regard all this as the result of what is called natural law, and to look above and beyond it for the most signal and striking manifestations of divine agency. When we can trace the growth of a human spirit, its intellectual and moral development, to the influence of education or example, the force of circumstances, the teaching of experience, and the like appreciable causes, we seem to see in all this only the action of a natural and normal process, and there is nothing in it to awaken in us the sense of a supernatural presence and power. But when we are forced to brush all natural agencies aside, to rise, as we say, above “second causes,”—when we can think, e.g of knowledge as flashed into the mind by an immediate communication from above, or of a transformation of character as effected at a stroke by an instantaneous, irresistible, and inexplicable influence,—then we are impressed with an overwhelming sense of supernatural agency, and we see in the event the irrefragable proof of the presence and power of God. And the same principle, as I need not stay to show, governs our recognition of the presence of God in history.

Now, without entering here on any general discussion of the idea of the supernatural, and even without questioning the historical truth of events ascribed to supernatural agency, it may, I think, be shown that such events are lower and not higher manifestations of divine agency than the order of things we commonly refer to natural causes; and that the disproportionate value attached to them is due in a great measure to the survival, even in Christian minds, of the Deistic idea of God and of His relation to the world. It is because, consciously or unconsciously, we cling to the notion of an anthropomorphic God, a celestial mechanist or potentate, constructing and controlling from without the machinery of the world, that we receive such a comparatively vivid impression from supernatural acts and events. Even from the Deistic point of view, there would be some ground for the assertion that the suspension or alteration of physical laws is a feebler and not a fuller manifestation of divine power than their normal and constant action. The occasion for exceptional interposition with the mechanism of the world can arise only because something is to be accomplished which could not be embraced in the original plan, and which its designer can only achieve by special immediate acts. More ingenuity and power would be evinced in the construction of a self-rectifying, self-adjusting machine, capable, that is, of adapting itself to all possible circumstances and exigencies, than of a machine which served for ordinary purposes, but needed touching up and readjustment by the contriver on special occasions.

But the main source of the exaggerated importance attributed to what are called supernatural acts, lies in the Deistic notion itself. If the world had an existence absolutely independent of God, or if it were the product of another and independent author, then the suspension of its laws would manifest a power greater than that which dwells in these laws, interference with its order a power greater than that which creates and sustains that order. The arbitrary external agent would show himself more potent than the agent who carries on the ordinary course of nature. But if both have the same author, the exceptional interferences, as being by supposition not only few and rare but arbitrary and inexplicable, are inferior as manifestations of creative wisdom and power to the vast and coherent order, the uniform, constant, harmonious system of the universe. Nay, more than that, if, as we have seen, the idea of an external, anthropomorphic creator altogether breaks down as an explanation of God's relation to the world, if there is a sense in which we must conceive of God, not as acting on, but as immanent in, the world, as the inner principle of nature, the indwelling thought and life of man, then not only would the notion of special outward interferences involve the impossible thought of an external God acting on an internal God, or of God interfering with Himself, but it is a notion which drops away and disappears with the whole attitude of mind to which it belongs.