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Lecture VI. The Relation of God to the World


I HAVE attempted to show that neither in Pantheism nor in Deism do we find a true or adequate conception of the relation of God to the world. That conception must be one which, without throwing doubt upon the absoluteness and infinitude of the divine nature, must yet be consistent with the reality of the outward world and the freedom and individuality of man. This condition is one which pantheistic and deistic systems, in opposite ways, fail to fulfil—Pantheism by the annulling of the finite world or its absorption in the Infinite, Deism by reducing God to a finite anthropomorphic personality. But though imperfect and untenable in themselves, these systems may be regarded as steps by which the mind rises to the true or Christian idea of God and of His relation to the world. All thought of God must be pantheistic in this sense, that it starts from the presupposition that God is all. Without breaking up the unity of the universe and falling into dualism, whatever reality or independence we ascribe to nature and man must be consistent with the subordination of both to the all-embracing being and power of the Infinite. The manifold differences of the finite world must be capable of being gathered up into unity, and its seeming anomalies and discordances in some way be reducible to the eternal harmony. All the higher forms of religion begin with the negation of the finite and with the idea of God as the Being who alone is—with the idea, in other words, that the world is nothing and God is all.

But the implicit logic of religion will not suffer thought to rest in the idea of a God who is all only by the obliteration of the finite world. The impulse that forces us to rise above the finite refuses to be satisfied with a merely negative Infinite. The pantheistic notion of the unreality and illusoriness of the finite world involves a self-contradiction. For, as already said, even as a mere semblance or illusion it needs to be accounted for; and that it is more than an illusion the capacity to detect its illusoriness is the unconscious witness. The mind that can look on the world from the point of view of the Infinite virtually asserts for itself something more than a negative relation to the Infinite. The contradiction thus involved in its thought forces it onwards in quest of an Infinite which contains and accounts for the finite instead of annulling it—an idea of God which, though in one sense the negation, is also the explanation, of ourselves and the world.

The deistic idea of God may be regarded as the first form in which this movement of thought expresses itself. In the notion of a personal Creator or Contriver, a self-determined, self-conscious Agent of infinite power and wisdom, who of His own will and pleasure calls into existence a world of order and beauty, we seem to have attained a conception freed from the inadequacy and self-contradictoriness of the pantheistic idea of God— a conception which seems to preserve at once the infinitude of the divine nature and the reality and independence of the finite world. Yet this view, when closely examined, is one, as we have seen, in which it is impossible for the human spirit to rest. It leaves religious feeling with aspirations and longings which are unfulfilled, and it creates for thought a breach between the Infinite and finite, which in vain it attempts to remove by an arbitrary and inexplicable act. The religious consciousness is not satisfied by a freedom which isolates it from the infinite object of its love and reverence. Alike in its conscious weakness and dependence, and in its boundless desires and aspirations, it craves for a closer union with God than that of the creature with an external creator, or of the subject with its distant and absolute ruler. Even Pantheism, in its absolute self-abnegation and its blending of the inmost being with its infinite object, brings a kind of satisfaction to the religious instincts which Deism fails to provide.

And it is not less impossible for thought than it is for feeling to rest in the deistic attitude of mind. In finding a place for the finite in the presence of the Infinite, Deism satisfies the consciousness of freedom, but it does so only by rending in twain the system of the universe. It lends a false elevation to its anthropomorphic God, by placing Him in hard, transcendent opposition to the world, and it leaves in nature, and still more in the finite spirit, elements which are in no inner and essential relation to Him. The gulf between the infinite and finite remains unbridged, till we can think of God as not merely above us but within us, as not simply the Creator but the indwelling life of the soul. Moreover the relation of the world to God remains still an unsolved enigma, till we can trace its existence not simply to the will, but to the very nature of God; till we can see in nature and man not the result of an arbitrary creative act, but the revelation of the very being and essence of the Infinite.

And now let us proceed to ask whether it is possible for thought to compass an idea of God's relation to the world which fulfils the conditions which both Pantheism and Deism fail to satisfy. Can we form an intelligent conception of God as a Being who is all in all, without sacrificing or suppressing the reality and independence of the finite world; who is not simply the external Creator of the world, but the inward principle and ground of its being; and who, finally, is related to the world, not by the link of arbitrary will, but by the inward necessity of His own nature? In answer to this question I think we shall be able to see that in the idea of God as Infinite, Self-revealing Spirit or Mind, if we examine what it involves, there are contained all the elements of which we are in quest. We shall attempt to show:

1. That it is Infinite Mind or Intelligence which constitutes the reality of the world, not simply as its external Creator, but as the inward Spirit in and through which all things live and move and have their being;

2. That by its very nature, Infinite Mind or Spirit has in it a principle of self-revelation—a necessity of self-manifestation to and in a world of finite beings; and

3. That the infinitude of God, conceived of as Infinite Spirit, so far from involving the negation or suppression of the finite world, is rather the principle of the individuality and independence of nature and man.

1. That Infinite Spirit or Mind constitutes the reality of the finite world is a proposition which conveys little or no meaning to the ordinary ear. But that it is not meaningless or unintelligible we may perhaps enable ourselves to see by considering that there is a sense in which, even with respect to human thought or intelligence, it may be said that it is mind or spirit which creates the world. It is, in one point of view, our thought in which the nature we know lives and has its being, our thought which redeems our world from chaos or nonentity. It is not a ready-made world on which we look; in perceiving our world we make it. The ordinary unreflecting observer seems to himself to be confronted by a world of realities existing in themselves just as he perceives them, and of which he is simply the passive spectator. All he knows of these outward realities, their permanent identity, their position in space, their forms, weight, solidity, etc., seem to him to be there as independant facts. The hues and colours are spread over mountain and meadow and forest, the woods are ringing with song, and the multitudinous music of winds and waves, of brooks and streams, is ever sounding and reverberating as though there were no ear to listen to it, and no conscious intelligence to apprehend and respond to it. The more cultured observer has, of course, got beyond such crude realism, knowing as he does that something at least of what the other ascribes to nature, exists only relatively to his own sensibility— that, for instance, the vibrating ether, the light waves or sound waves, might be propagated for ever through space, but that, if there were no organs of sense to receive impressions and no conscious intelligence to apprehend them, these material motions would never be transformed into light and sound. Nature would remain dark and silent; the radiant, vocal world of our sensible experience would have no existence.

But, having got so far, reflection cannot stop here. A large element of what before seemed outward fact is now seen to be contributed by the observing mind. What sense gives us is not a world of concrete, individual objects existing in space, but only, at most, the raw material out of which that world is to be created. It is one of the elementary lessons of psychology that the process of perception implies the active, constitutive power of intelligence, without which even particular sensations could not be individualized; and the bare data of sensation—visual, tactual, muscular, etc.—would give us no real information as to the individual, concrete existence of external objects. Even if our sensations could be determined, identified, distinguished, each from that which precedes or succeeds it, without the qualifying power of thought, these isolated, transient sensations would never constitute for us an ordered world of objective realities. Our consciousness would be but the stage athwart which flitted an endless series of fugitive impressions, chasing and obliterating each other, incapable of being correlated and combined into the smallest object of real knowledge, much less of being built up into the solid frame-work of the world as it exists for science. To attain this implies the presence of some permanent amidst the variable, some unifying concentrating principle amidst the flux of impressions, co-ordinating them into a coherent system of realities. Without this co-ordinating principle, we should be no nearer to an ordered world than a loose heap of printer's types is to a scientific treatise or an epic poem. And this constant amidst the variable, not given by them but above them, is something which sense does not and cannot provide—is, and can only be, the self-conscious, spiritual self, the unifying, constitutive power of thought. So again, it might be shown to be only a more comprehensive manifestation of the same principle, when we connect things or facts or mere co-existences and successions of events, in an ordered system of causes and effects, of uniform and invariable relations. And when the cosmos, the fair and ordered world, rises into existence before us, this is only another and higher result of the same process by which, at the very outset of experience, thought determines and correlates the data of sense.

It may be urged as a fatal objection to the view that has now been presented, that at the utmost it refers, not to nature itself, but only to our ideas about it. Even if it were conceded that the fabric of our knowledge of nature is built up by the activity of thought out of the raw material which sense supplies, still the result is only a subjective one. All this wonderful system, whatever its value, is only our thought or conception of the world, not the world itself—ideas about things, not things in themselves. No philosophy can argue us out of the conviction that there is a real world which our thought neither makes nor unmakes, and which would exist in all its reality without our existing to think it. It seems the very extravagance of idealism to make this objective, solid world only the phantasmal creation of mind. Nay, does not the admission that it is from what we have called the raw material of sensation that this ideal fabric is built up—that what we begin with is impressions which come to us from without, and which we do not create and cannot resist—does not this tacitly imply that there is a real material world external to and independent of us and our thoughts, of which our sensitive impressions are only the effects or reflexions?

The answer to this is twofold. In the first place, even if there were a world external to and absolutely independent of our thought, it is a mere identical proposition to say that that is not the world we know; the only world we can conceive is one the existence of which is not independent of the active power of thought. The existence of a world external to thought seems to us a possible conception, only because in our ordinary observation of nature, and even in our scientific investigations, we abstract for the moment from one factor of the process, viz., the mind of the observer, and deal with facts and relations of facts as if they were purely objective realities. But the least and lowest fact is not fact minus mind, fact stript of all relation to thought; it is fact observed, perceived, thought about—fact as it is in and for thought. The barest atom of matter is only a thinkable atom. The atom as it is in itself, or as it really is, is in relation to a thinking intelligence. And so, all things and beings, and all the relations which we discern as constituting the totality of nature—nature in its existence and its whole content—is not nature behind and apart from thought, but nature, so to speak, suffused with the element of thought. Nay, we can go further and say that any other nature is an impossible conception. To say that we can think an existence behind thought is a contradiction in terms. Even if there were such a thing as a world beyond thought, we at least could never know anything about it, not even the bare fact of its existence; for that would be equivalent to knowing what we do not know, or knowing and not knowing in one and the same mental act. Starting, therefore, with the presupposition of the independent existence of the world, and inquiring what contribution mind gives to the conception of it, we find mind claiming for itself successively one element after another, until at length the whole has been brought within its own province, and the last unresolved element, the ultimate residuum of a reality beyond thought has disappeared.

But, in the second place, the foregoing view implies no such absurdity as the denial of the existence and reality of an objective world, or the assertion that it is only the creation of the individual mind, coming into existence or vanishing when we begin or cease to think it. Philosophy does not evaporate the common-sense conviction that the world and all that is therein, the round ocean and the living air and the blue sky, the whole fair and wondrous order of nature, would be as real and fair though we, and myriads such as we, were not here to perceive and know it. In far-away solitudes which no foot has trodden, nature is not less fair and glorious than when it fills the eye and sense of man with its wonder and beauty. There are untold secrets of nature which as yet human science has not grasped, and in the illimitable depths of space there may be worlds and suns and systems which lie beyond the utmost scope of human observation. But to say this is by no means inconsistent with the assertion that a world outside of thought is a contradiction in terms. If, as we have shown, mind be the constitutive principle of nature, and if the only existence we can ascribe to nature is an existence relative to thought, then what this does imply is that something analogous to our intelligence, yet not subject to its transiency and imperfection—an infinite and eternal thought, in other words—is that in and through which all nature—the world of our experience, and all worlds in the unfathomable past or in the boundless realms of space, live and move and have their being.

Nor, it may be added, and as we shall see more fully in the sequel, is this Infinite and Eternal Mind the constitutive principle only of outward nature; it is the principle also of all finite minds, that on which all finite thought rests as its presupposition and as the element of its activity.

The uniformity of nature, we are accustomed to say, is the tacit presupposition of all scientific investigation. It is only on the presumption that there is an order of nature, a system of invariable relations, laws, sequences of causes and effects, that any attempt to know nature becomes possible. The rationality of nature, in other words, is the ground of any attempt to grasp it.

In like manner, and as a further extension of the same principle, all finite thought, every manifestation and movement of mind, implies and rests on the presupposition of an Absolute Intelligence. In all thought, even the most elementary, we tacitly appeal to an absolute criterion of thought, an objective truth or reality to which our thought must conform, and without which our mental activity would dissolve into chaos. When I pronounce anything to be true, I pronounce it to be relative to thought, but not necessarily to my thought, to my individual opinions or notions, or to those of any other individual mind. These constitute no absolute standard. From their very existence I can abstract, their thought I can think away. But that which I cannot think away, that to which in the diversity and conflict of ideas and opinions all minds must appeal as their standard is an Absolute Thought or Self-consciousness. It is, indeed, the highest prerogative of our spiritual nature that, when we think best, it is not our own thoughts we think—that it is possible to rise above ourselves as individual minds and to yield ourselves up to a Mind or Thought that is other and larger than our own. All intellectual and spiritual progress may be said to be measured by the degree in which we cease to think our own thoughts, abnegate all self-assertion, and let our minds become the pure media of the universal and absolute intelligence. Yet in such self-abnegation there is no pantheistic annulling of our own life as intelligent and rational beings. For the life of absolute truth or reason is not a life that is foreign to us. If it is above us, it is also within us. In yielding to it we are not quelling but realizing our own truest nature. For it is the freedom and the fulfilment of our spiritual being to breathe in the atmosphere of the universal life, to become the organ of the infinite reason. And the goal and perfection of our spiritual life would be reached, if every movement of our mind, every pulsation of our intellectual and moral life were identified with it, so that in isolation from it we had no life we could call our own.

2. We have seen, then, that Infinite Mind or Intelligence is not simply the creative source, but the inward, constitutive principle of the world, the presupposition of the being and life of man. But we can go further than this. Not only is it true that the finite world can be understood only in the light of the idea of God, but there is a sense in which that idea involves the existence of a finite world. In the nature of God as, self-revealing Spirit, there is contained, so to speak, the necessity of His self-manifestation in and to a world of finite beings, and especially in and to a world of finite intelligences made in His own image. If it be true, on the one hand, that, without the idea of God, nature and man would be unintelligible, there is a sense in which it is also true, on the other hand, that without nature and man God would be unintelligible. When, in the language of Christian thought, we say that all things exist “for the glory of God,” that “of him and through him and to him are all things,” that “the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead,” that finite spirits in their ideal perfection “are chosen in him,” i.e. in Christ, “before the foundation of the world,”—what such expressions imply is not merely that all things owe their existence to God's creative will and power, or even that the divine thought is the constitutive principle of all finite things and beings; but further, that God fulfils Himself, realizes His own nature, in the existence of the world, and above all in the spiritual nature and life and destiny of man; that, with reverence be it said, the very being and blessedness of God are implicated in the existence, the perfection, the salvation, of finite souls. Beyond the relation of the creature to the Creator is the relation of the spirit of man to Him in whose infinite life we participate, and whose infinite love finds in us its fulfilment and satisfaction.

That the existence of the world is involved in the very nature of God is, from one point of view, only the converse of what has been said above. If nature and man have the principle of their being in God, there must be something in God which implies the existence of nature and man, and which, without nature and man, would remain unrevealed and unrealized. When we say that the plant is related to the root or germ, not arbitrarily, but by an inward and essential necessity of nature, so that the former could not be what it is without the latter, we imply conversely that the root or germ has in it something which seeks its realization in the plant, and without the latter would remain unfulfilled and incomplete. So, when we say that, in its whole spiritual nature—its intelligence, its moral and religious life, the finite spirit rests on and is rooted in the Infinite, what we imply is that in the Infinite there is that which involves the existence of the finite spirit. If there be a divine element in man, there must be, so to speak, a human element in God, of which the whole spiritual life and history of the world is the manifestation. And that there is such a divine element in man we have already attempted to show. Our whole experience rests on the presupposition of an infinite ideal in us yet above us, of which science, art, morality, religion, are only the gradual and more or less imperfect realization. Our whole intellectual life, as I have above said, implies it. All knowledge involves a tacit appeal to an absolute criterion of thought an eternal truth or reality without which our whole mental activity would be baseless and illusory. All art, again, implies an absolute criterion of beauty, an ideal which does not come or go with the vision of the poet or artist, and of which his highest moments of inspiration are only partial revelations, and which, in the noblest products of his genius, he is struggling to realize. Above all, the moral and religious life presupposes an infinite ideal in us and yet above us. In our moral endeavours, in our religious aspirations, we have the consciousness of aiming at an end that is not of our own creating; we are claiming affinity with an object which, though we only dimly and imperfectly apprehend it, though it surpasses our highest attainments, is that in which we truly find ourselves and our true vocation, as spiritual beings—the mark of the prize of our high calling.

But, if this be so, if man cannot be explained without ascribing to his nature a divine element, it follows that the divine nature cannot be understood without ascribing to it a human element. A relation cannot be essential on the one side and only accidental or arbitrary on the other. If my whole nature rests on something in the very essence of the divine nature, if my life as a moral and spiritual being is not something in the air, an abstraction of my own understanding, a dream of my imagination, but the realization of an ideal which has its seat in the bosom of God, then without the existence of a world of finite spirits that ideal would be only an unrealized possibility in God. If we can claim affinity with God, if we are not merely His creatures but His children, then the filial relation on our part implies as its correlate the paternal on God's part, something in His very nature in virtue of which He is “Father of Spirits.”

But, that the existence of the world is involved in the very nature of God may be shown not merely indirectly, or by inference from the nature of man; it is implied directly in the very idea of God as self-revealing Spirit. In a former lecture I have shown it to be a principle of all intelligence, an essential characteristic of a spiritual nature, to be, not a mere abstract, self-identical unity, but a living process, a unity which realizes, and can only realize, itself by going forth from itself and returning upon itself. It includes in it of necessity two inseparable elements, a self or subject which thinks and an object which is thought of. Apart from a world of objects in and through which its hidden capacities of thought, feeling, action could reveal and realize themselves, a spiritual being would not be truly spirit, but only the blank potentiality of spirit. It is through the material and spiritual world around us that the latent wealth of the mind within us, its possibilities of knowing, loving, willing, are unfolded. A human being shut up from the birth in isolation from nature and society would never attain to self-consciousness. All that rich treasure of ideals, emotions, volitions, moral and spiritual energies and attainments, that wake to life at the touch of nature and kindred spirits, would slumber in unconsciousness. Especially do our social relations become to us a revelation of ourselves. Our social environment is not arbitrarily related to us, so that, so far as our own existence is concerned, society might as well not be as be. It is so necessarily related to us that we should never come to ourselves, our nature would be mutilated and suppressed, without it. All that range of qualities which are possible only through the existence of other and kindred natures, all that is meant by such words as love, sympathy, admiration, self-devotion, patriotism, philanthropy, would never emerge into reality. Apart from our relations to the family, the community, the state and its various institutions, no moral life would be possible for man, any more than physical life to a severed branch or an amputated limb. And with the highest moral life is connected the highest happiness possible for a human spirit. For the deepest and purest happiness is not that of a nature that is wrapt up in its own isolated individuality, self-absorbed, self-satisfied, self-sufficing. To go forth out of self, to yield up ourselves and receive ourselves back again redoubled in reciprocated affection, to live in the life of others and so to enlarge and expand our own, this is the true secret of spiritual perfection and blessedness. Nay, seeing that love can only reach its highest expression in suffering and sacrifice, the richest, purest blessedness is that which comes through pain and sorrow—the bitter sweet, the sweetness that contains yet annuls the bitterness of suffering gladly borne for the object of a deep, unselfish love.

Moreover, we have seen that this is a principle which applies not merely to finite intelligence, but to all intelligence. It enters into the very idea and essence of a spiritual nature, and therefore, above all, into the nature of Him whom we conceive of as Infinite Spirit. To conceive of God as an abstract, self-identical, self-sufficing Infinite, would be to make Him not greater but less than man; for it would be not only to deny to Him that which makes intelligence and self-consciousness possible, but to make Him a stranger to that which, as I have just said, is the highest element of the life and blessedness of a spiritual nature, the element of love. It is true indeed, as we formerly saw, that the highest manifestation of this principle is only to be found in 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 Godhead. But, as will be seen more fully in the sequel, the idea of God as self-revealing includes in it the conception of a revelation in and to the finite spirit He has made in His own image. The capacity of love, so to speak, in the heart of God seeks a 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. For there is a form of love which implies finitude, imperfection, moral and spiritual inferiority and want in the objects to which it goes forth. In our human relations to each other there is a kind of affection which involves, on the one hand, condescension, tenderness, pity, compassion, protecting and fostering care, on the other, dependence, submission, gratitude, reverence, trust. Nay, it may be said that the deepest, intensest form of love can only be reached and revealed not merely by the imperfection, but by the sorrow and sin of its object. We have not yet sounded the depths of what we express by the word until we think of a love which no ingratitude can exhaust, no unworthiness can alienate, no measure of infamy and degradation render hopeless of its object, or place it beyond the range of reconciliation and forgiveness; nay, more than that, till we can think of a love which, undeterred by the unworthiness of its object, will bear any hardship with and for it, and for which there is no measure of pain and sorrow and sacrifice to which it will not submit for the restoration of that object to goodness and happiness. So, in like manner, may we not say that there is something in the very nature of God which would remain unrevealed and unrealized, but for His relation to the world, and especially to the finite spirits He has made in His own image. The nearest human analogy by which Christian thought permits us to conceive of God's relation to us is that of a father to his children, and it is only in and through the existence of his children that the father's heart can be revealed. And in the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and Atonement, whatever else they mean, we find a sanction for the thought that in the nature of God there is a capacity of condescending love, of boundless pity and forgiveness, yea, with reverence be it said, of pain and sorrow and sacrifice for the salvation of finite souls, a capacity which has been, and could only be, revealed and realized through the sorrow and sin of the world.