THE formula by which, in the language of Scripture, the self-revelation of God in man is expressed, is that man is “made in the image of God.” This formula seems to imply that, in the nature and life of man, the perfection and harmony of the divine nature is reflected. Human nature, though in one view of iton ly a finite existence in a finite world, is yet differentiated from all other existences in this respect that it is, in a peculiar sense, a manifestation of the Infinite. At first sight the conception which this formula expresses would seem to involve a self-contradiction. Can we conceive of a finite manifestation of that which is infinite; of a limited, conditioned, imperfect likeness of that which can only be thought of as unlimited, unconditioned, absolutely perfect? A larger nature may resemble a smaller: there may be identity of essence though the scale of existence be different. But can we say the same of natures that are essentially heterogeneous, the very definition of which can only be expressed by logical contradictories? A smaller circle may represent a larger in respect of its circularity, but a circle, small or large, cannot be the image of a square. A stone may be the image of a huger piece of inorganic matter, a geological specimen of the structure of a mountain, but dead matter can never portray the nature of a being in which is the essentially different element of organic life. But is it not of the very essence of the nature of God that it contains elements essentially heterogeneous to the nature of man? Do not the attributes we commonly ascribe to God, such as self-existence, eternity, omni-presence, immutability, omnipotence, express ideas that are essential to His nature, without which He would cease to be God? And how can we conceive of these as reflected or imaged in a being who is mortal and mutable, who exists in time and space, who begins to be and passes away, and who, as regards at least one side of his nature, is but a transient link in the vast system of material causes and effects in which he finds himself and by which his individuality is infinitely transcended?
If it be said that the likeness to God, which is expressed in the phrase “image of God,” is that which pertains, not to man's outward and physical, but to his spiritual nature, that the principle or essence that is common to the two natures is spirit—the principle of intellectual and moral life—is not this interpretation encountered by equally obvious difficulties? Can we separate the material and spiritual elements in man's nature, so as to conceive of a life pertaining to the one in which the other has no part? Could the soul be what it is apart from the body, or the body apart from the soul? Man is not a mere combination of two essentially different substances, so that what is denied of the one can be affirmed of the other. Soul and body, the immaterial and the material, are not to be thought of as existing side by side, or for a time artificially connected, so that you could conceive of man as if, in virtue of the former, he were a pure unembodied spirit, and attribute to him, in this point of view, a resemblance to God which is foreign to his corporeal or animal nature. The spiritual and corporeal are rather inwardly related moments or elements reciprocally implicated with each other in the unity of man's nature and life; you cannot divide or abstract his intellectual and moral life from his sensitive and corporeal, or from the impulses, desires, passions that spring out of the latter, and yet leave to the former all that it essentially is. Without the materials supplied through sense to spirit, human intelligence would be reduced, at best, to a mere blank or blind potentiality; without the presence of conscious intelligence, the body would be nothing more than a mechanical or chemical combination of material atoms and forces, or, at best, the organ of appetites and impulses no higher than those of the lower animals. Our moral life takes its special complexion from the inseparable relation between what we term our higher and our lower natures; our impulses, desires, passions, are what they are because the conscious self is present to and in them; and whether it yields itself up to them or rises above them, the result is one which is in some way conditioned by them. Moral action is not the pursuit by a purely spiritual nature of an abstract moral ideal. Without the materials which the impulses and passions supply, the moral ideal, if it could be conceived to exist, would exist in a vacuum. Even in so far as virtue consists in the denial or subjugation of the lower impulses, they must be there to be denied. The attempt to reach a moral perfection by holding ourselves aloof from the natural desires is the vain endeavour to attain a perfect moral life, in abstraction from that without which no moral life, good or bad, is possible.
How then, it may be asked, can a Being of whom we can only think as an Infinite Spirit, “without parts or passions,” be the prototype of one in whose nature and life the sensuous or corporeal element is inextricably involved? If, on the one hand, we cannot think of the divine nature as subject to the limitations and conditions of sense, or connect with our idea of it the impulses and passions that have their origin in the animal nature, or the moral conflicts to which these give rise; and if, on the other hand, we cannot think of man's nature without these conditions, is not the proposition that man is made in the image of God reduced to a contradiction in terms?
Finally, if we may not say that man's nature involves the necessity, it at least involves the possibility, of sin. Whatever may be said for the notion of the actual existence of evil as implied in the moral development of a finite nature, every step in that process implies a conscious self-determination to one of many possible objects or ends, a conscious identification of our will with one object or end which we conceive of as our good, and therefore the possibility of an opposite alternative. Moral freedom does not mean an unmotived will, but a will which has in it the power of self-determination and therefore of wrong determination. Goodness, in short, would lose its essential character if our nature were incapable of evil. How then can a nature of which this is an essential characteristic be said to be the image of a nature absolutely good and to which not only evil, but the capability of evil, must be thought of as impossible?
Such are some of the difficulties involved in the Biblical idea of man as made in the image of God. That they are not insuperable, that the idea, on the contrary, is one which a philosophy of religion must regard as profoundly true, there are, I think, certain considerations which may lead us to see.
1. In the first place, it is to be considered that what this idea points to is not the initial or original, but the ideal perfection of man's nature. It is human nature interpreted, not by what it immediately or actually is, but by what it is capable of becoming. Theologians have often indulged in imaginary pictures of an original perfection of man. Either from a misinterpretation of the Biblical account of the paradisaical state, or from the popular notion that only what is perfect can have proceeded from the hand of God, and that evil therefore can only be conceived of as the corruption of a nature originally good and pure, they have represented the human race as degenerating from a primeval state of perfection and blessedness, and have endowed its progenitors, as they came from the Creator's hand, with all conceivable attributes of physical and moral excellence. To render man adequate to the idea of a being made in the image of God, they must needs ascribe to him a perfect soul with a perfect body as its organ. He must from the beginning have been the happy possessor of a physical frame of flawless beauty, symmetry, and strength, of an intelligence of commanding ability, miraculously gifted with knowledge independently of the later processes of observation and experience, and of a will in perfect command of the passions and in absolute harmony with the will of the Creator. Anticipating, in short, the slow results of individual effort, and of the laws that condition the progressive development of the race, in this fancy picture the first representatives of mankind are supposed to emerge into existence full-fledged specimens of humanity, equipped with the wisdom of the sage, the exalted virtue of the hero, the piety and holiness of the saint.
It needs little reflection to see that this day-dream of primitive perfection is devoid alike of historical and of rational authority. In the first place, it has no basis in the inspired record on which it professes to rest. It is not to man as originally created that likeness to God is exclusively ascribed in the Old and New Testament Scriptures. However we are to conceive of the paradisaical state, it is represented as prior to that “knowledge of good and evil,” without which moral action cannot really exist, and goodness can, at most, be only the unconscious innocence of childhood. Though, again, the act of disobedience by which this knowledge comes is depicted as a retrogression, it is, on the other hand, described as an advance; though it loses one kind of likeness to God, it marks the rise of another: “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” And finally, the highest form of Godlikeness, according to the Scripture representation, is neither man's primitive state nor the restoration of that state. A return to forfeited innocence, a recovery of the unconscious harmony of nature which sin has broken up, is impossible. The angel with the flaming sword guards inexorably the gates of the lost Eden. But the discord which sin has introduced is but the transition step to a more glorious harmony. Out of the death of nature rises a higher and nobler life. On the soul that has passed through the terrible experience of evil, and, through the redemptive power of the Christian faith, has triumphed over it, there begins to be impressed a likeness to God, far surpassing in spiritual beauty the lost image of Paradise. “Ye have put on,” writes the Christian apostle, “the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him.” And this image, never more to be obliterated, transcends the first, as reason and consciousness transcend the unconscious innocence of nature; for “the first man Adam was made a living soul, the last Adam was made a quickening spirit; howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural.”
But not only is the notion of an original or pristine perfection based on a misinterpretation of the Scripture record; it is in itself irrational and untenable. It is of the very essence of a spiritual nature that its ideal perfection cannot be an immediate gift of nature, but must be wrought out by its own conscious activity. Not what I am by nature constitutes my true spiritual life, but what, in the exercise of my own thought and will, I have made myself to be. For, as I have suggested in a former lecture, neither knowledge nor goodness can be produced ready-made or created at a stroke. A mind starting into existence fully developed and furnished with knowledge is a self-contradictory notion; for we cannot conceive of mind as a passive receptacle in which ideas are deposited. Ideas can become the possession of the mind only by a process in which a subjective activity is involved. A higher mind cannot simply make over its intellectual wealth to another, apart from an apprehensive or appropriating activity akin to its own. And the same may be said, not only of the mind's content, but of the mind itself. What we mean by such terms as ability, talent, intellectual power, cannot from the nature of the thing be conceived of simply as an original gift or endowment. Intelligence that has not yet exerted itself on the external materials of knowledge or begun to realize itself through converse with an objective world, is, at the utmost, only the abstract potentiality of intelligence; and though we may speak of an individual mind as of ‘great natural capacity,’ as ‘dowered with the gifts of genius,’ what we speak of can exist at first only as a latent possibility, hidden from itself and the world, which can become a reality only by action and reaction with its environment in nature and human society.
And the same principle holds good of man's moral nature. Moral character is not a thing which can be created wholesale or independently of the self-determination of the subject. That which is natural, instinctive, spontaneous, possesses no moral worth. Moral beauty cannot, like physical, be a gift of nature. A beautiful soul is a work of art, but in this case the work and the artist are one. At most, nature can only supply the materials, the natural desires and impulses on which the artist works, and which are to be transformed into spiritual beauty. Even when these desires and impulses have an outward semblance of what is good and fair, that which we call ‘natural amiability,’ in so far as it is instinctive, has no more moral value, no nearer approximation to moral beauty, than the loveliness of a flower or the gentleness and playfulness of an animal. To acquire that value, thought must put itself into these natural tendencies, reason and will must mould and transform them. Nature, indeed, may be said in one sense to have her own works of art. As every plant and flower, every living organism gathers up into itself the germinating influences of earth and air and moisture and light and heat, and slowly elaborates from the matter of the inorganic world the membered and fully developed totality which constitutes its ideal perfection—in producing this result, nature may be said to be anticipating in her own domain that self-creating power which is the prerogative of spirit. But the distinction is that nature here, if an artist, is a blind unconscious artist. Neither the idea at which she aims, nor the process by which it is achieved, exists for herself, but only for an intelligence that observes her operations. The seed or germ is not conscious of itself or of its own future, nor does it by any conscious effort seek to realize it. And though there is in the work of nature a mimicry of the higher work of spirit, there is yet an utter absence of that which gives to the spiritual creation its distinctive character and worth. For of the latter this is the essential characteristic, that it rises above that which it immediately is, to apprehend more or less clearly the idea of what it ought to be—above the narrow, bounded, finite sphere in which it exists as a thing of nature, to lay hold by the spiritual imagination of that image of God, that infinite perfection which it is destined to share—and that every actual approximation to that ideal is gained as the result of conscious aspiration and endeavour.
2. But whilst thus the ideal perfection of man's nature, which is expressed in the phrase, “image of God,” is to be looked for, not at the outset, but at the final stage of the spiritual life, there is a sense in which it belongs to the original constitution of man's nature. Last in time, it is first in thought. The principle, the self-realizing idea out of which all the phenomena of man's historical life flows, is present in it from the beginning. And though we reject the notion of a primitive state of perfection, yet, even at the earliest stage of his life as a spiritual being we must conceive of that idea as manifesting its presence and power. In a great work of art there is a sense in which the idea of the perfect whole is present and operative from the beginning—in the first prelusive note of the great symphony, in the first line of the great epic or dramatic poem, in the first touch of the master's hand impressed on the canvas or the marble. The idea of the future plant, again, or of the perfect organism, is present in the germ or seemingly structureless cell, not indeed as a miniature or microscopic copy of it, but as the productive principle, the prophetic anticipation of its future. So, again, we say that the child is father to the man; that the power that makes the philosopher, the poet, the hero, lies latent in him from the dawn of his conscious life, ere education and the discipline of life have begun to elicit it; nay, that though, for lack of such external influences, it may never come to the birth, yet there, in the hidden spirit and being of the man, the unrealized ideal of human greatness is present. In like manner, whatever be the actual or immediate phenomena of man's empirical life, it is the presence and power of the idea of his nature, as made in the image of God, that gives to his whole life and history its distinctive character and significance. What, then, let us now briefly ask, are we to understand by that idea? In what does man's likeness to God consist?
It consists, I answer, in general in this, that as God is the Infinite Self-revealing Spirit, so in the very essence of man's nature as spirit there is a reflexion of the spirituality, and, in one sense, of the infinitude of God. At first sight it seems extravagant and self-contradictory to speak of man's nature as infinite or as containing an infinite element. Outwardly regarded, man is but a part of nature, subject to its conditions, sharing in its limitations. He is but an atom in a boundless world, occupying but a limited portion of space and a brief section of time; changeful, transient, mortal, determined physically in all his states and changes by relations that are independent of his will—by laws that are common to him with material nature, and by appetites, wants, impulses, passions, which he shares with the lower animals. Even with respect to his spiritual nature, his intelligence, affections, will, can we speak of him as other than finite? His consciousness seems to be determined through and through by its relation to his bodily organization. The thoughts, emotions, volitions, which form the content of his conscious life are correlated to physical changes or motions in the brain and nervous system, and the healthy or morbid action of the mind seems to depend on the normal or abnormal state of a purely material substance. Moreover, it is, as we have seen, of the very essence of human knowledge and goodness that it should be, not an immediate possession, but the result of a process of effort and growth. Even at the best, therefore, intellectual and moral attainment can only in man be imperfect. We never are that which we may or ought to be. The sense of our finitude is forced on us anew at each step of our progress, as the intellectual and moral horizon expands before us; and from the nature of the thing, it is deepest in the highest and noblest minds.
Yet, on the other hand, in whatever way we may explain its relation to our finite and temporal nature, there is another element or aspect of our being, to which in the truest sense of the word the predicate ‘infinite’ may be applied—that element which constitutes the principle of our whole spiritual life, the source of all knowledge, morality, religion. There is that in us as spiritual beings which rises above the limits of time and space; which, as the presupposition of our knowledge of nature, is not subject to the conditions of nature and of our own natural experience; which is, in one sense, uncaused, uncreated, unconditioned, having no temporal beginning or end, and of which we can think, not as that which is created by God regarded as an outward omnipotent power, but as the reproduction or reflexion of His own eternal consciousness and life.
The existence of this infinite element in man's nature may be established on various grounds.
1. It is implied in that very sense of finitude, limitation, imperfection, of which I have just spoken. It is only through the infinite in man that he can become aware of his finitude. It is the ideal in us that reveals the imperfection of the actual. If man were wholly finite, he would not know his finitude. Knowledge by the finite of its finitude is, indeed, a self-contradictory notion. Finitude means limitation by that which is outside of or beyond the finite object. A prisoner, who knew nothing of a world beyond his cell, would be unconscious of his confinement and incapable of the sense of bondage. So, if man's consciousness fell wholly within himself, the narrowness or limitation of his actual existence would be unfelt and unknown; and, on the other hand, the fact that he knows and feels his finitude is itself the proof that he is not wholly finite. In all spheres of human attainment, in knowledge and action, in science, art, morality, the sense of inadequacy and imperfection betrays the presence in us of an ideal element, a standard of perfection with which our empirical life is contrasted. In the very beginning of knowledge, there is a sense in which the mind has already grasped the goal or end of perfect science and is conscious of its own essential relation to it; and it is this that is the secret of the unrest and dissatisfaction to which error and imperfect knowledge give rise.
It would, indeed, be absurd to say that there is a conscious recognition of this idea in every mind from the outset of its intellectual life, or that the pain of ignorance and error is due to the conscious falling short of an infinite standard. But unconscious or vaguely cognizant as the mind may be of the ultimate basis of its own activity, it is nevertheless true that in all thought, even the most elementary, we presuppose an absolute criterion of thought, an ideal of knowledge, to which our individual thoughts and opinions must conform themselves; and that all our knowledge is only the gradual realization of that self-consistent whole of truth which, from the first movement of intelligence, it presupposes. But for this ideal, the dissatisfaction with all past attainments, the perpetual endeavour to advance beyond our limits, would have no meaning; and it is to this infinite ideal ever hovering before us, and implicated with the very essence of our intelligence, that the unquenched and unquenchable thirst for knowledge is to be traced.
And the same principle applies to our moral endeavours and attainments. The whole meaning of our moral life, and especially of the sense of imperfection and sin—our inward conflicts, our penitence, remorse, self-condemnation—lies in this, that there is in us, part and parcel of our spiritual nature, an ideal of excellence whose infinite claims we are in our actual life falling short of or denying. If we were wholly finite, creatures of finite desires, capable only of finite satisfactions, there would be no such experience as that of moral unrest and self-reproach. In the merely animal life there is no such experience. The animal is wholly identical with its impulses and satisfied in their satisfaction. In yielding itself to them it has no sense of bondage, no consciousness of a higher life unfulfilled. If man were wholly finite, if finite desires and appetites were the beginning and end of his being, these being satisfied, he would be satisfied. There would be for him no fretting against the limitations of life, no horror of the death that ends it. But it is of the very essence of a spiritual nature that it is capable of a life that transcends all finite desires, and which manifests itself, if not otherwise, at least in the disquietude, the unhappiness, the self-contempt of a life of merely animal and sensuous indulgence.
2. But it is not merely negatively, or by the consciousness of limitation, that the infinite element in man's spiritual nature betrays its presence. As spiritual, self-conscious beings, we are not merely conscious of our limits, but conscious also of the power to transcend them; we are capable of identifying ourselves with an end which is essentially infinite. There are two aspects in which man's nature can be contemplated, in one of which he is like, in the other unlike, all other finite existences. In the former aspect, he can view himself as simply one amongst the innumerable objects to which his observation is directed. As he can observe and examine the other existences in the external world, classify them, discern the laws which regulate their changes and relations, so he can regard himself as a single object amidst other objects, observe the facts and phenomena of his individual nature, physical and mental, his bodily organization, his sensitive and intellectual capacities; and out of the materials thus collected he can create sciences of anatomy, physiology, and psychology. But in so dealing with himself and other objects, there is one essential distinction which, thus far, he has left out, namely, that he is not simply one object amidst a multiplicity of objects in the universe, but that he has in him the principle in and through which he himself and all other individual objects have any existence or meaning. He is not merely one amongst innumerable objects observed and thought of, but he has in him that principle of thought to which all objects are relative and which all objects and sciences of objects presuppose. The sciences of observation abstract, and for their purpose necessarily abstract, in dealing with the outward facts and phenomena of nature, from that principle which is yet implicit and active in all the processes and methods of science—relation to the observing, thinking intelligence. And even when it is man himself that is the object of observation, the whole materials of a science of body and mind exist only in relation to the principle of thought or self-consciousness, which transcends as well as apprehends them.
Now, if we reflect on what is involved in this distinction, we shall see, I think, that it implies in man, as intelligence, that which raises him above nature, above all other finite existences, in one sense, above himself, and renders him essentially akin to the infinite source of all finite being. For it is obvious that that which is presupposed in the knowledge and even in the existence of finite things, cannot itself be one of them and nothing more. When we create sciences of nature, observe facts and events in space and time, apprehend their relations of co-existence and succession, the thought or intelligence that performs this function must be something which, as it is presupposed in all these finite objects and relations, cannot be included in them, but must needs itself rise above them. That, for instance, which grasps and correlates objects in space, cannot itself be one of the things in space; that which apprehends and connects events as succeeding each other in time, must itself stand above the succession or stream of events. In being able to measure them it cannot be flowing with them. There could not be for self-consciousness any such thing as time, if it were not, in one aspect of it, above time; if it did not belong to an order which is or has in it an element that is eternal. Our knowledge is indeed a thing of time in the sense that it is progressive, acquired by successive steps—in the sense, in other words, that it takes time to think. But, as taken up into thought, succession is not itself successive; the successive events enter into a region in which they are stript of the form of time, and are present simultaneously, in purely rational relations, to the mind that thinks them.
So, again, when it is our own individual nature and life that is the object of thought, the principle by which we know ourselves as individuals cannot pertain to us as individuals. We think, not as merely individuals, but as standing above our individuality, rising into a universal point of view from which we can survey our own transient, finite existence in common with that of all other finite things and beings, and in virtue of which we can pronounce it to be transitory and finite. And, in general, of our relation to the realm of truth or knowledge it may be said that it does not pertain to us as individuals. The truth I apprehend is not true for me as this particular being; it is true for all intelligence, and for me as entering into the universal life of intelligence. It is true, not as my opinion, but as God's truth, and for me as capable of participating in the universal, eternal mind.
Moreover, though it is true that infinitude can never pertain to man, in the sense in which it pertains to the mind for which the ideal and actual are one, in which the whole of truth is grasped intuitively and as a completed reality, yet it does pertain to him in the sense that that completed whole of knowledge is for every intelligence a virtual possession.
From one point of view, knowledge is a neverending advance into a realm that stretches far and for ever beyond us; yet, from another point of view, we can claim that illimitable future of knowledge as not a foreign territory, but a realm that is our own. For, in every advancing step of knowledge we are not conquering what belongs to an alien power, but realizing ourselves, reclaiming an inheritance which from the first is not merely our own but part of our very selves. It is the prerogative of intelligence that it can realize itself in everything that seems to limit it and to lie beyond it. A purely finite nature cannot transcend the barrier which separates its individuality from that of all other individuals. But it is the characteristic of spirit or self-consciousness that there is no external barrier which it cannot surmount. The externality which nature seems to possess, dissolves away before the thought that grasps it. As part of an intelligible world, every object which intelligence contemplates is its own object; and as it enters into knowledge and yields up its essence to the mind that lays hold of it, it becomes for that mind a revelation of its own latent wealth, or rather of its capacity for participating in the wealth of the Mind for and in which all things have their being.
And the same principle holds good of our moral nature. On the practical as well as the theoretical side, there is an aspect of our nature in which it is not merely one amongst the multiplicity of objects in the universe, but the subject which is presupposed in all objects, and which therefore is akin to the infinite source wherefrom they proceed. We may regard ourselves as capable of leading not merely an individual, but a universal and infinite life. It is possible, indeed, to lead a life having its beginning and end in motives, aims, satisfactions which belong to me only as this particular self; which take in no wider range of being than my own and are commensurate at most only with my own finite, transient existence. For of the appetites, impulses, desires which belong to our sensitive and animal nature this, prima facie at least, is the essential characteristic, that their satisfaction pertains to the individual as this particular self; and even as regards that, that they have no relation to anything beyond their immediate satisfaction. The joy of agreeable feeling is my own and not another's; it is self-centred, self-included, or if it has any reference to others, it is only in so far as they are instruments or means of my personal enjoyment. Moreover, even within the individual self, the pleasures of appetite and impulse have in them nothing permanent. Each particular gratification passes away with its immediate experience, is gone with the feeling of the moment; and a thousand such experiences render me no richer at the end than at the beginning.
But, on the other hand, it is possible for a man to lead a life that is not merely individual. Indeed, even the desires and impulses of the individual nature take their peculiar complexion in man from the fact that a universal nature is present to them. They are not in man what they are in the merely animal nature. His desires are never mere impulses, but impulses through which the permanent self is seeking its own satisfaction. But the self-consciousness which thus qualifies the desires, is also the principle in virtue of which it is possible to rise above them.
As, in knowledge, we rise above the sphere of individual opinion into the universal life of intelligence, so, in the moral or practical life, we rise out of the sphere of individual impulse, of self-indulgence and self-assertion, into a sphere in which we will no ends but those that are common to all spiritual beings and enter into a life that is one with the universal and infinite will. In will as well as in intelligence, man's spiritual nature is the form of an infinite content; and there is nothing in the whole realm of being which it cannot claim as the means of its realization. Every object of moral effort, every thing and being in the universe by which our moral development is attained, is our own object. It is not other than ourselves, but the other of ourselves; and however far we may conceive humanity to advance in goodness, it will not be appropriating what is foreign to it, but only finding itself—realizing its own latent possibilities, appropriating its own inherent wealth. Even within the course of man's temporal existence, every man who endeavours to lead a good or holy life finds that there is nothing in his experience that may not become the means of his moral and spiritual advancement. The incidents of the individual life, its relations to nature and man, its opportunities and exigencies, its temptations and trials, all that is pure and noble and good in the world, and even the darkness, disorder, and evil with which the good is ever in conflict—all this constitutes a vast material of moral discipline, an external environment so related to the spirit of man as to become the means of its self-realization. And if we regard the history of the world as a manifestation of a divine idea or purpose which is ever moving on to its fulfilment, it becomes in a deeper way a revelation of the infinite possibilities of our spiritual nature. For, so regarded, the life that underlies it is one with our own moral life. The whole history of the world, seen in the light of the divine ideal that inspires it, is only the objective, or other, of that ideal which is the essence of our moral consciousness; and all that realizes the former realizes also the latter. Of the will that is in harmony with the will of God it may be said, “All things are yours, whether things present or things to come”; for “all things work together for good to them that love God.”
But even when we have reached this point, we seem still to fall short of that capacity of an infinite or eternal life which is implied in the phrase “made in the image of God.” The moral life, at the very best and highest, is and ever must be imperfect, a life in which that which is, is distinguished from and falls short of, that which ought to be. The goal of moral perfection recedes as we advance; and beyond the highest and best which has been attained either by the individual or the race, there are possibilities of excellence which neither society nor the individual who reflects its moral ideal has achieved. I may surrender and abnegate my will as that of this private particular self, and identify my life with the organic life of the world, but that organic life is itself a limited and imperfect one. The ideal of an infinite life would, therefore, seem to be an ideal to which we may endlessly approximate, but which we can never realize.
Now, from one point of view, it must be conceded that this objection is an insuperable one; for to overcome it would imply, not simply that man is capable of likeness to God, but that he can become God. Infinitude can never be predicated of the finite spirit in the sense in which it pertains to that Infinite Spirit, in whom the ideal and actual are one. In the life of God there are no unrealized possibilities. The presupposition of all our knowledge and activity is that absolute and eternal unity of knowing and being, which is only another expression for the nature of God. In one sense, He is all reality and the only reality, whilst all finite existence is but a becoming, which never is.
But whilst thus, from one point of view, the ideal of spiritual perfection is ever a future and distant goal, from another it is, or may be, a present reality. For just in this lies the distinction between the moral life and the religious life which explains and consummates it,—that whilst the former implies a yet unsolved division between our actual and our true or universal self, an ‘ought to be’ which never wholly ‘is,’ in religion this division passes away. Religion is the absolute self-surrender of the soul to God. It means the giving up or annulling of the private, particular self, of every interest or satisfaction that belongs to me as this particular individuality, and the blending or identification of my will, and potentially of my whole life and being, with the will of the Infinite. It is the response of the human spirit to the command, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” That response does not indeed imply that all imperfection has vanished, that all desires and volitions which belong to this particular self are obliterated; but it means that in responding to the divine command, we wholly renounce that former self as false and evil, die to it and its affections and lusts, and put our whole will into that higher, truer self which is one with the being and life of God. The residuum of selfishness that clings to us, we put away from us as foreign to our real self; we hate and condemn it as if it belonged not to us, but to another whom we regard as an intruder and enemy.
Our response to the divine command, again, does not imply that the religious life is not a progressive one, a life of successive acts and experiences; or that it can ever become one with the life of God in the sense, already referred to, of the absolute unification of the ideal and real. But wherever it is genuine, the principle of that life is present in it, and we may say that, though not extensively and exhaustively, it is intensively one and the same with the life of God. Endless possibilities of activity and attainment may lie before it; but the principle that gives its meaning and value to all spiritual acts, and which is the inexhaustible source from whence they flow, is there from the beginning. The whole future is gathered up into it. Likeness to God is not a far off hope, a light that gleams upon us through the mists of time, a prize to be won only when revolving years have passed. It is a present and immediate experience, or rather it is a thing which does not belong to the sphere of time and cannot be spoken of in forms of expression that belong to it. In religion the spirit passes out of the realm of time, rises above the passing shows of things, the vain fears and vainer hopes that pertain to the things seen and temporal. The outward life may be still in some measure a life of effort, struggle, conflict; but in that inner sphere in which the true life lies, the strife is over, the victory already achieved; hope has passed into fruition, struggle into conquest, restless effort and endeavour into perfect peace—“the peace of God which passeth all understanding.”