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Chapter XXIII | The World and God

§ 1. Grace in the world

From a religious point of view it is not too difficult to find God in the heart of man—in the experience of what seems to be divine grace. Even if the picture painted may be thought too rosy, and even if it is susceptible of very different interpretations, there is here at least a solid foundation of fact. It is far more difficult to find God in the world—to believe that His grace is present in every detail of the physical universe and of human society. There are many who would say that such a belief has no foundation whatever or even that it is opposed to the clear deliverances of science. Although it may be true that religious men accept the world as a manifestation of the divine will and build their lives on such acceptance, this does not mean that they can justify their attitude by any appeal to scientific knowledge.

It may seem a tiresome habit of philosophers to be always inventing fresh difficulties, always giving something with one hand and then taking it away with the other. Nevertheless there is here a problem—some may think a dreary problem—that cannot be passed over in silence.

Thoughtful men have not always found it easy to regard either the world or human society as a manifestation of divine justice and divine love, but the difficulties are greatly increased with the spread of scientific knowledge. Theology, so far as it was independent of revelation, used to rest on three main supports—it was rather like a tripod. The first leg was metaphysical speculation about ultimate reality; the second was moral conviction; and the third was the belief that purpose can be discovered by science in the physical world. Nowadays the first leg is considered rickety; even the second one is thought to show signs of weakness; but the third seems to have collapsed altogether. How then can the tripod expect to stand?

As we saw in examining the argument from design, modern biologists reject the concept of purpose or purposiveness, although they continue to talk about organisms as self-regulating systems. However we are to interpret this, they are no longer tempted to extend such conceptions to the world as a whole, and so to facilitate, if not to prove, the assumptions of theology. Hence the age-long background of teleological science—or scientific teleology—which was taken over from the Greeks by Christian theologians has now disappeared, and the religious man has to face a new situation.

In examining this situation we are no longer attempting to argue from the design in nature to the existence and attributes of God: we are looking at theology, so to speak, from the other end. If a man already has faith in the goodness of God, he has still to ask what—in view of all that is known about the world—he can reasonably believe and hope. It is his duty not to talk nonsense and not to make assumptions which are untenable in the light of scientific knowledge—otherwise he will bring discredit upon his religion as well as upon himself.

Thus, even if we are still trying to look at the world from a religious point of view, it is necessary to take into account the intellectual impediments to faith. We have to consider, however briefly, what can be believed about God as He is thought to manifest Himself in the world. It should be unnecessary to add that a belief about God is something very different from a belief in God.

§ 2. Religious assumptions

In a scientific age it is natural to suppose that when we ask what can reasonably be believed about God's presence in the world, we are asking what hypotheses can be verified—or even what hypotheses can be established by means of experiment. This supposition is not confined to a scientific age: it is characteristic of primitive religion itself—as when Elijah sought to prove that Jehovah was superior to Baal because He alone was able to set a sacrifice on fire. One of the modern impediments to faith is that primitive religions—and even religions by no means primitive—were bound up with beliefs which have now to be abandoned.

Although the grounds for faith are no longer sought in scientific experiments, it may still seem a proper question if we ask what evidence would count either for or against a religious belief; but even in this there is a risk of confusion. The propositions in which theology seems to formulate religious beliefs are more akin to what I have called ‘principles’ than to the propositions of empirical science or to those of logic and mathematics. This means that the evidence for them—if ‘evidence’ is a suitable word—cannot be dependent on simple methods of verification.

Consider, for example, such a principle as the scientific assumption that there is universal law in nature. If we ask what evidence is to count for or against such an assumption, the answer may be that there is none. We may say that our principle is confirmed by every scientific success, but we do not say that it is overthrown by any scientific failure. If we are unable to bring any phenomena under law, we merely suppose that we do not know enough about them. To abandon our principle would be to abandon science—and perhaps even to make all experience impossible.

The same considerations obviously apply to theological propositions so far as these rest on the cosmological argument. If this argument is taken to be valid—if it is supposed to prove that a necessary being exists or even that the notion of a necessary being is not inconceivable—then no observed changes in the world could possibly count either for or against it. The only conceivable change that could count against it, would be the disappearance of all finite or imperfect or contingent beings; and this would be the end of all experience and all argument.

The man whose religion can be formulated in such theological terms is wholly unaffected by any facts or laws that science may discover. Nor should it be thought that this is true only because he is concerned with a reality supposed to lie beyond the observable world. On the contrary, he not only lives differently in the world because of his religion, but he sees all things differently. He may also indulge in quasi-empirical beliefs—for example, he may assume the transmigration of souls—but these, besides being unaffected by scientific discoveries, seem to belong to the periphery of his vision, perhaps even to be only the myth in which the vision is expressed. If a man is enough of a thinker, he may be able, like Spinoza, to do without mythology altogether.

The problem becomes more difficult when God is conceived, not merely as a necessary being, but also as a creator who is all-wise and all-holy. On this view the world has to be accepted as the working out of a divine plan; but—in spite of traditional beliefs to the contrary—it seems that such an assumption can neither be supported nor overthrown by scientific evidence. This admission may not be alien to the spirit of religion. The believer may be convinced that not a sparrow falls to the ground without his Father; but he holds to this conviction in spite of the fact (and not because of it) that sparrows do fall to the ground.

Religious principles can be confirmed only in the life of religion, just as scientific principles can be confirmed only by a successful pursuit of science. Indeed the nature of science is such that it cannot conceivably provide support for religion. Although a scientist may be a saint, or a saint a scientist, this is no reason why we should muddle up two different kinds of outlook or expect them both to have the same kind of confirmation; nor should it be forgotten that even the principles of science are not to be confirmed in the same way as the empirical generalizations of natural history.

These distinctions have to be clearly grasped if theology is to maintain itself in the modern world; but it has also to be admitted that they will give rise to difficulties, not only for theologians, but for religious men themselves. These difficulties will have to be considered here only from the Western point of view. For most Eastern religions they either would not arise or would arise in a different form.

§ 3. Providence

As I have said, it should not be thought that a belief in God offers only a basis for action: it also affords a new vision of the world. This vision may be regarded as a dream and may be opposed to the reality of common sense and science, but from the religious point of view it is the other way round. Such a reversal has been well expressed—in spite of occasional queernesses—by Simone Weil in her Attente de Dieu, especially in what she calls the Forms of the Implicit Love of God. Here is her final summing up. ‘Our neighbours, our friends, religious rites, the beauty of the world—these do not sink to the level of unreal things after direct contact between the soul and God. On the contrary, it is only then that these things become real. Before that there was no reality.’

For the religious man all the different facets of the world—even its sadness and its tragedy—seem to fall into place and to shine with a new light as a result of his experience, or rather in his experience itself. This is something quite unlike a scientific theory: it is far more concrete and direct, like being in love. But if he is also a thinker, he appears to require a theology more than the good man or the good citizen requires a moral or political philosophy. This is presumably because the scope of religion is so much wider. At times the theology is pursued in horrifying detail and hardens into something like an empirical science, when its shallowness and superficiality may do great disservice to religion.

It cannot be denied that scientific absurdities penetrate into theology and so—what is much worse—into religion itself. This is particularly obvious in the statements sometimes made about divine Providence.

For misplaced condescension and sheer nonsense it would be hard to beat the preacher who assured his congregation that if only they would think more, they would find many hitherto unnoticed manifestations of the divine benevolence—for example, that God had been considerate enough to fix the day of rest at the end of the week when we are tired, and not in the middle of the week when we are less in need of repose. Against such individual puerilities there can be no safeguard: they serve only to illustrate the folly of which the unintelligent are capable when they try to think about matters too high for them. What is really disturbing is the blandly optimistic tone of much devotional writing. In a popular hymn a man so intelligent and so religious as William Cowper can give utterance to the following sentiment:

‘Beneath the spreading heavens,

No creature but is fed;

And He who feeds the ravens

Will give His children bread.’

And the Psalmist too can tell us that although he has been young and now is old, he has never seen the righteous forsaken nor his seed begging bread. We who have seen so much cannot but think he was very lucky or very blind.

All such survivals of primitive religion are bound to come up against the hard facts of science. The facile optimists—though Cowper was far from that—who assert that all creatures are fed, are able to do so only because the creatures that were unfed are no longer beneath the spreading heavens. Religion must be purified of absurdities if it is not to be regarded in the modern world as a fool's paradise.

There are some who claim to recognize the divine plan, to trace the divine pattern, if not in the events of the physical universe, at least in the working of human society.

We need not be facile optimists to believe that man has made some progress since the days of primitive savagery, certainly in knowledge, but also in morals, in art, and in political life. There is indeed no such inevitable progress as the Victorians sometimes fondly imagined, and the history of the human race may be regarded pessimistically as a series of catastrophes with brief periods of civilization in between. But apart from conscious human purpose it is possible to understand how violence and treachery and injustice tend in the long run to defeat themselves; how conflict can be a spur to ingenuity and so to mechanical improvements; and how, as a result of conflict, men may sometimes shake down into an uneasy equilibrium which might have been attained almost without effort by the exercise of justice, or even of common sense. In such happenings philosophers like Kant and Hegel have thought to see evidence of a divine plan or a divine cunning which uses men for ends other and better than their own.

All of this may give some ground for hope in progress and may at least seem compatible with a divine plan: it does not baffle our minds or shock our aspirations, as do the apparently wasteful processes of the physical universe and of animal life, when we attempt to judge them by the standards of human action. But even on such a supposition, which may appeal more to philosophers than to historians, divine Providence would work through natural laws, not through direct interventions; and the mills of God grind far too slowly for us to see that they grind exceeding small. In this world happiness is not always adjusted to virtue, nor unhappiness to vice; and the issues of justice and injustice seem to lie in human hands. How little justice there is in the world has been brought painfully home to us in recent years.

The religious man has to act on the assumption that the divine will is manifested in every happening throughout the universe; and he has to accept it all as given by God's grace. But it is an impertinence to claim that he understands the divine will; and it is childish, if not dishonest, to support his claim by singling out some events and ignoring others.

§ 4. Special providences

The divine plan for all creation is of more concern to the theologian than to the saint, but it used to be the fashion to speak, not only of Providence, but of special providences. This belief has been a comfort to many simple souls and has entered deeply into religious life itself. It might seem a pity to disturb it, were it not for the fact that it is already disturbed.

If we think dispassionately, it is hard to see what the doctrine of special providences can mean. A man who does not believe in general providence will be unlikely to believe in special ones; but if he has faith that God's will is manifest in all creation, what can he mean by saying that there is a special providence in any particular case?

Is it too harsh to suggest that the term is often used merely of happenings which we regard as advantageous to ourselves? We need not count blatant examples like the story of the ship-wrecked sailor who was clinging, along with another, to a floating log too small to support them both. ‘Providentially’, he reported later, ‘I managed to get hold of a piece of wood and knock the other man into the water’. But many of us would consider we had had a providential escape if some miscalculation or mishap prevented us from catching an aeroplane which subsequently crashed with all on board. We should perhaps feel this more strongly about a child—for example, if he happened to leave a room just before the roof fell in. These are natural human feelings, and in such circumstances a religious man will feel special thankfulness; but he has to recognize that Providence was equally at work in the case of the passengers who did not miss the aeroplane, and in the case of the child who walked into the room instead of out of it. To think otherwise is not religion but superstition—it is rather like a belief in one's star. Admittedly a religious man would not be human if he felt the same gratitude for bad fortune as for good; but he must at least try to believe that even the worst of ill fortune is in accordance with the same divine and beneficent will.

We have here a clear illustration of the difficulty which arises for religious men themselves when their picture of a world full of supernatural powers intervening constantly in human affairs becomes incredible or meaningless in a scientific age. Whatever may have been thought in the past, no one, however saintly, has any reason to assume that God will save him from the typhoid bacillus if men have neglected sanitary precautions, or from the concentration camp if they have allowed wickedness to triumph. To abandon a false, but comforting, sense of security may be the hardest lesson of all for modern men to learn, but may it not also mark a spiritual, as well as a scientific, advance? A genuinely religious faith is not a belief in exemption from personal misfortunes: it carries with it only the assurance—however difficult to retain—that even in suffering it may still be possible to serve God and so to realize an absolute good.

There is a similar difficulty with regard to prayer, if we consider this, not as worship and dedication, but as a plea for special favours and special interventions. It would be inhuman to forbid a mother to pray for her sick child, or even to forbid men to pray for themselves or others in time of danger. Yet must not such prayers be regarded as the satisfaction of a human need rather than as a means to instruct or influence the divine will?

§ 5. The problem of evil

The questions raised about divine Providence come, as it were, into focus in what is traditionally known as the problem of evil—that is, the problem of reconciling the existence of evil with the goodness of God.

From the religious point of view this problem is very primitive and very old. There is an African belief that the Supreme Spirit is wholly kind, but He has an idiot brother who follows Him about and spoils much of what He has done. These obstacles to faith have been familiar at least since the time of Job, and probably far earlier in the first dim gropings of the human race towards what was later to emerge as philosophy. Yet with the advance of knowledge they seem to become, not more easy, but more difficult. Those who slur them over in the supposed interests of religion help to spread the opinion that theology is too superficial to be taken seriously by intelligent men.

This is not the kind of problem that can be ‘solved’—like a problem in chess or mathematics. Yet if we are to have a picture of religion, it cannot be ignored. It has manifestly two aspects—the problem of pain and the problem of moral evil.

Of the two the problem of pain seems, at least at first sight, the more difficult. Pain appears to be so wanton and so unnecessary, and those who make light of it give the impression that they have never suffered or observed it themselves. Up to a point, no doubt, pain may serve a useful function as a warning of danger; but in the evolutionary process it appears to have gone far beyond this point and to perform at times no useful function whatever. If we are to judge by human standards, it would seem so easy to set a limit to the amount of pain that can be felt, or to lower the level at which it passes over into death. It is incomprehensible that a beneficient creator should allow so many of His creatures, both animal and human, to die in agony: human beings are not often so cruel, though they sometimes show more consideration for animals than for men. It sounds a mere evasion to insist that pain may always be an occasion for the exercise of human virtue. This does not apply at all to animals, and some pain is so great that the victim may cease to be human. Nor can we ignore the utter waste of life, the deformed and idiot children, those who go through their whole existence maimed and crippled through no fault of their own. If we look for justice or benevolence in these things, we shall not find it. A religious man may be enabled to accept his own pain, and perhaps the pain of the world, as the cross he has to carry; he may believe that all of this could be seen as the product of wisdom and goodness if only he knew the whole; but he deceives himself and others with a superficial piety if he pretends to see this now.

The problem of moral evil may seem less incomprehensible; for if men are to be good men, they must be free; and if they are free, they must be free to do wrong; and it is impossible to separate wrong-doing from wrong-suffering.

It is not obviously incompatible with a benevolent will that human beings should be left to establish justice by themselves without continual divine intervention. They may have to do this at a frightful cost; but at least they are engaged in a serious enterprise that is worthy of free men. In the process the innocent may suffer, but suffering is inevitable where we all stand together to win or lose; and a good man may be willing to suffer if the success of the enterprise may thereby be attained. This is the characteristic virtue of the soldier as well as of the saint. Although such sentiments may be uttered too complacently by the prosperous, there can at least be no right to complain against omnipotence that justice has to be won by human efforts. We cannot demand a world in which wrong-doing would be miraculously prevented from affecting other people.

The deeper trouble is the fact of wrong-doing—not its effects. It is hard to see why a divine plan should have given us so many proclivities to evil—why we should be the product of animal evolution and so have to control inherited instincts akin to those of the ape and the tiger. Why could not creation have been confined to animals innocent of sin and rational beings either without passions or with adequate means of control?

A kind of answer might be given if it could be maintained both that goodness is the most precious of all things and that it can be manifested only in a struggle, only in the overcoming of strong temptation. But while to human eyes goodness may become more conspicuous in the face of difficulties, we cannot reasonably say that the degrees of goodness vary with the intensity of the struggle. If we did say so, we should have to regard goodness as self-frustrating—the man who had won full control would be a less good man. We should also have to reject any analogy between human and divine goodness. Hence there seems to be no satisfactory answer to our question. We are not in a position to know that this is the best of all possible worlds, nor can we understand why God made the world as He did.

Questions of this kind are alien to the spirit of philosophy in a scientific age, but are they not also in some ways a departure from the spirit of religion? The religious man has to accept the world as it is given to him and to live in it a life of dedication. It is not his business to yearn for imaginary worlds or to mitigate the harsh features of the existing one. If he has some vision of God in contemplating the beauty of nature or even the universe as a whole, he may be devoutly thankful; but his vision must be touched with tragedy and his faith with doubt. He may speculate—for some it may be a duty to do so—in the hope of making his assumptions consistent with themselves and with the rest of his beliefs; but he cannot expect to explain God's ways to man or to transform religious faith into scientific knowledge. For his finite mind the pattern of the world must be obscure and incomplete, and while he may vaguely conceive the whole, he cannot know it. It must be sufficient for him if he can understand and complete his own little bit of the pattern, and believe that this may be his contribution to the whole. If he can gather anything of the divine purpose from his study of nature and society, it would seem to be that man is intended to use his own brains and his own will in order to master his own problems. And if in this endeavour he is able to meet with some success, this too he will put down to the grace of God.

§ 6. The charge of vagueness

To religious and scientific minds alike all this may seem to result in hopeless vagueness. In trying to free religion from crudities there may be a risk of making it empty.

This process may be illustrated by the primitive belief that men who are religious will be rewarded in this life with earthly goods—with flocks and herds and sons and daughters. When this is not borne out by experience, the reward is postponed to a later time—to the last times, which are supposed to be at hand. When the expected millennium fails to arrive, the reward is postponed still farther—to a life after death. Finally, the life after death ceases to be conceived crudely as a continuation of life on earth: time is replaced by eternity, and mere survival becomes an eternal life of which we can have no picture. We can no longer say what empirical observations of this world would give support to our belief.

There is a similar purification of the religious attitude itself. It may be too harsh to speak of primitive religion as if its motive were mere self-interest—as if it were a kind of bargain with the gods like the vow of Jacob at Bethel; for it may, like the desire for revenge, contain within it a demand for justice. This demand for justice gradually becomes less crude: it extends beyond the interest of the individual and his tribe to all mankind. Justice itself may no longer be conceived as a distribution of appropriate pleasures and pains, but as affording opportunity for further worship and service. All this is a spiritual advance; but it means also a loss of the definite—and erroneous—beliefs which characterize primitive religion and still attract the simple minded who want their theology to have all the precision of an empirical science.

Religion cannot give men factual knowledge about events in space and time—this is the function of science. What is more, it cannot give them factual knowledge of a world outside space and time: it cannot set itself up to be the empirical science of another world than this. To religious men the world as revealed to science is a mystery—the appearance of a deeper reality—but it is in this world that they have to live. They may live as if the laws of duty were the commands of God and leave all else to Him—some thinkers have believed that this is enough. But they may also have a vision, not of new facts, but of new values, in the world. All the world's beauty, all the excellence of man, will seem to them more precious. They will find a new wholeness in themselves, and will believe that this conies from God—they know not how. All these things they will experience as a revelation of God, and it is by this experience alone that their faith is confirmed. To most, if not to all, the experience will be intermittent and imperfect, subject to lapses and to doubts; but such as it is, they will cherish the hope that it is only the prelude to a fuller experience and a fuller life.

The charge of vagueness, and even of incomprehensibility, must in a sense be admitted. To finite minds it might be more satisfying if God could be known as another finite being whose actions might be observed and tested like those of any mortal man. Then they would obtain all the definiteness for which they hanker, but it would be definiteness in error. If men think about God at all, they have to strain their human concepts to the bursting point; but if they are philosophically wise, they will understand that these can be applied to Him only by analogy so that all pretence of empirical demonstrations must be abandoned. A demand for scientific precision and scientific verification can never be satisfied even if it is made by religious men. This becomes clear enough to those who have gone far in religion itself, as can be observed in the passage already quoted from St. John of the Cross. ‘One of the greatest favours bestowed on the soul transiently in this life is to enable it to see so distinctly and to feel so profoundly that it cannot comprehend God at all’.

It may seem high-handed, if not disingenuous, to dismiss serious problems by an appeal to divine incomprehensibility. Yet surely those who ask these questions are expecting too much. If we do not understand the relation between our own mind and body, how can we understand the relation between God and the physical universe? We may entertain the notion that if we could grasp the nature of the whole world in its real setting, we might be able to see every event in it as a manifestation of divine goodness—as something analogous to an action by a good man. The notion is obscure in itself, as are all human analogies extended to the world as a whole; for a good man has to act on given material and adjust himself to a given situation outside himself—that is, he acts subject to conditions which cannot conceivably apply to God. Nevertheless, obscure as it is, this notion might seem in a way to be confirmed—it could never be proved—if science proceeded on the assumption that events were to be explained, not only as happening in accordance with law, but as happening in the best possible way. When this teleological principle is abandoned, theology has lost what appeared to be its only possible scientific support. This can never be replaced by any casual pseudo-scientific observations.

Religious men may indeed fall back on the assumption that the world is always intelligible, the knowledge that it is sometimes beautiful, the suspicion that mechanical explanations of animal life are inadequate, the assurance that minds are not merely the result of a chance collocation of atoms. These are at least not incompatible with belief in a divine creator and governor. But the belief itself must rest on religious experience—it cannot become a scientific hypothesis. Some may think that if it is not a scientific hypothesis capable of verification, it is empty; but there remains at least the conviction that in this world it is possible by divine grace to serve God, and the hope that this service will not be in vain.

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