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Chapter XXIV | Man and God

§ 1. Humanism

Throughout the whole of this enquiry the fundamental questions of religion have been approached, as was proposed at the outset, ‘from the side of man, with his obscure experience, his confused conceptions, his imperfect ideals’. Even with this modest approach it has been possible to touch only on the fringes of the subject: little has been said, for example, of its social implications—partly because there is a danger that we may seem to degrade religion if we emphasize its importance as a kind of cement for holding society together. The aesthetic factor is also in need of a much fuller examination. But—apart from the inadequacies of my attempt to say something on this basis ‘about the nature and principles of religion, its present predicament, its grounds in experience, and its philosophical defence’—it may be thought that the whole discussion suffers from a fundamental defect. The very character of the approach, it may be said, must lead to a kind of humanism concerned with man's needs and aspirations and hopes rather than with the nature and activity of God.

If this means that religion has been examined from a human point of view, the charge has to be admitted. Natural theology must not attempt with the aid of a special revelation to see God and the world and man as God Himself sees them; and if there are any able to do this by sheer metaphysical insight, I cannot profess to be among them. But while modesty demands that philosophers should not pretend to escape from human limitations, they are not thereby restricted from the beginning to a brand of humanism which rejects God and makes for man the preposterous claim to be master of the universe. The study of religious experience is already a study of possible views about the divine nature; for every human attitude involves an assumption about the character of the object to which it is directed.

Human attitudes and emotions do not indeed guarantee the existence of their professed object: belief in the existence of God, so far as it is rational, must have a wider basis. Attitudes and emotions are no sure guide even to the character of their object: their deliverances must be subject to criticism even when the existence of their object is admitted. It is here that theologians are in need of the most scrupulous intellectual honesty in what may be an ungrateful task. Those who have been brought up in a particular religious tradition and have absorbed its influence may at times be moved, perhaps even greatly moved, by hearing familiar words or tunes which they may yet recognize to be emotionally false or false in other ways. Apart from the extremer cases of spurious sentiment—and in this there are all sorts of gradations—it is possible that an attitude felt to be emotionally right may yet carry with it theological implications which are indefensible. There can be few more moving prayers than that in the burial service of the Church of England: ‘Suffer us not at our last hour for any pains of death to fall from Thee’. Yet the thought—if this thought be present—that God would turn away from a dying creature because of anything said or done in his final agony is theologically intolerable, no matter what may be its basis in religious tradition.

Criticism of traditional beliefs and attitudes is always necessary if religion is to be kept pure—and if theology is to be kept in touch with religious experience. So far as such criticism is an enquiry into the principles of religion, it is not merely a study of human nature, but an attempt, however imperfect, to examine what can be reasonably believed about the nature of God and His relation to man.

§ 2. Divine action

To all this it may be replied that the real point is still being missed. We are talking only about what man may believe, and about the implications of his thoughts and actions and emotions; but the real business of theology is to talk about what God does.

This type of complaint comes mainly from Karl Barth and his followers. He has levelled a similar charge against even the most orthodox ‘Anglo-Saxon’ theology, which he accuses of being two-dimensional and concerned only with principles. Theology, on his view, ought to be three-dimensional: it ought to deal with events that happen once and for all—with the unique, concrete acts of the living God.

This contention has already been examined, and it is a sufficient reply to say here that, as Barth himself insists, it means the end of natural theology—the end of all philosophical reflexion about religion and about God. But perhaps the criticism can be considered more generally. So far as it asks whether God can be said to do anything, it is putting a fair question which any philosophy of religion must attempt to answer.

An answer, for what it is worth, has already been given, but it may be useful to pull the loose ends together.

If God is conceived only as a necessary being, it would be misleading to say that He acts. This is why Buddhism seems to be so consistent.

If God is also conceived, on the basis of moral conviction, under the analogy of a perfect man—and this is the view of all Western religion—the relation between God and man must be regarded as analogous to the relation between person and person. This means that God must be conceived as acting, although it must be added that His ‘acts’ can only be analogous to our own: we cannot pretend to know His acts as they are in themselves.

If we try to be more specific about these acts in their relation to men, we seem almost to be abandoning the religious point of view for one of speculation. Nevertheless the religious man may be said to accept God's acts both in his experience of grace and in his attitude to the world as a manifestation of divine wisdom. It is for theology to formulate the assumptions made by such acceptance and so to construct a theory which will certainly be inadequate and may easily be absurd.

On this basis what God does—if traditional language may be used—is to reveal Himself to man and in so doing to heal and save. He alone can make man whole—at one with God and so at one with himself.

If we are rash enough to speculate about the way in which God acts upon men—to imagine that we can see, as it were, God's action from His own point of view—we fall into palpable absurdities both religious and scientific. All that theory can do is to indicate the occasions on which God manifests His grace, to consider man's way to God and not God's way to man, to describe religious experience and try to understand why it is taken to be God's revelation of Himself.

This is the task that has been attempted here with the aid of evidence from many sources. If we are to use the language of divine action rather than of human experience, we must assert that God reveals Himself in many ways. He may come to some men in an emptying of sense and emotion and thought and will; to others in a humble endeavour to lead a good life, in an intense vision of natural beauty, in studying a sacred book, in contemplating the history of a perfect man, or even in the course of philosophical speculation. He may make His presence known in the luxuriance of an Indian forest or in the blankness of an Arabian desert. To some He may show Himself in the beauty of a cathedral and in elaborate religious rites; but He may also come in the bareness and simplicity of a Quaker meeting or a Highland kirk. He may reveal Himself to some in prayer and meditation; but He may also give Himself unasked and unexpected in the ordinary course of life. Some men, it would appear, may be seized or grasped by a power that there is no withstanding; but these experiences are granted to very few and have too many spurious imitations.

We do not know how far all these ways are genuine, and there may be a mixture of religious experience with much that is irrelevant. But it befits religious men to be charitable to one another.

In whatever way God comes, He reveals Himself always to the whole man—not to mere thinking or mere willing or mere feeling by itself. Because man feels himself to be made whole by being at one with God, it can be said with truth that God reveals Himself only to the heart. Yet the union itself is better described—with St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross—as a union of wills, or as a surrender of man's will to God's, if indeed it can be described at all.

This is true also of a religious acceptance which takes the world to be given by divine wisdom as an occasion for service to God. Here too there would seem to be a union of wills which is also a revelation to the whole man and so to the heart. But when an attempt is made to turn this into theory, the simple language of religion has to be mixed up with that of philosophy and even science. This is why there is a greater danger of falling into absurdity.

§ 3. Divine action in the world

Some religious thinkers may wish to insist that God must reveal Himself in the world as well as in the heart of man. But here the word ‘reveal’ seems to be used in two different senses. Without its appeal to the heart a revelation becomes more like a theory, or even a set of facts alleged to support a theory. Facts are the concern of science; and if the theory contains anything like a moral judgement on the facts, it seems wholly out of place as a theory about nature. The world of nature can indeed arouse many emotions and give rise to judgements about its overwhelming vastness and energy, about the all-pervasiveness of law, about its amazing beauty, and so on. So far as these experiences contain numinous emotion or a sense of oneness with God, they may be regarded as a revelation, but once again as a revelation to the heart. The scientists, as we have seen, now forbid us to make judgements of purposiveness in general; but even without this our own good sense tells us that nothing could be more inappropriate than to judge nature by moral standards. We do not expect nature, or any part of nature, to do its duty: this is a privilege reserved for man. A moral theory about the physical world as it is known to science or even to ordinary experience is manifest nonsense.

In a sense this ground has been already traversed, and it would be superfluous to discuss again the difficulty of arguing from design in the world to a beneficent creator, and even of reconciling the goodness of the Creator with the character of His creation. But some fresh points must be added.

If it is possible to accept the world as the working of divine grace, it may be supposed that we can know God's acts as they are manifested in space and time. Yet it is here that the analogy with human persons breaks down. The difficulty is not that the acts of God considered as events in the temporal world can be only finite objects of science and can be understood only in accordance with the laws of nature. A similar difficulty arises even in regard to human thought and action, and it can be surmounted if we consider that from the agent's point of view the scientific treatment of these subjects is by its very nature too abstract and incomplete to take any account of human freedom or of moral excellence. But God does not reveal Himself in the world as human beings reveal themselves by their bodily actions. We can distinguish between what a man does and what merely happens to him, and human activity is only a tiny fraction of the events in the world of nature. God, if He does anything, must do everything—possibly with some exceptions made for human freedom; and it may seem—from a human point of view—as if doing everything is equivalent to doing nothing. No man can hope to understand divine action from God's own point of view—if such absurdly misleading words can be used for God's knowledge of Himself.

At Geneva in 1935 the late Archbishop Temple is alleged to have shocked the Barthians by saying—I have seen only a German translation—that ‘unless all existence is a medium of revelation, no special revelation is possible… only if nothing is profane can anything be sacred.’ If this is accepted, it is still hard to see what can be meant by a special revelation. All of God's acts—if we allow ourselves to indulge in speculation—would presumably be revelations of His nature, although they might not appear so to a finite mind. There can here be no comparison with the way in which a man may reveal himself more in an act of kindness than in a routine operation like brushing his hair. For God there can presumably be no routine operations.

It is easier to understand how a revelation is special, if this means that it is special relatively to us. God may reveal Himself to us in a good man more than in the explosion of a supernova; for moral action, however imperfectly, is part of our own life. The special revelations are to be found, not in the world, but in the experience of what is taken to be divine grace, no matter what be the occasion of such experience. And if men have found a special revelation in the life and death of one good man, is not this because the grace of God present in him can find an echo even in sinful hearts?

§ 4. Contradictions

If God is to be conceived under the analogy of a perfect man, it is inevitable that He should be regarded as just and merciful and loving in all His actions, whether in the giving—and withdrawing—of divine grace or in the creation and government of the world. This judgement can be supported only by religious experience itself and not by any scientific study of natural events. But words like ‘love’ and ‘mercy’ are applied to God only by analogy: if they are used literally, they will give rise to paradoxes and contradictions with which the religious man as such need not be troubled.

Human analogies and finite concepts have to be used in order to bring the infinite within the range of finite minds and make it vivid to pictorial imaginations; but, since these analogies and concepts are bound to be inadequate, all theological statements about God cannot but contain an element of contradiction. If we think of God as one object among others, or even as a subject who can be regarded as also one object among others, we are treating Him as a finite being—that is, as what He is not. Yet how can we avoid doing so if we think of Him at all?

At the very beginning of our enquiry we saw that God was conceived as the Whole and yet also as the Other. This is only one sample of the contradictions which arise in speculative theology—they might be multiplied indefinitely. Even in speaking of God as a Person, it is necessary to add that He cannot be subject to the limitations of finite personality, which alone we are able to understand.

There is a short way of dealing with all this. We can say that all theology is nonsense—not merely in the trivial sense that its assertions are not factual statements about finite events in space and time, but in the more serious sense that it cannot say anything at all without falling into self-contradiction.

This contention even in its more serious aspect seems to spring partly from a determination to confine all thinking to the methods of common sense: it appears to assume that theological contradictions are on the same footing as those in history or science. But may not this be compared—I am not enough of a mathematician to know—with a determination so to restrict the methods of arithmetic that it becomes impossible to deal with transfinite numbers? The methods of thinking have to be adjusted to what we are trying to think about; and we have to distinguish between arbitrary and necessary contradictions. It is not too difficult to understand how in trying to think about God we have to apply finite concepts to the infinite, and so to fall into contradictions which do not arise if we confine our thought within a narrower range. It is the great merit of Kant to have made this clear.

If this is sound, it means that religious faith can never be knowledge. Such a view is familiar to religious faith itself, which may seem partly to live in straining towards a knowledge that can never be attained. If some men are thereby encouraged to indulge in wild imaginings and fanciful speculations and genuine nonsense, this is a pity; but they can still be asked to state the grounds for their oracular utterances and to show that their contradictions are not arbitrary but necessary.

There are some who maintain that these problems can be solved by a kind of dialectic which enables us to say both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, and to reconcile these in a higher synthesis. The dialectic of Hegel is certainly to be treated by those who are not its votaries with a respect not wholly void of suspicion. But there is a danger that lesser men may use these devices mechanically as a kind of gadget to make the commonplace appear profound and the ridiculous intelligible. The danger is increased when the system of the master is twisted or corrected into something quite different, as it is by later thinkers who reject the thought but cling to the terminology. When followers of Kierkegaard and Marx are seen sobbing on each others’ shoulders at the wonders of dialectic, it is difficult to avoid a feeling of acute discomfort. Whatever benefits dialectical thinking may have contributed to theology, it remains desirable to keep an open mind and a modest remembrance of our limitations, even if this confronts us with puzzles that we are admittedly unable to solve.

§ 5. Intuitive understanding

It may be said that the analogies under which men try to think of God are meaningless if they have to be immediately cancelled. What is the use of saying ‘God acts’, and then adding at once ‘but not as we act’? Should there not be an attempt to indicate what is conceived to be the difference between His activity and ours?

This seems a reasonable demand, and within limits it can perhaps be met. If an analogy is seen to be inadequate, it should be possible to say something of the contrast that is assumed as well as the likeness, although this may be hard to do without getting lost in the vast ocean of speculative theology. Here it is possible only to offer a hurried and dogmatic sample of the kind of answer that may be given.

Our dim and even contradictory thoughts of God could never arise unless we were conscious of our own limitations. All human thought is limited since in order to know our world we must have something given to our senses, however obscurely, in each successive moment of time; and this obscure material we have to work up by imaginative construction and conceptual thinking into an ordered world which for us can never be complete. The ultimate principles by which we do this cannot themselves be derived from what is given; and the world we build up can only be a between-world—only reality as we assume it must appear to finite minds like our own.

To recognize these limitations is to entertain, however vaguely, a concept of reality as it is in itself—a reality which is not merely relative to us; and there may be grounds for conceiving this as absolute and unconditioned. But it is also to entertain the concept of a mind not subject to finite limitations, nor even restricted to an ideal experience in which all possible and actual human experiences would be combined—a mind which knows reality as it is in itself and is indeed the unconditioned reality it knows.

Such thoughts may still be negative: we may understand only what they deny, and we cannot claim that we know any corresponding object to exist. Nevertheless, if we are not afraid to speculate, it may be possible to interpret them in a more positive way.

An infinite mind would not, like ours, have to wait for something to be given, out of which it could construct a universe; and its universe would not be an indefinite extension in space and time of a momentarily present here and now. It would not be partly passive and receptive, but wholly active and creative. The distinctions in our finite thinking between active thought and passive sense, and again between abstract concepts and concrete individual objects, would disappear. Its abstract thinking—in the self-contradictory language that must be used—would be at the same time a direct intuiting of individual reality; and the individual reality it intuited it would also understand. Even the distinction between subject and object would be overcome if the object were not an object given to be thought about, but present, and indeed created, in the very act of thinking itself. Such a mind would not have both a power of understanding and a power of intuiting, as we have; it would be itself an intuitive understanding; its intuitions would be not sensuous but intellectual; and what we call its thinking would not be a discursive process in time. Perhaps such a mind alone can be conceived as a self-sufficient reality, and the reality it would know would be itself.

From so summary a statement we can see at the most that the concept of an intuitive understanding need not be purely negative. On the other hand, as we do not possess an intuitive understanding—although some philosophers have claimed to do so—we cannot make the concept clear to ourselves or supply it with an object in our own thinking. If we could do so, we should ourselves be God.

Another antithesis bound to disappear would be our distinction between thinking and acting, or thinking and doing. Thinking would itself be a creative act, a creation out of nothing: considered as action it would not require a given matter to mould or alter, any more than it would require a given matter about which to think. Action also—if we continue to think of it as analogous to human action—would not admit our distinction between abstract principles and concrete doing, and would not be exposed to a conflict between inclination and duty. An intuitive understanding has to be conceived as also a holy will.

The divine activity which would be both thinking and acting might also be compared with the creative activity of a human artist; but here too our ordinary distinctions would have to be abandoned.

If we care to pursue such abstract speculations, we may even be tempted to ask whether God can be conceived as having feelings in any way analogous to ours.

The pantheist may be inclined to say that God feels in all the joys and sufferings of His creatures; but we are at present presuming to think our finite thoughts only about God as He is in Himself, and all we can say is that in Him feeling is not to be distinguished from what must be at once both thought and action. If feeling is taken to be passive suffering, it is impossible to think of this in what is envisaged as pure activity or to understand how the self-sufficient could be in need of others or in need of love. But so far as we consider human feeling to be something immediate in which distinctions have not yet arisen, we may take this as analogous to a divine immediacy in which all our finite distinctions are overcome. This analogy has been used by some thinkers in their metaphysics, but it bears no relation to religious views of God as a Father who loves His children. Such views spring entirely from the moral approach to the conception of God and not at all from metaphysical thinking.

Speculations of this kind become more and more difficult if we attempt to conceive with their aid the relation which we suppose to exist between God and His creation as this is known to us in our temporal experience; for then they are applied to what looks like a relation between part and part and so begin to resemble scientific hypotheses.

The whole creation would have to be the thought or action of God, but we ourselves should know it only as it appeared to finite and temporal minds, only as something different from what it is in itself. God's thinking cannot, like ours, be a process in time carried on from a particular point in space. Yet we ourselves should somehow have to be God's thoughts, or rather God's thinkings, although we should be unable to know even ourselves as we really are. A view of this kind has been attractive to many religious men, but it is only another attempt to conceive the inconceivable by means of analogies drawn from human experience of the relation between person and person. We must suppose that human minds have some degree of independence both in thought and in action. It would be foolish to say that the creation of such independent beings is beyond the power of an intuitive understanding; but it would be equally foolish to say that it was intelligible to ourselves.

This discussion may throw new light on the ontological argument for the existence of God. I have urged against it that no concept of perfection (or of anything else) can guarantee the existence of its object. It is possible to go farther and to take this as a disproof of God's existence; for it may be maintained that God can be conceived only as a being whose concept (or essence) is the ground of His existence, and that if this is impossible, God's existence must be impossible. Such a contention seems to spring from misunderstanding. The objections to the ontological argument are concerned with human concepts which can be applied to objects only if these objects are independently given. For an intuitive understanding there could be no such distinction: what we describe as its concepts would necessarily guarantee the existence of their object—the very concept would be also an intuition, and even a creation, of the object conceived. The same principle would necessarily hold for the concept of divine perfection. If we presume to speak about God's intuitive understanding of Himself, the objections raised against an argument falsely supposed to be valid for finite thinking cease at once to have any force.

§ 6. Speculative theology

In response to charges of meaningless talk I have permitted myself to deviate into a speculative theology which attempts to envisage God's actions as they are in themselves. This is far more temerarious—some may think even more meaningless—than an effort to examine the religious experience of grace and to ask whether such experience may be accepted as the way in which God reveals Himself. Yet it would not be unreasonable to claim that the more modest enquiry needs to be completed by a bolder flight of thought; and a purely speculative theology, so long as it does not profess to be a science, may have more importance from a religious point of view that I was inclined to allow when I started out on this enquiry. It certainly has a kind of grammar of its own, and the relation of this grammar to the grammar of scientific thinking might deserve some attention from linguistic philosophers.

On the other hand, a theology which abandons all contact with experience and refuses to acknowledge its own limitations may go completely wild. It may lead to a degradation of philosophy and so to a corruption of religion itself. Although we suppose that to God His own nature and that of the created universe must be supremely intelligible, we must also recognize that the divine nature, not only is, but must be, beyond our understanding. For the practical purposes of religion, at least as it has developed in the West, God has to be conceived under the analogy or image of a perfectly good man, utterly inadequate as this must be. In that sense Western religion is anthropomorphic; and one main use of speculative theology is to rob this anthropomorphism of its crudity and to make men conscious that their analogies are only analogies and can be nothing more.

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