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Part II: The Immanence of the Transcendent

Lecture XVII: The Meaning of History

At an earlier stage of these Lectures we considered the accepted trio of ultimate values—Truth, Beauty and Goodness. We found that in every case the essential condition of the value in question was the discovery by mind of itself or of its own principle in its object. Further we found that though the value only becomes actual through appreciation, yet its existence is objective and not subjective; it is objectively real though subjectively conditioned. The three terms—Truth, Beauty and Goodness—we interpreted as signifying the objective counterpart of three modes of mental activity, the intellectual, the aesthetic and the ethical. These three seem to exhaust the distinguishable activities of mind, or at any rate may be so understood as to do so. Every such activity we found to arise through reaction to, or in correspondence with, some aspect of the objectively given environment, so that each is a mode of apprehending reality.

But there is an activity of mind which is found to combine all of these in one. The importance of History, whether subjectively or objectively considered, has not until recent times received from philosophers the attention which it deserves. Objectively regarded, History is the sum total of events. The relation of those events and of their totality to what is real but other than event, is one main theme of metaphysical enquiry. Subjectively regarded, History is the apprehension and interpretation of events; and so far as what occupies attention is the series of events initiated or modified by human volition, it is found to unite in itself all the three activities previously considered. The historian must be scientific in his treatment of evidence; he must exert himself to ascertain truth to the utmost. But a catalogue of events is not history. He must so present the events which he records as to exhibit their significance and not only their occurrence. This calls for the aesthetic or artistic activity of mind alike in apprehension and in expression. But, once more, it is not possible for the historian to record all the events of the period which he studies, partly because he cannot ascertain them all, and partly because, if he could, he has not space for the narration of them. He must select; and his selection must be governed by some principle, which, being a standard of judgement upon the values of human experience and action, falls within the sphere of ethics. Science, art and morals are all involved in the study of history. It is even probable that philosophy in its most specialised sense will be involved also; for the principle of selection among events, and the suggestion or articulation of the significance of those selected, can hardly be detached from ultimate questions concerning the nature of Reality.

The earlier philosophers paid little attention to History, and indeed History itself, as we understand it, is a recent achievement of the human mind. From early ages men have recorded the events of their own or immediately preceding times; and from Thucydides onwards many have applied to this activity all the powers of the mind—scientific, artistic and ethical. But the effort to recover the course and significance of a buried past, and to contemplate a whole stretch or reach of time as a single panorama in a synoptic apprehension, begins, on the great scale, with the great work of Gibbon. He was quickly followed by others; the acceptance of evolution as a biological, and then as a cosmological, hypothesis, reinforced the new tendency, until to-day historical successiveness is the aspect of reality with which our minds are most familiar. Our effort to understand any event or phenomenon usually begins with the attempt to place it in its historical context, and to see it in the light of what preceded and of what followed it. Contemporaneously and coherently with this tendency appeared the belief in progress, and the conviction that change is a necessary function of life. Our forefathers took for granted, not change, but stability; they assumed that social customs and political constitutions normally remain unaltered through incalculable periods, while change was admissible only as a rare adjustment of this essentially changeless structure. As late as 1832 Lord John Russell pleaded for what then seemed a drastic measure of Parliamentary Reform on the ground that if this were adopted it would prove a final settlement of that vexed question. In the second quarter of the twentieth century we do not expect final settlements of any terrestrial question. We take change for granted; stability we call stagnation, and associate it in our minds with death.

For this profound and pervasive change of outlook the historians and biologists prepared the way. But the main cause of it was the actual and perpetually renewed transformation of the social structure of many countries under the influence of steam-power and electricity. The idea has followed the fact. But the result is that whereas for the people of former generations it was almost self-evident that ultimate reality is eternal and unchanging, for our contemporaries the passing event is alone indubitably real, while the very existence of any eternal object is matter for debate.

Oriental philosophies have often so stressed the eternal as to represent the transient as illusory; this world with all its happenings, including our moral strivings, is Maya. Indeed it is inevitable that exclusive concern for the eternal should make the temporal appear meaningless. But exclusive concern for the temporal has the same result. It condemns not only the eternal but the temporal also to insignificance. Mysticism at least finds meaning in the eternal; materialism can find it nowhere. The successive as such cannot display meaning. If History is a mere succession of events, it must be quite meaningless. There is now this and then that; and there is no more to be said. But actual temporal experience is not mere succession; it is always a unitary apprehension of a successive manifold. Moreover, there is a non-successive unity in the life of any organism, still more in the life of a self-conscious, and especially of an ethical, organism. There is such a unity also in the life of a species or (in some degree at least) of a nation. This unity finds expression in the successive events; it is not fully expressed in any of them separately, but only (if at all) in the whole series; nor has it any objective existence apart from the events; the successive and non-successive are here bound to one another indissolubly. One may be the logical prius of the other, but not in such sense that it could exist without the other.

The nature of such unities of the successive is most easily studied in those instances which are due to the deliberate activity of human minds, though there are points at which the artificial character of these may render misleading the analogy which they supply. In some sense the thought which the poet expresses is real as a thought in his mind before he gives expression to it. But in some instances at least—and those precisely the instances which give the strongest impression of “creation” as distinct from “construction”—it appears that the thought is fully apprehended by the poet only in the very act of its articulation. The poet himself is prior to his poem temporally as well as logically; but the poetic thought is temporally prior to the poem only as an embryonic phase of consciousness, or even (it may be) as organic feeling. Further, as has already been observed, the thought or meaning, which is the ground of necessity for every part of the poem, is only given when the end of the poem is reached; for it is expressed in the whole and not in any part or series of parts less than the whole. That is always so for the reader of the poem; but if it be true that the poet only apprehends his own thought in the process of articulation, it is true for the poet also. In that case the meaning, which is the ground of the poem’s existence, only comes to actuality in the process of the poem’s composition. Here, then, is an instance of a rational unity of the successive where the unity and the successive series become actual together.

This is a type of unity perfectly familiar inexperience, though we do not often pause to formulate its characteristics or to consider the relation of the non-successive unity to the successive elements in which alone this has actuality. When we do so, there is no difficulty unless our minds are obsessed with the abstractions of clock-time or with the notion that efficient causation is the only relation between ground and consequent. Every one who utters a significant sentence is actually employing efficient causation as a subordinate instrumentality for the actualisation of a meaning which determines the sounds or signs that express it and yet may only become actual in those signs and sounds.

In such a series there is real unity—the meaning; and this is a ground of necessity to all parts of the series; but regarded successively, it is only fully extant when the series is complete. This consideration carries with it a consequence of the highest importance. For it means that there exist series of successive parts, so ordered that when regarded forwards no necessitating ground is discernible, but which are seen to be governed by an immanent necessity when regarded backwards, from the view-point of the completed series. In no sense does the first line of the poem determine the second, except perhaps by striking a keynote with which certain developments would be unrelated. Sometimes this is very marked, as with such a line as

It is an ancient marinere

where, incidentally, the archaic spelling is indispensable. Sometimes the poet takes longer to announce, as it were, the poem’s atmosphere. As the poem proceeds, its type becomes more defined, and the range of possible development is narrowed. But not till the last line, and the last word of the last line, is necessity present. Then, if the poem is a good poem, necessity is apparent. In order to be that poem, and express that meaning, it had to consist of exactly that series of words arranged in that order, with that rhythm.

In some men’s lives the same principle is exhibited, though never (perhaps) in the same completeness. At each stage there is a variety of open possibilities. The boy may give more attention to letters or to science, having an aptitude for both; the young man may take up an academic or a political career. Every choice narrows the range of possibilities for the future; but there are still some open alternatives to the very end. Yet at the end, those who knew him may look back and see a unity in the completed life which makes it the perfect expression of his personality. In such a case each choice, which seemed at the time so open as to depend almost upon chance, is seen to proceed from a constant element in character which may then have had its first opportunity or occasion for expressing itself. It is not in any way denied that there are lives in which some decisive choice depends on external or even irrelevant considerations, and which then exhibit a real unity along the line so laid down for their development. But where the character is strongest it is felt afterwards as having been the real determinant of all its choices.

This self-expression of a constant and constantly developing character is what we have called Purpose.1 Some objection has been raised to the use of the word with so wide a significance; it is urged that it properly means the pursuit of a definite end. But that seems arbitrary; for the end pursued may be the maintenance of a type of character or a certain relationship to neighbours. This will express itself in a vast variety of actions, no one of which is itself the end proposed as a guide to conduct; it would be misleading to speak of the man’s purpose as directed to them; it is directed to something permanent which finds expression in them; it is directed to its own preservation; it is Spinoza’s conatus in suo esse perseverandi.

Something akin to this is often traceable in the life of a nation. Its character is gradually formed by the coalescence of a diversity of ingredients; in the growth of experience and the alternating relationships of friendliness and hostility with other nations it acquires a body of tradition and sentiment the maintenance of which becomes a chief element in the national purpose, As the citizens of a country look back over its history, being themselves in very large measure products of that history, so that they appreciate it with true intimacy of sympathy, they see in its general course the expression of something which they know and value in themselves; there are probably episodes which they deplore and for which they feel shame; but they see in process of formation a character which they value because in it they find themselves or what is akin to themselves.

There is no nation which exhibits in its history so complete a unity of the successive as some men have shown in their lives; and no man (perhaps) has shown so complete a unity in his life as is to be found in an artistically successful poem. But the same principle is found to be operative in the indefinitely various complexities of personal and national life as are clearly observable in the work of art, which may be said to be deliberately constructed in order to embody or illustrate this principle. In other words, there is found as a feature of history an element which may properly be described as an immanent purpose. To exhibit this is one essential function of the historian. He is not called upon to formulate the immanent purpose of a nation’s life, or of a civilisation or a culture. But he is rightly expected to set forth the facts which he narrates in such a way that they are felt to express a more or less constant tendency which gives unity to them. He must not be content to compile a chronological table; he must make a story of it, and a story must have, at least, coherence, which is a form of unity.

The points which have been under consideration are of importance when we return to the question what is the meaning of history for eternity. There are three main ways in which this has been regarded, (I) The first is expressed in the familiar Platonic dictum that Time is the moving image of Eternity.2 On this view, the eternal is what it is independently of the temporal, which in some sense proceeds from it and expresses it, but makes no difference to it. (2) The second view is that eternity is just the sum-total of the temporal simultaneously apprehended. (3) The third is that the eternal is in itself constant; that it is somehow the initiating cause of the temporal, and that the temporal in someway returns to it. (4) A fourth view, however, is possible which seeks to combine the other three in such a way as to allow each to correct the deficiencies of the others. Our programme, therefore, from this point onwards is to consider the three views first described so as to note their strong and weak points, and then to construct our own more synthetic view.

(1) The view commonly, and with some reason, ascribed to Plato makes History in the last resort meaningless—not in the sense of having no unity, but in the sense of supplying no ground for its own existence.3 If Time is the moving image of Eternity, we may hopefully seek in the eternal the explanation of the temporal. But then Eternity itself is conceived as so detached from Time that, though it supplies an explanation of the content of Time, it gives no ground whatever for the existence of a temporal world. The Eternal is unaffected. It, or He, eternally abides. I Am That I Am must be His only form of self-expression. History occurs because of Him; but it makes no difference to Him.

Now this is true and important for both philosophy and religion, provided it is understood in a certain sense. For only by a doctrine of thoroughgoing Transcendence is the universe explicable4 or the religious impulse satiable. In the sense in which God is necessary to the world, the world simply is not necessary to God. Apart from Him it has no being; apart from it, He is Himself in plenitude of being. The World − God=o; God − the World = God.

But if that is all that can be said, History is metaphysically unmeaning. In itself it has meaning, for in some degree it expresses the eternal realm or Being whence it flows. But it has no ultimate meaning—no meaning for God. Consequently our view, in its concern to exalt the Majesty of God, attributes to Him an activity—Creation—which is from His own point of view meaningless. Philosophically, therefore, this view is deeply unsatisfactory. Religiously regarded it is even worse. For we find that the higher any religion is in the scale of spiritual, ethical and intellectual value, so much the more is it rooted in History.5 Certainly for Christianity it is impossible to accept a view which makes History of no ultimate importance. For Christianity affirms an act of God within History itself and rests on this affirmation. History is of importance to Buddhism so far as reverence for the Buddha is deepened, and obedience to his precepts stimulated, by the conviction that he actually existed on this earth and attained to Enlightenment. History matters to Islam so far as the authority of the Koran depends upon its having been actually given by divine inspiration to Mohammed. But beyond this, those religions are indifferent to History. For Christianity it is otherwise. It is not primarily a system of ideas divinely communicated, nor a way of life divinely enjoined or guided, nor a method of worship divinely taught. It is, according to its own claim, primarily a self-revelation of God in a historical Person, and in that Person’s life, death and resurrection. Because it is this, it is open to attack on the historical plane as no other religion is. Because it is this, it is involved in all the difficulties that attend the treatment of the temporal and contingent as possessing the value of the eternal and absolute. These are peculiar difficulties of the Christian religion, from which others are free. But they arise from the central essence of that religion. At any rate it is impossible for Christianity to acquiesce in the view that, however much the historical depends upon the eternal, the eternal is unaffected by the historical. Sin is for Christianity a temporal phenomenon; but it matters sufficiently to the Eternal God to lead Him to take self-sacrificing action for the world’s redemption. And most Christians to whom the Gospel has been a living power would have been much startled by the suggestion that the Death of their Lord upon the Cross made no difference to the eternal life of God.

In this insistence upon the real and ultimate importance of History, Christianity is at one with the deepest ethical consciousness of mankind. Morality has its very being in the effort to maintain loyalty to certain principles in the changing circumstances of time; those principles are not generalisations concerning successive phenomena;

ouj gavr ti nu¤n ge kajcqev~, ajllÆ ajeiv pote

zhó¤ tau¤ta, koujdei;~ oi|den ejx o{tou Æfavnh.6

Not of to-day or yesterday are these,

But ever living; none knows whence they sprang.

They are phases or aspects of the Eternal; but their ethical importance is found in their application to passing and changing conditions. As has already been observed, the man who persists in a moral purpose is conscious therein of special fellowship with the eternal; the man who sacrifices his immediate interest and even physical life in order to bring into being some good as yet not actualised, feels himself in that act to be not so much creating a new temporal good as conforming to an eternal good. For men, at least, it is true that fellowship with the eternal is most fully achieved by a certain mode of successive behaviour in relation to the temporal. And Christians have found the fullest entry of the divine into human nature, not in the moment of some mystic trance, but in the continued life of obedience to the divine Father; not in any episodic transfiguration, but in constant loyalty to love and its purpose through agony and crucifixion.

(2) Such reflections incline us to begin our enquiry afresh from the other side, and instead of regarding Time as the moving image of Eternity, to conceive Eternity as the integral totality of Time. Such a view at once endues History with an eternal significance. We are ourselves in Time, and cannot see the future which is to grow out of the present and the past. Consequently we cannot see the present and the past themselves in the proportions and perspectives which belong to them when seen as parts of the whole; and there may be rectifications of value which will be brought about in the future,7 and which will profoundly modify the judgement on past and present which our present knowledge makes inevitable. We understand why the world as known to us is full of unsolved problems; their solution lies in the unknown future. We are delivered from the dilemma which bids us either deny our own moral judgement on the strength of a dogmatic conviction that the work of God is good, or else deny that the world is grounded in the divine creative art because it manifestly is not good. We are enabled to say that, seen from our standpoint, it is partly, even largely, bad, and yet to cling to the hope that in the totality, which is beyond our grasp, all discords are resolved, all hatreds turned by love’s own sacrifice to love, and every bitterness accepted as a price well worth the paying for the sake of the sweetness drawn from it. The integrity alike of moral judgement and of religious hope is thus preserved. And History itself, the scene of our moral striving, is invested with capital importance, for its course positively constructs the content of that eternal experience, which is History as an integrated whole.

But if the advantages of this view are great, the difficulties attendant upon it are formidable. For how are we to be sure that the future of History, which is unknown and also ex hypothesi contingent, will be such as to set our experience in the context and perspective that may justify it? Our view is strong just so far as it gives ultimate importance to our moral choices whereby the course of History is not so much determined as constituted. But if so, while the responsibility that rests on us is undoubtedly real, it is also insupportable. For it appears that upon our moral action depends the content of the eternal experience of God Himself. And if this apotheosis of Pelagianism is avoided by the hypothesis of such divine intervention as may be sufficient to overrule our choices to the fulfilment of the divine plan, then the question arises whether our supposed freedom and responsibility are not essentially fictitious and the whole course of History no more than a projection of the divine nature. And then we are back at the first view for which Time is the moving image of eternity. For if every thing after all is thrown back upon God, and God is conceived as Himself altogether outside the process, then the process is not in an ultimate sense constitutive of eternity at all but wholly episodic in relation to it.

(3) This conception of History as episodic to Eternity is frankly accepted in the third view which we have to consider. This may be called the naïve religious view. It does not start with Eternity and seek to effect the transition to History; nor does it start with History and try to effect the transition to Eternity; but it starts with both as data, or at least as postulates, and seeks to effect a relationship between them. No doubt, being naïve, its conception of the Eternal is hardly more than that of somewhat, which persists unchangeably through Time. The Eternal God, so conceived, launched into being the world of successive events. As a rule this act is regarded as having some date, however remote; Time is conceived as having once begun; Time and the created world began together. And they will end together, except in so far as the temporal world contains spiritual beings, who will survive the wreck and dissolution of this world-order, and will then enter a condition determined by their moral response to the opportunities presented to them during their life as parts of this world-order.

This view, no doubt, is rather mythological than philosophic. It collects together the various points of certainty, and then relates them in a picture presented to the imagination rather than in a logical structure presented to the intellect. It is none the worse for that, if its true nature is recognised. The myth can often present reality more fully than any argument. The view which we are considering has these great advantages. Almost equally with the first it recognises the sole and complete supremacy of the Eternal—whence all springs and whither all qualified for such communion aspires to return. Almost equally with the second it recognises the ultimate significance of History and of the moral choices which (at the human level) constitute it, at least for those who are in their own nature historical entities and qualify for Eternity by their historical conduct. In addition to combining in high degree the advantages of the other views, it has this further point of strength, that it conceives the climax of History, for those who are centres of value-judgements, not as a mere prolongation, but as translation to a new and previously inconceivable world-order.8

This is a new point of so great importance that some further elucidation of it is required. It is sometimes said that an infinite progress is unmeaning. But that seems to be a mere mistake. Progress need not be the continuous approximation to a goal; judged as such an approximation it is, no doubt, true that infinite progress is only another name for perpetual failure. But Progress may take the form of an ever wider application of a principle which sets no limit to its application, and then there is nothing self-contradictory in the idea of infinite Progress. Yet if that is all that the future offers, it is hard to see how it can ever justify the historical experience of human and animal nature, in the sense of exhibiting these as appropriate products of an all-wise and all-good Creator. If we postulate Immortality, so that those who have ended their days upon this planet may still share the endless Progress, this alone does little to redeem the past. Religion has never been content with such a prospect. It has usually conceived the course of Progress to come to an end in a static condition of the fullest happiness which it can conceive, or else it has thought of the immortal state as one that we can only describe by negation of all earthly analogues. The naïvely religious view which we are now considering points forward to a state, whether static or progressive, which is quite other than a mere prolongation of earthly existence, though some foretaste of it here is possible, and the lot of each individual in that state is determined by his conduct here.

But this view, as ordinarily presented, still suffers from grave defects. The connexion which it sets up between History and Eternity is very external to both. There does not seem to be a sufficient reason why the Eternal should have launched into being the historical process. The supremacy of the Eternal over the historical is not complete. The process of History has for its own denizens an ultimate importance, but nor, apparently, for God. It is a view which, like many naïve and mythological presentations, puts together the best points of other views at the cost of compromising all. We must now attempt a synthesis of our own which may be free from that accusation.

(4) In entering on this task let us premise that we do not expect complete success. The essence of the enterprise is that we who are finite are seeking to comprehend the infinite, in order to define its relation to our finite selves. In such an attempt apparent success must be certain failure. Further, our method must be one of analogy and not of demonstration; for the Eternal ever eludes us, and we cannot without certain error form a definition of it which might be the starting-point of logically cogent argumentation. But by analogy we may make progress, and our hope will be that if we reach a stark antinomy, this may arise in regard to that which we know we cannot comprehend, and that at all other points our difficulties may be such as to give way before us even though we never reach their ultimate solution.

The three points of strength in the three views considered are: in the first, the complete and all-controlling supremacy of the Eternal; in the second, the ultimate importance of History and its moral choices; in the third, the expectation of a climax of History inaugurating a new world-order. With these in mind let us turn to our analogies. We naturally direct our attention to that human activity wherein the mind launches into being, as it were, a miniature history. Dramatists have declared that when once they have set their several characters in motion, they have no further control over the conduct of those characters. Indeed in so far as a dramatist creates after the fashion of those poets who apprehend their own thought in the act of expressing it, it must be so. Yet in another sense the dramatist retains an absolute control, even to the extent of cutting short the composition and destroying it. His thought, active in self-expression, is immanent in the play; the play is made by it, and apart from it no episode in the play takes place;9 further, the vitality of every episode comes from the relation of that episode to this thought.10 Yet the dramatist himself is absolutely transcendent in respect of the play. Upon him it depends whether there shall be a play at all. The play depends upon him for its existence; he does not in that sense depend upon the play at all. But because his vocation is to be a dramatist, he fulfils his nature by writing plays; if he did not write them he would be untrue to himself. The self-expressing thought through which the play comes into existence is part of the principle of his being. Consequently the play itself, and its content, is of vital consequence to him.

We now turn to another form of human creativity, which we have the highest religious sanction for regarding as an analogue of the divine. The father in a human family is to his children at once the source of their existence and a present Providence. Because they will represent before the world the results of his training of them, because they bear his name and may bring to it either honour or shame, but most of all because of his love for them, prompting him to give up what he values most if so he can serve their welfare, their doings are of vital concern to him. He gave them being; to a great extent he shapes their circumstances; perhaps his influence over them is so great that they will never knowingly act against his wishes; yet they are free to respect his wishes or not; if they do so, it is because it appears to them good to do so; when he controls them, he does not coerce them, because his control is effective through their wills and not either apart from or against their wills.

The analogy of the dramatist breaks down because his creations are not substantially alive; the analogy of the human father breaks down because the father himself is only another finite spirit, subject to successiveness in the same way as his children. But if we can think the two analogies together we find ourselves adumbrating a conception which seems to meet some at least of our requirements. Let us attempt the articulation of that conception, knowing that we can only speculate, and accepting a “likely tale”11 concerning a theme too great for our scientific apparatus.

We start then with the conception of the Eternal God, perfect in the plenitude of Being. We know that He creates, for here is the world, and to attribute it to any other source than to Him is to attribute to Him finitude and limitation. In that case we should have to assume something greater than God, to wit, God plus the world, or whatever that may be in which both are grounded. The insuperable difficulties of this way of thinking have already been indicated.12 We can only understand the world at all if it is grounded in the Will of the living God. He is therefore known to us as Creator. That He should create cannot be a mere accident of His being; it proves Him to be of such a nature as to create. Following our analogies of human creativity, we may connect this with the sheer satisfaction of creative activity—which is not by itself the highest even of human motives and therefore is not by itself an adequate spring of the divine action—and with the desire for self-communication. This latter, suggested by Plato as the motive of creation, is an expression of love, and coheres with the essential condition of good as the finding by mind of itself, or its kin, in its object.

In the inorganic world we may imagine that the divine mind takes delight, as that world in vast expanse and tiny detail expresses the perfection of quantitative relationships. It is a delight both scientific and aesthetic, and if here perhaps the scientific preponderates, we may assume that there is preponderance of aesthetic satisfaction in the loveliness exhibited by every form of organic life from the “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright”13 to the delicacy of a butterfly’s wing, so that in every changing phase of nature “God renews his ancient rapture”.14 He looks upon His own creation and finds it “very good”,15 and therein also finds the fulfilment of the purpose with which He made it. It is His work, and in it He finds the counterpart of His own mind, so that the human student of creation is, in Kepler’s words, “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”.

Upon one planet attached to a certain sun (whether also elsewhere or not we have no knowledge), His creativity expressed itself in beings able in some measure thus to enter into His mind and understand His work, so that in them He found a fuller counterpart than elsewhere of His own being. Rooted in nature they yet are not swayed only by natural forces, but by that which appears to them good, that is to say, by that in which they find themselves as God seeks to find Himself in them. They, like all else, exist only in dependence on His will. But since He has thought it good (that is, has found Himself in determining) to fashion them in so complete a resemblance to Himself, He must now control them according to the law of their being which He has imposed on them; He must control them through what appears to them good and their power to appreciate it—that is, through their unforced affection and will. Thus He Himself does not know beforehand exactly how they will respond to the various modes of His manifestation of Himself to them. So far as He is Himself at work within the process of Time, the precise mode of the future is unknown to Him, though its general issue in the fulfilment of His purpose is secure. Yet, all the same, because He is not in His own nature within the Time-process any more than the dramatist is personally within the play, and all that happens utterly depends on Him, He knows it all with utter certainty. To Him the contingent is still contingent, as not being compelled by its own past; yet the whole is necessary, and therefore also all its parts; and the whole is the expression of His will. So He knows the contingent as contingent and yet knows it with certainty.

There is something here which we cannot fathom; but the difficulty arises where it ought to arise, in our attempt to understand the divine nature itself. The profoundest religious intuitions do not here lead to a scheme of thought perfectly comprehensible by men; they do, however, lead to apprehensions germane to the speculations which we have sought to follow out. In many religions they have led to some form of Trinitarian doctrine. In Christianity they have led to a form of Trinitarianism which may consonantly with our line of thought be presented as follows:

The Eternal God is such as to communicate Himself; co-eternal with His ultimate Being is His Word, which is His mind in self-expression. The form of that self-expression is the created universe, as the form of Shakespeare’s self-expression is the scheme of words that constitutes each of his poems and plays. The divine and creative Word was not uttered once for all, but it receives perpetual utterance in the radiation of light, in the movements of the stars, in the development of life, in the reason and conscience of man. So soon as there is life, there is self-determined response to environment, though at first the part played by the “self” in this process is very small. Where it occurs, there is a transition from purely efficient to efficient plus final causation. Action is now governed in some measure by the apparent good. The good which appears, as being objectively given, is an activity of the divine Word—that self-expressed mind of God wherein man’s mind gropingly finds itself, with many distortions and errors, but never without some reality of correspondence. This discovery or recognition shows itself in man as a more eager appetition of that good, and this responsive appetition is felt also to be divine and is called by Christians Holy Spirit. It was hardly recognised as distinct from the Word until the Word was uttered in a new fullness of expression, as Christians believe, in the historical Person, Jesus of Nazareth. That fuller objective self-manifestation of the divine called forth a new potency of responsive aspiration to which, as an experienced fact, was given the name Holy Spirit. This power of God within the soul, responding to God self-manifested in Jesus Christ, could afterwards be recognised in the responsive reaction of all life to the good wherever manifest.

But this response is not mechanically evoked; the degree or direction of it cannot be calculated in advance by reference only to the appeal offered to it. In this field it is not true that “action and reaction are equal and opposite”. The living, self-determining organism is an uncertain entity until its response is made. Therefore life has taken many lines of development that lead nowhere, and living objects, from parasitic worms or beetles up (or down) to self-seeking men of high intelligence, seek their good—that is, their true selves—in what brings loss to others. Every time this happens it brings disappointment to God at work in the process of time; for God Himself, so far as His experience is temporal, has not absolute knowledge when the response that gives Him full sovereignty will be made; so that it is said “Of that day and of that hour knoweth no man, neither the Son” who is the divine Word, God self-manifested in the created process. But God is not only known as the Word who makes God manifest, nor as the Spirit who makes response to that manifestation, but as the Father, the fount of Deity and therein of all else, with whom a thousand years are as one day, and whose Love—that is, giving of self to rejoice in the self-gift which answers—is fulfilled in Word and Spirit, with all that in redemption and sanctification issues from the eternal creativity. This is not all that Christians have meant by the doctrine of the Triune God, but it is that part of it which coheres with our present line of enquiry.16

Does History then make any difference or not to the Eternal? In one sense, it manifestly does not. The question is framed in the language of succession. To make a difference is only possible in a literal sense where one phase succeeds another. And the Eternal is not successive. But in another sense History makes a great difference to the Eternal; for if there were no History, or if History were other than in fact it is, the Eternal would not be what the Eternal is. God the eternal is such as to sustain His own fullness of being, with the self-giving and the reality of victorious sacrifice which Religion apprehends as the heart of that fullness of being, through the historical process which supplies to these elements in His nature an opportunity of actualisation not otherwise conceivable. History does not make a difference to God in the sense of making Him different at one time from what He was at another; but it does make a difference to Him in the sense of being so vitally united to His eternal essence as its inevitable self-expression that if it were annihilated, or even changed, that would involve a difference in Him as compared with what, as author, over-ruler, and fulfiller of History, He is.

It may be legitimate to put this in the terms of traditional Christian belief. The Nativity, Death and Resurrection of Christ did not, according to that belief, make God other than He was before. They did, indeed, enable Him to treat mankind in a new way, and so in a real sense altered His active relationship to men; manifestation of what human selfishness means for divine love rendered, morally appropriate a new method of action on the part of the divine love. But the love itself was unchanged. This does not mean, however, that the Eternal Life of God was unconcerned with the historical life of Christ, which merely exhibited it. On the contrary, that historical life is so intimately one with the eternal which it makes manifest, that if it could be annihilated, the eternal life would be different in quality. It is not incidental to God’s eternity that (if the Christian Gospel be true) He lived and suffered and triumphed in the process of time. If that happened, then His eternal being is such as to necessitate its happening, so that its not happening would prove His eternal being to be other than Christianity believes. The quality of God’s eternal life is such that “it behoved the Christ to suffer”; and if either there were no History, or History contained no divine passion, that quality would be other than it is. The eternal is the ground of the historical, and not vice versa; but the relation is necessary, not contingent—essential, not incidental. The historical is evidence of the eternal, not only as a shadow is evidence of substance, but as a necessary self-expression of a Being whose essential activity is at once self-communication and self-discovery in that to which He communicates Himself.

To enter upon any discussion of the meaning of actual human history as known to us is to leave the field of necessary connexions for the contingent. For owing to the nature of spirit, contingency is itself a necessary characteristic of human history. But we can lay down certain principles even here. If our whole account of the nature of Value is true, or even only contains truth, then the meaning of History is found in the development of an ever wider fellowship of ever richer personalities. The goal of History, in short, is the Commonwealth of Value. From this standpoint the formation of the League of Nations marks an epoch of significance not only for our historical period but for History itself when viewed in relation to Eternity. And the difficulties of the enterprise are part of its significance. For those difficulties represent the claims of the several units to fullness of independent life within the fellowship. The goal is neither richness of individuality without recognition of the claims of fellowship, nor width of fellowship established between units that have little depth of individuality; the goal is individuality in fellowship where each term is heightened to the maximum. It is idle to speculate which of the two terms is the more important in principle; but it may well be held that we have now reached a stage in the development of warfare at which hostilities are so disastrous to all parties that the cause of national individuality can never be served by such national individualism as may involve war. Certainly in the last resort the two terms are necessary to one another. There can be no richness of individuality for men or for nations without fellowship, and there can be no fellowship apart from individuality nor depth of fellowship apart from rich variety of individuality.

But this History of nations is an affair of a few generations. Its whole drama is enacted upon a planet which is losing its power to sustain life. Astronomers seek to comfort us with the thought that for many millions of years life can continue, and there is plenty of time for our enterprise of progress. That thought brings comfort if the harvest of the world is to be gathered into some eternal store; but it is sheer lack of imagination to suppose that a vista of a million years can give more significance than a week or a fortnight to our moral strivings, if at the end it is all to be as though we had never been at all. If that is the end for the race, and all its members pass out of existence, then it is in such a futility that the Eternal finds expression, and nothing can check the attribution of the futility to the Eternal there expressed. Yet what is the alternative? Mere prolongation of existence for individual spirits points either to an everlasting stagnation or to an unending restlessness; and neither is very satisfactory. What would give meaning to all the movement of History is the attainment of that synoptic vision of its process which at once appreciates the process as such and yet enables the mind to compass it instead of being immersed in it. Such a serene relationship to the occurrences of Time—entering into them with sympathy but yet detached from them because possessed of the principles (or the Spirit) which shape them—is perhaps one part of what has been called the Peace of God. The reality of that Peace, and its availability to finite spirits, would give to History a meaning; if there is no such condition, or if finite spirits cannot reach it, then History is indeed

a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.17

Here we recall the intuition of Religion at its deepest that History moves to a climax which is historical because it occurs in, and crowns, the course of History, but which is in its own nature a transition to a new order of experience. That order is not one which has no relationship to the historical. The “things above” on which this hope would bid us “set our affection”18 are none other than the things on earth which are “the fruit of the spirit”.19 “Life eternal”20 is such that it is attainable before as well as after the catastrophe of death. Yet the order of experience which death makes possible is new, and unpredictable by those whose experience is of the historical order only. Therefore we are not only unable to anticipate the experience that awaits us, but are for that reason unable fully to understand or to justify the historical order itself. The historical order together with the climax which is a transition to something more and other than history is, on this view, one of those unities where the principle of unity is in the whole, so that even what precedes is fully intelligible only when what follows has completely developed the ground of the necessity of every part. This type of unity, as we have seen, is perfectly familiar in every good poem or drama. From the standpoint of the end, necessity governs the whole; from any earlier standpoint, there is contingency and indeterminacy. We are living out such a drama—the drama of which the plot is the creation of finite spirits by divine love, and the fashioning of their initially selfish individualities into the Commonwealth of Value. The end is not predictable from the beginning; and the beginning can only be understood in the light of the end. Consequently our apprehension of the Meaning of History is very meager. But we apprehend these two points. It can only have meaning at all if Eternal Life is a reality; and the meaning then is one which we do not so much discover as actually make. For human History is nothing other than ourselves; and we make its meaning by living out its process in the power, already available to us, of the Eternal Life which is at once the source of that meaning and its culmination.

  • 1. Cf. Lectures XI., XII., XIII. and elsewhere.
  • 2. Timaeus, 37 d.
  • 3. Plato had also another view; see below, p. 443.
  • 4. Cf. Lecture XI.
  • 5. Cf. C. C. J. Webb, Problems in the Relations of God and Man, pp. 62, 63.
  • 6. Sophocles, Antigone, 456 f.
  • 7. See Lecture IX.
  • 8. E.G. 1 Corinthians ii. 9.
  • 9. Cf. St. John i. 3.
  • 10. Ibid. 4.
  • 11. eivkovta mu¤qon ajpodecomevnou~, Plato, Timaeus, 29 d.
  • 12. In Lecture X.
  • 13. William Blake.
  • 14. Browning, Paracelsus.
  • 15. Genesis 1.
  • 16. Cf. my sermon on “The Holy Spirit and the Blessed Trinity” in Fellowship with God, pp. 130–144; and the closing chapter of Christus Veritas.

    There appears to be a difference in the New Testament between “Holy Spirit”, to which reference is made above, and “The Holy Spirit”—the Divine “Person” who is the source of this responsive energy in the human soul. Unfortunately our versions do not observe this distinction.
  • 17. Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V.
  • 18. Colossians iii. 1.
  • 19. Galatians v. 22.
  • 20. St, John xvii. 3.
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