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Lecture 4: The Belief in God: Its Origin and Development

KANT has said that there are especially two things which excite our reverence: the starry heaven above us, and the moral law within us. He has thus indicated the two sources from which the belief in God springs—namely, the external world in so far as it shows to our thinking a rational order of existing being, an all-embracing truth; and the internal world in so far as in it a rational order of being that-ought-to-be presses itself upon us as an all-determining end, or the ideal of the good. That the good which we oppose to actuality as that which ought to be, is yet not merely our subjective thought, a dream of our imagination, but that it is that which truly is, the power that is over reality; and that the principle of the whole external existence is not alien and indifferent to the ideal longing and hoping of our own being, but is the source of its motive power and the guarantee of its right to realisation,—this is the kernel of the belief in God. The idea of God is the Unity of the True and the Good, or of the two highest ideas which our reason thinks as theoretical reason and demands as practical reason; and if reason is not to lose its unity, and therefore itself, in this antagonism between knowing of the real and demanding of the ideal, it must raise itself above the opposition to the synthesis of the two sides, or to the idea of God. This is the a priori ground or rational origin of the belief in God found in the nature of our mind.

It is of course evident of itself that this principle, as we have here expressed it, was not from the very beginning in the consciousness of men; for, in order to think ideas, reason must already be developed, which in the first of mankind it could just as little be as in children. This, however, does not exclude the fact that there was from the beginning the unconscious rational impulse which lay at the basis of the formation of the belief in God, however manifold may have been the direct motives which co-operated with it. All traces of the oldest history of religion point to this, that the belief in God did not exist ready-made from the beginning, but that it was formed out of the prehistorical belief in spirits contemporaneously with the beginnings of social civilisation, on the threshold of the historical life of the peoples. And the original belief in spirits appears already to point back to two sources—to external nature and the soul of man. For ancestral spirits and nature-spirits are found everywhere in the primeval period of the peoples side by side with one another, and passing into each other in various forms of combination without the one being able to be referred to the other. They appear to be both equally original, and to be explained by different psychological motives.

Various naïve reflections may have contributed to the universally diffused belief of the primitive men in the continued existence and active presence of the souls of the dead. When they saw life disappear in the dying with the fleeting breath, it was natural to find the principle of life, or the soul, in the breath; and hence in most languages the words for Soul and Spirit coincide with the designations for Breath and Wind. But that the soul that flees with the breath does not perish, but only changes its place of residence, was testified to primitive man by his dream-perceptions, in which he saw the dead again appear. From this he concluded that they continued to live as aeri-form shadowy beings, usually invisible, and that they moved more rapidly than when they lived in the body, penetrated everywhere, and were superior in knowledge and capability to earthly men. The incorporeal double of the dead person could, according to the primitive belief, assume the most different and most frightful forms; it could work at a distance, transport itself with the swiftness of lightning to other places, and could otherwise produce wonderful effects beyond the measure of what is natural to mankind. Besides, the spirits of ancestors remained, according to the oldest view, in the neighbourhood of the families they had left behind, and in constant relation with them; they claimed a share of the daily meals and other marks of honour; they rewarded such performances by the protection of their kin; and they punished the neglect of these things by sensible evils.

But the spirit-host believed in by primitive men was recruited not merely from the world of men, but also from that of nature. The intermediate link between the human souls and those with which the untutored fancy peopled nature may have been formed by the souls of animals, the worship of which played a great part in Egypt, and which are even now objects of worship among savage tribes. In everything which moves on earth or in the heavens, and which consequently appears to live, the primitive man beheld an active soul as the subject and cause of the respective movements. Fountains, rivers and seas, trees and woods, winds and waves, and in particular also the earthly fire of the hearth and the heavenly fire of the storm, and finally the sun, moon, and stars, and the heaven that embraces all,—all these appeared to the naïve fantasy as living beings, because its “personifying apperception” was able to apprehend the subject of phenomena only as an active subject after the analogy of the human soul. This animation of nature is not to be explained by holding that the primitive man only compared natural phenomena with living beings, or even that he merely thought of them as a domicile or operation of spirits of human origin. Either view would presuppose a definite distinguishing of the sensible element and of the supersensible subject; but such a distinction only appeared later, whereas, for the original mythological notion, the sensible element and the subject that was active in it still coincided as one. It is only on this view that all those names, attributes, and myths of the natural Deities are explained, which manifestly have their roots in natural phenomena. I can therefore not agree with those who, after the example of the ancient rationalist Euhemeros, would explain the natural Deities from elevation of ancestral spirits to be rulers over earthly and heavenly regions—a view which is advocated, for instance, by Mr Herbert Spencer. I believe that they explain themselves more simply, without going round about by human souls, from the animation of nature, which was just as natural for the childlike fantasy of the primitive man as it still is to-day for children and poets. Only so much may perhaps be admitted, that for the more definite personifications of the nature-spirits, for their separation from the element of nature, and their elevation to be the objects of a standing and common cult, the undoubtedly more original cult of ancestral spirits may have co-operated.

Nevertheless this prehistoric belief in spirits cannot yet be properly called religion; it only contained the germs of religion. The development of these germs, however, could not be reached before the beginnings of social organisation and order. So long as men still lived in roaming hordes without social organisation, there was also still merely an indefinite swarm of spirits without individual qualities, only perhaps that the friendly spirits were distinguished from the hostile (light spirits from dark spirits). It was not till families gathered around the domestic altar (the hearth) as settled households, till these families expanded into clans, and till the clans united into tribes, that there also arose out of the swarm of common spirits the Gods proper as the protecting powers of the corresponding groups of human society. And with these groups there also grew at the same time their ideal representatives, the divine patron spirits or tutelary genii. The families had only their narrowly limited house-gods; the religion of the clans and tribes rose to the worship of higher common tutelary Deities,—whether it was that the ancestral spirit of a prominent family, of a chief, or of the founder of a city, rose to the rank of a common God of the people, or that the local cult of a nature-spirit became the connecting centre for a greater group of the surrounding dwellers, and thereby the (elementary) tutelary spirit of the place was transformed into the tutelary spirit of the community of the region and into the founder of their state, and was identified with a tribal hero or put into genealogical connection with one. Thus there arose out of the deification of ancestral spirits and the humanisation of nature-spirits, the world of the Gods of the several national religions. In the case of many of these mythical forms it will always remain obscure how they fashioned themselves in the consciousness of their votaries,—whether by a nature-spirit, to which a certain place was sacred, becoming the tutelary God of the settlers on his territory, and thus becoming their Heros eponymus, or by a historical ancestor with the growing power of his clan being raised to be the ruler also of their natural surroundings, of the land, sea, and sky. So much appears at all events to be certain (as it is put in the words of Goblet d'Alviella), “that in the classical mythology there is found a continual interaction between the Gods and heroes: if Gods are represented as glorified men, it is no wonder that glorified men also come to be regarded as Gods.”

With the elevation of the tutelary spirits of definite social human groups above the other spirits, the beginning of the religious belief in Gods was made. An organised Polytheism, however, was not yet reached everywhere, but this only came about in those peoples who attained to a certain degree of culture and a lasting political unity. Ideas of a divine hierarchy developed themselves everywhere pari passu with the improvement of the earthly political institution. And men were also quite conscious of this parallelism between the heavenly and earthly kingdom, but by a natural perspective deception they always held the human community to be a copy of the heavenly. But what distinguishes these Gods of the Polytheistic national religions from the spirits, is not merely the greater power and dominion attributed to them, but also a new and higher content and purpose of their life: they are the bearers, founders, and preservers of the world-order—not only of the natural, but also of the moral, order of the world. The spirits worshipped by savage tribes are individual powers which act by caprice and chance, which combat with each other, perish, and are supplanted by new spirits. The savages are never sure that the sun which sets to-day will appear again to-morrow, or that the summer which is now overcome by the giant winter will return again next year. As their own life is still driven on without content and purpose by momentary impulses, so also is it with the life of their swarms of spirits. The higher belief, and properly the first religious belief in Gods, has been gained from two sides—from the formation of a social order among men, and from intellectual reflection upon the order of things in the life of nature, which both co-operated to bring about the same result.

Because the beginnings of all social orders and practices, from the government of the house up to the government of the State, had been essentially formed under the influence of religious motives, it was inevitable that the Gods should be thought of as the founders and protectors of these orders and practices: not that they had from the very beginning also represented moral ideals of a universal kind—for such were not yet known to primitive men, nor could they therefore ascribe them to their Gods—but they were certainly the representatives of the abiding collective will and the common wellbeing of the community of their worshippers. Accordingly, every violation of this whole or of its individual members, by which the existence and wellbeing of the family, the tribe, and the people is violated, is at the same time a trespass against the divine power that protects this community. Hence in the primitive States the administration of justice stood everywhere in closest connection with religion. The social obligations were strengthened by the oath, the appeal to divine witnesses and avengers; and the Gods aided the discovery of criminals by oracles or divine judgments, which played everywhere an important part in times of crude administration of law. The expiation of a crime by punishment or voluntary restitution is everywhere at the same time a religious expiation for the reconciliation of the offended Deity. Now the more this rational side of the divine government, directed to the good of the moral order of the human community, gained in significance for practical piety and took precedence over its physical working, so much the more was it also necessary for the representation of the personal character of the Gods to be put into harmony with their social governing for the common advantage. Men began to represent the protecting powers of society as types of the qualities valued in society, and consequently to represent them asmoral ideals; not of course in the sense which we are wont to connect with a moral ideal, but in the sense that the existing ideas of human ability held by the peoples were personified in the Gods themselves. In particular, the artistic fantasy of the Greeks succeeded in developing their Gods into ideals of that καλοκἀγ αθία, of that beautiful morality of symmetry, of the harmonious balance of reason and morality, in which they beheld the ideal of human virtue. It is certainly not to be thought that this higher representation of the moral being of the Deity was anywhere the universal popular view; it was, in fact, everywhere originally only present in the knowledge of individual enlightened men, and had to assert itself laboriously in constant conflict against the cruder ideas of the mass of the people. It is well known how keenly the Greek philosophers, from Heraclitus and Xenophanes, protested against the immoral representations of the national religion. And around what else did the struggle of the Hebrew prophets against the obtuseness of the crowd turn than just the opposition between the moral conception of the Deity and the naturalistic mythological conception? Perhaps we may see in this opposition the proper turning-point of the history of religion, even more than in the question about the unity or plurality of the divine, which indeed is connected with it, although the two do not quite coincide.

In two respects the awaking reflection on the order of nature has been of great importance for the development of the belief in God, side by side with the progress of the social order. When men began to reflect upon the regularity in the succession of the times of the day and year, and their connection with the motion of the heavenly bodies, the thought could not but press itself upon them that the powers which rule in nature do not act according to arbitrariness and caprice, but that they stand, just like men, under a constant and common order. This order they could then refer either to the prescription of a supreme God standing above nature, or to the reign of law indwelling in the universe itself, which, as a universal power above the individual Gods, was partly personified in particular genii, and partly expressed in abstract conceptions. The Egyptian Maat, daughter of the sun-god Ra, and the Persian genius Asha Vahista were personifications of the natural and moral order of the world; and for the same thought the Hindus had the impersonal conceptions Rita and Karma, the Greeks had Mοȋρα and Nέμεσις, and the Chinese had Tao. In so far as by all these expressions there was designated a world-ruling power superior to the many individual Gods, there is clearly betrayed the consciousness that the many Gods are not yet the highest, that the really divine still lies above them; and this therefore shows a Monotheistic tendency. The transition to Monotheism has, however, been made in two different ways, which led to different conceptions of the Monotheistic thought of God. The one of these ways which was taken by the Hindus and the Greeks proceeds from the phenomena of nature, and leads through continued abstraction and generalisation to a single substance and universal law, or to Pantheism; the other way proceeds from the limited national God, and leads through the expansion of his sphere of power and the moralisation of his nature to ethical Theism, the classical representatives of which have been the prophets of Israel.

It is quite conceivable that a people disposed for philosophical reflection, like the Hindus and Greeks, may have come early to the thought that the many Nature-Gods were only different forms of the manifestation of one and the same divine Being; but it is also conceivable that the propensity to abstraction and generalisation, when once awakened, could not come to rest before it had resolved the manifold manifestations into the unity of a universal Being which, because all distinctions have been obliterated in it, is only an empty indeterminate abstract Being which is hardly distinguished from nothing. Certainly it was a step in the progress of the religious spirit that the Deity was no longer thought of as a finite object along with other objects, but that the thought of infinitude, of opposition to all limited worldly existence, was taken up in earnest. But the infinite was still conceived of in a one-sidedly negative way, in the Brahmanic and Eleatic speculation, as the abyss which swallows up all finite being, not as the positive ground which produces and maintains the finite. The Brahma of the Vedanta philosophy, like the one infinite Being of Parmenides, is like the cave of the lion, into which all the footsteps lead, but none lead out again. If the true is only the most abstract distinctionless and changeless Being, then the world of manifold and changeable existence is an untrue appearance, a delusion of Maya, which indeed becomes the more inconceivable, seeing that the subject and its consciousness—for which the appearance of the manifold and changeable exists—has itself also but an apparent existence like everything else. Thus does the Pantheism of the absolute substance show itself as Akosmism, and ultimately as absolute Illusionism. As in this infinite there disappear with all other distinctions also the distinctions of true and false, of weal and woe, of good and bad, the religious disposition can here only consist in indolent brooding over the nothingness of existence, in indifference to all the interests of life, and finally in the extinguishing of the living will itself—“Nirvana.”

While the Indian mind had lost itself in the mazes of Pantheism, Akosmism, and Illusionism, the more energetic thinking of the Greeks was happily able to overcome this stage of transition, and to rise to a view of God and the world which was destined to be of the greatest importance for the religious development of humanity. Plato, like the Eleatic philosophy, had also distinguished between the world of sense, which is only apparent reality, and the “really real,” which is elevated above space and time. But this really real being, according to Plato, is not, as with the Eleatics, an abstract unity that excludes all distinctions, and consequently also all thinking, but it is a world of thoughts, the plurality of which is unified by inner necessity into a harmonious whole; and thus it forms the world of the true, the beautiful, and the good. This world of ideas is embraced into a unity in the highest Idea, the Idea of God, which at the same time is perfect being. In God (the divine reason) there lies not only the ultimate ground of all knowing and being, or of all truth, but also the ultimate end of all being, or the good. That God's essential being is the good, that all statements regarding God are to be measured by the idea of the good, and that He is therefore as much the ground of justice in the moral world as of truth and beauty in the natural world,—these are central thoughts of the Platonic philosophy, the high historical significance and abiding truth of which stand fast, although it may also have to be recognised that its original intuitions were still affected with the limits of the Greek thinking. It was a lofty idealism which saw in the world the revelation of a divine reason, a system of archetypal ideas, which the human spirit represents in its knowledge of truth. But this idealism had still as its reverse side the dualism between the Idea and the irrational reality, which is not the pure expression of the Idea, but stands in partial opposition to it. For, when the Ideas enter into manifestation they are drawn out of one another into the dividedness of space and time, and are thus as it were displaced and distorted. The sensible world is therefore only the imperfect obscured representation or copy of the pure world of true being, or of the Ideas. The cause of this imperfectness is the irrational principle of the “unbounded” or of exteriority and succession in time, a principle which is properly a non-existing being, μὴ ὄν; but as the contributory cause of the world of appearance it yet again becomes a negative quantity, a matter adverse to the Idea, which hinders the pure manifestation of the Idea. With this division of the ideal and sensible world a mediation of the two was needed, and this was found by Plato in the soul of the world and of man which stands in the middle between reason and sense. These thoughts, the opposition of the two worlds and their mediation through a middle principle, became of immense importance for the following time. But they have their root in Plato in this position, that the spirit, when it began to reflect upon itself, was at first conscious only of its distinction from the external world, but not yet of its autocratic power over it; and this, again, is connected with the fact that it apprehended its specific nature first in thinking, and not in moral willing, that it recognised as its task only the copying the given harmony of the world, and not the free shaping of the world and realising of its own ideal in the world. It is the Greek Intellectualism and Æstheticism, the want of ethical depth and power, which forms the limit of the Platonic idealism and the ground of that dualism which does not let the Divine Spirit come to full lordship over the real world. The same dualism may be also observed in the philosophy of Aristotle. He, indeed, finds everywhere in the world rational purposes (thoughts of final ends) as the working “Form” of things; but this rational principle has always to combat with the irrational principle of matter which is contrary to purpose and conception, and its resistance is never entirely to be overcome. According to Aristotle, God is pure Form without matter, pure activity without passivity and change; but such Form is only pure thinking, which again has only itself as its content. As this activity of thought which persists in itself (νόησις νοήσεως), God is separated from the world which is mixed up of activity and passivity; He is indeed the self-unmoved cause of the motion of the world, in so far as the imperfect strives after His perfectness, but He does not rule over it, and He does not come to revelation in it. As the philosophical thinker after Aristotle felt himself in the consciousness of his higher dignity exalted above the cares of the practical life, so, according to him, God is infinitely exalted in the stillness of His eternal unchangeable thinking above the world of becoming, of striving, and of struggling, in nature and humanity, which is a world full of change and suffering. This philosophical transcendence was combined by the Epicureans with the popular Polytheism in such a way that they thought of the regions intermediate between heaven and earth as inhabited by Gods, who lead by themselves a cheerful life of enjoyment without troubling themselves in any way about earthly things and the affairs of men. The Stoics, on the other hand, went back again to the world-soul of the Ionic philosophy of nature; they thought of the Deity partly as the primal material of the world, the fire out of which all proceeded and into which all again returns, and partly as the world-reason, the Logos which guides and orders all, the all-wise Providence. This latter side became so very predominant among the later Stoics that their conception of God, which at the beginning was more of a naturalistic Pantheistic character, always approached more to an immanent ethical Monotheism. But as the Stoics did not wish wholly to lose touch with the mythological faith of the people, they received into their system the national Gods as the subordinate forms of the manifestation of the one Deity, or as Its ministering organs. The same was also done by the Neo-Platonists, who needed these half-divine middle beings (“demons”) the more urgently as they carried the Platonico-Aristotelian view of the Deity as belonging to a world beyond this to its utmost issue; they divested the Deity of all positive attributes, and made It a wholly incognisable Being which, inaccessible to clear thinking, can only be felt by ecstatic feeling. As the ancient philosophy thus ended with Agnosticism, it was indeed able to further the dissolution of the mythological Polytheism, but it could put nothing positive that could satisfy the religious feeling in place of the old. The substitute for the old belief in God could only be formed by the new faith which had developed itself out of the religion of Israel.

The belief of the Hebrews in their tribal God Jahve had in the pre-prophetic time hardly yet distinguished itself clearly from the analogous belief of the other Semitic tribes in their tribal Deities. The belief was first brought to a higher development by the prophets, who raised the tribal God of Israel to be the God of the world, by identifying Him with the moral good in the same way as Plato did some centuries later, and by thinking of His government as an exhibition of holy justice, which has only the good itself as its end, and which does not let itself be determined by any partial collateral considerations, not even by those which related to national privileges. To the Hebrew prophets Jehovah indeed always remained the God of Israel in a peculiar sense, but His government of the world had nevertheless a universal end, which passed beyond the national limits and was unconditionally valuable in itself; and this end it had to realise in the establishment of a kingdom of righteousness and peace in Israel, and from Israel outwards in mankind generally. The prophets, while believing in the victory of this moral end of the divine government of the world, also already looked with hope to the time when the God of this moral government would be the only God of all the peoples. Besides, it was favourable to the religion of Israel that a Polytheistic mythology, already deeply rooted in the fantasy of the people, did not stand here opposed to the higher moral idea of God, as was the case among the Indians and Greeks. Even the anthropomorphic traits, which were by no means wanting in the belief in Jahve, were however not of the same kind as in the more sensuous Polytheistic religions. No such myths were told of Jahve as of Zeus and Jupiter. If the popular belief ascribed passions to Jahve, such as wrath and jealousy, it was not difficult for the prophets to interpret these passions morally as the reaction of the holy God against the human sin and guilt which resisted His purpose of good. Such moral anger and punishment, however, does not exclude the faithfulness and long-suffering of God in carrying out His good purpose, but it serves the realisation of the moral ideal by means of the chastisement and purification of the sinful people. From this point of view the history of their people became to the prophets the advancing revelation of the educating wisdom and justice and grace of their God, who also holds the fortunes of nations in His hand and guides them to the final end of realising His all-embracing kingdom, in which righteousness, peace, and salvation will reign. Nor could the misfortunes in their experience disconcert the prophets in this faith in the moral teleology of the government of the world; for all the adversity of the present only turned their hopeful look further away and higher towards the much more glorious ideals of the future. In the consciousness of the prophets, God, just because He was one with the moral Ideal, became the God of the historical revelation, the Lord of the times and seasons, who in His decrees disposes of all that is in the future. The Hebrew did not, like the Greek, find the revelation of God in the harmony of an ideal world of thoughts which was always immanent in the actual, but he found that revelation in the purposive striving of the whole of history, in which all that is actual is continually transcended and directed by the ideal of the future.

In the spirit of the great prophets the two sides of the thought of God were combined in the closest way—namely, the exaltation of the holy One above human weakness and sin, and the condescension of the gracious One to a helpful presence. But in the post-exilian Judaism the first side of the Idea predominated so strongly, that God was then thought of almost only as a lawgiver and a judge in the other world, and men could only see His revelation in humanity mediated through middle beings like the angels and the personified Wisdom, or the personified Word. Judaism had therefore at last arrived at the same dualistic transcendence of the Deity as the Platonic idealism; and thus the same need showed itself on both sides to fill up the gulf between this world and the world beyond by intermediate beings. The religious philosophy of the Alexandrian Jew Philo was a product of these converging currents of the time. According to Philo, God is not merely not to be thought of in an anthropomorphic way as like men, but He is without attributes at all, and exalted above all conceptions and names; we can only know of Him that He is, not what He is; we can only call Him the existing One and the cause of all being. His working upon the world is not immediate, but is mediated through other powers which are embraced in the divine “Logos.” This Logos is the image and the first-born Son of God, the ideal of the world, and the Mediator of its creation and government, and of all the revelation of God in sacred history. This shadowy form of the Philonic Logos, which wavers between conceptual abstraction and personality, could naturally not suffice to satisfy the religious need of a real historical revelation of God; but its great historical significance consisted in this, that it prepared the conceptual form for the theological apprehension and expression of the new revelation in Jesus Christ.

Jesus recognised in the God of the prophets and of the Psalms his heavenly Father and the heavenly Father of us all, who makes His sun rise on the just and the unjust, who condescends to the miserable and sinners in compassionate love in order to make them His children and associates of His kingdom, the imitators and instruments of His own holy love. The God-consciousness of Jesus was not indeed a Hellenic cheerful consciousness, as has been said; his God was rather the holy One of Israel infinitely exalted above the sinful beings of the world. The requirements of His will were not lowered by Jesus, but were raised into a demand for the surrender of the whole man to the one unconditioned purpose of God; and the essence of the kingdom of God has been set forth by him in sharpest contrast to the kingdoms of this world and their glory, which must be renounced by whoever would win the kingdom of heaven. But while Jesus maintained the religious ideal in its unconditioned exaltedness and purified it, on the other hand he at the same time bridged over the gulf which had opened up to the whole ancient world, Jewish as well as Greek, between the ideal and the actual, the good and the true. To him the holy God was not merely the exacting lawgiver, the reckoning Lord, the retributive judge, but He was above all the loving Father, who sees in every man His child, the object of His merciful care and wise training, the God who does not even cast out and condemn the sinner, but who will and can save him, deliver him from his sin, and raise him to the good. The good is indeed the Ideal, the kingdom of God, which is not yet actually here, but has yet “to come” and be actual; yet this Ideal is already an internal efficient present power, the power of the Spirit of God, who drives demons out of souls; the power of faith and hoping trust, which removes mountains; and the power of love, which by serving and bearing overcomes the evil of the world and unites men into a harmonious family of God. In the religious idealism of Jesus, God is therefore not merely the perfect ideal of the good, but also the self-realising power of the good, on which every resistance of the world must ultimately break in pieces, and which therefore shows itself the superior power over reality as the true kernel of being. The synthesis of the good and true was for the first time realised in full depth and with clear consciousness in Jesus' Idea of God; and therefore it is rightly accepted by us as the highest revelation of God which still remains authoritative, however much the unfolding of it in conceptions and its mediation with secular truth may always remain the inexhaustible problem of the religious thinking of humanity.

With this revelation of God, which had become personal life in Jesus, the national limitedness and the legal externality of the Jewish belief in God were overcome. The God of the prophets could now become in the missionary preaching of Paul the world-reconciling God of the world of the nations; and in the mysticism of John it became the love which makes its dwelling in the hearts of the pious, and unites them into a fellowship of brethren and of true worshippers of God. It was natural that this new belief in God should seek after new forms of expression, and should express the fulness of its contents in the language of the philosophical thinking of that time. The Philonic conception of the Logos presented itself as the most natural means for accomplishing this. By its application to the revelation of God which had appeared in Jesus, the alliance between Jewish theology and Greek philosophy was concluded, and from it the doctrine of God of the Christian Church proceeded. The historical purposiveness of this doctrinal development cannot be contested even by those who by no means hold its doctrinal formulas as final truth. This development rests upon two grounds. On the one hand, by combination with the Logos of speculation the religious revelation of Jesus was divested of its accidental historical investments, such as lay in the national and apocalyptic idea of the Messiah, which the earliest Christians had shared with the Jews, as appears from their expectation of a visible second coming of Christ from heaven to establish His kingdom upon earth; and thus what was contingent and particular in the historical beginning became idealised and universalised by being fitted as a completing member into the frame of the universal revelation of God as it advanced through universal history. And on the other hand, the metaphysical conception of the Logos as immanent in the world, and ordering it according to law, was filled with religious and moral contents; and thus by its connection with the person of the founder of the historical Church, the Logos, from being a cosmical principle of nature, became a religious principle of salvation, the ideal of the good which is present and active in the community, the personified idea of the man who came from God and who is united with God. Thus in the Christian Idea of God these two sides have been combined from the beginning—the moral-religious ideal of the anthropomorphically represented holy Lord and merciful Father—which ideal sprang from the prophetic and apostolic preaching; and the metaphysical principle, which sprang from the Greek speculation of the infinite Spirit exalted above all human limitation, the ground of the existence and of the order of the universe, in whom we live and move and have our being. To mediate internally these two sides of the Christian idea of God was the problem of the Patristic theology, and it also lies at the basis of the formulæe of the doctrine of the Trinity, in which we can see the attempt to connect the Greek and Jewish cognition, of God in a higher synthesis, and to guard against all deviations to the one side or the other.

For the mediation of these two sides the whole further history of Christian theology and philosophy has laboured, and naturally the one side has come into the foreground at one time, and the other at another. The Greek fathers, especially the Alexandrians Clement and Origen, emphasised the absolute spirituality of God in opposition not merely to all heathen and gnostic Naturalism, but also to the Jewish Anthropomorphism. According to the profound theologian Clement, God is incognisable as regards His essence in Itself, because He is elevated above all finite properties; but He is cognisable according to His revelation in the Logos as the principle both of the natural order of the world and also of the historical religious institution of salvation. On the other hand, Tertullian, a father of the Western Church, could not think of God realistically and humanly enough, so much so that he had even no hesitation is ascribing a body to God, seeing that, as he thought, there is nothing actual that is incorporeal. A remarkable combination of the two sides referred to is contained in the theology of the great Church father Augustine. From the Neo-Platonic standpoint with which he began, he taught the abstract simplicity of the divine essence, in which all qualities are annulled into an indifference, so that one can more easily say what God is not than what He is. Yet the three fundamental determinations—absolute being, knowing, and loving—are predicated of God; but these, again, are identical with each other. As absolute Being and Knowing, God, according to Augustine, who in this follows Plato, is the “eternal truth,” the ground and goal of our knowing; as Love, He is the “unchangeable good,” the true object of our willing in so far as we are determined to His fellowship, and can therefore find no satisfaction in any finite good. If these determinations in some measure already go beyond the presupposed absolute simplicity of the divine essence, there cannot be brought at all into accordance with it what Augustine has taught concerning the double decree of God, or His will of election and reprobation. It is the Jewish Monotheism which breaks forth in this hard representation of God's judicial attitude towards the fall of Adam, and in so glaring a manner as could hardly have been considered possible in the case of a disciple of Plato. Nevertheless, Augustine, with the two sides of his contradictory doctrine of God, became none the less authoritative for the ecclesiastical theology; and not only for the medieval theology, but also for the Protestant theology, which has never liberated itself from this contradiction which lies within its doctrine of God.

In the Middle Ages the monistic (metaphysical) idea of God had remained limited to individual mystic-speculative thinkers (Scotus Erigena, Meister Eckart, the author of the ‘German Theology’). The same idea was carried out in the seventeenth century with great boldness by Spinoza. In opposition to all anthropomorphic Theism, he taught that God is the only independent self-existing being, or the absolute substance which presents itself to our thinking under the two fundamental forms of reality as Thinking and Extension, and out of which all things and souls proceed with purposeless necessity as the finite modes of the manifestation (modi) of its infinite being. This doctrine did not deserve the objection of Atheism which has been often advanced against it; it might much rather be called Akosmism, as it appears to merge the reality of the finite in the one substance of the infinite. But its serious weakness is the total lack of the conception of purpose or end, whereby a fatalistic and naturalistic character threatens to come into this Pantheism, which becomes fatal to the religious consciousness. If everything proceeds with the same necessity from God, and if there is not a development from lower to higher modes of existence, if all that happens is only causally conditioned and not guided by final causes nor striving after ends,—then, along with all the other distinctions of worth, the moral distinctions also fall away; the Idea of the Good, the ideal of what ought to be, becomes fiction and illusion, and there remains nothing more for man but to renounce all and every moral ideal, and the highest moral ideals, and to submit to the unchangeable necessity of being and event. Of this nature also is the piety to which, according to Spinoza, we are to attain through our knowing the order of the world as conformable to law. But as certainly as spiritual elevation belongs to religion, just as certain is it that such elevation as we find in Spinoza's system is not yet really religious. For elevation presupposes an ideal which stands above reality, and hence a God can never satisfy the religious consciousness who, like the God of Spinoza, would only be the ground of being and not also of the being that-ought-to-be,—who would be only the highest truth for the theoretical spirit and not also the highest good for the moral spirit. But notwithstanding this, it cannot be denied that Spinoza's struggle against the popular anthropomorphic representation of God as a limited individual Being, who pursues His own particular purposes according to caprice and arbitrariness, was well founded. He thereby emphasised with great resoluteness a side of the religious Idea of God which is but too easily forgotten in the popular religion, but in doing so he fell into the opposite one-sidedness.

To the Pantheism of Spinoza Leibnitz opposed the Theistic conception of God. God is, according to Leibnitz, the founder of the harmony of all individual beings or monads, which, being without connection in themselves, have been brought only by God into that ordered connection whereby they form the best of all possible worlds. Hence God must be thought of as the perfect ideal of our own souls; wisdom, power, and goodness, which we have in part, are whole in Him. As the perfect ideal, He is for us at the same time the object of the love that gives happiness, which recognises what is truly best in the will of God, and serves Him joyfully in obedience and devotion. The cheerful optimism of Leibnitz's view of the world rests essentially upon the conviction that the world is the work of the infinite wisdom and goodness of God. But although this belief in God ruled the century of the Aufklärung, nevertheless it could not permanently satisfy; the synthesis of the good and true was reached too easily, so that neither of the two sides obtained its full right—i.e., neither the unconditionedness of the moral ideal, nor the infinitude of the metaphysical ground of the world. And hence we see at the end of the eighteenth century the tendencies separating again on both sides. Leasing, Herder and Goethe, Schelling and Schleiermacher went back to Spinozism, but sought to connect it with the Leibnitzian individualism, and to animate it in the sense of a teleological development of the world. Kant, on the other hand, declared the metaphysical idea of God to be incognisable, and held exclusively to the postulate of the moral Lawgiver, Judge, and Ruler of the world, to believe in whom reason felt itself compelled, because only under this assumption could it be tranquillised regarding the readability of the highest good. Fichte transformed the Kantian postulate of a moral Orderer of the world into the faith in the moral world-order, which does not need to be grounded upon a personal God, seeing that it is itself the ultimate and the unconditionally certain. Hegel demanded that Spinoza's substance should be conceived as subject, as the living world-spirit which moves by the Dialectic of the absolute thinking through all the forms and stages of being, which externalises itself in Nature, which comes to itself in Man, and which realises itself in the historical development of the human spirit as a kingdom of truth and freedom. This was a renovation of the Leibnitzian optimism, only with the distinction that with Leibnitz it is the wisdom of a personal Creator that foreordains (“pre-establishes”) the harmony of the world, whereas with Hegel it is the universal thinking (“the Idea”) identical with being, which unfolds itself by logical necessity into the organism of the world, and which therefore is nothing else through and through but the manifestation of the Idea, the self-actualisation of the divine reason. In this “Panlogism,” as the Hegelian philosophy has not been inaptly called, it however appeared that the actual existence of reality did not attain to its full right in two respects. If everything actual is rational, as Hegel said, where then remains the evil and badness of the? Does not its existence appear rather to point to an irrational ground of the world? So asked Schopenhauer; and he therefore put in the place of the absolute reason the reasonless “Will” or blind impulse of life as the ground of the world, which just on that account is so irrational, so full of evil and suffering,—as Schopenhauer proceeded to show in detail, attaching himself to the Indian pessimism, and with many a dash of cynical irony. The defect of the Hegelian Panlogism was found in another respect in this, that there is no place for individual existence, for the right of the individual or of personality, in a world which presents only a system of categories, determinations of thought, or conceptions, and in which therefore only the universal is real. Hence the Leibnitzian individualism was then revived by philosophers like Herbart and Lotze; they emphasised the worth of personality, and thought of God as the ideal or absolute personality, which, however, according to Lotze, is not to be considered as standing dualistically in opposition to the world, but as including the world in Himself in a way analogous to that in which our spirit includes in itself the totality of its representations. Finally, the powerful advance of the natural sciences in our century has had as its consequence in Germany that the Idealism which since Kant, and even since Leibnitz, had there its home, has been given up by many, at least for the theoretical view of the world, and an Atheistic Realism has been put into its place—either as Materialism, Atomism, Hylozoism, or as Scepticism, Phenomenalism, Positivism. But at the same time many upholders of theoretical Materialism or Naturalism have nevertheless maintained the right of Idealism in the sphere of the practical view of life. Feuerbach, David Strauss, Albert Lange, have been the leaders of a widespread school which holds the Idea of God to be indeed a fiction and illusion, but whose adherents yet hold fast to the moral ideal of the good as the final end of human life and of history. Here the question necessarily arises, how the good can be the purpose or end of the world if it is not also in some sense the basis of the world? And hence we stand once more before the old and eternal problem of the belief in God, which has just for its object the synthesis of the true and the good, or of the real principle of the world and the moral ideal of the human heart.

This analysis of the Idea of God into its two constituent elements has been presented lately in a peculiarly instructive way in the controversy between Herbert Spencer and the Comtean positivist Frederic Harrison. The former comes through analysis of the real world to the acceptance of an absolute reality, or an infinite and eternal power, which must be presupposed as the background and bearer of all that is relative and phenomenal, but whose qualities and relation to phenomena are for us unknowable. This unknowable absolute is, according to Spencer, just the object of religion, the great mystery, in the worship of which all religions are at one. According to the positivist, on the other hand, such an absolute being is not existent, at least for us, and can have no significance whatever either for our religious feeling or for our scientific thinking; it is rather Humanity that ought to be the object of the religious feeling,—to it we should feel ourselves bound through grateful piety, and we should bind ourselves to its service in devoted benevolence. On the one side, therefore, we have a supreme moral ideal without a metaphysical ground; on the other, an ultimate metaphysical principle without a final moral purpose; and on either side we have the one half of what as a whole forms the content of the belief in God. Shall this antithesis be the last word? Or will it not rather be the preparation for a deeper synthesis, a purer apprehension of that belief which is inalienable, because indispensable to humanity—the belief in the God of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things, to whom be glory for ever, Amen.