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Lecture 10. What is God?

Simonides and Hiero.

IN the opening words of the present course, I alluded to “the prudent reserve of Simonides,” who, according to the familiar story, being asked by Hiero, What God was? desired a day to think out the question, and then two days more, after that continually enlarging the time needed for finding the answer, but without ever being able to bring in a definition of God. During the months, since these opening words were spoken, Hiero's question has been pressing itself upon us in many forms. Are we now readier with an answer than Simonides was?

This course of lectures deals exclusively with the way in which man ought finally to interpret the universe.

The design of the present course of lectures, as I explained at the outset, does not comprehend discussion of special problems of religious thought. Some of these I hope to deal with next winter. At present I am concerned with the previous question of the credibility of any theological conception of existence. I am asking how the universe should finally be regarded by man? Must it be under the conception of mathematical quantity, or of physical causation only, as with Spinoza and Hume; or may it with reason be regarded as essentially supernatural reality, in analogy with man as a moral agent, and his higher experience? We have been thinking out the question, whether the general theistic problem, which involves the special problems and difficulties of religion, can be determined, or whether, on the contrary, it cannot enter within man's intellectual horizon. Is the modern physical conception of the universe the highest that is attainable; or is this conception—valid as far as it is verified by facts and reasonings that rest on cosmic faith—inadequate when measured by man as a moral being? Is the monotheistic interpretation of the universe the really reasonable one finally, under the more comprehensive faith, which sustains not only discursive reason in relation to data of sensuous perception, but reason in relation to all the data of moral and spiritual as well as sensuous experience?

Non-theistic interpretations of the universe.

I have accordingly tried to present for your consideration, in a philosophic temper, the chief ways in which the universe is looked at, by those who seek to satisfy themselves about the Power that is supremely and finally at work in it. The constructive conceptions of Universal Materialism, Panegoism, and Pantheism, were tried provisionally in succession; and I asked your candid consideration of what seemed unsatisfying, because inadequate, in each, while not overlooking the partial truth which gives to each what strength it has. If you would convince another who really loves truth, of defect in conception, you must try to see the side at which things are looked at by him; for on that side his view of them is probably true: by seeing a truth, common to him and to you, he may more readily recognise with you what is wanting in his own conception. In the same spirit we next tried provisionally the destructive or agnostic way of looking at theism and theology, more or less adopted by some in this generation. Here all final conceptions of the universe other than a negative one disappear, and with them, when the agnosticism is bold enough, faith in everything that appears in experience, whether sensuous or spiritual; so that all supposed human knowledge, or interpretation of experience, subsides into the total darkness of universal nescience.

The correlation of cosmic or physical, and religious or theistic faith.

But the mental state in which one doubts about everything is a state in which man cannot live. Even animal life in man includes perceptions of some things, and faith in some of their physical meanings. We cannot live without eating and drinking, and we cannot eat or drink without faith in the nutriment, or in the agreeable sensations, which we believe the visible food to signify, when it is only seen, and before it is tasted. We are daily living in the movement which we call an experience of what is actual. How deep can we go in interpreting the meaning of experience? Ought we to put a fully theistic meaning at last upon data of experience; or may we, must we, be contented to interpret it under the attenuated religious presupposition (if it may be called religious) of a wholly physical or non-moral order, with its physical or non-moral religion? Does God, or the final principle, mean only the ultimately inexplicable natural order; or does God mean ever-active moral reason and purpose, at the root of an always divinely sustained physical order, in which God is Supreme? Is the universe to be finally interpreted in and through what is found in man—man at his highest or best—man with his ineradicable conviction of moral responsibility, and his religious consciousness that even the natural universe must be a manifestation of what he has to think of as the perfect reason of the ideal personality? Is the progressive evolution in space and time finally interpretable in the light of faith in the moral responsibility of man, which can rest on no fulcrum short of the center of the universe, the throne of the Eternal living God? Or must it finally be interpreted in the darkness of an ultimately inexplicable, and possibly illusory, natural order, without a rational centre,—a sham cosmos in which there can be no absolute faith? Must it be this, and only this, although negation of spiritual faith is the crucifixion of that in man which seeks a sufficient response in perfect reason and goodness at the heart of things? Is there anything in the constitution of external nature, or of human understanding, that forbids man to interpret the universe finally as the revelation of a Power that, so far as he has to do with what is real, is in analogy with what is highest and best in himself; in harmony with his moral and religions ideals;—so that the ideal man may be taken practically as the representative or symbol of the true centre of the infinite reality in which man finds himself, and with which he is connected in his whole living experience? Is not intellectual and moral relief best found under this conception?

A way open for a practical answer to Hiero's question?

It is in this way of looking at the universe that I have sought for a practical answer to Hiero's question, an answer which might even have been offered by Simonides. It means that the question may be answered so far as it concerns the moral experience of man, while it is still infinitely unanswerable. It means that the deepest and truest thought man can have about the outside world, is that in which the natural universe is conceived as the immediate manifestation of the divine or infinite Person, in moral relation to imperfect persons, who, in and through their experience of what is, are undergoing intellectual and spiritual education in really divine surroundings—the education in part consisting in struggles to master by obeying the physical nature with which they are continually in contact and collision, and which, in the light of their inner consciousness, is seen to be a revelation of the divine. It may thus be said that man may know God, and also that God cannot be known. And this blended knowledge and ignorance, real knowledge of that which yet passes knowledge, seems to be the final issue of human inquiry as to the co-existence of the three existences postulated in common experience. Nature or the outward world; each man in his own supernatural personality; and the Divine Supernature, on which Nature and Man depend—all these are in part, or practically, knowable: they can be known, that is to say, as far as human action in the universe needs the knowledge, as far, that is to say, as they enter into human experience, physical and spiritual. But reality as at the divine centre is only thus far cognisable, unless man can comprehend infinite experience in infinite reason. Perfect knowledge postulates an experience that is boundless in space and boundless in duration, and an intuition of reason which, transcending space and duration altogether, would be the intellectual vision of all as the omnipresent Eternal.

The scientific and the religious leaps in the dark, in faith and hope.

Physical science is reached by a leap in the dark, in the faith that the presence of physical order and purpose in nature will not suffer the physical inquirer to be put to confusion. Religion, too, is a leap in the dark, yet in hopeful faith in the constant agency of perfect moral reason, as the root not only of the physical order, but as the highest conception man can have of the universal principle of existence. So the moral or religious faith includes and justifies the physical. The Macrocosm, when looked at as perfect or infinite microcosm, is found more human, more in harmony, that is to say, with the complete homo mensura principle of interpretation, than when looked at agnostically, as a finally unintelligible and wholly incalculable complex phenomenon presented to the senses,—which in the end may put us all to confusion. For the future history of such, a universe may in the end contradict the presuppositions without which even physical science must dissolve in nescience, deprived of the witness of humanity to the conviction that we are living and moving and having our natural as well as our moral being in God. Is not man's most reconciling final relation to the infinite universe of reality, that of a person with a Perfect Person; an imperfect and fallible moral being with the Perfect Moral Being? Is not this idea needed even in order to justify confidence in that narrower intercourse with what is real, in which the physical interpreter hears the divine voice expressed, in terms of physical law, in the beneficent discoveries of the natural sciences and the advance of civilisation?

Revelations of God in and through man not excluded from our data by Lord Gifford's Deed.

I have presumed to include the revelation of the supernatural which one finds in moral and religious experience—not excluding as its most signal records those contained in Hebrew and Christian literature—as part of the material of a comprehensive Natural Theology—this notwithstanding the interdict which words in Lord Gifford's Deed may appear to put, especially upon the Hebrew and Christian books. But I cannot suppose that the desire therein expressed, that Gifford lecturers should treat “the science of Infinite Being” without reference to any “supposed supernatural revelation,” can be meant to exclude a reference in the name of reason to records of moral and religious experience which human beings are said to have gone through in Palestine or anywhere else. This remarkable experience, preserved in the Bible of Christianity, or in the catholic traditions of Christendom, whatever else it may be, is at least part of the history of mankind. It presents religious thoughts and faith to which men who once lived on this planet gave expression. If a bar is to exclude the student of natural theology from this recorded religious experience of mankind, and if he must be confined to the phenomena of external nature, in the way an astronomer or a chemist confines himself, so that the theology may be in the narrow sense “natural” and “scientific,” he is deprived of the most significant facts which help to determine man's relation to the final problem of existence. As well say that the astronomer must form astronomical science without reference to the special revelations of astronomical law that are presented in the movements of the solar system, as that the philosophical theologian must deal with the ultimate problem of the universe without reference to the spiritual experience of persons signally inspired by the religious interpretation of life. A fruitful and not an abstract inquiry is surely what is wanted. That God seemed to be mentally experienced in the way prophets and apostles say that they experienced God, is a recorded fact in the history of what has happened in the minds of persons who lived on this planet; whatever weight may be given to the recorded experience, or whatever explanation may be got through it, of the system of the universe.

A “God” comprehensible in the temporally conditioned experience of man cannot be God.

But is the God conceived only after the analogy of what is highest in man an adequate conception of the Infinite Reality? Does not the very spiritual experience of religiously inspired men bear witness to the truth, that the God who can be comprehended by man cannot be the Infinite God? It may be asked whether it is reasonable to suppose that the idea of God as Infinite Man is a solution of the final problem; and this only because it corresponds to what is highest in the implicates of the experience of an ephemeral race of living beings, on one of the lesser planets of the solar system? To conclude that a final conception of Being which thus lets itself down to man may be a solution of the final problem looks like arrogant assumption, the issue of sectarian narrowness, which makes the insignificant sect called mankind the measure of the Infinite Reality.

The human idea of God verified by man's experience of the consequences of its rejection.

It would be so, if this human finality were taken as adequate to the absolute reality. But the human finality is not offered as the conception of God taken from the divine center—only as the conception of God necessarily taken at a human standpoint away from the centre. It is only offered as the best conception possible at the intermediate position, where man may nevertheless find what is even eternally true for that position;—the real knowledge of an intelligence that cannot become omniscient, or know the actual contents of time independently of their conditions of time and change. It may be that which, when held intelligently by man, alone puts him in absolute rational harmony with the universe, and its acceptance then becomes the condition of success in the endeavour to live according to the deepest and truest human relation to what is real. That the religious conception of the universe works well, when rightly accepted and acted on, may be one example of the relation of means and ends on a supreme scale. Can rejection be justified, if this unfits the sceptic, as a complete human being, for his surroundings, or obscures the best ideal of man's office in the universe?

Supposed superconsciousness of the Divine Being.

I have said that much in the records of the religious experience of mankind, in the various religions of the world, as well as the theory of human knowledge implied in these lectures, teaches the lesson that God is infinitely incognisable, while practically knowable in the spiritual interpretation of the universe which our moral and religious experience seems to justify. But one may ask, What kind of Spirit or Mind is this? Are we to imagine the divine intellectual life as a succession of changing acts like those of the inner life in man; or instead as one unchanging intuition of all that is, has been, and is yet to be; or as something different from, because superconsciously transcending, either of these representations? It is suggested that we must suppose God superconscious. But superconsciousness is something that, divorced from what is highest in man, is for us below, while nominally above, all intellect, feeling, and will. The very attempt to conceive a “Mind” of this sort lands the human mind in contradictions. It is suggested “that there may be in the infinite universe something grander and greater than consciousness. There may be species of existence, modes of being innameable by us, which are yet infinitely superior to consciousness, more to be desired than consciousness; and this chapter of greater chances may be even open to us in a future state. The division of the sphere of existence roundly into two parts—the conscious and the unconscious—is misleading: the second segment of the sphere, to wit, the unconscious, containing vastly more than the first; while also its separate divisions and modes may be wholly different from each other, though all confounded under one name—the unconscious. To divide existence into the conscious and unconscious provinces is as if we were to divide animals into men and not-men, where the second expresses a far greater sum of life than the first, though without reference to any of its differential features. So the word ‘unconscious,’ or ‘not-conscious,’ strictly speaking, expresses no more than the absence of consciousness, while the sphere of the unconscious may embrace modes of being amongst which some greater than consciousness may have place. There may be behind the phenomenal curtain something grander than consciousness, though of course indescribable. Philosophers, mystics, poets, prophets, and revealers are all as impotent as the men of science to say what this may be, though they have been for ever putting their souls on the stretch to describe this great and unexplored continent between consciousness and annihilation. To know and tell this would be to know and tell all.” All this seems to suppose that the superconscious God would be God in reality, and not God as reached in and through the highest ideal of man. But the attempt so to think of God seems to land those who make it in a lower idea than that held when we think of Deity as infinitely magnified man. Known yet unknown,—known for the ends of our moral and religious life,—unknown because incapable of perfect intellectual comprehension—the one signal example of how human knowledge may be real while the reality that is known passes out of knowledge.

Solvitur ambulando.

This abates the claims of transcendent idealism, which, dissatisfied with a physical and theological knowledge that is only in part, professes to interpret all from the divine centre in what is therefore bound to be a virtual omniscience, while in fact it supplies only a critical analysis, or a dialectical synthesis, of abstract necessities of reason, instead of solving those mysteries of experience in time, from which philosophy draws its human interest. To the absolute idealist who finds inadequacy in a final conception of the universe that is determined, on the homo mensura principle, by what is highest in man, one can only say that its refutation is in his own hands. Solvitur ambulando. Let him produce the omniscience which the humbler philosophy method is blamed for not producing. Let him rid the life of all its mysteries, not by restating them in new language, but by solving them—thus superseding moral faith by perfect rational insight of the infinite universe. Let him actually show us what the universe presented in duration is as seen at its divine centre. The sight would supersede adverse criticism of the intermediate position with which I am satisfied.

The ultimate incomprehensibility of God by man sustains devotional reverence—Illustrations.

The mystery of an unknown and yet known God is the fountain of true reverential devotion, which instinctively feels that all sensuous and spiritual representations must be inadequate to infinite Being. This is the expressed voice of religious consciousness, when it is sufficiently awakened. The visible and invisible images of Catholicism, and not less the invisible mental representations of popular Protestantism, when presented as adequate to God, are rejected by the true worshipper. His language is:—

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.”

“Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?”

“O Lord, how great are thy works! and thy thoughts are very deep…Great is our Lord: His understanding is infinite.”

“God hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it, yea farther, though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.”

“To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto Him? There is no searching of His understanding. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

“O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out.”

“I know in part. Now abideth faith, hope, love, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”

Christian agnosticism.

Acknowledgment of the incomprehensibility of God, when men try to conceive Deity in absolute infinity, and not merely in and through what is highest and best in themselves, is an agnosticism that is implied in the language of the great thinkers of the Catholic Church. It is reiterated in the teaching of Origen and Augustine. Chrysostom speaks of God as transcending all apprehension of human knowledge; the universe of experience as from its divine centre is incomprehensible to even the highest order of finite intelligence. With Gregory of Nazianzen God alone is, in a unique sense, unknown. The pseudo-Dionysius supposes that God is infinitely above our knowledge, superconscious, above substance, above mind or spirit, above life. In the hyperbolical language of other Christian thinkers, God in His infinity is more than unknown: He is not unknown merely in the way in which the finite things that are outside the experience of an individual man are to him unknown: He is transcendently above human apprehension as such: He is without substance, and without actual existence.

Religious philosophy must therefore be in the end “abrupt,”or at its highest, take the form of faith, not of perfectly intelligible unity.

Theology is therefore concerned with what is in part really cognisable, yet in its infinity incognisable. It is concerned with ideas of infinity which cannot be excluded because they are finally presupposed in all natural or physical, and still more in all supernatural or spiritual experience; yet these characteristic ideas cannot be completed in human understanding, because, however much enlarged, they must in us fall short, as fragments only of the infinite Reality,—if without absurdity one may speak of a “fragment” of infinity, or suppose that what transcends quantity can nevertheless be expressed in terms of greater or less quantity.

“Our little systems have their day;

They have their day, and cease to be:

They are but broken lights of Thee,

And Thou, O Lord, art more than they.

We have but faith: we cannot know,

For knowledge is of things we see;

And yet we trust it comes from Thee,

A beam in darkness: let it grow. ”

Man's need for “supplies by supposition and presumption” in his interpretation of the universe.

This unique character of man's highest possible knowledge of God, or of the final meaning of the universe, in which reason becomes moral faith, may have been in Bacon's view when he warns us that “perfection or completeness in divinity is not to be sought. For he that will reduce a knowledge into an art [or science] will make it round and uniform; but in divinity many things must be left abrupt. As the apostle saith, ‘we know in part’; and to have the form of a total [as science requires] where there is but matter for a part, cannot be without supplies by supposition and presumption.” It is man's constant need, in physical as in religious science, for what Bacon calls “supplies by supposition and presumption” that at last makes all human knowledge of real existence a faith, or trust rather than perfect rational insight; so that faith or trust is man's highest form of reason, alike at last in natural and in supernatural science. But here reason must be distinguished from reasoning, with which it is often confounded in a way that makes the word ambiguous. All fruitful reasoning presupposes reason, or rational trust in the reasonable, and nothing can be reasonably accepted that is inconsistent with the faith that we are living and thinking in a universe in which active moral Reason is supreme. Omniscience, as far as we can suppose what that means, seems to involve not only infinite rational relations, but infinite data of sense; thus superseding those “supplies by supposition and presumption” only, which Bacon finds indispensable for the intelligence of man. Omniscience seems to dispense with hypotheses, and even with reasoning. Intuitive, not discursive, thought is our ideal of infinite intelligence. Human knowledge, on the other hand, is advanced through the intervention of what is supposed to be already known—that is to say, by means of applied reasoning in discursive thought. But this resort for intellectual advancement must not be confounded with reason as that which finally authenticates conclusions, or interpretations of what is experienced: this, for distinction’ sake, may be called faith, or moral trust.

Reasoning as distinguished from finally constructive Reason, a symptom of finitude of intelligence and experience in the reasoner.

Mere argument, or reasoning as distinguished from the final reason, seems to be a mark of finitude in the intelligence that is obliged to employ it. To a mind that is able to comprehend all things, and all their relations, in one intellectual grasp, inferential thought must be a superfluity. We have illustration of this in the mental experience even of men. Inventive genius discerns in a flash of intellectual insight truth to which a less comprehensive intellect needs to be conducted by slow processes of syllogism and calculated comparison of instances. The dogmatic arguer, who never thinks that his favourite ultimate premisses can need justification, or admit of criticism, is a poor specimen of the reasoner; for reasoning is worthy of respect only when it is used as a human instrument for finding truth. In itself it only makes patent what was latent in its premisses; the premisses may be false; and the highest minds often see conclusions at once without the elaboration of reasoning. It is told of a great mathematician that he could at once recognise in the axioms and definitions of geometry truths which Euclid slowly evolves as conclusions in long trains of demonstration.

Finite intelligence manifested in successions of conscious acts and states, or under condition of duration.

Again. The living mind that man has immediate experience of is one in which conscious states are succeeding one another in a continuous series, for life as we have it is change. Our daily consciousness is a historical procession of invisible states of blended thought, feeling, and volition. Can we suppose that anything like this is true of God? Is a succession of ever-changing conscious acts taking place continuously in the Infinite Being, contemporaneously with our own conscious states and acts? and does this divine succession consist of an infinite number of such states, so that the divine succession of changing thoughts is without beginning and without end? Must not this be more than an inadequate way of thinking about what we in much ignorance call “mind” in God? One need not take for granted that an eternal succession of changes is in itself a self-contradictory conception, as some have done in arguing for the existence of God. I do not know what an eternal succession of changes—either sensible phenomena or invisible conscious states—really means. Yet it is part of the mystery involved also in the future immortality of a finite conscious person; which we can only represent to ourselves as an endless succession of future self-conscious states or acts: at least if the immortal life is conceived as continued for ever in analogy and identity with the personal life now experienced by each man. But the self-consciousness of God is an idea that contains other difficulties than those which in the end are found in all attempts to form an idea of an unending personal consciousness. The relation of time to eternity, in whatever way it is approached, is the mystery of mysteries. A conscious life that lasts for millions of years is supposable, though it transcends human imagination: a conscious life that has no beginning, and no end, passes the apprehension of human knowledge.

The insight gained in resuming the three postulated existences, after marking the reflective circle which we have traversed in this course.

At the end thus far of our meditations, we find ourselves on the shore of the infinite ocean, which contains the mysteries in the presence of which human thought about God, and about the Ego and Matter too, in their final relation to God, at last disappears. We have reached it by the human road, which is as it were at the side: we could not find our way to its divine depth. In the end we may even appear to have returned to the place from which we started, in “the simple creed of childhood,” with its three postulated existences; but now in our return we see them all, may I hope, in some new lights.

“Yonder fountain” Deep and shallow philosophy.

As to this, I might say, with regard to the final problem of life or existence, what Philonous in Berkeley's ‘Dialogue’ says about his question, concerning the final meaning of Matter. “I do not pretend to be a setter up of new notions. My endeavours tend only to unite and place in a clearer light truth which was before shared between the vulgar and philosophers. Yon see the water of yonder fountain, how it is forced upwards in a round column and a certain height; at which it breaks, and falls back into the basin out of which it arose: its ascent as well as descent proceeding on the same uniform law or principle of gravitation. Just so, the principles which at first view lead to scepticism, pursued to a certain point bring men back to common-sense.” “Atheism,” as Bacon says, “is rather in the lip than in the heart of man,” so that “depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion,” if a little “inclineth them to atheism.”

Philosophy consummated in God.

I have had this in view all through this Course—first sceptical of monist systems of philosophy, then finally analytic of experience—over which we have travelled this winter. I have tried to approach with faithfulness to facts the deepest and truest principle that is within man's reach for the final interpretation of his experience. We have been led with Plato and Aristotle to see in God the apex and culmination of true philosophy. The theological interpretation of the universe is with the chief thinkers from Plato to Hegel its final interpretation,—the natural interpretation elevated in and by the supernatural, which last is itself enriched by every discovery of natural science. When nature is seen to be God acting, so that each discovery in natural science is also a contribution to natural theology, it seems evident that collision between advancing science and religious faith is not possible. So with the poet we can at the end—


The song of thanks and praise,

…For those obstinate questionings

Of sense and outward things, Fallings from us,

vanishings; Blank misgivings of a creature

Moving about in worlds not realised.”

For there are found in man—

“High instincts, before which our mortal nature

Did tremble like a guilty thing surprised!”

And latent in roan's spirit are—

“Those first affections,

Those shadowy recollections,

Which, be they what they may,

Are yet the fountain light of all our day,

Are yet a master light of all our seeing:

Uphold us—cherish—and have the power to make

Our noisy years seem moments in the being

Of the Eternal Silence: truths that wake,

To perish never.

Hence in a season of calm weather,

Though inland far we be,

Our souls have sight of that immortal sea

Which brought us hither;

Can in a moment travel thither—

And see the children sport upon the shore,

And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.”

We pause now, although we have hardly passed the threshold in this Introductory Course. The foundation in reason of the theistic interpretation of the universe; the intellectual difficulties in which thought may seem to be involved by religion; the alternatives of finality or progressiveness in moral judgments and in religious thought; and the final destiny of moral agents,—are subjects which take us beyond the intention of this Course into Theistic Studies reserved for another winter, if life and health should be given to me.

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