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Lecture 1: The Subject Introduced

I FEEL deeply, and I now desire sincerely to acknowledge, the honour conferred upon me by the appointment to be Gifford Lecturer in this University for this and the next session. I am aware, however, that the best way of showing my appreciation of the privilege is to make a serious endeavour to discharge the duties of the office so as to give some measure of satisfaction to the appointing body. This, God helping me, I will try to do. I enter on my task with diffidence; yet not without hope, certainly with the desire, to treat the subject I am to deal with in harmony with the views of the Founder, as set forth plainly in his Deed of Trust.

Four things in the statement by which Lord Gifford explains his aim seem to me specially noteworthy.

1. His earnest belief in the supreme value of the knowledge of God. ‘Whom truly to know’—these are his words—‘is life everlasting.’

2. His desire that every sincere thinker, be his theological position what it may, may have his chance of saying what he thinks on this supreme theme. He believes in the value of absolutely free discussion, and thinks it may be for the advantage of the faith in God that an Agnostic, or even an Atheist, should tell the world unreservedly the grounds on which he is constrained to occupy a position of dissent or suspended judgment.

3. His wish that the discussions carried on under this foundation should be of a generally useful character; not merely academic, in respect of the audience in view and the mode of treatment, but ‘popular,’ aiming, that is, at the benefit of the many, and handling topics in a manner level with the comprehension of men who bring to the study ordinary intelligence and an honest interest in religion.

4. The fourth and last noteworthy feature in Lord Gifford's will is the stipulation that theistic inquiries under the Foundation shall be carried on on a scientific method. The sphere of study is thereby restricted to what is called ‘Natural Theology,’ as opposed to ‘Revealed Theology.’ ‘I wish it considered,’ says the Testator, ‘just as astronomy or chemistry is.’ The Gifford Lecturer is directed to give his attention to the observation and interpretation of any facts which in his judgment justify theistic inferences.

I do not feel hampered by these restrictions; on the contrary, I find myself in entire harmony with their general spirit. I need not say that I am in full accord with the Founder as to the value he attaches to the knowledge of God. But it is not so much a matter of course that a theologian by profession should sympathise with the desire for free unfettered inquiry in this region of thought. Nevertheless I do. I am convinced it is a gain to faith in God when the conflicting thoughts of men on this high theme are fully revealed. It is a great, vital question, whether there be a God, and I should wish very much to know why an intellectually honest, morally earnest man doubts or denies the truth of the affirmative answer. The reasons of unbelief might in some cases be more instructive than the reasons offered by many, who have never doubted, for their faith. To state explicitly reasons of unbelief may even help the unbeliever himself to faith. The nay may lead on to a yea, and to a yea all the more emphatic because of the foregoing nay. Nothing, shrewdly remarked Richard Baxter, is so firmly believed as that which has once been doubted. I do not know that the world would have been favoured with those posthumous Thoughts on Religion from the pen of Mr. Romanes, had he not previously written the Candid Examination of Theism. Had the sceptical thoughts and processes of antitheistic reasoning that haunted the mind of Physicus not found expression in that vigorous onslaught on the theistic creed, the author might have lived and died neither a believer nor an unbeliever, but weakly and miserably halting between two opinions. Such is the law in individual experience, and somewhat similar is the fact among men collectively. When unbelief is free in a community, faith is sincere and strong. On the other hand, it is hard to say who really believes when disbelief is interdicted under heavy penalties. Prudence takes the place of conviction, and make-believe becomes the order of the day. It would not be reasonable to expect the Church to grant as much liberty as the Founder of this Lectureship allows. That might mean requiring the Church to become a debating society instead of a community of faith. But there can be little doubt that she would gain something from the exercise within her borders of a freedom in discussing topics relating to the character and providence of God similar to that so splendidly exemplified in the book of job. It would help to keep within her pale the good men to whom Lord Gifford refers as preferring to be without.

One cannot but recognise the wisdom of the requirement that these lectures shall be popular, not merely academic. This need not mean superficiality, but it ought to mean the choice of a theme, and of a method of handling it, which shall make what is spoken of general utility. Religion is the affair of every man, and if one can by a well-weighed plain statement on an important aspect of that wide subject remove doubts, clear up difficulties, and help towards a firmer grasp of truth by the hand of faith among the large number of people who are more or less conversant with the conflicting currents of opinion, it is well worth while to attempt the task.

It is quite possible to do this compatibly with full compliance with the requirement that scientific method shall be adhered to. If indeed that requirement meant that one must prove the Being of God as you prove a proposition in Euclid, it would be a prescription of the impossible. The thing cannot be done, and, if it could, it would not be worth doing. A faith in God that could be forced on a man by absolutely demonstrative reasoning would not be of much value to anybody. But that, I take it, is not the meaning of the term scientific in the present connection. It means rather that what we say about God is to rest on observation of the world we live in—of nature, of man, of human history—and to consist of such statements as may be verifiable by such observation. It excludes nothing which belongs to the world in any department, therefore nothing which belongs to the religious history of humanity, therefore not the Hebrew and Christian sacred literatures which occupy a prominent place in that history. It excludes the use of these literatures as authorities, but not as witnesses. If our subject should lead us to discuss the relative history of religious thought, the thoughts of Hebrew prophets and of Jesus Christ will relevantly come in, and legitimately count for what they are worth. If on a comparison it should turn out that they are worth more than thoughts to be found elsewhere, that will certainly tend to give them authority, but it will be authority of a kind with which no scientific man will be disposed to quarrel; and, I may add, with which religious people will do well to make themselves familiar. Authority resting upon—I use the words of Lord Gifford—‘any supposed special, exceptional, or so-called miraculous revelation’ may be legitimate in its own place. But the authority which rests on the power, say, of the teaching of Christ, to commend itself to our minds more than anything we have met with elsewhere in the religious literature of mankind, is after all that which carries most weight. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews was content to say in behalf of Christianity: It is better than Leviticalism. If without straining or special pleading I should find myself able to say of the teaching of Christ concerning God: It is the best I know, I should feel that I had every reason to be well satisfied.

Theism is a wide field. To say anything effectively, in a comparatively short course of lectures, one must select a special aspect. In view of all that the Founder aimed at, I think I shall not do amiss if I choose as my theme a topic for which the most convenient and familiar title is The Providential Order of the World. Without attempting formal definition, I may say that the kind of thoughts I have in view are such as these: That God cares for man individually and collectively; that His nature is such, and that He sustains such a relation to man, as makes that care natural and credible; that His care covers all human interests, but especially the higher, ethical interests—righteousness, goodness—in the individual and in society; that He is a moral Governor, and a benignant Father, a Power making for righteousness, and a Power overcoming evil with good; that He ruleth over all things with a view to a kingdom of the good.

This is a subject of universal interest. Every man that cometh to God ‘must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that seek Him.’ Especially must he believe the latter of these two propositions. Believing that God is does not of itself amount to much. The great matter is not that God is, but what God is. The word ‘God’ may mean much or it may mean almost nothing. Under some ways of conceiving God, to ascertain that He is, is of as little importance for life as would be the discovery of the long-sought-for North Pole for the practical purposes of commerce. The number of men who deny the being of God in every shape and form is comparatively few. Even the Materialist finds a kind of a God in the ultimate atoms of matter conceived of as eternally existing. The fiery mist out of which the world has been evolved is his Infinite and Absolute Being. By the distinguished author of the Synthetic Philosophy God is confessed as the unknowable, ultimate ground of all that exists, the ultimate force by which the evolutionary process is propelled. But in the very act of confessing God as the Unknowable, Mr. Spencer, While admitting that God is, denies that you can know anything of what He is. What is the worth for life of this unknowable God, of whom, or which, you can affirm nothing except that by an intellectual necessity you are compelled to recognise its existence? Such a God has an interest only for theoretic thought; for all practical purposes He may simply be ignored. Other philosophers offer us a God, of whom, at least, a little is supposed to be knowable beyond the bare fact that He is. Spinoza confessed an ultimate substance out of which all being has flowed in two parallel streams, possessing the distinctive attributes of matter and mind, extension and thought. God, said Spinoza, is at once a res externa and a res cogitans. This is a slight contribution to the knowledge of what God is. But it does not carry us far. What of the relation of the ultimate substance to man and to morality? Does God care for man, have moral distinctions any meaning for Him? Spinoza answers frankly: God cares no more for man than for beast, all beings are alike to Him; God cares nothing for moral distinctions. He made the fool and the knave, as well as the wise man and the saint, and for Him both are equally legitimate constituent parts of the universe. It takes them all to make a world. More recent philosophers, such as Schopenhauer and Hartmann, may seem to improve upon Spinoza when they offer us for a God a will acting blindly and thoughtlessly in the world, or a Great Unconscious One possessing both will and intellect, and using them both with marvellous power and skill, yet without being aware of what He is doing. Will seems to take us into the moral region and to give promise of a God for whom right and wrong have meaning. But the will of these philosophers is nonmoral, and its work is such that the world had better not have been.

These examples may suffice to illustrate the importance of the distinction between the bare existence of God and the attributes we ascribe to Him. It may seem unscientific to insist so strongly on ethical quality as essential to any really valuable conception of the Divine Being. The scientific man strives to clear his mind of preconceived opinions and foregone conclusions, and to come to nature as an unbiassed inquirer. He takes the universe as he finds it, not as he would like it to be. Ought we not, it may be asked, to address ourselves to the search after God in the same spirit, making no imperious demand at the outset for an ethical divinity, content rather to learn what we can about the Great Mysterious Being at the heart of the universe, whether it come up to our expectations and wishes or not? What effect can any other mood have than to make us biassed judges of evidence, and ready, as a matter of course, to find what we bring? All this is very good counsel. By all means let us be scientifically impartial, unbiassed, presuppositionless, ready to bow before facts and to accept the conclusions they point to. Yet even the scientific man brings to the subject of investigation his guiding hypothesis, and not infrequently also a keen interest in possible practical applications of anticipated discoveries. What he does the theologian also may do. It will, of course, serve no good purpose to foster ideas of God which will not stand examination. But we may very legitimately be eager in the quest for evidence of a God such as is implied in our idea of Providence, when we know that on its result depend the whole character of human life and destiny, and the significance of all history.

Providence being our theme, what is to be our plan? Here at once the question arises: Does the concept of God implied in Providence possess any probability? or, more specifically, What means are available for showing its probability? Now, if there be any such they will be found in man's position, nature, and history. Through man to God must be the line of proof for us. This is indeed the main line of proof for Theism in general in our time. There are, of course, other lines, such as the time-honoured arguments which bear the somewhat technical and repellent titles: ontological, cosmological, and teleological, respectively; the first arguing from the mere idea of God in our mind to the existence of a Divine Being; the second arguing from the existence of the world as a whole, viewed as a contingent event, to a Great First Cause; the third finding in the innumerable traces of adaptation in the world the evidence of a wise Designing Mind. These familiar arguments have had great vogue in the past, and have been deemed conclusive by many devout and thoughtful men. Of late years they have been falling into desuetude. Confidence and interest in them has been steadily waning, even in the minds of Theists. Distinguished apologists still believe in their cogency, and some of them have done good service by restatements, especially of the teleological argument, adapted to the present condition of science. Such restatements will help inquirers to make up their minds as to the real worth of these arguments; for it may be assumed, that if, even as rehabilitated by a Martineau, they are still of doubtful conclusiveness, some incurable weakness must be inherent in them. But, apart from the question of logical cogency in the abstract, we have to reckon with the fact that many are not in the mood to listen to these arguments. The Zeitgeist is against them. They are felt to be out of fashion; the very terms in which they are expressed sound stale to the modern ear. In these circumstances, one may excusably waive the question of validity, and on grounds of policy respectfully allow these venerable arguments to retire into the background. It is certainly wise in the apologist to rest the defence of Theism on evidence in harmony with the spirit of the time in which he lives. In making this observation I am not to be understood as insinuating a slighting personal estimate of any one of these old arguments, least of all of the third, the teleological—the oldest, the most popular, and the most impressive of all the three. This argument, from the traces of design in the world to a Divine Designer, has appealed to thoughtful men of all schools and in all ages. Socrates, Cicero, Voltaire, Rousseau, Paley, Chalmers, have all in turn seen in the manifold adaptations of nature the unmistakable evidence of a wise, benignant Creator. I should be slow to treat with disrespect reasoning which commended itself to the great minds of the past. We indeed find ourselves in altered circumstances which make it difficult for us to follow, without hesitation, in their footsteps. Modern science, inspired by the idea of evolution, has altered the way of looking at things. It does not deny the existence of adaptation and harmony. On the contrary, every branch of science is constantly multiplying new instances, or throwing fresh light on old ones. But science has introduced a new way of accounting for the relative phenomena. What before was viewed as intentional adaptation, say of an organ like the eye or ear to its environment, is now regarded as an undesigned fitness produced by the reaction of environment on organ. The apparent indications of creative forethought are simply due to the continuous adjustment of inner relations to outer relations of which life consists. What the teleologist calls a final cause is in reality an effect. An ardent advocate of the new way of thinking exemplifies its bearings by the following instances: ‘The particular laws of our present universe bring about night, they also cause the phenomenon sleep in animated creatures: these two naturally suit each other, being different results of the same laws—just as any two propositions in Euclid agree together. But to say that either is the final cause of the other is to transfer an idea derived from one part of ourselves, our motives to action, to an entirely different part of ourselves, our primary laws of sensation. The earth is suited to its inhabitants because it has produced them, and only such as suit it live.’1 The last sentence of this quotation puts the matter in a nutshell. It states the case for evolutionists in a manner they deem conclusive, as against the teleological view of the universe advocated by apologists. Where the teleologist sees an adaptation of environment to organism by an exercise of beneficent intelligence on the part of the Creator, the evolutionist sees a correspondence necessarily resulting from the fact that only the fit survive.

The result of this revolution of thought, brought about by Darwinism, has been a great abatement in the confidence with which the teleological argument is regarded even in theological circles. Sincere, earnest believers in God, who arc at the same time imbued with the new scientific view of the universe, are found confessing that ‘the old rapid argument from nature to an omnipotent and beneficent Creator was never logically valid.’2 Others, apparently feeling that the argument for the new and the old ways of viewing the world is nearly equally balanced in other spheres of inquiry, turn to the region of the beautiful and the sublime as one in which teleology can still find a firm footing.3 Yet the naturalistic evolutionist may not have been quite so successful in banishing teleology from the universe as he imagines, or as his theistic opponent has been willing to concede. When Romanes wrote his Candid Examination of Theism, he triumphantly declared that ‘in the one principle of the persistence of force we have a demonstrably harmonising principle whereby all the facts within our experience admit of being collocated under one natural explanation, without there being the smallest reason to attribute these facts to any supernatural cause.’4 But what says the same scientist in his Thoughts on Religion, published after his death? There he lays down these positions: That if there be a personal God, no reason can be assigned why He should not be immanent in nature, or why all causation should not be the immediate expression of His will; that every available reason points to the inference that He probably is so immanent; that if He be so, and if His will is self-consistent, all natural causation must needs appear to us ‘mechanical’; and that therefore it is no argument against the divine origin of a thing, event, etc., to prove it due to natural causation.5

So it turns out, if this later view of Romanes be correct, that teleology and mechanism are not by any necessity mutually exclusive. All may be mechanism, yet all may also be teleology. Mechanics may be merely God's instrument for working out His ends. Mechanical evolution may invalidate teleological arguments based on particular instances of adaptation, by showing that there is another way of explaining the correspondence which the teleologist had not thought of. But its verdict, even in such cases, can at most be only a ‘not proven.’ And when one takes a large view of the question of Purpose in the universe, and asks, for example, not, ‘How are we to explain the adaptation of the ear to sound-waves in the atmosphere?’ but, ‘What account is to be given of the fact that the age-long process of universal evolution terminates in man?’ the verdict cannot even amount to a ‘not proven.’ Here, at least, purpose comes in; and if here on the grand scale, why not elsewhere, and everywhere, on the small? Mechanics, persistent force, everywhere, and teleology there at the same time. Such is the view, not merely of theistic apologists interested in the Christian theory of the universe, but of a non-theistic philosopher like Hartmann, as I shall take occasion hereafter to point out.

Through man to God, I said, was to be our method, and our chosen line of proof. We are to take our stand, not on detailed teleology, where the scientific verdict may be ‘not proven,’ but on the larger field where the severest scientific judgment cannot well resist a verdict of proven. In other words, to justify the idea of Divine Providential Purpose, we plant our foot, in the first instance, on Man's Place in the Universe. To define that place must, accordingly, be our first task. I will try in next Lecture to describe man's position, not merely in terms of a traditional creed, or of what might be deemed antiquated Biblical representations, but in accordance with the ascertained results, or even the precarious hypotheses, of recent evolutionary science. Here happily there is no conflict between the two authorities. The Bible sets man at the head of creation; science does the same thing with added emphasis, assigning him that place not merely as, in virtue of his endowments, the most distinguished of the creatures, but as the crowning result of the evolutionary process by which the known world in the long course of ages came to be. The leading representatives of evolutionary philosophy are not yet agreed in regard to the extent to which man has been evolved, some limiting the process to his body, others extending it to his soul. Men jealous for moral and religious interests may regard with suspicion the more advanced doctrine, as endangering cherished convictions. But in some respects, as will more clearly appear as we proceed, the view that man is wholly the child of evolution is to be preferred even in a theistic interest. Therefore, while not dogmatising on disputed questions, we can afford to keep step with the more advanced section, and to state man's position in the universe in terms conforming to their boldest contentions.

When we have done this, our next task will be to consider the theistic inferences from man's place of sovereignty. That place certainly suggests, if it do not compel, important inferences. For example, such as these: That the Being who is the ultimate ground of the universe, ‘the First and Only Cause,’ in the language of Lord Gifford, had man in view from the beginning; intended the evolutionary process to arrive at him, and guided it all along so that it should arrive there. Again, that that Great Being values supremely the attributes characteristic of the latest arrival—reason, will, which if not a monopoly of man's, are at least his emphatically, by way of preeminence. Values, that is to say, possesses; therefore the ultimate ground of the universe is not mere blind force, but a Being endowed with intelligence and volition—a Spirit. Yet again, that He who had man in view from the beginning of the long creative process will continue to have him in view after he has come into existence, so as to develop to the full the possibilities of this new type of being. That the new type, from the day of his arrival, will be in fact all that he has it in him to be is, of course, not likely. What precisely was the primitive condition of man may be a nice, difficult, and even delicate question, but it is safe to say that it would be such as to leave room for development, growth, progress, from a germinal, rudimentary humanity to a humanity rich in knowledge, inventions, culture, virtue; within the human analogous to the earlier one which had carried the creation on from the fiery mist to the human. And if God was in the earlier evolution, a fortiori He would be in the later. He would not rest content when at length He had reached the type He had had in His eye from the first, saying, ‘This is good,’ and take no interest in its future fortunes. If there was a Providence in the lower evolution conducting it upwards towards man, much more may we expect to find a Providence in human history, conducting man towards the realization of his ideal.

The theistic inference from man's place in the universe will engage our attention in the third lecture. From that topic we might proceed directly to consider the traces of Providential Action in the history of mankind collectively and individually. But preparation for receiving the doctrine is desirable. There are causes of doubt, hindrances to faith, preoccupying thoughts, which make the idea of a Providential world-aim hard to accept. Three sources of unbelief may be specified: Views of God incompatible with such an aim; facts of human life pessimistically interpreted which seem to give the hypothesis of a Divine care for man the lie; cynical estimates of human nature rendering belief in man being an end for God impossible. It will be worth while to devote a lecture to each of these sources of unbelief in Providence. There is ample matter for reflection in connection with all the three. It is by no means difficult to make out a plausible case against Providence under any one of them. It has not been found impossible by philosophers to conceive a God who is below caring for man, or for all the interests man represents. I have alluded to some such conceptions already in another connection. Spinoza's absolute substance, Schopenhauer's irrational will, Hartmann's ‘Unconscious,’ with both will and intelligence, each offers us a God of this type. It will not be necessary to subject these three types of Deity to elaborate discussion; a comparatively slight characterisation will serve our purpose. Hartmann's curious Divinity will receive the larger share of attention, not only because it is the newest of the three, but more especially because it goes so far along theistic lines that one wonders why it does not go further. It makes important concessions for which we are thankful, while sensible of its grotesqueness and absurdity in other respects.

No one needs to be told how easily human life and human nature can be utilized in the service of unbelief. Evil physical and moral, what a portentous, omnipresent fact! In view of it who can believe that a benevolent or moral purpose is being worked out in human history? Man! What is man, in the wide universe, in his beginnings, in his present average condition, or even at his best, that God should be mindful of him?

And yet I trust that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, it will be found not impossible to verify our thesis on the great scale and on the small; in the history of humanity at large, and in the experience of the individual. The proof on the large scale will occupy two lectures: one dealing with the evidence that there is in the world a Power making for righteousness, the other setting forth the benignant aspect of Providence as a power overcoming toward evil with good, and working out through all events, toward, or untoward a beneficent plan. Divine Providence in the individual life will form the subject of a single lecture.

To one who believes in the reality of a Providence in human affairs, it must be an interesting and profitable subject of inquiry whether it be possible to ascertain any general laws of its working, any methods which God in His Providence employs for the accomplishment of His ends. I should like to make a humble contribution to this study. Exhaustive treatment is here, of course, out of the question. One can offer only samples of what is known, and what is known may be little compared with what is yet to be discovered. Three principles, then, have a wide range of application in Providential Action Election, Solidarity, Sacrifice. Election: God chooses races, nations, individuals, not for favour but for function, to do service to the world, to promote progress in thought, in art, in government, in religion. Solidarity: men are not dealt with as isolated units; for woe, for weal, they are a brotherhood closely knit together by parentage, by heredity, by a social organism, by ties of race and nationality. Sacrifice suffering in some form is common to all men, and often seems to be meaningless, the mere accident of lot. But there is a suffering which befalls the best men, the heroes of the race, the pioneers of advancement, suffering for truth, righteousness, humanity. It is not an accident; it is not meaningless. It comes by law, and it serves a high purpose. It is the appointed cost of progress. Sacrificial lives are redemptive lives. Of those who so suffer the world is not worthy, yet they are its saviours.

Such are the topics which are to engage our attention in our first course of twelve lectures. They will deal in the first place with the philosophic presuppositions of a providential order, and in the second place with some generalisations based on observation regarding the modes in which that order manifests itself. It might seem that when these have been disposed of, enough will have been said on the theme. And yet, who that has once undertaken to speak on so momentous a matter would care to dismiss it, without making at least a partial rapid survey of the history of human thought concerning it? One would like to know how the question of Providence presented itself to men in different lands and ages, familiar with the facts of life, and given to earnest reflection thereon; especially to men belonging to peoples among whom the ethical consciousness reached a high measure of intensity—such as the ancient Indians and Persians, the Greeks, and above all the Hebrews. Such knowledge might not only gratify intellectual curiosity, but prove helpful to faith. Consensus in fundamental religious convictions always tends to confirm individual belief. Even an eclipse of faith, such as is exemplified in the despair of Buddhism, may have its wholesome lessons. Crude theories of creation and providence, like the Persian dualism, may serve as a warning against superficial solutions. Wise words spoken millenniums ago may be found to contain flashes of insight hitherto only imperfectly appreciated, suggesting possibilities of fruitful investigation along fresh lines. In the latter point of view, the best thought of our own time on topics akin to those which are to occupy us in these lectures may be well worthy of study. Our weightiest ethical teachers have got their inspiration largely from Jesus of Nazareth, or more generally from Hebrew prophets. Their doctrine may be said to be Prophetism and Christianity translated into modern language and applied to modern problems. It may be worth while to consider how far the translation is true to the original, and the application successful. In these sentences I have outlined a second course, whose theme might be sufficiently indicated by the title: Providence in Pagan, Hebrew, and Modern Thought.

  • 1.

    Alfred Barratt, Physical Ethics, p. 33. Vide also Fiske, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy, vol. ii. p. 398, where the passage is commented on.

  • 2.

    Aubrey L. Moore, Science and the Faith, p. 193.

  • 3.

    J. H. Kennedy, Natural Theology and Modern Thought, p. 144.

  • 4.

    P. 161.

  • 5.

    P. 121. To the same effect in Darwin and After Darwin, vol. i. p. 414.