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Lecture 6: The Worth of Man

IN the fourth lecture we saw that a fruitful source of unbelief in Providence may be found in conceptions of God which make Him a Being beneath caring for man and the interests man represents. We are now to consider a complementary cause of doubt: viz., ideas of man which make him a being beneath the notice of God.

That contempt of man, however originating, and in whatever manner it may manifest itself, directly tends to breed scepticism in a providential order, needs no proof. The best historical illustration may be found in the opinions of the heathen philosopher Celsus, as reported by Origen in his reply to an attack made by him on the Christian religion. That controversial work, bearing the name of Ἀληθὴς Λόγος, the True Word or Discourse, has perished, and we are dependent for our information as to its author's views on Origen's accounts; but the position of an antagonist could not be safer in any hands than in those of that church Father, whether we have regard to his intelligence or to his candour, and we may implicitly rely on the accuracy of his representations. From these we gather that Celsus was a very capable and very formidable opponent of Christianity. His statements regarding man's worth have the great merit of being perfectly frank and unreserved. They are very brutal, but just on that account all the more significant. They form a prominent part in an elaborate argument against the doctrine of an Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, with a view to the redemption of man from moral evil. Celsus denied that doctrine on three general grounds: first, because it degraded God, by subjecting Him to change; second, because it unduly exalted man, by making him the object of God's special care; third, because it had in view an unattainable end, the cure of moral evil. It is in connection with the second of these positions that his peculiar anthropological theory finds expression.

Celsus bluntly denies that man has any exceptional place in the gracious thoughts of God. Whatever providence there may be, is, in his judgment, common to all creatures, on equal terms. Man has no more claim to be a special object of Divine care than bats or ants or frogs or worms. As a matter of fact he does not receive more attention, as a matter of right he is not entitled to it. What, one is ready to exclaim, not even in view of his rational, moral, and religious nature? No, stoutly rejoins Celsus, not even in view of that. He has the hardihood to maintain, not that reason, morality, and religion are matters of secondary moment, but, admitting the value of these things, that in respect of these high endowments, man is not superior to the other animals. He has no monopoly of language, art, virtue, or religion. The ants can talk to each other when they meet; the bee can build its cell with exquisite skill; the elephant is a pattern of fidelity, and the stork of filial piety. Even religion is not above the capacity of the animal world. Birds have the prophetic gift of foreseeing the future, and their very movements are a revelation of things to come, to those who have skill to interpret them. They can divine, and they supply data for the diviner. In this connection we can better understand what at first sight appears the wanton, whimsical, cynical degradation which man suffers at the hands of Celsus. That this pagan philosopher was in the mood for exaggeration and banter when dealing with this topic is more than likely, but in the main he meant what he said, and he was not alone in saying it. Porphyry agreed with him in ascribing more importance to animals, specially to birds, than to man,1 and both did this in connection with divination. For the diviner a bird was more important than a human being. How natural, at a time when his art was a momentous reality, that men should get into the way of regarding the living creatures which furnished its materials, as holy, religious, near to God, awe-inspiring!

Celsus lived in the second Christian century, and it is probable that his own faith in the practices of divination was not strong, and that he simply used a popular belief for a controversial purpose. Perhaps the deepest source of his unbelief in Providence was sympathy with the theology of Epicurus, who conceived the Gods as dwelling apart in high Olympus, and giving themselves no concern about the lower world. In his philosophy, as befitted his age, Celsus was an eclectic, his thoughts reminding us here of Plato, there of the Stoics, at another place of ‘the philosophers of the garden.’ But his chief master seems to have been Epicurus. Origen states that in his other works he showed himself an Epicurean, but that in his polemic against Christianity he concealed his connection with the school of Epicurus, lest the avowal of it should weaken the force of his argument against those who believed in a providence and set God over all. If this was, indeed, his intention, he has been only partially successful. The Epicurean connection is very imperfectly hid. The Celsian God is the Epicurean God. ‘God,’ he says in one place, ‘is good, honourable, happy, the fairest and the best; but if He descends to men He becomes subject to change—from good to bad, from the honourable to the base, from happiness to misery, from the best to the most wicked. Let no such change be ascribed to God.’ This is quite in the spirit of the Epicurean theology, whose gods were happy, imperishable beings that could have nothing to do with the affairs of the universe or of men. From this idea, echoed by Celsus, to that suggested by the phrase in the New Testament: ‘The glorious gospel of the blessed God,’ or, the gospel of the glory of the happy God,2 what a distance! The happiness of God, on the one view, is apathy; on the other, it is associated with sympathetic suffering and self-sacrifice. The superiority in moral grandeur of the Christian conception is obvious.

It thus appears that Celsus was doubly disqualified for accepting the Christian belief in providence: by his theology as well as by his anthropology. He believed in a God who was incapable of caring for anything, while he conceived of man as a being not worth caring for, not more important than any of the other creatures which together make up the universe. ‘If,’ he says, ‘thunders, lightnings, and rain be indeed the work of God, which is doubtful, they are made just as much for trees, grass, and thorns as for man; if plants grow for man's benefit, they grow for the benefit of the brutes as well; nay, even more, for we obtain our food with labour and difficulty, while the wild beasts get theirs without sowing or ploughing.’ This is in the spirit of Spinoza, who recognised no degrees of value in the universe, and confounded reality with perfection, deeming all things modes of the one absolute substance, and in that sense divine, but one thing as divine as another. For Celsus as for Spinoza, God was the one and all; all creatures, as modes of the absolute, were in his view legitimate objects of worship; but just because all was divine no particular being seemed to him entitled to any preference, not even man. Man, as he conceived him, was not a being made in the image of God, or a son of God, or a chief end for God, or of more value to God than the inanimate and lower animate creations.

But Celsus belongs to long-past history, and our concern is with present-day faiths and unbeliefs. The question we have to consider is, Under what forms are we now tempted to cherish a contempt for man which tends towards scepticism as to the possibility of his being in any real sense an end for God? This question let me now endeavour to answer.

Contempt for man may manifest itself under three forms:—

1. Contempt for man even at the best.

2. Contempt for man in the average.

3. Contempt for man at the lowest and worst, in rudimentary moral conditions or in degenerate states.

1. A true respect for man, such as may form the basis of earnest faith in a like respect for him on the part of God, requires three things: a lofty moral ideal, belief in its approximate realisableness in this world, and belief in the permanence of the moral universe. Not one of these conditions can be dispensed with. Thus a low-pitched ideal which conceives of happiness as the summum bonum, and of virtue simply as the safest way to the goal, surely tends to undermine respect. The chief end of man, thus hedonistically conceived, may be realisable enough, but is it worth realising? when it has been realised, can it command the sincere esteem of thoughtful men, not to speak of God? Recall deistic views of man and the contempt they have bred! The Deist did not indeed himself despise man and the ideal of humanity, but he may be justly accused of making them appear to others despicable. Man naturally good, not without faults, but these such as spring from the appetites and passions of the body, for which the spirit cannot be held responsible. Even with these faults the average man has every reason to be well pleased with himself, and to cherish the comfortable conviction that he is an object of complacent regard for the Divine Being. What more natural, then, that God should contemplate with indulgence at least, if not with entire approval, the behaviour of men who on the whole live such good lives? And how can Providence be better occupied than in making such worthy people happy? A pleasant creed, this, for those who are ignoble enough to be able to receive it. But a morally vulgar creed like that of the Deist must inevitably provoke sooner or later a sceptical reaction. Is the rôle of supreme dispenser of happiness to morally commonplace men a God-worthy one? Is there not a risk that a Providence thus occupied may fall into disrepute? Be sure of this, that if faith in a divine care of man is to retain its hold of earnest minds, you must make man worth caring for, and rightly conceive the purpose of the care. Pitch your ideal of man high, and assign to God the supreme aim of helping man to reach that ideal. Then, though ‘happiness’ may not be a very prominent feature in human life, your faith will not fail, because you perceive that through sorrow lies the way to wisdom.

But a high ideal, however lofty and austere, will not sustain faith, unless it be conceived as realisable, at least approximately, by man in his place in this world. The assumption that this is impossible underlies asceticism. The implied postulate of the ascetic mode of life is that you cannot be good under normal conditions as a member of society; that goodness is possible only for one who withdraws from secular positions, duties, and relations. This theory strikes at the root of all faith in a providential presence of God in human history. God is only in the monk's cell, the devil is everywhere else. By and by men begin to wonder if God be even in the monk's cell. If the monk be a saint, the only really good man in the world, how is it that the supreme Being who loves him alone has nothing better for him than a cell? But is he a saint, is he indeed better than other men, is he not in some ways, perhaps, a good deal worse? In that case God is not even in the cell. God is in fact nowhere. In the world is frank wickedness, in the monastic retreat is only hypocrisy; the devil rules, and God and Providence are banished from the universe.

What is the remedy for such desolating atheism? Unreserved acceptance of the truth that goodness is practicable in society, as well as in the desert; nay, in society only, not at all in solitude; for in this connection it is emphatically true that it is not good that man should be alone.

‘You've seen the world

—The beauty, and the wonder, and the power,

The shapes of things, their colours, lights, and shades,

Changes, surprises,—and God made it all!

—For what? what's it all about?

To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,

Wondered at?’

The answer of all who believe in God must be:

‘This world's no blot for us,

Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good.’

In his pessimistic philosophy, Schopenhauer has presented the creed of asceticism in a new form. Goodness, said the old ascetic, is not compatible with remaining in the world. Goodness, teaches Schopenhauer, is not compatible with retention of personality. You can become kind, noble, benignant, like Buddha, only by rending the veil of Maya, the principium individuationis; by ceasing to think of yourself as an individual, realising that all individuals are essentially one, thus serving yourself heir to all the sin and sorrow of the world, and, burdened with the dismal inheritance, contemplating annihilation with complacency. Sanctity means no will to live, and that means ultimately no world, and no God.

The new form of the theory is as false as the old. Personality is as necessary to morality as is society. We must be ‘selves’ before we begin to be moral. The moral ideal consists in self-realisation, giving full effect to all that is contained in the idea of a self, which turns out to mean, not egoistic self-assertion against all others, but on the contrary due recognition of, and respect for, the ‘selves’ of other men with all that is involved therein. This is sane, and at the same time Christian, ethics. Schopenhauer, conscious of the grandeur of Hebrew religious thought, sought in it backing for his cynical philosophy, and claimed Christ and the apostles as on his side. The construction he puts on their teaching is but a misleading plausibility. They were not pessimists, though they did severely judge the actual moral state of man in the light of a high ideal. Their ideal was very lofty, but they believed it could be realised. They believed it could be realised approximately, not in heaven only, nor in solitude, but in this world, and in society. And with this faith they found it easy to combine firm belief in a Divine Providence making all things work together for good to them that love God.

Such faith in man and in God needs yet another support—belief in the permanence of the moral universe. Some of the teachings of modern science make this difficult. I do not here refer to the conscious automaton theory, according to which mind and its phenomena are reduced to by-products, and all that is peculiar to man dwindles into cosmic insignificance. Neither do I allude to the vastly enlarged view of the extent of the universe through which the earth with its inhabitants becomes as a grain of sand on a vast mountain. I have in mind rather the outlook for the remote future set before us by scientific prophets, who by the aid of mathematical calculations, predict that, the order of nature continuing as it now is, the ultimate issue must be a perfect balance of force, implying the total cessation of change, universal death. Mr. Huxley, indorsing this view, remarks: ‘The theory of evolution encourages no millennial expectations. If for millions of years our globe has taken the upward road, yet, some time, the summit will be reached, and the downward route will be commenced.’3 The prospect forces on us the chilling thought that man, with his rational and moral nature, can hardly be a chief end for the cosmos and its Maker, but at most only a by-end. In a dialogue between Nature and an Icelander, Leopardi puts into the mouth of the former this grim sentiment: ‘If I by chance exterminated your species I should not know it.’ It does not follow, indeed, that even in that case we should cease to believe in the worth of humanity, and give up striving with all our might to justify the belief by the realisation of the moral ideal, even though the time allowed us for the task should be, as Mr. Huxley hints, a period barely ‘longer than that now covered by history.’4 That distinguished scientist advises this heroic course, summoning all brave men to play what may be described as the part of Athanasius contra mundum, the microcosm man waging an unequal, yet not hopeless, battle for morality against the macrocosm brutally indifferent to morality. Such, doubtless, is our duty; yet, with the chill prospect of annihilation before us, we must labour under an oppressive sense of cosmic discouragement, apt to end in surrender at discretion by adoption of the cosmic view of morality as a mere by-end. In the long-run there will be but two courses open, either to abandon our high-pitched theory as to the absolute worth of the rational and moral, or, holding on at all hazards to that theory, to remodel in accordance with it our conception of the destiny of the cosmos, and dare to believe that the Maker of the world has somehow provided against the destruction of the human, either by an immortal existence elsewhere, or by guaranteeing the stability of man's present abode. It is interesting to note that some of the most ardent advocates of evolution feel keenly the need of some such refuge for faith. Mr. Fiske, e.g., says, ‘For my own part, I believe in the immortality of the soul, not in the sense in which I accept the demonstrable truths of science, but as a supreme act of faith in the reasonableness of God's work.’5 He professes himself unable to believe that God made the world, and especially its highest creature, simply to destroy it, like a child who builds houses out of blocks just for the pleasure of knocking them down.6 Not less strongly Le Conte writes, ‘Without spirit-immortality, this beautiful cosmos, which has been developing into increasing beauty for so many millions of years, when its evolution has run its course, and all is over, would be precisely as if it had never been—an idle dream, an idiot tale signifying nothing.’7 These utterances do not settle the solemn question of human destiny, but they do illustrate the logical value of faith in human worth. The question is, Which are to have the upper hand—physical or ethical categories? Give physical theory the first place, and the ethical must go to the wall. Give precedence to the ethical, and it will compel faith in a physical universe conformed to its requirements.

2. Thus far of contempt for man at the best. We have next to notice that form of contempt which has for its object, average or ordinary humanity. Those who are guilty of this fault cannot be charged with undervaluing ideal humanity. On the contrary, it is their high and reverend esteem for the ideal, and for the few favoured sons of men who approximately realise it, that makes them contemptuous in their estimate of the undistinguished multitude. The late Mr. Thomas Carlyle was a conspicuous offender here. We are all familiar with his description of the English people as consisting of ‘twenty-seven millions, mostly fools,’ and with the very uncomplimentary account of the American people which he puts into the mouth of Smelfungus. ‘What have they done? They have doubled their population every twenty years. They have begotten, with a rapidity beyond recorded example, eighteen millions of the greatest bores ever seen in this world before.’8 Of course a certain allowance must be made for the exaggeration of a humorist not given to measuring his words, whose heart was more kindly than his tongue or his pen. Yet that these whimsical estimates represented a fixed serious conviction is shown by Carlyle's whole method of dealing with history. History meant for him the biography of great men.9 Not common men, or the masses of men and the influences by which they are being slowly raised to higher levels of intelligence, goodness, and comfort, were the objects of interest for him, but the few exceptional men here and there, who have risen above the common level, and who compel attention by the greatness of their thoughts and deeds. Carlyle sincerely, passionately, reverenced humanity, but his reverence took the form of hero-worship, having for its negative side disdainful indifference to all who were not heroes.

Now hero-worship is not an evil thing. We have certainly no reason to complain of this modern cult as practised by its chief apostle, for to the enthusiasm it inspired in his mind we owe some splendid works which have permanently enriched our literature, such as that in which Cromwell figures as the hero. Hero-worship, by comparison with certain other cults, is even a positively good thing. Unbounded admiration for men who have been great in wisdom, character, and conduct, is surely a higher thing by far than servile homage paid to brute force in the person of an Oriental despot, or to money in the person of a modern millionaire. Still this new religion, whereof Carlyle is the prophet, is, at its best, a one-sided thing; it is very apt to become an unjust and inhuman thing, and it tends to unbelief in God's care for man. It does not indeed deny Providence, but it virtually recognises it only in the careers of those who belong to the intellectual and moral aristocracy of the human race. Its doctrine of Providence is a new form of the Calvinistic doctrine of election. Neither in the old form of the doctrine, nor in the new, is the idea of election baseless. There is such a thing as election in the case both of individuals and of nations. Election as we shall see, is one of the methods by which Divine Providence accomplishes its beneficent purposes. But in no case does election mean a monopoly of Divine favour enjoyed by the elect. They are chosen for the good of others, not for the benefit of themselves only. And a philosophy or a theology which overlooks this great truth is unwittingly sapping the foundations of faith in Divine Providence. That faith cannot permanently hold its ground on the hypothesis that the Divine Being cares only for the few, and that salvation here or hereafter is meant only for a remnant, or an exclusive very select company of favoured ones. There must be a Providence over all, if we are to continue to believe in a Providence over any. Such a universal Providence does not preclude the recognition of a very special or signal Providence in the career of exceptional men. The hero is emphatically a chosen one of God, and it is easier to trace Divine leading in his history than in the obscure lives of humbler men. But heed must be taken not so to emphasise that leading as to obscure the still more important truth that God careth for the little and dwelleth with the humble. For if this vital truth be allowed to fade out of our minds, the end may be unbelief in Divine care for any man however great. For, after all, what is the difference between the least and the greatest among men in the view of a transcendent Deity? In His eyes the inhabitants of the earth are all alike ‘as grasshoppers.’10

The only hope of sure abiding faith in Providence is the abandonment of this figment of a far-off transcendent Deity, much concerned about His Majesty, and just deigning to recognise the few tall figures among the myriads of men; and the substitution for it of a God who by His providence and His grace is immanent in humanity, bearing its burdens, sympathising with its sorrows, grieving over its errors, and ever working towards a better time. Affirm the transcendency if you will, it has its relative truth; but do not forget the immanency. ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.’11 The aristocratic Deity hero-worshippers believe in is a poor Divinity compared with the sublime conception of the Hebrew prophet. Do you offer me a God who takes notice of the great man? I prefer a God who hath respect unto the lowly.12

It is well on the whole that hero-worship is on the wane, and the ‘service of man’ on the increase. It is well that history has ceased to mean simply the biography of great men, and has become the sympathetic study of the corporate life of the million, noting its condition from age to age, and recording with humane interest the signs of advance, comparing one century with another. There is nothing to be said against looking out with eager quest for the prophets, righteous men, and great actors of the race. But do not forget that he that receiveth a prophet, or righteous man, or saint, in the name of prophet, righteous man, or saint, is also worthy of recognition. Prophets and the like are very venerable persons, but one who honestly respects them, even so much as touches his hat to them, is not to be despised. The moral order of the world does not despise him. A man who has just enough goodness to reverence goodness in another is not far from God, and God is not far from him. Even a cup of cold water given to a weary, way-worn saint will not miss its reward. How many are equal to that service who are far from being saints themselves! Think of them thankfully, hopefully! Preach hero-worship and saint-worship by all means: both have their use, if also their baleful abuse. But regard kindly the worshippers as well as the worshipped. Believe that God regards them; that He regards those in whom is the smallest fragment of the good, as well as those rare souls who have travelled far towards the goal of perfection. This is Christ's doctrine; but it is also the doctrine of right reason, and it is the necessary presupposition of all true faith in the worth of man to God.

3. We pass now to the third form of contempt for man, that, viz., for man at the lowest and the worst: for primitive man, for the savage and the criminal, in comparison with whom even the so-called ‘fools’ of civilisation are wise and good. If even the average man of civilisation be deemed contemptible, the classes just named may seem beneath contempt, utterly unworthy of notice, to be simply forgotten, if one is not to despair of humanity altogether, and to become an utter unbeliever in God's care for the human race. And in truth it cannot be denied that these classes, especially the second and the third, present to the believer in Providence a sufficiently dark problem which cannot be satisfactorily disposed of in a few paragraphs. I am not going to attempt a solution here. I leave the savage and the criminal on one side meantime, and propose to speak a kindly word for the primitive man whose unrecorded life filled up the long blank space of thousands or tens of thousands of years before civilisation and history began, whose religion was animism, whose tools were made of flint and stone, and who was slowly learning to say ‘I.’ Theologians have hardly begun to recognise his existence yet, and are even gravely in doubt whether they can afford to do so. Whether he ever lived on this earth is still a debated question. Science, geology, and anthropology affirm; theology, interested in traditional dogmas, denies. I do not presume to judge authoritatively between them. I only venture to express the hope that theology does not need, in the interest of the Christian faith, or of a high esteem for the Scriptures, to foreclose the question, but can afford to treat it as a simple question of fact. It is always best when faith is able to take up this attitude; and it has happily been found possible to do so in many cases in which at first it was supposed to be impossible. I shall go on the assumption that this case will turn out to be no exception, and provisionally take for granted that ‘primitive man’ is not an imaginary being, but from the most recent tertiary period to the earliest dawn of history has been an actual denizen of this earth. And the question we have to consider is: Must we as upholders of the worth of man be ashamed of this ancient type of humanity? Is it possible to take any rational interest in him; is it credible that God could take an interest in him? A negative answer to this question would be of serious import. It would mean that, for long ages after it came into existence, the human race had no value or moral significance for God, no share in His providential guidance, no place in His gracious plans. Such a conclusion would be hard to reconcile with an adequate conception of Divine benignity. Thoughtful men, devoted to the Christian faith, are beginning to feel the pressure of this question. Thus the brilliant author of The Christ of To-day writes: ‘The consciousness of history as of unmeasured extent, and as embracing countless multitudes of the human race, inferior, doubtless, in every way to the men of to-day, but upon whose sacrifices and rude civilisation, representing worlds of struggle and suffering, the modern age has built, and without which even genius itself would be comparatively helpless, is one of the great forces that are calling for a new conception of salvation. It is impossible to believe that the unmeasured worlds of prehistoric man that are at present rolling into the vision of the nobler spirits, and whose wonderful contributions in the way of brain and muscle and rude inventions, of the indispensable preliminaries of civilisation, are receiving wider and more reverent recognition, do not stand in the eternal loving thought of God in Christ.’13

For the author of these sentences, it will be observed, primitive man is far from being an object devoid of interest. He claims for him that he has made ‘wonderful contributions.’ And this is really no exaggeration. Primitive man and his achievements, as these are made known to us by archæology, are indeed uniquely interesting. His work possesses the interest that belongs to all beginnings of things that have grown to greatness. In the prehistoric times were laid the foundations of art, language, morality, religion. Then man began to employ the hand, that distinctive organ of the human body, as a tool making and using instrument. The tools made were doubtless very rude—flint knives, stone hatchets, and the like. Nevertheless there they were, first attempts in a new departure, promise of better things to come, their very defects stimulating to invention with a view to improvement. Then also man began to use the tongue as an organ of speech. The origin of language belongs to that prehistoric time. Doubtless the first efforts at speaking were of the crudest sort; but the very earliest attempt in this direction, however rudimentary, was of infinite significance for the future intellectual history of mankind. And what immense strides had been made in the creation of language before the dawn of the historical period! Men learned at length to say ‘I’ and ‘thou,’ distinguishing themselves from one another, and from the outside world. Specialists tell us it took thousands of years to get this length. It was well-spent time. What a great thing for a man to become conscious of himself as a personality distinct from the world! But this is not all. Before the historical period, men had produced such highly developed languages as the Sanskrit, an achievement which, even to a Hartmann, appears little short of miraculous, demanding the special aid and inspiration of the Great Unconscious Spirit of the universe.

To the same prehistoric age belong the first beginnings of morality. With man came into this world the beneficent peculiarity of exceptionally helpless infancy, making protracted demands on a mother's care. The human infant created society, yea, even the rudiments of the kingdom of heaven. It gave rise to the family, the social unit, to permanent relations between father and mother, parents and children. This unit, the social cell, grew by affinity into an aggregation of cells, forming a tribe whose members were knit together by common affection, common interests, and a sense of mutual obligation.

Once more in this prehistoric time are to be sought the rudiments of religion. But how can we know what were the primitive man's thoughts of God? The method of writers on ‘Primitive Culture’ is to gather facts about the religious ideas and customs of savages, and to transfer them to the prehistoric time, going on the assumption that savage religion is not a degeneracy but a survival. The method has not been allowed to pass unquestioned. Vigorous protests have been entered against the hypothesis that to all intents and purposes the savage and the primitive man are identical, that the savage of to-day is what the primitive man was. And it is obvious that in some respects the identification is inadmissible. For example, the primitive man was an originator, the savage is the child of inherited custom. ‘The primitive man, just because primitive, although endowed with a good intellect, heart, and will, could have no traditions, acquisitions, or habits, no words except those which he invented, no tools or rudiments of art not of his own devising, no beliefs not attained by personal exertion.’14 Then the savage is an unprogressive man, stagnant in thought and conduct, remaining the same as his forefathers from generation to generation. Primitive man, on the other hand, so far as we have the means of ascertaining the facts, was progressive: he went on improving in speech and in tool-making. But with this caveat let us concede that in religion the savage of today fairly well represents the primitive man. What follows? That the religion of the primitive man was what Mr. Tylor has called ‘Animism,’ a belief, that is to say, in the presence of spiritual beings everywhere in nature, in men, in beasts, in plants, and even in inanimate objects. A crude, childish faith, doubtless crude in its psychology, in its natural philosophy, and in its theology, yet with all its crudeness not without points of interest for philosophic reflection. In the first place, it was something that men began to ask themselves questions concerning the difference between a living and a dead body, concerning the nature of the shapes which appear in dreams, concerning the mystery of death and what lies beyond. Once entered on that path of inquiry, the human mind would not rest until it had arrived at the idea of a Great Spirit of the universe, who is to the world as a whole what the soul in a human body is to an individual man. Then it is worthy of note that the primitive philosophy of nature was spiritualistic, not materialistic, as one might have expected. At this point the beginning and the end of human thought meet, for the tendency of modern philosophy is more and more to find in spirit the ultimate explanation of the universe, Spirit is also the last word in religion as in philosophy. God is a Spirit, said the author of the Christian Faith, and our deepest modern thinkers have nothing better to put in the place of that great word. But the wild man of the woods and the caves anticipated the oracle when he saw spirits everywhere: in individual plants and animals, in a group of individuals like a forest, in the great wide world. Despise him not for the crudity of his thought; he was on the right road.15

We do not despise the primitive man; no one, imbued in any measure with the modern scientific spirit, can despise him. Does God then despise him? Must we conceive God as too holy to be able to contemplate with any complacency the rudimentary rational and moral state of primitive humanity? To some such feeling is probably clue the tenacity with which the religious spirit clings to a conception of the pristine state as one of perfection, the first man bearing God's image not only potentially, but in full realisation, in respect of knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. It is specially natural to cherish this idea as of vital moment when man is viewed as a direct product of the immediate creative causality of God. What God has to do with only at a distance and at second-hand may be imperfect, but must not that which proceeds from His own hand, without the intervention of second causes, be absolutely faultless, as good as it is in its nature to be? As I said before, I have no wish to pronounce dogmatically on the question of fact. But I venture to hint that the inference from Divine Holiness to the necessity of an absolutely perfect pristine state is mistaken. If holiness is no barrier to intimate relations between God and man, throughout his history as a sinful being, why should it postulate sinlessness, moral completeness, to begin with? Besides, is not the whole conception of Divine Holiness underlying the argument legal rather than evangelic, worthier of Judaism than of Christianity? Is it not truer, I say not to the teaching of Christ merely, but to our own best ethical insight, to lay the emphasis rather on the condescension, the grace, the benignity of God, and, in the light of that, to hold it possible for Him to take a kindly interest even in the rude primitive man of anthropological science? Think of the affectionate, tender interest taken by fathers and mothers in the faint early dawn of reason and conscience in their offspring! All beginnings in the use of faculty in childhood possess intense interest for those who have arrived at maturity: first attempts at speech, walking, thinking, judging between right and wrong. Is this very human enjoyment beyond the reach of the Great Being whom we call the Father in heaven? It was indeed beyond the reach of the Zeus of Greek Tragedy, whom Æschylus represents as inflicting merciless punishment on Prometheus for services rendered to primitive humanity, which showed the Titan god to be the better deity of the two.16 But not so thought the Hebrew prophet, who likened God to a nurse in the suggestive words, ‘I taught Ephraim to go.’17 May we not extend the scope of the pathetic metaphor, and conceive of God as the nurse, not of Israel only, but of primitive man, teaching him to go, to walk erect on two feet, instead of on four, to use his hands in the making of tools, to use his tongue in the creation of language, to use his reason in the explanation of what he saw happening around him, to use his moral sense in discerning between good and evil? If ever there was need for Providence it was then. When our children grow up, they become to a certain extent independent of parental care, but in the early years, that care is indispensable even for the preservation of life, not to speak of higher culture. So with primitive man. His Maker had to take special care of him then, to keep him alive in an inhospitable world, full of trackless jungles and uncultivated wildernesses tenanted by wild beasts, and to promote the development of his human capabilities. And, that the providence exercised over the childhood of humanity did its work well, is evidenced by the goodly manhood it reached in the earliest civilisations, of which ancient history, and still more ancient unearthed monuments, bear record: those of India, Egypt, China, Babylon, with their languages, arts, wisdoms, religions; imperfect, rude in many respects, yet not without elements of real, permanent value.

The conclusion, then, at which we have arrived is this: Cynical underestimates of the worth of man are to be rejected, whether these refer to man at his best, to man in the average, or to man in the rudimentary condition. And we are to believe that God cares for man in all the stages of his long history, in all the phases of his development, in all samples of his common humanity, whether good or bad. God cares for the beginnings of man because He cares for the end. He sees the end in the beginning, the ripe fruit in the root, the oak in the acorn, the perfect man in the rudimentary man, the ideal of humanity in the crudest specimen of actual humanity. Therefore He might pronounce the verdict ‘very good’ on the new thing which had appeared in creation, the human, on the very first day of its appearance, assuming that the phenomenon presenting itself to the Divine eye was not man with all his possibilities realised, but simply man with those rational and moral capacities which constitute in the abstract the Divine Image. The first man, even so conceived, was a son of God, and the appearance on the stage of this new divine type of being gave to the morning of the sixth creation day a quite unique significance. The dawn of that day was conscious of its importance as ushering in the epoch of the human, to which all the earlier epochs had looked forward. The Creative Spirit rejoiced in that dawn, albeit not ignorant what a tragic affair the long day of humanity might turn out to be. God said, ‘Better the human with all its possible tragedy than a world with man left out of it,’ And from the bright morning He looked forward to the far distant evening when the storms should be past and the sky serene, and man at last should have become a son of God indeed, perfected through suffering and even through sin.

Because God takes into account possibilities, He can care even for the degenerate and the depraved. ‘The worst person in all history,’ it has been boldly said, ‘is something to God, if he is nothing to the world.’18 That degeneracy may go to a hopeless point even for God may be possible, but it very often seems to have reached that point in the judgment of men when, to the Divine eye, there is still some redeeming feature; under the hard, rocky surface of evil habit, a store of water that, reached by the boring tool of pain, might spring up an artesian well of eternal life. ‘Recall Christ, brother of rejected persons, brother of slaves, felons, idiots, and of insane, diseased persons.’19 Christ hoped for those who were given up in despair. Christ's sympathetic hopefulness, methinks, is nearer the mind of the Eternal than the hopelessness of less loving, more austere judges, who would deem the world well rid of its bruised reeds and smoking wicks. God loves the human, and His omniscient eye wistfully searches for some small remnant of it, even in men whose life seems wholly bestial or diabolic. He shows His love, not by attempting to make such men happy,—that is neither possible nor desirable—but by conducting them through a hell of misery to wise reflection and penitent resolve. ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.’20

  • 1.

    Porphyry, De abstinentia, vol. iii. p. 5.

  • 2.

    I Timothy i. II.

  • 3.

    Evolution and Ethics, p. 85.

  • 4.

    Evolution and Ethics, p. 85.

  • 5.

    The Destiny of Man, p. 116.

  • 6.

    Ibid. p. 114.

  • 7.

    Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought, p. 329.

  • 8.

    Latter Day Pamphlets, No. 1.

  • 9.

    Lecture on Heroes, p. 1.

  • 10.

    Isaiah xl. 22.

  • 11.

    Ibid. lvii. 15.

  • 12.

    Psalm cxxxviii. 6.

  • 13.

    Gordon, The Christ of To-Day, p. 15.

  • 14.

    Flint, Philosophy of History, p. 659.

  • 15.

    This is acknowledged even by Mr. Herbert Spencer in the concluding volume of his Synthetic Philosophy. He says, ‘A germ of truth was contained in the primitive conception—the truth, namely, that the power which manifests itself in consciousness is but a differently conditioned form of the power which manifests itself beyond consciousness.’—The Principles of Sociology, vol. iii, p. 170.

  • 16.

    Vide Prometheus Vinctus, 440-514.

  • 17.

    Hosea xi. 3.

  • 18.

    Gordon, The Christ of To-day, p. 200.

  • 19.

    Whitman's Poems.

  • 20.

    Isaiah lv. 7.