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Meditation I: Man's Need and Quest for God

Man's whole nature involved in the quest—The groping of prehistoric man—Gods and the God of communities—One God—The Man of to-day has the same fundamental relation to the question of God as his earliest ancestor—What is it that the modern mind demands?

Ages before man self-consciously asked the question “What is God?” he was engaged in finding an answer. When we cast a retrospective glance over the history of our race, we are forced to recognise the fact that Man has always felt his relation to an Unseen. We ask ourselves, from the vantage ground we now in these days occupy, What undercurrent of feeling, desire and necessity of reason has been carrying him along, step by step and through successive ages, to the goal of all thought? What does he search for, and why the ever-recurring and persistent question that he puts?

The primæval man, simply because he is man, is dimly conscious of himself as a unit in the midst of a world-process; standing alone, and subject to chances and changes which he cannot control. He is a single individual in the midst of an immeasurable environment: he is in the tide-way of a vast-movement; and he is helpless. The inevitable bears him on and overpowers all his puny efforts to resist it: at every turn, the arbitrary and capricious seem to lie in wait for him. Invisible spirit-forces surround him, and to these he prays for help in his need, and offers sacrifices to secure their aid or propitiate their wrath. It is not, properly speaking, worship that he gives, but petition, either in words or rituals, for protection from evils. Fear, not reverence, is the motive: reverence is of later birth and always connotes an ethical element. None the less are the primæval religions to be called religions: in truth, is not the primæval religion still the religion of the majority of civilised mankind, by whatever name they may seek to dignify their beliefs?

The science of religion does not yet justify us in recording the successive steps of the development either of ritual observances or of conceptions of the Unseen, but it is, I think, possible, if we speak of man as a whole, to generalise the historical movement sufficiently for our purpose. For we are here specially concerned with the nature of man as determining him, whether he will or not, towards the recognition of the Unseen and the Universal. This is a universal characteristic of humanity.1

At the root of all manifestations of relationship to the unseen and universal lies (I think) that feeling of man's existential unitariness and dependence to which I have adverted above; and, involved in this, an awareness, faint and shadowy it may be, of Being-universal within which each individual being lives and moves and does his anxious daily task, and which, in its incomprehensible sweep, impresses him with a sense of mystery and awe. He does not, of course, envisage the fact of Being Universal—the Unconditioned supporter of the finite. He is too immature for this; but he feels it in the mysterious life of himself and things, and recognises it in the superhuman, if not supernatural, spirit-powers that encompass him. The prehistoric man, in short, is dimly conscious of a Universal in the very act of transferring his own conscious life into the things of his environment. Nor is this all; for, simply because he is on the dialectic plane of mind, he feels Universal Being as Ground of the existent and apparent.

With the growth of experience, the extension of a knowledge of the world beyond the narrow limits of his immediate surroundings, and the formation of enlarged communities, man begins, by virtue of the operative reason in him, to perceive a certain law and order in the midst of what had appeared casual, contingent, and arbitrary. This, no doubt, in a very restricted sense; but yet sufficiently for the satisfaction of his yet undeveloped capacities. The idea of a one power or demon or god now emerges—a god who, though arbitrary in his own acts, is yet a source of order and law, and foe of disorder and lawlessness, in nature, in man, and in the spirit world—a special god among many gods. Communities of men, inasmuch as they find that they can exist only by virtue of order and law, recognise this god as sanction, if not also source, of these; and they find in him a bond of union and also a tribal or national protector, if his goodwill be secured. Reverence has now entered into the human attitude towards the unseen, and we have worship of a crude ideal.

As separate communities coalesce, the contribution of gods to a common fund of belief swells the current of polytheism. But one of the gods (the god probably of the most powerful tribe) secures pre-eminence as the national god, and is now the centre of political unity and of civil organisation, although lesser gods are not dethroned. He is symbolised in a ritual, borrowed, it may be, from various tribal cults and expanded. Notwithstanding, a belief, not only in minor deities, but in spirits and demons, benevolent or malevolent, accompanies higher conceptions and persists; as, indeed, it does to this day even among the most civilised peoples.

A one God to the exclusion of all other gods is possible only when, through the advance of thought on things, the universe begins to be conceived as a one of system. The evolution of the notion “God” accompanies the development of man and the extension of his world-view. It is true of the religious idea, as of all science, that it advances with advancing knowledge; and the end is not yet. We are still engaged in finding God. And if the conception which a people has of God is the measure of its intellectual and moral culture, then to exalt and purify this conception is of all things the most vital for Humanity. So thought Moses, and Zoroaster, and Christ.

The supreme sole Being or Power is ultimately seen by the more thoughtful minds to be not only greater than all individuals, both men and spirits, but greater also than nature; it embraces them all: it is a true Universal. But the vast majority lag far behind the few from age to age. They are immersed in the concrete and wresting from reluctant nature the means of maintaining a precarious existence. The universal, accordingly, is as yet intimately associated with the various phenomena of sense, and retains its unity with difficulty; it breaks itself up into many shapes; but, even though “there be gods many,” one supreme Being is, notwithstanding, finally recognised by the leading minds at a certain stage of mental evolution.

The sense-infinite, whereby man's conceptions of Time are immeasurably prolonged and of Space are immeasurably widened, makes only a quantitative contribution to the God whom man has sought, and finally affirmed, as supreme. These conceptions, as they emerge into clear relief in consciousness, magnify to infinitude the idea of God as source and sustainer of all. Accordingly, we may say that it is God as a Being infinite and all-potent in his finite relations, vindicator of moral order, refuge and helper in time of trouble, and as final explanation of the world that, from the earliest dawn of civilisation until now, has, in forms more or less crude, been prefigured and predicted in the self-conscious life of men.

With the continued progress of thought on life the notion of God, I have said, is deepened and widened; but it is the content of the notion God, not the fact and affirmation of a god, or of God, that alters. With the prehistoric man, as with the man of present-day culture, the idea has its roots primarily in a deep sense of solitude and helplessness in the midst of a universe which is too great for a finite and transient creature to comprehend or control.

We may sum up briefly thus:—

In Feeling of Being we have the response of sentient consciousness to Being-universal: in the nascent perception of moral law there emerges the notion of a supreme living source of Law, a rewarder and punisher: in the difficulties of a rational explanation of things there is found the need of a universal solution in a supreme regulative Will—a One in the diverse Many: while, out of the isolation of finitude and the helplessness of suffering, there emerges a sense of dependence on an infinite and all potent Being in whom bewildered struggling man may find support and repose. Every element, accordingly, that goes to constitute our complex human nature impels man to stretch forth appealing hands to the heavens with the ever-renewed question: “Where and what is God?” and, when he has found Him, to bow before Him and to conciliate Him with offerings, sacrifices and symbolic rituals.

As man, at last, begins self-consciously to realise his own moral personality and the problem of himself, the idea of God, as related to his inmost being in life and death, deepens the inherited religious conceptions. God is now not merely outside man and for man, but somehow in man. The finite individual is the negation of the One: in the highest form of all individuation—the Ego, it is conscious of the negation as placing it in antagonism to God; and this is the consciousness of sin. Thus is raised the question of the value and destiny of the individual soul in its gravest form.

The higher animals are organisms of feeling and desire as man is, and evidently have that sense of unitariness, exposure and helplessness in the midst of a vast unknown which man has. Some instinctively seek relief in herding with their kind, others seek the concealment of holes and of the jungle; and all, from the first, evince a wariness in protecting themselves from possible hostile forces. But they are content with the present and immediate. The animal on the plane of attuition has no impulse to go out of itself and seek that which is source and sustainer of all: it has no spiritual needs that demand satisfaction; it has no questions to ask. What, then, is it in the creature Man that impels him to seek light on questions which can never probably receive a final and definite answer, and drives him to travel anxiously over a rough and weary road whose goal seems ever to vanish into farther distances. Manifestly, it must be that in him which differentiates him from the animal of attuition, and to which we assign the name “Reason” or subjective dialectic. In the fact of Reason, then, we find the secret of man's demand for God; and there, too, we can alone truly find the only possible answer. It is Reason, always working underground, which at last comes to full consciousness of itself. Such, in very general outline, seems to be the history of the mind of Man in its errant search for God.

And in these days of advanced thought, of subtler emotion and more complex moral and spiritual life, is not our need the same and has it not the same foundation as in prehistoric man? Is the man of modern enlightenment in a different position from that of the primitive priest-sage? Positive science is, after all, merely the more exact perception and the causal coordination of the facts and sequences which the first observing man contemplates as a concrete of chaotic and casual phenomena influenced, if not regulated, by arbitrary spirits. And when the man of science seeks to explain the ultimate grounds of his own unquestioned phenomenal verities, he is lost in wonder and contradictions similar to those which beset his primæval ancestor. He occupies, doubtless, a higher plane of knowledge; but the same unsolved problems meet him which threw his progenitors into the arms of superhuman beings, and, which, from the first, pointed to universal Being and eternal Spirit, as sole final resting-place. The series of phenomena arranged under the causal notion themselves demand explanation. An explanation within the series cannot explain; it is itself under the category of experiences to be explained. The agnostic, deeply sensible of the mystery, may bow before it with awe. He forgets, however, that it must be a Positive “somewhat” that calls forth his reverence: he could not prostrate himself before a Negation.

I might stop here with this brief and perfunctory survey of inner human history; but it is important to the object of our search to ask what it is that we educated men and women, who are inheritors of all the past, and have attained to a philosophic language of which our remote ancestors knew nothing, seek now and to-day.

1. In the midst of the infinite plurality of things we seek a One. This is a necessity of reason. Omnia tendunt ad unum. In physical research we see this illustrated; for the ultimate goal is a conception, static and dynamic, which will give unity to the whole phenomenal complex series, and, by giving unity, explain. This conception it will be possible to trace (if it be possible to attain it) through the multiplicity of things as a one element or dynamic pursuing a one process. It is right that the scientific investigator should hold this in predictive imagination as final issue of his labours. It is, in truth, a philosophic ideal and a kind of religion; for it rests on a conviction of the oneness and rationality of the universe. But even if he attained to it, it would still be within the sphere of the sense-phenomenal, static or dynamic; and this would leave him still restless. He would have to affirm a ground for this dynamic unit of explanation adequate to its own explanation and to the rational work which it seemed to effect in an ordered universe. And yet, proud of the demonstrable character of his phenomenal sequences, he might decline to bring within the range of what he would consider pseudo-knowledge this primal One which was, at the same time, All, and which, unwittingly, he is truly in search of. Still, he would be at least forced to affirm it as prius of the phenomenal series, not itself part of the series; and there leave it.

2. We seek a One which shall be a Universal. That is to say, it must be in all things and processes while retaining its own oneness. Were it not so, we should land ourselves in a polytheistic pluralism.

3. We seek a One-universal in all things which is ground of all as creative and sustaining. A One in some retired corner of the universe, existing over against the universe for which we were seeking an explanation, could only for a time meet our demand. It is a crude conception. A moment's reflection shows us that we are seeking a God who is in and of and through the finite multiplicity we see,—not a Master-builder standing aloof. He must permeate and control the Many and not be exiled from it as an abstract unity. Moreover, such a conception could yield us neither a “one” nor a “universal” containing the potency of all that exists, but only, at best, an arbitrary abstract Will, to which in the moral sphere we should have to pay our court as to a supreme despot.

4. We seek a One-universal, creative and sustaining, which shall be not merely an abstract terminus of our own thinking, but a Reality—a non-finite Object which is “Being,”—itself containing all finite subjects and objects within its creative process and living life, and conciliating all contradictions.

5. We seek a One-universal creative Being which shall be not merely “Being,” but a Being; that is to say, not merely a one Substance but a one Subject which has, for its own begotten Object, the sum of finite things, in which as creator and sustainer it dwells, while giving room to all individual activities.

6. We seek a One-universal creative Subject who is Reason and is self-conscious:—

Mind seeks to see,

Touch, understand, by mind inside of me,

The outside mind.2

We finite reasons cannot comprehend a one infinite Subject; but we can feel it, and we can rationally affirm it; and, further, we can “know” it, in so far as it has made itself knowable in things and in ourselves.

These are the needs—nay, the insistent demands, of reason in us, and it would not be difficult to show that, as above formulated, they have all entered, more or less clearly, into the various conceptions of God which mankind has, in the course of its perplexed thought-history, evolved.

7. But further, as living self-conscious personalities, we are alone. The Ego in its inmost recesses is always solitary, and, in its finiteness and solitude, it needs and demands a Universal Infinite Being on which it may repose, and in which it may find a larger and a common life. It cannot sustain itself in isolation. Far from seeking to hold itself apart, it hastens to deny itself by losing itself in “That” by which and through which it itself is anything at all. Only in that which it calls God can it truly be itself; and in Him only can it find the solution of the contradictions of finite life and rest for its restlessness. It ever presses on to fulfil this its destiny—which culminates in the Intuition of all in God as Absolute Being—eternal source and bearer of life.

8. As an organism of Feeling in all its mystic range as distinct from reason, the rational subject can find no rest, no repose until it not only sees all in God, but feels Him in the depths of its own personality as the pulse of universal Being. Here again, it would appear, the soul, full-charged with emotion, cannot live alone as a bare and barren unit: the Universal is the very air it breathes: the demands of love must be satisfied with an infinite object. Thus it is that a man, whose impulse, as rational Ego, is to make the whole concrete of experience his own, must also, in sympathy with Mind-universal, find “That” which answers the beatings of his heart, so that, in the joy of a divine love, he may freely lose his freedom, willingly offer up his will, in the mystic elevation of a perfect communion. He is now with God and in God. He is at home. This—the personal emotional attitude to the highest—is Religion in so far as it is to be distinguished from ultimate Philosophy.

This Feeling-consummation of finite mind is proclaimed in the writings of Mystics and is suggested, but far from adequately expressed, by two of our own writers whom I here may pertinently quote, merely premising that their intense emotion is precisely that feeling of Being-universal, dimly experienced even by primæval man, now finding utterance on a higher plane of mind-evolution. In the familiar words of Wordsworth—

Magnificent

The morning rose in memorable pomp,

Glorious as ere I had beheld. In front

The sea lay laughing at a distance: near

The solid mountains shone bright as the clouds,

Grain-tinctured, drenched in empyrean light;

And in the meadows and the lower grounds

Was all the sweetness of a common dawn—

Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds

And labourers going forth to till the fields.

Ah, need I say, dear Friend, that to the brim

My heart was full: I made no vows, but vows

Were then made for me: bond unknown to me

Was given that I should be, else sinning greatly,

A dedicated Spirit.

Again: “I was utterly alone,” says Richard Jefferies, “with the sun and the earth. Lying down on the grass, I spoke in my soul to the earth, the sun, the air, and the distant sea far beyond sight.… I prayed: the prayer, this soul emotion was in itself not for an object: it was a passion.… I was rapt and carried away.”

Now, what is this that so agitates the soul of man? What is it which he seems to hold fast, and which, yet, eludes him? What is it that finds out the inmost inner of his being and takes possession there to the exclusion of all other interests—even of his own free personality—and which can be only remotely indicated in words? Whence this emotion, so deep, so high, so soothing and yet so disquieting? It is Being-universal—the mystery of infinite Being—the eternal Real that reveals itself in the shapes we see—in the blade of grass as in the vast forest, in the cunningly formed insect that alights on the leaf of the tree as in the lion that crouches under its shadow, in the magnificent arch of stars above us as in the green pool at our feet teeming with life. All “lies bedded in a quickening soul”. It is through feeling, not intellect, that we, mere units of Being, finally commune with Universal Being, the Ultimate Reality—the Mystery: ever to remain a mystery; for by its very nature it rejects all logical forms: these are its finitude. In this region, so empty yet so full, the mystic dwells rapt, oblivious of all finite relations: the antithesis of subject and object is hardly discernible.

9. Man has to act and to co-operate with his fellow-man. To find the law of his activity is left to himself. It is a difficult problem; but the answer rises ever into clearer light in the course of the ages. To find and proclaim this law was the function of the prophets of old, as it is of the ethical philosopher to-day. And, when we have found it, we have to do it. But the law for man is The Good for man; and every thought he thinks that leads to action, as well as all his acts, have to be animated by the End, which is The Good. As a self-conscious reason, man necessarily projects ends in all his activity. It is thus that as ethical beings we truly live. But we know our failures: we scarcely ever have to record our complete successes. Nature is too strong for spirit. In our hesitating affirmation of truth and in the weakness of our wills, we feel the need of a universal guarantee for inner Law in a One Universal Being who is ethical in his essential nature and is ever ready to fortify our spirits.

10. Again, man's final ends are ideals—always ideals; he seeks The Truth and, in the very act, ever affirms Absolute Truth; he seeks The Good and, so, ever affirms Absolute Good; he feels and longs after Beauty and, so, ever affirms Absolute Beauty. He does this: he must do it, because of the impulse at the heart of the will-dialectic which, in finitising, infinitises. Where is the guarantee of these ideals to be found? Only in an infinite Being who is immanent in His own world-ideals,

The Power which pricked

Nothingness to perfection.

11. Pure Reason in Man demands satisfaction; and just as the triumph of physical science would be the discovery of the one of principle and process which explained the myriad diversities and apparent contradictions of the phenomenal world; so the triumph of metaphysical science is the revelation of that One of principle and process as Absolute Being and Spirit, which wells up in the finite spirit of man.

12. Finally, Man is not only a reason with its demands and an ethical being with its ideals, aspirations and hopes, but a sentient creature capable, by virtue of his very reason, of infinite suffering. The fears and pains of the wandering nomad, in the presence of irresistible destiny and of incalculable natural forces, are as nothing to those which beset the daily life of the complex and subtly woven being into which man has in the course of the ages developed. Helpless and dependent as the nomad was, still more helpless and dependent is man as he now exists, burdened with the melancholy past as well as with the anxious present and the dark and perilous future. This need is a need engendered by reason on the basis of feeling, inasmuch as it is through reason that man is capable of immeasurable imagination and boundless sorrow. In all those experiences in which his finite possibilities are exhausted and he can do no more; in helpless suffering; in all distress and perplexity; in the dark night of despair, and in the hour of death he needs—nay, he demands—an Eternal Being who, source in some mysterious way of all his woe, is yet a Father to whom he, as a son, can appeal, and who will somehow vindicate for him His Fatherhood.

Such, it seems to me, is the record of the need—the hunger and thirst that arise in the reason and heart of man for the living God. This divine need is urgent now as in the beginning. It is folly, then, to imagine that we can evade the question; and the true answer to man must satisfy all his requirements. The final notion of God, if we had it, would not only explain the universe and afford quiet and rest to the ever-questioning reason, but satisfy ideals and be a home of refuge for the heart. And looking at the whole problem without pre-judgment, but coldly and scientifically as simply a cosmic fact among other facts (but the supreme fact within the highest cosmic organism known to us, viz., man), it surely must be that, if there be God, he must somehow make himself known to us. If there be no God, then the cosmic fact that proclaims itself in us is utterly inexplicable: we are the sport of non-rational forces either wholly stupid and unmeaning, or wholly demonic.

It might be said, then, that the need for God is simply the sum of the needs of Man as a feeling, as a rational, and as an ethical being. This is true: but not only, nor yet chiefly, in the sense of the need of help for a helpless creature, a support for the weakness of the feeble. For Feeling seeks God that it may be filled to the fulness of its own vast capacity; finite reason seeks Him in order to make intelligible to itself the fact, and to furnish the completion, of its experience; finite Will seeks Him that it may be strengthened for its tasks. God as All in All can alone satisfy a man. We need Him; nay, we even insist on Him as our due. Accordingly, it is truly in the strength of reason and the manly aspirations of the soul that God is demanded, and not in the paralysis of our wills or the weakness of our flesh. The God-affirmation in all its width is a virile affirmation: it is the strength by which the strong man lives; and, even in the case of the feeble and over-worn, they demand God as the strength which stands between them and the death of the over-burdened spirit. It is the moral elevation of the downcast, and not his abasement, that exclaims: “In Thee, O Lord, do I put my trust, and my hope is in Thee”. These are not the words of the puling child or the abject slave, but rather, in the hour of the soul's dejection, the very exultation of reason.

  • 1.

    No tribe or nation has yet been met with destitute of belief in any higher beings (Tiele's Outlines, Carpenter's translation, p. 6).

  • 2.

    Browning's Parleyings.