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Meditation II: Anthropomorphism

Man as a Concrete whole, is our guide to the knowledge of God; not any one thought of Man—Varying notions of God in the progressive history of Mankind—The Abstract notions of the Philosopher—Man is (in a sense) the Measure of God—The Objectivity of the Subjective.

It has been often objected that, even in the more fully developed religions, God is merely a reflection of man and his desires. If horses invented a god, says an ancient Greek thinker, he would have a horse's head; if a triangle could speak, says Spinoza, its god would be triangular; and in Browning's Caliban upon Setebos, we have the modern rendering of the same thought. Is God, then, but

A guess of a worm in the dust, a shadow of its desire?

It is true, God is always in the likeness of man; for where can any finite being find God save as the reflection of his own essential nature? Do I better matters by finding God in some dynamic which I myself, a mere man, have discerned in the processes of the phenomenal and which is, at best, only one of my thoughts—an abstract from the concrete whole? Do I better matters by generalising the ordered process of the phenomenal and calling that “law,” and, as universal law of my experience, identifying it with God? A mathematical conception, which might seem to a pure mathematician to measure God and reveal His processes, cannot be greater than the mind out of which it came. The concept of “Cause” also is a concept of man's, but yields a poor abstract as God. If, again, I call God the Soul of the World where do I get the idea of soul? If I identify God with Infinite Energy, whence the fact and thought of Energy? If I call him Absolute Ego or Absolute Experience are not these also notions transferred from man to God? It is evident that man cannot get rid of himself; but this he can do: he can decline to take this or the other inadequate part of experience for the rich and complex whole, and to constitute a single thought God instead of “Being” and the Dialectic as given in all experience and which, as specifically constituting man, is at the root of all possible thoughts. When I take the fact “Being,” and the thought which is man in all their comprehension and call that, under the category of the Infinite, God, I must be on the right track. I am speaking, it will be seen, of God immanent, of God as revealed: of God absolute and transcendent our “knowledge” is restricted (as we shall see) to the narrow limits of the “That” and the Potential.

The notion of God is, like all knowledge, progressive. Every religious faith stands in a definite relation to the stage of development at which men have arrived, Spencer truly says. We can illustrate this to ourselves by considering the growth of children. I also believe with Spencer that all forms of faith are members of an evolutionary process which is, as regards mankind generally, far from complete.

In the crude beginnings of the time-development of man, his God has like passions with himself. As the idea of man, as man, emerges in the progress of thought and becomes explicit in self-consciousness, it reflects itself into the universal, and the notion of God is then liberated from sense-conditions: He is no longer finite—a being made with hands, nor yet generated by Natura; but Himself the Prius and Ground of Natura. The reflective mind now seeks new expressions for the fact of God. In the recoil from the inadequacy of a finite conception, however, God is often placed far from man, and immediate relations with Him cease. God is now limited by the finite: He is outside it.

The racial element also enters into the conception of God. For example, the Chinese speak of the “Great Extreme” or “Heaven,” which is principle of order, and they virtually exile God from the daily life of man. He, or rather It, is merely an abstract ordo ordinans at best. The Hebrews, on the other hand, to whom conduct and personality were more than nature, conceived God as Moral Law impersonated and so rose to a perception of the spiritual relations of the divine and human. In like manner, the ancient Persian, under the teaching of Zoroaster, saw in the idea of God a Being of intelligence and morality—universal Light which is reason and truth as well as purity. The Hindu fixed his eye on the unity presupposed in the manifold of experience—The One; and, combining this with the feeling of Being as opposed to the flux of the phenomenal, conceived a kind of static “All-One”. “Not by words can we attain unto it,” he said, “not by the heart, not by the eye. He alone attains to it who exclaims, IT IS, IT IS.” This abstract thought cuts off the concrete world from God; and the Buddhist, advancing on this, makes the finite an illusion and morality complete abnegation of sense. In both alike, nature and the individual are cosmic blunders. Human emotion as distinct from reason, and the Infinite in the Finite as a revelation of God, find no place in any of these conceptions.

The reflective metaphysician, again, in his first apprehension of the resultant of the Dialectic in him—an ordered whole of experience, which, to be ordered, must be grounded in one—tends (like the Brahman) to speak only of “The One”—an abstract One. Or, it may be, he emphasises One Universal Being, as the All, with no dynamic principle in it. The moments of the Dialectic movement also throw some light on the varying philosophic concepts of God. Confining himself to the first moment, the philosopher may find a God who is Abstract Will or Efficient, or (if he restrict his view to the mechanical conception) he may regard Him as the initial Primum Mobile, because an infinite retrogression of movements cannot explain itself: He is the Unmoved Mover. But thus to conceive God as ultimate “Efficient” is to make Him an abstraction. Taking the mediating moment of the dialectic, another may conceive of Him as formative and informing Cause; while the last moment of the dialectic finds its reflection in the exclusive conception of God as Eternal Purpose ever fulfilling and fulfilled; otherwise, Perfection or The Good. Again, Pure Thought or Form (as with Aristotle) or Absolute Spirit in its whole organic Dialectic (as with Hegel) is God.

Some, in these days, ignore the dialectic and, taking the fundamental characteristic of conscious subject, tell us that God (or at least The Absolute Being) is a kind of Sentience! With others, He is the unity which holds together multiplicity, and is either the static, or dynamic, principle of a system of relations.

Finally, finding that the highest product of the objective dialectic process—the supreme category—is a self-conscious subject, viz. Man, we then may say that God is the Universal Self or Absolute Ego; and think Him as Personality containing all differences.

It is only in the teaching of Christ that we find the possibility of the supreme doctrine. The Hebrew abstract moral Law and the Persian Light are by Him taken up into a higher conception—that of immanence and love: the sparrows and the lilies of the field are full of the Divine, while the relation of man's spirit to God is expressed by the idea of Sonship; not solely in the Greek or Hebrew use of the word, but in an emotional and spiritual sense.

Thus, it is evident that by whatever name He is called, God is always a partial thought of man on things; or, He is the very reflection of the distinctive man-being himself, in part or in whole. There is no escape from anthropomorphism. “Undoubtedly,” says Professor Pringle Pattison, “there is a rude and uncritical anthropomorphism applied both to Nature and God, which amply deserves all the reprobation it has received. We must not, like the savage, transfer the fulness of our personal life to the forces of Nature, nor, as we are too apt to do, must we make God altogether in our own image. Our anthropomorphism must be critical; but to seek to escape from it altogether is as futile and, it may be added, as gratuitous as the attempt to criticise the validity of thought as such.”1

The truth is, that God is not any one of the above conceptions, out in all of them; and this as an immanent self-revealed God. What He may be as “Absolute Being” is another question. Hegel says: “Religion is not a discovery of Man, but a work of divine operation and creation in him”.2 This, however true, is an obiter dictum: the How of the operation is not shown. It might be a supernatural act of divine grace. The divine operation of God in man, let us say, is through the compelling of him as a reason to take up the world as “Being” and after a certain way—the way, namely, of the subjective dialectic.

Thus we see that, in whatever partial, inadequate, or erring forms the idea of God may present itself to man in the slow time-evolution of mind in him, and however this idea may be further debased by the barbarous life and temporary environment of races, the search for God and the fact of God are persistent; and search and fact alike are under anthropomorphic conditions. The provisional content of the idea, be it what it may, is the highest expression of a nation's life for the time: it largely determines its social and political condition and is constantly used, in fact, as supreme political, as well as moral, sanction. And what essentially is the God whom all men seek? The noumenal in a phenomenal system: and this can never be anything save the reflection either of the thought of man on his experience, or, when it reaches its highest form, the feeling and thinking process itself in part or in whole. God is the Object as revealed on each ascending plane of finite mind. If we distinctly see that man is the last and highest mind-term in a continuous system that pours all itself into him, we shall see that it is God that is so poured. Man is the vehicle and reflection of God—all being a continuous one.

And Man must find the whole of himself in God; not Dialectic alone. Feeling, Emotion, The Good and the Beautiful do not lie outside the infinite Reality. If so, whence and what are they? If God be not in the Actual as given to man, where is He? If we do not, as we open our eyes, see Him, if He does not touch our hearts as well as inspire our reason-activity, what is He to us? A mere algebraic sign to mark an unknowable.

Objectivity of the Subjective.—The above remarks naturally suggest the question, What shall we say of the objectivity of the subjective conceptions of God? I think that the objective reality of the content of the Notion God can be shown only by demonstrating, through an analytic of knowledge, that finite mind must, whether it will or not, take up or subsume all experience under certain necessary universals.3 Doubtless, varying content has been given to the Notion of God during the long history of man. Without discussing this question, I would venture to say, that from the time man reached the reflective stage, there has been a substantial accord among thinkers, and that differences arise out of the necessities of a great teacher's inheritance and environment. Nay more, I would venture to affirm that when social environment, political necessities, and subjective race-tendency have contributed to a prophet's utterance, they have done so chiefly by causing him to emphasise one element in the Notion, while yet other elements are to be found implicit in his consciousness. Accordingly, the varying conceptions of the content of the Notion, God, when rid of vulgar popularisings and historical necessities, may truly be said to have been partial and inadequate rather than erroneous.

It is necessary in this connection to emphasise the fact that in a knowledge of divine things, as in every other department of knowledge, man is a progressive reason; and the question is, “What content does the human mind, after the laboured and painful experience of the ages, now assign to the supreme Notion?” The steps by which man gradually evolved out of the crudest beginnings the idea of the universal “not himself” which he called God, is certainly a matter of historical and scientific interest; but we are not to put our finger on the elemental notions, compound of fear and wonder, and say, “this is what Man has to say of God”. We do not invalidate the astronomy of Copernicus and Newton by pointing to the astronomical notions of primæval man or Chaldæan priest. What man has to say on God—the true utterance which is to flash God in all its fulness of meaning on the world, does not arrive, save in the process of the ages. What we truly affirm of Him now, is the truth of this stage of man's progress. But even our present-day thought, old as the world may be, is not final any more than our thought on physics is as yet final; and yet it approximates more nearly to finality and absolute truth as the centuries pass over us; and, like the present truth of physics, it takes up and explains the possibility, nay, the necessity, of prior conceptions.

Let us go outside and take a large view: The truth of man's thought is always objective, because all is One. It is “subject-object” that we interpret. The cosmic Whole reveals the nature of the creative Source. The primal Energy which we call Mind proclaims itself in all creation inorganic and organic; it tells its story in the rock and the ocean, and then in organic life and consciousness, in ascending spiral series until it reaches Man, its highest achievement; and through him it finally speaks. His speech it is which, as externalisation of feeling and thought, affirms the truth of things as given in the reality and truth of all that finds its consummation in him and calls on him to prophesy. In the beginning, with dim vision, he beholds the cosmic Whole, and in faltering accents he stammers out its meaning; but, ever as he advances, his vision is clearer and his utterance is more adequate. Man is not to be measured by his infancy but by his final achievement; which is not yet. And the final achievement is God Himself speaking through man. There is one God and Man is His prophet. The God of man is man-God or God-man, whichever you please. Man, not this man or that man, but Man, is, in a sense, truly the “measure of all things”. Just as God is immanent in all things, so is the Notion of God immanent in Man and for Man, awaiting the fulness of time. And I, here and now in these latter days, as one member of an importunate race, ask the great question once more and try to put in form what God means to me in the hope of getting nearer to a solution of the great mystery of which man himself is the most mysterious factor.

What then? Would you carry what is in man up into the nature of the Infinite God and say that is the whole? I answer that I attempt no “synthesis of the Absolute” and that the full thought that is adequate to God is impossible to man; but I attempt an “absolute synthesis” and can know God as revealed in His creation. Not only would I carry what is in man up into the very heart of the Infinite God, but I would carry the finite of a stone, a tree, or a worm in respect of universals. But this, you reply, would yield only a vague analogical symbolism about a “something or other that transcended experience”. I rejoin, symbolism if you will, but neither more nor less of a symbolism than the whole creation, including man with all his aspirations, is a symbol of the creative One.

Let us recall the argument of the first Book and ask, What do we mean by Objectivity? That table is object to my subject, but this is psychological objectivity, and not what we mean by metaphysical objectivity. The self-conscious Ego which we call Man is within a system—a system of which he is the final term. What is subjective is ipso facto objective in this large sense. That is to say, it is the truth of the system: it is reality: it is actuality: it is Objectivity. And the supreme illustration of this is the subjective dialectic. I do not apply the dialectic to the record of experience, as if a chaotic manifold were awaiting my advent to be set in order. It is the other way round. The necessity lies here, that I must take up the record of attuitional experience, as dialecticised—already dialecticised. The universal Dialectic is in all things; but in the man-organism it attains to consciousness of itself. It individuates itself in its purity as Will-process in the subject, and so makes man as a self-conscious entity possible.

The objective Dialectic finds itself subjectivised. There is no breach of continuity in the great movement. This would be a banal dualism. Man is not outside his world looking at it as a strange and alien thing. All is one. The world is in him and he is in and of the world. The universe becomes conscious in him. Finite subject as self-conscious and all-comprehending is the universal Object, and includes man himself. All is reflected into the unity of himself, and the “all” includes the unseen implicates of his sense-experience. Those unseen implicates—those metaphysical realities are God, in so far as He is apprehended as opposed to His own externalisation or Object, which Object is simply the Infinite Subject made manifest to Himself and to you and me. What else could it be? And the function of all finites is to return, in life and act, to the One out of which they have issued; but this always through their specific differences, i.e., each according to its kind and constitution, and through and by virtue of that constitution.

The conception of God, then, although (in a sense) anthropomorphic, is not based on a crude analogy with man approached from the outside. It is revealed in and to the mind of man—evolved in the successive revelations of subject-object—the necessary given universals of each moment of subjective mind from pure Feeling upwards. And only there; for man can never transcend himself. It is revealed in the nature and essence of mind as Feeling, and as pure Activity dealing with all experience. I do not construct a notion and objectify it. It is given to me. I find the notion in the object as that object is presented to mind. Man is greater than he imagines: he is verily made in the image of God. God reflects Himself into Man.

  • 1.

    Hegelianism and Personality.

  • 2.

    Philosophy of Religion.

  • 3.

    See First Volume.