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The Living God

1930 to 1931
University of Edinburgh

The Living God takes a very different form than other Gifford Lectures. In reading the work, its primary intention to be a spoken lecture is clearly evident, as are the erudite gifts of the author. Söderblom begins, in chapter 1, by addressing ‘primitive religions’, which even in their most basic forms he argues demonstrate ‘consciousness of divine action’. He argues that religions generally culminate in either practice and training or in divine activity, using the example of yoga for the prior and mystical experience for the latter. With regard to religion as practice, there two primary methods. One is the reduction or removal of things that inhibit access to the divine (via negationis), as in Buddhist tradition, or that of the via positionis. Söderblom argues these are indicative of the perception of divinity within the practice: the pursuit of reduction ‘points to an impersonal conception of God’, and without some complement of via positionis it will cease to be able to seek the Divine. If this is the case, it becomes psychological practice and frequently tends towards asceticism. In this process, salvation, although it may be defined in a variety of ways, becomes self-attained. This necessitates a pious and, as Söderblom calls it, a ‘professional’ character. Religious practice may also take the form of devotion. Here, self-salvation gives way to love, devotion and faith in a living deity who brings deliverance. Such religious practices are described in their practical forms by Söderblom using examples from the Indian subcontinent and Hindu traditions.

In the third chapter, Söderblom gives a detailed assessment and history of the development of the Hindu belief in ‘Bhakti’: devotion to a personal god for the attainment of salvation. One of the intriguing aspects of religious practice in this tradition, as defined in the Bhagavad-Gita, is the prohibition of forsaking one’s vocation in order to pursue devotion more intensely, thus taking ‘a short cut’ to salvation. Of paramount importance is the duty of vocation. This has the result of preventing the religion from becoming the privilege of those who have the means to withdraw from society to pursue its practice. Söderblom describes this as a ‘democratic programme’ of religion, as it is dependent on devoted worship rather than on the attainment of special knowledge or ascetic practice not accessible to all. In Buddhism, the devotion to Bhakti takes a very different form. Here it is devotion to Dharma or ‘doctrine’ as teacher, leader and comforter. In chapter 4, Söderblom expresses the rich traditions and great diversities that have developed in Buddhism in its various manifestations, particularly in India, China and Japan.

Söderblom takes special interest in Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) for his ‘great significance’ in the history of religion. Here he finds something akin to a counterpart to the prophets of the Old Testament and Islam and the advance of monotheism over polytheism. He engages in systematic analysis of Zoroastrian Gatha texts, particularly the ‘Hymn of Misfortune’, and defines the purpose of Zoroaster’s passion as ‘the meeting with God’. This is not found in secret traditions or mysteries, but in the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, the Lord All-wise and the enemy of the divine, the Lie. It forms a dualistic system requiring a choice to ally with either one or the other. In this religious tradition, the distance between God and humanity is not the great chasm that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have held. Here the prophet experiences the divine as ‘friend to friend’ and his purpose is religiously motivated action, such as protecting the oppressed, defending the truth, building bridges and even killing bothersome insects. Yet while this religion sought to actively struggle for the cause of good in the world, it lacked any doctrine of the internal, the soul. Instead, the primary focus, as in the prophets of the Old Testament, was for humankind to become the ‘co-worker with God’ in the struggle against evil.

In his seventh chapter, Söderblom discusses the theological contributions of Greek philosophy. Although Plato’s desire to see the true forms of the cosmos and Aristotle’s First Cause provided a framework for both theological and scientific understanding of the hierarchy of the universe, Söderblom argues that Socrates more truly revealed the Divine. In fact, he states that the need for Plato’s development for ethical ideals stemmed from his introduction of a division between ‘theory and practice’ of ‘unity of ideal and life’ which his predecessor had not held. Socrates, free from this division, sought a direct truth which could be manifest in life and thus ‘stands forth in history as one of the witnesses to the living God’.

The final portion of The Living God focuses on the monotheist traditions. In ‘Religion as Revelation in History’, Söderblom argues that it was the innovation of Zoroastrian and Mosaic Judaism to give divine revelation a purpose in the unfolding of history. This in turn necessitated action in response to revelation and gave rise to the issue of personal authority, particularly on the part of the one who serves as prophet. In biblical revelation a further innovation entered into religion: the claim to the uniqueness of absolute truth. This is most fully formed in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. Through the doctrine of the incarnation and the mystery of Christ’s death on the cross, Christianity presented a different meeting point between God and humankind. The incarnational doctrine of Christianity is not humanity seeking God, but God seeking humankind. Söderblom declares the continuing task of Christianity to be attentive to the continual revelation of God, which, like Christ in his incarnation, penetrates into the world. This means gradually making history understood in a ‘religious sense’ and in accordance with the Christian conception of God. It is through this process that the church can make sense of the continuing revelation of God, both in religious and secular events, and may employ ‘moral independence’ to act in good conscience. This is part of the continuing process of creation: ‘the regeneration of the individual’. Through this process, Christians take on a role in the process of God’s revelation. ‘History becomes my history’, Söderblom declares. Becoming proactive in God’s cause, we, like the religion expounded by Zoroaster, participate in the Divine’s struggle against the ‘evil, lethargy, and death . . . manifested throughout history’.

  • R. Scott Spurlock, University of Edinburgh