( Originally Published 1888 )
Belief in God is the fundamental article of every religious creed, the foundation stone of every theology. Throughout Christendom the people of all churches and sects are unanimous in saying : " I believe in God." But, to many persons, it perhaps does not occur that this fundamental tenet of theology is held with very great differences in the religious world. Within the Christian Church itself, professing to base its beliefs on the teachings of Jesus, and to hold, at least in essentials, a united faith, there have been great and important differences in men's conceptions of what God is. The changes in popular theology from age to age have, in fact, resulted chiefly from a growing reasonableness or unreasonableness in this fundamental doctrine.
In the same community to-day are often to be found churches from whose pulpits or chancels the teaching about God differs so radically that we are compelled to define for ourselves with great care, separating between true and false in them, our own beliefs in Him. Especially is this necessary when we further see that sectarian strifes and controversies, those dark shadows ever lurking in the back-ground of church life, are directly traceable to conflicting views of God. The sin most abhor-rent to a devout Hebrew of ancient times was that of idolatry, the root principle of which was, as it ever is, a distorted image of God in the mind. And our own Litany, praying that men may be delivered from " heresy and schism," asks in that familiar petition that people shall be kept from false conceptions of God, since true ideas concerning Him have been at the bottom of all peace-bringing, elevating, spiritual faiths, false opinions at the bottom of all fierce and degrading theologies.
One of the truths concerning the Bible, that careful study of its various parts has made clear, is that the Hebrews did not, by any means, all have similar conceptions of God ; that the popular theism of the Pentateuch, for example, is of a very much lower order than that of the later prophets; that Jesus, in His day, held very different views of God from those of the chief theologians of Judea, among the Scribes and Pharisees.
Jehovah, to the earlier Hebrews and the popular theologians of our Saviour's time, was only one of the great national or tribal gods, greater and better than all others, but, like them, the god of one people, having many of the imperfections that the other Semitic tribes, the Moabites and Ammonites and Philistines, who lived near the Hebrews, ascribed to their gods. In their thought they conceived of Him as " a great, non-natural, magnified man," who created the heavens and the earth as an architect makes a house ; who got angry, and changed His mind, and sent plagues on His enemies, and fought the battles of His subjects, performing stupendous feats in the sphere of nature in order to frighten the one or help the other. The prophets and others, on the contrary, often rose to the most exalted planes of thought about God. " Canst thou, by searching, find out God?" they say. " Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection ? It is high as heaven ; what canst thou do ? Deeper than hell, what canst thou know?" " For thus saith the high and lofty One, that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy 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."
Such passages as these, from the Books of Job and Isaiah, show that their authors had risen far above the popular conceptions, in their thought of God, just as in their times Kleanthes and Plato and other great Greek writers rose far above the popular mythology of their country. But the Hebrew idea of God was most fully exalted and spiritualized by Jesus, and after him St. Paul, who taught that God was not a changeable deity, made in the likeness of man, but the unchanging spiritual life of the universe, and the Father of all mankind. "God is a Spirit," Christ said to the woman of Samaria, when she spoke to Him about the conflict between the Hebrew belief that true worship could be performed only at Jerusalem, and the Samaritan belief that Mt. Gerizim was the proper place for it,—" God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth," thus refusing to localize the Divine Presence, or limit the communication of the Divine Spirit.
St. Paul, at Athens, a little more than thirty years afterward, uttered these eloquent words, in exactly the same spirit and meaning: " God who made the world and all things therein, seeing that He is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands. Neither is He served by the hands of men, as though he needed any thing ; for it is He that giveth unto all life and breath and all things. And He made of one blood all the nations of mankind, to dwell upon the face of the whole earth ; and ordained to each the appointed seasons of their existence, and the bounds of their habitation. That they should seek God, if haply they might feel after Him and find Him, though He is not far from every one of us ; for in Him we live and move and have our being ; as certain also of your own poets have said : ` For we are also His off-spring. "
The views of God held and taught by Jesus and St. Paul were indeed spiritual and profound, but all their followers, the new converts to Christianity, did not share in them. Side by side in the Christian Church grew up two entirely distinct sorts of theistic belief : one crude and anthropomorphic, like the earlier Hebrew, or Greek polytheistic belief ; the other profound and philosophical, like the thought expressed in the passages quoted from the Gospel of St. John and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles.
In the minds of one set of thinkers was firmly rooted the Oriental idea of God as a great, man-like being living far away from the world, con-trolling it through intermediate agents, much as the Czar of Russia controls that part of his empire which lies across the Ural Mountains. As theology became more of a science in the Christian Church, this view of God as an absolute monarch, made in the likeness of an earthly despot, took on more definiteness, and from it, by a natural process, in the Western world, sprang the Augustinian or, as we know it bet-ter, Calvinistic form of the leading Christian doctrines—Divinity of Christ, Trinity, Atonement, Heaven and hell.
In the Calvinistic thought, the world was a lifeless machine moved by the will of a Superhuman Being, who never came near it. Man also was His creation, but the relation between him and God was no more than that between the clay pitcher and the potter who moulds it. Revelation was not to be sought in the better instincts of humanity, and the process of history, in philosophy and poetry and art, but merely in certain utterances of the few inspired Hebrews and Christians who wrote the books of the Bible. The proof of God's interest in the world lay not in His continuous renewal of its life, and in the increase of moral and intellectual power among men, but rather in certain interferences with the regular working of events, called miracles. Christ was not the highest expression of the great universal fact of incarnation, " God's idea of man completed," but an incongruous being, neither God nor man, and yet both.
The doctrine of Trinity was not the summing up under the symbol of three-foldness of all the great attributes of God which have their root in His eternal personality, the brief expression of all the highest philosophy concerning the relation between the divine and the human, God and His creation, but rather a division of the infinite God into three finite personalities in some measure antagonistic to each other. The Atonement was not the realization in humanity once for all, in Christ, of perfect righteousness, the one complete exhibition of sacrifice, but rather, as with the heathen, the propitiation by means of literal blood of a vengeful and deeply outraged deity. Heaven and hell were not progressive states of mind and feeling, conditions of the inner life consequent upon obedience or disobedience to natural law, but rather places of physical delight or torture, into which, at death, for their good deeds or bad deeds, men were arbitrarily put by their Creator. Law itself was not the eternal expression of the life of the universe, so much as the fiat of a despotic will.
That was one, and because it requires less grasp of intellect, and through the middle ages was most in harmony with the imperial temper and aims of the Church, it became after the fourth century the popular view of God, and His relation to the world. But there was an-other and better theology prevalent during the first four centuries of the Christian era, which is commonly termed the conception of God as immanent in the .world." It is a conception that has never been lost, even in the crudest and darkest times of religious thought, and now that the intellect of man, released from the fetters that bound it when the mediaeval or Calvinistic theologies held sway, is free to approach all the sources of divine knowledge, to find in arguments unrecognized in other days its strongest proofs of God, belief in God as the indwelling Life and Power of the Universe, Soul of all things, Omnipresent Spirit, Source of strength and order, Fountain of beauty, " Light of Light," who dwelleth on high, and humbleth himself to behold the things that are in heaven and in the earth, is necessarily coming to supplant the other view. In the bet-ter conception God is not a person in the sense in which we are persons; not as Michael Angelo painted Him, a marvellous man with the brow of Jove and the lightning in his grasp" ; but the Great Spiritual Life, who robes Himself in a world-vesture, and faintly yet truly reveals His noblest attributes, His divine character in the personality of man. In the third chapter of Exodus there is a profound passage in which God is said to have told Moses, when he asked what name he should call Him by, that His name was simply " I am," meaning that God is too great to be understood by men, or named in human language. " I am that Lam!" And we shall probably never get much nearer an adequate description of God, than our English Churchman, Wordsworth got, in his " Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey," where he says so profoundly that God had revealed Himself to him as,
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Tennyson, in his little fragment called The Higher Pantheism," writes :
" Speak to Him thou for He hears,
And his lines breathe much the same spirit as those words in the thirtieth chapter of Deuteronomy, used also by St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans : " For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven that thou shouldest say : Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say : Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it ? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it." Even Pope writes
" All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
And Emerson says :
" Draw, if thou canst, the mystic line
Thus the incarnation is a process having its highest point in the Christ ; the Trinity is the doctrine, first, of God as unrevealed and unrevealable, God in the great unfathomableness of His being, God the Father ; second, God as immanent in nature and in humanity, God as the reason or light of all men, the Son who binds together all things, temporal and eternal, human and divine ; third, God the Sustainer and Living Spiritual Power of the visible universe and of man its noblest member, God the Holy Spirit. Revelation, in its largest sense, is to be sought in the long process of history and the life of man. The Atonement, typically wrought out in the historic Christ, is the reconciliation of the spirit of man with the highest truth, with God. Heaven and hell are ever advancing conditions of the soul in this world, and all worlds where men may be.
The former view of God prevailed in the Western Church during the Middle Ages, and indeed has lasted to our own day, and this fact is largely attributable to the influence, first, of Tertullian, and then of the Latin father Augustine, who was converted to Christianity in the year 387, but whose mind never lost the unhealthy tone it had received from the Manichaean philosophy to which, for nineteen years, between the ages of twelve and thirty, he had given his allegiance. Certain parts of our Prayer Book bear the impress of Augustine's thought, the Litany perhaps showing it most of all. But the oldest parts of the Prayer Book, and especially the so-called Apostles' Creed, which we say every Sunday, the universal creed of Christendom, were made under the influence of the larger and freer and more rational theology of a time nearer to Christ and the Apostles than the fourth and fifth centuries when Augustine lived and wrote. The chief representatives, in the early Church, of this theology are the much more profound and rational thinkers, Clement and Origen, whose thought illustrates what is known as the Alexandrian theology, and Athanasius, who has always in the history of doctrines borne the name of " The Father of Orthodoxy."
These, in brief outline, are the two forms of belief about God that have prevailed in the Christian world, and their histories. The Augustinian theology has hitherto colored most of the religious thought of this continent, but with the increase of independent thought and study, the older and better and more truly orthodox form of theology of the Alexandrian fathers of the Church is returning, and in intelligent and broadly thinking quarters, is fast supplanting the cruder form of religious belief that has prevailed.
This older, more rational view of God, as everywhere present in the world, is sometimes felt to be too vague and obscure for ordinary minds to grasp, but the truth is, God is so great that when we think most truly about Him, we are least able to express our thought. It was the exceeding poverty of the other view of God that made it possible to think definitely of Him as a great man sitting on a throne in the distant heavens, whence He issued laws to men. All our language about Him is figurative. He has no material form, no jewelled throne above the sky, no literal judgment-book open before him. He dwells everywhere ; ' His throne is the eternal order of the universe; His reign the supremacy of law and love; His judgment-book the conscience of the race. We cannot make adequate theologies ; our best thought comes so far below the great reality, and our richest language is so poor. We can speak of God only in figures and poetically, and we must always beware of mistaking this figurative language for scientific or precise description. It is this mistake that has led the Church, when the Augustinian theology has prevailed, into persecutions and cruelties innumerable, while the Alexandrian theology has generally fostered a spirit of peace.
Yet, in conceiving of God as everywhere present in the universe, creating, renewing, inspiring, life of our life, inspirer of our best thoughts and deeds, we are not Pantheists. Pantheism confounds God with His creation ; Christianity has always maintained as carefully the transcendence of God as His immanence. He is in all things ; and yet the highest and most essential truth concerning Him is that He is a Personal God. But his Personality, which is the root and source of our own, His mind and affections, of which ours are but "broken lights," are not limited like ours. All that we know of reason and right emotion in man we may think of as existing in unlimited fulness in God. All that we can fathom of the mystery of human souls we may regard as existing infinitely in Him from whom human souls come forth.
One question more some minds will be glad to have touched upon in this chapter, the very important question as to the proof that God exists at all. In the old New England theology this would have been the first thing to settle in a chapter treating of belief in God ; but we have entirely given up trying to prove God's existence from the mere abstract propositions of thought, or from the observed sequence of nature, or fitness of means to ends, or from any thing outside our own souls, and are simply and confidently willing to assume His existence in all we say or do. The highest proof of God's existence is the fact that we are able to think of Him at all, as the strongest and most convincing argument for immortality is the fact that we are able to conceive of immortality. The human soul is both finite and infinite, both human and divine, and we cannot by any exercise of the mind ever help believing in God. His personality is the source of our personality, His thought the source of our deepest thought. " In Him we live and move and have our being," and instead of going to books for arguments for His existence, we must obey the in-junction of an old seventeenth century divine of our Church Infra te quaere Deum : Seek for God within thine own soul.
The injunction to seek for God within one's own soul, seems to some persons very vague and unsatisfactory. They prefer to be told to seek Him in something He has done or is declared to have done outside of themselves. It is true we should never forget to see God's revelation of Himself without us, in the world of nature, or in the record of the movements of human life and thought we call history. But the revelation of God in our own souls through the instincts of love, justice, sincerity, and reverence on which we act, and the voice of reason which always speaks within us, precedes any, however important, revelation without us. If men would habitually think not of what God has done, but of what their own souls, all the truth and reason within them, declare that He is, they would find the process of belief in Him strangely easy.
" The pure in heart may know God, but the critical understanding can never comprehend Him," says a modern English philosopher ; and these forcible words were written near the close of the second century, by Theophilus, a bishop of Antioch : " If thou sayest, Show me thy God, I answer, Show me first thy man, and I will show thee my God. Show me first whether the eyes of thy soul see, and the ears of thy heart hear. For as the eyes of the body perceive earthly things, light and darkness, white and black, beauty and deformity, so the ears of the heart and the eyes of the soul can see God."
Our own New England philosopher, Emerson, says, in his essay on the " Over Soul ": " We know that all spiritual being is in man. A wise old proverb says, ` God comes to see us without bell '—that is, as there is no screen or - ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so is there no bar or wall in the soul, where man the effect ceases and God the cause begins."
Thus he gave us, and thus we must explain Jesus' great doctrine of the universal Father-hood of God. There is an eternal relationship between God and every created soul. The true laws of life are the laws of His life in us. Not only is belief in Him possible, but actual unbelief is impossible. When men are most questioning His existence, they are, often, most profoundly believing in Him. It may be truly said that scepticism never reaches the soul.