A Faith For Today

By Harris Franklin Rall

Chapter 7


MAN can put no greater question to himself than this. For this is not one question; rather, all the questions of life issue in this. What is real and enduring? What is the good that we should follow and the goal for which to strive? Has our world a meaning and our life a hope? Is there One back of the many, one Power that moves in all the myriad forces of our world? And is that Power Good? And does It know when we speak, and can we pray?

Along three main paths men have come to the idea of God: the sense of the Holy, the vision of the good, the discernment of order and end in the world. (1) The sense of the Holy we cannot explain, but all religions and all ages witness to man's awareness of something high and holy, a power on which he feels himself dependent, a sublimity and majesty that calls forth awe and reverence and fear. (2) The vision of the good opened man's eyes to a world that was invisible and yet real—the good and beautiful, the right and true—a world that stirred aspiration and commanded loyalty. (3) The visible world spoke likewise to his growing mind. At first he saw only the strange and awesome forces of land and sea and sky: the mighty tempest, the surging waves, the terrible thunderbolt, the majesty of lofty heavens, and, strangest of all, the mysterious power of life itself. But in the end he came to see that there was not only power in all this but order and unity and purpose; here was a universe, not a multiverse, a cosmos, not a chaos, a meaning and an end. And so there grew the vision of God, a being who was at once the ground of all nature as Creator and Ruler, the home of all truth and goodness, and the Holy One of majesty and wonder whom man could never fully know.

The Christian idea of God has its foundation in the Old Testament, its consummation in Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament the prophets give a vision whose loftiness and purity and insight we cannot appreciate till we compare it with what China, India, Egypt, and Greece had to offer. (1) There is one God, God of nature and of all nations. (2) He is the living God, not abstract idea, or impersonal force, or static order, but a purpose and power working out his ends in the world. (3) He is the good God, the God of righteousness and mercy. With an insight lacking to many even today, they found the clue to the character of God in the highest that man knew of what was just and kind and true. (4) He is the high God, the God of transcendent majesty and power, beyond all that human life can attain or human thought can grasp.

For the early Church all this had its consummation in two great convictions. (1) The character of God is seen in the spirit of Christ, the will of God in Christ's life and death. "God was in Christ." We see "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." (2) God gives men his Spirit. He is no mere distant God, touching earth but now and then. He dwells in men by his Spirit. J5ut these two convictions form a unity: the belief in a Christlike God and in a Christ Spirit given to men.

How, then, shall we reach our own conception of God? The answer is fourfold: we will take the highest insights of the past, the convictions tested through years of experience, the supreme certainty of religion that goodness and power are one, the Christian certainty that the highest revelation of God is found in Jesus Christ. And four conclusions follow:


God is a personal Spirit. The final reality in this world cannot be mere matter; science itself has repudiated that. It cannot be blind energy, for that could not bring forth order, beauty, and a life that rises to constantly higher levels until reason and love and righteousness appear. The stream cannot rise higher than its source. Matter cannot bring forth mind, though mind may find a place for matter. If reason and righteousness and beauty are foundational in this world of ours, then the ground of this universe must be a Person, for these belong to persons, not to things or blind forces.

There are those who think that in calling God a person we are dropping back to our childhood picture of a big Man-God in the sky, that we are making God in our own image, limiting him and dragging him down to our level. Let it be said at once: all our knowledge of God is partial and imperfect. We see in a glass darkly, and we have to speak of God in symbols taken from human experience. When we say King, Lord, Kuler, Creator, yes, and Father, we are using human analogies. But we do just the same if we call him Process, or Order, or Principle, or Cosmic Force. They are all taken from something that has come to us in our finite world. But that does not imply that they are false. We can know God because this world has come from God, and we have come from God, and something of his life is here through which we know him. We see in a mirror, but the mirror does reflect.

What we need to do is to take the highest that we know as a clue to the Most High. God may be inconceivably more, but he is not less than this highest and best. Surely, he is conscious being rather than unconscious process, reason rather than blind impulse, moral being and not an amoral or immoral force. So we do Dot limit God when we think of him as personal. Rather, the limit is in us. We are not so much persons as persons in the making, finite and incomplete. Our wisdom is limited, his is complete. We are bound to our little place; for him all space is here and all time is as now. Our wills are faulty and divided in aim; his will is single and sure. God is not less than personal; he is personal life in its fullness and perfection.

But while God is infinitely more than we, the fact that he is Person and that he has made us persons is of the deepest significance. It makes prayer possible, for prayer is speaking to God as "Thou." It makes worship possible, for you do not worship a process or a principle or a blind force, but only that which as personal and ethical can command reverence and adoration and call forth aspiration. It makes fellowship possible, the fellowship of children with their Father as Jesus taught it and lived it, not only in communion of spirit, but in likeness of character and in common service of men.


God is the supremely good. F. W. H. Myers was once asked: "Had you one question to put to the Sphinx, what would it be?" And the reply came: "Is the universe friendly to me?" If that question can be answered "Yes," then all other matters will take care of themselves. If we could but look up into the measureless heavens and forward into the uncertain future, and say in simple confidence, "Our Father"! If we could but sing with Whittier:

"I know not what the future hath

     Of marvel or surprise,

Assured alone that life and death

     His mercy underlies."

But that is the Christian assertion. Modern science has bid us understand the universe in terms of power. That power is the ceaseless energy that moves in atom and sidereal system, the order that holds the stars in their courses, the life that thrills in all living beings, the purpose that is working out in history— and that Power is Person, and that Person is good.

"This world's no blot for us, nor blank:

     It means intensely, and it means good."

It is important that we understand what we mean here by goodness. Various words have been used to indicate the character of God: righteousness, holiness, justice, wisdom, love. They all belong here, but the central idea is love, or good wilL Back of God's creation and direction of his universe is this motive: he wills for his creatures what is good, and this good is his own life which he would share with all to the measure of their capacity. God is Creative Good Will. If we once understand this, we shall avoid two common extremes. There is the extreme of legalistic severity. God is conceived first of all as Ruler and Judge and law enforcer. He may be merciful, we are told, but he has to be just. Men are evil and deserve death, and God is under no obligation to save or help. If now he "elects" some to be saved, that is mercy; if he lets the rest go to hell, that is justice. But all this is to forget that good will is not something casual or optional with God; it is the very essence of his being. The highest obligation is there, not that of the creature's desert but that of God's own character.

More common is the other extreme, that of a weak and nonmoral or even immoral sentimentalism. The love of God is put down on the level of the softness and folly or even concealed selfishness which so often marks what is called love among men. But the goodness of God means creative good will, and each word in that phrase is significant. God wills what is good —not ease, not comfort, not just our pleasure, but the highest good of man, life at its fullest and best. And it is not simply the individual life that he wills: it is an order of life among men that shall be fair and just and merciful, it is a new humanity. And God works creatively. That may mean suffering for wrongdoing, it may mean toil and pain; but always its means a love that will not rest till it has brought forth truth, justice, purity, and mercy among men. And that can only come in a universe where moral order is as sure as is the order of physical nature without which we should have chaos.

Goodness like this, moral and creative, is more than a matter of the gifts of a divine Benefactor which we stretch out idle hands to receive. It is, rather, a life which enters, commanding and transforming, into our life. It means in particular these five great things: (1) a life revealed as our highest good and our true goal; (2) a judgment upon our imperfection and sin; (3) a demand reaching to our last deed and inmost thought, and commanding obedience; (4) a mercy that receives us into God's fellowship and brings a creative power into our life; (5) a confident assurance as we face the future that, despite every threat of change and evil, our life and those we love and all the high goods of humanity are secure.

The supreme expression of God's character is seen in the spirit of Christ. In Jesus Christ we have not simply man reaching up to God, but God come among men. Here is love that is infinitely patient, mercy that no indifference or selfishness or evil can turn aside, goodness which, just because it is love for men, flames as wrath at evil and is set with stern and inflexible enmity against that anger and hate and selfishness and oppression which curse and destroy. At the same time it reveals a God whose love enters our humanity, suffers in our pain, bears the burden which our evil has brought—a God who saves us by his presence.


God is the God of Power. At no point is the popular idea about God more vague or crude than here. Many have smiled over the naive picture of God in the play, The Green Pastures. There God is pictured in a heavenly palace high above the earth. He can wave his hand and create the earth and the living creatures upon it; or, if he will, he can hurl a thunderbolt and destroy a race that has become too wicked. And yet many people still think of God's power much like this: he is an Oriental monarch, with no law except that of his arbitrary will, and his power is an external and irresistible force which executes this will. They speak of omnipotence and mean the power to do anything at all. They fail to see that this is childish and irrational, as the small boy's questions revealed who wanted to know whether God could make a man fifty years old, or a stone bigger than he could lift. Nor do they see that with such an idea of God's power we cannot believe in his goodness, for a God of irresistible power would surely not be good if he left a world as full of evil and unhappiness as is this.

We must first understand better what we mean by power. There is no such thing ns power in general, no sheer power in and by itself. The power of any being is its ability to act according to its nature, whether it be an electric current, the wind and waves of the sea, a growing plant, a laborer with his tools, or a leader wielding the power that goes with clear insight and high character.

So God acts according to the nature of his being in its varied aspects, known to us but in part. We see him as the* sustaining energy and life through which all that exists has its being, as the order which makes this world a cosmos and gives to each particular being its own peculiar nature, and, finally, in his nature as moral-spiritual Being, as reason, wisdom, righteousness, and love. Some things are plain for Christian thought: all power is from God, all life depends on him, all that is good comes from him, and no force of evil can finally withstand him. But God himself is strictly limited, or conditioned, in what he does. (1) He is conditioned in power and action by that order or reason which is of his very nature, which is at the foundation of the universe, and without which this universe would not be possible. It is a part of this rational order that physical power cannot create the morally good. If God could make a man good by force, there would be no reason in the universe or in God. (2) God is conditioned by the ends that he sets: he must use physical forces for material ends, moral forces for spiritual ends. A kingdom of truth and righteousness cannot be established by physical force, and not even God could redeem humanity without the cross. (3) Finally, God is conditioned by his own character; his love and righteousness determine the way that he takes.

Our faith in the power of God is not belief in an irresistible force which God can wield like an army at the beck of an autocrat; it is the faith that spirit is more than matter and good is mightier than evil and that God himself is good. It is the faith that prays in confident hope and joy, "Thy kingdom come." Evil seems very powerful in the world today. It has wealth in its coffers, armies at its command, and no scruples to impede it. Its chief social forms are militarism, selfish nationalism, and exploiting greed. Justice is flouted, truth is buried beneath the lies of propaganda, and love seems helpless and hopeless. We read again Lowell's line, "Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne." But truth and justice and love are of God. They are God, God at work in the world. They are the final order of this universe, and he who goes against them, whether individual or nation, comes at last to destruction. Evil is self-defeating. A man with long years of criminal life behind him wrote his life story under the heading, You Cannot Win. The Caesars and Napoleons and Mussolinis defeat themselves. Love is mightier than selfishness, justice is stronger than oppression, truth must win out in the end against falsehood. It is in these that the power of God appears. Its symbol is not an army—that belonged to Rome; it is the cross, the cross which stands for self-giving love.

This does not mean a "finite" God as over against the infinite. It does not mean a God who is merely one among many forces striving for mastery. It does not mean a God who himself has "evolved," or who is just that "aspect" of the universe which furthers our life when we know how to adjust ourselves to it. All power is in God and of God, for all that is has come from him and has its being in him. He is the source of all being and the order in which all things act. But the power of God in our world is not that of irresistible force, but that of truth and love working in its own sure though slow way.


Theology and philosophy speak about the transcendence and immanence of God. In simple terms that means that God is more than the world and is in his world. We may speak of this as the farness and nearness of God, and in these two words almost all that faith holds as to God can be included.

1. We believe in the transcendent God, the God that is far; we pray, "Our Father who art in heaven." We are using picture terms here to suggest spiritual realities, but transcendence does not mean distance in space. We simply express a conviction without which there would be no religion. Religion arises when man finds supreme power and holiness, before which he bows in dependence and reverence and awe, to which he looks in trust, and which he feels he must obey. That is the God that is far, the being who is more than the world of things and men which man sees about him, yes, more than all the world of visible things added together. We call this the holy, the transcendent, or the supernatural. It is a God who is more than a system of natural laws, who is more than simply the energy that appears in floods and storms and stars and growing life about us.

God is transcendent as power: the world has its being in him, it depends upon him; he does not depend upon the world for his being. He transcends it as purpose, directing its course. Through the ages, from lower to higher, the world struggles on; but there is a purpose that works in it and goes before it. He is transcendent goodness, rebuking, alluring, creating, calling us to worship and obedience. Finally, because he is infinite and holy, God the Eternal, he will always be other than man in his nature and will transcend our human understanding.

2. We believe in the immanent God, the God that is near. Here too it is not something spatial that is meant. It does not mean merely that God is in his world, and it certainly does not mean that God is all things and that the sum of all things constitutes God. (1) The nearness of God means that God is not only other than his world, but is akin to his world, and especially to man. With all the imperfection in nature and all the sin in man, this world lives through the life that God has given it. "The meanest flower that blows" has something of his beauty and thought in it. Of man himself it is said that God made him in his image; and all God's dealings with man are on the plane of person speaking to person, of a relation with a being who can understand and obey and enter into fellowship with him. (2) God's nearness is that of his love and mercy. It is seen supremely in Jesus Christ, in whom God was present as truth and love and saving help. But it is set forth constantly in Old Testament as in New, especially in the thought of indwelling Spirit, the supreme expression of God's intimate presence as the very life of man. (3) Not merely in the world of man but in all nature there is, as Wordsworth's oft-quoted words suggest, this presence

"Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things."

Whether we think of nature or of man, we have no right to think of this as a God-deserted world, or, however wonderful, as simply a world of things and men upon which a distant God, who once gave it being, looks down. Not for one moment could it exist without this Presence that moves in it and sustains it. And not merely sustains it—God is the creative power and the redeeming love that is always at work in his world.

In this paradox of the God who is far and yet near, the Infinite Spirit who is other and yet akin, who is revealed to us and yet beyond our comprehension, we find the spring and driving power of religion. Here is the tension that will not let man rest, that keeps his life from sinking either into complacent inertia or hopeless despair. There can be no religion except there be a God above us to call forth awe and reverence and obedience; but neither can there be religion unless there be a kinship which makes possible fellowship with him, unless he draws near with love to call forth trust, and with help to give us life. So in all high religion these two are inseparably joined. That appears in the sublime picture of God given in Isaiah 40. He is the God who laid the foundations of the earth, before whom the nations are as nothing, who created the stars of the heavens and calls them by name, through whose power not one of them is lacking. Yet it is this God who "will feed his flock like a shepherd," who "will gather his lambs in his arm, and carry them in his bosom"; who "giveth power to the faint, and to him that hath no might increaseth strength." And later we read of "the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy," who yet dwells "with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit." And of the people it says, that "In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them." (Isaiah 57. 15; 63. 9.) So, in Jesus' words, we pray "Our Father" to the God that is near, and find in him forgiveness and strength and daily bread; and in the same breath we say "who art in heaven; hallowed be thy name," and pray to this God that is far that his will may be done and that his may be the kingdom and the power and the glory. Here wonder and awe and submission, there confidence, joy, and peace, and both because we believe in the God that at once is far and near.


  • Of what value is a clear and intelligent conception of God? How far is such a conception possible? Do most church people have it? What stands in the way?
  • What grounds have we for thinking of God as personal? Of what value is such a conception? What objections are there?
  • What are some common mistakes in conceiving of the goodness of God? Of the power of God?
  • What does the idea of the power, or omnipotence, of God mean to you ? What about the conception of a limited, or conditioned God?
  • In what sense shall we think of God as other than the world and as more than the world (transcendence) ? What about the conception of God in the world (immanence) ? How are we to conceive this relation? How are these two concepts of God related: the God who is other with the God who is like, the God who is more than the world with the God who is immanently and intimately present?
  • What are the values of these two conceptions for religion?


  • H. F. Rall: The Meaning of God
  • B. L. Swain: What and Where is God?
  • J. Fort Newton, Editor: My Idea of God. (A collection of essays varying widely in viewpoint and value.)
  • F. J. McConnell: The Christlike God; Is God Limited f; The Diviner Immanence
  • E. S. Brightman: The Problem of God; Is God a Person?
  • W. B. Matthews: Studies in Christian Philosophy; God in Christian Experience
  • W. B. Selbie: The Fatherhood of God
  • H. Maldwyn Hnghes: The Christian Idea of God
  • W. E. Hocking: The Meaning of God in Human Experience
  • Knudson, A. C.: The Doctrine of God
  • J. E. Boodin: God
  • A. S. Pringle-Pattison: The Idea of God