By Harris Franklin Rall
GOD AND THE WORLD
I. THE LIVING GOD
BELIEF in God of itself does not give religion; there must be also the conviction that this God is truly and actively related to man and his world. The thought is expressed vividly in the biblical phrase, "the living God." It means more than a God who exists; it is the God who moves in nature and history, who shapes and directs, the God who makes a difference. For many faith in God has faded out of life, not so much because of arguments against the being of God as because they do not find a place for God in the world. In the first place, they do not see any need for God: evolution tells how this world came to be, natural law accounts for all present happenings, psychology explains man's religious experiences as well as the origin of religion. In the second place, the actual world seems to them to rule out a good God. They point to the oppression of imperialisms and the rule of the sword, to the millions asking in vain for a job in a world where the capacity for producing wealth was never so great, and they say, as Israel's enemies said of old, "Where is your God?" It will not do to point to a God who in the distant past created the heavens and the earth, or who in some indefinite future shall come to destroy evil and establish the good, but who just now dwells in the far-off heavens. Nor is it enough to have a God found only in the cloistered place of worship, or a religion which is but the ivory tower of our hopes and dreams. If we are not to merit the charge that our religion is a mere "escape mechanism," we must show men a living God here and now at work in his world.
II. NATURAL AND SUPERNATURAL
No little part of this difficulty has come from the way in which men have conceived God's work in the world. The battle has waged about the two words, "natural" and "supernatural." Men pictured a two-story world. Above was a supernatural world, the place of spiritual power and perfection, the world of God. Below was the world of nature and man, a physical world under natural laws, a human world under the forces of ignorance and darkness. True, this world was not wholly independent of God; he had created it, it still depended upon him; he might reveal himself in Scripture, or answer a prayer, or work a miracle, or live in the heart of a saint, or establish the Church with its sacraments as a supernatural institution. But even so, the supernatural was a kind of intrusion from above, something thrust into an alien sphere.
It is no wonder, then, that, against this piecemeal supernaturalism, there appeared a revival of naturalism on the heels of modern science. For science could do no less than seek to explain every occurrence in this world as coming under some "natural law." Supernaturalism looked for God only in the exceptional, in the gaps, and science kept closing up the gaps with its explanations. So naturalism declared that science was the only knowledge and nature the only world. Both sides made the same mistake, assuming that where the supernatural was present, the natural was ruled out; that if you had a "natural" explanation, there could be nothing supernatural.
Let us now try to see where the real issue lies, looking with open minds at the facts. Ours is a world of things and of spirit. There was a time when men tried to reduce it to mere things, to matter and force, making all happenings a result of chance, seeing in all being, low and high, only chance collocations of atoms. But the very spirit of science itself, the open mind facing all facts, compelled men to recognize the presence of quality and not mere quantity, of values as well as things, of higher levels that were more than the lower—in a word, a world of spiritual as contrasted with merely material being. So the real question at issue appears: Shall we look for the explanation of our world in the material or the spiritual? Where is its real source and ground?
With the death of the old materialistic-mechanistic explanation of the world, there has come a "new naturalism." It accepts emergent evolution. It recognizes the reality of the spiritual; that is, of beauty and truth and goodness, of rational and moral life in man. But it still stands with the old naturalism "for the self-sufficiency and intelligibility of the world of space and time," to quote one recognized advocate, Professor R. W. Sellars, in his Evolutionary Naturalism. When the test comes, Doctor Sellars frankly declares that the world of things is the explanation of the world of spirit.
The other view is that of supernaturalism. Another word might be better since this is so commonly misunderstood, but the position is plain. The physical universe, with its order and beauty and its development from lower to higher, cannot explain itself nor the spiritual elements which have appeared in it. The ground and explanation must be found in a spiritual reality. The religious name for that reality is God. This spiritual (or supernatural) is not something in opposition to nature and outside of it. It is here in the world of nature. Turn anywhere and if you will but look deeply enough, you will find God. But the spirit that is in the world is more than the world. The "supernatural" is not a kind of spooky force working on the natural; the "spiritual" is not a kind of refined substance mixed in with the material. What we have is a Will, a Purpose, a Goodness, a personal God, not the sum of all things but their ground, their explanation, their end, himself always more than the world which has its being in him.
III. GOD IN THE WORLD OF NATURE
God is in all his world, but men do not see God because their eyes are darkened and because they are looking for a miraculous force evident in some extraordinary event.
We see God as the creator of this universe. Of course, the carpenter idea of creation is gone. The Genesis stories are not a scientific account of when and how heaven and earth and life on earth came to be. They are the expression of a profound spiritual faith set forth in poetic form, the faith that back of this wonderful universe are the shaping purpose and order of God. We have nothing higher than that today, but we know better what the method of God has been. To call that method evolution is not to account for this universe but only to state the common theory that this world came to be by gradual and orderly change through long ages. Accept the scientific theory and the great questions still remain. Evolution could not take place except within a given order, or according to given "laws." Whence came this order? Whence came the energy that moves in this process? Why that urge that drives all things on? What is it that has worked so strangely to bring the higher out of the lower? Scholars speak today of "emergent evolution," or even "creative evolution" ; through the ages there has been a strange tendency which one writer has called whole-making, another creative synthesis, another the principle of co-ordination. The lower comes together to form a whole, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts, is a higher level of being with new qualities and ways of behavior. So hydrogen and oxygen unite to form water, a compound wholly different from either, with strange and wonderful properties that make it a source of beauty and the indispensable servant of life. So the inorganic unites to form a living cell and the miracle of life occurs, life which in its qualities and possibilities and ways of behavior rises above all nonliving. What is this principle or process thus at work? Science does not try to answer; its task is simply to describe. But all this shows us God at work and how God works.
We may say, then, as we look at our world: God is the power that sustains all, in whom not only we, but everything, least and greatest, lives and moves and has its being; he is the order, sure and steadfast, which makes our world cosmos and not chaos; he is the creative Spirit, the life urge that impels onward, the principle of unity that is ever creating a new and higher order; and he is the redemptive Spirit, the great Self-Giver, pouring his life into the world.
In all this God does not work mechanically or compulsively. His way is the way of freedom. In Browning's fine phrase, God
He seems from the beginning to have dealt with his world as he now deals with man. He gives his creatures being and the urge to live, and sets them in an encompassing and sustaining order; but within that he leaves them to achieve. Creation means conflict, experiment, freedom, self-achievement. And for that reason it means trial and error, blind alleys like that along which the saurians moved who came to extinction because they were not fitted to survive. It means a price of toil and pain and loss, and long ages for the world's making. Yet this is God's way of working, and it looks more and more, when we come to deeper understanding, as though life could only be created by some such union of support and order and direction on God's side, of freedom and struggle on the side of the creature. Thus atoms and stars are included with living beings in one great process. Looking from above we call it creation; from below, achievement. Here is a sublime conception, far more consonant with the Christian idea of the God of self-giving life as revealed in Christ than the old carpenter idea. The Creator God is not force outside the universe but Spirit dwelling in it, sustaining, impelling, directing, but always as the order which hinders evil and supports good, and as the self-giving God of toil and love. Creation is thus one with revelation and incarnation and redemption, all manifesting the God of whom Jesus said: "My Father worketh until now and I work." And it is a continuous work. Poets have pictured the glory of the morning when a new-created sun first rose in beauty o'er the earth; but every sunrise is a new creation. AM Alfred Noyes has put it:
IV. CONCERNING PROVIDENCE AND MIRACLES
1. The idea of providence is vital to religious faith. To believe in a personal God who knows us and has a purpose for each of us, to believe in a living God who is carrying out his high ends in the world, this is to believe in the providence of God. It is opposed to the view of the universe as a vast impersonal order to which man has to adjust himself as best he can. It involves belief in a personal God, in the worth of human personality, and in a personal relation between God and man; and these ideas are fundamental to the teaching of Jesus.
Popular misconceptions as to providence have discredited it. The belief has often been individualistic and selfish. God has become a convenience for man's benefit, and providence a perpetual interference for individual advantage. But this is alike unchristian and irrational. The Christian attitude is one of confidence in God's absolute goodness and devotion to his will. It brings all its concerns to God but it does not presume to decide what the good will of God is. It prays, "Thy will be done," and only after that goes on to say, "Give us this day." Its supreme concern is the purpose of God. In that spirit Jesus prayed, "If it be possible, let this cup pass away from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." It does not presume to decide how God's good will is to be achieved, and its devotion to that will makes a merely individual interest impossible.
But even thus, guarding against abuse, can we still believe in a God whose love and thought and purpose reach to each human life? Is there a divinity that shapes our ends? Do all things work together for good to them that love God? Can we say "Our Father," or still repeat the twenty-third psalm and think of God as the Shepherd of our life? There is a line in Tennyson's "In Memoriam" that reflects man's haunting fear:
Men are oppressed by the idea of an impersonal order that dominates all events, of an iron ring of law that binds God and man alike.
But this is simply the old issue over again: What is ultimate in the universe; things or spirit? If it be spirit, if it be a personal and good God, then the rest follows. To think of the "laws of nature" as an independent force constraining God's action is pure mythology. Science considers such laws as simply summary statements of the way in which things behave as science has observed them. Religion sees them as the order which reflects the immanent reason of God. Such an order is no more a barrier to God than to man. It is the friend of man making possible alike knowledge and effective action. It is the instrument of the living God as he works out his ends. God is not a prisoner in the world that he has made; he is the living, creative, sustaining Spirit, to which it responds. It is ours, however, in this faith not to decide just how God must work, but, as we trust him, so to leave all things to him,
2. As the idea of providence has suffered at the hands of popular religion, so that of miracle has suffered from the theologians. As generally conceived, a miracle is a break in the order of nature, an event pointing to God because "natural forces" cannot explain it; as such it becomes an evidence used to "prove" God or to authenticate a messenger or a message. But if this is what miracle means, then it ceases to be a religious matter and becomes an affair of the intellect, an argument used by a God who stands outside this world and has to depend on such external means to convince men. Today miracles of this kind have become a liability to religion, not an asset. The idea of external interference contradicts both our idea of God and our observation of nature and history. Everything hinges upon the explanation of just how this event occurred. But that is a philosophical or scientific affair, not religious.
We must begin, then, at another place. Men experience God in many ways, but there are events in which his presence and action seem to them especially and strikingly manifest. The terms used in the Bible for such events are "sign," "wonder," or "miracle." Religion as such does not concern itself with the question as to just how such events come to pass, but only with the conviction that God is working in them. One may think of an immanent God working through an order known to us or unknown; or one may take the old dualism and think of a God reaching in from without. That is a matter of theory, of philosophy. The crucial matter for religion is the conviction that the living God is here speaking to men.
The miracles recorded in the Bible must be studied as everything else in the Bible is studied. We do not accept a statement simply because it is here contained ; each account must be studied for itself. Our first approach will be historical and critical. It will show that some of these accounts have better historical basis than others; that there is a tendency to turn spiritual events into physical happenings (note the way in which Luke "materializes" the descending Spirit in the account of Jesus' baptism, and the same tendency in his accounts of the appearances of the risen Christ); that in the main marvels multiply as the writer is removed in time from the event. On the other hand, it seems impossible to eliminate from the Gospels the story of Jesus' healings, or to account for the beginnings of the Church unless you concede the real appearance of the living Christ to the disciples. The second approach is religious and ethical. No accounts are worthy of consideration which deal with the trivial or with that which is on a lower moral level. Stories of floating ax heads, and of she bears which devour impertinent children at the demand of a peeved prophet, may be passed by.
The term "miracle" might well be dropped by us. The question has passed over into the larger matter, that of the belief in a living God, alike greater than his world and present in it, revealing himself to men and working out his ends. Not all is of equal import as evidence of his presence and power, but it is not the unusual and arresting which today has the most meaning for faith.
V. GOD IN HUMAN HISTORY
Does God work in history? That has been the problem of faith in all ages as it has looked at the suffering of the saints and the seeming triumph of evil. If we face realities, we must see that there are only two ways open for God's work in history. There is the way of direct action, the method of compulsion. Why does not God slay the sinners and put the saints on the throne? Or why does he not at least intervene in an exemplary destruction of some great offender? One can only say once more: that is a child's question, with a child's view of God as a big man standing above the universe, and of power as something external and absolute. Direct action can level forests or blast tunnels or drive slaves to build pyramids; it cannot bring forth truth or wisdom or justice. It cannot create men, not even a single flower. It cannot save the world. It is the same error that leads so many to imagine today that there is a short way out of our present distress by giving absolute power to "benevolent" autocrats. That is not the way of God. He does not save by "irresistible grace" (a contradiction in terms) or by force, which can only repress and destroy.
There is a certain analogy in God's work with what we know as the democratic way. One might better say that man is slowly learning the method of God. The old way was autocratic and militaristic. In part it rested on the idea that the common man had no real rights; that it was the divine right of the few to rule, the duty of the many to submit and serve without question or comprehension. In part, however, it was due to the idea that the masses were too ignorant to understand, too evil to choose, too weak to act. If we take democracy, not in the narrow political sense but in its broad meaning as a social faith, then it is opposed to this at every point. It believes in social justice and the rights of men as men, instead of in the privilege of the few, whether these few come to power by heredity, race, wealth, or ruthless seizure of rule. It believes in the might of spiritual forces, of truth, justice, and good will; and so it stands for education as against propaganda, for free speech and assemblage, and against the ways of force. It believes in men: not in their infallibility, not that the voice of the people is the voice of God, but that in the end, with education and full discussion, after trial and even mistakes and failures, the many can better be trusted in their intelligence and sense of justice than the few with all the dangers that come from vested privilege and unlimited power. But more than that: what the social order needs is truth and justice, and these not simply in laws but in the minds and hearts and will of the people. There is no social good, no social salvation, except as the people themselves are lifted to these levels. The process is slow and costly, but it is the only way.
This is God's way: truth making its gradual advance over ignorance and prejudice; love taking in community, nation, and other classes, races, and peoples in slowly widening circles; justice in law and industry as in individual relations; service as a motive above selfishness; and back of all and in all, a growing vision of God answered by man's faith and devotion.
God's work in the world is seen in his judgment upon evil and his support of the good. That is true though his thunderbolts do not strike down the enemies of men nor his intervention put saints on the throne. There is a basic order in this universe, beginning on the physical level, which works against isolation and separation and for unity and co-operation. It is the law of individual survival and of the emergence of higher levels in evolution. Unity and co-operation mean life, individualism and isolation bring death. Socially there must be mutual confidence, regard, and good will, bringing truth and justice. These laws of life are as sure as those by which the heavens stand, though their operation is seen only as we take the long look. Falsehood succeeds for a while—so did the propaganda used on all sides in the World War, just as it is used in Fascist states today, where truth is suppressed and whole peoples are supplied with ready-made beliefs. But falsehood in the end destroys confidence and so destroys itself. It is so with armed force—it never yet won a permanent victory. The opposites of truth and love and justice are error, selfishness, exploitation; they make for disintegration and self-destruction as surely as night follows day. The stars in their courses are fighting against Sisera, but he who builds on truth and love has on his side the eternal forces of this universe and its immutable laws. The universe has a moral character revealing the presence of God.
This principle is slowly becoming plain in the world of wealth and work. We all know there is something basically wrong in a land where nature offers plenty and yet millions are not merely wretchedly poor, but have not even a chance to work. Economists have been pointing out what has happened. The control of the sources of wealth is in the hands of a comparatively small group. Its plan has been, after allotting to labor and management the necessary minimum, to keep all the balance for itself. Had the profits been widely and justly distributed, the masses would have had increased power to buy. Instead, the profits were put back into more factories with which to produce more goods and make more profits. But the inexorable law of God works here also: selfishness means death. The failure to distribute decreased the power to buy, until at last storehouses were glutted, factories stood idle, and economic depression overwhelmed all alike. What is all this but the judgment of God seeking to show a better way to man. Sometimes this judgment comes in great crises; more often it works silently and slowly.
The power of God in his moral order works as truly to support the good as to hinder and destroy evil. As there is a self-disintegrating element in the very essence of evil, so moral goodness, because it is in harmony with a divine order, has strength that is more than of man. Of course that does not mean that the individual or nation will not suffer, but the movement of history is that way and the final issue is secure.
VI. GOD IN THE LIFE OF THE INDIVIDUAL
It is not so hard to think of God as the order of the universe or even as a general moral order; but there are many who cannot see how God can be concerned with the individual as such. That is especially true since science has revealed the size of this cosmos and the apparent utter insignificance of man. The individual man is but one out of a billion. The human race is but an arrival of yesterday. In his volume, Worlds Without End, the British astronomer royal, H. Spencer Jones, points out some interesting facts. If the story of the earth were written in a book with one page for five million years, out of the four or five hundred pages needed, there would be only eight lines for the time since man appeared, and only one letter for the whole Christian era. Our earth itself in turn is but an infinitesimal atom in the spaces of the universe. Were our earth at the center of the sun, the moon would be only half way to the surface. Yet if our sun were put at the center of Betelgeuse, which is the brightest star in the constellation of Orion, our earth would be only half way to the surface of that vast luminary. But in the galactic system, which includes our sun and Betelgeuse, there are some two hundred thousand such suns, and that system is only one of some seventy-five million universes within the range of our telescopes. How can the God of such a universe have any regard for this little creature man, and how can man ever presume so much upon his worth as to imagine that he has interest for such a God?
The answer to this is found at two points, the idea of God and the measure of greatness. (1) We need to have a larger conception of the goodness and greatness of God. The problem is not new. Long ago the psalmist asked: "When I consider the heavens, what is man that thou are mindful of him?" But his answer was not to assert the greatness of man but the goodness of God. At that goodness we can only wonder in grateful humility. And have we sensed the greatness of God? Are we not simply limiting God after our human measure when we think he cannot be present with his love wherever there is a single human soul? If God is present as energy in each atom, as beauty in the marvel of every single snow-flake, as life in his myriad creatures, as sustaining order in this whole cosmos, why limit him and say he cannot be present as love where there are beings to love him in return? (2) We need a more rational measure for greatness, or value. We have confused size with value, bigness with greatness. Jesus held that a man's soul outweighed a whole world. His God cared more for a single little child than for all the bulk of Betelgeuse which is nothing but incandescent gas. Who is right? This whole objection is in part a lack of clear and courageous moral thinking, in part an effort to terrorize the imagination.
This does not mean that God is a doting grandfather, feeding lollipops to each hungry child, removing stones from its path, and incidentally preventing it from growing into wisdom and strength and manhood. It does mean that we can say, "Our Father," and believe that God knows and cares. It does mean that each human life has value in his eyes, and that "every man's life is a plan of God." The order of the universe and the vastness of the universe are not here for their own sake; they are here to produce something. And the highest in this universe, surely, must be some creature who answers God's wisdom with understanding, his purpose with co-operation, his love with affection. And man can count not only upon God's knowledge and love, and upon the fellowship of prayer, but upon help and strength for daily life.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
FOR FURTHER HEADING
In addition to books listed under Chapters V and VII the following may be consulted: