English Literature

The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge by John Fiske

The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge by John Fiske.jpg


Difficulty of expressing the Idea of God so that it can be readily understood.

In Goethe’s great poem, while Faust is walking with Margaret at eventide in the garden, she asks him questions about his religion. It is long since he has been shriven or attended mass; does he, then, believe in God?—a question easy to answer with a simple yes, were it not for the form in which it is put. The great scholar and subtle thinker, who has delved in the deepest mines of philosophy and come forth weary and heavy-laden with their boasted treasures, has framed a very different conception of God from that entertained by the priest at the confessional or the altar, and how is he to make this intelligible to the simple-minded girl that walks by his side? Who will make bold to declare that he can grasp an idea of such overwhelming vastness as the idea of God, yet who that hath the feelings of a man can bring himself to cast away a belief that is indispensable to the rational and healthful workings of the mind? So long as the tranquil dome of heaven is raised above our heads and the firm-set earth is spread forth beneath our feet, while the everlasting stars course in their mighty orbits and the lover gazes with ineffable tenderness into the eyes of her that loves him, so long, says Faust, must our hearts go out toward Him that upholds and comprises all. Name or describe as we may the Sustainer of the world, the eternal fact remains there, far above our comprehension, yet clearest and most real of all facts. To name and describe it, to bring it within the formulas of theory or creed, is but to veil its glory as when the brightness of heaven is enshrouded in mist and smoke. This has a pleasant sound to Margaret’s ears. It reminds her of what the parson sometimes says, though couched in very different phrases; and yet she remains uneasy and unsatisfied. Her mind is benumbed by the presence of an idea confessedly too great to be grasped. She feels the need of some concrete symbol that can be readily apprehended; and she hopes that her lover has not been learning bad lessons from Mephistopheles.

The difficulty which here besets Margaret must doubtless have been felt by every one when confronted with the thoughts by which the highest human minds have endeavoured to disclose the hidden life of the universe and interpret its meaning. It is a difficulty which baffles many, and they who surmount it are few indeed. Most people content themselves through life with a set of concrete formulas concerning Deity, and vituperate as atheistic all conceptions which refuse to be compressed within the narrow limits of their creed. For the great mass of men the idea of God is quite overlaid and obscured by innumerable symbolic rites and doctrines that have grown up in the course of the long historic development of religion. All such rites and doctrines had a meaning once, beautiful and inspiring or terrible and forbidding, and many of them still retain it. But whether meaningless or fraught with significance, men have wildly clung to them as shipwrecked mariners cling to the drifting spars that alone give promise of rescue from threatening death. Such concrete symbols have in all ages been argued and fought for until they have come to seem the essentials of religion; and new moons and sabbaths, decrees of councils and articles of faith, have usurped the place of the living God. In every age the theory or discovery—however profoundly theistic in its real import—which has thrown discredit upon such symbols has been stigmatized as subversive of religion, and its adherents have been reviled and persecuted. It is, of course, inevitable that this should be so. To the half-educated mind a theory of divine action couched in the form of a legend, in which God is depicted as entertaining human purposes and swayed by human passions, is not only intelligible, but impressive. It awakens emotion, it speaks to the heart, it threatens the sinner with wrath to come or heals the wounded spirit with sweet whispers of consolation. However mythical the form in which it is presented, however literally false the statements of which it is composed, it seems profoundly real and substantial. Just in so far as it is crudely concrete, just in so far as its terms can be vividly realized by the ordinary mind, does such a theological theory seem weighty and true. On the other hand, a theory of divine action which, discarding as far as possible the aid of concrete symbols, attempts to include within its range the endlessly complex operations that are forever going on throughout the length and breadth of the knowable universe,—such a theory is to the ordinary mind unintelligible. It awakens no emotion because it is not understood. Though it may be the nearest approximation to the truth of which the human intellect is at the present moment capable, though the statements of which it is composed may be firmly based upon demonstrated facts in nature, it will nevertheless seem eminently unreal and uninteresting. The dullest peasant can understand you when you tell him that honey is sweet, while a statement that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter may be expressed by the formula π = 3.14159 will sound as gibberish in his ears; yet the truth embodied in the latter statement is far more closely implicated with every act of the peasant’s life, if he only knew it, than the truth expressed in the former. So the merest child may know enough to marvel at the Hebrew legend of the burning bush, but only the ripest scholar can begin to understand the character of the mighty problems with which Spinoza was grappling when he had so much to say about natura naturans and natura naturata.

For these reasons all attempts to study God as revealed in the workings of the visible universe, and to characterize the divine activity in terms derived from such study, have met with discouragement, if not with obloquy. As substituting a less easily comprehensible formula for one that is more easily comprehensible, they seem to be frittering away the idea of God, and reducing it to an empty abstraction. There is a further reason for the dread with which such studies are commonly regarded. The theories of divine action accepted as orthodox by the men of any age have been bequeathed to them by their forefathers of an earlier age. They were originally framed with reference to assumed facts of nature which advancing knowledge is continually discrediting and throwing aside. Each forward step in physical science obliges us to contemplate the universe from a somewhat altered point of view, so that the mutual relations of its parts keep changing as in an ever-shifting landscape. The notions of the world and its Maker with which we started by and by prove meagre and unsatisfying; they no longer fit in with the general scheme of our knowledge. Hence the men who are wedded to the old notions are quick to sound the alarm. They would fain deter us from taking the forward step which carries us to a new standpoint. Beware of science, they cry, lest with its dazzling discoveries and adventurous speculations it rob us of our soul’s comfort and leave us in a godless world. Such in every age has been the cry of the more timid and halting spirits; and their fears have found apparent confirmation in the behaviour of a very different class of thinkers. As there are those who live in perpetual dread of the time when science shall banish God from the world, so, on the other hand, there are those who look forward with longing to such a time, and in their impatience are continually starting up and proclaiming that at last it has come. There are those who have indeed learned a lesson from Mephistopheles, the “spirit that forever denies.” These are they that say in their hearts, “There is no God,” and “congratulate themselves that they are going to die like the beasts.” Rushing into the holiest arcana of philosophy, even where angels fear to tread, they lay hold of each new discovery in science that modifies our view of the universe, and herald it as a crowning victory for the materialists,—a victory which is ushering in the happy day when atheism is to be the creed of all men. It is in view of such philosophizers that the astronomer, the chemist, or the anatomist, whose aim is the dispassionate examination of evidence and the unbiased study of phenomena, may fitly utter the prayer, “Lord, save me from my friends!”

Thus through age after age has it fared with men’s discoveries in science, and with their thoughts about God and the soul. It was so in the days of Galileo and Newton, and we have found it to be so in the days of Darwin and Spencer. The theologian exclaims, if planets are held in place by gravitation and tangential momentum, and if the highest forms of life have been developed by natural selection and direct adaptation, then the universe is swayed by blind forces, and nothing is left for God to do: how impious and terrible the thought! Even so, echoes the favourite atheist, the Lamettrie or Büchner of the day; the universe, it seems, has always got on without a God, and accordingly there is none: how noble and cheering the thought! And as thus age after age they wrangle, with their eyes turned away from the light, the world goes on to larger and larger knowledge in spite of them, and does not lose its faith, for all these darkeners of counsel may say. As in the roaring loom of Time the endless web of events is woven, each strand shall make more and more clearly visible the living garment of God.


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