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The Retreating God
F. H. Hedge
The eldest of religious ideas remains to this day the most indemonstrable, the most undefinable. For unknown ages, religion has said "God" with intense conviction of some arch-reality answering to that term, and has wondered and trembled and triumphed in the contemplation of that reality; yet science, at this moment, is no nearer the truth of that idea, no better prepared to affirm it on independent grounds, no more ready to say "God" from any discovery or experience of its own, than when it first opened the book of Nature. In that book, as leaf after leaf was turned over, Science found order, law, intelligent method, beneficent arrangement; but a Being distinct from nature, in whom those qualities inhere, it found not, and cannot find by its own legitimate methods.
Attempts have been made to prove the existence of God from nature. Whatever apparent success has attended such efforts is due to an antecedent faith already possessed of the God whom it sought. The first glance at nature reveals him to faith; the most intimate acquaintance with nature will not reveal him to science. There is no way to God through the understanding, which knows only to arrange and elaborate what the senses supply. He who, by the very hypothesis of his being, underlies both the senses and the understanding, and is himself the light by which they see, must needs be inscrutable to both. He eludes investigation, not by foreignness and distance, but by intimate nearness. No candle can show us the daylight; we cannot go behind our own consciousness; we cannot see behind our eyes. "I am nearer to thee," he says in the Persian oracle, "than thou art to thyself." —" The roads leading to God are more in number than the breathings of created beings.... The eyes of purity see him, and the lustre of his substance; but dark and astounded is he who hath sought him by efforts of the understanding." Hussein was asked the way to God. "Withdraw both feet, and thou art with him,—one from this world, the other from the world to come."
When we say he is inscrutable, it is not in the sense of latency, as a jewel of the mine is inscrutable, but in the sense of reconditeness, as light and life are inscrutable, which yet are the most patent of sensible facts. Our knowledge of God is constituted by faith and conscious experience. If we attempt to verify that knowledge by demonstration, it disappears. The moment we approach God with scientific tests, "he hideth himself." And his hiding is his own transcendent light. As science advances, God retires from the commerce of the understanding into mystery more and more impenetrable. Do we seek him in the realms of space? Science rebukes that quest as preposterous. How can he be nearer to one point of space than another, of whose idea omnipresence is a prime constituent? What lurking-place, what local retreat, what private chamber in the heights or the deeps, can we assign to God? With powers of perception that could look creation through, we should come no nearer the secret of his presence. We need not be told that the fancied throne above the heavens, which figures in the poetry of ancient devotion, is a crude and childish conceit; but, for scientific purposes, what does it avail to take up the word of philosophy and talk of the one sole Substance, the all-animating Life? The being of God is brought no nearer by such phraseology. For who, in any creature, can detect the final secret of its life, or discover by analysis any thing more essential and divine than life itself, as it passes before our eyes? No experiment will disclose the root and substance by which an object subsists. Science explores the secrets of nature, and hopes, by removing veil after veil of material form, to come upon the innermost hidden life,—the soul or substance which those veils conceal,—to reach the radical essence of things. But science finds only qualities,—form, color, size: the substance in which those qualities inhere is undiscoverable. The most powerful microscope, the most active chemistry, detects only qualities. Science, through all eternity, will discover nothing else.
If, on the other hand, we say, as Jesus taught us, “God is a spirit,” we have the statement which best satisfies rational faith, but not one which serves any better as a demonstration of God to the understanding. All that the understanding can know of spirit is negative; that it is not body, and has none of the properties of body, —no parts nor form nor color, density or weight. The thing itself which we designate as spirit, in its positive essence, is unknown, is inconceivable.
In whatever way, by whatsoever terms, we state our idea of the being of God, the substance of that being for ever eludes, not only the test of scientific inquiry, but all intellectual conception. As substance, God is not only inscrutable, but inconceivable.
Is he, then, more apparent, or more traceable, as agent and cause? Do we seek him, in that capacity, in the processes of nature? We find there only our own inferences, —confirmations of a preconceived idea. We see what we call design, adaptation of means to ends, which proves intelligence. But intelligence in nature is one, and the God of religion is another. It is not logic, but faith, that builds the inferential bridge between the two. I said science is no nearer to God, no more apprehensive of the truth of that idea, now, than when the study of nature commenced. I might rather say, that science is further estranged from that idea, less cognizant of the being of God, less ready to affirm him, now than then. Science hides the agency of God in a multitude of secondary agents, which multiply the more, the more we become acquainted with the constitution of things. In the infancy of knowledge, every thing was referred directly to God as the sole and immediate cause of every existence and every event. If a nation was visited with pestilence or blight, it was the Lord that sent them; and there ended the inquiry. There was nothing more to be said on the subject. If a comet or eclipse appeared in the heavens, they were quite spontaneous occurrences, with no antecedent but the arbitrary will of God. Every blessing and success was a special providence, entirely aside of the necessary sequence of events. In the progress of intellectual culture, it has come to be understood that every event has its necessary antecedent in time, and forms a necessary link in a chain of events which extends indefinitely before and after, beyond the knowledge and surmise of man. Every effect which we witness or experience in nature or ourselves has its necessary cause in something that went before; is itself the cause of something that is to come; is part of a process of which no man knows the beginning or the end. In the view of faith, the one divine Cause, the immediate will of God, is present and active at every stage of this process, —is the real agent by which that effect was produced. In the view of faith, there is but one Cause: those which we call secondary causes are no causes at all, but only accompanying conditions. But this is not the aspect which the facts present to science, holding by visible agents, investigating natural laws, and tracing the necessary operation of cause and effect in the natural world. Where science finds an invariable connection between certain antecedents and certain consequents, where it finds that, one particular thing preceding, another particular thing invariably follows, it affirms the former to be the origin or cause of the latter.
Thus, without any conscious atheistic design, it is the tendency of science to put God out of view. Science does not formally deny the agency of God; but it is not the business of science to take knowledge of it. On the contrary, its business is, if possible, to get on without it; i.e., to discover for every phenomenon in nature some natural, finite, intelligible agent, without resorting to the supernatural. A resort to the supernatural is a confession of ignorance which it is the interest and business of science, so long as possible, to avoid. In other words, it is the interest of science, so far as possible, to banish the supernatural; that is, to banish God from the actual world. This is not said in disparagement of scientific men, who are often devout believers. And surely no class of men have greater reason to be so! They may heartily believe in God; they may acknowledge his agency in nature; they may acknowledge all nature to be his work and method and manifestation: but this acknowledgment is out of school. As scientific investigators, it is their business to find natural causes for every fact and event; to supplant the supernatural, so far as possible, with known, appreciable, natural agents. Where religion says "creation," science says "development." It refers the genesis of things to the operation of natural laws, by which the earth, and all the planets, suns, and stars have shaped themselves, in the lapse of ages, out of the shapeless, igneous mass that furnished the raw material of their being, and by which all the tribes of animated nature, with man at their head, have been evolved, in their order, from certain vesicles and rudimental germs of organic life. Now, the agency of God, in the view of faith, is as much required to conduct this process, and to furnish the elements out of which this development proceeds, as it would be to form each creature by itself, with a special act of creative skill. But this is not the scientific aspect of the subject. Science puts God out of view, and substitutes law instead. A personal agent in the processes of nature is not apparent to scientific investigation.
If law and design and intelligent order are no demonstrations of God to the understanding, neither are the tokens, as we regard them, of providential care, —the marks of divine beneficence, the bounty of Nature, the joy of which all beings partake according to the measure of their capacity and kind, —demonstrations of God to the understanding. The understanding recognizes good in nature, —genial sunbeams, refreshing showers; the smiles of heaven, the wealth of earth; the beauty of flowers, the deliciousness of fruits. But the understanding sees also evil in nature, —evil and suffering so manifold, so vast, so irremediable, that mere logic could never reconcile its existence with the doctrine of one God of boundless wisdom, power, and goodness, of whom and by whom all things are. Faith alone can vindicate that doctrine against the contradiction of this enormous woe. And even faith, in most religions, has had recourse to the supposition of an evil principle to meet the difficulty which theism encounters in this aspect of things.
Passing from nature to the moral world, shall we seek for the agency of God in human life? Shall we seek him as ruling and overruling Providence? An essential part of faith in God is faith in divine providence. No belief is more precious to the human heart, and none perhaps more needful, than faith in a special, providential agency interposing succor in seasons of peril and distress. But this sacred idea, this cherished conviction, without which religion can hardly exist, the understanding refuses to verify. The understanding cannot find, in the cases which are cited of such interposition, any special and extraordinary agency exerted to secure a particular end. The event so signalized in the view of faith is found to have, like every other event, its natural antecedent, and to stand in intimate, unbroken connection with the constant order of human things. The guiding power in such cases, though extraordinary in our experience, is not found to be extraordinary in itself. It flashed intensely upon our feeling; but, when sought by the understanding, it hides itself in the ordinary, fixed series of agencies and functions by which all the processes of nature, and all the events of life, are conducted and brought to pass. God came nearer to our consciousness in this instance than in others; but the understanding finds here also no unveiled Divinity. It is still the same hidden, secret force, the same inexplicable, inextricable web of cause and effect; no thinner, no more transparent, at this point than at others in our experience of life.
There are cases in which our impatience craves the special action of God's providential government, not for our own, but for others' and Humanity's sake, —cases which seem to us to cry aloud for divine interposition, in the way of protection or of retribution, to avert some impending evil or avenge some outrageous wrong; cases in which we feel, that, if we had the power, we could not refrain from exerting it in such a cause. "Oh for an hour of Omnipotence!" sighs the outraged heart, in view of triumphant wrong. When the liberties of a people are assailed with unrighteous usurpation; when the union and existence of a nation are threatened by rebellious treason; when the God-defying evil-doer prospers in his wickedness, —it seems to us that a merciful and just God cannot look on, and see the mischief grow and the crime succeed, the good suffer and the righteous perish, without stretching forth the arm of his power to smite and to save. But when did Providence ever visibly respond to such demand? The interposition comes not: God hides himself when most we need and invoke his aid. "My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me?" is a cry which elicits no theophany, and wrings no audible response from the heavens, —not even when uttered by the Son of man. The answer is found in the heart alone, —the trusty heart; the brave, strong heart; the deep, unfathomable heart, that flings its wondrous self into the balance, and outweighs a world of woe.
History is full of apparent injustices. We see calamities piled on the head of the good; we see treacherous and bloody men prosper to the last. A Huss, a Craumer, a Sidney, a More, we see perish at the stake or beneath the axe; while the judges and kings who condemn them die quietly in their beds. We see a Richelieu, guilty of every vice, licentious, cruel, tyrannical, loaded with riches and honors, crowned with every gift of fortune, reaching an age of more than fourscore years without reverse; while men like Raleigh and Vane are doomed to a felon's death. Christ is crucified, and Barabbas set free. Had the Son of man but come down from the cross, every knee had bowed; but he came not down. A righteous God does not interpose with visible retributions to avenge his violated laws, or to rescue and protect his faithful servants. Nor is the world so arranged by any principles inherent in its constitution, and invariable in their operation, as to bring only good to the good, and only evil to the wicked. The most we can say is, that the good, on the whole, are more likely to prosper, and the wicked to fail; and that, not from any providential interference for or against, but through the inherent strength of the former and the fatal disability of the latter. Further than this, the moral government of God, which forms so essential an article of faith, does not approve itself, does not reveal itself, to the understanding. God, in his character of moral governor and judge, as in every other predicate affirmed by religion, is inaccessible to all attempts of the understanding, to verify his attributes.
So, whether we seek him in the realms of space, in the processes of nature, or in human life, God hides himself from the curious intellect, more inscrutable now, in the full age of the human understanding, than in its childhood; retiring ever farther, the farther we advance in culture and knowledge. To the early world, he seemed separated only by distance of space. The imagination enthroned him on mountain-tops or above the clouds. It was deemed not impossible that he might appear to the human eye in a human form, and converse with mortals face to face. But science, which has scaled all heights and sounded all deeps, has dispelled this illusion, and, while extending indefinitely the bounds of creation, can find no room for a local God. He is separated from us now, not by distance of space, but by the impossibility, in our intellectual enlightenment, of forming any image of his being which reason does not immediately rebuke as incongruous. To the intellect, he is removed by the impassable gulf which yawns between the finite and the infinite, between every organized nature and uncreated mind. He hides himself the more, the nearer we seem to approach him in intelligence. Other mysteries disappear like spectres of the night before the spreading illumination of science; but this one mystery deepens and deepens with increasing light.
And let us be glad that it is so; that this aboriginal mystery remains, inviolable, impregnable, unsearchable still; that while the profane intellect is removing the veil from so many a wonder which its marvellousness had endeared to our early faith, and letting daylight in upon so many a recess long consecrated to our imagination by embowering shade, here still is a veil which no human intellect will ever lift; a covert where wonder and awe, and faith, their offspring, may repose for ever; an idea on which the mind, retreating from the shallowness of human knowledge, may rest, and be sure that no plummet cast by mortal thought or immortal inquiry will ever sound that infinite deep. Man needs this mystery for the health of his spirit, as he needs for his physical well-being the sweet intercession of overshadowing night. He needs the relief of shade for his mental eye as well as for his bodily. Religion needs mystery, and cannot exist without it. Without mystery, it degenerates into mere mechanical philosophy; into arithmetical calculation; into ethical systems that may serve to smooth the outward life, but exert no quickening power on the soul. The tree of life, like the plants of the earth, needs darkness for its roots; while its fruit-bearing branches rejoice in the light. It is good to know that here is a mystery which no inquisition of science can detect, and no reach of intellectual vision comprehend; that the highest created intelligence, searching, soaring, sounding through eternity, can never attain to a theory of God which shall cover all the dimensions and define all the attributes and exhaust all the secrets of his being. A God whom the intellect might fathom would be no God to us. Let us understand this; let us freely admit it, —admit the futility of all attempts to demonstrate God to the understanding, to prove him from the marvels of nature, to establish the fact of Godhead by induction. Let us freely concede to the atheist, to the positivist, the inadequacy of such demonstration, the inconsequence of most of the reasoning employed for this end.
There is no danger that science will ever unclasp man's hold of this primal truth, or seduce the general heart from the Being more assured to us than our own; the Being whose certainty is the basis and guaranty of all certainty beside.
God withdraws from the speculating intellect. He will not be laid hold of with scientific inquiry; but shut the eye of speculation, and the heart soon finds him who is personally related to every soul. Let every soul bless the never-to-be-known, —grateful, like the prophet in the rock-cleft, for even the vanishing skirts of the mystery in which the Eternal hides, reverently adoring where we cannot comprehend; content to follow where we cannot fathom; happy if we are able to walk by faith where neither man nor angel can ever walk by sight.
At the funeral of Ferdusi, says his biographer, the Scheikh Aboul Kasem refused to repeat the customary prayer, because the deceased had sung the praise of the Magi. The following night, he saw, in a vision, Ferdusi in Paradise, in a blaze of glory. Being asked how he came to be thus exalted, he replied, "It was because of that one verse of mine in which I sung the unsearchable God: 'Thou art the highest and the deepest. I know not what thou art. Thou art all that thou art.'"
Religion would press science into her service, and compel her to testify of theism. But science has her own appointed way of serving the truth: she furnishes her own incidental and involuntary illustrations of Deity, and will not be subsidized by religion, nor render the kind of testimony which religion demands. Science is no theist: her business is to seek the causes of things in the universe of things, and not to appeal to supermundane power. Her mission and that of religion, as ministers of truth, are essentially one; but the methods and immediate objects of the two are entirely distinct, and neither should usurp the other's function. The end of science is knowledge; that is, intellectual possession: the end of religion is worship; that is, intellectual renunciation. The aim of the one is conquest; the aim of the other is surrender. Both, in different ways, are a search after truth. But in ways how different! Science seeks with the senses, with the understanding, with computation and deduction, with analysis and hypothesis. Religion seeks with the trusting heart and devout aspiration. Science would fathom all the realms of being, would stand face to face with the final fact, and write her eureka on the core of creation. Religion is content to bow low before an Unknown, Unknowable.
Such being the divergence of their nature and function, it is not to be expected that science and religion will ever unite in one perception. It is not to be expected that religion will attain to scientific demonstration of her convictions; it is not to be expected that science will ever appropriate those convictions as scientific truth. It is possible that a higher synthesis may one day unite them in a new and better bond than the old infructuous union which theology has sought to enforce: meanwhile, let each pursue its separate way. Let science have her rule in the heights and the deeps, wherever she can reach, and establish her sway. Let her reconstruct the genesis of nature, lay over again the courses of the planet, and lean her ladder against the stars. But, after all, it is faith that builds the house where life and honor love to dwell. All great works, all noble births, all that is most precious and saving in life, —scriptures, temples, hymns, —all beautiful arts, all saintly and heroic lives, all grand and sublime things, are her offspring. When faith languishes, civilization droops, empires perish. When faith revives in some new advent of the Spirit, new empires start into life. The course of ascending history is tracked by her benefactions; of history descending, by her hurts. Her monuments, in distant lands and ages past, are honored in their decays and draw the wondering eyes. These are the things which men traverse earth and sea to behold, —the pyramids that still point heavenward after the lapse of four thousand years, the stupendous aisles of Philae, the unerring sculptures of Athens, the sacred dust of Palestine, the newer marvels of Christian Rome. All these are the offspring of faith: they consecrate the world. Curiosity traces them out in every remote corner of the globe. Science waits upon them with eager ministries; traffic and travel are accommodated to them; railroads are built to convey pilgrims to their sites; at their crumbling altar-stones, devotion rekindles her fires.
Shall men wander so far to behold what faith has done in time past, and despise the power of faith in the present? That wonder-working power which laid the entablature of Denderah, and sprung the arches of Cologne, is no antique, no recluse of the middle age, no native of Egypt or Rome, but cosmopolitan and modern as the sun. God her father, and Humanity her mother, survive all change; and the constant offspring works hitherto, and will work.
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