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The Advancing God

F. H. Hedge


It belongs to the nature of God, or, what is practically the same thing, it belongs to our idea of God, that he should make himself known. Our idea of God includes the Creator. An uncreative God is no God, since God is conceivable only as the correlate of a finite world. But creation—especially the creation of conscious, intelligent beings—implies conscious intelligence in the Creator. And, if God be supposed self-conscious, he must be supposed to will the reflection of himself in intelligent minds.[1] Or, to rest our thesis on more practical ground, if God be that moral Sovereign whom we suppose, it follows that the subjects of his rule must be made acquainted with the Lord of their allegiance.

The necessity of revelation is thus grounded in the very idea of God.

Assuming, then, that God, by his nature, is self-revealing, and must make himself known to intelligent beings, what will be the method and conditions of that revelation? In what way can we suppose that God will declare himself, his will and his truth, to man? Let any one figure to himself a demonstration that would satisfy all mankind of the being and attributes of God—of such a God as theism represents; what will he propose? Shall we say that some stupendous prodigy would best accomplish that result? —Some exhibition so far transcending human power and skill that all who beheld it should be forced to confess a superhuman agent; therewith, some clear, emphatic annunciation of the truth to be received? —An apparition in the sky, with accompanying voice out of the heavens? —A scroll cast down upon the earth, or tablets, received amid lightnings and thunders on some mountaintop, inscribed with the lessons of Deity? Somewhat after this fashion would be, I suppose, the first conception of a revelation from God. Such, in fact, was the Hebrew idea. But closer attention will convince everyone who reflects on the subject that no such portent could serve as a permanent communication, valid to all generations, from God to man. Its efficacy, at the most, would be confined to the sphere in which it occurred and to those who witnessed it, or their immediate offspring. Beyond that sphere, and beyond the experience of eyewitnesses and the children of eyewitnesses, it would soon become an incredible tradition, a legendary myth, an old wives' fable, which the critical understanding, unable to adjust it with other experiences, would unfailingly set aside.

Or, if we suppose the revealing portent to be a stated permanent wonder, it would soon cease to be a wonder at all; it would take its place among the forms and processes of daily nature, and be regarded with no deeper attention, and no livelier emotion, than sunrise and sunset or the rainbow or the moon's phases. For what indeed is universal nature—this ancient frame of earth and sky, with its stated wonders, its solemn shows, its serviceable forces, its unfathomable deeps and golden fires, its august days and refulgent nights—what is it but just that portent, a present and pressing demonstration of the living God? What stronger demonstration can there be? What prodigy more astounding? If they believe not in sunrise and sunset, in summer and winter, in earth and sky, neither will they believe though an angel stood in the sun and proclaimed the fact of Deity, or though the stars were constellated into runes that should spell the sacred name. No prodigy can reveal God, for the reason that prodigies can only appeal to the senses; and the strongest demonstration of God to the senses is already given in the universe as it passes before our eyes.

Yet this demonstration has never sufficed to convey the knowledge of God to minds unenlightened by other revelation. We know how, age after age, the earth, as it traversed the annual round, had clothed itself with annual splendors; how bloom and hoarfrost had chased each other around the belted globe, and sunrise and sunset balanced their pomps, and the heavens declared the glory of God; how day unto day had spoken his word, and night unto night had shown his wisdom; and yet how many ages had elapsed before that word was understood, or that wisdom perceived? And we know how small a portion of the race, comparatively speaking, has even yet seized the idea of God—of the only God. It is plain that the senses have no knowledge of God, nor, through the senses, the understanding, although, the idea once started in the mind, both sense and understanding may nourish and confirm it. By no prodigy does God reveal himself, nor by any external demonstration.

Revelation is not external, but internal. Internal in the first instance; then, in a secondary sense and degree, it may become, as personal or ecclesiastical authority, external.

The first revelation of God is a revelation to the moral sense. For what is it in God that is nearest to man, and which man is most concerned to know? Not his creative power, not the fact of creatorship, but the moral archetype, the moral ideal, which, received by the conscience, becomes the moral law. If God were merely omnipotent force or transcendent skill, if all that could be said of him were, that "he can create and he destroy," or that the universe is his handiwork, it would matter little whether we knew him or knew him not; it would matter little whether the universe were conceived as the product of a single will or of many wills, or whether as a self-existent power. What it really concerns us to know of God, is, not that he made the worlds, but that he is justice and truth and holiness and love. And of this the evidence is not external, but internal. Nature does not furnish it. Nature knows nothing of holiness, has no perception, exhibits no trace, of the moral law. "The depth saith, It is not in me; and the sea saith, It is not with me" [Job 28:14]. Man would never have inferred it from the visible creation, until it was first revealed to him by a voice within.

Some elect individual of rare endowments and exceptional moral nature, living in the midst of polytheisms and wild superstitions, reflecting on the facts of consciousness, perceives in himself a law which impels him, in spite of inclination and passion, to choose the right and refuse the wrong. This law he refers to the Author of his being, and concludes that the Author of his being is not mere power and cunning, but a holy Will, a moral Governor and Judge. This is the first revelation of Godhead; for, until God is known as moral ideal, he is not known at all. Whatever bears the name of Deity previous to that, is fetish or myth, and lies without the pale of theism and revelation.

In the mental process which I have described, it is not necessary, nor is it possible, to draw the line between the spontaneous action of the individual mind, and the action upon it of the mind of God—between reflection and inspiration. The vulgar idea of revelation as a purely external communication supposes in the human subject no other agency than obedient reception of some truth or command conveyed from without by an audible voice or visible sign. It is not enough, in the view of this idea, that Moses experiences within himself an impulse which he interprets as divine commission; it is not enough that he is thus, by the witness in the heart, divinely called. God must appear to him externally; he must hear a voice; he must see an apparition which represents God in person. Christian thought has outgrown such fancies. All direct revelation is internal; and, in that revelation, reflection and inspiration combine. The mind is not a passive recipient, but an active, co-operating power. In every original intuition of the mind, there is something divine, and in all inspiration there is human co-agency, voluntary effort, intense thought, meditation musing till the fire burns.

When therefore certain truths are said to be revealed, or given by inspiration of God, we are not to understand that they are given, so to speak, bodily, that they are put into the mind, or breathed into the mind, from without, in distinct propositions. We are to understand, rather, a state of mental exaltation, a quickening of the mental faculties, whereby the prophet or seer arrives at perceptions beyond the reach of ordinary powers or ordinary states of mind. This mental exaltation, this quickening of the powers, is inspiration, the divine Spirit cooperating with and reinforcing the action of the mind. And this is revelation, the unveiling of hidden truth by quick prophetic insight, the intuition of the Spirit that "searcheth all things, even the deep things of God" [1 Cor. 2:10].

The prime condition, the one indispensable prerequisite, of all revelation is sincerity, entire surrender of the mind to the leadings of the Spirit. The truth comes only to such as seek it with perfect simplicity and singleness of purpose, without preoccupation, without conceit. Only to such does God reveal himself. On the other hand, these elect souls, these seers and prophets, may be supposed to be specially endowed and qualified by God to become the oracles and organs of spiritual truth. With the strictest propriety, therefore, they are said to be "called," or, considered in relation to their fellowmen and their earthly work, to be "sent," by God.

If, now, it be asked how revelation is to be discriminated from mere philosophic speculation, I answer, First, by its practical character, its sensuous, popular handling of the deepest questions and dearest concerns of the soul. The truths of revelation are no metaphysic conceptions, no labored inductions, no analytic subtleties, no abstract reasonings, which can only be expressed in abstruse, scholastic phraseology, but plain, emphatic enunciations of truths concerning God and man, duty, destiny, and human well-being, such as the humblest and most uncultured can appreciate and appropriate, and turn to use. Plato and Plotinus, Spinoza and Hegel, speak only through the medium of books to scholars—here and there a scattered few. Moses and Paul, through the oral circulation of their word, address themselves to kindreds and nations. Philosophy concerns itself with intellectual and theoretical aspects and relations, revelation with practical. All its utterances have a moral bearing: they point to some practical use, some work to be performed, some saving discipline, some rule of life, some peril to be shunned, some evil to be put away, some prize to be secured, some heavenly consolation. God in revelation is presented in no theosophic formulae—as abstract Deity, Soul of the world, the one universal Substance, or however speculation may strive to express the divine nature—but in personal, practical relations—as Father, Ruler, Judge. Not the God of speculation, but the God of experience, personally present, and personally related to every soul.

Another criterion of revelation, distinguishing it from mere philosophy, is authority—the authority it gives to the Teacher who first declares its truths, the authority with which those truths are clothed, as uttered by him. It was said of Jesus by his contemporaries that he "spoke as one having authority, and not as the scribes"—not as the learned and philosophic of his time. They felt that here was something more than learning or cleverness or mental ingenuity. In these utterances, there was no casuistry or cunning, and no dialectic prowess, but real insight, direct intuition of the truth, hence, rightful assurance and the weight which that assurance unfailingly gives. Jesus, says Rénan, did not argue with his disciples; he did not preach his opinions: he preached himself. This is the impression which revelation makes, and revelation only, in that degree. The character, no doubt, is a part of this effect. The moral preeminence which marks the true prophet, his sanctity of life, is one ingredient in his authority. I can hardly conceive of a high degree of spiritual insight associated with great moral defects. But moral excellence, as seen in the manners and the life, is not the true or chief source of this authority. One can easily imagine great purity of life, a character unblemished, and abounding in all the virtues, without much insight, and, consequently, without authority. It would not be difficult to name individuals among the saints of history whose life was blameless and whose virtues unsurpassed, but whose opinions, notwithstanding, carry no weight, who have no authority in matters of belief. I find no fault in St. Francis of Assisi, or Charles Borromeo, or Philip Neri, but their views and convictions on spiritual topics would not influence my faith. Moral superiority there must be in the organs of revelation, but moral superiority, in this connection, means something more than blameless manners and a virtuous life. It means a superior nature: it includes intellectual power, but intellectual subordinate to moral. It is nearly related, if not identical with, what, in its intellectual manifestations, in poetry and art and the conduct of affairs, we call genius. It includes that, but with it unites a moral intensity which genius lacks. It is genius adopted by the Spirit of God into heavenly fellowship and consecrated to heavenly uses.

In a rude and uncritical age or population, the prophet who appears as the organ of revelation will be a reputed worker of miracles. Whether he actually perform them or not, he will have the credit of miraculous works. For his, in the popular judgment which deifies material power and exalts material phenomena as God's chief witnesses, is the test of revelation, the only authentic proof and warrant of divine authority. "What sign showest thou?" and "Show us a sign from Heaven," is the popular demand [John 2:18; Matt. 16:1]. On the contrary, in an age of scientific culture, of critical investigation, the reality of such performances will be disputed; and not only so, but the very allegation of miraculous works, in the judgment of some, will discredit the revelation and the prophet of whose truth and claims they are cited as proofs.

The two positions—the popular and the scientific—it seems to me, are equally erroneous. To say that revelation is impossible without miracle, or that miracle is the only valid proof of revelation, is inverting the divine order. It is subordinating the greater to the less. The prophet's intuition of the truth is more than any feat which he may perform in the world of sense. Truth is a right relation between the human and the divine. To see the truth is to see God; to live the truth is to be like God: and he who effects that vision and that likeness performs the greatest of all works, greater than healing the sick or raising the dead. And if it be urged that the latter is a necessary condition of the former, that the prophet, in order to make his word seem truth and secure its entrance into the mind, must exhibit superhuman power, that so only can he draw the requisite attention to himself and his mission, that, granting the superhuman power and granting the miraculous work, it is God that speaks in the prophet's word, and without this, only man, I reply, in the first place, that, so far as the word is true, it is God that speaks in any case, for all truth is of God. And, again, I maintain that a candid examination of the history of religion will show that, where miracles were claimed, the belief in the prophet preceded the belief in the miracles and furnished its chief support, and that the opponents and unbelieving who rejected the prophet's word were not convinced by his wonderful works. "But, though he had done so many miracles before them, yet believed they not on him" [John 12:37].

But then, to deny the possibility of miracle—that is, of anything out of the ordinary course of human experience, of anything that may not be explained by laws yet discovered, or paralleled with ascertained facts—appears to me equally unphilosophical. What right has science to dictate a negative judgment of this question? What right, from all that is known, to determine all that can be? Who will presume to draw the boundary line of the possible? "The laws of nature cannot be violated." Granted, but who claims that miracle is a violation of the laws of nature? And what are the so-called "laws of nature" but our own generalizations of observed facts? And what is the so-called "constancy of nature," but the statement, in objective terms, of the limitation of our experience? And who, moreover, has had such private advices from the Author of nature as to warrant the conclusion that all the laws of nature have been discovered, and all the laws of spirit, and that, perchance, some unknown law may not subsidize, and so seemingly contradict, some known one, as the law of projectiles seemingly contradicts the law of gravitation? "A miracle cannot be proved." Granted. Does it therefore follow thence that a miracle cannot be? I receive no truth and no prophet on the ground of miracles, but I can believe in a wonderworking Power. I can believe that the man of God, in closer alliance with, and so partaking more largely of, the one sole Power that moves and makes this world of shows, may effect results impossible to men of ordinary vision and unprecedented in human experience. To believe the contrary seems to me not very rational and not very cheering. I can conceive that the prophet, through the might of the Spirit, shall work miracles, and, to many, the miracles will be a confirmation of his mission. But they will not be performed for that sole purpose: they will be the natural working of a spirit in league with God, intent on beneficent ends and overcoming natural obstacles by the willing of that faith to which nothing is impossible. I cannot conceive, that the prophet should parade his wonders for the mere purpose of drawing attention to himself, that he should say in effect, "Behold! I do this and that feat which to you were impossible; therefore what I tell you is true." The Son of man repels, as a devilish suggestion, the idea of amazing the world by throwing himself from a pinnacle of the temple [Matt. 4:5-7].

Finally, revelation and philosophy are differenced by their respective results. Philosophy founds schools; revelation, churches. Philosophy discusses; revelation prophesies. The one has professors; the other, confessors and martyrs. The one is represented by lectureships; the other, by sacraments. The one utters treatises; the other, Bibles. Through these, its peculiar products, revelation assumes a secondary phase and becomes external—what we call a religious dispensation. Such are Mosaism, Islamism, Christianity. This is revelation in the usual popular sense, and the only revelation known to the mass of mankind. Direct, internal revelation, in any degree, is a rare experience. A revelation so emphatic and intense as to issue in a Church, as to furnish the ground of a new dispensation, has been the experience of a few individuals only in all time. The mass of mankind must receive their religion at second hand and receive it on historical authority, as they receive the greater part of all their knowledge. The accredited prophet, the Church, the Bible, and even perhaps the favorite preacher, the catechism, the creed of their sect, are revelation to them. Thus the founders of religions acquire a mediatorial character: they become interpreters of heavenly mysteries, the medium of communication from God to man, in some cases, themselves the God of the popular religion. So strong a disposition there is in man to interpose a middle term, a third person, between the Supreme and the human soul.

In this way, then, God makes himself known, and becomes a fact to human intelligence. Not by prodigy or portent, in whirlwind or in fire, but through the still small voice of the moral sentiment in man, he advances from the unimaginable secret of his being into such cognition as the finite mind can have of the Eternal. On some retired soul, intensely musing, far back in the unknown past, first dawned the great Idea which fills and rules this earthly sphere, the idea whose birth in the human mind was the birth of an intelligible, spiritual world from the dark, wild chaos of polytheism, the idea which alone gives being a plan, creation a purpose, a meaning to life, to holy aspiration an adequate goal. Once risen on the world, the quickening, saving idea did not set, but, when it waxed dim, in the dim, confused ages of nature worship and priestly oppression which compose the cycles of primeval history, fresh inspiration was breathed upon it, new musing souls rekindled its beam, new revelations confirmed the old—new revelations and better, clearer, fuller, as human progress opened the mind, and reflection deepened with advancing life. For revelation is a thing of degrees; the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, though sacred and dear as the morning star of theism, is not the God of the Isaiahs, still less the God who is a spirit, to be worshipped in spirit and truth.

The revealing word was always in the world; the receptive mind, not always. "He came unto his own, and his own received him not" [John 1:11]. But, finally, they did receive him—some with such power and fullness as to be, in the high apostolic sense, the "sons of God." And those who received the light in its fullness dispensed it to others: they became the lights of their time, sages, prophets, servants of God, to whom and through whom "he revealed his secret" [Eph. 1:9]. From them issued streams which outlived them, which passed into sayings, laws, which became institutions, became churches, became fixed traditions, descending from generation to generation. And all such traditions, however hardened and sapless with the lapse of time they become, attest some former inspiration which flooded the soul, as the fossil shell on the mountainside attests the swelling of the waters in some foregone spasm of the globe.

The fruit of revelation is tradition, but revelation itself, in its origin and essence, is spiritual insight. The different terms express two different aspects of one fact. Spiritual insight is the human aspect; revelation, the divine. But spiritual insight is something far different from induction or ratiocination. The knowledge of God is not a conclusion of the understanding, but an intuition of the moral sense. Theism never originated in that way. The being of God would never be inferred from the constitution of things, without the idea preexisting in the mind.[2] There is no natural religion, in the sense of a theism, born of the understanding, but the being of God is given in the moral nature of man. There, if anywhere, the Eternal reveals himself from time to time, in successive communications, to such as are able to divine his secret.

Revelation is a thing of degrees; yet all revelation is essentially the same. All revelation is in man and through man. It is not an unearthly voice speaking to us out of the clouds: it is not an angelic apparition, but always the voice of a brother man that instructs and exhorts. And that voice is not the revelation itself, but only its witness and declaration. The true revelation is internal. The only effectual knowledge of God is the private experience of the individual soul. The earliest prophet of Jehovism saw this and confessed it, appealing from his own written law to the elder tables of the heart: "For this commandment is not hidden from thee; neither is it afar off. It is not in the heavens, that thou shouldst say, Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it down to us, that we may hear it and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldst say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it? But the word is very nigh thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest hear it and do it" [Deut. 30:11-14].

[1] This statement perhaps is too condensed. God, conscious of his perfection, must will the recognition of that perfection in intelligent beings, as their ideal and way to a blessed life, —that being the only supposable end of the moral creation.

[2] The uttermost that legitimate induction can establish, on this basis, is intelligent Power—the so-called "First Cause" to which speculation refers the creation of the world. But that intelligent "First Cause" is not the God of religion. There is nothing in it of ethical or religious import. The argument from design may suggest a Designer, but can never amount to demonstration of a God. Cicero, arguing against the atheism of Epicurus, affirms it to be just as credible that the letters which compose the "Iliad," if thrown promiscuously into the air, should come to the ground arranged in that order, as it is that the world was made by chance. The argument from design has never been better stated; but Cicero was no monotheist, and Cicero's doctrine, such as it was, created the argument, not the argument the doctrine. The Esquimaux told the missionary that he had often reflected how a kadjak, or canoe, with all its tackle, does not come of itself, but requires to be constructed with much care and skill, and how a bird is a far more wonderful contrivance than the best kadjak: and yet the bird is no man's workmanship. ‘I bethought me,’ he said, ‘that a bird proceeds from its parents, and they from their parents; but there must have been some first parents. Whence did they proceed? I concluded that there must be someone who is able to make them and everything else, someone more knowing and powerful than the wisest man.’ So reasoned the Esquimaux; and yet he had never arrived at the idea of God. A cunning artificer, surpassing the cunning of men, but no God.


© 2005 American Unitarian Conference