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The Regent God

F. H. Hedge


All who believe in the being of God believe in a divine Providence of some kind in the natural as in the moral world; but opinions vary as to the nature and method of its action. Some believe it a rule of fixed laws, established in the beginning, inherent in nature, and self-acting. Others believe it to be partly a rule of fixed laws, and partly an immediate action of the divine will. Others still believe it to be wholly the immediate action of the divine will. The first of these opinions makes Providence to consist of a pre-adjustment of the universe, dating from the first commencement of its existence, and so complete as to comprehend every agency and every event—the world's entire history from beginning to end. It makes the world a perfect machine—a machine directed by God, who bears the same relation to it that an engineer does to the engine which he invented and superintends. The second makes Providence to consist in occasional interposition, where the course of nature, as it is called, i.e., the ordinary agencies at work in the world, the regular order of events, would otherwise fail to accomplish the desired ends, or where those agencies would result in consequences to be avoided. It makes the world a machine, but not a perfect one—a machine which requires regulation, adjustment, alteration. The third makes Providence to consist in those very agencies which compose the order of nature and the regular course of events—a present, immediate, continuous action of Deity in every event that takes place. It makes the world no machine at all, but a living organism pervaded by the spirit of God, a constant and immediate expression of the divine mind. I propose to examine these different theories, with a view to determine the true idea of divine Providence in human affairs.

1. The first is the theory of those who suppose that the world is governed by general and fixed laws—laws impressed upon the universe in the beginning of creation—by which it now pursues its course and fulfills its functions. They suppose that the act of creation embraced a plan or scheme of operation, which the universe, once set in motion, has followed ever since, as a piece of human mechanism fulfills of itself the functions intended and provided for in its construction. Every event that takes place is the necessary consequence of these laws, and could not be other than it is. The theory does not suppose that every event was specially willed by the Author of the universe; only the laws and processes which produced it are so willed. The laws of the universe are not aimed at particular cases, but at general results. In other words, the world is governed, not by partial, but by general laws. The action of these laws will sometimes result in disastrous consequences to individuals, especially when applied by man to his purposes—when human free agency comes in as one of the factors in determining the course of events. But these disasters, it is argued, are rare exceptions and do not materially affect the beneficent design and operation of these laws. They are designed to produce, and do produce, the greatest possible good on the whole. They could not be other than they are without diminishing the amount of good in the world. Any change in the constitution and government of the universe, by which these disasters could be avoided, would cause more evil than it would cure. The vast preponderance of good in the world demonstrates the wisdom of the present arrangement, and, in spite of occasional, unavoidable exceptions, vindicates the general beneficence of divine rule by fixed and universal laws.

The objection to this theory is that it separates God from his works and makes him, instead of a present, living, in-working power, at the most, a mere director and overseer of past creations. It supposes a God intensely active at one time, and comparatively inactive ever since, exhausting his activity in one original effort of creative power, then ceasing from creation and taking up his millennial rest. It places him far away in the past and gives us in effect a universe without a God. For what need of a God, a present, living God, or what room for one, if laws will suffice for the world's governance? –if the world once created and put in motion, and furnished with the requisite agencies and adaptations, will thenceforth govern itself, obeying, with automatic regularity, the impulse imparted, and the laws assigned to it by one original fiat of creative power? The world, in this view, is a soulless, unconscious mechanism, cast off by its master, whose care of it was exhausted in its first production, and thenceforth left to take care of itself. Suppose that this view of creation could satisfy the understanding; suppose it sufficient to account for the order of events, and explain the phenomena of nature and of life—it can never satisfy the heart. The heart demands a present God—a God who is never far from any one of us. It demands the immediate presence and constant care of a heavenly Father. It demands, when it looks upon nature, to feel that God is there, not in his laws only, but in conscious and perpetual action, not in the sense of a Wisdom and a Goodness embodied in arrangements contrived and perfected long ago, as the mind of an artificer may be said to present in the work of his hands, but in the sense of a Love co-present to every aspect of nature, and a Will in-working in every event that takes place. It demands, in human life, to know that it is not abandoned to hard, inevitable laws, and processes that act with unconscious necessity, but to feel the guiding hand of the Shepherd God, in whom is no want. The heart rejects the theory of pre-established laws; it demands an immediate, personal Providence.

But neither is this theory, rightly considered, sufficient for the understanding. It is based on a notion, which, however plausible it may seem at first view, is not only incapable of demonstration, but will be found, on a closer inspection, to be very questionable. It borrows the idea of a self-acting universe from those contrivances of human workmanship, which, once set in motion, by the interaction of mechanical forces will retain that motion and perform certain functions for a given time without the aid of any other agency than their own mechanism. If human skill can construct a machine which will act thus by laws and forces inherent in itself, then infinite Wisdom, it is argued, may construct one which will do the same on an infinitely larger scale for all time—the material universe is such a machine. But the analogy fails in one important particular. Man makes the machine, but he does not make the laws and capacities by which it acts. He avails himself of laws and capacities that are given in the substances he employs. And what are those laws and capacities? They are nothing inherent in the substances themselves; they are not attributes of matter. To call them so may suffice for practical purposes, but it does not satisfy reason. Matter, by definition, is passive and incapable; it does not act of itself, but is acted upon. Laws and capacities are not attributes of matter, but of intelligence. In reality, the machines of man's make are not self-acting, but are acted upon by intelligence, and that intelligence is God. All the forces of the material world are only methods of divine action; and what we call the laws of the material world are only a phrase to denote the regularity and usualness of that action. When I say that the law of gravitation causes a body thrown into the air to return to the ground, I do not express a property of bodies, but a simple fact—a fact which the term "gravitation" designates, but does not explain, of which no explanation can be given but the immediate volition of God. Thus the inference drawn from human contrivances in favor of a self-acting universe is a fallacy. The idea of such a universe has no foundation in analogy, or in anything we know of the nature of things.

2. The second theory of Providence supposes it to consist partly in pre-established, general laws, and partly in occasional interpositions of divine power for the sake of certain ends not included in the original plan of creation, and which general laws would not have accomplished. The latter method is called a particular Providence, the other, a general one. Those who believe in such interposition find examples of it in remarkable escapes from danger, in instances of special good fortune, or in signal retributions—"judgments," as they are called—incurred by evildoers. This hypothesis is even more objectionable than the first. It adds to the notion of pre-established laws and a self-acting universe, which we have seen to be groundless, the greater difficulty of ineffectual contrivance. It supposes, like the other, a mechanized nature, but supposes an imperfect mechanism—a mechanism which fails to accomplish all that should be accomplished—which requires constant addition, correction, and improvement. It supposes a Contriver whose contrivances come into collision with his own will, a God whose providence is in conflict with his own works. Moreover, it gives the providence of God the appearance of arbitrariness and partiality. If here one is rescued from peril, why is another, equally deserving, permitted to perish? If one sinner is overtaken with divine retribution, why does another, equally guilty, escape unharmed? In supposing Providence more active in some cases than in others, putting in here, quiescent there, it virtually supposes that God does some things, and not others, that some events are the products of his agency, and others not; and the query arises, If this is of God, why is not that of God? If helpful here, why help-denying there? If the world is specially guided by divine power in parts, why is that power not uniformly active? We are right in speaking of special providences, if by that term we designate striking providences, if we merely express our own feeling of their import to us, if it is understood that the specialty refers to our own personal experience and not to the will of God. When, in any instance, we have experienced a signal felicity, and feel ourselves peculiarly blest, the devout mind is peculiarly impressed with a feeling of providential care and love. To our gratitude, such blessing is a special Providence; and we do well to emphasize it as such. At the same time, we ought to understand that, so far as the divine government is concerned, every event that befalls is equally providential. To suppose that some things are more so than others is to charge God with a fitful and partial rule, instead of a uniform care and government over us.

3. We come, then, to the third hypothesis, which supposes Providence to consist in the everywhere present, uniform, and direct action of Deity, which supposes it to be the sum and substance of all these agencies, processes, and laws which we call Nature, and by which the material universe moves and subsists. According to this theory, there is no power in nature or in works of man's device but God, no law but divine volition, no process but divine performance. Gravitation is one mode of Providence, magnetism another, electricity another. Providence is attraction and repulsion, cohesion and explosion, flood tide and ebb tide, sunrise and sunset, motion and rest. All the energies of nature are methods of divine activity, and all the phenomena of nature are phases of the one eternal Presence. According to this view, whatever chances is willed—the mischance as well as the looked-for and desired result, the failure as well as the fulfillment, the disaster as well as the success, the foundered and unreturning vessel as well as the safe arrival, the earthquake which shatters a city as well as the sunrise which blesses a world; according to this view, the unlooked-for escape is providential, but equally providential the loss and the death. Whatever chances is willed; and whatever is willed is right.

This is the theory of Providence which my own feeling inclines me to embrace—the only theory which approves itself to my judgment, as satisfying equally mind and heart. It satisfies the understanding by its simplicity. It avoids the paradox of an active universe and an inactive God, of intense activity at one time and quiescence ever after, of a sabbath longer than the term of labor. It avoids the perplexity of two divinities—Nature and God—of self-subsisting energies and forces, of attributes without an adequate substance, and, lastly, of a double Providence—one for everyday use and one for special occasions. It offers a plain, distinct, and decided view of God's connection with the natural world—his agency in, and his government over it. It presents an idea of Providence, which, if any object to it on other grounds, must be allowed at least to be unambiguous, well-defined, and perfectly intelligible—a Providence at once universal and particular, uniform and unceasing, not coming in and going out, now here and now there, as occasion may require, but everywhere present and all time active, and everywhere and all time one and the same, a Providence, in fact, which is nature itself in all its aspects and ways. This theory satisfies the heart by bringing God nearer to us. It shows him equally near at all times, and equally active and equally beneficent[1] at all times, in all things. It dissipates the hard and comfortless doctrine of a government of general laws, which, acting with fatal and remorseless necessity, pursue their course and fulfill their functions, blindly regardless of individual necessities, and which, though productive of general good, are often fraught with individual evil. It makes God the special guardian of each individual, as if that individual were Providence's sole and peculiar charge, and the universe made and managed expressly for his behoof. It realizes to each one with gracious emphasis, as a personal experience, the beautiful word of the Psalmist, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want" [Psalm 23:1]. It spiritualizes the universe, instead of mechanizing it. It gives us a full world, instead of an empty one, instead of brute matter, insensate forms and unconscious forces, the living Presence, the conscious Spirit, the pervading God. The universe is transfigured to him who considers it in the light of this doctrine. "The dead, inert mass which choked up space has vanished, and instead thereof flows and waves and rushes the eternal stream of life and power and deed. All is quick, all is soul, and gazes upon us with bright spirit-eyes, and speaks in spirit-tones to the heart."[2] In the eye of this hypothesis, the universe is not a past product of creative effort, which, once produced, subsists thenceforth by mere conservative power, but a present, momentary, continuous production. The action by which it subsists is not a preservation of some former work, long since created and complete, but an ever-new creation. The universe is newborn continually, birth everlasting out of the bosom of self-existent, original being. The old types remain, but the substance is new evermore—an eternal generation from the Lord, life welling forth in measureless efflux, fresh from the heart of the living God, a beginningless, endless procession of self-communicating Love.

Informed with this view, I can never be alone in the world, for the world itself is the presence of God to my mind and heart. Wherever the moment may find me—in the thronged highway, in the closet's retirement, in pathless deserts, on the rolling deep—the benign Presence confronts me face to face. Wherever I turn my feet, wherever I turn my thought, I encounter the besetting God. He is my sun, and he my shade. The morning comes, he floods me with his light; in the evening, the heavens are all eyes, through which he gazes as a pitying Father on his child. If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me," I look within, and there I meet him "in eternal day." Every process in nature is the going-forth of the Everlasting on his messages of love, and every event in my experience is a message of love fulfilled in me.

If anyone object to this view, that in shunning the one extreme of a faraway, isolated God—a God who dwells apart from his works in solitary self-sufficingness—it runs to the opposite extreme of pantheism, I can only say, I have no desire to repel the plea. I accept the charge of pantheism, not in the cheerless, impious sense of a God all world, and a world instead of God, but in the true and primary sense of a world all God, i.e., a God co-present to all his works, pervading and embracing all, a God, in apostolic phrase, "in whom and through whom are all things." If this is pantheism, it is the pantheism which has ever been the doctrine of the deepest piety; it is the pantheism professed by devout men in every age of the world. It is the pantheism of Berkeley when he speaks of "finite agents embosomed in an infinite Mind." It is the pantheism of Newton when he speaks of "a Being pervading space, who, present to all things, sees and embraces all things present within himself." It is the pantheism of David when he says, "Thou hast beset me behind and before…. If I ascend into heaven, behold! thou art there; if I make my bed in the underworld, behold! thou art there" [Psalm 139:5, 8]. It is the pantheism of Paul when he says, "In him we live and move, and have our being" [Acts 17:27-28].

To embrace this truth with a faith proportioned to its blessed import, to believe it truly and to feel it wholly, is the best result of practical wisdom, as it is the distinguishing trait of pious souls. To feel around us the everlasting arm in all time of peril, to know and adore the present God in all time of distress, to discern and to follow the guiding "Shepherd" in every strait is the high privilege of manly faith. Such faith is strength in weakness, refreshment in sorrow, hope in death. So instructed and so panoplied, we shall "not fear the power of any adversary," nor sink despairing under any fate. We shall bide undaunted our season of peril, and fearless tread the dark valley. When the blows of adversity fall thick and fast on our devoted heads, we shall bear, with strength proportioned to our day, the spoiling of our goods, the loss of our beloved, the disappointment of our hopes—most comforted then when most afflicted, most trusting then when most severely tried, most hopeful when most stricken, most calmly blest when at length we have learned effectually the hard but fruitful lesson of unconditional, undoubting submission to the Power which passes alike comprehension and control.

"Submit, in this or any other sphere,

Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear;

Safe in the hand of one disposing Power,

Or in the natal or the mortal hour.

All nature is but art unknown to thee;

All chance, direction which thou canst not see;

All discord, harmony not understood;

All partial evil, universal good."

[1] This statement presupposes the moral character of God as a being whose purpose is the good of his creatures.

[2] Fichte, "Bestimmung des Menschen."


© 2005 American Unitarian Conference