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"Natural and Spiritual"

F. H. Hedge


There are not two worlds, but one and the same, embracing all, even that which vulgar thought conceives as opposite,—Nature and Spirit.” Schelling.

The popular religion is Manichean. It is so not only in its pneumatology, where it has the warrant of its sacred books, but also in its ontology, where it has no such warrant. It assumes, in the current antithesis of Nature and Spirit, a duality of which its scripture knows nothing.* The doctrine crept into the Church from an extra Christian source, and belongs to another system. A distinction is recognized by philosophy, ancient and modern, between soul and spirit. The soul is common to man with the brute; the spirit is that which distinguishes him from other animals. This distinction, in the hands of theologians, became oppugnance: a difference of degree became battle-array of hostile forces. Instead of “natural” and “supernatural,” the two were conceived as natural and contranatural. Nature was put in antagonism with spirit, that is, with God; and St. Augustine, who did more than any other to mould the anthropology of the Christian Church, and who never outgrew his Manichean antecedents, taught that all which is good in man is contrary to nature, and that all which is natural in man is Satanic; making the human a mere arena for the demonstration of hellish and divine powers.

* St. Paul distinguishes between animal and spiritual,—to psychikon and to pneumatikon. Our version improperly renders the former term “natural.” Hence the popular dualism. There is nothing of this dualism in the doctrine of Christ, who so penetrated what we call Nature with his spiritual vision as to see only spirit there, and who was so domesticated in what we call the spiritual world, that to him, it was as natural as earth and sky.

So ingrained in the language of religion is this dualism, that the popular theology is ineradicably infected, the popular mind irrecoverably bewildered, by it. Writers in defence of Christianity declare it to be “against the grain of human nature,” and fancy that they exalt it by this declaration. What could infidel say more damaging to the cause of Christian truth?

As a classification of the facts of life whereby one class of phenomena and functions is distinguished from another, the antithesis of natural and spiritual, although inadequate, might pass as loose phraseology. But to make of the rhetorical antithesis an ontological antagonism, to say that nature and spirit are mutually oppugnant, is to put contradiction in the Godhead; or, what is the same thing, to affirm two Gods.

What we mean by nature, when we speak of it as an active power, is God. And “that which is natural,” vegetable and animal, day and night, summer and winter, growth and decay, —are divine operations, processes ordained and conducted by God. And, what we mean by spirit, —is it not the same God? And “that which is spiritual,”—truth and goodness, conversion, grace, —are these not also divine operations, processes, acts? Are they not also of the very God who made day and night, and the earth and the stars? Further than this we cannot go. We have no experience and no revelation which reaches behind the phenomena; no revelation other than that of the one Creator and Spirit. We only know that all phenomena have one origin at last; that the same all-present and all-teeming Power works equally in the soul and in the sod, is manifest, however diversely, in the life of a saint and the life of a plant; that the God who makes grass to grow in the field makes love and goodness to spring in the heart; that the Father of spirits is the sparrow’s Father too, and the Father of the lilies of the field; that the sovereign Will, which, in one of its aspects, we term the law of gravitation, in another is the law of duty which impels the Christian and the Christ.

Nature and spirit are not opposite, but one; related to each other as genus and species, or as parts of one whole; the same arch-power in different characters and functions. It matters little how we theorize about them, so long as we acknowledge in nature and spirit a common fountain and a radical affinity thence arising. We may call nature unconscious spirit, and spirit conscious nature; or we may regard them as parallel independent manifestations. However we may speculate, the essential fact remains. Both meet in one source; both reflect one image. All that is natural is spiritual “in its ascent and cause;” all that is spiritual is natural “in its descent and being.”

If for “natural” we substitute “material,” we have, it might seem, a more legitimate antithesis. But, even then, the terms should be conceived as expressing different stages of being, not contrary powers. Matter is nature at rest; spirit is nature in action. Throughout nature, there is a tendency and an effort to become spirit, a struggling-up into liberty and consciousness. From shapeless masses to the salient crystal, the beginning of intelligible form; to the growing plant, the beginning of organism; to the sentient animal, the first revelation of conscious soul; to rational man, the highest and last revelation of spirit,—the progress is still from stage to stage of natural life. We say of the plant, it lives. Previous to that, through all the stages of the mineral kingdom,—earths, metals, jewels,—Nature had slept. But now, with the plant, she awakes from her torpor, and looks about her. From the dark bosom of insensate matter emerges a soul. Intelligence looks out from the full-blown flower; instinct shows itself in the natural adaptation of the seed to the soil. With the brute creation, nature attains a higher level, becomes more active and free. Deeper instincts, sensation, affection, begin to appear. Then finally, in man, the same nature appears as spirit: it becomes reflective, self-conscious, moral. The sense of obligation, aspiration, reverence, charity, faith, devotion, are its finished fruits.

In this progressive unfolding of itself from what we call matter to what we call spirit, nature does not cease to be nature as it rises and ripens. The flower is not less natural than the earth from which it springs; the animal, not less natural than the plant; and the perfect man with all his aspirations and his virtues, the prophet, the saint, is not less natural, but more so, than plant and brute; more natural because more developed and complete.

And now, within the region of the human, what do we mean, what can we mean, by the “natural” and the “spiritual” man? I say, the natural and the spiritual man are the same man in different manifestations and stages of growth. They differ from each other as the garden-plant differs from the same plant in its native state. We say of fruits and flowers which derive their character from the culture bestowed upon them and without that culture could not be what they are,—we say they are not natural but artificial products. In one sense, we are right: they are not original nature. And yet they are natural. For “nature is made better by no means, but nature makes that means.” The very culture bestowed on flower and fruit is an operation of nature. In all that he does in the way of cultivation, man employs the aid of natural agents and laws. Whatever he produces, therefore, is a product of nature. So, too, the spiritual—our virtue, our religion—is, in this sense, a natural product. As the plant is created a flower-and-fruit-bearing creature, so man is created a moral and religious creature: he has a capacity of moral and religious life, as the plant has a capacity of floral and pomal life. In either case, culture is required to bring out that capacity; and whatever that culture produces is natural. No measure of holiness, no work of grace, can exceed nature. Whatever height of goodness the saint may attain in his upward progress, he can arrive at nothing of which the germ and the promise were not laid in his constitution. He can arrive at nothing that is not natural.

This view does not overlook the immediate action of Deity on the soul. It does not overlook or deny what is technically called the operation of divine grace. Whoever believes in God as a present, immanent, diffusive Power, not as an isolated, incommunicable individuality, will recognize a divine agency in those influences which regenerate human nature, renewing the selfish, earth-bound soul, and establishing the empire of truth and goodness in man’s will and life. All such influences are God working in us to will and to do. To question a divine agency in the education, or in the conversion and renewing, of the human soul, is to question a fact to which the consciousness of every Christian man or woman will bear witness. But what right have we to say that there is any thing unnatural in this kind of influence,—any thing which distinguishes it from other divine operations, except the direction which it takes, and the consequences in which it results? What process or product of nature is there in which the agency of the same God is not concerned? Not to speak of great things, of suns and systems, and the earth with its seasons, take the humblest product of a summer's growth; take the berry by the wayside, the clover in the field. These creatures exhibit the immediate action of God in every period and circumstance of their being. The juices of the earth, the beams of the sun, the summer showers which conspire to unfold their little life, which round their bodies and paint their cheeks and put sweetness in all their cells,—what are these but so many agencies and aspects and acts of the universal Being who is equally present and equally active and equally perfect in the clover and the berry, and the soul of man? If, then, Divinity is required to call forth and perfect the produce of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow passes away, how much more is such agency required to unfold the moral life which never dies? We may call this agency in the one case a process of nature; in the other, an operation of the spirit: but these phrases do not alter the identity of the agent. Because the effects are different, is it not therefore the same God? “There are diversities of operations; but it is the same God who worketh all in all.”

A process of nature is also a work of grace, and a work of grace is also a process of nature. We no more degrade the agency in the one case by giving it that name, than we exaggerate it in the other. What but a miracle of grace is each returning spring, unlocking myriad doors of life, flooding the landscape with glory and joy, everywhere bursting into flower and song, evangelizing the new-born earth with summer beauty and harvest hopes? The heart is not satisfied with ascribing all this to the different position of the sun in the ecliptic, and the action of cold mechanical laws. Piety sees here the immediate presence and grace of God; and long ago, before the revelation in Jesus Christ, had learned and sung the great truth, "Thou sendest forth thy spirit; they are created: thou renewest the face of the earth." And so, on the other side of the antithesis, the purest manifestations of divine grace do not disdain to exhibit themselves in natural processes; and, even of him whose life was the advent of grace and truth on the earth, it is written, that “the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit,” and “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.” The operation of God's spirit in the regeneration of a human heart but unfolds a life-germ inborn in that heart, and is therefore a natural process, as much so as the growth of an apple or an apple-tree. The tree may never bear, and man's spiritual life may never mature; but there it is: there is the faculty, there is the root. Whatever springs from that faculty and that root is a natural product.

This view is something more than philosophic speculation: it is theologically and practically important in its bearings on human duty and destiny. If we say that natural and spiritual are contrary and incompatible, we affirm that religion is unnatural, contranatural; that man must become denaturalized, must become inhuman, before he can become religious, — before he can lead a religious life. And this, I grieve to say, is virtually the doctrine of a large portion of the Christian world. The doctrine taught by Augustine, and revived by Calvin, is, that human nature, as such, is adverse to religion; that Christianity and human nature are related to each other, not merely as root and fruit, or as stock and graft, but as fire and water, or as heaven and hell. Human nature, as such, according to this doctrine, is incapable of holiness: nature must be supplanted by grace. Until that revolution is accomplished, all that man does, however angelic in appearance, is sinful and devilish; and, after that change has taken place, the righteousness that follows is no product of human nature, but grace excluding human nature, and acting in its stead. All this has been inferred from that saying of St. Paul,—or been thought to be sanctioned by that saying,—"The natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God." I cannot so interpret the apostle's language. For "natural" let us say "animal;" and the real meaning will be found to be this,—Man, as an animal, with only so much of mental life developed in him as belongs to his sphere in the animal scale, cannot receive the truths of the gospel: he cannot be a Christian. A further development is needed for that. Even as animal, man develops a certain degree of mental or spiritual life: he is capable of society and civil government, but not of religion, not of conscious communion with God, not of worshipping in spirit and truth. To attain that is the new birth by which man becomes what Paul calls "spiritual," as distinguished from animal. One is represented by Adam; the other, by Christ. But both are one and the same man,—the same human nature in different stages of development. First that which is animal; then that which is spiritual.

Human nature, as such, is not hostile to religion; but a hostile principle, as we all know, may spring up in it. There is a possible adversary in human nature as well as a "Lord from heaven." In man, as we find him, for the most part, there are opposite tendencies: a principle of self and a principle of love; an upward and a downward tendency. But both of these tendencies are equally natural: the one is as proper to man as the other. Both are constituent elements of humanity. Man's calling is to subdue the one, and unfold the other.

Here, then, is the true antagonism. Not nature and spirit are contrary, but the worldly (or carnal) and the heavenly mind. "The carnal mind," it is written, " is enmity against God." Yet even here we have to distinguish between the carnal mind in its proper essence, and those to whom that mind may be ascribed,—between worldliness intrinsically considered, and worldly men. It is my belief, that worldliness is seldom so predominant as utterly to extinguish the moral and religious life. The most worldly-minded have some religious experiences, some aspirations, some gropings, at least, sufficient to attest the fellowship of the Spirit, though not sufficient to regenerate the life. Could you look into the heart's recesses of this unregenerate worldling, this eager, driving man of business, to whom, if you speak of the "highest interest," he straightway thinks of his ten per cent; of this hack-politician, who trades in principles, and would sell his country for some paltry office in the gift of Government; of this bloated sensualist, whose face is a record of no spiritual experiences, but of spirituous draughts and unctuous repasts,—could you penetrate the interior of such characters, you would find, that, even there, in those wastes and deserts of the soul, the Holy Spirit is not quite extinct; you would find even there some faint flicker of the everlasting Light, feeble though it be as the last gleam of departing day on some desolate crag, which reddens without reclaiming its ungracious barrenness. I have seen in Catholic lands a wayside chapel which seemed to be divested of all sacred associations,—exposed as it was to public desecration, and covered with the dust of daily travel; but, entering, I found, in a quiet niche, a votive lamp, which the piety of another generation had kindled, and which the present generation would not suffer to go out. And I thought, how many a man of affairs, who stands in the thick of public life, and is well-nigh smothered with the dust of the world, may have in his heart some quiet corner where the lamp of life which a pious mother once kindled there burns feebly indeed, but still burns, and may, by God's grace, flame forth one day into fervent devotion!

The worldly mind, in its proper essence, is enmity against God; but men of the world are not all worldly. The deepest tendency of every being is Godward; and when all the layers of life are removed, and all other images erased from the heart, the image of God will be found there, inwrought and indelible. And when all the experiments of life have been tried, and all other satisfactions exhausted, the heart will still thirst for “the living God” with longings insatiable.


© 2004 American Unitarian Conference