WHAT IS GOD? - Dennis John Kavanagh 1922
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"Acquaint thyself with God if thou would'st taste
His works. Admitted once to His embrace,
Thou shalt perceive that thou wast blind before:
Thine eye shall be instructed; and thine heart
Made pure shall relish with divine delight,
Till then unfelt, what hands divine have wrought."
Cowper, The Task.
IT IS evident that we cannot know the nature of God in a comprehensive way. Our minds are finite and God is infinite. We cannot put the ocean into a little hole dug in the sand. There are, however, some things that we can understand about God, in a limited way, of course, and yet with sufficient clearness for our purpose. These things may be divided into two general classes: (1) we may understand what God is not and (2) we may understand, in a general way, what God is.
By some God is conceived as a "person" in the human sense of the word, that is to say, He is regarded as a being similar to human beings, though of a superior order, a kind of a superman or, in the words of one who wished to scoff at another idea of personality, as "a king who sits on a throne and watches the worlds go round!"
It was this idea which he fancied, or pretended to fancy, was generally accepted, that Voltaire held up to ridicule when he said: "In the beginning God made man to His own image; in the course of time man reversed the process and made God like man!" It is this idea which the Christian Scientists regard, erroneously, as the only correct notion of personality. It is known as the anthropomorphic idea of God, or the representation of God under human form. It is a denial of God's infinite attributes, of His unlimited perfections, because a human being is very imperfect and essentially finite.
No genuine thinker, either Christian or pagan, ever entertained such a notion of the Deity, and so when men echoing the scoffs of Voltaire accuse Christians of anthropomorphism, they are either insincere or fearfully ignorant; insincere because even the little child is taught that "God is a spiritual Being, infinitely perfect"; ignorant because they do not seem to make allowances for the exigencies or the beauties of human language.
When we say that God "sees" us, that He "holds" the world in the "hollow of His hand," or that the earth is His "foot-stool," we do not, for a moment, imply that He has eyes, and hands and feet. We are speaking according to the limitations of our human language or rather according to its beauties. We are attributing to God powers which we possess, but we do not say that God possesses them in the same way.
The other extreme, that of regarding God as a sleepless, active energy, which "yesterday and today and forever actuates all things, as the human spirit actuates the body," is not less erroneous and, when properly understood, even more degrading than anthropomorphism.
"God is in the universe," says one, "precisely what you are in your body." "Twentieth century people," writes another, "recognize God chiefly in the wonderful energies of sound, light and electricity, in the vital processes of plants and animals, in human loves and aspirations and in the evolution of human society."
This is out-and-out pantheism and, in no sense of the word, is it a creation of Twentieth Century people. It dates back to the days of Grecian philosophy, and has been revived from time to time by philosophers like Spinoza and Schelling, or by the makers of modern religions, like Mrs. Eddy. It is sometimes clothed in deceptive language, but it always comes to the same thing, that there is no God distinct from the world.
Pantheism, according to Ernst Haeckel, is a polite way of denying God altogether, but, if we study it more closely, if we consider the destructive powers of energy, the sometimes sickening varieties of its manifestations, if we observe the criminal characteristics of vital phenomena and the utterly undesirable forms of social evolution, we are at a loss to see in what the politeness of pantheism consists. It seems rather to be and is a degradation of God. Murder and robbery, adultery and lying are not sins, according to the Christian Scientists,—to give but one instance of pantheistic blasphemy,—because, as they explain, God cannot sin and, as in their erroneous doctrine, God is the only reality, there is nothing else that can. The appearances or phenomena which we call evil are manifestations of the one reality God or Good, and are, according to their explanation, evil only in appearance.
A concept of God which makes evil good cannot be accepted by reasonable men.
As, therefore, Reason excludes the concept of God as a manlike being and, with greater force, the concept of a God identified with the world, it is evident that the first characteristic or attribute of the Supreme Being is distinctness from the world. God is in the universe, intimately present everywhere, and at all times, but God cannot be said to be the universe. Neither can He be said to be in the world, precisely as the soul is in the body, because the soul is so intimately united to the body as to form one individual being. Though God is so intimately united with the world, that it is truly said by St. Paul, "In Him we live and move and are," still He is quite distinct from the world. He is an extra-mundane Being, not in the sense of a far-off God, Who is not interested in us, but in the sense of a far-superior Being Who has none of the imperfections which necessarily characterize finite beings.
If when we think of God in this way, as present in though quite distinct from the world, as an extramundane Spirit, spiritual in His essence and infinitely perfect, we call Him a Ruler, a King, a Monarch, it is by analogy only. He is to the world what a ruler is to his kingdom. In some transcendental way He governs all things, sustains all things, and brings them to the end for which they were created, but in a way which is in keeping with the peculiar nature of every creature.
If to this necessary distinctness from the world we can add intelligence, we shall find that in God there is every element that goes to constitute the philosophical meaning of the word "personality,"—"the subsistence of a rational or intellectual nature as an individual being."
But we find in God not intelligence only but beauty, goodness, love, truth, justice—in a word, all that has power to arouse within us a sense of admiration.
By what process do we find all these perfections in God? We have already seen that there is an independent, uncaused Cause of things. Now whenever we compare an effect with its cause we find that the cause contains, in some way, actually or in a higher degree, all the perfections of the effect, for the very simple reason that "nothing can convey to another what it does not possess; you cannot get an apple tree out of a millstone."
There cannot, therefore, be anything in the world around about us which is not present in God, in an infinitely higher degree and an infinitely more glorious form, because whatever is contained in an infinite Being is infinitely perfect.
God, therefore, possesses all the beauties of the material world, without the limitations of matter. The golden light of the setting sun, the dazzling expanse of the heaving ocean, the delicate grandeur of the humble flower, the monarch-like magnificence of the sturdy oak, glorious and beautiful as they are, become like grains of dust compared to the commanding majesty of the noonday sun when they are placed side by side with the corresponding beauty of God.
God possesses all the beauties of the moral order. The confiding spirit of unsuspecting boyhood, the self-sacrificing devotion of heroic manhood, the tenderness of mother love, the purity of virgins,—are these not beautiful and worthy of our admiration? In God moral beauty, without the imperfections of earth, is synonymous with infinite sanctity. It is in admiration of the moral beauty of God that the seraphic choir exclaims, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts."
Among the perfections of earth we may mention, next in order, that of intelligence. God possesses intelligence, again according to His nature, in an infinite degree of perfection. The intelligence of God is so evident that even the pagan philosopher, Cicero, could write: "The matter does not appear to need discussion, for what can be so plain and obvious, when we look up to Heaven and behold the star-lit sky, as that there exists a Deity of surpassing intelligence by Whom all is ordered? If anyone doubts this, I, for my part, cannot understand why he does not also doubt that the sun exists. For how is the one more evident than the other?"
And then he goes on to ask whether, on seeing a well-built house, even though we did not see the owner, we could possibly bring ourselves to believe that it was the work of unintelligent animals.
But there is an objection. There seem to be so many imperfections in the world. "The graceful flower growing up to its perfection is nipped by the frost or biting wind that passes over it, and it dies untimely. The delicate mechanism of the eye finds no sufficient protection against external influences which destroy its sight. The fleetness of the young gazelle does not save it from the lion or the wolf. The rain is often insufficient to nourish the thirsty plants or to supply the wants of the living creatures upon the earth. Do not all these failures point to a Designer of limited and imperfect capacity?"
We must admit that, as far as the proximate or immediate end of created things is considered, apparent failures no doubt exist, but this is quite different from saying that there is failure with regard to some higher and nobler end. We may not understand the purposes of the Intelligence that has designed the world, but that God is intelligent is plain from the perfections of the world, even apart from our other argument—that whatever He has given to His creatures, He contains in Himself. He has given intelligence to man. Therefore He is himself intelligent.
Finally, for we cannot prolong our study of God's attributes, He is infinitely good, and because of His infinite goodness He regards us with infinite love. No mother ever loved her first-born child as God loves man. It is a tremendous thought, but it is undeniable, unless we deny, which we cannot do in reason, the existence of love and goodness in God's world.
If the trials of life,—and that there are many we cannot deny,—seem to militate against this contention, we must give the same answer as we gave to the difficulty based upon apparent failures. Certain it is that, were we created for this world and subjected, without any actual fault of our own, to the trials and disappointments of life, it would be hard —if not impossible—to understand how God could love us with infinite tenderness, but when we consider an ulterior end, when we have the truth impressed upon us that life is only a preparation and death a transition, the very trials may be regarded as proofs of God's love.
Reason goes very far in establishing the Fatherhood of God that is so emphasized in the Gospels, and the chastisements of life are but indications that God is not like an overindulgent father that permits his children to go unrebuked even when they are guilty of wrong.
God, therefore, is a Personal Being, just as much as we are, only His "personality" is of an infinitely higher order than ours.
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