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VII

FEELING AFTER GOD1010Preached at Balliol, Feb. 18, 1877..

THAT THEY SHOULD SEEK THE LORD, IF HAPLY THEY MIGHT FEEL AFTER HIM, AND FIND HIM.

ACTS xvii. 27.

IN some previous sermons I endeavoured to trace the growth of the idea of God in the heart of man; as it existed before the Christian religion, in Greek philosophy, or in the great religions of the East; in the Old Testament; as it was revealed to us in Jesus Christ; as it had been perpetually corrected and enlarged by the reflections of great thinkers, by the experience of common life, by the ever-widening circle of natural science. The thought of God has formed the mind of man, and has renewed the face of the world; it is the element of light and life which has united and purified the scattered fragments of the human race; which has moulded wandering tribes into mighty nations; which, like the sun in the heavens over powering the morning mist, has slowly infused into the consciousness of mankind the truth that ‘He hath made of one blood all nations of the earth’; and not only all nations, but all churches, all ranks of society, all forms of religion and of civilization. And, returning 114from the extremity of the heavens, this principle of light and life shines also in our own hearts: ‘In His light do we see light.’

I had intended to complete this short course of five sermons with a sixth, in which I was going to speak of the application of the thought of God to our daily life; for there would be little use in attempting to trace the workings of a divine power in history or in nature if we did not recognize the presence of it in our own hearts. But it seemed to me, in reviewing the subject once more, that there was still a phase of religion which remained to be considered, not peculiar to any one age or country or state of society, but common to all in which there has been any enlightened knowledge of divine things. There is what may be called ‘the imperfect or half-belief in God,’ which is not untrue, but weak; which has a desire for holiness and perfection, but is unable to think of them as realities. For not only in Gentile but in Christian times men have been ‘feeling after God if haply they may find Him.’ Most persons who have seriously reflected about religion would acknowledge that at times they have felt depressed and were unable to recognize the presence of God in the world, or to justify His ways to men. As the psalmist says: ‘Then sought I to understand this, but it was too hard for me.’ His difficulty, as you will remember, was that old one not yet perhaps completely answered: ‘How could the ungodly be in such prosperity and 115flourishing like a green bay tree?’ The authors of the Book of Job and of Ecclesiastes seem hardly and with difficulty, amid the appearances of the world around them, to have recognized a light beyond. Whole ages and countries, in the language of Scripture, turn away from God, and He hides His face from them. There have been periods in the world’s history, such as the first century before and after the Christian era, or the tenth or the fifteenth century after Christ, or the eighteenth century terminating in the French Revolution, in which the power of religion has visibly declined and the belief in God almost disappeared, at least in some countries and among the educated classes; and then again there have been renewals and revivals. In some cases this alienation from religion has been almost wholly evil; in others it has been the assertion of some truth or principle supposed to be at variance with religion, or a witness against some religious corruption.

In the opinion of many we are ourselves passing into one of these phases of irreligion. Just as we seem to be arriving at true notions of religion, and long before we have exhausted the great thought of a divine perfection, we are told by some that the belief in God is passing away; not to speak of that short and easy formula in which the history of the human race has been summed up: ‘first we were polytheists, then we became monotheists, and now, after a brief interval of metaphysical confusion, we are atheists.’ Not to 116speak, I say, of this foolish formula, which is flagrantly at variance with facts, there are some signs that religious belief is not in the same position as formerly. A large proportion, perhaps the majority, of our artisan class are said to be without religion. Our men of science do not for the most part acknowledge the miraculous or supernatural, and with the belief in these all religious truth is sometimes supposed to be bound up. The great additions to our knowledge made in these latter days have been gained chiefly by observation and experience: thus the seen tends to prevail over the unseen, and the habit of men’s minds alters accordingly. The extraordinary change in the religious opinion which has taken place during the last forty years is not favourable to the strength or permanence of religious convictions; for the movement in one direction provokes a reaction in another: when a certain amount of critical or analysing power is applied to it, the via media easily separates into the extremes. Religious bodies, when they become aware of their divergence from the world, instead of attempting to find terms of reconciliation, generally proceed along their own narrow path towards a more extreme dogmatism and a more rigid organization. There are times also when old grounds of belief, such as were supplied by the unreflecting appeal to Scripture, seem to crumble under our feet. Then a great deal of trouble arises in the world, and a great deal of alarm is caused both in our minds and in those of 117others who care for us. There is also a real danger that we shall not be strong enough to live through these times of transition in which our lot is cast, but may make shipwreck of our morals or of our faith. I think it may be of some use that we should endeavour to understand the state of the world in which we live, for ‘if a man walk in the day he stumbleth not.’ I will therefore propose this question for our consideration—‘Why is there so much less appearance of God in the world than formerly? and how far is this disappearance real, how far illusion?’ Two thoughts may be silently present to our minds in the attempt to analyse these phenomena: first, that whether we like it or not we cannot recall the past, past opinions, past usages, and the like; for they are in the past, and it is not in the past but in the present that we are living, not in the twelfth century but in the nineteenth; secondly, that our belief in God has nothing to do with His actual existence. If all men were blind the sun would be still shining in the heavens. Truths of all sorts have existed from the beginning of time which are either hidden from us or of which we are only just beginning to be conscious.

All human things are imperfect, and the good and evil in them grow together, and are inextricably entwined with one another. There is greater good, and perhaps greater evil, in religion than in anything else, and a more subtle combination of them than in 118other forms of life and action. In a critical age such as our own this blended mass of good and evil is easily decomposed. Mankind are always turning out the seamy side of religion to the light. They see that the practice of professing Christians in daily life scarcely has any relation to the precepts of Christ. They reckon up the crimes of churches in former ages; the bloody wars, the terrible persecutions, the slavery of the mind, worse than the confinement of the body, which fanaticism and superstition have brought upon the world. They find even now the spirit of religious party clogging the efforts made by statesmen and others for the education and improvement of mankind. They observe that those who make no profession of religion are often more honour able and upright in their dealings than those who are very much under the influence of religious beliefs. Considering all these things, they are tempted to think with the Roman poet of old that the new negation of religion is an emancipation and enlargement of human nature. They are happy in having cast under their feet the traditions of priests, the curious lore of sacred books, the terrors of the world to come. Their text is ‘Tantum relligio potuit suadere malorum.’ Without denying the existence of God, they believe that nothing is to be known of Him, and that He can only be connected with us, if at all, by the laws of external nature.

But have they ever considered the other side of the 119question? Have they ever thought of the influence which religion has exercised in consecrating the ties of the family or of the state in primitive times; or of the sanction which it has given to law and to morality, or of the higher elements which it has introduced into the world? It may be that there are many hypocrites or half hypocrites among Christians, that many more are indifferent, that society generally wears the aspect of business or pleasure, and does not show in any striking manner a regard for religion. But have the words of Christ therefore lost their power? Is the life of self-sacrifice less real in its effects? We might indeed reduce our theory to our practice; but then again our practice would always be falling lower and lower. For the words and the example of the few are the supports which sustain the many in the path of life. To the uneducated especially it is in the language of religion we must speak, of the love of God, of the sufferings of Christ; this is the way in which we can teach them, not by theories of happiness or the newest criticisms on Scripture. As Christians and lovers of truth we do not shrink from the examination of these ancient writings, and many discoveries are being made about them which would have been startling to our forefathers. It is very likely that these inquiries may in the end purify and elevate instead of weakening our faith. But meanwhile let us not forget that these books have been and are the bread of life to the Christian world; 120the best men have found in them, or derived from them, their highest thoughts; the wayfarer has not erred upon the whole in gathering from them their true lesson; to the uneducated they have been literature and philosophy, their support in life, their consolation in death. The habit of reading the Bible has been good both for the head and the heart; the neglect of it would sensibly lower both the character and the intelligence of a country.

Those who talk in the manner which I was describing take a narrow view of themselves and of their fellow men; they do not understand the depth and capabilities of human nature. They do not consider how much energy for good, how much force of character, how much intellectual life would be lost if religion were to disappear among us. They think of men as they appear in public only—in business or at a festival—and forget their private needs. They see them in the mass only; they have not present to their minds the long internal history of sorrows and trials which many of us have passed through; the times of sickness and depression; the often returning thought, ‘I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.’ They have looked at the surface of life only and not seen within. The time has not yet come when they feel themselves that something more than this world is required by them.

There is another tendency of this analytical age which weakens the hold of religion upon the human 121mind. Men remark that all our notions of God come to us through what is human, through language, through our own faculties, through our own ideas of right and wrong. This they call ‘anthropomorphism,’ which they would have us cast away, or acknowledge that not God but only a perfected humanity is the object of our worship. But how otherwise can we know God except through our own conceptions of what is holiest and highest? Would they have us get out of our own minds and strive to apprehend Him by some new kind of intuition? The perfect man, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the only image which we are capable of attaining of the perfect God. Human ideas when purely abstract are also unmeaning; they can only acquire a meaning when they find an expression in the things which we know. We may describe the divine nature by negatives; we may say of God that He is infinite, that He is without parts or passions, that He is incorporeal and the like. But to say all this of Him is not half so much as to say that He is just and loving and true. For although these words describe human qualities, they are the highest human qualities which we know: we can imagine them existing in a far higher degree than they are found in this world, and through them we dimly see a perfection beyond them in which they rest and unite.

In the third place I would remark that the thought of God is of necessity much greater and more difficult to us than to any former age. Primitive nations had 122local gods only, gods of the hills and not of the valleys; at last they became the gods of nations; and finally, in Christianity and in the later Greek philosophy, there is one God of all nations of the earth. But we have to think of Him as the God of myriads of worlds far beyond what the eye or telescope can reach, infinite in the extent of His power, and also in its minuteness, in the furthest extremity of heaven, and yet very near to every one of us. The figures of the prophets and of the Book of Revelation, which describe the unseen world as a place above or below us which God and His angels make their habitation, or the powers of evil their stronghold, seem to fade away before the facts of natural science. Then, again, the littleness of this earth, which we once supposed to be the centre of all things, hardly more in the ocean of space than a point or a drop of water, is a very overwhelming thought. Whatever people may say to those who reflect on these things, there is greater difficulty in realizing the unseen than formerly. However we describe or conceive God, whether as the mind of the world, or as the law of the world, or as the Father of the world, we are led more and more to feel that His nature is inscrutable to us, and can be no more expressed in words or figures of speech than in the graven images of the olden time. Again, as the notion of a perfect God becomes more present to us, so also the contradictions which the appearances of the world offer to this perfection 123strike forcibly upon the mind. Mankind place things side by side now which formerly were not seen to be inconsistent; objections which used to sleep quietly enough now demand a well-considered answer. One perhaps asks to have the law of cause and effect reconciled with the responsibility of man; another repeats the favourite theological paradox, ‘Why, if God is all-powerful and all-wise, does He permit the existence of evil?’ I can very well imagine that the theory of the struggle for existence, of which we have heard so much during the last fifteen years, may produce a very painful impression on the minds of unthinking persons, because appearing to them so contradictory to the love of God towards all His creatures. ‘There is not a sparrow that falls to the ground without your Father.’ The facts or speculations respecting the origin of society, or even of the family, so unlike that Garden of Eden of which our fathers dreamed, are very likely to have a similar effect. These inquiries I mention, not to refute them (they are not to be refuted by the way or in a moment), but simply with one object—to show that religious belief is not so easy a matter as it once was, and that this generation is not to be accused of greater irreligion than their predecessors because they are unable at once to adjust all these marvellous discoveries and novel inquiries in their true relation to their own traditional belief, or even to see how they can be reconciled with very simple truths of religion 124and morality. That is the task which God has assigned to us, and not to us only, but to every succeeding generation of Christians, to entwine the old with the new, to heal that great breach which seems to have arisen between religion and knowledge, and to some extent between religion and morality.

Once more, this disappearance of God from the thoughts of men, though partly real, is partly also an illusion arising out of distinctions of language and artificial divisions of thought, which oppose one truth or one class of mankind to another when there is no real opposition, or only a partial one, between them. We often speak as if religion was one thing and morality another, as if the conscious recognition of God was the only good or obligation of human life, as if the unconscious service of Him, however sincere, was almost displeasing to Him. Virtue and vice have a different train of associations from holiness and sin: among some professors of Christianity there has been more zeal against good works than against bad ones. A good man in the phraseology of many persons means only some one of their own religious opinion or of their own political party. But is it not true of all that ‘by their fruits ye shall know them’? And is not moral virtue, by whatever name described, the greater part of religion? Again, we oppose God to the laws of the world, and teachers of religion who speak to us of Him from within to teachers of natural philosophy who speak to us of His laws only, and whom we 125sometimes rate as atheists. But is there really any opposition between God and His laws, between Scripture and nature, between the starry heaven above and the moral law within? Or, again, can a man really be an atheist, whether he will or no, who sees the mind working in the world, who acknowledges the presence of intelligence in the structures of plants and minerals, who reverently meditates on the order of the whole? Is not the term ‘materialist’ or ‘atheist’ a misnomer? For even supposing such an one as I have been describing to allow of no other kind of knowledge than that which is presented to us by the physical world, still he recognizes a part at least of the work of God in nature. In religion, as in life gene rally, the various occupations of men have an effect on their minds; and it is useless to expect that the man of business or the man of science will accept religious truth in precisely the same form with the minister of the Gospel.

To illustrate what I am saying, I will make a supposition which may seem bold, or perhaps even start ling, to those who are unable to rise above words to things. The word God, etymologists tell us, is not connected with good or goodness, but is an old Teutonic word signifying a graven image (so strange is the history of words, ‘the most despised things, and the things that are nought,’ become the expressions of ‘the things that most truly are’). Now I will suppose that the name of God and, shall I add, the word 126Person, was no longer in use; that in our public services and in our private prayers it ceased to be the symbol or expression by which we described the holiest and highest; but that, instead of using this word, all mankind with one voice worshipped truth and justice and goodness united in a divine perfection, not an idea only, but a power really existing; and that to this perfection they attributed all those qualities which we are in the habit of attributing to God—should we be justified in calling them atheists? Ought they not rather to be included among Christians, since all that is essential to the notion of God they already hold? I might make a further supposition that all mankind agreed about the name of God, and yet ascribed to Him all that is most repugnant to His true nature, as the old Greek philosopher of 600 B.C. said Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all that is detestable in man. Are we to call such worshippers of devils theists any more than we are justified in calling the others atheists? or shall we reply in irony, a little parodying the famous answer of Pascal to the Jesuits, ‘They are Christians who agree in the word and disagree about the thing meant by it; they are not Christians who disagree about the word and agree about the thing.’ It would be absurd to carry out the fancy which I have been supposing, or to banish altogether the name of God from the world while seeking to retain a conception of the divine nature; for words too have a sacredness, and we cannot alter them at pleasure. 127But it is not absurd sometimes to discard the ordinary use of language and to seek to form a conception of religious truths without employing the technical terms in which theologians have described them. Half the controversies in the world would have been at an end if this condition had been imposed upon them; neither can we really understand religious or any other propositions if we are unable to ‘re-word’ them. We do not know ourselves, nor can any one else know, whether we have pierced beneath the environment of language which encloses them to the truth within. See what follows if from time to time we discipline our minds by the practice of such a method in our judgement of men. We can no longer divide them into theists and atheists, religious and irreligious, or consistent Christians and non-Christians; we must think, not of the name by which they call themselves, or are called, but of the degree in which consciously or unconsciously they conform to the will of God and imitate the life of Christ. They may be eastern prophets or Greek philosophers; they may be men of science of our own day whose minds are absorbed in second causes, as they are termed; the question is no longer one of names. But whosoever loves righteousness and truth is accepted of Him. No principle short of this will reconcile us to ourselves, to God, and to the world. Then a new aspect is given both to theology and life. There is no longer an opposition between secular and religious employments or between 128secular and religious knowledge, but all who in their several ranks are doing their duty are fulfilling the will of God; all who are discovering and teaching truth are revealing Him. The physician whose pursuits seem naturally to draw his mind to material causes in his unpaid ministrations among the poor may be thought to bear the image of Him who carried our sorrows and healed our infirmities; and so of other classes. The hurry of this world, the struggle for their daily bread, the absorption of thought, may lead some men not to recognize consciously, so much as they should, the Author of their being. Then, in forming a judgement of them, let us remember that their relation to God is not to be measured by words or other external signs, but by the main tenour of their lives.

This is what I will venture to call the doctrine of Christians in unconsciousness—of those who, not having seen, yet have believed—of those who say, ‘Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief.’ It cannot but be that in times of transition such as the present great confusions and misunderstandings should arise. Many persons are in their wrong places; some who are called Christians having no higher claim than success in life, while others who are setting the highest examples of disinterestedness and integrity are by some accident placed beyond the Christian pale. The doctrine which I have been endeavouring to preach is a very simple one; that we should habitually regard 129ourselves and others, not according to the names by which we are called or the professions which we make or the party to which we belong, but more and more as we and they appear in the sight of God, and as we believe that one day we shall appear to ourselves; and that of God Himself we should think as existing consciously as well as unconsciously to us in the surrounding world, in the lower things of earth as well as in the higher, that He is the inspirer of the best thoughts too, and that where good is there is God. The times in which we live are said to be liable to peculiar changes, and a note of alarm is often sounded about them, sometimes on very trifling grounds; or again, from a deeper consideration of the tendencies of events men fancy that the world is going to pass into a new era, that the ages of faith have departed, and that some new age of science or sociology is to take their place. There is an excitement in novelty, which gives an attraction to strange forms of religion and to strange notions in philosophy. But experience seems to show that the great principles of human nature change slowly; there is no reason to fear that the heavens are about to descend upon our heads or the earth to swallow us up. One by one we shall pass away, and all things will remain, if not really the same, yet much more the same than we are apt to suppose. Another generation will succeed to our fears and hopes, to our sorrows and joys, to our speculations and intellectual interests. But, though 130we may banish idle and alarmist terrors, we cannot deny that this age, perhaps more than others, has peculiar trials. It seems as if men required more force of character in this than in former times. More than ever it is impossible that what is wholly or partly conventional should stand. If religion is to be lasting it must be real, a religion of deeds and not of words, or it will be quickly swept away in the tide of new impressions and influences from all sources which daily succeed one another. This is the peculiarity of times of transition, that they test the true characters of men. Some are carried away by every wind; others take hold of deeper principles, and are soon in a safe anchorage. If I were asked, How can a man be shielded or shield himself from the dangers which surround him? I would not in answer prescribe the books which he should read or the opinions which he should hold; but I should say, By the innocency of his life and the quiet and patient fulfilment of his duties here as a preparation for the service of God in after life.

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