« Prev VIII. The Image of the Invisible God. Next »


THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD1111Preached at St. Mary’s, Oxford, Oct. 25, 1874..



THE first principles of religion often seem to retire from view and lose their interest, while lesser questions exert an absorbing hold on the mind. They are put on one side, and when they are wanted can hardly be found; they are supposed to have been settled long ago, and every man, or at least every Christian, is thought to know them by intuition, whatever may have been the ignorance of them which prevailed formerly in the Gentile world. This is especially the case with the truths which relate to the nature of God. They are buried under ground, and no one considers whether this foundation of religious truth is straw or stubble, ingeniously hidden in the depths of the earth, or the divine rock on which the temple is to stand for eternal ages. They are regarded as truisms, about which little remains to be said, and which are of small importance in comparison 132with the religious topics of the day, the doctrine of Baptism or Confession, or the manner of Christ’s Presence in the Sacrament, or the inspiration of Scripture, or the authority of the priesthood, or the union of the churches which have retained Episcopal ordination, and the like.

And yet, my brethren, it is quite clear that without a great effort both of the heart and of the intellect we can never really attain a knowledge of God. In religion, as in other things, the truths which are simplest are also the deepest. And in the changes of human opinion, amid the storms of controversy, we seem to come back to them as to ‘the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.’ To say that God is just or true, or that He is a God of love, is not difficult; these are familiar expressions to which Christians have been used almost from infancy. But it is very difficult to realize what is meant by them, or to live in the habitual consciousness of them, or to make them prevail over other notions or expressions which are apparently at variance with them. The Jews in old times were constantly relapsing into idolatry because they could not endure the purely spiritual nature of God. The solitude of the desert seemed to be too terrible to them when they were left alone with Him. Might they not at least worship the sun, or the queen of heaven, or the star of the god Remphan? That was the feeling against which the prophets were vainly striving during all the earlier period of Jewish 133history. And do we suppose that human nature has now changed, or that this worship of idols has altogether ceased among ourselves? The superstitions of all religions—Catholic or Protestant, Christian or Pagan, Jew or Gentile—differ more in name than in reality. For there are idols of the mind which take the place of visible images; idols of tradition, of language, which come between us and God; idols of the temple too, in which good and evil seem to be inseparably blended, and the good is near and present, and the evil is only recognized in some fatal but distant consequences. And this is not the only difficulty in preserving clear as a mirror the conception of a perfect God. Some adjustment is required of His various attributes; and at the same time we must allow for the difference between things human and divine. Even many of the expressions of Scripture in which the nature of God is described, if isolated from other expressions, and from the conscience of man, or not considered in reference to the age and country in which they were uttered, may easily mislead us. If in the excess of reverence or fear we allow the notion of His power to prevail over His justice, we may represent Him as worse than some Eastern tyrant, and ourselves, His creatures, as crouching before Him, hardly hoping to turn away His anger with gifts and flatteries. Or if we think of His justice to the exclusion of His love, then in stead of a God who ‘wills that all men should be 134saved,’ we have a Being more unpitying, more implacable in His resentments, than the devil himself. Or, again, we may so exaggerate the ignorance of man that we seem to know nothing of Him, and are ready to accept anything which is told us about Him. Hardly, with all our care when addressing Him in prayer, can we avoid attaching to Him the shadow of some human infirmity, such as change of purpose, or particular likes and dislikes of persons or opinions. A good man who lives constantly in communion with God will often fail to recognize that all other men in every nation and in every rank of life are equally His care. The highest privilege of an individual is sometimes supposed to be the right of doing what he will with his own, and even this false maxim of an evil state of society has been blasphemously transferred to the Most High. There is a similar illusion when God is supposed to take a delight in external things, in beautiful colours, sounds, forms, scents, ceremonies, because they are pleasing to us; or in the building of churches after some ancient pattern, and as an end, not as a means, forgetting that ‘the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands’; and that the least things which directly affect a human soul are far more costly and precious in His sight than the highest refinements of decoration and art.

Therefore I shall make no apology for bringing before you this subject, which is at once the first and simplest, and also the most interesting, and perhaps 135one of the least considered of all subjects of theology—the nature of God. I shall begin with God’s dealings with us in the physical world, and then endeavour to show how we may rise out of that to the moral and spiritual; and that these are not antagonistic to one other as is sometimes supposed—the physical warring against the moral, the moral against the spiritual—but consistent; and the different aspects under which God presents Himself to us, as the God of nature, of men, and also of the world of spirits. And, lastly, I shall endeavour to reflect this argument upon ourselves, and show in what way we ought to worship God and hold communion with Him, as being ourselves a part of the visible order of nature, as conscious of a moral law, and also as having relations to a world of spirits, on the confines of which we are, and which we dimly know to be infinite and eternal.

In the first place, then, we must acknowledge that God governs the world by fixed laws, and does not alter these laws at our wish or request. This is that great truth of the order of nature which science presents to us in every possible form, and with every token and evidence which experience teaches us, if we do but attend to her, in every act of our lives, and which nevertheless we sometimes seem disposed to set aside and ignore, or to which we yield only a forced or reluctant assent. Let us endeavour to put the thought of this clearly before the mind’s eye; let 136us imagine some one, I will not say ‘a little lower than the angels,’ but a natural philosopher, who is capable of seeing creation, not with our imperfect vision and hazy fancies, but with a real scientific insight into the world in which we live. He would behold the reign of law everywhere, in the least things as well as in the greatest, in the most complex as well as in the simplest, in the life of man as well as of the animals, extending to organic as well as inorganic substances; in all the sequences, combinations, adaptations, motions, intentions of nature, he would recognize the same law and order—one and continuous in all the different spheres of knowledge, in all the different realms of nature, through all times and over all space. Nowhere would the microscope or the telescope reveal to him any spring or interval in which, as in some cracked jar, a hand or finger might be inserted; nowhere would there be an aperture in nature through which the light of another world might come streaming. He would trace the most seemingly capricious of earthly things, such as the winds and the mists, to their ocean home; to us they are the type of human mutability, but he would know that they are really subject to laws as fixed as those by which the stone falls to the ground: in the processes of birth and death he would also recognize the uniformity of causes which could not be set aside. He would confess too that the actions of men and the workings of the mind are inseparable from the physical 137antecedents or accompaniments which prepare for them or co-operate with them, and that they are ordered and adjusted as parts of a whole. Nor will he deny, when he looks up at the heavens, that this earth with its endless variety of races and languages and infinity of human interests (each one so intense and particular at some time or other to some individual man) is only to be regarded as a pebble on the sea shore, or as a point in immensity, in comparison with the universe. And in this universe, at the utmost limit to which the most powerful instruments will carry the eye of man, there is still the same order reappearing everywhere, the same uniformity of nature, the same force which acts upon the earth.

This is that law of nature, one and continuous in all times and places, which may be truly said to be the visible image of God, and ‘her voice the harmony of the world.’ And in ages to come it is not only possible, but probable, that this reign of law in the world will become much more visible and intelligible to all classes, educated as well as uneducated, than at present; and the natural sciences, which in our own day appeared to sink almost overpowered under the load of facts and details, may attain to much greater unity and simplicity; and the relation of the moral to the physical world be better understood. At present this conception of law is regarded with suspicion amongst us, especially by religious men; they seem to be afraid that the wit of man is devising a plan 138for shutting God out of the world which He has made. They do not, and indeed cannot, wholly deny the order of nature, but they wish that there might be exceptions to the rule expressly for them. As if God could be seen through chinks and crannies, or might be peeped at with a candle and in a corner, and was not visible in the light of day and in the face of the wide heavens. And yet these are the doubts of good and religious men, and deserve the fairest consideration at our hands. Perhaps these objections may in some degree arise .from want of explanation, or from some illusion of language; and if they could only see that a God was still left them, and that they were not bound fast in chains of fate, they would no longer rebel against the dominion of law.

They ask why we speak of things which are so painful to them and so much at variance with their sense of religion. The answer is because they are true, and no religion can be lasting which does not rest on the truth. And no religion can avoid falling into contradiction and unreality which takes into account one side of human nature only and ignores the other. The story of the Brahmin who was shown through a microscope the detested insects in the water which he had been drinking, and who broke the microscope, is in point here. But that is not the sort of answer which the Christian would like to give to a man of science who told him of the uniformity of the laws of nature. Come, then, and let us reason with 139this good man who is afraid that the theories of philosophers are banishing him from his God. Has he ever pursued his thought and asked himself what he means by interruptions and interferences in the course of nature? Has he ever considered how many misplacements and rearrangements would have to be made before his prayers could procure for him the advantage of a favourable wind or the desired fall of rain? Has he ever asked himself how the answers to his own request would be reconciled with those of others? Let him not suppose that he is shut up in a prison, or that the philosopher who speaks of fixed laws means to say that the earth is intersected with straight lines, and is not full of forms of freedom and beauty. Would you rather live, we will say to him, in a house, or carry on an employment, in which there is no order, or in which there is order? Or would you rather travel through a country in which there are roads, or in which there are no roads? Or would you have your own life and that of your family conform to certain laws and customs or not? Or, again, would you prefer a condition of life in which you can (for the most part) foresee and calculate the future and avoid evils, or a condition in which you can foresee and avoid nothing? And in which case are you the most free and most the master of your own actions? amid order or disorder? in a civilized country which has roads and laws, or in an uncivilized? in a state of life which is dark and deprived of experience, 140or in one which is lighted up by history and science? Is there anything in the controlling power of law which prevents your choosing between right and wrong, or which hinders you from holding communion with God and Christ? Cease, then, to make this opposition of words between religion and science, between God and His works. For if there is no reconciliation of them, and if the truths of religion are really inconsistent with the order of nature, then Christianity must inevitably pale away before the advance of natural knowledge.

Therefore we thankfully look upon the world as a scene of law and order, in which the countless multitudes are marching along the highway of God’s providence, and ‘they do not break their ranks,’ but are obedient, as we may say in a figure, to the will of their Leader. Such a view, instead of shutting out God from the world, seems rather to restore the world to Him, and, instead of taking us away from God, to bring us nearer to Him. And if a person comes to us and says that there may be interruptions in the course of nature, and that we cannot see them because we can affirm nothing certainly, and, therefore, cannot be certain that there are not, to him we reply that, while humbly admitting the ‘existence of more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy,’ we cannot desert the strong ground of experience or give up the very foundations of knowledge for the sake of an imaginary gain to faith.


I know that it may be objected that God’s government of the world by fixed laws is in many cases inconsistent with His justice, or at least that only a sort of rough rudimentary justice is to be discerned in them. The fair infant dying of a cough,

‘Soft silken primrose fading timelessly,’

because some one has neglected the conditions of health, is not an example of divine justice. And if the question which was once put to Christ is asked in such a case, ‘Which did sin, this child or its parents?’ the answer will be in the same spirit: Neither this child nor its parents, but that the laws of health and physical well-being might be vindicated. There is no act of justice in this, but a lesson and a warning. And if the objector again retorts, Yes, but might not the same lesson have been taught without this waste of human life? the answer is: First, at any rate you have the power of saving life and removing the evil; and second, are you quite sure that this or any other evil may not be an imperfect good which will hereafter be perfected?

For, indeed, the objector is right if he means to say that the heart and conscience of man rise above this state of nature in which we live. There is something within him which is not satisfied, a sense of right or a longing desire for the good of other men, which demands more than he can find in this present world. Perhaps when gazing upon some pleasant prospect of 142hill and woodland, and the sea beyond gleaming beneath the setting sun, or when he lifts up his eyes and beholds the stars coming out one by one in the azure heaven, he is tempted to think that this is the fairest of worlds. But ever and anon, when he recalls his own miserable condition and that of his fellowmen, the whole creation, which may be described, in the language of the Apostle, as ‘groaning together until now,’ waiting to be delivered; when he remembers the clouds of sin and passion which have darkened his own life, the imperfection of his best things, the festering masses of evil in our great towns, the heartlessness, the conventionality, the irrationality of man kind in general, he is strangely impressed with the contrast of the fairness of the world without and the sadness of the man within. He feels that he and his fellow-creatures were not meant for this, and that God has not left Himself without a witness higher than the order of nature or the common life of all men.

This is that moral law which He has implanted in our hearts, and which tells us not what is, but what ought to be, and what will be when His purposes are finally accomplished. This is that witness which tells of God—first, that He is true (‘Yea, let God be true, but every man a liar’); second, that He is just (‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’); third, that He is loving, and ‘wills that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.’ This is that law of which in a distant age and country the Greek 143poet also spoke when he said, ‘Who shall give me purity of word and deed, that I may observe the laws whose foundation is on high, and of which heaven is the only sire?’ And again, ‘For these things are not of to-day or yesterday, but live for ever, and no one knows from whence they came.’ This is that law of duty which the philosopher summed up in his celebrated formula, ‘Act so as to approve yourself to every rational intelligence.’ This is that law of which the psalmists and the prophets speak with an enthusiasm which would strike us as wonderful if our ears were not deadened by familiarity: ‘Thy testimonies are my delight day and night;’ ‘The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.’ May not almost the whole Book of Psalms be described as a sort of rapture of the love of good and hatred of evil, accompanied by an intense consciousness that, amid all appearances to the contrary, God is ever on the side of right? Are not the prophecies again the revelation of the truth and justice and mercy of God?—not the second sight of future events, as some imagine, but a real revelation of God, in which the prophet is always rising above the visible and temporal, the ordinances and ceremonies of the Jewish law, the traditions of the Jewish people, correcting, enlarging, purifying them, struggling towards another world which he sees in the distance. ‘Lo, O man, He hath shown thee what He requires of thee—to do 144justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.’ Is not this the sum of religion for all men everywhere? Might we not say, in the words of Christ, ‘On this hang all the law and the prophets’?

This is that other and higher voice of law in the world whose seat is the bosom of God, to which not only Christ and the prophets witness, but in a measure the ancient legislators and philosophers also, ‘feeling after God, if haply they might find Him’; the teachers and prophets of the East too, and good men everywhere; yea, and our own hearts also. Even those who have not acknowledged a personal God have yet recognized a principle of right higher than nature—a future which is to be preferred to the present, a better self which has the care and control over the worse, a duty to other men as well as to ourselves. Nor did any one ever really doubt the authority of a moral law.

But if this is true, and if there is really this opposition between the world in which we live and the perfection of which we have the conception in our minds, then we are led on to think of God as working out this moral law in the visible universe, first within and then without us, making right to be also might, and good to prevail over evil. This is that working of God in the world of which we see the beginnings and first impressions in, this life, and of which we humbly hope to see the fulfilment in another. And this is what we chiefly mean when we speak of ‘God 145as a spirit’; that His spirit is witnessing with our spirit to the good which is in us, to the truth which is in us, to the love which is in us, to the justice which is in us, guiding, helping, leading us, going before us in the fulfilment of His will. We mean to say that in Him only we live and move and have our being; that in Him we have our true communion with our fellow men, alive or dead (for all live unto Him); and that in Him only are all our hopes when we pass out of this world. The ancient philosopher said that God was the air, and in this image he seemed to find the symbol or image of a Being who was at once the breath of man and the breath of the universe. And something in the same way when we speak of God as a spirit we desire to express that the Infinite and Eternal is very near to us, who, though He reaches to the outermost heaven, is yet working with us in whatsoever things are good or true or pure or holy.

And when we think of the natural being subjected to the spiritual, and of the will of God becoming more and more manifest, we might go on to speak of an inspired communion of saints of which we too may hope to be partakers, in which the work which is beginning to be evident here will be finally consummated. But such speculations seem to carry us too far beyond the horizon of our actual knowledge—for we walk by faith and not by sight—and we wait with patience for whatever God is preparing in His good pleasure; and when imagination is sent out on 146a voyage of discovery, the actual duties of our homes and employments are apt to be forgotten and lost in a sort of golden dream. It is safer to come back again and try to turn the light of these truths on our daily life. And therefore in what remains of this sermon I shall endeavour to point out the practical aspects of religion which flow from these ‘reflections,’ as I may term them, of the Eternal Being.

The first reflection or image of God was the order of the visible universe. In former ages men have been like heathens about this revelation of God in nature; their minds were darkened, and they never saw or observed what God intended them to see in the world around them. And even now, as I was saying before, many persons regard this great truth, this new source of light and life, not as a part of religion, but as an alien and enemy; and mankind are divided into two parties, the scientific and religious. Yet consider: we are never weary of recapitulating the wonders of science and art, the endless applications of the powers of nature, such as steam or electricity, and we are always reydy to talk of some new marvel of knowledge or contrivance to which every day may be expected to give birth. Now, too, we are beginning to be aware of the causes of life and death, and are not like helpless children when we Have to meet ‘the pestilence that walketh in darkness or the destruction that wasteth at noonday.’ Now, for the first time, in the 147nineteenth century, man may be said to have some thing like the mastery over the earth, to know where he is, and, as he recognizes himself more and more to be the creature of circumstances, to have more and more the power of controlling them.

And has this nothing to do with religion? Is it not obvious that, as our power over nature increases, our responsibility towards other men increases also? Do we not rather seem to want, I will not say a new religion, but a new application of religion, which shall teach us that we are answerable for the consequences of our actions even in things that have hitherto seemed indifferent—perhaps answerable for the good which we neglect to do as well as for the evil which we do? Our fathers lived ‘in the times of that ignorance,’ when nobody knew or thought about anything of this sort. But we who know that the life and health and character of men depend upon their outward circumstances, are we justified in leaving these outward circumstances the same? If another generation grows up in this country like the last, in the same state of poverty and misery and vice and disease and decay, who is responsible for this? Now that we know the causes of these evils and the remedies, are we not all responsible for them? For a certain form of organization and self-devotion, combined with knowledge and experience, would certainly remove them. A small portion of the energy and industry which is shown in the accumulation of wealth 148would suffice in a few years to change the moral aspect of this nation.

A distinguished physiologist has said, ‘There is scarcely a single page in my three physiological works in which God was not present to my mind. I regard the whole laws of the animal economy and of the universe as the direct dictate of the Deity, and, in urging compliance with them, it is with the earnestness and reverence due to a divine command that I do it. I almost lose the consciousness of self in the anxiety to attain the end; and, when I see clearly a law of God in our own nature, I rely upon its efficiency for good with a faith and peace which no storm can shake.’ Might not we too, my brethren, like this good man, come to regard the promotion of the physical well-being of our fellow-creatures as the direct service of God, and even as a sort of worship of Him, quite as much as that we offer Him in churches? And when we are engaged in directing or executing tasks which are disagreeable or painful to us, and which have no religious or ecclesiastical association, may we not still have God present with us as the habitual thought of our mind?

Once more, from the principle of the order of the world do we not learn another lesson which is immediately applicable to our own lives? Nature, of which we are a part, works slowly by a succession of causes and effects, by an adaptation of means to ends, bearing the image of a divine repose amid the strife and 149turmoil of men. May not the spirit of nature pass into our minds, teaching us order and regularity and resignation to the will of God? No efforts of ours can detach us from the conditions of our being; but we may submit to them, we may acknowledge them; and herein really lies our true peace and strength. We cannot recall the past, or be in age what we were in youth; we cannot do in sickness what we might have done in health; at death there may be something left unfinished which we should have liked to have completed. But we may recognize that these and all other states of life are the will of God, and to be used in His service; we may cheerfully acknowledge them to be our appointed lot, knowing also that this order of nature which surrounds us is not all, and that we have a hope of a life to come.

The second reflection of God was the moral nature of man. Every man, or almost every man, has in him a principle of right and truth far above his own practice and that of his fellow-men; but few of us make this better self the law of our lives.

He who will not allow his mind to be lowered to the standard of those around him; who retains his sense of right and wrong unimpaired amid all temptation; who asks himself, in all his actions, not what men will say of him, but what is the will of God—he may be truly said to bear in his life and character the Divine Image for our example. He may be some one who has sacrificed his earthly interests for the love of 150truth; or who, with the world against him, has been compelled by a natural nobility of disposition to fight the battle of the alien and oppressed; or he may be one who, not knowing God, has sought to live in the ideal, that is, in His Image, above the commonplaces of the world, whether Christian or unchristian. All men are telling him, ‘This is politic, this is expedient, this is what your party requires, this is what the Church or the world approves, this is the way to honour and preferment; these are the fashions of society, the customs of traders, the demands of nature, the received opinions of men, the necessities of the situation.’ But he with unaverted eye thinks only of the good and true, having ‘a faith and peace which no storm can shake’; and in all his life sees, like the prophet, the vision of God and his duty, high and lifted up above the mists of human error and the dark clouds of passion and prejudice, ‘having the body of heaven in his clearness.’

This is a height of perfection to which a very few attain, and which will seem to some persons almost to have passed away from this earth. When our will is lost in His will, and our thought in His thought, and no earthly wish intrudes or offends, then, indeed, we may be said to be one with God, and God with us. And, even although this perfect image of God can hardly be formed in most of us, it is good for us to have such thoughts when receiving the Communion of the Lord’s Supper, at our prayers, and at other 151times. For there can never be any danger of our loving God too much, if we only think of Him as the God of justice and truth: if we seek to know Him first, and understand that all human knowledge is a manifestation of Him, there can be no fear of our becoming mystics.

And oh! that it were possible that this union of truth and love might be perfected, and that the highest intelligence of nature and of history might be combined with the highest devotion to His service. There have been some in this world who seem to have reached the utmost height of religious passion and devotion, who may almost be said to have been burnt up with the fire of divine love. But their conceptions of the character of God have been narrow and meagre; they have never thought of asking how He governed this world, or how they were to co-operate with Him. Their religion has been a principle of separation quite as much as of union, and they have tended to imagine that all which was not contained in the Scripture or taught by the Church was alien and antagonistic to them. There have been others, again, who have been animated by a sincere and disinterested love of truth, who have calmly surveyed the world and sought out and known all that could be known of nature and of man. But to them the Gospel of Christ has been a dead letter; they have never thought of human beings as needing to be restored, or of the world as a realm to be won back to the service of God. The 152progress to which they devoted themselves was the progress of knowledge, not the moral or spiritual improvement of their fellow-men. Both have done a part of the work of God on earth, and both, probably, have lived in a state of mutual dislike and distrust of one another. But if ever there was a time when these two, the spirit of perfect love and of perfect knowledge, met together in the same person, or in many persons, then indeed we might have confidence that the Kingdom of God was about to appear amongst us, not coming with observation, but working silently, to be seen in the improvement of the conditions of the poor and labouring classes, in the greater harmony of different ranks of society, and in the renewal of our own lives.

« Prev VIII. The Image of the Invisible God. Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |