Borden Parker Bowne.

The immanence of God online

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Published October, IQOJ



The undivineness of the natural and the
unnaturalness of the divine is the great
heresy of popular thought respecting re-
ligion. The error roots in a deistic and
mechanical philosophy, and in turn pro-
duces a large part of the misunderstand-
ings that haunt religious and irreligious
thought alike. To assist in the banish-
ment of this error by showing a more
excellent way is the aim of this little


Borden P. Bowne.










The progress of thought is slow, but
there is progress nevertheless. In every
field of life men have had painfully to
find their way. In religion man has al-
ways had some sense, more or less dim,
of an alliance with the unseen and the
eternal, but it has taken ages to organize
and clarify it and bring it to clear ap-
prehension and rational expression. As
men begin on the plane of the senses,
this unseen existence has been mainly
conceived in sense terms, and hence
has always been exposed to destructive
criticism from the side of philosophy.
The crude anthropomorphism of early
thought invited and compelled the criti-
cism. Again, this vague sense of the
unseen has always been confronted by


the apparent realities and finalities of
the outer world ; and in comparison with
them it has often seemed unreal and
fictitious. Matter we know and things
we know ; but God and spirit, what and
where are they? When thus skeptically
accosted by the senses, they sometimes
fade away. Hence religious faith has
always had a double difficulty to com-
bat, arising from its alliance with sense
forms, on the one hand, and from sense
dogmatism, on the other. The alliance
was perpetually plunging religion into
destructive anthropomorphism ; and the
sense dogmatism led to a frequent re-
jection of religion as baseless, because
spiritual realities lie beyond seeing and
hearing. But we are slowly outgrowing
this. Religious thought is gradually
casting off its coarse anthropomor-
phism ; and philosophic criticism is fast
discrediting the shallow dogmatism of
sense thinking, with its implication of
mechanical and materialistic naturalism.


Thus religious thought is progressing ;
and the result to which all lines of reflec-
tion are fast converging is the ancient
word of inspiration, that in God we live
and move and have our being. This is
at once the clear indication of thought
and the assured conviction of faith. In
this conclusion, moreover, both religion
and philosophy find their only sure

This doctrine we call the divine imma-
nence ; by which we mean that God is
the omnipresent ground of all finite ex-
istence and activity. The world, alike of
things and of spirits, is nothing existing
and acting on its own account, while
God is away in some extra-sidereal re-
gion, but it continually depends upon
and is ever upheld by the ever-living,
ever-present, ever-working God.

This divine immanence has important
bearings on both speculative and reli-
gious problems, and contains the solution
of many traditional difficulties. To trace


this doctrine into its implications is the
aim of the discussion. The thought will
centre on four leading points, — God and
Nature, God and History, God and the
Bible, and God and Religion. On each
of these points naturalistic and deistic
dogmatism has long wrought confusion
and mischief.


There is a scholastic maxim that truth
emerges sooner from error than from con-
fusion. Allied to this is Goethe's remark,
that the gods themselves can do nothing
with stupidity. One is often reminded of
both of these truths in reading popular
discussions of the supernatural, whether
from the religious or the irreligious stand-
point. Their most prominent feature is
confusion. Out of such a state of things
nothing but babble and Babel can result.
Our first duty in this matter is to clear
up our thought so as to know what we
really mean and desire.

And first we must find out what we
mean by nature. A great deal of bad
metaphysics is commonly concealed
under this term, and it is the unsuspected
source of many of our woes. What, then,
is nature ?


Popular thought is based on a crude
sense realism. There is a system of ma-
terial things, it holds, about us in space
and producing a great variety of changes
in time. The immediate agent in the case
is matter, which by its inherent forces
and laws initiates and maintains the cos-
mic processes and produces their mani-
fold results. This system of things and
laws we call nature ; and all events arising
in this system and in accordance with its
laws we call natural.

This view seems to be an undeniable
fact of experience. Things and their
forces are manifestly there, and nothing
else is in sight. Whatever else may be
doubtful, there can be no question about
the reality and activity of nature. God
and spirit are hypotheses, but matter is a
solid and substantial fact.

This type of thought has always had
a strong tendency to atheism. Nature is
made into a self-running system, at least
for the present. Within the system all


things seem to be accounted for by the
system ; and as the beginning disappears
in the infinite past, and horizons vanish
in infinite space, the thought is not far
away that perhaps nature has always
been there in self-equality and self-suffi-
ciency. Thus " Nature " in such a scheme
is always on the point of setting up for
itself. In any case, a division of labor is
made between the work of God and that
of nature. Whatever can be referred to
nature is supposed to be sufficiently
explained without further reference. If
there be any mind at all in connection
with nature, it is needed only to explain
the outstanding facts which are not yet
accounted for by the natural order. Thus
God is at best only a provisional hypo-
thesis, and becomes less and less neces-
sary the more the reign of natural law
is extended. Atheism is the limit of this
way of thinking. As Comte once said,
science will finally conduct God to the
frontier, and bow him out with thanks for


his provisional services. When law be-
comes all-embracing, God will be a need-
less hypothesis. How general this way
of thinking has been is familiar to all
who are acquainted with the naturalistic
literature of the last generation.

Our present discussion is not with the
atheist, but with the theist, who too often
holds the same conception of nature as
the atheist. He is openly or tacitly afraid
of nature, and naturalism is with him a
term of dislike or reproach. He is sus-
picious of the reign of law, and is quite
depressed when some outstanding irreg-
ularity is at last reduced to order. He
looks rather anxiously for breaks in the
natural order, insists especially on the
things that " science cannot explain,"
and carefully treasures reports of mir-
acles as things without which religion
would vanish, but with which we may
hope to put to flight all the armies of the
aliens. And it must be admitted that his-


torically there has been much to excuse,
if not to justify, this attitude. Natural-
ism often has been an atheistic doctrine.
Nature and mind have been set up
in mutual exclusion ; and the theist with
a shallow sense philosophy has seen no
relief but in decrying naturalism and
natural law and " science falsely so
called," and insisting on breaks and mir-
acles and things "science cannot ex-
plain." Matter might possibly explain the
solar system and even all inorganic pro-
cesses and products, but it could not
explain life, it was said, with the tacit
admission, which sometimes became ex-
plicit, that spontaneous generation, if it
should be established, would be the final
overthrow of theism. Meanwhile, neither
theist nor atheist suspected that perhaps
matter cannot explain anything what-
ever, and as an ontological fact does not
even exist.

For the sake of the " natural realist,"
to whom this will seem manifest error,


if not raving, a word must be interpo-
lated here respecting the phenomenality
and non-substantiality of the apparent
world. Let us begin by admitting the
most realistic doctrine of things. This
table on which I am writing is of
course real, that is, it is no dream or
illusion. But when we begin to reflect
upon the nature of its reality, puzzles
soon emerge. The physicist tell us of
molecules and atoms which compose
the table, and when we ask concerning
them, we hear of vortex rings and cen-
tres of force and various other mysteries.
When these questions are thought out,
we see that the things about us are only
phenomenal, and that the true causality
is behind them. Thus physics itself
speedily leads us away from the com-
mon-sense notion of substantial things
about us with various inherent forces
which do the work of the world, and
brings us to the conception of one su-
preme causality behind phenomena, on


which they all depend and from which
they all proceed. From this point of
view, the theist need not be in the least
disturbed if so-called spontaneous gen-
eration were established as a fact ; for
it would only show that the supreme
cause has more than one way of work-
ing. Theism is concerned with causality,
not with method.

But apart from this metaphysical sug-
gestion, the theist' s horror of naturalism
is logically inconsequent in any case. It
rests on the tacit fancy that nature is a
blind mechanical system which does a
great many unintended things on its own
account. These represent no plan or
purpose of any kind, but are just blind
happenings for which nature alone is
responsible. Whatever comes about in ac-
cordance with the natural order expresses
no purpose ; it is simply natural. For
purpose we must have " interpositions,"
" interferences," " special providences,"
and that sort of thing. Wherever law


can be traced we are forbidden to think
of any purposive interpretation, whether
in the individual life or in the larger field
of history.

How shallow this is, is plain upon
inspection. If nature be dependent on
intelligence for its origin, it is equally
dependent on intelligence for all its im-
plications. Mechanism of itself can never
make any new departures, or reach any-
thing not implied in it from the begin-
ning. If, then, we suppose that God
created a system of nature which was
intended to unfold according to inherent
laws, we must say that the creative act
implied and carried with it to the minut-
est details all that should ever arrive in
the unfolding of the system. There is
no way by which things or events could
slip in which were not provided for in
the primal arrangement. And if we sup-
pose the Creator to have known what he
was doing, we must suppose him to have
intended the implications. But this is all


that theism cares to assert. If an event
represents a divine purpose, or is part of
a divine plan, it is as truly purposeful
when realized through natural processes
as it would be if produced by fiat. But
we miss the reality of the purpose from
the fancy that the natural system can do
a lot of things to which it was not deter-
mined by the creative act, and which
therefore are mere mechanical occur-
rences without any further significance.
And when we allow the purpose, we
practically cancel it by overlooking the
relativity of our temporal judgments
and placing the purpose so far away in
time that we think it must have faded
out of the divine thought and interest
altogether. The things we planned years
ago we have forgotten or they have lost
all value for us, and we suppose it must
be so with God. Of a faithful purpose
moving across the ages and forever keep-
ing tryst with foreseen need, we have no


But this is superficial to the last de-
gree. Long and short are relative terms
at best, and have no significance for the
Eternal. Metaphysics, too, adds its sug-
gestion, which nullifies all these tra-
ditional intimidations drawn from the
measureless age of the world, that time
itself is only a relation in self-conscious-
ness and has no such meaning for the
Infinite as it has for us. In that case, time
is merely the shadow of our finitude and
not a supreme law of all existence. We
need not, then, give up the belief in pur-
pose because of law, or because of the age
of things. To be sure, we are often un-
able to discern any special significance
in events ; but that only means that the
underlying purpose is not always evi-
dent. But that the event is natural, in
the sense of occurring in an order of law,
is absolutely unrelated to the question
of purpose ; and this is the only ques-
tion of importance for the theist.

The theist, then, is guilty of bad logic


when he makes the order of law a reason
for denying purpose. The way in which
events occur in an order of law is one
thing ; the meaning of such events in
a scheme of purpose is forever another.
Hence we might maintain the natural-
ness of all events, in the sense defined,
and at the same time might include all
events in a purposive interpretation.
Man's control of nature is realized
through mechanical processes in accord-
ance with natural law, but it is informed
with purpose, nevertheless. If some lu-
nar scientist, well versed in physics and
chemistry but ignorant of human per-
sonality, should visit our planet, he could
rule out human purpose in nature with
the same logic with which we rule out
divine purpose. The same fact of law
applies to both, and is equally compat-
ible or incompatible with both. This false
antithesis of law and purpose is one of the
great superficialities of popular thought,
and rests upon an untenable philosophy.


But both theists and atheists are alike
guilty of bad metaphysics when they
erect the system of nature into an onto-
logical reality in any case. The progress
of philosophical criticism has shown na-
ture in this sense to be only an idol of
the dogmatic den. There is no substan-
tial or ontological nature, but only natu-
ral events ; and a natural event is one
which occurs in an order of law, or one
which we can connect with other events
according to rule. But this order has no
causality in it. In the causal sense it ex-
plains nothing, being really only a rule
according to which some power beyond
it proceeds. Respecting the natural order
two quite distinct questions may be
asked. These concern, first, the uniform-
ities of coexistence and sequence which
constitute the order ; and, second, the
underlying causality and purpose of the
order. Things exist and events happen
in certain ways. To discover, describe,
and register these ways of being and


happening is the function of science.
But when this is done, we further need to
form some conception of the causality
at work, and of the purpose which may
underlie the whole. This is the field of
philosophy. These two questions, as said,
are quite distinct, and the answer to both
is necessary to the full satisfaction of
the mind. As a result of this distinction,
which is fast making its way in the higher
speculative circles, the antithesis of nat-
ural and supernatural is taking on an-
other form, and one from which many
scandals that infest the traditional view

In the new conception the supernatural
is nothing foreign to nature and making
occasional raids into nature in order to re-
veal itself, but, so far as nature as a whole
is concerned, the supernatural is the ever-
present ground and administrator of na-
ture ; and nature is simply the form
under which the Supreme Reason and
Will manifest themselves. This is the


doctrine of the divine immanence to which
philosophy is coming in its search after
the cosmic causality. We come down,
not to a world of lumps, nor to any im-
personal principle, but to a Living Will
which worketh hitherto, and which work-
eth forevermore. And nature being but
the fixed form of the divine causality, we
must say that events in general are at
once natural in the mode of their occur-
rence, in that they come about according
to rule, and supernatural in their causa-
tion, in that they all alike abut on that
Living Will by which all things stand
and from which they forever proceed.
The commonest event, say the fall of a
leaf, is as supernatural in its causation as
any miracle would be ; for in both alike
God would be equally implicated.

This division of labor between science
and philosophy has brought about a bet-
ter understanding than formerly existed.
Both parties are seen to have important


interests to guard, and each party has
inalienable rights in its own field. They
can collide only through confusion. Sci-
ence as such explains nothing, for it only
classifies and coordinates facts accord-
ing to rule ; and philosophy as such is
empty until experience furnishes the
facts. When, then, we are told that sci-
ence must never have recourse to super-
natural explanations, on the one hand, or
that " science cannot explain " this, that,
or the other thing, on the other, we know
that confusion lieth at the door, and that
a distinction is in order. In the scientific
sense, explanation consists in exhibiting
the fact as a case or implication of an
empirically discovered rule ; and in this
sense we must never have recourse to
supernatural explanations. If the fact
cannot be reduced to rule of any sort,
science can only let it alone and wait for
light. But in the causal sense science
explains nothing. Here the alternative is
supernatural explanation or none. Meta-


physics shows that mechanical explana-
tion must lose itself in barren tautologies
and the infinite regress, and must even
disperse existence itself into nothingness
through the infinite divisibility of space
and time. But these two types of expla-
nation, the scientific and the causal, in
no way conflict. If we admit that things
hang together in certain ways, the cau-
sality and purpose are not revealed
thereby ; and if we affirm a supernatural
causality, the form and contents of its
working remain an open question.

The failure to make this distinction is
well illustrated by a recent discussion in
the London " Times." Lord Kelvin, who
is well known as one of the greatest
leaders of physical science, said, in a let-
ter to the " Times : " " Scientific thought
is compelled to accept the idea of Crea-
tive Power. Forty years ago, I asked
Liebig, walking somewhere in the coun-
try, if he believed that the grass and the
flowers which he saw around us grew


by mere chemical forces. He answered,
' No, no more than I could believe that
the books of botany describing them
could grow by mere chemical forces.'
Every action of human free will is a
miracle to physical and chemical and
mathematical science."

This letter called out considerable cor-
respondence and comment. Lord Kel-
vin himself seemed to think that " mere
chemical forces" would explain much,
but were not equal to the explanation of
life. This laid him open to obvious reply.
If "mere" natural forces could do so
much, who can tell where the " mere-
ness " becomes inadequate ? But neither
Lord Kelvin nor his critics, some of
whom were inclined to view his utter-
ance as an outbreak of Scotch orthodoxy,
had any clear idea of what they meant
by explanation, and hence came to no
conclusion. If by explanation we mean
a view which will enable the mind to in-
terpret the facts in all their aspects, Lord


Kelvin was right ; but if by explanation
we mean simply a classification of the
facts under empirical rules, his critics
were right. For such explanation the
idea of God is as little needed in science
as it is in shoemaking, and is equally
irrelevant in both ; but at the same time,
such explanation remains on the surface
and does not touch the deeper questions
of thought at all.

The same is true of explanations by
evolution, natural selection, etc. They
simply describe an order for which they
do not account, and hence, so far as any
real insight is concerned, we get no help
from them. For real insight we need to
know what the power is which is at
work, why it works as it does, why the
arrivals and survivals are such that their
net result is to produce an orderly and
progressive system ; and to these in-
quiries mechanical naturalism has no
answer. The distinction between evo-
lution as a description of method and


evolution as a doctrine of causality has
reduced this doctrine to a very sub-
ordinate significance, and has deprived
it entirely of all those fearsome implica-
tions which it had for superficial thought.
As a mode of procedure, it is as good as
any other ; as a doctrine of mechanical
causality and progress, it is altogether

We cannot, then, too carefully dis-
tinguish between the description and for-
mulation which science gives and the
causal and purposive interpretation for
which philosophy seeks. The notion that
science is gradually enabling us to dis-
pense with God is superficial almost to
illiterac3^ ; and the opposite notion that
would confuse scientific descriptions,
classifications, and formulations by irrel-
evant theistic suggestions is equally so.
Imagine a theologian who should inter-
rupt a geographer in his surveys and
measurements to ask what geography
says about God ; and then imagine a


geographer who, because God is not
needed in surveying and map-making,
should conclude that God is a " needless
hypothesis." Each would be worthy of
the other. According to Mrs. Carlyle,
" the mixing of things is the great bad ; "
and there certainly never was a greater
" bad," in its way, than the " mixing "
of the question of scientific description
and formulation with that of philosophic
interpretation, the sure result being a
" conflict of science and religion," or
some other unprofitable aberration.

The instructed theist, then, sets aside
the self-running nature and the absentee
God. For him there is no nature which
does at least the bulk of the world's
work, while God is reserved for inter-
positions. For him God is the ever-pre-
sent agent in the on-going of the world,
and nature is but the form and product
of his ceaseless activity. The theist, there-
fore, is not afraid of naturalism ; for the


naturalism of atheistic thought he knows
to be an illusion, while naturalism in
theistic thought is merely the search for
God's familiar and orderly methods in
all his works. The theist knows that he
is in God's world, and that the ultimate
reason why anything is, or changes, or
comes to pass, must be sought not in
any mechanical necessity, nor in any
natural antecedents, nor in any imper-
sonal agency of any kind, but in the
will and purpose of that God in whom
all things live and move and have their
being. Every system of whatever sort
must come down at last to some fact, or
system of facts, of which no more can be
said than that it is. This fact, to which all
else is referred, and from which all else
takes its rise, is, for theism, the will and
purpose of the Eternal.

At the same time the instructed theist
recognizes that the divine causality pro-
ceeds in orderly ways, so that events do
not happen at random but according to


rule. To discover the modes of being
and happening- is the function of induc-

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Online LibraryBorden Parker BowneThe immanence of God → online text (page 1 of 7)