Francis Howe Johnson.

God in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology online

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ing to the great advancing organization some-
thing new and precious, is a creative impulse
in itself. And James' proclamation of " the
will to believe" translates itself into the will
and the power to dare and to conquer.

There is no lack of inspiration in this new
movement. Like an older evangel, it proclaims,
— "The kingdom of God is within you." The
power that works and overcomes through the
whole realm of nature, it seems to say, works in
you and with you. Eucken touches a profound
and most important principle of life when he
says: — " Spiritual truth cannot attract us unless
it come before us as our own and not as something
alien to us. In order to make effective appeal
it must have its roots in our own nature, and
subserve the development of this nature."*

We are made very familiar in these days with
the word collapse. On this side and on that,
we are told that it is taking place among the old
structures that we have inherited and also among
the new that have been hastily run up as sub-
stitutes; so that we seem, at times, to be living

* " The Meaning and Value of Life," p. 88.


in an atmosphere of demolition, breathing lime-
dust, and bewildered with the crash of falling
walls. But, it is possible for most of us to get
out of this, leaving it to the wreckers whose
business it is, while we escape to the open places
of thought where live things are growing.

But this is anticipating. Our present business
is to test the theological value of the pragmatic
method, not to praise it. A change from the
old method is not to be lightly undertaken : for it
is not a surface adjustment that we are consider-
ing. It goes indeed to the very roots of things,
and our investigation of it must be on the lines
of experience. What does the past testify as
to the working in theology and religion of the
established method? and what measure of suc-
cess, on the other hand, has attended the working
of the pragmatic method in the departments of
human activity to which it has been applied?



TO say that Protestantism is to-day labour-
ing on through a stress of great com-
plications without a method, might, in
view of all the evidences of continuity and growth
that we see about us, seem captious. But if one
were to try to define what that method is, the
above statement might not seem so very far


As matter of fact, Protestantism has, from the
outset of its career, tried to solve the problems
of religion by the use of a mixed method in which
two most divergent principles offset each other.
The Church of Rome had, and still has, a well-
defined method to which it adheres with great
rigidity. It hinges upon the assumption of
special and absolute divine sanction. Its claim
is that the knowledge of God and of His relations
to men is a matter confided to a chosen few, who
are divinely commissioned to communicate and
administer it to the mass of mankind with abso-
lute authority. This is an easily understood
method, strong in its simplicity and its finality.



It is a method calculated to keep men united and
to hold them with a grip of iron during periods
of intellectual stagnation.

But Protestantism was the child of a great
intellectual awakening. Liberty of thought, under
the guidance of the Scriptures of the Old and New
Testaments, was its underlying motive. The
privilege of the individual to approach God on
his own account and to adjust the matters of his
soul with Him at first hand was the very breath
of its existence. Clearly, here was a great gain
to the individual, a great stimulus to his spirit-
ual and intellectual vitality. But what was to
become of corporate religion? Was there to be
no church? no consensus of faith, no unity of doc-
trine, no authority to withstand the vagaries of the
individual? The sacred writings, even if held to
be verbally inspired by God, could not hold men
together unless some authoritative interpreta-
tion of them were formulated to be accepted by all.
So, over against liberty of thought and freedom
of access to God, the system of doctrine that had
grown up under the old church was retained, with
the stamp of divine authority attached to it, as
heretofore, though somewhat more loosely.

But at the same time the principle of liberty
of thought, striking its root deep, grew apace
and brought forth dissension and sectarianism.
Both methods were retained; not alone because
men were habituated to them, but because each
met, in its way, an ineradicable want of


their nature; and they adjusted themselves
now to the one and now to the other, as cir-
cumstances dictated. The two principles were
the contradiction of each other; but having been
once developed and wrought into life, neither
could be dropped. Corporate religion insisted
on the retention of the old method. Personal,
growing religion found the new indispensable.
Wherever men thought and studied and con-
fronted the newer aspects of the world, the old
method was summarily set aside. When the
guardians of the church thought they saw it about
to be torn asunder by the influx of new and un-
assimilable material, they fell back on the authority
of the past, hoping to stay the tide of change.

Under this dual regime religion has lived. It
has to some extent held men together, and within
the church much growth has been tolerated and
indirectly encouraged, but not, for the most part,
officially endorsed. But the weakness engen-
dered by the continuance of this state of things
is most evident. Each of the two principles, it
is true, has met a religious want and, separately,
they have been serviceable; but their reactions
upon each other have worked much mischief.
The schisms created by liberty have been intensi-
fied and fixed by the principle of final authority;
for each new form of faith carried with it some-
thing of the claim to divine sanction. It is
unnecessary to enlarge upon this; for wherever
the representatives of Protestant communions


meet in conclave, the divisions in the church are
deplored, the wickedness of them is confessed,
and measures for overcoming them are discussed.
But the difficulties in the way continue to seem
insuperable. And so long as the old method
continues to be recognized, they are insuperable.

If the particular tenets which divide the dif-
ferent communions are each and every one held
to be parts of an order definitely established by
God, essential constituents of "the faith once
delivered to the saints," the modification of them
would be impious. That which bears the stamp
of a divine command cannot be surrendered.
Each one is willing and desirous that all the others
should confess the error of their ways and become
reconciled to the one and only true faith, which
is its own. But each of the others can make but
one reply, "Non possumus."

If the divisions in the Protestant Church are
ever to become merged in a common and united
faith, it must be through the mediation of a
method differing radically from institutionalism,
on the one hand, and individualism on the other;
but at the same time, it must be one that shall
meet in a legitimate way the two above-mentioned
necessities of the religious life. It must yield a
corporate faith that can be always referred to as
the support and the rectifier of that of the indi-
vidual, but which is also open to modification
and growth. It is the belief of the writer that
the pragmatic method called in the history of


science the inductive method, can be so applied to
theology as to meet both these requirements.


The first thing we have to say about this method
is that it is, in no sense, new. It is not a doc-
trinaire method; it is not an impracticable dream;
it is not revolutionary; it is a method that has
long been in satisfactory use, has been thoroughly
tested in a great department of constructive
thought, has yielded results that men could live
by and around which they could rally in a united
support. It is called the inductive method, not
because it is opposed to, or exclusive of, the deduc-
tive, but because it abstains from making deduc-
tions until, by the collocation and classification
of facts, it has a deposit of reality from which
to deduce. Thus the word inductive was used to
distinguish it from that method which assumed
the grounds from which deductions were to be
made by a sort of right of eminent domain, em-
ploying abstractions, the fragmentary products of
analytic thought, as if they were the fundamental
and indubitable realities of the world.

We may say then that the inductive method is
the progressive building up of truth by inference
from, and verification through, the actualities of
experience. Its advocates claim no miraculous
revelation, they take their stand on no a priori
assumptions. They make the facts of experience
their study, and they appeal to facts for the en-


dorsement of their conclusions. Their attitude
toward all nature, physical and psychical, is one
of docility; their attitude toward men is that of
persuasion. To the employment of this method
modern science owes all its achievements, and only
by its constant use, from the first dawnings of
human intelligence, has our great body of common-
sense wisdom come to be what it is.

Our reasons for believing that the faithful em-
ployment of this method will yield results as
satisfactory in the realm of religion as in that of
physical science are, first, that it has in the past
produced such results. I am not now thinking
of the cultivation of that branch of our inherited
theology which is called "natural" and which,
under most systems of formal theology, has had a
place assigned it. It has not figured as an im-
portant factor, it has been as a humble servant in
the house, capable of throwing light on some of the
details of its management, but not to be trusted
in its deeper counsels. It could hardly be other-
wise, while the assumptions of orthodoxy and the
facts of the natural world remained hopelessly
estranged from each other.

The satisfactory results to which I refer are
those which to-day constitute the body of our
reliable assets in religious matters. For the fact
that the vital elements of our religion have come
down to us through the ages without loss we have
to thank this very principle of endorsement and
conservation by experimental tests. The conven-


tions and institutions of men have buried them
deep, at times, in extraneous matter, have dressed
them up in fantastic clothes, so that they were
temporarily hidden or transformed, but they have
been powerless to change them essentially; the gold
has not rusted, the precious stones have not had
their fire quenched. These imperishable elemental
truths were first recognized as such by the instinc-
tive response of spirit to spirit, and they were
transmitted from one generation to another by
the same responses. Human experience from age
to age endorsed them and approved them as eter-
nal verities, radically distinguished from all mere
temporary adjustments to passing conditions.

But this illustrates only one side of our method's
working — the conservative. On the other hand
its progressive, transforming power has been most
strikingly illustrated during the last half-century
in the production of what we may call a humanized
theology. Its distinguishing characteristics have
been, first, an increased respect for the actualities
of religious and moral development, and, second,
the courage to reconstruct theology in reliance
upon them. The ground assumed, if not explicitly
stated, is that the realities of a continually widen-
ing experience constitute an additional revelation
not inferior in value, or authority, to the revela-
tions of past ages; and further, that where the
later revelation conflicts with the earlier, it must
be given the right of way. The adoption of this
new standpoint and method has enabled us to


look through and beyond dogmas that, in the past,
bounded our vision. It has constrained us to see
the truths that some of these embodied in such
different settings and relations that, except for
labels, we should never recognize them.

To those not in sympathy with this movement,
who pass judgment upon it from the outside, it
may well seem as if the end of all things
theological were at hand. Diverse and endless
changes, some of them of the deepest significance,
have followed one upon another. Some of these
have been amplifications, some have been atten-
uations. In a critical age the one class as well
as the other increases the feeling of instability.
But, on the other hand, those who are of the new
order and understand it are hopefully cognizant
of a process of reintegration, a new and vigorous
growth, that will make both religion and religious
doctrine far more potent factors in the lives of
men than they have hitherto been.


That this hopeful view is not ill-founded is the
confident belief of the writer, but it seems equally
clear that its realization is conditioned upon the
unequivocal acceptance of the method by the
use of which it has been generated. As matters
stand, there is an ambiguity attaching to the
derivation of our larger constructions which affects
not only those who judge from the outside, but
also, most prejudicially, the constructive work


itself. However well thought out our new creed
may be, so long as the old claims of authority are,
in any measure, recognized, we hold it weakly.
We may reach new statements of doctrine that
altogether commend themselves to our expanding
knowledge and to our modern ways of thinking
and feeling, but the question always arises, On
what do these rest? Is the fact of their agree-
ableness to us, or to those in like circumstances, a
trustworthy evidence of their validity? Or, must
we regard them simply as makeshifts, adjusted to
our special wants? This, it seems to me, is a
consideration that demands our serious attention,
both for the strengthening of ourselves in the
courage of our convictions, and also for inspiring
those who are looking on from the outside with
respect for them.

While we have been working toward the formu-
lation of these larger views, we have lived in the
conviction that there was some underlying justifi-
cation for the course we were taking. The first
steps may have been fraught with anxiety, but,
as we have gone on, our courage has been re-en-
forced. We have felt assured that there was
firm ground under us. The time has come for us
to define clearly what the nature of this ground
is, and cutting ourselves loose from other reliance,
to take our stand squarely on it. To this we are
not only invited, but, in the interests of survival,
coerced. Theology cannot exist among the forces
that influence the world, otherwise.


I have ventured to say that the time has come,
not in view of the general principle that " there
is no time like the present," but because there
never has been a time like the present. The
onward movement of thought that has constrained
us to remodel our theology has been gradually
transforming some of our most deep-seated con-
ceptions, thereby making feasible necessary
changes in our mental adjustments that in other
days were impossible. Professor Kirksopp Lake
has recently called attention to the fact that
human nature will often listen to a reformer who
wishes to change either the appearance or the
substance of belief, but not to one who attacks
both simultaneously: "One generation alters the
substance, but leaves the appearance; the next
sees the inconsistency, and changes the appearance
as well. It takes two generations to complete the
process, and that is reform; if the attempt is made
to do both at once, it becomes revolution." *

The substance of our theology has been chang-
ing through many generations, but most rapidly
during the last half-century. The method also
has been changing, but much less rapidly. The
inconsistency between the two becomes every
day more obvious and more embarrassing. The
times are ripe for the definite adjustment of the
latter to the former. It is but the consummation
of a process that is already far advanced. We

* "Harvard Theological Review," January, 1911, "The Shep-
herd of Hernias."


have been gradually weaning our religious beliefs
from dependence upon miracle and extra-natural
authority. Whatever view we might take of the
asserted impossibility of extraordinary events in
a world governed by law, we have felt that
there existed a better foundation or derivation for
spiritual beliefs, than that afforded by historical
events of the miraculous order. We have there-
fore quietly transferred our valuables. We have
found attachments for them in nature, in the
human nature that we believe to be an emana-
tion from the Divine.

But we do not quite give up the old de-
pendence. Mount Sinai, the miraculous birth of
Christ, the endorsement by the Holy Ghost at
the time of His baptism, His Resurrection and
Ascension, the Pentecostal outpouring of the
Holy Spirit and so many of the other recorded
miracles as seem necessary for the conservation
of the faith we still enshrine and guard as sacred.
There are, we say, certain ultimate facts of our
religion which cannot be deduced from the ele-
ments of human experience, that are quite outside
its sphere and apparently antagonistic to it.
Such is the doctrine of the continuity of human
life beyond the grave, and such also that of the
new birth. It is the belief of the writer that this
view of the necessity of extra support is not only
false, but pernicious; that these doctrines, in the
light of our increased knowledge, are in no need


of miraculous endorsement, that they can stand
alone and develop a far greater strength without
such endorsement. The reasons for this belief
will be given in some of the succeeding chapters.


One of the great obstacles in the way of the
definite abandonment of the old and the adoption
of the newer method has been the survival of a
crude, primitive conception of what constitutes
stability. In the light of our larger knowledge
there has been a complete reorganization of this
conception. Our whole thought of the world has
been changing from the static to the kinetic.
Immobility is no longer a synonym for stability.
We learned, a few centuries ago, that the planet
on which we live, instead of being, as we had
hitherto believed, a fixture in space, was travelling
through it with incredible velocity. And, from
that time on, one revelation of science after
another has brought home to us the fact that
what we call stability, — that which, as related
to us, is stability, is nothing other than an
equilibrium of forces.

To bring the different departments of life and
thought into harmony with this, has been slow
work. But, however long it may take, all our
thought must, soon or late, come to it. And each
department, when the adjustment is made, ex-
periences a new birth. Theology must emerge
from it with a quickened life and a more stable


faith. But the stability will not be of the kind
that our ancestors desired. We think in tropes
and analogies. The stability of the past found
its analogue in foundations; the rocks and the
everlasting hills were used as the expression of it.
Unchangeableness was its essential characteristic.
To-day our type of stability is an organization of
harmonized forces that mutually support and
modify each other. Our future system of doctrines
will not be a skilfully constructed mosaic, for ever
repeating the same message in terms of stone,
but rather a living landscape, which changes
from day to day, as the spring advances, yet
without losing its essential characteristics.

Our corporate faith will be a living organism
exercising vital functions. It will be nourished
continually by new material, some of which it
will assimilate and some of which it will discard.
Being alive, it will have the power of eliminating
worn-out, or alien, material that would otherwise
poison the system. Our inability to do this,
while harbouring the old superstition of finality
and inviolability, is manifest; and equally mani-
fest is the ease with which this function, of elimi-
nation and rectification works in the scientific

A large part of our organized science is prac-
tically established. We do not anticipate any
essential changes in it. It is sufficiently fixed
to live by and to work by. But in addition to
this it has extensive outlying attachments that


are in all stages of uncertainty. It entertains
innumerable hypotheses that eventually come to
nothing. It now and then ventures upon great
generalizations that, discredited by a wider induc-
tion, have to be withdrawn. It makes no end of
mistakes, and it is not afraid of making them,
because they are not vital, they can be easily
rectified. It owes all its progress to freedom of
speculation and experiment. Its cherished results
are the survivors of a searching ordeal. Its
motto is " Prove all things, hold fast that which
is good."

This, I conceive, is what our reorganized the-
ology should be. And when it shall have reached
this stage of development, it will find magnificent
opportunities open to it. The same onward
movement that has brought it blindfold, by a way
that it knew not, will lead it open-eyed into a
realm of boundless extent and endless activity.
The way is clear for us to go in and possess this
promised land; gates have been opened wide where
we have, till now, imagined only a dead wall.
The nature that we study to-day is another world
from that which confronted our ancestors even a
generation ago. Theirs was a nature out of focus,
— a nature so misconceived that every specula-
tive truth gathered from it was to some extent
an untruth. The inferences from it were not
all error: they embodied some great elemental
truths, but these were out of relation to each other.
Nature told no clear, coherent story. Its testi-


mony in one direction seemed to invalidate that
which it gave in another. So far as practical
relations were concerned, men learned, experi-
mentally, to adjust themselves to it; but when
they tried to use the knowledge so acquired for
excursions into the unknown, they were baffled
by contradictions.

To overcome these they invented expedients
which, though serviceable in some relations, ob-
structed the way to the larger view. Thus,
nature was separated into two departments, or
spheres, of influence; the one embracing its
uniformities, the other its exceptional events.
The former were calculable and conceived of
through the analogy of mechanism; the latter,
assumed to be incalculable, were conceived through
the analogy of mind. The former represented the
idea of permanence and unchangeable order, the
latter the idea of interference and new departures.
The conception of continuous movement and
gradual change had no part in this thought of
the universe. The phenomena of growth and of
individual development were, it is true, always in
evidence, but they were regarded as a mere play
on the surface, — petty cycles of change that left
all things as they were. Its conception of impor-
tant change was that of a more or less violent
break with an established past, followed by a
permanently fixed new order.

To a theology dominated by ruling ideas of
this kind the discoveries of science were necessarily


destructive. They subjected it to repeated earth-
quake shocks, without offering any assistance in
the way of reconstruction. In the conflict which
ensued, science, young, active, progressive, had
every advantage against a theology sheltered
behind fortifications and unprogressive. The
whole territory on which it depended for support
was invaded and ravaged by the enemy. The
realm of the supernatural was day by day trans-
formed and added to the realm of the natural.
Every attempt at reprisal was abortive. The
established theology, that had for ages ruled the
world, was more and more hemmed in, depleted,
and shorn of its prestige.

But in the onward march of the great process
it is the unexpected that happens. Speculative
science, so orderly, so sure of itself and of its
future, conceived and brought forth a mon-

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Online LibraryFrancis Howe JohnsonGod in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology → online text (page 2 of 22)