Francis Howe Johnson.

God in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology online

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strosity. Hitherto all its great principles could
be expressed in terms of mechanism and mathe-
matics; but now, from the department of biology,
there came a generalization far greater, more
comprehensive, more dominating than any that
had gone before it.

Evolution, though the legitimate offspring of
science, was not in harmony with it. Not only
did it stand aloof from its formulated principles,
but it seemed to carry implications that invali-
dated the most fundamental of them. Until now
science had met no check for the simple reason
that it had occupied itself with one aspect of


nature, that of its instrumentalities. But this
new generalization, while forcing it to extend its
domains, at the same time laid upon it the necessity
of adjusting itself to new conditions. Until now
science would have nothing to do with the question
of origins. It contemptuously surrendered this
to theology and made light of its fanciful con-
structions. But this great modern, overarching
principle, of which it was so justly proud, made
the consideration of origins a necessity. And
the " Origin of Species" was its first message
to the world at large.

The conservators of theology were so taken up
with the revolutionizing effects of the new doc-
trine upon its own special interests as to be quite
unobservant of its disorganizing reactions in the
camp of science. And even now, half a century
from its inception, this aspect of the situation is
not half recognized. Let us look at it for a mo-
ment, for it will help us to understand the relation
which this world-transforming principle sustains
to theology on the one hand and to science on
the other.

It is not difficult to perceive that the new light
that broke upon the scientific world with evolu-
tion shook the conception of the uniformity of
nature as severely as this latter had shaken the
idea of disorderly interference. The task, thence-
forth, laid upon the rigidly orthodox school of
science was clear enough. They must prove that
evolution can be explained satisfactorily from the


standpoint of physical forces alone, or failing this,
they must be reduced to holding their dogma of
pan-mechanism as a very questionable matter of

There was a distinguished group of scientific
moderates, if we may so call them, who never
held the extreme position with regard to the suffi-
ciency of physical forces. While accepting the
great fact of evolution as a legitimate outcome
of the inductive method, they refused to subscribe
to the denial of anything beyond physical forces.
The belief in a great intelligence as the cause of
evolution is quite compatible, they held, with all
the facts on which that doctrine is founded. This
attitude of eminent scientists gave great comfort
to theology. In the midst of all the disarrange-
ments introduced by evolution there was hope of
coming to terms with it. But probably no one,
in the earlier stages of the great controversy,
dreamed that this new and strange doctrine
might provide the medium for a theological
renaissance, that it could furnish the positive,
constructive principles for a stable and living

Not at the beginning, but at the end of the
great effort to prove the sufficiency of physical
causes, could this aspect of the case appear. The
history of this effort is of the greatest interest
and significance. It would be a most valuable
contribution to modern thought if some one,
amply equipped, could give a full and impartial


account of it. In the meantime the general
trend of it is pretty clearly defined, and in a sub-
sequent chapter I shall try to outline its most
salient features and emphasize the important
deductions that flow from them. But before we
enter upon this, it seems worth while to pass in
review some of the general characteristics of
evolution in its bearing upon religious thought.



ASSUMING evolution to be true, it is
a very great truth, — a truth that most
profoundly affects our views not only
of what the past of the world has been, but what
its meaning is and what its future is to be. It is,
in one sense, the greatest of all the revelations
that have successively dawned upon the mind of
man. It is the greatest, that is, in the sense of
being a whole, all-embracing revelation, and at the
same time one that is pregnant with possibilities
of truth yet to be revealed. It is the greatest
in that it includes all other revelations and im-
mensely augments their value by giving them
their proper setting as parts of one great world

The installation of this great principle has
been in itself a signal triumph of the inductive
method guided by analogy. Suggested by the
phenomena of reproduction and growth, it found
a place in Greek philosophy five hundred years
before Christ. Through all the ages it was
re-suggested and fostered by the ever-recurrent
miracle of life issuing from the apparently lifeless



material of the egg. But it held its place only
as a fancy of the human imagination till the
growth of modern science, by the convergent
testimony of its many departments, substantiated
the dream and gave it a place of honour among
its well-attested realities. We cannot linger upon
this most interesting phase of it, for we are
primarily concerned here, not with how it came
to be, but with what it is, and especially with
its claim to our confidence as a guide in the great
matters of theology and religion.

The influence of evolution upon theology pre-
sents itself in a threefold aspect. First, as de-
structive, second, as transforming, and third, as
constructive; and the order of this statement is, at
the same time, the order of their relative impor-
tance and of the attention which, as three stages
of development, they have successively received.

When, half a century ago, evolution was offered
as an explanation of the world, the destructive
aspect of it, as regards theology, was about all
that a considerable element in the church could
see. Here was an interpretation of things that
was nothing less than a flat contradiction of
revealed truth. It seemed to strike at the roots
of a belief in God as the Creator of the world.
It assailed that cornerstone of theology — the
fall and total depravity of man — and, in its ma-
terialistic form, seemed to extinguish all religion.


Men forged no end of hastily constructed and
easily demolished arguments against it, and then,
in their despair, let it alone. But the more
patient among them studied and tried to under-
stand its bearings upon what the religious world
had hitherto held as truth, and it was seen to
have many helpful outlooks. Gradually, but
steadily, the new doctrine found its way into
every department of thought, making over with-
out violence some of our fundamental conceptions.
The destructive aspect began to fade before the
transforming. Truths that seemed to have dis-
appeared returned in different guise. We recog-
nized them as the same old truths, yet not the
same. They were like wanderers who, having
gained experience in their absence, come back
to us with wider outlooks and prophetic eyes.

The importance of this process cannot easily
be exaggerated, yet as related to the third stage
it is distinctly subsidiary and preparatory. Upon
this third stage, the constructive, we have as yet
hardly entered. Many have dreamed of its
possibilities, but for the most part they remain

The chief concern, both of philosophy and
theology, is to systemize our knowledge of the
world, to bring it into such a unified, homogeneous
scheme of thought that every part of it shall
support every other part. To achieve such a
conception of the world and of our position in
it, is a craving of the mind that will not down.


Until we reach it, the different aspects of the world
fight against each other, each one casting doubt
upon and invalidating the others. Hitherto phil-
osophy has sought to reach this much-desired
synthesis by the analytic method. Some funda-
mental principle, it was hoped, might be dis-
covered, by the dissection of our knowledge, from
which to deduce our convictions about the world.
But neither rest, nor guidance for the human soul,
has been reached by this dismembering process.
Laboriously constructed systems have been formu-
lated, but when these have been brought to the
test they have, one and all, proved to be misfits.
They have produced in their constructions only
one side of reality: now, the reality of the world
of things as known from the outside, now, that
of the world of thoughts as seen from within;
the other side, being logically excluded, was
necessarily reduced to illusion.

The persistent recurrence of this failure gradu-
ally opened the eyes of philosophers to the fact
that the method itself was at fault, that the prin-
ciples reached by analysis were not, in any sense,
realities, but only abstractions, fragments of the
complex realities of experience, which could pro-
duce nothing but fragmentary systems bristling
with antagonisms.

But, now, evolution laying at the feet of phil-
osophy and theology an achieved synthesis of real
knowledge, provides for their use an instrument
on which they have bestowed no labour. It is not


indeed the same kind of a synthesis as that sought
by philosophy. It has nothing to say to the
antinomies and deadlocks of the abstractionists
and logicians. It is a real synthesis, — one great
fact made up of all the facts of the universe.
In its comprehensive scheme all things are seen
to be related, parts of each other. There are
no exceptions to it. It is informed by one spirit,
harmonized by great laws that govern it through-
out. It is the disclosure of the methods by which
the totality of things has come into being, and
presumably of the methods that will prevail
in all future development. This synthesis is
not a theology, but it is the trustworthy frame-
work for one. We shall make it our chart and
our guide through the intricacies of the construc-
tions that we have to formulate, and come back
to it as the touchstone of our work.

But, before entering upon this work in detail,
some statement of the more general aspects of
evolution, in its bearing upon the conceptions
and incentives of religion, seems desirable. And
in the presentation of these I must anticipate
the argument by assuming, tentatively, that
evolution reveals to us a Supreme Intelligence
that is working toward ends of transcendent


First, as to its bearing upon the idea of reve-
lation. Our inherited theology assumed that a


revelation from God to men must be a thing
foreign to the natural order, — an irruption into
it. It must be special in its nature and given
under special and miraculous circumstances. It
must be vouched for not only by the internal
testimony of its value, its convincing power, but
also by supernatural accessories that should give
it the status of finality and authority. Such a
revelation, it was held, had been given, once for
all, committed to writing, and further put into
the keeping of a consecrated body of men who
were the only trustworthy interpreters of it.
But at the same time another, inferior kind of
revelation, coincident with the order of nature,
was recognized. The innate moral sense of man
was the source of such a revelation, and the
works of God in the midst of which he lived was,
more or less, its corroboration.

In the early part of the eighteenth century a
group of men, who passed into history under the
name of Deists, conceived the idea of shifting
religious faith from its old foundation to this"
latter kind of revelation. Impressed with the
fact that belief in the former was waning, and
seeing in this the threatened collapse of all religion,
they sought to work out from natural sources
an independent foundation for its essential doc-
trines. Neither Church nor Scripture, it was
held, was necessary for a liveable knowledge of
God, since He was continually declaring Himself
both in nature and in the consciences of men.


In so far as they were affirmative the funda-
mental assumptions of these men were a move
in the right direction. But their outlook was
narrow and their negations reacted with disastrous
consequences. The whole view of the world had
to be changed before their scheme could have a
chance of success. The imaginations of men
were dominated by the conception of a God who
dwelt apart from the world and manifested Him-
self in it only at critical intervals and in extraor-
dinary ways. The innovators themselves were
only partially emancipated from the spell. They
shared the limitation of view that accepted the
oppositions of their day as final and irreducible.
They could not rise to that higher synthesis that
sees in such contradictions only one-sided aspects
of the truth. Because the claim of the Church to
absolute, exclusive authority seemed to them un-
founded, they were unable to allow to the body
of truth which it represented any special value.

Looked at from the higher point of view, which
they could not reach, the antagonism between
what the Deists called human reason and rev-
elation disappears. They are, at bottom, one.
They are different workings of the same spirit.
They are both the outcome of the divine influence
operating through the faculties of man. They
are both revelations of God to man, and they
must work toward the same end. They corrobo-
rate each other.

The witness of the human spirit to the reality


and character of God, uttered centuries ago and
established in the consciousness of the race by
the recognition of its truth, bears somewhat the
same relation to modern thought that the experi-
ence-bought body of common-sense, by which
we live, bears to the additional knowledge that
is every day flowing in upon us. We do not, if
we are sane, pour contempt upon the organized
body of our practical beliefs, because they have
to be modified to adjust them to such additional
knowledge. Except for the possession of such a
compacted, articulated consensus of belief we
should have nothing to make our new knowledge
intelligible. All our working intelligence is based
upon a knowledge of relations, and if we have
no defined, abiding body of practical certainty
to which our new facts stand in some sort of
relation, they are devoid of meaning. They
flow into and out of our ken, leaving no trace
behind. We may believe that quadrupeds and
birds see the same things in our common environ-
ment that we see. But they cannot see these in
the same way, because of the absence of ante-
cedent knowledge to which to relate them.

The body of essential spiritual beliefs that we
have inherited from the past are, like the con-
victions of our practical common-sense, part
and parcel of our lives. They have been tested
through all the ages and found to work. How-
ever we may try to ignore them theoretically, or
explain them away scientifically or logically,


they are still with us, cropping up in a thousand
different forms, when we least expect them. We
cannot get rid of them, because we are essentially
the same kind of men as those through whom they
first found utterance. Unless those who first
put these transcendent beliefs into words and
those who originally accepted and lived in the
light of them had been endued with the same
spiritual instincts, these revelations would have
been stillborn utterances, the idle sayings of
unbalanced minds; and unless the generations
following had continued of like natures, having
the same religious needs and insights, they would
have been utterly unable to retain them. The
divine light that in former days streamed from
prophets and poets was latent in other human
souls. The seers called it into activity, and it
has never ceased to shine, because it is ever
renewed from the same divine source.

God has not spoken once or twice, He has not
made one, or two, or three revelations. He is
always speaking, always revealing Himself, and
in every age more fully and clearly. The old
light is not quenched, but made incomparably
brighter. The later illuminations disclose con-
tinually new values in those of a former day.
The original reception of our inherited spiritual
beliefs was the response of soul to soul, but it is
use that has established them, the test of life's
wear and tear that has made them an insepa-
rable part of our moral consciousness.


It is a great mistake to think of the efforts of
the Deists as altogether failures. They bore
some good fruit in their time. They not only
kept men's minds busy with the essentials of
religion, but they established some of the funda-
mental positions on which the use of their method
hinges. They established them so firmly that
their opponents, the advocates of a special,
miraculously revealed religion, were constrained
to use the same method to establish the credibil-
ity of their position. It was a continuity when
Bishop Butler, whom Chalmers calls the " Bacon
of theology," gave to the world his great work
"The Analogy of Religion." *

But, as we have implied, a use of the same
method to-day would move on radically different
lines and build with much new material. The
perspective that has been introduced into all our
views of things by the discovery of evolution is,
in itself, a great transforming influence, and the
study of the nature and history of the writings
that constitute our Bible has also done much to
sweep away the barrier that separates what the
older controvertialists held to be two kinds of
religion, — natural and revealed. With our wider
outlook, these two diverse sources of religion
merge into one. There is one great and all-com-
prehensive revelation, continuous, homogeneous,
and consistent in its methods, just as there is
one world-process. We are differently related to
* Mark Pattison, " Essays and Reviews."


different parts of it, knowing some from within,
subjectively, knowing others by observation and
study from without. We might be tempted to
say that natural religion has absorbed revealed,
because its methods must eventually prevail in
both departments. But a truer expression of the
change would be to say that all religion is the
outcome of one continuous world-revelation, and
that the most luminous part of this is that which
appeals directly to man's religious consciousness.

The claim of a supernatural revelation, different
in kind from all others, had a great truth at the
heart of it. For, in the race from which our
religion has come to us, there was an early devel-
opment of God-consciousness that is unique in
human history. Individuals sprang from that
simple and crude civilization who seem to have
had very little in common with it. Their deep
and assured visions of spiritual truth, their fervid
utterances, and their intense convictions were
like new elements in human evolution.

But, on the other hand, the seers and the
prophets were not separated from subsequent
generations by any radical peculiarity. God
revealed Himself in the consciousness of these
great lights of the world by the same methods as
those by which He reveals Himself in the moral
and religious consciousness of every man. The
light that shone in them with such intensity was
not, in any way, other than that which "lighteth
every man that cometh into the world." Had it


been otherwise, how should the world have known
that these men spoke the truth of God? It is
because this light dwells in humanity at large,
not because it is something foreign to its nature
and beyond its comprehension, that we are able
to take the revelations that came through these
men to our hearts and feel sure that we make no
mistake when we fall down and worship the God
they have made known to us.


A second characteristic of evolution, when used
constructively in the science of theology, is that
it vitalizes at the same time that it rectifies our
old beliefs. An inherent source of weakness in
our established theology has been its apparent
contradictions, and our efforts to reconcile these,
without transforming its doctrines, have been
unavailing. At times it has seemed to have
become a matter of the survival of the fittest:
some of them might be retained if others were
discarded; but again it has looked as if all must
be rejected and a new beginning made. I think
we may say that these antagonisms have been
owing, partly to the narrow outlooks and applica-
tions of the separate doctrines, partly to. the
relations in which they have stood to each other,
but mainly and essentially to the fact that they
have been produced in an intellectual atmosphere
of unreality by the use of abstractions. The
defect in our system is a radical one, and it can


be overcome by no manipulation of details, but
only by a change as radical as the fallacy from
which it springs.

Evolution offers a deliverance from this reign
of inconsequence and disorder by providing the
means for the transference of the whole body of
our religious truth from a rationalistic to an actu-
alistic basis. It is not the abrogation of vital
principles that confronts us, but their restatement,
readjustment, and derivation from legitimate
and verifiable sources. Evolution, while trans-
forming our inherited doctrines, leaves all the
incentives to religion which they contain not only
alive, but much more alive than under the old

It does this, first, by setting our intellectual
house in order, by giving us coherence and con-
tinuity in the place of dislocations and inconsist-
encies. It must do this if we trust to it; for it is
itself a disclosure of the continuity and coherence
of all things. The escape from the old intellec-
tual order into the new is like being brought
from the dimness of a prison into the broad light
of day. It may take a little time to accustom
our eyes to the new conditions. But the light
was made for the eye and the eye for the light,
and unless the eye be fatally injured by disuse,
the light will reveal to it a new heaven and a
new earth and generate a new courage and a
new joy in living. With a changed concep-
tion of the relations which God sustains to His


world, one doctrine after another, purged of its
impurities and limitations, falls into place. We
have a story of the past that is coherent, and a
look into the future that is, to the last degree,
inspiring and sustaining.

What are the chief requirements of a satis-
factory religion? What do we demand that it
shall do for us? I will venture, in a comprehen-
sive way, to answer, We ask that it shall give us
something worth living for, something that is
definite, and at the same time not too difficult.
It must be something hard to achieve, but not
impossible. It must be an ideal good that
promises to us progressive realization. It must
be difficult enough to awaken all our powers and
ambitions. It must appear sufficiently practicable
to keep our courage and enthusiasm aglow. It
must call into action every department of the
higher nature. The intellect must have its share.
There must be problems for solution, unexplored
regions to be opened and developed. The emo-
tional nature must find in it a full and persistent
satisfaction. It must not only rouse love and
loyalty, it must develop, increase, and sustain
them. It must, in a word, be inexhaustible.

An adequate religion will be so adapted to
our human needs that it will minister equally to
the static, quiescent, contemplative side of our
nature and to the dynamic, energetic, undertak-
ing side of it. It is to the bearing of evolution
upon this latter requirement that I would call


attention here. It points most unmistakably
and persistently to a future good to be achieved.
Great as is the light that it sends back into the
past, that which it sends streaming into the
future is a matter of far intenser interest and
greater value to the human race. In it the past,
the present, and the future are brought together
into one homogeneous whole. There is one
grand progressive movement from the beginning
to the farthest limits of our imaginations, — one

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Online LibraryFrancis Howe JohnsonGod in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology → online text (page 3 of 22)