Francis Howe Johnson.

God in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology online

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theme and one all-sufficient God, who, in a world
of conflict and through conflict, has carried His
creation from one stage of achievement to

This aspect of the situation is fitted to call out
all that is strong and noble and aspiring within
us. Here is man with a bewildering wealth of
powers, natural and acquired, surrounded by an
accumulation of inherited materials, mental and
physical, — a superb equipment for the accom-
plishment of some great end. What shall it be?
The great world-process, to the knowledge of
which he has but just come, has an answer ready
for him. It declares man to be a factor in a not-
yet-completed process. The process is matter
of history. The incompleteness is no less so.
All human experience has testified to it, and the
insistent reaching out for further realization is a
continued endorsement of the assumption that
the accomplishment of the future of evolution
depends very largely upon man himself.


Pre-eminent among his powers is that of fore-
casting the future, so as to be able to shape wisely
his activities with reference to it. His study of
the past is mainly valuable as it contributes to
the enlargement of this power by supplying
materials for its use. Every step upward in his
long career has been characterized by an increase
of this ability to shape his future, and with this
increase a larger measure of responsibility has
been laid upon him. With the knowledge of
evolution there has come a tremendous increase
of it. Hitherto this power has had reference to
parts of his life, to his development or achieve-
ment in this direction or in that. Now, it addresses
itself to the one supreme issue of the great process
of which he must believe himself to be the latest
and highest product and, under God, the most
important factor.

Is it possible for us so to forecast this future
as to attain to a practical, helpful knowledge of
the direction that further evolution must take?
I believe this to be not only possible, but also
the great and necessary work of the present day,
— a work that we cannot shirk without giving
away our birthright. We have found many
uses for our God-given intelligence in the past,
we have served our smaller interests with it,
and now that a task of far greater range and
import has been appointed to us we cannot turn
aside without dishonour.

It is rather overwhelming to the imagination,


this work which evolution lays upon us, and we
shall not accomplish it in a moment. As in the
prosecution of the quests of purely physical
science, we shall probably have to form many
hypotheses before we reach one which proves
altogether workable. But, evolution is not an
inexorably hard taskmaster. Though it provides
us with a great problem, it at the same time
supplies new and most helpful conditions for its
solution. The questions which the old theology
set itself to answer ranged through the regions of
infinity and eternity, they concerned themselves
with the mysteries of ontology. But, if our
problem is deep and wide, as related to our
intellects, it is quite within the sphere of human
knowledge and experience and is propounded to
us in terms of actuality. We are brought back,
by a sudden discovery, into a wonted way.
Our conceptions are called in from wandering
to and fro through the universe to concen-
trate themselves upon limited and measurable

The great process with which we have to do
presents us not with a universal problem, but
with one cycle of it. It is a matter of this earth
with which we are concerned. As in pre-Co-
pernican days, we may think of our little planet,
if not as the centre, at least as our centre. We
may exercise our imaginations and form our
conjectures as to what great cycles of evolution
lie beyond and comprehend ours, but these


speculations are of no vital importance to us.
The drama of evolution with which we are ac-
quainted and of which we are a part has had its
beginnings here on our earth. Here it has
grown from what, to our apprehension, was
absolutely without life into the fullness of the
diversified and organized existence in the midst
of which we find ourselves. The history of the
process from inorganic matter, through all the
ascending stages of existence, is our history. We
are the highest outcome of it all. The value
and significance of it is in us and in what we
are to become.

The fact that this field has been already
exploited with unsatisfactory, and sometimes
deplorable, results should not deter us from fur-
ther endeavours in the same direction nor damp
our ardour. We cannot question the proposition
that a well-founded knowledge of the way that
future evolution is to take would be an inestima-
ble benefit to us: the converse of this is equally
worth emphasizing. A false conception of it is
a matter of very great, though it may be tempo-
rary, evil. As the one tends to the achievement
of the higher life that is to be, so the other tends
to degeneration. And since it is clear that the
human mind has reached a point where it will
not let this subject alone, there is all the more
need that we bring to bear upon it all our powers
of criticism and construction. If any man thinks
he sees a better way of interpreting the indications


that point to a higher stage of the great process,
he should give it to the reading public for what it
is worth.

In subsequent chapters I shall give my reasons
for setting aside, as unsatisfactory, the attempts
that have been made to forecast the future of
evolution in the line of corporate developments,
and also that one that traces it in the line of
physical heredity. As regards corporate develop-
ments, whether bodied forth in dreams of a
perfected social order or of a triumphant Church,
I have no controversy except as they offer
themselves as the highest outcome in sight, —
as the ultimate object of inspiration and effort.
That the social organism has had a great career
and is destined to have a still greater one cannot
be questioned, and the same is true of the
Church. But I shall try to show that both
are only subsidiary, instrumental, passing phases
of evolution, and that the highest values of the
process must be sought in the sphere of the
individual; in short, that they can be neither
expressed nor realized except in terms of per-
sonality and character.

If it shall appear that this view is well
founded, if in the course of our argument it
shall stand approved as the only workable
hypothesis, the whole volume of evidence as re-
gards the continuation of the great process
narrows itself down to some most important



The first of these to which I will call attention
has reference to a continuation of life beyond the
grave for some members of the human race. If
evolution is to realize itself in the line of human
personality, such a continuance is a necessary
element in any hypothetical construction of the
future. It is impossible to think the facts together

Could we accept Nietzsche's scheme of future
evolution, which moves on the line of physical
heredity, there would be no need to postulate
such a continuance. Formulated in accordance
with ideas that have had their rise in the lower
stages of evolution, this hypothesis culminates
at a point short of the limits already reached.
But if, in accord with the cumulative experience
of the ages, we discern the highest reaches of the
human soul in those qualities that have always
been worshipped as the highest, both within the
confines of Christianity and outside of it, we must
trace the way that evolution is to take through
and beyond the barrier that the dissolution of our
physical organs has erected for the limitation
of our thought.

The fact that experience fails to throw light
upon the forms or conditions of the life beyond
the grave is no reason for not believing in its
existence. Evolution is full of transformations
as startling, as apparently impossible, from the


standpoint of all that has preceded them. Science
is continually forced into hypotheses of this nature
and accepts the situation in the faith that its
constructions, if not the whole truth, are in the
direction of truth. In the light of what we know
of the great process, the belief in life beyond the
grave for some human souls presents nothing like
so great difficulties as its opposite; that is, the
belief that evolution is culminating in such an
unfinished, inconsequent, abortive product as
mundane man. To entertain such an hypothesis
makes man shrink to ignoble proportions and the
process itself appear as a vast and tragic blun-
der. Reason, experience, science, and the wis-
dom of common-sense reject it as an unworkable

A second inference from the assumption that
evolution must find its realization in the line of
personality has reference to the doctrine of the
new birth. New birth is the commonplace of
evolution. Life at each of its various stages
reaches a point beyond which there is no further
progress except on condition of its realization.
"Ye must be born again" is over the portal of
every avenue to the next higher stage. Appar-
ently, until man is reached, the continuation of
the process is not in the line of the individual,
but in that of the genetic order. The new creature
is not the continuation of the old. The old type
remains at the lower level and a new type has
somehow emerged from it. But if, in accordance


with our hypothesis, the new birth of the human
era takes place in the sphere of the individual,
we may see in it the actuality of that transforma-
tion that is affirmed in our theology, and we may
not only look forward to a succession of new
births, but find ourselves in the very midst of
new-birth realization; those which we know be-
ing but the earnest of those which are yet in
the undeveloped future of the process.

These two doctrines, that of life beyond the
grave and that of the new birth, march together.
The great significance of each depends upon its
union with the other. The value fades from
either without the assurance of its associate.
Mere continuance of existence has its question-
able, not to say forbidding, aspects. Except
there be the prospect of a persistently improving
life, a something better to be looked forward to
with successive realizations that yet never exhaust
possibilities, the thought of a future life is devoid
of inspiration; and moreover, the anticipation of
it is without grounds.

Now let us observe that these two beliefs are
associated in several quite distinct relations. In
the first place they are the two which evolution
with the whole volume of its cumulative evidence
endorses. In the second place they are the two
that stand out as the distinctive doctrines of
Christianity, marking its advance upon the older
religion from which it was derived. In the
third place they are the two that are ordinarily


instanced as the most conspicuous examples of a
class of doctrines not given in human experience,
but dependent for their maintenance upon an
external revelation, vouched for by extraordinary
events. In the fourth place they find their
unmistakable counterparts in the other Oriental
religions that competed with Christianity for
the control of the Roman Empire. Mithraism
and the religion of Isis, offshoots respectively of
the ancient religions of Persia and Egypt, made
both these doctrines prominent.

Out of the many reflections which this combi-
nation of circumstances is fitted to suggest I will
call attention to one only; namely, its bearing
upon the relative evidential value of testimony
derived, on the one hand, from alleged extraor-
dinary events of history and, on the other, from
the main trend of the whole course of history
as established by scientific methods. In the one
case, that of the extraordinary event, or events,
the advance of knowledge and thought is con-
tinually confronting us with new difficulties,
loosening the foundations which a former age
found secure enough. On the other hand we
hold those vital doctrines with ever-increasing
strength and efficiency, and the confidence,
derived from progressive endorsement, inspires
us at every step.



THEOLOGY has, for the most part, ob-
served a studied reticence with regard to
evolution. When the necessity of frankly
facing our relations to it has been urged, the cus-
tomary rejoinder has been: — We are not in a
position to come to definite terms with this great
generalization of science, because we do not yet
know what it is; no satisfactory explanation
of it has yet been given, and it will be soon
enough to adjust our inherited beliefs to it
when such explanations have been reached.

In opposition to this attitude, I will venture to
affirm that we know more about evolution than
we do about most of the generalizations with
which we have to deal, far more than we do about
the nebulous realms of infinity in which theo-
logians of an earlier day found themselves so
much at home. We know more about it, because
it deals with real things, actualities that can be
tested and verified, and because it is the result
of an immense amount of patient, persistent
investigation. That we cannot know everything
about it, is no excuse for not knowing all that it



is possible to know. Since it has come to stay
and dominate our thought, our knowledge of it
should be as clearly defined as the nature of the
case admits.

A first and most important step toward the
understanding of the relations of evolution to
theology is to clearly discriminate between the
process itself and its interpretation. Darwinism
is not evolution. Spencerism is not evolution.
Each is, in its way, a luminous illustration of it,
accompanied by and interwoven with an inter-
pretation. This has been the cause of great
misapprehension and confusion with regard to
the doctrine itself, so that the separation of the
two must be our first task.

What then is evolution? It is, in its simplest
statement, the process by which all things have
come to be what they are. As a doctrine it was
originally suggested by, and is primarily derived
from analogy.* It does not admit of demonstra-
tion other than that of the practical sort. It
appeals to the intellectual judgment of men by
the concurrence of several lines of testimony
emanating from different sources. The original
statement of the doctrine, as an inference derived
analogically from a comparison of three series of

* The extent of this indebtedness to analogy, and the parallel
which it presents to the derivation of the doctrine of God, is dis-
cussed in Appendix A.


organic forms, called the taxonomic, the phylo-
genetic, and the ontogenetic, was the apparent con-
tradiction of a number of stubborn facts with
which the world had long been familiar and re-
garded as ultimate. Prominent among these was
the separation of contemporary species by impas-
sable clefts in the continuity of animal life. The
first and great work of the advocates of the doc-
trine was to remove if possible what seemed to
be a fatal objection to it. This work was pur-
sued with patience and skill in different depart-
ments of science, each one bringing some valuable
contribution to it. The discovery of interme-
diate forms, hitherto unsuspected, the existence
of rudimentary organs in the higher animals, the
close resemblance of the successive embryonic
stages of a complex organism to the adult forms
of lower orders — these and other evidences, con-
tributed by the sober, plodding work of research,
constituted the distinctly scientific business of

But in the course of this a number of well-
defined questions emerged which were answered
in different ways by different scientists. Some
of these are as follows. First, Are the changes
which lead from one species to another always
gradual, or is evolution characterized by dis-
tinctly new departures of great significance?
Second, Are the most efficient factors in the process
those working from within the organism or those
which influence and shape it from the outside?


Third, Does intelligence play any part in the
process? And if so, is it that of the creature
alone, or must we assume also the working of a
higher wisdom, an indwelling and directing power,
that has shaped the process from the beginning?

These three questions, though closely connected
with the main scientific issue, must be sharply
distinguished from it. They were concerned
with science only at second hand, they were
very largely speculative, they had to do with
causes and origins. They gave rise to very diver-
gent hypotheses, none of which could be sub-
stantiated nor, on the other hand, disproved by
scientific methods. Each was, in its way, an
attempted explanation, in whole or in part, of
the doctrine which was now assumed to be true.
And it is here that theology and the extreme school
of science join issue.

Now, because the controversies to which these
questions have given rise are mainly speculative,
shall we say they are of small importance, —
battles in the air, questions that can never be
satisfactorily answered, and therefore unprofit-
able? In opposition to such a view I will venture
to affirm that these questions constitute the most
vitally important, the most practically valuable
fruits of evolution. And further, that far from
being unanswerable questions, they admit of
solutions in which the mind of the average man
as well as that of the most highly trained can find
satisfaction and power. In justification of this


position I will premise, first, that our ordinary
idea of science, the one which we have hitherto
admitted, is far too limited.

Science is grounded upon facts carefully sifted
and rigorously interpreted, but this is not the whole
of it. This is only its basement, above which
there are upper stories to which we may climb by
the stairways of analogy, — stairways that we have
to construct for ourselves and which must be most
carefully built to enable us to reach the higher
levels from which we can sweep wider horizons and
elaborate larger plans for the conduct of life .

Does this sound visionary? It well may, for
what is more misleading than analogy? Does it
not lure us into all sorts of blind alleys and leave
us to find our way out as best we can? Does it
not encourage us to attempt stairways where the
feet stumble as they seek to climb? It surely is
so. There are analogies and analogies. Some of
them are, to change the figure, the most shifty,
inconsequent, misleading guides. Some of them
are horribly tyrannical when they get the upper
hand of us. They hoodwink and deceive us; they
hypnotize us into seeing things with their eyes,
all the while believing that we are seeing them
with our own. But, on the other hand, there are
analogies that are to be trusted. These are the
only guides beyond immediate experience; we
never get anywhere without them. We are so
used to depending upon them that we follow
them for the most part unconsciously.


To return now to the various and divergent
explanations of the causes of evolution; let us
observe that each one of these, the lame, the
halt, and the blind, as well as those that move
with a good degree of success toward the mark,
is under the guidance and dominating influence
of some analogy. In what follows I shall try to
show how it is possible to discriminate between
the reliable and the unreliable, the true and the
false, in the use of the analogical method.

The chief source of error in the employment of
analogy is to be found in the choice of the analogue
from which it takes its departure. Our most mis-
leading analogies are so because they are produced
from a fragment of reality instead of from the
largest, most comprehensive whole that we have
hitherto conceived. The analogy that is derived
from such an abstracted fragment of knowledge
may be very satisfying to a mind that concen-
trates its attention upon this one aspect of reality
to the exclusion of all else. But as soon as this
mind returns from the isolation of the depart-
mental view to the concrete, many-sided world of
experience, the satisfaction somehow evaporates
from its constructions.

In our ordinary conception of the world we
carry with us a dualistic thought of it. It is made
up, we say, of mind and matter. There are
physical, mechanical forces, there are psychical,
spiritual forces. This discrimination of two de-
partments serves us both in the practical affairs


of life and also in the pursuit of scientific research.
For successful results in the investigation of
natural, that is to say, physical causes, we must
isolate these from all those influences which we
call psychical, just as in studying a machine for
the understanding of the bearing of its different
parts on each other we shut out from our con-
sciousness all reference to the relations which it
sustains to the mind that made it, or to the intel-
ligence that runs it, or to the electricity, or steam,
that supplies it with energy. But, this isolation
is only provisional, it stands for no independent
reality. The machine or, on a larger scale, the
vast aggregate of physical forces that make up
the world of instrumentality are, in themselves
considered, only fragments, aspects of greater
concrete wholes that must be taken into account
before we can begin to understand their signifi-

The book which I hold in my hand is, from one
point of view, a thing complete in itself. But
in another and much more important sense it is
not a book at all; it is a combination of paper,
binding, and printed characters. The real book
is a purely psychical thing, a message conveyed
from one mind to another. This seems almost
too simple to be worth writing about. But it is
in default of recognizing just this simple truth
that some of the greatest controversies have

The conception of the world as purely spiritual


is without foundation in fact; the conception of
it as purely mechanical is equally so. In both
cases it rests upon a deceptive analogy produced
from a fractional representation of reality, and
therefore no reality in itself. The traditional con-
cept of the world as the direct outcome of pure
thought and will, without the intervention of in-
strumentalities, had no real experience to rest
upon. It was the experimentally formed idea of
creation, with the indispensable conditions of that
experience shorn off from it. It was a dream,
a fancy emanating in fairyland. It held men
through their imaginations, but when it came
into vigorous contact with realistic thought, it
faded out of sight.

But, let us observe, the conception of a world
created by purely mechanical forces, without
mind, is not only equally false, but much more
difficult of assimilation, because the whole idea
of efficient cause had its origin in the self-con-
scious action of intelligence and will. But here
the initial factor in the process has been dropped.
A world emanating from pure mechanism is not
simply fanciful, it is monstrous.

How then shall we reach any trustworthy con-
ception of the truth with regard to creation? How
shall we get these two divergent aspects together?
Shall we say that they are only the two faces of
one ultimate, underlying reality that is unknown
to us except through these opposites? To say
this is only to obscure thought with words. Each


side in the controversy, if it takes refuge in such
a formula, sees its side as the reality and the other
as the illusive appearance. There is another way,
the simple common-sense way of retracing our
steps to the point from whence these divergent
aspects of the real took their rise, and by study-
ing them both together in their actual, concrete
relations to each other.

The mechanical interpretation of the world and
of evolution has taken its rise in man-made
machinery. Every mechanical contrivance, before
it existed as a thing separate from its inventor,
existed in a different form in his cerebrum. It
was originally an organization of nerve-cells in

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Online LibraryFrancis Howe JohnsonGod in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology → online text (page 4 of 22)