Francis Howe Johnson.

God in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology online

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sense of boundlessness that suggests infinity.


We find ourselves in a universe filled with God.
We see Him at every point in the process of the
ages, working within it, sustaining, controlling,
vitalizing all its elements, quickening and expand-
ing it with an ever-renewed initiative as it is
made to bring forth higher and still higher
products. In the contemplation of organic life
there passes before us a grand pageant of creation
extending through endless forms, from the single
protoplasmic cell to the greatest and wisest of
human kind. It is a sublime continuity of
becoming, of training, of revelation, of creation,
of salvation of the highest inherent possibilities
of the process.

This view of evolution, which is not only a
legitimate one but also the truest, in that it is
the most comprehensive, gives us a God Whom
we can worship, Whose power and wisdom is
set before us as inexpressibly great, and as one
Who can be trusted to carry to a successful issue
that which He has undertaken. We may ex-
haust all the superlatives of language in address-
ing Him if we employ them only as the expression
of exalted feeling.

But there is another side to it. The moment
we descend from the survey of the great features
of the process to the study of detail we are con-
fronted by aspects of deity that are altogether
foreign to our traditional conceptions of God.
Here He discloses Himself as one Who has em-
ployed, for the accomplishment of His ends, a long


and elaborate process. His work gives the im-
pression of one Who moves slowly, tentatively, as
it were feeling His way, to some dimly foreseen
end by the use of instrumentalities not thoroughly
mastered; the process is apparently character-
ized by many setbacks, by unfulfilled promises,
roads that seem to have been built a certain way
and abandoned. Although, viewed as a whole, the
process is seen to be a grand and ever-expanding
movement upward on the scale of being, there
is also an immense amount of destruction and
incidental waste; there is much conflict and much
suffering on the part of creatures so constituted
as to be capable of great happiness. In short,
the God of evolution appears to be one Who, like
ourselves, is beset with limitations over which He
triumphs by the use of infinitely varied appliances
and adjustments.

To treat these first judgments as the adequate
expression of the truth would, of course, be pre-
posterous. In any complicated system of things
the power manifested at any given point, or at
a great number of points, by a controlling agent
is no index of the amount of power available.
Every factor in such a system limits all the others.
To estimate the amount of ability behind it we
must know not only what the ultimate purpose of
the system is, but also all the subsidiary interests
involved. To avoid being swamped by details
it is necessary that we hold fast to the thought
of the system as a whole.


But, on the other hand, the implications that
we have been considering have their significance,
and it is one that profoundly affects the issues
of constructive thought. For one thing, it is the
endorsement, on a large scale, of the analogical
method of seeking truth. In evolution He Whom
we call the Almighty has revealed Himself through-
out nature as a being Whom we can progressively
interpret by the study of our own methods and
experiences. Evolution invites us, nay, com-
mands us, to come and learn from it, as from
an open book, of the God Whom we have been
taught to regard as incomprehensible. The idea
of infinity has kept us at a distance from Him,
has held us in leash, as it were, from studying
Him as He is revealed in nature and throughout
the whole realm of our human experience.

It has told us nothing whatever about Him,
but only what He is not. It has been a great and
all-comprehensive denial of the community of
our nature and His, a destructive blight upon the
natural growth of our minds toward Him. We
are finite, He is infinite. Our thought, limited
in every direction, is necessarily the antithesis of
His unlimited, all-comprehensive thought. His
emotions, if He has any, are the emotions of
one Who is an absolute stranger to all opposition,
Who has never known the tug or the joy of over-
coming, Who has never experienced the enthu-
siasm of pursuit, the long-drawn-out pleasure of
gradual approach through difficulties to the


attainment of an object or condition earnestly
desired. He has never, and never can, experience
the delight of the onrush of a new thought or the
dawning and growth of a new faculty. In a word
we have, in our short-sightedness, while thinking
to honour Him with high-sounding titles, only
crowned Him with emptiness and vacuity. While
declaring Him unlimited we have, from the
standpoint of our knowledge, made Him the abso-
lutely limited one. For, so far as His infinity is
concerned, He is to us a meaningless blank.

It is indeed true that the same theology that
erected these barriers of thought has also ad-
mitted the frank and wholesome anthropomor-
phism of the old Hebrew religion, which has come
down to us emphasized by the cult of Christianity.
These two have lived along together, with the
result that the worship of the God-man has
almost entirely overshadowed that of God the
Father, the creator of the world, and the God of
nature. Necessarily, for He of the infinite attri-
butes furnished no food to satisfy the religious
cravings of his would-be worshippers. We have
been able to live under this mixed regime, but
only a cramped and stunted intellectual growth
was possible. From the one and only outlet for
the human mind in constructive thought, the
gateway of analogy, we were logically debarred.
Whenever we have set ourselves down hoping to
figure out on our little slates the problems set
for us by the great educator, theology with its


wet sponge of infinity has obliterated all our
work and left us staring at vacuity.

It is just the reverse with evolution. Here we
find ourselves in an atmosphere of encourage-
ment. Our analogical efforts are approved. At
every stage of the work we receive new and help-
ful suggestions for its continuance. Our prob-
lems, it is true, are ever expanding before us
with innumerable outlooks. We shall never get
to the end of them, but we feel increasingly that
we are on the right track.

Is it the problem of God's power in creation?
We are intimately acquainted with ourselves as
creators, as bringing into existence a little world
by the use of instrumentalities. By these in-
strumentalities we are, at the same time, aided
and limited. We are absolutely dependent upon
them, we can do nothing without them; they,
in one sense, control us. At the same time we
make them forward our plans, bend them to our
purposes, lead them into special channels, over-
rule them in the interests of the individual and
of society. So doing, we accomplish great things,
but these great things are characterized by great
imperfections. The responsibility for some of
these imperfections rests upon us, but for a very
much larger class it is justly laid upon the nature
of things. We are limited not only by our very
imperfect knowledge of the possibilities of things,
we are limited also by those possibilities them-
selves. And when we look at the world of man's


achievement, with its wonderful extent and
variety, our amazement is called forth not because
he has accomplished so little, but, on the contrary,
because, with all his limitations and in spite of
the seeming rigidity and obduracy of the materials
with which he has had to work, he has accom-
plished so much and gives promise of accomplish-
ing so much more.

Just so, from the standpoint of this analogy,
our minds should be filled with amazement be-
cause of what the world is and what it promises
to be, rather than with criticism because it
falls short of some ideal condition of things
that we should like to substitute for it. If we
once admit the thought that He who created the
world, as we know it, laboured under limitations
of some kind analogous to those which we have
to meet and triumph over, we are ready to wor-
ship rather than to find fault. Remembering
our own tribulations and triumphs, our hearts
go out in sympathy and thankfulness for what
has been hitherto and for that which shall be.

Shorn of the word omnipotence, the idea of God
becomes something less awe-inspiring, perhaps,
less mysterious, less removed from us and all our
possibilities, but, on the other hand, it becomes
something more real, more intelligibly worship-
ful, infinitely more moral and love-inspiring. He
appears as one Who shares the battle with us,
"Who counts on us as supporters in the world-
process. Omnipotence divided Him, as by an


unfathomable gulf, from us. We worshipped we
knew not what, a being of inconceivable attri-
butes. The God of evolution is, on the con-
trary, one Whom we can measurably understand,
one with Whom we can live in sympathy. He
is one to love and to work for. Our devotion to
Him is not a mere fleeting incense, it is a pos-
itive factor in a world-not-yet-finished, in a pro-
cess which may be advanced, or hindered, by the
way in which we lead our lives. What we should
most earnestly desire is not the absolute con-
fidence of a foregone conclusion, but an uncon-
querable faith, a faith that is synonymous with
devotion, courage, loyalty.

The writer is not forgetful of the other side of
this view of things, and that there are those who
are so constituted, temperamentally, that they
will be able to see in the erasure of the word
omnipotent nothing short of the annihilation of
our belief in a God of supreme power and majesty.
It is so easy for some of us to plunge from one
extreme to another that the only alternative to
the imputation of this impossible attribute is to
think of God as one Who is in all respects limited
and fallible. But, as matter of fact, all that
evolution does, as regards this divine character-
istic, is to take that which has always been our
working belief under its transforming influence
and give it back to us purged of its negativeness
and re-enforced with the vitality of a positive


I say our working belief; for always, as related
to the other doctrines of our faith, we have
employed a conception of God that involves
limitation. We could not do otherwise; for it
was impossible to eliminate the idea of a condi-
tioned being without at the same time eliminating
the idea of personality. And with the belief in
personality gone, the bottom drops out of our
constructive thought. Our inherited theology
had a semblance of coherence only because, in
violation of its assumptions with regard to in-
finity, it admitted personality. And those who
see in the frank admission of the issue which
evolution forces upon us the annihilation of our
belief in a God of power and inexpressible majesty
may comfort themselves with the reflection that
this ennobling belief has somehow managed to live
through the ages linked with the belief in His

The great and central doctrine of the Atone-
ment most distinctly represents the Almighty as
inexorably hedged in by a necessity, in the nature
of things, involving a sacrifice at which, in Milton's
words, " all heaven stood aghast.' ' And in the
same connection, God the Father is represented
as explaining Himself to the angels with regard
to the status of fallible man by adducing the
limitations that obliged Him to create this being,
made in His own image, with just the amount
of freedom and weakness that resulted in his


More emphatically still does our traditional
theology display this inconsistency in its account
of the entrance of moral evil into the world.
The Creator planned, called into existence, and
launched on its course what He pronounced to
be a perfect world. But somehow there were
flaws in this plan that escaped His omniscience,
and so there came to pass a great breakdown in
its working. It failed utterly just in that part
on which he had set His heart. According to
our theology, man was created a perfect being;
he was the head of creation; he walked with God
and was loved and approved by Him. But lo!
a great catastrophe. Sin entered, and all the
fair promise of his incipient career was blighted.
With his failure everything else went wrong.
The very ground was cursed for his sake, and the
harmony that characterized the original scheme
of things became discord.

In this narrative, the multitude of failures
apparent in evolution are gathered into one.
But does this help matters? From the rational
point of view by which we are testing the new
revelation, the one great breakdown, the terrible
centre-shaking catastrophe, for the most part
irretrievable, presents an incalculably greater ob-
stacle to faith in the ability of the Creator to
carry out His plans than the innumerable instances
of seeming failure that appear all along the course
of the great process. These, by comparison, are
things of minor significance and not difficult to


deal with; for they are each one embedded in a
vast system of things, a system which we now
recognize as a process of the ages, of which we
can see but a little part, but enough to be certain
that it is no mere play of blind forces. It is a
continued progress, in which we can see apparent
mistakes eliminated, apparent failures redeemed
by success in other directions, in which destruction
is often shown to be the removal of hindrances,
and in which the circuitous course leads to the
goal. There is no permanent setback in its
whole history. There is no discovery of a break
in the plan, no change of policy. It is, as a
whole, one grand continuity of becoming, one
long, consistent story of successive triumphs
pointing still onward to we know not what great

Again, our inherited theology recognized the
idea of a rebellious element, adopted perhaps from
the Persian religion, with which the Hebrew was,
at one time, in such close contact. God, though
omnipotent, tolerated for some reason the Devil
and his angels, and they held a conspicuous and
often tragically real place in the thought and lives
of our not-remote ancestors. This was a relief
to those who did not look beyond the surface of
the problem of evil. But for those who did, it
was the opposite of reassuring; for the doctrine
of omnipotence fastened the responsibility for
the unchecked activity of the Devil and his
angels on the one God Whom they, at the same


time, wished to worship as a God of love. In
other words, the idea of God as limited was
implicit in the idea of God as benevolent, as well
as in the idea of God as a person. And practi-
cally we have always thought of the divine agency
as characterized by an associated freedom and
determinism similar to that which we find in
human agency.

Before leaving this part of the subject I will
venture to call attention to the finality with
which our deductions from evolution drive into
outer darkness two bogies that have tyrannized
over constructive thinking. One of these is
known as "the relativity of human thought," the
other as " anthropomorphism." Not that there
have been lacking minds sufficiently sturdy to
set them at naught, but that they have been
used, now and again, with great success in turning
the average thinker away from the legitimate
avenues of progressive knowledge and into the
barren by-ways of scepticism.

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that I
am not questioning the fact of the relativity of
human thought. Kant's position that man can
know, directly, no more of the nature of things
than his own mode of perceiving them, which is
peculiar to himself, is not only sound, but one
which is illustrated to us every day of our lives,
both in our intercourse with other human beings
and in our relations to the animals farther removed
from us by differences of organization. But, on


the other hand, it is equally true, and a matter
of far more vital interest to us, that our mode of
perceiving things, peculiar as it is to each one of
us, is, analogically, a trustworthy guide to the
interpretation of minds differing in important
respects from ours. The farther removed any
two persons are, by birth, training, or tempera-
ment, the more likely they are to make mistakes
in their efforts to comprehend each other, but in
virtue of their common humanity they are able
to arrive at a fairly reliable understanding. It is
the same in our relations to the lower animals.

These considerations are, on general principles,
a sufficient answer to the assumption of sceptical
thinkers that we are for ever debarred from any
knowledge of a being who transcends our immedi-
ate experience, because of the relativity of our
human thought.

Even before the facts of evolution were made
known we were in a position to say that there
probably exists in the world a being possessed of
an intelligence and a creative power far exceeding
ours, and furthermore, that this being probably
works, as we are obliged to work, under limita-
tions of some sort. This was a legitimate and
justifiable hypothesis, depending for its verifica-
tion upon its practical working in our lives,
and awaiting endorsement or the reverse, in the
testimony of our subsequent experience. With
evolution that endorsement has come. Our hypo-
thetical construction has been justified. What


we prophesied ought, in conformity to known
principles, to be discovered, has been discovered.
Some of the methods by which our postulated
Supreme Being works have been disclosed, and
they are, on a vast scale, the corroboration of our
analogically formed hypothesis.

The obstructive claims of the relativity of
human thought, therefore, have received a refu-
tation not of words, but of facts. The question
as to our ability to transcend experience is no
longer a living issue. We have transcended it.
And let it be observed that evolution has thus
become, not only an emphatic endorsement of our
postulated Creator, but an endorsement of the
method of analogy as a whole.

The same considerations apply to the word
anthropomorphism. It has been a byword and
a hissing, a name to conjure with, not because
there is anything ridiculous about the attempt
to conceive the personality of the God Who is
in touch with us, by the use of humanly derived
analogies, but solely, because we have tried to
do this while insisting upon the infinite attributes
of the same God. The cherishing of these time-
honoured claims invalidated our right to the use
of analogy and at the same time made us the
prey of our opponents. Our teachers and our
preachers, the representatives of a God of infinity,
have, unwarrantably, taken the liberty to apply
the analogies of our experience to the explication
of the God Who works in the world of nature.


They could not do otherwise if they identified
Him with the God of the Hebrew religion, or if
they made Him in any way intelligible.

But, judged by the assumptions of their
theology, they were trespassing; they had no
rights in this analogical realm. And there
were those who were not slow to raise the
hue and cry against them. The illegitimacy of
their proceeding was flagrant. A God infinite
in all His attributes, the antithesis of man in
every essential, and yet one Who was to be appre-
hended through analogies derived from this same
finite man! The scientific and logical inad-
missibility of such a conjunction of ideas was
easily made to appear. They were told that
their reasoning was puerile and preposterous,
they were accused of that most dreadful thing,
anthropomorphism. Nor was it possible to shake
off their tormentors without either surrendering
the most vital thing in their constructions, that
is, analogically derived conceptions, or, on the
other hand, their old cherished metaphysical

Let them adopt the latter course and the
vigour of a new life characterizes their mental
processes; not that alone which is born of con-
sistency, the straightening out of an old thought
that has been sorely tangled, but, in addition,
the quickening of every pulse of thought by the
incoming of the new vision, the enlargement and
liberty that accompanies the far-away view where,

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hitherto, all has been enveloped in the fogs of
abstract ideas.

Since God is known to be one Who works by
methods that may be likened to ours, every experi-
ence of ours, every problem solved, every difficulty
against which we contend throws some light upon
the meaning of the way which He takes. His
problems are our problems. His good is our good.
His evil is our evil. He is engaged in overcoming
as we are engaged in overcoming. We are one
with Him, not simply in a mystical or meta-
physical sense, but really and practically, in that
His interests are our interests. The realization
of the highest possibilities of our individual lives
is, so far forth, the realization of the great world-
process. We are involved in it, a part of it. To
each one of us is intrusted a definite work to
accomplish in the onward march of the world's
becoming. Hence all our progressive knowledge
of nature and of human nature, all that we dis-
cover as to what is possible, desirable, expedient, or
necessary in our social relations, contributes in-
directly to our knowledge of God and becomes
valuable material for our theological constructions.

Without misgivings as to the legitimacy of
our procedure we can advance in the full and
joyful courage of our convictions. The order of
nature bids us go on. The continuity of the
method that has characterized the world-process
hitherto, assures us that we are on the right track
and walking in the light when we try to trace


God's purposes and ways as the reflection of our
own dearly bought experience. If we are faithful
in our adherence to this method, whole realms of
reality will become subject to our thought that
have hitherto been the wild haunts of untamable



WE have seen that if, in obedience to the
facts of evolution, we surrender the
time-honoured assumptions of theol-
ogy with regard to the infinite attributes of God,
our losses are offset by a gain of inestimable
value; namely, the setting of our intellectual
house in order and the emancipation of our
reasoning faculties.

When now we go on to ask of evolution what it
has to teach us with regard to the doctrine of
God's benevolence, it will be manifest that we
have only begun to recognize the value of the
freedom that has been secured to us by the dis-
missal of these abstractions. So long as we re-
mained subject to them we were harnessed to an
absolutely unworkable doctrine of the benevo-
lence of God. The problem of evil, as it is called,
owes its gravity almost wholly to the assertion of
God's omnipotence. It is the fulcrum of the
argumentative lever that, from a rational point



of view, has proved irresistible against any and
every attempt to formulate a defence of the
doctrine that lies at the heart of our religion.
We have not only made no progress toward the
solution of this problem of evil, but, in these
later days, the situation has been aggravated by
the light which evolution has thrown upon the
methods through which the world has come to
be what it is.

We have, it is true, tried to formulate tentative
explanations of the dreadful happenings of the
world. When some great misfortune has befallen
us, or our friends, or the community in which we
live, when the long-drawn-out tragedies of wast-
ing illness, of droughts and floods, of famine and
forest fires have appalled us, when an earthquake
has laid a great city in ruins, killing and maiming
thousands of men, women, and children and
entailing wretchedness upon thousands more who
have lost their all, we have tried, perhaps, to meet
the situation manfully. We have summoned
visions of the other side of the picture, making
this and that hypothesis to explain why for our
good, or for that of the world, it might be a moral
necessity that we and it should be subjected to

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Online LibraryFrancis Howe JohnsonGod in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology → online text (page 6 of 22)