Francis Howe Johnson.

God in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology online

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such tragedies. Or, we have said, it is all the out-
come of the order of nature, an order that had to
be and that produces much more good than evil in
the world. But, however cogent our reasonings
may have been, they have, anon, dashed them-
selves into spray against the infinite attributes of


God that have suddenly loomed before us. Is not
the Omnipotent One also the author of nature?
Did He not foresee these and all the other horrible
things that would necessarily flow from it? And
why did He not, if omnipotent, establish an order
free from such dreadfulness?

Only two answers are possible, one of which is
no answer, but a rebuke. It may be said this is
God's secret, we cannot understand it, it is rebellion
to try to understand it. Or, on the other hand,
we may entertain the hypothesis that the omnipo-
tence of God is not quite so absolute as we have
imagined it to be. There may be, we hesitatingly
admit, limitations in the nature of things which
oblige the Supreme Intelligence and Will of the
world not, as some would put it, to do evil that
good might come, but to choose the least of two
evils: on the one hand, a world without life, or,
on the other, a world with life and incidental evil.
This, as we have seen, is also the conclusion forced
upon us by God's revelation of His methods in
evolution, and no sooner do we let go our hold
on our inherited predispositions and embrace
frankly the implications of nature than the spell
is broken.

A ray of light penetrates the darkness of our
theological cave and, if we follow it up, it will
bring us out into daylight. This one little perhaps
is enough to begin with. It makes all the differ-
ence between no light at all and the knowledge
that there exists a realm of light and that we,


moreover, know the direction in which it lies.
Furnished with this, all our constructive powers
are quickened. We have a well-defined goal of
religious thought to strive for, an occupation for
every one of our highest faculties, and the means
for the prosecution of our work flow in upon us
the moment we concentrate our attention on its
achievement. All our discarded arguments for
the possible benevolence of God reformulate
themselves and take on the hue of health and
vigour. We have every reason now to foster and
encourage them. We feel instinctively that the
life pulsating in them is but the feeble outlying
manifestation of a larger, fuller knowledge that
may be ours. A host of considerations rally to
our assistance.

Having set up the hypothesis that there is
some inherent opposition in the nature of things
that has to be overcome in the interests of the
best possible world, and believing that it is legiti
mate to assume that the conditions which Limit
the Supreme Intelligence are, in some measure,
similar to those which we have to encounter, we
have an inspiring work cut out for us. And the
first effect of this change of attitude is to turn
the criticism that we have been directing against
the Creator upon ourselves.

What has been the ground of that criticism?
We can have no ground whatever for fault-
finding unless we have thought out some better
plan for conducting the world than the one which


we find in operation. We know much about the
nature of things and the antagonistic behaviour
of the forces with which we have had to deal, and
we remind ourselves of the unwearied patience
and persistence against repeated failures that have
characterized the achievements of our race; and
looking back over its career, we apply tentatively
the analogies of this human experience to the
explication of the methods of evolution. What
do we find?

Can we, from what we have learned of the
nature of things, point out how animated nature
could have been constructed so as to have secured
all the good results embodied in it without the
stimulations and restraints that each creature
finds in its environment?

All the exuberant life and joyfulness of the
animated world have come into being not in
spite of the adverse influences and obstacles that
every species has to encounter, but directly
because of those conditions. The difficulty of
finding food, the alertness and activity that are
required every day in the avoidance or thwart-
ing oi hostile influences, the battles that have to
be fought, and the sharpening of its wits in conse-
quence — all these are the very cause and source
of the exuberant happiness that characterizes
nature through its length and breadth.

There is also, it is true, defeat and suffering;
forfeits have to be paid all along the course. But
death comes to all soon or late, and would it be


an improvement that every creature should be
able to live out its life to the bitter end, dying
by inches of old age and nothing to do, rather
than by a short stroke when life is at its full tide?
The evolution that we know has a very beneficent
side to it. It has everywhere provided for the
emergence of those conscious states that are the
source of joy in all living things: the sense of
movement, of progress, the sense of achievement,
the sense of triumph over difficulties, the joy of
love in the time of mating, of nest-building, of
producing and rearing and defending progeny.
Why should we doubt that every animal feels a
joy in the unfolding of its faculties, akin to that
which we feel in our more self-conscious realiza-
tions of growing personality.

From the earliest stages of organic life onward
the dynamic of progress seems inseparably bound
up with the struggle for existence. Effort on the
part of the creature supplies the occasion for the
expansion of the organism and the increase of
faculty. It is impossible for us to imagine how
the higher values of life could have been reached

Again, it is inconceivable that there could have
existed any organized creation, good or bad,
without that uniformity which we call the fixed
order of nature. In its absence we can think only
of chaos. And yet this uniformity is seen to be
a principle not of unmixed good, but one involving
at times much incidental evil. How many neces-


sities of this kind there may be, or how far-reaching
they are we cannot know. But, an increasing
knowledge of them is sure to be ours if we are on
the watch to discern them. The discovery of
evolution has revealed to us the interdependence
of the whole scheme of things as we never knew
it before, and it has illustrated this with a wealth
and variety of facts that should immensely broaden
our estimate of the multiplicity and the complexity
of the ends that must be taken into account if we
try to explain its meaning.

We have, as it were, broken into the labora-
tory of the Great Artificer and made ourselves
free to investigate His hitherto secret methods.
But, in the presence of these wonders, it be-
hoves us to conduct ourselves with a good
degree of modesty, to remember that it is not
by the incompleteness that appears in the work-
shop, not by the multitude of things we find
there, of which we cannot discern the use, that
the process or its Author is to be judged. Unless
we assume that we have the same grasp of the
situation that He has, and feel that we are able
to give Him points as to a shorter and better way
of doing things, it is at least foolish for us to draw
hasty inferences about His ability from these
fragments of His work.

We can never hope to get more than glimpses
on this side and on that of the maze of subsidiary
ends that He contemplates in their entirety, but
those glimpses may be moral tonics of great value.


Innumerable instances might be adduced; I will
mention only one.

In that familiar and classic expression of distress
that occurs in the fifty-fourth canto of "In Memo-
riam," the poet dwells with painful interest on the
mysterious fact that nature, after maturing fifty
seeds, often brings but one to bear, and the dread-
fulness of this and other enigmas provokes that
cry of a wounded faith :

I falter where I firmly trod,

And, falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world's altar stairs

That slope through darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,

And faintly trust the larger hope.

But, if for a moment we call to mind the fact
that one of the greatest industries of the world is
the production of thousands upon thousands of
seeds, for man's food, for every single seed that
is used for reproduction, does it not seem needless
for us to blacken our souls and begin to lose our
faith in God because we find that of fifty seeds
He often brings but one to bear? When we
reflect upon the variety of the tribes that God
has called into the world for His own pleasure
and for theirs, and of the never-ending necessities
of that world, ought we not to be consoled for the
forty-nine seeds that fail to germinate? Some


of them have gone to enhance the happiness of
the bird that, soaring heavenwards, pours out its
little soul in songs of thankfulness.

I am not, be it understood, criticizing the above
quotation as an emotional view of the world.
But every emotional view is necessarily one-sided
and can be regarded as an expression of truth
only when rectified by the emotional view appro-
priate to the contemplation of the other side.

In all our fault-finding with the methods of
nature let us lay to heart the fact that some of
the worst evils to which the pessimist can point
are the results of man's attempts to improve that
very order of evolution which he criticizes. In our
efforts to relieve the unfortunate we are often
dismayed to find that we have pauperized them
and that their number increases in a bewildering
ratio. In our efforts to educate them we often
unfit them for the stations they would naturally
fill, the work they are capable of doing, without
successfully adapting them to anything else. We
take them away from the environment which
they understand, and leading, sometimes driving,
them into a strange land, abandon them there.
It perhaps seems to us that we have given them
a better heritage, but in many cases they are
wholly unable to adapt themselves to it.

I believe it is no exaggeration to say that the
great problem of our modern civilization is not to
persuade men to devote themselves largely to living
for others, but rather to discover ways of doing


this which will not aggravate the evils that we
deplore. I am not questioning the legitimacy or
the urgency or, in the long run, the usefulness of
human effort in this direction. We are intelligent
factors in the world-process and great responsi-
bilities are ours. The Supreme Wisdom that
works in all things has taken human agency into
His service and laid great tasks upon it.

What I wish to point out is this: there is no
royal road to the elevation of mankind. Our
theories of the way to effect it are easily woven,
and our Utopias, as we dream them, look as easy
of attainment as they are delightful to anticipate.
But somehow the roads that, on the chart of our
dream, looked so well constructed on a substratum
of assumed human goodness, have proved imprac-
ticable. And after trying our hand at society-
building, we have had to come back, humbled in
spirit, to learn of nature. We have had our eyes
opened to the fact that the problem is a vastly
bigger one than we had thought, and that the
Divinity that shapes our ends draws His wisdom
from depths that we have not fathomed.


But, this method of studying our subject gives
little more than a preliminary glance at it. We
have been bestowing our attention on details and
on methods of working; it remains to examine the
movement as to its fruits. If evolution were
simply a succession of states, or organisms, pro-


ceeding one from another by differentiation,
without progress or definite direction toward an
apparent end, we should have to be satisfied with
comments like the above. But we are not thus

Since evolution is sl progressive continuity, a
unified process of ever-increasing complexity, it
will easily be seen that we approach the problem
of God's benevolence under far more advantageous
conditions than those in which the theologians
of an elder day found themselves. We are per-
mitted to concentrate attention upon one main
issue; namely, the tendencies, results, and impli-
cations of the process as a whole. "By. their
fruits ye shall know them." Can we ascertain
the end toward which evolution seems to be
moving? Can we determine the nature of the
highest product thus far elaborated? Can we
show this to be an outcome of supreme worth
and of such a nature that it points to still higher
values? If we can find satisfactory answers to
these questions we shall have something sub-
stantial on which to build a conception of God's
character. We shall not have to be looking now
on this side and now on that, balancing accounts
and wavering as we divide our attention between
the two.

We are sometimes told that what we here sug-
gest is a fruitless or worse than fruitless quest,
that evolution, of itself, gives us no evidence of
progress toward an end of any kind, let alone one


of supreme worth. But such a judgment as this
can be pertinent only to a purely outside view of
the process, and if we join the hopeless ones in
confining our induction to its purely external
aspects, we may have to join them also in their
conclusions. For, from such a point of view,
evolution seems to be hardly more than a great
dramatic representation, full of stirring episodes,
in which human beings are, at the same time, the
actors and the spectators. Now it is a scene of
conflict, long-drawn-out and deadly; now it is
one of peace that floweth like a river. Lofty
heights of feeling and achievement are reached,
vistas of entrancing possibilities are opened into
an unattainable future. Triumph and despair,
love and hate, trust and betrayal, expectation
and disappointment, and then the dropping of
the curtain, and darkness. We are told that this
great process of mundane evolution cannot go on
indefinitely, that it will reach a culminating point
and then recede as it has advanced, slowing down
as the rays from a cooling sun reach it with an
ever-decreasing vitality, until the last living thing
has disappeared. From chaos unto chaos, a
grand pageant, nothing more.

But, thanks be to the Creator of all things, we
are not doomed to stand for ever gazing at the
external aspects of the world: we are permitted
to enter and to have its meaning explained to us.
In the self-consciousness of man we are conducted
straight into the heart of things; we are admitted


to the secrets of the great world-process. Man,
it is true, is but one little part of the universe.
But his self-knowledge is a door by which he
gains admission to its interior. And once in, there
is no limit to his comprehension of problems
that would, otherwise, be opaque for ever.

This unique, inside knowledge of one part of the
universe becomes to us the key to the whole of it.
Here all the great concepts by which man inter-
prets the world have had their origin. Here the
idea of cause, which philosophers have so vainly
tried to educe from external relations, came to the
birth. Only through the knowledge which man has
of himself as an originator, a modifier of events, has
he become possessed of that concept that lies at
the foundation of all science; namely, that of a
causative relation existing between the events of
the external world. Here also, from the very
same experiences and by the same process of
inference, has sprung the conception of a great
and all-powerful Creator, sustaining to the uni-
verse relations similar to those which man sustains
to the creations with which he has surrounded

It is here, again, that we are made acquainted
with that special group of instincts which together
constitute man's moral and religious nature.
Gradually, from small beginnings, dawned the
light of moral values, — the faculty to discern in
actions a higher and a lower, a better and a worse.
Here, in ever clearer outlines, appeared, on the


background of self-consciousness, the vision of a
superior ideal-self contrasted with its counterpart,
the vision of a degenerate self; and with the
vision a command to achieve the one and to escape
the other. Here arose, also, the instinct of wor-
ship, — the instinct that voiced itself so wonder-
fully in the ancient Hebrew liturgies, that men
have continued, through all subsequent ages, to
find in some of them the most satisfactory ex-
pression of the human soul. And here, again,
was born that prophecy of a life beyond the grave,
in which the illusory ideals of earth's mirages,
shall be more than realized. With these also we
must class the whole outgrowth of the aesthetic
side of man; the love of all that is beautiful and
inspiring, and the creative impulse that urges
him to express his love in constructions of his own.

I have spoken of these instincts as a unique
group that together constitute man's moral and
religious nature and, thus characterizing them,
have implied their organic unity. An organic
unity they certainly are. They can be thought
of separately, they can be treated and cultivated
separately; but separately they are not that
which we are seeking. All taken together, in
their composite unity, they constitute the ground
of the highest product of the world-process hitherto
revealed. They are the nidus of the higher evolu-
tion that is to be, the vital germ, containing the
potency and promise of the future.

As thus stated it is an ideal product, related to


an ideal future. But it is not therefore merely
a thing of words and imaginings. It has a very-
real and concrete side. It is a matter of acts and
experiences. In every age it has been incarnated
in the lives of men and women whose feet have trod
this earth, whose love and devotion have gone out
to the things of this earth and, through them, to
the things that are eternal. Not that we have
seen or shall see all that is shadowed forth in these
instincts realized in any individual. For if we
affirm perfection of any human personality, it is,
and always must be, a relative perfection ; relative,
that is, to the age and society in which that per-
sonality is developed. It is equivalent to saying
that the principles, the elements, that lead to
perfection are in this one fully represented, that
we find here loyalty to all that is highest in the
human soul. The highest realized product is the
highest because, while declaring its own incom-
pleteness, it points to a further development of

Now for a deduction. To put it in the simplest
way: Is it not a fair inference that the Creator's
character is expressed to us in those qualities that
He has made us, the most highly developed of
His creatures, to recognize as the highest? When
we say with the Psalmist, "0 come, let us worship
and fall down and kneel before the Lord our
Maker," is it the call to an act of adoration simply
on the ground that God is the author of our being?
Is it not rather because morally, religiously,


aesthetically, He has made us such as we are,
beings so constituted that our reverence and love
spring up spontaneously toward certain qualities?
because we see in Him the reflection and source
of whatsoever things are pure, lovely, morally and
physically beautiful? because we trace back to
Him, as their author, all such qualities as justice,
mercy, truth, and love? because He has made us
creatures of hope and aspiration, has given us
life, and with it the potentiality of realizing,
progressively, all that life prophesies?

But, it may be asked, are not those other
instincts also from Him — those that often antago-
nize the uplifting ones? Has He not planted the
germs of passion and of virtue side by side?
And while He has made justice and mercy, loyalty
and unselfish love adorable, has He not also made
them most difficult, permitting their opposites
so to root themselves in our nature and so domi-
nate us with their insistence that our vital energy
is often given to them even while our respect and
reverence go out toward their rivals? The good
we approve, that we do not; the evil we would
not, that we do. Truly, and herein is revealed in
its clearest light the face of the Author of our
being. It declares most unmistakably what He
approves and what He reprobates. Each aspect
of the truth emphasizes the other. We could see
neither clearly without its opposite.

But, more than this, it is just this moral
antagonism, this war in our members, that sup-


plies the indispensable condition of actual mo-
rality. It is from this that the very knowledge
of good and evil springs. It is in this that all
moral strength is generated and all virtue of
whatsoever description. The instincts that start
us on the way toward the love of God, though
organically connected with the highest fruits of
evolution, are not themselves those fruits. They
constitute the root-system of the tree of life.
Character begins in them and, all along its
course, is fostered by them. But it is only
through the antagonisms of good and evil in
the moral consciousness of man that character
becomes actual. Without the presence of these
two principles of moral light and darkness, men
might be morally sentient, but never morally
intelligent, or morally efficient, beings. Through
their conflicting agency morality emerges from
the realm of feeling into that of energizing, over-
coming, creating.

Only so, has sprung into being that race of moral
heroes, that cloud of witnesses in whom we have,
speaking reverently, God objectified. God with
us, testifying to the God that is in us. I say
speaking reverently; for in our inherited religion
we have been familiarized with the thought of
one supreme and only incarnation of the Great
Being Whom we worship. But why should the
recognition of this supreme example blind us to
the fact that human history is full of partial
incarnations that have, in different ways, contrib-


uted to the formation of the highest ideal which
we worship as God? From age to age the process
has continued, a perennial and ever-advancing
revelation of God in the moral perceptions and
inspired utterances of good men, and objectified
in their lives. This has been and is the law of
all moral evolution. All the greatness, all the
virtue, everything in human character that
elevates and inspires the soul has entered and
established itself in human consciousness by this
method. First the progressive illumination within,
then the progressively realized and substantiated
achievement wrought out in actual life.

To thus extend the scope of the principle of
incarnation can detract in no way from the signifi-
cance of its supreme example. On the contrary,
by removing that highest example from the isola-
tion of a unique, anomalous phenomenon we
intensify its meaning and make its acceptance,
as an article of belief, not the deadlift of faith
in a mystery, but a normal deduction from a
well-defined law of nature. It appears as the
continuance of God's method of working in His
world. We cannot be said to have assimilated
any fact of experience, or of history, until we have
found its place in the hitherto observed order of
the world. To discover this is its interpretation,
its introduction and matriculation into the body
of belief by which we live.

To come back to our argument: assuming that
we have determined, in outline, the highest prod-


uct of current evolution, and furthermore that we
have found it to be an outcome of supreme worth
pointing to the realization of still higher values,
we may now advance our hypothesis to a higher
position. From the status of a weak herbaceous
plant it has developed woody fibre and a good
degree of stiffness to resist assault. Its roots
have found a strong hold in the soil of human
experience and it gives promise of a vigorous
growth. But it is not unassailable, and it is worth
our while to forestall some of the forms of contra-
diction which, if well grounded, would cause it
to wither like Jonah's gourd. It is hardly to be
expected that we should try to enumerate and

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Online LibraryFrancis Howe JohnsonGod in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology → online text (page 7 of 22)