Francis Howe Johnson.

God in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology online

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answer all the ways in which our hypothesis may
be criticized. But there are two which, as living
issues, demand our attention.


I am assuming the following propositions to
be true. First, Evolution is an all-comprehensive
process. It is not simply a method by which some
things have been brought to pass. All things have
come by it and through it. Second, The fact that
man has had an important share in the achievement
of his present moral status does not obliterate the
fact that it is also the work of the God of evolution.

If the first of these propositions is not true, it is
clear that our argument for the goodness of God
derived from the moral nature of man as the
highest product of evolution is not conclusive.


If, when any part of our experience seems to be
at odds with the methods of the great process it
may be ruled out as alien to it, the whole case is
prejudged. This is just the attitude taken, in
our day, by a school of thought that represents
much intellect and cultivation. The methods of
evolution, it is affirmed, are throughout immoral;
therefore the moral nature of man cannot be its
product. To substantiate this position the un-
lovely characteristics of the great process, up to
the advent of morally enlightened man, are drawn
for us with the most uncompromising exclusive-
ness, leading to the dilemma of moral indifference
on the one hand, if a presiding intelligence is
postulated, or, on the other, to blind forces without
purpose, or consciousness.

In contrast to this picture, man is set before us as
the beginning and the source of all morality, of all
nobility, of everything that elevates and inspires
the soul. He, a being of unknown and untrace-
able origin, is the only thing of worth, or dignity,
in the world. He has given birth to that ideal of
a perfect type of being that should dominate the
hearts and imaginations of the race. He is the
supreme reality, the all in all, the final end of our
strivings, the highest object of our worship. To
infer, from what man is, the existence of a being
of higher intelligence, say the Positivists, is not
simply illegitimate, it is most harmful, in that it
withdraws from the cult of Humanity the zeal
and enthusiasm that should be its motive power,


But we cannot play fast and loose with the prin-
ciple of evolution, availing ourselves of it here
and excluding it there. To do this would be to
discredit it altogether. In short, the assumption
of a something independent of the great process,
not concerned in it, takes issue with all the
evidence that goes to support it. But, lest this
should seem a too summary way of dismissing
the subject, let us try to look at the matter from
the positivist point of view, and argue it solely
on the ground of appearances.

I will ask the reader to pass in review any one
of the processes which, within the sphere of his
experience, have led to the most finished works
of human creative ability. Here, for instance, is
a human abode, perfect in its adaptations to the
wants of the most highly developed man. Every-
thing about it and its surroundings expresses
harmony, fitness, restfulness. Art and nature
have met together, usefulness and beauty have
kissed each other. In such an abode every desire
is at once met by appliances that have anticipated
it. Whichever way the eye turns, it is greeted
by some new delight.

Now let us send our imaginations back, not
only along the course of the construction of
this one abode, but along the many and devious
tracks by which various co-operating arts and
sciences have toiled and felt their way toward
this consummation. What crudity, what abor-
tiveness, what failures, what unloveliness of


laboratory and workshop, what dirt and daub-
iness and noisome exhalations, what hope de-
layed and heart-breaks on the part of the
human factors that have, from first to last, con-
tributed to the result! What resemblance is
there between all this incompleteness and turmoil
and the harmony of the outcome? And if we fix
our attention on all the unlovely aspects of the
antecedent process, its hardships, its disappoint-
ments, its apparently fruitless sacrifices, quite
putting out of mind the fact that it has had also
its triumphs, its exultations, its satisfied enthusi-
asms, how easy to see the process as the opposite
of that which it has produced!

I am loath to suggest the absurdity of a sage
so transcendently wise as to propound the theory
that the manifest incongruity of these two, the
process and the outcome, render quite impossible
the belief that the latter has proceeded from the
former. And yet the hardihood of a philosopher
who, in the light of the new revelation of an all-
embracing world-process, can hope to prove the
higher nature of man to be outside and alien to it,
seems to the writer to be quite equal to such an
absurdity. The word prove is used designedly,
for the burden of proof surely lies with those who
postulate such a departure from the principle
of nature's uniformity. The only semblance of
proof possible in this case is the alleged incongruity
between the process and the product. But it is
the business of science and of philosophy to dis-


cover the underlying continuity that such apparent
contradictions hide from us. Only by the recon-
ciliation of facts seemingly irreconcilable, only by
patiently disentangling that which at first presents
itself as hopelessly involved, by discovering rela-
tions between things held to be absolutely unre-
lated, has science achieved that unification and
organization of our knowledge that we call a
scientific creed.

Positivism with all that calls itself Agnosticism,
as related to our higher beliefs, while posing as the
advanced outcome of modern thought is, in fact,
essentially archaic. Its spirit is the opposite of
the scientific. It is impatient, assertive, dogmatic.
It declares questions closed on the ground of
its emotions. It sets aside the law of continuity
as brusquely and confidently as any doctor of
theology with the authority of the Church behind

But it is not at all with the affirmations of
positivism that we have a controversy. It is not
its positivism but its negativism that blocks the
way. So far as its exaltation of man is concerned,
it is building upon reality. After God, man's
nature is indeed the greatest reality of our experi-
ence. Taken in connection with its outlooks, its
far-reaching prophecies, it is a reality of such
importance that no exaggeration of it is to be
feared. But when men address themselves to the
task of defining its limitations from the standpoint
of what it has been hitherto, then it is that dark-


ness closes in. And when men are so enamoured
of that which they know, that they feel competent
to set bounds to all further knowledge, we can
but recognize a phenomenon with which evolution
has made us familiar; that is, arrested develop-
ment. Modern thought has here, so to speak,
pocketed itself.

That which a pragmatic theology must always
fight against, as true science does, is the ten-
dency to foreclose the situation, to raise the cry,
"Thus far and no farther." It is a significant
fact that the so-called religion of positivism and
that form of church religion that takes its stand
on "the faith once delivered to the saints" are
one in spirit, although the positions to which
they irrevocably commit themselves are as wide
apart as the poles.

I have hitherto, for argument's sake, tacitly
accepted the charge of manifest incongruity
between the moral nature of man and the antece-
dent course of evolution. But for argument's
sake only. I take issue radically with that posi-
tion, and that, not alone because of faith in nature's
continuity as a general principle, but also on the
strength of facts which are already in our posses-
sion. Looking back over the way by which we
have come, a goodly array of analogies show us an
unmistakable track of continuity, the well-defined
beginnings of that which has flowered forth in the
higher nature of man. To develop more fully
this relatedness, to demonstrate the unity of


purpose and of method that makes a straight story
of it all, and to gather therefrom a far steadier and
clearer outlook into the probable future of man's
evolution, is one of the great tasks of the inductive
theology of the days that are before us.


The second proposition instanced as having a
vital bearing on our argument is one of very wide
outlooks and can be touched upon only briefly
in this connection. It was as follows: The fact
that man has had a share in the achievement of his
present moral status does not debar us from tracing
its origin to God. Every product of evolution,
in so far as it is shaped by mind, is the result
of a co-operative activity, the joint work of the
Creator and the creature. Much depends on
the faithfulness and the efficiency of the latter,
but the initial impulse at every upward step
of the process and the overruling guidance that
shapes our ends can be found nowhere but in the
Supreme Intelligence. This dual proposition is not
new, but with evolution it has had a new position
given to it, a position of central and formative
influence which will make itself most powerfully
felt in the transformation and vitalizing of old

No better illustration of this could be instanced
than the issue before us. The origin of the moral
sense in man has been an endlessly controverted
question, and conclusions of vital importance


have been assumed to flow from the adoption of
one or the other of the following alternatives.
On the one hand, it was said, the moral sense is
intuitive. It was implanted in the, human soul
by the Creator. And on the other hand, it was
affirmed, the moral sense is an outgrowth of human
experience. It originated in the smallest begin-
nings, the faintest glimmerings of discernment as
regards moral values and moral judgments. If
the former account of its origin were justified,
then, it was held the moral sense is authoritative,
imperious, divine. If the latter hypothesis pre-
vailed it was said to be brought down to the level
of all those other conventions of men that have
sprung up in connection with the formation of
human society, and therefore without implications
as regards a higher power.

Theistic evolution brings this controversy to a
final end, removes it absolutely from the realm
of living issues, and this, because it makes it clear
as the day that both sides in the controversy have
the truth with them. Each statement, taken by
itself, is a half-truth, but altogether misleading
in so far as it is exclusive of the other half. The
moral sense of man can find its origin riowhere
but in God, whose wisdom is the source and effi-
ciency of all this great scheme of things of which
we know the gradual becoming. But it has come
to be what it is only through man's ever-repeated
responses and adjustments of himself to a con-
tinually widening moral horizon. Yet the author-


ity of the moral sense is no less emphatic, no less
categorical because it has been thus gradually
evolved. Nor is it any less distinctly from God
because it has come to be what it is through a

And this brings into view a principle of the
widest scope and of great importance as a
clarifier of thought. Evolution has taught us
that the beginnings of things and of ideas, as they
come into our experience, are not significant. In
the past, whenever a belief was challenged, the
appeal was always to its genealogy, its origin in
human thought. Whence did it spring? Is it
a thing that has grown into general acceptance,
nobody knows how? Or does it come with the
brand of superior birth upon it, the prestige of
a great name or a great institution attached
to it? Was it noble and commanding from the

In the light of evolution this appeal becomes
every day of less and less significance; a change
that might, at first sight, seem like the reversal of a
deep-seated mental habit, or even the obliteration
of an instinctive demand of the moral nature.
But no such revolution is involved. The great
process does not abolish the demand for credentials.
It simply removes the appeal from a God assumed
to have given us finished products to a God Who
has worked and still works in a not-yet-completed
world, through and by the intelligent co-operation
of His creatures. Within the realm of human


origins the change has indeed been revolutionary:
and it came as a shock.

When evolution first appeared as a new hypoth-
esis of the creation of the world, the one aspect of
it that caught and held the imaginations of the
multitude was that which affected our belief in
the descent of man. Man, who had hitherto
prided himself on being the degenerate offspring
of a primitive ancestor far superior to himself,
could not easily adjust his consciousness to the
fact of a base ancestry, from which the race had
struggled upward very gradually, through the
tribulation of untold years. The manifest great-
ness of the achievement weighed but little in the
balance against the unwelcome fact of the humble
origin. The new derivation seemed somehow
to involve contemporary man in the low estate
of his far-away ancestors. If he came from the
lower animals, must not his nature be one with

This, I have said, was the aspect of evolution
that first caught our imaginations, but very soon
it was seen that this reversal of our idea of the
origin of man was only a sample, the forerunner of
a complete breaking up of our notions of begin-
nings. Nothing remained unaffected by it. The
highest, the most authoritative, the most wor-
shipful conceptions were seen to be involved
in this novel theory of derivations. They must,
one and all, acknowledge a lowly origin; and we
were brought to recognize the fact that the infant


born of humble parents in a manger at Bethlehem
was no exception to the order of becoming that
prevails in the world-process.

Let it be understood that I am speaking
only of the insignificance of origins as they
appear in our experience. That their littleness
lies only in our apprehension of them, is mani-
fest enough. The greatness to which they have
grown, proclaims at the same time the potency
that was latent in them and the greatness of
the intelligence whence they proceeded. The
standards to which they have led and are leading
in the evolution of life and thought are not only
their credentials of truth, but also the evidence
of their divine origin.

This method of reaching and holding a convic-
tion of God's reality and goodness may appear to
some as incapable of furnishing men with stable
beliefs. It may be said, If our knowledge of the
Supreme Being is the outcome of a process not-
yet-finished, our thought of Him must always be
subject to change. It can never be quite the
truth. The teachings of the past were authorita-
tive, absolute, unchangeable. They proclaimed
a God "the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever."
But the God declared in a process is like a cloud in
the sky; most beautiful, perhaps, but ever chang-
ing its form. Who can be sure that, in the evolu-
tion of human thought and feeling, any and every
conception of God so formed will not, like the
cloud, pass away absolutely? Such indeed may be


the fate of any particular image we may form of
the Invisible One. The thoughts of Him that have
succeeded and displaced each other in the human
mind are innumerable and, probably, no two per-
sons have precisely the same presentiments with
regard to Him. But this diversity of view is not
peculiar to the conception of God.

No two persons see exactly the same picture
when they look out upon the external world of
nature, or of social relations. But, with all our
differences, we see it sufficiently alike for practical
purposes. So with regard to the world of moral
values; notwithstanding great diversity in the
convictions of individuals and groups, there is a
consensus, a body of fundamental agreement to
which there has been, through all the ages, cohe-
rence and continuity. If our thought of God is
rooted in these it will have all the stability that
is required, without the rigidity that ensures
destruction whenever the growth-forces of evolu-
tion burst through the artificial formulas in which
men have tried to fetter them. These formulas,
claiming to represent absolute and immutable
truth, have been forged for the very purpose of
counteracting the tendency to variation and
instability. And through seasons of spiritual and
intellectual stagnation they have held their own,
like the vital forces that slumber in seeds that
have been carefully kept out of the reach of
vivifying influences. But when, from changed
circumstances, the time of quickening comes,


the dead form is cast off to be no more renewed.
The day of the stereotyped, certified concept has
passed. Its very absoluteness and rigidity render
its adaptations to new conditions impossible.

Clearly, if we would have agreement and sta-
bility in our thought of God we must also have
elasticity. It must be something in our experi-
ence that lives, that has grown with the growth
of human thought. More often than not, when
the old forms are discredited, those who openly
break away from them couple their denials with
affirmations of a reality that stands for them in
the place of a personal God. We have such con-
fessions of faith as, " morality in the nature of
things/ ' "a stream of tendency that makes for
righteousness," or it is the apotheosis of an ideal-
ized and worshipful humanity. These bear wit-
ness to the vitality and the indestructibility of
the conviction of goodness that lay at the heart
of the discarded formula.

The affirmations of such unbelievers are of far
more significance than their denials; for the
affirmations are replete with life and the promise
of development. The denials have no relevancy
to the real facts of the world. They concern only
the forms into which the belief in God has been
temporarily cast. The word personality may
stand for the narrowest conception of embodiment
in human form, or it may stand for the personality
of a soul, resembling the creative soul of man, only
immeasurably greater, without reference to form.


It is not difficult to conceive that the soul of a
great man may survive his body and enter upon a
sphere of activity immeasurably wider than that
of his earthly career. Following this idea we may
express our thought of God in some such words
as these. He is for each one of us the personifica-
tion of the supreme ideal. He is the living reflex
of that which is highest in the whole realm of
human thought and imagination.

Not that human thought or human imagination
have ever taken, or can take, His measure. It is
simply to say that the highest conception of good
is, or should be, at any given time in the history of
moral evolution, the God of those who entertain
it. Holding such a conception, our thought will
always be adequate to our need, and we shall
always find room for the new thought when we
have grown up to it. The stability and the
variability will be those of a growing body,
changing every day, but preserving its identity.
Elements that have outlived their usefulness
disappear, to be replaced by other elements
that are similar yet different. We, by intelli-
gent efforts, make our own brain-cells, the in-
struments of our thought and action; and they,
in turn, make us. So with our conception of
God; we have a large share in determining its
form, and it, in turn, forms us.

But, observe, it is just as true that God forms
us and also the human ideal by which we climb
to a conception of Him. We make God in our


own image because He first made us in His.
There is, it seems to me, every reason to believe
that we have reached a stage in human evolution
that will put us in possession of a thought of God
far more stable, more incontrovertible, more
restful, more sustaining, more inspiring, because
it is a growing thought of Him вАФ one that may
always be in agreement with the growing advanc-
ing world through which He is ever revealing



WE may sum up the results thus far
reached somewhat as follows. Man's
knowledge of God depends, primarily,
upon his knowledge of himself. Its initial stage
was the reflex of man's dawning self-consciousness,
and with the deepening of his moral insight and
the widening of his intellectual horizon it has ever
grown broader and deeper.

But, this is not the only source of our knowledge
of God. The great world of things which forms
our environment also expresses God, though not
so directly and intimately as the human soul
which interprets it. Both are from Him; each
throws light upon the other and upon their com-
mon author. These three, man, nature, God,
hang together and in their living relations con-
stitute our knowledge of that which is. No one
of these elements can be said to be real if regarded
out of relation to the other two. Theology is an
abstract, bloodless science unless studied through
our knowledge of man and nature. Man is an
incomprehensible fragment of reality except as he
is studied in relation to God and God's world in



which he finds himself. Nature is meaningless
until a humanly revealed God is recognized as
its indwelling principle. Theology, then, may be
said to be the explication of that factor in the
world's history which, while it is distinct both
from nature and from man, profoundly influences
both. It is a progressive science to which every
part of our knowledge is germane! And since God
and man and nature are involved in one great
process, we must seek and expect to find general
principles that hold throughout.

Our study of evolution from the outside brought
us to the conclusion that the animated world is
essentially the outcome of co-operative agencies,
of a supreme intelligence working in and with
its creatures, constraining them to multiform
activities which contribute not alone to their
immediate advantage, but which also, through
the persistence of co-operation, carry them to
an advanced place on the scale of being. By
the study of the same process from within we
were able to reach, through the facts of man's
moral constitution, some important deductions as
to the character of God. Man's moral and aes-
thetic discernments, the innate sense of obligation
accompanying these, his instinctive desire to know
and to worship a being higher and better than
himself, and in general his idealizing faculty,
were instanced as evidences of the beneficence of
the Being whom he calls his Maker. This is the
beginning, the rudiments of an argument that we


must now follow out through many departments
of experience.


Hitherto, we have been regarding life in its
static aspect, we have arrested its flow to make
investigation of its essential characteristics ; or, in
other words, we have examined the fruits of evo-
lution. Now, we must return to the consideration
of the not-yet-finished process and investigate the
living, never-ceasing stream of influences that work
within and without us. The study of these ought
to furnish us with a progressive knowledge of what
God is doing, as the former examination acquainted
us with a knowledge of what He has done. For
evolution implies a God Who is still creating, Who
is now engaged in a most significant part of the
process, and also a God Who has taken man into

The influences that work within us divide
themselves naturally into two classes. First,
those that are intimately bound up with our own
personality, that seem to arise from a spontaneous
initiative out of the depths of our inherited and
acquired constitutions; and second, those that
seem to visit us, like ministering angels, from some
power not ourselves. To the first class belong all
those inward propulsions toward certain more or
less definite lines of action which we call instincts.
They are the master motives of our lives, and some
of them date back their origin to the very begin-


nings of organization. Others have manifestly
emerged high up on the scale, but all of them are

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Online LibraryFrancis Howe JohnsonGod in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology → online text (page 8 of 22)