Francis Howe Johnson.

God in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology online

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influences that are subject to modification. The
oldest and most persistent, as well as the later, are
open to innumerable transformations.

It has been said that man is a bundle of in-
stincts. But it is quite as true that these instincts
are continually adjusting and readjusting them-
selves to new conditions, exhibiting, now on this
side and now on that, adaptations and activities
hitherto unknown. The most interesting and
vitally important of these adjustments are those
which obtain in view of the direct efforts of the
human will.

The individual has immense power over his
inherited instincts. It is for him to say which
shall hold the places of honour and power in his
life and which shall be subordinate and tributary.
Not those which he finds seated in the place of
leadership are necessarily to remain in that posi-
tion. The appointing power is his, if so be he has
the strength of will to exercise it. By the per-
sistent application of will power he may organize
his inherited instincts into a government of related
habits that transform him from a bundle of
instincts into a human personality of established
character — an organic, serviceable unity, not a
mere aggregation. Not that this is the only
source of variation of instinct. In human beings
the inheritance that comes to each individual has
been already profoundly modified in his ancestors.


But before following out this most important
question of modifications, let us glance for a
moment at the derivation of the motive powers
which collectively we call instinct. We have said
that it comes to us by inheritance ; but let us not
be deceived into thinking that we have explained
the origin of instinct when we have dignified a mere
transmitting agency with the name ''principle of
heredity." Not one ray of light does this principle
of heredity throw upon the origin of the guiding
influences that have worked the works of intelli-
gence for the animated creation.

In our analogical interpretation of evolution
we found it necessary to postulate two sources of
intelligence, that of the Creator and that of the
creature. Everywhere the study of nature, as
well as of human experience, discloses a sharing
of responsibility between these two intelligent
factors. And furthermore, it discloses a contin-
ual change in the proportions of the responsibil-
ity resting upon each. The principle seems to be
that just so much of the management of its own
affairs as it is equal to, is laid upon the creature.
This, combined with the recognition of the fact
that man, notwithstanding his increased intel-
lectual endowments, is still very largely dependent
upon instinct, has opened our eyes to the con-
tinuity of the great process as nothing else could
have done. And here, as elsewhere, the principle
of continuity declares itself an invaluable ally to a
sound theory.


The old conception of instinct, that it was, in
the animals below man, the only guide to action,
the only substitute for intelligence, and conversely,
that in man, government by instinct recedes to a
vanishing point, was, in its theological bearings, an
error of far-reaching consequences. It was an idea
that most effectually isolated man. The animals
below man were still the wards of the Creator. He
did their thinking for them. But man, having been
endowed with intelligence, was set off to shift for
himself, and, according to the old theology, he
had so abused his liberty that he had become an
outcast, a repudiated part of the great family.
But, by the recognition of the persistence of
instinct through all stages of the great process,
God is known as an ever-present factor in the
life of man; and as our knowledge of the condi-
tions under which we live increases, the more we
are obliged to expand our thought of an intelligence
working with us that is not our intelligence, but
that of a Being immeasurably superior.

And when, looking in the other direction, we
push, by the aid of the microscope, our investi-
gations back to the simplest beginnings of ani-
mated life, we find no break in the continuity,
only a progressive change in the proportional
efficiency of the two intelligent factors. The
farther back we go, the more difficult does it
become to trace indications of intelligence on the
part of the creature. And, on the other hand, it
is just here that we encounter the most impressive


instances of apparent clairvoyance as related to
future requirements.

In the development of the egg from the single
nucleated cell, through the successive stages of the
multiplication and differentiation of cells, we have
an epitome of the history of creation through its
myriad forms of ever-increasing complexity. In no
part of the whole process is the foresight of condi-
tions and requirements lying in the far-away future
so wonderfully evidenced as in those which lie
nearest to the beginning. Or, if we confine our
attention to a single instance of passing from a
given form of established organized life to the one
next above it, the evidence of intelligent foresight,
of the clear understanding of future necessities, and
of provision to meet them is simply coercive in its

As we have said, many of our instincts date
back to the very beginnings of organized life.
But there are many others that have made their
appearance only since the advent of human life,
and they have been introduced into the order of
that life by the initiative of a higher intelligence,
as clearly as any of the more rudimentary ones.
Some of these are coercive, some are of the nature
of inclinations, solicitations. They are not de-
veloped in the same measure in all the individuals
of the race. Some of the most masterful, like the
instinct for self-realization, is very feebly devel-
oped in many, and may be easily discouraged in a
vast number.


These more recently developed instincts being
very much subject to our control and dependent
on our wills for their development, are related to
our destinies something as are the forces of nature
in the midst of which we find ourselves. They are
great motive powers, full of possibilities for the
expansion and perfection of human life. But with-
out effort on the part of those in whom they make
their appearance, they run to waste. When that
effort of the individual is supplied, there is experi-
enced in response to it an additional and gratuitous
assistance from an intelligence not ours, supple-
menting ours, and carrying it and our effort to
issues beyond our expectations. This assisting,
supplemental intelligence is illustrated in every
invention, in every great poetical and musical
composition, in constructive triumphs of every
kind that have been reached by the overcoming
of difficulties. Let us observe what happens in
such cases.

The inventor or the composer enters upon his
task with only the vaguest notion of what he is
about to do. A more or less defined requirement
of life is to be provided for, or some new form of
expression of dimly understood thoughts or emo-
tions is to be created; and he has within him
an instinctive feeling that he is called to achieve
this particular thing. He first brings his will to
bear by concentrating his attention. His memory
of past experiences comes to his aid. It suggests
how similar situations have been met, and thus


supplies materials. A constructive tendency of
mind, which has perhaps been trained into a habit,
carries him on its unnoticed current. And some-
how, in obedience to these combined influences, a
mystery of mysteries takes place. The nerve-
cells of his brain organize themselves in elaborate
and often absolutely new combinations, which
present themselves to his critical judgment in the
form of ideas.

These we will say are only partially satisfactory.
They are not in all respects what he wants. But,
these reports have given him a far clearer notion
of what he does want. The vagueness is in a
measure disappearing. The requirements are,
so to speak, sent back to the brain restated.
Progress has been made, a new combination of
nerve-cells is formed and again reported. It is
as if the governor of a partially developed country,
impressed with the necessity of improvements in
certain directions, and with some general notions
of what these should be, called to his aid a special-
ist. Laying before him the outline of the situa-
tion to be met, and his general scheme with regard
to it, he submits to him the working out of the
problem and the filling in of details.

In other words, our invariable experience, in all
such cases, points to the existence of an intelli-
gence-not-ours that co-operates with ours and
supplements it. Our intelligence, our will-power,
our critical judgment, and our persistence are
most important factors in the constructive work,


but they would accomplish nothing without the
co-operation of that other intelligent agent, who
is more closely in touch with the secrets of being
than we are.

It is needless for us to distress ourselves, in
this connection, with the thought of our littleness
and insignificance as compared with the Supreme
Ruler of the universe. Though we trace the
assistance of which we are conscious, in the last
result, to Him, there is no reason why we should
conceive the administration of His great realm
of spirit to be organized on principles radically
different from those which obtain in human
governments. On the contrary, there is every
reason why we should assume a hierarchy of
spiritual agents in a world where the hierarchical
principle is so broadly and variously exemplified.

The conception of a God Who acts everywhere
and directly in all the details of the universe
without intermediate agencies is not only crude
and cumbersome, but without analogical support
from any experience of ours. While, on the
other hand, the alternative conception of a God
Who is served by an innumerable host of subordi-
nates, each in some particular position of trust,
quite corresponds with what we know of the
possibilities of mind, and in no way opens the
door to polytheistic constructions. It is perhaps
wisely ordered that we should have no definite
knowledge of these subordinate agents, lest, cap-
tured by them, our imaginations should fail


to rise in recognition and worship to the one
source of all power, wisdom, and love.


Now, let us ask, are we able to state in a few
words the principles of which the above considera-
tions are the expression? Is it possible to com-
press them into a formula which we can carry
with us as a talisman through all the vicissitudes
of life? At first sight it would seem as if the
difficulties to be overcome were almost insur-
mountable. Such a formula must be the state-
ment of a dual agency, expressed in terms of
God and man. It must take a paradoxical form,
because each side of it must be as clearly defined
and as strongly emphasized as if it constituted
the whole. But, we are spared the necessity of
invention, for in the ancient repository of our
inherited wisdom we find a form that, with its
rust knocked off, will admirably serve our needs.

Like a dormant seed, this formula of twelve
words has been slumbering through the Christian
centuries till a congenial soil should be prepared
for it. It contains in itself a whole theology.
When, under a different figure, I spoke of knocking
off its rust, the reference was to the very unsatis-
factory state in which we find the word salvation.
To some extent in theological constructions, and


largely in popular thought, this word has in the
past taken on a specialized meaning. Through
long ages it has meant escape, in a future life, from
the penal consequences of earthly misdemeanours.
Men thought of it only as exemption from physical
or mental punishment for their sins. It seemed
to them a condition not flowing directly and neces-.
sarily from the natures they might have formed for
themselves, but a sentence pronounced upon them
from an outside source, a doom that might be es-
caped in something the same way that penalties
are escaped on earth by bribing the judge.

A very different view of salvation is set before
us by the processes of nature. Here is an egg.
It makes, to the eye, no declaration of what it
can do; yet we know from experience that its
possibilities are very great. But we know also
from experience that the realization of these pos-
sibilities is conditional. It is a most perishable
thing. Only a few of the countless millions of
eggs that are produced are ever anything more
than eggs. Now salvation, as applied to an egg,
may mean a variety of things. It may mean
escape from being devoured as food; it may
survive the chances of neglect; it may pass
safely through the first stages of incubation or
all the stages. But none of these escapes con-
stitutes, in the largest sense, salvation. That is
fully realized only when it has passed through all
the successive stages of its normal becoming to
the maturity of the organism that it is fitted to


become. The same is true of every kind of germ-
life, souls included.

In the case of souls, it is true, the problem is a
thousand times more complicated, but the prin-
ciple is the same. The salvation of a soul is the
full and progressive realization of the highest
things possible to it. Creation and salvation are
therefore cognate terms. We might even say
that in principle they are synonymous. If we
associate the word creation with the beginning of
a process, salvation is the continuance of it, —
its rescue, at every successive step, from destruc-
tion. Evolution gives us a scientific phrase for
this kind of salvation which has a startling,
though unintentional, resemblance to the phrase-
ology of the originator of Christianity. The
scientific word is survival. The phrase of the
religious teacher is eternal life, escape from death
by the continuation of the process that has
brought it into being. Salvation, then, is the
rescue not only of a soul, but also of a process
from premature ending, or misdirection.

With this understanding of the word salvation
I return to the statement that our formula con-
tains within itself a whole theology. I believe
it is capable of furnishing us with the foundations
of an eminently symmetrical, evenly balanced
theology. It sets before us, in one comprehensive
view, the agency of the two great factors in theo-
logical thought, emphasizes them equally, and
exhibits their vital relations to each other. It


should give us, moreover, a coherent theology.
For although its statement is paradoxical, sug-
gesting almost a contradiction, this appearance
of contrariety vanishes upon its application. And,
since it is not the outcome of the dissection of
our concrete, real knowledge, but a deliverance
in terms of actuality, it can always be submitted
to this test of application by the attempt to live
it. Whatever superstructure is built upon it may,
or rather must, be referred to the facts of human
experience for approval : and its constructions are
always open to correction from the standpoint of
our ever-expanding knowledge.

It is, furthermore, capable of giving us a work-
able theology, because it is expressed in terms of
action. It sets out, not by telling us in elaborate
definitions what God necessarily must be, not by
defining, on the side of man, the characteristics
of his moral constitution and the relations in
which he stands to a God abstractly set forth,
but it tells us, in no hesitating words, what God
does in His world and what man has to do.

That this great and pregnant formula should
have lain dormant so long is not to be wondered
at when we consider its relations to some of the
doctrines which have through the ages held sway
in the church. In one form or another, it is
true, both clauses of our formula were recog-
nized by the Church of Rome. Under its own
supervision, it fostered the first as a vital prin-
ciple in the government of men. The activities


which it prescribed for working out one's own
salvation were various, but they admit of clas-
sification in two kinds which, to some extent,
overlap each other.

On the one hand there was the conception of a
salvation to be purchased by the conciliation of an
offended God. This, the survival of a very ancient
form of belief that expressed itself through all the
phases of paganism in sacrifices, has held its own
to some extent in nearly every form of organized
Christianity. True, the one great sacrifice had
been substituted for the many. By that, God was
said to have been propitiated and the demands
of justice, once for all, satisfied. But, between the
realization of the benefits acquired by this and
the devout Catholic, there extends the indefinite
vista of purgatorial punishments, and the reduc-
tion of these has always been an incentive to the
working out of what appeals to the imagination
as a very real salvation.

But the methods prescribed contemplated out-
ward activities rather than inward changes. It
was a salvation to be purchased, an indebtedness
to be worked off, a definite amount of punish-
ment due, to be proportionately reduced by
charities, by mortifications, or by the payment of
money for special intercessions on the part of the

In contrast to this, though sometimes combined
with it, was a conception of salvation and a
method of securing it much nearer to that taught


by evolution. It was nearer in that the salva-
tion, laboured for, was to be achieved, not by a
change in the attitude of another being, but in
the disposition and characteristics of the indi-
vidual to be saved. Asceticism, in so far as its
motive was the subjugation of the natural man
and the achievement of a higher personality, was
vitally in touch with the morality of our day.
But it was radically different both in its concep-
tion of the personality to be worked for and in
its methods. These latter, as essentially negative
and destructive, were the reverse of those of an
evolutional morality, which are constructive and
progressive, and only in a subsidiary way, repres-
sive. The ruling principle of asceticism was
depletion, the getting rid of life's natural exuber-
ance, which was assumed to be incompatible with
the ascendancy of the spiritual part of man:
fastings and vigils, the neglect of cleanliness and
the ordinary laws of health, the closing of all the
avenues of mental stimulation and growth, in
short, the virtual suppression of the whole being
for the elimination of the evil incidental to its
natural activities.

The ruling principle of evolution, on the other
hand, is nutrition, the building up and strengthen-
ing of every faculty, the fostering of every interest
that promises an increase of life, and then, the use
of this accumulated power for the control of the
whole man and for the development of the interest
which declares itself to be the highest.


Asceticism found a warrant for its ideals and
methods in some of the sayings of Our Lord which,
taken by themselves, seem to be its endorsement.
But it is much more ancient than Christianity. It
is a natural growth of the human soul becoming
conscious of itself and of the warring elements
that contend within it for the mastery. It has
its grand qualities notwithstanding its mistaken
ideals and methods. In its recognition of a
better self to be worked for, of a warfare to be
waged, of a degradation to be escaped, it was the
expression of instincts that are the spring of all
higher moral evolution and salvation. But as it
was a fight against nature, a reversal of the law of
constructive evolution, it was doomed to failure;
and the demonstration of its practical futility
helped to bring discredit on any and every attempt
to work out one's own salvation.

Theoretically, Protestant orthodoxy excluded
our formula more absolutely than Roman. Its
substitution of salvation by faith for that of
prescribed works, its doctrine of inability, elec-
tion, etc., seemed to leave no room for the practice
of the first half of it. But, the exigencies of the
actual dominated the situation. Militant Prot-
estantism, forced to work out its immediate salva-
tion in the midst of a hostile environment, was
in little danger of losing its virility by reposing on
a theoretical salvation that had been, or was to
be, worked out for it. " Trust in God and keep
your powder dry" was its motto. The removal


of the barrier of the church had, moreover, brought
men face to face with the fact of God. And the
men of the early days of Protestantism felt God,
and knew God working in them, with an intensity
proportioned to the conviction that they were His
chosen instruments for the execution of a great

And again, the Protestantism of that day was
strongly tinctured with the spirit of asceticism.
The subjugation of self through the suppression
of natural instincts, the banishment of joy and
of much that ministers to the sense of beauty and
the refinements of life, were in the line of working
out an impoverished kind of salvation; and a
salvation it was to many souls. For, though
pursued in defiance of theology and under the
inspiration of inadequate and often misleading
ideals, it was heroic work accompanied by a con-
viction of the approval of a righteous and all-
seeing God. The appointments of man might do
much to thwart, but they could not prevent the
grace of God from working out salvation in
response to the sincere efforts of his creatures.

Protests against the traditional theology were
made now and again ; and the first clause of our
formula was emphasized by dissenting bodies as
the expression of the only true way of salvation.
But the strength of such movements was largely
absorbed in negations, in protests against the
assumptions of the old, rather than in whole-
souled efforts to frame an affirmative doctrine


that should be a constructive power in the hearts
and lives of men. The time had not come for
such a reconstruction. But, we can see how these
critical protests were preparing the way for it
when the history of the world should have become
transformed in the light of evolution.

The doctrines of our inherited theology were,
in great measure, the counterparts of the condi-
tions in which they originated. The expansion of
those conditions not only cleared the way for,
but necessitated a like expansion in theology.
The change required was much like that which
characterized the passing of the crude science of
the Middle Ages with its alchemy and its as-
trology, its mixture of fact and superstition, into
the modern science of research, inference, and



HAVING made the assumption that our
formula, "Work out your own salva-
tion, it is God that worketh in you,"
is a comprehensive expression of the religious
content of evolution, we must now see if it will
stand the test of our method. At this stage in
the discussion we hold it only as a working
hypothesis. We must proceed to make applica-
tions of it, now on this side and now on that, to
the actualities of experience. So doing we shall
progressively establish its truth, if it be true,
and at the same time instruct ourselves as to the
possibility and means of a satisfactory realization
of it.

Hitherto, for the sake of exhibiting it as an
integral truth, we have glanced alternately at
the contrasted sides of its dual reality. In what
follows I will ask the reader to follow me in a
closer and longer look at the first clause of it.
"Work out your own salvation." If we give
ourselves time to take in the full meaning of this
appeal it will carry us right into the heart of life's
most urgent problems. One of these, the ques-



tion of its morality, its relation to the exhortation,
"Live for others," I will not enter upon now, as
we shall meet it at a subsequent stage of the

First, let us give attention to the similarity
of the first clause of our formula to that phrase
which expresses, in the most succinct form, the
motive power of all evolution, — "The struggle

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Online LibraryFrancis Howe JohnsonGod in evolution: a pragmatic study of theology → online text (page 9 of 22)