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Imperfect and Perfect Theism

James Freeman Clarke

Chapter 4 from the book, Steps of Belief (1870).

The subject of the present chapter is, Imperfect and Perfect Theism.

Perfect theism is the belief in a perfect Being, above all things, through all things, and in all things. A perfect Being is one who unites in himself all the good which belongs to finite beings, and carries that good to perfection. Existence is a good belonging to finite beings, without which no other good is possible. But the existence of finite beings is contingent and dependent. Existence, made perfect, becomes necessary and independent. God's being is therefore necessary being, or, as we now say, He is the absolute Being. Again, reason or intelligence is a good belonging to finite beings. Carried to perfection, it becomes infinite wisdom or omniscience. Again, power is a good; and this, carried to perfection, is omnipotence. Once more, the finite being becomes more perfect, as, by means of a higher organization and finer senses, it comes more fully into communion with nature. A perfect communion with nature would be what we call omnipresence, or God all in all. In the same way, a perfect Being must be perfect in love, or an infinite Giver; perfectly free, or not limited by an external or internal force stronger than himself; and therefore perfectly self-conscious, or entirely disengaged from blind impulses and instincts.

If this is perfect theism, it is easy to point out the different varieties of imperfect theism. We shall proceed to do this. Any view of God which limits his power, wisdom, goodness, freedom; or makes these doubtful, —is, so far, an imperfect form of theism.

Of these varieties of imperfect theism, we will specify the following:

I. Nature-worship. —Theism appears in this form in many of the Hymns of the Vedas, and in the Gathas of the Zend-Avesta. God is contemplated as immersed in nature, —personified, but not personal, —as a presence in the sun, the winds, the fire, the water, the clouds, the dawn, the stars. He is thus a blind, though often a beneficent, force. He is in nature, and so far is truly conceived. But he is not above nature; and therefore is neither intelligent, personal, nor free.

II. Polytheism. —This is the first reaction against naturalistic pantheism, and the first development of personality. Will, choice, intelligence, benevolence, —all may appear in this conception of Deity. But unity, infinity, and universality are absent. The polytheistic view conceives of God correctly, as through all things; but not as above all things. A group of finite deities, all imperfect, do not make an infinite Deity. In the Greek mythology, —the highest form of polytheism, —the gods are only larger, more beautiful, more intelligent, and more powerful men and women. But all are limited by defects, weaknesses, and imperfections.

III. Idolatry. —Polytheism almost always ultimates in idolatry. But idolatry, in its essence, often appears in Christianity as well as in paganism.

In giving a bodily form to God, and locating him in one place, idolatry limits his omnipresence. Then God acts through the visible idol, where that is, and does not act elsewhere. And so when we speak of the sabbath as a holy day, of the church as a holy place, of the Bible as a holy book, we are in danger of idolatry; just as Catholics are when they worship the Virgin of Fourvières at Lyons, San Gennaro at Naples, or St. Lawrence at Genoa. Reverence for what is good, true, and noble is not idolatry. To reverence the truth in the Bible, or to love the rest, peace, and worship of the Lord's day, is not idolatry. To reverence St. Francis of Assisi, or any other good man, is not idolatry. But we begin to idolize men, books, creeds, churches, whenever we worship the body and the outward form, instead of the spirit which it contains and conveys. Therefore Jesus teaches his disciples to begin their prayer by saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven;" therefore he tells the woman of Samaria, "Neither in this mountain, nor yet in Jerusalem, shall men worship the father." Idolatry is worshipping the form instead of the spirit, the means instead of the end, the body instead of the soul.

IV. Pantheism. —The opposite error to that of idolatry is pantheism, and this is also an imperfect theism. Idolatry confines God to places, times, and forms: pantheism puts him in all things, which is right; but goes further, and says that all things are God, which is wrong. When we make all things equally divine, we take away all moral character from the Deity, and he becomes only the blind soul of nature. Then we destroy also morality in man. Right and wrong become equally a part of God; and sin is a divine manifestation, no less than goodness.

No doubt, true theism comes very close to pantheism. It grazes pantheism, but avoids it. Many texts in the New Testament have an extremely pantheistic sound; but none express the fundamental idea of pantheism. When Paul says of God, "From whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things;" when he teaches that God is "above all, and through all, and in us all;" when he tells the Athenians that "in him we live and move and have our being," —he teaches the truth in pantheism which corrects the mechanical theory of the universe. God is not like a mechanic, who makes the world out of some foreign substance, and then sets it in motion, and goes away and leaves it. He is the present, continued, constant Creator. The mechanical view implied in the account of creation of Genesis is corrected by Jesus. The book of Genesis says that God "rested on the seventh day." Jesus says (John v. 17), "My Father worketh hitherto" (heos arti, down to this time). God is the immanent, and not the transient, cause of the universe. He creates it, not as one candle is lighted from another, but as the image of the sun is made on the surface of water. The candle lights the other, and then is taken away. The sun continues to create its image, without cessation. Hildebert, in his hymn, says of the Deity:

"Super cuncta, subter cuncta:

Extra cuncta, intra cuncta;

Intra cuncta, nec inclusus;

Extra cuncta, nec exclusus;
Super totus proesidendo,
Subter totus sustinendo;
Extra totus complectendo,
Intra totus in complendo," &c.

This is the true view of God in all things, and all things in God. But when it is carried a single step further, and we say that God is every thing, and that every thing is God, we confound all distinctions. Then right and wrong, good and evil, light and darkness, man and God, are fatally confused. Then a moral and spiritual death comes over the soul and over society, as the history of Hindu theism has shown.

V. Nescience. —The next form of imperfect theism is found in the metaphysical doctrine of nescience. This doctrine admits the existence of God, but denies that we can know any thing about him. This is the doctrine of such writers as Hamilton, Mansel, and Herbert Spencer; the latter, a thinker much admired, but who, though an acute metaphysician, seems to us to be a poor philosopher. He considers an "unknown God" as the highest attainment of theology and philosophy. He says: "The deepest, widest, and most certain of all facts is that the power which the universe manifests is wholly inscrutable." It will be seen that this is using against theology its own favorite doctrine of mystery. Theologians, when pressed with the absurdities of their systems, and shown that their creeds contradict the simplest laws of reason, nature, common sense, and every instinct of the soul, have cried out, "It is a mystery! We must believe it; but we cannot understand it." And now Mr. Spencer and others say, "Yes: all theology is a mystery. We can know nothing about it. We must let it all alone, and devote ourselves to practical matters, to things of this world. God exists; but we know nothing about him. Therefore we have nothing to do with theology or religion, and cannot believe any thing about either." Thus mystery, pushed too far, has destroyed belief.

The origin of this doctrine of nescience seems to be a confusion between understanding a fact and comprehending it. We know a great many things which we cannot comprehend. We know that space is infinite; but who can comprehend infinity? The ideas of infinite space and infinite time are perfectly simple and intelligible notions. We understand perfectly both ideas, but we comprehend neither. Our mind, being finite, can by no possibility comprehend the infinite. That is, our knowledge of it is correct in quality, but limited in quantity. We hold it firmly, but cannot grasp it all. A child knows his father correctly; but how imperfectly does he comprehend him! So I can know God truly; I can understand truly what infinite wisdom, power, and goodness mean; but how little do I comprehend of their vast range, of their immense plan, of their enormous depth, breadth, height! "Who by searching can find out God? Who can find out the Almighty to perfection?"

VI. Law and Cause. —The next imperfect theism makes of the Deity a law, and not an intelligent Cause. Natural science looks only at facts and laws, and sometimes forgets that a law is only a method of working, and that behind all law there must be power. A legislature passes a law declaring that no intoxicating liquor shall be sold in any of the shops of the State; and presently no liquor is sold in some places, while it continues to be sold in other places. Behind the law, in one place, is a power — namely, the power of public opinion — which enforces the law. Behind the law in another place is no such power, and therefore it is not enforced.

Natural science observes facts, and infers laws. It observes, for example, that the best organized plants and animals live, while others die; that these best organized plants, by an organic law, communicate their qualities to their successors, and so form a permanent variety. Hence it infers the law of progress, by which the strongest creatures live and the weaker die. Thus, all the varieties of plants and animals, and all the progress of these from the lowest germ and cell up to man, are accounted for by law. Be it so. Theology has no quarrel at all with science, while science shows how things come to exist. But to show how they come, is not to show why they come. Law is not power; law is not intelligence; law is not goodness. Law itself implies a law-maker and a law-enforcer; and, if the law works for the general good, that the law-maker and law-enforcer is also beneficent. That is, the law implies wisdom, power, and goodness behind it.

Science, therefore, produces imperfect theism, not while it is genuine science, but when it goes out of its province of observing facts and inferring laws, and assumes that these facts and laws are sufficient to account for the universe.

VII. Positivism. —Another imperfect theism is positivism. Positivism declares that we only know what we get at through the senses; and as the senses only perceive phenomena, that we can only know phenomena. It declares that there is nothing but
phenomena and their succession, of which we can know any thing. Of causes we can know nothing, but only of phenomena and their laws.

The fatal weakness of this system, wherever it comes to light, —whether as taught by Comte in its integrity, or taught in a more diluted form by others, —is that it assumes that there is only one way by which knowledge can enter the mind; namely, by the senses. It assumes it, but does not prove it, or seriously try to prove it.

The Bible says, and says correctly, that "spiritual things are spiritually discerned." Man has various organs by which he discerns various realities. Each class of realities is discerned through its own organ. In externals, we know this well enough. We never
expect to see with our hands, or to smell with our ears. We know that we cannot do a sum in the rule of three by our nose, or taste with our tongue the proper translation of a Greek sentence. Visible things, we know, are optically discerned, by the eyes; audible things are discerned audibly, by the ears; tangible things are discerned by the touch; logical things
are detected by the reason; emotions of the soul are perceived by the consciousness; historical facts are reported by the memory. We do not deny the existence of Julius Cesar, because we cannot touch him; nor the fragrance of a rose, because we cannot hear it. Nor do we deny the existence of hope and fear, love and hatred, because these cannot be perceived by the sense. Why, then, doubt the reality of spiritual things, because they must be spiritually discerned?

VIII. Theology of Will. —But there is yet another form of imperfect theism, which is more common. It is that popular theology which makes God a tyrant, and man a slave; which divorces the divine will from his justice and his love, and so makes it an arbitrary and despotic will. The powerful Augustinian theology, revived and renewed by Calvin, taught that God from the beginning created some men to be saved and some to be lost. Without any regard to their goodness or their wickedness, he saves some, because he chooses to do so; without any regard to their wickedness or their goodness, he damns others, because he chooses to do so. This substitutes, in the place of the infinite and perfect God, an arbitrary, imperfect, and willful Power. Infinite will—divorced in our thought from infinite justice, wisdom, and love—is less perfect than infinite will allied to these. The God of Calvin is therefore an imperfect God, unable or unwilling to save all his creatures; able and willing to save only a part of them.

Calvinism, in its form of election and arbitrary decrees, is fast passing away. It does not exist in the Episcopal or Methodist Churches, hardly among the Orthodox Congregationalists and New-School Presbyterians; and holds its place with difficulty among the Old School Presbyterians in the South and Southwest. But one doctrine which deforms theology and dishonors God, still remains in all the orthodox churches. It is the doctrine of everlasting punishment, in the other world, for the sins committed in this life. No church, claiming to be orthodox, has yet dared to repudiate this awful doctrine, which is more injurious to the character of the Almighty than all the blasphemies of the impious, and all the denials of the atheist. For what does it assert? That God keeps his children in existence forever, merely to torment them forever; inflicting on each one an amount of suffering infinitely greater than all the pangs of the martyrs, and all the agonies of the sufferers, who have been in the world since the world began. Add together the tortures inflicted by the tyrants and despots in all time, the auto-da-fes of the Inquisitions, the cruel torments of every battle-field of history, the solitary sufferings from disease, accident, moral and mental anguish, —add them together, and when an equivalent to all has been suffered by one soul, his suffering has only begun. All the sufferings of time added together, are finite; and if they end at last in universal and infinite bliss, —no matter how far off that consummation may be, —they are mathematically and logically nothing when compared with the succeeding joy. But let one soul suffer to all eternity, and his solitary suffering infinitely outweighs the anguish borne in all time in all the worlds of the universe. If suffering is finite, and final bliss is universal and infinite, then suffering disappears, and is reduced to nothing. But if suffering is infinite, then evil shares the throne of the universe with God, then God is no longer universal sovereign. "He wills to have all men saved," says the Scripture. Is he unable to save them? Either he is deficient in goodness, and so does not wish to save them; or he is deficient in wisdom, and does not know how to save them; or he is deficient in power, and is not able to save them. In either case, he is not a perfect Being. Thus the doctrine of everlasting punishment dethrones God, and leaves him the servant of some dark fate outside of himself.

It is no answer to this, to say that God allows evil to exist here in time. For we have seen that all the sufferings of time are mathematically nothing, compared with the bliss of eternity. All finite suffering, however great, is as nothing when compared with everlasting happiness afterward.

We will close this chapter by giving a brief resume of our argument thus far.

If we are asked, "Why do you believe in God?" we may give the following answer:

I believe in God, because I am made to believe in him. If I became an atheist, I should be obliged to silence the voice of my soul, the instincts of my higher being, the voice of my reason, the dictates of nature, the aspirations of the spirit rising above the finite to the infinite, the longings of my heart for an almighty and perfect Friend. I am so made that I have no peace, no rest, no satisfaction in the present, no hope in the future, but in the faith that —above all that is dark, blind, and mechanical in the universe; behind all that is mysterious and sad, —there sits supreme one infinite Master, who is at the same time an infinite Benefactor, an endless Lover of his creatures.

Secondly, I believe in God because I see everywhere, in nature and the outward world, the proofs of a boundless intelligence. I see everywhere adaptation, and infer design; everywhere order, law, beauty, harmony. All Nature sings a song of praise to God. Opening spring, which unbinds the pod, announces his coming, with numerous flowers, birds, and returning life. The long summer days, filled with joy, speak of him. Him the abounding autumn, him the solemn winter, proclaim. His praise is sung by the winds, which blow from four quarters of the heavens; and by the majesty and terror of the storm. The mighty ocean chants his praise in its tumultuous surges, and its immeasurable smile. The mountains, great sentinels of nature, in their perpetual calm and snowy purity, praise God with their sky-piercing peaks. Coming day, and the rising sun, pouring light over the earth, tell of his goodness; and night, with its solemn multitude of fires, shows to us his infinite power. I believe in God, because nature is full of him; in all its order, its beauty, its manifold variety, its infinite adaptation.

Again, I believe in God because the universal testimony of man, from the dawn of time, bears witness to the divine reality. Faintly or clearly, all people, nations, and languages have seen the presence of God in the world, —sometimes, as in a glass darkly, involved in superstition and error; sometimes in clearer light and beauty. Polytheism and monotheism, Jew and Gentile, Brahmin and Buddhist; the negro of Africa with his Fetich; the Scandinavian with his faith in Valhalla; the solemn mystery of the Egyptian shrines with their long arcades of sphinxes and obelisks; the Acropolis at Athens glittering in its snowy marble beauty, its exquisite temples, its innumerable statues; Rome with its altars; the isles of the ocean; the ancient worship of Mexico and Peru, and the Great Spirit of the Indian, —all attest the fact, that wherever man has lived, he has looked out of time into eternity, and has seen some gleams of a divine power above and beyond the earth.

Once more, I believe in God, because the wisest and best of the race have risen always out of superstition on the one side, and unbelief on the other, to the sight of one infinite and perfect Being. The Hymns of the Vedas, in their highest strains, announce one supreme God. The great teacher of ancient Persia, Zoroaster, discloses the God of light and truth and goodness, as the highest power. Greece, by the voice of her best and greatest philosophers, announces the same truth. No one in the Old World taught a purer theism than Socrates; no one demonstrated the purity and perfection of the Deity more plainly than Aristotle. Plato says, "Around the King of all, are all things; and he is the cause of all good." Euripides declares, "God sees all things, and is himself unseen." The Pythagoreans said, "God is one. He is not, as some suppose, outside this frame of things, but within it. In all the entireness of his being, he is in the whole circle of existence, surveying all nature, and blending in harmonious union the whole; Giver of light in heaven, and Father of all; the mind and life of the whole world; Mover of all things." Sophocles says:

"One in truth, one is God,
Who made both heaven and the far-reaching earth,
And ocean's blue wave and the mighty winds.
But many of us mortals, deceived in heart,
Have set up for ourselves, as a consolation in our affliction,
Images of the gods, of stone or wood or brass or gold or ivory,
And worship these with vain sacrifices."

And Orpheus, as quoted by Clement of Alexandria, says: " I shall utter to whom it is lawful; but let the doors be closed against all the profane. Walk in the straight path to the immortal and only King of the universe. For he is one, self-proceeding. From him all things come: his power is in all. No mortal sees him; but he sees all."

And so Cicero says of the Romans: "Some nations, conscript fathers, excel us, —as do the Spaniards in numbers, the Gauls in physical strength, the Carthaginians in cunning, the Greeks in art; but we, the Romans, surpass all others in piety, in religion, and that one wisdom which sees that all things are governed and directed by the will of the immortal gods."

And from among all the great thinkers of modern times, who have proclaimed a pure theism, -- from Erigena to Descartes, Newton, Leibnitz, Locke, let me select one sentence from Lord Bacon. Lord Bacon says: "I had rather believe all the fables in the Legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind. It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion; for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity."

Again, I believe in God because this faith is the great spring of human progress. Faith in God gives courage, hope, energy, to men; and the nearer the faith approaches to true theism, the greater is its power to carry men upward and onward. The slave, in his chains, strengthened by this faith, is stronger than his tyrant. It nerves the arm of the patriot, fighting the battles of freedom. When Paul crossed the blue Aegean, carrying faith in one living God to Europe, he inspired a new life in the decaying mass of the Roman empire, and founded modern civilization. When Mohammed taught his wild Arab tribes to renounce idolatry, and accept one God, he created the seeds of a civilization which illuminated Europe for many hundred years. When Luther defied Rome, in the name of a faith purified from its corruptions, and Gustavus Adolphus died fighting for freedom of spirit, they planted the germs of modern art, science, literature. When the Puritans fought at Naseby, under Cromwell, and when they founded New England, for the sake of a reformed reformation, they gave a stimulus to human civilization and human progress which has not yet ceased to operate in Europe and America. All nations which have made progress in art, literature, science, or social life, have been inspired with a faith, more or less clear, in the invisible and eternal. Let atheism, or semi-atheism, or a low, superstitious theism prevail; and human life goes backward. Let faith revive; society becomes pure, strong, and progressive.

And, lastly, I believe in God, because this faith is needed for the peace, comfort, happiness of individual man. I received, not long ago, from some friend, a pamphlet defending atheism and attacking religion with a certain blind zeal, which is almost pathetic. When I hear such words, I say, "Father, forgive them: they know not what they do." The atheist looks through the universe, and finds no God. He searches the furthest nebula, and God is not there. He examines the structure of the human body, and finds no trace of the divine hand. He interrogates the past, and it is silent; he demands of the future, and it has no voice. The universe is a great dead machine, clashing on and on; coming from nowhere, going nowhere; made for no end, inspired by no wisdom, filled with no love. Man is the child of chance and clay, made of a few chemical elements, to be dissolved into them again. I ask him, "What shall I live for?" He replies, "I do not know. Live for what you please. Eat, drink, and die." The oppressed cry out to God to help them; but the atheist tells them, there is no God to hear their cry. The poor, the sick, the wretched, the lonely, are happy because they have faith in God. The atheist takes away this last support of the miserable, this last restraint on the powerful, this foundation of justice between man and man, this terror to evil-doers, this strength of the upright, --he takes it away, and says, "Die like the brutes, in your darkness and despair." But no: he cannot take it away. Man is made to believe; and the belief in God rests on surer grounds than logic or demonstration; namely, on human nature itself. Some truths are self-evident as soon as men look at them: they need no argument, and cannot be demonstrated. So Proclus says, "He who thinks that all things can be demonstrated takes away demonstration itself;" and Epictetus declares, that " Whoever denies self-evident truths cannot be reasoned with, for he has no intellectual modesty."

We have now come to the end of our brief survey of the first division of our subject; namely, of the questions between the atheists and the theists. We have found that it is difficult if not impossible, to demonstrate the existence of God; and as difficult, if not impossible, not to believe in God. Ninety-nine men out of a hundred, on the surface of the earth, believe in God or Gods, outside of the world and above it, who are more powerful, and more wise than man. Most of those who deny the existence of God, deny the name rather than the thing. They substitute for God Nature, or the Soul of the World, or the Nexus of Laws by which the universe is governed. But they are obliged to attribute to this Web of Laws, or to Nature, the power of evolving, out of itself, order, beauty, adaptation of parts to parts, life, growth, intellect, will. As nothing can come from nothing, all this must have been present implicitly in the Kosmos, before it was evolved explicitly. Consequently, they believe in an infinite Kosmos, containing all the intelligence, power, wisdom, law now extant, and capable of producing it all; that is, they believe in an infinite Creator. The only difference between such atheists and theists is, that the atheist supposes his Supreme Being to produce intelligent results without intelligence, and unconsciously; the theist believes him to produce them intelligently and consciously.

The being of God cannot be demonstrated, because the idea of God is the unity of all necessary ideas, —the coming together into one of the ideas of necessary being, perfection, cause, intelligence, right, beauty, infinity, and personal will. Now, as each of these ideas is a necessary idea, and cannot be explained out of any thing more simple than itself (which is essential to a proof), all of these taken together cannot be explained out of any thing more simple. Consequently, God's existence cannot be proved, as against one disposed to deny it. But this is no misfortune; for in this respect belief in God stands on the same basis as belief in our own existence, and in that of the outward universe. Neither of these can be proved. They are not believed on the ground of argument, but are known experimentally. I know my own existence, through consciousness, by a mental experience. I know the outward universe, through observation, by the experience of the senses. We commune with ourselves through consciousness: we commune with nature, through the senses. From this communion results our knowledge of each. We know God in the same way, just as far as we commune with him outwardly and inwardly. When we look through nature, and see, back of its changing events an unchanging Cause, under its finite phenomena an infinite Substance, and behind its manifold adaptations an intelligent design, —we come into communion with God through nature. When we look within, and, behind our wrong being and doing, find the conception of a perfect right; behind our lukewarm affections, the idea of a perfect love; and behind our sorrows and weakness, the undying hope of a perfect peace, —we commune with God inwardly. All knowledge comes from communion or intercourse; that is, action and reaction. We cannot know any thing passively. Knowledge arises from life. The knowledge of the outward world comes from sensible experience, or living contact of the senses, by action and reaction. Knowledge of ourselves comes from conscious experience, by looking in upon ourselves, and setting the soul into a living activity. And so knowledge of God does not come passively to any man; but only as he communes, by an active spiritual experience, with God; or, as the Bible says, "Spiritual things must be spiritually discerned."


© 2004 American Unitarian Conference