Lecture V. The Christian Idea of Almighty God
THE time has arrived at which the character of these lectures must be changed, and none can be so glad of this as he who has undertaken to prepare them. It might indeed appear as though some apology were due for having led you so far and so long in the paths of an heretical labyrinth, perhaps more cunningly contrived than any other that Satan ever made to ensnare and destroy the human soul. But still it was necessary to show the disease in full; to probe the wound far down; to trace, as we have done, the whole pantheistic malady, first in its real nature, and then in some of its more evident symptoms; to follow it out to its consequences; and to bring to the light its last and ruinous results. But that portion of our work is done. The pantheistic conception of God has been distinctly presented; that parody of truth, that destroyer of our hope, that contradiction of every positive statement, of every assured conviction, has been laid before you in the immobility of its fatalism, in the rigidness of its monotonous despair. From that dark specimen of intellectual aberration may we now right gladly turn, betaking us to our home in the Church of God, reading in her sacred books the word of truth, and contrasting the Almighty as He really is with this void and irrational phantom to which a false philosophy has dared to apply His sacred name.
"I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible." In this sublime affirmation does the Church begin to teach us what to think of the Lord Most High. When the Church thus speaks to us of Almighty God, she speaks:
First, of One who hath a proper personal existence.
Secondly, of One who is distinct from the works of His hands.
Thirdly, of One who is most closely connected with the world.
And fourthly, of One who cannot vary or change.
These are her declarations as against the pantheistic scheme; and it will be the object of this lecture to develop each of these statements in order, and to show, as far as the limited time will allow, what each one of them implies.
And first, Almighty God is one who hath, eternally and essentially, a full, a real, a proper personal existence. You all know, brethren, though some of you might be at a loss to define in scientific mode, what is meant by a person. You all know what is intended when we speak of persons as contradistinguished from things. You all know that a stone or a tree is not a person; and that a man or a woman or a child is. Now, whatever you understand to be expressed, or whatever plain, simple-minded folk commonly understand to be expressed, by the term "a personal existence," such an existence has Almighty God. Only that in Him personality must have a perfection which it never could have in creatures; because He is every way so incomparably greater and better than they. Your dictionaries will tell you, if you refer to them, that personality is constituted by certain capacities, and particularly by the power of conscious thought. A thinking, intelligent being; a being who can contrive and direct; who acts knowingly and understandingly;--that is a person. These brief, popular definitions are sufficient for our purpose, without entering into the profounder explanations which theology and philosophy afford. But observe, that if to think, to perceive, to have intelligence, to enjoy and use the power of conscious thought, -if this be to have personality,-then when we say that Almighty God is a person, we mean that He is one who thinks and knows and perceives, not merely as we do, but far more perfectly in every respect; who has consciousness, but a consciousness so fill that ours compared to His is less than the vague perception of infancy as compared to the luminous vision of manhood; who thinks, but with a power and range and scope of thought so great that our thoughts are, in comparison to His, what folly is to wisdom; who has, forever and essentially, every personal quality and attribute which we can trace in ourselves, and by which we establish our difference from mere inanimate things, but in infinite perfection. Personality has many degrees. The lower a creature may be, or the higher, in the scale of life, the narrower, or the fuller will be the attribute in question. A stone, a tree, a hill, a river, the clouds, the elements, the mechanical and chemical forces, -these are in no sense personal beings. But all animals have personality; all that have the power of motion, together with a will; all that are conscious of pleasure, of pain, of want; all that have a logical faculty: all these are persons. Above the rest stands manl,above and far beyond the rest in this endowment. But God is greater still. In Him this quality of personal existence is found in final and supreme perfection. Settle it in your minds what you will understand by the term, and then add to it an infinity of excellence: God is all that you have thought of, and infinitely more.
And, secondly, Almighty God, as Christianity proclaims Him, is one who is distinct from all the works of His hands. In His substance He is eternal; and there is no eternal substance besides. And not at any time, or in any manner, hath aught of that divine and eternal substance been communicated to any creature. It cannot be shared with creatures. It cannot be parted among creatures. It cannot flow away into works or forms. It is the indivisible, the inseparable, the essential nature and substance of Almighty God. He cannot be divided, nor cut up into parts, nor transformed, now into one shape, and anon into another; for He is from eternity to eternity the same. He made all things. But He made nothing out of His own substance as out of a material; to assert that would be sheer blasphemy. He made, at first, and by His omnipotent word brought into being, a material which had no existence before; this He created before aught else, and of this He made and framed the worlds. But that substance, that building-material, was not Himself. It was brought into being in time, by Him who is eternal. It was not, in any wise, until He caused it to be. And thus the universe, which was made of material not previously existing, is infinitely distinct from God. No part of His substance hath ever passed over, or flowed into, or become amalgamated with the world, or with any portion thereof. There is not, as Pantheism says, one universal substance. The substance of things created is finite, limited, temporary, contingent, variable; the infinite and eternal substance is, in one word, God. There it is that Pantheism and Christianity part. The philosophic system confounds God and nature. The holy faith divides them by the difference of infinity. [See Note F.]
The old philosophers agreed not together as to the manner in which God and the world were one. It will repay us to consider, in passing, their wild theories; for the statement of those theories will bring more clearly to light the Catholic faith. They all held the view that God and the world were of one and the same substance; but they had four different forms of the common theory, and they used the words generation, emanation, limitation, and animation, as descriptive terms to mark the different shades of their thoughts. Some of them said that God made the world out of His own substance, as the parent begets the child of his own blood; and this was the theory of generation. Others again supposed that all the creation has come forth from God, just as light from the sun, or heat from flame, or vapor from water; and this was the theory of emanation. A third class considered that visible objects are but a modification, or a series of modifications, of a substance which never changes; and they held that the universe is made of God, just as seas, gulfs, bays, and straits are formed of tile same vast ocean, in the indentations of enclosing shores; and this was the theory of limitation. And, finally, there were those who thought that God was inside of the universe and mixed up with it, a kind of soul, making everything alive and keeping it fresh and sound, as the soul preserves the body in man; and this was the theory of animation.
But all these views are false together, for one and the same falsehood lies in them all, and back of them all,--that falsehood about the identity of substance. [See Note G.] Which falsehood is met in the statement of the Catholic faith, that God and the works of God are infinitely distinct. they are not the same. He is not a part of the universe; nor is the universe a part of Him. He made all things; but that wherewith He wrought, and whereof He made them, was not before: it was created; it was not eternal. None is eternal but He; and no substance is eternal but His. And since the world is not eternal, therefore it was not of His substance that the world was made.
But in our holy religion, beloved brethren, there is nothing one-sided, nothing incomplete. The mind of the Church, as shown in her Creed and confessions, is large and wide as the mind of the Spirit and of the Holy Ghost. And, therefore, while we are taught that Almighty God is infinitely distinct from the universe, we must at the same time hold fast the truth that He is most closely, most intimately connected with it. For these articles of our faith do act towards each other unto compensation; either would be unsatisfying without the other, while both together leave nothing to be desired. Almighty God is not distant from that world which He has been pleased to call into being; on the contrary, He is exceeding near. Nowhere is He the same as the world; yet nowhere is He absent from it. These two are essential truths. There can be no religion, in the proper sense of the term, where they are not confessed. His entire distinction from the universe, and His closest union with it,--of these two points must men be convinced, as indispensable conditions to true belief and healthful thought.
But how shall we harmonize statements which appear to conflict? By referring one of them to the divine substance, and the other to the divine personality. As to His nature, Almighty God is infinitely distinct from the works of His hands; but as to His personal attributes, He is inseparably united to them. In His power, in His vision, in His will, in His thought, in His sympathies, in His love, He is nowhere far off, he is never absent. No occurrence can take place without His knowledge. No creature can exist but by His command. No point in all the universe can, though but for an instant, be hidden from His sight. He knows all, He sees all, He thinks of all, He feels for all, He loves all. He is everywhere, as to His thought, His power, His goodness. And yet, nowhere is there the least approach to confusion or commingling of substance. These are the two grand truths on which our whole religion is built, and in which all our hopes reside. You cannot deny either without risking the loss of all that we have most precious. For to deny the former, and to say that God and the universe are not absolutely distinct, as to essence and substance, is to admit the pantheistic tenet of unity of substance, with all the woe, and all the horror, and all the hopelessness which we have seen to result from that monstrous assumption. While, on the other hand, to deny the second article of the faith, and to say that God and the world are not most intimately connected, is to reject the sweet truth that we have a Father in heaven, and the consolatory assurance that a wise and thoughtful Providence overrules the course of affairs; it is to separate God from His creation and from man; it is to suppose in Him a being without sympathy and without care; to regard the world as a system blindly led along by fate or chance or unimpassioned law; to consider the human race as beings without a father, a governor, a guide, without a redeemer, a preserver, a ruler; as having no one to pray to, and no one to trust to, and no one to account to, nor any to encourage, to sustain, to reward. These are the results of denial of either of those cardinal truths; Pantheism threatens on the one side, Atheism on the other. And, to avoid those extremes, we must, from the heart, embrace, and ever hold fast, and ever firmly profess, the two sister truths, that Almighty God, as to His eternal, His essential, His incommunicable substance, is infinitely and absolutely distinct from His creation and from the whole frame of the vast universe; and that the same Almighty God, as to His personal life, His power, His will, His thought, His love, His providence, His knowledge, His vision, is everywhere present, and everywhere most intimately connected with that same creation, with every creature, and with everything, and with every part of that same universe. These two affirmations are the columns which hold up the sacred temple of the faith. Take either of them away, and the edifice topples to its utter destruction; and if it so go down, it must drag the whole social system into the chasm.
There remains but one more of those statements, to the unfolding of which this lecture was set apart. Fourthly, therefore, Almighty God must be thought of by us as a being who cannot alter or change. You remember what horrid blasphemy the pantheist. has uttered in respect of progress, and development, and improvement in God, meaning, by God, that eternal substance of which he wildly dreams. But the God of Christianity and of the gospel is not that image which the philosophers have set up. He is one in whom there can be no variableness, neither shadow of turning. From eternity to eternity He abides the same. God is the same in two respects: first, as regards His essential being, in which no alteration can occur; and secondly, as regards our thoughts and conceptions of Him, which cannot in the least degree affect His positive reality. In declaring that unchangeableness, therefore, we intend that double reference; we mean to say, not only that He is evermore the same God, yesterday, and to-day, and forever, but also, that His independence of any cogitations of ours concerning Him could by no possibility be more complete. All this is expressed in that sublimest name that ever was uttered or conceived, that name which He announced as His own, Ego sum qui sum: "I am that I am." What marvellous power, what inflexibility of strength, what calm majesty in that title: "I am that I am!" The same, the unchanging, the Lord, from age to age. Not, "I am whatsoever you think me to be;" not, "I am this to one man and that to another;" not, "I am to you whatever you prefer that I should be, whatever you, as you follow your self-willed thoughts, consider that I ought to be, and feel confident that I must be; but, I am that I am! I am He that was from eternity, and is now, and is to come. I am He that hath no dependence on the world, nor any need of man; that taketh not counsel of creatures, neither hath learned from them the path of judgment. I am the first and the last. The Creator. The Father. The Provident Ruler. The Maker of man, the Redeemer of man, the Sanctifier of man. Your Lord, your Rewarder, your Judge. O children of men, what avail your thoughts that ye should think by them to affect the absolute truth of My being? How can ye dream this wild thing, that I should change with any and with every imagination of your minds concerning Me? Can there be named in all the range of human delusions one so huge as this, that any man should suppose that God is whatever he imagines God to be? Can there be told, of all the duties of main, one more necessary than this, that he hold fast his belief in the absolute perfection, in the entire self-sufficiency, of his Creator? I am that I am. Judge not of Me by any rule of your own, but judge by what I have declared. Hear not men, but listen to My eternal word. My Son, the only begotten, He hath declared Me. Hear ye Him. For He only hath the words of life. Learn of Him My great and glorious name,--the name of one who is immutable, unalterable, beyond the reach of any and all agencies, in the perfection of My eternal state and nature."
Thus, beloved brethren, has the attempt been made to set forth to you the Christian idea of God; or rather, to speak of God, not as men have thought Him to be, but as in truth He is. You have heard the declarations of the Church to all mankind, in this behalf:--
First, that He is really a personal being, like ourselves.
Secondly, that He is in no way confused or commingled with the works of His hands, but infinitely distinct from them.
Thirdly, that He is most intimately connected with the world and with all its inhabitants, with all that therein is.
Fourthly, that He is what He is, positively and absolutely, whatever our views or opinions concerning Him may be.
Take these first principles of our holy religion as tests, amid the vagueness of modern thought. Make these great truths the starting-point of your faith, and the boundaries of every imagination of your spirits concerning the Most High. When you are presented with the theory of a God who has evidently been fashioned and shaped by the subtle wit of man to suit its own preconceptions, know that this idea is a mere idol, and reject and denounce it as a travesty of that high and lofty One whose sublime existence is independent of aught beyond itself. When you hear men talk of a God who cares not for this world, nor for us, nor for our affairs,- of a God who is supposed to have resigned to arbitrary and unthinking law the order and direction of the course of this world,--reject that low conception as an utter misrepresentation, as a shameless parody of Him by whom the very hairs of our heads are all numbered; without whom not even a sparrow falleth to the ground; whose eye, whose love, whose providence, whose power, are everywhere, searching the darkness and the light, and never failing, in any instant of time, nor at any point of the immeasurable universe. As for a God who is substantially one with his creatures; or who dwells afar, careless of our concerns; or who is destitute of thought, or sight, or consciousness; who can work no miracle, who can speak no word to our bodily ears, who cannot show Himself to our bodily vision: there is no such being, save in the brains of the deceiver and the deceived. The real God is indeed a reality; the God with whom we have to do is not a creature of our minds, but the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth. It is He that made the world and all things therein; who giveth to all life and breath and all things; who hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed and the bounds of their habitations; who is not far from every one of us. This is the God whom Paul preached, when he stood on Mars' Hill, face to face with the epicureans and the stoics of ancient time. This is the God whom we must preach face to face with the spiritualists, the transcendentalists, the philosophers of modern days. Nor doubt the triumph of the faith in Him. Though these false priests build up their altar of abomination, and fashion their god and set him up thereon; though they substitute the worship of a rationalistic deity for the old, the only hope of all the ends of the earth; though they cry from morning even till noon, "O Baal, hear us!" though antichrist be thus revealed as the latter days come nigh; and though this false deity at length appear sitting in the temple of God, and showing himself that he is God, even in the temple of the deluded heart and mind which deifies its own opinion and bows before it: yet wait, brethren, till the time of the evening sacrifice, till the altars be rebuilt, till the true God appear in glory for the salvation of His people; and then the dream shall be over and the spell broken, and there shall be heard a sound, as it were the voice of great multitudes and of many waters; and as that awful sound takes shape and volume, it shall ascend far to the pealing dome above, proclaiming, "The Lord, He is the God! The Lord, He is the God!"