In Search of God

Henry Wilder Foote

Berry Street Essay, 1954


Note:  No copy of the essay as delivered have been recovered in Henry Wilder Foote’s papers, but this chapter entitled "…In Search of God” is from his book published in 1955, The Religion of an Inquiring Mind, which he was working on at the same time.  While there are two internal references to other chapters of the book, I believe this chapter represents essentially the same contents as the Berry Street Essay.  – Paul Sprecher


Read before the Ministerial Conference

May, 1954


Canst thou by searching find out God?

Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?


Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself.

                                                            Is 45:15


It was through their observation of the mysterious forces in the world of nature, to which they must accommodate themselves as best they could, that men were led to ask what unseen Power had created the earth and engendered animal and human life; whose anger it was which threatened them in thunder, lightning, and hailstorm or terrified them when the earth quaked; whose kindly influence brought the seasons in due order year after year, causing plants to grow and bear fruit, each after its kind. Such questions inevitably arose when the minds of men began to ask "Why?" Their earliest answers assumed that unseen spirits animated the trees of the forest, the wild beasts, the fertile earth, the elemental forces of sea and storm; by way of explanation they invented myths in which those spirits were personified in forms and acted in ways akin to their own.

Since those spirits or gods possessed magical or supernatural powers which might bring either good or evil, men sought to propitiate them in order to secure their favor or to ward off their displeasure. To this end they offered in sacrifice objects which they accounted valuable, and which the gods ought therefore to value. Because food and drink are essential human needs, the sacrifices were usually edible animals, in part burned on the altar for the gods, in part eaten by the worshipers; and libations of wine, of which a small portion was poured out upon the ground. The devotees thus shared in the food and drink offered to the gods. But the occasional sacrifice of human beings was widespread. Two classical examples are those of Jephthah's daughter, and of Iphigenia, who was sacrificed at Aulis to secure fair weather for the Greek ships stormbound on their voyage to Troy. Such sacrifices have continued among primitive peoples down to recent times.

The residence of the gods was usually on some sacred mountain within the limited area which each controlled — Sinai, Olympus, or some another inaccessible place — where it was perilous for mortal men to approach them, and whence they came down to common earth to bless their worshipers, or to bring woe to their enemies, or to enjoy themselves in very human fashion. The oldest Hebrew word for God is Elohim, literally "the gods," a plural form inherited from an outgrown polytheism, and we read that "the sons of God [the gods] saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took to them wives of all that they chose . . . and they bore children unto them; the same were the mighty men of old, the men of renown.”[1]  Similarly in Greek and Roman mythology the parentage claimed for many a famous man was that his father was one or another of the gods who had had intercourse with a mortal woman. It was but a step for the autocratic Alexander the Great to assert his semidivine origin by substituting his own image upon his coins for some symbol of one of the gods which had hitherto given sanction to the coinage; or for the Roman emperors to add to their own names on their coins the word divus (divine) or Deus et dominus (God and Lord). The comedy Amphitryon by Terence revolves around the assumption by Jupiter of the form of the heroine's husband in order that Jupiter might enjoy her company in the absence of her lawful husband. Thus before the opening years of the Roman Empire the ancient mythology lingered in a form at which the sophisticated laughed or of which they took advantage. The temples nevertheless long remained open for the superstitious to offer the sacrifices which were the source of income for the priests, and the simple-minded country folk (the pagani, hence "pagans") besought Ceres, goddess of fertility, to bless their crops. A vivid picture of popular superstition is given in the story of the visit of the Apostle Paul and Barnabas to Lystra in Asia Minor, where the excited people, thinking Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was Hermes, cried, "The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!" and the priest of the temple of Zeus brought garlanded oxen to sacrifice to them.[2]


But several centuries before this period the Hebrews had risen from their acceptance of Jehovah as their tribal deity —their own God as distinguished from the local gods of other lands and people — to the majestic conception of their great prophets who, in poetic language which is so profound and true that it speaks to our hearts and minds today, had taught that there is but one God of the whole earth. In Greece, Socrates had been put to death (399 B.C.) for discrediting current superstitions about the gods on Olympus, and Plato and Aristotle had taught monotheism, as did their disciples down through the Stoic philosophers several centuries later — witness the Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (second century A.D.). It is in Hebrew prophecy, revitalized with consummate insight and power by Jesus of Nazareth, and in Greek philosophy, that we find the roots of our noblest ideas about religion and the conduct of life, although much of Christian tradition and practice is still heavily laden with debris coming down from the ancient pagan world.

Religion in every age and clime embodies the beliefs and usages accepted as conducive to the well-being of the social order in which they are current. The measure of understanding about the world of nature which men have attained is reflected in the beliefs which they formulate about the gods in polytheism, or about God in monotheism, and it is those beliefs which give sanction and authority to the social order and to what is accounted the right conduct of life for the individual. Religion, therefore, always has two aspects: it is a system of beliefs which, at least in the higher religions, becomes theology, that is, an attempt at a rational interpretation of the relationship of God to the world and to mankind; and it is also a way of life to be followed in accordance with the accepted standards.

The theologies which men have formulated in past ages usually came to be regarded as divine revelations of unchanging truth, which men might not question except as they sought to understand their true meaning. That is the attitude of great numbers of Christians today who adhere to the traditional creeds and dogmas of the church. But it is a point of view which no longer has validity in any other field of human thought and inquiry, in which no final creeds are laid down and where the mind of man is free to seek an ever-enlarging understanding of the universe. Some sixty years ago Andrew D. White, then president of Cornell University, published a monumental work entitled The Warfare of Science with Religion, in which he told the long-drawn-out and tragic story of the ways in which an entrenched ecclesiasticism had for centuries fought every advance in scientific knowledge, a losing battle all along the line. But his book might more accurately have been called "The Warfare of Science with Theology," for there need be no conflict between religion and science when religion is viewed as a way of life in conformity with growing knowledge of the universe, with the promotion of beneficent relations between the individual and his fellowmen, and with a deepening consciousness that the spirit of man is akin to that unseen Power which we call God.

Theology is indeed concerned with questions beyond the range of science, and constructs what for a limited period is accepted as a rational interpretation of the unseen and immaterial factors which give value to life; but any religion which stubbornly adheres to a traditional theology hopelessly at variance with the scientific findings and ethical standards of a later and more enlightened age is doomed to sink at last into a stagnant superstition. Its poetic legends, its sonorous ritual, and its stately ceremonies may continue to have an aesthetic and emotional appeal to the sentiment of those who prefer not to notice its intellectual shortcomings; it may long retain the allegiance of the ignorant and exercise a measure of beneficent control over their practical conduct of life; but with the spread of education and the application of modern knowledge to the upbuilding of human welfare it is certain to alienate the more intelligent and better educated classes in the community, to its own and to their great loss. That is the predicament of a large part of the Christian Church today. It holds a very precious heritage of living religion, but it is in bondage to outworn systems of theology. The problem is to preserve the spirit while seeking release from the letter in which it has been imprisoned.

The result of this failure of the theologian to realize that the law of growth and change affects the rational interpretation of religion as much as it does any other realm of thought is that the educated man of today, looking back upon the primitive origins of religion and noting the tenacity with which traditional beliefs no longer compatible with modern science are still widely held, is inclined to dismiss religion itself as nothing more than a mass of superstitions beneath his notice. But every subject of human thought and action can be traced back to crude explanations of the phenomena with which men were confronted. Thus the wonder-working methods of modern chemistry find their roots in the attempts of the alchemists of old to discover the "philosopher's stone" by which they could transmute base metals into gold,[3] and the roots of modern medicine go back to yet more ancient notions about the origin and cure of disease, as unscientific as were the contemporary religious beliefs. We do not reject chemistry or medicine today because of these pre-scientific origins, for it is "by their fruits and not by their roots" that we judge them. We should do the same with religion. To dwell only upon its primitive aspects, or its now outworn formulations, tends to blind us to the values which it holds for the modern world when rationally interpreted.

The most fundamental of all religious questions confronting the modern man is what, if anything, he can believe about God. His choice is between atheism, the denial of the existence of God; or agnosticism, which regards the subject as one on which no sure knowledge is attainable by the human mind; or theism, which holds that belief in God gives the only answer compatible with a rational understanding of the world.

The atheist is necessarily a materialist, believing that the world of matter which we can see and weigh and measure is self-originating and without controlling intelligence and purpose beyond that manifested by human beings. If the atheist accepts the modern scientist's conception of matter he is logically driven to view the universe as infinitely extended masses of atoms which by some inexplicable chance have come together to produce the world and all that is therein. But such an assumption fails to explain the origin and nature of human intelligence arising from senseless matter; indeed, carried to its logical conclusion, it must deny the existence of intelligence and purpose in human life, since men themselves must be viewed as only chance conglomerations of matter, which have come together without rhyme or reason. Human life is not lived in conformity with any such theory; we all find some measure of intelligence and purpose in mankind, and act on the belief that the world in which we live is governed by forces which we can at least partially comprehend.

Many persons today take the agnostic view that humanity presents the highest level of being of which we can know anything and that when religion goes beyond the formulation and maintenance of right ethical relations between man and man it is vainly trying to deal with questions to which no answer is attainable and with which, therefore, they need not concern themselves. The agnostic is right when he says that the existence of God cannot be proved, in the sense that we can prove a mathematical formula or demonstrate that the earth is a sphere which revolves around the sun. But it is equally true that neither is there any such proof that God does not exist, for the idea of God is a concept which deals with immeasurable values rather than with measurable facts, with the interpretation which men give to what seem to them the most significant qualities of life.

The agnostic, like the atheist, declines to use the word "God" because it has for him connotations which he has outgrown. For him it is reminiscent of childish notions of a supernatural Santa Claus, or it recalls Michelangelo's great fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where the artist portrayed God the Father as a white-bearded old man. But to limit the word "God" to such interpretations is to overlook the limitations inherent in all language. Even words which we rightly take for granted that everybody understands because they are precisely defined or are symbols for a universal human experience nevertheless have differing connotations or shades of meaning for each one of us, determined by differences in our upbringing or temperament. Thus the word for "mother" in all the varied languages of men signifies a concept universally understood because every human being has had a mother, yet the word evokes in the mind of each a different image from that seen by any other, an image shaped by the individual's experience, whether happy or unhappy, with the particular woman whom he has known as his mother.

It is essential that we remember this inadequacy of language when we use the word "God" or refer to its equivalent in other tongues. We must not expect it to mean to another person exactly what it does to us, if, indeed, it has for us a meaning which we can frame in words. What it means to any individual depends upon his cultural background, modified by his experience and by the frame of mind with which he views life. He may passively accept the traditional pattern of belief in which he has been reared, finding a measure of comforting assurance in phrases the precise meaning of which he ignores; or he may revolt against it as childish and outworn, and conclude that the concept of a Divine Being is only a relic of ages of superstition; or he may seek to revise the faith, or lack of faith, in which he was reared, in the endeavor to formulate an idea which will bring into harmony whatever of truth it may have had with what his later years may have taught him.

That is why the word "God" has acquired an infinite variety of interpretations within Christianity, and yet other meanings in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and other faiths. Many persons today have rejected it because they identify it with popular beliefs which they cannot reconcile with modern knowledge. Yet just as the word "mother" signifies a universally experienced human relationship which takes an infinite variety of forms, so the word "God" is the one word we have to denote the awareness which comes to all men who give any thought to the subject, that we live in a world of mystery in which we grope for an understanding of the significance of life. What is the Power within, around, or above the universe in which we find ourselves? Does it exist save as an illusion, a reflection of our own faces in the empty mirror of heaven? Is it so "Wholly Other" from mankind that it is utterly beyond the comprehension of the human mind except as it may be supernaturally revealed? The answers are as varied as is the range of human nature and experience from age to age, from land to land. I can report only what the word "God" has come to mean for me, and why some form of theistic belief appears to me to offer the only rational interpretation of the universe to which we belong.

More than one hundred and fifty years ago the English theologian Paley advanced his famous argument that, as a watch implies a watchmaker, so the existence of the universe implies a Designer or Creator. Paley's analogy broke down because the universe is not a mechanism which must be wound up, regulated, and repaired periodically, nor will it wear out in an anticipated future. Unlike a watch, it is the manifestation of an infinite, eternal, and self-renewing energy. We can observe its visible aspects but we can only surmise what is their driving force, for its essential nature is hidden from our scrutiny. Yet Paley's analogy, deficient though it is, has a measure of validity in the sense that I know the watch in my pocket to be no chance collection of pieces of metal which have automatically come together for no purpose. It is evidence that an intelligent being devised it with an intention which I recognize, namely that it should accurately indicate the passage of time, although time has no objective reality which I can visualize but is the mental concept by which we measure the successive changes through which we live, hour by hour, day by day, year by year. I have never seen the watchmaker; I do not know his name; I could not put the watch together again should some inquisitive boy take it apart; but my intellect recognizes the fact of the maker's intelligence and his purpose fulfills my need.

So, as I look out upon the universe and observe the ceaseless and infinitely complex manifestations of its unlimited energy, never at haphazard or chance but always under an ordered control which our limited intelligence can in some measure understand, I am compelled to believe that the universe is ruled by an infinite indwelling Intelligence and Will, or Purpose, of which our human intelligence is a faint reflection. That infinite Intelligence we perceive through its manifestations in the physical world, as my watch makes me aware of the intelligence of the watchmaker whom I have never seen; but those manifestations serve purposes beyond the physical, as my watch records the passage of an immaterial time —purposes which we call spiritual because they affect the immaterial spirit of man. It is this concept of an infinite and inherent Intelligence or purposeful Will which alone gives meaning and significance to the world in which we live, or to our own existence. Thus what I know about the universe and what I know about the spirit of man is the basis for my belief in God.

And that belief finds confirmation in the statement by the famous scientist Thomas Huxley, who lived some three-quarters of a century after Paley, who viewed the universe from a very different angle, and who was often in bitter controversy with the English theologians of his day. Huxley's saying, already quoted in a preceding chapter, that "Nothing abides save the flow of energy and the rational order which pervades it," states a law of being which is manifest throughout the universe, alike in the minutest fragment of earthly matter, organic or inorganic, and in the unplumbed spaces beyond our ken. That infinite and eternal energy is not something alien or adverse to us, for we also are its transitory instruments; it is for the moment incarnate in the body, mind, and soul of each one of us, "closer to us than breathing, nearer than hands and feet," beating in our hearts, giving power of utterance to such measure of intelligence as we may possess. It has created us and enabled us to become the persons that we are. To say these things is only to translate into modern terms the belief of the Greek poet quoted by the Apostle Paul at Athens: "In him we live, and move, and have our being; for we are also his offspring."

That a "rational order pervades" this ceaseless flow of energy is a deduction drawn by the rational human mind from its observation of natural phenomena. But a rational all-pervading order clearly implies an infinite and eternal controlling Power manifesting qualities which, in our finite human affairs, we call will, intelligence, purpose. And human reason could not discern any rational order pervading the universe did it not itself partake of that rational order in some measure, if mind did not speak to mind. The scientist is only saying in his own language what the great religious seers of pre-scientific times meant when they declared that nothing abides save the eternal power and wisdom of God. The words are different, and carry differing connotations because they are colored by differing backgrounds, but they are alike in striving to report the profound mystery of being.

The scientist can no more visualize the flow of energy and the rational order pervading it, apart from the natural phenomena in which it is manifest, than the man of religion can see God except in his works when he declares that " Nature is the living garment of God, which conceals him from the foolish but reveals him to the wise." Science, like religion, is driven to postulate an unseen and immaterial Power animating all things, which is what religion means when it declares "God is Spirit." Whether that unseen Power is called "the pervading rational order" or, more intelligibly, is named God, it may be conceived either as an indwelling Power within the natural world, the "immanent God" of the theologians, or as a power above and beyond phenomena, the "transcendent God," or we may think of God as both immanent and transcendent. Man's conception of a transcendent God has no finer expression than in the poetry of the second half of the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, or his awareness of an immanent Deity than in Wordsworth's lines in "Tintern Abbey":


A sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man, —

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.


And the two concepts are united in the opening stanzas of a great American hymn of the nineteenth century:


O Thou, in all Thy might so far,
In all Thy love so near,

Beyond the range of sun and star,
And yet beside me here,

What heart can comprehend Thy name,
Or, searching, find Thee out,

Who art within, a quickening flame,
A presence round about.[4]


To many persons such ideas about God seem too vague and remote to have much value and "Some ask a human image to adore" — a visible symbolic effigy, ikon, or statue, to be worshiped in a temple or as a household god in a domestic shrine. That craving finds world-wide expression in statues of the Buddha with eyes downcast in contemplation, or of Kuen-Yin, goddess of mercy; in Hindu deities in forms which seem grotesque to unenlightened Western eyes; in the effigy of Christ upon the cross or in statues of the Madonna or pictures of saints in many branches of the Christian Church. From the time of the great prophets, Judaism has obeyed the first of the Ten Commandments which forbade "any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath . . . thou shalt not bow down to them, nor worship them." Islam has obeyed the same law. Constantine, after his conversion, imposed an oath on the citizens of Constantinople never again to worship images, then associated with paganism; but the use of Christian images came in soon after, resulting in the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries, when a reforming party in the Eastern Church opposed the worship of ikons and destroyed them when possible. The reformers in Holland and in England were no less opposed to the worship of images, which, if not formally forbidden, are at least completely absent from Protestant churches today.[5] The opposition to image worship in these religious bodies arises from the fact that it almost inevitably leads to idolatry. In theory the image is set up only to make more vivid the unseen reality of which it is the symbol, but in practice it takes on, at least in the eyes of the superstitious, the sacred character of the being whom it is supposed to represent.

The natural craving of the human heart for closer companionship with the divine finds utterance in a more sublimated form in the widespread belief that God is "a Person." It is characteristic of human thought to personalize abstract ideas. We speak of "John Bull" or "Uncle Sam," of "Father Time," of "Mother Earth" or "Mother Nature." At least in poetry we refer to the sun as "he," to the moon as "she," to the "cruel sea" or to an "angry sky," though we know that neither sea nor sky is capable of emotion. There is the story of the Indian chief who came to an appointed place in the Middle West more than a century ago to negotiate a treaty of peace to end the fighting between his tribe and the forces of the American army. The commanding general offered him a chair and, referring to the President, said, "The great father in Washington sends you his greetings," to which the Indian replied, " The Great Spirit is my father and the earth is my mother, and on her lap will I sit and sat down upon the ground. When we speak of God it is inevitable that we should say "He" rather than "It," for "It" refers to inanimate objects or to sub-human creatures, whereas "He" implies personality, which is the highest level of being we know in earthly existence. But we speak thus only because the limitations of human language leave us no more adequate way of expressing our thought of the unseen and immaterial spirit of life.

It is, of course, true that we know human persons only as incarnate in human bodies, yet when we speak of a given man's "personality" we are thinking of his characteristics of mind and spirit, his immaterial soul, even though our thought inevitably recalls the bodily form in which we have known him, or which we picture him as having had. To say that God is "a Person" or to ask for belief in "a Personal God" seems to many of us to invite a corresponding mental picture of a Being with recognizable physical features set over against ours, though perhaps our difficulty is as much with the qualifying article "a" as with the word "Personal." We reject the implied limitation because we do not conceive of God as having "a body," familiar though we are with the traditional religious imagery which pictures him as seated upon "the Throne," credits him with seeing and hearing, and speaks of being "in the hand of God." But if we steadfastly bear in mind that the term "human personality" denotes the immaterial mind and soul of the individual who feels, thinks, and acts purposefully, rather than the physical body which is only his instrument for action, we may realize that to speak of the Personality of God serves to denote those attributes of his being which are the ultimate source of all that we know as will, intelligence, and purpose in human souls. Since nothing proceeds from nothing, those capacities, seen in finite and limited measure in human beings, can take their rise only from that unseen but Infinite Power which invests the universe and includes within itself those attributes in measureless degree. I am compelled to think of God as the Fount of Being, above, behind, and beyond the transitory and finite manifestations of human personality; not alien to it, but Personal in the sense that as Spirit he is the immaterial guiding Power or Intelligence from whom the human spirit comes and to whom it is so near akin that "Spirit with spirit can meet." To draw an inadequate illustration from the outward world of nature, the relationship of the ceaseless succession of human souls, so briefly enshrined in flesh, to what Emerson called "the Over-Soul," might be pictured as like the countless momentary flashes of light reflected from the sun as wave follows wave on a sunlit sea, making a broad illuminated pathway which our eyes can comprehend although we can only look upon the sun itself through a protective screen which dims our sight.

Another question which confronts the theist is that of God's omnipotence. What do men mean when they say that God is "Almighty"? There is a story of a Sunday School teacher who told her class that omnipotence means that God can do anything. Whereupon a small boy asked, "Can he make a six-months-old calf in one minute?" Centuries ago scholastic theologians wrestled with similar questions. Can God make a square circle? Can he blot out an event which has occurred so that it shall not have occurred, or was the twelfth-century Persian Sufi poet right in saying:


The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,

Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,[6]


Is it possible for something to be and not to be at the same instant? That can occur only in the sense that we often have in mind some accomplishment which we have not had time to achieve, but which may be said to exist as a purpose though it has not yet been made a reality. Omnipotence is not to be understood to mean that God contradicts himself or that he capriciously intervenes to upset the law and order of the universe. It means that an infinite Power controls all which exists, and that nothing can escape that rational order, or move in ways beyond its control.

In human affairs that infinite Power always works through mankind as its instrument. Within the given setting of our lives in the natural order of time and space, whatever of moral good or evil impinges upon us flows only through human channels, and the outcome for ourselves depends wholly upon our own conditioned reaction to those influences. For although we are individuals, no man lives to himself alone; he is always the sum of his innate capacities in the measure in which they have been developed, for better or worse, by the tides of human life which have swirled about him. There is a saying attributed to Augustine: "Man without God cannot: God without man cannot." Antonio Stradivarius, the famous maker of violins, stated the second half of that truth in homely fashion when he said, "God himself cannot make Antonio's violins without Antonio." But Antonio's skilled craftsmanship had been attained only by his intelligent use of innate abilities which had come to him as the gift of God. Nothing good is achieved in human life except as men in some degree understand and work with the infinite creative energy. As religion puts it, we are fellow-workers with God, essential instruments for the fulfillment of whatever seems to us to be the highest purpose of life, which cannot come to pass without our vision, toil, and sacrifice. That prayer is futile which petitions God to grant us the impossible or to do for us in our idleness something which we should rise up to do for ourselves. Prayer avails nothing unless it seeks to enlighten our purpose and strengthen our hands for the required effort, or to prepare our hearts to accept without dismay the limitations or frustrations of our hopes. Laborare est orare is more than a clever alliteration: to work is to pray; that is, to work is to strive to give effect to our need or desire. God does not do for us what we have power to do for ourselves or for others, but he has established the conditions in which human achievement is possible when guided by intelligent and steadfast purpose. As Leonardo da Vinci observed, God "sells us all things [that we need] at the price of labor" — our own or that of someone else.

When confronted with the problem of evil, man often exclaims that God cannot be both all-powerful and all-good because, if all-powerful, he still permits the existence of the terrible evils which afflict mankind; if all-good, he must be without power to prevent them. No philosopher or theologian has ever found a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil, but some light may be thrown upon the subject. The sufferings of mankind fall into two groups: those arising from natural causes, such as disease, floods, famine, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions; and those which are the result of human ignorance or wrongdoing, selfishness, greed, cruelty, persecutions, warfare. It is only the latter group of ills which can be called evil, in any moral sense, for moral considerations arise only on the level of human personality. A cat tormenting a mouse suffers no qualms of conscience, and there is nothing immoral in the sweep of a devastating hurricane, though it drown scores or hundreds of people in its path.

As we suggested towards the end of Chapter I, the ills due to natural causes proceed from conditions inherent in the constitution of the universe, which we cannot change or abolish but to which, with the growth of knowledge or foresight, we can better adapt ourselves. Man can never conquer nature, but he can develop skills which will enable him to live in happier accord with her diverse moods. Medical science can control pestilence, diminish disease, and lengthen life. In areas subject to earthquake, men can devise houses which will not collapse and crush them in the ruins. In areas liable to floods, adequate dams and dikes can minimize this danger. It is idle to say that God ought not to require us to take such precautions, for the dangers which we must be prepared to meet are only incidental aspects of conditions which, as a whole, are favorable to life. The continual expenditure of energy to attain or to maintain its own characteristic way of life is required of every living thing for the fulfillment of its existence, and the measure of its vitality is the vigor with which it meets the situation in which it finds itself. To complain that a good God ought so to have arranged the universe that its phenomena would always make life effortless, easy, and pleasant is to complain of the very conditions which have developed us into the men that we are, or are capable of becoming. The ills which befall mankind from natural causes need no longer dismay us: they are a challenge to us to use our brains and muscles to forestall and circumvent them.

Moral evil is of a different order and has been explained in a variety of ways in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It has been attributed to the entrance of evil spirits or devils into the hearts of men; to Satan, "the adversary" of the good God in the struggle for control of the world; to the existence of two antagonistic realms of being, the inherently evil realm of matter and the holy realm of the spirit; to the fall of Adam in the garden of Eden. It is upon this last theory that Paul laid the foundations for the later development of Christian theology, which has taught that all men inherit "original sin" by descent from Adam, whereby, through no fault of their own, they lie under God's condemnation from which they can be redeemed only by God's unmerited grace, through faith in Christ. This doctrine, which has dominated most of Christian thinking down to the present time, stands or falls on the validity of the story of Adam as told in Genesis. Paul of course accepted it as true, and drew his deductions from it with the dexterity of a trained Pharisee. His arguments are strongly at variance with the teaching of Jesus who, though he knew full well the evil in men, and called them to repentance, never attributed it to Adam or remotely suggested belief in original sin. Today we know that the story of Adam is not history, but a myth developed by men of a remote pre-scientific age to explain every day phenomena for which they had no better answer, and this knowledge has completely undermined the Pauline theology. Yet until recently the Book of Common Prayer opened its baptismal service by stating that "All men are conceived and born in sin."[7]  Some children are so born, in a different sense and through no fault of their own, but I have never understood how a minister, who had married a clean-living young couple deeply in love with each other, could bring himself to tell them, when a year later they brought their baby to be baptized, that their child had been "conceived and born in sin," when in fact it had been conceived in holy love and brought forth with rejoicing as a gift from God.

The inquiring mind today has a wholly different understanding of the source of both the good and the evil in human nature. Psychology finds no warrant for believing that a newborn infant is innately evil and incapable of any good thing. It is, instead, a bundle of undisclosed potentialities for either good or evil, rooted in the animal instincts with which every normal child is equipped on its entry into life. How those potentialities take form depends in part upon the measure of love and wisdom with which the child is guided in the exercise of those instincts, in part upon the will power which the child develops as it discovers that it has freedom of choice. That freedom to choose between this or that line of action, within the limits of what is possible, is an essential factor in human personality. It involves both knowledge and will. A man of good character is one who consciously endeavors to live in accord with the moral order of the universe so far as that order is discerned by the community in which he lives, or, in individuals gifted with insight, with what his own intuition tells him is right and true. Evil comes from failure to control instinctive reactions so that they may work for the common good, either because willful, self-seeking desires, checked only by fear of retaliation, override all other considerations, or because men have become so committed to some doctrinaire theory of action that they are blind to its consequences and become ruthless in enforcing it.

The theologies of the past have been so concerned with the evil that men do that they have often overlooked the innate potentialities for good in human nature and have said that goodness is attainable only by the grace of God. That statement can be accepted if by "the grace of God" we mean the beneficent conditions of life into which we entered at birth, which we did nothing to create but which were freely given to us — the loving care and cooperation which were as guardian angels to protect and guide us. It is always through human lives that this grace is mediated to us, persons whom we know and love, or who, unknown, yet minister to our welfare, or whose lives in the generations that are gone from earth have been built into the walls of truth and right which enclose that spiritual City of God wherein we may dwell if we choose.

So I have come to conceive of God as that infinite and unseen Power beyond the veil of sense, the Fount of Being, the sum of Reality, which I suppose is what Gandhi meant when he said that, for him, "Truth is God and God is Truth." Our finite minds can never fully comprehend that infinite Reality, nor "by searching find out the Almighty unto perfection," but we perceive him through his works, and find our life in him. We can, if we will, open our hearts and minds to the inflowing of his Spirit, and find in him a loving care and guidance, as a little child who runs with joy to meet his father puts his hand into that of one whose strength and wisdom he trusts. The poets have generally given more adequate utterance to the deeper insights of religion than have the theologians, for religion is often more a matter of the heart than of the mind. And the same nineteenth-century hymn writer already quoted summed it up in the opening stanza of another great hymn:


Go not, my soul, in search of him,

Thou wilt not find him there,

Or in the depths of shadow dim,

Or heights of upper air.

For not in far-off realms of space

The Spirit hath its throne;

In every heart it findeth place,

And waiteth to be known.[8]



[1]Gen 6:1-2, 4.

[2]Acts 14:8-18.

[3] The alchemist sought to bring this about by magic; the modern scientist, through intelligent research, has acquired the ability to change some metals into other forms.

[4] F. L. Hosmer.

[5] Memorials to the dead, showing their features in marble or bronze, are frequently found in these churches, but they are not objects of worship.

[6] Omar Khayyam (tr., Edward Fitzgerald), Rubaiyat, LXXI.

[7] Altered in the 1928 revision of the Prayer Book to read, "None can enter into the kingdom of God, except he be regenerate and born anew of Water and of the Holy Ghost."

[8] F. L. Hosmer.