Issues of Life
HENRY NELSON WIEMAN
Chaper VI: God and the Ideal
THE advocate of religion without God makes the ideal the supreme object of religious devotion. The theist regards God in that light. What does the religious humanist who disbelieves in God mean by the ideal? And what does the theist who disbelieves in the personality of God mean by “God”? These are the two questions we must try to answer.The ideal may mean either one of two things. It may mean (1) some human idea of a possible good to be attained by human effort, or (2) that which truly is a possible good to be attained by human effort. These two must not be confused, although men often do fail to distinguish between them. My idea of the attainable good is by no means identical with what truly is good and attainable. The fallibility of the human mind is notorious and. nowhere, perhaps, is its fallibility greater than in respect to unattained goods which are strongly desired.My idea of the program of action leading to highest fulfillment of life in any particular situation is one thing. What truly is the course of action leading to highest fulfillment in that situation is something different. At best, my
idea merely approximates the best. What truly is the way to the attainment of the highest fulfillment is the ideal in one sense. My idea of it is the ideal in another sense. Failure to distinguish between these two meanings of ideal leads to great confusion. They differ on two points:first, with regard to the program of action specified; second, with regard to the nature of the fulfillment to be attained. If we identify ideal with our idea of the program and its fulfillment, then the ideal should never be made the supreme object of aspiration. If we identify ideal with what truly is the highest fulfillment of life and the means to its attainment relative to existent conditions, however different these may be from our ideas of them, then the ideal should be supreme, with certain qualifications to be mentioned later.There is still a third meaning of the ideal which we shall merely mention. It is our idea of something which does not exist and is not attainable, which is impossible, but which is loved and adored just the same. Here there need be no distinction between the idea of the good and the good itself. The idea is the good, the good is the idea. There is no other good to be had save the idea. There is a kind of religion which makes that kind of ideal the object of supreme devotion. In such case the ideal is not something to strive to achieve, because it cannot be achieved or even approximated. It is simply
something to cherish, a dream. Such a religion may be comfortable and ornamental. It plainly has no constructive or reconstructive power. It is a harmless and futile kind of religion provided it is not allowed to approach the dimensions of paranoia. But it is not the kind of religion represented by the sort of humanism we are here considering. Therefore we shall ignore it and turn our attention exclusively to the two kinds of ideals, or two meanings of the ideal, distinguished above.We cannot escape the conclusion that, if by ideal we mean man’s idea of the good to be sought, the ideal is not identical with what truly is the good to be sought, and often is very foolish and evil. Still, again, perhaps even more frequently, it is something which is not attainable and cannot even be approximated by human effort.But all these difficulties can be avoided if we understand by the ideal not merely our ideas, but that which truly is the possible good to be sought. We must have ideas about it, to be sure, but our ideas are not identical with it. If our ideas were identical with it, then there would be nothing to seek after we got the idea because the idea would be all there was to it. But if the ideal is an objective, nonexistent possibility to be sought, and perhaps progressively sought, then there truly is something to be done about it besides merely coddling the idea. Furthermore,
if the ideal is such an objective possibility, our ideas about it are subject to correction, to improvement and growth and ought to change. But the idea is merely the feeler, the hand that gropes, the light that searches, the instrument that achieves. It is not the ideal. The ideal is that which truly is both good and attainable even when our ideas miss it. With such ideas we can make the ideal the object of our quest and our devotion because it is not identical with our idea of it. It is that for which we strive by means of ideas.With this understanding of the ideal, the supreme ideal would be the highest possibility of value that can ever be actualized through anything which man can ever do. This highest possibility of value may be a whole series of possibilities, or a system. But what its content may be is not now our question. We are only trying to define what we shall mean when we speak of the ideal. This possible good to be attained by human effort has been most diversely conceived and misconceived. The South Sea Islanders had their idea of it and so did the Hebrew prophets. The modern religious humanist may have still another idea of it. It may be that the greatest possible good to be sought or promoted by these several groups was wholly diverse the one from the other, or it may be that there was something in common between them and they were all engaged in promoting a total system of good. But
all such questions are ulterior to the present task, which is to define ideal. By “ideal” we here understand the possible good which the individual or group may achieve by rightly directed efforts. It is not identical with the idea which the individual or group may hold concerning it, although this idea, righitly formulated, is a necessary tool to be used in achieving or approximating or promoting it.We have seen that if, when the religious humanist speaks of the ideal he means a human idea of the best to be attained, and sets up that idea as the supreme object of religious devotion, he is putting himself in an indefensible position. But if by ideal he means the best that may be sought and achieved, even though that best be very different from our present idea of it, then he has something which truly must be an object of great concern. But when ideal is so conceived, God is essentially involved in its attainment.If this is what is meant by the ideal, what is meant by God? We must distinguish between God and the idea of God, just as we found it necessary to distinguish between the ideal and the idea of the possible good. Endless confusion arises when we fail to make this distinction either in respect to the ideal or in respect to God. God does not mean simply and solely that idea of God which was revered by the Crusaders or by the Hebrew prophets or by Jesus. It does not mean any single historical instance of the
idea of God, any more than ideal means any single historical instance of the idea of the good. Ideas must not be confounded with the objects to which they refer. To be sure, people often do confound the two. A tribe, for example, when conquered, may retain its old ideas of the gods and add to them the ideas of the gods which prevail among the conquerors. But instead of using these new ideas to correct and clarify the older, the members of the tribe simply increase the number of gods by adding the two together because they fail to distinguish between god and the idea of god. When the ideas increase, the gods increase. But this muddleheaded confusion of simple and undisciplined minds is no excuse for a modern thinker falling into the same absurdity. “God,” like “ideal,” means that which human ideas endeavor to grasp. The ideal, that is, the highest possibility of value for mankind, can be distinguished from the historical formulations of it. So, likewise, God can be distinguished from the historically accepted ideas used to refer to him and seek after him.We have defined the ideal. How shall we define God? God is not merely a possibility to be achieved. That is the ideal. But God is that order of existence and possibility by virtue of which the greatest possible good is truly a possibility and can be achieved by human effort. No possibility is a possibility merely by thinking
it, although thinking may well be a necessary factor in making it a possibility. But a possibility can be such only when there is some order which makes it so. Human effort can be efficacious in bringing a desired possibility to pass only when there is some order in which and with which men can work to that end. All this applies to the possibility of greatest value. God is that order of existence and possibility which includes this possibility of greatest value to be attained, which makes it a possibility and in adjustment to which human effort is efficacious in achieving it, but without which human effort would be entirely futile and foolish. Human thinking and human effort are ingredients in the order of God, and help to make it.There are many different orders of existence and possibility. Whether all these orders can be reduced to one single all-inclusive order is highly doubtful. The best thinkers to-day are inclined to deny that it can be done. But in any case, God cannot be identified with any such all-inclusive order. God is that one order which sustains and mediates the possibilities of greatest value. This order which is God is partly an order of existence and partly order of possibility.Here, then, is the definition of “ideal” and “God.” The ideal is some possible existence of greatest value which the human race may achieve either progressively or ultimately. “God,” on the other hand, means that order of
existence and possibility in dependence upon which and in conformity to which and in promoting which this ideal is to be achieved. Any structure of possible existence can be a possibility only because there is even now in the present process of existence an order which makes it a possibility. God is that order. But God is not limited to existence. He also includes possibilities. He is not the all-inclusive cosmic order or “the” order of nature, but he is that one particular order of nature, both existent and possible, which includes and mediates the greatest value that is to be achieved and without which that greatest value would not be a possibility at all and hence could not be a practicable ideal. It could only be a wishful fancy, a purely sentimental ideal.Now, the question at issue between God and the ideal is this: Can we seek the ideal directly without regard to this order which is in the present process of existence and possibility and makes the ideal a possibility? Surely, there can be but one answer to such a question. The only way in which any unattained possibility can ever be achieved is by operating with that order by which it is brought to pass. Therefore, the only way the greatest values can ever be achieved is through God and in dependence upon God. To strive for the ideal and ignore God is like trying to make the sun stand still while ignoring the rotation of the earth. A religion that
ignores God is as foolish as the man who thinks he can make the sun stand still without regard to the order which controls that event. Hence a religion which excludes God is a religion which reverts to magic and superstition, although it may profess to be the highest expression of science. Any striving after the ideal which ignores God, with this understanding of God, must be unintelligent, futile, and sentimental, because it is only through this order called God that the Ideal can be achieved.Therefore devotion to the supreme ideal must be devotion to God. Otherwise such devotion is mere sentimentality and gush. The only effective service we can render the high ideal is to serve that order which will actualize the ideal. We must serve this order in such a way that the greatest possible value will become progressively realized. The highest ideal may be infinite; but if so, it may be infinitely approached through God and in God, but in no other way.
There are, however, two kinds of religion which can leave God out. But if the word “false” can be applied to any religion, it can be applied to these two. One of these has already been mentioned. It is that kind of religion which yearns toward the high ideal without try-
ing to meet the conditions that must be met if anything effective is done to attain it. Such religion is futile aspiration, a gush of sentiment and nothing more.The second kind of religion leaves God out in reality although it may not leave him out in name. Indeed, it may be more insistent about the name of God than any other. This kind of religion does not seek the highest possibility of value, but gives its devotion instead to some wishful fancy which is not a practicable possibility at all. Hence it does not need God except as a symbol to quicken the imagination. It does not depend upon any objective order through which the cherished possibility is to be realized, because the possibility is not practicable and can never be realized. Its sole value lies in being dreamed.When we speak of the religion of wishful fancy, we do not refer merely to the fact that a man’s idea of the highest genuine possibility of value may be incorrect, nor to the incorrectness of his idea of the order by which that possibility is mediated. Perhaps no man’s idea of this order and of this possibility is without error. But there is a great difference between that religion which holds its ideas subject to correction in the light of further evidence, in other words tentatively, and that kind of religion which ignores evidence and insists that the highest possibility must be that which the individual or group
happens most intensely to desire regardless of whether there is any order in the processes of existent and possible nature which makes it a possibility. Such a religion is godless, no matter how much it may use the name of God, because it ignores that order which is God. It does not constantly reformulate its ideas in light of what is discovered concerning such an order. Therefore, it seeks and serves and is devoted not to the order which is God, but only to its own ideas and desires, which it may call intuitions or revelations or inner experience or whatever title seems most glamorous.Let us repeat that we do not deny that every religion has ideas which are mistaken. It may well be that every belief we use and profess, whether religious or secular, is infected with error. But there is a vast difference between holding ideas subject to correction and subordinate to the unexplored order of value, reformulating them in the light of all that we can discover, and, on the other hand, ignoring all such evidence and holding our ideas because of the inner satisfaction they yield or the infallibility we claim for them.We must use the best ideas we have. They may be mistaken, but that does not make our religion godless if we are ready to discard our mistaken ideas just as soon as we discover they are mistaken. Such a religion will not believe anything without evidence, lest in so doing it
depart from God and betray him. It will not accept as true any belief lacking evidence, no matter how essential it may seem for human welfare, for it knows that nothing is more harmful to human welfare than error, especially error concerning what is truly the highest possibility of value as distinguished from what is impossible. Therefore to believe what seems helpful simply because it seems helpful and without other evidence is to sin against that order which determines and constitutes whatever is truly and supremely helpful, namely, God.The religion of wishful fancy sets up its own ideas of what is highest and best, and if there is nothing in the universe to indicate that these ideas represent genuine possibilities except the testimony of subjective desire and inner experience, they still are held. They may even be held when the weight of evidence is against them, and the religious devotee may even glory in the fact that he cherishes a faith that finds no support in reason or in the data of observation. But plainly such devotion cannot be devotion to the objective order which is God. It can only be devotion to subjective states. Dean Sperry has been quoted as saying that there is a kind of religion which consists in “wallowing in our own subjective states.” Even if such ideas should be true, they could only be accidentally true and hence faithfulness to God would be an accident, which is not faithfulness at all. But
he who will accept no belief on grounds of subjective need alone, but only on trustworthy evidence, is faithful to God even when he errs, for he is striving by the best means available to be true to God. And striving to be true is faithfulness.
RELIGION AT ITS BEST
We have two questions before us: first, What is the general nature of religion? and, second, What is religion at its best? We must now try to state what is t.he supreme function of religion at its highest. It is seeking and finding God, God being that order of existence and possibility which includes the possibilities of greatest value and is therefore himself the greatest value. This way of life has two requirements which are most important, and we can best describe it by specifying these requirements.The first requirement is to recognize the fact that the order leading to highest possibilities of value, as well as these highest possibilities themselves, may be very different from our present beliefs, desires and ideals. This order, which we identify with God, which is not the all-inclusive order of nature, but is one order involved in the existence and possibilities of nature, niay well he alien and even terrible to us. The reason that it should be so is that human beings have very recently (recently in terms of geological time) begun to communicate with symbols and so live
a life sustained and controlled by the order which communication imposes.This order which communication imposes is one in which the viewpoint of the individual is shared with others. It must be a shared or sharable viewpoint. Furthermore, the purpose which dominates the individual living under the order of communication must be a purpose which is shared, or at any rate sharable and to be shared as soon as temporary obstacles are removed. Likewise it is an order in which all the goods which the individual cherishes and strives to achieve are goods which are sharable or to be shared as quickly as hindrances are overcome. Thus the life which is shaped and dominated by communication is a communal life. It is a life in which the cause which the individual must serve with his whole life, and in which he finds all his satisfaction in life, is a cause which is common to all and to be served by all who communicate.Why should the requirements of such an order of communication be alien and terrible to human beings? Why should the highest values which it offers be destructive to human kind? The answer to that question opens up the most important fact about human life and the profoundest truth which all the high religions have sought to declare. The answer is that human life is caught in the mesh and network of another kind of life which is alien to the requirements of
this order of communication. This other kind of life is one in which the views of the individual are not sharable with others; in which the goods he cherishes are peculiar and private goods, excluding others; in which the cause to which the individual is devoted is not a common cause which others can serve with like devotion. These viewpoints, goods, and causes are not merely not shared, due to temporary obstacles, they are of such sort, or held in such a way, that they essentially preclude community or common sharing.Whence comes this old life of exclusive goods, exclusive viewpoints, exclusive devotions? It is the natural way of life for all animals. It is the life that man has always lived. The new way of life demanded by the order of communication is an innovation superimposed upon the old way. The old way of life which all animals follow does certainly display co-operation and mutual help. But we are speaking of something over and above that. We are speaking of a sharing which can be achieved only by way of symbolical communication and is impossible through the use of mere signs. This old way of signs and mutual adaptive reactions without communication is the kind of life which we inherit from our whole geological past. It is the life of “the world” in one sense of that term. Ancient customs, ways of thinking and acting, constituting the unconscious habits of each generation, are transmitted
to each new-born infant, and thus he is caught in the mesh of the old life before he is old enough to know anything about it.Someone triumphantly rises to say: “Ah, but the whole difficulty can be overcome by education! All we need to do is to educate the young to live this other kind of life and all will be well.” Such a suggestion is fatuous. Who is to do the educating? We adults are the only ones who can educate the young, and we already have this old way of life so deeply wrought into the habits of our minds and bodies that we cannot even approach the young without transmitting to them the old evil way of exclusive individuality.What, then, can be done? The most important thing to be done is not to try to educate the young directly, for then we make them like ourselves; but, rather, it is to go ourselves in the way of high religion, the first requirement of which is to recognize that this order of greatest value is something quite alien and even terrible to the “natural man,” because we are in great part shaped and dominated by the ancient order of exclusive goods, exclusive views, and exclusive devotions. As human beings our life is shaped by two orders which are alien and hostile to one another: one is the ancient order of all animal life, and the other is the order of that new way of life which communication imposes. Thus we are dual creatures, caught be-
tween the conflicting demands of two orders. We cannot extricate ourselves from either one. Thus we are torn. We constantly suffer “crisis.”The second requirement which must be met in order to seek and enter more fully into the communal life imposed by communication is to dedicate ourselves to that higher order. We must do this even when we do not know very much about the nature of it, because our participation in it is so meager and distorted by the animal way of living. We do not even know what the values are which this order will yield when we most fully conform to it. We only know that values to be found in that order are incomparably superior to the values of the old animal way of living. We know that by reason of whatever meager participation we have had in the higher order. But in dedicating ourselves to this order of the communal life we are giving ourselves to something which is in great part transcendent, unexplored, and unknown. Furthermore, it is an order which, in so far as we enter it, must crush and destroy the old way of life with all the goods which we have cherished so fondly in it. Furthermore, since it is an order which is so largely transcendent, and so much beyond the scope of our present experience, we can only seek it by experimental ventures in living which will be very painful and costly. Most of our present way of life must be wrecked, if we are to con-
form to the requirements of this communal order of greatest value. Hence we must in great part be broken and destroyed before we find our way into it. That is the reason passionate self-dedication to it is necessary. It must be a religious quest. We must be able to find in our very failures and self-destruction the manifestation of the presence and working in human life of this higher order.Some may object to our assertion that human life must undergo such great pain and destruction before it can conform to the order which leads to greatest values. Their objection will be to point to the large part which communication already plays in our lives. Why, then, must human life undergo such radical reconstruction to meet the requirements of the order of communication? Our reply is that while communication does play a large part in our lives, we have not met the requirements of the order of greatest value which it offers. We communicate, yes, but we do not live in such a way as to find the highest values which communication makes possible. We communicate so much that we can never extricate ourselves from the order of communication; but at the same time we do not follow that way to the highest which communication opens to us. We live as members of two orders which are mutually hostile to one another. We must dedicate ourselves to one or to the other.
We cannot continue to live this life which clings to both. Hence self-dedication to the unknown requirements of the order of communication which leads to and which includes the greatest values, is the second requirement of the method we are considering. This dedication must be so complete and so passionate that the pain and destruction and death which it incurs will be experiences in which we apprehend and enjoy the object of our devotion.This order of greatest value which transcends our present mode of existence, but is opened to us through the fact of communication, is so contrary to our way of life that no one can live as we live and at the same time reach far toward this order of value without being broken. Therefore, the loftiest fulfillment of human life is inevitably tragic. There can be no great loftiness in the human ways of existence without rendering this conflict of the two orders so acute as to be terrible. He who commits himself to the highest order of value while still living in the clutch of the lower order must be torn to pieces. Therefore the destruction and failure of the highest ventures is what reveals most clearly and brings down into our existence most effectively that order of greatest value which is opposed to our way of life. Because of the conflict between the two orders which shape our living, the only way to draw near to the order which is God is by way of tragedy. This has been dimly
forecast by most of the great religions, and the Barthians are reiterating it today. Wherever that order which is God begins to be potent in our life there are death and destruction and the rending of the structure of our existence. The reason for this is that the order of highest value is so contradictory to our established order of existence that it cannot enter our existence without changing it radically. To change it radically means to destroy it. Thus, any approach to God brings to an issue the tragic opposition of these two orders and the urgency of final choice.Can we state in very simple language what we believe is the nature of this order which is God? Yes, we can describe it in very ancient and very simple language. It is the order of love. To some that may sound paradoxical after all we have said about the suffering involved in passing from our present state of existence into it. But he who has followed our thought will see that it is not paradoxical. To use our own language, this order of greatest value is the order of communication. It is that order in which and through which men can achieve a communal vision and a united good in which each individual finds in all his living the meaning and the value of the whole march of life. But it is an order of which we are still very ignorant, for we have scarcely begun to explore it and it is mostly hidden from us by the old order of mutual adaptation through signs rather than symbols, in
which there may be co-operation, but no community.In saying that God is the order of love we have made a simple statement. But every simple statement about the nature of God is necessarily an inadequate and onesided statement. An adequate statement would have to be enormously complex. Indeed, no man is able to make an adequate statement. Therefore, the statement in the preceding chapter about the nature of God is scarcely more than suggestive.To search out this order which is God and to bring to light the supreme but hidden possibilities of value that are in it, we must learn to live on that border line which marks the beginning of a realm of possibilities which are yet to be known, a realm of quest, where none may lead and none may guide and none has found the way, but where the radiant and ultimate values lie. This border line between possibilities known and possibilities unknown is where the great discoveries and insights are achieved. This is the line where spiritual growth takes place. This is the spiritual frontier of history.Religion of the kind we would support Is striving to find and to conform to that order in which alone human life can find its fulfillment and its deliverance from the chaos and the horror which must attend communicating personalities who cannot trust one another.Life and the movement of life toward highest
values are sustained and promoted not by any single factor alone, such as air or sunshine, or the biological process of organic cells, or the interaction between organisms, or the social heritage, or economic production, or artistic creation, or scientific investigation, or any other such list of factors taken severally and separately. Any of these alone and also the total sum of them are insufficient to constitute that upon which we are dependent and to which we must conform to bring life to its highest. But a very special order and process of interaction between all these different factors does sustain and pro. mote the highest values of life. This order and process of interaction is more or less approximated in actual fact. This approximation, together with whatever degree of complete actualization in the future history of existence it may make possible, is God. Progressive integration may or may not be a satisfactory description of it.This order and process of interaction between many factors, some of which we know and some of which we do not, is the unmistakable presence of God in our midst. The supreme intellectual problem of our existence is to get more accurate knowledge of the precise nature of this interaction; and the supreme practical problem is to conduct human life in conformity to its requirements. Hence God is the proper object of supreme devotion for all human living when living is intelligent.