We have seen that Pantheism fails to satisfy, inasmuch as it requires us to mean something different by the word "God" from what we have been in the habit of meaning. I have already said-I fear, too often-that no conception of God can have any value or meaning for us which does not involve his existence as an independent Living Person of ineffable wisdom and power, vastness, and duration both in the past and for the future. If such a Being as this can be found existing and made evident, directly or indirectly, to human senses, there is a God. If otherwise, there is no God, or none, at any rate, so far as we can know, none with whom we need concern ourselves. No conscious personality, no God. An impersonal God is as much a contradiction in terms as an impersonal person.
Unfortunately, when we question orthodox theology closely, we find that it supposes God to be a person who has no material body such as could come within the range of any human sense, and make an impression upon it. He is supposed to be of a spiritual nature only, except in so far as one part of his triune personality is, according to the Athanasian Creed, "perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting."
Here, then, we find ourselves in a dilemma. On the one hand, we are involved in the same difficulty as in the case of Pantheism, inasmuch as a person without flesh and blood, or something analogous, is not a person; we are required, therefore, to believe in a personal God, who has no true person; to believe, that is to say, in an impersonal person.
This, as we have seen already, is Atheism under another name, being, as it is, destructive of all idea of God whatever; for these words do not convey an idea of something which human intelligence can understand up to a certain point, and which it can watch going out of sight into regions beyond our view, but in the same direction-as we may infer other stars in space beyond the farthest that we know of; they convey utterly self- destructive ideas, which can have no real meaning, and can only be thought to have a meaning by ignorant and uncultivated people. Otherwise such foundation as human reason rests upon-that is to say, the current opinion of those whom the world appraises as reasonable and agreeable, or capable of being agreed with for any time-is sapped; the whole thing tumbles down, and we may have square circles and round triangles, which may be declared to be no longer absurdities and contradictions in terms, but mysteries that go beyond our reason, without being contrary to it. Few will maintain this, and those few may be neglected; an impersonal person must therefore be admitted to be nonsense, and an immaterial God to be Atheism in another shape.
On the other hand, if God is "of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting," and if he thus has the body without which he is-as far as we are concerned-non-existent, this body must yet be reasonably like other bodies, and must exist in some place and at some time. Furthermore, it must do sufficiently nearly what all other "human flesh" belonging to "perfect man" must do, or cease to be human flesh. Our ideas are like our organisms; they have some little elasticity and circumstance-suiting power, some little margin on which, as I have elsewhere said, side-notes may be written, and glosses on the original text; but this power is very limited. As offspring will only, as a general rule, vary very little from its immediate parents, and as it will fail either immediately or in the second generation if the parents differ too widely from one another, so we cannot get our idea of- we will say a horse-to conjure up to our minds the idea of any animal more unlike a horse than a pony is; nor can we get a well- defined idea of a combination between a horse and any animal more remote from it than an ass, zebra, or giraffe. We may, indeed, make a statue of a flying horse, but the idea is one which cannot be made plausible to any but ignorant people. So "human flesh" may vary a little from "human flesh" without undue violence being done to our reason and to the right use of language, but it cannot differ from it so much as not to eat, drink, nor waste and repair itself. "Human flesh," which is without these necessary adjuncts, is human flesh only to those who can believe in flying horses with feathered wings and bills like birds-that is to say, to vulgar and superstitious persons.
Lastly, not only must the "perfect man," who is the second person of the Godhead according to the orthodox faith, and who subsists of "human flesh" as well as of a "reasonable soul," not only must this person exist, but he must exist in some place either on this earth or outside it. If he exists on earth, he must be in Europe, Asia, Africa, America, or on some island, and if he were met with he must be capable of being seen and handled in the same way as all other things that can be called perfect man are seen; otherwise he is a perfect man who is not only not a perfect man, but who does not in any considerable degree resemble one. It is not, however, pretended by anyone that God, the "perfect man," is to be looked for in any place upon the surface of the globe.
If, on the other hand, the person of God exists in some sphere outside the earth, his human flesh again proves to be of an entirely different kind from all other human flesh, for we know that such flesh cannot exist except on earth; if in space unsupported, it must fall to the ground, or into some other planet, or into a sun, or go on revolving round the earth or some other heavenly body-or not be personal. None of those whose opinions will carry weight will assign a position either in some country on this earth, or yet again in space, to Jesus Christ, but this involves the rendering meaningless of all expressions which involve his personality.
The Christian conception, therefore, of the Deity proves when examined with any desire to understand our own meaning (and what lawlessness so great as the attempt to impose words upon our understandings which have no lawful settlement within them?) to be no less a contradiction in terms than the Pantheistic conception. It is Atheistic, as offering us a God which is not a God, inasmuch as we can conceive of no such being, nor of anything in the least like it. It is, like Pantheism, an illusion, which can be believed only by those who repeat a formula which they have learnt by heart in a foreign language of which they understand nothing, and yet aver that they believe it. There are doubtless many who will say that this is possible, but the majority of my readers will hold that no proposition can be believed or disbelieved until its nature is understood.
It may perhaps be said that there is another conception of God possible, and that we may see him as personal, without at the same time believing that he has any actual tangible existence. Thus we personify hope, truth, and justice, without intending to convey to anyone the impression that these qualities are women, with flesh and blood. Again, we do not think of Nature as an actual woman, though we call her one; why may we not conceive of God, then, as an expression whereby we personify, by a figure of speech only; the thing that is intended being no person, but our own highest ideal of power, wisdom, and duration.
There would be no reason to complain of this if this manner of using the word "God" were well understood. Many words have two meanings, or even three, without any mischievous confusion of thought following. There can not only be no objection to the use of the word God as a manner of expressing the highest ideal of which our minds can conceive, but on the contrary no better expression can be found, and it is a pity the word is not thus more generally used.
Few, however, would be content with any such limitation of God as that he should be an idea only, an expression for certain qualities of human thought and action. Whence, it may be fairly asked, did our deeply rooted belief in God as a Living Person originate? The idea of him as of an inconceivably vast, ancient, powerful, loving, and yet formidable Person is one which survives all changes of detail in men's opinion. I believe there are a few very savage tribes who are as absolutely without religious sense as the beasts of the field, but the vast majority for a long time past have been possessed with an idea that there is somewhere a Living God who is the Spirit and the Life of all that is, and who is a true Person with an individuality and self- consciousness of his own. It is only natural that we should be asked how such an idea has remained in the minds of so many - who differ upon almost every other part of their philosophy-for so long a time if it was without foundation, and a piece of dreamy mysticism only.
True, it has generally been declared that this God is an infinite God, and an infinite God is a God without any bounds or limitations; and a God without bounds or limitations is an impersonal God; and an impersonal God is Atheism. But may not this be the incoherency of prophecy which precedes the successful mastering of an idea? May we not think of this illusory expression as having arisen from inability to see the whereabouts of a certain vast but tangible Person as to whose existence men were nevertheless clear? If they felt that it existed, and yet could not say where, nor wherein it was to be laid hands on, they would be very likely to get out of the difficulty by saying that it existed as an infinite Spirit, partly from a desire to magnify what they felt must be so vast and powerful, and partly because they had as yet only a vague conception of what they were aiming at, and must, therefore, best express it vaguely.
We must not be surprised that when an idea is still inchoate its expression should be inconsistent and imperfect-ideas will almost always during the earlier history of a thought be put together experimentally so as to see whether or no they will cohere. Partly out of indolence, partly out of the desire of those who brought the ideas together to be declared right, and partly out of joy that the truth should be supposed found, incoherent ideas will be kept together longer than they should be; nevertheless they will in the end detach themselves and go, if others present themselves which fit into their place better. There is no consistency which has not once been inconsistent, nor coherency that has not been incoherent. The incoherency of our ideas concerning God is due to the fact that we have not yet truly found him, but it does not argue that he does not exist and cannot be found anywhere after more diligent search; on the contrary, the persistence of the main idea, in spite of the incoherency of its details, points strongly in the direction of believing that it rests upon a foundation in fact.
But it must be remembered there can be no God who is not personal and material: and if personal, then, though inconceivably vast in comparison with man, still limited in space and time, and capable of making mistakes concerning his own interests, though as a general rule right in his estimates concerning them. Where, then, is this Being? He must be on earth, or what folly can be greater than speaking of him as a person? What are persons on any other earth to us, or we to them? He must have existed and be going to exist through all time, and he must have a tangible body. Where, then, is the body of this God? And what is the mystery of his Incarnation?
It will be my business to show this in the following chapter.