From a lecture by William Ernest Hocking
In 1960 the first Colloquium on God and the Modern World occurred at the May Meetings of the American Unitarian Association. The speaker in the Harvard Square Meetinghouse of the First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian, was William Ernest Hocking, Alford Professor, Emeritus, of Natural Religion and Moral Philosophy, Harvard University. Dr. Hocking spoke on “God and the Modern World—With Special Reference to the Present World Struggle for Power and Peace.” – Herbert F. Vetter
The “Modern World” is a distinct period of time only because it is a distinct state of mind.
This state of mind begins in Western Europe, but becomes worldwide. There begins to be a world civilization; and there can be no such thing without mental world-contemporaneity; we are all moderns together. The distinctive note of the epoch is human self-reliance, technically implemented. A human know-how is everywhere in demand; and therefore the underlying sciences universally claimed.
Human self-reliance naturally displaces reliance on God, so far as God is called on to meet human need. The word “Humanism” stands for the principle of this displacement. The Modern World extends its human self-help by degrees; but it knows its method. We may look on the entire period as a progressive experiment in getting on without God, in all-important practical matters.
Modernity begins with this method, at first a method of thought and then a method of tools. Its principle is very simple; purposes and wishes play no part in Nature; mathematics tells the full and exact story; causes are equal to effects, and therefore alike in kind. The equation is the perfect language for describing what happens; and also the perfect instrument for prediction and technique. The playroom for divine operation closes: God’s purposes are simply irrelevant.
The Modern World thus moves toward a practical atheism, not by intention, but by default. Nietzsche’s startling “God is dead” is only a more violent statement of the mild words of Laplace, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” A superfluous hypothesis becomes quietly and rightly a discarded hypothesis. In a world in which men are willing and able to do the hard thinking and observing essential to scientific mastery, God has nothing in particular to do. This applies first of all to the physical sciences: it extends to all the rest, the sciences of life and of man. Each of these, taking physics as an ideal, tends to become a “closed science,” admitting considerations only of kinds pertinent to its specific problems, excluding the irrelevant. We develop a pure biology, excluding any irrelevant notions of design; a pure economics of wealth and welfare (Adam Smith, Ricardo), a pure science of Law (John Austin and followers), a pure political science of power (Hobbes to von Treitschke). Even in the sciences of man and society, God becomes the permanently irrelevant consideration.
Looking over its more than three centuries of increasingly confident pursuit, this experiment of getting on without God is endorsed by world-changing success. Discovery, invention, human mastery surpassing everything hitherto known. Not that everything has succeeded, but that we know we are on the right track: we are at home with Nature; we know how to tackle residual problems; we know where to look for remedies and where not to look. True, we have run into a period of the gravest disorder and possible catastrophe that mankind has ever faced. But nothing in these troubles discounts the scientific method, or the axiom of Relevance. On the contrary, the appalling threat is a witness to our achievement in the analysis and control of nuclear energies. We cannot repudiate these powers merely because we have not tamed them. There is no going back on Science or Technology.
There is indeed a serious question whether the closed physical sciences are a sufficient model for the closed sciences of life, subhuman and human. Allowing that God’s purposes are irrelevant, must there not be some local or indwelling purposes in the phenomena of life of all stages? And if we allow goal-seeking as a factor in the description of organisms singly, must we not be prepared to admit a total drive, an elan vital, in the evolution of all life, which intimates a divine guidance? Such questions intrude themselves.
The scientist must share the universal human impulse to sympathize with the processes of nature, to participate first emotionally and then morally in the rhythm of the seasons, the growth, the reproduction, the beauty of living things. If Kepler could not keep out of his speculations on the planetary orbits his prejudice that the ellipse is more beautiful than the circle, and therefore more appropriate for God’s design of the heavenly harmony, we may expect what actually happened—recurrent protest against pure mathematical objectivity, continued reassertion of the inveterate animism of man’s fellowship with Nature, a refusal to be alienated by the purge of purpose from inner participation in the total cosmic process. The resistance all along the line from Diderot and the Romantics, from Goethe and Lamarck to Whitehead’s great campaign against the “bifurcation of Nature” must not be overlooked.
But the Humanist cause remains valid for the principle of self help. And for that reason, the “Scientific Revolution”—as Sir Charles Snow has called it (Rede Lecture, Cambridge)—becomes a social and moral cause. Those who persist in calling on God to cure disease, regulate the weather, prosper the crops, determine the outcome of childbirth, dispel poverty, are held traitorous to the cause of enlightened responsibility. The Modern World becomes a foe of all religion that invokes God to do what man should and can do for himself. To call such religion “opiate of the people” (wrongly ascribed to Marx) might fairly describe the spirit of the entire Modern World, Marxian and non-Marxian, in its campaign for objectivity.
Truth and Fallacy in the Modern Trend to Atheism
We must, I believe, be wholly in accord with this loyalty of the Modern World to the scientific method which has been the source of its power. We have only two notes of criticism:
the “religion” it denounces is not religion;
the “God” it gets along without is not God.
Certainly, a man like Albert Schweitzer, who brings to Lambarene the full equipment of scientific medicine, has not found the meaning of his religion or his God impoverished by his science. Nor did Mahatma Gandhi find his own sense of God impaired by his work at Sabarmati, using modern veterinary methods in his hospital for ailing cattle.
What I wish to make clear is this: that the wide modern drift toward an implicit atheism—toward a naturalism which negates supernature, a secularism which coddles the human wish, a Laique conception of the good life and of politics—that drift is based upon a valid denial of a false idea of God.
For whatever God means, he is not a substitute for, nor a competitor with, the sciences and arts of modernity.
God is not an object among objects; nor a power among powers; nor a cause among causes; nor a medicine among medicines.
But if God is none of these things, what is God?
Are we to fall back on mystery; or on Spinoza’s dictum that all determination is negation—nothing specific can be said; or on the Mahayana Void; or on the Tao, unnameable and nonassertive?
Or shall we look closer into ourselves, with the insight which Mohammed of old shares with the Existentialist of today: “God is nearer to you than the great vein in your neck”?
Both of these proposals have substance. The mystics are right in refusing to identify God with any tangible object. And driven to use imagery, the believer is in constant peril of literalizing the metaphor—polytheism does just that. A scrupulous faith is accordingly driven to reticence; and it may reach the point of declining to specify what it is it believes in: one “has Faith”—enough said! I once thought this an irresponsible evasion; I now think better of it. It makes an important distinction between the man capable of purpose and the drifter. Judgment of a shrewd employer.
Faith, period, is a way of “accepting the universe.” Santayana’s picture of “animal faith” is not inappropriate to the human situation: there is an elan of all living things, including man, toward an environment assumed auspicious. We are, as Existentialists inclined to say, “engaged” in a context of being, postulated as offering the possibility of a rewarding life-career. The spontaneous attitude of the human infant, including his protests, is essentially that of Faith, period.
Nevertheless, the thinking animal must bring to his self-steering enterprise something better than a blank chart. While every concept applied to God is open to criticism—”God is power, will, creativity” (Whitehead disallows all of these)—our Modern World, indisposed to mysticism, finds it incredible that anything absolutely important can be absolutely indefinable.
Let us turn to the second proposal, that we look more closely into ourselves—toward the central region of selfhood—toward what I incline to call the kernel or nucleus of experience. For it is through intimate experience that we have direct traffic with “Reality”—and “God” must be a name for the most Real.
This inner being of ours, this moving current of feelings, sensations, imaginations, incipient purposes, is aware of itself as among other selves, all occupied with objects but not identical with them.
The self knows that it is not an “object”: it cannot be severed from its subjectivity, its feelings and purposes, and remain itself. It knows also that the other selves are not measurable objects, calculable and predictable and manageable, as if devoid of purpose. It knows that this life of will is more real than the being of “objects” thus controllable.
Hence, to say that God is not an object among objects is to imply—not that God lacks something of reality—but that objects lack something. Our objects are contents of experience which we can treat as purposeless for a purpose, the purpose of control, reserving ourselves and all selves from the objective field. We see in part why God cannot be an object.
But God may be—and I suggest he is—present to us as a demand, among other things a demand to think. We find ourselves summoned to reject a passive existence of immersion in sensation, and to live in a world of things, events, laws, common to all selves. We are stirred to take our private experience as universal, so that it may enter the fabric we call Truth, valid for all.
That summons to objective living, to come out of subjectivity and enter a context in which language, engagements, laws become possible—in which science itself becomes possible—is not that the call of Reality? Let us test this suggestion by the experience of such a user of science as Mahatma Gandhi, asking him what he means by the term “God.” By good fortune, we have his words:
There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything. I feel it, though I do not see it…. It defies all proof because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses….
I do feel that there is orderliness in the universe. There is an unalterable law governing everything and every being that exists and lives. It is no blind law; for no blind law can govern the conduct of living beings…. That law which governs all life is God: Law and the Lawgiver are one…
I do dimly perceive that while everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that changes a living power that is changeless,
that holds all together,
that creates, dissolves, and re-creates.
That informing power or spirit is God…
But he is no God who merely satisfies the intellect, if he ever does:
God, to be God, must rule the heart and transform it…
He who would, in his own person, test the fact of God’s presence can do so by a living faith . . . [by a resolve] to believe in the moral government of the world, and therefore in the supremacy of the moral law, the law of Truth and Love . . . [together with] a clear determination summarily to reject all that is contrary to Truth and Love. [The fruit, a “realization more real than the five senses can ever produce, proved by the transformed conduct and character of those who have felt the real presence of God within.”]
I confess I have no argument to convince through reason: Faith transcends reason….
All that I can advise is not to attempt the impossible.
Gandhi’s words are words of experience addressed to experiencers. He speaks of a law which can be “felt”—a law of order in world process which is also a moral law: but to be aware of this law is to feel it as a call to duty,—hence his remarkable sentence, “Law and the Lawgiver are one.” To put this in our own terms, let us say that human experience is inseparable from a sense of direction, having a certain authority, as if to say, “This way lies your road to fulfillment.” (It is perhaps the human form of that biological endseeking which Bergson calls élan vital.) Our experience is anything but a stream of factual data which we passively receive. There are active elements of address to us, a stir from without—calling for response from within. (The old Confucians were definitely on the right track in speaking of Ming, a decree of Heaven, an appointment or task.) Since we are all seekers for direction, and for our own meaning, no one can be unaware of this touch of summons, in which the listener, whether or not he uses the word God, finds the added dimensions of Companionship, of Duty, of Destiny.
If this is the case, it is only through the awareness of the Direction-giver that human life becomes fully human, as lived in the presence of a higher court of judgment and care. Through this awareness, solitariness is relieved both of its sting and of its indifference—the barbaric freedom of Fling. Religion is “the redemption of solitude.” There can be no genuine Humanism without God.
With this understanding, some features of our Modern World come to clearer light.
The Modern World Not Satisfied with Itself
If I am right in holding that the trend to a secular civilization in our Modern World is essentially a justified rejection of a false idea of God and of religion, but without filling the empty place, we should expect some indications of discomfort. We find them.
We find in recent studies of this period much use of the term “revolution” to indicate, not violent political changes, but radical shiftings of power within society due to persistent pressures of new insights and techniques, leaving much unfinished business. In this sense our entire Modern period may fairly be considered revolutionary. This, I judge, is part of what Sir Charles Snow has in mind, as “The Scientific Revolution,” of which we have spoken. He finds it leading to an ominous division between the culture based on science and the traditional culture based on the wider human interests. But as it happens, another historian calls attention to a malaise of conscience within this field, working its way toward definite remedy, by way of a later and more specialized revolution.
Mr. Adolf Berle is concerned with a single phase of recent economic development. He speaks of the corporation, which in the guise of a fictitious person has had a long legal history, with specified rights and duties defined in charters issued by existing public powers. Technically subject to these powers, the corporation through its actual synthesis of services—social and moral as well as economic—has become a power quasi-political in character and extent, and thereby a danger with which various law-systems have tried to cope by way of limitation and division. But the new power maintains itself, under the most various constitutions, as Berle convincingly shows, in part by a revolutionary development of its own conscience —whence his title The 20th Century Capitalist Revolution. The “soulless” corporation begins to develop a soul, and to adopt the total culture of the community as a responsibility, beyond the requirements of existing law, and beyond its own technical interests. As Berle states the matter, corporations assume that “somehow there is a higher law which imposes itself in time on princes and powers and institutions of this terrestrial earth”—somewhat in the spirit of Augustine’s “City of God.” They thus move toward closing the gap, justly noted and feared by Sir Charles Snow, which their own power, if used with a Frankenstein cynicism, must render disastrous.
I pass no judgment on this estimate of contemporary corporate tendencies. I can verify some of them. I merely point out that this “higher law” discerned by Berle is never out of operation: it cannot be escaped, because it belongs to the consciences of individuals who make up every social grouping. And once our attention is directed to its working, we can observe its action on a much wider area than that of the corporation.
For just because Modernity undertakes to apply the methods of science to all social concerns, it is obliged to become clear as to what human welfare consists in, to assume the right to work for it and to make any changes in institutions necessary to achieve it. In no field does this attitude make more difference than in the science of law. Law can be viewed as an expression of eternal justice, or as the will of a sovereign more or less disposed to justice; in these lights it has a certain stability. But if we consider law a means for reaching social ends, it invites mankind to tamper with their own institutions, to accept nothing merely as inherited or as sacred; to make them over freely nearer to the heart’s desire. It is just this to which the Modern World arrived, stirred by Bentham and Mill, and especially by a studious German, von Ihering, whose book on The Purpose in Law (Der Zweck im Recht, 1877) formulated the spirit of the times. This spirit duly gave birth to the sociology of law—a revolution in attitude fundamental to all revolutions, and conceivably making violent revolutions unnecessary.
But if law becomes a means to an end, a guide to what Dean Pound calls “social engineering,” we must know what we want society to be. And it becomes increasingly evident that just this social ideal cannot be read from the surface of our daily wishes, whether in field or factory, in home or school, in mass communication or in foreign policy—everywhere there are considerations we call moral which prevent us from setting up a legal program based solely on a calculus of wishes. The “higher law” begins to appear as a necessity for guidance, even in the literalities of economics and in the practical work of law-making.
This is true of the domestic problems of economic origin—labor and management—employment, taxation, social security. It is doubly true of international issues, which almost always have an economic core. (In 1938, Herbert Feis, economic adviser in the State Department, after enquiries in East Europe, remarked to me “Since the turn of the century, economics has not been a closed science; there are no economic solutions with ethical solutions.”) Foreign policy must consider national interest; but in the world of today, a world of nations, national interest is not enough. There are no political solutions, without solutions in the higher court. The closed-science ideal of Modernity breaks down completely: THERE ARE NO CLOSED SCIENCES.
The Conditions of World Unity
The fact that we live in a world of nations implies a possible clash of national interests, even apart from the explicit enmity imbedded in the Soviet ideology. Every foreign policy must aim at peace, since war is now intolerable. But no foreign policy can seek peace by appeasement, which means yielding principle to threat, and abandoning not only national interest but national character. If there is to be a moral factor in statecraft, there must be an absolute; God is the absolute. This set of demands appears to be a prescription for rigidity and rigidity may be a synonym for death.
The defect in this picture is that it omits a factor of will-changing, through achieved identity of purpose. The central defect of national purposes hitherto is that they have stopped at the local interest: they have failed to see that each nation must take for its province the world. This implies coalescence of domain, at the periphery: an impossible conception unless people can agree on the general characteristics of the political world. It is precisely here that the role of God appears, if we regard God as the moral unity of the world, the summons to an identical good. If there is a moral absolute, it is a ground on which people must necessarily agree, when once they grasp its meaning. The only hopeful statecraft for today is one which employs the power of this necessity. It is likely to involve what I have called a “creative risk,” an act which assumes the necessary identity, and thereby brings it into actual effect.
And whoever uses this necessary identity to bring about agreement of will, I should regard as a man of Faith, no matter what his profession. Let me illustrate by an example present to all our minds. The lamented Albert Camus is commonly classed as an atheist: he denies the God he considers—rightly or wrongly—the God of the Church. He equally denies Nihilism and drift. And since he thus denies absolute denial, he is implicitly asserting an affirmative faith. What is it he believes in?
In his great book, The Rebel, he struggles through the long history of revolt against injustice, and against conventional beliefs, arriving at a clear contrast between rebellion and revolution. Revolution—as violent overturn—exchanges one tyranny for another, he finds. Rebellion has a different temper—it unites denunciation of tyranny with a call for agreement. It stands up to the tyrant—only not to destroy him, but to bring him to himself. He says to him, in effect: “This which you require of me isagainst your own nature as well as mine. At the peril of my life I refuse to do it, in the name of our common humanity.” What the Rebel achieves—if he does achieve it—is solidarity instead of conflict. He has created a new mind in the tyrant, by an act of affirmative faith.
His risk is real; but it is based on a certitude. He knows his perception of right to be no private sentiment, but a necessity for all men, hence commanding the tyrant as well, if he will fairly face himself. That certitude is of the nature of a religious faith.
Camus does not state his principle in these words. Nor does he say that he has here introduced a new and important principle into modern ethics and politics. I take the responsibility of saying this for him. He describes the principle of the Rebel’s action as follows: “It is the refusal to be treated as an object…. It is the affirmation of a nature common to all men, which eludes the world of power…. [It implies] ‘I rebel, therefore we exist’.” This type of statecraft is impossible for two sorts of men: those who insist on perfect security, where there is no security; and those who have resigned all inner certitude, in view of what they regard as the insight of the Modern World—the universal relativity of all convictions. If this were the last word of the Modern World, I should feel it incompetent to win either peace or power. But it is not the last word for the placing of relativity within the framework of truth—one of the present preoccupations both of modern physics and modern logic.
Camus’s power for peace may be the greater because he does not address himself directly to the statesmen, but to the artists. He knows that the task has to do with the “collective passions” of our time, and that it is the nature of art to stir multitudes at once. He hopes that a courageous art may “end by revealing the ‘we are,’ and with it, the way to a burning humility,” conscious of working with an invincible power in history.
I refer again to Albert Schweitzer, for whom the spell of music is one way of his own assertion of solidarity across gulfs—as it was also for Van Cliburn. The appeal of the universal in human dignity and the equally eternal appeal of the universal in beauty are both integral parts of the work of God in the world.
But the necessary certitude cannot be prescribed as a diplomatic resource. If the statesman or the artist is without it, nothing could be more disastrous than to pretend it. It is true that there is an inescapable bond of union between man and man, whatever the differences, but in every individual impasse, the route of union must be sought and felt, as one in darkness prays for light. The sought-for light, when it comes, appears as a resolution of contradictions and conflict, perhaps rather in the tempers of approach than in the detail of the issues; there comes a certitude of union in the will-to-solve, wherein the actual solution ceases to be impossible.
It is for this reason that I say that the only genuine atheist is the man who holds that there are gulfs between right man and wrong men over which no bridge can be thrown. For God is that underlying unity of Being which is the permanent possibility of bridgemaking, for the Modern World as for all others, and without any sacrifice of its triumphs.
The Modern World has only to learn that, since there are no closed sciences, there are no economic solutions on economic grounds alone, no military solutions on military grounds alone, and what is harder, no legal solutions on legal grounds alone.
For law assumes the settled identity of the subjects of law, whereas in the international field it is precisely the identity of the national entities that is in constant flux and conflict, not to be solved by abolishing the nation. Nor are conflict and competition to be abolished; but to be held within an all-human solidarity, in which the “million masks of God” find dignity, respect, reverence.
- “Mahatma Gandhi, His Spiritual Message.” Columbia Masterworks. Record 17523-D.
- Berle, Adolf A. Jr., The 20th Century Revolution (N. Y.: Harcourt, Brace, 1954).
- Hocking, William Ernest, “Though our Capacity for a Double Morality Impedes Its Way to Dominance.” Strength of Men and Nations (N. Y.: Harper, 1959), Ch. V.
- Camus, Albert, The Rebel (N. Y.: Knopf, 1954: Vintage edition), p. 250.
- Ibid, 275.