a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Theology & Philosophy » John E. Smith: God at the End of the Century

John E. Smith: God at the End of the Century


The 1989 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association was held at Yale University. The speaker at the Colloquium on God and the Modern World was John E. Smith, Clark Professor of Philosophy at Yale and a primary interpreter of American philosophy and philosophy of religion.

John E. Smith Courtesy of Yale University, Office of Public Affairs

John E. Smith
Courtesy of Yale University, Office of Public Affairs


God at the End of the Century

John E. Smith


In his opening address for this Colloquium series in 1960, William Ernest Hocking took note of the growth of self-reliance in the modern world and what he called a “progressive experiment in getting on without God.” He added, however, that the “God” the modern world proposes to get along without is not God in the most legitimate sense and hence that the entire situation calls for reinterpretation. I believe that Hocking was right in his judgment, and we must now attempt to consider the bearing of what has happened in the intervening decades to the notion of God.

To begin with, the underlying problem determining the odyssey of belief or disbelief in God over the past century involves a tension between the Theistic conception of God as omniscient, omnipotent, unchanging and fully complete, on the one hand, and the reality of time, history, human freedom and creativity, on the other. This tension manifests itself along two parallel lines: first, the belief that arose in the Renaissance and finally reached a radical conclusion in our time, that the traditional idea of God is totally incompatible with human initiative, choice and action for which we are responsible. This line of thought holds that God is an obstacle to human self-realization and that humans can be, exist and act, only if God is not. The second line of thought points to terrifying problems that have arisen under the aegis of the belief that human beings can create themselves out of their own freedom; this belief warns against the consequences of the slogan that “God is dead, all is permitted.” There is truth and error in both of these responses, and I propose to explore each of them briefly as a prelude to suggesting how it may be possible first, to reconcile an intelligible idea of God with the reality of time, history and human freedom; secondly, to deal with the exaggeration of freedom which has led to a new rejection of God and the creation of a secular void.

Let us begin with the problems that have arisen in the modern world, as the result of retaining the traditional God of Theism endowed with the now familiar attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, completeness and utter transcendence. Behind the use of these attributes was the belief that they are expressions of the superlatives necessary for giving God the highest praise and honor. Accordingly, it was inconceivable that God should have less than total power, knowledge, perfection and transcendence. And so it might appear, were it not for two fundamental ideas contained in the Western religious tradition which run counter to this conception. The two ideas are: first, that there is a real historical order, which includes novelty, growth, creativity and human initiative; secondly, the belief that God is living and participates in the direction of this historical order. The problem is, how can we reconcile these two ideas with the God of the traditional attributes each of which implies that God cannot take history seriously and, being already complete, cannot be related to a world of change including the novelties presented by human action?

A brief look a history will help to make these ideas clearer. While I do not agree with those who claim that the ancient religious thinkers went wrong when they adopted the principles and concepts of Greek philosophy for framing the doctrine of God, I do believe that the critics are right at one point. In the general drift of Greek thought there was a definite bias in favor of the fixed and the static over the dynamic and changing. This feature found its way into the Western tradition of thinking about God and thus created the major problem. What is to become of the reality of history, of human freedom, change and development if God is static perfection? Is the unfolding of history a kind of cosmic appearance, a mere show in time that is without ultimate significance in the divine economy? Can we conceive of God in such a way as to understand how the novelty and creativity we find in the historical order can make a difference to God?

These and similar questions have no answer if God is understood solely in terms of static perfection, already so complete and self-contained that the novelties of history simply vanish into an eternity that has no relation to time. It is a great irony that the Western religious tradition, unique in its recognition of time and history, should have held on so long to a conception of God which has no place for either. This irony, moreover, is not the result of speculations by philosophers but is inherent in the religious tradition itself. If the historical order and the individuals acting in it are both real, it is totally incoherent to think of God in such a way that they lose that reality and are excluded from the divine knowledge and understanding. The God who knows all, can do everything and in whom all aims are already realized, does not make sense not only as a matter of rationality but of religious coherence as well. While the tradition believed in a living God whose presence is felt in history, the God of Theism does not allow for either.

William James wrestled with this problem many decades ago when he opposed Josiah Royce’s early philosophy of the Absolute or the God in whom all error and evil are already overcome. What is the significance, he asked, of our striving as moral beings to do what is right, to overcome evil and injustice in the world, if in God the triumph is already assured and the evil fully nullified, To James that belief not only leaves us with no tasks to perform or, as he put it, allows us “moral holidays,” but robs our most heroic moral efforts of all significance in the eyes of God as well. According to James, God “gives you indeed the assurance that all is well with Him. and his eternal way of thinking; but thereupon he leaves you to be finitely saved by yourown temporal devices.” Kierkegaard made much the same point when he declared that Hegel’s God absconds to the realm of pure Being leaving the rest of us to face the worst!

The key to resolving the problem is to be found in an idea that is not new but which until recently has been forgotten. It is the idea that the power of God is not the same as its indiscriminate use, but rather that God treats creatures in accordance with their own natures. The power exercised over stars and stones is one thing; the power exercised over human beings is quite another. On this view, there is room for finite agents and our limited, but real, capacity for freedom even if, as has so often happened, that freedom turns out to be destructive.

The conflict between the reality of our striving and the belief that all goals are already realized in the Divine life can be overcome only if we can free ourselves of the idea that, while we experience time in the familiar order of past, present and future, God sees everything at once in an Eternal Now. That idea was no doubt meant to be a way of praising God by distancing divine from human knowing, but a little reflection shows that this is not so. God, on any intelligible interpretation, cannot know less than we do and what we do know must be included in the divine knowledge. But if this is so and we experience time as a serial order that involves a real future, then it cannot be true to say that God knows nothing of this temporal order but only of an Eternal Present into which the future vanishes. The solving idea here is that the events that may happen tomorrow are in one most important feature also future for God. Let us say that God continues to sustain the general structure of the world—things in space, events in time, causes and effects and indeed all the continuities that we rely upon in the cosmic order. There is, however, one element in the future which is not already “there” even for God; that is the decision and action of the individual seeking to realize him or her self in a process of development. Such decisions and actions come into being only in their time, and before that they were possibilities not yet made actual. Accordingly, through these possibilities there is left to us a measure of freedom in the world. In any case, it does no honor to God to conceive divine knowledge as an all-at-once affair so that God could not know the temporal order as temporal but only as eternal; hence God would fail to know something that we as finite creatures know. That is a curious consequence indeed.

The problem of reconciling the being of God and the reality of human freedom has had a special significance on the American scene because of Americans’ heightened awareness of the individual and our abundant energy. One of the chief reasons why the monarchical and sometimes even tyrannical God of the older Puritan tradition lost ground in the succeeding centuries was the sense that such a God,—being the sole-source of power—reduces human beings to the level of mere things. But as we have seen and as Charles Hartshorne has pointed out in many writings, there is no need to conceive of God in this monolithic way, especially when in doing so we go against the belief in a God of time and history, which has been so powerful in the Western tradition. The eclipse of the God before whom we lose our status as free and responsible agents, would be salutary and would, moreover, clear the way for the recovery of a more coherent faith.

I turn now to the second of the two lines of thought concerning God and freedom which I noted at the outset. This idea also began with the Renaissance thinkers; their belief in the dignity of the human person was so enlarged upon in the succeeding centuries that it became in our time a doctrine of total self-creation. If, as we have seen, the Absolute God leaves us, in James’ phrase, with nothing to do, the doctrine of radical freedom, as we shall see, leaves God with nothing to do.

The Renaissance philosophers were struck by a singular feature of human beings, namely that while the creatures of the natural world were thought to have be assigned a fixed place in the cosmic scheme, human beings alone were allotted no such place because, through freedom, their task was to determine their own place. The idea was that there is a sliding scale, so to speak, with the angels at one end and the beasts at the other; human beings have the power to determine their place within those limits. Along with this power went a mandate, a clear paraphrase of the Bible, to multiply and develop the resources of the earth. According to this view, human beings become the special agent of God in continuing the work of creation.

The belief in human freedom as self-determination was later given its most lasting expression by Immanuel Kant in his doctrine of autonomy; we are to be determined neither by what is above us nor by what is beneath, but only by self-legislating freedom. Kant just stopped short of the more radical doctrine of freedom which was to make its appearance in our time. For Kant, we inherit a natural endowment and while we do not have a fixed nature like stars and stones, neither do we create ourselves from nothing. Kant saw no conflict between this increasing autonomy and the being of God, but rather conceived of the moral law within us as, in his own words, the stern daughter of the voice of God. Kant, moreover, could speak of human beings as having freedom and being capable of forging a character that endures, but he did not go as far as later thinkers in declaring that, man is freedom through and through.

The final chapter in the odyssey of freedom in the modern world was to be written by Sartre and his Existentialism, but there was an intermediate step taken in the last half of the nineteenth century which forms an important part of the story. The growth of the Industrial Revolution in the countries of Europe led to mass societies made up of great numbers of workers and members of the lower middle class. Thinkers as far apart as Kierkegaard, Marx and Nietzsche gave voice to the growing concern that mass society meant anonymity, facelessness and the loss of individuality. In different ways and for disparate reasons these thinkers issued a summons, a call to individuals to become acutely aware of their own existence and to recover a sense of their responsibility to establish an integral self. For Kierkegaard, of course, the call to self-possession was intimately related to faith in God, whereas for Nietzsche especially and Marx to a lesser extent, the reality of God was seen as the major obstacle to human self-development and hence the call for the death of God.

The Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre carries this line of thinking to its ultimate conclusion. Since we are now to regard ourselves not merely as having freedom, but as being freedom, freedom can be realized only if God is not. Notice the radical feature of this idea: it is more than an atheism based on skepticism about any arguments for the existence of God; it is instead a desperate claim that the reality of God would mean disaster and the nullification of human freedom. This claim shows itself most clearly in Sartre’s project, namely, that the task of man is to be his own creator; in short, to be God. In developing this theme, Sartre, ironically enough, chose the same monarchical conception of God which, as we have seen, led to the difficulties considered in the first part of our discussion. Fastening on the idea of God as causa sui or totally self-caused, Sartre declared that it is precisely the project of man to be his own cause or to create himself out of nothing. James and Hartshorne, you will recall, wanted to reinterpret the idea of God to resolve the problem of freedom; Sartre is more radical by rejecting God altogether and replacing the divine prerogative with the absolute freedom of human individuals. The question which did not seem to occur to Sartre is whether we may not have more to fear from an absolute freedom in human hands than that same freedom in the hands of God.

It is my contention that we are now and have been for some time experiencing the consequences of the dismissal of God and the exaggeration of a human freedom that knows no limits beyond itself. As I read the signs, the absence of strong convictions about the reality of God has served to create a secular void, a sense that human existence is purposeless, is devoid of value and no longer has any sacred significance. And indeed we may well ask whether anything is sacred in our time, unless it be the drive to succeed. It seems that we have forgotten an old but important truth: the need for a commitment to a Ground and Goal of life is a need that is as basic to our existence as the need for food and clothing. James never tired of insisting on this truth and underlined it in the subtitle he attached to The Varieties of Religious Experience—”A Study in Human Nature”. If we do not find a basic orientation in life, an overarching purpose having authority over our conduct in a God of Love and Truth, we shall find ourselves falling into the hands of some idol—wealth, quest for power, esthetic enjoyment and especially our own dear selves—that manifests the demonic. No one of these limited and evanescent goals can, so to speak, bear the weight needed to sustain a meaningful life in so precarious a world as the one in which we live.

What I have called the secular void is a most dangerous vacuum, but it does not really remain empty since it will invariably be filled by something less than God. Recent events suggest that there have been two main responses by those who experience this void in their own lives and are alarmed by it. On the one hand, there is the worship of charismatic figures who promise deliverance from the emptiness and chaos of the contemporary scene; on the other hand, there is a yearning to revive an older form of religion that has not kept pace with the intellectual, social and cultural developments of the past few decades. Consider what has been happening on what we may call the popular religious front and how clearly these events give evidence of the two responses. We have witnessed the multiplication of religious cults, the hypnotic appeal of would-be saviors, and the frenzy of fanaticism, all of which represents desperate attempts to fill the void. The second response manifests itself in the resurgence of evangelical piety rooted in the belief that the efforts of religious thinkers in recent years to maintain a high standard of intelligence in religion and to relate religious faith to the problems of society represent just so much falling away from what is envisioned as authentic biblical religion. The phenomenon of the electronic church, taken in its full sweep, provides a vivid illustration of the attempt to fill the spiritual vacuum by going back to a conservative, and in many instances, a fundamentalist religion which long ago lost its hold on those who have a high regard for religiousintelligence. I do not believe that either of these responses is adequate for dealing with the crisis of nihilism and meaninglessness which I have called the secular void.

The attraction of the charismatic individual and the mesmerizing power such a person commands springs chiefly from a promise of deliverance and a vision of a new order free from the corruptions of the current world. That promise would call forth no loyalty were it not for a strong sense, more often than not on the part of the young, that some sort of deliverance is needed. The tragic saga of Jonestown and the People’s Temple in Guyana is the paradigm case. The Rev. Mr. Jones held out a promise of deliverance which, as became all too evident, he could not deliver. There is, of course, no litmus paper test of the sincerity and authenticity of any messianic person, but there are at least three fundamental criteria by which some rational judgment can be made. In the first instance, such a person becomes demonic if he or she claims to be the absolute object of devotion; secondly, no charismatic person should claim exemption from the ethic imposed on the followers; and thirdly, no money or property should be solicited which are not put to visible work for human welfare, but remain instead at the secret disposal of the leader. It is quite doubtful that the Rev. Mr. Jones passed any of these tests. Nor was he alone. More recently we have witnessed the dark shadow of numerous television ministries, and the specter of Elmer Gantry rises once again. Threatening as the secular void is, it cannot be overcome in this way.

The way of evangelical revival, or what is essentially the resurgence of Protestant conservatism in religious belief, presents no better solution and is in fact retrogressive. The reappearance of an anti-intellectualistic frame of mind with its opposition between “book-learning” and “having the spirit” falls into the error that Jonathan Edwards exposed two and a half centuries ago in his critical appraisal of the Great Awakening. “True religion,” he declared, “ cannot be all heat and no light.” There is, moreover, a new anti-scientific spirit accompanying the new religious fervor; and it threatens to undo all that has been accomplished in this century in overcoming the senselessness of the so-called warfare between science and religion. If current views of Creation-science, for example, represent the biblical message, Moses would surely have been astounded, if indeed it would have made any sense to him at all. The return of the old claim of biblical inerrancy and of supposedly literal interpretations of the Bible sets at naught the devoted work of two or more generations of scholars bent on making the texts available and intelligible to the modern reader. These scholars were dedicated to the proposition that there is a God of truth and that no truth is God’s enemy.

Finally, returning to the simple model of the two story universe with Nature below and Supernatural above and the picture of God as one being among others nullifies the contributions of Niebuhr, Tillich, Maritain, Herberg, Brightman, Bertocci and Hartshorne in their wrestling with theological and philosophical problems. Their concern to relate ancient religious wisdom to the growth of knowledge and to understand the relevance of new patterns of thought is rejected by religious conservatism. In short, much of the new religious concern now making itself felt is not likely to engage those who have become alienated from belief in God because the same disregard for intelligence motivates the new religious right.

Many people at present find themselves in something of the position of Job who was willing to accept all the calamities that plagued him if only he could gain some understanding of the nature of the God he trusted. Job could withstand his troubles, but he also wanted to understand God.

In closing, let me attempt a very brief summary. Reconciling the reality of God with human freedom requires reinterpretation and the overcoming of the monarchical conception of God which actually runs counter to the tradition itself. Reality is not one seamless whole, total and complete, but contains real possibilities which, in turn, mean a real future yet to come. In those possibilities, we, as beings who can decide and act, move and have our being. The idea of an absolute, human freedom that led to the dismissal of God is an exaggeration; we do not and cannot create ourselves out of nothing. The absence of God, moreover, creates a secular void that cannot be filled either by cults and charismatic figures or by a return to an outworn faith. The monstrous problems of the present—the growth of terrorism and the erosion of civilized life, the fearsome power of the drug culture, the two-edged sword of our technology and the violation of human rights by repressive regimes—all testify to what happens when freedom has no limits set from beyond ourselves. No religious solution, however, is possible as long as we retain a conception of God in which people cannot sincerely believe. But, as we have seen, there is no need to perpetuate that idea of God.

Hocking, in the end, was right: the “God” whose death has been widely proclaimed is not God.


Click here to view supplemental reading of John Smith on Amazon


Series Navigation<< Charles Hartshorne: The Modern World and a Modern View of GodJohn Dewey: A Common Faith >>

Notable in UU History
Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston

Jackson, James (1777-1867)

At the beginning of the present (20th) century Boston had no hospital for the treatment of ... Read More
Mary Safford

Safford, Mary (1851-1927)

Around 1900, a joke was making the rounds in Unitarian circles in lowa: "What do the ... Read More
Joseph Priestley

Priestley, Joseph (1733-1805)

Joseph Priestley was born at Fieldhead, about six miles south-west of Leeds, Yorkshire, England, on the ... Read More
Samuel Huntington

Samuel P. Huntington

Samuel P. Huntington is the U.S. author of the Trilateral Commission report, The Crisis of Democracy ... Read More