One of the most apparent—and tragic—paradoxes of our strange, bewildering, and wonderful century is that many of its chief social victories are won at the cost of the identity and value of the individual. This is too commonplace an observation to need, or to deserve, emphasis or expatiation; but it is perhaps one of those truths (like the inevitably disastrous consequences of the population explosion) that, while accepted, are not really believed. Man, indeed, seems to have the capacity to lapse into a strange quiescence when confronted by massive problems, gazing, as it were, with dull eyes and without evasive action at the approach of menacing shadows. “The glories of our blood and state are shadows, not substantial things; there is no armour against fate,” wrote the seventeenth-century dramatist Shirley, merely putting into these particular words a thought common to all ages and civilizations.
Our own time is peculiarly conditioned to accept as irreversible and as unconquerable mass tendencies and alterations, believing, as the majority do, in some kind of mechanistic determinism that sees individual consciousness and will as negligible and often irrelevant factors in the eternal flux of matter. If environment creates consciousness, then the environment produced by clotted masses of humanity crowded on a dwindling planet will presumably eradicate as no longer valid any kind of independent individualism, and will produce in its stead a kind of mass consciousness in which numbers, rather than names, are alone adequate to distinguish one particle from another. Such masses, furthermore, must be governed, as are the molecules of gases, in terms of average tendencies, not individual peculiarities, as determined by the “laws” of behavior.
True, the twentieth century has given rise to disturbing theories about the indeterminacy of even physical laws, and the burden of irrationality hangs heavy on scientist and sociologist alike. But such theories, when embraced with finality, lead rather to a completely negativistic attitude toward the universe as a whole, finding irrationality and meaninglessness to permeate all being, than to a reaffirmation of the significance of individual consciousness. Momentarily, mere biological being seems to present some comfort, but not for long. Eventually will come the question Conrad Aiken puts into the mouth of a character in his novel Blue Voyage: “Who is this William Demarest? this forked radish? this carrier of germs and digester of food? momentary host of the dying seed of man?”
So modern man finds himself encircled by statistics and averages announcing various kinds of victory, and at the same moment feels himself of lessening stature and importance as a person. He finds himself in the predicament of W. H. Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen,” for whom everything had been done that was determined, by statistics, to be beneficial, but about whose personal happiness no one concerned himself. He knows that statistics show each year that a higher percentage of houses have electricity, televisions, refrigerators, and bathtubs; but he wonders if these things really assuage the personal anguish of a long wakeful night. He is told that medical statistics show that fewer and fewer people die of this or that disease, but he knows (as G. B. Shaw once pointed out) that the ultimate statistic is still the same: one out of one dies. He sees vast apartment houses built to replace miserable slums, and he is told that everything has been statistically determined to make optimum contribution to human welfare: square footage per person, temperature range, humidity variation, garbage disposal, recreation areas. But he has a dark suspicion that the building may still house a collection of human beings who are, as individuals, as miserable as before.
None of this, of course, is to denigrate the immeasurable physical benefits earned for us by the tireless probers into the nature of our material environment. It is simply to say, with René DeBos of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research: “There is no longer any thoughtful person who believes that the conversion of science into more power, more wealth, or more drugs necessarily adds to health and happiness, or improves the human condition.”
But it is not the dehumanization of man that is my present topic; it is the depersonalization of God. The two phenomena are significantly similar and interrelated, though not necessarily sequential. Ours is a time of great “religiosity,” of much talk about God (or god), of the making of many books, of the utterance of many theories. The goal in religion is similar to that in sociology: the creation of a planetary system in which all divergencies may be statistically smoothed away so that mass problems may permit mass solution. The massiveness of the movement makes the difficult, intransigent fact of personality unacceptable in any new planetary religion.
Hence modern religion tends to be undynamic, like the statistics of a life insurance company. It suggests much about people in the mass, but little about the condition of any individual. The magnificent personal emphasis of the first clause of the Twenty-third Psalm would, indeed, need the retranslation ironically suggested by the new president of Vassar College, Alan Simpson: “The Lord is my external-internal integrative mechanism.” He continues with a restatement of other parts of the psalm: “He motivates me to reorient myself towards a nonsocial object with effective significance. He positions me in a nondecisional situation. He maximizes my adjustment.”
Man And The Personal God
Personal religion, on the other hand, is dynamic because the only “dynamite” in the human condition resides precisely in personality. Just as our relation to another person is utterly unlike that to an idea or to a set of statistics, so is the relation of individual men, as persons, to an infinite, glorious, living, and personal God different from the relation between such things as “man” and “being.” As philosophical terms, these may be perfectly justified for abstract discussions; but they must continue to be the servants, not the eradicators, of personality, either of man or of God.
Happily, of course, man can scarcely hope to eradicate the personality of God even if he decides that he would like to do so. As Chesterton once wrote, speaking as rebellious man,
Thank God the stars are set beyond my power,
If I must travail in a night of wrath;
Thank God my tears will never vex a moth,
Nor any curse of mine cut down a flower.
But man may infinitely increase his own unhappiness if he behaves as if he had, by thinking, eliminated the personality of God from the universe.
In so doing, he will make religion impossible, for one may safely say, I think, that “impersonal religion” is a contradiction in terms—at least as the term “religion” is sensed intuitively by most people. At best, the term “impersonal religion” has only the force of a metaphor, as one says of someone that he is “wedded to his work.” Everyone knows that the difference between that “wedding” and a real one is the difference between reality and fancy, between life and non-life.
One must not, of course, make grand generalizations about “modern” thought and belief; but one cannot read very widely in the vast literature of contemporary theology without sensing a prevalent trend toward the substitution of a mere introspective awareness of “the God thought” for the worship of a living and eternal Person. Or at best there is apparent a revival of deism, with its belief in an original personal God who created all things but who has, with great tact, withdrawn himself from the affairs and even from the knowability of man. Thus is safely removed the need to have any feeling (personal emotion) about God, and there is offered instead the comforting opportunity to respond with intellectual calm to an impersonal First Cause who has left behind him only a set of laws and a supply (adequate, one hopes) of energy. There is nothing so disturbing to serenity as the presence of personality, and the titanic personality of the God of the Bible breathes from every page. The only safe treatment, therefore, for the emotional impact of this God is, in the mind of the world, to close the Book and pretend its God is not there.
To do this, however, requires some kind of rationalization. Among the most popular palliatives, at the moment, is that declaring that man “come of age” can no longer believe in a Person “out there.” If he is not “out there,” runs the implication, but only a part of my own psyche, I can deal with him. And besides, it has a fine ring to declare that man has outgrown a personal God.
There is, of course, nothing new in this concept. Among many other expressions of the same thought is one of some years ago by that excellent writer Miss Pearl Buck. I cannot quote her exact phraseology, but the gist of her assertion was that God is a composite of all the highest of man’s ideals and strivings. Again, here is a comfortable abstraction, a “law” of averages as the law of the behavior of gases under controlled conditions of heat and pressure is a law of averages.
On purely rational grounds (a basis commonly appealed to by the depersonalizers of God), it is difficult to find reason for depriving God of personal attributes. The brevity required by this writing prohibits anything like a fair presentation of this problem; but one may, it seems, fairly ask whether man “come of age” finds in any other aspect of existence that greatness is increased by the absence of personality. Do we not assume personality to be a characteristic of high status rather than a mark of deficiency? We say that electronic computers can almost think, and we thus ascribe to them a degree of importance. Would we not begin to stand in awe of one that began to exhibit traces of a genuine personality—concepts of value, of beauty, of order, of good and evil, of free will? We say of our pets that they sometimes look as if they could almost talk; and to the degree that we attribute to them characteristics of personality, we confer on them a status of importance not shared by inanimate objects. On what grounds does man “come of age” feel that a god deprived of that which men themselves most significantly possess is a greater god? (The question stands quite apart from the sharper one concerning the ultimate origin of personality.) Does the point of view include a logical extension, namely, that man himself will, as he “progresses,” keep diminishing in personality until he approaches the perfection of a non-personal god?
The Mark Of Highest Life
Personality, with its mysterious attributes of purpose, memory, love, beauty, and all the rest, is, on the contrary, the quality that marks the highest mode of existence we know on this planet. If there were intelligent life on other planets, we should call that life high as it exhibited something comparable to personality. How has man “come of age” transcended personality? Indeed, how has man come of age? The condition of our world, with perpetual conflict, with peace achievable only on the basis of common terror, with a recent history of slave camps and genocide and a contemporary condition of widespread hunger, poverty, and confusion—this condition does not seem to present a picture of man finally achieving maturity. If it does, one is inclined to agree with Ogden Nash that progress was a good thing, but it went on too long.
Or, turning from the picture of our planet in large dimensions, do we find that the great men of our time so consistently transcend the great ones of ancient history that we can safely say we have “come of age”?
There is, perhaps, another twist to the arguments presented by the depersonalizers of God: the personality, if any, of an infinite God would by definition be infinite, and hence forever beyond the comprehension of man. Quite true. But the Christian believes in Incarnation. Man cannot reach out and grasp God. But God can reach down and reveal to man that degree of himself which he chooses to reveal. A child cannot comprehend the wholeness of the father, but the father can choose to stoop to the child and reveal to the child true things about himself.
But whatever may be the situation with regard to the rational arguments in this area, one or two things are quite clear. First, without a personal God there is no God at all in any sense generally understood by man. A god with whom we cannot communicate because he lacks our attributes of personality is less than we are, and hence inferior to us. He has become merely an impersonal concept we have ourselves generated, a construct of the ideals of mankind. He is, in short, man-made—an idol.
In the second place, there can be no act of worship (which is surely central to religion) if there is no personal God. One cannot worship an idea, and he should not worship an idol. There is no prayer, for one cannot appeal to a “construct of ideals.” There is only man, alone in the universe, devising philosophies for himself, “ever learning, never coming to a knowledge of the truth.”
For dramatic contrast, we may think of the New Testament narratives. The initial, the continuing, and the lasting impact of Jesus was that of Personality. When he began to teach “hard sayings,” many left off following him, saying, in effect, as the Athenians did to Paul, “We will hear thee again of this matter.” Jesus, looking at the tiny band of disciples remaining, asked, “Will ye also go away?” Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” And Jesus’ command was, “Follow me,” whom they knew only as a person. “Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us,” Philip demanded. “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father,” was the reply.
When the disciples gathered in the Upper Room, weary with the effort to comprehend this strange Being whom they followed, hanging on his every word, fearful of the future, bewildered by the absence of earthly pomp to greet the one who said he was the Eternal Lord—when they gazed into his face, they did not take comfort from a “construct of ideals” there represented. They clung to a Person, a Person who said, “Let not your heart be troubled. Ye believe in God, believe also in me.”
Still valid are the words of the Psalmist: “The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth.”
Like As The Hart
There is an inner desert
stretching far beyond the fertile intellect,
barren of path
a place so desolate
the birds of prayer long since have died
Saints who have wandered there
outside of time
make reticent report.
They have been silenced by immensity;
by nights of thunder, lightning, without rain,
parched, fevered, driven
to the Brooks of God.
Calvin D. Linton is dean of Columbian College and professor of English literature at George Washington University in the District of Columbia. He holds the A.B. degree from George Washington University and the A.M. and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University.
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