RELATION TO RELIGION AND THEOLOGY
Avoidance of theological terms–Intuition and faith–God and Change–Deity not omnipotent but creative and immanent–God as “Creator of creators”–Problem of teleology–Stimulus to theology–The need for restatements of the nature of God–Men as products and instruments of divine activity–Immortality.
We have seen that Bergson holds no special brief for science, for, as has been shown, he opposes many of the hypotheses to which science clings. Consequently, some persons possessing only a superficial acquaintance with Bergson, and having minds which still think in the exclusive and opposing terms of the conflict of science and religion of a generation past, have enthusiastically hailed him as an ally of their religion. We must examine carefully how far this is justifiable. It is perfectly natural and just that many people, unable to devote time or energy to the study of his works, want to know, in regard to Bergson, as about every other great thinker, what is the bearing of his thought on their practical theory of life, upon their ideals of existence, upon the courage, faith, and hope which enable them to work and live, feeling that life is worth while. We must, however, guard against misuse of Bergson, particularly such misuse of him as that made in another sphere, by the Syndicalists. We find that in France he has been welcomed by the Modernists of the Roman Catholic Church as an ally, and by not a few liberal and progressive Christian theologians in this country.
At the outset, we must note that Bergson avoids theological forms of expression, because he is well aware that these–especially in a philosophical treatise–may give rise to misconceptions. He does not, like Kant, attack any specific or traditional argument for Theism; he does not enter into theological controversy. He has not formulated, with any strictness, his conception of God; for he has recognized that an examination of Theism would be of little or no value, which was not prefaced by a refutation of mechanism and materialism, and by the assertion of some spiritual value in the universe. It is to such a labour that Bergson has applied himself; it is only incidentally that we find him making remarks on religious or theological conceptions. His whole philosophy, however, involves some very important religious conceptions and theological standpoints. In France, Bergson has had a considerable amount of discussion on the theological implications of his philosophy with the Jesuit Fathers, notably Father de Tonquedec. These arise particularly from his views concerning Change, Time, Freedom, Evolution and Intuition.
Bergson has been cited as a “Mystic” because he preaches a doctrine of Intuition. But his metaphysical Intuition bears no relation to the mysticism of the saint or of the fervid religious mind. He expressly says, “The doctrine I hold is a protest against mysticism since it professes to reconstruct the bridge (broken since Kant) between metaphysics and science.” Yet, if by mysticism one means a certain appeal to the inner and profound life, then his philosophy is mystical–but so is all philosophy. We must beware of any attempts to run Bergson’s thought into moulds for which it was never intended, and guard against its being strained and falsely interpreted in the interests of some special form of religious belief. Intuition is not what the religious mind means by Faith, in the accepted sense of belief in a doctrine or a deity, which is to be neither criticized nor reasoned about. Religion demands “what passeth knowledge.” Furthermore, it seeks a reality that abides above the world of Change, “The same yesterday, to-day, and for ever,” to which it appeals. The religious consciousness finds itself most reluctant to admit the reality of Change, and this, we must remember, is the fundamental principle of Bergson’s thought. Faber, one of the noblest hymn writers, well expresses this attitude:
“O, Lord, my heart is sick, Sick of this everlasting change, And Life runs tediously quick Through its unresting race and varied range. Change finds no likeness of itself in Thee, And makes no echo in Thy mute eternity.”
For Bergson, God reveals Himself in the world of Time, in the very principle of Change. He is not “a Father of lights in Whom is no variableness nor shadow of turning.”
It has been said that the Idea of God is one of the objects of philosophy, and this is true, if, by God, we agree to mean the principle of the universe, or the Absolute. Unity is essential to the Idea of God. For the religious consciousness, of course, God’s existence is a necessary one, not merely contingent. It views Him as eternal and unchangeable. But if we accept the Bergsonian philosophy, God cannot be regarded as “timeless,” or as “perfect” in the sense of being “eternal” and “complete.” He is, so to speak, realizing Himself in the universe, and is not merely a unity which sums up the multiplicity of time existence. Further, He must be a God who acts freely and creatively and who is in time. Trouble has arisen in the past over the relation of “temporal” and “eternal”–the former being regarded as appearance. For Bergson, this difficulty does not arise; there is, for him, no such dualism. His God is not exempt from Change, He is not to be conceived as existing apart from and independent of the world. Indeed, for him, God would seem to be merely a focus imaginarius of Life and Spirit, a “hypostatization” of la duree. He cannot be regarded as the loving Father of the human race whom He has begotten or created in order that intelligent beings “may glorify Him and enjoy Him for ever.” Bergson does not offer us a God, personal, loving, and redemptive, as the Christian religious consciousness demands or imagines. He does not, and can not, affirm Christian Theism, for he considers that the facts do not warrant the positing of a self-conscious and personal Individual in the only sense in which we, from our experience, can understand these words. God is pure, creative activity, a flowing rather than a fountain head; a continuity of emanation, not a centre from which things emanate. For Bergson, God is anthropomorphic–as He must necessarily be for us all–but Bergson’s is anthropomorphism of a subtle kind. His God is the duree of our own conscious life, raised to a higher power. Dieu se fait in the evolutionary process. He is absolutely unfinished, not complete or perfect. He is incessant life, action, freedom, and creativeness, and in so far as we ourselves manifest these (seen, above all, in the creative joy of the inventor, poet, artist, and mother) each of us has the “divine” at work within. For Bergson, God is a Being immanent in the universe, but He is ignorant of the direction in which Evolution is progressing. This is not the God of the ordinary religious consciousness, nor is it a conception of God which satisfies the limited notion which our own imagination both creates and craves to find real. God, it would seem, must be greater than His works, and He must know what He is doing. It has been objected that a force, even if a divine force (one can hardly call it “God” in the ordinary meaning of that vague word) which urges on Matter without knowing in what direction or to what end, is no God at all, for it is merely personified chance. This is due to what Hegel calls “the error of viewing God as free.” [Footnote: Logic, Wallace’s translation, first edition, p. 213.]
In reply to certain criticisms of his book L’Evolution creatrice made by Father de Tonquedec, Bergson wrote in 1912: “I speak of God as the source whence issue successively, by an effort of his freedom, the currents or impulses each of which will make a world; he therefore remains distinct from them, and it is not of him that we can say that ‘most often it turns aside’ or is ‘at the mercy of the materiality that it has been bound to adopt.’ Finally, the reasoning whereby I establish the impossibility of ‘nothing’ is in no way directed against the existence of a transcendent cause of the world; I have, on the contrary, explained that this reasoning has in view the Spinozist conception of Being. It issues in what is merely a demonstration that ‘something’ has always existed. As to the nature of this ‘something’ it is true that nothing in the way of a positive conclusion is conveyed. But neither is it stated in any fashion that what has always existed is the world itself, and the rest of the book explicitly affirms the contrary.” [Footnote: Tonquedec: Dieu dans l’Evolution creatrice (Beauchesne), and Annales de philosophie chretienne, 1912.] “Now the considerations set forth in my Essai sur les donnees immediates result in bringing to light the fact of freedom, those of Matiere et Memoire point directly, I hope, to the reality of Spirit, those of L’Evolution creatrice exhibit creation as a fact. From all this emerges clearly the idea of a God, creator and free, the generator of both Matter and Life, whose work of creation is continued on the side of Life by the evolution of species and the building up of human personalities. From all this emerges a refutation of monism and of pantheism.” [Footnote: Tonquedec: Dieu dans l’Evolution creatrice (Beauchesne), and also Etudes des Peres de Jesus, Vol. CXXX, 1912.] To this it was replied that, for Catholic theology, God is not merely the source from which the river springs, God does not develop Himself to a world but He causes it to appear by a kind of creation quite different from that of Bergson. Bergson’s God is not the God of pantheism, because, for him, the Deity is immanent in nature, not identifiable with it. A true account of the Absolute would, for him, take the form of history. Human history has a vital meaning for him. God is not omnipotent; He is a fighter who takes sides. He is not a “potter-God” with a clay world. The world involves a limiting of God, and theology has always found this its most difficult problem, for the evils or defects against which the Creator is waging war are evils and defects in a world of His own creating. Speaking in 1914, at the Edinburgh Philosophical Society, Bergson remarked that God might be looked upon as “a Creator of creators.” Such a view, more explicitly worked out, might bring him into line with the religious attempt to reconcile the divine action with our own work and freedom. Our wills are ours, but in some mystic way religion believes they may become His also, and that we may be “fellow-labourers together with God.” The religious view of the perfection of the Divine, its omniscience and omnipotence, has always been hard to reconcile with free will. Christian theology, when based on the perfection of the Divine nature, has always tended to be determinist. Indeed, free will has been advocated rather as an explanation of the presence of evil (our waywardness as in opposition to the will of God) than as the privilege and necessary endowment of a spiritual being, and so the really orthodox religious mind has been forced to seek salvation in self-surrender and has found consolation in reliance on the “grace” or “active good will” of God. Thus many theologians in an attempt to reconcile this with human freedom speak mystically, nevertheless confidently, of “the interaction of Grace and Free-Will.”
The acceptance of Creative Evolution involves the acceptance of a God who expresses Himself in creative action called forth by changing situations. It cannot regard Evolution as merely the unrolling in time of the eternally complete, as in the view of monistic idealism. We find in Bergson, however, two hints which suggest that some vague idealistic conception has been present to his mind. For instance, in speaking of Time in relation to God, we find him suggesting that “the whole of history might be contained in a very short time for a consciousness at a higher degree of tension than our own, which should watch the development of humanity while contracting it, so to speak, into the great phases of its evolution.” [Footnote: Matter and Memory, p. 275 (Fr. p. 231).] This remark seems an echo of the words of the old Hebrew poet:
“For a thousand years in Thy sight Are but as yesterday when it is past, And as a watch in the night.”
Again, in L’Evolution creatrice we find him suggesting that in maternity and love may lie the secret of the universe.
The important point however, in considering Bergson in relation to Religion and Theology, is his marked objection to teleology. It is this which has led many to style his philosophy pessimistic. Religion does not live readily in a pessimistic atmosphere. Then religion regards Life and the Universe as valuable, not because they yield to some single impulsion, but because, at every step, they manifest a meaning and significance interpreted by our conceptions of value. Bergson’s view only favours religion as ordinarily comprehended, in so far as it breaks away from a materialistic mechanism, and asserts freedom and gives Spirit some superiority over Matter. At first sight, the term “creative” seemed very promising, but can we stop where Bergson has left us? Why should he banish teleology? His super-consciousness is so indeterminate that it is not allowed to hamper itself with any purpose more definite than that of self-augmentation. The course and goal of Evolution are to it unknown and unknowable. Creation, freedom, and will are great things, as Mr. Balfour remarks, but we cannot lastingly admire them unless we know their drift. It is too haphazard a universe which Bergson displays. Joy does not seem to fit in with what is so aimless. It would be better to invoke God with a purpose than a supra-consciousness with none. [Footnote: Creative Evolution and Philosophic Doubt, Hibbert Journal, Oct., 1911, pp. 1-23.]
In response to an international inquiry, conducted by Frederic Charpin, for the Mercure de France, formulated in the question, Assistons-nous a une dissolution ou a une evolution de l’idee religieuse et du sentiment religieux? Bergson wrote: “I feel quite unable to foretell what the external manifestation of the religious sense may be in time to come. I can only say that it does not seem to me likely to be disintegrated. Only that which is made up of parts can be disintegrated. Now, I am willing to admit that the religious sense has been gradually enriched and complicated by very diverse elements; none the less it is in essence a simple thing, sui generis; and resembles no other emotion of the soul. It may, perhaps be urged that a simple element, although it cannot be decomposed, may yet disappear, and that the religious sense will inevitably vanish when it has no object to which it can attach itself. But this would be to forget that the object of the religious sense is, in part at least, prior to that sense itself; that this object is felt even more than it is thought and that the idea is, in this case, the effect of the feeling quite as much as its cause. The progressive deepening of the idea may therefore make the religious sense clearer and ever clearer; it cannot modify that which is essential in it, still less effect its disappearance.” [Footnote: Charpin: La Question religieuse, 1908, Paris.]
We find Bergson reported as believing that the individual cannot be guided solely by considerations of a purely moral character. Morality, even social ethics, is not enough in view of the longing for religious experience, the yearning for at least a feeling of definite relationship between the individual human personality and the great spiritual source of life. This is a feeling which he believes will grow. [Footnote: New York Times, Feb. 22, 1914.]
Bergson’s philosophy has aroused a new interest in many theological questions. The dogmas of theology, philosophy holds itself free to criticize; they are for it problems. The teleological arguments of the older theologians have had to be left behind. “We are fearfully and wonderfully made,” no doubt, but not perfectly, and the arguments in favour of an intelligent contriver (cf. The Bridgewater Treatises) which showed the greatest plausibility, were made meaningless by Darwin’s work. Further, Evoluton knows no break. We cannot believe in the doctrines of the “fall” or in “original sin,” for Evolution means a progress from lower to higher forms. Thus we see that many of the older forms of theological statement call for revision. Bergson has done much to stimulate a keener and fresher theological spirit which will express God in a less static and less isolated form, so that we shall not have the question asked, either by children or older folks, “What does God do?”
It should be noted before closing this section that the religious consciousness is tempted to take Bergson’s views on Soul and Body to imply more than they really do. The belief in Immortality which Western religion upholds is not a mere swooning into the being of God, but a perfect realization of our own personalities. It is only this that is an immortality worthy of the name. To regard souls as Bergson does, as merely “rivulets” into which the great stream of Life has divided, does not do sufficient justice to human individuality. A “Nirvana,” after death, is not immortality in the sense of personal survival and in the sense demanded by the religious consciousness.
The influence of Bergson’s thought upon religion and theology may be put finally as follows: We must reject the notion of a God for whom all is already made, to whom all is given, and uphold the conception of a God who acts freely in an open universe. The acceptance of Bergson’s philosophy involves the recognition of a God who is the enduring creative impulse of all Life, more akin perhaps to a Mother-Deity than a Father-Deity. This divine vital impetus manifests itself in continual new creation. We are each part of this great Divine Life, and are both the products and the instruments of its activity. We may thus come to view the Divine Life as self-given to humanity, emptying itself into mankind as a veritable incarnation, not, however, restricted to one time and place, but manifest throughout the whole progress of humanity. Our conception will be that of a Deity, not external and far-off, but one whose own future is bound up in humanity, rejoicing in its joy, but suffering, by a kind of perpetual crucifixion, through man’s errors and his failures to be loyal to the higher things of the spirit. Thus we shall see that, in a sense, men’s noble actions promote God’s fuller being. A Norwegian novelist has recently emphasized this point by his story of the man who went out and sowed corn in his late enemy’s field THAT GOD MIGHT EXIST! [Footnote: The Great Hunger, by Johan Bojer.] But it is important to remember that in so far as we allow ourselves to become victims of habit, living only a materialistic and static type of existence, we retard the divine operations. On the other hand, in so far as our spirit finds joy in creative activity and in the furtherance of spiritual values, to this extent we may be regarded as fellow-labourers together with God. We cannot, by intellectual searching find out God, yet we may realize and express quite consistently with Bergson’s philosophy the truth that “in Him we live, and move, and have our being.”