One grand truth is evident at every point in the foregoing discussion: Every atom, every event, every soul in the universe, is imbued with the immanent Presence; and life is a constant sharing of its power. Whatever be the starting-point in our interpretation of experience, whether in some truth of human reason, some cherished insight of the inner life, or in some simple fact of the outer world, there is no logical stopping-place short of absolute certainty that God exists as the one all-inclusive, omnipresent Reality. We may evade the point or deviate into agnosticism, through undue regard to the limitations of finite consciousness; but our own deepest nature is never satisfied until we make the escape into the Universal. Once free, the conclusion seems a necessity of thought, at once satisfactory, convincing, and unanswerable. It holds true for all time. It is the property of all who think, and lies latent in every fact of life, suggesting a wonderful broadening and deepening of human experience when this one greatest truth shall become a permanent factor in our daily thought.
The temptation is strong to turn at once to a consideration of that daily thought, and to ask: What is man? But, if we are to understand man in the light of his entire origin, we must still continue to study him in relation to his environment. Mental states are more apt to be deceptive than physical. One is inclined to read too much in them, and to draw erroneous conclusions. If we are to conceive the inner life in accurate terms, we must take our start far within the limits of the well-known outer world. We shall then have a firm basis on which to rest the more important superstructure. And, if we keep the realization of God's immanence ever before us, the discussion will not seem dry. We have already found it convenient to make certain distinctions in order to add intelligibility and vividness to our conception of God, and the beauty of the conception which thus grew upon us was its inclusiveness. We lost no deeply cherished conviction in thinking of him as the one omnipresent Reality. We shall only add to our deepening knowledge of him in considering him as the basis of his own well-ordered world of manifestation, if we remember that every part of it is instinct with his life. We have concluded that in the nature of God as the only Reality lies the necessary reason for the existence of our world and of our individual selves; for he must be infinitely self-conscious, he must have self-expression, in order to have an object for that boundless love which we believe him to possess. He is therefore both subject and object, both the knower and the known, the transcendent Whole, the immanent Life made known through the parts, and the varied universe through which he is partly perceived.
Moreover, this double aspect of the One is repeated throughout the universe of the many; and by tracing it out we shall find a practical solution to many vital problems. The world of manifestation becomes for finite beings a universe of mind and matter, apparently dissimilar in their nature, yet in reality identical in the One in whose transcendence their unity is hidden. The relation of God to matter is therefore just as intimate as his relation to the human soul, for whatever exists is a part of and within the one Reality. We cannot, then, consistently deny the existence of matter. To make such a denial is equivalent to asserting the non-existence of the one Reality, and therefore of our sensations, since all that we experience has some cause outside ourselves; and we know our own existence only as it is related to this outer Reality. Matter surely exists. Mind exists. How they are related in consciousness we shall soon consider. But we must begin with matter as a real existence, as a part of God, imbued with his immanent life, and in no sense independent of him. The one Reality must be the basis and substance, and the only basis and substance, of all that we call matter, just as truly as it is the Life that is active in every moment and in every incident of our inmost being.
It is undeniable that the world of matter which you and I contemplate may have no external existence precisely as we perceive it. Science tells me that certain ether waves impinge on my retina, and form an image of some external object, which in turn is translated into an idea, and interpreted according to my education. Certain other rays indirectly produce ideas in your mind, and are interpreted according to your education. The outer object may be the same in both cases; but the ideas caused by it may be quite different, owing to our different states of mind. I never see exactly the same object which you contemplate, nor do either of us as minds actually see the object at all, since we know the object by means of ideas. We are unable even to dissociate the actual sensation and the perception based on a lifetime of experience and thought by which we interpret it. Nor do we hear the same sound, perceive the same colors, nor smell the same odors. But the existence of something real which causes the sensations no one can seriously question. Even an uninterpreted sensation makes us partially aware of something not ourselves. We may be scientifically aware that the sensation is in and not outside of our minds, and that we interpret it through ideas; but the object that produces the sensation is not necessarily an idea. When the hand encounters a masonry wall, we are sure of the existence of an external force which meets and effectually withstands all the pressure we are able to exert. There is no room for doubt here.
Nor can we question the existence of accurate knowledge about the outer world. The chain of causes running back into infinity with which this discussion began is such a fact of certain knowledge. We know that certain effects will be produced on us under certain conditions—for example, putting the hand into a fire. These outer conditions are there just the same, regardless of any interpretation of ours. Our interpretation may or may not correspond to the facts and explain the relations of objects. We did not create those conditions nor arrange objects in certain relations. They are independent of all minds. There must then be certain actual relations existing between objects and external to us which cause in us our definite experiences; for instance, of the alternation of day and night, the sensations of heat and cold, the experience of cause and effect, the reign of law, and the successive conditions of evolution. But, if they are actual relations, they must be qualities of the one Reality. They must be characteristics of his world of manifestation, since nothing real can exist independent of him. If, therefore, we study them, if we study nature and natural law as expressions of the very consciousness, the very reason, the very life of God, we shall not be stopped by materialism, we shall not be weighed down by matter, but ever draw nearer and nearer to the Spirit behind it.
Matter, then, is not a mere phenomenon, any more than is the mind that partially knows it. Ultimately it is a real substance. It is part of the one enduring Reality, the cause or series of causes of the world of sense-experience. It is the real substance partially perceived and judged according to our opinions and temperament: it is the means whereby we contemplate the One. Reality is both the universe as God knows it and the God who knows it. As matter, it is his meaning, his purpose made manifest: it is God realizing himself in definite form, the tangible expression of his purpose holding man in the straight and narrow pathway of progress, the Spirit put in limited form so that we can grasp it.
But enough of the abstract. If there is now no possibility of misunderstanding the point of view of this book in regard to the existence of matter, we are ready to consider those qualities of matter the understanding of which is most essential to what follows. The full bearing of this driest part of our inquiry will not be evident until the last chapter. We shall then see how the best known facts of the outer world clarify the vaguer facts of the inner life, and reveal the secret of self-help.
Our first experiences in life are fragmentary sensations from this outer world. That the world is shrouded in manifold illusions is evident from the very outset. The infant has no sense of distance, and some people spend a lifetime without learning to judge accurately of certain distances on sea and land. There is no sense of the relation of things and events until the understanding has again and again been called into play. Thus sensation in time becomes perception, and the mind plays a part of increasing importance and value in our daily life. We strike a wall, and feel a jarring sensation. We go out into the sunlight, and feel a sense of warmth. As experience widens and our convictions become more mature, we associate these experiences, distinguish between cause and effect, and deduce from their invariable sequence a statement called a law. We affirm that, "As a man sows, so shall he reap," that nothing happens without a natural cause. Yet we are apt to forget our own generalizations; and the fact that men still sin, still cherish anger, uncharitable and unforgiving thoughts, shows that the majority of men are suffering for just this simple knowledge that action and reaction are equal, that no event happens uncaused.
Now, Science does not forget; and among her numerous generalizations there are four of particular value in our present discussion.
1. The fragmentary events of life have been reduced to a system. Nature is not a mere chaos, in which conflicting forces eternally war upon each other, but is an order, a unit, a whole, in which part is adjusted to part, like one vast mechanism. Law everywhere reigns supreme. There are no eternally warring forces, for all force is one. We think of heat, light, electricity, vital energy, as so many separate forces. Yet they can be transmuted into each other. One force revealed in varying modes of motion gives rise to all the events in the great mechanism. Science only waits to know what this force is, in order to understand the secret of the universe.
2. In our early experience we are apt to think of matter as dead or inert. Science shows us that it is everywhere alive and nowhere inert, not even in the great rock foundations of our earth. It is probably molecular in structure: it is composed of little moving particles in a constant state of rapid vibration, and separated from each other like the stars and planets. It exists in a series of forms and substances ranging from the hard granite through less compact forms, solids, liquids, gases, and the attenuated nerve-tissues which approach the nature of mind. Furthermore, a single substance—for instance, water—passes successively through the three states of solid, liquid, and vapor, the integration and disintegration of matter in various forms being one of the most striking phenomena of material life. Even the earth's atmosphere has recently been reduced to liquid and solid forms. The chemical process called combustion is capable of liberating in an incredibly short space of time all the solid materials of a vast wooden building, and transforming them into so many invisible gases, leaving only a heap of ashes to attest the ruin. Nothing is stable in material form, nothing can resist the subtle, invisible manifestations of the one force, interpenetrating the particles of matter, setting them into rapid vibration or causing them to appear and disappear in ever varying combinations.
This may be illustrated by putting large shot into a receptacle until it be filled. There will still be spaces for smaller and smaller shot, then for a liquid, and finally for a gas. The chemist, starting with a liquid—for instance, water in an air-tight jar—and heating it to the form of steam until it fills the jar, may still repeat the process by adding alcohol, raising that to a vapor, then adding ether, and so on, showing that there are still unfilled spaces between the molecules which finer substances and forces might occupy.
The same is obviously true of the human body. We may first consider it as a unit, then as a collection of organs, an aggregation of minute cells, and a system of microscopic molecules. No bone is so dense but it may be penetrated, no space so fine between the particles that the particles may not be drawn closer together or be thrown wider apart without disturbing the unity of the body.
We are well aware of expansion and contraction due to heat and cold. The muscles become tense under the power of a sudden emotion. They are relaxed and expanded in a state of repose. In the child the muscles are moved quickly and easily, without stiffness and other restrictions, and while the muscles are active the health is generally good. In old age partial ossification takes place, and the currents of the body can no longer circulate freely. Density and contraction occur in many cases of disease; and the problem is simply to drive the particles farther apart, to break up the density, just as the block of ice is transformed into the less dense condition of water. Everywhere in nature there is expansion and contraction, due fundamentally to the driving apart or the drawing together of molecules and atoms. The radiation of the sun's energy is just such a driving apart, while the moon is cold and contracted from loss of heat. The sun's energy is once more concentrated in the form of organic life, and is taken into the body to be expanded and assimilated, but not until it has once again been put in motion by the power of heat. Heat is the medium of chemical change, and many of our misinterpreted sensations called disease are simply due to this natural expansive power breaking up some dense obstruction or inharmony in the body. A corresponding change, accompanied by a sensation of heat, takes place in the brain when for some reason considerable power is called into a certain region.
The principle is fundamental. We shall find it of great use in the concluding chapter; for there we shall see how the subtler forces of thought act on matter, causing it to expand or contract, because it can penetrate the finest spaces. Probably the law of composition is the same in all cases; and the particles, if such exist, in the purest grade of substance are capable of penetrating any and all other substances or forces. It may be in this way that Spirit is supreme, using and revealing itself through all lower forms, making itself known to the very lowest, not by jumps, but by insensible degrees, so that there shall be no break in the divine continuity and no separation between the transcendent Spirit, its going forth as the immanent Life and its manifestation through that in which it dwells.
3. But nature is not only a law-governed unit, a mechanism animated by a single force, in which the varying substances are composed of minute particles. It is also a live organism, in which each part, each organ, pulsating with energy and instinct with life, has some meaning as related to the whole. Of this great unitary organism, throbbing with life from star to atom, man is an integrant part. He is related to it so closely that he seems in fact the central figure, whose life was prophesied from the very dawn of being. History, religion, science, literature, present this relationship in a thousand different lights; and now a new science of sociology and ethics is taking shape in men's minds, showing that society is also an organism in which each man owes some duty to his human brotherhood.
To make this relationship perfectly clear, think for a moment what this great natural system means. In an organism no part is complete in itself, but supplements and depends on all the other parts. No part can in itself be perfect, since it would then be a separate organism. The cog-wheel may be perfectly constructed, a truly wonderful contrivance; yet it is useless unless it fit in exactly to some machine which is incomplete without it. The musical note, however pure, has no meaning for us unless it be sounded in unison with others.
The same is true of man. He cannot live in isolation. He is not good alone. He must have a particular gift or occupation, in order that perfection may at least be approximated by the whole. He is a dependent being, and in turn contributes his little share of benefit. Countless ages elapsed ere he could exist at all, and every one of the innumerable hosts that preceded him lived and struggled that he might be born. From those who labor day by day come the food, the clothing, and the homes which make continued life possible. Numberless thousands of minds have thought out and formulated that which today constitutes our knowledge of art, science, history, literature, and philosophy; and the largest contribution to our knowledge made by a single mind seems wonderfully small, our own original thought infinitesimally smaller. Each of these incidental forces in the worlds of nature, of society and thought, about which we think so rarely, contributes its share to the shifting series of experiences called life, each plays its part in the great organism; and there would seem to be no just system of knowledge which does not consider them all, no logical stopping-place short of universal religion, universal ethics, a deep love for and cooperation with the brotherhood of man.
4. The most important truth remains. This beautifully organized thing of life, with its wonderful law-governed parts and its cooperation of beings and things, was not made suddenly or out of hand. It has grown out of that which eternally existed. Slowly, as the seed matures in the ground and prepares the way for the bursting bud and the blooming plant, everything in nature, so far as we know, from the raising of continents to the development of man, has taken place and reached its present condition by insensible degrees. Today is the product of yesterday, and yesterday of the day before, and so on indefinitely. Each cause is the effect of another cause more remote. The life of the tree comes from the sun millions of miles away, but it comes through something. Its energy is stored up in the organic and inorganic materials immediately surrounding the tree, and through the heat and light transformed from the solar rays by the earth's atmosphere. The immediate environment, ancestry, and experience give rise to all living things; and all life finds its origin in a single omnipresent source. Evolution is the only law yet discovered which in any way accounts for the origin of our world. When one pauses to consider what this law is as a universal principle, it becomes evident that there could be no other.
Yet it is easy to misunderstand this principle. To many evolution simply means the derivation of man from some lost ancestor, a belief which generally arouses a feeling of repugnance; or it means that the existence of God is not necessary under this theory, and one naturally lays it aside as irreligious. Yet evolution would be of little value if it were not a universal law, just as well exemplified in the growth of the tree as in the development of new species or of a planet from a mass of nebula. It would have no ultimate meaning unless it proved the presence of God at every step in the great world process.
In the foregoing chapter we have seen that the whole problem is immensely simplified by the knowledge that all life is immanent, that the activity of beings and things is due to the power resident in that' which lives and grows.
If God is immanent in one portion of the universe, he must be immanent in all. If he gives rise to a world and its people, he must be with the world in order for it to endure. This much is clear: it only remains to discover, as far as possible, the series or gradations of power and substance whereby Spirit makes itself known to and revealed as the lowest forms of being, and to note the successive stages through which all beings pass in their upward growth.
This latter task is the work of natural science; and year by year her workers are collecting evidence, classifying facts, inquiring into the causes of variation, the influence of environment, the effect of use and disuse, the transmission of acquired variations, and all other problems connected with development. Every fact makes our knowledge of the immanent God more secure. Every datum supplies a link in the infinite series of causes and effects, a series probably no less systematic than the mathematical series from one to a thousand, from a thousand to a million, in which not one figure can be omitted. Every factor plays its inevitable part. Every step bears some relation to its antecedent and its consequent. And all facts, all forces, all events, are related to the entire universe of today, of yesterday, of eternity. There is no break in nature's organism, but one continuous series of closely related events. There are no jumps, but only the gradual unfolding, when it is ready, of all that is involved in the budding organism.
One need only observe the social and political changes going on today, class contending with class and party with party, in order to discover every aspect of this universal principle. We forget this law sometimes, and undertake to force events, we endeavor to convince ourselves that there is a royal road to success; but we soon discover that we can omit no steps.
The seed planted in the ground, like the new idea sown in a wilderness of conflicting opinion, contains an indwelling principle of life, which causes it to develop along certain lines and along no others. It partakes of the soil. It grows and absorbs nutriment from the sunlight, it matures slowly, it is dependent solely on what it has within and what closely surrounds it. Its growth may be hastened within certain limits, but only by introducing a new factor. The life of the plant which it becomes in due time is a type of all evolution. It is growth, not by creation out of nothing, but through the transformation of that which already exists into something different. Its growth is due to the interaction of part on part. Its transmutation into another species can only result through the modification, the introduction into its own life of some new element. The new element once introduced, whether in the organic or the inorganic worlds, in society, in politics, in religion, a change is sure to result; and one need only await its coming.
But we have the best evidence in our own lives; and the chief problem, laying aside all discussion of particular theories of evolution, is to discover the actual course of events in daily experience, to learn how far we have gone in the up-building of character and soul, to aspire and to cooperate with the immanent forces of our own being.
We have an excellent example of what evolution means in the growth of our own ideas. We are born with a certain set of opinions on matters of religion, politics, and the like. There is a strong tendency toward conservatism; and we are inclined to think like our parents, and even to cherish and defend the dogmas which have come down to us. But with each experience, each new book, each new acquaintance with the world and with people, which makes an impression on us, a new factor enters into our thought; and the only way to avoid progress is to avoid contact with progressive people.
So well is this understood by certain leaders of thought that they forbid their followers to read outside of established lines; for they know that, if people think, they will change. Ideas have a resident, a stimulating life, especially when they come fresh from the minds of those to whom the world's mental progress is due. They speak to us in books. They compel our assent through reason and through people. And, once sown in the mind, they work a wonderful transformation, until they burst forth with all the power of firm conviction.
Yet the transition is ever gradual and law-governed, like the growth of the tree. No idea is established without controversy. We turn it over, weigh it, and view it in all its aspects, just as new social and political institutions grow out of controversy and long experience. The power of conviction comes only when the last objection has been met. We are involuntarily as moderate and painstaking as Nature herself. If perchance we forget the natural method, and jump at conclusions, we discover no way of making them sure but to go back and supply all the steps. If an idea appeals to us at once, it is because thought and experience have already prepared the way for its acceptance. We cannot force a full-grown idea into the mind of another anymore than nature can be interfered with from without. We are compelled to seek a starting-point, to discover some idea already existing in the mind of the other person, and lead on gradually from the known to the unknown. Nor can we create a new philosophy or originate any idea which has no basis in experience. Whether we will or no, we must take cognizance of universal human knowledge, and develop our own thought from that. Psychology shows that even the wildest and most absurd fancies of the imagination are in some way products of experience.
Our own deepest self challenges us to find any possible method of growth and change except that of patient evolution, the great world-wide process of "continuous progressive change, according to unvarying laws, and by means of resident forces."1 The process once called creation is as long as time itself, as wide as the universe. It is going on today. It will never cease until its great task be completed. It is thorough, painstaking, gradual, and sure. It is economical, careful, and direct, making use of every incident, every possible factor, every so called chance, so that in human life joy, sorrow, hardship, success, heredity, disposition, environment, education, society, and thought, are called into use; and all these factors have their meaning, their bearing on the ideal result. "The ideal is immanent in the real." The aspiring force speaks through the slightest incident of experience. The all-powerful, omnipresent Spirit aspires through, cooperates with, and seeks cooperation from the individual soul to whom it is ever trying to make itself known. God is immanent in evolution.
In order to make this intimate relationship of God and his world of manifestation clear and vivid, let us try for a moment to conceive the long series of forces and substances, interpenetrating and blending with each other, and descending from the central Love down through the immanent life, the higher attributes of man, the soul, the realm of mind, the physical and chemical forces, gravitation, cohesion, electricity, and the particles of matter, and all the volatile substances to the liquids, solids, and finally to the hard rock. Or, starting with the supposed nebulous mass out of which our universe grew, let us pass slowly upward through the vast cycles of cosmic time, the thought of which adds depth and meaning to the conception of God. Let us pause in silence until we feel the spirit of the ages. Good visualizers will probably call up some mental picture which suggests these vast stretches of time. Out of the gradually cooling mass which at length takes shape as our earth we shall see the dawn of life, and the moderate, patient, purposeful transition from the inorganic to the organic kingdoms, the long periods in which one form of animal life succeeded and won supremacy over another, the change from the rank vegetation of the carboniferous period to the graceful forms of today, the raising of continents and mountains, the retreat of the great ice-sheets which once covered large portions of the northern hemisphere, and the dim outlines of that far distant society, the herding together of men, out of which grew modern civilization.
Thus we come at last to the dawn of human history. The epochs of the past unfold before us with new meaning. We note how period has grown out of period, event out of event. Thought becomes overpowered by the vastness and complexity of civilized life in its endless phases, its manifold contributions to the arts and sciences. The great truths of religion and philosophy, the great souls of history, claim our attention at last; and thus the thought turns once more to the one Reality which this long evolutionary process suggests.
One's personal thought is lost in contemplation of the Universal. One is momentarily lifted above the present, above the world of human life, into the life of worlds, of the universe—yes, the very life of God, of which one seems to contemplate but one of its infinite phases. One feels and knows that the human self is part of this great Life, which no words can describe. One communes with the Essence itself, the All-thing, the Spirit, the Love. Matter seems like a mere symbol as compared with this its real meaning. The Life which manifested itself so long ago in the primeval history of the earth returns to consciousness in man, and recognizes through him its own transcendent source. The soul knows the great unity henceforth, whatever be the phase of it contemplated. It habitually turns from the universe to God and from God to his great world of manifestation.
- Le Conte, "Evolution and its Relation to Religious Thought," Part 1, p. 8.
More Articles by This Author Horatio W. Dresser
- Born on January 15th, 1866 in Yarmouth, Maine and died March 30th, 1954 in Boston, Massachusetts
- Authored many books, including The Power of Silence, and published several magazines.
- Earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1907