From “Towards a Christian Philosophy”
by Leonard Hodgson, 1889-1969
Within the spatiotemporal universe, the form taken by God’s omnipotence is the power to rise above all circumstances and to turn them to good account, to make them minister to the fulfilment of his will. The classical example of this is, of course, the Cross. Sin’s triumph turns out to be God’s victory and the day of crucifixion is celebrated throughout the Christian world as Good Friday.
The Christian life is a life based on a venture of faith: “No circumstances are too much for God, therefore no circumstances are too much for me if I walk through life hand in hand with God.”
Conviction of the truth of the Christian view of life comes from making this venture of faith and verifying it in experience. But it is our part here to reflect upon it in thought.
Once again, the question at issue is of what it means to “take time seriously.” Reasons have been given for suggesting that it means regarding this universe as containing realities which, being as they stand irrational and unintelligible, have to be made different before they can be seen differently and so truly known. We are in the midst of a creative process, surrounded by raw materials to be used in its further continuance. What is it that is in the process of being created? The Christian hypothesis is that it is a society of finite individual beings each perfectly free and all united in perfect voluntary cooperation. The Christian claim is that the acceptance of this hypothesis enables us, as no other hypothesis does, to find some meaning in the given facts of scientific, historical and personal experience without having to resort to distorting them or explaining them away.
The very heart of the matter is the question of freedom. If what God really cares about above all things is the eliciting of perfect freedom then his purpose demands that his control shall be control which is consistent with it. The plan demands that when creation arrives at the human level, there shall emerge individual self-conscious beings who shall have a hand in their own making and in that of society. At that level, God continues to elicit true freedom by the help of his grace. But as true freedom is only to be won through moral progress, man has the choice either by cooperation with God to become a rational being capable of the eternal mode of reality, or to sink back into the impersonal mechanistic order from which he has come. The future is in the process of creation and men are fellow-workers with God in the process. That which is made capable of partaking in the eternal mode of reality will endure; that which is made otherwise will pass away. On the basis of this position, we may attempt to interpret what the religious man means when he regards a given situation as “meant.” Every situation is an opportunity for further creative activity in co-operation with God; in every situation, God has a meaning for us to find, but it can only be found in the activity of making it come true. Life comes to us as plastic raw material, not as a finished product, and it has to be fashioned before it can be understood. It is the raw material out of which spiritual realities are to be created. The spirit is not an alien kind of “stuff” imprisoned in the material; in this world, the spatiotemporal realities are the stuff of which the spiritual life is in the process of being made. As a sculptor might see that a certain piece of marble was “just asking to” be made into a certain kind of statue, so the man whose life is lived in communion with God might see that a certain situation was “just asking to” be treated as the raw material for the creation of a certain kind of spiritual reality.
There is a story of a man who prayed earnestly one morning for grace to overcome his besetting sin of impatience. A little later he missed a train by half a minute and spent an hour stamping up and down the station platform in furious vexation. Five minutes before the next train came in he suddenly realised that here had been the answer to his prayer. He had been given an hour to practise the virtue of patience; he had missed the opportunity and wasted the hour. There are also many stories of men who have similarly missed trains which have been wrecked, and who ascribe their escape to Providence. If they are combining the thought of God as the celestial chess-player with the thought of God as pre-eminently concerned in their enjoyment of earthly life at the expense of others, there is not much to be said for their point of view. But if they are humbly acknowledging a call to further service on earth before they pass beyond, they are rightly interpreting their escape. In all probability, all the events which led up to all these men missing their various trains could be adequately accounted for in terms of the interaction of natural law, human freedom and divine grace. But at every point within that interaction God sees what are its possibilities for good and the man who shares his enlightenment and his power and gives himself to make that good come true has found the meaning of that moment and his “special providence.” The gates of the future are indeed open, the universe is in the making. But only if made aright can the making stand. To make it awry may delay the final consummation, but God has no need of hurry. It is to the quality of the developed freedom that he looks, and he grudges no time in its creation. The end is sure, for he who at every moment in the process sees its possibilities for good is God omnipotent (omnipotent to turn all circumstances to good account, to turn to-day’s defeat into to-morrow’s victory) But this omnipotence will never be so exercised as to substitute the external compulsion of men for the internal eliciting of their freedom. It is freedom that is being created, and by the conditions of its creation, its creator abides.
There is perhaps no finer description of the religious attitude to life than the words of de Musset:
“Les douleurs passageres blasphement et accusent le ciel; les grandes douleurs n’accusent ni le blasphement, elles ecoutent.” (“Passing sorrows blaspheme and accuse heaven; great sorrows neither accuse nor blaspheme, they listen)
It is the “listening” attitude which finds the meaning. This discussion of Providence began by asking whether the idea of Providence tenable in accordance with our philosophy would be recognisable as that implied in the religious man’s convictions. I would like to end it by asking whether the true basis of these convictions is not the experience of those who have seized the opportunity, redeemed the time, and thereby found the meaning? It is these men and women who, looking backwards, see that the thing was “meant.” Others, realising too late that they had missed the moment of opportunity, may with equal truth lament the fact that there was a meaning they had failed to grasp, asserting by that phrase just the very plasticity of the future for which I am contending.